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June 07, 2006

Richard Wheeler on Book Publishing

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Thanks to Prairie Mary, I've recently had the pleasure of e-meeting the novelist Richard Wheeler. The author of dozens of published novels, Richard has had a serious lot of experience with book publishing. I asked him if I can publish part of a beautiful and informative talk he recently gave to a group of writing students, and he kindly agreed. Lucky us: Let's hear it for people who are generous enough to share the wisdom.

I was going introduce his talk with a graceful paragraph of my own introducing Richard -- but the paragraph that Richard sent me about himself was so much more elegant than anything I'd be able to turn out that I've decided to simply reprint it.

Please meet Richard Wheeler:

I was born in suburban Milwaukee, 1935. I spent my early years as a newsman, but after assorted firings it dawned on me that news gathering was not my calling, so I became a book editor, working for two or three scholarly and public affairs presses in the Midwest. The oil recession of the early 70s put me back on the streets, so I wrote my first novels, which were purchased by Doubleday. I've made my living as an obscure novelist ever since, doing historical and biographical novels, as well as genre westerns.

I count it a blessing that the New York Times Book Review has never heard of me and never will. I've written sixty-odd novels, 58 published so far and others are in process. I've won five Spur Awards from Western Writers of America, and have been a finalist numerous times. One of my novels won a starred lead review in Publishers Weekly. My wife, Sue Hart, is an English professor and writer/producer of PBS documentaries, one of them dealing with Ernest Hemingway's sojourns in Montana. I live in Livingston, Montana, which has a delightful literary and film tradition, and wilderness in sight from most every window.

And now on to his talk, given last fall in Whitefish, Montana. Here's Richard Wheeler:


I am pleased to be here today. Thank you for coming here and listening to an elderly novelist wend his way along the primrose path.

Writing skills are largely self-taught, but perhaps I can steer you in a new direction, and maybe I will inspire you to try something different and promising. I am hoping to persuade you to look at literature in new ways. I am also hoping that you will find yourself writing more compelling novels and selling them successfully.

We are all familiar with the idea that there is literary fiction, and there is popular fiction. Most of us choose to write in one realm or the other. Literary fiction is considered the more prestigious form of the novel, the more serious art, and is regarded as a higher calling than popular fiction.

Literary fiction is usually defined as the examination of the human condition. The literary novelist sets out to depict the truth in human relationships, and wins acclaim according to how penetrating the novel is. The perception we entertain is that the literary novelist is a person of great education, whose language is disciplined and rich with metaphor and simile and figures of speech, whose work is polished and refined to a level rarely seen in commercial fiction. It is the dedicated literary novelist who receives the great prizes, the Pulitzer, the Nobel, the National Book Award. It is the art of writing literary novels that is taught in academic venues such as the famous Iowa Writers Workshop. It is modern literary novels that are dutifully studied in thousands of college English classes.

It is easy to see why so many of us seek to write this prestigious fiction, seek its rewards, seek the reviews and serious criticism that envelop this literature. An appreciation of literary fiction is taught on campuses across the country by intelligent academics who want their students to absorb the greatness placed before them.
Popular fiction, on the other hand, is regarded as commerce, factory fiction for a humbler readership, mostly the less-educated. Here plot becomes more important, page-turning tension is vital, characterization and subtlety are sacrificed to the more important business of keeping the story rolling along. There is less space for reflection, and little soul-searching depth in commercial fiction. Popular fiction often transports readers away from the real world whereas literary fiction often carries a reader into the real world, and literary novelists are celebrated for their keen eye.

A popular novel is rarely regarded as a contribution to our literary heritage. Popular fiction ranges from the big commercial novels of skilled authors down to sheer hackwork one occasionally finds in some original mass market paperbacks. Indeed, I believe the very idea of popular fiction rose from the appearance of mass-market paperbacks after World War Two.

Until recently, authors who wrote popular fiction thought it provided a better income than literary fiction. Publishers threw their publicity resources behind blockbuster and midlist novels, and the result was real rewards for the commercial novelist. But times are changing and who can say what the future will bring? I suspect that just now, most literary novelists earn more.

If you have believed in these distinctions, and have believed that the world of fiction has always been divided into these two sharply defined categories, you will be surprised to learn that it probably is not so. The distinction made between literary and popular fiction is quite modern; indeed, it evolved in my own lifetime. Back in the forties and fifties, if you had asked Ernest Hemingway or John Dos Passos or John Steinbeck or James Jones whether he wrote literary or popular fiction, you would probably have gotten a blank stare or a request to define what you mean.

Likewise, if you had asked such distinguished publishers as Alfred Knopf or Charles Scribner whether he published literary or commercial fiction, he would have been confounded by the question. For these people, there was simply literature. It might be serious literature or light-hearted literature. It might be genre literature- mysteries and westerns were identified as separate branches of literature. Those publishers produced all sorts of novels. Alfred Knopf proudly published W. R. Burnett, a novelist who wrote westerns as well the classic crime story that brought him fame, "The Asphalt Jungle." Scribners proudly published S. S. Van Dine, a mystery writer, alongside Hemingway and Tom Wolfe and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

If the distinction between literary and commercial fiction was unknown to authors and publishers, it was also unknown to the Pulitzer Committee in that period. "Gone With the Wind," by Margaret Mitchell, won a Pulitzer for fiction. So did "The Yearling," by Margorie Kinnan Rawlings. "Tales of the South Pacific," by James Michener. "Advise and Consent," by Allen Drury. "The Way West," by A. B. Guthrie Jr. "The Caine Mutiny," by Herman Wouk. "The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters," by Robert Lewis Taylor. "The Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck's masterpiece. These were all simply literature and they all won a Pulitzer.

Most authors and publishers of that period would have told you that good fiction requires all the qualities that were later divided between literary and popular fiction. That is, a fine novel does have a compelling storyline with a beginning, middle, and end, page-turning tension, rich characterization, lapidary prose, a consideration of the human condition, a sense of tragedy or comedy, mastery of a milieu, and broad appeal to both well educated and less educated people. Authors of that period prided themselves on the universality of their stories. If they could appeal to college-educated people, fine; if they could appeal to the humblest reader, even better. There was little of the elitism that now attaches to literary fiction. Ernest Hemingway made a point of using words that were universally understood. No reasonably literate reader could possibly have trouble understanding or interpreting a Hemingway novel.

So, the distinction between literary and popular fiction is quite recent, three or four decades old. When I was a youth it didn't exist. Yet today it is a given: we assume that there have always been two branches of literature, and we writers need to make one or the other our own. Where did it come from? I had no idea how it evolved until my friend Win Blevins, who has an advanced degree in criticism from Columbia University, enlightened me. The distinction between literary and popular fiction arose, he told me, about the time when colleges began to offer workshop courses in creative writing, especially in the 1960s and 1970s.

Teachers used the term "literary" to describe what was to be taught in these workshops. These seminars would teach students the art of writing a "serious" novel, and not something light or transitory or appealing to popular tastes. This distinction gradually became the norm, and in modern times "literary fiction" has become a distinct branch of literature.

It is well to keep in mind that the novels that endure through the generations, the ones that we call classics, were largely written for ordinary people, not educated elites. Mark Twain and Charles Dickens and Jack London wrote stories intended for all of us. In fact, through most of American literature, both fiction and nonfiction, authors made a point of writing for people in all walks of life. Let me do a roll call of American authors and poets who sought to write for all people: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry David Thoreau, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, James Baldwin. Where is this leading me? To a belief that the whole idea of an elite "literary" fiction is a departure from a deeply-rooted American storytelling tradition that has always been democratic and universal.

Now we live in a world in which New York publishers are sharply divided. Some, such as Viking, Scribners, Alfred Knopf, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, or Harper Collins, devote themselves almost entirely to literary fiction while others, such as St. Martin's, Forge, Doubleday or Simon and Schuster largely devote themselves to popular fiction. And you, the novelists, must decide which direction to go. The New York Times and the New York Review of Books and The New Yorker are largely devoted to reviewing literary works. Only rarely do they review popular fiction, while other publications such as regional newspapers often devote themselves to popular fiction.

I consider this a most unsatisfactory state of affairs. For one thing, I think the dichotomy is false. There is no reason why a popular novel with a dramatic storyline cannot also be a novel that probes the human condition. There is no reason why a literary novel that delves deep into relationships or character cannot also have a storyline that hustles along and compels attention. These false distinctions should be thrown out. A slow and plotless novel is bad writing, no matter whether it is the proper form for literary fiction. A shallow story that moves fast but is devoid of characterization is bad writing no matter whether it is the proper form for popular fiction. I believe that a good story avoids the weaknesses of both:

  • It moves right along.
  • It rewards readers.
  • It illuminates life.

In a remarkable millennial essay written a few years ago, Jonathan Yardley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic of The Washington Post, whom I regard as the finest reviewer in the country, noted that American literature is in decline, and no truly grand novelists have emerged for several decades. He further noted that the only vitality and originality on the horizon currently rises from genre fiction, especially mysteries. Think about that. Something is plenty wrong with American literature just now. I think I know what it is, and what you, who want a literary career, can do about it.

Above all, I want you to expand your horizons and set sail for something bigger and better than either of the current branches of fiction. I want you to write novels that are larger than anything being written today. I want you to write stories that embrace the best of both worlds. I want you to write stories that are accessible by everyone. Do you want to do something for American fiction? Then write novels that weld the broken pieces back together.


Now that's a speech I wish more writing students could hear.

Eager to give Richard's own fiction a try, I asked him for advice. Where to start from among his dozens of works? Here's Richard's sweet and helpful response:

I scarcely know what books to suggest. I've had a two-track writing career, writing ordinary genre westerns as well as larger historical and biographical novels intended for general readerships. I'd suggest "Second Lives," a novel set in Denver during the Gilded Age, or "Masterson," a novel about the old lawman who became a newsman in New York the last decades of his life, or "Eclipse," a novel about Lewis and Clark after their return. A recent one, quite successful, is "An Obituary for Major Reno," about the army officer who was made a scapegoat for the Custer debacle. There are 58 published in all, and a few more in the works.

I'll add one bit of bookbiz info to what Richard says. I take Richard's point to be that until fairly recently, it was all books, it was all writing. These days, the book-thing is all chopped-up. If you visit a bookstore or browse at Amazon, what you find is that all books are now genre books, at least in the sense that they're categorizable. They're slotted, and usually (whether the author knows it or not) self-slotted. Even "literature" is a category these days, alongside "romance," "how-to," "cooking," and "spirituality." Where we once we had a continuum -- tons of books -- we now have a menu of discrete category-options. Why has this happened?

It'd be fun to invent and/or conjure up large psychological/sociological reasons, and even more fun to play long-winded critic. But the main explanation for this development is that inventories have been computerized. Every product that a bookstore sells has to fit somewhere in that store's database -- and there's no slot in a bookstore's database that's labeled "just a book." So far as commercial publishing goes, you're either a category book or you aren't a book at all.

A good thing or a bad thing? Thanks partly to computers, books are more easily available these days than they have ever been. How not to applaud such a development? Yet I find it impossible (especially after reading Richard's speech) not to feel that something important has been lost along the way. And can it be mere coincidence that -- as the whole book-thang has been chopped up and made more accessible -- reading itself as an activity has declined?

Many thanks to Richard Wheeler. I'm looking forward to getting started reading his fiction.



posted by Michael at June 7, 2006


I "met" Wheeler when I read one of his series of stories about the mountain man and guide, Mr. Skye, who was a British well-born boy shanghied onto a ship. Eventually the boy, now much toughened, escapes the ship while she's docked at Fort Vancouver in the Columbia River. Going upstream, he falls into the fur-trapping life and runs into the Blackfeet.

This is "my" territory, so I wrote Richard a fan letter. Back came a box of 17 books, some paper and some hardback. It was summer. I read and reviewed each book. We were friends from then on, and if Richard is your friend, so is Sue Hart. When his cat died, I wrote him a short story about a cat that I hoped was consoling. In return, he coaches me about book contracts.

I find him wise, eloquent, and much more restrained than I am. He's a gent.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on June 7, 2006 11:42 AM

Bravo! Most informative blog I have read in at least a month. Much to think about.

Posted by: citrus on June 7, 2006 11:48 AM

At a recent relaxacon one panelist spoke about books of hers that get 're-purposed'. She noted that some fans of a certain genre or sub-genre absolutely refuse to look at any other. She mentioned one book of her's, originally published as high fantasy, got even bigger sales published as a romance. There are times when you'll see the same book in different sections of a bookstore, with different covers and marketed to different audiences.

We are, of course, talking about popular fiction. In the bookstores I've been in the literature, old and new, tends to get put all together in the same section. Looks like literature readers are more tolerant of different genres than popular fiction readers are.

And the only thing I can think to say is utterly irrelevant to this topic, so I'll cut this short.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on June 7, 2006 12:34 PM

I keep trying to persuade Wheeler that his genre books ought to be republished -- translated into Spanish and marketed to Mexican immigrants (legal or not). They can't always carry along TV sets and probably can't afford iPod's, but you can always throw a paperback into your blanket roll. I know they carry transistor radios, which suggests stories read late at night when a guy or gal can't sleep or is waiting for the right time to move.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on June 7, 2006 1:37 PM

I was right with Wheeler when he said that the dichotomies were false. That "There is no reason why a popular novel with a dramatic storyline cannot also be a novel that probes the human condition." And that "There is no reason why a literary novel that delves deep into relationships or character cannot also have a storyline that hustles along and compels attention." But with the blanket statement that "a slow and plotless novel is bad writing" he lost me. I think any attempt to baldly state that "x" is bad misses the boat. I've read "plotless" novels that I adored--and plotless novels I hated. I've read novels with fast-moving, eventful stories that I loved - and novels with fast-moving, eventful stories that I hated. It's really a crapshoot. The only criteria that's worth a damn is whether or not a novel, "popular" or "literary," works for a reader. If it does, it's a good novel, for that reader. If it doesn't, it isn't.

I'll also take (some) issue with his seeming claim that any novel worth its salt will be written so that pretty much anyone with a basic eduucation can appreciate it. I've re-read novels that I just didn't get years ago that now I love. What changed? I'm more educated. And not in the "went to college and got an English degree and learned all about how to read literary fiction sense." But in the "I've read many, many novels since and in the process have expanded my appreciation for different types of writing" sense. Some writing is difficult to enjoy on first acquaintance, but rewarding after the reader has become acclimated to a prticular style. And that's OK.

Posted by: Tosy and Cosh on June 7, 2006 1:46 PM

What's that? Art is also for the common man? Ya mean that engineers, doctors, lawyers, salesmen, elctricians, high school teachers, et al., have brains too? I thought the only people with brains were newspaper critcs and academics! Wait until they hear about this Wheeler dude, and his silly notion that intelligence is more broadly spread than than their small, egomaniacal, decomposing circle of lunacy!

You know, the idea that the bottom should haul itself up and the top should be cut down to size a bit is true of many of the arts. I think the main culprits in all of this are the marketers and advertising people. Dumb-down, and try to sell to the greatest number, or forget about profits and look for the prestige of prizes and literary awards. Then market to the credential-driven crowd on that basis. What is lost is a common culture.

Posted by: krill on June 7, 2006 2:56 PM

If he writes as well as he gives speeches, I'm sure his books are terrific. Isn't it wonderful, and a relief, when someone communicates simply and clearly? I'm amused that both Steinbeck and Hemingway would stare at us blankly when asked if they wrote "literary" or "popular". How humiliating for Philip Roth! I am also fascinated by the first really clear description I ever got of "literary fiction." No wonder I kinda hate it---because "insight into the human condition" always seems to translate into "major bummer." I had no idea that "Gone With the Wind" won a Pulitzer. Unthinkable today. Also, I would point out that he didn't say "plotless" books were bad...he said "plotless and dull." I think pretty much describes "bad". I'm much perkier now. I don't have to revel in self-loathing for liking Tom Wolfe or Scott Turow.

Posted by: annette on June 7, 2006 4:18 PM

"The distinction between literary and popular fiction arose, he told me, about the time when colleges began to offer workshop courses in creative writing, especially in the 1960s and 1970s."

Since that's the case, shouldn't we call it "academic" fiction, rather than literary? 'Cause that's what it is, yes?

These kinds of artistic caste systems are popular because they substitute for good taste. Good taste takes a long time to develop. You must look at many examples and think about them deeply. Applying good taste is often a dicey affair, and it's in such short supply that exercising it makes you seem like a show off.

But if we can simply declare "All the works in category A are good, and all the ones in category B are bad", then we've saved ourselves the time and drudgery required to learn the difference between a well and a badly made book/film/song etc. We can just check whether the book is literary or genre, whether the film is foreign-with-subtitles or action-with-explosions, whether the song is on college radio or the hit parade, and judge it a priori. People with no taste at all find this system easy to learn and thus inoffensive, and with any luck they won't even have to read/watch/listen to the thing at all!

This also helps in dating. "Do you like category A or B?", we ask, and sift our prospects accordingly. Saves us from actually getting to know them.

Posted by: Brian on June 8, 2006 3:53 AM

I've read a few of Wheeler's books and enjoyed them very much. He writes what I think of as "Westerns for people who wouldn't ordinarily read Westerns." An example would be MASTERSON, which you mention. I thought it would be a conventional "historical" western but instead Wheeler gives it a nice twist by making it about the older Bat Masterson, a sports writer in NYC, who goes back for one last visit to the West, and through re-tracing his travels, learns a little about himself, the real West, and the legendary West of the imagination that he helped create. There is a scene in which Bat visits the grave of Doc Holliday (whom Masterson disliked) and Masterson's realization that he may have misjudged a man he wrote negatively about was, for me, enormously touching. People who liked the movie TOMBSTONE might enjoy Wheeler's intelligent take on the same story, TROUBLE IN TOMBSTONE, written as if it some long-lost Wyatt Earp memoir. I've always thought that the distinction
between "literary" and "popular" fiction unfortunate. I believe Ralph Waldo Emerson once praised UNCLE TOM'S CABIN for appealling to (as I recall his phrasing) "the parlor, the kitchen and the nursery," and I don't think that's a bad thing for a book to do.

Posted by: Bilwick on June 8, 2006 3:03 PM

"Indeed, I believe the very idea of popular fiction rose from the appearance of mass-market paperbacks after World War Two."

I don't think this is correct. The term "penny-dreadful" is not a 20th-century term, for instance, and I believe the sort of serialized fiction written by Dickens and Conan-Doyle was not regarded as serious when it was published. Certainly Horatio Alger wrote for a very different market than Lew Wallace.

My take is rather different:

1) I think that (broadly) the quality of down-market fiction has improved. There is still bad fiction written and sold, as I know to my cost. But there is much more good fiction, written with believable characters, an interesting plot, and serious ideas. This good fiction is being sold to the same market as Alger, or Dickens, or Twain was a century or more ago.

2) Self-conciously serious fiction has also proliferated, and the best is probably as well-written as it ever was. The rest, however, has become too self-regarding. Its authors have decided that the audience that they wish to address is only that small subset of the audience of readers interested in prolonged navel-gazing.

3) Critical acclaim is accorded by navel-gazers. I suspect this to be the result of a gradual drift: "I like this sort of writing and I'd like it even more if it were more Joycean." The writer responds accordingly, and at the same time loses a small portion of his audience that is not interested in anything more Joycean. Since the desire for extremes is necessarily not mainstream, he does not gain as many readers as he loses, but the critics like his work more. The people who left, being only marginal fans, say nothing. The process continues until the writer is writing the perfect book for a very small market rather than a good book for a much larger market.

I think this process and the balkanization of book stores is driven by the massively increased number of books published.

There was a time (before my time) when a serious reader could read every serious book published. There was a time in my memory when a serious reader could read every serious book published in his favorite genre. It is now difficult or impossible to read every serious book written in many sub-sub-genres. When that's the case, there is reason to seek out only the books that most closely approximate the reader's ideal book. This drives the sort of drift I mentioned above.

While the result is a lack of a shared culture, the reading experience of most readers is more entertaining. There is a gain to go with the loss.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on June 8, 2006 3:19 PM

Ah, Doug got to my point first- yes, I am sure if you looked at the number of books published each year, things have changed since Steinbeck. Without the categories, how would one find anything in the bookshop? I have enough trouble browsing as it is.

They are a mixed curse. On the one hand they organise books, on the other, of course people then see them as fences and refuse to leave their own little area. Then of course inbred faults develop over time, and I think these are what Wheeler is talking about.

I have always thought that the very best of everything can and should appeal to people from all backgrounds, which doesn't mean that real education (knowledge and wisdom, not degrees) won't help you appreciate it better. That's what education is/was supposed to do. But now there are these fences, they must be crossed to achieve that. It seems like a whole new challenge.

Posted by: Alice on June 9, 2006 9:57 AM

What he said!

Seriously, Wheeler is a good writer (and from my correspondence with him years ago) a good guy.

Try also his novel "The Buffalo Commons".

Posted by: Steve Bodio on June 11, 2006 8:18 PM

Have been following Richard Wheeler for some time now.

Read all the comments.

For those who commented: Lots of reading, lots of education, lots of discussion and pondering over fiction, novels, and short stories.

Popular novel? Literary? Time determines if a certain author lives on after death and is revered for his or her literary qualities. To my mind, for a writer, it is a blessed thing if in today's society there exists an audience that reads at all.

Jack London, Charles Dickens, Edger Allen Poe, were mentioned and they are certainly writers I admire and aspire to emulate if only I could.

I love to read, I love to write. It is my belief that no one can really teach others those loves, they have to learn them all by themselves. It is also my belief that for those who don't learn, their life is missing an inestimable ingredient. I cringe to think of so many children and adults who neither read, write, or learn to love fictional literature. What fills their empty souls at night? To distinguish between popular and literary fiction, would certainly be meaningless terms to them.

I wholeheartedly agree that writing is mostly self taught, as I believe the art, desire, and love of reading itself is. I guess in my cynicism, I lament that so few rush to buy books or to read at all.

Literary? Popular? I am just hoping enough readers out there continue to exist so that fiction won't become a thing of the past.

I think as a writer it is important to do your very best, and that is all any human can do. The rest is up to fate.

Perhaps I came to this communication at the wrong time. Will go back to my book now.

Posted by: Charlie Steel on June 16, 2006 1:44 AM

I don't think that one can say that 'popular fiction' is all plot and no character (or style). Much popular fiction sells less on its plots than on its characters (e.g. the Sherlock Holmes stories). Wodehouse's style of language sold his books.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on June 16, 2006 3:27 PM

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