Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John Lahr

Counting to sixty

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Julianne Moore

“There was one moment in [Julianne Moore’s] performance that was absolutely staggering,” [Andre] Gregory recalled. “She was sitting on the floor reading a newspaper and doing absolutely nothing, saying nothing. But whatever she had going on inside was terrifying.” Afterward, Gregory took her to dinner. He asked her, “Could you tell me what you were doing when you were sitting on the floor?” She said, “I was counting from one to sixty.” Gregory said, “It showed a very clever actress who understood what she didn’t need to do to get the appropriate response.”

John Lahr, in a profile of Julianne Moore in The New Yorker

Written by nevalalee

September 19, 2015 at 7:30 am

The fame monster

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John Updike on the cover of Time Magazine

“Celebrity,” John Updike famously wrote, “is a mask that eats into the face.” But celebrity among writers is a strange thing. We’re long past the point where a novelist can singlehandedly turn the temper of his or her time, as Norman Mailer and others of his generation once believed was possible, but a handful of authors do become celebrities of a certain limited kind. We see short news items, as James Parker notes of Martin Amis in The Atlantic, when they change agents or apartments, and their features become reasonably familiar to us from dust jacket photos or the staged shots from the New York Times Book Review. I’ve gone through countless author headshots while preparing my Quotes of the Day, and it’s a little funny how often the same props reappear: the desk, the bookshelf, the cigarette. Photographers seem eager to pose novelists among the tools of their trade, as if in response to how opaque a writer’s work can seem from the outside; Kanye West doesn’t need to stand in front of an 808 to remind us of what he does for a living, but with most authors, we need a visual cue to let us know why this pale, pasty person is looking out at us from a magazine.

The one good thing about becoming a famous writer is that you can exist as a figure of intense importance to a wide circle of readers without being harassed on the street. John Lahr’s recent New Yorker profile of Al Pacino emphasizes how grindingly strange a life of real fame can be: “I haven’t been in a grocery store or ridden the subway in fifty years,” Pacino says. For a serious actor, this kind of alienation from ordinary life can be a handicap; if every interaction is skewed from the start, it’s hard to remember when it was ever anything else. Writers, for the most part, can go shopping or ride public transportation incognito, and even an author whose work saturates airport bookstores probably has little trouble making it onto the plane. I’m not sure I could pick John Grisham out of a crowd. The number of Americans who have finished a novel by Stephen King pales in comparison to those who watch LeBron James play basketball on any given night. We tend to compare literary success to its peers, not to the larger culture, so it’s easy to forget that 100,000 copies in hardcover—which made a phenomenon out of Jonathan Safran Foer—amounts to 0.03% of this country’s population.

Jonathan Franzen in Time Magazine

Oddly, it’s the faces of literary novelists that we seem to see the most, even if their sales aren’t nearly at the level of their mainstream counterparts. More of us would recognize Jonathan Franzen at Zabar’s than James Patterson. This is partially because of the logic of a career in literary fiction, in which reviews, interviews, awards, and teaching serve to offset scanty sales, and partially thanks to the nature of that kind of writing itself, which turns the voice of the author into a selling point. I’m not particularly interested in who Thomas Harris or Frederick Forsyth “is,” as long as they write compelling stories in which the authorial viewpoint almost disappears; but the work of writers like Updike or Mailer or Bellow is inseparable from the personality it expresses. We’re more curious about the face behind a book like Infinite Jest than The Da Vinci Code, and if it’s true that we all end up with the faces we deserve, it’s no surprise that literary writers look a little more haggard and interesting. Even then, I don’t know how often they’re accosted by fans. I had my share of celebrity sightings in seven years in New York, but I don’t think I’ve ever randomly recognized an author I knew.

Yet the hunger for fame, even if it’s only within a select sliver of the reading world, still drives a lot of writers. We measure ourselves against the the outliers, forgetting all the while that we’ve only heard of them because they’re exceptional, and forget all the others toiling away in obscurity. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: writing is so punishing a profession in other ways that it takes a powerful immediate desire to carry an author with a realistic idea of his talents from one day to the next, whether it’s the promise of sexual conquest, revenge on imagined enemies, or even money. Celebrity is probably a healthier notion than most of these, especially because the version of it even a major author receives is so illusory.  As I’ve said before, writing any book, even a bad one, requires that the author think that he’s a little better and more exceptional than he really is, and if most of us end up somewhere in the middle, it’s only because we aimed at a high mark and fell short. Fame, for authors, doesn’t really exist in the same way it does in other fields; it may never have existed at all. But it’s a useful fiction, and without it, we might not have other kinds of fiction at all.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

August 3, 2012 at 7:30 am

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A vaudevillian at work

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Sitting at his cluttered mahogany desk, [Billy K. Wells] draped a string from one side to the other, and, in a clothesline effect, pinned the various jokes and “bits of business” on the line, rearranging them as he built the scene. He kept a detailed account of the number of jokes he wrote; he tabulated the laughs per minute of every sketch. Even the malapropisms that salted his comic dialogue were uncovered in the same methodical manner. Wells would take a word and write it on one side of a file card and on the other list similar sounding words, testing each for its comic possibility…His fey imagination was able to ferret out fresh humor from old forms.

John Lahr, Notes on a Cowardly Lion

Written by nevalalee

April 1, 2012 at 9:50 am

Mametspeak

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The online Paris Review archive is the gift that keeps on giving. Not long after posting their interview with Robert Graves, I was looking for the new Art of Fiction profile of Jonathan Franzen—which isn’t online yet, meaning that I might have to buy the actual magazine—when I stumbled across this gem from 1997. It’s a conversation between David Mamet and John Lahr, and I fell in love with it right away. Which isn’t surprising, since I sometimes think that Mamet is the smartest guy in the world, as well as one half (with his wife Rebecca Pidgeon) of the coolest couple that my mind can conceive.

I’ve already mentioned that Mamet’s slim book On Directing Film is one of the most useful works available on storytelling of any kind, and the Paris Review interview gives a nice, clean summary of his basic philosophy, which sounds like simplicity itself: instead of obsessing over the “meaning” of the overall work, you focus on the meaning of the individual story beat, which nearly always revolves around what the protagonist wants. Then, once you’ve put the story beat into its most economical and elegant form, you move onto the next one. And if you’ve taken care of the individual beats, then the “drama” of the overall story will follow:

…[T]heoretically, perfectly, what one wants to do is put the protagonist and the audience in exactly the same position. The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. That’s what drama is. It comes down to that. It’s not about theme, it’s not about ideas, it’s not about setting, but what the protagonist wants. What gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how, at the end of the play, do we see that event culminated? Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. You break it down into three acts.

And where does character come from? Here’s what Mamet says:

It’s action, as Aristotle said. That’s all that it is—exactly what the person does. It’s not what they “think,” because we don’t know what they think. It’s not what they say. It’s what they do, what they’re physically trying to accomplish on the stage. Which is exactly the same way we understand a person’s character in life—not by what they say, but by what they do.

And here’s Mamet on writing for the audience:

I mean, if I’m not writing for the audience, if I’m not writing to make it easier for them, then who the hell am I doing it for? And the way you make it easier is by following those tenets: cutting, building to a climax, leaving out exposition, and always progressing toward the single goal of the protagonist. They’re very stringent rules, but they are, in my estimation and experience, what makes it easier for the audience.

Now, this is a very seductive approach to writing, and probably unimpeachable on rational grounds. In practice, though, the results can be a little mixed. I’ve never seen a Mamet film I didn’t like (even Redbelt), but it’s rare for his movies to move beyond the level of an elegantly conceived exercise. (The Winslow Boy probably comes the closest.) And it’s perhaps no accident that my favorite Mamet scripts (for Glengarry Glen Ross and The Untouchables) were brought to the screen by different directors. The greatest films are open to accident and improvisation in a way that Mamet’s approach never allows. At his worst, he can seem cold, clinical, even robotic.

And yet his example remains very instructive. T.S. Eliot once pointed out that if a poet tries to imitate the style of Dante, at worst, he’ll end up with a boring poem; if he tries to imitate Shakespeare, he’ll sound like an idiot. I think of Mamet in the same way. It can be incredibly dangerous to imitate the greatest, most idiosyncratic writers (like Proust) or directors (like Kubrick).  If you imitate Mamet—that is, his approach to storytelling, not his dialogue or themes, which are uniquely his own—at worst, you’ll end up with a mechanical but watchable piece of work, with a minimum of backstory and self-indulgence. Which, after all, is far from the worst thing a writer can do.

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