Grammar: Gaffes vs. Crimes

Further — but more briefly! — re that commas-and-false-modification post. Reading the great essayist Zadie Smith in “The New Yorker,” on the brilliant comedy duo Key and Peele, I find this: “Key’s father married his stepmother.”

Unlike what I was talking about in my blog post — “proper” grammar perverted to inauthentic purposes — that’s an innocent gaffe. The pronoun “his” can’t have “Key” as its antecedent, as here “Key” is part of the possessive “Key’s,” not a noun but an adjective, which can’t serve as the antecedent to a pronoun; meanwhile, a perfectly good-looking noun is kicking around, near the pronoun, eager to offer itself as the antecedent, but that’s not the intended meaning. I don’t think Smith is saying, in this case, that some guy married his stepmother.

This error doesn’t reflect a crime against honesty; it’s just a slip. I raise it because in writing that post, I’ve realized that grammar rules aren’t my subject. (If this kind of error were all over any magazine, the magazine would become unreadable, but that’s not the case.) We all make slips. Funny, given my Freudian bent, but in this case I don’t think the slip is all that revealing (despite the Oedipal drama it seems to point to!). A bogus intention elaborately hidden within structurally flawless grammar — that’s where I think the more interesting conflicts are revealed.

Resisting the Felicitous and the Deft: Sentences, Punctuation, and Meaning

There’s an entertaining and intelligent article in a recent New Yorker about the uses and abuses of punctuation, among other things. The piece, written by a veteran copyeditor at the magazine, will be as dull as dishwater to many, and fascinating to those like me, who work on how to make sentences say what we mean.

Really say what we really mean. Not seem to say what we more or less mean.

As the New Yorker piece suggests, that task poses endless difficulties. But the piece also exposes what I see as important failures in the tactics we use to make sentences say what writers mean.

* * * *

The author, Mary Norris, defends what she calls “close” editing for punctuation and other aspects of sentence construction. Here’s one of her examples:

“Before Atwater died, of brain cancer, in 1991, he expressed regret.”

Norris and The New Yorker favor placing those commas after “died” and “cancer” over this cleaner and more common approach: “Before Atwater died of brain cancer in 1991, he expressed regret.”

The example comes up because the writer Ben Yagoda called The New Yorker‘s reasons for putting commas after “died” and “cancer” nutty, and at first glance Yagoda seems sound. He ascribes the magazine’s insistence on the extra commas to a hysterical concern that otherwise “the sentence would suggest that Atwater died multiple times and of multiple causes.”

But that’s not quite the rationale. It would be nutty indeed to fear that without those commas, a reader couldn’t gather that Atwater didn’t also die before or after 1991, and didn’t die of causes other than brain cancer.

We read sentences like it all the time, but the sad fact is that, regardless of how you punctuate it, “Before Atwater died of brain cancer in 1991, he expressed regret” is a foolish thing to write, and not noticing the foolishness causes problems that run deeper than incorrectness in grammar and usage.

Continue reading

Writing, Money, Auteurs

I’ve spent decades now doing my own writing, while trying to get paid for it as best I can, and also “writing for hire,” where payment is agreed upon and the work is not my own, despite the fact that I’ve done it. I’m not in any practical sense the author of the work I do for hire: copyright, control, and other aspects of authorship are held by somebody else, per contractual agreements. I just write it.

Legally, that is, “authorship” refers not to who did the work but to who owns and controls the product and the rights in it. You’ll see this at the end of closing credits on a movie: “Columbia Pictures [say] is the author of this motion picture for the purpose of copyright and other laws.” It means that the Hollywood studio that distributes the film has become its author, per contract, regardless of the degree to which the film was actually made by others. Assigning authorship is a price of getting film distribution.

My work-for-hire contracts often involve restrictions on disclosing anything I know about the work and how it was done, including the fact that it was done by me. So details will naturally be lacking here.

But it’s interesting to me that film directors don’t have this issue: A director might pitch his or her own favorite idea for a movie he or she wants to make or be approached to take on a directing role in a project that’s already in development. Either way, unless the director funds the thing himself, or otherwise has a producing role, or unless there’s a very unusual deal involved, if the project is underway, the director is in a way working for hire. Successfully pitching your own film idea doesn’t get you copyright on the resulting film; it gets your idea bought and you hired to do it.

The supposed downside, compared to book deals, is that the director is legally not the author. In a book deal for something I pitch, with my name on it — unlike in my writing for hire — I retain copyright, control, and many of the subsidiary rights.

The upside for filmmakers, though, is huge. Continue reading

“What to Do with Old Work,” Part 2

What to do with old work? I asked in an earlier post. One answer turns out to be:

Pull an old work out of the dusty files and apply everything you’ve learned to cutting the living hell out of the whole thing in a four-hour bout of violent revision. Thereby coming to a realization of what always was ineluctably wrong with it, i.e., wrong with you (me). Thus finally facing up to the self-destructive rage inherent in what, all those years ago, you were really doing. Realize the thing can’t be fixed because you couldn’t be fixed when you wrote it. End the day feeling a million pounds lighter.

Not for the faint of heart. But I do recommend it.

This is not about my unpublished novel, discussed in the other post, but about my second (and final) play, which actually did get a production one horrible summer in the late 1980’s. I was so blocked after my first play (it had an Equity showcase production in ’82 and a staged reading at Williamstown in ’83) that it took me many years and much painful effort to write the second one, and then the play was so off-the-wall that finding a production was almost impossible. A whole story there I won’t go into. At one point it had a third act that nobody could even read; a whole adjunct play, really, which in itself took more than a year of struggle to write; I had to cut it in its entirety.

But by ’87, say, I had a full-length two-act comedy, which was intended to dismantle itself as a theatrical act in the course of performance. Wittily and maybe even brilliantly, thought I. In what I now see as tortured fashion, that is, and from scratch, with no outline or idea to begin with, the play recapitulated everything I’d been doing since the mid-1970’s and brought it all to fruition.

And — now I think — ruined it.

Which made it an impossible piece of work. Written by an impossible piece of work, who had dedicated years of his retreating youth to failing, mainly, to write it. I get that now, only because I stopped occasionally reminiscing about the play and got busy re-writing it. I mean I just took an afternoon off from my real work a few months ago and set myself to “fixing” a decades-old script. You can’t learn anything about old work by thinking about it. You have to do something to it.

I think I started on that impulsive project because I’d had coffee a day or so before with an old, once-good friend I hadn’t seen in like thirty years. We ended up hanging out for hours, and I left full of memories, with some regrets, but also with the sense that I’d been carrying old business around for way too long without even noticing it. I mean I’d thought I was well over our having gone our separate ways decades earlier. I found that it would have been very unfortunate not to have reconnected. I was grateful. Getting older has benefits.

And that was someone I’d known and worked with in the years before I went down that road with that play. When we were young and full of ourselves and (although we were always careful to evince total skepticism about everything) optimistic, actually, about the future of our work in the world.

So I began an afternoon thinking, “What if I got this beloved old thing I keep reminiscing about to make sense? Would I want to try to produce it somehow?” I stumbled out, a few wild hours later, alternately mumbling and shrieking (only in my head, I hope) something like, “This thing was never meant to be produced. It’s about not being produce-able. It’s a huge fuck you. I never wanted this thing to work; I wanted theater itself not to work. It’s not a beloved old thing. It’s a work of rage and hatred!”

I was stunned, elated. The play’s failure had always rankled, because as the last play I wrote, it meant my own failure as a playwright. Now I’d cut it down to its nub, cut all the bullshit, and I could see what it really was. After all these years, I could see in a living, bleeding form what I was once so supremely dedicated to doing.

I should note that I’d long adopted the line that it was the harrowingly awful production of that play that had finally sent me running from the theater, a production so bad (and, man, it really was horrible) that it drove me to prose fiction and finally (skipping a lot of steps here) to nonfiction. That’s the narrative I’d sworn by.

But of course it’s a specious narrative. Nobody ends an attempt to have what we used to call a life in the theater because of a bad production. The play itself was built to implode, to collapse the theater and me along with it. My way out, my way of noting I’d passed the thirty-year mark on this earth: self-immolation, taking as many people with me as possible. Mixed-metaphorically, of course — but the painted veil of this mixed metaphor feels a bit gauzy.

I wish there were lessons here for younger writers. But my experience got so, well, bad, when I was a younger writer that I can only hope others have better experiences and leave it at that. The only lesson, for those having a very bad time of it, is that if you’re capable of change, you might do something about changing, and if you change, you might survive, somehow. Artistically, I mean.

The play used to be called “A Blue Yodel for the New New Man,” and it used to have two acts. Now it’s called “Blue Yodel for the New New Man, or, 1985: a goodbye to the theater in the form of a one-act comedy.” And it comes with this note: “Warning. ‘Closet’ or ‘lyrical’ drama only. Do not attempt to stage.”

Closet or lyrical drama in the sense of an English-romantic dramatic-form poem like “Prometheus Bound” or “Cain.” Because that’s what the play really is.

Now having threatened, in that earlier post, to find some way to self-publish my novel, I might actually find some way to self-publish this play instead, or first, in its new form. As off-brand vanity projects go, I think it might offer something, maybe with this post appended as an intro. I think, that is, my new closet drama does say something about 1985. And I don’t write about myself any more, but I think it says something about me, too. And if it says something about me and about 1985, maybe it’s an okay piece of strange work. We shall see.

Romance! Money! Writing!

GullyI respond here to comments on my previous post, on the future of longform journalism amid disruptions in publishing. A key element in the discussion seems to be coming down to what publishers — whether print mags or online sites or both — “should” do, regarding paying the writers they publish. And while I don’t think it’s unimportant how such entities, or any entity for that matter, should act, that issue has never seemed to me to be germane to this particular discussion.

Because regarding money, they never did what they should do, at least as far I’m concerned. No magazine I’ve published with, so far, has paid me what I think my work is worth, and I don’t mean that I think I should get paid vast sums; I just mean I’ve never been one of those writers who commands from magazines, on or offline, the kind of pay that would be adequate to support me, modestly but comfortably, in what some might want to call a bourgeois profession and others might want to call a skilled labor. To be in the former (which is how I look at it), I’ve had to do other things. [UPDATE: Because — and I guess this will only lend credence to those accusing me of taking a romantic line on the matter — it’s not really a profession or a labor but some kind of calling-like thing, or the only way I can once in a while put myself and the world together.]

The idea of “the professional” keeps coming up here, and I think it needs critiquing. Once we start trying to determine the meaning of value in this context, the whole discussion stops making sense to me. People seem to be gesturing at, but not thoroughly advancing, a labor theory of value in the freelance writing and longform-journalism publishing relationship, and I see [UPDATE: I must have meant “hear”] dissonances there. The dissonances are connected to a number of the comments on the post, but I’ll promote three of the comments here, because I think they’re the most salient.

The first is this, from reillymanz: “So as a student attending the University of Missouri in pursuit of a journalism degree, what’s my ‘angle’ to this business? Clearly the industry is changing, and will continue to change. How am I to get ahead of the curve?” The second, not at the post itself but on Twitter, from @ilenesmachine: “The question remains, how do we writers make a living anymore, when all the sites want short $5 blog posts?”

And the most challenging, this one again on the post itself, from broadsideblog, refers to how I closed my post. I said: “I think most writers are more like Gulley Jimson, as played by Alec Guinness in the film adaptation of ‘The Horse’s Mouth.’ Homeless, wandering, drunk, sly, just looking for a wall to paint on. Don’t really care about too much else. If one thing doesn’t work, find something else. If you’re a writer, you’re not really in the publishing industry: from the writer’s point of view, publishing, as we once knew it, was only a modern means to an ancient end.”

In response, broadsideblog says this:

As someone who’s been writing for a living — NF books and journalism — since 1978, I disagree with this romantic notion that writers just wanna write — $$$ be damned. No. There is a subset of writers, perhaps you among us, who expect to be compensated for the skill, experience, insights, analysis and our own growing audiences that WE bring to these publishers. When my stories end up (as they do) being the best read of the entire Sunday NYT online, I’m adding value that needs to be financially compensated — just as they pay their staff. But the “model” doesn’t work that way. Funny thing!

The fantasy that we’re willing to eat ramen in perpetual gratitude for being handed an established name-brand audience is nuts. The Atlantic’s misguided greed only made that clearer because Nate had the guts to challenge it publicly.

I don’t think broadsideblog is saying it’s my “fantasy that we’re willing to eat ramen in perpetual gratitude for being handed an established name-brand audience”; I hope not, anyway, because that’s not what I was suggesting. I think she (I checked; broadsideblog is the writer Caitlin Kelly) ascribes that fantasy to “The Atlantic” and others, and I think she’s partly right: something like that possibly pretty unfavorable deal is now being offered writers, as publishers suddenly need tons of fresh content, and as the old pay models crash.

But clearly many a writer is willing to eat ramen, or do the equivalent (like work a day job, or two), just to be handed a name-brand audience; many, throughout history, have of course done their work in the absence of any significant kind of audience, let alone adequate meals. I disagree that by referring to Guinness and Jimson, I was advancing the notion necessarily that “writers just want to write — $$$ be damned” (partly because my point is that writers want to be read), but I do think romanticism is legitimately involved here. The whole issue is a romantic — or Romantic — one. The very idea of a “professional writer” is an effect of an earlier disruption, the breakdown of court and patronage systems and the rise of a literate middle class consuming a capitalistically financed press. (By way of broad-stroke analogy: Haydn did great in the old system; Mozart had trouble with it; Beethoven could not have existed within it.) So the job description “journalist” itself may be a function of Romanticism — especially when it comes to the “longform” journalism I began by talking about, those extended pieces financed by major papers and magazines and carried out by the likes of Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, John McPhee, David Foster Wallace, David Grann, David Samuels, etc., etc.

Kelly suggests that because her work adds value to, for example, “The New York Times,” and manifestly so, since some of her pieces are the most widely read online there, she should be compensated accordingly. I beg to differ with that approach to valuation — somewhat sadly, since I too have had my day in the top-five sun — employing this stark line of thought: that thing is graded on a curve. Somebody was going to have the top piece that day (even, for that matter, if the “Times” readership plummeted to six). If you hadn’t published, the person behind you would have had your slot. The added value — actually the only value — is of course the content, that’s what the “Times” sells to readers. But no one piece or one writer can ever add or subtract any measurable value. The reader will leaf or click through the issue the same way regardless. It’s cool to have those readers, and to get paid, but trying to price a piece per the value it adds seems to me to have nothing to do with what’s going on in magazine and newspaper publishing.

Or: Forget it, Jake. It’s the “Times.” But let’s say Kelly’s idea is right — that we could price our work based on its value, measured any way you choose to measure it. Some writers would then command higher fees, based on how much value their work adds. Well, as many have noted, the new online situation may begin to enable pretty straight pay-for-value transactions, unmediated by editorial brands. When filtered through magazines, however, that fees-for-high-value idea created the kind of hierarchy in which the famous writers I mentioned above thrived for a longish time. I think it’s inspired a false sense of solidarity — a kind of aspirational solidarity — among writers in lower ranks: “we writers,” as @ilenesmachine put it on Twitter. There’s a prevailing sense that if a David Samuels — I come back to him because, to me, he was the strongest voice on the CUNY panel that got me going on this — is struggling, we’re all in trouble.

That’s a star system. It allows us all to imagine one day actually becoming one of the stars; in the meantime, the trickledown effect, we hope, might keep us going.

No nice way to say it: Fuck that. Industries encourage star systems, but there’s no solidarity in such a setup. (Maybe if editors hadn’t spent so much money overprivileging John McPhee, there’d be something left for the rest of us.) If we wanted real solidarity, if we wanted to see ourselves as a true labor force, we’d walk out and demand collective bargaining. But while staff of certain papers and Hollywood writers are organized that way, we’re not. And we can’t be. That’s not what the kind of writing we do actually is.

So to reillymanz, the j-school student, I have two pieces of advice: 1) get out of j-school, since they’re training you for an industry that doesn’t exist (and graduate writing programs of all kinds stink anyway); 2) if you take any advice from me, you’re a damned idiot.

(Note: I wrote this piece for no pay, in order to reach the vast readership for this blog.)

Keywords: “Longform,” “Print,” “Journalism,” “Thayer” “Pay”, “Whither?”

[UPDATE: In my next post, I respond to some of the excellent comments below.]

The writer Michael Washburn put together a good panel the other night, at CUNY Graduate Center, on the future — or not — of what’s now called longform journalism. The idea being that in the age of the tweet, we have to call it something (we used to just call it journalism).

“People don’t read on the Web, they scan” — that dictum prevailed in the Web’s early days, with the corollary notion that the rise of digital, interactive technology might signal doom for longish, fully developed, fully reported and researched pieces like those famously published by “The New Yorker,” “The Atlantic,” “Rolling Stone,” “Esquire,” etc., in fast-fading good times for writers, editors, and readers. Now, however, we know that people do read “on the Web,” or read on whatever we want to call anything involving a screen digitally displaying written content. Indeed, people ramble on at interminable length online (on blogs like this!), with no evident sense of structure. Sometimes other people even read those ramblings. And comment at length.

The CUNY panelists — writers David Samuels of “Harper’s” and David Grann of “The New Yorker,” digital publishers Evan Ratliff of “The Atavist” and Alana Newhouse of “Tablet,” moderated by Max Linksy of the organization Longform — seemed to be suggesting that sheer length isn’t really the thing endangered by digital. Which seems right. As a copywriter in online marketing (my day job, back in what were the good old days to a David Samuels, when I couldn’t get arrested as a writer), I figured out a long time ago that the scanning-vs-reading thing doesn’t really map to the digital-vs-print thing. People always scanned brochures in print, and they now read long essays online, and vice versa. Varying content gets varying engagement. [UPDATE: A commenter below takes issue with the use of “scan” here, since the word originally meant “read closely.” It’s developed to mean something like “glance and quickly gather,” or, as the commenter suggests, “skim,” which is how “scan” is used in assessing online marketing copy; such text is supposed to have have “scannability,” achieved via headlines, subheads, bullet points, etc.]

(Deploying text for good interactive usabilty is a separate issue. In the early Web days, I think we sometimes confused it with this one.)

The CUNY panelists gravitated naturally toward considering whether quality is endangered, and if so, whether that’s because the financial models for delivering quality journalism to readers are — not endangered — demolished! — by the rise of new technologies. On the one hand, the good long stuff, in the oldest, best modes, does exist online — often but by no means always on the websites of the old-school magazines — and it’s even lionized (given the name “longform,” for example), fostered and promoted by efforts like Longform and Longreads. As print magazines collapse financially in the face of digital, there are ways in which digital is actually preserving the longer form.

The overall tone of the panel seemed to suggest that the ultimate questions may therefore be business ones. Continue reading

The Strange Case of “The Surrender of Washington Hansen”

[or: “I Wouldn’t Give a Hoot in Hell for My Journey Now” (Cash)]

[UPDATE: Part Two of this thing is here.]

In a break from my usual topics, this is the strange history of the one novel I’ve written, The Surrender of Washington Hansen. At some point soon I intend to find an interesting way to publish it. Probably for reading on a digital device and/or using the Espresso process for print on demand. Given that I publish books with actual publishers, given the time that’s elapsed since I wrote the novel, and given the novel’s progress through a Hollywood film-rights process, without yet seeing screen or page, this post might be seen as one of those things that get hyped on book reissues this way: “with a new introduction by the author!” — But in this case it’s for a book that few people have read.

But I think the book’s progress, or lack of same, makes a bleakly interesting saga of the ups and down of the writing game. Also, the novel’s themes (or whatever), which developed well before I ever thought I’d write or publish any real American history, or write or publish any nonfiction at all, connect with and reflect on my current history themes (or whatever) in ways I never could have perceived when I started writing history, but are pretty glaring to me now.

If I self-publish the novel, some readers of The Whiskey Rebellion, Declaration, and Founding Finance may agree. Or not. Continue reading