Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for June 2016

“In the lights of the cameras…”

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"Shortly after midnight..."

Note: This post is the fifty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 56. You can read the previous installments here.

Few creative choices are so central to the writing process as the selection of a point of view, but it’s often a haphazard, instinctive decision. Unless you’re working in an overtly experimental mode, you’re usually stuck with the first or third person, which isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. It helps to visualize your set of options as a scatter plot, with the dots growing denser around two blobs that we call the first- and third-person point of view—although the boundaries are fuzzy, and there’s a wide range of possibilities within each category. When a writer begins a story, he or she usually selects a point of view from the start, but it’s only in the act of writing itself that the style settles into a particular spot on the spectrum, which can be further refined at the revision stage. The first person is slightly more limited in scope, which is why an author like Henry James, who called it “the darkest abyss of romance,” could claim that it was inherently unsuited to the novel. But it clearly has its uses, and there are even signs that genre readers have come to prefer it. It opens up delicious possibilities for unreliable narrators, who threaten to become a cliché in themselves, and the intimacy that it creates, even if it’s an illusion, can encourage a greater identification with the protagonist. (Hence the fact that the Nancy Drew series switched from the third person to the first about a decade ago, which feels like a sign of the times.)

I made the choice long ago to write my fiction in the third person, and it has remained pretty much in place for everything I’ve published, for both short stories and novels. (The one exception is my story “Ernesto,” which is set to be reprinted soon by Lightspeed: I gave it a first-person narrator as an homage to Holmes and Watson and to discourage me from attempting a bad imitation of Hemingway.) By design, it’s a detached style: I never dip into interior monologue, and even strong emotions are described as objectively as possible. For the most part, I’m comfortable with this decision, although I’m also conscious of its limitations. As far as I can recall, I arrived at it as a form of constraint to keep certain unwanted tendencies in check: these novels are violent and sometimes implausible, and I developed a slightly chilly voice that I thought would prevent the action from becoming unduly hysterical or going out of control.  I wanted it to be objective, like a camera, so that the reader would be moved or excited by events, rather than by the manner in which they were related. Looking back, though, I sometimes wish that I’d modified my approach to give me the option of going deeper into the protagonist’s thoughts when necessary, as Thomas Harris sometimes does. By keeping my characters at arm’s length, I’ve limited the kinds of stories I can tell, and while I don’t mind staying within that range, it also means that I didn’t devote time to developing skills that might be useful now.

"In the lights of the cameras..."

That said, I still prefer the third person over the first, and I especially like how it can be imperceptibly nudged in one direction or another to suit the demands of the story. This comes in handy when you’re writing what amounts, in places, to a mystery novel. When you’re working in the first person, it can be hard to conceal information from the reader without it feeling like a gimmick or a cheat—although a few authors, like Agatha Christie, have pulled it off brilliantly. The third person allows you to pull back or zoom in as necessary to manage the reader’s access to the plot, and when you’re working in an omniscient mode that allows you to move between characters at will, you can even cut away entirely. These tricks have been baked into the third person as we’ve come to accept it, so a reader, ideally, will accept such shifts without thinking. (It’s possible to take this kind of switching too far, of course, which is why I try to stick with a single point of view per chapter, and I’m never entirely happy with my attempts to cycle between characters within a single scene.) When an author’s style is inherently objective, we aren’t likely to notice if it retreats or advances a little, any more than it registers when a movie cuts from a medium long shot to a medium shot. And if I’ve remained faithful to that style, it’s largely because it’s more flexible than it seems, and its gradations don’t tend to call attention to themselves.

There’s a good functional example of this in Chapter 56 of Eternal Empire. The first two pages are unusual in that they’re effectively told from nobody’s point of view: they relate a series of events—the explosion of the shadow boat, the movements of reporters, the arrival of the evacuees on shore, and the withdrawal of three unidentified figures to a distant part of the quay—as if recounting them in a news dispatch. (In fact, this is literally what is happening: a big chunk of the section is described as if it were being seen by a viewer on a newscast. If I repeatedly mention the camera crews, it’s to provide an artificial viewpoint through which to narrate the action. The lack of a central character is disguised because a camera has taken its place, which isn’t a tactic that can be extended indefinitely, but it works well enough to get me to the second page.) The reason is obvious: I don’t want to reveal that the three men who have detached themselves from the crowd are Orlov, Ilya, and Tarkovsky, whose fate up to this point has been left up in the air. This wouldn’t work at all in the first person, and if it works here, it’s because I’ve established a style that allows, when the plot calls for it, for the removal of the characters entirely. Very little of this was conscious, but it was all built on a choice of tone that I made two novels earlier, on the hunch that it would lend itself to the kind of story I wanted to tell. A paragraph or two later, we’re back in Ilya’s head. And if I’ve pulled it off properly, the reader should never notice that we left it at all…

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June 30, 2016 at 9:07 am

Quote of the Day

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Russell Edson

Any way of writing that isolates the writer from worldly acceptance offers the greatest creative efficiency. Isolation from other writers, and isolation from easy publishing. This gives one the terrible privacy so hard to bear, but necessary to get past the idea one has of oneself in relation to the world.

Russell Edson, “Portrait of the Writer as a Fat Man”

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June 30, 2016 at 7:30 am

Astounding Stories #12: “Izzard and the Membrane”

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Izzard and the Membrane

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

“The Internet is the great masterpiece of civilization,” Virginia Heffernan writes in her new book Magic and Loss, and whether or not you agree with her, it’s hard to deny its importance. It touches every aspect of our lives, at least in the parts of the world where it’s possible for you to read these words now, and any attempt to write about how we live today has to take it into account. For those who like to define science fiction as a predictive literature, its failure to collectively foresee the Internet in a meaningful way—in the sense that it devoted so much energy to such subjects as space travel—is perhaps the genre’s greatest cause for regret. You could say, fairly enough, that it’s easy to point out such shortcomings in hindsight, or even that science fiction’s true strength doesn’t lie in prediction, but in preparing its readers for developments that none of us can see coming. But there’s no denying that the absence of anything like the Internet in the vast majority of science fiction has enormous practical consequences. It means that most visions of the future are inevitably dated, and that we need to continuously suspend disbelief to read stories about galactic empires in which computers or information technology don’t play any part at all. (In some ways, the internal logic of Dune, in which thinking machines have been outlawed, has allowed it to hold up in respects that Frank Herbert himself probably never anticipated.)

Of course, in a literature that constantly spun out wild notions in all directions, there were a few stories that were bound to seem prescient, if only by the law of truly large numbers. The idea of a worldwide machine that runs civilization—and the problems that an ordinary mortal would have in dealing with it—was central to R. DeWitt Miller’s “The Master Shall Not Die,” which was published in 1938. Eight years later, A.E. van Vogt’s visionary novel Slan showed its hero interacting through a computer with a Bureau of Statistics that put “a quadrillion facts” at his disposal. Most impressive of all is Will Jenkins’s “A Logic Named Joe,” which appeared a short time earlier: Jenkins, better known under the pen name Murray Leinster, built the story around an interlinked computer network that can answer any conceivable question, and which has already replaced most of the world’s filing clerks, secretaries, and messenger services. When one of the computers accidentally develops “ambition,” it gleefully provides users with advice on how to murder their wives, shows dirty videos to children, and makes suggestions for other illegal queries they might want to ask. (When faced with the prospect of simply turning the system off, a character objects: “If we shut off logics, we go back to a kind of civilization we have forgotten how to run!”) It not only looks forward with eerie accuracy to the Internet, but speculates about what might come next. And yet the clues it provided went mostly unexplored.

But the story that fills me with the most awe is “Izzard and the Membrane” by Walter M. Miller, Jr., which was published in the May 1951 issue of Astounding. Miller is best known today as the author of A Canticle for Leibowitz, but he was also a prolific author of short fiction, and in a single novelette, he manages to lay out most of the concerns of the contemporary transhumanist movement. It’s about an American cyberneticist who has developed an innovative synaptic relay system—a neural network, in other words—that can be used to build a gigantic computer. After being kidnapped by the Russians, who break his will by showing him faked footage of his wife having an affair, he agrees to build a machine for them, called Izzard, that can analyze itself and suggest improvements to its own architecture. Izzard is designed to oversee the coming invasion of the United States, but it also becomes self-aware and develops a method, not just for reproducing attributes of consciousness, but of uploading an existing brain into its data banks. The hero uses it to replicate his wife, who has died, along with himself, so that his soul merges with its image in the machine. Once inside, he gradually becomes aware of another presence, who turns out to be a member of a race that has achieved transcendence already, and which is closely monitoring his work. In the end, he uses his newfound powers to foil the invasion, and he’s reunited with his wife in a virtual simulation, via a portal called the membrane, that allows him to start a new life in the universe inside his own mind.

The result is one of my ten favorite science fiction stories of all time, and not simply because it predicts a dazzling array of issues—the singularity, mind uploading, simulated reality—that seem to have entered the mainstream conversation only in the last decade or so. It’s also an exciting read, full of action and ingenious plot twists, that takes more than one reading to appreciate. Yet like “A Logic Named Joe,” it was an outlier: it doesn’t seem to have inspired other writers to take up its themes in any significant way. To some extent, that’s because it carries its premise about as far as it could possibly go, and if any story can be truthfully described as ahead of its time, it’s this one. But it’s intriguing to think about an alternative direction that science fiction might have taken if “Izzard and the Membrane” had served as the starting point for a line of speculation that the authors of the time had collaborated in developing, with some of the enthusiasm that the editor John W. Campbell devoted instead to channeling the energies of his writers into psionics. It might not have affected the future directly: in some ways, we’re still catching up to the vision that Miller provides here. But we might be better prepared to confront the coming challenges if we had absorbed them as part of the common language of science fiction over the last sixty years. “The future,” William Gibson famously observed, “is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” And that’s true of science fiction, too.

Quote of the Day

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Donald Hall

Any quality of poetry can be used for a number of purposes, including opposed purposes. Thus, concentration on technique has often been used to trivialize content, by poets afraid of what they will learn about themselves. But concentration on technique can absorb the attention while unacknowledged material enters the language; so technique can facilitate inspiration.

Donald Hall, Breakfast Served Any Time All Day

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June 29, 2016 at 7:30 am

Memoirs of an invisible writer

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Without You, There is No Us

Earlier this week, the author Suki Kim wrote an article for The New Republic titled “The Reluctant Memoirist.” It relates how Kim landed a contract to write a nonfiction book about the privileged youth of the upper classes in North Korea, which she researched by going undercover as an English-language teacher at a university in Pyongyang. She called the result Without You, There is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, but when she saw the cover design, she was surprised to see two additional words under the title: A Memoir. Here’s her account of what happened next:

I immediately emailed my editor. “I really do not feel comfortable with my book being called a memoir,” I told her…My editor would not budge. She noted that my book was written in the first person—a device I had employed, like many journalists, to provide a narrative framework for my reporting. To call it journalism, she argued, would limit its potential readership…I tried to push back. “This is no Eat, Pray, Love,” I argued during a phone call with my editor and agent.

“You only wish,” my agent laughed.

Kim says: “But that was the whole point. I did not wish that my book were Eat, Pray, Love…It was a subtle shift, but one familiar to professional women from all walks of life. I was being moved from a position of authority—What do you know?—to the realm of emotion: How did you feel?” And the response, when her “memoir” was released, was much as she had feared. Instead of placing her book in the tradition of such journalists as Ted Conover and Barbara Ehrenreich, which is where it clearly belonged, reviewers read it as an example of the memoir genre, leading to concerns about the author’s “deception.” Kim was labeled as an opportunist because she underwent her experience in order to write a book about it—a charge that could reasonably be leveled at every reporter ever. She found herself appearing on panels with memoirists, fielding questions about her personal growth, rather than about North Korea itself. It’s a story that raises a complicated web of questions about the commercial strategies of mainstream publishing, the way categories affect the way we approach a work of nonfiction, and even how we perceive authors based on gender and race, and it’s hard to disentangle any single factor from the rest. But I’d like to focus on one element in particular: the relationship between the author, the agent, and the editor, and how it seems to have failed in this case.

Suki Kim

I haven’t read Kim’s book, and I’m sure that her editor and agent have their own perspectives on the matter. But most writers who go the route of conventional publishing can probably understand the emotions that she expresses. Kim writes about how she had dreaded the moment when “I would have no control over my fate,” but she was surprised to find that it happened in New York, not Pyongyang. Writing of the struggle over the book’s subtitle, she concludes: “It soon became clear that this was a battle I could not win, and I relented.” Which is really an amazing statement, given the nature of the participants involved. The agent works for the author, a point that is forgotten so often that it seems worth italicizing. Similarly, the editor and the author both work for the publishing house: it isn’t a chain of command. Yet I also understand that perception. The entire process of selling a book to a commercial publisher encourages the author to feel like a supplicant. Most of us find an agent by submitting queries in hopes that just one will land an offer of representation, and even if we get it, the memory of the search can create a perceived power dynamic that persists in the face of all evidence. We pay our agents fifteen percent; they’re here to provide a service. And the obstacle race of finding an editor also obscures the fact that once a book is sold, it creates a partnership of equals, in which the author, if anyone, should have the last word about the packaging of his or her work.

But it’s easy to forget this, and having been through the process myself more than once, I can absolutely see why. In this instance, though, it wasn’t just a theoretical concern. The sense of dependence and obligation it enforces allowed Kim’s agent and editor to fall short in one area where they could have been of real value: as the author’s protectors. Kim recognized that it was a bad call, but she didn’t feel empowered to change it, and even if other issues were involved, the dynamic certainly didn’t help. (Which isn’t to say that editorial feedback on the highest level can’t be valuable. When I went out with the pitch for Astounding, I explicitly sold it as a biography of John W. Campbell, but it was my editor who suggested that the scope be expanded to include other authors from the same era. I was the one, in turn, who brought up the names of Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, and everybody was pleased with the result. That’s how it’s supposed to work.) And Kim’s example is one that every writer should remember. These forces, invisible to most readers, affect every book that we see: the title, the cover, the jacket copy, and its positioning in the marketplace are all conscious decisions, and they don’t always reflect the writer’s wishes or best interests. Sometimes they do, but only when those choices emerge from an atmosphere of trust. The writer often has to fight for it, and the structures of publishing and agenting don’t make it easy. But the author’s voice deserves to take precedence over the agent and the editor—because without us, there is no them.

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June 28, 2016 at 9:31 am

Quote of the Day

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W.D. Snodgrass

Although the abstract words—truth, justice, happiness, democracy, love, kindness, etc.—are usually dull, that is because they are normally used to narrow the field of vision, to keep people from seeing. There is no reason they cannot be used to widen vision, if the writer is either more honest or more capable of abstract thought than most of his culture is. It is not impossible to be interesting when talking about ideas or when using ideational language; it is merely improbable. The poet’s chosen vocation is to try something improbable.

W.D. Snodgrass, “Tact and the Poet’s Force”

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June 28, 2016 at 7:30 am

Brexit through the gift shop

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Art by Damien Hirst

Last week, as the world struggled to comprehend the scope of the Brexit disaster, I tweeted: “On the bright side, this is all going to make a great ironic counterpoint for the protagonist’s midlife crisis in the next Ian McEwan novel.” I was joking, of course, but the more I think about the idea, the more I like it. (It’s certainly better than the crack that I originally thought about making: “I can’t wait for Peter Morgan’s next play.”) If McEwan’s novels have one central theme, it’s how a single instant—whether it’s an impulsive decision or an act of random violence—can have unpredictable repercussions that continue to echo for years. In Atonement, Briony’s lie, which she invents on the spur of the moment, ruins at least three lives, and she atones for it only in her imagination. A similar web of unforeseeable consequences is bound to unfold from Brexit, which in itself was the result of a much less dramatic decision, apparently reached over pizza at the Chicago airport near my house, to hold a vote on exiting the European Union. What was conceived as a tactical move to stave off an internal political scuffle may lead to the final dissolution of the United Kingdom itself. Forget about McEwan: Frederick Forsyth wouldn’t have dared to use this as a plot point, although he’s probably kicking himself for not having thought of it first.

As it happens, McEwan recently made his own feelings clear, in an opinion piece written earlier this month for the Daily Mail. He wrote: “My fear is that a Brexit will set in train a general disentanglement, and Europe will confront in time all its old and terrifying ghosts…The ahistorical, spoiled children of the EU’s success are pushing us towards a dangerous unraveling.” These two sentences sound a lot like a rehearsal for potential titles: A General Disentanglement and A Dangerous Unraveling would both look great on a book cover, and either one would have worked fine for Enduring Love, which is about nothing less than a long disentanglement in the aftermath of a single bewildering event. McEwan’s favorite trick in recent years, in novels from Saturday to Solar, has been to use global events to comment sardonically on the main character’s inner life, as refracted through the protagonist’s skewed perception of the headlines, which he can’t help but see through the lens of his personal issues. It’s a technique that McEwan picked up from John Updike and the Rabbit series, one of which provides the epigraph to Solar, although the result is a little more studied in his hands than it is in the master’s. Brexit itself is the ultimate McEwan allegory: it’s the perfect parallel to a middle-aged affair, say, in which a moment of passionate folly is followed by a conscious uncoupling. If Brexit hadn’t existed, McEwan might have had to invent it.

Ian McEwan

Brexit is undeniably heartbreaking, and nothing good is likely to come of it, but there’s also a part of me that is anticipating the reaction from artists ranging from Zadie Smith to the Pet Shop Boys to Banksy. Even as the art market worries about the effect on auctions, this is a signal moment for artists in the United Kingdom, and the defining event for a generation of writers. There will be plenty of attempts to confront it directly, but its indirect impact is likely to be even more intriguing, as Norman Mailer noted about a different sort of trauma:

If you never write about 9/11 but were in the vicinity that day, you could conceivably, in time to come, describe a battle in a medieval war and provide a real sense of such a lost event. You could do a horror tale or an account of a plague. Or write about the sudden death of a beloved. Or a march of refugees…What won’t always work is to go at it directly. That kind of writing can be exhausted quickly. And the temptation to drive in head-on is, of course, immense—the event was so traumatic to so many.

We’re entering an era of indefinable uneasiness, which is an environment that inevitably produces memorable artistic reactions. It won’t exactly compensate us for the real economic and social dislocations that are bound to come, but two years of uncertainty and fear followed by a generation of malaise are ideal conditions for nurturing notable careers.

And there’s a genuine opportunity now for the reportage that the novel, in particular, does best: it can capture amorphous social forces and crystalize them in a conflict between a couple of characters, or, even better, in the conflict within one character’s heart. It may take years before the real causes and effects of the Brexit vote become clear, and the novel, with its ability to brood over a subject for long enough that the overall shape appears in a kind of time-lapse photography, is in a unique position to bring us the real news, even if it isn’t for a while. And David Cameron will probably inspire a few novels of his own. I can’t think of another example in recent history in which a seemingly trivial decision so utterly transformed a public figure’s legacy. Before Brexit, Cameron had served a relatively uneventful term of office that seemed destined to be forgotten within a decade or two; now he’s the man who gambled, lost, and threatened the stability of his own country toward the end of his monarch’s reign. (When I think of Queen Elizabeth, who just celebrated what was supposed to be a triumphant ninetieth birthday, I’m reminded of what Solon said to King Croesus: you don’t know whether a life was happy or not until it’s over.) It has stamped Cameron into the imagination of the public forever, even if it isn’t for the reasons he would have liked. We’re going to see works of art about this man’s inner life. Colin Firth just needs to put on about twenty pounds, and then we’ll be ready to go.

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June 27, 2016 at 9:09 am

Posted in Books, Writing

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