Computer programming & writing fiction: Iterative processes

Repetition (elPadawan, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Repetition (elPadawan, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Previously I’ve noted the similarities between computer programming and writing fiction, saying both attracted their own practitioners. I then explained why I view computer programming, as well as computer programs, as forms of art.

How else is writing fiction like computer programming? Practicing the two, one common aspect I’ve gleaned is their repetitive natures. Both are iterative processes.

I cannot in good faith declare any fiction I’ve written “done” until I’ve read the final draft from start to finish eight or more times. (Usually the number is higher.) With each read, sentences are moved or removed, paragraphs rearranged, punctuation revised, word choices are evaluated, and so on. Shaping prose is one of the most important skills a writer can cultivate. (Journalists do this in their sleep. Minutes after the final out, San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer Susan Slusser files a game summary that is polished, informative, and to the point.)

In fiction, editing is usually described as fine-tuning a manuscript, but more often it’s about being bold—knowing when to strike a paragraph, a page, or even a chapter, all in the service of a better story.

As any computer programmer can tell you, this is a familiar process. Programmers probably spend more time at the keyboard revising existing code than writing new code. Small program edits—similar to line edits or word choice—are common enough, but when more major surgery is performed, programmers will often use a special word: refactoring. Refactoring is restructuring existing code without changing its external behavior. (It’s usually done to make the code easier to read and maintain, not to add a new feature or fix a bug.)

That’s the crux: Without changing existing behavior. It’s funny, in writing fiction, if you make a lot of bold changes, it’s considered a success if the story seems “new” or “better” to a reader. In writing code, success is if you make a bold refactoring and the program operates exactly as it worked before.

The Ouroboros

I enjoy reading how other authors developed their fiction. Authors selected for Best American Short Stories (and other volumes in the Best American series) are given the opportunity to write a capsule for the books’ back matter. They often discuss inspiration for the story, and how external factors shaped its outcome. Writers’ correspondence is another goldmine for learning creative processes. (In particular I recommend Raymond Chandler’s Selected Letters, which is a master class in writing, style, and technique.)

Often when an author discusses how they developed a story, I’ve noted they can’t pin down the exact moment of inspiration. There might be some flash where the creative process launches, but so many times writers confess how stories come from a nagging itch to write on a subject or develop some character trait. Long-forgotten inspiration will come roaring back to life for some reason. Writers some times talk about stories as though they “demanded” to be written.

Programmers have similar stories, although the inspiration may not be as abstract as, say, a line of dialogue or a character detail. Usually it’s a need driving the creation of new software, needs like “I wish there was a web site for me to connect to all my friends” (social networking) or “I wish I had a typewriter where it was easy to correct mistakes, and it would even check my spelling for me” (word processor).

Many times I’ve read of authors returning to old work and fighting (or succumbing to) the urge to edit it. The edits may only be a comma here, a semicolon there. They may be larger edits , striking paragraphs or scenes in the pursuit of a tighter tale. Programmers deal with this urge too, always looking to tighten up code and make it more efficient or elegant.

I’ve quoted this elsewhere, but it’s worth repeating:

…software development is an iterative and incremental process. Each stage of the process is revisited repeatedly during the development, and each visit refines the end product of that stage. In general, the process has no beginning and no end. [Italics mine.]

That was written by Bjarne Stroustrup, the inventor of the C++ programming language. Everything in this quote pertains to writing fiction as much as it pertains to writing code.

When I edit stories, I visit and revisit the story as part of the editing process, to smooth and refine the language, to ensure the story flows smoothly. Programming has a similar process, a continual revisiting and revision of the code to remove flab and tighten up its execution.

That’s what Stroustrup meant when he said the process has no beginning and no end. Stories and computer programs are never finished. They can always be made a bit better.

Sometimes alteration worsens the final product. When coding, I often talk serious changes as “surgery.” While it might be necessary, it’s possible to hurt the program while improving it. Touching code in one place can break code in another place. This is why sometimes you’ll download an update to an app and it seems slower or simply broken, even though the developer swears they’ve made improvements.

Likewise, fussing over a novel or a story can hurt it too. In the original editions of The Martian Chronicles, the chapters were dated like a diary, starting from 1999 and ending in 2026. Today, revised editions use dates from 2030 to 2057. A small change, undoubtedly made to preserve the story being told “in the future,” but it stole away some of the book’s charm. In my youth, 1999 was a magical date, a momentous odometer signaling a shift to the bold 21st century. 2030 is just another number.

A common adage among software developers is “Don’t fix what’s not broken.” The same can be said for fiction.

Distillation

Paul Joseph. (CC BY 2.0)

Paul Joseph. (CC BY 2.0)

Programmer Ben Sandovsky observes:

Treat yourself [the programmer] as a writer and approach each commit as a chapter in a book. Writers don’t publish first drafts. Michael Crichton said, “Great books aren’t written– they’re rewritten.”

Sandovsky is exhorting computer programmers not to make hasty changes to a computer program, but to edit and revise those changes before officially adding them to the program.

Late in the editing process, I’ll often read my stories aloud to make sure they flow well. I’ve never read my code aloud—computer languages aren’t like human languages, for the most part—but I’ve certainly eyeballed my code closely, going over it line-by-line, before committing it.

I often use the word distill for both pursuits—to purify, condense, and strengthen through repetitive processes. Writers and coders don’t simply edit their work, they distill it down to its essence.

Lazy writing makes for boring reading. Lazy programming makes for buggy software. In general the process has no beginning and no end. The art is knowing when to let go and release your hard work to the world.

Twenty Writers: David Kidd, Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China

See the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” home page for more information on the series as well as a list of other reviews and essays.


Peking Story by David KiddDavid Kidd’s Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China has settled into a somewhat unnoticed shelf of American literature: the literary eulogy.

Serialized in The New Yorker in 1955, collected in book form in 1961 as All the Emperor’s Horses, and republished in 1988 under the title it holds today, David Kidd’s book is an underappreciated classic in American nonfiction. Memoir, travelogue, New Journalism, creative nonfiction—none of these terms seem an apt categorization of Peking Story. The book is wistful, mournful, and laced with dry humor—a eulogy.

As the book opens, Kidd is a college student on a foreign exchange trip to Beijing in 1946. There he meets Aimee Yu, one daughter among many in a prominent Beijing family. In the span of a few pages, the couple are married. Courting Aimee is more glossed over than spun out, treated as a perfunctory narrative requirement. Peking Story is not a romantic book in the sense of love and matrimony. It’s a romantic book in the sense of Eastern exoticism and lost traditions. It’s right there in the subtitle: The Last Days of Old China.

As the book progresses, David Kidd the narrator develops as a kind of mystery himself. He doesn’t come off as one would imagine most Americans would talk or act in 1946, especially a college student from the Midwest. There are moments that read like a Graham Greene novel, the world-weary Britisher turning up his nose at the dreary reactionaries and their anti-imperialist manifestos—only Kidd studied at a state school, not Oxford. That’s one of the many mysteries of Peking Story, this American narrator who sounds distinctly un-American, seemingly more comfortable in Chinese silks and soft slippers than sneakers and blue jeans.

The Last Days of Old China

Like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, Kidd goes to some lengths to remain outside the books’ lens, preferring to focus on the events and people around him. Peking Story is a public story told by a very private man, and that shapes the book and contributes to its unique form.

Kidd alludes to his private nature (and the burden of telling his story) in his preface:

Only a few Westerners who once lived [in pre-Communist Peking] are still alive today—no more than ten or twenty of us at most, scattered throughout the world. I used to hope that some bright young scholar on a research grant would write about us and our Chinese friends before it was too late and were all dead and gone, folding back into darkness the wonder that had been our lives.

To this day, no such scholar has appeared, leaving me, as far as I know, the lone, first-hand chronicler of those extraordinary years that saw the end of old China, and the beginning of the new.

Author David Kidd

Author David Kidd

With the courtship and marriage out of the way, David Kidd eagerly moves into the opulent Yu family estate just outside of Beijing. (“Beijing” and “Peking” are Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciations, respectively, for the current capital of China. As Mandarin is now the official language of the People’s Republic of China, I use it here and reserve “Peking” for the book’s title and quotes from it.)

It is within the Yu family compound that Kidd slides his marriage from the reader’s field of vision. In its place he slides in the colorful Yu family itself and their grand estate, garden, and art collection. Beyond the compound’s walls the Communist revolution begins to encroach on their daily lives. These elements are Kidd’s true focus, with his marriage merely the frame to explain his presence on the estate grounds and in the Yu family’s lives.

The Yu’s are rich beyond the everyday meaning of that word. The family’s history and prominence extends hundreds of years in China’s past. The grandfather was at one time the Chief Justice of the Republic of China’s Supreme Court. The family estate is known for having one the best gardens in all of Beijing, and perhaps China. The Yu’s once held mansions and houses all over northern China, but declining fortunes and currency devaluation have chipped away at their holdings. By the time Kidd arrives, the Yu’s have only the family mansion, a burial shrine outside the city, and a stunning collection of historical Chinese art the family cannot bear to part with.

Arriving in Beijing two years before the Communist Revolution and leaving two years after it, Kidd witnessed China’s transition from a strict traditional society with deep class striations to a country intent on leveling the field and erasing its past. Rather than write this story with a breathless, you-are-there urgency, Kidd describes the changes from the comfort and safety of the Yu estate. Kidd’s encounters with the new Communist regime comes fleetingly, such as when they must register with the local police that the Yu’s intend to hold a costume party. Kidd portrays the revolutionaries as dreary, inconvenient, and déclassé.

I normally hold little interest in British entertainment of the upper-class variety, the rich lolling about on their divans and club chairs, plotting intrigue against each other while servants rush up and down stairs attending their every whim. For all of Kidd’s blind spots, Peking Story works because Kidd plainly sees the Yu’s way of life crumbling beneath their feet. Rather than pick up guns and defend their estate—what an American story that would be—the Yu’s shrug, brew another pot of tea, and reflect upon their garden before its wrested from them. The tension between dynamism and stasis is the backbone of Peking Story.

The bronze braziers

As a fiction writer, what I draw from Peking Story is Kidd’s skillfulness at sketching out characters and painting colorful scenes with graceful economy. Although Kidd comes across as waspy throughout the book (and a bit too blithe to the poverty about him), his education and breeding gifted him with a clean writing style that flows effortlessly. It’s harder than it looks.

Kidd’s narrative construction is as classical as his prose. The chapters are arranged almost perfectly. Early scenes that read as little more than humorous anecdotes are later revealed as precursors of devastating consequences for the Yu family. Kidd neatly sews disparate anecdotes together to craft chapters that compare and contrast China’s culture and the steamrolling revolution. Although “compare & contrast” rings like a English teacher’s tired essay topic, these pairings illuminate the reader’s way through Peking Story like a trail of paper lanterns.

The most memorable anecdote in Peking Story relates to a collection of bronze braziers the Yu’s display throughout their mansion. As Kidd tells the story, the luster of these incense burners is indescribable. They must be continually heated in order to maintain their luster, and so the Yu’s charge their servants to maintain a small charcoal fire burning beneath each at all hours. Kidd tells us the Yu family has kept the fires lit and the braziers hot for hundreds of years.

Then, encouraged by the Communists beyond the estate walls, the servants begin to question the people they’re working for. One morning the Yu’s discover all the charcoal fires are extinguished. The once-indescribable bronze braziers are now irreparably dull and gray.

The tale of the bronze braziers is the most memorable and powerful anecdote in the book. It’s a perfect metaphor for the aristocratic Yu family keeping alive China’s culture and the Communist revolution threatening to upheave it all.

However, the story may be too perfect:

I hope that specialists in Chinese bronzes, and technical experts, will back me up in saying that the story is completely phony—as is, I felt on reading it, much of the rest of the book. That Kidd had married Aimee Yu was plausible, although when I knew him he was plainly gay—he might have changed, or could—entirely laudably—have married her to get her out of China. But the obviously deceptive picture that the book painted was upsetting; this is one of the few books I’ve read that made me angry.

James Cahill’s rebuttal to Peking Story is well worth the read. In particular, he voices here a suspicion I had in the back of my mind the first time I read the story of the bronze braziers. Their sublime beauty destroyed by petty malice seemed a writerly addition by Kidd who (possibly) felt the need to put an authorial thumb on the scale.

I’m torn on this subject. Cahill’s objections are worth any reader’s consideration, but I still find myself drawn to the elegance and power of Kidd’s prose. I don’t particularly care about his sexual orientation, although it certainly would explain why his marriage takes a back seat in the book.

In Kidd’s defense, unlike fabricators like James Frey (A Million Little Pieces) and JT Leroy, Kidd’s falsehoods—if they are false—don’t create an undeserved authority or prop up an exaggerated persona. His presence in China is documented, as is his marriage to Aimee Yu. The story of the bronze braziers sweetens the book, the kind of misstep even a seasoned novelist might make to seal a point with the reader.

Tiananmen Square & Forbidden city entrance, Beijing, China. Joe Hunt. (CC BY 2.0)

It’s not the first time a well-respected work of nonfiction was revealed to contain fabrications. Questions about the veracity of Steinbeck’s Traveling with Charley have been received with a shrug by Steinbeck fans and academics. If Cahill is “angry” at the “deceptive” Peking Story, he must be outraged at Steinbeck. If not, why? Because Steinbeck’s sympathies are on the right side of history and Kidd’s are not?

(I would point out that if Kidd stretched the truth, it’s conceivable a kernel of truth inspired the story. Even if the braziers were not damaged beyond repair, it’s possible the Yu’s kept incense burning day and night through the household, and that one night, due to Communist influence, the servants rebelled, damaging them somehow. The metaphor of an Old China lost is not so strong, but the thrust of the anecdote remains.)

Where Cahill sees deception, I see craft. The reader’s reaction to the story of the bronze braziers is a leading indicator of the way they’ll receive the entire book. Some will toss the book aside, disgusted with Kidd’s approval of Chinese high society and disdain of the servants. Others will sympathize with the Yu’s, for no reason other than their desire to preserve a four thousand year-old culture and its rich traditions. In either case, Kidd’s anecdote encapsulates the entire book and the reader’s reception of it. It’s that kind of skill that encourages me to write a 2,200 word essay on Peking Story.

However, I’m less sure Kidd’s sympathies lie with the Chinese aristocracy per se. Kidd does not hold up the Yu’s as bold keepers of the flame, but rather as eccentrics. Without exception, Kidd’s tragedies are the loss and destruction of Chinese art, culture, and tradition. Kidd mourns for the dispersal of the Yu collection and estate more than any death in the book. He also mourns the death of common sense. In Kidd’s hands, registering a costume party with the Beijing police is as absurd as proving to the American consulate his wife is Christian to guarantee her visa out of the country.

Then there’s the matter of Cahill accusing Kidd of kowtowing to “anti-Communist sentiment in the U.S.,” guessing Kidd was “encouraged somehow by the powerful and rich China lobby.”

Kidd may be accused of all manner of motivation, I suppose, but Occam’s Razor strikes me as appropriate here. I see Kidd as genuinely upset at the rearrangement of Chinese society. He seems deeply shocked to witness a four thousand year-old cultural legacy deleted in a fit of moral outrage. The suggestion of shadowy, powerful forces funding a book that, frankly, did little to reshape American attitudes toward Communist China is unnecessary to explain the existence of Peking Story. I also don’t view The New Yorker—even The New Yorker of the 1950s—as a publication to kowtow to right-wing nationalists.

Fabricator or not, Kidd is forthright with his opinions and biases. When it comes to motivation, it’s simplest to take Kidd at his word. Cahill, on the other hand, appears more motivated by a sense of social justice than he’s letting on in his essay.

What’s more, for Cahill to argue Kidd misrepresented the Chinese Communists as a “mean-spirited movement” is to ignore the crop yielded by Maoism: The Cultural Revolution and its purges, denunciations, historical rewriting, and reeducation tactics. Kidd’s stories, first published eleven years before the Cultural Revolution’s earliest stirrings, practically predicts the furies to unfold. It’s a literary feat almost as impressive as Graham Greene warning the United States out of Vietnam in 1955’s The Quiet American.

The 21st century may be China’s century, but Peking Story eulogizes the price China paid to make its great lurch forward.

David Kidd died in in 1996, leaving behind a life as far-removed from his Midwestern origins as possible. After fleeing Beijing, he settled in Kyoto and founded a school of traditional Japanese arts:

As a tourist attraction, Mr. Kidd did not disappoint. To sit on a cushion before his throne, listening to his erudite patter, and seeing him sitting cross-legged on his kang, a divided Chinese sofa, rustling his silken gown as he gestured extravagantly with his inevitable cigarette, was to be in the presence of a presence.

With China’s role ascending in the 21st century, I would recommend Peking Story to anyone curious to learn about China’s future from its past. For those who want to go deeper, I would pair Peking Story with the superb Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang and Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan.

Computer programming & writing fiction: Is coding art?

Girl with an 8-bit EarringIn my last post comparing writing programming and writing fiction, I concluded both were similar because of their relationship with their practitioners. “Art is a kind of recruiting poster for itself,” I wrote. “An art attracts its own artists.”

Wait—is computer programming art? It’s accepted to call fiction art, but can computer programming really be considered

the conscious use of the imagination in the production of objects intended to be contemplated or appreciated as beautiful, as in the arrangement of forms, sounds, or words. (The Free Dictionary)

Think of what programming a computer really boils down to: Ordering and organizing a series of mathematical instructions followed precisely by the machine. The computer is allowed no imagination in its interpretation of those instructions (if it possessed an imagination, which it doesn’t, at least not today). If there’s an art in computer programming, it stands in the purview of the programmer, not the machine. That’s how it should be. The art of painting is not in the tubes or cans of paint, but in the painter.

But is the arrangement of those computer instructions somehow “beautiful”?

It’s important to discern a difference between a computer program being art and the act of programming as an artistic form. Let’s start with the latter.

I believe programming is an art form, at least by modern notions of the term. Writing fiction and writing code requires continuous subjective decision-making during the entire process (a “conscious use of the imagination”). A personal fervor is vital for quality results. When a writer lacks that fervor, it shows in the end result, both for fiction and computer programs.

Programming is not a rote process of memorization and recall. There is no “correct” way to write a computer program but, like writing a novel or a short story, there are many wrong ways.

Bill Atkinson, creator of the original MacPaint, painted in MacPaint. (Daniel Rehn, CC BY 2.0)

Bill Atkinson, creator of the original MacPaint, painted in MacPaint. (Daniel Rehn, CC BY 2.0)

Coding requires taste, aesthetics, and an eye for detail. Programmers develop deeply personal philosophies. Some coders prefer verbosity (like Henry James in his later years) while others prefer economy (like Hemingway or Cain’s early work).

There’s a scene in August Wilson’s Fences that is one of the most distilled scenes I’ve ever read: The father and son debate buying a TV to watch the World Series. On the surface a mundane domestic moment, the scene is actually Fences in-miniature. The beauty of this scene mirrors brilliant software design, where each piece of the program is intimately connected to the entire application.

Years ago, I could always tell when I was working with a programmer who started coding on the Macintosh versus a programmer weaned on Microsoft Windows—the two companies have distinct programming styles and philosophies. Programmers who learned to code on those operating systems carried those styles and philosophies with them to other platforms and projects.

A computer program can be functional, operating, and seemingly free of bugs, and a programmer may still read the code and say it doesn’t “look” right. (The trendy term for this is “code smell.”) What’s more, two programmers may say a program doesn’t “look” right for entirely different reasons. This reminds me a great deal of the world of poetry, where poets may agree a poem is poorly executed and then squabble over the reasons why. (There are similar disagreements in the world of fiction, but I find them to be less…doctrinaire.)

Writing and programming both involve elements of discovery and improvisation. Even though I’m writing a series of blog posts advocating outlining stories before writing them, I don’t believe an outline can—or should—contain every detail present in the final story. An outline should not be so rigid as to prohibit discovery during the writing process.

For a long time, there was a big push to eliminate discovery and improvisation in the world of software development, as “discovery” and “improvisation” seem undesirable in a field of proper engineering. (In the 1960s, IBM famously discovered that the number of bugs a programmer produced was proportional to the amount of code he or she wrote. Their solution: limit the lines of code a programmer could write per day, a logic straight from the pages of Catch-22.) Newer software philosophies, notably Extreme Programming and Agile development practices, have flipped that thinking and embraced discovery and improvisation as healthy and necessary.

Suspicion of programming as an art form probably springs from a general lack of understanding of how programs are written. Programmers share an arcane terminology among themselves. They build and manipulate mysterious machines that have come to play a powerful, sometimes menacing, role in our lives.

<cite>Ex Machina</cite>, a 2015 film about a computer programmer who falls in love with an artificially intelligent android.

Ex Machina, a 2015 film about a computer programmer who falls in love with an artificially intelligent android.

That suspicion probably also arises from stereotypes. Programmers don’t look like artists. In popular culture, programmers are portrayed as geeks more comfortable around machines than humans. Sometimes coders in film or TV even fall in romantic love with their own programs. (Never mind that this trope originated in antiquity and regards an artist and not a bricklayer or farmer or soldier.)

Another reason people question programming as an art is that computer programs “do” things. There’s an academic suspicion of pure art having any sort of utility, probably due to fears of commodification and commercialization. We don’t think of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring as “doing” anything other than hanging on a wall in some drafty museum, but it must be doing something to cause people to stand in line for hours to view it. It’s funny, this idea that pure art doesn’t “do” anything when it so plainly does. If art didn’t do anything, why would we care about it?

And this rolls back to the distinction I made earlier: Is computer software itself art? I’ll challenge the question with a question in return. We regard skyscrapers and bridges and automobiles and colanders as kinds of art. We laud architects, automotive designers, and commercial illustrators as artists. Why treat computer programs and their creators differently?

Next: Iterative processes

Colander, c. 1600 - 1650, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

Colander, c. 1600 – 1650, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

Computer programming & writing fiction: Art as a recruiting poster

IBM SelectricHow is computer programming like writing fiction? Is writing code anything like writing stories?

When I was young, perhaps seven or eight, I banged out my first short story on a second-hand IBM Selectric typewriter my mother brought home from her office. Powered on, the Selectric vibrated the whole desk and emanated a low mechanical hum, some unseen engine in the contraption idling. I still recall the smell of the ink in the typewriter ribbon and the satisfying, officious schock as the typeball jumped from its perch and tapped lettering onto the crisp onion paper I’d fed into the roller.

The story I wrote was a retelling of Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” transplanted to a science-fiction setting. (In fact, I think I creatively titled it “The Most Dangerous Game in Space”.) My determination to spend hours coping with that unforgiving contraption went beyond an affinity for the classic short story. As an avid young reader, I’d come to wonder if I could pen my own fiction. My aspirations weren’t so bold as to imagine being published, only to see if I could write my own, but later that dream crept in too.

The Most Dangerous GameAround the same time (this would’ve been 1979), I cajoled my parents into buying a home computer. Silicon Valley was marketing home computers as personal productivity assistants, devices to balance one’s checkbook, manage a home mortgage, track stocks, and so on. Home computers were also being pitched as tools to give students an edge in school. I couldn’t care less about schoolwork—and I’ll be damned if that computer ever balanced my parents’ checkbook—but with a home computer I could play video games, my only real motive for wanting one.

Innumerable hours playing videos games led me to try to write my own. It was a natural progression, just as reading I, Robot set me to thinking of my own robot stories.

I never did write a video game, at least not one that anyone would want to play, but software development did become my career path, one I’m still following over 35 years later.

Likewise, although I didn’t finish that short story, writing fiction remains an important passion in my life, even more important than programming.

Walking these paths, I’m sometimes asked if writing software and writing stories are the same. Or, at least, if they bear any similarities. And my answer is, yes, there are commonalities between the two.

I’ll explore more parallels in the future, but already I’ve alluded to one thing they have in common. I’ve never met a good writer who wasn’t first an avid reader, and I’ve never met a good programmer who wasn’t first an avid computer hobbyist.

Art is a kind of recruiting poster for itself. An art attracts its own artists.

Next: Is coding art?

On Don Herron’s Fritz Leiber Tour

Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz LeiberSaturday I had the pleasure to take Don Herron’s Fritz Leiber Tour. Like his more famous Dashiell Hammett Tour, Herron recreates through personal research, recollection, and local points-of-interest Leiber’s life story and the circumstances that led him to spending his last years in San Francisco.

My attendance in the tour was accidental. In October, while talking with Nicole Gluckstern after the conclusion of the Bikes to Books Tour, I mentioned what can only be called a minor parallel in my life with Fritz Leiber’s, and how I’d been meaning for years now to learn more about this prolific author. Nicole told me she was in talks with Don Herron to have him lead a one-off, by-invite-only Fritz Leiber Tour. I eagerly jumped when she asked if I wanted to attend.

Leiber’s life defies a summary in brief. The child of actor parents (his father appeared in a number of early Hollywood productions), Leiber developed an avid readership over a career of decades with his wide-ranging work—science fiction, fantasy, sword-and-sorcery, horror & the occult, and more. In addition to experience in theater and acting, Leiber was an amateur astronomer and one-time editor of Science Digest, making him the rare science fiction writer with an actual background in science.

Fritz Leiber as Dr. Arthur Waterman in Equinox: Journey into the Supernatural (1965 or 1966). Will Hart, (CC BY 2.0)

Fritz Leiber as Dr. Arthur Waterman in Equinox: Journey into the Supernatural (1965 or 1966). Still by Will Hart (CC BY 2.0)

As a child and young man, I was familiar with Leiber through his science-fiction short stories (although I don’t recall reading any of his novels). His stories were featured in “best of” collections and back issues of science fiction magazines I dug out of dusty cartons in Livermore’s public library.

Then, via Dungeons & Dragons, I learned of a swords-and-sorcery series featuring Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, a duo comprised of an oversized swordsman and a diminutive thief. When I saw this series was penned by someone named Fritz Leiber, I distinctly recall thinking, “What a coincidence—there’s a science-fiction writer with the same name.” No coincidence, it turns out. (According to Herron, Leiber coined the phrase “sword-and-sorcery.”)

A personal friend of Leiber and his second wife, Herron is a fount of history and insight into this prolific author. Much like his Hammett tour, Herron led us down and around Geary Street and the Tenderloin (names which might ring familiar to readers of Bridge Daughter). Then we boarded MUNI and trekked up to Corona Heights (and its stunning views of the city) in the Castro District. All locations have some connection to Leiber and his semi-autobiographical Our Lady of Darkness. It’s a Lovecraftian novel that takes place in 1970s San Francisco whose main character endures a battle with the bottle and grief over the death of his wife, just as Leiber was undergoing at the time.

I hope Herron considers permanently reviving the Fritz Leiber tour—but I suspect the only way that would happen is if there was a strong revival of interest in Leiber himself. Personally, I’ve already added Our Lady of Darkness to my reading list, and I plan on searching out more of his work.

About that parallel

When I earlier claimed a parallel with Leiber’s life, I should explain. I don’t mean some personal connection with the author or his work, only that Leiber wrote about an event in his life that rang similar to one of my own.

Eight years ago, after going through what can only be called a divorce immediately followed by a second relationship gone sour, my trials culminated with me busting up my shoulder in a bad accident. I severed all the tendons there, leaving me with a separated shoulder. (To this day it looks like I have “two” shoulder bones.)

I found myself bedridden for six weeks and unable to move my right arm. Day and night I consumed painkillers, delivery Chinese food, and—unwisely—whiskey. (I wrote about this episode for We Still Like‘s “Gravity” issue, a piece titled “Taylor & Redding”.) I spent my time in my apartment, alone, absorbed with Miles Davis and Cal Tjader. I spent my less stuporous hours reading whatever I could get my hands on. In particular, I located at the library a thick collection of Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op stories, which I consumed cover-to-cover.

To keep from going stir-crazy, I took long walks up and down Nob Hill and through the Tenderloin, often at odd hours of night. Due to the painkillers, sleep was varied and sporadic. Some of these walks were as late as three in the morning, when the insomnia was too much to bear.

On these walks I discovered locations and buildings named in Hammett’s work, all mere blocks from my Geary Street apartment. The old part of San Francisco is rife with short streets and dead-end alleys, too insignificant to be incidentally included in a story for local flavor, yet Hammett would feature them prominently in his work. These names did not come off a map or phone directory, these were streets intimate to Hammett, a writer obsessed with specifics and verisimilitude. Some of the Continental Op’s stories are set in Chinatown. It got so I went out of my way to seek them out.

Humphrey Bogart and "the dingus." (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Humphrey Bogart and “the dingus.” (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This led me to reread Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (which I’ve written about not just once but twice). There, in this single detective novel, I re-experienced in concentrate everything I’d experienced the prior weeks poring over the Continental Op stories. In The Maltese Falcon Sam Spade walks streets I walked every night, attends theaters down the block from my apartment, eats at restaurants still in operation. Sam Spade, living and breathing in San Francisco circa 2008. My front stoop was backdrop and stage for this classic of American literature.

It’s not merely the rush of casual literary association—similar to the rush of meeting a celebrity—that overwhelmed me. Details of the novel easily overlooked snapped into clear focus. That gunman Thursby is shacked up at Geary & Leavenworth suggests he’s residing on the hairy edge of the Tenderloin, an area rife with flophouses, while the supposedly-delicate Brigid O’Shaughnessy rooms on posh California Street. Sam Spade rides streetcars up and down Geary Street, a notion that defies imagination, as Geary in downtown San Francisco is narrower than the suburban lane I grew up riding my bike on. (The Geary streetcars were known as “Iron Monsters” and phased out in 1956 to make way for America’s love affair with automobiles.)

I’d been forced to move to Geary Street a few years earlier due to a bad break-up and the meager income I drew, living paycheck-to-paycheck tending bar. I wasn’t happy to reside a stone’s throw from the Tenderloin, infamous as San Francisco’s seediest neighborhood. It’s not—there’s a dignity in the TL easily overlooked—and Hammett’s work gave me a second sight, another way of reading my surroundings, and with it came another way to see my own circumstances. I say without qualification, Dashiell Hammett’s writings carried me through one of my lowest periods of my life.

Some time after my recovery—personal and monetary fortunes on the rise—I sat at the bar of John’s Grill in Union Square nursing a drink and waiting for my dinner to arrive. (“Jack LaLanne’s Favorite Salad”—a cold seafood salad with avocado slices, pure protein and fat.) On the back of the menu I found a newspaper article the restaurant had reprinted, “Stalking Sam Spade” written by one Fritz Leiber.

And I distinctly recall thinking, “That’s funny…there was a science fiction writer with that name.”

Stalking Sam Spade

Light reading while waiting for your steak medium-rare at John’s Grill.

After Leiber snapped out of the grief over his wife’s death and started drying up, he too rediscovered the city he lived in by reading it through Hammett’s lens. Geary Street, he wrote, is the “spine” of The Maltese Falcon, and he set out to locate its landmarks much as I’d attempted myself. Leiber was more organized about the project than I ever was, and “Stalking Sam Spade” does a much better job detailing his discoveries. Learning about San Francisco’s past through a detective novel led him to search for the history of the apartment house he lived in, culminating in his building becoming the nexus of Our Lady of Darkness.

Perhaps the allure of “rediscovering” a city through literature is not unique to San Francisco, but it’s certainly an active and avid pastime here. While some people move to San Francisco solely concerned about which address is currently beau chic or which nightspots are ripe for seeing-and-being-seen, I’ve encountered just as many who’ve found themselves ensnared in this game, the game I played those sleepless nights. It’s much as the Baker Street Irregulars “play the game” retracing Sherlock Holmes’ footprints as though he’d lived and breathed. With each step of the game comes the chill of revelation, the buzzing realization you’re walking the streets Hammett, Kerouac, Frank Norris, and others once trod daily. Each San Francisco writer is inspired in very different ways by the same city—a city that reinvents itself every generation, granting each artist who lands here a bed of fresh soil to sow and till. Some waste it, some fail to tend their seedlings. Others grow oak trees still standing today.

As Herron pointed out on our tour, Leiber got one fact wrong in “Stalking Sam Spade”: Spade’s apartment was most likely at Post & Hyde (not Geary & Hyde), the same location as Hammett’s apartment when he lived in San Francisco. A landmark plaque is on that building today, just as there is one at Burritt Alley—the location of the first murder in The Maltese Falcon—a plaque that did not exist when Leiber wrote his article.

Photo by Parker Higgins

Photo by Parker Higgins (CC0)

Another plaque that did not exist at that time is today placed on the Hotel Union at 811 Geary Street. It’s dedicated to Fritz Leiber and the book he wrote while drying up there, Our Lady of Darkness, a book inspired by his quest to re-walk the chapters of Hammett’s San Francisco and see the world anew.

Learn more about Don Herron’s tours and books at donherron.com

BBC News on John Hersey’s Hiroshima 70 years later

Hiroshima by John HerseyLate last year I wrote about my love of front matter using John Hersey’s inestimable Hiroshima as an example of why the first pages of a book matter. To mark the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima‘s publication, BBC News published last week a fantastic article on the history of John Hersey’s masterpiece, detailing both the 1946 New Yorker article he penned as well as its reception when published in book form.

Not only does the BBC article reproduce some of the pages of the original “Reporter at Large” article—The New Yorker really hasn’t changed in 70 years—it includes a quick biography of Hersey and the circumstances leading to his assignment in postwar Japan. One literary tidbit worth mentioning:

[Hersey] expected to write, as others had done, a piece about the state of the shattered city, the buildings, the rebuilding, nine months on. …

On the voyage out he fell ill and was given a copy of Thornton Wilders’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Inspired by Wilder’s narrative of the five people who crossed the bridge as it collapsed he decided he would write about people not buildings. And it was that simple decision that marks Hiroshima out from other pieces of the time.

Wilders’ novel is an unapologetically Christian story scrabbling for meaning in the remains of a supposedly senseless tragedy. It’s an apt book to prepare one’s soul for writing about the tragedy at Hiroshima.

A war correspondent, Hersey would’ve had practical experience writing of attacks and military maneuvers as well as the journalist’s skill for getting the four W’s down on the page in economical, readable prose. Yet Hersey chose to write about civilians, each detached from the war, rather than the larger geopolitical context. This is why Hiroshima is sometimes seen as an early form of New Journalism, although unlike its later practitioners, Hersey maintains the traditional journalist’s distance from his subjects.

The BBC retrospective also has a nice gallery of Hiroshima‘s covers over the years, including the one I mentioned in my earlier post (and displayed above). Each complement Hersey’s writing in their own ways, although I remain partial to Wendell Minor’s cover for the reasons I explored before.

Most impressive for me is Hersey’s refusal to be interviewed by the BBC, or for most anyone. From a cabled response he sent to the BBC (probably mangled due to the quality of telegram transmission at the time):

Hersey gratefullest invitation and BBC interest and coverage Hiroshima but has throughout maintained policy let story speak for itself without additional words from himself or anybody.

Here’s to a time when authors believed their work should speak for itself, rather than the modern inclination to itch and claw for more book tours, more time in front of a microphone, and more publicity to burnish one’s credentials and sell more copies.

Rewatching Slacker

SlackerAlthough I can’t imagine any of the characters in the film Slacker being terribly nostalgic about anything, it’s worth noting that this year marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Richard Linklater’s gem. Sanctified in The Onion A.V. Club’s “New Cult Canon” and topping numerous critics’ “best indie film of all-time” rankings, Slacker is an odd addition to any best-of list. After all, this is seemingly a film about not giving a shit.

At least, that’s the most immediate impression on first watching Slacker, that and its nontraditional film narrative. Slacker doesn’t follow a story arc of one or two characters, and it’s not a collection of marginally intertwined stories, like Altman’s Short Cuts or the animated Heavy Metal. In Slacker the camera lens floats from one set of people to another, lingering for a minute here or ten minutes there. The camera eavesdrops on a stream of unrelated interactions—in sum, a day in the life of Austin, Texas, circa 1991. Often these moments have no distinguishable beginning or ending, just slices of time in the company of cafe philosophers, conspiracy theorists, guys trying to get laid, and girls trying to be taken seriously.

Entirely linear, Slacker never flashes back or forward, always remaining in the moment, giving the film a kind of bald, unprotected sensation. The camera drops into discussions midstream, giving us the opportunity to watch and listen but leaving it entirely for us to surmise backstories and histories. Then, as one or two people in the group grow fidgety or distracted—or bored—they move on, as does the camera, floating to the next interaction. There’s no soundtrack to speak of, only the occasional background music from a radio or club band, but nothing more. The camera is the star of Slacker, although it took me years to realize it.

The film opens with a young man (director Linklater himself) arriving in Austin and launching into a chain of free-form ruminations while a disinterested taxi driver takes him into town. The film closes with a raucous group of friends driving a convertible up the mountains outside of town and, in a final pique, throwing the camera—the star of the movie—down a cliff. In between, the camera moves between perhaps fifty different vignettes, eavesdropping on everything from the inane and mundane to the fantastical and bizarre.

Director Richard Linklater. (Photo by K.E.B.)

Director Richard Linklater. (Photo by K.E.B.)

Impossibly, each of these moments is wonderful in its own right. Some of the episodes reach father than the others. Everyone who’s watched the film remembers its most famous scene, the overly-familiar young woman (Teresa Taylor, drummer for the Butthole Surfers!) fencing a stolen jar containing Madonna’s pap smear, pubic hair and all. My personal favorite remains the inept burglar caught in the act in an elderly anarchist’s house, only to receive a gentle education on the history of anarchism in America. It’s the most complete and well-rounded episode in the film. It comes near the film’s midpoint, giving the audience a kind of narrative breather before the tour of Austin’s alt-underground bestiary continues.

Considering its unconventional narrative style, Slacker is refreshingly not self-conscious (or self-congratulatory) of its rule-breaking. (The opening with Linklater in the cab may be the only “meta” moment in the film.) For all the ground this self-financed film breaks, it’s comfortable and comforting viewing, the absolute opposite of the avant garde. That’s another reason Slacker sustains after twenty-five years. It’s hard to mock a film-school film and its no-name cast when it’s so relaxed in its own skin.

Any review or retrospective of Slacker is bound to name-drop “Generation X” and I won’t disappoint on that count. (After all, I’ve got some skin in the game.) Slacker is often called the definitive film of my generation. But when I think of the “great” movies of a generation—Easy Rider and The Big Chill for the Baby Boomers, The Social Network for the Millennials—I see aging, curling Polaroids losing their currency with each passing minute—movies of like-aged, like-minded, similarly-groomed people bellyaching they’ve not gotten their due. Slacker is not that film.

One observation critics sometimes make is that this is not truly a Generation X film because not every character is of that age. It’s true, but it’s also true the older non-Gen-X characters are treated differently than the rest. In films like Easy Rider and The Social Network, the older generation is treated with disdain and suspicion. In Slacker, those suspicions are reversed. An age-worn hitchhiker and the anarchist mentioned before are voices afforded the opportunity to air their wisdom to a welcome audience, while the specious logics of the younger characters are treated more as clever amusements. In the film’s final moments, an elderly man strolls down a street narrating into a tape recorder the quiet poetic wisdom of a long, full life—only to be interrupted by a young man, 20 or 21, driving a car with mounted loudspeakers, blaring into the microphone empty rage about guns and knives solving all political problems. It’s obvious where this film’s sympathies lie.

For the A.V. Club’s “New Cult Canon” review, Scott Tobias puts his finger on why Slacker is distinguished from other generation-defining movies:

It isn’t enough to think of Gen-Xers as merely jaded and sarcastic; indeed, there’s little of that attitude on display in Linklater’s film. But there is a sense of profound disconnection, a refusal by young people to participate in a system that will bring them no joy and wither their souls. As one character puts it, “Every single commodity you produce is a piece of your own death.”

My personal introduction to Slacker was in 1992, not long after its release, watching the movie on VHS at a Saturday night pasta feed. Eight or nine of us were crowded into a duplex’s living room in San Luis Obispo, me and my college-aged friends, some I knew well, some I didn’t. In particular, the singer and rhythm guitarist of our band was there. (We were going to be big, but no one could understand what our music was doing.) We were feasting on plates of red-sauce spaghetti and hot garlic bread. One of the women had made her easy-bake Apple Brown Betty. Others brought red wine and six-packs of the local beer. Dinner and a movie, on the cheap.

We were young and about to grow old. The singer was engaged to marry one of women there, the Brown Betty baker who was a housemate of mine. I was becoming involved with another woman in the room, a second housemate of mine that I would go on to live with for thirteen years. There were most likely other sub-plots in that room I was unaware of.

We knew, collectively and subconsciously, we were about to be dropped on a high-speed conveyor belt and told to run as fast as we could to keep up. Some of the people in that room thought they could step out of the way and stay clear of the inevitable. The rest of us knew, it’s called “inevitable” for a reason. For us, “getting ahead” sounded an awful lot like “falling behind.” We were all resigned to what was coming, and resigned to it in our own ways.

That’s why Linklater’s cafe au lait Dostoevskys and conspiracy savants sustains twenty-five years later. The game for the viewer is not teasing apart thought-provoking insights or brilliant dissections of American culture. Most of the musings in Slacker are, in fact, well-adorned horseshit. The game is piecing together how reasonably-educated people would arrive at such philosophies—and everyone in this film has their own philosophy, make no mistake. There’s a postmodern dignity that comes with assembling a personal credo from piece-parts and staying true to it, no matter how whacked-out it is. And that’s what’s going on in this film, with zero irony and zero sarcasm.

Pre-Internet and pre-Seinfeld, Slacker might come across as a grungy sun-drenched film of a drearier, less-snarky age. I say Linklater offers blueprints for an examined life—not the examined life, but examples of them. This is an earnest film. With few exceptions, the characters in Slacker withhold judgment about each other. They give each other the benefit of the doubt. Even when it’s obvious one of them is babbling nonsense from out in the weeds—”We’ve been on the moon since the ’50s!”—the other characters give them their space. There’s a moment in the film where a character takes a swipe at Texas Libertarians, but it seems to me that Slacker‘s code of live-and-let-live stands not far off.

Most critics pick up on a line uttered late in the film: “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy.” It’s often interpreted as the film announcing its own thesis statement (possibly the only other “meta” moment), but it’s worth taking a second look.

I don’t see a lot of disgust in Slacker. There’s a bit of it sprinkled around: the roustabout hitchhiker (“I may live badly, but at least I don’t have to work to do it”), a mouthy “anti-artist” berating a hipster at two in the morning, an enraged polemicist in an old-fashioned electioneering sound truck. That may be about it in the disgust department, though.

Slacker 2011, a "re-imagining" produced by the Austin Film Society for the 20th anniversary of the original film.

Slacker 2011, a “re-imagining” produced by the Austin Film Society for the 20th anniversary of the original film.

Listening to Linklater’s director’s commentary (recorded for Slacker‘s 20th anniversary), I gather he’s not terribly interested in elevating emotions like disgust, rage, vengeance, or hatred. So many of his anecdotes about Slacker are soft recollections of easier times: a buddy who came through with film equipment, good times working in a T-shirt shop, a girlfriend-actor he’s still friends with, that sort of thing. Slacker is a compendium of this manner of life. Sleeping on couches, trips to dusty used-books stores, the quest for the best burrito in town: It’s not a universal way of life, but it’s a way of life mimeographed and stapled to telephone poles all across America. Any smallish city or town with a college or arts school has this scene. Slacker is its Platonic ideal.

Returning to that immortal line—”Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy”—I don’t even think there’s much apathy in the film, at least in its purest destructive form. Shrugging off others’ pet theories or forgoing a work ethic is not apathy. Questioning whether ex-convicts should be denied the right to vote or wondering if the media used Smurfs to inculcate America’s youth—both voiced in the film—doesn’t strike me as apathetic either.

Withdrawal is the common filament of Slacker, the third rail powering the camera’s dolly as it journeys through Austin. The closest Slacker gets to engagement is a gung-ho “cultural terrorist” selling T-shirts on the street. Slacker‘s characters don’t merely question, they question the act of questioning.

What did E. M. Forster write in Howard’s End? “Only connect”? Slacker is “only connect” put to film.

Twenty-five years on, I’ve lost touch with all the folks in that room in San Luis Obispo watching Slacker and drinking red wine. Over the years I intersected with a few of them, connecting briefly before moving on.

I’ll be bold and surmise that, back then, laughing and marveling over Linklater’s creation, none of us wanted to leave San Luis Obispo, or even that room. After leaving, we never wanted to return either. Perhaps we never truly left it behind.

I suppose that’s why I rewatch Slacker every few years, just as I reread certain books which have deeply affected me at points in my life. Rewatching Slacker is reconnecting with a past and making it present for a moment. It keeps alive within me a little bit of that necessary withdrawal.