Novel Thoughts blog

Novels Like a Ship in a Bottle

May 8, 2018 1:49 pm | Leave a Comment

One of these days the person standing in front of you at the convenience store, at Starbucks, at the post office, or just about anywhere two or more are gathered will tell you he has just finished writing a novel. Hearing this, a woman standing behind you will reveal that she completed writing one the month before and is now at work on another.

Time was when only manic-depressive alcoholics and worn-out, cynical English teachers aspired to writing a novel. Not so today; everybody seems to be doing it. In a world where computers and printers have made word production a snap, we have a burgeoning population of novelists prepared to take the world by storm with the next Harry Potter or Da Vinci Code. Bankers and stockbrokers write novels, retired generals and comedians, actors, politicians, judges, lawyers, police detectives, and from their jail cells some of the crooks the detectives caught and the judges sentenced. Even my plumber has gotten in on the act. In fact, he is working on his second one. I know a London cabbie who scribbles them on A4 tablets while waiting for his next fare in train station queues. He is on his fourteenth.

Technology is partly the reason, along with chronic aimlessness of an age stirring the soul to do something—anything—that will last longer than the flickering images on the digital screens we watch hour-by-hour with a vague sense—some of us—of having bargained with the devil.

Writing with pen or pencil and even a typewriter is much more work than using a computer. Today, those methods seem like Neanderthal cave art. This is especially true when it comes to revision and reorganization. Cut and paste, delete and insert for example used to be scratch-outs and long arrow lines drawn in margins. Scissors and Scotch tape were standard writing equipment. Preparing a clean manuscript for submission was once a long slog up a mountainside. No more.

No one can say for certain how many people in the United States at present would list ‘writer’ as an occupation or a significant sideline activity if what is meant by that includes blogging, twittering and tweeting, writing memoirs and novels, and tiptoeing through the world of self-publishing with everything but last week’s grocery list.

Fifteen million writers is a conservative estimate, roughly five percent of the nation’s population. Of that number, let’s assume a mere one in fifteen is at work on a novel. Novels are especially attractive since there remains about them a dwindling mystique, and a motherlode promise of possibly striking it big. Few of these one million novelists will ever acquire a following beyond their immediate family and friends, many of whom will soon tire of reading the latest thing Aunt, Uncle, or Grandpa came up with to stun a waiting world.

Meantime unchecked technological ‘advances’ will create explosive growth in the population of novelists-without-readers. Soon we will have driverless semi-trucks on the Interstate highways, driverless farm equipment and taxicabs, fast food restaurants manned by robots, and retail workers replaced by smartphone check-out apps.

What are these millions of unemployed supposed to do? Some of them will turn to writing novels because at its most rudimentary level, this can be done by simply making up stuff with lots of talkative characters and adverbs, set either in the future or the distant past so that no one alive can question it. Nothing could be easier to do and harder to do well.

Writing novels has become a cottage industry producing a product already abundant in an era of declining demand. Alas, we seem to be plunging into a world where novelists vastly outnumber readers of novels. We may already be there, with far worse to come, not only in the form of evermore writers, but robots programed to write novels. Several novels I have recently read already smack of robotic engineering.

Desperate novelists in search of readers have turned to extreme measures. A traveling friend not long ago told me of seeing yard signs advertising debut novels on the front lawns of a fashionable seaside community. Wealthier sorts can follow the example of a tycoon who hired minions to ransack bookstores, buying his brainchild in quantities sufficient to get it on bestseller lists. And then there are the numerous writers’ cooperatives rife on internet, cooking up faux reader conspiracies to achieve what could best be described as 24-hour sensations, screenshotted with five-star reviews. In a world of one million driven-to-desperation novelists, we will inevitably have scammers of all sorts and at least a half million ‘bestselling’ authors.

The market for what is called literary fiction has been steadily weakening since the 1980’s. For one thing, a novel is not a consumable. It does not disappear simply because someone has read it. It continues to be available for other readers. With a lot of excellent novels already published and broadly available, there really is little need for more, especially since just about everything that could make for a good story has already been written ten times over. It’s called universality, an essential ingredient in literary art. Even a voracious reader over a long lifetime could not exhaust the present supply of first-rate fiction built up over the roughly 250 years novels have been a significant literary form. The British Library is chock-full of novels written before any of us were born by authors whose names today are unfamiliar even to literary specialists.

A recent survey indicated that twenty-four percent of this nation’s potential readers admitted to not reading as much as one book last year. A sizeable percentage of the rest claimed to have read a portion of one book only, not necessarily a novel. Time was when folk were reluctant to admit that they did not read books. Today it appears to be viewed in some quarters as a source of pride. Conversely, since not reading can be associated with ignorance, it is also fair to say that some survey respondents read less than they claimed.

Worse yet, just as in the case of the population occupying pews in mainstream churches, the population of serious, habitual readers is aging rapidly. Organized religion and serious reading appear to be declining in tandem. Kindles and E-readers, rosaries and scapulars are winding up in old shoeboxes. Who’s to say that there isn’t a connection since both the practice of reading and the practice of prayer require patience, perseverance, and mental engagement? Meantime serious, sustained purpose is undermined by myriad digital distractions laying claim to our every waking moment. Among many who claim to read, skimming might be the word for it.

In view of all this, aspiring novelists would be wise to anchor their efforts in the personal satisfaction derived from completing any challenging, creative work. In the long run, that will matter more than anything. Years ago, my grandfather said of education, “It’s one thing they can’t take away from you.” He was right. The novel you wrote is another thing. There might be millions of them, but yours will always be yours.

Think of the man who through a long lifetime of trying at last was able to fashion a ship in a bottle. In some ways that is what a novel is, a ship in a bottle. He will assemble family and friends to witness his accomplishment and to puzzle over its creation. Some will think him ingenious, and some will think him insane to have spent his time this way. The bottle will rest on a mantle, and someday go from there to an attic, and years later perhaps from there to a yard sale where it will roll off a makeshift display and be broken. Nobody alive will remember the man who worked on it through long, lonely evenings. He wrote his name on the prow of the ship. I did it he could always say to himself, and what does it matter now that it lies in pieces on the sand of another shore?

Image of ship in a bottle by Bjørnar Evenshaug – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

James Casper

James Casper

James Casper was born and grew up in southern Minnesota. Apart from living in various Minnesota locales, he has resided in Boston, St. Louis, eastern Tennessee, and London, England. He and his wife of twenty-four years have traveled extensively. Rome is one of their favorite places. He is happiest walking from lock to lock along the Thames in England. His first novel is Everywhere in Chains. You can find more of his writing at his website,

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