Among the common tropes about Hollywood is that screenwriting is a Faustian bargain, in which authors compromise their talents for the consolations of a steady wage. Certainly, there’s some truth to this; from the early days of the industry, writers have spun scripts for money while lamenting the demeaning nature of the work. To Tennessee Williams, who wrote for MGM in the early 1940s, screenwriting was a ridiculous exercise that made him “feel like an obstetrician required to successfully deliver a mastodon from a beaver.” William Faulkner hated Hollywood so much he once reportedly fled to Mississippi after asking permission to work on a script at home. Partly, all this is a reaction to the culture of the studios, where writers like Williams and Faulkner were at once prestigious catches and proof that talent was another commodity to buy and sell. (“I have the best writer in the world–for peanuts,” Jack Warner said of Faulkner, whom he was paying $300 a week.) More to the point, screenwriters seldom have control over their efforts, caught as they are between meddling executives and image-savvy stars.
“The making of a picture,” Raymond Chandler noted in 1945, “is an endless contention of tawdry egos, some of them powerful, almost all of them vociferous, and almost none of them capable of anything much more creative than credit-stealing and self-promotion.” Perhaps that’s why so much Hollywood literature is so cynical, from Chandler’s The Little Sister to Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust–although privately, West occasionally took a different point of view. “I am grateful rather than angry at the nice deep mud-lined rut in which I find myself at the moment,” he wrote in 1939 to Edmund Wilson. “The world outside doesn’t make it possible for me to even hope to earn a living writing, while here the pay is large (it isn’t as large as people think, however) enough for me to have at least three or four months off every year.”
Of all the writers who ended up in Hollywood, none would have understood this better than Daniel Fuchs. Unlike West, for whom screenwriting was, at best, a way to subsidize his fiction, Fuchs not only found work in California, he embraced it, rhapsodizing over the “phenomenon” of the movies, which he saw as “teeming with vitality and ardor, as indigenous as our cars or skyscrapers or highways, and as irrefutable.” In a sense, he represents an anti-West, discovering beauty and inspiration in Hollywood even as his contemporary sought out the grotesque. Born in 1909 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Fuchs moved to Brooklyn at age 5 and published his first novel, Summer in Williamsburg, in 1934. Within three years he had completed two more novels, Homage to Blenholt and Low Company, while working as a permanent substitute teacher in New York City public schools. Although these books were re-issued in the 1960s as The Williamsburg Trilogy, they originally sold few copies, and it was only after Fuchs began to turn out short stories for Collier’s and The New Yorker–“vaudeville-virtuoso mimicries and performed entertainments,” he would later call them–that he drew the attention of the studios. He came to Hollywood in 1937 and remained until his death in 1993, winning an Oscar in 1955 for his story for Love Me or Leave Me. Reflecting on his legacy as a writer in a 1989 essay in Commentary, he struck a perplexed note:
A man sits in a room, writing novels. Nothing happens. They don’t sell–four hundred copies apiece, the last one a few more. The reviews are scattered. Twenty-five, thirty years later they are resurrected and brought out again. I am rediscovered…. I don’t know what to make of it. At bottom I know the books are not first class and I privately wonder at the acclaim.
Fuchs’s Commentary essay is reprinted under the title “Strictly Movie: A Letter from Hollywood, 1989,” in The Golden West, a new volume of his Hollywood writings, which appeared sporadically throughout his lifetime, like communiqués from a distant shore. Selected by Christopher Carduff, and with an oddly cranky introduction by John Updike–“Fuchs,” he tells us haughtily, “in his modesty and optimism construed his tortuous Hollywood labors, with their dozen credited scripts, as a species of singing”–The Golden West gathers nine prose works, six of fiction and three of memoir, spanning half a century. It’s tempting to dismiss this as a grab bag; of the pieces here, only four, totaling barely sixty pages (or less than a quarter of the book), have never been collected, while another four are reprinted from Fuchs’s 1979 miscellany The Apathetic Bookie Joint. Yet with the exception of “Dream City, or The Drugged Lake,” a brief bit of 1930s Modernism that, all these years later, comes off as flat and unoriginal, the book has an unexpected flow, a rhythm that reverberates from selection to selection like, in Fuchs’s phrase, a “melodic line.” It’s not just a matter of the collection’s uniform subject matter. Rather, The Golden West is also distinguished by an astonishing consistency of tone and language, a point of view that animates both the essays and the stories, making the book feel like an extended narrative. Regardless of genre, every piece is written in Fuchs’s unmistakable voice, amused and gently diffident. Ultimately, then, The Golden West is best read as a kind of suite, the author’s requiem for the Hollywood he loved.