Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Len Levinson

          Glorious Trash

Trawling the depths of forgotten fiction, films, and beyond, with yer pal, Joe Kenney

Ed here: Reading Joe Kenny's Glorious Trash has become one of my favorite past times.

Joe reviews all kinds of forgotten items and uses the only honest measure you can--does this piece achieve what it set out to so? A surfer adventure can't be expected to provide the same nuance as A Farewell To Arms and Joe doesn't expect it to. It's a cool if you're interested in the lower rungs on the publishing ladder. A rung I put my size twelve on many times.

Len Levinson is pro who has managed to survive so many publishing upheavels he probably can't remember them all. He's a good solid pro and sometimes a little more; I enjoy his books. And I'm also fascinated with his autobiographical pieces. The one below is an especially good one. Based on what I've read from him so far I'd have to  say that he's one hell of a nice guy in addition to being a master craftsman. Here's Lev:

Hype! was intended to be my big breakout novel. I wrote it after the success of The Bar Studs which sold around 95,000 copies. I wanted to build on the success of The Bar Studs and perhaps sell 250,000 copies. Someone reading this might be tempted to comment: “What a crass, mercenary writer. No wonder he failed. Evidently all the wretch cares about is money.” 

Please allow me to point out that I never was independently wealthy. No devoted wife was supporting me. I didn’t have a day job such as teaching English at a prestigious New England liberal arts college. I was never good-looking or charming enough to be a gigolo. And NYC landlords have this thing about the rent. They want it or they’ll throw your ass into the street without any qualms. 

No one becomes a novelist to make money. People write novels because they’re driven. And perhaps I was more driven than most because I’ve always been and continue to be mildly to moderately nuts. 

I wondered what to write after The Bar Studs. But I didn’t need to wonder long. Because the premise had been in the forefront of my mind for a long time, a Harold Robbins-type show biz novel based on my ten years as press agent in the entertainment industry. I’d worked for Paramount Pictures, 20th Century-Fox and a PR agency named Solters and Sabinson, which means I’d seen the underside of show biz, not the glossed over crap one finds in the media. 

I’m not Harold Robbins. He and I have experienced different facets of the biz. We have different worldviews. I don’t even try to imitate other writers because I know it’s impossible. I am what I am for better or worse. 

I wrote Hype! in a rackety cabin without electricity or plumbing in a remote forest in New Brunswick Canada, around 40 miles north of the provincial capital, Frederickton. What the hell was I doing in such an unlikely place? Let me take you back to circa 1974. I was living in Greenwich Village and my second wife was driving me out of my mind. I thought it might be wise to put a national boundary between us. My old buddy Bill Kotzwinkle and his wife Elizabeth had relocated to that part of Canada. Both were writers and we understood each other. That’s how I ended up in a rundown cabin, sitting beside a wood stove, writing on a manual typewriter during a fierce Canadian winter, using an outhouse. Sometimes I felt like the Jewish Jack London. 

I believed that I saw NYC more clearly in that cabin than when I was living in NYC and drowning in it. Distance and a change of surroundings provided an interesting new perspective that I hoped would add substance and verisimilitude to the novel. 

To the best of my recollection, I wrote The Bar Studs the first year I was there, Hype! the second year, and The Bandit And The Ballerina the third year. The latter never was published and I don’t know what happened to the manuscript. 

Anyway, Hype! is about a hustling unscrupulous press agent based loosely on me. His boss, Larry Walters, was based loosely on my last boss Lee Solters, one of the great legendary press agents. If you don’t believe me, check Wikipedia. Other characters also were based loosely on real people, some of them very famous.  

All my churning emotions, feelings and observations about show biz were poured into this morally atrocious novel. I held nothing back. Let me be clear: I had seen close-up and personal the squalid underbelly of show biz in addition to glitter and glitz. I met big stars who turned out to be ordinary screwed-up people like you and me, but they were rich and loved by millions. I also met many egomaniacs and once worked for a producer/director named Radley Metzger whose arrogance and cruelty were almost beyond human comprehension.*  I also ran into lots of struggling would-be stars who never made it and had to live with the bitter taste of failure. 

I called the novel The Shucksters. After completing and editing the text, I mailed it to my then literary agent, the very wonderful Elaine Markson. Eventually she sold it to Fawcett, same company that published The Bar Studs. Fawcett changed the title to Hype! My editor Harvey Gardner explained that most Americans probably didn’t know what a shuckster was. I wasn’t very happy with the murky cover that didn’t stand out against other novels in bookstores. The graphic artist used a strange kind of typeface that made Hype! look like Hypel. Talks with Harvey left me with the impression that Fawcett execs hadn’t liked the novel. After several months it became clear that Hype!was a big flop. I think it only sold around 20,000 copies, very little for a mass market paperback.It was one of the greatest professional disappointments of my life, but I didn’t realize that even greater disappointments were to come. 

Joe Kenney asked me to write something to accompany his review of Hype!. So I read the novel for the first time since completing the manuscript circa 1975. 

To my immense satisfaction, I thought it very good and quite possibly one of the great American show biz novels of all time. However I must admit it’s as sleazy as the subject itself. And it’s also kind of vicious, definitely not a pretty novel. Evidently I was an angry man when I wrote it, making uncomplimentary observations about all sorts of people and institutions, and especially contemptuous of the hypocrisies of the then-new Women’s Liberation Movement, which probably explains why Fawcett execs, many of them women, disliked Hype!. Such a novel probably could never be published in today’s politically-correct climate. 

Hype! was one of my early novels, written before I really understood my craft, not that I’m such a great expert now. Its worst flaw, in addition to my nasty point of view, was too much description of unimportant activity such as characters walking here and there, or taking elevators , riding in taxicabs, or eating a corned beef sandwich. 

Not long after writing Hype!, I had a conversation with my buddy Bill Kozwinkle. He’d noticed and disapproved of my pointless descriptions of activity, and gave me advice which I wrote into my notebook as he spoke. He said, “Fiction isn't a movie. You needn't show every movement and twitch. Fiction is the realm of inner mind, the second level of reflection.” 

I really thought about that comment and took it to heart. It made a big difference in how I wrote afterwards. For context, Bill Kotzwinkle wrote what some critics consider the greatest novel of 60s, The Fan Man, now available as an e-book. He also wrote the novelization of E.T. The Extraterrestrial, best-selling novel internationally of the 80s. 

One of my readers informed me recently that paperback copies ofHype! are selling for $400 on the internet. It’s not available yet as an e-book. I’m not gonna pay to e-publish it myself. That’s not my game. If somebody else wants to e-publish it, he or she will find me most reasonable.

*Radley was no saint, but did make some very sexy movies. My favorite was Therese And Isabelle. And there are two sides to every story. If you asked Radley about me, he probably wouldn't remember me, or would call me incompetent, although I'm the guy who arranged for him to lecture at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, which probably was the high point of his life.

1 comment:

mybillcrider said...

I agree about Levinson and about Glorious Trash. I enjoy those reviews, though I know I'll probably never read most of the books. Or re-read. I've read many of them already.