Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Jorge Luis Borges

The art of skimming

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[Arthur] Schopenhauer wrote that life and dreams were pages from the same book, and that to read them in their proper order was to live, but to leaf through them was to dream,” Jorge Luis Borges writes in the lovely short essay “Time and J.W. Dunne.” As far as I can tell, he was referring to this passage from The World as Will and Representation:

Life and dreams are the pages of one and the same book. In real life we read the pages in coherent order. But when the hour appointed for reading (i.e. the day) is done, and the time for rest has come, then we often leaf idly through the book, turning now to this page and now to another, in no particular order or sequence. Sometimes we turn to a page that we have already read, and sometimes to an unknown one, but they are always from the same book. So a page read separately is indeed out of sequence in comparison to the pages that have been read in order: but it is not so much the worse for that, especially when we bear in mind that a whole consecutive reading starts and finishes just as arbitrarily. In fact it should really be seen as itself only a single, separate, although larger, page.

Or as Borges puts it a few lines earlier: “To dream is to orchestrate the objects we viewed while awake and to weave from them a story, or a series of stories. We see the image of a sphinx and the image of a drugstore, and then we invent a drugstore that turns into a sphinx.”

Comparing a dream to the act of leafing through a book sheds a revealing light on the nature of dreaming, but I think that it also validates the undervalued art of skimming. We tend to see skimming as a degraded form of reading that dishonors the text, and when we approach it as if we’re cramming for a final exam, it can be. But there’s also a form of skimming as a creative tool that deserves to be celebrated. A few weeks ago, I quoted a description from the book Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce of the comedian Mort Sahl at work:

Wherever he was, at home or on the road, he would have his room lined with magazines and books. He never read anything. A voracious skimmer. By flipping through this and staring at that, reading a sentence here and picking up a word there, he got a very good idea of where everything was. When he went into his monologue, you would swear that he had digested the whole world for that week.

At the time, I was making a point about the superficiality of this method of digesting the news. But you could come up with an equally persuasive case that for someone like Sahl, whose genius lay in making connections, this approach was actually more productive than a close reading, since it forced him to fill in the blanks with the twist that turned an idea into a joke.

And this applies to more than just comedy. In the collection Memorabilia Mathematica, there’s a reminiscence by the mathematician Andrew Forsyth of his colleague Arthur Cayley:

Cayley was singularly learned in the work of other men, and catholic in his range of knowledge. Yet he did not read a memoir completely through: his custom was to read only so much as would enable him to grasp the meaning of the symbols and understand its scope. The main result would then become to him a subject of investigation: he would establish it (or test it) by algebraic analysis and, not infrequently, develop it so to obtain other results. This faculty of grasping and testing rapidly the work of others, together with his great knowledge, made him an invaluable referee; his services in this capacity were used through a long series of years by a number of societies to which he was almost in the position of standing mathematical advisor.

The italics are mine. The image of Cayley reading “only so much as would enable him to grasp the meaning of the symbols and understand its scope” is remarkably similar to Sahl “reading a sentence here and picking up a word there [so that] he got a very good idea of where everything was.” And while this shouldn’t be the only way in which we read, it’s indispensable for the referees and advisers who save the rest of us the trouble of keeping track of everything ourselves. (You can even compare it to the role of a good magazine editor, who sifts through the slush pile and picks out the best material for publication—a professional ability that appears to be inseparable from the ability to skim.)

Which brings us back to skimming as a way of dreaming. If creativity often consists of finding connections between existing ideas, it can be helpful read in a way that naturally encourages such combinations. More systematic reading has its place, and you could argue that skimming only results in anything useful when combined with a foundation of knowledge that has been built up in more conventional ways. (Much of the art of skimming lies in the instinctive ability to recognize when a piece of information is actually interesting, which only works when you can compare it to something else of known value.) But for truly creative types, a willingness to learn something thoroughly—which we find in abundance in every graduate department in the world—is conjoined with something more superficial, mystical, and even frivolous. It has affinities both with dreaming and with divination, and it can be deeply pleasurable. I also think that it requires a physical book, newspaper, or magazine, which limits the act of skimming in a way that allows it, paradoxically, to become the most free. In How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, which I haven’t read, Pierre Bayard asks: “Who, we may wonder, is the better reader—the person who reads a work in depth without being able to situate it, or the person who enters no book in depth, but circulates through them all?” And he answers his own question in terms that serve as a justification for skimming itself:

For a true reader, one who cares about being able to reflect on literature, it is not any specific book that counts, but the totality of all books…In our quest for this perspective, we must guard against getting lost in any individual passage, for it is only by maintaining a reasonable distance from the book that we may be able to appreciate its true meaning.

A choice of categories

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A few weeks ago, The Economist published a short article with the intriguing headline “Michel Foucault’s Lessons for Business.” It’s fun to speculate what the corporate world might actually stand to learn from this particular philosopher, who once noted that the capitalist system severely punishes crimes of property while discreetly reserving for itself “the illegality of rights.” In fact, the article is mostly interested in Foucault’s book The Order of Things, in which he examines the unstated assumptions that affect how we divide the universe into categories. The uncredited author begins:

Foucault was obsessed with taxonomies, or how humans split the world into arbitrary mental categories in order “to tame the wild profusion of existing things.” When we flip these around, “we apprehend in one great leap…the exotic charm of another system of thought.” Imagine, for example, a supermarket organized by products’ vintage. Lettuces, haddock, custard and the New York Times would be grouped in an aisle called “items produced yesterday.” Scotch, string, cans of dog food and the discounted Celine Dion DVDs would be in the “made in 2008” aisle.

And the article argues that we should take a closer look at how companies define themselves—how mining firms, for instance, are organized by commodity type, when a geographical analysis would reveal “that their production is often in unstable countries,” and that many of them are inordinately dependent on demand from China.

Speaking of China, Foucault’s interest in such problems had an unexpected inspiration, as he reveals in the preface to The Order of Things:

This book first arose out of a passage in [Jorge Luis] Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought—our thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography—breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a “certain Chinese encyclopedia” in which it is written that “animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camel-hair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.” In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.”

Critics have tried in vain to find the source that Borges was using, if one even existed—although it’s worth noting that Foucault never explicitly affirms that the encyclopedia is real. (Borges attributes it to the German sinologist Franz Kuhn, and it would be a pretty problem for a bright scholar to track down a possible original.)

But you don’t need to resort to fiction to find taxonomies that call all your usual assumptions into question. Recently, while revisiting Buckminster Fuller’s book Critical Path, I was struck by a list of resources that he generated for the World Game, an educational simulation that he devised to encourage ecological thinking:

  1. Reliably operative and subconsciously sustaining [resources], effectively available twenty-four hours a day, anywhere in the Universe: gravity, love.
  2. Available only within ten miles of the surface of the Earth in sufficient quantity to conduct sound: i.e., the complex of atmospheric gases whose Sun-induced expansion on the sunny side and shadow-side-of-the-world induced contraction together produce the world’s winds, which in turn produce all the world’s waves.
  3. Available in sufficient quantity to sustain human life only within two miles above planet Earth’s spherical surface: oxygen.
  4. Available aboard our planet only during day: sunlight.
  5. Not everywhere or everywhere available: water, food, clothing, shelter, vision, initiative, friendliness.
  6. Only partially available for individual human consumption, being also required for industrial production: e.g., water.
  7. Not publicly available because used entirely by industry, e.g., helium.
  8. Not available to industry because used entirely by scientific laboratories: e.g., moon rocks.

You can chalk some of this up to Fuller’s simple weirdness, which is inseparable from his genius, but there’s also something undeniably useful about classifying resources by availability, which isn’t far removed from the hypothetical grocery store proposed by The Economist. It’s also revealing that so many of these schemes center on problems of resource allocation, since the categories that we use in practice often amount to a way of tracking the distribution of some finite benefit, material or otherwise. Our cultural debates, in particular, frequently depend on how we position ourselves within the patterns of give and take between groups. (The question of whether someone like Bruno Mars can be guilty of cultural appropriation is either mildly irritating or curiously profound, depending on how you look at it.) And while the classifications of Fuller or Borges’s apocryphal encyclopedist can seem amusingly random, they’re no less arbitrary than others that have evolved over time for practical reasons. If you were designing a political platform from scratch, it might seem absurd to lump together gun rights, opposition to abortion, support of the death penalty, a hard line on immigration, tax cuts, and climate change skepticism, or—in the case of both parties—to want the government to keep out of certain private matters while involving itself deeply in others. These methods of slicing up the world exist to hold together unstable coalitions, or to serve powerful interest groups, and we’ve seen how fragile certain convictions, such as a belief in free markets, can really be. Much of the trauma of this political moment has arisen from the splintering of established categories, or a sudden clarification of which parts truly mattered. The process is bound to continue until we arrive at a point of temporarily stability, which will inevitably find itself shaken apart in the next convulsion. As Borges concludes: “There is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and speculative. The reason is quite simple: we do not know what the universe is.”

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July 3, 2018 at 9:05 am

The minor key

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“What keeps science fiction a minor genre, for all the brilliance of its authors and apparent pertinence of its concerns?” The critic who asked this question was none other than John Updike, in his New Yorker review of David G. Hartwell’s anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction, which was published at the end of the eighties. Updike immediately responded to his own question with his usual assurance:

The short answer is that each science-fiction story is so busy inventing its environment that little energy is left to be invested in the human subtleties. Ordinarily, “mainstream” fiction snatches what it needs from the contemporary environment and concentrates upon surprising us with details of behavior; science fiction tends to reverse the priorities…It rarely penetrates and involves us the way the quest realistic fiction can…”The writer,” Edmund Wilson wrote, “must always find expressions for something which has never yet been exposed, must master a new set of phenomena which has never yet been mastered.” Those rhapsodies, for instance, which Proust delivered upon the then-fresh inventions of the telephone, the automobile, and the airplane point up the larger relativities and magical connections of his great novel, as well as show the new century breaking upon a fin-de-siècle sensibility. The modest increments of fictional “news,” of phenomena whose presentation is unprecedented, have the cumulative weight of true science—a nudging, inching fidelity to human change ultimately far more impressive and momentous than the great glittering leaps of science fiction.

I’ll concede that Updike’s underlying point here is basically correct, and that a lot of science fiction has to spend so much time establishing the premise and the background that it has to shortchange or underplay other important qualities along the way. (At its highest level, this is less a reflection of the author’s limitations than a courtesy to the reader. It’s hard to innovate along every parameter at once, so complex works of speculative fiction as different as Gravity’s Rainbow and Inception need to strategically simplify wherever they can.) But there’s also a hidden fallacy in Updike’s description of science fiction as “a minor genre.” What, exactly, would a “major” genre look like? It’s hard to come up with a definitive list, but if we’re going to limit ourselves to a conception of genre that encompasses science fiction and not, say, modernist realism, we’d probably include fantasy, horror, western, romance, erotica, adventure, mystery, suspense, and historical fiction. When we ask ourselves whether Updike would be likely to consider any of these genres “major,” it’s pretty clear that the answer is no. Every genre, by definition, is minor, at least to many literary critics, which not only renders the distinction meaningless, but raises a host of other questions. If we honestly ask what keeps all genres—although not individual authors—in the minor category, there seem to be three possibilities. Either genre fiction fails to attract or keep major talent; it suffers from various systemic problems of the kind that Updike identified for science fiction; or there’s some other quirk in the way we think about fiction that relegates these genres to a secondary status, regardless of the quality of specific works or writers.

And while all three of these factors may play a role, it’s the third one that seems most plausible. (After all, when you average out the quality of all “literary fiction,” from Updike, Bellow, and Roth down to the work put out by the small presses and magazines, it seems fairly clear that Sturgeon’s Law applies here as much as anywhere else, and ninety percent of everything is crud. And modernist realism, like every category coherent enough to earn its own label, has plenty of clichés of its own.) In particular, if a genre writer is deemed good enough, his or her reward is to be elevated out of it entirely. You clearly see this with such authors as Jorge Luis Borges, perhaps the greatest writer of speculative fiction of the twentieth century, who was plucked out of that category to complete more effectively with Proust, Joyce, and Kafka—the last of whom was arguably also a genre writer who was forcibly promoted to the next level. It means that the genre as a whole can never win. Its best writers are promptly confiscated, freeing up critics to speculate about why it remains “minor.” As Daniel Handler noted in an interview several years ago:

I believe that children’s literature is a genre. I resisted the idea that children’s literature is just anything that children are reading. And I certainly resisted the idea that certain books should get promoted out of children’s literature just because adults are reading them. That idea is enraging too. That’s what happens to any genre, right? First you say, “Margaret Atwood isn’t really a science fiction writer.” Then you say, “There really aren’t any good science fiction writers.” That’s because you promoted them all!

And this pattern isn’t a new one. It’s revealing that Updike quoted Edmund Wilson, who in his essays “Why Do People Read Detective Stories” and “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” dismissed the entire mystery genre as minor or worse. Yet when it came to defending his fondness for one author in particular, he fell back on a familiar trick:

I will now confess, in my turn, that, since my first looking into this subject last fall, I have myself become addicted, in spells, to reading myself to sleep with Sherlock Holmes, which I had gone back to, not having looked at it since childhood, in order to see how it compared with Conan Doyle’s latest imitators. I propose, however, to justify my pleasure in rereading Sherlock Holmes on grounds entirely different from those on which the consumers of the current product ordinarily defend their taste. My contention is that Sherlock Holmes is literature on a humble but not ignoble level, whereas the mystery writers most in vogue now are not. The old stories are literature, not because of the conjuring tricks and the puzzles, not because of the lively melodrama, which they have in common with many other detective stories, but by virtue of imagination and style. These are fairy-tales, as Conan Doyle intimated in his preface to his last collection, and they are among the most amusing of fairy-tales and not among the least distinguished.

Strip away the specifics, and the outlines of the argument are clear. Sherlock Holmes is good, and mysteries are bad, so Sherlock Holmes must be something other than mystery fiction. It’s maddening, but from the point of view of a working critic, it makes perfect sense. You get to hold onto the works that you like, while keeping the rest of the genre safely minor—and then you can read yourself happily to sleep.

The metal vultures and the dragon

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If you’ve ever wasted an hour of your life arguing with a total stranger online, you might feel like echoing Jorge Luis Borges when he writes of such encounters: “[This is] something in which I swear never to involve myself again, for the time granted to mortals is not infinite and the fruit of these discussions is in vain.” The difference is that Borges was writing of his conversations with German sympathizers in 1940, at a time when Argentina was officially neutral, and the interactions of which he speaks occurred in person, with those whom he calls “the charlatans and apologists that indefatigable fate obliges me to encounter on the streets and in the houses of Buenos Aires.” These days, our political discourse has been irrevocably balkanized, with each group relying on its own separate news sources and websites, and any hope of a real dialogue seems to be gone. As a result, when I picture Argentina in the forties—which Borges describes in an extraordinary series of essays, “Notes on Germany and the War,” collected in his Selected Non-Fictions—I can’t help but see it as a test case for happens when such attitudes clash between men and women who are likely to speak to each other on the sidewalk, at the grocery store, and at cocktail parties, and at a time when it was still socially permissible to express support of Adolf Hitler. I’m far from an expert in this period, and my knowledge of it comes entirely from Borges, so whatever conclusions I draw from it can hardly be anything but artificial. But I think that it’s still worth seeing if we can find any insights here into our own era, when such debates tend to be conducted either remotely or not at all.

And when I read these essays now, I find that what Borges reports of Buenos Aires in the early years of the war seems uncomfortably resonant. Borges loved German culture, which didn’t make it any easier for him to talk to Argentine Germanophiles: “I have tried to speak of Germany and the German things that are imperishable; I have mentioned Hölderlin, Luther, Schopenhauer, and Leibniz; I have discovered that my ‘Germanophile’ interlocutor could barely identify those names and preferred to discuss a more or less Antarctic archipelago that the English discovered in 1592 and whose relation to Germany I have yet to perceive.” His description of the hodgepodge of ideas on which the Germanophile’s worldview depended is both devastating and utterly familiar:

Total ignorance of things Germanic does not, however, exhaust the definition of our Germanophiles. There are other unique characteristics that are, perhaps, equally essential. Among them: the Germanophile is greatly distressed that the railroad companies of a certain South American republic have English stockholders. He is also troubled by the hardships of the South African war of 1902.

Replace “the railroad companies” with “Uranium One” and “the South African war” with “Benghazi,” or your choice of fixations, and this paragraph might have been written yesterday. As Borges sums up: “One might infer from this that the Germanophile is actually an Anglophobe. He is perfectly ignorant of Germany, and reserves his enthusiasm for any country at war with England.”

This rings painfully true of our own moment, in which politics, from the national to the personal,  often seems to consist of the members of one party relishing the punishment of another, even if it goes against their own best interests. But Borges—who, as I discussed in detail years ago, is Karl Rove’s favorite writer—isn’t done yet:

Disdaining these dry abstractions, my interlocutor begins or outlines a panegyric to Hitler: that providential man whose indefatigable discourses preach the extinction of all charlatans and demagogues, and whose incendiary bombs, unmitigated by verbose declarations of war, announce from the firmament the ruin of rapacious imperialism…I always discover that my interlocutor idolizes Hitler, not in spite of the high-altitude bombs and the rumbling invasions, the machine guns, the accusations and lies, but because of those acts and instruments. He is delighted by evil and atrocity. The triumph of Germany does not matter to him; he wants the humiliation of England and a satisfying burning of London. He admires Hitler as he once admired his precursors in the criminal underworld of Chicago. The discussion becomes impossible because the offenses I ascribe to Hitler are, for him, wonders and virtue. The apologists of Amigas, Ramírez, Quiroga, Rosas, or Urquiza pardon or gloss over their crimes; the defender of Hitler derives a special pleasure from them…He is the cunning man who longs to be on the winning side.

The italics are mine. As Borges writes in his story “Emma Zunz,” all that need to be changed here are “the circumstances, the time, and one or two proper names.”

In another essay, Borges remembers the man who came to his house to proudly announce that the Germans had taken Paris: “I felt a confusion of sadness, disgust, malaise. Then it occurred to me that his insolent joy did not explain the stentorian voice or the abrupt proclamation. He added that the German troops would soon be in London. Any opposition was useless, nothing could prevent their victory. That was when I knew that he, too, was terrified.” This speaks for itself. But what troubles me the most is Borges’s conclusion:

Nazism suffers from unreality, like Erigena’s hell. It is uninhabitable; men can only die for it, lie for it, wound and kill for it. No one, in the intimate depths of his being, can wish it to triumph. I shall risk this conjecture: Hitler wants to be defeated. Hitler is blindly collaborating with the inevitable armies that will annihilate him, as the metal vultures and the dragon (which must have known that they were monsters) collaborated, mysteriously, with Hercules.

After the war, Borges explored these themes in one of his most haunting stories, “Deutsches Requiem,” in which he attempted to write from the point of view of “the ideal Nazi.” Its narrator, the subdirector of a concentration camp, writes out his confession as he prepares to face the firing squad, and his closing words feel like a glimpse of our own future, regardless of the names of those in power: “Now an implacable age looms over the world. We forged that age, we who are now its victim. What does it matter that England is the hammer and we the anvil? What matters is that violence, not servile Christian acts of timidity, now rules. If victory and injustice and happiness do not belong to Germany, let them belong to other nations. Let heaven exist, though our place be in hell.”

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November 17, 2017 at 8:54 am

The inconceivable figure

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Whenever I’m working on a project longer than a short story, there comes a point where something strange happens: I find that I’m suddenly writing it in my head all the time. And it tends to occur at a very specific stage in the process. It’s after I’ve written a complete rough draft, but before I’m totally happy with it, and only once I’ve done enough cutting to bring it down considerably from its initial length. The first assembly of any book is too large to hold in my brain all at once, and I tend to see it as a collection of individual pieces that I’ve researched, outlined, and revised separately, bound loosely together by the plan that I had at the beginning. Cutting it down, as I’ve said before, brings all these parts closer together, which leads to new resonances and connections, but it also allows me to finally grasp its shape as a whole. It’s as if my mind has a limited amount of storage space, and a file has to be under a certain size to fit. (In Behind the Seen, which recounts the editing of the film Cold Mountain, Charles Koppelman speaks of the turning point that comes when the rough cut is short enough to be viewed as a single sequence in Final Cut Pro, rather than split into two parts.) Once that threshold is reached, it feels as if a switch has been flipped, and I can mentally edit, write, and rearrange large sections without being at my desk. Even more useful is the fact that if a phrase or sentence occurs to me when I’m washing the dishes, I can usually think of a place to put it, assuming that I remember to write it down. Eventually, it becomes continuous, like a program running in the background, to the point where I have trouble turning it off when I go to bed at night.

And this only happens, at least in my experience, when I’ve finished the entire manuscript, which is a good argument in itself for trying to get it all down on paper as soon as possible. A draft acts like a kind of magnet that draws the iron filings of your stray thoughts and arranges them in a pattern, or like a massive set of pigeonholes in which items can be filed for later use. Without the draft, which exerts a gravitational pull of its own, those ideas have a way of just drifting off into space. (That’s three different analogies in a row, but they all seem right to me.) As I’ve stated elsewhere, there are a lot of reasons for wanting a complete draft as early in the process as you can. A line on the last page can help you solve a problem on the first, and you’re more likely to end up with something publishable if you rough out the whole thing first as a crude sketch and then revise it, instead of obsessing over a tiny slice of the beginning. But the way in which it provides you with a place to organize your passing thoughts may be the most compelling argument of all. There’s a limit to how long you can sit at your desk each day—my own upper bound seems to be about three or four hours. The rest of that time, including sleep, goes unused, even though you’re most likely to come up with useful insights when you’re doing something else. Having a finished draft opens up the remaining five-sixths of your life for productive thought, which feels like a huge practical advantage. I’ve often speculated as to why so many good ideas seem to come in the shower or on the bus, but it may simply be that such moments account numerically for the bulk of our time, and the existence of the draft is what activates those otherwise wasted hours.

This state is also enormously pleasurable. When we speak of the joys of revising, we’re often talking about the mechanical process of looking at an existing sentence and tinkering with it until it reads better. That can be a significant source of satisfaction, but I think that the real joy comes from studying the project as a whole in your head, as a sort of hyperobject that has suddenly become comprehensible. There’s a line from Jorge Luis Borges that I’ve quoted here before: “The steps a man takes from the day of his birth until that of his death trace in time an inconceivable figure. The Divine Mind intuitively grasps that form immediately, as men do a triangle.” Writing a book is the closest most of us will ever get to seeing that “inconceivable figure,” and that heightened sense of awareness is only temporary. For me, it seems to last for a few months, after I’ve finished the first round of cuts and before I’ve delivered the final version. (If you don’t have a deadline, this phase can drag on indefinitely, and the desire to extend it partially explains why some authors can work on a novel for decades. Given the choice, many writers would prefer not to wake up from that dream, which intensifies their experience of the world until everything seems relevant. It’s a wonderful feeling, but you also have to be ready to give it up if you ever want to see your words in print.) After the book is finished, the sensation fades, and for good reason—it would be painful to feel so attuned to a project that has become effectively unchangeable. You could even argue that the amnesia that sets in shortly after a book is delivered is a survival mechanism that prevents writers from breaking under the tension between the changes that they’d still like to make and the fixed nature of the work on the page.

This also leads to another apparent contradiction, which is that a writer is most likely to be making countless small changes at the exact moment when the work is ready to enter the world for the first time. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, because if all goes well, a full draft of my book Astounding will be going out to readers for comments later today. I’m pretty happy with my manuscript, which is more or less where it needs to be, since it isn’t due at my publisher for another four months—and I deliberately gave myself an earlier deadline, in part to extend the fertile period that I’ve discussed above. Even as I format the printed version of the file, though, I find that I’m making numerous edits, some small, some significant. This might imply that the draft isn’t ready, but on a deeper level, it indicates that it’s going out at just the right time, or so I try to tell myself. Ideally, you want to solicit notes after the draft can stand on its own, but before you’ve become psychologically attached to it. You want it to be alive, malleable, and amenable to cuts and changes, and the longer you put it off, the more painful any revisions become. Inevitably, this means that it goes out right when you’re likely to see dozens of things that need to be fixed, which is how you know, paradoxically, that it’s time to let it go. This is why the final days of any project have a way of feeling like a mad scramble, no matter how protracted the process has been. In Behind the Seen, we witness director Anthony Minghella and editor Walter Murch making substantial edits to Cold Mountain on the very last night of postproduction. Minghella says: “Enormous changes at the last minute.” And Murch replies: “Our specialty.”

Written by nevalalee

August 3, 2017 at 9:06 am

The Borges Test

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In his introduction to The Garden of Forking Paths, Jorge Luis Borges, who was arguably the greatest writer of speculative fiction of the twentieth century, offers a useful piece of advice:

It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books—setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that these books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them. That was Carlyle’s procedure in Sartor Resartus, Butler’s in The Fair Haven—though those works suffer under the imperfection that they themselves are books, and not a whit less tautological than the others. A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man, I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books. Those notes are “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and “A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain.”

Later stories in the same vein include “Three Versions of Judas” and “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” one of my favorites, in which Borges writes: “In my spare evenings I have conceived this plot—which I will perhaps commit to paper but which already somehow justifies me.” It’s a considerate way of saving time for both the author and the reader, and it’s unfortunate that it’s become so associated with Borges that it’s hard for other writers to utilize it without turning it into an homage. And it only works for stories in which an idea, rather than characterization or style, constitutes the primary attraction.

It’s also no accident that Borges arrived at this method after years as a great reader of mystery fiction and, to a lesser extent, of science fiction and fantasy, which are the genres most vulnerable to the charge that they have nothing to offer but an idea. The most damning case against the hard science fiction epitomized by John W. Campbell’s Astounding is that many of these stories could be reduced to a paragraph of plot summary with minimal loss. Most fans, I think, can relate to the experience of being halfway through a story and impatiently skipping to the end, since the writing and characters don’t provide nearly enough incidental pleasure to justify wading through the rest. At its worst, you get the kind of scientific problem story published by Analog at its least inviting, with the reader forced to stare at names on the page and incomprehensible jargon for twenty minutes, only to be rewarded with the narrative equivalent of a word problem in a physics textbook. And this doesn’t extend to bad stories alone, but to some of the important works ever published in the genre. I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that almost all of Asimov’s robot stories could be condensed to a few sentences that lay out the situation and the solution without losing much of the experience. (A trickier example is Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which I suspect would work better as a five-page Borges story. The idea of an alternate World War II novel in which the characters are reading an alternate World War II novel about our own world, filled with plausible inaccuracies, is one that Borges would have loved. Ursula K. LeGuin famously referred to Dick as “our own homegrown Borges,” and it’s noteworthy that Dick, as an American novelist, just went ahead and wrote the whole book.)

You could say much the same of detective fiction of the locked-room variety, which exists entirely to deliver the twist, and which might work better as one of the one-minute mysteries that children consume in grade school. (“What made Encyclopedia Brown so sure? Turn to page 61 for the solution to ‘The Case of the Giant Mousetrap.’”) This frequent inability of the mystery to rise above its origins as a puzzle is part of the reason that they irritated the critic Edmund Wilson, who wrote in his famous essay “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?”:

I finally got to feel that I had to unpack large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails…It is not difficult to create suspense by making people await a revelation, but it does demand a certain talent to come through with a criminal device which is ingenious or picturesque or amusing enough to make the reader feel that the waiting has been worth while…You cannot read such a book, you run through it to see the problem worked out.

Under such circumstances, it can be a courtesy for one reader to summarize the contents of such a story for another. Many of Borges’s best essays consist of little more than a condensed version of another book, from William Beckford’s Vathek to Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, as filtered through his unique sensibilities. And you see a similar impulse, at much lower level, when we go online to read the spoilers for a bad movie that we have no intention of ever seeing.

But when you’re a writer, particularly of mystery or science fiction, you need to constantly ask yourself why your story is better than its own summary. (If anything, this is especially true of science fiction mysteries, which is the category in which I tend to write.) One obvious answer is to make it as short as possible. There’s a grand tradition of short science fiction—one of the first anthologies I ever owned was One Hundred Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories, which I still love—and the platonic ideal is a story that takes no longer to read than it would to be orally told the premise. The other approach is to emphasize qualities that can’t be summarized, like character, style, atmosphere, and suspense. In science fiction, my favorite example is A.E. van Vogt, whose plots defy summarization, and who justifies his existence only by making readers feel as if they’ve lived through an experience that they can’t explain. On the mystery side, Edmund Wilson hints at this when he describes the Sherlock Holmes stories as “fairy tales,” and in his consideration of Raymond Chandler, he also gets at one of the risks:

It is not simply a question here of a puzzle which has been put together but of a malaise conveyed to the reader, the horror of a hidden conspiracy that is continually turning up in the most varied and unlikely forms…It was only when I got to the end that I felt my old crime-story depression descending upon me again—because here again, as is so often the case, the explanation of the mysteries, when it comes, is neither interesting nor plausible enough.

If you can’t do either of the above, then the idea probably isn’t ready yet. That’s the Borges test. And if you decide that it would work better as a short story by Borges, you can console yourself with the fact that it’s far from alone.

Written by nevalalee

June 21, 2017 at 9:10 am

My ten great books #4: Labyrinths

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Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

To understand the appeal of Jorge Luis Borges, it helps to begin with the encyclopedia. Not with the fantastic encyclopedia of Tlön, which describes an imaginary country—its fishes, its playing cards—in monumental detail, or even with the countless inaccessible encyclopedias, with their autobiographies of the archangels and the true story of your own death, that populate the infinite Library of Babel. I’m talking about the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which Borges read endlessly. Borges sometimes strikes us as a monster of erudition, and there’s no doubt that he was deeply familiar with such subjects as the cabala and the history of philosophy. He also underwent prolonged engagements with the likes of Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Scheherazade. Yet his true intellectual heritage was that of a reader of encyclopedias, a connoisseur of enigmatic facts filtered through the perspective of an army of anonymous compilers, superficially orderly but opening into ever darker mysteries. Many readers, including me, were first drawn to Borges for the richness and quality of his mind, which tosses out fascinating ideas in a paragraph or aside in an otherwise densely textured story. Dig a little deeper, though, and you find a man who is profoundly ambivalent about his own learning, to whom a book can be a paradise, a labyrinth, or the hybrid creature of a nightmare. If Proust is the ultimate noticer, Borges is our ultimate reader, and he has troubling lessons for those of us who spend most of our lives among books.

That said, it’s foolish to discount the incidental pleasures of his fictions, which include some of the finest mystery and fantasy stories in any language. Borges comes from an unbroken line of storytellers that includes Edgar Allan Poe, G.K. Chesterton, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and his best stories can be enjoyed simply as displays of virtuoso cleverness: “The Garden of Forking Paths” is a philosophical fable that includes a twist worthy of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, where it first appeared in English, and “The Immortals” packs more wonderful ideas into fourteen pages than most authors could manage in ten times that length. (All of these stories appear in Labyrinths, still the best introduction to Borges, which collects the cream of his work from the fifties. My other favorites include “Death and the Compass,” “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” “The Lottery in Babylon,” and “Three Versions of Judas.”) The more we read him, though, the more disturbing he becomes. Borges was a master librarian who finally lost his eyesight, an irony that he would have found too obvious to include in his own fiction. His finest works are about other kinds of blindness: overinterpretation, the conflation of the reader and the text, the unreliability of apparently factual narratives, and the uncanny relationship between ideas and the shape of the world around us. “Death and the Compass” is the tale of a perfect detective, a Holmes, undone by a villain who constructs a puzzle to lure him to his death, and it’s hard not to identify both men with Borges himself, weaving the web that traps the author along with his readers.

Written by nevalalee

May 11, 2017 at 9:00 am

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