Re: RARA-AVIS: Re: Those were the days

From: Mark Sullivan (
Date: 07 Sep 2000

Kevin wrote:

"I think you're misreading Mark's comments, but he can speak for himself."

Okay, I think I will.

First of all, I do not dislike Ellroy. I'm proud to say I was the first on my block to read him and turned numerous friends on to him. I think the LA Quartet is a stunning piece of work.

And I was certainly not advocating that Ellroy should have deleted any of the racial, ethnic, sexual and/or gender slurs contained within the LA Quartet. As numerous of you have pointed out, that language was true to time, place, vocation and character, was crucial to the books' verisimilitude and to have changed any of it would have gone against the work, trivialized it.

Sure, much of that language and those attitudes made me uncomfortable, but that is a good thing. One of the reasons I read good hardboiled is to confront uncomfortable realities (from a safe distance). I certainly do not think like Iceberg Slim, but I read him.

Eddie brings up a good point about Willeford. He created some abominable characters and usually wrote about them with deceptively value-free language, letting the reader decide. However, loathsome characters can be fascinating, especially when they are so casually nasty as were Willeford's, as opposed to the exaggerated evil of, say, Chaingang (I forget, is that the name of Rex Miller's behemoth?).

As I wrote before, the thing I liked best about Ellroy was that even his good characters did bad things, even his bad characters sometimes did good, even Dudley. It was this moral complexity that made me think so much of Ellroy.

And the pseudo-bebop, speed-amped scatting provided the perfect voice for White Jazz. The language seemed wholly appropriate to the characters within the dysfunctional, symbiotic relationship between the LAPD and the local hoods.

Neil wrote:

". . . Ellroy, whose White Jazz was an epiphany for me. But it was more the writing than the other things. Since MY DARK PLACES, in all the GQ fiction and non, he's Ellroy "doing" Ellroy."

Neil summed up nicely what I was trying to get at, except I'd place the shift a little earlier, with American Tabloid. When Ellroy moved his focus beyond LA, I expected the language of at least some of his characters to change. Are we supposed to believe that every male in the US in the early '60s spoke alike, in the voice of a '50s LA cop/crook, or of Ellroy himself?

To me, it was becoming just a schtick. Michael mentioned that he was once skeptical of Ellroy due to his overuse of the word "fuck." I felt that the slurs were becoming as gratuitous as the vulgarities.

This was aggravated by Ellroy's heightened public visibility. I found it increasingly hard to separate the author from the work. I know this is very unfair, but Ellroy worked very hard at this self-promotion, publicly employing the same voice of his books. On top of this, he overtly tied his person to his art in the numerous interviews, articles and, ultimately, book about how his mother's murder was responsible for his working the crime fiction field in the first place.

Again, I know that's unfair, but I now find it near impossible to separate his public persona from his fiction. And that public persona is much as Kevin describes it, a little boy trying to impress his friends and shock the grown-ups through his use of dirty words.

On another, related point, Anthony wrote:

"they put it into the concept of the setting that its written in and in the case of period authors show a truer word than what the contemporary authors of a period could get away with."

I don't buy this for a second, that later authors, scholars, reporters, etc., can depict a "truer" sense of an era than those immersed in it. The later writer may be able to use words that were once said, though not allowed in print, but that does not necessarily lead to a truer overall picture.

If it is an older person writing about his/her younger days, well, memory is faulty, we all rewrite our own history. Memories have as much to do with who a person is now and recasting the past as prelude as it has to do with who a person was when that now-prelude was the current chapter.

If it is a younger writer who did not live through the era, but is relying on extensive research, well, what is that research but the accumulated detritus left by that past, the "less true" works of the era.

Look at it the other way, writing about the future -- all of the sci-fi books and movies produced during the '50s reveal a hell of a lot more about their present than they do about the future.

At best, works set in a different era are a dialog between that era and the present. Which brings me to nostalgia, but I'll leave that for another post, this one's too long already. . . .


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