Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Quote of the Day

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It is assumed by most people nowadays that all work is useful, and by most well-to-do people that all work is desirable. Most people, well-to-do or not, believe that, even when a man is doing work which appears to be useless, he is earning his livelihood by it—he is “employed,” as the phrase goes; and most of those who are well-to-do cheer on the happy worker with congratulations and praises, if he is only “industrious” enough and deprives himself of all pleasure and holidays—in the sacred cause of labor. In short, it has become an article of the creed of modern morality that all labor is good in itself—a convenient belief to those who live on the labor of others.

William Morris, “Useful Work Versus Useless Toil”

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August 14, 2018 at 7:30 am

The dianetics epidemic

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Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health

Note: To celebrate the World Science Fiction Convention this week in San Jose, I’m republishing a few of my favorite pieces on various aspects of the genre. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on March 2, 2017.

In his bestselling book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell devotes several pages to discussing the breakout success of Rebecca Wells’s novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. After its initial release in 1996, it sold reasonably well in hardcover, receiving “a smattering of reviews,” but it became a true phenomenon in paperback, thanks primarily to what Gladwell calls “the critical role that groups play in social epidemics.” He writes:

The first bestseller list on which Ya-Ya Sisterhood appeared was the Northern California Independent Bookseller’s list. Northern California…was where seven hundred and eight hundred people first began showing up at [Wells’s] readings. It was where the Ya-Ya epidemic began. Why? Because…the San Francisco area is home to one of the country’s strongest book club cultures, and from the beginning Ya-Ya was what publishers refer to as a “book club book.” It was the kind of emotionally sophisticated, character-driven, multilayered novel that invites reflection and discussion, and book groups were flocking to it. The groups of women who were coming to Wells’s readings were members of reading groups, and they were buying extra copies not just for family and friends but for other members of the group. And because Ya-Ya was being talked about and read in groups, the book itself became that much stickier. It’s easier to remember and appreciate something, after all, if you discuss it for two hours with your best friends. It becomes a social experience, an object of conversation. Ya-Ya’s roots in book group culture tipped it into a larger word-of-mouth epidemic.

And you could say much the same thing about a very different book that became popular in California nearly five decades earlier. Scientology has exhibited an unexpected degree of staying power among a relatively small number of followers, but Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, the work that that made L. Ron Hubbard famous, was a textbook case of a viral phenomenon. Just three months elapsed between the book’s publication on May 9, 1950 and Hubbard’s climactic rally at the Shrine Auditorium on August 10, and its greatest impact on the wider culture occurred over a period of less than a year, in a dramatic spread and decline that had all the hallmarks of virality. In the definitive Hubbard biography Bare-Faced Messiah, Russell Miller writes:

For the first few days after publication of Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, it appeared as if the publisher’s caution about the book’s prospects had been entirely justified. Early indications were that it had aroused little interest; certainly it was ignored by most reviewers. But suddenly, towards the end of May, the line on the sales graph at the New York offices of Hermitage House took a steep upturn.

By midsummer, it was selling a thousand copies a day, and by late fall, over seven hundred dianetics clubs had been established across the country. As Miller writes: “Dianetics became, virtually overnight, a national ‘craze’ somewhat akin to the canasta marathons and pyramid clubs that had briefly flourished in the hysteria of postwar America.”

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

The result was a quintessential social epidemic, and I’m a little surprised that Gladwell, who is so hungry for case studies, has never mentioned it. The book itself was “sticky,” with its promise of a new science of mental health that could be used by anyone and that got results every time. Like Ya-Ya, it took root in an existing group—in this case, the science fiction community, which was the natural audience for its debut in the pages of Astounding. Just as the ideal book club selection is one that inspires conversations, dianetics was a shared experience: in order to be audited, you needed to involve at least one other person. Auditing, as the therapy was originally presented, seemed so easy that anyone could try it, and many saw it as a kind of parlor game. (In his biography of Robert A. Heinlein, William H. Patterson shrewdly compares it to the “Freuding parties” that became popular in Greenwich Village in the twenties.) Even if you didn’t want to be audited yourself, dianetics became such a topic of discussion among fans that summer that you had to read the book to be a part of it. It also benefited from the presence of what Gladwell calls mavens, connectors, and salesmen. John W. Campbell was the ultimate maven, an information broker who, as one of Gladwell’s sources puts it, “wants to solve other people’s problems, generally by solving his own.” The connectors included prominent members of the fan community, notably A.E. van Vogt, who ended up running the Los Angeles foundation, and Forrest J Ackerman, Hubbard’s agent and “the number one fan.” And the salesman was Hubbard himself, who threw himself into the book’s promotion on the West Coast. As Campbell wrote admiringly to Heinlein: “When Ron wants to, he can put on a personality that would be a confidence man’s delight—persuasive, gentle, intimately friendly.”

In all epidemics, geography plays a pivotal role, and in the case of dianetics, it had profound consequences on individual careers. One of Campbell’s priorities was to sell the therapy to his top writers, much as the Church of Scientology later reached out to movie stars, and the single greatest predictor of how an author would respond was his proximity to the centers of fan culture. Two of the most important converts were van Vogt, who was in Los Angeles, and Theodore Sturgeon, who lived in New York, where he was audited by Campbell himself. Isaac Asimov, by contrast, had moved from Manhattan to Boston just the year before, and Heinlein, crucially, had left Hollywood, where he had been working on the film Destination Moon, in February of 1950. Heinlein was intrigued by dianetics, but because he was in Colorado Springs with his wife Ginny, who refused to have anything to do with it, he was unable to find an auditing partner, which makes me wonder what might have ensued if he had remained in Southern California for another six months. (Such accidents of place and time can have significant aftereffects. Van Vogt had moved from the Ottawa area to Los Angeles in 1944, and his involvement with dianetics took him out of writing for the better part of a decade, at the very moment when science fiction was breaking into the culture as a whole. His absence during this critical period, which made celebrities out of Heinlein and Asimov, feels like a big part of the reason why van Vogt has mostly disappeared from the popular consciousness. And it might never have happened if he had stayed in Canada.) The following year, dianetics as a movement fizzled out, due largely to Hubbard’s own behavior—although he might also have sensed that it wouldn’t last. But it soon mutated into another form. And before long, Hubbard would begin to spread a few divine secrets of his own.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

August 13, 2018 at 7:30 am

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An explosion in the mind

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We are warned that to write a poem in the pattern, say, of a Shakespearean sonnet is to force words into a chain gang against their will. A true poem (so goes the theory) has to be written in organic form, discovering its individual nature as it goes along. Such a discovery, we are told, can’t ever be made by the writer of a sonnet. Such dogmas rest upon a couple of unexamined assumptions. One is the assumption that a sonnet is nothing but a hollow box to be stuffed full of verbiage. Another is the assumption that a sonnet can’t possibly begin unknown to itself, that it can’t possibly discover its proper organic form while (and only while) its poet is writing it. But many a poet has discovered that he didn’t plan to write a sonnet when he started out. To his surprise, he finds the thing turning out in fourteen lines, as it naturally hankers to be. Oh, no doubt the poet has read a bale of other people’s sonnets in his time, and once he gets writing along and finds the first eight lines gravitating into an octave, he can’t help remembering them. Is that bad? But a good sonnet, far from being a vacuum to be filled, dutifully and mechanically and joylessly, is (if it is worth anything) a sonnet-sized explosion in the mind.

X.J. Kennedy, “Fenced-In Fields”

Written by nevalalee

August 12, 2018 at 7:30 am

The dissolution of limits

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Life is no less complex and mysterious than it has always been. That we dwell in enormous cities, and invent and use astonishing machinery, does not simplify it, but continually reveals the dissolution of limit after limit to physical possibility. Our still tentative awareness of the great gulfs of the unconscious, in constant transformation like the marvelous cloudscapes one sees from a jet plane, must surely lead to awe, not to supposed simplicity. Therefore if our poetry is to seek truth—and it must, for that is a condition of its viability, breath to its lungs—then it cannot confine itself to…direct statement, but must allow for all the dazzle, shadow, bafflement, leaps of conjecture, prayer and dream-substance of that quest.

Denise Levertov, “An Admonition”

Written by nevalalee

August 11, 2018 at 7:30 am

My ten creative books #10: A Guide for the Perplexed

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Note: I’m counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication dates of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. You can find the earlier installments here.

As regular readers know, I’m a Werner Herzog fan, but not a completist—I’ve seen maybe five of his features and three or four of his documentaries, which leaves a lot of unexplored territory, and I’m not ashamed to admit that Woyzeck put me to sleep. Yet Herzog himself is endlessly fascinating. Daniel Zalewski’s account of the making of Rescue Dawn is one of my five favorite articles ever to appear in The New Yorker, and if you’re looking for an introduction to his mystique, there’s no better place to start. For a deeper dive, you can turn to A Guide for the Perplexed, an expanded version of a collection of the director’s interviews with Paul Cronin, which was originally published more than a decade ago. As I’ve said here before, I regret the fact that I didn’t pick up the first edition when I had the chance, and I feel that my life would have been subtly different if I had. Not only is it the first book I’d recommend to anyone considering a career in filmmaking, it’s almost the first book I’d recommend to anyone considering a career in anything at all. It’s huge, but every paragraph explodes with insight, and you can open it to any page and find yourself immediately transfixed. Here’s one passage picked at random:

Learn to live with your mistakes. Study the law and scrutinize contracts. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern. Keep your eyes open. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it. There is never an excuse not to finish a film. Carry bolt cutters everywhere.

Or take Herzog’s description of his relationship with his cinematographer: “Peter Zeitlinger is always trying to sneak ‘beautiful’ shots into our films, and I’m forever preventing it…Things are more problematic when there is a spectacular sunset on the horizon and he scrambles to set up the camera to film it. I immediately turn the tripod 180 degrees in the other direction.”

And this doesn’t even touch on Herzog’s stories, which are inexhaustible. He provides his own point of view on many famous anecdotes, like the time he was shot on camera while being interviewed by the BBC—the bullet was stopped by a catalog in his jacket pocket, and he asked to keep going—or how he discouraged Klaus Kinski from abandoning the production of Aguirre: The Wrath of God. (“I told him I had a rifle…and that he would only make it as far as the next bend in the river before he had eight bullets in his head. The ninth would be for me.”) We see Herzog impersonating a veterinarian at the airport to rescue the monkeys that he needed for Aguirre; forging an impressive document over the signature of the president of Peru to gain access to locations for Fitzcarraldo; stealing his first camera; and shooting oil fires in Kuwait under such unforgiving conditions that the microphone began to melt. Herzog is his own best character, and he admits that he can sometimes become “a clown,” but his example is enough to sustain and nourish the rest of us. In On Directing Film, David Mamet writes:

But listen to the difference between the way people talk about films by Werner Herzog and the way they talk about films by Frank Capra, for example. One of them may or may not understand something or other, but the other understands what it is to tell a story, and he wants to tell a story, which is the nature of dramatic art—to tell a story. That’s all it’s good for.

Herzog, believe it or not, would agree, and he recommends Casablanca and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as examples of great storytelling. And the way in which Herzog and Capra’s reputations have diverged since Mamet wrote those words, over twenty years ago, is illuminating in itself. A Guide for the Perplexed may turn out to be as full of fabrications as Capra’s own memoirs, but they’re the kind of inventions, like the staged moments in Herzog’s “documentaries,” that get at a deeper truth. As Herzog says of another great dreamer: “The difference between me and Don Quixote is, I deliver.”

Quote of the Day

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After Gurdjieff died I was asked by some of the old pupils to write a commentary on Beelzebub. When I had written a few chapters and sent them around for comment, almost all agreed that it would be a mistake to publish them. If Gurdjieff had intended his meaning to be readily accessible to every reader, he would have written the book differently. He himself used to listen to chapters read aloud and if he found the key passages taken too easily—and therefore almost inevitably too superficially—he would rewrite them in order, as he put it, to “bury the dog deeper.” When people corrected him and said he surely meant “bury the bone deeper,” he would turn on them and say it was not “bones” but the “dog” that you have to find. The dog is Sirius the dog star, which stands for the spirit of wisdom in the Zoroastrian tradition.

J.G. BennettGurdjieff: Making a New World

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August 10, 2018 at 7:30 am

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