Alec Nevala-Lee

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The index fund

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When the time comes to prepare the index for a nonfiction book, there are basically two schools of thought on how to proceed. One is that the author is the only person qualified to perform this particular task. You see this view expressed at its most eloquent by Douglas R. Hofstadter, who reveals in a long endnote in Le Ton Beau de Marot that completing the index for that book required him to work fifteen hours a day for an entire month. He explains:

My feeling is that only the author (and certainly not a computer program) can do this job well. Only the author, looking at a given page, sees all the way to the bottom of the pool of ideas of which the words are the mere surface, and only the author can answer the question, “What am I really talking about here, in this paragraph, this page, this section, this chapter?” To answer those questions takes total understanding of the book.

Hofstadter adds that going through the book one last time awakened him to deeper themes and concepts that he hadn’t known were there, including “conflation,” “colliding cultures,” and “Chopin.” He concludes: “Once the index was essentially done…I found it interesting to flip through it and, by comparing the sheer sizes of various entries, to get new perceptions of what my book is most centrally about.” At a point at which a writer might be expected to have looked at a manuscript from every angle, an index can be a fund of new insights.

Another vote in favor of the author comes from Isaac Asimov. For his first nonfiction book, the textbook Biochemistry and Human Metabolism, he unquestioningly prepared the index himself, despite having only “a vague idea of how it should be done.” He enjoyed the job—which consisted mostly of preparing a mountain of index cards, alphabetizing them, and typing up the result—and was annoyed by what he saw as a “more cavalier attitude toward indexing” among his collaborators. For the rest of the career, he aways insisted on doing his own indexes, and when A Short History of Biology was indexed without his knowledge, he wasn’t pleased:

I looked over the index, which had, presumably, been professionally prepared, to see if I could learn lessons in technique. I quickly found that the only lesson I could learn would be on the method of preparing a thoroughly inadequate index. Half the names in the book were not included. A number of subjects were not mentioned.

Asimov concluded that the index was “insupportable,” and after that, he was careful to make his preferences known to his editors: “It added just one more time-wasting task to the list. I had to see it that no publisher, either through ignorance or through forgetfulness, ever allowed a “professional” to prepare my indexes.”

Of course, there’s also a strong case to be made for the opposite point of view, which Asimov recalled hearing from Dick DeHaan, one of his editors at Basic Books: “I tried to explain that I liked indexing, but he kept saying that no writer could approach his own book with sufficient detachment to do a good index.” Asimov eventually acquiesced for The New Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science, and the outcome left him predictably outraged:

It was dreadful; simply dreadful. It left out a great variety of things that should have been put in. It was the slapdash job of someone working for money instead of for his own book, and never again was I fooled by any talk of expertise in indexing. When I later discovered that I had been charged five hundred dollars against royalties for the privilege of having that rotten index made, I was ready to choke DeHaan.

Yet you could also argue that this detachment is necessary, a perspective most famously expressed by Kurt Vonnegut in Cat’s Cradle, which includes a chapter titled “Never Index Your Own Book.” It features a former professional indexer who informs the narrator that “indexing was a thing that only the most amateurish author undertook to do for his own book.” She continues: “I’m always embarrassed when I see an index an author has made of his own work…It’s a revealing thing, an author’s index of his own work. It’s a shameless exhibition—to the trained eye.”

Speaking from a position of minimal experience, I’d suggest that the best approach is to split the difference, and to have an outside indexer make the first pass, after which the author is given the chance to make modest additions and corrections. I’m currently in the process of doing this for Astounding, and it certainly satisfies me. (I once planned to do it all on my own, like Asimov, but I decided to let somebody else handle it, despite the fact that the cost would be taken out of my advance. This was partially because I liked the idea of a third party going through the book with an objective eye, and also because nobody at my publisher seemed to have even considered the possibility that I would want to do it myself.) The index that they’ve provided is a nice piece of work, and although I’ve caught a few errors and omissions, I’m glad that I left it to a professional. This is the last major task that remains in the writing of a book that has taken up three years of my life, and seeing it through the eyes of an ideally attentive reader—which is what an indexer should be—allows me to engage for hours on end in what Hofstadter calls “a very curious activity, and perhaps overly introspective in some people’s eyes, but irresistible for at least a little while.” It’s as close as I’ll ever get to reading this book for the first time, and although my engagement with this index wasn’t as intensive or prolonged as his was, I can only echo Hofstadter’s conclusion: “Doing this index, painful though it was, afforded me one last pass back through the text, tying things together for a final time, saying goodbye to a work created out of love, and with love, for words, ideas, people.”

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.

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June 28, 2018 at 7:49 am

The invisible library

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Over the last week, three significant events occurred in the timeline of my book Astounding. The page proofs—the typeset text to which the author can still make minor changes and corrections—were due back at my publisher on Wednesday. Yesterday, I received a boxful of uncorrected advance copies, which look great. And I got paid. This last point might not seem worth mentioning, but it’s an aspect of the process that doesn’t get the attention that it deserves. An advance payment for a book, which is often the only money that a writer ever sees, is usually delivered in three installments. (The breakdown depends on the terms of the contract, but it’s roughly divided into thirds, although the first chunk is generally a little larger than the others, and the middle one tends to be the smallest.) One piece is paid on signing; another on acceptance of the manuscript; and the last on publication. In practice, the payments can get held up for one reason or another, and in my case, nearly two and a half years passed between the first installment and the second. That’s a long time to stretch it out. And it points to one of the challenges of the publishing industry, which is that it’s survivable only by writers who have either an alternative source of income or a robust support structure. This naturally limits the kinds of voices and the range of subjects that it can accommodate. I don’t think that I could have written this book in under three years if I had been working a regular job, and the fact that I managed to pull it off at all was thanks to luck, good timing, and a very patient spouse.

But it also provided me with fresh insight into one of my great unanswered questions about this project, which was why no one had ever done it before. A biography of John W. Campbell seemed like such an obvious and necessary book that I was amazed to realize that it didn’t exist, and it was that moment of realization that inspired this whole enterprise. If anything like it had been attempted in the past, even in an obscure academic publication, I don’t think I would have tackled it in the first place. One explanation for its absence is that the best time for such a book would have been in the late seventies, when such writers as Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl were publishing their memoirs, and by the time various obstacles had been sorted out, its moment had come and gone. And it’s also true that Campbell’s life presents particular challenges that might dissuade potential biographers. It would have been a tough project for anyone, and one of my advantages may have been that I underestimated the difficulties that it would present. But the simple fact, as I’ve come to appreciate, is that the odds are against any book seeing the light of day. This one hinged on a combination of factors so unlikely that I have trouble believing it myself, and if just one of those pieces had failed to fall into place, it never would have happened. Maybe someone else would have tried again a decade from now, but I’m not sure. If it seems inevitable to me now, that’s another reason to reflect on the many books that have yet to be written. (Even within the field of science fiction, there are staggering omissions. There’s no biography or study of Leigh Brackett, for instance, and I strongly encourage someone else to pitch it before I do.) This book exists, which is a miracle in itself. But for every book that sees print, there’s an invisible library of unwritten—and equally worthy—books behind it.

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May 18, 2018 at 8:33 am

Checks and balances

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About a third of the way through my upcoming book, while discussing the May 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, I include the sentence: “The issue also featured Heinlein’s “Universe,” which was based on Campbell’s premise about a lost generation starship.” My copy editor amended this to “a lost-generation starship,” to which I replied: “This isn’t a ‘lost-generation’ starship, but a generation starship that happens to be lost.” And the exchange gave me a pretty good idea for a story that I’ll probably never write. (I don’t really have a plot for it yet, but it would be about Hemingway and Fitzgerald on a trip to Alpha Centauri, and it would be called The Double Sun Also Rises.) But it also reminded me of one of the benefits of a copy edit, which is its unparalleled combination of intense scrutiny and total detachment. I sent drafts of the manuscript to some of the world’s greatest nitpickers, who saved me from horrendous mistakes, and the result wouldn’t be nearly as good without their advice. But there’s also something to be said for engaging the services of a diligent reader who doesn’t have any connection to the subject. I deliberately sought out feedback from a few people who weren’t science fiction fans, just to make sure that it remained accessible to a wider audience. And the ultimate example is the copy editor, who is retained to provide an impartial consideration of every semicolon without any preconceived notions outside the text. It’s what Heinlein might have had in mind when he invented the Fair Witness, who said when asked about the color of a nearby house: “It’s white on this side.”

But copy editors are human beings, not machines, and they occasionally get their moment in the spotlight. Recently, their primary platform has been The New Yorker, which has been quietly highlighting the work of its copy editors and fact checkers over the last few years. We can trace this tendency back to Between You & Me, a memoir by Mary Norris that drew overdue attention to the craft of copy editing. In “Holy Writ,” a delightful excerpt in the magazine, Norris writes of the supposed objectivity and rigor of her profession: “The popular image of the copy editor is of someone who favors rigid consistency. I don’t usually think of myself that way. But, when pressed, I do find I have strong views about commas.” And she says of their famous detachment:

There is a fancy word for “going beyond your province”: “ultracrepidate.” So much of copy editing is about not going beyond your province. Anti-ultracrepidationism. Writers might think we’re applying rules and sticking it to their prose in order to make it fit some standard, but just as often we’re backing off, making exceptions, or at least trying to find a balance between doing too much and doing too little. A lot of the decisions you have to make as a copy editor are subjective. For instance, an issue that comes up all the time, whether to use “that” or “which,” depends on what the writer means. It’s interpretive, not mechanical—though the answer often boils down to an implicit understanding of commas.

In order to be truly objective, in other words, you have to be a little subjective. Which equally true of writing as a whole.

You could say much the same of the fact checker, who resembles the copy editor’s equally obsessive cousin. As a rule, books aren’t fact-checked, which is a point that we only seem to remember when the system breaks down. (Astounding was given a legal read, but I was mostly on my own when it came to everything else, and I’m grateful that some of the most potentially contentious material—about L. Ron Hubbard’s writing career—drew on an earlier article that was brilliantly checked by Matthew Giles of Longreads.) As John McPhee recently wrote of the profession:

Any error is everlasting. As Sara [Lippincott] told the journalism students, once an error gets into print it “will live on and on in libraries carefully catalogued, scrupulously indexed…silicon-chipped, deceiving researcher after researcher down through the ages, all of whom will make new errors on the strength of the original errors, and so on and on into an exponential explosion of errata.” With drawn sword, the fact-checker stands at the near end of this bridge. It is, in part, why the job exists and why, in Sara’s words, a publication will believe in “turning a pack of professional skeptics loose on its own galley proofs.”

McPhee continues: “Book publishers prefer to regard fact-checking as the responsibility of authors, which, contractually, comes down to a simple matter of who doesn’t pay for what. If material that has appeared in a fact-checked magazine reappears in a book, the author is not the only beneficiary of the checker’s work. The book publisher has won a free ticket to factual respectability.” And its absence from the publishing process feels like an odd evolutionary vestige of the book industry that ought to be fixed.

As a result of such tributes, the copy editors and fact checkers of The New Yorker have become cultural icons in themselves, and when an error does make it through, it can be mildly shocking. (Last month, the original version of a review by Adam Gopnik casually stated that Andrew Lloyd Webber was the composer of Chess, and although I knew perfectly well that this was wrong, I had to look it up to make sure that I hadn’t strayed over into a parallel universe.) And their emergence at this particular moment may not be an accident. The first installment of “Holy Writ” appeared on February 23, 2015, just a few months before Donald Trump announced that he was running for president, plunging us all into world in which good grammar and factual accuracy can seem less like matters of common decency than obstacles to be obliterated. Even though the timing was a coincidence, it’s tempting to read our growing appreciation for these unsung heroes as a statement about the importance of the truth itself. As Alyssa Rosenberg writes in the Washington Post:

It’s not surprising that one of the persistent jokes from the Trump era is the suggestion that we’re living in a bad piece of fiction…Pretending we’re all minor characters in a work of fiction can be a way of distancing ourselves from the seeming horror of our time or emphasizing our own feelings of powerlessness, and pointing to “the writers” often helps us deny any responsibility we may have for Trump, whether as voters or as journalists who covered the election. But whatever else we’re doing when we joke about Trump and the swirl of chaos around him as fiction, we’re expressing a wish that this moment will resolve in a narratively and morally comprehensible fashion.

Perhaps we’re also hoping that reality itself will have a fact checker after all, and that the result will make a difference. We don’t know if it will yet. But I’m hopeful that we’ll survive the exponential explosion of errata.

Changing the future

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Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction is now scheduled to be released on October 23, 2018. It was originally slated for August 14, but my publisher recently raised the possibility of pushing it back, and we agreed on the new date earlier this week. Why the change? Well, it’s a good thing. This is a big book—by one estimate, we’re looking at close to five hundred pages, including endnotes, back matter, and index—and it needs time to be edited, typeset, and put into production. We could also use the extra nine weeks to get it into bookstores and into the hands of reviewers, and rescheduling it for the fall puts us in a better position. The one downside, at least from my point of view, is that now we’ll be coming out in a corridor that is always packed with major releases, and it’s going to be challenging for us to stand out. (It’s also just two weeks before the midterm elections, and I’m worried about how much bandwidth readers will have to think about anything else.) But everybody involved seems to think that we can handle it, and I have no reason to doubt their enthusiasm or expertise.

In short, if you’ve been looking forward to reading Astounding, you’ll have to wait two months longer. (Apart from an upcoming round of minor edits, by the way, the book is basically finished.) In the meantime, at the end of this month, I’m attending the academic conference “Grappling With the Futures” at Harvard and Boston University, where I’ll be delivering a presentation on the evolution of psychohistory alongside the scholar Emmanuelle Burton. The July/August issue of Analog will feature “The Campbell Machine,” a modified excerpt from the book, including a lot of material that won’t appear anywhere else, about one of the most significant incidents in John W. Campbell’s life—the tragic death of his stepson, which encouraged his interest in psionics and culminated in his support of the Hieronymus Machine. And I’m hopeful that a piece about Campbell’s role in the development of dianetics will appear elsewhere in the fall. I’ve also confirmed that I’ll be a program participant at the upcoming World Science Fiction Convention in San Jose, which runs from August 16 to 20. At one point, I’d planned to have the book in stores by then, which isn’t quite how it worked out. But if you run into me there, ask me for a copy. If I have one handy, it’s yours.

Looking for “The Spires”

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Over two years ago, I was browsing at my local thrift store when my eye was caught by a book titled Alaska Bush Pilots in the Float Country. Its dust jacket read: “The men who brought airplanes to Alaska’s Panhandle were a different breed: a little braver than the average pilot and blessed with the particular skills and set of nerves it requires to fly float planes, those Lockheed Vegas made of plywood that were held together by termites holding hands, as well as the sturdy Fairchild 71s and Bellanca Pacemakers.” This might not seem like a volume that would appeal to the average reader, but I bought it—and I had a particular use for it in mind. Like most writers, I’m constantly on the lookout for promising veins of material, and my inner spidey sense began to tingle as soon as I saw that cover. If I had to describe the kind of short stories that I like to write, I’d call them carefully plotted works of science fiction, usually staged against a colorful backdrop, often with elements of horror. The Alaskan Panhandle in the thirties seemed like as good a setting for this as any, and that book on bush pilots was visibly packed with more information than I would need for a novelette. I’ve come to treasure works of nonfiction that provide a narrow but deep slice of knowledge about a previously unexplored topic, and I automatically got to thinking about bush pilots in Alaska, even though the subject had never interested me before.

It took me over a year to get to it, but the result was my novelette “The Spires,” which appears in the current issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. It was the first story that I’d attempted since commencing work on Astounding, and it was more informed than usual by the history of science fiction. When I sat down to think about it in earnest, I decided more or less at random to approach it as a tribute to the work of Charles Fort, who filled four large books with accounts of unexplained events that he gleaned from the newspaper archives at the New York Public Library. In New Lands, Fort mentions a phantom city that has occasionally been seen in the sky over Alaska, which seemed like an excellent place to start. My goal, as usual, was to begin with what sounded like a paranormal phenomenon and work backward to a scientific explanation that wouldn’t be out of place in Analog, sort of like The X-Files in reverse. I’m still not entirely sure what to think of the result here—and I resisted it for a long time. It comes perilously close to a shaggy dog story, but I like the atmosphere, and the “solution,” while not one that I would have chosen under most circumstances, ended up feeling inevitable. If you read it, I hope you’ll agree. In a few weeks, I’ll talk about its origins at length, but in the meantime, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Fort: “My own notion is that it is very unsportsmanlike ever to mention fraud. Accept anything. Then explain it your way.”

Written by nevalalee

February 21, 2018 at 9:00 am

This post has no title

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In John McPhee’s excellent new book on writing, Draft No. 4, which I mentioned here the other day, he shares an anecdote about his famous profile of the basketball player Bill Bradley. McPhee was going over a draft with William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker, “talking three-two zones, blind passes, reverse pivots, and the setting of picks,” when he realized that he had overlooked something important:

For some reason—nerves, what else?—I had forgotten to find a title before submitting the piece. Editors of every ilk seem to think that titles are their prerogative—that they can buy a piece, cut the title off the top, and lay on one of their own. When I was young, this turned my skin pink and caused horripilation. I should add that I encountered such editors almost wholly at magazines other than The New YorkerVogue, Holiday, the Saturday Evening Post. The title is an integral part of a piece of writing, and one of the most important parts, and ought not to be written by anyone but the writer of what follows the title. Editors’ habit of replacing an author’s title with one of their own is like a photo of a tourist’s head on the cardboard body of Mao Zedong. But the title missing on the Bill Bradley piece was my oversight. I put no title on the manuscript. Shawn did. He hunted around in the text and found six words spoken by the subject, and when I saw the first New Yorker proof the piece was called “A Sense of Where You Are.”

The dynamic that McPhee describes at other publications still exists today—I’ve occasionally bristled at the titles that have appeared over the articles that I’ve written, which is a small part of the reason that I’ve moved most of my nonfiction onto this blog. (The freelance market also isn’t what it used to be, but that’s a subject for another post.) But a more insidious factor has invaded even the august halls of The New Yorker, and it has nothing to do with the preferences of any particular editor. Opening the most recent issue, for instance, I see that there’s an article by Jia Tolentino titled “Safer Spaces.” On the magazine’s website, it becomes “Is There a Smarter Way to Think About Sexual Assault on Campus?”, with a line at the bottom noting that it appears in the print edition under its alternate title. Joshua Rothman’s “Jambusters” becomes “Why Paper Jams Persist.” A huge piece by David Grann, “The White Darkness,” which seems destined to get optioned for the movies, earns slightly more privileged treatment, and it merely turns into “The White Darkness: A Journey Across Antarctica.” But that’s the exception. When I go back to the previous issue, I find that the same pattern holds true. Michael Chabon’s “The Recipe for Life” is spared, but David Owen’s “The Happiness Button” is retitled “Customer Satisfaction at the Push of a Button,” Rachel Aviv’s “The Death Debate” becomes “What Does It Mean to Die?”, and Ian Frazier’s “Airborne” becomes “The Trippy, High-Speed World of Drone Racing.” Which suggests to me that if McPhee’s piece appeared online today, it would be titled something like “Basketball Player Bill Bradley’s Sense of Where He Is.” And that’s if he were lucky.

The reasoning here isn’t a mystery. Headlines are written these days to maximize clicks and shares, and The New Yorker isn’t immune, even if it sometimes raises an eyebrow. Back in 2014, Maria Konnikova wrote an article for the magazine’s website titled “The Six Things That Make Stories Go Viral Will Amaze, and Maybe Infuriate, You,” in which she explained one aspect of the formula for online headlines: “The presence of a memory-inducing trigger is also important. We share what we’re thinking about—and we think about the things we can remember.” Viral headlines can’t be allusive, make a clever play on words, or depend on an evocative reference—they have to spell everything out. (To build on McPhee’s analogy, it’s less like a tourist’s face on the cardboard body of Mao Zedong than an oversized foam head of Mao himself.) A year later, The New Yorker ran an article by Andrew Marantz on the virality expert Emerson Spartz, and it amazed and maybe infuriated me. I’ve written about this profile elsewhere, but looking it over again now, my eye was caught by these lines:

Much of the company’s success online can be attributed to a proprietary algorithm that it has developed for “headline testing”—a practice that has become standard in the virality industry…Spartz’s algorithm measures which headline is attracting clicks most quickly, and after a few hours, when a statistically significant threshold is reached, the “winning” headline automatically supplants all others. “I’m really, really good at writing headlines,” he told me.

And it’s worth noting that while Marantz’s piece appeared in print as “The Virologist,” in an online search, it pops up as “King of Clickbait.” Even as the magazine gently mocked Spartz, it took his example to heart.

None of this is exactly scandalous, but when you think of a title as “an integral part of a piece of writing,” as McPhee does, it’s undeniably sad. There isn’t any one title for an article anymore, and most readers will probably only see its online incarnation. And this isn’t because of an editor’s tastes, but the result of an impersonal set of assumptions imposed on the entire industry. Emerson Spartz got his revenge on The New Yorker—he effectively ended up writing its headlines. And while I can’t blame any media company for doing whatever it can to stay viable, it’s also a real loss. McPhee is right when he says that selecting a title is an important part of the process, and in a perfect world, it would be left up to the writer. (It can even lead to valuable insights in itself. When I was working on my article on the fiction of L. Ron Hubbard, I was casting about randomly for a title when I came up with “Xenu’s Paradox.” I didn’t know what it meant, but it led me to start thinking about the paradoxical aspects of Hubbard’s career, and the result was a line of argument that ended up being integral not just to the article, but to the ensuing book. And I was amazed when it survived intact on Longreads.) When you look at the grindingly literal, unpoetic headlines that currently populate the homepage of The New Yorker, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for an era in which an editor might nudge a title in the opposite direction. In 1966, when McPhee delivered a long piece on oranges in Florida, William Shawn read it over, focused on a quotation from the poet Andrew Marvell, and called it “Golden Lamps in a Green Night.” McPhee protested, and the article was finally published under the title that he had originally wanted. It was called “Oranges.”

Written by nevalalee

February 16, 2018 at 8:50 am

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