Thursday, December 30, 2010

JDM's New Year's Reading List

Probably due to our occupation of putting words on paper, we have a tendency to evaluate 1947 on the basis of what happened in the publishing- business.

The other night on the radio we heard someone say that 1947 will be remembered principally because it was the year between 1946 and 1948. We are inclined to go along with the man.

To whom it may concern—following is a list of the books published in 1947 that we enjoyed the most. At risk if being a heretic, we state firmly that we read books not for information, not for education, not for conversation but merely to be amused and entertained.

Command Decision by William Wister Haines (Little,Brown). A war book presenting the top brass as human beings—and very well done.

Dirty Eddie by Ludwig Bemelmans (Viking). Maybe this shouldn't be in here. We would read Bemelmans if he rewrote Henny Penny.

Gentleman's Agreement by Laura Hobson (Simon & Schuster). This is not in the list because of the quality of the prose —which happens to be the slick, glib, objectionable prose of the big magazines—but merely because of an intriguing plot situation.

The Harder They Fall by Budd Schulberg (Random House). Though Schulberg's narrator is so similar to the protagonists of many other recent novels that he has no real identity, the pictures of minor characters are superb.

Knock on Any Door by Willard Motley (Appleton-Century), Very realistic, and, as such, representative of a dying trend in these days of increasing mysticism and symbolic prose. Rough, tough and nasty—but most effective.

Odd Man Out by F. L. Green (Reynal and Hitchcock). Wonderful suspense in a man hunt where the ending is inevitable. Told from the viewpoint of the hunted.

The Saxon Charm by Frederic Wakeman. (Rinehart). Wakeman going a bit deeper into human relationship and emotions than in his two previous novels. Though not as popular as his first two, it may be a step in the direction of a really good novel someday.

Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener (Macmillan). Would call this, along with Shore Leave and Command Decision one of the three best jobs to come out of the war. Michener has something special.

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (Reynal & Hitchcock). We have the idea that in the year 2047, this book will be read, and frequently. Of all on this list it most deserves rereading.

And just to be unpleasant, here are a few titles we could have skipped and saved reading time.

Kingsblood Royal, S[inclair] Lewis; East Side, West Side, M[arcia] Davenport; Adversary in the House, I[rving] Stone; Proud Destiny, L[ion] Feuchtwanger.

Other titles which we almost put on the preferred list are The Big Sky by A. B. Guthrie, The Left Hand is the Dreamer by N[ancy] Wilson [Ross], Hellbox by J[ohn] O'Hara, The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford.

  • • •

1947 was a year in which more books were printed and circulated in this country than at any time in history. And a year in which the publishing business was severely criticized for the low average quality of its offerings. Quantity without quality. Some months back we heard Freeman "Doc" Lewis, Executive Vice-President of Pocket Books, talking about the book clubs. They, of course, were partly responsible for so many millions of volumes being printed. Doc Lewis said that in the depression many book clubs were about to fail. Then some merchandising genius got the idea of making the subscriber send in a blank when he didn't want a book, instead of when he did. In other words, they put inertia to work. Inertia has sold more book club books than any other form of merchandising.

1947 was a year in which two friends of ours had books published. Ed Taylor did a nice job in Richer by Asia. We were overseas with Ed. At that time he was soaking up the background for his book. We thought he was merely preoccupied.

And an editor, a lady named Babette Rosmond, to whom we have sold many pulp stories for inclusion in such newsstand epics as Doc Savage and The Shadow, wrote one called The Dewy Dewey Eyes. We saw her last week in New York, and she requested that around the middle of this month we walk the streets of Clinton wearing a sandwich sign to advertise the publication of her new book, which is to be called, A Party for Grownups.

As yet we have given her no decision.

A very happy and prosperous new year to all you people.

-- John D MacDonald's January 1, 1948 column for the Clinton Courier.

This is an interesting list, not so much for what it says about the author (little, really) but what it says about books, publishing and, in particular, fiction in an era that has long since past. From MacDonald's list of recommended books, nearly every title was adapted for film (Under the Volcano wasn't filmed until 1984), with the exception of Dirty Eddie, which was a story about a screenwriter and which did appear as an episode of the early television anthology series The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse. Tales from the South Pacific was first adapted as a Broadway musical, the iconic South Pacific, and was later filmed in that form. 

The "stinkers" were all works by noted authors, some of them hacks (Stone), others whose best years were past them (Lewis). The runners-up include some great titles, the best of which is perhaps The Left Hand is the Dreamer, a hypnotic novel about a failing marriage, written by the author of the better-remembered Westward the Women. (I read this novel over 30 years ago and own a copy -- I'll have to dig it out and reread it, assuming I can find it.) The Mountain Lion is another incredible work of fiction, written by an author who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize. The Mountain Lion is a title that rightfully belongs on the "best of" list. Hellbox is a terrific collection of short pieces, most of which originally appeared in The New Yorker, by the author to whom JDM was often compared.

MacDonald, in his later years, often included James Michener among the authors he found lacking, once including him on a list of "big, world-famous solemn hacks." Finding his name on the "best" list was a surprise. And Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano was one of MacDonald's favorite books -- both he and his wife Dorothy read and loved it. JDM biographers Ed Hirshberg and Hugh Merrill both cite it as the inspiration for the MacDonalds' move to Mexico in the fall of 1948.

If one were to look more deeply into this list for a clue to some bit of biography of the author, I suppose it would be the obvious absence of any mystery or crime novel. In 1947 most of the hardcover mystery books published in America were of a tamer variety than what was subversively gestating in the paperback market of the time. MacDonald himself wouldn't publish his first novel for another two years. And the kinds of novels MacDonald read in 1947 (and throughout his life) were the type that the author would himself attempt only occasionally. But he loved to read, and read he did. He often cited reading as the first prerequisite of a writer. In 1979 he gave interviewer Ed Hirshberg his advice for the beginning writer:

"Most beginners think that writing is a quick ticket to some kind of celebrity status, to broads and talk shows. Those with that shallow motivation can forget it. Here's how it goes. Take a person 25 years old. If that person has not read a minimum of three books a week since he or she was ten years old, or 2,340 books -- comic books not counted -- and if he or she is not still reading at that pace or preferably, at a greater pace, then forget it. If he or she is not willing to commit one million words to paper -- ten medium long novels -- without much hope of ever selling one work, in the process of learning this trade, then forget it. And if he or she can be discouraged by anyone in this world from continuing to write, write, write -- then forget it."

Apart from the ridiculously impossible standards set by JDM in this quote, it is clear that he is describing one successful author in particular: John D MacDonald.


  1. I was very interested in the fact that JDM liked Malcolm Lowry's UNDER THE VOLCANO alot. I discovered this novel in 1961 when I read a rave review in a late 1940's issue of THE SATURDAY REVIEW OF LITERATURE. I've since read and reread it a half dozen times and it is one of my all time favorite novels. But I have trouble understanding why anyone would move to Mexico after reading it. Instead my reaction would be to stay away! One of the best horror novels I've ever read.

  2. MacDonald himself cited money problems -- attempting to make a living and save money earning only two cents-a-word -- as the main reason for moving to Mexico, but also the recent death of his wife's mother and -- yes -- the couple's love of UNDER THE VOLCANO, which was published the year before. And they headed for Cuernavaca, the setting for Lowry's novel (although he called it Quauhnahuac). They weren't the only ones. There was a relatively large American "colony" there which included many writers, artists and other "bohemians."

    The country agreed with MacDonald. He produced over 70 short stories while living in Mexico, made his first big sale there ("Looie Follows Me" to COLLIER'S for $1,000) and later used the locale as the setting for his (still) biggest-selling novel, THE DAMNED. He and Dorothy even went back there nine years later to live during the winter of 1957. So, despite the "horror" in UNDER THE VOLCANO, there must have been something alluring in the novel to attract the MacDonalds there.

    Incidentally, JDM never lost his love for the work. When he was in his sixties he cited it as one of his "desert island books."

  3. It's a difficult novel but I consider UNDER THE VOLCANO one of my "desert island books" also. I've since seen the movie directed by John Huston, and read everything I could about Malcolm Lowry including his letters and biography. Strangely enough, none of his other fiction ever impressed me at all. Unlike JDM, Lowry was a one book author but what a book!