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“Pickford” by Eileen Whitfield and “Becoming Mae West” by Emily Wortis Leider

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Mary Pickford

By Ray Sawhill

In the early part of the century, before the movie business outgrew its seedy origins, it was one of the rare fields where an ambitious woman could hope to make a professional mark. Women wrote and directed; some stars had a measure of control over their movies that a Julia Roberts can only dream of today.

Among the most influential early film women were Mary Pickford and Mae West. In 1909, when she landed her first movie job, Pickford was just scraping by; in 1915, she was one of the world’s best-known women. Despite her winsome on-screen persona, she became the first actress to produce her own films, a cofounder of United Artists, and a major shaper of film acting. In “Pickford” (Univ. of Kentucky), a knockout of a biography on sale next month, Eileen Whitfield shows a rare gift for making sense of acting styles, and for bringing to life the world of silent movies.

Mae West was Pickford’s on-screen opposite, a sashaying cartoon of a woman of the world, appraising (and enjoying) men with self-mocking relish. Behind the scenes, she was Pickford’s match in tenacity and nerve; her producers never thought they were making anything but “Mae West movies.”

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Mae West

In her zesty “Becoming Mae West” (Farrar Straus Giroux), Emily Wortis Leider points out that by the time she barreled into movies, West had 35 years of theater and vaudeville behind her. She liked prizefighters, cross-dressers and stealing credit from collaborators. She wrote a lot of great comic lines (“I like restraint — if it doesn’t go too far”) and gave them all to herself. But by the mid-’30s, Pickford had stopped acting, the business was aspiring to respectability and West’s freedom was curtailed. Since then, few actresses have managed to wield their measure of creative power.

© 1997 by Newsweek Inc. Reproduced by permission.

The Rise and Fall of An American President: Nixon in the Arts and the Media

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By Ray Sawhill

The biggest surprise when “Nixon in China” opened in 1987 wasn’t the music: the opera’s composer, John Adams, had been moving away from minimalist purism for some years. It wasn’t the production’s staging, either. By 1987, on-the-cusp culture buffs had already learned to enjoy the mix-and-match irreverence of director Peter Sellars. It wasn’t even the way the opera proposed viewing near-current events as legitimate material for grand opera. “Nixon in China” — now acknowledged as having kicked off a brief trend for “CNN operas” based on topics torn from the news — asserted its authority quickly. It seemed not just funny but natural to be watching a story set in the very recent past, featuring characters with names like Henry Kissinger, Chou En-lai and Madame Mao. After all, what are the creatures who inhabit our media world if not figures of modern myth?

No, what was most startling for the culture-class was the opera’s rounded, even sympathetic portrayal of Richard Nixon. Act I may have begun with a pop-art-style recreation of the famous descent from the Presidential jet in Peking. But things soon moved in more unfamiliar directions. In Act II, Pat Nixon rushes onstage during a performance of a Madame Mao opera to protest the cruelty of some of its characters; Dick follows her and sweetly comforts her. And in Act III, we’re given a Nixon indulging in wistful reflection. Recalling a day during World War II that he thought he wouldn’t survive, he sings, “I felt so weak / With disappointment and relief / Everything seemed larger than life.” Here was something unfamiliar — a Richard Nixon capable of tenderness and dreams.

nixon in china stage

We in the audience went into the theater eager to witness an art-gamble: could BAM-style post-modernism deliver an experience that would command our attention on a scale commensurate with grand opera? What we left with was a bonus — a shift in our perceptions of one of the country’s most controversial figures. If Peter Sellars, John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman could let themselves conceive of Richard Nixon as something other than a cartoon ogre, maybe the rest of us could, too.

By 1987, more than a decade had passed since Watergate, Vietnam and the resignation, yet feelings were still raw. One of the main reasons was Nixon himself, who, in his disgrace, hadn’t exactly hidden under a rock. Legendary as a fighter who would never give up, he’d set about rehabilitating himself soon after leaving office. He wrote and wrote, issuing several books, including a nearly 1,200-page-long memoir. The first of his four interviews with British broadcaster David Frost in 1977 was watched by 45 million viewers. He traveled overseas and connected with world leaders. He offered himself up to the media and to other politicians as a wise old foreign-policy expert. He was the public figure we’d never be done with — like it or not.

But Nixon had been a flash point for the country since the U.S. emerged from World War II. The startling aggressiveness of his campaigning had won him early attention, and his conduct during the investigation of the Alger Hiss case had made him a Congressional leader during his first term as a Congressman. His successes highlighted the emergence of the West Coast, and especially California, as a national power-center, confidently asserting itself in the face of the old Northeast.

Nixon never failed to stress his humble origins as the son of a grocer. A huge class of never-before-seen voters — inhabitants of the new suburbs, lower-middle-class and middle-class car owners striving to do even better for themselves — responded. They identified with Nixon’s embattled, Horatio-Alger-versus-the-elites self-image and cheered him on. Within only a few years of setting out on a political career, Richard Nixon became one of the nation’s youngest-ever Vice Presidents.

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Has anyone ever had such an up-and-down career? After the early triumphs, Nixon lost the 1960 Presidential election to JFK by a whisker, then fell to Pat Brown in the 1962 race for California governor. The entire country seemed willing to write him off; ABC entitled a news program about him “The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon.”

Yet by 1965 — with race riots breaking out in many cities and Vietnam emerging as a quagmire — the liberal consensus that had seemed so all-powerful in ’64 was crumbling. Soon, the country was tearing itself apart. Faced with the craziness, most people wanted nothing more than a return to stability. And the unlikely character who rode that wave into the White House in 1968 was back-from-the-dead Richard Nixon — the first Californian ever to occupy the office. In 1972, less than a decade after he’d been declared politically done-with, Nixon was reelected to a second term, winning everywhere but in Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. He may have been “Tricky Dick” to the left, but in one poll 75 percent of the electorate said they found him “more sincere and believable” than George McGovern.

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Then, a mere twenty-one months after this triumph, Nixon himself was gone. In ’72, he’d taken more than 60 percent of the popular vote; by August 1974, 65 percent of the public wanted him impeached. For the right it was a hard-to-digest disgrace. The Library that opened in Yorba Linda in 1990 in honor of his presidency was denied public sponsorship and had to be financed by private subscription.

The bond Nixon had with the white middle class caused the left immense frustration in an era when good liberals defined themselves by their devotion to civil rights. For lefties, raging against Nixon became something like a competitive sport. In 1971, Philip Roth’s political satire “Our Gang” featured a main character named “Trick E. Dixon,” who destroys Copenhagen and has an operation to remove the sweat glands from his upper lip. Gore Vidal, in his 1972 play “An Evening with Richard Nixon,” used Nixon’s own words to portray the president as a man with “no conscious mind.” In 1977, Robert Coover one-upped everyone with “The Public Burning,” in which Nixon has an affair with Communist spy Ethel Rosenberg and is raped by Uncle Sam. “To the cosmopolitan liberals,” writes the historian Rick Perlstein, “hating Richard Nixon … was becoming part and parcel of a political identity.”

For the right, Nixon had always been an ambiguous, even disruptive, figure. Nixon’s politeness, his determination, his endless repetitions of how he’d come from good but humble beginnings — even his physical awkwardness — spoke eloquently to his fans. But Nixon also unnerved many established factions on the right. The Northeast Republican patricians looked down on him as a sweaty, hustling, West Coast prole. His enthusiasm for ambitious government programs and a dynamic foreign policy put him at odds with the heartland small-government/isolationist types known as Taft Republicans.

Culturally, Nixon’s presence was felt in such right-wing works as the popular movie “The Green Berets,” in Bob Hope’s tours, in the hippie-taunting of “Li’l Abner” creator Al Capp, and in the square pop music of the time — from the Carpenters to many defiantly patriotic country songs. His law-and-order presence helped shape one of the key, and most popular, movie forms of the era, the mad-at-the-damn-liberals, vigilante-movie genre epitomized by “Dirty Harry.”

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Philip Baker Hall as Nixon in “Secret Honor”

Robert Altman’s 1984 film about Nixon, “Secret Honor” — from a play by Donald Freed and Arnold Stone, and featuring a great performance by Philip Baker Hall — represented something new. In the film, Nixon is alone in his office, in exile, downing Scotch after Scotch as he dictates what he has told himself will be his last will and testament. Produced for a pittance and using only one set, it’s one of Altman’s best movies — experimental, graceful and shrewd. What was fresh in its presentation of Nixon was that it wasn’t just harsh and funny. It also delivered a fully embodied portrayal of the man; watching the film was like watching a David Levine cartoon take on three-dimensional life. Altman may have been a liberal and a media-biz person, but he’d grown up in the heartland, and he knew his subject’s type: “‘I will be a winner because I was a loser’ — this was Nixon’s credo,” Altman explained. He even admitted that he felt more sympathy for Nixon than he did for Reagan.

But moviegoers, right and left, weren’t ready yet for such a treatment. Though the film was a hit at festivals and appeared in many end-of-the-year best-of lists, it never won a large audience. Altman reported that the only people who gave him a hard time for the film were lefties who thought he’d accorded Nixon too much humanity.

Several years later, though, “Nixon in China” could successfully propose an attitude of reconsideration. We were now ready for it. Perhaps the Nixon years had encompassed more than just Vietnam and Watergate. (Watergate is never even foreshadowed in Adams’s opera.) Opening up diplomatic relations with China was an immense achievement, after all, as well as a real showstopper: here was Nixon, the legendary Red-baiter, making peace with Communists. Librettist Alice Goodman shrewdly captures Nixon observing his achievement: “Though we spoke quietly / The eyes and ears of history / Caught every gesture,” he sings. Nixon had a mental habit of watching himself take his place in history.

Did “Nixon in China” trigger off this new attitude, or was the opera merely one manifestation of its era? And why were so many — on both the right and the left — so unwilling to let go of the man? The legacies of Eisenhower and LBJ were sorted out soon after they left office. The assassination left John F. Kennedy frozen in amber as the glamorous swaggerer cut off in his prime. Nixon, though, has proved to be a loose tooth unlike any other. Perhaps it’s because — despite all his victories, and all the years he spent in office — there remained something unrealized about him. Americans love battlers and strivers, people who won’t quit. So someone like Nixon — a man of potential and drive, a paranoid who wrecked his chances yet never gave up the fight — transfixes us. A failure on an epic scale, he’s the kind of outsized “He had so much going for him” case that irks and fascinates Americans. How can such a figure ever be nailed down?

Whatever the case, the success of “Nixon in China” seemed to free others to venture out of over-familiar partisan ruts. New thoughts were being entertained. Perhaps Nixon had been an effective President, and not in entirely awful ways. The Environmental Protection Agency … the SALT agreements … the “triangular diplomacy” that his visit to Peking was part of … was it a terrible record? In 1988, historian Francis Russell, while allowing that there is indeed “a repellent quality to Richard Nixon,” argued that Nixon was our most underrated President. Liberal columnist Tom Wicker — during Nixon’s Presidency a staunch critic — pointedly entitled his 1991 book about Nixon “One of Us” and admitted candidly to one interviewer that it was “more favorable to Richard Nixon than some people would wish for it to be.”

By the time of his death, in 1994, Richard Nixon was occupying center stage in real life once again. The praise and nostalgia got so thick that Nixon biographer Stephen Ambrose, observing the occasion as a commentator for ABC, marveled, “To everyone’s amazement, except his, he’s our beloved elder statesman.”

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Anthony Hopkins in “Nixon”

The following year, a more modern kind of monumental recognition came Nixon’s way — an Oliver Stone movie. With his knack for exploiting hot-button topics and his eagerness to write his own version of recent history — the director had already put his touch on Vietnam, JFK and Wall Street — Stone now settled on Nixon. This time, though, he chose to forgo his usual fevered-madman treatment. It’s a dignified movie, made with full Greek-tragedy solemnity. Perhaps this was because Stone (like many boomers) saw some of his own father in Nixon and found that moving. In any case, the director dedicated the film to the memory of his father.

The film is a long, ponderous watch, as well as monotonously overemphatic in the Stone way. “He’s the darkness, reaching out for the darkness,” E. Howard Hunt tells John Dean about Nixon, in case you hadn’t noticed the way that Stone has Nixon literally inhabiting a Rembrandt/Godfather-esque darkness. And how convincing a Nixon did Anthony Hopkins make? Quivering with unease and anxiety, pulling his facial muscles around to convey the idea that Nixon was both puppet master and his own puppet, Hopkins didn’t even try to capture Nixon’s confidence, his drive or his victory-lust. (Watching old tapes of Nixon, I was struck by how much he loved campaigning and how happy he was when connecting with a crowd.)

The film nonetheless delivers an intelligent and plausible — and very un-cartoonish — Nixon. Here’s a man who isn’t just obsessed with greatness in others; he came very close to greatness himself. Where Altman and Hall gave us a small-town go-getter who was out of his depth as President — someone who had always been so eager to succeed that he never developed a central core of his own — Stone and Hopkins’s Nixon is a driven, skillful grownup, brilliant in many ways and unquestionably a master politician, but crippled by inhibitions, as well as prone to projections and paranoia.

In the years since, treatments of Nixon have become even more variegated. A young woman named Monica Crowley, who had worked for Nixon during his final years in Saddle River, New Jersey, brought out a memoir in 1996 of her time with Nixon that included long passages in his voice. Her Nixon comes across as brilliant, thoughtful, vulnerable — and unexpectedly kind on a personal level. Unable to let Nixon (or his rage at him) go, Philip Roth launched another anti-Nixon attack in his 1998 novel “I Married a Communist.” Zack Snyder’s 2009 film of Alan Moore’s graphic novel “Watchmen” uses Nixon as an icon of looming fascism.

But the more resonant works in recent years about Nixon have tended to be many-faceted ones. Margaret Macmillan’s 2007 “Nixon and Mao” shifts around between points of view and leaves you in no doubt about what an impressive bit of diplomatic engineering the real-life subject of “Nixon in China” was. In “Watergate in American Memory” (1992), sociologist Michael Schudson makes the case that even Watergate is no easily-encapsulated phenomenon. For some it was a scandal, for others a constitutional crisis, while for a third set it was simply politics as usual. Cultural historian Daniel Frick’s “Reinventing Richard Nixon” is a cool survey of the Nixon stories, images and iconography that have flowed past us through the decades, from campaign posters to plays to New Yorker cartoons to the gift shop at the Nixon Library.

Perhaps the most magisterial reconsideration of the era is historian Rick Perlstein’s 2008 “Nixonland.” In it, Perlstein proposes Nixon as the crucial politician of the 1965–’74 era — the figure who most embodies and sums up those turbulent times. For Perlstein, it’s important to understand Nixon as a “brilliant and tormented” man who struggled “to forge a public language that promised mastery of the strange new angers, anxieties, and resentments wracking the nation in the 1960s.”

For oldies, it’s a bit of a shock to realize that one of the country’s most august authorities on the era was barely a child himself when Nixon was actually in office. But youth can confer virtues; although a left-liberal himself, Perlstein has a perspective that those of us who were around at the time can’t achieve. He doesn’t, for example, flinch from suggesting that the left’s fury kept them from understanding Nixon and his fans. “There was a kind of dehumanization going on, on the left,” he told one interviewer.

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Frank Langella in “Frost/Nixon”

The most recent major pop-culture portrayal of Nixon is Ron Howard’s 2008 movie “Frost/Nixon,” adapted by Peter Morgan from his own play about the 1977 Frost–Nixon interviews. The movie — genuinely thoughtful if, perhaps, surprisingly square — generates a lot of suspense, as well as a lot of sympathy for both its protagonists. We spend the movie watching the two contrasting characters joust — the overeager Frost trying to pull off a media coup and establish his personal bona fides as a journalist of substance, the cagey Nixon eager both for the money and to present his own version of events. But the main effect of the movie is to humanize Nixon, who by the end feels almost like an old, if slightly sketchy, friend. Frank Langella’s performance as Nixon goes much deeper than a mere impersonation of the man; it earned Langella an Oscar nomination. What better proof could there be that Nixon — no matter whether you take him as villain or hero, victim or creep — has now been accepted as one of our most enduring national characters? In the year before “Frost/Nixon” was released, the Nixon Library was incorporated into the National Archives and Records Administration, there to take its place next to all of our other Presidential libraries.

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At Nixon’s funeral in Yorba Linda

At Nixon’s funeral, Bob Dole proclaimed post-World War II America “the age of Nixon.” That’s a judgment that’s very hard to argue with where popular culture goes. What other president has left such a sizable legacy of iconic moments and images? Can we summon up more than half a dozen images of JFK, as popular as he remains? Does Ike, despite being a two-term President of fairly recent vintage, qualify as a pop-culture figure at all? For sheer quantity of memorable images and moments — from the triumph in China to the V-for-Victory gesture, from “I am not a crook” and “the silent majority” to the Checkers speech, from the farewell wave before the helicopter to the way we still append the suffix “-gate” to any and all scandals — Nixon is unmatchable.

If there’s no longer any doubt about “Nixon in China”‘s artistic stature, the opera’s revival at the Met raises an interesting question — namely: What will the audience make of Nixon now? My hunch is that the Nixon era has been sufficiently sifted through for the moment, and that the discussion will now move on to Nixon the man. Though the facts of his life are well known, he has always been an enigma, a labyrinth beckoning friends and enemies alike to lose themselves in his mind’s twists and paradoxes. Twenty-three years after “Nixon in China” opened, and nearly seventeen years after the man’s death, we aren’t yet done with Nixon — and he isn’t yet done with us.

©2011 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Opera News.

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

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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

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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.