Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Emerson Spartz

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In John McPhee’s excellent new book on writing, Draft No. 4, which I mentioned here the other day, he shares an anecdote about his famous profile of the basketball player Bill Bradley. McPhee was going over a draft with William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker, “talking three-two zones, blind passes, reverse pivots, and the setting of picks,” when he realized that he had overlooked something important:

For some reason—nerves, what else?—I had forgotten to find a title before submitting the piece. Editors of every ilk seem to think that titles are their prerogative—that they can buy a piece, cut the title off the top, and lay on one of their own. When I was young, this turned my skin pink and caused horripilation. I should add that I encountered such editors almost wholly at magazines other than The New YorkerVogue, Holiday, the Saturday Evening Post. The title is an integral part of a piece of writing, and one of the most important parts, and ought not to be written by anyone but the writer of what follows the title. Editors’ habit of replacing an author’s title with one of their own is like a photo of a tourist’s head on the cardboard body of Mao Zedong. But the title missing on the Bill Bradley piece was my oversight. I put no title on the manuscript. Shawn did. He hunted around in the text and found six words spoken by the subject, and when I saw the first New Yorker proof the piece was called “A Sense of Where You Are.”

The dynamic that McPhee describes at other publications still exists today—I’ve occasionally bristled at the titles that have appeared over the articles that I’ve written, which is a small part of the reason that I’ve moved most of my nonfiction onto this blog. (The freelance market also isn’t what it used to be, but that’s a subject for another post.) But a more insidious factor has invaded even the august halls of The New Yorker, and it has nothing to do with the preferences of any particular editor. Opening the most recent issue, for instance, I see that there’s an article by Jia Tolentino titled “Safer Spaces.” On the magazine’s website, it becomes “Is There a Smarter Way to Think About Sexual Assault on Campus?”, with a line at the bottom noting that it appears in the print edition under its alternate title. Joshua Rothman’s “Jambusters” becomes “Why Paper Jams Persist.” A huge piece by David Grann, “The White Darkness,” which seems destined to get optioned for the movies, earns slightly more privileged treatment, and it merely turns into “The White Darkness: A Journey Across Antarctica.” But that’s the exception. When I go back to the previous issue, I find that the same pattern holds true. Michael Chabon’s “The Recipe for Life” is spared, but David Owen’s “The Happiness Button” is retitled “Customer Satisfaction at the Push of a Button,” Rachel Aviv’s “The Death Debate” becomes “What Does It Mean to Die?”, and Ian Frazier’s “Airborne” becomes “The Trippy, High-Speed World of Drone Racing.” Which suggests to me that if McPhee’s piece appeared online today, it would be titled something like “Basketball Player Bill Bradley’s Sense of Where He Is.” And that’s if he were lucky.

The reasoning here isn’t a mystery. Headlines are written these days to maximize clicks and shares, and The New Yorker isn’t immune, even if it sometimes raises an eyebrow. Back in 2014, Maria Konnikova wrote an article for the magazine’s website titled “The Six Things That Make Stories Go Viral Will Amaze, and Maybe Infuriate, You,” in which she explained one aspect of the formula for online headlines: “The presence of a memory-inducing trigger is also important. We share what we’re thinking about—and we think about the things we can remember.” Viral headlines can’t be allusive, make a clever play on words, or depend on an evocative reference—they have to spell everything out. (To build on McPhee’s analogy, it’s less like a tourist’s face on the cardboard body of Mao Zedong than an oversized foam head of Mao himself.) A year later, The New Yorker ran an article by Andrew Marantz on the virality expert Emerson Spartz, and it amazed and maybe infuriated me. I’ve written about this profile elsewhere, but looking it over again now, my eye was caught by these lines:

Much of the company’s success online can be attributed to a proprietary algorithm that it has developed for “headline testing”—a practice that has become standard in the virality industry…Spartz’s algorithm measures which headline is attracting clicks most quickly, and after a few hours, when a statistically significant threshold is reached, the “winning” headline automatically supplants all others. “I’m really, really good at writing headlines,” he told me.

And it’s worth noting that while Marantz’s piece appeared in print as “The Virologist,” in an online search, it pops up as “King of Clickbait.” Even as the magazine gently mocked Spartz, it took his example to heart.

None of this is exactly scandalous, but when you think of a title as “an integral part of a piece of writing,” as McPhee does, it’s undeniably sad. There isn’t any one title for an article anymore, and most readers will probably only see its online incarnation. And this isn’t because of an editor’s tastes, but the result of an impersonal set of assumptions imposed on the entire industry. Emerson Spartz got his revenge on The New Yorker—he effectively ended up writing its headlines. And while I can’t blame any media company for doing whatever it can to stay viable, it’s also a real loss. McPhee is right when he says that selecting a title is an important part of the process, and in a perfect world, it would be left up to the writer. (It can even lead to valuable insights in itself. When I was working on my article on the fiction of L. Ron Hubbard, I was casting about randomly for a title when I came up with “Xenu’s Paradox.” I didn’t know what it meant, but it led me to start thinking about the paradoxical aspects of Hubbard’s career, and the result was a line of argument that ended up being integral not just to the article, but to the ensuing book. And I was amazed when it survived intact on Longreads.) When you look at the grindingly literal, unpoetic headlines that currently populate the homepage of The New Yorker, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for an era in which an editor might nudge a title in the opposite direction. In 1966, when McPhee delivered a long piece on oranges in Florida, William Shawn read it over, focused on a quotation from the poet Andrew Marvell, and called it “Golden Lamps in a Green Night.” McPhee protested, and the article was finally published under the title that he had originally wanted. It was called “Oranges.”

Written by nevalalee

February 16, 2018 at 8:50 am

The AutoContent Wizard, Part 2

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Smerdis

Herodotus, a historian who makes up for his frequent lack of accuracy with his fondness for a good yarn, tells a strange story about Smerdis, a king who once ruled some of the far eastern provinces of the First Persian Empire. During a political intrigue, Smerdis was assassinated, but information in those days didn’t travel particularly quickly, so none of his subjects knew that he had died. As a result, his place was taken by an enterprising magician, also known in some sources as Smerdis, who ruled the kingdom for seven months, pretending to be the old king, before being killed himself in a palace coup. I thought of this story—which I first encountered in a passing reference to “the imposter magician Smerdis” in Jorge Luis Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”—while I was writing yesterday’s blog post about PowerPoint, since it seemed like a good analogy for our current situation. We’re told repeatedly that content is king, but the king’s place has really been usurped by our own imposter magician: the AutoContent Wizard and his descendants. It’s the kind of “content” that renders all ideas equal, as long as they fit within the existing template, and it’s no accident that such sites tend to be built by entrepreneurs whose success or failure hinges on their ability to use PowerPoint to convince investors to give them money. A deck isn’t just a tool; it’s part of the foundational myth of these companies. And the content that we get from this mentality is more or less exactly what you’d expect.

Take Emerson Spartz, the tech entrepreneur who created the Harry Potter site MuggleNet, but who has since thrown in his loyalty to a different sort of wizard. Spartz, who has since founded such viral content generators as Memestache and GivesMeHope, is a master of the PowerPoint deck. Earlier this year, a New Yorker profile by Andrew Marantz, which still makes my blood boil whenever I read it, described a talk that he gave at the Millennial Impact Conference, the first slide of which read: “Hi! I’m Emerson Spartz. I want to change the world.” The presentation included the kind of short, pithy tips, legible in thirty-point type, of which such decks are made: “Try to change every comma to a period.” “Use lists whenever possible. Lists just hijack the brain’s neural circuitry.” And Spartz seems serenely convinced that there’s no subject so complicated that it can’t be shoehorned into a viral format:

If I were running a more hard-news-oriented media company and I wanted to inform people about Uganda, first, I would look it up and find out exactly what’s going on there. Then I would find a few really poignant images or story lines, ones that create a lot of resonant emotion, and I would make those into a short video—under three minutes—with clear, simple words and statistics. Short, declarative sentences. And at the end I’d give people something they can do, something to feel hopeful about.

Emerson Spartz

And while we might think that such sites are simply giving readers what they want, there’s a critical point to be made here, which is where the AutoContent Wizard analogy really shines: like PowerPoint, formats like the slideshow and listicle aren’t made for the enjoyment of the audience, but for the convenience of the creator. Content mills that churn out dozens of articles every day, most consisting of material appropriated from other news sites with minimal attribution, need a few basic templates into which stories can be repackaged without conscious effort. A string of images and captions joined by a loose theme, like celebrity hairstyles, is about as mindless a format as could be imagined, and a writer can crank out ten of these in the time it would take to write a single well-considered article. Content generation is a numbers game: if one piece out in a thousand goes viral, you throw as much as possible at the wall to see what sticks, and the advantage lies with models that can ramp up the number in the denominator. The fact that the result is relatively painless to read is a fortunate side effect, but it’s incidental, or one of many factors under consideration. Like fast food, it’s calibrated just as much for cost, convenience, and volume as it is for the fact that it goes down easy. And while I enjoy a Big Mac as much as anyone, there’s no question that it takes up too much of our diet these days.

So how do we depose our imposter king? The first step is to acknowledge the AutoContent Wizard for what he is: an invention of content producers, who have an enormous incentive to convince us, the consumers, that this is what we like. The second step, I’d argue, is to make finer distinctions of quality between the kind of content we read—not just between listicles and longreads, which anyone can do, but between good listicles and bad ones. (As a rule of thumb, if an article just repackages content from elsewhere, it’s probably not worth your attention: like a copy of a copy, the details are degraded each time it gets reproduced.) There are funny, artful listicles and slideshows, and there’s no shame in using them to kill time, as long as you aren’t also killing journalism in the process. The listicle model isn’t going away, so the least we can do is draw a line between those that use the format to entertain, divert, and even inform us and those that utilize the template to generate empty clickbait. This may seem like a tenuous point, but Pauline Kael’s reminder holds as true here as it does anywhere else: “Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.” Or, as Robinson Davies put it: “God save us from reading nothing but the best.” Not every article has to change lives, but the AutoContent Wizard is gambling precisely on our inability to tell the difference between real entertainment and its simulation. And we shouldn’t be shy about pointing fingers. As Lucy Lawless once said on The Simpsons: “Whenever you notice something like that, a wizard did it.”

Written by nevalalee

September 22, 2015 at 9:39 am

A resolution to read

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The author's daughter

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What’s your pop culture resolution for 2015?”

I can’t remember not being able to read. The thought of making time in my life for books has always seemed vaguely redundant, like making time to breathe. Growing up, I was often scolded for bringing a book to the dinner table, much as kids these days need to be told to put down their phones, and I read everywhere—in bed, on the train, sometimes even while walking down the street. Looking around now, though, I find that I rarely sit down for the kind of extended encounter that a good book demands. I read a lot of nonfiction this year, mostly in service of one writing project or another, but embarrassingly few novels: unless I’m forgetting a few, which I doubt, I only managed to get through Ada by Nabokov, Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan, Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, and the first half of The Goldfinch, although I also found time to revisit Black Sunday and The Magus. I can chalk part of this up to the ongoing shift in my consumption of art and pop culture since the birth of my daughter: I watched a ton of television, didn’t play any video games, and only made it to theaters for Interstellar. And don’t even get me started on live music or theater.

But the relative absence of books from the picture feels different, and more troubling. In a sense, it’s only an extension of a trend that began long before my daughter came along. I spent my twenties living alone in New York, and I read a lot. After giving up on my first attempt at writing a novel, I spent the ensuing year reading everything I thought I should have read but hadn’t, reasoning that it was infinitely easier to get through Paradise Lost and War and Peace than to write even the most trivial piece of fiction on my own. I also had a regular commute on the subway for close to four years, during which I read thousands of pages—I even picked up a complete set of the Yale Shakespeare paperbacks because I could hold them in one hand, and made it all the way from Henry VI, Part I through The Two Noble Kinsmen. Working from home, and later my marriage, changed the dynamic considerably, since I wanted to spend my evenings in other ways. I still loved buying books, though, so I inevitably became more of a browser. And there are times when I think that my extended defense of browsing as a pursuit is less a meaningful argument in itself than a justification of my own habits. Browsing, by definition, demands very little; it has its rewards, but prolonged immersion and engagement aren’t among them.

The author's daughter

To the extent that I have a resolution for the new year, then, it’s to reincorporate books, especially fiction, into my life in a more deliberate way. As much as I complain about not having any free time, with a toddler and an unfinished draft competing for every spare minute, that isn’t really true—there’s usually an hour or more each evening, after Beatrix has gone to bed and the day’s work is done, that I could spend with a book, rather than opening up my laptop while listening to a Lord of the Rings commentary track for the third time. There are countless novels, both old and new, screaming at me from the shelves: I’m a third of the way through James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, and I’ve been guiltily avoiding titles as different as The Group and Life: A User’s Manual. Part of me suspects that I’ve loved books for so long because I was able to take them for granted; when I shook my head over studies showing that a third of all adults in the United States haven’t read a book since high school, there was something smug about it, like being proud of being able to eat as much as you want because you were born with a good metabolism. But just as I’ve had to think more about diet and exercise than I did in my teens, I’ve also got to be conscious about staying healthy in other ways, starting with how I spend my time.

This also ties in with my other resolution for the year, which is to teach my daughter how to read. It’s a little premature: she’s only two, and I don’t want to shorten the necessary, and beautiful, stage when I’m reading to her aloud—or, even more crucially, telling her stories without any books at all. But I also want her to take reading for granted, just as I did, and in the face of greater challenges: the number of screens competing for her attention seems to grow by the day, and I can’t hold them back forever. Books are inevitably going to be a big part of her life; in this house, here’s no escaping them. And introducing them to her now, as we look at them side by side, feels like the greatest gift I can ever offer, even if it’s up to her to decide how much a part of her life they’ll be later on. (I can’t help but thinking of the recent New Yorker profile of the meme king Emerson Spartz, who loved the Harry Potter series enough to found MuggleNet when he was twelve years old, only to declare a kind of dismissive war on books of all kinds as an adult.) In any case, if I do teach Beatrix how to read this year, it’ll be for my sake as much as for hers. I’ve lived among books like a fish lives in water, but it’s time that both of us really learned, or remembered, how to swim.

Written by nevalalee

January 2, 2015 at 9:32 am

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