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Lawrence Block and P.G. Wodehouse: How two prolific writers found their voices

Sometimes a reviewer just can’t wait to write about a book. Even though Lawrence Block’s memoir, “A Writer Prepares,” isn’t available till June, I was recently sent an advance proof. Quite innocently, I started reading it — and couldn’t tear myself away. So consider what follows more a preview than a review of the pleasures awaiting in its pages.

A Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, Lawrence Block began selling short stories more than 60 years ago when he was still a student at Antioch College. That alone is remarkable, but a summer work program in Manhattan changed his life: He landed an editorial job at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency. What Block learned there and the people he met there form the heart of this conversational, irresistibly entertaining account of a literary apprenticeship in the late 1950s and early ’60s.

Notorious in multiple ways, the Scott Meredith agency didn’t just represent authors, it would also — for a fee — review manuscripts and supposedly help would-be Hemingways and Colettes understand where they’d gone wrong. These “fee reports” were essentially a scam. Let Block tell it:

“Every letter we wrote was designed to manipulate, and was dashed off with a cavalier disregard for the truth. My fee reports applauded the talent of writers who showed no talent, condemned the plots of stories with perfectly satisfactory plots, and were written with the singular goal of getting the poor mooch to submit another story and pony up another fee.”

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During the nine months he worked for Scott Meredith, Block managed to sell a story of his own to Manhunt magazine, which led him to concentrate his youthful energies on crime fiction. To familiarize himself with the market, he tells us, “I bought every copy of Manhunt I could find, and sought out its imitators as well, digest-sized magazines with titles like Trapped, Guilty, Pursuit, Murder, Keyhole, Off-Beat, and Web. . . . I put together a near-complete run of Manhunt along with dozens of copies of its fellows. And I read my way through just about every story.”

Before long, Block was knocking out his own short mysteries, generally around 4,000 words long, all typed in one sitting without a second draft. He also began to produce made-up nonfiction for men’s adventure magazines. Basically, there were three kinds of articles, endlessly recycled, which he sums up as “Reinhard Heydrich, Blond Beast of the SS,” “Grovers Corners — Sin City on the Wabash,” and “Migrating Lemmings Ate My Feet.” Block actually wrote the Heydrich piece using his best-known male pseudonym, Sheldon Lord.

Note that I said “male pseudonym.” From cranking out men’s adventure fantasies, it was just a short step to writing what Block now somewhat wryly refers to as Classic Midcentury Erotica, much of it using female pen names. He began with a cheapy paperback titled “The Strange Sisterhood of Madam Adista,” followed by a more serious lesbian novel, eventually published as “Strange Are the Ways of Love.” Block finished it two days before his 20th birthday.

At this point, young Larry decided he could do just fine without a college degree. Soon, he was providing Midwood or Nightstand Books with a 45,000 word sleaze novel every month. Using the name Benjamin Morse, M.D., he also wrote “Sexual Surrender in Women,” and as John Warren Wells he produced “Tricks of the Trade: A Hooker’s Handbook.” He made up all the case histories.

Astonishingly, Block was still only in his mid-20s, though by now supporting a wife and two very young daughters — and not doing badly at all. In 1962, “the total amount I received from Scott Meredith, after commission, came to $32,000.” The equivalent buying power for 2021 is roughly $250,000.

There’s a lot more to “A Writer Prepares,” which is chockablock with pen portraits of fast-buck operators, eccentrics and fellow writers (notably Donald E. Westlake). It ends — far too soon — when Block finds his real “voice” in the first of his Tanner novels of international intrigue. From there, he would go on to write many more books under his own name, including lighthearted capers about burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr and a much-admired series about ex-cop and recovering alcoholic Matt Scudder. He would also win every major award in crime fiction.

While few writers can match Lawrence Block for sheer professionalism, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse actually outdoes him.

When I find fiction too draining, I turn to books about books. They can be as thrilling as a whodunit.

John Dawson’s exhaustive and detailed “P.G. Wodehouse’s Early Years, His Life and Work 1881-1908” — available at the Wodehouse website — opens by strongly chastising previous biographers, who without evidence presented their subject as a neglected and unwanted child. Not true. Subsequent chapters feature Wodehouse family history, a survey of the authors Wodehouse admired and learned from (Barry Pain and W.S. Gilbert, in particular), lots of illustrations and, most importantly, brief summaries of all the newspaper squibs, columns and stories — many set in boys’ school — that the young writer turned out.

Like Block, Wodehouse was nothing if not professional. He networked, kept notebooks of plot ideas and a ledger of his earnings, studied the top magazines until he was published. He never let up. “From 1901 to 1908,” notes Dawson, “P.G. Wodehouse wrote nine books containing close to 600,000 words; he published 170 items of short fiction, 162 articles, essays and columns, and close to 600 poems in London periodicals; his By the Way paragraphs”— casual humor for a newspaper column — “run into the thousands.” All this by the age of 27.

Just as Block’s memoir ends when he discovers his true “voice,” so Dawson concludes with Wodehouse about to create his first great comic character, the languorous, dandyish and resourceful Psmith. He first appears in one of Wodehouse’s many schoolboy stories, but he will enjoy several grown-up adventures in the years ahead, culminating in that 1923 masterpiece, “Leave it to Psmith.” The “P,” it goes without saying, is silent.

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

A Writer Prepares

By Lawrence Block

LB Productions. 284 pp. $24.99

P.G. Wodehouse’s Early Years, His Life and Work 1881-1908

By John Dawson

GRP Publications

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