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...