Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘James Michener

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

July 3, 2015 at 7:30 am

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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

London and the voodoo of location

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Yesterday I got back from my trip to London, where I spent a week looking at locations for Midrash, the sequel to Kamera. For just over six days, I lurked around neighborhoods like Shoreditch, Holland Park, Stoke Newington, and Golders Green; studied landmarks like the Olympia Exhibition Centre and the Old Bailey; and even indulged in a six-hour side trip to Brussels. I kept good notes, took a lot of pictures, and seriously destroyed my feet—next time, I’m bringing better shoes. And I came away not only with a substantial trove of information for my novel, but also some reflections on the role of location research in the writing process itself.

At first glance, it might seem that direct experience of a novel’s setting is essential, especially for a story supposedly based on careful research. A location contains crucial information—sights, sounds, smells, and human interactions—that can’t be acquired in any other way: I know from experience that an hour in Bombay will teach you things about India that you’d never learn from a lifetime of reading. And there’s little doubt that a novel would benefit from what Werner Herzog, according to Roger Ebert, calls “the voodoo of location” in movies—the idea that locations “seep into performances and photography and give a special texture to the film.”

Yet the issue isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems. Atmosphere is no substitute for story, and excessive use of location research can burden a novel with inessential detail, as we sometimes see in late Michener. And many good or great books have been written without the benefit of actual travel. Saul Bellow wrote Henderson the Rain King without going to Africa, at least as far as I know, and more recently, Scott Smith produced the very good horror novel The Ruins without setting foot in Mexico, although it couldn’t have been hard to make the trip. And the number of classic films not shot on location is impossible to count—after all, nobody on Casablanca got anywhere close to Morocco. (Although it’s hard to imagine The Third Man being shot anywhere but Vienna itself.)

For both movies and novels, the “truth” of a location lies between reality and illusion. No matter how heavily researched a novel’s setting may be, there will always be rooms, houses, and streets constructed entirely from the author’s imagination. The same is all the more true for film, where even the most convincing locations often turn out to be made of spit and cardboard. Some of my favorite cinematic locations are from Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going!, which makes extraordinary use of the Inner Hebrides. Yet the movie’s male lead, Roger Livesey, never came close to Scotland: he filmed all of his scenes in the studio, with a double for long shots, and the movie often cuts between set and location from one angle to the next.

What matters, in the end, is the work itself. As I’ve noted elsewhere about other kinds of research, location work isn’t about factual accuracy, but about furnishing the imagination. The author’s inner eye can play quite profitably in the locations where the novel itself will take place—for Kamera, I spent many happy days haunting the boardwalks of Brighton Beach—but there’s also ample material for dreams in the pages of an atlas, especially when it’s out of date. Sooner or later, at some point in the process, real locations fall away, leaving only what remains on the page. And as much as I loved my trip to London, I’m also aware that it’s only now, back at my desk, that the real location work can begin.

“Two hundred European cities have bus links with Frankfurt”

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Let’s say you’re reading a novel, perhaps a thriller, and while you wouldn’t say it’s a great book, you’re reasonably engaged by the plot and characters. The story is clocking along nicely, the author’s prose is clean and unobtrusive, and suddenly you’re brought up short by something like this:

He was sitting all alone in the enormous cabin of a Falcon 2000EX corporate jet as it bounced its way through turbulence. In the background, the dual Pratt & Whitney engines hummed evenly.

Hold on. What do those Pratt & Whitney engines have to do with anything? Is this a novel or an aircraft catalog? Well, it’s neither, at least not at the moment: rather, it’s an instance of a novelist being reluctant to part with a laboriously acquired piece of research. Suspense novelists are especially guilty of this sort of thing—the above example is from Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, admittedly not the most original target in the world—but it’s something that every writer needs to beware: the temptation to overload one’s fiction with factual detail, especially detail that was the result of a long and painful research process.

This tendency is easy to understand in historical and science fiction, in which so much energy has gone into researching a story set in another time and place, but it’s less obvious why it should also be so common in thrillers, which in other respects have become ever more streamlined. Anthony Lane, in an amusing article on the top ten books on the New York Times bestseller list of May 15, 1994, quotes a sentence from Allan Folsom’s thriller The Day After Tomorrow (the one about the Frankfurt bus lines), which he claims is the most boring clause in any of the books he’s read for his essay. He then says:

The odd thing about pedantry, however, is that it can’t be trusted. Many of the writers on this list are under the impression that if they do the factual spadework, the fiction will dig itself in and hunker down, solid and secure. The effect, unfortunately, is quite the opposite. It suggests that the writers are hanging on for grim life to what they know for fear of unleashing what they don’t know; they are frightened, in other words, of their own imagination…When Flaubert studied ancient Carthage for Salammbô, or the particulars of medieval falconry for “The Legend of St. Julien Hospitalier,” he was furnishing and feathering a world that had already taken shape within his mind; when Allan Folsom looks at bus timetables, his book just gets a little longer.

True enough. Lane is mistaken, though, when he blames this tendency, elsewhere in his article, on the work of James Michener, which consists of “gathering more research than any book could possibly need, then refusing to jettison a particle of it for the sake of dramatic form.” Michener is probably to blame for such excesses in historical fiction, but as far as thrillers are concerned, there’s another, more relevant culprit: Frederick Forsyth. Much of the pleasure of The Day of the Jackal (which Lane elsewhere claims to read once a year) comes from Forsyth’s expertise, real or cunningly feigned, in such matters as identity theft and the construction of an assassin’s rifle, which makes the less plausible elements of his novel all the more convincing. He’s so good at this, in fact, that legions of inferior writers have been seduced by his example. (Even Forsyth himself, in his later novels, isn’t entirely immune.)

Here, then, is the novelist’s dilemma: an appropriate amount of research will lure readers into the fictional dream, but too much will yank them out. So what’s a writer to do? The answer here, as in most other places, is that good habits of writing in general will trim away the worst of these particular excesses. For instance, Stephen King’s invaluable advice to cut all your drafts by ten percent applies twice as much to expository or factual passages. We haven’t discussed point of view yet, but by restricting each scene to the point of view of a particular character, you’re less likely to introduce extraneous information. And the endless labor of rereading, editing, and revision, once time has given you sufficient detachment from your own work, will gradually alert you to places where the research has begun to interfere with the underlying story.

There’s another place where excessive research can also be dangerous, and that’s in the writing process itself. Nearly every novel requires some degree of background material, but how much is too much? It’s always hard to say when research turns into procrastination, but here’s my own rule of thumb: two or three months of research is probably enough for the beginning of any project. Later on, you can always take a break to do more, and should certainly go back and check your facts once the novel is done, but any more than three months at the start, and you risk losing the momentum that encouraged you to write the novel in the first place. And once that momentum is gone, not even a Pratt & Whitney engine will get it back.

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