Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Salon

Don’t stay out of Riverdale

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In the opening seconds of the series premiere of Riverdale, a young man speaks quietly in voiceover, his words playing over idyllic shots of American life:

Our story is about a town, a small town, and the people who live in the town. From a distance, it presents itself like so many other small towns all over the world. Safe. Decent. Innocent. Get closer, though, and you start seeing the shadows underneath. The name of our town is Riverdale.

Much later, we realize that the speaker is Jughead of Archie Comics fame, played by former Disney child star Cole Sprouse, which might seem peculiar enough in itself. But what I noticed first about this monologue is that it basically summarizes the prologue of Blue Velvet, which begins with images of roses and picket fences and then dives into the grass, revealing the insects ravening like feral animals in the darkness. It’s one of the greatest declarations of intent in all of cinema, and initially, there’s something a little disappointing in the way that Riverdale feels obliged to blandly state what Lynch put into a series of unforgettable images. Yet I have the feeling that series creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who says that Blue Velvet is one of his favorite movies, knows exactly what he’s doing. And the result promises to be more interesting than even he can anticipate.

Riverdale has been described as The O.C. meets Twin Peaks, which is how it first came to my attention. But it’s also a series on the CW, with all the good, the bad, and the lack of ugly that this implies. This the network that produced The Vampire Diaries, the first three seasons of which unexpectedly generated some of my favorite television from the last few years, and it takes its genre shows very seriously. There’s a fascinating pattern at work within systems that produce such narratives on a regular basis, whether in pulp magazines or comic books or exploitation pictures: as long as you hit all the obligatory notes and come in under budget, you’re granted a surprising amount of freedom. The CW, like its predecessors, has become an unlikely haven for auteurs, and it’s the sort of place where a showrunner like Aguirre-Sacasa—who has an intriguing background in playwriting, comics, and television—can explore a sandbox like this for years. Yet it also requires certain heavy, obvious beats, like structural supports, to prop up the rest of the edifice. A lot of the first episode of Riverdale, like most pilots, is devoted to setting up its premise and characters for even the most distracted viewers, and it can be almost insultingly on the nose. It’s why it feels obliged to spell out its theme of dark shadows beneath its sunlit surfaces, which isn’t exactly hard to grasp. As Roger Ebert wrote decades ago in his notoriously indignant review of Blue Velvet: “What are we being told? That beneath the surface of Small Town, U.S.A., passions run dark and dangerous? Don’t stop the presses.”

Blue Velvet

As a result, if you want to watch Riverdale at all, you need to get used to being treated occasionally as if you were twelve years old. But Aguirre-Sacasa seems determined to have it both ways. Like Glee before it, it feels as if it’s being pulled in three different directions even before it begins, but in this case, it comes off less as an unwanted side effect than as a strategy. It’s worth noting that not only did Aguirre-Sacasa write for Glee itself, but he’s also the guy who stepped in rewrite Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which means that he knows something about wrangling intractable material for a mass audience under enormous scrutiny. (He’s also the chief creative officer of Archie Comics, which feels like a dream job in the best sort of way: one of his projects at the Yale School of Drama was a play about Archie encountering the murderers Leopold and Loeb, and he later received a cease and desist order from his future employer over Archie’s Weird Fantasy, which depicted its lead character as coming out of the closet.) Riverdale often plays like the work of a prodigiously talented writer trying to put his ideas into a form that could plausibly air on Thursdays after Supernatural. Like most shows at this stage, it’s also openly trying to decide what it’s supposed to be about. And I want to believe, on the basis of almost zero evidence, that Aguirre-Sacasa is deliberately attempting something almost unworkable, in hopes that he’ll be able to stick with it long enough—on a network that seems fairly indulgent of shows on the margins—to make it something special.

Most great television results from this sort of evolutionary process, and I’ve noted before—most explicitly in my Salon piece on The X-Files—that the best genre shows emerge when a jumble of inconsistent elements is given the chance to find its ideal form, usually because it lucks into a position where it can play under the radar for years. The pressures of weekly airings, fan response, critical reviews, and ratings, along with the unpredictable inputs of the cast and writing staff, lead to far more rewarding results than even the most visionary showrunner could produce in isolation. Writers of serialized narratives like comic books know this intuitively, and consciously or not, Aguirre-Sacasa seems to be trying something similar on television. It’s not an approach that would make sense for a series like Westworld, which was produced for so much money and with such high expectations that its creators had no choice but to start with a plan. But it might just work on the CW. I’m hopeful that Aguirre-Sacasa and his collaborators will use the mystery at the heart of the series much as Twin Peaks did, as a kind of clothesline on which they can hang a lot of wild experiments, only a certain percentage of which can be expected to work. Twin Peaks itself provides a measure of this method’s limitations: it mutated into something extraordinary, but it didn’t survive the departure of its original creative team. Riverdale feels like an attempt to recreate those conditions, and if it utilizes the Archie characters as its available raw material, well, why not? If Lynch had been able to get the rights, he might have used them, too.

The Force Majority

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Daisey Ridley in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Earlier this morning, when the embargo on reviews of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was finally lifted, it was as if millions of critics suddenly cried out and were silenced by fans shouting: “No spoilers! No spoilers!” I haven’t seen the movie, of course, but I’ve been cautiously skimming the dozens of reviews that appeared a few hours ago, and most are positive and encouraging. If there’s one common caveat, it’s that the new movie is, if anything, a little too reverent toward its predecessors: Andrew O’Hehir of Salon calls it “an adoring copy.” Which, you might think, is only to be expected: loving regard for the source material is one thing, among so much else, that the prequels sorely lacked, and the best way to recover what was lost might well be to take it out of the hands of the man who invented it in the first place and entrust it to an outsider. The new movie certainly seems eager to give people what they want. And this might all seem too obvious to even state out loud—except for the fact that its release also coincides with the trailer for Star Trek Beyond, which is largely the handiwork of the very same man, and which is anything but respectful toward what inspired it. In fact, it’s anxious to look like anything except for Star Trek, and while it’s too soon to pass judgment on either movie, it doesn’t seem premature to talk about their intentions. And the fact that J.J. Abrams has taken such different approaches with our two most iconic science fiction franchises raises fascinating questions about the position that each one holds in our culture.

I don’t intend to get into the whole Star Trek vs. Star Wars debate here. (It’s enough to say, perhaps, that I’m temperamentally more inclined toward Star Trek, but I like both about equally, and each strikes me as having one indisputable masterpiece—in both cases, the first sequel—surrounded by a lot that is uneven, dated, or disposable.) But the fact that their modern incarnations happen to depend largely on the personality and decisions of a single man sheds new light on an old subject. Elsewhere, I’ve written of Abrams: “With four movies as a feature director under his belt, he has yet to reveal himself as anything more than a highly skillful producer and packager of mainstream material, full of good taste and intentions, but fundamentally without personality.” And I have reasons for hoping that The Force Awakens will break that pattern. But if it does, it’s because Star Wars speaks to Abrams himself in a way that Star Trek never did. He’s always been candid about his efforts to turn the latter franchise into something more like the former, as if it were a problem that had to be fixed. If Star Trek Into Darkness inspired a backlash great enough to cast the considerable merits of the first of the rebooted movies into question, it’s because by repurposing The Wrath of Khan so blatantly, it emphasized how willing Abrams has been to pillage the franchise for material while remaining indifferent to what made it special. But none of this would be interesting if Abrams himself weren’t a kind of test case for viewers everywhere, a majority of whom, it’s fair to say, would rather spend two hours of their time in the Star Wars universe.

Star Trek Into Darkness

The real question is why. You could start by defining the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars as a tale of two Campbells. The first, John W. Campbell, was the most important editor science fiction ever had, and in his three decades at the helm of Astounding Science Fiction, later known as Analog, he perfected a kind of plot that was essentially about solving problems through logic and ingenuity. The second, Joseph Campbell, was a Jungian scholar whose conception of the hero’s journey was based more on suffering, rebirth, and transcendence, and if the hero triumphs in the end, it’s mostly as a reward for what he endures. Star Trek—which raided many of John W. Campbell’s core writers for scripts, outlines, and spinoff books—took its cues from the former, Star Wars from the latter. And while each approach has its merits, there’s a reason why one has remained the province of a close community of fans, while the other has expanded to fill all of Hollywood. One is basically a writer’s series; the other belongs to the producers, including George Lucas himself, who recognized early on that the real power didn’t lie in the director’s chair. Star Wars is less about any particular set of ideas than about a certain tone or feeling that has rightly thrilled a generation of viewers. What’s funny, though, is how rarely it gets at the sense of transcendence that Joseph Campbell evoked, and if it ever does, it’s thanks mostly to John Williams. At their best, these are fun, thrilling movies, and it’s precisely because they take the glories of outer space for granted in a way the original Star Trek never did, perhaps because it spent more time thinking about space as something more than a backdrop for chases and narrow escapes.

And this isn’t a bug in the Star Wars franchise, but a feature. After the premiere of The Force Awakens, Patton Oswalt tweeted that it “has the best final shot of any Star Wars film,” which only reminds us of how lame the final shots of those earlier movies really are: half are basically just wide shots of a party or celebration. When we contrast them with the last five minutes of Wrath of Khan, which are among the most spine-tingling I’ve ever seen, it shows how strangely cramped Star Wars can seem by comparison. Pauline Kael noted that there’s only one moment of organic beauty in A New Hope—the double sunset on Tatooine—and later complained of the lack of satisfying climaxes in Return of the Jedi: “When Leia finally frees Han Solo from his living death as sculpture, the scene has almost no emotional weight. It’s as if Han Solo had locked himself in the garage, tapped on the door, and been let out.” But this isn’t necessarily a flaw. There’s a place for what Kael called the “bam bam pow” of the Lucas approach, once we embrace its limits. If The Empire Strikes Back is the best movie in the original trilogy, it’s for the same reasons that some viewers were disappointed by it on its first release: it’s nothing but a second act. Star Wars has always been better at setting up situations than at paying them off. These days, that’s a strength. Abrams is notoriously more interested in creating mysteries than in resolving them, and it makes him a great fit for Star Wars, which, like most modern franchises, doesn’t have much of a stake in narrative resolution. Disney plans to release a new Star Wars movie every year for the rest of time, and if its approach to the Marvel universe is any indication, it’s the project for which Abrams was born—a franchise without any annoying third acts. But as much as I wish him well here, I hope he remembers that Star Trek deserves to go beyond it.

Quote of the Day

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Peter Greenaway

I always think that if you deal with extremely emotional, even melodramatic, subject matter, as I constantly do, the best way to handle those situations is at a sufficient remove. It’s like a doctor and a nurse and a casualty situation. You can’t help the patient and you can’t help yourself by emoting.

Peter Greenaway, to Salon

Written by nevalalee

April 24, 2014 at 7:30 am

Posted in Movies, Quote of the Day

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What kind of year has it been?

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The author's daughter

Years from now, when I look back at the last twelve months, I suspect that I’ll think of them as two entirely different periods in my life. On a personal level, this may have been the most rewarding year I’ve ever had. I’ve watched my daughter grow from a tiny, demanding lump—she was less than two weeks old last New Year’s Eve—into a miniature person with her own tastes, opinions, and personality. She’s as smart as they come, and more important, she’s healthy and happy, and every day is a source of new discoveries and delights. My wife ended the year on a professional high note: after six years as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune, she landed an extraordinary new journalism job that I hope to talk about more here soon. Her new gig also allows her to work at home more often, which means that we’re spending more time together now than we have since we were married, and if you’ve met her, you know how lucky I am. The year was also peppered with many small personal satisfactions: I traveled a bit, learned a smidgen of coding, picked up the ukulele again, and experienced some great books, shows, music, and movies, a few of which I hope to discuss in a later post.

On the writing side, the verdict was more mixed, although I’m proud of what I accomplished. I started the year with the rewrite and copy edit of Eternal Empire, my third novel, which appeared in stores in September, a fact that still seems a little surreal—it’s by far the fastest that anything I’ve written has gone from delivery to publication. I also saw the appearance in Italy of Il ladro di relique, the first foreign translation of The Icon Thief, although I haven’t lived up to my resolution to use it to teach myself Italian. It all marked the end of a series of books that I’ve been writing and thinking about for most of the last five years, which stands, in itself, as the conclusion of an important chapter in my life. As far as freelance writing went, it was a quiet year, mostly because I haven’t tried to pitch as many stories as before, although I really liked my Salon piece on the twentieth anniversary of The X-Files. But my proudest moment as a writer was undoubtedly receiving the September issue of Analog and seeing “The Whale God” on the cover. (I’m also lucky enough to have a chance to repeat myself soon: my novelette “Cryptids” will be the cover story of their May 2014 issue, apparently with original art by the great Vincent Di Fate. I can’t wait to see it.)

A year's work

Elsewhere, however, there were small disappointments, or postponements, of the kind that inevitably go along with the good. I spent about six months on a major project, actually a revision of a much earlier novel, that doesn’t look like it’s going to get off the ground, at least not in its current form. The rest of the year was spent working up other ideas that, for various reasons, are still in different stages of incompletion: proposals, outlines, pieces written without a clear market in mind. I’m hoping to have some news to report about one or more of them soon, but for now, for the first time in a long while, I’m closing out the year without anything definite on the horizon. Not that I lack for work—I’m currently researching and outlining a hundred-page sample of a new novel that I’m hoping to shop around in the spring—but it comes without the certainty of a contract, which can be emotionally and artistically draining. In some ways, I was slightly spoiled by working on two books in a row that already had a publisher attached. Going back to writing on spec has required a considerable mental readjustment, and I’m still not all the way there, although when I’m deep in the trenches of a day’s writing, nothing else seems to matter.

And this is pretty much how life as an author tends to look. There are periods of greater and lesser certainty, and if you’re lucky, you’ll spend long stretches in which your greatest problem is delivering a contracted manuscript on deadline. In general, though, you’ll find that much of your career is spent in those dusty middle innings: you’re keeping busy, looking for opportunities as they arise, waiting for the next big project that will snap your life back into focus. When you’re in one phase or the other, it’s hard to imagine life looking any other way, and you begin to forget that reality is messier and less predictable. No matter what else you’ve accomplished, every project requires starting over from scratch: there’s no guarantee that the next book or story or article will get the same reception as the last, which is exciting, but also daunting. That’s the nature of the writing life, which resembles a series of incursions into unexplored territory, some of which leave you standing more or less where you began. What remains, in the end, is the craft itself, the routines and rituals you’ve established to plunge back onto the page every morning, and these become the closest thing you have to a permanent possession. I really have no idea what the next year will bring. But that was always part of the point.

Written by nevalalee

December 31, 2013 at 9:31 am

The glorious fiasco of Cloud Atlas

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A few months ago, I wrote a piece for Salon on whether there was such a thing as a New Yorker feature curse. I was largely inspired by the example of John Carter, in which the magazine’s highly positive profile of director Andrew Stanton was followed shortly thereafter by a debacle that deserves its own book, like Final Cut or The Devil’s Candy, to unpack in all its negative glory. Judging from the response, a lot of readers misunderstood the piece, with one commenter sniffing that I should read Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World before spreading so much superstition. My point, to the extent I had one, was that the New Yorker curse, like its counterpart at Sports Illustrated, was likely a case of regression to the mean: magazines like this have only a limited amount of feature space to devote to the movies, which means they tend to pick artists who have just had an outstanding outlier of a success—which often means that a correction is on the way. And although my theory has been badly tested by Seth MacFarlane’s Ted, which is now the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time, at first glance, the recent failure of Cloud Atlas, which follows a fascinating profile of the Wachowskis by Aleksandar Hemon, seems to indicate that the curse is alive and well.

Yet at the risk of sounding exactly as arbitrary as my critics have accused me of being, I can’t quite bring myself to lump it into the same category. This isn’t a movie like John Carter, which was undermined by a fundamentally flawed conception and a lot of tactical mistakes along the way. Cloud Atlas has its problems, but as directed by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer after the novel by David Mitchell, it’s a real movie, an ambitious, entertaining, often technically spellbinding film that probably never had a shot at finding a large popular audience. I’m not a huge fan of the Wachkowskis, who over the past decade have often seemed more intelligent in their interviews than in their movies, but I give them and Tykwer full credit for pursuing this dazzling folly to its very end. Cloud Atlas is like The Tree of Life made in a jazzy, sentimental, fanboyish state of mind, and although it doesn’t succeed entirely, under the circumstances, it comes closer than I ever expected. It’s the kind of weird, personal, expensive project that gives fiascos a good name, and it’s one of the few movies released this year that I expect to watch again.

And with one exception, which I’ll mention in a moment, the movie’s flaws are inseparable from its fidelity to the underlying material. I liked Mitchell’s novel a lot, and as with the movie it inspired, it’s hard not to be impressed by the author’s talents and ambition. That said, not all of its nested novelettes are equally interesting, and its structure insists on a deeper network of resonance that isn’t always there. Some of its connections—the idea that Somni-451 would become a messianic figure for the world after the fall, for instance, or that she’d want to spend her last few moments in life catching up with the story of Timothy Cavendish—don’t quite hold water, and in general, its attempts to link the stories together symbolically, as with the comet-shaped birthmark that its primary characters share, are too facile to be worthy of Mitchell’s huge authorial intelligence. (You only need to compare Cloud Atlas to a book like Dictionary of the Khazars, which does keep the promises its structure implies, to see how the former novel falls short of the mark.) And the movie suffers from the same tendency to inform us that everything here is connected, when really, they’re simply juxtaposed in the editing room.

All the same, the movie, like the book, is one that demands to be experienced. There are a few serious lapses, most unforgivably at the end, in which we’re given a new piece of information about the frame story—not present in the original novel—in the clumsiest way imaginable. For the most part, however, it’s fun to watch, and occasionally a blast. Somewhat to my surprise, my favorite sequences were the ones directed by Tykwer, an unreliable director who also offered up one of the best action scenes in recent years with the Guggenheim shootout in The International: he gives the Louisa Rey narrative a nice ’70s conspiracy feel, and the story of Timothy Cavendish, which I thought was unnecessary in the novel, turns out to be the most entertaining of all. (A lot of this is due to the presence of Jim Broadbent, who gives the best performance in the movie, and one of the few not hampered by elaborate but frequently distracting makeup.) The Wachowskis can’t do much with the journal of Adam Ewing, but the futuristic ordeal of Somni-451 is right in their wheelhouse. It’s a movie that takes great risks and succeeds an impressive amount of the time. And as far as I’m concerned, the curse is broken. At least for now.

Written by nevalalee

November 1, 2012 at 10:02 am

Confessions of an accidental freelancer

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One of the small surprises of the past few months has been the fact that, after a long absence from writing any kind of nonfiction, I’ve started to place occasional pieces online. This started out as a fairly calculated attempt to get the word out about my novel, but for the most part, I’ve found that the marketing benefit is minimal at best: there’s usually a slight sales bump after an article comes out, but it’s always temporary, and I don’t think I’ve sold more than a few dozen copies of my book based exclusively on my freelance writing. Still, I keep doing it, both because I appreciate the small amount of money it brings in each month and because I like doing this kind of work. There was a time when I really wanted to be a critic of some kind, and although my writing has since gone in a different direction, it’s still something I really enjoy—and it’s infinitely less taxing than working on a new novel, which has continued to take up most of my time. In short, it looks like freelance writing will continue to be a part of my life, at least for now, and with that in mind, I’d like to share a few pieces of advice I wish I’d had when I started:

1. Pitch to people you know. Back in March, when The Icon Thief first came out, I got in touch with a wide range of publications, both print and online, introducing myself and the book and fishing for possible coverage. In a handful of cases, it worked as intended, but for the most part, the response was a deafening silence—which is a reasonable expectation for this kind of promotional activity. All the same, I did get a couple of polite responses from editors at The Daily Beast and The Rumpus, and although they didn’t lead to anything at the time, they at least gave me a tenuous contact at each site, as well as an email exchange or two. At first, I only made a mental note to send them a copy of City of Exiles when it came out. But when I decided to try placing an opinion piece on David Simon and Mike Daisey, I ended up sending it to my contact at the Beast, if only because I knew his email address—and he passed it along to the right editor, who liked it. Similarly, months later, when my piece on Jonah Lehrer was killed by another publication, I tried my contact at The Rumpus, who eventually took it as well. The bottom line is that I wouldn’t have gotten very far in either instance if I hadn’t already been out there in a totally different context, making a handful of connections that didn’t pay off in one case, but finally did in another.

2. Don’t worry; they saw your email. One thing I’ve discovered about writing these kinds of pieces is that different editors have radically different attitudes about getting back to you. One editor will respond right away, or within a day or two, with a list of requested edits and revisions; another will remain completely silent for a week, not even acknowledging receipt of the attached file, at which point it appears with minimal changes; and others are even less communicative. And while a long silence may lead to paranoid thoughts that the editor forgot about your email, or even deleted it by accident, in my experience, this rarely happens. Have I ever followed up to make sure a piece didn’t get lost in the shuffle? Sure. But only after waiting a week or more—and in the end, it was never necessary. They have your article, but they also have a lot of other stuff on their minds. Let them do their jobs in peace. (For what it’s worth, I’ve found that if an editor likes your initial pitch, he or she will usually respond right away, and that an extended silence is usually a negative sign. Conversely, a long silence after you’ve submitted a finished article tends to be a good thing—if they have problems with the draft, they’ll tell you.)

3. Don’t get hung up over timing. The piece I wrote on Jonah Lehrer was originally written the day after the first reports appeared of his so-called “self-plagiarism” scandal, but it didn’t appear until more than two weeks had gone by. Would it have been nice if the piece had been published while the story was still in the news? Sure—but it was still a decent piece after some time had passed, and its circuitous route to publication meant that it would have been hard to post it before then. Similarly, my piece in Salon about the uses of historical irony in The Newsroom was held back for a week because the site had already run a lot of pieces about the show, so it had to be revised at the last minute to take the latest episode into account. As a writer, these delays can be frustrating, but if you’re a freelancer, as opposed to a staff writer, it’s hard to control timing on these things. The moral, I guess, is that as a freelancer, it’s difficult to cover breaking news or write pieces on stories whose interest will diminish quickly after an initial burst of attention. Days or weeks will likely go by before a piece sees the light of day, so you should write stories that will remain compelling long after you wanted to see them in print.

4. Don’t ever read the comments on your stories. Just trust me on this one.

Written by nevalalee

July 24, 2012 at 10:04 am

Is it better to be lucky than good?

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Over the past few days, I’ve been devouring the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, which I’d mentioned here before but only recently got around to reading. It is, as promised, rife with fascinating insights and stories—my wife says that I seem to have underlined every sentence—and I’m still only halfway through. In particular, Chapter 17, “Regression to the Mean,” is one that everyone should read, even if it’s just standing up at Barnes & Noble. The chapter is only ten pages long, but it’s packed with more useful insights than a shelf of ordinary books, and I can all but guarantee that it will subtly change the way you think about a lot of things. The key passage, at least to my eyes, is one that begins with Kahneman sharing what he calls his favorite equation:

Success = talent + luck
Great success = a little more talent + a lot of luck

This is something that most of us know intuitively, but Kahneman takes it one step further. Basically, if we accept the premise that a single instance of exceptionally good performance is due largely to luck—or, more precisely, to positive factors outside the performer’s control—then our best guess about the next performance is that it won’t be quite as good, as the performer’s luck regresses to the mean. We can’t predict anything about luck except for the fact that, in general, it will be more or less average. As a result, someone who has excellent luck on one occasion, like an athlete who makes a great ski jump, will probably only have average luck the next time out—and the better the original performance, the more extreme the regression will be. And while we might be tempted to ascribe all kinds of causal factors to the change, it’s really nothing but simple mathematics.

This is obviously true of sports, given the important role that luck plays in most sporting events, but it’s also fascinating to think about its implications for the arts. In particular, regression to the mean is the most likely explanation for what I call “the New Yorker feature curse” in my recent article in Salon. When we interview movie stars or directors based on a recent great success, it’s likely that we’ve caught them just before they regress to the mean, which is why their next project—the one we’ve spent the entire article extolling—often seems like a relative disappointment. And this has nothing to do with the talent of the subjects involved. The movies are such a volatile business that even successful filmmakers can only be expected to succeed perhaps half the time, so it shouldn’t be surprising when a big success is followed by a movie that seems like a failure in comparison, and vice versa. For a particularly stark example, one need look no further than the recent career of Woody Allen, who, in Match Point, had a character say:

The man who said “I’d rather be lucky than good” saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It’s scary to think so much is out of one’s control. There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second, it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward, and you win. Or maybe it doesn’t, and you lose.

And this applies to literature as well. If athletes have the Sports Illustrated cover jinx and directors have the New Yorker curse, novelists have second-novel syndrome: the big debut novel followed by a sophomore slump. We like to ascribe all kinds of causal explanations to this—pressure, time constraints, authorial self-indulgence—but most often, it’s just another case of regression to the mean. Luck, as I’ve learned firsthand, plays an enormous role in a book’s publication and reception, and it’s mathematically unsound to expect lightning to strike twice. This is true, most obviously, of a book’s commercial prospects, but also, oddly, of its artistic merits. Luck plays a larger role in a novel’s quality than many of us would like to admit: like ski jumpers and golf players, we benefit from moments of serendipity and inspiration that may never return. Until, of course, we try again.

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