"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 16 January 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Tomorrow's Superwriters Today


In the 1979 movie Time After Time, Malcolm McDowell's H.G. Wells hurtles into modern-day San Francisco to track down legendary character actor David Warner, better known to the prostitutes of Victorian London's Fleet Street as Jack the Ripper. The film follows the science fiction author as he suffers the usual degradations endured by a film character out of time and culture (albeit a very PG version, given what must have been available in the Bay Area at that moment in history), before shifting into a heated duel with the Ripper that is flavored with clucking disapproval of modern society. The film's most memorable scene is Leather Apron's proto-Republican speech skewering Wells's utopian fantasies, a congressional subcommittee-worthy media critique featuring the local news and Bugs Bunny cartoons. Later, after graciously disemboweling the wrong woman, the Ripper is tricked into killing himself via crude, John Dykstra-style special effects. As a grace note, the film posits that the modern feminist movement owes much of its success to Wells' ditzy bankteller squeeze.

Time after Time is a prime example of author-as-hero storytelling, a subgenre of popular media based on the belief that writers are too stupid to write about anything other than exactly what happens to them. Its most successful targets of the past two decades have been junk-genre pioneers from previous centuries, writers like Wells for whom the mysteries of the past can become high concept backstory. A talent no less considerable than Tom Stoppard helped Shakespeare In Love turn the life of the greatest Western playwright into an extended early episode of Seinfeld, the unreasonably handsome Bard of Avon taking his pick from the plot points and turns of phrase that drop glitteringly about his wacky capers. In a decidedly lower-profile gig, Baltimore's favorite son and Goth culture legend can be seen as a chunky, block-bodied adventure hero in the alternative comic book Poe. At least two potential movie franchises feature the detective skills of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — one treatment placing Sherlock Holmes's creator on a team of crimefighters that includes horror author H.P. Lovecraft, a writer whose fans' fervent belief in the reportage quality of his fiction has led to a cottage industry of fake occultist bibles. The latest high-profile example: the SciFi Channel debut of The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, a CBC television series hoping to capitalize on the same voracious public appetite for outsized abstractions of 19th Century technology that made Will Smith's Wild, Wild West an almost-profitable movie. Even Mark Twain, who as a reporter and public personality has long been more legitimately portrayed as a character on stage and screen, shows up matching wits with the crew of the starship Enterprise, not to mention piloting a time machine in the claymation classic The Adventures of Mark Twain.

So as our steam-powered super-zeppelin drifts into the 21st century, might we look forward to a new generation of stock authors from central casting, dragged onstage to invoke various aspects of the American Century? It can't happen soon enough for our tastes. For too long now, writers have suffered under the baleful I-can-do-that glare once reserved for bar band singers and stand-up comics. Any cultural impulse where people see writers fighting monsters and world conspiracies in their spare time, instead of charting the gains in production that could be made by moving the computer further away from the bed, should be encouraged. Sobriquet-favoring writers gathering around web sites and new media enterprises know that the model for group creative activity isn't the sunburnt arms and gin-soaked urine of the Algonquin Round Table, but the snappy costumes and racial inclusiveness found at the Hall of Justice. Enough with reality; let the shroud of mystery descend and make heroes of us all.

Some authors are already halfway down the road to larger-than-life narrative iconhood. Ernest Hemingway has been played on screen in biographical portraits of varying seriousness by such divergent evocations of manhood as Stacy Keach, Chris O'Donnell, and the guy who played D-Day in Animal House — a true sign of an enduring public personality. Self-inflicted gunshot wounds aside, the blustery author in full bloom makes a fine totem of barrel-chested American manhood, a fact not lost on Japanese manga studios, or the writer Steve Conrad (who crafted dialogue for Richard Harris in Wrestling Ernest Hemingway). Unlike most celebrity writers of his era, Papa should continue to stomp his way through any visual medium that wishes to exploit a furry beard and an outsized personality even as the context of wars in Europe and a shrinking natural world will no doubt become more strangely portrayed. And while Hemingway is on the verge of entering the fictional pantheon, J.D. Salinger may already be there. If the warm and fuzzy critical reception certain mainstream movie critics gave to Finding Forrester is any indication, the character of the Salinger haunted-genius author has foiled all attempts by the original to sue such depictions out of existence, or for the women in Salinger's life to soil them. Crusty character actors with unique vocal inflections will be talked back into the world, adorable eccentricities on full display, for future generations to enjoy.

Other authors may prove tougher to reclaim. Periodic waves of interest in F. Scott Fitzgerald almost always show signs of turning the author into Jay Gatsby. The latest, surrounding the publication of an early version of his signature novel, provides a useful working model for turning an author into a fictional being: Express wonder at the inexplicable grace of Fitzgerald's literary improvement, invoke the sometimes-troubled but consuming relationship with Zelda. But even if Fitzgerald can play the part, that's a one-story, one-movie deal.

The Death of the Author can be seen most clearly in the way even the Beats — despite boasting a boy-band-style group of representative personalities — have failed, repeatedly to set the box office on fire. As far as westerns go, if Zane Grey couldn't get cast in the part of a cowboy writer, you can forget about it at this point.

The lack of interest in building super-realities for the Margaret Mitchells and John O'Haras of the world may indicate tough times ahead for the most widely-read living writers. Despite less than stellar network dry runs at a Stephen King-like character, Bangor's creepmaster has the look (particularly in his large eyeglasses phase) and gift for self-presentation to become a useful character at some future date, particularly as a gateway figure settled between anthology episodes. Speaking of big eyeglasses, if Tom Clancy would only choose to involve himself in his computer and video games, beyond serving as a writerly host, he could leverage his publicity-driven reputation as a CIA-level civilian researcher to forge a Citizen Bond type character — but only if all visual evidence of his personal appearance is destroyed.

In the end, similar photographic and videotaped evidence may doom all mystery and romance novelists from the mythmaking process. Tom Wolfe may be in the best shape of all. He gets credit for setting out after this kind of immortality like frustrated-by-life accountants flocking to Pamplona. Wolfe's famed sartorial preferences evoke Twain's status as early-20th-century custodian figure. His unfortunate tendency to write with an eye toward defining eras, his attempts both successful (Me) and unsuccessful (Purple) to come right out and name entire decades, scream "Remember my name!" In the end, it's the sheer nakedness of Wolfe's attempt, the scrambling desire for idol-status, that may endure in character form as an evocation of time and place.

But as much as writers would like to believe differently, they'll probably lose this battle of public perception the way they've lost all the others: decisively, with a lot of whining. As much crazy mileage as Tercentennial pulp could get in following the exploits of a mysterious crimefighting cabal composed of King, J.K. Rowling, Andrew Vachss and the Man in White, they wouldn't stand a chance against the time travel detective agency of Hitchcock, Spielberg, Eastwood and Tarantino. Tomorrow's Victorian superman is today's media-knighted guardian of the imagination. Myth-making begins with a bold publicity plan, and is aided greatly by free cable.

We're dying to see Dave Eggers as the hero of a Skinemax erotic thriller. Aren't you?
Discuss it at Plastic.

courtesy of 40th Street Black


pictures Terry Colon

40th Street Black