The Hollywood Novel
The “Hollywood novel,” as a literary sub-genre, just fascinates the hell out of me. Mostly, I suppose, it’s because of my long personal and professional historical interest in the ways of “this town” and its denizens, although from a strictly “historical” point of view one might easily regard these books as largely worthless: clumsily-plotted,cliché-ridden, popular fiction in one of its lowest forms. (Obviously there are exceptions -- The Slide Area, pictured above, being a prime example.)
But I think there’s something else at work here. For one thing, so much of what we regard as “film history” is really so much warmed-over fan magazine or trade paper pap. This is not to imply that a great deal of terrific historical work is not being done in the field of film studies, by a lot of very good people. That’s most certainly the case. But it’s also undeniable that in order to write such history, a scholar must swim in some pretty polluted waters. “Old” Hollywood, as it were (not like “New” Hollywood is much different), devoted immense resources to the dissemination of information (read “publicity”) about movies and their makers that was substantially, if not entirely, fictional. Oh, occasionally some “truth would out,” but for the most part the studios of old were interested in Image Uber Alles: their stars were as happy as they were healthy and beautiful; everybody behind the camera was a consummate professional (who had usually made his way up the ladder by lots of pluck and a little luck); the children were, just like in Lake Wobegon, all above average; and nobody, but nobody, was stupid or gay.
Here’s a helpful way to think of it: the “real” Hollywood community resembled the image of the town that was fed to the press and public by studio flacks about as much as the real world (with people saying bad words, married couples sleeping in the same bed, and real blood flowing from real wounds) resembled the on-screen world brought to us by Hollywood via the Hays Office.
So where does this leave the “Hollywood novel”? Well, in my view, a large part of the fascination of the genre is precisely because it was always sub rosa – these books were there (they insisted) to tell us “the story that couldn’t be told,” to blow the lid off “the real Hollywood,” to traffic in the shocking down-and-dirty details about life in Tinseltown that the Powers That Be wanted to (and did) keep swept under the rug. And the reader, I’m convinced, understood the compact: these were real people being written about, but the only way the authors could “get away with it” was to fictionalize them. (Or, to put it a little more precisely: the deeds depicted were real, but the names had been changed to protect the guilty.)
This is, of course, a generalization, and like all such things you can poke holes in it if you wish. For one thing, while plenty of novels about life in the movie colony were written by folks who had observed it up close and personal (like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Horace McCoy, just to cite two of the most obvious examples), there were also a whole bushel basket full of books that were made up out of whole cloth, by people who had never been within a thousand miles of Southern California. All these writers knew about "Hollywood" (the quotes are deliberate) was what they read in the newspapers and fan magazines, which as noted, was pretty much fiction to begin with; so theirs were truly works of the imagination.................
[to be continued -- I'm just gettin' warmed up!]