Fiction and the Film Industry: A Brief History of the Hollywood Novel and a Bibliography of Criticism

Article excerpt

Over the past seventy years, the Hollywood Novel, which features characters in the film industry working either in Hollywood or on location with a Hollywood production company, has developed as an important fiction genre. In sheer numbers alone-my count is in the 700s and Los Angeles literary historian Lionel Rolfe believes there may be as many as 1,300-the Hollywood Novel is an imposing presence in our literature and assumes a place alongside other popular American genres such as detective, mystery, and western fiction. Although overall its individual members are ephemeral novels often published only in paperback and frequently neither kept nor bought by libraries, the genre's motifs and symbols have nonetheless proved compelling for a number of "serious" literary figures, including Nathanael West (The Day of the Locust), F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Last Tycoon), Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?) and (/ Should ve Stayed Home), Norman Mailer (The Deer Park), and Joan Didion (Play it As it Lays), among others.

Often literary critics analyze the Hollywood Novel as part of Southern California regionalism, "Southland Fiction," or Los Angeles fiction, discussing it in conjunction with the work of Los Angeles writers such as James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, John Gregory Dunne , and others whose work most often is not about Hollywood per se.

It is imperative, however, that the novels in the genre be analyzed as an entity separate from other Los Angeles fiction because their setting-the specific town of Hollywood-has been overwhelmingly influenced by the film industry and the illusions it produces. The timelessness, artificiality, physical unconventionality, and unusual atmosphere existing in Hollywood and its film industry collapse distinctions between illusion and reality; this merger is the theme of nearly every novel in the genre. The importance of setting is also demonstrated by the fact that this is the only American regional genre determined by a specific industry.

The Hollywood Novel genre has flourished since 1916, when the first truly "Hollywood" novel, B. M. Bower's The Phantom Herd, was published. Its popularity owes in part to the public's on-going fascination with movies. Also, novelists are drawn to the narrative potential of the genre not only by the questions of illusion and reality called up by filmmaking and by the genere's setting, but also by the symbolism inherent in the city itself. Hollywood is often viewed in the novels as a microcosm of the United States, the film industry as a microcosm of America's mass production economy. Some novelists have seen the film capital as an emblem of the dark side of the American Dream. In addition, the notion of exile, so prominent in twentieth century fiction, is readily symbolized through the displaced artist or writer protagonist who is lured to and exploited or destroyed by the movie studios.

Novels about film and filmmaking pre-date the motion picture industry's move from the East Coast to California. Novels like Victor Appleton's Tom Swift and His Wizard Camera; or^ Thrilling Adventures While Taking Moving Pictures (1912) and his late "Motion Picture Chums," "Moving Picture Boys," and "Movie Boys" series, as well as Laura Lee Hope's "Moving Picture Girls" books sprang up in the early teens as popular literature began to reflect the trend in motion pictures themselves away from "actualities" and towards narrative frameworks. The Hope volumes feature the adventures of a New York City based production company as they shoot on location. These novels suggest the early picture-making done in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, and northern Rorida; and eastern filmmaking continued to be the focus of some novels published into the late teens.

But when Thomas Edison's Motion Picture Patents Company seized control of film equipment, materials, and distribution, California provided filmmakers physical distance from that stranglehold, and Mexico offered nearby sanctuary from law officers enforcing the monopoly's control. …