Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Irving Wallace

Facts with a side of violence

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Frederick Forsyth

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been rereading The Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth, my favorite suspense novelist. I’ve mentioned before that Forsyth is basically as good as it gets, and that he’s the writer I turn to the most these days in terms of pure enjoyment: he operates within a very narrow range of material and tone, but on those terms, he always delivers. Reading The Dogs of War again was a fascinating experience, because although it takes place in the world of mercenaries and other guns for hire, it contains surprisingly little action—maybe thirty pages’ worth over the course of four hundred dense pages. The rest of the novel is taken up by an obsessively detailed account of how, precisely, a privately funded war might be financed and equipped, from obtaining weapons to hiring a ship to acquiring the necessary amount of shirts and underwear. And although the amount of information is sometimes overwhelming, it’s always a superlatively readable book, if only because Forsyth is a master of organization and clarity.

Of course, it also works because it’s fun to learn about these things. The Dogs of War is perhaps the ultimate example of the kind of fiction that Anthony Lane, speaking of Allan Folsom’s The Day After Tomorrow, has dismissed as “not so much a novel as a six-hundred-page fact sheet with occasional breaks for violence.” Yet the pleasure we take in absorbing a few facts while reading a diverting thriller is perfectly understandable. Recently, I saw a posting on a social news site from a commenter who said that he didn’t read much, but was looking for novels that would teach him some things while telling an interesting story. I pointed him toward Michael Crichton, who is one of those novelists, like Forsyth, whose work has inspired countless imitators, but who remains the best of his breed. This kind of fiction is easy to dismiss, but conveying factual information to a reader is like any other aspect of writing: when done right, it can be a source of considerable satisfaction. In my own novels, I’ve indulged in such tidbits as how to build a handheld laser, how to open a Soviet weapons cache, and what exactly happened at the Dyatlov Pass.

Michael Crichton

That said, like all good things, the desire to satisfy a reader’s craving for information can also be taken too far. I’ve spoken elsewhere about the fiction of Irving Wallace, who crams his books with travelogues, dubious factoids, and masses of undigested research—along with a few clinical sex scenes—until whatever narrative interest the story once held is lost. And my feelings about Dan Brown are a matter of record. Here, as in most things, the key is balance: information can be a delight, but only in the context of a story that the reader finds engaging for the usual reasons. Its effectiveness can also vary within the work of a single author. Forsyth is great, but the weight of information in some of his later novels can be a little deadening; conversely, I’m not a fan of Tom Clancy, and gave up on The Cardinal of the Kremlin after struggling through a few hundred pages, but I found Without Remorse to be a really fine revenge story, hardware and all. The misuse of factual information by popular novelists has given it a bad reputation, but really, like any writing tool, it just needs to be properly deployed.

And it’s especially fascinating to see how this obsession with information—in a somewhat ambivalent form—has migrated into literary fiction. It’s hard to read Thomas Pynchon, for instance, without getting a kick from his mastery of everything from Tarot cards to aeronautical engineering, and James Wood points out that we see much the same urge in Jonathan Franzen:

The contemporary novel has such a desire to be clever about so many elements of life that it sometimes resembles a man who takes too many classes that he has no time to read: auditing abolishes composure. Of course, there are readers who will enjoy the fact that Franzen fills us in on campus politics, Lithuanian gangsters, biotech patents, the chemistry of depression, and so on…

Yet Franzen, like Pynchon, uses voluminous research to underline his point about how unknowable the world really is: if an author with the capacity to write limericks about the vane servomotor feels despair at the violent, impersonal systems of which we’re all a part, the rest of us don’t stand a chance. Popular novelists, by contrast, use information for the opposite reason, to flatter us that perhaps we, too, would make good mercenaries, if only we knew how to forge an end user certificate for a shipment of gun parts in Spain. In both cases, the underlying research gives the narrative a credibility it wouldn’t otherwise have. And the ability to use it correctly, according to one’s intentions, is one that every writer could stand to develop.

A writer’s commentary track

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As I’ve said before, I like commentary tracks. While some audio commentaries can be a waste of time, or worse, I’ve learned so much from the best of them, and derived such pleasure along the way, that a few have even supplanted the underlying movie itself in my affections. I still love The Usual Suspects, for instance, but at this point, I’d rather listen to Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie’s wonderful commentary, probably my personal favorite, than watch the movie again. Commentaries by the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Nicholas Meyer, David Mamet, and Steven Soderbergh (especially his famously prickly exchange with Lem Dobbs on The Limey) only get better with time. And in particular, the stunning commentary tracks for The Simpsons have been playing continuously in the background of my life for the better part of a decade now.

I’ve often wished that something similar existed for novels. There are, of course, annotated editions of classics ranging from Alice to Sherlock Holmes—the latter of which is my favorite book of all time—and several authors, notably Nabokov, have cooperated to some extent with annotated versions of their works. Other novelists have written in detail about the creation of particular books. The most comprehensive example I’ve seen is The Writing of One Novel by Irving Wallace, which I recommend with the caveat that Wallace was a pretty lousy writer—although quite readable on the subjects of research, revision, and publication. Similar accounts have evidently been written by Thomas Mann and Thomas Wolfe, although I haven’t read them, and I don’t think they’re quite what I have in mind when I envision a true author’s commentary: something that runs in parallel with the text, but chatty, digressive, and not particularly organized, like Paul Thomas Anderson talking about Boogie Nights.

This is all my roundabout way of announcing that starting on Monday, I’ll be writing an occasional author’s commentary, for lack of a better word, on The Icon Thief. I’m not precisely sure how this will work, since I haven’t done it before, but at the moment, I’m hoping to post one installment per week, taking one chapter at a time, and writing about whatever strikes my fancy. There won’t be a fixed format: I’ll just be talking about what I can remember of how each chapter written, explaining some of the references, throwaway details, and inside jokes, and giving whatever insight I can about the choices I made along the way. Behind every page lies a story, some more interesting than others, but since this is essentially a blog about writing, I figure that at this point I can afford to indulge myself. And my goal will be to write the kind of author commentary I’d like to read—light, heavy on the gossip, cheerfully candid about plot holes and mistakes, and generally as honest as possible.

Obviously, these posts will mean a lot more to those who have read the novel, so if you haven’t had a chance to pick it up yet, you might want to swing by your local library, steal a copy from a friend, or even buy one. (You can also read the first three chapters, and bits and pieces of the rest, on Google Books.) While I can’t entirely avoid spoilers, I’ll do my best to tread carefully around certain plot points. And as much as I’m aware that it can be risky to pull back the curtain like this, I can’t resist showing you a few of my tricks. Every work of art has its own secret history, and the same part of me that is intrigued by commentary tracks, artists’ sketches, and storyboards is also fascinated by the process by which every novel is made—a story often as compelling, and surprising, as the plot itself. Ideally, the result will be of interest even to those who haven’t read the book, and won’t affect the enjoyment of those who have. So I hope you enjoy being part of my book club, because if you’re reading this, you’re already in it—and the discussion starts now.

Written by nevalalee

April 27, 2012 at 9:42 am

Posted in Books, Writing

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The fleeting fame of Irving Wallace

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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

Googling the rise and fall of literary reputations

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As the New York Times recently pointed out, Google’s new online book database, which allows users to chart the evolving frequency of words and short phrases over 5.2 million digitized volumes, is a wonderful toy. You can look at the increasing frequency of George Carlin’s seven dirty words, for example—not surprisingly, they’ve all become a lot more common over the past few decades—or chart the depressing ascent of “alright.” Most seductively, perhaps, you can see at a glance how literary reputations have risen or fallen over time. Take these five, for example:

It’s hard not to see that, for all the talk of the death of Freud, he’s doing surprisingly well, and even passed Shakespeare in the mid-’70s (around the same time, perhaps not coincidentally, as Woody Allen’s creative peak). Goethe experienced a rapid fall in popularity in the mid-’30s, though he had recovered nicely by the end of World War II. Tolstoy, by contrast, saw a spike sometime around the Big Three conference in Tehran, and a drop as soon as the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb. And Kafka, while less popular during the satisfied ’50s, saw a sudden surge in the paranoid decades thereafter:

Obviously, it’s possible to see patterns anywhere, and I’m not claiming that these graphs reflect real historical cause and effect. But it’s fun to think about. Even more fun is to look at the relative popularity of five leading American novelists of the last half of the twentieth century:

The most interesting graph is that for Norman Mailer, who experiences a huge ascent up to 1970, when his stature as a cultural icon was at his peak (just after his run for mayor of New York). Eventually, though, his graph—like those of Gore Vidal, John Updike, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow—follows the trajectory that we might suspect for that of an established, serious author: a long, gradual rise followed by a period of stability, as the author enters the official canon. Compare this to a graph of four best-selling novelists of the 1970s:

For Harold Robbins, Jacqueline Susann, Irving Wallace, and Arthur Hailey—and if you don’t recognize their names, ask your parents—we see a rapid rise in popularity followed by an equally rapid decline, which is what we might expect for authors who were once hugely popular but had no lasting value.

It’ll be interesting to see what this graph will look like in fifty years for, say, Stephenie Meyer or Dan Brown, and in which category someone like Jonathan Franzen or J.K. Rowling will appear. Only time, and Google, will tell.

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