Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Dear Mrs. Wilson...

The other day I stumbled upon an interesting posting on a blog I had never read before, called "Revolutionsheep's Journal" on LiveJournal. The author, a college student still living with his parents, writes book reviews and random musings about whatever's on his mind -- the kinds of things that are probably very interesting to his friends and family. He does seem to have a real interest in the written word and is exercising that muscle using a resource (a blog) that would-be writers my age could have only dreamed about when we were in college (and still living with our parents). More power to him.

Last week he printed a transcription of a 1962 letter that John D MacDonald had written to his great grandmother, in response to a letter she had written to MacDonald complaining about his recent novel The End of the Night. She apparently thought it was too salacious. Without the luxury of being able to read the original complaint, one can read MacDonald's response and imagine just the kind of letter it was: taking the author to task over his excessive use of sex and making the assumption that since the novel was about juveniles, the book was written for juveniles. Also, since MacDonald wrote such a reprehensible work, he himself must be a reprehensible human being. JDM responds in great detail, citing his own credentials perhaps a bit too self-reverentially, and ends on a kind note with a referral for the woman's father.

Writing for the paperback trade in the 1950's and 1960's invariably meant that an author had to write about sex. Despite MacDonald being a self-avowed moralist, he participated in the practice as much as any other author did, although the modern reader can sense an underlying unease about him having to do so. He never descended into the the anatomically descriptive type of sex scene that marred a lot of the lesser fiction of the day, even in the Travis McGee series, and he once claimed to take personal offense at books by authors who used "raw sexuality" to attract "the pimpled trade." By the same token, he invariably took greater offense at any suggestion that he himself could be the type of author to attempt to do so -- as this letter strongly attests. Hugh Merrill, in his JDM biography The Red Hot Typewriter, reproduced a characteristic response to such an accusation, from a letter JDM wrote to John Binns in 1969. The author recalls an incident at a cocktail party where he reacted almost violently to such an accusation. And even if the incident as described has an air of unreality about it -- MacDonald himself comes off way too self-assured and ready with all the proper comebacks -- it does expose the writer's raw nerve about the subject.

"A man I have always thought rather pretentious and silly, and who sells mutual funds, greeted me when I walked into a party with the friendly question, 'When is your next smutty book coming out?' Then he turned to the man next to him, a fellow I did not know, and said, 'John makes a nice living writing dirty books.' Maybe he was trying to be cute. I don't know and didn't care then and don't now. So I shook my head sadly and said, 'You are sick. You must have sexual hangups that need professional attention. Incidentally, how many widows and orphans have you screwed lately, churning their accounts, rousting them from one fund into another at that nice eight percent in front?' While he got white as a sheet, I told his buddy that my acquaintance made a good living off innocent and unsuspecting investors. The stranger walked hastily away. I was threatened with suit. I told him to go right ahead and sue, but stay out of dark parking lots or I wouldn't leave him with enough teeth to pronounce 'smutty.'"

The letter to Mrs. Wilson can be read here: For your entertainment...

Update: January 26, 2105

The blog that featured this letter is gone and the link above no longer works. Luckily I made a copy of the letter back in 2010 and saved it as a Google Doc, which you can read here.

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