First, go here, read this: http://tinyurl.com/3o4erd9 .
It’s Paul Mandelbaum’s great review of My Hollywood, by Mona Simpson. He places it in the context of other Hollywood novels including What Makes Sammy Run?, Pandaemonium, The Player, and The Day of the Locust.
Mandelbaum also conducts a running commentary on the benefits and perils of satire, wondering “aloud” if the anger and social-critical bite of the form makes it inimical to the depiction of more realistic characters and moments. As is often the case with other arts–architecture, painting, poetry–the descriptive language that suggests itself is that of music: Emotional realism and the impulses behind it (compassion, empathy) seem out-of-key when encountered in the stringent serio-comic balladry of satire. When we’re invited to laugh at everyone, it suddenly seems a bit much to be asked to care about anyone. The risk, then, is of descending from no-sentiment to sentimentality.
This necessarily robs such works of, or closes them off to, what in Hollywood they call “heart”–true feeling, non-snarky evocations of sympathy, sadness, relief, joy, and all that stuff. Perhaps it’s such realistic emotionality that, by its presence, differentiates comedy from satire: the former seeks to move, the latter seeks to mock. You pays your money, you finds your genre, and you takes your choice. (Mandelbaum is careful to note that Mona Simpson manages to reconcile these two impulses–no small feat on her part.)
I used to hate “heart,” but over the years have been persuaded/fatigued/bullied into thinking it has its place. One of the semi-redeeming facts about Hollywood, in fact, is how it provides a context in which pure, smack-your-forehead absurdity–the kind one would satirize–actually co-exists with real people and authentic moments of legitimate emotion. Ask any screen or television writer. Every one has had the experience of hearing an executive or story development person say something self-evidently idiotic, with a weird combination of utter sincerity and craven disingenuousness, while displaying simultaneously the loathsome dishonesty of the brute careerist and the pathetic desperation of a shmuck just trying not to lose his job.
There are of course other satiric Hollywood novels Mandelbaum could have discussed, including Peter Lefcourt’s The Deal and Charlie Hauck’s Artistic Differences. That “the Hollywood novel” comprises a genre unto itself is, as is the case with “the university novel,” the opposite of a mystery. Politics may be show business for ugly people, but, really, show biz is the evil twin of academia. (The one is dedicated to fantasy, the other to “truth.” )
Both explicitly solicit writers. Both lure purveyors of personal vision with promises of financial stability (if not riches) and cultural prestige (if not power), only to mire them in the endless compromises and bureaucratic hoop-jumping of production-by-committee. Taken together they are the only professions/industries whose powerful attraction to novelists is every bit as strong as the disillusionment and abuse those writers experience when they un-lash themselves from the masts of their typewriters or computers and apply in person to the sirens for employment.
That’s why we have so many Hollywood and university satires. The writers come, they get burned, they get angry, and they get even. Or as even as they’re ever going to get, the poor bastards.