Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The way some writers date

(Ross Macdonald wearing a fedora)
I spent my previous post excoriating the obtrusively amateurish Freudianism in Ross Macdonald's The Galton Case. Another aspect of that novel has dated almost as poorly, and that got me thinking about why some themes date better than others.

That second aspect is the depravity of the dog-eat-dog American suburbs. Here are four extracts from The Galton Case:
"Flowers bloomed competitively in the yards."

"Arroyo Park was an economic battleground where managers and professional people matched wits and incomes."

"The commuters in their uniforms, hat on head, briefcase in hand ... It was a junior-executive residential section."

"You wouldn't want to to get around that I didn't do my share ... You don't want to shame me in front of my friends. [this from a housewife trying to talk into her husband into buying cake for a church supper. And where does she want him to buy the cake? "You know the bakery at the shopping center."]
The first image is striking even if the sentiment is dated. The next two extracts can have little impact on later generations whose views of the suburbs were shaped by "Pleasant Valley Sunday." The fourth is just wince-makingly bathetic today, however it may have seemed to readers when The Galton Case was published in 1959.

Once upon a time in America, starting sometime after World War II and fizzling out in the mid-1960s, suburbs and their new accessibility to middle-class homebuyers were objects of fascination, horror, and fevered imaginings. The Galton Case appeared three years after the novel Peyton Place. I'm just old enough to remember Dave Berg poking amused fun at the suburbs in Mad magazine.

But the novelty wore off, generations grew up in the burbs, and their depravities and social pathologies were absorbed into popular culture and forgotten.

I reflected several times while reading The Galton Case how odd it was that the trappings of a story published in 1959 should feel stale, while those of Dashiell Hammett's stories, from thirty and more years before, should feel fresh. Why is this? It's not enough to suggest that Hammett was a better writer than Macdonald, because chip away the social trappings, and The Galton Case is a thrilling family drama with a virtuoso twist.

I'm just old enough to remember the tail end of the world for which Ross Macdonald wrote The Galton Case. Hammett's world, on the other hand is remote and hence new. Is that why it seems fresher to me than Macdonald's? Why do some old stories date poorly? Why do others seem thrillingly fresh?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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99 Comments:

Blogger Dana King said...

I think it's because Macdonald draws attention to the time of his story, while Hammett doesn't. Put collars on shirts and update the cars and communications a little, and THE MALTESE FALCON could happen any time. Macdonald locks his stories into the suburban hell of the 50s, and we don;t live there anymore.

July 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, John Huston put that proposition to the test already. The Maltese Falcon, first serialized in 1929, was filmed by Huston in 1941 with what I am told are styles in clothes, cars and so on of the 1940s rather than the time Hammett wrote the story. And most viewers would say the movie works.

July 19, 2011  
Blogger Patrick Murtha said...

The rule on this is quite simple, and well-known to historians of taste. The too-recent past seems really dated; when it gets old enough, it becomes classic or historic. The danger zone is approximately 25 to 75 years before the present -- although maybe, these days, datedness might commence at 10 or 15 years. This is exceptionally pertinent in the field of architectural preservation, because important buildings are most apt to be unloved and torn down during that period. But it holds true in many other situations as well. Once objects move beyond the period of anyone's living memory, the word "dated" no longer conceivably applies.

July 19, 2011  
Blogger C.B. James said...

I think Patrick may be right about this. It may be that not enough time has gone by. The Maltese Falcon has always struck me as firmly rooted in the 1930's. But this has never been a problem for me. I think that helps give it a classic feel.

Funny you mention the suburbs. The quotes you find dated strike me as very apropos for suburban Marin County where I lived up til recently and still work. You'd just need to add some anxiety over immigration and they'd all work very well.

July 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Patrick, I live in Philadelphia, where the house in which Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence was torn down in 1883, only to be reconstructed in replica form in 1975.

Yes, I allowed for the possibility that Macdonald might seem dated to me because I caught the tail end of his period. So, the Ross Macdonald vogue starts the day I die?

I wonder, too, if Hammett is one of those artists whose popularity transcends vicissitudes of taste -- though Shakespeare, Bach, and Piero della Francesca, to name just three, went through periods of neglect or misunderstanding.

July 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

C.B., it may be relevant that I grew up in Canada, where the urban-suburban divide may not have been quite as strong as in the U.S.

Those sentiments in the quotes may be apropos, but the words are dated. I used to wince when I'd hear someone refer to phonies as "plastic people" way, way after the 1960s. It's not that the targets of the criticism were not bullshitters who put on airs, but the term "plastic people" was too attached to its time to survive it. I expect it will remain so until some possible future when recycling is so universal that "plastic" becomes synonymous with "fresh, altruistic, environmentally conscious."

I don't think suburban will ever be regarded as chic, though in today's fragmented popular culture, there's room for anything. A restaurant in Philadelphia called Jones serves Duncan-Hines cake, and such.

July 19, 2011  
Blogger Patrick Murtha said...

I don't want to over-simplify. Some artists are more "timeless" than others, and although I don't think that necessarily increases their stature, it does inprove their chances of weathering the period of potential datedness. That period sometimes used to last for hundreds of years (the neglect of the Gothic before the 19th century Gothic Revival is a great example). Art historians write about this kind of thing a lot.

Although I think highly of Ross Macdonald, I don't think there's the slightest doubt that Dashiell Hammett, one of the great novelists of the 20th century in any genre, is his superior.

July 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder if any artist or style has enjoyed uninterrupted vogue (and I wonder if this would be a good thing). Another example of the vagaries of taste and history is that Gothic persisted much longer in Northern Europe than in in Italy.

A possibly more interesting question is why high melodrama was so prominent in 1950s American popular culture.

July 19, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

I think the distance in time periods is part of it more to the point MacDonalds themes are of a prersonal nature - a husband and wife arguing over what will of won't embarrass her, the suburbs and the people that live there, etc...where Hammett's themes are more universal and reoccuring - corrupt businesses, corrupt cities, etc...In short Hammett, the Maltese Falcon isn't about fedoras or Model T's, it's about greed, corruption nd to an extent ethics. MacDonald's story is about relationships, people in a set time. Those things change but mans basic sins do not.

July 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Robert, I'm not sure Macdonald would agree. Deep, dark family secrets are at the heart of some of our oldest literature. They don't call it an Oedipus complex for nothing.

That may speak more to the previous post than to this one, but then, readers are more like to say Macdonald's novels are about family secrets than that they're about the suburbs.

July 19, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

That's true in a sense and only as far as it goes. Family secrets as a subject are as old literature and certainly as old as Wilkie Collin’s Woman in White. But what those secrets are becomes part of the theme. If the secret is say, a child locked away who is autistic, that is foreign to todays audience since we wouldn't idntify with that since autistic children are pretty much excepted in society today, but if the family secret is a criminally insane killer, that theme can still have relavence today. You could probably take The Glass Key or The Falcon and update it easily for todays audience, but MacDonalds story loses it's relavence when updated unless it gets some serious surgery.

July 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You could probably take The Glass Key or The Falcon and update it easily for todays audience, but MacDonalds story loses it's relavence when updated unless it gets some serious surgery.

That's another way of saying that Macdonald's story is dated, isn't it, at least its Freudian jargon and some of its observation about the suburbs?

I should add that Macdonald juxtaposes some of those suburban vignettes with observations about the old rich on one hand and decaying cities on the other in ways that remain fresh and exciting.

July 19, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

Yes it is, Freudian or not. To me, and I enjoy MacDonald usually (I'm a bit nostalgic for that period of time), but his basic themes, his characters struggles are rooted in the time period of the story. They can't easily be thought of as still relevant when moved forward even ten years or so. But you are right, some of his observations - the old rich, the decaying cities - are still fresh, but I maintain that they ARE still fresh because they DO come forward as genuine themes in todays world. It's just that the main themes don't.

July 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"They can't easily be thought of as still relevant when moved forward even ten years or so."

I'll have to think about that. Despite the harsh criticism, The Galton Case was beautifully worked out. I mentioned somewhere that I'd have to read at least one earlier Macdonald novel and one later one to come to anything like a conclusion about his career. I look forward to doing so.

July 19, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

I haven't read any MacDonald in awhile, bbut I do remember enjoying his work 20 years or so ago, even tho' then it was still dated. I have a few of his books on my "Must Reread" to make them fresh in my mind for posts on Crimeways (my crime fiction blog on wordpress (shameless self promo - http://crimeways.wordpress.com/) but this discussion reminds me of an observation Chandler had on Hammett: "Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse;" And that is what Hammett fresh, his stories weren't about dead bodies, they were about the reasons there were dead bodies...greed, lust, etc..those are timeless, where MacDonald's characters dealt more with 'smaller' themes.

Just my thoughts on the subject as I think you are more the expert here and I value and respect your insights into "what it's all about".

July 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, I'm no expert on Ross Macdonald. And here's the link to your site in handy, one-click form: http://crimeways.wordpress.com/

July 19, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

I'm no expert either, tho' I have read a lot of his stuff, and I have also read the critisism of his work. Some I agree with, but it still doesn't stop me from enjoying his books. They may not be the "giants" of the genre like Hammet, Chandler, Cain, Thompson, but he is still MacDonald and sold a helluva lot of enjoyable books! And thanks for the link. Not necessary, but thought there were parts you might enjoy.

July 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know that I'd be subjecting Ross Macdonald to this kind of scrutiny had Declan Hughes and John Connolly not ranked him with Hammett Chandler among their ten crime writers to read before you die, and gone on to speak so highly of him. That might have been the first suggestion I'd heard of a Hammett-Chandler-Macdonald trinity of American hard-boiled crime writers.

July 19, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

I'll have to look that one up. That's lofty ground to be sure, but, us Irishman can get effusive after a good read or a good beer. Do you happen to have a link to that? Is it on Declan Burkes blog?

July 19, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

I loved THE GALTON CASE, in fact, it was the first Lew Archer book I ever read and because of it I read all the others I could get my hands on.

So, obviously, I'm disagreeing with you Peter.

As for the suburban thing wearing off - didn't John Updike make a career writing about suburbia? Not that I'm a big fan, but just thought I'd mention him.

July 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Robert, Hughes and Connolly are two of the smartest, most voluble, and most entertaining folks I come across of any nationality. The Hughes-Connolly discussion happened at Bouchercon 2010, and I wrote about it on my blog.

Anthony Boucher, for whom Bouchercon was named, was apparently the first to speak of a Hammett-Chandler-Mcdonald trinity. I don't know who it was that called Hammett's heroes hunters, Chandler's knights, and Macdonald's social workers, but that, perhaps better than simply grouping the three names, indicates Macdonald's achievement and stature.

July 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, you're not necessarily disagreeing with me. Do you think I'd have read The Galton Case in two work days and commented on it at this length if I don't find it greatly compelling? It makes me want to read more Macdonald, if only to see if I can separate the annoying quirks from the great achievement as a story teller.

I sometimes find it easier to comment on what I don't like a book than on what I do like. Perhaps what I should have said was that suburbia ceased to have exert the widespread popular fascination it had in the 1950s and early '60s/

July 19, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

It's curious to think that Macdonald's now wince-inducing pop-psychology observations and somewhat dated depictions of suburban life are the very things that helped raise his reputation to "literary" status by such cognoscenti as his pal Eudora Welty. Anointment by New York critics (always keen to scorn middle-class, suburban life, especially if it's Californian middle-class, suburban life) helped seal RM's reputation as more than "just" a mystery writer.

At least Macdonald is still being read, if not in the numbers of Hammett and Chandler. After all, who's reading Sloan Wilson's popularly- and critically acclaimed novel "exposing the thin veneer" of happy, respectable middle-class, suburban life, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, 1955, these days?

Having said that maybe it doesn't sound like I'm much of a Macdonald fan, but I am. From his big-theme explorations of what makes us human to such minutiae as his frequent and charming descriptions of bird life (RM was an avid bird watcher) I think RM is one of the great crime fiction writers. It's been said by both fans and detractors that he "wrote the same novel over and over." Maybe so, but with a few exceptions, they are worth reading today.

I think his best books are those from the period when he began to shake off Chandler's direct influence (possibly due in part to reading Chandler's low opinion of his writing), perhaps with The Way Some People Die, to the mid-60s with The Far Side of the Dollar.

July 19, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Dana, re "the suburban hell of the 50s" and not living there anymore. Nope, now we're living in a fresh, new hell, the 2010s. Doesn't every decade seem like a hell to at least some of its inhabitants?

Can't tell if you were being facetious (often difficult to tell online) but this view of 50s suburbia is a common-enough one. Naturally, promulgated by critics living in urban hells (say, Manhattan) and dozens of films of the period, No Down Payment, 1957, comes to mind. Lurid, vulgar, base, bed-swapping, pill-popping suburbanites.

Always shake my head when I read, watch this stuff. Were there places like those depicted in NDP? Sure. But my 1950s suburban, bourgeois childhood, if not idyllic, was a pretty happy one.

July 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, what will keep me reading Macdonald is that beneath all the stuff that I've been wincing at, he was a sharp observer, a credible pulp-era tough guy, and a gifted storyteller.

I don't remember if I've mentioned this over the past day or two, but I played a little game of imagining the story without the psychological jargon. It would have worked just as well.

I don't necessarily have a quarrel with Eudora Welty either. I'm the first to admit that I wasn't around when the suburbs were new, and I don't enough history to be able to put Macdonald's achievement int hat area into perspective.

July 19, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Well, the pop-psychology and references to suburbia aren't what made RM admired by a certain group of critics who normally paid little or no attention to crime fiction (as usual, I can't seem to make myself clear) but rather that references to subjects not usually found in the traditional mystery, the typical whodunnit--whatever these subjects might be--helped raise RM's status to "literary."

Welty praised Macdonald over either Hammett or Chandler partly because of his storytelling (but all 3 could tell a good story) but partly because of his themes of "social significance."

In his letters, Chandler often scoffed at books he had read that had some claim to social significance and, based on some of the authors who came in for a drubbing from him, Chandler was right. His books are read more often today than are most of the bestsellers of his time.

July 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder what she meant by Macdonald's "social significance" -- and whether social significance equals literary importance in the minds of people who think about such things.

The suburban observations may have been of real freshness and importance in 1959. On the other hand, I recognize that it's easier to talk about Freudianism and suburbanism than it is to get at the heart of what makes a good story, which The Galton Case is.

July 19, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

At that period of time, psychiatry was a very popular thing. I t had gone from a issue for the edges of society to almost a mainstream thing. Actors and actresses, housewives and business men were all going to a psychiatrist It was the pop thing, so I guess in that way, it was of social significance.

July 20, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I would imagine Macdonald was part of the current, yes. I wonder if any other crime writers incorporated it into their work around the same time.

July 20, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

Brett Halliday's Mike Shayne had a psychiatrist as a sort of side kick. that was what, mid 40's thru the 60's, I can think of, or remember some Britsh novels, but Shayne is the only one that pops in to mind.

July 20, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Now, that's of great literary, historical and sociological interest. I've always thought of Mike Shayne as one of his era's prototypical tough guys. For him to have had a shrink sidekick shows that shrink stuff must have been on everyone's mind.

July 20, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

And, it was a time when we transisitioned from "psycho killers" to serial killers, One Flew Over The cuckoos nest was published in '62, Masters and Johnson and Kensey Report were examining the psycholgy of sex and making it more or less main streah. Patricia Highsmith wrote more or less psychological thrillers, PD James was examing in fiction, why people murder, and the effects...Joan Redell wrote some things about psychological torture....(I wasn't napping whilst awaiting your response ;-))

July 20, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, currents really were seething behind those well-trimmed lawns on Peyton Place.

July 20, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

Indeed....didn't Ryan O'Neal get his start in that show? I remember one of the actors that played a doctor lived not far from us in my home town (Pomona, CA - just east of L.A.)

July 20, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I didn't know Ryan O'Neal was on the show. I am also pretty sure I have never seen so much as one second of the show, and I know I've neither seen the movie nor read the novel that preceded it. But I know what Peyton Place meant in the cultural lexicon of the time. I wonder how long it lasted as a symbol. How old are the youngest people who still remember what it meant? Around fifty, probably.

July 20, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

It was my mothers favorite show in the early/mid 60's I would have been 7 when it first aired and 11 when it went off the air. Check this cast: Dorthy Malone, Leslie Nielsen, Ryan O'Neal, Mia Farrow, Ed nelson (the guy from Pomona, Dr. Rossi)Lee Grant, Leigh-Taylor Young (she replaced Mia Farrow)Ruby Dee, Mariette Hartley, Gena Rowland and Dan Duryea. I never have read the novel and don't recall the movie. But it was trail blazing for the sex on the show, and it launched the prime time soap on American TV

July 20, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Wow, that's an all-star cast, all right.

July 20, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I recall. It wasn't a very good movie (er, novel). Mostly left an imprint because it dealt with the supposed sexual excesses practiced by just about everyone in a small-town American setting. I don't think it had any other objectives.

July 20, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, sex was probably big news back then.

July 20, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

it was to me, I was 9 in 1964 when it hit the air waves ;-)

July 20, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm a few years younger. I remember Peyton Place secondhand -- through references in Mad magazine and through the invocation of Peyton Place in the climactic couplet of "Harper Valley P.T.A."

July 20, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

If memory serves, I saw the movie on TV years later, but I did read the novel after it came out. Yes, I do read trash sometimes. One has to be well-rounded. :)

July 20, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

As I said, my mother absolutely loved the show and never missed it and it being the 60's we were lucky to have one TV so watching something else in the other room was not an option. I remember it was the equivilant of a media sensation when they switched for black and white to color broadcasts! It was in the news as much as Who Shot JR a few years later, course, we still had a B&W TV so I didn't see why it was such a big deal. But the show did spawn a lot of careers. I can't remember if Mia Farrow was a made actress before then, but she WAS married to Sinatra but other than her, I think Dorthy Malone was the only other "well known" actor or actress when the show started. And for it to become a noun for a type of action, "This is just another Peyton Place...' per the song, tells you how big of a deal it was.

July 20, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I refuse to believe that a woman of your sensibilities reads trash -- at least not under your own name!

July 20, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Robert, that I know exactly what "Peyton Place" signifies without having read a word or watched a frame of it indicates what a powerful presence it was, I think.

July 20, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

You're very kind, Peter, but one of the great things about reading is that it is a totally private pursuit. Anything is allowed.

July 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't write here about everything I read. Hmm, I should think back and see if any trash is on that list.

July 21, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Knowing the impact Peyton Place had on 1950s readers, I tried to read it a couple of years ago but couldn't finish it. On the other hand, I loved Sloan Wilson's quasi-trashy A Summer Place, 1958, which I've always thought of as a companion piece to PP. But Wilson was a much better writer than one-hit-wonder Grace Metalious.

Sex is also a frightening country to our hero's (Ken) wife Helen (they sleep apart) and who insists on dressing their blossoming daughter in cast-iron bras and little girls' clothes.

Here is a quote from ASP DBB'ers might enjoy:

"Margaret's [Helen's mother] favorite reading matter was detective stories, the cruder the better, but she complained that the writers of modern mystery novels put in too much filth, by which she meant sex, and not enough action, by which she meant blood and death."

July 21, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

Interesting observation and quote, Elisabeth. In a historical perspective (leave it to the guy with a minor in history) I find it interesting that the thing that set the "Hardboiled Golden Age" writters like Hammett and Daly apart from the Britsh "cozy" writers was the explicit violence and sex, then when you move in to the "2nd generation" "Cain, Woolich, et al of the "Paperback" era (think Gold Medal of the mid late 40's thru the 50's) they emphacized sex over violence (for the most part). I joined in a conversation on, if memory serves, Murderati recently where it had brought up that sex wasn't as explicit in todays crime fiction. I went back and looked at some of the books cited, and I thought it was just as explict as what Hammett and Chandler wrote about, and put forth that the sex was as explict, but the definition of explict had changed. A Chorus Girl or a rich mans daughter showing up in the detective's room at 3 am in nothing but a fur coat may have been nearly lewd then, but hardly got a rise (pun intended) out of todays audience.

July 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Woohoo, sex is a foreign country! Elisabeth, if Grace Metalious was a one-hit wonder, has anyone every made so much out of that one hit?

July 21, 2011  
Blogger Patrick Murtha said...

Sloan Wilson was indeed a very skillful novelist. I have read The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit twice with great enjoyment. As is often the case, the Gregory Peck film adaptation, although OK, doesn't do justice to the subtlety and complexity of the novel.

July 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Robert, Elisabeth may have something to say on Chandler's Puritan streak and his opinion of James M. Cain. I wrote a few years ago about the successive versions of The Big Sleep and the increasing explicitness of the renderings of the scene in which Marlowe finds Carmen Sternwood in the house on Laverne Terrace.

July 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Patrick: Summer Place? The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit? This Sloan Wilson may be ripe for a rediscovery.

July 21, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

Yep, and I am quite familiar with Chandler's rant on Cain, and for that matter, Cains haterd in being labeled Hard Boiled and grouped with Chandler and Hammett (let a lone anyone as pedestrian as Carrol John Daly. He hated labels as a rule, but especially that one.

July 21, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

OK, Chandler thought Cain was a filth monger; what did Cain think of Chandler?

July 21, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

...but the definition of explict had changed. A Chorus Girl or a rich mans daughter showing up in the detective's room at 3 am in nothing but a fur coat...

Ha, ha, Robert! Indeed. I remember reading a contemporary review of George Harmon Coxe's first Kent Murdock mystery, Murder with Pictures, 1937, in which the reviewer was a bit revolted by a bit where the heroine, fully clothed, jumps into the shower with the nude hero in order to escape detection by the cops. Hero and heroine fall in love over the course of the book but straight-arrow Kent won't make love to Joyce (in spite of her advances) until he is divorced from his marry-in-haste-repent-in-haste cheap showgirl wife. Coxe must have taken reviewers' detractions to heart; that was about as sexy as any of his novels got until the 1960s.

July 21, 2011  
Blogger Patrick Murtha said...

I think that Sloan Wilson had chops. I also believe that many of the "popular" novelists of the postwar era hold up very well in literary terms. Wilson is in the John O'Hara mold, and did not enjoy any sustained post-Fifties success. He suffered from the alcoholism that is all too clearly on display in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, in which the characters can't make it through a few hours without a heavy reinforcement of gin.

Wilson's very last novel, published in 1984, is a sequel to The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (marked "II," like a movie sequel); although a perhaps ill-advised attempt to recapture his earlier thunder, it is a fascinating performance in all kinds of ways. How does the iconic Man of the Fifties age? Not well. Wilson gets at that here, often in what seems to be a painfully autobiographical manner. It is a rather naked and distressing book.

July 21, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

Cain wrote Chandler, Hammett and the other "Hardboiled" authiors off as "pulp' and not worthy of the title of "serious" writers. Where Cain, even having gotten is start in the pulps considered himself ona a level with Hemingwway, Faulkner et al. Even up thru the 50's Chandler could be considered as having totally written of the Gold Medal/paperback writers as cheap. In his "Mean Streets" essay, he pretty much says, they weren't writing as the heirs to himself and Hammett. Elisabeth it is really funny when you think about it. They were libertines in their hey day and prudes in their old age and didn't change a thing ;-)

As an aside, Peter, I think I have worn your site out. Internet Explorer is auto completing all the Word Verifications.....

July 21, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

...the alcoholism that is all too clearly on display in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, in which the characters can't make it through a few hours without a heavy reinforcement of gin.

Patrick, I think the former naval officer/alcoholic Bart in A Summer Place is the Sloan Wilson in that novel.

Brooding, personal memories of having served in World War II, so explicit in TMITGFA, seem to lurk in the background of much 1950s fiction.

July 21, 2011  
Blogger Patrick Murtha said...

Malcolm Gladwell published an interesting essay in The New Yorker a few years back, using Wilson's novel as Exhibit A for his thesis that the males of the postwar generation handled their traumatic memories better than later generations did. I think his argument, although interesting, and paying warm respect to Wilson's novel, fell down because he didn't connect the dots. Gladwell admitted the alcoholism on display in the book, but failed to acknowledge that one of the purposes of all that drinking was to wipe out those pesky war memories. I'm not sure I'd define that as good handling of trauma. Pushing trauma away may be healthy, as Gladwell suggests; but pushing trauma away with that kind of crutch (and don't forget the heavy smoking, too; they were self-medicating like mad) -- I don't know about that.

July 21, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

Having gone through my own generations war, I'd have to say that Gladwell didn't. War, at least since World War senior, oops, I mean World War I has left a traumatic mark on the generation of men and boys that are asked to fight it. Men don't die in war like is pictured on TV or in the movies. There are no clean wounds and smiling faces that come home in body bags. And, I think every generation deals with what we call PTSD in a different way. Gladwells generation or the men of the generation he speaks of drank. It was an accepted social bbond, and an accepted means of abuse. from Korea we see more and more morphine, and then heroine abuse, Vietnam had heroine and cocaine etc...

David Corbett traces the rise and fall of ‘noir’ or realism in fiction to a rise in popularity in the aftermath of wars. Although David examines the ebb and flow of the ‘Noir Films’ popularity in this light, I think it at least is worth considering as an influence in popular fiction as well. He explains it this way in an article on Mullholland Books web site entitled Insulting Your Intelligence (“Just gimme some noiriness”). (for the full article, just do a google..but here's an excerpt) (After a war) …”when America was searching for a deeper understanding of itself, something that would remain once you tore away the paranoia and the swagger and the teary, knee-jerk flag-waving. Watching wood-hut villages napalmed before our eyes on nightly TV, we were obliged to confront a much different America than we’d grown up to believe in; it showed in our art.”…” neo-noir echoed classic noir, which was rooted in the Second World War and its aftermath, when soldiers stripped of their illusions returned home to a country desperate for normalcy. Inwardly, many of these vets recoiled from their portrayals as heroes, for they knew what it took to survive combat, and often it was luck, or something much darker, not fit for a chat with the wife and kids or Reverend Tim.”

Gladwell may have been getting a bit to specific when he blamed it on

July 21, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

"...the characters can't make it through a few hours without a heavy reinforcement of gin."

I can't read most news reports, which is the field of crime fiction.

Gin might help...

I'm not a great fan of crime writing mostly, so its popularity has always puzzled me.

Many people see it as a corrective to the ills of society, in the way that a day out at the local tragedy festival was used by the ancient Greeks.

Also, the current desire to make everybody confront the darkness inside and an ongoing "return of the repressed" may be understandable. This is probably what accounts for the current tsunami of crime fiction.

However, one can have too much of a good thing.

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Murder With Pictures, 1937 ... Coxe must have taken reviewers' detractions to heart; that was about as sexy as any of his novels got until the 1960s.

Elisabeth, did the Hayes Code influence and inhibit novelist as well as moviemakers?

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Patrick, novels that are too nakedly autobiographical make me squirm. On the other hand, I'm fascinated, at least in theory, about the afterlife of the emblematic American character types - aging hippies, superannuated flappers, and, in future decades, people who don't liek Starbucks or shop at Apple stores.

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Robert, if Cain wrote off hardboiled authors that way, I hope he's squirming in the afterlife now that readers regard him as a supreme exponent of hard-boiled.

My own tentative contribution to this discussion is that the paperback writers probably took tiny aspects of Hammett or Chandler, then built fictional universes out of them.

I don't know Cain's work well, having read only Double Indemnity and seen the movie version as well as the Garfield/Turner version of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Based on that limited exposure, I'd say he was no Hammett.

My dream is to be on the auto-complete of every computer in the world (though I bet some corporation has already thought of paying for that privilege).

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brooding, personal memories of having served in World War II, so explicit in TMITGFA, seem to lurk in the background of much 1950s fiction.

So, all the alcoholism and sexual perversity of 1950s popular culture is suppressed memories and desires boiling over and blowing the lid off placid postwar prosperity and mass happiness? That's a plausible suggestion.

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Patrick, it's easy to come up with grand social diagnoses based on themes in popular culture. Hell, even I did it in the comment immediately previous to this one. But I, too, would be skeptical of an argument that skips as ligthly over alcoholism as you say Gladwell's did. Was Gladwell in effect saying that the drinking to excess was a salutary, if psychobabblish letting it all out?

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Patrick Murtha said...

It is quite plausible. For example, I think that World War II is part of the text of virtually every classic period film noir, whether it is explicitly referred to or not.

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Robert, I respect David Corbett based on what I've read and seen of him. If the 1960s traumatized America based on images of war, what of the current generation, in which images are thoroughly controlled and widely discredited?

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Patrick, I've read more noir from the 1920s and '30s, so I'm apter to think more of Prohibition and the Depression as influences on crime writing.

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

P a D:

I wonder if crime writing's popularity has ebbed and flowed since, say, the age of Sherlock Holmes. Is one generation any more apt than any other to explore dark sides? Crime writing these days has a wide enough scope than one must be wary of broad generalizaitons.

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Patrick Murtha said...

I should let Gladwell speak for himself:

http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/11/08/041108fa_fact1

He opens with the alcoholism:

"Tom Rath, despite an introspective streak, is supposed to be a figure of middle-class normalcy. But by our standards he and almost everyone else in the novel look like alcoholics."

But then he seems to forget all about it:

"...we always assume that our emotional states will last much longer than they do. We forget that other experiences will compete for our attention and emotions. We forget that our psychological immune system will kick in and take away the sting of adversity...This is the difference between our own era and the one of half a century ago...Sloan Wilson’s book came from a time and a culture that had the confidence and wisdom to understand this truth."

Although this is an exceptionally stimulating essay which has stuck in my mind, I cannot follow Gladwell to his conclusion, that pushing away the trauma of war experiences is better than "processing" them. If Tom Rath and all the other adult characters in this novel look like alcoholics, it is because they are. Sure, it was a socially acceptable kind of crutch then. But to me, it also represents a consequence of failing to acknowledge and process your experiences. Everything does look a little better and more manageable through that gin haze, after all, even if it eventually kills you.

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've printed out the article and will read it at my leisure later. At least toward the beginning, Gladwell seems to be downplaying the notion of trauma, or at least that everyone is traumatized equally by a given type of experience. That could have implications for the sort of crime novel that looks to characters' remote pasts to explain events in the narrative present.

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

Pete, even now (and I have nothing in the way of saole/genre figures to back this) but to me, it seems there is at least a "rising" if not elevated interest in "Noir" fiction. I think, according to Corbetts theory, this would at least in part be attributable to the "aftermath" of the current wars....I know they ain't quite over, but there are a large numebr of vets from the first few years in civilian life...as an aside, shouldn't wars be called because of darkness after a decade? Anyway...like I said I have no sales figures of what would be called Noir fiction to back that, but it does seem like to me an increased interest.

As for Cain, I think he aspired to being a literary author in the vein of Hemingway, Faulkner, et al and to a degree he was. He did hate being labeled a hardbboiled writer, even tho' his prose are definitly hardboiled. But I think hardboiled meant something different then i.e. Detective stories. And he didn't really write detective stories. In a way he is considered along with Cornell Woolrich the granddaddy of the Noir writers with lineage leading to Goodis, Thompson, W.R. Burnett etc...I think it was George Tuttle that distinguished hardboiled from noir by saying that hardboiled involved a detective (or a character acting as one) to where Noir was where the protagonist was not a detectve but caught up in the story, often as a victim or even the reason for the conflict. Not a lot of people go along with such a clean cut between the genres/sub genres or even which is a sub genre of the other. In that light, I "sort of" distinguish hardboiled from noir in this way. One was a style of writing and the other was a 'style' of plot.

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have to read some more James M. Cain, if only so I can sneer at his pretensions.

I wonder if the current wars loom as large in the American public consciousness and popular imagination as previous ones did. We have so much on our minds these days.

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

think what Gladwell is observing is that before and after prohibition, but especially after, drinking to excess was pretty much a sociatal norm. Especially during prohibition which probably did more to promote alcohol than to discourage it, and certainly after prohibition when Madison Avenue got into promoting brand name alcohol - I once heard the late 30's early 40's Black Velvet ads called responsible for making it socially exceptable for women to drink in public, the sexy dame in the velvet dress advertising it. Everybody had cocktail parties, even the poor and middle class. It was socially exceptable for a man to wander the streets, go to a ball game or the library toting a hip flask, people drank at work, at lunch, or anytime really.

As for the Sherlock thing, in America after the first world war, British style crime stories did go out of vogue, and it gave rise to the distinctive style of early 20th century "hardboiled" writers, also leading up to WWII both styles , hardboiled and Britsh cozy's had waned, some would say because thir best writers (Hammett, Chandler, et al had left writing novels and the pulp magazines for Hollywood). Then after WWII, a new generation arose (paperback/noir/ whatever).

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yep, a flask was a routine fashion accessory in a lot of crime fiction before World War II, that's for sure.

July 22, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

...did the Hayes Code influence and inhibit novelist as well as moviemakers?

No, the Motion Picture Production Code, adopted 1930, enforced late 1933-early '34, (nicknamed the Hays Code after Hollywood's main censor, Will Hays) had no impact on the publishing of fiction. The problem for Hollywood producers was to get the books and stories they wanted to film past the censors. It wasn't just sexual references (as many people today think it was) that came under the strictures of the Code but crime (it couldn't pay), relationships between husbands, wives, and their children; political and religious references had to be carefully depicted. Anything that "decent" people might possibly object to was verboten.

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I knew the Hays Code cracked down on more than just sex. It was like the Comics Code, I suppose.

But I also suppose that the habits of mind that led to Hays Code might also create skittishness and inhibitions in other areas of culture, too.

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

Anything that was in the books that could possibly be seen as pro union, communist, socialist, etc...was pretty much verboten! The studio heads didn't mind the X on unions, as you can imagine, but when you go back and look, Hammett, and a lot of the other crime writers (oddly not Chandler - well not so oddly really) were pro all those things. But, Hollywood was begining to understand they needed pro writers to make movies and the "public realm" wasn't selling pictures anymore.

BTW, Peter, it's the Captias that are autocompleting....that's what made me think....;-)

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, there was a brief flurry of proletarian crime writing. (I found out about this from examples on of the popular antholgies.)

Captchas/verification words auto-completing sounds like a security breach.

July 22, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Anything that was in the books that could possibly be seen as pro union, communist, socialist, etc...was pretty much verboten!

Robert, I think it could be charged that after the MPCC faded from the scene, the opposite of this stance came into American film. Is that really any "better"? I mean, a slanted /partisan view is a slanted / partisan view.

Although the anti-union/communist/socialist position was generally true from the mid-1930s to the early 1960s these were, as you allude, due to the politically conservative positions of the studio heads. There is no reference to these subjects in the MPPC.

cute v-word bedgered (what a badger does when he takes a nap?

July 22, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

...political and religious references had to be carefully depicted.

Self-editing myself... When I said "political" I should have been more exact, that is, not reference to political ideologies (American political parties were fair game for a quick joke, even during the Depression, albeit with Hoover et al usually being the butt of the joke) but the MPCC's
Section X. "National Feelings.
The just rights, history, and feelings of any nation are entitled to most careful consideration and respectful treatment."

Now we can argue whether that was actually maintained during the MPCC's enforcement period but those are the words in the Code.

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

You wouldn't think we would run through all the captcha options so quickly, even if the threads reach 83...84 comments....it still prevents random spamming tho'

I have found that a great many writers, whether they are writing genre fiction or not tend to be a bit liberal, so delving into the history of Hollywood, writers, and fiction itself is a bit of fun. A story I always found rather ironic/sad was that in the early 50's Chester Himes was a studio writer and reportedly worked on some successfull screen plays. Then one day Jack Warner, I belive (if not his kids can sue me)saw him out side of one of the sound stages and mistoke him for 'heavey labor' but when told that he had been the screen writer on a couple of recent successes, ordered he be fired anyhow because he was black. Course, back then Warner (or whoever) was even proud of this back in the 50's and didn't ever deny it.

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"cute v-word bedgered"

"Bedgered" sounds like what Ernst Lubitsch or Billy Wilder might have said about enforcers of the Hays Code: "I vuz bedgered. Bedgered, I tell you!"

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Robert, I've had more comments than this, in a few cases far more, but I don't remember the ominous phenomenon of verification-word completion. It seems to me such a thing would defeat the purpose of verification words. I think of comments here as so much more than spam.

As far as Hollywood anecdotes, as annoying as the gossip columns can be in James Ellroy's novels, he cleverly makes them the most reliable sources of truth.

July 22, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

Yeah, it does seem odd. being the techy in the group, I'll have to do a little research into that. I would think those " boxes" shouldn't be subject to even the o[tion of Auto Complete...might be a function of IE 9, but I'll check, and yep. Your blog is one of the best for intelligent conversation and feed back. Just one of the reasons I like it and the people that comment...the blog keeper is kind of alright too....;-)

July 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Muchos gracias, mi hermano!

July 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, I try to avoid auto-complete features, and I never take anything up on any offer to remember my password. I've also cleared more histories than most dictatorships.

July 23, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

I like that, clearled more histories than most dictatorships...;-) I use a finger print scanner,much easier for a blind guy that never could type anyhow, so I turn off all the remember my password so you can give it to a nerd stuff...auto complete is usually good but if it's remembering captias, credit cards numbers, secret girlfriends phone numbers...it's done violated security!

July 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Even Blogger's home page has been appearing recently with the "Keep me signed in" box checked. One has to uncheck it to avoid having the computer keep one logged in. I think computer-related businesses figure that we are now ready to shed any claim to privacy and security that we think we once may have had.

July 23, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

I just published an article on BlogCritic on Technorati about just how low tech the Cell Phone Hacking (scandal) mthods were. And, pointed out the very few things you can do to protect yourself, and they are very few and very ineffective.

July 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, now, we can't have anyone casting doubt on the beneficent power of consumer electronics, can we?

July 23, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The critics and thinkers have left us so confused about Ross Macdonald that all we consider are the so-called 'Freudian' novels that begin with the Galton Case. The truth is that Macdonald is important for the first half a dozen novels he penned, the ones usually written off as imitation Raymond Chandler. In these novels, Macdonald takes crime away from the criminals and puts it into the hands of the those to whom it belongs--the nice folks who live next store. In addition, I would suggest we don't write like Mark Twain anymore either, but everyone from Hemingway on down regards his writing as the beginnings of modern American fiction. And so, Macdonald is the beginning of modern American crinme drama.

July 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Macdonald had two imposing masters looking over his shoulder, in that case: Chandler early in his career and Freud later.

Macdonald fans have recommended the earlier books to me, as well. I mentioned earlier that I had found one of them too dense with Chandlerisms (as opposed to Chandler influence). Maybe I'll try again. Thanks.

July 30, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

If I remember right, I really love The Drowning Pool....but it has been probably 20 years and I was reading strictly for entertainment, not deconstructing the style, reading with a critical eye, etc...

July 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Robert, someone else recommended The Drowning Pool on this blog recently. I brought up the unwatchable movie made from the novel, to which the commenter replied that it wins the award for the movie that has the least to do with the book on which it's based.

July 30, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

That must have been a tight election....wasn't the movie a Paul Newman? I don't know I've seen it. I'm not a big movie guy (for obvious reasons) except for obscure film noir and Bogart. The only movie(s) I can think of I wasn't somewhat disappointed in after having read the book(s) was Godfather.

July 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It was with Paul Newman, and I rented it after I'd watched "Harper," probably right after Paul Newman died. What I remember is that the moviemakers transplanted the story to Louisiana -- and that the resulting accents were unlistenable. I couldn't watch (or listen) for very long.

July 30, 2011  

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