Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Silence of the Lambs

Out of the silence

leave a comment »

Eight years ago, I wrote in one of my very first posts on this blog: “I still hope that [Thomas] Harris comes back and writes another amazing novel. I really do. Even Hannibal, for all its problems, has remarkable moments…All the same, it’s been four years since we saw a new book from Harris, a notoriously slow and methodical writer, and there hasn’t been a whisper of another project. And the pressure to write another Hannibal Lecter novel must be tremendous. But I hope he resists it. Because an ambitious new thriller by Harris without Lecter would be the literary event of the year, maybe the decade.” Looking back, this seems slightly hyperbolical, but I stand by my statement. There was a time when I would have argued that Harris was the best popular novelist in America, based on a remarkably modest body of work. He’s written just five novels, one of which is best forgotten, and his most recent effort of any value is nearly two decades old. Yet between Black Sunday, Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, and the most worthwhile parts of Hannibal alone, he’s responsible for more memorable ideas, scenes, and characters than any other bestselling writer I can name, apart perhaps from his longtime admirer Stephen King. No author in my lifetime has done more to break down the barriers between literary and mainstream fiction, based on little more than a dark imagination and an unsurpassed level of technical proficiency. During the years when I was working mostly as a suspense novelist, I read his novels endlessly, and it’s possible that I owe more to his example than to any other writer in any genre.

As a result, I greeted yesterday’s announcement of a new Harris novel, which is scheduled to be released the week before my next birthday, with more than usual excitement. The title and even the basic premise have yet to be revealed, a lack of information reflected in the most comprehensive article that we have on it so far, in the form of a paragraph from the Associated Press:

The Silence of the Lambs author Thomas Harris has a new novel out in May, his first in more than a decade. But don’t expect a return for Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Grand Central Publishing announced Wednesday that Harris will release his first “stand-alone thriller” since his debut, Black Sunday, in 1975. No other details were provided, although the publisher confirmed to the Associated Press that Lecter wasn’t in it. Harris, 78, has released just five previous novels. Four of them feature the flesh-eating Lecter, including The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon.

There isn’t much there, apart from the confirmation that Lecter won’t be involved, which is newsworthy in itself. Lecter is one of the great creations in all of popular fiction—perhaps the most indelible since Sherlock Holmes. Like Holmes, though, he eventually became a millstone around his creator’s neck. Harris has spent the last half of his career in a losing battle to reconcile Lecter’s star status with the uncompromising version of the character that had been established in the first two novels. It all but destroyed his gifts as a reporter and observer, since the later books were built around what he must have known was a lie. And the prospect of his emancipation is very exciting.

But what really struck me about that article is the realization, which I could have figured out for myself if I had bothered to do the math, that Harris is seventy-eight years old. That’s just one year younger than Philip Roth was when he announced his retirement. These two writers are rarely mentioned in the same sentence, but they have affinities that aren’t entirely obvious. They’re roughly of the same generation, with preternatural abilities of observation and description, and both saw writing as a sort of torture. Stephen King has written of Harris “writhing on the floor in agonies of frustration,” since “the very act of writing is a kind of torment,” and while Roth was more prolific, he found the act of creation to be comparably grueling, as he once told The Paris Review:

Beginning a book is unpleasant…I often have to write a hundred pages or more before there’s a paragraph that’s alive. Okay, I say to myself, that’s your beginning, start there; that’s the first paragraph of the book. I’ll go over the first six months of work and underline in red a paragraph, a sentence, sometimes no more than a phrase, that has some life in it, and then I’ll type all these out on one page. Usually it doesn’t come to more than one page, but if I’m lucky, that’s the start of page one. I look for the liveliness to set the tone. After the awful beginning come the months of freewheeling play, and after the play come the crises, turning against your material and hating the book.

And after he retired, he posted a note on his computer that gave him strength when he looked at it each day: “The struggle with writing is over.”

Few writers remain productive toward the end of their eighth decade, and those who do, like John Updike, are usually those for whom it was easier to keep writing than to stop. If Harris found it painful in his forties, it can hardly be any less agonizing now, and the burden of expectation must be very great. We don’t know what inspired him to return to fiction after all this time, but I can venture a few guesses. Harris signed a lucrative contract over a decade ago, and he might have felt a sense of obligation to fulfill it, although both he and his publisher can live quite comfortably off his backlist. I once guessed that after he outsourced his most famous creation to Bryan Fuller, he’d feel free to write a book of his own, which might be part of the answer. But the best clue of all, perhaps, comes straight from Lecter himself, who advises Clarice Starling to consult Marcus Aurelius in her search for Buffalo Bill:

When you show the odd flash of contextual intelligence, I forget your generation can’t read, Clarice. The Emperor counsels simplicity. First principles. Of each particular thing, ask: What is in it in itself, in its own constitution? What is its causal nature?

When Starling, not unreasonably, asks him to cut to the chase, Lecter rewords the question: “What does he do, the man you want?” And while we know less about Harris than just about any other novelist alive, including Thomas Pynchon, we know exactly what he does. He writes, often brilliantly, and so much of what clouded his talent—Lecter’s seduction of Starling, the revisionist fanfic of Hannibal Rising—was merely, as Lecter might say, “incidental.” And I hope we’ll have one more chance to see his true nature again.

Written by nevalalee

October 4, 2018 at 8:29 am

The art of the bad review

leave a comment »

Mark Twain

Note: I’m taking a few days off for the holidays, 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 September 7, 2016.

Every few years, whenever my spirits need a boost, I go back and read the famous smackdown that Martin Amis delivered to the novel Hannibal by Thomas Harris, just for the simple pleasure of it. It’s one of the great savage reviews of all time, and it checks off most of the boxes that this sort of shellacking requires. Amis begins by listing the hyperbolic claims made by other reviewers—“A momentous achievement,” “A plausible candidate for the Pulitzer Prize”—and then skewering them systematically. But he also goes after the novel, significantly, from a position of respect, calling himself “a Harris fan from way back.” Writing of the earlier books in the series, he says that Harris has achieved what every popular novelist hopes to accomplish: “He has created a parallel world, a terrible antiterra, airless and arcane but internally coherent.” When Amis quotes approvingly from the previous installments, it can only make Hannibal look worse by comparison, although Harris doesn’t do himself any favors. As Amis writes:

[Lecter] has no need of “need”: Given the choice, he—and Harris—prefer to say “require”…Out buying weapons—or, rather, out “purchasing” weapons—he tells the knife salesman, “I only require one.” Why, I haven’t felt such a frisson of sheer class since I last heard room service say “How may I assist you?’” And when Lecter is guilty of forgetfulness he says “Bother”—not “Shit” or “Fuck” like the rest of us. It’s all in the details.

Amis’s review falls squarely in the main line of epic takedowns that began with Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” This is a piece that was probably ruined for a lot of readers by being assigned in high school, but it deserves a fresh look: it’s one of the funniest and most valuable essays about writing that we have, and I revisit it on a regular basis. Like Amis, Twain begins by quoting some of the puffier encomiums offered by other critics: “[Cooper’s] five tales reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention…The craft of the woodsman, the tricks of the trapper, all the delicate art of the forest were familiar to Cooper from his youth up.” (Twain proposes the following rule in response: “Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as ‘the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest’ by either the author or the people in the tale.”) Both Twain and Amis are eager to go after their subjects with a broadsword, but they’re also alert to the nuances of language. For Amis, it’s the subtle shading of pretension that creeps in when Harris writes “purchases” instead of “buys”; for Twain, it’s the distinction between “verbal” and “oral,” “precision” and “facility,” “phenomena” and “marvels,” “necessary” and “predetermined.” His eighteen rules of writing, deduced in negative fashion from Cooper’s novels, are still among the best ever assembled. He notes that one of the main requirements of storytelling is “that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.” Which, when you think about it, is even more relevant in Harris’s case—although that’s a subject for another post.

Martin Amis

I’ve learned a lot from these two essays, as I have with other bad reviews that have stuck in my head over the years. In general, a literary critic should err on the side of generosity, especially when it comes to his or her contemporaries, and a negative review of a first novel that nobody is likely to read is an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. But occasionally, a bad review can be just as valuable and memorable as any other form of criticism. I may not agree with James Wood’s feelings about John le Carré, but I’ll never forget how he sums up a passage from Smiley’s People as “a clever coffin of dead conventions.” Once a year or so, I’ll find myself remembering John Updike’s review of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, which notes the author’s obsession with muscular male bodies—“the latissimi dorsi,” “the trapezius muscles”—and catalogs his onomatopoetics, which are even harder to take seriously when you have to type them all out:

“Brannnnng! Brannnnng! Brannnnng!,” “Woooo-eeeeeee! Hegh-heggghhhhhh,” “Ahhhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhhhhhh,” “Su-puerflyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!,” “eye eye eye eye eye eye eye eye eye,” Scrack scrack scrack scraccckkk scraccccck,” “glug glug glug glugglugglug,” “Awriiighhhhhhhht!”

And half of my notions as a writer seem to have been shaped by a single essay by Norman Mailer, “Some Children of the Goddess,” in which he takes careful aim at most of his rivals from the early sixties. William Styron’s Set This House on Fire is “the magnum opus of a fat spoiled rich boy who could write like an angel about landscape and like an adolescent about people”; J.D. Salinger’s four novellas about the Glass family “seem to have been written for high-school girls”; and Updike himself writes “the sort of prose which would be admired in a writing course overseen by a fussy old nance.”

So what makes a certain kind of negative review linger in the memory for longer than the book it describes? It often involves one major writer taking aim at another, which is already more interesting than the sniping of a critic who knows the craft only from the outside. In most cases, it picks on a target worthy of the writer’s efforts. And there’s usually an undercurrent of wounded love: the best negative reviews, like the one David Foster Wallace delivered on Updike’s Toward the End of Time, or Renata Adler’s demolition of Pauline Kael, reflect a real disillusionment with a former idol. (Notice, too, how so many of the same names keep recurring, as if Mailer and Updike and Wolfe formed a closed circle that runs forever, in a perpetual motion machine of mixed feelings.) Even when there’s no love lost between the critic and his quarry, as with Twain and Cooper, there’s a sense of anger at the betrayal of storytelling by someone who should know better. To return to poor Thomas Harris, I’ll never forget the New Yorker review by Anthony Lane that juxtaposed a hard, clean excerpt from The Silence of the Lambs:

“Lieutenant, it looks like he’s got two six-shot .38s. We heard three rounds fired and the dump pouches on the gunbelts are still full, so he may just have nine left. Advise SWAT it’s +Ps jacketed hollowpoints. This guy favors the face.”

With this one from Hannibal Rising:

“I see you and the cricket sings in concert with my heart.”
“My heart hops at the sight of you, who taught my heart to sing.”

Lane reasonably responds: “What the hell is going on here?” And that’s what all these reviews have in common—an attempt by one smart, principled writer to figure out what the hell is going on with another.

Revenge of the nerds

leave a comment »

“Those cops know who you are,” [Starling] said. “They look at you to see how to act.” She stood steady, shrugged her shoulders, opened her palms. There it was, it was true.

—Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs

Over the last six months, a pattern of behavior within the technology world has been coming into focus. It arguably began with Susan J. Fowler, a software engineer who published a post on her personal blog with the pointedly neutral title “Reflecting on One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber,” which, with its account of sexism, harassment, and the dismissal of her concerns, set off a chain of events that culminated in the resignation of Uber founder Travis Kalanick. More recently, we’ve seen similar reports about the venture capital firm Binary Capital, the investment incubator 500 Startups, and now the electric car company Tesla. Even at a glance, we can draw a few obvious conclusions. The first is that most companies still have no idea how to deal with these accusations. By now, it should be abundantly clear that the only acceptable response to such allegations is to say that you’re taking them seriously. Instead, we get the likes of Binary’s original statement, which said that the partner in question “has in the past occasionally dated or flirted with women he met in a professional capacity.” (The firm quickly reversed itself, and it’s now being rewarded with the possibility that it may simply cease to exist.) Another inference is that the number of cases will only grow, as more women come forward to share their stories. And a third takeaway is that most of these companies have certain qualities in common. They’re founded and run by intelligent, ambitious men who may not have had a lot of romantic success early in life, but who now find themselves in a position of power over women. It’s a dynamic not unlike that of, say, a graduate department in philosophy. And it’s worth wondering if we’re fated to hear similar stories whenever male overachievers with poor social skills become gatekeepers in industries where women are at a numerical disadvantage.   

As it happens, an experiment along those lines has been ongoing for over ninety years, in a closed setting with ample documentation. It’s the science fiction fandom. Most of the evidence is anecdotal, but this doesn’t make it any less compelling. In the anthology The Hugo Winners, which was published in 1962, for instance, Isaac Asimov wrote of Anne McCaffrey: “She’s a woman in a man’s world and it doesn’t bother her a bit.” He explained:

Science fiction is far less a man’s world than it used to be as far as the readers are concerned. Walk into any convention these days and the number of shrill young girls fluttering before you (if you are Harlan Ellison) or backing cautiously away (if you are me) is either frightening or fascinating, depending on your point of view. (I am the fascinated type.)

The writers, however, are still masculine by a heavy majority. What’s more, they are a particularly sticky kind of male, used to dealing with males, and a little perturbed at having to accept a woman on an equal basis.

Asimov concluded: “It’s not so surprising. Science is a heavily masculine activity (in our society, anyway); so science fiction writing is, or should be. Isn’t that the way it goes?” But Anne McCaffrey, with her “Junoesque measurements and utter self-confidence,” was doing just fine. He added: “I have the most disarming way of goggling at Junoesque measurements which convinces any woman possessing them that I have good taste.” As an illustration, he told an amusing story of how McCaffrey beat him in a singing competition, prompting him to point at her chest and protest: “It’s not fair. She has spare lungs!” How could any woman possibly feel out of place?

You could excuse this by saying that Asimov is joking, using the bantering tone that he employs in all of his essays about the fandom, but that’s problematic in itself. Asimov consciously mastered an informal style that made readers feel as if he were confiding in them, telling his publisher, who had expressed doubts about his approach: “They will feel themselves inside the world of science fiction.” And they did. At a time when the genre was rapidly expanding into the mass culture, he made it seem as close and intimate as it had been in the thirties. But he also gave hints to fans about how they were supposed to talk about themselves, and sometimes it wasn’t particularly funny. (It also had a way of excluding anyone who wasn’t in on the joke, as in Asimov’s infamous quip to Samuel R. Delany.) This wasn’t a new development, either. A quarter of a century earlier, as an unknown fan in the letters column of Astounding, Asimov had written: “When we want science fiction, we don’t want swooning dames…Come on, men, make yourself heard in favor of less love mixed with our science.” Later, he doubled down on his position: “Let me point out that women never affected the world directly. They always grabbed hold of some poor, innocent man, worked their insidious wiles on him…and then affected history through him.” He concluded that he should probably stop before he inspired a “vendetta” of all the female fans in the country: “There must be at least twenty of them!” If this was a joke, it persisted for decades, and he wasn’t the only one. When you look back at those letters, their suspicion or bemusement toward women practically oozes off the page, and you get a sense of how hard it must have been for “a female woman”—as one identifies herself in 1931—to enter that world. There was a debate about whether women even belonged, and Asimov cheerfully participated: “The great philosophers and the great religious leaders of the world—the ones who taught truth and virtue, kindliness and justice—were all, all men.”

This doesn’t even get to Asimov’s own behavior with women, which deserves a full post in itself, although I’m frankly not ready to tackle that yet. And while I don’t mean to pick on Asimov on particular, maybe, in a way, I do. In The Hugo Winners, Asimov describes himself as “a ‘Women’s Lib’ from long before there was one,” and his political views were unimpeachably progressive. (I’m sure you could say much the same thing about the founders and employees of most of the firms mentioned above.) He was also the most visible ambassador of a subculture that continues to have a troubling track record with women and minorities, in ways both explicit and implicit, and he wasn’t just symptomatic of its attitudes, but one of its shapers. Fans looked to Asimov for cues about how to behave, because he was exactly what they wanted to become—a shy, lonely kid who grew up to be famous and beloved. And we don’t need to look far for parallels. In an internal email sent two days after the termination of the woman who says that she was fired in retaliation for her claims, Elon Musk wrote:

If you are part of a less represented group, you don’t get a free pass on being a jerk yourself. We have had a few cases at Tesla where someone in a less represented group was actually given a job or promoted over more qualified highly represented candidates and then decided to sue Tesla for millions of dollars because they felt they weren’t promoted enough. That is obviously not cool.

It certainly isn’t. And although Tesla has said that “this email in fact did not reference Ms. Vandermeyden or her case,” it doesn’t matter. The assumption that the presence of “jerks” among less represented groups—who allegedly benefit from special treatment “over more highly qualified represented candidates”—is pervasive enough to be singled out like this sends a message in itself. Musk is a hero to many young men inside and outside his company, just as Asimov, whose books he deeply admires, was to his fans. Many are bright but socially confused, and they’re looking to be told how to act. And as Clarice Starling once said under similar circumstances: “It matters, Mr. Crawford.”

Writing the vegetables

with 2 comments

In the huge interview with Empire that I recommended earlier this week, Christopher McQuarrie shares a story from the editing of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation. McQuarrie and Tom Cruise had assembled a rough cut of the entire movie, and it wasn’t playing well. To be fair, it never does, especially when it includes a lot of unfinished visual effects, but what they were seeing left them particularly depressed, and after watching the first half, they walked outside to get some air and brace themselves for the rest. (McQuarrie refers to it as a “Cut me, Mick” moment, and anyone who has dreaded going back to a troubled project can probably relate.) McQuarrie describes what happened next:

We went back in and sat down and Eddie [Hamilton] had cut together a big chunk of the second half of the movie. And we got to the moment—no music in it, nothing, total rough cut—and [Ilsa] said: “Come away with me.” Tom and I looked at each other, and we’re like, “Do you feel that? That kind of worked! That was actually good!” And then there was the scene in the safe house when they’re all fighting with each other, and that was working. All of a sudden, we were looking at it and going, “You know, all the vegetables of the movie are actually tracking. They’re actually playing really well. It’s all the action that’s not worked out yet.”

McQuarrie quickly moves on, but the notion of a story’s “vegetables”—the scenes that exist to get from one high point to another—stuck with me, along with the idea that you can evaluate a work in progress by keeping an eye on those interstitial scenes.

On some level, this seems to run contrary to one of the central tenets of storytelling, which is that if you nail the big moments and don’t actively screw anything up, the rest will take care of itself. (As Howard Hawks put it: “A good movie is three great scenes and no bad scenes.”) And in practice, viewers or readers will forgive almost anything if a story delivers when it counts. But the vegetables are important, too—to facilitate the climaxes, as worthwhile scenes in themselves, and as a kind of index of the whole. I’ve noted elsewhere that the famous moments that we remember rely on the surrounding material to have an impact. Revealingly, such scenes rarely, if ever, come at the very beginning, which is when writers feel the most pressure to start off with a bang—which only indicates the extent to which they depend on context and preparation. That pattern holds throughout the story. A novel or movie that consists of just one high point after another is likely to be exhausting, while one that conceives itself as a delivery system for awesome moments may fall flat whenever something amazing isn’t happening. To some extent, this is a matter of personal taste. I gave up on Game of Thrones in part because of its tendency to sag between character deaths, while I never got tired of Mad Men, which was made up of countless tiny but riveting choices that gained power from their cumulative impact. The most reasonable approach, unless you’re Matthew Weiner, is a deliberate balance in which the quieter scenes enable the more conventionally exciting sequences. The vegetables may not be the main attraction, but they play the same role in a story that aromatics like onions and garlic have in cooking. They add flavor and bind the rest together.

The vegetables can also be tasty in themselves. A few weeks ago, I finally saw Hamilton onstage, and my big takeaway was how good the second act is—it’s just one great song after another. Yet on paper, it also consists mostly of vegetables, with characters talking about politics or setting up information that will pay off later on. You can see this clearly in “Take a Break,” a purely functional song that exists solely to establish the fact that Hamilton is away from his family, but is so lovingly written and performed that it becomes a showstopper. Even better is “The Election of 1800,” which just moves the political pieces around, but thrills me to no end. (I love it in part because it reminds me of Evita, which is nothing but vegetables, but so cleverly delivered that we don’t even notice. And neither musical could exist, at least not at this level of success, if they hadn’t found solutions to the problem of treating politics in song.) You may not notice such functional scenes on your first encounter, or even your tenth, but the more you listen to a soundtrack or watch a movie, the more they stand out. They’re often the ones that I end up revisiting the most, in part because they can’t take our attention for granted, so they have to exist at a high level of craft. I’ve read the novel The Silence of the Lambs maybe ten times, but the one chapter that I never tire of reading is the one in which Clarice Starling searches the storage unit that might hold the key to an unsolved murder. It really only exists to get the plot to the next stage, but Harris enriches it with countless lovely touches, like how the resourceful Clarice fixes a stuck lock with a few drops of oil from a dipstick, or how she uses the jack from her car to lever up the rusty door. And you really start to appreciate this sort of scene when you notice its total absence from Hannibal Rising.

For a writer, the best thing about vegetables, as well as a potential pitfall, is that you can always find ways of improving them, which isn’t always true of the big moments. Novelists may not be in the same position as filmmakers who have to wait for special effects to be rendered, but if you’ve ever written a novel, you know that you eventually stop seeing the scenes that made you want to write it in the first place. You’ve read them so many times that they become invisible, and it can be hard to look past your preconceptions to see what’s actually on the page. With purely functional scenes, it’s easy to retain your detachment, and you can keep tinkering with them even when you lack the energy to tackle larger issues. Ideally, the vegetables can even serve as a gauge of quality, as they did with McQuarrie and Cruise: if the small stuff is working, there’s reason to hope that the big stuff is, too. But proportionality also matters, and endless fiddling on minor details can blind you to a scene’s true importance. (Martin Scorsese threatened to take his name off Raging Bull because he couldn’t hear a background character ordering a Cutty Sark in a bar.) Fretting too much over the vegetables can turn into procrastination, or a form of avoidance. As Carl Richards of the New York Times points out, it’s when you’re looking for excuses to avoid moving to the next stage that you seize onto finicky little items: “What color should the logo be?” “I can’t find an agent.” “It could use another round of edits.” “I’m not sure what font to use.” That’s when the vegetables tend to call to you the most. The best approach is to utilize this impulse to polish the small parts until they shine, while keeping it under control so that you don’t lose sight of the overall picture. Vegetables in a story are good for you. But you don’t want to neglect the meat.

The art of the bad review

leave a comment »

Mark Twain

Yesterday, while writing about the pitfalls of quotation in book reviews, I mentioned the famous smackdown that Martin Amis delivered to the novel Hannibal by Thomas Harris. When I went back to look up the lines I wanted to quote, I found myself reading the whole thing over again, just for the simple pleasure of it. It’s one of the great critical slams of all time, and it checks off most of the boxes that this kind of shellacking requires. Amis begins by listing a few hyperbolic claims made by other reviewers—“A momentous achievement,” “A plausible candidate for the Pulitzer Prize”—and then skewers them systematically. He comes at the novel, significantly, from a position of real respect: Amis calls himself “a Harris fan from way back.” Writing of the earlier books in the series, he says that Harris has achieved what every popular novelist hopes to accomplish: “He has created a parallel world, a terrible antiterra, airless and arcane but internally coherent.” When Amis quotes approvingly from these previous installments, it can only make Hannibal look worse by comparison, although Harris doesn’t do himself any favors:

[Lecter] has no need of “need”: Given the choice, he—and Harris—prefer to say “require”…Out buying weapons—or, rather, out “purchasing” weapons—he tells the knife salesman, “I only require one.” Why, I haven’t felt such a frisson of sheer class since I last heard room service say “How may I assist you?’” And when Lecter is guilty of forgetfulness he says “Bother”—not “Shit” or “Fuck” like the rest of us. It’s all in the details.

Reading the review again, I realized that it falls squarely in the main line of epic takedowns that begins with Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” This is a piece that was probably ruined for a lot of readers by being assigned to them in high school, but it deserves a fresh look: it really is one of the funniest and most valuable essays about writing we have, and I revisit it every couple of years. Like Amis, Twain begins by quoting some of his target’s puffier critical encomiums: “The five tales reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention…The craft of the woodsman, the tricks of the trapper, all the delicate art of the forest were familiar to Cooper from his youth up.” (In response, Twain proposes the following rule: “That crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as ‘the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest’ by either the author or the people in the tale.”) Both Twain and Amis are eager to go after their subjects with a broadsword, but they’re also alert to the nuances of language. For Amis, it’s the subtle shading of pretension that creeps in when Harris writes “purchases” instead of “buys”; for Twain, it’s the distinction between “verbal” and “oral,” “precision” and “facility,” “phenomena” and “marvels,” “necessary” and “predetermined.” His eighteen rules of writing, deduced in negative fashion from Cooper’s novels, are still among the best ever assembled. He notes that one of the main requirements of storytelling is “that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.” Which, when you think about it, is even more relevant in Harris’s case—although that’s a subject for another post.

Martin Amis

I’ve learned a lot from these two essays, and it made me reflect on the bad reviews that have stuck in my head over the years. In general, a literary critic should err on the side of generosity, especially when it comes to his or her contemporaries, and a negative review of a first novel that nobody is likely to read is an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. But occasionally, a bad review can be just as valuable and memorable as any other form of criticism. I may not agree with James Wood’s feelings about John le Carré, but I’ll never forget how he sums up a passage from Smiley’s People as “a clever coffin of dead conventions.” Once a year or so, I’ll find myself remembering John Updike’s review of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, which notes the author’s obsession with muscular male bodies—“the latissimi dorsi,” “the trapezius muscles”—and catalogs his onomatopoetics, which are even harder to take seriously when you have to type them all out:

“Brannnnng! Brannnnng! Brannnnng!,” “Woooo-eeeeeee! Hegh-heggghhhhhh,” “Ahhhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhhhhhh,” “Su-puerflyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!,” “eye eye eye eye eye eye eye eye eye,” Scrack scrack scrack scraccckkk scraccccck,” “glug glug glug glugglugglug,” “Awriiighhhhhhhht!”

And half of my notions as a writer seem to have been shaped by a single essay by Norman Mailer, “Some Children of the Goddess,” in which he takes careful aim at most of his rivals from the early sixties. William Styron’s Set This House on Fire is “the magnum opus of a fat spoiled rich boy who could write like an angel about landscape and like an adolescent about people”; J.D. Salinger’s four novellas about the Glass family “seem to have been written for high-school girls”; and Updike himself writes “the sort of prose which would be admired in a writing course overseen by a fussy old nance.”

So what makes a certain kind of negative review linger in the memory long after the book in question has been forgotten? It often involves one major writer taking aim at another, which is already more interesting than the sniping of a critic who knows the craft only from the outside. In most cases, it picks on a potential competitor, which is a target worthy of the writer’s efforts. And there’s usually an undercurrent of wounded love: the best negative reviews, like the one David Foster Wallace wrote on Updike’s Toward the End of Time, reflect a real disillusionment with a former idol. (Notice, too, how so many of the same names keep recurring, as if Mailer and Updike and Wolfe formed a closed circle that runs forever, like a perpetual motion machine of mixed feelings.) Even when there’s no love lost between the critic and his quarry, as with Twain and Cooper, there’s a sense of anger at the betrayal of storytelling by someone who should know better. To return to poor Thomas Harris, I’ll never forget the New Yorker review by Anthony Lane that juxtaposed a hard, clean excerpt from The Silence of the Lambs:

“Lieutenant, it looks like he’s got two six-shot .38s. We heard three rounds fired and the dump pouches on the gunbelts are still full, so he may just have nine left. Advise SWAT it’s +Ps jacketed hollowpoints. This guy favors the face.”

With this one from Hannibal Rising:

“I see you and the cricket sings in concert with my heart.”
“My heart hops at the sight of you, who taught my heart to sing.”

Lane reasonably responds: “What the hell is going on here?” And that’s what all these reviews have in common—an attempt by one smart, principled writer to figure out what the hell is going on with another.

“But we need to work together…”

leave a comment »

"Before she could move..."

Note: This post is the fifty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 58. You can read the previous installments here.

I don’t have the numbers to back this up, but I have a hunch that most professional writers rarely go back to reread their own work. In an interview with The Paris Review, the novelist François Mauriac puts his finger on why revisiting a published story can be such an unpleasant experience:

I only reread my books when I have to in correcting proofs. The publication of my complete works condemned me to this; it is as painful as rereading old letters. It is thus that death emerges from abstraction, thus we touch it like a thing: a handful of ashes, of dust.

The more you unpack this statement, the more insightful it becomes. Reading one of your published stories is like reading an old letter in several ways: it confronts you with the image of yourself when you were younger, it makes your mistakes more visible in hindsight, and it shows you how insidiously the present has turned into the dead past. It’s the fossilized remnant of a process that used to be alive, and as soon as a work of art is locked into its final form, you see all kinds of problems with it. This isn’t necessarily because you could do any better now, but because a story on the page always seems less interesting than it did in your head. When you’re experiencing the work of other writers, you rarely dwell on how else it might have been done, but when you’re reading your own stuff, it’s hard to think about anything else.

This kind of estrangement from a work to which you devoted so much time and energy is unbearably sad—or it would be, if the writer didn’t immediately move on to the next thing. And it explains why the rare story that you can enjoy for its own sake becomes so precious. Usually, it’s something that came fairly easily, as if you were simply transcribing a moment of inspiration that descended from somewhere higher up, or rose from the depths of the subconscious. Isaac Asimov called it “writing over my head,” saying: “I occasionally write better than I ordinarily do…When I reread one of these stories or passages, I find it hard to believe that I wrote it, and I wish ardently that I could write like that all the time.” (Asimov said that he cried whenever he reread the ending of his own story “The Ugly Little Boy.”) Alternatively, you can feel safely detached from one of your own works if you were operating as an artist for hire, without much of a personal stake in the result, but did your job at a high level of technical proficiency. Steven Spielberg has said that the only one of his movies that he can watch with his kids as if he hadn’t directed it, rather than remembering what it was like on the set each day, is Raiders of the Lost Ark. You can see why: it was George Lucas’s baby, and what Spielberg brought to the project was a matchless eye and a useful degree of distance from the material. And I’m not surprised that the result delights him as much as it does me.

"But we need to work together..."

When it comes to my own work, there’s almost nothing that I can read now for my own pleasure. Occasionally, like Mauriac, I’ll need to correct page proofs, and I always have to gather my courage a bit: you’re strictly limited in the number of changes you can make, and you can’t imperceptibly massage the text in the way you can when you’re fiddling with a draft in Word. Reviewing proofs shortly after you’ve finished a story is even wore than reading an old letter—it’s like encountering an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend soon after a breakup, when you realize that you’ll never be able to take back what happened. (Not every writer feels this way, and some, like James Joyce, notoriously rewrote entire sections of the manuscript in galley form. But I’ve always assumed that making extensive changes at this stage will only introduce unforeseen complications, so I try to restrict myself to altering a word or a punctuation mark here and there.) Even after my feelings have cooled and a story sits on the shelf like a dead thing, it’s hard for me to look at it again: it’s like being confronted with your irrevocable life choices all at once. And if I had to make a list of the bits and pieces of my fiction that I wouldn’t mind reading again, it represents a tiny slice of the whole: maybe “The Boneless One,” most of “Kawataro” and “The Whale God,” the second half of “Ernesto,” the closing summation in The Icon Thief, and the plane crash and tunnel chase in City of Exiles. That’s about it.

In most of these cases, I was writing over my head, either because I was following up on a good idea that seemed to come out of nowhere, or because I was able to subordinate myself to the mechanics of a plot that I’d already set in motion. And of all the pages I’ve published, Chapter 58 of Eternal Empire might be my favorite—which is to say, if you forced me to pick something to read again, it’s the one I’d probably chose. It isn’t the most complex or difficult thing I’ve written: once I knew that Wolfe and Ilya would team up to take down a dacha full of gangsters and save Maddy, it was mostly just a matter of not screwing it up. But I had a great time writing it, and I still have a good time reading the result. The confluence of names I mentioned above is part of the reason why: it’s one of the few occasions when I felt that I was writing fanfic for my own creations, not because I was indulging myself, but because it combined characters for a payoff that I never would have imagined when I wrote the first book in the series. It’s obviously indebted to scenes like the shootout at the Victory Motel in both the novel and the film versions of L.A. Confidential, and if Wolfe at the climax of City of Exiles slipped into the Clarice Starling of The Silence of the Lambs, she’s closer here to the Starling of Hannibal. It’s the finest moment for my favorite character in the trilogy, which is reason enough for me to like it. Throughout this entire author’s commentary, I’d been looking forward to writing about it, but now that I’m here, I find that I don’t have much to say except that I think it’s pretty damned good. And I’m going back to read it again now…

Twenty-five years later: The Silence of the Lambs

leave a comment »

Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs

At this point, it might seem like there’s nothing new to say—at least by me—about The Silence of the Lambs. I’ve discussed both the book and the movie here at length, and I’ve devoted countless posts to unpacking Hannibal Lecter’s most recent televised incarnation. Yet like all lasting works of art, and I’d argue that both the novel and the film qualify, The Silence of the Lambs continues to reveal new aspects when seen from different angles, especially now that exactly a quarter of a century has gone by since the movie’s release. Watching it again today, for instance, it’s hard not to be struck by how young Clarice Starling really is: Jodie Foster was just twenty-eight when the film was shot, and when I look at Starling from the perspective of my middle thirties, she comes off as simultaneously more vulnerable and more extraordinary. (I have an uneasy feeling that it’s close to the way Jack Crawford, not to mention Lecter, might have seen her at the time.) And it only highlights her affinities to Buffalo Bill’s chosen prey. This isn’t exactly a revelation: that sense of a dark sisterhood is a pivotal plot point in the original story. But it’s one thing to grasp this intellectually and quite another to go back and see how cannily the movie casts actresses as Bill’s victims who subtly suggest Foster’s own facial features, just a little wider. And it’s more clear than ever how Foster’s early fame, her passage into movies like Taxi Driver, her strange historical linkage to a stalker and failed assassin, and her closely guarded personal life gave her the tools and aura to evoke Starling’s odd mixture of toughness and fragility.

What’s also obvious now, unfortunately, is the extent to which Starling was—and remains—an anomaly in the genre. Starling, as embodied by Foster, has inspired countless female leads in thrillers in the decades since. (When I found myself obliged to create a similar character for my own novels, my thoughts began and ended with her.) Yet aside from Dana Scully, the results have been less than memorable. Starling has always been eclipsed by the shadow of the monster in the cell beside her, but in many ways, she was a harder character to crack, and the fact that she works so well in her written and cinematic incarnations is the result of an invisible, all but miraculous balancing act. None of the later efforts in the same direction have done as well. Christopher McQuarrie, while discussing the characters played by Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow and Rebecca Ferguson in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, gets close to the heart of the challenge:

They’re not men. They’re women that are not trying to be men…To me, more than anything, Rebecca is mature, elegant, confident, and at peace. Her only vulnerability in the movie is she’s just as fucked as everybody else…Usually when you want to create vulnerability for a woman, it’s about giving her a neurosis—a fear or some emotional arc that, ultimately, gets the better of her, whether it’s a need for revenge or need for redemption. You know, “Her father was killed by a twister, so she has to defeat twisters no matter what,” and I wouldn’t have any of that either. It simply was: you’re here on your own terms and you’re in a shitty situation created by people in power above you. How do you escape this situation and maintain your dignity?

Which isn’t to say that Starling didn’t suffer from her share of father issues. But those last two sentences capture her appeal as well as any I’ve ever read.

Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs

Time also offers some surprising perspectives on Lecter himself, or at least the version of him we see here. The Silence of the Lambs, like Rocky, is one of those classic movies that has been diminished in certain respects by our knowledge of the sequels that followed it. Conventional wisdom holds that Anthony Hopkins’s take on Lecter became broader and more self-indulgent with every installment, and it’s fashionable to say that the best version of the character was really Brian Cox in Manhunter, or, more plausibly, Mads Mikkelsen on Hannibal. It’s a seductively contrarian argument, but it’s also inherently ridiculous. As great as the novel is, we probably wouldn’t be talking about Lecter or Thomas Harris or The Silence of the Lambs at all if it weren’t for Hopkins’s performance. And in many ways, it’s his facile, even superficial interpretation of the character that made the result so potent. Hopkins was discovered and mentored by Laurence Olivier, whom he understudied in August Strindberg’s Dance of Death, and it helps to view his approach to Lecter through the lens of the quote from Olivier that I cited here the other week: “I’m afraid I do work mostly from the outside in. I usually collect a lot of details, a lot of characteristics, and find a creature swimming about somewhere in the middle of them.” Hopkins’s creature is the finest example I know of a classically trained stage lion slumming it in a juicy genre part, and even if it wasn’t a particularly difficult performance once Hopkins figured out the voice, still—he figured out that voice.

And as soon as we acknowledge, or even embrace, the degree to which Lecter is a fantasy that barely survives twelve minutes onscreen, the more this approach seems like a perfectly valid solution to this dance of death. If Lecter seemed increasingly hammy and unconvincing in the movie versions of Hannibal and Red Dragon, that isn’t a failure on Hopkins’s part: making him the main attraction only brought out the artificiality and implausibility that had been there all along, and Hopkins just did what any smart actor would have done under the circumstances—take the money and try to salvage his own sense of fun. (As it happens, Ted Tally’s script for Red Dragon is surprisingly good, a thoughtful, inventive approach to tough material that was let down by the execution. If I had to choose, I’d say he did a better job on the page than Bryan Fuller ultimately did with the same story.) With the passage of time, it’s increasingly clear that Lecter falls apart even as you look at him, and that he’s a monster like the shark in Jaws or the dinosaurs that would follow two years later in Jurassic Park: they’re only convincing when glimpsed in flashes or in darkness, and half of the director’s art lies in knowing when to cut away. Put him front and center, as the sequels did, and the magic vanishes. Asking why Hopkins is so much more effective in The Silence of the Lambs than in the films that followed is like asking why the computer effects in Jurassic Park look better than their equivalents today: it isn’t about technology or technique, but about how the film deploys it to solve particular problems. Twelve minutes over twenty-five years is about as much scrutiny as Hopkins’s wonderful Lecter could sustain. And the rest, as they say, should have been silence.

%d bloggers like this: