The Great American Novel That Wasn’t

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

The 1950s was a robust decade for American letters. The letter B had a particularly good run.

In the other kind of letters—literature—there were two tracks that fed a voracious reading public: the mass market paperback, and the middlebrow-Book-of-the-Month-Club-style hardback.

With paperbacks, dozens of writers made good money writing crime, Westerns, mysteries, Sci-Fi, etc. Most covers were salacious, for these were marketed as impulse buys on wire spinners in drug stores, bus stations, and truck stops. Real bookstores did not carry titles like these:

Ignoring the paperback original neighborhoods, the literati were about hardcovers and reviews in the New York Times. This was where the “important” novels were to be found. Perhaps even that white whale, The Great American Novel.

Those who put themselves in the running for this prize were authors like Norman Mailer, Herman Wouk, John Steinbeck, Ayn Rand, John O’Hara, Irwin Shaw. And one of the ways they measured the potential was pure, raw page count. These authors put out doorstops. Some of the pantagruelian publications—like East of Eden, Marjorie Morningstar and Atlas Shrugged—were big bestsellers. Others, however, no so much.

Perhaps the biggest flopperoo of all weighed in at a staggering 1,230 pages—the longest novel published by an American author to that date (1957). It was Some Came Running by James Jones, a novel that took six years to write and was absolutely savaged by the critics.

Jones was, of course, the author of another big book that was a smash success as both novel and movie: From Here to Eternity. It was his first novel, too, which put enormous pressure on him to produce a fitting follow-up. Didn’t happen. A sense of the critics may be found in a clip from one of the reviews:

From Here to Eternity was both moving and comic because of the herculean efforts of its hero to fight the System; Some Came Running fails because the hero’s resistance to the system has now been elevated into a philosophical principle. Jones’s new determination to lay down doctrine is doubtless due to his inflated sense of his role as a novelist, a result of his first success.

Because of Eternity, the movie rights to Some Came Running were gobbled up by MGM well before the book came out. I wonder what the boss at MGM, Joe Vogel, thought when he read the novel … or at least looked at it sitting on his desk.

Fortunately, the project was given to Vincente Minnelli and turned into a commercial hit. It starred Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, and Martha Hyer. A highly abridged paperback (!) was released to go along with the movie.

The book soon fell out of print. But in the new digital age is has been brought back by Open Road Media.

I read it. At least most of it. Well, maybe 75% of it, because I did a lot of skimming starting around page 500. What went wrong with this novel? For me, the following:

First, Jones made an odd stylistic choice to eschew apostrophes in the conjunctions. So you get lines like this through the whole novel:

“Ill probably never get another chance,” Dave had said, “but if I did, I still dont think Id take it.”

Second, about 85% of the book is narrative summary. In other words, the great majority of the novel is not presented in immediate scenes, given beat by beat on the page. Rather, we get page after page of the author telling us what happened.

The biggest problem, though, is that I didn’t bond with any of the characters. The protagonist, Dave Hirsh, is a novelist and war vet (a thinly-veiled James Jones) returning to his home town after nineteen years. He finds it hard to write, but not to drink. And brood. That wasn’t enough for me.

The movie succeeds, in my opinion, mainly because of Shirley MacLaine as Ginnie. In the book, Ginnie is a “floozy” who falls for Dave. Dave marries her only because the other woman, the virginal Gwen, rejects him. Ginnie does not wear well on Dave, who is let out of the marriage …

**SPOILER ALERT**

… by getting murdered at the end of the novel.

**END SPOILER ALERT**

MacLaine, on the other hand, earned an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress. She’s wonderful and heartbreaking, especially in the final scene (quite different from the book).

So what’s the point of all this ruminating on a novel from the 1950s? Let’s see if I can figure it out:

  1. It doesn’t matter how many pages a novel has, without character bonding there’s no reason to read them.
  2. “Show, Don’t Tell” is a fundamental (rule?) for a reason.
  3. Every author needs a good editor (note: see the unedited, author’s version of The Stand).
  4. Still, you have to admire James Jones. He had the nearly impossible task of following From Here to Eternity. The sheer effort in writing Some Came Running is something only another writer will understand. All authors write books that don’t make it, but few take six years to do so. Credit James Jones with the grit to keep on writing, eventually producing two other books in his war trilogy that will stand the test of time—The Thin Red Line and Whistle. All three are now available in one set from Open Road.
  5. The writing life is one of highs and lows, with a few sprinkled in-betweens.

So how are you dealing with the highs and lows?

NOTE: I wrote a book about such dealings if you’d care to have a look.

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21 thoughts on “The Great American Novel That Wasn’t

  1. It’s almost funny. As writers, we stress ourselves out, wondering if the book will be good enough, moaning if we only manage to sell a few copies and feeling badly about it. Yet it’s just as bad if the first thing you publish is a smash success, because suddenly you’re under a very powerful microscope and you better not make one wrong move.

    So the mantra ought to be “Screw it!” And just write the books you want to write. I’ve not read any of the author’s works, but if he stuck with it for six years, I’m assuming it meant something to him. And he followed it up with other novels. He deserves credit because he didn’t let the first huge success freeze him, or the bad reviews prevent him from other works.

  2. It is not clear to me if you are saying The Stand unedited version is good or bad. That is next on my reading list. Please let me know.

    • The original, edited version was much better, IMO. There are long sections in the “director’s cut” that bring things not to a stand, but a standstill.

  3. Thank you for the food for thought on the writing process.

    For me, many of the lows and probably some of what could have been highs, assuming I even know the difference, are spent handicapping the horses at Belmont and Saratoga, now mostly on paper in a departure from my earlier errant ways.

    But the activity gives me perspective on the limits of human knowledge and understanding and the nobility of animals like horses, giving their hearts and souls for greedy and heartless owners, trainers and jockeys, and hapless punters like me, for a feedbag or even in spite of the feedbag. And then I get pissed at my membership in the human species and start writing again.

    And I was able to zigzag into what I assume was a high with my story, “Lessons from a Horseplayer”, published in Canyon Voices Literary Magazine, Issue 14, Fall 2016

  4. Hi Jim,

    I try to deal with the lows by reminding myself how far I’ve come, and celebrating the successes, small though they may be. I had two this week: a great review from a book blogger on the first novel in my series, and a different book of mine reaching #1 in it’s category on Amazon, and getting, at least briefly, a best seller tag. Now, the #1 is for a space opera novel set in one of Amazon’s Kindle Worlds, but regardless, I’ll celebrate.

    I really think dealing with the lows comes down to acknowledging all that you have done, and recognizing how far you have come. Thanks for another great post!

    • …acknowledging all that you have done, and recognizing how far you have come

      That is wise indeed, Dale. A mental discipline. I always add to that, “Keep writing.”

  5. That is impressive, that James Jones could spend that much time in writing Some Came Running, fail at the success he desired, and then continue to write.

    Stories of determination help me stay motivated and focused. My biggest hurdle is preventing the many “fires to put out” from intruding on my writing time.

    I checked, and The Mental Game of Writing is still on my Kindle. I’ll reread it tonight. Thanks for the motivation you offer up each week on this blog, Jim.

  6. Stories of determination help me stay motivated and focused.

    Me too, Steve. I love reading about guys like Jack London and William Saroyan, who had years of rejection and just never stopped. Very few writers are like Jones, hitting a home run in their first at bat (though I believe Jones had submitted one previous novel to the legendary Max Perkins, who didn’t take it but encouraged Jones to send him another).

  7. I’ve mastered dealing with the lows from a writing life. I’m ready to take on the challenge of dealing with the highs.

    Also, the Beatles had a pretty good run with Letter B in the 60s. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

  8. Reading Romeo’s Way. Great stuff. Not only can you teach, but you can do as well. Mike Romeo is an unabashed hero. Usually when I read a good book, I want to be the writer, but I want to be Romeo. Will read Romeo’s Rules.

  9. Very illuminating post, Jim. SOME CAME RUNNING is from that era of Novels I Could Never Relate To When I Was Growing Up. Same with FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (I could, however, relate quite easily to Mad Magazine’s spoof, FROM ETERNITY BACK TO HERE).

    In any case, I checked out the “look inside” of SCR and just reading page one tells me it’s going to be a long, dark slog. The foreword (written by James Jones’ daughter Kaylie), however, tells us this was his favorite of all his novels. Go figure.

  10. Loved From Here to Eternity (the movie). But I have never seen or read Some Came Running. I got curious about how they converted such a doorstop into film and Googled the screenplay but couldn’t find much. Did find out one interesting piece of trivia: Originally, Shirley MacLaine wasn’t supposed to jump in front of the bullet. Sinatra made the comment, “Let the kid take the bullet; maybe she’ll get an Oscar.” The script was changed, and MacLaine received her first Oscar nomination.

    Here’s the bullet scene if you want to peek:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HG1TtSwauJA

  11. Always good to have Sunday coffee with you, Jim. : )

    I’m learning to get through the highs and lows by just keepin’ on. I have more wips than I care to admit, but nothing in the finished pile. Lots of excuses and justifications. But I’m finally learning to not let life’s ups and downs and the intrusions of the day to keep me from adding words to my current wip. I am determined to finish it, even if it ends up in the bin.

    I read an interview with Jerry Seinfeld where he talked about his commitment to writing jokes every day, no matter what. He continues to do this despite his success and pots of cash. His motto is “Don’t break the chain”.

    That stuck with me so I set up a simple spreadsheet to track how many words I write each day, with a big red blotch on days that I don’t write. It’s amazing how effective it is. I hate seeing those red squares and am challenged to break my current record for consecutive days of writing.

    Thanks for another great column. TKZ is always part of my daily coffee blog stroll. : )

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