Links: Joseph Epstein, A Smart (Finally) Women-in-Tech Piece, Gary Becker, Reading, and More

* “On Joseph Epstein,” which is of interest even when it is wrong; I’m also struck by how much things have changed: “In her 1939 essay ‘Reviewing,’ Virginia Woolf called the nineteenth-century reviewer ‘a formidable insect’ with ‘considerable power’ to alter the public reception of a book.” Today the barbarians aren’t just at the gates but in the temple.

* “It’s Different for Girls,” which is one of the only good women-in-tech pieces I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot of them); the last paragraph is especially good.

* Gary Becker died; here are a few of his papers.

* “How Creativity Could Save Humanity: Stefan Zweig, the obscure Austrian writer whose life and work inspired The Grand Budapest Hotel, believed imagination could help propel society toward universal tolerance and accord,” which has many counter-intuitive (to me) points; I especially like the comparisons between Europe and Brazil.

* Talent management in Silicon Valley.

* “U.S. children read, but not well or often: report.” My guess—and it’s purely a guess—is that the top end is doing extraordinarily well and perhaps better than ever (books are cheaper, good writing more available due to the Internet, good writing is more useful and visible, etc.—see Penelope Trunk’s dubious argument in “The Internet has created a generation of great writers “), and the bottom end that can barely read and write effectively has been with us since at least the 1960s and probably earlier. As with so much else I suspect that the middle is the real issue lies and where the real action is.

Part of this view comes from teaching English at the University of Arizona, where most honors students were at least competent writers for their age and some were really good—sometimes much better than I was at their age. Many professors and teachers do the standard bemoaning of the-kids-these-days-with-their-newfangled-gadgets, but I didn’t see much of that among those with real skills.

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration — Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace

Creativity, Inc. is an interesting book marred by consistently, distractingly bad writing. I read it based on John Siracusa’s review, which doesn’t mention style (and doesn’t quote). But writing about a book without discussing style is like writing about Apple’s laptops without mentioning it.

Many of Catmull’s stories are interesting; for example, he tells one about holding meetings around a long, narrow table that by its physicality tended to exclude people and produce hierarchy, especially since some people would get reserved seats. But he missed the problems at the time: “the seating arrangements and place cards were designed for the convenience of the leaders, including me. Sincerely believing that we were in an inclusive meeting, we saw nothing amiss because we didn’t feel excluded.”

But two of Creativity, Inc.’s main points—about the need to tolerate failure in the right circumstances and the need to foster a creative working environment—are dealt with by much better-written books: Megan McArdle’s The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success and Steven Berlin Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. Not surprisingly they’re both professional writers; either would’ve been a better choice to ghost / “assist” with his book, but they might’ve been a lot more expensive too.

The book should be great; instead, Creativity, Inc. is decent, with redeeming qualities. Had it been a Pixar movie subjected to the process Catmull describes, I think it would’ve been trashed or straightened out before hitting the metaphorical screen. Creativity, Inc. is so painful because it has the potential to be a monument rather than a moment. Its errors are elementary; its insights aren’t. In writing, it appears that Catmull doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. At Pixar he learned to know what he doesn’t know, but in writing he’s not there yet.

There are weird metaphors: “Sutherland and Dave Evans, who was chair of the university’s computer science department, were magnets for bright students with diverse interests, and they led us with a light touch.” So are they like magnets, which attract metal rapidly, or are they like human riding horses, which is probably where the “light touch” metaphor comes from? The mixing in this sentence is jarring. He has “a ringside seat” to ARPANET. Catmull writes that early film editors at Lucasfilm “couldn’t have been less interested in making changes that would slow them down in the short term.” But that seems unlikely: it’s almost impossible to get to a true zero level of interest. Chances are those editors could have been less interested, perhaps through hostility. In 1983, we learn that “George [Lucas] hadn’t lost an ounce of his ambition,” but how many ounces are there in the average person’s ambition? How many in Lucas’s? Talking about ambition in terms of ounces is common but whatever freshness and vitality the metaphor might have once had is gone. These examples come from the first 37 pages. There are so many other examples of weak writing and clichés that I stopped marking them.

Not every sentence must be brilliant or unexpected—that would be alienating—but some should be.

The best part of Creativity, Inc. is the last pages: “Afterword: The Steve We Knew:”

[Steve Jobs] used to say regularly that as brilliant as Apple products were, eventually they all ended up in landfills. Pixar movies, on the other hand, would live forever. He believed, as I do, that because they dig for deeper truths, our movies will endure, and he found beauty in that idea. John talks about ‘the nobility of entertaining people.’

It has fewer clichés, though I’m not sure why. Nonetheless, I wish the rest of the book had been more like the last ten pages. For the right person in the right industry at the right time, Creativity, Inc. is still worth reading. For the rest of us it’s a lesson in what might have and should have been.

Life: The role of luck edition

Luck is without a doubt an important ingredient in creative discoveries. A very successful artist, whose work sells well and hangs in the best museums and who can afford a large estate with horses and a swimming pool, once admitted ruefully that there could be at least a thousand artists as good as he is—yet they are unknown and their work is unappreciated. The one difference between him and the rest, he said, was that years back he met at a party a man with whom he had a few drinks. They hit it off and became friends. The man eventually became a successful art dealer who did his best to push his friend’s work. One thing led to another: A rich collector began to buy the artist’s work, critics started paying attention, a large museum added one of his works to its permanent collection. And once the artist became successful, the field discovered his creativity.

—Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention.

Should this be heartening or disheartening. Also: Compare it to “Photography and Tyler Cowen’s ‘Average is Over.’

Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine is still worth reading

Jonah Lehrer, as is now well known, repeatedly misrepresented research and plagiarized other people’s writing in Imagine: How Creativity Works. But, as Roy Peter Clark points out, “Jonah Lehrer’s ‘Imagine’ is worth reading, despite the problems.” Clark goes on to say, “not all the sins [Lehrer commits . . .] are equally grievous,” but, despite that, “the reading of the book ‘Imagine’ helped me understand my world and my craft, and what else can you hope for from a non-fiction book.”

I’ve found the same thing after reading Imagine based on Clark’s endorsement. But reading it in light of Lehrer’s indiscretions reveals new potential layers of meaning, because a couple of passages have a very different resonance, like this one, about Shakespeare’s milieu:

His [Shakespeare’s] peers repeatedly accused him of plagiarism, and he was often guilty, at least by contemporary standards. What these allegations failed to take into account, however, was that Shakespeare was pioneering a new creative method in which every conceivable source informed his art. For Shakespeare, the act of creation was inseparable from the act of connection. {Lehrer “Imagine”@221}

Lehrer seems to be using the same method. But the age of the Internet makes tracking sources much, much easier than it used to be. And he goes on:

The point isn’t that Shakespeare stole. It’s that, for the first time in a long time, there was stuff worth stealing—and nobody stopped him. Shakespeare seemed to know this—he was intensely aware that his genius depended on the culture around him. {Lehrer “Imagine”@221}

In retrospect, this reads as a preemptive defense of Lehrer’s own method. But I don’t get why Lehrer made stuff up: most of what he invented doesn’t seem to be very important, and it’s the kind of peripheral material that makes for good reading but isn’t essential. Given contemporary attitudes towards plagiarism—the passages above show that he knows and understands those attitudes—why risk so much for so little gain? It’s like a millionaire stealing a pair of $20 jeans. Why tarnish success? I can imagine some possible answers to these questions, but none of them are very satisfying, and I ultimately want to ascribe Lehrer’s lies to simple human vanity.

Imagine is still pretty interesting. I doubt it’s a perfect book, and I wouldn’t cite Lehrer in my neuroscience PhD dissertation. But I am now conscious of the tension between free-form creative thought and focused attention to a particular, grinding problem (“We need structure or everything falls apart. But we also need spaces that surprise us. Because it is the exchanges we don’t expect, with the people we just met, that will change the way we think about everything”); I am conscious of the need for both longtime collaborators and for new faces; and I am conscious of how people with deep domain expertise may benefit from applying that expertise elsewhere. Some of Lehrer’s points, like his description of the virtues of cities or the eccentric greatness of Paul Erdos, are already familiar. But he helps me see them in new ways. A moment like this, for example, shows me something important about my own writing and creative work:

Friedrich Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, distinguished between two archetypes of creativity, both borrowed from Greek mythology. There was the Dionysian drive—Dionysus was the god of wine and intoxication—which led people to embrace their unconscious and create radically new forms of art. [. . .] The Apollonian artist, by contrast, attempted to resolve the messiness and impose a sober order onto the disorder of reality. Like Auden, creators in the spirit of Apollo distrust the rumors of the right hemisphere. Instead, they insist on paying careful attention, scrutinizing their thoughts until they make sense. Auden put it best: ‘All genuine poetry is in a sense the formation of private spheres out of public chaos.’ {Lehrer “Imagine”@64}

I am far more in the Apollonian mode than the Dionysian mode, but, perhaps for that reason, I’m fascinated by and perhaps even envious of Dionysian thinking, acting, and living. A novel like The Secret History thus becomes all the more important to me, because it has an Apollonian narrator, Richard, dealing with the aftermath of an attempt to reach Dionysian ecstasy. In the novel, not surprisingly, the outcomes are pretty bad, but the idea of deliberately trying to reach an ecstatic experience resonates with my temperament.

There are some moments that appear, on the surface, self-contradictory. Lehrer says, “The most creative ideas, it turns out, don’t occur when we’re alone. Rather, they emerge from our social circles, from collections of acquaintances who inspire novel thoughts. Sometimes the most important people in life are the people we barely know” {Lehrer “Imagine”@204}.

Earlier in Imagine, however, Lehrer discusses how many creative ideas when people are taking morning showers—where most are presumably alone. So do creative ideas emerge from chatting with others, or when our mind is a relaxed state that lets it make disparate connections among ideas? The answer appears to be “both,” but Lehrer doesn’t explicitly discuss the implied contradictions. I’m not saying he couldn’t reconcile them, but I am saying that someone should’ve pointed these kinds of contradictions out.

Even if all of Imagine’s research and stories are somehow wrong—and I don’t think they are—the book still offers novel ways to think about creativity and how to structure one’s life or work more effectively and in ways that I hadn’t foreseen. I wish the publisher hadn’t withdrawn it altogether. Used copies on Amazon now start at $25. It may be that the existing copies thus continue to rise in value because of their scarcity; alternately, readers might turn to pirate editions on the Internet, which I can only assume are easy enough to find (my book came from the University of Arizona’s library).

Thinking about the process of being an artist and a writer: Lessons from David Galenson’s Old Masters and Young Geniuses

David Galenson’s Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity is the rare academic book that’s also useful for artists—most academic books are as useful for artists as syphilis is for prostitutes (the metaphor is intentionally gross, as it’s designed to express the artist’s reaction to turgid academic books).* This long quote encapsulates Galenson’s main point:

There have been two very different types of artist in the modern era. These two types are distinguished not by their importance, for both are prominently represented among the greatest artists of the era. They are distinguished instead by the methods by which they arrive at their major contributions. In each case their method results from a specific conception of artistic goals, and each method is associated with specific practices in creating art. I call one of these methods aesthetically motivated experimentation, and the other conceptual execution.

Artists who have produced experimental innovations have been motivated by aesthetic criteria: they have aimed at presenting visual perceptions. Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental. The imprecision of their goals means that these artists rarely feel they have succeeded, and their careers are consequently often dominated by the pursuit of a single objective. These artists repeat themselves, painting the same subject many times, and gradually changing its treatment in an experimental process of trial and error. Each work leads to the next, and none is generally privileged over others, so experimental painters rarely make specific preparatory sketches or plans for a painting. They consider the production of a painting as a process of searching, in which they aim to discover the image in the course of making it; they typically believe that learning is a more important goal than making finished paintings. Experimental artists build their skills gradually over the course of their careers, improving their work slowly over long periods. These artists are perfectionists and are typically plagued by frustration at their inability to achieve their goals.

In contrast, artists who have made conceptual innovations have been motivated by the desire to communicate specific ideas or emotions. Their goals for a particular work can usually be stated precisely, before its production, either as a desired image or as a desired process for the work’s execution. Conceptual artists consequently often make detailed preparatory sketches or plans for their paintings. Their execution of their painting is often systematic, since they may think of it as primarily making a preconceived image, and often simply a process of transferring an image they have already created from one surface to another. Conceptual innovators appear suddenly, as a new idea immediately produces a result quite different not only from other artists’ work, but also from the artist’s own previous work. Because it is the idea that is the contribution, conceptual innovations can usually be implemented immediately and completely, and therefore are often embodied in individual breakthrough works that become recognized as the first statement of the innovation.

Malcolm Gladwell steals much of Galenson’s work for his article “Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?” I say “steals” because Gladwell’s treatment doesn’t go very far beyond Galenson’s. That might be overwrought, but I still find it mostly true. Gladwell, however, does cite Galenson, which is how I found Old Masters.

I tend more towards the experimental mode: I rarely feel that I’ve succeeded, per se, although I am committed to finishing works—largely because I’ve discovered that finishing is essential to any artist, and one way to separate posers, of whom there are many, from people with real potential is to see if they have something they can show: a story, a picture, a song, whatever—no matter how bad. Then see if they produce something else. I also often repeat themes about growing up, the possibility of real friendship (especially between men and women), the power and estrangement of metaphor, and how to have an artistic temperament that nonetheless is rigorous and interested in understanding the world. I think so, anyway, although it’s naturally hard to judge one’s own works: perhaps someone else would derive different ideas.

I do, however, “tend to make specific preparatory sketches or plans” when I write, more so than I used to, but I’m not bound by them and those plans tend to be discarded about midway through a novel. Some writers apparently make very elaborate plans that they then simply execute, and I am not one, and I do feel very much like I am in “a process of searching” and of discovery, with the discovery being quite pleasurable. In most of my novels, I want to tell a story—I am not as interested in being able to express or communicate “specific ideas or emotions.” Emotions are the reader’s responsibility. Most of the time I start with characters and/or situations and want to see what might happen when those characters or situations develop. Writers who seem highly conceptual and not very interested in narrative, like Joyce, Pynchon, Morrison, and DeLillo are in turn not very interesting to me; they seem bloodless and dull, whatever their virtuosity with language. Unfortunately, they also occupy the academic high ground at the moment, perhaps because their methods and output lend themselves more easily to abstruse literary articles.

Writers like Robertson Davies, Elmore Leonard, (parts of) Tom Wolfe, and (parts of) Francine Prose are of much more interest. Someone like Philip Roth falls in the middle, but to me many of his novels become dull when their characters get bogged down in family or identity or political dilemmas (think of Sabbath in Sabbath’s Theater). In addition, there are very few writers whose entire oeuvres I like (Davies is an exception); most of the time I like particular books, or one or two books. Umberto Eco’s novels The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum have not been matched, not even close, by anything else he’s done; ditto for Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, or Richard Russo’s Straight Man and Empire Falls. Martin Amis seems to me to be at the peak of his powers with Money, and nothing else he’s written that I’ve read has the same appeal.

Galenson also sees conceptual innovators as tending to peak when they’re younger. I wonder if this is also related to something Doris Lessing discussed in her Nobel Lecture:

Let us now jump to an apparently very different scene. We are in London, one of the big cities. There is a new writer. We cynically enquire: “Is she good-looking?” If this is a man: “Charismatic? Handsome?” We joke, but it is not a joke.

This new find is acclaimed, possibly given a lot of money. The buzzing of hype begins in their poor ears. They are feted, lauded, whisked about the world. Us old ones, who have seen it all, are sorry for this neophyte, who has no idea of what is really happening. He, she, is flattered, pleased. But ask in a year’s time what he or she is thinking: “This is the worst thing that could have happened to me.”

Some much-publicised new writers haven’t written again, or haven’t written what they wanted to, meant to. And we, the old ones, want to whisper into those innocent ears: “Have you still got your space? Your soul, your own and necessary place where your own voices may speak to you, you alone, where you may dream. Oh, hold on to it, don’t let it go.”

Perhaps this happens chiefly because the feted young writers are conceptual innovators who have run out of concepts they wish to explore. If I have eventual fame and critical praise—not likely, and not something I spend a lot of time thinking about, but the idea arose in the course of writing this—I don’t think it would affect me very much. I would still probably spend a lot of time reading and writing, and going running, and so on. I don’t think I’d want to buy a boat, or believe the flattering lies I’d sometimes hear, or perceive myself as literature’s New Jesus.

It’s also possible that artistic innovators are becoming relatively older than they once were, thanks to increases in the artistic search space. Benjamin Jones sees this happening in scientific and technical leaders in “Age and Great Invention:”

Great achievements in knowledge are produced by older innovators today than they were a century ago. Using data on Nobel Prize winners and great inventors, I find that the mean age at which noted innovations are produced has increased by 6 years over the 20th Century. I estimate shifts in life-cycle productivity and show that innovators have become especially unproductive at younger ages. Meanwhile, the later start to the career is not compensated for by increasing productivity beyond early middle age.

It’s also not clear or obvious to me about the extent to which cultures and societies affect artistic and technical innovations. I do suspect the Internet allows these to spread more rapidly, but beyond that somewhat obvious point I don’t have any other useful, or possibly useful, observations. There’s a strong artistic culture of borrowing and adapting ideas that pays off, especially for Galenson’s conceptual innovators, and it may also pay off for his experimental innovators, who can more easily access works and ideas to react against in creating their own works. It does seem like artists are very good at “questioning, experimenting, observing, associating and networking,” to use Steve Lohr’s phrase, with that last one being associated with broader fame and the dissemination of one’s ideas to others. Galeson even mentions this:

Rapid borrowing and utilization of new artistic devices, across ever wider geographic areas, has become increasingly common in recent decades, in which conceptual approaches to art have predominated. One indication of this progressive globalization of modern art is that art historians are finding that they are no longer able to divide their subject as neatly along geographic lines as in the past.

But I suspect I don’t like conceptual visual art very much: most of it looks facile and superficial to me—exactly the claims that Galenson said tend to be made against such art. The Museum of Modern Art in New York was particularly disappointing: a lot of supposed artists there were trying to be sexually shocking, but they still have nothing on what one can find online. A lot of their stuff also simply seemed random. An iMac or a C-class never seem random. Perhaps modern artists only have to please a small coterie of art insiders, while industrial designers have to please people who want to see and use beautiful, not random.

Another note on art and age: Many people who are programmers / hackers make their greatest technical contributions when they’re young—think of Bill Joy, Bill Gates, Linus Torvalds (who created the operating system that bears his name in 1991, while he was a 22-year-old student), Mark Zuckerberg, or the general cult of the young hacker genius. This might be because computer programming is a relatively young field, and it’s still relatively easy for people without a lot of formal training to make major contributions to it at an early age. There are also other effects related to Moore’s Law, the Internet, and so on, but I still find the young age of many major contributors intriguing. It’s possible that people in their 40s or older have made major contributions that I’m simply not aware of, and that the press has an obsession with youth that means I’m drawing on unrepresentative sample because the examples I can come up with are only the salient ones.

Galenson shouldn’t be considered the final word in artistic methods or outcomes, and he knows that his binary is not absolute (“it may be useful to consider the experimental-conceptual distinction not simply as a binary categorization, but rather as a quantitative difference. In this view there is a continuum, with extreme practitioners of either type at the far ends, and moderate practitioners of the two categories arrayed along the intermediate positions of the scale”). Nonetheless, Galenson offers a useful framework for considering how different people with different sorts of artistic temperaments tend to work. I would also add that he can only categorize artists who have actually finished work. Those who start many works and finish none presumably never achieve the fame that would be necessary for him to discuss.

Many artists probably don’t need or want a meta-awareness of their processes. Still, I don’t think anyone who is any kind of artist fails to think at all about how they do what they do, or how their processes might affect their outcomes. Some, however, publicly say that they just follow their feelings, or that they go into a kind of trance. When artists say things like that, they’re probably being partially truthful, but they could start asking: where do feelings come from, and how do I translate feelings that begin as chemicals or electrical impulses in the brain to colors or words? What’s the nature of the artistic trance? But they don’t ask those questions, or, if they do, they don’t share the answer publicly. That’s okay, but it strikes me as deliberate mystification (they’d probably see my relatively high level of awareness as false, as a set of intellectual pretenses masquerading as method).

Nor is one kind of artist necessarily better than the other: notice that I have said I have tendencies towards being experimental more than conceptual, but that doesn’t mean I would denigrate conceptual artists.

Other interesting moments from Old Masters:

“[A]rtistic innovations are not made by isolated geniuses, but are usually based on the lessons of teachers and the collaboration of colleagues.”

“What appears to be necessary for radical conceptual innovation is not youth, but an absence of acquired habits of thought that inhibit sudden departures from existing conventions.”

“Experimental movie directors typically stress the importance of telling a story, with a clear narrative. They generally consider visual images the most important element of a movie, with the script and sound track used to support the images. Many experimental directors specifically state that their primary goal is to entertain the audience, and they often take commercial success to be a sign of their achievement of that goal. Experimental directors typically aim to make the technical aspects of their movies unobtrusive, for they usually believe that the purpose of technique is to create an illusion of reality.”


* Galenson also wrote Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art, which might be interesting to visual artists; I haven’t read it, because I don’t find paintings and other non-cinematic forms of visual art compelling for consumption, let alone production.

Thinking about the process of being an artist and a writer: Lessons from David Galenson's Old Masters and Young Geniuses

David Galenson’s Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity is the rare academic book that’s also useful for artists—most academic books are as useful for artists as syphilis is for prostitutes (the metaphor is intentionally gross, as it’s designed to express the artist’s reaction to turgid academic books).* This long quote encapsulates Galenson’s main point:

There have been two very different types of artist in the modern era. These two types are distinguished not by their importance, for both are prominently represented among the greatest artists of the era. They are distinguished instead by the methods by which they arrive at their major contributions. In each case their method results from a specific conception of artistic goals, and each method is associated with specific practices in creating art. I call one of these methods aesthetically motivated experimentation, and the other conceptual execution.

Artists who have produced experimental innovations have been motivated by aesthetic criteria: they have aimed at presenting visual perceptions. Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental. The imprecision of their goals means that these artists rarely feel they have succeeded, and their careers are consequently often dominated by the pursuit of a single objective. These artists repeat themselves, painting the same subject many times, and gradually changing its treatment in an experimental process of trial and error. Each work leads to the next, and none is generally privileged over others, so experimental painters rarely make specific preparatory sketches or plans for a painting. They consider the production of a painting as a process of searching, in which they aim to discover the image in the course of making it; they typically believe that learning is a more important goal than making finished paintings. Experimental artists build their skills gradually over the course of their careers, improving their work slowly over long periods. These artists are perfectionists and are typically plagued by frustration at their inability to achieve their goals.

In contrast, artists who have made conceptual innovations have been motivated by the desire to communicate specific ideas or emotions. Their goals for a particular work can usually be stated precisely, before its production, either as a desired image or as a desired process for the work’s execution. Conceptual artists consequently often make detailed preparatory sketches or plans for their paintings. Their execution of their painting is often systematic, since they may think of it as primarily making a preconceived image, and often simply a process of transferring an image they have already created from one surface to another. Conceptual innovators appear suddenly, as a new idea immediately produces a result quite different not only from other artists’ work, but also from the artist’s own previous work. Because it is the idea that is the contribution, conceptual innovations can usually be implemented immediately and completely, and therefore are often embodied in individual breakthrough works that become recognized as the first statement of the innovation.

Malcolm Gladwell steals much of Galenson’s work for his article “Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?” I say “steals” because Gladwell’s treatment doesn’t go very far beyond Galenson’s. That might be overwrought, but I still find it mostly true. Gladwell, however, does cite Galenson, which is how I found Old Masters.

I tend more towards the experimental mode: I rarely feel that I’ve succeeded, per se, although I am committed to finishing works—largely because I’ve discovered that finishing is essential to any artist, and one way to separate posers, of whom there are many, from people with real potential is to see if they have something they can show: a story, a picture, a song, whatever—no matter how bad. Then see if they produce something else. I also often repeat themes about growing up, the possibility of real friendship (especially between men and women), the power and estrangement of metaphor, and how to have an artistic temperament that nonetheless is rigorous and interested in understanding the world. I think so, anyway, although it’s naturally hard to judge one’s own works: perhaps someone else would derive different ideas.

I do, however, “tend to make specific preparatory sketches or plans” when I write, more so than I used to, but I’m not bound by them and those plans tend to be discarded about midway through a novel. Some writers apparently make very elaborate plans that they then simply execute, and I am not one, and I do feel very much like I am in “a process of searching” and of discovery, with the discovery being quite pleasurable. In most of my novels, I want to tell a story—I am not as interested in being able to express or communicate “specific ideas or emotions.” Emotions are the reader’s responsibility. Most of the time I start with characters and/or situations and want to see what might happen when those characters or situations develop. Writers who seem highly conceptual and not very interested in narrative, like Joyce, Pynchon, Morrison, and DeLillo are in turn not very interesting to me; they seem bloodless and dull, whatever their virtuosity with language. Unfortunately, they also occupy the academic high ground at the moment, perhaps because their methods and output lend themselves more easily to abstruse literary articles.

Writers like Robertson Davies, Elmore Leonard, (parts of) Tom Wolfe, and (parts of) Francine Prose are of much more interest. Someone like Philip Roth falls in the middle, but to me many of his novels become dull when their characters get bogged down in family or identity or political dilemmas (think of Sabbath in Sabbath’s Theater). In addition, there are very few writers whose entire oeuvres I like (Davies is an exception); most of the time I like particular books, or one or two books. Umberto Eco’s novels The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum have not been matched, not even close, by anything else he’s done; ditto for Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, or Richard Russo’s Straight Man and Empire Falls. Martin Amis seems to me to be at the peak of his powers with Money, and nothing else he’s written that I’ve read has the same appeal.

Galenson also sees conceptual innovators as tending to peak when they’re younger. I wonder if this is also related to something Doris Lessing discussed in her Nobel Lecture:

Let us now jump to an apparently very different scene. We are in London, one of the big cities. There is a new writer. We cynically enquire: “Is she good-looking?” If this is a man: “Charismatic? Handsome?” We joke, but it is not a joke.

This new find is acclaimed, possibly given a lot of money. The buzzing of hype begins in their poor ears. They are feted, lauded, whisked about the world. Us old ones, who have seen it all, are sorry for this neophyte, who has no idea of what is really happening. He, she, is flattered, pleased. But ask in a year’s time what he or she is thinking: “This is the worst thing that could have happened to me.”

Some much-publicised new writers haven’t written again, or haven’t written what they wanted to, meant to. And we, the old ones, want to whisper into those innocent ears: “Have you still got your space? Your soul, your own and necessary place where your own voices may speak to you, you alone, where you may dream. Oh, hold on to it, don’t let it go.”

Perhaps this happens chiefly because the feted young writers are conceptual innovators who have run out of concepts they wish to explore. If I have eventual fame and critical praise—not likely, and not something I spend a lot of time thinking about, but the idea arose in the course of writing this—I don’t think it would affect me very much. I would still probably spend a lot of time reading and writing, and going running, and so on. I don’t think I’d want to buy a boat, or believe the flattering lies I’d sometimes hear, or perceive myself as literature’s New Jesus.

It’s also possible that artistic innovators are becoming relatively older than they once were, thanks to increases in the artistic search space. Benjamin Jones sees this happening in scientific and technical leaders in “Age and Great Invention:”

Great achievements in knowledge are produced by older innovators today than they were a century ago. Using data on Nobel Prize winners and great inventors, I find that the mean age at which noted innovations are produced has increased by 6 years over the 20th Century. I estimate shifts in life-cycle productivity and show that innovators have become especially unproductive at younger ages. Meanwhile, the later start to the career is not compensated for by increasing productivity beyond early middle age.

It’s also not clear or obvious to me about the extent to which cultures and societies affect artistic and technical innovations. I do suspect the Internet allows these to spread more rapidly, but beyond that somewhat obvious point I don’t have any other useful, or possibly useful, observations. There’s a strong artistic culture of borrowing and adapting ideas that pays off, especially for Galenson’s conceptual innovators, and it may also pay off for his experimental innovators, who can more easily access works and ideas to react against in creating their own works. It does seem like artists are very good at “questioning, experimenting, observing, associating and networking,” to use Steve Lohr’s phrase, with that last one being associated with broader fame and the dissemination of one’s ideas to others. Galeson even mentions this:

Rapid borrowing and utilization of new artistic devices, across ever wider geographic areas, has become increasingly common in recent decades, in which conceptual approaches to art have predominated. One indication of this progressive globalization of modern art is that art historians are finding that they are no longer able to divide their subject as neatly along geographic lines as in the past.

But I suspect I don’t like conceptual visual art very much: most of it looks facile and superficial to me—exactly the claims that Galenson said tend to be made against such art. The Museum of Modern Art in New York was particularly disappointing: a lot of supposed artists there were trying to be sexually shocking, but they still have nothing on what one can find online. A lot of their stuff also simply seemed random. An iMac or a C-class never seem random. Perhaps modern artists only have to please a small coterie of art insiders, while industrial designers have to please people who want to see and use beautiful, not random.

Another note on art and age: Many people who are programmers / hackers make their greatest technical contributions when they’re young—think of Bill Joy, Bill Gates, Linus Torvalds (who created the operating system that bears his name in 1991, while he was a 22-year-old student), Mark Zuckerberg, or the general cult of the young hacker genius. This might be because computer programming is a relatively young field, and it’s still relatively easy for people without a lot of formal training to make major contributions to it at an early age. There are also other effects related to Moore’s Law, the Internet, and so on, but I still find the young age of many major contributors intriguing. It’s possible that people in their 40s or older have made major contributions that I’m simply not aware of, and that the press has an obsession with youth that means I’m drawing on unrepresentative sample because the examples I can come up with are only the salient ones.

Galenson shouldn’t be considered the final word in artistic methods or outcomes, and he knows that his binary is not absolute (“it may be useful to consider the experimental-conceptual distinction not simply as a binary categorization, but rather as a quantitative difference. In this view there is a continuum, with extreme practitioners of either type at the far ends, and moderate practitioners of the two categories arrayed along the intermediate positions of the scale”). Nonetheless, Galenson offers a useful framework for considering how different people with different sorts of artistic temperaments tend to work. I would also add that he can only categorize artists who have actually finished work. Those who start many works and finish none presumably never achieve the fame that would be necessary for him to discuss.

Many artists probably don’t need or want a meta-awareness of their processes. Still, I don’t think anyone who is any kind of artist fails to think at all about how they do what they do, or how their processes might affect their outcomes. Some, however, publicly say that they just follow their feelings, or that they go into a kind of trance. When artists say things like that, they’re probably being partially truthful, but they could start asking: where do feelings come from, and how do I translate feelings that begin as chemicals or electrical impulses in the brain to colors or words? What’s the nature of the artistic trance? But they don’t ask those questions, or, if they do, they don’t share the answer publicly. That’s okay, but it strikes me as deliberate mystification (they’d probably see my relatively high level of awareness as false, as a set of intellectual pretenses masquerading as method).

Nor is one kind of artist necessarily better than the other: notice that I have said I have tendencies towards being experimental more than conceptual, but that doesn’t mean I would denigrate conceptual artists.

Other interesting moments from Old Masters:

“[A]rtistic innovations are not made by isolated geniuses, but are usually based on the lessons of teachers and the collaboration of colleagues.”

“What appears to be necessary for radical conceptual innovation is not youth, but an absence of acquired habits of thought that inhibit sudden departures from existing conventions.”

“Experimental movie directors typically stress the importance of telling a story, with a clear narrative. They generally consider visual images the most important element of a movie, with the script and sound track used to support the images. Many experimental directors specifically state that their primary goal is to entertain the audience, and they often take commercial success to be a sign of their achievement of that goal. Experimental directors typically aim to make the technical aspects of their movies unobtrusive, for they usually believe that the purpose of technique is to create an illusion of reality.”


* Galenson also wrote Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art, which might be interesting to visual artists; I haven’t read it, because I don’t find paintings and other non-cinematic forms of visual art compelling for consumption, let alone production.

The creator’s mindset and lawyers’ destructiveness in Cryptonomicon

Rereading Cryptonomicon is always an absurdly pleasurable experience that yields ideas I should’ve noticed before but didn’t. For example, hacker Randy Waterhouse undergoes a life change characteristic not only of numerous nerds I know, who often swerve from the mind-numbingly pointless activities to fantastically enriching ones even though both spring from the same drive, but that also demonstrates the difference between someone who’s just happy to make something and lawyers, who do sometimes deserve their bad rap and rep:

[Randy’s] life had changed when Charlene had come along, and now it changed more: he dropped out of the fantasy role-playing game circuit altogether, stopped going to meetings of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and began to spend all his free time either with Charlene or in front of a computer terminal. All in all, this was probably a change for the better. With Charlene, he did things he wouldn’t have done otherwise, like getting exercise, or going to see live music. And at the computer, he was learning new skills, and he was creating something. It might be something completely useless, but at least he was creating.

“Things he wouldn’t have done otherwise” probably also include showering regular and buying clothes when the old ones develop holes, if Randy is anything like the majors nerds I’ve known and, occasionally, been. Most importantly, he’s making stuff. And that’s what distinguishes Randy, whatever his other problems might be, from everyone else. Lots of people talk about doing things and relatively few do. When you find someone who does stuff, it’s notable, even if the thing “might be something completely useless.”

In Randy’s case, he writes a game based in part on information gleaned from a crazy grad student named Andrew Loeb, and, when Andrew finds out, he ends up suing Randy; when the university whose computers Randy used finds out, they sue him too. Naturally, this is only a very light gloss on how it goes down, like the difference between lipstick and car paint, but events ultimately leave Randy here:

In the end, just to cut his losses and get out of it clean, Randy had to hire a lawyer of his own. The final cost to him was a hair more than five thousand dollars. The software was never sold to anyone, and indeed could not have been; it was so legally encumbered by that point that it would have been like trying to sell someone a rusty Volkswagen that had been dismantled and its parts hidden in attack dog kennels all over the world.

Which, apparently, is what happens when deranged, unreasonable people meet certain kinds of lawyers, or come from them. Randy eventually comes to “decide that Andrew’s life had been fractally weird. That is, you could take any small piece of it and examine it in detail and it, in and of itself, would turn out to be just as complicated and weird as the whole thing in its entirety.” But we have no society-wide immune system to people whose lives are “fractally weird” and want to makes others’ lives miserable, via abusing the legal system or some other means. The people who will make others’ lives miserable don’t really understand the mindset of creators, who’re just trying stuff out to see what happens. And they often don’t realize what other people are like, either, because they haven’t developed the intellectual immune system necessary to protect them from crazy assholes. Creators often live in a gift economy while others live in a commercial economy. So they get in situations like Randy does, having “to hire a lawyer” and cut their losses.

Reading over this post, I realize that, as usual, it’s not really possible to excerpt Cryptonomicon effectively, because the scene in question lasts four densely forested hardcover pages and delves into a level of nuance appropriate for Emacs users. And Stephenson’s novels are fractal too: you can examine almost any segment, from the sentence on up, and find that any part is as detailed and intense as the whole. I haven’t begun to dissect what comparing software, a non-tangible entity that can be infinitely copied with near zero cost, to a Volkswagen, which is quite finite and has many other characteristics separating it from software, actually says about both software and Volkswagens.

Through Randy, however, Stephenson is trying to explain hackers, or at least show one in action, since they’ve been conspicuously absent in literary fiction while probably doing more to change the world than virtually any other group over the last 30 or so years. You can’t really explain their core in a short space, which is why Stephenson devotes about a quarter of a 1,000 page book to examining one, and another quarter or so to examining one’s literal and figurative predecessor. But I could imagine an academic paper examining the construction of a hacker’s temperament, how it differs from the straw-man average man’s temperament, and how an eventual awareness of that difference forms the hacker’s outlook. Randy’s encounter with Andrew can be read as the awareness of that difference coming to the fore, rather as a comic book hero comes to realize that his special powers separate him from his classmates. The difference is that comic book heroes usually have their villains pre-selected and presented as suitably villainous, whereas in life it’s pretty unusual to come across someone as conveniently villainous as Andrew is here.

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