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An interesting inversion

After Forrest Gump Groom felt bereft of ideas that “really grabbed me”, so he focused mainly on non-fiction books about subjects close to his heart: the American Civil War, the American West, the history of aviation and the history of Alabama football. “I think that every novelist, with the odd exception such as Dickens, has one really good book in them, but the trouble with so many writers is that they keep on writing novels when they run out of ideas. They get pressurised into writing books they don’t want to do and get burnt by the critics. Fitzgerald drank himself to death and Hemingway blew his brains out. I didn’t want that to be me.”

Perhaps not everyone does have a novel in them but those who do only have the one?

36 thoughts on “An interesting inversion”

  1. And if your one novel is Forrest Gump, who cares if its’ the only one?

    Same with some songs. Some artists dismissed as one hit wonders have lived comfortable lives on the money they made on that one hit.

    If Paul Anka had thrown his pen away after writing the words to ‘My Way’ he could have retired. Even better, the music was written by some French composers who had only a minor hit in France with their differently worded version and so have probably ended up rich with a song that originally failed.

    In music it’s probably possible to find people who set themselves up financially for life with an afternoon’s work.

  2. A hit, or a successful novel, creates an expectation, but the demand is for more of the same. To satisfy publishers and the public, the writer produces version 2, 3, 4 of the same story. The risk of failure is low and the urge to mine the same vein is high. Whatever you may think of JK Rowling’s literary or political merits it’s actually quite ballsy to start again in a different genre.

  3. Philip, Ms Rowling can afford to do so. She cannot open her front door for royalty cheques and her reputation is secure (especially as a transphobe ha ha ). She could write Mills and Boon or Black Lace porn for the rest of her life and it won’t matter a jot. In fact by the sounds of things her next novel will be a hit, because people will be buying it just to burn it.

  4. “Whatever you may think of JK Rowling’s literary or political merits it’s actually quite ballsy to start again in a different genre.”

    I think in a way it’s almost the reverse, especially the way she tried to pretend it was a different author just to test out what the response would be. It comes over a bit like showing off (“look how I can succeed in two totally different genres, even when I give the critics a blind taste test!”) or perhaps a crisis of confidence, or desire for “serious” critical attention, on the grounds people don’t treat fantasy fiction as “literary”. Other sci-fi and fantasy authors just seem to make peace with not being treated seriously, even if they think it’s a silly critical convention, and take the paycheck.

    It wasn’t “ballsy” (I see what you did there…) in the sense of her laying either her fortune or reputation on the line. Would have been braver for a critically distinguished crime novelist to change tack to writing mass market children’s fantasy fiction, I’d suggest.

  5. Thinking about it, writing a pile of crap can also set you up for life.

    I’ve never seen the appeal of ‘Catcher in the Rye’.

    A self indulgent whiny teenager doesn’t really do much. The End.

  6. Bloke in North Dorset

    “ Whatever you may think of JK Rowling’s literary or political merits it’s actually quite ballsy to start again in a different genre.”

    Given the way the trans fascists have gone after her I take it the ballsy pun was intended?

  7. “Addolff

    I believe Steve Harley said ‘Make me smile’ paid for his house.”

    I believe Noddy Holder said ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ paid for his ex-wife’s house.

  8. ‘They get pressurised into writing books they don’t want to do and get burnt by the critics. Fitzgerald drank himself to death and Hemingway blew his brains out.’

    Citation needed, begging the question. We don’t know that they killed themselves because they were being pressured to write more.

    But it was Groom’s life, and he could use whatever motivation worked for him.

  9. As I understand it, Hemingway killed himself because he couldn’t write any more. The reason for that was the booze, which had fried his synapses.

  10. My Burning Ears
    I don’t know if he counts but Jo Nesbø has written books for adults (and they are very adult – not in a sexual way but very very violent) and then books for kiddies (Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder series). He started with the Harry Hole series then moved to the kiddies rather than the other way round like JK.

  11. AndrewC – not to say you’re mistaken but I’m not sure that being commercially successful is the yardstick for a book being “really good”.

    There are oodles of novelists who have written several good books, some like Balzac and Trollope who were very prolific, who wrote quite a few turkies but who also wrote some wonderful novels and some like Wilkie Collins who managed two good novels but lots of others that haven’t stood the test of time. None of them seem too have used “multiple” to mean “several”, however… 🙂

  12. Elton John’s songwriter Bernie Taupin could bang them out quickly:
    “”I’ve seen him write songs in the time that it’s taken me to make a chicken sandwich,” added guitarist Davey Johnstone. “If he wrote a song in roughly 20 minutes, we’d go over there, and by the time we plugged in and got our s— together and played it a couple of times [that would be] another 15 minutes. Then the red light would go on, and usually the second or third take would be the one that we’d end up with. Sometimes it would go to four or five, but that didn’t often happen. A lot of times we’d use the first take.”

    “According to engineer David Hentschel, the instrumental bed for ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ was recorded in a single take. “They knew the track,” he recalled during an interview with Sound on Sound. “But then, none of the tracks were rehearsed to death anyway. They knew each other, they knew all of the material and even the songs that were written in France were done fast.”

    Interestingly, in answer to the question “what percentage did Berie Taupin get”, Google gave me this gem: “It has been noted in commentaries about Taupin, that the late ’60s were a time of pretentiousness and general weirdness in lyrics, and Taupin has claimed that viewing those early lyrics from the vantage point of today, he understands less than 50 percent of his output.”

    He managed a production line, but they might not have come to order.

    I write songs and poems- mostly silly parodies full of in-jokes, so of limited appeal. I can’t just decide I want to write a song and do it. It’s a thing that happens outside my control. The feeling I get for a good one is that it wants to be written, and it demands that I write it. I can then obsessively thrash it out over two or three days.

    Others, I can write a verse or two, but then grind to a halt. I’ve had a part-written Elton John parody, intended for Spitting Image, stuck in my head for the last 15 years, with no progress.

  13. @Fred

    If a man who gives two hoots about what serious reviewers make of his high-brow crime fiction (okay, Nesbo probably isn’t quite there, but still) writes a book called Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder, that’s pretty ballsy as far as I’m concerned.

  14. If Paul Anka had thrown his pen away after writing the words to ‘My Way’ he could have retired.

    Do you know how many hits Anka had before “My Way”?

    In addition to what he sang, he also composed the theme to the Johnny Carson-era Tonight Show, not that you Brits would care about that one.

  15. Citation needed, begging the question. We don’t know that they killed themselves because they were being pressured to write more.

    The citation I’d like to see is whether an American like Groom would actually use the word “pressurized” in that context.

  16. CJ’s Bernie Taupin anecdote reminds me of Mick Jagger’s interview in The Rutles film

    QUESTION: Were they trying to sell you songs at that stage?

    MICK: A bit later on they did, yeah. The one for that was Dirk really. He was a real hustler for the songs. Any old slag he’d sell a song to. I remember they came down once and we were trying to rehearse and they said do you wanna song and we said “yeah”. We were always really open to songs cos we didn’t write our own and the Rutles were always well known for their hit-making potential ability. So they ran around the corner to the pub to write this song and came back with it and played it to us and it was horrible. So, we never bothered to record it. I used to see them a lot then. The Rutles in London, particularly Nasty. Nasty and I got on well. Barry used to get a bit drunk in nightclubs you know and start punching out the Bigamy Sisters

  17. And Paul Anka was in The Longest Day, wrote the theme tune, sung the theme tune…
    (sorry Dennis Waterman, if you’re watching).

  18. I’ve never seen the appeal of ‘Catcher in the Rye’.

    It appealed to me as a comic novel. I’ve never understood why other people don’t view it in that light: I thought it was a hoot.

  19. Andrew C, I think dearieme is right about CitR although it never appealed but the novels and short sories about the Glass family got me hooked on high culture as a teenager, the relevance of Epictetus to adolescent angst, that it’s a deep pool worth diving into. I would die happy if a new story were discovered. Of course dead white males are now being written out of culture by the new barbarians.

  20. @tomo

    The community testing numbers can be altered by all kinds of things. If you’re running more tests in hotspot areas, you’ll find more cases. Similarly if people are getting better at recognising what symptoms are COVID versus common cold/hay-fever/flu. Or you’re targeting people better because of contact-tracing. The list goes on.

    The upward trend in positive tests in the community isn’t likely to be being driven by a change in the false-positive rate, though.

    Something which controls for a lot of those alternative explanations I listed is just taking a random sample of people. That’s something the ONS has been doing with their weekly household surveys, most recently at and well worth a read. They seem to be detecting a rise across northern England, the East Midlands and London (see Figure 4), and particularly among younger age-groups (see Figure 5). Again, I can’t see this trend being driven by a change in the false positive rate, particularly one that somehow only applies to younger people…

  21. The best example of an author with one good novel in him is Joseph Heller, Catch 22 is one of the best books of all time. I’ve read everything else he wrote. Most of it is unremarkable except for Good As Gold which comes close.

    But there are authors who can come up with original ideas (not just writing Volume XX) for multiple novels, Neal Stephenson springs to mind. Last I heard he hadn’t killed himself.

  22. Bloke in North Dorset


    There’s 2 areas to consider, random testing the general population and then testing in areas where you know there’s a high incidence.

    In the first case David Spiegelhalter explains what’s happening in that thread:

    “If you test 1000 people at random, latest ONS figures estimate 1 will have the virus, and let’s assume you find them. But with an FPR of 0.8%, that’s 8/1000, and so you expect to find 8 false positives. That’s 9 positive tests, only one of which has the virus . Hope this is ok”

    However if you concentrate on an area with a high Covid and you estimate to find, say, 500/1000 to make the maths easier. of those 500 cases that don’t have it you’ll only show 4 false positives. Of the 500 who have it there’s a chance that there’ll be false negatives but as I understand it the false negative rate is extremely low and can be ignored.

    As you can see as you increase the likelihood of those being tested having the disease, eg hospital admissions of people with the symptoms where it might be 990/1,000 with the disease, the number of FP cases -> 0. This is the case Hancock appears to be making.

  23. @Ltw:

    Don’t care for God Knows? I probably enjoy that more than Catch-22 and have re-read it more. Catch-22 might be more impressive as a piece of writing but I know nothing of such things.

    For some reason Good as Gold just annoyed me.

  24. Chris- hemmingway’s decline was more than just booze accumulation, something to do with a crash/a botched operation.

  25. Bloke in North Dorset


    Didn’t you see Tomo’s OT question?

    Anyway, nightmares are for those who go to bed without a large glass of wine or 6, or something similar.

  26. Townes van Zandt’s brain was fried before he started writing songs. I don’t know how he wrote “If you needed me…” his biggest hit, covered by nearly everyone. But apparently he wrote his second biggest “Pancho and Lefty” as a bet with himself.
    Chip Taylor wrote “Wild Thing” and “Angel in the Morning” which were huge hits and a load of stuff with very little commercial appeal.

    Which I like

  27. Missed it, BiND. It was structured as a bypass post. Pcar is the specialist. I’m not going to follow links to find someone’s point. They can post a point, or I bypass it. Pcar is worst with youtube links. I’m damn sure not going to go watch a video to try to find his point. The link could be a backup to the point, but it can’t be the point.

    Not how the internet works.

  28. @GC

    To make things worse, it was a non-science journalist’s (Julia Hartley-Brewer) re-hash/regurgitation of the point which got linked to. Always more interesting to be able to see the actual piece of research that a claim’s being based on, rather than a journalists half-baked attempt to make a talking point out of it. And far as I can see, she was basing her argument on hypothetical numbers (interpreting “under 1%” to mean “0.8%” – unless she based the 0.8% on something else? – when it could well have been used as a figure of speech for “something really small and very far under 1%”) that was in turn based on an off-hand statement by a politician in a TV interview rather than the actual data he was trying to quote.

    I don’t mind being linked to something interesting elsewhere, though like you I prefer it not to be a video. But I do take a “where’s the beef?” approach to it. Far rather get to the meat of the matter than have to work out who’s requoting what from whom, who was in turn quoting data from what source, until I can finally figure out what’s caused all the fuss.

  29. @Arthur Teacake

    I have a copy of God Knows, but I must admit I haven’t read it in over twenty years. I recall being unimpressed with it at the time, but that’s about all I remember. I’ll dig it out and give it another go to see whether a 48 year old appreciates it more than a 25 year old, I seem to have a lot of time on my hands at the moment anyway.

  30. Not how the internet works.

    Instapundit, Small Dead Animals, etc. might disagree.

    I’ll agree with you for Tim’s comments section though. Better the commenter makes the point. I try and limit lonely links to jokes and music.

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