Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Critical thinking

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When you’re a technology reporter, as my wife was for many years, you quickly find that your subjects have certain expectations about the coverage that you’re supposed to be providing. As Benjamin Wallace wrote a while back in New York magazine:

“A smart young person in the Valley thinks being a reporter is basically being a PR person,” says one tech journalist. “Like, We have news to share, we’d like to come and tell you about it.” Reporters who write favorably about companies receive invitations to things; critics don’t. “They’re very thin-skinned,” says another reporter. “On Wall Street, if you call them a douchebag, they’ve already heard seventeen worse things in the last hour. Here, if you criticize a company, you’re criticizing the spirit of innovation.”

Mike Isaac of the New York Times recently made a similar observation in an interview with Recode: “One of the perceptions [of tech entrepreneurs] is A) Well, the press is slanted against us in some way [and] B) Why aren’t they appreciating how awesome we are? And like all these other things…I think a number of companies, including and especially Uber, get really upset when you don’t recognize the gravitas of their genius and the scope of how much they have changed.” Along the same lines, you also sometimes hear that reporters should be “supporting” local startups—which essentially means any company not based in Silicon Valley or New York—or businesses run by members of traditionally underrepresented groups.

As a result, critical coverage of any kind can be seen as a betrayal. But it isn’t a reporter’s job to “support” anything, whether it’s a city, the interests of particular stakeholders, or the concept of innovation itself—and this applies to much more than just financial journalism. In a perceptive piece for Vox, Alissa Wilkinson notes that similar pressures apply to movie critics. She begins with the example of Ocean’s 8, which Cate Blanchett, one of the film’s stars, complained had been reviewed through a “prism of misunderstanding” by film critics, who are mostly white and male. And Wilkinson responds with what I think is a very important point:

They’re not wrong about the makeup of the pool of critics. And this discussion about the demographic makeup of film critics is laudable and necessary. But the way it’s being framed has less helpful implications: that the people whose opinions really count are those whom the movie is “for.” Not only does that ignore how most movies actually make their money, but it says a lot about Hollywood’s attitude toward criticism, best revealed in Blanchett’s statement. She compared studio’s “support” of a film—which means, essentially, a big marketing budget—with critics’ roles in a film’s success, which she says are a “really big part of the equation.” In that view, critics are mainly useful in how they “support” movies the industry thinks they should like because of the demographic group and audience segment into which they fall.

This has obvious affinities to the attitude that we often see among tech startups, perhaps because they’re operating under similar conditions as Hollywood. They’re both risky, volatile fields that depend largely on perception, which is shaped by coverage by a relatively small pool of influencers. It’s true of books as well. And it’s easy for all of them to fall into the trap of assuming that critics who aren’t being supportive somehow aren’t doing their jobs.

But that isn’t true, either. And it’s important to distinguish between the feelings of creators, who can hardly be expected to be objective, and those of outside players with an interest in an enterprise’s success or failure, which can be emotional as much as financial. There are certain movies or startups that many of us want to succeed because of what they say about an entire industry or culture. Black Panther was one, and it earned a reception that exceeded the hopes of even the most fervent fan. A Wrinkle in Time was another, and it didn’t, although I liked that movie a lot. But it isn’t a critic’s responsibility to support a work of art for such reasons. As Wilkinson writes:

Diversifying that pool [of critics] won’t automatically lead to the results the industry might like. Critics who belong to the same demographic group shouldn’t feel as if they need to move in lockstep with a movie simply because someone like them is represented in it, or because the film’s marketing is aimed at them. Women critics shouldn’t feel as if they need to ‘support’ a film telling a woman’s story, any more than men who want to appear to be feminists should. Black and Latinx and Asian critics shouldn’t be expected to love movies about black and Latinx and Asian people as a matter of course.

Wilkinson concludes: “The best reason to diversify criticism is so that when Hollywood puts out movies for women, or movies for people of color, it doesn’t get lazy.” I agree—and I’d add that a more diverse pool of critics would also discourage Hollywood from being lazy when it makes movies for anyone.

Diversity, in criticism as in anything else, is good for the groups directly affected, but it’s equally good for everybody. Writing of Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko, the author Eve L. Ewing recently said on Twitter: “Hire Asian-American writers/Korean-American writers/Korean folks with different diasporic experiences to write about Pachinko, be on panels about it, own reviews of it, host online roundtables…And then hire them to write about other books too!” That last sentence is the key. I want to know what Korean-American writers have to say about Pachinko, but I’d be just as interested in their thoughts on, say, Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. And the first step is acknowledging what critics are actually doing, which isn’t supporting particular works of art, advancing a cause, or providing recommendations. It’s writing reviews. When most critics write anything, they thinking primarily about the response it will get from readers and how it fits into their career as a whole. You may not like it, but it’s pointless to ignore it, or to argue that critics should be held to a standard that differs from anyone else trying to produce decent work. (I suppose that one requirement might be a basic respect or affection for the medium that one is criticizing, but that isn’t true of every critic, either.) Turning to the question of diversity, you find that expanding the range of critical voices is worthwhile in itself, just as it is for any other art form, and regardless of its impact on other works. When a piece of criticism or journalism is judged for its effects beyond its own boundaries, we’re edging closer to propaganda. Making this distinction is harder than it looks, as we’ve recently seen with Elon Musk, who, like Trump, seems to think that negative coverage must be the result of deliberate bias or dishonesty. Even on a more modest level, a call for “support” may seem harmless, but it can easily turn into a belief that you’re either with us or against us. And that would be a critical mistake.

Life during wartime

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Over the last few days, I’ve been reading Maker of Patterns, the new “autobiography through letters” of the legendary physicist Freeman Dyson. Normally, I’m not all that interested in collections of a famous person’s correspondence—I’d rather see them used as primary sources for a more systematic biography—but Dyson was an unusually eloquent writer, and his retrospective commentary, which appears throughout the book, is loaded with insight and good stories. I expect to bring it up here more than once, but for now, I’d like to focus on the opening section, which covers Dyson’s years as a college student at Cambridge during World War II. The German bombing of England provided the relentless drumbeat to his life there, as it did in London, where his father, the composer Sir George Dyson, was serving as the director of the Royal College of Music. Dyson quotes a letter written by Hazel Bole, who was a student at the time:

I was fire-watching on the roof during the air raids. We students were there to throw sand on the incendiary bombs which the German bombers were raining down on us. One night I grabbed the large bucket, and someone else grabbed it too. I let go, and in a sudden flash of fireball I saw Sir George grinning at me.

Yet events in the wider world play less of a role in this part of the book than you might expect. As Dyson observes: “In these letters written during the darkest years of the war, the war is hardly mentioned.”

Part of this was due to the fact that Dyson was only seventeen years old at the time. Shortly after his arrival in Cambridge, he wrote to his family: “I find there is no compulsion, or even suggestion, for me to do anything in the way of duty, military or civil, until I have to register.” He later joined the Home Guard and the fire service, but his duties remained nominal, even as they provided occasional reminders of the horrific possibilities that they were designed to anticipate. Dyson wrote in another letter: “I was unexpectedly one morning appointed ‘staircase marshal’ which means that I have to look after my staircase, put out bombs and carry out corpses, if a bomb happens to burst within twenty yards of us. All my duties have amounted to so far is trying to get a stirrup-pump mended by plumbers who know nothing about it.” (He helpfully explains: “The stirrup-pump was standard equipment during the war for putting out fire-bombs. It stood in a bucket filed with water and pumped the water into a hose that was directed at the fire. It was hand-operated and needed no electricity. I never had a chance to use it.”) Even when the war came to his doorstep, his role was a limited one:

Sometimes a German bomber, having lost its way, would fly over Cambridge and drop a couple of bombs. One of these bombs fell on the student union just across the street from my bedroom in Trinity College. Since I belonged to our college fire service, I was ready to spring into action. But the college authorities told us that our job was to protect the historic buildings of the college. We were not allowed to cross the street. So we stood idly watching while the union building burned down.

Yet his removal from the war was also a revealing psychological choice. In a remarkable note, Dyson describes his father’s attitude:

Both at Winchester College [where Dyson attended high school] and at the Royal College, the war that began for England in 1939 hit us hard. We knew that we were in it for the long haul, with no end in sight, with a high probability that little that we valued would survive. And yet in a paradoxical way, our response to the war in both places was to ignore it as far as possible. My father in London, and our teachers in Winchester, understood that the best way to show our contempt for Hitler was to continue making music and to continue studying Latin and Greek, as if Hitler did not exist. My father said to the students in London in 1940, “All we have to do is behave halfway decently, and the whole world will come to our side.” That was his way of fighting Hitler…In Cambridge, just as in London and in Winchester, the way to defend England was to make sure that there would be something in England worth defending.

Reading this now, it’s easy to see the limits of the conviction that the world would rally around the side that tried to “behave halfway decently.” But there’s also something to be said for the importance of writing music and studying the classics during wartime. Even at moments of danger and uncertainty, life—or culture—can be about more than one thing, and acknowledging this is a crucial part of retaining our humanity when it seems the most threatened.

On some level, you could take Sir George Dyson’s mindset as an attempt to justify his reluctance to upend his life during the war, and you might be right. But he wasn’t wrong about the stakes involved. In a letter from 1943, Freeman Dyson wrote home: “I wish I had been in London for the air raid; there is nothing that makes me so happy as a display of fireworks. It seems they have given up the idea of a Baedeker raid on Cambridge, which is a pity.” He was referring to a series of raids undertaken by Germany in retaliation for the bombing of the historic town of Lübeck, of which the propagandist Baron Gustav Braun von Stumm said: “We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker guide.” (Goebbels, revealingly, was incensed by the statement, which undercut the official story that the response was a justified retaliation for “terror” by the British.) The values represented by the Dysons, both father and son, were genuinely under attack, and their continuation during the war was an affirmation of their dignity and significance. And when the time came to serve in other ways, Dyson was ready. As he writes tersely in his memoirs: “After leaving Cambridge in 1943, I spent two years working as a civilian in the operational research reaction of Bomber Command. The headquarters were in a forest north of High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. Our job was to demolish German cities and kill as many German civilians as possible. We killed about four hundred thousand, ten times as many as the Germans had killed in Britain.” Dyson has memorably described his experience there elsewhere, but he doesn’t talk about it here. And for the two years that he worked on the war effort, he wrote no letters home at all.

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July 12, 2018 at 8:55 am

The art of skimming

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[Arthur] Schopenhauer wrote that life and dreams were pages from the same book, and that to read them in their proper order was to live, but to leaf through them was to dream,” Jorge Luis Borges writes in the lovely short essay “Time and J.W. Dunne.” As far as I can tell, he was referring to this passage from The World as Will and Representation:

Life and dreams are the pages of one and the same book. In real life we read the pages in coherent order. But when the hour appointed for reading (i.e. the day) is done, and the time for rest has come, then we often leaf idly through the book, turning now to this page and now to another, in no particular order or sequence. Sometimes we turn to a page that we have already read, and sometimes to an unknown one, but they are always from the same book. So a page read separately is indeed out of sequence in comparison to the pages that have been read in order: but it is not so much the worse for that, especially when we bear in mind that a whole consecutive reading starts and finishes just as arbitrarily. In fact it should really be seen as itself only a single, separate, although larger, page.

Or as Borges puts it a few lines earlier: “To dream is to orchestrate the objects we viewed while awake and to weave from them a story, or a series of stories. We see the image of a sphinx and the image of a drugstore, and then we invent a drugstore that turns into a sphinx.”

Comparing a dream to the act of leafing through a book sheds a revealing light on the nature of dreaming, but I think that it also validates the undervalued art of skimming. We tend to see skimming as a degraded form of reading that dishonors the text, and when we approach it as if we’re cramming for a final exam, it can be. But there’s also a form of skimming as a creative tool that deserves to be celebrated. A few weeks ago, I quoted a description from the book Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce of the comedian Mort Sahl at work:

Wherever he was, at home or on the road, he would have his room lined with magazines and books. He never read anything. A voracious skimmer. By flipping through this and staring at that, reading a sentence here and picking up a word there, he got a very good idea of where everything was. When he went into his monologue, you would swear that he had digested the whole world for that week.

At the time, I was making a point about the superficiality of this method of digesting the news. But you could come up with an equally persuasive case that for someone like Sahl, whose genius lay in making connections, this approach was actually more productive than a close reading, since it forced him to fill in the blanks with the twist that turned an idea into a joke.

And this applies to more than just comedy. In the collection Memorabilia Mathematica, there’s a reminiscence by the mathematician Andrew Forsyth of his colleague Arthur Cayley:

Cayley was singularly learned in the work of other men, and catholic in his range of knowledge. Yet he did not read a memoir completely through: his custom was to read only so much as would enable him to grasp the meaning of the symbols and understand its scope. The main result would then become to him a subject of investigation: he would establish it (or test it) by algebraic analysis and, not infrequently, develop it so to obtain other results. This faculty of grasping and testing rapidly the work of others, together with his great knowledge, made him an invaluable referee; his services in this capacity were used through a long series of years by a number of societies to which he was almost in the position of standing mathematical advisor.

The italics are mine. The image of Cayley reading “only so much as would enable him to grasp the meaning of the symbols and understand its scope” is remarkably similar to Sahl “reading a sentence here and picking up a word there [so that] he got a very good idea of where everything was.” And while this shouldn’t be the only way in which we read, it’s indispensable for the referees and advisers who save the rest of us the trouble of keeping track of everything ourselves. (You can even compare it to the role of a good magazine editor, who sifts through the slush pile and picks out the best material for publication—a professional ability that appears to be inseparable from the ability to skim.)

Which brings us back to skimming as a way of dreaming. If creativity often consists of finding connections between existing ideas, it can be helpful read in a way that naturally encourages such combinations. More systematic reading has its place, and you could argue that skimming only results in anything useful when combined with a foundation of knowledge that has been built up in more conventional ways. (Much of the art of skimming lies in the instinctive ability to recognize when a piece of information is actually interesting, which only works when you can compare it to something else of known value.) But for truly creative types, a willingness to learn something thoroughly—which we find in abundance in every graduate department in the world—is conjoined with something more superficial, mystical, and even frivolous. It has affinities both with dreaming and with divination, and it can be deeply pleasurable. I also think that it requires a physical book, newspaper, or magazine, which limits the act of skimming in a way that allows it, paradoxically, to become the most free. In How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, which I haven’t read, Pierre Bayard asks: “Who, we may wonder, is the better reader—the person who reads a work in depth without being able to situate it, or the person who enters no book in depth, but circulates through them all?” And he answers his own question in terms that serve as a justification for skimming itself:

For a true reader, one who cares about being able to reflect on literature, it is not any specific book that counts, but the totality of all books…In our quest for this perspective, we must guard against getting lost in any individual passage, for it is only by maintaining a reasonable distance from the book that we may be able to appreciate its true meaning.

St. George and the Bulldozer

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On February 28, 1962, the poet W.H. Auden delivered a lecture at Mt. Holyoke College that has since been reprinted under the title “The Poet and the City.” Auden opens with the observation—which remains as true today as it was half a century ago—that a surprising number of people claim that they want to be writers. He continues with devastating precision:

Among these would-be writers, the majority have no marked literary gift. This in itself is not surprising; a marked gift for any occupation is not very common. What is surprising is that such a high percentage of those without any marked talent for any profession should think of writing as the solution. One would have expected that a certain number would imagine that they had a talent for medicine or engineering and so on, but this is not the case. In our age, if a young person is untalented, the odds are in favor of his imagining he wants to write.

Auden’s explanation is that capitalism has reduced the worker to a mere laborer on behalf of impersonal forces, which leads the ordinary individual to be drawn to the dream of being in control of one’s life. He concludes: “It is only natural, therefore, that the arts which cannot be rationalized in this way—the artist still remains personally responsible for what he makes—should fascinate those who, because they have no marked talent, are afraid, with good reason, that all they have to look forward to is a lifetime of meaningless labor. This fascination is not due to the nature of art itself, but to the way in which an artist works; he, and in our age, almost nobody else, is his own master.”

Of course, writers operate under severe constrains and limitations of their own, and Auden goes on to list four reasons why the writing life is especially difficult in the modern era. One is the loss of the belief that the universe is eternal, which undermines the notion that art is meant to be enduring; another is our doubt in the existence of objective phenomena, which destroys the conception of art as an accurate representation of reality; and the third is our fear that our culture will fail to last long enough for our work to be appreciated or understood after we’re gone. (Auden speaks here with an echo of science fiction: “Technology, with its ever accelerating transformation of man’s way of living, has made it impossible for us to imagine what life will be like even twenty years from now.”) But it’s his fourth reason that interests me the most. Auden calls it “the disappearance of the Public Realm as the sphere of revelatory personal deeds,” which he characterizes as a reversal of the assumptions of the ancient world:

To the Greeks the Private Realm was the sphere of life ruled by the necessity of sustaining life, and the Public Realm the sphere of freedom where a man could disclose himself to others. Today, the significance of the terms private and public has been reversed; public life is the necessary impersonal life, the place where a man fulfills his social function, and it is in his private life that he is free to be his personal self.

And Auden adds darkly: “In consequence the arts, literature in particular, have lost their traditional principal human subject, the man of action, the doer of public deeds.”

At first, this might seem like an overstatement, but Auden makes a convincing case. He begins by returning to the specter of technology, which looms menacingly over the entire lecture:

The advent of the machine has destroyed the direct relation between a man’s intention and his deed. If St. George meets the dragon face to face and plunges a spear into its heart, he may legitimately say “I slew the dragon,” but, if he drops a bomb on the dragon from an altitude of twenty thousand feet, though his intention—to slay it—is the same, his act consists in pressing a lever and it is the bomb, not St. George, that does the killing.

The same holds true of the public works and monuments of the past. If Pharaoh orders that the fens be drained, it’s a measure of his power over human beings that he can get ten thousand subjects to do his bidding. Today, the same project could be accomplished in six months by “a hundred men with bulldozers,” reducing it to nothing more than a feat of civil engineering, with most of the work performed by machines that aren’t motivated by loyalty or fear. (Auden notes with some alarm: “It is now possible to imagine a world in which the only human work on such projects will be done by a mere handful of persons who operate computers.”) And his next observation is the one that resonates the most: “It is extremely difficult today to use public figures as themes for poetry because the good or evil they do depends less upon their characters and intentions than upon the quantity of impersonal force at their disposal.”

Yet I don’t think this is entirely true, at least not right now, when character, intent, and the power of words seem more relevant than ever, even if they require some quantity of “impersonal force.” To illustrate his point, Auden observes that it would be difficult to write a good poem about Winston Churchill: “All attempts to write about persons or events, however important, to which the poet is not intimately related in a personal way are now doomed to failure.” But this intimate relationship, or its emotional equivalent, is exactly what our national politics have achieved. As Yascha Mounk writes in a recent New Yorker review of the book The Increasingly United States by Daniel J. Hopkins, the Democratic and Republican parties have turned into “mega-identities,” embodied by “a politics in which all Americans fancy themselves bit actors in the same great drama of state, cheering or jeering an identical cast of heroes and villains.” The logical culmination is a head of state who assumes the role of a producer or television star. Even if he or she were an artist of impeccable taste, Auden points out that the results would be chilling:

A society which was really like a good poem, embodying the aesthetic virtues of beauty, order, economy and subordination of detail to the whole, would be a nightmare of horror for, given the historical reality of actual men, such a society could only come into being through selective breeding, extermination of the physically and mentally unfit, absolute obedience to its Director, and a large slave class kept out of sight in cellars.

Total control is a writer’s dream, but a nightmare in reality. And we’d be better off if such impulses led to bad novels, rather than to what Auden calls the “romantic answer” to what we want to do with our lives: “I want to be an explorer, a racing motorist, a missionary, President of the United States.”

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July 5, 2018 at 8:18 am

A choice of categories

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A few weeks ago, The Economist published a short article with the intriguing headline “Michel Foucault’s Lessons for Business.” It’s fun to speculate what the corporate world might actually stand to learn from this particular philosopher, who once noted that the capitalist system severely punishes crimes of property while discreetly reserving for itself “the illegality of rights.” In fact, the article is mostly interested in Foucault’s book The Order of Things, in which he examines the unstated assumptions that affect how we divide the universe into categories. The uncredited author begins:

Foucault was obsessed with taxonomies, or how humans split the world into arbitrary mental categories in order “to tame the wild profusion of existing things.” When we flip these around, “we apprehend in one great leap…the exotic charm of another system of thought.” Imagine, for example, a supermarket organized by products’ vintage. Lettuces, haddock, custard and the New York Times would be grouped in an aisle called “items produced yesterday.” Scotch, string, cans of dog food and the discounted Celine Dion DVDs would be in the “made in 2008” aisle.

And the article argues that we should take a closer look at how companies define themselves—how mining firms, for instance, are organized by commodity type, when a geographical analysis would reveal “that their production is often in unstable countries,” and that many of them are inordinately dependent on demand from China.

Speaking of China, Foucault’s interest in such problems had an unexpected inspiration, as he reveals in the preface to The Order of Things:

This book first arose out of a passage in [Jorge Luis] Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought—our thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography—breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a “certain Chinese encyclopedia” in which it is written that “animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camel-hair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.” In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.”

Critics have tried in vain to find the source that Borges was using, if one even existed—although it’s worth noting that Foucault never explicitly affirms that the encyclopedia is real. (Borges attributes it to the German sinologist Franz Kuhn, and it would be a pretty problem for a bright scholar to track down a possible original.)

But you don’t need to resort to fiction to find taxonomies that call all your usual assumptions into question. Recently, while revisiting Buckminster Fuller’s book Critical Path, I was struck by a list of resources that he generated for the World Game, an educational simulation that he devised to encourage ecological thinking:

  1. Reliably operative and subconsciously sustaining [resources], effectively available twenty-four hours a day, anywhere in the Universe: gravity, love.
  2. Available only within ten miles of the surface of the Earth in sufficient quantity to conduct sound: i.e., the complex of atmospheric gases whose Sun-induced expansion on the sunny side and shadow-side-of-the-world induced contraction together produce the world’s winds, which in turn produce all the world’s waves.
  3. Available in sufficient quantity to sustain human life only within two miles above planet Earth’s spherical surface: oxygen.
  4. Available aboard our planet only during day: sunlight.
  5. Not everywhere or everywhere available: water, food, clothing, shelter, vision, initiative, friendliness.
  6. Only partially available for individual human consumption, being also required for industrial production: e.g., water.
  7. Not publicly available because used entirely by industry, e.g., helium.
  8. Not available to industry because used entirely by scientific laboratories: e.g., moon rocks.

You can chalk some of this up to Fuller’s simple weirdness, which is inseparable from his genius, but there’s also something undeniably useful about classifying resources by availability, which isn’t far removed from the hypothetical grocery store proposed by The Economist. It’s also revealing that so many of these schemes center on problems of resource allocation, since the categories that we use in practice often amount to a way of tracking the distribution of some finite benefit, material or otherwise. Our cultural debates, in particular, frequently depend on how we position ourselves within the patterns of give and take between groups. (The question of whether someone like Bruno Mars can be guilty of cultural appropriation is either mildly irritating or curiously profound, depending on how you look at it.) And while the classifications of Fuller or Borges’s apocryphal encyclopedist can seem amusingly random, they’re no less arbitrary than others that have evolved over time for practical reasons. If you were designing a political platform from scratch, it might seem absurd to lump together gun rights, opposition to abortion, support of the death penalty, a hard line on immigration, tax cuts, and climate change skepticism, or—in the case of both parties—to want the government to keep out of certain private matters while involving itself deeply in others. These methods of slicing up the world exist to hold together unstable coalitions, or to serve powerful interest groups, and we’ve seen how fragile certain convictions, such as a belief in free markets, can really be. Much of the trauma of this political moment has arisen from the splintering of established categories, or a sudden clarification of which parts truly mattered. The process is bound to continue until we arrive at a point of temporarily stability, which will inevitably find itself shaken apart in the next convulsion. As Borges concludes: “There is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and speculative. The reason is quite simple: we do not know what the universe is.”

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July 3, 2018 at 9:05 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.

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

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