Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Listening to Syndromes

with one comment

I’m pleased beyond words to announce that my audio short fiction collection Syndromes, which includes all thirteen of my stories from Analog Science Fiction and Fact, has just been released by Recorded Books. (It was originally scheduled to drop in June, but in light of recent developments, it became one of a handful of titles to come out before everything shut down on that end. I’m glad that it managed to appear just under the wire, and I’m especially delighted by the dazzling cover art by Will Lee.) The wonderful narrators Jonathan Todd Ross and Catherine Ho trade reading duties on “Ernesto,” “The Spires,” “The Whale God,” “The Last Resort,” “Kawataro,” “Cryptids,” “The Boneless One,” “Inversus,” “Stonebrood,” “The Voices,” “The Proving Ground,” and “At the Fall,” before joining forces at the end for a new version of my audio play “Retention,” which strikes me as the standout track. Every story has been revised to fit into a single interconnected timeline, which stretches from 1937 through the near future, and even if you’ve read some of them before, you’ll discover a few new surprises. You can purchase it at Amazon or stream it through Audible or Libro.fm, so I hope that some of you will check it out—and let me know what you think!

Written by nevalalee

April 14, 2020 at 9:18 pm

The books and the wall

with 10 comments

Yesterday, I published an essay titled “Asimov’s Empire, Asimov’s Wall” on the website Public Books, in which I discuss Isaac Asimov’s history of groping and engaging in other forms of unwanted touching with women at conventions, in the workplace, and in private over the course of many decades. It’s a piece that I’ve had in mind for a long time, and I’ve come to think of it as a lost chapter of Astounding, which I might well have included in the book if I had delivered the final draft a few months later than I actually did. (I’m also very glad that the article includes the image reproduced above, which I found after going through thousands of photos in the Jay Kay Klein archive.) The response online so far has been overwhelming, including numerous firsthand accounts of his behavior, and I hope it leads to more stories about Asimov, as well as others. There’s a lot that I deliberately didn’t cover here, and it deserves to be taken further in the right hands.

Written by nevalalee

January 8, 2020 at 7:30 am

Shoji Sadao (1926-2019)

with 2 comments

The architect Shoji Sadao—who worked closely with Buckminster Fuller and the sculptor Isamu Noguchi—passed away earlier this month in Tokyo. I’m briefly quoted in Sadao’s obituary in the New York Times, which draws attention to his largely unsung role in the careers of these two brilliant but demanding men. My contact with Sadao was limited to a few emails and one short phone conversation intended to set up an interview that I’m sorry will never happen, but I’ll be discussing his legacy at length in my upcoming biography of Fuller, and you’ll be hearing a lot more about him here.

Written by nevalalee

November 13, 2019 at 7:15 pm

Onward and upward

with 10 comments

Next week, I’ll be attending the 77th World Science Fiction Convention in Dublin, Ireland, which promises to be a lot of fun. Here’s my schedule as it currently stands:

  • Thursday August 15, 3pm—”Current Politics Reflected in SFF”—Dr. Harvey O’Brien (M), Susan Connolly, Dr Douglas Van Belle, Alec Nevala-Lee—”SFF is probably the genre that best mirrors present day society. If we examine SFF in both visual media and books, what can we learn about current politics playing out? What might future generations surmise about us?”
  • Friday August 16, 11:30am—”Continuing Relevance of Older SF”—Sue Burke (M), Alec Nevala-Lee, Aliza Ben Moha, Robert Silverberg, Joe Haldeman—”We are in a new millennium, a literal Brave New World. Surely much of the fiction of the 20th century no longer holds relevance? The panel will discuss the fiction of the past and how it can still be relevant in the 21st century. What lessons from older authors – such as Orwell, Asimov, Butler, Delany, Kafka, and Atwood – can we apply to our app-loaded, social media-driven age?”
  • Friday August 16, 2019, 5pm—”Comparable Futurist Movements”—Alec Nevala-Lee (M), Gillian Polack, Jeanine Tullos Hennig, Shweta Taneja—”How influenced by Afrofuturism are other world futurist movements such as Sinofuturism, Nippofuturism and Gulf futurism? Do they consider themselves a part of the same futurist tradition, or separate? The panel will discuss visions of the future from world cultures, how they are influenced by the root cultures they draw from, and how (if at all) they relate to Afrofuturism.”
  • Saturday August 17, 2019, 2pm—Autographing
  • Monday August 19, 2019, 10am—Kaffeeklatsch
  • Monday August 19, 2019, 12:30pm—Reading

I might as well also mention that Astounding is up for the Hugo Award for Best Related Work—although the rest of the ballot is extremely formidable—and that it recently came out in paperback. (This new edition is virtually identical to the hardcover, but I took the opportunity to make a few small fixes and tweaks, and as far as I’m concerned, this is the definitive version.) And if you haven’t done so already, please check out the first three episodes of the wonderful Washington Post podcast Moonrise, which heavily draws on material from the book. Hope to see some of you soon!

Written by nevalalee

August 10, 2019 at 8:07 am

Burrowing into The Tunnel

with 3 comments

Last fall, it occurred to me that someone should write an essay on the parallels between the novel The Tunnel by William H. Gass, which was published in 1995, and the contemporary situation in America. Since nobody else seemed to be doing it, I figured that it might as well be me, although it was a daunting project even to contemplate—Gass’s novel is over six hundred pages long and famously impenetrable, and I knew that doing it justice would take at least three weeks of work. Yet it seemed like something that had to exist, so I wrote it up at the end of last year. For various reasons, it took a long time to see print, but it’s finally out now in the New York Times Book Review. It isn’t the kind of thing that I normally do, but it felt like a necessary piece, and I’m pretty proud of how it turned out. And if the intervening seven months don’t seem to have dated it at all, it only puts me in mind of what the radio host on The Simpsons once said about the DJ 3000 computer: “How does it keep up with the news like that?”

Written by nevalalee

July 12, 2019 at 2:35 pm

Love and Rockets

with 3 comments

I’m delighted to share the news that Astounding is a 2019 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Related Work, along with a slate of highly deserving nominees. (The other finalists include Archive of Our Own, a project of the Organization for Transformative Works; the documentary The Hobbit Duology by Lindsay Ellis and Angelina Meehan; An Informal History of the Hugos by Jo Walton; The Mexicanx Initiative Experience at Worldcon 76 by Julia Rios, Libia Brenda, Pablo Defendini, and John Picacio; and Conversations on Writing by Ursula K. Le Guin and David Naimon. It’s a strong ballot, and I’m honored to be counted in such good company.) It feels like the high point of a journey that began with an announcement on this blog more than three years ago, and it isn’t over yet—I’m definitely going to be attending the World Science Fiction Convention in Dublin, which runs from August 15 to 19, and while I don’t know what the final outcome will be, I’m grateful to have made it even this far. The Hugos are an important part of the history that this book explores, and I’m thankful for the chance to be even a tiny piece of that story.

Written by nevalalee

April 2, 2019 at 9:01 am

Art and Arcana

leave a comment »

On Sunday, I got back from the Savannah Book Festival, which was a real pleasure. My event at Trinity United Methodist Church—which was the first time that I’ve ever spoken from a pulpit—went great, at least to my eyes, and I enjoyed talking to the science fiction fans who were kind enough to turn out on a rainy afternoon. (I also had the chance to meet a number of other writers, notably Mike Witwer, whose Dungeons & Dragons: Art and Arcana looks just incredible.) During my free time, I visited the Book Lady Bookstore, which I highly recommend, and the house of Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts of the USA, much to the delight of my daughter, who recently joined the Daises. And I’m happy to note that my talk is scheduled to air on BookTV on C-SPAN2 this Saturday at 5:35pm ET, followed by an encore presentation early the following morning. (You can watch it online here.)

In the meantime, I have a few other upcoming events that might be worth mentioning. On Saturday February 23, I’ll be holding a second session of my fiction workshop, “Writing Science Fiction that Sells,” at Mary Anne Mohanraj’s makerspace in Oak Park, Illinois. The first class went better than I could have hoped, and I’d love to see some new faces there. (For the record, most of the guidelines that I plan to cover—clarity, coming up with ideas, structuring the plot as a series of objectives, managing the information that the reader receives—apply to all kinds of writing, although they present particular challenges in science fiction and fantasy.) I’m also going to be appearing with the editor and critic Gary K. Wolfe on Monday February 25 at the Blackstone branch of the Chicago Public Library, where we’ll be discussing Astounding as part of One Book, One Chicago. Please spread the word to anyone who might be interested—I hope to see some of you soon!

Written by nevalalee

February 20, 2019 at 6:16 am

Sci-Fi Strawberry in Savannah

with 2 comments

I’m heading out this morning to Savannah, Georgia for the Savannah Book Festival, where I’ll be appearing this Saturday at 4 pm at Trinity United Methodist Church to discuss Astounding. (As it happens, L. Ron Hubbard lived in Savannah for a period of time in the late forties while he was developing the mental health therapy that became known as dianetics, and I plan to briefly explore this local connection, as well as other aspects of the book that recently scored a big endorsement from a certain bearded fantasy writer.) I hope to see some of you there in person—perhaps at Leopold’s Ice Cream, which will be serving Sci-Fi Strawberry this weekend in honor of the book—and if you can’t make it, my event is scheduled to air eventually on BookTV on C-SPAN 2. And please keep an eye on this blog, where I expect to have a few other announcements soon. Stay tuned!

Written by nevalalee

February 14, 2019 at 7:30 am

Posted in Books

Tagged with

Visions of tomorrow

with 4 comments

As I’ve mentioned here before, one of my few real regrets about Astounding is that I wasn’t able to devote much room to discussing the artists who played such an important role in the evolution of science fiction. (The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that their collective impact might be even greater than that of any of the writers I discuss, at least when it comes to how the genre influenced and was received by mainstream culture.) Over the last few months, I’ve done my best to address this omission, with a series of posts on such subjects as Campbell’s efforts to improve the artwork, his deliberate destruction of the covers of Unknown, and his surprising affection for the homoerotic paintings of Alejandro Cañedo. And I can reveal now that this was all in preparation for a more ambitious project that has been in the works for a while—a visual essay on the art of Astounding and Unknown that has finally appeared online in the New York Times Book Review, with the highlights scheduled to be published in the print edition this weekend. It took a lot of time and effort to put it together, especially by my editors, and I’m very proud of the result, which honors the visions of such artists as H.W. Wesso, Howard V. Brown, Hubert Rogers, Manuel Rey Isip, Frank Kelly Freas, and many others. It stands on its own, but I’ve come to think of it as an unpublished chapter from my book that deserves to be read alongside its longer companion. As I note in the article, it took years for the stories inside the magazine to catch up to the dreams of its readers, but the artwork was often remarkable from the beginning. And if you want to know what the fans of the golden age really saw when they imagined the future, the answer is right here.

Written by nevalalee

January 11, 2019 at 7:25 am

The writing in the dust

leave a comment »

Note: I’m taking some time off for the holidays, so I’m republishing a few pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on November 22, 2017. 

About a year ago, I found myself thinking at length about what might well be the most moving passage in the entire Bible. It’s the scene in the Gospel of John in which the Pharisees, hoping to trap Jesus, bring forward a woman taken in adultery and ask him if she should be stoned according to the law, only to hear him respond: “Whoever is sinless in this crowd should go ahead and throw the first stone.” After the other onlookers drift off one by one, embarrassed, leaving just the woman behind, Jesus asks if anyone has condemned her. When she answers no, he says: “I don’t condemn you either. You’re free to go, but from now on, no more sinning.” (The story was memorably, if freely, adapted as one of the most powerful scenes in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.) In The Acts of Jesus, the Jesus Seminar writes of the passage:

The earliest ancient manuscripts of John do not have it, and modern scholars are virtually unanimous in concluding that it was not an original part of the Fourth Gospel…An impartial evaluation of the story has been impeded by its preservation as part of the Gospel of John…The fundamental question is whether this anecdote is a fragment that survived from an otherwise unknown gospel. Had it been discovered as a separate piece of papyrus, it would have attracted serious scholarly attention in its own right.

In the end, the seminar endorses it mildly, less as a real incident than as a reflection of what we know about Jesus himself, and the companion volume The Five Gospels includes the remarkable line: “While the Fellows agreed that the words did not originate in their present form with Jesus, they nevertheless assigned the words and story to a special category of things they wish Jesus had said and done.”

I feel the same way. But I haven’t even mentioned the one detail that has always struck me—and many other readers—the most. When the Pharisees first pose their question, Jesus doesn’t answer right away. Instead, he stoops down and silently draws on the ground with his finger. He responds only after they insist on a reply, and then he bends down to write in the dust again. It’s impossible to read this without wondering what he might have been writing, and nearly three centuries ago, the biblical commentator Matthew Henry did as good a job of summarizing the possibilities as anyone could:

It is impossible to tell, and therefore needless to ask, what he wrote; but this is the only mention made in the gospels of Christ’s writing…Some think they have a liberty of conjecture as to what he wrote here. Grotius says, It was some grave weighty saying, and that it was usual for wise men, when they were very thoughtful concerning any thing, to do so. Jerome and Ambrose suppose he wrote, Let the names of these wicked men be written in the dust. Others this, The earth accuses the earth, but the judgment is mine. Christ by this teaches us to be slow to speak when difficult cases are proposed to us, not quickly to shoot our bolt; and when provocations are given us, or we are bantered, to pause and consider before we reply; think twice before we speak once.

That last line seems reasonable enough, and Henry concludes: “He did as it were look another way, to show that he was not willing to take notice of their address, saying, in effect, Who made me a judge or a divider?”

And the passage, authentic or not, is also precious as one of the few everyday actions of Jesus that have been passed down to us. I’ve spoken elsewhere of a gospel of nouns and verbs, but nearly all of it occurs in Jesus’s words, not in descriptions of him preserved by others. Jesus writes on the ground; he falls asleep in a boat; he feels hungry; he breaks bread and pours wine; he weeps. There isn’t much more. Part of this reflects the fact that the gospels emerged from an oral tradition, but it also testifies to its debt to its literary predecessors. In his great book Mimesis, Erich Auerbach writes of the Old Testament story of the binding of Isaac:

In this atmosphere it is unthinkable that an implement, a landscape through which the travelers passed, the servingmen, or the ass, should be described, that their origin or descent or material or appearance or usefulness should be set forth in terms of praise; they do not even admit an adjective: they are serving-men, ass, wood, and knife, and nothing else, without an epithet; they are there to serve the end which God has commanded; what in other respects they were, are, or will be, remains in darkness. A journey is made, because God has designated the place where the sacrifice is to be performed; but we are told nothing about the journey except that it took three days, and even that we are told in a mysterious way: Abraham and his followers rose “early in the morning” and “went unto” the place of which God had told him; on the third day he lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. That gesture is the only gesture, is indeed the only occurrence during the whole journey, of which we are told…It is as if, while he traveled on, Abraham had looked neither to the right nor to the left, had suppressed any sign of life in his followers and himself save only their footfalls.

At first glance, this style might seem primitive compared to that of the Iliad or the Odyssey, but as Auerbach points out, its effect on its audience goes much deeper than what we find in Homer:

The world of the Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be a historically true reality—it insists that it is the only real world, is destined for autocracy. All other scenes, issues, and ordinances have no right to appear independently of it, and it is promised that all of them, the history of all mankind, will be given their due place within its frame, will be subordinated to it. The Scripture stories do not, like Homer’s, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they may please us and enchant us—they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels…Far from seeking, like Homer, merely to make us forget our own reality for a few hours, it seeks to overcome our reality: we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history.

This is the tradition to which Jesus—a historical person who feels much closer to many of us than the distant, shadowy figure of Abraham—was subordinated by the author of the gospels. As a literary strategy, it was a masterstroke, and it went a long way toward enabling Jesus to strike up an existence in the inner lives of so many. (Which doesn’t mean that its virtues are obvious. Norman Mailer once said of the gospels: “Where you don’t have a wonderful sentence, what you get is some pretty dull prose and a contradictory, almost hopeless way of telling the story.”) It also means, for better or worse, that Jesus can mean all things to all people. We no longer see him clearly, and he’s being used even as I write this to justify all forms of belief and behavior. My version of him is no more legitimate than that of anyone else. But I prefer to believe in the man who drew that line in the sand.

Across the universe

with one comment

Over the last week, I’ve received a number of inquiries from readers asking whether the material that was cut from Astounding will ever see the light of day. (As I mentioned in a recent post, the original draft of the book was twice as long as what eventually saw print, with the vast majority of the deleted sections relating to the career of John W. Campbell.) I hope to eventually release much of this information in one form or another, but a lot of it has already been published right here on this blog. With that in mind, I’ve expanded my page for science fiction studies—which hadn’t been updated in over a year—with eighty more posts, all of which cover aspects of the genre that I wasn’t able to fit into the book. Some of my personal favorites include my original research on the illustration from Gilbert and Sullivan that inspired the Foundation series; the identity of the mysterious “Empress” who appears repeatedly in the writings of L. Ron Hubbard; Hubbard’s belief that he was the reincarnation of Captain Kidd; the role of the mystic John Cooke in the early days of Scientology and the attempt to levitate the Pentagon; the fact that Steven Spielberg’s father may be the oldest living subscriber to Analog; Isaac Asimov’s lost review of Dianetics; Scientology’s efforts to target people suffering from Lyme disease, Gulf War syndrome, and chronic fatigue syndrome; my discovery of the original draft of Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”; the homoerotic science fiction art of Alejandro Cañedo; the legacy of Nostradamus from Unknown to Orson Welles; the sad case of William H. Sheldon, Walter H. Breen, and Marion Zimmer Bradley; the touch football game that never happened between the FBI and the Church of Scientology; and much more. Happy reading, and I’ll see you again in the new year!

Written by nevalalee

December 21, 2018 at 9:35 am

Updike’s ladder

with one comment

Note: I’m taking the day off, so I’m republishing a post that originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 13, 2017.

Last year, the author Anjali Enjeti published an article in The Atlantic titled “Why I’m Still Trying to Get a Book Deal After Ten Years.” If just reading those words makes your palms sweat and puts your heart through a few sympathy palpitations, congratulations—you’re a writer. No matter where you might be in your career, or what length of time you mentally insert into that headline, you can probably relate to what Enjeti writes:

Ten years ago, while sitting at my computer in my sparsely furnished office, I sent my first email to a literary agent. The message included a query letter—a brief synopsis describing the personal-essay collection I’d been working on for the past six years, as well as a short bio about myself. As my third child kicked from inside my pregnant belly, I fantasized about what would come next: a request from the agent to see my book proposal, followed by a dream phone call offering me representation. If all went well, I’d be on my way to becoming a published author by the time my oldest child started first grade.

“Things didn’t go as planned,” Enjeti says dryly, noting that after landing and leaving two agents, she’s been left with six unpublished manuscripts and little else to show for it. She goes on to share the stories of other writers in the same situation, including Michael Bourne of Poets & Writers, who accurately calls the submission process “a slow mauling of my psyche.” And Enjeti wonders: “So after sixteen years of writing books and ten years of failing to find a publisher, why do I keep trying? I ask myself this every day.”

It’s a good question. As it happens, I first encountered her article while reading the authoritative biography Updike by Adam Begley, which chronicles a literary career that amounts to the exact opposite of the ones described above. Begley’s account of John Updike’s first acceptance from The New Yorker—just months after his graduation from Harvard—is like lifestyle porn for writers:

He never forgot the moment when he retrieved the envelope from the mailbox at the end of the drive, the same mailbox that had yielded so many rejection slips, both his and his mother’s: “I felt, standing and reading the good news in the midsummer pink dusk of the stony road beside a field of waving weeds, born as a professional writer.” To extend the metaphor…the actual labor was brief and painless: he passed from unpublished college student to valued contributor in less than two months.

If you’re a writer of any kind, you’re probably biting your hand right now. And I haven’t even gotten to what happened to Updike shortly afterward:

A letter from Katharine White [of The New Yorker] dated September 15, 1954 and addressed to “John H. Updike, General Delivery, Oxford,” proposed that he sign a “first-reading agreement,” a scheme devised for the “most valued and most constant contributors.” Up to this point, he had only one story accepted, along with some light verse. White acknowledged that it was “rather unusual” for the magazine to make this kind of offer to a contributor “of such short standing,” but she and Maxwell and Shawn took into consideration the volume of his submissions…and their overall quality and suitability, and decided that this clever, hard-working young man showed exceptional promise.

Updike was twenty-two years old. Even now, more than half a century later and with his early promise more than fulfilled, it’s hard to read this account without hating him a little. Norman Mailer—whose debut novel, The Naked and the Dead, appeared when he was twenty-five—didn’t pull any punches in “Some Children of the Goddess,” an essay on his contemporaries that was published in Esquire in 1963: “[Updike’s] reputation has traveled in convoy up the Avenue of the Establishment, The New York Times Book Review, blowing sirens like a motorcycle caravan, the professional muse of The New Yorker sitting in the Cadillac, membership cards to the right Fellowships in his pocket.” Even Begley, his biographer, acknowledges the singular nature of his subject’s rise:

It’s worth pausing here to marvel at the unrelieved smoothness of his professional path…Among the other twentieth-century American writers who made a splash before their thirtieth birthday…none piled up accomplishments in as orderly a fashion as Updike, or with as little fuss…This frictionless success has sometimes been held against him. His vast oeuvre materialized with suspiciously little visible effort. Where there’s no struggle, can there be real art? The Romantic notion of the tortured poet has left us with a mild prejudice against the idea of art produced in a calm, rational, workmanlike manner (as he put it, “on a healthy basis of regularity and avoidance of strain”), but that’s precisely how Updike got his start.

Begley doesn’t mention that the phrase “regularity and avoidance of strain” is actually meant to evoke the act of defecation, but even this provides us with an odd picture of writerly contentment. As Dick Hallorann says in The Shining, the best movie about writing ever made: “You got to keep regular, if you want to be happy.”

If there’s a larger theme here, it’s that the sheer productivity and variety of Updike’s career—with its reliable production of uniform hardcover editions over the course of five decades—are inseparable from the “orderly” circumstances of his rise. Updike never lacked a prestigious venue for his talents, which allowed him to focus on being prolific. Writers whose publication history remains volatile and unpredictable, even after they’ve seen print, don’t always have the luxury of being so unruffled, and it can affect their work in ways that are almost subliminal. (A writer can’t survive ten years of chasing after a book deal without spending the entire time convinced that he or she is on the verge of a breakthrough, anticipating an ending that never comes, which may partially account for the prevalence in literary fiction of frustration and unresolved narratives. It also explains why it helps to be privileged enough to fail for years.) The short answer to Begley’s question is that struggle is good for a writer, but so is success, and you take what you can get, even as you’re transformed by it. I think on a monthly basis of what Nicholson Baker writes of Updike in his tribute U and I:

I compared my awkward public self-promotion too with a documentary about Updike that I saw in 1983, I believe, on public TV, in which, in one scene, as the camera follows his climb up a ladder at his mother’s house to put up or take down some storm windows, in the midst of this tricky physical act, he tosses down to us some startlingly lucid little felicity, something about “These small yearly duties which blah blah blah,” and I was stunned to recognize that in Updike we were dealing with a man so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder!

We’re all on that ladder, including Enjeti, who I’m pleased to note finally scored her book deal—she has an essay collection in the works from the University of Georgia Press. Some are on their way up, some are headed down, and some are stuck for years on the same rung. But you never get anywhere if you don’t try to climb.

The unfinished lives

with 3 comments

Yesterday, the New York Times published a long profile of Donald Knuth, the legendary author of The Art of Computer Programming. Knuth is eighty now, and the article by Siobhan Roberts offers an evocative look at an intellectual giant in twilight:

Dr. Knuth usually dresses like the youthful geek he was when he embarked on this odyssey: long-sleeved T-shirt under a short-sleeved T-shirt, with jeans, at least at this time of year…Dr. Knuth lives in Stanford, and allowed for a Sunday visitor. That he spared an entire day was exceptional—usually his availability is “modulo nap time,” a sacred daily ritual from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. He started early, at Palo Alto’s First Lutheran Church, where he delivered a Sunday school lesson to a standing-room-only crowd.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Knuth’s most famous work, which is still incomplete. Knuth is busy writing the fourth installment, one fascicle at a time, although its most recent piece has been delayed “because he keeps finding more and more irresistible problems that he wants to present.” As Roberts writes: “Dr. Knuth’s exacting standards, literary and otherwise, may explain why his life’s work is nowhere near done. He has a wager with Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google and a former student…over whether Mr. Brin will finish his Ph.D. before Dr. Knuth concludes his opus…He figures it will take another twenty-five years to finish The Art of Computer Programming, although that time frame has been a constant since about 1980.”

Knuth is a prominent example, although far from the most famous, of a literary and actuarial phenomenon that has grown increasingly familiar—an older author with a projected work of multiple volumes, published one book at a time, that seems increasingly unlikely to ever see completion. On the fiction side, the most noteworthy case has to be that of George R.R. Martin, who has been fielding anxious inquiries from fans for most of the last decade. (In an article that appeared seven long years ago in The New Yorker, Laura Miller quotes Martin, who was only sixty-three at the time: “I’m still getting e-mail from assholes who call me lazy for not finishing the book sooner. They say, ‘You better not pull a Jordan.’”) Robert A. Caro is still laboring over what he hopes will be the final volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson, and mortality has become an issue not just for him, but for his longtime editor, as we read in Charles McGrath’s classic profile in the Times:

Robert Gottlieb, who signed up Caro to do The Years of Lyndon Johnson when he was editor in chief of Knopf, has continued to edit all of Caro’s books, even after officially leaving the company. Not long ago he said he told Caro: “Let’s look at this situation actuarially. I’m now eighty, and you are seventy-five. The actuarial odds are that if you take however many more years you’re going to take, I’m not going to be here.”

That was six years ago, and both men are still working hard. But sometimes a writer has no choice but to face the inevitable. When asked about the concluding fifth volume of his life of Picasso, with the fourth one still on the way, the biographer John Richardson said candidly: “Listen, I’m ninety-one—I don’t think I have time for that.”

I don’t have the numbers to back this up, but such cases—or at least the public attention that they inspire—seem to be growing more common these days, on account of some combination of lengthening lifespans, increased media coverage of writers at work, and a greater willingness from publishers to agree to multiple volumes in the first place. The subjects of such extended commitments tend to be monumental in themselves, in order to justify the total investment of the writer’s own lifetime, and expanding ambitions are often to blame for blown deadlines. Martin, Caro, and Knuth all increased the prospective number of volumes after their projects were already underway, or as Roberts puts it: “When Dr. Knuth started out, he intended to write a single work. Soon after, computer science underwent its Big Bang, so he reimagined and recast the project in seven volumes.” And this “recasting” seems particularly common in the world of biographies, as the author discovers more material that he can’t bear to cut. The first few volumes may have been produced with relative ease, but as the years pass and anticipation rises, the length of time it takes to write the next installment grows, until it becomes theoretically infinite. Such a radical change of plans, which can involve extending the writing process for decades, or even beyond the author’s natural lifespan, requires an indulgent publisher, university, or other benefactor. (John Richardson’s book has been underwritten by nothing less than the John Richardson Fund for Picasso Research, which reminds me of what Homer Simpson said after being informed that he suffered from Homer Simpson syndrome: “Oh, why me?”) And it may not be an accident that many of the examples that first come to mind are white men, who have the cultural position and privilege to take their time.

It isn’t hard to understand a writer’s reluctance to let go of a subject, the pressures on a book being written in plain sight, or the tempting prospect of working on the same project forever. And the image of such authors confronting their mortality in the face of an unfinished book is often deeply moving. One of the most touching examples is that of Joseph Needham, whose Science and Civilization in China may have undergone the most dramatic expansion of them all, from an intended single volume to twenty-seven and counting. As Kenneth Girdwood Robinson writes in a concluding posthumous volume:

The Duke of Edinburgh, Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, visited The Needham Research Institute, and interested himself in the progress of the project. “And how long will it take to finish it?” he enquired. On being given a rather conservative answer, “At least ten years,” he exclaimed, “Good God, man, Joseph will be dead before you’ve finished,” a very true appreciation of the situation…In his closing years, though his mind remained lucid and his memory astonishing, Needham had great difficulty even in moving from one chair to another, and even more difficulty in speaking and in making himself understood, due to the effect of the medicines he took to control Parkinsonism. But a secretary, working closely with him day by day, could often understand what he had said, and could read what he had written, when others were baffled.

Needham’s decline eventually became impossible to ignore by those who knew him best, as his biographer Simon Winchester writes in The Man Who Loved China: “It was suggested that, for the first time in memory, he take the day off. It was a Friday, after all: he could make it a long weekend. He could charge his batteries for the week ahead. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘I’ll stay at home.’” He died later that day, with his book still unfinished. But it had been a good life.

The greatest game never played

leave a comment »

When I was writing Astounding, I was constantly mindful of the need to cut down the manuscript as much as possible. I had contracted to write a book of a certain length, and it came in much longer than expected—the first draft was twice the length of what eventually saw print, which in itself was significantly larger than what my publisher had anticipated. As a result, I had to remove a lot of material that I would have loved to include. This was especially hard for the period after John W. Campbell’s death. Campbell was clearly my central figure, so I couldn’t continue the book for long after he was gone, but I also didn’t want to leave my other primary subjects hanging. This meant that I had to compress the final acts of three incredibly eventful lives into a relatively short epilogue, which led to certain compromises. In his memoirs, Isaac Asimov devotes hundreds of thousands of words to the last two decades of his life, and in my book, I cover them in about six pages. Much the same holds true for Robert A. Heinlein, whose authorized biographer spends a substantial chunk of the second of two huge volumes on the period that I recount in a brief summary. But perhaps the most regrettable case of all was that of L. Ron Hubbard. In the popular imagination, Hubbard is associated with the era of the Sea Org, in which he served as the commodore of a private navy that wandered the oceans for years. This is perhaps the most colorful, outwardly fascinating phase in Hubbard’s life, and it serves as the centerpiece of most treatments of his career. I had just a couple of pages to hit the hight points, and while this was the right choice for the book as a whole, I also regret the loss of a lot of interesting stories that I didn’t have room to discuss.

For instance, there’s the curious story of the touch football game that never happened between the Church of Scientology and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. (The details can be found in Hubbard’s FBI file, which is available in its entirety online.) On October 23, 1978, Jerry Velona, the minister of public affairs for the Church of Scientology of Boston, wrote under the church’s official letterhead to Richard Bates, the special agent in charge of the local branch of the FBI. The letter began: “The Church of Scientology of Boston puts together a touch football game each year with which to play various other teams and groups. We play the games in the Boston area and charge an admission fee which is then donated to charity.” Velona continued:

This year instead of playing local fraternities and colleges as we usually do, we decided it would be more fun to play teams comprised of groups with which we have dealings in other areas. This will afford us an opportunity to get to know you personally and will also be used as a gimmick to attract more attendance which will play off in turn toward the charity. The charity we have chosen this year is the Jimmy Fund.

The Jimmy Fund, which was founded in 1948, raises money for cancer care and research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and it was a surprising charity for the church to support, given Hubbard’s past statements on the subject. (“Cancer is not caused…It always requires a second-dynamic or sexual upset, such as the loose of children or some other mechanism to bring about a condition known as cancer. This is cancer at the outset.”) But that isn’t really the point.

Velona’s coy reference to groups “with which we have dealings in other areas” wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by the letter’s recipients, as we’ll see shortly. But he was just coming to the point:

We hereby challenge you to a game to be played sometime over the next 4-6 weeks. We are currently putting together a schedule so we have some open time to play with. Our team is comprised solely of members of the Church but I must warn you that we are very good and have never lost. Our softball team played the New England Patriots a couple of years ago and beat them soundly.

It probably isn’t worth unpacking any of this too closely, but the last two sentences seem particularly typical of the language of Scientology, with its claim that the church has “never lost” bolstered by the irrelevant detail that it once beat a professional football team at softball, followed immediately by a line that contradicts the previous statement: “Please let me know as soon as you can if you’re game. We don’t practice much so don’t think you have to put together a professional team.” Velona seems to anticipate some of his correspondent’s potential objections, and he writes reassuringly: “There is no ulterior motive behind this. It is simply a way to get out from behind our desks and have some fun and raise some money for a worthy cause at the same time.” (The phrase “there is no ulterior motive behind this” would sound ominous coming from anyone, and especially when you consider the source.) And Velona closed cordially: “I look forward to hearing from you soon. If you accept our challenge I will contact you to make specific arrangements.”

The FBI’s only response was to forward the letter to Washington, D.C. with a note attached: “Boston will not acknowledge the enclosed letter in that due to investigative commitments, personnel of the Boston Division are not available for such frivolity.” That seems reasonable enough. And while this whole incident might seem like a sideshow, I think it gets at something meaningful about the culture of the church in the late seventies. Hubbard doesn’t seem to have been directly involved with this episode, but it reflects an important aspect of the mindset that he instilled in his followers, even in his absence. This was the decade of the Snow White Program, in which the church—acting on Hubbard’s orders—planted spies throughout the federal government, including the Internal Revenue Service. On July 8, 1977, FBI agents raided branches in three cities to seize documents pertaining to the case, as well as to the church’s plans to discredit or frame its critics. Two months before Velona’s invitation, eleven members of the church, including Hubbard’s wife Mary Sue, were indicted on conspiracy charges. And the letter is just one example of how the prankish side of Hubbard’s personality, as expressed through the institutions that he created, could insidiously shade into illegality and abuse, as well as the other way around. (Another good illustration is the practice of overboarding, in which offenders in the Sea Org were tossed without warning into the sea. From a distance, it might have seemed like fun and games. But some of them nearly drowned.) As we’ve all learned in the last few years, the line between mere trolling and outright criminality can be faint indeed, especially when such impulses are paradoxically driven by a stark sense of loyalty to an authoritarian leader. On some level, the invitation to the FBI may have been meant in earnest, but on another, it was the act of an unrepentant bunch of trolls. And like their successors in other areas of life, they had studied at the feet of the master.

Written by nevalalee

December 17, 2018 at 9:24 am

Posted in Books

Tagged with ,

Go set a playwright

with 2 comments

If you follow theatrical gossip as avidly as I do, you’re probably aware of the unexpected drama that briefly surrounded the new Broadway adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which was written for the stage by Aaron Sorkin. In March, Lee’s estate sued producer Scott Rudin, claiming that the production was in breach of contract for straying drastically from the book. According to the original agreement, the new version wasn’t supposed to “depart in any manner from the spirit of the novel nor alter its characters,” which Sorkin’s interpretation unquestionably did. (Rudin says just as much on the record: “I can’t and won’t present a play that feels like it was written in the year the book was written in terms of its racial politics. It wouldn’t be of interest. The world has changed since then.”) But the question isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems. As a lawyer consulted by the New York Times explains:

Does “spirit” have a definite and precise meaning, or could there be a difference of opinion as to what is “the spirit” of the novel? I do not think that a dictionary definition of “spirit” will resolve that question. Similarly, the contract states that the characters should not be altered. In its pre-action letter, Harper Lee’s estate repeatedly states that the characters “would never have” and “would not have” done numerous things; unless as a matter of historical fact the characters would not have done something…who is to say what a creature of fiction “would never have” or “would not have” done?

Now that the suit has been settled and the play is finally on Broadway, this might all seem beside the point, but there’s one aspect of the story that I think deserves further exploration. Earlier this week, Sorkin spoke to Greg Evans of Deadline about his writing process, noting that he took the initial call from Rudin for good reasons: “The last three times Scott called me and said ‘I have something very exciting to talk to you about,’ I ended up writing Social Network, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs, so I was paying attention.” His first pass was a faithful version of the original story, which took him about six months to write: “I had just taken the greatest hits of the book, the most important themes, the most necessary themes. I stood them up and dramatized them. I turned them into dialogue.” When he was finished, he had a fateful meeting with Rudin:

He had two notes. The first was, “We’ve got to get to the trial sooner.” That’s a structural note. The second was the note that changed everything. He said, “Atticus can’t be Atticus for the whole play. He’s got to become Atticus,” and of course, he was right. A protagonist has to change. A protagonist has to be put through something and change as a result, and a protagonist has to have a flaw. And I wondered how Harper Lee had gotten away with having Atticus be Atticus for the whole book, and it’s because Atticus isn’t the protagonist in the book. Scout is. But in the play, Atticus was going to be the protagonist, and I threw out that first draft. I started all over again, but this time the goal wasn’t to be as much like the book as possible. The goal wasn’t to swaddle the book in bubble wrap and then gently transfer it to a stage. I was going to write a new play.

This is fascinating stuff, but it’s worth emphasizing that while Rudin’s first piece of feedback was “a structural note,” the second one was as well. The notions that “a protagonist has to change” and “a protagonist has to have a flaw” are narrative conventions that have evolved over time, and for good reason. Like the idea of building the action around a clear sequence of objectives, they’re basically artificial constructs that have little to do with the accurate representation of life. Some people never change for years, and while we’re all flawed in one way or another, our faults aren’t always reflected in dramatic terms in the situations in which we find ourselves. These rules are useful primarily for structuring the audience’s experience, which comes down to the ability to process and remember information delivered over time. (As Kurt Vonnegut, who otherwise might not seem to have much in common with Harper Lee, once said to The Paris Review: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.”) Yet they aren’t essential, either, as the written and filmed versions of To Kill a Mockingbird make clear. The original novel, in particular, has a rock-solid plot and supporting characters who can change and surprise us in ways that Atticus can’t. Unfortunately, it’s hard for plot alone to carry a play, which is largely a form about character, and Atticus is obviously the star part. Sorkin doesn’t shy away from using the backbone that Lee provides—the play does indeed get to the jury trial, which is still the most reliable dramatic convention ever devised, more quickly than the book does—but he also grasped the need to turn the main character into someone who could give shape to the audience’s experience of watching the play. It was this consideration, and not the politics, that turned out to be crucial.

There are two morals to this story. One is how someone like Sorkin, who can fall into traps of his own as a writer, benefits from feedback from even stronger personalities. The other is how a note on structure, which Sorkin takes seriously, forced him to engage more deeply with the play’s real material. As all writers know, it’s harder than it looks to sequence a story as a series of objectives or to depict a change in the protagonist, but simply by thinking about such fundamental units of narrative, a writer will come up with new insights, not just about the hero, but about everyone else. As Sorkin says of his lead character in an interview with Vulture:

He becomes Atticus Finch by the end of the play, and while he’s going along, he has a kind of running argument with Calpurnia, the housekeeper, which is a much bigger role in the play I just wrote. He is in denial about his neighbors and his friends and the world around him, that it is as racist as it is, that a Maycomb County jury could possibly put Tom Robinson in jail when it’s so obvious what happened here. He becomes an apologist for these people.

In other words, Sorkin’s new perspective on Atticus also required him to rethink the roles of Calpurnia and Tom Robinson, which may turn out to be the most beneficial change of all. (This didn’t sit well with the Harper Lee estate, which protested in its complaint that black characters who “knew their place” wouldn’t behave this way at the time.) As Sorkin says of their lack of agency in the original novel: “It’s noticeable, it’s wrong, and it’s also a wasted opportunity.” That’s exactly right—and I like the last reason the best. In theater, as in any other form of narrative, the technical considerations of storytelling are more important than doing the right thing. But to any experienced writer, it’s also clear that they’re usually one and the same.

Written by nevalalee

December 14, 2018 at 8:39 am

The dark side of the limerick

with 3 comments

“As almost nothing that has been written about the limerick can be taken seriously—which is perhaps only fitting—a few words may not be out of place here,” the scholar Gershon Legman writes in his introduction to the definitive work on the subject. Legman was one of the first critics to see erotic and obscene folk forms, including the dirty joke, as a serious object of study, and The Limerick puts his singular intelligence—which is worthy of a good biography—on full display:

The limerick is, and was originally, an indecent verse form. The “clean” sort of limerick is an obvious palliation, its content insipid, its rhyming artificially ingenious, its whole pervaded with a frustrated nonsense that vents itself typically in explosive and aggressive violence. There are, certainly, aggressive bawdy limericks too, but they are not in the majority. Except as the maidenly delight and silly delectation of a few elderly gentlemen, such as the late Langford Reed, and several still living who might as well remain nameless, the clean limerick has never been of the slightest real interest to anyone, since the end of its brief fad in the 1860s.

Legman describes the work of Edward Lear, the supposed master of the form, as “very tepidly humorous,” which seems about right, and he apologizes in advance for the vast collection of dirty limericks that he has prepared for the reader’s edification: “The prejudices, cruelty, and humorless quality of many of the limericks included are deeply regretted.”

But a metrical form typified by prejudice, cruelty, and humorlessness may end up being perfectly suited for the modern age. Legman claims that “viable folk poetry and folk poetic forms,” aren’t easy to duplicate by design, but it isn’t an accident that two of the major American novels of the twentieth century indulge in limericks at length. One is Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which includes a remarkable sequence of limericks in which young men have sexual relations with the various parts of a rocket, such as the vane servomotor. The other is William H. Gass’s The Tunnel, which prints numerous limericks that all begin with the opening line “I once went to bed with a nun.” In his hands, the limerick becomes the ideal vehicle for his despairing notion of history, as a character in the novel explains:

The limerick is the unrefiner’s fire. It is as false and lifeless, as anonymous, as a rubber snake, a Dixie cup…No one ever found a thought in one. No one ever found a helpful hint concerning life, a consoling sense. The feelings it harbors are the cold, the bitter, dry ones: scorn, contempt, disdain, disgust. Yes. Yet for that reason. nothing is more civilized than this simple form. In that—in cultural sophistication—it is the equal of the heroic couplet…That’s the lesson of the limerick. You never know when a salacious meaning will break out of a trouser. It is all surface—a truly modern shape, a model’s body. There’s no inside however long or far you travel on it, no within, no deep.

Both authors seem to have been drawn to the form for this very reason. And while Gass’s notion of writing “a limrickal history of the human race” may have seemed like a joke twenty years ago, the form seems entirely appropriate to the era in which we’re all living now.

Another prolific author of limericks was Isaac Asimov, who clearly didn’t view the form as problematic. In his memoir In Memory Yet Green, with typical precision, he writes that his first attempt took place on July 13, 1953. A friend challenged him to compose a limerick with the opening line “A priest with a prick of obsidian,” and after some thought, Asimov recited the following:

A priest with a prick of obsidian
Was a foe to the hosts of all Midian,
Instead of immersion
Within a young virgin
’Twas used as a bookmark in Gideon.

“I explained that the ‘hosts of Midian’ was a biblical synonym for evil and that ‘Gideon’ was a reference to a Gideon Bible, but no one thought much of it,” Asimov writes. “However, when I challenged anyone present to do better, no one could.” Asimov was encouraged by the experience, however, and he soon got into the habit of constructing limericks in his head “whenever I was trapped in company and bored.” Not surprisingly, it occurred to him that it would be a shame to let them go to waste, and he convinced the publishing house Walker & Company to let him put together a collection. Asimov continued to write limericks with “amazing speed,” and Lecherous Limericks appeared in 1975. It was followed by six more installments, including two collaborations with none other than the poet and translator John Ciardi.

And the uncomfortable fact about Asimov’s limericks is that most of them frankly aren’t very good, funny, or technically impressive. This isn’t a knock on Asimov himself, but really a reflection of the way in which the limerick resists being produced in such a casual fashion, despite what thousands of practitioners think to the contrary. (“Amateurs amble over everything like cows,” Gass writes in The Tunnel. “The A which follows so many limericks stands for Amateur, not for Anonymous.”) Asimov was drawn to the form for the same reason that so many others are—it’s apparently easy, superficially forgiving of laziness, and can be composed and retained without difficulty in one’s head. And it’s no surprise that he embraced it. Asimov didn’t become the most prolific author in American history by throwing anything away, and just as he sent the very first story that he ever wrote as a teenager to John W. Campbell, who rejected it, he didn’t have any compunction about sending his first batch of limericks to his publisher, who accepted the result. “One good limerick out of every ten written is a better average than most poets hit,” Legman accurately writes, and Asimov never would have dreamed of discarding even half of his attempts. He also wasn’t likely to appreciate the underlying darkness and nihilism, not to mention the misogyny, of the form in which women “generally figure both as villain and victim,” as Legman notes, while also calling it “the only kind of newly composed poetry in English, or song, which has the slightest chance whatever of survival.” Gass, and presumably Pynchon, understood this all too well, and the author of The Tunnel deserves the last word: “Language has to contain…emotions. It’s not enough just to arouse them. In a perverse way that’s why I use a lot of limericks, because the limerick is a flatterer, the limerick destroys emotion, perhaps it produces giggles, but it is a downer. It’s an interesting form for that reason.” And it might end up being the defining poetry of our time.

Written by nevalalee

December 10, 2018 at 8:26 am

The long night

with one comment

Three years ago, a man named Paul Gregory died on Christmas Day. He lived by himself in Desert Hot Springs, California, where he evidently shot himself in his apartment at the age of ninety-five. His death wasn’t widely reported, and it was only this past week that his obituary appeared in the New York Times, which noted of his passing:

Word leaked out slowly. Almost a year later, The Desert Sun, a daily newspaper serving Palm Springs, California, and the Coachella Valley area, published an article that took note of Mr. Gregory’s death, saying that “few people knew about it.” “He wasn’t given a public memorial service and he didn’t receive the kind of appreciations showbiz luminaries usually get,” the newspaper said…When the newspaper’s article appeared, [the Desert Hot Springs Historical Society] had recently given a dinner in Mr. Gregory’s memory for a group of his friends. “His passing was so quiet,” Bruce Fessler, who wrote the article, told the gathering. “No one wrote about him. It’s just one of those awkward moments.”

Yet his life was a remarkable one, and more than worth a full biography. Gregory was a successful film and theater producer who crossed paths over the course of his career with countless famous names. On Broadway, he was the force behind Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, one of the big dramatic hits of its time, and he produced Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, which deserves to be ranked among the greatest American movies.

Gregory’s involvement with The Night of the Hunter alone would have merited a mention here, but his death caught my eye for other reasons. As I mentioned here last week, I’ve slowly been reading through Mailer’s Selected Letters, in which both Gregory and Laughton figure prominently. In 1954, Mailer told his friends Charlie and Jill Devlin that he had recently received an offer from Gregory, whom he described as “a kind of front for Charles Laughton,” for the rights to The Naked and the Dead. He continued:

Now, about two weeks ago Gregory called me up for dinner and gave me the treatment. Read Naked five times, he said, loved it, those Marines, what an extraordinary human story of those Marines, etc…What he wants to do, he claims, is have me do an adaptation of Naked, not as a play, but as a dramatized book to be put on like The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial…Anyway, he wants it to be me and only me to do the play version.

The play never got off the ground, but Gregory retained the movie rights to the novel, with an eye to Laughton directing with Robert Mitchum in the lead. Mailer was hugely impressed by Laughton, telling Elsa Lanchester decades later that he had never met “an actor before or since whose mind was so fine and powerful” as her late husband’s. The two men spent a week at Laughton’s hotel in Switzerland going over the book, and Mailer recalled that the experience was “a marvelous brief education in the problems of a movie director.”

In the end, sadly, this version of the movie was never made, and Mailer deeply disliked the film that Gregory eventually produced with director Raoul Walsh. It might all seem like just another footnote to Mailer’s career—but there’s another letter that deserves to be mentioned. At exactly the same time that Mailer was negotiating with Gregory, he wrote an essay titled “The Homosexual Villain,” in which he did the best that he could, given the limitations of his era and his personality, to come to terms with his own homophobia. (Mailer himself never cared for the result, and it’s barely worth reading today even as a curiosity. The closing line gives a good sense of the tone: “Finally, heterosexuals are people too, and the hope of acceptance, tolerance, and sympathy must rest on this mutual appreciation.”) On September 24, 1954, Mailer wrote to the editors of One: The Homosexual Magazine, in which the article was scheduled to appear:

Now, something which you may find somewhat irritating. And I hate like hell to request it, but I think it’s necessary. Perhaps you’ve read in the papers that The Naked and the Dead has been sold to Paul Gregory. It happens to be half-true. He’s in the act of buying it, but the deal has not yet been closed. For this reason I wonder if you could hold off publication for a couple of months? I don’t believe that the publication of this article would actually affect the sale, but it is a possibility, especially since Gregory—shall we put it this way—may conceivably be homosexual.

And while there’s a lot to discuss here, it’s worth emphasizing the casual and utterly gratuitous way in which Mailer—who became friendly years later with Roy Cohn—outed his future business partner by name.

But the letter also inadvertently points to a fascinating and largely unreported aspect of Gregory’s life, which I can do little more than suggest here. Charles Laughton, of course, was gay, as Elsa Lanchester discusses at length in her autobiography. (Gregory appears frequently in this book as well. He evidently paid a thousand dollars to Confidential magazine to kill a story about Laughton’s sexuality, and Lanchester quotes a letter from Gregory in which he accused Henry Fonda, who appeared in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, of calling Laughton a “fat, ugly homosexual”—although Laughton told her that Fonda had used an even uglier word.) Their marriage was obviously a complicated one, but it was far from the only such partnership. The actress Mary Martin, best known for her role as Peter Pan, was married for decades to the producer and critic Richard Halliday, whom her biographer David Kaufman describes as “her father, her husband, her best friend, her gay/straight ‘cover,’ and, both literally and figuratively, her manager.” One of Martin’s closest friends was Janet Gaynor, the Academy Award-winning actress who played the lead in the original version of A Star is Born. Gaynor was married for many years to Gilbert Adrian, an openly gay costume designer whose most famous credit was The Wizard of Oz. Gaynor herself was widely believed to be gay or bisexual, and a few years after Adrian’s death, she married a second time—to Paul Gregory. Gaynor and Gregory often traveled with Martin, and they were involved in a horrific taxi accident in San Francisco in 1982, in which Martin’s manager was killed, Gregory broke both legs, Martin fractured two ribs and her pelvis, and Gaynor sustained injuries that led to her death two years later. Gregory remarried, but his second wife passed away shortly afterward, and he appears to have lived quietly on his own until his suicide three years ago. The rest of the world only recently heard about his death. But even if we don’t know the details, it seems clear that there were many stories from his life that we’ll never get to hear at all.

The Bad Pennies, Part 4

with one comment

On June 10, 2014, the author Deirdre Saoirse Moen published an email on her blog from Moira Greyland, the daughter of Marion Zimmer Bradley. In a few short paragraphs, Greyland devastatingly described the extent of the abuse that she had suffered at the hand of her mother: “The first time she molested me, I was three. The last time, I was twelve, and able to walk away…I put [her stepfather Walter Breen] in jail for molesting one boy…Walter was a serial rapist with many, many, many victims…but Marion was far, far worse. She was cruel and violent, as well as completely out of her mind sexually. I am not her only victim, nor were her only victims girls.” Later that year, Moira’s brother Mark gave an interview in which he corroborated her claims, while also revealing the difficulty that he had felt in speaking out:

There was always drama and there was always the invisible blade of what would happen if all of this dreadful secret got out. The atmosphere of fear of discovery was simply everywhere and there was no place to hide. Worse, I was ashamed. When you are small you believe stuff, and I felt with my whole heart that I was responsible when she would go bad. There was absolutely no way I was gonna drag the mountain onto my head…And nobody spoke. Everything was always fine and that was my clown suit. I thought everyone knew and that I was such a bad person no one would speak to me. My echo chamber filled me with such fear of exposure I would do anything to make the shadow go away. And I did.

Not surprisingly, these revelations sent a shockwave through the science fiction and fantasy community, with many writers—including those associated with Bradley’s fiction series and magazine—speaking out against what John Scalzi called the “horrific” allegations. Yet while the full extent of Bradley’s abuse may have been unknown, her culpability in Breen’s crimes had been public knowledge for years. In 1998, Bradley testified in a series of depositions about her relationship with her husband, in which she admitted that she was fully aware of his behavior. When asked why she had defended him from accusations of child molestation during the buildup to the World Science Fiction Convention in Berkeley, she responded that she had felt that it was “nobody’s business” but Breen’s. And her involvement went far beyond the decision to keep silent. As the writer Stephin Goldin, whose stepson was abused by Breen, writes in a discussion of the case, which was published shortly after Bradley passed away:

[Bradley] actively aided and abetted her husband, Walter Breen, in the sexual abuse and molestation of children. Before people cast too many tears over her death, they may wish to learn some of the harm she helped perpetrate in the world as well…[Bradley] admits having deliberately covered up her husband’s involvement in activities she knew were illegal and harmful. She took some pains to tell Walter not to molest her own children, but she didn’t care in the least what he did to other children. Readers will be able to judge for themselves the sort of moral character this woman possessed.

And while this information was publicly available for fifteen years before the disclosures by Bradley’s children, they remained largely unknown outside a relatively small circle of fans.

So what happened in the meantime to inspire such a strong response to the statements from Moira and Mark Greyland? I can think of several possible reasons, all of which may have played a role. The first is that our culture has simply changed, which comes close to being a tautology. Another is that the accusations from Bradley’s children are more horrifying, because they indicate that their mother was an abuser as well as an enabler—although this doesn’t explain why her involvement with Breen had gone mostly unremarked until then. The third, which I think gets even closer to the truth, is that the fact that this information was rapidly disseminated online made it harder to ignore. (As Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker write in an article in CoinWeek: “Consider this: as a hobby and an industry, we’re actually quite fortunate that the Breen scandal erupted when it did. Had Breen’s crimes come to light in the Internet Age, the hobby as a whole could have been implicated.” And you could say much the same of the science fiction community.) A fourth explanation is that it can be difficult for us to collectively catch up with allegations that have existed for a long time, until they’ve been catalyzed by a fresh piece of news. As the events of the last two years have made clear, there’s a huge backlog of horrific behavior on the part of our artistic and literary heroes that we haven’t yet processed, in large part because we’ve been preoccupied with developments in the present. I’ve made this point before about Saul Bellow, among others, but an even more relevant example is the Nobel laureate André Gide, whose abuse of young boys was remarkably similar to Breen’s. A lot of this information is out there, but it’s been grandfathered into the conversation, and we don’t always pay attention to it until we don’t have a choice.

But there’s one more factor that may be the most significant of all, and it brings us full circle to Breen’s mentor. William Herbert Sheldon’s crimes were of a different kind, but he benefited from the existence of subcultures that allowed him to operate for years without scrutiny. The Ivy League nude posture photo scandal, as its name implies, depended on the existence of a relatively closed world that permitted Sheldon’s work to continue. I suspect that much the same holds true of the community of numismatists, who trusted him with access to rare coins that he quietly switched out for his own inferior samples, mostly because he could. And it’s worth noting that these were groups of people who presumably thought of themselves as more intelligent than average, which might actually allow such behavior to go unchallenged for longer. Breen, who became involved with Sheldon through their shared interest in both coins and gifted children, could hardly have failed to notice this. (While writing this post, incidentally, I became aware of the novel Wild Talent by Wilson Tucker, first published in 1954, about a telepath named Breen who is conscripted to work for the government. The main character is undoubtedly named after Walter Breen—Tucker named characters after prominent fans so often that it inspired its own term of art. And the timing, which seems too perfect to be just a coincidence, makes me wonder if there might be something to Jack Sarfatti’s claims about Breen and Sheldon’s work on psychic powers with children in the early fifties.) Science fiction, of course, is another such subculture. Or at least it used to be. Nowadays, it’s embedded in the mainstream, which makes it harder for predators to work undetected, or for their crimes to be covered up for long. Bad pennies, as we’ve all seen, can appear in any context. And the best way to deal with them may be to let the truth circulate as widely as possible.

Written by nevalalee

December 6, 2018 at 9:11 am

The Bad Pennies, Part 3

leave a comment »

On September 4, 1964, the annual World Science Fiction Convention opened its doors at the Hotel Leamington in Oakland, California. The guests of honor included Leigh Brackett, Edmond Hamilton, and Forrest Ackerman, with Anthony Boucher serving as toastmaster, but the conversation that weekend was dominated by a fan who wasn’t there. After a heated debate, Walter H. Breen had been banned from attendance by the convention committee, for reasons that were outlined by Bill Donaho in a special fanzine issue titled “The Great Breen Boondoggle, or All Berkeley Is Plunged into War.” (The newsletter was privately circulated, and Donaho asked that it not be quoted, but the complete text can be found online.) As Donaho makes abundantly clear, it was common knowledge among local fans that Breen—who had moved to Berkeley in the fifties—was a serial abuser of children. Four cases are described in detail, with allusions to numerous others. I won’t quote them here, but they’re horrifying, both in themselves and in the length of time over which they took place. Donaho writes:

Walter’s recent behavior has been getting many Berkeley parents not just alarmed, but semi-hysterical. If Walter is in the same room with a young boy, he never takes his eyes off the kid. He’ll be semi-abstractedly talking to someone else, but his eyes will be on the boy. And if the kid goes to the bathroom, Walter gets up and follows him in…Knowing Walter I can readily believe that he was completely oblivious to the obvious signs of strong objection. Those who say Walter is a child are right and as a child he is completely oblivious to other people’s desires and wishes unless hit on the head with them.

In the meantime, the prominent fan Alva Rogers said that he felt “great reluctance” to exclude anyone from the community, and he had a novel solution to ensure the safety of his own children whenever Breen came to visit: “He wanted to protect his kids of course, but that the situation was adequately handled at his house by having them barricade themselves in their room.”

But the most unbelievable aspect of the entire story is that no one involved seems to have disputed the facts themselves. What remained a source of controversy—both before the convention and long afterward—was the appropriate action to take, if any, against Breen. As Donaho writes of the reactions of two influential fans, with the name of a child redacted:

They swung between two points of view. “We must protect T—” and “We’re all kooks. Walter is just a little kookier than the rest of us. Where will it all end if we start rejecting people because they’re kooky?” So they swung from on the one hand proposing that if Walter wasn’t to be expelled, then the banning from individual homes should be extended so that club meetings were only held in such homes, and on the other hand calling the whole series of discussions “McCarthyite” and “Star Chamber.” “I don’t want Walter around T—, but if we do such a horrible thing as expelling him, I’ll quit fandom.”

On a more practical level, some of the organizers were concerned that if they banned Breen, they would also lose Marion Zimmer Bradley, who married him shortly before the convention began. When informed of the controversy, Breen explicitly threatened to keep Bradley away, which led to much consternation. Donaho explains: “Many of us like Marion and all this is not a very pleasant welcome to Berkeley for her. Not to mention the fact that it’s going to severely strain her relations with almost all Berkeley fans, since naturally she will defend Walter…We feel that she most probably at least knows about some of Walter’s affairs with adolescent males but believes in tolerance.”

Even after the decision was made, the wounds remained raw, and many writers and fans seemed to frame the entire incident primarily in terms of its impact on the community. In the second volume of his biography In Dialogue With His Century, William H. Patterson quotes a letter that Heinlein sent to Marion Zimmer Bradley on July 15, 1965:

The fan nuisance we were subjected to was nothing like as nasty as the horrible things that were done to you two but it was bad enough that we could get nothing else done during the weeks it went on and utterly spoiled what should have been a pleasant, happy winter. But it resulted in a decision which has made our life much pleasanter already…We have cut off all contact with organized fandom. I regret that we will miss meeting some worthwhile people in the future as the result of this decision. But the percentage of poisonous jerks in the ranks of fans makes the price too high; we’ll find our friends elsewhere.

Patterson, typically, doesn’t scrutinize this statement, moving on immediately to an unrelated story about Jerry Pournelle with the transition: “Fortunately, not all their fan interactions were were so unpleasant.” His only discussion of the incident takes the form of a footnote in which he quotes “a good short discussion” of the Breendoggle from a glossary of fan terms: “The sole point fans on both sides can agree upon is that the resulting feud had long-lasting effects [and] tore the fabric of the microcosm beyond repair…The opposing forces retired to lick their wounds and assure themselves that they had been undeniably right while the other side had been unmistakably wrong.”

By now, I hope that we can arrive at another “single point” of agreement, which is that fandom, in its effort to see itself as a place of inclusiveness for the “kooks,” disastrously failed to protect Breen’s victims. In 1991, Breen was charged with eight felony counts of child molestation and sentenced to ten years in prison—which led in turn to a comparable moment of reckoning in another subculture in which he had played an even more prominent role. Breen was renowned among coin collectors as the author of such reference works as the Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, and the reaction within the world of numismatics was strikingly similar to what had taken place a quarter of a century earlier in Berkeley. As Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker write in an excellent article in CoinWeek:

Even in 1991, with the seeming finality of a confession and a ten-year prison sentence, it was like the sci-fi dustups of the 1960s all over again. This time, however, it was coin collectors and fans of Breen’s numismatic work that came to his defense. One such defender was fellow author John D. Wright, who wrote a letter to Coin World that stated: “My friend Walter Breen has confessed to a sin, and for this, other friends of mine have picked up stones to throw at him.” Wright criticized the American Numismatic Association for revoking Breen’s membership mere weeks after awarding him the Heath Literary Award, saying that while he did not condone Breen’s “lewd and lascivious acts,” he did not see the charge, Breen’s guilty plea or subsequent conviction as “reason for expulsion from the ANA or from any other numismatic organization.”

It’s enough to make you wonder if anything has changed in the last fifty years—but I think that it has. And the best example is the response to a more recent series of revelations about the role of Marion Zimmer Bradley. I’ll dive into this in greater detail tomorrow, in what I hope will be my final post on the subject.

The Bad Pennies, Part 2

with one comment

William Herbert Sheldon achieved his greatest fame by classifying human beings into degrees of three basic categories—ectomorph, endomorph, and mesomorph—based on their physical proportions. At exactly the same time, and with far more enduring results, he did something similar for rare coins. In 1949, he developed what became known as the Sheldon coin grading scale, a modified version of which is used to this day by numismatists and coin collectors. In his book Early American Cents, Sheldon notes that numismatists gain much of their knowledge from studying photographs of coins, and he continues:

A workable idea can be formed as to how the various shades of condition from a poor coin to a perfect coin can be scaled or graded. This progression is of course a continuum, not a series of discrete steps, and for those who think quantitatively rather than adjectivally it is more accurate to grade coins on a numerical scale than to try to fit them into a series of adjectival pigeonholes.

Sheldon goes on to provide “a quantitative scale of condition” for the coins known as large cents, ranging from 1 to 70, with the highest rating reserved for specimens in an uncirculated state. And while I don’t know enough about Sheldon to speculate on the direction of influence, the entire project was strikingly similar to his work on somatotypes, which classified individuals on a quantitative scale, ranging from 1 to 7, based on the close examination of photos.

Both aspects of Sheldon’s career were also tainted by what appears to have been a deep streak of dishonesty. One of his former assistants, Barbara Honeyman Heath, said decades later that Sheldon had “mutilated and manipulated the materials” for his book Atlas of Men, and an even stranger scandal emerged after his death. In the course of his research on large cents, Sheldon frequently studied the examples held by the American Numismatic Society in New York, including a collection donated by the numismatist George H. Clapp. As a legal filing states:

ANS took physical possession of the Clapp collection in 1947. At some time after ANS’s receipt of the Clapp collection and before 1973, a number of coins were surreptitiously stolen from the Clapp collection by someone who replaced the Clapp coins with coins of the same variety but of inferior grade…The late William Sheldon, a preeminent classifier, cataloguer, and collector of large cents, lived near the ANS until 1973. During that time, Sheldon spent much time at ANS, unguarded, examining the Clapp collection. In 1973-1974, the ANS catalogued its Clapp collection and discovered that some of the coins had been switched for inferior coins of the same variety.

In 1991, a collector published a book, United States Large Cents, that included photos of coins that had been acquired from Sheldon. After closer scrutiny, they were identified as the coins that had been stolen from the Clapp collection—and Sheldon also appears to have pilfered coins from at least four other private collectors, switching them out in each case with inferior examples of his own.

Sheldon’s thefts evidently took place during his research for Early American Cents and its successor, which was titled Penny Whimsy. The revised edition was prepared by Sheldon in collaboration with Walter H. Breen, a much younger numismatist whom he had met while teaching at Columbia University. The two men worked together on what become known as the Sheldon-Breen rarity scale, which rates a coin’s scarcity on a scale from 1 to 9. And much as in Sheldon’s case, Breen’s interest in coins was mirrored in his fascination with unusual human beings, particularly those of high intelligence. Breen was an early member of Mensa, and he evidently attempted to start a program for gifted children that may have involved Sheldon. Our primary source here is Jack Sarfatti, a controversial physicist with ties to Uri Geller, who has made some unusual claims about this project:

I was part of a group of super kids, these genius kids that were being studied at the Columbia University Laboratory of William Sheldon, and one of his assistants, a Walter Breen—we’re talking like 1953…It was also connected to the government.  It had something to do with what later became Sandia Labs in New Mexico…There were experiments, and they would just sit with the kids, you know, trying to get them to move objects.  We never moved anything, but there was a whole program going on about this.  Also, they talked about aliens and flying saucers, trying to figure out how they fly, and all that kind of stuff, it was a lot of science fiction.

In the same interview, Sarfatti claimed that Alan Greenspan had been involved, and that “it was all connected somehow with Ayn Rand,” which is more plausible than it sounds. Sarfatti also stated that Breen often took the kids to science fiction conventions, and he added: “Oh, and I met Isaac Asimov at that time.”

Whether or not we take this seriously, it’s obvious that Breen was interested in fringe aspects of psychology, often with a paranormal or mystical element, which he later called “biological humanics.” (Breen said in an interview that he investigated various subcultures as a sociologist, “including not only the Beat Generation groups on both coasts but also some of the very earliest hippies, finding out incidentally that some ideas that the bunch of us had developed in science fiction fandom had gotten into the hippie subculture and were being paraded around as their own inventions.” He also said that he had broken away from Sheldon after becoming concerned by his antisemitism.) And another side of his work wouldn’t become widely known for some time. In the critical anthology Before Stonewall, the scholar Donald Mader writes:

Walter Henry Breen (also known under his pseudonym J.Z. Eglinton) was the most important theorist of man-boy love to appear since the German figures…in the first third of the twentieth century…Breen independently affirmed, as they had, the distinction between what he termed “Greek love” (pederasty, or intergenerational homosexual relationships) and “androphile homosexuality” (eroticism between adult males)…He himself argued that androphile homosexuality had usurped the “true” tradition of homosexuality which belonged to Greek love.

Writing as Eglinton, Breen published a book on the subject, Greek Love, which he dedicated to his wife Marion Zimmer Bradley, who became famous decades later as the author of The Mists of Avalon—and it eventually became clear that both Breen and Bradley were guilty of offenses that far outweighed Sheldon’s thievery and deception. I’ll talk more about this in a concluding post tomorrow.

%d bloggers like this: