The Tragedy of Inspiration: Nabokov’s “Christmas Story”

May 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Nabokov has a very clever short story, The Christmas Story, about an early-Soviet-era Russian writer whose legacy is in doubt, who is filled with insecurity about his talents and his career and the young upstart writers encroaching on him. The idea is that he, the critic, and the other, younger writer in the story are between them all wrapped up in the preordained concerns of careerist Soviet writers, whose work is bound, in its limitedness, to the state.

But this writer, Novodvortsev, doesn’t know his concerns are circumscribed. At the end of the story, he sits down to write a trite classism exercise about a “hungry worker” looking in on an opulent Christmas display through a window — classic Noel-sploitation. And the warmth of inspiration Novodvortsev derives from doing this, and the pleasure of his craft in the writing, are unblemished. His imagination and memory haunt him like any other writer, but they lead him to inferior scribblings:

He skipped back to the Christmas-tree image, and suddenly, for no apparent reason, remembered the parlor of a merchant family’s house, a large volume of articles and poems with gilt-edged pages (a benefit edition for the poor) somehow connected with that house, the Christmas tree in the parlor, the woman he loved in those days, and all of the tree’s lights reflected as a crystal quiver in her wide-open eyes when she plucked a tangerine from a high branch. It had been twenty years ago or more—how certain details stuck in one’s memory….

With triumphal agitation, sensing that he had found the necessary, one-and-only key, that he would write something exquisite, depict as no one had before the collision of two classes, of two worlds, he commenced writing. He wrote about the opulent tree in the shamelessly illuminated window and about the hungry worker, victim of a lockout, peering at that tree with a severe and somber gaze.

My selection for this blog can’t capture the whole of the story, but I wish to extract only a single point: this hack writer’s creative process is just like a great writer’s. He proceeds from an image, a recollection, an impression or sensation that is bright and limpid, to a concrete story, a plot and a character, that give structure to his inspiration.

But Novodvortsev is not a good writer, and his final product, the titular Christmas story, is a cold plume of ash compared to the initial flicker of inspiration.

I don’t like extrapolating from the contrivances of a piece of writing to the complexities of real life. But I think this small sliver of observation, which I’ve tried to excise without interpretation, is true. We have almost nothing to go on when we write but what we dream of, what inspires us, and what pleasures we feel in teasing out our inspirations as concrete words. The product may be great, or terrible, but the pleasure is the same.

This is the fraught downside to the famous romantic upside of genius: the image of a near-mad scribbler whose imagination takes flight, the product of whose frenzy is inevitably good. In another, lesser writer, the feeling of soaring, the frenzy, the glow of heat and pride, are all just as strong, but the product isn’t.

This is why so many people who have studied learning and the development of skill and talent (think Malcolm Gladwell and Outliers and work of that ilk) find the notion of genius so dangerous, as do I. The work a genius does to get better is the same as the work a mediocrity does to get better: inspiration, deliberation, practice, pride. And that’s why these same scholars generally recommend we recognize the importance of hard work. The only accuracy and objectivity and fairness of perception available to a writer in the thick of their craft is the short-term comparison: is this better than the last thing I wrote? Novodvortsev’s tragic flaw here, I think, is a lack of self-awareness — he doesn’t realize the familiarity of what he does. On the other hand, if he trained his sense of pleasure to prickle when he knew he was bettering himself, challenging himself, diverging from himself, he wouldn’t have been happy settling on his trusted “hungry worker”.

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Corporatization and the Life of an Art Form

May 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Literature’s been around for centuries and in that time it’s accrued an unshakable foundation of revered works, a reputation for seriousness, and an automatic respect.

Now compare that to the history of video games. Pong came out in 1972.

And yet, already the size of the video game industry is comparable to that of the publishing industry. Some googling tells me they’re both on the order of $20-30 billion in annual revenues in the USA, though clear numbers were hard for me to find.

I’m fascinated by the different effects corporatization/industrialization has had respectively on books and video games in the last 20-30 years. Their major trends are the same:

  1. Both book publishing and video game publishing have consolidated into a small number of companies.
  2. Blockbusters have dominated sales figures and industry concerns.
  3. Indie markets have started springing up that both sidestep and complement big companies’ portfolios.

And yet it’s the differences in the respective effects of all this on the book and video game cultures that I find so interesting.

In the oh-so-professional literary world, the industry’s pretensions have become pervasive, and so deeply infused that they’re taken for granted. Everyone, from industry leaders to small-time agents even to individual readers, talks about looking for books that toe the line between the literary and the commercial (which is some repugnant bullshit), or about finding books that can capture the largest audiences possible — though they’ll use some more genteel word like “dazzling” or “enrapturing” or “spellbinding” audiences — or about knowing your market. Broad appeal is the overarching imperative, and even when people talk about pre-industrial classics, they’ll talk about their universal humanity and how familiar and recognizable the characters are.

My point is, the notion that a good book is the most broadly appealing and entertaining one — an idea extending from corporate financial squeamishness — has suffused the discussion of literature in almost all its various places and forms.

How sad. Now look at how video game culture has responded to its industry’s growth. For example, if you scan through one of Reddit’s serious gaming discussion boards, r/truegaming, You’ll see a prevailing nervousness and insecurity about how the art form, and its potential for exploring new frontiers and achieving greater artistic things, is getting paved over by the growing money machine. Here are a few sample posts from there:

  • Are there any games that actually “feel” alien?
  • Describe in Detail that Perfect Game You’ve Created in Your Head, that You Wish You could Make in Real Life.
  • Computer Gaming World Magazine: Will we see the same level of quality and depth in game journalism again?
  • Do developers of “over-the-top” games like Saints Row 3 miss the point of said “over-the-top”?
  • Lack of futuristic open world games

Two very admirable qualities are repeatedly borne out in the posts there: 1) The discussion isn’t nostalgic or limited to the pristine past. And 2) The discussion is aspirational. A common theme is, what can this medium do, and how would you like your mind blown by the next game you play?

I don’t strongly get that sense from discussions about books wherever I’ve had them — online, in person, in class… They seem more predetermined, like the canon of the past is already set and its value has already been determined, and the writing of the present has an inexorable mandate to appeal to busier readers in less interesting and less vital ways.

In short, I think that although corporate and industrial growth has narrowed both the book and video game industries, the reaction of the former has been far more complacent, and the progress of the money machine far more insidious. On the other hand, the video game community has been upended by money so rapidly, and so early in its infancy, that its readers sense how something that was supposed to fun and innovative and exploratory — finding out what video games can do — has been usurped by conventional interests.

“Avatar” and Bridging the Uncanny Valley

May 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

Neytiri cradles Jake's body in "Avatar"

Neytiri cradles Jake’s body in “Avatar”

In the interest of timeliness, I wanted to write about a key moment in James Cameron’s Avatar. Here’s a movie with two worlds: human and Navi, or rather human and CGI. There’s basically a different filmmaking mode for each — the former is a cold and dry technological and mechanical world like Alien, and the latter is a lush computer-generated tropical world of flora and fauna.

Each of these worlds is populated with a different humanoid lifeform, and the two different lifeforms don’t really interact (except in the big battle at the end, when they’re still really interacting distantly through a blur of action). Were they to interact, the film would risk sinking into the uncanny valley where the contrast between human and CGI characters becomes creepily apparent.

This is a wise decision by Cameron — it’s much easier to grow accustomed to the film’s two worlds separately, and the story carefully immerses us in one, then the other for long stretches each. But almost inevitably, there’s one moment where the worlds cross, namely the scene in the picture above (I’m truly sorry I couldn’t find a better picture — I’m not even certain this one comes straight from the movie).

Here, toward the end of the movie, the central couple share a moment, Neytiri in her Navi form, and Jake in his human form. In a sense the scene is nothing special — she cradles him mother-like, the disparity between their forms is shown directly (blue and peach, large and fragile), but they don’t care because they’re in love. Nobody’s calling Avatar an adventurous piece of storytelling.

But here’s the remarkable thing about it: when I saw this scene in the theater two years ago, all I could think was what an obligatory moment of cross-cultural sweetness it was. He’s in her arms, they say “I see you” to each other, their love is real, and racism is solved. I wasn’t thinking how weird it is to see a CGI and a regular human body intertwined like that, and I wasn’t studying their motions looking for seams or flaws in the presentation. After I got out of the theater, on my way home, then I realized I’d seen a human actor and a CGI one holding each other close, and all I’d thought was how trite it was!

In a way, what a terrific achievement Cameron pulled off! The CGI medium disappeared and all that was left was a straightforward love scene. That is, the computer animation disappeared into the scene, wholly integrated, leaving only the storytelling. This is the first time I’ve ever seen anyone or anything truly bridge the uncanny valley, and I know it was truly bridged because I wasn’t thinking about how real it looked, I was thinking about the story! It’s the kind of achievement that’s so deep I didn’t even realize it was there until I reflected on it.

So let’s give Cameron credit. Avatar is totally conventional when you look at its story. But the achievement of that conventionality, the successful construction of an ordinary love scene through CGI, is a strange kind of triumph.

Break Up the Publishing Industry

May 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

The sad fact for all aspiring writers is that every form of writing falls under the monstrously broad professional purview of the publishing industry. Whatever your form, topic, aim, or dream, your writing is subject to the same apparatus and the same attitudes — queries, agents, audiences, marketability, conglomerate publishing houses, etc.

Imagine if the restaurant business were like this — if a single overarching food industry controlled the rentable restaurant spaces in cities and towns, and aspiring cooks had to submit their menus and their marketing “angles” to a conglomerate board that would approve or reject a restaurant according to well-honed professional dictates. The upshot would be that there’d be no five-star restaurants, no challenging cuisine, nothing foreign except congenially “foreign” as an established genre… And so the prestige of food as an out-there, fancy-pants endeavor (and I mean that in the nicest way) would be lost. There’d be nothing for eaters to aspire to, and there’d be no consciousness of some faraway Paris or New York that holds tastes utterly new to the intrepid palate.

(Or look at the music industry, if you’d like another comparison. We’ve reached a point of such deep corporatization that nobody on earth even pretends that the product of the music industry has anything to do with the art form of the same name.)

Madness and adventurousness and novelty thrive in the restaurant industry precisely because it’s not consolidated and because there are significant commercial avenues available to the adventurous. The beautiful thing is that no corporate consolidation can touch a new restaurant that’s sprung up on a corner on your walk home. Among restaurants there is an acknowledged and non-institutionalized variety of endeavors.

Now contrast that with the publishing industry, where there are few places to go — Barnes & Noble, Amazon — few publishers — half-a-dozen big ones — and (here’s the big one) few outlets for discovery. Self-publishing certainly gets more voices out there, but it doesn’t help organize the worthwhile ones.

The fact is, we do need market forces to keep creativity and greak books alive, but we need separate market segments for the art form and its lovers. Right now, the publishing industry is effectively one gigantic market segment. Why do I say this? Well, ask yourself — who’s the publisher you’d go to for the next great American writer? In fact, all the major publishers’ products are interchangeable. And the small imprints are so obscure, and ask so much time and dirt-digging of readers, that no effective countercultural antidote to corporate publishing can coalesce around them.

The ideal I’m trying to describe is a world where there is a market for real writing — not necessarily a financial one, but a place you can go to for real talent. The same way Ben & Jerry’s became a symbol of real, and good, ice cream done right, or the way Vera Wang gave popular heft to an aesthetic notion — elegant simplicity — I think talent needs an imprint, a go-to name or names, in the market. If a single publishing house could somehow rise up and establish itself as an industry unto itself — a marketplace for good writers and good readers — then that would constitute a fundamental blow to the current publishing industry’s implicit dictatorship over what constitutes publishable writing.

The problem is that writers, and the kinds of readers who’d start an independent press, are not the organizing type, and certainly not the type to try to wrest market control from the professionals. But just imagine a world where writing has a counterculture with its own heroes, its own terms, its own products, where the people calling the shots are getting off not on their sales figures, but on the artistic prestige of the talent they’ve discovered.

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