Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for June 2018

The way of the recluse

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It is as easy to be attached to a hut in the wilderness as to anything else…In fact poetry and literature and all the other affectations may be regarded as only further incitements to attachment. Moreover one needed a certain amount of leisure and means for life even in the wilderness, and so it was largely people who did not need to get their living who practiced it. It was a kind of luxury, and people who could not afford it had to remain in the world willy nilly. They were then faced with the necessity of attaining this peace of mind in ordinary life, and if this could be accomplished then there was no need for any one to shun the world at all…Some praised a wandering life like that of the beggar Rakuami, a mendicant flute player who is the hero of one of the Kyogen, as the ideal, while others thought to amuse themselves with the changing aspect of the seasons. But since they could not get away from the incidents of everyday life they had to adopt a casual attitude in regard to them, if they wished to avoid being involved in anxiety, and ended in adopting a point of view that refused to take anything seriously. And so they lived their ordinary life with the mind of a recluse, but a somewhat humorous one.

A.L. Sadler, Cha-No-Yu: The Japanese Tea Ceremony

Written by nevalalee

June 30, 2018 at 7:30 am

A potent force of disintegration

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As part of the production process these days, most nonfiction books from the major publishing houses get an automatic legal read—a review by a lawyer that is intended to check for anything potentially libelous about any living person. We can’t stop anyone from suing us, but we can make sure that we haven’t gone out of our way to invite it, and while most of the figures in Astounding have long since passed on, there are a handful who are still with us. As a result, I recently spent some time going over the relevant sections with a lawyer on the phone. The person on whom we ended up focusing the most, perhaps not surprisingly, was Harlan Ellison, who had a deserved reputation for being litigious, although he also liked to point out that he usually came out ahead. (After suing America Online for not promptly removing some of his stories that had been uploaded to a newsgroup on Usenet, Ellison explained in an interview that it was really about “slovenliness of thinking on the web” and the “slacker” philosophy that everything in life should be free: “If a professional gets published, well, any thief can steal it, and post it, and the thug feels abused if you whack him for it.” Ellison eventually received a settlement.) Mindful of this, we slowly went over the manuscript, checking each statement against its primary sources. Toward the end, the lawyer asked me if we had reasonable grounds for the sentence that described Ellison as “combative.” I replied: “Yes.”

Ellison died yesterday, and I never met or even corresponded with him, which is perhaps my greatest regret from the writing of Astounding. Two years ago, when I was just getting started, I wrote to him explaining the project and asking if I could interview him, but I never heard back. I don’t know if he ever saw the letter, and a mutual acquaintance told me that he was already too ill to respond to most of his mail. Ellison persists in the book as a kind of wraith in the background, appearing unexpectedly at various points in the narrative while trying to force his way into others. In an interview from the late seventies, he even claimed to have been in the room on the evening that L. Ron Hubbard came up with dianetics:

We were sitting around one night…who else was there? Alfred Bester, and Cyril Kornbluth, and Lester del Rey, and Ron Hubbard, who was making a penny a word, and had been for years…And somebody said, “Why don’t you invent a new religion? They’re always big.” We were clowning! You know, “Become Elmer Gantry! You’ll make a fortune!” He says, “I’m going to do it.” Sat down, stole a little bit from Freud, stole a little bit from Jung, a little bit from Adler…threw it all together, invented a few new words, because he was a science fiction writer, you know, “engrams” and “regression,” all that bullshit.

At the point at which this alleged event would have taken place, Ellison was a teenage kid living in Ohio. As another science fiction writer said to me: “Sometimes Harlan operates out of his own reality, which is always interesting but not necessarily identical to anybody else’s.”

Ellison may have never met Hubbard, but he interacted to one extent or another with the other subjects of my book, who often seemed bewildered by him—and I think it’s fair to say that he was the only science fiction writer of his generation who could plausibly seem like their match. He was very close to Asimov, while his relationship with Heinlein was cordial but distant, and John W. Campbell seems to viewed him mostly as an irritant. On April 15, 1958, Ellison, who was twenty-four, wrote in a letter to Campbell: “From the relatively—doubly—safe position of being eight hundred miles removed from your grasp and logic, and being fairly certain I’ll never sell to you anyhow, I wish to make a comment…lost in the wilderness.” After complaining about a story by Murray Leinster, which he described as a blatant example of “Campbell push-buttoning,” he continued:

Now writing to Campbell is not bad. It has been the policy of Astounding since I was in rompers, and anything that produces the kind of stuff ASF does, must have merit. But I look with sincere alarm at the ridiculous trend in the magazine currently: writing stories with the psi factor used when plotting or solving the problem becomes too wearying. Leinster has done it. Several others have done it also. I note this for your information. You may crucify me at will, Greeley.

Ellison, who was stationed at the time in Fort Knox, Kentucky, signed the letter “with respect and friendliness.” No response from Campbell survives.

Ellison had a point about the direction in which Campbell was taking the magazine, and he never had any reason to revise his opinion. Nearly a decade later, in the groundbreaking anthology Dangerous Visions, he mocked the editor’s circle of subservient writers and spoke of “John W. Campbell, Jr., who used to edit a magazine that ran science fiction, called Astounding, and who now edits a magazine that runs a lot of schematic drawings, called Analog.” He did sell one story to Campbell, “Brillo,” a collaboration with Ben Bova that was supposed to be sent using a pseudonym, but was accidentally submitted under both of their names. But the editor’s feelings about Ellison were never particularly warm. Campbell once wrote to a correspondent: “In my terms, Ellison seems more of the Hitler-Genghis Khan type genius—he’s destructive, rather than constructive. The language lacks an adequate term for this type of entity; he’s not a hero, but an antihero means something more on the order of a hopeless, helpless slob than a potent force of disintegration.” He wrote elsewhere that Ellison needed “a muzzle more than a platform,” and another letter includes the amazing—but not atypical—lines: “I don’t know whether it’s the hyper-defensive attitude of the undersize or what, but [Ellison’s] an insulting little squirt with a nasty tongue. He’s one of the type that earned the appellation ‘kike’; as Einstein, Disraeli, and thousands of others have demonstrated, it ain’t racial—it’s personal.” Ellison never saw these letters, and as I transcribed them for the book, I wondered what he would think. There’s no way of knowing now. But I suspect that he would have liked it.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

June 29, 2018 at 7:30 am

The purity test

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Earlier this week, The New York Times Magazine published a profile by Taffy Brodesser-Akner of the novelist Jonathan Franzen. It’s full of fascinating moments, including a remarkable one that seems to have happened entirely by accident—the reporter was in the room when Frazen received a pair of phone calls, including one from Daniel Craig, to inform him that production had halted on the television adaptation of his novel Purity. Brodesser-Akner writes: “Franzen sat down and blinked a few times.” That sounds about right to me. And the paragraph that follows gets at something crucial about the writing life, in which the necessity of solitary work clashes with the pressure to put its fruits at the mercy of the market:

He should have known. He should have known that the bigger the production—the more people you involve, the more hands the thing goes through—the more likely that it will never see the light of day resembling the thing you set out to make in the first place. That’s the real problem with adaptation, even once you decide you’re all in. It just involves too many people. When he writes a book, he makes sure it’s intact from his original vision of it. He sends it to his editor, and he either makes the changes that are suggested or he doesn’t. The thing that we then see on shelves is exactly the thing he set out to make. That might be the only way to do this. Yes, writing a novel—you alone in a room with your own thoughts—might be the only way to get a maximal kind of satisfaction from your creative efforts. All the other ways can break your heart.

To be fair, Franzen’s status is an unusual one, and even successful novelists aren’t always in the position of taking for granted the publication of “exactly the thing he set out to make.” (In practice, it’s close to all or nothing. In my experience, the novel that you see on store shelves mostly reflects what the writer wanted, while the ones in which the vision clashes with those of other stakeholders in the process generally doesn’t get published at all.) And I don’t think I’m alone when I say that some of the most interesting details that Brodesser-Akner provides are financial. A certain decorum still surrounds the reporting of sales figures in the literary world, so there’s a certain frisson in seeing them laid out like this:

And, well, sales of his novels have decreased since The Corrections was published in 2001. That book, about a Midwestern family enduring personal crises, has sold 1.6 million copies to date. Freedom, which was called a “masterpiece” in the first paragraph of its New York Times review, has sold 1.15 million since it was published in 2010. And 2015’s Purity, his novel about a young woman’s search for her father and the story of that father and the people he knew, has sold only 255,476.

For most writers, selling a quarter of a million copies of any book would exceed their wildest dreams. Having written one of the greatest outliers of the last twenty years, Franzen simply reverting to a very exalted mean. But there’s still a lot to unpack here.

For one thing, while Purity was a commercial disappointment, it doesn’t seem to have been an unambiguous disaster. According to Publisher’s Weekly, its first printing—which is where you can see a publisher calibrating its expectations—came to around 350,000 copies, which wasn’t even the largest print run for that month. (That honor went to David Lagercrantz’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web, which had half a million copies, while a new novel by the likes of John Grisham can run to over a million.) I don’t know what Franzen was paid in advance, but the loss must have fallen well short of a book like Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood, for which he received $7 million and sold 62,000 copies, meaning that his publisher paid over a hundred dollars for every copy that someone actually bought. And any financial hit would have been modest compared to the prestige of keeping a major novelist on one’s list, which is unquantifiable, but no less real. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned about publishing over the last decade, it’s that it’s a lot like the movie industry, in which apparently inexplicable commercial and marketing decisions are easier to understand when you consider their true audience. In many cases, when they buy or pass on a book, editors aren’t making decisions for readers, but for other editors, and they’re very conscious of what everyone in their imprint thinks. A readership is an abstraction, except when quantified in sales, but editors have their everyday judgement calls reflected back on them by the people they see every day. Giving up a writer like Franzen might make financial sense, but it would be devastating to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, to say nothing of the relationship that can grow between an editor and a prized author over time.

You find much the same dynamic in Hollywood, in which some decisions are utterly inexplicable until you see them as a manifestation of office politics. In theory, a film is made for moviegoers, but the reactions of the producer down the hall are far more concrete. The difference between publishing and the movies is that the latter publish their box office returns, often in real time, while book sales remain opaque even at the highest level. And it’s interesting to wonder how both industries might differ if their approaches were more similar. After years of work, the success of a movie can be determined by the Saturday morning after its release, while a book usually has a little more time. (The exception is when a highly anticipated title doesn’t make it onto the New York Times bestseller list, or falls off it with alarming speed. The list doesn’t disclose any sales figures, which means that success is relative, not absolute—and which may be a small part of the reason why writers seldom wish one another well.) In the absence of hard sales, writers establish the pecking order with awards, reviews, and the other signifiers that have allowed Franzen to assume what Brodesser-Akner calls the mantle of “the White Male Great American Literary Novelist.” But the real takeaway is how narrow a slice of the world this reflects. Even if we place the most generous interpretation imaginable onto Franzen’s numbers, it’s likely that well under one percent of the American population has bought or read any of his books. You’ll find roughly the same number on any given weeknight playing HQ Trivia. If we acknowledged this more widely, it might free writers to return to their proper cultural position, in which the difference between a bestseller and a disappointment fades rightly into irrelevance. Who knows? They might even be happier.

Written by nevalalee

June 28, 2018 at 7:49 am

Quote of the Day

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A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

Written by nevalalee

June 28, 2018 at 7:30 am

Breaking the silence

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On Saturday, I participated in an event at the American Library Association conference in New Orleans with the authors Alex White (A Big Ship At the Edge of the Universe), Tessa Gratton (The Queens of Innis Lear), and Robert Jackson Bennett (Foundryside). It went fine—I signed books, met some interesting people, and had the chance to speak to librarians about Astounding, which is why I was there in the first place. I had also been told that I should talk about a book that I had recently read, but because of a miscommunication, the other writers on the panel never got the message, so the idea was quietly dropped. This wasn’t a serious problem, but it deprived me of the chance to recommend the title that I’d selected, which I feel comfortable describing as the most interesting book that I’ve read in at least two or three years. It isn’t about science fiction, but about the art of biography, which can be a form of speculative fiction in itself. As regular readers of this blog know, I stumbled into the role of a biographer almost by accident, and ever since, I’ve been seeking advice on the subject wherever I can find it. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that biographers are eager to speak about their art and struggles, and that they’ll sometimes overshare at moments when they should be fading into the background. (I have a sneaking fondness for books like The Life of Graham Greene by Norman Sherry and Anthony Burgess by Roger Lewis, in which the biographer smuggles himself into the life of his subject, even if I can’t defend it. And James Atlas recently published an entire book, The Shadow in the Garden, mostly as an excuse to air his grievances about the reception of his biography of Saul Bellow.) But it wasn’t until recently that I found a book that captured everything that I had been feeling and thinking, along with so much else.

The book is The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm, which was originally published in 1994. I think it’s a masterpiece—it’s one of the best nonfiction books that I’ve ever read of any kind—and it instantly elevated Malcolm, whom I’ve long respected, into the pantheon of my intellectual heroes. I’ve read a lot of her work in The New Yorker, of course, and I greatly admired her books Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession and In the Freud Archives. (The former includes a passage about the history of psychoanalysis that I find so insightful that I’ve quoted it here no fewer than three times.) But The Silent Woman is on another level entirely. On the surface, it’s a close reading of all the biographies that have been written by others about Plath and Hughes, but as you read it, it unfolds into a work of fiendish complexity that operates on multiple planes at once. It’s a fascinating—and gossipy—consideration of Plath and Hughes themselves; an account of Malcolm’s own investigation of some of the figures on the sidelines; a meditation on biographical truth; and a fantastically involving reading experience. Malcolm has a knack for crafting a phrase or analogy that can change the way you think about a subject forever. Writing about the appearance of the first collection of Plath’s letters, for instance, she uses an image that reminds me of the moment in certain movies when the screen suddenly widens into Cinemascope size:

Before the publication of Letters Home, the Plath legend was brief and contained, a taut, austere stage drama set in a few bleak, sparsely furnished rooms…Now the legend opened out, to become a vast, sprawling movie-novel filmed on sets of the most consummate and particularized realism: period clothing, furniture, and kitchen appliances; real food; a cast of characters headed by a Doris Dayish Plath (a tall Doris Day who “wrote”) and a Laurence Olivier-Heathcliffish Hughes.

The result is as twisty as Nabokov’s Pale Fire, but even better, I think, because it doesn’t wear its cleverness on its sleeve. Instead, it subtly ensnares you, and you end up feeling—or at least I did—that you’re somehow implicated in the story yourself. I read the first half online, in the archive of The New Yorker, and as soon as I realized how special it was, I checked out the hardcover from the library. Once I was done, I knew that this was a book that I had to own, so I picked up a used copy of the paperback at Open Books in Chicago. I leafed through it occasionally afterward, and I even lent it to my wife to read, but I didn’t look at it too closely. As a result, it wasn’t until I brought it last weekend to New Orleans that I realized that it included a new afterword. Unlike many books, it didn’t advertise the presence of any additional material, and it isn’t mentioned on the copyright page, which made it seem like a secret message straight out of Dictionary of the Khazars. It’s also a confession. In the original edition, Malcolm states that Ted Hughes decided to posthumously release Plath’s novel The Bell Jar in America because he needed money to buy a second home. After the book was published, Malcolm reveals in the afterword, Hughes wrote to her to say that this was incorrect:

One part of your narrative is not quite right…You quote my letter to [Plath’s mother] Aurelia in which I ask her how she feels about our publishing The Bell Jar in the U.S. That was early 1970; I wanted cash to buy a house…When Aurelia wrote back and made her feelings clear, even though she said the decision to publish or not rested with me, I dropped my idea of buying the house. My letter reassuring her is evidently not in the archive you saw (or obviously your account would be different).

Before I get to Malcolm’s response to Hughes, who is politely but firmly pointing out a possible mistake, I should mention my own situation. Yesterday, I delivered the final set of corrections to Astounding. In the process, I’ve checked as much of the book as I can against my primary sources, and I’ve found a few small mistakes—mistyped dates, minor transcription errors—that I’m glad to have caught at this stage. But it means that I’m very conscious of how it feels to be a writer who learns that something in his or her book might be wrong. As for Malcolm, she wrote back to Hughes, saying that she checked her notes from the Lilly Library at Indiana University Bloomington:

In 1971, Aurelia made an annotation on your letter of March 24, 1970. She wrote, in tiny handwriting, “’71—children said this was a horrible house’ and they didn’t want to live there. Ted did send me $10,000 from the royalties (I protested the publication, which Sylvia would not have allowed) and deposited [illegible] in accounts for Frieda and Nick—Ted [illegible] bought the property!!!” Not knowing anything to the contrary, I took Aurelia at her word.

Malcolm and Hughes spoke on the phone to straighten out the misunderstanding, and everything seemed fine. But on the very last page of the book, Malcolm slips in the literary equivalent of a post-credits scene that changes everything that we thought we knew:

The next morning I awoke with one of those inklings by which detective fiction is regularly fueled. I telephoned the Lilly Library again and asked the librarian if she would read me Aurelia Plath’s annotation of Hughes’s letter of March 24, 1970—I was especially interested in a word that I had found illegible when I took notes at the library in 1991. Perhaps she could make it out? She said she would try. When she reached the relevant sentence, she paused for a suspenseful moment of effort. Then she read—as I felt certain she would—“Ted never bought the property.”

Written by nevalalee

June 27, 2018 at 9:22 am

Quote of the Day

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War in our civilization is as good an example as one can take of the destructive lengths to which the development of a culturally selected trait may go. If we justify war, it is because people always justify the traits of which they find themselves possessed, not because war will bear any objective examination of its merits.

Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture

Written by nevalalee

June 27, 2018 at 7:30 am

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