RARA-AVIS: Re: Spillane and misogyny

From: JIM DOHERTY ( jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 10 Jul 2006


Re your comments below:

"Given how much Spillane sold in the '50s and early
'60s (then second only to the Bible in all time sales, as I recall reading somewhere), his sales can coast a long time and he'll still be up there. But weren't the Hammers out of print in the US for a while before the somewhat recent omnibus editions (and weren't a lot of those almost immediately remaindered -- I know there were stacks of them very cheap in my local Borders -- assumedly because sales did not meet presumed demand)?"

The Hammers, and other Spillanes, were available in PB reprints virtually continuously from the '50s through the '90's. There may have been a few short periods when they weren't available, but they were few and far between. The appearance of a new Spillane was usually followed by new PB editions of all his earlier work.

I'll grant that his sales figures after the first phenomenal burst of popularity probably don't come up to those earlier numbers, but he's been consistently popular and sonsistently read for decades.

There've been several sets of omnibus editions, and virtually all omnibus editions, no matter of who, wind up remaindered.

"However, you're making a big 'test of time' assumption that was recently touched on here -- are sales the test of time?"

Consistent sales over a period of time certainly are, because they are proof that the popularity of a writer isn't a passing fancy.

Take a look at best-selling mystery writers prior to Spillane. How many people remember S.S. Van Dine, E. Phillips Oppenheim, Mary Roberts Rinehart, or even Edgar Wallace? But even non-mystery fans have heard of Spillane. In terms of longevity AND top sales, Spillane's in a class with Conan Doyle, Christie, and very few others.

The assertion I was responding to was that Spillane hasn't stood the test of time. He clearly has. If you don't like his writing now, I submit you wouldn't have in his salad days, either. It hasn't improved or degenerated with time. So if he's still being read
(and he is), and studied (and he is), and written about (and he is), his writing must, at some level, stand the test of time.

The only reason I addressed the "test of time" issue is because that was the issue that was raised.

"If so, literary valuation fluctuates all over the place. Or is it the determination of experts? And if so, what experts, scholars, fans, other writers? Each is likely to get you different answer. (And, if I were honest, I'd have admit I too often shift between the various points of view to fit whatever point I am trying make."

I didn't get into the "test of time" argument when it came up. The issue raised here wasn't whether or not the test of time was a valid way to gauge literary value, but whether or not Spillane had weathered that test. He has. Clearly and undeniably.

As to whether or not it's a valid test for literary value, I guess I'd say it's like democracy. It may be a piss poor way to gauge such things, but it beats all the others.

"Personally, I see problems with each theory, not to mention with the test of time notion itself -- I refuse to believe that I am reading the same One Lonely Night, for instance, that was read in the '50s, even if the same words are on the pages. (Similarly, there's a big difference between Spillane writing setting books in the '50s contemporaneously and, say, Max Allan Collins doing it in retrospect.) When I enter a world where men wear fedoras matter of factly, I respond to it as either nostalgia or history (or both), choose to enter into the spirit of the times or translate it to my own (as when I consciously inflate the takes in old Richard Stark/Parker books). No matter how much I may study the cultural context of a time, I am at best approximating the mindset of a contemporary reader, and distancing myself from the book in trying to approximate it; however, if I don't do that, I am reading it as if it were printed today. Now as a reader for pleasure, that is what I would most likely do, but that means reading it differently than the original readers did. So, even if I enjoy it, has it really stood the test of time, implying it has some universality that transcends time, or has it proved itself malleable to a different time?"

You're confusing the "test of time" with the context in which a given piece was written. A book may be of its time, but still transcend its time.

You can't imagine that a Jane Austen novel is set in any other era except England's Regency period. That's the context. If the story she tells is timeless enough that it speaks to a contemporary audience despite the fact that none of us has ever lived in Regency England, then it's passing the test of time. Whether or not you personally like Austen.

Ditto with Conan Doyle's Victorian London.

Ditto with Hammett's Prohibition Era San Francisco.

Ditto with Chandler's Depression/WW2-era Southern California.

And, based on his sustained popularity over more than a half a century, ditto with Spillane's early Cold War-era NYC.

"ps -- And for the record, in my earlier email, I said I tried to get over the snobbishness too often interwoven with intellectualism, not intellectualism itself. Not that you said otherwise, Jim, but you implied that the two might be synonymous when you joked that I would hate One Lonely Night if I held on to any intellectual (and by further implication, pinko) leanings."

Well, there are intellectuals who like Spillane. Ayn Rand, for instance. (Or does she count?)

In any case, I think I said you might not like it if you still retained a trace of "intellectual snobbery," not "intellectualism," per se.

But I haven't got the energy to go back and check.


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