Saturday 30 July 2011

Devouring Books: Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters by John Steinbeck

Before I begin talking about this book, I want to firstly tell you what I think of the publication of people's journals after they die. Basically, while it can probably give you some insight into their state of mind at the most creative points in their lives, it's also the kind of writing that no one was ever meant to see, and is an invasion of privacy that the writer is unable to defend themselves from, or to protest against in any way. When Kurt Cobain had one of his journals stolen while he was still alive, he said that it was like being raped. The fact that Courtney Love then allowed his journals to be published after his death makes me want to throw up just a little bit, especially when one considers his feelings on other people reading his innermost thoughts. Even if you think that post-death publication of journals is pretty much a victimless crime (the only victims being dead, and probably not caring all that much) then consider this- would you want someone else reading your journal? I can't even tell you how excruciating I would find that, especially because most of the things I've written in there I don't even feel or believe anymore. People live and learn and move on, and journals represent only a frozen moment in time that is not representative of a person as a whole.

Now. Having said all that, the 'Journal of a Novel' title here is slightly misleading, since it is in the form of letters to Steinbeck's editor Pascal Covici, meaning that it was always meant to be read by someone else, and, frankly, is Covici's property as much as Steinbeck's to do with it what he pleased. Fortunately for us Steinbeckphiles (can that please be a new word? Because it's sort of awesome), the thing that he chose to do was publish the letters/journal, and they provide a fascinating insight into what goes into writing a novel. It is so thrilling to see Steinbeck saying things like this was the book that he was always preparing to write, and it's wonderful to see the growth of East of Eden, from a mere idea, to an actual physical book.

It's difficult to criticise this book because, firstly, it wasn't really meant for publication, so how can one blame Steinbeck for not being interesting enough; and secondly because there's not really anything to complain about- these are his days, as he saw them, and this is the way he wrote East of Eden- slowly, steadily, and tightly controlled. I'm not going to pretend that it is the finest written journal ever- things like his talking about his weight and what his wife was doing that day are not necessarily that interesting, but what they are is undeniably human. What this journal does, then, is bring the author back down to earth, making him a person rather than a legend, and giving a very realistic idea of what it takes to write a novel- the emotional and physical determination, and the mental concentration that one must have to put words on paper.

The best thing about this book was the way you could see East of Eden being crafted and really coming along, and the way Steinbeck described the book as being separate from himself, something which he gently had to bring into being, rather than it being a product entirely of himself. As well as that, there is a lot of insight into writing, into the ideas of good and evil, and also a bit more discussion about some of the themes and ideas presented in East of Eden itself. It's not the fastest read, but it is well worth the effort to get through it, and I think you'll really like Steinbeck as a person- I already knew that I did having read A Life in Letters, and this book only reaffirmed that. Here is just one example of the insight that Steinbeck offers us in this book:
"Writing is a very silly business at best. There is a certain ridiculousness about putting down a picture of a life. And to add to the joke-one must withdraw for a time from life in order to set down that picture. And third one must distort one's own way of life in order in some sense to simulate the normal in other lives. Having gone through all this nonsense, what emerges may well be the palest of reflections. Oh! it's a real horse's ass business. The mountain labours and groans and strains and the tiniest of rodents comes out. And the greatest foolishness of all lies in the fact that to do it at all, the writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true. If he does not, the work is not worth even what it might otherwise have been."
Seriously, this is how the guy writes even in his journal. If you have never read a Steinbeck book, imagine how good that could be! But anyway, the insight into the mind of a writer is really invaluable, and I think this book is worth reading just for that. Even if it takes you months to get through (ahem... look, I really like fiction, ok?) it's definitely worth a read if you're at all interested in what it takes to write a novel and how the writer thinks. You might just want to get it from a library though, because at 182 pages for £9 (about $15) I'm not sure even insight is worth that much. I got mine for my birthday, mind you, so I can't say I really mind family members paying that kind of money for a teeny book. That's just how I roll...


  1. Sounds interesting, but would one need to have read East of Eden for it to make sense?

  2. It definitely helps to have read East of Eden (and I would recommend that anyway!) but I think it would still make sense outside of the novel, in that it's sort of about the process of writing and what goes on inside the mind of a writer, rather than explicitly about East of Eden.

  3. Great review and great quote from Steinbeck. So true, a "real horse's ass business." It must've been wonderful for Steinbeck to have someone to talk to about the book as it emerged. Interesting thoughts about journals, too. So no one's journals should ever be published? Is there a time limit? If you've been dead for so long, is it okay for people to read your journal?

  4. I love Steinbeck. I didn't realise he had letters from the time he was writing East of Eden published. It's one of my favourite books so I think I am going to have to add this to my tr list. Great review.

    I have to admit that I have double standards when it comes to journals being published. I do think that if the individual has stated that they don't want them to be published then that should be respected. However, if it was someone I admired and they were published I would probably read it. I would probably feel a little guilty doing it mind you.