Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Charles McGrath

The Big One

leave a comment »

In a heartfelt appreciation of the novelist Philip Roth, who died earlier this week, the New York Times critic Dwight Garner describes him as “the last front-rank survivor of a generation of fecund and authoritative and, yes, white and male novelists…[that] included John Updike, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow.” These four names seem fated to be linked together for as long as any of them is still read and remembered, and they’ve played varying roles in my own life. I was drawn first to Mailer, who for much of my adolescence was my ideal of what a writer should be, less because of his actual fiction than thanks to my repeated readings of the juiciest parts of Peter Manso’s oral biography. (If you squint hard and think generously, you can even see Mailer’s influence in the way I’ve tried to move between fiction and nonfiction, although in both cases it was more a question of survival.) Updike, my favorite, was a writer I discovered after college. I agree with Garner that he probably had the most “sheer talent” of them all, and he represents my current model, much more than Mailer, of an author who could apparently do anything. Bellow has circled in and out of my awareness over the years, and it’s only recently that I’ve started to figure out what he means to me, in part because of his ambiguous status as a subject of biography. And Roth was the one I knew least. I’d read Portnoy’s Complaint and one or two of the Zuckerman novels, but I always felt guilty over having never gotten around to such late masterpieces as American Pastoral—although the one that I should probably check out first these days is The Plot Against America.

Yet I’ve been thinking about Roth for about as long as I’ve wanted to be a writer, largely because he came as close as anyone ever could to having the perfect career, apart from the lack of the Nobel Prize. He won the National Book Award for his debut at the age of twenty-six; he had a huge bestseller at an age when he was properly equipped to enjoy it; and he closed out his oeuvre with a run of major novels that critics seemed to agree were among the best that he, or anyone, had ever written. (As Garner nicely puts it: “He turned on the afterburners.”) But he never seemed satisfied by his achievement, which you can take as an artist’s proper stance toward his work, a reflection of the fleeting nature of such rewards, a commentary on the inherent bitterness of the writer’s life, or all of the above. Toward the end of his career, Roth actively advised young writers not to become novelists, and in his retirement announcement, which he delivered almost casually to a French magazine, he quoted Joe Louis: “I did the best I could with what I had.” A month later, in an interview with Charles McGrath of the New York Times, he expanded on his reasoning:

I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration—it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time…I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore…I knew I wasn’t going to get another good idea, or if I did, I’d have to slave over it.

And on his computer, he posted a note that gave him strength when he looked at it each day: “The struggle with writing is over.”

Roth’s readers, of course, rarely expressed the same disillusionment, and he lives most vividly in my mind as a reference point against which other authors could measure themselves. In an interview with The Telegraph, John Updike made one of the most quietly revealing statements that I’ve ever heard from a writer, when asked if he felt that he and Roth were in competition:

Yes, I can’t help but feel it somewhat. Especially since Philip really has the upper hand in the rivalry as far as I can tell. I think in a list of admirable novelists there was a time when I might have been near the top, just tucked under Bellow. But since Bellow died I think Philip has…he’s certainly written more novels than I have, and seems more dedicated in a way to the act of writing as a means of really reshaping the world to your liking. But he’s been very good to have around as far as goading me to become a better writer.

I think about that “list of admirable novelists” all the time, and it wasn’t just a joke. In an excellent profile in The New Yorker, Claudia Roth Pierpoint memorably sketched in all the ways in which other writers warily circled Roth. When asked if the two of them were friends, Updike said, “Guardedly,” and Bellow seems to have initially held Roth at arm’s length, until his wife convinced him to give the younger writer a chance. Pierpont concludes of the relationship between Roth and Updike: “They were mutual admirers, wary competitors who were thrilled to have each other in the world to up their game: Picasso and Matisse.”

And they also remind me of another circle of writers whom I know somewhat better. If Bellow, Mailer, Updike, and Roth were the Big Four of the literary world, they naturally call to mind the Big Three of science fiction—Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke. In each case, the group’s members were perfectly aware of how exceptional they were, and they carefully guarded their position. (Once, in a conference call with the other two authors, Asimov jokingly suggested that one of them should die to make room for their successors. Heinlein responded: “Fuck the other writers!”) Clarke and Asimov seem to have been genuinely “thrilled to have each other in the world,” but their relationship with the third point of the triangle was more fraught. Toward the end, Asimov started to “avoid” the combative Heinlein, who had a confrontation with Clarke over the Strategic Defense Initiative that effectively ended their friendship. In public, they remained cordial, but you can get a hint of their true feelings in a remarkable passage from the memoir I. Asimov:

[Clarke] and I are now widely known as the Big Two of science fiction. Until early 1988, as I’ve said, people spoke of the Big Three, but then Arthur fashioned a little human figurine of wax and with a long pin— At least, he has told me this. Perhaps he’s trying to warn me. I have made it quite plain to him, however, that if he were to find himself the Big One, he would be very lonely. At the thought of that, he was affected to the point of tears, so I think I’m safe.

As it turned out, Clarke, like Roth, outlived all the rest, and perhaps they felt lonely in the end. Longevity can amount to a kind of victory in itself. But it must be hard to be the Big One.

Life on the last mile

with 2 comments

In telecommunications, there’s a concept called “the last mile,” which states that the final leg of a network—the one that actually reaches the user’s home, school or office—is the most difficult and expensive to build. It’s one thing to construct a massive trunkline, which is basically a huge but relatively straightforward feat of engineering, and quite another to deal with the tangle of equipment, wiring, and specifications on the level of thousands of individual households. More recently, the concept has been extended to public transportation, delivery and distribution services, and other fields that depend on connecting an industrial operation on the largest imaginable scale with specific situations on the retail side. (For instance, Amazon has been trying to cross the last mile through everything from its acquisition of Whole Foods to drone delivery, and the fact that these are seen as alternative approaches to the same problem points to how complicated it really is.) This isn’t just a matter of infrastructure, either, but of the difficulties inherent to any system in which a single pipeline has to split into many smaller branches, whether it’s carrying blood, water, mail, or data. Ninety percent of the wiring can be in that last mile, and success lies less in any overall principles than in the irritating particulars. It has to be solved on the ground, rather than in a design document, and you’ll never be able to anticipate all of the obstacles that you’ll face once those connections start to multiply. It’s literally about the ramifications.

I often feel the same way when it comes to writing. When I think back at how I’ve grown as a writer over the last decade or so, I see clear signs of progress. Thanks mostly to the guidelines that David Mamet presents in On Directing Film, it’s much easier for me to write a decent first draft than it was when I began. I rarely leave anything unfinished; I know how to outline and how to cut; and I’m unlikely to make any huge technical mistakes. In his book Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman says something similar about screenwriting:

Stephen Sondheim once said this: “I cannot write a bad song. You begin it here, build, end there. The words will lay properly on the music so they can be sung, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper song.” I sometimes feel that way about my screenplays. I’ve been doing them for so long now, and I’ve attempted most genres. I know about entering the story as late as possible, entering each scene as late as possible, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper screenplay.

Craft, in other words, can take you most of the way—but it’s the final leg that kills you. As Goldman concludes of his initial pass on the script for Absolute Power: “This first draft was proper as hell—you just didn’t give a shit.” And sooner or later, most writers find that they spend most of their time on that last mile.

Like most other art forms, creative writing can indeed be taught—but only to the point that it still resembles an engineering problem. There are a few basic tricks of structure and technique that will improve almost anyone’s work, much like the skills that you learn in art books like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and that kind of advancement can be enormously satisfying. When it comes to the last mile between you and your desired result, however, many of the rules start to seem useless. You aren’t dealing with the general principles that have gotten you this far, but with problems that arise on the level of individual words or sentences, each one of which needs to be tackled on its own. There’s no way of knowing whether or not you’ve made the right choice until you’ve looked at them all in a row, and even if something seems wrong, you may not know how to fix it. The comforting shape of the outline, which can be assembled in a reasonably logical fashion, is replaced by the chaos of the text, and the fact that you’ve done good work on this level before is no guarantee that you can do it right now. I’ve learned a lot about writing over the years, but to the extent that I’m not yet the writer that I want to be, it lies almost entirely in that last mile, where the ideal remains tantalizingly out of reach.

As a result, I end up revising endlessly, even a late stage, and although the draft always gets better, it never reaches perfection. After a while, you have to decide that it’s as good as it’s going to get, and then move on to something else—which is why it helps to have a deadline. But you can take comfort in the fact that the last mile affects even the best of us. In a recent New York Times profile of the playwright Tony Kushner, Charles McGrath writes:

What makes Angels in America so complicated to stage is not just Mr. Kushner’s need to supervise everything, but that Perestroika, the second part, is to a certain extent a work in progress and may always be. The first part, Millennium Approaches, was already up and running in the spring of 1991, when, with a deadline looming, Mr. Kushner retreated to a cabin in Northern California and wrote most of Perestroika in a feverish eight-day stint, hardly sleeping and living on junk food. He has been tinkering with it ever since…Even during rehearsal last month he was still cutting, rewriting, restructuring.

If Tony Kushner is still revising Angels in America, it makes me feel a little better about spending my life on that last mile. Or as John McPhee says about knowing when to stop: “What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.”

Talking the Talk

leave a comment »

A few days ago, while reading Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike, I came across the following passage about William Shawn, the legendary editor of The New Yorker:

Nowadays Shawn is nearly as famous for his oddities as for his editorial prowess. The catalog of his phobias and behavioral tics, the intrigue (especially his decades-long office romance with Lillian Ross, which was meant to be a deep, deep secret and become, with the passage of time, merely the obvious but unmentionable status quo), the passive-aggressive manipulation of colleagues and contributors, the velvet tenacity of his grip on power…it’s all almost enough to make us forget the astonishing success with which he steered the magazine.

Earlier this week, Lillian Ross passed away at the age of ninety-nine. Her personal life, like Shawn’s, often received more attention than her professional accomplishments, and her obituaries predictably devoted a lot of space to their affair, which might have chagrined but not surprised her. In an era when celebrity journalists like Norman Mailer and Gay Talese were on the ascendant, she cautioned reporters against placing themselves at the center of the story—although she also wrote a late memoir of her life with Shawn, Here But Not Here, that caused a firestorm of controversy within its tiny world when it was released two decades ago. In his New York Times review, Charles McGrath called it “a tactless example of the current avidity for tell-all confessions,” and it struck many readers as an odd departure for a reporter who had been complimented for her ability to fade into the background. And while its title sounded like a motto for objective reporting, it actually came from something that Shawn—whom Updike later praised for his “disinterested standards”—liked to say about his home life: “I am there, but I am not there.”

But Ross, Shawn, and their magazine entered the inner lives of their readers in ways that transcended the efforts of reporters who asked more insistently for our attention. In her book Reporting, Ross offered her personal rules for conducting journalism:

Reporting is difficult, partly because the writer does not have the leeway to play around with the lives of people, as he does in fiction. There are many other restrictions, too…Your attention at all times should be on your subject, not on you. Do not call attention to yourself. As a reporter, serve your subject, do not yourself. Do not, in effect say, “Look at me. See what a great reporter I am!” Do not, if you want to reveal that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes, write, “I am showing that the Emperor is already naked.”

A few more admonitions: do not promote yourself; do not advertise yourself; do not sell yourself. If you have a tendency to do these things, you should go into some line of work that may benefit from your talents as a promoter, a salesman, or an actor. Too many extraneous considerations have been imposed on reporting in recent years, and it is time now to ask writers who would be reporters to report.

Decades later, in speaking of her reputation as a fly on the wall, Ross struck a rather different note: “What craziness! A reporter doing a story can’t pretend to be invisible, let alone a fly; he or she is seen and heard and responded to by the people he or she is writing about. A reporter is always chemically involved in a story.”

Ross might sound like she’s contradicting herself, but I don’t think that she is. It helps to focus on the words “chemically involved,” which makes reporting sound like an industrial process—which, in the hands of Shawn’s writers, including Ross and Updike, is what it became. A recent tribute describes Ross as “an early architect” of the Talk of the Town section, which puts her at the center of a certain way of viewing the world. The Talk of the Town has always been characterized less by any particular subject than by its voice, which Begley capably evokes in an account of one of Updike’s early pieces, in which he visited a lawn care business in Southampton:

The resulting journalistic trifle is mildly amusing and fairly typical of The Talk of the Town, save for the exurban expedition…The reporter (“we,” by hallowed New Yorker convention) gathers a comically copious amount of information about the product, allows its makers to display a comical commercial enthusiasm, and adds to the comedy by appearing (almost) to share that enthusiasm.

In this case, the product was a lawn treatment that dyed the grass green, but The Talk of the Town remains the magazine’s place to accommodate more famous subjects who have something to promote. Its stance toward such material allows its interviewees to plug film or book projects while keeping them at a bemused distance, and a lot of it hinges on that remarkable “we.” (It’s the counterpart of the “you” that appears so often in its movie reviews.) Updike gently mocked it years later: “Who, after all, could that indefatigably fascinated, perpetually peripatetic ‘we’ be but a collection of dazzled farm-boys?” But it’s still our ideal of a certain kind of nonfiction—privileged, lightly ironic, with dashes of surprising insight that don’t prevent you from turning the page.

Ross was one of the inventors of that voice, which was the chemical trick that she used to dissolve herself into a story. It allowed trivial pieces to be rapidly produced, while also allowing for deeper engagement when the opportunity presented itself. (To push the analogy from Updike’s article to the breaking point, it was “the desired combination of a dye that would immediately color the lawn and a fertilizer that would eventually rejuvenate it.”) And much of the success of The New Yorker lay in the values that its readers projected onto that “we.” As Begley describes the characters in Updike’s story “Incest”:

The young couple…are college educated, living in a small, pleasant New York apartment furnished with bamboo chairs, a modernist sofa, a makeshift bed, bookshelves filled with books. They’re familiar with Proust and Freud and the pediatric pronouncements of Dr. Benjamin Spock…Jane sips vermouth after dinner, listening to Bach on the record player while she reads The New Republic—if the story hadn’t been intended for publication in The New Yorker, surely she would have been reading that magazine instead.

Norman Mailer, a New Journalist who actually published a collection titled Advertisements for Myself, was dismissive of the magazine’s hold on its readers: “Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people in the most established parts of the middle class kill their quickest impulses before they dare to act in such a way as to look ridiculous to the private eye of their taste whose style has been keyed by the eye of The New Yorker.” He’s speaking of The Talk of the Town, as refined by Ross and Shawn, and it’s still true today. Updike made fun of that “we” because he could—but for many readers, then and now, the grass on that side was definitely greener.

Cutty Sark and the semicolon

leave a comment »

Vladimir Nabokov

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on December 22, 2015.

In an interview that was first published in The Paris Review, the novelist Herbert Gold asked Vladimir Nabokov if an editor had ever offered him any useful advice. This is what Nabokov said in response:

By “editor” I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honor—which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous “stet!”

I’ve always adored that thunderous stet, which tells us so much about Nabokov and his imperious resistance to being edited by anybody. Today, however, I’m more interested in the previous sentence. A semicolon, as Nabokov puts it, can indeed be a point of honor. Nabokov was perhaps the most painstaking of all modern writers, and it’s no surprise that the same perfectionism that produced such conceptual and structural marvels as Lolita and Pale Fire would filter down to the smallest details. But I imagine that even ordinary authors can relate to how a single punctuation mark in a manuscript can start to loom as large as the finger of God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

And there’s something about the semicolon that seems to inspire tussles between writers and their editors—or at least allows it to stand as a useful symbol of the battles that can occur during the editorial process. Here’s an excerpt from a piece by Charles McGrath in The New York Times Magazine about the relationship between Robert Caro, author of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and his longtime editor Robert Gottlieb:

“You know that insane old expression, ‘The quality of his defect is the defect of his quality,’ or something like that?” Gottlieb asked me. “That’s really true of Bob. What makes him such a genius of research and reliability is that everything is of exactly the same importance to him. The smallest thing is as consequential as the biggest. A semicolon matters as much as, I don’t know, whether Johnson was gay. But unfortunately, when it comes to English, I have those tendencies, too, and we could go to war over a semicolon. That’s as important to me as who voted for what law.”

It’s possible that the semicolon keeps cropping up in such stories because its inherent ambiguity lends itself to disagreement. As Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” And I’ve more or less eliminated semicolons from my own work for much the same reason.

Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese on the set of Raging Bull

But the larger question here is why artists fixate on things that even the most attentive reader would pass over without noticing. On one level, you could take a fight over a semicolon as an illustration of the way that the creative act—in which the artist is immersed in the work for months on end—tends to turn mountains into molehills. Here’s one of my favorite stories about the making of Raging Bull:

One night, when the filmmakers were right up against the deadline to make their release date, they were working on a nothing little shot that takes place in a nightclub, where a minor character turns to the bartender and orders a Cutty Sark. “I can’t hear what he’s saying,” [Martin Scorsese] said. Fiddling ensued—extensive fiddling—without satisfying him. [Producer Irwin] Winkler, who was present, finally deemed one result good enough and pointed out that messengers were standing by to hand-carry release prints to the few theaters where the picture was about to premiere. At which point, Scorsese snapped. “I want my name taken off the picture,” he cried—which bespeaks his devotion to detail. It also bespeaks his exhaustion at the end of Raging Bull, not to mention the craziness that so often overtakes movies as they wind down. Needless to say, he was eventually placated. And you can more or less hear the line in the finished print.

And you could argue that this kind of microscopic attention is the only thing that can lead to a work that succeeds on the largest possible scale.

But there’s yet another story that gets closer to truth. In Existential Errands, Norman Mailer describes a bad period in his life—shortly after he was jailed for stabbing his second wife Adele—in which he found himself descending into alcoholism and unable to work. His only source of consolation were the scraps of paper, “little crossed communications from some wistful outpost of my mind,” that he would find in his jacket pocket after a drunken night. Mailer writes of these poems:

I would go to work, however, on my scraps of paper. They were all I had for work. I would rewrite them carefully, printing in longhand and ink, and I would spend hours whenever there was time going over these little poems…And since I wasn’t doing anything else very well in those days, I worked the poems over every chance I had. Sometimes a working day would go by, and I might put a space between two lines and remove a word. Maybe I was mending.

Which just reminds us that a seemingly minuscule change can be the result of a prolonged confrontation with the work as a whole. You can’t obsess over a semicolon without immersing yourself in the words around it, and there are times when you need such a focal point to structure your engagement with the rest. It’s a little like what is called a lakshya in yoga: the tiny spot on the body or in the mind on which you concentrate while meditating. In practice, the lakshya can be anything or nothing, but without it, your attention tends to drift. In art, it can be a semicolon, a word, or a line about Cutty Sark. It may not be much in itself. But when you need to tether yourself to something, even a semicolon can be a lifeline.

The passages of power

with 2 comments

Robert Caro

Every year or so, I go back and read Charles McGrath’s profile of the biographer Robert Caro, which is one of my favorite features ever published in The New York Times Magazine. (My favorite piece of all, if I’m being honest with myself, is Stephen Rodrick’s account of the notorious meltdown by Lindsay Lohan during the filming of The Canyons—and you’d probably learn a lot about human nature by reading those two articles back to back.) Caro, who was recently honored with a lifetime achievement medal from the National Book Foundation, has long been a hero of mine, for reasons that I’ve described at length elsewhere. He’s eighty years old now, and for most of his career, he has remained obsessively focused on two men: the city planner Robert Moses and President Lyndon Johnson. Yet his real subject is the nature of power in America, a theme that he has kept at the forefront of his work even at his bleakest moments. McGrath writes:

At the lowest point during the writing of The Power Broker, when Caro had run out of money and was close to despair about being able to finish, [Caro’s wife Ina] sold their house in suburban Long Island, moved the family…to an apartment in the Bronx and took a job teaching school to keep him going. “That was a bad time, a very bad time,” Caro recalled.

In an interview published this week with Rachel Syme of Matter, Caro goes into greater detail about this bad period:

This book took seven years. And money played a big part of this. We didn’t have any savings. I was a reporter. And I thought it was only going to take a year, so I couldn’t quit. I got a contract for $5,000, they gave me $2,500 as an advance. So I was trying for half the year to keep my job and work on the book, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. And I heard about a grant for one year, and I got it. And I remember I told Ina, we are finally going to get to go to France. I thought, they are giving me this money for a year, and this outline is only going to take me nine months! Of course at the end of the year, I’d hardly started, and we were just broke.

So Ina sold the house, but that only gave us — this was before the real estate boom — $25,000 of profit. That was enough to live for a year in an apartment in the Bronx. And then I was just totally broke, and Ina went to work. Then I got hurt and couldn’t get out of bed for a long time. So she had to stop and do the research.

Caro adds that he still remembers the exact amount of their monthly rent in those years—$362.73—because they constantly worried how to pay it, and that Ina began to take a circuitous route on her walk home to avoid passing the butcher and dry cleaner to whom they owed money.

Robert Moses

And here’s the quote that sticks in my head the most: “But I must say, for several years, I had very little hope of finishing the book,” Caro says. “When I thought about the book, I didn’t feel powerful. I believed no one was going to read it. And I was just thinking I have to finish, but I don’t know how we are going to make it.” The italics are mine. The Power Broker was written by a man who felt all but powerless, doubted that he would ever finish it, and feared that nobody would read the result even if he did. (Caro recalls: “All this time, all I’m hearing is nobody is going to read a book on Robert Moses, including from my first editor. He said, ‘It’s a good book, but nobody is going to read it. You have to prepare yourselves for a very small printing.'”) For a writer, that kind of financial squeeze, as I know from personal experience, enforces a relentless logic. You can quantify the cost of every wasted day—and, even more terrifyingly, of every day spent on real work. Caro realized, for instance, that in order to give the reader a full picture of Moses’s impact on the city, he had to tell the story of one of the neighborhoods that were destroyed. The result, “One Mile,” is one of the most powerful chapters in the book, and probably the first that most readers remember. Caro knew that it would take him six months to research and write, and he didn’t have the money or time. But he did it it anyway. When you take that kind of decision and multiply it by the scale of the book that he envisioned, you’ve got seven years spent in utter suspense over whether any of it would make a difference. It couldn’t have been less like the power that he was trying to describe.

But he pulled it off magnificently. And it’s an example that is worth remembering now more than ever. We’re entering a era in which the media will be forced to confront the rise to power of a man it resoundingly did not want to see in the White House. (Only two mainstream newspapers endorsed Donald Trump.) In the aftermath of the election, writers and journalists can’t be blamed for asking themselves how much power they really have, in the face of a post-truth environment in which fake news was just as influential as the real thing. The answer, honestly, is that they have almost none. Yet this might be the only position from which they can speak honestly about power itself. As Caro says to Matter: “You have to deal with the powerless. You couldn’t just write about how power works, you had to write about its effect on people who didn’t have power, both for good and for ill.” And it’s that invisible dynamic between the subject and its author—between one man of enormous power and another who could wield nothing but words—that made Caro’s work so enduring. The Power Broker is as massive a book as can be physically encompassed between two covers, and its scale, I think, was partly a result of Caro’s attempt to match himself to Moses. He might not have been able to build highways and bridges, but he could construct a book on the same scale. The result had a greater impact on Moses’s reputation than any of the monuments that he left to himself. It took Caro seven years, but he did it, starting from nothing. And we owe it to ourselves to do the same.

Written by nevalalee

November 18, 2016 at 8:16 am

Cutty Sark and the semicolon

with 2 comments

Vladimir Nabokov

In an interview that was first published in The Paris Review, the novelist Herbert Gold asked Vladimir Nabokov if an editor had ever offered him any useful advice. This is what Nabokov said in response:

By “editor” I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honor—which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous “stet!”

I’ve always adored that thunderous stet, which tells us so much about Nabokov and his imperious resistance to being edited by anybody. Today, however, I’m more interested in the previous sentence. A semicolon, as Nabokov puts it, can indeed be a point of honor. Nabokov was perhaps the most painstaking of all modern writers, and it’s no surprise that the same perfectionism that produced such conceptual and structural marvels as Lolita and Pale Fire would filter down to the smallest details. But I imagine that most authors can relate to how a single punctuation mark in a manuscript can start to loom as large as the finger of God in the Sistine Chapel.

And there’s something about the semicolon that seems to inspire tussles between writers and their editors—or at least allows it to stand as a useful symbol of the battles that can occur during the editorial process. Here’s an excerpt from a piece by Charles McGrath in The New York Times Magazine about the relationship between Robert Caro, author of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and his longtime editor Robert Gottlieb:

“You know that insane old expression, ‘The quality of his defect is the defect of his quality,’ or something like that?” Gottlieb asked me. “That’s really true of Bob. What makes him such a genius of research and reliability is that everything is of exactly the same importance to him. The smallest thing is as consequential as the biggest. A semicolon matters as much as, I don’t know, whether Johnson was gay. But unfortunately, when it comes to English, I have those tendencies, too, and we could go to war over a semicolon. That’s as important to me as who voted for what law.”

It’s possible that the semicolon keeps cropping up in such stories because its inherent ambiguity lends itself to disagreement. As Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” And I’ve more or less eliminated semicolons from my own work for much the same reason.

Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese on the set of Raging Bull

But the larger question here is why artists fixate on things that even the most attentive reader would pass over without noticing. On one level, you could take a fight over a semicolon as an illustration of the way that the creative act—in which the artist is immersed in the work for months on end—tends to turn mountains into molehills. Here’s one of my favorite stories about the making of Raging Bull:

One night, when the filmmakers were right up against the deadline to make their release date, they were working on a nothing little shot that takes place in a nightclub, where a minor character turns to the bartender and orders a Cutty Sark. “I can’t hear what he’s saying,” [Martin Scorsese] said. Fiddling ensued—extensive fiddling—without satisfying him. [Producer Irwin] Winkler, who was present, finally deemed one result good enough and pointed out that messengers were standing by to hand-carry release prints to the few theaters where the picture was about to premiere. At which point, Scorsese snapped. “I want my name taken off the picture,” he cried—which bespeaks his devotion to detail. It also bespeaks his exhaustion at the end of Raging Bull, not to mention the craziness that so often overtakes movies as they wind down. Needless to say, he was eventually placated. And you can more or less hear the line in the finished print.

And you could argue that this kind of microscopic attention is the only thing that can lead to a work that succeeds on the largest possible scale.

But there’s another story that gets closer to truth. In Existential Errands, Norman Mailer describes a bad period in his life—shortly after he was jailed for stabbing his second wife Adele—in which he found himself descending into alcoholism and unable to work. His only source of consolation were the scraps of paper, “little crossed communications from some wistful outpost of my mind,” that he would find in his jacket pocket after a drunken night. Mailer writes of these poems:

I would go to work, however, on my scraps of paper. They were all I had for work. I would rewrite them carefully, printing in longhand and ink, and I would spend hours whenever there was time going over these little poems…And since I wasn’t doing anything else very well in those days, I worked the poems over every chance I had. Sometimes a working day would go by, and I might put a space between two lines and remove a word. Maybe I was mending.

Which just reminds us that a seemingly minuscule change can be the result of a prolonged confrontation with the work as a whole. You can’t obsess over a semicolon without immersing yourself in the words around it, and there are times when you need such a focal point to structure your engagement with the rest. It’s a little like what is called a lakshya in yoga: the tiny spot on the body or in the mind on which you concentrate while meditating. In practice, the lakshya can be anything or nothing, but without it, your attention tends to drift. In art, it can be a semicolon, a word, or a line about Cutty Sark. It may not be much in itself. But when you need to tether yourself to something, even a semicolon can be a lifeline.

“The struggle with writing is over…”

with 6 comments

It goes without saying that if an ambitious young novelist could chose to have any career in American letters, it would be Philip Roth’s. Roth is unique in the history of contemporary literature in having peaked at three separate points, each time at a higher plateau than before: he was famous by his late twenties, had his first huge bestseller in his mid-thirties, and produced his most lasting string of masterpieces in his sixties. No other author in recent memory has managed to remain so relevant for so long, and these days, it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it ever again, at least not at Roth’s level of productivity and prominence. It’s not surprising, then, that his withdrawal from writing would be equally unprecedented: it was disclosed so casually, in an interview in French, that it took the rest of the world more than a month to realize that an announcement had even been made. But it’s clear now that he meant it. And the prospect of an author like Roth simply walking away from the craft that he’d mastered like few other authors of his era is enough to raise questions in the mind of anyone who hopes to follow, even in the most tentative way, in his imposing footsteps.

Roth’s announcement is so striking because we simply aren’t used to the idea of a writer retiring. Eminent novelists, in general, fall into one of three predictable categories. They can continue to produce handsome new volumes on a regular basis, like Updike, even if they no longer occupy quite the same cultural position they did in their prime; they can lapse into inactivity despite a protracted struggle to write, like Capote or Ellison; or they can settle into an extended, mysterious silence, like Salinger, who evidently continued writing every day at his comfortable home in New Hampshire. Roth, by contrast, is still more than physically and intellectually capable of producing quality work, but has concluded that it’s no longer worth the effort. And he should know: year after year, Roth worked harder than any other writer of his generation, aside perhaps from Bellow, at the problem of being a major novelist, and was never sidetracked, like Mailer, by journalistic or dilettantish distractions. He wrote standing up, like a surgeon, a symphony conductor, or Walter Murch at his editing machine. And although it may seem strange that he’d choose to step away now, part of me wonders if it isn’t, in fact, a perfectly sane decision.

Writing a novel is hugely difficult, even, or especially, if you’re good at it. “I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away,” Roth said to Charles McGrath of the New York Times. “I can’t do that anymore.” He knows as well as anyone that even if you’ve written thirty novels and gotten rich and famous in the process, that’s no guarantee that you can do it again tomorrow. Writing fiction is the best job in the world for those with the necessary temperament, but it’s also solitary, frustrating, and the source of endless psychological disquiet. It’s stranger, perhaps, to persist in courting such daily punishment when you’ve already accomplished all you could ever have reasonably expected. Far healthier, and more human, to live out your remaining days in peace, without staring down a blank page, to catch up on your reading and work on your memoirs and learn how to use an iPhone. It’s liberating in a way that writing always promises, but can never quite deliver, and we can glimpse something of that liberation in the note posted to Roth’s computer: “The struggle with writing is over.”

Whether it lasts is another question entirely. As Roth has made clear in his Times interview, he has plenty of other projects in the meantime: he’s collaborating on a novella with a former girlfriend’s eight-year-old daughter, and is writing up voluminous notes for Blake Bailey, his biographer, even if Bailey admits that he won’t be able to get through them all for years. If writing a novel is hard labor, these are the literary equivalents of play, and I’d like to see Roth pursue them with joy and serenity—which may be his last great experiment. Every writer, I suspect, secretly hopes that one day he’ll write the one perfect, definitive novel that will finally allow him to rest. Most of us eventually conclude that it isn’t going to happen: we’re too used to striving, and too critical of all we’ve done in the past, to be content with what we’ve accomplished. But for the sake of those of us who still dream, irrationally, that some measure of peace and tranquillity will be there for us in the end, I really hope that Roth does it. Even if it only took him half a century to get there.

Written by nevalalee

November 19, 2012 at 9:50 am

%d bloggers like this: