a blogumn by Ryan Dixon

Fiercely Anticipating

The Novelization

Like any adolescent with a slice of ambition and a small sliver of spunk, I was always searching for new and inventive ways to see R-rated movies. Unfortunately, in the confines of my rural existence, where the nearest theater was a half hour away, the video store owned by family friends and cable an urban legend, I was often blocked at every turn. The occasional R-rated film I did see before entering puberty–a stew of early to mid-80s sword and sorcery pulp and straight forward action films – were pre-edited by my father who would fast-forwarded through all the inappropriate moments (e.g. the sex scenes) while watching them the night before and copying them in SLP onto our Maxell video tapes. The one medium where I was given free reign were books. I was allowed to read whatever I wanted as long as I read. Thus to the shock of the kind and patient employees at the local Waldenbooks there I was, aged eleven, purchasing Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs’ paean to heroin addiction.

I had seen the video poster for David Cronenberg’s film adaptation, featuring a fedora wearing Peter Weller looking up at a green humanoid insect, and thought the film to be a sort of R-rated Who Framed Roger Rabbit with giant bugs instead of toons.  Since there was no possibility that I would be allowed to rent it, the only way to see the movie was to read the book.

Roger Rabbit it was not. I struggled through the impenetrable jungle of Burroughs’ prose for about eight pages until tossing it aside in favor of something else — most likely by Stephen King or Michael Crichton, authors whose writing-style was complex enough to seem mature and whose plot contained enough juicy, repeatable bits to both repel girls and impress male friends, two major daily goals for that awkward eleven year-old who shared my name.

Photo Credit: jovike

The unrequited reading experience of Naked Lunch did help me discover a loophole that  granted me indirect access to the inner cinematic sanctum where no children under seventeen were admitted. This loophole was called the novelization.

The novelization is a literary form that has existed since the dawn of the talkie but was at the height of its popularity in the 1970s and 80s.  Writers, often of some repute, would be hired to take a movie’s shooting script and adapt it into prose form.

As a Slate article by Grady Hendrix noted, William Kotzwinkle, the author of the million-copy-selling E.T. novelization, had twice won the National Magazine Award for fiction. Screenwriting iconoclast Joe Eszterhas wrote the novelization for Sylvester Stallone’s bomb, F.I.S.T. and Stallone himself (with the help of few well-paid ghosts, no doubt) composed that immortal prose poem known as Rocky II. The finished product—usually the creative nadir for any of its authors with the possible exception of Stallone—would live a shelf life similar to the movie tie-ins found at fast food restaurants: published at the time of a movie’s release, exiting the bookshop just as the movie leaves theaters.

Naked Lunch was not a novelization, yet after my experience with it, I began to scour the fiction shelves more carefully for books sharing the titles of films I desperately wanted to see, but was banned from doing so. It was thus the bookstore, not an older brother or lax uncle that gave me entrance into the world of my hitherto forbidden cinematic desires.

And so for the next two years, until I entered junior high and was essentially allowed to see whatever film I wanted to (thanks  to my father’s promise that I could watch The Exorcist when I turned thirteen), I was able to keep up with my friends– who had far less restrictive parents– by gleefully describing the murders in, say, Child’s Play 3 not scene by scene but chapter by chapter.

During the course of these playground cinephile chats a certain awkward silence would  occasionally descend after I would reference a non-existent scene in whatever Freddy or Jason movie was playing at the multiplexes.  Instead of being ridiculed though, I quickly discovered that the ability to describe scenes missing from the movies but included in the novelizations, provided me with a key super power in the epic battle to gain friends: Because I had taken the extra time to read the book, I was considered a cinematic Oracle of the Playground who could spout out hidden knowledge about a film. I was, for lack of a better term, a walking, talking, breathing special feature.

Though the movie novelization will forever remain in the hinterlands of pop culture, I like to think of them as harmless imaginative detours. Whenever I see copies of the classics (Star Wars), the flops (Howard the Duck) and the absurd (Grease, West Side Story) all stacked together, collecting dust upon the back shelves of used book stores, I am transported back in time to a period in my life where the movie in my mind was often better than the one on the screen.

Kinda Wanna Read

The Mass Market Paperback Edition

If the recent phenomenon of reserved seating has cured my need to be at a theater an hour early to get the perfect seat, then Amazon’s Kindle has successfully tempered my book buying obsession. It used to be that the moment a book piqued my interest, I would order it.  More often than not, by the time it finally arrived to my apartment said interest had diminished considerably and the book would be tossed into the great, sad pile of the unread.

But now that I can order a book anytime and have it delivered instantly,  I actually have a much easier time waiting to buy the book until I’m actually ready to read it. Unfortunately, this cure has led me down a whole new doorway of addiction involving the hard copy books I still buy.

The e-reading revolution has made me realize how often a book’s shape, size and font were the deciding factors in what book I chose to read. If I had wanted to dive into a page turner I would focus on the rows of  small, cheaply priced mass market paperbacks. If I was looking to buy the coming-of-age incest novel that was the favorite of a girlfriend at the time, I knew I could enter a book store and walk straight toward the slightly larger, more elegant trade paperbacks that were beached like paper whales on the “Buy 2 Get 1 Free” table. And I wouldn’t even need to look at the cover of the book with the John Goodman girth to know it was most likely the biography of some obscure German architect.

Image Credit: En Why See

And then there’s the font. Jonathan Lethem’s novel Chronic City contains a memorable and hilarious passage where Perkus Tooth, a pop culture savant and Upper East Side recluse, is so concerned that The New Yorker’s iconic font hypnotizes the reader into believing whatever article they’re reading is holy writ, that he re-types each one before reading them.

Perkus Tooth has a point. A book’s physical presentation has a huge influence on the cognitive effects that come from reading it. Would the typical academic work published by a University press feel so mind-numbingly dry if it were written in the same large, clear and so-easy-to-read-even-your-dog-could-comprehend-it font found in the works of James Patterson? And would the oeuvre of Mr. Patterson seem quite so pulpy if his prose were printed in the dense, type-written style found in the Vintage paperback versions of Vladimir Nabokov?

This is a question that will soon not need an answer. The font style of e-readers is uniform. The book formless. And it is precisely this lack of tactile feedback that has caused me, like a recovering alcoholic who gives up the booze for the blood of Christ, to obsess over every form and detail of those hard copy books, unavailable on my Kindle, that I still buy.

Take, for example, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. Long considered a classic by most and the Great American Novel by some (the unholy trinity of British lit-kings Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie for a start), it is readily available on Amazon and in most bookstores in a Penguin Classics edition that is laid-out in the de rigueur trade paperback style built for any book that’s “good for you.”

When I decided to read Augie a month ago,  I didn’t want my mind to foster the impression that it was digesting literary medicine. I desired to approximate what I imagined was the virginal reading experience of those authors mentioned above who had been so swept up in Bellow’s tale during what was, I assume, their teens and twenties. They probably bought a cheap paperback version that accompanied them on their own adventures, snugly fitting into the back pockets of their pants.

And so I launched a month-long expedition into the dark heart of the web in search of the Augie I wanted to read and eventually purchased Fawcett’s 1965 mass market paperback. In much the same way that my ancient mass market paperback edition of Gravity’s Rainbow makes Pynchon’s novel feel more like just another overlong sci-fi novel rather than an impenetrable post-modern monster, the Bantam version of Bellow’s 600 page picaresque transformed a potentially obligatory reading experience into an expertly written, funny, and surprisingly page-turning jaunt with just a hint of pulp. The novel took me back to depression-era Chicago. The book made me feel like a 60’s era iconoclastic British university student.

On the other hand, there’s the case of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. When I decided to re-read novel a few months ago in preparation for a trip back home to Pittsburgh, I wanted to see how Grady Tripp’s weekend adventure would feel being read through a different form.

Even though I owned a copy of the American paperback, I searched for a different version. While I was disappointed to discover there was never a mass market paperback edition published (not even a movie tie-in!), I did find a 1996 British paperback edition that was smaller than the American version and had a quirkier, slightly schizophrenic cover.  Unfortunately, when I started to read this edition, I quickly discovered that the book was poorly formed, clunky and uncomfortable to read. The magic of Chabon’s prose was missing. After two chapters, I put down the British version, picked up the American paperback and started reading from scratch.

So, what does this all mean? Well, aside from the fact that spending over a thousand words writing about book size and font type is a fairly clear indication that I have some sort of deep mental sickness, I think it’s important to be aware that the elements that make up what we are reading are sometimes just as important as the content. This dynamic is readily apparent in the film world, where the domestic entertainment barbarians continue banging on the gates of the theatrical distributors, creating new innovations (blu-ray, HD, 3D-TV, etc) aimed to replicate the cinematic experience at home. As hard as they try though, I think most of us would never fully trade the experience of attending a movie in the theater for the ease of watching one while lounging eternally on the couch.

That’s not the case with e-readers. Their eventual ubiquity is simply a matter of time. If Augie March had been available for my Kindle,  I wouldn’t have bothered to search for that perfect paperback. And it will be available someday. All books will.  This is a cause for celebration, to be sure. But I can’t help but wonder … in a world where all books look and feel the same, will it really matter what we’re reading?

Wouldn’t Read It If You Paid Me


Aside from those whose eyes only gaze into the pages of the Bible (or the Twilight saga) I never begrudge anyone for what they are reading (as long as I don’t have to date them). Reading is the most personal of entertainment experiences, no one can ever know what goes on in the mind of another and so we are forever outsiders who can only wonder what world is being created in each reader’s mind. So, like my parents always said, “just as long as you’re reading.”

Wanna read more of my thoughts on book genres and formatting, but in 140 characters or less and not 200o words? Follow me on Twitter! You can find me @ryanbdixon.