Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for June 2011

Transformers: Death of the Author

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Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Never has a city been more lovingly destroyed on camera than Chicago in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. By the time the movie reaches its crowning orgy of destruction, my wife and I had been staring at the screen for close to ninety minutes, along with an enthusiastic crowd in the IMAX theater at Navy Pier. My wife had seen much of the movie being shot on Michigan Avenue, just up the street from her office at the Tribune Tower, and I think it was with a sort of grim amusement, or satisfaction, that she watched her own building crumble to pieces as an alien robot spacecraft crashed into its beautiful gothic buttresses. It’s an image that merits barely five seconds in the movie’s final hour, which devastates most of downtown Chicago in gorgeous, even sensual detail, but it still struck me as a pivotal moment in our personal experience of the movies. (And hasn’t the Tribune already suffered enough?)

Like its immediate predecessor, Transformers 3 is generally pretty lousy. (I actually liked the first one, which had the advantage of comparative novelty, as well as a genuinely nimble comic performance by Shia LaBeouf that both director and star have struggled to recreate ever since.) As a story, it’s ridiculous; as a perfunctory attempt at a coherent narrative, it’s vaguely insulting. It’s also staggeringly beautiful. For the first ten minutes, in particular, the IMAX screen becomes a transparent window onto the universe, delivering the kind of transcendent experience, with its view of millions of miles, that even Avatar couldn’t fully provide. And even after its nonstop visual and auditory assault has taken its toll on your senses, it still gives new meaning to the phrase “all the money is there on the screen.” Here, it feels like the cash used to render just one jaw-dropping frame could have been used to pay down much of the national debt.

As I watched Dark of the Moon, or rather was pummeled into submission by it, I had the nagging feeling that Armond White’s notoriously glowing review of Revenge of the Fallen deserved some kind of reappraisal. At the time, White was dismissed, not without reason, as a troll, for issuing such pronouncements as “In the history of motion pictures, Bay has created the best canted angles—ever.” And yet I don’t think he was trolling, or even entirely wrong: it’s just that he was one movie too early. Michael Bay’s genius, and I use this word deliberately, is visible in every shot of Dark of the Moon, but it’s weirdly overdeveloped in just one direction. Bay is like one of those strange extinct animals that got caught in an evolutionary arms race until they became all horns, claws, or teeth. While a director like Christopher Nolan continues to develop along every parameter of storytelling, Bay is nothing but a massive eye: cold, brilliant, and indifferent to story or feeling. And it’s pointless to deny his talents, as ridiculously squandered as they might be.

So what exactly am I saying here? To steal a phrase from Roger Ebert’s review of The Life Aquatic, I can’t recommend Transformers: Dark of the Moon, but I would not for one second discourage you from seeing it—provided that you shell out fifteen dollars or more for the real experience in IMAX 3-D, which Bay has lovingly bullied the nation’s projectionists into properly presenting. (On video, I suspect that you might have the same reaction that my wife and I did when we rented Revenge of the Fallen: within forty minutes, both of us had our laptops out.) It’s an objectively terrible movie that, subjectively, I can’t get out of my head. As an author, I’m horrified by it: it’s a reminder of how useless, or disposable, writers can be. I won’t go as far as to say that it’s a vision of my own obsolescence, or that I believe that the robots are our future. But at this point in history, the burden is on writers to demonstrate that we’re necessary. And the momentum isn’t on our side.

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June 30, 2011 at 12:25 am

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Stumbling into a story: recognizing a great idea

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One of the accidental themes of my recent posts has been the idea that, since a novel can take up a year or more of your life, you’d better choose your subject carefully. And at first glance, the stakes can seem dauntingly high. Choosing a subject for a novel is both qualitatively and quantitatively different from the analogous process for a short story, since a novel takes considerably longer and is exponentially more complex. It’s possible to occasionally gamble on a doubtful premise for a shorter piece, or even a novelette, but for a novel, the potential cost in time and effort is far too high. And while I’ve previously outlined various ways of generating ideas, I haven’t addressed what might be the most important question of all: how do you know if an idea is worth it?

Part of me is inclined to slightly misquote A.E. Housman here, and say that I can no more define a good idea than a terrier can define a rat. Looking for good ideas is simply what writers do, consciously or unconsciously, and the process of identifying an idea for a novel is undeniably a matter of intuition. And the best ideas often come to us with a forcefulness comparable only to love at first sight, or perhaps to Justice Stewart’s definition of pornography: I know it when I see it. When I first saw Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés, for instance, I knew that I had to write a book about it. But at that point, I’d also been researching a novel about the art world for months, with a crucial missing piece at its center, which allowed Étant Donnés to slide neatly into place.

This gives us one important clue: great ideas don’t exist in isolation. They’re simply one important step—and not necessarily the first—in a process that will inevitably outlast that initial burst of enthusiasm. Which also means that your instinctive level of interest or excitement is not necessarily the best measure of whether an idea is good or not. As I’ve mentioned before, you’re going to be approaching a novel in all kinds of moods, and there’s going to come a time, especially after you’ve spent months on research and outlining, when you find your own premise exhausting. This kind of burnout happens to every writer. The real test of an idea’s value, then, isn’t how much you love it at first glance, but whether it’s the kind of long-term, sustainable idea that can nourish the lengthy process of writing a novel.

This is the best advice I can give: since great ideas are only meaningful as part of a process that includes craft, hard work, and a lot of luck, the best way to ensure that you’ll recognize an idea when it comes is to get the process started, now, long before the idea shows itself. You begin by deciding, once and for all, to write a novel; you tentatively arrive at a genre, a tone, maybe even a setting or some characters, while knowing that all these things are likely to change. Then you go exploring, casting your net wide at first, then gradually zeroing in on your true subject. That way, you’ve prepared a place for great ideas to nest, and are less likely to be sidetracked by ones that are seductive but unproductive—although you should always write everything down. And when you finally stumble across that great idea, if you’ve laid the groundwork accordingly, you’ll recognize it at once.

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June 29, 2011 at 10:07 am

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June 29, 2011 at 8:02 am

Stumbling into a story: top down or bottom up?

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To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.
Herman Melville

Writers, we like to believe, are drawn to their craft in order to express themselves, but in most cases, the urge to write a novel comes long before any sense of what the story will actually be about. Even the greatest works of art, which seem inevitable now, were often the result of a lengthy selection process. Milton, we’re told, drew up a list of nearly one hundred possible subjects for an epic poem, including the Arthur legend and various topics from British history, before finally deciding on Paradise Lost. This systematic search for a theme, working from the top down, is one way of finding a story; but for most of us, when the time comes to choose a subject, it often makes more sense to work from the bottom up, so that we arrive at our “central” theme almost by accident.

At first glance, this seems to contradict one of the most common assumptions about writing fiction, which is that the subject of a novel must be of great personal importance to the writer himself. In my experience, however, this isn’t necessarily the case. If anything, I’d advise most writers not to choose a deeply felt or meaningful subject, especially for a first novel, because it’s hard to be objective about it. The best writing, I’m convinced, is the product of detachment as much as deep emotional engagement, and of the two, detachment is probably the more valuable quality. Which isn’t to say that you should choose a subject to which you’re utterly indifferent—after all, it’s probably going to consume a year or more of your time. But it’s better to tether your emotional involvement to a small, even invisible corner of the novel, and let the main theme emerge from there.

The history of literature is filled with books where the large, obvious elements of the story—the ones that readers assume must have engaged the writer’s interest in the first place—were incidental or secondary to the author’s original intentions. The Stand began as a novel about the Patty Hearst case. I’ve been told, rightly or not, that Nabokov invented the vast alternate universe of Ada, which takes place in a parallel world called Antiterra, mostly so he could have his characters indifferently speak in English, Russian, and French. Umberto Eco has written at length about how important elements of The Name of the Rose, including its location, themes, and historical setting, arose from specific requirements of the plot, not the other way around. And in film, Paul Thomas Anderson once set out to make a small movie about a woman in Los Angeles, which grew from that seed, character by character, until it became Magnolia.

My own experience tells me that it’s very common, and possibly preferable, to stumble backwards into the subject of a long novel. When I first began researching The Icon Thief, it was only with the vague intention of writing a book about the New York art world, with overtones of conspiracy and information overload. A passing reference in an article about art collecting, which noted that recent sales were being driven by Russian money, made me think that Russia might be a good backdrop for the story I had in mind. The result, rather to my surprise, has been a sequence of two novels, and possibly a third, in which Russian history and politics has been hugely important, to the point where it will probably end up consuming four or more years of my life. A reader might think that I was drawn to the subject by an existing fascination with Russia, when, in fact, the reverse was true: I just sort of stumbled into it. And I’m very glad I did. Because in Russia, I guess, the mighty theme chooses you.

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June 28, 2011 at 10:00 am

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June 28, 2011 at 7:50 am

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So what happened to Cars 2?

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On Saturday afternoon, at my insistence, my wife and I ended up in a theater full of excited kids and obliging parents at a screening of Cars 2, which had already received the worst reviews in the history of Pixar. Rather to my surprise, my wife enjoyed it more than I did, and the kids seemed okay with it as well (aside from the one who kicked my chair repeatedly throughout most of the last twenty minutes). Yet the film itself is undeniably underwhelming: a bright, shiny mediocrity. Cars 2 isn’t a bad movie, exactly—it’s watchable and reasonably fun—but it’s a disappointment, not only in comparison to Pixar’s past heights but also to a strong recent showing from DreamWorks, which includes How to Train Your Dragon and the sublime Kung Fu Panda series. And while Pixar can take comfort in good box office and decent audience reactions, I hope that the negative critical response inspires some introspection at the studio as to how things went wrong.

It’s important to note that it wouldn’t have taken a miracle to make Cars 2 a better movie. While the original Cars struck me as somewhat misconceived, the basic elements of the sequel are all sound: the shift in tone from nostalgic Americana to international thriller is a masterstroke, and the underlying story and premise are fine, although never particularly involving. The trouble is that the script, by writer Ben Queen, never really sparkles, at least not by the standards we’ve come to expect: there are some laughs, but only a few hit home, and the movie seems content to coast on the level of cleverness rather than taking the leap to really inspired comedy or action. Cars 2 is constantly on the verge of breaking through to something more engaging, but never quite makes it, when I suspect that another pass on the screenplay, and some honest notes, would have made all the difference.

This brings us to the second big problem: it’s hard to give notes to the man who founded the studio. John Lasseter is undeniably a genius—he’s the rare example of a great creative artist who has also demonstrated a willingness to tackle the practical problems of building a major corporation—but it was probably too much to ask one man to oversee Pixar, Disney animation, and a movie of his own. A recent New York Magazine profile makes it clear that the process left Lasseter pressed for time, which would have made it hard for him to address his own movie’s more glaring flaws. Even more importantly, it seems likely that his status as a Pixar legend and founding father prevented him from receiving the feedback he needed. Just a glance at the history of movies reminds us that the heads of studios can make remarkable producers—just look at David O. Selznick—but that even the greatest directors can’t operate entirely without accountability.

I’ve talked about Pixar’s singular culture before, in a much more comprehensive post, so I won’t repeat the same points here. But it seems clear that Pixar’s previous excellence was due to a process that allowed its central brain trust to mercilessly criticize and improve the studio’s works in progress. For Cars 2, this process seems to have broken down, partly because of Lasseter’s deserved stature, and also because of his personal attachment to the Cars franchise. (Pixar has famously canceled other projects, such as Newt, deep into the planning stages because of quality concerns, something it’s hard to imagine happening to Cars 2.) Judging from the outcome, Lasseter needs to return to what he does better than anyone else alive: overseeing the work of the world’s greatest animation studio. If not, he will end up with a legacy more like that of George Lucas than Walt Disney. And that would be a shame.

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June 27, 2011 at 10:05 am

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June 27, 2011 at 7:41 am

Peter Martins on managing one’s time

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The very first thing I do before I start to choreograph is to figure out how many hours I have before the premiere. I compare that number with the number of minutes it takes to perform the music. Then I know how many hours I have to choreograph so many minutes. It is very well known in the choreography world that only Balanchine can choreograph one minute of ballet in one hour.

Peter Martins

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June 26, 2011 at 9:09 am

Max Ernst on the uses of randomness

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It all started on August 10, 1925, by my recalling an incident of my childhood when the sight of an imitation mahogany panel opposite my bed had induced one of those dreams between sleeping and waking. And happening to be at a seaside inn in wet weather I was struck by the way the floor, its grain accentuated by many scrubbings, obsessed my nervous gaze. So I decided to explore the symbolism of the obsession, and to encourage my powers of meditation and hallucination I took a series of drawings from the floorboards by dropping pieces of paper on them at random and then rubbing the paper with blacklead. As I looked carefully at the drawings that I got in this way—some dark, others smudgily dim—I was surprised by the sudden heightening of my visionary powers, and by the dreamlike succession of contradictory images that came one on top of another with the persistence and rapidity peculiar to memories of love.

Max Ernst

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June 25, 2011 at 8:34 am

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When should a novel be abandoned?

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Like many novelists, over the years, I’ve abandoned more projects than I’ve completed. During my freshman year in high school, I wrote more than 100,000 words of a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel before finally discarding it. In college, I spent the better part of a summer researching a crime story set in Boston (partially inspired, oddly enough, by the career of Whitey Bulger, long before The Departed), before scrapping this as well. A year after graduation, I read dozens of books to gather background material for an epic novel of Hollywood, with a huge cast of characters, only to give it up after a couple of chapters. And I’m sure that there are other, more embarrassing unfinished projects that I’ve since repressed, probably because they never got past the planning stages.

Looking back, though, I’m not sure that any of these projects were inherently unworkable. What happened, instead, is that I tackled them before I’d had the time or inclination to develop the necessary habits that would allow me to complete any novel at all. At that point in my life, I didn’t know how to outline, or how crucial it was, at least for me, to have a detailed sense of what happened in each chapter before starting that morning’s work. Instead, I did exactly the wrong thing: I devoted massive amounts of time to the research phase, which gave me a lot of amorphous material without a clean narrative line. And I have a feeling that if I revisited any of these projects today, using what I know now, I could probably finish all of them. (Whether or not this would be a good use of my time is another question entirely.)

So what do you do when a story has seized your imagination, and you’ve spent at least a few months brainstorming and outlining it, but suddenly aren’t sure whether it’s worth the trouble? The crucial thing, before deciding whether to scrap it altogether, is to separate the story’s real, inherent problems, if any, from the routine jitters and stumbling blocks, common to even the most promising ideas, that your good writing habits will eventually overcome. And the only way to do this, it seems to me, is to avoid abandoning a project until you’ve diligently applied your time and energy to writing a decent portion of the story—let’s say, the first third. Try to approach it as systematically as possible, ideally with a highly structured approach, like the one Kenneth Atchity outlines in A Writer’s Time, until you’ve got at least a hundred pages. (I’m not advocating you do this with every idea that floats into your head, mind you, but only the ones that you were reasonably sure, at least at one point, were worth a year or more of your life.)

Once you’ve got that substantial excerpt, stop, take a week off, and look at it again. At that point, you’re in a much better position to distinguish the story’s actual problems from more incidental issues, like insecurity or lack of time, that have nothing to do with the project itself. If, on further consideration, you decide that the novel is worth finishing, you’re in a great position to continue: you’ve got a third or more of a first draft, a sense of where the story is going, and, most importantly, the skills and habits to see it through. And if you decide to drop it, you haven’t lost much—only the three to six months it took to write the opening third, as opposed to the year or more that a full novel requires—and you’ve gained useful experience in the meantime. You have a better idea of what your writing process looks like, and of the kinds of narratives that do, or don’t, hold your attention. And when the time comes to choose your next project, the one that you will finish, you’ll be ready.

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June 24, 2011 at 11:13 am

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June 24, 2011 at 9:04 am

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The writing life: dealing with doubt

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Every writer goes through periods of depression and discouragement. Part of this is due to the daily nature of the work itself: it’s solitary, not immediately rewarding, and needs to be pursued without visible result for years on end. It isn’t surprising, then, that alcoholism is the most common occupational hazard of being a novelist, or that so many writers and creative artists end up in therapy, only occasionally with useful artistic results. Even more disheartening are what I might call existential threats to the writer’s life—times when your everyday discouragement seems inseparable from the daunting nature of the novelistic enterprise itself, until it seems that you’d be better off giving up writing entirely. What do you do then?

The first thing to keep in mind is that for a project as massive as a novel, you’re always going to be approaching it in a range of moods. A good novel generally takes at least a year or so of daily effort, and in that time, you’re going to start writing at moments when you feel enthusiastic or exhausted, optimistic or despairing, charged with energy or bored out of your mind. It’s tempting to think that the book itself is causing these reactions, but really, it isn’t the novel that’s changed; you have. And one of the challenges of becoming a writer is to develop habits of mind that allow you to write on all kinds of days, and to separate your reactions to the novel from more incidental emotions. In the end, it’s habit, not talent, that saves you.

A second, perhaps more useful point to remember is that all good writers have an ambivalent relationship toward their early drafts. If you think that the initial version of a chapter is pretty bad, well, it probably is, at least compared to what it will ultimately become—but that doesn’t mean you should stop and fix it now. What you already have is more than enough: a rough sketch, on paper, that covers all of the essential points of the scene at hand. As such, even if it’s badly written, it’s infinitely superior to a perfect but unwritten chapter that exists only in your imagination. After all, a first draft doesn’t need to be good; its only indispensable requirement is that it exist. And every writer you admire has been where you are now. Raymond Carver, in the Paris Review, put it best:

It’s instructive, and heartening both, to look at the early drafts of great writers. I’m thinking of the photographs of galleys belonging to Tolstoy, to name one writer who loved to revise. I mean, I don’t know if he loved it or not, but he did a great deal of it. He was always revising, right down to the time of page proofs. He went through and rewrote War and Peace eight times and was still making corrections on the galleys. Things like this should hearten every writer whose first drafts are dreadful, like mine are.

The third, possibly most important reminder is that all those basic, stupid, elementary habits that you’ve developed as a writer—to write every day, to cut ten percent of every first draft, to wait until the entire book is complete before going back to revise—will eventually, if honestly pursued, work their magic. When I’m reading over a first draft and don’t like what I’m seeing, I ask myself: Can I envision a good version of this chapter? If the answer is yes, I move on, because I know that a better version will emerge after the necessary work of rereading and revision. Sometimes, though, the answer is no, which implies that the chapter itself, or even the entire novel, is misconceived. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about what to do when this happens, and when, if ever, you should scrap a project entirely.

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June 23, 2011 at 9:53 am

Quote of the Day

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We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically, and make important choices wisely.

Edward O. Wilson

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June 23, 2011 at 7:46 am

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A few truncated thoughts on cutting

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Now that I’ve reached the home stretch on the sequel to The Icon Thief, I’ll need to turn my attention shortly to the next stage in the process: cutting the manuscript. I’m contracted to deliver a novel in the neighborhood of 100,000 words or so, which means that at the moment, my first draft is at least twenty percent too long. This is mostly on purpose—there’s nothing wrong with having some extra material at the beginning, as long as you’re planning to fulfill Stephen King’s dictum—but in practice, getting a draft down to that desired length can be a bit of a challenge. With that in mind, I thought I’d pull together some of my favorite maxims on cutting, more for my own reference than anything else:

1. Burn the first reel. This is one of David Mamet’s favorite principles, but it goes back at least as far as Frank Capra’s memoir The Name Above the Title, in which he recounts how he saved Lost Horizon by burning the first two reels. (Capra wasn’t kidding, either. He writes: “I ran up to the cutting rooms, took those blasted first two reels in my hot little hands, ran to the ever-burning big black incinerator—and threw them into the fire.”) Whatever the source, the advice remains sound: in a first draft, writers and directors tend to spend a lot of time easing into the story, when audiences benefit most from being thrown right into the action. The moral? Cut exposition and open with your most dramatic scene.

2. Jump from middle to middle. This takes the previous maxim, which governs the structure of the story as a whole, and applies it to the level of individual scenes or chapters. Early on, writers often take their time building to the heart of a scene, then backing out again, which tends to kill the momentum. Instead of a neat beginning, middle, and end for each chapter, just write the middle. And as I’ve said before, if a sequence of episodes is dragging, try cutting the first and last paragraphs of each scene. In terms of its immediate, often startling effectiveness, this may be the single most useful writing trick I know. (For extra credit, check out Robert Parrish’s wonderful account, courtesy of Walter Murch, of how a similar trick was used to save the original film version of All the King’s Men.)

3. When in doubt, cut it out. If you don’t think you need a chapter, a scene, or a line, you’re almost certainly right. For The Icon Thief, I had to cut like a maniac—the original draft was over 180,000 words long, and when you factor in incidental material and subsequent chapters that were written and discarded, I cut close to an entire page for every one I kept. When I look back at it now, though, I can’t remember any of the cuts I made. A cut may seem painful at the time, but it’s surprising how quickly nonessential material disappears down the memory hole. If, months later, you find that you remember and miss it, it may be necessary to restore the missing paragraphs, but this almost never happens. And it’s far more likely, when you finally see your work in print, that you’ll regret the cuts you should have made.

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June 22, 2011 at 9:37 am

Picture of the Day

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June 22, 2011 at 7:42 am

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Amanda Hocking and the lure of self-publishing

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Last weekend’s New York Times Magazine has a fascinating profile of Amanda Hocking, creator of the young adult Trylle franchise, whose self-published domination of Amazon e-book sales has sent shock waves through the world of conventional publishing. For those of us who are concerned about the future of books, Hocking’s story is a compelling one: after uploading her novels to Amazon, she became a cultural phenomenon almost overnight, to the point where she’s selling upward of 9,000 copies a day. At 26 years old, she has cleared more than $2 million in sales, with much more to come, thanks to a lucrative contract with St. Martin’s Press. And while I’m not exactly her target audience, I can see why some people feel that her example has called the model of the entire publishing industry into question.

It’s clear, though, that Hocking’s success represents the extreme end of a very long tail. And it’s important to remember that she tried very hard to place her work with a traditional publisher. According to the Times profile, she sent copies of her first novel to something like fifty agents, attempted to get published for years, and continued shopping her work around until just two months before uploading it to Amazon. She acknowledges that agents probably didn’t make a mistake in turning down her first novel, which she wrote when she was seventeen, and it’s likely that her fiction is better now than it would have been if she’d published it herself from the beginning. Which is why although traditional publishing may be on its way out, or evolving into a very different form, it’s still important for writers to try the conventional route, because it’s the only form of objective feedback they’re likely to get.

A year ago, when I was first shopping The Icon Thief around to agents, friends often asked me if I’d be willing to publish it myself. My answer, generally, was no, because if I did, I wouldn’t know if it was any good. While it’s true that an anonymous editor or agent may not be the best judge of an aspiring author’s work, the author himself is generally even worse. And while there’s some degree of arbitrariness about the publishing process, in which a novel has to pass through many ranks of gatekeepers before seeing print, it’s still valuable and mostly fair, if frustrating. Looking back, I wouldn’t have wanted my first, unpublished novel to appear in the form in which I initially submitted it. And paradoxically or not, it was only through responding to the criticism of strangers that I was able to find my own voice.

Publishing one’s own work certainly has its benefits. It’s perfect if you’re aiming for a smaller, specialized audience, or if you’re an established author who wants to cut out the middleman (as suspense novelist Barry Eisler has done). And I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a self-published collection of short stories somewhere down the road. But for someone just starting out, it can be a mistake to put your work online without subjecting it to the clarifying fire of traditional submissions. Constraints, as I’ve said before, are crucial to creativity, and to some degree, the rigors of publishing are the greatest constraint of all, forcing you to grow as a writer in ways that allow you to reach the audience you deserve. And while electronic publishing has its benefits, there are still advantages to a more traditional format. “For me to be a billion-dollar author,” Hocking told the New York Times, “I need to have people buying my books at Wal-Mart.”

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June 21, 2011 at 9:47 am

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June 21, 2011 at 7:48 am

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Midnight in Paris and the true golden age

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Yesterday my wife and I finally caught a screening of Midnight in Paris, which is already on track to become Woody Allen’s highest-grossing movie since Hannah and Her Sisters. While it’s definitely one of Allen’s slighter films, it’s easy to see why it’s doing so well: it’s clever and fun, and by the end, it’s hard not to be charmed by its premise. I was especially envious of the fact that my wife managed to enter the theater without knowing the movie’s central twist, which is that—spoiler alert—the main character, played by Owen Wilson, travels back in time to Paris in the 1920s, allowing him to rub elbows with Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, and many other luminaries. (I was really hoping for a cameo by Duchamp, but had to settle for Dali and Man Ray.)

The funny thing is that even though I liked the movie a lot, I responded more to its air of Parisian romance (the cinematography, by the legendary Darius Khondji, is gorgeous) than to its underlying conceit, which is that it would be awesome to have the chance to hang out with your favorite writers. In my own experience, writers generally aren’t great company: the best ones put so much of themselves into their work that there isn’t much left for social niceties. And that applies to great writers as much as to anyone else. Joyce and Proust met only once, at a party thrown by art patrons Violet and Sydney Schiff, and while they evidently shared a carriage ride home, they didn’t have much to say to each other. (Proust, evidently, spent most of the night complaining about his health problems.)

And in the end, the books themselves are more than enough. It’s possible to know Proust more intimately than just about any other person, because he put so much of himself into his writing. Reading, as others have pointed out, is the only form of time travel that we’re currently afforded, and the nice thing about being a reader in the present is that you can access so much of previous eras. One of the messages of Midnight in Paris is that every generation, even the ones that we idealize today, has looked back to a lost golden age. But objectively speaking, if there’s a real golden age, it’s right now, even if you’re the kind of person—like me—who tends to be stuck in the past. There’s simply more past than ever before, in libraries, record shops, movie houses, and, yes, even online. And I’d never want to give up any of it.

That said, it’s still fun to think about what your own golden age might be (as the AV Club did last year, in one of my favorite Q&As). I’d happily spend an afternoon with any version of Orson Welles, or, if we’re going to restrict ourselves to a more recent period, to Coppola and the Zoetrope Studios, ideally in the narrow window after Apocalypse Now and before One From the Heart. As I’ve mentioned before, I’d love to go back in time to Berkeley of the 1970s. And there’s something very tempting about that party with Proust and Joyce, which was also attended by Picasso, Stravinsky, and Diaghilev. In the end, though, I’m happiest here, because I can enjoy the best of the past and look forward to more to come. The trouble with going back in time, after all, is that you’d know all that was coming, good and bad, and would never have the chance to be surprised by a masterpiece—or even just a very good Woody Allen movie. And where’s the fun in that?

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

June 20, 2011 at 7:53 am

Posted in Books, Quote of the Day, Writing

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