Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The unfinished lives

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Yesterday, the New York Times published a long profile of Donald Knuth, the legendary author of The Art of Computer Programming. Knuth is eighty now, and the article by Siobhan Roberts offers an evocative look at an intellectual giant in twilight:

Dr. Knuth usually dresses like the youthful geek he was when he embarked on this odyssey: long-sleeved T-shirt under a short-sleeved T-shirt, with jeans, at least at this time of year…Dr. Knuth lives in Stanford, and allowed for a Sunday visitor. That he spared an entire day was exceptional—usually his availability is “modulo nap time,” a sacred daily ritual from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. He started early, at Palo Alto’s First Lutheran Church, where he delivered a Sunday school lesson to a standing-room-only crowd.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Knuth’s most famous work, which is still incomplete. Knuth is busy writing the fourth installment, one fascicle at a time, although its most recent piece has been delayed “because he keeps finding more and more irresistible problems that he wants to present.” As Roberts writes: “Dr. Knuth’s exacting standards, literary and otherwise, may explain why his life’s work is nowhere near done. He has a wager with Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google and a former student…over whether Mr. Brin will finish his Ph.D. before Dr. Knuth concludes his opus…He figures it will take another twenty-five years to finish The Art of Computer Programming, although that time frame has been a constant since about 1980.”

Knuth is a prominent example, although far from the most famous, of a literary and actuarial phenomenon that has grown increasingly familiar—an older author with a projected work of multiple volumes, published one book at a time, that seems increasingly unlikely to ever see completion. On the fiction side, the most noteworthy case has to be that of George R.R. Martin, who has been fielding anxious inquiries from fans for most of the last decade. (In an article that appeared seven long years ago in The New Yorker, Laura Miller quotes Martin, who was only sixty-three at the time: “I’m still getting e-mail from assholes who call me lazy for not finishing the book sooner. They say, ‘You better not pull a Jordan.’”) Robert A. Caro is still laboring over what he hopes will be the final volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson, and mortality has become an issue not just for him, but for his longtime editor, as we read in Charles McGrath’s classic profile in the Times:

Robert Gottlieb, who signed up Caro to do The Years of Lyndon Johnson when he was editor in chief of Knopf, has continued to edit all of Caro’s books, even after officially leaving the company. Not long ago he said he told Caro: “Let’s look at this situation actuarially. I’m now eighty, and you are seventy-five. The actuarial odds are that if you take however many more years you’re going to take, I’m not going to be here.”

That was six years ago, and both men are still working hard. But sometimes a writer has no choice but to face the inevitable. When asked about the concluding fifth volume of his life of Picasso, with the fourth one still on the way, the biographer John Richardson said candidly: “Listen, I’m ninety-one—I don’t think I have time for that.”

I don’t have the numbers to back this up, but such cases—or at least the public attention that they inspire—seem to be growing more common these days, on account of some combination of lengthening lifespans, increased media coverage of writers at work, and a greater willingness from publishers to agree to multiple volumes in the first place. The subjects of such extended commitments tend to be monumental in themselves, in order to justify the total investment of the writer’s own lifetime, and expanding ambitions are often to blame for blown deadlines. Martin, Caro, and Knuth all increased the prospective number of volumes after their projects were already underway, or as Roberts puts it: “When Dr. Knuth started out, he intended to write a single work. Soon after, computer science underwent its Big Bang, so he reimagined and recast the project in seven volumes.” And this “recasting” seems particularly common in the world of biographies, as the author discovers more material that he can’t bear to cut. The first few volumes may have been produced with relative ease, but as the years pass and anticipation rises, the length of time it takes to write the next installment grows, until it becomes theoretically infinite. Such a radical change of plans, which can involve extending the writing process for decades, or even beyond the author’s natural lifespan, requires an indulgent publisher, university, or other benefactor. (John Richardson’s book has been underwritten by nothing less than the John Richardson Fund for Picasso Research, which reminds me of what Homer Simpson said after being informed that he suffered from Homer Simpson syndrome: “Oh, why me?”) And it may not be an accident that many of the examples that first come to mind are white men, who have the cultural position and privilege to take their time.

It isn’t hard to understand a writer’s reluctance to let go of a subject, the pressures on a book being written in plain sight, or the tempting prospect of working on the same project forever. And the image of such authors confronting their mortality in the face of an unfinished book is often deeply moving. One of the most touching examples is that of Joseph Needham, whose Science and Civilization in China may have undergone the most dramatic expansion of them all, from an intended single volume to twenty-seven and counting. As Kenneth Girdwood Robinson writes in a concluding posthumous volume:

The Duke of Edinburgh, Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, visited The Needham Research Institute, and interested himself in the progress of the project. “And how long will it take to finish it?” he enquired. On being given a rather conservative answer, “At least ten years,” he exclaimed, “Good God, man, Joseph will be dead before you’ve finished,” a very true appreciation of the situation…In his closing years, though his mind remained lucid and his memory astonishing, Needham had great difficulty even in moving from one chair to another, and even more difficulty in speaking and in making himself understood, due to the effect of the medicines he took to control Parkinsonism. But a secretary, working closely with him day by day, could often understand what he had said, and could read what he had written, when others were baffled.

Needham’s decline eventually became impossible to ignore by those who knew him best, as his biographer Simon Winchester writes in The Man Who Loved China: “It was suggested that, for the first time in memory, he take the day off. It was a Friday, after all: he could make it a long weekend. He could charge his batteries for the week ahead. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘I’ll stay at home.’” He died later that day, with his book still unfinished. But it had been a good life.

Quote of the Day

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I had often warned my students not to identify with their work. I told them, “If you want to achieve something, if you want to write a book, paint a picture, be sure that the center of your existence is somewhere else and that it’s solidly grounded; only then will you be able to keep your cool and laugh at the attacks that are bound to come.” I myself had followed this advice in the past, but now I was alone, sick with some unknown affliction; my private life was in a mess, and I was without a defense.

Paul Feyerabend, Killing Time

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December 18, 2018 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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The greatest game never played

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When I was writing Astounding, I was constantly mindful of the need to cut down the manuscript as much as possible. I had contracted to write a book of a certain length, and it came in much longer than expected—the first draft was twice the length of what eventually saw print, which in itself was significantly larger than what my publisher had anticipated. As a result, I had to remove a lot of material that I would have loved to include. This was especially hard for the period after John W. Campbell’s death. Campbell was clearly my central figure, so I couldn’t continue the book for long after he was gone, but I also didn’t want to leave my other primary subjects hanging. This meant that I had to compress the final acts of three incredibly eventful lives into a relatively short epilogue, which led to certain compromises. In his memoirs, Isaac Asimov devotes hundreds of thousands of words to the last two decades of his life, and in my book, I cover them in about six pages. Much the same holds true for Robert A. Heinlein, whose authorized biographer spends a substantial chunk of the second of two huge volumes on the period that I recount in a brief summary. But perhaps the most regrettable case of all was that of L. Ron Hubbard. In the popular imagination, Hubbard is associated with the era of the Sea Org, in which he served as the commodore of a private navy that wandered the oceans for years. This is perhaps the most colorful, outwardly fascinating phase in Hubbard’s life, and it serves as the centerpiece of most treatments of his career. I had just a couple of pages to hit the hight points, and while this was the right choice for the book as a whole, I also regret the loss of a lot of interesting stories that I didn’t have room to discuss.

For instance, there’s the curious story of the touch football game that never happened between the Church of Scientology and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. (The details can be found in Hubbard’s FBI file, which is available in its entirety online.) On October 23, 1978, Jerry Velona, the minister of public affairs for the Church of Scientology of Boston, wrote under the church’s official letterhead to Richard Bates, the special agent in charge of the local branch of the FBI. The letter began: “The Church of Scientology of Boston puts together a touch football game each year with which to play various other teams and groups. We play the games in the Boston area and charge an admission fee which is then donated to charity.” Velona continued:

This year instead of playing local fraternities and colleges as we usually do, we decided it would be more fun to play teams comprised of groups with which we have dealings in other areas. This will afford us an opportunity to get to know you personally and will also be used as a gimmick to attract more attendance which will play off in turn toward the charity. The charity we have chosen this year is the Jimmy Fund.

The Jimmy Fund, which was founded in 1948, raises money for cancer care and research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and it was a surprising charity for the church to support, given Hubbard’s past statements on the subject. (“Cancer is not caused…It always requires a second-dynamic or sexual upset, such as the loose of children or some other mechanism to bring about a condition known as cancer. This is cancer at the outset.”) But that isn’t really the point.

Velona’s coy reference to groups “with which we have dealings in other areas” wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by the letter’s recipients, as we’ll see shortly. But he was just coming to the point:

We hereby challenge you to a game to be played sometime over the next 4-6 weeks. We are currently putting together a schedule so we have some open time to play with. Our team is comprised solely of members of the Church but I must warn you that we are very good and have never lost. Our softball team played the New England Patriots a couple of years ago and beat them soundly.

It probably isn’t worth unpacking any of this too closely, but the last two sentences seem particularly typical of the language of Scientology, with its claim that the church has “never lost” bolstered by the irrelevant detail that it once beat a professional football team at softball, followed immediately by a line that contradicts the previous statement: “Please let me know as soon as you can if you’re game. We don’t practice much so don’t think you have to put together a professional team.” Velona seems to anticipate some of his correspondent’s potential objections, and he writes reassuringly: “There is no ulterior motive behind this. It is simply a way to get out from behind our desks and have some fun and raise some money for a worthy cause at the same time.” (The phrase “there is no ulterior motive behind this” would sound ominous coming from anyone, and especially when you consider the source.) And Velona closed cordially: “I look forward to hearing from you soon. If you accept our challenge I will contact you to make specific arrangements.”

The FBI’s only response was to forward the letter to Washington, D.C. with a note attached: “Boston will not acknowledge the enclosed letter in that due to investigative commitments, personnel of the Boston Division are not available for such frivolity.” That seems reasonable enough. And while this whole incident might seem like a sideshow, I think it gets at something meaningful about the culture of the church in the late seventies. Hubbard doesn’t seem to have been directly involved with this episode, but it reflects an important aspect of the mindset that he instilled in his followers, even in his absence. This was the decade of the Snow White Program, in which the church—acting on Hubbard’s orders—planted spies throughout the federal government, including the Internal Revenue Service. On July 8, 1977, FBI agents raided branches in three cities to seize documents pertaining to the case, as well as to the church’s plans to discredit or frame its critics. Two months before Velona’s invitation, eleven members of the church, including Hubbard’s wife Mary Sue, were indicted on conspiracy charges. And the letter is just one example of how the prankish side of Hubbard’s personality, as expressed through the institutions that he created, could insidiously shade into illegality and abuse, as well as the other way around. (Another good illustration is the practice of overboarding, in which offenders in the Sea Org were tossed without warning into the sea. From a distance, it might have seemed like fun and games. But some of them nearly drowned.) As we’ve all learned in the last few years, the line between mere trolling and outright criminality can be faint indeed, especially when such impulses are paradoxically driven by a stark sense of loyalty to an authoritarian leader. On some level, the invitation to the FBI may have been meant in earnest, but on another, it was the act of an unrepentant bunch of trolls. And like their successors in other areas of life, they had studied at the feet of the master.

Written by nevalalee

December 17, 2018 at 9:24 am

Posted in Books

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Quote of the Day

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Educations are divided into splendid educations, thorough classical educations, and average educations. All very old men have splendid educations; all men who apparently know nothing else have thorough classical educations; nobody has an average education.

Stephen Leacock, Literary Lapses

Written by nevalalee

December 17, 2018 at 7:30 am

The man on the table

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The myth of the new scientific or technological man presents to us the image of the man in the white coat; the man who embodies the gnosis achieved by the new methods of inquiry. This man thus in modest actuality but also—and here is the first element of the mythical—in infinite potentiality knows the secrets of things, what their effective structures are, and therefore how they work…But if the man in the white coat is free to control, and as intentionally motivated by creative and moral purposes, as the mythical image proclaims—and otherwise there is little hope in the image—then the man on the table, the object of the inquiry of the same scientist, must also be in part free. Thus man as a free being, the object of inquiry, must in part be incomprehensible in terms of objective and universal laws, and even creative outside the bounds of those laws, and consequently potentially destructive of them as well. Any freedom in the object under control reduces inevitably the freedom of the controller to work his will. As Tillich was wisely wont to remark, man can always look back at his controller—and, we lesser mortals might add, cheat on an objective test.

Langdon Gilkey, Religion and the Scientific Future

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December 16, 2018 at 7:30 am

The asymmetry of history

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Wherever God or Christ are represented as symbols for everlasting truth or justice they are given in the symmetric frontal view, not in profile. Probably for similar reasons public buildings and houses of worship, whether they are Greek temples or Christian basilicas and cathedrals, are bilaterally symmetric. It is, however, true that not infrequently the two towers of Gothic cathedrals are different, as for instance in Chartres. But in practically every case this seems to be due to the history of the cathedral, namely to the fact that the towers were built in different periods. It is understandable that a later time was no longer satisfied with the design of an earlier period; hence one may speak here of historic asymmetry.

Hermann Weyl, Symmetry

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December 15, 2018 at 7:30 am

Go set a playwright

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If you follow theatrical gossip as avidly as I do, you’re probably aware of the unexpected drama that briefly surrounded the new Broadway adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which was written for the stage by Aaron Sorkin. In March, Lee’s estate sued producer Scott Rudin, claiming that the production was in breach of contract for straying drastically from the book. According to the original agreement, the new version wasn’t supposed to “depart in any manner from the spirit of the novel nor alter its characters,” which Sorkin’s interpretation unquestionably did. (Rudin says just as much on the record: “I can’t and won’t present a play that feels like it was written in the year the book was written in terms of its racial politics. It wouldn’t be of interest. The world has changed since then.”) But the question isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems. As a lawyer consulted by the New York Times explains:

Does “spirit” have a definite and precise meaning, or could there be a difference of opinion as to what is “the spirit” of the novel? I do not think that a dictionary definition of “spirit” will resolve that question. Similarly, the contract states that the characters should not be altered. In its pre-action letter, Harper Lee’s estate repeatedly states that the characters “would never have” and “would not have” done numerous things; unless as a matter of historical fact the characters would not have done something…who is to say what a creature of fiction “would never have” or “would not have” done?

Now that the suit has been settled and the play is finally on Broadway, this might all seem beside the point, but there’s one aspect of the story that I think deserves further exploration. Earlier this week, Sorkin spoke to Greg Evans of Deadline about his writing process, noting that he took the initial call from Rudin for good reasons: “The last three times Scott called me and said ‘I have something very exciting to talk to you about,’ I ended up writing Social Network, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs, so I was paying attention.” His first pass was a faithful version of the original story, which took him about six months to write: “I had just taken the greatest hits of the book, the most important themes, the most necessary themes. I stood them up and dramatized them. I turned them into dialogue.” When he was finished, he had a fateful meeting with Rudin:

He had two notes. The first was, “We’ve got to get to the trial sooner.” That’s a structural note. The second was the note that changed everything. He said, “Atticus can’t be Atticus for the whole play. He’s got to become Atticus,” and of course, he was right. A protagonist has to change. A protagonist has to be put through something and change as a result, and a protagonist has to have a flaw. And I wondered how Harper Lee had gotten away with having Atticus be Atticus for the whole book, and it’s because Atticus isn’t the protagonist in the book. Scout is. But in the play, Atticus was going to be the protagonist, and I threw out that first draft. I started all over again, but this time the goal wasn’t to be as much like the book as possible. The goal wasn’t to swaddle the book in bubble wrap and then gently transfer it to a stage. I was going to write a new play.

This is fascinating stuff, but it’s worth emphasizing that while Rudin’s first piece of feedback was “a structural note,” the second one was as well. The notions that “a protagonist has to change” and “a protagonist has to have a flaw” are narrative conventions that have evolved over time, and for good reason. Like the idea of building the action around a clear sequence of objectives, they’re basically artificial constructs that have little to do with the accurate representation of life. Some people never change for years, and while we’re all flawed in one way or another, our faults aren’t always reflected in dramatic terms in the situations in which we find ourselves. These rules are useful primarily for structuring the audience’s experience, which comes down to the ability to process and remember information delivered over time. (As Kurt Vonnegut, who otherwise might not seem to have much in common with Harper Lee, once said to The Paris Review: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.”) Yet they aren’t essential, either, as the written and filmed versions of To Kill a Mockingbird make clear. The original novel, in particular, has a rock-solid plot and supporting characters who can change and surprise us in ways that Atticus can’t. Unfortunately, it’s hard for plot alone to carry a play, which is largely a form about character, and Atticus is obviously the star part. Sorkin doesn’t shy away from using the backbone that Lee provides—the play does indeed get to the jury trial, which is still the most reliable dramatic convention ever devised, more quickly than the book does—but he also grasped the need to turn the main character into someone who could give shape to the audience’s experience of watching the play. It was this consideration, and not the politics, that turned out to be crucial.

There are two morals to this story. One is how someone like Sorkin, who can fall into traps of his own as a writer, benefits from feedback from even stronger personalities. The other is how a note on structure, which Sorkin takes seriously, forced him to engage more deeply with the play’s real material. As all writers know, it’s harder than it looks to sequence a story as a series of objectives or to depict a change in the protagonist, but simply by thinking about such fundamental units of narrative, a writer will come up with new insights, not just about the hero, but about everyone else. As Sorkin says of his lead character in an interview with Vulture:

He becomes Atticus Finch by the end of the play, and while he’s going along, he has a kind of running argument with Calpurnia, the housekeeper, which is a much bigger role in the play I just wrote. He is in denial about his neighbors and his friends and the world around him, that it is as racist as it is, that a Maycomb County jury could possibly put Tom Robinson in jail when it’s so obvious what happened here. He becomes an apologist for these people.

In other words, Sorkin’s new perspective on Atticus also required him to rethink the roles of Calpurnia and Tom Robinson, which may turn out to be the most beneficial change of all. (This didn’t sit well with the Harper Lee estate, which protested in its complaint that black characters who “knew their place” wouldn’t behave this way at the time.) As Sorkin says of their lack of agency in the original novel: “It’s noticeable, it’s wrong, and it’s also a wasted opportunity.” That’s exactly right—and I like the last reason the best. In theater, as in any other form of narrative, the technical considerations of storytelling are more important than doing the right thing. But to any experienced writer, it’s also clear that they’re usually one and the same.

Written by nevalalee

December 14, 2018 at 8:39 am

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