Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘David Remnick

Sci-Fi and Si

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In 1959, the newspaper magnate Samuel I. Newhouse allegedly asked his wife Mitzi what she wanted for their upcoming wedding anniversary. When she told him that she wanted Vogue, he bought all of Condé Nast. At the time, the publishing firm was already in negotiations to acquire the titles of the aging Street & Smith, and Newhouse, its new owner, inherited this transaction. Here’s how Carol Felsenthal describes the deal in Citizen Newhouse:

For $4 million [Newhouse] bought Charm, Living for Young Homemakers, and Mademoiselle. (Also included were five sports annuals, which he ignored, allowing them to continue to operate with a minimal staff and low-overhead offices—separate from Condé Nast’s—and to earn a small but steady profit.) He ordered that Charm be folded into Glamour. Living for Young Homemakers become House & Garden Guides. Mademoiselle was allowed to survive because its audience was younger and better educated than Glamour’s; Mademoiselle was aimed at the college girl, Glamour at the secretary.

Newhouse’s eldest son, who was known as Si, joined Glamour at the age of thirty-five, and within a few years, he was promoted to oversee all the company’s magazines. When he passed away yesterday, as his obituary in the Times notes, he was a media titan “who as the owner of The New Yorker, Vogue, Vanity Fair, Architectural Digest and other magazines wielded vast influence over American culture, fashion and social taste.”

What this obituary—and all the other biographies that I’ve seen—fails to mention is that when the Newhouses acquired Street & Smith, they also bought Astounding Science Fiction. In the context of two remarkably busy lives, this merits little more than a footnote, but it was a significant event in the career of John W. Campbell and, by extension, the genre as a whole. In practice, Campbell was unaffected by the change in ownership, and he joked that he employed Condé Nast to get his ideas out, rather than the other way around. (Its most visible impact was a brief experiment with a larger format, allowing the magazine to sell ads to technical advertisers that didn’t make smaller printing plates, but the timing was lousy, and it was discontinued after two years.) But it also seems to have filled him with a sense of legitimacy. Campbell, like his father, had an uncritical admiration for businessmen—capitalism was the one orthodoxy that he took at face value—and from his new office in the Graybar Building on Lexington Avenue, he continued to identify with his corporate superiors. When Isaac Asimov tried to pick up a check at lunch, Campbell pinned his hand to the table: “Never argue with a giant corporation, Isaac.” And when a fan told him that he had written a story, but wasn’t sure whether it was right for the magazine, Campbell drew himself up: “And since when does the Condé Nast Publications, Incorporated pay you to make editorial decisions?” In fact, the change in ownership seems to have freed him up to make the title change that he had been contemplating for years. Shortly after the sale, Astounding became Analog, much to the chagrin of longtime fans.

Some readers discerned more sinister forces at work. In the memorial essay collection John W. Campbell: An Australian Tribute, the prominent fan Redd Boggs wrote: “What indulgent publisher is this who puts out and puts up with Campbell’s personal little journal, his fanzine?…One was astounded to see the magazine plunge along as hardily as ever after Condé Nast and Samuel I. Newhouse swallowed up and digested Street & Smith.” He went on to answer his own question:

We are making a mistake when we think of Analog as a science fiction magazine and of John W. Campbell as an editor. The financial backer or backers of Analog obviously do not think that way. They regard Analog first and foremost as a propaganda mill for the right wing, and Campbell as a propagandist of formidable puissance and persuasiveness. The stories, aside from those which echo Campbell’s own ideas, are only incidental to the magazine, the bait that lures the suckers. Analog’s raison d’être is Campbell’s editorials. If Campbell died, retired, or backslid into rationality, the magazine would fold instantly…

Campbell is a precious commodity indeed, a clever and indefatigable propagandist for the right wing, much superior in intelligence and persuasive powers to, say, William F. Buckley, and he works for bargain basement prices at that. And if our masters are as smart as I think they are…I feel sure that they would know how to cherish such heaven-sent gifts, even as I would.

This is an ingenious argument, and I almost want to believe it, if only because it makes science fiction seem as important as it likes to see itself. In reality, it seems likely that Si Newhouse barely thought about Analog at all, which isn’t to say that he wasn’t aware of it. His Times obituary notes: “He claimed to read every one of his magazines—they numbered more than fifteen—from cover to cover.” This conjures up the interesting image of Newhouse reading the first installment of Dune and the latest update on the Dean Drive, although it’s hard to imagine that he cared. Campbell—who must have existed as a wraith in the peripheral vision of Diana Vreeland of Vogue, who worked in the same building for nearly a decade—was allowed to run the magazine on his own, and it was tolerated as along as it remained modestly profitable. Newhouse’s own interests ran less to science fiction than toward what David Remnick describes as “gangster pictures, romantic comedies, film noir, silent comedies, the avant-garde.” (He did acquire Wired, but his most profound impact on our future was one that nobody could have anticipated—it was his idea to publish Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal.) When you love science fiction, it can seem like nothing else matters, but it hardly registers in the life of someone like Newhouse. We don’t know what Campbell thought of him, but I suspect that he wished that they had been closer. Campbell wanted nothing more than to bring his notions, like psionics, to a wider audience, and he spent the last decade of his career with a publishing magnate within view but tantalizingly out of reach—and his name was even “Psi.”

Writing with scissors

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Over the last few years, one of my great pleasures has been reading the articles on writing that John McPhee has been contributing on an annual basis to The New Yorker. I’ve written here about my reactions to McPhee’s advice on using the dictionary, on “greening” or cutting a piece by an arbitrary length, on structure, on frames of reference. Now his full book on the subject is here, Draft No. 4, and it’s arriving in my life at an opportune time. I’m wrapping up a draft of my own book, with two months to go before deadline, and I have a daunting set of tasks ahead of me—responding to editorial comments, preparing the notes and bibliography, wrestling the whole thing down to size. McPhee’s reasonable voice is a balm at such times, although he never minimizes the difficulty of the process itself, which he calls “masochistic, mind-fracturing self-enslaved labor,” even as he speaks of the writer’s “animal sense of being hunted.” And when you read Sam Anderson’s wonderful profile on McPhee in this week’s issue of The New York Times Magazine, it’s like listening to an old soldier who has been in combat so many times that everything that he says carries the weight of long experience. (Reading it, I was reminded a little of the film editor Walter Murch, whom McPhee resembles in certain ways—they look sort of alike, they’re both obsessed with structure, and they both seem to know everything. I was curious to see whether anyone else had made this connection, so I did a search for their names together on Google. Of the first five results, three were links from this blog.)

Anderson’s article offers us the portrait of a man who, at eighty-six, has done a better job than just about anyone else of organizing his own brain: “Each of those years seems to be filed away inside of him, loaded with information, ready to access.” I would have been equally pleased to learn that McPhee was as privately untidy as his writing is intricately patterned, but it makes sense that his interest in problems of structure—to which he returns endlessly—would manifest itself in his life and conversation. He’s interested in structure in the same way that the rest of us are interested in the lives of our own children. I never tire of hearing how writers deal with structural issues, and I find passages like the following almost pornographically fascinating:

The process is hellacious. McPhee gathers every single scrap of reporting on a given project—every interview, description, stray thought and research tidbit—and types all of it into his computer. He studies that data and comes up with organizing categories: themes, set pieces, characters and so on. Each category is assigned a code. To find the structure of a piece, McPhee makes an index card for each of his codes, sets them on a large table and arranges and rearranges the cards until the sequence seems right. Then he works back through his mass of assembled data, labeling each piece with the relevant code. On the computer, a program called “Structur” arranges these scraps into organized batches, and McPhee then works sequentially, batch by batch, converting all of it into prose. (In the old days, McPhee would manually type out his notes, photocopy them, cut up everything with scissors, and sort it all into coded envelopes. His first computer, he says, was “a five-thousand-dollar pair of scissors.”)

Anderson writes: “[McPhee] is one of the world’s few remaining users of a program called Kedit, which he writes about, at great length, in Draft No. 4.” The phrase “at great length” excites me tremendously—I’m at a point in my life where I’d rather hear about a writer’s favorite software program than his or her inspirational  thoughts on creativity—and McPhee’s process doesn’t sound too far removed from the one that I’ve worked out for myself. As I read it, though, I found myself thinking in passing of what might be lost when you move from scissors to a computer. (Scissors appear in the toolboxes of many of the writers and artists I admire. In The Elements of Style, E.B. White advises: “Quite often the writer will discover, on examining the completed work, that there are serious flaws in the arrangement of the material, calling for transpositions. When this is the case, he can save himself much labor and time by using scissors on his manuscript, cutting it to pieces and fitting the pieces together in a better order.” In The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr describes the narrative challenges of filmmaking in the early fifties and concludes: “The problem was solved, more or less, with a scissors.” And Paul Klee once wrote in his diary: “What I don’t like, I cut away with the scissors.”) But McPhee isn’t sentimental about the tools themselves. In Anderson’s profile, the New Yorker editor David Remnick, who took McPhee’s class at Princeton, recalls: “You were in the room with a craftsman of the art, rather than a scholar or critic—to the point where I remember him passing around the weird mechanical pencils he used to use.” Yet there’s no question in my mind that McPhee would drop that one brand of pencil if he found one that he thought was objectively better. As soon as he had Kedit, he got rid of the scissors. When you’re trying to rethink structure from the ground up, you don’t have much time for nostalgia.

And when McPhee explains the rationale behind his methods, you can hear the pragmatism of fifty years of hard experience:

If this sounds mechanical, its effect was absolutely the reverse. If the contents of the seventh folder were before me, the contents of twenty-nine other folders were out of sight. Every organizational aspect was behind me. The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated only the material I had to deal with in a given day or week. It painted me into a corner, yes, but in doing so it freed me to write.

This amounts to an elaboration of what I’ve elsewhere called my favorite piece of writing advice, which David Mamet offers in Some Freaks:

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

Mamet might as well have come out of the same box as Walter Murch and McPhee, which implies that I have a definite type when it comes to looking for advice. And what they all have in common, besides the glasses and beard, is the air of having labored at a craft for decades, survived, and returned to tell the tale. Of the three, McPhee’s career may be the most enviable of all, if only because he spent it in Princeton, not Hollywood. It’s nice to be able to structure an essay. The tricky part is structuring a life.

Malcolm in the Middle

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Malcolm Gladwell

Last week, the journalism blog Our Bad Media accused the author Malcolm Gladwell of lapses in reporting that it alleged fell just short of plagiarism. In multiple instances, Gladwell took details in his pieces for The New Yorker, without attribution, from sources that were the only possible places where such information could have been obtained. For instance, an anecdote about the construction of the Troy-Greenfield railroad was based closely an academic article by the historian John Sawyer, which isn’t readily available online, and which includes facts that appear nowhere else. Gladwell doesn’t mention Sawyer anywhere. And while it’s hard to make a case that any of this amounts to plagiarism in the strictest sense, it’s undeniably sloppy, as well as a disservice to readers who might want to learn more. In a statement responding to the allegations, New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote:

The issue is not really about Malcolm. And, to be clear, it isn’t about plagiarism. The issue is an ongoing editorial challenge known to writers and editors everywhere—to what extent should a piece of journalism, which doesn’t have the apparatus of academic footnotes, credit secondary sources? It’s an issue that can get complicated when there are many sources with overlapping information. There are cases where the details of an episode have passed into history and are widespread in the literature. There are cases that involve a unique source. We try to make judgments about source attribution with fairness and in good faith. But we don’t always get it right…We sometimes fall short, but our hope is always to give readers and sources the consideration they deserve.

Remnick’s response is interesting on a number of levels, but I’d like to focus on one aspect: the idea that after a certain point, details “have passed into history,” or, to quote Peter Canby, The New Yorker‘s own director of fact checking, a quote or idea can “escape its authorship” after it has been disseminated widely enough. In some cases, there’s no ambiguity over whether a fact has the status of public information; if we want to share a famous story about Immanuel Kant’s work habits, for instance, we don’t necessarily need to trace the quote back to where it first appeared. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have something like a quotation from a particular interview with a living person, which ought to be attributed to its original source, and which Gladwell has occasionally failed to do. And in the middle, we have a wild gray area of factual information that might be considered common property, but which has only appeared in a limited number of places. Evidently, there’s a threshold—or, if you like, a tipping point—at which a fact or quote has been cited enough to take on a life of its own, and the real question is when that moment takes place.

Ian McEwan

It’s especially complicated in genres like fiction and narrative nonfiction, which, as Remnick notes, lack the scholarly apparatus of more academic writing. A few years ago, Ian McEwan fell into an absurd controversy over details in Atonement that were largely derived from a memoir by the wartime nurse Lucilla Andrews. McEwan credits Andrews in his acknowledgments, and his use of such materials inspired a ringing defense from none other than Thomas Pynchon:

Unless we were actually there, we must turn to people who were, or to letters, contemporary reporting, the encyclopedia, the Internet, until, with luck, at some point, we can begin to make a few things of our own up. To discover in the course of research some engaging detail we know can be put into a story where it will do some good can hardly be classed as a felonious act—it is simply what we do.

You could argue, on a similar level, that assimilating information and presenting it in a readable form is simply what Gladwell does, too. Little if anything that Gladwell writes is based on original research; he’s a popularizer, and a brilliant one, who compiles ideas from other sources and presents them in an attractive package. The result shades into a form of creative writing, rather than straight journalism, and at that point, the attribution of sources indeed starts to feel like a judgment call.

But it also points to a limitation in the kind of writing that Gladwell does so well. As I’ve pointed out in my own discussion of the case of Jonah Lehrer, whose transgressions were significantly more troubling, there’s tremendous pressure on writers like Gladwell—a public figure and a brand name as much as a writer—to produce big ideas on a regular basis. At times, this leads him to spread himself a little too thin; a lot of his recent work consists of him reading a single book and delivering its insights with a Gladwellian twist. At his best, he adds real value as a synthesizer and interpreter, but he’s also been guilty of distorting the underlying material in his efforts to make it digestible. And a great deal of what makes his pieces so seductive lies in the fact that so much of the process has been erased: they come to us as seamless products, ready for a TED talk, that elide the messy work of consolidation and selection. If Gladwell was more open about his sources, he’d be more useful, but also less convincing. Which may be why the tension between disclosure and readability that Remnick describes is so problematic in his case. Gladwell really ought to show his work, but he’s made it this far precisely because he doesn’t.

Quote of the Day

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Obama admitted to [Jerry] Kellman that he had another motivation for wanting to be an organizer on the South Side. He was thinking about being a novelist. “He told me that he had trouble writing, he had to force himself to write,” Kellman said. He was looking not only for experience, an identity, and a community; he was also in search of material.

—David Remnick, The Bridge

Written by nevalalee

May 2, 2011 at 7:06 am

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