Writers of fiction who consistently reach mass audiences tend to have, just as consistently, a hard time with critics. Something about a best-seller list puts critics on guard.
Selling well is a kind of revenge, or at least a consolation prize, for the authors. But it doesn't, I think, quite salve away the sting of the patronizing dismissals--the reviews that fail to see that the best sellers may well be reporting the realities along with the fantasies of their time, or that expert narrative skills are at work.
The one current writer who is equally and comfortably at home on the best-seller lists and in the New York Review of Books is John Le Carre, who has become the Henry James of soiled espionage.
Steve Shagan, who arrived at novels late, after servitude in corporate and television publicity, tries to neutralize the possibility of bad notices by anticipating them. "They pay for the bridgework," he said of his books at a recent public meeting. Inscribing a copy of his new book, "Vendetta," he noted that "it takes a long time to understand that the true motivation to write resides with dental work."
But what is said is by no means heartfelt. What launched Shagan as a novelist was his own novelization of his tough and eloquent screenplay for the 1972 film "Save the Tiger," which won Jack Lemmon an Academy Award for his portrayal of a middle-aged businessman forced to confront the erosion of his own character and the loss, as it seemed to him, of a national innocence as well as his own.
Shagan's second novel was similarly an adaptation of his script called "City of Angels" but filmed as "Hustle," with Burt Reynolds and Catherine Deneuve as cop and call girl. Shagan's original girl was a West Virginian with memories of a miner father coughing blood. It was only one of the film's shifts away from his exploration of the cop-criminal relationship. \o7 Plus ca change, \f7 the more it changes beyond recognition.
But the success tugged him toward the thriller genre where, in "The Formula," "The Circle" and "The Discovery," he has tried to write entertainments that are, not so incidentally, about something: oil cartels, Asian absolutism and Middle East entanglements respectively.
He has had the luck of timeliness. "The Formula," about the manipulation of oil prices, was read (symbolically at least) by people sitting in gas lines. "Vendetta," begun a year and a half ago, is about what Shagan calls "the coking of America" and the control of pornography by organized crime. It coincides nicely with the death by cocaine of two star athletes, the American military assistance in Bolivia's war on the cocaine trade and the Meese Commission report on pornography.
"You set out to entertain, as any novelist must do," Shagan said at lunch the other day. "But if you can pull the material out of the world around you and make it organic without making it polemic, maybe you can come up with something that isn't just a genre piece."
The line between fact and fiction can be thin, he says, and "fiction becomes an impression of the real events that are in front of you and all around you."
He acknowledges that the specific inspiration for "Vendetta" was a long account in Sunday Calendar of the brief life of a middle-class girl from the Midwest who came to Hollywood, became a porno star and a heavy cocaine user and who died, still hardly out of her teens, in ambiguous circumstances in a desert resort.
"What was she seeking?" Shagan asks rhetorically. "What distorted version of the American Dream did she buy? What is the dream anymore--that we're all going to win on a game show and end up on 'Lives of the Rich and Famous'? Those are the dreams; the dead girl is the reality."
Shagan is already writing the script of "Vendetta" as a partner of producer Ed Feldman, who was an important force in the making of "Save the Tiger" and later produced "Witness."
"I've been in the Hollywood fun house long enough to know that you're always on the high wire without a net. I've had offers from two of the majors, but this is a piece of material I want to control.
"I'm writing for Writers Guild minimum, but I'm an owner this time. It's a little breakthrough--the odds are a little shifted in my favor. Maybe some of the themes will be preserved.
"If it fails (e.g., doesn't find production financing), I'll pay back the minimum, but nobody's hurt badly. I didn't take a lot of dollars up-front. That's a load I don't have to carry up the Via Dolorosa this time.
"And if we get it made, 90% of the money will be up on the screen, not budgeted for mythical radio commercials in Lima, Peru."
Doing the screenplay, Shagan says, he finds that the characters have begun talking to him (a phenomenon many writers report). "It's like taking dictation. That hasn't happened since 'Tiger.'
"You take your lumps," he adds with a shrug. " 'Voyage of the Damned' (for which Shagan did the screenplay) took its lumps. But what can you say? I'm glad the work exists--all the work. And that's all a writer can hope to say."