Raymond Chandler on what people really want to read

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Throughout his career as a writer (following his stint as an oil company executive), Raymond Chandler almost single-handedly crafted the pulp fiction genre with novels such as The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye and The Lady In The Lake as well as numerous screenplays. His most famous creation, picaresque private detective Philip Marlowe, has been portrayed on screen by the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Robert Montgomery, Robert Mitchum and Elliott Gould.

The author’s career as a pulp writer began in the Thirties, when he realised he could make money from it. He taught himself to write pulp fiction by studying the Perry Mason stories of Erle Stanley Gardner. Chandler’s first professional work, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot”, was published in Black Mask magazine in 1933. 

In 1950, Chandler described in a letter to his English publisher, Hamish Hamilton, why he began reading pulp magazines and later wrote for them:

Wandering up and down the Pacific Coast in an automobile I began to read pulp magazines, because they were cheap enough to throw away. This was in the great days of the Black Mask (if I may call them great days) and it struck me that some of the writing was pretty forceful and honest, even though it had its crude aspect. I decided that this might be a good way to try to learn to write fiction and get paid a small amount of money at the same time. I spent five months over an 18,000 word novelette and sold it for $180. After that I never looked back, although I had a good many uneasy periods looking forward.

From the moment he started writing pulp, he planned from the first to smuggle something like literature into the stories he penned.

Most of the magazines publishing this type of fiction at the time hooked their readers with a mixture of sex and violence – “they have juxtaposed the steely automatic and the frilly panty and found that it pays off”, wrote SJ Perelman. But Chandler wanted to do more than titillate: he had designs on his audience’s subconscious. He planned to sneak into his stories a quality which readers “would not shy off from, perhaps not even know was there … but which would somehow distil through their minds and leave an afterglow”.

His reasoning for this was that readers actually wanted to read this type of writing; even if the publishers didn’t think they did. In another letter to his editor, Chandler explained this in his characteristically simple and insightful way:

“A long time ago when I was writing for pulps, I put into a story a line like ‘he got out of the car and walked across the sun drenched sidewalk until the shadow of the awning over the entrance fell across his face like the touch of cool water.’ They took it out when they published the story. Their readers didn’t appreciate this sort of thing: it just held up the action. And I set out to prove them wrong. My theory was they just thought they cared nothing about anything but the action; that really, although they didn’t know it, they cared very little about the action. The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description; the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of his death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half open in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death. He didn’t even hear death knock on the door. That damn little paper clip kept slipping away from his fingers and he just couldn’t push it to the edge of the desk and catch it as it fell.”

For more thoughts on writing and reading, check out our writing tips for writers, and creatives in profile interview series!

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