Wednesday, August 22, 2018

A New Type of Romance, and Great Writing VS Literature

I just read a 1998 interview with Douglas Adams, published in the Salmon of Doubt, where the genius author just finished a CD-ROM interactive game, Starship Titanic. He really did think up many things in technology before they were invented, such as a handheld device with wireless capability, Bluetooth (he hated all the cords needed to connect his word processor to all his other devices), a universal energy source (American, British and European were never the same output) that maybe someone could create from a car's cigarette lighter, etc. Basically, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, thought up years before there was easy access to the internet, was a sort of Wikipedia, before Wikipedia existed. The Salmon of Doubt, mostly Douglas Adams' posthumously published musings after his untimely death, should be read just to get a rare glimpse into what a genius mind looks like inside an amiable, ambling, all-around great guy.

But back to the interview regarding Starship Titanic: the interviewer asked Douglas Adams if he was concerned a new story first published as a CD-ROM (instead of, say, a book or movie) wouldn't be treated as a work of art. Adams' response is he hoped it wouldn't be treated as art:

“Having been an English literary graduate, I've been trying to avoid the idea of doing art ever since. I think the idea of art kills creativity. That was one of the reasons I really wanted to go and do a CD-ROM: because nobody will take it seriously, and therefore you can sneak under the fence with lots of good stuff. It's funny how often it happens. I guess when the novel started, most early novels were just sort of pornography: Apparently, most media actually started as pornography and sort of grew from there. This is not a pornographic CD-ROM, I hasten to add.”

He goes on to say that there's nothing worse than a writer sitting down to create something of high artistic worth, using Ian Fleming's Thunderball as an example. He happened to find a copy lying around, and after a friend had mentioned Fleming aimed to be “literate” instead of “literary,” Adams thought it would be interesting to see what the novel was like, how it compared to all the post-movie hype. And, of course, Adams saw that it was written well. “It's interesting, because it was actually very well written as a piece of craft. He knew how to use language, he knew how to make it work, and he wrote well. But obviously nobody would call it literature.” He goes on to add that being literate is “good craft, knowing your job...I find when I read literary novels – you know, with a capital 'L' – I think an awful lot is nonsense. If I want to know something interesting about a way human beings work, how they relate to each other and how they behave, I'll find an awful lot of women crime novelists who do it better, Ruth Rendell for instance.”

So here's the cool part. I had known about Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in high school, had learned some of the lingo and jokes from people who had read the books, much the same way a Monty Python sketch, and later perhaps Saturday Night Live sketch would take on a life of its own and become part of our public discourse. And then, I found a copy of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency lying around. I started reading it because the whole thing just looked curiously absurd, and I was shocked at how well-written it was. This book had passages more poetic than anything I had ever read in any literature class, and the whole thing was written in (dare I say it) a literate style that just flowed together as if it had been easy to write. Of course, as I now understand, much work went into making it look like it had been easy to write.

I read the second Dirk Gently novel in college, and the entire Hitchhiker series post-college, when I had more time for leisure activity and could muse, again, about writing fiction myself. This is the stuff that's art: craft that works, and stuff that's really new. I was as amazed at the writing as I was at how he was actually able to publish these works that were truly funny. I mean, novelists are supposed to be writing serious stuff, not comedy. Although, as Adams noted, this type of writing has more literary worth than “Literature” with a capital 'L.'

The second cool part is that I, also, looked at Ian Fleming's books while researching my current spy novel, Hookers of Espionage, and found the novels and short stories surprisingly well crafted. Ian Fleming has a sort of Hemingway tone and feel – he's writing at the top of his craft, and he knows it. Like Adams, Fleming died at a relatively young age with much writing left undone – they had started making very successful movies of his stories, and Fleming had just experienced a bit of fame and financial success as a result, which he spilled over into his novels with a bit of wry humor.

But as I looked closer to Fleming's stories, I found that all but his last one, the Man with the Golden Gun, were romances. One short story, the Spy Who Loved Me, was written from the point of view of James Bond's love interest, and another, A Quantum of Solace, was a story within a story, a story told to James Bond about an Englishwoman in Jamaica who spurned her husband, and later married a Canadian: both of these are romances in a sense, but all the other James Bond stories are, quite curiously, romance from the male point of view. And I think Ian Fleming is the first guy to do it.

Hemingway, in a very real sense, is a writer of romance, but everything he writes is so consumed by pity, irony, and death, that there never really is a happy ending (except perhaps Garden of Eden or, possibly, the Sun Also Rises). But Ian Fleming seems to have perfected the male magazine style of writing for the middle-class man interested in leisure activity: golf, gambling, driving, diving, travel, drinking, and of course women. It's as if Fleming has tapped into the male counterpoint of the typical female reader of romance, creating a whole new sub-genre.

Of course, spy novels are published as espionage thrillers. But I know, now, that the great spy novels are romances. Specifically, they are romances written from the male point of view, which, surprisingly, no one else is doing. Perhaps I should corner the market on this one. After all, I aim to write literate, and not literary.

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