Thursday, March 10, 2011

This Is Where I Came in

By the time you met him, several million copies of his books had sold.  Since that time, hundreds of millions of copies of his books have sold.  A prolific author as well as a legendary best-seller, he has by your reckoning ninety novels and numerous collections of short stories, at least ten.  The margin of error in your figures is at the low end of the curve, let's say + or - one percent.  His death in 1980, yet additional hundreds of millions of copies of his books have been purchased.

He was by any account a story teller as opposed to a stylist who had a way with story; his narratives had shape rather than elegance of structure.  No one you know of has ever listed him in any kind of stylistic elegance hierarchy, no one you know has ever quoted a line of Louis L'Amour dialogue nor recalled a particular scene.  Even the earlier analog of Louis L'Amour, that dentist-turned frontier-writer, Zane Grey, dead since 1939, is more often quoted or cited for some particular scene.  Of the two writers,  L'Amour held the edge in elegance, although that is not saying much.

L'Amour knew story, understood it, in his way seemed to have treated it in a manner suggesting the stock trope of many frontier and country novels, the horse breaker, man or woman who understood and were able to convince wild horses to accept the civilization of bridle, saddle, and rider.

Your paycheck at the time of meeting L'Amour was from Dell, the massmarket paperback imprint of the Delacorte family.  In New York, when you'd call in at 750 Third Avenue, you'd hear the receptionist say, "Dial, Dell, Delacorte," although the receptionist would not miss a beat if you asked to speak to someone in the Yearling or young reader segment of the empire.  L'Amour drew enormous royalty checks from the most significant rival of Dell, Bantam Books.

Your mission was to convince L'Amour to leave Bantam for Dell.  Although you were not authorized to offer terms such as advances or royalty percentages, you were aware of the enormity of the coup, were you able to bring this great treasure to Dell.  In practical terms, had the plan worked, you'd have earned yourself four or five years of remarkable influence in massmarket publishing.  Should your balance sheet radiate health after those years, your editorial future could have extended your time spent in the part of the United States then believed to be the hub of American book publishing.

You had brought about the meeting by calling in favors from a few friends, and with a pitch you thought might at least cause L'Amour to consider.  Any given paperback title of an Agatha Christie mystery had appeared already as a Dell edition and a Bantam edition.  You even had one title--thanks to your passion for browsing used book stores--that had started Dell, gone to Bantam, then returned to Dell.  Surely, your proposed argument went, Louis L'Amour readers were even more likely to collect L'Amour titles than Christie fans were to care one galloping hoot who'd published her work.

But you never got beyond the first sentence of your pitch because Mr. L'Amour, among other things, was a man of considerable loyalty.  What was then accomplished at that up-scale Italian restaurant on the Sunset Strip was a leisurely lunch of shop talk, talk about writing and books and history that Mr. L'Amour without doubt forgot in its entirety, but which has remained with you to this day for the bit of information he set forth, assuming you already knew it.  You may well have known it, but you could not have articulated it as well as he did.  "You've served your time as an editor,"  this amiable man noted as fact.  "I'm sure you've had any number of opportunities to observe that most writers begin their story too soon--even before there is story."

With judicious eclat, you broke a breadstick, then dipped it into some olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  "Every editor goes through that,"  you managed to say with some aplomb because you were already floating.  This casual assumption had lift-off force for you; you were flying.  You wanted to get out of that restaurant and back to your red Olivetti portable because this taken-for-granted truth for L'Amour was pure, vivid revelation, and what do you do with revelation but put it into a story, several stories, all stories.

The closest you ever came to meeting Graham Greene was when you were stopped at a traffic light in Beverly Hills and he, lurching in slight tipsiness with the splendid actor, Trevor Howard, crossed in front of you.  This meeting was some time after your meeting with L'Amour.  You'd found a quotation from Graham Greene in his novel, The End of the Affair:  "A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead."

You were tempted to roll down your window, thereupon to call forth, "Mr. Greene, I agree with you." And for emphasis, you'd even throw in the unnecessary adverb, "completely."  But he would have no idea what in the world you were talking about.

Wherever we are--yes, even in Beverly Hills--we make sense to ourself, often using a rib or two from another person, another thing, another work.  The sense is our property, to repress, squander, yes, even to write about--if we choose.  We run the risk of our sources and our readers not having the faintest inkling of what we mean unless we supply some context.  And even then, there is no guarantee they will care.  Enlightenment or its second cousin, understanding, is something we strive to achieve, but in an analogy with the enormous information about whales and whaling in Moby-Dick, the reader may well decide to pass on the offert desert.

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