Monday, September 2, 2019

Notes From the Ironic Underground: Fashioning a Fictional Folk Hero

In September of 1964, a mere four months after the initial appearance of John D MacDonald’s series character Travis McGee, the author wrote a piece for the prozine The Writer titled “How to Live With a Hero.” In this important and revealing piece, MacDonald recounted in great detail his rationale for finally agreeing to write a series and how he agonizingly put it together. It’s a vastly important insight into the author’s mind: his awareness of the felicities of the publishing world, his insecurities with his own talents, and the amazing amount of blood and sweat he put into the job before believing it was something presentable to his public.

Although The Writer was available on many a newsstand back in the day, it was -- and is -- a periodical written for professionals: would-be or otherwise, and had a relatively small readership.

A year later MacDonald was asked to contribute an article to Books Today, the Chicago Tribune’s Sunday book review section, probably by the newspaper’s Clarence Petersen, a longtime MacDonald fan and supporter. MacDonald dusted off “How to Live With a Hero” and rewrote it for a larger audience, expanding it and providing far greater detail to the whys and wherefores of what brought him to Slip F-18 at Bahia Mar. He analyzed publisher’s demarcations of various forms of fiction, types of novels written by the big name authors of the day, why he preferred writing paperbacks, the different series characters he researched when planning McGee, and presented another account of the incredible amount of work it took him to produce the first three or four titles in the series. It’s an eminently readable article, full of fascinating detail and insight, especially for the fans for Travis McGee.

I’ve transcribed the essay in its entirety below. The copy I had to work from was quite faded in places and there was a word or two I simply couldn’t make out; I’ve indicated these with an ellipsis.

Notes From the Ironic Underground: Fashioning a Fictional Folk Hero
By John D MacDonald

When a cardboard butler finds the significant button from the dress of a cardboard victim in the bottom of a cardboard garden, and the reader is given the chance, in all fairness, to guess the identity of the murderer before the author reveals it, there is no confusion about the classification of the book: It is a mystery story -- a novel of detection.

I do not wish to knock that demanding craft of the whodunit, but I neither write them or enjoy reading them. I prefer to be involved with the why-did-it. One cannot care overly much why a two-dimensional character did or did not do some violent thing. To create concern, the characters must be fleshed out, given the complexities of diffuse motivations, given those emotional nuances that so solidly establish their identity that the author cannot safely force them into characteristic actions and reactions nor place them in a storybook world any less real then they are.

When such novels involve violence, they fall into a strange shadowy area, where the categories are often established by whim, fancy, and luck. In hard-cover publishing, an editorial decision is made regarding whether a novel involved with violence will be published on the trade list and called a novel or be published under their mystery imprint and called "a novel of suspense."

When Joseph Hayes wrote The Desperate Hours, it was for publication as a paperback original under a pseudonym. His agent, on a hunch, diverted it to Random House, where it was published on the trade list. This happenstance does not take the book out of the suspense category. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a similar incident. Conversely, under the suspense and mystery imprint we have seen many works by such people as Georges Simenon, Helen Eustis, Charlotte Armstrong, Margaret Millar, and others that were much more "novelistic" in both intent and execution than the two books by Hayes and Le Carre.

Thus it is pointless to discuss the present and future of the suspense novel on the basis of publishing industry labels. there is an artistic identity quite divorced from those ironbound categories so enchanting to a nation with a compulsion to sort, measure, label, and file.

My personal method of establishing whether or not a book is a suspense novel is to analyze the ending and see if it involves what I term "obligatory retributions." When the good guys are rewarded, and the bad guys are smacked down, no matter how much creative skill, insight, prose magic, and somber intent is involved, the writer is working in that area of myth, half-truth, sop to Faithful Reader, which makes of it a folk dance, a commercial gesture, a novel of suspense.

Using this merciless measuring stick, one can lump into the suspense category most of the contemporary work of Wouk, Robbins, Wallace, Drury, Uris, Michener, Ruark, and many other household names. And one can identify more readily the enhanced validity of the worlds created by De Vries, Updike, West, Salinger, Capote, Nabokov, Vonnegut, Condon, Porter, Cheever and Bellow.

I would say that the future of the novel which has action and violence as significant ingredients was never brighter than right now, provided that the basic substance is the relationship of completely dimensional protagonists to that action and that violence. Faulkner's definition of a story as the human heart in conflict with itself is an ultimate validity. That kind of story nowadays is hard to find.

The more esoteric and subjective outposts of the Literary Establishment have recoiled so violently from the vulgarity of pace and movement and story -- have so dedicatedly ignored the human urge to find out "what happens next" -- that their inverted essays mislabeled novels are read mostly by those members of the coterie who yearn for the opportunity to display erudition by writing a review that will have very little to do with the work being reviewed.

The major magazines, those few nervous survivors of a 20-year death march, have given up stories for the sake of self-help and instruction. Television, that magical storyteller of a few years back, has so deified its own iron formulas, and so quelled any risk-taking on the part of its writing cadre, that it is now reduced to telling the same pathetically few predictable yarns over and over -- to children, and to shut ins, and to people too tired to think or to care.

Two other factors less direct, contribute to the bright present and future of the suspense novel. As our automated, computerized culture becomes ever more incomprehensibly abstract; as the realities of birth, pain, and death, and even of life itself become more cushioned and perfumed; as even that last available reality of sex becomes Hefnerized into some sort of ceremony linked to Hi-Fi and sports cars, mankind's million-year-old glands, his survival tools of nerve ends, muscle, and devices for sensing the approach of carnivorous beasts -- these atavistic necessities are increasingly obsoleted. He can find a certain measure of relief from these pressures in becoming, for a little time, James Bond or Matt Helm or Travis McGee.

The second indirect factor fattening the prospects is the combination of the population boom with the startling improvement in public education over the last six to eight years. Our net population increase is 9,000-plus per day, 65,000 per week, 275,000 per month, and I would think it safe to assume that 5 per cent of the crop will become more or less habitual readers of fiction, demanding that caliber of storytelling which pulls the reader along into "what happens next." And in a zip-coded culture where all trivia is processed in quadruplicate, fiction that has the smell and taste of reality will be the more cherished.

Before I explain what I think is my relationship to this field, I must hasten to say that most of my 50 published novels are of folk dance category, the steps and patterns traditionally imperative, the retributions obligatory. Within these limits I have struggled for freshness, for what insights I can muster, for validity of characterization and motivation, for the accuracies of method and environment which enhance any illusion of reality. I have sweated to achieve pace, and I am continuously involved in the demanding effort to simplify and purify my prose so as to make a minimum author intrusion into the worlds I create. And, of course, as one of the obligations of professionalism, I try to avoid easy solutions, glibness, meretricious devices.

Fifteen of my books have been slightly more ambitious in concept. All 50, however, could have been published in hard covers. By personal choice I have had 13 published in boards and 37 published as original paperbacks. All but one of the hard-cover novels have been reissued in paperback.

Tho I have not been entirely consistent the 15 years since my first novel was published, I can list the random and unrelated factors, myths, hunches, and prejudices that have induced me to favor original publication in paperback:

1. I sensed that in a publishing industry that was in constant change as regards mergers, promotion methods, packaging, tie-ins, editorial concepts, my most valid relationship would have to be with the public, with a coterie of readers who, learning that I would not disappoint them, would create a leverage that would make me independent of the constantly changing editorial postures of the industry.

2. I wanted to write novels of broad diversity, and I felt uneasy about the tendency of the hard-cover houses in their promotional efforts, and the tendency of the critics of hard-cover books, to type-case an author, to exert a continuing pressure upon him to create within that single area where he has had a reasonably good track record.

3. As an ex-Harvard business school type, I resented that manifestly unfair, over-rationalized, and, until very recently, unbreakable formula whereby the hard-cover publisher was entitled to half the advance and half the royalties in perpetuity for the reprint edition.

4. Our civilization was becoming ever more transient, and traveling light. In a throwaway culture, where beer bottles, baby bottles, diapers, ice cream spoons, and marriages were becoming increasingly disposable, it seemed to me [...] that, were I to write something light, fast moving, and funny as The Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything, people would have to pay $4 for it in hard covers, and then would have qualms about giving it away or throwing it away.

5. I came across a statement made long ago by Walpole in which he said that a writer has to be like a colony of those tiny sea creatures that build reefs. If he lives long enough, tries hard enough, and if his work has some kind of validity, eventually the reef will show above water. I found this concept more comparable than the Great Big New Book approach of the hard-cover houses.

6. I recognized in the very beginning that by devoting most of my efforts to paperback originals, I was seriously limiting my chances of hitting the jackpot book. I was entrusting my future acceptance to the news stand jungle. I knew that many writers considered this method of publication a salvage market for books which did not quite come off as intended, and that it was also a market for writers of talent so limited their only access to hard covers would have been thru the vanity press. I knew that until I had acquired enough clout to affect the packaging, I could expect the sexpot cover art and prurient blurbs, traditionally associated with content, to adorn my maiden ventures. I knew I could expect no notice whatsoever from those critics whose comments appear near the front of the book review sections.

The only handicap I did not predict was the situation that existed in the last five years, when the market for competent paperback originals has been uncomfortably constricted not only by tremendous promotions to push the reprint sale of hardcover best sellers so that the reprinter can get back his very hefty investment, but also by the encroachment on available rack space of borderline pornography, huckstered from unmarked panel trucks at a retail markup double what the legitimate houses can afford to offer. I marvel nowadays at the blithe self-confidence I must have had to believe I could create a direct and useful relationship with a reading public.

I weakened quite a few times as the record shows, when I felt the wistful need to see hardcover books by me in honest-to-God bookstores. I believe that had I the chance to do it over, all would have been published as paperbound originals. I can detect no advantage achieved by hard-cover publication, even in the case of The Executioners, published by Simon & Schuster in 1958, the book most successful in boards. (Fair trade sale, Doubleday book club, serialization in the Ladies’ Home Journal, released by Universal as Cape Fear, starring Mitchum, Peck, Bergen, Barry Chase.)

When I say that I am professionally gratified, I do not wish to give the impression that I am an incomparable jewel, winking and glistening in a dung heap. The paperback original field is soundly knocked, just like anything else, by the people who know the least about it.

Solid and lasting paperback originals have been published by such people as Brian Moore, Kurt Vonnegut, George (The Wax Boom), Mandel Morris West (writing as Michael East), Gore Vidal (calling himself Edgar Box), Charles Williams, Walt Grove (whose original titled Down, is far more solid than any two out of three on the bestseller list), William Goldman, Mackinlay Kantor, William Price Fox, William Burroughs (publishing Junkie under the pseudonym William Lee), and many others. This listing is from memory. In the man-bites-dog department it is fetching to note that Harper & Row is reprinting in boards two Gold Medal originals by George Mandel, and that Houghton Mifflin is doing the same with The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut.

Those of us who use the paperback original as a permanent base often feel as if we were part of an ironic underground, off-handedly dismissed by everyone except the content publisher and a very large and unexpectedly demanding readership. Richard Jessup must be shaking his head these days and chuckling at odd moments. His recent book The Cincinnati Kid was turned down by his paperback publisher. So he sent it to Little, Brown. It was purchased. Now, The Reader's Digest will publish a condensation. It has been sold to the motion picture people. And, kindest cut of all, the same soft-cover house has had to pay Little, Brown for reprint rights a hair over ten times what they could have had it for as an original. One reviewer remarked about the extraordinary competence of this "first novel." Jessup has published about 30 paperback originals.

If the author's motivation is to be widely read and to make a living at it, the paperback field is a plausible answer. If he wants to make the cover of Time magazine, to be interviewed on network television, and to be searchingly reviewed in the literary quarterlies, he will find a better source of ego-balm in the hard-cover field.

Naturally not all of my work achieves, or merits, the same degree of success. Some of my books have died in the 200,000 to 300,000 copy range. But currently 22 novels are in print. Five have had better than a million copy sale.

Less than three years ago I agreed, very hesitantly, to attempt a series character. The suggestion was first made in 1952. I refused because I did not want such an arbitrary restriction on scope and diversity, and I did not want to risk being primarily identified as the author of a series of books about the same character. I had the feeling I would be trapped in trivia, in formula, and I could think of only one writer (Marquand) who had managed to escape from a successful series character.

By late 1962, however, I found I had three novels blocked out which would be too long for effective publication in paper covers except as reprints and which would require so much effort and invention that I knew I could not keep up with the new book requirements of my paperback publishers unless I had the crutch of a serial hero to work with. But I had to make certain I could devise a man I could live with thru 12 adventures.

I surveyed the current crop of folk heroes. Mike Hammer's murderous indignations were faked-up comic strip writing, and instead of insight I found merely the affirmation and repetition of the less palatable hungers of everyman. I could not believe in James Bond. He was not human. He would tell the audience he was angry or vengeful or baffled, but I suspected a windup key in the small of his back. Set him in motion and he would read a menu. Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, both retired, were far more dimensional, but my reaction to any private eye formula was a jaw-creaking ho hum. John Creasy's Gideon was solidly done, but because Creasy was using Scotland Yard rather than Gideon as his hero, he could safely make Gideon as responsive as a frozen side of beef.

I read my way incredulously into some Prather books and found there one Shell Scott full of smart aleck quips used as a philosophical vehicle for the neanderthal branch of the far right. Mike Shayne turned out to be so many different fellows that he provided me with little insight into the problems of a series hero. The most successful contemporary solutions I could find were Kenneth (Ross Macdonald) Millar's Lew Archer, and Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm. At least I could imagine myself having a few knocks and a few amiable arguments with Archer or Helm. Inspector Maigret, in Simenon's eerily skillful manner, had more reality than anyone else, but he had proved not especially palatable to the readership I hoped to acquire.

I write with the hope of never having to touch a page, of achieving the final manuscript at the first whack. I do not revise by making changes in words and phrases. I revise by tossing out pages and chapters and whole sections as I go along. Thus, if a novel is 300 pages, my usual average is 700 to 800 pages of finished manuscript to get the 300.

I devised a fellow named Dallas McGee. I wrote about 200,000 words to get 70,000 words, and found myself with a book I could have had published, but which depressed me because the hero was far too gloomy and heavy and inflexible. Also, I had put him into too rigid a format, one which would not only inhibit his movement in future tales, but would tend to make subsequent books too much like the first one. So I threw it out. I went thru the effort again, and ended up with a fellow so trivial, so hedonistic, and so glib, that I sensed I could learn to hate him with no trouble at all. I tried once more, and titled the book The Deep Blue Good-by. At the time it was finished, national tragedy gave the name Dallas a subconscious resonance I wished to avoid, so I renamed him Travis McGee.

From his base, his houseboat The Busted Flush, berthed at Bahia Mar, Fort Lauderdale, he operates on a variant of the Robin Hood theme, attempting to recover items of value which have been taken from the victim, where the victim has no legal chance of recovery. For this service, Trav keeps half.

The second adventure fell apart so completely that I scrapped the book. The third, Nightmare in Pink, held together. By the time Fawcett Gold Medal had the first two McGees ready for release, I had written well over a million words in order to end up with about [...] words of usable McGee.

I ran into a certain amount of editorial dubiousness. There was a feeling that McGee was not enough of a hero-hero. It was felt that he should win out over all odds, whip anybody, know exactly what he was doing at all times. I know that this sort of mythological animal appeals to a certain large segment of the readership, but I explained that I could not live with such a fellow thru 12 books. My man had to be just as troubled and uncertain as you and I. He had to win a little, lose a little, have good luck and bad, feel remorse, joy, self-contempt, greed, indignation, awe... in short, he had to be a man.

In making him both complex and dimensional, and giving him a wry and iconoclastic point of view, and giving him voluble opinions on practically everything, I was not indulging myself in lit'ry pretensions but was taking the necessary steps to keep me interested, and when I fail to find any pleasure and satisfaction in putting McGee thru the next wringer, that is the time I kill him more irretrievably than Moriarity killed Holmes.

Six McGees have been published, and the acceptance has been gratifying. The seventh, Darker Than Amber, is finished and nearly ready to go. The eighth, untitled, is better than half done. I have a few pages of notes on the ninth and tenth.

In addition to publication in England, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Israel, I have signed contracts for publication of the series in Japan. (The image of McGee-san boggles the imagination.) I have rejected some generous offers to vend my friend to serial television, having seen no need to risk the almost inevitable distortion of characterization. I am negotiating motion picture arrangements at this time wherein I retain some measure of artistic control and insist on McGee being portrayed by Jack Lord.

McGee's success thus far is, I am certain, the result of that story hunger which is not being satisfied today by other media. And I also believe that by making a complex person of my protagonist, by giving him a texture and posture of reality, by not patronizing either McGee or the reader, I am providing that kind of story which is not currently provided by television, motion pictures, magazines, or most of the novels arbitrarily lumped into the "suspense" category.

I must confess that I keep vast attic spaces full of dead horses, and I use McGee, perhaps too often, to help me flog them. As his opinions are usually more blunt and uncompromising than mine, it is gratifying to turn him loose on some of the more distressing foul-ups of our plastic culture.


  1. Thanks as always, Steve. I've read this piece more than once over the years, and was struck this time by how ironic (to put it mildly) MacDonald's comment about books that "died in the 200,000 to 300,000 copy range" has become. Those figures today would be well into bestseller territory.
    Much has been made of the death of literacy in this country--MacDonald himself doing so eloquently in "Reading for Survival."
    The death of the mass-market paperback original deserves equal eloquence.
    Your site, Steve, in addition to its many (many!) other virtues offers a wonderful window into the age of paperback originals and, with pieces such as this one, you enable us to look behind the curtain at the work habits and market thoughts of one of the pillars of the field.
    Again, thanks, man--the best!

  2. So he wasn't a big Mike Hammer fan?

    1. Obviously not, although he was friends with Spillane and owed him a huge debt of gratitude for his unintentional promotion of The Damned.

  3. Really interesting article, Steve. And a great site! Keep up the good work.

  4. Completely fascinating. Thank you so much for transcribing and posting.