RARA-AVIS: The Welty review

From: Moorich2@aol.com
Date: 15 Dec 2002

It was Eudora Welty who reviewed Ross Macdonald's THE UNDERGROUND MAN so famously in 1971 for the New York Times Sunday Book Review. It was, I believe, the first time a mystery was given the front page review.

The next good thing to happen to Macdonald that year was a cover story for Newsweek. This was the first cover story on a mystery writer by a major news weekly since Craig Rice graced the cover of Time Magazine. I obtained a copy of the overseas addition of Newsweek when I was in Vietnam and managed to hang on to it all of these years. I remember thinking at the time that the literary establishment always seemed to have one mystery writer that was anointed as the "approved" one---the one that could be read in public. The position had been vacant since the death of Chandler.

Little did I know that this was actually something close to the truth. It was about 15 years after the fact that I heard Donald Westlake give a talk sponsored by the Smithsonian in Washington in which he said the acclaim for Macdonald was part of a conspiracy by the literary establishment. This talk Westlake later turned into an article for The Armchair Detective which kicked up a fair amount of dust in that he also said the PI novel was basically dead. Westlake's remarks still seemed to me touched by more than a little hyperbole although I agreed with his statement that Macdonald afterwards rewrote the same novel over and over again no matter what anyone said. "Talk about hard-boiled!" Westlake joked.

But readers of Tom Nolan's indispensable biography ROSS MACDONALD learned that there was no exaggeration. There was a conspiracy. The leader was critic John Leonard then an assistant editor of the NY Times Book Review. Over drinks he and Newsweek critic Ray Sokolov decided to launch a "literary conspiracy" to promote Macdonald who had married Freud to the detective story.

The campaign began with a major review of Macdonald's THE GOODBYE LOOK. Leonard had to convince the editor that Macdonald was worth it. He managed that task and then steered the assignment to screenwriter William Goldman, a big Macdonald fan (and scripter of "Harper"). In addition to the review, Leonard later did a full scale interview/profile.

By the time THE UNDERGROUND MAN neared release, Leonard was editor of the book review section and needed no one's permission. He learned at a writer's conference that Welty was a big Macdonald fan and gave her an unusual amount of space to work with as well as the section front page. Welty had been corresponding with Macdonald for a few months having written him a fan letter. She even showed him the review for comment before it was published. It was ironically enough published on St. Valentine's Day.

The Newsweek cover story came shortly after that with the writer being Ray Sokolov. Even though his daughter's tragic life and death were important to understanding Macdonald's work, the decision was made to mention her death only in a passing reference. Given there was a young grandson who knew little about his mother's life, I think they were right to do so.

As for the aftermath, I think bestsellerdom may have ruined any chance Macdonald had for future creative growth. I say "may" because it may be that Macdonald had already peaked as a writer and his later novels would not have improved even if he had missed out on the celebrity and unquestioning acclaim.

I have to say this is a bit of a hobbyhorse for me as I think the bestseller list has ruined many a writer. Writers become self-imitators trying to recapture what got them the success. It is the way of imitators, self and otherwise, to imitate bad qualities as well as the good.

Another example, in my opinion, of this cycle is John D. MacDonald. I think it was Kurt Vonnegut (no stranger to paperback originals) who stated somewhere that John D. MacDonald didn't write for the critics, he wrote for the people who bought their novels at the bus station or the PX. Vonnegut nailed a real truth. And we learned how true it was when MacDonald began to listen to the critics who finally turned their eyes his way. 'Isn't it neat', they cooed, 'how JDM manages to work in some social commentary into his thrillers. He has a Harvard MBA, don't you know.' From that Goddamned day forth, JDM's loyal fans had to wade through reams of Meyer commentary while praying the story would resume in another ten pages or so.

On a more positive note, I think the success of Macdonald paved the way for mystery writers to reach a broader audience. Before Macdonald, mystery writers on the bestseller list were rarities and those getting critical acclaim even rarer. I think the attention paid Macdonald made it easier for critics to treat seriously the next generation of writers.

Richard Moore

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