Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The fleeting fame of Irving Wallace

with 3 comments

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?

Written by nevalalee

January 3, 2012 at 10:28 am

3 Responses

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  1. It’s information like this that makes me hope I don’t start selling a lot of books the first time I’m published. I know I’d stay insecure about my writing for the rest of my life if I did.

    Amy Keeley

    January 3, 2012 at 8:28 pm

  2. Selling too many books wouldn’t be a bad problem to have! But I definitely know what you mean.

    nevalalee

    January 3, 2012 at 9:36 pm

  3. His early novels contain some excellent retro imagery of a time long gone. They got progressively worse after a couple of excellent efforts combining massive conspiracy theory mixed with sex, always a good recipe. His last book was a shocker. He was probably half dead by then, poor man.

    paul

    February 26, 2017 at 7:40 pm


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