What’s the greatest Hollywood novel of all time?

Hollywood sign
Photo by Thomas Wolf (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Let’s lay down the ground rules. A Hollywood novel is

  1. a book-length single work of fiction,
  2. regards the American film or TV industry, and
  3. is set in or around Los Angeles, California.

The Hollywood novel should not be confused with the Los Angeles novel, which may be set in similar locations but is not primarily concerned with the film industry. This includes almost all of John Fante’s work (Ask the Dust).

Also eliminated are autobiographies like Robert Towne’s The Kid Stays in the Picture and Julia Phillips’ You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again, both entirely about the Hollywood film industry and both reportedly nonfiction.

And, sadly, my first rule eliminates Fitzgerald’s superb The Pat Hobby Stories as it’s a story collection, not a novel. (Otherwise, these are some of the finest, and funniest, stories ever produced about Hollywood.)

Wikipedia offers a rather lengthy list of Hollywood novels. Obviously I’ve not read them all, and so the list that follows is not the hands-down decision on the Greatest of All Time, but is a healthy representation of the form.

The list (links added as entries are published):

Gary Gygax’s Appendix N

A Hindu Rakshasa re-imagined in D&D’s Monster Manual

When I was a teen and enamored with Dungeons & Dragons, one treasure I discovered poring over the rules books was Appendix N of the Dungeon Masters Guide. D&D co-creator Gary Gygax lists nearly thirty pulp and genre writers as major influences on the development of the game. “Upon such a base I built my interest in fantasy,” Gygax wrote, “being an avid reader of all science fiction and fantasy literature since 1950.”

In the early 1970s, Gygax and Dave Arneson harvested genre and pulp fiction to invent a new game, one that felt oddly familiar yet unlike any other experience. If “a book is a pocket or portable dreamweaver,” then Gygax and Arneson systematized that dream with charts and rules and catalogs. They took the dream off the paperback page and put it on the tabletop where it can be shared and shaped by a group of people.

If you’re familiar with D&D, most of the authors listed in Gygax’s Appendix N are unsurprising: R. E. Howard (creator of Conan), H. P. Lovecraft, Fritz Leiber (whom I’ve written about before), Michael Moorcock, J. R. R. Tolkien. Some names do surprise though, such as Leigh Brackett, whose screenwriting credits include the film noir The Big Sleep and John Wayne’s Rio Bravo. (Gygax probably included her for her planetary romances set on Mars, however.) Others would have faded into obscurity if not for Gygax’s list.

I don’t recall Appendix N being discussed much by D&D players back in the day. Decades later, the D&D blog Grognardia revealed to me that Appendix N has taken on a life of its own within the community. Gygax’s list has been studied, dissected, and emulated. There’s even an Appendix N Book Club. Blogger James Maliszewski called Appendix N the “literary DNA” of D&D.

And while Appendix N names only 20th-century authors, skimming the various rule books reveals D&D’s literary DNA also includes (in no particular order):

  • Scandinavian, Teutonic, and Anglo-Saxon mythology
  • Catholic demonology
  • Biblical imagery
  • Chivalric codes and Japanese bushido
  • Fairy tales, the Brothers Grimm
  • Jewish Kabbalah
  • Greek mythology
  • Persian, Arabic, and Islamic folklore
  • Ancient mythology of Mesopotamia (Tiamat, the iconic five-headed dragon of D&D, derives from Babylonian religion)
  • Hindu legends
  • Arthurian tales (“Matter of Britain”)
  • Western European legend, from Charlemagne to the Renaissance (“Matter of France”)
  • Celtic and Irish folklore
  • Slavic folklore
  • Haitian folklore (although D&D’s zombies are more like 1968’s Night of the Living Dead)
  • Ancient Egypt (although D&D’s mummies owe more to 1932’s The Mummy with Boris Karloff)
  • Western classic literature (Frankenstein, Paradise Lost, Canterbury Tales, and more)
  • 20th-century genres beyond those listed in Appendix N (horror and science-fiction as well as fantasy, in print and film)

This list is incomplete, but already its breadth is wild. How could a game culled from this haggis hang together in a coherent fashion, let alone grow into a cultural phenomenon played and studied fifty years later? D&D’s pulp fantasy roots help, but some credit must be chalked up to its origins in the gonzo anything-goes 1970s. Another reason is that D&D, like the written word, takes place in the mind rather than on a screen, and so inconsistencies can be papered over by the imagination and a willing suspension of disbelief.

D&D is a cultural mutt, perhaps the ultimate postmodernist pastiche. (As Jeff Rients put it: “You play Conan, I play Gandalf. We team up to fight Dracula.”) As with other collaborative games such as Exquisite Corpse, D&D is never truly finished or closed. The difference is, D&D’s rules and system are open-ended. The game organizer is free to mix-and-match their own inspirations—Gygax and Arneson baked a kind of implied amendment system into their Constitution. “From such sources, as well as any other imaginative writing or screenplay you will be able to pluck kernels from which to grow the fruits of exciting campaigns,” Gygax wrote.

Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon crash-land in the D&D world and need the players’ help? That’ll work. A zombie apocalypse sweeping across a country village? That’ll work. Modern superheroes transported to the age of D&D? That’ll work. Referees can add their own pulpy sources and influences and, somehow, it still holds together.

There were complaints about this ahistorical melange, especially from players who’d got it in their head D&D was to be a simulation of some sort. At its most basic, the game felt like swords and magic in Ye Olde Merrie England or thereabouts. So why do players fight Jewish golems and Egyptian mummies? Concerted efforts were made to correct Gygax’s “mistakes” and produce more historically-accurate role-playing games, such as Chivalry & Sorcery and Fantasy Wargaming. Those titles drifted into obscurity while D&D’s popularity intensified. Gygax’s and Arneson’s reception to inspiration from all sources—their “lightning rod”—was a feature, not a bug.

Not only does Appendix N indicate how widely-read Gygax and Arneson were, it also suggests how widely-read they expected the players to be. D&D wasn’t merely made by smart people, it was made for smart people.

Gygax could have used Appendix N to recommend movies, TV shows, or comic books, but chose not to. “I would never add other media forms to a reading list,” Gygax wrote in 2007, a year before his death. “If someone is interested in comic books and/or graphic novels, they’re on their own.” For me, this quote seals just how highly Gygax regarded the written word.

This post was adapted for Internet Archive’s blog: “The Fantasy Books that Inspired Dungeons & Dragons”

Books & movies to pick up while social distancing yourself

Albert Camus

Over the past week, the more I tell myself I will not live in fear or succumb to panic, the more I wonder if I’m fooling myself. Such are the unusual times we’re in.

My rule-of-thumb has been to halve whatever heat the press applies to its current hot topic—to recognize it’s in the media’s interests to double a controversial topic’s magnitude to sell more advertising. For the current outbreak of coronavirus, however, dividing by two still yields a large number.

Watching the spread of COVID-19 in near real-time on my computer screen, my thoughts keep returning to a certain class of story, ones that deal with mass disease, plague, and creeping horror.

With social distancing becoming chic and more people staying home nights, here’s a selection of books and movies that offer food for thought for uncertain times:

The Plague

Often read as an allegory of the French Resistance during World War II, it’s just as enriching to read Albert Camus’ classic as a straight accounting of bubonic plague striking an Algerian town.

The novel’s first section reads like a cribbed summary of the past three months. The town government is slow to respond to the first signs of outbreak, and then they attempt to downplay and muzzle news of the disease. The townspeople are initially detached, even sarcastic, about the oncoming epidemic. Doctors hesitate to utter its name. Only when the horror is plain is there a complete lock-down of the city. We haven’t seen food riots or looting—yet—but Camus’ depiction of citizens being shot while escaping quarantine, and paranoia stoking bigotry and violence, naturally makes me wonder which is worse: the disease or its targets.

“A good hour wasted!” the inspector sighed when the door closed behind them. “As you can guess, we’ve other things to think about, what with this fever everybody’s talking of.”

He then asked the doctor if there was any serious danger to the town; Rieux answered that he couldn’t say.

“It must be the weather,” the police officer decided. “That’s what it is.”

What does The Plague depict that we’re not seeing today? Camus’ gallows humor, for one. The San Francisco of thirty years ago would be holding end-of-the-world parties right now, and plague doctors’ masks would be the hot fashion item of the season. Instead, San Francisco went from boom town to ghost town over the course of a single weekend. Camus’ interrogation of God’s will versus nature’s blind force are scarce today too. It appears everyone’s more-or-less agreed on the science behind COVID-19, although conspiracies abound—perhaps our culture’s new religion.

“Well, I know. And I don’t need any post-mortems. I was in China for a good part of my career, and I saw some cases in Paris twenty years ago. Only no one dared to call them by their name on that occasion. The usual taboo, of course; the public mustn’t be alarmed, that would do at all. … ‘It’s unthinkable. Everyone knows it ceased to appear in western Europe.’ Yes, everyone knew that—except the dead men.”

I like to think Camus’ main characters recognized the absurdity of fleas on grungy rats sending an entire city into a locked-down panic. Maybe in the future we’ll have a rounder perspective of the 2019-2020 coronavirus. Not today, apparently.

12 Monkeys

One of my favorite films. In Terry Gilliam’s near future, mankind lives underground after an unnamed virus killed five billion people and made the Earth’s surface uninhabitable. A convict is sent backwards in time not to prevent the near-extinction event, but to gather information about the virus so future scientists may develop a vaccine.

“We did it!”
(Jeff Kramer, CC BY 2.0)

As with The Plague, 12 Monkeys is laden with absurdity and irony even though the subject matter is dead-serious. The ending is ambiguous, but one reading is even more fatalistic than Camus’ novel. “All I see are dead people,” the convict mutters as he peers around a thriving 1990s America.

Then there’s the scene where the viral spread is recalled by counting off the cities it was first detected in, much as we’re talking about Wuhan, Italy, King County, and so forth. The 12 Monkeys virus was communicated quickly due to modern airline travel, which again sounds awfully familiar. Of all the titles in this list, 12 Monkeys hews closest to today’s reality.

Orwell’s war-time diaries

While not strictly about plague or pestilence, Orwell’s diaries of London life during World War II have remarkable currency. Reading his private thoughts during the London blitz are Orwell at his most claustrophobic.

Orwell records the daily despairs overheard in pubs and tobacconists, the griping over the stark wartime rationing, and his own dulled sense that he’s grown accustomed to the sound of airplane gunfire. London’s citizens black out their windows and stay at home fretting over the newspaper and beside the radio. Above all, he writes of his suspicions that government censors were holding back embarrassments on England’s progress in the war—and most likely lying through their teeth, although “there is probably more suppression than downright lying.”

The usual Sunday crowds drifting to and fro, perambulators, cycling clubs, people exercising dogs, knots of young men loitering at street corners, with not an indication in any face or in anything that one can overhear that these people grasp that they are likely to be invaded within a few weeks, though today all the Sunday papers are telling them so. The response to renewed appeals for evacuation of children from London has been very poor. Evidently the reasoning is, “The air raids didn’t happen last time, so they won’t happen this time.”

His diaries ring of today’s self-quarantines, the lines at the supermarkets, the daily sense of uncertainty, and each morning checking the Web knowing the infection numbers will only be rising. Our government is now holding public health meetings in secret. At least our press is free enough to report that much.

There are days Orwell sounds resigned to England being overrun by the Nazis, and there are days when he’s even more apocalyptic. Orwell, ever the Socialist, grimly cheers himself up by predicting the end of the war would trigger a workers’ revolution and the end of capitalism. It’s an unusually millenarianist moment for the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, and one where his predictive powers failed him.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

The 1956 thriller is a classic of Red Scare film-making. The 1976 remake with Donald Sutherland and Leonard Nimoy is creepier and—improbably—campier. Extraterrestrial spores quietly rain down on Earth to infect humans while they sleep. One by one, humanity is replaced with emotionless, purposeless clones.

The 1956 original is interpreted as either a caution against Communism or anti-Communism, making it the ultimate McCarthy-era open text. The 1976 remake is on several lists of post-Watergate conspiracy thrillers, yet it’s even less politically-charged than the original. As with my suggestion about The Plague, what if both were simply viewed through the lenses of infection and contamination?

When the aliens are perfect clones—when an infected person is outwardly healthy—it’s impossible to know who to be wary of, and so people rely on less reliable and less noble signals to judge unclean. By the middle of Body Snatchers, every major and minor character who comes into the shot leaves you asking, “Are they—?” There’s the awful hesitation these days when people shake hands. There’s the dismalness of watching people scurry away from a blown nose or a sneeze.

Meanwhile, Kevin McCarthy’s plea for everyone to listen and see what’s coming sounds eerily like the health care professionals who warned the public of the coming epidemic, especially those who were censored or warned about spreading rumors:

Paranoia—fatalism—taboo—absurdity. I’m not claiming this list will cheer you up. Perhaps it’s helpful to see people at their best and worst when fear is spreading like a disease. Maybe it’s comforting to know we’re not the first to experience this dread. There’s a light, even if it’s not the end of the tunnel.

Playwriting & screenwriting books every fiction writer should read

Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun

When I discuss fiction with other writers, I often turn the conversation to playwriting and screenwriting. (My writing friends are kind of sick of the topic.) I talk about these other genres because I believe there’s much for a fiction writer to mine from them.

Plays and film are different narrative forms than a novel or a short story, and so not all their nuances translates well. However, like comics and graphic novels, I believe the similarities outweigh the differences. What’s more, the practitioners of these other narrative arts have approached them with different assumptions and focuses than fiction writers. Different perspectives on the same art is a great way to learn more.

What I respect about plays and film are their emphases on structure. Structure is woefully under-emphasized in creative writing programs. Far too many MFA students are exiting programs without a working definition of crucial fiction elements like plot and character under their belts. Playwriting exposed me to a world where narrative structure is not treated as a necessary evil but unapologetically the primary focus.

From stage plays I explored books on screenwriting for largely the same reason: to better understand narrative structure. Scripts, both stage and film, are not assortments of characters and setting and dialogue steeped in a genre bath. Scripts are structure. The same applies to fiction, from short stories to novels.

What follows are various texts I’ve read over the years that have influenced my thinking and writing.

Playwriting

Aristotle’s Poetics: Not the dry, dusty book you might think. Aristotle was a fan of stagecraft. His Poetics are an ancient fanboy’s attempt to understand why plays make us laugh and cry, why some plays “work” while others “fail.” If nothing else, read the Poetics for Aristotle’s definitions of plot, character, and spectacle. You will walk away understanding why Aristotle thinks story should be plot-driven and not character-driven—and it will drive your MFA friends nuts.

The Playwrights Guidebook (Stuart Spencer): Spencer lays out the same elements as Aristotle but in terms more practical and less theoretical. Too often craft writers think “how-to-write” books are restrictive or push formulas with the ultimate intention of producing a blockbuster. Spencer’s more thoughtful approach breaks those expectations. If there’s one lesson to take away from Spencer, it is understanding the backbone of all playwriting, the beat, as the fundamental unit of drama (action, conflict, and event). Beats drive fiction too.

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (John Patrick Shanley): A play in two acts featuring a pair of characters who are alternately in each other’s arms and at each other’s throats. Shanley’s humanist play is a model of economy and character-building. Fiction writers should look to Danny for its effective dialogue, the use of ambiguity, and creating characters through the steady accretion of detail—the naturalism of two highly protective people revealing their soft underbellies to each other.

A Raisin in the Sun (Lorraine Hansberry) and Fences (August Wilson): It’s difficult for me to pick one over the other, so I list both. In some ways, each play is constructed in a by-the-book manner: Each act built of scenes, each scene made of beats, and all beats and all scenes propelling their characters forward. You can put your finger on a random page of either of these plays and discover all the elements of Great American Playwriting in action. This is why I’ve written on both plays before (here, here, and here).

Film & Television

Adventures in the Screen Trade (William Goldman): Although much of this breezy book regards the insanity that is the movie business, Goldman spends valuable pages discussing the creative decisions he made penning screenplays for such classics as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men as well as lesser-known films like Harper and A Bridge Too Far. Most instructive is Goldman including a short story of his own and the script he developed based on it. Goldman is an accomplished novelist (he wrote The Princess Bride!) and his insights into screenwriting often “sound” like they’re coming from a fiction writer. Plus, let’s face it—reading the inside scoop behind these great 1970s films is a treat for any movie buff.

Screenplay and/or The Screenwriter’s Handbook (Syd Field): The former is “the Bible of screenwriting” and the second is the New Testament. Yes, both books focus heavily on film script specifics, but Field’s discussion of narrative structure made me re-think how the novel is constructed, so much that I’m working on a series about it.

Unlike plays, I can’t recommend hunkering down and reading any particular movie script. That may sound strange since I’m recommending books on writing them. Film scripts are so concerned with camera work, it often hampers getting to the meat of the script fiction writers should be concerned with—dialogue, conflict, scene structure, and so on.

Often it’s instructive to read plays adapted into movies, especially if the films are loyal to the source text. A good example of this is Glengarry Glen Ross, which easily features the best cast ever assembled for the play. (Trust me, I’ve seen a few productions.)

Consider watching a film as a writer instead of an audience member. Keep the remote handy so you can go back and re-watch key scenes and study their dialogue and construction. Go even further and watch a film scene with your computer open so you can transcribe their dialogue. That may sound nutty, but you will really come to appreciate the use of language in film—and your own dialogue will improve for it. Good screenwriters have a knack for naturalistic dialogue. Great screenwriters know how to build taut scenes with no dialogue at all—study No Country for Old Men for good examples.

For scripts more dialogue-heavy and less involved with the camera, look to television scripts, in particular those set before a live audience. They tend to focus on characters with well-defined motivations and situations with explosive conflict, much like plays, while writing to a different audience than theatergoers. (An old theater saying that applies to any great performance: “When someone walks on stage, it better be trouble.” Take that to heart in your fiction as well.) Unlike plays, television scripts are usually harder to locate. A used bookstore with a well-stocked Film & Television section may be your friend here.

Fawlty Towers: John Cleese and Connie Booth’s sitcom regularly tops British polls as the funniest show ever, and for good reasons. While the comic acting is one-of-a-kind, the show’s writing is also superb. The first episode and “The Hotel Inspector” are heavy on wordplay and farce, with each character popping to life the moment they utter their first lines.