Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Robert Caro

The unfinished lives

with 3 comments

Yesterday, the New York Times published a long profile of Donald Knuth, the legendary author of The Art of Computer Programming. Knuth is eighty now, and the article by Siobhan Roberts offers an evocative look at an intellectual giant in twilight:

Dr. Knuth usually dresses like the youthful geek he was when he embarked on this odyssey: long-sleeved T-shirt under a short-sleeved T-shirt, with jeans, at least at this time of year…Dr. Knuth lives in Stanford, and allowed for a Sunday visitor. That he spared an entire day was exceptional—usually his availability is “modulo nap time,” a sacred daily ritual from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. He started early, at Palo Alto’s First Lutheran Church, where he delivered a Sunday school lesson to a standing-room-only crowd.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Knuth’s most famous work, which is still incomplete. Knuth is busy writing the fourth installment, one fascicle at a time, although its most recent piece has been delayed “because he keeps finding more and more irresistible problems that he wants to present.” As Roberts writes: “Dr. Knuth’s exacting standards, literary and otherwise, may explain why his life’s work is nowhere near done. He has a wager with Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google and a former student…over whether Mr. Brin will finish his Ph.D. before Dr. Knuth concludes his opus…He figures it will take another twenty-five years to finish The Art of Computer Programming, although that time frame has been a constant since about 1980.”

Knuth is a prominent example, although far from the most famous, of a literary and actuarial phenomenon that has grown increasingly familiar—an older author with a projected work of multiple volumes, published one book at a time, that seems increasingly unlikely to ever see completion. On the fiction side, the most noteworthy case has to be that of George R.R. Martin, who has been fielding anxious inquiries from fans for most of the last decade. (In an article that appeared seven long years ago in The New Yorker, Laura Miller quotes Martin, who was only sixty-three at the time: “I’m still getting e-mail from assholes who call me lazy for not finishing the book sooner. They say, ‘You better not pull a Jordan.’”) Robert A. Caro is still laboring over what he hopes will be the final volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson, and mortality has become an issue not just for him, but for his longtime editor, as we read in Charles McGrath’s classic profile in the Times:

Robert Gottlieb, who signed up Caro to do The Years of Lyndon Johnson when he was editor in chief of Knopf, has continued to edit all of Caro’s books, even after officially leaving the company. Not long ago he said he told Caro: “Let’s look at this situation actuarially. I’m now eighty, and you are seventy-five. The actuarial odds are that if you take however many more years you’re going to take, I’m not going to be here.”

That was six years ago, and both men are still working hard. But sometimes a writer has no choice but to face the inevitable. When asked about the concluding fifth volume of his life of Picasso, with the fourth one still on the way, the biographer John Richardson said candidly: “Listen, I’m ninety-one—I don’t think I have time for that.”

I don’t have the numbers to back this up, but such cases—or at least the public attention that they inspire—seem to be growing more common these days, on account of some combination of lengthening lifespans, increased media coverage of writers at work, and a greater willingness from publishers to agree to multiple volumes in the first place. The subjects of such extended commitments tend to be monumental in themselves, in order to justify the total investment of the writer’s own lifetime, and expanding ambitions are often to blame for blown deadlines. Martin, Caro, and Knuth all increased the prospective number of volumes after their projects were already underway, or as Roberts puts it: “When Dr. Knuth started out, he intended to write a single work. Soon after, computer science underwent its Big Bang, so he reimagined and recast the project in seven volumes.” And this “recasting” seems particularly common in the world of biographies, as the author discovers more material that he can’t bear to cut. The first few volumes may have been produced with relative ease, but as the years pass and anticipation rises, the length of time it takes to write the next installment grows, until it becomes theoretically infinite. Such a radical change of plans, which can involve extending the writing process for decades, or even beyond the author’s natural lifespan, requires an indulgent publisher, university, or other benefactor. (John Richardson’s book has been underwritten by nothing less than the John Richardson Fund for Picasso Research, which reminds me of what Homer Simpson said after being informed that he suffered from Homer Simpson syndrome: “Oh, why me?”) And it may not be an accident that many of the examples that first come to mind are white men, who have the cultural position and privilege to take their time.

It isn’t hard to understand a writer’s reluctance to let go of a subject, the pressures on a book being written in plain sight, or the tempting prospect of working on the same project forever. And the image of such authors confronting their mortality in the face of an unfinished book is often deeply moving. One of the most touching examples is that of Joseph Needham, whose Science and Civilization in China may have undergone the most dramatic expansion of them all, from an intended single volume to twenty-seven and counting. As Kenneth Girdwood Robinson writes in a concluding posthumous volume:

The Duke of Edinburgh, Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, visited The Needham Research Institute, and interested himself in the progress of the project. “And how long will it take to finish it?” he enquired. On being given a rather conservative answer, “At least ten years,” he exclaimed, “Good God, man, Joseph will be dead before you’ve finished,” a very true appreciation of the situation…In his closing years, though his mind remained lucid and his memory astonishing, Needham had great difficulty even in moving from one chair to another, and even more difficulty in speaking and in making himself understood, due to the effect of the medicines he took to control Parkinsonism. But a secretary, working closely with him day by day, could often understand what he had said, and could read what he had written, when others were baffled.

Needham’s decline eventually became impossible to ignore by those who knew him best, as his biographer Simon Winchester writes in The Man Who Loved China: “It was suggested that, for the first time in memory, he take the day off. It was a Friday, after all: he could make it a long weekend. He could charge his batteries for the week ahead. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘I’ll stay at home.’” He died later that day, with his book still unfinished. But it had been a good life.

Science and civilization

with 3 comments

Over the last week, I picked up two books—at the annual Newberry Library and Oak Park Public Library book sales, which are always a high point of my year—that I’d been hoping to find for a long time. One is a single volume, Civil Engineering and Nautics, of Joseph Needham’s landmark Science and Civilization in China, which currently consists of twenty-seven huge books that I all unreasonably hope to own one day. The other is a slim fascicle, or paperbound installment from a work in progress, from Donald Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming, which, if we’re lucky, will release its fourth volume sometime in the next decade. These two projects are rather different in scale, but remarkably similar in their conception and incubation. Needham worked on his book for close to half a century without finishing it, and Knuth has been laboring on his for even longer, with no obvious end in sight. I’ve been intrigued by such grand projects for most of my life, but I’ve become even more interested after embarking on my own venture into nonfiction. Replace “computer programming” with “science fiction” and “discovered” with “written,” and what Knuth once said in an interview gets very close to my attitude two years ago when I started writing Astounding:

At the time, everybody I knew who could write a book summarizing what was known about computer programming had discovered quite a lot of the ideas themselves…By contrast, I hadn’t really discovered anything new by myself at that point. I was just a good writer…I had this half-conceited and half-unconceited view that I could explain it more satisfactorily than the others because of my lack of bias. I didn’t have any axes to grind but my own.

Knuth concludes: “Then, of course, as I started to write things I naturally discovered one or two new things as I went, and now I am just as biased as anybody.” Which pretty sums up my experience, too.

And what really fascinates me about both projects is how monstrously these tomes grew past their projected dimensions, both in space and in time. Both Needham and Knuth thought at first that their work would fit within a single volume, and although they each expanded it to the magic number of seven, neither seems to have grasped just how long it would take. Knuth recalls:

My original motivation was to write a text about how to write compilers, so I began drafting chapters. I was seriously planning to finish the book before my son was born…In June 1965, I had finally finished the first draft of the twelve chapters. It amounted to three thousand handwritten pages of manuscript…I figured about five pages of my handwriting would be about one page of a book.

As it turned out, he was a little off: the real proportion was one and a half handwritten pages to a single page in type, which meant that he had already written two thousand pages without even getting past the subject of compilers. Needham had a similar moment of clarity. As Simon Winchester writes in his biography The Man Who Loved China:

Needham had decreed early on in the process, as he watched each volume begin to swell and threaten to burst out of its covers, that no one volume should be “too big for a man to read comfortably in his bath.” But it was happening nonetheless…One book became two, three, or four. Volume V, a special case, became not five, but thirteen formal subsidiary parts, each one of them big and complicated enough to be made into a separate, self-standing, and equally enormous new volume of its own.

It’s frankly hard to imagine reading any of these expensive books in the tub, but Needham says elsewhere, more realistically, that critics found the volumes “too heavy and bulky for meditative evening reading,” which led to the work being repeatedly subdivided.

The Art of Computer Programming was released by a commercial educational publisher, Addison-Wesley, but it isn’t surprising that most such books tend to appear at academic presses, which are the only institutions capable of sustaining a project that lasts for decades. (Their sole competition here might be the Catholic Church, which has been underwriting a critical edition of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas since 1879. They’re about halfway through.) Winchester refers in passing to “the beleaguered Cambridge University Press, which was obliged to tolerate the constant expansion of the project,” and for the full picture, you can turn to the book A Skeptic Among Scholars, by August Frugé, the director of the University of California Press. He writes of The Plan of St. Gall, a three-volume monument of scholarship that is probably the most beautiful book I own:

The St. Gall manuscript…was said in 1960 to be in semifinal draft, about one hundred and fifty pages in length. When approved by the Editorial Committee and accepted by me in 1967, it came to several hundred typed pages, about right for a single quarto volume. As the work moved through the production process during the next twelve years, we paused every now and then to call for new estimates of size and cost, and each time discovered that new sections had been added, along with a few dozen new diagrams and drawings.

At one point, concerns about cost threatened to derail the whole enterprise, and Frugé retired before the three huge folios were published. James H. Clark, his successor, saw it to completion, writing later: “But what is a university press for if not to take these kinds of risks, make these investments, and publish books that make a difference?” Aside from Knuth, one of the few comparable examples on the commercial side must be Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson, which was originally planned as three volumes to be written over about six years. Forty years and four books later, Caro still isn’t done, and the fact that he has been allowed to keep working at the same methodical pace is a tribute to his longtime editor Robert Gottlieb at Knopf.

And if there’s one key takeaway from the examples I’ve mentioned, it’s that none of these authors set out to devote their lives to these projects—they all thought at first that they could finish it within a few years. Knuth recalls:

It gradually dawned on me how large a project this was going to be. If I had realized that at the beginning, I wouldn’t have been foolish enough to start; I wouldn’t have dared to tackle such a thing…[But] I had collected so much material that I felt it was my duty to continue with the project even though it would take a lot longer than I had originally expected.

You also realize that you can’t explain the subject at hand without covering a lot of other material first. Caro treats his books on Johnson as windows onto such vistas as local politics, Texas, and the Senate, which is a big part of their appeal. (The equivalent in my case would be deciding that I couldn’t write the life of John W. Campbell in a comprehensible form without telling the entire history of science fiction, too, which might well be true.) Frugé, perhaps to his credit, ventures a more cynical reading:

In my skeptical and perhaps scatterbrained way, I sometimes wonder how a research scholar can work on the same project decade after decade and retain faith in its intellectual importance. Perhaps some do not, and that is why their books are never completed. But we can also observe an opposite phenomenon. As the years go by the object or document for study may swell and expand in importance until—until, for example, “The Plan of St. Gall is…one of the most fascinating creations of the human mind.”

He makes a good point. The cycle feeds on itself, with the work expanding in scope to justify the amount of time it takes. It’s human nature, and there’s something a little absurd about it. But it’s also the only way we get art, science, or civilization.

Cutty Sark and the semicolon

leave a comment »

Vladimir Nabokov

Note: I’m taking a few days off, 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 December 22, 2015.

In an interview that was first published in The Paris Review, the novelist Herbert Gold asked Vladimir Nabokov if an editor had ever offered him any useful advice. This is what Nabokov said in response:

By “editor” I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honor—which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous “stet!”

I’ve always adored that thunderous stet, which tells us so much about Nabokov and his imperious resistance to being edited by anybody. Today, however, I’m more interested in the previous sentence. A semicolon, as Nabokov puts it, can indeed be a point of honor. Nabokov was perhaps the most painstaking of all modern writers, and it’s no surprise that the same perfectionism that produced such conceptual and structural marvels as Lolita and Pale Fire would filter down to the smallest details. But I imagine that even ordinary authors can relate to how a single punctuation mark in a manuscript can start to loom as large as the finger of God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

And there’s something about the semicolon that seems to inspire tussles between writers and their editors—or at least allows it to stand as a useful symbol of the battles that can occur during the editorial process. Here’s an excerpt from a piece by Charles McGrath in The New York Times Magazine about the relationship between Robert Caro, author of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and his longtime editor Robert Gottlieb:

“You know that insane old expression, ‘The quality of his defect is the defect of his quality,’ or something like that?” Gottlieb asked me. “That’s really true of Bob. What makes him such a genius of research and reliability is that everything is of exactly the same importance to him. The smallest thing is as consequential as the biggest. A semicolon matters as much as, I don’t know, whether Johnson was gay. But unfortunately, when it comes to English, I have those tendencies, too, and we could go to war over a semicolon. That’s as important to me as who voted for what law.”

It’s possible that the semicolon keeps cropping up in such stories because its inherent ambiguity lends itself to disagreement. As Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” And I’ve more or less eliminated semicolons from my own work for much the same reason.

Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese on the set of Raging Bull

But the larger question here is why artists fixate on things that even the most attentive reader would pass over without noticing. On one level, you could take a fight over a semicolon as an illustration of the way that the creative act—in which the artist is immersed in the work for months on end—tends to turn mountains into molehills. Here’s one of my favorite stories about the making of Raging Bull:

One night, when the filmmakers were right up against the deadline to make their release date, they were working on a nothing little shot that takes place in a nightclub, where a minor character turns to the bartender and orders a Cutty Sark. “I can’t hear what he’s saying,” [Martin Scorsese] said. Fiddling ensued—extensive fiddling—without satisfying him. [Producer Irwin] Winkler, who was present, finally deemed one result good enough and pointed out that messengers were standing by to hand-carry release prints to the few theaters where the picture was about to premiere. At which point, Scorsese snapped. “I want my name taken off the picture,” he cried—which bespeaks his devotion to detail. It also bespeaks his exhaustion at the end of Raging Bull, not to mention the craziness that so often overtakes movies as they wind down. Needless to say, he was eventually placated. And you can more or less hear the line in the finished print.

And you could argue that this kind of microscopic attention is the only thing that can lead to a work that succeeds on the largest possible scale.

But there’s yet another story that gets closer to truth. In Existential Errands, Norman Mailer describes a bad period in his life—shortly after he was jailed for stabbing his second wife Adele—in which he found himself descending into alcoholism and unable to work. His only source of consolation were the scraps of paper, “little crossed communications from some wistful outpost of my mind,” that he would find in his jacket pocket after a drunken night. Mailer writes of these poems:

I would go to work, however, on my scraps of paper. They were all I had for work. I would rewrite them carefully, printing in longhand and ink, and I would spend hours whenever there was time going over these little poems…And since I wasn’t doing anything else very well in those days, I worked the poems over every chance I had. Sometimes a working day would go by, and I might put a space between two lines and remove a word. Maybe I was mending.

Which just reminds us that a seemingly minuscule change can be the result of a prolonged confrontation with the work as a whole. You can’t obsess over a semicolon without immersing yourself in the words around it, and there are times when you need such a focal point to structure your engagement with the rest. It’s a little like what is called a lakshya in yoga: the tiny spot on the body or in the mind on which you concentrate while meditating. In practice, the lakshya can be anything or nothing, but without it, your attention tends to drift. In art, it can be a semicolon, a word, or a line about Cutty Sark. It may not be much in itself. But when you need to tether yourself to something, even a semicolon can be a lifeline.

The grand projects

with 4 comments

The Lisle Letters

Thirty-five years ago, on October 18, 1981, the New York Times published a long article by the critic D.J.R. Bruckner. Titled “The Grand Projects,” it was a survey of what Bruckner called “the big books or projects that need decades to finish,” and which only a handful of academic publishers in the country are equipped to see from beginning to end. I first came across it in a photocopy tucked into the first volume of one of the books that it mentions, The Plan of St. Gall, the enormous study of monastic life that I bought a few years ago after dreaming about it for decades. At the time, I was just starting to collect rare and unusual books for their own sake, and I found myself using Bruckner’s article—which I recently discovered was the first piece that he ever published for the Times—as a kind of map of the territory. I purchased a copy of Howard Adelmann’s massive Marcello Malpighi and the Evolution of Embryology mostly because Bruckner said: “Go to a library and see it one day; it is wonderful just to look at.” And last week, as a treat for myself after a rough month, I finally got my hands on the six volumes of Muriel St. Clare Byrne’s The Lisle Letters, which Bruckner mentions alongside The Plan of St. Gall as one of the great triumphs of the university press. For the moment, I have everything on my list, although I suppose that Costa Rican Natural History by Daniel Janzen is beckoning from the wings.

But I’ve also found that my motives for collecting these books have changed—or at least they’ve undergone a subtle shift of emphasis. I was initially drawn to these beautiful sets, frankly, for aesthetic reasons. As the product of years or decades of collaborative work, they’re invariably gorgeous in design, typography, printing, and construction. These are books that are meant to last forever. I don’t have as much time to read for my own pleasure as I once did, so I’ve begun to treasure what I’ve elsewhere called tomes, or books so large that their unread pages feel comforting, rather than accusatory. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever have the chance to work through Marcello Malpighi from the first folio page to the last, but I’m happy just to be living in the same house with it. When I’m honest with myself, I acknowledge that it has something to do with a middlebrow fondness for how those uniform sets look when lined up on my bookshelves: it’s the same impulse that led me to pick up books as different as William T. Vollmann’s Rising Up and Rising Down and the sixteen volumes of Richard Francis Burton’s translation of The Arabian Nights. At some point, it amounts to buying books as furniture. I can’t totally defend myself from this charge, except by saying that the pleasure that they give me is one that encompasses all the senses. I like to look at them, but also to handle them, leaf through them, and sometimes even smell them. And I’ll occasionally even read them for an hour.

Marcello Malpighi and the Evolution of Embryology

Over the last year or so, however, I’ve begun to see them in another light. Now they represent an investment of time, which is invisible, but no less vast than the amount of space that they physically occupy. (You could even say that the resulting book is a projection, in three-dimensional space, of the temporal process that produced it. A big book is invariably the product of a big life.) The undisputed champion here has to be The Lisle Letters, which was the end result of fifty years of work by Muriel St. Clare Byrne. She was in her thirties when she began the project, and it was published on her eighty-sixth birthday. It’s an edited and wonderfully annotated selection of the correspondence of Arthur Plantagenet, 1st Viscount Lisle, the illegitimate son of Henry VIII. The surviving letters, which encompass one of the most eventful periods in Tudor history, were an important source for the novelist Hilary Mantel in the writing of Wolf Hall. Like most of the tomes that I love, it uses its narrow subject as an entry point into a much larger era, and I especially like Byrne’s explanation of why these particular letters are so useful. Lisle wasn’t even in England for most of it—he was Lord Deputy of Calais, on the northern coast of France. Yet he still had to manage his affairs back home, mostly through letters, which means that the correspondence preserves countless details of daily life that otherwise wouldn’t have been committed to writing. The letters had long been known to historians, but no one had ever gone through systematically and considered them as a whole. Byrne saw that somebody had to do it, and she did. And it only took her five decades.

It’s the time and effort involved that fascinates me now, even more than the tangible pleasures of the books themselves. In some ways, these are just different aspects of the same thing: the academic presses, which can afford to break even or even lose money on monumental projects, can provide scholars with the time they need, and they can publish works intended for only a few thousand readers with the resources they deserve. Occasionally, you see the same impulse in mainstream publishing: Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson sometimes seems less like a commercial enterprise than a public service. (When asked in that wonderful profile by Charles McGrath if Caro’s books were profitable, Sonny Mehta, the head of Knopf, paused and said: “They will be, because there is nothing like them.”) In the end, Caro will have spent as much time on Johnson as Byrne did on Lisle, and the fact that he did it outside the university system is equally remarkable. It’s no accident, of course, that I’ve begun to think in these terms after embarking on a big nonfiction project of my own. Astounding can’t compare to any of these books in size: it’s supposed to appeal to a wide audience, and there are certain constraints in length that are written right into the contract. I don’t have decades to write it, either. When all is said and done, I’ll probably end up devoting three years to it, which isn’t trivial, but it isn’t a lifetime. But I keep these books around to remind me of the devotion and obsessiveness that such projects require. We desperately need authors and publishers like this. And whenever I feel overwhelmed by the work that lies ahead, I just have to ask myself what Caro—or Muriel St. Clare Byrne—would do.

The passages of power

with 2 comments

Robert Caro

Every year or so, I go back and read Charles McGrath’s profile of the biographer Robert Caro, which is one of my favorite features ever published in The New York Times Magazine. (My favorite piece of all, if I’m being honest with myself, is Stephen Rodrick’s account of the notorious meltdown by Lindsay Lohan during the filming of The Canyons—and you’d probably learn a lot about human nature by reading those two articles back to back.) Caro, who was recently honored with a lifetime achievement medal from the National Book Foundation, has long been a hero of mine, for reasons that I’ve described at length elsewhere. He’s eighty years old now, and for most of his career, he has remained obsessively focused on two men: the city planner Robert Moses and President Lyndon Johnson. Yet his real subject is the nature of power in America, a theme that he has kept at the forefront of his work even at his bleakest moments. McGrath writes:

At the lowest point during the writing of The Power Broker, when Caro had run out of money and was close to despair about being able to finish, [Caro’s wife Ina] sold their house in suburban Long Island, moved the family…to an apartment in the Bronx and took a job teaching school to keep him going. “That was a bad time, a very bad time,” Caro recalled.

In an interview published this week with Rachel Syme of Matter, Caro goes into greater detail about this bad period:

This book took seven years. And money played a big part of this. We didn’t have any savings. I was a reporter. And I thought it was only going to take a year, so I couldn’t quit. I got a contract for $5,000, they gave me $2,500 as an advance. So I was trying for half the year to keep my job and work on the book, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. And I heard about a grant for one year, and I got it. And I remember I told Ina, we are finally going to get to go to France. I thought, they are giving me this money for a year, and this outline is only going to take me nine months! Of course at the end of the year, I’d hardly started, and we were just broke.

So Ina sold the house, but that only gave us — this was before the real estate boom — $25,000 of profit. That was enough to live for a year in an apartment in the Bronx. And then I was just totally broke, and Ina went to work. Then I got hurt and couldn’t get out of bed for a long time. So she had to stop and do the research.

Caro adds that he still remembers the exact amount of their monthly rent in those years—$362.73—because they constantly worried how to pay it, and that Ina began to take a circuitous route on her walk home to avoid passing the butcher and dry cleaner to whom they owed money.

Robert Moses

And here’s the quote that sticks in my head the most: “But I must say, for several years, I had very little hope of finishing the book,” Caro says. “When I thought about the book, I didn’t feel powerful. I believed no one was going to read it. And I was just thinking I have to finish, but I don’t know how we are going to make it.” The italics are mine. The Power Broker was written by a man who felt all but powerless, doubted that he would ever finish it, and feared that nobody would read the result even if he did. (Caro recalls: “All this time, all I’m hearing is nobody is going to read a book on Robert Moses, including from my first editor. He said, ‘It’s a good book, but nobody is going to read it. You have to prepare yourselves for a very small printing.'”) For a writer, that kind of financial squeeze, as I know from personal experience, enforces a relentless logic. You can quantify the cost of every wasted day—and, even more terrifyingly, of every day spent on real work. Caro realized, for instance, that in order to give the reader a full picture of Moses’s impact on the city, he had to tell the story of one of the neighborhoods that were destroyed. The result, “One Mile,” is one of the most powerful chapters in the book, and probably the first that most readers remember. Caro knew that it would take him six months to research and write, and he didn’t have the money or time. But he did it it anyway. When you take that kind of decision and multiply it by the scale of the book that he envisioned, you’ve got seven years spent in utter suspense over whether any of it would make a difference. It couldn’t have been less like the power that he was trying to describe.

But he pulled it off magnificently. And it’s an example that is worth remembering now more than ever. We’re entering a era in which the media will be forced to confront the rise to power of a man it resoundingly did not want to see in the White House. (Only two mainstream newspapers endorsed Donald Trump.) In the aftermath of the election, writers and journalists can’t be blamed for asking themselves how much power they really have, in the face of a post-truth environment in which fake news was just as influential as the real thing. The answer, honestly, is that they have almost none. Yet this might be the only position from which they can speak honestly about power itself. As Caro says to Matter: “You have to deal with the powerless. You couldn’t just write about how power works, you had to write about its effect on people who didn’t have power, both for good and for ill.” And it’s that invisible dynamic between the subject and its author—between one man of enormous power and another who could wield nothing but words—that made Caro’s work so enduring. The Power Broker is as massive a book as can be physically encompassed between two covers, and its scale, I think, was partly a result of Caro’s attempt to match himself to Moses. He might not have been able to build highways and bridges, but he could construct a book on the same scale. The result had a greater impact on Moses’s reputation than any of the monuments that he left to himself. It took Caro seven years, but he did it, starting from nothing. And we owe it to ourselves to do the same.

Written by nevalalee

November 18, 2016 at 8:16 am

Cutty Sark and the semicolon

with 2 comments

Vladimir Nabokov

In an interview that was first published in The Paris Review, the novelist Herbert Gold asked Vladimir Nabokov if an editor had ever offered him any useful advice. This is what Nabokov said in response:

By “editor” I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honor—which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous “stet!”

I’ve always adored that thunderous stet, which tells us so much about Nabokov and his imperious resistance to being edited by anybody. Today, however, I’m more interested in the previous sentence. A semicolon, as Nabokov puts it, can indeed be a point of honor. Nabokov was perhaps the most painstaking of all modern writers, and it’s no surprise that the same perfectionism that produced such conceptual and structural marvels as Lolita and Pale Fire would filter down to the smallest details. But I imagine that most authors can relate to how a single punctuation mark in a manuscript can start to loom as large as the finger of God in the Sistine Chapel.

And there’s something about the semicolon that seems to inspire tussles between writers and their editors—or at least allows it to stand as a useful symbol of the battles that can occur during the editorial process. Here’s an excerpt from a piece by Charles McGrath in The New York Times Magazine about the relationship between Robert Caro, author of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and his longtime editor Robert Gottlieb:

“You know that insane old expression, ‘The quality of his defect is the defect of his quality,’ or something like that?” Gottlieb asked me. “That’s really true of Bob. What makes him such a genius of research and reliability is that everything is of exactly the same importance to him. The smallest thing is as consequential as the biggest. A semicolon matters as much as, I don’t know, whether Johnson was gay. But unfortunately, when it comes to English, I have those tendencies, too, and we could go to war over a semicolon. That’s as important to me as who voted for what law.”

It’s possible that the semicolon keeps cropping up in such stories because its inherent ambiguity lends itself to disagreement. As Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” And I’ve more or less eliminated semicolons from my own work for much the same reason.

Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese on the set of Raging Bull

But the larger question here is why artists fixate on things that even the most attentive reader would pass over without noticing. On one level, you could take a fight over a semicolon as an illustration of the way that the creative act—in which the artist is immersed in the work for months on end—tends to turn mountains into molehills. Here’s one of my favorite stories about the making of Raging Bull:

One night, when the filmmakers were right up against the deadline to make their release date, they were working on a nothing little shot that takes place in a nightclub, where a minor character turns to the bartender and orders a Cutty Sark. “I can’t hear what he’s saying,” [Martin Scorsese] said. Fiddling ensued—extensive fiddling—without satisfying him. [Producer Irwin] Winkler, who was present, finally deemed one result good enough and pointed out that messengers were standing by to hand-carry release prints to the few theaters where the picture was about to premiere. At which point, Scorsese snapped. “I want my name taken off the picture,” he cried—which bespeaks his devotion to detail. It also bespeaks his exhaustion at the end of Raging Bull, not to mention the craziness that so often overtakes movies as they wind down. Needless to say, he was eventually placated. And you can more or less hear the line in the finished print.

And you could argue that this kind of microscopic attention is the only thing that can lead to a work that succeeds on the largest possible scale.

But there’s another story that gets closer to truth. In Existential Errands, Norman Mailer describes a bad period in his life—shortly after he was jailed for stabbing his second wife Adele—in which he found himself descending into alcoholism and unable to work. His only source of consolation were the scraps of paper, “little crossed communications from some wistful outpost of my mind,” that he would find in his jacket pocket after a drunken night. Mailer writes of these poems:

I would go to work, however, on my scraps of paper. They were all I had for work. I would rewrite them carefully, printing in longhand and ink, and I would spend hours whenever there was time going over these little poems…And since I wasn’t doing anything else very well in those days, I worked the poems over every chance I had. Sometimes a working day would go by, and I might put a space between two lines and remove a word. Maybe I was mending.

Which just reminds us that a seemingly minuscule change can be the result of a prolonged confrontation with the work as a whole. You can’t obsess over a semicolon without immersing yourself in the words around it, and there are times when you need such a focal point to structure your engagement with the rest. It’s a little like what is called a lakshya in yoga: the tiny spot on the body or in the mind on which you concentrate while meditating. In practice, the lakshya can be anything or nothing, but without it, your attention tends to drift. In art, it can be a semicolon, a word, or a line about Cutty Sark. It may not be much in itself. But when you need to tether yourself to something, even a semicolon can be a lifeline.

A trap baited with grass

with one comment

David Brin

Last month, in a post about the origins of my novelette “Stonebrood,” I quoted the author David Brin, who compared writing science fiction—with tongue in cheek—to wildcat oil drilling. Here’s more of what he said:

If you think that the territory of notions is limited, then the hard SF writer is like a wildcat miner drilling out resources that are shrinking. For whatever it’s worth, some people think that way. A lot of SF writers aren’t writing hard science fiction because they think most of it has been written. If their reasoning is true—and I don’t think it is—one of the reasons is that you have writers like Larry Niven out there mining out whole veins and leaving nothing left for the rest of us to explore…He not only mines all those marvelous veins of ideas, he mines them to exhaustion.

Brin may not believe that writing is really like wildcatting, but his image gets at something meaningful about how authors work. When you embark on a project of any length, you’re making an excursion into unexplored territory. You can pick the area based on promising signs in the landscape, but in the end, you have no choice but to start digging and hope that the effort pays off. There’s skill involved, but also a lot of luck.

And a writer is less like a modern oil company with a team of geologists than a lone wildcatter driven by an obsession, like Daniel Plainview at the start of There Will Be Blood. Brian Frehner, in his interesting study Finding Oil, refers to them as “vernacular prospectors,” and describes how some relied on dowsing rods and mysterious black boxes called doodlebugs to identify potential sources of oil. It was crackpot science, but to the extent that it worked, it was as a way of focusing the user’s own hunches:

Like a blind man navigating the terrain with a cane, the most successful doodlebug prospectors also surveyed the landscape, and this activity cultivated within them an instinct for recognizing changes in topography and vegetation that indicated the presence of oil. In order to operate a doodlebug, [a prospector] explained that “you’ve got to have a lot of common sense and some knowledge of oil to get any effective results.”

Similarly, any writer eventually develops his or her own bag of superstitious tricks for identifying promising material, even if they’re ultimately just a means of enabling extended thought or reflection. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the specific tools that writers use, from mind maps to tarot cards, are less important in themselves than as an excuse that forces you to sit and think for the necessary number of hours that any idea requires.

Robert Caro

But sometimes your intuition can fail you, even if you’re an experienced writer who has navigated the blank places on the map before. I got to thinking about this after reading Robert A. Caro’s description of the Hill Country of Texas in The Path to Power, the first volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson. Describing the view that greeted settlers in the nineteenth century, Caro writes:

The tall grass of the Hill Country stretched as far as the eye could see, covering valleys and hillsides alike…To these men the grass was proof that their dreams would come true. In country where grass grew like that, cotton would surely grow tall, and cattle fat—and men rich. In a country where grass grew like that, they thought, anything would grow.

He concludes bleakly: “How could they know about the grass?” In reality, the grass of the Hill Country had taken centuries to form, growing on a thin, fragile layer of soil over limestone, and as soon as it was eaten by cattle or otherwise denuded, it would never return. In Caro’s memorable words, the Hill Country was “a trap baited with grass.” And any writer can relate to the problem of encountering what seems like a promising area for a story—just look at all that grass!—only to end up striking bare rock.

Even worse, it can take weeks, months, or even years of effort before the writer realizes that the land has gone sour. (As Ted Hughes once said, quoting an unnamed playwright: “Dramatists waste eighty percent of their productive life on unworkable ideas that have to be abandoned.”) And even caution and long experience can’t always defend you against such mistakes. Caro continues:

Moreover, as to the adequacy of rainfall, the evidence of the settlers’ own eyes was often misleading, for one aspect of the trap was especially convincing—and especially cruel…Rain can be plentiful in the Hill Country not just for one year, but for two or three—or more—in a row. Men, even cautious men, therefore could arrive during a wet cycle and conclude—and write home confidently—that rainfall was adequate, even abundant. And when, suddenly, the cycle shifted…who could blame these men for being sure that the dry spell was an aberration; that it would surely rain the next year—or the next? It had to, they felt; there was plenty of rain in the Hill Country—hadn’t they seen it with their own eyes?

The italics are mine. All the caution in the world can’t prevent us from sinking months or years of our lives into ideas that won’t pay off in the way we hoped. The only way to avoid it is to stick only to the areas that have been thoroughly explored, which can lead to its own kind of disappointment. Any ambitious writer—which is to say, any writer determined to strike off on his or her own—will fall into that trap sooner or later. And when it happens, all we can do is pull up stakes, try somewhere else, and hope that this time we’ll find the land that we need.

Written by nevalalee

October 6, 2015 at 8:54 am

%d bloggers like this: