“There are three rules for writing a novel,” says W Somerset Maugham. “Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” On writing a novel, Flannery O’Connor says, “[it] is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.” Jane Austen says, “The person who has not pleasure in a good novel must be intolerably stupid.”
The novel defies easy definition, says Terry Eagleton. It’s a fictional story of a reasonable length. It involves imagined or factual events or people, living and acting in the present, usually. A novel tries to entertain, not educate, the middle-class reader, although there’s usually a take away from the story.
What is fiction? What is fact? The two don’t necessarily differ, as in a Roman à Clef, for example.
Fiction is not a lie. It’s creative, imaginative. The story must only ring true, as it creates or reflects realism. Readers don’t expect truth from a novel, only entertainment.
Tangling fact with fiction is a receipt for insanity, says Eagleton. Storytelling needs permission to imagine. A novel may base in facts, as do some, but seeing fiction as fiction, not fact, is sane.
As the seeming limitless appeal of “reality” television suggests, contrived fact, a form of fiction, is popular; facts as facts are less popular. Audiences, as Donald J Trump confirms, prefers the shameful and the incredible, the bizarre and the excessive.
Readers don’t want to read of themselves, either. Every kitten thinks it’s a ferocious adult tiger. Readers want super-sized versions of themselves.
Yet, readers seem riveted by the routine, the quotidian parts of life, too. Everyday life is an important theme, a source of creativity. Characters eat, sleep, towel off or slip on a banana peel. Readers rejoice.
A novel that mixes the routine with the astonishing may entertain the most. Terrorists attack while the hero is having a quiet dinner, with friends, in central Paris. Wait a moment, that may be too much realism, but the point is clear.
As fluid as some parts of a novel seem, other parts seem fixed. A novel is a modern form of storytelling that lacks rules. It’s a self-contained story, not reliant on outside knowledge; a reading of Sherlock Holmes is not necessary for reading the Spenser series, by Robert B Parker.
A novel usually conforms to a widely agreed-on code of acceptability. Villains are remarkably bad, as verified through a series of evil deeds. Only then can the hero dispose of the villain, with impunity.
Unlike myth, say, a novel grounds in nothing. Myth roots in a relatively unbroken history of what a culture holds dear. A novel needs only be internally consistent. A reader should never think, “Where did that come from?”
A novel is just that. Arriving with science, the modern novel is roughly two hundred years old. Other forms of storytelling, such as a poem or an epic, long pre-date the novel. These older forms often involve myths or a mythology promoted by royalty; myths are agents of social control. The modern novel sets the reader free, says Michael Schmidt.
The modern novel is secular; its agenda is its own, not that of an elite. A novel is empirical, says Eagleton, it avoids the abstract; the novel focuses on the interplay of groups, say, cops and robbers.
Protagonist and antagonist, detective and gangster, represent these groups. The only seasoning is a possibly real setting and story. Even those parts are open to creativity and imagination. The novel knows no limits.
A novel tells a story, usually following the three-act model set out by Aristotle, in 335 BCE. Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. Not all the king’s men could put Humpty Dumpty back together, again. *
A novel might start with the fall of Humpty or the impotency of the king’s men. The order of the action is mostly a minor issue. All that’s needed is internal consistency.
What length is reasonable for a novel? “Animal Farm,” by George Orwell, is 112 pages long. “The Godfather,” by Mario Puzo, is 576 pages long. The “Winds of War,” by Herman Wouk, is 898 pages long. “Sir Charles Grandison,” by Samuel Richardson, is 1647 pages long; that’s roughly 750,000 words. Each of these novels, in its own right, is successful and important.
Themes are a different issue. The most popular themes include family and love as well as gruesome murder and war. Illicit themes are rare, possible but unlikely, such as a paedophilic hero or advocacy of sexual abuse.
A novel is malleable, as it lacks rules. It may be the story of an onion, says Eagleton. It may be a record of six generations of a New York City crime family. It may deal with memory or unrequited love, the horrors of war or the pastoral life in our town.
The lack of rules gives the novel its middle class appeal. Total freedom from restraint, says Eagleton, is the middle class creed. Autonomy is the middle class goal.
In a novel, which has no rules, the writer is free to present whatever she or he wishes. Thus, it’s ideal for the middle-class mind. A novel is perfect for readers believing they are or can be free of restraint, that is, autonomous.
Reading a novel can be hard work. Virginia Woolf says, “Reading is a difficult and complex art.” Readers, she says, must use great mental fineness, if they are to understand what they read. Readers also need a “boldness of imagination,” if the gift from the writer is to be had in full.
Fact or fiction, the novel always deals with a present that’s always changing. The historical novel is usually a way to understand the present. For the middle class, the main consumers of the novel, the present is always reformist.
“When Everything Fails, Try This,” a novel by John Vespasian, deals with a middle-class reformist present. Using money and power, disease and greed, risk and revenge he creates a flammable mix. In “Try This,” everyday Bonds and Blofelds battle across Europe to a sudden end.
“Try This” was the first book Vespasian wrote. That was 2008. “Briefly, he says, “it’s the story is of a remarkably wealthy man, with terminal cancer.
“He has an unusual form of cancer, which resisted all conventional and known treatments. He finds the leading cancer researcher in Europe. He offers to fund a state-of-the-art cancer research laboratory.
“The goal is to find a cure for his cancer. The researcher can’t say no. The problems begin, right away.”
Nutrition, medicine and mortality interest Vespasian. “I wonder,” he says, “how a woman or a man reacts when facing terminal illness. Everybody imagines such a circumstance.
“How might access to great wealth affect someone that is terminally ill? How might the capacity to fund cutting-edge research affect him or her? Might that use of his or her wealth reduce the anxiety of terminal illness?”
Does Zootoxim, the cancer-curing drug in “Try This,” exist? “No,” says Vespasian, “I invented that drug. I checked drug names to ensure I wasn’t using anything that existed.
“Using a drug that exists would be wrong. It might create false hope. My goal, with “Try This,” is entertainment, not factual information.”
As an avid reader, Vespasian wondered if he could write a novel. He gave himself four weeks, during the summer, to write a first draft. “I’m intimately familiar with the geographic setting,” he says, “which allowed me to write quickly.”
Those four weeks were his summer holiday. “That meant writing ten hours a day,” Vespasian says, “seven days a week. If I had not set such a short deadline and strictly adhered to the writing schedule, I would never have finished the book.
“I didn’t want to be one of those writers that take years to finish a book,” he says. “I didn’t want to be someone writing a page here or a page there. I wanted to finish, in a timely fashion.” He admits it took much longer to edit and revise the manuscript, to prepare it for publication, than he thought.
Vespasian wanted to write a novel anyone could read. “I tried,” he says, “to make ‘Try This’ an easy read, fast and interesting read; fun, too.” The idea of having great wealth and being terminally, he thought, was an interesting place to start.
“Such ideas,” he says, “foster a setting that allows for engaging action without much violence or sex.” That’s a challenging task, today, given reader preferences.
His premise, illness among the wealthy, is a battlefield for social class warfare. Wealth changes the outcome of illness for the patient. An implied conclusion confirms wealth wins.
“I remain happy with ‘When Everything Fails, Try This’” says Vespasian. Since the novel, he’s written several non-fiction books on rational living and related topics that, in a way, are self-help books. “Yes,” he says, “with the added writing experience, I would write some parts of ‘Try This,’ differently.” In all, he remains satisfied with the novel and his writing, at the time.
How did “Try This” sell? “Well enough,” says Vespasian, “mostly in the [United Kingdom (UK)], for some reason; not as well in the USA or Canada. The book is set in Europe, Belgium and Germany, mostly, which may explain where it sold best and why.”
The story came to Vespasian as he wrote. “I had an idea, as I said; that’s all. I’m not one to plan the story, in detail.” In this sense, he is similar to Raymond Chandler.
There’s an idea, for a mystery or thriller novel, to write the last chapter, first. Then write back, toward the beginning. In this way, the action and dialogue more easily conform to the ending.
Vespasian didn’t think he could block out the story, forward or backward, and do it justice. “I don’t think I could write a story, if I knew what would happen along the way and at the end. That would bore me.” As writer, he wanted to share the sense of adventure that unfolded with the story.
“Once I settled on the main story line,” says Vespasian, “I was ready to go. I pulled the parts and characters together as I wrote. Remember, I wrote ‘Try This’ in less than three hundred hours, over four weeks. I had to keep moving.”
At the centre of the story is a wealthy man. He has cancer and the money to fund cancer research. Did Vespasian model this character on anyone?
“No,” says Vespasian, “from the beginning, I knew I needed an anxious character trying to make something happen for his benefit. This was to find a cure for his cancer, found quickly. The character thus had to be wealthy.
“A cancer centre is set up. The wealthy main character funds it, fully. Other characters appear from this point. Some characters are trying to find a cure for cancer; other characters are offended that the research uses live animals.” There’s much middle-class appeal in these themes.
The cure works on one monkey or so it seems. “Yes,” says Vespasian. “That monkey is rescued at the end of the story. I wanted to close all the characters, at the end of the story, but not the monkey; it obviously lives on.”
Three characters receive an experimental cancer cure. The reader doesn’t learn if they survive or not. “True,” says Vespasian. “My goal was a brief book; a novel to be read in two hours or so. I chose between less character development and more fast action.
“If I closed all characters, the book would be too long. I chose to write the book in four weeks, as I did.” Time dictated what he could do. “I didn’t close the characters that received the ostensible cancer cure,” says Vespasian. “I wanted the story to focus on action, move along quickly and not be too long.”
If Vespasian were to rewrite “Try This,” some changes might occur, in the story. “I would merge several characters. I might merge the women.
“I might make the story simpler, with a bit more character development. I would want to make the plot involve characters crossing paths, more often.
“I would also like to make ‘Try This’ easier to rework into a movie script. A script would involve fewer than half the characters in the novel.” He would also develop how well, if at all, the cancer cure worked.
“In the novel, the cure is supposed to work,” says Vespasian. It’s implied. “Still, I didn’t want to get into a plot position where I had to explain how the cure worked; that would be too much.
“If I were to rewrite the book or a movie script, illness would remain at the centre of the plot. I wouldn’t place too much emphasis on it, though. The interplay of the characters is not only based on illness.”
He would flush out the monkey, in a rewrite. “I was hoping I could do that, in the novel, but it didn’t work. For a movie script, the monkey could be much more important, more central.
To the degree a novel is a middle-class avowal of a self-directed reality, language is important. The goal, of the novel, is to fulfil the wants of the middle-class reader. A language code is thus expected.
The modern novel fuses words and syntax with lifestyle. This means it’s readable among the core audience. The modern novel is thus seditious, at least from the position of the elite, in its use of language.
Vespasian writes Euro-English. “It’s not the -English of the USA or Canada,” he says. “My writing style is English as spoken in Continental Europe. It’s how the Dutch, say, may speak English to each other.”
In Continental Europe, most women and men speak several languages. “In some scenes, of my novel, language differences are important. The characters are moving through Belgium, Germany and, perhaps, Luxemburg,” says Vespasian. Spoken English varies, as the characters move.
“The characters may go down the road, fifty miles, say, to find no one speaks English,” says Vespasian. “This is common in Europe.” It’s uncommon in Canada or the USA and may strike a reader in North America as odd.”
In Europe, geographic distances can be short, but language differences can be great. From Prague, in the Czech Republic, to Munich, in Germany, is roughly two hundred miles. You would hear, at the least, spoken West Slavic, German and two variations of English, in this short journey. Ideas of what is important may vary between these European cities more than between Canadian cities.
In Canada, Vancouver is more than three thousand miles from Ottawa. Women and men in both cities speak the same English. Both cities share same ideas of what is important, such as work and family, the same celebrations, such as Christmas, and so forth.
His use of Euro-English leads to different phrasings. Thus, says Vespasian, “my writing may seem odd to readers in North America, but not to Europeans.” His different English is steadfastly correct, though.
The slight variation in language may make “Try This” more interesting and readable. Readers may find the geographic and language differences appealing; perhaps even exotic. Language differences do heighten the sense of the reader as voyeur.
“In part, “Vespasian says, “the different English may account for the sales pattern of my novel.” If readers in North American indeed bypass his novel because of the minor differences in English expression, they miss a rare experience.
“I receive comments from some readers in the UK,” says Vespasian. “They find the different English exciting. It shows Europe, factually. Other readers chide me for incorrectly reporting how Europeans speak English; those readers may not have visited Europe, ever.”
The differences go beyond language. “There are many differences in food and gas stops,” says Vespasian. “While in Belgium, one character eats Belgian food, in a restaurant; he notes the higher cost than for German food, in Germany.” Boston based detective, Spenser, eats many doughnuts.
Characters names may seem odd to North American readers. “I tried to pick names that fit the locale,” says Vespasian. “I wanted normal names for women and men in Germany or Belgium, for example.
“Mattulla, the fellow that sells animals, illegally, to the research clinic, is a relatively common name in Germany. So, too, is the name of his accomplice, Boris.” If Vespasian used the same of a famous person, say, Marcel Mass, the French Anthropologist, it was by chance.
Writers of fiction often claim their characters write themselves; this includes naming themselves. “I wrote and wrote,” says Vespasian. “I had a rough idea of the story I wanted to tell, but no more.” The characters flowed from his fingertips or so it seemed.
Vespasian likes the way George Simenon, the late author, organised his writing. “Simenon wrote short books, say, one hundred and fifty pages, quickly; in three weeks or less.” This was the model used by Vespasian. “Simenon developed the mainline of a story and started to write. As a character came up, he wrote its name on the back of an envelope.
“That’s what I did. I wrote on the back of envelopes. I typed the manuscript, for ‘Try This,’ organised by what was on the envelopes. This allowed me to pull the action and characters together. This is how I made sure it all fit together.”
Vespasian finds the American standard attribution, “He said” or “She said,” boring. “The uniformity tires me,” he says. “I recently read a novel, ‘Personal,’ by Lee Child; he used the same attribution, repeatedly. I did not like that form.
“I try to find synonyms for attributing dialogue to characters. I’m not sure how that works. I do think it’s better than using “says” all the time.”
Elmo Leonard, the late American writer, suggested using the same form of attribution, all the time. He proposed using “said,” which let the reader ignore the attribution. Other words, say, “exclaimed” or “whispered,” slowed reading.
Other words made the reader think of something other than the story. Reading would be easier, more enjoyable, with a standard form of attribution. “That's a good point,” says Vespasian, “but not necessarily for me. I do keep it in mind, though.”
Adverbs are another sore point with American and Canadian writers. Again, adverbs supposedly slow down reading. Adverbs can impede excitement and pacing of a good story. It's a good point, Vespasian says, but necessarily for him.
“Clarity and grammar, in a large sense, were my main concerns,” says Vespasian. “I tried to write short sentences. If you read any of my books, you see that’s how I like to present my writing.
“Not more than two lines,” says Vespasian, “and short paragraphs.” Again, the goal is readability. “I try to write sentences any reader can grasp, in one reading, and understand.”
After eight years of writing books, his style has changed. “I now use grammar I didn’t use in ‘Try This.’ Of particular note, Vespasian finds the Oxford comma most useful. “I find the Oxford commas can clarity complex sentences.”
He doesn’t find the Oxford comma gets in the way. “When’re you’re reading, especially when you’re reading fast,” says Vespasian, “the Oxford comma is a great way to separate two linked ideas. It is ideal. It came with experience.” Not everyone agrees, of course.
“As well,” says Vespasian, “I always use UK spelling. There’s not a huge difference with American spelling. I find UK spelling more comfortable, that’s all.”
He also reads, all that he writes, aloud. “I find reading aloud helps ensure my writing flows. It also highlights rough phrasing. My idea of good writing is that it flows over the reader and doesn’t stumble or stick. That’s my goal.”
Clarity is a goal Vespasian achieves. “When writing fiction,” he says, “a balanced clarity is easier to achieve than in non-fiction. For fiction, I create and write from beginning to end. I manage story balance.
“When I write narrative non-fiction, I strive to clarify factual concerns regarding others, say Vivaldi. I can’t create a scenario to make the story work. His facts are his facts.
“Moreover, in non-fiction storytelling, I’m using stories from various times, different centuries, different eons, even. I must polish my narrative non-fiction, my storytelling, more and in a different way from fiction.”
One goal, for Vespasian, is to write a book that needs no editing. “Yes, that’s my goal; one that’s next to impossible to achieve. I write fast, which means much editing.”
Vespasian came to writing later than many, at age 44. “I began to write “Try This” shortly after my birthday,” he says. “I have not stopped writing since.”
He will continue to write as long as he can. “I already planned my next few books. All the ideas are in place. Now, I need the time to write.
“I hope,” says Vespasian, “the books will publish one right after the other. Much effort is involved in writing and, especially, editing a book. My books won’t appear as fast as I wish.”
His writing style has improved to include some planning. “I now try to plan ahead, a bit, for each book. I don’t develop a detailed outline, I think the book through, first, then I write.
“Some early thoughtfulness, I find, reduces the editing effort and time. My novel, ‘Try This,’ was not a well-polished book. I now understand that when I have a first draft, I can polish it.” The hard part is the first draft.
“Today, I try to write more as a craft person than someone on an assembly line,” says Vespasian. “I now understand how editing, fine-tuning, is as much a craft as cranking out the first draft. Finding the patience to fine-tune a book is satisfying.
“I like efficiency. I wish I could find a way to efficiently write, edit and publish a book, a way that would apply to all my future books.”
Could he write books this way? “I don’t know,” says Vespasian. “This is my goal, to be able to plan a book; to implement the plan; to write it and to edit a book in a super-efficient way.
“I am still far away from that. These principles are the used for car or electronics manufacturing. I think the same principles should be translated or translatable into writing.”
It’s not what you write. It’s what you leave out. That’s what makes the difference.**
“I put a great deal of effort in getting rid of the adjectives,” says Vespasian. “I wanted to write in simple, short sentences. The final edit, of ‘Try This,’ contains many adjectives, but I managed to keep the number tolerably low. My personal fight against wordiness is a lifelong enterprise. I am getting better at it.
“Second, I try to avoid describing how a character feels. I prefer to convey their emotions through their actions. When a character is puzzled, I prefer to reflect his surprise, for example, by having him or her stand still, for a few moments. I also like using indirect speech, in the Jane Austen, tradition, as long as it does not take more than two or three short sentences.
“Third, I deliberately reduce the background story of each character to a couple of short paragraphs, which gives the reader a quick picture of the personality or goals of a character. Each new character enters by means of an inciting event, which links his or her personal background to the overall plot.”
Writing books, says Vespasian, places him squarely in the public realm. His personal life should remain in the private realm. This separation, he believes, allows him maximum freedom to write and create.
John Vespasian is a pen name. “Originally, Vespasian was a character in ‘Try This.’ When I finished the book, I liked the name so much that I took it for myself and changed the same of the character.
“Vespasian was a Roman Emperor, from 69 AD to 96 AD. I think he was from Syria or Turkey, from that area. He wasn’t Italian. He was from one of the Roman provinces, in the Middle East, I think.” Today, the name, Vespasian, rings of Armenian descent and it was he that built the colosseum.
Why did Vespasian use a pen name? “I see writing as a business,” he says, “which should be self-standing. I think, for an author, if you want to be serious about business, you have to see your public business separated from your private life.” Thus, as a clown uses a performance persona that differs from his or her off-stage personality, Vespasian adopts a persona.
“Using personal history is one way for an artist to go,” says Vespasian. “Actors or comedians do this frequently. I wanted to separate my personal life from my business; I wanted to be a self-standing public character. I think it best to keep the business side separate from the personal.”
As with fiction, the core readers of self-help books are middle class. Self-help books focus on change that supposedly frees the reader from the chains of his or her social class or condition. Making money is a common theme of self-help books. What is supposedly more freeing than wealth? Finding more friends and becoming a better person are also hot topics among writers of self-help books.
Vespasian has several non-fiction books, which deal with rational living. “In some way,” he says, “all my writing concerns life change, for the better. In ‘Try This,’ the police officer changes her life, after internal conflict.” The technician supposedly feels freer and is happier when he changes occupations; he becomes a full-time clown, with the monkey as his partner.
“Then I found a way to combine fictional storytelling or with non-fiction,” says Vespasian. His other books deal with philosophy of life, rational living; for example, how to preserve peace of mind. Each of these books has twenty or thirty anecdotes, which he strings together to make a point.
He says reader response, to what I call narrative non-fiction, is good. His non-fiction also applies to some of his fictional characters. “The character that owns the insurance company,” says Vespasian, is an example.
“He spent time in Vietnam, during the American police action. Then, he migrated to Switzerland. He found his way into the insurance business. At the end of ‘Try This,’ he makes another life change, returning to his first passion, painting, and there are hints he might also find love.
“This character is fearless. He has gone through a great deal and at the end of ‘Try This,’ he decides to change his life. Many characters in the book are fearless, in their own way; the animal rights activist is another example.
“Every character, in ‘Try This,’ obsesses with achieving her or her goal. The mayor is working toward re-election, at any cost. In his or her way, each character is fearless. They are not necessarily rational, though.” Still, only a few characters manage to get what they want and in a way that’s sustainable.
Persistence is another theme of his non-fiction writing. “The technician that recuses the monkey is an example of a persistent character,” says Vespasian. “Persistence is the main attribute of this character.
“The technician is trying to improve his life. Specifically, he's trying to learn another language. Throughout the novel, he's trying to find a better job, a better life, which he finds at the end.
“His hobby is to entertain and to help children, as a clown. Until he befriends the monkey, he’s frustrated in achieving his goals. To this point, in the story, he doesn’t have a clear goal. By befriending and recusing the monkey, he finds purpose and his life improves, greatly, as a clown.”
Was the transition from fiction to non-fiction writing difficult? “It was straight forward,” says Vespasian. “The way I write non-fiction mimics the way I write fiction.
“I pick a theme. I decide how I want to write the non-fiction book, the angle. I write or modify the brief stories I want to include.
“My non-fiction is largely historical; it’s not my opinion. I use stories from philosophers or painters. If I like what someone says or does, I use it.
“This is how I write non-fiction. Yes, it sometimes overlaps with my fictional writing. This is why I call it narrative non-fiction.”
Vespasian makes an interesting distinction, in his narrative non-fiction, between difficult undertakings and hopeless enterprises. “This is one of my favourite subjects. It comes often in my books.
“To live rationally, as much as possible, you try to make good decisions. Then you’re usually better off, living free from anxiety and worry. Knowing when to let go is a difficult part of good decision-making, but necessary.”
Not every goal is attainable. “Some goals are unattainable or are not what you actually need or want,” says Vespasian. “Understanding what is important and what is not is necessary for living rationally.”
The story Antonio Vivaldi, the Italian composer, is a good example of how Vespasian thinks reader can learn of rational living. “An ordained Roman Catholic priest, Vivaldi worked for a church,” says Vespasian. “Vivaldi was choir director, violinist and composer. Then, he wanted to branch out.
“First, he composed music for a small commercial theatre in Venice. For this, Vivaldi earned a share of the revenue. In time, he became wealthy.
“His life, in Venice, was good. Eventually, he came to wonder if he could do more. He had to make a decision to stay put and comfortable or take a chance with a concert tour of Europe.
“He took the chance. He found bookings throughout Italy, even Venice. Alas, he over-estimated the market.
“There was a huge expenditure to hire musicians and move everybody from city to city, which was difficult, at the time. There were many other expenses, too, such as lodging, food and so forth. Before long, he spent his savings, on the tour, and fell into debt.
“When he passed away, in 1741, he was on route to Vienne. There, he thought, he’d find a job composing music for the queen. Vivaldi, at age 63, died destitute.
“I’m fascinated with how willing he was to give up everything he had in Venice,” says Vespasian. “How he couldn’t see touring had no future for him.” The business of touring, then as today, is a huge undertaking that often does not pay off.
What was the timeframe for Vivaldi? “He was active during the late seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth century.” It’s interesting that, as times change, human nature and business remain largely the same.
Vespasian says that effectiveness, rational living, “is fueled by virtue and accelerated by consistency. This is the subject of my book, ‘Consistency: the key to long-term stress reduction.’ Reducing stress comes from making as much of your life consistent, as you can; that is, developing and following a routine.
“The standard of living, today, is the highest, ever,” says Vespasian. “Yet, stress afflicts many or most of us. One of the causes, of excessive stress, is trying to accomplish too many goals at one time. We can’t lean left and right, at the same time.
“If we achieve little or no success in one area, say, work, we grow dispirited. We might even decide to give up.” To avoid dysphoria, learn to gauge pressing difficulties, he says. “Decide what is most important and what is not,” says Vespasian.
“Find patterns in your life. Decide what paths you wish to walk. Make a list, say, starting with the most pressing concerns or goals,” says Vespasian.”
Focus your efforts from the top of your list, down. “As concerns are resolved or goals achieved,” says Vespasian, “move down the list.” Jack McLaughlin, one of my teachers at business school, all those years ago, advised similarly and was right.
How did Vespasian come to rational living and writing books about it? “I read much philosophy and literature,” he says. “I have for years. From this, I came to believe there’s something missing from modern self-help books.”
Generalities dominate these books. “‘Be happy” and “Just do it” are slogans. These are nice ideas, but empty and meaningless, for Vespasian, without specifics.
“There isn’t much a written on making a decision or finding solutions to specific problems,” he says. There’s no devil in such writings, as there’s not much detail. “I use examples involving women and men that have gone through difficult times; people that are successful and people that are not.” Vivaldi is a good example.
“A reader,” says Vespasian, “can put the specifics I use to immediate use. The stories I use are meant to offer effective decision-making.” Usefulness is his method for helping readers.
Seldom is his method used, says Vespasian. “My approach is not necessarily new. Others have used it, but not often enough. The effectiveness of my method, I think, begs greater usage.
“I use many examples in one book. My goal is to string together a few main ideas that thread through the examples. Readers can take guidance from the examples or stories, in each book.”
It is interesting Vespasian confesses he reads philosophy. Self-help books, written by American or Canadian authors, often base in other self-help books. The method is thus circular, with little new added. Vespasian adds a new facet to these books.
Is applying philosophical ideas to everyday life more the European way? “Quite possibly,” says Vespasian. He finds generalities, without specific examples, boring. He is not alone.
“If I only try to convince someone my ideas work,” says Vespasian. “If I only put forward my ideas in an organized way. If I only quote a few generalities from other self-help authors, it’s boring and, probably, meaningless. I want to tell unified stories, from which a reader may learn to improve his or her life.” Why do some people succeed and others fail?
“I believe readers learn most from non-fiction stories, again, such as Vivaldi. Stories present challenges and solutions in a more logical, more convincing, way than does stringing quotations from other, similar books.”
It’s better for the reader to learn and understand, than handing the reader a ready-made model of a better life, which won’t work, says Vespasian. “I believe,” he says, “no one learns from rigid advice regarding life-style upkeep. Always, it’s better to present stories and let the reader decide for him or herself.” Middle class freedom doesn’t root in the guiding hand of the master, but in deciding for oneself.
“If the stories are relevant to the point being made, the reader can ferret out the lessons, with ease,” says Vespasian. “I find this fact fascinating. The upshot is learning this way sticks.”
Do the stories he uses have a European context? “Yes, so I must explain the context to non-Europeans. Often, I use stories from all eras, such as the Medieval Ages or ancient Greece. Thus, I must also explain the context of the time.” Vespasian believes explaining the context adds to the cogency of the stories he tells.
“I try to present stories that help readers decide for themselves,” he says. This is why he strives to make his writing readable. “I receive comments from readers in Singapore, Japan and Russia, for example, that my books are helpful.
“Explaining the context makes the content, its relevance, much clearer to the reader,” says Vespasian. “There was no Medieval Ages for the USA or Canada. Explaining what took place in Europe and how it led to individual success and failures makes the stories I use more meaningful.” The fuller context, Vespasian says, makes it easier for readers to learn from his stories.
The distinction between fearful conclusions and inconclusive facts is another favourite topic for Vespasian. “The core of this decision is one of the articles I published recently. The story is Anna Mary Robertson Moses, best known as Grandma Moses.”
Her story is remarkable, says Vespasian. She started painting rather late in life, at age seventy-eight, which is rare.
“Grandma Moses is a well-known, successful American painter,” says Vespasian. One of her paintings, “The Sugaring Off,” sold for 1.2 million dollars in 2006. “Her style is naïve, primitivistic,” he says.
Native Art is the name of her style. “She required no training to paint,” says Vespasian. “She mixed colours together, as she wished, and her shapes were rough. She did no detailed drawings; she painted directly onto the canvas what was in her head.
“She needed to find new source of income. When her husband, a farmer, died, in 1927, she fell into poverty. I think she needed an outlet as well as to make money. She turned to painting.
“Grandma Moses had experience as a seamstress and tailor. She also had arthritis, which made sewing difficult. She turned to painting.
“In the beginning, her work was totally ignored; she sold nothing. She persisted. She was also a fast painter, completing one or two paintings a day. This helped.
“Grandma Moses caught some luck. The publicity hook, her age, made her a natural for media coverage. After five or six years, she was giving many interviews, which sold paintings.” She became famous in a relatively short period, for a painter.
“Grandma Moses could have given up,” says Vespasian. “Her family told her to take it easy; she was ill, with arthritis. She could have given up and passed away, as many men and women do, with accomplishing much or leaving a legacy.
“She ignored family advice. She knew she could still accomplish much. She followed a clever path.
“Old and unknown, she began to paint and tried to sell her work. Her age worked for, not against, her. In a short time, Grandma Moses became an icon.
Grandma Moses wasn't afraid to move forward. She didn't care about what people told her. She lived to age 101 and painted almost to the end of her life.”
Persistence and belief in one’s self are important for success in life. No matter how you define success, money or a long, satisfying life, persistence and belief in one’s self works. So, too, does developing a routine and sticking to it.
As do all novels, “When Everything Fails, Try This” bears the strong signature of the author, John Vespasian. He chose brevity over thoroughness, for example, to homage one of his favourite writers, George Simenon.
At the end of the novel, many characters remain open. The true villain dies, though. Readers must decide if the cancer cure worked; Vespasian says, “It did work for all that received it,” but this is not explicit in the novel.
The Euro-English strengthens the mystery in “Try This.” It’s a ready reminder of the locale of the story. It shows us how the characters see the world through a different lens than do North Americans.
“Try This” is a thoroughly middle-class adventure. The cancer researcher and mayor are upper middle class. The technician, villain and killer are lower middle class. Illegal acts, such as selling live animals, are the business of lower class men.
Middle-class realism is at the core of “Try This.” A wealthy man, terminally ill, exploits all the characters, in one way or another, as he tries to finding a cure. His exploitation pays off, of course, that’s middle-class life. Karl Marx would not approve.
Vespasian makes no claim to verisimilitude. “Try This” is not true to life. It’s not even a slice of life, but it is an instance of a realistic novel.
“Try This” is a depiction of middle-class life. It’s not much of a reach to believe the plot; it’s plausible and possible. The wealthy often support research, usually after a family member passes away from a fundable disease.
Vespasian merely goes back a step. The funder, himself, is ill, hoping for extension of his life. “Try This” thus has an air reality; it’s credible for the intended reader.
Not all novels must be realistic. Yet, today, realism is the measure of the novel. This is because, says Ian Watt, several new issues came with the rise of science, the novel and the middle class. New concerns arose for the individual, the need for a non-sacred and testable world-view, that is, science, as well as a liking of the fixed. The simultaneous rise of science and a liking for the fixed is an interesting contradiction, as the essence of science is always moving forward.
“Try This” conforms, nicely, to the new concerns. The monkey is a metaphor for the individual. Science is the cancer research centre. The plot moves quickly, the villain is bad; the end is sudden and fixed.
Why is realism important for the modern novel? Before the rise of the novel two hundred years ago, a few good truths, such as the Ten Commandments, guided life; do onto others are you would have others do onto you. Men thought the novel menacing; for women to read and toss away.
Only god created reality. Science then took over from religion. Realistic, as in a version of what is real, became acceptable.
As science and the middle class grew, so did the novel. A problem arose. Some readers tried to use novels as a model for their lives, which is ill advised.
Novels are realistic, not real. No one could live the life of Alex Morgan, hero of intense thrillers created by Chris Allen. The relentless stress would kill him or her in a few days, if not a few hours.
Someone, probably Napoleon Hill, got the idea of writing of personal development books using the novel as a model. The style is chapters, anecdotes and a happy conclusion, in the form of personal success. Soon a great many similar titles, now called self-help books, published; the Great Depression spurred this effort.
For example, every parent has difficulties with their grown children and the in-laws they bring around. Ruth Nemzoff, in a flurry of anecdotes and solid research, says don’t bite your tongue. Speak up or life gets worse is good advice.
Rational living books, by John Vespasian, fit the self-help model, well. The novel was realistic, self-help books are ostensibly real, dealing with life as it happens. His leap from fiction to self-help, from realistic to real, is natural.
Real life is a series of decision. Using the example of Italian composer, Vivaldi, Vespasian says we must see how what is difficult and what is hopeless are different challenges. A local success, in Venice, Vivaldi wanted a grander stage; he underwrote a tour that left him destitute.
“Stop wasting time on dead-end projects,” says Vespasian. “As soon as you identify a losing pattern, move on.” Make sure your goals give you a good chance to learn and grow as well as “enhance productiveness, cooperation, kindness and friendship.”
Persistence is the motif of the story of Grandma Moses, reported by Vespasian. She began painting, in a simple style, at age 78. Her roadblocks were many, but she persisted, using her age as a promotional tool.
Today, Grandma Moses is an important American artist. If she had listened to her children and other naysayers, she would not have succeeded. Persistence is a rare resource.
The anecdotes, of Vivaldi and Grandma Moses, show the concern for the individual. In the case of Grandma Moses, the solution is secular, to create, to paint, and don’t give up. In both cases, fixed, if not desirable, ends prevail.
Self-help authors often paraphrase each other to establish authority. Vespasian avoids this circular style. He sees life problems as interesting tests of philosophy and history.
Vespasian relies on the venerable writing of philosophers or historically accurate accounts. In the life stories of Vivaldi, Grandma Moses or Johannes Gutenberg, a scoundrel that invented the movable-type printing process, among others, lie clues to a healthier, happier life, today.
The media contribute to life problems, today. Media report bad news, he says, claiming good news is boring, not good for ratings. Harsh talk on radio pushes listeners to see life as mostly, if not all, as one conflict after another.
Ignoring media is difficult. Media are everywhere, all the time. The media provide an awareness of the world, which religion once did; both views are problematic.
Awareness of the world is the closest many women and men come to controlling life. I am aware; therefore, I am, to paraphrase René Descartes. A mediated life is a sad state of affairs, but that’s mostly what there is, today.
Advice on rational living is thus doubly necessary. When life contradicts the basic rules of our lives, when ostensible facts turn out to be fiction, daily life is in chaos. Vespasian advises we turn risks into numbers, limit acceptable damage and act to resolve problems.
Vespasian is good to his word. When a character, in “When Everything Fails, Try This,” faces an unexpected or especially challenging problem, she or he stops, thinks and evaluates; only then does he or she act. Sometimes novels can provide hints for a better life.
*Brian Linse, of Linsefilms, lecture on 15 March 2015, in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University.
**See Russel Hammond speaking to William H Miller in “Almost Famous,” written and directed by Cameron Crowe (2000).
Terry Eagleton (2004), "The English Novel: an introduction,” published by Wiley-Blackwell.
Napoleon Hill (1937), “Think and Grow Rich,” revised edition published by Fawcett Books.
Michael McKeon (2000), “Theory of the Novel: a historical approach,” published by Hopkins Fulfillment Service.
Ruth Nemzoff (2008), “Don’t Bite Your Tongue: how to foster rewarding relationships with your adult children.”
Michael Schmidt (2014), “The Novel: a biography,” published by Belknap Press.
Virginia Woolf quoted in Schmidt.
Ian Watt (2000), “The Rise of the Novel,” published by Pimlico.
dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.
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