Morrissey has written a novel. It’s called List of the Lost. It is, according to Michael Hann at the Guardian, an ‘unpolished turd of a book’, about which ‘all you need to know is not to buy it.’
I bought it.
Not that I’m a great fan of Morrissey, or the Smiths. I didn’t want to buy it, but the library hadn’t yet received its copies and, being weirdly compelled to write about this ‘stale excrement of Morrissey’s imagination’, I thought it best to read it first.
List of the Lost has attracted a great deal of condemnation. Ed Cumming, also at the Guardian, levels most of his criticism at Morrissey’s novelistic craft. However, he spares his harshest scorn for Penguin, Morrissey’s publisher. He says:
The spineless mandarins at Penguin who brought this to print should be ashamed of themselves. At a time when the traditional fiction market is under attack from all sides, publishers need to reassure us that their judgment is still valuable. This fiasco of a novel does precisely the opposite.
But I disagree.
A disclosure: I’m an emerging writer – not that I like to refer to myself as such. The word ‘emerging’ makes me think of zombies crawling out of graves on moonless evenings, bewildered, searching for life on which to feed (although, admittedly, much like zombies, wannabe writers do tend to groan ‘Brains!’ as they lurch around aimlessly). I prefer the term ‘nascent’ writers, or even ‘ascendant’ writers, the latter for its allusion to stars. Much like a star, an ascendant writer might peek above the dark horizon (first journal publication), perhaps only momentarily (sophomore effort rejected), or skip along the horizon for a period (multiple journal publications, possibly across genres), unnoticed or obscured by low hills (life) or wild scrub (other nascent writers who have agents), or might become truly ascendant (novel publication), persevering long enough to be named among the brightest in the heavens (headlining at a writers’ festival).
So much for metaphors. Perhaps my existence as a nascent writer (the term I have now settled on) affects my view of List of the Lost? What does the publication of Morrissey’s novel mean for a nascent writer?
My immediate reaction was something like this:
I can’t believe they will publish this shit but aren’t even decent enough to reply to my email that politely enquired about the manuscript I sent them two years ago. [Then, to myself, nostalgically] That stuff was gold.
The trouble with this viewpoint is that it depends on a false assumption. As Mel Campbell says, ‘writing isn’t a zero-sum game’. It would be naive to think that Morrissey’s novel was published at the expense of a nascent writer’s novel. Nowhere was there a publisher holding Morrissey’s manuscript in one hand and mine in the other, weighing the benefits of each, grimacing over their decision because there was only one spot left on their list. List of the Lost was always going to be published. And for good reason: Morrissey’s novel has the delightful characteristic of generating income for a publisher with very little effort. (By allowing List of the Lost to go through in what seems to be its native, naked, un-amended glory, Penguin even saved themselves the cost of a copyeditor!)
And a publisher making money is a good thing – for everyone in the industry, but especially for nascent writers. The money extracted from sure-things (in this case, the cool, crisp notes confiscated from the wallets of gen X Morrissey fans) is money that might just, possibly, you never know, be used to take a gamble on an unsolicited submission from some no-name nascent. Those hundred-odd pages that Morrissey threw up might be the goose, and your coffee-stained manuscript might be the golden egg. Best not to kill it.
But these are merely commercial considerations, merely the mercantile facts of life. Is the profitability of List of the Lost alone enough to justify its publication? Perhaps, but it doesn’t have to be.
There is something about List of the Lost that makes me want to review it – an impulse that is evidently shared by every other reader, judging by the number of people weighing in on the discussion. This essay is explicitly not a review, and yet I find myself repeatedly deleting sections that are in fact just that. It’s a powerful urge. For example, of this passage:
Eliza and Ezra rolled together into the one giggling snowball of full-figured copulation, screaming and shouting as … Eliza’s breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra’s howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone.
I desperately want to say that it’s both horrible and glorious. Horrible in its craft (is ‘otherwise central zone’ not just the worst euphemism for ‘vagina’ ever? And should a penis ever be a ‘salutation’?) but glorious, in that it makes me want to talk about writing.
This is the greatest service Morrissey’s novel provides: it generates and drives discussion about writing. That is, discussion about what writing is and ought to be and, perhaps more so in the case of List of the Lost, about what writing isn’t. (And what is a discussion of what writing isn’t, other than a discussion of what writing is, by inversion?) Bad writing in published form (that is, published by a reputable company), is rarely seen. You can find poor-to-mediocre, overwritten material if you enrol in an undergraduate creative writing course (easiest done, I’ve found, by reading my own contribution). Or if you are fortunate, you might get to read the first draft of a talented writer whose process requires the evacuation of a turd before it can be polished. But rarely does the discussion of poor writing go public. Rarely is there such a visible anti-exemplar to latch on to. And if there is something that nascent writers desperately need, it is any public discussion about writing. (I can’t help but think of the oxygen infused into the New Zealand literary scene when John Key publicly dismissed Eleanor Catton’s political validity on the basis that she was merely a ‘fictional writer.’ I waited for her tweet saying ‘I’m real! I’m real!’—but to her credit it never came.)
Ed Cumming says that ‘publishers need to reassure us that their judgment is still valuable.’ So is Penguin’s judgment valuable? The question has a straightforward answer, requiring only the simplest of thought experiments. Is there any mainstream publisher out there who would have turned Morrissey’s novel down? Who would look that particular gift horse in the mouth? Make use of Morrissey, make money from Morrissey, and go looking for a prizewinner to balance out the ledger. I would have grave doubts about Penguin’s judgment if they had opted not to publish List of the Lost.
I find it wonderful, and a little ironic (given the ease with which Morrissey was published and the difficulty nascent novelists face), that the publication of Morrissey’s ‘dreadful debut novel’ might, both directly and indirectly, give greater voice to one particular nascent writer. That is, me. My defence of List of the Lost’s publication here has itself led me to write – and all writers must write, even very nascent ones. This must be to my benefit. And even more so: if I am audacious enough to assume that this piece will be picked up for publication, well, I might get a little exposure, and I might ascend a little more above the treeline. And I will have to thank Morrissey, and those spineless mandarins at Penguin, for publishing his ‘unpolished turd’. His saleable shit.