Report From the Snob Farm

By John Gilstrap

First an apology about missing my slot last week. My Big Boy Job sent me to Charleston, WV for the week to recertify as an instructor for OSHA-certified safety classes that I’ve been teaching off and on for about two dozen years. The Holiday Inn in Charleston—the one whose closed windows emit a frigid breeze and whose “closed” doors leak enough light to read by—didn’t have working Internet access. Thus, no blog.

I thought I’d give a report on the panel I moderated a couple of weeks ago called “Literary Snobs and Commercial Sellouts: The Truths and Truisms of Literary Prejudice,” the one I introduced in my previous entry here in the Killzone. The panel consisted of mystery writer Donna Andrews, thriller writer James Grady, and literary novelist and PBS radio commentator Alan Cheuse.

I started things off by reading parts of a New York Times article which denounced the decision to bestow a National Book Award on Stephen King. The tone of the article dripped condescension. After my selected five- or six-sentence quote, I just opened it up, and the discussion ran at full speed for an hour and fifteen minutes, during which absolutely nothing was resolved.

Don’t get me wrong. The panelists were all articulate and they were all good sports, but this is the kind of topic that draws more fireworks than conclusions. My only disappointment was that they were all so damned polite to each other. I was sort of hoping for a “Jane, you ignorant slut” moment, but it never came.

A couple of comments did stand out. The first one involved a question from a young lady in the audience. I forget substance of the question, but prelude was fascinating. She is in the process of writing a novel, and by way of defending the literary side of the argument she went on at length about the importance of words and images. In her book, she said, the thrill of writing lies in the beauty of her prose and the vividness of the scenes she creates.

Nowhere in her soliloquy did she mention story as an element of writing a book. When I asked her about it, she seemed rather flummoxed. Having already introduced myself as the quintessential commercial sellout, she seemed unmoved and a little put off when I suggested that while writing is itself an art form, the selling of writing is all business; and that to convince a publisher to invest in the production and distribution of a book, there needs to be some reasonable chance of earning back the investment. That expectation, I told her, requires a good story well told. I’m fairly certain that my observations fell on deaf ears.

The one truism on which all attendees seemed to agree was that movies suck, and that people who write them are talentless hacks. Books, they agreed, are so much better than movies. Every time a screenwriter touches the cherished words of a writer like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the result is something terrible. As discussed at the conference, Marquez reportedly turned down Anthony Quinn’s offer of $1 million for the rights to One Hundred Years of Solitude because he didn’t want those movie hacks to ruin the product of his muse. Clearly, he was less protective of Love in the Time of Cholera.

Thus began the movies-are-crap discussion. As moderator, I did my part to keep things going, but then, as resident script-writing talentless hack, I felt compelled to defend the craft. I explained that when I adapt a book for the screen, I am not trying to recreate the reading experience, anymore than a landscape artist in Yosemite is trying to recreate the great photographs of Ansel Adams. Or vice-versa. Books and movies are entirely different art forms; one cannot replicate the other. The job of the screenwriter—and subsequently of every one of the hundreds of people involved in the production of a film—is to tell a compelling story well. If the story was first told as a novel or short story, credit is given, and that’s where the creative obligation ends.

Here’s some food for thought (and, hopefully, discussion): Movies released in 2008 include The Reader, Slumdog Millionaire, Saw V and Space Chimps. The “quality” of these movies is all over the board, as far as I’m concerned. I’d pay $10 NOT to see Space Chimps or Saw V, and I’m guessing many of you agree.

Together, we’ve made the value judgment that some movies are just not worth our time. Does this make us “cinematic snobs” who are dismissive “commercial” films? At the end of the day, is it all just a continuum that boils down to taste?