Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for October 2015

Thinking away from the notes

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Terry Gross

On a typical day, [Terry] Gross is at the office from 8:45 to 5:45…Gross will continue working at home, preparing for the next day’s interview in the living room. She clarifies her thoughts first thing in the morning in the shower. That’s when she asks herself: What do I care about? What in all of this research is meaningful? It’s important to be away from her notes when she does this. She emerges from the shower with her ‘‘major destination points.’’ Then she goes to her office and refers back to her notes—sheafs of facts; dog-eared, marked-up books—for the details. Then she does the interview. And then she is inundated by the other daily tasks of running a radio show. The next day, she does it all again.

Susan Burton, in The New York Times Magazine

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October 31, 2015 at 7:30 am

Hail to the King

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Stephen King

“The golden age of science fiction,” the fan editor Peter Graham once wrote, “is twelve.” And it seems fair to say that the golden age of horror fiction comes shortly thereafter. If science fiction tends to take hold of the imagination of curious kids in search of stories in which intelligence is a means of empowerment, rather than isolation, they often latch onto horror in the years when middle school and the onset of adolescence send them looking for a kind of narrative that can put their terrors into a more tangible form. Between the ages of twelve and thirteen, I read so much Stephen King that it’s a wonder I had time to do anything else: at least fifteen novels in all, from Carrie to Needful Things. And I know that I’m not alone in saying that the best time to discover King is when you’re just a little too young for it to be appropriate. The recent rise in fiction geared exclusively toward young adults, which includes its share of horror titles, isn’t a bad thing, but it means that a teenager looking for interesting reading material is less likely to turn first to The Shining or The Stand. Which is a loss in itself—because I’ve come to realize that King, for me, wasn’t just a gateway drug into reading in general, but toward an especially valuable mode of fiction that I can only describe as modernist realism put into the service of more primal fears.

King has never ceased to produce bestsellers, but if his reputation continues to rest on a main sequence of early books—stretching roughly from ‘Salem’s Lot through It—this isn’t just a question of his having produced his best work in his youth. He was, and is, a writer of enormous talent, but he was also the right man at the right time. His most influential novels appeared in the mid- to late seventies, at a time when mainstream fiction was uniquely enterprising in turning the tools of modernist realism onto genre plots. The first category to take full advantage of that bag of tricks, not surprisingly, was the suburban sex novel: the difference between Peyton Place and Updike’s Couples is more one of style than of substance. A few earlier horror novels, notably Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, had covered some of the same ground, with meticulous, almost fussily detailed looks at upper-class households on the verge of crossing over into the supernatural, but King was the first to do it over multiple books. And it was a surpassingly good trick. King’s basic formula, with convincing observations of everyday life providing a backdrop for increasingly horrifying events, may seem obvious now, but surprisingly few other writers have pursued it consistently. (One exception is Peter Straub, whose Ghost Story is one of those late entries in a genre that has a way of codifying everything that came before.)

John Updike

And much of King’s appeal comes from his ability to create what John Updike called “specimen lives,” with carefully constructed characters who turn out to be both timelessly interesting and emphatically of their era. King’s novels are rooted much more in the culture and politics of the seventies than we tend to remember. The Shining often reads like a haunted house story informed by Watergate, as when Stuart Ullmann smugly informs Jack Torrance that Wilson, Harding, Roosevelt, and Nixon all stayed in the hotel’s presidential suite: “I wouldn’t be too proud of Harding and Nixon,” Jack replies. And The Stand originated in a confluence of ideas that could only have occurred at a particular historical moment, as King recounts in Danse Macabre:

The story about the CBW spill in Utah…became entwined in my thoughts about Patty Hearst and the SLA, and one day while sitting at my typewriter…I wrote—just to write something: The world comes to an end but everybody in the SLA is somehow immune. Snake bit them. I looked at that for a while and then typed: No more gas shortages.

When we turn to his characters themselves, we find finely nuanced portraits of ordinary individuals who wouldn’t have been out of place in an Updike novel. Time has turned them into period pieces, but they’re as valuable, in their way, as the literary novels of the time, and the care that King lavished on assembling those mundane lives goes a long way toward explaining the power of the terror that follows.

Gradually, King strayed from that template, particularly as his own success made it more difficult for him to write convincingly about protagonists who weren’t members of the upper middle class. (The transitional novel here is It, in which nostalgia takes the place of reportage for the first time, and which a character observes of his friends: “And then there’s the passingly curious fact that you’re all rich.”) But those early novels—in which King fused the textured social observation of the seventies with something older and darker—stand as permanent landmarks, and when we look at lesser efforts in the same vein, we’re reminded of how hard it really was. One reason why Jaws reads so strangely today, as I’ve noted before, is that it’s an early attempt to fuse the slightly sordid air of a sexy bestseller with a monster story, and the two halves don’t work together: instead of allowing each piece to enhance the other, Benchley gives us a hundred interminable pages about Ellen Brody’s affair that never connect in satisfying ways to the action on the boat. King cracked the code in a way that Benchley didn’t, and a book like Pet Sematary is a master class in fusing a realistic psychological novel with a plot out of Poe. In time, both King and the culture around him moved on, and the artistic moment that produced his best novels seems to have passed. But the books still exist, for whatever teenagers or adults feel like seeking them out, and for lucky readers, they can still spark the kind of hunger that they once awoke in me.

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October 30, 2015 at 8:28 am

Quote of the Day

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John Carpenter

People say things like, “The rule is that you never show the devil.” I’ve heard that. An actress lectured me on that once. But if you have a good-looking devil, and it looks convincing—well, yes, you show it! You kidding? It’ll scare the shit out of the audience. If you have a stupid devil, then you don’t show it.

John Carpenter, to The A.V. Club

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October 30, 2015 at 7:30 am

Arguments with myself

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Oscar Niemeyer

I argue with myself. Inside, we are always at least two people. So when I draw, I have this very clever man who fights with me. He is a great guy. He loves the beach, women and the sea. He says he wants to live a simple life, fishing, but he knows a lot more than me about architecture. Sometimes I talk to him out loud when I’m alone at my drawing board. And somehow we come to conclusions about what a new building wants to be, what it has to be. The drawings appear. I write a text to go with them, and read it back to make sure it makes sense, common sense. If not, I have another argument with myself, and produce a new drawing. When this reads clearly and simply, there you have the building. This is it. Nothing more.

Oscar Niemeyer

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October 29, 2015 at 7:30 am

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“The yacht was a monster…”

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"Maddy gazed out at the sea..."

Note: This post is the thirty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 34. You can read the previous installments here.

Umberto Eco once said that he wrote The Name of the Rose because he felt like poisoning a monk. For William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury began with a mental picture:

I didn’t realize at the time it was symbolical. The picture was of the muddy seat of a little girl’s drawers in a pear tree, where she could see through a window where her grandmother’s funeral was taking place and report what was happening to her brothers on the ground below. By the time I explained who they were and what they were doing and how her pants got muddy, I realized it would be impossible to get all of it into a short story and that it would have to be a book.

Joseph Heller started writing Something Happened with two sentences that came to him out of nowhere: “In the office in which I work, there are four people of whom I am afraid. Each of these four people is afraid of five people.” And E.L. Doctorow, in the middle of a bad case of writer’s block, began Ragtime by staring at the wall of his office, writing about it and the surrounding house, and then trying to imagine the period in which it was built—”In desperation,” Doctorow told The Paris Review, “to those few images.”

One of the subtle privileges of the writer’s craft is that while a reader generally reads a story from first page to last, the initial seed from which it grew in the author’s mind can occur at any point in the narrative, and it often isn’t clear, when you look at the finished result, which part came first. The idea of an author beginning with an inciting incident and following its implications to the very last page is an attractive one, and many writers start their apprentice efforts in much the same way. Usually, though, after the writer learns more about structure and the logistics of finishing a major project, the germ that gives rise to the rest of it turns out to be a moment that lies somewhere in the middle, with the writer working in either direction to lead toward and away from that first spark of inspiration. And this approach can work enormously in the story’s favor. We’re all hoping to come up with an arresting beginning, but we’re less likely to discover it from first principles than to derive it, almost mathematically, from a scene to which it leads a hundred pages down the line. The more rigorously you work out that logic, following what I’ve elsewhere called the anthropic principle of fiction, the more likely you are to arrive at an opening—as well as a setting and a cast of characters—that never would have occurred to you if you had tried to invent a grabber from scratch. (If you do, the strain often shows, and the reader may rightly wonder if you’ll be able to sustain that level of intensity to the end.)

"The yacht was a monster..."

Even novels or stories that unfold along fairly conventional lines often benefit from originating in an odd, intensely personal seed of obsession. The Icon Thief and its sequels were written to honor, rather than to undermine, the conventions of the thriller, but each one grew out of an eccentric core that had little to do with the plot summary you see on the back cover. For The Icon Thief, the real inciting factor—aside from a vague ambition to write a suspense novel about the art world—was my discovery of Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés and my determination to be the first writer to build a novel around what Jasper Johns called “the strangest work of art in any museum.” For City of Exiles, it was my longstanding interest in the vision of Ezekiel, which I’d tried on and off to incorporate into a novel for almost two decades before finding a place for it here. And for Eternal Empire, it was my desire to write a novel about a megayacht. I’m not sure if this comes through in text of the book itself: the yacht in question, the Rigden, doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through the story, and maybe a quarter of the book as a whole is set on or around it. But I knew before I’d figured out anything else about the plot that I wanted a yacht like this to be at the center, which, in turn, implied much of the rest. You don’t write a novel about a megayacht, especially one owned by a Russian oligarch at the heart of what looks to be a vast conspiracy, without being prepared to sink it with everyone on board.

The moment when the yacht goes down—and I don’t think I’m spoiling much by saying this—won’t occur for another hundred pages or so, and I’ll deal with those scenes when I come to them. (To my eyes, the yacht’s destruction and the ensuing showdown onshore are the best extended sequences I’ve ever written, and they’re among the few sections that I’m likely to read again for my own pleasure.) But I want to focus for now on the first time we see the Rigden, in Chapter 34, after a few dozen pages’ worth of buildup. Aside from Titanic, my inspiration here was the obligatory scene in the early Star Trek films in which Kirk first approaches the Enterprise, allowing for a few minutes of awed tracking shots of the starship’s exterior—a convention that J.J. Abrams, alas, is too busy to honor. It slows down the narrative incrementally, but it also provides a sense of scale that strengthens much of what follows. And since this is more or less the reason I wanted to write the entire book, I felt justified in lingering on it. When Maddy gets her first glimpse of the yacht, the metaphorical implications are obvious, as is the impact of the ship’s existence on the shape of the story itself: a book about a yacht also has to be about a journey, and figuring out the start and end points was half the fun. Even if most of the book takes place on land, the events that unfold there are largely designed to get us onto and off that ship. And even if the destination remains unknown, we know that we’ll get there in style…

Quote of the Day

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October 28, 2015 at 7:30 am

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Is this post an example of Betteridge’s Law?

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Article in The New York Times

Yesterday, I was browsing The A.V. Club when I came across the following clunky headline: “Could Guardians of the Galaxy be worthy of the coveted Firefly comparison?” I only skimmed the article itself, which asks, in case you were wondering, if the Guardians of the Galaxy animated series could be “the next Firefly“—a matter on which I don’t have much of an opinion one way or the other. But my attention was caught by one of the reader comments in response, which invoked Betteridge’s Law of Headlines: “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no.'” Needless to say, this is a very useful rule. In its current form, it was set forth by the technology writer Ian Betteridge in response to the TechCrunch headline “Did Last.fm Just Hand Over User Listening Data to the RIAA?” Betteridge wrote:

This story is a great demonstration of my maxim that any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no.” The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it. Which, of course, is why it’s so common in the Daily Mail.

Betteridge may have given the rule its most familiar name, but it’s actually much older. It pops up here and there in collections of Murphy’s Law and its variants, and among academics, it’s best known as Hinchliffe’s Rule, attributed—perhaps apocryphally—to the physicist Ian Hinchliffe, which states: “If the title of a scholarly article is a yes or no question, the answer is ‘no.'” (This recently led the Harvard University computer scientist Stuart M. Shieber to publish a scholarly article titled “Is This Article Consistent with Hinchliffe’s Rule?” The answer is no, but only if the answer is yes.) In his book My Trade, the British newspaper editor Andrew Marr makes the same point more forcefully:

If the headline asks a question, try answering “no.” Is This the True Face of Britain’s Young? (Sensible reader: No.) Have We Found the Cure for AIDS? (No; or you wouldn’t have put the question mark in.) Does This Map Provide the Key for Peace? (Probably not.) A headline with a question mark at the end means, in the vast majority of cases, that the story is tendentious or over-sold. It is often a scare story, or an attempt to elevate some run-of-the-mill piece of reporting into a national controversy and, preferably, a national panic. To a busy journalist hunting for real information a question mark means “don’t bother reading this bit.”

Article from The Daily Mail

What I find most interesting about Betteridge’s version of the rule is his last line: “Which, of course, is why it’s so common in the Daily Mail.” This implies that the rule can be used not just to identify unreliable articles, but to characterize publications as a whole. As I write this, for instance, three headlines on the New York Times home page run afoul of it: “Is Valeant Pharmaceuticals the Next Enron?” “Has Diversity Lost Its Meaning?” “Are Flip Phones Having a Retro Chic Moment?” (There are a few more that technically sprout question marks but don’t quite fit the rubric, such as “Should You Be Watching Supergirl?”) The Daily Mail site, by contrast, has five times as many, and most of them fall neatly into the Betteridge category, including my favorite: “Does This Clip Show the Corpse of a Feared Chupacabra Vampire?” Buzzfeed, interestingly, doesn’t go for that headline format at all, and it only uses question marks to signify its famous personality quizzes: “Are You More Like Adele or Beyoncé?” This implies that a headline phrased in the form of a question might not be especially good at attracting eyeballs: Buzzfeed, which has refined clickbait into an art form, would surely use it more often if it worked. Most likely, as both Betteridge and Marr imply, it’s a way out for journalists who want to publish a story, but aren’t ready to stand behind it entirely. If anyone objects, they can always say that they were just raising the issue for further discussion.

But most readers, I suspect, can intuitively sense the difference. Headlines like this have always reminded me of “The End?” at the close of Manos: The Hands of Fate, to which Crow T. Robot replies: “Umm…Yes? No! I want to change my answer!” It might be instructive to conduct a study of whether or not they’ve increased in frequency over the last decade, as news cycles have grown ever more compressed and the need to generate think pieces on demand forces writers to crank out stories with a minimum of preparation. It’s hard to blame the reporters themselves, who are operating under conditions that actively discourage the kind of extended research process that would allow the question mark to be removed or the article to be dropped altogether. (And it’s worth noting that editors, not reporters, are the ones who write the headlines.) This isn’t to say that there can’t be good stories that sport headlines in the form of a question: like the Bechdel Test for movies, it’s less about criticizing individual works than making us more aware of the landscape. And given the choice, the question mark—which at least provides a visible red flag—is preferable to the exclamation point, literal or otherwise, that characterizes so much current content, from cable news on down. In that light, the question mark almost feels like a form of courtesy. And we have to learn to live with it, at least until good journalism, like the flip phone, experiences a retro chic moment of its own.

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