Once upon a time my wife and I were sitting up late at night, reading. She had a romance novel, I probably had something by Heinlein or Asimov or Andre Norton. Suddenly, she yelled, “Arrrrrgh!” Or maybe it was “Gaaaah!” And she threw the paperback across the room, bouncing it off the wall, scaring the cat, scaring me. I said something like, “Uh, honey, sweetie pie, is something wrong?” Meanwhile thinking, she’s between me and the kitchen with all the sharp instruments.
“At the end an atomic bomb went off and they were all killed.” Well, hell, I’d throw a book across the room for that, too. If it was genre fiction and failed to do what I expect it to. It’s just wrong.
To prepare for writing this essay I watched two of my favorite movies: Independence Day (1996) and Godzilla (1998). See the sacrifices I make for you, gentle reader? I knew I wanted to write about popular literature and film and its relation to so-called serious lit and film, and how they both relate to what we do, but until I watched those two again, I wasn’t sure exactly why I wanted to, and if I had anything to say.
We all have them. Books and movies — stories — we love that are not critically-acclaimed and which more highbrow types look down their patrician noses at.
We’ve all been there, right? “When asked, “What are you reading?” You say, “Oh, I’m re-reading a wonderful early Jayne Ann Krentz” and the English professor down the block says, “Frightfully nice, I’m sure. I’m just finishing Crime and Punishment.”
The odds are if you are reading this essay you read and write genre fiction, stories that, like Rodney Dangerfield, often don’t get respect. (If, on the other hand, you are working on a free-form non-novel about existential suburban ennui I can’t help you. No one can help you.)
For most of us these old friends are books we read growing up, that spoke to us. For me it was Ian Fleming. I said, “I want to do that.”
I think when we revisit those old friends now, we can learn from them, if we watch or read as writers. And I think there are three tips that will help you to articulate what it is about the work that speaks to you.
First, ask yourself why this work holds so much appeal to you.
For me, in Godzilla (1998) it’s the character of Nick Tatapoulous, the hero. Here’s a guy in the pouring rain outside Chernobyl, (yes, that Chernobyl) shoving metal rods into the mud so he can apply current and shock earthworms to the surface for capture — and he’s singing. He’s having a good time; this is his work and he’s been at it for three years. This is a guy I want to know more about. (For the rest of the movie the people on the team fighting Godzilla call him “the worm guy.”) He’s quirky and driven and interesting.
Second, put yourself in the place of the author and try to see what elements they cared about. This is sort of the flip side of Tip Number One. Those elements may not be huge parts of the story, but if they mean something to the writer you will be able to spot them.
In Independence Day the father-son story between Randy Quaid and his son is not essential, you could take it out and still have a movie, yet it is the most emotionally-charged part of the film, just as you could take the comments about assisted living out of the Evanovich books and they’d still work as mysteries, but they’d lack some of the punch. That’s where Evanovich’s heart is. You need to remember that when you are writing, holding it as an example to encourage you to leave a part of yourself on the page.
So far we’ve talked about two tasks when you revisit an old friend, book or movie: you ask yourself why you like it, and you ask yourself what meant the most to the creator. There’s one more tip and it’s a little more difficult.
Third, look for evidence that the writer takes the work seriously.
That’s an absolute must for good stories. There’s a 1950’s science fiction movie called (I’m not making this up) The Hideous Sun Demon. It’s about a scientist who is exposed to radiation and later finds that when he got out in the sun he turns into a big lizard and kills people. I think it’s a documentary. Even adjusting for inflation, the budget for this film was probably less than the catering budget for one day of shooting on NCIS. In the notes that come with the DVD, the creator, who plays the scientist/lizard, talks about the monster costume they made out of a wetsuit and how hot it was during filming, how in some scenes if you look closely you can see sweat running down his, uh, pants. Did he have to go to all that trouble for a movie aimed at an audience of kids at the drive-in who were more interested in drinking beer and getting to know their dates? No, of course not, but he cared and it shows in a small, but well-crafted movie.
That works both ways. The Robert Aldrich 1955 film noir, Kiss Me Deadly is an example of a writer that didn’t take it seriously. He said in an interview, “I wrote it fast because I had contempt for it.” (1) The film’s place in movie history is secure, but I think it sucks. The dialog is wooden, the characters some of the most unlikeable ever to slink across the screen, and it’s untrue to the book. Mine is a minority opinion, but I stick to it. I hauled out the DVD and watched a good chunk of it to see if I still felt that way and I did.
So, why did I want to write about pop lit? Why, because I like it. Every time I see a new serious book and think I should be reading it, a new James Rollins or Caril Hiassen comes out and gets in the way. I write to entertain and I read for the same reason. That’s it. I can’t say I have no higher purpose, for me there is no higher purpose. How any of you remember the amazing, wonderful chapter in Stephen King’s it where the young writer struggling through a creative writing class suddenly blurts out, “Can’t a story just be a story?” Made me want to stand up and cheer.
Look, you may have a hard time explaining this to the woman who is finishing Crime and Punishment. She won’t get it because she reads for different reasons.
But you’ll know.
I’ve talked about a couple of movies and a few books that — thanks to you readers and to Fae who asked for another contribution — are my guilty pleasures. You know what? They’re not so guilty anymore, so thanks.
Now I’d like to hear yours. One of the coolest things about Writers in the Storm is the community, the sharing, so it’s time to fess up. Who knows? We all might find a new, unappreciated gem. What’s your guilty reading pleasure?
James R. Preston is the author of the award-winning Surf City Mysteries. The most recent is Sailor Home From Sea. He is finishing the second of a projected trilogy of novellas set at Cal State Long Beach in the 1960s. The next Surf City Mystery is called Remains To Be Seen and will be available in 2017. His work has been selected for the UC Berkeley Special Collection, California Detective Fiction. And when he needs inspiration for a great opening, he looks at a Jayne Ann Krentz.
(1) Hiberman, J., The Thriller of Tomorrow, adapted from his book, An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War.