Jonathan Livingston Who?

Here’s a name that should strike fear into the heart of every novelist.

James Gould Cozzens.

Not trembling? That’s because you’ve never heard of him, which is why you should be. In 1948, Cozzens won the Pulitzer Prize for Guard of Honor, and he had the best-selling novel of 1957, By Love Possessed. That’s not all that long ago. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Spend some time with this list of the best-selling books of the twentieth century and be awed and appalled by how many of these writers you’ve never heard of.

You know, it’s no secret that writing a novel is hard work, even when you use the very latest tools, like the Cone of Likelihood. Still, many, many people do it, which means competition for you, the aspiring novelist. If your goal is the immortality that comes from writing a novel which will be read down through the ages, you might want to consider other routes to the same destination.

For example, the world’s largest ball of twine. Thousands of novels are written every year, but how many people out there burn with the desire to ascend the twiney heights? Not many, that’s how many. Right now, in Darwin, Minnesota, Cawker City, Kansas, and Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin, the three largest balls of twine in the world sit waiting, knowing that some day, the cocky kid with a faster draw is going to walk into the saloon. That kid could be you, if you have the ball.

And what do we learn from James Gould Cozzens and balls of twine? That anyone who tells you that nineteenth century literature is better than contemporary literature, that the great books are all in the past, that the quality of the entire culture has steadily declined, is an idiot is perhaps considering things from a limited perspective. Over time the crap falls away, and the further away you’re standing, the better the landscape looks.

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