John O’Kane and Dan Marcus
With the publication of his acclaimed second novel, American Dream Machine, in 2013, Matthew Specktor found himself thrust into the pantheon of indispensable LA writers, which includes among its members such literary lights as Nathanael West, John Fante, Raymond Chandler, Joan Didion, and Charles Bukowski. Specktor’s sweeping new addition to the California literary canon spans two generations, two coasts, and five decades—from the 60s to the early years of the present millennium. The book presents the movie industry from the gut-level standpoint of the agents—its title refers to a maverick agency established by several key characters—during a period of tectonic shifts in the industry and the culture at large.
American Dream Machine crackles with an intimate verisimilitude owing, no doubt, to Specktor’s real life circumstances—he grew up in the shadow of the film business. His father, Fred Specktor, was and still is a top agent for CAA. The younger Specktor found his footing on the creative land bridge that connects the not-quite-contiguous continents of film and literature, with an emphasis on the latter. He’s been a director of literary acquisitions for several prominent production companies, a prolific essayist, and the writer of a screen adaptation of Shirley Hazzard’s award-winning novel, The Transit of Venus. Specktor is also a founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.
The following conversation with Matthew Specktor was conducted by AMASS editor John O’Kane and screenwriter Dan Marcus, with O’Kane focusing on the literary side of the equation and Marcus focusing on the cinematic. Specktor’s insights and observations proved to be as illuminating and entertaining as anyone exposed to his work could have hoped for.
JOHN O’KANE: The novel’s narrator, Nate Myer, maintains a certain aloofness for much of the book; he seems to be in the world you’re depicting but not of it. Also, besides narrating the story as it unfolds, he bears the responsibility of having to narrate events that took place before he was born. Could you comment on these creative choices?
MATTHEW SPECKTOR: When I started writing American Dream Machine, I had the problem most writers have—I think—regarding persuasiveness and authority. I was describing a world I either couldn’t quite remember or wasn’t even alive to experience in the first place. It took me a little trial and error, but eventually I realized—my friend David Shields was always telling me that the secret to great work is that you give the problems you’re having with the work to the work. If I made my narrator a little fuzzy-headed, a little unclear on the details himself, that gave me license to invent.
For a hot second I thought this was a novel idea—a new kind of narrator—but eventually, of course, I recognized it was the oldest trick in the book. It’s the same thing Fitzgerald did with Gatsby, a character who remained impenetrable until he invented a narrator, Nick Carraway, who could encounter and describe the man’s opacity for himself.
All the problems of fiction—of anything, really—are ones of perspective. There’s always a certain amount of head banging required, I think, before the perspective becomes legible. Everything else pretty much follows that.
O’KANE: You say you weren't alive to experience the world of your novel or couldn't quite remember it . . . and your explanation about your narrator nicely addresses the issue. Does that mean then that a significant amount of the story is completely fictitious? How much? You did say that Beau is more or less modeled on your father. Could you say that the story is a docu-fiction of changes in the industry?
SPECKTOR: Not to be lawyerly, but after a while it becomes difficult to know where the lines between memory and invention are drawn exactly. The book is fiction—it’s a novel—but like most decent novels—what I’d consider to be such, anyway—it borrows pretty richly against life. My father is a talent agent, albeit one who doesn’t much resemble Beau. I grew up in Santa Monica like Nate did and it’s fair to say that a lot of the particulars of my own life have been configured, with some distortion, into the book. The house I grew up in, the friends I had (and have), the things that were on the radio, the places we hung out—they’re all there. The dialogue, the events, the order of those events, the style in which those events are presented even . . . these things are, for the most part, fiction. When my actual father read the book, he said to me, “It’s like looking at my life . . . without me in it.” I’d say the same. The book is a perfect chronicle of my own life as it belongs to someone who’s not exactly me. If it were a movie, it would be something shot entirely on location. There’s no green screen, no VFX. Only the performances are made up.
For sure, it is a kind of docu-fiction about changes in the industry. This was my explicit intention. I worked in the business myself in the late ‘90s—I was a studio executive—and I was struck, then, by the hard contours that seemed to impose themselves upon the actual making of movies. You couldn’t say, “I have a great script and a filmmaker” and so on. You had to say, “This is the budget and here is the math.” Filmmaking—studio filmmaking, at least—seemed to travel from being an art form to being . . . I won’t say a “science,” but a subset of arithmetic. The movie itself was secondary—possibly even tertiary—to the financial calculus required to justify its making. Which struck me—not to put too fine a point on it—as fucked up. It is fucked up. Movies are an art. It used to be, no matter how concerned a studio was about protecting its investment, this was an agreed-upon fact. Movies were an art form which happened to cost money to produce instead of merely an investment whose sole purpose was to provide a certain return. And I was interested in telling a story that would show the effect of this transformation—this cultural shift, which is ongoing not just inside the movie business but within the entire capitalist landscape, still—on a man who was the product of another world. The world of Arthur Miller, Horatio Alger, the so-called “American Dream.” How would such a person fare in this newer and less forgiving landscape?
DAN MARCUS: You have Nate developing a career adapting literary works into screenplays. In real life, you did the same for Shirley Hazzard's novel, The Transit of Venus. Can you describe that experience? Also—if you'll pardon the phrase—can you "compare and contrast" the process of adaptation vs. creating material from scratch?
SPECKTOR: Well, Shirley’s novel is a straight-up masterpiece, one of the best English language novels of the 20th century. It’s also a tearjerking love story. I read it right around the time The English Patient was a hit—again, doesn’t that feel like lifetimes ago?—and it struck me as, well, that rare thing: a great literary novel that stood a chance of being adaptable. By the time I was able to try my hand at it many people had already been involved in previous attempts. David Williamson, the Australian writer; I believe David Hare. I heard a rumor that Tom Stoppard had written a draft of it once, though I’ve never been able to verify this. I thought, well, all the obvious approaches have surely been tried, as well as most of the not-so-obvious ones, so I’ll just do what Minghella said he did with The English Patient—read the book once, stuff it in a corner, write the adaptation more or less from memory, and then see what I had. My script turned out to be quite different from the novel—radically so—but it spent several years in development at Warner Brothers and there were a lot of prominent actors, actresses, and filmmakers who attached themselves at different times. It was a good script, but I think that kind of epic love story . . . well, they don’t make those movies anymore. Not that they ever did very often to begin with.
Honestly, by the time I was done writing it, it felt like its own entity. I don’t know that there is a difference between adaptation and composing original material for me. In the end, you still have to build the movie from the ground up.
MARCUS: Can you describe your experience working in development for such iconic companies as TriBeCa Productions, Jersey Films, and Fox 2000?
SPECKTOR: Ha! Well that was a long time ago. It staggers me to consider that when I worked in development, Bill Clinton was still in office. That said . . . I never had any great interest in working in development in LA. I took those jobs—Tribeca first, and then kinda scaled the ladder at the other places—because they were in New York and I realized they’d give me a great chance to spy on the publishing industry. I was writing fiction even then, and if I’m honest, the only reason I went to work in development—other than the fact it was reasonably well-paying and generally desirable—was because it afforded a fair amount of access. I liked being able to talk to writers, take editors and agents to lunch, since in each case my job at all of those places centered around acquiring the film rights to literary properties. I like to say I’m the only person ever to leave Los Angeles in order to get into the film industry and to come back in order to become a novelist.
MARCUS: How did your development career inform American Dream Machine?
SPECKTOR: It was an education, for sure. These were the first “real” jobs I’d ever had. Before that I had writer jobs—the kinds of part-time side-hustles you have in your twenties when you work in the arts. Freelance gigs, temp jobs. I worked at a toy company for a month and a half, answered phones at a law office. To go from that—thanks to a series of chance meetings and lucky breaks too convoluted to describe here—to working for Robert De Niro was trippy. To say I enjoyed it is putting it mildly. But what I really learned is that the business really is governed by people who don’t have much control over their personalities. And, to be clear, by “the business” I really mean any business. Not just film. I’m not talking at all about De Niro—who was lovely, actually—or about Danny DeVito—same—or any of the “names” that I worked for. I’m talking rather about the business, the cogs. You realize that this thing that we externalize as “Hollywood” is actually just a big cauldron of private neuroses working themselves out on a public stage. All kinds of deals and decisions get made based on these things, and the stuff that we see—or at least the stuff we used to see, the idea of art and all that—has little to do with it. I guess this has become more evident as the deranged and terrible behavior of the Kevin Spaceys and Harvey Weinsteins of the world becomes a matter of public record. But understanding up close and personal that the movie business isn’t some enigmatic system where art and commerce duke it out in the abstract, but rather a place that’s altogether messy and runs on vulnerability and human frailty . . . that, for sure, was a crucial influence on the book. Maybe the crucial influence.
MARCUS: According to our sources—okay, Wikipedia—American Dream Machine is being developed for Showtime. First of all, congratulations. Can you tell us how that's going?
SPECKTOR: Well, someone needs to update my Wiki. I did write a script for American Dream Machine at Showtime. It was a fun process; I worked with Michael C. Hall on that and a writer named Scott Buck, whom I love. It didn’t get off the ground for whatever reason. I don’t envy the programming muck-a-mucks at the networks, trying to solve whatever puzzles they need to solve, so more recently I’ve adapted it at FX. It’s a completely different script with an altogether different narrative, characters at different ages. Both scripts diverge a bit from the novel, although they’re faithful to its spirit. Maybe it’ll go soon or maybe I’ll wind up writing a third pilot, although I’m pretty busy with other, newer things at the moment.
MARCUS: Can you say what they are?
SPECKTOR: Besides the TV stuff there’s another novel—not set in LA for the most part although it does deal with aspects of the industry—about an actor who makes a series of pretty terrible decisions. There are a couple projects I can’t talk about—a high-profile nonfiction book I’m ghostwriting, which is enjoyable, and another book about art and aesthetics that I’m editing. The thing I’m really excited about is a nonfiction book of my own about female writers and artists in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The latter in its own way is a sort of course-correction following American Dream Machine. I’m aware that the book—and a lot of my work, really—has a pretty strong masculine current, so I’m stoked to write a book that’s really focused on women artists and women’s sensibility. We all should be, really. To the extent I imagine a future for the movies—or for anything—that’s likely where it lies.
MARCUS: In your essay, “Lessons of Hollywood: On the Fate of Middle Class Art,” about your experiences working for Robert De Niro and Danny DeVito as director of literary acquisitions, you quote one of DeVito’s partners at Jersey Films, “a shrewd, literate woman,” as stating, “Great books make bad movies. And bad books often make great ones.” You then go on to say that “[you’ve] since heard this . . . from many sources over the years” and that “it isn’t untrue.” Can you elaborate on why that would be the case?
SPECKTOR: I suspect this bit of wisdom—“wisdom,” quote-unquote, since of course there are plenty of exceptions to prove the rule—roots itself in the number of great movies that have grown directly out of pulp. Off the top of my head: Jaws, Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather, etc. etc. etc. etc. None of these are what you’d call great novels. A more extensive answer has to do with the fact that great novels are usually intimately involved with representations of consciousness, interior experience that is very difficult to represent visually.
Sidebar: I have a friend, the painter Rachel Kice, who’s taken on the rather astounding project—at least to me—of painting American Dream Machine. I don’t mean just representing the characters and scenes. I mean she’s literally turning the individual words and sentences of the book into pieces of visual art, a kind of lexicon. It’s a remarkable experience for me. She’s just getting started—and it’s likely to take a while, insofar as it’s a long book—but the paintings are stunning. And it seems in many ways more truthful to me, more accurate a representation of the novel somehow, than a film or television show could ever be. It represents the more synesthetic and, by their nature, abstract aspects of fiction writing, which is precisely what I imagine gets lost in the more overt process of adaptation.
MARCUS: Your protagonist in American Dream Machine, talent agent Beau Rosenwald, suggests a remake of Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. Beau’s brilliant protégé turned producer, Emily White, replies that the Truffaut movie can’t be improved upon and the remake should be based on the original novel, Down There, written by David Goodis—who of course also wrote Dark Passage, which was made into the noir film starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Is this something that you perchance considered in real life as a movie executive or later as a screenwriter? Outside of the obvious difference in setting—Philadelphia as opposed to Paris—how would you imagine such a film differing from the Truffaut classic? Finally, what are your thoughts, if any, on David Goodis and his work?
SPECKTOR: Ha! This is indeed something I kicked around with a producer friend, some twenty years ago. It was his idea and it was my introduction to Goodis on the page, though I’d seen Shoot the Piano Player. Wonderful writer, and I found him startlingly desolate. Down There, Dark Passage, and one other—off the top of my head, I don’t even remember which—I read. I haven’t revisited him since but I’d probably like him still more today. To be honest, that’s in the novel because it seemed just the sort of idea Emily would have—she’s both film literate and literature literate--and one that Beau could conceivably embrace.
MARCUS: It’s fascinating to observe the way Beau bludgeons his way through a Hollywood career. He’s clearly an agent with aspirations to be a producer. From your unique vantage point, do you believe this to be fairly typical? Also, how compatible in your estimation is the skill-set required for each of those professions?
SPECKTOR: Well, I’m not sure about this. Beau is an agent who becomes a producer when he washes out of the agency business. There’s a difference, and I think it’s typical in Hollywood—it used to be, at least, and to some extent I think it is still—that when you leave one arena you can still come back in another. A lot of agents become managers. A lot of studio executives become producers. Agents, of course, work within the structure of a corporation—ICM, CAA, whatever—whereas producers are on their own. There’s probably a difference in temperament involved there. In my estimation—and, of course, I’ve never been an agent—I suspect an agent is always forced to focus on the deal, where a producer has to focus on the film. That’s an oversimplification, but you can see a shift in emphasis and imagine a difference in skill-set accordingly. It’s tempting to say agents are sociopaths but producers are just garden variety liars.
That’s a joke. I think.
MARCUS: This may be a bit like asking God what He thinks of Abraham, but if you could interview Beau today what would you want to ask him?
SPECKTOR: Ha ha! I’m afraid it might be more like asking Abraham what he thinks of God. I’m not sure I’m the boss of Beau here, but I think I’d ask him if I could try on one of his shirts—maybe if he had a wine recommendation. I don’t mean in the sense of fetishizing the good life—being interested in the rich man’s fancy stuff—but more in the sense of chasing the ineffable. What did it feel like to be alive in the mid-to-late 20th century? I mean, I was alive for some of it, but what did it feel like as an adult? I’d ask him the small things: What was his favorite meal? Where was his first apartment? What does he miss most from boyhood? These seem like dumb things, but the older I get myself, the more I realize that “wisdom”—whatever it is someone may have learned or things we imagine we can impart to other people—is largely useless. What counts is experience, the texture and grain of a life. And now more than ever—now that so much of the world feels synthetic, corporate, mediated by screens and other technologies—the very coarseness and the weird humility of a life like Beau’s has such appeal. What did it feel like to be a person who spoke his own mind? Who even had a mind to speak.
MARCUS: One of the most ironic and poignant scenes in your book occurs when Beau approaches a movie mogul in a restaurant in order to “confirm his own status,” which ultimately leads to devastating consequences. Would it be possible to describe how you came up with the idea for that encounter?
SPECKTOR: As with most, there was a combination of ingredients. I needed Beau to destroy himself without knowing he was doing it. I needed a benign social interaction—seemingly benign—that would have consequences. This seemed a plausible way to do it. On a more intimate level, this scene happens at a restaurant by the beach, a place I’ve been to many times with my parents on Sunday evenings. It seems trivial, but I wanted to capture that place, that moment, and that mood. If the scene is poignant, it may gain in that regard from my consciousness that this is a place I’ll someday miss. It’s sort of a predictive version of the Hamburger Hamlet scene at the beginning.
MARCUS: Your father, Fred Specktor, was an agent for William Morris and then CAA, where he’s still active. How much shop talk would you say you were exposed to growing up?
SPECKTOR: A lot. And yet it’s amazing how little of it I paid attention to, if only because industry shop talk is like every other kind—of interest mostly to the people who work in the shop. There’s stuff in the book that was overheard—that ludicrous misunderstanding Beau has at the end regarding the film Gandhi, which proves so instrumental in determining his fate, is taken from something I overheard—but most of the shop talk here is invented. I wish I could remember half the things I must’ve overheard when I was a kid. I’m sure they’d be a lot more interesting to me now.
MARCUS: What were some of your favorite films and television shows at that time? What genres? And what about today?
SPECKTOR: Hoo-boy. When I was a kid I was, predictably, obsessed with everything the Z Channel brought into my living room. The Sting. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Sleeper. Bananas. When I got a little older, things that were inappropriate—sometimes wildly so—but eye-opening: A Clockwork Orange. The Deer Hunter. Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Really, a ‘70s childhood in that respect. When I was a teenager, I had a film teacher in high school, the legendary Jim Hosney, who opened my eyes to all sorts of things: Godard. Buñuel. Antonioni. Truffaut. It’s fair to say my tastes haven’t changed all that much. They’ve expanded, mostly backwards in time—Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, and so on—but they’re anchored, firmly, in the Golden Age as defined inside the novel.
Where TV is concerned, I’m equally predictable. I watched less of it than most of my peers growing up. I was too consumed by books, rock ’n’ roll, and films—in that order—to spend much time on the living room rug. But more recently? Breaking Bad, The Wire, Mad Men, Six Feet Under, The Shield, etc. etc. The seminal hour-long dramas we all know and most of us love. At the moment, Fargo and The Deuce have my attention. I don’t go to the movies all that often anymore, to be honest. That’s not to say I don’t like, say, Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies as much as the next person. I do, more or less. But they don’t feel quite as urgent, as necessary to me as films once did.
MARCUS: Which screenwriters and directors do you admire most? Do you have a candidate—or candidates—for the Great American Film?
SPECKTOR: I’ll stay within my ‘70s sweet spot and say I spend a lot of time with Altman. It’s hard to think of a better brace of films than, say, The Long Goodbye, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and Nashville, to say nothing of California Split, Three Women, etc. I feel similarly about Coppola’s run from ’72 to ’79. I will never get enough of Bob Towne’s Chinatown script or Chayefsky’s Network. It’s ridiculous—impossible—to try to boil this down to a list of screenwriters and directors I admire, let alone a candidate for a single Great American Film. I realize these are all sorts of major-key choices, but I would be negligent not to make them all the same. If there’s a particular film, or a filmmaker I think should be much more widely appreciated, I’d say it would be Charles Burnett for Killer of Sheep and just about everything else—not nearly enough—I’ve seen that’s followed it. In a perfect world that man would be allowed to make any movie he wanted until the end of time. He’s a giant.
MARCUS: And now for a really important question. What do you think of the direction the Bond films have taken in recent years, the most recent, of course, being Spectre? And would you care to weigh in on Daniel Craig?
SPECKTOR: Thank God you asked. Casino Royale is the best Bond movie since the first one, arguably better. Craig is the best Bond since . . . well, one loves them all for different reasons, right? Pitting them against each other is a bit like steak au poivre vs. Hollandaise sauce, y’know? I guess Timothy Dalton was a little naff, but I have a soft spot for Pierce Brosnan for many reasons. During the ‘90s—and I believe still, although I’d have to check—Pierce was a client of my father’s, and it was my dad, in fact, who negotiated those movies for him. There was a moment, if I recall correctly, when BMW used Pierce’s likeness in an advertisement without asking permission and my father, as his agent, picked up the phone to give them hell. It was a small transgression, it may have been little more than a discourtesy—I’m not sure—but like Beau my dad had a bit of a reputation for being the kind of agent you didn’t want to hear from if he was angry, so, uh, the folks at BMW probably weren’t thrilled to be dealing with him. This was right around the time I was moving back to LA from New York. I arrived with my then-fiancée and we were staying at my dad’s for a few days while we were looking for an apartment, a car, and so on. It happened that a beautiful automobile—an E36 M3, which was the high-performance BMW they were just beginning to import into the U.S.—showed up in the driveway one morning. It wasn’t quite as sleek as the car Bond was driving in Tomorrow Never Dies, but it was close. And, y’know, I desperately needed a way to get around town for a few days while I was hunting for a vehicle I could afford.
It was never entirely clear to me whether that car was an apology, a thank you, or if my father had simply agented them with the same savvy he did everybody else. I do know that for a week or so I drove that car about as recklessly as I’ve ever done anything in my life. I’ll never be James Bond myself, but it was nice of him, effectively, to let me drive his car. Now if I could only get my hands on an Aston Martin . . .
O’KANE: Matthew, we talked about LA novelists and you mentioned Bret Ellis. He's from LA but really doesn't write about LA—at least in the few books I've read. Aldous Huxley is from the UK and has a couple novels set in LA. Island is one of my favorite books. Nathanael West is obviously an LA novelist. John Fante came from Colorado but stayed here his whole life and wrote about it. BUK, Charles Bukowski, fits but clearly in an idiom at odds with much of the canon, though he liked Fante. Ellis definitely seems like a big influence on you. This isn't quite a question! It's on the way. . .
SPECKTOR: It’s funny. I was pretty circumspect about not reading certain LA novelists—or not reading too much of them—until fairly late in life, in some cases, until I’d already written . . . or started writing American Dream Machine. I’d read Chandler, I’d read Didion, I’d read Nathanael West and late Fitzgerald because who hasn’t? But I hadn’t absorbed them in a way you’d consider them to be “influences,” as fine as all of them are. My influences were largely East Coast and predominately Jewish—Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, James Salter. My friendly peers and writerly neighbors were similarly so: Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, etc. This perhaps disappointingly masculine posse was leavened by an obsessive reading of a number of others who certainly write a lot better than I’ll ever be able to. Shirley Hazzard, Renata Adler, Elizabeth Bowen were all writers I read relentlessly, even if their influence is probably harder to detect in this particular book. And James Baldwin, who was my undergraduate professor and who pointed me to, among other things, Henry James. Put those things together and you probably arrive at the crucible in which American Dream Machine was forged.
I love Bret Ellis’s fiction, and there’s probably not an Angeleno my age alive who wasn’t affected by Less Than Zero when it came out. He and I grew up at approximately the same time and he described the world in which I came of age better than anyone. Indeed, he may have been the only person who described it at all. I think the subsequent run of novels from American Psycho to Lunar Park is exemplary. Those are incredible books, although not in any way confined to Los Angeles. At the same time, I don’t think I can say he’s an influence. His work occupies its own sphere, a tonal and moral world that’s a bit different. As with Steve Erickson, or Bruce Wagner or Kate Braverman or Michael Tolkin . . . or Carolyn See or Eve Babitz or Joan Didion or Walter Mosley, it was impossible to write and not be conscious of the Los Angeles he’d created. But this is a big city and I was looking out a window a few miles—maybe a freeway overpass or two—away.
O’KANE: The comments you made earlier about movies and arithmetic in relation to a cultural shift in Hollywood made me think of Aldous Huxley's great LA futurist novel Ape and Essence, written in 1948 and set in 2120. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it. The story is framed around two characters wandering through a studio lot who see some rejected scripts fall off a truck on the way to the incinerator. They pick up one which turns out to be brilliant. Most of Huxley’s book consists of this script, an avant-garde art film that in its structure and content mocks the simple linear story and the mentalities of the masses that support the system that produces this kind of entertainment. Of course, we did see the development of indie films in the ‘50s following the Paramount antitrust decision in 1947. This renaissance continued through the ‘60s and into the ‘70s, producing a sort of parallel Hollywood. Could you say that what you chronicle in American Dream Machine is the final demise of this indie era?
SPECKTOR: The optimist in me would like to say it isn’t, but I think we all understand—don’t we?—that movies as we’ve known them aren’t coming back. Film was the dominant 20th century art form. It feels ridiculous to speak of it in past tense. Of course there will continue to be movies as there are still books, paintings, jazz combos, poems, and so on. But none of those art forms are culturally dominant anymore either. Which doesn’t make them less alive; it only makes them slightly peripheral. Movies aren’t yet, but they are bloated, expensive, hyperbolic. I’m talking about studio movies, mind you. I’m well aware that there are other kinds.
I think it’s probably true that the movies’ reliance on that linear quality Huxley critiques is part of what’s killed them. A friend of mine, a very successful director, said to me recently that the problem with movies is that we’ve run out of myths. I’d say that’s half true. I think the real problem is that the imperatives and pressures provided by capitalism and technology—forces that are not entirely separable—have wrecked so many things: our attention spans, the economy, any real hope of adequate recompense for artists—not that that hasn’t always been an issue. Movies are collapsing under these pressures and I’m pretty sure they won’t be back as a culturally pertinent art form, emphasis on “art.” The good news is . . . there’ll be something else. People need art. The so-called golden age of television we’re presently living through is proof of that. And I suspect it’s a stopgap but there’ll be something else, unsuspected.
O’KANE: We discussed the issue of literary novels versus the commercial genre and the reality that five percent of the market now—perhaps less—is reserved for the literary variety, the type that converges possibly with the European novel. Practitioners like Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace seem to be very scarce. This might have something to do with the literacy level of the country. But could it also have something to do with the system of production? The economic pressures that have driven the studios to trivialize and package formulas—their highly concentrated conglomeration that bottom-lines to the extreme—seem to be in play with respect to book publishers too. And the same companies seem to own both. The latter have clearly restricted the types of books that can be published, ironically contributing to the literacy problem! Might a more diversified, competitive system more effectively represent the demand for literary product presently being denied?
Also, where do you see your writing in relation to this structure, having written an excellent novel about the film industry and as a novelist committed to revitalizing the literary novel with new content and form . . . and possibly as one who is identified with the LA literary scene and culture, often denigrated in relation to the East?
SPECKTOR: Good questions. I would say yes, for sure, the contemporary literary landscape—the mainstream literary landscape—has been flattened out in much the same way the landscape of film has, and for many of the same reasons. HarperCollins and 20th Century Fox—or do we say 21st Century Fox now?—are owned by the same parent corporation. Each of the Big Five houses is owned by a multinational company. It would be ridiculous to pretend this doesn’t affect things. The forces described in American Dream Machine are applicable in every branch of media, in sports, in the music business . . . pretty much everywhere. At the same time, there are an exceptional number of independent publishing houses doing stellar work. There are larger ones, like Graywolf or Tin House or Counterpoint Press or Coffee House and there are smaller ones, like Unnamed Press or Civil Coping Mechanisms or Stalking Horse. Really, there are so many vibrant independent publishing houses in the U.S. at the moment—places with as strong and bold a sensibility as one could ever dare to hope for—that it’s simply a mistake to imagine there doesn’t already exist a “more diversified, competitive system.” There does! The only thing these houses lack is the kind of monolithic fiscal advantage and the advertising muscle enjoyed by multinational conglomerates. Would it be better for literary culture if this particular playing field were leveled? Hell, yeah. It’s like every other kind of wealth inequality in this respect.
It’s not necessarily for me to say where my writing fits inside that structure, or any other. I like to think it’s the structure’s job, generally, to learn how to contend with the writer and not the writer’s job to accommodate the existing structure. It’s also not my job to talk about “revitalizing the novel” in 2017. That said, I think any decent work of art is intent on revitalizing and expanding its form. That’s what good books do, in both large and small ways. I was hell-bent on writing a book about Los Angeles—about its glossy, hedonistic, frequently derided and fetishized Hollywood aspect—that would be merely human. I wanted to write about LA the way Balzac did about Paris or Philip Roth did about New Jersey or Michael Ondaatje did about Sri Lanka—as a place that was worthy of a sort of ordinary attention, an arena for normal life instead of some soul-sucking vacuum. That book didn’t seem to exist. Perhaps it still doesn’t, but I tried.
I love this place. I have every intention of writing about it again. Why wouldn’t I? It’s an article of obsession for me, the way Monet’s haystacks or Brian Wilson’s stacked harmonies or Bo Diddley’s drumbeat must’ve seemed to them. There’s plenty of room to stretch outside it, but almost anything one could wish to imagine is right here.
John O’Kane has published over a hundred fifty stories, essays and poems in a variety of venues, blogs regularly on Huffingtonpost, and edits and publishes AMASS Magazine. His most recent book is, A People’s Manifesto (2015). He has a short story, “Exhumation,” in the annual Goose River Press anthology (2017). He has a book of short stories forthcoming in 2018.
Dan Marcus is a screenwriter, playwright, and songwriter. He is the co-writer of six stage musicals produced in the Philippines and LA, respectively. Various artists have performed and recorded his compositions, which have also appeared in movies and on television. His songs “The Existential Banana Peel” and “Sometimes I Feel Like Richard Nixon” are scheduled for spring release.