I’m a diehard Tom Robbins fan. I feel like I discovered him way after the party, long after everyone went home in the arms of someone else, but I don’t mind. I read Jitterbug Perfume first, about seven years back. I was so in love I prolonged the affair by only reading another book or two of his per year until I came to the very last one, which just so happened to be his first.
It was going to be a magcal night, I thought, as I lit candles and curled up on the couch with this last, savory kiss goodbye. Our final first read. The anticipation, the buildup, it almost undid me. And then — well, we’ve all been there. Our childhood crush who doesn’t perform as promised. An experienced lover who’s had one too many whiskies.
If you’ve never read him, Robbins is The Master at blending vivid, endearing characters with unpredictable plots that wind up into knots that then culminate in an unlikely climax. Into this heady mixture, he adds a generous dash of thoughtful, undogmatic philosophy. Un-expected. Un-daunted. Un-surpassed.
Wow, did Another Roadside Attraction not fit the bill. It is a very good novel, don’t get me wrong. The characters are lively and memorable, the dialogue sparkles, the twists and turns are dizzying. Robbins is already a witty showman, ready to display his wares.
But compared to his later works, it felt a bit like a kid who has set up a lemonade stand with streamers and sparklers, nowhere near the three-ring circus I expected to find. I plunged forward, undaunted, trusting he’d carry me somewhere delightful. It was unsustainable. I slogged, then crawled, then shuddered to a halt. I put it on the shelf for an unheard-of three months until the disappointment had ebbed to a place where I could read the book as just another good novel, not a “failed” Tom Robbins.
I doubt many of us go out to read the “lesser” works of authors unless we sincerely love them. Far more typical is finding or hearing about their Big Success. The one other people know, other people gush about. The one where the writer manages to pull it off — the high wire trick that leaves everyone gasping in awe.
And yet, I feel like I learned more about what works in a Tom Robbins’ novel by looking at what didn’t work. Like stripping away the fancy clothes, the skin, and maybe the muscle until I came to some bare-bones that told a secret story. Dis-integrated, I could see the joints, the cracks and seams that he’d later learned to disguise.
Reading Another Roadside Attraction, I was better able to see how he built his characters, quirk by quirk, each one with their unique core philosophy. How he paints a small scene that exemplifies this kernel, and then variations that embellish or complicate. At times the philosophy sections are inadequately integrated, and it feels a little like each character has a chance to deliver a TED Talk. There are too many “snippets,” at least for my taste, and so they start to feel disjointed or redundant rather than emblematic. Distracting, instead of illuminating.
This discovery should probably not have come as such a surprise. When I was teaching at a university, I read a lot of student papers. Those treasured A-papers, the abundant B-papers, and the C-papers that propagated like weeds no matter how many writing workshops I ran. I was working on my own PhD at the time and it was actually the B- and C-papers from which I learned the most. The A-papers sparkle with thought and are far more fun to read, but it was through examining the “failures,” and offering advice for improvement, that my own writing started to mature.
If you’re striving to improve you own writing, getting a mentor is inarguably golden; yet it might be through editing or proofreading the work of others that you get access to the gold mine itself. (Not unlike the old saw about teaching a man to fish.) It’s as though you start to grow a special lens on your eyes at the impersonal distance of critical reader that’s nearly impossible to cultivate if you only read your own less-than-glittering drafts.
Thankfully, reading the juvenilia of great writers is far less painful than reading a stack of undergrad papers, but it can trigger the same adaptive double vision. Because there are wobbly or itchy or bumpy parts, the writing is less immersive and the critical part of our brain is engaged.
One of the single biggest lessons I learned from these C-papers was unexpected. Rather than not having ideas, poor papers often had too many. Because of this they became unfocused, undeveloped, and unreadable. This, in essence, is my big problem with Another Roadside Attraction too.
Jane Austen’s first novel is a pot-boiler parody called Northanger Abbey. It’s a well-written little ditty, fun and suspenseful and already touched with the gentle brush of irony she uses to paint so many of her most memorable characters. But unless you’re an Austen fan you’ve probably never heard of it, never mind read it. It was her first book accepted for publication, but only published posthumously.
It also fits pretty neatly into the then-popular genre of the Gothic, though with the metafictional touch of the main character being a reader of other gothic stories. The novelist who has arguably sparked a wider variety of fan ficiton than any other, the one who built a new genre wholesale with the scritch, scritch of her quill, didn’t start with Elizabeth Bennet or even Emma. She started where most writers start: with the struggle to say something new or insightful about something she already knew and loved.
Jane teaches me the truth that all writers start somewhere, but probably not the somewhere we remember best. Like a good student, she learned well the steps of someone else’s dance, then added her own signature flourish. And only after that did she begin to choreograph something of her own.
The Bohemian writer-in-exile Milan Kundera is best known for The Unbearable Lightness of Being and the two novels that frame it in time: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and Immortality. These three can be easily found anywhere and most likely stand out in your mind if you’ve read his books. Deep into my first English degree, Kundera was an author I read on the sly. His work is literary and satisfies a palate shaped to denser, deliberate works, but relatively easy to read.
Chewing my way through these better-known books, I hungered for more. I was avidly anti-online purchases at the time, so it took several years of combing bookstores big and small before I found a copy of The Joke, his first novel. It had appeared on the shelf in the wake of a new novel, dredged up from storage somewhere I can only assume. A lonely first child.
It is undeniably his, stamped with his style and voice. The phrases pile up behind semi-colons; the “great themes of existence,” as he calls them, sing and swoop throughout. Emblematic and nameless characters emerge for a moment to enact their tragedy with poignancy and then disappear from the stage, another victim to the march of history.
And yet. It bows to the conventions of novels that respect time and space. It’s paragraphs are consistently long, full of descriptions and observations. If a chapter was excerpted, it might be mistaken as belonging to any number of authors. It’s little-g great. It’s human, all too human.
In it, Kundera is not yet a literary god, directing and observing his characters; in fact, there is nothing metafictional about it at all. Reading it is a reminder that we writers can stretch and strengthen into peak performance gradually. That we can make our experiments one at a time, like notes on a score. That a first work doesn’t have to leap from our heads fully-armed, grey-eyed Athena-wise. Reading it, I felt in my bones that a humble beginning is better than no beginning at all. I know it in a way that no bullet point can ever persuade me of sufficiently.
So those are a few of the biggest lessons, plucked from the juvenilia of three of my favorite authors.
- Too many ideas can be worse than too few
- Editing the work of others is just as valuable as getting good feedback
- Use what you know and love
- Great writers are humans too
Reading juvenilia also gives us access to all the nuts and bolts of writing, lets us look under the hood. Lets us run our fingers through the entrails to look for signs and omens. Lets us cozy up to greatness without being swallowed by its shadow.