Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The writing in the dust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quote of the Day

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The trouble with most who would write poetry is that they are unwilling to throw their lives away.

Russell Edson, “Portrait of the Writer as a Fat Man”

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December 28, 2018 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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It was no thought or word that called culture into being, but a tool or a weapon. After the stone axe we needed song and story to remember innocence, to record effect—and so to describe the limits, to say what can be done without damage.

Wendell Berry, “Damage”

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December 27, 2018 at 7:30 am

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The temple of doom

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Steven Spielberg on the set of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Note: I’m taking some time off for the holidays, so I’m republishing a few pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on January 27, 2017.

I think America is going through a paroxysm of rage…But I think there’s going to be a happy ending in November.

Steven Spielberg, to Sky News, July 17, 2016

Last week, in an interview with the New York Times about the twenty-fifth anniversary of Schindler’s List and the expansion of the mission of The Shoah Foundation, Steven Spielberg said of this historical moment:

I think there’s a measurable uptick in anti-Semitism, and certainly an uptick in xenophobia. The racial divide is bigger than I would ever imagine it could be in this modern era. People are voicing hate more now because there’s so many more outlets that give voice to reasonable and unreasonable opinions and demands. People in the highest places are allowing others who would never express their hatred to publicly express it. And that’s been a big change.

Spielberg, it’s fair to say, remains the most quintessentially American of all directors, despite a filmography that ranges freely between cultures and seems equally comfortable in the past and in the future. He’s often called a mythmaker, and if there’s a place where his glossy period pieces, suburban landscapes, and visionary adventures meet, it’s somewhere in the nation’s collective unconscious: its secret reveries of what it used to be, what it is, and what it might be again. Spielberg country, as Stranger Things was determined to remind us, is one of small towns and kids on bikes, but it also still vividly remembers how it beat the Nazis, and it can’t resist turning John Hammond from a calculating billionaire into a grandfatherly, harmless dreamer. No other artist of the last half century has done so much to shape how we all feel about ourselves. He took over where Walt Disney left off. But what has he really done?

To put it in the harshest possible terms, it’s worth asking whether Spielberg—whose personal politics are impeccably liberal—is responsible in part for our current predicament. He taught the New Hollywood how to make movies that force audiences to feel without asking them to think, to encourage an illusion of empathy instead of the real thing, and to create happy endings that confirm viewers in their complacency. You can’t appeal to all four quadrants, as Spielberg did to a greater extent than anyone who has ever lived, without consistently telling people exactly what they want to hear. I’ve spoken elsewhere of how film serves as an exercise ground for the emotions, bringing us closer on a regular basis to the terror, wonder, and despair that many of us would otherwise experience only rarely. It reminds the middle class of what it means to feel pain or awe. But I worry that when we discharge these feelings at the movies, it reduces our capacity to experience them in real life, or, even more insidiously, makes us think that we’re more empathetic and compassionate than we actually are. Few movies have made viewers cry as much as E.T., and few have presented a dilemma further removed than anything a real person is likely to face. (Turn E.T. into an illegal alien being sheltered from a government agency, maybe, and you’d be onto something.) Nearly every film from the first half of Spielberg’s career can be taken as a metaphor for something else. But great popular entertainment has a way of referring to nothing but itself, in a cognitive bridge to nowhere, and his images are so overwhelming that it can seem superfluous to give them any larger meaning.

Steven Spielberg on the set of Jaws

If Spielberg had been content to be nothing but a propagandist, he would have been the greatest one who ever lived. (Hence, perhaps, his queasy fascination with the films of Leni Riefenstahl, who has affinities with Spielberg that make nonsense out of political or religious labels.) Instead, he grew into something that is much harder to define. Jaws, his second film, became the most successful movie ever made, and when he followed it up with Close Encounters, it became obvious that he was in a position with few parallels in the history of art—he occupied a central place in the culture and was also one of its most advanced craftsmen, at a younger age than Damien Chazelle is now. If you’re talented enough to assume that role and smart enough to stay there, your work will inevitably be put to uses that you never could have anticipated. It’s possible to pull clips from Spielberg’s films that make him seem like the cuddliest, most repellent reactionary imaginable, of the sort that once prompted Tony Kushner to say:

Steven Spielberg is apparently a Democrat. He just gave a big party for Bill Clinton. I guess that means he’s probably idiotic…Jurassic Park is sublimely good, hideously reactionary art. E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are the flagship aesthetic statements of Reaganism. They’re fascinating for that reason, because Spielberg is somebody who has just an astonishing ear for the rumblings of reaction, and he just goes right for it and he knows exactly what to do with it.

Kushner, of course, later became Spielberg’s most devoted screenwriter. And the total transformation of the leading playwright of his generation is the greatest testament imaginable to this director’s uncanny power and importance.

In reality, Spielberg has always been more interesting than he had any right to be, and if his movies have been used to shake people up in the dark while numbing them in other ways, or to confirm the received notions of those who are nostalgic for an America that never existed, it’s hard to conceive of a director of his stature for whom this wouldn’t have been the case. To his credit, Spielberg clearly grasps the uniqueness of his position, and he has done what he could with it, in ways that can seem overly studied. For the last two decades, he has worked hard to challenge some of our assumptions, and at least one of his efforts, Munich, is a masterpiece. But if I’m honest, the film that I find myself thinking about the most is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It isn’t my favorite Indiana Jones movie—I’d rank it a distant third. For long stretches, it isn’t even all that good. It also trades in the kind of casual racial stereotyping that would be unthinkable today, and it isn’t any more excusable because it deliberately harks back to the conventions of an earlier era. (The fact that it’s even watchable now only indicates how much ground East and South Asians have yet to cover.) But its best scenes are so exciting, so wonderful, and so conductive to dreams that I’ve never gotten over it. Spielberg himself was never particularly pleased with the result, and if asked, he might express discomfort with some of the decisions he made. But there’s no greater tribute to his artistry, which executed that misguided project with such unthinking skill that he exhilarated us almost against his better judgment. It tells us how dangerous he might have been if he hadn’t been so deeply humane. And we should count ourselves lucky that he turned out to be as good of a man as he did, because we’d never have known if he hadn’t.

Quote of the Day

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Poetry has content, public as well as private. It has content not available elsewhere. That is why no good poets are dumb.

Marvin Bell, “The Impure Every Time”

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December 26, 2018 at 7:30 am

The evensong

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Nativity at Night by Geertgen tot Sint Jans

It’s a long walk home tonight. Listen to this mock-angel singing, let your communion be at least in listening, even if they are not spokesmen for your exact hopes, your exact, darkest terror, listen. There must have been evensong here long before the news of Christ. Surely for as long as there have been nights bad as this one—something to raise the possibility of another light that could actually, with love and cockcrows, light the path home, banish the Adversary, destroy the boundaries between our lands, our bodies, our stories, all false, about who we are…

But on the way home tonight, you wish you’d picked him up, held him a bit. Just held him, very close to your heart, his cheek by the hollow of your shoulder, full of sleep. As if it were you who could, somehow, save him. For the moment not caring who you’re supposed to be registered as. For the moment anyway, no longer who the Caesars say you are.

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

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December 25, 2018 at 7:30 am

“It was an adventure…”

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Possibly the complex of circumstances which made the years 1950 to 1965 so decisive in the arts will not easily recur. No one can make it up, so to speak. But there were clearly years before, equally decisive, and there will no doubt be those now after. This clothesline is at best an invention of pseudohistory, and the arts do not intend to be history in this way, however much they use the traditions intimate to their practice. When [Robert] Duncan saw [Charles] Olson for the last time, in hospital a few days before his death, he said to him, “Important as history was to you, there are no followers—and as a matter of fact that isn’t what happened in poetry.” Olson grinned, and Duncan added, “It was an adventure…”

Robert Creeley, “On the Road”

Note: The ebook version of my group biography Astounding is currently on sale for $2.99. The price goes back up tomorrow, so if you’re interested in getting a copy, this would be a great time to grab it.

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December 24, 2018 at 7:30 am

The automated and flawless machine

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Our recent poetry is…a poetry in which the poem is considered to be a construction independent of the poet. It is imagined that when the poet says “I” in a poem he does not mean himself, but rather some other person—”the poet”—a dramatic hero. The poem is conceived as a clock which one sets going. The idea encourages the poet to construct automated and flawless machines. Such poems have thousands of intricately moving parts, dozens of iambic belts and pulleys, precision trippers that rhyme at the right moment, lights flashing alternately red and green, steam valves that whistle like birds. This is the admired poem…The great poets of this century have written their poems in exactly the opposite way.

Robert Bly, “A Wrong Turning in American Poetry”

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December 23, 2018 at 7:30 am

The unstructured source

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I would suggest you teach that poetry leads us to the unstructured sources of our beings, to the unknown, and returns us to our rational, structured selves refreshed. Having once experienced the mystery, plenitude, contradiction, and composure of a work of art, we afterwards have a built-in resistance to the slogans and propaganda of oversimplification that have often contributed to the destruction of human life. Poetry is a verbal means to a nonverbal source. It is a motion to no-motion, to the still point of contemplation and deep realization. Its knowledges are all negative and, therefore, more positive than any knowledge. Nothing that can be said about it in words is worth saying.

A.R. Ammons, “A Poem is a Walk”

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December 22, 2018 at 7:30 am

Across the universe

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

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December 21, 2018 at 9:35 am

Quote of the Day

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If that part of science which is regarded as stable be called basic, then the traditional method is to take as basic that which at the time is consciously unattained, whilst I take as basic that which at the time is consciously attained. Whilst the traditional way is to regard the facts of science as something like the parts of a jigsaw puzzle, which can be fitted together in one and only one way, I regard them rather as the tiny pieces of a mosaic, which can be fitted together in many ways. A new theory in an old subject is, for me, a new mosaic pattern made with the pieces taken from an older pattern.

—William H. George, The Scientist in Action

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December 21, 2018 at 7:30 am

The fairy tale theater

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It must have all started with The Princess Switch, although that’s so long ago now that I can barely remember. Netflix was pushing me hard to watch an original movie with Vanessa Hudgens in a dual role as a European royal and a baker from Chicago who trade places and end up romantically entangled with each other’s love interests at Christmas, and I finally gave in. In the weeks since, my wife and I have watched Pride, Prejudice, and MistletoeThe Nine Lives of ChristmasCrown for ChristmasThe Holiday CalendarChristmas at the Palace; and possibly one or two others that I’ve forgotten. A few were on Netflix, but most were on Hallmark, which has staked out this space so aggressively that it can seem frighteningly singleminded in its pursuit of Yuletide cheer. By now, it airs close to forty original holiday romances between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, and like its paperback predecessors, it knows better than to tinker with a proven formula. As two of its writers anonymously reveal in an interview with Entertainment Weekly:

We have an idea and it maybe takes us a week or so just to break it down into a treatment, a synopsis of the story; it’s like a beat sheet where you pretty much write what’s going to happen in every scene you just don’t write the scene. If we have a solid beat sheet done and it’s approved, then it’s only going to take us about a week and a half to finish a draft. Basically, an act or two a day and there’s nine. They’re kind of simple because there are so many rules so you know what you can and can’t do, and if you have everything worked out it comes together.

And the rules are revealing in themselves. As one writer notes: “The first rule is snow. We really wanted to do one where the basic conflict was a fear that there will not be snow on Christmas. We were told you cannot do that, there must be snow. They can’t be waiting for the snow, there has to be snow. You cannot threaten them with no snow.” And the conventions that make these movies so watchable are built directly into the structure:

There cannot be a single scene that does not acknowledge the theme. Well, maybe a scene, but you can’t have a single act that doesn’t acknowledge it and there are nine of them, so there’s lots of opportunities for Christmas. They have a really rigid nine-act structure that makes writing them a lot of fun because it’s almost like an exercise. You know where you have to get to: People have to be kissing for the first time, probably in some sort of a Christmas setting, probably with snow falling from the sky, probably with a small crowd watching. You have to start with two people who, for whatever reason, don’t like each other and you’re just maneuvering through those nine acts to get them to that kiss in the snow.

The result, as I’ve learned firsthand, is a movie that seems familiar before you’ve even seen it. You can watch with one eye as you’re wrapping presents, or tune in halfway through with no fear of becoming confused. It allows its viewers to give it exactly as much attention as they’re willing to spare, and at a time when the mere act of watching prestige television can be physically exhausting, there’s something to be said for an option that asks nothing of us at all.

After you’ve seen two or three of these movies, of course, the details start to blur, particularly when it comes to the male leads. The writers speak hopefully of making the characters “as unique and interesting as they can be within the confines of Hallmark land,” but while the women are allowed an occasional flash of individuality, the men are unfailingly generic. This is particularly true of the subgenre in which the love interest is a king or prince, who doesn’t get any more personality than his counterpart in fairy tales. Yet this may not be a flaw. In On Directing Film, which is the best work on storytelling that I’ve ever read, David Mamet provides a relevant word of advice:

In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim says of fairy tales the same thing Alfred Hitchcock said about thrillers: that the less the hero of the play is inflected, identified, and characterized, the more we will endow him with our own internal meaning—the more we will identify with him—which is to say the more we will be assured that we are that hero. “The hero rode up on a white horse.” You don’t say “a short hero rode up on a white horse,” because if the listener isn’t short he isn’t going to identify with that hero. You don’t say “a tall hero rode up on a white horse,” because if the listener isn’t tall, he won’t identify with the hero. You say “a hero,” and the audience subconsciously realize they are that hero.

Yet Mamet also overlooks the fact that the women in fairy tales, like Snow White, are often described with great specificity—it’s the prince who is glimpsed only faintly. Hallmark follows much the same rule, which implies that it’s less important for the audience to identify with the protagonist than to fantasize without constraint about the object of desire.

This also leads to some unfortunate decisions about diversity, which is more or less what you might expect. As one writer says candidly to Entertainment Weekly:

On our end, we just write everybody as white, we don’t even bother to fight that war. If they want to put someone of color in there, that would be wonderful, but we don’t have control of that…I found out Meghan Markle had been in some and she’s biracial, but it almost seems like they’ve tightened those restrictions more recently. Everything’s just such a white, white, white, white world. It’s a white Christmas after all—with the snow and the people.

With more than thirty original movies coming out every year, you might think that Hallmark could make a few exceptions, especially since the demand clearly exists, but this isn’t about marketing at all. It’s a reflection of the fact that nonwhiteness is still seen as a token of difference, or a deviation from an assumed norm, and it’s the logical extension of the rules that I’ve listed above. White characters have the privilege—which is invisible but very real—of seeming culturally uninflected, which is the baseline that allows the formula to unfold. This seems very close to John W. Campbell’s implicit notion that all characters in science fiction should be white males by default, and while other genres have gradually moved past this point, it’s still very much the case with Hallmark. (There can be nonwhite characters, but they have to follow the rules: “Normally there’ll be a black character that’s like a friend or a boss, usually someone benevolent because you don’t want your one person of color to not be positive.”) With diversity, as with everything else, Hallmark is very mindful of how much variation its audience will accept. It thinks that it knows the formula. And it might not even be wrong.

Quote of the Day

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Where the pattern of human activity contains only one element, it is impossible for the architecture to achieve a convincing variety—convincing of the known facts of human variation. The designer may vary color, texture, and form until his drawing instruments buckle under the strain, proving once more that art is the one medium in which one cannot lie successfully.

Eugene Raskin, “On the Nature of Variety”

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December 20, 2018 at 7:30 am

Updike’s ladder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quote of the Day

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My own experience is that, apart from the special habitat of intellectuals like Oxford or Cambridge, a city of a million is required to give me, say, the twenty or thirty congenial friends I require.

Philip Sargant Florence, quoted by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Written by nevalalee

December 19, 2018 at 7:30 am

The unfinished lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quote of the Day

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I had often warned my students not to identify with their work. I told them, “If you want to achieve something, if you want to write a book, paint a picture, be sure that the center of your existence is somewhere else and that it’s solidly grounded; only then will you be able to keep your cool and laugh at the attacks that are bound to come.” I myself had followed this advice in the past, but now I was alone, sick with some unknown affliction; my private life was in a mess, and I was without a defense.

Paul Feyerabend, Killing Time

Written by nevalalee

December 18, 2018 at 7:30 am

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The greatest game never played

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by nevalalee

December 17, 2018 at 9:24 am

Posted in Books

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Quote of the Day

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Educations are divided into splendid educations, thorough classical educations, and average educations. All very old men have splendid educations; all men who apparently know nothing else have thorough classical educations; nobody has an average education.

Stephen Leacock, Literary Lapses

Written by nevalalee

December 17, 2018 at 7:30 am

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