Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Quit Fooling Around

Many of us who pursue the writing path can point to the handful of men and women who nudged us on our way, caused us to believe we, too, could make out way from what we wrote.  However nice it may be to thank parents and other relatives, or teachers who encouraged us to pursue what were then called "our gifts," these are not the individuals you refer to as the nudgers.

These men and women were the productive writers of our youth, some quite literary, others not literary in the least.  Some of them had notable styles and a seeming gift for the deployment of language.  Others had prose more reminiscent of what our own first efforts would become when we learned to drive a motor vehicle.  Nevertheless, these were the individuals who caused us to think we, too, should try our hand at storytelling.  And we did.

Some of these writers were still cranking out the titles during our lifetime.  One of these, in large measure forgotten now, checked out at about the time your own interest in storytelling began.  His characters were dogs, all of a breed you would not consider now under any circumstances.  At the time of reading Albert Payson Terhune's novels, the collie seemed to embody dogness.  When you'd gone through all his titles,  your spirits sank because there were no more possibilities.

This same dynamic sent you to libraries, eager to find new authors to read, ever hopeful of finding writers still living, who were producing the equivalent of a new book every year or so.

When you got into the world of publishing, particularly the massmarket side, you saw how the company you worked for and its rival, to whom you once sold paperback rights of hardcover books you'd published, fought over rights to writers such as Agatha Christie. "Money in the bank," your paperback publisher told you.  "We watch those copyrights like a hawk, then we pounce with peremptory bids."

Fred Klein, Sales Manager at what was then the rival, Bantam Books, said in essence the same thing.  "Ka-ching,"  he said.  "The language of the happy cash register."

In your life time, a number of prolific writers have taken on interns as partners, sharing by-lines and considerable royalties.  A pal who also writes text books has taken on such an assistant, and not to forget Gayle Lynds, an old pal you once published in a literary journal, getting assignments to flesh out Robert Ludlum plots before moving off on her own to write her own best sellers (and give you a generous blurb on your Fiction Writers' Handbook).

The latest, newest twist comes from the Irtish writer and one-time Mann-Booker Prize winner, John Banville, prolific enough to use a pseudonym for a series of mystery novels featuring a detective of his own invention.  This fact alerted Banville's literary agent, who happens to be the literary executor for the late, moody-but-great mystery writer, Raymond Chandler.  What a coincidence that Banville has begun writing novels featuring Raymond Chandler's private detective, Philip Marlowe.

Which brings you to regard the literary tradition of quiting, which has nothing to do with leaving, everything to do with answering, as in unrequited love being a one-way street, love not returned.  Writers frequently borrow themes and characters, in a real sense having a dialogue, sometimes across generations, with another writer.  Shakespeare quits Chaucer with his own version of Troilus and Cressida.  So does Raymond Chandler quit Joseph Conrad by naming his private detective after Marlowe, the narrator of Conrad's most famous novel, The Heart of Darkness.

One of your favorites of the Henry James novels, The Ambassadors, is quitted by Cynthia Ozick in her novel, Foreign Bodies.  The closest thing you can think of to a quitting you'd like to do, was written by a writer you have admired and more or less tucked away, forgotten, Vance Bourjaily, its title, Now Playing at Canterbury.  An ensemble cast of characters is putting on a new, American opera at a Midwestern university.  Each of the cast is reminded of or tells a story.  

This is a work you must read again, because you, in your admiration for Chaucer, wish to do a short-story version of The Canterbury Tales.    You've played with this notion for some time, beginning with an actor named Matthew Bender, who is returning home to Santa Barbara from a lead role in an off-Broadway version of Troilus and Cressida, thus quitting The Odyssey and, while you're at it, quitting James Joyce's quitting of The Odyssey with his Ulysses.  You've done some of the Bender stories.  Now, you need to live long enough to take a run at the Chaucer, which might be in fact the thing you've been waiting for.

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