A long time ago my late friend Terry Carr was working as an editor at Ace Books under the tutelage of the legendary Donald A. Wollheim. I was a straight-laced young corporate type back then longing to break free of the world of Big Business and become a novelist.

Terry knew of my ambitions. He invited me to visit his incredibly cluttered workplace and when I arrived he helped me to clear a two-foot-tall stack of manuscripts off a hardbacked office chair so we could sit and chat. Before we’d got very far Terry pulled open a desk drawer and removed a rather fat, battered, blue-covered book and handed it to me.

The book was Trial and Error: A Key to the Secret of Writing and Selling, by Jack Woodford. I’d heard of Woodford. He was a notorious character, widely regarded as a pornographer. I’d never even seen one of his books, no less read one, and I was startled to see that he’d written a book on the subject of writing.

“Take this home,” Terry Carr told me. “Read it. It was published in 1933 and it’s still the best book on writing ever published.”

I heeded Terry’s advice and I agreed with his assessment of Trial and Error. I’ve read uncounted “how-to-write” books over the years, and Trial and Error is indeed the best of them. The book is still around. Since it’s now in the public domain there are several editions in print from rival publishers, but if you’re the kind of book-lover I am you’ll scout up a battered old copy like the one Terry Carr handed me in 1965. I think my favorite edition is the unique Perma Giant but it’s more important that you read this book than your choice of edition.

I’m far from the only successful novelist who read Woodford’s book and has praise for it. For some reason it seems to be particularly popular with science fiction and fantasy writers. There’s a Wikipedia page devoted to Woodford and there are endorsements of Trial and Error from the likes of Ray Bradbury, Jerry Pournelle, Piers Anthony, Robert A. Heinlein, and, ah, some bozo named Richard A. Lupoff.

Earlier, however, Woodford received the praise of a wider range of literary figures, some of them remembered to this day, others known only to cultural historians. They include Upton Sinclair, Louis Bromfield, Harry Stephen Keeler, Donald Henderson Clarke, Arnold Gingrich, Faith Baldwin, Clement Wood, and Burton Rascoe.

Others managed to damn him with faint praise—or perhaps to praise him with faint damns. I cite the words of my long lost friend, the great Vincent Starrett: “I have followed Jack Woodford’s career with fascinated interest and mounting dismay. Sometimes I think I would have shot him if I had known how he was going to turn out.”

Ah, Vincent, Vincent, I miss ye even after all these years.

Woodford was born in Chicago in 1894. His legal name was Josiah Pitts Woolfolk. He constructed his nom de plume in honor of columnist Jack Lait and the name of the Kentucky county where his father was born. The son of a successful physician and grandson of a local political figure, Jack Woodford pursued a literary career from an early age. He wrote for such legendary periodicals as Black Cat, Snappy Stories, Telling Tales, Spicy Stories, Breezy Stories, Bedtimes Stories, Real Detective Tales and 10-Story Book.

As a schoolboy in Chicago, Woodford’s bookish inclination had made him something of an outsider. It also inclined him to identify with others of society’s rejects. In his 1962 autobiography he reflects on his schoolboy experiences:

Like many other authors, Woodford began his literary career as a journalist, working for several Chicago dailies. By 1929 Woodford was able to sell a collection of short fiction titled Evangelical Cockroach. No prior publication data is given for any of the 39 stories in the book, and in fact Woodford complains, in an “Author’s Gesture,”:

Despite Woodford’s disdain for magazine fiction, he claims to have sold over 1,000 short stories to more than sixty periodicals. No comprehensive Woodford bibliography has as yet been compiled, so it is impossible to verify this claim. The stories in Evangelical Cockroach are quite remarkable and if the Surinam Turtle Press edition of this book is not available just yet, please rest assured that it will be shortly.

In 1932 Woodford’s novel Find the Motive was published by the firm of Ray Long and Richard R. Smith. This company seems to have vanished from publishing history leaving hardly a trace, but its list of authors included a number of significant literary figures including Ford Madox Ford, Liam O’Flaherty, Daniel Mainwaring, Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie, and Jack Lindsey. The exhibit facing this page is a reproduction of the rear dust jacket of the 1932 edition of Find the Motive.

A small prize is offered to the first scholar who can tell me who was hiding behind the nom de plume of “Mrs. Wilson Woodrow.”

Find the Motive is itself an ambitious effort. Set in an affluent Chicago neighborhood, the book presumably reflects Woodford’s knowledge of the city and its workings gained from his years as a Chicago newspaperman. The book is a mystery in several senses of that word. Is it a dark fantasy, a zombie novel, a ghost story, a horror story or a non-supernatural detective tale?

The book is also remarkably frank with regard to matters of sexuality and psychology. It was reissued in 1956 under the title The Motive Key in a sadly bowdlerized edition, suggesting that American society had actually regressed in terms of openness and intellectual honesty in the intervening years.

Most of Woodford’s fiction is of a mildly erotic and sexually suggestive nature. First editions generally appeared in hardbound form; in later years, more often than not, they were published by the author’s own Woodford press. Woodford also published a late fantasy novel by the controversial German-American poet-journalist-propagandist George Sylvester Viereck. Paperback versions of Woodford’s novels, almost always issued by second-line, so-called “sleaze” publishers, were sensationally titled and packaged. Today they are prized by paperback book collectors.


New Fiction


But in fact, by Twenty-First Century standards, even the raciest of Woodford’s prose would rank as little more than tepid boy-meets-girl romance. I have read many of Woodford’s books and cannot recall encountering a single word that could not be uttered over the airwaves without inviting the censure of the FCC, nor, for that matter, an instance of what is sometimes known as “the pornography of violence.”

In fact, just about the most lurid sentence in all of Woodford’s oeuvre occurs not in his fiction but in his advice to writers. It is his formula for romance writing: Boy meets girl, girl gets boy into pickle, boy gets pickle into girl.

Woodford was married once, to Josephine Hutchings, in 1916. The marriage ended in divorce after seventeen years. In his writing Woodford consistently absolved his ex-wife of all responsibility for the failure of the marriage, claiming that his own alcoholism and satyriasis were to blame. There was a daughter, Louella, who remained close to her father and to whom Woodford dedicated many of his books.

After spending his youth and young manhood in Chicago and living briefly in New York, Woodford relocated to Hollywood where he worked extensively in the motion picture industry. The Internet Movie Data Base credits him as the writer of four short films released in 1938 and 1939. A feature film based on Woodford’s novel City Limits had been released in 1934, but while historically interesting the film is of mediocre quality at best and bears little resemblance to Woodford’s book.

Woodford’s final film credit, oddly, is as the writer of a song, “Hoe that Corn,” in the film With a Song in My Heart, a biopic of singer Jane Froman with Susan Hayward playing the lead role.

Woodford loved to play the role of curmudgeon. He was constantly feuding with editors and publishers, leading to his creating his own publishing company. He delivered his most strident indictment of the publishing industry in The Loud Literary Lamas of New York. In this book he suggests that authors bypass the established publishing industry altogether and simply publish their own books, as he himself did with Woodford Press.

In this regard he was ahead of his time. Twenty-first Century technology has made it possible for anyone to do what Woodford advocated. In his time—The Loud Literary Lamas of New York was published in 1950—Woodford’s proposed solution was to turn to so-called co-operative publishers, better known as vanity houses. The Loud Literary Lamas of New York was published by such a company.

Today, computer advances and the availability of high-speed, low-cost laser printers have made it possible for anyone to publish a book via “POD” (print on demand) technology, while the internet makes it possible for authors to bypass paper and ink publishing altogether and distribute their books electronically to users of e-readers.

There are some errors in The Loud Literary Lamas of New York. Woodford says that Edgar Rice Burroughs published his own books throughout his career, while in fact he was published by standard commercial houses for many years before founding his own publishing company. And he attributes a famous line from Samuel Johnson to Samuel Clemens.

But he delivers one of the funniest rundowns of publishing houses ever committed to paper:

When you read Find the Motive you will surely be struck by the forceful, curmudgeonly character of Leonard Buchanan. You may suspect that Buchanan is based on Woodford himself, but in The Loud Literary Lamas of New York Woodford reveals that Buchanan was based on famed lawyer Clarence Darrow. And if you don’t know who Darrow was you ought to look him up. Or at least see a classic film, Inherit the Wind, in which the great Spencer Tracy portrays Darrow to perfection.

Woodford has frequent praise for horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, describing him as a major literary talent ill-treated by the publishing world. Considering that Woodford wrote in 1950, when Lovecraft’s works were almost all out of print and when Lovecraft’s very name would have meant nothing to most critics or academics, this was a remarkable instance of prescience.

In The Loud Literary Lamas of New York Woodford also mentions that Find the Motive was published by Long and Smith because Ray Long was a friend of Woodford’s. Considering Woodford’s abrasive complaints about nepotism in Hollywood and the Old Boy system in New York publishing, this is a remarkable admission.

Late in his life Woodford found himself in trouble with the United States Post Office and wound up facing charges of mail fraud. He felt that he had been betrayed by his sometime business associate, Moses Aaron “Moe” Shapiro. A latent streak of anti-Semitism in Woodford surfaces in this book, a total reversal of Woodford’s former inclusive attitude. Gone was the Chicago schoolboy whose two closest friends were a Jew and a Negro. A harping homophobia is also present in The Loud Literary Lamas of New York. Times change. In Woodford’s day such attitudes were far more accepted than they are by we enlightened moderns living in the Twenty-first Century.

Nobody said that Jack Woodford was perfect, least of all Jack Woodford.

Woodford died in 1971 at the age of 77. A few of his works continue to be reissued from time to time, and used copies are avidly sought by collectors. Curmudgeonly, often right, just as often wrongheaded, he remains always readable and always worth reading.

Richard A. Lupoff

Berkeley CA

October 2011