Archive for July 2012
Back in June, when it was first revealed that Jonah Lehrer had reused some of his own work without attribution on the New Yorker blog, an editor for whom I’d written articles in the past sent me an email with the subject line: “Mike Daisey…Jonah Lehrer?” When he asked if I’d be interested in writing a piece about it, I said I’d give it a shot, although I also noted: “I don’t think I’d lump Lehrer in with Daisey just yet.” And in fact, I’ve found myself writing about Lehrer surprisingly often, in pieces for The Daily Beast, The Rumpus, and this blog. If I’ve returned to Lehrer more than once, it’s because I enjoyed a lot of his early work, was mystified by his recent problems, and took a personal interest in his case because we’re about the same age and preoccupied with similar issues of creativity and imagination. But with the revelation that he fabricated quotes in his book and lied about it, as uncovered by Michael C. Moynihan of Tablet, it seems that we may end up lumping Lehrer in with Mike Daisey after all. And this makes me very sad.
What strikes me now is the fact that most of Lehrer’s problems seem to have been the product of haste. He evidently repurposed material on his blog from previously published works because he wasn’t able to produce new content at the necessary rate. The same factor seems to have motivated his uncredited reuse of material in Imagine. And the Bob Dylan quotes he’s accused of fabricating in the same book are so uninteresting (“It’s a hard thing to describe. It’s just this sense that you got something to say”) that it’s difficult to attribute them to calculated fraud. Rather, I suspect that it was just carelessness: the original quotes were garbled in editing, compression, or revision, with Lehrer forgetting where Dylan’s quote left off and his own paraphrase begin. A mistake entered one draft and persisted into the next until it wound up in the finished book. And if there’s one set of errors like this, there are likely to be others—Lehrer’s mistakes just happened to be caught by an obsessive Dylan fan and a very good journalist.
Such errors are embarrassing, but they aren’t hard to understand. I’ve learned from experience that if I quote something in an article, I’d better check it against the source at least twice, because all kinds of gremlins can get their claws into it in the meantime. What sets Lehrer’s example apart is that the error survived until the book was in print, which implies an exceptional amount of sloppiness, and when the mistake was revealed, Lehrer only made it worse by lying. As Daisey recently found out, it isn’t the initial mistake that kills you, but the coverup. If Lehrer had simply granted that he couldn’t source the quote and blamed it on an editing error, it would have been humiliating, but not catastrophic. Instead, he spun a comically elaborate series of lies about having access to unreleased documentary footage and being in contact with Bob Dylan’s management, fabrications that fell apart at once. And while I’ve done my best to interpret his previous lapses as generously as possible, I don’t know if I can do that anymore.
In my piece on The Rumpus, I said that Lehrer’s earlier mistakes were venial sins, not mortal ones. Now that he’s slid into the area of mortal sin—not so much for the initial mistake, but for the lies that followed—it’s unclear what comes next. At the time, I wrote:
Lehrer, who has written so often about human irrationality, can only benefit from this reminder of his own fallibility, and if he’s as smart as he seems, he’ll use it in his work, which until now has reflected wide reading and curiosity, but not experience.
Unfortunately, this is no longer true. I don’t think this is the end of Lehrer’s story: he’s undeniably talented, and if James Frey, of all people, can reinvent himself, Lehrer should be able to do so as well. And yet I’m afraid that there are certain elements of his previous career that will be closed off forever. I don’t think we can take his thoughts on the creative process seriously any longer, now that we’ve seen how his own process was so fatally flawed. There is a world elsewhere, of course. And Lehrer is still so young. But where he goes from here is hard to imagine.
The whole secret of a living style and the difference between it and a dead style, lies in not having too much style—being, in fact, a little careless, or rather seeming to be, here and there.
Not surprisingly, I went back to the Newberry Library Book Fair. In fact, I went back three times, determined, for whatever reason, to squeeze every last drop out of this particular sale. Along with the finds I mentioned last week, I emerged with a copy of the original edition of Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, its pages still uncut, famous as the primary source for T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land; John Canemaker’s Before the Animation Begins: The Art and Lives of Disney Inspirational Sketch Artists; Jack Woodford’s amazing book Plotting, about which I hope to have a great deal to say later on; wonderfully musty books on The Art of Play Production and Everybody’s Theatre, the last of which turns out to involve puppets; my two missing volumes of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization, Our Oriental Heritage and The Reformation; Technique in Fiction by the editors of The Kenyon Review; Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Human Development; Leslie A. Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel; and studies of two of literature’s great magicians, T.H. White and Alexander Pope. Total cost? Something like thirty dollars.
But my real prize was a book, or rather a set of books, that I’ve wanted for a long time. I first saw them in a box under a table at the book fair on Thursday, but I held back until Sunday, when I knew everything would be half price. In fact, there were three different editions on sale, one in twenty-nine small volumes, one in soft leather covers, one in sixteen big tomes. When I came back yesterday to claim my haul, the first two sets were gone, but the third was still there, in two enormous boxes. I lugged them over to the squirreling area and managed, with some help, to get them downstairs to the cashier and loading dock. A few minutes later, they were in the trunk of my car. And now they’re on my bookshelves, although it took a bit of rearranging to find room for them all. They’re big, cumbersome, not especially convenient to read—almost too heavy for the average reader’s lap—but to my eyes, they’re beautiful, even awe-inspiring. They’re the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Regular readers will know how much this encyclopedia means to me, but even I was unprepared for the level of rapture that followed. I spent at least three or four hours yesterday just turning the pages, marveling at the riches on display. This edition, which is generally considered to be the greatest encyclopedia of all time, was first published in 1911, with supplementary volumes bringing it up to date through 1922, and what I’ve found is that the gain in accuracy in more recent versions isn’t nearly as meaningful as the loss of material. This edition of the Britannica isn’t so much a reference book as a Borgesian universal library, an attempt to get everything in. The article on “Horses,” for instance, spends sixteen dense pages on their anatomy, history, and management, only to conclude with the sentence: “Overhead hay-racks are unnatural and are liable to drop seeds into a horse’s eye.” Every article of any length is crammed with opinion, common sense, prejudice, and personality. It’s the best book I’ve ever seen.
It takes a while to get used to the Eleventh Edition. There are very few conventional cross-references, so for those of us who have been spoiled by hyperlinks, finding a particular piece of information can be something of a treasure hunt, especially if you refuse to use the index. (For example, I had a hard time finding an entry on the modern Olympic Games: there wasn’t one under “Olympiad” or “Olympia” or “Games, Classical,” and I nearly gave up entirely before finding a column or two under “Athletic Sports.”) But then, this isn’t really an encyclopedia for casual reference—although I expect that it will become my first stop for information on any major subject from now on—but a book for dreaming. And while all this material is available online, the best way to experience it is as a long, deep dive, preferably in a comfortable armchair. Each volume casts an uncanny spell, as you find yourself going from “Dante” to “Dragon” to “Drama” to “Dredging,” with a stop for “Dream” somewhere along the way. I’m off to take another dive now. If I don’t come up again, you’ll know where to find me.
Every word set on paper—every word set on paper—must carry the story forward.
There are two kinds of geniuses, the “ordinary” and the “magicians.” An ordinary genius is a fellow that you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what they have done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians. They are, to use mathematical jargon, in the orthogonal complement of where we are and the working of their minds is for all intents and purposes incomprehensible. Even after we understand what they have done, the process by which they have done it is completely dark. They seldom, if ever, have students because they cannot be emulated and it must be terribly frustrating for a brilliant young mind to cope with the mysterious ways in which the magician’s mind works. Richard Feynman is a magician of the highest caliber.
The only obstacle to improvement…is fear: and it is only by overcoming this timidity that you can expect to become a master…Choosing a place where the water deepens gradually, walk coolly into it till it is up to your breast; then turn round your face to the shore, and throw an egg into the water between you and the shore; it will sink to the bottom and be easily seen there if the water be clear…In this attempt [to retrieve the egg] you will find that the water buoys you up against your inclination; that it is not so easy to sink as you imagine, and the thou cannot, but by active force, get down to the egg. Thus you feel the power of water to support you, and learn to confide in that power, while your endeavors to overcome it, and reach the egg, teach you the manner of acting on the water with your feet and hands, which action is afterwards used in swimming to support your head higher above the water, or to go forward through it.
If you’re a certain kind of book lover in Chicago, the high point of any year, even more than the Printers Row Lit Fest, is the Newberry Library Book Fair. As I mentioned in my post last year, this book fair represents the apotheosis of the kind of library book sale I constantly dreamed about as a kid: more than 120,000 books, most only a few dollars, arranged in one of the most beautiful libraries imaginable. (For those who don’t know it firsthand, this is the library memorably featured in The Time Traveler’s Wife.) I’ve been looking forward to this event all year, and even managed to rework my writing schedule this week so that I had a free day on Thursday, when the library doors opened. You’d think that with all this buildup, the fair couldn’t possibly live up to expectations—but if anything, it’s even better than I imagined.
Oddly enough, I’ve found myself becoming more restrained in the books I buy. Last year, I observed that I had to hold myself back because of my upcoming move, and wrote: “Next year, I won’t have any such restrictions.” Yet I’ve been pickier than usual this year, picking up and putting back several books—including Architecture Without Architects, Everyman’s Talmud, and the charming paperback Star Trek Lives!, with its early discussion of fanfic—that I would have happily added to the pile in the past. What happened? Maybe it’s a newfound frugality; maybe it’s a sense that while I currently have ample shelf space in my home library, it won’t last forever; and in a couple of cases, the books themselves were just a little too tattered to justify the purchase. I’ve also found that my reaction to a used book has become weirdly intuitive: I’ll carry a book for a while, then leave it, because it doesn’t quite fit with the others I’ve found so far.
In the end, I emerged with what I can only call a well-rounded portfolio of books. As always, the first day’s haul included a mixture of books that I’ve wanted to check out for a while and the usual happy accidents. The first category included a five-volume slipcased paperback edition of Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James; a similar two-volume edition of Toynbee’s abridged Study of History; and D.T. Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture, which I nearly bought a few weeks ago, but found at Newberry for only a dollar. The serendipitous category includes Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry by Jacques Maritain, whom I quoted here not long ago; The Duality of Vision by Walter Sorell, a study of artists who have excelled in more than one creative field; a lovely book of photographs on The Zen Life; and The Maple Sugar Book by Helen and Scott Nearing, whom I’ve mentioned on this blog before.
My favorite discovery is probably a 1955 edition of The Week-End Book, first published in London by the Nonesuch Press. All Things Considered did an amusing segment a few years ago on this volume, which is essentially designed as an all-purpose manual to be brought along by Londoners on their weekends in the country. As a result, it’s delightfully miscellaneous. It contains an excellent poetry anthology of more than two hundred pages; information on the plants and animals of the English countryside; a discussion of village and pub architecture; manuals of stargazing and birdwatching, complete with birdcalls transcribed for piano; and helpful, often tongue-in-check advice on cooking, etiquette, the law, first aid, and games. (The section on games begins: “Everyone knows Up-Jenkyns, but here are a few finer points…) In short, it’s the kind of lucky discovery that can enrich an entire lifetime, and which you can only make at a book fair like this. Is it any wonder I’m going back again tonight?
Warning: Massive spoilers follow for The Dark Knight Rises.
At last, after building up to a showdown between a battered Batman and the terrifying Bane for more than two hours, The Dark Knight Rises treats us to what ought to be a genuinely startling revelation, in which Miranda Tate, Bruce Wayne’s lover and apparent ally, is revealed to be Talia Al Ghul, the daughter of his nemesis Ra’s Al Ghul, and the true mastermind of the plot against Gotham. This kind of twist is far from original, of course, but it’s expertly handled, and it benefits from the casting of the very appealing Marion Cotillard, of whom one couldn’t possibly think anything bad. (It also involves an elegant piece of misdirection, with a flashback that can be read two ways, as one might expect from the director of Memento and The Prestige.) Unfortunately, as I mentioned on Monday, I can only imagine how the scene must play to someone who didn’t know what was coming—because more than a year earlier, I had been assured by casting reports that Cotillard was playing Talia Al Ghul. And although the full story behind the rumor is somewhat more complicated, it still represents an inexplicable lapse at a time when studios have fiercely guarded the secrets of other movies, often to no real purpose.
Looking back, it’s interesting to see how the Talia Al Ghul rumors began to unfold. As early as January of last year, an article in the Hollywood Reporter noted that actresses ranging from Eva Green to Gemma Atherton (and even a few who weren’t former Bond girls) were being considered for a pair of female roles in the sequel to The Dark Knight, and it explicitly stated: “Sources say one character is Talia, the daughter of villain Ra’s Al Ghul.” The following month, in the same publication, Marion Cotillard’s name was mentioned for the first time, and the article noted that her role “is suspected to be that of Thalia [sic] al Ghul.” When the official casting announcement was released, however, Cotillard’s character was given as Miranda Tate, which didn’t stop rampant speculation that this might be Talia under another name. And in May, Cotillard even gave an interview, which reads very amusingly in retrospect, in which she blatantly lied to the Hollywood Reporter about her character’s true intentions: “She’s a good guy.” But does she stay that way? “Yes,” she insists.
In other words, it looks like Warner Bros. did attempt to walk back the Talia Al Ghul rumors after they became widespread, and for that, I suppose, they deserve some credit. For someone like me, though, it was too little, too late: as far as I was concerned, this character was Talia Al Ghul, and ironically, the studio’s initial secrecy only allowed the rumor to take hold. Reading over the original casting reports, it’s tempting to wonder what happened. Was the Talia Al Ghul story simply a piece of wild fan speculation—similar to the ones that had Philip Seymour Hoffman cast as the Penguin, Naomi Watts as Vicki Vale, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Alberto Falcone—that actually turned out to be true? Or was it a real tip from a studio insider that was subsequently disavowed? The “sources” cited in that first Hollywood Reporter story make me suspect that it was, in fact, the latter, which means that someone at the studio legitimately blew one of the few interesting surprises in any recent Hollywood movie. And I don’t think I would have taken the rumors at face value if they hadn’t been reported with such apparent authority.
So what’s a movie lover to do? Clearly, this was an exceptional case, in which just knowing the name of an existing character conveyed enough information to significantly undermine the experience of watching the film itself. And the studio did a commendable job of concealing a similar revelation about the character played by Gordon-Levitt—although this particular spoiler is now cheerfully offered by Google Autocomplete. But if you spend any time online, it’s impossible to avoid these sorts of casting rumors entirely. I don’t often visit movie rumor sites, and get most of my news from the A.V. Club, but in this case, I still ended up knowing more than I wanted to know. The bottom line, I guess, is that we should be skeptical of a studio’s motives for concealing or leaking information: secrecy, or the lack thereof, is just a marketing tool, which means that crucial plot points can be revealed without consideration for the audience, while other movies are cloaked in an atmosphere of great intrigue for no reason whatsoever. In short, we shouldn’t trust anyone. Bruce Wayne probably wishes he’d done the same.
The best qualification of a prophet is to have a good memory.
—George Savile, 1st Marquess of Halifax
I wish to draw my last breath through a pipe and exhale it in a pun.
—Attributed to Charles Lamb
One of the small surprises of the past few months has been the fact that, after a long absence from writing any kind of nonfiction, I’ve started to place occasional pieces online. This started out as a fairly calculated attempt to get the word out about my novel, but for the most part, I’ve found that the marketing benefit is minimal at best: there’s usually a slight sales bump after an article comes out, but it’s always temporary, and I don’t think I’ve sold more than a few dozen copies of my book based exclusively on my freelance writing. Still, I keep doing it, both because I appreciate the small amount of money it brings in each month and because I like doing this kind of work. There was a time when I really wanted to be a critic of some kind, and although my writing has since gone in a different direction, it’s still something I really enjoy—and it’s infinitely less taxing than working on a new novel, which has continued to take up most of my time. In short, it looks like freelance writing will continue to be a part of my life, at least for now, and with that in mind, I’d like to share a few pieces of advice I wish I’d had when I started:
1. Pitch to people you know. Back in March, when The Icon Thief first came out, I got in touch with a wide range of publications, both print and online, introducing myself and the book and fishing for possible coverage. In a handful of cases, it worked as intended, but for the most part, the response was a deafening silence—which is a reasonable expectation for this kind of promotional activity. All the same, I did get a couple of polite responses from editors at The Daily Beast and The Rumpus, and although they didn’t lead to anything at the time, they at least gave me a tenuous contact at each site, as well as an email exchange or two. At first, I only made a mental note to send them a copy of City of Exiles when it came out. But when I decided to try placing an opinion piece on David Simon and Mike Daisey, I ended up sending it to my contact at the Beast, if only because I knew his email address—and he passed it along to the right editor, who liked it. Similarly, months later, when my piece on Jonah Lehrer was killed by another publication, I tried my contact at The Rumpus, who eventually took it as well. The bottom line is that I wouldn’t have gotten very far in either instance if I hadn’t already been out there in a totally different context, making a handful of connections that didn’t pay off in one case, but finally did in another.
2. Don’t worry; they saw your email. One thing I’ve discovered about writing these kinds of pieces is that different editors have radically different attitudes about getting back to you. One editor will respond right away, or within a day or two, with a list of requested edits and revisions; another will remain completely silent for a week, not even acknowledging receipt of the attached file, at which point it appears with minimal changes; and others are even less communicative. And while a long silence may lead to paranoid thoughts that the editor forgot about your email, or even deleted it by accident, in my experience, this rarely happens. Have I ever followed up to make sure a piece didn’t get lost in the shuffle? Sure. But only after waiting a week or more—and in the end, it was never necessary. They have your article, but they also have a lot of other stuff on their minds. Let them do their jobs in peace. (For what it’s worth, I’ve found that if an editor likes your initial pitch, he or she will usually respond right away, and that an extended silence is usually a negative sign. Conversely, a long silence after you’ve submitted a finished article tends to be a good thing—if they have problems with the draft, they’ll tell you.)
3. Don’t get hung up over timing. The piece I wrote on Jonah Lehrer was originally written the day after the first reports appeared of his so-called “self-plagiarism” scandal, but it didn’t appear until more than two weeks had gone by. Would it have been nice if the piece had been published while the story was still in the news? Sure—but it was still a decent piece after some time had passed, and its circuitous route to publication meant that it would have been hard to post it before then. Similarly, my piece in Salon about the uses of historical irony in The Newsroom was held back for a week because the site had already run a lot of pieces about the show, so it had to be revised at the last minute to take the latest episode into account. As a writer, these delays can be frustrating, but if you’re a freelancer, as opposed to a staff writer, it’s hard to control timing on these things. The moral, I guess, is that as a freelancer, it’s difficult to cover breaking news or write pieces on stories whose interest will diminish quickly after an initial burst of attention. Days or weeks will likely go by before a piece sees the light of day, so you should write stories that will remain compelling long after you wanted to see them in print.
4. Don’t ever read the comments on your stories. Just trust me on this one.
Let’s talk about scale. For much of the past decade, the major movie studios have waged a losing battle to keep audiences in theaters, while competing with the vast array of more convenient entertainment options available at home. Hollywood’s traditional response to the threat of new media has always been to offer greater spectacle, these days in the form of IMAX or 3D, with an additional surcharge, of course. But as the new formats bring us closer to the action, computerized effects push us further away. No matter how beautifully rendered a digital landscape may be, it’s still strangely airless and sterile, with a sense that we’re being given a view of more megapixels, not a window on the world. Even so immersive a film as Avatar ultimately keeps us at arm’s length: Pandora is a universe unto itself, yes, but it still sits comfortably on a hard drive at Weta. And for all their size and expense, most recent attempts to create this kind of immersion, from John Carter to The Avengers, fail to understand the truth about spectacle: large-scale formats are most exciting when they give us a vision of a real, tangible, photographed world.
This is why The Dark Knight Rises is such a landmark. Christopher Nolan, who cited the films of David Lean as an influence in Batman Begins, understands that the real appeal of the great Hollywood epics in VistaVision and Cinerama was the startling clarity and scope of the world they presented. It’s the kind of thing that can only be achieved on location, with practical effects, real stunts, aerial photography, and a cast of thousands. The Dark Knight Rises is packed with digital effects, but we’re never aware of them. Instead, we’re in the presence of a director luxuriating in the huge panoramic effects that IMAX affords—with image, with music, with sound—when trained on the right material on real city streets. As a result, it feels big in a way that no other movie has in a long time. Brad Bird achieved some of the same effect in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, but while Bird invited us to marvel at his surfaces, Nolan wants us to plunge us into a world he’s created, and he uses the medium as it was meant to be used: to tell a rich, dense story about an entire city.
Even more than The Dark Knight, this final installment makes it clear that Nolan’s twin obsessions with epic filmmaking and narrative complexity aren’t two different impulses, but opposite sides of the same coin: the massive IMAX screen, which surrounds us with images of staggering detail, is the visual equivalent of what Nolan is trying to do with the stories he tells. One thinks of The Last Judgment, of Bruegel, of Bosch. And his narrative skills have only improved with time. The Dark Knight had a great script, but it occasionally seemed to strain under the weight of its ideas, until it came off as two hugely eventful movies packed into one. The new movie doesn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor, but it’s also more confident and assured: we’re sucked in at once and held rapt for two hours and forty minutes. And Nolan seems to have gotten over his ambivalence about the character of Batman himself. He’s always been shy about the Batsuit, which served as a kinky reminder of the story’s comic book origins, but here, he keeps Bruce Wayne vulnerable and unmasked for as long as possible, until he becomes more of a hero than ever before.
This is, in short, something close to a masterpiece—not just a worthy conclusion to the best series of comic book movies ever made, but the year’s first really great studio film. And yet I do have one big complaint. I’ve spoken before about Hollywood’s weird obsession with secrets, in which it refuses to disclose simple information about a movie for no other reason than a fetish over secrecy for its own sake, when in fact the film itself has no interesting surprises. (See: Prometheus and Super 8.) The same impulse often applies to casting rumors. For The Dark Knight Rises, the studio adamantly refused to confirm who Anne Hathaway would be playing, despite it being fairly obvious, and did the same with the characters played by Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Yet even at the earliest point in the film’s production, it was made very clear that a certain character was going to be appearing in the film—thus ruining the movie’s one big surprise. In short, Hollywood has no idea what a secret is: it routinely hides information to no purpose, but then, when it really counts for once, it reveals it in a way that utterly destroys the filmmaker’s intentions. And there’s no other living director whose intentions deserve greater respect and admiration.
My son’s a painter. All through school his teachers tell him he’s a genius. I tell him to paint me an apple that looks like an apple before he paints me one that doesn’t. Go where you can go, but start from someplace recognizable. Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.
Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the byproduct of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run—in the long run, I say—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.
The poet’s mind, and at a few decisive moments the mind of the scientist, works according to a process of association of images that is the quickest way to link and to choose between the infinite forms of the possible and the impossible. The imagination is a kind of electronic machine that takes account of all possible combinations and chooses the ones that are appropriate to a particular purpose, or are simply the most interesting, pleasing, or amusing.