Stealing Words

You’ve probably heard all about the kerfuffle last week when Jonah Lehrer, a talented, young writer resigned from The New Yorker after admitting that he’d fabricated quotes attributed to Bob Dylan, patching together pieces of quotes others had gotten the old-fashioned way. Apparently, this wasn’t his first infraction, and Lehrer had previously been given a smackdown (albeit a gentle one) for lifting stuff from the The Wall Street Journal and a couple of other publications. This is nothing new. In 1998, Stephen Glass, a rising star at The New Republic was discovered to have been writing almost pure fiction during his tenure right under the noses of his colleagues, some of whom were widely recognized as some of the best minds in journalism. And then there’s Jayson Blair, who had to resign from The New York Times after he was exposed as plagiarist.

Interestingly, in each of the scandals, there was a fair amount of denial going on. Time and time again editors were forgiving of these transgressions and decided to “give the kid another chance” or chalk it up to a simple “mistake.”  To see how that can happen, you might want to check out, ‘Shattered Glass’, the film about the Stephen Glass debacle, with great acting by Hayden Christensen and the always amazing Peter Sarsgaard.

This phenomenon is not unique to journalism of course. People lie all the time in just about every field, unfortunately, but unless they’re pretending to be medical doctors or faking qualifications to fly jets, chances are they’ll by and large get away with it. But something about stealing the words of another is particularly odious to me. Maybe because I know how agonizing it is to come up with your own. Still, there is a part of me that sympathizes with these young writers at high-performance publications. The pressure to produce your pages must be incredibly intense, but they can’t just meet the word limit, they have to be brilliant while doing so.

And I do mean brilliant. I used to subscribe to The New Yorker and finally had to stop because I found that every single issue had something that was worth highlighting, attaching a Post-it note to for future reference or simply re-reading for the purpose of admiring the elegance of the prose. It made me sick, sick, sick with envy. So I stopped getting it. No, but seriously, I stopped because I could read it online and because I was building a veritable monument of saved magazines in one corner of my living room that was almost as tall as I am. These are not lightweights, is my point. The writers are held to incredibly high standards that I think might undo many of us, particularly if you’re the kind of writer who waits for the muse to visit and finds it difficult to produce a single word on command.

Another complicating factor is that writers tend to be voracious readers as well, and consumers of information in all forms. I cannot tell you how easy it is to have a stroke of genius come to you in the middle of the night, a particularly clever turn of phrase that later, over breakfast cereal, you realize is not your phrase at all, but a line from a song, or a movie or – the horror! – someone else’s goddamn book. And when that happens, it’s the scariest thing in the world. So I get the “mistake” defense completely. But apparently, this latest scandal is on a different scale altogether. Intentional fabrication disguised as fact is a tough sell.

Next month, ‘The Words’ starring Bradley Cooper and Zoe Saldana will hit theaters. It’s about a writer who faces the pressure of wanting to produce meaningful work that also supports him and comes up short. He discovers a manuscript, written by someone else that he passes off as his own and with that finally gets the acclaim his own writing did not. While I know that human beings are capable of all manner of petty deceptions or grand delusions, I’m fascinated that someone would do such a thing and am really interested to see how this character is developed. In my experience, few people write to become rich and famous.

First of all, writing is an inherently solitary pursuit; it’s just you and your words. And generally speaking, I think writing as a craft attracts people who prefer it that way, people who are hopeless cocktail party companions because they would rather not talk to you at all, they would rather be alone and writing. For the most part these are not people who want to be famous. Rich, maybe, acclaimed, yes, but not famous. Second, the point of writing, perhaps the only point is to see whether you can conquer the written word, whether you can sculpt and mold it into something that conjures up for others the picture in your mind. I can’t imagine why anyone would forego that pleasure and challenge in favor of a fleeting taste of fame. So I have no idea why the Bradley Cooper character does it in this film but I’m curious enough to go see it when it comes out.

As for Jonah Lehrer, I suspect the write-on-command construct was just all wrong for him. The tragedy of it is that no one seems to question his talent; but as a writer it’s the kiss of death to be known as someone who was caught stealing words.

Snarky: When Good Critiques Go Bad

Click image to read the full review.

In my limited time blogging, I haven’t been shy about saying what I don’t like about a certain popular trilogy.  In fact, I’m rarely shy about anything, even admitting when I’m wrong. Yesterday, I grabbed a link from somewhere that led to a particularly lengthy takedown of the series, the characters, the editors, the readers and finally, the author. It was easily a 2,000 word tome, this “review”.  And I use the word review loosely because the writer/reviewer seemed to have spent as much time grabbing movie clips online as she did critiquing the content of the books. She freely admitted to having hated the first one from the very first sentence, and nevertheless being inexplicably drawn to read the second and third installments. And at some point, what began as amusing and creative became a cesspool of pure, unadulterated snark. Meanness of the worst kind, bordering on cruelty.

Now there is no doubt that writers voluntarily put themselves out there when they put pen to paper and publish their work. Generally speaking, we want to hear what people think and keep our fingers crossed that there is some segment of the reading public who will like what we’ve done.  And with this particular series, there is no doubt that a significant percentage of the public liked what this initially self-published author did. So much so that not only publishing houses, but Hollywood came calling and she landed a seven-figure deal for the film adaptation of her work.  Now, say what we will, this is every self-pubbed author’s dream scenario. We can pretend that we would be equally satisfied if we had no public support but plenty of critical acclaim, but I don’t buy it. Ideally, we would have both, but my guess is that if forced to choose, a majority of us would take the cash.

That’s likely what’s behind a lot of the snark about this series. The awareness that with negligible talent, this writer was able to pull off something that happens to one lucky author once every decade, if that. She has become the Kim Kardashian of the literary world – someone who is viewed as famous with very little natural ability to justify that fame, and the wealth that’s come along with it. I don’t even have to imagine how much that’s pissed off the literati, all I have to do is Google the name of the books and the word ‘review’ and a flood of snark will come cascading my way, some of it well-meaning and much of it funny, but most of it just plain nasty.

I had the series recommended to me by a family member who said she loved it. I told her I’d heard about the hype and would read it, so I did. I admit that by the time I finished the first few chapters of book one, I felt somewhat like a hostage to my impulse to finish all reading material that I start. And by the end of the trilogy, I was downright resentful at the series’ success. That feeling lasted for about a week.  And then common-sense returned. And following that, empathy.

Here’s the thing folks: it takes extraordinary bravery to share what you write. Few of us who do feel completely confident about what we have committed to the page. And fewer of us still will write something and go on to share our work despite our insecurity about how it may be received. Even praise doesn’t banish our uncertainty. One bad review can negate all the good ones, no matter how numerous they are. Hence all the jokes about book critics with that novel hidden in the bottom of their locked desk drawer. And let me tell you, when you read some of the reviews of this popular trilogy, almost all have flourishes that reek of  “frustrated-unpublished-novelist.”

I think the writer of this trilogy, however technically flawed her product, spoke to something that women are feeling today.  I for one am intrigued about what that might be and what it says about us. So lately I’ve begun to focus more on that question, and less on the millions of dollars this author is earning, some say unjustifiably. I’ve also decided to focus on the guts it took to put herself out there, knowing that legions of armchair critics would be polishing their swords, ready to eviscerate her for having the temerity to think she had something to write worth reading.

I say more power to her.  And to those purveyors of snark, go ahead, let’s see some of your work. I dare you.

Imperfect Beginnings

I’m a sucker for a good love story. And I think most of us are. The difference may be that some of us like our love stories unvarnished and unadulterated, and others like it wrapped in painstaking detail about a different time, a different place, or with interesting background circumstances and a swirl of other goings-on.

I like love stories with unconventional beginnings, beginnings that are imperfect. I think that’s usually how real life love stories begin, especially today, and especially with modern, liberated women like ourselves. Sometimes our love stories begin with us sleeping with a man sooner than is advisable; or we fall for someone who is inaccessible because he’s married, or dating someone else, or lives on another continent, or is emotionally closed, or unwilling to change.  So in my stories, there is almost always a love story at the core, but what surrounds it is different.

Right now I’m experimenting with writing love stories where the conflict isn’t whether the man loves the woman, or loves her enough; it isn’t whether she loves him, or loves him in the way he needs to be loved. Rather, the conflict comes from almost entirely external forces.

Fame is one that I’m finding really intriguing right now. Over the summer, my friends and I have had frequent conversations about an interesting social phenomenon embodied in reality shows like ‘Basketball Wives’ or ‘Mob Wives’ and I think there was a ‘Football Wives’ and ‘Hip-Hop Wives’ show at one point. So I began to wonder what it must be like to be defined almost solely by who you’re married to; and not even who specifically, but in terms of what he does for a living, and whether its something high-profile.

From everything I’ve seen of these shows, I was horrified by how constrained and how small the worlds of these women are. They are locked in these prisons of their husbands’ or partners’ public identity and as a result make a tempest in the tiny teapots that are their lives. And that got me wondering: what would it be like for a woman who had her own strong and defined identity to enter that world? What challenges would she face adjusting to becoming just the “wife” of a famous person, and less so, her own person? And more than that, how might it be for a man who has seen other wives fit into that small world come to realize that his wife will not, and cannot do so? How might he react?

I imagined he would be threatened by it, but aroused by it and maybe even proud of her for it. I imagined that he might be conflicted because if her independence was what made her attractive to him, he also wouldn’t want to squelch that spirit, even if it befuddled him and frustrated him and made him crazy with jealousy.

And from that thought process, my novel, ‘Commitment’ was born.

I wanted to explore how a couple like the kind I’ve just described would navigate this new territory for them both, and I wanted to watch their relationship organically unfold as I wrote. So for that reason, I wrote ‘Commitment’ without an outline and let the characters themselves determine where they would go. So what they say, and what they do in the book was not predetermined by me, it was a function of what that ‘person’ would do in that given situation. (As any novelist will tell you, what most people would call their ‘characters’ become very real . . . they are people, just as certainly as you or I.)

So anyway, that’s a little of my thought process that I thought I would share.

I’ll close with my opening theme: imperfect beginnings. As an overlay to the theme of fame and relationships, I also worked in the notion that a great love story can begin imperfectly. The main characters in ‘Commitment’ sleep together the very night they meet (and there are other circumstances that make that a particularly bad idea, but I won’t ruin it for you). I think most of us would agree that that generally doesn’t lay the foundation for a durable and profound connection. But I believe that despite that beginning, such a connection could develop, and so I wanted to explore how that might happen.

Read ‘Commitment’ and tell me what you thought  . . .