In his highly amusing anecdotal book “Adventures in the Screen Trade”, the legendary Hollywood screenwriter In his funny, anecdotal book “Adventures in the Screen Trade”, the legendary Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman (creator of such classic screenplays as “Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid” and “All The President’s Men”) famously said “Nobody knows anything”. He was referring to the fact that, despite decades of experience and the accumulated wisdom of thousands of studio executives, no one in the film business could accurately predict which films would be successful after they were released.
And, of course, he’s been proved right time after time – huge, epic movies costing a quarter of a billion dollars fail spectacularly (see “John Carter of Mars”… or perhaps don’t) while small, indie movies that even the film makers thought would find only small audiences, became huge blockbusters (“Blair Witch Project”, “Paranormal Activity”, “Napoleon Dynamite”).
Clearly, the same goes for fiction. Who foresaw the extraordinary success of the “Fifty Shades” trilogy? Who knew “Mommy-Porn” would be the Next Big Thing?
Back in the Eighties, before I published my first novel “Kissing Through A Pane Of Glass”, I was still trying to find my writing voice… and not having much luck.
Back then I wasn’t interested in writing anything that might be deemed “commercial” or “genre”- what I wanted was to write a Booker Prize winner and follow in the footsteps of my literary heroes Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Salman Rushdie. I started (and abandoned) numerous supposed “literary” novels. I even wrote two hundred pages of a comic historical farce before it occurred to me that the only thing farcical about the project was that I was trying to write it.
At the same time, I had become fascinated with sub-atomic physics and quantum mechanics, and what it could tell us about the ultimate nature of reality.
Although I had an academic background in sciences, it wasn’t the “science” that interested me so much as the theory that the way the cosmos operated at the sub-atomic level was not only stranger than one might imagine, but stranger than one could imagine!
Many of the discoveries made by theoretical physicists in the 1920s and 30s bore a remarkable similarity to certain ancient teachings in Eastern religious thought: I remember being completely absorbed by a book called “The Tao of Physics”.
Before I knew it, I had an idea for a new novel. It would be called “The Uncertainty Principle” (after Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg’s famous proposition that it is impossible to measure simultaneously both the position and velocity of a sub-atomic particle with absolute accuracy or certainty.) The novel would take the form of a comic, surreal odyssey in which – over a few days, as he approaches his 30th birthday – our hapless hero Jonathan Muon tries to navigate a world which no longer operates in a way familiar to him, but as it might behave at the microscopic, sub-atomic level.
Yeah, I know: it sounds absurd, ridiculous… and impossible to pull off. But I was confident – or rather I was young, naive and had nothing to lose by giving it a go. I knew, even before I started, that the chances of a finding a publisher for a book like this was minimal. But that wasn’t the point. The point was: I really, really wanted to write it.
I can’t remember how long it took to write the book – a few weeks, maybe. Not long. It seemed to pour out of me with a rather beguiling “stream-of-consciousness” ease. When it was finished, I put it aside for a couple of weeks, and then when I felt enough time has passed, I read it through in one sitting.
When I got to the end I shook my head, smiled and thought: “What was I thinking?”
Oddly, the book was everything I had hoped it would be: it was surreal, it was funny (at least I thought so), it was thought-provoking… but I was pretty sure that it was also self-indulgent, confusing and just too weird to find a readership. When, years later, I found myself with a high-powered agent (who would later go on to represent no less a figure than J.K.Rowling) I didn’t even show it to him: by then I thought it an embarrassing experiment written by a neophyte writer who didn’t know what he was doing. The manuscript went into the drawer marked “Nice Try”, never to be seen again.
After many years of trying to break into Hollywood as a screenwriter, I decide it’s time to write a new novel. When the book (a thriller called “Implicated”) is finished, even though I still have my high-powered agent, I decide to self-publish (another story for another time). I enjoy the process so much that I get the rights to my previously published backlist (now out of print) and re-publish them all as ebooks. I achieve a modicum of success, both commercially and critically, and congratulate myself for taking the “indie” plunge.
And then, one day, I find “The Uncertainty Principle” sitting dusty and forlorn in a bottom drawer, and out of curiosity, I give it a read. And guess what? It’s still the same self-indulgent, confusing, weird book I recalled. Only, twenty-odd years on, I’m amazed to find that it’s still funny and still strangely thought-provoking too…
Well, you can guess what’s coming next. I give it a swift polish and release it into the wild. Only having neither the courage of my convictions nor the fortitude to withstand a slew of terrible reviews, I publish it as “Peter Michael Rosenberg WRITING AS Tyler Montreux”. I figure that, if there’s a shit-storm, I can always somehow blame it on Tyler…
All I hoped for was that maybe one person would read it and not think it sucked too badly.
The novel has been out for some months now. It has not achieved bestseller status – hell, it’s barely sold more than a few hundred copies so far. But here’s the thing: it’s garnered some of the best reviews I’ve ever received:
“The funniest book I’ve read in a long while. More than that, though. Intelligent and thought-provoking. In many ways insane. Most of all, a pleasure,” said one reader.
“Rosenberg makes existential angst fun in this surreal masterpiece! Hysterically funny and clever, there are too many brilliant insights to count!” said another.
“The craziness of Jonathan’s world immediately reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s works. I think this is the highest complement I could pay to an author. Don’t get me wrong, this most certainly isn’t a Vonnegut imitation. This is a very unique story told in a very entertaining way,” said a third.
These particular reviews gave me more pleasure than any that I’ve ever received. They not only justify the book’s existence but, in some small way, my own.
Perhaps I should have given it to my agent all those years ago? Perhaps it would have won me the Booker Prize? After all, as has never been clearer, when it comes to film, fiction, art or the economy: Nobody Knows Anything.
“Clearly, the same goes for fiction. Who could have foreseen the extraordinary success of the “Fifty Shades” trilogy? Who knew “Mommy-Porn” would be the Next Big Thing?”
Writers everywhere are puzzling over this question, myself included. And I’m not a literary snob or anything, but the writing just….isn’t good.
The beautiful thing about the human race is that we evolve and despite every equation in the book, we are not predictable! Hurrah!
What a wonderful piece– not just about self-publishing, but about recognizing the value in an early creation so many years on, and giving it a crack at a readership! Thank you.
Appreciate you leading the way, wild intrepid adventurer! So then I get to take a ride on an untamed story.
Bravo. The best thing about self-publishing is that even it doesn’t become a top seller, the fact is, it belongs to you, with all the accompanying rights, even if you decide a decade later to rewrite it. A corporately consolidated publishing house would not permit such freedom. Vive le indie!
I think any successful creative endeavor involves pain and struggle. I can’t imagine anything great born of an easy ride. Although you said the novel came out of a “stream of consciousness,” everything leading up to it sounds grueling.
Way to stick with it. This was very inspiring. I love how you followed your curiosities, and when started to write about them. The moral here is to let your own tastes guide you– then all the rest will follow. Great work! See Ira Glass on never giving up… Awesome tips on his podcast for inspiration.