Current Events XVIII
Christian Sec. Fraud
Bridge School I
Bridge School II
Dr. Ralph Stanley I
Dr. Ralph Stanley II
Successful Aging I
Successful Aging II
Clear Thinking I
Clear Thinking II
Death Penalty 2010
Death Penalty II
Knowledge Create I
Kn. Creation II
Kn. Creation III
Doctor and Diva I
Doctor and Diva II
Doctor and Diva III
Doctor and Diva IV
Colton H. Bryant I
Colton Bryant II
'61 Rose Bowl Hoax
The King's Speech
Lk 17:11-19 (2011)
Caravaggio in 2011
A Trip to Maui
Advice to Young Folk
Bill Long 11/20/10
First Impressions--Reading Malice (1997)
A few days ago a friend, believing that my writing skills should be appreciated by more readers, took the novel step of sending me her stash of Danielle Steel novels (about a dozen of them) so that I could study Steel's work and figure out why people buy her books. Then, she reasoned, I might be able to apply some of her methods or insights to my work and, presto, a star would be born! She picked Steel because her books have probably sold more copies than any other living fiction writer.
I was, at the time, a complete Steel "virgin," having read nary a word of her prolific 70+ novel output. So, I read a little about her and was impressed by her discipline, even obsession, with writing while raising a brood of seven or so kids. So, after I received a shipment of her books (how many am I obliged to read?) I decided, because I had no other way of deciding, to read the first book that appeared, Malice. The purpose of this essay is to tease out elements of her literary artistry...
Telling A Story
Malice has a story line that is trivially easy to follow. We join the story with the main character, Grace, at 17, and the book ends when she is around 40. We, as the "omniscient" reader, learn that her basic issue is sexual abuse--by her apparently upstanding lawyer father. She kills him, faces a degrading trial, serves two years in the pen, and then moves to Chicago, New York and Washington as she pursues a life that began quite obscurely but ended up in the glare of national headlines. Along the way she meets a series of characters, more vicious than nice, and experiences more troubles than the ordinary person faces. Ultimately, she falls in love with a rich New York attorney (the story couldn't have been written, I don't believe, if she had just decided to marry a small-town boy and stay there), gets married, has three kids and then has to face up to various photos taken of her in compromising positions in much earlier days while in an involuntarily-induced drug haze. Everything ends rather happily for everyone, however.
It's not a bad story, as stories go, but it isn't hard to detect, by about page 100, a certain "formulaic" air to all of this. For example, I found myself saying to myself, "OK, we are on page 268, and everything is described as perfect for her (when she finds a beautiful Lakeshore Drive apartment with four models); this means that she is going to face potential threats that are real but which she will be able to overcome without too much struggle." I found myself making mental lists of the "problems" that she faced and how she dealth with them.
1. Her father--bumped him off.
2. Potential Death Penalty case--ended up getting 2 years in pen.
3. Dangers in the pen from a lesbian gang. She is saved by the timely intervention of an inmate whose brothers are so dangerous that all the other female inmates leave Grace alone.
4. Threatening parole officer--she regularly puts him in his place.
5. Lewd and unscrupulous photographer--she thinks she gets away intact from him, after her friends have warned her about him.
6. Husband of model-agency manager. He gropes, but she has steely resolve and doesn't capitulate.
7. A horrific beating that leaves her at death's door. She has tremendous recuperative powers and, by the time the pelvis is healed, she immediately gets pregnant. What looked like permanent brain damage turns out to be nothing.
8. Exposure of her most intimate private life to tabloid scrutiny. She and her family feel the pain and humiliation of it, but eventually her husband leaves politics, and they go back to being a happy, rather anonymous family, with the French Ambassadorship thrown in.
Not only was Grace able to recover with unbelievable rapidity and completeness from a beating that led even medical professionals to confess that she looked like a goner, but once she resolves to form an organization to help abused children it is a mere four pages until she is getting White House recognition for her efforts. Surely life works like this. It has for many people I have known..
One other feature of Steel's story-telling is that she telegraphs things very clearly. When Grace meets a man, for example, Steel is careful to send out all kinds of literary signals that this guy is a sleazeball, or an adulterer or, in the case of McKenzie, whom she eventually marries, a wonderful man. Characters don't seem to change or develop much, and there is little time for reflection on irony, mystery or absurdity in life.
Knowledge and Writing
One of the things I most appreciate about authors is that they can teach me things about the world that I don't know. This happens not only as a result of their research but also because of their use of the language, especially vivid similes and metaphors.
I don't know what I hoped to learn from Steel, but I figured she might, since this book was about Chicago, NY and Washington, DC, take me down some streets I didn't know and show me angles on these cities which were foreign to me. But all we meet in NYC is, predictably, the Upper East Side, the Plaza Hotel and lower Manhattan where the down-and-out people live. I was hoping to learn something more about law, about the trial, about evidence, about legal principles, or something that might have arisen from all the lawyers that were involved in the book--but there isn't much here, either.
In fact, the date when Grace must have committed her crime was either 1972 or 1973, and Steel portrays her and her lawyers as worried about the possible imposition of the death penalty on young Grace. But, in fact, the US Supreme Court, in June 1972, declared the death penalty unconstitutional as applied, and it wasn't until 1976 that the death penalty was reinstated in the US. Thus, in fact, there was no operative death penalty in IL at the time of Grace's trial. But, sorry for being historically picky here...
The thing that I learned that is most significant for me is not anything in the book but that Steel lives in a 55-room home on 2080 Washington St., San Francisco, in a mansion owned by the former sugar baron, Adolph Spreckles. http://www.noehill.com/sf/landmarks/sf197.asp. I hadn't known that--now I do.
I suppose each author works at a pace most comfortable to him or her. Each pace has its problems. Too much care can overload sentences and not allow you really to let a narrative "flow." Too little care and fast writing leaves you with undeveloped characters, trite sentences, a limited vocabulary and few sensual descriptions. Steel is a "fast-paced" author and, in order to succeed, a fast-paced author needs to be "saved" by the story. Many readers, indeed, think that this is one of Steel's best novels, and that the stories of abuse and pain make it a "realistic" or powerful novel. I am not there yet. Yet, she sells. And, I guess I have to keep reading her until I learn to love it--and then imitate it... Right?