Look Homeward, Angel

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Don’t Believe the Haters: In Defense of ‘Genius’

In Orlando, Virginia Woolf explains that “No passion is stronger in the breast of man than the desire to make others believe as he believes. Nothing so cuts at the root of his happiness and fills him with rage as the sense that another rates low what he prizes high.” This precise breed of rage has compelled me to write a defense of Michael Grandage’s Genius. Critics have been merciless and viewers were equally unimpressed — 48 percent and 59 percent respectively on Rotten Tomatoes.

I saw the film twice in its brief run and I’ve since read Look Homeward, Angel. The Maxwell Perkins biopic (based on A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius) had been on my radar for over a year and I harbored skepticism over whether the filmic medium could do justice to a pivotal figure in American literary history. The movie won me over completely and though it had its faults I recommended it to anyone who would listen — booklover or not (which I now realize may have been misguided).

Genius focuses on Perkins and Thomas Wolfe’s friendship, working relationship, and the events that led to Wolfe’s leaving Scribner’s to prove he could be successful in his own right without Perkins’s editing propping up his work. The plot also follows Perkins’s relationship with his wife and daughters, and Wolfe’s tumultuous romance with Aline Bernstein. The film asks questions: What proportion of his life should a man devote to his work? Is this proportion different for an artist? What role should an editor play to a writer? Did Perkins exert undue influence over Wolfe’s work?

When I read the reviews I was somewhat surprised at the negative reaction, but more surprised that there wasn’t at least one high profile review that lauded the film. Major critics were uniformly unenthused. They say Jude Law’s Thomas Wolfe was hammily acted. The foot stomping and hand clapping and “Aw, shoots” likely inspired this maligning of Law’s portrayal. These manifestations of Southerness are too unsubtle and cliche. But the writer was a ham. He is known for his larger than life personality and verbose style. Also criticized: Law’s southern accent sounded too hillbilly and not aristocratic enough. In Look Homeward, Angel — Wolfe’s virtual autobiography (or as near as a work of fiction can be) — the Gants are no aristocrats. They are poor folk. Wolfe is from a humble background and his accent and his southern affectations have only become cliche, have only become affectations, because they are used as quick identifiers for Southern fictional characters. The Southern gimmick is rooted in the reality of authentic Southern qualities and behaviors that existed in real people at one time. A.O. Scott of The New York Times excuses the actors, instead blaming the screenplay, “the actors can perhaps be forgiven, since they are continually pushed into scenes that seem designed to halt subtlety in its tracks.” This lack of subtlety contributes to the primary criticism of “cheesiness,” which is identified in Jude Law’s “hammy acting” and the bromance premise of the movie.

I formed a self-righteous theory: those panning the movie were unsympathetic to the world of Perkins, Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. This theory is self-aggrandizing certainly, but it may explain the extreme divide between polemical reviews and paeans to the film.

Reading reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, it appears Genius suffers from a love-it-or-hate-it polarization that is likely rooted in its somewhat abstruse subject matter. Maxwell Perkins is a hero to lovers of American literature, but he is unknown to the general public. I would expect that the majority of people who saw Genius during its short life in theaters were already acquainted with Perkins and his authors. This precondition could explain the 10 percent gap between critic and audience ratings. Say audiences had at least a tenuous grasp of Perkins’s story and a fondness for the publishing industry in the 1920s — they would be partial to the movie before stepping into the theater. These are the reviewers who would advise you to ignore the philippics (“Don’t allow other reviews to prevent you from an opportunity to experience something very special”), express regret for the unflattering reviews (“Sorry to see your low score”), and care so much as to experience indignation (“I’m incredulous at the bad reviews of this movie”).

David Fear levies what sounds like an accusation of intellectualism: “Every scene seems to be lit in a way that screams ‘you are watching a prestigious period pic.’” Could it be a fair accusation? Is it possible that being estranged from the works of the famous writers depicted prevents the audience from fully engaging with the movie and misinterpreting a director’s reverence for pretentiousness? There is a mythic quality about Maxwell Perkins for those who worship at the altar of American literature. Non-believers may not be able to see how or why such a figure commands such interest if they are unfamiliar with the history he helped create.

Of course a movie should not only be appreciated by an audience that already favors its content, but it should be noted that the biggest fans are often the harshest critics. Consider any superhero film — the diehard fans pick apart inaccuracies and find innumerable faults. What matters and ultimately decides if the diehards approve of an adaptation is whether it is respectful to the spirit of the source material, even if the details are impossible to stay entirely true to. Genius is true to the spirit of Thomas Wolfe — he is how I imagine the author of Look Homeward, Angel must have been.

For the movie to resonate you must have either an appreciation for the works Perkins edited or a prerequisite interest in the questions listed above. I came to the movie with both. I judged the movie as I judge most — did it accomplish what it set out to do? I believe so. I was inspired to write; I was moved by the friendship; I was scared by the power of pride and love and regret. But it is possible that my love for the film is due to my furnishing of details, my reading into a richness of character that was not spelled out in the film. Herein lies the movie’s greatest weakness: Genius relies on a sympathetic audience. And so what I wish to impress upon you is that if you are of this number you may find the film not only lovable, but moving and worth re-watching.

I do not believe Genius should win Best Picture or even be nominated. But I do believe it was dismissed unfairly and that its main criticisms are misplaced. Reviews penned by those who do not have a predilection for the Lost Generation and the works they produced state that a movie about editing is simply not cinematic. Many critics belabored the red pencil circling and underlining shots as demonstrative of the unimpressive and uncinematic act of editing. Peter Debruge says, “it’s nobody’s idea of interesting to watch someone wield his red pencil over the pile of pages.” Genius is about more than editing, but it does successfully illuminate its perils, and the moral crisis editors face in shaping someone else’s work. I will not deny that more people are interested in organized crime than book editing when it comes to sheer volume — but that does not classify editing as unfit for cinema. “Cinematic” is not a fixed quality — any story can be cinematic if it is told artfully. The criticism that the process of publishing a book is not cinematic speaks more to narrow-mindedness and generalizations about what the masses find interesting than any failure on the movie’s part.

But again, this takes us to the interests the audience must bring to the film. The film itself may not be able to inspire an interest in editing for someone who did not already harbor one. My message is for those who may have been interested in Genius but were deterred by the widespread and unvaried denunciations of the film. You should give Genius a chance (especially if you have read something Perkins’s red pencil touched) and trust that critics’ rejections might have been misplaced. Anyone who has ever loved an author through his or her work should find something to love in this film.

Comfort Objects


1.
My animosity toward musicals began in my youth, when I was still in elementary school in the late 1970s. My hatred of the art form stemmed from mother’s love of it. My mother, Carmella, never watched much television and had little interest in the arts. But whenever The Sound of Music was broadcast on television, she would claim the TV set in our house.

No matter how many times she had seen The Sound of Music, she would watch it again and again. Mom knew the words to all of the songs, and she would sit on the couch in the basement family room of our raised-ranch home in Rome, New York, a smile plastered on her face, her dark head bobbing to the music as she hummed or sang along to the tunes. Sometimes my father, my sister, Lisa, or I would humor Mom and watch the 1965 film with her; more often Mom watched it alone, drinking her coffee, smoking her cigarettes and munching on popcorn.

But although I appreciated the talent of Julie Andrews and felt some affinity for the von Trapp family, I could never make it through a full screening of the movie. Besides being long, The Sound of Music seemed sentimental and geared toward a female audience; as a ten-year-old boy, I was more interested in watching football, baseball, Wild Kingdom and Walt Disney specials. My interest in the musical waned after the opening sequence with Andrews prancing in a meadow and belting out the title track, with the words: “The hills are alive with the sound of music.”

If I did sit on the couch next to Mom and attempt to watch the movie with her, I would offer commentary and make fun of the action on screen. “This is so stupid,” I would say. I couldn’t understand why the characters would be talking normally one moment and then suddenly start singing. The gazebo scene with Rolfe and Liesl presents the most annoying example of this “breaking into song.” The two meet in a park and the conversation turns to Liesl’s age. Rolfe tells Liesl, “You’re such a baby.” Liesl replies, “I’m sixteen, what’s such a baby about that?” And then Rolfe begins singing: “You wait little girl, on an empty stage, for fate to turn the light on…” Soon they are dancing inside the gazebo, their figures illuminated by a stylized lighting pattern as rain streaks the windowpanes. It seemed ridiculous to me, and my mother never explained the concept of the musical genre, the goal of telling stories and conveying emotion through dialogue, song and dance.

Still, if Mom was watching the movie, I would try to stick around for the song “Maria” so I could sing along loudly, changing the lyrics to, “How do you solve a problem like Carmella?” Mom would become irate and order me out of the family room.

One year my father and I escaped the noise of The Sound of Music by hiding out in our mudroom, adjacent to the family room, where we played a game of Nerf basketball while Mom tried to watch her show. But even though the door was closed, we made too much noise, our bodies brushing against the drywall as one of us drove to the rim while the other tried to block the shot. Mom hopped off the couch, marched across the room and banged on the door. “Cut it out in there,” she yelled.

I don’t know why I resented the movie so much or felt compelled to disrupt her evening’s entertainment. I should have sacrificed my time and watched the film quietly with her, trying to learn from it and appreciate what Mom saw on screen; instead I made it difficult for her to enjoy the experience. I guess I couldn’t accept her need for the repeated viewing. I would argue with her about it.

“Mom, you’ve seen it a million times. Why do you need to see it again?” She would only say,
“Because I want to. That’s all.”

I didn’t understand at the time the lure of familiar works of popular culture and the comfort they bestow. The Sound of Music touched my mother in a special way and gave her momentary pleasure. For only a few hours one night a year the film made her forget her worries about finances or her unhappy marriage to my father. I have since discovered how we often return to our favorite songs, movies and books, seeking contentment or an escape from our daily lives.

For me it’s the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart and Donna Reed. I screen it every year during the Christmas season. I know all of the dialogue before it’s spoken, and my family gets annoyed with me over my repeated viewing. But just like Mom with The Sound of Music, I can’t stop myself from watching the saga of George Bailey’s frustrated existence in Bedford Falls — no matter how many times I have seen it before.

One of my favorite moments in the film comes when George proclaims to Mary Hatch (Reed):
I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long.
But George never left Bedford Falls, becoming trapped by having to run the Bailey Building and Loan business after the death of his father. Growing up in the small city of Rome, tucked in the Mohawk Valley in central New York state, I could relate to George’s desire to flee the provincial setting of Bedford Falls, to explore the  world and to pursue his ambitions.

I recognized the same theme in Thomas Wolfe’s autobiographical, coming-of-age novel Look Homeward, Angel, as the protagonist, Eugene Gant, sought to experience life beyond the hills of  Altamont, a fictionalized version of Wolfe’s hometown of Asheville, North Carolina. I carried the same urges as George and Eugene when I left Rome on a cold October morning in 1994 — my used, silver hatchback loaded with my possessions — and drove southbound to Florida, where I would stay with a friend of my aunt’s and search for a job in journalism or the Sunshine State’s burgeoning film industry. I had received my master’s degree in film and video a year earlier and wanted to travel the U.S. while starting my professional life.

When I was a bachelor in my twenties and thirties, It’s a Wonderful Life provided emotional succor when loneliness consumed me at Christmastime; George Bailey gave me hope that it wasn’t too late for me to fall in love — that I could find my own version of Mary Hatch, get married and start a family. This didn’t happen until much later in my life, but the movie always lifted my spirits and helped me to withstand the hard times while I remained unattached.

And the enduring lessons about the importance of family, friendship and faith make It’s a Wonderful Life worthy of repeated viewing. Clarence, George’s guardian angel, sums up the movie’s theme with his inscription in a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer — left behind for George to read — “Dear George: Remember no man is failure who has friends.”

2.
After my mother remarried, and before lung cancer claimed her life in 2011, I watched The Sound of Music with her at her new home with my stepfather, Bill. My sister and I had bought Mom the DVD for Christmas or her birthday one year, sometime in the early 2000s.

I kept quiet while I sat on the couch next to Mom, glancing over at her occasionally, like when Christopher Plummer and the von Trapp family sang “Edelweiss.” Even though so much time had passed, the joy on Mom’s face resembled the delight she had exhibited when I was a child. Her face still looked the same while watching the movie, and this time I didn’t spoil her happiness.

In Defense of Editors

For a while now, I’ve tried to think of an apt analogy for the relationship between writers and editors; the best thing I’ve come up with so far is this: writers are to editors as Scarlett O’Hara is to Rhett Butler–the former, passionate to the point of temporary blindness; the latter, surefooted and collected, all the while attempting pragmatism, though it must be passion, in the end, that drives them in the same direction.

Maybe it’s not a perfect analogy. In fact, in my experience, more often than not, writers are grateful for a second set of eyes committed to improving the work. But as history will have it, the most fascinating of the writer-editor relationships are the most contentious, the boldest edits the most memorable: Maxwell Perkins cut 65,000 words of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel; T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland was published at about half of its original length based largely on Ezra Pound’s edits, and the deft opening of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises was a result of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s criticism. For all the ego warfare, the three sets of relationships survived, if tenuously. But more notably, works that were deemed “unreadable” (to borrow Perkins’ description of the early Wolfe) and “unpublishable” (to quote Perkins on the first draft of The Sun Also Rises,) emerged as some of the most lasting pieces of 20th century American literature.

Most recently, Carol Sklenicka’s new biography of Raymond Carver, Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life, dredges up yet again what has perhaps become the messiest of all writer-editor relationships, between the Carver and his editor, Gordon Lish. Prior to Sklenicka’s book, in 1998 the New York Times published D.T. Max’s unprecedented account of Lish’s extensive edits followed by an interview with the embittered editor. What was established in the article and is readdressed in Sklenicka’s book is that Lish did not edit Carver’s monumental collection; rather, he commandeered it. Ten out of thirteen endings were changed, stories were drastically cut, and Lish took liberties with rewriting, to say the least.

I first read What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the collection most notoriously edited by Lish, nearly twenty five years after its 1981 debut, and despite all the debate over who’s responsible for its brilliance, it remains one of my all-time favorite short story collections. And so during the time I was discovering that Carver wasn’t so much an author of this tremendous book, but an author in the shadow of it, a sense of indignation burgeoned inside of me. To quote D.T. Max: “I wanted Carver to win, whatever that might mean. He had shown writers the value of measuring your words.”

The thing is, as I’ve gone back to the collection over the years, I’ve gone back and forth on why I’d ever adopted this sense of outrage over Lish’s edits. It’s part human compassion, sure–you want Carver, the once alcoholic janitor, to be the genius his book suggests he is. But why is it upsetting when it’s the editor that was in large part responsible for it? Every writer needs an editor, and if Lish took more artistic license than most, he was doing his job–namely, he was making the changes he thought necessary to make the book as good as it could be. Does it matter that he manhandled the manuscript if it’s better for it? Even Carver, in his letters to Lish published by the New Yorker in 2007 acknowledges that Lish “made so many of the stories in this collection better, far better than they were before.”

His reluctance to have the edited versions published was out of fear that his peers–Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff among them–that had seen earlier drafts would hardly recognize the stories as the ones Carver had originally written. “Maybe if I were alone, by myself, and no one had ever seen these stories,” his letter explains, “maybe then, knowing that your versions are better than some of the ones I had sent, maybe I could get into this and go with it.”

As we know now, Lish got his way by ignoring Carver’s pleas. Thus, the point of contention among the old friends: What We Talk About transformed Carver into a darling of the literary world, and despite his last-minute reservations and desperation, he didn’t deny himself the glory the book won him, and he remains one of the most revered writers of the 20th century. From the New Yorker article, a quote from Tess Gallagher, with whom Carver lived after his divorce from his first wife until his death in 1988:

What would you do if your book was a success but you didn’t want to explain to the public that it had been crammed down your throat?…He had to carry on. There was no way for him to repudiate the book. To do so would have meant that it would all have to come out in public with Gordon and he was not about to do that. Ray was not a fighter. He would avoid conflict because conflict would drive him to drink.

As Carver’s celebrity grew, so did his confidence; Cathedral came out two years later, and at Carver’s behest, Lish hardly touched it. If it’s not the monument What We Talk About is, it is his most decorated work, with a Pulitzer and National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, and is generally regarded as Carver’s “truer” work. While I certainly agree that it contains some masterful fiction, I stand by my preference for What We Talk About. What some critics and peers have called greater “heart” in Cathedral Lish referred to as Carver’s “creeping sentimentality,” and while the subject matter of a middle class in ruins remains undeniably Carverian, the tone takes a noticeable shift–to put it one way, there is optimism in the latter book, where the prior is renowned for its lack of it.

Though Sklenicka’s biography raises the issue of Carver’s true identity as a writer once again, after all is said and done, the fear of his being exposed as a no-talent buoyed by his editor is irrational. It’s been over ten years since Lish’s heavy hand has been revealed, and Carver’s place among the masters of short fiction still stands. On the other hand, Lish has taken something of a beating for it; “I can only be despised for my participation,” he told Max during the interview. He may always be revered as an editor and credited with launching the careers of writers like Richard Ford and Amy Hempel who emerged in Carver’s wake, but in an abstract sense, Lish–or rather, his aggressive editorial approach–is easy to demonize. He expressly went against Carver’s wishes and instead did what he thought was best. He doesn’t seem like a terrifically nice guy, albeit pretty funny (see The Believer interview excerpt.) But niceness is, by and large, irrelevant to art.

I certainly don’t mean to suggest that editors ignore their writers’ requests altogether, but in this particular instance, Lish usurped Carver’s work, and with it, some of his identity. It was traumatic at times for both parties, but in terms of art and aesthetic, wasn’t it worth it? There will be those that disagree that preservation of the artist’s vision is secondary to the art itself, but ultimately, art exists to affect, and the greater the affect, the greater the art, regardless of who’s responsible for it.

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