Short Book Reviews

By Ray Sawhill

* A Separate Cinema: Fifty Years of Black Cast Posters by John Kisch and Edward Mapp. Long before Spike Lee, directors and producers like Oscar Micheaux were making films for what was called the “race-movie circuit.” A fascinating place to begin learning about this tradition is this book by Kisch and Mapp; its introduction by film scholar Donald Bogle covers a lot of ground in 20 pages. Here are posters for Westerns (“Harlem on the Prairie”), comedies (“House-Rent Party”) and musicals (“Reet-Petite and Gone”), nearly all of them featuring an “All-Star Colored Cast.” The posters themselves have a distinctive splashiness and pizzazz that can remind you of the work of the some of the performers they feature: Ethel Waters, Buck & Bubbles, Josephine Baker.

* Another Life by Michael Korda. The editor-raconteur profiles writers and celebs; a canny insider’s look at the book business.

* Asafo! African Flags of the Fante by Peter Adler and Nicholas Barnard. This visual book is like a parade and a festival between covers. On display are flags made by West African warrior groups that were so taken by the visual splendor of European armies that they started making flags of their own, to their own taste. Spirals, crocodiles, wiggles, arrows and fish are some of the main elements — some of the flags have fringe on the edge. Adler and Barnard report that the Asafo have no written language, and that many of the flags convey oral proverbs, most of them commonsensical. My favorite: “If you shoot at a leopard and do not kill it, it is better not to have shot at all.” The designs have a retina-searing ferocity; the Asafo themselves consider the flags so potent that each new one must be approved by the chief of the elders and displayed before all companies to ensure no one is offended.

* Cracks by Sheila Kohler. Classmates from a South African boarding school meet at a reunion and wrestle with a mystery. An unforced erotic-poetic novella, especially good on the naive sensuality and malice of young girls.

* Cyclops by Albert Watson. Judging from his new book “Cyclops,” the photographer Albert Watson is a post-punk Irving Penn. This is all about style, impact and The New, pitched at an almost worrying level of high-strung artificiality. Here are richly-printed, black and white shots of actors, monkeys, rap stars, prisoners. They’re strikingly, boldly composed and sequenced: figures (a chicken, a dead frog) isolated against the white of the page, set opposite smokey-toned full-page portraits. David Carson, of the avant-garde rock and roll style magazine Ray Gun, designed “Cyclops,” giving it some of his chopped-out, splatter-font excitement. This is a coffee table book for cutting-edge coffee tables, with a bonus: a subtle, luscious nude of Sade.

* Key Ideas in Human Thought edited by Kenneth McLeish etc. It isn’t often that the more you leaf around in a reference work the more engaging it becomes. This book, put together by a team of British scholars, manages the feat. It’s certainly a solid way to bring yourself up to speed on notions from chaos theory to rhythm and blues. But it’s also a wonderful browse—a postmodern database with its own character and wry humor. Idiosyncratic and suave, the entries reflect academia’s freshest thinking. Even the choice of topics suggests a piquant notion of what knowledge is, or may be.

* Merrick by Anne Rice. There’s probably no American fiction writer who’s more review-proof than the New Orleans-based, witches-and-vampire novelist Anne Rice. To her fans, she’s a dark diva of blood, visions and lust. When a new Rice is released, as if on an unspoken signal, they apply the black lipstick, emerge from their dungeons, and buy up every copy printed. Nonfans live in a different dimension entirely. For us, reading her is like listening to incantations delivered in a foreign language—a blur of veils, candles, and horror-movie dialog, interrupted by the occasional sound of veins being punctured. Yet unlike, say, the orgy scene in “Eyes Wide Shut,” Rice’s writing is too trance-inducing to provoke giggles. For the record: her new one, “Merrick” (Knopf), is more of the Poe-meets-heavy-metal usual. A bi-racial heroine and voodoo are the fresh ingredients in the otherwise narcotically-familiar gumbo. Lestat (from “Interview With a Vampire”) makes a cameo appearance. Fans will be thrilled—but then they always are. In interviews, Rice has said that writing “Merrick,” her 22nd novel, brought her out of a depression. We couldn’t be happier for her. Me it left feeling pretty undead.

* Secrets of the Flesh by Judith Thurman. Nominated for a National Book Award, this bio of the great French writer Colette is intelligent and comprehensive. It’s also, unfortunately, a little fussy and overbaked.

* Truffaut by Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana. A suave, anecdote-rich biography of the French filmmaker who was part poet, part careerist, and a compulsive seducer.

* Which Lie Did I Tell? by William Goldman. Life in the Hollywood trenches, as recounted by a well-known screenwriter. Smart, shrewd, and more than a little horrifying.

* With Nails: The Film Diaries of Richard E. Grant. These jottings by an actor who was first noticed in the British cult hit “Withnail and I” read as though they were dictated in a rush and edited with a Saladshooter. Yet they’re also sweetly revealing, because Grant seems never to have lost his bewilderment at the life of make-believe and money he has made his way into. He’s gaga when he meets Barbra Streisand; puppy-eager yet shrewd about his directors, such as Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese, and unabashedly fond of performers (such as Julia Roberts) in whom he recognizes vulnerability and a spirit of play. Grant himself—an excess of fizz ever in search of some vessel to fill—has plenty of both.

All reviews © Ray Sawhill.

“The Dark Side of Japanese Business” by Ikko Shimizu, translated by Tamae Prindle

business novels

By Ray Sawhill

As pop culture goes global, we’re becoming more and more familiar with the “Who’d have thunk it” entertainment response. Who’d have thunk steel guitars—which Americans associate with the relaxed pleasures of country & western and Hawaiian music—would ever be set alongside talking drums and tribal rhythms? Yet they are, in the dance music known as AfroPop. Who’d have thunk American action movie forms would mix with French existentialism and then bounce back at us from Hong Kong, like signals from a telecommunications satellite we forgot we launched? Meet Jackie Chan and John Woo.

Recently, some of us have been having fun adjusting to a Japanese form of pop entertainment called the “business novel.” Not many examples of it have made their way to America yet. The enjoyably disconcerting new collection called “The Dark Side of Japanese Business” (M.E. Sharpe) is the third such volume released here, and it’s currently the only one easily obtained. But the genre has been around in Japan since the 1950s, and is now as established as mysteries and historical fiction. Dozens of authors write these novels, which come with such titles as “Disciplinary Lay-off” and “Oil Shock.” Ikko Shimizu, who wrote the three stories in the present volume, is among the most celebrated and successful of these writers; the stories are published individually in Japan, and “Keiretsu,” the longest of them, has sold over 300,000 copies, and has been made into a TV movie. Shimizu, who started off as a financial journalist, is now a rich man in his mid-60s who employs a staff to do his research. His author photo shows him leaning proudly on a Porsche.

There’s nothing in American popular culture directly comparable to these novels. The reality-television series “Cops” has some of their just-the-facts-ma’am flavor. The thrillers of Michael Crichton and John Grisham provide work details and atmosphere. “L.A. Law” and innumerable sitcoms suggest something of how much of our living we do on the job. But you read through these stories looking in vain for glamor and thrills. Where are the Feds? The mob? The laughs and camaraderie? The thrillingly enticing scenes of sexual blackmail?

What you get in a business novel are characters who engage in business skirmishes, then retire to interpret what has occurred and to decide how to respond. Then? Well, then they return to work. Instead of chases and courtroom scenes, we’re given a lot of conferring and reflecting. Instead of the keep-the-tension-mounting writing common in American pop, we’re given language flatter than in any company report. “The high-yield products were odd-shaped headlights, particularly for export cars,” writes Shimizu in “Keiretsu.” The closest thing these works have to a romantic lead describes his likely wife-to-be in these swoony words: “I guess she is rather plain as a matter of fact, or she’s average-looking. But her mouth is kind of gentle.” So, the bewildered American reader wonders, should the role be offered to Demi Moore or not?

Yet Shimizu’s stories are genuinely gripping. Needing help getting my bearings, I gave the book’s translator, Tamae Prindle, a professor at Colby College, a call. She informed me that in Japan, Shimizu is thought to be somewhat Marxist in his view of business. (You could have fooled me). He’s also known for his porno touches—a story here about a beautiful young geisha shows off some of his amorality and bluntness—and he’s considered the most muckraking of the business novel authors. Mainly, said Prindle, “people read these books for information.”

And it’s the information that holds you. As business situation after business situation is painstakingly laid out, expository-flashback fatigue sets in; then you realize that exposition is the whole point. In “Keiretsu,” the aging Shigeya, whose father founded Taisei Automobile Lighting Company, fights to keep control of his company, and to pass its leadership along to his own son. His foe is Tokyo Motors, the leader of the keiretsu his company belongs to. TM insists on placing its own managers on Shigeya’s staff, and keeps its profit margins high by forcing ever-larger price reductions on its suppliers. (Prindle says most Japanese readers would recognize “Tokyo Motors” as Nissan.) “How to contend?” is virtually the whole story.

The novel manages to be absorbing without once making your blood race. The absence of climaxes, initially frustrating, helps you sink into the intricacies of Shigeya’s predicament. Which board members are likely to support him? How should he interpret that phone call from the bank vice-president? How can Taisei expect its employees to keep their morale up if their dormitory has inadequate air conditioning? As a writer, Shimizu is nothing if not methodical; of course, the world he’s portraying is one of elaborate protocol and interlocking obligations. (One of the characters is simply known as Quality Control Section Chief Saito. Imagine making water-cooler chat with him!) When the codes of respect are violated—”We don’t need you, senile old man,” barks one rebellious exec at Shigeya—you’re more shocked, in a low-key way, than you are by the sounds of Uzis in an American thriller.

I found myself becoming fascinated by the Keiretsu Company Binding Rules, and by sentences that might have put me to sleep in other contexts. “A car is made of many parts—some 14,000 to 15,000 on average,” Shimizu writes. “TM had arranged to buy approximately 80% of these parts from its own keiretsu.” Noted—also savored and enjoyed. When a TM engineer asks a Taisei staffer, “You propose putting a washer on each lamp—doesn’t that add to your cost?”, I was genuinely curious about how the inevitable “Yes, but …” answer would be handled.

I even grew to enjoy the lack of what the American novel-reader in me craves. A central human relationship, for instance. What we’d assume would be the spine of the book—the bond between father and son—isn’t developed at all. By American standards, the two men barely seem to know each other. Private lives where the characters can cut loose with their true feelings, for another instance, are nonexistent. Before the final scene, where she displays a steely will, Shigeya’s beloved wife of many decades is limited to a few appearances along the lines of: “Michiko popped her head out of the kitchen and asked if she should serve dinner, but nobody paid attention.”

There’s no use pretending that reading these stories doesn’t make you feel mighty American—ie., clumsy, loud-mouthed, and uncomprehending. There’s also no avoiding the suspicion that we entertainment-junkie Americans will never be able to sweat a detail as thoroughly as the Japanese. Just at the moment when you know you’d be kicking back and slipping a video in the VCR, the characters in “Keiretsu” are starting to comb through their business predicaments all over again. These tales aren’t stories of heroic, embattled individuals; they’re about the costs of consensus. Patience and concentration are the entertainment values they’re selling. Shigeya isn’t trying to release the star within; he’s just trying to deal with a large company that has grown a little arrogant. The collection is a mind-bending cultural artifact. It can get an American reader interested in the automobile-headlights business. Who’d have thunk it?

©1995 Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The New York Times Book Review.

Comics Relief

By Ray Sawhill

Readers who have made it through the new generation of meta-comics and “graphic novels”—”Raw,” “The Dark Knight Returns,” etc.— might find some relief in “The Trouble With Girls” (Eternity), “Omaha the Cat Dancer” (Kitchen Sink), and “Dinosaurs for Hire” (Eternity). Inspired time killers, these R- or X-rated comic books have some of the freshness of good ’50s rock ‘n’ roll, or early Bugs Bunny.

trouble with girls

Lester (Les) Girls, the manly, ultra-competent hero of the adventure-serial parody “The Trouble With Girls,” simply can’t help being besieged by wealth, adventure, and beautiful women—while the life he’d like to lead would include a station wagon, a mousy wife, and some Ovaltine before bed. He’s a superhero pulled inside out. “Forget it, babe,” Les admonishes an adoring starlet. “You want a guy who can make expert love to you while gunning down ninjas. That’s not me.” “But Lester, you just finished making expert love to me while gunning down ninjas,” she reminds him. “O.K., sure. But my heart wasn’t in it,” he says, in real earnest. Mourning his fate, Lester’s as dopey and likable as Bullwinkle. The writers, Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones, have given him an amusing Native American sidekick who’s a connoisseur of regional cuisines; Les prefers more mainstream food—bologna, say, or doughnuts with sprinkles on top.

The best issues of “Girls” rival such half-cult, half-pop entertainments as “Raising Arizona,” “Buckaroo Banzai,” and the original, comic-book version of “Howard the Duck.” The illustrations, by Tim Hamilton, are a low-rent take on action comics like “Terry and the Pirates”: all hard lines, granite jaws, and graphic pow. The adolescent wit sometimes tips over into adolescent crudeness, but generally Jacobs and Jones’ memory for little-boy concerns and fantasies is bang on: Could you survive an elevator accident if you jumped at the very last moment? If you fell out of a spaceship, could you survive reentry by holding your breath and angling your body just so?

omaha

“Omaha the Cat Dancer,” a comic book that plays like a ballad, is a long-running countercultural soap opera. But the authors’ attentiveness to emotional shifts and entanglements—and the oddness of the characters’ having animal heads—can you pull you right in. The sex scenes are especially unembarrassed and expressive: what the characters do with each other always seems specific to their moods and situations.

The main cast consists of marginals who get by as hookers, nurses, photographers. One, a cartoonist, is the son of a wealthy crackpot—which brings the group of friends brushing up against politics and power, and supplies some “Mildred Pierce”-style melodrama. “Omaha” operates on a simpleminded but sweet ethic: camaraderie, playfulness, and pleasure are good; power and politics are bad. (If Kate Worley, the writer, and Reed Waller, the illustrator, are political, they probably vote Green.) Omaha herself is a nude performer who loves to dance in front of men but worries that she may have the wrong effect on them. The bad guys have a project which drives the action: a “campaign for decency” that’s primarily concerned with eradicating topless bars to make room for graft-ridden development.

Following “Omaha” is like leafing through the local underground newspaper in a small city. Even in the letters column, the authors maintain a low-key, “open” relationship with their readers, trading problems and advice. “Omaha” is touching and “natural” in a health-food-and-recycling kind of way. It finds the soft part of your head and takes up residence there.

dinosaurs for hire

Reading “Dinosaurs for Hire” can be like spinning until you can’t stand up straight anymore. It’s a parody of action-detective TV shows, the ones in which a squad of semi-vigilantes skirts the edges of what’s legal. The heroes (and actors) on these shows are often dinosaurs anyway, so there’s some fun simply in seeing that impression made literal. Archie the tyrannosaurus, Reese the stegosaurus, and Lorenzo the triceratops have arrived from outer space (in an as-yet-unexplained way), and they do occasional work for various law-enforcement agencies which hope to exploit their publicity value. The comic book is blessedly free of sanctimony. The three pals always overwhelm their handlers, and in one issue they successfully blackmail a presidential candidate who has threatened to reduce funding for the program that foots their bills.

The writing, by Tom Mason, has real pop relish. Archie, Reese, and Lorenzo are hot for women, weaponry, and wisecracks. “L-L-Lizards!” cries an alarmed drug dealer. “And they’re packin’ serious heat!” When Archie crashes through a wall, guns blazing at terrorists, he growls, “Room service. Who ordered wheat toast with butter on the side?” The “camera angles” employed by the illustrators (usually led by Bryon Carson or Chuck Wojtkiewicz) are the same shots filmmakers use to make a colossus of Clint or Arnold, and they’re infinitely more apt and satisfying here.

For the dinosaur trio, America is a trashy theme park you’d be a fool not to get high on; they’re wild about Hawaiian shirts, “Kojack,” bargain hunting, and negotiating merchandising rights with agents. The dinos are fond of trying to go undercover too: in one episode they put on facial hair and AT&T workmen’s uniforms and walk into an office, planning to do some snooping. When they’re stopped by a suspicious receptionist, who asks why it should take three of them to repair a telephone, Archie smiles hopefully and answers, “Union, ma’am.”

©1989 by Ray Sawhill. First published by Interview magazine.

What Books Do People in the Book Publishing Business Read For Pleasure?

publishing

By Ray Sawhill

Pity the poor publishing professional. She — and these days, three out of four publishing pros on the editorial side are women — was lured into the field by her love of books. Yet she spends her work hours as caught up in commerce and bureaucratic politics as any office drone. She hoped to have regular encounters with art, thought and glamour. Yet what she runs into more frequently is the fact that she’s earning far less than friends who went into squarer fields. She expected to continue her life as an eager reader. Yet she spends her reading time wading through manuscripts, review copies and buzzed-about but lousy new books. “You hate your work, you wonder why you’re doing it, you think you should quit,” an editor said to me recently. “And it really does cut into your reading enjoyment.”

Perhaps as a consequence, there’s little that makes people in publishing as wistful as talking about what they’d like to be reading. They sit back, they smile a little and their eyes search the ceiling — this is a question they still really care about. What answers do they come up with? Suspecting that there might be something to be learned here, and with as few preconceptions as I could manage, I asked a dozen publishing people how their reading habits would change if they never had to read out of obligation again.

One journalist who covers publishing said happily, and with no hesitation, that she would “read Colette in French — but first I’d need to learn French, which I’d also love.” An editor of science books said that what he’d most like to do is “line a wall with photography books,” while a fiction editor confessed that he’s happiest reading books about science. One marketing person said that she’d love to finish “Paradise Lost,” which she struggled only partway through while in college. “Now that I know something about defeat and frustration, I keep thinking about how Satan got cast out of Heaven,” she said. “In college I couldn’t relate. Now I can.”

But some patterns did emerge. Many of my respondents would, with relief, simply give up reading most new books and head straight back to the classics. It was chilling to learning what some people in publishing haven’t read: “The Odyssey,” Dickens, Tolstoy, Gogol, “The Aeneid.”

It was when I asked my interviewees to specify what they’d be happiest not reading that the surprises began. (The wittiest answers: Publishers Weekly and the New York Times Book Review.) John Grisham, perhaps predictably, topped the list. But after him came writers from among today’s most respected literary figures. Salman Rushdie (“boring and pretentious”) and Toni Morrison shared top honors. Don DeLillo (“he’s homework”), Norman Mailer, Thomas Pynchon, John Updike, Tom Wolfe and Martin Amis trailed close behind. (To be fair, each of these writers also had a fan or two.) In fact, of the dozen publishing people I polled, only three would still be devotees of what passes today for literary writing if it weren’t part of their jobs.

The list of living writers my subjects would willingly continue to read was much more varied. The winners among literary figures, with three votes each, were Alice Munro (“the best writer of short fiction alive”) and Janet Malcolm (“the best journalist of my lifetime”). But named just as often were a handful of genre writers: Elmore Leonard, Tony Hillerman, Donald Westlake, Susan Isaacs and Carl Hiaasen. William Trevor, David Foster Wallace, Anne Tyler, J.G. Ballard, the sci-fi writer Connie Willis and the humorous novelists Peter Lefcourt and Charles Portis were each cited approvingly as often as Thomas Pynchon was (i.e., once). For those of you on the lookout for tips, here are some fairly recent books that my respondents also enjoyed: Daniel Menaker’s novel “The Treatment,” Florence Rubenfeld’s “Clement Greenberg: A Life,” Steven Pinker’s “How the Mind Works” and Patti LaBelle’s autobiography. “She put all her dirty laundry out on the street,” my interviewee giggled.

It’s enough to remind you of the (true) story of the architect who, as a professional, designs thorny modern buildings, but prefers to live with his family in a rambling old country house. And it brings up a question: How can we account for the widespread illusion many of us have of an ongoing literary world? In architecture, it’s an open secret that the buildings that are sold to us as “architecture” (as opposed to mere “building”) aren’t the ones that people find comfortable, delightful, pleasant or well-built. Instead, they’re the buildings that photograph well and that give critics and journalists plenty to write about. With books, could it be that many of the writers who win the most enthusiastic coverage aren’t the ones whose books are enjoyed most by knowledgeable, educated readers, but are instead the ones who, whether consciously or not, write to get literary notice and win literary prizes?

What would our reading lives be like if they weren’t preoccupied with, or nagged at by, the dream of literature? My poll suggests that in such a world the reader who finds Toni Morrison a hectoring drag and Salman Rushdie a radical-chic blowhard wouldn’t hesitate to say so. We would give serious thought to the argument that, for example, Elmore Leonard is more likely to be read 50 years from now than Martin Amis. Preferring Rikki Ducornet and Dennis Cooper would be fine, too. In any case, it turns out that, even if your reading stash looks like a disorderly heap of magazines, mysteries, celebrity bios, a classic or two, fiction by a couple of literary figures you’ve grown attached to and books about your personal interests — whether it’s birdbaths or the nature of consciousness — there’s no reason to feel shame or guilt. Nobody can read everything. And, besides, you’re already reading like the pros wish they could, if only they had the chance.

© 1999 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.

The Litterati

hart
Josephine Hart

By Ray Sawhill

If Robert (“The Trial of Joan of Arc”) Bresson had directed a Zalman (“Wild Orchid”) King film, it might have come out like Louis Malle’s “Damage.” A pot-boiler made austere and tragic, equipped with style to kill and that phony but ever-alluring theme, sexual obsession, it’s a perfect complement to the Josephine Hart novel it’s based on. Hart gives us sleek coupling, with people in glamorous jobs suffering from posh anguish.

Along with such recent novels as Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” and Susan Sontag’s “The Volcano Lover,” “Damage” is an example of a new type of literary fiction. These books represent a highbrow mining of trash for its zing while condescending to it for its lack of class — literature that’s slumming. They’re would-be page-turners for narcissists who want to imagine they’re having an art experience.

This new form is the latest outgrowth of the ever-prospering creative-writing industry and the ongoing rationalization of the publishing business. The large publishing houses have moved far beyond what was called (by Thomas Whiteside) some years ago “the blockbuster complex”; one executive describes the creature his company has become as “a creator and exploiter of copyrights.” A house may or may not have a place for “quality literature” on its list; they may or may not feel they “can make it work.” What they prefer to commission and market is category books — franchises like horror novels and sewing books. Most have lost the knack of selling literature. Only Knopf, publisher of “Damage” and run by a one-time English publisher with a British flair for exploiting the American culture market, seems capable of putting over “literary importance” anymore.

If, for the publishers, literature is one potentially marketable commodity among many, for the creative-writing industry literature has become just something people with a certain kind of education produce — an abstract discipline a good college is supposed to give you a taste for. (People who follow this kind of writing closely seem to do it in a spirit of dedicated self-denial; most of them don’t watch TV or go to the movies. It’s a cargo cult under the sway of the great gods Flaubert and Chekhov, Joyce and Beckett.) The creative-writing classes and schools teach formula — a matter of fiddling with “voice,” “points of view,” etc. — while claiming to encourage the creation of literature. A couple of the hallmarks of writing-school writing: a preoccupation with that mesmerizer of first-year literary students, the unreliable narrator; and in place of story, word patterns, image patterns, theme patterns. It’s literature-by-algorithm-Synthesizer Lit. We now have several generations of writing school-educated creative writers; they have begun to set the tone for serious fiction. As the generation of Roth, Mailer and Munro becomes less prolific, the composers of Synth Lit will have the field almost entirely to themselves.

“Literature” used to indicate a judgment implying degree of expressiveness and level of accomplishment — either that or an elite, avant-garde activity. (“Professional writers” wrote genre books.) It’s still generally assumed to mean one or the other. But the creative-writing writers simply do literature. (This is similar to the way, among visual artists, “art” has become simply what it is an artist does.) Their schools have informed them that literature is the manipulation of formal elements, and the press, itself educated to recognize literary quality in these terms, concurs — another example of the domestication of a stance that once served to defy and provoke.

Like every other category, literature has spawned innumerable sub-categories, each with specs as demanding and artificial as any mystery-novel form: the Hers-column coming-to-terms novel; the multicultural/oracular/accusatory; the ode to the pre-AIDs years; the new-South farce; the category-defying blast of mega-ambition, etc. Despite this, literary people are almost frighteningly determined to see what they’re doing as akin to the supposedly unique works of solitary genius they learned to admire in school. One useful way of thinking of this kind of literature is as a category that won’t admit it’s a category. Yet the industry and the press still paint that old picture from the Thirties and Forties, the one that shows us how:

The new books in a bookstore may include genre, fluff and utility books, yes — but there’s also literature, where humanity transcends itself, and the tears and heartache are redeemed. Sophisticated editors and journalists and critics manage to exchange information about which books really do count in such a way that deserving authors and readers finally find each other.

The fantasy is that the culture of books is guided by people of talent and taste, and that while decency may not always prevail, it has a fighting chance. But the fact is that trade publishing is now run almost entirely on the business’ terms. The rout began about 15 years ago is now close to complete. Trade publishing is a thoroughly professionalized world. Publishing lists are constructed under the same kind of constraints and with the same kind of conceptualizing-editor guidance (and interference) that glossy magazines are, and the fiction writers who contribute their work to these lists tend to have an academic preparation comparable to that of contemporary journalists and business people.

Why is it, then, that virtually the only fiction that’s accepted as literary are books the industry labels as such? And why is it that only such literary fiction is considered worthy of serious discussion? It partly has to do with the vanity of the college-educated post-World War II generations. Many of what are marketed as literary books are clearly the products of educated people who have decided that only the field the greats toiled in is worthy of their full talents. (People seem tirelessly attached to using literature as a way of making themselves unhappy — using it to represent the something important they feel they really should be doing with their lives.) And of course the corporate journalists and publishers want to believe that what they’re involved in is significant not just economically but artistically and intellectually.

A more basic reason may be the widely cherished image of the book as the sacred embodier of wisdom and cultural values, as well as (for the writer) the big chance to show what he or she has got, and the ultimate test of character. Books, read in solitude and held emotionally close-in, often make a memorable impact on us during adolescence — like pop music, only more private. Attack the current literary conversation piece and you’re attacking someone’s memory of being moved by “Crime and Punishment.”

There are a number of kinds of books the corporate houses publish pretty effectively nowadays. Literature just isn’t one of them. Among their literary books it’s rare to run across one that sets out to entertain as straightforwardly as a mystery by, say Sandra Scoppetone or Robert Crais; that has anything like the sociological and psychological interest of the average true-crime book; that shows as respectful a recognition of the everyday frustrations people endure as a fair number of self-help books; that has the pep of Kay Yarborough Nelson’s computer-advice books; or that’s as beguiling to leaf around in as the Dorling Kindersley productions.

Yet faced with a stack of titles from the large houses, each one having a shelf life of from six weeks to six months, the old arguments about what’s a “real book” and what’s not still go on — a “real book” being understood to be not just some fleeting pop-culture phenomenon. Given this atmosphere of self-delusion and self-consciousness, how can a modeler of empty, graceful exercises such as Michael Chabon not be more likely to win the label of real writer than, for instance, Lee Smith, an emotional celebrator of common experience, whose novels have the pop fullness of a Patsy Cline performance?

It’s a PR triumph that the industry still has perfectly intelligent readers feeling guilty for not keeping up with its literary output, and convinced that they aren’t managing to do any real reading. But of course when you look at your friends’ bookshelves, you find that they really are reading, really prolifically. You see the nod to literature: a shelf or two of Synth Lit, mostly unread and often in hardcover (the hard covers sober monuments to the importance of “the literary”). And you see books that have actually been enjoyed: shelf after shelf of well-thumbed paperback books of journalism (“Barbarians at the Gate”), collections of interviews, category fiction (airplane reading, Scott Turow) and reference and lifestyle books — avowedly genrefied projects, few of them “real books.” One friend served on a literature prize board for a couple of years, reading literary novel after literary novel. When her term ended she returned to what she really enjoys: true crime and celebrity biographies. Readers nagged by the feeling that they’ve lost track of what’s important in books might trust their own tastes more; the books they’re having fun with generally are the industry’s most lively products.

Literary trade publishing today resembles the movie world as “The Player” (accurately) portrays it — with the difference that Hollywood doesn’t rely on the illusion of artistic significance. By now the world of literature, or the appearance of such, has become its own greatest creation. Certainly it makes no sense to take the fiction reviews in The New York Times Book Review as anything other than components of an ongoing soap opera with a rotating, evolving cast of characters. Synth Lit reached a momentary state of refined-away-to-nothing perfection a couple of years ago when Harold Brodkey was being compared to Proust for a novel he was avoiding publishing, and Gordon Lish was celebrated as “Captain Fiction” not for his novels and stories but for an EST-like writing class he conducted.

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Gordon Lish

To find work that has some actual originality of form and content — Acoustic Fiction as opposed to Synth Lit — readers would have better luck trying books from such small houses as Godine, New Directions, Mercury House, Arte Publico, 4 Walls 8 Windows, Sun & Moon, Coach House and Dalkey Archive. Intriguing novels have come from such unlikely places as the University of New Mexico Press and the Sierra Club Press.

Trade literature might have more vitality if it allowed itself some acknowledgement of the hustle and vulgarity of the commercial world it’s part of; the combination of the corporate and the aesthetically and morally self-serious results in something neutering, products that serve the corporations’ convenience first of all.

However sincere the authors are, the Sontag, the Hart and the Tartt are examples of books designed to stand out in this streamlined new world of trade literature. (Does it mater whether these writers know that they’re filling out templates? A bee doesn’t need to understand DNA and natural selection to gather honey.) They’re cashings-in on people’s vulnerability to the myth of literature, raids on the literature market that are as high-concept as any Hollywood film. High-concept movies can actually be easier to take simply because more people have participated; there’s often a performer or two worth watching.

It may be peculiar to this form that what’s most immediately irksome about the books isn’t how deadly they are but how badly they fail on the most basic (if “sensational”) level. The Donna Tartt can’t compare to a Tony Hillerman, and Hart’s “Damage” isn’t exactly a stellar example of the when-do-the-sex-scenes-begin genre.

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Susan Sontag

Sontag, forever making like Kundera and dropping her narrative to let an essay take over, can’t keep the pages turning as fast as Danielle Steel; Kundera hasn’t been making the pages turn too fast lately either. (It’s said in the business that Sontag’s agent, in celebration of her epochal decision to write a “popular, literary” novel, broke Sontag’s long-standing contract in order to raise her price.) But has the writing ever really been the point with Sontag? Her greatest gift has always been for acting out people’s fantasies of a thinker — nothing she writes can surpass the public character “Susan Sontag, woman intellectual.”

The most entertaining aspect of her performance this time around were the highfalutin’ interviews she granted. Did Marie Antoinette ever affect such regal airs? Asked recently what she thought of her fan-turned-detractor Camille Paglia, Sontag simply denied ever having heard of her.

©1993 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

The Go-Go Years: “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” by Peter Biskind, and “High Concept” by Charles Fleming

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Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese

By Ray Sawhill

Remembering the feverish moviemaking days of the 1970s, writer-director John Milius said, “The stuff that brought it all to an end came from within. Diller, Eisner and Katzenberg — they ruined the movies.” And here’s what producer Don Simpson said about the end of his own go-go years, the 1980s: “The failing of the present-day system is quite simply based on the fact that the studio executives are by and large ex-lawyers, agents, business-oriented people who are fantastic executives and managers who don’t have a clue about telling stories.” Different decade, same message: The movies are dead, business killed ’em, and things are only getting worse.

A consensus exists among some of the more serious, informed movie journalists and critics that all American moviemaking passion is spent. This judgment is the inevitable consequence of a widely shared interpretation of recent movie history, which goes like this: The spirit of the ’60s came to Hollywood with “Easy Rider” and “Bonnie and Clyde.” The public responded to a new mood; the studios, in confusion, opened their doors; for once, talent poured through the system on its own terms. Then the mood of the country turned again, a reaction set in and — here come the ’80s! — the producers took over, delivering vacuous if shiny blasts of energy. In the ’90s, we have …

Well, not much of anything. Some nice performances. A nice movie here, a nice movie there. Video game-style action comedies and tedious indie flicks made by kids who think movie history began with “Pulp Fiction.” So the serious film critics write essays about the end of the era of the cinéaste and odes to the glories of the Iranian cinema. The reporters content themselves with tales of executives and deals.

Peter Biskind and Charles Fleming both write under the spell of this view. Both have new books out (the quotes above are taken from them).

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Peter Biskind

Of the two, Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” (Simon & Schuster) is by far the more substantial. An attempt to sum up what was important in ’70s American moviemaking, it’s cast in the form of an anecdotal history of, as the subtitle puts it, “how the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll generation saved Hollywood.”

In some ways it’s a helpful work. Biskind provides some essential historical information — reminding us, for example, how very, very old the people at the top of the studios were by the late ’60s (many of them had begun their careers in the silent days). He emphasizes the roles played not just by the young directors but by such producers and executives as John Calley, Bert Schneider and Robert Evans. And he’s convincing (as well as original) when he explains the importance of spouses, collaborators, lovers and friends in the careers and successes of his chosen directors — Ashby, Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, Altman, Schrader, Bogdanovich, Spielberg and Friedkin.

The glory days of the ’70s, he shows, were the creation of a larger community of people, working in more capacities, than we tend to imagine. There was a shared excitement about movie art. Filmmakers swapped ideas with writers; resourceful casting directors found new faces in the New York theater world. Friendships were formed on the basis of talent and respect as well as ambition. Francis Coppola plays ringleader; Paul Schrader is the most brazen hustler; Martin Scorsese the purest artist; Steven Spielberg the eager beaver who just wants to please and succeed. At times, Biskind’s book reads like an account of a ’60s commune, with moments of heartbreaking harmony achieved before the inevitable breakdown.

Some of Biskind’s judgments are questionable. Brian De Palma plays only a minor role in his account while Robert Altman plays a large one — yet surely De Palma is more representative of Biskind’s “rock ‘n’ roll generation” than Altman, who is a Korean War-era figure. The book’s major failing, however, is Biskind’s cynical insistence on interpreting his subjects as exclusively driven by money, power and image. He is (in part) celebrating the era, but he seems determined to be tough on everyone (except for Hal Ashby, his martyr-saint figure).

Biskind’s get-the-goods approach ensures that nearly everyone in his book comes across as scum. It leaves him at a loss to account for talent and generosity and incapable of discussing whatever nonscummy side of these people their sometimes wonderful work emerged from. His excessively jazzed-up writing style doesn’t help. In an all-too typical passage, he allows an observer to conclude that, in winning Spielberg from Amy Irving, Kate Capshaw “outmanipulated the most manipulative woman who ever lived.” Bitchily amusing and “smart,” yes. But it doesn’t speak well for Biskind that he didn’t add a sentence of his own to allow for the possibility that Capshaw and Spielberg might have actually liked each other.

Biskind’s most important contribution is to demonstrate that what used to be known as the “movie brats” (Scorsese/Coppola/Schrader, etc.) were responsible for bringing about their own fall from grace. High on their defiant vision of movies as personal expression and determined to take over a system they professed to despise, they consumed too many drugs, allowed their heads to be turned by money, betrayed their friends and helped themselves to too many women. Finally, they lost their audience. They danced on the edge of the abyss, and then they fell right in.

The end of the moviemaking era known as “the ’70s” arrived with the overwhelming successes of “Jaws” and “Star Wars.” Sayonara art, hello action scenes and happy endings. Charles Fleming’s “High Concept” (Doubleday) concerns this post-“Star Wars” period. His book is a guilty pleasure, a garishly written, slapped-together piece of work delivered in punchy Variety-ese. (Fleming was once a reporter for Variety.)

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Charles Fleming

His subject, Don Simpson, was an emblem of the ’80s. Credited with inventing the high-concept movie — imagine that on your tombstone! — Simpson hit his stride with the immortal “Flashdance,” and went on, with his partner Jerry Bruckheimer, to produce the likes of “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Top Gun” — the kind of movie that Biskind in his book, and in his overwrought way, calls “the smarmy, feel-good pap of the coming cultural counterrevolution.”

Simpson created an infamous persona — he’d have hookers flown to his film sets, for example — and eventually established a reputation as “the town’s most notorious bad boy.” He also had, for a few years, a nearly perfect instinct for what the public could be sold and a peerless story sense, manifested in cocaine-fueled, 40-page faxed memos. Still, as tuned in as he was, “Simpson was never the audience. He dominated,” as one source said to Fleming.

Once successful, Simpson repeatedly revised the story of his beginnings in Alaska, feeding credulous journalists accounts of religious-fanatic parents, beatings and jail time, even going so far as to tell a reporter that he’d “hunted moose for dinner” when he was 7. In fact, Fleming establishes, Simpson came from a well-liked lower-middle-class family and was a quiet, foppish nerd — “a nice boy,” as one classmate remembers.

It’s hard to tell where Simpson’s narcissism ended and his insecurities began. He subjected his chunky, 5-7 frame to epic quantities of drugs and booze, to late-night binges on peanut butter and hamburgers, to crash diets and workouts, to testosterone implants and to at least 10 procedures by plastic surgeons, including a butt lift and a penis enlargement. When Simpson died in 1996 at the age of 52, the coroner found 27 prescription drugs in his blood, plus cocaine, heroin and booze.

A quickie movie bio to its core, Fleming’s book is short on insight, full of padding and rich in unnamed sources and careless copy editing. It’s also zesty and likable. Fleming has an endearing taste (and even some talent) for one of my favorite hard-boiled tropes, the two-sentence cliffhanger chapter kicker. “The year to come was to be the best in Simpson’s entire career,” he writes. “It would also be his last.”

Reporting on a world as image-conscious and self-dramatizing as Hollywood is like trying to build a house on quicksand. Movie people are gossip-driven, and they’re also professional dissimulators, so it’s never hard for a movie journalist to turn up delicious anecdotes. (Hollywood exists in part to feed our appetite for them.) But even if you find five people to confirm a story, you can usually only feel certain that what you’ve found is five people who have been amused by the same rumor.

This basic fact about movie-biz reporting isn’t a problem with Fleming’s book, which you read as you do the National Enquirer. Clad in a gaudy silver jacket, it isn’t likely to be mistaken for history. Biskind’s book is, and is likely to become, a standard source for discussions of ’70s movies. So it’s disappointing that he’s often less scrupulous than he might be about passing along implausibly juicy tales. When a concerned party takes issue, Biskind does, to his credit, include the denial, usually in parentheses. He doesn’t, of course, exclude the tale.

The few examples where I have first-hand knowledge of events recounted by Biskind suggest that his book shouldn’t be taken as gospel. For example, Biskind relates that Scorsese and his screenwriter friend Mardik Martin agree that the main problem they had with their botched “New York, New York” was the Earl Mac Rauch script they started with, which was supposedly unfinished and a mess in other ways too. Alas, not true. Years ago, I read that original script. It was a gem, and not just finished, but tightly structured and pungently written. And Biskind misspells “Mac Rauch.”

But even if only half of what these books relate is true, the wildlife on display is still pleasingly horrifying. Both books deliver memorable quotations, the best of them apparently generated at extreme moments of showbiz humiliation and exasperation. One source, describing the Simpson/Bruckheimer negotiating style, says, “It’s not ‘good cop, bad cop.’ It’s ‘bad cop, worse cop’.” Remembering the night his two-timing wife, Ali MacGraw, accompanied him to a party for his greatest triumph, “The Godfather,” the ineffably embarrassing Robert Evans recalls sadly: “She was looking at me and thinking of Steve McQueen’s cock.”

As fans of movie history well know, most of the men who manage to become filmmakers conform to the same template: part monster, part charmer, part alpha-male wannabe and (sometimes) part artist. The genuine charisma is overwhelmed in the long run by the need to be a big shot, whether artistic or commercial; Schrader confesses to Biskind that he screwed his own brother Leonard out of screen credits. Movie-book readers will also recognize another pattern: For all the heterosexual coupling that occurs, most of these men are far more interested in other men (their success, their wealth and their fame) than they are in women — hence the predilection for hookers, starlets and bunnies when the company of women is required.

Still, this group of moviemakers seems very different than similar figures in earlier ages. What’s missing is the carefree quality usually present in accounts of Hollywood life. Readers of Biskind and Fleming hoping for glamour are likely to be startled by its absence, and by the excretory fixations that the subjects display. Most only do so verbally; Simpson, fanatically determined to live his fantasies, is drawn to piss, dealing out abuse and shoving dildos where some might think they wouldn’t be welcome.

The characters are often so grotesque they seem to have arrived direct from Transylvania. Basic mood control seems a common challenge. William Friedkin, prone to rages and fits, literally foams at the mouth when angry. Coppola makes absurdly megalomaniacal announcements about the future of cinema, then spends weeks hiding from the editors of the movie he’s actually at work on. As for George Lucas, after years of whining that all he really wants to make is little experimental films, he finally decides that fate has determined that he should produce a “Star Wars” prequel trilogy. Those little experimental films will just have to wait a few more years.

Drugs are a convincing explanation for some of this gargoyle-like behavior; so too is the almost religious importance these men placed on being filmmakers — and the visceral aesthetic they pursued. If many earlier Hollywood entertainers offered the equivalent of champagne highs, the boomer filmmakers peddled blow-you-away, drug-style experiences. And where the earlier entertainers reveled in their good luck and their success, the boomer filmmakers pursued art and a place in the history books with earnestness, intensity and a sense of entitlement. Then Don Simpson came along, took their overwhelm-the-audience-with-sensations approach and rammed it home commercially. In fact, when you read both books, Simpson, usually portrayed as the opposite of the movie brats, comes across as the man who pulled it all together — the ultimate boomer auteur.

For anyone who followed movies in the ’70s and ’80s, Biskind and Fleming provide an opportunity to remember and reconsider. Those who weren’t there and who want to catch up could do worse than start with these books. But it may also be time to reconsider the view of movie history that these two authors, among many others, subscribe to. That view is itself a baby-boom phenomenon; in its focus on extremes and creators, it fails to account for a lot, some of which can be summarized in two simple words: “the audience.”

You learn from Biskind almost nothing about the movies most American moviegoers were paying to see in the ’70s. Among the decade’s hits were “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Blazing Saddles,” “The Longest Yard” and “The Groove Tube.” Fleming takes accurate aim at the frantic, never-enough side of the ’80s, but doesn’t hint at the existence of such relatively casual audience-pleasers as “Airplane” and “Tootsie.” As a result, their books are like those histories of the ’60s that leave you with the impression that everyone in the country was a pot-smokin’, free-lovin’ hippie.

Utopian moviemaking passion may indeed be largely a thing of the past in Hollywood, and a certain kind of moviegoing culture may well have died too. But mourning these facts can blind us to the pleasures that are to be found in the modest and the piecemeal; the absence of fevers and trends can itself be savored, frustrating though that may be to journalists. The supposedly desolate ’90s have delivered such varied delights as “Mimic,” “The Gingerbread Man,” “Devil in a Blue Dress,” “A Little Princess,” “Clueless,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “Bound,” “Donnie Brasco,” “Breakdown” and “Before Sunrise.” Too scattershot a group to be called a movement, these works all display a determination on the part of their creators to make coherent entertainments out of the deconstructed bits and pieces the ’70s and ’80s left behind.

Even the success of “Titanic” doesn’t have to leave the educated moviegoer in despair. Inane as the movie is, the audience that loves it is enjoying glamour, thrills, eroticism and romance. Biskind writes about how most of the movie brats wanted to overwhelm with art (“the ’70s”); Fleming shows Simpson making attacks on the nervous system (“the ’80s”). Whatever its scale, “Titanic” isn’t an assault on the senses or the psyche. It also has a comprehensible shape — and its audience is rising to the screen to meet it. They’re identifying, dreaming and weeping (“the ’90s”?). It may be a good time for moviemakers (and for the people who write about them) to recall that part of the job of an entertainer is to give the audience room enough to have its own responses.

© 1998 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.

“The Operator” by Tom King, and “The Keys to the Kingdom” by Kim Master

By Ray Sawhill

In the world of Tom King’s “The Operator” (Random House), a biography of the music and movie mogul David Geffen, and of Kim Masters’ “The Keys to the Kingdom” (Morrow), an account of Michael Eisner’s reign at Disney, the media biz comes across as a pixilated moosh. The artists function like businesspeople, the businesspeople are creative, everyone lives in terror of where public taste will go next, and what comes into being around and because of the movies (publicity, gossip, spinoffs, documentaries) is more entertaining than the movies themselves.

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David Geffen

“I’m not Sammy Glick,” Geffen protests, referring to the unprincipled subject of Budd Schulberg’s 1941 Hollywood novel “What Makes Sammy Run?” Yet of course Geffen is Sammy Glick to a T, although a contemporary, gay variation on the standard grasping, vindictive theme.

Born in Brooklyn to an unambitious father who died early and a bossy, enterprising immigrant mother, Geffen was a flop at school, but fell in love with musicals and movies. Hustling a job in the mailroom at the William Morris Agency (he claimed that he was related to Phil Spector and had a degree from UCLA), he found his niche. Within just a few years he’d won the trust of up-and-coming artists (Laura Nyro, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell), and made himself the indulged protégé of powerful men (Clive Davis, Ahmet Ertegun). Soon he had a record label of his own. Asylum Records was, Geffen explained to the talent he wooed, meant to be an asylum for its artists. He’d care for his musicians personally; he’d look after them. Weren’t they surprised when he sold Asylum and moved on. Some years and a few attempts at moviemaking later, he was head of another new label. At Geffen Records, he explained, the artists came first. And weren’t those artists surprised when he sold Geffen Records, too.

Today Geffen is worth around $2 billion. He has produced a variety of movies, from “Risky Business” and “Personal Best” to “Interview With the Vampire,” and has cultivated a wide circle of high-powered friends and enemies. According to King, during his clawing-to-the-top days, Geffen was dismayed by his homosexuality; he formed intense friendships with Cher, Mitchell and a few other women while making compulsive use of male prostitutes. These days he’s open about being gay and is a big contributor to AIDS charities. A shrieker, a liar and a bully for most of his working life, he’s now entered a statesmanlike phase. He’s a partner in DreamWorks and has become a friend of Hillary and Bill’s, advising them on how to spin the press.

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Michael Eisner

Geffen is small, slim and hyper. Michael Eisner, who was once described by the late producer Don Simpson as “a big Gummi Bear,” is a more modern, self-satisfied kind of fat cat. He grew up wealthy on Park Avenue, wearing a jacket and tie to family dinners. Where Geffen is hysterical and pushy, Eisner is self-deprecating and entitled. According to Masters, he has some charm and smarts, and much self-possession; running things suits his sense of himself. He got started doing grunt jobs at NBC and CBS, made his mark at ABC, and together with Barry Diller, Dawn Steel, Don Simpson and Jeffrey Katzenberg, he was part of a famously aggressive executive team at Paramount. When that group fell apart, he got himself (and Katzenberg) hired by the moribund Walt Disney Productions. Together with the lawyer/executive Frank Wells, they worked the Disney brand. Out of their first 17 films, 15 made money, and within eight years, Disney was worth over 10 times what it was when Eisner, Wells and Katzenberg arrived.

Along the way, Eisner has also had some less well-known defeats. EuroDisney got off to a spectacularly bad start, losing over $1 billion in its first two years. A feud with Katzenberg led to a humiliating court battle, and Eisner’s choice of super-agent Mike Ovitz to be his No. 2 was an immediate disaster; after little more than a year on the job, Ovitz was given around $100 million to leave. Masters contends that, since the death of Wells in a helicopter crash and the departure of Katzenberg, who was largely responsible for the rebirth of Disney’s animation unit (and who wound up co-founding DreamWorks with Geffen and Steven Spielberg), Eisner has been floundering.

But along the way he has cashed some awfully big checks. In 1992, his salary and cashed-out stock options totaled more than $200 million, the largest sum the head of an American corporation had ever received. Where Geffen, in his new old-mogul way, actually has some dreams and some taste (he bought and refurnished a mansion that once belonged to Jack L. Warner, he owns art and he tries to make classy movies), Eisner, for all his affability and “warmth,” is professionally interested only in winning — Masters claims that Eisner doesn’t even enjoy dealing with “the talent.” Geffen appears to be more infuriating than Eisner, yet he’s also more appealing — he’s more mixed-up, a tiny part of him may actually love the arts and he has a streak of generosity.

There are some small practical lessons to be learned from these books, the most obvious being that if you can’t stand manic highs and suicidal lows, screaming, back-stabbing, and 24/7 work weeks, you’d probably do well to consider going into another field. It’s remarkable how few people with middle-class (as opposed to lower-working, or upper-middle/upper-class) backgrounds seem to find any success in the movie world. And sometimes it seems that being blessed with an adoring and ambitious Jewish mother is a prerequisite for success in Hollywood. Eisner’s mother was an “iron-willed” woman who regarded Michael as her “young prince” and “helped him cheat at his schoolwork.” Geffen’s mom considered David “a miracle child,” and called him “King David” right into young adulthood.

Both of these books encountered trouble on the way to the bookstore. King began his biography with Geffen’s cooperation — like Geffen, King is gay, and Geffen hoped a gay journalist’s view would result in a portrait of himself as a dignified, empowering role model. (He hoped to come across as a kind of showbiz Warren Buffett.) Partway through King’s research, though, Geffen shut King off without much explanation.

Still, the resulting book is anything but an attack. As a writer, King, a Wall Street Journal reporter, shows calm and intelligence, and he manages the occasional low-key insight. But most readers will probably wish that he’d taken the time to polish his many not-yet-there sentences, and made the effort to move his story along with more zip. Respectful and plodding, the book might have been written by a gentleman’s-butler robot.

Masters’ book has a very different tone — it has the fake urgency and portentousness of a New York magazine cover story. She promises to explain much of significance; “the Hollywood power structure would never be the same” is a phrase that seems to recur every few pages. Yet she never gets around to telling us what the change is. Her book was commissioned by Broadway Books, which dumped it as “unacceptable,” before being purchased and released by Morrow. In fact, it’s competent, pointless and rather deranged.

Masters seems like a classic example of a frantic media broad: “Stop me before I report again” is the subtext of her every paragraph. The same desperation also damaged “Hit and Run,” an account of the Jon Peters/Peter Guber reign at Columbia that she co-wrote with Nancy Griffin a few years ago. Eisner often comes across as a hazy figure; he refused the author’s requests for interviews, so Masters relies heavily on Katzenberg.

Although Masters is a contributing editor at Time and Vanity Fair, and an adequate writer of overheated magazine prose, she seems to have no sense of perspective, and a compulsion to gather and write down facts. A typical sentence: “DreamWorks lost out on the chance to have a Burger King tie-in by moving up the film, because such efforts must be planned many months in advance.” What is it that leaves her so clueless about what readers might actually care to know? Perhaps she just has little to say about the human content of her material, and so relies on facts, facts and more facts to carry her through. But page after page of descriptions of contract negotiations do not make for riveting reading. Geffen pops up on occasion, yet you’d hardly suspect from Masters’ descriptions of him how high-strung and abusive he can be. (King, in his index under “Geffen, David Lawrence, screaming of,” has 22 entries.)

As books, both are juiceless and pitilessly overdetailed. They do, however, leave you wondering: Why do so many articles and books about life behind the scenes in show business get published? My hunch is that it’s because editors of magazines and books see themselves reflected in the movie moguls and businesspeople. But perhaps readers actually like and demand these books and articles. After all, it’s still show business — bigger, sexier and more glamorous than our usual lives. These are stroke books for the power-and-glamour-hungry.

There is such a thing as a movie-business book that provides some illumination. Although garish and slapdash, such in-the-midst-of-it works as Jane Hamsher’s “Killer Instinct” (about the making of “Natural Born Killers”), Charles Fleming’s “High Concept” (a down and dirty biography of Don Simpson), Robert Evans’ breathtakingly shameless autobiography “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” and Julia Phillips’ notorious “You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again” do give a reader a sense of what life in the movie business is like. You feel that you’ve encountered something authentic.

There are also a handful of civilized books that tell you directly about the business: Steven Bach’s “Final Cut,” for example, about United Artists and the “Heaven’s Gate”” disaster, and Julie Salamon’s account of the “Bonfire of the Vanities” fiasco, “The Devil’s Candy.” The screenwriter William Goldman recently published “Which Lie Did I Tell,” a sequel to his “Adventures in the Screen Trade” — as a writer, he’s tough and self-satisfied, but he does a good job of spelling out what it is the movie business exists to do, and how it generally goes about doing it.

“The Operator” and “The Keys to the Kingdom,” though, are predicated entirely on our (supposedly) pre-existing interest in all things behind-the-scenes. King manages a few passages about Geffen’s taste, Masters almost none about Eisner’s or Katzenberg’s. As character studies, these flattened-out artifacts are just raw material. And as for the impact these men have had on the products their businesses make, or the culture at large? Next to nada. Too long, too sober and too well-vetted to qualify as guilty-pleasure wallows in show-biz outrageousness and misbehavior, these books are likely to please only those readers whose Player Within demands constant feeding.

© 2000 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.