Suggested Listening: Goodman, Benny/Lee, Peggy. “Not Mine,” The Complete Recordings, Album, 1941.
For a full-time writer — and to anyone who peruses my Twitter feed — it would seem as though I spend more time watching movies than reading. That’s true. Waxing nostalgic is a hobby of mine. I won’t apologize for that.
I watched the movie GENIUS (2016) several nights back, starring Colin Firth as the famous Charles Scribner’s Sons’ editor Max Perkins and starring Jude Law as novelist Thomas Wolfe. Based on the 1978 biography written by A. Scott Berg, I cannot stop thinking about the film — from the sets, the lighting, the cinematography, and, above all else, the era.
In case any reader did not know, Max Perkins is known for discovering F. Scott Fitzgerald, who, in turn, introduced Mr. Perkins to Ernest Hemingway. The rest, as they say, is literary history.
Those were the days. Forgive me if I wax nostalgic. My Twitter timeline is rife with numerous observations and legitimate complaints regarding the latest assault on prose as of late: ChatGPT. AI. Artificial, which is the polite — some would argue “misleading” — term for “fake.” The software churns out volumes of content a la (insert author name here) without soul.
The proliferation of plagiarism and fake “content” has resulted in several online magazines putting an end to their open call for submissions. The magazines cannot keep up with the spam.
I ask you one heartfelt question: Who does this?
Answer? The careless. The desperate. The insincere.
Technology, of course, serves a purpose. I have a website and use spellcheck. I use social media when I’m able. When needed, I use DeepL to translate the Spanish language I am desperate to learn and master.
And then I wax nostalgic once again. There is a scene in the movie when Thomas Wolfe hauls several wooden crates into Max Perkins’ office. Inside the cumbersome boxes are thousands of pages, handwritten in graphite and bundled with jute twine. Whether or not the situation occurred back in the day, I cannot say. But creating a masterpiece such as a novel was an art form that took years.
Back in the day, each of Thomas Wolfe’s pages was typed by assistants who toiled away on sturdy black Remingtons. The steady hum of keys. The charm of a bell tone. The rythmic return of the roller. The assistants transcribed scrawl into properly formatted chapters. A soul poured onto every page.
Today, unknown writers no longer mail submissions but fill out online forms. They attach documents with 1-inch margins in 12 pt Times New Roman font. They wait 30 days or longer to be ignored. Many a manuscript’s concept is lost on an inexperienced intern. Many a manuscript is dismissed outright by a computer scanning for inappropriate keywords as opposed to marvelous prose.
Some would argue that Max Perkins obliterated entire passages to package a novel for the general public to consume. Mass market appeal was a business decision, and that aspect of publishing has not changed. With every spellcheck I run, the software suggests I eradicate thoughts. I’m too wordy. My colloquialisms are inappropriate. Thus, I add more. My passive voice is not “misuse.” Rather, I choose to convey a wistful longing.
What has disappeared is the risk. Literary agents and publishing houses no longer have the freedom to take chances. Instead, many astute writers understand that an underlying agenda caters to an ideology but not an ideal.
The film industry has entered into the ideological fray and, most likely, first. I have the privilege of speaking with other authors and filmmakers who are not only dismayed but horrified at the state of industry decay.
I wax nostalgic for a third time.
Every era passes. Innovations, new music, new fashions. From the gramophone, to the transistor radio, to the iPod. The iPod was a way to download hundreds of songs, including the classics. We were connected.
That is no longer the case. There is the refusal to recognize reality. A disconnect from when every era carried over into the next. An embrace. A marriage of tradition and new, improved, or unique. We embraced standards once. Today, we’re faced with outright dismissal.
Writers today entrust their thoughts to those algorithms when they algorithms are in error. We need editors. We need assistants. The interaction is instead virtual. Collaborations occur over FaceTime and Zoom calls. There are no long walks, car trips, or train rides to bounce ideas off each other. We celebrate the genius of Steve Jobs, who chose long walks to stimulate brainstorms.
Today, our communities occur online. There are chats and servers. Still, we yearn for the days of smoky bars and cafés. The underground jazz club of yore is a Facebook group comprised of hundreds. These groups, I would assume, strive for the intimacy we once celebrated: Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein, and the gatekeepers.
Those were close-knit bonds. Some would argue the cliques. Through online groups, artists struggle to reach back into history the modern era has dismissed outright. In truth, many of the best writers are lonely sorts and battling demons — a cliché but the truth. Those demons are the characters coming alive on the pages of novels, authors’ works autobiographical, no matter how some authors argue against the notion. Each character represents an encounter, a face an author can never, for whatever reason, forget. Those encounters leave lasting impressions each author needs — battling demons — to resurrect.
Demons. Inspiration. The love we let get away. The love of moving the camera to capture a fleeting ray of light. The love of phrasing to capture what the computer could never generate. Yes, the demon lurks in an algorithm, and the computer is a soulless beast; programmed with the thoughts of its engineer. An algorithm. A fancy word for a creator’s demons masked only by an equation.
I wax nostalgic a fourth time as I’d always dreamt of collaborating with a venerable agent or an editor in a paneled corner office on the drafty floor of some stone building. Flying solo, I do my best to bring to life what I create in the middle of starry and sleepless nights.
A snake oil salesman once suggested I peddle my ideas to someone else to write. Then, I could live on an island while someone else toiled away. What a vile and repulsive suggestion, coming from a boy with no original ideas of his own. A factory without the insight of Andy Warhol.
This disconnected era favors immediacy over art, accuracy, and timelessness. Those who labor do so for reasons the snake oil salesman will never fathom. I gather he has never held a handwritten letter or received a postcard from someone worshipped or adored. A lost soul. A tragic figure. But he does not care. In turn, I do not care for him but wish well.
Connecting every passing era and age to the next was the passing down of knowledge, skill, craft, wisdom, and touch. This new battle is cold. Impersonal. Remote. Perhaps the new Dark Age is upon us. Perhaps we are witness to the destruction of an Alexandrian library, swallowed by a wave of neglect.
I wax nostalgic one final time and hear the language of the Camel Whisperers, the keepers of the traditions that bind us to our ancestors. I whisper to the cultured, “Battle on, great artists. The night, in all its angelic glory, is young.”
Thank you all for reading. Thanks for sharing, too.