Inspiration is short-lived, violent. Any obstacle whatsoever upsets it and even silences it. When art is added to lyricism to create poetry, this process does not consist of halting the mad dash of the lyric state to warn it of the stones and barbed-wire fences across the road. Let it stumble, fall, wound itself. Art is a subsequent weeding out of all irksome repetitions, romantic sentimentalities, and useless or unexpressive details.
Earlier this week, I devoured the long, excellent article by Josef Adalian and Maria Elena Fernandez of Vulture on the business of peak television. It’s full of useful insights and even better gossip—and it names plenty of names—but there’s one passage that really caught my eye, in a section about the huge salaries that movie stars are being paid to make the switch to the small screen:
A top agent defends the sums his clients are commanding, explaining that, in the overall scheme of things, the extra money isn’t all that significant. “Look at it this way,” he says. “If you’re Amazon and you’re going to launch a David E. Kelley show, that’s gonna cost $4 million an episode [to produce], right? That’s $40 million. You can have Bradley Whitford starring in it, [who is] gonna cost you $150,000 an episode. That’s $1.5 million of your $40 million. Or you could spend another $3.5 million [to get Costner] on what will end up being a $60 million investment by the time you market and promote it. You can either spend $60 [million] and have the Bradley Whitford show, or $63.5 [million] and have the Kevin Costner show. It makes a lot of sense when you look at it that way.”
With all due apologies to Bradley Whitford, I found this thought experiment fascinating, and not just for the reasons that the agent presumably shared it. It implies, for one thing, that television—which is often said to be overtaking Hollywood in terms of quality—is becoming more like feature filmmaking in another respect: it’s the last refuge of the traditional star. We frequently hear that movie stardom is dead and that audiences are drawn more to franchises than to recognizable faces, so the fact that cable and streaming networks seem intensely interested in signing film stars, in a post-True Detective world, implies that their model is different. Some of it may be due to the fact, as William Goldman once said, that no studio executive ever got fired for hiring a movie star: as the new platforms fight to establish themselves, it makes sense that they’d fall back on the idea of star power, which is one of the few things that corporate storytelling has ever been able to quantify or understand. It may also be because the marketing strategy for television inherently differs from that for film: an online series is unusually dependent on media coverage to stand out from the pack, and signing a star always generates headlines. Or at least it once did. (The Vulture article notes that Woody Allen’s new series for Amazon “may end up marking peak Peak TV,” and it seems a lot like a deal that was made for the sake of the coverage it would produce.)
But the most plausible explanation lies in simple economics. As the article explains, Netflix and the other streaming companies operate according to a “cost-plus” model: “Rather than holding out the promise of syndication gold, the company instead pays its studio and showrunner talent a guaranteed up-front profit—typically twenty or thirty percent above what it takes to make a show. In exchange, it owns all or most of the rights to distribute the show, domestically and internationally.” This limits the initial risk to the studio, but also the potential upside: nobody involved in producing the show itself will see any money on the back end. In addition, it means that even the lead actors of the series are paid a flat dollar amount, which makes them a more attractive investment than they might be for a movie. Most of the major stars in Hollywood earn gross points, which means that they get a cut of the box office receipts before the film turns a profit—a “first dollar” deal that makes the mathematics of breaking even much more complicated. The thought experiment about Bradley Whitford and Kevin Costner only makes sense if you can get Costner at a fixed salary per episode. In other words, movie stars are being actively courted by television because its model is a throwback to an earlier era, when actors were held under contract by a studio without any profit participation, and before stars and their agents negotiated better deals that ended up undermining the economic basis of the star system entirely.
And it’s revealing that Costner, of all actors, appears in this example. His name came up mostly because multiple sources told Vulture that he was offered $500,000 per episode to star in a streaming series: “He passed,” the article says, “but industry insiders predict he’ll eventually say ‘yes’ to the right offer.” But he also resonates because he stands for a kind of movie stardom that was already on the wane when he first became famous. It has something to do with the quintessentially American roles that he liked to play—even JFK is starting to seem like the last great national epic—and an aura that somehow kept him in leading parts two decades after his career as a major star was essentially over. That’s weirdly impressive in itself, and it testifies to how intriguing a figure he remains, even if audiences aren’t likely to pay to see him in a movie. Whenever I think of Costner, I remember what the studio executive Mike Medavoy once claimed to have told him right at the beginning of his career:
“You know,” I said to him over lunch, “I have this sense that I’m sitting here with someone who is going to become a great big star. You’re going to want to direct your own movies, produce your own movies, and you’re going to end up leaving your wife and going through the whole Hollywood movie-star cycle.”
Costner did, in fact, end up leaving his first wife. And if he also leaves film for television, even temporarily, it may reveal that “the whole Hollywood movie-star cycle” has a surprising final act that few of us could have anticipated.
We should remember that a picture—before being a war horse, a nude woman, or telling some other story—is essentially a flat surface covered with colors arranged in a particular pattern.
—Maurice Denis, “Definition of Neo-Traditionalism”
I think it’s fair to assume that most writers these days—fiction and otherwise—do much of their research online. Yet this seems to make some people uncomfortable, as if it were a violation of the implicit contract between author and reader. One possible analogy is to hiring a consultant or an expert witness: you’d feel cheated if you paid somebody for their time and expertise, only to find that he or she was simply googling the answers to all your questions. Indeed, there’s a strong case to be made that the ease of online research circumvents the lengthy period of absorption in a subject that makes true understanding possible: when you get the answer too quickly, you run the risk that your brain won’t be ready for it. I’m willing to believe this, but I have a problem with the idea that the accessibility of so much information somehow renders the novelist less special. As Jonathan Franzen notoriously said to The Guardian: “When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.” But Franzen writes novels that all but advertise the tremendous amount of legwork they required, which implies that it isn’t whether or not you do research that matters, but what kind it is. The novelist’s role, it seems, is to add value to the data that we have at our disposal, and typing a query into a search engine doesn’t cut it.
This is true enough, but it misses the more important point, which is that a novelist can add value even to just the sort of information that we’re likely to come across on the Internet. As anyone who has spent any time researching a complicated issue online has learned, it isn’t simply a matter of clicking on the first search result that you see: you often have to pull together facts from many places, while constantly monitoring the credibility of your sources, and the result is a pattern that didn’t exist before, even though all of the pieces were theoretically available to everyone. This kind of assemblage poses problems of its own, which is part of the reason I spent so much of The Icon Thief using that process to invent a conspiracy theory: it’s what it does best. But when kept under control, and in the right context, that kind of exercise can be immensely valuable as a way of generating beautiful ideas. (Most of the fiction I’ve published in Analog wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the tools that we have for combining and associating bits of isolated data into a surprising shape.) A novelist can also perform a useful public service in the form of a deep dive—the singleminded pursuit of material to fill out a gap in the narrative. Sometimes this means spending weeks researching something that will end up as a couple of sentences, or even get cut altogether. And a writer is obsessive enough to invest that level of attention on the most trifling of details.
For instance, I spend a lot of time downloading and reading user manuals. Usually, this is because there’s an arcane piece of hardware in a story that I need to accurately describe, at least to the extent of knowing the right names for all the parts or the actions required for every step in the process. Poking around a little online, once I’ve managed to figure out which search terms to use, often yields useful technical material, especially when I add “filetype:PDF” to the query, and I’ll sometimes spend whole days poring over manuals and spec sheets to make sure I’m getting everything right. The danger, of course, is that the story can turn into a sort of user’s manual itself, in which the author is unwilling to part with any of the factual background that he has so laboriously acquired. (I’m keenly aware of this problem, because it’s particularly troublesome in science fiction and suspense, which are the two genres in which I’ve done the most work.) But it helps to keep the true purpose of this kind of research in mind. As I’ve said many times before, this isn’t about accuracy, which is an incidental benefit; it’s about providing material for dreams. The kind of step-by-step description we find in a user manual, in particular, can serve as a useful backbone or scaffold for the action. If every scene, as I’ve said elsewhere, can be structured as a series of objectives, a manual is nothing less than a one-act play with a beginning, middle, and end, and it climaxes when the user triumphantly completes the repair or installation.
Obviously, it’s possible to take this sort of thing too far, and we’ve all had the experience of reading a story that fails to keep the research where it belongs—in the background. But when properly utilized, it can give shape to the more important things taking place up front. Chapter 53 of Eternal Empire, for example, is all about the evacuation of the sinking yacht after it has been attacked by a drone, which is the kind of big set piece that can quickly degenerate into a bunch of disconnected fragments. Being able to accurately describe, say, the procedure for lowering a lifeboat was a huge deal for me. If you read the scene closely, you see that the characters are almost always doing something, even while more important narrative material receives the most emphasis. It’s a little like the bits of business, like lighting a cigarette, that actors use to do something with their hands, except that every tiny action feeds back to the throughline of the scene, which is to escape safely from the yacht. Much of it came from the lifeboat and sea safety manuals I found online, which briefed me on the vocabulary I needed to get the sequence onto the page. If the reader notices it, I haven’t done my job, but without it, the scene would just lie there. And it’s the kind of research that would be prohibitively difficult if it weren’t for the combination of easy accessibility and the writer’s willingness to spend ungodly amounts of time on it. Writers can and should read user manuals. After all, they may be the only ones who ever will…
Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here.
Of the four writers who stand at the heart of Astounding, the one who has been the hardest to pin down is Isaac Asimov. This might seem surprising, given that the other three figures are John W. Campbell, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard, all of whom, by any measure, had personalities and private lives of daunting complexity. Asimov, by contrast, seems like a relatively accessible figure: his life was comparatively uneventful in its externals, and he spent much of it in the lab at Boston University, giving speeches, or writing at home. He was also the author of two enormously detailed volumes of autobiography, In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt, that track his life on almost a daily basis, which would make them indispensable primary sources even if they weren’t also a huge pleasure to read. (A third volume, I, Asimov, is less essential, but still a must for fans.) He was also more of a public figure than any other science fiction writer of his time. With his glasses and sideburns, he was instantly recognizable, and I suspect that he might be the novelist, of any era, whom the greatest number of living Americans would be able to identify at sight. Decades after his death, he still has the highest name recognition of any writer in the genre. But separating the persona that he deliberately cultivated from the real man underneath presents undeniable challenges—all the more so because Asimov managed to convince millions of readers that they knew him well, when he really kept so many aspects of himself under close guard.
Asimov’s unique status as a celebrity also encourages a number of misconceptions about his career. He’s often cited as a monstrous fiction-writing machine, as Stephen King did in a recent essay for the New York Times on whether a novelist can be too productive. After evoking the likes of Max Brand and Alexandre Dumas, King continues: “And then there’s Isaac Asimov, who sold his first short story at nineteen, hammered out more than five hundred books, and revolutionized science fiction.” But there’s a big misapprehension here. Asimov was undoubtedly one of the most prolific writers who ever lived, but not on the fiction side. When you add up his novels and short stories, it’s an impressive body of work, but not that much larger than that of many other writers of his generation, and Asimov could go for years without producing much in the way of fiction at all. It was in nonfiction, and particularly in popular science, that he made his greatest mark on the world’s libraries, as well as on the consciousness of the public. For most of his life, Asimov was among the most highly regarded of authors within the closed circle of science fiction readers, but he didn’t have a mainstream bestseller until he returned to the Foundation series toward the end of his career. It was in the sheer volume of his nonfiction—which Asimov was among the first to realize would be newsworthy in itself—that he became famous to a general audience, less because of any one book than thanks to the familiarity of his face and byline.
This makes it a little harder to objectively evaluate his fiction. There’s no doubt that he would be regarded as a major writer within the genre, even if he hadn’t become so famous outside of it, but his output is frankly more mixed than that of, say, Heinlein. It took Asimov a while to find his footing—although we should never forget, as King points out, that he was unbelievably young when he sold his first stories, and that he did much of his growing up as an author in full view. His single greatest breakthrough, “Nightfall,” has been voted the best science fiction story of all time on multiple occasions, although Asimov himself felt that it was overrated. The positronic robot stories are an indisputable landmark as a whole, but I’m not sure if any one installment in the series inspires particularly warm feelings in readers, and its most significant element, the Three Laws of Robotics, was really developed by Campbell. And Asimov’s limitations as a writer are more evident than they are in the best of his contemporaries. I’ve come to believe that Heinlein, Sturgeon, and the writing team of C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, to name only the most obvious examples, could do just about anything, while Asimov seemed more comfortable working within a narrow range: it’s impossible to imagine him writing a story like “Vintage Season” or “Killdozer.” He helped define the genre, but he rarely strayed from a specific subset of it during the golden age, and it wasn’t until later, in stories like “The Last Question,” that he began to push into unexplored regions.
But I don’t want to understate his talent, because many of the stories he wrote during this early period are extraordinary. My personal favorite is “The Red Queen’s Race,” a relatively unheralded work about a professor who tries to change the future by sending physics textbooks back in time to ancient Greece: maybe it’s because of my own classics background, but I think it’s a perfect story. And then there’s the Foundation series, which remains his most lasting achievement, despite what even Asimov, on rereading it after three decades, saw as a decided lack of action or conventional suspense. (“I read it with mounting uneasiness. I kept waiting for something to happen, and nothing ever did.”) Elsewhere, the writer James Gunn notes that “the romance is almost invisible,” which is another way of saying that there are almost no women in sight. Still, it remains a fascinating work, in part because of the appeal of the notion of a secret society of psychohistorians, which had a strange afterlife when Campbell tried to create one for real at the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation in Elizabeth, New Jersey. And it includes one undeniably great novella, “The Mule,” which was Asimov’s own favorite. It benefits from having a significant female character for once, in the form of Bayta Darell, and a stunning twist ending that still works like gangbusters today. Asimov wrote it in response to Campbell’s insistence that the Seldon Plan, the “connecting backbone” of the series, had to be disrupted: “I was horrified. No, I said, no, no, no. But Campbell said: Yes, yes, yes, yes, and I knew I wasn’t going to sell him a no, no.” And as Asimov himself knew well, even the best of plans have a way of going in unexpected directions—and in life as well as in fiction.