Wednesday, May 4, 2011
THE UNPUBLISHED WORK OF CHARLES JOHNSON
Occasionally, I'm asked about the six unpublished novels I wrote between 1970 and 1972 before Faith and the Good Thing. I should use this opportunity to clarify some things about them that have raised questions in the minds of some readers, students, and literary scholars.
I came to novel-writing with a background in journalism (my bachelor's degree) and writing for newspapers in Chicago and southern Illinois. Creating copy quickly is something every journalist learns to do, and he (or she) has no problem with filing 3 or 4 stories a week. That was the training I brought to novel-writing. I knew I could write 10 pages a day, 5 days a week (taking a break on weekends to relax, do research and/or rewrite), and thereby produce a 300-page manuscript in six weeks My master's thesis, for example, was written over five days, 10 pages a day; and, later in life, I typically held myself to a 5-page-a-day schedule when writing screen-and-teleplays.
The first of those six unpublished novels had the working title, The Last Liberation, and it was an exploration of Eastern philosophy set in a Chicago kung-fu school like Chi Tao Chuan of the Monastery, the kwoon I trained at in 1967 during the Chicago "Dojo Wars" when I was 19-years-old. The second book was an early version of Middle Passage, i.e., written as the log kept by a white captain on a slave ship (The research for that was done during a black history course I took as an undergraduate). The third novel was a black, family drama. The fourth, fifth and sixth novels were a 959-page trilogy (I was shooting for 1,000-pages but ended it early so my wife and I could spend some quality time together) about the childhood, young manhood, and middle-age of a black musician. He was a pianist. I took lessons on the piano around that time with a black friend who was a musician and in the Music Department at Southern Illinois University; for years we always had a piano in our home in Seattle, first so I could sometimes practice, then for my kids when they had music lessons.
All these early books were written quickly, and before I learned the proper approach for revising literary fiction. (By the way, these E-Channel Posts are, I should note, as close as I ever get to releasing first-draft material, so please be forgiving, especially for the occasional typos Ethelbert and I miss.) Yet, there is a story I can tell about Book Four in this series of what I call "apprentice novels" that might be worth sharing.
Book Four, about the childhood of a musician, was accepted in early 1973 for publication by a new, start-up publishing company in New York when I was only a couple of chapters into writing Faith and the Good Thing. I was faced with a dilemma. Every young writer wants to be published. But what one first publishes is important for one's "career" (Yes, I just used that word even though I dislike it.) There was no certainty I would publish Faith when it was done (or even if I could finish it), but here with one of the earlier manuscripts was a "bird in the hand," so to speak. The publishers liked it because, as they said, it reminded them of the writing of James Baldwin. I felt torn, for with Faith I'd found for the first time the beginnings of my own voice and vision, as well as a way to deploy large amounts of philosophy in a work of fiction. With that still in-progress work, I'd moved far beyond the earlier six novels.
John Gardner was looking over my shoulder during the nine months (October, 1972 through June, 1973) I wrote Faith (He was the only creative writing teacher I had since Marie Claire Davis when I was a junior in high school), so I asked him, "What do you think I should do?"
His answer was wise: "If you think that later you're going to have to climb over the earlier book, don't publish it."
I say his answer was wise because a debut novel tends to define a young writer. Reviewers look at it, and think, "OK, this shows us what he can do and can't do. Here are his strengths and limitations and, rightly or wrongly, they tell us what to expect from him in the future." It's important, I believe, for a literary writer's first book to be what I call a "performance novel," a demonstration of all the skill and craft he (or she) has learned up to the time of the book's composition. Furthermore, James Baldwin had his own particular vision of life; in 1973 I was developing my individual and literary sense of the world, with its own vocabulary and grammar. I had no interest in being judged imitative. So, after taking the deepest of breaths, I wrote to the publisher and withdrew that fourth novel (yes, that was painful to do), gambling that Faith would turn out well, which I suppose it did because 37 years later it is still in print.
The world will never see those first six novels I wrote in two years. That's why I call them "apprentice novels"---they were, in my view, simply preparations for the work that would come later.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 11:06 PM