Avery Corman wasn’t an immediate success as a novelist. Oh, God!, his first novel, was published in 1971 and generated very little cultural buzz until, six years later, Carl Reiner’s film version turned the title into a household name. The film, which starred George Burns and John Denver, was released during one of Hollywood’s most fecund periods, a year that also saw the release of the original Star Wars, Saturday Night Fever, Smokey and the Bandit, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Annie Hall, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, The Goodbye Girl, and The Spy Who Loved Me, and yet it still managed to be one of the ten highest grossing films of 1977. It also spawned two sequels. What’s more, while Oh, God! was still in theaters, Corman brought out an even more successful book, Kramer Versus Kramer. Two years later, the film version of that book (slightly retitled: Kramer vs. Kramer) became the highest grossing movie of the year. It was also a critical success, and it earned Oscars for its stars, Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep (her first, and she famously lost the statuette in a bathroom), its director (Robert Benton), its screenwriter (Benton, again) as well as a Best Picture Oscar for its producer (Stanley R. Jaffe).
Amid all the praise, Corman probably didn’t pay much attention to the few feminists who criticized Kramer vs. Kramer for shamelessly tilting its battle of the sexes in favor of its male protagonist. One of the most cogent of these critiques was written by Eileen Malloy and appeared in the December 1981 issue of Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. Among other things, she pointed out that the relative wealth of both Kramers makes the story irrelevant to the vast majority of divorces in America:
Hoffman’s job change doesn’t just miss the point of the conflict between the public and domestic roles; it represents a gross misrepresentation of the analogous situation in the case of single mothers. Hoffman’s salary drops from $33,000 to $28,200. In 1977 the average U.S. family income in a household headed by a woman was $7,742 (U.S. Census figure). When a married woman loses her job to become a parent, that career interruption can last anywhere from a few days to her lifetime. For a woman, married or single, the stakes being played with in the sexual division of labor are a thousand times greater than Hoffman’s or Streep’s in this film. The parallel implied in the film is a false one.
Malloy deftly exposes some of the film’s phoniest touches:
This fraudulent misrepresentation of real-life situations continues in the depiction of the father-son relationship. Maybe Hoffman really does do both; maybe his childcare tactics are exemplary. But the real demands and conflicts of a parent-child relationship are never shown.
There is, in the first place, no mention of the practical, constant concerns of childcare. Where are his socks, his shoes, books, coat, hat, mittens, boots? Does he have clean clothes? What about his schoolwork? How does the father use discipline? The one discipline scene reminded me of how I dealt with the children I babysat for when I was twelve; Hoffman uses threats that are cutely ignored. The father-son relationship contains nothing but casual conversations and bargains. Twice Hoffman says to the boy. “We made a deal…”
And she’s even better at dissecting the way that the film unfairly depicts Streep’s character:
Streep is ultimately demolished as an individual character; she is sacrificed to the institution [of marriage]. Streep herself is shown performing the execution, but first her relationship with her best friend is negated, the appearance of her morality and psychological soundness are eroded and her claim to a position of self-determination is denied. As a result, Hoffman’s grossly overdetermined male right to privilege of ownership and position comes across as fitting and neat.
Streep’s best friend, Margaret, visits Hoffman a few hours after Streep has left for California. Hoffman asks Margaret, “Did you set my wife up to this?” and says, “It just occurred to me, Margaret, that Joanna and I never had any problems until you and Charlie split up … Sisterhood!”
But the fact that such critiques appeared primarily in publications as obscure as Jump Cut, gives you an idea of just how far from the mainstream they were. Corman had no reason to suspect that his pre-feminist worldview might someday throw up a roadblock in front of his career. (He was born two days before Woody Allen, whose own 1979 brainchild, Manhattan, has come in for its share of feminist criticism in recent years, though in 1979 it received almost universal praise.) So, even after the pet rocks and mood rings of the 1970s gave way to the Rubik’s Cubes and Walkmans of the 1980s, Corman kept on producing high-concept novels.
Alas, by the 1980s, Baby Boomers had supplanted their Silent Generation parents as the most culturally dominant demographic group in the US. In 1980, John Sayles made his directorial debut with The Return of the Secaucus 7, a film about Baby Boomers facing the approach of their 40s. It was a hit with critics and the art-house theater crowd. Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 film The Big Chill, also about Baby Boomers approaching 40, was an even bigger hit with the Cineplex crowd. The TV series Thirtysomething, which debuted in 1987, played on similar Baby Boomer themes, and also became a hit. All of these were cultural milestones, and they must have given Corman another one of his great what-ifs: What if I applied the narrative strategy of The Big Chill et al. to the story of a Silent Generation character?
The result was 50, a 1987 novel about Doug Gardner, a New York sports columnist approaching his 50th birthday and wondering whatever happened to all his youthful enthusiasm and idealism. It was one of Corman’s best books, and it got decent reviews despite the fact that The Sportswriter, Richard Ford’s now-highly-regarded 1986 novel, had recently covered similar ground with much sharper prose but was greeted with decidedly mixed reviews. (Kirkus Review noted that “Ford’s chummy narrative fails to transcend its rather tired genre: the male midlife-crisis novel.” And Ford was so angered by Alice Hoffman’s review in the New York Times that he fired bullets through a copy of her latest novel and then mailed it to her.)
Avery Corman’s 50, somewhat accidentally, anticipated what the advent of the internet would do to American journalism. Although the internet as we know it didn’t exist when 50 was published, Sports Day, the publication for which Gardner writes is purchased by a computer geek obsessed with market research. After that, Gardner is no longer free to write what he wants. He has to write about what the researchers say is most likely to attract eyeballs. Here is an exchange with his boss:
“Each week we’ll be surveying our readers on the sports and sports personalities they’re following. We’ll send you computer printouts by geographic region, by age, by sex, telling you what our readers want to read about next. We expect you to use this as a guide in deciding the columns you write.”
“Computerized journalism?” Doug said.
“It’s for your guidance, Doug. You have a responsibility to your readers and to the newspaper to reach as many people as you can.”
Later on, it gets worse. The company installs software in its word processors that automatically cuts off at a certain word count, making it impossible for Doug to write the long journalistic deep dives that are his specialty. Thus, the book had two high-concept ideas—a Big Chill for the Silent Generation, and a preview of the massive changes that Silicon Valley would wreak upon American journalism. Alas, the bestseller list of 1987 was dominated by Boomer novelists: Stephen King (who occupied three spots on the list of the year’s ten bestselling fictions), Anne Rice, Tom Clancy, Danielle Steel, Scott Turow, and Garrison Keillor (born in 1942, so not technically a Boomer, but younger than Corman).
To be sure, 50 got plenty of attention from the staid old pillars of the press. The New York Times ran a fawning profile of Corman in which reporter Herbert Mitgang allowed the baseball metaphors to overwhelm his prose: “Mr. Corman is the Bronx’s designated hitter in fiction. Over the years he has managed to duck the critical bean balls that are sometimes thrown at popular writers and to keep swinging away, scoring with novels that become paperbacks and movies.” Hollywood showed interest in filming the story. So Corman can be forgiven if, in 1987, he didn’t yet realize that his literary star was already fading.
But the reception that greeted his next book, 1991’s Prized Possessions, must have left him in no doubt that the zeitgeist had moved on without him. This, too, was a high-concept novel. The issue of “date rape” began to get a lot of media attention in the 1980s. And the era’s most famous accusation of date rape—the charge that medical student William Kennedy Smith had raped a 29-year-old woman he had met at a bar in Palm Beach, Florida, while out carousing with his alcoholic uncle, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy—became a media sensation in early 1991, just a few months after the publication of Corman’s book. The William Kennedy Smith case was somewhat anomalous, however, because most of the earlier high-profile cases had occurred on university campuses.
Corman had clearly been scanning the newspapers for hot-button topics, because Prized Possessions is about a young female student at fictional Layton College (modeled on Williams College) who gets raped by a fellow student who has taken her out on a date. The aftermath of the rape—its effect on the victim, the perpetrator, their families, the college, the community—is the primary focus of the book, and Corman treats the subject with sensitivity and gravity. He adds an uncomfortable element of race-consciousness to the story, which makes it even more complex. Elizabeth Mason, the girl who is raped, comes from an upper middle-class Jewish family in New York City. Her rapist, Jimmy Andrews, is from a WASP family in Connecticut, a family that belongs to the kind of country club that traditionally excluded Jews. Going to the police and accusing a boy from a rich, well-connected family of rape could prove disastrous to Elizabeth’s future prospects, both in college and after graduation.
Corman does a good job telling most of this story, but he makes a disastrous decision when bringing it all to a conclusion. After consulting with her parents, Elizabeth Mason takes her complaint to the police. Both the cops and the prosecuting attorney take the case seriously and pursue it vigorously. Eventually, a grand jury hands down an indictment and the case against Jimmy Andrews is allowed to proceed to a jury trial. At this point, however, Jimmy’s mother meets with Elizabeth’s mother and begs her to get Elizabeth to drop the case. Jimmy’s mother points out that, if her son is sent to jail, he could well be raped by a fellow inmate and die of AIDS. Surely, date rape isn’t a crime that ought to be punished by death!
Not only do Elizabeth and her parents find this reasoning persuasive, Corman seems to be impressed by it as well. In the novel’s biggest plot twist, he has Elizabeth drop the charges against Jimmy just as the case is about to proceed to trial. She seems to be satisfied that her case has forced Layton College’s administrators to take date rape seriously. The college’s president allowed Elizabeth and her supporters to hold an anti-date-rape rally on campus. And for Elizabeth, that’s enough of a victory. Naturally the police and the prosecuting attorney are outraged. The latter tells her, “Look, you came in here with your parents. You said you were raped, and we investigated. It was a difficult investigation, because you stupidly destroyed all the evidence. But we went ahead. We spent many hours questioning people, analyzing the case. And we broke the case. You said you were raped, and I believed you.”
Feminist critics had been angry with Corman since the release of the film Kramer vs. Kramer, which many have credited with igniting the so-called “men’s rights movement.” The protagonist’s estranged spouse was a feminist caricature, a woman who blithely abandons both her husband and child to go off and raise her own consciousness only to return later and demand custody of the child, playing on the family court judge’s natural sympathy for a woman deprived of her offspring. But in the 1970s, feminist disapproval wasn’t enough to sink an otherwise well-loved piece of pop culture. By 1991, however, the pendulum had begun to swing a bit in the other direction. (Curiously, in 50, one of Corman’s male characters tells a feminist of his acquaintance, “From what I see, women’s lib is dead … the pendulum is swinging back.” He had it exactly wrong.)
In the New York Times Book Review, novelist and feminist Susan Fromberg Schaeffer was scathing. About the legal proceedings surrounding the rape case, she writes:
Here (as in Kramer vs. Kramer, where the judge awarded custody to the “wrong” parent and the mother decided, properly, against the judge and returned the child to his father) Mr. Corman’s attitude toward the judicial system (and perhaps toward women) appears bizarre. […]
Elizabeth believes, and Mr. Corman seems to believe, that her notion of justice is superior to the law of the land. The individual, Mr. Corman seems to be saying, has a finer sense of right and wrong than the official caught up in the machinery of law and order.
What is the reader to make of this? Can we now view Elizabeth as a role model for other victims of date rape—as Mr. Corman evidently expects us to? I think not. … [A]s far as the reader can see, Jimmy committed a crime, escaped prosecution, and feels no guilt. […]
We are on murky ground here. Perhaps Mr. Corman is uncomfortable with a vindictive woman who is more Fury than Madonna, more intent on vengeance than on healing. In any case, we are left with a heroine who, as the victim of a crime, refuses to press charges, one who presses her cause all the way to a grand jury indictment and then, having seen herself on national television, pronounces justice done. In this, I suppose, Mr. Corman sees Elizabeth—in the worst sense of the word—as “feminine.” I, for one, was more comfortable with the young woman I recognized from the real world, one who felt entitled to her rage and her revenge.
Although Prized Possessions garnered a lot of positive reviews around the country, Fromberg Schaeffer’s smackdown must have caused Corman a great deal of anguish. He is a New Yorker, born and bred. The New York Times is mentioned frequently in his work, and almost always with a sense of reverence. The people in an Avery Corman novel haven’t ever really arrived at success until they are profiled in the New York Times. In 50, the protagonist Doug Gardner and his wife decide to get a divorce because of an argument they have had about the New York Times. Later, when Gardner switches from sportswriting to broadcast journalism, we’re told that, “A piece in the New York Times on local sportscasters mentioned Doug in passing, citing, ‘his intelligent weekly commentaries.’” This is Corman’s way of signaling that Gardner is on his way up.
Later still, when his ex-wife has remarried a successful fashion merchandiser, he becomes jealous by how often the couple is mentioned in the Times’s society pages. When Gardner begins dating an heiress known for her charity work, he finds that he has “reached an odd kind of parity” with his ex-wife, because the Times now mentions him and his girlfriend roughly as often as it mentions his ex-wife and her new husband. In Prized Possessions, prior to sending Elizabeth off to Layton College, her father becomes extremely successful in the business world. Fromberg Schaeffer writes, “As Ben’s fortunes soar, so does the publicity he receives, until the ultimate tribute is his: mention in the New York Times.” It’s impossible to overstate the importance that the Times plays in Corman’s fictive universe. So finding himself denounced in its pages as a virtual rape-apologist must have stung.
In the interests of fairness, the Times allowed Corman to defend himself a few months later in an interview with reporter Barbara Lovenheim. Alas, during this exchange, he managed to make things worse for himself. “If you take the view that all rape is the same,” he told Lovenheim, “you link all college-age boys with pathological rapists who are raping women out of a perverse criminal mentality. And what is happening on college campuses is something else.” This seemed to imply (and in any case was widely taken to mean) that, had Elizabeth’s rapist been a street-sweeper rather than a white college kid with a bright future, prison (and possible death by AIDS) might have been in order, but surely no one wants to see an Ivy League preppie tossed in jail for one little mistake. Prior to publication, Prized Possessions’s film rights had been optioned by Warner Brothers and screenwriter Mark Medoff (Children of a Lesser God) had been hired to write a script. But no film was ever developed, and critiques like Fromberg Schaeffer’s may have been one of the reasons why.
A year later, Corman followed up Prized Possessions with The Big Hype, a short novel about a TV script-writer trying to make the transition to novelist. My guess is that this piece of fluff was written before the publication of Prized Possessions. But it’s also possible that, after Susan Fromberg Schaeffer’s attack on that book, Corman decided to rush out a comic novel, so lightweight that it couldn’t possibly offend anyone. At any rate, after 1992, he didn’t publish another novel until 2004’s A Perfect Divorce—a dull, well-mannered novel in which Corman seems to be trying to atone for the sins of Kramer vs. Kramer. This time around, both parties to the fictional divorce are perfectly civil and likeable. A critic for Kirkus Review wrote:
As Rob and Karen share their ongoing concern for their son, their friends can’t understand why they divorced. Readers may not, either. The two seldom argue, display no discomforting sexual yearnings, exhibit mild nostalgia. The tart realism of the early scenes … quickly dissipates into a sweet pudding of happy endings. Competent. Bland. If only real life were so nice.
The book generated nary a ripple on the literary waters. It certainly didn’t inspire anyone to publicly forgive Corman for his earlier sins. In 2019, 40 years after the film’s original release, the Guardian’s film critic Scott Tobias, in a mostly favorable appreciation of Kramer vs. Kramer, still felt obliged to make the feminist case against it:
The ending of Kramer vs. Kramer is a terrible copout, a Hollywood reversal of the gross injustice doled out by the court. By that point in the film, Ted has a better understanding of Joanna than he did at the beginning, because now he knows what her day-to-day life was actually like and he’s come to terms with his own screwed-up priorities. For Joanna to forfeit custody entirely is supposed to redeem her, but it makes her the villain once more, because she’s walking out on her son a second time. [Note: Tobias calls this copout “a Hollywood reversal,” but that same reversal existed in the novel, long before Hollywood got its hands on the material.]
After A Perfect Divorce, Corman produced only one more novel, 2006’s The Boyfriend From Hell. With this book, he seemed to want to atone for Prized Possessions. You can almost hear him begging Susan Fromberg Schaeffer for forgiveness with every word that he writes. Corman’s final protagonist is Veronica “Ronnie” Delaney, a thirtyish freelance writer in New York City. The novel, like all of Corman’s books, contains several references to the New York Times but, tellingly, Delaney does most of her freelance writing for New York magazine. Corman still seems to have been smarting from what the Times had to say about Prized Possessions 15 years earlier. It is the most high-concept of all his novels.
Ronnie Delaney, an attractive and socially active single woman, finds herself dating, not just a real douche bag, but a man she gradually comes to suspect (accurately, as it happens) may be Satan himself. Corman’s guiding spirit here seems to have been Ira Levin. Rosemary’s Baby, Levin’s 1967 novel, was one of the most influential pieces of popular fiction of its time. It seems entirely possible that Corman’s first novel, Oh, God!, was written in response to Rosemary’s Baby. Levin created a stir by writing a novel about Satan coming to earth in the form of a baby born to a contemporary New York City everywoman. A few years later, Corman flipped the script and wrote a novel about God coming to earth in the form of a crotchety old Jew who hires a New York City everyman to act as his amanuensis.
Thirty-five years later, as he set about writing his final novel, Corman seems to have been trying to produce an unofficial sequel to Rosemary’s Baby (Levin himself wrote an official—and dreadful—sequel titled Son of Rosemary, which was published in 1997 and dedicated to Mia Farrow). Richard Smith, the titular boyfriend from hell, is described as being in his late 30s. Rosemary’s fictional baby, Andy Woodhouse, was born in June of 1966—40 years before the publication of The Boyfriend From Hell. Were Andy an actual living person, he would have been in his late 30s while Corman was writing the book.
With the exception of a Catholic priest, introduced late in the story, the novel contains no entirely sympathetic male characters. One of the first characters we meet is Randall Cummings, a charismatic young man who runs a Church of Satan in New York City. Ronnie writes a negative profile of him for New York. As if to signal to the Susan Fromberg Schaeffers out there that he now understands just how horrible a crime rape is, Corman tells us that Cummings turned to Satan after his young wife was raped and murdered by an assailant who was never brought to justice. After the article is published, Ronnie becomes the victim of various efforts to frighten her: a parcel arrives in her mail that contains a dead cat, an unknown man throws more dead cats at her from a dark alleyway as she passes by. Even a homeless man to whom Ronnie frequently gives spare change turns against her.
Over and over again, Corman reminds us how terrible men can be. The only exception, or so it seems at first, is the aforementioned Richard Smith, an author and an authority on Satanic cults. He praises Ronnie’s article and offers to hook her up with his publisher if she wants to expand it into a full-length book on Satanism. Ronnie is flattered by his attention, and soon they are engaged in a sexual relationship. Ronnie longs to describe him as her boyfriend, but his frequent, weeks-long disappearances to various far corners of the Earth (ostensibly to do research on cults) give her some concerns. Could it be that he has a wife somewhere that he hasn’t bothered to mention? Actually, it’s worse than that; he’s the lord of the underworld, and it wreaks havoc on his social life.
Alas, Satan is immortal. He can’t be killed or sent to prison. Ronnie eventually manages to cast him out of her life but, like Jimmy Andrews, he’s free to go on tormenting other women if he so desires. Which makes the ending of this book nearly as much of a letdown as the ending of Prized Possessions. But that may, indeed, have been Corman’s point all along: though you may succeed in banishing one awful man from your life, you will still have to face countless others. For every Jimmy Andrews you manage to imprison, thousands of others will arise to take his place. Before trusting your heart, or any other part of your anatomy, to someone physically stronger than you are, get to know them first.
Despite its shortcomings, The Boyfriend From Hell was a noble effort. Corman was in his 70s when the novel was published. Few writers at that age are still attempting to evolve. Try to imagine Jordan Peterson, at 70, writing books that humbly address the criticisms made of his earlier work, or Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo writing books that grapple with the possibility that their antiracism was a form of racism. Most writers lack the humility necessary for that kind of scathing self-assessment (in 2004, at a literary gathering, Richard Ford spat upon novelist Colson Whitehead who two years earlier had written a negative review of Ford’s work; in a 2017 interview for Esquire magazine, Ford was still defending his actions). Corman, to his credit, does not lack humility nor a desire to improve himself as a writer. With his final two novels (to date, that is), he seems to have been trying to accommodate the feminist critiques of his earlier works.
As a novelist, Corman has always strived to find the happy medium, a sweet spot where provocation and political correctness could somehow coexist. But politically correct pop fiction is rarely riveting. Michael Crichton, Judith Krantz, Tom Clancy, Jackie Collins, Harold Robbins, Jacqueline Susann—some of the most successful pop-fiction writers of the 20th century were successful precisely because they didn’t give a damn about the liberal pieties of your average New York Times reader.
Avery Corman pretty much is the average New York Times reader: liberal, financially comfortable, well-behaved, and a bit stodgy. Despite this, most of his novels seem to have been conceived as bestseller material. He denies this, of course. In 1987, he told a reporter for the New York Times, “I have never sat down to write a novel because I had a quote good idea unquote. It begins somewhere else. I’ve always looked for a good and accurate portrayal of the way we live now.” That he frequently felt obliged to deny being an idea man, suggests that he knew the label fit.
But Corman did manage once to write a novel that didn’t rely on a big “what if.” Published in 1980, The Old Neighborhood tells the story of Steve Robbins, a character whose story is based on Corman’s own. Robbins is born in the mid-1930s, grows up in a tight-knit neighborhood in the Bronx, enters the advertising business after graduating from college, marries well and sires two children. Unlike Corman, however, Robbins rises to the top of the advertising profession and then drops out to become… well, he isn’t sure what he wants to do next. His daughters have gone off to college and his marriage is stale, so he divorces his wife and moves from an expensive suburb on Long Island back to his old neighborhood in the Bronx. He tries working as a soda jerk in an old-fashioned malt shop and finds that he likes it. But he knows he can’t remain a soda jerk for the rest of his life. Eventually, he decides to open an antiques emporium that sells items popular during his own boyhood in the 1930s and ’40s. And that’s pretty much it—no big third act surprise, just a realistic tale of one Bronx-born Jew’s first 50 years or so.
The book was a huge success and the New York Times ran another fawning profile of the author. Stanley Jaffe, who produced Kramer vs. Kramer, bought the film rights for a million dollars. But no film adaptation was ever made, which might explain why Corman never again wrote a novel without some kind of high-concept, cinematic hook. Alas, it didn’t matter to Hollywood. Kramer vs. Kramer was the last of his books to be adapted for the movies.
Through his books, Avery Corman always seemed to be engaged in a debate with the zeitgeist. He lost a lot of those debates but, to his credit, he also seemed to have learned a lot from them. The way in which his late-career novels seem to clash with his earlier work is somewhat reminiscent of a contentious court battle. If someone ever writes a book about that clash, they ought to title it Corman versus Corman.