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As Opposed to Journalism : CROONING A Collection by John Gregory Dunne (Simon & Schuster: $19.95; 304 pp.)

August 19, 1990|Lawrence S. Dietz | Dietz, currently writing a history of the development of Los Angeles and the Chandler family for Bantam Books, has been a magazine editor and writer since 1965.

About 15 years ago, Tom Wolfe and I got to talking about magazines and the sorry state of people who write for them. He suggested we get ourselves over to New York's Natural History Museum, where we and our typewriters could be put behind glass to serve as living dioramas, each churning out pages for the amusement, or edification, of visitors. A plaque would read: MAGAZINE WRITERS, MID-20TH CENTURY, NEARING EXTINCTION.

Things haven't gotten any better for magazine writers since then. Although there are more publications, most of them pay writers the same rates as in 1975--or 1965--and they don't make up for lousy pay with decent treatment, as John Gregory Dunne (unintentionally?) reminds the reader in this collection of first-rate magazine pieces that first appeared in New West, Esquire and the New York Review of Books.

Dunne describes one magazine editor, Robert Silver, who actually tries to help his writers by supplying them with prodigious amounts of research, in stark contrast to most magazine editors, who treat their writers with benign neglect until the heavy work is done, the piece submitted. Only then do they bestir themselves to announce what they want to read and where it should go. Like homeowners who tell sweating moving men that perhaps the piano should be over there, and the couch over there, the editors then order writers to do massive rewrites.

The catch is that Silver's publication, the New York Review of Books, pays so little money that Dunne advises that a writer have "an outside source of income . . . if one intends to publish there with any regularity."

Which Dunne has: He and his wife, Joan Didion, write movie scripts in addition to their articles and books. One piece, "Dealing," is reminiscent of Dunne's marvelous, behind-the-scenes book "The Studio." It recounts, step-by-step and player-by-player, the offer made to him and his wife to write a script of "The Little Drummer Girl." The negotiation broke down over $50,000, "in Hollywood terms a piddling sum, which is an indication of how far removed the picture business is from the real world."

Far enough, in fact, so that when the deal collapsed, director George Roy Hill, who wouldn't budge from his offer of $250,000 (the writers' price was $300,000), sent them two cases of Bordeaux, a 1976 Haut Brion and a 1979 Lafite Rothschild, worth around $750 at the time (considerably more now). Dunne writes that he and Didion both suffer migraines triggered by red wine, so the bottles may still be unopened--a good thing in the case of the Lafite, which is still too young to drink.

The difference between what movie companies and magazines pay writers (book publishers fall somewhere between, closer, for the most part, to the latter than the former) helps to explain why most of the pieces in this collection (three about California, five on politics or well-known writers, four about the movie business, one on visiting Israel, three on the task of writing) are a mixture of essay and pure reportage--the field in which Dunne made his reputation with Delano and the Studio.

These are not, however, essays of the gasbag, op-ed-page school. Dunne has too sharp an eye, and pen, for that. In a piece on reviews, he remembers seeing critic John Simon at a dinner party: "Honesty compels me to report, in the interests of those actresses whose tinny voices and pendulous breasts and flabby muscle tone he has maligned, that a giblet of quiche dominated his primary chin, and his teeth, all too visible as he ate, seemed the product either of bad dentistry or a stagnant genetic pool."

He has added to that piece a postscript reacting to a lambasting he received from James Wolcott last year in Vanity Fair. Dunne had previously modeled a character in his novel "Red, White and Blue" on Wolcott, who waited seven years, until the publication of Dunne's memoir, "Harp," for revenge. It may not be the last word between the two, but it certainly is the best, noting that Wolcott has failed to graduate to more substantial forms--books, screenplays, novels: "(Magazine) Tearsheets are (Wolcott's) life's diary, its dismal history."

"Crooning" ends with a sweet elegy for Dunne's friend Barry Farrell, a Los Angeles magazine writer cursed until his untimely death with an equal measure of talent and perfectionism. Talent is only sometimes recognized in the magazine business, perfection frowned on by editors for whom the only inevitability is the deadline for the current issue.

However difficult magazines are for their writers, "Crooning" is a reminder of how good the material those writers supply can be--when fashioned by a craftsman such as Dunne, whose words endure long after the periodicals for which they were written have been consigned to landfill.

And, ironically, the book is a bargain: To buy the publications in which these 16 pieces appeared, at their current newsstand prices, would cost more than $30.

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