On this day in 1940, the novelist Peter Benchley was born. He has much to teach young writers. This is because he is such a mediocre writer and yet hugely successful. I’m no expert, of course. I’ve only read two of his novels, but I think that’s enough.
The first novel of his I read was one of his later ones, Rummies. It tells the story of Scott Preston, an upper-middle class drunk who works in the publishing industry (of course). There is an intervention by his family and boss who send him off to a remote drug clinic. Once there, lots of 12-step powerlessness garbage is dispensed. Then, as Preston is joining in and “beginning his recovery” the book turns into a thriller where he uncovers clinic malfeasance. If it weren’t for the cliched premise, the stereotyped characters, and the predictable plot, it would be a perfectly reasonable but undistinguished novel.
The second novel I read was Jaws. You know how novels are always better than the movies that are made from them? That’s not true. But to a large extent, the movie is better than the book because after millions of books sold, everyone knew what people cared about in the book: the shark. So that’s forgivable. But Jaws is a surprisingly boring novel. It doesn’t end so much as stop. The shark finally just dies of its wounds.
It is filled with weak subplots that seem like something you would see in a television drama from that time. The mayor owes money to the mob. Mrs Brody is unhappy because she married well beneath her social class, so she has a creepy affair with Hooper. Mr Brody and Hooper fight through half the novel about the former’s suspicion that the latter “knew” his wife. Quint is just the vilest of characters. No one is likable.
What is amazing is just how successful the book was. I’m not a fan of Stephen King, but the man can write; he’s an incredible talent. Benchley just meanders through his books with no style, peppering them with stock characters doing obvious things. But I will give him this: he makes me feel much better about my own writing. But that is more than made up for by the fact that he shows that there is little correlation between quality and success.
One good thing about Benchley is that after the success of Jaws, he began feeling very bad about the negative PR his book had been for sharks. He spent most of the last part of his life campaigning for and writing about sharks. This is very cool for two reasons. First, it shows the man had a heart. Second, sharks are super cool! And as Benchley himself noted, “[T]he shark in an updated Jaws could not be the villain; it would have to be written as the victim; for, worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors.” Indeed.
Happy birthday Peter Benchley!
See also: My Odd Love of Great White Sharks. I have Benchley to thank for that.