Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘New York Times

The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Fatted Ram, Part 1

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Over the long weekend, both the New York Times and the Washington Post published lead articles on the diminishing public profile of Jared Kushner. The timing may have been a coincidence, but the pieces had striking similarities. Both made the argument that Kushner’s portfolio, once so vast, has been dramatically reduced by the arrival on the scene of White House chief of staff John F. Kelly; both ran under a headline that inclined some version of the word “shrinking”; and both led off with memorable quotes from their subject. In the Times, it was Kushner’s response when asked by Reince Priebus what his Office of American Innovation would really do: “What do you care?” (The newspaper of record, proper as ever, added: “He emphasized his point with an expletive.”) Meanwhile, the Post, which actually scored an interview, came away with something even stranger. Here’s what Kushner said of himself:

During the campaign, I was more like a fox than a hedgehog. I was more of a generalist having to learn about and master a lot of skills quickly. When I got to D.C., I came with an understanding that the problems here are so complex—and if they were easy problems, they would have been fixed before—and so I became more like the hedgehog, where it was more taking issues you care deeply about, going deep and devoting the time, energy and resources to trying to drive change.

The Post merely noted that this is Kushner’s “version the fable of the fox, who knows many things, and the hedgehog, who knows one important thing,” but as the Washington Examiner pointed out, the real source is Isaiah Berlin’s classic book The Hedgehog and the Fox, which draws its famous contrast between foxes and hedgehogs as a prelude to a consideration of Leo Tolstoy’s theory of history.

Berlin’s book, which is one of my favorites, is so unlike what I’d expect Jared Kushner to be reading that I can’t resist trying to figure out what this reference to it means. If I were conspiratorially minded, I’d observe that if Kushner had wanted to put together a reading list to quickly bring himself up to speed on the history and culture of Russia—I can’t imagine why—then The Hedgehog and the Fox, which can be absorbed in a couple of hours, would be near the top. But the truth, unfortunately, is probably more prosaic. If there’s a single book from the last decade that Kushner, who was briefly touted as the prodigy behind Trump’s data operation, can be assumed to have read, or at least skimmed, it’s Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise. And Silver talks at length about the supposed contrast between foxes and hedgehogs, courtesy of a professor of psychology and political science named Philip E. Tetlock, who conducted a study of predictions by experts in various fields:

Tetlock was able to classify his experts along a spectrum between what he called hedgehogs and foxes. The reference to hedgehogs and foxes comes from the title of an Isaiah Berlin essay on the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy—The Hedgehog and the Fox…Foxes, Tetlock found, are considerably better at forecasting than hedgehogs. They had come closer to the mark on the Soviet Union, for instance. Rather than seeing the USSR in highly ideological terms—as an intrinsically “evil empire,” or as a relatively successful (and perhaps even admirable) example of a Marxist economic system—they instead saw it for what it was: an increasingly dysfunctional nation that was in danger of coming apart at the seams. Whereas the hedgehogs’ forecasts were barely any better than random chance, the foxes’ demonstrated predictive skill.

As intriguing as we might find this reference to Russia, which Kushner presumably read, it also means that in all likelihood, he never even opened Berlin’s book. (Silver annoyingly writes: “Unless you are a fan of Tolstoy—or of flowery prose—you’ll have no particular reason to read Berlin’s essay.”) But it doesn’t really matter where he encountered these classifications. As much as I love the whole notion of the hedgehog and the fox, it has one big problem—as soon as you read it, you’re immediately tempted to apply it to yourself, as Kushner does, when in fact its explanatory power applies only to geniuses. Like John Keats’s celebrated concept of negative capability, which is often used to excuse sloppy, inconsistent thinking, Berlin’s essay encourages us to think of ourselves as foxes or hedgehogs, when we’re really just dilettantes or suffering from tunnel vision. And this categorization has its limits even when applied to unquestionably exceptional personalities. Here’s how Berlin lays it out on the very first page of his book:

There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel—a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance—and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels…without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit [experiences and objects] into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision.

The contrast that Berlin draws here could hardly seem more stark, but it falls apart as soon as we apply it to, say, Kushner’s father-in-law. On the one hand, Trump has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams by harping monotonously on a handful of reliable themes, notably white nationalism, xenophobia, and resentment of liberal elites. Nothing could seem more like the hedgehog. On the other hand, from one tweet to the next, he’s nothing if not “centrifugal rather than centripetal,” driven by his impulses, embracing contradictory positions, undermining his own surrogates, and resisting all attempts to pin him down to a conventional ideology. It’s all very foxlike. The most generous reading would be to argue that Trump, as Berlin contends of Tolstoy, is “by nature a fox, but [believes] in being a hedgehog,” a comparison that seems ridiculous even as I type it. It’s far more plausible that Trump lacks the intellectual rigor, or even the basic desire, to assemble anything like a coherent politics out of his instinctive drives for power and revenge. Like most of us, he’s a mediocre thinker, and his confusions, which reflect those of his base, have gone a long way toward enabling his rise. Trump bears much the same relationship to his fans that Emerson saw in the man who obsessed Tolstoy so deeply:

Among the eminent persons of the nineteenth century, Bonaparte is far the best known and the most powerful; and owes his predominance to the fidelity with which he expresses the tone of thought and belief, the aims of the masses…If Napoleon is France, if Napoleon is Europe, it is because the people whom he sways are little Napoleons.

Faced with a Trump, little or big, Berlin’s categories lose all meaning—not out of any conceptual weakness, but because it wasn’t what they were designed to do. But that doesn’t mean that Berlin doesn’t deserve our attention. In fact, The Hedgehog and the Fox has more to say about our current predicament than any other book I know, and if Kushner ever bothered to read it, it might give him reason to worry. I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow.

Of texts and textiles

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Yesterday, if you spend as much time as I do browsing random news articles online, your eye might have been caught by a story with the headline “‘Allah’ is Found on Viking Funeral Clothes.” Similar pieces ran in multiple publications, but I’ll stick with the one in the New York Times, which I think is where I saw it first. Here’s how it begins:

The discovery of Arabic characters that spell “Allah” and “Ali” on Viking funeral costumes in boat graves in Sweden has raised questions about the influence of Islam in Scandinavia. The grave where the costumes were found belonged to a woman dressed in silk burial clothes and was excavated from a field in Gamla Uppsala, north of Stockholm, in the 1970s, but its contents were not cataloged until a few years ago, Annika Larsson, a textile archaeologist at Uppsala University, said on Friday.

Larsson says that she was examining the patterns when she “remembered seeing them in similar Moorish designs in silk ribbons from Spain. I understood it had to be a kind of Arabic character, not Nordic.” The article continues: “Upon closer examination of the band from all angles, she said, she realized she was looking at Kufic script. The words Allah and Ali appeared in the silk found in Boat Grave 36 and in many other graves—and, most intriguing, the word Allah could be seen when reflected in a mirror.” It’s “most intriguing” indeed, particularly because it’s consistent with the hypothesis, which is widely credited, that “the Viking settlements in the Malar Valley of Sweden were, in fact, a western outpost of the Silk Road that stretched through Russia to silk-producing centers east of the Caspian Sea.”

Unfortunately, this particular piece of evidence began to fall apart almost at once. I’d like to say that I felt a flicker of doubt even as I read the article, particularly the part about the pattern being “reflected in a mirror,” but I can’t be entirely sure—like a lot of other readers, I glanced over it briefly and moved on. A few hours later, I saw another story headlined “That Viking Textile Probably Didn’t Actually Have ‘Allah’ On It.” It linked to a very persuasive blog post by Carolyn Priest-Dorman, a textile historian and Viking reenactor who seems perfectly positioned to identify the flaws in Larsson’s argument. As the Times article neglects to mention, Larsson’s reconstruction doesn’t just depend on reflecting the design, but in extending it conjecturally on either side, on the assumption that portions of the original are missing. Priest-Dorman points out that this is unwarranted on the evidence:

This unexplained extrapolation practically doubles the width of the band, and here’s why that’s a problem…If you consult…a photo of Band 6, you can clearly see the continuous metallic weft of the band turning at each selvedge to enter back in the other direction.If Larsson were correct that Band 6 was originally significantly wider, you would not see those turning loops; you’d see a series of discontinuous single passes of brocading weft with cut or broken ends at each edge.

In other words, if the pattern were incomplete, we’d see the breaks, but we don’t. And even if this point were up for debate, you clearly increase the risk of subjective readings when you duplicate, reflect, and otherwise distort the raw “text.”

No one has accused Larsson of intentional fraud, but it appears that the right combination of elements—a source of ambiguous patterns, some erudition, and a certain amount of wishful thinking—resulted in a “solution” to a problem that wasn’t there. If this sounds familiar, it might be because I’ve discussed similar cases on this blog before. One is The Great Cryptogram by Ignatius L. Donnelly, who argued that Francis Bacon was the true author of the works of Shakespeare and left clues to his identity in a code in the plays. An even better parallel is the scholar William Romaine Newbold, who died believing that he had cracked the mysterious Voynich Manuscript. As David Kahn recounts in his masterpiece The Codebreakers, Newbold fell victim to much the same kind of error that Larsson did, except at far greater length and complexity:

Newbold saw microscopic shorthand symbols in the macroscopic characters of the manuscript text and began his decipherment by transliterating them into Roman letters. A secondary text of seventeen different letters resulted. He doubled all but the first and last letters of each section…The resultant quaternary text was then “translated”: Newbold replaced the pairs of letters with a single letter, presumably according to a key, which, however, he never made clear…Finally, Newbold anagrammed the letters of this senary text to produce the alleged plaintext in Latin.

The result, of course, was highly suspect. Anagramming chunks of over a hundred characters at a time, as Newbold did, could result in almost any text you wanted, and the “microscopic shorthand symbols” were nothing but “the breaking up of the thick ink on the rough surface of the vellum into shreds and filaments that Newbold had imagined were individual signs.”

Donnelly and Newbold were working before an era of instantaneous news coverage, but I don’t doubt that they would have received plenty of sympathetic, or at least credulous, attention if they had published their results today—and, in fact, hardly a month goes by without reports of a new “breakthrough” in the Voynich Manuscript. (I’m reminded of the Beale cipher, a similar enigma encoding an alleged hidden treasure that inspired an entire society, the Beale Cypher Association, devoted to solving it. In his book Biggest Secrets, the author William Poundstone examined a copy of the society’s quarterly newsletter, which is available online. It contained no fewer than three proposed solutions.) In the aftermath of the Larsson debacle, a number of observers, including Stephennie Mulder of the University of Texas, raised concerns about how the theory was reported: “It should go without saying that a single scholar’s un-peer-reviewed claim does not truth make.” She’s right. But I think there’s a more specific lesson here. Both Larsson and Newbold started with a vast source of raw material, selected a tiny piece of it, and subjected it to a series of analogous permutations. Larsson doubled the pattern and reflected it in a mirror; Newbold doubled the illusory characters and then anagrammed the result. The first step increased the amount of text that could be “studied,” while the second rearranged it arbitrarily to facilitate additional readings. Each transformation moved further away from the original, which should have been a red flag for any skeptical reader. But when you summarize the process by providing only the first and the last steps, while omitting the intermediate stages, the conclusion looks a lot more impressive. This is exactly what happened with Larsson, and when we turn to Newbold, who announced his findings in 1921, we see how little anything has changed. As Kahn writes in The Codebreakers: “The public at large was fascinated. Sunday supplements had a field day.”

Quote of the Day

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I have a theatrical temperament. I’m not interested in the middle road—maybe because everyone’s on it. Rationality, reasonableness bewilder me. I think it comes out of being a “daughter of the Golden West.” A lot of the stories I was brought up on had to do with extreme actions—leaving everything behind, crossing the trackless wastes, and in those stories the people who stayed behind and had their settled ways—those people were not the people who got the prize. The prize was California.

Joan Didion, in an interview with Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times

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October 6, 2017 at 7:30 am

The man up the tree

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In his remarkable book The Sound of the One Hand, the author Yoel Hoffmann provides a translation and commentary for one of the most famous of all Zen koans, which is usually known as “The Man Up the Tree.” Here’s Hoffmann’s version:

Zen Master Kyōgen said, “Let us suppose that a man climbs up a tree. He grips the branches with his teeth, his hands do not hold onto the tree, and his feet do not touch the ground. A monk below asks him about the meaning of our founder coming from the west. If he does not answer, he will be avoiding the monk’s question. But if he opens his mouth and utters a word, he will fall to his death. Under such circumstances, what should the man do?” A certain monk by the name of Koto said, “Once the man is up the tree, no question should be raised. The man should ask the monk if the latter has anything to say to him before he goes up the tree.” On hearing this, Kyōgen laughed out loud. Later, Master Setchō commented, “It is easy to say it up on the tree. To say it under the tree is difficult. So I shall climb the tree myself. Come, ask me a question!”

A koan is a question traditionally posed by a Zen master to a novice, and according to Hoffmann, there’s a “correct” answer for each one, in the form of a ritual response or gesture: “In some cases, the answer simply consists of a repetition of the essential phrase within the koan. In other cases, it adds a somewhat different variation of what is already implied in the koan. The best answers are those which through an unexpected phrase or action provide a flash of insight into the koan’s meaning.” And I’ll get to the “answer” to this koan in a moment.

I found himself thinking about the man up the tree shortly after yesterday’s horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas. More specifically, it came to mind after I read the comments from White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was clearly shaken by the attack, but who also responded to questions about gun control: “There will certainly be a time for that policy discussion to take place, but that’s not the place that we’re in at this moment.” If this rings a bell, it’s because it’s highly reminiscent—as David Dayen of The New Republic has pointed out—of the statement made last month by Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, about the debate over climate change in advance of Hurricane Irma:

To have any kind of focus on the cause and effect of the storm versus helping people, or actually facing the effect of the storm, is misplaced…To use time and effort to address it at this point is very, very insensitive to this people in Florida.

I don’t want to overanalyze the political calculation here, which seems both instinctive and fairly obvious—if this isn’t a good time to discuss these issues, it’s because there will never be a good time. But it also left me with the picture of an entire culture hanging over a precipice, afflicted by existential risk and unable to open its mouth to talk about it. As Koto says: “Once the man is up the tree, no question should be raised.” Or as Lisa Friedman of the New York Times wrote more than three weeks ago: “In Washington, where science is increasingly political, the fact that oceans and atmosphere are warming and that the heat is propelling storms into superstorms has become as sensitive as talking about gun control in the wake of a mass shooting.”

A koan isn’t the same thing as an argument, and the image that this one presents isn’t entirely clear. (I’m not even sure who the man in the tree is supposed to be in this scenario. Is it me? The government? All of us? Scott Pruitt?) But it rings true as a commentary on life itself, in which we’re constantly suspended by the teeth. Two months ago, I wrote of the state of perpetual emergency that Jesus saw in the coming of the kingdom of heaven, which the historian Michael Grant insightfully discusses in light of the parable of the unjust steward:

How shocking…to find Jesus actually praising this shady functionary. He praised him because, when confronted with a crisis, he had acted. You, declared Jesus to his audience, are faced with a far graver crisis, a far more urgent need for decision and action. As this relentless emergency approaches you cannot just hit with your hands folded. Keep your eyes open and be totally apart and prepared to act if you want to be among the Remnant who will endure the terrible time.

I quoted these lines in August in response to the violence in Charlottesville, which seemed at the time like the most urgent manifestation so far of our own emergency. Now its memory threatens to fade, effaced by the seemingly endless succession of crises—large, small, and ludicrous—that have followed. It isn’t a political strategy or a run of bad luck, but the way of life that we’ve bought for ourselves. This is how it’s going to feel to be alive for the foreseeable future. And the best image that I’ve found for it is that of the man clinging by his teeth to the branch.

So what’s the answer? Master Setchō says that it’s easier to reply to the question when you’re in the tree than under it. Hoffmann explains: “Setchō’s quasi-paradoxical comment implies that the concrete problem of being caught up in a tree…is not to be confused with abstract speculations.” But it might also mean that it’s exactly in the moment of greatest danger that the best answer is likely to be given, if only we can manage to say it. Meanwhile, here’s the “correct” answer that the student is supposed to offer, which, at first glance, doesn’t seem especially helpful:

The pupil stands up and takes the pose of hanging down from a tree. With certain masters, there are pupils who may stick a finger in the mouth, utter, “Uh…uh”; and, shaking the body slightly, give the pretense of one trying to answer but unable to…The pupil pretends to fall from a tree. Landing on his bottom, he says, “Ouch! That hurt!”

But there’s a message here that I find faintly encouraging. The man falls from the tree—but he doesn’t die. Instead, in a moment of slapstick that recalls the comic hero, he lands on his bottom. It stings, but he’ll recover, which implies that the risks of opening one’s mouth are less hazardous than the alternative. And perhaps Hoffmann gets closest to the truth when he says:

It is plausible to assume that a man who holds onto a tree with his teeth would fall anyway. Answering or not answering the question is not his most urgent problem. What he needs is not philosophy, but somebody who is kind and courageous enough to help him down.

Written by nevalalee

October 3, 2017 at 8:03 am

The tendency blanket

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This Russian writer Mikhail Zoshchenko wrote, “Man is excellently made and eagerly lives the kind of life that is being lived.” I love the idea that there’s this thing we might call human tendency, and it’s like a big blanket that gets draped over whatever conditions a given time period has produced. So you know, the Spanish Inquisition comes along, and human tendency gets draped over that historical reality, and “being human” lays out in a certain way. Or it’s 1840, and you’re living in Iceland, and human tendency drapes itself over whatever is going on there and—“being human” looks another way. Same blanket, different manifestation. The Internet shows up, and social media and so on, and the blanket of our human tendency gets draped over all of that, and “being human” looks yet another way.

Likewise, if we drape that tendency blanket over some imagined future time where everybody’s eighty percent prosthetic, it’s still the same blanket. So the writer’s ultimate concentration should be on the blanket, not on what’s underneath it. What writing can do uniquely, I think, is show us fundamental human tendencies, and the ways these tendencies lead to suffering—Faulkner’s good old “human heart in conflict with itself” idea. That’s what we’re really interested in, I think, and why we turn to literature.

George Saunders, in the New York Times

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September 30, 2017 at 7:30 am

Dancing in a box

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In her book The Creative Habit, the choreographer Twyla Tharp devotes an entire chapter to a cardboard box. Before I get to it, though, I wanted to highlight another anecdote that she shares. When she was developing the idea for what became the musical Movin’ Out, Tharp put together a twenty-minute videotape of dancers performing to the music of Billy Joel—at her own expense—as a proof of concept. Only then did she tell Joel himself what she had in mind. Tharp explains:

The tape was a critical piece of preparation and vital to selling the idea to the two people who could make or break the project. The first person was me: I had to see that Billy’s music could “dance.” The tape was visual evidence of something I felt. The second person, of course, was Billy. That’s why I called him the moment I was sure. I have learned over the years that you should never save for two meetings what you can accomplish in one. The usual routine for selling an idea is that you set up a first meeting to explain it and then a second meeting to show it. I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Who knew if I would ever get a second meeting? When busy people are involved, a lot of things can happen to foul up even well intentioned plans, so I decided to go for it all in one shot and invested my time and money into producing and editing the twenty-minute tape.

Much of Tharp’s book alternates between inspiring bromides and useful advice, but this paragraph is the real deal. Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes of such meetings in The Black Swan: “I am sometimes shocked at how little people realize that these opportunities do not grow on trees.” He’s right. When you pitch a project to someone in a position to make it happen, you give it everything you’ve got. Even if you’re Twyla Tharp.

As soon as Tharp and Joel had a handshake deal to make the musical, Tharp began to prepare the box that she uses for all her projects, which she describes as a cardboard carton of the kind that you can pick up in bulk at Office Depot. She writes:

I start every dance with a box. I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance. This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me.

In short, it’s a place to put ideas—which I’ve elsewhere identified as an essential creative tool—and Tharp prefers the humble banker’s box for its sheer practicality: “They’re easy to buy, and they’re cheap…They’re one hundred percent functional; they do exactly what I want them to do: hold stuff.” For Movin’ Out, the first thing that went into the box was the twenty-minute videotape, followed by two blue index cards on which Tharp wrote her objectives for the show, which in this case were “Tell a story” and “Make dance pay for the dancers.” (These statements of purpose remain there throughout the process, even if you can’t see them: “They sit there as I write this, covered by months of research, like an anchor keeping me connected to my original impulse.” I’ll return to this point later on.) Other items included notebooks, news clippings, movies like Full Metal Jacket and The Wild One, the green beret once worn by her military adviser, and photographs of location research. Ultimately, that one box grew to twelve. And in the end, it paid off—Movin’ Out broke out of the jukebox musical mold to run for three years on Broadway and win Tony Awards for both Tharp and Joel.

But that isn’t the box that I want to talk about today. Several years after the critical and commercial triumph of Movin’ Out, Tharp tried again, this time with the music of Bob Dylan—and the result, The Times They Are A-Changin’, was such a resounding flop that I don’t even remember it, even though I was living in New York at the time. And there’s no reason to think that Tharp’s process had changed. She began working with Dylan around two years after The Creative Habit was published, and the preparatory phrase, if anything, was even more intense, as Tharp relates: “The Times They Are A-Changin’ was the product of one year of research and preparation and another year and a half of casting, rehearsing, and workshops.” Tharp surely put together a wonderful box, just as she did with Joel, but the result seems to have underwhelmed nearly everyone who saw it. (The critic Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times: “When a genius goes down in flames, everybody feels the burn.”) Like The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, it serves as a cautionary tale for what happens when everything looks the same on paper, down to the dropped “g” in the title, but lightning fails to strike twice. In her subsequent book The Collaborative Habit, Tharp pins part of the blame on “Dylan’s possessive fan base,” who didn’t like the liberties that she took with the material: “I did not prepare them for the fact that my Dylan might not be theirs.” Another red flag was the fact that Dylan approached Tharp, not the other way around:   

Bob Dylan is charming, smart, funny—and, like Billy Joel, very busy. When he called to suggest that we collaborate on a dance musical, it was clear that I would be filling in most of the dotted lines. And that was a blinking yellow light, for Dylan’s catalog is massive. Before I started looking through it in search of a dramatic thread, I thought to prove to myself—and to reassure us both—that his songs were danceable.

At first, this seems like another reminder that success in art has as much to do with luck as with skill, and perhaps Tharp was simply due for a regression to the mean. But there’s another explanation, and it comes back down to that box. Tharp remembers:

When I first started working with Dylan’s music, I had an idea that really appealed to me—to use only Dylan’s love songs. Those songs aren’t what most of us think of when we list our favorite Dylan music, and Dylan’s greatest hits were very important to the producers. We’re used to hearing him angry and accusing, exhorting us to protest, scorning a friend who has betrayed him. But the fact is, he’s also written a sheaf of gorgeous love songs and it was the sentiment in these that made me want to dance. To have used them and dramatized the relationship they suggest might have produced a show I could feel more intensely. But I had walked away from my original instinct—thus violating another of my cardinal rules—and instead, created an evening rich in pageantry and metaphor, a kind of Fellini circus.

I can picture Tharp writing “Dylan love songs” on a blue index card, putting it in the box—only to have it covered up by clippings, photographs, and sketches of circuses. It was there, but it got buried. (After the show folded, Tharp worked through her grief by dancing in her apartment to Dylan’s music: “That is, to the music I would have used had I not veered off my original path—to the love songs.”) The box evidently has its risks, as well as its rewards. But it can also have a surprising afterlife. Tharp writes of the cardboard cartons for her old projects: “I may have put the box away on a shelf, but I know it’s there. The project name on the box in bold black lettering is a constant reminder that I had an idea once and may come back to it very soon.” And just last week, ten years after her first attempt failed, she presented a new show for the current season of Twyla Tharp Dance. It’s called “Dylan Love Songs.” She held onto the box.

Handbook for morals

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Yesterday, the pop culture site Pajiba broke the strange story behind the novel Handbook for Mortals, which topped the New York Times bestseller list for Young Adult Fiction, despite not being available at most of the big chains or on Amazon. It soon became clear that somebody was gaming the system, calling stores, asking if they were among the retailers who reported sales data to the Times, and then placing bulk orders of the book. (Whoever did this was smart enough to keep all purchases below the threshold that would flag it as a corporate sale, which is usually around thirty copies.) But why bother doing this in the first place? An update on the site sheds some light on the subject:

Pajiba received details from two separate anonymous sources who got in touch, each claiming that author Lani Sarem herself admitted plans in multiple meetings with potential business partners and investors to push the book onto the New York Times bestseller list by fudging the numbers. Both sources also noted that the author and publisher’s primary concerns were to get a film deal, with the movie having been promised funding if it became a bestseller, hence a bulk-buying strategy with a focus on reaching the convention circuit.

In other words, the book, which has since been pulled from the Times list, didn’t have any value in itself, but as an obligatory stepping stone on the way to a movie deal—an important point that I’ll discuss later. For now, I’ll content myself with observing that the plan, if anything, succeeded too well. If the book had debuted a few notches further down, it might have raised eyebrows, but not to the extent that it did by clumsily clawing its way to the top. As Ace Rothstein notes wearily of a con artist in Casino: “If he wasn’t so fuckin’ greedy, he’d have been tougher to spot.”

The coverage on Pajiba is excellent, but it doesn’t mention the most famous precedent for this kind of self-defeating strategy. On April 15, 1990, the San Diego Union published an article by Mike McIntyre headlined “Hubbard Hot-Author Status Called Illusion,” which remains the best piece ever written on the tactics used by the Church of Scientology to get its founder on the bestseller lists. It begins:

In 1981, St. Martin’s Press was offered a sure thing. L. Ron Hubbard, the pulp writer turned religious leader, had written his first science-fiction novel in more than thirty years. If St. Martin’s published it, Hubbard aides promised the firm, subsidiary organizations of Hubbard’s Church of Scientology would buy at least fifteen thousand copies…”Five, six, seven people at a time would come in, with cash in hand, buying [Battlefield Earth],” said Dave Dutton, of Dutton’s Books, a group of four stores in the Los Angeles area. “They’d blindly ask for the book. They would buy two or three copies at a time with fifty-dollar bills. I had the suspicion that there was something not quite right about it.”

Michael Denneny, a senior editor at St. Martin’s, confirmed the arrangement, saying that Author Services—the affiliate of the church devoted to Hubbard’s literary work—promised to purchase between fifteen and twenty thousand copies, but ultimately went even further: “The Author Services people were very rambunctious. They wanted to make it a New York Times best seller. They were obsessed by that.” And in another article from the Los Angeles Times, a former sales manager for the church’s Bridge Publications revealed: “My orders for the week were to find the New York Times’ reporting stores anywhere in the east so they could send people into the stores to buy [Hubbard’s] books.”

If this sounds a lot like Handbook for Mortals, it wouldn’t be the first time that the church’s tactics have been imitated by others. After Hubbard’s death in 1986, the same bulk-buying techniques were applied to all ten volumes of the Mission Earth “dekalogy,” with the added goal of securing a Hugo Award nomination—which turned out to be substantially easier. The writer Charles Platt had become annoyed by a loophole in the nominating process, in which anyone could nominate a book who paid a small fee to become a supporting member of the World Science Fiction Convention. Platt wasn’t a Scientologist, but he wrote to the church suggesting that they exploit this technicality, hoping that it would draw attention to the problem. A few years later, the Church of Scientology apparently took his advice, buying memberships to vote in droves for Black Genesis, the second volume in the series. As the fan Paul Kincaid noted:

At least fifty percent of the nominations for Black Genesis came from people taking out supporting membership with their nominations. A large number of these came from people in Britain whom I’ve never heard of in any sort of fannish context, either before or since the convention. A lot of the nominations from people in Britain came on photocopied ballots with [Scientologist] Robert Springall’s name written on the bottom. It is within the rules to photocopy ballots and circulate them, providing that the person who has done the photocopying puts his or her name on the bottom…I didn’t make any record of this, but my impression was that a large number of people who took out supporting memberships to nominate Hubbard’s book didn’t actually vote in the final ballot.

In the end, Black Genesis came in dead last, behind “No Award,” but the structural weakness in the Hugos remained. Two decades later, the groups known collectively as the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies took advantage of it in similar fashion, encouraging followers to purchase supporting memberships and vote for their recommended slates. And the outcome was much the same.

It’s striking, of course, that methods pioneered by Scientology have been appropriated by other parties, either for personal gain or to make a political point. But it isn’t surprising. What the author of Handbook for Mortals, the Church of Scientology, and the Puppies all have in common is a shared disregard for the act of reading. Their actions can only be justified if bestsellerdom or an award nomination is taken as a means to an end, rather than as a reflection of success among actual readers. Sarem wanted a movie deal, the Puppies wanted to cause trouble, and the Scientologists wanted “to establish an identity for Hubbard other than as the founder of a controversial religious movement…to recruit new members into the Church of Scientology.” And the real irony here is that Hubbard himself wouldn’t have approved. The Union article notes of his novel’s publication history:

Harvey Haber, a former Scientologist who served as Hubbard’s literary aide, was dispatched to New York to sell the manuscript [of Battlefield Earth]. Hubbard demanded that the book be represented by a major literary agency and placed with one of the ten largest publishers. The church and Bridge Publications were to play no role. “He wanted to prove to everyone and all that he still had it,” Haber said. “That he was the best in the world.”

But fifty-eight New York literary agencies thought otherwise, Haber said. “Not one of them would touch it.” In Haber’s opinion, “The book was a piece of shit.” Church officials didn’t dare tell Hubbard his book was unmarketable, said Haber. “You would’ve been handed your head.” Thus, he said, was hatched the plan to offer guaranteed sales in return for publication.

Hubbard never learned that the church was buying his books in bulk, and he might have been furious if he had found out. Instead, he died believing that he had reached the bestseller list on his own merits. Whatever his other flaws, he genuinely wanted to be read. And this might be one of the few cases on record in which his integrity was greater than that of his followers.

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