I’ve been thinking a lot about pettiness lately. I live in the U.S. and right now, the American media landscape is all blah blah incivility blah anger blah blah hate. But it feels to me like the great fever of rage-mourning prompted by the 2016 election has now settled down into a less intense, more pervasive atmosphere of snark and slights, subtweets and sarcasm. SNL spoofs rapists. Twitter memes hate crimes. And then there’s the hilarious string of alliterative names for white people losing their minds over black people existing. We’re squarely in an era of pettiness, the Age of the Drag.
Petty comes from petit, the French for small: Think small-minded, mean, snide. Pettiness might seem to trivialize social issues, but it doesn’t necessarily diminish them, at least no more than bad-faith grandstanding does. Plus, intense emotions like love and hate can get you killed. You might lose money or pride off of petty, but nobody’s dying from a subtweet. To mock hateful things like racism, misogyny, and elitism lets us think about them with some distance, without getting caught up in self-seriousness, fury, or despair. If nothing else, it makes them survivable. I’d say “y’all trifling” and strut off with a fluttering hand, but I kinda love pettiness: It’s witty and clever and often contagious.
For example: I’ve wanted for a while to teach a graduate course on everything Roland Barthes ever wrote, as an excuse to read it. (Most professors are just perennial students: We teach the courses we wish we could take.) So I mocked up a syllabus. I titled it, “Everybody Loves Roland.” I was inordinately excited. But then I was asked to teach another course I’d proposed as a second choice, “American Genres,” because it would help students fulfill a program requirement. Well. OK. Fine. I scrapped my syllabus of American Genre-ish fiction by high literary authors—Toni Morrison and Hannah Crafts as “Gothic,” Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler as “sci-fi,” Raymond Chandler and Walter Mosley as “noir.” And I went full bestseller: Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, Iceberg Slim’s Pimp, Stephen King’s Carrie, Charles Portis’s True Grit, Danielle Steel’s The Gift. It was a petty move over a set of novels that are themselves often considered trifling—the fast food of fiction.
And so, given my usual reading habits, and the black sci-fi class that I taught again last year, this was My Year of Reading Genre Fiction. I wasn’t alone. Genre is all the rage—this is especially clear in television and film—though it sometimes feels less like a key ingredient and more like a spice that contemporary artists have started shaking over their works (to say nothing of the disavowals). The thing is, it has always struck me as bizarre that professors mostly teach students how to read (and imitate) the “literary canon”—essentially the same one I was tasked to ruminate over as a student. You’d think this recycling project would be less tenable now that some of our greatest living writers (Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) have publicly embraced genre fiction. Haven’t we diversified the syllabus, if not decolonized it, by now? Maybe, but let’s be real: Even the non-white, non-male, non-rich writers on our reading lists are still mostly “literary”; as Du Bois might have put it, they “sit with Shakespeare and wince not.” Our anti-elitism is still elitist.
The question of how and what we (ought to) read is political for me in this sense: If we believe in democracy and equality, why are our aesthetic priorities shaped by an elite minority? Why do we dismiss our engagement with genre works as “love-hate,” “hate-watching,” and “guilty pleasure” when we spend so much time doing it? Why do we refer to these works as “low” or “lite” when they are read by millions more people than the classics? In short, why don’t the numbers matter? Maybe these texts aren’t read much in academia because they don’t require scholars to explain or analyze them: The story we tell ourselves is that they aren’t difficult or ambiguous; they’re self-evident, simplistic even. But maybe that’s just some petty nonsense to justify the need for literary critics?
As it turns out, many of the novels I read this year, while they fit the “formula” of genres like crime fiction, the Western, fantasy, romance, the spy thriller, and science fiction, are actually really weird and interesting and worthy of analysis. In fact, I’ve been developing a theory that the most recognizable of these non-canonical texts—the highest of the lowbrow, so to speak—are all deeply interested in their own form. That is to say, they are metafictional—they are self-aware about these genre categories we use to dismiss them. Now, a text’s self-investigation of its own condition is one of the marks of sophistication, of high literary value: Think Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage.” But I found it all over formulaic novels. It’s like they’re formally petty: They draw attention to and even drag the qualities we’re so used to valuing automatically. Let me give you three examples:
James M. Cain’s noir The Postman Always Rings Twice ends with the main character in prison saying this of psychology: “There’s a guy in No. 7 that murdered his father, and says he didn’t really do it, his subconscious did it. I asked him what that meant, and he says you got two selves, one that you know about and the other that you don’t know about, because it’s subconscious. It shook me up…. To hell with the subconscious!” This is a hilarious send-up of the psychological depth of high literature, whether or not it embraces Freud. As it turns out, Albert Camus’s L’Étranger was strongly influenced by Cain’s novel. Why is the absence of conscience, a refusal of psychological complexity, and an action-based philosophy valued in the existentialist classic but dismissed as “brutality” in the crime novel? The very existence of Cain’s novel calls portentous, intellectual fictions into question.
Madeleine L’Engle’s “science fantasy” A Wrinkle in Time dwells on the way time, space, and feeling get enmeshed in the literary setting. Tessering is explained in diagrams—famously an ant crawling along a string—and the setting is strangely book-like: when the characters tesser through a two-dimensional space, they become “flat,” as if they are literally made of the paper on which we’re reading about them. The novel seems to me to spoof the narrative questions familiar to us from Journalism 101 with characters like Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, and the Happy Medium, a jolly clairvoyant with a crystal ball, whose name puns on the equanimity to which Meg aspires while offering an apt description of L’Engle’s bizarro religious novel itself. In this way, the novel offers a metafictional meditation on the use of the objective correlative—using the setting to convey emotion—in the high literary novel. It even begins: “It was a dark and stormy night.”
Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity is a (long-winded) spy novel about, yes, identity, but also about the literary category of the character. The amnesiac protagonist is a blank slate—who happens to have the default unmarked identity of a straight, white male—trying to figure out who he is. But he never really does and neither do we. Instead, the novel gives us a paradoxical refrain that seems to connect his code names with the names of his targets: “Caine is for Charlie and Delta is for Caine.” This odd phrase doesn’t make sense, though—is the character “for” as in substituting for or as in created for? “Spy,” whether it functions as a noun or a verb, comes to invoke metafictional questions about the visibility and identification of characters: Whom are we as readers asked to slip into and why? How “blank” or “recognizable” should characters be? This page-turner suggests the fascinating possibility that character—and perhaps identity itself—might be a matter of interchangeability.
Maybe I’m overreading—this is congenital for me, I admit. But it seems to me that even on their own terms, these genre fictions explore a set of formal questions that take us beyond the usual truisms about the satisfactions of “psychology,” “emotion,” and “the human condition” in literary fiction—which comes more and more to look like just another genre. So what happens if we take this truth to be self-evident: that all genres are created equal? I believe each genre offers its own specific value and way to think through literature, by which I mean both to think about literature and to use literature to think. My own fiction writing has become increasingly informed by this sensibility. My debut novel, The Old Drift (Hogarth 2019) embraces “low” genres even as it ironizes them. Regardless of how my publishers and reviewers see it, for me, genre is a lens—a mode of seeing the world—not a label.
I adore those contemporary fictions, like Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, that sing genre with their whole chests, that don’t pull punches or bleed it of its fun, color, and momentum, and respect it enough to engage with it. I read two books this year that fit this description. Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties reimagines fairy tales and surrealism, and one of its standout stories, “Especially Heinous,” is a set of evolving synopses of episodes of Law and Order: SVU, a genre show if ever there was one. I love the unaccountable weirdness of that story—the girls with bells for eyes, the ubiquitous dun dun—and how it imitates the longueur of watching crime shows: the running jokes, the strange entanglement of voyeurism and misogyny in “hate-watching,” and that thrumming desire for release, however implausible.
After a casual exchange with Victor LaValle on Twitter about the creepy eugenical subtext of one of the animated movies I love-hate, The Incredibles, I plucked his novel The Changeling from the middle of my stack and opened it. Twelve hours later, I closed it, cheeks streaked with tears, throat sore from laughter. A beautiful, moving Gothic/fantasy/fairy tale, The Changeling is a masterful novel that doesn’t try to smooth away any of the dark, rough edges of its genres. It doesn’t shy from realism either, though—as when it literalizes the internet “troll” as a pale gross dude who sits in front of screens and gets paid for webcam views. This is clearly dragging fantasy and its fans, but LaValle has mad love for the genre, too. His novel The Ballad of Black Tom is essentially a love-hate letter to the virulently racist H.P. Lovecraft. It’s next on my list, along with a growing set of recent Afro-fantasy novels. Pettiness is not just a trifling game, it can be immensely generative. After all, we pay close attention to what we “haterate,” and sometimes that attention can yield glorious acts of creation.
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Vladimir Nabokov recently did it. So did Ralph Ellison, Roberto Bolaño, David Foster Wallace, and Stieg Larsson. Now an immortal god of noir fiction, James M. Cain, has done it too – published a novel from the grave, a move that’s sure to delight Cain’s fans while dismaying those who feel that the publishing world should have the decency to let dead authors rest in peace.
Cain’s lost last novel is called The Cocktail Waitress. Like two of his early masterpieces, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, it tells the story of a sexy young woman, Joan Medford, who’s caught in a vise between a prosperous older man and a younger, more desirable, more dangerous one. Since this is a James M. Cain novel, you know there will be lust and there will be blood and things will not turn out well for either of these guys. Same goes for Joan Medford’s first husband, who is already dead when the book opens.
There are stories behind this book’s classic noir story. One is the story of its author, once famous but nearly forgotten late in life, still sweating out the words as his health fails and death closes in. Another is the story of the manuscript – or, more accurately, the manuscripts – the last things Cain produced, which never got published, then got lost for 35 years, then got found. Luckily – or unluckily, depending on your bias – the manuscripts got found by a dedicated Cain fan who also happens to be an accomplished writer and editor. And he was willing to take on the daunting task of sorting out and polishing the chaotic manuscripts, then bringing the finished book to light.
The story of the publication of The Cocktail Waitress began to unfold at the corner of Broadway and 112th Street in New York City on a fall day in 1987, when Charles Ardai, a bookish freshman English major at nearby Columbia University, was walking past a table of used books. The title of a slim volume caught his eye: Double Indemnity. He had never heard of its author, James M. Cain, but he was about to become a hopeless junkie.
“I read it in one gulp and needed more,” says Ardai (pronounced ARE-die), now 42. “I found Cain’s bleak worldview shockingly sympathetic. His world was brutal, unfair, unjust. As the son of two Holocaust survivors, you learn that the world is an uncaring place. It’s indifferent to your suffering.”
Ardai, who had started selling articles about video games while still in high school, sold his first short story, “The Long Day,” to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine for $250 while he was at Columbia. He was specializing in the British romantic poets at the time and embarking on a program to read every word James M. Cain ever published.
After graduation, Ardai put his writing ambitions on hold and went to work for a finance/tech company called the D. E. Shaw Group, where he worked on the early free e-mail service, Juno. Down the hall a co-worker named Jeff Bezos was putting together the concept for an online bookselling service he would eventually call Amazon.
One day Ardai and another co-worker, the graphic designer/novelist Max Phillips, were having a drink and chatting about their shared love for Cain and his pulp peers, the writers of fast-paced, blood-drenched tales that used to appear between colorful paperback covers featuring slinky women wielding a knife or a gun – or a nice dependable baseball bat. The two friends lamented the fact that the genre was in a state of eclipse, and many of the form’s masters were either dead or getting there quick.
“There’s a body on page one,” Ardai says, ticking off pulp fiction’s irresistible appeals. “The cover art is classical realism with a heightened sense of sexuality and menace. The stories are heart-stopping, a wonderful blend of high and low culture. Max and I asked ourselves: Why doesn’t anyone produce books like that anymore?”
They decided to do it themselves. Phillips did some mock-ups of cover art, and three years later he and Ardai launched a new line, a blend of reprints and paperback originals called Hard Case Crime. Their first book, Grifter’s Game by Lawrence Block, has been followed by more than 70 others by such writers as Mickey Spillane, Ed McBain, Donald E. Westlake, Madison Smartt Bell, David Goodis, and Ardai, writing under his own name and the pen name Richard Aleas. Some of the titles will stop your heart, such as Blood on the Mink, The Vengeful Virgin, and The Corpse Wore Pasties. Stephen King’s The Colorado Kid has been Hard Case Crime’s best-selling title by far, and it became the basis for the TV series Haven, now in its third season on the SyFy channel, for which Ardai has served as consulting producer and occasional scriptwriter.
Which brings us back to James M. Cain.
In 2002, while Hard Case Crime was still in the larval phase, Ardai was exchanging e-mails with Max Allan Collins, a prolific crime writer and dedicated student of the genre. While discussing possible authors for the series, they discovered they shared a passion for Cain’s work. This put them in good company. André Gide and Jean-Paul Sartre were also admirers of Cain’s stripped-down prose and bleak worldview. So was Albert Camus, who said he used Postman as a model for The Stranger.
Ardai thought he’d read every word Cain ever wrote, but Collins mentioned a book Ardai had never heard of, one that Cain had noted in an interview shortly before his death in 1977, a book that was sketchily summarized in Roy Hoopes’s 1987 biography of Cain. The book, Collins told Ardai, was called The Cocktail Waitress.
Ardai then embarked on an odyssey that would last nearly a decade. He started digging for the missing manuscript, contacting Otto Penzler, the founder of Mysterious Press, as well as academics, the Cain estate, book collectors, fellow writers. No one knew a thing. Then serendipity intervened. Ardai’s agent, Joel Gotler, inherited the business of an old-school Hollywood agent named H.N. Swanson, who had died in 1991 at the age of 91. Swanson once represented many famous writers, including William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, and, as it happened, James M. Cain.
“I asked Joel to look into Swanson’s files,” Ardai said, “and a week later an envelope showed up in the mail. It was a photocopy of The Cocktail Waitress manuscript.”
Ardai then learned that there were Cain papers in the Library of Congress, and he promptly took a train to Washington and made a heart-stopping discovery worthy of a pulp novel: more than 100 boxes of papers from all stages of Cain’s life, including other completed versions of The Cocktail Waitress, along with partial manuscripts and fragments of the novel, notes Cain wrote to himself, lists of possible names for characters, alternative titles, different versions of key scenes.
“It was like a moment out of Indiana Jones – prying the lid off the sarcophagus, blowing off the dust,” Ardai says. “It was breathtaking. I was thrilled. To find new words from an author you thought would never speak again – it was magical.”
Ardai spent three months sifting through the drafts and notes, cutting, stitching, smoothing. If anything, he had too much material to sift through. Here’s how he describes the arduous editing process in the Afterword to the published book:
Not only did Cain try out multiple variations of key scenes, he went back and forth with regard to his choices…. All of this leaves an editor in a somewhat odd position of having to choose the version of each scene – where there are multiples – that works best in and of itself and also fits best into the overall architecture of the plot. And that means deciding what pieces to leave out, a painful set of decisions. Editing the book was difficult for other reasons as well. Some lines and paragraphs needed to be excised or altered for consistency…or for pacing and focus…. On the other hand, a few excellent scenes Cain wrote in his first draft inexplicably didn’t make it into later drafts and I took the opportunity to fit them back in…
I gave particular care to the sections Cain worked over the most himself, aided by the notes he left behind, which ranged from details of setting…to chapter-by-chapter breakdowns of events and motivations…and notes on atmosphere…. It almost felt – almost – like having Cain sitting there with me at the keyboard, watching over my shoulder, keeping me on the straight and narrow.
And now we arrive at an unarguable conclusion and a delicate question. The conclusion is this: While The Cocktail Waitress has its virtues – most notably the unease Joan Medford stirs in the reader, the way it’s impossible to know if she’s a repeat killer – the book simply is not in a class with Cain’s three early masterpieces, Postman, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce. Despite Ardai’s deft job of editing a messy mass of material, the book tends to lose its sharpness from time to time. You’ll cringe every time Joan Medford says “lo and behold.” For me, the setting in a bland Maryland suburb gives the proceedings a fatally tepid feel, the opposite of the smoldering dread and doom that bled through the California sunshine in Cain’s dark early masterpieces.
Ardai disagrees, sort of. “Some writers peak early and their powers wane,” he says. “Cain tried screenwriting in Hollywood and was a failure. He moved back to his native Maryland, and he hated it. He tried to write a novel set during the Civil War, and it failed. He tried to get labor unions and politics into his fiction. He seemed to have a desire to deal with Big Issues, and he just wasn’t good at it. It was almost like he was embarrassed by what he was good at – depicting individuals whose lives are coming apart. With The Cocktail Waitress he was trying to get back to the kind of story that he was known for and that he did best – brutal stories about desperate people in dire circumstances doing terrible things.”
The delicate question is this: Shouldn’t books that went unpublished in a writer’s lifetime, for whatever reason, remain unpublished after the writer’s death – especially if the writer expresses the wish that they not see print?
“If an author expressly asks that a book not be published, I would respect that,” Ardai says, quickly adding that he believes there are exceptions even to this rule. He cites the case of Franz Kafka, who ordered his friend and biographer, Max Brod, to destroy his unpublished manuscripts after his death. Brod ignored the request, and we now have him to thank for three enduring classics, The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika.
Ardai also cites the more recent case of Vladimir Nabokov, who ordered his family to burn the manuscript of his final, unpublished novel after his death. The “manuscript” consisted of 138 index cards, in no discernible order. Nabokov’s son and literary executor, Dmitri, kept the cards in a bank vault, occasionally showing them to scholars after his father died in 1977. Finally, in 2009, Dmitri contravened his father’s wishes and published The Original of Laura (A Novel in Fragments). “In fact,” David Gates wrote in the New York Times, “it’s simply fragments of a novel.” Even so, Ardai believes that Max Brod and Dmitri Nabokov did the right thing.”If it’s a cultural treasure – a book by a Kafka or a Nabokov – I would make an exception,” he says. And while he doesn’t claim that Cain is in Kafka’s and Nabokov’s league, he makes no apologies for bringing The Cocktail Waitress into the world.
“I don’t think it’s a classic,” he says, “but I definitely think there are things in it that are exceptional. I’m proud to publish it because of the exceptional parts and because of its historical value. You publish it not to cash in, but because major writers deserve to have their entire catalog available not just to scholars, but to readers. And it’s a good read.”
No argument there. It falls short of Cain’s best work – most books do – but Charles Ardai has done us all a service by unearthing it, lovingly shaping it, and sending it out into the world.
Image Credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]
In 1989, Welsh journalist John Williams crossed the Atlantic. Operating on the theory that crime writers were the best chroniclers of American society, Williams hoped to pinpoint the connections between the real clime and fictional crime. So he talked with the writers.
Williams found out that James Lee Burke’s novels had emerged, in part, because of his love for Louisiana music. Gar Haywood spent his twenties latching onto science fiction’s escapist hatches before confronting the open doors of South Central’s ravaged reality. In 2005, returning for another transcontinental spree of conversational investigations, Williams learned that Vicki Hendricks had used her bodybuilding and scuba diving experience for Ramona Romano, the tough-as-nails Miami nurse in Iguana Love. He also discovered why Daniel Woodrell’s settings were so authentic. “I don’t want to live on the Upper West Side or something,” said Woodrell to Williams. “There is something here for me…I’m just one generation from illiteracy.”
These experiences – originally published as Into the Badlands and later rewritten as Back to the Badlands – helped confirm Williams’s hypothesis. Crime fiction was indeed drawing from vivid personal experience, sometimes working territory that other practitioners wouldn’t touch. But Williams still didn’t ken why the gatekeepers routinely ignored these faithful annalists.
In recent years, crime fiction hasn’t faced the histrionic threat of a Meghan Cox Gurdon declaring that YA books “focusing on pathologies help normalize them,” but it has faced crusty, post-crest condescension from The New Yorker’s Joan Acocella. Yet even Acocella, in her reductionist view of Blomkvist as “anti-masculinist,” had to concede that Stieg Larsson “may have had a weakness for extraneous detail, but at the same time, paradoxically, he is a very good storyteller.”
There’s no paradox about it. There are, in fact, two crime novels on the 1998 Modern Library list of the 20th century’s top 100 novels: James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Even John Banville, who has written many crime novels as Benjamin Black, has called Georges Simenon and Richard Stark (the name with which Donald E. Westlake wrote his remarkable Parker novels) “two of the greatest writers of the 20th century.” Crime fiction is bona-fide literature. Why such reluctance to qualify it further?
Perhaps this failure to encourage the rising crop comes from recent developments in the field, especially those involving women writers. On May 14, 1990, two Newsweek writers had this to say of the mystery landscape: “Call her Samantha Spade or Philipa Marlowe and she would deck you. A tough new breed of detective is reforming the American mystery novel: smart, self-sufficient, principled, stubborn, funny – and female.” While women had been creating such crackling heroines well before 1990 (see Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, and others), these gains had been somewhat swift.
Megan Abbott, the author of five striking novels, isn’t merely a natural response to this increasingly progressive atmosphere. While her quintet can be found in the mystery section, and while she has won a well-deserved Edgar Award for a highly entertaining pulp tale of a take-no-shit woman clambering into the casino underworld (Queenpin), Abbott’s novels are distinguished by rhythmic prose, historical settings (in sequential order: 1954, 1949, 1950s, 1931, and the 1980s, with The Song is You and Bury Me Deep taking inspiration from real criminal cases), and a candor about the way people live that isn’t often found in today’s well-groomed posterboys.
Abbott’s protagonists are not professional investigators. The character who comes closest to a true-blue boy in blue is Bill King, a junior investigator in Abbott’s debut novel, Die a Little, who is the brother to Lora, a schoolteacher in 1954 Hollywood concerned about the new woman that Bill has married. In fact, detectives tend to show up in Abbott’s novels at the last possible minute, long after the reader has been presented with some version, often subjective, of the facts. And with the long arm of the law tied behind the world’s back (and very often corrupted), this gives Abbott the focus and the restraint to contort her universe.
Abbott’s sentences are frequently stacked with a stylish repetition telegraphing the schism within action. In The End of Everything, told through Lizzie Hood, a thirteen-year-old girl who has seen her best friend disappear, Abbott writes, “And I thought of Bobby in the front seat of his parents’ cars, his forest green varsity jacket with the chenille C. I thought of him hunched there, gazing up at Dusty’s bedroom window, its frothy curtains, Dusty’s frothy girlness.” Aside from the striking imagery (especially the lovely “chenille C”), we see how the phrase “I thought of” generates two discrete moments: Bobby’s visual image in the first sentence and an effort to affix longing that reverts back to another visual image leading to Dusty. And when the prose reverts from the feeling to the object, Abbott repeats the word “frothy,” suggesting that Lizzie’s thoughts will return to this same visual/emotional cycle.
But her prose is also quite chewy. There is a grab-them-by-the-lapels quality to some sentences which demonstrates why melodrama is sometimes the best method to send a message. Consider this moment from Bury Me Deep, my favorite of the five: “This is what the man with the Adam’s apple thick-knotted in his long neck was singing in Ginny’s ear, plucking at a banjo.” This is told from the perspective of Marion Seeley (based on Winnie Ruth Judd), a woman who ends up in a heap of trouble while estranged from her husband, shirking his duties as doctor and husband by fleeing to Mazatlán. This sentence’s beauty comes from the way it undercuts an intense Adam’s apple twice: both in describing the man with some hyperbole (“thick-knotted in his long neck”) and by appending the phrase “plucking at a banjo.” But it also hints at the horrors ahead.
An author’s understanding of the human condition (to say nothing of how far she is willing to go) is often revealed through the manner in which they write about sex. John Updike, of course, was fond of external sexual imagery. Lionel Shriver’s greatly underrated novel, The Post-Birthday World, succeeds in part because of its attentive detail to sexual position and how it often determines status. But with Abbott, when sex isn’t used for diabolical ends (this is a dark world; so it does), it is often something that is either observed or confessed. And this quality permits the reader to become implicit in the way certain characters judge others. In The Song is You, Abbott has Barbara Payton reveal she’s “such a dumb cluck” just before describing a sexual episode to impress her listeners: “So he backs me into the tub and fucks me for five minutes, my head hitting the faucet over and over again like a freaking knockout bell.” This fictive directness from a real-life public figure is clearly descended from James Ellroy, but, in Abbott’s hands, the anecdote itself carries an odd humorous quality that generates an additional question: why is this the story Payton’s using to impress? In The End of Everything, Abbott employs voyeurism during one moment when Lizzie observes her mother having sex with her new partner, Dr. Aiken (like Bury Me Deep, another doctor as partner): “I want him to turn around, to face her. I want him to look at her.” That Lizzie issues this judgment when neither her mother nor her lovers can see her suggests a certain lack of self-reflection.
Stewart O’Nan (Songs for the Missing), Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones), and Michelle Richmond (The Year of Fog) have been called “literary” for their missing girl novels. Why not Abbott’s The End of Everything? Abbott’s ability to tap into tangible teenage experience is equal to O’Nan’s, especially when describing the “body-closeness” of girl get-togethers (“I’d look at my own left thigh and wonder where the white curl went, the scar like a half-moon, a nail dug deep, from falling off Dusty’s Schwinn in second grade.”), detailing a folded-paper game called FLAME, and providing glimpses into “the teen-boy world” (“a world of sweat socks and thumping bass and torn-out magazine photos of bulbous tan breasts and white rabbity teeth and yellow flossy hair”) that elicit an unflinching image of comparative innocence.
Where Sebold and Richmond have compromised their talents by settling for, respectively, sappy late-stage farewells between a dead ghost and her boyfriend and a hypnotist helping a mother to extract abstract details about her daughter’s disappearance, Abbott is too smart a novelist to fumble with bald attempts to play to the bleachers. If Bury Me Deep demonstrates how malicious forces can push a lonely soul into a deepening abyss, The End of Everything examines how tampering with memory and maintaining a quiet solipsism can flick you into the same pit of despair. Abbott’s most recent novel shows a greater willingness than Sebold and Richmond to bury hypocrisies and prevarications within the text. Late in the book, we encounter a bloody incident mimicked in a manner suggesting that Lizzie’s memory is far from fallible. Instead of pursuing neat resolution, Abbott ponders the untidiness of all seemingly “neat” endings. In the end, Lizzie confesses that memories are “self-spun, radiant fictions” – a remarkable statement from a thirteen-year-old girl that you certainly wouldn’t expect from Alice Sebold’s Susie Salmon. If such finesse can’t also be called “literary,” it’s outright criminal.
When it comes to terse, morally ambivalent novels about sexually compromised men and bullfighting, I pick James M. Cain’s Serenade any day of the week over Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Sure, Hemingway’s novel’s got its beauties, but there’s a humorlessness about Hemingway, a feeling of high seriousness–in The Sun Also Rises, especially–that’s a little off-putting, a little ridiculous. Cain, on the other hand, even though his work’s very much in the tragic line, still has a taste for comic details (He describes a whorehouse in Guatemala City with cans of vegetables stacked behind the bar: “When a guy in Guatemala really wants to show the girls a good time, he blows them to canned asparagus.”) Somehow these comic touches make the tragedy hit you that much harder.
And I’m not the only one who thinks Cain’s the crack-shot of the masculinist/Noir/laconic/hard-boiled set of early twentieth-century American writers: “Nobody has pulled it off the way Cain does, not Hemingway, not even Raymond Chandler,” wrote Tom Wolfe. And yet Cain’s not half so well-known as his peers—maybe because his two most famous novels, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, became two even more famous Noir films—films so famous perhaps that they all but eclipsed their literary origins. Also, it was Raymond Chandler who adapted Cain’s novel for the film version of Double Indemnity—so there may be some legitimate confusion about where Cain ends and Chandler begins.
But the point here is Cain’s Serenade, which is, like The Sun Also Rises, a novel about an exiled American whose sexuality’s in a bad way. Cain’s American exile, John Henry Sharp, is a once-great opera singer whose voice has dried up mysteriously, though he’s still in his prime. The mystery of what happened to Sharp’s voice is tied up with sex, but I leave the specifics out, since the book’s better if you don’t know ahead of time. Sharp’s been relegated to the opera in Mexico City—where supposedly even washed up singers can get along alright. Except that what’s left of Sharp’s voice isn’t even good enough for the Mexicans and he’s had to quit that as well. When you meet him, he’s down to his last three pesos and he’s just seen a woman he can’t stop looking at–the woman, it goes without saying, who’s going to mean big trouble for him:
I was in the Tumpinamba, having a bizcocho and coffee, when this girl came in. Everything about her said Indian, from the maroon rebozo to the black dress with the purple flowers on it, to the swaying way she walked, that no woman ever got without carrying pots, bundles, and baskets on her head from the time she could crawl. But she wasn’t any of the colors that Indians come in. She was almost white, with just the least dip of café con leche. Her shape was Indian, but not ugly. Most Indian women have a rope of muscle over their hips that give them a high-waisted, mis-shapen look, thin, bunchy legs, and too much breast-works. She had plenty in that line, but her hips were round and her legs had a soft line to them…All that I only half-saw. What I noticed was her face.
Maybe it’s just that I’m a sucker for Cain’s hit-the-ground-running Noir story-telling–talk as straight and sharp as a machete blade and twice as likely to leave you sore, since Noir heroes’ stories never end well. Cain, by his own account “shuddered at the least hint of the highfalutin, the pompous, or the literary” and true to his word, there’s none in Serenade. Yet, for my money, Cain’s writing is a far more satisfying and impressive literary experience than much of the self-consciously “literary” and “poetic” and “lyrical” stuff that passes for fiction nowadays. It also has a real, artfully designed plot—something that contemporary “literary” authors apparently find vulgar—and this plot rip-roars along with astonishing agility and speed. You also don’t know where’s it’s going, how’s it’s going to end (other than pretty badly—it’s a Noir novel, after all), and that uncertainty about what might be coming round the next page is exhilarating too.
There’s also something breathtaking about Cain’s hero/narrator’s unabashed frankness about sex and race (“Yes, it was rape, but only technical, brother, only technical.”), something that makes you realize how constricted the parameters of our cultural discussions about sex and race have become, and our books and movies about them—how timid and polite we’ve all become. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t have a hankering for hate-speech or stereotypes, nor do I want to return to the good ol’ pre-civil rights, -women’s rights, -gay rights days—shiver me timbers, no. But I do sometimes feel—especially in the middle of a ripping Noir crime novel that’s tossing off generalizations about women, nationalities, cops, and pretty much any group you can think of like handfuls of confetti—that we’ve all become so nervous about being offensive and our sensitivity to offense is so heightened that we’d all just rather not talk about sex and race in any real way, certainly not explore the murkier side of things. (Manohla Dargis recently wondered why we don’t make movies like Last Tango In Paris anymore in “The Closing of the American Erotic“; Katie Roiphe, in “The Naked and the Conflicted,,” why the sex in contemporary literature is so tepid—this would be why: we’re fucking terrified. I know I am.)
But Cain wasn’t terrified. The murkier side of things is where Cain’s novel pitches it tent—where it begins, middles, and ends. And, really, Cain, for all his name implies, and for all of his hero’s deliciously off-color opinions and confidence in his own perceptions, tells in Serenade, a story about how utterly, even tragically, wrong most of these opinions turn out to be. Juana Montes, the girl in the maroon rebozo, whom Sharp first takes to be “a little dumb muchacha,” is a lot sharper and stronger than Sharp knows; She sees him a lot better than he sees her, for all of his keen, meticulous descriptions of her body, her country, her people. The tragedy of the Noir hero is always some version of this: He sees so much, narrates and describes what he sees so meticulously, beautifully, and yet fails to see the destruction that awaits him. This blindness is the mark of Oedipus, the original tragic hero and the Noir hero’s earliest ancestor.
Cain wrote of his work: “I, so far as I can sense the pattern of my mind, write of the wish that comes true, for some reason a terrifying concept, at least to my imagination…I think my stories have some quality of the opening of the forbidden box, and that it is this, rather than violence, sex, or any of the things usually cited by way of explanation, that gives them the drive so often noted. Their appeal is first to the mind, and the reader is carried along as much by his own realization that the characters cannot have this particular wish and survive, and his curiosity to see what happens to them, as by the effect on him of incident, dialogue, or character.” What he describes sounds an awful lot like Greek tragedy—and this is the feeling you have throughout a Cain novel, a Noir novel or film: the inexorable movement towards disaster—that begins in Serenade as soon as John Howard Sharp lays eyes on Juana Montes. (But the novel and it’s tragedy isn’t just about sex, it’s very much about art, namely singing opera, and in this it shares with Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan the idea that the art sometimes destroys the artist.)
These days, novels and people seem to have lost their sense of fate and destiny (Tana French is something of an exception—she’s doing a beautiful sort of brogue-Noir right now). Fatalism is out of fashion—and it’s infantile world-view, I’m often told when I defend it—but it does make for a damn good story.
In the Chicago Tribune review of Jonathan Dee’s third novel, The Liberty Campaign, Andy Solomon wagered that “if any under-40 writer will produce The Great American Novel, it will most probably be Dee.” Dee is a former senior editor at The Paris Review, and his literary criticism just earned Harper’s a nomination for a National Magazine Award. His fifth and most recent novel, The Privileges, was published in January and only brings Dee closer to fulfilling Solomon’s prediction. James Wood called The Privileges “a clever, taught, cynically angry book about a couple with no moral tether,” and went on to say that the novel “knows exactly how to fill out its limits: well-chosen food on small plates.” Roxana Robinson echoed Woods’s praise in her New York Times review, where she said, “Dee’s writing is so full of elegance, vitality and complexity that I’m happy to entertain any notion he comes up with.”
Last week, on one of the first springlike days in New York, Jonathan Dee met with me in the recesses of Edgar’s cafe, located off the honorarily named Edgar Allan Poe Street on the Upper West Side, where Poe resided when he completed “The Raven.” We talked at length about The Privileges, as well as withholding judgment while writing, his move away from classic American morality tales regarding money, originality, and lessons learned from his time at The Paris Review.
The Millions: The Privileges begins with the marriage of Cynthia and Adam Morey, who are 22-year-old college graduates from middle class families. They’re the ideal couple who meet sophomore year and who, we assume, are engaged to be married by their senior year in college. After college, they move to New York and get married. Cynthia and Adam share a common ambition–a desire to accumulate wealth–and also an unshakeable love. What compelled you to write a novel about these characters who seemingly have everything by American standards–ambition, love, beauty, and increasing wealth as times goes on?
Jonathan Dee: At the point the book opens, they have no wealth at all. I don’t think of it as a book about rich people, really, because, to me, who Adam is makes him money. Money doesn’t make Adam who he is. In college you probably knew one or more than one of these charmed couples–people who really just seemed socially, and charismatically, and in terms of how they looked, to have it all. But not only that. The ambition that they really share at that point is to leave their own families behind, to leave their own pasts behind, and that’s an impulse that never abandons them through the twenty years of the book.
They are in a hurry in a lot of ways. They are in a hurry to succeed, but at least as important to me is that they are in a hurry to start again. They think of themselves as year zero in their own lives. As the book goes forward, they become interested to the point of sentimentality in the idea of what comes after them, but they never lose their lack of interest in what came before them and how that made them who they are.
TM: The book is concerned with the reinvention of self. Cynthia and Adam move to New York in order to forge a better future for themselves. The Privileges is also a very American tale, in the sense that they’re thinking of how to recreate themselves, how to fulfill their desires, and how to provide for their children. And also in the sense that there’s an endless reservoir of hope for a prosperous future. The pursuit of happiness is something that they pursue at all costs–it’s almost hypertrophic by the end of the novel. Are the Moreys the embodiment of the American Dream? And also, where does the American Dream fall short?
JD: When I was writing it, I wanted to be extra-careful, and this was based in part on my own reading of my earlier books. It can be a kind of trap to fall into–if you conceive of the characters as symbolic of anything, I think that has a real deadening effect. Any time I caught myself thinking of Adam and Cynthia as symbolic of anything other than Adam and Cynthia, I would mentally slap myself in the face. I really wanted that to build strictly from the inside out. So it’s true that I do think of them as having some peculiarly American characteristics, among them the attitude toward the past that I mentioned. It’s not so much that they lose their sense of hope about the future, and it’s not true, either, that they feel entitled. It’s just simply that they have a great deal of faith in themselves.
They have an enormous faith in themselves, their love for each other strengthens that faith, and in fact, they’re not wrong. The events bear that out, maybe not in the way that they would have originally imagined, but their life bears out their belief in their own sense of destiny. It’s tricky for me to start talking about them as being particularly American because the more I go in that direction, the further I get from the direction I wanted to go, which is to make these two people as credibly idiosyncratic as I possibly could.
TM: I wanted to ask you about the complexity of the characters. If the characters were entirely symbolic, it would be difficult to have empathy for them, as it would if the narrative didn’t get inside their heads.
I was reading your Harper’s essay, “Ready-Made Rebellion” about the empty tropes of contemporary fiction, and you quote Milan Kundera, who says that the novel “is a realm where moral judgment is suspended.” You go further to say that an author does this by complicating morality and providing multiple judgments and multiple viewpoints within the novel. I think you succeed doing that in The Privileges. The characters are complex, like in the way Adam justifies his insider trading in order to provide for his family and to make Cynthia happy. In terms of The Privileges, the moral judgment is suspended to the point that at the end the Moreys are still thriving. We, as readers, know what comes afterward, in economic terms. I don’t know if you intended that, but we also see their recklessness with the pursuit of wealth and desires. But we don’t see any negative consequences of their actions. Why is that? Do you think the novel speaks for itself? Or do you see it as more of a family drama?
JD: There’s a few questions in there. First of all, yeah, I was very conscious of the facts as Kundera says, it’s the writer’s job to frustrate or subvert any reader’s natural inclination to judge. That certainly is in play when you’re writing about characters like this. Ninety-nine percent of people, and probably a higher percentage of readers, have it in, in general, for characters like this, and feel when they read about people like this, “Oh, I know how I feel about them, I know what they’re like.” So, I was very much interested in making them hard to pass judgment on, at least until the book was shut, and possibly past that.
As far as their not getting punished, I can’t say I knew that from the very beginning. When I was in the making-notes-on-napkins stage of the novel, there were certainly ideas I had about Adam being brought low in different ways. But I realized pretty quickly that novels are not fables, and to make the story of Adam and Cynthia into that kind of morality play where people would be satisfied by seeing them brought low–I just feel like I can be as judgmental as anyone else in real life, but the idea of inventing fictional figures in order to then demonstrate my own superiority to them and to share that sense of superiority with the reader, and to take pleasure in watching them be punished for their arrogance, for their greed, for their fill in the blank, it just seems like a really empty exercise. So then the question became, OK, if the story of how these people move through the world is not about that, then what’s it about? I became interested in the same question that essentially Adam and Cynthia become interested in, which is, How will we have changed the world by moving through it?
They don’t have a great spiritual life. Adam’s own philosophy, if you can call it that, is very much founded on, this is the only life and you have to maximize it–you’re not going to pass this way again. So they become very interested in the kind of legacy they leave, and I became very interested in it, too, but in a different way. The legacy they leave behind is hopefully borne out through the portraits of their children rather than through the kind of plot mechanics that would result in Adam going to jail and Cynthia having her money taken away. Does that makes sense?
TM: It definitely makes sense. In some ways I read the novel as more of a family drama, about a privileged family.
JD: Yeah, definitely.
TM: They encounter the same issues that other people do, but they have a larger playing field because of their money. Also, when I think of money and class in the American novel, like in The Great Gatsby or The House of Mirth, money traditionally holds out something–it represents an empty desire or in some way causes the characters’ downfall. I thought it was an interesting choice to move away from that.
JD: To say that the desires that are sparked by wealth turn out to be empty–there’s a whole set of presumptions behind that, obviously, that are not presumptions these characters would share, so what’s the point? I mean, they do live very much in another realm, certainly another moral realm. What’s the point of dragging them forcefully onto your turf so that you can then punish them according to those terms, you know?
One book that I had in mind, as odd as it might seem, when I was writing this was The Postman Always Rings Twice. Have you read that?
TM: I haven’t.
JD: It’s a magnificent book, an underrated book, underrated by the fact that it had a famous movie made from it. But, very much a novel about two people who are epically in love and that love generates its own morality. It generates its own spirituality, and makes them into outlaws, but in a way that you never lose your sense of recognition about where it’s all coming from. You never lose your sense of the rigidity of that system even though that system diverges more and more from the rest of the world. That’s a first-person book, so in that respect it’s easier to create the sense of being more or less imprisoned within the moral system of the characters. That’s a book I really admired.
TM: That’s interesting—creating a morality system within your own realm, within your own love—because that’s very much something that Adam and Cynthia do. In a sense that’s all they have. They’ve cut their ties to the past, and in doing so they’ve lost their sense of heritage and tradition. Even their wedding ceremony is a hodgepodge of readings. Their daughter April is distressed to learn that her name has no significance within the family and that her parents’ knowledge of their ancestry is really unspecific. They don’t revisit the same vacation spots until Adam has business reasons to do so, and so it seems that a sense of novelty is very important to them, as is recreating themselves. Their gains are more tangible than their losses, and so I’m wondering, is anything lost in this? What do they lose?
JD: That’s a good question. Adam is very obsessed with his physical condition, which is explicitly a way of being obsessed with time and of doing battle with time. And even though you don’t really see him lose that battle, you pretty much know that after the book is over that battle will be lost for him, just like it is with everybody else. Cynthia is conscious of that, too. One of the things that characterize both of them very early for me is the idea that they were never where they wanted to be, in terms of time. When they were young they were in a hurry to get older, and as they become older they would try whatever trickery they could employ to either look or to actually feel younger.
The losses are small, and I wouldn’t want to overstate them because that seems to me like gaming your own system in a way–to try to balance out their gains with losses–because that’s not how they live. Cynthia’s relationship with her daughter–that’s a loss. At the point where the novel ends that’s pretty much shot, and to me it’s shot as an outgrowth of wanting to be her daughter’s peer when she was younger.
TM: I’m wondering, has the economic climate altered reception of the book?
JD: Oh, for sure. Actually, before I answer that I just remembered I didn’t answer something that you said earlier about the timing of the book, in terms of what happens after the last scene, in terms of current events. It’s really the opposite for me. I had the opportunity to write anything like that into the book that I wanted to and I really did just the opposite. I took as many explicit time markers as I could out of it. Inevitably, some are still in there, there are cell phones and whatnot. But my feeling is that there were guys like Adam a hundred years ago, there will be guys like Adam a hundred years from now–it’s not really tied to current events. He is a recurring phenomenon, a kind of eternal American phenomenon. He’s not a product of his times in any way. I just answered the question you didn’t ask. What was the question you asked again?
TM: About the reception of the book. I find it’s difficult not to read the current circumstances into the book.
JD: It cuts both ways. On the one hand, there’s certainly a lot of reader interest and a lot of critical interest in characters from that world–an interest that wouldn’t have been there maybe two or three years ago. But on the other hand, like I was saying before, what’s at the bottom of that interest is a desire to see these people brought low, a desire to see them explicitly punished. When that doesn’t happen, people find that frustrating. There’s a lot of reception I’ve seen that’s along the order of, “While it is brave of Dee not to tar and feather these characters and have them publicly hanged, one wonders, if he’s not going to do that, why write about them at all?” I get that, but like I said, it was too easy to spend years doing.
TM: Changing the ending would change the perspective. Instead of the novel being a portrait of this family, the focus would become the moral component brought into it.
JD: It would be more like a portrait of the audience.
TM: I was wondering why you chose to use a close third person narrator who moves between characters, instead of sticking with one character, or just Cynthia and Adam. April and Jonas come into it more as the novel progresses.
JD: I really enjoyed doing that opening chapter of the book, in which, as you say, sometimes the perspectives change mid-paragraph. But I didn’t think that could possibly be sustained for the whole book. There were certainly drafts of the book that had other sections from other perspectives that weren’t the family’s and I ended up getting rid of them because I liked the idea of the book being built on these four pillars. There’s one scene in the book that violates that rule, but otherwise it’s just the four corners of the castle, and they’re looking out at the world, always with their backs to each other. I thought that seemed like an appropriate model for the book.
It goes back to the question of how to forestall a judgment. It’s definitely a closer third person than I’ve ever done before because you can’t for an instant let that kind of critical gap open between yourself and the character, the sense that the character is doing something that you wouldn’t approve of, or that you wouldn’t do. There has to be no seam there at all, because once that air of keeping them at arm’s length or passing judgment on them sneaks in, it’s very toxic. So, yeah, I tried to, even though it was third person, to do it from the inside out. I could’ve done four different first-persons, but that’s very messy. There are all kinds of reasons I don’t like that.
TM: On a broader scale, your novels often deal with American enterprise–here it’s Adam working at a private equities firm. Palladio and The Liberty Campaign both deal with advertising. Your approach is realist and character-driven in novels that consider larger issues in society, business, status, and culture. In a sense it almost seems like a throwback to a more traditional American novel, and I mean this in a good way. There was a reviewer of the Liberty Campaign who at the time said if any under-40 writer could write the Great American Novel, it would be you. I’m wondering, in that sense, who do you see as your literary forebears? And what do you think of contemporary fiction–which is a very broad question, but answer it as you see fit.
JD: If there’s something traditional, or of a throwback nature, that’s in spite of myself. It doesn’t have to do with what I particularly value in literature, it just seems to be what I can do. When ideas come to me, they seem to be founded on certain types of work, and I don’t know why that is. I sort of wish it weren’t always that way, but it kind of is always that way. So, who my actual forebears are is probably more for other people to say than for me. But who I wish they were, I could say. Like Dos Passos. I have to admit, I lifted much of the end of my last book, Palladio, straight from Dos Passos. The more I go back to those books, the more I find myself emulating them.
In terms of the speed of the narrative, it was very important in this book, in a character sense, that there not be any flashbacks. I wanted to cover a lot of time but for the book to be as short as possible. It’s still not as short as I wanted it to be but I did the best I could. And the way I solved that was to have big time gaps between chapters but no flashbacks to explain what happened in the gap. Each unit has to stand for what happened in the time in between. If you look at the U.S.A. trilogy, it’s all like that. I think Alfred Kazin called it “machine prose for a machine age.” I really like some DeLillo, not other DeLillo. Often, and I won’t name any names, but often I find when I am reviewed, I’m complimented by being compared to certain writers who I actually don’t like. And I don’t know why that is, but it’s really true.
TM: That’s unfortunate.
JD: Yeah. As far as what I like in contemporary literature, I think the same thing, really. I tend, especially as I get older and I write more, the things that I’m drawn to are the things I could never do. I read Denis Johnson or I read Deborah Eisenberg or people who just have a particular type of gift or seem to be descending into something I could never descend into. That’s the stuff I’m really drawn to. Roberto Bolaño, like everybody else in the world. Donald Barthelme. I could go on. But the point is, I used to be drawn to people I thought I was like and now I’m drawn to people that I really know I’m very unlike.
TM: You were an editor at The Paris Review for many years in the 1980s. How was this a formative experience for you as a reader and as a writer?
JD: It was formative in a lot of ways. When I started working there I was 22 and I liked reading, but like most 22-year-olds, I was just a huge vista of ignorance. I would work there during the day and I would take home an armload of either the magazines or the Writers at Work volumes and read all the interviews. I really read them all, even though at that point many of them were with writers I had never heard of. That was hugely formative for me–I would really recommend that for anybody, not only because you find things in there that inspire you but because it gets across that there’s no one right way to do it. You see how varied are the forms of craziness that people bring to making a successful career out of fiction writing.
People would often say, “You spend your day reading other people’s short stories, that must be really useful to you.” And it is to a point. You can’t learn from that endlessly but you can learn a few things about what not to do. And more than what not to do, you learn what’s original and what’s not. If you have a particular idea for a story or how to begin a story or how to end a story and you think, especially at age 22, That’s really good stuff, and then you read it literally 250 times when other people do it and send it in the mail to you, it starts to get across the premium you should be putting on originality, that it’s not just about craft. My old college writing teacher John Hersey once said, on our last day in class actually, he said to us, “Just remember the world doesn’t need any new writers.” Which at first seemed like an offputting thing to say, but his point was it’s not enough simply to be good at it, even though very few people are good at it. You have to bring something to it that it has not seen or heard before. Reading 200 short stories a week will bring that idea home to you for sure. It’s not enough to write well. You have to write originally.
TM: Reading the slush pile is then a lesson in what not to do as much as it is what you can do.
JD: I guess that’s it, that’s what limits it in terms of the lessons you can learn from it. It’s really, the lessons are all about what not to do.
TM: I know that feeling from having read submissions at Tin House, too. I mean there were the cancer stories and there were the stories about babies. Sometimes they were successful, but it was what made those stories successful that was really important, what was original.
JD: It’s not enough to prove you can write just as good a cancer story as anybody else. That’s not going to get you anywhere.