Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for June 2017

The X factor

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On Wednesday, the Washington Post published an article on the absence of women on the writing staff of The X-Files. Its author, Sonia Rao, pointed out that all of the writers for the upcoming eleventh season—including creator Chris Carter, Darin Morgan, Glen Morgan, James Wong, and three newcomers who had worked on the series as assistants—are men, adding: “It’s an industry tradition for television writers to rise through the ranks in this manner, so Carter’s choices were to be expected. But in 2017, it’s worth asking: How is there a major network drama that’s so dominated by male voices?” It’s a good question. The network didn’t comment, but Gillian Anderson responded on Twitter: “I too look forward to the day when the numbers are different.” In the same tweet, she noted that out of over two hundred episodes, only two were directed by women, one of whom was Anderson herself. (The other was Michelle MacLaren, who has since gone on to great things in partnership with Vince Gilligan.) Not surprisingly, there was also a distinct lack of female writers on the show’s original run, with just a few episodes written by women, including Anderson, Sara B. Cooper, and Kim Newton, the latter of whom, along with Darin Morgan, was responsible for one of my favorite installments, “Quagmire.” And you could argue that their continued scarcity is due to a kind of category selection, in which we tend to hire people who look like those who have filled similar roles in the past. It’s largely unconscious, but no less harmful, and I say this as a fan of a show that means more to me than just about any other television series in history.

I’ve often said elsewhere that Dana Scully might be my favorite fictional character in any medium, but I’m also operating from a skewed sample set. If you’re a lifelong fan of a show like The X-Files, you tend to repeatedly revisit your favorite episodes, but you probably never rewatch the ones that were mediocre or worse, which leads to an inevitable distortion. My picture of Scully is constructed out of four great Darin Morgan episodes, a tiny slice of the mytharc, and a dozen standout casefiles like “Pusher” and even “Triangle.” I’ve watched each of these episodes countless times, so that’s the version of the series that I remember—but it isn’t necessarily the show that actually exists. A viewer who randomly tunes into a rerun on syndication is much more likely to see Scully on an average week than in “War of the Coprophages,” and in many episodes, unfortunately, she’s little more than a foil for her partner or a convenient victim to be rescued. (Darin Morgan, who understood Scully better than anyone, seems to have gravitated toward her in part out of his barely hidden contempt for Mulder.) Despite these flaws, Scully still came to mean the world to thousands of viewers, including young women whom she inspired to go into medicine and the sciences. Gillian Anderson herself is deeply conscious of this, and this seems to have contributed to her refreshing candor here, as well as on such related issues as the fact that she was initially offered half of David Duchovny’s salary to return. Anderson understands exactly how much she means to us, and she’s conducted herself accordingly.

The fact that the vast majority of the show’s episodes were written by men also seems to have fed into one of its least appealing qualities, which was how Scully’s body—and particularly her reproductive system—was repeatedly used as a plot point. Part of this was accidental: Anderson’s pregnancy had to be written into the second season, and the writers ended up with an abduction arc with a medical subtext that became hopelessly messy later on. It may not have been planned that way, any more than anything else on this show ever was, but it had the additional misfortune of being tethered to a conspiracy storyline for which it was expected to provide narrative clarity. After the third season, nobody could keep track of the players and their motivations, so Scully’s cancer and fertility issues were pressed into service as a kind of emotional index to the rest. These were pragmatic choices, but they were also oddly callous, especially as their dramatic returns continued to diminish. And in its use of a female character’s suffering to motivate a male protagonist, it was unfortunately ahead of the curve. When you imagine flipping the narrative so that Mulder, not Scully, was one whose body was under discussion, you see how unthinkable this would have been. It’s exactly the kind of unexamined notion that comes out of a roomful of writers who are all operating with the same assumptions. It isn’t just a matter of taste or respect, but of storytelling, and in retrospect, the show’s steady decline seems inseparable from the monotony of its creative voices.

And this might be the most damning argument of all. Even before the return of Twin Peaks reminded us of how good this sort of revival could be, the tenth season of The X-Files was a crushing disappointment. It had exactly one good episode, written, not coincidentally, by Darin Morgan, and featuring Scully at her sharpest and most joyous. Its one attempt at a new female character, despite the best efforts of Lauren Ambrose, was a frustrating misfire. Almost from the start, it was clear that Chris Carter didn’t have a secret plan for saving the show, and that he’d already used up all his ideas over the course of nine increasingly tenuous seasons. It’s tempting to say that the show had burned though all of its possible plotlines, but that’s ridiculous. This was a series that had all of science fiction, fantasy, and horror at its disposal, combined with the conspiracy thriller and the procedural, and it should have been inexhaustible. It wasn’t the show that got tired, but its writers. Opening up the staff to a more diverse set of talents would have gone a long way toward addressing this. (The history of science fiction is as good an illustration as any of the fact that diversity is good for everyone, not simply its obvious beneficiaries. Editors and showrunners who don’t promote it end up paying a creative price in the long run.) For a show about extreme possibilities, it settled for formula distressingly often, and it would have benefited from adding a wider range of perspectives—particularly from writers with backgrounds that have historically offered insight into such matters as dealing with oppressive, impersonal institutions, which is what the show was allegedly about. It isn’t too late. But we might have to wait for the twelfth season.

Written by nevalalee

June 30, 2017 at 8:56 am

Quote of the Day

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My sketches…are very free and expressive, yet pretty well-informed in terms of scale. I’m sketching with information…It’s not just arbitrary. It comes out of a brain informed about the program, the scale, the size. It’s hard to say all these important things are in it, but they are. Something’s informing this hand to move like that. It doesn’t just happen. There’s a relevance to the images, and I start building on that.

Frank Gehry, Conversations with Frank Gehry

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June 30, 2017 at 7:30 am

The act of cutting

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In a recent article in The New Yorker on Ernest Hemingway, Adam Gopnik evocatively writes: “The heart of his style was not abbreviation but amputation; not simplicity but mystery.” He explains:

Again and again, he creates his effects by striking out what would seem to be essential material. In “Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick’s complicated European experience—or the way that fishing is sanity-preserving for Nick, the damaged veteran—is conveyed clearly in the first version, and left apparent only as implication in the published second version. In a draft of the heartbreaking early story “Hills Like White Elephants,” about a man talking his girlfriend into having an abortion, Hemingway twice uses the words “three of us.” This is the woman’s essential desire, to become three rather than two. But Hemingway strikes both instances from the finished story, so the key image remains as ghostly subtext within the sentences. We feel the missing “three,” but we don’t read it.

Gopnik concludes: “The art comes from scissoring out his natural garrulousness, and the mystery is made by what was elided. Reading through draft and then finished story, one is repeatedly stunned by the meticulous rightness of his elisions.” Following Hemingway’s own lead, Gopnik compares his practice to that of Cézanne, but it’s also reminiscent of Shakespeare, who frequently omits key information from his source material while leaving the other elements intact. Ambiguity, as I’ve noted here before, emerges from a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been ruthlessly cutting the first draft of my book, leaving me highly conscious of the effects that can come out of compression. In his fascinating notebooks, which I quoted here yesterday, Samuel Butler writes: “I have always found compressing, cutting out, and tersifying a passage suggests more than anything else does. Things pruned off in this way are like the heads of the hydra, two grow for every two that is lopped off.” This squares with my experience, and it reflects how so much of good writing depends on juxtaposition. By cutting, you’re bringing the remaining pieces closer together, which allows them to resonate. Butler then makes a very interesting point:

If a writer will go on the principle of stopping everywhere and anywhere to put down his notes, as the true painter will stop anywhere and everywhere to sketch, he will be able to cut down his works liberally. He will become prodigal not of writing—any fool can be this—but of omission. You become brief because you have more things to say than time to say them in. One of the chief arts is that of knowing what to neglect and the more talk increases the more necessary does this art become.

I love this passage because it reveals how two of my favorite activities—taking notes and cutting—are secretly the same thing. On some level, writing is about keeping the good stuff and removing as much of the rest as possible. The best ideas are likely to occur spontaneously when you’re doing something unrelated, which is why you need to write them down as soon as they come to you. When you’re sitting at your desk, you have little choice but to write mechanically in hopes that something good will happen. And in the act of cutting, the two converge.

Cutting can be a creative act in itself, which is why you sometimes need to force yourself to do it, even when you’d rather not. You occasionally see a distinction drawn between the additive and subtractive arts, but any work often partakes of both at various stages, which confer different benefits. In Behind the Seen, Charles Koppelman says of editing a movie in postproduction:

The orientation over the last six months has been one of accumulation, a building-up of material. Now the engines are suddenly thrown into full reverse. The enterprise will head in the opposite direction, shedding material as expeditiously as possible.

We shouldn’t disregard how challenging that mental switch can be. It’s why an editor like Walter Murch rarely visits the set, which allows him to maintain a kind of Apollonian detachment from the Dionysian process of filmmaking: he doesn’t want to be dissuaded from the need to cut a scene by the knowledge of how hard it was to make it. Writers and other artists working alone don’t have that luxury, and it can be difficult to work yourself up to the point where you’re ready to cut a section that took a long time to write. Time creates its own sort of psychological distance, which is why you’re often advised to put aside the draft for a few weeks, or even longer, before starting to revise it. (Zadie Smith writes deflatingly: “A year or more is ideal—but even three months will do.”) That isn’t always possible, and sometimes the best compromise is to work briefly on another project, like a short story. A change is as good as a rest, and in this case, you’re trying to transform into your future self as soon as possible, which will allow you to perform clinical surgery on the past.

The result is a lot like the old joke: you start with a block of marble, and you cut away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant. When I began to trim my manuscript, I set myself the slightly arbitrary goal of reducing it, at this stage, by thirty percent, guided by the editing rule that I mentioned here a month ago:

Murch also has his eye on what he calls the “thirty percent factor”—a rule of thumb he developed that deals with the relationship between the length of the film and the “core content” of the story. In general, thirty percent of a first assembly can be trimmed away without affecting the essential features of the script: all characters, action, story beats will be preserved and probably, like a good stew, enhanced by the reduction in bulk. But passing beyond the thirty percent barrier can usually be accomplished only by major structural alterations: the reduction or elimination of a character, or whole sequences—removing vital organs rather than trimming fat.

There’s no particular reason why the same percentage should hold for a book as well as a film, but I’ve found that it’s about right. (It also applies to other fields, like consumer electronics.) Really, though, it could have been just about any number, as long as it gave me a clear numerical goal at which to aim, and as long as it hurt a little. It’s sort of like physical exercise. If you want to lose weight, the best way is to eat less, and if you want to write a short book, ideally, you’d avoid writing too much in the first place. But the act of cutting, like exercise, has rewards of its own. As Elie Wiesel famously said: “There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.” And the best indication that you’re on the right track is when it becomes physically painful. As Hemingway writes in A Farewell to Arms: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” That’s also true of books.

Written by nevalalee

June 29, 2017 at 8:38 am

Quote of the Day

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I like elements which are hybrid rather than “pure,” compromising rather than “clean,” distorted rather than “straightforward,” ambiguous rather than “articulated,” perverse as well as impersonal, boring as well as “interesting,” conventional rather than “designed,” accommodating rather than excluding, redundant rather than simple, vestigial as well as innovating, inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear. I am for messy vitality over obvious unity. I include the non sequitur and proclaim the duality…But an architecture of complexity and contradiction has a special obligation toward the whole: its truth must be in its totality or its implications of totality. It must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion. More is not less.

Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture

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June 29, 2017 at 7:30 am

The science fiction sieve

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In a remarkably lucid essay published last week in Nautilus, the mathematician Noson S. Yanofsky elegantly defines the self-imposed limitations of science. Yanofsky points out that scientists deliberately take a subset of phenomena—characterized mostly by how amenable it is to their chosen methods—for their field of study, while leaving the rest to the social sciences or humanities. (As Paul Valéry put it: “Science means simply the aggregate of all the recipes that are always successful. All the rest is literature.”) He visualizes science as a kind of sieve, which lets in some subjects while excluding others:

The reason why we see the structure we do is that scientists act like a sieve and focus only on those phenomena that have structure and are predictable. They do not take into account all phenomena; rather, they select those phenomena they can deal with…Scientists have classified the general textures and heights of different types of clouds, but, in general, are not at all interested in the exact shape of a cloud. Although the shape is a physical phenomenon, scientists don’t even attempt to study it. Science does not study all physical phenomena. Rather, science studies predictable physical phenomena. It is almost a tautology: science predicts predictable phenomena.

Yanofsky groups these criteria under the general heading “symmetry,” and he concludes: “The physicist must be a sieve and study those phenomena that possess symmetry and allow those that do not possess symmetry to slip through her fingers.” I won’t get into the rest of his argument, which draws an ingenious analogy from mathematics, except to say that it’s worth reading in its entirety. But I think his thesis is sound, and it ties into many issues that I’ve discussed here before, particularly about the uncomfortable status of the social sciences.

If you’re trying to catch this process in action, though, the trouble is that the boundaries of science aren’t determined by a general vote, or even by the work of isolated geniuses, but emerge gradually and invisibly from the contributions of countless individuals. But if I were a historian of science, I’d take a close look at the development of science fiction, in which an analogous evolution occurred in plain sight over a relatively short period of time. You can see it clearly in the career of the editor John W. Campbell, who remained skeptical of the social sciences, but whose signal contribution to the genre may have been to put them at its center. And the “sieve” that he ended up using is revealing in itself. A significant turning point was the arrival on his desk of Robert A. Heinlein’s landmark novella “If This Goes On—,” of which Campbell wrote in 1939:

Robert Heinlein, in his “If This Goes On—,” presents a civilization in which mob psychology and propaganda have become sciences. They aren’t, yet…Psychology isn’t a science, so long as a trained psychologist does—and must—say “there’s no telling how an individual man will react to a given stimulus.” Properly developed, psychology could determine that.

As an editor, Campbell began to impose psychological and sociological elements onto stories where they didn’t always fit, much as he would gratuitously insert references to uranium-235 during World War II. He irritated Isaac Asimov, for instance, by asking him to add a section to the story “Homo Sol” about “certain distinctions between the emotional reactions of Africans and Asians as compared with those of Americans and Europeans.” Asimov saw this as an early sign of Campbell’s racial views, and perhaps it was, but it pointed just as convincingly to his interest in mass psychology.

And readers took notice at a surprisingly early stage. In the November 1940 issue of Astounding, a fan named Lynn Bridges presciently wrote:

The Astounding Science Fiction of the past year has brought forth a new type of story, best described, perhaps, as “sociological” science fiction. The spaceships…are still present, but more emphasis has been placed on the one item which will have more to do with shaping the future than anything else, that strange race of bipeds known as man…Both Asimov [in “Homo Sol”] and Heinlein [in “If This Goes On—”] treat psychology as an exact science, usable in formulas, certain in results. I feel called upon to protest. Its very nature prevents psychology from achieving the exactness of mathematics…The moment men stop varying and the psychologist can say definitely that all men are alike psychologically, progress stops and the world becomes a very boring Utopia.

Campbell responded: “Psychology could improve a lot, though, without becoming dangerously oppressive!” Just two months later, in a letter in the January 1941 issue, Asimov referred to the prospect of “mathematical psychology”: “If we can understand Einstein and Hitler down to the mathematical whys and wherefores, we might try to boost along a few Einsteins and cut down on a few Hitlers, and progress might really get going.” Campbell replied much as before: “Psychology isn’t an exact science—but it can be.” Implicit in the whole discussion was the question of whether psychology could be tackled using the same hard-headed engineering approach that had worked for the genre before. And as I’ve written elsewhere, the evolution of Campbellian science fiction is largely one of writers who were so good at lecturing us about engineering that we barely even noticed when they moved on to sociology.

But what interests me now is the form it took in Astounding, which looks a lot like the sieve that Yanofsky describes. Campbell may have hoped that psychology would learn how to predict “how an individual man will react to a given stimulus,” but he seems to have sensed that this wouldn’t be credible or interesting in fiction. Instead, he turned to two subsets of psychology that were more suited to the narrative tools at his disposal. One was the treatment of simplified forms of human personality—say, for instance, in a robot. The other was the treatment of large masses of individuals. Crucially, neither was necessarily more possible than predicting the behavior of individuals, but they had the advantage that they could be more plausibly treated in fiction. Campbell’s preferred instrument at the time was Asimov, who was reliable, willing to take instruction, and geographically close enough to talk over ideas in person. As a result, Asimov’s most famous stories can be read as a series of experiments to see how the social sciences could be legitimately explored by the genre. The Three Laws of Robotics, which Campbell was the first to explicitly formulate, are really a simplified model of human behavior: Campbell later wrote that they were essentially “the basic desires of a small child, with the exception that the motivation of desire for love has been properly omitted.” At the other end of the spectrum, psychohistory looks for laws that can be applied on a mass scale, and it’s central not only to the Foundation series but even to “Nightfall,” with its theme of the cyclical rise and fall of civilizations. In science, you could draw a parallel to artificial intelligence and macroeconomics, which represent two extremes at which qualities of symmetry and predicability seem to enter the realm of psychology. In between, there’s a vast terrain of human experience that Campbell was never quite able to tackle, and that impulse ended up being channeled into dianetics. But much as science can be defined as everything that makes it through the sieve of symmetry, Campbell had a sieve of his own, and the result was the science fiction of the golden age.

Written by nevalalee

June 28, 2017 at 9:07 am

Quote of the Day

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People between the ages of twenty and thirty read a good deal. After thirty their reading drops off and by forty is confined to each person’s special subject, newspapers, and magazines; so that the most important part of one’s audience, and that which should be mainly written for, consists of specialists and people between twenty and thirty.

Samuel Butler, Notebooks

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June 28, 2017 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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The bed of the future

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Earlier this week, I noticed a post on the front page of Reddit with the headline: “After a 1946 plane crash, Howard Hughes decided he did not like the design of the hospital bed he was laying in [sic]. He called in his engineers and had them design a new bed that would allow someone with severe burns to move freely. It became the prototype for the modern hospital bed.” This wasn’t the first time that this particular fact, with a link to the Wikipedia article on Hughes, had been posted there—in fact, it was copied and pasted from an identical submission from last year, which in itself duplicated at least two earlier posts—but it happened to catch my eye for reasons that I’ll explain later. Surprisingly enough, there appears to be a germ of truth to it. After Hughes crashed his XF-11 test plane on July 7, 1946, he did indeed ask his staff to build an improved hospital bed. As far as I can tell, it was first reported the following month in an article by the Associated Press, “Hughes Designs Hospital Bed,” which read in its entirety as follows:

Plane-maker Howard Hughes, critically injured July 7 in an airplane crash, didn’t like his hospital bed so he called in plant engineers to design a “tailor-made,” equipped with hot and cold running water. The motorized bed, on which he now is resting at the home of a friend, is built in six sections and is operated by thirty electric motors. Push-button adjustments helped him ease his pain considerably during the thirty-seven days he spent in the hospital suffering from eleven broken ribs and severe burns. Hughes took the bed, tailored to the contours of his spine, with him when he left the hospital Saturday. “I think he left in an ambulance,” said a nurse, “but I’d believe it if someone told me he flew home in that bed.”

After that, the story reappears sporadically in treatments of Hughes’s life, with elaborations that reflect either additional sources, apocryphal expansion, or some combination of the two. In Hughes: The Private Diaries, Memos, and Letters, for instance, we read:

Hughes had ordered his aviation engineers to devise a mattress that could be adjusted mechanically with his body’s movement as he continued the healing process. Working through the night, the factory created foam bedding that was divided into thirty-two sections, each controlled by a pneumatic piston and its own motor. When the mattress was rolled into Hughes’ room, he took one look at the complicated controls and sent it into storage, while leaking news of its invention and taking credit for its creation.

Note that the “six sections…operated by thirty electric motors” has somehow become “thirty-two sections.” But the detail that Hughes leaked the story to the press seems credible, while a footnote adds: “The mattress was discovered, unused, in a storage locker at Hughes Aircraft in 1976.” Other sources plausibly claim that it was Hughes’s associate Glenn Odekirk who oversaw the project. Over time, however, obvious exaggerations and distortions begin to creep in. One biography states: “[The bed] was quickly built and worked admirably, helping speed his recovery.” And then there’s this version:

Hughes’s bed was self-propelled, powered by thirty electric motors and controlled from an elaborate aircraft-style cockpit. From the comfort of this mobile sleeping machine, Hughes could tour the hospital wards, position his bed wherever he fancied, and summon up creature comforts such as music and hot and cold running water, all at the touch of a button.

What’s missing from all of these sources is the assertion that Hughes’s design was the basis of the modern hospital bed—and as a matter of fact, it wasn’t. In the November 12, 1945 issue of Life, which was published more than seven months before Hughes’s accident, an article titled “Push-Button Hospital Bed” presents a bed that includes all of the features mentioned above, using remarkably similar language. The wonderfully named Dr. Marvel Darlington Beem, it states, has built “a streamlined, electrically powered hospital bed which has a full-sized toilet built in,” and it goes on to describe it in detail:

Dr. Beem’s bed also includes other features which almost make it possible for patients to take care of themselves without any help at all. Piloting the bed like an airplane [italics mine] from a panel of switches…a patient may raise his head and feet, swing in front of a washbasin with hot and cold running water, open and shut windows, draw blinds, heat the bed, turn on lights anywhere in the room, or call a nurse. Also built into the bed are a collapsible table, an ultraviolet lamp, and an overhead trapeze bar for the patient to move himself around.

At the time of the XF-11 crash, Beem’s bed was still in the prototype stage, and it isn’t clear if anyone on the Hughes team ever saw it. (As the Life article notes, Beem practiced in Los Angeles, and Hughes was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital on Wilshire Boulevard, so it isn’t impossible that one was the inspiration for the other. Beem’s design was also written up in the August 1946 issue of Popular Mechanics, which would have been on newsstands when Hughes had his accident.) Judging from the few scraps of information that I’ve been able to find about Beem, he continued to show his bed at trade shows and to promote it in magazines well into the fifties, which indicates that it wasn’t in wide use for years. The modern hospital bed may well have developed along independent lines. But you can make a much better case for Beem than you can for Hughes.

Of course, this isn’t as good of a story, which may be why it emerged in the first place. Although Wikipedia includes the line “Hughes’s bed served as a prototype for the modern hospital bed,” the source to which it links, Donald L. Bartlett and James B. Steele’s Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness, makes no such claim. But it’s more fun to credit it to Hughes—even if he never did anything with it—than to the doctor who actually developed it and spent a decade shopping it around. (Amusingly, after the article about the bed appeared in Life, the magazine published a letter from the legendary science fiction editor Hugo Gernsback, founder of Amazing Stories, who noted that he had recently published a diagram of an “electronic bed,” pictured above, in his annual Christmas issue for subscribers. Life thanked him and informed its readers: “Years before they came true, [Gernsback] also predicted radio loudspeakers, television, radio-controlled vehicles and almost every other mechanical invention.” But that doesn’t mean he invented the modern hospital bed, either.) The Hughes factoid only caught my attention at all because it reminded me of the story that Robert A. Heinlein designed an early version of a water bed, as he recounts in Expanded Universe:

I designed the waterbed during years as a bed patient in the middle thirties; a pump to control water level, side supports to permit one to float rather than simply lying on a not very soft water filled mattress. Thermostatic control of temperature, safety interfaces to avoid all possibility of electric shock, waterproof box to make a leak no more important than a leaky hot water bottle rather than a domestic disaster…[It was] an attempt to design the perfect hospital bed by one who had spent too damn much time in hospital beds.

You see this anecdote repeated a lot, and, with some caveats, it’s basically correct. But it’s also one of the least interesting things about Heinlein. Similarly, if you were to list all of the most fascinating facts about Howard Hughes, the notion that he designed the modern hospital bed, even if it were true, wouldn’t rank in the top ten. Yet it’s one of the only items about Hughes that makes it consistently onto Reddit, which implies that there’s something about it that appeals to us. It’s a cute story. But it’s time to put it to bed.

Written by nevalalee

June 27, 2017 at 9:06 am

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