Thursday, September 15, 2005

A Morningstar is Born

Over in Slate, Alana Newhouse has an interesting essay on the enduring popularity of Herman Wouk's Marjorie Morningstar despite -- or perhaps because of -- its depressing ending. Kevin Drum disputes Newhouse's description of Marjorie as a "rebellious teenager," countering that Marjorie is always "shallow, middlebrow, and never meant to accomplish anything meaningful," and the ending is simply the puncturing of Marjorie's self-delusion.

I guess they're both right. Wouk, being Wouk, probably despised most of the things that make Marjorie appealing for many of his readers: her search for freedom and self-fulfilment is, as far as Wouk's concerned, inherently delusional. As the book itself says, the only thing special about Marjorie is that she presumed to think she was special. But what the author thinks of the character and what we think of the character are two different things, and Marjorie sort of gets away from the author and does give the impression, shallow though she is, that she's on the verge of breaking through to something more. The letdown of the ending is that Wouk takes control of the story and tells us that hoping and dreaming is a fool's game.

In a way the structure is similar to that of the only other Wouk novel that's still widely read today (I refuse to believe not only that anybody still reads "The Winds of War" or "Youngblood Hawke," but that anybody, anywhere, has ever read all the way through them), "The Caine Mutiny." In that novel, Barney Greenwald steps forward near the end to lecture the characters, and us, on the right and proper way to look at the story, which happens to be the way of not questioning The System. Did you get the idea, perhaps, that there might be problems with a system that gives power to people like Captain Queeg? No, sorry, Queeg is the guy who was out there saving your butt, the system works, support our troops, rah rah rah. And yet the story is more interesting than the message the author is trying to convey, and that's what happens with "Marjorie Morningstar" too. It's an illustration of the way an author's work can impact readers in ways he didn't really intend, and how little an author's "intention" really matters sometimes.

Wouk, of course, belongs to the post-WWII generation of writers who wrote huge, bloated novels for the Book-of-the-Month-Club crowd. The "Doorstop Generation," I call them. I'd be interested in reading an explanation of why novels got so huge after WWII, to the point that even concise writers like John O'Hara were writing gigantic potboilers. I would suspect, without knowing much about the business or the era, that it was a combination of two factors. One, book publishing had become big business, and a big huge novel could be marketed as an "event" just like the big huge movies of the era. Two, with bigger cash advances available, authors could actually afford to take a year off to write gigantic novels. A full-time writer in the '30s would have had to make his living by writing as much as he could, which meant at least one novel a year plus lots of short stories, articles -- lots of jobs to compensate for the fact that no one book paid very much. In the '50s, on the other hand, it was actually feasible to spend two years doing almost nothing but writing one book.

1 comment:

Alaric Parasang said...

Thanks for that. Interesting about the 1950s "big huge book" syndrome, and the difference there from the 1930s. Makes sense. Seems like literary critics in the 1950s tended to go "huge" in the same kind of way. Compare some of Leslie Feidler's 1950s "king hit" thematic articles, e.g. on comic books, with Edmund Wilson's concise, discerning, tightly-focused, modest and for my money illuminating book reviews of the 1940s. 'Classics and Commercials' is the Wilson book I'm thinking of, & have spent much time reading & re-reading. Feidler's stuff doesn't draw me back for re-reading; but it's like a literary version of CinemaScope, if you follow my drift (even just a bit). Anyway thanks for what you wrote about 'Marjorie Morningstar', & Wouk. That's also illuminating. Me, I never attempted to read a Wouk novel, tho' saw the movies of 'The Caine Mutiny' and 'Youngblood Hawke', the latter ridiculous apart from the 'drinking heavily' scene of Genevieve Page.