Friday, August 02, 2013

Day Keene and other professionals, plus a question for readers

A true professional finishes his work just as the bar is about to close. I've never done so deliberately, but any time I go to my local to write (armed with headphones and a computer full of rai, guajiras, and flamenco to insulate me from lawyers and actors), I inevitably finish the article I'm working on sometime between last call and the bartender's switching off the neon Yards sign in the window.

Tonight's work was a review of a collection of Day Keene's pulp stories, and you'll hear more when the review appears. Keene, like many authors who wrote for the pulp magazines and, later, for paperback original publishers such as Gold Medal, was a professional. He was prolific, he could write anything, and he did so under a variety of names.  Donald E. Westlake was a late exemplar of that tradition, and Lawrence Block may be its last exponent.

This got me thinking: In today's writing world, we may think of an author as talented or less so, as an artist, a hack, or a mercenary. But which writers do you admire for their professionalism? What does professionalism mean to you when it comes to writing?

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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21 Comments:

Blogger R.T. said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

August 02, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

August 02, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Come back. All is forgiven.

August 02, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

I simply deleted my error-filled comments. I could not stand the irony (i.e, my comments defined professionalism as grammatically correct writing).

August 02, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Any errors would have been excusable. You lacked a copy editor--as do I.

August 02, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Though I am probably likelier to belittle grammatically sloppy writing than to praise grammatically correct writing. This is probably because I expect the latter. I tend to blame the publisher for sloppy writing because that's who is issuing the book and should make sure it is in good shape before it sees the light of day.

August 02, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

My comments about correct sentences were provoked by my recent reading of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. It is a widely praised book, and it has much to commend it, but McCarthy's love affair with sentence fragments (all in the name of stylistic cleverness) leaves me cold. Perhaps I am a narrow-minded Luddite who is forever locked into 19th styles--pre-Joyce--when writers actually understood and used orthodox grammar and syntax. Crime fiction writers also too often opt for stylistic flourish at the expense of coherence (with the latter most obtained through proper grammar and syntax). Well, enough of this rant from a raving Luddite.

August 03, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll have to go back and see where my man Hammett, father of the clipped style in crime writing, stood on complete sentences. I think he favored them.

August 03, 2013  
Blogger Richard L. Pangburn said...

BLOOD MERIDIAN is a book that requires more than one reading.

Professionalism means upholding the standards of your profession, and none of those standards are broken by the text of Cormac McCarthy's BLOOD MERIDIAN.

"Orthodox grammar" and such do not enter into it. The book uses the western vernacular of over a hundred non-fiction sources, early western narratives, and, as its most significant source, it uses General Samuel Chamberlain's history, MY CONFESSION.

The "unorthodox" chapter headings were used in several of these earlier narratives, published as "non-fiction" but including both fact and fiction--or at least "stretchers" in the Mark Twain sense of the word.

McCarthy's incomplete fragments all have their understood subjects and verbs. Unusual, perhaps--but I see nothing unorthodox about it.

August 03, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

So that my comments about Blood Meridian are not misunderstood, which I anticipate, I should offer the following clarification.

This is my fourth reading of the novel, and there is much in the novel that I admire in McCarthy's dark, devastating tale of absolute evil in the form of a terrifying character. I was, in fact, blown away by the book during my first reading. My quibble with the sentences now should not be construed as a wholesale indictment of the whole book. In other words, I understand the author's strategy, but I prefer different strategies and different novels. That preference is, of course, highly personal and subjective, yet I think I am still objective enough as a critic to recognize and cite flaws within otherwise excellent novels.

August 03, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I've just encountered Charles Willeford for the first time in the shape of Miami Blues. A really clean prose style and a tight plot. A very impressive professional novelist.

August 03, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Richard, I don't what the hell happened to your comment, but here it is again:

Richard L. Pangburn has left a new comment on your post "Day Keene and other professionals, plus a question...":

BLOOD MERIDIAN is a book that requires more than one reading.

Professionalism means upholding the standards of your profession, and none of those standards are broken by the text of Cormac McCarthy's BLOOD MERIDIAN.

"Orthodox grammar" and such do not enter into it. The book uses the western vernacular of over a hundred non-fiction sources, early western narratives, and, as its most significant source, it uses General Samuel Chamberlain's history, MY CONFESSION.

The "unorthodox" chapter headings were used in several of these earlier narratives, published as "non-fiction" but including both fact and fiction--or at least "stretchers" in the Mark Twain sense of the word.

McCarthy's incomplete fragments all have their understood subjects and verbs. Unusual, perhaps--but I see nothing unorthodox about it.

August 03, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, WIlleford's handling of Hoke's personal life makes me understand why Declan Hughes once said: "I hate when the detective has a girlfriend."

The first chapter of The Way We Die Now is as good a piece of deadpan writing as you'll find in crime writing. The second is a good piece of interaction between Hoke and a colleague. And the third is one of the longest, heaviest, and most sodden globs of action-breaking, information-dumping back story I have ever skimmed over with growing irritation. Sure, how that particular piece of back story is unusual and fraught with significance, but Christ, the chapter reads like notes for three seasons' worth of soap opera.

I noticed this all the more because the first chapter was so good and decidedly worthy of your compliment.

August 03, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T. and Richard: What this boils down to is that it may be time for me to get off the literary can and read some Cormac McCarthy.

R.T., could part of your annoyance with the elliptical style be due to lesser authors who have turned it into a mannerism? One even sees (seldom, thank God) flashes of that sort of self-consciousness in bad newspaper writing.

August 03, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Thats a shame that he's not consistent. With one big spoilerif reservation I thought Miami Blues was wonderful.

August 03, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Peter and Richard . . . I admit that my initial comments about Blood Meridian were in the category of hyperbole for the purpose of making a point about what I regard as a deterioration in many writers' abilities in recent years. I concede that McCarthy is doing his stylistic distortions on purpose, and I do not doubt that he knows the "orthodox" way but prefers to go in different directions because he wants to achieve certain effects. (BTW, McCarthy's past novels also push the envelope by breaking the "rules" of novelistic conventions, but that is a discussion for another time and place.) Too many writers, though, offer up distorted grammar and syntax without knowing that they have veered away from conventional, orthodox grammar and syntax. With the advent of texting, we are probably now entering an even more illiterate era. If you doubt that notion, you should spend some time in classrooms reading what students think is proper English grammar and syntax. Creative writing classes are incubators for some of the worst offenders.

August 04, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, you should pick up The Way We Die Now, if only for that first chapter. You may find the third less irksome than I did.

August 04, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., perhaps Cormac McCarthy ought to be added to the "But Sjakespeare did it!" "You're not Shakespeare!" list of authors.

August 04, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Peter, it is interesting that you would mention McCarthy and Shakespeare in the same sentence(s). Harold Bloom, a highly respected (and much maligned) literary critic argues that Judge Holden (in Blood Meridian) and Iago (in Othello) have much in common. However, as much as Bloom esteems Blood Meridian, not even he would accuse McCarthy of being another Shakespeare.

In recent years, in my view, McCarthy has become rather "full of himself." His inflated views of his own craft, and some critics' hyperbolic views of McCarthy's place in the American canon of literature, compel me to argue the contrary--just to be contrary.

McCarthy is a bit like Toni Morrison. They are both very competent writers, but they both succumb to exalting style over substance in a few of their works.

Of course, the matter of reading literature will always remain a subjective, personal experience. Books that I "like" and books that others "like" are sometimes separated by chasms of nothing more than personal fancy.

For example, no one would argue that Henry James was not a great writer, but I cannot stand to read his novels. As another example, no one would argue that Arthur Conan Doyle was a great writer (in terms of aesthetic quality), but I still thoroughly enjoy most of his Holmes stories.

Now, as for crime fiction in the 20th century, no one would argue that Hammett and Chandler are anything but very accomplished authors. Yet you find plenty of people in academia--those who teach literature--who would rather have a dozen root canals that be forced to admit that Hammett and Chandler are important figures in American literature.

August 04, 2013  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

I love MIAMI BLUES, NEW HOPE FOR THE DEAD and SIDESWIPE. But the fourth, as mentioned above, was a disappointment that I didn't complete. Couldn't bear to have the first three sullied.

August 05, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Patti, I just have to do something almost unprecedented for me: skim the info dump. What went before was too good to discard.

August 06, 2013  

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