Sunday, February 09, 2014

James Ellroy on Hammett, Chandler, America, and how young writers ought to act

James Ellroy's Paris Review interview from a few years ago contains a bit of advice that every young writer ought to call up on his or her smartphone immediately:
“[Ellroy] exhorted a class of aspiring screenwriters to quit smoking, get rid of their tattoos and piercings, and always address their elders as Mr. or Mrs. `Do this, and people will say to themselves, This kid knows his shit and understands that there is a social contract.'”
Also of note: Ellroy's  comment on why crime is important in American writing:
"We’re a nation of immigrant rabble. A great rebellion attended the founding of this republic. We’ve been getting into trouble for two-hundred-and-thirty-odd years. It’s the perfect place to set crime stories, and the themes of the genre—race, systemic corruption, sexual obsession—run rife here. In a well-done crime book you can explore these matters at great depth, say a great deal about the society, and titillate the shit out of the reader."
And his preference for Dashiell Hammett over Raymond Chandler:
"Chandler wrote the kind of guy that he wanted to be, Hammett wrote the kind of guy that he was afraid he was. Chandler’s books are incoherent. Hammett’s are coherent. Chandler is all about the wisecracks, the similes, the constant satire, the construction of the knight. Hammett writes about the all-male world of mendacity and greed. Hammett was tremendously important 
to me."
One might disagree with Ellroy's choice, and one might argue that writing about what he wanted to be rather than what he was is the whole point of Chandler's writing: "Down these mean streets a man must walk who is not himself mean."  But I was relieved to see a Chandler vs. Hammett comparison based solely on the two authors' work, rather than on politics.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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11 Comments:

Blogger Dana King said...

Ellroy intrigues me more every time I read something by, or about, him. I agree with his comment Chandler and Hammett about the kinds of men they wrote about, though I think he short changes Chandler's writing.

February 09, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana:

First of all, I have just arrived in Baltimore, so I will see you in a few hours.

Second, I'm less interested in which of the two greats Ellroy prefers than in what he says about them. His judgment of Chandler, while harsh, is in line with what others have said. John Connolly, for example, called Chandler a great writer but a terrible novelist. I presume that, like Ellroy's accusation that Chandler is incoherent, is simply a statement about the density and complication of Chandler's plotting. Chandler himself famously asked how should he know who killed Owen Taylor in The Big Sleep, so his plotting is fair game for critics.

If you read the rest of the interview, you'll see that Ellroy sees a moral basis to his own fiction, and I think he's right. Unlike Chandler, though, he does not like heroes who rise above that morality. (I'm not sure Hammett's moral world is as simple as Ellroy's quick answer suggests, however. Some of Hammett's protagonists do the right thing in the end. Think of The Maltese Falcon or "The Gutting of Couffignal."

February 09, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I meant, of course, that "Unlike Chander, though, he does not like heroes who rise above the moral darkness." I may write about incoherence, but I don't want to be accused of committing it.

February 09, 2014  
Anonymous Mike Dennis said...

`Do this, and people will say to themselves, This kid knows his shit and understands that there is a social contract.'

Like Dana King, I fall deeper under Ellroy's spell every time I read something by him.

February 09, 2014  
Blogger Dana King said...

Peter, it will be great to see you.

I read the interview; fascinating stuff. You're right about Chandler's plots, of course. For me, the writing is so good, I don't mind. I adopt the attitude he expresses in "The Simple Art of Murder," how now writer can do everything well.

Ellroy's point is well taken. That's a great quote, by the way, about Chandler and Hammett and the kinds of men they wanted ot be or were afraid they were.

February 09, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

Ellroy is always fascinating to read, provocateur that he is.

Have fun in Baltimore, guys!

February 09, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mike, it seems a shame that Ellroy's wild am schtick may prevent people from missing his sharpness, sensitivity, intelligence, and, yes, moral seriousness. How many writers do you know who would drop the words "social contract" into a conversation and appear to mean it?

February 09, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, again, I'm less interested in whether someone thinks an author is good or bad than I am in the reasons for that judgment. For me, Ellroy's judgment that Chandler is incoherent (if Ellroy meant his plots) is at no fundamental odds with yours that the writing is so good that the plot doesn't matter. And Chandler good writing does not mean just gorgeous prose, of course. The melancholia of the concluding chapters of The Big Sleep goes a good deal deeper than that.

February 09, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana: Right. He's a provocateur, and he admits that he likes drawing attention to himself. An interesting example is his commentary with Eddie Muller on some of the extras included with the Film Noir Classics series in the late, lamented DVD format. Ellroy is outrageous, making Muller laugh with disbelief. But he quiets down and offers serious, respectful, intelligent discussion when the movie calls for it, too.

February 09, 2014  
Blogger Elizabeth Foxwell said...

He dislikes _The Dain Curse_, though. See the new _James Ellroy: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction_ by Jim Mancall (ed. by yours truly). http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-3307-0

IMHO, what Ellroy says about Leopold and Loeb (via his introduction to Meyer Levin's _Compulsion_, noted in the book) is fascinating and apt.

There's also a volume that collects Ellroy interviews: _Conversations with James Ellroy_ (ed. Steven Powell, UP of MS)

February 10, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the note, the link, and the tips. I'm no huge fan of The Dain Curse, either. I think the consensus is that it's the least of Hammett's novels, so Ellroy shocks anybody there.

I'd agree that Ellroy's thoughts on sex, compulsion, and killing are likely of interest. Thanks.

February 10, 2014  

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