Category Archives: James M. Cain

Links: Make It New

Ruth Franklin delivers a few of her reading resolutions for the 2012. Her fourth one, about avoiding distraction, seems increasingly essential. As for me, last year I read little besides 2010, ’11, and ’12 releases, and I hope to spend the coming year spending more reading time with books that aren’t on the new-release schedule; we’ll see how it goes.

There is no question about the political import of contemporary writing that George Saunders cannot politely bat away. In an interview with Full Stop as part of its series of questionnaires on “The Situation in American Writing,” he defends writing as “useless work” and writes that, at best, “what fiction can do is inspire tenderness.” This would come off as protesting too much (or, rather, overly protesting a fiction writer’s utility as a protester), except that he acknowledges that a writer is a product of his or her allegiances; because those political and class positions are unavoidable in the writing, he argues, why expend the extra effort broadcasting them?

James Campbell looks at the first volume of Ernest Hemingway‘s collected letters and Paul Hendrickson‘s biography, Hemingway’s Boat, and finds some of the roots of Papa’s self-aggrandizing fictions. His son Gregory was fed up with that and plenty else besides by 1952: “If I ever meet you again and you start piling the ruthless, illogical and destructive shit on me, I will beat your head into the ground and mix it with cement to make outhouses.”

Paul Laurence Dunbar (from his 1898 novel, The Uncalled): “There are plenty of interesting characters in a small town. Its life is just what the life of a larger city is, only the scale is smaller.”

I’ve never lived in Los Angeles, but I was enchanted by James M. Cain‘s 1933 essay on the city, “Paradise,” even the parts grousing about what makes for a quality chamber of commerce. Still, if you get through the virtuoso opening section you’ll have read the best writing in it. Cain nails a tone at once awed and skeptical about Southern California, as in this bit where he empowers the reader to add a few cultural touches to LA: “If a filling-station occurs to you, a replica of the Taj Mahal, faithfully executed in lath and plaster, put that in. If you hit on a hot-dog stand in the shape of a hot dog, prone, with portholes for windows and a sign reading ‘Alligator Farm,’ put that in. Never mind why a hot-dog stand should have portholes for windows and a new line of alligators.”

From Bernard Malamud to Helen Frankenthaler to Dick Cheney in a few easy steps.

Deborah Eisenberg: “You can’t just expect to sit down and write something good. There have always been a few people that can. I certainly can’t and when I started I couldn’t write a decent English sentence. It’s very thorny grammar, it’s difficult, it’s squishy weird grammar, it’s hard to get a handle on.”

Jane Smiley, debunking the notion that great writers work in solitude: “[A]s I got to know about various great literary figures, like Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf, they weren’t by themselves at all. They were part of a group. They had friends or associates or rivals that they contended with or joined with so when I got to the [Iowa] writers workshop it seemed normal to me that you would talk about what you were interested in, the way you would no matter what you were trying to do. This applied to artists too.”

Links: So Much for That

Wendy Lesser: “[T]he literary critics I really care about are mostly dead.”

In response to my post last week about The Late American Novel, Frank Wilson questions my supposition that readers look to novels for validation of their feelings. “I certainly don’t read them to validate my feelings about anything, if only because I feel no need to validate my feelings. I read them to be transported to an interesting place where interesting things are taking place.”* Fair point, but, still, what makes those novels interesting? About ten years ago I heard Robert Christgau say something on a panel that I’ve always kept in the back in my head: “A great song can’t tell you something you don’t already know.” (That’s a paraphrase; I doubt he’d use a double negative, even casually on a panel.) The surfaces of a song, novel, movie, poem, whatever, always have the capacity to surprise us—it’s why we never tire of new ones. But ultimately each of those songs, novels, movies, poems, whatevers, are hitting something that feels familiar.

Jennifer Egan‘s next project is “a novel about the women who worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II.”

Lionel Shriver‘s next book is The New Republic, a novel about terrorism inspired by the time she spent living in Northern Ireland. She wrote the book in 1998 but couldn’t attract a publisher then: “[A]t that time I had trouble getting American publishers interested in the manuscript—none of them were interested in terrorism until after 9/11. Plus they didn’t give two hoots about Northern Ireland—I’d start talking about Northern Ireland and they’d fall asleep. Now in some ways the US cares too much about terrorism and for a long time I felt it would be wrong to publish something that has a sense of humour about the issue. Enough time has gone by for a droll novel to be well received.”

Dale Peck: “[I]t’s my sense that there are talented writers out there who are more concerned with reputation and how that translates into sales than they are concerned with what they are actually putting on the page.”

Hilton Als delivers a thoughtful consideration of James M. Cain‘s work, though the best line in it actually comes from Luc Sante, who called The Postman Always Rings Twice “a prose poem hallucinated from a potboiler.”

Please don’t assume that Suri Hustvedt‘s new novel, about a woman abandoned by her husband, has anything to do with her real-life husband, Paul Auster.

Longtime music critic Tom Moon exposes his own work to criticism, and finds the current reviewing landscape wanting. Many of his concerns are applicable to book reviewing, for instance: “Do I often lean too much on the supplied materials, on the ‘story’ as it is offered up by a publicist? To a degree, that’s inevitable, especially with a high-profile artist. I think, though, that it’s important to strive for some original insight to balance that out. This doesn’t have to be a superlong essay, just a passage or two that anticipates the reader’s question about what happens inside the work—how it sounds, the emotional landscape it strives for, etc. It can be enormously challenging to write those kinds of descriptions, but often it’s that kind of writing that sparks curiosity in readers.”

Newsweek considers novelists who keep at it well after they’re capable of producing good work. Most of the examples cited are thriller authors, who are more often obligated to turn out new works on a regular basis; plenty of exceptions abound, of course.

Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s 1984 novel, Slow Fade, will be reissued this year in book form and as an audiobook read by Will Oldham. (via)

Does the New York Times paywall mean we’ll get an Amazon Book Review? That sound you hear is me shaking a Magic 8-Ball where all the answers are “Doubtful.”

* My heart lifted a bit to learn that Wilson’s link is appended with the four-word parenthetical, “(Hat tip, Dave Lull).” I know Lull only as an intrepid and knowledgeable gatherer of relevant book-related links, though (to the best of my knowledge) he doesn’t blog himself. To be included among his gleanings is high praise indeed.

Journalist-Novelist Redux

A couple of days ago I wondered out loud if newsrooms were the chief training ground for fiction writers in the first half of the 20th century, in the way MFA programs appear to be now. As if on cue, the Washington Post‘s obituary blog, Post Mortem, has a piece on the late Roy Hoopes, who wrote a well-received biography of crime author and journalist James M. Cain in 1982. The post is largely a reminder that Cain, who died in 1977, grew up in the D.C. area and spent the final years of his life in the Maryland burbs; in between, he took reporting jobs in Baltimore and New York before turning to screenwriting and fiction. He worked for H.L. Mencken at the Baltimore Sun and was briefly the New Yorker‘s managing editor—so briefly that he doesn’t merit a mention in Brendan Gill‘s Here at the New Yorker. “I was the managing editor but all you did was check the budget,” he told the Post in a 1969 interview. I was the 27th Jesus. Ogden Nash had been the 16th. After Thurber. Intramurally, [editor Harold] Ross was an impossible guy to work with. But I liked Ross after 6.”

That John Carmody 1969 profile (PDF), linked to in the blog post, is well worth reading in its entirety—it puts the grizzled newsman on full display, and places his work in its appropriate context: “Jim Cain is one of those rare, faintly sung people who drew, oh, maybe, a crowsfoot on the image that this country held of itself during the 1930’s and all through the 1940’s,” he writes. “As a novelist, he showed us what money could do and a certain kind of mindless love could do and what greed could do and he wasn’t … too social about it (which was significant) in the 1930’s.” It’s pretty well known that it helped to be a Pinkerton if you were going to be a crime novelist in the 30s. Did it help to be a reporter too?