It’s not that often that one of the authors I’ve been reading makes the news. So I was surprised to see a photo of Niven Busch in this week’s Time magazine. Busch, you’ll recall, wrote They Dream of Home (1944), Day of the Conquerors (1946), The Actor (1955) and several other novels -- as well as more than a dozen screenplays. He died in 1991. So what’s he doing in Time? He’s sleeping and, so the accompanying story suggests, revitalizing his creative juices. The picture is from 1937, so maybe Busch was working on In Old Chicago when he dozed off.
I like to think of each of the books I’ve been reading as a kind of primary source. The plot and characters are products of the author’s imagination but the ambience (even when settings are fictionalized) reflects his or her own real-life experiences. A historical novel, no matter how well researched, lacks the immediacy of a first-hand account. Sometimes the problem is an erroneous detail; sometimes it’s anachronistic thoughts or actions. So to get reliable information about the past, I’ve limited my reading to works set in times that the authors can remember.
What hadn’t occurred to me until last weekend, when I cam across this fascinating site, was that the same standard needed to be applied to setting. That is, I needed to make sure that the author actually had experiences in California. I knew that a few novels translated into English had authors who probably never spent time in California. Edward Stilgebauer’s geographically garbled The Star of Hollywood (1929) was an example. And I thought that the multitude of Carter Brown detective novels, often set in Los Angeles although the Australian author seldom visited the United States, provided only a rare exception to the rule that California novels were produced by writers who resided in the state.
Actually, however, what made Brown’s novels unusual was not the use of California settings by an author unfamiliar with them. Instead, it was their reprinting in huge numbers by an American publisher. Starting in 1958 Signet distributed millions of copies of Brown’s books in the United States. His books are still difficult to miss in bins of used paperbacks.
I hadn’t realized that many other English-language writers (mostly British) were setting pulp-fiction novels in the United States. Using what they learned from books, magazines and movies, they imitated as best they could American speech and attitudes. Hundreds of titles appeared in the years after World War II. Like their American counterparts, the books featured lurid covers and pseudonymous authors.
New York and Chicago were apparently the favorite settings, but California made some appearances as well. So we had Rex Richards’ San Francisco Dame (1952), Al Bocca’s Ticket to San Diego (1953) and Nat Karta’s Los Angeles Be Damned. Maybe the first to put his stories in California was famed mystery writer James Hadley Chase. In 1949 and 1950 he produced a three-part series featuring P.I. Vic Malloy: You’re Lonely When You’re Dead (1949), Figure It Out For Yourself (1950) and Lay Her Among The Lilies (1950). Malloy had his office in the town of Orchid City, vaguely located somewhere between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Only occasionally did one of the British-American novels make it across the Atlantic. The first two of the Malloy novels were reprinted in the United States, for example. Another was Payoff for Paula, produced in 1951 by the hyper-prolific pulp writer Stephen Francis and issued under the popular pseudonym “Jeff Bogar.” It’s apparently a femme fatale tale set in Hollywood. Later that year Lion Books reprinted the novel as The Tigress. I had been thinking that I wanted to read the book. But now that I know the author never resided in California, I think I’ll skip it.
I have already been fooled at least once. It turns out that Sex Gantlet to Murder (1955), ostensibly written by “Mark Shane” was actually the work of Victor Norwood, a British pulp writer best known for jungle stories. I haven’t found any evidence that the book was ever published in England. How Norwood got together with Fabian Books, the fledgling publisher in Fresno, is anyone’s guess. In any case, I should have been suspicious when I read the book, since some of the addresses mentioned didn’t quite make sense.
Just a minor note: I’ve added titles and links to the bibliography pages shown in Books by Author in the sidebar. Everything should now be up to date. Clicking through these pages is often an easier way to find the works of a specific author than using the Google search box, which sometimes produces peculiar results.
Hoping to learn more about the reading of fiction in the United States and the place of California fiction in the national context, I ordered a copy of The Columbia History of the American Novel (1991). The book, which runs more than 900 pages, contains 31 essays on a variety to topics and more than 200 short biographies of American authors. Nevertheless, it was not quite what I was looking for.
The most telling characteristic of the essayists in the book is that none of them is a historian by trade. They are instead professors of English or related fields. Typically, when non-historians write histories of their specialties, they focus on famous practitioners and illustrious works. More typically perhaps, histories of the arts (painting, music, architecture, etc.) follow the same strategy. So this discussion of the American novel focuses on the so-called canon and its authors. Although this collection goes beyond the canon in several of its essays, it largely ignores questions that historians might raise about the American novel:
• What sort of numbers are involved? How many novels were published each year? How many were what we would call literary fiction and how many genre novels? Which were the leading publishing houses and what was the output of each? Did they specialize in certain types of novels? How many novels appeared only in magazines? Which magazines published them?
• Who wrote novels? How were authors distributed by age, gender, class, ethnicity, and region? How many had careers primarily as novelists? How many had careers in other kinds of literary work? How many wrote only one novel? How many had an extensive oeuvre? How long was a typical career? What level of income was produced by book sales and magazine payments?
• What about readers? Who read novels? Who read specific kinds of novels? Why did they read them? Why did they think they read them? How were readers distributed by age, gender, class, ethnicity, and region? Did they usually buy books or borrow them from libraries?
• What characterized American novels? In what period were they set? Where were their settings, both generically and specifically? Who were the protagonists (again by age, gender, class, ethnicity, and region as well as by occupation and any other recurring characteristic)? What themes (primarily for literary fiction) were explored? Did novels usually have clear messages for their readers? To what extent did novels challenge or reinforce their readers’ preconceptions? What sorts of challenges were the most typical? What were the differences between book and magazine fiction?
• What was the nature of the public response to the appearance of a novel? How many copies did a commercially successful novel sell? Why did some novels become best sellers? Which novels were well received by critics and why did they like them? What sort of novels tended to win awards? How large was the gap between best-sellers and critical favorites? What connection exists between the critical reception of novels and their current reputations? Why do novels once in favor fall into obscurity?
• For those attracted to the really big picture: What is the function of novels in American society?
Most of these questions have flip-side queries. For example, what sort of people did not write novels? And to most a developmental follow-up can be asked: How did things change over the years?
Some books (and "The Book Marketplace II" in The Columbia History of the American Novel) do tackle some of these questions. What America Read is a notable recent example. But answers do not appear to have been compiled in one spot. And many of the questions seem to remain unasked as well as unanswered. I don’t think any academic discipline has staked a claim here. Maybe that’s necessary before information can flow forth.
The Grapes of Wrath in a landslide victory? I wasn’t surprised by that or much else in the revised California canon. The most prominent authors and most famous books all seem to be here. I’m fairly confident that exceptions occur only in categories I’m not reading. If I included historical fiction, for example, Ramona and maybe a couple other books would make the list. Otherwise, the chances are pretty good that anyone who has read a work of California fiction published before 1960 has read one of the canonized books.
The retabulated version of the canon varies a bit from the one I compiled in 2006. Nine different books show up, though none near the top. Three are short story collections that I hadn’t read earlier -- The Continental Op (No. 32), The Daring Young Man on the High Trapeze (No. 42) and The Big Knockover (no. 44). Three are stories of environmental calamity -- Storm (No. 30), Earth Abides (No. 36) and Fire (No. 48); two are tales of family life -- Cress Delahanty (No. 24) and Mama’s Bank Account (No. 33); and one is an exposé of competitive sport, The Game (No. 43). Of the nine that didn’t make the cut this time, the one suffering the most unexpected demotion is They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which can be found in only 273 libraries.
It’s clear from first glance that this version of California’s canon, like other lists of important books, is skewed toward works by well known authors. John Steinbeck appears nine times, Raymond Chandler six times and Jack London four times. James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Frank Norris, William Saroyan and George R. Stewart check in with three books each. Add F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jack Kerouac with two apiece and you have ten authors producing 78 percent of the canon.
A check of authors’ first names reveals another skewing. Although women wrote about 25 percent of the California fiction I’m reading, only two books by female authors appear on the list. Since male authors almost always write about men, female protagonists -- or even important female characters -- don’t show up very often in the canonized books. Their absence may give the erroneous impression that serious fiction necessarily focuses on the thoughts, experiences and problems of men and that female protagonists are found only in romances, cozy mysteries and other light fiction. I’ve read more than 100 books that don’t meet this stereotype.
Here’s my final complaint about the retabulated canon. It, like any canon, gets its validity from the notion that its entries have greater merit than whatever it omits. Add to that a halo effect, like the one in this list or its 2006 predecessor, and readers may come to believe that only a handful of authors has produced nearly all the worthwhile California fiction. Which is wrong in two ways. First, many of the canonized books are not all that terrific -- and even those that clearly possess literary distinction may not impress some readers. Second, the canon does not represent the body of California fiction, which includes around 3,000 titles and offers great variety in subject, style and intent. Many, many of those books are worth reading. Which, of course, is one of the points this blog is trying to make.
I decided to give the “California Canon” another shot. On my first try I attempted, using Google, to count the books that were receiving the most current scholarly attention. That approach had problems, however. I couldn’t always tell whether the mention of a book was part of an extended analysis or just a bibliographical listing. And often I couldn’t distinguish a reference to the book from one to a film adaptation.
The new scheme relies on library holdings. Using WorldCat, I’ve ranked the books by the number of libraries worldwide that have copies. All the books were published before 1960, so why libraries are hanging onto them (or stocking later reprints) is not completely clear to me. Presumably, the numbers reflect some combination of scholarly interest and popular demand. WorldCat doesn’t collect or present its statistics with complete consistency, so the rankings are necessarily tentative. But they do more or less jibe with what I expected. Which as I say in the next post may not be an entirely good thing.
Here then are the fifty works of fiction that (1) I’ve read, (2) are set in California between 1890 and 1959, (3) were written between the same years, (4) were produced by authors who remembered the time about which they wrote and (5) are currently available in at least 750 libraries throughout the world.
1. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (5,327)
2. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (4,899)
3. East of Eden by John Steinbeck (4,623)
4. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (3,722)
5. Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck (3,401)
6. The Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald (3,293)
7. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (3,044)
8. The Human Comedy by William Saroyan (2,997)
9. The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck (2,844)
10. The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh (2,641)
11. McTeague by Frank Norris (2,453)
12. Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck (2,438)
13. Martin Eden by Jack London (2,368)
14. The Long Valley by John Steinbeck (2,356)
15. The Octopus by Frank Norris (2,349)
16. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (2,285)
17. The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac (2,033)
18. My Name Is Aram by William Saroyan (2,021)
19. Oil! by Upton Sinclair (1,936)
20. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain (1,903)
21. The Iron Heel by Jack London (1,760)
22. After Many a Summer Dies the Swan by Aldous Huxley (1,757)
23. What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg (1,688)
24. Cress Delahanty by Jessamyn West (1,552)
25. The Pastures of Heaven by John Steinbeck (1,510)
26. The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler (1,506)
27. The Deer Park by Norman Mailer (1,440)
28. The Pat Hobby Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1,423)
29. Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler (1,389)
30. Storm by George R. Stewart (1,316)
31. The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West (1,311)
32. The Continental Op by Dashiell Hammett (1,305)
33. Mama’s Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes (1,301)
34. The Valley of the Moon by Jack London (1,290)
35. Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (1,198)
36. The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler (1,156)
37. If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes (1,151)
38. The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac (1,117)
30. The High Window by Raymond Chandler (1,051)
40. The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler (1,018)
41. The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze by William Saroyan (1,014)
42. The Game by Jack London (991)
43. The Big Knockover by Dashiell Hammett (954)
44. The Winning of Barbara Worth by Harold Bell Wright (951)
45. Blix by Frank Norris (932)
46. Double Indemnity by James M. Cain (931)
47. Fire by George R. Stewart (874)
48. Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain (854)
49. Ask the Dust by John Fante (832)
50. The Ninth Wave by Eugene Burdick (766)
Tim Mayer from Z-7's Headquarters dropped me a line the other day. He reads a lot of science fiction, which got me wondering how many books in the genre have turned up so far in my California project. Many important SF/Fantasy authors lived in the state at one time or another. The group that published in the 1950s or earlier includes Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Robert Silverberg, and others. So you might imagine that the output of books set in California would be fairly large. But I have added the caveat that the books be written and usually set before 1960. Which, not surprisingly, wacks down the list to a precious few. Anyway, here’s what I’ve read so far:
Apocalypse. The creation of the atomic bomb naturally got Americans wondering what would happen to civilization if large numbers of people were wiped out. Would humans engage in a primitive struggle for survival or would they cooperate to put things back together again? Two California writers come up with different answers. Ward Moore in Lot and Lot’s Daughter (written in 1953 and 1954) imagines a grim life after a nuclear attack; George R. Stewart in Earth Abides (1949) offers hope after a mysterious epidemic.
Secret Projects. Another familiar SF theme involves scientists off in the sticks somewhere inventing a device that may impact (usually endanger) all of mankind. California has much open space and after World War II many scientists. So it’s a natural setting for such activities. In The Doomsday Men (1938) by J. B. Priestley religious fundamentalists are up to something in the desert outside of Barstow. In Takeoff (1952) by C. M. Kornbluth a private organization is somehow building a rocket ship, again near Barstow. And in Dark Dominion (1954) by David Duncan a weapons program at a secluded government installation on the central coast threatens to get out of control.
Science Run Amok. As SF fans know, scientific discoveries and technological innovations can lead to unintended results. So readers of Laughing Gas (1936) by P. G. Wodehouse won’t be a surprised when simultaneous applications of nitrous oxide at a dentist’s office lead to Freaky Friday-like changes. And what about the new lawn fertilizer in Ward Moore’s Greener than You Think (1947)? Why couldn’t it lead to Bermuda grass taking over the world? Then there are unfortunate folks in Beyond Eden (1955) by David Duncan. They unaccountably get sick from using pure water produced by a cutting-edge desalinization plant. Nothing, of course, could lead to unexpected change like atomic energy. Just look at the kids in Children of the Atom (1953) by Wilmar H. Shiras. They’ve become super intelligent after a nuclear accident.
Spooky Babes. Supernatural powers lift a woman from the realm of run-of-the-mill fantasy. In Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind (1935) by Michael Fessier a mysterious nymph emerges from a lake in Golden Gate Park at the same time as an malevolent old man begins causing trouble. The sexy title character in Deliver Me from Eva (1946) by Paul Bailey has amazing powers. Unfortunately, so do members of her family. In Richard Matheson’s A Stir of Echoes (1958), a ghostly woman shows up late at night in a suburban living room. Her motives and powers are unclear. Each of Robert Nathan’s romantic fantasies features a lovely young woman who seems to come out of nowhere. In The Married Look (1950) she’s apparently living in a previous time period; in So Love Returns (1958) she has odd connections to the ocean.
Visitors from Outer Space. Last and certainly not least of familiar SF themes concerns the arrival of beings from other planets. California produced one of the most famous novels to use this motif -- The Body Snatchers (1955) by Jack Finney. You know the story: Pods drift down on Marin County, soon to turn themselves into replacements for the human inhabitants.
So that’s the list, at least to date. I don’t know whether the books are representative of what might be called “realistic science fiction” from before 1960. Taken together, they seem to descend from H. G. Wells and Jules Verne more clearly than they provide antecedents for the SF/Fantasy novels that are published today.
It turns out that the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco has been making literary awards since 1932. The club has been in operation since about 1905 and focuses most of its attention on civic and political affairs. It issues reports and invites speakers to talk on various issues. The club gives the awards to California residents for works published the previous year. The categories have changed a bit over the years. From 1934 on, one top prize, the gold medal, and one or two second prizes, silver medals, went to works of fiction. Nothing required that novels be set in California, and most of the winners were set elsewhere.
Literary prizes reflect popular taste among the literati more than lasting reputation. Which was exactly why I wanted to check out the winners. Was there a novel with a contemporary California setting that was once considered important but was now languishing in complete obscurity? In other words, was there a prize-winner that I needed to read?
You might imagine that the Commonwealth Club would have a nice list of past winners (on its website, for example). Perhaps it does have one somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. So I needed to go to the state library and ruffle through thirty years of newsletters to dig out the annual lists. This turned out to be fairly simple. The club had an annual awards dinner, which soon became a ladies night with highbrow entertainment as well as speakers. News of the dinner also contained the names and works of the winners.
Here are the award-winning works of fiction with contemporary California settings published from 1931 to 1959:
1935 John Steinbeck, Tortilla Flat (Gold Medal)
Charles Caldwell Dobie, San Francisco Tales (Silver Medal)
1939 John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (Gold Medal)
1940 William Saroyan, My Name Is Aram (Silver Medal)
1942 Oscar Lewis, I Remember Christine (Gold Medal)
1943 Dorothy Baker, Trio (Gold Medal)
1949 Albert Maltz, The Journey of Simon McKeever (Silver Medal)
1950 Vina Delmar, About Mrs. Leslie (Gold Medal)
1951 Mary Jane Rolfs, No Vacancy (Silver Medal)
1957 C. Y. Lee, The Flower Drum Song (Gold Medal)
Prizes also went to well-known novelists for works not set (or not mostly set) in contemporary California: W. R. Burnett, Ruth Eleanor McKee, Stewart Edward White, Hans Otto Storm, Edwin Corle, George R. Stewart, Janet Lewis, Aldous Huxley, C. S. Forester, Ray Bradbury, Ernest K. Gann, Leon Uris, and Oakley Hall.
From a retrospective of fifty years or more, the judges’ choices seem a bit peculiar. Stories set in the nineteenth century had a strong appeal, while fiction from the southland was either undervalued or ignored. No Hollywood novel made the list. When an L.A. book finally showed up, it was the sort-of-good About Mrs. Leslie by a popular author whose best work was done earlier and elsewhere. While it’s difficult to complain about some of the winners, at least two, The Journey of Simon McKeever and No Vacancy, were books I’d never heard of before. Both turned out to be well worth reading.