Friday, May 08, 2009

Old Advice

Charles here, starting this blog off with a welcome to Type M for Murder’s Wednesday blogger, John R. Corrigan. I would have welcomed him with some golf-related pun, but he’s probably heard them all. But did you hear the one about the priest, the rabbi and the imam who went golfing at St. Andrews…?

Those with decent memories will recall that I’ve been blogging about the connections between the ad world and the writing world. With a foot in both world, I look for these connections all day long but I’m sure that same kind of connections can be made when you compare, say, tool & die manufacturing with writing, but since I’m not a tool & die guy, I’ll stick to what I pretend I know – advertising!

Every morning at the agency I post a photocopy of an old ad on the fridge in the kitchen, not because they have so much to teach, but because most are so bad (by today’s standards) that they’re hilarious. The layout, the drawings, the huge blocks of copy, the demanding headlines, the strange calls to action—looking at old ads is fun because they are so awful.

This morning I posted an 1890 ad for Pettijohn’s California Breakfast Food. It was in response to the rapid rise in popularity of Quaker Oats “breakfast food” and it shows an attractive lass in riding gear with her horse, the horse’s snout (or whatever you call it – I’m not a horse man either) buried in a feedbag of oats. The headline reads “I eat wheat, my horse eats oats.” Even though it’s 119 years old, it’s a clever idea. Sure, she’s holding a tiny, tiny box of Pettijohn’s California Breakfast Food, and yes, it’s way too busy, but there is something clever to the concept.

Here’s your challenge – go to your local library or scary-old used bookstore or a furniture store that uses library discards as shelf-stuffers, and find yourself a mystery written in the 1930s by an author you never heard of before. Goofy writing, cardboard characters, racist/sexist/anti-Semitic overtones, laughable dialog, purple prose…there will be much to mock. You may hit on a forgotten gem, but odds are, you’ll find a book that is so awful (again, by today’s standards) that you won’t be able to finish it, but you have to keep reading that awful book until you can find one thing that strikes you as worthy of remembering. Because even a bad mystery has something to offer.

I came up with the idea for this blog entry yesterday morning at the gym – and here’s the thought that kept me up half the night. At some point in the second half of the 21st century, will an author pick up a musty copy of one of my books at secondhand store to read, sticking with it until she can find one thing that strikes her as worthy of remembering?


Susan D said...

Ooooh, intriguing idea (because of course I don't have enough to read). I'll try that once my crazy busy weekend is over.

Years ago I spent 25 cents at a garage sale on a 1920s novel called Red Embers, or something like that. It was so deeply and casually anti-Semitic that I could neither keep it nor pass it back into circulation. All I could do was burn it.

Rick Blechta said...

Charles. No.

Donis Casey said...

I had exactly the same thought - somebody is going to laugh at the late 20th C. - early 21st C. writing style that we all try to hard to emulate. Not even considering the social mores of the past, even great 19th C. classics are too wordy for most people these days. Of course, in the 19th Century, readers knew what all those fancy words meant and had a lot longer attention spans than they do now.