William Goldman Retrospective

This was originally posted to Goodreads in November, 2018, to commemorate the passing of William Goldman, novelist, screenwriter, and funnyman par excellance

William Goldman. He’s passed on now. I never met the man, but he had quite an influence on me. Allow me to elaborate…

So, first I saw the film, The Princess Bride. Specifically, I saw the latter half of the film. The first sequence I remember is Westley at the Machine, and Humperdinck sucking away twenty years of his life. I watched from there to the end, had no clue what was going on, but I had fun. 

Then I found the book. Probably it was my older brother's copy. I got my grubby little mitts on it and started reading it. I'd read anything that sat still long enough. Maybe the fact that my brother was reading it added a certain allure in my eyes. Maybe I was bored by Ramona and her adventures. All I'm sure of is, this was B. P. (Before Potter. All literary adventures of my childhood can be dated to before or after I discovered the first Harry Potter book.) 

Around the two-thirds mark I was thinking "Hey, this is really like that movie I watched... must be an adaptation" and read to the end, and I had hugely enjoyed myself and the book became one of my favorites. I saw the full movie in due time, and read it with my eighth grade class as assigned reading. And yes, when I first read the book at the age of eight I assumed that S. Morgenstern was a real person. 

This book was a gift that truly kept on giving. The more "old" books that I read-- The Three Musketeers, for instance, or anything Victorian-- the more I understood the jokes that Goldman had woven in. The boring parts that should have been cut out, the very-thinly-disguised author laments, I would nod sagely and smile and be like "Yeah, just like The Princess Bride." 

Freshman year of college, Whittier. We're in a History of Rome class that is intended to cement everyone's writing abilities on the college level. After we handed in our first paper, our professor has one-on-one conferences. 

Professor Hunt sat me down in his office and informed me that I was already an excellent writer, and there was little that this class could really teach me. Fortunately I was ready to be a game student and contribute anyway.

He also asked, "Who are your influences? Who do you read a lot of?" He clarified "Do you read a lot of Dickens? Because your sentences... they just go on and on and it gets to be a little much" and I thought about it and I said "Oh! William Goldman. The Princess Bride!

Because anyone who's read the novel will know that Goldman and his sentences, he conducts his sentences like symphonies, stretching them out and adding a few more clauses and just a quick aside here and there and just one clarifying detail (okay, maybe three) and you forgive it because it's so funny and engaging (and there are so many parenthetical asides, especially in the early chapters, there is even one parenthetical that opens but it never closes, the second parenthesis never shows up, and that's a bit of a shame but there's only one in the entire book and I think that's pretty good and anyway it's funny). 

And that's how William Goldman shaped my writing style. Garrulous. Loquacious. Dare I say, sesquipedalian. I have had to train my writing, discipline it, bring it to heel, but every now and again I just cut loose and let the detail run wild. 

I would be remiss not to mention his less known work of nonfiction, The Season, a candid look at Broadway. His ideas about art and theater have endured in my mind and percolated to something new (and not to mention the writing is again terrific, engaging and lively and whipsmart so it takes you by surprise, god I want to write like that). 

The Snob Hit, the theater that's for the snobs, if you can get it you pat yourself on the back for being so much better than the unlettered masses
Third Theater, which is genuinely trying to do something bold and defiant and does it work? Ehh, you gotta see to make up your mind
Popular Theater, which can do anything but it cannot make the audience uncomfortable. And the funny thing is, "comfortable" can change over the years. 

Look to that recent revival of West Side Story. They said it would be so daring, so cutting-edge, look, the Sharks are actually speaking in Spanish where dramatically appropriate! As in, when they're among themselves! 

I listen to the cast recording, and don't get me wrong, they sound terrific, I don't doubt the good intentions, but when do we hear that much Spanish? in the music? Well, the song "America" is all in English, even though it's all sung by Shark gels among themselves... of course, you couldn't have the big, showstopping number everyone wants to hear be in Spanish, the audience might be uncomfortable. 

And wait, in the song "I Have a Love," Anita sings in Spanish to sing about hatred and revenge... Maria takes the song into English to sing about forgiveness and love. Well. Hmmm. I don't doubt anyone's intentions, but this what TV Tropes calls "unfortunate implications." 

That's Popular Theater. And I'm so grateful to William Goldman for giving me a vocabulary to vocalize it, for sharing his thoughts about the original off-Broadway and then on-Broadway run of Hair, for thinking about what theater was turning in to (hint: he wasn't wrong), for sharing how much A Day in the Death of Joe Egg had moved him, and I've never heard of that play anywhere else. 

Goldman shaped how I write, and how I think. I would have loved to have gotten dinner with him, maybe at Canter's Deli. If you haven't read one of his prose works, well, now's the time to pick him up.

Catherine King