Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for the ‘Publishing’ Category

Handbook for morals

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Yesterday, the pop culture site Pajiba broke the strange story behind the novel Handbook for Mortals, which topped the New York Times bestseller list for Young Adult Fiction, despite not being available at most of the big chains or on Amazon. It soon became clear that somebody was gaming the system, calling stores, asking if they were among the retailers who reported sales data to the Times, and then placing bulk orders of the book. (Whoever did this was smart enough to keep all purchases below the threshold that would flag it as a corporate sale, which is usually around thirty copies.) But why bother doing this in the first place? An update on the site sheds some light on the subject:

Pajiba received details from two separate anonymous sources who got in touch, each claiming that author Lani Sarem herself admitted plans in multiple meetings with potential business partners and investors to push the book onto the New York Times bestseller list by fudging the numbers. Both sources also noted that the author and publisher’s primary concerns were to get a film deal, with the movie having been promised funding if it became a bestseller, hence a bulk-buying strategy with a focus on reaching the convention circuit.

In other words, the book, which has since been pulled from the Times list, didn’t have any value in itself, but as an obligatory stepping stone on the way to a movie deal—an important point that I’ll discuss later. For now, I’ll content myself with observing that the plan, if anything, succeeded too well. If the book had debuted a few notches further down, it might have raised eyebrows, but not to the extent that it did by clumsily clawing its way to the top. As Ace Rothstein notes wearily of a con artist in Casino: “If he wasn’t so fuckin’ greedy, he’d have been tougher to spot.”

The coverage on Pajiba is excellent, but it doesn’t mention the most famous precedent for this kind of self-defeating strategy. On April 15, 1990, the San Diego Union published an article by Mike McIntyre headlined “Hubbard Hot-Author Status Called Illusion,” which remains the best piece ever written on the tactics used by the Church of Scientology to get its founder on the bestseller lists. It begins:

In 1981, St. Martin’s Press was offered a sure thing. L. Ron Hubbard, the pulp writer turned religious leader, had written his first science-fiction novel in more than thirty years. If St. Martin’s published it, Hubbard aides promised the firm, subsidiary organizations of Hubbard’s Church of Scientology would buy at least fifteen thousand copies…”Five, six, seven people at a time would come in, with cash in hand, buying [Battlefield Earth],” said Dave Dutton, of Dutton’s Books, a group of four stores in the Los Angeles area. “They’d blindly ask for the book. They would buy two or three copies at a time with fifty-dollar bills. I had the suspicion that there was something not quite right about it.”

Michael Denneny, a senior editor at St. Martin’s, confirmed the arrangement, saying that Author Services—the affiliate of the church devoted to Hubbard’s literary work—promised to purchase between fifteen and twenty thousand copies, but ultimately went even further: “The Author Services people were very rambunctious. They wanted to make it a New York Times best seller. They were obsessed by that.” And in another article from the Los Angeles Times, a former sales manager for the church’s Bridge Publications revealed: “My orders for the week were to find the New York Times’ reporting stores anywhere in the east so they could send people into the stores to buy [Hubbard’s] books.”

If this sounds a lot like Handbook for Mortals, it wouldn’t be the first time that the church’s tactics have been imitated by others. After Hubbard’s death in 1986, the same bulk-buying techniques were applied to all ten volumes of the Mission Earth “dekalogy,” with the added goal of securing a Hugo Award nomination—which turned out to be substantially easier. The writer Charles Platt had become annoyed by a loophole in the nominating process, in which anyone could nominate a book who paid a small fee to become a supporting member of the World Science Fiction Convention. Platt wasn’t a Scientologist, but he wrote to the church suggesting that they exploit this technicality, hoping that it would draw attention to the problem. A few years later, the Church of Scientology apparently took his advice, buying memberships to vote in droves for Black Genesis, the second volume in the series. As the fan Paul Kincaid noted:

At least fifty percent of the nominations for Black Genesis came from people taking out supporting membership with their nominations. A large number of these came from people in Britain whom I’ve never heard of in any sort of fannish context, either before or since the convention. A lot of the nominations from people in Britain came on photocopied ballots with [Scientologist] Robert Springall’s name written on the bottom. It is within the rules to photocopy ballots and circulate them, providing that the person who has done the photocopying puts his or her name on the bottom…I didn’t make any record of this, but my impression was that a large number of people who took out supporting memberships to nominate Hubbard’s book didn’t actually vote in the final ballot.

In the end, Black Genesis came in dead last, behind “No Award,” but the structural weakness in the Hugos remained. Two decades later, the groups known collectively as the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies took advantage of it in similar fashion, encouraging followers to purchase supporting memberships and vote for their recommended slates. And the outcome was much the same.

It’s striking, of course, that methods pioneered by Scientology have been appropriated by other parties, either for personal gain or to make a political point. But it isn’t surprising. What the author of Handbook for Mortals, the Church of Scientology, and the Puppies all have in common is a shared disregard for the act of reading. Their actions can only be justified if bestsellerdom or an award nomination is taken as a means to an end, rather than as a reflection of success among actual readers. Sarem wanted a movie deal, the Puppies wanted to cause trouble, and the Scientologists wanted “to establish an identity for Hubbard other than as the founder of a controversial religious movement…to recruit new members into the Church of Scientology.” And the real irony here is that Hubbard himself wouldn’t have approved. The Union article notes of his novel’s publication history:

Harvey Haber, a former Scientologist who served as Hubbard’s literary aide, was dispatched to New York to sell the manuscript [of Battlefield Earth]. Hubbard demanded that the book be represented by a major literary agency and placed with one of the ten largest publishers. The church and Bridge Publications were to play no role. “He wanted to prove to everyone and all that he still had it,” Haber said. “That he was the best in the world.”

But fifty-eight New York literary agencies thought otherwise, Haber said. “Not one of them would touch it.” In Haber’s opinion, “The book was a piece of shit.” Church officials didn’t dare tell Hubbard his book was unmarketable, said Haber. “You would’ve been handed your head.” Thus, he said, was hatched the plan to offer guaranteed sales in return for publication.

Hubbard never learned that the church was buying his books in bulk, and he might have been furious if he had found out. Instead, he died believing that he had reached the bestseller list on his own merits. Whatever his other flaws, he genuinely wanted to be read. And this might be one of the few cases on record in which his integrity was greater than that of his followers.

The public eye

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Last month, the New York Times announced that it was eliminating its public editor, an internal watchdog position that dates back over a decade to the Jayson Blair scandal. In a memo to employees, publisher Arthur Sulzberger outlined the reasoning:

The responsibility of the public editor—to serve as the reader’s representative—has outgrown that one office…Today, our followers on social media and our readers across the Internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be. Our responsibility is to empower all of those watchdogs, and to listen to them, rather than to channel their voice through a single office.

We are dramatically expanding our commenting platform. Currently, we open only ten percent of our articles to reader comments. Soon, we will open up most of our articles to reader comments. This expansion, made possible by a collaboration with Google, marks a sea change in our ability to serve our readers, to hear from them, and to respond to them.

The decision was immediately criticized, as much for its optics and timing as for its underlying rationale. As Zach Schonfeld wrote for Newsweek: “The Times’s ability to hold the [Trump] administration accountable relies on its ability to convince readers that it’s holding itself accountable—to convince the country that it’s not ‘fake news,’ as Trump frequently charges, and that it is getting the story right.”

This seems obvious to me. Even if it was a legitimate call, it looks bad, especially at this particular moment. The public editor hasn’t always been as empowered or vocal as it should be, but these are problems that should have been addressed by improving it, not discontinuing it entirely, even if the Times itself lacked the inclination to do so. (Tom Scocca observed on Politico: “Sulzberger seemed to approach the routine duty of holding his paper accountable the same way a surly twelve-year-old approaches the task of mowing the lawn—if he could do it badly enough, maybe people would decide he shouldn’t have been made to do it at all.”) But I’m more concerned by the argument that the public editor’s role could somehow be outsourced to comments, both on the site itself and on unaffiliated platforms like Twitter. As another article in the Times explains:

We have implemented a new system called Moderator, and starting today, all our top stories will allow comments for an eight-hour period on weekdays. And for the first time, comments in both the News and Opinion sections will remain open for twenty-four hours.

Moderator was created in partnership with Jigsaw, a technology incubator that’s part of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. It uses machine-learning technology to prioritize comments for moderation, and sometimes, approves them automatically…The Times struck a deal with Jigsaw that we outlined last year: In exchange for the Times’s anonymized comments data, Jigsaw would build a machine learning algorithm that predicts what a Times moderator might do with future comments.

Without delving into the merits of this approach or the deal that made it possible, it seems clear that the Times wants us to associate the removal of the public editor with the overhaul of its comments section, as if one development were a response to the other. In his memo, Sulzberger wrote that the relationship between the newspaper and its readers was too important to be “outsourced”—which is a strange way to describe an internal position—to any one person. And by implication, it’s outsourcing it to its commenters instead.

But is that really what’s happening here? To my eyes, it seems more likely that the Times is mentioning two unrelated developments in one breath in hopes that we’ll assume that they’re solutions to the same problem, when, in fact, the paper has done almost nothing to build a comments section that could conceivably take on a watchdog role. In the article on the partnership with Jigsaw, we read: “The community desk has long sought quality of comments over quantity. Surveys of Times readers have made clear that the approach paid off—readers who have seen our comment sections love them.” Well, whenever I’ve seen those comment sections, which is usually by mistake, I’ve clicked out right away—and if these are what “quality” comments look like, I’d hate to see those that didn’t make the cut. But even if I’m not the intended audience, it seems to me that there are a number of essential factors that go into making a viable commentariat, and that the Times has implemented none of them. Namely:

  1. A sense of ownership. A good comment system provides users with a profile that archives all of their submissions in one place, which keeps them accountable and provides a greater incentive to put more effort into what they write. The Times, to my knowledge, doesn’t offer this.
  2. A vibrant community. The best comment sections, like the ones on The A.V. Club and the mid-sized communities on Reddit, benefit from a relatively contained pool of users, which allows you to recognize the names of prolific commenters and build up an identity for yourself. The Times may be too huge and sprawling to allow for this at all, and while workarounds might exist, as I’ll note below, they haven’t really been tried. Until now, the comments sections have appeared too unpredictably on articles to attract readers who aren’t inclined to seek them out, and there’s no support for threads, which allow real conversations to take place.
  3. A robust upvoting system. This is the big one. Comment sections are readable to the extent that they allow the best submissions to float to the top. When I click on an article on the Times, the column on the right automatically shows me the most recent comments, which, on average, are mediocre or worse, and it leaves me with little desire to explore further. The Times offers a “Reader’s Picks” category, but it isn’t the default setting, and it absolutely needs to be. Until then, it might get better policing from readers simply by posting every article as a link on Reddit and letting the comments live there.

It’s important to note that even if all these changes were implemented, they couldn’t replace a public editor, a high-profile position with access to the thought processes of editors and reporters that no group of outside commenters could provide. A good comment section can add value, but it’s a solution to a different problem. Claiming that beefing up the one allows you to eliminate the other is like removing the smoke alarm from your house because you’ve got three carbon monoxide detectors. But even if the Times was serious about turning its commenters into the equivalent of a public editor, like replacing one horse-sized duck with a hundred duck-sized horses, it hasn’t made the changes that would be required to make its comment sections useful. (Implementing items one and three would be fairly straightforward. Item two would be harder, but it might work if the Times pushed certain sections, like Movies or Sports, as portals in themselves, and then tried to expand the community from there.) It isn’t impossible, but it’s hard, and while it would probably cost less than paying a public editor, it would be more expensive than the deal with Google, in which the paper provides information about its readers to get an algorithm for free. And this gets at the real reason for the change. “The community desk has long sought quality of comments over quantity,” the Times writes—so why suddenly emphasize quantity now? The only answer is that it’s easier and cheaper than the alternative, which requires moderation by human beings who have to be paid a salary, rather than an algorithmic solution that is willing to work for data. Given the financial pressures on a site like the Times, which outlined the changes in the same article in which it announced that it would be offering buyouts to its newsroom staff, this is perfectly understandable. But pretending that a move based on cost efficiency is somehow better than the alternative is disingenuous at best, and the effort to link the two decisions points at something more insidious. Correlation isn’t causation, and just because Sulzberger mentions two things in successive paragraphs doesn’t mean they have anything to do with each other. I hate to say it, but it’s fake news. And the Times has just eliminated the one person on its staff who might have been able or willing to point this out.

Written by nevalalee

June 16, 2017 at 8:54 am

The tyranny of the calendar

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George R.R. Martin

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on January 12, 2016.

When a novelist reaches a certain level of commercial success, the charge is inevitably leveled—as it still is against the likes of Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and most recently George R.R. Martin—that he or she is no longer being edited. And it often seems like the evidence is right before our eyes. The books grow visibly longer, as they did most dramatically in the case of Harry Potter, or they take more installments to cover the same amount of ground, as with A Song of Ice and Fire. Familiar tics, like the folksy voice that King likes to assume, expand into full-blown affectations, and the novels themselves start to seem looser and shaggier. Something has clearly changed, and the underlying assumption is that the writers themselves are to blame: nobody likes being edited, and once their careers have advanced to the point where they carry sufficient financial clout with their publishers, they simply refuse to take any additional notes. As King himself said in an interview from the early eighties:

At this point, I think that if there were any change suggested to me that I didn’t want, all I would need to say would be, “No. I won’t do that.” And it would never be a question of their withdrawing my contract, would it? They’d just finally say, “Well, okay then, don’t do it that way. “Which means, in effect, that if I’m willing to be really intransigent, there’ll be no editing at all.

But the truth, as always, is a little more complicated. The quotation above comes from an interview with King first published in the second volume of the Dream Makers series by Charles Platt. It dates from an intriguing moment in King’s career, around the time of Christine, when he was already a force on bestseller lists but not the institution he later became. And he says of his editorial process during that period:

I like to write three drafts: a first, a second, and what I think of as the editorial draft, when I sit down and take an editor’s criticism and work it through in my own mind, and put the whole book through the typewriter again, and repolish the other stuff as well. But as the successes have mushroomed, it’s been tougher and tougher for me to get my editors to give me time to do that third draft. What I’m really afraid of now is that one of them will say, “I think this is great,” just because it fits their publication schedule. Every year, I’m on a faster and faster track…I am supposed to read the proofs [of Different Seasons] in five days. Now, what if we let a bunch of dumb errors go through? It isn’t a matter of creativity, or trying to do the best book possible, that’s governing things right now—it’s advertising. And that scares the hell out of me, because we’ll fuck up real good one of these days, and then people can say “Steve King writes for money,” and at that point they will be right.

Stephen King

This obviously reflects King’s own perspective on the matter, but it’s still a fascinating point, and it remains relevant when we flash forward more than thirty years to George R.R. Martin. In a blog post from 2009 titled “To My Detractors,” he recounts how he told his publishers that he wouldn’t be able to deliver the next book in the series on time, and he says of their response:

I thought they’d be sick about it…but I have to say, my editors and publishers are great, and they took it with surprising equanimity. (Maybe they knew it before I did.) They already had contingencies in place. They had made plans to speed up production. If I could deliver Winds of Winter by the end of the year, they told me, they could still get it out before the end of March.

Martin didn’t meet that deadline either, of course, and after describing his predicament in more detail, he concludes: “Best guess, based on our previous conversations, is that Bantam (and presumably my British publisher as well) can have the hardcover out within three months of delivery, if their schedules permit.” And although this line wasn’t much discussed in the fury of analysis that ensued, it may be the most astonishing tidbit in the entire post. Even if you just consider the physical challenge of printing a million hardcover copies, three months to take a novel from manuscript to bookstores is insane. With such a huge machine trembling to go into action, something’s got to give—and it’s probably going to be the editing.

What I’m suggesting, in other words, is that the perceived lack of editing in many big bestsellers isn’t due to authorial stubbornness or editorial laziness. Instead, it’s a structural consequence of fitting blockbuster books into a relentless publishing cycle. When you consider how the whole process is being squeezed on one side by the author’s pressure to finish and on the other side by the pressure to deliver the book to readers, it’s no surprise if certain crucial steps get truncated or eliminated along the way. And it makes sense that the first casualty would be editing. Authors often complain that no one really gets what they do, and that’s doubly true for editors. A process that is so opaque to outsiders is bound to fall by the wayside when there’s so much else to consider: you’ve got to drop something to keep on schedule, and it may as well be the editorial phase, which nobody understands anyway. (Which leads me to a crucial point that deserves a blog post of its own: this is also why tentpole movies these days seem to be consistently half an hour too long. There just isn’t the time to edit them properly.) If The Winds of Winter comes out three months after Martin delivers his “final” draft, there’s no way that it gets the edit it deserved: every other stage demands a fixed amount of time to complete, and it’s the edit that ends up paying the price. So when you worry that the books in your favorite series are getting longer and more self-indulgent, you don’t need to blame the editor or the author. You can blame the calendar.

Written by nevalalee

April 17, 2017 at 7:30 am

The art of the anti-blurb

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In a recent issue of The New Yorker, the critic Dan Chiasson offers up an appraisal of the poet Bill Knott, who died in 2014. To be honest, I’d either never heard of Knott or forgotten his name, but I suspect that he might have been pleased by this. Knott, who taught for decades at Emerson College, spent his entire career sticking resolutely to the edges of the literary world, distancing himself from mainstream publishers and electing to distribute his poems himself in cheap editions on Amazon. Chiasson relates:

The books that did make it to print usually featured brutal “anti-blurbs,” which Knott culled from reviews good and bad alike: his work was “grotesque,” “malignant,” “tasteless,” and “brainless,” according to some of the big names of the day.

Here are a few more of the blurbs he reprinted: “Bill Knott’s ancient, academic ramblings are part of what’s wrong with poetry today. Ignore the old bastard.” “Bill Knott bores me to tears.” “Bill Knott should be beaten with a flail.” “Bill Knott’s poems are so naïve that the question of their poetic quality hardly arises…Mr. Knott practices a dead language.” According to another reminiscence by the editor Robert P. Baird, Knott sometimes took it even further: “On his various blogs, which spawned and deceased like mayflies, he posted collages of rejection slips and a running tally of anti-blurbs: positive reviews and compliments that he’d carved up with ellipses to read like pans.” Even his actual negative reviews weren’t enough—Knott felt obliged to create his own.

The idea of a writer embracing his attackers has an obvious subversive appeal. Norman Mailer, revealingly, liked the idea so much that he indulged in it no fewer than three times, and far less nimbly than Knott did. After the release of The Deer Park, he ran an ad in The Village Voice that amounted to a parody of the usual collage of laudatory quotes—“The year’s worst snake pit in fiction,” “Moronic mindlessness,” “A bunch of bums”—and noted in fine print at the bottom, just in case we didn’t get the point: “This advertisement was paid for by Norman Mailer.” Two decades later, he decided to do the same thing with Marilyn, mostly as a roundabout way of responding to a single bad review by Pauline Kael. As the editor Robert Markel recalls in Peter Manso’s oral biography:

The book was still selling well when [Mailer] came in with his idea of a full two-page ad. Since he was now more or less in the hands of [publisher] Harold Roth, there was a big meeting in Harold’s office. What he wanted to do was exactly what he’d done with The Village Voice ad for The Deer Park: present all the positive and negative reviews, including Kael’s, setting the two in opposition. Harold was very much against it. He thought the two pages would be a stupid waste of money, but more, it was the adversarial nature of the ad as Norman conceived it.

Ultimately, Mailer persuaded Roth to play along: “He implied he’d made a study of this kind of thing and knew what he was talking about.” And five years down the line, he did it yet again with his novel Ancient Evenings, printing up a counter display for bookstores with bad reviews for Moby Dick, Anna Karenina, Leaves of Grass, and his own book, followed by a line with a familiar ring to it: “The quotations in this poster were selected by Norman Mailer.”

This compulsiveness about reprinting his bad reviews, and his insistence that everyone know that he had conceived and approved of it, is worth analyzing, because it’s very different from Knott’s. Mailer’s whole life was built on sustaining an image of intellectual machismo that often rested on unstable foundations, and embracing the drubbings that his books received was a way of signaling that he was tougher than his critics. Like so much else, it was a pose—Mailer hungered for fame and attention, and he felt his negative reviews as keenly as anyone. When Time ran a snarky notice of his poetry collection Deaths for the Ladies, Mailer replied, “in a fury of incalculable pains,” with a poem of his own, in which he compared himself to a bull in the ring and the reviewer to a cowardly picador. He recalled in Existential Errands:

The review in Time put iron into my heart again, and rage, and the feeling that the enemy was more alive than ever, and dirtier in the alley, and so one had to mend, and put on the armor, and go to war, go out to war again, and try to hew huge strokes with the only broadsword God ever gave you, a glimpse of something like Almighty prose.

This is probably a much healthier response. But in the contrast between Mailer’s expensive advertisements for himself and Knott’s photocopied chapbooks, you can see the difference between a piece of performance art and a philosophy of life truly lived. Of the two, Mailer ends up seeming more vulnerable. As he admits: “I had secret hopes, I now confess, that Deaths for the Ladies would be a vast success at the bar of poetry.”

Of course, Knott’s attitude was a bit of a pose as well. Chiasson once encountered his own name on Knott’s blog, which referred to him as “Chiasson-the-Assassin,” which indicates that the poet’s attitude toward critics was something other than indifference. But it was also a pose that was indistinguishable from the man inside, as Elisa Gabbert, one of Kott’s former students, observed: “It was kind of a goof, but that was his whole life. It was a really grand goof.” And you can judge them by their fruits. Mailer’s advertisements are brilliant, but the product that they’re selling is Mailer himself, and you’re clearly supposed to depart with the impression that the critics have trashed a major work of art. After reading Knott’s anti-blurbs, you end up questioning the whole notion of laudatory quotes itself, which is a more productive kind of skepticism. (David Lynch pulled off something similar when he printed an ad for Lost Highway with the words: “Two Thumbs Down!” In response, Roger Ebert wrote: “It’s creative to use the quote in that way…These days quotes in movie ads have been devalued by the ‘quote whores’ who supply gushing praise to publicists weeks in advance of an opening.” The situation with blurbs is slightly different, but there’s no question that they’ve been devalued as well—a book without “advance praise” looks vaguely suspicious, so the only meaningful fact about most blurbs is that they exist.) Resistance to reviews is so hard for a writer to maintain that asserting it feels like a kind of superpower. If asked, Mailer might have replied, like Bruce Banner in The Avengers: “That’s my secret. I’m always angry.” But I have a hunch that the truth is closer to what Wolverine says when Rogue asks if it hurts when his claws come out: “Every time.”

The Theater of Apollo

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In 1972, the physiologist Albert Szent-Györgyi, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on Vitamin C and the citric acid cycle, wrote a famous letter to the journal Science. He noted that scientists, like most creative types, can be roughly divided into two categories, variously known as the classical and the romantic, the systematic and the intuitive, or, as the physicist John R. Platt proposed, the Apollonian and the Dionysian. “In science,” Szent-Györgyi wrote, “the Apollonian tends to develop established lines to perfection, while the Dionysian rather relies on intuition and is more likely to open new, unexpected alleys for research.” After defining intuition as “a sort of subconscious reasoning, only the end result of which becomes conscious,” he continued:

These are not merely academic problems. They have most important corollaries and consequences. The future of mankind depends on the progress of science, and the progress of science depends on the support it can find. Support most takes the form of grants, and the present methods of distributing grants unduly favor the Apollonian. Applying for a grant begins with writing a project. The Apollonian clearly sees the future line of his research and has no difficulty writing a clear project. Not so the Dionysian, who knows only the direction in which he wants to go out into the unknown; he has no idea what he is going to find there and how he is going to find it. Defining the unknown or writing down the subconscious is a contradiction in absurdum. In his work, the Dionysian relies, to a great extent, on accidental observation…The Dionysian is often not only unable to tell what he is going to find, he may even be at a loss to tell how he made his discovery.

Szent-Györgyi, who clearly identified as a Dionysian, went on to state that writing grant proposals was always an “agony” for him, and that while he always tried to live up to Leo Szilard’s commandment “Do not lie without need,” he often had no alternative: “I filled up pages with words and plans I knew I would not follow. When I go home from my laboratory in the late afternoon, I often do not know what I am going to do the next day. I expect to think that up during the night. How could I tell, then, what I would do a year hence?” He added that while his “fake projects” were always accepted, his attempts to write down honestly what he thought he would do were invariably rejected:

This seems quite logical to me; sitting in an easy chair I can cook up any time a project which must seem quite attractive, clear, and logical. But if I go out into nature, into the unknown, to the fringes of knowledge, everything seems mixed up and contradictory, illogical, and incoherent. This is what research does; it smooths out contradiction and makes things simple, logical, and coherent. So when I bring reality into my projects, they become hazy and are rejected. The reviewer, feeling responsible for “the taxpayer’s money,” justly hesitates to give money for research, the lines of which are not clear to the applicant himself.

Szent-Györgyi concluded by saying that in his lifetime, he made two important discoveries, both of which “were rejected offhand by the popes of the field,” and that he had no doubt that they both would have been bounced with equal dispatch if he had tried to describe them in a grant application. And he left the problem without any real solution, except the suggestion that proposals for future research should either take into account the scientist’s earlier work or consider “the vouching of an elder researcher” who can attest to the applicant’s ability.

I’ve never had to apply for a grant, and I’d be curious to hear the perspectives of readers of this blog who have. But I’ve written book proposals, which presented me with a milder version of the dilemma that Szent-Györgyi described. (It’s milder, in part, because writers often work on spec, which means that the submission process in commercial publishing isn’t subject to the same pressures that you see in academia.) A proposal is a kind of map or miniature version of the finished work, whether it’s six pages long or seventy, and the author usually prepares it in a relatively short period of time, before the research or writing process has even begun. As a result, it can’t capture the information that the writer has to discover en route, as Ted Kooser puts it. It can only hint at what the author hopes to do or find, which, depending on your point of view, amounts to either a strong inference or a lie. It’s a system set up to reward or accommodate writers whose style lends itself to that kind of presentation, or who have the skills to fake it, and there are undoubtedly gifted people whom it excludes or discourages. Like grant writing, it exists primarily for the convenience of institutions, not individuals, and it creates a parallel world of obstacles that have to be navigated to get to the real challenge of doing interesting work. You could call it a necessary evil, or, if you’re feeling generous, you could argue that it’s a proxy for kinds of talent that can’t be measured directly. If you can handle the artificial, even ritualized strictures of the grant or proposal process, it’s a sign that you can tackle more important problems. Like an audition or a job interview, it takes on aspects of a game, and we’d like to believe that the test it provides will be predictive of good results later on.

It isn’t hard to find the flaws in this argument. (Among other things, until recently, I would have argued that the organizational demands of a successful political campaign serve as a similar audition for holding high office, and we’ve all seen how that turned out.) The greatest danger is the trap presented by all rituals of admission, which is that they ultimately measure nothing but the ability to pass the test. Just as college entrance exams and whiteboard interviews have inspired a cottage industry of books, tutors, and classes designed to coach applicants who can afford to pay for it, grant writing has mutated into grantsmanship, with its own rules, experts, and infrastructure. And the risks, as Szent-Györgyi said more than forty years ago, are very real. It’s a system that rewards researchers who are content, as Peter Medawar once put it, to figure out why thirty-six percent of sea urchin eggs have a tiny little black spot, simply because it’s the kind of project that can get funding. The grant application process may also play a role in the replication crisis in the social sciences, since it encourages applicants to project an unwarranted certainty that can be hard to relinquish when the data isn’t there. Perhaps worst of all, it penalizes whole groups of people, not just our hypothetical Dionysian geniuses, but also women and minorities who can’t always afford to play the game—and Szent-Györgyi’s otherwise reasonable suggestion that weight be granted to “the vouching of an elder researcher” only compounds the problem. If an Apollonian system resulted in a society of Apollos, we might be inclined to forgive it, but that isn’t the case. To the extent that it works, it’s because the division between Apollonian and Dionysian isn’t an absolute one, and most people learn to draw on each side at different times. Those who succeed have to be less like Apollo or Dionysus than, perhaps, like Hermes, the trickster who can change in response to the demands that the situation presents. And as flawed as the current system may be, we’ll have reason to miss it if it disappears.

Written by nevalalee

March 23, 2017 at 9:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

February 23, 2017 at 7:30 am

The threshold figure

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Dangerous

Last week, the Hollywood Reporter revealed that Milo Yiannopoulos—a Breitbart editor best known for his online trolling of Muslims, feminists, and the actress Leslie Jones—would be publishing a memoir with Simon & Schuster. The outraged response to the book deal, which allegedly amounted to something like a quarter of a million dollars, appears to have taken the publisher by surprise, prompting it to release this statement:

We do not and never have condoned discrimination or hate speech in any form. At Simon & Schuster we have always published books by a wide range of authors with greatly varying, and frequently controversial opinions, and appealing to many different audiences of readers. While we are cognizant that many may disagree vehemently with the books we publish we note that the opinions expressed therein belong to our authors, and do not reflect either a corporate viewpoint or the views of our employees.

It’s a strange defense that tiptoes right up to the edge of acknowledging that Yiannopoulos is practicing hate speech, while also claiming not to “condone” it, and it carries the buried implication that this is just business as usual. The unstated premise is that publishers have been courting conservative readers with specialized imprints for years, and at a time when the entire publishing industry feels threatened by declining readership, you can’t blame them for going after an author with a proven audience, just as the same imprint, Threshold Editions, has done in the past with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Donald Trump.

Yet this case is different, and for reasons that don’t have anything to do with its timing. We can start with the fact that this book is being rushed into print in a ludicrously short window of time: it’s currently scheduled to be released on March 14, which pushes the physical limits of the production process to the breaking point. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, George R.R. Martin has said that whenever he finally finishes The Winds of Winter, Bantam could have a hardcover out “within three months of delivery”—which is about as fast as a book can be edited, typeset, printed, and shipped to stores, even with the full resources of a major publisher behind it. Even if we grant that whatever Yiannopoulos is planning on writing is something less than a thousand-page fantasy epic, it’s still a tall order, even if the book were already complete, which doesn’t seem to be the case. Yiannopoulos told the Hollywood Reporter: “I met with top execs at Simon & Schuster earlier in the year and spent half an hour trying to shock them with lewd jokes and outrageous opinions. I thought they were going to have me escorted from the building—but instead they offered me a wheelbarrow full of money.” In other words, he wasn’t shopping around a manuscript, but a brand. This isn’t a book that is being published on its merits, but an attempt to cash in on an existing audience at what seems like a favorable moment. (That said, I don’t have any doubt that Yiannopoulos will be able to deliver it on time, presumably with the assistance of the squadron of interns that he uses to write the articles that appear under his name.) 

Dangerous

You could argue, not without reason, that this isn’t anything new, and that publishers have been cranking out similar books by pundits on the right for years. But there’s a subtle but important distinction that needs to be made here, as Constance Grady of Vox points out:

But in identifying Yiannopoulos as a possible future of conservative thought, Threshold Editions is caught in a cycle. Because by giving him a book deal, they’re not looking at a figure who is already considered culturally legitimate and giving him another platform for his thoughts. They’re looking at a figure who is reviled in some corners of the culture and adored in others—a kind of threshold figure—and they are saying that they consider him to be legitimate. They are not just describing; they are prescribing. They have decided that Yiannopoulos seems like someone who is about to be mainstream, and so they have brought him into the mainstream themselves. When Yiannopoulos told the Hollywood Reporter that “this book is the moment Milo goes mainstream,” he was being entirely accurate.

I think this nails it, and I’m afraid that Grady is equally right when she says: “And having brought in one Milo Yiannopoulos, it will be increasingly easy to bring in another, and then another, until all of the hatred and all of the rage of the white supremacists and misogynists and bigots on the alt-right is considered a valid part of the cultural discourse, and just another strain of thought, as legitimate as any other. It will become normal.”

Which is just to say that Simon & Schuster is doing worse than “condoning” what Yiannopoulos represents—it’s enabling it, and in a particularly craven and gratuitous way. Yiannopoulos doesn’t lack for an audience: he already has multiple platforms, and he doesn’t need a book deal to reach those who want to buy what he’s selling. A book might not even expand his readership beyond where it already stands. But by bringing it onto the New Releases table at Barnes & Noble, it has the effect of normalizing it, and it taints the entire publisher by association. I’m reminded of the controversy that has swirled for the last few years over the Hugo Awards, which have been hijacked by a small group of bloggers and commenters, many of whom identify with the same movements that idolize Yiannopoulos. But here’s the dirty little secret: outside a fairly closed circle of online science fiction fans, nobody really cares. I’m part of that world, in a tangential way, and to the extent that even I’ve noticed it, it’s because I dislike how they’ve opportunistically assaulted a vulnerable slice of the fandom. That doesn’t change the fact that their impact on the culture as a whole has been a rounding error, however inflated their view of themselves might be in their own tiny ponds. (Even at Worldcon itself, their impact was barely perceptible.) I’ve kept an eye on them because it’s my job, but the reaction of most people would be one of befuddled nonrecognition. Until this week, that’s basically where Yiannopoulos was—a figure of marginal interest who gained attention mostly by attaching himself like a remora onto promising targets. Simon & Schuster rewarded him for it. Yiannopoulos thinks that this means that he’s won. And the sad part is that he’s probably right.

Written by nevalalee

January 6, 2017 at 9:34 am

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