‘Tis pleasant, sure, to see one’s name in print.
A book’s a book, although there’s nothing in ‘t.
In reviewing our last book, I was moved to rant a bit about how, much as I disparaged its quality as a literary work, it was, nonetheless, still easily and instantaneously available to anyone with with an e-reader. That was largely because it came out in 2003, by which time pretty much any book that got a print edition got an electronic one to go with it. Unfortunately, by the time e-books became de rigeur, most of Westlake’s best work had already been produced and published.
And yet, it must be said, most of his best work is still ‘in print’, even if only in digital form, or as audio books (if you call that print). All twenty-eight Richard Stark novels. Of the fourteen Dortmunder novels, the only one you can’t get at the Amazon Kindle Store is Don’t Ask (has anyone asked?), and there’s still fourteen books, because Thieves Dozen is there. The five Mitch Tobin mysteries–all there. Series fiction tends to perpetuate itself, because publishing, tangible or virtual, loves repeat customers. (Sara Joslyn and Samuel Holt are shit out of luck, but I don’t think we need to worry ourselves too much about that for the present time.)
The Ax, his best-selling and most critically lauded work, self-evidently has a Kindle edition. His few very long novels, none of which quite exactly fit his usual niche, are all there too, amazingly. Ex Officio. Dancing Aztecs. Kahawa. Smoke. You could spend a whole summer at the beach getting through all that digital ink.
Between University of Chicago Press, Hard Case Crime, Mysteriouspress.com and a few other outlets, you can read the great bulk of Westlake’s vast treasure trove of stories, in physical and/or electronic form (including some things that went unpublished in his lifetime)–some e-publishers have even made some of his early science fiction and sleaze paperbacks available–nice thing about that is they don’t have the money to commission cover art, so often you get the original cover, in all its lurid tawdry splendor. You can even get Comfort Station, a throwaway parody of Arthur Hailey (that nobody who has the original paperback will ever throw away, because precioussssssss…..)
And naturally there’s plenty of used hardcovers and paperbacks of many editions still to be had via used bookstores and the online marketplace. Also, lest we forget, The Getaway Car, a nonfiction anthology, that opened our eyes to new possible interpretations of Westlake’s fiction and Westlake himself.
So I can’t really complain that his books aren’t out there, pretty easily available to anyone with a bit of spare cash and spare time, and the willingness to search around a bit. You can get download most of his best work (and much of his worst) with nothing more than a credit card and a wifi connection.
But I’m going to complain anyway, because it’s not enough. Some of the best novels he ever wrote have been out of print for decades. And it’s increasingly difficult to find even his most famous and influential books in anything other than ebook form. I understand the way the publishing industry is going–I work for a library, and I thank the gods for my own Kindle (reading Dostoevsky’s Demons on it right now–timely–too timely)–but I also know we’re a very long way from abandoning paper books yet. I ought to know, since I’m the one toting boxes full of them, day after day.
I have read that Abby Westlake and others with a connection to her husband’s literary estate, have expressed interest in some of his work being reprinted by The Library of America. Inquiries were made not long after Mr. Westlake’s death. But nothing came of them. And yet, shortly after Elmore Leonard’s death–
Well deserved, but why him and not Westlake, who died almost ten years ago? I could make some guesses, but guess what? I don’t care why. There may be reasons, but there aren’t any good reasons.
Leonard got his start in westerns; Westlake in science fiction and fantasy, with the occasional dash of horror–the old literary establishment prejudice against the latter genres?
Maybe not. Philip K. Dick got a collection too (with none of my favorites in it–mainly the ones that feel least like science fiction, which I would guess was the point). And Vonnegut, but of course he shook the dust of genre from his feet a long time ago. I was never all that impressed with him, to be honest. But he’s an Important Writer (who is mainly kept in print by college professors and their students).
(Incidentally, that Jackson collection is wholly inadequate–where’s The Birds Nest, The Sundial, Hangsaman? Most people still don’t understand how great she was. I’m glad she got in, but that is not sufficiently representative of her range.)
My interest in the LOA began in earnest when I read their collection of crime novels of the 1950’s–a truly original and downright seminal anthology of oddball authors, that will centrally figure in articles I aspire to publish here someday soon, and maybe I will. They also published five David Goodis novels, almost single-handedly reviving interest in him (though not in France, where they’ve never stopped being interested in him).
I truly admire David Goodis. I have spent many a cold windy day pouring over his dark meanderings in a bar, a foaming glass of suds beside me (it’s really the only way to read him). He was not nearly as good a writer as Donald Westlake. Hell, I’m not sure he was a good writer at all; that’s not the point of Goodis. I guess you can say he epitomizes a style, a mood, but I suspect the main reason he got that anthology is that the French like him. (Psst! They like Westlake too!)
Looking over their list of volumes to date, I note a decided dearth of humorous writers. Goes without saying they have Twain, Thurber, Lardner–but no Perelman, no Benchley, and no Wodehouse (he’s more American than Nabokov!). George S. Kaufman gets a collection, and much as I love the Marx Brothers, I’m not entirely sure why that is. You can just watch the movies made of his plays (the best of which were co-written with Moss Hart). I’m not begrudging him, I’m just saying. Nobody reads Kaufman to laugh these days. I mean, it’s bad enough they haven’t published any Parkers, but they haven’t even published any Dorothy Parkers!
One can understand that there’s a whole lot of sacred scribblers out there in the weeds, waiting their moment in the sun. One can further understand that every time they publish a collection of some author who isn’t deemed to be quite the right sort (apparently some people didn’t think Shirley Jackson was LOA-worthy, which I find LOL-worthy), you start seeing things like this–
(Okay, I agree something can be funny without being at all fair, but none of that changes the fact that Shirley Jackson was one of the greatest writers of her generation, and she’s been anthologized a lot.)
So you can imagine that some people would look down their noses at a Westlake collection. But that being said, what would such a collection look like? I don’t have the mad web skills that would allow me to create mock LOA covers, but I do have a pretty clear notion of what books of his ought to be in print that are currently not in print.
If Leonard got three volumes comprising twelve novels, Westlake deserves no less, but I don’t think we need to go with the decade-based system. I’d suggest that one volume be devoted to works leaning towards the whimsical side of Westlake’s nature (but often with a dark edge to them) and another leaning towards the dark side (but still with the odd dash of whimsy). Some of his books are so perfectly balanced between the two poles, they could go either way. But here’s how I’d do it.
Volume I–Donald E. Westlake: Five Novels of Heroic Absurdity, 1966-1984
The Spy in the Ointment
Help I Am Being Held Prisoner
A Likely Story
Volume II–Donald E. Westlake: Five Novels of Dangerous Bewilderment, 1961-1975
Up Your Banners
Volume III–Donald E. Westlake, Richard Stark, and Tucker Coe–Five Crime Novels, 1962-1997
My problem with Vol. III is that it steps on the toes of the publishers who are keeping all these great books around for us (so does Two Much!, I guess, but it’s just two good to leave out). It also potentially gets them a lot of new readers for Westlake, Stark, and Coe. A net positive, I think.
I’d really love to get A Jade In Aries in there too, but as I said, all the Tobins are evailable now. Wax Apple, to me, is the best of the five, even if A Jade In Aries is more ambitious and radical. Wax Apple is also the midway book in the series, the relative calm between the storms. And, you know, gender identity politics–what was brave and forward-thinking then can be easily misunderstood now. People can always go find more, and make up their own minds.
Just dreaming out loud. Maybe there’s something about Westlake that makes people in the book biz underrate him, even while they’re loving him. Maybe he was too successful at flying beneath the radar. Maybe he published too much, under too many names, and maybe he wrote to the market a little too much. (Elmore Leonard arguably did that even more.) Maybe he’s just too confusing, too hard to pigeonhole, flitting back and forth between comedy and crime, mendacity and murder, and blending them together so artfully that you don’t know where one leaves off and the other begins.
I have to admit, I wouldn’t envy the editor tasked with finding a way to sum him up in three books–and if it ever happened, he might well get only one.
I’m not the only one who thinks he’s among the greatest writers America ever produced, and my blog stats reveal that there are people all over this planet who think the same thing.
I’m just putting it out there.
And hopefully next week I’ll be putting out my review of the next Dortmunder, but after a two week hiatus, I figured a quick toss-off wouldn’t go amiss).
17 responses to “Mr. Westlake and the LOA.”
Talk to Otto Penzler
On Fri, May 19, 2017 at 4:55 PM, The Westlake Review wrote:
> fredfitch posted: ” ‘Tis pleasant, sure, to see one’s name in print. A > book’s a book, although there’s nothing in ‘t. Lord Byron In reviewing our > last book, I was moved to rant a bit about how much as I disparaged its > quality as a literary work, it was, nonetheless, still ” >
Otto Penzler isn’t affiliated with the LOA, last I heard. And there’s nothing I can tell him about Westlake he wouldn’t already know.
It occurs to me the tenth anniversary of Westlake’s death is coming up in 2018. Among other things.
This is a most interesting topic to chew over. I’m going to do so over the weekend, I hope. Naturally we’ll all have different contents (I see a lot of merit in your first and third volumes, but the second has only one title I find worth the keeping), but that’s part of the fun.
Speaking of bewilderment, I really don’t get the reaction to there being a volume of George S. Kaufman. He’s a historically important playwright (I would have said beyond cavil, but apparently not), one who oddly wrote only in collaboration, and because of that fact his various work hasn’t been gathered together in convenient form before. When I saw his volume on a bookstore shelf, I grabbed it in an instant — it’s the only LOA entry I own, besides the 2-volume set of musicals. Every title’s a classic, and of course seeing the movies is no equivalent at all.
I was hoping for exactly that response–nobody died and made me the Boss of Everything Westlake. Well, except Westlake.
You may not love hardboiled Westlake, but an awful lot of people do. That may actually prove to be his most durable work, over the long run. But no reason to neglect the comic side of him. Up Your Banners is one of the most interesting, honest, and overlooked books about racial turmoil I know of. Overdue for a revival (since, unfortunately, racial turmoil has already revived).
I guess I don’t think Kaufman is all that much of a literary lion–culturally iconic, sure. An important figure in the theater of his time. But hardly at the level of O’Neill or Williams (there are only five volumes in the entire series devoted to playwrights–the others are Miller and Wilder–George S. Kaufman is one of the five greatest playwrights in American history? Really?). His work doesn’t really pop on the printed page. He needs good actors–or anarchic baggy pants comedians–to speak his lines.
I’m not objecting to him, he deserves a book. I’m asking why he’s there ahead of superior print wordsmiths in a humorous vein, like Dorothy Parker, S.J. Perelman, Robert Benchley, maybe Russell Baker (remember him?), and of course, Donald E. Westlake. I guess I can understand Wodehouse not getting an LOA volume, since he’ll be in print forever. But seriously, he is way more American than Mr. Nabokov.
Besides some of the plays, what’s in the Kaufman collection? I could be wrong. It’s within the realm of extreme possibility. 😐
To me, the funny thing is, after being such a famous celebrity big shot writer, who made a ton of money, sold out to Hollywood (in a good way), Kaufman still got to take it with him. Irony!
You keep trying to classify Kaufman as a “humorist,” the better (I guess?) to make your point about the unfairness of Westlake’s treatment. (About which I totally agree, of course: he absolutely deserves 3 volumes if not more.) But humor per se isn’t Kaufman’s metier; he was a playwright. (OK, a few original screenplays, but they’re not what his reputation rests on.) Not all of his plays are primarily comedic, either. And of course his plays suffer when only read — whose don’t? — but print is how they get passed down.
And who are the great American playwrights? Eugene O’Neill. (Complete in LOA in 3 volumes.) Tennessee Williams. (Two volumes.) Arthur Miller. (Three volumes.) Thornton Wilder. (Check.) LOA also lists plays by Carson McCullers and Robert Frost as part of miscellaneous volumes, though I think it’d be fair to say that the stature of neither of them rests on that medium. Some other conceivably important playwrights are still alive (Neil Simon, plus he’s already memorialized himself in 4 huge volumes) or too recent to be sure about. Albee is an obvious omission, but his estate is notoriously protective (or maybe someone’s at work on his oeuvre right now, I don’t know.) But after we’ve cited all those names, who deserves consideration next among playwrights? It would be hard to avoid Kaufman for long.
Contents of the volume? Nine plays: The Royal Family, Dinner at Eight, and Stage Door (with Ferber); Animal Crackers (with Ryskind); June Moon (with Lardner); Once in a Lifetime, You Can’t Take It with You, The Man Who Came to Dinner (with Hart); Of Thee I Sing (with Ryskind & I Gershwin).
I’m familiar with most of these, from film and TV adaptations. I find them all charming. And very light, but that’s what he’s going for, and as I like to say, you don’t blame a writer for hitting what he aimed at. Obviously the Marx Brothers stuff is huge, but preserving that comes down to preserving the films. There have been many better screenwriters than him, and I doubt any of them get LOA collections. I guess figuring out who to pick is kind of a dark art.
They are humorous plays, in the main. And influential, and durable enough, but how often are they performed nowadays? He was the Neil Simon of his time, and I say that with respect. I guess you could argue that Simon is still around to plug his own stuff, and Kaufman isn’t. We needn’t beat the horse any further. I would have put him further back in the queue, but it’s not my call.
If we’re talking great American playwrights, I could mention the Wilson Bros. You know. Lanford and August. 😉
Bafflingly, the final four Parkers are not currently evailable, though e-versions are in circulation. (I got mine from Mike Schilling, god bless him.) I have mixed feelings about omnibus volumes, as I believe that books should exist as separate objects. (The Black Lizard single-volume Hammetts are beautiful, and make me wish Black Lizard could get their hands on Stark.) Still, omnibuses serve a useful archival purpose, and the Library of America volumes avoid the pitfalls that can plague multi-volume omnibuses. The pages aren’t too thin. The print isn’t too small. And yet, somehow, the books aren’t uncomfortably heavy to hold.
Generally, I’m in favor of all Westlake being in print in as many forms as possible. That is, until Amazon releases the neural versions that can be uploaded directly to your brain. (Even then, I’ll still hold onto my physical copies.)
Westlake used to say the difference between being in and out of print, to a writer, was the same as being alive or dead. But I’ve never been clear on whether he considered evailibility as the same thing. I suspect to him, it was never a real book unless you could feel the weight of it in your hand, run your fingers across the cover.
I would assume the final four Parkers will find a home. There are audible audiobooks (which is something I’ve no interest in).
My interest in this is simple–an LOA edition is an acknowledgement that your contribution to American literature is substantial and lasting. Westlake never got a Pulitzer, or any other literary prize, other than the Edgar. That is never going to happen now. This might. If Goodis, Chandler, MacDonald–why not him? (I tend to agree with Westlake that MacDonald basically wrote the same Chandler pastiches over and over, and that Chandler ain’t all he’s cracked up to be.) With all due respect, when he was in top form, he could write any of those guys under the table. And his influence is huge. But he’s a less defined ‘brand’, or really he’s multiple brands, which is the problem, perhaps. The blind men still don’t know what to make of the Elephant. Time they started looking harder.
Hmm–maybe move Adios Scheherazade over to Vol. 2, and put Up Your Banners in Vol I?
Only problem with that is that there’s a decided link between Adios and A Likely Story–the latter being a more optimistic version of the same story, told in the same epistolary format.
In any event, I’m not even sure all these books are short enough that you could fit five into one volume.
Well, there’s plenty of time to think about it.
That’s a great collection of Kaufmans. It’s got the three great Hart collaborations as well as his most famous serious plays. I’m very curious about Animal Crackers; the movie was made after years of Marxist improvisation, so I suspect it’s quite different from the original script.
Yes, having Animal Crackers as part of the book is especially interesting, as nothing of that genre (vehicle for vaudevillian[s]) has been in print before — sources had to be found and truly Edited for publication. It’s akin to the value of having As Thousands Cheer in the first LOA volume of musicals — from one viewpoint it’s (intentionally) ephemeral, as a topical themed revue of 1933, but such entertainments were a big part of the scene then, and this one was crafted for Marilyn Miller, Clifton Webb, and Ethel Waters, with sketches by Moss Hart and score by Irving Berlin. As a teacher of the history of musicals, I find its availability incredibly valuable (as I do with Animal Crackers).
So when does the Joss Whedon collection come out?
See, even I’m doing it. Only I can’t actually make up a fake cover, possibly with a photo of him at Comic Con.
Given Kaufman’s very large place in the popular culture of his era, this is nothing inappropriate, but I note a lot of the works collected there are collaborations (and those represent much of the work we remember him for). Lardner got his own collection, so he’s copacetic, but what about Hart?
And to get us back on topic, what about Westlake? Westlake was a far more versatile writer, with a much greater capacity to get out of the comic voice when needed, but the comic voice has come to define him, at least under his own name. Kaufman died in 1961. This collection came out in 2004. I’d rather not wait 43 years for the Westlake collection, if that’s okay.
Because of all the movies, and TCM, Mr. Kaufman’s oeuvre is safe. Not to mention certain prominent admirers.
If we did get a Westlake collection, it occurs to me that some authors–the most famous ones, with distinctive names–get just the last name on the cover. You know, the way the most prestigious lounge lizard acts are identified only by their first names in Vegas. If the author has a more common surname, or is less famous, the first name is included in smaller type. Just so no one is confused.
Westlake is by no means as famous as Hammett or Chandler. Roughly equivalent to MacDonald or Leonard. But he is, far as I know, the only prominent author of fiction named Westlake. I’d go with just the last name. What to do about Stark, Coe, Clark, et al, I’m open to suggestions. Here’s hoping the LOA is as well.
The script heading: “Westlake”.
Below that, in the same font as the titles: “Writing as Donald Westlake, Richard Stark, Tucker Coe, …”
Donald E. Westlake. Mustn’t forget his mother’s ambition for her childrens’ initials to spell something.
Nearly all of his books that really need reprinting are Westlakes, though.
I suppose we could descend into full fantasy and have one volume just for Stark, and one just for Coe (the entire body of work in that one), and not even mention Westlake on either cover.
He’d have liked that.
A quick update–and a happy one. Help I Am Being Held Prisoner and Brothers Keepers are both going to be reprinted by Hard Case Crime, in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Charles Ardai gave me the heads-up, after reading this piece. More out-of-print Westlake to follow (now that there’s no unpublished Westlake left).
So I’m almost tempted to say to hell with the LOA, except at one book a year, that’s going to take a long time. And some of Westlake’s best books don’t fit their niche terribly well (looking at you, Up Your Banners and Adios Scheherazade), but then again, neither did Memory. At any rate, they are bidding fair to be the #1 Westlake publisher in the world today.
Well, this one’s still getting looks, and at this point, the only books I suggested that aren’t evailable are the real hard cases (that even Hard Case won’t touch). Six books remaining. But they are six really interesting books. That would easily fit into two LOA volumes.
So I’d keep the two first headings–and put Adios, A Likely Story, and Up Your Banners under Heroic Absurdity. Killing Time, Killy, and Anarchaos under Dangerous Bewilderment.
And I guess you could add Levine to the first, and Humans to the second. Or is that the other way around?
I want it all out there. Every last word. But I can see the LOA’s problem. Most of the best books are taken. Not quite all.