Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Cult Fiction: Nineteen Eighty-four

Nineteen Eighty-four, George Orwell's 1949 masterpiece of dystopian society, certainly qualifies as cult fiction even though it had a more traditional publishing path compared to many of the novels examined on this site.

Through the novel's plot, Orwell was commenting on the limited freedoms in the post-war Soviet Union as the KGB began incessant brainwashing and surveillance of the Soviet population. The book has taken on a much broader significance since its publication, however, with "nineteen eighty-four" becoming a universally acknowledged phrase representing oppression, not only in totalitarian regimes, but also in the context of any political or societal scenario in which authority of any kind threatens individualism.

The phrase "Big Brother is watching" has entered the vernacular as an idiom applied (sometimes sarcastically or humorously) to work environments, the military, government, and even family structures in which freedom of expression is limited, privacy is compromised, or arbitrary rules are enforced for the sake of achieving compliance and conformity. The phrase found new life in the twenty-first century as many Americans believed that the the Patriot Act and actions of Vice President Dick Cheney within the Bush administration violated essential American freedoms. Wiretapping and surveillance of civilians seemed to be very reminiscent of the oppressive government of Oceania in Orwell's novel.

More than anything, the book's consistently loyal following because of its strong theme of individualism and combating propaganda has made this novel one of the biggest cult classics withing the last sixty years.

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Moby-Dick: The Ultimate Cult Novel
John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe: Cult Fiction in the Making?
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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Cult Fiction: The Fountainhead

Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead is one of the most iconic titles that falls within the category of cult fiction. It's publication history reiterates the publication pattern of many cult fiction novels.

Although Rand's first novel, We the Living, had been published by Macmillan, the company rejected The Fountain head when Rand insisted on more marketing for her second, more ambitious novel. Subsequently, Knopf agreed to publish the novel but balked after reading the first chapters. A total of twelve publishers rejected the novel before publisher Bobbs-Merrill accepted it.

The book was published in May of 1943, but sales were slow. It finally made the New York Times bestseller list in 1945. Currently, the book has sold nearly seven million copies, and Ayn Rand readers are fiercely loyal to The Fountainhead and all of the book's in Rand's cannon.

The book's protagonist is Howard Roarke, an idealistic young architect who is expelled from the Stanton Institute of Technology for his non-traditional adherence to new designs. He later leaves the firm of Francon & Heyer because he refuses to employ traditional architectural modes in order to please clients.

This theme of individualism in the face of great persecution is a hallmark of many cult fiction novels. When one considers the theme in conjunction with Rand's difficulty finding a publisher and the novel's initial track record of sluggish sales, it fits the criteria of cult fiction perfectly. The final variable in the equation for this book is the huge following Rand acquired over the years and the status of The Fountainhead as one of American literature's most popular titles.

Individualism (or "man against society") is one of the most prevalent themes of cult fiction. In John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe, Lennon's independent-minded artistic qualities and his anti-establishment posture on a variety of issues are crucial to that novel's plot.

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Moby-Dick: The Ultimate Cult Novel
John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe: Cult Fiction in the Making?
The Next Wave of Cult Fiction
List of Cult Fiction Classics
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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Cult Fiction: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

One of the clearest examples of cult fiction in the twentieth century is Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Published in 1974, the novel was rejected by 121 publishers, although it went on to sell over four million copies (typical of a cult fiction title). The book chronicles a father and son's seventeen-day motorcycle journey from Minnesota to California.

Like so many cult fiction titles, the narrative deals with metaphysics, philosophy, and the nature of reality. Specifically, the book expounds Pirsig's personal philosophy called the Metaphysics of Quality, or MOQ. While this belief system is not Zen (the novel's title is a variation on another book title, Zen in the Art of Archery), it does reveal Pirsig's exposure to eastern philosophy while a soldier in Korea. Weighty at times, the book is populated by many father-son discussions, labeled Chautauquas. While the philosophy is too intricate to describe in depth for the purposes of this discussion, Pirsig is, in the final analysis, arguing for a balance between pragmatism and romanticism--a way to embrace living in the mysticism of the moment while also tending to the the rational demands of the physical world (such as motorcycle maintenance).

The book has a history of appealing to a younger audience, one that is seeking answers to the quest looming large as one leaves adolescence. It also has the lure of describing a road trip (so many cult classics do the same) on a motorcycle. Older audiences, even those once enamored by the book, often find the long, philosophical diatribes to be a bit much, perhaps because their own life experiences have ultimately settled the issues Pirsig raises.

But the novel has had staying power and continues to sell. Its publishing history, themes, and narrative structure make Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as good an example of cult fiction as one can find in American literature. While John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe explores metaphysics and a different spiritual approach to life as the main characters take a road trip, it is far less didactic than Pirsig's work.

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Moby-Dick: The Ultimate Cult Novel
John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe: Cult Fiction in the Making?
The Next Wave of Cult Fiction
List of Cult Fiction Classics
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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Cult Fiction: Investing in Penny Stocks

Readers often find a great novel from a small press, one that will eventually be sold to a larger New York house and gain a wider audience, thus becoming part of what I like to call the "literary psyche." It's exciting to make such a find. This is no doubt how early readers of Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia felt when they found the book before it became a cult classic, selling millions of copies for Bantam. Prior to that, Callenbach had published the novel with Banyon Tree Books, with Harper's magazine also issuing a condensed version.

Finding a great piece of cult fiction is like finding a penny stock destined for bullish movement on Wall Street. I myself collect first editions--an expensive hobby, to be sure--but as this site indicates, I also love to find a title that has the potential to "break out," as they say in publishing. Some titles do, some don't, and some take the literary scenic route.

I'm not really talking about a title's monetary worth, although owners of early editions of Woody Guthrie's Bound for Glory , for example are sitting on a lot of money. The same can be said for the novels John Grisham sold from the trunk of his car before he became mega-famous. And so forth. I'm talking about buying stock in an idea, a trend, knowing that you've found treasure in a book that is circulating in cult and underground circles. Non-readers won't know what I'm talking about. Fiction junkies--you already get it.

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What Is Cult Fiction?
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Moby-Dick: The Ultimate Cult Novel
John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe: Cult Fiction in the Making?
The Next Wave of Cult Fiction
List of Cult Fiction Classics
Cult Fiction Websites
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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

John Lennon: An Icon Makes His Way into the Classroom

Here's an update on the novel I've been following for a while, John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe. In the summer and fall of 2010, many universities across the country have begun to assign the novel as part of their lit curriculum. Usually, the book is part of a course focusing on the genre of magical realism.

This is another testament to the fact that the novel continues to meet the criteria for cult fiction (or an underground novel) since neither I nor the author, William Hammett, knows how or why his novel was incorporated into the curriculum of various universities. As was noted in several earlier articles on this site, however, there is a strong word of mouth campaign about John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe. The book is passed around among friends or else it is spotted online or at an indie bookstore. The name Lennon draws attention, and at a time when metaphysics is enjoying new popularity thanks to a more generalized interest in all things quantum, the synergy of Lennon and metaphysics seems to be attracting people to the title.

As I've said before, this is usually how it begins with cult fiction--a strong interest in a title that flys below the radar. I continue to think that this book will be around for a very long time. It has staying power, and after three years it continues to surface in new places around the world.

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About This Website
Index of Articles on This Website
What Is Cult Fiction?
Is Cult Fiction the Same as Underground Fiction?
Cult Fiction and Genre
Cult Fiction and ON THE ROAD
Cult Fiction and A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES
Moby-Dick: The Ultimate Cult Novel
John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe: Cult Fiction in the Making?
The Next Wave of Cult Fiction
List of Cult Fiction Classics
Cult Fiction Websites
Current Trends in Fiction
Literary Fiction
Breakout Fiction
Literary Agents
Self-Published Novels
Understanding the Literary Marketplace
Emerging Writers in the Literary Marketplace
Resources for Writers
About Cat Spaulding
Contact