January 27, 2005

The Most Innovative Novel by a Best-Selling American Author Is Not Available in English

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Robert Fulghum's All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten came out of left field in the late 1980s to dominate bestseller lists around the world like no other non-ficton book in memory. It was so successful that, at one point, it was number one on the Times' bestseller list in hardcover and in paperback with his second book, It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It occupying the second slot on the hardcover list. A perfect publishing trifecta.

Over the years, Fulghum came out with many more books -- all in the vein of plain-spoken stories from life that held deeper and universal meanings; a philosophy of Everyman, if you will. Their appeal reached across linguistic and cultural boundaries and sold tens of millions of copies in dozens of languages. They continue to sell to this day.

For reasons that I won't go into here, -- but may tell another time -- I've watched this publishing phenomenon from a unique, somewhat inside, perspective. Suffice it to say that for Fulghum and everyone else involved it was, for ten years, a wild ride. A ride that might have continued, as these publishing things do, for many more years except for one wild card in the equation, Robert Fulghum.

Fulghum is one of those rare individuals that you meet in life that are best described as: "A man who is himself." There's nothing in him that is derivative of others. Besides being a writer, Fulghum is also a painter, a sculptor, a Unitarian minister, a man who knows his whiskey and cigars, and his way around a poker table. He also plays a mean mandocello. For ten years he was in great demand as a speaker, and he still is. But there was a point at which he decided, against all advice to the contrary from the traditional publishing types in his karass, that he was tired of being "Captain Kindergarten," and he just folded up the tent and walked away.

He walked away and did the one thing a successful best-selling author of short inspiring essays about life should never, ever do: he wrote a novel.

But he did not write a novel that looked like or felt like or read like any novel you have ever read. It was a "Novel-In-A-Box." Take a look. Take a long look.Take a very long look at the photographs of this work. And then come back. I'll wait here.

Robert Fulghum New Novel - Introduction

My novel, Third Wish, began as a what-if? adventure. More than anything else, I'm a storyteller by trade. But my stories have always been short. Could I write a really long story? Why not? Commercial publication was not my original goal. I wanted to write a book I would want to read - one I would want to keep and read again - one that was a product of a life I would have to live to write it. A keepsake. If there was only one copy, so be it.

They say that the novel is a mature art form. They say that, aside from tone and subject, nothing new can be done with it. But here's a novel that incorporates artifacts, music, color journals, illustrations, and even more. A novel that comes with a selection of objects that have meaning in the warp and the woof of the story, that operate as talismans. This is clearly something new in the realm of the novel. Something so startling that it takes your breath away to see it.

You would think that American book-publishing, given a chance to innovate, and working with an author who has tens of millions of readers around the world, would jump at the chance to publish this in some form or another. And you would be dead wrong.

You'd be wrong because you fail to comprehend just how deep into American publishing the creative brain rot goes. When this book was "offered" to American publishers not one could even begin to imagine how it could be done, and not one could even bring themselves to take a flyer on finding out how it could be done. Every single one of them, as well as an agent or two, passed. Were they right?

Of course not. They were wrong. They were, as most are, utterly unimaginative, uninformed, and stupefied. They were strapped to a profit and loss spreadsheet and with no vision of how to produce such a book. And it is not really hard to do. Believe me because I've done it. It is just that, in truth, the American trade book publishing industry has, over the past few decades, managed to push out the innovators and suck in the factory-workers when it comes to staffing their editorial offices.

So what happened to this book that was "impossible to publish?" It found its way to Czechoslovakia where, in short order, they came up with a version of it -- I have a copy on my desk right now -- that incorporates most of the elements of the Novel In A Box -- the music, the color journal pages and all the other elements that make this a Novel as Jazz.

The Czechs made it and produced it as if it were no big deal, and to them it wasn't. And what happened to it?

Well, in a country where a sale of 5,000 copies is a big deal, the Fulghum novel is now at 50,000 copies and heading up. And it doesn't stop there:

My novel has been astonishingly well received in Czech, and is soon to be published in Polish, Hungarian, and Slovakian, with German and Spanish in line after the second volume is published in Czech this fall. Emphasizing what I've said about changes in the EU, there may be an English-language Europe-only edition. "When in English here?" you ask. In due time – I'm having too much fun focusing on European publishing now.
-- Robert Fulghum
"In due time..." Yes indeed. In due time, someone in American publishing will wake up notice that Fulghum's 'experimental' novel isn't all that experimental. They'll think, "Hey, maybe we should do it here." And then they'll think, "If only we could get him to cut out all those color plates and scores of sheet music... then we could make some money."

Will he? Not in a hundred years. It wouldn't be the same book. It wouldn't even be a book.

And Fulghum, being a man who is himself, is not a man of foolish compromises.

There's a lesson here for artists and writers of every age and inclination in America. And that lesson is "Write locally. Publish globally." American book publishing is in the final stages of bitter decadence and it won't get better until it goes completely to the bottom.

In the meantime, here's what an aspiring writer might expect should he be published in Czechoslovakia:

Fulghum: "I was signing books for three hours in Prague. The line stretched out the door and around the corner of the street. Hundreds of people showed up. When I'd finished my publisher came up to me and handed me a copy of my book. 'This is your copy,' he said. I said, 'I've already got plenty of copies. 'Not like this one,' he said. I opened it up. He'd gone down the line and gotten everyone waiting for my signature to sign a copy of my book for me."
Like I said, "Write locally. Publish globally."

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Posted by Vanderleun at January 27, 2005 9:18 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

And I'll bet grandma ain't goin' to no disco in this book, either.

Posted by: ccwbass at January 23, 2005 1:07 PM

And I wondered why I keep re-reading novels published thirty years ago...

Posted by: P.A. Breault at January 23, 2005 4:07 PM

I can't believe no American publisher couldn't see what a huge hit this could be. Amazing story, Now I'm really dying to read it.

Posted by: Jille at January 23, 2005 7:37 PM

I'd never heard of his novel. Now I'm dying to own it. Of course, that won't happen.

Another writer who designs or helps design his own books is William Vollman (CoTangent Press). Beautiful, and "too expensive" for a "real" publisher to put out.

And there's Visionaire "magazine," which is always a pleasure to look at.

FEH on the bottom line, I say!

Posted by: growler at January 27, 2005 12:42 PM

When the English language version is published in Europe, please provide an internet source so that those of us interested can order it. If nothing else, suggest to your friend that someone should get onto eBay in England and offer the book there for purchase.
When you can order a DVD from Hong Kong or China and have it in hand in ten days anywhere in the US perhaps it's also time to rethink how books are distributed.

Posted by: FastNed at January 31, 2005 5:07 PM

Just a message to the author of this article: Book "Third Wish" has been published in Czech Republic. Czechoslovakia doesn't exist for more than 12 years...

Posted by: Katarina (Slovakia) at May 5, 2005 2:01 PM

An updated version has a cd of songs sung by American Singer/Songwriter Cosy Sheridan.
I can't wait to get a copy. I was at the studio when Cosy was singing the songs and got to speak very briefly with Mr. Fulghum.

Posted by: Paul Bellefeuille at August 6, 2007 4:42 PM

I'm glad to see I'm not the only visitor to your two-year-old post. I'm even more glad the link is still alive.

That's more than can be said of past links to the elusive Mr. Fulghum. He makes being a fan more challenging than most creative people. But I think he's putting together a corpus of work that will reach mammoth proportions before he's done.

I thought about him this morning as I listened to a radio program about Asperger's Syndrome. Hmm...Who knows? The list includes names such as Einstein, Thomas Jefferson and Michaelangelo.

Posted by: Hootsbuddy at September 15, 2007 6:27 AM