It is tempting to say that Mary Bringle’s Hacks at Lunch was written by a hack—at lunch or otherwise engaged. But so laconic a pronouncement would leave the reviewer open to charges of disingenuousness and flippancy; and, since some such judgment cannot be substantively avoided, it must be elucidated and qualified.
The premise of this “novel of the literary life,” as Miss Bringle’s book is subtitled, is that “hacks” (i.e., “professional writers” who produce, usually pseudonymously, pulp novels of mystery, romance, and adventure) deserve our pity because they cannot belong to that other world, at once glamorous and serious, where authors sign their books with their real names and get reviewed by the New York Times. As may be expected. Miss Bringle’s method echoes Hugo’s Les Miserables, and as the personalities, or souls, of the four “hacks” in her tale are revealed through their lunchtime words and thoughts, the author wishes to lead us through pity to pathos.
It is not to be. Miss Bringle’s pathos is false because the magical, highbrow world in which her subjects want to partake is her own dream as well. Its goodness is axiomatic; and literature, like life, abhors the axiom (as did Hugo, for that matter). We do not pity the “hacks,” whose “literary life” the subtitle mocks, so much as the author, whose literary and social aspirations, or perhaps delusions, the novel unwittingly discloses. Obviously, it has never occurred to Miss Bringle that the difference between “pulp” as defined by her characters and “literature” as defined by the New York Times may be not one of talent but of vocabulary, and one wonders if her mind could accept the proposition that a writer of genuine sensibility may find the very prospect of publication, in the existing literary climate, repugnant, quite apart from Emily Dickinson’s interdiction concerning publication in general as “the Auction / Of the Mind of Man.”
Literature—not highbrow drivel or lowbrow pulp—is largely a matter of understanding. Like the translator of a text, a writer who sets out to describe a world must be moved by his talent to understand it. If he does, he can express himself in sign language if necessary; if he does not, all striving is useless, and he might as well write books like Fiona’s Folly, the steamy novel by one of the characters in Hacks at Lunch, the highbrow novel by Mary Bringle. In either case, a pseudonym seems like a good idea.
[Hacks at Lunch: A Novel of the Literary Life, by Mary Bringle (New York: St. Martin’s Press) $11.95]