Remember when your real estate agent was working on a screenplay? Or that one your cousin the accountant was writing? Or the script your dental hygienist was laboring on, which she pitched to you in its entirety while your mouth was wrapped in a dental dam so you couldn’t politely beg her to shut up?
Those days have mercifully ended. Now, aspiring writers in Southern California are abandoning their Final Draft software and thronging to the novel writing classes at UCLA Extension. What’s going on here? Are there larger cultural doings afoot?
Los Angeles has always produced novelists; the work of writers such as Raymond Chandler, John Fante and Budd Schulberg snaps, crackles and pops through the ages. But let’s face it: L.A. has never truly been considered a book writing town. Why then, given the techno-crazed, instant access, over-caffeinated age in which we find ourselves -- this era of computers and blogging and a zillion television channels -- should there be such a sudden profusion of local novelists? Why is that woman sitting near you in the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf working on a chick lit opus? Why is that guy at the corner table in the 18th Street Coffee House writing a series of young adult books based on a Norse saga? Why have novels become the new screenplays?
A little history: In the 1950s, aspiring American writers declaimed poetry in smoky cafes. A decade later, they were writing songs for bands that materialized at the nexus of inspiration and dissipation before disappearing in a fog of “bad vibes.”
By the 1970s, all this had been supplanted by that bastard stepchild, the screenplay. Suddenly, late in the Nixon presidency, the young and arty (some of them anyway) found themselves looking for deals at Paramount.
Why did this long-derided form of writing find such new and prestigious life? Because the late 1960s and early 1970s were a killer period for American film, and great films require smart scripts with compelling characters and sharply hewn dialogue. “Shampoo,” “Taxi Driver,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “The Godfather” -- they were all (amazingly, from our perspective in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” era) mainstream studio pictures. Directors such as Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola drew inspiration from foreign films, so it is no coincidence that this was a time when each week offered the promise of new work from someone like Francois Truffaut, Federico Fellini or Luis Bunuel.
The films of these directors (and their superb screenwriters: Suzanne Schiffman, Tonino Guerra and Jean-Claude Carriere, among many others) had the texture of -- that’s right -- novels. That made movies classy, and sent an unmistakable message: Hey, Ambitious Writer, the water’s great. Come on in! And so they did. Writers such as Robert Towne, Paul Schrader, Mardik Martin and Bo Goldman crafted original screenplays for a system that embraced complexity and neurosis, and even entertained the possibility of unhappy endings.
Things began to change when “Jaws” came along. The first Steven Spielberg blockbuster didn’t merely alter the rules of the game, it exploded them. Moguls from Malibu to Bel-Air became tumescent as they watched the grosses roll in. Dialogue and character? Forget it! What people really wanted was spectacle. The thinking writer’s Hollywood was disappearing. The aesthetic shift ushered in by Spielberg’s mechanical shark was completed two years later with the release of “Star Wars.” This, essentially, is the movie business today.
And yet, this is also why a new generation of novelists is being born; novelists who love the movies and abhor the movie business (at least if you go by their books). Carrie Fisher led the charge two decades ago with “Postcards From the Edge.” Michael Tolkin’s poisoned bonbon, “The Player,” arrived in 1988. Bruce Wagner followed in 1991 with “Force Majeure.” That same year, Peter Lefcourt delivered “The Deal.”
Then there’s Jerry Stahl, who, like those other authors, remains a working screenwriter, but has also produced five books. These include the scabrous junkie memoir “Permanent Midnight,” in which he describes shooting up while working on the puppet-driven sitcom “ALF,” and a fictionalized life of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, the poignant and perverse “I, Fatty.”
None of this is exactly new, of course; Hollywood has been a wellspring of novelistic anger and resentment since the heyday of Nathanael West and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But the game has changed since West and Fitzgerald were writing in the 1930s, when no one -- no writers, anyway -- would have equated movies with great art.
Fisher, Tolkin, Wagner, Lefcourt and Stahl are all products of the 1970s and, as such, victims of an elaborate bait-and-switch. The movie business they signed on to, the one where Al Pacino could star in “Scarecrow,” where a studio would make a picture such as “The Conversation” and Peter Bogdanovich was permitted to shoot movies in black and white and cast his non-singing squeeze as the lead in a musical (talk about someone who must really miss that decade) died with the advent of the event picture.
You can cry about it, or you can write a book.
I am a recovering screenwriter who is now a novelist. By the time I got around to my first book, the movie business had been picked clean like a turkey the day after Thanksgiving. I took a short lateral step and set my novel “The Bones” in the world of sitcoms and stand-up comedy. After exploring shtick and its variegated dysfunctions, I found myself wanting to write about people who make an honest living. This is why I’ve set my next novel in the world of prostitution.
The latest celluloid migrant to shuffle into the fray is not a refugee from the 1970s but from the 1950s instead. His name is Millard Kaufman, and he was twice nominated for Oscars: in 1953 for “Take the High Ground” and in 1955 for “Bad Day at Black Rock.” Eventually no one would hire him to write a screenplay, so he concluded that perhaps he should write a novel. Mercifully, the resulting work, “Bowl of Cherries,” has nothing to do with Hollywood. Since Kaufman is 90, we can only imagine the tales he could tell.
The Hollywood machine has always crushed writers as if they were citrus fruit, extracting their juices and disposing of the pulp. The juice is still being extracted -- there will still be studio assignments, assuming the Writers Guild of America strike ever ends -- but something fundamental has changed. Increasingly, the pulp is available at your local bookstore in the section marked New Fiction.
A final thought: There is also a platoon of Los Angeles novelists who have nothing to do with Hollywood. But I have no idea what cultural forces produced them.