I gave my Forms class an assignment recently, to address some problem of fiction that had always bothered them but which they’d never looked at directly. That is, they and I are here because we love literature so much we’ve devoted a part of our lives to it. But what elisions do we make, where do we turn away, in order to live with our choices? (We might start with, Why fiction and not, say, molecular biology? Or tulip bruising ? Isn’t it odd to devote oneself to black squiggles on white paper?)
They’ll need to find sources and write on their chosen topics, but I don’t want potted seminar papers; I’d rather see them wrestling with their angels over something that matters to them as readers and writers, even if that means not reaching any definite conclusions. They’re pitching a variety of ideas, such as:
What do apocalyptic landscapes do for novels that realist settings can’t, other than obvious symbolism? (Implied in this the worry that a post-apocalyptic novel might as easily have been set in Canton, Ohio, after a single dad gets laid off at the plant, which is a financial apocalypse for his family, so to speak.)
How do people, places and things in life make their way successfully into fictions, and when or why do they stand out as extrinsic? (Where do I cut off or alter description of Uncle Joe’s last disastrous visit when I use it in my short story?)
Why do some historical narratives with wagonloads of research fail to say anything of importance, while others, using less, seem to tell a more significant truth? (And is the project doomed anyway, Henry ?)
I know it’s a disappointment: This post has, so far, been about the difficulty of discussing writing. But I promise: At least one squat naked hairy guy will make an appearance.
One of my own long-term  interests is the problem of judgment. Is there no practical baseline for identifying good writing? Even Salman Rushdie can’t venture an opinion about quality these days without someone rushing to the defense  of “bad books.” How are we to teach, if the value of all things is deemed merely subjective? You like Hershey bars, and I like menthol cigarettes. Class dismissed.
Earlier in the semester, for a different assignment, I asked each student to bring in a genre novel of his or her choosing so we could discuss how it does and doesn’t transcend conventions of its genre (white-hatted sheriff, hardboiled gumshoe with a drinking problem, whatever happens in romance novels, etc.). We might also ask how the book limits itself, yet often still gives pleasure. As a class, and to compare, we also read a very good novel (Daniel Woodrell’s Tomato Red ) that uses some genre conventions (Woodrell calls his style “country noir”) to better effect.
I did the assignment with them. My genre choice was an action-adventure novel called Seawitch , by Alistair MacLean (d. 1987), a Scottish writer with at least 30 books, several of which were made into films you’d know, such as The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra, and Where Eagles Dare, with stars such as Richard Burton, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Gregory Peck, Clint Eastwood, and Harrison Ford. I wanted to revisit the book, which I last saw when I was about 14. When I was a teen, the MacLean novels were like comfort food. (As were Fleming’s Bond novels.)
Jacket synopses aren’t always the best guides to what’s inside their books, but in the case of Seawitch, its tone and content are pretty accurate:
There were ten of them. Oil magnates. All in a secret meeting to plot the destruction of Lord Worth[!], England’s famous oil billionaire. They hired the notorious trouble shooter Cronkite—violent, ruthless, deadly. Cronkite was not above using nuclear weapons. The target: Seawitch. Lord Worth’s massive ocean oil rig. But Lord Worth had a few tricks of his own. The most deadly being two crackerjack private investigators who just happened to be in love with Lord Worth’s daughters. So when Cronkite decided his first move was to kidnap the girls he was unaware that he had made a very dangerous mistake….
O! young Churm! Why? The book starts with what one of my professors used to call “Popular Mechanics fiction,” a preoccupation with technological details that don’t advance the human drama: "Normally there are only two types of marine machines concerned with the discovery and recovery of oil from under the ocean floor. The first, mainly engaged in the discovery of oil, is a self-propelled vessel, sometimes of very considerable size. Apart from its towering drilling derrick, it is indistinguishable from any oceangoing cargo vessel; its purpose is to drill boreholes…."
Bore is right. MacLean shares Fleming’s fetish for material things. This just in from Lord Worth’s manor:
The dining room in that mansion was something to behold. Monks, by the very nature of their calling, are supposed to be devoid of all earthly lusts, but no monk, past or present, could ever have gazed on the gleaming magnificence of that splendid oaken refectory table without turning pale chartreuse with envy. The chairs, inevitably, were Louis XIV. The splendidly embroidered silken carpet, with a pile deep enough for a fair-sized mouse to take cover in, would have been judged by an expert to come from Damascus and to have cost a fortune: the expert would have been right on both counts.
It goes on in this vein, but I can’t. It’s a fucking embarrassment, and I liked it, you see.
The novel has all the hallmarks of sloppy commercial writing, including stilted language (“In certain places and among certain people, the Seawitch was a very bad name indeed.”), over-obvious irony (“When his name was mentioned by any of the ten men present at that shoreside house on Lake Tahoe, it was in tones of less than hushed reverence.”), and bad dialogue with a tendency toward exposition that sounds just like the narrator’s exposition:
’We all subscribe to the gentlemen’s agreement among major oil companies that they will not prospect for oil in international waters…. Alas, not all are gentlemen. The chairman of the North Hudson Oil Company, Lord Worth, and his entire pestiferous board of directors would have been the first to vehemently deny any suggestion that they were gentlemen, a fact held in almost universal acceptance….’
MacLean panders to Hollywood with prepackaged character descriptions, no doubt in hopes of another movie option on the novel he’s writing: “Cronkite was a Texan. In height, build and cragginess of features he bore[!] a remarkable resemblance to John Wayne.”
There are all the usual tough-guy sentimentalities of the genre, such as euphemisms for violence (“unfortunate occurrences”), cute ways to describe cussing (“his subsequent language would have disbarred him forever from a seat in the House of Lords” [not bloody likely!]), and wisecracks during disaster (“Does anyone know where I can get a bomb shelter cheap?”). The narration, in this book full of death and destruction, generally has a naughty tone, and its gaze at those events is loving.
It's odd what genre fiction will so often choose to look at lovingly, like a squat naked hairy guy, and the power that has over readers, who want to see too. More on that soon.
The book’s characters are at best types: One of the gumshoes has “phenomenal night-sight,” which allows him to defeat evil-doers, and every one kills “with relish”—usually followed by a “restorative” brandy. At worst, they’re execrably-worded types: “It really ought not to have come as a shock: Beneath the façade of many an exquisite fop lies the mind of a retarded fourth-grader.” And: “Oil ministers do not become oil ministers because they are mentally retarded.”
Nothing more need be said about the portrayal of women in the book than: “[H]e did not want a case of screaming hysterics on his hands.” But for good measure, when one of Lord Worth’s daughters surprises her gumshoe boyfriend from the backseat of his dark car, “The barrel of Mitchell’s .38 was lined up between her eyes, eyes at the moment wide with shock and fear.” The gun stays there, as they talk it out, and he convinces her not to meddle in his professional life. Yet the last words of the novel are, “’Mrs. Michael Mitchell.’ She mused. ‘I suppose I could go through life with a worse name.’”
I see; the story ends in marriage. So it’s a comedy, then, despite the nuclear weapon ’s detonation in the Gulf of Mexico. Like Jane Austen.
Hey, listen, there’s a lot we all have to regret. That’s not my point. What I’d be most interested in, if I were writing this paper on a problem in fiction, is how or why these books work on audience, despite all their obvious flaws. I think in the case of this novel, it has to do with the appearance of freeing oneself from class anxieties through simple heroism and incorruptibility. When all-night-seeing Michael, owner of the .38, and—did I mention his massive size and strength and skill at martial arts?—begins to tremble like a berserker after his gumshoe partner and fiancée are wounded by terrorists, and his fiancée thinks him a coward, but we know it’s his implacable rage barely contained, well, a teen boy might very well relish the satisfaction of primitive justice. As would men with minds of boys. But for the rest of us, what if the power that drives commercial fiction could be harnessed for artful writing? Could you get the best of both  textual worlds?
To be continued, with hairy guy, honestly….