Doesn’t Rock, Isn’t NovelBy Art Edwards
March 02, 2014
One of the biggest problems with selling people on the idea of a rock novel is the term “rock novel.” There’s something about the two words that don’t want to go together. In 2014, “rock” suggests teenage boys—or men acting like teenage boys—watching one of their favorite bands on TV and getting excited. “These guys rock,” might be said. The word “rock” as a verb also has become shorthand for anything anyone does well. For example, “Thanks, Bob and Jackie, for inputting those contacts into the spreadsheet. You guys rock.” It seems “rock” can be used across the board for the least rocking things imaginable. As a rock novelist three times over, I can’t say this rocks.
“Novel” is a little less archaic. “Less archaic” is pretty much what “novel” means. “Original or striking” is another way of putting it. Beyond this, the term has always had an elevated sense of worth to me. Novels are written by smart people for other smart people to read. Even pulp thrillers come with some of the prestige of a Jane Austen or Toni Morrison. I’m not claiming the veracity of this any more than I’m claiming it doesn’t rock that Bob and Jackie put all those contacts in the spreadsheet. It’s just what the word conjures. The fact that I’ve been reading a novel pretty much every day for decades no doubt factors into this.
Despite its panache, I’d wager that “novel” is starting to get less novel. In the age of the Internet and digital publishing, when readers often don’t hold a fat copy of Norman Mailer in their hands but instead have it available to them through an eDevice, I feel the term “novel” might have lost some of its prestige. Those yellowing pages, bent covers, cracked spines, coffee stains. The digital revolution offers a more antiseptic book, and for all its bad connotations, antiseptic means clean, which has value. To put it another way: Set a Kindle in front of you next to a paperback novel, and ask a passersby which of the two is more “original and striking.” On second thought, don’t. I don’t want to know the answer.
So we have “rock,” which seemed tired almost from its inception, and “novel,” which, while still carrying credibility, may be on its way out. When we think of “rock novel” in 2014, we’re dealing with something that as a phrase already feels passe. I also feel like the “rock” part of the term is trying to hijack value from “novel.” After all, for much of rock music’s lifespan, the novel was almost anathema—books were for “squares.” And now “rock,” as it’s getting on in years, is having a change of heart, barging in on the term and taking what it wants. It seems the least “rock” could offer “novel” for this is a little mojo in return, but alas, “rock” is old, strung out. “Novel” seems to want nothing to do with it, but here it is, invading its territory, rooting through its refrigerator for its last beer. If ever there was an odd couple, this might be it.
That the two terms add up to something dated is a shame because I feel rock fiction is just starting to raise its mohawked head in literary culture. The rock novel A Visit from the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. Another, Ten Thousand Saints, was one of five New York Times notable novels of that same year. Oddly, I don’t think these were the best rock novels to come out in the last five years. Those honors go to Banned for Life, by Duke Haney, and Stone Arabia, by Dana Spiotta. Each of these books offers characters who are formed at least partly by a rock and roll ethos, which is my only qualification for dubbing something a rock novel. When guitars and sex and drugs are also sprinkled throughout, that doesn’t hurt either.
And that the term rock novel doesn’t rock is doubly a shame because I feel rock fiction could be a boon for the publishing industry, and a welcome new genre for the people who would read it.
First, the industry. If rock fans are one thing, they’re people who are anxious to drop 10s and 20s on albums, concert tickets, T-shirts, magazines, anything that gives them the release that only their connection to rock culture can. Put together a good rock product, tell rock fans how to get it, and they’re usually up for it.
The minor culture war between the rock and lit worlds of forty or so years ago must have rubbed some in publishing the wrong way because writers and editors rarely embrace the music world as a backdrop to their stories. This is unfortunate, because now many of the people who love rock don’t believe fiction has anything to offer them. How could publishing have watched the music industry balloon into the behemoth it was by the late 1990s and not try harder to come along for the ride? I can only guess they hoped it would go away.
In all fairness, publishing has been pretty good about supplying fans with rock nonfiction. Biographies of Elvis (Last Train to Memphis), Neil Young (Shakey) and the Beatles (The Beatles: The Biography) all have been greeted with respectable sales and glowing reviews. Memoirs by rock icons Patti Smith, Bob Dylan and Keith Richards have garnered huge returns and the highest of accolades. And that’s just the literary end of things; the iceberg of more fan-friendly ephemera extends far and wide. Powell’s in Portland has one fifty-foot wall stacked floor to ceiling with rock literature titles. If you want a good book about your favorite band, odds are you can find it.
But almost all of these titles in Powell’s music section are nonfiction. Why such a discrepancy between rock fiction and non-? Can you imagine books about space travel breaking so drastically this way? How about books about sex? Medieval times? If genre fiction makes one thing clear, it’s that readers gravitate toward fiction when subject matter sparks their imaginations. If you fantasize about life on the open prairie in nineteenth century America, you’d probably like westerns. If you daydream about dwarfs and unicorns, the fantasy genre might beckon. If you think too much about having sex with your boss, how about erotica?
I’ve had plenty of fantasies in my life, but a central one for me and most of the people I grew up with was the fantasy of becoming a rock star. No other occupation so clearly exemplified the life of music, sex, and personal and artistic freedom we hoped to achieve. Of course we’re grown up now—and know we won’t be touring with Grand Funk Railroad anytime soon—but we were shaped by this dream, which means we’ll continue to respond to it. Rock fiction could reignite the synapses of a generation grown tired of watching the same classic rock videos on the Internet. To miss this market is to miss a grand opportunity to engage an audience in the way only fiction can, and just as rock fiction titles are getting good.
“So what if the people who love rock don’t gravitate to fiction?” you might ask. Most have managed to live this long without it. They can watch rock movies, go to concerts, buy albums (often the same one as twenty years ago, but a collector’s version), read rock bios, and get their fix that way. What exactly does fiction offer people that these other mediums don’t?
Remember the panache that comes with the term “novel”? Fiction is something most still hold in high regard, and to have your imagination validated by it is empowering. Reading fiction also makes people feel less isolated in a distinct way, and I can’t think of a tribe that has splintered as much as rock music fans over the last twenty years. Whether they’ve married and had children, or are into professions that have nothing to do with music, or are still sitting at the same bar stool they occupied decades ago, nothing much happens to make us feel as one anymore. For those rock fans who love and understand the power of fiction, the rock novel can do that, and it’s out there.
So, “Rock Novel.” The term might be a drag, but the phenomenon is just beginning. (By the way, when did terms like “sci-fi” and “paranormal” become sexier than rock? Have we so willingly given up our mojo to Bill Gates?) Maybe what we really need is a new phrase to describe these books. Tremelo Tales? Les Paul Lit? Backstage Romance? I’m open to suggestions.
Good stuff. You’re still welcome to my idea of the alternate universe in which Jimi and other rock stars lived.
Tim, I will take that idea.
My favorite alternative universe rock novel in my mind starts with the words “Yoko McCartney.”
What a surprise to see that poor orphaned book of mine on the front page of TNB. Feels like old times.
I would “like” this piece if I were still on Facebook, but as you know, I’m not.
We’ll have to discuss this more in depth when you’re in town, but I think fiction itself has lost standing in recent years, not just the novel. Personally I rarely read fiction these days, first because my present project requires a lot of reading of nonfiction, but also it’s very hard for me to find fiction that agrees with me. A lot of it feels formulaic to me, like television writing. Of course people go all sorts of colors (a John Lennon phrase I’ve always liked) whenever I say anything that knocks their beloved television, so I’ll stop here.
In terms of rock & roll as subject matter, I can only say that I had a very romantic view of rock & roll for a long time, though I felt I was realistically romantic about it — that is, I saw the difficulties of being in a band, but there was something wonderful to me even about the difficulties. You know, it was all part of the adventure. Of course I never had much to do in any way with highly successful bands, who didn’t seem nearly as adventurous as the little bands touring in a shitty van, eating awful food, drinking too much, playing for an audience of ten, and squabbling about nonsense because of the tension of touring in a shitty van, eating awful food, etc.
Anyway I can only write about subjects that inspire that sense of romance in me, and I wrote Banned when that sense about rock & roll hadn’t diminished. It’s diminished since, and I think the digital world has a lot to do with it. I don’t find anything romantic about staring at a phone or listening to music with earbuds, though I do it, like everyone else, because it’s convenient. Give me convenience or give me death, sayeth Jello Biafra, when, in a spiritual sense, I think they’re the same.
I’m going to get into trouble if I continue online, so again, I’ll save it for the nineteenth. And thanks, as ever, for the support.
Yeah, the romance is in the eye of the beholder. It seems a necessary state to strap on a guitar and making some noise. That’s why I’ve never understood what the holdup is with rock novels. There’s so much inherent conflict in a rock life, whether it’s happening in homes or hotel rooms or on tour buses or in vans. Sex, drugs, friendships, bad business decisions, jerky band mates, the drama of going from very unimportant to very important and back again, all the interpersonal stuff. I guess I can’t believe there are a thousand of these titles.
See you soon!
Harlan Ellison’s novel Spider Kiss is an entertaining, if pulpy, novel about the rise and fall of rockabilly star Stag Preston. I’m not a historian of the rock novel, but Ellison’s must be one of the earliest entries in the genre. It was originally published as Rockabilly in 1961.
I’ve heard of this title but had managed to forget about it. Not anymore. Into my Powell’s cart with you, Mr. Ellison.