Reading (King) Richard’s blog “Silence is Golden” that addresses his very interesting short story published on LabLit.com, I couldn’t help thinking about an issue that has been bothering me these past couple weeks. Richard’s story occurs in a “lablit” setting—but it transverses the lab and brings up a very real, imaginable and interesting little scenario—that in my humble view would be of interest to anyone who enjoys fiction. The lab setting may hold particular interest for those of us who are scientists or are interested in a scientist’s lifestyle—but the key issue is that it is literature. Period. Full stop.
Back in October 2010, shortly before I became acquainted with the groups of scientists/authors involved online blogging, not long before OT was hatched, I published my first novel. Matter Over Mind was something I dreamed up and actually completed as a graduate student in Jerusalem in 1997. The subject matter definitely falls into the category of lablit although it’s not exclusively about life in the lab (a scientific researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome a traumatic childhood caused by a parent with bipolar disorder).
I realize now that the book certainly could have benefited from some literary editing (although it was very heavily copy-edited and proofed for grammar/spelling). However, I am happy that I made the decision to self-publish; except for real, experienced writers and editor types who have read it and (justifiably) critiqued the writing style, it seems that the vast majority of readers were truly very interested in the book (and blissfully unaware of stylistic issues).
So far, I have probably sold close to 200 copies since publication nearly 6 months ago, and for the most part I have no idea who purchased the novel. Perhaps one quarter of my known readers are scientists—or at least people peripherally connected to science. However, many more readers are friends and/or acquaintances with no relationship to science. My impression is that they were just as interested in the subject matter as the scientists.
Several months ago I entered Matter Over Mind into Amazon’s Breakthrough award for New Authors (ABNA). There were 5000 entrants in the general fiction section. I managed to pass into the second round, where 1000 of the original 5000 entries remained, and then a month later, I was notified that Matter Over Mind was selected to go on to the quarter finals along with 249 other novels from the original 5000. At this point, the ABNA judges (literary critics) uploaded critiques for us aspiring authors. I have included below one of my critiques:
ABNA Expert Reviewer
What is the strongest aspect of this excerpt?
Excellently done introduction to setting of work, the halls of academe, particularly the scientific research labs. Introduction to the hand-to-hand infighting that characterizes the setting. Very well-done introduction to leading characters, narrator Miller, Neal, Smithers, Opera-Singh. Good backstory on narrator, introducing Grandpa Joe, Grandma Sara’s tragic death, chilly prairie city of Regina, narrator’s siblings, Ervin and Cindy, narrator’s missing parents. All done w/underlying good sense of humor. Liked the hints that Miller will soon be concentrating on bi-polar disease, there’s so much of it around.
What aspect needs the most work?
As Miller states in his introductory remarks, most people probably consider scientists to be boring goody goody geeks. Think author is going to have to work hard to come up with a plot that interests a wide audience and keeps them interested. Don’t think internal warfare at university will do it. Don’t know what author has in mind.
What is your overall opinion of this excerpt?
I liked it very much, consider it exceptionally well-done, tho, as above, I don’t know how wide a readership it would attract. Clearly written by a grownup, intelligent man, for other grownup intelligent people, don’t know how many such have time for reading not in their area of concentration.
Initially, I read the critique and was mildly pleased. But upon rereading it, I felt a distinct scientific déjà vu. Could this be the same editor (possibly a friend of (King) Henry, Celebrated Nutritionist and editor at a favorite weekly scientific journal beginning with the letter N) who had dismissed my manuscript without sending it out for review because “although it was good, sound science, well-performed and well-written, and has addressed and resolved important scientific questions, it is not interesting enough for the wide reading audience that frequents our journal?”
Isn’t that almost identical to the critique I was now getting for fiction? Well-done, well-written, unique, but—not interesting enough for MOST of our readers.
How is it that reviewers for my science papers, and reviewers for my fiction have ganged up on me? Is it possible that, like many of us—who do science by day and fiction by night—there are reviewers who review science by day and fiction by night?
And what does this say about the image of scientists? Will we forever be uninteresting Geeks, while books about lawyers, trials, murders and police capture the imagination of the public? While there may be a renaissance of lablit (or possibly not), I am having doubts as to whether the image of scientists has improved much in the eyes of the general public.