Parker & Segal

First: Robert Parker, mystery novelist and creator of the Spenser series, died yesterday at the age of 77. Parker wrote over 60 books according to the Guardian, and judging by my inbox was a favorite author of many Bitchery readers.

I confess: I haven’t read any of Parker’s books. Which would you recommend?

Second: Erich Segal passed away yesterday as well at the age of 72. Segal is best known for “Love Story” but I was a huge fan of his novel “Doctors,,” which was one of my gateways into romance reading.

Segal took a lot of crap for being a popular novelist:

Although Mr. Segal’s work resonated with the public, critics almost uniformly lambasted it. The judges for the National Book Award threatened to resign unless “Love Story” was withdrawn from nomination.

“It is a banal book which simply doesn’t qualify as literature,” said novelist William Styron, the head judge of the fiction panel. “Simply by being on the list it would have demeaned the other books.”

Mr. Segal was thrust from the life of a scholar to that of a jet-setting star. He appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson four times in four weeks, was a judge at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay. He made weekend jaunts to Paris and London, returning to Yale for his classes on classical civilization, which filled a 600-seat auditorium and were among the most popular at the university….

Yale decided that Mr. Segal’s extracurricular assignments were taking too much time away from his academic work and denied him tenure in 1972, a blow that took years to overcome. He continued to lead his intellectual double life as a popular novelist and serious scholar, publishing best-selling novels and works on ancient literature, but he remained puzzled at the mockery and anger of the literary elite.

While jogging in New York’s Central Park, Mr. Segal once recalled, he saw novelist Philip Roth and said, “I admire your work.”

“And I admire your running,” Roth replied.

Ouch. Segal’s denial of tenure makes me wonder if the same thing would have happened today instead of 1972. Aren’t professors with a great deal of public following more sought-after in terms of institutional currency?

My condolences to Segal’s and Parker’s families.

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  1. 1
    Polly says:

    Tenure is complicated, and no university, especially Harvard, Princeton, Yale etc. likes to think of themselves as giving tenure on anything other than quality of scholarly work. Even great lecturers with meh writing (and technically, at most of these schools, for tenure the academic work is supposed to be field-changing, so not even just competent, or great, but field-defining) are denied tenure. It’s the scholarship that’s key.

    Honestly, if I were publishing under my own name, I’d wait until after tenure, especially at a top university. Even if the work you’re writing is the greatest of great literature, unless you’re in being employed for your creative writing, any non-academic work is only going to highlight the time you spent not doing academic work, and probably lead to questions about one’s commitment to academia. Obviously, I’m not supporting this interpretation, just explaining what would likely happen.

    I don’t know anything about Segal’s academic work, but unless it was amazing, writing a pop. culture novel that’s beloved of millions wouldn’t endear himself to any tenure committee, and would generally be something to overcome. And not being in New Haven much of the time would raise questions about his commitment to the academic life of seminars, papers, etc. Plenty of tenured faculty get away with not going to just about anything, but junior faculty don’t have that luxury.

  2. 2
    Sarah W says:

    I’m heartbroken over the death of Robert B. Parker.

    I used to joke that he only actually wrote four mysteries, about ten times each—but I loved and frequently reread every single one of them.  When I’m upset or out of sorts or just need comforting, I turn to him for escape.

    His dialogue is wonderful, and his character development is marvelous.  I visit old, dear friends every time I open one of his books . . . and now I’ll never know if Suitcase will ever settle down, or if Spencer and Susan will actually tie the knot, or if Jesse will ever really get rid of Jen . . . and now I’m in tears.

    I recommend all his books—maybe especially his sequel to the Big Sleep.  His westerns are good, too.  His mystery series (Sunny Randall, Spencer, and Jesse Stone) should probably be read in chronological order, although I didn’t at first—it’s interesting to see Parker develop as a writer.  Plus, his descriptions of the fashions of the time shouldn’t be missed.

    I’m sorry I’ll never meet Mr. Parker and tell him how much I enjoy his books.  And my sympathies go to Joan, whom—-from his dedications—-he obviously loved very much.

  3. 3
    Maggie P. says:

    It really bothers me that there is such a snobby side to the world of books. I have not done it myself, but my guess is that authors publish there books in the hope that it will connect with someone else. It seems as if Mr. Segal managed this, and yet he was treated horribly by the literary community because his stuff wasn’t highbrow enough. It was not enough that he wrote something that readers could enjoy and connect with, doing that was judged banal.
    I suppose this really bothers me because it is how I think a lot of romance authors have been treated. and after getting all worked up and writing all this I just realized I cant roll my eyes at my nieces enjoyment of Stephanie Myers work anymore.

  4. 4
    mirain says:

    Absolutely. No academic with any sense would publish popular lit under his/her own name without already having tenure. Even admitting to reading it is considered dubious—non-tenured faculty are strongly warned not to have accessible accounts on sites such as Librarything, Goodreads, or Amazon where review committees could find evidence of non-academic reading.

    And to be fair, if, as that obit suggests, Segal’s novel-writing took too much time away from his academic work, it is not totally unreasonable that he would not be renewed. Most departments have clear guidelines for tenure, enumerating how many publications one is expected to produce in the allotted time, as well as how much time one must be available to meet with students. Barring a major health or personal catastrophe they are not usually too flexible about these criteria.

  5. 5
    Barbara says:

    The issues of tenure are complex…. and that’s not including the human factor. Two of my favorite fantasy authors, Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove, are academics. This makes their books fabulously complex and rich in detail—and the sales figures, apparently, make their colleagues green with envy. Apparently, “literary writing” doesn’t pay as well as genre fiction :)

    So there’s the snobbery born of jealousy, too. Sad, but humans are humans everywhere.

  6. 6
    Leslie H says:

    I met Robert B. Parker at a booksigning just after a bad snowstorm in Tulsa, There were less than ten people present, but he just laughed and chatted with those of us who slogged out to see him.

    He was a good man, and an awesome author. He is missed already.

  7. 7
    Lisa Hendrix says:

    If I were introducing someone to Robert Parker, I’d start with his Spenser books, and I’d go right back to the beginning with The Godwulf Manuscript and God Save the Child to watch the various characters develop. Then I’d keep them reading, because I don’t think Spenser meets Susan Silverman until the fourth book, The Promised Land, and then omg the romance. Subtle, not the main focus of the books, but absolutely breathtaking in its tenderness and depth. You could tell Spenser—and Parker—loved strong, independent women.

    On the academic front: I attended a small writers conference at a state university a while back and personally watched the incredible disrespect heaped on the most commercially successful author there because she happened to write genre fiction (fantasy). They let a heroin-high literary darling ramble nonsensically for almost an hour overtime, decimating the genre writer’s workshop time,  then cut the genre author from the evening readings in favor of yet more nonsense from the same druggie—who’d apparently gotten to her stash again. Even the unpublished conference-junkie poets got more time, via the open mike lunch. It was appalling and rude,  and not at all unexpected considering the”creative writing” program in charge of the thing.  Ironically, I found out later that the (tenured) head of the program was secretly writing a western because his literary work had been widely rejected and he was so desperate to get published that he thought he’d write some “schlock” (his word) because it was “easy to get that crap published.” [Turns out, not so much. Karma’s a bitch.]

    And let’s not forget that Eloisa James is a pen name for an English prof who felt it necessary to hide her identity as a romance author until she had tenure, and that wasn’t that long ago. So yes, the snobbery is still very much alive. And in the late 60s/early 70s?  I’m sad that Erich Segal had to take it on the chin for writing a book that touched so many people, but really, he shouldn’t have been surprised.

  8. 8
    Jody says:

    Everything Sarah W. said.  What a beautiful tribute! 

    I just read a eulogy from a friend who said Parker WAS Spenser.  And no one could have written about the complexities of Spenser and Susan’s relationship who hadn’t experienced them firsthand.  I’m so sorry for Joan right now.

    Sarah, you wouldn’t go wrong with any Parker, but great examples are Early Autumn, Looking for Rachel Wallace and A Catskill Eagle?  Those are all Spenser books, which IMNSHO will be Parker’s lasting legacy.  I think you’ll enjoy the dry wit and multi-dimensional characters. The first Spenser was The Godwulf Manuscript, when Parker and Spenser were just starting out, and I reread it periodically because the young Spenser was so endearing.

    Lots of reviewers bashed Parker’s more recent books for lacking in words, but I thought he was getting better and better at packing volumes into sparse sentences.

    I’m so sad.

  9. 9
    Lara says:

    I always assumed Death would courteously wait until Robert Parker had finished every last idea in his head. Guess not. *sighs* I’ll also regret never meeting him. I never read a Spenser novel I didn’t enjoy, and one of my first adolescent crushes was Robert Urich as Spenser on TV.

    I’d definitely recommend the early Spensers—The Godwulf Manuscript and God Save the Child are the first two. My other favorites are Looking For Rachel Wallace, in which Spenser proves he can totally disagree with someone and still be courteous and respectful, A Catskill Eagle, and the three books involving troubled girl April Kyle—Ceremony, Taming a Sea-Horse, and Hundred-Dollar Baby.

  10. 10
    Scrin says:

    Take it from someone who was in high school not *too* long ago. For some reason, the establishment dislikes anything, well, fun to read. The summer reading list was all Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, and Brave New World. It was with considerable effort that my sister and I between use got a couple of Terry Pratchett books on an English teacher’s list (Small Gods and Good Omens, since you ask.)

    There’s a certain circle where being popular is a mark against you. Unfortunately, this circle makes the awards.

    I have to remember one of my favorite humorists, one Patrick McManus, who related how he took a class in college and, lacking anything better to write about, wrote about an outdoor misadventure with some of his friends, and exaggerated some details here and there. He said the class was in stitches as he read it, as was the teacher. When the paper came back, it had a B. The teacher said that it was because this was a class for “serious writing” and that the piece wasn’t serious.

    Later, he experimented. Wrote a story about a kooky lady who kept everything, including having her pets taxidermied or otherwise preserved. Her husband tried to push her over the edge by messing with the system, and eventually took poison to try to send her over the edge and explained to her as he was dying—and while she was cleaning out the freezer.

    According to McManus, it made an A+ and the Dean of the college invited him to the office for coffee and said how high an opinion he had of the story.

    Sigh.

  11. 11
    Jarant says:

    I’m so glad SBTB gave a nod to Parker. He has always been one of my favorite authors and has done a lot for genre fiction. The discussion about “Literature” vs “popular fiction” is pretty appropriate. Parker had a Phd in English Literature and taught for several years before becoming a full-time writer. He had several stories that involved college campuses, and he really skewers the faculty and academic culture. In fact, in one of his non-series books, Wilderness, the main character is a popular fiction author who is constantly snubbed and insulted by his wife’s academic colleagues. Sarah W, you are dead-on about writing “four mysteries, about ten times each.” In fact, when he found a line he liked, he would use it over and over again throughout several books. And yet, MAN I didn’t care. His characters were so REAL and his dialogue was wonderful. Spenser and Susan really do develop as people and as a couple throughout the series, and Parker is so wonderful about showing the nuances and contradictions of the human psyche in all of his characters (even those that only last one book.) While I was never hoping for any “resolution” to his story arcs, Spenser and Hawk and Susan were so real to me, it feels as though they have actually died with Parker. I think I’m mourning them almost as much as I’m mourning their creator. And to repeat what several have already said, I am so, so sorry for Joan.

  12. 12
    Polly says:

    @LisaHendrix: Academia is full of stupid snobbery, but not all snobbery is the same. The writing workshop you went to sounds like worst type—the type I think of as fueled almost entirely by an aversion to fun and humor and a wrong-headed conviction that “real” and “gritty” means drugs and rape. I hate those type of writing seminars.

    I think the Eloisa James thing is a bit different, since the issue there is keeping the academic-self separate from the popular author-self. While it’s partly because of the (wrongheaded) bias many academics have against popular fiction, I’ve also heard her speak, and say how she laments that people don’t get tenure on the basis of the type of novel she writes (and by the way, I’m a huge fan of James’). I’m not convinced that they should. Academics are hired, just like anyone else, to perform a certain job—in their department they are supposed to be the expert on, and add to scholarship on, a specific topic. While a novel might perform those tasks, most don’t. Tenure is based on academic qualifications and proof, not on the popularity or likeability (fill in other quality here) of a person in a different arena entirely. Most university faculty members aren’t hired to be resident stars, but resident scholars, and with tenure decisions already so lacking in transparency, I appreciate the attempt to create some stable rubric for evaluation. While the aversion to academics writing popular novels might be rooted in snobbishness, I think keeping the academic-self separate from the author-self for whatever reason is a good thing for academia (I realize this comment is taking the debate in a slightly different direction).

    Again, I don’t know anything about Segal’s scholarship, but if the university had concerns about his part of the academic life of the university, there’s no reason why they should tenure his as a professor of classical studies because he’s a superstar novelist. If he was an amazing scholar of classical studies, and the university didn’t tenure him because of the novels, then they’re deserving of criticism, but their actions were still hardly unexpected. Again, not justifying Yale’s decision (especially since I don’t know the grounds), but it was a bit disingenuous on Segal’s part to be surprised by the academy’s response.

    That said, I don’t think a popular writer should have to keep their novels a secret. With the tenure system the way it is, the smart decision would be to wait till you’ve got tenure to publish under your own name if you want to publish popular fiction. I’d love to change the system, but I’d rather do it from the other side of the tenure decision.

  13. 13
    Kiersten says:

    I saw the obit for Parker yesterday and was sad, as sad as when Robert Ulrich died, because, to me, he was eternally Spenser, no matter what other role he played. I confess to never reading the books, but I was glued to the program in the 80s, partially b/c it was something I watched with my dad (though, no doubt, far too adult for my then very young eyes.)

    I’ll have to start reading some of the books now for the both of them.

  14. 14
    Jody says:

    Kiersten, I used to watch Secret Agent with my dad and felt the same way about Patrick McGoohan as you did Robert Urich. 

    The TV Spenser was a good detective series, but I’d read the books first and thought Robert Urich’s and Robert Parker’s Spensers were very different people who just happened to have the same name. 

    I think Tom Selleck nailed Jesse Stone, though.  Happy reading.  You are SO in for a treat!

  15. 15
    SusannaG says:

    Second the suggestion to start with The Godwulf Manuscript.

  16. 16
    Poison Ivy says:

    I thought Parker died a perfect death—writing. What could be better?

    Alas,  I’ve only read one Spenser novel and unfortunately it spent a lot of space on a very predictable relationship situation with the girlfriend that made me feel Spenser must be an idiot. If he’s so smart, why have such a stupid contretemps? Why have a girlfriend so lacking in intelligence or grace? (They try living together and are spectacularly bad at it.) Earlier or later Spenser novels may be better, but this one, whose name I have conveniently effaced from memory, was not an ambassador for Parker’s writing.

    As for Segal, he was not a genre writer, but a potboiler writer, although to academics there is no discernible difference. (That is the cross they have to bear, being unable to analyze popular fiction with any kind of accuracy and thus lumping it all together.) Other have pointed out how intensely political tenure committees are; no doubt envy made it easy to find fault with Segal’s credentials for tenure. Had he written a wildly successful pop science book, one that suggested Harvard was a very cool place indeed for the intelligentsia, the outcome might have been different. Or not.

    [“met59” Yes, a big fan of the Met in any year.]

  17. 17
    jarant says:

    @ Poison Ivy

    Spenser and Susan have an atypical relationship (they’ve been together for +20 years, they co-parent a dog, but they don’t live together and they never got married) and that “oddness” becomes significant to their characters. The story you read features their one attempt at cohabitation, early in their relationship. And that’s one of the great thing about the series, Spenser IS kind of a jackass in earlier novels, but Parker does a great job of letting him and Susan grow and mature together throughout the series. If you ever are tempted to try another Parker book, I’d probably recommend the later titles. The last (sob) Spenser book, The Professional, is pretty good.

  18. 18
    Polly says:

    @Poison Ivy

    He might have gotten lauded for such a book (though maybe not, since he was at Yale, not Harvard :) but it wouldn’t have fulfilled the the tenure requirements. They’re pretty picky about academic/popular. A book in your field that’s aimed at a popular audience might not hurt an academic (though there’s still a level of snobbery to overcome, and sometimes envy, if the book sells well), but it won’t count for tenure. That’s why lots of academics who write popular books in their fields usually have at least one book, at the start of their career, that’s a bog-standard monograph (which you can almost always tell by the title). They might have planned all along to write for a more popular audience (and, gasp! get royalties for their books), but the first, the one tenure will be based on, has to fulfill all the academic requirements.

  19. 19
    Poison Ivy says:

    Yale, Harvard, what’s the difference? (Now, now. Only kidding.) I guess I was thinking of various Harvard profs who are well-known to a non-academic audience and have not necessarily lost out in their academic lives. 

    My own friends in academia have written lots of articles and some books, and other books as “assistant” authors when they really wrote them all themselves. But what most of them do not have is a grasp of how to appeal to a popular audience. There again is a cause for jealousy of Segal, regardless of my own low opinion of his writing ability.

    To me the most poisonous and telling novel about academic life is one by Amanda Cross about Harvard—the name escapes me at the moment, but it was the book that forever made me stop repining over not attempting to become a college professor after all.

  20. 20
    Linda Rader says:

    Must husband read several Spenser novels out loud to me during the early years of our marrage. We loved the style and the romance between Spenser and Susan.  Pick any Parker book they are evenly wonderful.

  21. 21
    DS says:

    I just had a flashback to how much I hated, hated, hated Love Story.  And I read it before the treacly movie came out and the little naked, sexless resin statues that proclaimed—no, I can’t even type the words—

    Sorry about Parker though.  I’ve read and enjoyed a number of his books.

  22. 22
    R E G says:

    I was recently reading on another blog a discussion of the lack of respect given science fiction as opposed to literature.

    The thought crossed my mind… If sci-fi is the willing suspension of disbelief… then literature requires the willing suspension of disbelief that a talented writer would torture their characters for 700 pages leaving them with more problems than they started with and a dozen unanswered questions for the reader.

    Can you tell I am bitter about the hours I spent reading a “literary” novel last weekend?

    Thanks to everyone for the book recommendations. I know the bitchery understands how a novel should end.

  23. 23
    Amanda in Baltimore says:

    Oh DS, I’m with you about how much I loathed that book and its stupid, stupid sequel.

    They were treacly, and while they purported to be about a twu wuv, it seemed like such a sickly, passionless thing.

    Still, millions love it, and it was very successful for Segal.

  24. 24
    Terry Odell says:

    I “met” Parker when I attended my first SleuthFest, conference, which I did because he was keynote speaker. He was charming, witty, and kept his speech short so there was lots of time for questions.  I began reading his Spenser books after watching the television show, and the Jesse Stone books for the same reason. Parker had things to say about both actors. But I remember him most for saying “There’s no such thing as writer’s block. Writing is hard – you wouldn’t accept a plumber refusing to work because he had plumber’s block.”

    (And he’s the topic on my blog today too.)

    I’d say that’s my two cents worth, but the spam word is cent72, so I guess this was a deeper post than I thought.

  25. 25
    Barbara says:

    This was originally about the Harry Potter books specifically, but it can be paraphrased to work for any genre fiction:

    So when you hear someone sneer at the Harry Potter books, either they haven’t read them, and are therefore too ignorant to be listened to, or they haven’t understood them, and are therefore not clever enough to take part in serious adult conversations.”—Orson Scott Card

    I think I’m going to adapt that for Science Fiction :)

  26. 26
    Lara says:

    @jarant

    There will be one more Spenser novel. Parker was one of those authors who just kept writing, sending the manuscripts off, then getting right to work on the next one. I checked his name at the bookstore where I work, and he has three novels coming out in 2010—a new Sunny Randall or Jesse Stone coming in February, a Western this spring, and a Spenser novel due in September.

    I would not put it past his publishers to try and get someone to continue Spenser, like they have authors doing for Robert Ludlum or VC Andrews, but I really hope they don’t. No one will ever be able to write dialogue like Parker.

    Password—better84. No one does/did it better, Spenser.

  27. 27
    Melissa Blue says:

    Parker holds a special place in my family. See my mother and I had a very rocky relationship until 2005. But the one thing we had in common is our love of mysteries. I discovered Robert B. Parker and when I got the chance I picked up one of his books on tape. After one story *can’t remember which one ‘cause I read almost all of them.* we would sit in the living room for hours together listening to his stories. Or in the car when taking long car trips. Not to mention we both grew a very big crush on Burt Reynolds and were disappointed when they had some new guy doing Spenser’s voice.

    So no you can’t go wrong with any of his books, just don’t binge. And no man can do a long lasting romance like Parker that makes your heart go pitter-patter. If Spenser’s love for Susan is a tenth of what Parker felt for his wife…sigh. My heart goes out to her.

  28. 28
    Kinsey says:

    I always assumed Death would courteously wait until Robert Parker had finished every last idea in his head.

    Well, I hope Alzheimer’s waits for Pratchett.

    I was just a kid when Love Story came out (who, me? paranoid about my age?) but I read it as an adult and—yeah. Crap, IMO.

    Having said that, Philip Roth is a fucking asshole for lots and lots of reasons and, from what I’ve read, Eric Segal was a lovely human being and a serious scholar so fuck you too, Mr. Serious Novelist Who Writes the Crappiest Sex Evah, Even Worse Than Norman Mailer.

    not98 Nope, not 50 either. Yet…

  29. 29
    Poison Ivy says:

    Roth is unreadable. And rude, although one wonders if he was trying to be funny. I wonder if Norman Mailer ever beat him up? That was at least one thing Mailer was good for.

  30. 30
    Rebecca says:

    If you check the msnbc obit, or his website, *forget which had this info,

    you’ll find that there are 12, yes, !2 remaining Parkers in the pipeline.

    He has the paperback version of his latest western out as well as an October hardcover release of a Spenser, and a young adult coming out soon.

    It’s not all over yet…but boy, do I feel for his family

    You can listen to Robert and his son Dan sing Amazing Grace on Roberts website.

    Sniffle.

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