Entries from August 2010

Experimental Writers vs. Conceptual Writers

Economist David Galenson posits that there are two types of writers: experimenters, a group that includes Dickens, Twain, and Virginia Woolf; and visionaries, such as Melville, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway.

Experimental innovators are seekers. Their most basic characteristic is persistent uncertainty about their methods and goals: they are typically dissatisfied with their current work, but have only vague ideas about how to improve it. Their dissatisfaction impels them to experiment, and their uncertainty means that they change their work by trial and error, moving tentatively toward their imperfectly perceived objectives. No matter how great their progress, their uncertainty rarely allows them to consider any of their works a complete success.

In contrast, conceptual innovators are finders. Their basic characteristic is certainty about some aspect of their work — their method, their goals, or both. Their certainty often allows them to work methodically, according to some system, toward their goals. Their clarity of intent and confidence in their ability often allow them to feel that they have fully realized their objectives in a particular work.

The life cycles of experimental and conceptual writers tend to differ sharply. Experimental writers’ achievements usually depend on gradual improvements in their understanding of their subjects and in their mastery of their craft. Their major contributions consequently emerge only after many years of writing, often late in their careers. Conceptual innovations, which depend on the formulation of new ideas, are made more quickly, and … typically occur early in a writer’s career.

— David W. Galenson, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young or Old Innovator: Measuring the Carers of Modern Novelists” (2004) (link, fee required).

Galenson’s research is fascinating and feels dead-on to me. I am very much an “experimental” writer. No lightning bolts, no visionary insights, no “Eureka!” Only gradual, uncertain, incremental iterations of idea after idea, draft after draft. I plane my sentences over and over, like a carpenter, yet they never feel finished. No book ever feels completed, only abandoned. And always flawed.

The good news? Experimental writers tend to reach their peak later and hold it longer. That feels right to me, also. I am convinced my peak is still ahead of me and that ten years hence I will be writing much better books than I am now. But then, that attitude is probably the mark of an “experimentalist” personality too — the actual, completed books feel hopelessly botched, but the faith always remains that someday, by rigorous trial and error, I will chisel out a “perfect” book. So it goes.

(For a fuller explanation of Galenson’s theory, Malcolm Gladwell repackaged Galenson’s research for an interesting New Yorker article a couple of years ago.)

Flannery O’Connor: The novel is way to have experience

People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.

Flannery O’Connor (via)

Categories: Books    Tags: ·

Quote of the Day

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.

Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

Categories: Books    Tags: ·

Hemingway’s standing desk


“Ernest Hemingway at his standing writing desk on the balcony of Bill Davis’s home near Malaga where he wrote The Dangerous Summer.” — Life Magazine, Jan. 1, 1960

I’ve wanted a standing desk like this for a long time. (Philip Roth uses one, too.)

Plan B: “She Said”

Categories: Music    Tags: · ·

“Perfection Wasted” by John Updike

And another regrettable thing about death
is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,
which took a whole life to develop and market —
the quips, the witticisms, the slant
adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest
the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched
in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,
their tears confused with their diamond earrings,
their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,
their response and your performance twinned.
The jokes over the phone. The memories
packed in the rapid-access file. The whole act.
Who will do it again? That’s it: no one;
imitators and descendants aren’t the same.

— John Updike

Categories: Poetry    Tags: ·

Why the novel will survive the disappearance of the book

Media evolution, of course, does claim casualties. But most often, these are means of distribution or storage, especially physical ones that can be transformed into digital bits. Photographic film is supplanted, but people take more pictures than ever. CD’s no longer dominate, as music is more and more distributed online. “Books, magazines and newspapers are next,” predicts Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the M.I.T. Media Lab. “Text is not going away, nor is reading. Paper is going away.”

New York Times, 8.22.10

Categories: Books · Internet · Publishing    Tags: ·

Book lust


Penguin Classics will publish new editions of six major works by F. Scott Fitzgerald in gorgeous new designs by Coralie Bickford-Smith. Want. More information here.


Updike’s reader

When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but a vague spot a little east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teen-aged boy finding them, and having them speak to him.

John Updike

Categories: Writing    Tags: ·

Hanging Up

This generation doesn’t make phone calls, because everyone is in constant, lightweight contact in so many other ways: texting, chatting, and social-network messaging. And we don’t just have more options than we used to. We have better ones: These new forms of communication have exposed the fact that the voice call is badly designed. It deserves to die.…

The telephone, in other words, doesn’t provide any information about status, so we are constantly interrupting one another. The other tools at our disposal are more polite. Instant messaging lets us detect whether our friends are busy without our bugging them, and texting lets us ping one another asynchronously. (Plus, we can spend more time thinking about what we want to say.) For all the hue and cry about becoming an “always on” society, we’re actually moving away from the demand that everyone be available immediately.

Clive Thompson

Categories: Odds & Ends    Tags:

Rooting for the laundry, 109 A.D.

It does the more surprise me therefore that so many thousand people should be possessed with the childish passion of desiring so often to see a parcel of horses gallop and men standing upright in their chariots. If indeed it were the swiftness of the horses or the skill of the men that attracted them, there might be some pretense of reason for it. But it is the dress they like, it is the dress that takes their fancy. And if, in the midst of the course and contest, the different parties were to change colors, their different partisans would change sides and instantly desert the very same men and horses whom just before they were eagerly following with their eyes, as far as they could see, and shouting out their names with all their might. Such mighty charms, such wondrous power reside in the color of a paltry tunic!

Pliny the Younger, around 109 A.D.

Seinfeld said it better, but he didn’t say it first. Interesting thought: what if the Red Sox and Yankees players exchanged uniforms one day?

More about the chariot races of ancient Rome here.

Categories: Sports    Tags: ·

Vita Brevis, Ars Brevior


Last night I watched The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, the 1965 film version of le Carré’s novel. The movie is very good — not quite great, but very good. It does a lot of things well. It is beautifully shot, with an elegant gray palette and wonderfully dingy sets. It is well written. Even at 112 minutes long, the plotting is tight and the dialogue is generally rich and credible. (Le Carré himself added some polish to the screenplay.) The acting is terrific. Richard Burton and Claire Bloom shine in the lead roles, of course, but the cast is filled out with obscure actors in supporting roles who are just as good, especially Cyril Cusack as the spymaster “Control” in London, and Oskar Werner as an East German intelligence officer named Fiedler. The whole thing plays like a watered-down version of The Third Man — which I mean as high praise, actually. You could do a lot worse than The Third Man Lite. I came away thinking that TSWCIFTC sits somewhere in that range of movies that are much better than average yet not good enough (or lucky enough) to last. I have no doubt it was one of the best movies of 1965; now it is almost completely forgotten.

To an artist, that is a queasy thought. Ars longa, vita brevis, we like to think. Life is short, art endures.* But the truth is, the vast majority of the art that gets churned up every year — movies, music, literature, pictures, dance, all of it — is about as brevis as you can get. It perishes almost immediately. Even very, very good work like this movie is quickly buried in the endless avalanche of newer creations.

This is no great insight. Every writer knows that ars longa, vita brevis is a vanity. You have only to walk through the endless dusty, abandoned stacks of a library to realize how quickly books are forgotten, even very good books. (Dr. Johnson pointed this out long ago.) Only an infinitesimal percentage of books remain current for any length of time. The rest die by the millions. Ars longa, my ass.

The good news is that, from the audience’s perspective, the reservoir of good art is vastly deeper than we tend to think, especially now, when the long-tail economy of the digiverse makes even the most recherché obscurities quite easy to obtain. If you scratch below the surface even a little bit, there are lots of forgotten jewels like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. That is a fact I will do my best to ignore when I sit down to work.

* Yes, I know that is not a completely accurate translation of ars longa, vita brevis, but it is how the phrase is generally understood today.

Categories: Art · Movies    Tags: · · ·

Richard Ford: “make something good”

“I don’t think of characters as people. I think of them as made objects of language. And their only purpose is to be pushed outward toward the reader.… There’s never a time in writing stories at which the characters do what some writers say, which is to take over from me and become the person who writes the story.… I’m unwilling not to be their author.

“I still don’t want to write a book just because I’ve done it for thirty years. I don’t want to write a book just because my last book had good luck. I would like to write a book for the reason that anybody ever writes a book the first time, for those sort of unassailable, unquestionable, high aspirations of wanting to make something good, something good that you can give to somebody else. Over time, you can get very confused about those goals.”

— Richard Ford, Stuff Magazine, September 1997

Categories: Writing    Tags: ·


A very neat tool: FontFonter allows you to see any web site with different fonts substituted for the defaults. Here is how this web site looks with different fonts (very handsome, if I do say so myself). And here is the New York Times refonted. Great tool for web designers, great toy for everyone else.

I recently began using Typekit for this site to allow more elegant fonts than standard browsers are capable of. (For a discussion of the technical limitations that have crippled web typography until now and how they are being overcome, look here.) The typefaces you see on this web site now are FF Tisa Web Pro for text and FF Dagny Web Pro for the smaller bits in sans serifs, with plain old Arial/Helvetica for headlines, still, because I have not been able to settle on a more interesting sans-serif that renders properly in all browsers (damn you, Internet Explorer!) and lower-resolution monitors. But I’ll keep fiddling. That’s what web sites are for, no?

Update (8.12.10): So much for the Typekit experiment. I found it was slowing down this site much too much. At times, page loads were taking over a minute, an eternity if you’re sitting in front of the computer waiting. The problem, I found — and this is true nine out of ten times that a WordPress blog slows to a crawl — is that plug-ins and calls to external RSS feeds were slowing things down, especially because WordPress requires that most of these processes be completed before the page will load at all. Typekit seemed to be one of the culprits because every page load required the download of all those pretty fonts from a remote server. So it’s back to the boring but reliable “web-safe” fonts for me. I’ll miss you, FF Tisa Web Pro. [sniff]

Categories: Internet    Tags: · ·

Hemingway, 1918

Hemingway in Milan 1918

Ernest Hemingway, American Red Cross volunteer, 18 or 19 years old, in Milan, 1918.

Photo credit: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Portrait by Ermeni Studios, Milan, Italy. (Via.)

Categories: Writers    Tags: ·

Innovation and Risk

“The core skill of innovators is error recovery, not failure avoidance.”

Randy Nelson of Pixar Studios

Categories: Creativity    Tags: ·

DeLillo: “The writer leads”

“The novel is whatever novelists are doing at a given time. If we’re not doing the big social novel fifteen years from now, it’ll probably mean our sensibilities have changed in ways that make such work less compelling to us — we won’t stop because the market dried up. The writer leads, he doesn’t follow. The dynamic lives in the writer’s mind, not in the size of the audience. And if the social novel lives, but only barely, surviving in the cracks and ruts of the culture, maybe it will be taken more seriously, as an endangered spectacle. A reduced context but a more intense one.… Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.”

— Don DeLillo, in a letter to Jonathan Franzen, around 1997

Categories: Books · Writing    Tags: ·

A note from Barack Obama

Canadian author Yann Martel received this note from President Obama, out of the blue, about his novel Life of Pi. (Full story here. Larger image here. Via.) Canada’s own prime minister, on the other hand, “sounds and governs like one who cares little for the arts,” Martel writes, speculating that the prime minister may feel he is too busy.

To read a book, one must be still. To watch a concert, a play, a movie, to look at a painting, one must be still. Religion, too, makes use of stillness, notably with prayer and meditation. Just gazing upon a still lake, upon a quiet winter scene — doesn’t that lull us into contemplation? Life, it seems, favours moments of stillness to appear on the edges of our perception and whisper to us, “Here I am. What do you think?” Then we become busy and the stillness vanishes, yet we hardly notice because we fall so easily for the delusion of busyness, whereby what keeps us busy must be important, and the busier we are with it, the more important it must be. And so we work, work, work, rush, rush, rush. On occasion we say to ourselves, panting, “Gosh, life is racing by.” But that’s not it at all, it’s the contrary: life is still. It is we who are racing by.

Categories: Books    Tags: · · ·

The Sawyer Effect

From Jonah Lehrer, an illustration of the power of intrinsic motivation — the desire to do a thing because you enjoy it, rather than for any extrinsic reward like a paycheck:

Scientists have recognized the importance of intrinsic motivation for decades. In the 1970s, Mark Lepper, David Greene and Richard Nisbett conducted a classic study on preschoolers who liked to draw. They divided the kids into three groups. The first group of kids was told that they’d get a reward — a nice blue ribbon with their name on it — if they continued to draw. The second group wasn’t told about the rewards but was given a blue ribbon after drawing. (This was the “unexpected reward” condition.) Finally, the third group was the “no award” condition. They weren’t even told about the blue ribbons.

After two weeks of reinforcement, the scientists observed the preschoolers during a typical period of free play. Here’s where the results get interesting: The kids in the “no award” and “unexpected award” conditions kept on drawing with the same enthusiasm as before. Their behavior was unchanged. In contrast, the preschoolers in the “award” group now showed much less interest in the activity. Instead of drawing, they played with blocks, or took a nap, or went outside. The reason was that their intrinsic motivation to draw had been contaminated by blue ribbons; the extrinsic reward had diminished the pleasure of playing with crayons and paper. (Daniel Pink, in his excellent book Drive, refers to this as the “Sawyer Effect.”)

Pink defines the Sawyer Effect as “practices that can either turn play into work or work into play,” after Tom Sawyer, who tricked his friends into painting a fence for him by convincing them it was fun.

This week I am faced with yet another rewrite of my book, to answer more concerns raised by my editors — an entirely extrinsic motivation, with all that connotes. I’d rather be playing with blocks or taking a nap.