Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The New York Times Magazine

The passages of power

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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.

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November 18, 2016 at 8:16 am

The tragic life of Mitsui

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Leonardo Nam on Westworld

In the latest issue of The New York Times Magazine, the film critic Wesley Morris has a reflective piece titled “Last Taboo,” the subheadline of which reads: “Why Pop Culture Just Can’t Deal With Black Male Sexuality.” Morris, who is a gay black man, notes that full-frontal male nudity has become more common in recent years in movies and television, but it’s usually white men who are being undressed for the camera, which tells us a lot about the unresolved but highly charged feelings that the culture still has toward the black male body. As Morris writes:

Black men [are] desired on one hand and feared on the other…Here’s our original sin metastasized into a perverted sticking point: The white dick means nothing, while, whether out of revulsion or lust, the black dick means too much.

And although I don’t want to detract from the importance of the point that Morris is making here, I’ll admit that as I read these words, another thought ran though my mind. If the white penis means nothing, then the Asian penis, by extension, must mean—well, less than nothing. I don’t mean to equate the desexualization of Asian males in popular culture with the treatment of black men in fiction and in real life. But both seem to provide crucial data points, from opposite ends, for our understanding of the underlying phenomenon, which is how writers and other artists have historically treated the bodies of those who look different than they do.

I read Morris’s piece after seeing a tweet by the New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum, who connected it to an awful scene in last night’s episode of Westworld, in which an otherwise likable character makes a joke about a well-endowed black robot. It’s a weirdly dissonant moment for a series that is so controlled in other respects, and it’s possible that it reflects nothing more than Jonathan Nolan’s clumsiness—which he shares with his older brother—whenever he makes a stab at humor. (I also suspect, given the show’s production delays, that the line was written and shot a long time ago, before these questions assumed a more prominent role in the cultural conversation. Which doesn’t make it any easier to figure out what the writers were thinking.) Race hasn’t played much of a role on the series so far, and it may not be fair to pass judgment on a show that has only aired five episodes and clearly has a lot of other stuff on its mind. But it’s hard not to wonder. The cast is diverse, but the guests are mostly white men, undoubtedly because, as Nussbaum notes elsewhere, they’re the natural target audience for the park’s central fantasy. And the show has a strange habit of using its Asian cast members, who are mostly just faces in the background, as verbal punching bags for the other characters, a trend so peculiar that my wife and I both noticed it separately. It’s likely that this has all been muddied by what seems to be shaping up to be an actual storyline for Felix, played by Leonardo Nam, who looks as if he’s about to respond to his casual mistreatment by rising to a larger role in the story. But even for a show with a lot of moving parts, it strikes me as a lazy way of prodding a character into action.

John Lone in Year of the Dragon

Over the last few months, as it happens, I’ve been thinking a lot about the representation of Asians in science fiction. (As I’ve mentioned before, I’m Eurasian—half Chinese, half Finnish and Estonian.) I may as well start with Robert A. Heinlein’s Sixth Column, a novel that he wrote on assignment for Astounding Science Fiction, based in part on All, an earlier, unpublished serial by John W. Campbell. Both stories, which were written long before Pearl Harbor, are about the invasion of the United States by a combined Chinese and Japanese empire, which inspires an underground resistance movement in the form of a fake religion. Heinlein later wrote that he tried to rework the narrative to tone down its more objectionable elements, but it pains me to say that Sixth Column actually reads as more racist than All, simply because Heinlein was the stronger writer. When you read All, you don’t feel much of anything, because Campbell was a stiff and awkward stylist. Heinlein, by contrast, spent much of his career bringing immense technical skill to even the most questionable projects, and he can’t keep from investing his characters with real rhetorical vigor as they talk about “flat-faced apes” and “our slant-eyed lords.” I don’t even mind the idea of an Asian menace, as long as the bad guys are treated as worthy antagonists, which Heinlein mostly does. But when the leaders of the resistance decide to grow beards in order to fill the invaders with “a feeling of womanly inferiority,” it’s hard to excuse it. And the most offensive moment of all involves Mitsui, the only sympathetic Asian character in sight, who sacrifices himself for the sake of his friends and is rewarded with the epitaph: “But they had no time to dwell on the end of little Mitsui’s tragic life.”

That’s the kind of racism that rankles me: not the diabolical Asian villain, who can be invested with a kind of sinister allure, as much as the legion of little Mitsuis who still populate so much of our fiction. (This may be why I’ve always sort of liked Michael Cimino’s indefensible Year of the Dragon, which at least treats John Lone’s character as a formidable, glamorous foe. It’s certainly less full of hate than The Deer Hunter.) And it complicates my reactions to other issues. When it was announced that Sulu would be unobtrusively presented as gay in Star Trek Beyond, it filled me with mixed feelings, and not just because George Takei didn’t seem to care for the idea. As much as I appreciated what the filmmakers were trying to do, I couldn’t help but think that it would have been just as innovative, if not more so, to depict Sulu as straight. I’m aware that this risks making it all seem like a zero-sum game, which it isn’t. But these points deserve to be raised, if only because they enrich the larger conversation. If a single scene on Westworld can spark a discussion of how we treat black men as sexual objects, we can do the same with the show’s treatment of Asians. The series presumably didn’t invite or expect such scrutiny, but it occupies a cultural position—as a prestige drama on a premium cable channel—in which it has no choice but to play that part. Science fiction, in particular, has always been a sandbox in which these issues can be investigated in ways that wouldn’t be possible in narratives set in the present, from the original run of Star Trek on down. Westworld belongs squarely in that tradition. And these are frontiers that it ought to explore.

The Coco Chanel rule

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Coco Chanel

“Before you leave the house,” the fashion designer Coco Chanel is supposed to have said, “look in the mirror and remove one accessory.” As much as I like it, I’m sorry to say that this quote is most likely apocryphal: you see it attributed to Chanel everywhere, but without the benefit of an original source, which implies that it’s one of those pieces of collective wisdom that have attached themselves parasitically to a famous name. Still, it’s valuable advice. It’s usually interpreted, correctly enough, as a reminder that less is more, but I prefer to think of it as a statement about revision. The quote isn’t about reaching simplicity from the ground up, but about taking something and improving it by subtracting one element, like the writing rule that advises you to cut ten percent from every draft. And what I like the most about it is that its moment of truth arrives at the very last second, when you’re about to leave the house. That final glance in the mirror, when it’s almost too late to make additional changes, is often when the true strengths and weaknesses of your decisions become clear, if you’re smart enough to distinguish it from the jitters. (As Jeffrey Eugenides said to The Paris Review: “Usually I’m turning the book in at the last minute. I always say it’s like the Greek Olympics—’Hope the torch lights.'”)

But which accessory should you remove? In the indispensable book Behind the Seen, the editor Walter Murch gives us an important clue, using an analogy from filmmaking:

In interior might have four different sources of light in it: the light from the window, the light from the table lamp, the light from the flashlight that the character is holding, and some other remotely sourced lights. The danger is that, without hardly trying, you can create a luminous clutter out of all that. There’s a shadow over here, so you put another light on that shadow to make it disappear. Well, that new light casts a shadow in the other direction. Suddenly there are fifteen lights and you only want four.

As a cameraman what you paradoxically do is have the gaffer turn off the main light, because it is confusing your ability to really see what you’ve got. Once you do that, you selectively turn off some of the lights and see what’s left. And you discover that, “OK, those other three lights I really don’t need at all—kill ’em.” But it can also happen that you turn off the main light and suddenly, “Hey, this looks great! I don’t need that main light after all, just these secondary lights. What was I thinking?”

This principle, which Murch elsewhere calls “blinking the key,” implies that you should take away the most important piece, or the accessory that you thought you couldn’t live without.

Walter Murch

This squares nicely with a number of principles that I’ve discussed here before. I once said that ambiguity is best created out of a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed, and when you follow the Chanel rule, on a deeper level, the missing accessory is still present, even after you’ve taken it off. The remaining accessories were presumably chosen with it in mind, and they preserve its outlines, resulting in a kind of charged negative space that binds the rest together. This applies to writing, too. “The Cask of Amontillado” practically amounts to a manual on how to wall up a man alive, but Poe omits the one crucial detail—the reason for Montresor’s murderous hatred—that most writers would have provided up front, and the result is all the more powerful. Shakespeare consistently leaves out key explanatory details from his source material, which renders the behavior of his characters more mysterious, but no less concrete. And the mumblecore filmmaker Andrew Bujalski made a similar point a few years ago to The New York Times Magazine: “Write out the scene the way you hear it in your head. Then read it and find the parts where the characters are saying exactly what you want/need them to say for the sake of narrative clarity (e.g., ‘I’ve secretly loved you all along, but I’ve been too afraid to tell you.’) Cut that part out. See what’s left. You’re probably close.”

This is a piece of advice that many artists could stand to take to heart, especially if they’ve been blessed with an abundance of invention. I like Interstellar, for instance, but I have a hunch that it would have been an even stronger film if Christopher Nolan had made a few cuts. If he had removed Anne Hathaway’s speech on the power of love, for instance, the same point would have come across in the action, but more subtly, assuming that the rest of the story justified its inclusion in the first place. (Of course, every film that Nolan has ever made strives valiantly to strike a balance between action and exposition, and in this case, it stumbled a little in the wrong direction. Interstellar is so openly indebted to 2001 that I wish it had taken a cue from that movie’s script, in which Kubrick and Clarke made the right strategic choice by minimizing the human element wherever possible.) What makes the Chanel rule so powerful is that when you glance in the mirror on your way out the door, what catches your eye first is likely to be the largest, flashiest, or most obvious component, which often adds the most by its subtraction. It’s the accessory that explains too much, or draws attention to itself, rather than complementing the whole, and by removing it, we’re consciously saying no to what the mind initially suggests. As Chanel is often quoted as saying: “Elegance is refusal.” And she was right—even if it was really Diana Vreeland who said it. 

The story whisperer

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Storyboard for Aladdin

If you really want to learn how a story works, you should try telling it to a three-year-old. Over the last twelve months, as my daughter has begun to watch longer movies, I’ve developed a sideline business as a sort of simultaneous interpreter: I’ll sit next to her and offer a running commentary on the action, designed to keep her from getting restless and to preemptively answer her questions. If it’s a movie I’ve seen before, like My Neighbor Totoro, I don’t need to concentrate quite as intently, but on the handful of occasions when I’ve watched a movie with her for the first time in theaters—as we’ve done with The Peanuts Movie, The Good Dinosaur, Kung Fu Panda 3, and Zootopia—I’ve had to pay closer attention. What I whisper in her ear usually boils down to a basic description of a character’s emotions or objectives, if it isn’t already clear from action or dialogue: “He’s sad.” “She’s worried about her friend.” “He wants to find his family.” And I’ve come to realize that this amounts to a kind of reverse engineering. If a movie often originates in the form of beat sheets or storyboards that the filmmakers have to turn into fully realized scenes, by breaking down the action in terms that my daughter can understand, I’m simply rewinding that process back to the beginning.

And it’s taught me some surprising lessons about storytelling. It reminds me a little of a piece that ran last year in The New York Times Magazine about Rasha Ajalyaqeen, a former interpreter for the United Nations. Like Ajalyaqeen, I’m listening to a story and translating it into a different language in real time, and many of the tips that she shares apply equally well here: “Be invisible.” “Leave your opinions behind; your voice should reflect the speaker’s feelings.” “Forget pausing to find the right word.” And most of all:

Word-for-word translation can result in a nonsensical mess. Instead, break longer, complicated phrases into shorter units of single concepts. “A good translator does not interpret words; he interprets meaning,” says Ajalyaqeen, who grew up in Syria. Be prepared to dive into sen­tences without knowing where they are going grammatically…”Sometimes you start and you don’t know what your subject is—you’re waiting for the verb.”

“Waiting for the verb” is as good a way as any to describe what I often have to do with my daughter: I’m not sure where the scene is going, but I have to sustain her interest until the real action kicks in.

Storyboard for Aladdin

This is a valuable exercise, because it forces me to engage with the story entirely in the present tense. I’ve spoken here before of how a story can best be understood as a sequence of objectives, which is the approach that David Mamet articulates so beautifully in On Directing Film, the best book on storytelling I’ve ever read. In practice, though, it’s easy to forget this. When you’re the writer, you find yourself thinking in terms of the story’s overall shape, and even if you’re just the reader or a member of the audience, you often skip ahead to anticipate what comes next. When you’re trying to explain it to a three-year-old, there isn’t time for any of this—your only goal is to explicate what is happening on the screen right now. After you’ve done this for a dozen or more movies, you start to appreciate how this approximates how we subconsciously experience all stories, no matter how sophisticated they might be. A good movie or novel doesn’t just put one scene after another, like a series of beads on a string, but that’s how we absorb it, and it needs to be told with clarity on that simple sequential level if its larger patterns are going to have any meaning. Like a properly constructed improvisation, an engaging story comes down to a series of “Yes, and…” statements. And the fact that it also needs to be more doesn’t excuse it from its basic obligation to be clear and logical with each individual beat.

And talking your way through through a movie like this—even if the three-year-old you’re addressing is an imaginary one—can lead to unexpected insights into a story’s strengths and weaknesses. I came away even more impressed by Zootopia because of how cleverly it grounds its complicated plot in a series of units that can be easily grasped: I don’t think Beatrix was ever lost for more than a few seconds. And when I watched Aladdin with her this morning, I became uncomfortably aware of the golden thread of fakery that runs through the center of that story: it’s a skillful script, but it hits its beats so emphatically that I was constantly aware of how it was manipulating us. (Compare this to Miyazaki’s great movies, from Kiki’s Delivery Service to Ponyo, which achieve their effects more subtly and mysteriously, while never being anything less than fascinating.) I’ve even found myself doing much the same thing when I’m watching a television show or reading a book on my own. When you try to see the story through a child’s eyes, and to frame it in terms that would hold the attention of a preschooler, you quickly learn that it isn’t a question of dumbing it down, but of raising it to an even greater level of sophistication, with the story conveyed with the clarity of a fairy tale. Anyone who thinks that this is easy has never tried to do it for real. And at every turn, you need to be asking yourself a toddler’s favorite question: “Why?”

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March 29, 2016 at 9:22 am

Cutty Sark and the semicolon

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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.

Thinking away from the notes

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Terry Gross

On a typical day, [Terry] Gross is at the office from 8:45 to 5:45…Gross will continue working at home, preparing for the next day’s interview in the living room. She clarifies her thoughts first thing in the morning in the shower. That’s when she asks herself: What do I care about? What in all of this research is meaningful? It’s important to be away from her notes when she does this. She emerges from the shower with her ‘‘major destination points.’’ Then she goes to her office and refers back to her notes—sheafs of facts; dog-eared, marked-up books—for the details. Then she does the interview. And then she is inundated by the other daily tasks of running a radio show. The next day, she does it all again.

Susan Burton, in The New York Times Magazine

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October 31, 2015 at 7:30 am

Sex and the single shark

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Jaws by Peter Benchley

A few weeks ago, I picked up a used copy of the original hardcover edition of Peter Benchley’s Jaws. It caught my eye in part because of the iconic cover art, designed by the legendary Paul Bacon, who passed away earlier this summer. Although the painting was redrawn for the paperback, which later became the basis for one of the great movie posters, it’s still a work of graphic genius, second only to Chip Kidd’s dust jacket design for Jurassic Park in the unexpected way it came to define an entire franchise. And upon leafing through the novel itself—I’m still only halfway through—I was struck by how much it differs, not just from its film adaptation, but from what we’ve come to expect from a modern thriller. There’s a lot of background material on the town of Amity, some engaging, some not, including an entire subplot about the mayor’s mob connections. Most stupefying of all is the huge amount of space devoted to a plot thread, which the movie omits entirely, about an affair between Chief Brody’s wife and Hooper, the oceanographer played in the film by Richard Dreyfuss. It takes up something like sixty uninterrupted pages right in the middle of the novel, and frankly, it’s terrible, complete with passages of awful, clinical, mid-seventies lovemaking as bad as anything from Irving Wallace, who wrote about sex, as one critic put it, as if he’d never had it himself. (A tip to writers: any passage that unblushingly includes the phrase “her genitals” probably doesn’t need to exist.)

Reading the section again today, it’s hard to shake a sense that it must have struck many readers at the time as about as pointless as it seems now. Benchley can be a fine writer elsewhere, but I’d like to think that a modern editor would have taken him firmly by the hand and advised him to cut the whole thing. In fact, the man who edited Jaws was Thomas Congdon, an editor at Doubleday whose clients would later include David Halberstam and Russell Baker, and his collaboration with Benchley has been documented in exceptional detail, thanks to a fascinating story that the journalist Ted Morgan wrote for The New York Times Magazine around the time of the book’s publication. Congdon commissioned the novel from Benchley before a single word of it had been written, and he worked closely with the author, starting at the outline phase, which is unusual in itself. And Congdon, unbelievably, is the one we have to thank for what I have no choice but to call, ahem, the Dreyfuss affair. As Morgan writes:

When Benchley wrote a sex scene between the police chief and his wife, Congdon’s sense of propriety was offended: “I don’t think there’s any place for wholesome married sex in this kind of book,” he wrote. Benchley obediently turned the wife into an adulteress, who has an affair with a young marine scientist. [Italics mine.]

The poster for Jaws

Still, for all I know, Congdon may have been right. It certainly didn’t hurt the novel: half of Morgan’s article is devoted to cataloging its massive sales figures and proceeds from subsidiary rights, and this is all before the movie came out. (The name “Steven Spielberg” never appears, and the only person mentioned from the film side is producer Richard Zanuck.) And while Jaws might seem like a genre unto itself, it has to be read in the context of seventies bestsellerdom, which was dominated by the likes of Wallace, Jacqueline Susann, and Harold Robbins, who spiced up every story with generous helpings of smut. You might even say that the movie version of Jaws, which spawned the modern blockbuster, marks a transitional moment in more ways than one: the only remotely erotic moment in the film is Susan Backlinie’s nude swim at the very beginning, followed by the unavoidable sexual overtones of the ensuing shark attack. Mass culture was moving into an era in which the adult obsessions of the seventies would give way to a fascination with hardware and special effects, calculated to appeal to a teenage male audience that would have found Ellen Brody’s midlife sexual awakening even less interesting than I did. The real love affair in the movie is between the audience and the shark, or, more precisely, between Spielberg’s camera and the shark’s elusive silhouette. Anything else would be superfluous.

As it happens, Jaws wasn’t the first major motion picture of that decade to shy away from sexual elements in the source material. Mario Puzo’s original novel of The Godfather goes on for page after page about Lucy Mancini, Sonny’s girlfriend, and in particular about an odd feature of her anatomy and its subsequent surgical correction. Francis Coppola found it about as weird as many readers undoubtedly did:

I started to read the book. I got only fifty pages into it. I thought, it’s a popular, sensational novel, pretty cheap stuff. I got to the part about the singer supposedly modeled on Frank Sinatra and the girl Sonny Corleone liked so much because her vagina was enormous—remember that stuff in the book? It never showed up in the movie. Anyway, I said, “My God, what is this—The Carpetbaggers? So I stopped reading and said, “Forget it.”

Not every movie from that era shied away from the sexual elements—The Exorcist sure as hell didn’t—but it’s hard not to see the pattern here. As audiences changed, books that were written in part with an eye to the movie rights began to tone down the sex, then cut it altogether, knowing that it was unlikely to survive the adaptation anyway. Readers didn’t seem to miss it, either. And while I’d say that it was no great loss, I also wish that we had books and movies large enough to accommodate good sex in fiction, when necessary, along with more innocent thrills. Pop culture is a ship in which we’re all traveling together, and to get the range of stories we deserve, we’re going to need a bigger boat.

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