Tuesday, October 4, 2016

THE GLASS CHARACTER – Margaret Gunning

Might not be too late to flip The Glass Character from flop to fortune in one fell swoop simply by changing the title to Glass Girl. Sounds cynical, but I like to think it’s more the steak's-sizzle school of salesmanship. Implying of course ultimately one is selling the steak and that unless one is a charlatan one’s steak will live up to its sizzle. And if bacon happens to be the sizzle everyone wants, one perhaps should think twice about pushing steak. The hot sizzle in fiction right now is girl, and it’s been so for several years.

Girls, Girls, Girls: The Buzziest Word in Book Titles” screams the headline in a July 17 Departure article by Elizabeth Siles. Its subhead: “The one word publishers can’t get enough of.” And this June piece in USA Today: “Book publishing goes wild for 'Girls'.” Even The New York Times declares its hip, albeit with more restraint, in this May head: “This Summer, Girls in Titles and Girls in Peril.” Stieg Larsson launched the burgeoning modern craze eight years back with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Four years later came Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, followed in 2015 by Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train. The five biggest U.S. publishers came out with 20 girl books that same year, and the figure has jumped to 30 this.

Margaret Gunning’s The Glass Character hit the bookstores two years ago. It’s barely been reviewed. Not even kicked around by the NYT’s literary executioner Michiko Kakutani. Had girl been in the title I can’t imagine anything stopping it from arriving on Maureen Corrigan’s desk and thence aired on NPR.
Gunning and Lloyd

I trust it’s not too late for the disclaimer: The Glass Character is the only book ever in which I am honored with a dedication. Margaret Gunning, a Canadian author, and I, a Virginia scribbler, have been Internet friends for over a decade. I read an early draft of her novel and offered encouragement during the long arduous months she spent hawking the manuscript to publishers. We rejoiced when Thistledown Press, a boutique house in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, bought the book we’d hoped would be Margaret’s break-out novel. It was her third. The first two—Mallory and Better Than Lifeboth published by small Canadian houses, had received excellent reviews but no widespread marketing. The Glass Character was a more ambitious project, built around the all-but-forgotten silent movie comedian Harold Lloyd. The title refers to his fake signature glasses, which he wore to set himself apart. So why title such a novel as if it’s about a girl? Because it is. You don’t think I’d try to sell you a sizzle without the steak! Here’s the review I wrote after receiving my special copy of The Glass Character:

In case the name doesn't ring a bell, he's the guy with the straw hat and Woody Allen glasses, in the suit, dangling from a clock on the side of a building so far above a busy avenue the cars below look like ladybugs on wheels.

Harold Lloyd.

Movie comedian of the silent 1920s. Called himself the "Glass Character" because his trademark glasses were fake. No glass in them. The guy was a nut. Blew one of his hands to Kingdom Come fiddling with what he thought was a stage prop bomb. It was real. Deliberately gave himself powerful electric shocks to get his hair to stand straight up. Did his own stunts--the clock dangle, the shocked hair, pretending to trip and stagger on building ledges up in the sky, netless--a brave, some would say foolhardy, genius. Nut.

Knowing this and being acrophobic, I can't watch his movies anymore. It even scares me to look at the photos. I'll let Margaret Gunning watch the movies and look at the photos, and I'll read her reports. Well, then again, I don't have to anymore. I've read The Glass Character. It's all in there.

Margaret, poor girl, is in love with Harold Lloyd. It started out as just a fascination with soundless images. Love snuck up and struck her dumb somewhere amid the exhaustive research she was conducting for a book about what was then still just a fascination. Love. Alas. A happily married grandmother, Margaret is still far too young to leap the gap into the day when her beloved Harold held sway with the girls of a baby Hollywood. Fortunately, for her and for us, she's a novelist. She has the skill to weave the magic carpet to carry her backward in time to those days of yore, those Harold heyday days, and set her gently down along the path the love of her dreams must follow for there to be a rebirth in the imaginations and hearts of Harold Lloyd admirers evermore. She's woven that carpet. It's large enough to take us with her on that long strange trip. I rode along on a test flight. We made it back, and I'm still agog.

When we stepped off the carpet in la la land I saw that Margaret had changed. No longer the familiar author of two of my favorite novels--Better than Life and Mallory--she'd become sixteen-year-old Jane Chorney, a virgin and erstwhile soda jerk in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with a terrible crush on movie idol Harold Lloyd. Soon after we landed, Margaret /Jane (and later "Muriel", as you will learn) decided to pack up her meager belongings, cash in her chips (two cents shy of fifty bucks) and head to Hollywood and into the arms of her eternal love. I might have tried to instill sense in her were I anything more than invisible eyes and ears. Unfortunately I had lost my voice and corporeal substance upon alighting in the Santa Fe dust.

So it was off to Hollywood via a wearying, bumpy bus ride, Margaret/Jane/Muriel full of glitzy dreams and innocence, and me hunkered weightless, mute and unseen on her delicate shoulder.

I won't say more. I took no notes and had to avert my gaze any number of times during moments that really were none of my personal concern. The Glass Character is Margaret/Jane/Muriel's story, not mine. What I did see and hear, and learn during our holiday in history is captured with such lucid, insightful poignancy I can't help but wonder if Margaret didn't in fact remain there, dictating her journal to a holographic image of herself in the distant future tapping on a keyboard somewhere in a place called Coquitlam, B.C.

So. Disingenuous to drop the The and the Character and add Girl without changing the novel even a wee bit? I don’t see why. Might Glass Girl sell a few more books and still have a chance to get read on NPR and maybe kicked around or, should hell cool down a notch, actually praised by Kakutani? Maybe get a movie deal? I don’t see why not. Wouldn’t hurt to try, I reckon.

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]


  1. Nice piece, Matt - and I really appreciate all the help you gave me with the book. But it still hurts (a lot) to see my baby in a column called Friday's Forgotten Books. No matter how true it may be in the eyes of the world, no one wants their novel described as a "flop". I am proud of the fact that, having decided I would never write another book, I worked on this one, completed it, sent it out and had it published. No one helped me with publicity. Yes, it got no reviews, but oh how much it hurts to be reminded of that. I don't know whether a sexier/catchier title would have helped (and the cover was simply atrocious!). In any case, it just doesn't feel good. At all. Now I am more depressed than ever.

    1. I wouldn't have written this if I didn't think it would help, Margaret. I trust you want it to be a success, and it's not too late to make it one. If changing the title can spark the interest it takes for the right people to read the novel, why not give it a shot? Your publisher should have seen that up front. Your novel truly is a steak, a filet mignon, no less. A crying shame to see it fade away for a marketing fluke.

    2. I'd do better changing the cover, I think. I can't see where the title would make a difference. At any rate. . . it was pretty depressing reading this.

  2. Just one more thing - this column is a fine idea if you stick to writers you don't know personally!

  3. (A point I just thought of) I can't picture my publisher, having pretty much taken a bath on this, being willing or able (even financially) to run thousands more copies with a different title (and, I trust, a better cover) and then redistribute them all over again to stores, libraries, reviewers, etc. on the gamble it would do better this time. Frankly, I have never heard of this (publishing twice) at literary press level where everything is on a shoestring. It would be confusing to the modest readership I have to buy another book with my name on it and have them say, "Heeeyyyyyy!" (this is the same goddamn book under a different title!) Under the terms of my contract, it would likely not even be legal. I do get the part about steak and sizzle and all that, and what the public wants, as opposed to what I want to write. But I don't think inserting "girl" would be enough to change things. I need a press agent and a publicist and all those things that writers have who DON'T NEED a press agent and a publicist. Meantime, the book exists and I will continue to seek some way to get it made into a movie. They can call it what they want so long as they spell my name right on the cheque.

    1. Might you try another publisher? Or seek an agent? I do believe the title, as well as the cover, makes a difference in grabbing even sophisticated professionals' attention, else why the sudden splurge of books with girl in the title? After reading the articles referenced above, I have changed the title of the novel I've been hawking to agents for several months now from Bacon's Blood to The Girl Who Tasted Bacon's Blood. I hate pandering, but evidently when one is trying to break into the market these days a little compromise with one's standards is in order.

  4. I never read novels with titles like THE GIRL WHO....THE GIRL ON THE......THE GIRL WITH THE..... For me they are nothing but book club books for people who do not read anything but book club books. I'm sorry, but there it is. But I get your point. Nice post, Mathew. I like the title THE GLASS CHARACTER and the cover. But obviously I don't know what I'm talking about since everyone else is on the 'GIRL WHO' bandwagon. (I won't see the movies made from these 'girl who' books either. I'm stubborn that way.)

  5. Hehe, I felt the same way, Yvette, until I finally read a couple of "girl" books by David Bell, to see what all the fuss was about. They were moderately entertaining, but not especially well written. More recently I read Gone Girl, which was a tad better. Haven't seen any of the girl movies, tho, and have no desire to. Oddly, and perhaps only coincidentally, the very first query I sent out with my new title, The Girl Who Tasted Bacon's Blood, (three days ago) produced a hit, with the agent asking for six chapters. I only had one of the dozens of queries with the previous title, but that one ultimately fizzled. The agent said she might be interested to see a rewrite, without giving me any clue as to what she had in mind, and I didn't follow up. So we'll see. At this point I'm considering it more an experiment than anything else.

    1. Sorry to say, the editors of Canada's boutique literary presses, the only kind us word-peons have a hearing with, are absolute monarchs of their tiny realms. The presses are heavily subsidized by grants from The Canada Council for the Arts. In other words, the financial success or sales numbers matter little. The writer is often, always?, victimized by a Don't Care attitude. Whar? Us spend our loonies and toonies on promotion n, reading tours, haha, you got to be kidding!
      Because they are the only shop in town, oh yeah, the members of this God-like country club know each other, they have the power to insist on idiotic revisions that weaken a story. They can insist on using their unsuitable, unattractive titl. And even worse, the writer gets stuck with some ugly meaningless cover design that fails to present the book.
      Margaret is an incredible writer who has been badly served by the system. I have constant ly urged her to skip Canada, submit directly yo the U.S. market, or England. Or do indie selfies and go for it all.
      On the other hand she has encouraged me to add "GIRL" to the working title of my very strange fantasy novel about myself, A Treatise on David West as Most And nder Valued Poet, and an Inquiry into His Later Emergence as The Great Dao Wei.
      So it might involve some POV changes, to include some narrative of The Revolution by women of his Girl Guards Brigade, of the 12 Route Army, by one of Dao We's Girl's. The title suggested and liked, "DAO WEI'S GIRL."
      Dao Wei Tsi, I might add is a transliteration of David West's name in Mandarin. It means Big Guardian West. Dao Wei Tsi.
      So what do I do with an unfinished MS. of over 300 pages, doubled sided, in largely illegible fountain pen script? Find an illustrator and a pair of scissors perhaps?
      Dao Wei retu ns from the dead, again and again, thanks to the DNA evolving virtues of the Mother Wyrt plant, and gis disciples have the means and the motive.
      Unfortunately, the story is chunks of fragments, puzzles, and clue challenges for the very advanced reader topit the pieces together.
      How could such a secret be kept for so long, deep under the Cavalry Museum, in the lab complex of The Midland Group, in the very midst of Ft. Riley, Kansas? Well, why not?
      The dark fire teams killed for it fair and square. Who expected the he suddenly unleashed power of DW's Route Armies to reveal if the legends of the Mother Wort are true.
      Well it turns out that something ressurectes Dao Wei every time he is caught and execyted. You just can't keep a great Canadian poet, neglected or not, trodden down or even dead.
      No publisher or agent, subsidy or not, will touch this one. It's too literary for a literary press, too off the wall wacky for the mainstream north American market.
      So England or an indie it is.
      Right on Margaret, GIRL it is!

    2. "...too literary for a literary press." Good luck with DAO WEI'S GIRL!

  6. With the proliferation of books with Girl in the title, I would avoid them too. But I admit that more people are reading them (or at least buying them) than not, or that type of title would be used less.

    The Glass Character does sound interesting.

    1. Evidently one must go with the market flow in order to reach an audience, Tracy. I believe you'd enjoy Margaret's novel.

  7. Sorry re typos, must not rely on dictation app. It's an idiot, makes me look the same. Trust me, I am actually still at least functionally literate.