Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for March 2012

Thomas Henry Huxley on the importance of failure

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I can assure you that there is the greatest practical benefit in making a few failures early in life. You learn that which is of inestimable importance—that there are a great many people in the world who are just as clever as you are. You learn to put your trust, by and by, in an economy and frugality of the exercise of your powers, both moral and intellectual; and you very soon find out, if you have not found it out before, that patience and tenacity of purpose are worth more than twice their weight of cleverness.

Thomas Henry Huxley

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March 31, 2012 at 9:50 am

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Borges and I

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I owe my discovery of Jorge Luis Borges, my favorite modern writer, to the conjunction of a library and an encyclopedia. The encyclopedia was the classic Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Alberto Manquel and Gianni Guadalupi, which has fueled my dream life more than any other reference book; the library was the Library of Babel, whose article I discovered after following a reference from the entry for The Abbey of the Rose. (Our cultural lives, it seems, are really just a vast system of cross-references, all of which can be traced back to one original source—so it’s all the more important that this source be a good one.) My imagination was seized at once by the description of Borges’s library, with its “minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels’ autobiographies,” and the extremely vast, though not infinite, number of books generated from every possible combination of the letters of the alphabet. I sought out the original story at once, in Labyrinths, which is still one of the two or three books I would keep if I could own no others. And nothing was ever the same after that.

The influence of Borges has been enormous, of course, on cultural figures ranging from Michael Chabon to, yes, Karl Rove. Why does he make such an impression on so many different personalities? I can think of three reasons. The first is the fact that he gives us many of the pleasures that we want from popular fiction, but transformed into art by his intelligence, precision, and originality. His best stories—”Death and the Compass,” “The Garden of Forking Paths,” “The Immortal,” “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” all of which I can read again and again—are all transmutations of familiar genres: the detective story, fantasy, science fiction. “The Garden of Forking Paths,” for example, turns on an ingenious trick that wouldn’t be out of place in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine—which, as it happens, is where the story first appeared. Like many great works of contemporary art, from Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills to the works of David Lynch, Borges gains his power from a mingling of the familiar and the strange, giving us both what we want and things we never knew we needed.

The second is the figure of Borges himself, the blind librarian of apparently infinite erudition, or at least the ingenuity and intellectual power to extract boundless riches from the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The range of Borges’s influences and engagements in both fiction and non-fiction is astounding: his works push meaningfully against Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes, The Book of a Thousand Nights and One Night, Martín Fierro, Poe, Chesterton, Thomas Quincey, the cabalists, and such obscurities as William Beckford’s Vathek—and these are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. Borges’s work is a vast hypertext, an impression underlined by the passages that occasionally recur between stories, either for the sake of efficiency or as a clue to a network of larger meanings. The analogy of a web, or a garden of forking paths, is aided by Borges’s productivity and concision: his collected works run to many volumes, but the individual stories are rarely more than a few pages long. The result is, again, something like a universal encyclopedia built by one man, which finally becomes, as Borges has said, a portrait of the author himself.

The third reason is perhaps the hardest to pin down, but also the most important. The recurring images in Borges’s stories—the labyrinth, the encyclopedia, the endless text—are all emblems of how we live with information. Borges, like his fictional Funes the Memorious, was both the master of information and its uneasy witness. His stories are full of anonymous narrators, most of them thinly veiled versions of Borges himself, confronting monsters of complexity: the Aleph, the Library of Babel, Shakespeare’s memory, the hundred volumes of the true encyclopedia of Tlön, the infinite details afforded by a day’s worth of sensory impressions in Buenos Aires. No other major writer has so consistently and elegantly returned to the problem of dealing with what is now called information overload, which makes him more important now than ever. Borges died just as the Internet was being born, bringing us all into the Library of Babel. And in most of his stories, the result is neither triumph nor destruction but a sort of resignation, a willingness to ignore the complexity of the world and focus on one’s translation of the Urn Burial. Which, as time passes, seems like the only sane response there is.

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March 30, 2012 at 10:14 am

Quote of the Day

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Any one who has passed through the regular gradations of a classical education, and is not made a fool by it, may consider himself as having had a very narrow escape.

William Hazlitt

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March 30, 2012 at 7:50 am

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A few thoughts on readings—and an invitation

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First, a bit of self-promotion: I’m going to be reading tonight at After-Words bookstore on 23 East Illinois Street in Chicago. If you’re in town, you should definitely drop by, if only because this is a truly beautiful bookshop, with a thoughtfully curated selection of new releases on the upper level and a large, brightly lit basement of gently used books. I’ll be there starting at 6:30 pm, talking a bit about Duchamp and the mystery of Étant Donnés before reading a selection from The Icon Thief, followed by questions and a wine reception. Beverly Dvorkin, the owner of After-Words, has been incredibly helpful since the book’s release, and I’m truly grateful for her support. Because among other things, this is my first reading as a novelist, and I’m genuinely curious to see how it goes.

I’ve always been amused by the fact that soon after completing a novel, a writer is suddenly compelled to develop a set of skills that are the exact opposite of those required to write a novel in the first place. Writing a novel requires long hours of daily, solitary work: it’s introspective, introverted, and rewards those who can shut out the rest of the world to focus on a highly personal project. Once a novel is published, however, an author is expected to become a completely different person overnight: extroverted, out in the world, and willing to promote himself and his work to anyone who cares to listen. Very occasionally, you find a writer in whom both aspects seem to comfortably coexist—Norman Mailer comes to mind, although the king of public performance was apparently Dickens—but it’s not surprising that many novelists regard the whole process with ambivalence, if not outright disdain.

I fall somewhere between those two extremes. I have no trouble talking to the press, but given the choice, I’d prefer to write all day without worrying about other responsibilities, promotional or otherwise. Yet I also crave spending time with other people, both in person and online. This is a solitary life, by definition, and I’ll often go an entire day without talking to anyone but my wife. It’s a necessary state of affairs, but also dangerous. Despite a few recent attempts to speak up for introversion, it seems clear that creativity arises largely from collaboration and interaction with those who care about the same things (or care with equal passion about something else). For an author, readings are an essential way of connecting with those who matter most, which is why they’ve always been part of a writer’s life for reasons that have nothing to do with current trends in book promotion.

When I head over to the bookstore tonight, then, I’ll think back to some of the best readings I’ve attended, when both author and audience just seemed to be having a good time: I have fond memories of readings by writers like Audrey Niffenegger, Nick Hornby, Joshua Ferris, and even Mailer himself, whom I saw speak in New York a few years before his death, to my everlasting gratitude. I can’t hope to match masters like this, but I expect it will still be fun. And hopefully I’ll come away with some of the satisfaction that Thomas Mann describes of his own readings: “What has been carefully forged in the course of long mornings is poured out over the listeners in a rapid hour of reading; the illusion of improvisation, of polished extemporization, intensifies the impression; and when others are stirred to marvel, we for our part believe that everything is fine.”

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March 29, 2012 at 10:04 am

Quote of the Day

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March 29, 2012 at 7:50 am

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Fifty years later: A Wrinkle in Time

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It’s quite possible that I owe my decision to become a novelist to Madeleine L’Engle. When I was growing up, L’Engle was one of my trinity of great young adult authors, back when they were writing what were still called children’s books, along with Ellen Raskin and Zilpha Keatley Snyder. And while Snyder had the greatest impact on the kinds of esoteric subjects that still fascinate me—The Headless Cupid was an early hint of a tendency that would culminate in The Icon Thief—and Raskin set a standard for ingenuity that no author has matched since, L’Engle’s influence may be the most profound. Her work was my first glimpse of what I’ve since come to think of as the novel of ideas in its most rewarding form: richly imagined, emotional, and dramatic works of fiction whose central subject is the search for meaning in a universe dominated by science and information, which are really forms of protection against the unknown. And all these qualities are already there in A Wrinkle in Time, her most famous novel, which was published fifty years ago this month.

When I first encountered A Wrinkle in Time, I was eight years old, and I immediately sensed that this book was something different than the novels I had been reading up to that point. It was an exciting story that gained much of its texture from digressions into science, art, and history, and was accessible to young readers without the slightest trace of condescension. Its characters were both instantly recognizable and marked by the fervor of their excitement about ideas, which flew off like sparks whenever they spoke, and not simply because they were necessary for the plot. Above all else, there was a sense of the personality of the author herself, who wrote about intelligent people because these were the characters she knew the best. I was young enough so that I didn’t entirely grasp how extraordinary this was, or how hard it would be to find more books like this as I grew older. All I knew that this was the sort of thing I wanted to read, and, ultimately, to write.

Looking back at A Wrinkle in Time, it’s astonishing to realize how modestly scaled it is, at least in terms of length: less than two hundred pages long, but packed with enough invention to fuel five ordinary novels. (Compare this to the length of the last few Harry Potter or Twilight novels, and you see how artful L’Engle’s brevity really is.) And it never seems rushed or artificial. One of L’Engle’s great strengths is to take rather precious conceits, like the two-dimensional planet or the Happy Medium, and make them seem less like a series of set pieces—as they do even in such authors as Lewis Carroll or Norton Juster—than an organic sequence of events. A Wrinkle in Time is an episodic novel, but it feels tightly constructed, thanks largely to the strength of the protagonists, who are idiosyncratic, flawed, and heroic. L’Engle melds the tradition of high-concept fantasy with the believable characters of the best children’s literature, to the point where we’re genuinely curious about how their lives will turn out, which we later learn in the novel’s excellent sequels.

It’s hard to imagine a young adult novel being published today with the range of L’Engle’s influences and interests, largely because it’s the kind of book that creates its own readership, rather than appealing to one that already exists. Indeed, even at the time, it was far from a sure thing: its struggles to get into print are legendary, and it was rejected by something like twenty-six publishers. It’s still a strange, unclassifiable novel, with elements of science fiction, fantasy, and even allegory, although none of the allegorical elements stand in the way of the plot. (It’s frustrating to see some readers reduce it to a Christian or anti-Communist allegory, as if there weren’t so much else going on.) And the book’s singularity reflects that of L’Engle itself, who combined a restlessly curious imagination with religious faith and a refreshing dose of clarity and common sense. She’s simply one of the most inventive authors of the past fifty years, and her books are a model of how to write beautifully rendered fiction for readers of any age. If I could have any writer’s career, it might be hers.

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March 28, 2012 at 10:31 am

Quote of the Day

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March 28, 2012 at 7:50 am

The fractal brilliance of Mad Men

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It’s hard to believe it, but Mad Men has been off the air for the entire time I’ve been writing this blog. (The finale of its fourth season aired on October 17, 2010, or just over a month before my introductory post.) In the year and a half since, I’ve discovered a lot of good and bad television: I fell out of love with Glee, dove headfirst into Community, Downton Abbey, and Breaking Bad, and apparently even watched a few episodes of Smash. But in all that time, I haven’t really had a chance to talk about the show that, more than any other televised drama of the past few years, has changed the way I think about storytelling in any medium. And while I don’t expect to start posting episode recaps anytime soon—that way lies madness, as Rich Juzwiak of Gawker recently pointed out—the show’s return gives me a chance to reflect on what is already starting to look like the best chance we’ve had in a long time to watch a great extended narrative reach its conclusion. And even if the show doesn’t manage to sustain the level of excellence it has maintained for so long (although Sunday’s premiere was a very encouraging sign), it’s still going to be fascinating.

Mad Men has been discussed endlessly, of course, but I’d like to focus on two related narrative aspects of the show, one immediately visible, the other only apparent over time. Let’s start with the latter. I’ve spoken before about the single greatest difficulty in making good television: the fact that a show’s creator doesn’t know whether he’ll have a single episode, or one season, or five years to tell a story. (Hence the predicament of a show like Twin Peaks, which burns off all of its best ideas in its first ten episodes and is left scrambling for more.) Mad Men, to an extent that I think is unique in recent television drama, has managed to remain shapely and satisfying no matter how you slice it. Its pilot is a perfect short movie with an unforgettable final shot, and if the show had simply ended there, with Vic Damone’s swelling rendition of “The Street Where You Live,” many of us would have been left with fifty minutes that we’d never forget. Yet the first season, ending with “The Wheel,” found a perfect shape as well, as has every subsequent year, as the show moves effortlessly through a series of ascending narrative climaxes. (Just the titles of each season finale are enough to give me the chills: “Meditations In an Emergency”; “Shut the Door. Have a Seat”; “Tomorrowland.”)

The result, to put things in as nerdy a way as possible, is what I can only describe as a sort of narrative scale invariance—that property, common to fractals and other self-similar objects, in which each part is similar to that of the whole. And this applies to individual episodes as well. Mad Men benefits from a glorious fineness of detail, in which the smallest touches resonate with the largest overall themes, so that a single shot or moment can encapsulate an entire season. The first thing that catches anyone’s eye about Mad Men is the show’s design: it’s one of the most visually seductive series I’ve ever seen. And while this certainly hasn’t hurt its popular appeal, it isn’t a superficial factor, but an essential part of the show’s composed storytelling, in which art direction, costume design, and music are inseparable parts of the narrative. When Betty Draper descends the stairs in “For Those Who Think Young” to the strains of “Song of India,” it’s an image that ties up everything the show has been about up to that point, only to be ironically echoed when the same song recurs ten episodes later in “The Jet Set.” To dismiss these pleasures as incidental is to miss the point entirely: this is a show in which the glossiest effects can turn around to blindside you with emotion.

All of these qualities were on display in last night’s season premiere. Above all else, the show continues to be a model of swift, facile storytelling, with small gags and throwaways nicely interspersed with the big dramatic moments. (I especially liked Lane Pryce’s little dance, and Pete’s wistful line: “Maybe just a beagle to scare off gophers.”) Jessica Paré’s instantly iconic scene reminds us that the show, like most great works of art, has no qualms about giving the audience what it wants, even as it surprises us with the consequences. That fine, fractal quality of detail remains, as the show closes in on unexpected images—a shaving brush, a lost wallet, a baby’s behind—and uses them to hint at larger themes. And it continues to benefit from its great cast, which taught me a lot about the power of ensembles, and which grows in richness with every season. At this point, the show’s ambition is matched only by its control: the premiere is spaced at a capacious ninety minutes, taking us through everything from racial politics to racy burlesque, yet there isn’t a wasted moment, and it’s all one piece. Where Matthew Weiner and his collaborators will take the show from here is anyone’s guess, but I know I’ll be watching closely. And taking notes.

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March 27, 2012 at 10:06 am

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Quote of the Day

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March 27, 2012 at 7:50 am

How The Hunger Games changed the world

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The massive opening weekend of The Hunger Games, while impressive in itself, is also the clearest sign yet of a seismic shift in our popular culture, the effects of which will be felt in ways we can only begin to guess. Let’s start with the numbers. Like many movie nerds, I’ve been an avid consumer of box office data for most of my life, and a glance at the top opening weekends of all time—which is usually the least interesting of all movie lists, since it’s more about marketing excitement than true staying power—reveals some fascinating patterns. The first, obviously, is the dominance of sequels and established franchises, which doesn’t come as a surprise: if you throw out The Passion of the Christ as a marginal case, the largest opening weekend for a movie with an original story belongs to Avatar, all the way down at number 39. And although The Hunger Games is based on an existing property, the fact that a series of books that most readers hadn’t even heard of two years ago has generated such excitement is nothing less than remarkable.

Yet this list reveals another, more important trend: the gradual but inexorable replacement of science fiction and comic book properties with those based on young adult novels. A few years ago, the list of top opening weekends—which, again, is less a measure of staying power than a sort of index for cultural excitement over particular franchises—would have been dominated by Spider-Man, Batman, and the Star Wars movies. Today, it’s Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, which will undoubtedly fill three more slots on the list before long. And while this may seem like a case of Tweedle-Dum giving way to Tweedle-Dee, it’s actually a generational shift that has implications not just for the movies, but for all forms of popular storytelling. A list like this is the closest thing we have to a snapshot of the narrative forces shaping the inner lives of children and teenagers, and by extension the rest of the world. And the transition from comics to young adult novels is arguably the most significant cultural change of the last twenty years.

It’s no surprise that Hollywood has always looked to young people to construct their tentpole franchises. Not only are kids more likely to see a movie on opening weekend, but their tastes, in general, tend toward the monolithic: as we grow older, we break off into Mad Men-watching splinter factions, but until high school, kids usually like more or less the same stuff. (The difference in magnitude can be roughly understood as the disparity between the opening weekends of The Hunger Games and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.) From a marketing perspective, this is very helpful: it allows expensive films to be pitched to the widest possible audience. Around the time of Tim Burton’s Batman, the studios realized that comic books were the most valuable properties for exciting the youngest quadrants, although it took the massive success of Spider-Man and the latest revolution in computer-generated effects for this trend to reach its culmination. In the end, Marvel went from being a niche provider of superhero fantasies to a central part of mass culture, to the point where the comics themselves became incidental to the multimedia studio to which they provided raw material.

And yet that moment appears to be passing. The explosion of young adult fiction in the past decade has allowed kids to get their pop culture satisfactions in other ways. As a result, comic book sales have been suffering for a long time, as existing companies struggle to interest younger readers in characters who were around before their parents were born. (To the extent that kids today care about these characters, it’s because of their movie incarnations, not the comics that inspired them.) And new heroes aren’t being created to take their place. Hence the efforts to repeatedly renew the few viable properties (The Amazing Spider-Man) or to launch franchises that palpably lack the fan enthusiasm to justify a movie (Green Lantern). It may not be long before a movie based on a big comic franchise will feel like John Carter: an attempt to drum up excitement for a hero who looks like a relic, while The Hunger Games is fresh and new. Which also means that a publisher like Scholastic, which can generate new properties in a way that Marvel cannot, will soon find itself in a similar position: a formerly tiny company that can move our entire culture. Farfetched? Maybe. But it’s happening before our eyes.

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March 26, 2012 at 10:38 am

Quote of the Day

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March 26, 2012 at 7:50 am

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Clint Eastwood on The Man With No Name

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I wanted to play it with an economy of words and create this whole feeling through attitude and movement. It was just the kind of character I had envisioned for a long time—keep to the mystery and allude to what happened in the past. It came about after the frustration of doing Rawhide for so long. I felt the less he said the stronger he became and the more he grew in the imagination of the audience.

Clint Eastwood, quoted in Clint: The Life and the Legend

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March 25, 2012 at 9:50 am

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Herrmann the Great on the poetry of magic

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A so-called magician, more than a poet, must be born with a peculiar aptitude for the calling. He must first of all possess a mind of contrarieties, quick to grasp the possibilities of seemingly producing the most opposite effects from the most natural causes. He must be original and quick-witted, never to be taken unawares. He must possess, in no small degree, a knowledge of the exact sciences, and he must spend a lifetime in practice, for in the profession its emoluments come very slowly. All this is discouraging enough, but this is not all. The magician must expect the exposure of his tricks sooner or later, and see what it has required long months of study and time to perfect dissolved in an hour…All this is not a pleasant prospective picture for the aspirant for the honors of the magician.

Alexander Herrmann, also known as Herrmann the Great

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March 24, 2012 at 9:50 am

Entering the City of Exiles

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When I began planning the sequel to The Icon Thief, the challenge was to find a story that would feel like an organic, exciting extension of my first novel—which had been conceived as a self-contained work—while also expanding the scope of the narrative and going more deeply into themes that had only been touched upon by the original. I was guided in the process by two ideas. The first was that the action of these books would gradually move east, drawing ever closer to the enigma of Russia, which meant that the logical setting for the sequel was London. My second idea was that the underlying theme of the series was how we impose order on our understanding of the world, especially of the past. The first novel explored the historical mystery of Étant Donnés and the Rosicrucians, but I knew I couldn’t just repeat that. And I ultimately decided that the second novel would focus on one of the strangest unsolved mysteries in Russian history: the unexplained deaths of nine mountaineers on February 2, 1959, in the Dyatlov Pass.

All this is a preamble to saying that I’ve finally added a page to this blog for my second novel, City of Exiles, which will be released on December 4. The new page gives you a sense of the plot and introduces you to the novel’s lead, FBI Special Agent Rachel Wolfe, who appears in a crucial secondary role in The Icon Thief but now moves to center stage. I’m also pleased to be able to share the novel’s cover, prepared by the stellar team at New American Library, which has always listened attentively to my suggestions and invariably blown me away with the result. The design closely tracks my own vision, with a wintry palette that mirrors the novel’s often frigid setting and a melancholy view of London’s Trafalgar Square. (And if you’re curious, the image faintly visible in the sky above the city is the ox from Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly chariot, otherwise known as the merkabah—and that’s all I have to say about that for now…)

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March 23, 2012 at 9:36 am

Quote of the Day

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March 23, 2012 at 7:50 am

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What would the Community think?

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The more I think about it, the more I suspect that making great television over the course of multiple seasons might be the most challenging of all sustained creative acts. On a practical level, it’s arguably harder than directing a movie or writing a novel, not just because of the scale and speed required, but because of the uncertainty inherent in network scheduling, in which a show’s creator doesn’t know whether he’ll have one episode, half a season, or six seasons and a movie. Few series have suffered from more uncertainty than Dan Harmon’s Community, which, despite a vocal fan following, has always seemed on the verge of cancellation. Its return is therefore all the more cause for celebration, not simply because the show survived, but because it thrived under awful circumstances: no other contemporary series, not even Mad Men, has faced the vagaries of modern television as well as Community, which has pushed the boundaries of the sitcom in every episode while somehow adding up to a satisfying whole. The result is a master class in both comedy and storytelling.

When I think of Community, the first word that comes to mind is balance. This may seem surprising, given some of the truly unhinged episodes that the show has produced over the past few years, but what really stands out with this series is its ability to coordinate a wide range of impulses and ambitions—any one of which, left unchecked, would lead to disaster—within one remarkably cohesive vision. It’s a fantastically structured and plotted show that also leaves room for its characters to evolve through improvisation. It’s breathtakingly smart and honestly emotional. It’s a whirlwind history of recent pop culture (the second season is the first thing I’d throw into a time capsule to give future generations a sense of what this decade was like) and also fundamentally grounded in the lives of its seven major characters. And like Glee, it began with a cast meant to evoke sitcom stereotypes and then gradually reveal greater depths, but unlike Glee, it succeeded.

The comparison with Glee, which I’m not the first to make—Todd VanDerWerff of the A.V. Club has set it out admirably—is perhaps the most instructive. From its first episodes on, Glee was manifestly a show of vast ambition but limited ability to realize its goals. Community, by contrast, has aimed even higher and nailed every challenge it set for itself. And its ambitions have only grown over time. This was a smart, funny show right out of the gate, but it wasn’t until late in the first season that it locked on to its true potential. Part of this was its discovery of the range of things it could do, from tightly written bottle episodes to fake clip shows to epic parodies of action and science fiction movies, but it also involved refining the characters to take advantage of the strengths of its cast, particularly the astonishing triumvirate of Donald Glover, Danny Pudi, and Gillian Jacobs. (Jacobs, in particular, has been a revelation in the second half of the show’s run, as Britta evolved from a bland voice of reason to a glorious train wreck of a human being.)

Above all else, Community reminds us how to be clever. I’ve written at length about the perils of cleverness, and there are certainly critics who see the show as nothing more than a cleverness machine, churning out movie references and pastiches for its tiny audience. Yet the show’s real cleverness doesn’t lie in its inside jokes and nerd-culture homages—otherwise, it would be little more than a more cuddly version of Family Guy—but in its ability to integrate them into a world that feels emotional and real. Greendale is one of those fictional places in which we want to believe, populated by characters who feel like our friends, and whose lives and problems remain consistent even as they’re fighting zombies or split into alternate timelines. That’s more than clever; it’s astounding. My favorite episode consists of nothing but the characters talking around a table for twenty minutes, but it works because they’re doing exactly what the show does every week: telling stories. And it does it as well as any show I’ve ever seen.

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March 22, 2012 at 10:20 am

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March 22, 2012 at 7:50 am

You are not the story

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As I see it, two lessons can be drawn from the Mike Daisey fiasco: 1. If a story seems too good to be true, it probably is. 2. A “journalist” who makes himself the star of his own story is automatically suspect. This last point is especially worth considering. I’ve spoken before about the importance of detachment toward one’s own work, primarily as a practical matter: the more objective you are, the more likely you are to produce something that will be of interest to others. But there’s an ethical component here as well. Every writer, by definition, has a tendency toward self-centeredness: if we didn’t believe that our own thoughts and feelings, or at least our modes of expression, were exceptionally meaningful, we wouldn’t feel compelled to share them. When properly managed, this need to impose our personalities on the world is what results in most works of art. Left unchecked, it can lead to arrogance, solipsism, and a troubling tendency to insert ourselves into the spotlight. This isn’t just an artistic shortcoming, but a moral one. John Gardner called it frigidity: an inability to see what really counts. And frigidity paired with egotism is a dangerous combination.

Simply put, whenever an author, especially of a supposed work of nonfiction, makes himself the star of a story where he obviously doesn’t belong, it’s a warning sign. This isn’t just because it reveals a lack of perspective—a refusal to subordinate oneself to the real source of interest, which is almost never the author himself—but because it implies that other compromises have been made. Mike Daisey is far from the worst such offender. Consider the case of Greg Mortenson, who put himself at the center of Three Cups of Tea in the most self-flattering way imaginable, and was later revealed not only to have fabricated elements of his story, but to have misused the funds his charity raised as a result. At first glance, the two transgressions might not seem to have much in common, but the root cause is the same: a tendency to place the author’s self and personality above all other considerations. On one level, it led to self-aggrandizing falsehood in a supposed memoir; on another, to a charity that spent much of its money, instead of building schools, on Mortenson’s speaking tours and advertisements for his books.

It’s true that some works of nonfiction benefit from the artist’s presence: I wouldn’t want to take Werner Herzog out of Grizzly Man or Claude Lanzmann out of Shoah. But for the most part, documentaries that place the filmmaker at the center of the action should raise our doubts as viewers. Sometimes it leads to a blurring of the message, as when Michael Moore’s ego overwhelms the valid points he makes. Occasionally, it results in a film like Catfish, in which the blatant self-interest of the filmmakers taints the entire movie. And it’s especially problematic in films that try to tackle complex social issues. (It took me a long time to see past the director’s presence in The Cove, for instance, to accept it as the very good movie it really is. But it would have been even better without the director’s face onscreen.)

One could argue, of course, that all forms of journalism, no matter how objective, are implicitly written in the first person, and that every documentary is shaped by an invisible process of selection and arrangement. Which is true enough. But a real artist expresses himself in his choice of details in the editing room, not by inserting himself distractingly into the frame. We rarely, if ever, see Errol Morris in his own movies, while David Simon—who manifestly does not suffer from a lack of ego—appears in Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets only in the last couple of pages. These are men with real personalities and sensibilities who express themselves unforgettably in the depiction of other strong personalities in their movies and books. In the end, we care about Morris and Simon because they’ve made us care about other people. They’ve earned the right to interest us in their opinions through the painstaking application of craft, not, like Mortenson or Daisey, with self-promoting fabrication. There will always be exceptions, but in most cases, an artist’s best approach lies in invisibility and detachment. Because in the end, you’re only as interesting as the facts you present.

Written by nevalalee

March 21, 2012 at 10:47 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

March 21, 2012 at 7:50 am

Fact, fiction, and truth in labeling

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Last year, I wrote a couple of posts about the strange case of Q.R. Markham, the suspense novelist who was later revealed to have constructed his debut thriller, Assassin of Secrets, out of a crazy patchwork quilt of plagiarized passages from other novels. Since then, the unfortunate author—under his true name of Quentin Rowan—has been featured in his own New Yorker profile by Lizzie Widdicombe, which quotes an unnamed fan as claiming that Rowan’s book is actually a secret masterpiece: “What might have been just another disposable piece of banal commercial trash has now been lifted to the level of art.” Others thought that it might have been a deliberate prank, a work of stealth literary criticism, or simply an impressive act of construction in its own right. And these are, in fact, all things that it is possible for a novel to be—just not this particular novel, which was clearly a case of plagiarism born of insecurity and fear. And to Rowan’s credit, he has never tried to claim otherwise.

Yet the idea of a novel constructed out of other novels, like a longer version of Jonathan Lethem’s famous essay in Harper’s, is an interesting one. I might even buy and read it. But the issue is one of truth in labeling. If Rowan had been honest about his method, he’d deserve the ironic accolades that he has subsequently received, but the fact remains that until his exposure, he never claimed to be anything but a suspense writer in the vein of Ian Fleming, which makes his book a work of plagiarism. Similarly, there’s always a place for works of art that mix fact with narrative imagination in pursuit of a larger artistic goal, as long as it’s properly labeled. Norman Mailer beautifully mingles journalism with artistic reconstruction in The Executioner’s Song, and much of the appeal of Frederick Forsyth’s spy novels comes from his use of real historical figures and events. But both works are clearly shelved in the fiction section. It’s when a story with invented elements is shelved with nonfiction—even metaphorically, as in the case of Mike Daisey—that we start to get into trouble.

Labels matter. By stating that a work of art is fiction or nonfiction, novel or memoir, the author is entering into a contract with the reader, one that can be violated only in very rare cases. Now, it’s true that a work of art occasionally benefits from ambiguity over whether what it depicts is real or not. I wouldn’t give up a movie like Exit Through the Gift Shop, for instance, which gains much of its fascination, at least on subsequent viewings, from the question of how much the director has manipulated events behind the scenes. But such cases are extraordinarily uncommon. In film, the result is more often a movie like the loathsome Catfish, in which the inherent interest of the story itself is suffocated by the filmmakers’ palpable vanity and dishonesty. Meanwhile, in print, even as some authors claim to be constructing a more challenging synthesis of artifice and reality, in practice, it’s often a case of a writer combining the easiest, most obvious elements of fiction and nonfiction to get cheap dramatic effects or a marketing hook without the trouble of well-constructed storytelling or real journalism. See: Three Cups of Tea, A Million Little Pieces, and now Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.

The fact is, journalism is hard. Writing novels is also hard, in different sort of way. And it’s accomplishment enough for a lifetime to become good at either one. Before a writer decides to operate in some kind of hybrid mode, he needs to ask himself whether he’s tried to master the infinite complexities inherent in the practice of straight fiction or nonfiction, which, when honestly pursued, are capable of almost anything. For those who claim that it’s necessary to depart from the facts to tell an artistic and moving story, I’d ask them to first check out our many works of truly great nonfiction, ranging from David McClintick’s Indecent Exposure to David Simon’s Homicide, all fully reported and documented, and see if there’s any way they could possibly have been improved. And for those who believe that the conventional novel, unadulterated by plagiarisms, appropriations, or winking narrative shortcuts, is exhausted, well, I can only quote what Borges said, through his editor, to the translator who claimed that it was impossible to render one of his poems properly: “Borges thinks you should try a little harder.”

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