From ForeWord Magazine, November 2002
By ALEX MOORE Reprinted by permission
“It is prose doing what poetry is supposed to do,” said Vladimir Nabokov in Lectures on Literature. He was discussing Gustave Flaubert’s style in Madame Bovary and the use of the poetical nature of writing, in which words, phrases, and sentences come into an artistic or congruent composition like gold leaf filigree on a leather-bound book. The fibers of the composition are the sentences that “must stir in a book like leaves in a forest,” wrote Flaubert.
This should have been my response to the question “What is literary fiction?” when Warren Adler asked it. We met at PMA’s Publishing University, held at the Grand Hyatt New York in May. Adler, author of twenty-five books and short story collections, including The War of the Roses (made into a movie starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner) and Random Hearts (with Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas), was in town for Book America to join three other “eBook industry innovators” in a panel discussion called “Will E-Books Circumvent Agents?” There were four of us at the bar, The Jester and the Jesuit; the other two were Victoria Sutherland, publisher of ForeWord, and the president of Stonehouse Press (Adler’s publishing company, named for his house in Jackson Hole, Wyoming). While the latter two talked of the bourgeois end of the publishing industry, Adler and I talked of the blue china of the publishing world.
Before asking the literary fiction question, Adler had already started flowing on one of his favorite subjects: author biographies. With the exuberance of an over brimming ink well, he talked about Proust writing in bed in a cork-lined room with a small pharmacy at tableside; Balzac wearing a white dressing gown from midnight to eight, while writing and drinking gallons of hot, black coffee; and Melville locking himself in his bedroom to write, a harpoon at door side to keep out a raft of female residents.
At the heart of Adler’s literary fiction is the machination of intimate human relationships: the mysterious magnetism of attraction and of fragile and frenzied relationships; it’s his insight and wisdom in presenting and decoding the complexities of life that have won him critical acclaim. It’s also his filigree of style: “Passion was more powerful than caution,” says the narrator in Random Hearts, and “People had a tendency to repeat mistakes, and the emotions were an unreliable barometer.”
Flaubert was the key innovator in the modernist tradition of the novel. In a 1975 Saturday Review, Herman Wouk speculated that Flaubert, breaking with Cervantes and his penchant for amusing the crowd, must have thought, “I will not please you. I will please myself. I will tell you the truth. Follow me if you dare and if you can.” Wouk continues, “The commitment shifts from theatre toward lyric poetry; from concern with the audience to concern with elevated and exact expression of the artist’s inner view of things.” Flaubert’s inner view manifests itself in elegant writing style, a distinctive manner of expression, like Franciscan monks designing majuscules for black-letter Bibles.
Later in the conversation with Adler, I learned that he is a key innovator in electronic publishing modernism. He has pleased himself by breaking with major publishing houses such as Random House and MacMillan, setting out in 2000 to reacquire all of his publishing and subsidiary rights in North America. Many titles were out of print, gathering book-bin dust, and Adler started to digitize and offer them on the internet. Now all his literary fiction is available for purchase in all formats: e-book, and POD trade paperback, and hardcover. He is currently one of the few novelists in the world (perhaps the only one) who has created a complete eBook library of his works.
“No, No! Why prate against the passions? Aren’t they the only beautiful things on earth, the source of heroism, of enthusiasm, of poetry, music, art, in fact of everything?” a character says in Madame Bovary. Flaubert and Adler have both stirred the leaves in the forests of passion, innovation, and literary fiction.