Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Big One

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In a heartfelt appreciation of the novelist Philip Roth, who died earlier this week, the New York Times critic Dwight Garner describes him as “the last front-rank survivor of a generation of fecund and authoritative and, yes, white and male novelists…[that] included John Updike, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow.” These four names seem fated to be linked together for as long as any of them is still read and remembered, and they’ve played varying roles in my own life. I was drawn first to Mailer, who for much of my adolescence was my ideal of what a writer should be, less because of his actual fiction than thanks to my repeated readings of the juiciest parts of Peter Manso’s oral biography. (If you squint hard and think generously, you can even see Mailer’s influence in the way I’ve tried to move between fiction and nonfiction, although in both cases it was more a question of survival.) Updike, my favorite, was a writer I discovered after college. I agree with Garner that he probably had the most “sheer talent” of them all, and he represents my current model, much more than Mailer, of an author who could apparently do anything. Bellow has circled in and out of my awareness over the years, and it’s only recently that I’ve started to figure out what he means to me, in part because of his ambiguous status as a subject of biography. And Roth was the one I knew least. I’d read Portnoy’s Complaint and one or two of the Zuckerman novels, but I always felt guilty over having never gotten around to such late masterpieces as American Pastoral—although the one that I should probably check out first these days is The Plot Against America.

Yet I’ve been thinking about Roth for about as long as I’ve wanted to be a writer, largely because he came as close as anyone ever could to having the perfect career, apart from the lack of the Nobel Prize. He won the National Book Award for his debut at the age of twenty-six; he had a huge bestseller at an age when he was properly equipped to enjoy it; and he closed out his oeuvre with a run of major novels that critics seemed to agree were among the best that he, or anyone, had ever written. (As Garner nicely puts it: “He turned on the afterburners.”) But he never seemed satisfied by his achievement, which you can take as an artist’s proper stance toward his work, a reflection of the fleeting nature of such rewards, a commentary on the inherent bitterness of the writer’s life, or all of the above. Toward the end of his career, Roth actively advised young writers not to become novelists, and in his retirement announcement, which he delivered almost casually to a French magazine, he quoted Joe Louis: “I did the best I could with what I had.” A month later, in an interview with Charles McGrath of the New York Times, he expanded on his reasoning:

I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration—it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time…I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore…I knew I wasn’t going to get another good idea, or if I did, I’d have to slave over it.

And on his computer, he posted a note that gave him strength when he looked at it each day: “The struggle with writing is over.”

Roth’s readers, of course, rarely expressed the same disillusionment, and he lives most vividly in my mind as a reference point against which other authors could measure themselves. In an interview with The Telegraph, John Updike made one of the most quietly revealing statements that I’ve ever heard from a writer, when asked if he felt that he and Roth were in competition:

Yes, I can’t help but feel it somewhat. Especially since Philip really has the upper hand in the rivalry as far as I can tell. I think in a list of admirable novelists there was a time when I might have been near the top, just tucked under Bellow. But since Bellow died I think Philip has…he’s certainly written more novels than I have, and seems more dedicated in a way to the act of writing as a means of really reshaping the world to your liking. But he’s been very good to have around as far as goading me to become a better writer.

I think about that “list of admirable novelists” all the time, and it wasn’t just a joke. In an excellent profile in The New Yorker, Claudia Roth Pierpoint memorably sketched in all the ways in which other writers warily circled Roth. When asked if the two of them were friends, Updike said, “Guardedly,” and Bellow seems to have initially held Roth at arm’s length, until his wife convinced him to give the younger writer a chance. Pierpont concludes of the relationship between Roth and Updike: “They were mutual admirers, wary competitors who were thrilled to have each other in the world to up their game: Picasso and Matisse.”

And they also remind me of another circle of writers whom I know somewhat better. If Bellow, Mailer, Updike, and Roth were the Big Four of the literary world, they naturally call to mind the Big Three of science fiction—Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke. In each case, the group’s members were perfectly aware of how exceptional they were, and they carefully guarded their position. (Once, in a conference call with the other two authors, Asimov jokingly suggested that one of them should die to make room for their successors. Heinlein responded: “Fuck the other writers!”) Clarke and Asimov seem to have been genuinely “thrilled to have each other in the world,” but their relationship with the third point of the triangle was more fraught. Toward the end, Asimov started to “avoid” the combative Heinlein, who had a confrontation with Clarke over the Strategic Defense Initiative that effectively ended their friendship. In public, they remained cordial, but you can get a hint of their true feelings in a remarkable passage from the memoir I. Asimov:

[Clarke] and I are now widely known as the Big Two of science fiction. Until early 1988, as I’ve said, people spoke of the Big Three, but then Arthur fashioned a little human figurine of wax and with a long pin— At least, he has told me this. Perhaps he’s trying to warn me. I have made it quite plain to him, however, that if he were to find himself the Big One, he would be very lonely. At the thought of that, he was affected to the point of tears, so I think I’m safe.

As it turned out, Clarke, like Roth, outlived all the rest, and perhaps they felt lonely in the end. Longevity can amount to a kind of victory in itself. But it must be hard to be the Big One.

Quote of the Day

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There is no reason why a mentally well-balanced young painter should not exhibit, but he must remember that there is danger in being “discovered” before he has a firm understanding of his own vision, of his own metaphor. In recent years young painters have been pushed all the way to national success on the strength of too limited vision, on the strength of “difference” supplied by gimmicks…The only real way is paint until a genuine and new metaphor has been fully understood—its images, laws, future possibilities—then make the move into the public domain.

Hiram Williams, Notes for a Young Painter

Written by nevalalee

May 24, 2018 at 7:30 am

The osmotic experience

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“When I was a kid, I was a science fiction freak,” Jimmy Webb says in an interview in the book Songwriters on Songwriting. Webb, who is best remembered today for writing “Wichita Lineman” and “MacArthur Park,” tells the interviewer Paul Zollo:

I remember one Sunday that I was sitting in my dad’s church. He was a Baptist preacher. I was sitting about halfway back and I had a science fiction novel snugged up under my Baptist hymnal and I was reading away. My dad was preaching a mighty sermon. He looked back and I guess the sight of me in this pious pose must have struck him as altogether unlikely. He said, “Jimmy, what are you doing back there? Come down here right now.” So I took that long walk down the aisle of the church to the front. He said, “Stand up right here.” I turned around and faced the congregation. He said, “Tell this congregation what you’re reading.” So I had to say, “Martian Chronicles, sir.”

And what I like best about this story, which dates from around 1958, is that there isn’t anything about Webb’s career—aside from the song “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress,” which he admits he took directly from Heinlein—that would particularly stamp him as shaped by science fiction. He might have been changed by it in ways that aren’t immediately visible, but then again, he didn’t need to be. Unlike the readers of an earlier period, to be a science fiction “freak” in the late fifties, you didn’t need to be an obsessive outsider living in a city big enough to sustain a vibrant fan community. You could just be a twelve-year-old kid from Oklahoma.

As it happened, I didn’t go looking for that anecdote from Webb—I found it while I was randomly browsing in a book that I already owned. Just a few hours later, I came across a reference to the pulps in another unlikely place, the “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. The speaker is the Reverend James E. Post, a chaplain who served as a character witness for the killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickock in 1960. After the jury retires to deliberate, the Reverend Post says to a handful of the other attendees:

“Sometimes I despair. Sometimes I think old Doc Savage had the right idea.” The Doc Savage to whom he referred was a fictional hero popular among adolescent readers of pulp magazines a generation ago. “If you boys remember, Doc Savage was a kind of superman. He’d made himself proficient in every field—medicine, science, philosophy, art. There wasn’t much old Doc didn’t know or couldn’t do. One of his projects was, he decided to rid the world of criminals. First he bought a big island out in the ocean. Then he and his assistants—he had an army of trained assistants—kidnapped all the world’s criminals and brought them to the island. And Doc Savage operated on their brains. He removed the part that holds wicked thoughts. And when they recovered they were all decent citizens. They couldn’t commit crimes because that part of their brain was out. Now it strikes me that surgery of this nature might really be the answer to—”

At that point, the jury returns to sentence Smith and Hickock to death by hanging, so we don’t know what else the Reverend Post might have said about Doc Savage, whose creator, John Nanovic, worked out of an office at Street & Smith Publications next to the one occupied by John W. Campbell.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve repeatedly found myself coming across this kind of material, usually while thinking about something else entirely. While reading Saul Bellow’s Herzog, I found a reference to Isaac Asimov; shortly afterward, I opened my copy of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to a random page and saw a mention of Stranger in a Strange Land, which I’d completely forgotten was there. You could say that these are instances of the synchronicity that Robert Graves describes in his account of researching The White Goddess: “Though I had no more than one or two of the necessary books in my very small library the rest were soon sent, unasked for, by poet friends or tumbled down into my hands from the shelves of a secondhand seaside bookshop.” If that’s the case, it’s a somewhat cruel sort of coincidence, since it’s too late in the publication process for any of it to end up in Astounding—unless I manage to sneak it into the paperback. But it isn’t all that mysterious. All of these examples date from a window of roughly a decade in which science fiction was quietly embedded in the mainstream, either through the memories of the fans who had encountered it at a younger age, like the Reverend Post, or because contemporary readers were discovering authors like Asimov or Bradbury. A while back, in my discussion of Charles Manson, I wrote that he was influenced by Heinlein and Hubbard only in the sense that he was “influenced” by the Beatles: “Manson was a scavenger who assembled his notions out of scraps gleaned from whatever materials were currently in vogue, and science fiction had saturated the culture to an extent that it would have been hard to avoid it entirely, particularly for someone who was actively searching for such ideas. On some level, it’s a testament to the cultural position that both Hubbard and Heinlein had attained.” And that’s true of all the examples that I’ve just mentioned.

But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t significant, or that they aren’t clues to a larger pattern that I’m just starting to grasp. I still think that science fiction has influenced the inner life of our culture in ways that aren’t always obvious, and that the full picture can only be glimpsed by assembling such pieces. While I was writing Astounding, I often thought back to a passage from On the Road, another work from the same period, which I once seriously thought about using as an epigraph. It’s from the sequence in which Sal and Dean wander into an all-night movie theater in Detroit, where they end up repeatedly watching a singing cowboy picture and Background to Danger with George Raft, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre, until the double feature takes up permanent residence in Sal’s brain:

We saw them waking, we heard them sleeping, we sensed them dreaming, we were permeated completely with the strange Gray Myth of the West and the weird dark Myth of the East when morning came. All my actions since then have been dictated automatically to my subconscious by this horrible osmotic experience.

For me, this is the most—and maybe the only—authentic passage in the entire book, in that it hints at the way in which such stories can seem more real than our own lives: “I heard big Greenstreet sneer a hundred times; I heard Peter Lorre make his sinister come-on; I was with George Raft in his paranoiac fears; I rode and sang with Eddie Dean and shot up the rustlers innumerable times.” I think that we all know what Kerouac means, even if we don’t often speak of it. There’s an entire secret history of America to be constructed out of these fragments. And in the meantime, all I can do is gather the evidence.

Written by nevalalee

May 23, 2018 at 8:51 am

Quote of the Day

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There are pragmatic reasons for using convention in architecture, but there are expressive justifications as well…Through unconventional organization of conventional parts [the architect] is able to create new meanings within the whole. If he uses convention unconventionally, if he organizes familiar things in an unfamiliar way, he is changing their contexts, and he can use even the cliché to get a fresh effect. Familiar things seen in an unfamiliar context become perceptually new as well as old.

Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture

Written by nevalalee

May 23, 2018 at 7:30 am

The doctor’s dilemma

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In 1949, when John W. Campbell and L. Ron Hubbard prepared to reveal dianetics to the world, one of their first orders of business was to recruit their fellow writers to the cause. Numerous authors—most famously Alfred Bester—have provided accounts of their efforts, and occasionally, they worked, most notably in the cases of Theodore Sturgeon and A.E. van Vogt. Another obvious prize was Isaac Asimov, with whom Campbell had perhaps the closest working relationship of any author of the time, although Asimov was arguably the writer least inclined to be sympathetic to Hubbard’s theories. He had written disparagingly in his diary of “Hubbard’s dabblings in amateur psychiatry,” and when he and L. Sprague de Camp finally read the first article on dianetics in Astounding, he was no more convinced than before: “Neither Sprague nor I were in the least impressed. I considered it gibberish.” Yet he remained unwilling to confront his old friend and mentor about it directly. After Campbell made one last attempt at a hard sell, Asimov resisted, leading the editor to complain about his “built-in doubter.” But Asimov never seems to have revealed the full extent of his contempt for dianetics, perhaps because he was afraid of risking a valued friendship, or at least an important market for his fiction. (His fears on that front may not have been justified. After Lester del Rey criticized dianetics openly in print, he was told that he would never be able to sell to the magazine again. He responded by writing up a submission and delivering it to Campbell in person. On his arrival, the editor greeted him warmly: “I guess we’re not going to talk about dianetics, are we?” And he bought the story.)

Recently, I came across a fascinating piece of evidence about Asimov’s state of mind at the time, in the form of an actual review that he wrote of the book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. (The exact provenance of this article remains a mystery to me, and I’m happy to throw it out to any readers here for help. I found the original manuscript in the Asimov collection at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, dated June 19, 1950, and a clipping of the piece is available online. Unfortunately, neither source indicates where the item first appeared, apart from the fact that it was evidently a newspaper in New York. As far as I can tell, Asimov doesn’t mention it in his memoirs, and I haven’t seen it in bibliographies of his work. My very rudimentary attempts to track it down haven’t gone anywhere, and I’ll try again when I have time, but anyone out there who cares is welcome to give it a shot.) It was published after Asimov claimed to have already dismissed Hubbard’s work as “gibberish,” but anyone looking for a similar takedown here will be disappointed. Here’s how it opens:

L. Ron Hubbard is an optimist. He believes the human being to be essentially sane and good, and the human mind to be, potentially, a perfect thinking machine. Furthermore, he proposes a new technique of mental therapy which, he claims, is so simple that it can be supervised by almost anyone who reads the book and so effective that, properly handled, it can eradicate all neuroses and most diseases.

Asimov continues with a concise but accurate description of Hubbard’s ideas, including the assertion that the patient’s memory can be brought back to “a pre-natal state,” and his treatment of it leaves little doubt that he read the book carefully.

Yet in stark contrast to his private statements and his later characterization of his response in his memoirs, Asimov bends over backward to avoid criticizing the book in any meaningful way. After a brief summary, he writes:

That the book is startling is evident, I believe, even from the short description of its contents here. It might even be dismissed out of hand as incredible were it not for the fact that Freud’s theories (to say nothing of Einstein’s and Galileo’s) must have seemed equally startling and even incredible to their contemporaries…What can one say…except that these days it is a brave man indeed who would dismiss any theory as unbelievable. The author invites investigation of his claims by psychiatrists and medical men, and it would be interesting to see what they say.

Asimov is careful to hedge his language—the article is full of phrases like “he believes,” “he proposes,” “he claims”—but the overall tone is one of studied neutrality. Every now and then, there’s a hint of his underlying skepticism, although you have to look hard to see it:

Of course, if what Hubbard claims for dianetics is true, there will be no stopping it. One man will “clear” another, until within the lifetime of those living today, all the world will be free or almost free of disease, insanity, and evil. On the other hand, if Hubbard is mistaken, we are led to the melancholy conclusion that the world will continue as is.

At first, it doesn’t seem hard to understand why Asimov was reluctant to come out against dianetics in print. He knew that Campbell was all but certain to see the review, and he appears to have written it with precisely one reader in mind. Yet there’s also a deeper tension here. The year before, Asimov had accepted a position as an instructor at the medical school at Boston University, and he would spend much of the next decade worried about his job security, as well as how his work in science fiction would be perceived. (When the dust jacket of his first novel, Pebble in the Sky, mentioned the school by name, he was nervous enough about it to speak to the dean, James Faulkner. Faulkner asked if it was a good book, and when Asimov said that his publishers thought so, the dean responded: “In that case, the medical school will be glad to be identified with it.”) Yet even at this delicate moment, he allowed his byline to appear on a review in which an instructor in biochemistry failed to express any reservations over such elements as “memories at the cellular level.” The only possible conclusion is that Asimov, remarkably, was still more concerned about what Campbell would think than about his colleagues in Boston, and it led him to remain neutral at a time in which such writers as Lester del Rey were publicly attacking dianetics. Frankly, I’m surprised that he even agreed to write the review, which could hardly have benefited him in any meaningful way. To the best of my knowledge, Asimov never explained his reasoning, or even mentioned writing it at all. For obvious reasons, it was never reprinted, and Asimov clearly preferred to forget about it. But its last lines were undeniably prescient: “It will be interesting to wait and see. It shouldn’t take more than a few years to check up on dianetics.”

Quote of the Day

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We may rather regard [genius] as a highly sensitive and complexly developed adjustment of the nervous system along special lines, with concomitant tendency to defect along other lines…Hence it is that so many men of the highest intellectual aptitudes have so often shown the tendency to muscular incoordination and clumsiness which marks idiots, and that even within the intellectual sphere, when straying outside their own province, they have frequently shown a lack of perception which placed them on scarcely so high a level as the man of average intelligence.

Havelock Ellis, A Study of British Genius

Written by nevalalee

May 22, 2018 at 7:30 am

The twilight of the skeptics

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A few years ago, I was working on an idea for a story—still unrealized—that required a sidelong look at the problem of free will. As part of my research, I picked up a copy of the slim book of the same name by the prominent skeptic Sam Harris. At the time, I don’t think I’d even heard of Harris, and I was expecting little more than a readable overview. What I remember about it the most, though, is how it began. After a short opening paragraph about the importance of his subject, Harris writes:

In the early morning of July 23, 2007, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, two career criminals, arrived at the home of Dr. William and Jennifer Petit in Cheshire, a quiet town in central Connecticut. They found Dr. Petit asleep on a sofa in the sunroom. According to his taped confession, Komisarjevsky stood over the sleeping man for some minutes, hesitating, before striking him in the head with a baseball bat. He claimed that his victim’s screams then triggered something within him, and he bludgeoned Petit with all his strength until he fell silent.

Harris goes on to provide a graphically detailed account, which I’m not going to retype here, of the sexual assault and murder of Petit’s wife and two daughters. Two full pages are devoted to it, in a book that is less than a hundred pages long, and only at the end does Harris come to the point: “As sickening as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: there is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or resist the impulse to victimize other people.”

I see what Harris is trying to say here, and I don’t think that he’s even wrong. Yet his choice of example—a horrifying crime that was less than five years old when he wrote Free Will, which the surviving victim, William Petit, might well have read—bothered me a lot. It struck me as a lapse of judgment, or at least of good taste, and it remains the one thing that I really remember about the book. And I’m reminded of it now only because of an excellent article in Wired, “Sam Harris and the Myth of Perfectly Rational Thought,” that neatly lays out many of my old misgivings. The author, Robert Wright, documents multiple examples of his subject falling short of his professed standards, but he focuses on an exchange with the journalist Ezra Klein, whom Harris accused of engaging in “a really indissoluble kind of tribalism, which I keep calling identity politics.” When Klein pointed out that this might be a form of tribal thinking in itself, Harris replied: “I know I’m not thinking tribally.” Wright continues:

Reflecting on his debate with Klein, Harris said that his own followers care “massively about following the logic of a conversation” and probe his arguments for signs of weakness, whereas Klein’s followers have more primitive concerns: “Are you making political points that are massaging the outraged parts of our brains? Do you have your hands on our amygdala and are you pushing the right buttons?”

Just a few years earlier, however, Harris didn’t have any qualms about pushing the reader’s buttons by devoting the first two pages of Free Will to an account of a recent, real-life home invasion that involved unspeakable acts of sexual violence against women—when literally any other example of human behavior, good or bad, would have served his purposes equally well.

Harris denies the existence of free will entirely, so perhaps he would argue that he didn’t have a choice when he wrote those words. More likely, he would say that the use of this particular example was entirely deliberate, because he was trying to make a point by citing most extreme case of deviant behavior that he could imagine. Yet it’s the placement, as much as the content, that gives me pause. Harris puts it right up front, at the place where most books try for a narrative or argumentative hook, which suggests two possible motivations. One is that he saw it as a great “grabber” opening, and he opportunistically used it for no other reason than to seize the reader’s attention, only to never mention it ever again. This would be bad enough, particularly for a man who claims to disdain anything so undignified as an appeal to the amygdala, and it strikes me as slightly unscrupulous, in that it literally indicates a lack of scruples. (I’ll have more to say about this word later.) Yet there’s an even more troubling possibility that didn’t occur to me at the time. Harris’s exploitation of these murders, and the unceremonious way in which he moves on, is a signal to the reader. This is the kind of book that you’re getting, it tells us, and if you can’t handle it, you should close it now and walk away. In itself, this amounts to false advertising—the rest of Free Will isn’t much like this at all, even if Harris is implicitly playing to the sort of person who hopes that it might be. More to the point, the callousness of the example probably repelled many readers who didn’t appreciate the rhetorical deployment, without warning, of a recent rape and multiple murder. I was one of them. But I also suspect that many women who picked up the book were just as repulsed. And Harris doesn’t seem to have been overly concerned about this possibility.

Yet maybe he should have been. Wright’s article in Wired includes a discussion of the allegations against the physicist and science writer Lawrence Krauss, who has exhibited a pattern of sexual misconduct convincingly documented by an article in Buzzfeed. Krauss is a prominent member of the skeptical community, as well as friendly toward Harris, who stated after the piece appeared: “Buzzfeed is on the continuum of journalistic integrity and unscrupulousness somewhere toward the unscrupulous side.” Whether or not the site is any less scrupulous than a writer who would use the sexual assault and murder of three women as the opening hook—and nothing else—in his little philosophy book is possibly beside the point. More relevant is the fact that, as Wright puts it, Harris’s characterization of the story’s source “isn’t true in any relevant sense.” Buzzfeed does real journalism, and the article about Krauss is as thoroughly reported and sourced as the most reputable investigations into any number of other public figures. With his blanket dismissal, Harris doesn’t sound much like a man who cares “massively” about logic or rationality. (Neither did Krauss, for that matter, when he said last year in the face of all evidence: “Science itself overcomes misogyny and prejudice and bias. It’s built in.”) But he has good reason to be uneasy. The article in Buzzfeed isn’t just about Krauss, but about the culture of behavior within the skeptical community itself:

What’s particularly infuriating, said Lydia Allan, the former cohost of the Dogma Debate podcast, is when male skeptics ask how they could draw more women into their circles. “I don’t know, maybe not put your hands all over us? That might work,” she said sarcastically. “How about you believe us when we tell you that shit happens to us?”

Having just read the first two pages of Free Will again, I can think of another way, too. But that’s probably just my amygdala talking.

Written by nevalalee

May 21, 2018 at 9:38 am

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