Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

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.

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March 23, 2017 at 9:30 am

Quote of the Day

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March 23, 2017 at 7:30 am

The Mule and the Beaver

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If you wanted to construct the most prolific writer who ever lived, working from first principles, what features would you include? (We’ll assume, for the purposes of this discussion, that he’s a man.) Obviously, he would need to be capable of turning out clean, publishable prose at a fast pace and with a minimum of revision. He would be contented—even happy—within the physical conditions of writing itself, which requires working indoors at a desk alone for hours on end. Ideally, he would operate within a genre, either fiction or nonfiction, that lent itself to producing pages fairly quickly, but with enough variety to prevent burnout, since he’d need to maintain a steady clip every day for years. His most productive period would coincide with an era that gave him steady demand for his work, and he would have a boundless energy that was diverted early on toward the goal of producing more books. If you were particularly clever, you’d even introduce a psychological wrinkle: the act of writing would become his greatest source of satisfaction, as well as an emotional refuge, so that he would end up taking more pleasure in it than almost anything else in life. Finally, you’d provide him with cooperative publishers and an enthusiastic, although not overwhelming, readership, granting him a livelihood that was comfortable but not quite lavish enough to be distracting. Wind him up, let him run unimpeded for three or four decades, and how many books would you get? In the case of Isaac Asimov, the total comes to something like five hundred. Even if it isn’t quite enough to make him the most productive writer of all time, it certainly places him somewhere in the top ten. And it’s a career that followed all but axiomatically from the characteristics that I’ve listed above.

Let’s take these points one at a time. Asimov, like all successful pulp writers, learned how to crank out decent work on deadline, usually limiting himself to a first draft and a clean copy, with very little revision that wasn’t to editorial order. (And he wasn’t alone here. The pulps were an unforgiving school, and they quickly culled authors who weren’t able to write a sentence well enough the first time.) From a young age, Asimov was also drawn to enclosed, windowless spaces, like the kitchen at the back of his father’s candy store, and he had a persistent daydream about running a newsstand in the subway, where he could put up the shutter and read magazines in peace. After he began to write for a living, he was equally content to work in his attic office for up to ten hours a day. Yet it wasn’t fiction that accounted for the bulk of his output—which is a common misconception about his career—but a specific kind of nonfiction. Asimov was a prolific fiction writer, but no more so than many of his contemporaries. It was in nonfiction for general readers that he really shone, initially with such scientific popularizations as The Chemicals of Life and Inside the Atom. At first, his work drew on his academic and professional background in chemistry and biochemistry, but before long, he found that he was equally adept at explaining concepts from the other sciences, as well as such unrelated fields as history and literature. His usual method was to work straight from reference books, dictionaries, and encyclopedias, translating and organizing their concepts for a lay audience. As he once joked to Martin Gardner: “You mean you’re in the same racket I am? You just read books by the professors and rewrite them?”

This kind of writing is harder than it sounds. Asimov noted, correctly, that he added considerable value in arranging and presenting the material, and he was better at it than just about anyone else. (A faculty member at Boston University once observed him at work and exclaimed: “Why, you’re just copying the dictionary!” Asimov, annoyed, handed the dictionary to him and said: “Here. The dictionary is yours. Now go write the book.”) But it also lent itself admirably to turning out a lot of pages in a short period of time. Unlike fiction, it didn’t require him to come up with original ideas from scratch. As soon as he had enough projects in the hopper, he could switch between them freely to avoid becoming bored by any one subject. He could write treatments of the same topic for different audiences and cannibalize unsold material for other venues. In the years after Sputnik, there was plenty of demand for what he had to offer, and he had a ready market for short articles that could be collected into books. And since these were popular treatments of existing information, he could do all of the work from the comfort of his own office. Asimov hated to fly, and he actively avoided assignments that would require him to travel or do research away from home. Before long, his productivity became a selling point in itself, and when his wife told him that life was passing him by, Asimov responded: “If I do manage to publish a hundred books, and if I then die, my last words are likely to be, ‘Only a hundred!’” Writing became a place of security, both from life’s small crises and as an escape from an unhappy marriage, and it was also his greatest source of pleasure. When his daughter asked him what he would do if he had to choose between her and writing, Asimov said: “Why, I would choose you, dear.” But he adds: “But I hesitated—and she noticed that, too.”

Asimov was a complicated man—certainly more so than in the version of himself that he presented to the public—and he can’t be reduced to a neat set of factors. He wasn’t a robot. But those five hundred books represent an achievement so overwhelming that it cries out for explanation, and it wouldn’t exist if certain variables, both external and internal, hadn’t happened to align. In terms of his ability and ambition, Asimov was the equal of Campbell, Heinlein, or Hubbard, but in place of their public entanglements, he channeled his talents into a safer direction, where it grew to gargantuan proportions that only hint at how monstrous that energy and passion really were. (He was also considerably younger than the others, as well as more naturally cautious, and I’d like to believe that he drew a negative lesson from their example.) The result, remarkably, made him the most beloved writer of them all. It was a cultural position, outside the world of science fiction, that was due almost entirely to the body of his nonfiction work as a whole. He never had a bestseller until late in his career, but the volume and quality of his overall output were enough to make him famous. Asimov was the Mule, the unassuming superman of the Foundation series, but he conquered a world from his typewriter. He won the game. And when I think of how his talent, productivity, and love of enclosed spaces combined to produce a fortress made of books, I think of what David Mamet once said to The Paris Review. When asked to explain why he wrote, Mamet replied: “I’ve got to do it anyway. Like beavers, you know. They chop, they eat wood, because if they don’t, their teeth grow too long and they die. And they hate the sound of running water. Drives them crazy. So, if you put those two ideas together, they are going to build dams.”

Written by nevalalee

March 22, 2017 at 9:54 am

Quote of the Day

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If you had asked [Tennyson], at the end of the day, to describe the prosody of the poem to you, he would no doubt have had to think for a moment before he could answer you, not because he was ignorant of the terms, but because he had been writing a poem, not a metrical exercise. At every point, he was exerting his free will. And the outcome of that exertion was the form.

James Fenton, An Introduction to English Poetry

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March 22, 2017 at 7:30 am

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Our fearful symmetry

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Yesterday, I spent an hour fixing my garage door, which got stuck halfway up and refused to budge. I went about it in the way I usually approach such household tasks: I took a flashlight and a pair of vise-grips and stared at it for a while. In this case, for once, it worked, even if I’m only postponing the inevitable service call. But it wouldn’t have occurred to me to tackle it myself in the first place—when I probably wouldn’t have tried to fix, say, my own car by trial and error—if it hadn’t been for two factors. The first is that the workings were all pretty visible. On each side, there’s basically just a torsion spring, a steel cable, and two pulleys, all of it exposed to plain sight. The second point, which was even more crucial, is that a garage door is symmetrical, and only one side was giving me trouble. Whenever I wasn’t sure how the result should look, I just had to look at the other half and mentally reflect it to its mirror image. It reminded me of how useful symmetry can be in addressing many problems, as George Pólya notes in How to Solve It:

Symmetry, in a general sense, is important for our subject. If a problem is symmetric in some ways we may derive some profit from noticing its interchangeable parts and it often pays to treat those parts which play the same role in the same fashion…Symmetry may also be useful in checking results.

And if I hadn’t been able to check my work along the way using the other side of the door, I doubt I would have attempted to fix it at all.

But it also points at a subtle bias in the way we pick our problems. There’s no question that symmetry plays an important role in the world around us, and it provides a solid foundation for the notion that we can use beauty or elegance as an investigative tool. “It seems that if one is working from the point of view of getting beauty in one’s equations, and if one has a really sound insight, one is on a sure line of progress,” Paul Dirac famously said, and Murray Gell-Mann gave the best explanation I’ve ever found of why this might be true:

There’s a quotation from Newton, I don’t remember the exact words but lots of other physicists have made the same remark since—that nature seems to have a remarkable property of self-similarity. The laws—the fundamental laws—at different levels seem to resemble one another. And that’s probably what accounts for the possibility of using elegance as a criterion [in science]. We develop a mathematical formula, say, for describing something at a particular level, and then we go to a deeper level and find that in terms of mathematics, the equations at the deeper level are beautifully equivalent. Which means that we’ve found an appropriate formula.

Gell-Mann concludes: “And that takes the human being, human judgment, out of it a little. You might object that after all we are the ones who say what elegance is. But I don’t think that’s the point.”

He’s right, of course, and there are plenty of fields in which symmetry and self-similarity are valuable criteria. Yet there’s also a sense in which we’re drawn to problems in which such structures appear, while neglecting those that aren’t as amenable to symmetrical thinking. Just as I was willing to take apart my garage door when I wouldn’t have done the same with my car—which, after all, has a perfectly logical design—it’s natural for us to prefer problems that are obviously symmetrical or that hold out the promise of elegance, much as we’re attracted to the same qualities in the human face. But there are plenty of important questions that aren’t elegant at all. I’m reminded of what Max Perutz, who described the structure of hemoglobin, said about the work of his more famous colleague James Watson:

I sometimes envied Jim. My own problem took thousands of hours of hard work, measurements, calculations. I often thought that there must be some way to cut through it—that there must be, if only I could see it, an elegant solution. There wasn’t any. For Jim’s there was an elegant solution, which is what I admired. He found it partly because he never made the mistake of confusing hard work with hard thinking; he always refused to substitute one for the other.

In The Eighth Day of Creation, Horace Freehand Judson calls this “the most exact yet generous compliment I have ever heard from one scientist to another.” But there’s also a wistful acknowledgement of the luck of the draw. Both Perutz and Watson were working on problems of enormous importance, but only one of them had an elegant solution, and there was no way of knowing in advance which one it would be.

Given the choice, I suspect that most of us would prefer to work on problems that exhibit some degree of symmetry: they’re elegant, intuitive, and satisfying. In the absence of that kind of order, we’re left with what Perutz calls “thousands of hours of hard work, measurements, calculations,” and it isn’t pretty. (As Donald Knuth says in a somewhat different context: “Without any underlying symmetry properties, the job of proving interesting results becomes extremely unpleasant.”) When we extrapolate this preference to the culture as a whole, it leads to two troubling tendencies. One is to prioritize problems that lend themselves to this sort of attack, while overlooking whole fields of messier, asymmetrical phenomena that resist elegant analysis—to the point where we might even deny that they’re worth studying at all. The other is to invent a symmetry that isn’t there. You can see both impulses at work in the social sciences, which tend to deal with problems that can’t be reduced to a series of equations, and they’re particularly insidious in economics, which is uniquely vulnerable to elegant models that confirm what existing interest groups want to hear. From there, it’s only a small step to more frightening forms of fake symmetry, as Borges writes in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”: “Any symmetry with a resemblance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—was sufficient to entrance the minds of men.” And the first habit has a way of leading to the second. The more we seek out problems with symmetry while passing over those that lack it, the more likely we become to attribute false symmetries to the world around us. Symmetry, by definition, is a beautiful thing. But it can also turn us into suckers for a pretty face.

Quote of the Day

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Any attempt to define literary theory in terms of a distinctive method is doomed to failure…Just think of how many methods are involved in literary criticism. You can discuss the poet’s asthmatic childhood, or examine her peculiar use of syntax; you can detect the rustling of silk in the hissing of the s‘s, explore the phenomenology of reading, relate the literary work to the state of the class struggle, or find out how many copies it sold. These methods have nothing whatsoever of significance in common…However generously liberal-minded we aim to be, trying to combine structuralism, phenomenology, and psychoanalysis is more likely to lead to a nervous breakdown than to a brilliant literary career.

Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction

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March 21, 2017 at 7:30 am

The cliché factory

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A few days ago, Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor of The New Yorker, devoted his weekly email newsletter to the subject of “The Great Clichés.” A cliché, as Mankoff defines it, is a restricted comic situation “that would be incomprehensible if the other versions had not first appeared,” and he provides a list of examples that should ring bells for all readers of the magazine, from the ubiquitous “desert island” to “The-End-Is-Nigh Guy.” Here are a few of my favorites:

Atlas holding up the world; big fish eating little fish; burglars in masks; cave paintings; chalk outline at crime scene; crawling through desert; galley slaves; guru on mountain; mobsters and victim with cement shoes; man in stocks; police lineup; two guys in horse costume.

Inevitably, Mankoff’s list includes a few questionable choices, while also omitting what seem like obvious contenders. (Why “metal detector,” but not “Adam and Eve?”) But it’s still something that writers of all kinds will want to clip and save. Mankoff doesn’t make the point explicitly, but most gag artists probably keep a similar list of clichés as a starting point for ideas, as we read in Mort Gerberg’s excellent book Cartooning:

List familiar situations—clichés. You might break them down into categories, like domestic (couple at breakfast, couple watching television); business (boss berating employee, secretary taking dictation); historic (Paul Revere’s ride, Washington crossing the Delaware); even famous cartoon clichés (the desert island, the Indian snake charmer)…Then change something a little bit.

As it happened, when I saw Mankoff’s newsletter, I had already been thinking about a far more harmful kind of comedy cliché. Last week, Kal Penn went on Twitter to post some of the scripts from his years auditioning as a struggling actor, and they amount to an alternative list of clichés kept by bad comedy writers, consciously or otherwise: “Gandhi lookalike,” “snake charmer,” “foreign student.” One character has a “slight Hindi accent,” another is a “Pakistani computer geek who dresses like Beck and is in a perpetual state of perspiration,” while a third delivers dialogue that is “peppered with Indian cultural references…[His] idiomatic conversation is hit and miss.” A typical one-liner: “We are propagating like flies on elephant dung.” One script describes a South Asian character’s “spastic techno pop moves,” with Penn adding that “the big joke was an accent and too much cologne.” (It recalls the Morrissey song “Bengali in Platforms,” which included the notorious line: “Life is hard enough when you belong here.” You could amend it to read: “Being a comedy writer is hard enough when you belong here.”) Penn closes by praising shows with writers “who didn’t have to use external things to mask subpar writing,” which cuts to the real issue here. The real person in “a perpetual state of perspiration” isn’t the character, but the scriptwriter. Reading the teleplay for an awful sitcom is a deadening experience in itself, but it’s even more depressing to realize that in most cases, the writer is falling back on a stereotype to cover up the desperate unfunniness of the writing. When Penn once asked if he could play a role without an accent, in order to “make it funny on the merits,” he was told that he couldn’t, probably because everybody else knew that the merits were nonexistent.

So why is one list harmless and the other one toxic? In part, it’s because we’ve caught them at different stages of evolution. The list of comedy conventions that we find acceptable is constantly being culled and refined, and certain art forms are slightly in advance of the others. Because of its cultural position, The New Yorker is particularly subject to outside pressures, as it learned a decade ago with its Obama terrorist cover—which demonstrated that there are jokes and images that aren’t acceptable even if the magazine’s attitude is clear. Turn back the clock, and Mankoff’s list would include conventions that probably wouldn’t fly today. Gerberg’s list, like Penn’s, includes “snake charmer,” which Mankoff omits, and he leaves out “Cowboys and Indians,” a cartoon perennial that seems to be disappearing. And it can be hard to reconstruct this history, because the offenders tend to be consigned to the memory hole. When you read a lot of old magazine fiction, as I do, you inevitably find racist stereotypes that would be utterly unthinkable today, but most of the stories in which they appear have long since been forgotten. (One exception, unfortunately, is the Sherlock Holmes short story “The Adventure of the Three Gables,” which opens with a horrifying racial caricature that most Holmes fans must wish didn’t exist.) If we don’t see such figures as often today, it isn’t necessarily because we’ve become more enlightened, but because we’ve collectively agreed to remove certain figures from the catalog of stock comedy characters, while papering over their use in the past. A list of clichés is a snapshot of a culture’s inner life, and we don’t always like what it says. The demeaning parts still offered to Penn and actors of similar backgrounds have survived for longer than they should have, but sitcoms that trade in such stereotypes will be unwatchable in a decade or two, if they haven’t already been consigned to oblivion.

Of course, most comedy writers aren’t thinking in terms of decades, but about getting through the next five minutes. And these stereotypes endure precisely because they’re seen as useful, in a shallow, short-term kind of way. There’s a reason why such caricatures are more visible in comedy than in drama: comedy is simply harder to write, but we always want more of it, so it’s inevitable that writers on a deadline will fall back on lazy conventions. The really insidious thing about these clichés is that they sort of work, at least to the extent of being approved by a producer without raising any red flags. Any laughter that they inspire is the equivalent of empty calories, but they persist because they fill a cynical need. As Penn points out, most writers wouldn’t bother with them at all if they could come up with something better. Stereotypes, like all clichés, are a kind of fallback option, a cheap trick that you deploy if you need a laugh and can’t think of another way to get one. Clichés can be a precious commodity, and all writers resort to them occasionally. They’re particularly valuable for gag cartoonists, who can’t rely on a good idea from last week to fill the blank space on the page—they’ve got to produce, and sometimes that means yet another variation on an old theme. But there’s a big difference between “Two guys in a horse costume” and “Gandhi lookalike.” Being able to make that distinction isn’t a matter of political correctness, but of craft. The real solution is to teach people to be better writers, so that they won’t even be tempted to resort to such tired solutions. This might seem like a daunting task, but in fact, it happens all the time. A cliché factory operates on the principle of supply and demand. And it shuts down as soon as people no longer find it funny.

Written by nevalalee

March 20, 2017 at 11:18 am

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