On a recent Sunday morning, I read a short story from The Library of America—“The Ice Palace” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I marveled at his tendencies toward flourish, in contrast to Hemingway’s terse descriptions, and how it violated “style” as is now taught. I then read Adam Kirsch’s column on the last page of “The New York Times Book Review,” which captured my reaction to the now dated Fitzgerald’s style.
Mr. Kirsch started his essay with: “Bad taste is not a disability but a decision, the decision not to explore beyond the boundaries of what we already know we enjoy.” He uses as an example to make his point the experiment of serving the same wine but in separately labeled bottles. “The tasters called the grand cru ‘complex’ and ‘round’ and the table wine ‘unbalanced’ and ‘weak.’ Not a single one detected that, in fact, both wines were in reality the same Bordeaux.” A few years ago, Trader Joe’s “Two-Buck Chuck” was submitted to blind taste tests, and won not a few vintner recognitions.
Mr. Kirsch included a more academic reference—to a Cambridge University lecturer who obtained similar results when he gave his students separate poems to read disclosing neither the author nor the period from which they derived. He discovered that “Good taste, in literature as in wine, turns out to be a chimera.”
He said the experiment did not mean, however, it’s pointless to have a discourse on what is better or worse, but showed that invocation of taste is designed to shut down discourse. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say it takes advantage of subtle suggestions designed to have people refrain from exercising independent judgment. Marketers long ago discovered this chimeric sense of taste and have been taking advantage of it ever since.
Today, many ideas or products are presented in ways designed to encourage the assumption that quality is reflected by the snob appeal of a label as a shortcut to earned loyalty. (So much for the long-ago Zenith motto: “The Quality Goes In Before the Label Goes On”) Much of the impact of labeling (and marketing in general) is to garner a higher price—and thus profit—by extending the longevity of a brand. In marketing, brand trumps quality most of the time. Open up “The New Yorker” and you’ll see the snob appeal of products by brand that intimates the highest quality. There is some level of stitchery beyond which added cost returns no additional incremental value. You are paying for the snob appeal associated with the brand. This is not to say there are no distinctions in quality, but branding is at the heart of marketing and branding frequently has little relationship to quality. It’s focused on generating name recognition.
At the very heart of branding lies an invitation to exercise prejudice—for a particular product or against others. This is achieved by puffing the values of one product over others or by putting the others down as inferior, or at least less than superior.
Advertising is the commercial application of these techniques of propaganda. Madison Avenue uses them to tout the Cadillac; Hitler used them to persecute the Jews. The medium becomes the message, as Marshall McLuhan said. The form becomes the substance, according to me.
Mr. Kirsch argues that the allusions to taste can be counterfeit in products, but not so easy to carry off the deception in literature. Good taste, he says, often is more “a performance than a skill, and it can get messed up with other kinds of performance, above all the signaling of class privilege,” especially when applied to products of luxury. But literature is “the most democratic art” because it offers “few rewards for this kind of posturing.”
Really? Every time I walk into a bookstore, I see books displayed in ways that position them as better than their alternatives. The covers hawk the fame of the author over the title of the tale. The font size and placement of the author’s name frequently leaves little room for the title. Publishers count on name recognition to sell a book or give it an edge over those of other, lesser-known, authors. They seek to short-circuit in a few seconds of impression the judgment otherwise attained by reading a few pages.
Added to this is the growing number of publishers who see the best way to build a brand is by serializing the author and/or protagonist into a series, of which trilogies seem the most popular format. Some serials are more infinite. How many novels about Sheriff Joanna Brady has J. A. Jance written? After Sue Grafton finishes book twenty-six in her alphabet series, is there anyone who would bet that Kinsey Milhone’s life span wouldn’t be extended beyond the land of Z?
Don’t get me wrong; both Jance and Grafton are very capable novelists; their efforts rank well above average, and their successes are well deserved. And thank God that Robert Parker thought up Jessie Stone to substitute for past hardnosed coppers and detectives like Rex Stout’s Nero Wolf and his front man Archie Goodwin.
But when a business model gets wedded to a form, the substance can suffer, and in the case of literature, the gates can close to the non-serialized writers who lack potential long-term profitability that serialization can provide. A serialized character doesn’t have to be sold anew with each new book, just hyped a bit to announce the next release and keep the snowball of profitability growing.
In a world wedded to this business model, I wonder how Fitzgerald or Hemingway might now fare? Were Harper Lee younger, she might be pressured to have Scout grow up and fight the good fight on the front lines of the civil rights movement in book two, and later help Dill fight prejudice against gays in the military in book three, or link up with her father Atticus, now a law professor emeritus in a comfortable rocking chair, to solve complex crimes in a television series procedural.
The risk we take is that the writers will be lured to the gimmicky over the literary, and that is the road to becoming the hackneyed. A writer has to assume a different literary stance to produce a series. He can’t shoot the whole wad in book one, but must hold back bits and pieces of character traits and quirks of personality for disclosure and exploration in the next volume. As a reader you sometimes get the feeling you’re being manipulated as hints are dropped for volume two, like breadcrumbs. For the writer, the likely feeling is one of manufacturing product rather than writing literature.
The challenge to the writer is to create characters that are also credible and believable over the long run. No small task. The writer must also avoid what I call the “General Hospital” Syndrome. My mother turned me on to that years ago when she had not watched the soap “General Hospital” for three years and happened across it one day only to discover that the plot hadn’t really moved forward all that much. This incremental plotting technique is starting to show itself in serialized TV shows like “24” and “Under the Dome.” They can leave you feeling like you’re a trumpet player in a marching band that’s standing in place—music in constant coda but absent movement. That might work for an hour of action-packed dialogue in television, but it’s risky to think it will work for the reader who discovers after a few dozen pages that the author is dragging her around in circles.
Traditional serials have worked very well in the past. Remember the Hardy Boys and Spin and Marty? But they were established characters who merely moved from one adventure to another, pretty much like the traditional television cop show, starting with “Dragnet.” Today the effort seems to make each book in a series dig a little deeper into the protagonist’s character, to give it the appearance of expanded depth and breadth. You see this technique starting to be applied to television by use of the chatter about personal problems in a subplot as the protagonists weave together evidence about the main mystery at hand. (As a former special prosecutor who has walked into dark buildings, gun drawn, trust me, the last thing you’re inclined to do is chat about family problems or bowling scores. You’re too damn scared and who the hell wants to give away their location. Might as well walk on potato chips. Duh!) All this chatter provides little substance and typically comes across as forced. The idea is laudatory—that writers seek to develop a linear expansion of the depth and breadth of the primary characters—but too frequently the result is the same as spraying a wax coating on apples to make the shinier. The bad apple still lurks beneath.
So where does this leave the writer? In a danger zone. As the publishing industry further embraces the serialization technique as the preferred business model, writers will need to think in trilogies, which can lead to copycat crap. The risk is the same when extending any recipe—doing so without watering down the original recipe with “other natural ingredients,” a.k.a., fillers. The bigger challenge is trying to turn a novel initially written to stand alone into part of a series without watering down the product or looking like you’ve merely rewritten the first one. I am sure writer’s magazines will begin produce how-to articles on writing the “successful” serial. Actually, there are books on it available.
But for the writer the problem remains. How to break into that market? Oh the gatekeepers there will be ever looking for whoever can generate the greatest profits from a series, and who has the talent to write a very long tome that can effectively be whacked into three parts.
In the meantime, not knowing who wrote the following, what criticisms would you note in the margins in this first-paragraphs effort? Can you spot the hints of what might be the focus in volume one and those to be left for volume two? Thus the term chimera—what is hoped for but in reality is illusory or impossible to achieve.
The sunlight dripped over the house like golden paint over an art jar, and the freckling shadows here and there only intensiﬁed the rigor of the bath of light. The Butterworth and Larkin houses ﬂanking were entrenched behind great stodgy trees; only the Happer house took the full sun, and all day long faced the dusty road-street with a tolerant kindly patience. This was the city of Tarleton in southernmost Georgia, September afternoon.
Up in her bedroom window Sally Carrol Happer rested her nineteen-year-old chin on a ﬁfty-two-year-old sill and watched Clark Darrow’s ancient Ford turn the corner. The car was hot—being partly metallic it retained all the heat it absorbed or evolved—and Clark Darrow sitting bolt upright at the wheel wore a pained, strained expression as though he considered himself a spare part, and rather likely to break. He laboriously crossed two dust ruts, the wheels squeaking indignantly at the encounter, and then with a terrifying expression he gave the steering gear a ﬁnal wrench and deposited self and car approximately in front of the Happer steps. There was a plaintive heaving sound, a death rattle, followed by a short silence; and then the air was rent by a startling whistle.