The story of the highbrow East Coast novelist or playwright who relocates to Hollywood during its Golden Age retains an undeniable glamor in the popular imagination. Through his (or, less often, her) proximity to the great screen stars, and his participation in Southern California's culture of fantasy and leisure, the writer absorbs the aura of his palm-lined, sun-soaked milieu. This narrative gains further luster from a romantic arc of decline: genius goes unappreciated by philistine producers, talents are squandered on middlebrow mediocrities, promising careers fizzle in alcoholism and early death.
It is precisely this narrative of decline that Tom Cerasulo's book sets out to challenge. In his account of four writers' careers, he aims to debunk the widespread conception of Hollywood "as a symbol of all that is wrong with an uneducated, fickle, homogenizing mass culture of consumption" (4), and as a force that wasted the talents of great writers. In contrast to this myth, argues Cerasulo, "time spent in Hollywood actually benefitted artists such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathanael West, Dorothy Parker, and Budd Schulberg," because the movie industry "provided the financial, creative, and social resources they each needed" during the 1930s (2).
Weaving together accounts of these four writers' careers in the film industry, Cerasulo sketches a continuum of possible responses [End Page 761] to the demands that commercial cinematic writing made on the modernist artist. At one pole is Fitzgerald, who adhered stubbornly to romantic notions of authorship and genius and consequently failed as a screenwriter; still, Cerasulo maintains, Hollywood did not ruin Fitzgerald's life, but rather bestowed on him both generous remuneration and an abundance of source material. At the other end of the spectrum stands Schulberg, the son of a successful Hollywood producer, who began his career as a screenwriter and turned to print only after he had achieved commercial success. West and Parker, meanwhile, succeeded professionally when they moved west because they were able to recognize screenwriting as a collaborative craft that requires talent and effort, neither denigrating it as easy hackwork nor elevating it into an art form divorced from market pressures.
Both the mythology and the reality of the Hollywood writer raise an intriguing variety of critical and historical questions. While the myth seems to reinforce the notion of a great divide between modernism and mass culture, the more complex reality renders uncertain any easy claims about the role of the writer in capitalist modernity. Because the writer must deal with radically altered conditions of production and reception as he or she moves from one medium to another, both the writer and critic are forced to rethink issues such as the autonomy of the artist, the value of personal celebrity and commercial success, and the cultural place of literary fiction in an age dominated by cinematic narratives. The political and economic crises of the 1930s add yet a further layer of interest; the authors treated here were involved in and wrote about the struggle of writers to unionize—a struggle itself connected to artists' self-conscious identification as workers in a market economy and to their varied responses to increasingly shrill demands for politically engaged art.
To negotiate such crowded terrain, Cerasulo uses a mixture of group biography, cultural history, literary criticism, and filmic analysis. Given this ambitious range, it's not surprising that the thumbnail readings of the Hollywood novels (which justifiably and intelligently focus on themes such as authorship and performance) don't break much new ground—at least not in the way that, for example, Jonathan Veitch and Rita Barnard did with their treatments of West in the 1990s. Instead, the real fruit of Cerasulo's sedulous research is its presentation of a thick description of the intersecting lives of these writers and their responses to day-to-day working conditions in the dream factory. In keeping with this detail-oriented historical approach, Cerasulo structures the book in a tight chronology so that each chapter treats a highly focused time period (rather than a single author or conceptual...