EVEN THOUGH writing popular fiction should be a hardheaded, intellectual business in which the writer calculatedly gauges his market and produces accordingly, the writer nonetheless cannot help looking into his own experience and his own current concerns for suitable subject matter. It is so much easier to create a sympathetic hero if the writer himself can be that hero. It is so much easier to discover just those little details which provide that tone of authenticity that slick stories need if the writer can recall them from his own history.
If a writer needs nothing more than a take-off point in reality-an anecdote, some momentary glimpse into the lives of strangers, some vague memory of a face or situation- the necessity is no limitation. But if he can write only autobiography, the chances are he is classed out of the popular fiction field.
Some writers, it is true, have the kind of personal history which lends itself to slick treatment. They can spend the last half of their lives writing about the first and do very well. But this is rarely the case. For writers who are not so endowed or so limited there is a considerable specific opportunity: Old Age.
Despite what magazine publishers will tell advertisers about their readership being made up almost entirely of young married men and women who must spend their money like crazy, slicks have a large audience among the aged and the near-aged. This segment of the magazine ' s audience does not represent, proportionately, much percapita buying power. Slick publishers do not brag about this audience, but it exists and increases the magazine ' s circulation figures. Consequently, editors are interested in keeping and enlarging this audience; consequently again, stories will regularly appear in most of the slicks which the average reader finds bearable but unexciting, and the older reader very interesting, warm, inspiring, or what have you.
Without naming it or even alluding to it, these stories deal with death. Death lurks under the bed and around the corner. Without ever showing itself, it gives meaning to whatever happens in the story. Death may not seem a likely subject for the slick sweetness-and-light treatment. It is, though, by virtue of the fact that death is the starkest, most uncompromising evil of life, and anything nice that can be said about it will be greatly appreciated. The fabulous success of the Reader's Digest, from statements made by those responsible for the magazine, seems still to be a mystery. Perhaps one reason for the success is the magazine's use of the simple formula of taking the sting out of every evil reality of life. Slick magazines which depend for their revenue on the advertisers are not permitted to take the sting out of worldly failure, out of poverty, out of ignorance, out of social, intellectual, and economic inferiority, simply because manufacturers thrive on discontent. For the advertiser, to make the poor and indolent content would be to deprive himself of a market and of labor. The Reader's Digest, by carefully sorting out the few it's-not-so-bad-no-matter-how-bad-it-is pieces that the slicks and sub-slicks will slip in and by packing them together in one handy pocket-size balm-bomb, hit the jackpot.
When the writer treats of the aging hero finding peace or satisfaction, he is drawing on this basic formula. This theme found one of its most engaging literary treatments in that part of Galsworthy's wonderful "The Forsyte Saga" called Indian Summer. Any writer anxious to develop these aged-hero stories might read that marvelous recounting of an old man's thoughts immediately before he slips quietly off into death.
Remember, these stories deal with death without ever mentioning death. Here's a good example. A man, well into his sixties, has been working in a department store most of his life. The day he is to be retired, the executives of the store, all younger men, stage a little celebration for him. Because of their thick-skinned insensitivity, they turn it into sardonic mockery. They present the old man with a rocking-chair as his parting present. The narrator of the story is a lady shopper who has witnessed the demonstration. She sees the pain in the old man's face at having his long and faithful service to the store treated so cavalierly.
She immediately takes herself to the competing store across the street, asks to see the president, and proceeds to tell him what she has just seen. She explains that she has been courteously waited on by this particular salesman for many years and that he, the president, would be doing his own store a service if he would hire the man himself. The president marches across the street to the salesman's store and hires him on the spot.
The sense of final failure and defeat, which debility and approaching death sensitizes all aging humans to, has been overcome. Or take this even gentler story about an old, retired sea captain.
In his small, comfortable skiff the captain has traveled to a beautiful island cove somewhere in the near-tropic belt where the weather is always mild and the living easy. He supports himself by doing what he most enjoys: roaming the shore and collecting odd and handsome seashells. He is living this idyllic life, when a wealthy matron from the nearby mainland steers her yacht into the cove and begins importuning him with invitations to join her and her crew for breakfast, lunch, and supper. All the old captain wants out of life at this point is freedom, comfort, and solitude. He waits for her to leave, continuing to decline her advances as politely as he can. But she seems set on drawing him into her gay and busy way of life. In desperation he slips out of the cove one night and hovers nearby, until the matron takes her yacht away. Then he returns to take up his shell-collecting once more.
Old heroes never die, nor do they fade away in the slicks. That is, if they are old human heroes they don't. But occasionally, our aging hero will be an animal. In such cases, it is quite proper for him to die. A wealthy sportsman has a faithful old dog who doesn't seem to have much time left. For sentimental reasons, the sportsman continues to take the dog out to hunt. One day, the sportsman finds the dog in such a weakened condition that it seems certain he can't last much longer. Nonetheless, he takes the dog out. The dog, as if aware that this will be his last hunt, leads the sportsman to their favorite blind and there expires.
The dog's going at the end to the sportsman's favorite blind, of course, has given a reassuring sign to his master and to the reader that he has had a good, full life and now is perfectly adjusted to death-or, as the sportsman puts it, to his last sleep.
The most frequent animal dodge, one which the motion pictures have worked into the ground, is the replacement of the aging, faithful animal with a younger, stronger animal, usually a blood relation to the hero. The appearance on the scene of the young stallion, filly, greyhound, gorilla, etc., naturally represents the continuous aspect of life. It is the death-making way, the passing-of-the-scepter, the king-is-dead-long-live-the-king type of thing. In reference to animal stories, the general readership magazines like occasionally to run tales which deal either exclusively with animals or with animals and humans in such a way that the humans on the scene enter into the action only when they affect the fate of the animal protagonists. Such stories are, of course, off-beat pieces, and consequently do not need original plotting.
The problems of animals are made meaningful to readers through the writer ' s ability to "personalize " them, give them those human characteristics that their animal natures will allow of. This anthropomorphism, though, must be of just the right strength. Too strong and the reader will know he is being fed a Walt Disney opus; too weak, and the reader will be unable to identify with the animal characters or see in them any attributes worth more than mild intellectual interest. Remember, any animal hero the writer creates must be as potent a sympathy-getter as a human protagonist.
An interesting piece appeared in Collier's recently which dealt with the adventures of two beavers. They were man and wife, as much or more so than most human couples. They were taken away from their idyllic home to be attractions at a fair. After the fair, they were let loose in an unfriendly environment, where they met many enemies, had difficulty getting food, and found it impossible to build dams (which activity seems to be necessary to beavers' well-being). After many adventures, close calls, separations from each other, etc., they finally found their way into the promised land where they can spend their old age in peace and contentment.