Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Alan Hathaway

Assisted living

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If you’re a certain kind of writer, whenever you pick up a new book, instead of glancing at the beginning or opening it to a random page, you turn immediately to the acknowledgments. Once you’ve spent any amount of time trying to get published, that short section of fine print starts to read like a gossip column, a wedding announcement, and a high school yearbook all rolled into one. For most writers, it’s also the closest they’ll ever get to an Oscar speech, and many of them treat it that way, with loving tributes and inside jokes attached to every name. It’s a chance to thank their editors and agents—while the unagented reader suppresses a twinge of envy—and to express gratitude to various advisers, colonies, and fellowships. (The most impressive example I’ve seen has to be in The Lisle Letters by Muriel St. Clare Byrne, which pays tribute to the generosity of “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.”) But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the acknowledgments that I’ve been reading recently, it’s that I deserve an assistant. It seems as if half the nonfiction books I see these days thank a whole squadron of researchers, inevitably described as “indefatigable,” who live in libraries, work through archives and microfilm reels, and pass along the results to their grateful employers. If the author is particularly famous, like Bob Woodward or Kurt Eichenwald, the acknowledgment can sound like a letter of recommendation: “I was startled by his quick mind and incomparable work ethic.” Sometimes the assistants are described in such glowing terms that you start to wonder why you aren’t reading their books instead. And when I’m trying to decipher yet another illegible scan of a carbon copy of a letter written fifty years ago on a manual typewriter, I occasionally wish that I could outsource it to an intern.

But there are also good reasons for doing everything yourself, at least at the early stages of a project. In his book The Integrity of the Body, the immunologist Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet says that there’s one piece of advice that he always gives to “ambitious young research workers”: “Do as large a proportion as possible of your experiments with your own hands.” In Discovering, Robert Scott Root-Bernstein expands on this point:

When you climb those neighboring hills make sure you do your own observing. Many scientists assign all experimental work to lab techs and postdocs. But…only the prepared mind will note and attach significance to an anomaly. Each individual possesses a specific blend of personality, codified science, science in the making, and cultural biases that will match particular observations. If you don’t do your own observing, the discovery won’t be made. Never delegate research.

Obviously, there are situations in which you can’t avoid delegating the work to some degree. But I think Root-Bernstein gets at something essential when he frames it in terms of recognizing anomalies. If you don’t sift through the raw material yourself, it’s difficult to know what is unusual or important, and even if you have a bright assistant who will flag any striking items for your attention, it’s hard to put them in perspective. As I’ve noted elsewhere, drudgery can be an indispensable precursor to insight. You’re more likely to come up with worthwhile connections if you’re the one mining the ore.

This is why the great biographers and historians often seem like monsters of energy. I never get tired of quoting the advice that Alan Hathaway gave to the young Robert Caro at Newsday: “Turn every goddamn page.” Caro took this to heart, noting proudly of one of the archives he consulted: “The number [of pages] may be in the area of forty thousand. I don’t know how many of these pages I’ve read, but I’ve read a lot of them.” And it applies to more than just what you read, as we learn from a famous story about Caro and his editor Robert Gottlieb:

Gott­lieb likes to point to a passage fairly early in The Power Broker describing Moses’ parents one morning in their lodge at Camp Madison, a fresh-air charity they established for poor city kids, picking up the Times and reading that their son had been fined $22,000 for improprieties in a land takeover. “Oh, he never earned a dollar in his life, and now we’ll have to pay this,” Bella Moses says.

“How do you know that?” Gottlieb asked Caro. Caro explained that he tried to talk to all of the social workers who had worked at Camp Madison, and in the process he found one who had delivered the Moseses’ paper. “It was as if I had asked him, ‘How do you know it’s raining out?’”

This is the kind of thing that you’d normally ask your assistant to do, if it occurred to you at all, and it’s noteworthy that Caro has kept at it long after he could have hired an army of researchers. Instead, he relies entirely on his wife Ina, whom he calls “the only person besides myself who has done research on the four volumes of The Years of Lyndon Johnson or on the biography of Robert Moses that preceded them, the only person I would ever trust to do so.” And perhaps a trusted spouse is the best assistant you could ever have.

Of course, there are times when an assistant is necessary, especially if, unlike Caro, you’re hoping to finish your project in fewer than forty years. But it’s often the assistant who benefits. As one of them recalled:

I was working for [Professor] Bernhard J. Stern…and since he was writing a book on social resistance to technological change, he had me reading a great many books that might conceivably be of use to him. My orders were to take note of any passages that dealt with the subject and to copy them down.

It was a liberal education for me and I was particularly struck by a whole series of articles by astronomer Simon Newcomb, which I read at Stern’s direction. Newcomb advanced arguments that demonstrated the impossibility of heavier-than-air flying machines, and maintained that one could not be built that would carry a man. While these articles were appearing, the Wright brothers flew their plane. Newcomb countered with an article that said, essentially, “Very well, one man, but not two.”

Every significant social advance roused opposition on the part of many, it seemed. Well, then, shouldn’t space flight, which involved technological advances, arouse opposition too?

The assistant in question was Isaac Asimov, who used this idea as the basis for his short story “Trends,” which became his first sale to John W. Campbell. It launched his career, and the rest is history. And that’s part of the reason why, when I think of my own book, I say to myself: “Very well, one man, but not two.”

Turning every page

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Analog Science Fiction and Fact

In a note at the end of The Passage of Power, the biographer Robert A. Caro describes an important source of information about the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, and he concludes: “While no one (including me) has counted the number of pages…the number may be in the area of forty thousand. I don’t know how many of these pages I’ve read, but I’ve read a lot of them.” And you can feel his sense of quiet satisfaction as he says this. The four volumes that have been published of The Years of Lyndon Johnson are all great reads, but for my money, some of the best drama unfolds in the endnotes, which provide a kind of stealth parallel memoir by Caro as he plows his way through a mountain of available material. In the case of someone like Johnson, the problem isn’t a lack of data, but its overwhelming abundance: his presidential library alone contains something like forty-four million documents. Dealing with this kind of overload, which represents more than one author could read in multiple lifetimes, forces a writer to develop strategies for managing the sheer volume of possible research. You start with a list of subjects that you know will be relevant and drill down from there, following up on other leads as they emerge; you find that certain witnesses are more valuable than others, and you make a point of reading whatever they have to say; or you engage in a sort of longitudinal survey, revisiting the same ideas over time. The result, when you’re done, is both systematic and scattershot, and that’s how it should be. But eventually, you come back to what Caro’s old managing editor Alan Hathaway said to him at Newsday: “Turn every goddamn page.”

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been doing what I can to follow that advice, attacking the research for my upcoming book on two fronts. The first consists simply of going through every issue of Astounding Science Fiction, Unknown, and Analog published in editor John W. Campbell’s lifetime. So far, I’ve worked my way through about fifteen years of these magazines, from the beginning of the Great Depression to the end of World War II, with another quarter of a century to go. Obviously, I can’t stop to read, or even skim, every story, and I usually end up focusing on the editorials, the filler items, and the responses to the letters to the editor—in short, anything that Campbell himself wrote. (As for the stories themselves, I can only echo Caro by saying that I don’t know how many I’ve read, but I’ve read a lot.) Sometimes an advertisement or a piece of art will catch my eye: you could write an entire book about the International Correspondence Schools ads that opened nearly every issue, or the cigarette ads that appeared on every back cover. And the mere act of turning the pages reveals patterns that might otherwise be invisible. It gives you an overview, like a time-lapse video, of the magazine’s evolution, and I’ve found my ideas about certain topics changing perceptibly. I’ve begun to recognize how the epochal changes in the history of science fiction were really the result of many incremental shifts, and how the seeds of the golden age were planted in the work of Campbell’s predecessors, Harry Bates and F. Orlin Tremaine. This approach doesn’t allow for much in the way of granular analysis, of which I plan to do more than my share elsewhere, but the perspective that it provides has structured my thinking in profound ways.

Microfilm reader

My other source of raw data is Campbell’s correspondence. His surviving letters, which often preserve both sides of the exchange, amount to about thirty thousand pages, and this doesn’t even include hundreds of additional documents in repositories like the Heinlein Archives. The late Perry Chapdelaine published a selection of it in three huge volumes, which are invaluable, but barely scratch the surface. As I’ve known for a long time, the real treasure trove lies in the form of the seven microfilm reels in which Chapdelaine copied the entire collection, only three copies of which appear to have ever been made. (The original letters are archived at San Diego State University, but it would be difficult for me to spend the weeks or months there required to go through it properly.) Almost since this project began, I’ve been trying to get my hands on the microfilm, and last week—after a series of setbacks and snafus, including the revelation that one complete set seems to have disappeared—I managed to cobble together the whole thing with reels from the Library of Congress and Texas A&M University, along with a huge assist from the public library in Oak Park. As a result, I’ve been spending most of my recent afternoons at the library’s microfilm reader. Frankly, I hadn’t been aware of the advances in microfilm viewing technology, and I imagined myself sitting in a basement carrel like Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs. In fact, the library’s setup is wonderful: it allows me to scroll quickly through the images, adjust the focus and contrast, and even take screen shots for later reference. Despite the relative convenience, though, it still presents big challenges. Many of the letters, which are photographs of carbon copies, are impossible to read, and they’re preserved in a seemingly arbitrary order. My best guess is that it will take me something like fifteen hours just to visually inspect every letter in a single reel, much less figure out what is and isn’t important.

Yet it’s already paying off. As I’ve learned through my encounters with every page of Astounding, there’s a big difference between confronting primary sources without any intermediation and reading the same material after it has been edited and curated. It’s like looking at a life as it unfolds, almost day by day, with all the messiness you’d expect, and you develop odd intuitions: when I’m scrolling rapidly through the microfilm, I can recognize certain writers at a glance, based on the kind of typewriter they used, and I can quickly sort the letters into different categories. Most of it is routine correspondence, but there are hidden gems as well. On April 17, 1962, for instance, a young reporter from the Champaign-Urbana News Gazette sent Campbell a query letter about a story he hoped to submit on PLATO, a computer-assisted educational system developed by the University of Illinois. He wrote: “It seems to me that PLATO is a nightmarish mechanical personification of the stiffened, calcified mind of Orthodox Science.” Campbell replied: “This sounds interesting. Let’s see it!” No other letters from the exchange survive, and I wouldn’t even bother mentioning it here if the reporter in question weren’t Roger Ebert. At the time, he was nineteen years old—or Isaac Asimov’s age when he sold his first short story—and five years away from becoming a film critic. It’s hard not to wonder what might have happened if Campbell, whom Ebert once called “my hero,” had taken him under his wing, and although I doubt it will even end up in the book, the discovery of this unexpected encounter between two of the most important men in my life is the kind of thing that makes it all worthwhile. And I never would have found it if I hadn’t turned every page.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

April 13, 2012 at 7:50 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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