Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Around the Block

I became acquainted with the books of Lawrence Block about three years ago when I bought a couple of paperback reprints from a discount book store.  I was finishing with a big book of Raymond Chandler stories and I wanted something in a similar vein, so I thought those might do.  Which they did.  I eventually bought more in paperback and then for Kindle.  I actually snapped up 20-30 of them last December when they were on sale, so I've been going through those a little at a time.

Anyway, in many cases the afterword of the book is just as interesting as the book itself.  Block started out in the late 50s on the fringes of the publishing system, so on the afterwords of the older books you get to hear his war stories about the publishing industry in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, which often as not is unflattering.

A lot of his earliest work was the kind of thin paperbacks like I first bought.  These were printed only in paperback by publishers who dealt a lot in erotica and potboilers.  Something Block mentions a few times in his Chip Harrison series is how the editors insisted on having sex scenes thrown in every so often, because that's what the readers wanted.  Which I can't really argue with, because what's wrong with gratuitous sex scenes?

In his early career he also used several different pen names.  One of them was female, which was used for a couple of lesbian romances.  Something I admire is how he didn't stick to any particular story type, but worked in a few different areas.  I don't think that was always by choice; I think sometimes it was an editor would want a certain kind of book and hey I need the money so OK.

One of his earliest ones I read recently, A Strange Kind of Love, outlines the publishing world of the late 50s.  There were a couple of different tiers:
  • Hardcovers were the big publishers.  If they wanted your book they'd take you to a martini lunch and so forth.
  • Paperbacks were the lesser publishers.  They'd maybe give you a letter or phone call and a check.
  • Slicks were the big magazines like Life or Saturday Evening Post or such, which were fairly exclusive.
  • Pulps I think people are more familiar with from the 30s and 40s but they were still around.  For lesser-known or otherwise desperate writers they could be a quick source of cash.

It was apparently a lot easier to get an agent back then than it is now.  You probably didn't have as much competition either.  I think instead of querying mostly you sent in the whole thing for a short story or a chapter or two with outline for something longer.

Also in the afterword for A Strange Kind of Love, Block mentions how he interned at a fee-charging publisher, going through the slush.  He'd send form letters to terrible writers telling them it was the plot that was the problem so they would submit something else, thus making more in reading fees.  Which is another reason not to put much stock in those letters agents or publishers send you.  Even if they don't charge fees they're probably not much more honest today than 60 years ago.

So it is interesting to hear how things have changed and how things have stayed the same.  And besides all that Block's books are pretty reliable entertainment.  They don't have the best writing, but it's solid.  Really I think his career is something a guy like me could aspire to:  not flashy but good enough to keep him employed for almost 60 years.

One way he's like me is he's in the anti-George RR Martin mold.  After he got married, Block would sometimes get a hotel in New York City, take his typewriter with him (this being the 60s or 70s after all), and pound out a book in a few days or a couple of weeks.  I'd probably have a lot more books written if I could do that.

If you're interested, one of his Matthew Scudder books, 8 Million Ways to Die, was adapted into a Jeff Bridges vehicle back in the late 80s.  I don't know if it's on Netflix right now or not.  It's an OK late 80s action-mystery.  Or if you want to go to the source, most of his books aren't that long.  Given the R-rated material of most of them they might not be in your local library.  There should be something at the used or discount bookstores.  I mean Block literally has hundreds of books written so something is bound to turn up.  Last year while on vacation in Cadillac, MI I scored an original copy of The Specialists, which was kind of like The A-Team in that it involves a bunch of ex-military guys.  The year before that in Manistee, MI I got a copy of Hit Man, the first in his series about a professional assassin named Keller who also collects stamps.  So like I said, if you look you're bound to find something.


  1. I think a lot of those guys did that erotica/pulp stuff for money back then. SPOILER ALERT: in my IWM Blogtacular on Liz's blog I mention a guy who wrote a bunch of YA stuff and also did pulp "mysteries" with suggestive titles and covers.

    When I first started being interested in writing, there was a blog I'd read in which the intern at a publishing house said that if you want quick money, writer short erotic stories. There are a billion blogs out there that'll pay you $10, 15, 20 for a short story like that. So some things never change.

  2. Not familiar with Lawrence Block, and while the genre isn't my thing, it's always neat to see their story in the publishing world. Appreciate the research in this writeup! :)

  3. The world of pulp fiction is an interesting one since a lot of good stuff was mixed in with the drek. Block might be one of those. I'm wishing you a marvelous Wednesday Pat.

  4. I'm not familiar with that dude. Based on what you've wrote, further checking of this is needed by me. Good day to you, sir.


  5. I have seen Block before, and read some of his stuff. I have more respect for pulp novelists who wrote a huge number of books under specific guidelines in a wide variety of genres than people who write three literary novels throughout their entire lifetime.



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