Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘F. Scott Fitzgerald

Quote of the Day

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Premature success gives one an almost mystical conception of destiny as opposed to willpower—at its worst the Napoleonic delusion. The man who arrives young believes that he exercises his will because his star is shining. The man who only asserts himself at thirty has a balanced idea of what willpower and fate have each contributed, the one who gets there at forty is liable to put the emphasis on will alone. This comes out when the storms strike your craft.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Early Success”

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January 24, 2018 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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This is what I think now: that the natural state of the sentient adult is a qualified unhappiness. I think also that in an adult the desire to be finer in grain than you are, “a constant striving” (as those people say who gain their bread by saying it) only adds to this unhappiness in the end—that end that comes to our youth and hope. My own happiness in the past often approached such an ecstasy that I could not share it even with the person dearest to me but had to walk it away in quiet streets and lanes with only fragments of it to distill into little lines in books—and I think that my happiness, or talent for self-delusion or what you will, was an exception.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up

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November 14, 2017 at 7:30 am

Shakespeare and the art of revision

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The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare

Note: I’m taking the day off, so I’m republishing a piece from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on April 22, 2016.

When we think of William Shakespeare, we don’t tend to see him as an author who meticulously revised his work. His reputation as a prodigy of nature, pouring out raw poetry onto the page, owes a lot to Ben Jonson’s short reminiscence of his friend, which is still the most valuable portrait we have of how Shakespeare seemed to those who knew him best:

I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, “Would he had blotted a thousand,” which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by wherein he most faulted; and to justify mine own candor, for I loved the man, and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any. He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped…His wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too…But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.

And even Shakespeare’s admirers admit that his sheer imaginative fertility—the greatest of any writer who ever lived—led him to produce bad lines as well as good, often side by side. (My favorite example is the last stanza of “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” I don’t think it’s possible to read “For these dead birds sigh a prayer” as anything other than one of the worst lines of poetry ever written.)

But he did revise, both on the overarching levels of character and theme and on the level of the individual line. Harold Bloom, among others, has advanced the ingenious theory that the lost Ur-Hamlet, which we know only through offhand references by contemporaries, was nothing less than an early draft by the young Shakespeare himself. We know that it wasn’t particularly good: the author Thomas Lodge refers to the king’s ghost crying “Hamlet, revenge!” in a way that implies that it became a running joke among theatergoers. But the idea that Shakespeare went back and revised it so many years later is inherently revealing. We know that the story was personally meaningful to him—he named his own son after Hamlet—and that the lost version would have been one of the first plays he ever wrote. And Hamlet itself, when we read it in this light, looks a lot like a play that found its final form through repeated acts of revision. F. Scott Fitzgerald once called himself a “taker-outer,” while his friend Thomas Wolfe was a “putter-inner,” which prompted Wolfe to reply:

You say that the great writer like Flaubert has consciously left out the stuff that Bill or Joe will come along presently and put in. Well, don’t forget, Scott, that a great writer is not only a leaver-outer but also a putter-inner, and that Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dostoevsky were great putter-inners—greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers and will be remembered for what they put in—remembered, I venture to say, as long as Monsieur Flaubert will be remembered for what he left out.

And Hamlet stands as the one instance in which Shakespeare, while revising the first draft, put in everything he wanted, even if the result was close to unplayable on stage.

Timon of Athens

There’s an even more compelling glimpse of Shakespeare the reviser, and it comes in the unlikely form of Timon of Athens, which, by all measure, was the weirdest play he ever wrote. Scholars have attributed its stranger qualities—the loose ends, the characters who are introduced only to disappear for no reason—to a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, and textual analysis seems to bear this out. But it also looks like a rough draft that Shakespeare never had a chance to revise, and if we take it as a kind of snapshot of his creative process, it’s a document of unbelievable importance. In the speech by the servant that I’ve reproduced above, you can see that it starts out as prose, then shifts halfway through to verse, a peculiar transition that occurs repeatedly in Timon but has few parallels in the other plays. This suggests that Shakespeare began by roughing out large sections of the play in prose form, and then went back to convert it into poetry. Timon just happens to be the one play in which the process of revision was interrupted, leaving the work in an unfinished state. It implies that Shakespeare’s approach wasn’t so different from the one that I’ve advocated here in the past: you write an entire first draft before going back to polish it, just as a painter might do a sketch or cartoon of the whole canvas before drilling down to the fine details. It isn’t until you’ve written a story that you know what it’s really about. And the little that we know about Shakespeare’s methods seems to confirm that he followed this approach.

But his revisions didn’t end there, either. These plays were meant for performance, and like all theatrical works, they evolved in response to rehearsals, the needs of the actors, and the reactions of the audience. (The natural fluidity of the text on the stage goes a long way toward explaining why certain plays, like King Lear, exist in radically different versions in folio or quarto form. Some scholars seem bewildered by the fact that Shakespeare could be so indifferent to his own work that he didn’t bother to finalize a definitive version of Lear, but it may not have even struck him as a problem. The plays took different shapes in response to the needs of the moment, and Shakespeare, the ultimate pragmatist, knew that there was always more where that came from.) And the idea of ongoing revision is inseparable from his conception of the world. Bloom famously talks about Shakespearean characters “overhearing” themselves, which lies at the center of his imaginative achievement: figures like Richard II and Hamlet seem to listen to themselves speaking, and they evolve and deepen before our eyes in response to what they hear in their own words. But what Bloom calls “the depiction of self-change on the basis of self-overhearing” is a lesson that could only have come out of the revision process, in which the writer figures out his own feelings through the act of rewriting. As E.M. Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel: “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” Shakespeare knew this, too. And thanks to his work—and his revisions—we can echo it in our own lives: “How can we know who we are until we hear what we think?”

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September 1, 2017 at 8:03 am

Quote of the Day

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James Thurber

As brevity is the soul of wit, form, it seems to me, is the heart of humor and the salvation of comedy. “You are a putter in, and I am a taker out,” Scott Fitzgerald once wrote to Thomas Wolfe. Fitzgerald was not a master of comedy, but in his dedication to taking out, he stated the case for form as against flow.

James Thurber, Lanterns & Lances

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February 28, 2017 at 7:30 am

Gatsby’s fortune and the art of ambiguity

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F. Scott Fitzgerald

Note: I’m taking a short break this week, so I’ll be republishing a few posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on July 17, 2015. 

In November 1924, the editor Maxwell Perkins received the manuscript of a novel tentatively titled Trimalchio in West Egg. He loved the book—he called it “extraordinary” and “magnificent”—but he also had a perceptive set of notes for its author. Here are a few of them:

Among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital—I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him—Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery, i.e. more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken. Couldn’t he be physically described as distinctly as the others, and couldn’t you add one or two characteristics like the use of that phrase “old sport”—not verbal, but physical ones, perhaps…

The other point is also about Gatsby: his career must remain mysterious, of course…Now almost all readers numerically are going to feel puzzled by his having all this wealth and are going to feel entitled to an explanation. To give a distinct and definite one would be, of course, utterly absurd. It did occur to me, thought, that you might here and there interpolate some phrases, and possibly incidents, little touches of various kinds, that would suggest that he was in some active way mysteriously engaged.

The novel, of course, ultimately appeared under the title The Great Gatsby, and before it was published, F. Scott Fitzgerald took many of the notes from Perkins to heart, adding more descriptive material on Gatsby himself—along with several repetitions of the phrase “old sport”—and the sources of his mysterious fortune. Like Tay Hohoff, whose work on To Kill a Mockingbird has received greater recognition in recent years, or even John W. Campbell, Perkins was the exemplar of the editor as shaper, providing valued insight and active intervention for many of the major writers of his generation: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wolfe. But my favorite part of this story lies in Fitzgerald’s response, which I think is one of the most extraordinary glimpses into craft we have from any novelist:

I myself didn’t know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in and you felt it. If I’d known and kept it from you you’d have been too impressed with my knowledge to protest. This is a complicated idea but I’m sure you’ll understand. But I know now—and as a penalty for not having known first, in other words to make sure, I’m going to tell more.

Which is only to say that there’s a big difference between what an author deliberately withholds and what he doesn’t know himself. And an intelligent reader, like Perkins, will sense it.

On Growth and Form

And it has important implications for the way we create our characters. I’ve never been a fan of the school that advocates working out every detail of a character’s background, from her hobbies to her childhood pets: the questionnaires and worksheets that spring up around this impulse can all too easily turn into an excuse for procrastination. My own sense of character is closer to what D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson describes in On Growth and Form, in which an animal’s physical shape is determined largely by the outside pressures to which it is subjected. Plot emerges from character, yes, but there’s also a sense in which character emerges from plot: these men and women are distinguished primarily by the fact that they’re the only people in the world to whom these particular events could happen. When I combine this with my natural distrust of backstory, I’ll frequently find that there are important things about my characters I don’t know myself, even after I’ve lived with them for years. There can even be something a little false about keeping the past constantly present in a character’s mind, as we often see in “realistic” fiction: even if we’re all the sum of our childhood experiences, in practice, we reveal more about ourselves in how we react to the pattern of forces in our lives at any given moment, and the resulting actions have a logic that can be worked out independently, as long as the situation is honestly developed.

But that doesn’t apply to issues, like the sources of Gatsby’s fortune, in which the reader’s curiosity might be reasonably aroused. If you’re going to hint at something, you’d better have a good idea of the answer, even if you don’t plan on sharing it. This applies especially to stories that generate a deliberate ambiguity, as Chris Nolan says of the ending of Inception:

Interviewer: I know that you’re not going to tell me [what the ending means], but I would have guessed that really, because the audience fills in the gaps, you yourself would say, “I don’t have an answer.”

Nolan: Oh no, I’ve got an answer.

Interviewer: You do?!

Nolan: Oh yeah. I’ve always believed that if you make a film with ambiguity, it needs to be based on a sincere interpretation. If it’s not, then it will contradict itself, or it will be somehow insubstantial and end up making the audience feel cheated.

Ambiguity, as I’ve said elsewhere, is best created out of a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed. That specificity requires a great deal of knowledge on the author’s part, perhaps more here than anywhere else. And as Fitzgerald notes, if you do it properly, they’ll be too impressed by your knowledge to protest—or they’ll protest in all the right ways.

Shakespeare and the art of revision

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The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare

When we think of William Shakespeare, we don’t often see him as a writer who meticulously revised his own work. His reputation as a prodigy of nature, pouring out poetry unaltered onto the page, owes a lot to Ben Jonson’s short reminiscence of his friend, which is still the most valuable portrait we have of how he seemed to those who knew him best:

I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, “Would he had blotted a thousand,” which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by wherein he most faulted; and to justify mine own candor, for I loved the man, and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any. He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped…His wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too…But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.

And even Shakespeare’s admirers have to admit that his sheer imaginative fertility—the greatest of any writer who ever lived—led him to produce bad lines as well as good, often side by side. (My favorite example is the ending of “The Phoenix and the Turtle”: I don’t think it’s possible to read “For these dead birds sigh a prayer” as anything other than one of the worst lines of poetry ever written.)

But he did revise, both on the overarching levels of character and theme and on the level of the individual line. Harold Bloom, among others, has advanced the ingenious theory that the lost Ur-Hamlet, which we know only through passing references by contemporaries, was nothing less than an early draft by the young Shakespeare himself. We know that it wasn’t particularly good: the author Thomas Lodge refers to the king’s ghost crying “Hamlet, revenge!” in a way that implies that it became a running joke among theatergoers. But the idea that Shakespeare went back and revised it so many years later is revealing in itself. We know that the story was personally meaningful to him—he named his own son after Hamlet—and that the lost version would have been one of the first plays he ever wrote. And Hamlet itself, when we read it in this light, looks a lot like a play that found its final form through repeated acts of revision. F. Scott Fitzgerald once called himself a “taker-outer,” while his friend Thomas Wolfe was a “putter-inner,” which prompted Wolfe to reply:

You say that the great writer like Flaubert has consciously left out the stuff that Bill or Joe will come along presently and put in. Well, don’t forget, Scott, that a great writer is not only a leaver-outer but also a putter-inner, and that Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dostoevsky were great putter-inners—greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers and will be remembered for what they put in—remembered, I venture to say, as long as Monsieur Flaubert will be remembered for what he left out.

And Hamlet stands as the one instance in which Shakespeare, in revision, put in everything he wanted, even if the result was close to unplayable on stage.

Timon of Athens

There’s an even more compelling glimpse of Shakespeare the reviser, and it comes in the unlikely form of Timon of Athens, which, by all measure, was the weirdest play he ever wrote. Scholars have attributed its stranger qualities—the loose ends, the characters who are introduced only to disappear for no reason—to a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, and textual analysis seems to bear this out. But it also looks like a rough draft that Shakespeare never had a chance to revise, and if we take it as a kind of snapshot of his creative process, it’s a document of unbelievable importance. In the speech by the servant that I’ve reproduced above, you can see that it starts out as prose, then shifts halfway through to verse, a peculiar transition that occurs repeatedly in Timon but has few parallels in the other plays. This suggests that Shakespeare began by roughing out large sections of the play in prose form, and then went back to convert it into poetry. Timon just happens to be the one play in which the process of revision was interrupted, leaving the work in an unfinished state. It implies that Shakespeare’s approach wasn’t so different from the one that I’ve advocated here in the past: you write an entire first draft before going back to polish it, just as a painter might do a sketch or cartoon of the whole canvas before drilling down to the fine details. It isn’t until you’ve written a story in its entirety that you know what it’s really about. And the little we know about Shakespeare’s methods seems to confirm this.

But his revisions didn’t end there, either. These plays were meant for performance, and like all theatrical works, they evolved in response to rehearsals, the needs of the actors, and the reactions of the audience. (The natural fluidity of the text on the stage goes a long way toward explaining why certain plays, like King Lear, exist in radically different versions in folio or quarto form. Some scholars seem bewildered by the fact that Shakespeare could be so indifferent to his own work that he didn’t bother to finalize a definitive version of Lear, but I’m not sure if it even struck him as a problem. The plays took different shapes in response to the needs of the moment, and Shakespeare, the ultimate pragmatist, knew that there was always more where that came from.) And the idea of ongoing revision is inseparable from his conception of the world. Bloom famously talks about Shakespearean characters “overhearing” themselves, which lies at the center of his imaginative achievement: figures like Richard II and Hamlet seem to listen to themselves speaking, and they evolve and deepen before our eyes in response to what they hear in their own words. But what Bloom calls “the depiction of self-change on the basis of self-overhearing” is a lesson that could only have come out of the revision process, in which the writer figures out his own feelings in the act of rewriting. As E.M. Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel: “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” Shakespeare knew this, too. And thanks to his work—and his revisions—we can echo it in our own lives: “How can we know who we are until we hear what we say?”

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April 22, 2016 at 9:00 am

“He knew exactly where they were going…”

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"He knew exactly where they were going..."

Note: This post is the thirty-second installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 31. You can read the previous installments here.

When I first saw the cover of The Icon Thief, my debut novel, I’ll admit that I regarded it with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was a beautiful book, with a design that stuck closely to the layout that I’d informally proposed in an email to my editor: a view of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, surmounted by a red sky, with occult images faintly visible overhead. On the other hand, the images themselves gave me pause. One, on the upper right corner, was the face of a generic cherub; the other, on the upper left, was the pointed tower of a building that I didn’t recognize. Neither seemed to have much, if anything, to do with the plot of the novel itself, and I suspected, no doubt correctly, that they had been included simply to give the cover a touch of Da Vinci Code atmosphere. I didn’t necessarily mind this, but when I showed the cover to three different people, I was asked three times what those images were, and I had to reply that I didn’t know. When I asked my editor about this, he said that he’d check with the artist. Later that day, he got back to me to say that the image on the upper left was a sketch of Peles Castle in Romania. Since I’d never heard of Peles Castle, that didn’t mean much to me. But I was grateful for the information, and I wrote back: “Now all I need to do is set a scene at Peles Castle in a future novel, so I can pretend that the image was a clue.”

At the time, this was simply a joke. I only had a contract for two novels, and City of Exiles had already been plotted out to the point where I couldn’t include a side trip to Romania merely on a whim. The more I thought about it, though, the more intrigued I became. I’d always hoped to turn the series into a trilogy, and the third novel didn’t exist as anything more than a collection of vague notions. It could take place in Romania as well as anywhere, especially since the geographic arc of the series already seemed to be inching eastward, as the action moved from New York across the ocean to London and finally, most likely, to Russia. When I looked into the history of Peles Castle itself, it seemed like it would make for an interesting backdrop for a scene or two. So when I finally began serious work on the book that turned into Eternal Empire, well over a year later, the idea that we’d end up at Peles Castle was one of only a handful of plot points that I jotted down on my initial sheet of notes. As far as inside jokes went, it was pretty obscure, but I liked the idea that the cover of the first novel hinted obliquely at the plot of the third. And even if it was an accident, I could pretend that I’d had something like it in mind all along. (You could even argue that the cherub on the right side of the cover looks ahead to the very different cherubim that play a role in City of Exiles, but that’s purely a coincidence.)

"Peles Castle..."

And I wouldn’t have bothered with this if I hadn’t already known that arbitrary mistakes or accidents can serve as a source of narrative inspiration. Constraints of any kind are always useful, and an accident that points in a particular direction can be as productive a clue as any. For the most part, my novels were thrown together essentially at fancy, as much as I would later try to make everything seem inevitable, and drawing on the first book’s cover for inspiration was another way of using every part of the buffalo. And it’s not entirely without precedent. Authors have often drawn retrospective inspiration from the illustrations for their books, as F. Scott Fitzgerald did with Francis Cugat’s cover for The Great Gatsby. Here’s how A. Scott Berg relates the story in Max Perkins: Editor of Genius:

[Fitzgerald wrote] an emphatic plea not to let any other book have the early dust jacket sketch that Max had casually shown him much earlier. It featured two gigantic eyes—supposedly those of the heroine, Daisy Fay Buchanan—brooding over New York City. That illustration had inspired Fitzgerald to create an image for the book—the billboard of an oculist named Dr. T.J. Eckelburg; the sign had two enormous eyes on it, which would stare from above onto the novel’s proceedings.

As a result, in Chapter 31 of Eternal Empire, when Ilya follows Bogdan to a cottage that overlooks Peles Castle, he’s following a trail that had been laid down years before. And to some extent, the scene that follows, in which Ilya discovers that his actions will determine whether Maddy will live or die, could have taken place almost anywhere. But there’s a deeper, weirder logic governing the story that I have trouble explaining in rational terms. As I’ve noted before, I had an idea that this novel would begin with the vandalism of a painting that would convey a secret message, but I wasn’t sure what this message would be. I arrived at Delacroix’s Ovid Among the Scythians almost by process of elimination: I wanted the painting to be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, since I could write about it credibly without having to pay a visit, and the reference to the Scythians, which ties into the fundamental themes of the series, only sealed the deal. Ultimately, I decided that the secret meaning of the painting’s destruction would hinge on the location it depicted, which happened to be the Port of Tomis—in Romania. And for the life of me, I can’t remember whether or not my desire to use Peles Castle as a setting informed that decision. I can only assume that it did. But I’d like to think that this series simply wanted to go to Romania, and I merely followed its lead. In the end, it turned out to be a short visit. But we were meant to come here all along…

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September 10, 2015 at 8:58 am

Pohl and the pulpsters

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The Way the Future Was by Frederik Pohl

Along with the sixteen volumes of the Richard Francis Burton translation of the Arabian Nights, my other great find at this year’s Newberry Library Book Fair is the memoir The Way The Future Was by Frederik Pohl. While he never achieved the same degree of mainstream recognition as many of his contemporaries, Pohl arguably embodied more aspects of science fiction than any other figure of the golden age: he was a novelist, short story writer, essayist, literary agent to the likes of Isaac Asimov, and acclaimed editor of magazines like Galaxy and If. He made his first professional sale in 1937 and continued writing up to his death two years ago, in a career that spanned eight decades, which reminds me of Bernstein’s sad, wonderful line from Citizen Kane: “I was there before the beginning, and now it’s after the end.” Pohl’s memoir is chatty, loaded with memorable gossip, and full of valuable advice—I’ve already posted the words of wisdom that he gleaned from the editor John W. Campbell. And it’s an essential read for anyone trying to make a mark in science fiction, or indeed any kind of writing, with its chronicle of the ups and downs of a freelance author’s career. (As both writer and editor, Pohl knew how the system worked from both sides, and he’s especially eloquent on the challenges of running a magazine on a limited budget.)

The meat of the book focuses on the height of the pulp era, which saw new magazines popping up seemingly every day for fans of westerns, mysteries, adventure, true confessions, and science fiction and fantasy itself. Pohl, who became a professional editor at the age of nineteen, estimates that there were five hundred titles in all, with annual sales of about a hundred million copies—a number that seems inconceivable today, when the number of widely circulated fiction magazines, literary or otherwise, can be counted on two hands. The pulps represented one extreme of a culture that simply read more for entertainment than we do now, with the high end occupied by the likes of The Saturday Evening Post, which paid writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald thousands of dollars for a single story. (Annualized for inflation, that’s more than most mainstream publishers pay on average for an entire novel.) Readership was especially high in the sticks, where movie houses were harder to find and demand was high for a cheap, disposable diversion. They all flourished for a decade or two, and then, abruptly, they were gone, finished off first by the paper shortages of the Second World War and then by television and paperbacks. And the fact that they vanished so utterly is less surprising than the fact that a handful of titles, like Analog, have stuck around at all.

Astounding Science Fiction (October 1955)

As with the heyday of paperback porn, it’s easy to romanticize the lost world of the pulps: as Theodore Sturgeon would later note, ninety percent of everything is crud, and the percentage for pulp fiction was probably higher. (Pohl says drily: “It was not all trash. But trash was the way to bet it.”) Given the pathetic rates on the low end of the scale—a penny a word at best—it’s not surprising that the good writers either got out of the pulps as soon as they could or avoided them entirely. Still, for those of us who see writing as a job like any other, it’s hard not to be enticed by the life that Pohl describes:

If you want to think of a successful pulp writer in the late thirties, imagine a man with a forty-dollar typewriter on a kitchen table. By his right hand is an ashtray with a cigarette burning in it and a cup of coffee or bottle of beer within easy reach. Stacked just past his typewriter are white sheets, carbons, and second sheets. Stacked to his left are finished pages, complete with carbon copies. he has taught himself to type reasonably neatly because he can’t afford a stenographer, and above all he has taught himself to type fast. A prolific pulpster could keep up a steady forty or fifty words a minute for long periods; there were a few writers who wrote ten thousand words a day and kept it up for years on end.

And for those who survived, the pulps were a remarkable training ground. Pohl believes that all it takes to be published are “luck, determination, and a few monkey tricks of style and plot,” and writers who made it out alive emerged with a bag of monkey tricks that no other school could offer. Pair those tricks with a good idea and a little curiosity about human life, and they were unstoppable. And although self-publishing, particularly in digital form, has revived certain aspects of that lifestyle, we’re still missing the structure that turned aspiring pulpsters into real writers, as embodied by editors like Campbell and Pohl. Editors, as Pohl notes, often took an active hand in shaping a story, either by nurturing problematic work into a publishable form or pitching ideas to authors, and even when they only served as gatekeepers, it was that sieve—or refinery—that forced their writers to grow. Pohl quotes James Blish’s observation that more than half of the major science-fiction writers of the last century were born within a year or two of 1920, which implies that it was tied to a particular event. Blish doesn’t know what this event was, and Pohl hypothesizes that it had something to do with the “social confusion and experimentation” of the thirties, but I suspect that the real answer is closer to home. The pulps were the pressure cooker that produced the popular fiction that dominated the next eighty years, and if we want to reproduce those conditions, it isn’t hard to see the limiting factor. The world already has plenty of writers; what it needs is a few hundred more paying magazines, and the editors who made them run.

Fitzgerald’s twists

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Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald

[F. Scott Fitzgerald] had told me at the Closerie des Lilas how he wrote what he thought were good stories and which really were good stories for the Post, and then changed them for submission, knowing exactly how he must make the twists that made them into salable magazine stories. I had been shocked at this and I said I thought it was whoring. He said it was whoring but that he had to do it as he made his money from the magazines to have money ahead to write decent books. I said that I did not believe anyone could write any way except the very best he could write without destroying his talent. Since he wrote the real story first, he said, the destruction and changing of it that he did at the end did him no harm. I could not believe this and I wanted to argue him out of it but I needed a novel to back up my faith and to show him and convince him, and I had not yet written any such novel.

Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

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July 19, 2015 at 7:30 am

Gatsby’s fortune and the art of ambiguity

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F. Scott Fitzgerald

In November 1924, the editor Maxwell Perkins received the manuscript of a novel tentatively titled Trimalchio in West Egg. He loved the book—he called it “extraordinary” and “magnificent”—but he also had a perceptive set of notes for its author. Here are a few of them:

Among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital—I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him—Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery, i.e. more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken. Couldn’t he be physically described as distinctly as the others, and couldn’t you add one or two characteristics like the use of that phrase “old sport”—not verbal, but physical ones, perhaps…

The other point is also about Gatsby: his career must remain mysterious, of course…Now almost all readers numerically are going to feel puzzled by his having all this wealth and are going to feel entitled to an explanation. To give a distinct and definite one would be, of course, utterly absurd. It did occur to me, thought, that you might here and there interpolate some phrases, and possibly incidents, little touches of various kinds, that would suggest that he was in some active way mysteriously engaged.

The novel, of course, ultimately appeared under the title The Great Gatsby, and before it was published, F. Scott Fitzgerald took many of the notes from Perkins to heart, adding more descriptive material on Gatsby himself—along with several repetitions of the phrase “old sport”—and the sources of his mysterious fortune. Like Tay Hohoff, whose work on To Kill a Mockingbird has recently come back into the spotlight, Perkins was the exemplar of the editor as shaper, providing valued insight and active intervention for many of the major writers of his generation: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wolfe. But my favorite part of this story lies in Fitzgerald’s response, which I think is one of the most extraordinary glimpses into craft we have from any novelist:

I myself didn’t know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in and you felt it. If I’d known and kept it from you you’d have been too impressed with my knowledge to protest. This is a complicated idea but I’m sure you’ll understand. But I know now—and as a penalty for not having known first, in other words to make sure, I’m going to tell more.

Which is only to say that there’s a big difference between what an author deliberately withholds and what he doesn’t know himself. And an intelligent reader, like Perkins, will sense it.

On Growth and Form

And it has important implications for the way we create our characters. I’ve never been a fan of the school that advocates working out every detail of a character’s background, from her hobbies to her childhood pets: the questionnaires and worksheets that spring up around this impulse always seem like an excuse for procrastination. My own sense of character is closer to what D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson describes in On Growth and Form, in which an animal’s physical shape is determined largely by the outside pressures to which it is subjected. Plot emerges from character, yes, but there’s also a sense in which character emerges from plot: these men and women are distinguished primarily by the fact that they’re the only people in the world to whom these particular events could happen. When I combine this with my natural distrust of backstory, even if I’m retreating from this a bit, I’ll often find that there are important things about my characters I don’t know myself, even after I’ve lived with them for years. There can even be something a little false about keeping the past constantly present in a character’s mind, as we see in so much “realistic” fiction: even if we’re all the sum of our childhood experiences, in practice, we reveal more about ourselves in how we react to the pattern of forces in our lives at the moment, and our actions have a logic that can be worked out independently, as long as the situation is honestly developed.

But that doesn’t apply to issues, like the sources of Gatsby’s fortune, in which the reader’s curiosity might be reasonably aroused. If you’re going to hint at something, you’d better have a good idea of the answer, even if you don’t plan on sharing it. This applies especially to stories that generate a deliberate ambiguity, as Chris Nolan says of the ending of Inception:

Interviewer: I know that you’re not going to tell me [what the ending means], but I would have guessed that really, because the audience fills in the gaps, you yourself would say, “I don’t have an answer.”

Nolan: Oh no, I’ve got an answer.

Interviewer: You do?!

Nolan: Oh yeah. I’ve always believed that if you make a film with ambiguity, it needs to be based on a sincere interpretation. If it’s not, then it will contradict itself, or it will be somehow insubstantial and end up making the audience feel cheated.

Ambiguity, as I’ve said elsewhere, is best created out of a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed. That specificity requires a great deal of knowledge on the author’s part, perhaps more here than anywhere else. And as Fitzgerald notes, if you do it properly, they’ll be too impressed by your knowledge to protest—or they’ll protest in all the right ways.

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November 10, 2014 at 7:30 am

F. Scott Fitzgerald on the art of outlining

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F. Scott Fitzgerald

Invent a system Zolaesque…but buy a file. On the first page of the file put down an outline of a novel of your times enormous in scale (don’t worry, it will contract by itself) and work on the plan for two months. Take the central point of the file as your big climax and follow your plan backward and forward from that for another three months. Then draw up something as complicated as a continuity from what you have and set yourself a schedule.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, in a letter to John O’Hara (courtesy of Open Culture)

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March 2, 2013 at 9:50 am

Quote of the Day

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F. Scott Fitzgerald

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Written by nevalalee

January 31, 2013 at 7:30 am

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“Once the phial was full…”

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I have asked a lot of my emotions—one hundred and twenty stories. The price was high, right up with Kipling, because there was one little drop of something—not blood, not a tear, not my seed, but me more intimate than these, in every story. It was the extra I had. Now it has gone and I am just like you now.

Once the phial was full—here is the bottle it came in.

Hold on, there’s a drop left there…No, it was just the way the light fell…

F. Scott Fitzgerald

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February 4, 2012 at 10:00 am

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The practical bohemian, or the art of getting by

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You want to know the only thing you can assume about a broken-down old man? It’s that he’s a survivor.

Christopher McQuarrie, The Way of the Gun

The same is true for a writer who is still working after five or ten years. Writing for a living is an education, and not just in the obvious ways. After a few years of writing on your own, you’ve inevitably developed a bag of the usual narrative tricks—get into scenes as late as possible, cut all drafts by ten percent—but you’ve also learned some practical tools for survival. You know how to write a publishable short story in a couple of weeks, rather than the month or more it might have taken in the past. You know where to find cheap books. Like J.K. Rowling, you know the address of a café that will let you write for hours if you buy a cup of tea. Maybe you’ve gone through a period where you drank or smoked too much, and then hopefully managed to get beyond it. And you’ve met other artists who have figured out some of the same things.

Because the unseen, communal art of writing is that of surviving happily on very little. In his great Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, R.H. Blyth describes voluntary poverty as “safety first, a kind of fire insurance by burning down the house,”  which also explains why most writers, including myself, eventually decide to quit their day jobs. The optimal solution, obviously, is to have it both ways: to write and work a steady job, as many writers have indeed done. But for most of us, the time ultimately comes when you need to make a choice. And of the two extremes of being consumed by a non-writing career and renouncing it entirely, walking away seems the safer solution, even if it means giving up some material comfort. And if nothing else, a writer can take heart from the fact that the things he needs to survive—books, a little food, a source of caffeine—can be had for almost nothing.

Take all these tricks, add them up, and turn them into a culture and community, and you have the artist’s life. More specifically, you have Midnight in Paris. Most artists eventually come up with similar solutions to these problems, in a sort of convergent evolution, which is why bohemians in all times and places tend to resemble one another more than the societies around them. But the lifestyle is a means to an end, and one of the worst things we can do is romanticize this kind of existence for its own sake. Everything that we find romantic about the Lost Generation and other spiritual bohemians—the coffee shops, the cheap neighborhoods, even the drug and alcohol abuse—originated as a practical answer to a particular question. And the untidy life of a Fitzgerald or Henry Miller can only be understood as very specific solution to the problem of how to sit down and write for hours at a time.

A writer’s goal, as I see it, should be to combine the simplest possible external life with an inner life of great complexity. This may sound like a spiritual or mystical objective, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s the result of cold, calculating pragmatism. Voluntary simplicity, enforced solitude, joining a community of artists, renunciation of other kinds of careerism—these may seem like ethical choices, but they’re as basic and value-neutral as any other set of tools. And if we tend to forget this, and get distracted by side issues, it’s only because getting by on one’s own terms inevitably leads, almost by accident, to a very interesting life. It took me years to realize that Tropic of Cancer wasn’t about sex, but a handbook of art and survival. And while we may be fascinated by the details, the artist’s ultimate goal should be to say, with Miller: “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”

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August 8, 2011 at 7:54 am

The trouble with endings

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Warning: This discussion, for obvious reasons, contains unavoidable spoilers.

What makes a great ending? There are as many different kinds of endings as there are works of art, of course, but as I look at my own favorites, I find that the best endings often don’t feel like endings at all. The most extreme version, the unresolved ending, has been used in books as dissimilar as Rabbit, Run and Smilla’s Sense of Snow, but the best example I know is from The Magus by John Fowles, a novel that I first read when I was fourteen (which, honestly, is about the right age). My feelings about the book itself have evolved over time, but the power of that final paragraph has never entirely departed:

She is silent, she will never speak, never forgive, never reach a hand, never leave this frozen present tense. All waits, suspended. Suspend the autumn trees, the autumn sky, anonymous people. A blackbird, poor fool, sings out of season from the willows by the lake. A flight of pigeons over the houses; fragments of freedom, hazard, an anagram made flesh. And somewhere the stinging smell of burning leaves.

Such a note of ambiguity can be tough to pull off, however, especially in mainstream fiction. Fowles, a master of the form even in his earliest novels, gets away with it; most novelists, including myself, probably can’t, at least not without annoying the reader. Yet the appeal of the unresolved ending raises an important point. Unless the writer is deliberately trying to emphasize the story’s artificiality, the best endings, like the best curtain lines, seem to promise something more: ideally, it should seem that the author has chosen the most appropriate moment to end the story, but that the story could also go on and on, like life itself.

It’s important, then, for the author to resist the temptation to tie a neat bow on the narrative. While writing a novel, most authors know that they aren’t supposed to editorialize or address the reader directly, that the meaning of the novel should be conveyed through action, and that the story’s themes, if any, should remain implicit in the narrative itself—and yet, very often, all these good habits go out the window on the final page, as if the pressure to explain exactly what the story means has become too great for the writer to resist. Deep down, every writer wants to end a novel like The Great Gatsby, as the themes of the story ascend to the universal:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

But Fitzgerald, like Fowles, was a master, and like many of the great masters, his example can be dangerous. For most writers, the rules for good writing are the same from first page to last: understatement, brevity, and objectivity are almost always preferable to their opposites. Indeed, the simpler ending is usually better, especially for a complex story. In film, there’s no better example than Chinatown, where Roman Polanski replaced Robert Towne’s original, more complex conclusion with, in Towne’s words, “a simple severing of the knot.”

For a thriller, in particular, the story needs to end as soon after the climax as possible. The denouement of The Day of the Jackal, the most perfectly constructed of all suspense novels, lasts for less than a page. In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by contrast, the action falls for something like 170 pages—which is another reason why I’m not a huge fan of that book. Compare this to the conclusion of The Turn of the Screw, which resolves the action in the story’s final word, while also raising as many questions as it answers:

I caught him, yes, I held him—it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.

I can only end, as I often do, by quoting Mamet: “Turn the thing around in the last two minutes, and you can live quite nicely. Turn it around again in the last ten seconds and you can buy a house in Bel Air.” Or, if you’re a novelist, at least a nice place in Chinatown.

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