Patrick O’Brian’s Travails in the Choppy Seas of Publishing

Dean King’s fine biography of the Master and Commander of the naval epic revealed that even the most talented of historical novelists can suffer the ballast drag sometimes hung on our genre.

Writing in 2000, King made this observation about the early problems O’Brian confronted in getting his books published in America: “Perhaps it was the crossing of genres. It was, and remains, an axiom of publishing that a book needs to fall into a specific, nameable category to sell. Publishers want to know exactly which bookstore shelf a title will be sold on before they will commission it. The Aubrey-Maturin novels were too well written, too nuance-laden, and too challenging to be classified as adventure-genre stories. They certainly weren’t for children or even for any but the most advanced young adults. But could historical fiction, a genre generally shunned by critics and scholars, make it in the literature section? At this point, it look as if the answer was no.”

O’Brian had a fascinating theory regarding writers. He divided them into two categories: storytellers and novelists.

King summed up O’Brian’s view: “Oral storytellers speak primarily of events, O’Brian reasoned, and their characters are revealed by statements and inferences. The storyteller comes at his characters mainly from the outside. On the other hand, the capable novelist has far greater freedom and can come at his characters from the inside, even to the point of presently streams of consciousness.

O’Brian recognized a member of the storytelling lodge when he reviewed Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears for The Washington Post. O’Brian wrote that Clancy was “by nature a storyteller, like those sennachies who used to recite genealogies, history, legends and tales in the great Irish houses.”

O’Brian admired Clancy’s descriptive powers, just as he admired Forester’s, but, he wrote, when Clancy ‘deals with his people from within it seems to me that he is out of his element, that he labors too hard, that he becomes verbose.’”

O’Brian is correct about the tendencies of writers, I think. Yet I’d put it a bit differently. Writers by nature have an inclination toward either the cinematic or the introspective. I see my stories and scenes in my mind’s eye, as if they are being played out against a movie screen.

Other writers are more comfortable inhabiting the heads of their characters and entering their stories through thoughts and interior monologue. Writing is akin to practicing a sport. Like the right-handed basketball player who must devote extra time to practice dribbling with his left hand, the writer must constantly compensate for his weaknesses to prevent his natural tendencies from becoming too dominant.