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What makes a novel a Hollywood novel?

August 31, 2003|Mimi Avins

The media and the marketers who play to them probably share some blame for branding nearly any book set in Los Angeles as a Hollywood novel. In June, Time magazine lumped together Robert Cort's "Action!" (Random House) and Gigi Levangie Grazer's "Maneater" (Simon & Schuster). They make an odd couple. Producer Cort's novel is an old-fashioned family saga packed with detail about the business. Grazer's comedy of manners about life on the Westside is extremely short on Hollywood dish, considering that she's a screenwriter and that her husband is the Oscar-winning producer Brian Grazer. The book gets as personal as a pelvic exam with the women who shop, eat and sleep on the fringes of the industry and the men who buy them salad. But they could as easily be devouring guys in Scarsdale as in Beverly Hills.

Screenwriter and director Bruce Wagner sees the dark side of slapping the Hollywood label on novels, including his own. "I don't object to it," he says, "but it's a way of almost minimizing an author's attempt to transcend certain themes that are obvious -- the idea of fame, of riches and celebrity. These are tabloidal, in a sense, and yet if written about outside of Hollywood, they're given more consideration."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 06, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Actor's name -- An article in the Aug. 31 Calendar about what makes a Hollywood novel misspelled the last name of actor Joseph Cotten as Cotton.

Wagner has been writing satiric novels set in Hollywood since 1991's "Force Majeure"; his fourth, "Still Holding," will be published in November by Simon & Schuster. He doesn't think novelists who work in and write about the business are guilty of navel-gazing. " 'Write what you know' is one of those tropes that's actually meaningless," he says. "I write about despair, love. I try to write about those things. I don't claim to know about them. As a writer, I write what I'm compelled to write about from a deep place, not from having been mistreated recently in a pitch meeting. What you strive for as a writer is to move people, not to bring down Jerry Bruckheimer."

It's easier to use real names in a novel than in a memoir, although memoirist beware, or you'll never eat lunch in this town again. Producer Lynda Obst, who wrote "Hello, He Lied: And Other Truths From the Hollywood Trenches," says that every time she's sat down to write fiction about the business she knows, she quits after 12 pages because "it just feels so cheesy. You can't make stuff up about Hollywood and have it be more interesting than what goes on. I'm dazzled by the surreality of the place -- its lack of subtlety, its baldness and venality. Most of the people writing fiction tend to thinly disguise what they know myopically. You tend to have these books about little baby power struggles, and they're as boring as a bad dinner party here."

In a review in July in the New York Times, Leslie Epstein's "San Remo Drive" (Handsel Books) was praised as "one of the four best Hollywood novels ever written." (Epstein's "Pandaemonium," Budd Schulberg's "What Makes Sammy Run?" and F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Last Tycoon" completed the list.) The author's father and uncle were the screenwriters Philip G. and Julius J. Epstein, best known for "Casablanca," and his fictionalized memoir depicts growing up in the '40s and '50s among people in the business. But Hollywood only creeps into the story's peripheral vision.

" 'San Remo Drive' is more of a family novel," Epstein says. "But it's also true that it wouldn't be the same book if the boys weren't trick-or-treating at Gregory Peck or Joseph Cotton's. There's an intersection of the great popular mythmaking and one's private family myths. If the story were set anywhere else, it wouldn't have that kind of resonance. It's not about filmmaking in the way that a lot of other books are, but it is a Hollywood novel because of the way in which my psyche was invaded by popular culture."

Take Epstein's idea to its logical conclusion, and perhaps a lot of novels are Hollywood novels, to the extent that Hollywood is the repository of our collective memories and dreams. Epstein says: "How did I learn about what motherhood is supposed to be, except by watching Dumbo's mother? How do we know what love is? My ideas about love were largely formed not by reality but by Hollywood's impression of reality. If I'd grown up in Des Moines, the family wouldn't have been different, but the resonance would have."

-- Mimi Avins

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