Psorry, but Psmith Psucks

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Psmith.jpgNotwithstanding the title, I come to herald Caesar, not to bury him - Caesar being, of course, P.G. Wodehouse, the great comic novelist and short story writer.  Having no shortage of admiration for Wodehouse, I have recently begun to delve into his considerable repertoire outside the Wooster-Jeeves stories.  In so doing, I had the misfortune to pass more hours than I'd have liked in the company of Psmith, Journalist.  (The "P," in case you were wondering, is silent, as it is in "psoriasis.")

The plot of Psmith, Journalist sounded interesting: high-bred British Communist takes over a refined American weekly, Cozy Moments, and turns it into a radical rag.  But from the outset, the book sags.  (Or I should say, "psags.")  

P.G. Wodehouse never really got America.  That he loved it is abundantly clear.  But you have to get a place to skewer it.  He got England so well that his skewering is timeless.  But his American pieces are always a bit awry, and Psmith, Journalist is no exception.  The accents and character types are too stereotypical and two-dimensional.  In England, where repression has been necessary to maintain the "stiff upper lip" and manners for which the British are famous, stereotypical, two-dimensional people are usually secreting an individual beneath the surface.  In America, where earnestness is the watchword and repression is a mortal sin, stereotypes are as unoccupied as abandoned hermit crab shells.

Then there's Wodehouse's unfortunate use of terms like "wop," "dago" and "coon" in Psmith, Journalist, not to mention his descriptions of black people with "woolly head[s]" and "rolling eyes."  In contrast to his timeless British stories, Psmith, Journalist (which was published in 1915) is painfully, cringe-worthily dated.

And, although Wodehouse exhibits his typical mastery of plot (and its attendant twists) in Psmith, Journalist, his skills at characterization fail him.  Psmith's own motivations remain superficial and scantily addressed.  In the Jeeves-Wooster stories, love or freedom is the standard motivation for the hijinks: couples are trying to scrape together the financial means to get married, or men are trying to summon the gumption to propose (love); or men are trying to escape a bad marriage (freedom).  In Psmith, Journalist, Psmith is never doing more than amusing himself.  Nor is his bizarre habit of referring to everyone as "Comrade" - or his ostensible Communism - ever explained; it's as external an adornment to Psmith's person as his monocle.  

Additionally, Psmith, Journalist lacks a single female character.  Women, of course, were a major problem for P.G. Wodehouse to depict as human beings, an issue that may stem of his authorial struggle to sympathize with them.  But Wodehouse nonetheless used them wonderfully as foils for the character development of his vapid male characters, for whom he seemed to have no shortage of empathy.  (Jeeves, in fact, does similar foil-for-protagonist work in Wodehouse's stories.)  Fascinatingly, in the course of his explorations of the utilitarian benefits of female characters, Wodehouse created one brilliant, fully-realized, totally lovable and sympathetic female character: Aunt Dahlia.  Troublemaker, defender of the clan, foodie, fox hunter, magazine editor, devoted wife, blackmailer, gambler and articulater of some of the finest comic dialogue in literature, Aunt Dahlia (and not Jeeves) may well be Wodehouse's most astonishing achievement.

What redeems Psmith, Journalist and makes it worth reading is a similar opportunity to witness Wodehouse's extraordinary growth as an author.  As much as his towering literary achievements, Wodehouse's trajectory - from psucks to pstupendous - is an amazing legacy.  

Nonetheless, appreciating this kind of developmental legacy seems to be something of a challenge in the current publishing environment (and its penumbra of book criticism).  For instance, in a profile of novelist Nora Roberts about a year ago in The New Yorker, Lauren Collins made the eyebrow-raising statement, "Most writers have worked out the kinks in their writing by the time they are published."  Not if they're any good they haven't.

In my experience, as both a reader and a novelist, growth is an intrinsic part of a writer's process.  If a writer is engaged in the world, his or her work will not be static.  What wasn't a "kink" in an earlier work will be identified and ironed out in a later work.  This process happens over many articles, stories and books.  

Ian Rankin, for example, experienced this process and spoke on Bookslut about his "long apprenticeship" over seven Inspector Rebus novels, which led to his eighth, Black and Blue, being a breakthrough:

I felt it. When I started plotting [Black and Blue] and started writing it, I could feel that it was a different kind of book. It was initially given an injection from my close and passionate reading of James Ellroy. I went on a real tear with him. If you read the opening pages of Black and Blue, there's a real James Ellroy feel to them - very staccato sentences with a lot of slang that you might not know but that gives a lot of mood and character. I knew the book was going to be a lot darker and use a real-life case, which I had never done before.
. . . .
To me, it felt like a big important book.
Rankin was right, and just in time.  As he recounts in The Scruffy Dog Review

There were a lot of years back then when I just wasn't selling. The first six or seven books sold very poorly and then suddenly Black and Blue came along at a time when my publishers were getting ready to drop me. They felt they had done everything they could to try and break me into a bigger market, so they were getting ready to let another publisher take a shot . . . ."the books aren't selling, they're not getting well reviewed," and that was eight years of my writing career. I was panicking.
Black and Blue went on to win the Gold Dagger Award, and Rankin ultimately broke ground on the UK best seller list when six of his titles graced the Scottish Top 10 simultaneously.  By 2002, he'd received an O.B.E.

As the examples of P.G. Wodehouse and Ian Rankin suggest, if an author lives in Lauren Collins' world and doesn't publish until he or she works out the kinks, then one of two possibilities will occur.  Either he or she will not work out all the kinks.  (Ian Rankin wouldn't have written seven Inspector Rebus novels if the first hadn't been published.)  Or the author is going to starve.

P.G. Wodehouse didn't starve.  He was publishing from 1902 to 1974 (and even into 1978, posthumously).  His bibliography runs to something like a hundred books.  I can imagine that Wodehouse could relate to Samuel Johnson, who (as described by Andrew O'Hagan in The New York Review of Books)

while half-blind and aching with the gout, in a cold garret and dressed like a mendicant, formed his nation's dictionary and an entire multivolume edition of Shakespeare with commentary and notes, while also devoting himself to poetry, plays, hundreds of essays, parliamentary sketches, prayers, prefaces and multiple biographies . . . . [H]e believed that only work, only application, could justify the claims of a writer.   
Writers need to write if they're going to reach their pinnacles.  To write, they need to eat.  To eat, they need to publish.  To publish enough to eat, sometimes they need to publish crap, but only by writing and eating and publishing will the crap improve.

All of which is to say that Psmith is a pstep that Wodehouse had to take to give us Aunt Dahlia, and I'm psuper grateful that the publishing industry psupported Wodehouse in the course of his literary pstruggles.  This lesson is one that publishing will forget at psociety's expense.

(Image of Psmith from The Project Gutenberg)   

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This page contains a single entry by Maya published on May 7, 2010 7:50 AM.

Ready for the shovel was the previous entry in this blog.

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