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The Whitey Bulger book I’d like to read

So Whitey Bulger has been caught, and Boston’s greatest crime story will finally have its denouement. Not climax; we’re long past that. But we’re into the last few pages: a few courtroom scenes, a few loose ends to tie up, then we can close the book. (If you need a crash course on the case, start with these articles by George V. Higgins and Alan Dershowitz.)

But why wait for the ending? Already we seem to have decided how the story will be told: Whitey Bulger will go down as an arch gangster, and his signature achievement will be playing the FBI for fools. That was the story told memorably in Black Mass, the nonfiction account by reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. The theme of informants-run-amok was revisited in “The Departed,” where Jack Nicholson played a gangster “inspired by” Whitey, though Nicholson’s performance was so ridiculous, the rest of the country must have wondered what the hell we Bostonians were so scared of. A second movie is already in the works, this time about Bulger’s murderous Winter Hill Gang, based on a book by its chief thug, John Martorano. We’ll have to wait and see of course, but I’m guessing it’ll be more hard-boiled mobster stuff. John Martorano isn’t exactly the man to write a sensitive, nuanced portrait of his old boss.

I don’t object to any of this. Reducing the story to the familiar shape of a gangster flick is fine, as far as it goes. I love gangster stories as much as anyone. I do have reservations about mythologizing a killer like Whitey, who was exceptionally sadistic even by the standards of his profession. But then, vicious mobsters have inspired great fiction before. Al Capone gave us “Scarface” and “The Untouchables.” Dutch Schultz begat E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate, one of the best “literary” crime novels I’ve ever read. New York’s Five Families provided the raw material for The Godfather. These are romanticized versions of the truth, of course, and Whitey will have to be romanticized too, for dramatic reasons. But no one is naive enough to believe that these fictions are intended as accurate portraits. So if writers want to retell Whitey’s story as if it was just another gangster movie — “Scarface” or “Goodfellas” with a Boston accent — I say, more power to ’em. Lord knows, I’ve written similar stuff.

But I hope someone will also step forward to write the real story of Whitey Bulger in the full context of his time and place. Which is to say, I hope someone will write the truth. The story is much more complex than Bulger’s manipulation of his FBI handlers. It sprawls over the whole city of Boston. The Bulger book I want to read might be “literary true crime,” like In Cold Blood or The Executioner’s Song, or it may be straight literary historical fiction like Doctorow’s Ragtime or Billy Bathgate. Best of all, perhaps it would be a fictionalized biography, like Colum McCann’s wonderful Dancer or Colm Toibin’s The Master, the sort of book that brings the real man to life. Whatever the style, the book would be big and baggy and discursive enough to tell the whole story.

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Why are we attracted to crime stories?

Why do ordinary readers happily devour crime novels, the sort of stories I write, about violence — murder above all — and every conceivable sort of treachery? Why do housewives and business travelers and grandmothers — people who would not themselves steal a stick of gum — feel drawn to crime stories, fascinated by them?

John le Carré seems to have puzzled over the appeal of spy novels in a similar way. The other day I ran across this quote:

Most of us live in a condition of secrecy: secret desires, secret appetites, secret hatreds, and relationship with the institutions which is extremely intense and uncomfortable. These are, to me, a part of the ordinary human condition. So I don’t think I’m writing about abnormal things.… Artists, in my experience, have very little center. They fake. They are not the real thing. They are spies. I am no exception.

I think le Carré gets that exactly right. We are all spies. We all fake, one way or another, at times. Spies perfectly embody this aspect of human nature.

Are we all criminals, too? Is that why we rush to buy books by Lee Child or Richard Price or Michael Connelly? Is that why the news media cover crime stories with such obvious relish?

Maybe. When asked to explain the attraction of crime stories, I have always fallen back on the phrase “bad men do what good men dream,” which was coined by the psychologist Robert I. Simon (it is the title of Simon’s book). Simon writes,

The basic difference between what are socially considered to be bad and good people is not one of kind, but one of degree, and of the ability of the bad to translate dark impulses into dark actions. Bad men such as serial sexual killers have intense, compulsive, sadistic fantasies that few good men have, but we all have some measure of that hostility, aggression, and sadism. Anyone can become violent, even murderous, under certain circumstances. Our brains are wired for aggression, and can short-circuit into violence.

It is a powerful, frightening idea. But even if it is true — even if we are all criminals with secret dark instincts, however faintly we feel them, however well we master them — it still does not explain the precise nature of our attraction to crime stories. When we read crime novels, are we indulging this secret urge to violence, acting out fantasies? Are we good men (people) dreaming of doing bad things? Our favorite criminals — Hannibal Lecter, Michael Corleone — do have an undeniable glamor.

On the other hand, maybe we read crime stories to relieve the anxiety that we will become victims. Maybe the pleasure is in the experience of control over these demons. Most crime stories end with the villain’s defeat, after all. Justice tends to triumph in fiction more often than it does in real life. Surely that is no accident.

Or perhaps we enjoy crime stories for the same reason we go to horror movies and roller coasters: to feel the thrill of fear. To get the adrenaline rush of a dangerous situation without the risk of actual danger.

I suspect that the precise nature of our attraction to crime stories is murkier than le Carré’s theory about spy novels. We may indeed all be spies, but we are not all criminals — not just criminals, anyway. We are good and bad, cops and robbers, heroes and villains, at different times. As a crime novelist, that strikes me as good news. Novels thrive in the murk of human emotions.

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Copyright Run Amok

Last week I reviewed the copy-edited manuscript of Defending Jacob, the last step before the manuscript is sent to the production department. Production will lay out the text in proper book format, a stage known as “galleys.” So copy editing is really the last chance to make changes before the book designers take over. It is about cleaning up details: grammar, typos, internal consistency (things like dates and characters’ names), and fact-checking. (Technically, you can still make changes after the book has gone to galleys, but it is more expensive. If the bill gets high enough, the standard Random House contract permits the publisher to ask the author to foot the bill himself.)

Copy editing is also the time when I make sure I have permission to use any copyrighted material that is quoted in my book. It is the author’s responsibility to secure reprint rights — and to pay for them.

In the case of Defending Jacob, there was one such quotation, which was used as an epigraph on a section title page. The quote was from H.G. Wells’s 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come, which predicts events from 1933 through the end of the twentieth century. Here was the quote:

In 1900, a visitor from another sphere might reasonably have decided that man, as one met him in Europe or America, was a kindly, merciful and generous creature. In 1940 he might have decided, with an equal show of justice, that this creature was diabolically malignant. And yet it was the same creature, under different conditions of stress.

To use these three sentences, I had to determine, first, whether the book was still protected by copyright. If the copyright had expired, the book would be in the public domain and I could quote from it freely — freely in both senses.

No such luck. It turned out, The Shape of Things to Come was originally due to enter the public domain in the U.S. in 1989, but the copyright was extended for another 20 years in 1976 by the federal Copyright Act, then extended again for another 20 years by the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998. So The Shape of Things to Come — a book that has been out of print for years now — will not enter the public domain in the United States until 2028, 95 years after it was first published, 82 years after the author’s death. (A good summary of current copyright rules is here.)

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“Madame Bovary” translated by Lydia Davis

Postcards showing Ry, France

Lydia Davis’s new translation of Madame Bovary is terrific. With my klutzy high-school French, I am not qualified to judge the accuracy of the translation (Julian Barnes does that here). All I can say is I enjoyed the book on this rereading much more than I have in the past, when reading it felt like swimming upstream. It may be that I was simply too young for the book on my first, joyless read. This time I loved it.

Davis’s version of the novel feels quite contemporary in style. Of course, part of the credit for that goes to Davis, herself a graceful fiction writer. But the larger point is that, in September 1851 when he sat down to begin writing Madame Bovary, in his second-floor study using a quill pen, Flaubert envisioned something radically new — what we recognize now as the modern realist novel. Like the old joke about the fish who cannot see the water all around him (“What water?”), it is hard for contemporary readers to see what Flaubert is doing in Madame Bovary that is so innovative. As Davis explains in her foreword to the new translation, the novel “is now viewed as the first masterpiece of realist fiction. Yet its radical nature is paradoxically difficult for us to see; its approach is familiar to us for the very reason that Madame Bovary permanently changed the way novels were written thereafter.” Realism — the mimetic, naturalistic depiction of human experience — is the water that all of us, writers and readers, now swim in.

It is too much to say that Flaubert invented realism with Madame Bovary, but he has a pretty good claim as the author who envisioned it most clearly and actually captured it. His intent in writing Bovary, in the words of biographer Frederick Brown, was to “[make] the world materially present through language — [to abolish] the space between words and what they represent.” He wanted to capture life as it is actually experienced, without commentary or embellishment. “No lyricism, no reflections,” Flaubert declared in a letter, “the personality of the author absent.”

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“Next”

I do not review many novels on this blog. I do not like to criticize authors. I know all too well how difficult it is to write a novel. I know the author’s anxiety — as David Remnick has described it,

the sense of dread, a self-lacerating concession that the book is not so much finished as abandoned and that positively everyone will see all the holes that are surely there, all the illogic, the shortcuts, the tape, the glue.

To point these things out — the tape, the glue, the flaws — feels a little cruel to me. And unnecessary, since we have no shortage of self-appointed book critics armed with blogs and Twitter feeds and what-all. So generally, when it comes to reviewing one another’s work, I think we writers ought to do as our mothers told us: “if you can’t say something nice…” At the same time, I do see flaws in most every book I read, if only small ones. I can’t help it; I’ve been doing this awhile myself. So what can I say? Nothing, usually. That is why I don’t mention most of the books I read.

There is another problem, too. You are as apt to make a fool of yourself raving about a book as trashing it. In my experience, the euphoria of finishing a novel that feels special usually sours pretty quickly. I tend to ruminate about things, and if you think about any novel long enough, if you flyspeck it and worry it and turn it over and over, then yes, inevitably you will find flaws. You can talk yourself out of loving anything. It’s not just books, either. Very often the things I fall in love with — the band that sounded so cool when I first heard it on the radio, the movie I raved about as I walked out of the theater, the woman who looked so beautiful at first glance (yeah, yeah, back when I was single) — all these things tend to lose their magic as I think about them. And think about them and think about them… So I have learned not to trust my first instincts when I love a book. Wait a couple of days, I tell myself. Let it cool.

The net result of all this overthinking is that, when I do truly love a book, I hesitate to say so.

I am feeling that sort of hesitancy now, because what I want to say, honestly, is that the book I just finished — Next by James Hynes — is one of the best novels I have ever read. Over the next few days, I’m sure I will begin to hedge. I will wish I was more temperate in what I wrote here. But right now, with the last few paragraphs still ringing in my ears? I can’t think of a novel I have enjoyed as much or been as deeply moved by. Certainly it’s been a long, long time since I had an electric reading experience like the last twenty or thirty pages of this book.

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Drawing Circles

The other day I blogged about the story of Giotto’s O: A messenger from the Pope arrived in Giotto’s studio in Florence one morning. He asked for a drawing to prove the artist’s skill to the Pope, who was seeking a painter for some frescoes in St. Peter’s. As Vasari tells the story, Giotto “immediately took a sheet of paper, and with a pen dipped in red, fixing his arm firmly against his side to make a compass of it, with a turn of his hand he made a circle so perfect that it was a marvel to see it.” Of course, Giotto got the job.

I had never heard the story until I ran across it online recently. It stuck in my mind, a romantic parable of what artistic mastery means. To paint an angel, first you must learn to paint a perfect circle — something like that.

Curious, I wandered around the web looking for more information about Giotto and his circle, and, in the hopscotch way of the web, I found an interesting blog post that linked Giotto’s O to a different sort of circle, the ensō, the asymmetric circle of Japanese Zen calligraphy.

In Zen Buddhist painting, ensō symbolizes a moment when the mind is free to simply let the body/spirit create. The brushed ink of the circle is usually done on silk or rice paper in one movement (but the great Bankei used two strokes sometimes) and there is no possibility of modification: it shows the expressive movement of the spirit at that time. [Wikipedia]

The imperfection of the circle — the asymmetry, the visible brush trails, the blobs of ink — is the point. In its very “flaws,” ensō embodies a traditional Japanese aesthetic, fukinsei (不均整), asymmetry or irregularity. Garr Reynolds (one of my favorite bloggers) explains,

The idea of controlling balance in a composition via irregularity and asymmetry is a central tenet of the Zen aesthetic. The enso … is often drawn as an incomplete circle, symbolizing the imperfection that is part of existence.

So these two famous circles, Giotto’s O and the ensō, embody very different aesthetic ideals.

Giotto’s circle is precise mechanical perfection, “a circle so perfect that it was a marvel to see.” Even his technique is machinelike: he pins his elbow to his side, turning his arm into a virtual compass.

Vasari adds another detail, as well. In the versions of the story that I initially read, Giotto loads his brush with red paint and paints the circle with a single sweep of his arm. But in Vasari’s telling, Giotto scratches out his circle with a pen (a quill, presumably) rather than a brush. He wants to eliminate even the wavering edge of a brush stroke, the little quivers of the bent bristles.

In writing, that sort of perfectionism is fatal. The very idea of creating “perfect” sentences or stories is paralyzing. No one can write perfectly. I have learned this lesson the hard way. I am a perfectionist by nature. It is no wonder the Giotto story appealed to me. But there are no Giottos in writing. You have to embrace imperfection, you have to accept the little oddities and surprises that emerge in the moment of creation, in the immersive “flow” state that characterizes the best writing sessions. I don’t know the first thing about Zen, but to me the go-with-it philosophy of the ensō feels much truer to the actual experience of writing well. It is not a feeling of abandon; like ensō painting, good writing is never careless or out of control. At the same time, every writer has to accept the little wobbles of his brush, the little traces of his bristles, the funny pear-shape of his ensō. Not because these flaws are unavoidable (though they are) but because they are beautiful.

To a writer like me — who tends to self-edit too much, who sometimes imagines he can write perfectly — the story of Giotto’s O teaches the wrong lesson. I will think of the ensō instead.

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Man Out of Time: “The Disenchanted” by Budd Schulberg

F. Scott Fitzgerald is easy to iconize. His story so neatly tracks his times: in the Twenties, he had a Jazz Age party; when America crashed, he cracked up; in the Depression, he was down and out. In The Disenchanted, Budd Schulberg’s novelization of the Scott-Zelda tale, an older, lightly fictionalized Fitzgerald is painfully aware of the symmetry:

It seemed almost too damned easy to think of himself and the Twenties as going smash together, as if he were unconsciously acting out the Twenties in some ghastly charade, and yet here he was in the first year of the Depression with his money gone, his wife nearly gone, his reputation going. What had Hank said? He didn’t know how to keep his distance.

The Disenchanted is partly a response to all the images and associations that built up around Fitzgerald. It strips away the dreamy illusions and portrays instead an older Fitzgerald who is all too human. Not the glamorous idol of the twenties, but the broke-down, post-crackup Fitzgerald of 1939 — ravaged by alcoholism, forgotten by the reading public, near dead at 43 years old. Schulberg’s depiction is so unforgiving that Sheilah Graham, Fitzgerald’s partner at the end of his life, never forgave him.

But the novel is not just about Fitzgerald’s decline. It is also about young Budd Schulberg’s own disillusionment when he discovered the Fitzgerald myth was just that, a romantic fantasy. It turned out, Fitzgerald’s story ended the same way everyone else’s does. No Daisy or Zelda, no green light, no “riotous” parties. Just the inevitable grinding-down of time. Even Scott Fitzgerald grew up then grew old. To a 25-year-old Fitzgerald fan, there is no drearier news.

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Will e-novels be shorter?

Ephraim Rubenstein - Still Life With Burned Books

A few weeks ago, over on Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell wrote a post that I’ve been thinking about ever since.

I would estimate that about 80% of the non-academic non-fiction books that I do not find a complete waste of time (i.e. good books in politics, economics etc — I can’t speak to genres that I don’t know) are at least twice as long as they should be. They make an interesting point, and then they make it again, and again, padding it out with some quasi-relevant examples, and tacking on a conclusion about What It All Means which the author clearly doesn’t believe herself. The length of the average book reflects the economics of the print trade and educated guesses as to what book-buyers will actually pay for, much more than it does the actual intellectual content of the book itself. Length may also, of course, reflect some practical judgments concerning the book as a display object.

He went on to predict “an explosion in the number of very short books/essays” as we move to a world of electronic publishing, because buyers will not be put off by shorter books when they can’t actually see (or display) them as physical objects.

I hope he is right, of course. The extinction of padded-out nonfiction books would be good news for everyone, except maybe Malcolm Gladwell.

But what struck me most about the post was how rare it is to see a discussion of how this new medium will affect books themselves. The conversation about ebooks is obsessed with the business of publishing. Which traditional publishers will survive, which won’t? Which reader will dominate, iPad or Kindle or something else? How will authors get by when publishers’ margins approach zero, as resellers like Amazon drive down prices and tent-pole authors find they don’t need traditional publishing houses at all? In all this, relatively little is said about the books.

What about fiction? In a world of ebooks, will fiction shrink, too?

I think it will, but not for the same reason. Unlike nonfiction, which begins to feel overstretched when there are more pages than ideas, there is no “natural” length for a story. Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby are equally masterpieces, of unequal length. I just finished Wolf Hall, a cinderblock of a book, but it did not feel overlong at all. If anything, it ended too soon. (I raved about it here.) The test is whether a story works dramatically. Even a very short story can feel too long.

And that is what will force novels to shrink: as we increasingly move to reading on screens, everything begins to feel too long. The reading public is losing its ability to stay focused on a longer text. Online, readers are conditioned to graze, to nibble and move on. Even the verbs we use for reading on the internet, browse, surf, suggest how superficial the experience feels. These increasingly are our readers, of fiction and nonfiction alike: harried, restless, impatient.

Worse, ebooks will increasingly share the same screens as the rest of the digital tsunami. No longer will you turn off your computer and open a book in peace. The iPad and whatever is likely to follow will be fully web-enabled, so the whole Times Square of the internet will always be one click away. For the moment, dedicated ebook-reading devices like the Kindle offer a quieter reading environment, but that is likely to change as more versatile devices like the iPad enter the market.

I have seen my own patience for long books begin to shrivel. So many novels now seem to drag, particularly in the second act. To be fair, part of it may be other pressures: between two young kids and working, I am squeezed for time. But part of it is the distracted feeling we all share today. It is the way we read now.

I have begun to tune my own writing accordingly. I made a conscious decision to make my third novel shorter than my first two by about 20%. Most of the tightening is in that critical second act, where the pace tends to slow down and the plot often wanders, to no real purpose. I am keenly aware that this novel will be competing with an array of new media and that my hold on the reader’s attention is precarious, and it scares the hell out of me. My competition  is not other novelists; it is all the other media crowding onto my readers’ screens and into their minds, try as they might to shut them out. I simply can’t afford to shuffle my feet for a hundred pages and expect the reader to still be there for act three.

Of course, there is nothing new about novelists shaping their work to the tastes of contemporary audiences. Dickens’ novels are long and intricately plotted because that was what his audience demanded. He generally wrote for serial publication in periodicals, so his stories had to extend and ramify over very long periods, like modern TV series. (HBO’s “The Wire” was often compared to Dickens’ stories, and rightly so.) Serial publication also allowed Dickens to monitor how his books were being received and tweak them as he went along to give readers what they wanted.

It is hard to give readers what they want, of course, because it is impossible to know what they want. But I suspect that shorter novels will increasingly become the norm, just as shorter nonfiction will. This, it should be noted, is a hopeful prediction. Better that novels go on a diet than die out altogether.

Image: “Still Life With Burned Books” by Ephraim Rubenstein (oil on linen, 38″ x 50″).

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“Wolf Hall”

The reigning Booker Prize winner hardly needs my seal of approval, but I’ll give it anyway: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is wonderful.

The bravest — and most exciting and troubling — aspect of the book is the decision to heroize Thomas Cromwell. Mantel’s Cromwell, steeled by a brutal childhood and an apprenticeship on the continent as a mercenary and then a merchant, is a true man for all seasons. Early in the book, he steps onstage a sort of sixteenth-century James Bond:

Thomas Cromwell is now a little over forty years old. He is a man of strong build, not tall. Various expressions are available to his face, one is readable: an expression of stifled amusement. … It is said that he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin … His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and spends it. He will take a bet on anything.

He is never at a loss for words, out-bantering the cleverest courtiers even as he out-maneuvers them. He is sophisticated and well traveled, in an England that is still a small, grim island. Most of all, he has a modern sensibility. He alone understands that the true source of power is trade and finance — money — of which he is a master.

The world is run … not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.

As if all that were not enough to send readers swooning, Mantel’s Cromwell is warm and sympathetic. He takes in orphans and stray cats, and treats women with respect. He is “unfailing in his amiable courtesy.”

Even his voice is seductive to a modern reader. The story is told in a close third-person: we see through Cromwell’s eyes, we hear his thoughts, but the narrative voice is not the campy faux-Tudor pastiche of costume dramas. Mantel finds a perfect tone — “robust modern English but with a slight twist,” she has called it. The language is salted with just enough anachronism and period detail to keep the reader convincingly in Henry’s England, while at the same time making Cromwell’s voice familiar and accessible. This Cromwell is a man we can understand. He does not sound so different from, say, Dick Cheney: amoral, yes, but also cool, supremely capable, a man of reason. If he tortures, it is only because he must, for king and country.

In fact, the only indications of Cromwell’s cruelty come from others. His stepson worries that Cromwell might drown him: “He thinks you would do anything.” The king says he is “as cunning as a bag of serpents.” But we, the readers, rarely see it firsthand and never quite believe it.

The sainted Thomas More, on the other hand, is the king’s zealous torturer-in-chief, in Mantel’s telling. Sir Thomas personally supervises the racking of heretics at the Tower. Even in his own home, according to rumor, he “keeps suspects in the stocks, while he preaches at them and harries them: the name of your printer, the name of the master of the ship that brought these books into England.” More wears a hair shirt next to his skin and flagellates himself daily. If not a villain, exactly, he is certainly not the hero Robert Bolt described, the modern, the man of conscience.

It is not hard for me to imagine More as Mantel has drawn him, but it is worth noting how bold her portrait of Cromwell is. The traditional view is that Cromwell was not James Bond but Darth Vader.

… one of the most ruthless and powerful operators ever to dominate the politics of [England].

His mastery of the black arts of spin and propaganda, of flattery, patronage and sudden betrayal, make the most ruthless modern politicians seem mild by comparison.

He ran a spy network that was the nearest thing a 16th-century regime could get to the Stasi, saw off his foes with trumped up charges of adultery and revelled in the torture of his enemies.

In a reign of unadulterated terror against the Church, he masterminded the dissolution of the monasteries and the biggest land grab since the Norman invasion of 1066 — seizing one-sixth of the nation’s wealth and turning it over to his master, the King.

One comes away from this brilliant, utterly convincing novel with the disturbing impression that Thomas Cromwell is our “man for all seasons,” he is the slippery sort of hero we deserve. Mantel has denied that Wolf Hall is an allegory of contemporary politics. In fact, she has been nursing the idea for this novel, apparently, since the 1970s. But her Cromwell obviously resonates today, as Robert Bolt’s idealized vision of Thomas More did fifty years ago. Then — after two world wars, the Holocaust, the Gulag, the Cold War — we dreaded government tyranny and we lionized the lone steadfast man who resisted it, who laid down his life for the idea of principle over expediency. Now the enemy is not a government. Our bogeyman is a hair-shirted religious fanatic willing to die for his faith. And we raise up the amoral strongman and tactician, the ultimate government insider who will use any weapon to protect us. In an era of “enhanced interrogation” and “my country right or wrong,” Thomas Cromwell is our man. One generation’s villain is another’s hero, I guess.

Image: Detail from Hans Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell, painted around 1532-33 (and Photoshopped here). Holbein himself appears in Wolf Hall as a friend of Cromwell, and this painting is mentioned several times. Toward the end of the novel, Holbein finally delivers the picture to his patron. Cromwell remarks that it makes him look like a murderer. His son responds, “Did you not know?” The painting now hangs at the Frick in New York, along with Holbein’s portrait of Thomas More.

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Baseball’s Yankee Problem

It feels like spring in Boston this week (sunny, temps in the sixties), and the weather makes me anxious for baseball. We are several weeks into spring training, a strange limbo period when baseball is being played somewhere far off, with palm trees in the background, but it is just a rumor around here.

This season feels different, though. I am not looking forward to Opening Day the way I used to. Maybe it is just that I am getting older. It is hard to take sports as seriously as I did when I was a kid. A bunch of guys run around with “Boston” or “New York” or “Cleveland” on their shirts — so what?

Also, to a lifelong Red Sox fan, 2004 changed everything. Winning is less urgent now. Losing does not seem to reflect on us personally anymore. Baseball, it turns out, is just a game after all. (If that sounds ridiculous to you, you did not grow up a Red Sox fan.)

But the real disenchantment, I think, came with last year’s Yankee blitzkrieg, culminating in a World Series that felt like a sham, the result seemed so inevitable. The entire playoff tournament was more kabuki theater than baseball: we had to go through the ritual of actually playing out the games before inevitably handing the trophy to the Yankees, but the outcome was never in doubt.

Of course none of this is new. The Yankee dynasties have always been powered by the economic engine of New York City. The team has always spent big and stockpiled star players (except for a hiatus in the 1960s). But for the last decade baseball fans — Yankee fans and Yankee haters alike — were lulled into believing that, whatever advantage the Yankees’ payroll gave them, the playoffs were chancy enough that we could still consider the whole thing … well, not fair, exactly, but fair enough.

The 2009 Yankees ended that little dream. The team was the apotheosis of checkbook baseball. Before the season the Yankees spent over $400 million on three star players — Mark Teixeira (8 years, $180 million), C.C. Sabathia (7/$161), and A.J. Burnett (5/$82.5). Their payroll exceeded $206 million in a year when no other team spent more than $140 million. And then, after a bumpy start to the season, they simply overwhelmed the rest of the league. It was all just so predictable and obvious. Money, winning; cause, effect.

I don’t mean to turn this into an anti-Yankee screed. There is enough of that out there. (Joe Posnanski’s recent rant is a triumph of the form.) My complaint is not with the Yankees, anyway. As their fans correctly point out, they are playing within the rules. They are supposed to do everything they can to win.

Also, let’s be clear: the lack of competitive balance in MLB is also a “Red Sox problem,” and a “Tigers problem” and a “Mets problem.” High payrolls correlate with wins, so all high-payroll teams have an advantage over lower-payroll ones. But no team benefits more than the Yankees for the simple reason that they have the highest payroll by a very wide margin.

No one seriously argues anymore that the system is not unfair. “You can’t buy a World Series, otherwise the Yankees would win every year, which they don’t.” “Look at the small-market teams who have succeeded, like the Rays in 2008.” “Look at how many different teams have won titles over the last ten years, doesn’t that prove the league is balanced?” After last season, you don’t hear these things much. No, you can’t guarantee the result of a baseball season. But to suggest that gathering so many of the best players on one team does not affect the odds is ridiculous.

So Yankee fans (and Red Sox fans, too) make a different argument: the system is unfair, but the inequality is justified. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say, the system distributes players unequally but not unfairly. The Yankees actually deserve an advantage.

Arguments favoring the current unbalanced system generally come in three flavors:

  1. Render unto Caesar: “The reason the Yankees can spend so much money is because they bring in so much money, which comes directly from [the fans’] pockets. We support and finance our team better than anyone else, so we deserve the best players more than anyone else.”
  2. Blame the victim: The futility of small-market teams is their own fault. All of them could spend more to compete but they choose not to, opting to pocket their profits rather than reinvest in the team. Some small-market teams are badly managed, as well, unable to outfox the big-market clubs with clever moneyball strategies.
  3. Distributive justice, or “a rising tide lifts all boats”: The Yankee imperium is actually good for everyone because a glamorous team attracts TV ratings and big crowds when they visit small-market parks. Plus, some of the Yankees’ haul is redistributed to the needy via the luxury tax, so everybody wins. Except in the sense of actually, you know, winning.

There is a grain of truth to all these arguments, sometimes more than a grain. At the same time, they all feel lawyerly and dishonest. Once you concede that the system is unfair, the rest is details — excuse-making, special pleading.

All of this has been argued to death and, honestly, none of it reaches the real problem.

The real problem with the Yankees’ dominance is that it is utterly repetitive and predictable. It fails as drama. It is a dull story that we’ve heard a thousand times (well, 27). Pro sports, famously, is entertainment, and baseball has become the one thing that entertainment must never be: boring. I am not disgusted with baseball; I’m bored with it. It is a movie I’ve already seen.

Yankee fans have an answer to this complaint, too. The Yankee empire creates a ready-made storyline for every season: who will play David to the Yankees’ Goliath? That was the story that drove the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry for decades, and it is the default story sportswriters have told every year for the last decade when the Yankees lost.

The trouble is that the Yankees’ payroll has grown so enormous and their advantage so overwhelming that nobody really imagines the next decade will play out like the last one. In terms of resources, the Yankees have pulled away from the pack. The team is now so stacked and their spending power in the new stadium so outlandish that, looking forward, it is impossible to maintain even the pretense of competitiveness. Yes, the Yankees may lose some years — hey, you never know. But their advantage has never been greater, and over the course of a long season, even more so over a decade of seasons, that advantage figures to make baseball more and more predictable.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is all too gloomy, an overreaction to one lopsided World Series. Maybe, too, what I’m feeling is the usual Yankee Derangement Syndrome of a pre-’04 Red Sox fan. But I don’t see anything closing the payroll gap between the Yankees and everyone else in the near future. To me, the next few summers look like an endless loop of the 2009 season.

I don’t know much about baseball, but I do understand storytelling, and I can tell you that this plot has none of the elements of a good story. No character arc, no change, no movement, no personal metamorphosis from one thing to another. No redemption or triumph over adversity. Nothing really for the Yankees to overcome because the dice are loaded in their favor to begin with. (For the Yankees, the drama is all off the field: A-Rod and Madonna! A-Rod feuds with Jeter! A-Rod used steroids!) No adventure, no suspense, no dramatic tension. No situation, complication, climax, no afterglow of denouement. No Campbell mono-myth, no Shakespearian five acts, no Freytag triangle. A few surprises along the way, perhaps, but looking forward the surprises are likely to grow fewer and further between. Just a relentless, remorseless, repetitive playing-out of the inevitable.

Maybe that is a story Yankee fans will want to sit through again and again. For the rest of us, not so much. In the big picture, the real rival for the Yankees is not the Red Sox. It is the movies and cable TV and Wii and all the rest. The unique appeal of sports among all its rival forms of entertainment is that it is unscripted and therefore unpredictable. The NFL seems to understand that, and therefore has made a fetish of “parity.” Baseball has never bothered with competitive balance, which was fine as long as the rich and poor teams remained within shouting distance. Now, we are likely to see the same show over and over for the next few years. How long before people get bored and change the channel? Personally, I already have my finger on the clicker.

Photo: Life Magazine

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Done!

Last Friday at 11:00 PM I emailed the finished manuscript of my book to my agent and editor. At this point, it is hard to know how long it has taken to refine this book from the first gleam of an idea to completion. But it has been almost three years since I finished my last book and started to develop this idea. The story has been through several iterations in that time. At one point I got so frustrated with it I even set it aside to work on something else. So it is obviously an enormous relief to be done with it.

The story in its final version involves a 14-year-old boy accused of murdering a classmate in a comfortable Boston suburb. My film agent described it, in perfect filmspeak, as “Presumed Innocent” meets “Ordinary People,” which puts you in the right ballpark at least. But the story began life as something quite different. The germ of the idea was simply: father watches his son accused of murder and wonders, “Who is this stranger I have raised?”

What first caught my imagination was the sight of defendants’ parents sitting stoically in the back of a courtroom during a trial. What is it like for them? I have seen crime stories told from the point of view of criminals and victims, but here was a player whose misery goes unnoticed. In a way, they are blameless victims, too.

The parents’ situation also gets at a question that was on my mind, not about crime but crime novels: why do good people who would never dream of stealing a piece of gum read with pleasure about bloody murder? The question is not limited to crime novels. Stories about crime dominate the news, too, for the simple reason that people watch them. We have always been fascinated with crime dramas. Some of the oldest stories we have are crime stories.

I think that in crime stories we must see some reflection of ourselves. Just as the Oedipus story — the first detective story, reputedly — enacts a primal instinct, so do other crime stories resonate with us by touching fantasies and fears we only dimly understand. “Bad men do what good men dream,” as one observer puts it.

The audience’s fascination with crime is especially poignant in the case of the murderer’s parents. Here the identification with the criminal is more than an imaginative projection, because every parent identifies so closely with her child. Genetically and socially, the child is made of the same stuff as the parents in some mysterious combination of nature and nurture. So, when those parents sitting in the back of the courtroom ask, “What does this story say about me?”, they are asking the same question as the reader curled up in bed with a crime novel — they simply have more at stake in the answer.

These were some of the ideas I wanted to tease out in this novel. Now, finally, it is written. There will be more work to do, of course. What I have handed in is just a draft. There will be rewriting. Depending on what my editor thinks of the pages, there may be a lot of rewriting. But the hardest part is done, not just the writing itself, going from a blank page to a finished manuscript, but the conceptual work — going from that first dim inspiration to seeing the story before you. Some of the hardest work is done, invisibly, before you write that first sentence.

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The Street Photography of Jules Aarons

Wrestling, West End, Boston

There is a new exhibition at the Boston Public Library of the street photographs of Jules Aarons. The exhibition is located in the Wiggin Gallery in the old McKim Building, just one flight up from the main reading room where where I have been writing every day. The gallery is secluded, and you won’t find much signage or advertising for the exhibit, even in the library itself. The guardians of the BPL apparently have decided to keep this one a secret. That is a shame but not exactly a surprise. Aarons’s work has been underappreciated for a long time now. He is one of the best photographers you’ve never heard of.

I wandered up to the Wiggin Gallery this morning before work, happy to postpone writing a difficult scene that I have been struggling to complete. In the gallery, two women were strolling past the pictures and chatting. They soon wandered off, and I had the entire exhibition to myself. The room was quiet, not the usual library sort of quiet — footsteps, sniffles, sneezes, whispers — but dead quiet. It was an odd place to see these pictures, which are so alive you half expect the people in them to turn to you and speak. (“Get back to work,” they might tell me.)

It is a mystery to me why Aarons’s photographs are not better known. I am not enough of a connoisseur to comment on the technical proficiency of the pictures, but to me they seem expertly composed and printed. Certainly they are very beautiful. Aarons’s street photography has been compared to the work of Lisette Model, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt, and Aaron Siskind, among others. Again, I am not qualified to comment on the comparisons. But I know what I see in these pictures and why I love them: they are alive, authentic, intimate, humane.

Most of the photos in the exhibition date from about 1947-1960, some later. They show ordinary working-class people, often in the West and North Ends of Boston, doing nothing more than chatting on street corners or flirting or lighting a cigarette. Fifty or sixty years later, of course, these people are all gone or transformed by age, but they are utterly alive and present in Aarons’s pictures. To come face to face with them is like traveling back in time. It makes the hair on your neck stand up.

I first discovered Aarons’s work when I was researching The Strangler. His images were always in my head when I closed my eyes and imagined the city during the Strangler period. I even considered approaching him to license one of his images for the book jacket, he so perfectly catches the period feel I was looking for.

aarons3

Aarons, who died recently at age 87, was never a professional artist. In fact, he was a renowned physicist, an expert in an arcane study that has something to do with radio waves in the atmosphere. Photography was a sort of second career for him. One wonders how a scientific mind could create pictures so soulful.

I suspect that, upon moving to Boston in 1947, Aarons found in the crowded streets of the West and North Ends a subject that reminded him of the Bronx neighborhood where he grew up in the 1920s and ’30s. He was at home in city streets. He seems to have enjoyed the bustle of urban life. His pictures are full of kids playing on sidewalks and women gossiping on tenement stoops and young men leaning on parked cars. I may be biased, but to me he seems especially at home in the streets of this city. His pictures of other places — Aarons traveled and photographed widely — do not have the same vitality and dynamism as the early Boston pictures. His images of Paris and, later, Peru are more abstract, more composed, more consciously artistic. I do not mean that as a criticism. An artist has a right to evolve, to work in a different, cooler style. But I do love the early, raw Boston pictures on display at the BPL.

Aarons’s method was unobtrusive. He used a boxy twin-lens Rolleiflex held at the waist, which gave him an unexpected advantage.

The waist level position allowed me to point my body in one direction and the camera in another. It was important to me not to intrude on the scenes which ranged from card playing in the streets to adults talking to one another.

The effect is like spying on real people, unposed, unself-conscious, unaware of our gaze. It is like visiting a lost Boston — precisely the fantasy I indulged in The Strangler. To see that city here, reanimated in Aarons’s photographs, is an electric experience.

Quote is from Street Portraits 1946-1976: The Photographs of Jules Aarons, Kim Sichel, ed. (Stinehour Press, 2002), p. 10.

Photos: Untitled (West End, Boston), 1947-53 (top). Lounging, North End, 1950s (bottom).

For more info about the exhibition at the Boston Public Library, look here. To see more photos by Jules Aarons, look here and here. There is also a Facebook page dedicated to Aarons here.

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“Little Dorrit”: Dickens’ Teeming World

I’ve just finished Dickens’ Little Dorrit and my first thought on closing the book is how big and sprawling it seems next to our own spare, miniaturist novels.

Not all of today’s novels are written this way, of course, but scan the Times bestseller list and you will see that generally the Raymond Carver/New Yorker style — lean, controlled, underpopulated, understated — has won the day. Young writers today are drilled in restraint. Be subtle! (“Show, don’t tell.”) Be concise! (“A rifle hanging on the wall in act one must be fired by act three” — must!) Cut, cut, and cut some more! (The novel, as Hemingway would have it, owes its “dignity of movement” to being like an iceberg, nine-tenths hidden under the surface.)

The result of all this decorum is that there is an artificial, circumscribed quality to a lot of our storytelling. Realism just doesn’t feel like reality.  John Updike once noted, “People in novels rather rarely eat; their health is not often of concern to them; earning money isn’t nearly as important to them as it is to those of us in the real world.” Real life is crowded, overstimulated, harried, sprawling, noisy, messy; realist fiction generally is none of these things. It is Art — oy.

Dickens breaks every rule of modernism, of course. His iceberg floats proudly above water. Yet at 152 years old, Little Dorrit feels more alive than most of those Times bestsellers. Why?

One reason is that Dickens employs a much larger cast than modern writers typically do. Whole brigades of characters swarm the stage. Dickens manages the crowd by a familiar set of tricks. He has a gift for making a character come alive with a single gesture briefly described. One unnamed character is seen at the dinner table “wiping some drops of wine from his mustache with a piece of bread,” and in that moment the character lives and breathes. Also, Little Dorrit is politically engaged. (But no less relevant: it is hard to imagine Mr. Merdle without being reminded of Bernie Madoff.) And of course, to prevent the whole invented world of Little Dorrit from spinning apart, Dickens contrives connections and coincidences that, to a modern reader, feel bogus and melodramatic.

The reward is the very scale of the story. Little Dorrit’s capacious, complex, multi-thread plotting — its bigness — conveys some of the complexity and interconnectedness of Dickens’s world in a way that today’s slimmer novels simply can’t.

It is interesting that this sort of sprawling multi-thread, multi-character drama still thrives on TV. Some of my favorite shows, The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men, are crowded ensemble pieces. The Wire, in particular, has often been called “Dickensian” and for good reason: it uses a big canvas because it is trying to capture a big subject, an entire city, just as Dickens did. Multi-thread storytelling was a brief fad in movies, too (Pulp Fiction, Traffic and, less successfully, Crash) but the trend seems to have petered out, lamentably.

I am not suggesting we go back to Dickens’ style of plotting. Today’s readers don’t have the attention spans for big Victorian novels, or the interest. But if the complaint about novels is that they feel less vivid, three-dimensional and immersive than “new media,” then maybe we should consider that some of the smallness is in our storytelling style. In a world that feels increasingly speeded-up, hyperlinked and complex, a style that is hermetic and spare feels badly out of tune.

This is not a new idea. The internet is not the first threat the novel has faced. Confronted with a similarly disruptive technology, film, John Dos Passos tried to mimic the jangled feeling of his time using a montage of styles and characters in his U.S.A. trilogy. I have even used a multi-thread plot myself in The Strangler, and for a reason similar to Dickens’s: to create a more panoramic view of a vast, complex place.

I have a fantasy that I will write a big, shaggy Dickensian novel myself one day. It would weave multiple threads from various parts of Boston to capture the sprawl and intricacy of a vast, living city. For now, though, my Big Book will have to wait. I have a mortgage to pay and kids to put through college, and who reads Big Books anymore, anyway?

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The View from Below: A midlist author watches the ebook wars

This week, the battle over Amazon’s bid to corner the market on ebook sales — to establish itself as the iTunes of digital books — seemed to turn a corner. On one side, Amazon announced Steven Covey will abandon S&S to grant ebook rights to Amazon. On the other side, a consensus began to emerge in the publishing community that Amazon’s deep discounts on ebooks amount to predatory, possibly illegal monopoly-building — an effort to starve out its competitors. (You can read the gory details here, here, here, and here.)

In the end, I don’t think Amazon will succeed in becoming the iTunes of ebooks, not because Amazon is well-intentioned (it is not), but because it does not have the leverage. Apple was able to dominate digital music because of the iPod, which so clearly leapfrogged its competitors in terms of design, ease of use, and wide acceptance that it put Apple in position to dictate terms to its suppliers. It was hardware that won Apple its monopoly. Amazon has no such advantage. The Kindle is no iPod. To me, the Kindle seems primitive, clumsy, and ugly. It does some things well, but inevitably something better will come along, and soon, from a company with a better knack for design and technology. Smart phones may already be a better platform for reading ebooks. If nothing else, smart phones have the advantage of ubiquity: millions of people already have one in their pocket.

So I understand the publishing community’s hysteria over Amazon’s monopoly bid, but I don’t quite share it — not yet, anyway.

What I do not understand is the blithe, almost gleeful fatalism that tech geeks seem to feel about the struggles of traditional publishers to cope with the leap to digital.

Among the propeller heads, the prevailing view seems to be that Big Publishing is a horse-and-buggy business. Sudden technological change has rendered it irrelevant. All those editors and publicists in gaudy Manhattan offices — no longer needed. Ebook is to Big Publishing as asteroid was to dinosaur. Pity, but that’s the way it goes. End of story.

Certainly that’s the way it goes with web businesses. Amazon poleaxed the brick-and-mortar bookstores because it found a more efficient way to sell books. So if Amazon (or whoever) succeeds in cornering the ebook space, too, why sweat it? To the fastest, leanest, nimblest competitor go the spoils — and Lord knows, Big Publishing is none of those things.

To techies, it is all about maximizing efficiency. They wonder, What exactly do traditional publishing houses add to a writer’s work except cost — the added cost built into the price of every book to support this bloated, doomed, lumbering, inefficient, lazy, parasitic, contemptible industry? To them, Big Pub is precisely the sort of pathetic dinosaur the web specializes in obliterating.

Except that it’s not. Because publishers are not in the business people think they are, at least they are not only in that business. When people are asked what exactly it is that publishers do, the answers that usually come back are “gatekeeping” (filtering the publishable manuscripts from the dreck) and the various sub-tasks involved in manufacturing books (editing, book design, publicity, etc.). Those things are valuable, but if that was all traditional publishers did, I would say, Bring on the asteroid. There is probably more to be gained in the super-efficiencies of running the book business according to the ordinary Darwinian rules of the web. But those are not the most important things publishers do. Not even close.

What Big Publishing is, collectively, is a marketplace for new writing. Not a retail market like the one Amazon has created for ebooks, but an investment market, a futures market. Think of it as Silicon Valley for books, with every publisher a venture capitalist searching for the Next Big Thing.

VC’s invest in a portfolio of start-ups and nurture them through lean, money-losing years. The hope is that all will someday turn a profit and somewhere in that portfolio will be a breakout hit or two that justifies the whole risky endeavor. That is exactly how publishing houses invest in young writers. And like any good VC, Random House (or whoever) hedges its risk by investing in as many promising start-ups as it can find, betting that somewhere in its portfolio of young, talented, promising writers are a few that will break out and become hits.

Without this sort of start-up capital, there is no way an unproven writer could keep at it for long. I have never made a nickel for my publisher. Yet Random House continues to invest in me while I improve my writing, painstakingly build my readership, and grow my list of titles. At this point in my career, I need the help. So, like any entrepreneur, I trade off a lot of upside — the bulk of my royalties — in exchange for the money that enables me to build my business.

The question is, who will play the venture capitalist’s role if Amazon (or whoever) wins and books move to the iTunes model?

Consider Steven Covey and his new deal with Amazon. It may seem unfair that part of Covey’s earnings should go to pay for the stable of prospects on Simon & Schuster’s midlist. But it is only unfair in hindsight. S&S took a chance on Covey once by fronting him an advance. For all anyone knew, Covey might have ended up on the midlist himself, and S&S would be out the cash. In this case, it turned out to be a good bet. But Covey does not want to share the downstream profits. That makes perfect sense from Covey’s point of view, but does it make sense from ours, the reading public’s? (Yes, yes, I’m a self-interested member of the reading public. So what?)

Of course, we’ve already seen the iTunes model in action. Emerging young musicians in the brave new world of digital music can’t earn a living by recording anymore. They give away their MP3’s and survive by touring constantly (an option not open to writers: there is no market for our live performances, understandably).

So what? Life is tougher for young musicians. Should the public care? Well, has the quality or quantity of new, emerging musicians declined? I think so. The musicians may be out there, but you won’t find them on iTunes, not easily anyway. There is limited space on the landing page of the iTunes store, so most of those prime pixels go to established acts (today it’s Alicia Keys, Kesha, and an app for the movie “Avatar”). When there is only one record store in town and the store is that big, it’s awfully tough for a new band to get noticed. So, out on tour they go. And we music-buyers wind up listening to the same few bands over and over, often the same ones we’ve been listening to for years, or the ones anointed by Starbucks or American Idol as worthy of our attention. That is not a free or efficient market.

It is not clear how the iTunes model maps to book publishing. If there are fewer advances for emerging writers in an ebook world, will it make a difference? There will always be writers, after all. There always have been. There will always be a determined few willing to pay any price for their art, endure any hardship to keep writing. And a lucky few, an infinitesimal minority, will always be profitable right from the start. But the fact is, most writers need time to develop their talent and find their audience. Some percentage simply won’t be able to stick it out long enough. We can argue about how big that percentage might be, but we’d all be guessing. What we know for sure is that, without Big Publishing to act as patron, a lot of great books will never be written. Everybody okay with that?

Look, I don’t pretend to be objective about this. Obviously I have a stake in the current industry model. I’m one of those midlist guys still playing for time. So far, Random House, my publisher in the U.S., has stuck with me. They take their winnings from guys like Lee Child and bet it on a bunch of guys like me. If the current model breaks and writers have to scrape by as musicians do, who knows? Maybe I’ll make it, maybe I won’t. I have two kids. If push comes to shove, I’ll do what is in their interests, not mine. If that means doing something else, so be it. Maybe I have a great book in me, maybe I don’t. Maybe I’ll get the chance to find out, maybe I won’t. What matters is that there are a lot of writers like me, writers with potential who haven’t put it all together yet for one reason or another. Someday a few of us us will do it, a lucky few will come up with that Big Book — if we’re still writing.

That’s what’s at stake in Amazon’s big play this week.

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Dickens vs. the Snarks

I am reading Dickens’s Little Dorrit at the moment, inspired by the rebroadcast of the wonderful PBS/BBC mini-series. (It is being rebroadcast here in Boston, at least. I don’t know if this is true elsewhere.)

At the same time I am spending endless hours, as usual, idling on the web, particularly on blogs, where a different aesthetic prevails — hyperbolic, sarcastic, terse, frantic, distracted. A recent blog post by Ben Casnocha defines the web prose style pretty well:

In school anything you write or do will be read and graded by a teacher paid to do so. In the real world nobody wants to read your shit, and you have to earn their attention every single day.

Last year in a post titled You Have to Make People Give a Shit, I extolled blogging as a way to learn this value.

One way blogging makes you a better writer is it forces you to work hard for your readers’ attention. On the web, it takes less than a second to close the page or click a new link. Your readers are busy and distracted.

This means you must engage the reader out of the gate and take nothing for granted. If you start sucking in the second paragraph, you’ll likely lose the reader’s attention. They click to a new page.

It’s brutal. It makes you better.

It certainly is brutal, but does it really make you better? Alternating between Dickens’s elegant slow-cooked style and the fast food of the web, as I’ve been doing this week, I’m not so sure. Here’s the thing: after snacking on blog after blog, link after link, article after article, I do not feel any of the satisfaction or pleasure or transport that I get from even the dullest passages in Little Dorrit. On the contrary, all that hyperlinked, hypermanic prose on the web leaves me feeling drained and a little down.

Maybe it is just the skittish nature of the medium. The very connectedness of every screenload of words to every other makes everything I read online feel provisional and slick. There is always another article quivering unseen behind every link, another article which may be more interesting or more fresh. And then another and another.

I don’t mean to knock Ben Casnocha. Actually, I agree with him: in the raucous atmosphere of the web, it is probably necessary to write as if “nobody wants to read your shit.” In fact, when I first started to think about this post, I intended to say something similar, that web writing is shaping today’s novels by training modern writers and readers alike in a more compressed, hurried, no-nonsense prose style. I still think that’s true.

But I’m not so sure it’s a good thing. When I turn off the computer (as I am about to do) and go back to the peaceful, unlinked, timeless world of Dickens’s London, it will be a relief. Dickens does not have to “make me give a shit.” I already do. I don’t want to feel “busy and distracted” while I’m reading, as I tend to feel when I’m reading online. And if Dickens starts to suck in the second paragraph, well, I’ve got time. What, after all, is the hurry?

Disconnect. Slow down. Read at your own pace, for your own pleasure. The web will get along without you for a while.

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“Tamburlaine Must Die”

Louise Welsh’s Tamburlaine Must Die is a short, atmospheric, brisk novella to be consumed in a single sitting. It is the story of the final days of the Elizabethan poet Christopher Marlowe, whose murder in 1593 is one of the great unsolved historical mysteries beloved by conspiracy theorists. (Google it, you’ll see.) The book is narrated by Marlowe himself in the form of a final written testimony dashed off on the eve of his murder, which he fully anticipates.

In Welsh’s version of events, someone has pasted a blasphemous poem to the door of a church and signed it “Tamburlaine,” a character from Marlowe’s most famous play. Now, with rumors flying that Marlowe himself is the heretic, he has just a few days to find the real “Tamburlaine” or face the gruesome death of an apostate in the religious police state that was Elizabethan England, to be hung, drawn and quartered before a bloodthirsty mob.

At barely 140 liberally spaced pages, Tamburlaine Must Die is too short to work as a mystery. There just isn’t enough space for Welsh to fill in the details of the many intricate, shadowy conspiracies she hints at. The story rushes along too quickly to get bogged down in perfunctory details of who, what, where, why. The dramatic question of the book is Who killed Christopher Marlowe? Welsh’s somewhat unsatisfying answer: Who knows?

Or, more exactly, Who cares? Welsh is not interested in telling a suspenseful man-on-the-run mystery. Her Marlowe is not Jason Bourne in period drag, so she can afford to slight the usual devices of thriller novels. What engages Welsh is not Marlowe’s death but his world.

And when she describes the streets and people of London in 1593, the book soars. Here is the crowd at a public execution:

Wild-eyed masks, red-faced and spittle spattering, some with appetites so awakened they stuff themselves with pies, meat juices glossing their chins, pastry cramming their mouths, even as they call for the coward to be cut down and quartered.

In the streets we meet “muscle-armed” milkmaids and a “skelfy” jailer whose skin has “the transparent gleam of a white slug.” The agents of the police state are everywhere, spies and informers, torturers, inquisitors. One is always a careless word away from a shiv to the gut or, worse, the Tower and the rack. It is a vivid, menacing dystopia that reminded me of Philip Kerr’s Berlin trilogy, even of Orwell’s 1984.

Violence seems to sharpen Louise Welsh’s prose, a vice I share with her and thoroughly approve. We share other things, too. I won a prize once for my first novel that Welsh had won the year before, both for gritty crime novels set in our home towns, Glasgow for Welsh, Boston for me. For our second novels we both chose famous unsolved murders in fairly accurate historical settings. Why? Maybe the escape into the pseudo-reality of historical fiction frees the imagination from the pressure to duplicate an early success, or deflects the expectation that you will continue to represent your city “authentically” in book after book — to become some sort of arch Glaswegian or Bostonian. In choosing Marlowe’s London for her second novel, Welsh traveled further from home than I did. It was a pleasure for a couple of hours to go there with her.

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How to Make a Movie About a Writer

Yesterday I saw Jane Campion’s movie “Bright Star,” about the doomed romance between the poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, and I liked it very much. How could I not like it? The romantic hero is a writer. You don’t see that very often.

Writers make bad film protagonists because the real work of writing is unfilmable. A writer at work is doing nothing more picturesque than scribbling on a pad or, worse, staring into space. The “action,” such as it is, takes place in his mind. So the struggle to create has to be extroverted, acted out: the writer balls up a piece of paper and flings it across the room in frustration. Personally, I have never balled up a manuscript page and flung it across the room. I work on a computer. Most writers do now, which should spell doom for this particular film cliché, a blessing for which we should all be thankful.

There are good movies about writers, of course, but they are generally not about the work itself. Successful writer movies — “Capote,” for example — include virtually none of their subjects’ actual prose. They are not about what’s inside the books; they are about the struggle to make the books.

This is why “Bright Star” is such an exceptional writer movie. Keats’s poetry is a constant presence in the film. It is read aloud by characters within scenes and in voice-over. The end credits alone, in which the actor Ben Whishaw reads the “Ode to a Nightingale” in its entirety, is worth the price of the ticket. Keats’s letters, too, are woven into the dialogue. The film is about a mood, and it is the same mood that Keats’s poetry captures so well — gloom, melancholy, languor, longing. The movie and the poems are written in the same key, so the poetry actually enhances the film just as the usual movie devices do, cinematography, music, and so on.

It is surprising that there are so few movies about poets. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single one. But poetry and film work well together. E. L. Doctorow has written,

Film de-literates thought; it relies primarily on an association of visual impressions or understandings. Moviegoing is an act of inference. You receive what you see as a broad band of sensual effects that evoke your intuitive nonverbal intelligence. You understand what you see without having to think it through with words.

Yes, all right, it is a visual medium. But poetry does something similar. It “literates” emotion, it evokes moods without ever quite naming them. Sometimes it describes states of mind that have no name, that never coalesce into definite thoughts, and therefore can’t be thought through, only felt. You can understand a poem without quite being able to put its meaning into words.

At several points “Bright Star” seems about to tip over into preciousness, as so many period costume dramas do. Ben Whishaw, as Keats, is delicate looking. He stares dreamily at flowers or coughs with tuberculosis. (It is really Fanny’s movie. If there is any justice, the role will make a star out of Abbie Cornish.) What makes him affecting is the poems. No wonder Fanny fell for him — he’s John Keats. Whatever flaws the movie may have, I can’t think of any other that incorporates a writer’s actual words so much and so well.

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Angiulo, Barboza and fictionalizing the Boston Mob

The animating idea of The Strangler was to recreate Strangler-era Boston, to bring the lost city to life so convincingly that readers would have the immersive three-dimensional experience of actually being there, walking the streets, brushing shoulders with the people. Period authenticity was important: the original working title of the book was The Year of the Strangler.

Of course reanimating the actual city required that a few prominent Bostonians appear undisguised, or nearly so, including gangsters, cops, and politicians. In the original draft, these characters were accurately named and described. The mob boss Capobianco, for example, was called by his real name, Gennaro Angiulo. The historical Gerry Angiulo ran the Boston mob during my childhood in the 1970s. In 1963 and ’64, when The Strangler takes place, he was just consolidating his power.

Gennaro Angiulo, 1967

Gennaro Angiulo, 1967

On the eve of the book’s publication, I got a call from a lawyer at Random House asking about some of these historical figures, including Angiulo. “Is he still alive?” the lawyer wanted to know. Apparently libel laws are stricter when the subject is living. Angiulo was 87 years old then, but still alive in a federal prison. So his name had to be changed. To further insulate the book from a libel charge, Angiulo had to be mentioned by name in the book so we could plausibly deny that my character Capobianco was an Angiulo stand-in. After all, we could argue, there is Angiulo standing next to Capobianco — how could they be the same person? All this sensitivity about the man’s reputation seemed a little ridiculous to me. How was it possible to libel a murderer and convicted mafioso like Gerry Angiulo? But I did not insist, and shortly before publication the character was rechristened Charlie Capobianco. Still the facts remain: the novel’s description of a “born bookie” who became a mob boss — his physical appearance, his biography, his North End headquarters, his bookmaking operation — all are meticulously faithful to the life of Gerry Angiulo. (The libel issue is moot now. Gerry Angiulo died at the end of August, at age 90. His funeral procession required a flatbed truck to carry the 190 bouquets of flowers.)

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Biocriminology

“There’s certainly a brain basis to crime … the brains of violent criminals are physically and functionally different from the rest of us.”
— Adrian Raine

A burgeoning science suggests that crime is caused in part by biological factors, that is, by traits inherited through DNA or by the brain malfunctioning in very specific ways. Adrian Raine, a “neurocriminologist” and chair of the criminology department at the University of Pennsylvania, says,

“Seventy-five percent of us have had homicidal thoughts. What stops most of us from acting out these feelings is the prefrontal cortex…. When the prefrontal cortex is not functioning too well, maybe an individual, when angry, is more likely to pick up a knife and stab someone or pick up a gun.”

Some criminals, it seems, are biologically different from us.

“People who are psychopaths or who have antisocial personality disorder are literally cold-blooded. They have lower heart rates.  When they’re stressed, they don’t sweat as much as the rest of us. They don’t have this anticipatory fear that the rest of us have.”

Obviously I am not qualified to judge the science. But if it is true, as seems increasingly likely, that “freedom of will is not as free as you think,” as Professor Raine puts it, that fact would undercut the entire philosophy of our criminal law, which is that we punish the guilty mind, the mens rea — the conscious, purposeful decision to commit a crime. Where the defendant’s free will or judgment is compromised, because he is drunk or insane or a child, for example, generally the law attaches a lesser degree of culpability, sometimes no culpability at all (the proper finding for an insane defendant is “not guilty by reason of insanity,” not “guilty but insane”).

My third novel, to be published in February 2012, turns on just these sorts of questions. The story involves a father whose teenage son is accused of a murder, a crime that may have been triggered by the boy’s genetic inheritance — a “murder gene.” How should we think of such a criminal? It is not simply a question about crime or criminal law. It is the fundamental subject of crime novels, it is the reason we read them, to ask: What does crime tell us about ourselves and our nature? Modern neuroscience and genetics are beginning to provide answers Dostoyevsky could never have imagined.

Here is Professor Raine on the legal and ethical implications of neurocriminology:

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“Free” and the Future of Publishing

I had an interesting conversation on Saturday with Bruce Spector, the founder and CEO of a new web service called LifeIO. (See the end of this article for an explanation of what LifeIO is all about.) Bruce was part of the team that developed WebCal, which Yahoo! acquired in 1998 to form the core of its own calendar service, so he has been watching the web with an entrepreneur’s eye for some time now and he had an interesting take on the whole “free” debate and how it might apply to book publishing.

If you somehow missed the recent back-and-forth about Chris Anderson’s book Free, read the pro-“free” comments by Anderson, Seth Godin and especially Fred Wilson, and the anti-“free” perspective by Malcolm Gladwell and Mark Cuban, among many others. This piece by Kevin Kelly, not directly about “free,” is very good, too.

For the uninitiated, the issue boils down to this: The marginal cost of delivering a bit of information over the web — a song, a video, a bit of text like this one — is approaching zero. As a result, information is increasingly available, and consumers increasingly expect to get it, for free. So traditional “legacy” information-sellers like musicians or movie studios or newspapers, whose actual costs are very far from zero, have to figure out how to turn free-riders into paying customers — and fast, before they go out of business. Fred Wilson’s answer is “freemium“: you lure the customer in with a free basic service, then up-sell the heaviest users to a premium version of your product. As Wilson puts it, “Free gets you to a place where you can ask to get paid. But if you don’t start with free on the Internet, most companies will never get paid.”

How does all this apply to book publishing?

Here are some of Bruce Spector’s ideas. He is a great talker, though, and a summary like this doesn’t do him justice. Also, this was a private conversation, but Bruce kindly gave me permission to repeat some of his comments here.

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