Failure

Crackpot Literary Theories

p30200_d_v8_aaLast night I watched the film The Luzhin Defence, an older title, which I got from the library. The film is based on the novel by Nabokov, which I have not read.

After watching the film, I developed an entire literary theory, which I subsequently discovered is utter nonsense, but it is so satisfying I feel I must share it anyway.

The ending of the film reminded me of something my Russian partner once told me.

We were talking about the “American story.” The hero wins against overwhelming odds and there is a happy ending. Good triumphs over evil and we can feel safe and secure knowing Truth, Justice and the American Way are safe. Americans are comfortable with the happy ending even if it’s an illusion. We agree to this conceit the way a ballet audience agrees that it is normal for women to wear tutus and walk on tip toe. It is a narrative convention.

So I asked my partner what the Russian Story was. His answer blew my mind. In the classic Russian tale, he said, boy meets girl. Boy dies. Boy comes back as a ghost. They live (or is it die?) happily ever after and there is a lesson- a moral.

The hero of the Russian story DIES before it has even gotten interesting! The American story is about winning. The Russian story is about what you learn from losing. American heroes continue in the face of all obstacles. They do not waver, and eventually win through sheer force of character and will.

Russian heroes, according to my are destroyed before they even have a chance to begin. Then the hero is reborn to the circumstances, he is victorious in failure and he brings his lesson back to the world. The American story does not teach us what to do with failure. It simply does not give us the option. Villains fail. Heroes succeed.

Now, my partner is a ballet dancer, not a writer. He has not made a study of Russian literature, and I don’t know if his off-the-cuff description of the “Russian story” is accurate or not. It was, in any case, thought-provoking.

When I saw The Luzhin Defence I felt I had confirmation. Spoiler alert: I will now talk about the end of the film.  The Luzhin Defence is the story of a man being driven mad by his obsession with chess. He only knows how to view the world as a chess game. The film focuses on Luzhin’s relationship with a woman named Natalya, who becomes his fiancee. In the film, Luzhin (brilliantly played by John Tuturro) has been sabotaged, and suffers a nervous break-down during a pause in the final game of the world championship. Told that chess is driving him mad, he must choose between a “normal” life with his fiancee but without chess, or chess and madness. He jumps to his death. In the final scene, the grieving Natalya finds Luzhin’s written plans to complete the chess game. Luzhin’s opponent agrees to let her play the game out using his strategy, and it wins.

Remembering what my partner once said, I concluded that Russian drama is not about what one achieves in his lifetime, but about his legacy. It is not the happy end, the tragic end, or the noble end. It is about the after-effects of a life.

Here’s the problem: The epilogue was not in the novel. From a review in The Guardian:

What was a beautifully structured narrative of mental drama becomes a rather over-familiar costume romance, pillowed by a swooningly sentimental epilogue that has nothing to do with Nabokov’s novel.

So it turns out it is just another example of a film maker adding a happy end (of sorts) to a novel that is felt to be too unsatisfying for the screen.

Steven Poole, in his review sheds some light on the problem film makers often face when translating a novel to film.

A clue is to be found in Nabokov’s 1943 short story, The Assistant Producer, in which the narrator draws a lugubrious parallel between cinema and life, both of which mock the unwary with fatal coincidence. “Indeterminism is banned from the studio,” he writes. That is precisely it: the cinema simply cannot maintain creative ambiguity. How do you preserve the master’s playful indeterminism when a movie must show one thing or the other?

So there is a perfectly good literary theory all shot to hell. This all made me think of Oscar Wilde’s story The Portrait of W.H. in which he has his character put forward a theory that the W.H. of Shakespeare’s sonnets was a boy actor in his company. After the character explains all the clues that point to his conclusion (and gets someone else excited about it) he abandons his theory because it pre-supposes the very thing he is trying to prove– the existence of the boy actor W.H.

You can imagine Wilde himself becoming excited about the idea of W.H., building a grand narrative about it, only to make the realization that his reasoning is circular. So he shifts his focus and makes his story not simply about W.H., but about the beauty of believing a beautiful story, rather than the factual underpinnings of the story itself. (Lord Alfred Douglas, always a black and white thinker, in his later years set out to prove W.H. did exist using church records.)

In the spirit of Wilde, I’m not going to abandon my beautiful theory just because it happens not to be true. Clearly the end of the film has nothing to do with Russian story-telling. But for a moment, when I believed it did, I glimpsed something– another option for viewing narrative.

What if our stories were more concerned with legacy than with success in the here and now? Would we live our lives differently?

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Failure Friday: More on the Irony of Optimism

Do you remember the Monty Python sketch about the “argument clinic?” The Pythons always had a bit of a punch-line challenge and they liked to end a sketch by throwing in something random like, in this case, having Michael Palin walk into a room where Terry Jones is offering “getting hit on the head lessons.”

So yesterday I was browsing the archives of a blog called The Golden Echo, and I came across a post tagged “Failure Friday.” As I have an interest in failure, I thought I would like to steal, er, offer an homage to the Failure Friday tag. I wondered, however, if I could come up with enough failure material for a recurring feature.

Fate intervened, for today I was reading Stat (of course I read medical blogs) and I stumbled upon an article by Sara Whitlock with the title “One Reason Young People Don’t Go Into Science? We Don’t Fail Well.” Whitlock’s thesis is that repeated failure is “the fundamental underpinning of scientific resilience.”

(It is, undoubtedly, the fundamental underpinning of resilience in the arts as well. By the time anyone is making a career as an artist, dancer, musician, actor or writer he has gone through more than his fair share of rejection and failure.)

Westerners in general, and Americans particularly, face a lot of social pressure to be above average. We’re consumers of books on “success,” and we are judgmental of those who do not achieve it. Success means standing out, showing a talent that you have above and beyond others. Talent is thought to be innate, part of an individual’s makeup.

A number of studies have found that Asian cultures take a different approach. For example a 2001 study had Canadian and Japanese students take a so-called creativity test. It did not test anything, but the experimenters gave the subjects feedback on how well they had performed then they watched their reactions. When they were told they were successful, Canadians worked longer. With the Japanese it was completely the opposite. They worked harder if they failed.

One big East/West divide, according to Richard Nisbett, author of The Geography of Thought, is that Westerners are focused on building and shoring up our individual identities. In the East it is different:

Some linguistic facts illustrate the social-psychological gap between East and West. In Chinese there is no word for “individualism.” The closest one can come is the word for “selfishness.” The Chinese character jên— benevolence— means two men. In Japanese, the word “I”— meaning the trans-situational, unconditional, generalized self with all its attributes, goals, abilities, and preferences— is not often used in conversation. Instead, Japanese has many words for “I,” depending on audience and context.

We believe each person has a consistent self that remains stable regardless of the context. This self can be either “creative” or “not so creative.” The Canadian therefore takes the feedback on the creativity test as information on how creative a person he is. If it turns out he is not “creative” he will want to move on to what he is good at, leave creativity to “creatives,” and try to develop his core competency. The Japanese subjects do not take the test as a measure of their inherent qualities, rather as a challenge at which they can improve.

Nisbett concluded, “Westerners are likely to get very good at a few things they start out doing well to begin with. Easterners seem more likely to become Jacks and Jills of all trades.”

We might try science, but if we don’t stand out fairly quickly we move on to try to find out where we do excel. This makes us less resilient in the face of failure. Whitlock cites a 2011 study that examined resiliency in disadvantaged students in a number of countries and concluded that non-US students were more resilient than we are. Is there a moral to this story?

Maybe we need to sign up for more getting hit on the head lessons.

 

 

 

Schadenberuhigung?

An old post of mine about the 80s pop band Milli Vanilli has suddenly gotten some unexpected traffic. I can only guess that this has something to do with Mariah Carey’s meltdown performance on New Year’s Eve in which pre-recorded high notes were a prominent feature.

Eight years ago I wrote a book called Schadenfreude, Baby! Schadenfreude is joy in the misfortune of others. I have to admit to enjoying the fiasco, but not quite in the “Schadenfreude” way.

It brought me back to the humiliating moment four years ago when I was contacted out of the blue by a booking agent for an NPR affiliate asking if I would be a guest on a regional program to talk about one of my old books. I wrote that book ten years ago now, and even then I did not have all of the facts at my immediate recall. I told the booking agent that my instinct was not to do the show, because it had been a long time, but he reassured me that it would be easy and sent me a list of some of the topics from the old book that the show planned to cover so I could cram. Unfortunately, I didn’t re-learn it all in time and the announcer did not stick to those subjects anyway. It was horrible. As I wrote at the time, “half way through the 1 hour interview, I fell silent after a question and had to admit I had no memory at all of the historical episode the host was asking me about.”

What I didn’t mention in the blog post about the interview was that there was another guest on the show in the studio. During the commercial the announcer, I assume not knowing that I could hear their conversation, complained to the other guest about my ignorance, and as I was trying to shake that off we came out of the commercial, the announcer cut back to me with yet another question about my own book which I could not answer. I got a fresh knot in the pit of my stomach for weeks whenever I thought about the interview. I still don’t like to contemplate it.

So when I saw everything falling apart for Mariah Carey I had a different species of Schadenfreude. It was not that I felt glee that she had been taken down a peg. I felt relief, “Well, it could have been worse. I could have been live on one of the most viewed five minutes of television the whole year.” The word that is the subject of this post, if my high school German has served me, (there is a good chance it hasn’t, as I have demonstrated, my memory of things decades old is sometimes questionable) should translate to “reassurance in the misfortunes of others.” It’s OK. Pop stars are screw ups too. Isn’t that just a little bit nice to know?

 

A Cold and Broken Hallelujah

I mentioned yesterday that I started writing in a journal as a teenager as a way of giving voice to my inner feelings.   I also noted that the fiction I wrote using that method was self-indulgent and horrible. I kept a spiritual journal for a while when I was 26 or so filled with what I thought were deep revelations and poetry about the meaning of life or something like that. Mostly, in retrospect, I was only studying because there was a guy who was into Eastern religion who I was trying to relate to. Sometimes there are positives that come from those kind of second-hand interests. You learn a lot about something you would never have jumped into on your own, and that eventually leads to some creative mixing of thoughts. So thank God, or the gods, or the elan vital for unrequited affection. But the point is, the spiritual journal was also self-indulgent and horrible and deserved the shredding it got.

It also did absolutely nothing to improve my friendship with the guy, in part because he pointed out to me that my lovingly crafted work was self-indulgent and horrible. I remember him saying something along the lines of “if you want to be friends with me, I will destroy your ego every time.” Something like that. It sounds awful, but he was referring to the ego as a false self that was a stumbling block to enlightenment.  In any case, I’m not the one to talk to you about it because– well, did I mention the horrible, self-indulgent spiritual journal?

If I wanted to kill my ego over and over I could hardly have chosen a better career. You get knocked down a lot on a writer’s journey. Over and over. But you start out thinking that after a while you will have paid your dues and that time will pass. Twenty years and 16 books later, I feel as though I have paid those dues. Writing doesn’t seem to work that way. Not really. It is not like working in an office where you get promoted to management and now you’re at a new level, or academia where you can get tenure.  Instead authors, even best-selling authors, find themselves pursuing the “Write Great Books and Hope” retirement plan.

If you’re the type of writer who is soothed by the idea that the little indignities that come with your chosen profession are not personal you might enjoy this anecdote from the 1988 The Book of Business Anecdotes by Peter Hay:

I was director of a small literary publishing company in Vancouver, British Columbia, called Talon Books. Each spring our cash flow dried up as we waiting for bookstores to pay for shipments of Christmas past and as our government subsidy grants were always in the proverbial mail. Each spring my partners and I had to go to our local branch of the Bank of Montreal and get a loan of $10,000 to tide us over. The company had been doing this for seven or eight years… this particular spring… the company needed $15,000. But our security bond was still only $10,000. We thought that the bank manager, who saw our steadily increasing sales figures year in and year out, would let us have it. We were wrong…Finally one of my partners had an inspiration: “What about our inventory? Why can’t we borrow against our inventory?”

“What inventory?” the man seemed mildly interested.

“Well, we have a quarter million dollars worth of books. That’s why we have all these printing bills– we publish books.”

“So these books,” the banker proceeded cautiously, “have printing in them?”

“Yes, that’s what we manufacture.”

“I cannot give you a loan,” he said with an air of finality. “The paper would have been worth something, but you’ve spoiled it by printing on it.”

I often think of this anecdote when I am trying to promote books.

It is an insane product where the producer finds it much more valuable than the consumers for whom it was supposedly made.

My latest “spoiled it by printing on it” moment came this week when I donated a set of the complete works of Laura Lee to my local library. It was an entire bag full of books, and I went home feeling just a little bit accomplished for having published all those books, and a little bit proud at having something worthwhile to give to a place that I value.

The punchline, you will probably have anticipated (because I can tell you are astute) is that feeling was not mutual. A few weeks later, I was browsing the online catalog and I decided to see if my books had shown up. They hadn’t. I sent a message asking if they were going to be added to the collection and I was told that the books had been sold in the library’s fundraiser book sale for $1 a piece.

The person I was corresponding with was apologetic and said it had been a mistake and that if I wanted to I could bring my books in again and— here is the part that knocked me back– they would look at them and decide if they were worth adding to the collection and they would give me back the ones they didn’t want. In the end they decided there were two of my 16 books that might be worth stocking, but they were also my two least favorites.

So yes, I was expecting something along the lines of “Wow, we didn’t know we had a full-time author who has been so prolific right here in our town, that is exciting.” What I got was more along the lines of, “Oh man, do we have to find space for some local author’s books?”

So you see, I didn’t really need a spiritual practice have my ego crushed again and again. Life has a way of doing it all by itself. Maybe I should thank my higher power for that. But for the moment, I need a day to lick my wounds.

I am sure this is the place where I am supposed to give an uplifting message about how this has just inspired me to work harder. That’s not really the emotion I am feeling. I do not feel any sense of victory when I say I will keep writing. I keep doing it because it is what I do. That means that this is the type of thing I signed up for.

What I feel is resignation. It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.

“It’s Not Personal.”

Often when something upsetting happens people will try to cheer you up by explaining that “it’s not personal.” Being laid off from a job is not like being dumped by a boyfriend, the thinking goes. It’s not because there is something wrong with you, it is simply a business decision.

This idea is something that figures into my novel “Identity Theft.” Candi, the central character, works in an office that is downsizing and the management is doing everything it can to try to fire people without bruising their self-esteem too much, or at least to fire them without having to feel too guilty about bruising their self-esteem.

The thing is, I’ve never really understood why “it’s not personal” was supposed to make you feel better.

Of course, the downsizing is not being done to Candi, but it is certainly happening to her. Why is it supposed to be soothing for her to know that from the perspective of the institution she’s not relevant enough to be considered personally?

Often when an “it’s not personal” argument is invoked that is precisely what is painful about the situation. It hurts because you are given a big kick in the pants that says “you are not all that important.”

When people say it’s just a business decision, what they really mean to say, I suppose, is “you are valuable, just not to them.” There is some comfort in that, but it is something that comes later, after the initial sting has worn off. It says that you have to make your own meaning– force life to mean on your own terms. That is a process, and not a quick or easy one.

People do not only work for a paycheck. We work to feel that we are doing something that matters. That it is not personal to the world at large, when it is so personal to us individually, is a source of a lot of melancholy if not outright emotional anguish.

Dealing with “it’s not personal” is the hard part, not what makes it easier.

Parables of Positive Thinking and Passion

This TED Talk by a fast speaking, nervously pacing economics professor named Larry Smith came up in my Facebook feed today. (That is how far and wide I’m willing to go to do research for this blog at the moment.)

Smith’s talk is popular with more than 3 million views on the TED site. And why not? People always like to hear others express something they already believe. The idea behind his talk is that you will fail to have a great career because you will not try to have a great career. That is to say, the only thing preventing you from having your dream career is that you are not thinking positively enough and acting boldly enough in line with your passion.

People love this message. All I have to do is believe. Click my heels like Dorothy. Be willing to trust and, of course, to do the work. If I just do that, everything will come to me.

As with any type of faith, it has some built-in features that make it hard to dispute. Each person, even the most positive and ambitious, sometimes hits a wall. We all have limits to our physical and emotional energy. So each of us, to some extent, will sometimes back down from a risk or take a break from work. So everyone can say, “yes, I just didn’t believe hard enough” or “take a big enough risk” or what have you. In fact, the most ambitious and risk-taking among us probably even have more of these self-crticisms. So no matter how passionate, focused, driven and positive you are– you can always blame it on your own lack of courage if you fail to live your dream.

Something similar to this happens in the Christian religion:  “Prayer works it’s just that God has different plans for you right now.”

This is Larry Smith’s advice: “Here’s a little secret. You want to work? You want to work really, really, really hard? You know what? You’ll succeed.”

Will you? Will you succeed without fail? How hard is “really, really, really hard?”

(I feel compelled to point out that this is a largely middle class ideology. The working class are too busy working really, really, really, really, really hard to chide themselves for not ruling the world.)

What about the people who work, really, really, really hard and fail anyway? Was it because they should have worked really, really, really, really hard?

Or is the underlying theory wrong. Perhaps there are obstacles in the real world that you can’t imagine, believe, or work away regardless of how competent and dedicated you are.

We’re trained to think this point of view is defeatist or negative. I feel it is uplifting, because it means that people matter, that they have value and are not losers whether their best laid plans go right or wrong.