Vladimir Nabokov versus Jacqueline Susann: Who Will Win?

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By Robert Fromberg

Our first contestant today is the noted prose stylist whose novel Lolita appears in the top 5 of numerous best-novels-of-all-time lists and whose enlarged prostate contributed to his lifelong insomnia…that’s right, it’s Vladimir Nabokov!

Our other contestant is a lovely and talented author who transformed her experiences in the theater into the bestselling novel of all time, Valley of the Dolls, and who said, in response to some of the…er…juicier scenes in Portnoy’s Complaint that she wouldn’t shake hands with Philip Roth…please welcome Jacqueline Susann! 

And as you all know, I’m your host, Peter Prescott!

Now remember, authors, that you will need to remain silent during the course of the competition so that your work speaks for itself!

Today’s category is: description of character using the omniscient point of view, or what many of us refer to as the authorial voice

As all you fans of the show know, there will be three rounds in today’s match: two head-to-head rounds and one bonus round, in which anything can happen

But first, let’s hear the passage of prose that we will be examining from each author.

From Mr. Nabokov, here is an introductory description of the character Pnin from the novel of the same name. For our reading today, I’ll turn things over to the mellifluous voice of our announcer, Mr. Bob Foster. Go, Bob!

“With an air of coy secrecy, benevolent Pnin, preparing the children for the marvelous treat he had once had himself, and already revealing, in an uncontrollable smile, an incomplete but formidable set of tawny teeth, would open a dilapidated Russian book at the elegant leatherette marker he had carefully placed there; he would open the book, whereupon as often as not a look of the utmost dismay would alter his plastic features; agape, feverishly, he would flip right and left through the volume, and minutes might pass before he found the right page—or satisfied himself that he had marked it correctly after all.”

OK, great. Thank you, Bob, for that excellent reading of some rather twisty material! 

Now, let’s hear Ms. Susann’s passage. This is, in fact, the very opening paragraph of her best-loved work, Valley of the Dolls. (By the way, Ms. Susann wishes us to emphasize that she disassociates herself entirely from the movie version of this book, despite that film’s popularity.) Bob…you’re on!

“The temperature hit ninety degrees the day she arrived. New York was steaming—an angry concrete animal caught unawares in an unseasonable hot spell. But she didn’t mind the heat or the littered midway called Times Square. She thought New York was the most exciting city in the world.”

Now…let’s get to round one, in which our judges will be evaluating the two passages based on our first category…well, look, it’s that old warhorse, showing versus telling. 

The judges are writing furiously…I see one has finished…ah, that’s everyone. OK, judges, please pass your cards to our lovely assistant Helen, and she will hand them to me.

I’m scanning the judges’ comments…oh, my…well, this is looking like a big win for Mr. Nabokov. The judges point out how much we learn about Professor Pnin by his actions, such as his difficulty finding his place in his text. Another said, simply, “Those tawny teeth!” As for Ms. Susann, well, I’m afraid one judge summed it up with, “New York is hot. Whatever.”

OK, we’re on to the next category, and it…oh, my…this must be the work of that clever new girl we just hired from Ball State…the category is telling versus showing…or how effective the narrative voice is in simply telling us about the character.  

Whoa! I didn’t even say go, and the judges are scribbling away. OK…OK…and they are done! Helen, let’s see what they had to say. 

Well, things are still looking pretty good for Mr. Nabokov. One judge refers to the “playful and kinetic voice that makes the author another character” and another points out the precision and irony of observations such as “coy secrecy” and “elegant leatherette.” I must say, I rather fancy that myself. 

Let’s see now…about Ms. Susann…one judge says, “I kinda like the angry concrete animal,” while another notes, “Well, I’m glad the character finds New York exciting.”

Not great news for Ms. Susann, but remember, anything can happen in the bonus round…and remember, too, that I have the secret weapon…the Prescott Prerogative, in which the host—that’s me, in case you’ve forgotten—can provide his…er, that is, my…own judgment, which overrides that of the judges!

The bonus round category is…which authorial voice would you rather hear—or read—on your DEATHBED? Wow, now that’s what I call a category! The staff is really bringing it today!

All right, the judges are looking at each other—no talking among yourselves, judges—and…go! The judges are still looking at each other…now a few are writing. And…it looks like they are ready. Helen, let’s see those cards. 

Hmm…one is just a question mark…another says, “What if my hearing and eyesight are gone when I’m on my deathbed?” And another says…oh…it’s blank. 

Well, all things being equal…I would have to say that the match goes to Mr. Nabokov, but of course all things are not equal in the bonus round. And…today…I would like to invoke…my Prescott Prerogative

Now remember, I am just speaking for myself, your humble host, but I would say, just offhand, well, that the last thing I would want at the close of my life would be to hear a snarky authorial voice that views its characters as insects to be poked and prodded and then ground under its heel all the while dancing and gesturing and saying, “Look at me! Look at me!” I further state—again, this is just your humble host—that I would love to have the authorial voice created by Ms. Susann tell me that the sidewalks are steamy, tell me that Times Square is littered, and tell me that a girl whom the omniscient narrator respects…perhaps even adores…is excited about this new world and its possibilities, and to have that information presented to me in a voice that neither winks or smirks, but that speaks with calm befitting the deathbed moment.

Again, that’s just the host’s opinion, but, having used my Prescott Prerogative, I hereby name our winner today to be…Ms. Jacqueline Susann! 

Congratulations, Ms. Susann! May you live to soothe and entertain us for many years to come. What’s that? Cancer? Oh, my.

Robert Fromberg has prose in Hobart, The Bitchin’ Kitsch, The Daily Drunk, and many other journals. His memoir is forthcoming from Latah Books. He taught writing at Northwestern University for a long time a long time ago. Twitter and IG: @robfromberg

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