Posts Tagged ‘The Fan Club’
Last year, I published a pair of posts modestly entitled “Googling the rise and fall of literary reputations,” in which I used Google’s ngram viewer to chart how often a writer’s name appeared in print over the course of his or her career. I was especially struck by the difference between the shape of the curve for a canonical literary novelist, like John Updike or Philip Roth, and that of an author of big bestsellers, like Jacqueline Susann or Harold Robbins: while the graph of a major novelist showed a gradual ascent followed by a gentle plateau as his or her works entered the core curriculum, a bestselling writer’s graph was usually characterized by a steep spike and an equally sharp decline in interest. (One exception was Stephen King, who combines the charts of a major writer and a bestselling novelist in an appropriately singular way.) And while the results were utterly unscientific, they did raise some useful questions, at least in my own mind, about the fleeting nature of literary fame.
Of the formerly bestselling authors whose careers I charted, the case that intrigues me the most is that of Irving Wallace. I’d always been vaguely aware of Wallace, who died in 1990, but he reappeared abruptly on my radar last year, when I picked up a used copy of his book The Writing of One Novel at Bookman’s Corner in Chicago. This book, which chronicles in detail the conception, writing, and publication of his novel The Prize, is genuinely useful: it’s the single most comprehensive look at the making of a popular novel that I’ve seen, and it’s full of documentation that any writer will find fascinating, including editorial letters, marketing reports, and details of contracts and negotiations. (It’s especially amusing to compare the respectful letters that Wallace received from his editor, Michael Korda, with Korda’s subsequent memoir Another Life, in which he describes Wallace’s books as “like reading in alternate bursts from The Joy of Sex and a Baedeker’s travel guide.”) So I decided to take a closer look at Wallace’s work, reading The Fan Club last year, followed this week by The Plot.
And what I discovered, alas, is that Wallace is a resplendently awful writer. He’s hard to dislike entirely—he seems to have truly enjoyed writing, and there are far worse things to be in this world than an industrious middlebrow novelist—but his books are spun from nothing but undigested factoids, mechanical sex, and hot air. To read Wallace is to gain new appreciation for the virtues of a writer like James Michener, who also overdoes the research, if not the sex, but whose books are animated by genuine curiosity, intelligence, and compassion. Wallace, by contrast, seems exclusively interested in lurid high concepts, which he delivers like advertising copy. Plenty of good writers have indulged in the roman à clef, but Wallace may be the only one to cite his influences right there in the text: in The Plot, for instance, he isn’t simply content to create a character based on Christine Keeler, but blandly tells us that her scandal was “ten times more exciting than the old Profumo affair.” Similarly, The Fan Club, a novel about a group of obsessed fans kidnapping a movie star, helpfully includes the line: “Picture Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe or Brigitte Bardot lying in the next room naked.” Subtlety, needless to say, was not Wallace’s strong suit.
And his novels, like most mediocre books, haven’t lasted. It’s instructive, and a little sad, to study the back cover of The Plot, which I’ve reproduced above: the blurbs and marketing copy are devoted to trumpeting in advance how many copies the novel is expected to sell, as if a reader might be convinced to pick it up merely because so many others already have. (One of the blurbs also calls the book “remarkably ingenuous,” which seems like faint praise, and makes me wonder if the book’s editor, or readers, knew what “ingenuous” really meant.) But that’s the thing: Wallace was a bestselling author defined entirely by his habitual success. People bought his books, for the most part, because they’d bought his books before. That kind of momentum works well for a while—Wallace was one of the bestselling authors of his generation—but when it’s over, it stops dead. There was a time when Wallace’s books sold millions of copies, but today, they’re nearly all out of print, and I’d be surprised if one in ten readers born after 1980 would even recognize his name, without confusing him with Irving Stone or Irwin Shaw. And for authors who are solely concerned with writing what they think the market wants, his example is a sobering one. After all, to quote The Wire: where’s Wallace?
Yesterday’s posting on the lure of bad movies, like Birdemic, raises the obvious question of whether the same allure clings to certain trashy books. At first glance, it might seem that the answer is no, at least not the same way: while a bad movie can be polished off in ninety minutes, even the junkiest novel usually requires a somewhat greater commitment, which raises the question of whether this is really the best use of one’s time. Life, it seems, is too short to knowingly waste on bad books, especially when so much good stuff remains unread. (Whenever I read a bad book, I feel as if I need to apologize personally to William Faulkner.) And yet I’ve learned a lot from bad fiction as well. As a writer, it’s useful to know something about every kind of literature, especially when you’re trying to make your mark in a genre that has generated its share of junk. And if you don’t read some trash, as well as better books, you’ll have no way of knowing if you can tell the difference.
The trouble, of course, is that one man’s trashy novel is another man’s masterpiece. The early novels of Thomas Harris, for instance, are hugely important to me, but diminishing returns set in about halfway through Hannibal, and by Hannibal Rising, there’s barely a single interesting page. But this, of course, is a judgment call, and some might draw the line much earlier or later. The same is true of Frederick Forsyth, Stephen King, Michael Crichton, or any other prolific popular novelist. Discriminating between the good (The Day of the Jackal) and the bad (The Negotiator) in a single writer’s body of work is an important part of developing one’s own taste. And sometimes a novelist will surprise you. I’ve repeatedly tried and failed to get into Tom Clancy—The Cardinal of the Kremlin nearly put me to sleep on a recent long bus trip—but I was delighted to discover that Without Remorse is a real novel, vicious, compelling, and with bravura set pieces that recall Forsyth, or even James Ellroy.
And sometimes even literary fiction can benefit from a touch of trash. I love John Updike, and believe that the Rabbit novels are among the essential cultural documents of the last century, but if I could own only one Updike novel, it would be Couples, which even his greatest fans seem to think he wrote at least partly for the money. And yet there’s something weirdly exhilarating about seeing Updike’s extraordinary prose and observational skills applied to blatantly commercial material. Updike can’t help being an artist, even when he’s writing a big sexy novel, and I’d argue that Couples, which isn’t that far removed from Peyton Place, was the novel he was born to write. (His later attempt at a “thriller,” in the form of Terrorist, is much less satisfying, and only comes to life whenever Updike revisits his old adulterous territory.)
But have I ever deliberately set out to read a novel that I knew was bad? Sure. While I haven’t managed to make it through Still Missing, for one, I love reading the bestsellers of yesteryear, embodied in the rows of yellowing paperbacks that line the shelves of thrift stores. The 1970s was a particularly rich era for trash. During my move from New York last year, the only book I kept in my empty apartment was a battered copy of Arthur Hailey’s Hotel, which I enjoyed immensely, especially when I mentally recast all the characters with actors from Mad Men. And I’m a little embarrassed to admit how quickly I plowed through Irving Wallace’s The Fan Club—a terrible book, and much less interesting than Wallace himself, but remarkably evocative of its era in popular fiction. Such books may not be great, but they’re an undeniable part of a writer’s education. (As long as they aren’t all you read.)