Why I Don’t Read Alternative History Novels

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I recently finished an alternative history novel, and though it received rave reviews in literary circles, it wasn’t my cup of tea. I probably didn’t need to read this book to know I wouldn’t like it. Back in 1987 I didn’t have to go down to Miami to know that the rhythm was gonna get me. The genre confuses the reader. This reader, anyway. It’s small beer, like hearing a Skynrd or Aerosmith riff remixed in another artist’s work. It violates the time-honored Neapolitan ice cream rule of history over here and fiction over there. And last, if it’s a legitimate field then I demand a 1989 AP History Exam re-grade. The score captured my flaws as a historian but not my gifts as an alternative historian.

Do I sound fusty? If I don’t like the books, you say, then don’t read them? Of course you’re right, but the truth is you don’t have all of the facts. If you did, my disdain for alternative history novels would be more predictable than the ending to Death Comes for the Archbishop. Here’s what I concealed: at this very moment I have ten alternative history book treatments out to publishers for consideration. At first I assumed there was some industry-wide conference going on when nobody responded. As days turned into weeks, I realized that a multi-book deal might not be in the works. This was corroborated by messages that Chase, my literary agent, started leaving me about this time: I don’t know who you are or how you got my number, but I am not your agent. Stop calling me. That’s so Chase.

You know what? Nuts to them, Chase, the publishers, all those MFA MFers. If they don’t know when they’re eyeballing the John Grisham of alternative history plot lines, then that’s on them. Here are the working title and synopsis for each — decide for yourself whether these one and all will be modern classics or, indeed, timeless classics:

The Wing Not Eaten. Walking about in a yellow wood in search of inspiration, Robert Frost comes to a fork in the road. He momentarily considers taking the one less traveled by, but remembers that the new Buffalo Wings place that Carl Sandburg’s been raving about is just down the beaten path.

Why Couldn’t It Have Been Witchy Woman? Scheduled to fly west for meetings with Glenn Frey, songwriter Jack Tempchin has a catchy melody in his head — one that gives him a Peaceful Easy Feeling – and he’s “this close” on lyrics. Then he heads to LaGuardia late on a Friday afternoon and loses the melody forever.

No Time To Reflect. Auguste Rodin takes an herbal remedy and thus avoids seeing his own seated shadow on the bathroom wall during an epic bout of constipation that would have inspired his greatest sculpture.

Man, What a Sandwich! Though his theory of relativity shows promise, a young Albert Einstein abandons it as folly after tasting the Reuben Sandwich at Katz’s Delicatessen and declaring it “absolutely the best, bar none, throughout space and time.”

Tell No One, Xenophon. While spelunking with his best friend, Plato has an “aha” moment as he sees light flickering on the inside wall of a cave. He then stumbles in the darkness and groins himself so embarrassingly that he vows never again to speak or write of the day.

 The Fish That Saved Christendom. Martin Luther, having banged out 94 Theses, catches a whiff of a fish boil going on outside his carrel. After devouring the lutefisk, the only thing he feels like protesting is the lack of horseradish.

I’m Great, You’re Great, Alexander’s Great. For years his Macedonian helicopter parents have told him at every turn that he is Great, but truth is he’s Ordinary at best. Alexander totally gets his ass handed to him in the Battle of the Granicus.

Too Soon, Gordo, Too Soon. Gordon Lightfoot puts every ounce of creative energy into “The Backup on the Long Island Expressway,” a ballad which critics pan as maudlin and picayune. Years later, the tragic maritime Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald goes unheralded.

Hell Hathaway No Fury… Anne Hathaway wigs out, changes the locks and burns all of young Shakespeare’s tights in a giant, hellish bonfire, leaving the playwright pantsless and with little choice but to substantially rewrite and rename his current work, Romeo and His Batsh*t Crazy Girlfriend.

It Played Well In El Paso. Christopher Cross is crushed when bad weather cancels a much-needed sailing trip. His agent says not to worry: he’s made alternative plans at a dude ranch to get the singer’s creative juices flowing again. Soft-rock ballad Whittling is a colossal commercial failure.

Ready to publish? Better act soon – Hollywood’s calling for the movie rights.