Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Bonus FFB on Wednesday: The Novel -- James A. Michener

I haven't read many books by James Michener.  I haven't even read Texas.  In fact, the only other book I've read by him is Hawaii, and I read that one because it was required in a graduate course I took on Herman Melville.  We had to write a paper comparing and contrasting Hawaii with Melville's South Seas novels.  All I remember about this is that I spent most of a Christmas break reading Hawaii and that I wrote the paper.  I have no idea what I said, but I'm sure it was great stuff.

Probably I skipped out on Michener's other books because they're so long.  As I recall, Hawaii begins with the creation of the heavens and the earth and moves on from there to modern times over the course of thousands of pages.  The Novel isn't that long, but it's still long, 435 pages in the edition I read.   So why bother?  Well, I'd bought it long ago because it's a book about a writer, about writing, and about the publishing industry.  Since the industry has changed a lot since the book's publication (1991), and it was changing rapidly even then, there's a great deal about the takeover of the publishers by large corporations.

The book is divided into four sections: The Author, The Editor, The Critic, and The Reader.  The author is Lukas Yoder, now hugely successful although his early career was nothing at all.  His success is largely owed to the editor who stuck with him and fought for him when sales were small.  He's a principled man who doesn't back down from his beliefs, and he's adjusting to the new world of publishing, with floppy discs and email.  He knows that further changes are on the way and says "No writer in 1990 can visualize in what form his or her book might take at the end of this century."  

The editor is Yvonne Marmelle (not her birth name), who's struggling with the possible takeover of her publishing house by a large German firm and with the possibility that Yoder's new novel isn't as good as the ones preceding it.

The critic is Karl Streibert, who lives in Yoder's area and who's trying to rise in the academic ranks. He hates Yoder's books but isn't encouraged to say so.

The reader is Jane Garland, and what a reader she is.  She also lives in Yoder's area, and she knows plenty about life and literature.

Michener packs the books with details about the lives of all four of his main characters.  He doesn't give a whistle for the "show but don't tell" advice that we hear so often.  He's telling a story, so  he does a lot of telling.  I'm not bothered at all by this, as I've said before.  And much of the book is about reading, with discussions about a wide range of literature.  It's a lot like a series of lectures, and we even get lectures on authors whose works the characters don't like.  I get the feeling that many of them are speaking for Michener, although I know I shouldn't think that.

There are plenty of minor characters, too, and Michener even throws in a murder mystery in the final section.  It's a weak one, since everybody's going to know almost immediately who the killer is.

In spite of the book's flaws, I had a good time reading it.  I nearly always enjoy books about books and writers, and while I doubt that I'll ever read another book by Michener, I'm glad I finally got around to reading this one.



25 comments:

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

Back in the day I quite enjoyed Michener, HAWAII for one and (especially) THE SOURCE, which I believe was even longer. In the early '70s we were at my in-laws eating dinner, and while we were waiting I picked up my mother in law's book club edition of Michener's THE DRIFTERS (his "hippie" novel), which I believe got lousy reviews. But I read the first chapter and liked it, so I took it home and raced through it. I don't care what critics said, but I enjoyed it.

Still, that was the last Michener I read. Don't ask me why, except (as Bill mentioned) the length of all his books. HAWAII was 937 pages, THE SOURCE 1104, and THE DRIFTERS 751.

Darren Mitchell said...

What other books, fiction or nonfiction, about books and writers do you enjoy/recommend?

Bill Crider said...

Chabon's WONDER BOYS is a favorite.

Jo Ann Honey said...

Texas was magnificent on all levels for me, albeit long. Come on Dr. Crider, lose yourself in one more Michener novel! I read most of them, but I was young, strong and able to function on 4 hours of sleep or less (high school). Still, I would read Texas all over again.
Signed, Your former student

James Reasoner said...

The only Michener novel I've read is THE DRIFTERS, which I enjoyed. I liked the TV mini-series made from his novel CENTENNIAL, though. Michener's niece was one of my professors in college and said that everybody else in the family hated him, but that's just hearsay.

Bill Crider said...

Jo Ann, maybe I'll try, one of these days.

Deb said...

The only book of Michener's I remember reading was THE DRIFTERS which I read in high school and liked--but not enough to read anything more by him. I remember THE DRIFTERS having a distinctly anti-Vietnam War tone (or perhaps it's just that one of the characters was a draft dodger, iirc), so I was really surprised to read (many years later) Michener's apologist, white-washed account of what happened at Kent State.

Todd Mason said...

Joe Gores's HAMMETT, Bill? Barry Malzberg's HEROVIT'S WORLD is bitter fun. Malzbergs "Writers Heaven" stories collected in THE MAN WHO LOVED THE MIDNIGHT LADY. There certainly is a lot of this sort of thing, of course, and much of it fine, sticking to the fiction alone, much less all the nonfiction (Vivian Gornick's THE MEN IN MY LIFE).

I tried to read THE DRIFTER, HAWAII and CENTENNIAL, but all three being lecture series lightly dusted with fiction made that rather a chore, and seeing SOUTH PACIFIC on stage and taking in the Enormous cop-out the narrative indulges in (I was told the source fiction by Michener does the same, haven't investigated myself thanks to previous experience) simply killed all interest in ever giving his work a further tumble.

I strongly suspect that the characters' opinions on other writers are going to have been Michener's, even when one shouldn't assume...and that, perhaps more than anything else, might have me eventually pick this one up. Goodness, Bill.

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

I agree on WONDER BOYS, a terrific book that was even made into a very enjoyable movie.

Todd Mason said...

Or, even, THE DRIFTERS, but I only got as far as the first drifter.

Apology for the shooting at Kent State doesn't surprise me in the least.

Tom Johnson said...

I've only read his SAYANARA (probably not spelled right). I was never a real fan of his writing, but he undoubtedly made millions from his books.

Todd Mason said...

SAYONARA as that's usually transliterated. By CENTENNIAL, I definitely had the sense he was sharecropping the lecturesome non-fiction element of his docunovels.

Janis Gore said...

Bryan Woolley's opinion of Michener is that his team of researchers was not as good as it should have been for the type of book he wrote. They contain a lot of factual errors.

Rick Robinson said...

I started my Michener reading with his slim SOUTH SEA TALES (and I'm surprised that prof. didn't have you compare that with the Melville, or Conrad) and liked it for what it was. Later I read HAWAII, THE DRIFTERS, CENTENNIAL, TEXAS, ALASKA and probably at least one other not coming to mind. I looked at them as, basically, popular history lessons. I read ALASKA before our 2008 trip there. I knew he wasn't a profound writer, but I learned from the books.

Mike Doran said...

Anybody remember an early Simpsons throwaway gag about Springfield's bookstore?

This is (regrettably) approximate:
One of the signs in the bookstore's display window:

SPECIAL!
ALL THIS WEEK!
MICHENER!
ONLY $5 A POUND!


I've heard (can't confirm) that James Michener saw this gag - and liked it.

Mike Stamm said...

I read pretty much all of Michener up through CENTENNIAL, starting with HAWAII--my parents and I lived there for a couple of years when I was a toddler, so I was curious. (My father said Michener talked to him briefly about the islands, but as a newcomer himself, my dad was unable to say anything useful.) Like Jeff Meyerson, I was even more impressed with the (yes, even longer) THE SOURCE, and Michener's early real novel (as opposed to novelized history) THE FIRES OF SPRING. I liked THE DRIFTERS quite a lot, though it is probably very dated now. I lost most of my taste for Michener with CENTENNIAL, about my home state of Colorado, knowing enough to see that much of it was basic history with events renamed and the serial numbers filed off. Still, Michener did play a large role in the early years of my reading life. I may still have copies of THE COVENANT, SPACE, and TEXAS in a box somewhere, but haven't read them yet.

Bill Pronzini said...

THE NOVEL is the only book of Michener's I've read. Flawed, as you noted, but interesting.

Like you, I'm a sucker for novels about writers and writing. My favorite, a book I reread every couple of years: Westlake's ADIOS SCHEHERAZADE. Others: McMurtry's ALL MY FRIENDS ARE GOING TO BE STRANGERS, THE HACK by Wilfred Sheed, and THE MAN WHO WROTE DIRTY BOOKS by Hal Dresner.

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

Rick's comments are on target. I've done the same with other authors. Before we went to Italy for the first time I read Irving Stone's THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY, which was actually quite helpful on Michelangelo and Florence, in particular. Also read Eleanor Clark's very good ROME AND A VILLA, about the Villa D'Estee in Tivoli outside Rome.

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

D'Este. Darn you, autocorrect.

Bill Crider said...

Bill Pronzini: Those are all good. I love the McMurtry.

Max Allan Collins said...

In high school I read Wouk's YOUNGBLOOD HAWKE and loved it. Haven't revisited it, but I've always been a Wouk fan, though a few of the books have missed me. THE CAINE MUTINY holds up. To a degree it's about a writer, too, though he's not the central character.

Bill Crider said...

Youngblood Hawke is another favorite here, although I haven't read it since around 1960 or so.

James Reasoner said...

I loved YOUNGBLOOD HAWKE, too, and would reread it if it wasn't so long. I may do it anyway, one of these days.

Todd Mason said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Todd Mason said...

I tried LOMOKOME PAPERS first, perhaps foolishly, and that killed further interest in Wouk. YOUNGBLOOD HAWKE put me off with its title.