The Impediments of Style: Advice from Steven Pinker and the CIA

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Earlier this year, when the CIA’s style manual was released online (pdf), writers and editors across the web took note. Bureaucracies are often criticized for propagating opaque prose — the kind of double-speak that pronounces very little with an abundance of words. But here were CIA directives that sounded far more like Strunk and White than big government.

Keep the language crisp and pungent; prefer the forthright to the pompous and ornate.

Favor the active voice and shun streams of polysyllables and prepositional phrases.

Be frugal in the use of adjectives and adverbs; let nouns and verbs show their own power.

The stylistic advice was surprisingly insightful, applicable to novelists and bureau chiefs alike. As with all in-house style guides, there was also plenty of real estate devoted to the specific semantic battles at hand:

Use hyphens (not en dashes) in the compounds designating Russian submarine classes when the compounds are used adjectively. If the meaning is clear, refer to these submarines by the class designator alone. Yankee-class, Delta-class, Victor-class, etc.

Specific usage guidance is, of course, the hallmark of the in-house style guide. It attempts to systematize and make consistent the thousands of choices writers and editors make across the organization’s publications and websites. Should it be Web or web, Internet of internet, the Oxford comma (Tom, Dick, and Jane) or the AP-style comma (Tom, Dick and Jane)?

Many style manual enthusiasts — myself included — came away from reading the Directorate of Intelligence Style Manual and Writers Guide for Intelligence Publications impressed with its thoroughness, precision, and literary authority. It was a far cry from the stereotype of greybeard bureaucrats churning out impenetrable tomes of officialese.

In Steven Pinker’s new book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, he argues that opaque prose is not a product of dubious intentions. Bureaucrats and business managers aren’t trying to sound smarter or more important than they really are, just as tech writers aren’t trying to provoke an aneurism when they write cryptic wi-fi installation instructions. Pinker sets aside the “bamboozlement theory” of bad writing and, instead, settles on the Curse of Knowledge as prime mover and impediment — a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.

As an antidote for stuffy or impenetrable prose, he offers us the paradigm of “classic style,” a model articulated by the literary scholars Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner in their book Clear and Simple as the Truth. According to this model, “a writer of classic prose must simulate two experiences: showing the reader something in the world, and engaging her in conversation.” In order to achieve this, the writer must enlist the sensibilities and imagination of the reader. It’s not that far from Flannery O’Connor’s idea that fiction is like an essay that makes an argument to the reader’s senses. The argument is clear and concrete; there is something to see. The prose becomes a window onto the world.

In addition to debunking the idea that there’s a widespread conspiracy among fussy prose writers to delude their readers, Pinker also suggests that the grammar and usage police are often unnecessarily grumpy and shortsighted. “Language is not a protocol legislated by an authority but rather a wiki that pools the contributions of millions of writers and speakers, who ceaselessly bend the language to their needs and who inexorably age, die, and get replaced by their children, who adapt the language in their turn.” The language grows and adapts to our needs and it never stagnates. Strunk and White might have condemned contact as a verb because it seemed “vague and self-important,” but Pinker defends its very indeterminacy: “…the vagueness of to contact is exactly why it caught on: sometimes a writer doesn’t need to know how one person will get in touch with another, as long as he does.”

Pinker is on a mission to remove the heckling usage purists from the back of the linguistics classroom. As a psycholinguist and cognitive scientist, Pinker turns out to be oddly at ease when arguing that declining language standards — if they are declining at all — will not result in the fall of civilization. He’s not arguing for the abandonment of rules and guidelines, but for a middle way — “…writers will do themselves a favor, and increase the amount of pleasure in the world, if they use a word in the senses that are accepted by literate readers.”

If there are impediments to a clear, evocative, and forceful style, they can be organized under a few descriptive headings: metadiscourse (the classic, self-referential preamble about why this topic matters), the burden of cliché, the curse of knowledge, false reasoning, apologizing, mixed metaphors, a blindness to the engineering of syntax. Zombie nouns, a term borrowed from the writing scholar Helen Sword, deserve special scrutiny. This apocalyptic vision occurs when the writer turns a “perfectly spry verb and embalms it into a lifeless noun by adding a suffix…rather than postponing something, you implement its postponement.” Sword and Pinker call them zombie nouns because “they lumber across the scene without a conscious agent directing their motion.”

You can feel Pinker having fun on the page as he slays the demons of soggy prose and the purist’s irrational scorn with equal zeal. Ultimately he’s not just interested in explaining why pedants get it wrong when they say “describe yourself in 50 words or less” should be “describe yourself in 50 words or fewer.” He’s happy to school us in the misapplication of the count noun rule, but he’s happier when enticing us to reverse engineer the web of words and meanings imbedded in a beautiful passage. Language is personal with Pinker and he even offers us a passage written by his novelist wife so we can meditate on its loveliness. This is ultimately why style matters in the first place, Pinker argues, because it allows us to create a window onto the world for others to look through. The CIA’s correct hyphenation of a Russian submarine class is part of that, but so too is the expansion of clarity and beauty.

The Literature of the Standing Desk

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Illustration from an 1899 book, School Hygiene, by Dr. Ludwig Wilhelm Johannes Kotelmann, John A. Bergström and Edward Conradi.

In an 1883 article from Popular Science, Dr. Felix Oswald expounds on the remedies of nature. Mingled with imperatives about taking cold baths before dinner and opening bedroom windows at night is this pearl: “At the first symptoms of indigestion, book-keepers, entry-clerks, authors, and editors should get a telescope-desk. Literary occupations need not necessarily involve sedentary habits, though, as the alternative of a standing-desk, I should prefer a Turkish writing-tablet and a square yard of carpet-cloth to squat upon.”

The Turkish writing tablet never quite took off, but the standing desk, over a century later, has entered its heyday. It’s changing the cubicle skyline of corporate America, the open-plan shared workspaces of the startup world, and the studios and work nooks of thousands of writers across the country.

Facebook reportedly has about 350 standing desks, with another 10-15 requests coming in each week from employees. The desk manufacturer Steelcase began selling height-adjustable desks in 2004. Since then, sales have increased fivefold. Its clients include Apple, Google, Intel, Boeing, and Allstate.

As a novelist with a day job in the high-tech world, I see standing desks popping up all around me. They range from jerrybuilt towers of books with balanced flat-screen monitors to ergonomic masterpieces with whisper-quiet hydraulic systems. A friend of mine who writes for Rolling Stone stacks several reams of paper on his conventional desk and perches his laptop there. My boss, a digital marketing director who’s a little under five feet tall and comes to work in heels, has a sleek model from Varidesk and an inch of cushioning foam at her feet. She spends most of her days sitting in meetings, so she relishes the forays back to her desk to check emails. She claims that standing helps her concentrate and sleep better at night.

According to recent studies, the health risks of sitting for prolonged periods of time are significant. After an hour of sitting, the production of enzymes that burn fat in the body decline by as much as 90 percent, thereby slowing overall metabolism. Interestingly, while the scientific data around the perils of sitting is better today than it was in 1883, the year of the Popular Science article, the reason people stand to work are largely the same — they feel more energized and compelled by the task in front of them, whether it’s editing a novel or a spreadsheet.

Winston Churchill at his standing desk.

For writers, the standing desk has a long and prestigious lineage. It’s often seen as a workhorse of productivity and inspiration. Great novels and speeches, treaties and philosophical tracts, have all been written at the height of the sternum. Kierkegard, Dickens, Hemingway, Woolf, Nabokov, Churchill, and Thomas Jefferson all used them. Though, to be fair, they weren’t always faithful to their tall desks. Churchill sometimes liked to lie in bed, propped up on pillows, when he was working on a speech or manuscript. And Jefferson liked to use a lap desk on occasion. But it’s hard to imagine either politician producing their most muscular prose while reclining. Surely “We shall fight on the beaches” and the original draft of the Declaration of Independence were written from behind slanting, adjustable desktops. Jefferson’s standing desk even had two extra legs to keep him anchored during his mental heights.

Mrs. Dalloway was written at a standing desk. So was David Copperfield. The 19th-century novelist Elizabeth Gaskell noted the layout of Dickens’s study: “…books all round, up to the ceiling and down to the ground; a standing-desk at which he writes; and all manner of comfortable easy chairs.” In the 20th century, Quentin Bell, Woolf’s nephew and biographer, wrote that she “had a desk standing about three feet six inches high with a sloping top; it was so high that she had to stand at her work.” It’s often said that Woolf treated an emerging manuscript like a painter’s canvas, that she liked to step away from the work to consider it from new angles.

Hemingway at his improvised standing desk in Cuba.

Hemingway’s standing desk was perhaps the crudest of them all — a set of bookshelves with a typewriter perched on top.

In a 1954 Paris Review interview with Hemingway, George Plimpton begins by describing the writer’s workspace in Cuba:

“He has a special workroom prepared for him in a square tower at the southwest corner of the house, but prefers to work in his bedroom, climbing to the tower room only when “characters” drive him up there…The room is divided into two alcoves by a pair of chest-high bookcases that stand out into the room at right angles from opposite walls…It is on the top of one of these cluttered bookcases — the one against the wall by the east window and three feet or so from his bed — that Hemingway has his “work desk”—a square foot of cramped area hemmed in by books on one side and on the other by a newspaper-covered heap of papers, manuscripts, and pamphlets.”

Nabokov, like Churchill and Jefferson, knew the value of standing to write, but he also knew when to sit down. In Brian Boyd’s Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years the famous writer’s afternoon routine is delineated:

“Nabokov would be back at his desk by one-thirty and work steadily until six-thirty. Normally he would have started the day in ‘the vertical position of vertebrate thought,’ standing ‘at a lovely old-fashioned lectern I have in my study. Later on, when I feel gravity nibbling at my calves, I settle down in a comfortable armchair alongside an ordinary writing desk; and finally, when gravity begins climbing up my spin, I lie down on a couch in a corner of my small study.”

Philip Roth also uses a lectern, at least he did until he publically announced that he was retiring from writing. In the documentary Philip Roth: Unmasked, we see the writer at his standing desk — one at his Connecticut hideaway in the woods and another in his Upper West Side work studio. The lectern is kept at right angles to the view, presumably to avoid distraction. Roth has said that he paces about half a mile for every page he writes.

Philip Roth at his lectern. Credit: Nancy Crampton

Despite the undeniable health benefits and the pedigree of the standing desk, there’s something about the seated desk that’s hard to give up. For one thing, it has deeper drawers and recesses for hoarding stationery and curios. The Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, has collected a number of famous desks over the years, including ones that belonged to Edgar Allan Poe, Compton MacKenzie, and John Fowles. In 2008, when John Fowles’s widow shipped her husband’s archive and desk to the Ransom Center, she left the entire contents of the desk intact. For sheer variety, it’s hard to beat what’s tucked inside the Fowles’s much-loved desk, its left drawer marked with scrawled addresses and phone numbers in the author’s hand.

Newspaper clippings
A set of blue labels with white string ties
A box of staples
Old photographs
A Richards Sheffield pocketknife
Four pairs of eyeglasses
An envelope of dried seeds
Two canisters containing typewriter ribbons
A tin of pastels
A paper fan
Swedish and Greek coins
A leather dice shaker
A pair of medical scissors
Two pipes
A set of brass knuckles

The list goes on. For every five practical items, like a box of staples, there is something enigmatic, like the set of brass knuckles. Given that fiction involves the careful selection of details that are concrete, sensory, and significant, Fowles’s desk is a microcosm of the writing enterprise itself. It contains worlds.

The standing desk, on the other hand, is less capacious and sentimental. There’s very little room to store abandoned manuscripts, rejection letters, or knickknacks. Distractions are kept to a minimum. It’s taller, sleeker, and less hospitable than its slouchier cousin. In the way that it mimics a lectern, a podium, or a drafting table, it reminds the writer that this activity requires blood, enzymes, and exertion. Here is your novel, spread out like a map or a campaign speech. Here are your poems, arranged like blueprints. Pace, stamp your feet, fold your arms, but stay upright. Stand there like it’s the prow of a ship.

How Many Novelists are at Work in America?

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1. A Breadcrumb Trail of Recent US Writing and Publishing Stats

2012 fiction books published with an ISBN: adult fiction 67,254; YA and juvenile fiction 20,339
2012 Net book sales: $27.1 billion
2011 books published: traditionally published 347,178; self-published 235,000
76 percent of all books released in 2008 were self-published
Roughly 50 percent of all fiction published (traditional or self-published) is a romance, mystery, sci-fi, or fantasy story
1900 independent bookstore locations in 2012
1 percent chance across all genres of a published book being stocked in a brick-and-mortar store
20 percent of all books sold in 2012 were e-books
Approximately 185 U.S. institutions granting MFAs in fiction
Best markets for fiction sales: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington D.C.
600-700 books received weekly by LA Times for review consideration
197,768 self-reporting writers in 2009
39 percent increase between 1990 and 2005 in the number of writers and authors

Sources: Publishers Weekly, “Artists and Arts Workers in the United States Findings from the American Community Survey” (2005-2009) and the “Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages” (2010), American Booksellers Association, Bowker Books in Print, Association of Writers and Writing Programs, Huffington Post, LA Times, The New York Times.

2. How Many Novelists are at Work in America?
Recently, the BBC reported that one in 10 Icelanders will publish a book at some point in their lives. Per capita, the island nation has more readers, writers, and books published than anywhere else on the planet. Since there are a little over 300,000 Icelanders, we can estimate that more than 30,000 writers are in various stages of germination, many of them novelists.

There are times when I feel like Austin, Texas, where I live, is a little like Reykjavik. Aspiring, failed, midlist, and commercially successful novelists abound and they all seem to frequent the same coffee shops, attend the same readings, and know the same people. A large Icelandic family might have to endure two or three writers at the same dinner table, but in Austin I can’t get my haircut or order a cortado without overhearing a plot summary. I’m exaggerating a little, but not by much. By all accounts, Brooklyn and Portland have it worse. But half of the Austinites I know are writing a book, most of them novels. (That I need to broaden my social circle goes without saying.) Recently, a friend — a blessed non-writer — asked me what he thought was a fairly straightforward question: How many novelists do you think are at work in America? He tossed it off casually, like he was asking about average rainfall or median house prices. He wanted a reasonable answer and I said I would have to get back to him. I carried the question around for weeks, rolling it over in my mind, afraid to look at it in broad daylight. The stats above reveal some of the breadcrumb trail as I tried to find an answer.

Before sifting through the numbers, I want to point out that there’s an inverse relationship between small business entrepreneurship and the number of people writing novels in America. While the number of self-employed Americans has been dropping for years and is considered by most economists to be in steady decline, the number of novelists continues to grow. There are more novels being written and published (traditionally and through self-publishing) than at any other time in U.S. history. A handful of novels were published during the writing of this paragraph.

That a novelist is nothing like a small business entrepreneur is rather obvious. For one thing, novelists typically don’t assess the market to see if there’s a demand for their labor of love before they begin production. If anything, the decision to write a novel is driven by a kind of secular faith. The process requires enormous amounts of time, energy, and heartache, with no guaranteed return on investment. Like belief in a higher power, the will to publish a novel ignores all the atheistic arguments and the cold hard numbers. Sure, there are some outliers and windfalls. But would anyone start the small business Novel-in-Progress if they knew that the average book in the U.S. sells less than 3,000 copies over its lifetime? Actually, yes, many of them would.

That every novelist occupies a magical realist mindset is worth considering. Annually, there are laments about the death of the novel or at least the death of the good and interesting and innovative novel. From what I can tell, though, there are a few hundred thousand American novelists who pay no attention to this cultural distress call. How many exactly?

Since self-publishing accounted for about 76 percent of all titles in 2008, and amounted to 291,000 titles across all genres in 2012, we should take the term novelist in the broadest possible sense. I’m referring to people who are actively writing novels with the intention of publication — either through self-publishing channels or through traditional publishing houses. (I realize this is a broad definition; one might argue a novelist has to have published a novel to be called that. But most dictionary definitions simply state that a novelist is “a person who writes novels.”)

My numbers include reported statistics, educated estimates provided by reliable sources, and personal extrapolations. One limitation is that Bowker Books in Print tracks titles by ISBN number, so we don’t always know exactly which reported titles are self-published or traditionally published. Of course, many self-published books never bother with obtaining an ISBN for a print or e-book. Also, there isn’t a separate category just for adult novels. “Adult fiction,” as reported by Bowker, includes novels, short story collections, and graphic novels written specifically for the adult market.

Now, let’s grapple for The Number…

Let’s start with how many people report being a writer or an author. For NEA statistics, survey respondents identified writing as their “primary” job. Their estimate for 2009 was 197,768 self-reporting writers and authors. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics uses a similar category and pegs the number for 2010 at 145,900, with 68 percent being self-employed. For both agencies, “writing” includes advertising writers, authors, biographers, copywriters, crossword-puzzle creators, film writers, magazine writers, novelists, playwrights, sports writers, and lyricists. (By the way, according to the NEA stats, there are about 9,000 self-reporting writers living in Texas and I’m pretty sure 8,500 of them live in my Austin neighborhood.) Now, not every self-reporting writer is a novelist or earning any living from fiction. What about the engineers and dentists writing a bildungsroman on the weekends? There’s no way to accurately account for them. (They might be partially captured in readership numbers for periodicals like Poets & Writers, which has a readership of 100,000, with 63 percent of readers reporting that they write fiction.)

So let’s turn to the number of self-published and traditionally published works of fiction in 2012: 67,254 for adult fiction, 2,200 for young adult, and 13,297 for juvenile fiction. These include anything published with an ISBN number, either self-published or from a traditional publisher. Since the juvenile market isn’t known for its novels, we can assume that the adult fiction and young adult novels account for no more than 70,000 titles. Assuming most writers can’t turn out a book every year, an average of a book every 3 years would be the high end (James Salter’s most recent book ended a 30-year stretch without a novel). So let’s say or imagine there’s a pool of 210,000 writers producing fiction with an ISBN number. There are obvious problems with this number. For one thing, it doesn’t properly account for new entrants into the market. What about the couple thousand fiction MFA graduates each year who are getting up early to write their novels before a non-literary day job? Also, we need to take out short stories and graphic novels from the 70,000 yearly titles. And we need to add in self-publishers without an ISBN.

Can we agree on a low-end pool of 250,000 active novelists? If I had to account for all the people writing novels that will never see the light of day, in either self-published or published form, I’d put that number at one million. That’s less than a third of one percent of the population. Established novelists and jaded critics, take heart.

What if we want to know about novelists publishing only in mainstream presses? If we go back to 2002, before the dramatic rise of self-publishing, we might get some insight. In 2002, 25,000 fiction titles were published. We can assume the vast majority of these were from mainstream and small presses, not through self-publishing channels. If the same ratios hold for today as compared to 2002, then adult fiction from mainstream publishing would account for 18,700 titles. Half of that is so-called “genre” fiction. So let’s call “literary novels” a little under 10,000.

Getting back to my inquisitive non-writer friend, the real answer is that no one knows exactly how many novelists are at work in America. We can guess and infer and extrapolate. The truth is that no one’s ever asked the question of the U.S. population in any organized way. There’s never been a “novelist” box to check on a tax form or on a state agency survey. After studying the data, I’m inclined to think there’s a million people writing novels, a quarter of a million actively publishing them in some form, and about 50,000 publishing them with mainstream and small, traditional presses. Then again, I have a novelist’s penchant for rounding numbers for the sake of narrative convenience. Putting the numbers aside, what we do know is that there’s an army of folks writing novels — some bad, some glorious — against staggering odds. Writing a novel is like starting a small business and investing thousands of hours without knowing exactly what it is you’re going to end up selling. It’s a leap of faith every time, even for someone who is five novels into a career.

Perhaps the most revealing statistic of all is one that’s buried in the sea of data. The NEA reports that of all the self-identifying authors and writers, 46.8 percent report arriving at or starting work at noon or later. There are two ways to interpret that number. The first way is to say it includes all the fulltime novelists who are just getting their workdays started. That sounds like a pretty nice life to me. But the other way it to say it includes the legion of unknown novelists who get up early to work on books before they start an unrelated day job. They spend their mornings writing novels that the world hasn’t asked them for and that the world — statistically — will largely ignore. Call it a kind of mad devotion.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Where Is All the Fiction in Space?

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As NASA readies its next Mars launch for today, we’re getting used to the idea of entertainment in space. Recently, Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut, shot a music video of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” onboard the International Space Station and it quickly went viral. It’s had about 19 million views on YouTube — about half the population of Canada. And then Lady Gaga announced that she’ll be shuttling into space to perform a single track in 2015 as part of Zero G Colony music festival. But where’s all the literature in space? Actually, it turns out poetry is fairly well represented and there’s more on the way come Monday. But it’s pretty much a fiction desert up there.

There are two poetry recordings making their way through interstellar space. In 1977, NASA launched Voyager I and II, and the former has officially left the embrace of the solar system. It’s traveled roughly 12 billion miles since it was launched, becoming the first man-made object to reach the cusp of interstellar space known as the heliopause. For 36 years the probe has been carrying the Golden Record, Earth’s mix tape for future humanity or curious aliens who know how to spin vinyl, whoever finds it first. Etched into the grooves of the Golden Record (it’s actually gold-plated copper) are 116 photographs of earthly life, 90 minutes of music — from Bach to Blind Willie Johnson to a Navajo night chant — greetings in 54 languages, and a sonic essay that features wind, rain, birdsong, and the yowl of a wild dog. Because there is also a written Presidential address from Jimmy Carter, NASA felt that it should acknowledge the role of Congress by including a list of its members, many of whom advocated for the space agency in Washington during the 1970s. There are also two recorded poetry excerpts. The French delegate to the UN, Benadette Lefort, quotes the first two stanzas from Baudelaire’s poem “Elevation” in Fleurs de Mals:
Above the lakes, above the vales,
The mountains and the woods, the clouds, the seas,
Beyond the sun, beyond the ether,
Beyond the confines of the starry spheres,

My soul, you move with ease,
And like a strong swimmer in rapture in the wave
You wing your way blithely through boundless space
With virile joy unspeakable
Anders Thunboig, Sweden’s UN delegate, follows suit by reading from Harry Martinson’s poem “Visit to the Observatory.” Compared to the Austrian delegate’s utterance — “As the chairman of the Outer Space Committee of the UN and the representative of Austria, I am pleased to extend you our greetings in this way” — the Swedish and French sentiments feel like outpourings of pure, terrestrial emotion.

So there’s a smattering of poetry wending its way through space and apparently there’s more on the way. Over the summer, NASA announced that it would be hauling more than 1,000 haiku on this month’s launch of its Mars-bound spacecraft, Maven, courtesy of a University of Colorado Going To Mars competition (the winning entry: It’s funny, they named/ Mars after the God of War/ Have a look at Earth). But where’s the fiction drifting through the dark sea of ionized gas? Outside of whatever the crew of the International Space Station happens to have on their Kindles and iPads, it’s a fictional wasteland up there. If we could make the Golden Record all over again, wouldn’t we send at least one Chekhov story? And I’m pretty sure aliens or our distant future cousins would gladly swap out the list of congressional members for passages from Lolita or Madame Bovary.

What follows is a completely biased, unrepresentative sample of what I consider to be fictional cornerstones worthy of sending into the galactic void. In the spirit of compression — there’s only so much a copper-plated LP can hold — I limited myself to scenes or moments from fiction of the 20th century. My apologies to the three preceding literary centuries. And the current one.

The prologue from DeLillo’s Underworld
The road trip from Nabokov’s Lolita
The first encounter with Septimus Warren Smith in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway
The scene in which Viri gets measured for custom shirts in James Salter’s Light Years
The first fevered dream in Katherine Ann Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider
The harrowing moment when the Professor realizes his fate in Paul Bowles’s “A Distant Episode”
The scene on the beach between Seymour and Sybil in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”
The final dialogue between The Misfit and the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
The scene where Otto and Sophie seek respite at their country house in Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters.
The opening pages of Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, leading up to the line “This is the great invention of our time.”

Like all lists and mix tapes, this is a wildly imperfect one. It fails to take account of world literature and it’s probably got a heavy male bias. Asking for a top ten from any writer forces them to dispense with things they should include to things they must include. It’s reasonable to ask: what would anyone make of these fictional slivers without the full context of the story or novel in question? On the other hand, they’d probably glean more about our planet from these vivid and fraught moments, from the crafting of human language, than they would from the Voyager photos of a supermarket and the Sydney Opera House.

As it turns out, these selections have something in common with the Golden Record’s most intimate recording—the sound of a woman’s body as she experiences the first throes of romantic love. As Ann Druyan has described elsewhere, when she was first falling in love with Carl Sagan — to whom she was married until his death in 1996 — she went to Bellevue Hospital so they could record the sounds of her body. If the aliens can follow the scientific notation we’ve posted for them and fathom how to place the stylus into the gold-plated grooves, they’ll hear Ann’s smitten metabolism and the thrumming of her love-addled heartbeat. In other words, they’ll have direct access to human interiority. If we’d sent along some of our best and most haunting fiction, the effect might have been the same.

Image credit: Pexels/Delcho Dichev.

Letter of the Law: On J.D. Salinger, Unpublished Works, and US Copyright

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In the acknowledgments for Salinger, the new biography that accompanies the documentary about the reclusive lion of 20th-century literature, the authors state: “Most biographies include photographs of and letters to and from the biographical subject, but as in the case of someone as secretive as Salinger, photographs of Salinger and letters from him were extremely difficult to come by.”

David Shields and Shane Salerno are not the first Salinger biographers to be hampered by the author’s shadow life. In fact, current U.S. copyright law is bolstered by a former biographer’s clash with Salinger over access to the author’s unpublished letters. In the 1980s, Ian Hamilton excerpted from a slew of Salinger letters that had been donated to the archives of Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Texas at Austin. The letters were quoted extensively in a draft that went out to reviewers and that was planned for publication by Random House. When Salinger’s agent, Dorothy Olding, passed along an uncorrected proof to the author in late 1986, he formally registered his copyright in the letters and told his lawyer to object to the publication of the book until all contents from the unpublished letters had been removed. Hamilton acquiesced and revised many of the letter excerpts into close paraphrases. For example, “like a dead rat…grey and nude…applauding madly” became “resembling a lifeless rodent…ancient and unclothed…claps her hands in appreciation.” The artfulness of such paraphrases aside, they didn’t appease Salinger and he sued Random House for copyright violation, breach of contract (Hamilton had signed copyright forms at the archives in question), and unfair competition (it was sometimes ambiguous as to whether the words were Salinger’s or Hamilton’s; why would consumers buy actual books of Salinger letters?)

The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York decided Salinger had enough of a case to issue a temporary restraining order pending an appeal. In any determination of fair use or copyright infringement under U.S. law, a judge looks at four factors: the purpose and character of the use; the nature of the copied work; the amount and substantiality of the use; and the effect of the use upon the work’s value.

In 1986, the Court of Appeals ruled in Salinger’s favor and thus began a new era in U.S. copyright law. Not only were unpublished works on their way to becoming covered under the fair use constraints and privileges, but a bright line was also drawn around unpublished letters. In subsequent copyright case law, a distinction was made between the vehicle of a letter (the paper it’s written on or the virtual notepad of an email) and the expression of the words themselves. This same logic is applied to unpublished creative works.

Here’s how it works: Say I write you some letters or stories in college and then go on to become famous. Years go by and we fall out of touch. One day you’re cleaning out your attic and you find a stash of my pithy dispatches from the dorms. You decide to sell them to an archive and they happily buy them and make them available for researchers studying my oeuvre. What the archive has actually bought are the pieces of paper and single-serving rights for researchers to consume them. The words themselves, my use of vocabulary and vivid imagery, these continue to remain my property. Not only that, but for up to 70 years after my death, my estate can continue to control the ownership of those words.

Given the impact of the Salinger case on copyright, for some years there was uncertainty about whether or not a writer could quote at all from unpublished letters, regardless of where they resided. In Wright v. Warner Books, a subsequent lawsuit, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals clarified that some amount of quotation from unpublished works, including letters, could qualify as fair use. The Copyright Act was then updated to include unpublished materials.

Unlike Hamilton’s biography, which was shelved and then reworked as In Search of J.D. Salinger, the new book by Salerno and Shields breaks new ground and pushes the boundaries of the sometimes rigidly imposed set of U.S. copyright rules. Salinger contains excerpts from dozens of the author’s unpublished letters. There’s a hint in the book that cooperation from Salinger’s children was part of the project at one point, though later withdrawn, so we can’t know for sure what kinds of permissions were granted. But given the secretive, almost hostile nature of Salinger and his subsequent estate’s relations with the wider world, it would be fair to assume that none of these excerpts came with the express permission from the author or his heirs. Depending on how you look at it, including extensive excerpts from those letters is either an invasion of Salinger’s privacy or a coup for fair use, a boon for biographers working in archives everywhere.

With an abundance of caution, I recently sat with the Salinger archive at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. For a novelist treading water in the middle of a draft, an archive is both an escape and a frustration. It might be fun to see the prosthetic eye Denis Johnson wore during his walk-on role in the film adaptation of his book Jesus’ Son (yes, the Ransom Center owns that motif from “Emergency”), but it doesn’t get me any closer to the end of my own book.

There are two Salinger archival boxes, both nondescript and smelling faintly of old typewriter ribbon. The reading room rules forbid you from removing more than one folder at a time from the document boxes, so the hungry archival researcher is forced to observe a measure of restraint. At most, you can walk briskly back and forth between the cart where the boxes sit and the well-lit wooden desks where you can plumb the sleeved documents for their secrets. I decided to skip the letters from Salinger to long-time friend Elizabeth Murray, from 1940 to 1963. According to the finding aid, they dwell on such things as the breakup of Salinger’s first marriage and his relationship with Oona O’Neill, daughter of Eugene O’Neill and the fourth wife of Charlie Chaplin. Instead, I went straight for the story manuscripts.

The first was the manuscript for an unpublished story named “Birthday Boy,” about a young man in the hospital for depression who is visited by his girlfriend on his birthday. Apparently from the early 1940s, the story is fledgling and uneven, as if Salinger hasn’t quite found his stylistic swagger. On the top right hand corner of the first page are some notes in red pencil. They’ve been partially erased and then crossed over with a regular lead pencil. I can’t be sure, but the red-penciled letters look like the rejection comments of an editor.

The second manuscript was for an early draft of a story called “I’m Crazy,” which eventually appeared in the December 1945 issue of Collier’s. It was also the literary debut of Holden Caulfield, who would go on to become the endearing and angst-ridden protagonist of Catcher in the Rye.

Despite the fact that some degree of quotation from unpublished works has won legal ground under fair use, most archives insist that no quotation is allowed without permission from the estate and the archive. If you follow this line of reasoning, as Hamilton was forced to do, even paraphrasing too closely is an infringement. According to this notion of copyright, I may report facts and ideas, but not expression. As one archivist put it in an email: “only if you are speaking generally about the manuscripts (supplying a description, for example)” do you not need permissions.

Curiously, though, under all three sets of rules — copyright, fair use, and most archive policies — I am free to use my iPad to take good resolution images of unpublished manuscripts so long as I don’t share them publicly. Who can say if this extends to the privacy of my own home where I might convert an unused closet into a Salinger shrine? Such is the fickleness of U.S. copyright law.

Although I won’t or can’t or shouldn’t quote directly from the unpublished manuscripts, nothing prevents me from describing them in general terms. So I can, for instance, tell you that in the fledgling draft of “I’m Crazy” in which Holden appears for the first time, the narrative is in third person. When it is published in Colliers, the narrative stance switches to first person. And by the time Holden crosses the transom into Catcher, as we all know, he’s found his full-blown voice, a blend of angst and innocence that has captured readers for generations. (The book continues to sell about half a million copies a year.) That Holden first walked onto the novelistic stage in third person might come as a profound shock to Salingerites — it did to me. A simple point of view switch is par for the course in many burgeoning novels, but this one is particularly momentous. Here, in the archive, we see Salinger before he’s broken through. We might have assumed that Holden had come to Salinger fully formed, as if through a divine channel, but the sobering news — and the glimmering gift of such archives — is that he emerged fitfully and through a series of false starts.

Perhaps one day soon the morass that is U.S. copyright law will be simplified. At the very least, maybe more of us will understand it. In preparing to write this piece, I reached out to an award-winning novelist, a respected journalist, an academic, and a staff member of an archive. They all chimed in with slightly different answers about whether or not unpublished letters and creative work could be quoted, paraphrased, or described in general terms. If writers and researchers can’t absorb the law, then the lay public has very little chance. Chances are, though, the reading public could care less about the fate of unpublished stories and letters when so much new Salinger work is allegedly about to hit the streets. Salerno and Shields assure us that between 2015 and 2020, we’ll see, among other things, five new Glass family stories and fiction that further fleshes out the story of Holden Caulfield. That’s better than waiting for the clock to run out on Salinger’s copyright on former work. I’ll take that over a first run of “Birthday Boy” in the pages of The New Yorker in the year 2083 any day.