Tag Archives: Bruce Springsteen

Noted: Jonah Lehrer’s downfall

Yesterday I got around to reading the New York Times Book Review’s full-page massacre of Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer, and wished I’d been even more grudging in my own piece touching on the bestseller. Then later in the day the news broke that Lehrer had invented quotes he attributed to Bob Dylan, and I wished I’d mentioned my own reservations about the Dylan material, which appears early in the book.

They were these:

• Dylan’s use seemed gratuitous in that it was poorly integrated and not very illustrative. Dylan is shorthand for creativity writ large, granted. But a better example might have been Bruce Springsteen, with his creative process recently explored in a documentary about the making of his great album Darkness on the Edge of Town. (Springsteen is the subject of an exhaustive profile by David Remnick in the current New Yorker.)

• I disagreed with Lehrer’s interpretation of Dylan’s historic “gone electric” British tour. (Of course it occurred to me, with mingled pride and mortification, that I’ve been thinking about Dylan longer than Lehrer, thirty one, has been alive.)

• The quotes were not attributed, first seeming to imply Lehrer had gotten an interview—highly unlikely—and when it was clear he hadn’t I wondered about his source. Why not give credit, if only for historical reasons, as he would have had to do for The New Yorker where he was a staff writer? A big trade-press gloss on clunky journalistic technique, I supposed.

I couldn’t check my second bullet point, by using Amazon’s “look inside feature,” to recall what Lehrer said about Dylan’s tour or the songs he performed because like any manufacturer with a defective product, Houghton Mifflin has recalled it. (I’d gotten it from the library.) The other consequence of his “piping the quotes,” as old newspapermen used to say, is that Lehrer has had to resign as a staff writer for The New Yorker.

Googling Lehrer now turns up all kinds of stuff, like the post by Josh Levin on June 19 in Slate revealing that Lehrer has been “self plagiarizing”—recycling material in his New Yorker blog that he’d written for other publications. This passage by Levin was prescient:

For a writer as prolific as Lehrer, reusing a phrase every so often may be unavoidable. But why would a writer as accomplished as Lehrer become this much of a copy/paste addict? Because he has ceased to be a writer. With the success of his recent books How We Decide and Imagine: How Creativity Works, Lehrer has moved into the idea business. This is the world of TED talks and corporate lectures, a realm in which your thoughts are your product. For the idea man, the written word is just one of many mediums for conveying your message and building your brand.

Contrast Lehrer’s busyness with elderly New Yorker staffer John McPhee, a far more conservative writer who has been faithful to the written word in two mediums, the magazine and some twenty-nine books—no blogger, he—and who has forged a style that makes a virtue of clunky transparency and self deprecation. In his current chatty piece in The New Yorker about editors he has known, McPhee works his persona: On my best day I wasn’t as smart or as colorful as these guys, my legendary editors. Kind of like Dylan’s claim that he’s just a tin pan alley song and dance man, but whatever.

Not just Lehrer but his editors seem to have been juggling too much. For a lapsed neuroscientist and Rhodes scholar, Lehrer was really dumb to pipe quotes about Dylan: there are too many Dylan fanatics to let that stand. Among a few others, John D’Agata recently has been defiant about his license to make up stuff in nonfiction. But once again, we see that readers and the publishing marketplace ultimately demand that writers try to be honest. Which resides partly in transparency—generally credit sources even if that’s clunky—and resides partly in the mythic, historic, and poetic vision of the writer as someone after truth.

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Filed under honesty, journalism, NOTED, teaching, education

Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, Walker Percy

My southern fiction orgy last summer started with Flannery O’Connor. Since I often dip into her stories, I bought and read the latest bio of her, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch. I hoped to learn how she got so wise, and so dark.

Apparently, her mother and their ouchy relationship. And Flannery’s imaginings: she seemingly nudged her own prickly ways a bit to depict sullen grown children like the nasty daughter-with-PhD in “Good Country People”; she showed in masterpieces like “Everything That Rises Must Converge” how such prideful offspring suffered when their mean or silly but always prideful mothers passed.

In her stories O’Connor killed off women like her mother, the most famous instance in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” But she told friends she was safe: her mother didn’t read her stories, found them too depressing. Flannery is a good biography but Gooch doesn’t tell enough about O’Connor’s able, assertive mother, a sharp businesswoman who, astoundingly enough, ran a successful farm by herself in backwater Georgia. And cared for her lupus-afflicted daughter, who couldn’t drive and whom she drove into town to Catholic Mass daily.

Flannery O’Connor never married and died at 39, but she did know romantic love, Gooch reveals: she had one boyfriend, a book salesman. But he’s quoted as saying that the time he kissed her passionately on the lips her lips collapsed and he found himself kissing her teeth. The experience felt like kissing a corpse to him—repulsed, he ran off to Sweden and married another woman.

The bio led me to reread some of her great stories. They’re such distilled parables that their similar plots are striking, and I wonder how she got away with it. On the other hand I marvel at how the differing surface details of her stories obscure the possible downside of the similarity of her plots. Did critics ever complain?

Even though there’s a lot of humor in her stories—they are funny as hell, so to speak—too much O’Connor depresses me.  But listen to her reading  “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in 1959 at Vanderbilt and you’ll enjoy the humor, some broad and some sly, especially if you’ve just read the story.

To cleanse my palate after Flannery and her stories, I read To Kill a Mockingbird, which drags a bit, to me. I enjoy better the movie, which compresses the novel’s three years into one. O’Connor famously dismissed Mockingbird as a children’s book. She has a point, but I disagree. O’Connor mistook Lee’s sunnier view of human nature for sentimentality, I think. Yet Lee’s vision of the human possibility of greatness rings true, as well as inspires, and it’s no more false or fantastic than O’Connor’s consistently bleak view of humanity.

Like O’Connnor, Lee hero-worshipped her father and had a difficult relationship with her mother—and of course Lee killed off the mother entirely in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus is Alabama’s most eligible bachelor. I next read the recent bio of Lee, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, by Charles J. Shields, which was decent. The book is handicapped by Lee’s reticence and by her lack of authorial productivity, leaving Shields with scant material.

His best explanation of why she failed to complete another novel she worked on, as well as a true-crime account planned along the lines of her friend Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, was that she was overwhelmed by the success of Mockingbird and quit. Anyway, that’s supposedly what she told a waiter in New York, says Shields.

All this led me back to one of my all-time favorite authors, another southerner, Walker Percy, who knew O’Connor. I reread his second novel, The Last Gentleman, the followup to his National Book Award winner The Moviegoer. I hadn’t read it in thirty years but adored it again for its humor and its rollicking road-trip structure; I was surprised by the beauty of its descriptive passages and by how Percy achieves lyricism in a stripped syntax that uses rhythm to avoid commas:

Nights were the best. Then as the thick singing darkness settled about the little caboose which shed its cheerful square of light on the dark soil of old Carolina, they might debark and, with the pleasantest sense of stepping down from the zone of the possible to the zone of the realized, stroll to a service station or fishing camp or grocery store, where they’d have a beer or fill up the tank with spring water or lay in eggs and country butter and grits and slab bacon; then back to the camper, which they’d show off to the storekeeper, he ruminating a minute and: all got to say is, don’t walk off and leave the keys in it—and so on in the complex Southern tactic of assaying a sort of running start, a joke before the joke, ten assumptions shared and a common stance of rhetoric and a whole shared set of special ironies and opposites. He was home. Even though he was hundreds of miles from home and had never been here and it was not even the same here—it was older and more decorous, more tended to and a dream with the past—he was home.

Gooch says in Flannery that Percy based his character “Val,” a nun, on O’Connor. That was one of the reasons I reread The Last Gentleman—I wanted to understand his take on O’Connor—but I couldn’t see much resemblance between them. And in the novel, Val isn’t much developed.

Then I reread Percy’s revisiting of these characters some years later in The Second Coming. I was surprised that Percy seemed to have forgotten Val’s lineage; he slips in the book’s only reference to her and refers to her as the heroine’s sister instead of as her aunt. Percy, of withered Protestant roots and a ferocious convert to Catholicism, seems to view the fallen world in a much more kindly light than O’Connor did. Much of The Second Coming deals with Will Barrett’s attempt to understand his father’s suicide. Like Barrett, Percy’s father killed himself, and so did his mother. Cancer got Percy, and he was trying to correspond with Bruce Springsteen about the biblical imagery in Springsteen’s songs when he died.

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Filed under fiction, NOTED, religion & spirituality, sentimentality, syntax, theme

Charlotte Roche, Mick Jagger, creativity

Charlotte Roche introduces her interview with Mick Jagger in German, then talks with him in English.

Charlotte Roche is the author of Wetlands, a novel, according to The Guardian, that “makes the Vagina Monologues sound tame,” and which has been a big hit in Europe, especially in Germany, where the author lives. I’d heard about it and how disgusting it is, but hadn’t read it until recently, intrigued by a student’s struggle to review it on campus for a literary journal.

And I can confirm: Wetlands is uber gross.

It’s also a genuine work of art. Just don’t plan to eat while you’re reading it—the student’s warning, now mine.  The story involves a teenage girl, one Helen Memel, who is in the hospital for rectal surgery, necessary due to an infection acquired from a shaving mishap. And that situation, as graphic as it becomes, isn’t one of the book’s particularly newsworthy bits, although the story flows, as it were, from it. Roche sets the tone in the novel’s first sentence:

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always had hemorrhoids.

Helen’s intimate habits, as revealed by her behavior in the hospital and in her inner musings and flashbacks, are truly nauseating—I can’t bear even to summarize them. But as the novel unfolds, we learn why she’s disturbed. Thankfully her voice, which narrates Wetlands, is sane and funny. I was impressed how one character’s voice and viewpoint could so easily carry the 229-page novel, as could its one setting and limited time frame: the book opens with Helen about to go under the knife and proceeds through her recovery and her intentional setback, a bloody self injury harrowing to read.

Roche was born to British parents, who moved her to Germany when she was eight, and she became a popular talk show host in Germany. She has said she doesn’t read much, herself, and that Helen is her alter ego; they share a few details in common, but Helen is largely a feminist device. What if women, instead of being the prudent and cleanliness-obsessed gender, were precisely the opposite? Roche conducted research for Wetlands, partly by going to brothels and interviewing prostitutes.

Her ten-year-old interview with Mick Jagger on YouTube is fascinating partly because she’s so young—ten years before Wetlands—and partly because, while Jagger was old even then, at least compared with her, his youthful freshness when he talks about writing is compelling. Now, I’m not the biggest Stones/Jagger fan—I’m a Beatles guy—but, hey, give the devil his due, or at least show some sympathy. Jagger notes that he at first wrote only lyrics and that Keith Richards wrote the “tunes.” As for writing itself: “The thing about writing, whether you’ve writing a book or a song, is you don’t need a lot of equipment. You need a pad and a pencil. And then you can get ideas. I like to go somewhere for like two weeks and just concentrate every day, a little disciplined.”

For instance, to write an album he makes himself start work at three o’clock in the afternoon and goes until seven, and then after a break he labors from eight o’clock to two a.m. He’s talking specifically about writing his solo 2001 album Goddess in the Doorway but his method seems codified. (His neighbor Pete Townsend and his buddy Bono sing with him on “Joy.” Roche notes that his song “Gun” on the album is “The nasty one,” and Jagger says, “Very nasty—they can’t all be nice.” Roche seems utterly delighted—as she does throughout.)

But here’s what struck me, beyond Jagger’s creative joy and craftsmanship: “After you go like this for two weeks you have a lot of stuff. At first it’s worrying, you never know if you’re going to get anything, but it always tends to come.”

Yes—art takes a lot of stuff because it takes selection. This is one of the secrets of a book-length work, I think, having a lot of material, to move around, to select from, to jettison. In the second part of the interview, Jagger mentions another writing phenomenon: how unplanned, surprising, personal, and even edgy stuff can surface in the process:

When you’re doing it you don’t realize what you’re writing, to be honest. That’s the good thing—because if you start realizing it, then you can say, “Oh, I don’t want to write about that.” And then you write it and say, “Do I really think that? I must probably think something of that.” Sometimes it comes out, a subconscious thing. It’s a revelation sometimes. You might not want anyone to know that about yourself, so you don’t have to put it out. There’s a song [on this album] called “Gun” and I didn’t really like the sentiments in it [about someone begging a woman to shoot him in the heart, since she’s breaking it anyway], I must admit. I don’t like guns. But in the end, I really quite liked the song— it’s tough. Sometimes you surprise yourself.

Malcolm Gladwell takes a detour to discuss Jagger’s creativity in his latest New Yorker article (May 16) “Creation Myth,” which discusses the tension between innovation and tried-and-true business products at Xerox and Apple in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Gladwell cites psychologist Dean Simonton saying genius comes from fecundity—lots of ideas, many bad—not just from having only great ideas: “Quality,” Simonton writes, “is a probabilistic function of quantity.”

In regard to Jagger, Gladwell goes to the authority: Keith Richards, who in his new memoir says the making of the classic Exile on Main Street album was an ordeal because the Rolling Stones had too many ideas—from Jagger, who scribbled down classics like “Brown Sugar” on a yellow legal pad and also lots of mediocre songs. Gladwell writes:

Richards goes on to marvel, “It’s unbelievable how prolific he was.” Then he writes, “Sometimes you’d wonder how to turn the fucking tap off. The odd times he would come out with so many lyrics, you’re crowding the airwaves, boy.” Richards clearly saw himself as the creative steward of the Rolling Stones (only in a rock-and-roll band, by the way, can someone like Keith Richards perceive himself as the responsible one), and he came to understand that one of the hardest and most crucial parts of his job was to “turn the fucking tap off,” to rein in Mick Jagger’s incredible creative energy.

This reminds me of the recent documentary The Promise, about the making of Bruce Springsteen’s greatest album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. Bruce didn’t have anyone to shut him down; what he had was a magic book of lyrics, as fat as your grandmother’s photo album, and bandmates who stood mute before his genius. They could only shake their heads as he threw out obvious hit after hit in search of the tone and thematic unity he sought. Darkness probably should have been a double album—and now is, and more, since the thirtieth anniversary edition, released last November. It now features twenty-one songs recorded in the studio sessions but dropped from the immortal original.

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Filed under fiction, NOTED, working method