Archive for April 2012
It is a very wise rule in the conduct of the understanding, to acquire early a correct notion of your own peculiar constitution of mind, and to become well acquainted, as a physician would say, with your idiosyncrasy. Are you an acute man, and see sharply for small distances? or are you a comprehensive man, and able to take in, wide and extensive views into your mind? Does your mind turn its ideas into wit? or are you apt to take a common-sense view of the objects presented to you? Have you an exuberant imagination, or a correct judgment? Are you quick, or slow? accurate, or hasty? a great reader, or a great thinker? It is a prodigious point gained if any man can find out where his powers lie, and what are his deficiencies,—if he can contrive to ascertain what Nature intended him for: and such are the changes and chances of the world, and so difficult is it to ascertain our own understandings, or those of others, that most things are done by persons who could have done something else better. If you choose to represent the various parts in life by holes upon a table, of different shapes,—some circular, some triangular, some square, some oblong,—and the persons acting these parts by bits of wood of similar shapes, we shall generally find that the triangular person has got into the square hole, the oblong into the triangular, and a square person has squeezed himself into the round hole. The officer and the office, the doer and the thing done, seldom fit so exactly, that we can say they were almost made for each other.
An individual is generally ready to admit that he is ignorant of periods in the past or places on the other side of the globe. But he is much less likely to admit ignorance of his own period and his own place, especially if he is an intellectual. Everyone, of course, knows about his own society. Most of what he knows, however, is what Alfred Schütz has aptly called “recipe knowledge”—just enough to get him through his essential transactions in social life. Intellectuals have a particular variety of “recipe knowledge”; they know just enough to be able to get through their dealings with other intellectuals. There is a “recipe knowledge” for dealing with modernity in intellectual circles; the individual must be able to reproduce a small number of stock phrases and interpretive schemes, to apply them in “analysis” or “criticism” of new things that come up in discussion, and thereby to authenticate his participation in what has been collectively been defined as reality in these circles. Statistically speaking, the scientific validity of this intellectuals’ “recipe knowledge” is roughly random.
As I’ve said before, I like commentary tracks. While some audio commentaries can be a waste of time, or worse, I’ve learned so much from the best of them, and derived such pleasure along the way, that a few have even supplanted the underlying movie itself in my affections. I still love The Usual Suspects, for instance, but at this point, I’d rather listen to Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie’s wonderful commentary, probably my personal favorite, than watch the movie again. Commentaries by the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Nicholas Meyer, David Mamet, and Steven Soderbergh (especially his famously prickly exchange with Lem Dobbs on The Limey) only get better with time. And in particular, the stunning commentary tracks for The Simpsons have been playing continuously in the background of my life for the better part of a decade now.
I’ve often wished that something similar existed for novels. There are, of course, annotated editions of classics ranging from Alice to Sherlock Holmes—the latter of which is my favorite book of all time—and several authors, notably Nabokov, have cooperated to some extent with annotated versions of their works. Other novelists have written in detail about the creation of particular books. The most comprehensive example I’ve seen is The Writing of One Novel by Irving Wallace, which I recommend with the caveat that Wallace was a pretty lousy writer—although quite readable on the subjects of research, revision, and publication. Similar accounts have evidently been written by Thomas Mann and Thomas Wolfe, although I haven’t read them, and I don’t think they’re quite what I have in mind when I envision a true author’s commentary: something that runs in parallel with the text, but chatty, digressive, and not particularly organized, like Paul Thomas Anderson talking about Boogie Nights.
This is all my roundabout way of announcing that starting on Monday, I’ll be writing an occasional author’s commentary, for lack of a better word, on The Icon Thief. I’m not precisely sure how this will work, since I haven’t done it before, but at the moment, I’m hoping to post one installment per week, taking one chapter at a time, and writing about whatever strikes my fancy. There won’t be a fixed format: I’ll just be talking about what I can remember of how each chapter written, explaining some of the references, throwaway details, and inside jokes, and giving whatever insight I can about the choices I made along the way. Behind every page lies a story, some more interesting than others, but since this is essentially a blog about writing, I figure that at this point I can afford to indulge myself. And my goal will be to write the kind of author commentary I’d like to read—light, heavy on the gossip, cheerfully candid about plot holes and mistakes, and generally as honest as possible.
Obviously, these posts will mean a lot more to those who have read the novel, so if you haven’t had a chance to pick it up yet, you might want to swing by your local library, steal a copy from a friend, or even buy one. (You can also read the first three chapters, and bits and pieces of the rest, on Google Books.) While I can’t entirely avoid spoilers, I’ll do my best to tread carefully around certain plot points. And as much as I’m aware that it can be risky to pull back the curtain like this, I can’t resist showing you a few of my tricks. Every work of art has its own secret history, and the same part of me that is intrigued by commentary tracks, artists’ sketches, and storyboards is also fascinated by the process by which every novel is made—a story often as compelling, and surprising, as the plot itself. Ideally, the result will be of interest even to those who haven’t read the book, and won’t affect the enjoyment of those who have. So I hope you enjoy being part of my book club, because if you’re reading this, you’re already in it—and the discussion starts now.
I suppose my formula might be: dream, diversify and never miss an angle.
For most of this week, anyone passing by my house would have seen a bright rectangular glow in the living room window, as the new Blu-ray of Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol played in a nonstop loop. While it doesn’t have the same visceral power as it did in IMAX, this is still a fun, expertly assembled action movie, the perfect sort of thing to have playing in the background while I’m working on other projects. Even after seeing it three or four times, however, I still have to drop everything and watch whenever the big scene in the Burj Khalifa comes up. I may not get as dizzy as I did when I first saw it, but even on the small screen, it’s still wonderfully exciting—and all the more terrifying when you know how it was actually filmed. (Incidentally, as much as I hate this sort of corporate extortion, it’s worth shelling out the extra money for the Best Buy exclusive edition, which contains some great bonus features that aren’t included in the version available on Amazon.)
In fact, I’d say that the Burj Khalifa climb in Ghost Protocol is my favorite action sequence of the past five years, on a short list that includes the Guggenheim shootout in The International and the opening chase scene in Drive. At first glance, these three scenes might not seem to have much in common—one is a death-defying ballet staged one hundred and thirty stories above the ground; one is lunatic, extended gunplay; and the last is the car chase as chess game—but they’re all executed with something of the same spirit, and it’s worth drilling down to figure out why they affect us so deeply. There’s something hugely pleasurable about these scenes that goes beyond their immediate impact, and which sets them apart, in my mind, even from such landmark sequences as the hallway fight in Inception, which I love, but find somewhat less interesting from a writer’s point of view. Because what the three scenes I’ve mentioned have in common is that they were all written first.
Here’s what I mean. Many action scenes, particularly car chases, come off as assemblages of second unit footage that have been pieced together in the editing room, and as a result, there’s something monotonous about the relentless similarity of action—just see any Michael Bay movie for an example. The action sequences in these three films, by contrast, were conceived on the printed page. They have a clear beginning, middle, and end. They make memorable use of their locations. They have small setups, payoffs, and surprises along the way, as when Ethan Hunt throws away his malfunctioning glove and finds it adhering to the side of the building a few stories later. Each is centered on the personality of the characters involved—indeed, each scene unfolds as a sequence of logical choices, which is something you’ll never hear said of Transformers. And these are all things that can only be planned at the screenplay stage.
And while this may seem obvious, it’s worth remembering in light of a movie like The Hunger Games, which has its good points, but to my eyes, despite the strength of its material, doesn’t know how to plan and carry out action. Instead, it relies on editing and camerawork to create the illusion of momentum, when all of this should have been laid out in the script. (Note that none of the three films I’ve mentioned ever use anything resembling a shakycam.) Full credit, then, to writers Eric Singer, Hossein Amini, and the platoon that worked on Ghost Protocol for giving us action scenes we’ll remember, which is something that ought to be celebrated. Because it appeals so shamelessly to our reptile brain, the ability to write a great action scene may never get the respect it deserves, but like any other narrative skill, it benefits from intelligence, ingenuity, and clarity of thought—and all of the editing tricks in the world won’t make up for their absence.
Break windows, smoke cigars, and stay up late. Tell ‘em to do that, they’ll find a little pot of gold.
—Tom Waits, when asked for advice for younger musicians
Yesterday, I made the radical observation that everyone’s grandmother tends to be a good cook. (I also can’t resist the chance to quote, completely out of context, one of my favorite lines from Bertolucci’s The Dreamers: “Other people’s parents are always nicer than our own, and yet for some reason, our grandparents are always nicer than other people’s.”) It isn’t hard to figure out why: by the time most of us are old enough to really notice what our grandparents are like, they’ve had a head start of something like fifty years to find their way around a kitchen. By definition, barring some kind of time travel—which never goes well for grandparents—we aren’t around to see what our grandmother was like in her twenties or thirties. And I think most of us would be startled to see how little she had figured out, about cooking or anything else, well into middle age.
And that’s true of art as well. One of the curious facts about art is that nearly all of a major artist’s works fall into oblivion, with only a few left standing in libraries or anthologies. In general, although not always, these are works of the creator’s most mature period, which means that we see artists at their most developed, like our grandparents, and with a similar lack of context. In his amusing novel The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker points out how this is true of poetry:
What does it mean to be a great poet? It means that you wrote one or two great poems. Or great parts of poems. That’s all it means. Don’t try to picture the waste or it will alarm you…Out of hundreds of poems two or three are really good. Maybe four or five. Six tops.
The same holds true for novels, movies, paintings, and any other medium you can name: we’re left with a handful of the good stuff, and the rest tends to disappear. And for an artist, this can be simultaneously daunting and liberating—most of what you produce be forgotten, but if you can generate one masterpiece along the way, it won’t matter.
For the rest of us, however, it can be risky to draw conclusions from those remaining works, especially when it comes to making choices about how to plan our own artistic lives. What we see, in our libraries and museums and movie collections, are a handful of end results—and not even all of them, but a selection of the best—with the earlier stages either invisible or accessible only to real enthusiasts. As a result, we tend to imitate the wrong things: we copy the product, but not the process. We try to paint like Picasso without remembering that Picasso not only started by painting like Raphael, but often went through the same procedure, layer by layer, in many of his works. Or in literature, we imitate the result of a long artistic and personal process and end up writing bad Hemingway.
Fortunately, in art, we have the chance to time travel in the way we can’t in our own lives. Except in a few exceptional cases, we don’t have access to discarded drafts, but we can always go back to early published work and see how an artist ended up where he did, and, more importantly, why. And along the way, we’re reminded that it’s impossible to separate a masterpiece, if we’re interested in doing good work ourselves, from the larger process that generated it. Here’s Nicholson Baker again:
All the middling poems they write are necessary to form a raised mulch bed or nest for the great poems and to prove to the world that they labored diligently and in good faith for some years at their calling. In other words, they can’t just dash off one or two great poems and then stop. That won’t work…But it’s perfectly okay, in fact it’s typical, if ninety-five percent of the poems they write aren’t great. Because they never are.
And the same is true of your grandmother. Ninety-five percent of the meals she made probably weren’t all that great, but luckily for us, they were clustered disproportionately toward the beginning, so only your grandfather knows for sure. But she did it every day, and she got better. So keep cooking. Your grandchildren, and your readers, will thank you for it.
The other night, my wife and I were having dinner at the home of a couple of friends when the subject of cooking came up. Everyone in the room knew their way around a kitchen—my wife and I cook at home every night, and while we aren’t great, we aren’t half bad, either—but we were all very conscious of the fact that we still rely largely on recipes. The ideal cook, we agreed, was someone who never looks at a recipe at all, but who can walk into a kitchen full of ingredients and throw something together without thinking about it too much. This is the approach of everyone’s grandmother, and while the result can sometimes be unpredictable (our friend described her Indian mother as being pleasantly surprised whenever a dish came out better than expected—”This is really good, isn’t it?”), it comes much closer to our idea of a good cook than someone like me, who dutifully follows whatever Cooks Illustrated says.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this applies to every kind of acquired skill. It probably applies to medicine, for example—one of our friends is an anesthesiologist—and it certainly applies to writing. A recipe is really just an algorithm, a set of steps for solving a problem, and the goal of any profession is to internalize these steps to the point where they turn into intuition. Intuition, as I’ve noted before, is really just an acceleration of rational thought—you learn to skip, combine, or speed up certain steps, so the result seems like magic, when in fact you’ve gone through the same process as always in the twinkling of an eye. (This is what Robert Graves means when he talks about proleptic thinking.) And my goal as a writer has always been to internalize craft, to look at the elements of a story and throw them together in an appetizing way without having to think through each step.
But you have to know the recipe first. I talked a bit yesterday about young writers who imitate the likes of Nabokov or Salinger without understanding the process it took to get there, which is something like trying to cook like Ferran Adrià without knowing how to make spaghetti. In the context of cooking, it sounds ridiculous, but the world is full of writers who are trying to do something very much like this in fiction. And while there isn’t anything like a culinary school or apprenticeship track for novelists—it certainly isn’t the standard MFA program—there are plenty of ways for a writer to develop craft on his own. Christopher Kimball, the founder of America’s Test Kitchen, says that the way to become a good chef is to cook your twenty favorite recipes until you’ve totally internalized them, then go from there. This is essentially what a young writer needs to do: write in the genres you care about most, looking to the rules as much as possible, and gradually work your way up to the literary equivalent of molecular gastronomy.
And it’s also important to remember that for a real artist, intuition isn’t the goal, but a means of doing hard, nonintuitive things. Recently, I’ve been browsing through a big coffee table book about the restaurant Alinea, and I was struck by Grant Achatz’s description of his own creative process:
People like to think the creative process is romantic…The truth, for me at least, is that creativity is primarily the result of hard work and study…In the still silence of the dining room, with the lights dimmed to a shadowy glow, I surround myself with my resources: a laptop, a notepad, pens, a glass of wine, a few reference books, a stack of C-fold towels with scribbled notes accumulated throughout the day, and a list of seasonal ingredients.
This is a lovely description of how any artist ultimately spends most of his or her time, complete with nice homely details—those C-fold towels!—and it’s a reminder that even after you’ve developed some degree of intuition, the process never ends. In the end, you’re still there in the kitchen, late at night, with your notes and glass of wine, working laboriously on new ideas, and only dimly seeing the point when even those recipes, transformed into intuition, will have been cast aside as well.
I am truly at my happiest not when I am writing an aria for an actor or making a grand political or social point. I am at my happiest when I’ve figured out a fun way for somebody to slip on a banana peel.
—Aaron Sorkin, to Vanity Fair
Can a book be so good that it’s dangerous? As columnist Crawford Kilian has argued on NPR and the Tyee, there are, in fact, novels that offer such compelling examples of voice, style, and originality that they can seduce generations of young writers into following their lead, often with disastrous results. The Catcher in the Rye, for instance, gave Kilian and his peers license to “essentially be a stenographer for [their] own teenage writing”—even though Salinger himself quickly moved in other directions. Other books that Kilian cites as bad influences include The Lord of the Rings, On The Road, and For Whom The Bell Tolls, and while one might argue with his choices—it’s certainly better to be inspired by Tolkien than by any of his imitators, and some of Kilian’s selections, such as Blood Meridian, seem motivated more by personal distaste—you certainly can’t say that he’s wrong. And Atlas Shrugged aside, in most cases, the better and more original the novel, the more dangerous it can be.
The problem, to put it as simply as possible, is that most highly original novels are the product of a long process of development, and when a writer imitates the result while neglecting the intermediate steps, he can miss out on important fundamentals. I should know. In my case, my dangerous book was Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, a wonderful novel, but as I’ve confessed elsewhere, I’ve come to agree with Tom Wolfe that it essentially represents a “literary cul-de-sac.” It gave me all kinds of bad habits, especially a tendency to indulge my characters in extended discussions of ideas, and almost twenty years later, I’m just beginning to escape from its influence, a process that required writing and publishing an entire novel that I’m hoping will exorcise it for good. And I can’t help but wonder where I’d be as a writer if I’d followed a less misleading example. As Henry James says, after comparing Tolstoy to an elephant carrying all human life: “His own case is prodigious, but his example for others dire: disciples not elephantine he can only mislead and betray.”
Since then, I’ve become a lot more cautious about my influences, especially when I’m working on a project. Now that I’ve finally begun to develop my own style, it’s probably less a problem now than before, but when I was first starting out, I found myself picking up the tics and habits of the writers I was reading at the time, always in a diminished, embarrassingly derivative form. As a result, as I’ve said before, I tend to avoid reading works by strong, idiosyncratic stylists when I’m working on a story of my own, and also works in translation, on the principle that it’s best to read good prose originally written in my own language. The trouble, of course, is that since I’m always writing these days, I’ve automatically excluded a world of good books from consideration. It took me forever to read Cloud Atlas, for instance, and even now, there are a lot of worthwhile books, ranging from Infinite Jest to, yes, Blood Meridian, that I’ve been avoiding for years for the same reason.
So what books should a young writer read? It might seem best to play it safe and follow the advice of T.S. Eliot, who notes that if a poet imitates Dante’s style, at worst, he’ll write a boring poem, while if he imitates Shakespeare, he’ll make a fool out of himself. The first thing any writer needs to master is simplicity and clarity, so of all contemporary authors, it might make sense to read only writers who embody those virtues—McEwan, say, or Coetzee. But it’s a mistake to start there as well. Like it or not, every writer has to go through a period of being misled by great authors, and perhaps it’s only by writing a bad imitation of Salinger or Jack Kerouac or even Eco that a writer can get it out of his or her system. Clarity and transparency aren’t virtues that are acquired by reading clear, transparent authors to the exclusion of everything else; one arrives at these qualities at the end of a journey that begins with self-indulgence and imitation and finally concludes with simplicity, with plenty of wrong turns along the way. In short, it’s fine to be misled by great books. Just keep the results to yourself.
So much in writing depends on the superficiality of one’s days. One may be preoccupied with shopping and income tax returns and change conversations, but the stream of the unconscious continues to flow undisturbed, solving problems, planning ahead: one sits down sterile and dispirited at the desk, and suddenly the words come as though from the air: the situations that seemed blocked in a hopeless impasse move forward: the work has been done while one slept or shopped or talked with friends.
Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent—which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important. So that any writer, looking back over even so short a span of time as I am here forced to assess, finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only because he was hurt in a certain way; and his help is simply to be enabled to move from one conundrum to the next—one is tempted to say that he moves from one disaster to the next.
—James Baldwin, “Autobiographical Notes”
Earlier this week, my wife and I were lucky enough to attend a special screening of two episodes of HBO’s Veep, the new political comedy from the British writer and producer Armando Iannucci. I was excited to see it because I’m a big fan of Iannucci’s In The Loop, one of the best comedies of recent years, and because I love many of the actors in the cast, especially Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Vice President Selina Meyer and Tony Hale (who played Buster on Arrested Development) as her bodyguard and personal assistant. And Veep is, in fact, a very good, if not quite a great show: the pilot is mostly outstanding, and although the second episode I saw—which I believe is the third to be aired—isn’t quite at the same level, there’s still a lot of promise here. (I’ll give a shot to any series that refers to one of its characters, a White House liaison played by Timothy Simons, with the line, “Are we really going to let the guy with the police-sketch face of a rapist tell us what to do?”)
Of course, handicapping a television show based on its first two episodes is a fool’s game. We just don’t know where a series like this will go, and as with most shows, Veep needs to be judged less on its own merits than on the potential of the team it has assembled, and in this case, it’s a great one. I’ll happily watch Tony Hale in anything, and as for Julia Louis-Dreyfus, well, she’s spectacularly smart and attractive and funny, to an extent that may even undermine what the show tries to do with her character’s desperation. Still, she knows how to sell a joke. The scene where Selina Meyer leaves a meeting to briefly freak out over a mistake by her chief of staff—who has signed her own name instead of the Vice President’s on the condolence card for a deceased senator’s widow—is my favorite moment in the pilot. There’s no political subtext here, just pure comedy, and if the show can continue to deliver such payoffs, it’s going to be worth watching.
All the same, the show isn’t perfect. It leans heavily on farce, returns a few too many times to the same comedic wells—characters pretending to have deep conversations while other people are watching, for instance, or saying something offensive without realizing that someone is standing behind them—and occasionally slips into the stray Britishism. Its conception of political horse-trading is probably no less contrived than that of The West Wing, but it feels more like a television writer’s idea of how American politics works—it’s vaguely implausible without being redeemingly absurd. But the show’s strengths are evident as well, especially the luxuriantly profane dialogue, which is such a central part of Iannucci’s work that he outsources much of it, according to the New Yorker, to a profanity consultant (Ian Martin, who is also a writer on Veep).
It’s especially fun to watch Veep now that I’ve finally begun to work my way, in parallel, through the entire run of The West Wing. For whatever reason, I never watched the show when it first aired, but I can’t put it off any longer, especially with the recent resurgence of Aaron Sorkin as perhaps our most talented screenwriter—a gift that he evidently honed through years of writing a great television show. Veep is clearly positioned as a kind of rebuttal to The West Wing—Simons’s character is constantly mentioning that he works “in the West Wing of the White House,” prompting another character to ask, “Is there another West Wing?” And while The West Wing famously inspired many young people to enter politics, as noted in a recent Vanity Fair article, Veep may inspire members of the next generation to stay the hell away. As if they needed any other reason these days.
What does it mean to devote your life to one book? Yesterday, I spoke about the figure of the freelancer turned man of letters, who spends his career moving from subject to subject like a shark, but this tells us nothing about a man like Robert Caro, who has spent his entire life writing about two subjects, and for the past forty years only one, the life of Lyndon Johnson. What was originally expected to run three volumes has now expanded to four, with a fifth on the way, covering something like 3,500 pages, with most of Johnson’s presidency yet to come. As Charles McGrath points out in a recent profile in the New York Times, Caro has now spent more time writing about the crucial years of Lyndon Johnson’s life than Johnson spent living them. At first glance, then, Caro might seem like the opposite of the kind of writer I’ve described. But when you look more closely, as Caro himself would, you find surprising affinities.
If Caro has mostly turned aside from other kinds of work, it wasn’t because he didn’t need it—McGrath’s profile notes that Caro and his wife sold their house in Long Island and moved to the Bronx to save money during the writing of his first book. Instead, Caro’s singlemindedness seems inspired by both his own meticulous personality and an almost fanatical sense of progressive revelation, the idea that looking closely enough at one life can allow us to understand an entire society, but only if we dig as deeply as possible. And it helps, of course, that he has chosen subjects that lend themselves to such expansiveness. As McGrath points out, The Years of Lyndon Johnson encompasses everything from detailed miniature biographies of secondary characters like Sam Rayburn or Hubert Humphrey to a history of the United States Senate, all of which Caro furnishes for the sake of necessary context. In short, like any author, he constantly follows his curiosity into unexpected places—he’s just lucky enough to be able to encompass it under one larger theme.
I haven’t read all of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, although those three big volumes have been staring down imposingly from my bookshelves for a long time now, but I have read The Power Broker, Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, which remains one of my fondest memories from a lifetime of reading nonfiction. It’s about as big, physically, as a book can be and still fit between two covers, but it’s a marvel of pacing and detail—the reader’s interest never flags—and we can almost believe Caro when he says that he cut 350,000 words and still regrets every one. (The real hero of McGrath’s piece is editor Robert Gottlieb.) Caro clearly takes his cues from Gibbon, an edition of which is visible in his office, and like Gibbon, his life has been consumed by one great work, to an extent that seems to have taken even his loved ones by surprise. “I never thought this would be all he’d write about,” his wife Ina says. “I’ve always wanted him to finish a novel.”
But of course, Caro has already written his novel, or novels, which are buried throughout his larger work. (Just one example out of many: the account in The Power Broker of the relationship between Robert Moses and his brother Paul, which reads like a self-contained tragedy.) Every story unfolds into others, and episodes that were originally conceived as a single chapter end up taking up most of a book. In this sense, Caro’s approach really is Homeric: in the Iliad, there are passages of a couple of lines in the surviving text that, when originally sung, could be expanded by the performer to last for hours, based on the interests of the audience. Similarly, there are times when Caro’s work reads like a standard biography of Johnson in which each paragraph has been expanded in every imaginable direction. Like Thomas Mann, Caro knows that only the exhaustive is truly interesting. And its pursuit is, in every sense, the work of a lifetime.