Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Anthologist

Anthologies of interest

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The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology

If you really want to influence readers, don’t be an author—be an anthologist. Anthologies are among the earliest books that most of us read: the collections of fairy tales and poems we’re given as children, followed by the textbooks of stories we’re assigned in grade school, mark our first general exposure to literature of any kind, and all of those selections have been chosen for us by another human being, at least in theory. (These days, textbooks are more likely to be cobbled together by committee, drawing primarily on the work of their predecessors.) Later in life, when we pick up paperback anthologies for our own reading pleasure, it’s out of an unconscious desire to replicate or extend that education. The world of literature is so vast that it seems too large for any one reader to navigate alone. We depend on curators to cull it for us, singling out the essential nuggets from the disposable fluff that every healthy culture produces in such great quantities. The result, we hope, will be a sampling accurate enough to allow us to understand the whole, and for most of us, it comes to define it. But it’s really something else altogether. Even if we assume a perfect anthologist gifted enough to truly present us with “the best,” judging a culture or a genre from its masterpieces alone delivers a skewed picture. How much better was the best from the rest? Does it really reflect the experience of a reader at the time, who had to figure out what was good, bad, or mediocre without any assistance from the outside? As Nicholson Baker writes in his novel The Anthologist: “Anthology knowledge isn’t real knowledge. You have to read the unchosen poems to understand the chosen ones.”

I’ve been thinking about anthologies a lot recently, mostly because of the daunting amount of reading I need to do for Astounding. Obviously, I need to read as much as I can of the science fiction and fantasy that John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard wrote, and I expect to get pretty close to that goal by the time the book is finished. But what about the rest? I can’t make critical judgments about their work without a sense of what else was happening at the same time, and my reading up to this point in my life has been fannish but unsystematic, leaving me with considerable gaps in my understanding of the genre. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a complete collection of Astounding Science Fiction, but I can’t possibly read all of it, and it doesn’t even include what was going on in the other magazines. Predictably, then, I’ve turned to anthologies to fill in the blanks. Earlier this year, I put together a reading list for myself, drawing mostly on a shelf’s worth of classic short story collections. These include the three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame; The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology, which was edited by Campbell himself; The Astounding-Analog Reader; Analog’s Golden Anniversary Anthology; Analog Readers’ Choice; Adventures in Time and Space; The Road to Science Fiction; The Golden Age of Science Fiction; and various other “best of” lists and reader polls. The result is a list of nearly five hundred novels and stories, ranging in length from a few pages to massive tomes like Battlefield Earth, and at the moment, I’m about two thirds of the way through.

Nicholson Baker

Of course, this approach has obvious limitations. It ends up focusing mostly on Astounding, at least through the early fifties, so it doesn’t tell me much about what was going on in Amazing or Thrilling Wonder or the countless other pulp magazines that once flooded the newsstands. There’s very little from before the golden age. It’s almost exclusively in the English language, and particularly from American authors—although I’m willing to accept this shortcoming, since it reflects the milieu in which my four major figures emerged. Stories of limited aesthetic interest but considerable historical significance, like Cleve Cartmill’s “Deadline,” tend to fall through the cracks. And the result probably doesn’t have much in common with the experience of a reader who was buying these magazines from one month to the next. But it’s a beginning, and in some ways, it’s better than it sounds. In trying to read these stories more or less in the order in which they appeared, I’m creating an alternate version of myself who was born in, say, 1920, and was exposed to science fiction at the age when I was most likely to be influenced by it. In practice, what I end up with isn’t so much the inner life of that bright twelve year old, but the memories of that same reader thirty years down the line. Memory naturally filters what we read, leaving the stories that made the greatest impression on us at first glance, the ones that only gradually revealed their power, and a few that have stuck around for no discernible reason, aside from where we were in our lives when we first encountered them. And I’m hopeful that the subset of science fiction stories I’ve been reading will provide the same sort of background noise for the book I’m writing that my half-remembered reservoir of fiction does in my everyday life.

Needless to say, very little of what I’m reading now will end up explicitly in the book: given the nature of a work like this, I doubt I’ll have a chance to discuss more than a handful of stories that weren’t written by my central four authors. But I wouldn’t be doing this at all if I didn’t feel that the experience would change me, and how I think, in ways that will be reflected in every line. This is true even, or especially, if I forget much of what I read. In his story “Incest,” John Updike uses the phrase “vast, dying sea”—a description that Nicholson Baker quotes with approval in U & I—to evoke all the poetry that his main character has forgotten over the years. We all have a similar sea inside of us, collected and neglected by our internal anthologist, who operates when we aren’t aware of it. The anthologies we all carry in our brains differ markedly from one another, even more so than the tables of contents of the anthologies in print. (One of the nice things about the anthologies I’m reading is how little they overlap: only a few stories, like Asimov’s “Nightfall,” appear in more than two, which indicates how flexible, varied, and mutable the canon of science fiction really is.) An anthologist is the custodian of a genre’s past for the sake of the future: as time goes by, aside from a handful of books and authors that everyone is expected to read, anthologies are our only conduit for transmitting the memory of what a literature used to be, at least for the majority of readers. The same can be said of the reader’s own imperfect memory, which preserves, through a sort of memetic natural selection, the bits and pieces of the tradition that he or she needs. We can’t all be writers, or even perfect readers. But we’re all anthologists at heart.

Written by nevalalee

July 20, 2016 at 8:37 am

The evolution of art

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Neil deGrasse Tyson

If you’ve been watching Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey as faithfully as I have, you probably came away from last night’s episode with a newfound appreciation for the wonders of natural selection. Darwinian evolution, as Daniel Dennett likes to point out, is probably the single best idea anyone ever had, and it’s since been applied to fields far beyond those of biology. The notion that ideas and abstract concepts, for instance, are subject to selection pressure—both within the human mind and in the larger world beyond—is a familiar one, and every writer knows how it feels. Life is full of story ideas, and the means by which one or another wins out is a mysterious one, with selection often taking place below the level of conscious thought. Even once you’ve started a story, it can go in any number of directions, with the author selecting and discarding variations based on their perceived rightness, a process that happens all over again once the story is released into the wild. (The publishing industry is a battleground for survival of a particularly ruthless kind.) And if you want to harness the power of evolution in your own work, it’s not a bad idea to take a few cues from nature itself:

1. Move through a series of useful intermediate steps. My favorite part of last night’s Cosmos episode was its takedown of the argument, common among proponents of intelligent design, that an organ like the human eye is too complex to have evolved by chance. It may be true that half an eye isn’t very useful, but an approximation of an eye certainly is, and there’s a beautiful sequence illustrating how the eye evolved from a series of intermediate stages, each useful in itself: a cluster of a few photosensitive proteins develops gradually into a depression with an aperture and finally an eye with a lens. And this is a striking analogy to how the creative process works. Half a story isn’t any more useful than half an eye, but a finished rough draft—one that takes the entire narrative from beginning to end, however imperfectly—is both a sketch of the whole and a template that can be refined through successive revisions. And it isn’t until you’ve got something that holds together on its own provisional terms that you can start to make it better. (This is part of the reason why I always start with a detailed outline, which is the roughest version of the complete story that can possibly exist.)

Portrait of Charles Darwin by George Richmond

2. Introduce a little randomness. Natural selection proceeds as a succession of accidents, with random mutations in the genetic code that usually lead nowhere, but occasionally result in a useful adaptation. The process of writing a story can’t work in quite the same way: unlike nature, we’re writing with an end in mind, and most of us start with a plan. Even with such a teleological approach, however, it’s still possible to embrace a productive element of chance. I’ve described my own methods in detail, but every author will develop his or her own strategies for making raids on the random. Nicholson Baker, for instance, used a random number generator to reorder the chapters in his novel The Anthologist, and although he discarded most of the results, it led to a handful of promising juxtapositions that were preserved in the final draft. Even if you aren’t as systematic about it, you’ll soon find that every finished novel represents a compromise between the vision that the author had at the beginning and the unpredictable variations that the process introduced. And it’s essential to be able to depart from the plan enough to incorporate the unexpected—and to test it diligently against the alternatives.

3. Give it time. If the diversity and ingenuity of the adaptations that nature creates can sometimes seem unimaginable, it’s because natural selection operates over millions of years. Time, scale, and variation can do remarkable things. Artists, unfortunately, don’t have that luxury: we can only write one version of a story at a time, and we only have a few months or years to get it done. Even on that reduced level, though, time is crucial. I’ve spoken elsewhere about the importance of rendering in the creative process, and the fact that most novels need a year or so to percolate in the author’s mind, no matter how fast we can write. There’s a simple explanation: most of us only have so many good ideas at any one time, and if we can extend the period of writing, we’ll increase our chances of finding an idea that can be applied to the problem at hand. It’s possible to take this too far, of course, and there always comes a time when the draft needs to be sent out to meet its fate. But even a break of a few weeks can have positive effect, especially if we’ve turned our attention to other projects in the meantime. And when we do finally go back to the work we’ve set aside, we’ll often find that it has evolved in our absence, when we weren’t even aware of it. Now that’s some intelligent design.

Written by nevalalee

March 17, 2014 at 9:57 am

How to write like your grandmother

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Yesterday, I made the radical observation that everyone’s grandmother tends to be a good cook. (I also can’t resist the chance to quote, completely out of context, one of my favorite lines from Bertolucci’s The Dreamers: “Other people’s parents are always nicer than our own, and yet for some reason, our grandparents are always nicer than other people’s.”) It isn’t hard to figure out why: by the time most of us are old enough to really notice what our grandparents are like, they’ve had a head start of something like fifty years to find their way around a kitchen. By definition, barring some kind of time travel—which never goes well for grandparents—we aren’t around to see what our grandmother was like in her twenties or thirties. And I think most of us would be startled to see how little she had figured out, about cooking or anything else, well into middle age.

And that’s true of art as well. One of the curious facts about art is that nearly all of a major artist’s works fall into oblivion, with only a few left standing in libraries or anthologies. In general, although not always, these are works of the creator’s most mature period, which means that we see artists at their most developed, like our grandparents, and with a similar lack of context. In his amusing novel The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker points out how this is true of poetry:

What does it mean to be a great poet? It means that you wrote one or two great poems. Or great parts of poems. That’s all it means. Don’t try to picture the waste or it will alarm you…Out of hundreds of poems two or three are really good. Maybe four or five. Six tops.

The same holds true for novels, movies, paintings, and any other medium you can name: we’re left with a handful of the good stuff, and the rest tends to disappear. And for an artist, this can be simultaneously daunting and liberating—most of what you produce be forgotten, but if you can generate one masterpiece along the way, it won’t matter.

For the rest of us, however, it can be risky to draw conclusions from those remaining works, especially when it comes to making choices about how to plan our own artistic lives. What we see, in our libraries and museums and movie collections, are a handful of end results—and not even all of them, but a selection of the best—with the earlier stages either invisible or accessible only to real enthusiasts. As a result, we tend to imitate the wrong things: we copy the product, but not the process. We try to paint like Picasso without remembering that Picasso not only started by painting like Raphael, but often went through the same procedure, layer by layer, in many of his works. Or in literature, we imitate the result of a long artistic and personal process and end up writing bad Hemingway.

Fortunately, in art, we have the chance to time travel in the way we can’t in our own lives. Except in a few exceptional cases, we don’t have access to discarded drafts, but we can always go back to early published work and see how an artist ended up where he did, and, more importantly, why. And along the way, we’re reminded that it’s impossible to separate a masterpiece, if we’re interested in doing good work ourselves, from the larger process that generated it. Here’s Nicholson Baker again:

All the middling poems they write are necessary to form a raised mulch bed or nest for the great poems and to prove to the world that they labored diligently and in good faith for some years at their calling. In other words, they can’t just dash off one or two great poems and then stop. That won’t work…But it’s perfectly okay, in fact it’s typical, if ninety-five percent of the poems they write aren’t great. Because they never are.

And the same is true of your grandmother. Ninety-five percent of the meals she made probably weren’t all that great, but luckily for us, they were clustered disproportionately toward the beginning, so only your grandfather knows for sure. But she did it every day, and she got better. So keep cooking. Your grandchildren, and your readers, will thank you for it.

Written by nevalalee

April 25, 2012 at 10:23 am

Posted in Writing

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Nicholson Baker on randomness

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There was also the random-number stage [while writing The Anthologist.] That took a few months. I had all these pieces—probably five hundred, six hundred pages of writing—and I got very constricted. What do I start with? So I decided that each chunklet should be assigned a random number from a random-number generator at a Web site called Immediately I could see that the new artificial order was totally wrong. The rational side of me revolted against this horrendous scrambling. I fought back and hacked and slashed and crawled my way back to the order the book needed to be in. But sometimes the randomization forced some good conjunctions—there were some sequences that survived.

Nicholson Baker, to the Paris Review

Written by nevalalee

October 9, 2011 at 8:58 am

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