"A thoughtful, in places chilling, account of the way entertainment values have hollowed out American life." --The New York Times Book Review
From one of America's most original cultural critics and the author of Winchell, the story of how our bottomless appetite for novelty, gossip, glamour, and melodrama has turned everything of importance-from news and politics to religion and high culture-into one vast public entertainment.
Neal Gabler calls them "lifies," those blockbusters written in the medium of life that dominate the media and the national conversation for weeks, months, even years: the death of Princess Diana, the trial of O.J. Simpson, Kenneth Starr vs. William Jefferson Clinton. Real Life as Entertainment is hardly a new phenomenon, but the movies, and now the new information technologies, have so accelerated it that it is now the reigning popular art form. How this came to pass, and just what it means for our culture and our personal lives, is the subject of this witty, concerned, and sometimes eye-opening book.
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February 29, 2000
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Excerpt from Life: The Movie by Neal Gabler
Perhaps the most difficult adjustments to the imperatives of entertainment were those undergone by the arts which had, by definition, been arrayed against entertainment and had denied its sensationalist aesthetic. These had tried to hold the line even as everything else seemed to be succumbing around them, but not even art could finally resist the siren call of show business. The arts were forced either to surrender or to be marginalized to the point where they would cease to matter to any but a handful of devotees.
In literature the erosion of will began early. Some critics blamed paperback books for driving publishing into the arms of entertainment, seeing them, in effect, as the television of literature; they made books available, but they also cheapened them. One publisher, complaining about sensational paperback covers, opined, "The contents of the book . . . were relatively unimportant. What mattered was that its lurid exterior should ambush the customer." Others traced the decline even further back to the rise of magazine serialization as a major source of book revenue and the need for books to adapt themselves to this method of distribution, which entailed bold characters, strong plots, cliffhangers and other sensationalist appurtenances.
Still others saw the decline of serious literature in direct proportion to the rise of commerce in publishing. When the Book-of-the-Month Club, itself a commercial institution dedicated to selling books rather than promoting literature, eased out its editor in chief in 1996 and transferred his duties to the head of marketing, a former club juror, Brad Leithauser, dejectedly said they could just as easily be selling kitchen supplies now. It was an increasingly common plaint among writers that books had become another commodity to be marketed, but the blame on commercialism was misplaced. Since no one expected publishing to be an eleemosynary institution, the problem wasn't commercialism per se; it was the kinds of books that commerce demanded. What empowered the forces of marketing was entertainment because quite simply, entertaining books were more likely to sell than nonentertaining ones, or more accurately, books that could become part of an entertainment process were more likely to sell.
In a way the real entertainment hurdle for literature, even trashy popular literature, was the fact of the word. Words, as Neil Postman has written, demanded much more effort than visuals, and even if one were to expend that effort, there were obvious limitations to the sensation generated by words compared with the seemingly limitless sensation generated by the visuals and sounds of the movies, television and computers. None of this was lost on publishers. Just as newspapers realized their insufficiency versus television news, so publishers realized their insufficiency versus the entertainment competition, and they sought to do something about it.
What publishers discovered was that given the right circumstances, a book was ultimately incidental to its own sales. It was yet another macguffin for a larger show. What publishing houses were really selling was a phenomenon--something the media would flog the way media flogged any Hollywood blockbuster. The object was to get people talking about a book, get them feeling that they had missed something if they didn't know about it, even though they were responding not to the book itself, which few of then probably had read or would read, but rather to the frenzy whipped up around the book--a controversy or novel feature or eye-catching angle like a seven-figure advance to the author or a big-money sale of the film rights. The frenzy assumed a life of its own even as the alleged object of the frenzy kept receding further and further into the background. The novelist David Foster Wallace, bemused when the media began championing his immense novel Infinite Jest and making Wallace himself a literary star, called this the "excitement about the excitement." It was one of the principal marketing tools for anything in the Republic of Entertainment.
As far as literature went, most of the initial excitement was stirred not by the book but by its author, whose life movie would promote the book the way Olympic athletes' life movies promoted the Olympics for NBC. The tradition actually stretched back at least as far as Byron, who was canny enough to cultivate a bohemian persona as the Romantic poet and then actively exploit it. As Dwight Macdonald described it, "Byron's reputation was different from that of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden and Pope because it was based on the man--on what the public conceived to be the man--rather than on his work. His poems were taken not as artistic objects in themselves but as expressions of their creator's personality."
Walt Whitman did the same and to the same effect. He wanted to be seen as a character whose personality would advertise his poetry. A friend once described him as a "poseur of truly colossal proportions, one to whom playing a part had long before become so habitual that he ceased to be conscious that he was doing it." In fact, the idea that celebrity could create a best-seller more easily than a best-seller could create celebrity was enough of a commonplace by the end of the nineteenth century that the protagonist of New Grub Street, an 1891 novel, could say, "If I am an unknown man, and publish a wonderful book, it will make its way very slowly, or not at all. If I become a known man, publish that very same book, its praise will echo over both hemispheres "
However true it was then, it became even truer in the age of mass media. No one, though, seemed to have as ready a grasp of this as Ernest Hemingway, who was actually compared to Byron for his flagrant self-promotion. Just as thoroughly as any fictional character he created in his novels, Hemingway created a persona for himself and authored a life movie in which he could star on the screens of the media. This was Hemingway the artist roughneck, expatriate war hero, bullfight lover, big-game hunter, deep-sea fisherman, world-class drinker, womanizer, brawler--a man so outsized that he dwarfed the writer and his books even though this movie was the main reason anyone but litterateurs was likely to pay his books any heed. Critic Edmund Wilson churlishly called this persona "the Hemingway of the handsome photographs with the sportsman's tan and the outdoor grin, with the ominous resemblance to Clark Gable, who poses with giant marlin which he has just hauled off Key West," as opposed to Hemingway the writer.
Of course Hemingway knew the value of all this, and though critics continued to lament that he had sacrificed his art on the altar of celebrity or that he was, as Leo Braudy put it, "the prime case of someone fatally caught between his genius and his publicity," he realized that there might have been very little art if it weren't for the celebrity--at least very little art that anyone would buy, much less read. As he metamorphosed into "Papa Hemingway," the grizzled macho icon with his beard stubble and peak cap, he became more popular than ever and even gained a certain immunity from the critics, who now routinely disparaged his work. The public who defended him didn't really care whether he was a good writer. They cared that he was a bold personality--a movie's idea of a good writer.
In the end, Hemingway would be one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, but it was not as the proponent of lean literary modernism; it was as the proponent of literary celebrity. Where he led, virtually every writer trying to make his mark followed. "The way to save your work and reach more readers is to advertise yourself, steal your own favorite page out of Hemingway's unwritten Notes from Papa on How the Working Novelist Can Get Ahead," Norman Mailer wrote in Advertisements for Myself, thus acknowledging his debt to Hemingway while also granting that he himself had a "changeable personality, a sullen disposition, and a calculating mind" that would seem to disqualify him from celebrity. (Of course, far from being disqualified, Mailer turned these very qualities into his own salable persona.)
Still, Hemingway and Mailer had talent, and their personas as brawling artists ultimately depended upon it. A more impressive feat was to create a persona so entertaining that there didn't have to be any talent. Editor Michael Korda credited writer Jacqueline Susann with this advance. Having emerged from public relations--Susann's husband, Irving Mansfield, was an old PR man--she hawked her books by hawking herself as a celebrity, though she had done nothing to earn that status. "When we expressed anxiety about the manuscript," Korda wrote in a reminiscence of Susann, "Irving told us that it was Jackie (and the example of 'Valley [of the Dolls],' then approaching ten million copies sold) that he was selling, and not, as he put it indignantly, 'a goddam pile of paper.'" His point was that the book was absolutely irrelevant once the name was on the cover.
It was a relatively small step from this to designer publishing, in which the author's name, like a fashion designer's label, sold the book even if the author hadn't written the book. This in fact was what technothriller author Tom Clancy achieved. In 1995 Clancy signed to publish a line of paperback thrillers targeted at teenagers, the first of which was to be titled Tom Clancy's Net Force. Despite the possessive case, however, Clancy wasn't necessarily going to write the story. As the New York Times put it in its announcement of the deal, his role would be to "oversee the book's production"--in the event, the byline read "created by Tom Clancy"--which gave the author an entirely new function. He was no longer a writer; he was an imprimatur.