Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for December 2010

Looking back at an eventful year

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A year ago, my writing life, which had always been something of a gamble, was looking more uncertain than ever. I had a draft of a novel, Kamera, that I thought was in pretty good shape—although looking back at it now, it’s humbling to realize how much more work it actually needed. I no longer had an agent, having parted ways with mine the previous year (in a story that has yet to be told). My most recent publication, my first in a while, had been a novelette in Analog that summer, but I had nothing else of note in the pipeline. And I was faced with the prospect of a fourth consecutive year of writing for a living without very much to show for it.

Now, as the year draws to a close, things are looking brighter: I have an agent, an editor, and a deal for two novels, one of which has already been finished and accepted by my publisher. (I also have this blog, which has been a real pleasure to write over the past few months.) And yet certainty still feels a long way off. That’s the nature of the writer’s life, at least for most of us: security lasts only as long as the current project, if at all, and there’s no way to tell what the future holds.

Over the next year, I’ll be taking you through the process as Kamera heads for publication in February 2012, and as I continue to push forward on my second novel, which I’m scheduled to deliver in September. I’ll have another novelette, “Kawataro,” coming out in Analog in June, and hopefully a few more surprises down the line. Much of 2011 already feels mapped out—with a novel to write and revise in just over nine months, I don’t have much of a choice. But I expect that there will be some unexpected twists as well. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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December 31, 2010 at 12:15 pm

Quote of the Day

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I’ve got to [write] anyway. Like beavers, you know. They chop, they eat wood, because if they don’t, their teeth grow too long and they die. And they hate the sound of running water. Drives them crazy. So, if you put those two ideas together, they are going to build dams.

—David Mamet

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December 31, 2010 at 9:53 am

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The online Paris Review archive is the gift that keeps on giving. Not long after posting their interview with Robert Graves, I was looking for the new Art of Fiction profile of Jonathan Franzen—which isn’t online yet, meaning that I might have to buy the actual magazine—when I stumbled across this gem from 1997. It’s a conversation between David Mamet and John Lahr, and I fell in love with it right away. Which isn’t surprising, since I sometimes think that Mamet is the smartest guy in the world, as well as one half (with his wife Rebecca Pidgeon) of the coolest couple that my mind can conceive.

I’ve already mentioned that Mamet’s slim book On Directing Film is one of the most useful works available on storytelling of any kind, and the Paris Review interview gives a nice, clean summary of his basic philosophy, which sounds like simplicity itself: instead of obsessing over the “meaning” of the overall work, you focus on the meaning of the individual story beat, which nearly always revolves around what the protagonist wants. Then, once you’ve put the story beat into its most economical and elegant form, you move onto the next one. And if you’ve taken care of the individual beats, then the “drama” of the overall story will follow:

…[T]heoretically, perfectly, what one wants to do is put the protagonist and the audience in exactly the same position. The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. That’s what drama is. It comes down to that. It’s not about theme, it’s not about ideas, it’s not about setting, but what the protagonist wants. What gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how, at the end of the play, do we see that event culminated? Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. You break it down into three acts.

And where does character come from? Here’s what Mamet says:

It’s action, as Aristotle said. That’s all that it is—exactly what the person does. It’s not what they “think,” because we don’t know what they think. It’s not what they say. It’s what they do, what they’re physically trying to accomplish on the stage. Which is exactly the same way we understand a person’s character in life—not by what they say, but by what they do.

And here’s Mamet on writing for the audience:

I mean, if I’m not writing for the audience, if I’m not writing to make it easier for them, then who the hell am I doing it for? And the way you make it easier is by following those tenets: cutting, building to a climax, leaving out exposition, and always progressing toward the single goal of the protagonist. They’re very stringent rules, but they are, in my estimation and experience, what makes it easier for the audience.

Now, this is a very seductive approach to writing, and probably unimpeachable on rational grounds. In practice, though, the results can be a little mixed. I’ve never seen a Mamet film I didn’t like (even Redbelt), but it’s rare for his movies to move beyond the level of an elegantly conceived exercise. (The Winslow Boy probably comes the closest.) And it’s perhaps no accident that my favorite Mamet scripts (for Glengarry Glen Ross and The Untouchables) were brought to the screen by different directors. The greatest films are open to accident and improvisation in a way that Mamet’s approach never allows. At his worst, he can seem cold, clinical, even robotic.

And yet his example remains very instructive. T.S. Eliot once pointed out that if a poet tries to imitate the style of Dante, at worst, he’ll end up with a boring poem; if he tries to imitate Shakespeare, he’ll sound like an idiot. I think of Mamet in the same way. It can be incredibly dangerous to imitate the greatest, most idiosyncratic writers (like Proust) or directors (like Kubrick).  If you imitate Mamet—that is, his approach to storytelling, not his dialogue or themes, which are uniquely his own—at worst, you’ll end up with a mechanical but watchable piece of work, with a minimum of backstory and self-indulgence. Which, after all, is far from the worst thing a writer can do.

Quote of the Day

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To write regular verses…destroys an infinite number of fine possibilities, but at the same time it suggests a multitude of distinct and totally unexpected thoughts.

—Paul Valéry

Written by nevalalee

December 30, 2010 at 9:20 am

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So how’s that novel coming along?

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December 29, 2010 at 6:06 am

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Quote of the Day

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If you have taken the time to learn to write beautiful, rock-firm sentences, if you have mastered evocation of the vivid and continuous dream, if you are generous enough in your personal character to treat imaginary characters and readers fairly, if you have held onto your childhood virtues and have not settled for literary standards much lower than those of the fiction you admire, then the novel you write will eventually be, after the necessary labor of repeated revisions, a novel to be proud of, one that almost certainly someone, sooner or later, will be glad to publish.

—John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist

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December 29, 2010 at 6:04 am

In praise of David Thomson

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The publication of the fifth edition of David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film, the best book ever written on the movies, is cause for celebration, and an excuse for me to talk about one of the weirdest books in all of literature. Thomson is a controversial figure, and for good reason: his film writing isn’t conventional criticism so much as a single huge work of fiction, with Thomson himself as both protagonist and nemesis. It isn’t a coincidence that one of Thomson’s earliest books was a biography of Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy: his entire career can be read as one long Shandean exercise, in which Thomson, as a fictional character in his own work, is cheerfully willing to come off as something of a creep, as long as it illuminates our reasons for going to the movies.

First, a word about the book’s shortcomings. As in previous editions, instead of revising the entries for living subjects in their entirety, Thomson simply adds another paragraph or two to the existing filmographies, so that the book seems to grow by accretion, like a coral reef. This leads to inconsistencies in tone within individual articles, and also to factual mistakes when the entry hasn’t been updated recently enough—like the article on George Lucas, for instance, in which the latter two Star Wars prequels still evidently lie in the future. And the book is full of the kind of errors that occur when one tries to keep up, in print, with the vagaries of movie production—as when it credits David O. Russell with the nonexistent Nailed and omits The Fighter. (Now that this information is readily available online, Thomson should really just delete all of the detailed filmographies in the next edition, which would cut the book’s size by a quarter or more.)

And then, of course, there are Thomson’s own opinions, which are contrarian in a way that can often seem perverse. He’s lukewarm on Kurosawa, very hard on Kubrick (The Shining is the only movie he admires), and thinks that Christopher Nolan’s work “has already become progressively less interesting.” He thinks that The Wrestler is “a wretched, interminable film,” but he loves Nine. He displays next to no interest in animation or international cinema. There’s something to be outraged about on nearly every page, which is probably why the Dictionary averages barely more than three stars from reviewers on Amazon. And if you’re the sort of person who thinks that a critic whose opinions differ from your own must be corrupt, crazy, or incompetent—as many of Roger Ebert’s correspondents apparently do—then you should stay far, far away from Thomson, who goes out of his way to infuriate even his most passionate defenders.

Yet Thomson’s perversity is part of his charm. Edmund Wilson once playfully speculated that George Saintsbury, the great English critic, invented his own Toryism “in the same way that a dramatist or novelist arranges contrasting elements,” and there are times when I suspect that Thomson is doing the same thing. And it’s impossible not to be challenged and stirred by his opinions. There is a way, after all, in which Kurosawa is a more limited director than Ozu—although I know which one I ultimately prefer. Kubrick’s alienation from humanity would have crippled any director who was not Kubrick. Until The Dark Knight and Inception, Nolan’s movies were, indeed, something of a retreat from the promise of Memento. And for each moment of temporary insanity on Thomson’s part, you get something equally transcendent. Here he is on Orson Welles, for example, in a paragraph that has forever changed how I watch Citizen Kane:

Kane is less about William Randolph Hearst—a humorless, anxious man—than a portrait and prediction of Welles himself…As if Welles knew that Kane would hang over his own future, regularly being used to denigrate his later works, the film is shot through with his vast, melancholy nostalgia for self-destructive talent…Kane is Welles, just as every apparent point of view in the film is warmed by Kane’s own memories, as if the entire film were his dream in the instant before death.

On Spielberg and Schindler’s List:

Schindler’s List is the most moving film I have ever seen. This does not mean it is faultless. To take just one point: the reddening of one little girl’s coat in a black-and-white film strikes me as a mistake, and a sign of how calculating a director Spielberg is. For the calculations reveal themselves in these few errors that escape. I don’t really believe in Spielberg as an artist…But Schindler’s List is like an earthquake in a culture of gardens. And it helps persuade this viewer that cinema—or American film—is not a place for artists. It is a world for producers, for showmen, and Schindlers.

And, wonderfully, on what is perhaps my own favorite bad movie of all time:

Yet in truth, I think Kevin [Spacey] himself is the biggest experiment, and to substantiate that one has only to call to the stand Beyond the Sea, written, produced and directed by Kev and with himself as Bobby Darin. The result is intoxicating, one of the really great dreadful films ever made, worthy of an annual Beyond the Sea award (why not give it on Oscar night?), as well as clinching evidence that this man is mad. Anything could happen.

The result, as I note above, is a massive Proustian novel in which nearly every major figure in the history of film plays a role. (Thomson has already written a novel, Suspects, that does this more explicitly, and his book-length study of Nicole Kidman is manifestly a novel in disguise.) Reading the Dictionary, which is as addictive as Wikipedia or TV Tropes, is like diving headfirst into a vast ocean, and trying to see how deep you can go before coming up for air. Although if it really is a novel, it’s less like Proust than like Pale Fire, in which Thomson plays the role of Kinbote, and every article seems to hint darkly at some monstrous underlying truth. (In that light, even the book’s mistakes seem to carry a larger meaning. What does it mean, for instance, that Thomson’s brilliant article on Heath Ledger, in which he muses on “the brief purchasing power” of fame, was “inadvertently dropped” from the fifth edition?)

And what monstrous truth does the Dictionary conceal? It’s the same truth, which applies as much to Thomson himself as it does to you and me, as the one that he spells out, unforgettably, at the end of Rosebud, his study of Orson Welles:

So film perhaps had made a wasted life?
One has to do something.

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