PLAYING PIANO IN A BORDELLO:
There’s an old gag in the writing racket. It goes something like this: “Career choice? Do I regret my career choice? Why, listen, if I’d just played my cards right, I could be playing piano in a bordello right now.”
There’s also Samuel Johnson’s famous line, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
And the great mystery writer Lawrence Block refers to the fiction business as, “Telling lies for fun and profit.”
Finally there is the motto of the Mystery Writers of America, often attributed to the late Clayton Rawson: “Crime does not pay — enough!”
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I don’t think I’m giving away any trade secrets when I tell you that many authors are conflicted if not actually schizophrenic individuals. Jack Woodford spent his last years bouncing between prisons and mental hospitals. Ernest Hemingway blew his brains out “accidentally-on-purpose” with a shotgun. Poet and novelist Sylvia Plath attempted suicide repeatedly, recovering from purposeful overdoses with prescription medications and deliberately running her car off a road; she finally succeeded by placing her head in an oven and turning on the gas.
Poet and novelist Richard Brautigan, best known for Trout Fishing in America, chose a gunshot to the head. David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest, hanged himself. John Kennedy Toole, whose novel A Confederacy of Dunces was published after his death, chose to end his life by running a hose from the exhaust pipe of his car into its cabin. My dear friend the brilliant novelist-poet-librettist Thomas Disch took his life via gunshot on the Fourth of July, 2008.
I think I’d better stop now. I don’t want to depress you. But if you’re considering a life in the world of literature, maybe you ought to rear back and take a good look at what lies ahead, before you take the plunge.
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Some of my best friends are writers and most of them would feel and look out of place at a meeting of the Smallville Rotary Club.
And as for – let’s use the polite term — substance abuse problems, the image of the alcoholic scrivener is so familiar that it’s practically a cliché. I recently came across a list of Top Ten Alcoholic Authors. In TV countdown fashion, I’ll list them from the bottom of the list to the top:
10. Dylan Thomas
9. Dorothy Parker
8. Edgar Allan Poe
7. Truman Capote
6. Jack Kerouac
5. William Faulkner
4. Charles Bukowski
3. F. Scott Fitzgerald
2. James Joyce
And with a roll of drums and sound of trumpets, we come to the top guy on the list:
1. Ernest Hemingway, the very same fella who . . .
Maybe there’s something about this writing profession that makes practitioners seek escape in chemically-induced anesthesia. It’s a lonely life, all those months of living with your own creations inside your head, all those hours of nothing but pen and foolscap (in Poe’s day) or typewriter and bond paper (in Kerouac’s) or keyboard and monitor screen (today). Maybe all of that imagining makes you crazy. Or maybe you have to be crazy to start with, to go into this weird racket.
We have an image of the struggling writer as tortured artist, suffering in his garret, living on stale bread and sour wine. And why? Because there’s something in his agonized soul that has to come out, that must be shared with the world. A world which will, like as not, ignore that message anyway, but that’s another matter.
On the other hand we have a very different image of the best-selling novelist being lionized at cocktail parties, sought out by celebrity interviewers, signing contracts for fabulous figures, and sunning on the Riviera between promotional tours.
There’s a little truth and a lot of falsehood in both images. The typical writer or painter or composer is a hard-working bozo who could probably make a better living as a grocery clerk or a computer programmer. But he (or she) really does feel some need to create whether she (or he) does it with words or pigments or musical notes.
And yet we have to make a living, or at least make a reasonable attempt to do so, and it is the dreadful dissonance between the desire to be creative and the need to collect a paycheck that makes so many artists neurotic if not outright nuts.
All of which leads us to the two books that Surinam Turtle Press has brought together in this omnibus volume. Their authors, in a sense, represent the two extremes of the writing business.
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Josiah Pitts Woolfolk, Junior (1894-1971), who wrote as Jack Woodford, was a deeply troubled individual. Early in life he was addicted to heroin. He escaped that addiction by self-medicating with whiskey only to become a longtime alcoholic. He was convicted of mail fraud and served time in a federal penitentiary. He spent his last days in a mental hospital.
His own output as a fictioneer was primarily in the form of a long list of novels — he claimed forty of them — although he did produce a number of short stories and screenplays. His early collection of short fiction, Evangelical Cockroach, was reissued by Surinam Turtle Press in 2012. His novels were highly controversial in Woodford’s own day. He concentrated on personal relationships and wrote about them, especially in the context of human sexuality, with what was, for the time, remarkable frankness. To the modern reader there is little if anything shocking in Woodford’s fiction. If anything, there is a touch of the genteel if not the precious to them. But when Woodford was writing and publishing, he was often branded a pornographer.
By the way, Woodford’s most famous dictum occurs in How to Write for Money. Surprisingly, Woodford does not claim pride of authorship, attributing the line, instead, to his contemporary, H. Allen Smith. It occurs in Woodford’s chapter titled “How to Press a Duck.” I’ll leave it to you to find it.
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Canadian-born Henry James O’Brien Bedford-Jones (1887-1949), who wrote as H. Bedford-Jones and under least sixteen other names, was one of the most popular and successful authors of his time. His personal life was apparently unexceptional. From the little information available, he lived quietly but in comfort, maintained a voluminous flow of fiction interspersed with works of poetry and of fact, and died while still steadily, and apparently happily, at work.
Bedford-Jones wrote in many fields, but his greatest strength, and the subject of the greatest number of his stories, was historical adventure. He wrote of heroic swordsmen, knights in armor, cavaliers and crusaders, buccaneers and buckskin-clad pioneers. He seldom crossed the line separating historical realism, however fantastic, from outright fantasy. His favorites markets were Blue Book, Argosy and Adventure, three of the most prestigious (and highest paying) of the pulp magazines. Any ramble through a collection of those marvelous storehouses of high adventure will reveal Bedford-Jones’ name on the cover uncounted times.
Some of Bedford-Jones’ references may shock modern readers, especially those of us who have accustomed ourselves to Political Correctness. We shake our heads when Bedford-Jones flings around phrases like “nigger in the woodpile” or “Jew him out of his rights.” (He does both, by the way.)
As for Jack Woodford, we must also take into account changing social attitudes and cultural norms. Some of Woodford’s outrageous, gratuitous attacks on women, referring to them as Old Bags and other unpleasant terms, will surely set the modern reader’s teeth on edge. His casual use of the term “dinge” is equally anachronistic and outrageous but was apparently, at least, without malice.
There is no reason to think that Bedford-Jones was either a racist or an Anti-Semite. The phrases he used were common cant in his day. In a similar vein, some of his references will appear strange or obscure. Why does he make so much of the phrase, “full, perfect and sufficient satisfaction” — ?
I researched that. It took all of thirty seconds and a couple of keystrokes, thanks to the modern miracle called the search engine. If your curiosity is piqued, I suggest that you do the same.
In his autobiography Woodford mentions being part of a trio of boyhood chums. The second member was Jewish and the third was African-American. Experiences later in life caused Woodford to become embittered — one can see early signs of this even in the present volume — and assign to several Jewish associates an array of ugly stereotypical qualities. By this time Woodford was deeply into paranoia, and such lashing-out under the circumstances, while by no means to be condoned, can at least be understood.
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Each of these authors started his career as a newspaperman, moved on to fiction, and along the way each produced books about writing. Woodford’s were pretty much “how-to” manuals and they were very good indeed. Bedford-Jones was emphatic that his one book on the subject (at least the only one I have been able to track down) was not a writer’s manual but a book about the business side of the writer’s life. And yet, having read the book several times, I cannot agree. It is a very practical, down-to-earth, how-to-do-it handbook.
Some of the information and advice that Bedford-Jones provides is almost laughably outdated, of course. His book was first published in 1922, revised and updated in 1929. Since then, technology has changed dramatically. Advice on choosing the right brand of carbon paper will amuse some readers and baffle others. And getting a good, reliable typewriter with which you’ll feel comfortable? Head for the nearest antique shop.
Woodford, too, emphasizes the importance of making carbon copies. Very well. Before we scoff at such dated advice, let’s translate it into modern terms. How about, “Don’t forget to hit save before you turn off your computer at the end of your day’s writing!”
As a professional writer with more than sixty volumes in my personal bibliography, and having known literally hundreds of novelists, short story writers, journalists, and screen-writers in the past fifty-plus years, I can tell you that every writer is different. Some outline extensively, others just hit the on button and wail away. Some believe in extensive rewriting, others maintain that fresh and spontaneous prose is the best.
Much of the advice in both Bedford-Jones’ and Woodford’s books is oriented to selling to fiction magazines. In Bedford-Jones’ day the majority of fiction published in the United States appeared in magazines. Pulp magazines were a gigantic market. Slick-paper magazines were a smaller but more prestigious and better-paying outlet. By Woodford’s day radio had become a major medium and television was looming over the horizon. Woodford’s comments on television were remarkably prescient. The advice he gives, when he manages to take his tongue from his cheek, can be practical. You will find it leavened with a variety of asides and rants. The reader is not advised to skip these outbursts. They can be both amusing and illuminating
While the medium may change, the message remains the same. Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum was, “The medium is the message.” Well, I am here to tell you that McLuhan may have become world-famous but he was dead wrong. The medium is not the message. In the world of fiction, the story’s the thing, whether it is transmitted from story-teller to audience via the printed page, the loudspeaker, live actors on a stage, images on a screen, or dancing pixels on a handheld device.
Don’t let Marshall McLuhan’s often-quoted words mislead you. And don’t let H. Bedford-Jones’ and Jack Woodford’s last-century vocabulary and attitudes, nor their obsession with typewriters and carbon paper, fool you. Their chief focus is on effective story-telling, and that’s what the craft of fiction is all about. In fact, that’s what the craft of fiction is.
As for the specifics of their advice, I suggest only that you keep an open mind. As a single example, there’s the matter of rewriting. Consider:
The late Ross Thomas once told me that his method was to write the first page of a novel, then throw it away, then write it again and throw it away again, and continue to write and rewrite that page until he was fully satisfied that he had come as close to perfection as he was capable of doing. Then he would move on to the next page and repeat the process.
Three or four hundred pages later — meaning, several thousand pages written and rejected — Thomas would finish his novel and go for a walk.
I don’t know of any other writer who uses this method. I think if I tried it myself it would drive me mad before the end of my first day’s travail. But it worked for Ross Thomas. He was highly successful and his novels, full of wit and polish, stand up decades after they were first published.
Philip K. Dick said that the best way to develop one’s skill was to read “good prose models.” Edward Elmer Smith described his method as, “Apply seat of pants to seat of chair and write!”
So take the words of Bedford-Jones and of Jack Woodford as gospel truth — or take them with a grain of salt, as you see fit. But do read them. You’ll find them entertaining at least and useful at best.
As for Woodford, he wrote several volumes of advice for writers, all of them worth perusing despite a certain repetitious quality. This man was not above recycling good material! While Bedford-Jones affected a kind of bland naiveté Woodford bent over backwards to appear the jaded, cynical old pro. Just read the two monologues that follow and see if you agree with me that both authors were wearing masks. I think that Woodford was more of the honest craftsman and less of the cynic that he pretended, while Bedford-Jones was a bit more of the sophisticated professional and less the simple storyteller that he claimed to be.
Of course I could be wrong.
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The publishing world today is coping with multiple revolutions, all taking place at once. E-mail has turned exchanges between author and editor from a leisurely-paced, paper-oriented process to a matter of instantaneous communication. The internet has replaced a leisurely research trip to the library with a quick series of keystrokes and the entry of a few words into a search engine to achieve immediate access to information.
The availability of print-on-demand technology made it simpler, quicker, and cheaper to publish a book than at any earlier time in history. And before the publishing world had time to fully assimilate POD, the long-anticipated e-book finally arrived.
With a bang!
Net result: for the modern author, whether a beginner or an established veteran, it’s easier than ever to get published – but harder than ever to make a living at it!
If you’re already a professional writer, you may detect a sort of fraternal resonance in these two books. If you’re a wanna-be, you will almost certainly pick up some useful tips. The technology is different and the markets, as well, but the underlying realities are remarkably constant. And if you’re “just” a reader — lucky you! — interested in a behind-the-scenes look at the world of the professional scrivener, you’re in for a real treat.
Richard A. Lupoff