Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Norman Mailer

The writing in the dust

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Note: I’m taking some time off for the holidays, so I’m republishing a few pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on November 22, 2017. 

About a year ago, I found myself thinking at length about what might well be the most moving passage in the entire Bible. It’s the scene in the Gospel of John in which the Pharisees, hoping to trap Jesus, bring forward a woman taken in adultery and ask him if she should be stoned according to the law, only to hear him respond: “Whoever is sinless in this crowd should go ahead and throw the first stone.” After the other onlookers drift off one by one, embarrassed, leaving just the woman behind, Jesus asks if anyone has condemned her. When she answers no, he says: “I don’t condemn you either. You’re free to go, but from now on, no more sinning.” (The story was memorably, if freely, adapted as one of the most powerful scenes in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.) In The Acts of Jesus, the Jesus Seminar writes of the passage:

The earliest ancient manuscripts of John do not have it, and modern scholars are virtually unanimous in concluding that it was not an original part of the Fourth Gospel…An impartial evaluation of the story has been impeded by its preservation as part of the Gospel of John…The fundamental question is whether this anecdote is a fragment that survived from an otherwise unknown gospel. Had it been discovered as a separate piece of papyrus, it would have attracted serious scholarly attention in its own right.

In the end, the seminar endorses it mildly, less as a real incident than as a reflection of what we know about Jesus himself, and the companion volume The Five Gospels includes the remarkable line: “While the Fellows agreed that the words did not originate in their present form with Jesus, they nevertheless assigned the words and story to a special category of things they wish Jesus had said and done.”

I feel the same way. But I haven’t even mentioned the one detail that has always struck me—and many other readers—the most. When the Pharisees first pose their question, Jesus doesn’t answer right away. Instead, he stoops down and silently draws on the ground with his finger. He responds only after they insist on a reply, and then he bends down to write in the dust again. It’s impossible to read this without wondering what he might have been writing, and nearly three centuries ago, the biblical commentator Matthew Henry did as good a job of summarizing the possibilities as anyone could:

It is impossible to tell, and therefore needless to ask, what he wrote; but this is the only mention made in the gospels of Christ’s writing…Some think they have a liberty of conjecture as to what he wrote here. Grotius says, It was some grave weighty saying, and that it was usual for wise men, when they were very thoughtful concerning any thing, to do so. Jerome and Ambrose suppose he wrote, Let the names of these wicked men be written in the dust. Others this, The earth accuses the earth, but the judgment is mine. Christ by this teaches us to be slow to speak when difficult cases are proposed to us, not quickly to shoot our bolt; and when provocations are given us, or we are bantered, to pause and consider before we reply; think twice before we speak once.

That last line seems reasonable enough, and Henry concludes: “He did as it were look another way, to show that he was not willing to take notice of their address, saying, in effect, Who made me a judge or a divider?”

And the passage, authentic or not, is also precious as one of the few everyday actions of Jesus that have been passed down to us. I’ve spoken elsewhere of a gospel of nouns and verbs, but nearly all of it occurs in Jesus’s words, not in descriptions of him preserved by others. Jesus writes on the ground; he falls asleep in a boat; he feels hungry; he breaks bread and pours wine; he weeps. There isn’t much more. Part of this reflects the fact that the gospels emerged from an oral tradition, but it also testifies to its debt to its literary predecessors. In his great book Mimesis, Erich Auerbach writes of the Old Testament story of the binding of Isaac:

In this atmosphere it is unthinkable that an implement, a landscape through which the travelers passed, the servingmen, or the ass, should be described, that their origin or descent or material or appearance or usefulness should be set forth in terms of praise; they do not even admit an adjective: they are serving-men, ass, wood, and knife, and nothing else, without an epithet; they are there to serve the end which God has commanded; what in other respects they were, are, or will be, remains in darkness. A journey is made, because God has designated the place where the sacrifice is to be performed; but we are told nothing about the journey except that it took three days, and even that we are told in a mysterious way: Abraham and his followers rose “early in the morning” and “went unto” the place of which God had told him; on the third day he lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. That gesture is the only gesture, is indeed the only occurrence during the whole journey, of which we are told…It is as if, while he traveled on, Abraham had looked neither to the right nor to the left, had suppressed any sign of life in his followers and himself save only their footfalls.

At first glance, this style might seem primitive compared to that of the Iliad or the Odyssey, but as Auerbach points out, its effect on its audience goes much deeper than what we find in Homer:

The world of the Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be a historically true reality—it insists that it is the only real world, is destined for autocracy. All other scenes, issues, and ordinances have no right to appear independently of it, and it is promised that all of them, the history of all mankind, will be given their due place within its frame, will be subordinated to it. The Scripture stories do not, like Homer’s, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they may please us and enchant us—they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels…Far from seeking, like Homer, merely to make us forget our own reality for a few hours, it seeks to overcome our reality: we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history.

This is the tradition to which Jesus—a historical person who feels much closer to many of us than the distant, shadowy figure of Abraham—was subordinated by the author of the gospels. As a literary strategy, it was a masterstroke, and it went a long way toward enabling Jesus to strike up an existence in the inner lives of so many. (Which doesn’t mean that its virtues are obvious. Norman Mailer once said of the gospels: “Where you don’t have a wonderful sentence, what you get is some pretty dull prose and a contradictory, almost hopeless way of telling the story.”) It also means, for better or worse, that Jesus can mean all things to all people. We no longer see him clearly, and he’s being used even as I write this to justify all forms of belief and behavior. My version of him is no more legitimate than that of anyone else. But I prefer to believe in the man who drew that line in the sand.

Updike’s ladder

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Note: I’m taking the day off, so I’m republishing a post that originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 13, 2017.

Last year, the author Anjali Enjeti published an article in The Atlantic titled “Why I’m Still Trying to Get a Book Deal After Ten Years.” If just reading those words makes your palms sweat and puts your heart through a few sympathy palpitations, congratulations—you’re a writer. No matter where you might be in your career, or what length of time you mentally insert into that headline, you can probably relate to what Enjeti writes:

Ten years ago, while sitting at my computer in my sparsely furnished office, I sent my first email to a literary agent. The message included a query letter—a brief synopsis describing the personal-essay collection I’d been working on for the past six years, as well as a short bio about myself. As my third child kicked from inside my pregnant belly, I fantasized about what would come next: a request from the agent to see my book proposal, followed by a dream phone call offering me representation. If all went well, I’d be on my way to becoming a published author by the time my oldest child started first grade.

“Things didn’t go as planned,” Enjeti says dryly, noting that after landing and leaving two agents, she’s been left with six unpublished manuscripts and little else to show for it. She goes on to share the stories of other writers in the same situation, including Michael Bourne of Poets & Writers, who accurately calls the submission process “a slow mauling of my psyche.” And Enjeti wonders: “So after sixteen years of writing books and ten years of failing to find a publisher, why do I keep trying? I ask myself this every day.”

It’s a good question. As it happens, I first encountered her article while reading the authoritative biography Updike by Adam Begley, which chronicles a literary career that amounts to the exact opposite of the ones described above. Begley’s account of John Updike’s first acceptance from The New Yorker—just months after his graduation from Harvard—is like lifestyle porn for writers:

He never forgot the moment when he retrieved the envelope from the mailbox at the end of the drive, the same mailbox that had yielded so many rejection slips, both his and his mother’s: “I felt, standing and reading the good news in the midsummer pink dusk of the stony road beside a field of waving weeds, born as a professional writer.” To extend the metaphor…the actual labor was brief and painless: he passed from unpublished college student to valued contributor in less than two months.

If you’re a writer of any kind, you’re probably biting your hand right now. And I haven’t even gotten to what happened to Updike shortly afterward:

A letter from Katharine White [of The New Yorker] dated September 15, 1954 and addressed to “John H. Updike, General Delivery, Oxford,” proposed that he sign a “first-reading agreement,” a scheme devised for the “most valued and most constant contributors.” Up to this point, he had only one story accepted, along with some light verse. White acknowledged that it was “rather unusual” for the magazine to make this kind of offer to a contributor “of such short standing,” but she and Maxwell and Shawn took into consideration the volume of his submissions…and their overall quality and suitability, and decided that this clever, hard-working young man showed exceptional promise.

Updike was twenty-two years old. Even now, more than half a century later and with his early promise more than fulfilled, it’s hard to read this account without hating him a little. Norman Mailer—whose debut novel, The Naked and the Dead, appeared when he was twenty-five—didn’t pull any punches in “Some Children of the Goddess,” an essay on his contemporaries that was published in Esquire in 1963: “[Updike’s] reputation has traveled in convoy up the Avenue of the Establishment, The New York Times Book Review, blowing sirens like a motorcycle caravan, the professional muse of The New Yorker sitting in the Cadillac, membership cards to the right Fellowships in his pocket.” Even Begley, his biographer, acknowledges the singular nature of his subject’s rise:

It’s worth pausing here to marvel at the unrelieved smoothness of his professional path…Among the other twentieth-century American writers who made a splash before their thirtieth birthday…none piled up accomplishments in as orderly a fashion as Updike, or with as little fuss…This frictionless success has sometimes been held against him. His vast oeuvre materialized with suspiciously little visible effort. Where there’s no struggle, can there be real art? The Romantic notion of the tortured poet has left us with a mild prejudice against the idea of art produced in a calm, rational, workmanlike manner (as he put it, “on a healthy basis of regularity and avoidance of strain”), but that’s precisely how Updike got his start.

Begley doesn’t mention that the phrase “regularity and avoidance of strain” is actually meant to evoke the act of defecation, but even this provides us with an odd picture of writerly contentment. As Dick Hallorann says in The Shining, the best movie about writing ever made: “You got to keep regular, if you want to be happy.”

If there’s a larger theme here, it’s that the sheer productivity and variety of Updike’s career—with its reliable production of uniform hardcover editions over the course of five decades—are inseparable from the “orderly” circumstances of his rise. Updike never lacked a prestigious venue for his talents, which allowed him to focus on being prolific. Writers whose publication history remains volatile and unpredictable, even after they’ve seen print, don’t always have the luxury of being so unruffled, and it can affect their work in ways that are almost subliminal. (A writer can’t survive ten years of chasing after a book deal without spending the entire time convinced that he or she is on the verge of a breakthrough, anticipating an ending that never comes, which may partially account for the prevalence in literary fiction of frustration and unresolved narratives. It also explains why it helps to be privileged enough to fail for years.) The short answer to Begley’s question is that struggle is good for a writer, but so is success, and you take what you can get, even as you’re transformed by it. I think on a monthly basis of what Nicholson Baker writes of Updike in his tribute U and I:

I compared my awkward public self-promotion too with a documentary about Updike that I saw in 1983, I believe, on public TV, in which, in one scene, as the camera follows his climb up a ladder at his mother’s house to put up or take down some storm windows, in the midst of this tricky physical act, he tosses down to us some startlingly lucid little felicity, something about “These small yearly duties which blah blah blah,” and I was stunned to recognize that in Updike we were dealing with a man so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder!

We’re all on that ladder, including Enjeti, who I’m pleased to note finally scored her book deal—she has an essay collection in the works from the University of Georgia Press. Some are on their way up, some are headed down, and some are stuck for years on the same rung. But you never get anywhere if you don’t try to climb.

The long night

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Three years ago, a man named Paul Gregory died on Christmas Day. He lived by himself in Desert Hot Springs, California, where he evidently shot himself in his apartment at the age of ninety-five. His death wasn’t widely reported, and it was only this past week that his obituary appeared in the New York Times, which noted of his passing:

Word leaked out slowly. Almost a year later, The Desert Sun, a daily newspaper serving Palm Springs, California, and the Coachella Valley area, published an article that took note of Mr. Gregory’s death, saying that “few people knew about it.” “He wasn’t given a public memorial service and he didn’t receive the kind of appreciations showbiz luminaries usually get,” the newspaper said…When the newspaper’s article appeared, [the Desert Hot Springs Historical Society] had recently given a dinner in Mr. Gregory’s memory for a group of his friends. “His passing was so quiet,” Bruce Fessler, who wrote the article, told the gathering. “No one wrote about him. It’s just one of those awkward moments.”

Yet his life was a remarkable one, and more than worth a full biography. Gregory was a successful film and theater producer who crossed paths over the course of his career with countless famous names. On Broadway, he was the force behind Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, one of the big dramatic hits of its time, and he produced Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, which deserves to be ranked among the greatest American movies.

Gregory’s involvement with The Night of the Hunter alone would have merited a mention here, but his death caught my eye for other reasons. As I mentioned here last week, I’ve slowly been reading through Mailer’s Selected Letters, in which both Gregory and Laughton figure prominently. In 1954, Mailer told his friends Charlie and Jill Devlin that he had recently received an offer from Gregory, whom he described as “a kind of front for Charles Laughton,” for the rights to The Naked and the Dead. He continued:

Now, about two weeks ago Gregory called me up for dinner and gave me the treatment. Read Naked five times, he said, loved it, those Marines, what an extraordinary human story of those Marines, etc…What he wants to do, he claims, is have me do an adaptation of Naked, not as a play, but as a dramatized book to be put on like The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial…Anyway, he wants it to be me and only me to do the play version.

The play never got off the ground, but Gregory retained the movie rights to the novel, with an eye to Laughton directing with Robert Mitchum in the lead. Mailer was hugely impressed by Laughton, telling Elsa Lanchester decades later that he had never met “an actor before or since whose mind was so fine and powerful” as her late husband’s. The two men spent a week at Laughton’s hotel in Switzerland going over the book, and Mailer recalled that the experience was “a marvelous brief education in the problems of a movie director.”

In the end, sadly, this version of the movie was never made, and Mailer deeply disliked the film that Gregory eventually produced with director Raoul Walsh. It might all seem like just another footnote to Mailer’s career—but there’s another letter that deserves to be mentioned. At exactly the same time that Mailer was negotiating with Gregory, he wrote an essay titled “The Homosexual Villain,” in which he did the best that he could, given the limitations of his era and his personality, to come to terms with his own homophobia. (Mailer himself never cared for the result, and it’s barely worth reading today even as a curiosity. The closing line gives a good sense of the tone: “Finally, heterosexuals are people too, and the hope of acceptance, tolerance, and sympathy must rest on this mutual appreciation.”) On September 24, 1954, Mailer wrote to the editors of One: The Homosexual Magazine, in which the article was scheduled to appear:

Now, something which you may find somewhat irritating. And I hate like hell to request it, but I think it’s necessary. Perhaps you’ve read in the papers that The Naked and the Dead has been sold to Paul Gregory. It happens to be half-true. He’s in the act of buying it, but the deal has not yet been closed. For this reason I wonder if you could hold off publication for a couple of months? I don’t believe that the publication of this article would actually affect the sale, but it is a possibility, especially since Gregory—shall we put it this way—may conceivably be homosexual.

And while there’s a lot to discuss here, it’s worth emphasizing the casual and utterly gratuitous way in which Mailer—who became friendly years later with Roy Cohn—outed his future business partner by name.

But the letter also inadvertently points to a fascinating and largely unreported aspect of Gregory’s life, which I can do little more than suggest here. Charles Laughton, of course, was gay, as Elsa Lanchester discusses at length in her autobiography. (Gregory appears frequently in this book as well. He evidently paid a thousand dollars to Confidential magazine to kill a story about Laughton’s sexuality, and Lanchester quotes a letter from Gregory in which he accused Henry Fonda, who appeared in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, of calling Laughton a “fat, ugly homosexual”—although Laughton told her that Fonda had used an even uglier word.) Their marriage was obviously a complicated one, but it was far from the only such partnership. The actress Mary Martin, best known for her role as Peter Pan, was married for decades to the producer and critic Richard Halliday, whom her biographer David Kaufman describes as “her father, her husband, her best friend, her gay/straight ‘cover,’ and, both literally and figuratively, her manager.” One of Martin’s closest friends was Janet Gaynor, the Academy Award-winning actress who played the lead in the original version of A Star is Born. Gaynor was married for many years to Gilbert Adrian, an openly gay costume designer whose most famous credit was The Wizard of Oz. Gaynor herself was widely believed to be gay or bisexual, and a few years after Adrian’s death, she married a second time—to Paul Gregory. Gaynor and Gregory often traveled with Martin, and they were involved in a horrific taxi accident in San Francisco in 1982, in which Martin’s manager was killed, Gregory broke both legs, Martin fractured two ribs and her pelvis, and Gaynor sustained injuries that led to her death two years later. Gregory remarried, but his second wife passed away shortly afterward, and he appears to have lived quietly on his own until his suicide three years ago. The rest of the world only recently heard about his death. But even if we don’t know the details, it seems clear that there were many stories from his life that we’ll never get to hear at all.

Mailer in Hollywood

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“I would love to get out to Hollywood for several months,” Norman Mailer wrote in a letter to an agent on May 10, 1948. “I have several ideas for novels now, but all of them are a little too small. The trouble with writing something like The Naked and the Dead is that you get frightened if your next can is smaller. And Hollywood, I think, would fit the bill.” When Mailer wrote these words, he was just twenty-five years old, and his first novel had made him famous overnight, complete with offers for the movie rights, which he was eager to explore. In secret, he was planning to use the experience in other ways, as he later confessed: “I went to Hollywood four years ago because in the back of my mind was the idea that I would write a nice big fat collective novel about the whole works—the idea I suppose with which every young writer goes out.” But he also had hopes of more tangible forms of success. He negotiated a deal with Warner Bros. to work on scripts with his good friend Jean Malaquais, to whom he optimistically wrote a few months after his arrival:

Hollywood-wise our position is not bad. I am not at all without hope, for in the last week a few small things have happened which lead me to believe that we shall reap the wind yet—the golden wind. Also I have a wonderful idea for a movie—just right for you and us. There is a young actor here who is in fabulous demand—Montgomery Clift, and he likes me, respects me, et al [sic]. My idea is that when he comes back to town in a couple of weeks, I will see him, and suggest the movie—The Red and the Black. It will be of necessity an extravaganza which means our pay would be higher.

The “extravaganza” never went anywhere, although Mailer and Malaquais worked on a script for Clift loosely based on Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaniel West, and they seem to have considered a project inspired by the organized crime group Murder, Inc. (Most of this information, as well as all quotes from letters, comes from the recent book Selected Letters of Norman Mailer, an astonishingly rich volume that offers countless possible avenues for exploration. I’ve chosen the Hollywood thread at random, but I hope to dig into it in other ways soon.) By 1950, Mailer had grown disillusioned, writing to his sister Barbara: “We got out of Hollywood by brute force, i.e., we made a decision to leave and by gosh and by God we did. I still can’t believe it. I thought I’d spend the rest of my life trying to produce that damn movie. Except I’m probably the only writer who actually lost money by going to Hollywood.” His last remaining point of interest—apart from working on the novel that eventually became The Deer Park—was to sell the rights to his most famous book. A few years later, he wrote to his lawyer Charles Rembar that he hoped to get at least $100,000 for The Naked and the Dead, explaining:

If Naked is going to be bought and crapped up it makes sense only if I’ll get real financial independence from it. Otherwise, I’d just as soon spare myself the heartache…The key to what I feel with all of the above is that the old saw about Hollywood psychology—if you don’t want them, they want you—is very true, at least from my experience. And my other feeling is that if I have to hump for a living in a couple of years, it may not be the worst thing in the world for me. So I’d rather be big or little but not in between.

The Naked in the Dead was ultimately filmed by Raoul Walsh, and Mailer called the result, which I haven’t seen, “one of the worst movies ever made.” (It was evidently in development at one point for Charles Laughton to direct with Robert Mitchum in the lead, only to be scrapped by the failure of The Night of the Hunter—which has to count as one of the most intriguing unmade movies in an industry with no shortage of broken dreams.) But the experience left Mailer with some valuable insights. In 1966, he wrote to Tony Macklin, the editor of the magazine Film Heritage:

I think as a working rule of thumb, a novelist or playwright cannot hope for their work to survive in Hollywood. It can only be adulterated or improved, and since filming a good novel makes everyone concerned quite tense, and justifiably so, since no one wishes particularly to adulterate good art—there are a few rewards in heaven for that—I think if I were a director I would look for the kind of modest novel which can make a fine movie. I think the best example is The Asphalt Jungle.

Mailer never forgot this, and he wrote years later to his frequent business partner Lawrence Schiller, with whom he had collaborated on The Executioner’s Song, to propose a few potential projects: “I think it can be said that any of Raymond Chandler’s novels that are available would be splendid for movies, and I think I could do a lot with them in adaptation, since Chandler has marvelous plots and terrific settings, but is occasionally a little thing in characterization…While we’re at it, it might be worth checking into Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett.” None of these adaptations ever came to pass, and Mailer couldn’t resist one more hopeful query: “What’s the story on A Farewell to Arms? I can’t remember when the last remake was done, but if that’s around, it’s a $30 million movie and the event of the year.”

When you read through Mailer’s letters on Hollywood, you’re left with a depressing sense of one of the most important writers of his generation repeatedly failing to gain traction in an industry that stubbornly resisted all his talent, ambition, and charisma. His correspondence is filled with fascinating hints of what might have been, some of which might have better been left unrealized, as when he wrote to the producer Mickey Knox to propose a version of Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King starring Orson Welles and Sonny Liston. (A decade later, he wrote to Peter Bogdanovich, who was interested in adapting his novel An American Dream, to ask if Welles would be interested in reading an unproduced screenplay by Mailer titled The Trial of the Warlock: “I agree it’s hardly the sort of thing he’d want to do—why ever get into something like that at this point in his career?—but he might have quick insight into how to make it better, or approach the problem of the horror. I could use that. Truth, I’d be delighted to have him read it in any case just for fun.” Nothing ever came of it, and to the best of my knowledge, the two great wunderkinds of the forties never even crossed paths.) Mailer worked with varying degrees of seriousness on scripts for Henry Miller’s The Rosy Crucifixion and the story that became Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, and he eventually did write a couple of teleplays for Schiller, including the O.J. Simpson movie American Tragedy. For the most part, however, he concluded that he was better off making movies on his own, leading to such directorial oddities as Beyond the Law, Maidstone, and Tough Guys Don’t Dance, the last of which is one of those films that has intrigued me for years without ever prompting me to actually watch it—and I have the feeling that it could hardly be other than a huge disappointment. And perhaps the final lesson is simply that writers, even the greatest ones, should adjust their expectations accordingly. As Mailer wrote to Tony Macklin: “A novelist or playwright sells his work to Hollywood not in order that the work shall survive in translation, but to purchase time for himself.” And Mailer, like all writers, needed all the time that he could get.

Levitating the Pentagon

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On October 21, 1967, over fifty thousand activists marched on the Pentagon to protest the war in Vietnam. The participants included Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, Jerry Rubin, Ed Sanders, and Norman Mailer, who describes one of the day’s most memorable episodes in The Armies of the Night:

This was the beginning of the exorcism of the Pentagon, yes the papers had made much of the permit requested by a hippie leader named Abbie Hoffman to encircle the Pentagon with twelve hundred men in order to form a ring of exorcism sufficiently powerful to raise the Pentagon three hundred feet. In the air the Pentagon would then, went the presumption, turn orange and vibrate until all evil emissions had fled this levitation. At that point the war in Vietnam would end.

The notion of levitating the Pentagon—an occult symbol that had been corrupted into an emblem of war—was the brainchild of Michael Bowen, a San Francisco artist and political organizer whose friends included Timothy Leary and Gary Snyder. As the ceremony proceeded, a flyer was circulated that encouraged the attendees to concentrate their minds on casting out evil: “A billion stars in a billion galaxies of space and time is the form of your power, and limitless is your name.” Rubin and Ginsberg led the crowd in invocations and mantras, and Bowen distributed flowers to the protesters, who inserted daisies into the gun barrels of the military police. Watching the scene unfold, Mailer marveled: “On which acidic journeys had the hippies met the witches and the devils and the cutting edge of all primitive awe?”

It was a rhetorical question, but the real answer is genuinely surprising. Bowen credited the basic idea for the ceremony to his guru, an occultist living in Mexico named John Starr Cooke. As a recent article in Smithsonian recounts:

Cooke had sent his protégé as a missionary of sorts in search of fellow travelers in New York, London, and most recently San Francisco, where he had found his greatest success rallying people to the cause…Following the Be-In [in January 1967]…Bowen returned to Mexico to be with his teacher. They worked on extrasensory perception, ancient Mayan shamanic rituals, and the metaphysical symbology that informed the artist’s paintings. Then the guru dispatched his student back to the United States—arming him this time with an outlandish idea that found a surprisingly receptive audience.

Attentive readers of this blog might remember that Cooke was also an associate of L. Ron Hubbard, an early proponent of dianetics, and allegedly the first “clear” in America. As I’ve noted here before, Cooke spent time with Hubbard in London and Tangier, and it was through him that Byron Gysin and William S. Burroughs were introduced to Scientology. But if the idea of levitating the Pentagon truly came from Cooke, it may well have been influenced in turn by Hubbard, who described the individual who has reached the stage beyond clear: “A thetan who is completely rehabilitated and can do everything a thetan should do, such as move MEST [matter, energy, space, and time] and control others from a distance, or create his own universe; a person who is able to create his own universe or, living in the MEST universe is able to create illusions perceivable by others at will, to handle MEST universe objects without mechanical means.” And Hubbard himself was rumored to be able to move objects with his mind, as one of his former followers later recalled: “People thought he could levitate things.”

In my original post on the subject, I wrote of Cooke: “It may have been through him that aspects of dianetics entered the counterculture—another important story that has yet to be told.” When I wrote those words, I didn’t know the half of it. For now, though, I’d like to focus on the mysterious way in which one of Hubbard’s wild promises was transmuted, as in a game of telephone, into something genuinely moving and memorable. It didn’t succeed in levitating the Pentagon, but only in the sense that Sgt. Pepper didn’t end the Vietnam War. As none other than Daniel Ellsberg notes in an oral history of the event by Arthur magazine:

I was working on the Pentagon Papers that fall in a room which happened to be right next to MacNamara’s office. I’d come back from Vietnam very anxious to see the war end and to do whatever I could to help that. So I was very sympathetic to the anti-war movement, what I knew of it. The idea of levitating the Pentagon struck me as a great idea because the idea of removing deference from any of these institutions is very, very important, and this is of course the kind of thing that Abbie understood very instinctively. It was not just a matter of clowning and a way to get the attention of the media, or to make people smile. And the idea that you would jointly piss on the Pentagon as part of a pagan ceremony raises so many associations. One might think of the Pentagon as pagan in itself, but that’s a slander of pagan religion.

Or as Ginsberg says in the same article: “The levitation of the Pentagon was a happening that demystified the authority of the military. The Pentagon was symbolically levitated in people’s minds in the sense that it lost its authority which had been unquestioned and unchallenged until then…Once the kid put his flower in the barrel of the kid looking just like himself but tense and nervous, the authority of the Pentagon psychologically was dissolved.”

And this kind of demystification is exactly the kind of thing that the confidence trickster is born to do. It’s a vital form of protest, and the fact that it may have indirectly drawn inspiration from Hubbard, of all people, is revealing in itself. These impulses can go in any number of directions. Abbie Hoffman himself had a lot in common with the denizens of the pool halls that also filled David Mamet with nostalgia, as John Escow told Arthur: “Abbie’s political program was just a hastily thrown together amalgamation of some things he had read, certain life lessons that he had picked up in pool halls and on the street.” Writing in his introduction to Hoffman’s autobiography, Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture, Mailer intuitively makes the connection to an even older archetype:

Abbie was one of the most incredible-looking people I ever met. In fact, he wasn’t twentieth century, but nineteenth. Might just as well have emerged out of Oliver Twist. You could say he used to look like a chimney sweep. In fact, I don’t know what chimney sweeps looked like, but I always imagined them as having a manic integrity that glared out of their eyes through all the soot and darked-up skin. It was the knowledge that they were doing an essential job that no one else would do. Without them, everybody in the house would slowly, over the years, suffocate from the smoke.

These skills are far older than modern politics, and they’re ideologically neutral, which can frustrate more “serious” activists—but which also makes them even more effective at certain kinds of mobilization. (As Paul Krassner recalls in the same oral history: “[Abbie] saw that people who could be organized to go to a smoke-in, could be organized to go to an antiwar rally.) Jerry Rubin once pointed out in the Berkeley Barb: “The worst thing you can say about a demonstration is that it is boring, and one of the reasons that the peace movement has not grown into a mass movement is that the peace movement—its literature and its events—is a bore. Good theatre is needed to communicate revolutionary content.” That’s as true today as it ever was. And the show is just getting started.

Quote of the Day

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The invasion of the moon was signal direct to commence his new psychology…He would call it The Psychology of Astronauts, for they were either the end of the old or the first of the new men, and one would have nothing to measure them by until the lines of the new psychology had begun to be drawn.

Norman Mailer, Of a Fire on the Moon

Written by nevalalee

October 24, 2018 at 7:30 am

The technical review

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One of my favorite works of science fiction, if we define the term as broadly as possible, is Space Colonies, a collection of articles and interviews edited by Stewart Brand that was published in 1977. The year seems significant in itself. It was a period in which Star Trek and Dune—both of which were obviously part of the main sequence of stories inaugurated by John W. Campbell at Astounding—had moved the genre decisively into the mainstream. After the climax of the moon landing, the space race seemed to be winding down, or settling into a groove without a clear destination, and the public was growing restless. (As Norman Mailer said a few years earlier on the Voyage Beyond Apollo cruise, people were starting to view space with indifference or hostility, rather than as a form of adventure.) It was a time in which the environmental movement, the rise of the computer culture, and the political climate of the San Francisco Bay Area were interacting in ways that can seem hard to remember now. In retrospect, it feels like the perfect time for the emergence of Gerard O’Neill, whose ideas about space colonies received widespread attention in just about the only window that would have allowed them to take hold. During the preparation and editing of Space Colonies, which was followed shortly afterward by O’Neill’s book The High Frontier, another cultural phenomenon was beginning to divert some of those energies along very different lines. And while I can’t say for sure, I suspect that the reception of his work, or at least the way that people talked about it, would have been rather different if it had entered the conversation after Star Wars.

As it turned out, the timing was just right for a wide range of unusually interesting people to earnestly debate the prospect of space colonization. In his introduction to Space Colonies, which consists mostly of material that had previously appeared in CoEvolution Quarterly, Brand notes that “no one else has published the highly intelligent attacks” that O’Neill had inspired, and by far the most interesting parts of the book are the sections devoted to this heated debate. Brand writes:

Something about O’Neill’s dream has cut deep. Nothing we’ve run in The CQ has brought so much response or opinions so fierce and unpredictable and at times ambivalent. It seems to be a paradigmatic question to ask if we should move massively into space. In addressing that we’re addressing our most fundamental conflicting perceptions of ourself, of the planetary civilization we’ve got under way. From the perspective of space colonies everything looks different. Choices we’ve already made have to be made again, because changed context changes content. Artificial vs. Natural, Let vs. Control, Local vs. Centralized, Dream vs. Obey—all are re-jumbled. And space colonies aren’t even really new. That’s part of their force—they’re so damned inherent in what we’ve been about for so long. But the shift seems enormous, and terrifying or inspiring to scale. Hello, stars. Goodbye, earth? Is this the longed-for metamorphosis, our brilliant wings at last, or the most poisonous of panaceas?

And the most striking parts of the book today are the passionate opinions on space colonies, both positive and negative, from some very smart respondents who thought that the idea was worth taking seriously.

Leafing through the book now, I feel a strange kind of double awareness, as names that I associate with the counterculture of the late seventies argue about a future that never happened. It leads off with a great line from Ken Kesey: “A lot of people who want to get into space never got into the earth.” (This echoes one of my favorite observations from Robert Anton Wilson, quoting Brad Steiger: “The lunatic asylums are full of people who naively set out to study the occult before they had any real competence in dealing with the ordinary.”) The great Lewis Mumford dismisses space colonies as “another pathological manifestation of the culture that has spent all of its resources on expanding the nuclear means for exterminating the human race.” But the most resonant critical comment on the whole enterprise comes from the poet Wendell Berry:

What cannot be doubted is that the project is an ideal solution to the moral dilemma of all those in this society who cannot face the necessities of meaningful change. It is superbly attuned to the wishes of the corporation executives, bureaucrats, militarists, political operators, and scientific experts who are the chief beneficiaries of the forces that have produced our crisis. For what is remarkable about Mr. O’Neill’s project is not its novelty or its adventurousness, but its conventionality. If it should be implemented, it will be the rebirth of the idea of Progress with all its old lust for unrestrained expansion, its totalitarian concentrations of energy and wealth, its obliviousness to the concerns of character and community, its exclusive reliance on technical and economic criteria, its disinterest in consequence, its contempt for human value, its compulsive salesmanship.

And another line from Berry has been echoing in my head all morning: “It is only a desperate attempt to revitalize the thug morality of the technological specialist, by which we blandly assume that we must do anything whatever that we can do.”

What interests me the most about his response, which you can read in its entirety here, is that it also works as a criticism of many of the recent proposals to address climate change—which may be the one place in which the grand scientific visions of the late seventies may actually come to pass, if only because we won’t have a choice. Berry continues:

This brings me to the central weakness of Mr. O’Neill’s case: its shallow and gullible morality. Space colonization is seen as a solution to problems that are inherently moral, in that they are implicit in our present definitions of character and community. And yet here is a solution to moral problems that contemplates no moral change and subjects itself to no moral standard. Indeed, the solution is based upon the moral despair of Mr. O’Neill’s assertion that “people do not change.” The only standards of judgment that have been applied to this project are technical and economic. Much is made of the fact that the planners’ studies “continue to survive technical review.” But there is no human abomination that has not, or could not have, survived technical review.

Replace “space colonization” with “geoengineering,” and you have a paragraph that could be published today. (My one modification would be to revise Berry’s description of the morality of the technical specialist, which has subtly evolved into “we can do anything whatever that we must do.”) In a recent article in The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert throws up her hands when it comes to the problem of how to discuss the environment without succumbing to despair. After quoting the scientist Peter Wadhams on the need for “technologies to block sunlight, or change the reflectivity of clouds,” she writes: “Apparently, this is supposed to count as inspirational.” Yet the debate still needs to happen, and Space Colonies is the best model I’ve found for this sort of technical review, which has to involve voices of all kinds. Because it turns out that we were living on a space colony all along.

First man, first communion

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On July 5, 1969, eleven days before the launch of Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins took part in an unusual press conference at the Manned Space Center in Houston. Because they were being kept in quarantine, the astronauts answered questions while seated behind a desk inside a large plastic box. One of the attendees was Norman Mailer, who describes the scene in his book Of a Fire on the Moon, which he narrates under the name Aquarius:

Behind them at the rear of the plastic booth stood an American flag; the Press actually jeered when somebody brought it onstage in advance of the astronauts. Aquarius could not remember a press conference where Old Glory had ever been mocked before, but it had no great significance, suggesting rather a splash of derision at the thought that the show was already sufficiently American enough.

When an international correspondent asked about the decision to plant an American flag on the lunar surface, Armstrong offered a characteristic answer: “Well, I suspect that if we asked all the people in the audience and all of us up here, all of us would give different ideas on what they would like to take to the moon and think should be taken, everyone within his own experience. I don’t think there is any question what our job is. Our job is to fly the spacecraft as best as we can. We never would suggest that it is our responsibility to suggest what the U.S. posture on the moon should be. That decision has been made where it should be made, namely in the Congress of this country. I wouldn’t presume to question it.”

I was reminded of Armstrong’s measured reply in light of the controversy that briefly flared up over Damien Chazelle’s upcoming biopic First Man, which apparently fails to show the moment in which the flag was raised on the moon. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t displayed at all—it seems to be prominently featured in several shots—but the absence of a scene in which the flag is explicitly planted on lunar soil has led to criticism from exactly the sort of people you might suspect. In response, Chazelle has explained: “My goal with this movie was to share with audiences the unseen, unknown aspects of America’s mission to the moon—particularly Neil Armstrong’s personal saga and what he may have been thinking and feeling during those famous few hours.” And it seems clear that Armstrong wasn’t particularly concerned with the flag itself. Decades later, he said to James R. Hansen, the author of the authorized biography on which the film is based:

Some people thought a United Nations flag should be there, and some people thought there should be flags of a lot of nations. In the end, it was decided by Congress that this was a United States project. We were not going to make any territorial claim, but we ought to let people know that we were here and put up a U.S. flag. My job was to get the flag there. I was less concerned about whether that was the right artifact to place. I let other, wiser minds than mine make those kinds of decisions.

This feels like Armstrong’s diplomatic way of saying that he had more pressing concerns, and the planting of the flag seems to have been less important to him in the moment than it would later be, say, to Marco Rubio.

For any event as complicated and symbolically weighted as the first moon landing, we naturally choose which details to emphasize or omit, which was true even at the time. In the book First Man, Hansen recounts a scene in the Lunar Module that wasn’t widely publicized:

Aldrin…reached into his Personal Preference Kit, or PPK, and pulled out two small packages given to him by his Presbyterian minister, Reverend Dean Woodruff, back in Houston. One package contained a vial of wine, the other a wafer. Pouring the wine into a small chalice that he also pulled from his kit, he prepared to take Holy Communion…Buzz radioed, “Houston, this is the LM pilot speaking. I would like to request a few moments of silence. I would like to invite each person listening in, wherever or whoever he may be, to contemplate the events of the last few hours and to give thanks in his own individual way.”

Originally, Aldrin had hoped to read aloud from the Book of John, but NASA—evidently concerned by the threat of legal action from the atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair—encouraged him to keep the ritual to himself. (Word did leak from the minister to Walter Cronkite, who informed viewers that Aldrin would have “the first communion on the moon.”) And Armstrong’s feelings on the subject were revealing. As Hansen writes:

Characteristically, Neil greeted Buzz’s religious ritual with polite silence. “He had told me he planned a little celebratory communion,” Neil recalls, “and he asked me if I had any problems with that, and I said, ‘No, go right ahead.’ I had plenty of things to keep busy with. I just let him do his own thing.”

The fact that NASA hoped to pass over the moment discreetly only reflects how much selection goes into the narratives of such events—and our sense of what matters can change from one day to the next. In Of a Fire on the Moon, Mailer follows up his account of the jeers at the press conference with a striking anecdote from the landing itself:

When the flag was set up on the moon, the Press applauded. The applause continued, grew larger—soon they would be giving the image of the flag a standing ovation. It was perhaps a way of apologizing for the laughter before, and the laughter they knew would come again, but the experience was still out of register. A reductive society was witnessing the irreducible.

In fact, we reduce all such events sooner or later to a few simple components, which tend to confirm our own beliefs. (Aldrin later had second thoughts about his decision to take communion on the moon, noting that “we had come to space in the name of all mankind—be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics, or atheists.” Notably, in her lawsuit against NASA, O’Hair had alleged that the agency was covering up the fact that Armstrong was an atheist. Armstrong, who described himself as a “deist,” wasn’t much concerned with the matter, as he later told Hansen: “I can’t say I was very familiar with that. I don’t remember that ever being mentioned to me until sometime in the aftermath of the mission.” And my favorite lunar urban legend is the rumor that Armstrong converted to Islam after hearing the Muslim call to prayer on the moon.) But such readings are a luxury granted only to those whose role is to observe. Throughout his career, Armstrong remained focused on the logistics of the mission, which were more than enough to keep him busy. He was content to leave the interpretation to others. And that’s a big part of the reason why he got there first.

A poet’s education

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If you want to be a writer, sooner or later, you’re faced with the question of how much you need to read in your field before you can start to write in it. You’ve probably done a lot of reading already, but you still have the nagging feeling that you should be approaching it more systematically. In The White Goddess, Robert Graves observes that the standard training for an Irish oral poet included memorizing epic poems and tales, studying advanced metrical forms, and much more: “He knew the history and mythic value of every word he used…His education, which was a very general one, including history, music, law, science, and divination, encouraged him to versify in all these departments of knowledge.” Robert Anton Wilson outlines a similar course of study in Cosmic Trigger:

[Aleister] Crowley always insisted that nobody should try his more advanced techniques without (a) being in excellent health, (b) being competent in at least one athletic skill, (c) being able to conduct experiments accurately in at least one science, (d) having a general knowledge of several sciences, (e) being able to pass an examination in formal logic and (f) being able to pass an examination in the history of philosophy, including Idealism, Materialism, Rationalism, Spiritualism, Comparative Theology, etc. Without that kind of general knowledge and the self-confidence and independence of thought produced by such study, magick investigation will merely blow your mind. As Brad Steiger has said, the lunatic asylums are full of people who naively set out to study the occult before they had any real competence in dealing with the ordinary.

I love this last sentence, which is as true of writing as it is of mysticism, and I’m also of the school of thought that believes that you need to know the rules before you can break them. Yet I’m also aware that this attitude can turn into a kind of gatekeeping, which discourages beginners from doing what they love until they’ve mastered a body of canonical knowledge. And a true writer doesn’t wait. But there are good practical reasons for becoming familiar with the tradition in which you’re working, and despite what you may have been told, they have nothing to do with “avoiding” what other writers have done. In his fascinating book The Singer of Tales, the classicist Albert Lord lays out the pitfalls that confront the oral poet, whose situation is even more challenging:

There are two factors in oral composition that are not present in a written tradition. We must remember that the oral poet has no idea of a fixed model text to serve as his guide. He has models enough, but they are not fixed and he has no idea of memorizing them in a fixed form. Every time he hears a song sung, it is different. Secondly, there is a factor of time. The literate poet has leisure to compose at any rate he pleases. The oral poet must keep singing. His composition, by its very nature, must be rapid. Individual singers may and do vary in their rate of composition, of course, but it has limits because there is an audience waiting to hear the story. Some singers…begin very slowly with fairly long pauses between lines, working up gradually to very rapid rhythmic composition. Others insert many musical interludes of brief duration while they think of what is coming next. Still others have a formulaic phrase of general character addressed to the audience which they use to mark time…But these devices have to be used sparingly, because the audience will not tolerate too many of them.

Lord’s great insight—which he based on the work of his late mentor Milman Parry—is that the form of oral poetry and the poet’s education are designed to address these exact problems. He continues:

If the singer has no idea of the fixity of the form of a song, and yet has to pour his ideas into a more or less rigid rhythmic pattern in rapid composition, what does he do? To phrase the question a little differently, how does the oral poet meet the need of the requirements of rapid composition without the aid of writing and without memorizing a fixed form? His tradition comes to the rescue. Other singers have met the same need, and over many generations there have been developed many phrases which express in the several rhythmic patterns the ideas most common in the poetry. These are the formulas of which Parry wrote.

The italics are mine. An oral poet’s performance is only the most extreme case of the challenge that faces all writers, which is the problem of what to do next. The more models you’ve absorbed, the more easily you can draw on solutions that other writers have found, which is an honorable form of creativity in itself. Sometimes, of course, this kind of craft can be a trap. Graves notes that some of the most educated Welsh bards strayed from what was best about their art, “while the despised and unendowed minstrel…showed the greater poetic integrity, even though his verse was not so highly polished.” And Norman Mailer memorably wrote: “Craft is merely a series of way stations. I think of it as being like a Saint Bernard with that little bottle of brandy under his neck. Whenever you get into trouble, craft can keep you warm long enough to be rescued. Of course, this is exactly what keeps good novelists from becoming great novelists.”

He’s right. But it’s also necessary for survival. For an oral poet, craft is literally a way station—a place to pause and gather one’s thoughts—and it serves much the same role for writers who can’t rely solely on inspiration. At its best, it also provides material that an author would never be able to invent on his or her own, which leads in turn to greater freedom. As Lord writes: “We might say that the final period of training comes to an end when the singer’s repertory is large enough to furnish entertainment for several nights. Yet it is better to define the end of the period by the freedom with which he moves in his tradition, because that is the mark of the finished poet. When he has a sufficient command of the formula technique to sing any song that he hears, and enough thematic material at hand to lengthen or shorten a song according to his own desires and to create a new song if he sees fit, then he is an accomplished singer and worthy of his art.” And he concludes with a description that applies just as well to those who write as to those who sing:

The singer never stops in the process of accumulating, recombining, and remodeling formulas and themes, thus perfecting his singing and enriching his art. He proceeds in two directions: he moves toward refining what he already knows and toward learning new songs. The latter process has now become for him one of learning proper names and of knowing what themes make up the new song. The story is all that he needs; so in this stage he can hear a song once and repeat it immediately afterwards—not word for word, of course—but he can tell the same story again in his own words. Sometimes singers prefer to have a day or so to think the song over, to put it in order, and to practice it to themselves. Such singers are either less confident of their ability, or they may be greater perfectionists.

A season of disenchantment

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A few days ago, Matt Groening announced that his new animated series, Disenchantment, will premiere in August on Netflix. Under other circumstances, I might have been pleased by the prospect of another show from the creator of The Simpsons and Futurama—not to mention producers Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein—and I expect that I’ll probably watch it. At the moment, however, it’s hard for me to think about Groening at all without recalling his recent reaction to the long overdue conversation around the character of Apu. When Bill Keveny of USA Today asked earlier this month if he had any thoughts on the subject, Groening replied: “Not really. I’m proud of what we do on the show. And I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended.” It was a profoundly disappointing statement, particularly after Hank Azaria himself had expressed his willingness to step aside from the role, and it was all the more disillusioning coming from a man whose work has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. As I noted in my earlier post, the show’s unfeeling response to this issue is painful because it contradicts everything that The Simpsons was once supposed to represent. It was the smartest show on television; it was simply right about everything; it offered its fans an entire metaphorical language. And as the passage of time reveals that it suffered from its own set of blinders, it doesn’t just cast doubt on the series and its creators, but on the viewers, like me, who used it for so long as an intellectual benchmark.

And it’s still an inescapable part of my personal lexicon. Last year, for instance, when Elon Musk defended his decision to serve on Trump’s economic advisory council, I thought immediately of what Homer says to Marge in “Whacking Day”: “Maybe if I’m part of that mob, I can help steer it in wise directions.” Yet it turns out that I might have been too quick to give Musk—who, revealingly, was the subject of an adulatory episode of The Simpsons—the benefit of the doubt. A few months later, in response to reports of discrimination at Tesla, he wrote an email to employees that included this remarkable paragraph:

If someone is a jerk to you, but sincerely apologizes, it is important to be thick-skinned and accept that apology. If you are part of a lesser represented group, you don’t get a free pass on being a jerk yourself. We have had a few cases at Tesla were someone in a less represented group was actually given a job or promoted over more qualified highly represented candidates and then decided to sue Tesla for millions of dollars because they felt they weren’t promoted enough. That is obviously not cool.

The last two lines, which were a clear reference to the case of A.J. Vandermeyden, tell us more about Musk’s idea of a “sincere apology” than he probably intended. And when Musk responded this week to criticism of Tesla’s safety and labor practices by accusing the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting of bias and proposing a site where users could provide a “credibility score” for individual journalists, he sounded a lot like the president whose circle of advisers he only reluctantly left.

Musk, who benefited from years of uncritical coverage from people who will forgive anything as long as you talk about space travel, seems genuinely wounded by any form of criticism or scrutiny, and he lashes out just as Trump does—by questioning the motives of ordinary reporters or sources, whom he accuses of being in the pocket of unions or oil companies. Yet he’s also right to be worried. We’re living in a time when public figures and institutions are going to be judged by their responses to questions that they would rather avoid, which isn’t likely to change. And the media itself is hardly exempt. For the last two weeks, I’ve been waiting for The New Yorker to respond to stories about the actions of two of its most prominent contributors, Junot Díaz and the late David Foster Wallace. I’m not even sure what I want the magazine to do, exactly, except make an honest effort to grapple with the situation, and maybe even offer a valuable perspective, which is why I read it in the first place. (In all honesty, it fills much the same role in my life these days as The Simpsons did in my teens. As Norman Mailer wrote back in the sixties: “Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people in the most established parts of the middle class kill their quickest impulses before they dare to act in such a way as to look ridiculous to the private eye of their taste whose style has been keyed by the eye of The New Yorker.”) As the days passed without any comment, I assumed that it was figuring out how to tackle an admittedly uncomfortable topic, and I didn’t expect it to rush. Now that we’ve reached the end of the month without any public engagement at all, however, I can only conclude that it’s deliberately ignoring the matter in hopes that it will go away. I hope that I’m wrong. But so far, it’s a discouraging omission from a magazine whose stories on Harvey Weinstein and Eric Schneiderman implicitly put it at the head of an entire movement.

The New Yorker has evidently discovered that it’s harder to take such stands when they affect people whom we know or care about— which only means that it can get in line. Our historical moment has forced some of our smartest individuals and organizations to learn how to take criticism as well as to give it, and it’s often those whose observations about others have been the sharpest who turn out to be singularly incapable, as Clarice Starling once put it, when it comes to pointing that high-powered perception on themselves. (In this list, which is constantly being updated, I include Groening, Musk, The New Yorker, and about half the cast of Arrested Development.) But I can sympathize with their predicament, because I feel it nearly every day. My opinion of Musk has always been rather mixed, but nothing can dislodge the affection and gratitude that I feel toward the first eight seasons of The Simpsons, and I expect to approvingly link to an article in The New Yorker this time next week. But if our disenchantment forces us to question the icons whose influence is fundamental to our conception of ourselves, then perhaps it will have been worth the pain. Separating our affection for the product from those who produced it is a problem that we all have to confront, and it isn’t going to get any easier. As I was thinking about this post yesterday, the news broke that Morgan Freeman had been accused by multiple women of inappropriate behavior. In response, he issued a statement that read in part: “I apologize to anyone who felt uncomfortable or disrespected.” It reminded me a little of another man who once grudgingly said of some remarks that were caught on tape: “I apologize if anyone was offended.” But it sounds a lot better when you imagine it in Morgan Freeman’s voice.

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May 25, 2018 at 9:21 am

The Big One

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In a heartfelt appreciation of the novelist Philip Roth, who died earlier this week, the New York Times critic Dwight Garner describes him as “the last front-rank survivor of a generation of fecund and authoritative and, yes, white and male novelists…[that] included John Updike, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow.” These four names seem fated to be linked together for as long as any of them is still read and remembered, and they’ve played varying roles in my own life. I was drawn first to Mailer, who for much of my adolescence was my ideal of what a writer should be, less because of his actual fiction than thanks to my repeated readings of the juiciest parts of Peter Manso’s oral biography. (If you squint hard and think generously, you can even see Mailer’s influence in the way I’ve tried to move between fiction and nonfiction, although in both cases it was more a question of survival.) Updike, my favorite, was a writer I discovered after college. I agree with Garner that he probably had the most “sheer talent” of them all, and he represents my current model, much more than Mailer, of an author who could apparently do anything. Bellow has circled in and out of my awareness over the years, and it’s only recently that I’ve started to figure out what he means to me, in part because of his ambiguous status as a subject of biography. And Roth was the one I knew least. I’d read Portnoy’s Complaint and one or two of the Zuckerman novels, but I always felt guilty over having never gotten around to such late masterpieces as American Pastoral—although the one that I should probably check out first these days is The Plot Against America.

Yet I’ve been thinking about Roth for about as long as I’ve wanted to be a writer, largely because he came as close as anyone ever could to having the perfect career, apart from the lack of the Nobel Prize. He won the National Book Award for his debut at the age of twenty-six; he had a huge bestseller at an age when he was properly equipped to enjoy it; and he closed out his oeuvre with a run of major novels that critics seemed to agree were among the best that he, or anyone, had ever written. (As Garner nicely puts it: “He turned on the afterburners.”) But he never seemed satisfied by his achievement, which you can take as an artist’s proper stance toward his work, a reflection of the fleeting nature of such rewards, a commentary on the inherent bitterness of the writer’s life, or all of the above. Toward the end of his career, Roth actively advised young writers not to become novelists, and in his retirement announcement, which he delivered almost casually to a French magazine, he quoted Joe Louis: “I did the best I could with what I had.” A month later, in an interview with Charles McGrath of the New York Times, he expanded on his reasoning:

I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration—it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time…I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore…I knew I wasn’t going to get another good idea, or if I did, I’d have to slave over it.

And on his computer, he posted a note that gave him strength when he looked at it each day: “The struggle with writing is over.”

Roth’s readers, of course, rarely expressed the same disillusionment, and he lives most vividly in my mind as a reference point against which other authors could measure themselves. In an interview with The Telegraph, John Updike made one of the most quietly revealing statements that I’ve ever heard from a writer, when asked if he felt that he and Roth were in competition:

Yes, I can’t help but feel it somewhat. Especially since Philip really has the upper hand in the rivalry as far as I can tell. I think in a list of admirable novelists there was a time when I might have been near the top, just tucked under Bellow. But since Bellow died I think Philip has…he’s certainly written more novels than I have, and seems more dedicated in a way to the act of writing as a means of really reshaping the world to your liking. But he’s been very good to have around as far as goading me to become a better writer.

I think about that “list of admirable novelists” all the time, and it wasn’t just a joke. In an excellent profile in The New Yorker, Claudia Roth Pierpoint memorably sketched in all the ways in which other writers warily circled Roth. When asked if the two of them were friends, Updike said, “Guardedly,” and Bellow seems to have initially held Roth at arm’s length, until his wife convinced him to give the younger writer a chance. Pierpont concludes of the relationship between Roth and Updike: “They were mutual admirers, wary competitors who were thrilled to have each other in the world to up their game: Picasso and Matisse.”

And they also remind me of another circle of writers whom I know somewhat better. If Bellow, Mailer, Updike, and Roth were the Big Four of the literary world, they naturally call to mind the Big Three of science fiction—Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke. In each case, the group’s members were perfectly aware of how exceptional they were, and they carefully guarded their position. (Once, in a conference call with the other two authors, Asimov jokingly suggested that one of them should die to make room for their successors. Heinlein responded: “Fuck the other writers!”) Clarke and Asimov seem to have been genuinely “thrilled to have each other in the world,” but their relationship with the third point of the triangle was more fraught. Toward the end, Asimov started to “avoid” the combative Heinlein, who had a confrontation with Clarke over the Strategic Defense Initiative that effectively ended their friendship. In public, they remained cordial, but you can get a hint of their true feelings in a remarkable passage from the memoir I. Asimov:

[Clarke] and I are now widely known as the Big Two of science fiction. Until early 1988, as I’ve said, people spoke of the Big Three, but then Arthur fashioned a little human figurine of wax and with a long pin— At least, he has told me this. Perhaps he’s trying to warn me. I have made it quite plain to him, however, that if he were to find himself the Big One, he would be very lonely. At the thought of that, he was affected to the point of tears, so I think I’m safe.

As it turned out, Clarke, like Roth, outlived all the rest, and perhaps they felt lonely in the end. Longevity can amount to a kind of victory in itself. But it must be hard to be the Big One.

The stuff of thought

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On December 4, 1972, the ocean liner SS Statendam sailed from New York to Florida, where its passengers would witness the launch of Apollo 17, the final manned mission to the moon. The guests on the cruise included Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Frederik Pohl, Theodore Sturgeon, Norman Mailer, Katherine Anne Porter, and the newscaster Hugh Downs. It’s quite a story, and I’ve written about it elsewhere at length. What I’d like to highlight today, though, is what was happening a few miles away on shore, as Tom Wolfe recounts in the introduction to the paperback edition of The Right Stuff:

This book grew out of some ordinary curiosity. What is it, I wondered, that makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle, such as a Redstone, Atlas, Titan, or Saturn rocket, and wait for someone to light the fuse? I decided on the simplest approach possible. I would ask a few astronauts and find out. So I asked a few in December of 1972 when they gathered at Cape Canaveral to watch the last mission to the moon, Apollo 17. I discovered quickly enough that none of them, no matter how talkative otherwise, was about to answer the question or even linger for more than a few seconds on the subject at the heart of it, which is to say, courage.

Wolfe’s “ordinary curiosity” led him to tackle a project that would consume him for the better part of a decade, driven by his discovery of “a rich and fabulous terrain that, in a literary sense, had remained as dark as the far side of the moon for more than half a century: military flying and the modern American officer corps.”

And my mind sometimes turns to the contrast between Wolfe, trying to get the astronauts to open up about their experiences, and the writers aboard the Statendam. You had Mailer, of course, who had written his own book on the moon, and the result was often extraordinary. It was more about Mailer himself than anything else, though, and during the cruise, he seemed more interested in laying out his theory of the thanatosphere, an invisible region around the moon populated by the spirits of the dead. Then you had such science fiction writers as Heinlein and Asimov, who would occasionally cross paths with real astronauts, but whose fiction was shaped by assumptions about the competent man that had been formed decades earlier. Wolfe decided to go to the source, but even he kept the pulps at the back of his mind. In his introduction, speaking of the trend in military fiction after World War I, he observes:

The only proper protagonist for a tale of war was an enlisted man, and he was to be presented not as a hero but as Everyman, as much a victim of war as any civilian. Any officer above the rank of second lieutenant was to be presented as a martinet or a fool, if not an outright villain, no matter whom he fought for. The old-fashioned tale of prowess and heroism was relegated to second- and third-rate forms of literature, ghostwritten autobiographies, and stories in pulp magazines on the order of Argosy and Bluebook.

Wolfe adds: “Even as late as the 1930s the favorite war stories in the pulps concerned World War I pilots.” And it was to pursue “the drama and psychology” of this mysterious courage in the real world that he wrote The Right Stuff.

The result is a lasting work of literary journalism, as well as one of the most entertaining books ever written, and we owe it to the combination of Wolfe’s instinctive nose for a story and his obsessiveness in following it diligently for years. Last year, in a review of John McPhee’s new collection of essays, Malcolm Harris said dryly: “I would recommend Draft No. 4 to writers and anyone interested in writing, but no one should use it as a professional guide uncritically or they’re liable to starve.” You could say much the same about Wolfe, who looks a lot like the kind of journalist we aren’t likely to see again, in part because the market has changed, but also because this kind of luck can be hard for anyone to sustain over the course of a career. Wolfe hit the jackpot on multiple occasions, but he also spent years on books that nobody read—Back to Blood, his last novel, cost its publisher a hundred dollars for every copy that it sold. (Toward the end, he could even seem out of his depth. It probably isn’t a coincidence that I never read I Am Charlotte Simmons, a novel about “Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Duke, and a few other places all rolled into one” that was published a few years after I graduated from college. Wolfe’s insights into undergraduate life, delivered with his customary breathlessness, didn’t seem useful for understanding an experience that I had just undergone, and I’ve never forgotten the critic who suggested that the novel should have been titled I Am Easily Impressed.)

But that’s also the kind of risk required to produce major work. Wolfe’s movement from nonfiction to novels still feels like a loss, and I think that it deprived us of two or three big books of the kind that he could write better than anyone else. (It’s too bad that he never wrote anything about science fiction, which is a subject that could only be grasped by the kind of writer who could produce both The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.) Yet it isn’t always the monumental achievements that matter. In fact, when I think of what Wolfe has meant to me, it’s his offhand critical comments that have stuck in my head. The short introduction that he wrote to a collection of James M. Cain’s novels, in which he justifiably praised Cain’s “momentum,” has probably had a greater influence on my own style—or at least my aspirations for it—than any other single piece of criticism. His description of Umberto Eco as “a very good example of a writer who leads dozens of young writers into a literary cul-de-sac” is one that I’ll always remember, mostly because he might have been speaking of me. In college, I saw him give a reading once, shortly before the release of the collection Hooking Up. I was struck by his famous white suit, of course, but what I’ll never forget is the moment, just before he began to read, when he reached into his inside pocket and produced a pair of reading glasses—also spotlessly white. It was a perfect punchline, with the touch of the practiced showman, and it endeared Wolfe to me at times when I grew tired of his style and opinions. His voice and his ambition inspired many imitators, but at his best, it was the small stuff that set him apart.

Bringing the news

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“I think there is a tremendous future for a sort of novel that will be called the journalistic novel or perhaps documentary novel, novels of intense social realism based upon the same painstaking reporting that goes into the New Journalism,” the journalist Tom Wolfe wrote in Esquire in 1973. This statement is justifiably famous, and if you think that Wolfe, who passed away yesterday, was making a declaration of intent, you’d be right. In the very next sentence, however, which is quoted much less often, Wolfe added a line that I find tremendously revealing: “I see no reason why novelists who look down on Arthur Hailey’s work couldn’t do the same sort of reporting and research he does—and write it better, if they’re able.” It might seem strange for Wolfe to invoke the author of Hotel and Airport, but two years later, in a long interview with the writer and critic Joe David Bellamy, he doubled down. After Bellamy mentioned Émile Zola as a model for the kind of novel that Wolfe was advocating, the two men had the following exchange:

Wolfe: The fact that [Zola] was bringing you news was a very important thing.

Bellamy: Do you think that’s enough? Isn’t that Arthur Hailey really?

Wolfe: That’s right, it is. The best thing is to have both—to have both someone who will bring you bigger and more exciting chunks of the outside world plus a unique sensibility, or rather a unique way of looking at the world.

I’m surprised that this comparison hasn’t received greater attention, because it gets at something essential about Wolfe’s mixed legacy as a novelist. As an author, Wolfe hovered around the edges of my reading and writing life for decades. In high school, I read The Right Stuff and loved it—it’s hard for me to imagine an easier book to love. After I graduated from college, I landed a job at a financial firm in New York, and the first novel that I checked out from the library that week was The Bonfire of the Vanities. A few years later, I read A Man in Full, and not long ago, when I was thinking seriously about writing a nonfiction book about The Whole Earth Catalog, I read Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. In each case, I was looking for something more than simple entertainment. I was looking for information, or, in Wolfe’s words, for “news.” It was a cultural position for which Wolfe had consciously prepared himself, as he declared in his famous essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.” Speaking of the big social novels that had supposedly failed to emerge from the sixties, Wolfe wrote:

That task, as I see it, inevitably involves reporting, which I regard as the most valuable and least understood resource available to any writer with exalted ambitions, whether the medium is print, film, tape, or the stage. Young writers are constantly told, “Write about what you know.” There is nothing wrong with that rule as a starting point, but it seems to get quickly magnified into an unspoken maxim: The only valid experience is personal experience.

As counterexamples, Wolfe cited Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Zola, and Lewis as writers who “assumed that the novelist had to go beyond his personal experience and head out into society as a reporter.” But he didn’t mention Arthur Hailey.

Yet when I think back to Wolfe’s novels, I’m left with the uncomfortable sense that when you strip away his unique voice, you’re left with something closer to Hailey or Irving Wallace—with their armfuls of facts, stock characters, and winking nods to real people and events—than to Dickens. That voice was often remarkable, of course, and to speak of removing it, as if it weren’t bound up in the trapezius muscles of the work itself, is inherently ludicrous. But it was also enough to prevent many readers from noticing Wolfe’s very real limits as an imaginative writer. When A Man in Full was greeted by dismissive comments from Norman Mailer, John Irving, and John Updike, who accurately described it as “entertainment,” Wolfe published a response, “My Three Stooges,” in which he boasted about the novel’s glowing reviews and sales figures and humbly opined that the ensuing backlash was like “nothing else…in all the annals of American literature.” He wrote of his critics:

They were shaken. It was as simple as that. A Man in Full was an example—an alarmingly visible one—of a possible, indeed, the likely new direction in late-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century literature: the intensely realistic novel, based upon reporting, that plunges wholeheartedly into the social reality of America today, right now—a revolution in content rather than form—that was about to sweep the arts in America, a revolution that would soon make many prestigious artists, such as our three old novelists, appear effete and irrelevant.

This is grand gossip, even if the entire controversy was swept away a year later by the reception of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, another vast social novel with an accompanying declaration of intent. But it also overlooks the fact that Wolfe’s novels are notably less valuable as reportage than even Updike’s Couples, say, or any of the last three Rabbit books, in which the author diligently left a record of his time, in the form of thousands of closely observed details from the America of the sixties, seventies, and eighties.

And the real irony is that Updike had quietly set himself to the exact task what Wolfe had attempted with much greater fanfare, as Adam Begley notes in his recent biography:

What did [Updike] know about his hero’s new job [in Rabbit is Rich]? What did he know about the business of running a Toyota dealership? As he did for The Coup, he rolled up his sleeves and hit the books. And he also enlisted outside help, hiring a researcher to untangle the arcane protocols of automobile finance and the corporate structure of a dealership—how salesmen are compensated, how many support staff work in the back office, what the salaries are for the various employees, what paperwork is involved in importing foreign cars, and so on. Updike visited showrooms in the Boston area, hunting for tips from salesmen and collecting brochures. He aimed for, and achieved, a level of detail so convincing that the publisher felt obliged to append to a legal boilerplate on the copyright page a specific disclaimer: “No actual Toyota agency in southeastern Pennsylvania is known to the author or in any way depicted herein.”

This is nothing if not reportage, six years before The Bonfire of the Vanities, and not because Updike wanted, in Wolfe’s words, “to cram the world into that novel, all of it,” but in order to tell a story about a specific, utterly ordinary human being. Automobile finance wasn’t as sexy or exotic as Wall Street, which may be why Wolfe failed to acknowledge this. (In Rabbit Redux, instead of writing about the astronauts, Updike wrote about people who seem to barely even notice the moon landing.) Wolfe’s achievements as a journalist are permanent and unquestionable. But we still need the kind of news that the novel can bring, now more than ever, and Wolfe never quite figured out how to do it—even though his gifts were undeniable. Tomorrow, I’ll be taking a closer look at his considerable strengths.

American Stories #2: Citizen Kane

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

In his essay collection America in the Dark, the film critic David Thomson writes of Citizen Kane, which briefly went under the portentous working title American:

Citizen Kane grows with every year as America comes to resemble it. Kane is the willful success who tries to transcend external standards, and many plain Americans know his pent-up fury at lonely liberty. The film absorbs praise and criticism, unabashed by being voted the best ever made or by Pauline Kael’s skillful reassessment of its rather nasty cleverness. Perhaps both those claims are valid. The greatest film may be cunning, slick, and meretricious.

It might be even more accurate to say that the greatest American movie ever made needs to be cunning, slick, and meretricious, at least if it’s going to be true to the values of its country. Kane is “a shallow masterpiece,” as Kael famously put it, but it could hardly be anything else. (Just a few years later, Kael expressed a similar sentiment about Norman Mailer: “I think he’s our greatest writer. And what is unfortunate is that our greatest writer should be a bum.”) It’s a masterwork of genial fakery by and about a genial faker—Susan Alexander asks Kane at their first meeting if he’s a professional magician—and its ability to spin blatant artifice and sleight of hand into something unbearably moving goes a long way toward explaining why it was a favorite movie of men as different as Charles Schulz, L. Ron Hubbard, and Donald Trump.

And the most instructive aspect of Kane in these troubled times is how completely it deceives even its fans, including me. Its portrait of a man modeled on William Randolph Hearst is far more ambiguous than it was ever intended to be, because we’re distracted throughout by our fondness for the young Welles. He’s visible all too briefly in the early sequences at the Inquirer, and he winks at us through his makeup as an older man. As a result, the film that Hearst wanted to destroy turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to his legacy—it makes him far more interesting and likable than he ever was. The same factor tends to obscure the movie’s politics, as Kael wrote in the early seventies:

When Welles was young—he was twenty-five when the film opened—he used to be accused of “excessive showmanship,” but the same young audiences who now reject “theatre” respond innocently and wholeheartedly to the most unabashed tricks of theatre—and of early radio plays—in Citizen Kane. At some campus showings, they react so gullibly that when Kane makes a demagogic speech about “the underprivileged,” stray students will applaud enthusiastically, and a shout of “Right on!” may be heard.

Kane is a master manipulator, but so was Welles, and our love for all that this film represents shouldn’t blind us to how the same tricks can be turned to more insidious ends. As Kane says to poor Mr. Carter, shortly after taking over a New York newspaper at the age of twenty-five, just as Jared Kushner once did: “If the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough.” Hearst understood this. And so does Steve Bannon.

Written by nevalalee

January 2, 2018 at 9:00 am

The art of the bad review

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Mark Twain

Note: I’m taking a few days off for the holidays, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 7, 2016.

Every few years, whenever my spirits need a boost, I go back and read the famous smackdown that Martin Amis delivered to the novel Hannibal by Thomas Harris, just for the simple pleasure of it. It’s one of the great savage reviews of all time, and it checks off most of the boxes that this sort of shellacking requires. Amis begins by listing the hyperbolic claims made by other reviewers—“A momentous achievement,” “A plausible candidate for the Pulitzer Prize”—and then skewering them systematically. But he also goes after the novel, significantly, from a position of respect, calling himself “a Harris fan from way back.” Writing of the earlier books in the series, he says that Harris has achieved what every popular novelist hopes to accomplish: “He has created a parallel world, a terrible antiterra, airless and arcane but internally coherent.” When Amis quotes approvingly from the previous installments, it can only make Hannibal look worse by comparison, although Harris doesn’t do himself any favors. As Amis writes:

[Lecter] has no need of “need”: Given the choice, he—and Harris—prefer to say “require”…Out buying weapons—or, rather, out “purchasing” weapons—he tells the knife salesman, “I only require one.” Why, I haven’t felt such a frisson of sheer class since I last heard room service say “How may I assist you?’” And when Lecter is guilty of forgetfulness he says “Bother”—not “Shit” or “Fuck” like the rest of us. It’s all in the details.

Amis’s review falls squarely in the main line of epic takedowns that began with Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” This is a piece that was probably ruined for a lot of readers by being assigned in high school, but it deserves a fresh look: it’s one of the funniest and most valuable essays about writing that we have, and I revisit it on a regular basis. Like Amis, Twain begins by quoting some of the puffier encomiums offered by other critics: “[Cooper’s] five tales reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention…The craft of the woodsman, the tricks of the trapper, all the delicate art of the forest were familiar to Cooper from his youth up.” (Twain proposes the following rule in response: “Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as ‘the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest’ by either the author or the people in the tale.”) Both Twain and Amis are eager to go after their subjects with a broadsword, but they’re also alert to the nuances of language. For Amis, it’s the subtle shading of pretension that creeps in when Harris writes “purchases” instead of “buys”; for Twain, it’s the distinction between “verbal” and “oral,” “precision” and “facility,” “phenomena” and “marvels,” “necessary” and “predetermined.” His eighteen rules of writing, deduced in negative fashion from Cooper’s novels, are still among the best ever assembled. He notes that one of the main requirements of storytelling is “that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.” Which, when you think about it, is even more relevant in Harris’s case—although that’s a subject for another post.

Martin Amis

I’ve learned a lot from these two essays, as I have with other bad reviews that have stuck in my head over the years. In general, a literary critic should err on the side of generosity, especially when it comes to his or her contemporaries, and a negative review of a first novel that nobody is likely to read is an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. But occasionally, a bad review can be just as valuable and memorable as any other form of criticism. I may not agree with James Wood’s feelings about John le Carré, but I’ll never forget how he sums up a passage from Smiley’s People as “a clever coffin of dead conventions.” Once a year or so, I’ll find myself remembering John Updike’s review of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, which notes the author’s obsession with muscular male bodies—“the latissimi dorsi,” “the trapezius muscles”—and catalogs his onomatopoetics, which are even harder to take seriously when you have to type them all out:

“Brannnnng! Brannnnng! Brannnnng!,” “Woooo-eeeeeee! Hegh-heggghhhhhh,” “Ahhhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhhhhhh,” “Su-puerflyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!,” “eye eye eye eye eye eye eye eye eye,” Scrack scrack scrack scraccckkk scraccccck,” “glug glug glug glugglugglug,” “Awriiighhhhhhhht!”

And half of my notions as a writer seem to have been shaped by a single essay by Norman Mailer, “Some Children of the Goddess,” in which he takes careful aim at most of his rivals from the early sixties. William Styron’s Set This House on Fire is “the magnum opus of a fat spoiled rich boy who could write like an angel about landscape and like an adolescent about people”; J.D. Salinger’s four novellas about the Glass family “seem to have been written for high-school girls”; and Updike himself writes “the sort of prose which would be admired in a writing course overseen by a fussy old nance.”

So what makes a certain kind of negative review linger in the memory for longer than the book it describes? It often involves one major writer taking aim at another, which is already more interesting than the sniping of a critic who knows the craft only from the outside. In most cases, it picks on a target worthy of the writer’s efforts. And there’s usually an undercurrent of wounded love: the best negative reviews, like the one David Foster Wallace delivered on Updike’s Toward the End of Time, or Renata Adler’s demolition of Pauline Kael, reflect a real disillusionment with a former idol. (Notice, too, how so many of the same names keep recurring, as if Mailer and Updike and Wolfe formed a closed circle that runs forever, in a perpetual motion machine of mixed feelings.) Even when there’s no love lost between the critic and his quarry, as with Twain and Cooper, there’s a sense of anger at the betrayal of storytelling by someone who should know better. To return to poor Thomas Harris, I’ll never forget the New Yorker review by Anthony Lane that juxtaposed a hard, clean excerpt from The Silence of the Lambs:

“Lieutenant, it looks like he’s got two six-shot .38s. We heard three rounds fired and the dump pouches on the gunbelts are still full, so he may just have nine left. Advise SWAT it’s +Ps jacketed hollowpoints. This guy favors the face.”

With this one from Hannibal Rising:

“I see you and the cricket sings in concert with my heart.”
“My heart hops at the sight of you, who taught my heart to sing.”

Lane reasonably responds: “What the hell is going on here?” And that’s what all these reviews have in common—an attempt by one smart, principled writer to figure out what the hell is going on with another.

The writing in the dust

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A few days ago, I found myself thinking at length about what might well be the most moving passage in the entire Bible. It’s the scene in the Gospel of John in which the Pharisees, hoping to trap Jesus, bring forward a woman taken in adultery and ask him if she should be stoned according to the law, only to hear him respond: “Whoever is sinless in this crowd should go ahead and throw the first stone.” After the other onlookers drift off one by one, embarrassed, leaving just the woman behind, Jesus asks if anyone has condemned her. When she answers no, he says: “I don’t condemn you either. You’re free to go, but from now on, no more sinning.” (The story was memorably, if freely, adapted as one of the most powerful scenes in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.) In The Acts of Jesus, the Jesus Seminar writes of the passage:

The earliest ancient manuscripts of John do not have it, and modern scholars are virtually unanimous in concluding that it was not an original part of the Fourth Gospel…An impartial evaluation of the story has been impeded by its preservation as part of the Gospel of John…The fundamental question is whether this anecdote is a fragment that survived from an otherwise unknown gospel. Had it been discovered as a separate piece of papyrus, it would have attracted serious scholarly attention in its own right.

In the end, the seminar endorses it mildly, less as a real incident than as a reflection of what we know about Jesus himself, and the companion volume The Five Gospels includes the remarkable line: “While the Fellows agreed that the words did not originate in their present form with Jesus, they nevertheless assigned the words and story to a special category of things they wish Jesus had said and done.”

I feel the same way. But I haven’t even mentioned the one detail that has always struck me—and many other readers—the most. When the Pharisees first pose their question, Jesus doesn’t answer right away. Instead, he stoops down and silently draws on the ground with his finger. He responds only after they insist on a reply, and then he bends down to write in the dust again. It’s impossible to read this without wondering what he might have been writing, and nearly three centuries ago, the biblical commentator Matthew Henry did as good a job of summarizing the possibilities as anyone could:

It is impossible to tell, and therefore needless to ask, what he wrote; but this is the only mention made in the gospels of Christ’s writing…Some think they have a liberty of conjecture as to what he wrote here. Grotius says, It was some grave weighty saying, and that it was usual for wise men, when they were very thoughtful concerning any thing, to do so. Jerome and Ambrose suppose he wrote, Let the names of these wicked men be written in the dust. Others this, The earth accuses the earth, but the judgment is mine. Christ by this teaches us to be slow to speak when difficult cases are proposed to us, not quickly to shoot our bolt; and when provocations are given us, or we are bantered, to pause and consider before we reply; think twice before we speak once.

That last line seems reasonable enough, and Henry concludes: “He did as it were look another way, to show that he was not willing to take notice of their address, saying, in effect, Who made me a judge or a divider?”

And the passage, authentic or not, is also precious as one of the few everyday actions of Jesus that have been passed down to us. I’ve spoken elsewhere of a gospel of nouns and verbs, but nearly all of it occurs in Jesus’s words, not in descriptions of him preserved by others. Jesus writes on the ground; he falls asleep in a boat; he feels hungry; he breaks bread and pours wine; he weeps. There isn’t much more. Part of this reflects the fact that the gospels emerged from an oral tradition, but it also testifies to its debt to its literary predecessors. In his great book Mimesis, Erich Auerbach writes of the Old Testament story of the binding of Isaac:

In this atmosphere it is unthinkable that an implement, a landscape through which the travelers passed, the servingmen, or the ass, should be described, that their origin or descent or material or appearance or usefulness should be set forth in terms of praise; they do not even admit an adjective: they are serving-men, ass, wood, and knife, and nothing else, without an epithet; they are there to serve the end which God has commanded; what in other respects they were, are, or will be, remains in darkness. A journey is made, because God has designated the place where the sacrifice is to be performed; but we are told nothing about the journey except that it took three days, and even that we are told in a mysterious way: Abraham and his followers rose “early in the morning” and “went unto” the place of which God had told him; on the third day he lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. That gesture is the only gesture, is indeed the only occurrence during the whole journey, of which we are told…It is as if, while he traveled on, Abraham had looked neither to the right nor to the left, had suppressed any sign of life in his followers and himself save only their footfalls.

At first glance, this style might seem primitive compared to that of the Iliad or the Odyssey, but as Auerbach points out, its effect on its audience goes much deeper than what we find in Homer:

The world of the Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be a historically true reality—it insists that it is the only real world, is destined for autocracy. All other scenes, issues, and ordinances have no right to appear independently of it, and it is promised that all of them, the history of all mankind, will be given their due place within its frame, will be subordinated to it. The Scripture stories do not, like Homer’s, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they may please us and enchant us—they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels…Far from seeking, like Homer, merely to make us forget our own reality for a few hours, it seeks to overcome our reality: we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history.

This is the tradition to which Jesus—a historical person who feels much closer to many of us than the distant, shadowy figure of Abraham—was subordinated by the author of the gospels. As a literary strategy, it was a masterstroke, and it went a long way toward enabling Jesus to strike up an existence in the inner lives of so many. (Which doesn’t mean that its virtues are obvious. Norman Mailer once said of the gospels: “Where you don’t have a wonderful sentence, what you get is some pretty dull prose and a contradictory, almost hopeless way of telling the story.”) It also means, for better or worse, that Jesus can mean all things to all people. We no longer see him clearly, and he’s being used even as I write this to justify all forms of belief and behavior. My version of him is no more legitimate than that of anyone else. But I prefer to believe in the man who drew that line in the sand.

From Rolling Stone to Brighton Rock

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I haven’t had the chance recently to read much for my own pleasure, but as soon as I have enough time and distance from my current project, I’m hoping to check out Sticky Fingers, the new biography of Jann Wenner by Joe Hagan. Part of my interest lies in professional curiosity—it’s hard to imagine two men less alike than Wenner and John W. Campbell, but both were powerful magazine editors who shaped the culture out of a combination of vision and good timing—and its backstory is unusually intriguing. As the New York Times reported shortly before the book’s release:

Two previous attempts at an authorized Wenner biography had come to nothing. In 2003, Mr. Wenner enlisted Lewis MacAdams, a longtime friend and former Rolling Stone contributor, only to pull out after reading a few hundred pages…In 2011, a similar arrangement with the Rolling Stone writer and author Rich Cohen made it to the proposal phase—Spiegel & Grau offered a reported $1 million—before Mr. Wenner revoked his cooperation.

If nothing else, Hagan went into the book with both eyes open, and he evidently did everything that he could to thread a difficult needle, as the Times article notes: “When he was in the final stages of writing this year he prepared a memo detailing ‘every instance in which [Wenner] had sex with anybody in the book’ and anything else ‘super personal.’” It didn’t work, and Wenner has refused to promote or endorse the result, of which he says: “My hope was that this book would provide a record for future generations of that extraordinary time. Instead, [Hagan] produced something deeply flawed and tawdry, rather than substantial.”

Wenner’s reaction doesn’t seem to have adversely affected the book’s critical or commercial reception, which has been very positive, but it inevitably sheds light on the fraught relationship between a biographer and a living subject. Perhaps the most fascinating case in recent memory is that of Norman Sherry and Graham Greene, which produced three massive biographical volumes that I confess I’ve only sampled in places. In his preface to the first book, Sherry describes his initial encounters with Greene with an air of intimacy that seems harmless enough:

[Greene said] with what I am sure was the instinctive decision of a novelist, “If I were to have my biography written, I would choose you,” and later, as we parted in Brook Street, he made up his mind. I was to be his biographer, and we shook hands on it…It was only very gradually that a mutual trust developed and I think it was expressed when we were crossing St. James’s Street in London and narrowly escaped being knocked down by a taxi. He said, “You almost lost your subject there,” and I replied, “That’s not half as bad as losing your biographer.” He laughed and I knew we had become friends.

Greene, like Wenner, was particularly guarded about his sex life, later writing to Sherry from the Royal Albion Hotel in Brighton to ask him “not to interview certain women he had known.” (Wenner asked Hagan to omit “the name of the woman with whom he had lost his virginity.”) And although Greene didn’t live to see the final volume, it led to a similar dispute with with the writer’s family, as well as a bizarre controversy over Sherry’s exclusive access to Greene’s papers that hinged, according to a great gossipy article in the New York Times, on a single comma.

Some of the criticisms voiced by Greene’s relatives are strikingly reminiscent of those leveled against Hagan. Both biographers have been accused of inordinate attention to their subjects’ sexual activity. “His obsession with brothels far surpasses that of his supposed subject,” Greene’s son said of Sherry, while Joe Landau of Rolling Stone feels that Hagan went too far in his treatment of sex: “I believe Jann was entitled to expect a little more empathy from his biographer. To me it’s a question of degree and tone.” (In this line, I can’t resist mentioning the passage from Sherry in which he quotes Mario Soldati, the Italian movie director, who says that he spent his last conversation with Greene “confessing the varieties of oral sex we’d performed,” which I frankly find hard to imagine.) Sherry was also accused of inserting himself gratuitously into his work:

Mr. Sherry has interjected himself into the narrative, dropped in bits of his own poetry, even included a picture of himself riding on a donkey in Mexico as he retraced Greene’s research for the novel The Power and the Glory…“This book is not about Graham Greene, but about Sherry,” Greene’s son and literary executor, Francis, 67, said.

Many biographers have succumbed to this temptation, but Sherry didn’t do himself any favors, saying in response to the accusation that he minimized Greene’s relationship with his son: “I was the nearest thing to being a son to him as could possibly be.” Sherry claimed to have ruined his health and his personal life in his pursuit of his subject, and he summed it all up in words that would do equal credit to a biographer or a serial killer: “I often felt I must be him. I lived within him.”

On the other hand, I could list examples of the ambivalence of biographers toward their subjects for days. There’s Peter Manso, whom I’ve quoted here so often recently, who used the long afterword to the reissue of his oral biography of Norman Mailer primarily as a means of settling scores. And then there’s Roger Lewis, who seems to have realized about halfway through writing a biography of Anthony Burgess that he hated his subject. If familiarity breeds contempt, few people would have more reason to be contemptuous, as Lewis implies:

The sum of the parts [of an artist’s work] will not be greater than the totality—and nor is it, with Burgess. Though his work demonstrates great versatility, the versatility is always the same. To read one’s way through all of Burgess’s work (and how many have done that—except me?) is to make a startling discovery. It’s all the same.

I’ve never forgotten that aside: “And how many have done that—except me?” This is something that most biographers have probably caught themselves thinking, and if there’s a common denominator between the cases that I’ve mentioned, it’s that they all hinge on the fundamental weirdness of an enterprise that requires the writer to spend years “living within” someone else. If that person is alive, it can lead both to resistance from the subjects—who naturally see the work as an uncanny valley version of themselves—and to excessive identification by the writer. The victim, in both cases, is the work itself. Neither subject nor biographer, it seems, can be trusted to read the book objectively. And it may be as much a matter of luck as professionalism if the result ever ends up being close to the truth.

The Wrath of Cohn, Part 1

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Not long ago, I was browsing through Peter Manso’s enormous oral biography Mailer: His Life and Times, which has been one of my favorite reads for years, when I came across a passing reference to Norman Mailer’s friendship with the attorney Roy Cohn. Mailer and Cohn couldn’t have been less alike in their politics, but they found each other useful, and they were linked by the late publisher Si Newhouse, who passed away just last month. Cohn doesn’t figure prominently in any of Newhouse’s obituaries, but the two of them first met as teenagers at the Horace Mann School in the Bronx and remained lifelong friends. In the book Newhouse, Thomas Maier explains the Mailer connection:

With Cohn’s help, Norman Mailer was convinced to become a contributor to Newhouse’s Parade magazine and later to sign a lucrative book contract with Random House…Si [had] expressed a desire to sign up Mailer, hoping to add that lustrous name to his publishing house’s stable of well-known authors…Cohn relayed this version of Si’s intentions to Peter Manso, a writer who then was close with Mailer and would later write a biography about him. Si Newhouse wanted Mailer to write a magazine piece about his views on capital punishment, Cohn told Manso…”He’ll pay cash,” Cohn told Manso about the Newhouse offer. “We’ll give him seven thousand dollars for the piece.”

Maier doesn’t mention how the two men happened to know each other, but they had evidently met when Manso was assigned to interview Cohn for Playboy in 1981—which is a detail that I’ll explore further in a moment.

Cohn took obvious pride in serving as a power broker, with what Maier describes as a talent for “making things happen,” and he systematically cultivated his famous contacts. After Mailer wrote the article on capital punishment and another piece on Russia, the two men became friendly, despite what Cohn saw as Mailer’s Soviet sympathies. Maier writes:

“I think Norman was always a little embarrassed about his association with Roy—he didn’t want to be too public with it,” said Peter Fraser, Cohn’s companion during the early 1980s when Roy’s personal life became an open secret. Cohn became involved in other business matters with Mailer. He rented a small cottage for himself and Peter Fraser in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The house was owned by Mailer and was next to a larger house where Mailer’s family stayed during the summer. On some summer evenings, Cohn and Mailer would hold court at a large dinner shared by family and friends.

Manso, who was living with Mailer at the time, goes even further, recounting that Cohn wanted to join their plan to turn the house into a condo, securing an interest-free loan of $300,000 from Si Newhouse for “all of us.” When Manso told Mailer about the deal, the author responded: “It’s about time I had a patron.” This is already pretty good gossip, but it gets better. In 1985, according to Manso, the Mailers attended Cohn’s fifty-ninth birthday party, which had a guest list that included Si Newhouse, Roger Stone—yes, that Roger Stone—and Donald Trump. After Cohn died the following year, the Mailers didn’t go to the memorial service, but a number of other prominent friends did, as Manso relates: “Donald Trump sat in the audience weeping with Cohn’s lover, Peter Fraser, and the ubiquitous Si Newhouse.”

There’s obviously a lot to unpack here, but I want to focus for now on the thread between Newhouse, Cohn, and Trump. Cohn’s mentorship of Trump has been closely scrutinized, including by Peter Manso, who wrote a reminiscence for Politico last year about a party at Cohn’s house in 1981, at which he found himself seated next to “the boyish-faced real estate mogul, habitué of Le Cirque and staple of Page Six.” (In Manso’s account, Trump inquired of him: “Roy says you live on the Cape, and that you’re writing a book about Norman Mailer. Norman’s smart but a little crazy, right?” He then asked Manso whether or not he should do an interview with Playboy, which he eventually did, kicking off what became a long association between him and the magazine.) What’s more surprising is that Newhouse’s friendship with Cohn and its obvious relevance to Trump hasn’t received more attention. Last year, a profile in The New Yorker—which Newhouse still owned at the time—highlighted the publishing magnate’s role in the writing of The Art of the Deal. As the reporter Jane Mayer relates:

The idea of Trump writing an autobiography didn’t originate with either Trump or [ghostwriter Tony Schwartz]. It began with Si Newhouse, the media magnate whose company, Advance Publications, owned Random House at the time, and continues to own Condé Nast, the parent company of this magazine. “It was very definitely, and almost uniquely, Si Newhouse’s idea,” Peter Osnos, who edited the book, recalls. GQ, which Condé Nast also owns, had published a cover story on Trump, and Newhouse noticed that newsstand sales had been unusually strong.

Cohn’s name isn’t mentioned here at all. Yet it’s hard to believe that he didn’t have anything to do with what turned out, in the end, to be a far more significant literary deal than the one that he had pulled off a few years earlier by luring Mailer to Random House.

For a connection that exists in plain sight, this angle remains strikingly unexplored. The only reference to it that I can find online is a tantalizing quote from Thomas Maier himself, who said last month in an interview with Bloomberg: “Newhouse’s fondness for Trump, the link with Roy Cohn and the way in which the Newhouse publications promoted Trump over the last twenty years really helped make him a nationally known figure and is one of the great unknown stories of the Trump rise to power.” I can’t help but agree, and while it’s tempting to suspect that Newhouse’s influence kept the story from being fully investigated during his lifetime, it’s also possible that the subsidiary players remained genuinely unaware of it. Mailer’s case provides an instructive parallel. After describing Mailer’s big contract with Random House and how his first novel with Newhouse, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, was excerpted in the resurgent Vanity Fair, Maier writes:

None of the Newhouse editors, however, were aware of Si’s guiding hand or the help of Roy Cohn in securing Norman Mailer’s services. “Upon reading the manuscript it was my idea, purely my idea, to buy it for Vanity Fair,” insisted Leo Lerman, then Vanity Fair’s editor, in describing how he decided to run excerpts of Tough Guys after talking with Mailer’s Random House editor, Jason Epstein.

Cohn was content to remain in the shadows, and he had reason to take satisfaction in the service that he had rendered to his friend and new neighbor. Mailer had suffered from money problems for decades, and the deal with Newhouse offered him an important source of stability, as his editor Jason Epstein observed: “I sensed that what Norman really wanted was to clear the decks and have nothing to worry about financially for the rest of his life.” Trump was at the beginning, not the end, of his career, and what Cohn and Newhouse had to offer him was rather different, but no less precious—and the consequences would be immense. I’ll be talking more about this tomorrow.

Talking the Talk

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A few days ago, while reading Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike, I came across the following passage about William Shawn, the legendary editor of The New Yorker:

Nowadays Shawn is nearly as famous for his oddities as for his editorial prowess. The catalog of his phobias and behavioral tics, the intrigue (especially his decades-long office romance with Lillian Ross, which was meant to be a deep, deep secret and become, with the passage of time, merely the obvious but unmentionable status quo), the passive-aggressive manipulation of colleagues and contributors, the velvet tenacity of his grip on power…it’s all almost enough to make us forget the astonishing success with which he steered the magazine.

Earlier this week, Lillian Ross passed away at the age of ninety-nine. Her personal life, like Shawn’s, often received more attention than her professional accomplishments, and her obituaries predictably devoted a lot of space to their affair, which might have chagrined but not surprised her. In an era when celebrity journalists like Norman Mailer and Gay Talese were on the ascendant, she cautioned reporters against placing themselves at the center of the story—although she also wrote a late memoir of her life with Shawn, Here But Not Here, that caused a firestorm of controversy within its tiny world when it was released two decades ago. In his New York Times review, Charles McGrath called it “a tactless example of the current avidity for tell-all confessions,” and it struck many readers as an odd departure for a reporter who had been complimented for her ability to fade into the background. And while its title sounded like a motto for objective reporting, it actually came from something that Shawn—whom Updike later praised for his “disinterested standards”—liked to say about his home life: “I am there, but I am not there.”

But Ross, Shawn, and their magazine entered the inner lives of their readers in ways that transcended the efforts of reporters who asked more insistently for our attention. In her book Reporting, Ross offered her personal rules for conducting journalism:

Reporting is difficult, partly because the writer does not have the leeway to play around with the lives of people, as he does in fiction. There are many other restrictions, too…Your attention at all times should be on your subject, not on you. Do not call attention to yourself. As a reporter, serve your subject, do not yourself. Do not, in effect say, “Look at me. See what a great reporter I am!” Do not, if you want to reveal that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes, write, “I am showing that the Emperor is already naked.”

A few more admonitions: do not promote yourself; do not advertise yourself; do not sell yourself. If you have a tendency to do these things, you should go into some line of work that may benefit from your talents as a promoter, a salesman, or an actor. Too many extraneous considerations have been imposed on reporting in recent years, and it is time now to ask writers who would be reporters to report.

Decades later, in speaking of her reputation as a fly on the wall, Ross struck a rather different note: “What craziness! A reporter doing a story can’t pretend to be invisible, let alone a fly; he or she is seen and heard and responded to by the people he or she is writing about. A reporter is always chemically involved in a story.”

Ross might sound like she’s contradicting herself, but I don’t think that she is. It helps to focus on the words “chemically involved,” which makes reporting sound like an industrial process—which, in the hands of Shawn’s writers, including Ross and Updike, is what it became. A recent tribute describes Ross as “an early architect” of the Talk of the Town section, which puts her at the center of a certain way of viewing the world. The Talk of the Town has always been characterized less by any particular subject than by its voice, which Begley capably evokes in an account of one of Updike’s early pieces, in which he visited a lawn care business in Southampton:

The resulting journalistic trifle is mildly amusing and fairly typical of The Talk of the Town, save for the exurban expedition…The reporter (“we,” by hallowed New Yorker convention) gathers a comically copious amount of information about the product, allows its makers to display a comical commercial enthusiasm, and adds to the comedy by appearing (almost) to share that enthusiasm.

In this case, the product was a lawn treatment that dyed the grass green, but The Talk of the Town remains the magazine’s place to accommodate more famous subjects who have something to promote. Its stance toward such material allows its interviewees to plug film or book projects while keeping them at a bemused distance, and a lot of it hinges on that remarkable “we.” (It’s the counterpart of the “you” that appears so often in its movie reviews.) Updike gently mocked it years later: “Who, after all, could that indefatigably fascinated, perpetually peripatetic ‘we’ be but a collection of dazzled farm-boys?” But it’s still our ideal of a certain kind of nonfiction—privileged, lightly ironic, with dashes of surprising insight that don’t prevent you from turning the page.

Ross was one of the inventors of that voice, which was the chemical trick that she used to dissolve herself into a story. It allowed trivial pieces to be rapidly produced, while also allowing for deeper engagement when the opportunity presented itself. (To push the analogy from Updike’s article to the breaking point, it was “the desired combination of a dye that would immediately color the lawn and a fertilizer that would eventually rejuvenate it.”) And much of the success of The New Yorker lay in the values that its readers projected onto that “we.” As Begley describes the characters in Updike’s story “Incest”:

The young couple…are college educated, living in a small, pleasant New York apartment furnished with bamboo chairs, a modernist sofa, a makeshift bed, bookshelves filled with books. They’re familiar with Proust and Freud and the pediatric pronouncements of Dr. Benjamin Spock…Jane sips vermouth after dinner, listening to Bach on the record player while she reads The New Republic—if the story hadn’t been intended for publication in The New Yorker, surely she would have been reading that magazine instead.

Norman Mailer, a New Journalist who actually published a collection titled Advertisements for Myself, was dismissive of the magazine’s hold on its readers: “Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people in the most established parts of the middle class kill their quickest impulses before they dare to act in such a way as to look ridiculous to the private eye of their taste whose style has been keyed by the eye of The New Yorker.” He’s speaking of The Talk of the Town, as refined by Ross and Shawn, and it’s still true today. Updike made fun of that “we” because he could—but for many readers, then and now, the grass on that side was definitely greener.

Updike’s ladder

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In the latest issue of The Atlantic, the author Anjali Enjeti has an article titled “Why I’m Still Trying to Get a Book Deal After Ten Years.” If just reading those words makes your palms sweat and puts your heart through a few sympathy palpitations, congratulations—you’re a writer. No matter where you might be in your career, or what length of time you can mentally insert into that headline, you can probably relate to Enjeti when she writes:

Ten years ago, while sitting at my computer in my sparsely furnished office, I sent my first email to a literary agent. The message included a query letter—a brief synopsis describing the personal-essay collection I’d been working on for the past six years, as well as a short bio about myself. As my third child kicked from inside my pregnant belly, I fantasized about what would come next: a request from the agent to see my book proposal, followed by a dream phone call offering me representation. If all went well, I’d be on my way to becoming a published author by the time my oldest child started first grade.

“Things didn’t go as planned,” Enjeti says drily, noting that after landing and leaving two agents, she’s been left with six unpublished manuscripts and little else to show for it. She goes on to share the stories of other writers in the same situation, including Michael Bourne of Poets & Writers, who accurately calls the submission process “a slow mauling of my psyche.” And Enjeti wonders: “So after sixteen years of writing books and ten years of failing to find a publisher, why do I keep trying? I ask myself this every day.”

It’s a good question. As it happens, I came across her article while reading the biography Updike by Adam Begley, which chronicles a literary career that amounts to the exact opposite of the ones described above. Begley’s account of John Updike’s first acceptance from The New Yorker—just months after his graduation from Harvard—is like lifestyle porn for writers:

He never forgot the moment when he retrieved the envelope from the mailbox at the end of the drive, the same mailbox that had yielded so many rejection slips, both his and his mother’s: “I felt, standing and reading the good news in the midsummer pink dusk of the stony road beside a field of waving weeds, born as a professional writer.” To extend the metaphor…the actual labor was brief and painless: he passed from unpublished college student to valued contributor in less than two months.

If you’re a writer of any kind, you’re probably biting your hand right now. And I haven’t even gotten to what happened to Updike shortly afterward:

A letter from Katharine White [of The New Yorker] dated September 15, 1954 and addressed to “John H. Updike, General Delivery, Oxford,” proposed that he sign a “first-reading agreement,” a scheme devised for the “most valued and most constant contributors.” Up to this point, he had only one story accepted, along with some light verse. White acknowledged that it was “rather unusual” for the magazine to make this kind of offer to a contributor “of such short standing,” but she and Maxwell and Shawn took into consideration the volume of his submissions…and their overall quality and suitability, and decided that this clever, hard-working young man showed exceptional promise.

Updike was twenty-two years old. Even now, more than half a century later and with his early promise more than fulfilled, it’s hard to read this account without hating him a little. Norman Mailer—whose debut novel, The Naked and the Dead, appeared when he was twenty-five—didn’t pull any punches in “Some Children of the Goddess,” an essay on his contemporaries that was published in Esquire in 1963: “[Updike’s] reputation has traveled in convoy up the Avenue of the Establishment, The New York Times Book Review, blowing sirens like a motorcycle caravan, the professional muse of The New Yorker sitting in the Cadillac, membership cards to the right Fellowships in his pocket.” And Begley, his biographer, acknowledges the singular nature of his subject’s rise:

It’s worth pausing here to marvel at the unrelieved smoothness of his professional path…Among the other twentieth-century American writers who made a splash before their thirtieth birthday…none piled up accomplishments in as orderly a fashion as Updike, or with as little fuss…This frictionless success has sometimes been held against him. His vast oeuvre materialized with suspiciously little visible effort. Where there’s no struggle, can there be real art? The Romantic notion of the tortured poet has left us with a mild prejudice against the idea of art produced in a calm, rational, workmanlike manner (as he put it, “on a healthy basis of regularity and avoidance of strain”), but that’s precisely how Updike got his start.

Begley doesn’t mention that the phrase “regularity and avoidance of strain” is actually meant to evoke the act of defecation, but even this provides us with an odd picture of writerly contentment. As Dick Hallorann says in The Shining, the best movie about writing ever made: “You got to keep regular, if you want to be happy.”

If there’s a larger theme here, it’s that the qualities that we associate with Updike’s career—with its reliable production of uniform hardcover editions over the course of five decades—are inseparable from the “orderly” circumstances of his rise. Updike never lacked a prestigious venue for his talents, which allowed him to focus on being productive. Writers whose publication history remains volatile and unpredictable, even after they’ve seen print, don’t always have the luxury of being so unruffled, and it can affect their work in ways that are almost subliminal. (A writer can’t survive ten years of waiting for a book deal without spending the entire time convinced that he or she is on the verge of a breakthrough, anticipating an ending that never comes, which may partially explain the literary world’s fondness for frustration and unresolved narratives.) The short answer to Begley’s question is that struggle is good for a writer, but so is success, and you take what you can get, even you’re transformed by it. I seem to think on a monthly basis of what Nicholson Baker writes of Updike in his tribute U and I:

I compared my awkward public self-promotion too with a documentary about Updike that I saw in 1983, I believe, on public TV, in which, in one scene, as the camera follows his climb up a ladder at his mother’s house to put up or take down some storm windows, in the midst of this tricky physical act, he tosses down to us some startlingly lucid little felicity, something about “These small yearly duties which blah blah blah,” and I was stunned to recognize that in Updike we were dealing with a man so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder!

We’re all on that ladder. Some are on their way up, some are headed down, and some are stuck for years on the same rung. But you never get anywhere if you don’t try to climb.

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