The “H” Word

February 14th, 2012 by Max Allan Collins
The Comedy is Finished

The rediscovered Donald E. Westlake novel, THE COMEDY IS FINISHED, is getting some great reviews. Regular readers of these updates know that I had the manuscript for the novel in my basement (actually a drawer in a cabinet in my basement, with other Westlake materials). Don and I had explored revising the novel for publication under both our names (or possibly a joint pseudonym) after he had difficulty finding a publisher for an unfunny Westlake novel about a Bob Hope-style comedian. The book didn’t really need any work, but he was sick of looking at it, and I had some ideas about streamlining, and addressing some complaints editors had expressed about the political content. But when the similarly plotted film “King of Comedy” came out, Don called me and scrapped the project. As I’ve said before, when MEMORY came out as the “final” Westlake novel (a book I also knew about but didn’t have a copy of – I could never get Don to loan it to me), I got in touch with Hard Case Crime editor Charles Ardai about THE COMEDY IS FINISHED.

Most of the reviews are mentioning my efforts to get this book into print, and several have been very kind – this one is typical.

Another good review began oddly, stating that there might be something fishy about this discovery if it hadn’t come from me, because after all I can be trusted. You see, the reviewer (Steve Donoghue) says “a more honest thousand-word-a-day hack isn’t living.”

Here’s the thing. I resent the word hack. Any writer would. It is the “n” word of the writing world. Further, if Steve Donoghue thinks that a “hack” is anybody who can turn out a thousand words a day, he is (in my case at least) 1500 words short. And trust me, Donald E. Westlake never had a thousand-word writing day in his life. Ed McBain probably never had a day under 5000 words.

Anyway, speed or lack of it has no bearing on the quality of writing, which should and does speak for itself. I rewrite heavily, but my practice is not to rewrite the life and spontaneity out of a work. Barb considers herself slow – 1000 words would be a good day – but the result is terrific and has an off-handed feel as if she just threw it off quickly. That’s an art in itself.

I understand that – like Don – I am a prolific writer. This does not mean that I don’t work hard at writing. In fact, I work very hard at it, and if I write 2500 words of a Nate Heller or Jack Starr or some other historical novel, many hours of research have gone into it. And it’s not just research. One thing that Barb and I share in our approach is a propensity for thinking about what we’re going to write for at least as long as it will take to write it.

For me writing is an art, yes, but first and foremost it is a craft, and selling what I’ve crafted is my business – you know, like trouble was Phillip Marlowe’s. When a reviewer – whether in the New York Times or on a blog – dismisses a writer as a “hack,” or talks about a writer “churning out” or “grinding out” a book, that reviewer is indulging in a lazy, prejudiced, sloppy way of thinking…and writing. Those of us who do this for a living – and are not lawyers or doctors or teachers who write on the side, and are not blockbuster writers who can afford to write a thousand words a day, or less – deserve more consideration if not respect than being called the “h” word.

* * *

Here’s a nice review of CHICAGO LIGHTNING.

Here’s a fun review of a short story that Barb and I did a while back, “Flyover Country.” [From Nate: Most recently published in the anthology ONCE UPON A CRIME, 2009]

And here’s a column on the great film noir, GUN CRAZY, from writer Mike Dennis. The comments below include one by me.

George Hagenauer is spending a few days here at La Casa Collins in our first meeting about the new Nate Heller novel, tentatively titled ASK NOT (the second JFK book). We’ll be mostly brainstorming, strategizing, and assigning homework to each other.


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8 Responses to “The “H” Word”

  1. Graham says:

    It seems to me that Mr. Donoghue intended the word “hack” as a term of affection. I have read the review and it just doesn’t seem he meant it perjoratively. Although I suppose that’s not really the point; I’m sure we could all think of some other words that, even if meant to be humerous, could only be read as slurs.

  2. SCanfield says:

    I don’t agree with the use of the term either. “Hack”, to me, implies someone who isn’t trying, and is purely in it to sell books/movies/comics, whatever the medium may be.

    Thanks for the link Max, and especially thanks for making sure the book came out, I had a blast reading it, and felt it was quite different from The King of Comedy on many levels, and I especially loved the scenery, it made me homesick for LA.

  3. dan luft says:

    It’s actually a rather strange review. The first third has the writer going off on some fantasy tangent about whether he should believe this book is really by Westlake or not. He offers no reason why he shouldn’t believe it’s real but even calls into question the judgement of Charles Ardai because he’s only been in publishing for about a decade. The reviewer sites that your honesty doesn’t come from your personality but from some naivete that all Iowans possess. In the end, he seems a tad embarrassed to like the book.

    This bothers me because I’ve reviewed books professionally (including yours) and I don’t think the reviewer should compete for the reader’s attention with the book he’s reviewing.

  4. Thanks for these comments. “Hack” is a term of affection like “boy” was a term of affection for a Plantation owner to one of his cotton pickers.

  5. mike doran says:

    I wasn’t able to read Mr. O’Donoghue’s review, because WebSense, our company’s in-house computer censor, is blocking his site. Reason given: “Social Networking”. (I can’t access Twitter or Facebook for the same reason.)
    Going by what the other commenters are saying, I gather I’m not missing much.

    For the rest, suffice to say that I’m looking forward to THE COMEDY IS FINISHED, as well as any and all future works from yourself and your esteemed spouse.
    Feel free to take your time.

    Until your next PA in Chicago …

  6. mike doran says:

    Do you have a definite release date yet on TARGET: LANCER?

    Reason I ask:
    I just read moments ago that Bill O’Reilly is coming out with his own JFK-Assassination book this fall, a sort of instant follow-up to his Lincoln book.

    Given Mr. O’Reilly’s somewhat mercurial nature, I’m wondering how he’ll react to another book on the same subject coming out in such close proximity to his. He is known not to play well with others.

    *or maybe I just want to stir up trouble …*

  7. Gerard Saylor says:

    I, too, did not read “hack” as perjorative but I certainly understand Collins’s argument.

    Westlake was a freaking genius.