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“Why’s this so good?” No. 5: Raymond Chandler sticks it to Hollywood

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We tend now to think of Hollywood’s hackneyed, would-be blockbusters as a new phenomenon, one borne of desperation, unprecedented cynicism and the rise of narrative television. But Raymond Chandler’s wonderful 1945 essay-screed “Writers in Hollywood” reminds us that the motion picture industry was, by and large, as uninspired and ridiculous 65 years ago as it is today.

Writing for The Atlantic Monthly, Chandler brought to bear on his subject all the fury and surprising insights of the novelist who wrote “The Big Sleep,” the gimlet-eyed practicality of the storyteller whose first publications were for pulp magazines, and the staggering self-absorption of the depressive alcoholic.

There is, Chandler says, “no such thing as an art of the screenplay, and there never will be as long as the system lasts, for it is the essence of this system that it seeks to exploit a talent without permitting it the right to be a talent. It cannot be done; you can only destroy the talent, which is exactly what happens – when there is any to destroy. Granted that there isn’t much.”

As in the essays of Twain, Mencken and Vonnegut, the language doesn’t date. Chandler is straightforward, he is disgusted, and he is hilarious, and his rapid-fire insults are unmistakably his own. Even the most talented screenwriters, he says,

devote their entire time to work which has no more possibility of distinction than a Pekinese has of becoming a Great Dane: to asinine musicals about technicolor legs and the yowling of night-club singers; to “psychological” dramas with wooden plots, stock characters, and that persistent note of fuzzy earnestness which suggests the conversation of schoolgirls in puberty; to sprightly and sophisticated comedies (we hope) in which the gags are as stale as the attitudes, in which there is always a drink in every hand, a butler in every doorway, and a telephone on the edge of every bathtub; to historical epics in which the male actors look like female impersonators, and the lovely feminine star looks just a little too starry-eyed for a babe who has spent half her life swapping husbands; and last but not least, to those pictures of deep social import in which everybody is thoughtful and grown-up and sincere and the more difficult problems of life are wordily resolved into a unanimous vote of confidence in the inviolability of the Constitution, the sanctity of the home, and the paramount importance of the streamlined kitchen.

More than a dozen shots in a single mammoth sentence: who else could fuse so many complex condemnations so elegantly and vividly – so, dare I say, cinematically? The semicolon here does the work of the quick cut.

Yes, the argument wanders in places; sometimes he contradicts himself. (As Marilynne Robinson once said of a book by Richard Dawkins, truly this screed is a sword that turneth every way.) But the energy is remarkable. I enjoy every below-the-belt jab and noiresque condemnation. “Let me not imply that there are no writers of authentic ability in Hollywood. There are not many, but there are not many anywhere. The creative gift is a scarce commodity, and patience and imitation have always done most of its work.” It’s not hard to imagine this last bit issuing from a partly-shadowed Humphrey Bogart in one of Chandler’s own films just before he leaves the villain to stride down some dark hallway.

In the heyday of the Hollywood novelist-screenwriter, a slew of literary talents – Chandler, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker and Aldous Huxley, to name just a few – did time writing film scripts because they were easy money. Now, in the new narrative TV landscape, it’s cable companies that are signing novelists and memoirists in droves. Jonathan Ames, Jennifer Egan, Sam Lipsyte, Sloane Crosley, Salman Rushdie, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman are just a few recent hires. Given that fiction writers like Richard Price and George Pelacanos helped shape “The Wire,” arguably the most interesting story of our time, the focus on novelists makes a certain amount of sense. But how much creative control will they have? And will cable TV, too, eventually become too rigid to allow innovation?

Chandler was born well over a century ago, on July 23, 1888. But we still think of him as a contemporary writer because so few since have managed to ridicule the absurdities of modernity with such precision and wit.

His complaints offer a fascinating snapshot of what it was like to write for pictures at the end of the Second World War. Yet his concerns about the way storytelling by committee tends to impede creativity and destroy narrative are timeless. “The volatile essences which make literature cannot survive the clichés of a long series of story conferences,” he writes.

And ultimately this Hollywood essay derives its power from Chandler’s language itself: its intensity and humor and its withering metaphor. The “egocentric geniuses” who depart Tinseltown in a huff, we’re told, “leave behind them nothing but the exquisite aroma of their personalities.”

Maud Newton is an editor and writer for Thomson Reuters whose criticism, essays, and prize-winning fiction have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Narrative Magazine, The Paris Review Daily, Granta, The Awl, and many other publications.

For more from this collaboration with Longreads and Alexis Madrigal, check out the previous posts in the series. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every week.




4 comments

  1. evan luke thomas
    posted July 27, 2011 at 12:37 pm | permalink

    Maud is comparing literature such as El Lay visiting stage writing for legitimate (where is that now-a-days?) London-NYC theatre and literary magazines. Chandler is an El Lay pulp writer describing what it was like actually living it as a native. The only visiting writer who actally came close to combining the two was Waugh (“The Loved One”) which Hollywood turned into a very good movie (Morse, Steiger, Winters) that converted most of Waugh’s dead-on-target killing prose into a visual surreal comedy not unlike Winters’ TV appearances. “Sunset Boulevard” is another example as a movie and the book written by El Lay denizens (Brackett, Wilder) with Look Magazine’s Marshman offering a loving and educated fan’s steady hand–it wasn’t as dark and pulpy as Chandler, but it was about time-enhanced explosive nitrate film rather than a lot safer dead-tree celluloid which after all is what plays, magazines and scrpts are hopelessly scratched on. I digress. Chandler is American Chaucer. But Chaucer would never survive El Lay’s furious film-loops except as the rest of the world does: as a tourist, literary or otherwise. Chandler is one of El Lay’s millions of crucified writer Christs–who climbed down every time to write about it in blood. It’s unfair to compare Maud’s offering to Chandler’s art but I did it anyway because I lived and watched El Lay happen for longer than 90 minutes at a time.

  2. posted July 27, 2011 at 1:21 pm | permalink

    Chandler’s observations are amusing and true but you should get a little backstory on them by reading Billy Wilder’s recollections of working with Chandler (Billy Wilder, The Art of Screenwriting published in The Paris Review) They’re funnier than Chandler’s diss. Basically, Chandler didn’t have a clue about how to write a screenplay. To wit, “He was a very, very good writer, but not of scripts.” As a a writer of pulp material (albeit a great one), Chandler certainly had some nerve to denigrate movie writing; talk about the pot calling the kettle black. Writers complaining about Hollywood are as old as well … Hollywood.

  3. David
    posted July 27, 2011 at 4:52 pm | permalink

    Chandler’s punchy prose still infects a lot of good news copy today.

    “A fat man in a gray suit stood by the desk smoking a corncob. His fingernails were dirty and he smelled.”

    All plain words but I still remember this description three decades after I read The Long Goodbye on a bus trip.

  4. thusgone
    posted July 28, 2011 at 3:00 pm | permalink

    “gimlet eyed . . . and the staggering self-absorption of the depressive alcoholic” = pure win!

    Thanks for injecting a little pleasure in my day.

5 trackbacks

  1. [...] Maud Newton looks at Raymond Chandler’s “Writers in Hollywood” for Nieman Storyboard. [...]

  2. [...] Revisiting ‘Writers in Hollywood.’ Raymond Chandler, the novelist and screenwriter, wrote a great essay for The Atlantic called “Writers in Hollywood.” It was published in 1945—not exactly timely for “This Week in Writing”—but Maud Newton covered it as part of a series for the Nieman Storyboard called “Why’s this so good?” in which current writers examine great essays and journalism from the past. Newton describes how Chandler’s criticism of a Hollywood that vastly undervalues writers resonates today as much as it did when he wrote the piece. She also touches on how the taste for narrative television is driving TV networks to hire novelists as TV writers, just as the movie studios did in Chandler’s day. [...]

  3. [...] Maud Newton on Raymond Chandler’s essay on Hollywood. [via nieman storyboard] [...]

  4. [...] “Raymond Chandler sticks it to Hollywood.” [...]

  5. [...] “Raymond Chandler sticks it to Hollywood“ — critic Maud Newton deconstructs an Atlantic piece by the godfather of detective fiction: [...]

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