Who will spare us the actor’s novel?
They say everyone has a romance in them. But that doesn’t make it a novel to read. For the most part, the road to literary success is steep and can only be climbed through a combination of talent, luck and the art of selling. If you are famous, however, you can take the escalator. Celebrity fiction isn’t a new trend, but it is inevitably hot. Where actors turned to directing to show their artistic ambition, praise is now found in the pages of literary fiction written by themselves.
Which brings me to Shoot Marthe – the second novel by actor David Thewlis, to be released on Thursday. On screen, Thewlis is a force of nature; whether in the leading roles, like the young and abrasive rascal in Mike Leigh Naked, or by stealing every scene like the infamous VM Varga in Fargo, Thewlis has proven to be one of the country’s brightest and most distinctive film actors. His novel, however, hardly betrays this greatness. It’s good. How are you.
There is a long tradition of actors dabbling in prose fiction, one that includes everyone from Hilary Duff and Isla Fisher to Hugh Laurie and Tom Hanks. The figure of the star novelist of cinema dates back to the 20th century: people like Sylvester Stallone, Tony Curtis and Dirk Bogarde did it decades ago.
Earlier this year, Ethan Hawke posted A shining ray of darkness, an equally unusual novel that fails to capture what makes its author such a powerful and remarkable presence on screen. And why would he do it? Acting and writing share a number of what you might call “transferable skills” – understanding characters, navigating through tones, exploring the “human condition” – but these are ultimately quite vague and ethereal. When it comes to the specific practical skills needed to write, structure, and refine a novel, acting is about as useful as carpentry or investment banking. It won’t matter to a publisher, mind you. If Tom Hanks walks into an office saying he wants to publish a short story book, someone with a pathological fear of money would have to even consider saying no to him.
The filmmakers, too, got into the action. The novelization of Quentin Tarantino of his 2019 film Once upon a time… at Hollywood turned out to be one of the most talked about literary events of this year when it was released last month. Fans of the director liked it pretty well, but the prose is nothing special and inevitably lacks the cinematic flair inspired by his best on-screen works. Between the free tangents in the movie trivia and the eyebrow-raising foot mentions, it was definitely Tarantino – but it’s probably the best you can say.
Other revered directors, including Tim Burton and Ethan Coen, have also turned to fiction in the past, with disappointing results. Coen’s short fiction book from 1998, Gates of Eden, would probably be a perfectly decent set of stories if this was someone else’s first book. But knowing that it was from one of the two men who brought us The great Lebowski, Inside Llewyn Davis and O brother, where are you?, one can’t help but wonder if his time would have been better spent elsewhere.
Traffic stops in both directions, of course. The annals of cinema are littered with the unfortunate efforts of writers who thought they could play in Hollywood – so much so that “you can say it was written by a novelist” has become a cliché for critics. Even the great novelists – John Steinbeck, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy – have struggled to find their way into the medium. Stephen King’s works have been adapted into some of the most enduring horror films ever made – but look at the list of projects he’s been personally involved in and you’ll see a list of flawed and forgotten duds.
However, some have managed to make the transition successfully. Richard Price interspersed novel writing with a career as a Hollywood screenwriter, including The color of silver and Sea of love; by writing the screenplay for The third man, Graham Greene helped create an immortal piece of noir cinema.
Michael Crichton crossed the threshold more successfully than anyone, writing and directing the original Westworld and adapting his own novel, jurassic park, for Steven Spielberg’s iconic dinosaur film. Miranda July is probably one of the best recent examples of an artist who has found creative success in both written fiction and film, but her films are still largely acquired taste, operating outside the mainstream Hollywood audience.
As all culture coagulates into a single, homogeneous block that we call “content,” it’s easy to underestimate how specialized individual art forms are. The rhythms, logistics and sensibilities of cinema are an ocean apart from prose fiction. The vast majority of great writers spend years perfecting their craft; for the most part, it’s a full-time job. Between movie shoots, press tours and all that goes on, it’s hard to see how someone like Thewlis or Hawke would have time to properly develop as a writer.
It would, however, be ungenerous to simply insist that someone “stay in their way”. There is something inherently admirable about writing fiction; Regardless of fame and public goodwill, it always takes courage to present a novel to the world, to expose it to dissection and potential ridicule. Just ask Morrissey, whose sad novel from 2015 List of lost has been ripped apart by everyone from broadsheet reviews to Bad Sex in Fiction award judges. Film making is a collaborative process, but fiction – well, that’s pretty much all about you. There is no hiding place in writing fiction: no sweeping score or luscious production design to save you. It is only your words, pictures and ideas that you can conjure up out of thin air.
It is far from ideal that publishers invest time and money in books simply because of name recognition; one cannot help but wonder how many superior but unknown novelists are thrown in their wake. But publishing has never been a meritocracy, no matter how much she likes to pretend otherwise. We cannot blame the actors for wanting to make their voices heard. On some level, that’s all everyone wants.