Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for May 2016

Hamlet’s birthday

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Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

Last year, on my birthday, I wrote a post reflecting on how it felt to turn thirty-five, drawing liberally on The Divine Comedy, which opens when Dante is the same age—or, as he puts it, “When I had journeyed half of our life’s way.” When I look back, the comparison seems even more forced now than it did then, but it came out of a place of real feeling. I was going through a rough period as a writer, after a number of projects had failed to gain traction, and I was thinking more intensely than usual about what might come next. “A human life,” I wrote at the time, “makes a pattern that none of us can predict. And even as we reach the halfway point, its true shape may only be beginning.” When I typed those words, there was an element of wishful thinking involved, but they turned out to be more true than I could have guessed. Today, I’m working on a book that I couldn’t possibly have anticipated a year ago, and I’m already feeling the impact. In startup jargon, it was a career pivot, or a course correction, and although it emerged naturally from my background and interests, it still took me by surprise. In all likelihood, Astounding will turn out to be the most interesting book I’ve ever written, or ever will, which means that when I wrote that birthday post, I was on the verge of providing an inadvertent case study of how even the most considered plan can continue to generate surprises long after you think its outlines have been fixed. Which, I suppose, is what Dante was saying all along.

It might seem strange to use the age of a literary character as a benchmark for evaluating your own life, but it’s no weirder than measuring yourself against peers your own age or, ugh, even younger, which all writers inevitably do. (My favorite observation on the subject comes courtesy of Tom Lehrer: “It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years.”) And it isn’t just Dante who inspires this kind of reflection. You can hear an echo of it in the trendy notion of “the Jesus year,” which, if anything, is even more pretentious. Most intriguing of all is the case of Hamlet, whose age is as vague as Dante’s is precise. In the first four acts of the play that bears his name, Hamlet strikes us, as Harold Bloom puts it, as “a young man of about twenty or less,” which squares neatly with the fact that he’s a student at Wittenberg University. Yet in Act V, the gravedigger explicitly says that the prince is thirty. This has been explained away as a mistake in the text or an artifact of Shakespeare’s repeated revisions, which overlooks how psychologically and dramatically sound it is: the Hamlet of the last act seems far wiser and more mature than the one we’ve met before, and I actually prefer the joke theory that he somehow ages a decade or more in his brief trip overseas. Hamlet has undergone a dramatic change in his absence, and his illogical increase in age is a subliminal clue as to how we’re supposed to perceive his transformation.

Illustration by Gustave Doré for Dante's Inferno

And that curious fusion of the twenty- and thirty-year-old versions of the prince hints at one of the most unforgettable qualities of his character, even as it also explains why the actors with the ability to play him tend to be closer to forty. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Bloom notes that “no one else in all Shakespeare seems potentially so free as the crown prince of Denmark,” and he goes on to list a few of the possibilities:

There is a bewildering range of freedoms available to Hamlet: he could marry Ophelia, ascend to the throne after Claudius if waiting was bearable, cut Claudius down at almost any time, leave for Wittenberg without permission, organize a coup (being the favorite of the people), or even devote himself to botching plays for the theater. Like his father, he could center upon being a soldier, akin to the younger Fortinbras, or conversely he could turn his superb mind to more organized speculation, philosophical or hermetic, than has been his custom. Ophelia describes him, in her lament for his madness, as having been courtier, soldier, and scholar, the exemplar of form and fashion for all Denmark. If The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is “poem unlimited,” beyond genre and rules, then its protagonist is character unlimited, beyond even such precursors as the biblical David or the classical Brutus. But how much freedom can be afforded Hamlet by a tragic play? What project can be large enough for him?

But that’s how everyone feels at twenty. Or at least it’s how I did. You think you’re capable of anything, and there were times in my twenties when I felt as potentially free as Hamlet at the beginning of the play. But age closes off the number of paths available, one by one, until you’re more like Hamlet at the end: resigned, with equanimity or otherwise, to the role that fate has assigned to you. That’s why Hamlet continues to fascinate us. He’s our greatest image of youthful potential, until he isn’t, which is why he somehow manages to seem both twenty and thirty within the span of a few weeks. Yet that juxtaposition, for all its absurdity, gets at something fundamental in how we all see ourselves: as a superimposition of all the people we were in the past, coexisting together in the more limited person we necessarily embody today. (Or as Frank Sinatra says more eloquently in Sinatra at the Sands: “Now I guess you folks have heard, or read, or been told somewhere that recently I became fifty years old, and I’m here to tell you right now, it’s a dirty Communist lie. Direct from Hanoi—it came right outta there! My body may be fifty, but I’m twenty-eight!” Sinatra goes on to add: “And I would further like to say that I’d be twenty-two if I hadn’t spent all those years drinking with Joe E. Lewis, who nearly wrecked me.”) Shakespeare, as it happens, was thirty-seven when he wrote Hamlet, or just a year older than I am now. That’s enough to make a mockery of anyone’s ambitions, but it also gives me hope. We’re all walking the same path through the forest—and our greatest consolation is that Dante and Shakespeare have been there before us.

Quote of the Day

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Blaise Cendrars

A hundred worlds, a thousand movements, a million dramas simultaneously enter the range of the eye with which cinema has endowed man…Everything is rhythm, word, life. No more need to demonstrate. We are in communion. Focus the lens on the hand, the corner of the mouth, the ear, and drama emerges, expands on a background of luminous mystery. Already there is no need for dialogue, soon characters will be judged useless. At high speed the life of flowers is Shakespearean.

Blaise Cendrars, “The ABCs of Cinema”

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May 31, 2016 at 7:30 am

The limits of money

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Olga Kurylenko in Empires of the Deep

Over the last week, I’ve read two stories that shed an unexpected light on the role of money in the artistic process. The first was the excellent Vulture article about the business of peak television, which I’ve already discussed here in detail. It notes that unprecedented amounts of cash are being thrown at prestige television series, with the top one percent of stars benefiting disproportionately, while actors who once might have played leading roles in network procedurals are struggling to get the same parts. After a decade in which pundits constantly predicted the demise of scripted television under an onslaught of cheap reality shows, the industry has expanded to make room for more writers than ever before—which has led to a corresponding shortage of qualified line producers. But a spike in financial resources doesn’t always translate into good storytelling. The difference between the first and second seasons of True Detective is a reminder, if we needed one, that the exact same factors on paper can yield very different results in practice, if that vital spark is missing. And what we’re really seeing is less a golden age than a codification of a new set of conventions. “Prestige television,” like “literary fiction,” is a genre, not a measure of quality, and its usual characteristics include ten episodes per season, a streaming or cable platform, outstanding production values, and a white male antihero. It may not always be great television, but as long as it satisfies the executives investing in new programming, it doesn’t have to be.

The other article that caught my eye was “Sunk,” Mitch Moxley’s memorable account in The Atavist of the Chinese billionaire Jon Jiang’s doomed attempt to bring his dream movie project, Empires of the Deep, to fruition. It defies easy summary, but the short version is that Jiang wrote an original screenplay, originally called Mermaid Island, and enlisted a bewildering array of collaborators—including the French filmmaker Pitof and the starlet Olga Kurylenko—to make it happen, only to blow more than $100 million on a production that chewed up a revolving door of screenwriters and directors and has yet to produce any usable footage. (Of the many strange stories that the article relates, perhaps the weirdest involves Irene Violette, the actress cast as a mermaid who had to slip out a window in the dead of night to get out of her contract.) Many of the cast and crew seem to have consoled themselves with the idea that great movies can emerge from troubled shoots, and it’s heartbreaking to hear how director Jonathan Lawrence hoped to make this unholy mess into something like Raiders of the Lost Ark. But the entire debacle hinges on what seems, at first, like a baffling paradox. Jiang had enormous financial resources to throw at the production, but he also cut corners, used cheap costumes and special effects, and never paid anyone on time. In spite of appearances, it’s possible that he invested very little of his own money in the film: a former production executive told Moxley that he believes that the billionaire relied mostly on outside investors, all of whom lost almost everything.

Colin Farrell on True Detective

But I think the real explanation is more nuanced than this, and it ties back to the uneasy relationship between money, media, and creative freedom. The case of Empires of the Deep is only an exaggerated version of the dilemma that arises whenever the writer of the script is also the head of the studio, or at least the man who holds the pursestrings: without a higher authority to keep his worst tendencies in check, you end up with a movie that films the first draft of the script and has no incentive to make it any better. The situation becomes even more dire when the mogul in question seems to have no idea of how the medium works. You’d think that Jiang, a real estate tycoon, would at least have some notion of how to turn a blueprint into something real, but he appears to have taken a very different set of lessons from his business ventures. On visiting one of Jiang’s properties in Beijing, Moxley writes: “Although it’s only a decade old, up close the brick homes look cheap and worn, like so many properties hastily erected during China’s boom.” A movie made using the same principles would look pretty much like what we see here. Moxley also notes that the issue of guanxi, or relationships and connections, may have posed problems on the set. He observes:

One’s loyalty depends on who it is one has the strongest relationship with. That might be the director or a cinematographer or a producer—but it’s rarely the audience or the movie’s bottom line, which are generally the two highest priorities for American movies.

This is a remarkably shrewd point, and not just because it implies that what the production lacked, like many television shows, was a good line producer, whose job is to navigate those very networks. It might make us smile, but the plain fact is that such misaligned incentives are at the root of many artistic failures, and China doesn’t have a monopoly on this. A version of guanxi exists, in a less obvious form, at every Hollywood studio: each decision, from the lowest level to the highest, ultimately hinges on an individual executive’s desire not to get fired, which makes otherwise inexplicable choices easier to understand. Office politics, lines of succession, changes of regime, or the desire to maintain a relationship with a star can have a far greater impact on what gets made than “the audience or the movie’s bottom line.” This can be true of television, too: the need for streaming services like Hulu or Amazon to enhance their profiles, in the absence of concrete ratings, can lead to shows being produced that are less about real quality than its simulation, which for many viewers is more than enough. (Witness the success of House of Cards, which started the whole streaming revolution in the first place, despite a consistent lack of good writing.) Money isn’t the root of all evil in art: more worthwhile stories have died because of a lack of money than because of its overabundance. But without the constraints that a real audience provides, making a good movie can be harder than squeezing a mermaid through the eye of a needle.

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May 30, 2016 at 9:02 am

Quote of the Day

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May 30, 2016 at 7:30 am

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The art of serendipity

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Douglas R. Hofstadter

Serendipitous observation and quick exploration of potential are vital elements in [creativity]. What goes hand in hand with the willingness to playfully explore a serendipitous connection is the willingness to censor or curtail an exploration that seems to be leading nowhere. It is the flip side of the risk-taking aspect of serendipity. It’s fine to be reminded of something, to see an analogy or a vague connection, and it’s fine to try to map one situation or concept onto another in the hopes of making something novel emerge—but you’ve also got to be willing and able to sense when you’ve lost the gamble, and to cut your losses…

Frantic striving to be original will usually get you nowhere. Far better to relax and let your perceptual system and your category system work together unconsciously, occasionally coming up with unbidden connections. At that point, you—the lucky owner of the mind in question—can seize the opportunity and follow out the proffered hint. This view of creativity has the conscious mind being quite passive, content to sit back and wait for the unconscious to do its remarkable broodings and brewings.

The most reliable kinds of genuine insight come not from vague reminding experiences…but from strong analogies in which one experience can be mapped onto another in a highly pleasing way. The tighter the fit, the deeper the insight, generally speaking. When two things can both be seen as instances of one abstract phenomenon, it is a very exciting discovery. Then ideas about either one can be borrowed in thinking about the other, and that sloshing-about of activity may greatly illumine both at once…

A mapping-recipe that often yields interesting results is projection of oneself into a situation: “How would it be for me?”

Douglas R. Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas

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May 29, 2016 at 8:40 am

The mad dash of lyricism

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Mário de Andrade

Inspiration is short-lived, violent. Any obstacle whatsoever upsets it and even silences it. When art is added to lyricism to create poetry, this process does not consist of halting the mad dash of the lyric state to warn it of the stones and barbed-wire fences across the road. Let it stumble, fall, wound itself. Art is a subsequent weeding out of all irksome repetitions, romantic sentimentalities, and useless or unexpressive details.

Mário de Andrade, Hallucinated City

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May 28, 2016 at 7:30 am

Peak television and the future of stardom

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Kevin Costner in The Postman

Earlier this week, I devoured the long, excellent article by Josef Adalian and Maria Elena Fernandez of Vulture on the business of peak television. It’s full of useful insights and even better gossip—and it names plenty of names—but there’s one passage that really caught my eye, in a section about the huge salaries that movie stars are being paid to make the switch to the small screen:

A top agent defends the sums his clients are commanding, explaining that, in the overall scheme of things, the extra money isn’t all that significant. “Look at it this way,” he says. “If you’re Amazon and you’re going to launch a David E. Kelley show, that’s gonna cost $4 million an episode [to produce], right? That’s $40 million. You can have Bradley Whitford starring in it, [who is] gonna cost you $150,000 an episode. That’s $1.5 million of your $40 million. Or you could spend another $3.5 million [to get Costner] on what will end up being a $60 million investment by the time you market and promote it. You can either spend $60 [million] and have the Bradley Whitford show, or $63.5 [million] and have the Kevin Costner show. It makes a lot of sense when you look at it that way.”

With all due apologies to Bradley Whitford, I found this thought experiment fascinating, and not just for the reasons that the agent presumably shared it. It implies, for one thing, that television—which is often said to be overtaking Hollywood in terms of quality—is becoming more like feature filmmaking in another respect: it’s the last refuge of the traditional star. We frequently hear that movie stardom is dead and that audiences are drawn more to franchises than to recognizable faces, so the fact that cable and streaming networks seem intensely interested in signing film stars, in a post-True Detective world, implies that their model is different. Some of it may be due to the fact, as William Goldman once said, that no studio executive ever got fired for hiring a movie star: as the new platforms fight to establish themselves, it makes sense that they’d fall back on the idea of star power, which is one of the few things that corporate storytelling has ever been able to quantify or understand. It may also be because the marketing strategy for television inherently differs from that for film: an online series is unusually dependent on media coverage to stand out from the pack, and signing a star always generates headlines. Or at least it once did. (The Vulture article notes that Woody Allen’s new series for Amazon “may end up marking peak Peak TV,” and it seems a lot like a deal that was made for the sake of the coverage it would produce.)

Kevin Costner in JFK

But the most plausible explanation lies in simple economics. As the article explains, Netflix and the other streaming companies operate according to a “cost-plus” model: “Rather than holding out the promise of syndication gold, the company instead pays its studio and showrunner talent a guaranteed up-front profit—typically twenty or thirty percent above what it takes to make a show. In exchange, it owns all or most of the rights to distribute the show, domestically and internationally.” This limits the initial risk to the studio, but also the potential upside: nobody involved in producing the show itself will see any money on the back end. In addition, it means that even the lead actors of the series are paid a flat dollar amount, which makes them a more attractive investment than they might be for a movie. Most of the major stars in Hollywood earn gross points, which means that they get a cut of the box office receipts before the film turns a profit—a “first dollar” deal that makes the mathematics of breaking even much more complicated. The thought experiment about Bradley Whitford and Kevin Costner only makes sense if you can get Costner at a fixed salary per episode. In other words, movie stars are being actively courted by television because its model is a throwback to an earlier era, when actors were held under contract by a studio without any profit participation, and before stars and their agents negotiated better deals that ended up undermining the economic basis of the star system entirely.

And it’s revealing that Costner, of all actors, appears in this example. His name came up mostly because multiple sources told Vulture that he was offered $500,000 per episode to star in a streaming series: “He passed,” the article says, “but industry insiders predict he’ll eventually say ‘yes’ to the right offer.” But he also resonates because he stands for a kind of movie stardom that was already on the wane when he first became famous. It has something to do with the quintessentially American roles that he liked to play—even JFK is starting to seem like the last great national epic—and an aura that somehow kept him in leading parts two decades after his career as a major star was essentially over. That’s weirdly impressive in itself, and it testifies to how intriguing a figure he remains, even if audiences aren’t likely to pay to see him in a movie. Whenever I think of Costner, I remember what the studio executive Mike Medavoy once claimed to have told him right at the beginning of his career:

“You know,” I said to him over lunch, “I have this sense that I’m sitting here with someone who is going to become a great big star. You’re going to want to direct your own movies, produce your own movies, and you’re going to end up leaving your wife and going through the whole Hollywood movie-star cycle.”

Costner did, in fact, end up leaving his first wife. And if he also leaves film for television, even temporarily, it may reveal that “the whole Hollywood movie-star cycle” has a surprising final act that few of us could have anticipated.

Written by nevalalee

May 27, 2016 at 9:03 am

Quote of the Day

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Self-portrait by Maurice Denis

We should remember that a picture—before being a war horse, a nude woman, or telling some other story—is essentially a flat surface covered with colors arranged in a particular pattern.

Maurice Denis, “Definition of Neo-Traditionalism”

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May 27, 2016 at 7:30 am

“The deckhand cut the engine…”

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"Climbing behind the aft console..."

Note: This post is the fifty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 53. You can read the previous installments here.

I think it’s fair to assume that most writers these days—fiction and otherwise—do much of their research online. Yet this seems to make some people uncomfortable, as if it were a violation of the implicit contract between author and reader. One possible analogy is to hiring a consultant or an expert witness: you’d feel cheated if you paid somebody for their time and expertise, only to find that he or she was simply googling the answers to all your questions. Indeed, there’s a strong case to be made that the ease of online research circumvents the lengthy period of absorption in a subject that makes true understanding possible: when you get the answer too quickly, you run the risk that your brain won’t be ready for it. I’m willing to believe this, but I have a problem with the idea that the accessibility of so much information somehow renders the novelist less special. As Jonathan Franzen notoriously said to The Guardian: “When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.” But Franzen writes novels that all but advertise the tremendous amount of legwork they required, which implies that it isn’t whether or not you do research that matters, but what kind it is. The novelist’s role, it seems, is to add value to the data that we have at our disposal, and typing a query into a search engine doesn’t cut it.

This is true enough, but it misses the more important point, which is that a novelist can add value even to just the sort of information that we’re likely to come across on the Internet. As anyone who has spent any time researching a complicated issue online has learned, it isn’t simply a matter of clicking on the first search result that you see: you often have to pull together facts from many places, while constantly monitoring the credibility of your sources, and the result is a pattern that didn’t exist before, even though all of the pieces were theoretically available to everyone. This kind of assemblage poses problems of its own, which is part of the reason I spent so much of The Icon Thief using that process to invent a conspiracy theory: it’s what it does best. But when kept under control, and in the right context, that kind of exercise can be immensely valuable as a way of generating beautiful ideas. (Most of the fiction I’ve published in Analog wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the tools that we have for combining and associating bits of isolated data into a surprising shape.) A novelist can also perform a useful public service in the form of a deep dive—the singleminded pursuit of material to fill out a gap in the narrative. Sometimes this means spending weeks researching something that will end up as a couple of sentences, or even get cut altogether. And a writer is obsessive enough to invest that level of attention on the most trifling of details.

"The deckhand cut the engine..."

For instance, I spend a lot of time downloading and reading user manuals. Usually, this is because there’s an arcane piece of hardware in a story that I need to accurately describe, at least to the extent of knowing the right names for all the parts or the actions required for every step in the process. Poking around a little online, once I’ve managed to figure out which search terms to use, often yields useful technical material, especially when I add “filetype:PDF” to the query, and I’ll sometimes spend whole days poring over manuals and spec sheets to make sure I’m getting everything right. The danger, of course, is that the story can turn into a sort of user’s manual itself, in which the author is unwilling to part with any of the factual background that he has so laboriously acquired. (I’m keenly aware of this problem, because it’s particularly troublesome in science fiction and suspense, which are the two genres in which I’ve done the most work.) But it helps to keep the true purpose of this kind of research in mind. As I’ve said many times before, this isn’t about accuracy, which is an incidental benefit; it’s about providing material for dreams. The kind of step-by-step description we find in a user manual, in particular, can serve as a useful backbone or scaffold for the action. If every scene, as I’ve said elsewhere, can be structured as a series of objectives, a manual is nothing less than a one-act play with a beginning, middle, and end, and it climaxes when the user triumphantly completes the repair or installation.

Obviously, it’s possible to take this sort of thing too far, and we’ve all had the experience of reading a story that fails to keep the research where it belongs—in the background. But when properly utilized, it can give shape to the more important things taking place up front. Chapter 53 of Eternal Empire, for example, is all about the evacuation of the sinking yacht after it has been attacked by a drone, which is the kind of big set piece that can quickly degenerate into a bunch of disconnected fragments. Being able to accurately describe, say, the procedure for lowering a lifeboat was a huge deal for me. If you read the scene closely, you see that the characters are almost always doing something, even while more important narrative material receives the most emphasis. It’s a little like the bits of business, like lighting a cigarette, that actors use to do something with their hands, except that every tiny action feeds back to the throughline of the scene, which is to escape safely from the yacht. Much of it came from the lifeboat and sea safety manuals I found online, which briefed me on the vocabulary I needed to get the sequence onto the page. If the reader notices it, I haven’t done my job, but without it, the scene would just lie there. And it’s the kind of research that would be prohibitively difficult if it weren’t for the combination of easy accessibility and the writer’s willingness to spend ungodly amounts of time on it. Writers can and should read user manuals. After all, they may be the only ones who ever will…

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May 26, 2016 at 8:48 am

Quote of the Day

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May 26, 2016 at 7:30 am

Astounding Stories #9: “The Mule”

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"The Mule" by Isaac Asimov

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

Of the four writers who stand at the heart of Astounding, the one who has been the hardest to pin down is Isaac Asimov. This might seem surprising, given that the other three figures are John W. Campbell, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard, all of whom, by any measure, had personalities and private lives of daunting complexity. Asimov, by contrast, seems like a relatively accessible figure: his life was comparatively uneventful in its externals, and he spent much of it in the lab at Boston University, giving speeches, or writing at home. He was also the author of two enormously detailed volumes of autobiography, In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt, that track his life on almost a daily basis, which would make them indispensable primary sources even if they weren’t also a huge pleasure to read. (A third volume, I, Asimov, is less essential, but still a must for fans.) He was also more of a public figure than any other science fiction writer of his time. With his glasses and sideburns, he was instantly recognizable, and I suspect that he might be the novelist, of any era, whom the greatest number of living Americans would be able to identify at sight. Decades after his death, he still has the highest name recognition of any writer in the genre. But separating the persona that he deliberately cultivated from the real man underneath presents undeniable challenges—all the more so because Asimov managed to convince millions of readers that they knew him well, when he really kept so many aspects of himself under close guard.

Asimov’s unique status as a celebrity also encourages a number of misconceptions about his career. He’s often cited as a monstrous fiction-writing machine, as Stephen King did in a recent essay for the New York Times on whether a novelist can be too productive. After evoking the likes of Max Brand and Alexandre Dumas, King continues: “And then there’s Isaac Asimov, who sold his first short story at nineteen, hammered out more than five hundred books, and revolutionized science fiction.” But there’s a big misapprehension here. Asimov was undoubtedly one of the most prolific writers who ever lived, but not on the fiction side. When you add up his novels and short stories, it’s an impressive body of work, but not that much larger than that of many other writers of his generation, and Asimov could go for years without producing much in the way of fiction at all. It was in nonfiction, and particularly in popular science, that he made his greatest mark on the world’s libraries, as well as on the consciousness of the public. For most of his life, Asimov was among the most highly regarded of authors within the closed circle of science fiction readers, but he didn’t have a mainstream bestseller until he returned to the Foundation series toward the end of his career. It was in the sheer volume of his nonfiction—which Asimov was among the first to realize would be newsworthy in itself—that he became famous to a general audience, less because of any one book than thanks to the familiarity of his face and byline.

Portrait of Isaac Asimov by Rowena Morrill

This makes it a little harder to objectively evaluate his fiction. There’s no doubt that he would be regarded as a major writer within the genre, even if he hadn’t become so famous outside of it, but his output is frankly more mixed than that of, say, Heinlein. It took Asimov a while to find his footing—although we should never forget, as King points out, that he was unbelievably young when he sold his first stories, and that he did much of his growing up as an author in full view. His single greatest breakthrough, “Nightfall,” has been voted the best science fiction story of all time on multiple occasions, although Asimov himself felt that it was overrated. The positronic robot stories are an indisputable landmark as a whole, but I’m not sure if any one installment in the series inspires particularly warm feelings in readers, and its most significant element, the Three Laws of Robotics, was really developed by Campbell. And Asimov’s limitations as a writer are more evident than they are in the best of his contemporaries. I’ve come to believe that Heinlein, Sturgeon, and the writing team of C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, to name only the most obvious examples, could do just about anything, while Asimov seemed more comfortable working within a narrow range: it’s impossible to imagine him writing a story like “Vintage Season” or “Killdozer.” He helped define the genre, but he rarely strayed from a specific subset of it during the golden age, and it wasn’t until later, in stories like “The Last Question,” that he began to push into unexplored regions.

But I don’t want to understate his talent, because many of the stories he wrote during this early period are extraordinary. My personal favorite is “The Red Queen’s Race,” a relatively unheralded work about a professor who tries to change the future by sending physics textbooks back in time to ancient Greece: maybe it’s because of my own classics background, but I think it’s a perfect story. And then there’s the Foundation series, which remains his most lasting achievement, despite what even Asimov, on rereading it after three decades, saw as a decided lack of action or conventional suspense. (“I read it with mounting uneasiness. I kept waiting for something to happen, and nothing ever did.”) Elsewhere, the writer James Gunn notes that “the romance is almost invisible,” which is another way of saying that there are almost no women in sight. Still, it remains a fascinating work, in part because of the appeal of the notion of a secret society of psychohistorians, which had a strange afterlife when Campbell tried to create one for real at the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation in Elizabeth, New Jersey. And it includes one undeniably great novella, “The Mule,” which was Asimov’s own favorite. It benefits from having a significant female character for once, in the form of Bayta Darell, and a stunning twist ending that still works like gangbusters today. Asimov wrote it in response to Campbell’s insistence that the Seldon Plan, the “connecting backbone” of the series, had to be disrupted: “I was horrified. No, I said, no, no, no. But Campbell said: Yes, yes, yes, yes, and I knew I wasn’t going to sell him a no, no.” And as Asimov himself knew well, even the best of plans have a way of going in unexpected directions—and in life as well as in fiction.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

May 25, 2016 at 7:30 am

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House of passages

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House of Eternal Return at Meow Wolf

On Friday, I visited Meow Wolf, which is a statement that seems destined to elicit either a knowing smile or a puzzled look, the proportions of which probably change the farther you get from New Mexico. I didn’t really know what it was before I went, which was a good thing, and I’m not sure how to describe it even now, which is even better. It’s housed in a huge building in downtown Santa Fe that used to be a bowling alley and is now owned by local hero George R.R. Martin, who spent millions of dollars in renovations to allow Meow Wolf, an artistic collective with its own long history, to enable its wildest dreams. After buying a ticket, you walk down a darkened hallway into what looks like a crumbling Victorian house, built from scratch down to the last shingle. You can explore every room, look inside every drawer, and even open the fridge, which contains a startling surprise of its own. As you wander, you gradually start to piece together a larger narrative, and you realize that everything you see is a clue. All of the obvious anomalies, from the distorted floor of the upstairs bathroom to the portal in the fireplace, reflect a coherent story about a peculiar family, a missing child, two rival secret societies, and a hub connecting the house to a vast multiverse, tantalizing portions of which are accessible to visitors. (I managed to figure out very little of this for myself, and if you want more information, there’s a much better writeup by Annalee Newitz over at Ars Technica.)

And you come away feeling deeply impressed, even if you leave with most of the mystery intact. I went in knowing almost nothing about it, aside from the notion that it was some sort of interactive exhibit and art installation, and I went from bracing myself for the worst possible version of the experience—I was dreading a kind of kid’s show with insistent actors and cheap set dressings—to the realization that it was probably the best. It’s been compared to an online RPG, and it has to solve many of the same narrative problems, in three dimensions and with a live audience, which obliges it to deal with the challenges of a theme park attraction or a haunted house. There are many small touches of wayfinding that keep you exactly as disoriented as the designers want you to be, but no more, along with subtly incorporated cast members who can give you a nudge in the right direction or indicate a feature that you might have overlooked. And like many of the best video games, it’s accessible both to casuals and to obsessive players. My three-year-old daughter, who is a natural busybody, had a great time simply poking around the house, in which she was granted complete freedom to indulge in her nosiness to her heart’s content. Most of the rooms have both a connection to the overall narrative and elements of self-contained diversion, like the glowing mastodon ribcage that can be played like a xylophone. You can be exactly as engaged with the deeper story as you like, and the fact that local high schoolers seem to treat it as an ideal place to make out probably delights its creators.

House of Eternal Return at Meow Wolf

But if you’re really serious about drilling down to the underlying mystery, there’s a wealth of material at your disposal, much of it remarkably dense: a fake newspaper casually left on a kitchen table, a corkboard with sinister correspondence from the neighborhood middle school, a fat binder of notes about the multiverse, a desktop computer crammed with files. And although the comparisons to video games or theme parks suggest themselves naturally, the best parallel is to Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves. (The formal name of the exhibit is “House of Eternal Return,” which may be a play on words between the act of leaving and the act of returning.) They share the same mingled sense of dread and discovery, and like the novel, the art complex rewards both casual browsing and deep exploration, with much of its charm lying in the implication that it can never be fully exhausted. It was the result of six months of brainstorming and world-building, and the big sensory effects that it creates can’t be separated from its attention to detail on the most granular level. It’s impossible to resist doing a few spot checks, and once you’ve verified that the dresser has clothes in it and that the notebook on the desk is full of real writing, the credibility of the whole enterprise rises enormously. As Douglas R. Hofstadter once wrote of an ingenious word puzzle: “It strikes me as weird (and wonderful) how, in certain situations, the verification of a tiny percentage of a theory can serve to powerfully strengthen your belief in the full theory.” That’s certainly true here, and it would clearly reward repeated visits.

Of course, to see it in the first place, you have to go to Santa Fe, which points both to its appeal and to the inherent obstacles it faces. Thanks to the financial support and creative freedom that Martin has provided, this is likely to be the best possible incarnation of this kind of endeavor that will ever exist, and it’s difficult to envision many other cases in which such a benefactor would be willing or able to take on a similar risk. Meow Wolf estimates that it needs about a hundred thousand visitors every year to break even, which seems like a high bar to clear—even if it represents just one percent of what Game of Thrones pulls in on a good week. Given its nature as a localized interactive experience, it seems destined to be both a labor of love and an irreproducible outlier. (To be honest, I’m not entirely sorry about this: I’m not sure that I want to see a version of this experience that was done with anything less than the resources and the attentiveness that we see here, and a bad knockoff of it would be unbearable.) Yet I have the feeling that its real legacy will be as a crucible of talent, or a hub to an artistic multiverse of its own, with other projects or careers reverberating away from it like ripples in spacetime. To conceive, plan, and above all execute this story in a tangible form, with all of the specific problems that would have presented themselves along the way, must have been an education in itself, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the participants went on to do fascinating things with the skills they acquired in the process. It’s a house that leads into many rooms, and the most interesting ones may not even exist yet.

Written by nevalalee

May 24, 2016 at 9:16 am

Quote of the Day

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Osip Mandelstam

To exist is the artist’s greatest pride. He desires no other paradise than existence…Love the existence of the thing more than the thing itself and your own existence more than yourself.

Osip Mandelstam, “The Morning of Acmeism”

Written by nevalalee

May 24, 2016 at 7:30 am

Writing on tablecloths

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Napkin drawing by Jay Park of Facebook

Note: I’m taking a short break, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on March 31, 2015.

Writers will jot down ideas on any flat surface that happens to be handy, but one habit that seems to have vanished—along with cloth linens at most homes and restaurants—is that of doodling on tablecloths. I first encountered it as a young reader in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door:

Mrs. Murry looked down at the checked tablecloth, and at the remains of an equation which had not come out in the wash; doodling equations on anything available was a habit of which she could not break her husband.

As a child who had been strictly warned against writing on the furniture, I was struck enough by this detail to never forget it. Yet older novels and books are full of characters writing on a tablecloths, and it’s mentioned so casually that it seems to have been commonplace, as we see in Jack Olsen’s nonfiction classic The Girls in the Office:

He took me to Lüchow’s, and in the course of explaining something to me he began writing on the tablecloth with a pen. I had never seen that in my whole life; I was shocked! I said quietly, “Please don’t write on the tablecloth!” He said, “All businessmen write on tablecloths.” I said, “Well, I’ve never seen it before. Please don’t! It’s very hard to clean ink out of a tablecloth, and somebody will have to do it.”

In fact, you could write an entire history of the role of tablecloths in creative thought, although it appears to have flourished for a relatively short time, after the proliferation of cheap, easily laundered table linens and before their disappearance from most dining tables and restaurants. (It would have gone back at least to the early nineteenth century: legend has it that Schubert began composing his Octet in F Major on the tablecloth in a Viennese café. Much later, the songwriter Matt Dennis wrote the Sinatra standard “Violets for Your Furs” on a tablecloth while watching Billie Holiday perform at Kelly’s Stable in New York.) And it’s no mystery as to why the tablecloth provided such an attractive surface for noodling. With its large size and alluring emptiness, it was the whiteboard of its day, and it was right there at the diner’s elbow to capture any passing insight. Writing on cloth also offers certain tactile pleasures. And there’s the not inconsiderable fact that whatever notes you made weren’t meant to be kept. The tablecloth was a surface for daydreaming in two dimensions, not for writing anything that was supposed to last, and unless you begged or bribed the restaurant to take it with you, what you wrote down would literally come out in the wash.

Back of the envelope

Tablecloths at casual eateries can be hard to find these days, and when they do appear, they’re usually at restaurants that would frown on a customer defacing the linens. Fortunately, they were supplanted just as another convenient surface arrived on the scene: the paper napkin. A napkin, of course, is the proverbial canvas for unstructured thinking, or for rapid estimates that are only designed to guide more systematic calculations to come. (There’s even an entire book, The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam, devoted to making quick sketches for brainstorming, and although it’s a little too focused on business considerations to be useful for writers, Roam’s initial piece of advice is a good one: “To start, draw a circle and give it a name.”) What’s funny about writing on the back of the napkin is that it doesn’t really have a back: both sides are equally blank. The phrase seems to have arisen by analogy with the back of the envelope, where the distinction between front and back makes more sense, but it’s also appealing in its own right. A napkin is already disposable, and there’s no sense of permanence inhibiting us from thinking freely, but we aren’t even writing on the front of it. Both sides might look the same, but the back is where the real, unencumbered action takes place.

These days, if we don’t have a piece of scrap paper handy, we’re just as capable of taking notes on a tablet or smartphone, but we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the physical medium. Like a tablecloth, a napkin is an ideal surface for scribbling, especially with a felt marker or Pilot ballpoint pen, since the ink’s viscosity allows it to sink pleasantly into the surface. (Going back even further in time, we discover mentions of notes jotted down on blotting paper, which would have afforded many of the same delights.) And its folds, like those of an envelope, add an appealing sense of three-dimensionality: I’ve found that a blank piece of paper immediately becomes a more attractive medium for notes when it’s simply folded in half. I’ve gotten into the habit of bringing an envelope along whenever I’m going to be out of the house for more than a few minutes, and I’ll often prime it beforehand with a few notes on what I want to be thinking about that day. Sometimes I’ll even write down an Oblique Strategy or two to guide whatever brainstorming takes place. I could do something similar on my phone, or on the business cards I hoard for the same reason, but with its slightly larger area and foldability, an envelope all but begs to be used. Which only means that if you ever have a writer—or a composer—over for dinner, you’d better hide your tablecloths.

Quote of the Day

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Antonin Artaud

We have no intention of boring the audience to death with transcendent cosmic preoccupations…Every spectacle will contain a physical and objective element, perceptible to all. Cries, groans, apparitions, surprises, theatrical tricks of all kinds, the magical beauty of costumes taken from certain ritual models, dazzling lighting effects, the incantatory beauty of voices, the charm of harmony, rare notes of music, the colors of objects, the physical rhythm of movements whose crescendo and decrescendo will blend with the rhythm of movements familiar to everyone, concrete apparitions of new and surprising objects, masks, puppets larger than life, sudden changes of lightning, physical action of light which arouses sensations of heat and cold, etc.

Antonin Artaud, Selected Writings

Written by nevalalee

May 23, 2016 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Theater

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The excuse of the useless

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Oscar Wilde

No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved. No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything. Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art. Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art. From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type. All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

Oscar Wilde, “Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray

Written by nevalalee

May 22, 2016 at 7:30 am

The art of depth

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Robert Delaunay

The word “simultaneous” is a term of professional jargon, like “reinforced concrete” in construction…The “simultaneous” is a technique. The technique shapes primary matter, universal matter, the world.

Poetry is mind into matter.

Sounds, colors, voices, dances, passions, mineral, vegetable, animal, textiles, butchery, chemistry, physics, civilization, offspring, father, mother, paintings, dresses, posters, books, poems, this lamp, this whistle, are the technique, the craft. Simultaneous contrast is the newest improvement in this craft, this technique. Simultaneous contrast is depth perceived. Reality. Form. Construction. Representation.

Depth is the new inspiration. All we see is seen in depth. We live in depth. We travel in depth. I am there. The senses are there. And the spirit.

Robert Delaunay, “Simultanism”

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May 21, 2016 at 7:30 am

The essential strangeness of fairy tales

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Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky

Note: I’m taking a break for the next few days, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on March 30, 2015.

Over the last few months, I’ve been telling my daughter a lot of fairy tales. My approach has been largely shaped, for better or worse, by Bruno Bettelheim’s book The Uses of Enchantment: I happened to read it a few years ago as part of an unrelated writing project, but it also contained insights that I felt compelled to put to use almost at once in my own life. Bettelheim is a controversial figure for good reason, and he’s not a writer whose ideas we need to accept at face value, but he makes several points that feel intuitively correct. When it comes to fairy tales, it seems best to tell the oldest versions of each story that we have, as refined through countless retellings, rather than a more modern interpretation that hasn’t been as thoroughly tested; and, when possible, it’s preferable to tell them without a book or pictures, which gets closer to the way in which they were originally transmitted. And the results have been really striking. Stories like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” have seized my daughter’s imagination, to the point where we’ll discuss them as if they happened to her personally, and she isn’t fazed by some of their darker aspects. (In “Hansel and Gretel,” when I tell her that the parents wanted to take their children into the woods and leave them there, she’ll cheerfully add: “And kill dem dere!”)

There’s no denying that the traditional versions of these fairy tales contain elements that most contemporary parents find disturbing or inexplicable, like the red-hot shoes that the evil queen in “Snow White” is forced to wear to dance herself to death, or the willingness of the father in “Hansel and Gretel” to abandon his children in the forest. (When my wife told me that she thought that the real villain in that story is the father, I replied: “Actually, I think the real villain is the witch who cooks and eats little kids.”) It’s tempting to tone down the originals a bit, sometimes to the point of insipidity: I recently came across a retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” in which the wolf doesn’t eat the grandmother at all—she just gets scared and runs off to hide behind the house. But based solely on my own observations, I think it’s a mistake to shy away from the darkness: not, as Bettelheim would have it, for its psychological benefits, which can be hard to pin down anyway, but simply from the perspective of good storytelling. A version of “Little Red Riding Hood” in which the wolf doesn’t eat the grandmother doesn’t just trivialize the wolf, but everybody else involved, and it’s liable to strike both child and parent as equally pointless. And kids who sense that their time is being wasted won’t ask to repeat the experience.


And there’s a particularly important point here, which is that the more bizarre or irrational the detail—and the harder it is to extract any clear lesson from it—the more likely it has survived for a reason. Plot points that are simply functional or logical, or which serve an obvious didactic purpose, as in “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” will be retained out of practical considerations; when something arbitrary, grotesque, or even borderline immoral lingers on through countless retellings, it can only be because it gets at something fundamental. It reminds me a little of the criterion of embarrassment in literary analysis, which states that a historical detail that would have seemed embarrassing or strange to its original authors or readers—like the crucifixion—is likely to be authentic, since they wouldn’t be inclined to invent such an inconvenient fact if they had any choice. (Similarly, in classical philology, when you need to choose between two variants of the same text, the stranger or more unusual form is usually the older one: it’s more probable that a scribal error would smooth out a perceived anomaly to make it more conventional, rather than the other way around.) We may not be able to articulate why these details are there, but the fact that they were selected to survive speaks to their importance and resilience, which would be foolish to underestimate.

And it can be disorienting to move from the older versions of these stories to their more recent, Disneyfied incarnations. In the version of “Rapunzel” recorded by the Brothers Grimm, for instance, the story is set in motion by the mother’s obsessive desire to eat some of the lettuce from the garden of the sorceress next door. We aren’t told why she wants it so badly; she simply tells her husband that if she can’t have it, she fears that she will die. In Tangled, this detail is rationalized and clearly motivated: the lettuce becomes a flower with magical healing properties, and it’s literally used to save the queen’s life. This version has the benefit of explaining away the weirdness in the original tale, and it’s far more acceptable from a narrative point of view, but it also diminishes its mystery and resonance. I like Tangled a lot, and I’m not going to reject the Disney versions of these stories—which have considerable artistic merits of their own—just because they soften or minimize the darker elements of their sources. (Although I do avoid the Disney storybooks, which follow the plot points by rote while losing most of the appeal of both the movie and the original story.) But it’s worth remembering that each version exists to fulfill a different need, and a child’s inner life ought to have room for both.

Written by nevalalee

May 20, 2016 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

May 20, 2016 at 7:30 am

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