Friday, May 9, 2014

FFB: a few words about older books about television: Harlan Ellison, John Leonard, Michael Arlen, Steven Scheuer

I've previously dealt, rather too quickly here as I will again today (ah, but for the luxury of non-exhausted time), with several works of criticism around television among other media, and have even touched on the companion to the Ellison volume quickly cited below.  But here are a few more paragraphs on a few more books about television that have had their impact, but have been not quite lost in the flood of materials since.

Harlan Ellison's The Glass Teat took its title from a column Ellison wrote for the Los Angeles "alternative" weekly paper the Free Press, and as a book and first collection of his nonfiction writing (Memos from Purgatory was a fictionalized memoir some years earlier), it helped make his reputation as a cultural critic (and Vice President Spiro Agnew's unreasonably effective attempts to have it quashed commercially did nothing to hurt that aspect of Ellison's career).  This book captures Ellison in his early mature writing, passionate about his subject (as he was making most of his money from the television industry at the time, and was deeply involved with several writers' organizations simultaneously), and losing some of the tentativeness of his earliest nonfiction writing collected elsewhere. Short essays on the wedges into corporate complacency the Smothers and other television producers and writers were attempting to bring to the most immediate emerging artform and entertainment industry at the time are cheerfully mixed in with descriptions of how to be disinvited to future tapings of The Dating Game.  (Ellison has since expressed some regret for the not yet adulterated sexism of some of this latter '60s writing, with further enlightenment awaiting him, but he had little else to apologize for.)

John Leonard was an utterly energetic and well-connected everything-reviewer throughout the latter '60s and up till his death a few years ago, at which time he was writing for a variety of magazines and still doing reviews for the CBS Sunday Morning magazine program. Most of his books are mixed collections of reviews and other essays about a wide range of work, but Smoke and Mirrors is one of the most (if not the most) focused on television among his collections, and it demonstrates his casual, wide-ranging intellect and insight into the interrelation of the arts and the rest of the public world, very much including politics and the shaping of public opinion. There are those who find Leonard too discursive, almost as if he was attempting to justify dealing with television on its terms to an intellectual audience, and there's some of that in his writing, but more of it simply seems as if this is how Leonard thought about the subjects at hand, and we could do worse (and too often have) with observers more focused and less capable of relevant asides.

Michael Arlen had an advantage in writing about television for The New  Yorker, in the Wallace Shawn years, where discursiveness to a genuine fault might be mistaken for profundity; nonetheless, he didn't tarnish the memory of his father, the fiction writer of the same byline (younger Arlen signed himself "Michael J. Arlen" in most circumstances), with his essays, particularly those collected in his first critically-hailed book of tv critiques The View from Highway 1 (unless we also count his earlier, more focused The Living Room War), which were also making some useful points about the medium, if less acutely than either Ellison or Leonard. Not being quite as pugnacious can temper the similes, but it can also sap the vigor of one's writing, particularly as it's experienced several decades later...nonetheless, given the shallowness of most television writing in all days (not helped of late when even the millimeter-deep Ken Tucker is judged, one hopes, too windy rather than too profound for the likes of the foundering Entertainment Weekly), the attempts to dig in exemplified in Arlen's work here are valuable. If perhaps more Worthy than first-rate.

Steven Scheuer was a pioneer in popular-culture books about television, as a syndicated columnist who produced the first volume of capsule film reviews for tv viewers in 1958, and thus kicked off a pocket industry (Leonard Maltin is only first among many to owe him a debt), and he continued to have pretty good ideas that one could wish were more thoroughly and consistently explored by him and others. As it is, TV: The Television Annual 1978-79 is a valuable assembly of facts about and reviews of materials first (or again) transmitted nationally in the U.S. in that "season" for the television industry, not shrinking from public-broadcasting national programming (there are kind and well-deserved words here for the too-often overlooked PBS anthology series Visions, as well as anger that its endowment had run out and its fourth season would be its last). This collection of data is reasonably comprehensive, including timelines and longer thematic essays and capsule reviews  (including of films making their national debut on various of the more glaring errors here comes in the incorrect precis given for the film The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane).  No one has had the advance-payments (and perhaps the staff) to replicate this so far, on the web nor in book form, and that's a pity (even the McFarland enthusiasts haven't quite followed this example). Another example of the rather scattershot support, by trade publishers, of pop-culture nonfiction by the end of the the wake of the surprising success of some of the "nostalgia" and pop-culture-history books over the previous decade-plus (including pioneering work by Richard Lupoff, Jim Harmon, and others). 

Please see Patti Abbott's blog for more of today's books.


Randy Johnson said...

I have the lower right copy of THE GLASS TEAT as well as THE OTHER... Read them years ago.

Todd Mason said...

Not the best cover by the Dillons for the Pyramid Ellison, but still pretty good. I read all of these but the Scheuer years ago...I would've loved to have the Scheuer when it was new.

Todd Mason said...

A nice Dillon art blog I'd first seen today.

Ed Gorman said...

Great post, Todd. You continue to amaze in the breadth and range of your interests and skills.

Todd Mason said...

Too kind, Ed. Thanks.