Re: RARA-AVIS: Re: Spillane and misogyny

From: Brian Thornton (
Date: 10 Jul 2006

Responding selectively to my post on Spillane, Jim Doherty told me:

"You may not like him,"

Oh, I don't. I'd pay money to read George Pelecanos AND James Ellroy again before I'd pay money to read Spillane.

"and you're more than entitled to your own opinions and tastes."


"But you're not entitled to your own facts."

.....aaaaand here's where Jim hijacked the discussion and took it into an exploration of the dollar signs that Spillane has racked up over the decades since he first published "I, The Jury" back in the 1940s. Note that I did not claim that Spillane did not sell well.

And yet that's the metaphorical club which Jim uses to bash my statement to bits. *tsk tsk* Jim. Perhaps if you'd paid a bit more attention during your rhetoric classes at whatever Bay Area liberal enclove against which you apparently still bear a bit of a grudge, you might realize that this is nothing more than constructing a straw man argument, and then demolishing it.

I never said it was about money. For you to set that as the parameter of our discussion of "standing the test of time," and then wave Spillane's sales success as proof that I am "wrong" is just intellectually (OOPS, there's THAT word again) dishonest.

"The one thing Spillane HAS done is stand the test of time. I THE JURY is still one of the top-selling mysteries ever printed. Virtually everything he's ever written is still in print. He's still written about, studied, and argued over."

And here we are, talking about sales (again). I used the vague standard of "standing the test of time" as a way of saying, "it is (or in Spillane's case, isn't) still readable, enjoyable, good, solid writing." I realize that this includes allowing discussions of one's tastes in things literary, to a point, so let me engage Mr. Doherty on one aspect of "sales," by setting his argument on its head:

F. Scott Fitzgerald, a wildly popular writer during his heyday in the 1920s, made his reputation off of a third-rate coming-of-age story set at the Princeton of his youth: "The Side of Paradise." What's that? You say that you, the casual reader, have never even heard of "This Side of Paradise," let alone read it? (Given the opportunity to do so, I recommend you PASS. It's bad.) That's astonishing! Because "This Side of Paradise" was a runaway best-seller! In fact, it still sells well, eighty-six years after its publication.

That said, "This Side of Paradise" has not stood the test of time. It seems (and is) dated. The writing is sophomoric, self-referential (particularly with regard to all of the inside references to what it was like to be an Ivy-Leaguer in the 1920s, something we can all, of course, remember for ourselves), and in places, out-right amateurish.

Now, Fitzgerald's second book, "The Great Gatsby," did NOT sell well upon its publication. In fact, it was an utter flop.

And yet "Gatsby" has stood the test of time. By both my standards, and the sales records which Mr. Doherty so highly prizes, "Gatsby" is a success for the ages.

So that begs the question: if a book does not do well upon its first printing, or even its second, yet attracts the attention of a generation that comes along some twenty years later, after fighting another "war to end all wars," and feeling itself alienated from the old, comfortable, pre-war world, has it stood the test of time, or has time merely proven its author right?

I will admit that in framing the above discussion, I have engaged in a bit of straw man destruction myself (if only to prove a point). Nowhere does Mr. Doherty claim that being a best-seller for a few years (as "This Side of Paradise" was) qualifies a book as having stood "the test of time." Jim, that's what you did by automatically equating my statement that he had not stood the test of time (a position to which I still hold) with sales figures.

"No other PI writer from that era, not even Ross Macdonald, has stood the test of time as well."

Sooooo according to the paradigm you yourself set up, Ross MacDonald is, if not a greater writer, certainly a more "timeless" one than, say, Hammett or Chandler, correct?

"Is he as good a writer as any of the others you noted?"

Not only is he not even as a good a writer as any of the others I've noted, he's not even as a good a writer as Carroll John Daly.

"I would say he's not as good as Hammett or Chandler."

On that, I emphatically agree with you.

"But in some respects, in terms of narrative drive or setting atmosphere, or manipulating emotions, he's better than Macdonald."

Poppycock. There is not one thing that Mickey Spillane has written that stands up to "The Chill," "The Galton Case," or "The Wycherly Woman."

"He's occasionally the equal of Woolrich at setting atmosphere,"

When? There's nothing Spillane has written which is the equal of "The Bride Wore Black," for example.

"and, as melodramatic and "cartoony" as his plots are (and I cheerfuly admit that you're right about that, but that's kind of like condemning sugar for being too sweet or pastrami for having too much fat; sweetness is the point of sugar, fat is the point of pastrami, and cartonnish meldrama is the point of Spillane), they're generally more believable, and more logically worked out, than Woolrich's (though that, I admit, is damning with faint praise)."

So let's see if I have you straight: Spillane's writing is a "guilty pleasure" for you, right? Why not leave it at that? "Cartoony" is "cartoony." And while I'll occasionally get out on a dance floor and shake it when they're playing retro disco tunes like "Disco Inferno," I'm not going to turn around and claim that the Trammps were a great band, at times equaling such fabulous soul acts as Earth, Wind, and Fire, or Sly and the Family Stone (or even the Ohio Players).

I mean, I occasionally read an Agatha Christie because I enjoy it. Doesn't mean I think she's a great writer. Successful, yes, and a fabulous plotter (inventive is an understatement), but her characters are stick-figures, her dialogue stilted and dated, etc., etc.

Why can't you leave it at that with Spillane? Good, he is not. Great, definitely not. Successful? I'll give you that.

But so was N'Sync. And Wham.

"You don't like him?"

Not even a little bit. His writing turns me off completely.

"I won't try to convince you."

No, instead you'll twist what I wrote into a straw man you can then conveniently demolish. Really, Jim, having seen you speak at that panel you did at the Toronto Bouchercon, where you spoke so eloquently, I honestly expected better from you here.

"You're the best judge of what's to your taste and what's not."

Why, thank you.

"But nobody stays on top as long as Spillane has without having something worthwhile to offer."

On the cotrary, Mickey Spillane's success is proof positive of H.L. Mencken's old adage: "No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public."

Lastly, let me address the tangential thread of liberal/intellectual bashing that's also gone on in this very thread (something that would no doubt make Ol' Red-bating Mickey proud). I don't consider myself an intellectual, because the true intellectuals I've met (as opposed to the army of poseurs I've encountered who proudly bear that monicker) were all a LOT smarter than I consider myself to be.

But it doesn't take an "intellectual" to equate the nonsense spouted recently on the list with regard to "liberal intellectual elites" being the same thing as being a bunch of smart Communists, with what it is. It's a calumny of the first order. Just because National Socialists were (and are) extreme, hyper conservatives politically, does not automatically mean that every conservative is a Nazi. Thus, not every liberal is a red.

So why don't we lay off the politics, and get back to talking about hard-boiled and crime fiction?

All the Best-


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