Saturday, May 16, 2009

Pulp Friction

I have four paper-and-ink books available for sale and have one more online for free, but Stephen King has no cause to look worriedly over his shoulder. I am not gaining on him.

That is OK (sort of). I’ll never refuse a royalty, but my fiction would exist if there were no readers at all. I write to scratch an itch, as nearly all writers do. Some writers have more remunerative itches than others, of course. Many successful authors write with grace, depth, and quality (even many potboiler authors: Koontz and Ketchum, for example, write not just commercially but well), but others are not so handicapped by talent.

A friend of mine, who regularly and cheerily reminds me of my absence from the bestseller list, recently (for no particular reason that I could see) pondered aloud what I was "doing wrong." Using his fingers, he counted off well-known titles by authors of dubious talent, and then asked me what I thought were the elements of a commercially successful novel. I countered that I obviously didn't know, and changed the subject. Yet, the question stirred something in my memory. It seemed to me that a hypothesis about this had once been proposed and put to the test. I did a little research and soon stumbled upon the experiment that I recalled from my schooldays.

One day in 1966, Newsday columnist Mike McGrady picked up The New York Times book review section and looked at the bestseller list. He was irritated by what he saw, and concluded "inept writing held the key to success." He was convinced he could write as badly as any author on the list, and that many of his colleagues could, too. Inspired by the thought, he playfully wrote a memo and sent it to 24 members of the Newsday staff.

"You are hereby invited to become the co-author of a best selling novel," he wrote. "There will be an unremitting emphasis on sex and true excellence in writing will be quickly blue-penciled into oblivion."

The staff responded enthusiastically. They devised a simple plot: a woman discovers her husband is cheating on her, so she takes revenge by indulging in one lurid sexual escapade after another. That is the whole plot. Her lovers are sophisticates and ruffians from all walks of life. The staff divvied up the writing in appropriate fashion: Newsday's crime writer wrote the chapter about her fling with a gangster, the sports writer the one about an affair with a boxer, and so on. They invented an "author" and named her Penelope Ashe. McGrady's sister-in-law agreed to play Penelope on the talk show circuit. Released in 1969, the novel was a stunning success. Naked Came the Stranger soared to 4 on The New York Times bestseller list, elbowing aside Jacqueline Susann's The Love Machine. Hollywood came knocking and bought the movie rights for a large sum (yes, the movie was made, and it, too, was successful by the standards of low-budget x-rated films). The revelation of the hoax by McGrady did nothing to diminish sales.

I don't think tastes have elevated in the 40 years since, so McGrady's formula probably still has legs. So, all my scrawling friends out there, perhaps together we too can tap out something truly awful.

One of my books, Trash & Other Litter, by the way, actually has a few elements of the formula. Sales nonetheless are modest. I prefer to suppose this is because Mike would have taken his blue pencil to it.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Quiet Riot

As a new month of May quietly arrives, my thoughts turn to an earlier more riotous May. As riots go, it was a pleasant one.

In the spring of 1971, ARVN troops launched an ill-fated offensive against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. The sudden re-escalation of the war put new life into the anti-war movement in the US. 200,000 protesters jammed into Washington, DC, for a May Day march. The initial march was peaceful, but leaflets spread all over the city announced a plan for May 3 to shut down the government by occupying key bridges and intersections thereby preventing government workers from reaching their offices. The Metro was still under construction, so commuters relied entirely on cars and buses.

This was my freshman year at GWU and I lived in Mitchell Hall, an 8-story dorm at 514 19th St NW in DC, three blocks from the White House and a short walk from the Mall. The rooms and hallways of the dorm were crammed with out-of-town students who were there for the demonstrations. I'm afraid my primary interest was unpolitical: it was whether any of the visitors were pretty.

On the night of May 2 my friend Don and I walked to the Washington Monument grounds as we had done the day before. Loud rock music was coming from a stage on the far side of the grounds. I saw only one police officer. He stood in Constitution Avenue trying to direct traffic. A young blonde woman in jeans and buckskin, and high on something more than the thick haze of marijuana in the air, stood next to him and "assisted" with grand sweeping gestures in the direction of walls and lampposts. Finally he became exasperated and gently shooed her away.

"You're a good cop!" she shouted far too loudly into his face.

"Yeah, I know," he said, shaking his head as she staggered toward the Monument.

Trying to navigate across the crowded Monument lawn, I stepped over and around human beings, who sat and lay about in various states of consciousness. The spaces between them were filled largely by blankets, coolers, and knapsacks. It was a surreal scene, so Don and I mingled and lingered. Eventually, we moseyed back to our dorm.

Our timing was fortuitous. Just before dawn on May 3, thousands of police and National Guardsmen surrounded the grounds and the Mall. Most of the  protestors were fleet-footed enough to evade immediate arrest. The assault on the roads and bridges went forward. It was no small event. Over the next three days 12,000 demonstrators were arrested. The practice field by RFK Stadium was used to hold them.

I opted simply to observe, and Mitchell Hall proved a good vantage point to watch some of the action. I kept to the rooftop and upper floors, not only for the better view, but to get above the street-level tear gas. The tang of the stuff cleared my sinuses even on the roof. Below, protestors drifted from intersection to intersection, while convoys of police cars and squads of CDU police on foot chased them away. One rag-tag troupe surrounded a Metro bus in the street below; they opened the engine cover and tried to disable the bus, but police cars arrived before they could finish. They scattered. This was a typical scene all over town. The protesters definitely interfered with traffic, but they didn't stop it. Government commuters got to work, though they could not have enjoyed driving through tear gas. Some street action sputtered on for a couple days, but by May 6 it was all over. A fellow student passed by me in the dorm hallway with books under his left arm. "Revolution's over," he said to me. So it was.

What struck me most about the whole affair was the remarkable lack of rancor in the tone of the event. Police and protesters seemed, if anything, to be having fun. I heard more than a little laughter from both sides. Yes, protesters were violent and police did get rough, but there was no overall sense that the violence would turn deadly. None of my dorm residents who had gotten arrested had so much as a small bruise to show off for it.

Many civil disturbances in this era and since were both mean and deadly. Why was this one such a soft riot? In large part it was because the police were professional and restrained. Also, it was because the protesters by and large were overwhelmingly middle-class college kids. They came from supportive families where they had been raised on Disney and Dr. Spock. They weren't angry enough to be truly dangerous.

So, my first large scale riot was pretty tame, by the standards of such things. I'd just as soon avoid being present at a second, since odds are it would be different.