The Next Word War

(While I’m traveling on book tour, I’m delighted to have John Lutz here as a guest blogger.  John, take it away! — Tess Gerritsen)


by John Lutz


“History repeats. We are always fighting the last


                war. Blah, blah, blah…”

                                         — Just about everyone.

I’m not that old, but I remember when television was certain to be the end of radio and movies. It was obvious to everyone. Movies meant leaving home, paying for a ticket, sitting in a dark theater while people around you talked, smoked (!), rattled candy wrappers, and sometimes made various kinds of love.

Radio? Why? There was a new bully on the block. The simple box had learned to show us moving pictures and it called itself television. We could dim the living room lights like they did in movie theaters, pop our own corn, bark at any of the kids who dared rattle candy wrappers, and … well, that was easier, too.

Where were books during all of this? In bookstores, libraries, drugstore and grocery store paperback racks. Hemingway was still going strong. James Gould Cozzins was selling big. So was Mickey Spillane. Something to remember. In that war, books were like Switzerland during World War Two.

Make no mistake: war was being waged. Movies versus the Allies: radio and television.

Movies struck back. More and more were produced in Technicolor, with story concepts that required a vast canvas that could part the Red Sea, show the Pyramids being built in Egypt, and accommodate chariot races and all Ten Commandments. Put that on your eight-inch oblong screen and strain your eyes.

Radio came at television with car radios and suitcase-sized portables, all playing music made by the likes of Johnnie Ray, Frankie Lane, Patti Page, Les Paul and Mary Ford, the Platters, and then – Elvis

Television counter-attacked with daily local programming before five P.M. After five it was Milton Berle in drag, the brilliant Sid Caesar, Lucy, Peter Gunn, even Kate Smith and the American flag.

Movies hit back with stereophonic sound, vibrating seats, Vista Vision, Three-D, radiation-created gigantic ants, lizards, locusts, A-bomb bred creatures that toppled buildings and terrorized the world.  

Television came at us with sports. Baseball that seemed to be covered by one guy with a big TV camera, sitting behind home plate. Hockey. (Where’s the puck?) Boxing? Well, that was okay. Everything happened in an eighteen-by- eighteen foot ring. Boxing was made for television, and vice versa.

Grace Metalious sold a zillion copies of Peyton Place. Agatha Christie was writing and selling well. Spillane was still going strong.

Radio gave us high fidelity. That helped some. Especially if you wanted to hook up a string of speakers so it sounded like a train was roaring through your apartment.

Then television fell prey to an advantage that also became a vulnerability. Advertising. Lots of advertising.


Who wanted to watch Dinah Shore again and again in her Chevrolet? Or those dancing cigarette packs?

You didn’t have to sit through that kind of stuff at the movies.

Radio gave us FM.

Television came at the enemy with color.

Still, more than two people on a TV screen was a crowd, and everyone had green-tinted skin.

Radio gave us the Top Forty, and then the Top Ten. Elvis, Elvis, Elvis…

Movies recruited foreign allies with potent forces like Brigette Bardot, La Dolce Vita, and Brigette Bardot.

Truman Capote was a hit with his short stories and novellas. Spillane was going strong, even had a TV series and played himself in the movies. Détente.

Brando screamed for Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire. The Desperate Hours was a hit play that later became a hit movie. Sweet Bird of Youth was a hit play and became a hit movie. If it had been a quality play, it didn’t matter if the movie was in color or black and white. In fact, black and white movies sometimes denoted quality. Film noire, Don’t Bother to Knock, Hatful of Rain, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, On the Waterfront. Movies had struck on something here. Burl Ives got rich. Elia Kazan got even. Arthur Miller got Marilyn Monroe.

Plays that originated on television, like Requiem for a Heavyweight and Marty also became hit movies. Hit plays could become sure-fire hit movies, even in black and white and two dimensions on average-sized screens.

Herman Wouk was on the bestseller lists. So was Mickey Spillane.

Television continued strong. Bob and Ray, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen – those people were funny even when you could see them. Red Skelton especially when you could see him. Lots of people watched them. They sold lots of products.

The thing is, this mess eventually sorted itself out. Movies gave us great production values and special effects. Also people like Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen, and Steven Spielberg. Television learned how to report news almost instantaneously, and produce meaningful entertainment. Some of the time, anyway. And virtually every car has a radio, tuned to everything from rap music to Verdi to Howard Stern.

John Sandford, Sue Grafton and Jonathon Franzen write bestsellers. Spillane still sells well.

The war between the forces of television and the radio-movie alliance wound down.

Sometime, in some way, the ebook invasion of publishing will also reach a conclusion. Peace will prevail. Whether we (writers and readers) will be the better or worse for it, I don’t know. At this point, I don’t think anyone does.

Someone forwarded to me a piece wherein an intellectual in the late nineteenth century argued logically and convincingly that the invention of the phonograph meant the end of books. Who would want to exert the effort to read a book when they could have it read to them? Narrators, readers, and not the writers, would become celebrities. The emphasis would be upon the performing of the book rather than on how some anonymous wordsmith arranged sentences.

We are part of an essential change in human contact and relationships, sailing into a foggy future, and with no more idea of where we’re going than the guy who would have put his money on the phonograph.

It will be fascinating to see where we are when the fog lifts and there evolves some kind of truce.

I have a hunch the book will be okay.  Like radio and the movies, it is a survivor.

15 thoughts on “The Next Word War

  1. Pari Noskin

    First of all, welcome to the 'Rati, John.
    I love the battles you portray so eloquently in your post. I remember some of the dire cries of the end of this or that, the demise of all we know for some frightening new-fangled thing.

    You're right that things do settle down a bit before the movement flows hard and fast again. Three years ago I was afraid of electronic books; I totally rejected the notion. Now I'm heading toward only using that medium to get my new works into the world.

    Thank goodness for change; it offers opportunity once we put our fears in their place.

    The book will be fine … print, audio, electronic, graphic. The word will prevail.

  2. PK the Bookeemonster

    Last week a storm knocked out our power for a couple hours. My husband is a computer gaming geek — which is perfectly okay — but he would have been out of luck in passing the time. With books and being summer and long nights, I wouldn't even need candles. Should civilization collapse — or at least lose it's energy — books will prevail.
    As I mentioned this to him, he said oh yeah, what about your Kindle? Typical. 🙂 We've also debated that reading is the same 26 letters being rearranged to which I counter that computer games are just two — ones and zeroes. I have infinite more variety.

  3. Allison Davis

    John, so nice to have you with us today. New Orleans' well known bookstore on Maple Street just opened two new branches this summer. I was thrilled to see this after so many have closed including the Mystery Bookstore in LA.

    For someone that doesn't own a television, I am addicted to sports radio and baseball on the radio so I agree with you whole heartedly.

  4. Judy Wirzberger

    Fascinating trip down memory lane and marvelous comparisons along the way. I love my Kindle for some things, but I love a bookshelf stacked with books for a lot more.

    Congratulations! Rizzoli is #1 cable show!

  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Thanks for your wonderful perspective, John! I also feel there's a world of possibilities opening up for authors and readers alike. I think the best thing we can do is simply write, write and then write some more. We are the owners of our content and, eventually, we will be rewarded for our efforts.

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