Hammett: “The Advertisement IS Literature”

Even as he packs his valise for PulpFest 2012, our frequent Guest Blogger Terry Zobeck finds a moment to comment on the local action:

“Nice post on Vidal. He’s one of my favorite writers. He got a little odd there the last decade or so. And of course there is the Hammett connection. Vidal was stationed in the Aleutians during the War, too. I met him at a couple of book signings and always wanted to ask him if he ever met Hammett at that time, or was even aware that he was there. But I was too intimidated.”

Terry did get his first edition of Vidal’s first book, Williwaw — titled after the violent wind storms they have in the Aleutians — signed.

And he’s got a new post for us. Terry apologises for not having the usual cover image for the magazine being discussed to show off with his coverage, but luckily I got a nice illo of Hammett in from Jim Tully biographer Mark Dawidziak — originally done for some play he was involved with, something like that. For purposes of the moment, let’s call it “Hammett Contemplates Literature.”

Here’s Terry:

When Don announced that August was LitCrit month here at the Mean Streets I wondered if there was anything I could contribute to the topic.

How about Hammett’s own LitCrit musings?

By March 1926, Hammett had been writing for the pulps for almost four years. His primary outlet was Black Mask, having placed more than two dozen stories with the pulp. However, around this time he had a falling out over money with Phil Cody, the Mask’s editor. Hammett believed he should be paid more; Cody didn’t agree, and so Hammett turned his back on the fiction game — he wouldn’t publish any fiction for eleven months. To make ends meet and support his family, Hammett took a job with Samuels Jewelers, writing advertising copy for the San Francisco jewelry store.

As a writer, Hammett was pretty much self-taught. It appears he taught himself the advertising game in pretty short order, too, applying what he knew about fiction writing to his new profession. He was sufficiently confident of his abilities that over a period of about a year-and-a-half he contributed a series of four articles on how to produce effective copy to Western Advertising, an industry journal headquartered in San Francisco. (In a previous post I covered Hammett’s omnibus review of the best advertising books of 1927, also published in Western Advertising).

The first of these articles was “The Advertisement IS Literature,” published in October 1926. Hammett starts with the premise that the common wisdom on advertising is it isn’t literature, it’s “selling talk” with no place for the usual tricks of literature. Advertising, so the common wisdom goes, “talks to the man in the streets in his own language.”

Hammett quickly argues that advertising is literature and that “nothing but harm can come from the attempt to separate it from its parent stock.” He explains the primary task of the writer in terms that he surely applied to his own writing:

He must set his idea on the paper in such form that it will have the effect he desires on those who read it. The more competent he is, the more stubbornly he will insist that the idea set down shall be his idea and not merely something like it, and that the effect on the reader shall be the effect the writer desires and not an approximation of that effect. The selection and arrangement of words to accomplish effectively these twin purposes is a literary problem, no matter whether the work be a poem, a novel, a love letter or an advertisement.

Hammett obviously gave great thought to the nature of writing and the struggles an author has with himself and his editor in getting his work right; in this short paragraph he nails it — he’s nearly Chandleresque.

He then turns to matters of style, noting that in advertising:

The disproportionately florid, the gaudy, have worse reputations in literature than ever they have had in advertising. There are few literary points on which there is general agreement, but I know of no first-rate writer or critic who does not call that style most perfect which clothes ideas in the most appropriate words.

Hammett boils his point down to clarity, explaining “that clarity is the first and greatest of literary virtues.” Returning to the common wisdom that advertising should speak to the man in the street in his language, Hammett states that “the language of the man in the street is seldom either clear or simple.” And that when this language is “divorced from gesture and facial expression, [it is] not only excessively complicated and repetitious, but almost purposeless in its lack of coherence.”

The bottom line for Hammett is that:

Simplicity and clarity are not to be got from the man in the street. They are the most elusive and difficult of literary accomplishments, and a high degree of skill is necessary to any writer who would win them. They are the most important qualities in securing the maximum desired effect on the reader. To secure that maximum desired effect is literature’s chief goal. Can the copy writer find a better one? Does he want another?

One of the disappointments — perhaps the only one — with Hammett’s letters is their lack of content regarding the writing life. Don’t get me wrong, there are some interesting examples — his letter to Blanche Knopf in which he lays out his desire to elevate the detective novel to literature is one — but they are scarce. With this article for Western Advertising and his piece on “Ber-Bulu” in The Editor, we have perhaps the most detailed and fascinating insights into Hammett’s thoughts on his profession. These long-forgotten articles have received scant attention from Hammett’s biographers.

“The Advertisement IS Literature” also is interesting for what we learn about the breadth and depth of Hammett’s reading. Over the course of the two-page article, Hammett references several writers, including Goethe, Thomas Carlyle, Benedetto Croce, Joel Elias Spingarn, H. L. Mencken, Joseph Conrad, John Galsworthy, Anatole France, Ring Lardner and Aristotle.

This weekend I’ll be traveling to Columbus, Ohio for Pulpfest 2012 and a rendezvous with Don and other like-minded folks. While in Columbus I’ll be paying a visit to the Ohio State University’s Rare Books & Manuscripts Library to photograph their copy of the January 1925 issue of Black Mask with Hammett’s Op story “Mike, Alec, or Rufus.” So be looking for my write-up of the Dannay edits to this story sometime later this month.

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