RARA-AVIS: Re: Spillane and misogyny

From: JIM DOHERTY ( jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 11 Jul 2006


Re your comments below:

> .....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.

Did NO such thing. You were the one who said
"Spillane has not stood the test of time." What is the "test of time," if not continuing to be read, consistently, over a long period of time?

If you want to say, "Spillane doesn't wear as well as Hammett or Chandler," or "Spillane isn't nearly the sytlist that Hammett or Chandler are," or "Spillane's characterizations aren't as believable as Hammett's or Chandler's," those are all opinions, quite defensible opinions, that you're entitled to hold and entitled to make arguements for.

But if you say, "Spillane hasn't stood the test of time," you are, quite simply, misstating a fact. He has. You may not like that he has. You may not think he deserves to have. But he's still being read. His books are still being bought. Adaptations of his work are still being enjoyed. Critical studies are still being published. That's standing the test of time, whether you like it or not. You were the one who brought up the test of time. Don't blame me for pointing out a plain misstatement of fact. If he hadn't stood the test of time, no one would be arguing about him on this list.

If that wasn't what you meant to say, then I apologize, but I had no way of discerning what you meant to say other than the words you chose to use.
> 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.

You constructed the straw man when you said Spillane had not stood the test of time. It's not my fault that the straw man YOU built was so easy to demolish.
> 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.

I didn't say sales success, in and of itself, was proof that Spillane had stood the test of time. I said that continued, consistent sales over a period of time, indicating that he still has a wide readership that has been sustained for more than a half-century, was proof that he had stood the test of time.

There are any number of novels that made various best-seller list in 1947, the year I THE JURY was first published. I dare say few of them are still read today. For better or for worse, ITJ still is. Whether it deserves to be or not is another question, but it is a plain fact that it still is. And the passion of your argument indicates that it's still able to generate the kind of controversy it generated then.

> "The one thing Spillane HAS done is stand the test
> 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:

You didn't say Spillane's work is "unreadable, unenjoyable, and bad, flimsy writing." You said Spillane had failed to stand the test of time.

Now if you had said what you now say you meant to say, I might have argued the point, or I might have left it to others on this list, who are more passionate defenders of Spillane to argue the point. But you didn't say that. You didn't express an opinion; you made a statement of objective fact. And what you stated to be a fact wasn't.

And if you look at the paragraph of mine that you quoted, you'll see I didn't talk exclusively about sales. I said, "Virtually everyting he's written is still in print. He's still written about, studied, and argued over."

As Mark pointed out, he could still be close to the top of the pyramid in sales just based on his figures prior to 1955, even if he suddenly dropped off the public radar at that point, his books all went out of print, and were never seen on a bookstore shelf again.
 If it was just sales, you might have a point. But it's not just sales, and I never said it was just sales. It's sales over a long period of time. It's staying in print over a long period of time. It's still being discussed and argued about and written about over a long period of time. THAT's standing the test of time.

> 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.

See above.

> 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.

Here's the difference. As you pointed out, THIS SIDE OF PARADISE isn't just bad (I'll take your word for that). It's obscure. Even people who've heard of F. Scott Fitzgerald are probably unfamiliar with THIS SIDE OF PARADISE.

I THE JURY, by way of SHARP contrast, is still in print. I THE JURY is still being read. I THE JURY is still being argued about. And even I, who generally like Spillane, think that, except for the first and last chapter, I THE JURY is dreck. The quality of I THE JURY isn't the point. Its sheer longevity, and the sheer longevity of its lead character, is. And that longevity is undeniable. Mike Hammer is, like Superman, Tarzan, Mickey Mouse, and PEANUTS, a pop culture icon. You don't become a pop culture icon by failing the test of time.
> 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.

Well, in a sense I THE JURY was also something of a flop when it was first published. It didn't become a phenom until the PB reprint. The reason GATSBY has stood the test of time is because, OVER time, it's continued to stay in print, continued to be read, continued to be argued over, etc.

Just like I THE JURY.

> 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?

See above.
> 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.

I didn't equate it EXCLUSIVELY with sales figures. I said success over a long period of time, like that eventually enjoyed by GATSBY, was standing the test of time. Even the part of my post that you quoted shows that I wasn't talking exclusively about sales.

Nor did I equate your statement with sales. If you're still standing by your statment that Spillane has failed the test of time, you're still FACTUALLY wrong.

Saying a writer's work is "unreadable, unenjoyable, and badly, flimsily written" isn't the same as saying a writer has failed the test of time. The first is a statement of opinion, the second a statement of objective fact, based on several factors, including but not limited to sales.

For that matter, saying that finding the work of a long-ago writer to be "readable, enjoyable, with good, solid writing," doesn't mean that the writer HAS stood the test of time. There are, for example, any number of good solid writers from the pulp era who have faded into obscurity, whose work is no longer in print, who are no longer studied, who no longer generate wide discussion.

Spillane does.
> "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?

I singled out Macdonald, not because he's better, or more timeless than Hammett or Chandler, but because his first Lew Archer novel appeared at roughly the same time as Spillane's first Mike Hammer novel. Therefore, I regarded them as part of the same era, while regarding Hammett and Chandler (though Chandler was still writing) as being from an earlier era. I was grouping Spillane and Macdonald with PI writers like Bart Spicer, Thomas B. Dewey, Stephen Marlowe, Richard S. Prather, William Campbell Gault, etc., as opposed to writers like Frederic Nebel, Raoul Whitfield, Carroll John Daly, Jonathan Latimer, etc. Sorry that wasn't clear. And since Macdonald is, deservedly in my opinion, the most critically acclaimed PI writer of the Spicer/Dewey/Prather/Gault/etc era, he seemed the most appropriate one to refer to.
> There is not one thing that Mickey Spillane has
written that stands up to "The Chill," "The Galton Case," or "The Wycherly Woman."

All I said was that Spillane was better at certain things than Macdonald. His action scenes were better than Macdonald's. He had more narrative drive than Macdonald. He manipulated emotions better than Macdonald.

That's largely because Macdonald, quite deliberately, tended to avoid action scenes, contructed his novels to be more leisurely paced, and characterized Archer as something of a cypher who stood outside the action of the novel while commenting on it with minimal emotional involvment.

I never compared a specific Hammer novel to a specific Archer novel. I pointed out a specific strength Spillane had, and chose to use and develop, that Macdonald either did NOT have, or did not choose to use and develop.
> "He's occasionally the equal of Woolrich at setting
> When? There's nothing Spillane has written which is
the equal of "The Bride Wore Black," for example.

I yield to no one in my admiration of THE BRIDE WORE BLACK. But Woolrich's main claim to fame was his ability to set a dark, sinister atmosphere. He had an uncanny ability imbue his fiction with what Chandler called "the smell of fear."

But, years later, I still recall the opening of ONE LONELY NIGHT, with Hammer walking through a driving rainstorm on a dark night as one of the most effective bits of mood-setting I've ever read.

> "and, as melodramatic
> and "cartoony" as his plots are (and I cheerfuly
> that you're right about that, but that's kind of
> condemning sugar for being too sweet or pastrami for
> having too much fat; sweetness is the point of
> fat is the point of pastrami, and cartonnish
> 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."

No, you misunderstand me completely. I don't feel the tiniest bit of guilt at enjoying Spillane. And
"cartoony" is not a synomnym for bad. Spillane is unabashed in his construction of cartoonish, melodramatic plots. It's not an unintended consequence of trying and failing to do something more ambitious; it's a deliberate artifice. And, when it comes to cartoonish, melodramatic plots, he's about the best there is.

If you don't like cartoonish, melodrama, well and good. I don't like little old lady detectives or eccentric Belgian master sleuths, but I imagine that Agatha Christie, who has ALSO stood the test of time, is probably the best there is at little old lady detectives and eccentric Belgian sleuths, and, if her particular charm escapes me, that's no reason for me to denigrate her accomplishments, or suggest that she has failed the test of time because her work doesn't happen to be to my tastes.

Spillane's isn't to yours. But his long-term success is undeniable. And his long-term success is what you denied. Or what you seemed to deny before you equated the flat factual statement, "Spillane has failed the test of time," with the opinion, "Spillane's writing is unreadable, unenjoyable, bad, and flimsy."

> 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.

And I largely agree with that assessment. But she's still read and enjoyed all over the world. More than two decades after her death, she's still one of the most successful mystery writers there is. She's talked about, studied, written about, adapted into other media. She, too, despite her stick-figure characters, stilted dialog, dated attitudes, etc, has stood the test of time.

And my inability to discern her particular charm doesn't make that any less true.
> 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.

If N'Sync and Wham are still being listened to, analyzed, and studied 50 or 60 years from now, they, too, will have stood the test of time. And that will be true whether or not I like their music.

> 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.

Once more, I didn't twist ANYTHING. You said "test of time." You didn't say "unreadable, unejoyable, bad, flimsy writing."

Test of time: objective analysis of facts.

Unreadable, unenjoyable, bad, flimsy: Subjective opinion that may or may not be defensible.

Clear yet?

You created the straw man. I didn't have to twist it.
 Don't blame me for the words you chose to use.
> "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."

Initial, short-term success occasionally comes to the those who produce meretricious crap. Long-term success doesn't.

And Spillane's success, like it or not, has been long-term. Once more, THAT's standing the test of time.
> 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?

First of all, as I already explained, any comments about cultural elites were at least partly tongue-in-cheek.

Second, I enjoyed my time at Cal very much, but that doesn't alter the fact that I got subjected to an awful lot of far-left-to-Marxist indoctrination while I was there. And the people doing the indoctrinating, both faculty and students, clearly regarded themselves as being on the cutting edge of political and intellectual thought. That's neither "calumny" nor
"nonsense." It's just reporting my memories. Memory is subjective, of course, but if there'd been all that many William F. Buckley types at Cal during my time there, I probably would have noticed. And, really, Brian, I don't think anyone I DO recall would feel insulted that I recall them as being left to the point of being Marxist. That would be like me being insulted at being remembered as a practicing Catholic.

Third, to discuss Spillane without touching on politics is to ignore a major facet of the controversy he stirred and continues to stir. Much of the '50's era criticism of Spillane, and virtually all the criticism of ONE LONELY NIGHT, was based on the political ax he seemed to be grinding.

Was it, and is it, valid to criticize him because of his politics? Probably, but avowed Marxists like Sjowall and Wahloo are rarely criticized on that basis, so why single out Spillane?

Is it just the anti-communism? If so, then why is Spillane's anti-communism, particularly as exemplified by ONE LONELY NIGHT, so much more denigrated than, say, Richard S. Prather's as exemplified in PATTERN FOR PANIC?

Why is Spillane's ardent conservatism so much more threatening then Donald Hamilton's?

Why is the right-wing violence of Spillane so much more objectionable than Don Pendleton's?

Spillane is a hot button for cultural elites, and has been almost from the beginning of his career. And that button has always been more political than literary. So if we're going to talk about Spillane, and that's almost inevitable on a list devoted to the subject matter Rara-Avis is devoted to, than politics being part of that discussion is just as inevitable.


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