Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘James Jones

The Monroe Doctrine

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[His] secret ambition, after all, had been to steal Marilyn; in all his vanity he thought no one was so well suited to bring out the best in her as himself.

—Norman Mailer, Marilyn

Are writers in direct competition? Any reasonable person—who, by definition, probably isn’t a writer—would have to conclude that they aren’t. The road to publication can be brutal, and there are plenty of ways in which it punishes or ignores deserving talent, but the existence of a specific rival who is consuming resources that might otherwise be allocated to you probably isn’t one of them. Any barriers to entry or success have more to do with luck, timing, and other impersonal forces than with peers who are trying to do the same thing as you. Even prizes, teaching positions, or fellowships are less about writers competing with one another than about their separate confrontations with larger systems, in which the only sustainable solution is to work together. And critical rankings can be rightly dismissed as irrelevancies, or, at best, the byproducts of a different game with incentives of its own. As the novelist and critic Wilfrid Sheed wrote:

When a reviewer says that Malamud is second only to Bellow, it means he really isn’t thinking about either of them. When he’s reading Malamud he’s thinking about Bellow, and when he’s reading Bellow he’s thinking about Roth. This is the essence of the ratings game: distraction. Children play it all the time. “Is this the biggest bridge in the world?” “No, it’s the third biggest.” “Oh.” They lose all interest in the bridge.

But you could also argue that writers are effectively in competition, if only because nearly all the authors who have ever lived have behaved as if they were. When asked by an interviewer from the Telegraph if he thought of himself and Philip Roth as rivals, John Updike replied:

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.

Saul Bellow himself wrote, “Writers seldom wish other writers well,” while Gore Vidal was even more blunt: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Elsewhere, I’ve written at length about why novelists seem particularly susceptible to what I’ve called the Colonel Cathcart complex, after the character in Catch-22 of whom Joseph Heller says: “He could measure his own progress only in relationship to others, and his idea of excellence was to do something at least as well as all the other men his own age who were doing the same thing even better.” And you could make the case that this kind of competition is good for literature as a whole, as Norman Mailer observed to The Paris Review, after noting that writers were as competitive “as star athletes”: “You say, Well, if he’s doing it, I can do it.”

But there’s another factor at work here. The most memorable consideration of literary envy I’ve ever read is Mailer’s essay “Some Children of the Goddess,” which I first encountered as a young teenager and practically memorized. Mailer speaks frankly of his competitiveness with James Jones and William Styron, as well as his uneasy sense of relief when their novels Some Came Running and Set This House On Fire turned out to be artistic nonevents. But here’s the language that he uses when he describes their relationship to the muse, or, as he calls her, the Bitch:

If Some Came Running had turned out to be the best novel any of us had written since the war…it would have meant the Bitch was in love with someone else, I would have had to try to win her back. But the failure of Some Came Running left me holding onto a buttock of the lady—if she had many lovers, I was still one of them…[While reading Set This House On Fire] I would think, “You don’t catch the Bitch that way, buster, you got to bring more than a trombone to her boudoir.”

In Mailer’s imagination, the muse seems to have taken the form of Marilyn Monroe, whom he secretly felt he might have married if Arthur Miller hadn’t gotten there first. Monroe was the ultimate unrenewable resource, and an emblem of the prize to be won. Which raises the question of how, exactly, Mailer imagined how such a rivalry might look to a writer who happened to be a woman—although it doesn’t even seem to have occurred to him that this might be a problem. He spends the rest of his essay discussing ten contemporary novels, from Henderson the Rain King to Franny and Zooey, in an attempt to figure out the pecking order. All were written by men. And it’s open to debate if Mailer even thought that women were playing the same game.

It’s hard not to connect this kind of exclusion to the conception of literature as an economic activity defined by a scarcity of resources, or, if you like, as a contest between suitors. One of the worst manifestations of this sort of competitiveness, in art as in life, is the disqualification of potential competitors who don’t look like you, which winnows the field to the benefit of those who are already on the inside. Assuming that the pool of rewards is finite, it’s rational to limit your chosen rivals to people who fit the right profile, even if it results in a twisted Monroe Doctrine—James, not Marilyn—in which any incursion is seen as an act of hostility. If any outsiders break in, you can claim that they benefited from an unfair advantage, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, or you can pick up your toys and go home. We’ve seen this clearly in the Hugo Awards, but it isn’t unique to science fiction, which just happens to be a place where a structural weakness allowed these impulses to become visible. Over the last few years, we’ve repeatedly seen how psychological or economic insecurity on the individual level can turn to resentment of otherness on a mass scale, and writers are no different than anyone else. (If anything, they’re worse, because their insecurity is universal, and they get to set the rules of the game they’re playing. Among other things, it leads to the curious belief that newcomers need to justify their presence, when by any rational standard it should be the other way around.) Every writer ends up assembling his or her private list of rivals, and if this excludes some while including others, we can excuse this as a necessary survival mechanism in a profession that needs all the help it can get. But it’s a different matter in public. There’s no honor in winning, or even in competing in, a game that won’t accept all players. And if you don’t agree, you’ll inevitably find that you’ve been your own worst enemy all along.

Quote of the Day

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James Jones

I should make it plain…that boozing does not necessarily have to go hand in hand with being a writer, as seems to be the concept in America. I therefore solemnly declare to all young men trying to become writers that they do not actually have to become drunkards first.

James Jones, to The Paris Review

Written by nevalalee

February 1, 2017 at 7:30 am

Bert’s nose and the limits of memory

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Bert and Ernie on Sesame Street?

A few days ago, I was leafing through a Sesame Street coloring book with my daughter when I was hit by a startling realization: I couldn’t remember the color of Bert’s nose. I’ve watched Bert and Ernie for what has to be hundreds of hours—much of it in the last six months—and I know more about them than I do about most characters in novels. But for the life of me, I couldn’t remember what color Bert’s nose was, and I was on the point of looking up a picture in The Sesame Street Dictionary when it finally came to me. As I continued to page through the coloring book, though, I found that I had trouble recalling a lot of little details. Big Bird’s legs, for instance, are orange cylinders segmented by thin contour lines, but what color are those lines? What about Elmo’s nose? Or the stripes on Bert and Ernie’s shirts? In the end, I repeatedly found myself going online to check. And while the last thing I want is to set down rules for what crayons my daughter can and can’t use when coloring her favorite characters, as a writer, and particularly one for whom observation and accuracy of description have always been important, I was secretly chagrined.

They aren’t isolated cases, either. My memory, like everyone else’s, has areas of greater and lesser precision: I have an encyclopedic recall of movie release dates, but have trouble putting a name to a face until I’ve met a person a couple of times. Like most of us, I remember images as chunks of information, and when I try to drill down to recall particular details, I feel like Watson in his exchange with Holmes in “A Scandal in Bohemia”:

For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”
“How often?”
“Well, some hundreds of times.”
“Then how many are there?”
“How many? I don’t know.”
“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”

And I find it somewhat peculiar—and I’m not alone here—that I was able to remember and locate this quote without any effort, while I still couldn’t tell you the number of steps that lead to the front porch of my own house.

Illustration by Sidney Paget for "A Scandal in Bohemia"

Of course, none of this is particularly surprising, if we’ve thought at all about how our own memories work. A mental image is really more of an impression that disappears like a mirage as soon as we try to get any closer, and it’s particularly true of the objects we take most for granted. When we think of our own pasts, it’s the exceptional moments that we remember, while the details of everyday routine seem to evaporate without a trace: I recall all kinds of things about my trip to Peru, but I can barely remember what my average day was like before my daughter was born. This kind of selective amnesia is so common that it doesn’t even seem worth mentioning. But it raises a legitimate question of whether this represents a handicap for a writer, or even disqualifies us from doing interesting work. In a letter to the novelist James Jones, the editor Maxwell Perkins once wrote:

I remember reading somewhere what I thought was a very true statement to the effect that anybody could find out if he was a writer. If he were a writer, when he tried to write out of some particular day, he found that he could recall exactly how the light fell and how the temperature felt, and all the quality of it. Most people cannot do it. If they can do it, they may never be successful in a pecuniary sense, but that ability is at the bottom of writing, I am sure.

For those of us who probably wouldn’t notice if someone quietly switched our toothbrushes, as Faye Wong does to Tony Leung in Chungking Express, this may seem disheartening. But I’d like to believe that memory and observation can be cultivated, like any writing skill, or that we can at least learn how to compensate for our own weaknesses. Some writers, like Nabokov or Updike, were born as monsters of noticing, but for the rest of us, some combination of good notes, close attention to the techniques of the writers we admire, and the directed observation required to solve particular narrative problems can go a long way toward making up the difference. (I emphasize specific problems because it’s more useful, in the long run, to figure out how to describe something within the context of a story than to work on self-contained writing exercises.) Revision, too, can work wonders: a full page of description distilled to a short paragraph, leaving only its essentials, can feel wonderfully packed and evocative. Our memories are selective for a reason: if we remembered everything, we’d have trouble knowing what was important. It’s better, perhaps, to muddle through as best as we can, turning on that novelistic degree of perception only when it counts—or, more accurately, when our intuition tells us that it counts. And when it really matters, we can always go back and verify that Bert’s nose, in fact, is orange.

Written by nevalalee

July 21, 2015 at 9:26 am

Honor among writers

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Philip Roth

Writers, by nature, are highly competitive. In principle, writing isn’t a contest, but it certainly feels like one, and in practical terms, you find yourself competing with other contemporary writers for all sorts of things that seem available only in finite amounts: attention from editors, book sales, awards, an intangible sense of where you rank in the literary pecking order. Near the top, among the handful of great novelists in any generation, the sense of being a member of a tiny club—in which the old guard is periodically pushed out to make room for the new—can turn into a weird kind of office politics. And don’t think that the authors themselves aren’t acutely conscious of where they stand. Shortly before his death, John Updike, speaking of Philip Roth, said this to the Telegraph:

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.

It’s an illuminating glimpse of what Updike thought of Roth, but I also like that offhand reference to a “list of admirable novelists,” to which Updike seems to have devoted a fair amount of thought.

I found this quote in Claudia Roth Pierpont’s recent piece in The New Yorker about the friendships between Roth and his contemporaries, including Bellow, Updike, and others, with material drawn from her acclaimed new Roth biography. (At this point, Pierpont might as well legally change her name to “Claudia Roth Pierpoint, no relation.”) The picture we get from the profile is that of a circle of astoundingly talented writers who were pleased to have rivals worthy of their time, but who weren’t always entirely comfortable in one another’s company. You get a sense what it must have been like for two ambitious writers of the same age—Updike was “a year and a day” older than Roth—to rub elbows from Roth’s description of Updike’s “leaping, kangaroo-like energy” as a younger man, followed at once by the wry observation: “I was not un-kangaroo-like myself.” It’s hard for two kangaroos to share a room, especially at a New York dinner party, and for all their mutual admiration, there was also an underlying wariness. Roth referred to the two of them as “friends at a distance,” and when asked by the Telegraph if he and Roth were friends, Updike responded: “Guardedly.”

John Updike

Much the same went for Roth and Saul Bellow, at least in the early days. Ultimately, their acquaintance blossomed into a lasting friendship, but Bellow seems to have initially held the younger writer—eighteen years his junior—at arm’s length. Harold Bloom has famously written of the anxiety of influence, that almost Oedipal ambivalence with which artists regard the predecessors whom they admire and long to imitate, and when two authors are alive at the same time, it runs both ways: a literary mentorship often has less in common with Finding Forrester than with All About Eve. In time, Bellow warmed up to Roth, thanks in part to the influence of his wife, Janis Freedman Bellow, whom Roth imagines saying: “What’s the matter, this guy really likes you, he really admires you, he wants to be your friend.” Freedman Bellow demurs: “I had that conciliatory gene. But it’s not like I was kicking him under the table.” (Bellow’s guardedness toward Roth reminds me a little of how Maxim Gorky described Tolstoy and another rival: “Two bears in one den.” In Tolstoy’s case, the rival was God.)

Yet this kind of rivalry is essential for the cause of art, since it forces the writers themselves to operate at a higher level. Pierpont compares Roth and Updike, fruitfully, to Picasso and Matisse, “wary competitors who were thrilled to have each other in the world to up their game,” and it’s a feeling to which many authors can relate. In his essay “Some Children of the Goddess,” Norman Mailer memorably recalls his feelings about James Jones, one of the few novelists he seemed willing to consider as a peer, and the failure of Jones’s novel Some Came Running:

I was in the doldrums, I needed a charge of dynamite. If Some Came Running had turned out to be the best novel any of us had written since the war, I would have had to get to work. It would have meant the Bitch was in love with someone else, and I would have had to try to win her back.

Artistic rivalry can be murder on the writers themselves—Updike and Roth eventually had a disagreement that led them to break off contact for the last ten years of Updike’s life—but it’s undeniably good for readers, even if the immediate result is what Bellow himself once observed: “Writers seldom wish other writers well.”

Written by nevalalee

October 21, 2013 at 8:47 am

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