Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Philip Roth

Thinking on your feet

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The director Elia Kazan, whose credits included A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, was proud of his legs. In his memoirs, which the editor Robert Gottlieb calls “the most gripping and revealing book I know about the theater and Hollywood,” Kazan writes of his childhood:

Everything I wanted most I would have to obtain secretly. I learned to conceal my feelings and to work to fulfill them surreptitiously…What I wanted most I’d have to take—quietly and quickly—from others. Not a logical step, but I made it at a leap. I learned to mask my desires, hide my truest feeling; I trained myself to live in deprivation, in silence, never complaining, never begging, in isolation, without expecting kindness or favors or even good luck…I worked waxing floors—forty cents an hour. I worked at a small truck farm across the road—fifty cents an hour. I caddied every afternoon I could at the Wykagyl Country Club, carrying the bags of middle-aged women in long woolen skirts—a dollar a round. I spent nothing. I didn’t take trolleys; I walked. Everywhere. I have strong leg muscles from that time.

The italics are mine, but Kazan emphasized his legs often enough on his own. In an address that he delivered at a retrospective at Wesleyan University in 1973, long after his career had peaked, he told the audience: “Ask me how with all that knowledge and all that wisdom, and all that training and all those capabilities, including the strong legs of a major league outfielder, how did I manage to mess up some of the films I’ve directed so badly?”

As he grew older, Kazan’s feelings about his legs became inseparable from his thoughts on his own physical decline. In an essay titled “The Pleasures of Directing,” which, like the address quoted above, can be found in the excellent book Kazan on Directing, Kazan observes sadly: “They’ve all said it. ‘Directing is a young man’s game.’ And time passing proves them right.” He continues:

What goes first? With an athlete, the legs go first. A director stands all day, even when he’s provided with chairs, jeeps, and limos. He walks over to an actor, stands alongside and talks to him; with a star he may kneel at the side of the chair where his treasure sits. The legs do get weary. Mine have. I didn’t think it would happen because I’ve taken care of my body, always exercised. But I suddenly found I don’t want to play singles. Doubles, okay. I stand at the net when my partner serves, and I don’t have to cover as much ground. But even at that…

I notice also that I want a shorter game—that is to say also, shorter workdays, which is the point. In conventional directing, the time of day when the director has to be most able, most prepared to push the actors hard and get what he needs, usually the close-ups of the so-called “master scene,” is in the afternoon. A director can’t afford to be tired in the late afternoon. That is also the time—after the thoughtful quiet of lunch—when he must correct what has not gone well in the morning. He better be prepared, he better be good.

As far as artistic advice goes, this is as close to the real thing as it gets. But it can only occur to an artist who can no longer take for granted the energy on which he has unthinkingly relied for most of his life.

Kazan isn’t the only player in the film industry to draw a connection between physical strength—or at least stamina—and the medium’s artistic demands. Guy Hamilton, who directed Goldfinger, once said: “To be a director, all you need is a hide like a rhinoceros—and strong legs, and the ability to think on your feet…Talent is something else.” None other than Christopher Nolan believes so much in the importance of standing that he’s institutionalized it on his film sets, as Mark Rylance recently told The Independent: “He does things like he doesn’t like having chairs on set for actors or bottles of water, he’s very particular…[It] keeps you on your toes, literally.” Walter Murch, meanwhile, noted that a film editor needed “a strong back and arms” to lug around reels of celluloid, which is less of a concern in the days of digital editing, but still worth bearing in mind. Murch famously likes to stand while editing, like a surgeon in the operating room:

Editing is sort of a strange combination of being a brain surgeon and a short-order cook. You’ll never see those guys sitting down on the job. The more you engage your entire body in the process of editing, the better and more balletic the flow of images will be. I might be sitting when I’m reviewing material, but when I’m choosing the point to cut out of a shot, I will always jump out of the chair. A gunfighter will always stand, because it’s the fastest, most accurate way to get to his gun. Imagine High Noon with Gary Cooper sitting in a chair. I feel the fastest, most accurate way to choose the critically important frame I will cut out of a shot is to be standing. I have kind of a gunfighter’s stance.

And as Murch suggests, this applies as much to solitary craftsmen as it does to the social and physical world of the director. Philip Roth, who worked at a lectern, claimed that he paced half a mile for every page that he wrote, while the mathematician Robert P. Langlands reflected: “[My] many hours of physical effort as a youth also meant that my body, never frail but also initially not particularly strong, has lasted much longer than a sedentary occupation might have otherwise permitted.” Standing and walking can be a proxy for mental and moral acuity, as Bertrand Russell implied so memorably:

Our mental makeup is suited to a life of very severe physical labor. I used, when I was younger, to take my holidays walking. I would cover twenty-five miles a day, and when the evening came I had no need of anything to keep me from boredom, since the delight of sitting amply sufficed. But modern life cannot be conducted on these physically strenuous principles. A great deal of work is sedentary, and most manual work exercises only a few specialized muscles. When crowds assemble in Trafalgar Square to cheer to the echo an announcement that the government has decided to have them killed, they would not do so if they had all walked twenty-five miles that day.

Such energy, as Kazan reminds us, isn’t limitless. I still think of myself as relatively young, but I don’t have the raw mental or physical resources that I did fifteen years ago, and I’ve had to come up with various tricks—what a pickup basketball player might call “old-man shit”—to maintain my old levels of productivity. I’ve written elsewhere that certain kinds of thinking are best done sitting down, but there’s also a case to be made for thinking on your feet. Standing is the original power pose, and perhaps the only one likely to have any real effects. And it’s in the late afternoons, both of a working day and of an entire life, that you need to stand and deliver.

The Monroe Doctrine

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[His] secret ambition, after all, had been to steal Marilyn; in all his vanity he thought no one was so well suited to bring out the best in her as himself.

—Norman Mailer, Marilyn

Are writers in direct competition? Any reasonable person—who, by definition, probably isn’t a writer—would have to conclude that they aren’t. The road to publication can be brutal, and there are plenty of ways in which it punishes or ignores deserving talent, but the existence of a specific rival who is consuming resources that might otherwise be allocated to you probably isn’t one of them. Any barriers to entry or success have more to do with luck, timing, and other impersonal forces than with peers who are trying to do the same thing as you. Even prizes, teaching positions, or fellowships are less about writers competing with one another than about their separate confrontations with larger systems, in which the only sustainable solution is to work together. And critical rankings can be rightly dismissed as irrelevancies, or, at best, the byproducts of a different game with incentives of its own. As the novelist and critic Wilfrid Sheed wrote:

When a reviewer says that Malamud is second only to Bellow, it means he really isn’t thinking about either of them. When he’s reading Malamud he’s thinking about Bellow, and when he’s reading Bellow he’s thinking about Roth. This is the essence of the ratings game: distraction. Children play it all the time. “Is this the biggest bridge in the world?” “No, it’s the third biggest.” “Oh.” They lose all interest in the bridge.

But you could also argue that writers are effectively in competition, if only because nearly all the authors who have ever lived have behaved as if they were. When asked by an interviewer from the Telegraph if he thought of himself and Philip Roth as rivals, John Updike replied:

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.

Saul Bellow himself wrote, “Writers seldom wish other writers well,” while Gore Vidal was even more blunt: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Elsewhere, I’ve written at length about why novelists seem particularly susceptible to what I’ve called the Colonel Cathcart complex, after the character in Catch-22 of whom Joseph Heller says: “He could measure his own progress only in relationship to others, and his idea of excellence was to do something at least as well as all the other men his own age who were doing the same thing even better.” And you could make the case that this kind of competition is good for literature as a whole, as Norman Mailer observed to The Paris Review, after noting that writers were as competitive “as star athletes”: “You say, Well, if he’s doing it, I can do it.”

But there’s another factor at work here. The most memorable consideration of literary envy I’ve ever read is Mailer’s essay “Some Children of the Goddess,” which I first encountered as a young teenager and practically memorized. Mailer speaks frankly of his competitiveness with James Jones and William Styron, as well as his uneasy sense of relief when their novels Some Came Running and Set This House On Fire turned out to be artistic nonevents. But here’s the language that he uses when he describes their relationship to the muse, or, as he calls her, the Bitch:

If Some Came Running had turned out to be the best novel any of us had written since the war…it would have meant the Bitch was in love with someone else, I would have had to try to win her back. But the failure of Some Came Running left me holding onto a buttock of the lady—if she had many lovers, I was still one of them…[While reading Set This House On Fire] I would think, “You don’t catch the Bitch that way, buster, you got to bring more than a trombone to her boudoir.”

In Mailer’s imagination, the muse seems to have taken the form of Marilyn Monroe, whom he secretly felt he might have married if Arthur Miller hadn’t gotten there first. Monroe was the ultimate unrenewable resource, and an emblem of the prize to be won. Which raises the question of how, exactly, Mailer imagined how such a rivalry might look to a writer who happened to be a woman—although it doesn’t even seem to have occurred to him that this might be a problem. He spends the rest of his essay discussing ten contemporary novels, from Henderson the Rain King to Franny and Zooey, in an attempt to figure out the pecking order. All were written by men. And it’s open to debate if Mailer even thought that women were playing the same game.

It’s hard not to connect this kind of exclusion to the conception of literature as an economic activity defined by a scarcity of resources, or, if you like, as a contest between suitors. One of the worst manifestations of this sort of competitiveness, in art as in life, is the disqualification of potential competitors who don’t look like you, which winnows the field to the benefit of those who are already on the inside. Assuming that the pool of rewards is finite, it’s rational to limit your chosen rivals to people who fit the right profile, even if it results in a twisted Monroe Doctrine—James, not Marilyn—in which any incursion is seen as an act of hostility. If any outsiders break in, you can claim that they benefited from an unfair advantage, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, or you can pick up your toys and go home. We’ve seen this clearly in the Hugo Awards, but it isn’t unique to science fiction, which just happens to be a place where a structural weakness allowed these impulses to become visible. Over the last few years, we’ve repeatedly seen how psychological or economic insecurity on the individual level can turn to resentment of otherness on a mass scale, and writers are no different than anyone else. (If anything, they’re worse, because their insecurity is universal, and they get to set the rules of the game they’re playing. Among other things, it leads to the curious belief that newcomers need to justify their presence, when by any rational standard it should be the other way around.) Every writer ends up assembling his or her private list of rivals, and if this excludes some while including others, we can excuse this as a necessary survival mechanism in a profession that needs all the help it can get. But it’s a different matter in public. There’s no honor in winning, or even in competing in, a game that won’t accept all players. And if you don’t agree, you’ll inevitably find that you’ve been your own worst enemy all along.

The downhill racer

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James Salter

Fame was not only part of greatness, it was more. It was the evidence, the only proof. All the rest was nothing, in vain.

—James Salter, Light Years

Last week, the novelist James Salter died at the age of ninety. Many of us were introduced—or reintroduced—to Salter a couple of years ago, when a New Yorker profile by Nick Paumgarten coincided with the release of what turned out to be his final book. The piece had the effect of definitively canonizing Salter in an odd but accustomed position: the most famous unknown novelist in America. By then, the story had long since taken shape of Salter as a writer who was the equal, at his best, of Roth or Updike, with just as much critical support and acclaim over five decades, but a fraction of the sales and celebrity. As a result, he became not just a writer but a kind of mirror in which other frustrated novelists, published or otherwise, could see themselves, as well as an object lesson in the fickle relationship between fame and talent. And if Salter or his fans hoped that the profile would finally grant him the cultural prominence he deserved, they were doomed to be disappointed, in characteristic fashion, in as classy a way as possible: his last novel showed up for exactly one week on the New York Times bestseller list. It was an ending that Salter might have written for himself, although clearly not the one he wanted, and it confirmed him as our great master of doing so very much, but not nearly enough.

I was intrigued enough by the profile to pick up a copy of A Sport and a Pastime, generally considered to be Salter’s best work. And it’s a novel I wish I’d read much earlier. (About halfway through, I realized that I’d been familiar with parts of it for most of my life, through the excerpts that John Irving includes in A Son of the Circus, although I’d never made the connection before.) It covers some of the same thematic and cultural ground as Tropic of Cancer, a novel I’ve tried and failed to love, and I think it’s ultimately the better book—or at least the one that fits more snugly with my own tastes in fiction. It’s detached, precise, and a little chilly, but it also contains a higher percentage of genuine smut than any other good novel I can name. Much of it feels like a novel written for other writers. The prose isn’t showy, but it’s so obsessively polished that every paragraph comes off as a miniature textbook of craft, and although the author keeps himself at a deliberate remove, it’s constantly alive with his intelligence and skill. If I were going to recommend half a dozen novels for an aspiring writer to study closely, it would probably be among them: it’s the kind of book you keep at your elbow, as I’ve recently done, while working over your own material, both as a reference point and as a reminder of all that writing can be.

A Sport and a Pastime

But what complicates the narrative of Salter as a literary bridesmaid, never a bride, is that his life was almost indescribably rich. He went to high school at Horace Mann with Jack Kerouac, attended West Point, and flew planes in the Korean War. His first novel, The Hunters, was optioned for a considerable sum—close to half a million in today’s dollars—and made into a film starring Robert Mitchum. A short documentary he made won a prize at the Venice Film Festival almost by accident. His next script was directed by Sidney Lumet, and Salter himself directed a movie featuring Sam Waterston and Charlotte Rampling. Later, he fell in with Robert Redford, for whom he wrote Downhill Racer. Along the way, he produced a handful of great novels, a lot of short fiction, and some poetry. He was close friends with Saul Bellow before tiring of being a “wingman.” He had five children with two different wives. By all accounts, he was handsome and athletic, an accomplished skier, climber, and tennis player. His novels never sold particularly well, but they attracted high praise from the readers who mattered most. Of A Sport and a Pastime, Reynolds Price said: “It’s as nearly perfect as any American fiction I know.” But real fame, and the big literary prizes, remained out of reach, and Salter seems to have seen much of his life as a waste of time and potential.

We’re left, then, with the question of whether fame is truly the sole proof of greatness, and why a writer of such enormous accomplishments could only see the places where he fell short. (Even his admirers encouraged him in this. Speaking of Salter’s movie career, Paumgarten says without comment: “Of sixteen screenplays, only four were produced.” Any screenwriter will tell you that this is a fantastic percentage.) But he wasn’t alone. If you were going to plan out the perfect writing career from first principles—a big critical success right out of the gate, a huge bestseller at your peak, and a series of late masterpieces—you couldn’t do better than Philip Roth, and I’ve written at length elsewhere about Roth’s own disillusionment. Which only raises the larger issue of whether any ambitious writer can truly be happy. Part of it can be pinned on the neuroses that drive so many writers into the lives they’ve chosen, but not all of it is imaginary. Those of us on the outside only see the published work, but a writer is uniquely qualified to measure them against the books that were never written, and none of us ever lives up to his or her full potential. In Salter’s case, that infinitesimal gap feels especially stark: he came so close to being the best that his final, tiny shortfall feels like a failure. He can start to sound a little like LeBron James after the finals: “If I could have gave more, I would have done it, but I gave everything I had.” Salter gave even more than that, and he didn’t think it was enough. But that doesn’t mean he was right.

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June 24, 2015 at 9:51 am

Exorcising the ghosts

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George Saunders

Over the weekend, The New York Times Style Magazine ran a fascinating series of short pieces by writers confronting their own early work. (The occasion for the feature is an auction being held at Christie’s next month by PEN American Center, in which seventy-five first editions with annotations by their authors will go up for sale. If I could get just one, it would be David Simon’s copy of Homicide.) The reflections here are full of intriguing insights, one of which I quoted here on Sunday. There’s Philip Roth’s description of the analytic session in Portnoy’s Complaint as “an appropriate vessel” for the kind of uncensored, frequently repellent story he wanted to write—a nice reminder of how a novel’s most distinctive qualities often represent a solution to particular narrative problems. I also liked George Saunders’s account of revisiting his first collection of short stories, which is full of “ghost-phrases” that he was positive were there, but must have been cut along the way. The version of a story that a writer carries in his or her head is an amalgam of variations, with each draft superimposed over the one before, and it sometimes bears little resemblance to what finally ended up in print.

But the comment that stuck with me the most was from Lydia Davis, who writes tightly compressed, elliptical short stories, some of them only a paragraph long. (I’ve only read a few of them, but they’re extraordinary—worthy contributions to a tradition of parables that goes back through Borges and Kafka. Of all contemporary writers whose work I feel I need to study more closely, Davis is near the top, largely because her virtues are so different from mine.) Appropriately enough, her contribution isn’t much longer than most of the stories that inspired it, but it’s been rattling around in my head ever since:

I read a story through again and again, whether it’s a long story or a short one (or a very very short one). If anything bothers me, even very subtly, I reread it many times, consider alternatives, put the story away for a while, read it again. I don’t consider a story finished until nothing bothers me anymore—though there are a few stories that never completely satisfied me but that I felt were good enough to go out in the world as they were. I simply couldn’t think what more I could do to them.

Lydia Davis

And the line that really gets me is “until nothing bothers me anymore.” On some level, that’s the only standard to which writers ought to hold themselves, as John Gardner notes in The Art of Fiction: “When the amateur writer lets a bad sentence stand in his final draft, though he knows it’s bad, the sin is frigidity.” The trouble, of course, is that revising a story is like trying to catch a trout with your bare hands. Whenever you think you’ve got a grip on it, it slips through, and one change can set off a series of little crises elsewhere in the draft. To switch to another metaphor, it’s like the horseshoe nail that lost the kingdom: revising a word in a sentence can change the rhythm, which throws off the paragraph, and suddenly the entire chapter—or the whole novel—needs to be rethought. And I’m only slightly exaggerating. At the moment, I’m nearing the end of a significant rewrite of my current novel, with a long list of changes big and small, and although most live on the level of the sentence or paragraph, I won’t know how they really play until I sit down tonight and read the whole thing straight through. That read, in turn, will suggest additional changes, meaning that the novel has to be read yet again, and so on and so forth until I collide with my deadline on Friday.

Ideally, each round of changes will be less extensive than the one before, gradually converging, like a function approaching its limit, at the story’s ideal form, or at least something close enough. This seems to be what Davis is describing, and it’s clear that her stories demand nothing less: they’re so condensed and intense, like poetry, that a single wrong word would tear them apart. The problem is that even as the story nears its perfect shape, if it even exists, the author is changing in the meantime: the standards you had when you started may not be the ones you have now, after you’ve been shaped by the work itself. Much of writing consists of managing that threefold relationship between the story, your original intentions, and whatever you’re feeling today. When the process doesn’t go perfectly, which is to say most of the time, you end up with the ghost-phrases that Saunders describes, a mismatch between the story in your head and its published form. Davis seems determined to exorcise those ghosts, and by her own account, she usually succeeds. She wouldn’t be here if she didn’t. And if the rest of us are still haunted by our ghost-phrases, well, we can take heart in the words of Jez Butterworth, who notes that a matter of milliseconds can make the difference between nearly and really—even if the process can start to feel a little like Butterworth’s own script for Edge of Tomorrow. You try, fail, and repeat.

Philip Roth on uncertainty and new beginnings

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Philip Roth

Beginning a book is unpleasant. I’m entirely uncertain about the character and the predicament, and a character in his predicament is what I have to begin with. Worse than not knowing your subject is not knowing how to treat it, because that’s finally everything. I type out beginnings and they’re awful, more of an unconscious parody of my previous book than the breakaway from it that I want. I need something driving down the center of a book, a magnet to draw everything to it—that’s what I look for during the first months of writing something new. I often have to write a hundred pages or more before there’s a paragraph that’s alive. Okay, I say to myself, that’s your beginning, start there; that’s the first paragraph of the book. I’ll go over the first six months of work and underline in red a paragraph, a sentence, sometimes no more than a phrase, that has some life in it, and then I’ll type all these out on one page. Usually it doesn’t come to more than one page, but if I’m lucky, that’s the start of page one. I look for the liveliness to set the tone. After the awful beginning come the months of freewheeling play, and after the play come the crises, turning against your material and hating the book…

What matters most isn’t there at all. I don’t mean the solutions to problems, I mean the problems themselves. You’re looking, as you begin, for what’s going to resist you. You’re looking for trouble. Sometimes in the beginning uncertainty arises not because the writing is difficult, but because it isn’t difficult enough. Fluency can be a sign that nothing is happening; fluency can actually be my signal to stop, while being in the dark from sentence to sentence is what convinces me to go on.

Philip Roth, to The Paris Review

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January 1, 2014 at 9:00 am

Living with dissatisfaction

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Ben Hecht

Novelists come in all shapes and sizes, but if they’re united by anything, it’s two qualities of mind. The first is an irrational optimism, a sense that despite all evidence to the contrary, they’ll conquer the odds and become one of the thousand or fewer authors on the planet to make a living from writing fiction alone. The second is ambition, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Ambition is the only force that can carry any sane person through the effort of writing an entire novel: a more rational being would have given up long before, and many often do. We have ambition to thank for the novels that stand as towering works of the human spirit, for the most crassly calculated commercial fiction, and for everything in between: if money were the only thing on a writer’s mind, after all, there are easier ways of making a living. It all comes down to a desire to be known as a writer, or to leave something meaningful behind when we’re gone, and while other factors—an urgent story to tell, the need to express our innermost thoughts and feelings, a sense of emptiness when we contemplate a life without some sustaining project—it’s ambition that keeps it going and carries it home.

That’s the good thing about ambition: it comes out of nowhere and rarely leaves a true writer entirely, and without it, the shelves of our homes and libraries would be bare. But there’s a dark side to it as well. It’s the voice in a writer’s head that tells him that he’ll never be as good as he has the potential to be, and one that quickly takes for granted what he’s already accomplished. Speaking of romantic love, the great screenwriter Ben Hecht once wrote:

If you ask a man who many times he has loved—unless there is love in his heart at the moment—he is likely to answer, “Never.” He will say, if his heart is loveless, that often he had thought he loved, but that, victim or hero of love, he was mistaken. For only love can believe in love—or even remember it.

Change a word here and there, and that sums up how most writers feel about what they’ve done in the past. When you’re working on a novel, it seems urgent, inevitable, the most important thing in the world; when it’s done, even in published form, it starts to feel a little dead, and whatever pleasure it once gave you is quickly swallowed up by the drive to move on to the next big thing. That voice in your head is implacable and coolly rational: What you’ve done so far is all very well and good, it says, but what have you done for me lately?

Philip Roth

Learning to live with those two sides of ambition is one of the hardest challenges faced by a writer, or any creative artist. I’ve been living with an unquenchable ambition for as long as I can remember, and brother, it’s exhausting. I love writing, but as with so many other authors before me, the act itself gets tied up with other, less wholesome emotions, like competition or dissatisfaction. It doesn’t help to remind myself that if I’m dissatisfied with what I’ve done so far, it has less to do with my achievements themselves then with an ingrained state of mind: I’m the kind of person who is never going to be entirely satisfied, even if I tick off every item on my literary bucket list. I even catch myself wondering what it would be like to turn it all off. If there were a switch I could press to take my ambitions away, leaving me content with what I’ve accomplished and willing to live in relative peace, there are times when I’d be tempted to flip it. When someone like Philip Roth decides that it’s no longer worth the trouble and walks away, it makes headlines, but Roth only did what most writers, in their heart of hearts, often wish they could do, if only the voices in their heads would allow it.

And the only solution I’ve ever found is to refocus that ambition on the one place where it can do a bit of good, regardless of its external results: on the way you spend your time from one minute to the next. We may not be able to control what happens to our work once we’re done with it, or how we’ll feel about it if we ever see it in print, but we can at least make sure that our free time is spent thinking about the things we care about and pursuing the activities that matter to us. In some ways, that’s the most worthwhile ambition at all—the determination to own the time that we’re afforded, not just on the level of constructing a body of work that will outlive us, but on spending the next available hour doing something we find interesting. It’s quite possible that, like Hecht’s hypothetical lover, we won’t be satisfied with what we’ve produced, but the time invested in that pursuit can’t be wasted, however many mistakes we make along the way. Whenever I feel less than content with something I’ve done, I stop and ask myself a slightly different question: Am I happy with the way I spent the time it took? And if the response is yes, then I’ve got my real answer.

Written by nevalalee

December 9, 2013 at 9:05 am

Posted in Writing

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Googling the rise and fall of literary reputations: the sequel

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Note: To celebrate the third anniversary of this blog, I’ll be spending the week reposting some of my favorite pieces from early in its run. This post originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on December 20, 2010.

After playing over the weekend with the new word frequency tool in Google Books, I quickly came to realize that my recent post on the subject barely scratched the surface. It’s fun to compare novelists against other writers in the same category, for example, but what happens when we look at authors in different categories altogether? The graph above, for instance, shows us what we get when we chart two of the most famous literary authors of the latter half of the century against their counterparts on the bestseller list. And while the results may seem surprising at first, they aren’t hard to understand.

Looking at the chart, it’s clear that books by Philip Roth and John Updike might be outsold by Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann in their initial run (the occasional freak like Couples or Portnoy’s Complaint aside), but as they enter the canon, they’re simply talked about more often, especially by other writers, than their bestselling contemporaries. (Robbins and Susann, by contrast, probably aren’t cited very often outside their own books.) Compared to the trajectory of a canonical author, the graph of a bestseller begins to look less like a mountain and more like a molehill—or a speed bump. But now look here:

Something else altogether seems to be at work in this chart, and it’s only a reminder of the singularity of Stephen King’s career. Soon after his debut—Carrie‘Salem’s LotThe Shining, and The Stand were all published within the same five years—King had overtaken the likes of Robbins and Susann both on the bestseller lists and in terms of cultural impact. Then something even stranger happened: he became canonical. He was prolific, popular, and wrote books that were endlessly referenced within the culture. As a result, his graph looks like no other—an appropriately monstrous hybrid of the bestselling author and serious novelist. So what happens when we extend the graph beyond the year 2000, which is where the original numbers end? Here’s what we see:

A number of interesting things begin to happen in the last decade. Robbins and Susann look more like speed bumps than ever before. King’s popularity begins to taper off just as he becomes officially canonical—right when he receives lifetime achievement honors from the National Book Awards. And just as Updike himself once predicted, he and Roth seem to have switched places in 2004, or just after the appearance of The Plot Against America, which marks the peak, so far, of Roth’s late resurgence.

Of course, the conclusions I’ve drawn here are almost certainly flawed. There’s no way of knowing, at least not without looking more closely at the underlying data, whether the number of citations of a given author reflects true cultural prominence or something else. And it’s even harder to correlate any apparent patterns—if they’re actually there at all—with particular works or historical events, especially given the lag time of the publishing process. But there’s one chart, which I’ve been saving for last, which is so striking that I can’t help but believe that it represents something real:

This is a chart of the novelists who, according to a recent New York Times poll, wrote the five best American novels of the past twenty-five years: Toni Morrison (Beloved), Don DeLillo (Underworld), John Updike (Rabbit Angstrom), Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian), and Philip Roth (American Pastoral). The big news here, obviously, is Morrison’s amazing ascent around 1987, when Beloved was published. It isn’t hard to see why: Beloved was the perfect storm of literary fiction, a bestselling, critically acclaimed novel that also fit beautifully into the college curriculum. Morrison’s decline in recent years has less to do, I expect, with any real fall in her reputation than with a natural settling to more typical levels. (Although it’s interesting to note that the drop occurs shortly after Morrison received the Nobel Prize, thus locking her into the canon.)

It might be argued, and rightly so, that it’s unfair to turn literary reputation into such a horse race. But such numbers are going to be an inevitable part of the conversation from now on, and not just in terms of citations. It’s appropriate that Google unveiled this new search tool just as Amazon announced that it was making BookScan sales numbers available to its authors, allowing individual writers to do what I’m doing here, on a smaller and more personal scale. And if there’s any silver lining, it’s this: as the cases of Robbins and Susann remind us, in the end, sales don’t matter. After all, looking at the examples given above, which of these graphs would you want?

Written by nevalalee

November 26, 2013 at 9:00 am

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