Essential Reading for Shark Week: The Benchley Roundup
Given that it’s Shark Week, we thought it might be fun to look into the life and work of an author whose writing about sharks has had a monumental influence on popular culture. Peter Benchley was the obvious choice, and the book was 1974’s instant classic, Jaws. Jaws was carved into our collective memory largely thanks to the release of a stellar movie adaptation, but the novel continues to enjoy something of a cult following.
Sadly, Peter Benchley never again reached the dizzying heights of Jaws. After its publication, he’s said to have struggled to make it as a freelance journalist, and his later novels are less well remembered. A quick glance back through the book might tell you why. Jaws is an odd novel, interspersed with strange passages that could have come directly from an encyclopaedia entry on sharks.
“... lacking the flotation bladder common to other fish and the fluttering flaps to push oxygen-bearing water through its gills, it survived only by moving. Once stopped, it would sink to the bottom and die of anoxia.”
Worse still, for all its strangeness, Benchley’s isn’t even the weirdest Jaws book, which is doubtless Hank Searls’ novelisation of Jaws 2 (now sadly out of print). In Searls' novel a female great white, having mated with the shark from Jaws, threatens the safety of beachgoers. That sections of Jaws take place inside the womb of a pregnant shark only tells you that Searls dared to go further than Benchley. Searls was bold, crafting an audacious narrative that dared to ask the question, “What do sharks even do in utero, and why?”
It has been suggested that Benchley’s Jaws was “swallowed whole” by its movie adaptation, and is seldom considered on its own terms. If Benchley’s Jaws was swallowed by Spielberg's, it wasn’t alone. The same might be said for one of Benchley's ancestors.
Though he seems now to be fading from the public consciousness, Peter Benchley’s grandfather, Robert Benchley, was a celebrated humour writer and a generally laudable character. While he is often associated with The New Yorker, Robert Benchley’s time at Vanity Fair may be more indicative of the kind of writer he was.
Benchley and a cadre of other writers (including Dorothy Parker) once took advantage of an upper management trip to Europe and effectively staged a coup, seizing control and publishing madcap articles as they saw fit.
Robert Benchley was also a founding member of the notorious Algonquin Round Table, known for its inclusion of literary and comic titans like Dorothy Parker and Harpo Marx. Given its penchant for sharp theatrical critique, the group was also known under the name of “The Vicious Circle.” When The Vicious Circle took to the stage, Benchley was catapulted to further success. Benchley’s segment, “The Treasurer’s Report,” ran nightly for a full year, after which Benchley moved to Hollywood. He would later receive an Academy Award for his short film, How to Sleep.
You can watch The Treasurer’s Report below:
As you can probably tell from The Treasurer’s Report, Robert Benchley’s comic voice has aged remarkably well, and his incisive view of day to day life is as relevant today as when he was writing. Just as his short films continue to be accessible and immediately understandable almost a century after their first publication, Benchley’s writing remains just as sharp and relatable.
If all of this has intrigued you, then you’ll be pleased to hear that there are a number of collections of his short work still available. Like A. A. Milne’s Once a Week, these are mostly selections of hilarious essays and columns collected in the course of his career as a regular contributor to other publications. As with Milne, the most frequent target of Benchley’s considerable wit is the writer himself.
Benchley describes himself in “Take the Witness!” as the kind of man who enjoys imagining himself in the witness stand, reducing lawyers to rubble with his scintillating comebacks.
Of these reveries, he writes,
“I like them best when I have work to do, as they deplete me mentally so that I am forced to go and lie down after a particularly sharp verbal rally. The knowledge that I have completely floored my adversary, and the imaginary congratulations of my friends (also imaginary), seem more worthwhile than any amount of fiddling work done.”
Benchley’s work often depicts him as a fundamentally lazy character, a man who would more happily avoid work indefinitely than ever get around to it. Given his prodigious output, this might seem disingenuous, but stories about him attest to both his impressive bouts of idleness and a hard-working nature.
Among the most charming things about Benchley is that so many of the anecdotes one reads about him ring so true with the person he describes in his writing. In one case, Bon Mots, Wisecracks, and Gags describes Benchley as having turned in an article fully two weeks after deadline. The article was titled, “I Like to Loaf.” By way of explanation, Robert Benchley had attached a note reading,
“I was loafing.”
If this seems all-too-familiar, then you’re in luck, because the single greatest pleasure of Robert Benchley’s comic work is the extent to which he takes jabs at himself (and by extension everyone). In even his most dated articles, there are elements that perfectly lampoon people’s attitudes to modern life now just as they did then.
While we live in a 21st century world that is constantly in a state of panic over waning attention spans, social media saturation, and VR headsets, Benchley’s generation were worried about the constant threat posed by radio. In “Wear-Out-a-Shoe Week,” he addresses an audience on the widespread concern that people spend so much of their time indoors listening to radios that the footwear industry is under grave threat. The claim is that, with people walking less and less as they listen to the radio, the humble cobbler is losing thousands of hours work every year.
Like the shark that would make his grandson famous, Benchley circles his topic slowly, probing its weaknesses. In this case, that means first asking why people are so invested in the occupations of cobblers, asking why no one is concerned for similarly affected sock-makers. Once he’s done poking fun at the surrounding arguments, he proceeds to savage the core premise itself, in this instance slowly and reasonably building to the suggestion that people be allowed listen to the radio at night only on condition that they’re also holding their shoes to a grindstone.
Of course, just as in Jaws, the real highlight is when it turns to the details of the main attraction, which is to say, Robert Benchley. Just as Jaws focuses on the shortcomings and oddities of shark anatomy, Benchley assesses himself in often unflattering terms.
“Personally, shoes do not bother me much. I sometimes just carry mine around with me in a green baize bag and put them on when I want to make a smart appearance. I don’t suppose I wear out a pair of shoes in thirty years [...] This is because I am what is known as ‘the sedentary type.’”
For those of you who have never had the pleasure of reading his work, but who find your interest piqued, the best of Robert Benchley’s work remains the short essays and articles he wrote for various publications before moving to Hollywood. You can read those in collections like The Benchley Roundup, Of All Things, Benchley Lost and Found and My Ten Years in a Quandary.
This being Shark Week, we searched every collections of Robert Benchley's short work we had to hand, but we could find no instance of the word “shark.” However, we did find a description of swimming, a subject on which both Robert Benchley and his grandson wrote. For the sake of comparison, we have included a short quote on swimming from each of the Benchleys.
Peter Benchley, of course, wrote about swimming from the point of view of a great white shark.
“The water was only up to her hips, so she stood, pushed the hair out of her eyes, and continued walking until the water covered her shoulders.There she began to swim --with the jerky, head-above-water stroke of the untutored. A hundred yards offshore, the fish sensed a change in the sea's rhythm. It did not see the woman, nor yet did it smell her. Running within the length of its body were a series of thin canals, filled with mucus and dotted with nerve endings, and these nerves detected vibrations and signaled the brain. The fish turned toward shore.”
Robert Benchley, wrote on changing fashions in swimming.
“When I was learning to swim, people just swam. The idea was to keep afloat and, in an orderly fashion, to get somewhere if possible. If there was nowhere you wanted to get to, you just swam quietly 'round and 'round until your lips got blue. Then you went in.”