Monday, April 23, 2012

Everybody's Favorite Novelist


A good part of your gravitation away from such random attractions for potential careers as airplanes, restaurants, the law, a sound effects man for radio dramas, and an announcer of minor league baseball games had to do with the fact of you being an omnivorous reader.

You enjoyed reading aloud, either to yourself or your mother, the books she got from the nearby rental library.  Your tastes ran the gamut from comic books, Sir Walter Scott, boys’ adventure books, girls’ adventure books, nonfiction about Native Americans, fiction about Native Americans, and the then remarkable humorous novels of Max Schulman, as well as, to your then mind, the casual sophistication of H. Allen Smith.

By the time you reached Mark Twain, the metaphoric penny had dropped.  To make sure, you asked a teacher if it were possible to make a reasonable living from writing such things as Mr. Twain did.

At the time, although you’d experienced living in such places as eastern New Jersey, Brooklyn, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Florida, your assumption was that somehow, whatever you did, you’d live in or near Beverly Hills.  To your credit, you soon disabused yourself of that goal, preferring instead Santa Monica, city of your birth and the place where you in fact lived before departing southern California to what is called the Central Coast.

You do not recall the exact words of the teacher when you asked her if one could make a living from writing; you are firm in your belief that what she said has been borne out.  Thinking of her response, your association travels forward some fifty years to an estate on Romero Canyon Road, where you were in the company of the playwright/novelist Max Wilk, both of you uncomfortable with your surroundings because of their evocation of, sigh, Beverly Hills.  You were discussing the writing life.  Wilk placed a cautionary hand on your forearm.  “Kid,” he said (people tended to call you kid until about five years ago, when they began to call you sir)  “it’s a tough dollar.”

He was, in fact, at the Romero Canyon home because of its association with the Hollywood culture, negotiating payment for his services as you were for yours.  To writers at all levels, the Hollywood culture had Mafia-like connotations running all the way down to things you’d seen when you ran the Los Angeles office for Dial-Dell-Delacorte, and fifty percent of your focus was on dealing with “Hollywood people.”  You were thought to be “a natural” because you, a Californian, “could speak their language.  You know, a little Los Angeles, a little Yiddish, a little literature.  Just don’t contract some Thomas Mann or Whatshisname Brecht?”

“Berthold,” you said.
“Right.  You talk literature, but all the while, you’re looking for—“

“—demographics.”

“If that means massmarket, then yes, demographics.  Lots of zeroes.  Six, seven zeroes, feshtaienze?”

“Capito,” you said.

“Funny,” they said.  “Very funny.”

You were at one point led to believe you’d been hired because you were funny and could speak California.

Heard only once from Max Wilk after that meeting.  He’d made some deal.  You never found out what it was.  You’d come away from your “conference” thinking there had to be a better way.

While such things were going on about your mise en scene, you were doing what writers tend to do, “discovering” other writers who’d found and managed to maintain a narrative voice in spite of the myriad distractions life offered such as disasters, love affairs, terrible reviews, existential doubt, telephone calls in which the caller announces this is an attempt to collect a debt, other calls wondering what advice you had for a seventeen-year-old son or daughter who wanted to be a writer.

Your primary discoveries were Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald, each in his own way as different from you as can be had.    Since then, you’ve piled on a list of others you admired, un-friended some you thought you’d admired, and careened as though drunkenly across the landscape in wild, capricious pursuit of your own narrative voice as though it were some escaped steer on the open range.

Twain and Fitzgerald still remain, but a host of others, notably Katherine Mansfield, Louise Erdrich, Deborah Eisenberg, Dennis Lehane, Kate Atkinson, and Daniel Woodrell occupy significant status.

If ever there were a writer on whom you had a crush…

You were in the Winchester Cathedral, delivering a lecture on William Golding, with particular focus on his novel The Spire.  “Mind,” a crisp English voice whispered, as you moved about, warming to your subject, “don’t step of Jane Austen.”

A few days later, you were a bit farther north, in the Devon coastal town of Lyme Regis, the birthplace of the crisp British warning voice, also a longtime friend.  You were walking along a distinctive stone jetty you recognized from having seen it in the film version of The French Lieutenant’s Woman.  As you strolled, you found yourself thinking of Anne Elliott, your favorite of all Jane Austen’s heroines, quite likely the one more like Jane Austen.  She was portrayed as strolling this very route, discussing with a distraught young naval officer the fine and basic points of the contemporary romantic poets.  Anne is the protagonist of your favorite Jane Austen novel, Persuasion, to which you are in fact devoting five weeks of discussion and investigation at the moment.

Austen’s use of point of view, her narrative skills, and her dramatic instincts make for a series of scenes and their consequences that can—and do—inspire many a twenty-first century novelist.

Many of her nineteenth-century contemporary novelists sound nineteenth-century, which is to say distant, shadowy.  Austen’s language seems to evoke the time and place; her psychology seems to rush us ever so much closer to the interior of the individuals she has brought forth as characters.

In so many ways, Jane Austen has become every serious reader’s favorite novelist, whether they know it or not, placing her a few notches above Carolyn Keene, and those remarkable Nancy Drew mysteries.


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