This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Writing for Your Inner Lubitsch

            The other day I was revisiting one of my favorite photography books, The American Film Directors by Maureen Lambray. In it, I came across this quote from Oscar-winning director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, talking about the great Ernst Lubitsch, who had died 30 years before he could be photographed for the book.
“Lubitsch once said to me, concerning the director’s general approach to the film, that by and large he should make it for himself, as a film he would buy a ticket to see — and then pray for millions of people to agree with him.”
            It’s more than a little interesting that Lubitsch’s evanescent romantic comedies — Trouble in Paradise, Design for Living, Ninotchka, among others — have survived the test of time. Those comedies, more so than most of the socially conscious message movies of the era, are what we now regard as being among the best things ever turned out by the Hollywood studio system. Their grace and understanding of adult behavior make today’s comedies pale by comparison. But don’t get me started.

To Thine Own Self Be True

            Regardless of the medium, the Lubitsch approach is the only one that makes sense in any art form — fiction, painting, whatever. And it’s true even in genre work that makes no artistic pretensions. A writer needs a certain degree of talent, to be sure, but plenty of bestselling authors get by without extra helpings of it. What’s hard to fake, I think, is a belief in the story you’re telling.
            A story can work for a reasonable number of readers, even when the writing is pedestrian at best, if the author at some level believes in it. Show me a bad book that sold well, and almost every time I’ll show you an author who believed it was a good book. Show me a bad series of books by the same author, and I’ll guarantee the author believed in them.
            In the early seventies, a group of newspaper people set out to show that they could write a truly horrible book that would become a bestseller. Each reporter was assigned a chapter to write (in order to ensure stylistic inconsistency), and if the result wasn’t terrible enough, the scribe was ordered to keep lowering the quality until it got there.

You Only Slum Once

            The result of their effort was a book called Naked Came the Stranger, which was, in fact, a bestseller, and which kept selling for a while after the authors were exposed. But the interesting thing, from my perspective, was the sequel.
            There was no sequel.
            My guess would be that it’s possible to deliberately write a bad book as a one-off, but it’s not the sort of thing anyone wants to keep doing. Once is plenty to make the point. After that, there is no point. Anyone who writes a series of bad books has to like that sort of book at some level.
            I don’t know if my mystery novels will ever be held up as examples of good books of their type, but I do know that I’m doing my best to write them the same way Lubitsch made his movies — as something I’d appreciate if I were the audience. Doing it that way doesn’t guarantee success, but there’s a corollary. Doing it any other way comes as close to possible to guaranteeing failure.