Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for December 2017

The protective shell

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I wrote my films not really understanding what I’d written. Then I shot them, and they meant certain things to me. But what they meant—that I didn’t really understand until afterwards. Long afterwards. If my relationships to my own products are so odd, it’s because often when I’m writing and shooting a film I’m inside some sort of protective shell. I hardly analyze what I’m doing or why I’m doing it. I rationalize afterwards.

Ingmar Bergman, quoted by Eric Lax in Conversations with Woody Allen

Written by nevalalee

December 31, 2017 at 7:30 am

The planners and the searchers

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In foreign aid, Planners announce good intentions but don’t motivate anyone to carry them out; Searchers find things that work and get some reward. Planners raise expectations but take no responsibility for meeting them; Searchers accept responsibility for their actions. Planners determine what to supply; Searchers find out what is in demand. Planners apply global blueprints; Searchers adapt to local conditions. Planners at the top lack knowledge of the bottom; Searchers find out what the reality is at the bottom. Planners never hear whether the Planned got what it needed; Searchers find out if the customer is satisfied…

A Planner thinks he already knows the answers; he thinks of poverty as a technical engineering problem that his answers will solve. A Searcher admits he doesn’t know the answers in advance; he believes that poverty is a complicated tangle of political, social, historical, institutional, and technological factors. A Searcher hopes to find answers to individual problems only by trial and error experimentation. A Planner believes outsiders know enough to impose solutions. A Searcher believes only insiders have enough knowledge to find solutions, and that most solutions must be homegrown.

William Easterly, The White Man’s Burden

Written by nevalalee

December 30, 2017 at 7:30 am

Tales from The Far Side

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"They're lighting their arrows!"

Note: I’m taking a few days off for the holidays, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 27, 2016.

Last year, when I finally saw The Revenant—it wasn’t a movie that my wife particularly wanted to see, so I had to wait for one of the rare weekends when she was out of town—it struck me as an exquisitely crafted film that was very hard to take seriously. Alejandro G. Iñárittu, despite his obvious visual gifts, may be the most pretentious and least self-aware director at work today—which is one reason why Birdman fell so flat in my eyes—and I would have liked The Revenant a lot more if it had allowed itself to smile a little at how absurd its story was. (Even the films of someone like Werner Herzog include flashes of dark humor, and I suspect that Herzog, who doesn’t lack for pretension, also actively seeks out such moments, even if he maintains his poker face throughout.) About five minutes after the movie began, I realized that I was fundamentally out of sync with it. It happened during the scene in which the fur trappers find themselves under attack by an Arikara war party, which announces itself, in classic fashion, with an unexpected arrow through a supporting character’s throat. A few seconds later, the camera pans up to show more arrows, now on fire, arcing through the trees overhead. It’s an eerie sight, and it’s given the usual glow by Emmanuel Lubezki’s luminous cinematography. But I’ll confess that when I first saw it, I said to myself: “Hey! They’re lighting their arrows! Can they do that?”

It’s a caption from a Far Side cartoon, of course, and it started me thinking about the ways in which the work of Gary Larson has imperceptibly shaped my inner life. I’ve spoken here before about how quotations from The Simpsons provide a complete metaphorical language for fans, like the one that Captain Picard learns in “Darmok.” You could do much the same thing with Larson’s captions, and there are a lot of fluent speakers out there. Peanuts is still the comic strip that has meant the most to me, and I count myself lucky that I grew up at a time when I could read most of Calvin and Hobbes in its original run. Yet both of these strips, like Bloom County, lived most vividly for me in the form of collections, and in the case of Peanuts, its best years were long behind it. The Far Side, by contrast, obsessed me on a daily basis, more than any other comic strip of its era. When I was eight years old, I spent a few months diligently cutting out all the panels from my local paper and pasting them into a scrapbook, which is an impulse that I haven’t felt since. Two decades later, I got a copy of The Complete Far Side for Christmas, which might still be my favorite present ever. Every three years so, I get bitten by the bug again, and I spend an evening or two with one of those huge volumes on my lap, going through the strip systematically from beginning to end. Its early years are a little rough, but they’re still wonderful, and it went out at its peak. And when I’m reading it in the right mood, there’s nothing else in the world that I’d rather be doing.

"Think there are any bears in this old cave?"

A gag panel might seem like the lowest form of comic, but The Far Side also had a weirdly novelistic quality that I’ve always admired as a writer. Larson’s style seemed easy to imitate—I think that every high school newspaper had a strip that verged on outright plagiarism—but his real gift was harder to pin down. It was the ability to take what seemed like an ongoing story, pause it, and offer it up to readers at a moment of defining absurdity. (Larson himself observes in The Prehistory of The Far Side: “Cartoons are, after all, little stories themselves, frozen at an interesting point in time.”) His ideas stick in the brain because we can’t help but wonder what happened before or afterward. Part of this because he cleverly employed all the usual tropes of the gag cartoon, which are fun precisely because of the imaginative fertility of the clichés they depict: the cowboys singing around a campfire, the explorers in pith helmets hacking their way through the jungle, the castaway on the desert island. But the snapshots in time that Larson captures are simultaneously so insane and so logical that the reader has no choice but to make up a story. The panel is never the inciting incident or the climax, but a ticklish moment somewhere in the middle. It can be the gigantic mailman knocking over buildings while a dog exhorts a crowd of his fellows: “Listen! The authorities are helpless! If the city’s to be saved, I’m afraid it’s up to us! This is our hour!” Or the duck hunter with a shotgun confronted by a row of apparitions in a hall of mirrors: “Ah, yes, Mr. Frischberg, I thought you’d come…but which of us is the real duck, Mr. Frischberg, and not just an illusion?”

In fact, you could easily go through a Far Side collection and use it as a series of writing prompts, like some demented version of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. I’ve occasionally thought about writing a story revolving around the sudden appearance of Professor DeArmond, “the epitome of evil among butterfly collectors,” or expanding on the incomparable caption: “Dwayne paused. As usual, the forest was full of happy little animals—but this time something seemed awry.” It’s hard to pick just one favorite, but the panel I’ve thought about the most is probably the one with the elephant in the trench coat, speaking in a low voice out of the darkness of the stairwell:

Remember me, Mr. Schneider? Kenya. 1947. If you’re going to shoot at an elephant, Mr. Schneider, you better be prepared to finish the job.

Years later, I spent an ungodly amount of time working on a novel, still unpublished, about an elephant hunt, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was inspired by this cartoon, I’m also not prepared to say that it wasn’t. I should also note Larson’s mastery of perfect proper names, which are harder to come up with than you might think: “Mr. Frischberg” and “Mr. Schneider” were both so nice that he said them twice. And it’s that inimitable mixture of the ridiculous and the specific that makes Larson such a model for storytellers. He made it to the far side thirty years ago, and we’re just catching up to him now.

Written by nevalalee

December 29, 2017 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

December 29, 2017 at 7:30 am

Advertising the future

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Charles Atlas

Note: I’m taking a few days off for the holidays, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 8, 2016.

In 1948, the editor John W. Campbell made an announcement that would alter the course of science fiction forever. (If you’re guessing that it had something to do with dianetics, you’re close, but about a year and a half too early.) Here’s what he wrote in the April issue of Astounding:

For the first time, advertising space in Astounding Science Fiction alone is being sold—a departure from the previous policy of selling only space in the Street & Smith fiction group. To readers, this should mean ads of real service and interest, directed to you and your interests. To the advertisers, this opens a new specialized medium. To publishers of technical and science-fiction books in particular, it should be welcome news.

The next month, in the issue in which the first targeted ads appeared, Campbell expanded on the reasoning behind the change:

Normally, in a general-circulation magazine, ads tend to be simply a space-waster from the reader’s viewpoint; in the past, to a considerable extent, I fear that they have been so in Astounding. In special-group magazines, however, advertisements properly selected for that special group serve a definite and useful purpose to both reader and advertiser…In the present issue there are several ads for science-fiction and fantasy books that you might not have heard of, or might have forgotten, books that you’ll be interested in knowing about, because they are of interest to your particular field of interest. Such ads serve as bulletin boards to keep you aware of what’s happening in this field.

It was a seemingly minor development, but it transformed the genre profoundly, to an extent that I don’t think anyone realized at the time. Advertising had been an important part of the magazine from the beginning, of course: the first issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science had a full twenty pages of ads—a bounty that seems unbelievable today, when Analog can struggle to land even one or two full-page ads on an average month. Readers of the golden age would have quickly become familiar with brands like Listerine, Charles Atlas, International Correspondence Schools, Camel cigarettes, and Calvert whiskey, and these ads still lend their yellowing pages a certain nostalgic appeal. But they didn’t have much to do with science fiction, and Campbell grew increasingly frustrated with this fact, especially as the genre began to make real incursions into the mainstream. On a number of occasions, he used his own precious editorial space to promote the anthologies, like The Best of Science Fiction and Adventures in Time and Space, that were finally appearing in bookstores, and when targeted ads made their debut at last, it must have seemed like a revolution that had taken place overnight. There were announcements of hardcover editions of Final Blackout by L. Ron Hubbard and The World of Null-A by A.E. van Vogt, along with an invitation to write for catalogs from Arkham House and Fantasy Focus. These publishers already existed before the change in policy, but there’s no question that they benefited from it. Two years later, much the same was true of the book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, which never would have reached the audience that it did without targeted advertising.

International Correspondence Schools

And it’s hard to overstate the impact that this had on science fiction. After World War II, the genre had made a dramatic push into the wider culture: the atomic bomb had radically increased interest in science fiction as a literature of prediction, and Campbell himself became something of a celebrity, giving interviews to The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal and signing a contact with Henry Holt to write The Atomic Story. Over the following years, circulation spiked to the point where newsstands had trouble keeping magazines in stock, and movies like Destination Moon, based on a story by Robert A. Heinlein, led the new wave of science fiction in film, as Dimension X did on radio. Science fiction also began to appear widely in book form for the first time, not only in anthologies and reprints, but in original novels like the Heinlein juveniles and Asimov’s Pebble in the Sky. And the option of advertising directly to the readers of magazines like Astounding was an essential cog in the machine, since it meant that science fiction fans could be seen as a distinct demographic. The following year, Campbell conducted a reader survey for the benefit of advertisers, and the results were very revealing. Not surprisingly, 93.3 percent of the respondents were male. The median age was just under thirty, most had college degrees, and the average salary was over four hundred dollars a month, placing them comfortably in the middle class. It was clearly worth investing in an audience like this: Campbell cheerfully noted that booksellers were expanding their ad purchases in response to reader demand, and circulation was at 100,000 and climbing.

But it was an end as much as it was a beginning. Fandom had formed a vibrant community since the early thirties, even if it was often torn by petty rivalries, but it’s one thing to define a group on its own terms, and quite another to have it targeted by advertisers. Today, science fiction and fantasy fans have become such a key demographic that we don’t even think of them as a separate market: it’s the cultural baseline for anyone under thirty. There’s a tremendous incentive to reach those consumers, and those early ads were a faint glimmer of the momentous developments to come. Looking back, in fact, the change in ad policy seems to mark the moment at which science fiction became too large for any one man to control. Within a year or two, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy would be giving Campbell his first real competition, and more talent would be channeled into hardcover and paperback. Campbell was essentially given one last chance to leverage his power and influence over readers into something in the real world, and he chose to stake everything on dianetics, with unfortunate results. (Even that was a lucky accident of timing: Dianetics, the book, appeared after targeted advertising allowed it to maximize its impact on readers, at a time when interest in science fiction was at its peak, and before Campbell’s hold over the field had diminished. A few years earlier or later, and it might not have made remotely the same impression.) Astounding didn’t always succeed in predicting the future, but it did manage to discover—or create—a new kind of reader, as if it were terraforming a new planet. And it wasn’t long before it was colonized by the advertisers.

Written by nevalalee

December 28, 2017 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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To be creative, scientists need libraries and laboratories and the company of other scientists; certainly a quiet and untroubled life is a help. A scientist’s work is in no way deepened or made more cogent by privation, anxiety, distress, or emotional harassment. To be sure, the private lives of scientists may be strangely and even comically mixed up, but not in ways that have any special bearing on the nature and quality of their work. If a scientist were to cut off an ear, no one would interpret such an action as evidence of an unhappy torment of creativity; nor will a scientist be excused any bizarrerie, however extravagant, on the grounds that he is a scientist, however brilliant.

Peter Medawar, Advice to a Young Scientist

Written by nevalalee

December 28, 2017 at 7:30 am

The art of the bad review

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Mark Twain

Note: I’m taking a few days off for the holidays, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 7, 2016.

Every few years, whenever my spirits need a boost, I go back and read the famous smackdown that Martin Amis delivered to the novel Hannibal by Thomas Harris, just for the simple pleasure of it. It’s one of the great savage reviews of all time, and it checks off most of the boxes that this sort of shellacking requires. Amis begins by listing the hyperbolic claims made by other reviewers—“A momentous achievement,” “A plausible candidate for the Pulitzer Prize”—and then skewering them systematically. But he also goes after the novel, significantly, from a position of respect, calling himself “a Harris fan from way back.” Writing of the earlier books in the series, he says that Harris has achieved what every popular novelist hopes to accomplish: “He has created a parallel world, a terrible antiterra, airless and arcane but internally coherent.” When Amis quotes approvingly from the previous installments, it can only make Hannibal look worse by comparison, although Harris doesn’t do himself any favors. As Amis writes:

[Lecter] has no need of “need”: Given the choice, he—and Harris—prefer to say “require”…Out buying weapons—or, rather, out “purchasing” weapons—he tells the knife salesman, “I only require one.” Why, I haven’t felt such a frisson of sheer class since I last heard room service say “How may I assist you?’” And when Lecter is guilty of forgetfulness he says “Bother”—not “Shit” or “Fuck” like the rest of us. It’s all in the details.

Amis’s review falls squarely in the main line of epic takedowns that began with Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” This is a piece that was probably ruined for a lot of readers by being assigned in high school, but it deserves a fresh look: it’s one of the funniest and most valuable essays about writing that we have, and I revisit it on a regular basis. Like Amis, Twain begins by quoting some of the puffier encomiums offered by other critics: “[Cooper’s] five tales reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention…The craft of the woodsman, the tricks of the trapper, all the delicate art of the forest were familiar to Cooper from his youth up.” (Twain proposes the following rule in response: “Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as ‘the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest’ by either the author or the people in the tale.”) Both Twain and Amis are eager to go after their subjects with a broadsword, but they’re also alert to the nuances of language. For Amis, it’s the subtle shading of pretension that creeps in when Harris writes “purchases” instead of “buys”; for Twain, it’s the distinction between “verbal” and “oral,” “precision” and “facility,” “phenomena” and “marvels,” “necessary” and “predetermined.” His eighteen rules of writing, deduced in negative fashion from Cooper’s novels, are still among the best ever assembled. He notes that one of the main requirements of storytelling is “that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.” Which, when you think about it, is even more relevant in Harris’s case—although that’s a subject for another post.

Martin Amis

I’ve learned a lot from these two essays, as I have with other bad reviews that have stuck in my head over the years. In general, a literary critic should err on the side of generosity, especially when it comes to his or her contemporaries, and a negative review of a first novel that nobody is likely to read is an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. But occasionally, a bad review can be just as valuable and memorable as any other form of criticism. I may not agree with James Wood’s feelings about John le Carré, but I’ll never forget how he sums up a passage from Smiley’s People as “a clever coffin of dead conventions.” Once a year or so, I’ll find myself remembering John Updike’s review of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, which notes the author’s obsession with muscular male bodies—“the latissimi dorsi,” “the trapezius muscles”—and catalogs his onomatopoetics, which are even harder to take seriously when you have to type them all out:

“Brannnnng! Brannnnng! Brannnnng!,” “Woooo-eeeeeee! Hegh-heggghhhhhh,” “Ahhhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhhhhhh,” “Su-puerflyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!,” “eye eye eye eye eye eye eye eye eye,” Scrack scrack scrack scraccckkk scraccccck,” “glug glug glug glugglugglug,” “Awriiighhhhhhhht!”

And half of my notions as a writer seem to have been shaped by a single essay by Norman Mailer, “Some Children of the Goddess,” in which he takes careful aim at most of his rivals from the early sixties. William Styron’s Set This House on Fire is “the magnum opus of a fat spoiled rich boy who could write like an angel about landscape and like an adolescent about people”; J.D. Salinger’s four novellas about the Glass family “seem to have been written for high-school girls”; and Updike himself writes “the sort of prose which would be admired in a writing course overseen by a fussy old nance.”

So what makes a certain kind of negative review linger in the memory for longer than the book it describes? It often involves one major writer taking aim at another, which is already more interesting than the sniping of a critic who knows the craft only from the outside. In most cases, it picks on a target worthy of the writer’s efforts. And there’s usually an undercurrent of wounded love: the best negative reviews, like the one David Foster Wallace delivered on Updike’s Toward the End of Time, or Renata Adler’s demolition of Pauline Kael, reflect a real disillusionment with a former idol. (Notice, too, how so many of the same names keep recurring, as if Mailer and Updike and Wolfe formed a closed circle that runs forever, in a perpetual motion machine of mixed feelings.) Even when there’s no love lost between the critic and his quarry, as with Twain and Cooper, there’s a sense of anger at the betrayal of storytelling by someone who should know better. To return to poor Thomas Harris, I’ll never forget the New Yorker review by Anthony Lane that juxtaposed a hard, clean excerpt from The Silence of the Lambs:

“Lieutenant, it looks like he’s got two six-shot .38s. We heard three rounds fired and the dump pouches on the gunbelts are still full, so he may just have nine left. Advise SWAT it’s +Ps jacketed hollowpoints. This guy favors the face.”

With this one from Hannibal Rising:

“I see you and the cricket sings in concert with my heart.”
“My heart hops at the sight of you, who taught my heart to sing.”

Lane reasonably responds: “What the hell is going on here?” And that’s what all these reviews have in common—an attempt by one smart, principled writer to figure out what the hell is going on with another.

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