Archive for the ‘From the literary critics’ Category

Contact: Missouri State University Office for Diversity and Inclusion
Email: DiversityandInclusion@MissouriState.edu
Telephone: 417-836-3736

A Springfield History of Race and Faith:
A Reading and Panel Discussion Featuring Novelist Steve Yates
With a Special Dance Performance by God’s Chosen Ministry (MSU’s Student Praise Ministry Group)
7:00-8:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 25
In the Historic Fox Theatre of The History Museum on the Square
157 Park Central Square, Springfield Mo.

Pre-Event Tours
5:00-6:00 Guided History Shuttle-Tour of Downtown Springfield by John Sellars
(limited seating, so come early): shuttle leaves from Carrington Circle Shuttle Stop at 5:00 p.m.
6:00-7:00 Tour by John Sellars of the History Museum Exhibition, “‘We’ve Always been Here’:
Stories of the African American Community in Greene County.”

The Teeth of the Souls (Moon City Press 2015)

The Teeth of the Souls (Moon City Press 2015)

Following a 7:00 p.m. performance by the MSU student praise dance troupe, God’s Chosen Ministry, acclaimed novelist Steve Yates will read from his newly-published novel, The Teeth of the Souls (Springfield: Moon City, 2015). Yates’s novel tells of the growth of early Springfield from the aftermath of Civil War through the 1906 Easter lynchings on the town square. The narrative unfolds through the eyes of Leighton Morkan, an Irish Catholic quarryman, his German Lutheran wife, Patricia, and Leighton’s former slave (and lover), the African-American Judith.

A panel discussion (with audience Q&A) will follow. James Braun, a community advocate for social justice, will serve as moderator.

The panelists and their topics:

Bishop David Knox, Jr., Pastor of Deliverance Temple: “My Forty Years in Springfield Ministry: How Far Have We Come?”

Dr. Mara Cohen Ioannides, MSU Senior Instructor of English: “The Founding of Springfield’s First Jewish Congregation.”

Bailey C. Wiles, MSU Senior Religious Studies Major: “Encountering Faith Diversity: A Look at Local Buddhist Culture.”

John Sellars, Executive Director, The History Museum on the Square: “Understanding Springfield through Its History.”

After the Q&A, Steve Yates will autograph copies of his novel.

For shuttle service from campus: take the MSU shuttle “gold line” to the Park Central Office Building (south of the Fox Theatre).

“A Springfield History of Race and Faith” is co-sponsored by The Greater Springfield Race and Faith Collaborative, The Missouri State University Division of Diversity and Inclusion, The History Museum on the Square, Hillel of Southwest Missouri, God’s Chosen Ministry, Moon City Press, the MSU Department of English, and the Ozarks Chapter of the Missouri Center for the Book.

The evening’s events are being coordinated by Dr. Kenneth Coopwood, MSU Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion, Dr. Sabrina Brinson, MSU Diversity Fellow and Professor of Education, Dr. James S. Baumlin, Distinguished Professor of English, and John Sellars of The History Museum.

Admission for the evening is free and the event is open to the public.

For further information, email DiversityandInclusion@MissouriState.edu or telephone 417-836-3736.

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Curiosity’s Cats: Writers on Research

Edited by Bruce Joshua Miller


“Each morning I would strike out for this temple of learning in the crisp autumn air . . . with a sense of purpose and the conviction that this was where I belonged.”—Marilyn Stasio from Your Research—or Your Life

            Inspired partly by Richard Altick’s The Scholar Adventurers, the fourteen writers in Curiosity’s Cats offer powerful arguments for the value of hands-on research, be it chasing documents, cracking mysteries, interviewing long-lost subjects, or visiting exotic and not-so-exotic locales.

Available from Minnesota Historical Society Press and better bookstores in April 2014





            Bruce Joshua Miller



Stay Here as Long as You Like

            Ali Selim


Ali Selim is a writer and director of television commercials, documentaries, music videos, and the Independent Spirit Award–winning film Sweet Land, named one of the Ten Best Films of 2006 by over a dozen critics. Recently, he has directed episodic television for HBO and CBS. A native Minnesotan, he now resides in Los Angeles and no longer shovels snow.



To Understand You Must Break In

            Steve Yates


Steve Yates is the author of Morkan’s Quarry (Moon City Press, 2010). The Missouri Review has thrice featured excerpts from that novel and its sequel, The Teeth of the Souls, forthcoming in 2015 from Moon City Press. Pieces of both novels have also appeared in Ontario Review, South Carolina Review, Kansas Quarterly/Arkansas Review, and Elder Mountain: A Journal of Ozarks Studies. Yates is the winner of the 2012 Juniper Prize in Fiction, and the University of Massachusetts Press published his collection Some Kinds of Love: Stories in 2013. Richard Russo and the editors of Best American Short Stories distinguished one of his pieces among the Notable Stories of 2009. Yates is assistant director/marketing director at University Press of Mississippi and lives in Flowood with his wife, Tammy.



Dating Albert Einstein

            Alberto A. Martínez


Alberto A. Martínez is the author of four books, including Science Secrets: The Truth about Darwin’s Finches, Einstein’s Wife, and Other Myths (2011). He was born and raised in Puerto Rico. He earned his PhD in history of physics at the University of Minnesota while he lived in Dinkytown and worked at Vescio’s Italian restaurant. He now teaches history of science at the University of Texas at Austin. Although he is often sidetracked by interesting things, he prefers to work on important things. He also prefers cats over dogs, because dogs stare and drool. His favorite dogs are pretzel dogs.



Research Can Be Murder

            Katherine Hall Page


Katherine Hall Page is the author of twenty-one adult mysteries in the Faith Fairchild series and five for younger readers. She received the Agatha for Best First (The Body in the Belfry), Best Novel (The Body in the Snowdrift), and Best Short Story (The Would-Be Widower). She has been nominated for the Edgar, the Mary Higgins Clark Award, the Macavity, and the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She has also published a series cookbook, Have Faith in Your Kitchen, and Small Plates, a collection of short mystery fiction. A native of New Jersey, she lives in Massachusetts and Maine with her husband.



He Liked Custard

            Margot Livesey


Margot Livesey grew up in Scotland and has taught at several American colleges and universities, including the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the Warren Wilson MFA program, Brandeis University, and Bowdoin College. She is the author of a collection of stories and seven novels, including Eva Moves the Furniture and, most recently, The Flight of Gemma Hardy. She now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and teaches at Emerson College.



Prospecting the Past

            Theodore Kornweibel, Jr.


Theodore Kornweibel’s latest book is Railroads in the African American Experience: A Photographic Journey, which won the Hilton Prize for best railroad book published in 2011. After earning undergraduate and master’s degrees in history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Kornweibel earned his PhD in American studies at Yale. He is retired from a thirty-six-year career teaching African American history, the last twenty-nine at San Diego State University.



A Good Turn Every Day: A Boy in Duluth in 1926

            Bruce White


Bruce White is a historian and anthropologist who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the author of two award-winning books, We Are at Home: Pictures of the Ojibwe People and Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota (with Gwen Westerman). He has researched and written widely in the field of the Native and early European history of the Great Lakes region, subjects on which he works as a consultant for Native communities and government agencies through his firm, Turnstone Historical Research.



Curious Encounters in My Search for Vinland

            Annette Kolodny


Annette Kolodny completed her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1969 and has since become an internationally award-winning scholar in American literary and cultural studies. She is currently professor emerita at the University of Arizona, where she previously served as dean of the College of Humanities. Among her most important books are The Lay of the Land (1975), The Land Before Her (1984), and Failing the Future: A Dean Looks at Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century (1998). Her most recent work concentrates on Native American literatures and early transnational contacts with the Americas.




Comanches, Cowboys, and a Political Rock Star

            Jan Reid


Jan Reid won the Texas Institute of Letters’ lifetime achievement award in 2014. Let the People In was honored as the book of the year in 2012 by the Texas State Historical Association, and the Houston Chronicle rated it one of the ten best nonfiction books published in the United States that year. His novel Comanche Sundown won the Texas Institute of Letters’ 2011 award for best fiction, an honor whose previous winners include Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, and Katherine Anne Porter. Reid is nearing completion of his thirteenth book and third novel, Sins of the Younger Sons. He lives in Austin with his wife, Dorothy Browne, and their collie, Gus.


The Mad Bomber Guy

            Bruce Joshua Miller


Bruce Joshua Miller has edited two books and written for public radio, the Chicago Tribune, and other publications. He has worked in the book industry for thirty-five years.



Pilgrim Voices: Puritans, Immigrants, and Historical Research

            Philip J. Anderson


Philip J. Anderson is professor emeritus of church history at North Park University in Chicago, where he has taught since 1979. Since 1989 he has served as president of the Swedish-American Historical Society, also chairing its publications committee. His published writings have included studies in British, American, and Swedish American religious history and culture. He lives with his wife, Karna, in Hovland and Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota.



An Essayist’s Guide to Research and Family Life

            Ned Stuckey-French


Ned Stuckey-French teaches at Florida State University and is the author of The American Essay in the American Century, coeditor of Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time, coauthor of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, and book review editor of Fourth Genre. His essays have appeared in magazines such as In These TimesThe Normal School, Tri-Quarterly, culturefrontGuernica, and middlebrow and have been listed five times among the notable essays of the year in Best American Essays.


Your Research—or Your Life!

            Marilyn Stasio


Marilyn Stasio is the Broadway theater critic for Variety, a columnist with the New York Times Book Review, and the author of several books. 


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[March 22, 2013, I’ll be on a panel at the Missouri Conference on History in Cape Girardeau put on by the State Historical Society of Missouri. A double honor, in that all through graduate school and my stint at University of Arkansas Press I was a subscriber and devoted reader of the Missouri Historical Review, the society’s journal of record, and was much informed by that reading. Second, I’m really honored to be on a panel with fellow novelist Steve Wiegenstein and writer Jim Erwin. It’s my understanding that this panel will be a Q&A format, so likely my thinking on “The Uses, Misuses, and Boundaries of History in Fiction about Missouri’s Civil War” will never be expressed in one utterance like this below. But I’ll put it all down here not because I think it’s so golden and worthy, but so that I might remember what I think I know.]

The painting THE FORGE (La fragua) by Spanish painter GOYA.What I say here I would never pass off as advice to other writers or vainly insist as THE one way, THE one set of rules to write fiction set in the past or set in a time before the writer was alive. All works that hope to be considered literary fiction (hereafter “attempted literary fiction”) operate under only two rules, and consubstantially two purposes: 1) entertainment; and 2) empathy. There are no other universal rules and really no other rules particular to any piece of attempted literary fiction save those dictated by the requirement to finish the writing of the work. Each short story, novella, or novel, each seamless dream of fiction dictates its own ground rules from its first sentence onward, in ways similar to Maurice Halbwachs lovely sayings about memory: “The dream is based only upon itself, whereas our recollections depend on those of all our fellows, and on the great frameworks of the memory of society.”

Aside from science fiction, and maybe some very annoying fictions written in second person, present tense (“You pick up the hammer. You mash your thumb with it.”) fiction is all set in the past. Think about it. The Great Gatsby was published in 1925. What’s it about? Events in 1922. Was F. Scott Fitzgerald writing historical fiction, then? Of a sort, yes. As E.L. Doctorow said, all fiction is historical. It is all about the human heart in conflict with forces some time ago.

And, I have no advice or much feeling for any kind of fiction outside literary fiction. And by that I mean the novelists and fiction writers that I hold dear on my shelf and defend—Fielding, Sterne, Chekhov, Babel, Tolstoy, Hardy, Crane, Twain, Fitzgerald, Joseph Roth, Evan S. Connell, Donald Harington, Daniel Woodrell, and the like. When I say attempted literary fiction is what I write, I mean that my fiction is written because I read and reread those novelists and was compelled by the forms and choices of these great predecessors. But I am not the one to declare something I write “literature.” That would be ridiculous. That declaration happens only if, when I am dead, people are still reading and talking about what I have written, and even more important writing something because of it. So for now, the best I can claim is attempted literary fiction.

I did find a reading of the old Marxist critic Georg Lukács’s The Historical Novel very useful to my understanding of what I had done and what I had not done in Morkan’s Quarry and what I am still doing in the fictions in Some Kinds of Love: Stories. Lukács, writing about what he considers the first “historical novelist” Sir Walter Scott, claims that Scott’s great innovation was to write not about the mighty, epic men of history, but instead about the middling men to whom great sweeps of history happen, ideal reader’s ambassadors in that these protagonists may be pulled to all sides of a historical conflict.

There is, especially in America and Great Britain, a bestselling kind of historical fiction, one that is almost always centered upon what Lukács would call “the world historical figure,” be it protagonists such as King Arthur, or Napoleon Bonaparte, or Robert E. Lee. This is The Epic Historical Novel, a novel in which all main characters are outsized, Achilles-scale, major players of history. Most often there is no reader’s ambassador here, no single protagonist to focus upon, as there would be in say Scott’s Waverley or Heart of Midlothian. The narrative vision in the Epic Historical Novel can range from the sweep of continents to the creases beside Robert E. Lee’s tired eyes. Historical accuracy in this kind of fiction is lifeblood: the course of the narrative follows history closely, and the fiction’s purpose is frequently to give some feeling and emotional flicker to the actions of the great makers of history while at the same time affirming legend held dear in a people’s collective memory, the great frameworks of the memory of society. Especially for an American market that hungers for nonfiction learning and strongly prefers prose to poetry, these creations seem to me rather like attempts at national epics. See Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels or the ongoing, entertaining, and worthy franchise now run by his son, Jeffrey.

I find some of these novels rousing and enjoyable, but I am too dumb and too cynical and jaded about power and its usury of nobodies like me to find any empathy in these books. More important, I am brought no closer to an understanding of another human soul in these books. And so, while often superbly written and immaculately constructed, these are not books I could ever emulate, certainly being too stupid to know how, and even more certainly not caring about what I was doing long enough to keep writing if an epic historical or military historical novel were the project.

Maybe I can open up, unpack if you will what I mean about middling characters and empathy, and get us a little closer to what I mean about fiction’s responsibility to history, if there even is such an encumbrance as that dictated outside the particular rules of the piece during its creation. Let’s look at two paintings. Both of these were painted within the same historical period and both of them involve the world historical figure, Napoleon Bonaparte.

napoleon-crossing-the-alps-by-jacques-louis-davidFirst is a painting by a painter much picked upon, Jacques Louis David. This is “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” one of many extraordinary paintings David created of and for his Emperor. Now some of us know the backstory—young Napoleon did not cross the Alps on a white charger, but upon a steed more like one of the artillery ponies or mules laboring in the background. So in history Napoleon crossed the Alps much as Balaam rode in the Bible, upon his ass. But even this purposeful inaccuracy of David’s is helpful to my metaphor of what the epic historical novel tends to do. Through an amassing of seemingly and astutely accurate details, and through the focus upon the world historical figure, the artist may affirm and in this case shape the great framework of the memory of society.

But we, the viewer, we don’t get anywhere near the human heart of another. I am roused by this painting, delighted by its blaring majesty, its density of detail and its technique. But is it a work of art involving the human heart in conflict? I see only purpose here, the drive to conquer, subjugate, and rule. And I see the creation of the cult of the great man. I see an enthralling painting and the mighty brushstrokes along the great frameworks of the memory of a society, a memory, a framework busy justifying mastery under one ruling individual, and an artful attempt at justifying an epic release of destruction and bloodshed in his name.

may_3rdSecond is a painting that along with works of Gustav Courbet I count among the greatest works of art ever created. This is Goya’s “The Third of May 1808.” This scene transpires because of the epic, great man in the previous painting. In this painting, Spanish Bonapartists are busy demonstrating the greatness of Napoleon. Vive le Emperor, baby. But who are these people? Spaniards, likely most all of them Spaniards. Catholics some of them. Spanish Catholic subjects of the once King of Spain. But neither they nor the soldiers doing the killing are men of renown. These are monks and peasants. Middling commoners. My kind of people. Surely the historical details here are more or less accurate. Nothing I see pulls me out of the seamless dream now turned nightmare.

But the history and its details are hardly what’s important. This painting still changes people’s lives, changes how they see, and they don’t need to know anything, really, about the history of this moment to experience that jolting, synaptic circuit of shared recognition and empathy with someone totally unlike themselves. Look at the man in Baptismal white, the expression, the passive, Saintly, Christ-like defiance. But wait … Goya will turn even that great narrative on its end. Based on the already dead around him, this looks to be no renowned martyrdom coming for him. He is no hero. He is about to become an anonymous carcass among the forgotten. These are the deeds done outside of town, in the dark, done by shameful men who cannot face the viewer. This is Goya painter of another great commoner’s painting “The Forge.” When before Goya did a line of warriors ever hide their faces in a painting? When before Goya did warriors and heroes operate at night, and operate so expertly and purposefully in the dark that they carry a terrible lantern like the one here that gives this ghastly blaring yellow of cowardice to the grim action in the painting?

Now did this exact scene happen? We don’t know. Who are these Bonapartists, these murderous soldiers? Significantly, we don’t know. But we do know men such as the monk, or the man in white, or the tensed little mason there with his fist raised. Or the poor deceased men. And some of us may know men or may have been men operating under shameful orders and doing the terrible work of the mighty, epic men of history. There in “The Third of May” is the human heart facing unforgettable horror and conflict. This painting to me says more about what it would really be like to live during the time of Napoleon than David’s work, or Napoleon’s own book The Corsican or any of the many military historical novels or epic historical novels that are still published each year about the Napoleonic wars.

So what is literary fiction’s responsibility to history? That depends entirely upon the individual work of fiction underway, and whether or not the author set out to create an attempted work of literature, a dream that depends only upon itself, or instead an act of epic historical fiction, an expansion upon and an affirmation of the great frameworks of collective memory within a society.

Despite many attempts, no art historian has been able to place and corroborate Goya’s witness or even near presence to events outside Madrid like what is depicted here, one execution among the many French reprisals after Madrid rose up in rebellion on May 2. And yet, without that witness, without any fanatically meticulous attention to historical “accuracy,” Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes transformed a known moment in his people’s history into a universal and eternally moving encounter with the human soul of others not like us but made corporeally, indelibly kin and accessible to us through great art.

I see no reason for my own fictions, which are attempted literary fictions, to strive to operate in any other way. The dream depends only upon itself.

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Voices of Conflict: The American Civil War from Steven B Yates on Vimeo.

Brentwood Public Library, Monday, April 18: Steve Yates, Dr. William Garrett Piston, and Dr. Randall Fuller talk about the genesis of their books. This vimeo link at http://www.vimeo.com/22632952 will take you to the full lecture and Q&A from Monday night.

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The historical novel of our day, despite the great talent of its best exponents, still suffers in many respects from the remnants of the harmful and still not entirely vanquished legacy of bourgeois decadence.”

I had rather hoped my first novel would be sopping with unvanquished, bourgeois decadence (see defintion of the Historical Romance novel). But, and here’s a contradiction that will confound, I just could not reconcile the emotional truth of the Civil War in Springfield and the Ozarks with a love story, or even a saucy story of heroes and lust. From just July 1861 until Christmas Day that year, five different armies occupied Springfield, and a sixth was on its way. Not long after that Christmas Missouri was, in the words of superb historian William Garrett Piston, plunged “into a savagery with few parallels in American history.” So, despite a literary novel requiring no obeisance to historical accuracy (see definitions), I just couldn’t bring on lots of steamy bed scenes, though there is one after bed scene.

To spite Lukács, I promise the sequel will be roaring with Love, O Careless Love.

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Reading Georg Lukács The Historical Novel, I think I’m finding one source of the chafing between the writer of fiction set in the past and the historian. In his chapter on “The Classical Form of the Historical Novel” Lukács praises Sir Walter Scott as the original and in some ways the greatest historical novelist. From Waverley onward, Scott chose middle-of-the-road, “mediocre” main characters, capable of fighting for or against and being touched by all sides of a past conflict.

In Scott’s life-work we find marvellous scenes and characters from the life of serfs and free peasants, from the fortunes of society’s outlaws, the smugglers, robbers, and professional soldiers, deserters and so on. Yet it is in his unforgettable portrayal of the survivals of gentile society, the Scottish clans where the poetry of his portrayal of past life chiefly lies.”

Lukács continues, saying that Scott was first to portray the everyday life of run-of-the-mill nobility, not the great heroes and kings making decisions and leading armies, but the people living with the “great” ideas, fighting at the forlorn fronts. “Scott is a giant discoverer and awakener of this long vanished past.”

Scott’s contemporaries and near contemporaries thought a great deal of his work as well. But when Lukács brings in praise for Scott from German poet Heinrich Heine, I think we can spot an irritant to the historian. Heine understood “that the strength of Scott’s writing lay precisely in this presentation of popular life, in the fact that the official big events and great historical figures were not given a central place.” But here’s the friction: Heine says, “Walter Scott’s novels sometimes reproduce the spirit of English history much more faithfully than Hume.”

Uh oh! I think our German romantic poet is planting the flag of literature where it may not be universally appreciated. And worse, Heine rubs it in, streaking right across the treasured turf, laying claim to the attention of a nation’s literate people, the attention for which both historian and novelist compete. Lukács quotes Heine:

Strange whim of the people! They demand their history from the hand of a poet and not from the hand of a historian. They demand not a faithful report of bare facts, but those facts dissolved back into the original poetry whence they came.”

Ouch! Now that would chap any historian of the day or the morrow. A salve to the rash: I think American readers largely have turned Heine’s notion on its end. Of this much more later, but I think American male readers especially desire strongly the opposite of Heine’s market characterization from his day. We are a non-fiction consumer, desirous of “just the facts,” with little to no patience for the flights and inventions of a poet or fiction writer.

Above, though, I think we’ve found our first hint of a sore source between the competing parties. Too much Heine!

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In his illuminating chapter, “The Classical Form of the Historical Novel,” Georg Lukács outlines writing strategies that would set the historical novelist at odds with the historian. First Lukács argues that the historical novel makes a major departure from the age-old form, the national epic. In an epic, “Achilles is not only compositionally the central figure of the epic, he is also a head taller than all his fellow actors, he is really the sun round which the planets revolve.” In Waverley, which Lukács identifies as the touchstone historical novel, Walter Scott invents something uniquely different. He creates a middle-of-the-road character as the protagnist, the main character, of his novel. “It is their task,” Lukács says in The Historical Novel, “to bring the extremes whose struggle fills the novel, whose clash expresses artistically a great crisis in society, into contact with one another.”

So Waverley is a country squire swept up in an English civil war, at first mildly sympathetic to one belligerent side, capable of becoming more caught up and fighting bravely. But because he is not a fanatic, he is able to understand, relate to, and bridge the gap to the Hanoverian side of the conflict, and represent largely the status quo, ruling class Englishman navigating a riven kingdom.

This strategy of choosing a “mediocre” character, a chap in the middle, brought a lot of negative criticism Scott’s way. It seemed some readers in his day and after wanted to see him create heroes that were screaming partisans rather than average guys beset by passionately divided combatants.

And the major historical figures, the kings, queens, lords, ladies, and captains of war? In Scott, says Lukács, they are minor characters appearing on stage only when they are about to do something really significant, historic. So readers get to meet them, and then learn what it might have been like to live with their decisions, good or bad, monstrous or angelic. The hero in the classic historical novel is, then, the middle guy, and he has to clean up the giant mess left after the clash of titans.

Aside from the yeoman work of Bell Irvin Wiley’s The Life of Johnny Reb and later The Life of Billy Yank, and some of the sociologically and statistically informed arguments in Michael Fellman’s Inside War, it’s hard to find this mediocre, average guy in a book of American Civil War history. For every book centered on what the average soldier or civilian experienced, we have five and ten books about what Robert E. Lee thought at Gettysburg, not to mention the marching columns of history books about the other titans and partisans of the war.

Note to self, see what publisher will think if in page proof stage we make main character even more “mediocre” by renaming main character Joe Middlemudd. Middlemudd’s Quarry: A Novel in Which an Average Guy is Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Argue that huge cost will be worth it to create a “classic!”

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