Tag Archives: hard-boiled

As We May Publish, Part Two: A Reader’s Reflection on Two Publishing Experiments

“Free their books and their minds will follow.”

–Masthead slogan for The Concord Free Press

1. The Experimental Reader

In yesterday’s post (“As We May Publish”) I discussed what authors might consider taking away from AAUP’s report on “Sustaining Scholarly Publishing.” My reflections were oriented around why authors should care about the changes currently underway at university presses. I also mentioned that my interest in this topic was being driven—to some extent—from my own authorship perspective: my experiments in open access publishing, my interest in alternative scholarly publishing, and my forthcoming university press book that has digital and database logics at the core of its critical methodology.

As a companion set of ideas to that post, I  look today at two publishing experiments that came to my attention as a reader of a particular genre of fiction. With a background in English Literature and as a scholar of film noir, I read noir fiction and hard-boiled literature. That genre—coming out of the pulp magazines, the dime novel, and the comic book—has always been at the forefront of publishing shifts. Noir authors and noir publishers have tended to adapt to new business models while retaining (and even extending) their core thematic interests and stories. Through my interest in that genre, two experiments came to my attention that I don’t think are yet widely known in digital humanities circles. I bring them up as case studies that have piqued my interest as a reader who likes to explore publishing experiments—and these examples come out of the “wild” category of the publishing ecosystem—and they help me think about the reader’s role during this moment of experimentation.

My first example will be Concord Free Press, which gives away its books for free–literally. But that is only part of the story: Concord Free Press has a particular institutional mission that asks readers to make voluntary donations to the charity of their choice in exchange for a free book. The Concord Free Press calls its mission “generosity-based publishing.” My second example is Level 26, a new media publishing venture started by CSI: creator Anthony Zuiker. His Level 26 venture involves book publishing, web community and video productions, organized around what Zuiker calls the “digi-novel.”

Though my two publishing examples are very different, both share a desire to “free their books” and encourage their readers to “give back” in highly structured ways via the open Web. I am not using the word “free” as in “free beer” (one of my favorite lines from Lawrence Lessig in his book Free Culture) but “free” as in “free speech,” “free culture,” and “freeing” as in “liberating” or “having independence.” To me, these projects are interesting to consider in light of the ongoing conversations around the sustainability of scholarly publishing. These examples strike me as publication models that are taking advantage of digital affordances. They are asking new questions about the role of presses, the nature of the “book,” and the participation of readers in online activities.

2. Scott Phillip’s Rut and the Generous Reader

“If you took the tender portrait of a town in decline in Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, mixed it with Kurt Vonnegut at his most satirical and biting, then sprinkled in a few grams of meth and a generous shot of piss from a syphilitic hobo into the resulting solution, you’d have a drink that could almost put you on your ass as fast as Rut sure-as-shit will.”

Review of Rut by Spinetingler Magazine

Scott Phillip’s most recent book Rut was published by Concord Free Press. Scott Phillips is best known for his novel The Ice Harvest, which was also turned into a neo-noir film starring John Cusack. Instead of going with a traditional publisher, his latest work is being distributed for free by Concord. What this means is that it does not cost anything to obtain a copy of the book. It is actually free (as in costing no money). However, there is a reason for this. Concord Free Press asks all readers who take possession of the “free” novel to make a voluntary donation to the charity of their choice. The book-as-giveaway is used an incentive to increase charitable donations. And so far, the experiment is paying off. Concord Free Press has raised over $200,000 dollars in donations via the books has it published.

Now, it is important to note that its books, including Rut, are not published as e-books or released as PDFs—they are only available as traditional paperback novels. In fact, in one of my favorite parts of this experiment, the back page of each novel has ten blank lines where each reader of the book is supposed to sign their name and then pass the book along to another reader. This decidedly analog approach to forming a network of readers is a great way to encourage an ever-expanding readership. The physical book operates metaphorically a little bit like a digital bit; it is not meant to sit on one’s shelf, but is always intended to be in transit to another reader. It’s a virtuous model of sharing: the reading circle as lending library.

How do online communities come into play here? Concord Free Press hosts a website and asks all of the people who donate due to one of their books to log onto their site (www.concordfreepress.com) and note where they gave and how much. What one notes when visiting Concord’s website is how many donations are significantly more than the reader would pay at a bookstore for a 230 page novel like Rut. It is not uncommon to see donations of $25.00 and higher, suggesting that one act of generosity (giving away a book by an established author) results potentially in a greater act of generosity (a donation in excess of the typical consumer purchase of a paperback).

ForeWord Magazine says that Concord Free Press “re-conceptualizes the very goals of publishing, a grand experiment in subversive altruism.” It is this aspect of the experiment that I want to consider most closely. While Concord’s “subversive altruistic” model will not necessarily work for all publishers and all authors (note that Concord Free Press is publishing the work of already established authors), it is worth considering how models of “generosity” can induce and support participation via the open Web. [As an aside, is this type of generosity akin to the free labors that go into supporting a publication model like Wikipedia?]

At this point, the publication model of the Concord Free Press raises more questions than answers for me. Still I want to explore the implications of this kind of experiment on scholarly publishing. What would the scholarly version of this experiment look like on the open Web? How could scholars benefit from giving away books for free and asking for audience participation in return? Would a model of “book sharing and lending” (which is also at the heart of Concord’s experiment) work for a scholarly book? Is the logical extension of Concord’s paradigm to publish their novels in digitally native formats and remove the need for actual physical book publications? How might scholars locate funding to write books that encourage “subversive altruism?”

3. Anthony Zuiker’s Level 26 and the Active Reader

“Not a hint of this appeared in the mainstream press. This material was relegated to a bunch of serial-killer-fan web sites, the most active being Level26.com.”

–Self-conscious, metatextual reference from the novel, Level 26: Dark Prophecy (p. 117)

CSI: creator Anthony Zuiker is exploring the “digi-novel” in a series of crime stories focused around a criminal profiler, a “Special Circs” agent named Steve Dark. Two novels in the series have already been published, Dark Origins and Dark Prophecy. Each novel is supported by (even architected around) digital components and an online community. There is a website, Level26.com, where fans can meet up. There are videos that function as “cut scenes” interspersed throughout each novel. There are the Level 26 apps that bring the novel and its digital components into one application. A quick disclaimer: I don’t think Level26 is everyone’s cup of tea. The story itself can be quite gruesome (a bit beyond where even the CSI: TV series will go) and will mostly appeal to hardcore fans of Zuiker’s TV shows or mainstream readers of the serial killer/mystery genre.

Zuiker’s vision for the “digi-novel” seems to be a digital convergence between the storyworlds of television, web, and book. But up to this point, it still feels more like a group of parts than a converging, transmediated storyworld.  For example, there are “cyber-bridges” that extend the story beyond the written word. You can go to YouTube to see examples of his cyber-bridges. Cyber-bridges are video segments that occur approximately every 20 pages in the book, or even re-organize into its own one hour movie. To support the viewing of cyber-bridges, Zuiker hosts a free online community, Level26.com. To encourage readers to buy the book, the cyber-bridges must be unlocked using a printed code found in the book. (Of course, from an archival standpoint, one wonders what happens when and if the website goes offline in a few years for the book’s future readers.) I tend to find that the cyber-bridges interrupt my reading rather than plunging me deeper in the story. Cyber-bridges operate too often like cut-scenes in a video game, but without the feeling that one has “leveled.” And there can be a jarring effect when the characters in your reader’s “eye” are fleshed out in the video segments. I make note of these issues to highlight that Level 26 is still in an experimental stage. Zuiker himself has written on the problems he has faced in making all the pieces of the Level 26 franchise work.

Of particular interest to me is the community forming at Level26.com (which has had a community as large as 100,000 members). This is a community that is built for fans, aided by fans, but was not originally founded by fans. In fact, “official fan sites” can frequently be problematic, especially if readers sense that the community is little more than a marketing gimmick for a movie, TV show, or book. One way Level 26 is addressing this concern is to encourage fan participation on topics beyond the Level 26 novels, and making the site a destination for fans of serial killer fiction in general. How successful that maneuver will be has yet to be determined, but there are dedicated community members already operating around the subjects of serial killers, crime detection, and CSI: fandom. There is no doubt that Zuiker has learned a thing or two about building “franchises” from his CSI: success, and that this project benefits from his position in the media industries. In addition, Level26.com hosts fan contests, has a section for reader suggestions for future novels, and has active commentary sections related to the books.

Level 26 also takes advantage of handheld, touchscreen devices and in the process encourages active readers to click, touch, and play with the text and its digital components as the story unfolds on the screen. Using iPhone and iPad apps, Zuiker can eliminate the printed book’s hybrid status–straddling the analog-digital worlds–and produce a single, unified digital work. As Zuiker writes in February 2011: “”Years ago, when I started working on Level 26: Dark Origins, there wasn’t a device available to showcase my vision for what the Digi-novel could be. Now, with the release of the iPad, it’s time to unleash the Ultimate Digi-novel!” While the interactivity of Dark Prophecy as an app is still fairly rudimentary (and maybe not quite living up to the hype of being the “ultimate digi-novel”) nonetheless one can begin to see the promise of digi-novels as a mode of digital storytelling. Issues that have plagued early experiments in digital storytelling are still present in the app version of this novel. Beyond the interruptions of the cyber-bridges, pulling up electronic dossiers on characters or collecting evidence in the flow of a particular chapter can feel like tangents from the main storytelling rather than valuable hyperlinks. But even with these critiques, I fully appreciate how Zuiker is experimenting with digital storytelling and taking creative risks.

What might Level 26 suggest for the future of scholarly publication? First, the use of cyber-bridges would not be interruptive in a scholarly argument the way it is in a fictional narrative. I can see the potential of having cyber-bridges in a film or media studies book that could embed videos right alongside the written argument. Second, I think Level 26 points towards existing scholarly work that are moving more towards a “tablet-based reading” protocol or towards the expanded role of “video” in our reading practices. Here I sense deep affinities to a project like Alex Juhasz’s recent MIT Press “book,” Learning from YouTube.” For me, certain disciplines seem primed to continue these trends and experiments in scholarly publication, especially scholars in film, television, and new media.

I would love to hear about other examples around experiments in publishing, along the lines of Concord Free Press and the Level 26 franchise.

Noircon, Part 1: A Criss-Cross Theory of Noir Adaptation

This essay was originally written for Noircon 2010. If you don’t know about Noircon, it is an amazing conference dedicated to all things noir. It is held every two years in Philadelphia, and was originally known as Goodiscon back in its inaugural year of 2006. You can visit the Noircon site by clicking here.

Noircon 2010 produced a great conference booklet with contributions by such writers as Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Ken Bruen, Otto Penzler, Charles Willeford, among many others. I was honored to have my article included in this collection. Moreover, the Noircon conference booklet was cleverly printed and packaged as a throwback pulp paperback as seen in this photo of the book’s cover art (done by artist Jeff Wong, based on the cover art for Goodis’ Black Friday):

Finally, I am interested in revising this article for publication in a film journal. So, I welcome any and all comments on this piece. Thanks again to Lou Boxer, Deen Kogan, and all who make Noircon a truly remarkable one-of-kind event. Looking forward to 2012.

 

 

A Criss-Cross Theory of Noir Adaptation by Richard L. Edwards

“I do your murder. You do mine. Criss cross!”

Bruno Anthony, Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train (1950). Still from http://thisdistractedglobe.com/

Given that many of the greatest films noir have been based on short stories and novels, you would expect more attention paid to the issue of noir adaptations. In fact, adapting a previously published work into a screenplay is a challenging artistic task, and this type of writing is given public acknowledgement with its own award every year at the Oscars. However, studies of noir screenwriting and noir adaptations are still too few, and the roles of screenwriters in the production of films noir tend to be footnotes. Even knowledgeable film noir fans may think writers’ greatest contribution to the noir style involves their crafting of hard-boiled dialogue. But screenwriting is a complex process, frequently done collaboratively in the Hollywood system. And the process of writing a screen adaptation is more than merely transcribing or rearranging a novel or short story into a screenplay format. Writers matter, and bring with them to the writing process a constellation of ideas and practices that impact what ends up in the final screen version. The development of film noir benefited from the criss-crossing of writing talent. Each time different writers and directors criss-crossed, the potential of film noir increased, creating new stories and new possibilities.

Screenwriters tend to get short shrift due to the predominance of auteur theory in film circles. First articulated by French cineastes in the 1950s such as François Truffault, auteur theory claims that the author of a film is its director. This reinvention of film authorship does much for the stature of film directors, but tends to minimize the importance of screenwriters. Even from the outset, as Robert Carringer points out, auteur theory diminishes the truly collaborative nature of film authorship. Carringer argues that what is needed is an approach to film authorship that entails “the temporary suspension of single-author primacy” and that has “the primary author…reinscribed within what is now established as an institutional context of authorship.” (377) Interestingly enough, Carringer uses the film Strangers on a Train to explore his thesis. I will also use Strangers on a Train as my main example, but investigate this question from a different point of view. I am interested in how noir adaptations often entail a “complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing.” (Wittgenstein §66).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “criss-cross” as “a network of intersecting lines.” This is a useful way of thinking about the process behind noir adaptations, of thinking about screenwriters as part of a “network.” Screenwriting (like many forms of creative writing) can be a solitary activity with minimal interactions with other creative personnel. While there is some truth in the “lone writer” model, a criss-cross theory of noir adaptation explores areas of collaboration and commonality in the screenwriting process. In this regard, a criss-cross theory has connections to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of defining things by way of their “resemblance” to other things. In other words, noir writers working on an adaptation have similarities to each other, just like members of a family resemble each other while also being distinct and separate personalities. Such authorial networks can be quite complicated, but teasing out the resemblances—a kind of “family tree” of noir—between different writers yields new insights into noir adaptations. In many ways, the writer of a noir adaption is engaged in Bruno Anthony’s notion of “criss cross.” The hired screenwriter is literally “doing” someone else’s murder (albeit in a fictional writerly sense!). Furthermore, screenwriters do not tend to coalesce randomly around certain types of films. Rather, writers are drawn to film noir by a shared interest in similar kinds of characters, themes and stories associated with hard-boiled or mystery writing.

First edition cover of Highsmith's Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train brought together a killer ménage-a-noir in Patricia Highsmith, Raymond Chandler, and Alfred Hitchcock. Strangers on a Train was Highsmith’s first novel. Even though she was paid a mere $7,500 dollars for the screen rights, the money paled to the prestige and visibility her novel received by being made into a major motion picture. Hitchcock, on the other hand, was in mid-career and in a bit of a crisis. His latest films had been flops (Under Capricorn and Stage Fright), and the great director was in need of a comeback. Strangers would fit that bill superbly and kick off Hitchcock’s greatest decade of filmmaking. Finally, the screenwriter chosen by Hitchcock to adapt Highsmith’s novel was at the end of his celebrated career. For the Strangers screenplay, Hitchcock and Warner Bros. hired one the most accomplished noir writers of the 20th century, an author synonymous with hard-boiled detective fiction. While the film would be a boon to Highsmith’s nascent career, it was Raymond Chandler’s fallow finale to Hollywood screenwriting. Chandler ended up having to fight for screen credit on Strangers, and he co-received an onscreen credit swith the little known Czenzi Ormonde, an assistant of Ben Hecht’s who worked on the script after Hitchcock largely threw out Chandler’s draft. Therefore, Chandler’s writing efforts are largely absent from the final film.

For sake of simplicity, I will focus on the three highest profile authors, and avoid discussing other writers who worked on aspects of the screenplay, such as Whitfield Cook’s work on the treatment or Czenzi Ormonde’s final script revisions. Furthermore, I want to say only a few words about the larger-than-life personalities of Highsmith, Chandler and Hitchcock, as these are topics taken up elsewhere at length. Published accounts often highlight the antagonistic aspects of this collaboration and recount the interpersonal battles between Hitchcock and Chandler.

Hitchcock picture from Tom Sutpen's blog, http://tsutpen.blogspot.com/

While Chandler took the job because he thought he might like “Hitch,” it didn’t turn out that way. There is the oft-recited story that Chandler called Hitchcock “a fat bastard” as the director was getting out of his car during a story visit to Chandler’s home in La Jolla, California. Hitchcock apparently repaid the insult by ignoring Chandler completely during the screenwriting phase and Hitchcock supposedly threw Chandler’s delivered script into his trashcan. Highsmith, for her part, wrote almost twenty-five years later that her book “gave Chandler fits during his Hollywood script writing period…” (5) Nowadays, most scholars tend to point the finger at Hitchcock for giving Chandler “fits” rather than Highsmith’s novel. As his unpublished script testifies, Chandler had some very strong ideas for turning Highsmith’s scenarios into a successful film adaptation. But Hitchcock, in his story conferences with Chandler, offered up a very different treatment than the one in Highsmith’s book. It is not hard to imagine that Hitch’s ending on the merry-go-round and Guy’s final exoneration resulted in the Chandleresque lament that working on this screenplay at times was “damn foolishness.”

While there were incompatibilities and antagonisms between Hitchcock and Chandler in their adaptation of a Highsmith novel, I am more interested in their points of commonality and their networked intersections. What does the criss-crossing of these three authors contribute to the development of film noir? Clearly, all three were drawn to the source material. Hitchcock has said that he found in Highsmith’s novel “the right kind of material for me to work with.” (Truffault, 193). The transference of guilt from one character to another (the core idea in Highsmith’s novel) was already a staple of Hitchcock’s films. For his part, Chandler was probably drawn in by the thematic similarity to his own screenplay for The Blue Dahlia, where a man’s life crumbles due to the mysterious circumstances surrounding his wife’s murder. And while Patricia Highsmith wanted nothing to do with the writing of the screenplay, some of the film’s most memorable moments are already found in her novel. Highsmith even included the music cues for “And the Band Played On,” utilized so memorably by Hitchcock in the film version.

Seldom mentioned about the criss-cross of Highsmith, Chandler, and Hitchcock is that taken as a network of writers, the screenplay of Strangers can lay claim to three different, but major, traditions that contributed to the noir style. Highsmith was not only an exceptional novelist, but she began her career writing for comic books.

Two Covers of Comics by Patricia Highsmith, shown by biographer Joan Schenkar at Noircon 2010

As Highsmith biographer Joan Schenkar points out, Strangers owes much “to the crude Alter Ego psychologies which glazed the plots of her comic book scenarios…” (259) Chandler, as is well known, began writing for pulps such as Black Mask, and was a pre-eminent hard-boiled novelist. Hitchcock’s mastery of filmmaking can be traced back to silent era classics such as Blackmail, as well as through his growing embrace of the noir style in films such as Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, and Rope. These authors, then, brought to the screen version of Strangers an amalgam of ideas from popular story forms—the comics, the pulps, and film noir—and in doing so, break new ground and generate an exciting new story.

The criss-crossing of these authors resulted in significant changes from Highsmith’s novel. As primary author, Hitchcock was responsible for the largest changes, including changing Guy’s (Farley Granger) character from an architect into a tennis player, moving the majority of the film’s action to Washington D.C. and creating a brand new ending for the story. In fact, after the halfway point of the film, the novel and film bear little resemblance to each other. Why did the film depart so strongly from Highsmith’s novel? As Chandler writes in his letters from that time, the problem was an issue with character motivation. A film audience would have trouble believing Guy (played by Farley Granger) would murder Bruno’s father, which is what happens in the book. As Chandler writes: “The premise is that if you shake hands with a maniac, you may have sold your soul to the devil.” (206) And Chandler literally begged Hitchcock to consider the “motivation” problem. In a letter he writes to Hitchcock, Chandler says: “Sacrifice a camera shot if necessary. There’s always another camera shot just as good. There is never another motivation just as good.” (142) But Hitchcock was not overly concerned about plot problems or character motivations in this film. As a film director, Hitchcock was perhaps more interested in the formal means by which he tells his stories. Strangers has some brilliant and exciting set pieces including Miriam’s murder reflected in an eyeglass, an unforgettable tennis match, and a thrilling finale on an out-of-control merry-go-round.

Graham Petrie argues that Hitchcock might have gotten the ending of the film from a classic English mystery novel, Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop. Petrie argues that Hitchcock would have been aware of the novel, and the similarities are too similar to be accidental. Crispin’s novel ends with a climatic scene on a merry-go-round (or roundabout) which goes out of control when its

Merry-go-round ending from Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock, 1950)

operator is shot during an escape attempt. While Petrie’s claim might still be speculation more than proven fact, the filmed ending of Strangers on a Train moves away from the noirish and fateful ending of the Highsmith novel. In the novel, Bruno drowns in a drunken stupor, and Guy ends up being caught by a private investigator and sent to jail for the murder of Bruno’s father. Of more interest to criss-cross theory is that Hitchcock’s change of the ending probably did give Chandler “fits.” Chandler liked the idea of having Guy punished by the end of the story. Regardless of where Hitchcock came up with the new ending, the director exchanged a noirish ending for an ending that would be appropriate for an English mystery cozy (a genre Chandler detested). But the choices made about the film’s ending demonstrate how many different noir and mystery traditions were being evoked out of the authorial networks behind this particular adaptation. And amazingly, when one watches the final film, the adaptation does not come across as a bunch of independent ideas nor as spare and disparate parts thrown together, but a fully realized film noir under the primary authorship of Alfred Hitchcock.

Finally, a criss-cross theory of noir adaptation might help us account for how the noir style matured and deepened long after different groupings of writers collaborated. In this vein, it might be useful to ask what happened to Chandler’s discarded screenplay? Did it really just end up, forgotten, at the bottom of Hitch’s wastebasket? Or did Hitchcock’s fortuitous criss-cross with Highsmith and Chandler affect him and his filmmaking in ways not immediately apparent in 1951? Might there be a film in Hitchcock’s body of work that benefited from Chandler’s critique of Strangers on a Train? Did Hitchcock ever subsequently direct a film where he foregrounds character motivation and risks a downbeat ending centered around a person haunted by an earlier murder in an obsessive compulsive way? Hitchcock probably knew that if he pursued Chandler’s ideas to their fullest in Strangers on a Train, the result was likely to be box office poison. While Chandler’s adaptation tried harder than Hitchcock’s to be faithful to Highsmith’s novel, his ideas for the film, like his own The Blue Dahlia, would be a tougher sell to audiences. In 1951, Hitchcock was desperate for a hit, partially accounting for why the final script for Strangers might not have had “enough” Chandler, and departed so strongly from Highsmith’s novel. But in the creative potential activated by the criss-cross of screenwriting talents, another Hitchcock film might playfully be considered as the filmic realization of Chandler’s unused script ideas and is now a critically acclaimed masterpiece of film noir. And yet even almost ten years after Strangers on a Train, the audience still wasn’t quite ready for that kind of story. So that latter film did end up being a commercial flop that Hitchcock himself removed from circulation for over 20 years: Vertigo


References:

Highsmith, Patricia. “Introduction,” The World of Raymond Chandler. (New York: A & W Publishers, Inc., 1977).

Hiney, Tom and Frank MacShane, eds. The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Nonfiction, 1909-1959. (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000).

Petrie, Graham. “Transfer of Guilt: Hitchcock and Chandler on Strangers on a Train,” Sight and Sound, July 2009, 46-49.

Phillips, Gene D. Creatures of Darkness: Raymond Chandler, Detective Fiction, and Film Noir. (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2000).

Schenkar, Joan. The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009).

Truffault, Francois. Hitchcock. Revised Edition. (Touchstone Book: New York, 1983).