Learning by Example

By John Hertz: (mostly reprinted from No Direction Home 35)  I know two books entitled The Vicious Circle.  Each book and both together are of interest, indirectly, to us speculative-fiction fans.  The 1957 motion picture (G. Thomas dir.; renamed The Circle in 1959 United States release) is not related.  Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (A. Rudolph dir. 1994) is, but I haven’t seen it.

“The Vicious Circle” was a name its members, or constituents, or something, gave to a group of writers and their friends who met at the Algonquin Hotel, New York, mostly for lunch, during the 1920s and 1930s.  It was the kind of joke they made.

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) was one of them.  She won the O. Henry Award for her 1929 short story “Big Blonde”.  She was the reviewer “Constant Reader” for The New Yorker; three volumes of poetry, Enough Rope (1926), Sunset Gun (1928), Death and Taxes (1931); two of short stories, Laments for the Living (1930), After Such Pleasures (1933); plays for stage and screen – two Academy Award nominations, for A Star Is Born (1937, with Alan Campbell and Robert Carson) and Smash-Up (1947, with Frank Cavett).  She wanted her tombstone to say “This is on me” but her remains were cremated.

The owner of the Algonquin, Frank Case (1872-1946), provided the Circle with a round table.  Harpo Marx (1888-1964) didn’t have a vicious bone in his body, so his 1961 memoir Harpo Speaks! – his stage character was mute – just talks of the Algonquin Round Table.  It seems to have started as a joke on Alexander Woollcott (1887-1943).  The date has been given as April 4, 1919, making 2019 its centenary.

Frank Case’s daughter Margaret Case Harriman in her 1951 Vicious Circle has Al Hirschfeld illustrations.  Otto Penzler’s 2007 Vicious Circle is his anthology of a dozen stories by nine of the Circle, Robert Benchley (1932), Marc Connelly (1930), Edna Ferber (1911), George S. Kaufman & Howard Dietz (1931), Ring Lardner (1925, 1929), Parker (1929), S.J. Perelman (1944, 1951, 1971), and Woollcott (1931, 1932).

On the jacket of the Penzler book is a 1938 photo showing Alan Campbell, Case, Fritz Foord, Wolcott Gibbs, Russell Maloney, St. Clair McKelway, Parker, and James Thurber.  If you get The Ten-Year Lunch (A. Slesin dir. 1987; Academy Award, Best Documentary) you’ll see on the box a 1962 Hirschfeld illustration showing Franklin P. Adams, Benchley, Heywood Broun, Case, Connelly, Frank Croninshield, Ferber, Lynne Fontanne, Kaufman, Alfred Lunt, Parker, Robert Sherwood, and Woollcott.

These were great names once.  Some still are.  Some should be.

Life in these United States eight or ten decades ago is just alien enough now that we see another world in fiction written then.

Fiction is in the verisimilitude business.  Speculative fiction must attend to verisimilitude particularly – because readers can’t have seen the invented world.  Fiction from another time makes a good study.  What’s mentioned?  How much, in what and which detail?  What do characters take for granted?  What do authors suppose their readers will take for granted?

Fiction from another culture can also make a good study.  But if it is put into English from another language, the perspective we in SF want may be clouded by the work of the translator.

To what extent is a story by a U.S. author of 1911, using English, written in a language other than ours?

Detective fiction has a parallel interest in verisimilitude.  The author must see readers are sufficiently informed that they themselves could answer the question which the detective is presented with.

There may not be a detective.  The term mystery fiction is sometimes used, although not terminologically admirable.  A bookshop in Glendale, California, called itself “Bookfellows” and also – liking speculative fiction and what for the moment I’ll call “detective fiction” in a broad sense, as science fiction is sometimes used broadly to include fantasy (a usage whose terminological inadmirability has led some to propose speculative fiction) – “Mystery and Imagination Bookshop”.  I told the owners, half jokingly, “But all books are books of mystery and imagination.”  In 2016 the physical shop closed, operation going on electronically here.

Perhaps in mystery fiction the author must see readers are sufficiently informed that they can recognize why they should feel mystified. Perhaps in this sense speculative fiction can be mystery fiction.  One thinks of George O. Smith’s 1943 novelette “Lost Art” – 1943! aiee! did I forget to nominate it in this year’s Retro-Hugos? where are my notes? anyway it got fewer than 4 nominations; and I can’t say I’d prefer it to Kuttner & Moore’s “Mimsy Were the Borogoves”, which won.

Satire has a parallel interest.  The author must see readers are sufficiently informed that they can tell what is satirized.

Margaret Case Harriman subtitled her book the story of the Algonquin Round Table.  Otto Penzler, who owns the Mysterious Bookshop in New York and has won two Edgar Awards (for Best Biographical or Critical Work), subtitled his book mystery and crime stories by members of the Algonquin Round Table.

I’ll make a comparison regardless of magnitude.  Two geometrical figures of the same shape are similar even if very different in size: consider a scale model of the Moon 10” (25 cm) across; it and the Moon itself (2100 miles, 3500 km) are similar.  Jane Austen (1775-1817), I’ve said, is like a Martian writing for fellow Martians; Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) writing historical fiction set in the same period is like an SF author who introduces us to Martian life – never mind that science now indicates there might not be any. Penzler’s authors are like Austen, Harriman is like Heyer.

I recommend these two books to you – and if you care to pursue the subject, Harpo Speaks! and works by other Circlers.  Frank Case’s own memoir is Tales of a Wayward Inn (1938).  Read them for themselves, and read them as an SF fan.  What are they doing?  How do they do it?

8 thoughts on “Learning by Example

  1. I believe Hirschfeld put the number of “Nina”s after his name on such illustrations. There’s no such number in that one, which indicates there may not be a “Nina” in it.

  2. John Hertz replies by carrier pigeon:

    In the words of the immortal Ernie Kovacs, take a good look.

  3. “Life in these United States eight or ten decades ago is just alien enough now that we see another world in fiction written then.”

    When I was a child in the 70s, my local library had the original Bobbsey Twins, and their world was as alien and fascinating as any science fiction. Midway through the series the library had switched to the versions that had been “updated” in the 60s, replacing alien magic lanterns with familiar old junky slide projectors.

  4. The lack of a number after his signature does not mean there are no NIna’s — other works without numbers have them.

    And this one has at least one (look at the drape of the tablecloth, below the coffee cup, on the side facing us)

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