Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Moby-Dick

Subterranean fact check blues

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In Jon Ronson’s uneven but worthwhile book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, there’s a fascinating interview with Jonah Lehrer, the superstar science writer who was famously hung out to dry for a variety of scholarly misdeeds. His troubles began when a journalist named Michael C. Moynihan noticed that six quotes attributed to Bob Dylan in Lehrer’s Imagine appeared to have been fabricated. Looking back on this unhappy period, Lehrer blames “a toxic mixture of insecurity and ambition” that led him to take shortcuts—a possibility that occurred to many of us at the time—and concludes:

And then one day you get an email saying that there’s these…Dylan quotes, and they can’t be explained, and they can’t be found anywhere else, and you were too lazy, too stupid, to ever check. I can only wish, and I wish this profoundly, I’d had the temerity, the courage, to do a fact check on my last book. But as anyone who does a fact check knows, they’re not particularly fun things to go through. Your story gets a little flatter. You’re forced to grapple with all your mistakes, conscious and unconscious.

There are at least two striking points about this moment of introspection. One is that the decision whether or not to fact-check a book was left to the author himself, which feels like it’s the wrong way around, although it’s distressingly common. (“Temerity” also seems like exactly the wrong word here, but that’s another story.) The other is that Lehrer avoided asking someone to check his facts because he saw it as a painful, protracted process that obliged him to confront all the places where he had gone wrong.

He’s probably right. A fact check is useful in direct proportion to how much it hurts, and having just endured one recently for my article on L. Ron Hubbard—a subject on whom no amount of factual caution is excessive—I can testify that, as Lehrer says, it isn’t “particularly fun.” You’re asked to provide sources for countless tiny statements, and if you can’t find it in your notes, you just have to let it go, even if it kills you. (As far as I can recall, I had to omit exactly one sentence from the Hubbard piece, on a very minor point, and it still rankles me.) But there’s no doubt in my mind that it made the article better. Not only did it catch small errors that otherwise might have slipped into print, but it forced me to go back over every sentence from another angle, critically evaluating my argument and asking whether I was ready to stand by it. It wasn’t fun, but neither are most stages of writing, if you’re doing it right. In a couple of months, I’ll undergo much the same process with my book, as I prepare the endnotes and a bibliography, which is the equivalent of my present self performing a fact check on my past. This sort of scholarly apparatus might seem like a courtesy to the reader, and it is, but it’s also good for the book itself. Even Lehrer seems to recognize this, stating in his attempt at an apology in a keynote speech for the Knight Foundation:

If I’m lucky enough to write again, I won’t write a thing that isn’t fact-checked and fully footnoted. Because here is what I’ve learned: unless I’m willing to continually grapple with my failings—until I’m forced to fix my first draft, and deal with criticism of the second, and submit the final for a good, independent scrubbing—I won’t create anything worth keeping around.

For a writer whose entire brand is built around counterintuitive, surprising insights, this realization might seem bluntly obvious, but it only speaks to how resistant most writers, including me, are to any kind of criticism. We might take it better if we approached it with the notion that it isn’t simply for the sake of our readers, or our hypothetical critics, or even the integrity of the subject matter, but for ourselves. A footnote lurking in the back of the book makes for a better sentence on the page, if only because of the additional pass that it requires. It would help if we saw such standards—the avoidance of plagiarism, the proper citation of sources—not as guidelines imposed by authority from above, but as a set of best practices that well up from inside the work itself. A few days ago, there yet was another plagiarism controversy, which, in what Darin Morgan once called “one of those coincidences found only in real life and great fiction,” also involved Bob Dylan. As Andrea Pitzer of Slate recounts it:

During his official [Nobel] lecture recorded on June 4, laureate Bob Dylan described the influence on him of three literary works from his childhood: The Odyssey, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Moby-Dick. Soon after, writer Ben Greenman noted that in his lecture Dylan seemed to have invented a quote from Moby-Dick…I soon discovered that the Moby-Dick line Dylan dreamed up last week seems to be cobbled together out of phrases on the website SparkNotes, the online equivalent of CliffsNotes…Across the seventy-eight sentences in the lecture that Dylan spends describing Moby-Dick, even a cursory inspection reveals that more than a dozen of them appear to closely resemble lines from the SparkNotes site.

Without drilling into it too deeply, I’ll venture to say that if this all seems weird, it’s because Bob Dylan, of all people, after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, might have cribbed statements from an online study guide written by and for college students. But isn’t that how it always goes? Anecdotally speaking, plagiarists seem to draw from secondary or even tertiary sources, like encyclopedias, since the sort of careless or hurried writer vulnerable to indulging in it in the first place isn’t likely to grapple with the originals. The result is an inevitable degradation of information, like a copy of a copy. As Edward Tufte memorably observes in Visual Explanations: “Incomplete plagiarism leads to dequantification.” In context, he’s talking about the way in which illustrations and statistical graphics tend to lose data the more often they get copied. (In The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, he cites a particularly egregious example, in which a reproduction of a scatterplot “forgot to plot the points and simply retraced the grid lines from the original…The resulting figure achieves a graphical absolute zero, a null data-ink ratio.”) But it applies to all kinds of plagiarism, and it makes for a more compelling argument, I think, than the equally valid point that the author is cheating the source and the reader. In art or literature, it’s better to argue from aesthetics than ethics. If fact-checking strengthens a piece of writing, then plagiarism, with its effacing of sources and obfuscation of detail, can only weaken it. One is the opposite of the other, and it’s no surprise that the sins of plagiarism and fabrication tend to go together. They’re symptoms of the same underlying sloppiness, and this is why writers owe it to themselves—not to hypothetical readers or critics—to weed them out. A writer who is sloppy on small matters of fact can hardly avoid doing the same on the higher levels of an argument, and policing the one is a way of keeping an eye on the other. It isn’t always fun. But if you’re going to be a writer, as Dylan himself once said: “Now you’re gonna have to get used to it.”

The white and the black

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110 by Robert Motherwell

The chemistry of the pigments is interesting: ivory black, like bone black, is made from charred bones or horns, carbon black is the result of burnt gas, and most common whites—apart from cold, slimy zinc oxide and recent bright titanium dioxide—are made from lead, and are extremely poisonous on contact with the body. Being soot, black is light and fluffy, weighing a twelfth of the average pigment; it needs much oil to become a painter’s paste, and dries slowly. Sometimes I wonder, laying in a great black stripe on a canvas, what animal’s bones (or horns) are making the furrows of my picture. A captain on the Yukon River painted the snow black in the path of his ships for twenty-nine miles; the black strip melted three weeks in advance of spring, and he was able to reach clear water. Black does not reflect, but absorbs all light; that is its essential nature; while that of white is to reflect all light; dictionaries define it as snow’s color, and one thinks of the black slit glasses used when skiing. For the rest, there is a chapter in Moby Dick that evokes white’s qualities as no painter could, except in his medium…

Only love—for painting, in this instance—is able to cover the fearful void. A fresh white canvas is a void, as is the poet’s sheet of blank white paper.

But look for yourselves. I want to get back to my whitewashed studio. If the amounts of black and white are right, they will have condensed into quality, into feeling.

Robert Motherwell, The Writings of Robert Motherwell

Written by nevalalee

August 27, 2016 at 7:30 am

The problem of narrative complexity

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David Foster Wallace

Earlier this month, faced with a break between projects, I began reading Infinite Jest for the first time. If you’re anything like me, this is a book you’ve been regarding with apprehension for a while now—I bought my copy five or six years ago, and it’s followed me through at least three moves without being opened beyond the first page. At the moment, I’m a couple of hundred pages in, and although I’m enjoying it, I’m also glad I waited: Wallace is tremendously original, but he also pushes against his predecessors, particularly Pynchon, in fascinating ways, and I’m better equipped to engage him now than I would have been earlier on. The fact that I’ve published two novels in the meantime also helps. As a writer, I’m endlessly fascinated by the problem of managing complexity—of giving a reader enough intermediate rewards to justify the demands the author makes—and Wallace handles this beautifully. Dave Eggers, in the introduction to the edition I’m reading now, does a nice job of summing it up:

A Wallace reader gets the impression of being in a room with a very talkative and brilliant uncle or cousin who, just when he’s about to push it too far, to try our patience with too much detail, has the good sense to throw in a good lowbrow joke.

And the ability to balance payoff with frustration is a quality shared by many of our greatest novels. It’s relatively easy to write a impenetrable book that tries the reader’s patience, just as it’s easy to create a difficult video game that drives players up the wall, but parceling out small satisfactions to balance out the hard parts takes craft and experience. Mike Meginnis of Uncanny Valley makes a similar point in an excellent blog post about the narrative lessons of video games. While discussing the problem of rules and game mechanics, he writes:

In short, while it might seem that richness suggests excess and maximal inclusion, we actually need to be selective about the elements we include, or the novel will not be rich so much as an incomprehensible blur, a smear of language. Think about the very real limitations of Pynchon as a novelist: many complain about his flat characters and slapstick humor, but without those elements to manage the text and simplify it, his already dangerously complex fiction would become unreadable.

Pynchon, of course, casts a huge shadow over Wallace—sometimes literally, as when two characters in Infinite Jest contemplate their vast silhouettes while standing on a mountain range, as another pair does in Gravity’s Rainbow. And I’m curious to see how Wallace, who seems much more interested than Pynchon in creating plausible human beings, deals with this particular problem.


The problem of managing complexity is one that has come up on this blog several times, notably in my discussion of the work of Christopher Nolan: Inception‘s characters, however appealing, are basically flat, and the action is surprisingly straightforward once we’ve accepted the premise. Otherwise, the movie would fall apart from trying to push complexity in more than one direction at once. Even works that we don’t normally consider accessible to a casual reader often incorporate elements of selection or order into their design. The Homeric parallels in Joyce’s Ulysses are sometimes dismissed as an irrelevant trick—Borges, in particular, didn’t find them interesting—but they’re very helpful for a reader trying to cut a path through the novel for the first time. When Joyce dispensed with that device, the result was Finnegans Wake, a novel greatly admired and rarely read. That’s why encyclopedic fictions, from The Divine Comedy to Moby-Dick, tend to be structured around a journey or other familiar structure, which gives the reader a compass and map to navigate the authorial wilderness.

On a more modest level, I’ve frequently found myself doing this in my own work. I’ve mentioned before that I wanted one of the three narrative strands in The Icon Thief to be a police procedural, which, with its familiar beats and elements, would serve as a kind of thread to pull the reader past some of the book’s complexities. More generally, this is the real purpose of plot. Kurt Vonnegut, who was right about almost everything, says as much in one of those writing aphorisms that I never tire of quoting:

I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.

The emphasis is mine. Plot is really a way of easing the reader into that greatest of imaginative leaps, which all stories, whatever their ambitions, have in common: the illusion that these events are really taking place, and that characters who never existed are worthy of our attention and sympathy. Plot, structure, and other incidental pleasures are what keep the reader nourished while the real work of the story is taking place. If we take it for granted, it’s because it’s a trick that most storytellers learned a long time ago. But the closer we look at its apparent simplicity, the sooner we realize that, well, it’s complicated.

“Standing before the counter of the hardware store…”

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"Standing before the counter of the hardware store..."

(Note: This post is the thirty-third installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 32. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Writers are craftsmen. At least, that’s how we like to think of ourselves. “Poetry” originally comes from the root word meaning to do or to make—trust me, I spent years studying this stuff—and it’s not surprising that writers often talk about themselves as if they were blue-collar workers. Television writers talk about “laying pipe,” novelists spend almost as much time discussing structure as engineers do, and much of the language of revision sounds like it’s talking about wood carving: we cut, trim, and shape, even if we’re doing nothing more than moving digital representations of words around on a screen. As my trusty copy of the Oxford English Dictionary points out, a draft was originally any kind of drawing on paper, and more specifically a design, sketch, or blueprint for a more complete work of art, and only later assumed its current meaning as something that causes writers to tear their hair out. And this is part of the reason I often turn for instruction to such varied trades as architecture, animation, and the visual arts.

This also explains why writers tend to be so fascinated by the lore of other crafts and trades. Moby-Dick is a manual of whaling. James M. Cain teaches us a lot about murder, but also insurance investigation. Foucault’s Pendulum includes an entire chapter on the workings of a modern vanity press. These digressions are partly a way of filling out the world of a novel—if a writer gets these kinds of details right, we’re implicitly more likely to trust what he says about the subtleties of human behavior—but they’re also a reflection of how writers see themselves. This is a peculiar craft we’ve chosen, and it results in something so intangible that physical books themselves are no longer necessary, but the work it requires is tedious, solitary, and painstaking. As a result, we tend to be drawn to examples of skill and artistic dexterity wherever we find them, and take pleasure in translating these trades into the only medium we know how to use, as if we’re secretly talking about ourselves all the while.

"Looking for signs of craquelure..."

When it comes to suspense and mystery fiction, this impulse can take authors to strange places. Thrillers have often been criticized for laying out the details of illegal activity in ways that seem to glamorize or encourage it: The Day of the Jackal is a miniature textbook on passport fraud, for instance, and plenty of technothrillers go on for pages about the intricacies of weaponry and improvised explosives. In The Icon Thief, we’ve already seen Ilya construct a handheld laser from a flashlight and optical drive—although this information is readily available online—and City of Exiles shows its villain constructing a workable cell phone detonator, although I kept certain details deliberately vague. Not surprisingly, some readers don’t care for this sort of thing: one very intelligent review on Goodreads says that the latter novel has “that kind of fetishism of hardware that thrillers seem to require.” But really, every novel fetishizes its subject to some extent: it’s just that suspense happens to concern itself with hardware that runs toward the lurid or criminal.

Chapter 31 of The Icon Thief is a nice example, to the point where it actually begins with Ilya paying for his purchases at the counter of a hardware store. In terms of plot, it’s a relatively quiet scene that lays the groundwork for a series of more kinetic chapters to come. But it also provides a quick rundown of Ilya’s preparations for a life on the run: he disguises himself with a few items from a drugstore, steals a driver’s license from a bicycle rental kiosk in the park, and takes apart a stolen painting to make it more portable. These are all details I could have skipped, but I liked writing about the process of undoing the canvas from its wooden frame—which is something I did a lot in painting classes in college—and rolling it up into a tube, “looking for signs of craquelure.” (Honestly, I suspect that I wrote this entire chapter just to use the word “craquelure.”) And it serves a useful purpose: Ilya can now carry the painting around for the rest of the book without making a point of it. Which just gives me more time to write about hardware…

Written by nevalalee

January 31, 2013 at 9:50 am

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