Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Five crime writers, two funerals, and an obscenity-free cake or two

Mothers, don’t let your sons grow up to be crime novelists. There was a time in America when prolific authors of crime novels, even mediocre crime novels, could make enough of a living to own a house in a nice suburb, send their kids to college, and retire comfortably if they wished. These days it’s a different story.

I had dinner last week with five – yes five! – crime fiction writers. These weren’t mediocre authors or bumbling beginners. These were some of the best. They’ve all won prestigious writing awards. They’ve each published many, many times. Or at least they’ve published many times until very recently. Now they tell me they can’t seem to get themselves arrested. No pun intended. Well, okay, I did intend the pun. But let’s get to the point.

Suddenly, the book publishing industry has largely lost interest in crime novels. A literary agent who was also present at the dinner table let on that publishers will publish a few crime novels. But what the publishing houses seem to be looking for is limited to crime novels written by women and set in either the United States or England. That means no France, pal, and certainly not any Iraqs, Irans, or Indias.

But even being a woman crime writer is also not a guarantee of success. One of the five authors at that dinner was a woman. A publisher had just bounced her 11th book.

All the same, when crime novels about female heroines chasing down crooks in a few select English-speaking nations, as described by female authors, are the only crime novels, you can expect a lot of guys to start adapting female pen names. And indeed, one of my dinner companions reported, that’s exactly what he has done. 

Which brings to mind that in the 19th Century, a woman named Amandine Aurore Lucille Dudevant had to assume the pen name George Sand to get her novels published. These days, don’t be surprised if you read a book by someone named Amandine Dudevant and Amandine turns out to be some guy in a ribbed tank top undershirt, with hairy armpits, a five o’clock shadow, a fat cigar in his mouth, and beer on his breath.

What’s that? You're disappointed? You were planning to have a second career writing crime novels? Let me offer you an alternative suggestion. If you’re so good at plotting the perfect crime, for the love of heaven don't write about it. Just commit it. Trust me, the money you can make robbing banks is a hell of a lot better than the money you can make writing about make-believe bank robberies. And your long term chances for success as a bank robber are no worse than your chances as a crime novelist.

I’m sorry that the author and journo-stylist Tom Wolfe died recently. But I was even sorrier when he matured, several decades ago. This takes some background, so let's start.

The precursor to New York Magazine was the New York Herald-Tribune’s (R.I.P.) Sunday supplement, called New York. Wolfe wrote for it regularly. One piece in particular back in the Herald-Tribune days, made me nearly fall out of my chair. It was about the great publishing sleezemeister Bob Harrison, originator of Confidential Magazine and Inside News, as well as Beauty Parade, and two other girlie magazines named Titter and Wink. (You couldn't make this stuff up, because Bob already had.)
Bob Harrison — born 50 years
too soon to have been Donald

To the best of my recollection, Wolfe’s piece was called The Aesthetique du Schlock, although it appears in his book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby under the title, “Purveyor of the Public Life.” I'll go with the original Schlock title, please.

I spent one week working for Harrison when I was 22 years old, and while I can’t come close to saying it was the best week of my life, it certainly was the most memorable. The memories start with the first day I met him. Harrison was looking for somebody with newspaper reporting experience to write for him, and I was the only ink-stained wretch in New York willing to take the job for $75 a week.

Harrison explained his theory of news by scribbling an invisible headline in the air while reciting it in a loud, gruff voice, and then quizzing me about it.


“Is that news?” he asked me.

“A drunk movie star killing six people? Sure that’s news,” I said.

“The hell it is!” Harrison roared. Anybody can get into a sports car drunk and kill six people.


That’s news!”

I told Bob I agreed with him — anybody getting drunk on water and then killing six people would be news. I only had one problem with his news theory. How could anybody possibly find a steady stream of stories like those?

“There’s only one way, kid,” Harrison told me. “You gotta make it up.”
Donald Trump — born 50 years
too late to have been Bob Harrison

But this vignette pales by comparison to the richness of Wolfe’s prose when Wolfe described Harrison. Before he matured and started writing novels that were merely wonderful, Wolfe wrote short pieces that were unrelentingly marvelous, like the piece on Harrison. 

Oddly, Harrison displayed some of the same narcissistic flare, and surrounded himself with the same sorts of irresponsible characters and self-generated chaos as the present occupant of the White House. In retrospect, they were soul brothers. But for a few twists of fate and timing, Donald Trump could have been a sleazy magazine publisher. And Bob Harrison could have been in the White House, wrecking democracy for everyone else. And you and I would hardly know the difference.

Go get yourself  a copy of the Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby and read it cover to cover. Spend extra time on his piece about Harrison, That’s the most fitting tribute to Wolfe you can make.

The world also lost Philip Roth this week. I can’t say I read everything Roth wrote. (He was the author of over 30 books.) Nor can I say that I adored everything of his that I did read. But certain works stand out — certainly his early works like Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint. But also The Human Stain, one of the earliest works of fiction to call attention to to the widespread paranoid hypersensitivity at colleges and universities to just about anything that doesn't sound perfectly, politically correct. 

And then certainly The Plot Against America, seems today to have been oddly prophetic of the kind of America we’re beginning to have under Donald Trump. 

Finally, the case of the censored cakes: Only a few months after the Supreme Court of the United States has heard (but not yet decided on) a discrimination case involving two gay guys who wanted a wedding cake for their marriage, and the Colorado baker who refused to bake it, (the baker claiming freedom of expression in that he doesn’t want to express any congratulatory messages to gay couples, the gay guys claiming the baker is guilty of anti-gay discrimination) we have potentially yet another censored cake case in the oven.

This time, the mother of a boy in Charleston, South Carolina, who graduated summa cum laude from a Christian home schooling program wanted  a cake honoring her son’s recognized academic distinction. She ordered the cake online from Publix, a southern grocery chain that has evidently gone into the cake censoring business.

Mom also paid for the cake online. It was supposed to be inscribed, “Congrats Jacob! Summa Cum Laude class of 2018.” But the supermarket chain took it upon itself to censor out the Latin word “cum” because it looked nasty. Or at least their computer algorithm decided it was nasty. Obviously, nobody at Publix was smart enough to take, much less to pass, an elementary Latin course. Summa cum laude means "with highest praise."

Cum is Latin for the word “with.” Now the well-meaning family was embarrassed by the absence of a key word on their cake, their son was embarrassed too, and the family had to explain to the boy’s aged Christian grandmother what “cum” means in English, and why Publix therefore refused to put the word on the cake and substituted dashes instead, even though the phrase was Latin.

Okay, so Publix is a corporate idiot and an algorithmic dolt. There’s are bigger issues than idiocy at work here. 
Where the hell does a supermarket chain get off telling anybody what a cake made for consumption in the privacy of someone's own home can say, or not say? To paraphrase the late newspaper columnist and poet Don Marquis, “To the devil with a country where people can’t mind their own business…The curse of this nation is the number of meddlesome Matties who are forever attempting to restrict the liberty of the individual.”

Meanwhile, for the religious nuts who started this whole argument, the case has now turned on them and bitten them in the, uh, gluteus maximus.

First, a Christian sues because he doesn’t want to put something on somebody else’s cake. But then a different Christian gets outraged because Publix didn’t want to put something on her own cake. Listen, Christians, are you for cake censorship, or against cake censorship? Decide one way or the other, please. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too. And yes, I know it's a pun. You make them too easy.

More important, this is a perfect argument for bakers of all kinds to stop censoring cake inscriptions of any kind. Shut up and bake the damn cake. Either that, or go stick your head in your oven.

U.S. Supreme Court, are you listening?


Karl Kolchak said...

So what the heck happened to all the hard boiled crime novels for guys? I friggin' loved authors like John D. MacDonald, Loren Estleman and Lawrence Block. Does this mean American men aren't reading anymore? Because the would explain a lot.

It also explains why I've limited my fiction reading to sci-fi and horror these days--no new non-"cosy" crime fiction being written, and I can't stand cosies. Scooby-Doo mysteries are more believable.

The New York Crank said...


I understand Block has a new novella coming out soon. That's all I know about it.

The New York Crank said...

Also Karl, I just came across this new anthology of Block short stories:

Karl Kolchak said...

NYC--thanks for the link! The only problem with Block is that he's about 110 years old. He desperately needs some heirs!

Estleman is also still going, but he's pretty long in the tooth as well.

The New York Crank said...

Well, Block still has a long way to go before he's 110. Or even 100. Or even...but enough of that already. However I take your point.

The problem is, with most publishers somewhere on the far end of the scale between reluctant to publish.....and won't even look at it, the next fledgling Block who comes along will probably throw up his hands and go into advertising. Which is the whole point of "Mothers, don't let your sons grow up to be crime novelists."

Come to think of it, advertising isn't the great, fun, well-paying, stable business it used too be either. Nor journalism.

I guess we'll all have to go back to making money the old-fashioned way — by stealing it. I give you Donald Trump, for example.

Crankily yours,
The New York Crank

Jill said...

Between this and the physician fistfight, I just realized how much I've missed reading your blog. I'm glad to be back in Blogtopia (TM Skippy). I've missed you.

The New York Crank said...

Thanks, Jill.