Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

A Christmas Carol

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Every once in a while, I think I know what I’m going to write here.  I walk around with opening sentences in my head all day, and then I read through the comments from the day before, and everything goes to hell.

That is sort of what has happened this morning.   I was going to write about my peculiar obsession with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which tends to be a big deal around my house between Thanksgiving and  Epiphany, because that’s when I decided to run all my Christmas Carol videos back to back and over and over again.  And I have a lot of them.  I’ve got both the Patrick Stewart and George C. Scott versions, plus the one with Albert  Finney, plus A Christmas Carol:  The Musical (which I don’t like), plus at least two from the early days of sound movies, including the one with Alastair  Sim.  I’ve bot the  Muppets version (my favorite).  I’ve got a bunch of the modern retellings, too, like A Diva’s  Christmas Carol and a renamed one with Henry  Winkler set in the US during the Depression. 

By now this obsession is of the kind where I feel the need to have items even though I know from the start that I won’t like them–there’s a Barbie version out this year, which makes me cringe, but somebody will give it to me eventually.  It’s gotten to the point where pretty much everybody knows I do this.  On the other hand, there’s the Bill Murray movie Scrooged, which has been on television a few times, and which I definitely like, but that I haven’t yet come across at a time when I can pick it up.

Then there are the ones I’ve seen on teleivision and don’t actually know the names to–there’s a modern American version where the ghosts all go to the wrong house and Marley is a Jamaican Rastafarian.  There are also the versions that constituted a single episode of various television series I have no other particular interest in but that can only be acquired on DVD by the season.  The one that sticks in my mind is an episode of Highway to Heaven, the series where Michael Landon played an angel.  

I don’t know just what it is about A Christmas Carol that strikes me so, and it’s double hard to figure out because this is a relatively new obsession.  It showed up only after Bill had died.

When I was growing up, I always reread The Razor’s Edge (by W. Somerset Maugham) and Rebecca  (by Daphne  du Maurier) for Christmas, and also sometimes Hemingway’s supposed “memoir” A Movable Feast.  I knew what was going on with those even then, though.  They were my imaginary escape routes out of the emotionally barren, intellectually stultifying environment of my childhood, and they involved going to live in Paris (first choice) or England and being somebody else entirely.  Hawthorne, in The Scarlet Letter, called it the desire to be “a citizen of somewhere else.”  I know exactly what he meant, even now.

I’ve tried to analyze my fascination with A Christmas Carol several times, but every explanation I construct seems somehow false.  This year the explanation seems a little less false than usual, so let me try it out here. 

I have serially recurring e-mail conversations with a number of people about what I’d call Picking A Winner–that is, why it is that publishers are generally so God awful at knowing what books will sell and what will not.  Significant best sellers tend to come as a surprise, and although it is possible to manufacture the appearance of a best seller, the appearance tends to fall apart after awhile, and a good hefty minority of books with seven figure advances just fall off cliffs and into the slough of midlist.

Some of the people involved in these debacles are publishing brass who have been brought in from other kinds of companies and who have no idea why anybody reads books, since they don’t read books themselves.  These people use the It Worked Before method of figuring out what will sell–last year there was a big best seller where the detective was a cat?  and another one where the detective was a nun?  Fine!  We’ll publish a book where a nun solves crimes with the help of her cat!

There are some truly terribly books out there published on this philosophy, and it doesn’t matter that most of them fail to sell much of anything at all.  If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the outcome to be different each time, then there’s a certain kind of publishing executive who is demonstrably insane.  It’s all coming to a bookstore near you–mafia families, serial killers with sexual kinks that would curl the hair of the Marquis de Sade, cat and dog and guinea pig detectives, cozy English villages invented by the people who put marzipan figurines on wedding cakes…

The other method of picking books is to pick them by how well they’re written.  That method has the advantage of actually being about the quality of the work, and to an extent it does better than the we’re-all-doing-cannibals-this-year approach, but it really isn’t a good predictor of how well the book will sell.

It isn’t true that books that are well written sell less well than books that are written well–okay, that sentence was a train wreck.  You know what I  mean.  The fact is that how well a book is written has no effect at all on whow well it sells.  I suppose there is some great gaping hole at the bottom below which readers will not go.  Some of the rejected manuscripts I’ve seen in my years in th is business are so excruciatingly embarrassing, I can’t imagine even those people who insist that they “just want a good story” would put up with them.  But being badly written won’t make your book sell, and being well written won’t make it sell either.

I’ve come to the conclusion, lately, that the reason people read books is to live for a while in a thing I can only call a “controlling sensibility.”  That is, that they’re not looking for particular content, but for how the world the book creates makes them feel. 

I know, I know.  I should come up with a snappier phrase for this.  I haven’t been able to think of one. But the idea explains a lot of what’s confusing about present day publishing–why a right-wing author like Patricia Cornwell, for instance,  has so many devoted fans among liberals, and why so many very conservative readers are devoted to distinctly liberal novelists.

I’m sure that every reader has a threshhold beyond which he or she will not go–a level of in-your-face politicization that’s just too much to take.  Stay clear of that threshhold, though, and what you’re saying matters much less than the atmosphere you create around saying it.  That’s why so many people can read the same book over and over and over again, even though it’s a detective novel and they know who did it.   That’s why I read Miss Marple over and over and over again, and  probably why  I read (and watch) A Christmas Carol.

So what is it about A Christmas Carol that attracts me so much?  I find it hard to say.  It obviously is not the Victorian setting, because I like plenty of the modernizations, and you can’t exactly call the Muppets version Victorian.  And I keep playing around with a version of my own, or maybe a sequel.

Maybe it’s just that A Christmas Carol creates a vision of Christmas that I’ve never really had, but would like to.

Someday, I’m going to write a version with Gregor in it, and post it on the website.

Written by janeh

December 13th, 2008 at 6:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'A Christmas Carol'

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  1. I’ve got my obsessions, but they don’t revolve around movies! I must watch the Alastair Sim one each year, and it’s the only one I have a copy of. I don’t know why I like it so much, unless it’s the exuberance of Sim’s performance. I like Miracle on 34th Street, I think it is, the one with the little girl and the department store Santa. I don’t think I’ve watched any other Christmas movie from beginning to end, not even other versions of the Christmas Carol! I’ve got my Christmases the way I like them these days; pretty bare bones. About the only thing I’m certain to do each year in the way of viewing or participating in something is church services, Alistair Sim, and the Messiah, which I’ve taken up again in recent years. I went last night – I enjoyed it, but didn’t like the soloists quite as much as in previous years, although I don’t have the vocabulary to say why.

    You can put me in the category of people who read for the experience of another world. Oh, now I like really twisty plots that still remain sort of plausible in detective stories and interesting characters, but the feel of a way of life or a part of the world is an enormous bonus. When I was a child, that was essential. I never much liked stories about children like me (although there actually weren’t many; most fictional children seemed to live in American suburbs or British small towns – we had an English librarian). I adored historical fiction, from the recent historical stuff like Anne of Green Gables and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm to books set in medieval times and before. And I loved science fiction. I read Nancy Drew, of course, and sometimes the Hardy Boys. I read for the story – Anne and Rebecca and Nancy aside, a lot of the books I really enjoyed had male protagonists, so I’d mentally substitute a female one (talk about identifying with a work!) and go on. The characters were unreal enough I could do that easily!

    Of course, the difficulty of picking books on the basis that lots of readers will find the world attractive or interesting enough to get lost in seems to be difficult. Diffferent people seem to find different worlds interesting. I once tried to get a friend interested in a science fiction book I was reading, but he just couldn’t get past all the stuff that didn’t really exist, including a lot of the words.


    13 Dec 08 at 8:31 am

  2. Thank Heaven there aren’t as many film versions of PERSUASION, and a moment of sympathy for whoever is doing the same thing for IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, PRISONER OF ZENDA or PRIDE & PREJUDICE.

    What you’re calling “controlling sensibility” is what I’ve normally heard of as “living in that world.” Mostly it involves both an attitude and a place. It accounts for a number of second-rate Regencies on my own shelves, the ready market for Sherlock Holmes pastiches, and the continual efforts of SF writers to recreate Burroughs’ Barsoom long after it was known to be scientifically impossible. “As John D. Clark said, “I have an engagement in the Hyborian Age, and will be gone all evening.”

    As for selling books and bad or good writing, my own suspicion is that there is bad writing on at least two levels, but I’m not sure there is good writing.

    Follow: sentences with unclear referents, ungrammatical sentences and confusing descriptions are bad writing, no question. From the novelist’s–or reader’s–point of view, so are plots that don’t go anywhere, plots that ramble with no direction, and plot lines left hanging. If a writer is bad enough on that level he won’t–I hope!–get published, or sell if he should be.

    But what’s good writing? Are more complex sentence structures and longer latinate words better than short declarative sentences and shorter germanic words? One man’s simple accessible style is another’s baby talk. Another’s elevated language can be someone else’s deliberate obscurity. And so with plot. Some of my favorite novels weigh in at about 200 pages take place over a week or less and have fewer than half a dozen significant characters. Others run more than 1,000 pages, cover years and taking notes might not be a bad idea.

    The “creative” world is filled with people who are convinced that a 20 word sentence is better than a 10, a four-syllable word better than a two-syllable, and that a story told in three volumes must be better written than one told in 200 pages. I have news for them, but the reverse isn’t true either.

    Nero Wolfe spoke of “the subtle chasing the obvious” and so it is here. Determining bad writing is fairly objective. It’s disputes, not over good writing, but over taste, that cause the bloodbaths on Publisher’s Row.


    13 Dec 08 at 9:31 am

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