Shakespeare would have done well in any generation

‘I don’t know why the hell I write so many letters,’ Raymond Chandler once wrote, in a letter. ‘I guess my mind is just too active for its own good!’ Chandler didn’t write fiction after night fell because he felt it made it too ‘ghoulish’. Instead, he wrote letters, or spoke them into a dictaphone for his Mexican secretary to type up in the morning. The following letters are all to Hamish ‘Jamie’ Hamilton, who was Chandler’s UK publisher from 1939 and became one of his closest friends. From an initially rocky start – the first letter begins with Chandler challenging a statement he believed Hamilton to have made about him – they blossom into a series of fascinating digressions and anecdotes about Hollywood, about what he is writing, about what other people are writing, about what he likes – and a fair bit about what he doesn’t like too…

11 January 1945

‘I gather that he is a very big shot in Hollywood these days and might resent advice, whoever the sender may be and however good his intentions.’ That really cuts me to the quick. I am not a big shot in Hollywood or anywhere else and have no desire to be. I am, on the contrary, extremely allergic to big shots of all types wherever found, and lose no opportunity to insult them whenever I get the chance. Furthermore, I love advice and if I very seldom take it, on the subject of writing, that is only because I have received practically none except from my agent, Sydney Sanders, and he has rather concentrated on trying to make me write stuff for what we call the slick magazines over here. That is, the big shiny-paper national weeklies and monthlies which cater principally to the taste of women. I have always felt myself entirely unfitted for this kind of writing. I much prefer Hollywood, with all its disadvantages.

Why not try me with a little advice some time? I am sure I should treat yours with the greatest respect and should, in any case, like to hear from you.

26 February 1945

It was nice to hear from you and to be writing to you. I suppose agents are necessary to a writer because the writer, living a more or less secluded life as a rule, cannot possibly know what is going on in the literary world, what he ought to get for his material, and on what sort of conditions he should sell it. But I think the agent’s function ends there. The moment he tries to influence a writer in his work, the agent just makes a nuisance of himself.

6 October 1946

My title may not be very good. It’s just the best I can think of. I have peculiar ideas about titles. They should never be obviously provocative, nor say anything about murder. They should rather be indirect and neutral, but the form of words should be a little unusual. I haven’t achieved this here. However, as some big publisher once remarked, a good title is the title of a successful book. Offhand, nobody would have thought The Thin Man a great title. The Maltese Falcon is, because it has rhyme and rhythm and makes the mind ask questions.

10 August 1948

Just read an English opus called Blonde Iscariot by Lustgarten. The year’s worst for me. Half-cent pulp writing. What the hell’s the matter over there?

I am trying desperately to finish The Little Sister, and should have a rough draft done almost any day I can get up enough steam. The fact is, however, that there is nothing in it but style and dialogue and characters. The plot creaks like a broken shutter in an October wind … Am reading [Graham Greene’s] The Heart of the Matter, a chapter at a time. It has everything in it that makes literature except verve, wit, gusto, music and magic; a cool and elegant set-piece, embalmed by Whispering Glades … there is more life in the worst chapters Dickens or Thackeray ever wrote, and they wrote some pretty awful chapters.

19 August 1948

The end of Greene’s book is great. It atones for a lack I had felt before.

The story has its weaknesses. It is episodic and the emphasis shifts around from character to character and it is, as a mystery, overcomplicated, but as a story of people very simple. It has no violence in it at all; the violence is all off stage. If it has menace and suspense, they are in the writing. I think some of it is beautifully written, and my reactions to it are most unreliable. I write a scene and read it over and think it stinks. Three days later (having done nothing in between but stew) I re-read it and think it is great. So there you are. You can’t bank on me. I may be all washed up.

Lately I have been trying to simplify my life so that I need not rely on Hollywood. I have no longer a business manager or a secretary. But I am not happy. I need a rest badly and I cannot rest until this is done, and I sometimes think that when it is done it will feel as tired as I am, and it will show.

Assuming, for the moment, that the thing is any good, I feel that you may rely on receiving some kind of script in a month. It may need more work, but it will give you a chance to see whether I am crazy or not. I guess Carl Brandt would tell you, up to a point.

I hope this is some help.


P.S. It contains the nicest whore I ever didn’t meet.

19 November 1948

It’s nice of [J.B.] Priestley to want to read my stuff. Bless him! I remember him saying, ‘They don’t write like this at Dulwich.’ That may be, but if I hadn’t grown up with Latin and Greek, I doubt if I would know so well where to draw the very subtle line between what I call vernacular style and what I should call an illiterate or faux-naïf style.

21 March 1949

I remember several years ago when Howard Hawks was making The Big Sleep, the movie, he and Bogart got into an argument as to whether one of the characters was murdered or committed suicide. They sent me a wire (there’s a joke about this too) asking me and dammit I didn’t know either. Of course I got hooted at. The joke was in connection with Jack Warner, the head of Warner Bros. Believe it or not, he saw the wire, the wire cost the studio 70 cents, and he called Hawks up and asked him whether it was really necessary to send a telegram about a point like that. That’s one way to run a business.

22 April 1949

I like this fellow [Stephen] Spender very much. In fact I like him better than [W.H.] Auden, about whom I have always had reservations. (I am also disturbed at your remark that [Cyril] Connolly has no conscience.) His account of the silken barbarity of Eton is wonderful, of course, and the way these fellows thought and wrote and talked, at an age when Americans can barely spell their names, is also most impressive. Nevertheless, there is something about the literary life that repels me; all this desperate buildings of castles on cobwebs, the longdrawn acrimonious struggle to make something important which we all know will be gone for ever in a few years, the miasma of failure which is to me as offensive as the cheap gaudiness of popular success. I believe the really good people would be reasonably successful in any circumstances; that to be very poor and very beautiful is probably a moral failure much more than an artistic success. Shakespeare would have done well in any generation, because he would have refused to die in a corner; he would have taken the false gods and made them over, he would have taken the current formulae and forced them into something lesser men would have thought them incapable of. Alive today he would undoubtedly have written and directed motion pictures, plays and God knows what. Instead of saying, ‘This medium is not good,’ he would have used it and made it good. If some people had called some of his work cheap (which some of it is), he wouldn’t have cared a rap, because he would know that without some vulgarity there is no complete man. He would have hated refinement, as such, because it is always a withdrawal, a shrinking, and he was much too tough to shrink from anything.

17 June 1949

I am very uneasy in mind. I seem to have lost ambition and I have no ideas any more … I read these profound discussions, say, in The Partisan Review, about art, what is it, literature what is it, and the good life and liberalism, and what is the definitive position of Rilke or Kafka, and the scrap about Ezra Pound getting the Bollingen [poetry] award, and it all seems so meaningless to me. Who cares? Too many good men have been dead too long for it to matter what any of these people do or don’t do. What does a man work for? Money? Yes, but in a purely negative way. Without some money, nothing else is possible, but once you have the money (and I don’t mean a fortune, just a few thousand quid a year) you don’t sit and count it and gloat over it. Everything you attain removed a reason for wanting to attain something. Do I wish to be a great writer? Do I wish to win the Nobel Prize? Not if it takes too much work. What the hell, they give the Nobel Prize to too many second-raters for me to get excited about it. Besides, I’d have to go to Sweden and dress up and make a speech. Is the Nobel Prize worth all that? Hell, no.

… You cannot have art without a public taste and you cannot have a public taste without a sense of style and quality throughout the social structure. Curiously enough this sense of style seems to have very little to do with refinement or even humanity. It can exist in a dirty and savage age, but it cannot exist in an age of the Book of the Month Club, the Hearst Press, and the Coca-Cola machine. You can’t produce art by trying, by setting up exacting standards, by talking about critical minutiae, by the Flaubert method. It is produced with great ease, and without self-consciousness. You can’t write just because you have read all the books.

—The Raymond Chandler Papers: 1909–1959