Monthly Archives: March 2020

Existential Query: Will There Ever Be Another Donald Westlake?

Another post I recently read, written by a literary agent, gave an exhaustive list of all the things authors should not do in the opening lines of their novel.

No fighting, breathing heavily, or running. No dialogue. No dead bodies. No rhetorical questions. No waking up. No vague philosophical statements. No false beginnings. No flashbacks. No prologues.

Don’t even think about anything that could be construed as filler actions or idleness, such as sighing, grinning, or pursing one’s lips. Action that involves fighting or running is a no-no because we don’t yet know or care about the character. But well, apparently we aren’t allowed to actually say anything that would reveal information about the character through dialogue or philosophical inquiry because that’s a “tension killer”.

Advice for novice writers treats readers as though they are inept children with the attention spans of goldfish.  The same agent posted a tweet by another agent who apparently felt the need publicize how a single opening sentence had motivated her to request an entire manuscript. The statement was followed by #querytip, but I personally find it embarrassing that this is the level of flippancy we’ve come to. When a gutted reader commented on the post, asking for examples of what writers were permitted to do, the agent responded with a circuitous rant that amounted to the assertion that the more experienced a writer became, the better their first line would be by default.

Oh, good.

From The Absurdity of Publishing, by Zandra J.  (published online, naturally)

“WELL, PRINCE, Genoa and Lucca are now no more than private estates of the Bonaparte family. No, I warn you, that if you do not tell me we are at war, if you again allow yourself to palliate all the infamies and atrocities of this Antichrist (upon my word, I believe he is), I don’t know you in future, you are no longer my friend, no longer my faithful slave, as you say. There, how do you do, how do you do? I see I’m scaring you, sit down and talk to me.”

From War and Peace, by Leo Somebodyorother.

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

Some hack devoting 206,052 words to dudes hunting a whale (animal rights activists will freak).

The Hunter (December 1962): “When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell.”

The Man With the Getaway Face (March 1963): “When the bandages came off, Parker looked in the mirror at a stranger.”

The Outfit (September 1963): “When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed.”

The Mourner (December 1963): “When the guy with the asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away.”

The Score (July 1964): “When the bellboy left, Parker went over to the house phone and made his call.”

The Jugger (July 1965): “When the knock came at the door, Parker was just turning to the obituary page.”

The Handle (February 1966): “When the engine stopped, Parker came up on deck for a look around.”

The Seventh (March 1966): “When he didn’t get any answer the second time he knocked, Parker kicked the door in.”

The Rare Coin Score (1967): “Parker spent two weeks on the white sand beach at Biloxi, and on a white sandy bitch named Belle, but he was restless, and one day without thinking about it he checked out and sent a forwarding address to Handy McKay and moved on to New Orleans.”

The Green Eagle Score (1967): “Parker looked in at the beach and there was a guy in a black suit standing there, surrounded by all the bodies in bathing suits.”

The Black Ice Score (1968): “Parker walked into his hotel room, and there was a guy in there going through his suitcase laid out on his bed.”

The Sour Lemon Score (1969): “Parker put the revolver away and looked out the windshield.”

Deadly Edge (1971): “Up here, the music was just a throbbing under the feet, a distant pulse.”

Slayground (1971): “Parker jumped out of the Ford with a gun in one hand and the packet of explosive in the other.”

Plunder Squad (1972): “Hearing the click behind him, Parker threw his glass straight back over his right shoulder, and dove off his chair to the left.”

Butcher’s Moon (1974): “Running toward the light, Parker fired twice over his left shoulder, not caring whether he hit anything or not.”

Comeback (1997): “When the angel opened the door, Parker stepped first past the threshold into the darkness of the cinder block corridor beneath the stage.”

Backflash (1998): “When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the rest of the windshield and crawled through onto the wrinkled hood, Glock first.”

Flashfire (2000): “When the dashboard clock read 2:40, Parker drove out of the drugstore parking lot and across the sunlit road to the convenience store/gas station.”

Firebreak (2001): “When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.”

Breakout (2002) : “When the alarm went off, Parker and Armiston were far to the rear of the warehouse, Armiston with the clipboard, checking off the boxes they’d want.”

Nobody Runs Forever (2004): “When he saw that the one called Harbin was wearing a wire, Parker said, ‘Deal me out a hand,’ and got to his feet.”

Ask the Parrot (2006): “When the helicopter swept northward and lifted out of sight over the top of the hill, Parker stepped away from the tree he’d waited beside and continued his climb.”

Dirty Money (2008): “When the silver Toyota Avalon bumped down the dirt road out of the woods and across the railroad tracks, Parker put the Infiniti into low and stepped out onto the gravel.”

Need you ask?

A while back, I somehow I got a trial subscription to this thing called Medium Daily Digest.  Showed up in my inbox every morning like clockwork, for months.  A potpourri of online articles, on topics ranging from How I Ended Up Running An Outlaw Biker Gang to The Misogyny and Authoritarianism of Paw Patrol.  Sometimes the articles are good.  I mean, they’re not trying to sell me Viagra or anything.  The trial subscription ran out, and now they want money.  To read blog articles.  I think they’re missing the point.

So while the trial subscription was active, this article about publishing was highlighted.  They helpfully inform you it takes eight minutes to read.  More like five for me, but see, I know some of this shit already.  I worked in publishing, briefly.  A Likely Story, you say?  Precisely so.

One of Westlake’s best comic novels, if not the best.  Out of print for God only knows how long, still waiting for the ebook (and waiting, and waiting).  Westlake only got it published, after multiple rejections, because Otto Penzler was wooing him for The Mysterious Press.  Otto started a separate imprint for non-mystery books by mystery authors, just to show his quarry he was serious. It’s not often the 80’s makes me feel nostalgic (and the novel itself is anything but), but that’s a story you don’t hear much in the publishing biz now.  Not likely at all anymore.

The novel is written in the first person, and is a satire of the publishing industry, among other things.  Early on, there’s a snatch of dialogue where Tom says to a colleague, as they compile a list of things never-to-do in their line,  “Never write a novel in the first person.” 

There were always rules, they’ve always changed, and they were always broken.  That’s what they’re there for.  If everybody stays within the lines, the lines won’t be worth perusing.  Doesn’t mean you pay no attention to the laws laid down by The Powers That Be, just that you need to make your own as you go.  By-laws, if you will.  Written by you.  If you’re a writer, and if you’re not, what’s the point?   (Being a blogger, I don’t need one.)

In a later and bloodier novel, The Hook, Westlake repurposed the premise of Strangers on a Train for the publishing biz.  A modestly successful novelist who can’t get published anymore because the bookstore chain computers say  he’s a bad risk, agrees to whack a badly blocked bestselling author’s litigious estranged wife in exchange for getting to publish his own novel under the latter’s name, in exchange for half the advance, that would otherwise go to the ex.

And the joke is, they’re both in the same boat–the moral conundrum isn’t the murder, it’s that each is selling out his professional pride, rather than lose his profession entirely.  Even though both have published many novels (one of them under multiple names, to try and do an end run around those computers), and one is rich and famous, there’s still a certain fragility to any novelist’s position (Stephen King doesn’t count, since he only writes novels as a sideline now).

A writer of any gender is at bottom a salesman, and there’s no rock bottom to the life.  Except everybody dast blame them.  Who ever blames publishers when they don’t like the latest novels?  But it is in fact publishers who decide not only which books get in print, but which manuscripts get submitted in the first place, since the more you strike out, the worse your chances get and the harder it is to get an agent to return your calls.  You learn to write to the market, or the market writes you off.  There are a great variety of markets one can write for, and the greatest of names are painfully aware of their own, whatever they may be.

Even an established author like Westlake knew better than to go off-reservation too often, which is why there are 24 Parker novels, and 14 Dortmunders.  The former series happened because of Bucklin Moon, whose own fiction career had been torpedoed by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, and had been reduced to wading through the slush pile at Pocket Books.

When he found The Hunter in there, it excited him, and he wanted more.  So he told Westlake to rewrite the ending (where Parker gets killed off),  give them several novels a year about this low-life, and the rest is bloody bullet-riddled history.  This, mind you, after Gold Medal and Dell had passed on the book.  If Moon hadn’t seen it, neither might any of us.  Unsung heroes doesn’t half-say it, when you’re talking editors.  The good ones, anyway.

Westlake’s reinvention of himself as a comic author, which ultimately led him to Dortmunder, likewise came about as an act of rebellion, Westlake’s this time.  He started writing a mystery/adventure, and it kept coming out funny, so he went with that, against his agent’s remonstrances that there was no market for funny mysteries anymore.

The Fugitive Pigeon became his biggest seller to date.  That couldn’t have happened if he didn’t have a book a year contract at Random House, and this was the book for that year, written to what was considered a more female audience of genteel mystery lovers (while the more hard-boiled paperbacks were for the boys).

His editor there was Lee Wright, a woman of remarkable literary gifts, who Westlake considered the best he ever worked with (with Moon orbiting close behind).  How did Westlake land that coveted contract, when all he’d done prior to this was short stories for the pulps and a long list of sleaze paperbacks no respectable publisher would touch?  Wouldn’t you like to know?  And so would I, but the publishing industry has yet to bring forth a Westlake biography to provide us with such details.  Many others were granted equal or greater opportunities, and are now entirely out of print.   And others got rich enough to buy their own islands.  (And may also be out of print–which would you choose?)

Some authors of note spend their whole careers with one publisher.  Others, like Westlake, are far more peripatetic.  Partly because of their inner natures, and partly because book sales, while healthy enough, are not so brisk as to make it a priority to hang into them (“Bye Don, thanks for all the Dortmunders.”)  So it is helpful that there be lots of outlets for talent, instead of just a few multi-media titans, with all their various imprints.  That way, you can shop around.

And of course, in this brave new world we live in, there’s self-publishing.  Something Westlake treated as the joke it usually is, in God Save The Mark, where Fred Fitch (the other one) has to fend off the advances of a neighbor who has a massive manuscript relating to his speculative scenario about Caesar having WWI biplanes during his campaign in Gaul.  (Which he won pretty convincingly without, right?  I mean, why not Hannibal?  Or Spartacus, like in that SNL skit with Kirk Douglas?)  He wants Fred to spend his newfound inheritance to print up innumerable copies of the book, and it’s a sign that Fred is beginning to put pigeon-dom behind him when he demurs.

Westlake’s comic  novels are littered with grifters who promise literary fame and fortune to those who will pay them their hard-earned dollars–just another con, and Westlake worked with Scott Meredith, literary grifter supreme,  who ironically did give a number of major talents a start, Westlake not least among them.  But it wasn’t what they wrote for him that was the making of them.  It was just the practice, cranking out crap for a quick buck–and reading other people’s bad books in the slush pile, sending them notes, learning what to avoid.  (And most of all, they learned to avoid guys like Scott Meredith.)

Self-publishing has a new wrinkle today–you can literally publish yourself.  Online.  Start your own digital publishing company, which can be just for you, or host other writers as well.  I’ve greatly enjoyed the comic crime novels of Caimh (pronounced ‘qweev’) McDonnell, an Irish stand-up comedian who decided to be funny in print, while getting in a good bit of trenchant social commentary along the way, and damned if he doesn’t pull that off some of the time.  But other times I’m thinking this guy needs an editor.  (And all the time I’m thinking he may have read almost as much Westlake as I have, so at least he chooses good models to work from.)

See, the problem with this type of self-publishing–even when it works out financially–is that you don’t get the apprenticeship.  You don’t have to worry about rejection slips, or being summoned to an office and given notes on how to improve your work.  And that all sounds great, but Westlake knew damned well that a good editor is worth his or her weight in gold-pressed latinum.  No matter how good you are, you can always be better.  A practiced eye can tell you where your weak spots are, how to fix them.  So you develop faster, find your own voice more easily.  (Or in Westlake’s case, multiple voices.)

Magazines aren’t a good medium to break in through anymore.  Just not enough people willing to pay to read fiction in that format. Westlake did an enormous amount of writing for science fiction and mystery magazines in the late 50’s, early 60’s, most of which are gone now.  Hundreds of stories, most of which will never see the light of day again, and he’d probably be fine with that. His memories of writing to that market were not, in the main, nostalgic.

The dark side of having an editor/publisher is that he may not be there to nurture you, but rather use you, as editors like John W. Campbell used generations of up and coming wordsmiths to give him (and us) the same basic idea over and over again–his notion of evolved psychic superman (‘psupermen’ was Westlake’s own contemptuous term) overcoming their inferiors, and then quite often ruling them.  In an essay where he announced his decision to stop writing for the SF pulps, Westlake revealed that he’d put an outright spoof of Campbell into one story–and Campbell not only didn’t realize he was being lampooned, he loved the story, insisted it be made longer, and his surrogate’s role greatly enlarged.

But then again, a whole lot of great writers came up through the pulps, going back to one of America’s greatest–Westlake’s hero, Dashiell Hammett.  Part of crafting a unique voice for yourself may involve meeting resistance to it–learning how to fight back against editorial expectations.  Anyone who reads about Hammett’s early days as a yarn spinner for Black Mask will know he had to fight several editors on his way up–each of whom helped and hindered him to varying degrees.

And then he had to fight for his vision at Knopf, where he was asked if he really needed to make it clear Spade and Brigid were doing the horizontal tango?  He insisted he did.  They backed down.  See, the ending wouldn’t have the same impact if the two hadn’t been lovers–the ending of the Huston film,  stylish and beloved as it is, doesn’t have a tenth the power–because you never really believe Bogie’s Spade ever gave a damn.  Just playacting his way through.  Which is something any writer better watch out for.  Huston had Bogart, Astor, Lorre, Greenstreet (and Arthur Edeson).  Hammett just had a typewriter.  And every time I compare the two reigning takes on that story, the typewriter wins.  Hands down.  Always will.  Mere words.

Of which I have now typed over 3,000, and FYI, I started typing this thing many months ago, and fell into a sort of creative torpor.  I came across the draft last week, thought maybe it was time for me to finish it up, or delete it.

Here is my point–I’m not a real writer.  I just write about what other people wrote.  And since I don’t get paid for it, I can’t even call myself a critic, not that I really aspire to be called that.  I aspire to understand why some words move me more than others.  Why some writers get under my skin, and others don’t.  And these days, I see so few of the former, so many of the latter.  And I suspect that’s because the way writers get made nowadays is not so conducive to the kind of writing I like.

And yet I know there are many good writers of fiction out there.  Many make their living in entertainment, where the money is much better, and the creative freedom is–negotiable?  Writing scripts, for TV or Film, comes with so many directives, rules, formats, time constraints, and endless tropes.  It’s really more of a collective effort, which is not in itself a bad thing, but it’s not the same thing as sitting down and writing a story for yourself–even if you also have a market to write to.  Even if you have an editor to satisfy.  It’s still mainly just you, hammering it out, building stories, seeking settings,  fleshing out characters, pondering motivations, and dealing, always, with whatever the reigning style of your era is.

Should you work with the grain, or against it?  I suspect pretty much every writer worth reading has done both.   Westlake combined the two with a deftness I’ve never quite seen anywhere else, to the point where you wonder where the formula leaves off and the man begins.  Probably he did too.  The  most important thing he did was decide what he wanted to say with each story–the questions he always wanted to ask, of each character.  Who are you?  What do you want?  What are you willing to do to get it?  What wouldn’t you do?  How much can you compromise without losing the only thing you ever really have–which is yourself.  Your identity.

Now I know full well Westlake will never have nearly so impressive a literary footprint as Tolstoy, Melville, or the beloved Dickens.  (Nor did he ever sport as impressive a beard as any of them, which is probably why he shaved it before long.)    But his achievement as a writer, in many ways, is even more remarkable, since he kept producing great work over half a century, never had a day job, or a landed estate.  Certainly crowds of people never waited restlessly at a dockside wharf to learn the fate of Alan Grofield in Butcher’s Moon (Just keep reading.) but try finding anyone who can give you a plot synopsis of The Old Curiosity Shop.  (Maybe Peter Dinklage for the evil dwarf?)

His humbler place in the pantheon is nonetheless a place, and it rises over time–nobody thought Shakespeare was all that big a deal in the early 1600’s.  Point is, Westlake did what he loved, and people still love it now that he’s gone.  That’s a winning game.

So will there be another like him?  Who produces nearly a hundred fascinating novels, none of them really bestsellers, or critical favorites, yet most of them popular, endlessly reprinted, each very much its own thing;  alternately funny, dark, thrilling, empathic, philosophical, searing, satiric, sardonic, piquant, prescient–and yet each somehow tied to all the others, forming a corpus, a body of work, that rewards endless rereading and cross-reading–so much so that at the time I type this, all but a handful of his books can be downloaded into a digital device for a few bucks?

Might someone accomplish that once more?

All I can tell you is, it won’t be me.  How about you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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