An image that’s hard to shake

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.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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15 Responses to An image that’s hard to shake

  1. stephenemoss says:

    Steve – this is a topic that interests me, having always felt I’ve got a novel hidden away somewhere inside. But the problem I wrestle with in thinking about a ‘science’ novel is whether, if one is to appeal to ‘broad readership’, it is better to create a group of persuasive characters and construct a tale in which science (life, work etc) forms the background, or to make science itself the focus of the story. I’m sure the latter would be the trickier, but is this something you considered in writing your novel?

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Stephen,

      Truthfully, the science itself is NOT a major element in the novel. Yes, the scenes (or half of them) take place in a scientific setting, but it is all for atmosphere. No one will learn science by reading it; hopefully they will come out of the experience with a feel for the pressures and day-to-day life of a researcher at an academic setting. So, that is part of the reason that I am miffed and somewhat insulted.

      Had I gone on in great detail about protein biochemistry and techniques and the actual science, I could understand the comments. However, there’s none of that. Basically, the reviewer is saying that a protagonist at a research institute is of no interest. Whereas, of course, a lawyer in a law firm, an architect, a businessman, a doctor, a teacher, a writer–all of these would be of interest. I wonder about a chartered accountant? or a lion tamer?

  2. ricardipus says:

    Congratulations on reaching the quarter finals, Steve.

    There’s been plenty of Geek Culture(TM) capturing the public eye (that recent movie The Social Network jumps to mind), but I fear that much of it is driven by the success story. Mark Zuckerberg becomes interesting because he’s created massive social change and become immensely wealthy in the process. Same reasons why people are interested in geeks like Jobs and Gates, or the Google Guys Brin and Page.

    Until we scientists make more earth-shattering discoveries that also result in us becoming fabulously wealthy, as well as helping millions of people in some obvious way (an Alzheimer’s cure would probably do the trick), perhaps lablit is doomed to be of less-than-broad appeal. Maybe it all comes down to “funding” after all.

  3. Steve Caplan says:

    Ricardipus,

    “Maybe it all comes down to “funding” after all.”

    That’s a chilling thought, but perhaps accurate. But as I noted to Stephen just moments ago, almost all literary fiction deals with people, their interactions, thoughts, feelings, etc. As a scientist, I am perfectly happy to read about such people in any setting–in peace, in war, in engineering or architectural firms, in school teaching, in farming.

    As long as the characters and story provide me with insight, the setting doesn’t matter. Sometimes, though, I am particularly happy to have an opportunity to have a window to look in on fields/settings to which otherwise I would never have any exposure.

  4. cromercrox says:

    Steve – 200 copies for a self-published novel is very good work. My own self-published novel By The Sea has only sold thirty-something copies. This was LabLit enough – if only just – for Jenny to have published it as a serial, before I sold it as a book.

    What I found puzzling in the above was the comment that ‘internal warfare at a university’ wouldn’t somehow attract a wide audience. Hadn’t the critic ever heard of David Lodge, C. P. Snow, Malcolm Bradbury and so on? Ah, but here’s the rub – campus novels are almost exclusively about people in the humanities, and because it’s people from the humanities that rool literary fiction, campus novels about science will always be marginalized.

    • Austin says:

      Jane Smiley’s Moo is a campus novel with some scientific characters and plots (esp agricultural sci), though of course that is US, not UK.

      BTW, I remember someone I met from U of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (which has quite a big Ag Sci programme!) telling me they were sure Moo was “inspired” by the U of Iowa.

    • steve caplan says:

      Henry,

      Too bad none of my grandparents are still alive–otherwise I could have sold 1000 by now.

      I did do a pretty aggressive campaign, sending out repeated e-mails to everyone I know or once knew, arriving for grant review panels and handing our bookmarks promoting the novel, and having my final slide at every invited seminar with the cover of the book and info on purchasing. I know that there have been >2500 hits on my website since publication, and 500 people have downloaded a sample chapter. I’m sure it will start to dwindle now, but covering the cost of the graphic design was my only real intention.

      You are correct that internal strife at academic institutes has definitely been published and recognized. David Lodge’s satires are definitely a lot of fun. I can’t remember who wrote a series of novellas called “Publish or Perish”, but they were also of interest. Even Philip Roth’s older work–“My Life as a Man”, deals with academic infighting.

      But even within the sciences, “Properties of Light” and “Intuition” were pretty big sellers.

      Generally, though, you are right about the humanities, as their ranks do control the field of literary fiction.

      I know you have published a number of books, and they are on my list to order soon.

      S.

      • cromercrox says:

        I admire your marketing cojones – good work. Books definitely don’t sell themselves. Have you ever done any Cafe Scientifiques or evening talks or similar?

        I shall have to order your book, though, like Cath, it will join a long list of unread books, including one self-published one, Rad Decision by James Aach – topically, about the doings of the nuclear power industry.

  5. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I’ve bought a copy, but haven’t read it yet – I have a substantial backlog of unread novels!

    Congratulations on reaching the final 250, and best of luck with the next round of judging!

  6. ricardipus says:

    Yup, I’ll order one too. 201 copies and counting. It will, once read, find a place of honour in my office, joining a couple of novels by a certain famous novelist, lablit doyenne, and self-proclaimed rock chick who occasionally frequents this salon.

  7. ricardipus says:

    P.S. I know clicking on your photo top right takes us to your website, but maybe a more explicit link (using, say, a thumbnail of your book’s cover and the text BUY ME!!!!) might be helpful?

    Not sure if this violates Occam’s Typewriter gratuitous self-promotion policies or not, but I’d do it. 🙂

    • steve caplan says:

      Thanks! But selling to OT colleagues smacks of selling boy/girl scout items to the neighbors! So I don’t really want to highlight it any more on OT. I have, however, sent the novel to foundations for bipolar disorder, which is a theme in the book, hoping it might be of interest to them.

      @Henry

      I have done 1 book signing, which was quite successful (in these modest terms), but what’s really helped is the great support from the Public Relations at my institute. They arranged a reading on campus, had a feature on me, and arranged an interview for me with a journalist from the Omaha World Herald. I know that there were spikes in sales after each of these events.

      When I published with CreateSpace, I paid $29 for their “Expanded Distribution Plan”, which I considered to be a myth (the description was very vague). I did this because it allowed me to buy my own copies at a considerable discount, and since I have copies on consignment at a local bookstore and have a box of copies to sell out of the ‘boot’ of my car, this has been worthwhile. Surprisingly, though, I have just received notification of several sales through the expanded distribution to either retailers, academic institutes or libraries. This came through just as “Barnes and Noble” and “Books A Million”, 2 major retailers in the US, now actually carry the novel in their online catalogs.

      Some things never fail to amaze me.

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