Archive for May 2012
Whenever I think about the relationship between writing and money, I remember an exchange in What’s New Pussycat? between Peter O’Toole and Woody Allen:
O’Toole: Did you find a job?
Allen: Yeah, I got something at the striptease. I help the girls dress and undress.
O’Toole: Nice job.
Allen: Twenty francs a week.
O’Toole: Not very much.
Allen: It’s all I can afford.
It’s a great gag, but the reason I like it so much is that it points to a universal truth: when we’re doing what we love for a living, we’ll gladly pay for the privilege. (Incidentally, this exchange, which you can watch starting at the 2:53 mark here, forms part of Allen’s movie debut, which shows how fully realized his persona was from the very beginning.)
Here’s another example. I have a friend who loves to knit, and whenever I see her, she’s always working on scarves and socks as gifts for friends. (She even hopes to raise goats for their wool one day.) When she’s asked if she’d ever consider selling her work on Etsy, however, she says no. Why? Given how much effort and energy she invests in one pair of socks, she says, she’d have to sell them for something like three hundred dollars in order to be fairly compensated for her time. Knitting by hand is a losing proposition, at least in financial terms, but she does it because she enjoys it. This is true of a lot of hobbies, even when we get paid for our work. When we bring the tomatoes from our garden to sell at the farmer’s market, we don’t expect to break even on the transaction, but it’s still gratifying to make the sale.
And this is often true of writing as well. Even setting aside the fact that I do a lot of my writing for free—I haven’t seen a cent from this blog, for one thing—the writing I do for money doesn’t always make sense from a financial point of view. When I publish a story in Analog, for instance, I get paid, at most, seven cents a word. Given the fact that it takes me two solid weeks to research, outline, and write even a relatively short story, when I do the math, I find that I’m basically working for minimum wage. And this is one of the best possible outcomes for this kind of writing. Analog, as it happens, is at the high end of what science fiction magazines can pay these days, with many of the smaller magazines, in any genre, essentially asking authors to write for free. The days in which a writer like Isaac Asimov could make a comfortable living from his short fiction alone are long gone.
So why do I do it? Mostly because I grew up loving the kinds of stories that Analog publishes, and I’m still tickled by the prospect of appearing in its pages, to the point where I’ll more or less pay for the chance, at least when you measure my work in terms of its opportunity cost. For the past couple of years, I’ve been in the enviable position of having at least one story in the pipeline at all times, but after my novelette “The Voices” comes out next month in the September issue, I won’t have anything coming up. And although my schedule this year is uncomfortably packed as it is, I’ll almost certainly take a couple of weeks off at some point to knock out another story, without any guarantee of acceptance, even though my time could be more profitably spent in other ways. And if I could, I’d do this even more often. One short story a year isn’t very much. But it’s all I can afford.
Know your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.
Earlier this month, in his rather unenthusiastic review of the new musical Nice Work if You Can Get It, Hilton Als wrote of star Matthew Broderick, who, for all his other talents, is manifestly not a dancer: “His dancing should be a physical equivalent of Rex Harrison’s speaking his songs in [My Fair Lady]: self-assured and brilliant in its use of the performer’s limitations.” It’s a nice comparison, and indeed, Rex Harrison is one of the most triumphant examples in the history of entertainment of a performer turning his limitations into something uniquely his own. (If I could go back in time to see only one musical, it would be the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady, starring Harrison and the young Julie Andrews.) And while most of us rightly strive to overcome our limitations, it can also be useful to find ways of turning them into advantages, or at least to find roles for which we’re naturally suited, shortcomings and all.
Years of writing have taught me that I have at least two major limitations as a novelist (although my readers can probably think of more). The first is that my style of writing is essentially serious. I don’t think it’s solemn, necessarily, and I’d like to think that my fiction shows some wit in its construction and execution. But I’m not a naturally funny writer, and I’m in awe of authors like P.G. Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, or even Joss Whedon, whose sense of humor is inseparable from their way of regarding the world. The Icon Thief contains maybe three jokes, and I’m inordinately proud of all of them, just because they don’t come naturally. This isn’t to say that I’m a humorless or dour person, but that being funny in print is really hard, and it’s a skill set that I don’t seem to have, at least not in fiction. And while I’d like to develop this quality, if only to increase my range of available subjects and moods, I expect that it’s always going to be pretty limited.
My other big limitation is that I only seem capable of writing stories in which something is always happening. The Icon Thief and its sequels are stuffed with plot and incident, largely because I’m not sure what I’d do if the action slowed down. In this, I’m probably influenced by the movies I love. In his essay on Yasujiro Ozu, David Thomson writes:
[S]o many American films are pledged to the energy that “breaks out.” Our stories promote the hope of escape, of beginning again, of beneficial disruptions. One can see that energy—hopeful, and often damaging, but always romantic—in films as diverse as The Searchers, Citizen Kane, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Run of the Arrow, Rebel Without a Cause, Vertigo, Bonnie and Clyde, Greed, and The Fountainhead. No matter how such stories end, explosive energy is endorsed…Our films are spirals of wish fulfillment, pleas for envy, the hustle to get on with the pursuit of happiness.
As a result, whenever I write a page in which nothing happens, I get nervous. This isn’t the worst problem for a mainstream novelist to have, but like my essential seriousness, it limits my ability to tell certain kinds of stories. (This may be why I’m so impressed by the work of, say, Nicholson Baker, who writes brilliantly funny novels in which almost nothing takes place.)
So what do I do? I do what Rex Harrison did: I look for material where my limitations can be mistaken for strengths. In short, I write suspense fiction, which tends to be forgiving of essential seriousness—it’s hard to find a funny line in any of Thomas Harris or Frederick Forsyth, for example—and for restless, compulsive action, all executed within a fairly narrow range of tone. When I write in other genres, like science fiction, I basically approach the story if I were still writing suspense, which, luckily, happens to be a fairly adaptable mode. And while I’ll always continue to push myself as a writer, and hope to eventually expand my tonal and emotional range, I’m glad that I’ve found at least one place where my limitations feel at home, and where they can occasionally flower forth into full song. For everything else, I’m content just to speak to the music.
People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.
- The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
- All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
- Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
- No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
- No Chinaman must figure in the story.
- No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
- The detective himself must not commit the crime.
- The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
- The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
- Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
—Ronald Knox, Essays in Satire
[Sherlock Holmes] is the personification of something in us that we have lost, or never had. For it is not Sherlock Holmes who sits in Baker Street, comfortable, competent and self-assured; it is ourselves who are there, full of a tremendous capacity for wisdom, complacent in the presence of our humble Watson, conscious of a warm well-being and a timeless, imperishable content. The easy chair in the room is drawn up to the hearthstone of our very hearts—it is our tobacco in the Persian slipper, and our violin lying so carelessly across the knees—it is we who hear the pounding on the stairs and the knock upon the door. The swirling fog without and the acrid smoke within bite deep indeed, for we taste them even now. And the time and place and all the great events are near and dear to us not because our memories call them forth in pure nostalgia, but because they are a part of us today.
That is the Sherlock Holmes we love—the Holmes implicit and eternal in ourselves.
—Edgar W. Smith, “The Implicit Holmes”
The patterns [of creativity] are simple, but followed together, they make for a whole that is wiser than the sum of its parts. Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent. Build a tangled bank.
The next time you’re talking to a writer and get stuck for topics of conversation, here’s a tip: ask him where he gets the names of his characters. Not every name has an interesting meaning, of course, aside from the fact that it sounded good to the author at the time. But in my experience, most writers tend to invest a lot of thought and energy into coming up with character names, to the point where the names of even minor players have a long story behind them. In some ways, it’s not unlike choosing a name for a baby: you need to think of every possible scenario in which the name might backfire, whether because it calls up unwanted associations or lends itself too easily to a playground taunt. If it’s the name of a character in a novel, much less a series, you need to be particularly careful, because you’re going to be living with it for a long time. As a result, I generally spend a full day, maybe two, at the beginning of any novel project just coming up with names for ten or twelve important characters, which is much less fun than it sounds.
So what are the rules, if any? The critic James Wood has noted, quite fairly, that characters in a novel usually have different names, which is inherently unrealistic: “Whereas, in real life, doesn’t one always have at least three friends named John, and another three named Elizabeth?” Wood is perfectly right, of course, but even he would probably be the first to admit that this is an acceptable break from reality—like the fact that a character in a movie can always find a parking space when he needs one—that allows us to save time and confusion. Unless there’s a good reason why we should be uncertain as to which John or Elizabeth we’re reading about, it’s always wise to keep your characters’ names different and distinctive. In my own work, I try to avoid giving important characters names that start with the same letter, a rule that many other writers also seem to follow. (Now that I’m on my third novel with a shared cast of characters, this rule has become a real pain, but I still stick with it when I can.)
In the case of The Icon Thief, the names of the characters came about in all kinds of ways. Maddy and Ethan were a pair of characters who had been kicking around in my head for at least ten years, ever since I had the idea, way back in college, of writing a novel or screenplay that combined elements of two of the greatest of all American movies, Vertigo and The Searchers. The project was ridiculously ambitious, even for me, and I finally scrapped it, although not without emerging with two characters whose first names were taken from the leads of those films: Madeline Elster and Ethan Edwards. Alan Powell, as I’ve mentioned before, was named for Michael Powell, although his first name was Dennis for many drafts before I changed it to something that suited him better. And Ilya Severin was originally Ilya Kaverin, which I discarded, after spending more than two years living with that name, upon deciding that it was just too similar to that of a certain iconic character from The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
The rest of my characters have names that were chosen more or less at random. Rachel Wolfe, for instance, is just a name I like, combining the name of a close friend and an acquaintance in a way that strikes me as just right. John Reynard is a fun one: his first name is the most boring one imaginable, but his last name is that of a famously foxy trickster, which serves as a clue to some of his contradictions. Anzor Archvadze was one of the few plausibly Georgian names I could come up with that didn’t make my eyes cross, while Sharkovsky and Vasylenko were chosen for the sound, and Louis Barlow just looks like the name of an FBI assistant special agent in charge. And then we have the mysterious Alexey Lermontov, named, of course, for Anton Walbrook’s character in The Red Shoes. In my mind, he’s always been played by Walbrook, and I’d like to think that he gained something from the association, even if it’s just the slightest whisper of resonance from the character who, unforgettably, summed up the fate of the heroine in his ballet: “Oh, in the end, she dies.”
Science means simply the aggregate of all the recipes that are always successful. All the rest is literature.
Yesterday, while talking about my search for serendipity in the New York Times, I wrote: “What the [Times's] recommendation engine thought I might like to see was far less interesting than what other people unlike me were reading at the same time.” The second I typed that sentence, I knew it wasn’t entirely true, and the more I thought about it, the more questions it seemed to raise. Because, really, most readers of the Times aren’t that much unlike me. The site attracts a wide range of visitors, but its ideal audience, the one it targets and the one that embodies how most of its readers probably like to think of themselves, is fairly consistent: educated, interested in the politics and the arts, more likely to watch Mad Men than Two and a Half Men, and rather more liberal than otherwise. The “Most Emailed” list isn’t exactly a random sampling of interesting stories, then, but a sort of idealized picture of what the perfect Times subscriber, with equal access to all parts of the paper, is reading at that particular moment.
As a result, the “serendipity” we find there tends to be skewed in predictable ways. For instance, you’re much more likely to see a column by Paul Krugman than by my conservative college classmate Ross Douthat, who may be a good writer who makes useful points, but you’d never know it based on how often his columns are shared. (I don’t have any hard numbers to back this up, but I’d guess that Douthat’s columns make the “Most Emailed” list only a fraction of the time.) If I were really in search of true serendipity—that is, to quote George Steiner, if I was trying to find what I wasn’t looking for—I’d read the most viewed or commented articles on, say, the National Review, or, better yet, the National Enquirer, the favorite paper of both Victor Niederhoffer and Nassim Nicholas Taleb. But I don’t. What I really want as a reader, it seems, isn’t pure randomness, but the right kind of randomness. It’s serendipity as curated by the writers and readers of the New York Times, which, while interesting, is only a single slice of the universe of randomness at my disposal.
Is this wrong? Not necessarily. In fact, I’d say there are at least two good reasons to stick to a certain subset of randomness, at least on a daily basis. The first reason has something in common with Brian Uzzi’s fascinating research on the collaborative process behind hit Broadway shows, as described in Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine. What Uzzi discovered is that the most successful shows tended to be the work of teams of artists who weren’t frequent collaborators, but weren’t strangers, either. An intermediate level of social intimacy—not too close, but not too far away—seemed to generate the best results, since strangers struggled to find ways of working together, while those who worked together all the time tended to fall into stale, repetitive patterns. And this strikes me as being generally true of the world of ideas as well. Ideas that are too similar don’t combine in interesting ways, but those that are too far apart tend to uselessly collide. What you want, ideally, is to live in a world of good ideas that want to cohere and set off chains of associations, and for this, an intermediate level of unfamiliarity seems to work the best.
And the second reason is even more important: it’s that randomness alone isn’t enough. It’s good, of course, to seek out new sources of inspiration and ideas, but if done indiscriminately, the result is likely to be nothing but static. Twitter, for instance, is as pure a slice of randomness as you could possibly want, but we very properly try to manage our feeds to include those people we like and find interesting, rather than exposing ourselves to the full noise of the Twitterverse. (That way lies madness.) Even the most enthusiastic proponent of intentional randomness, like me, has to admit that not all sources of information are created equal, and that it’s sometimes necessary to use a trusted home base for our excursions into the unknown. When people engage in bibliomancy—that is, in telling the future by opening a book to a random page—there’s a reason why they’ve historically used books like Virgil or the Bible, rather than Harlequin romance: any book would generate the necessary level of randomness, but you need a basic level of richness and meaning as well. What I’m saying, I guess, is that if you’re going to be random, you may as well be systematic about it. And the New York Times isn’t a bad place to start.
Let any man speak long enough, he will get believers.
In his book Information Anxiety, Richard Saul Wurman claims that an average issue of the New York Times contains more information than an ordinary citizen of seventeenth-century England would have been expected to absorb in his entire lifetime. I believe it. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that many of my nonworking hours online—perhaps as many as half—are spent on the Times website, which has long been my primary portal to events in the world around me. Yet I find myself barely scratching the surface. I rarely go past the articles displayed on the first page, for one thing, although a click on any section reveals vast amounts of additional material. And I generally don’t go looking for articles on subjects that don’t already interest me, at least not without an extra nudge. Which is why the little box of “Most Emailed” articles along the right side of the page is so useful: it’s a crowdsourced list of the best stuff in the day’s paper, and I always find something fascinating there that I wouldn’t have seen anywhere else.
On March 10, 2011, however, everything changed. Instead of displaying the “Most Emailed” list, the Times defaulted to a new tab called “Recommended for You,” based on their new recommendation engine, which suggests articles based on what you’ve read in the past. “Most Emailed” was still there, but it was hidden by the recommendations tab when you were logged into your Times account—which was all the time, if you wanted to read more than the ten free articles they offer you every month. You could change your preferences fairly easily to put the “Most Emailed” list up front, but like the passive slug that I am, I left things in default mode for a whole year. And a funny thing happened: I stopped using that tab. The recommendations list updated less frequently, for one thing, and the algorithm behind its suggestions often seemed crude. But the real problem was more fundamental: what the recommendation engine thought I might want to see was far less interesting than what other people unlike me were reading at the same time.
What I discovered, in short, was that the least interesting thing the Times could possibly do for me was indicate stories that were similar to articles I’d read before. To put it in a slightly paradoxical way, I don’t care about the stuff I already care about: I want to be surprised, or at least find articles that break me out of my usual routine. “Most Emailed” does this beautifully; “Recommended For You” sure as hell doesn’t. In the end, I finally did what I should have done months earlier: I clicked the one link that restored the “Most Emailed” tab as my default setting, and I noticed the change almost at once. Overnight, I was happily reading great articles that I would have missed before—but I still can’t help feeling a sense of regret at the thought of that lost year. (Of course, the really serious way to find good stories is to browse, page by page, through a physical copy of the paper, as I keep meaning to do every Sunday. Whenever I open the paper at random, I invariably find something surprising and interesting. But for all my good intentions, I still have yet to engage in this kind of systematic browsing.)
I’ve spoken before about the importance of serendipity—our chance encounters with unexpected ideas in libraries and bookstores, in encyclopedias, and in the world around us—and how the end of browsing has led to a corresponding decline in such experiences. (George Steiner calls it “the genius of waste,” the quality of a great bookstore that allows us to find what we aren’t looking for.) The question of whether the Internet tends to increase or decrease serendipity has been hotly debated, with lots of good points made on both sides. What seems clear, at least to me, is a recommendation engine can only diminish the kind of serendipity that we all need, especially those of us in creative fields. It may be exactly what a lot of Internet users want, and I assume that the Times wouldn’t put its recommendations front and center if it hadn’t seen a corresponding increase in clicks. But try this: go to the New York Times homepage, scroll down to the “Recommended for You” list, and click the “Don’t Show” link at the bottom. Hiding that tab made my life better and more interesting. It may do the same for you.
As regular readers of this blog know, I love commentary tracks, both for their insights into the filmmaking process and for what they reveal, often unintentionally, about the people doing the talking. Nowhere is this more the case than in Dan Harmon’s commentary for the Community episode “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking,” a terrific episode from one of the best seasons of television ever produced. In a departure from the show’s usual style, the episode is shot in the mockumentary format that has been been all but obligatory for smart, ambitious sitcoms ever since the premiere of The Office, and while the episode itself offers plenty to talk about, Harmon spends most of the commentary delivering a humorous, somewhat self-deprecating, but ultimately totally earnest attack on the use of these documentary conventions by shows like Parks & Recreation and Modern Family, which, he implies, is the comedic equivalent of playing tennis without a net.
Harmon argues, and not without reason, that the mockumentary format basically allows comedy writers to take the easy way out: it’s much easier to make a fast-paced sitcom when you can just cut away to a character explaining what he’s thinking, underline jokes using montage, voiceover, and flashbacks, or zoom in on a facial expression or an important detail. Community, he continues, is trying to do something much harder, which is to deliver similarly dense, scripted comedy without the mockumentary crutch. He also complains, quite sincerely, that viewers and critics don’t sufficiently appreciate this. Quite the opposite, in fact: the documentary format is faster, cheaper, and wins more awards, so it’s no wonder that sitcom creators prefer it over more conventional single-camera comedy. And a subsequent interview with The A.V. Club makes it clear that Harmon means what he says:
I just wanted to [work in the documentary format] to see what it was like. You know, to take those weights off our ankles. I feel like 30 Rock and Community never get an award for doing a format that’s twice as hard. Because it really is twice as hard…Now we have to go back to playing the violin while [other shows] play stickball.
I’ve been thinking about this commentary track a lot, and not just for the obvious reasons, ever since the news broke that Harmon had been fired as the showrunner of Community. Harmon is clearly a genius, but nearly everything I’ve ever heard him say indicates that he’s an incredibly neurotic guy, competitive, perfectionistic, and insecure even in the midst of success. According to industry gossip, he wasn’t easy to work with, and his management issues may have been partially responsible for the departures of creative talent that the show had suffered in recent seasons. From the point of view of Sony, which made the decision to replace him, it probably seemed like a no-brainer: a sitcom is supposed to be an efficient machine for producing content, which doesn’t exactly describe Community, for reasons that any interview—or commentary track—with Dan Harmon will make abundantly clear.
And yet here’s the thing: Harmon isn’t wrong. What he did with Community was incredibly hard, in ways that aren’t always obvious. It’s easy to point to big conceptual stories like “Remedial Chaos Theory” or the recent “Digital Estate Planning” as evidence of Harmon’s talent, but as he points out, even the show’s more modest episodes are ambitious, complex mini-movies that consistently take big risks. They don’t always pay off, and the third season was noticeably uneven, but to even try to make this kind of television in the face of so much opposition requires the kind of combative, uncompromising personality that ultimately got Harmon fired. As he wrote on his blog: “I’m not saying you can’t make a good version of Community without me, but I am definitely saying that you can’t make my version of it unless I have the option of saying ‘has to be like this or I quit’ roughly eight times a day.” And while it’s too soon to tell whether Community without Harmon will be better or worse, it definitely won’t be the same.
I write slowly because I write badly. I have to rewrite everything many, many times just to achieve mediocrity. Time can give you a good critical perspective, and I often have to go slow so that I can look back on what sort of botch of things I made three months ago. Much of the stuff which I will finally publish, with all its flaws, as if it had been dashed off with a felt pen, will have begun eight or more years earlier, and worried and slowly chewed on and left for dead many times in the interim.