Wednesday, June 19, 2013

When Jim (Thompson) read Ross (Macdonald)? plus a question for readers

Ross Macdonald got so excited one day in 1952 that he dropped his commas. A year later, another writer had a character express his opinion of that sort of thing. Please welcome Macdonald's "The Imaginary Blonde" and Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me:
"The blankness coagulated into colored shapes. The shapes were half human and half beast and they dissolved and re-formed, dancing through the eaves of my mind to dream a mixture of both jive and nightmare music. A dead man with a furred breast jumped out of a hole and doubled and quadrupled. I ran away from them through a twisting tunnel which led to an echo chamber. Under the roaring surge of the nightmare music, a rasping tenor was saying ..."
And here's Thompson's Lou Ford:
"In lots of books I read, the writer seems to go haywire every time he reaches a high point. He'll start leaving out punctuation and running his words together and babble about stars flashing and sinking into a deep dreamless sea. And you can't figure out whether the hero's laying his girl or a cornerstone. I guess that kind of crap is supposed to be pretty deep stuff—a lot of the book reviewers eat it up, I notice. But the way I see it is, the writer is just too goddam lazy to to his job."
Who's right, the psychologist or the psychopath?  How has description of lowered or heightened states of consiousness changed in crime ficiton since the 1950s?

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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15 Comments:

Blogger Cary Watson said...

I'd guess the stream of consciousness technique has gained ground since the decline of the pulp novels, the editors of which probably frowned on newfangled literary techniques on the basis that their readership was unsophisticated and didn't want to be challenged. A genre writer who's a master of this technique is Adam Hall in his Quiller spy thrillers.

June 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Poor Ross Macdonald. His crime-ficiton innovations -- stream of consciousness, Freudianism -- seem so dated today, at least the way he used them. One has to look past the risible passages to his brilliant plotting.

Thanks on Adam Hall. I have one of his books around the house. If it rises to the surface, I may take a look.

June 19, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Gosh, I do not recall ever encountering crime ficiton. Perhaps that is a species of writing best left to reading by psychologists and psychopaths. Ain't copy editing a hassle, amigo! Keep smiling.

June 19, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

The heydey of stream of consciousness has faded away long ago. Let us all give thanks!

June 19, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Words...words...meaningless fucking words devoid of punctuation often in italics...black hole...spinning spinning spinning into noihing...dull hot bubble of boredom and disgust. Fling book aside. I feel better.

June 19, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

And streaming is alive!

There is a reason that so-called "stream of consciousness" has faded (or ought to expire) as a fad. Early 20th century novelists had some fun with it, but--to a large extent--readers did not. When you get down to the realities of writing fiction, nothing succeeds better than good old fashioned plot and character, which leaves SOC on the margins of viability. BTW, those simple realities are the reasons why so-called genre fiction (i.e., detective/crime fiction) has been so successful in the last one hundred and fifty years. The successful writers of today should not lose sight of those realities.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Marginal, I suppose, is a good description of stream of consciousness. I wonder how many stream-of-consciousness novels from Joyce until now have been widely read, as opposed to widely purchased.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

I know my comments about "stream of consciousness" wander away from your original points about Thompson and MacDonald (and other crime fiction writers), but I offer you a bit more on the topic.

Thomas C. Foster in How to Read Novels Like a Professor (a book better and more useful than its title would suggest) argues in one chapters that "stream of consciousness" (SOC) was an interesting, well-timed gimmick in the early 20th century. Writers (like Joyce and Woolf and others) were breaking away from the orthodoxy of 19th century novel writing. Now, however, in the early 21st century, as Foster argues, SOC is rather old news; in fact, the trouble with novelties is that they have a limited shelf life.

As for myself, I have little patience for SOC-style writing. I had to read too much of the stuff in school. And, as you suggest, I--like other people--have books on the shelf that are "must reads" because of their pedigree, but they remain unread because I cannot handle any more SOC.

It is analogous to reading writers who try to mimic (consciously or unconsciously) the original hard-boiled noir innovators (e.g., Hammett, Chandler, MacDonald, Thompson, et al). The mimicry is mere imitation, and it is hardly worth any serious reader's attention.

Yes, there are orthodox prototypes in crime fiction that deserve "mimicry," but writers need to bring something new to the "mimicry." Otherwise, readers like me cannot be bothered.

On the other hand, novelty is also dangerous. Radical departures from tried and perfected models can be hazardous to a writer's future. After all, most acquisition editors at publishing houses are not really interested in something new; they are instead more interested in the latest versions of successful formula.

So, with all of that having been said, tell me this: Who are the fresh new voices with the new spins on orthodox models? (And I hope none of them rely upon SOC as a narrative technique because that ship has long ago sailed away over the horizon.)

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, your comments re very much to the post's point. Jim Thompson caught on early to the stream-of-consciouness scam. I wonder if this helps explain his lack of literary success in his own lifetime.

I'll have more to say later.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Thompson's very dark vision probably was the reason for his lack of success. After all, it is possible to be too noir. Moreover, in the world of genre publishing, it is also possible to be too "literary"--whatever that really means.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The brief passage I quoted demonstrates that he could be mischievous and satirical as well, which he does not always get credit for.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Yet Thompson was able to eek out a living as movie and TV writer. While his novels did not resonate with readers and critics in his lifetime, Thompson--as I understand his life--may have been his own worst enemy. Like many other writers (and the population at large), Thompson's self-destructive love affair with alcohol may have interfered with his professional and personal potential. Perhaps the "killer inside" him--with alcohol as the chaser--was the bigger problem.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I haven't read much of his work, and what I have is uneven. Pop. 1280 is superb, for instance, but much of the prose in The Grifters goes clunk. To what extent this was a cause (or an effect) of his problems with alcohol, I don't know.

June 20, 2013  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

I've heard that Thompson wrote fast and did little revising or editing. What hit the page is what got printed. I think that has a lot to do with the hit-or-miss nature of his work.

I'm currently finishing up the Ironside tie-in he wrote. What an odd little thing it is. It's got "just give me the check" written all over it, but some nifty bits of weirdness, and a few spots where he recycles passages from previous novels.

June 30, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Now, that's a book I'd like to read, especially the nifty bits of weirdness and recycled passages.

I think you mentioned you were reading something by Christa Faust. She has talked about tie-in work and about what one can sneak into such a book. Hints of an author's personality in what seems such an impersonal form is an interesting subject.

June 30, 2013  

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