scenes from the writing life: martin amis on meeting his fans


"My queue is always full of, you know, wild-eyed sleazebags . . ." 

AMIS: Judging by everything from reviews to letters I receive, I find that people take my writing rather personally. It’s interesting when you’re doing signing sessions with other writers and you look at the queues at each table and you can see definite human types gathering there.

INTERVIEWER: Which type is in your queue?

AMIS: Well, I did one with Roald Dahl and quite predictable human divisions were observable. For him, a lot of children, a lot of parents of children. With Julian Barnes, his queue seemed to be peopled by rather comfortable, professional types. My queue is always full of, you know, wild-eyed sleazebags and people who stare at me very intensely, as if I have some particular message for them. As if I must know that they’ve been reading me, that this dyad or symbiosis of reader and writer has been so intense that I must somehow know about it.

—from The Paris Review, Issue 146, Spring 1998. Interviewed by Francesca Riviere.

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scenes from the writing life: clancy sigal, novelist & agent

Hollywood agents, that most despised of human specimens, of which I was one, are as indispensable as the rabies vaccine, which kills as easily as it cures.

 

‘Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents’ by Tom Kemper

 

A history of the rise of ‘that most despised of human specimens,’ the Hollywood agent.


By Clancy Sigal

 

Hollywood agents, that most despised of human specimens, of which I was one, are as indispensable as the rabies vaccine, which kills as easily as it cures. Although in one form or another agents, as the middlemen brokers of human talent, have existed since the dawn of 19th century mass entertainment, they are a nearly perfect metaphor for a late-blooming capitalist economy. They don’t make anything except spit and hot air. Or, as author Tom Kemper writes, giving it an academic polish, "agents serve in the commercial fabrication of individuality," selling "personality [as] a commodity" including, especially, their own commission-hungry personalities.

 

However loftily the business of agents is described  and Kemper is fond of euphemisms like "embedded field of routine transactional and social relationships" (I think he means schmoozing) we in the movie business cannot function without a go-between as our link to the money. Indeed, as Kemper reminds us in his scholarly history of early Hollywood agentry from the 1920s into the early 1950s, one pioneer agent used to publish a "Sears catalog of stars" that listed his clients in a magazine bluntly titled "Link."

 

Kemper tells us that there was an "agent problem" right from the start. The Motion Picture Academy, itself no paragon of business ethics, accused agents of "racketeering, double-dealing, arrogance, failure to live up to obligations [and] semi-legal trickery" and that was long before CAA, UTA, Endeavor, ICM and West Coast MCA had been invented.

 

Studios and their talent suppliers, the agents, had yet to figure out a true business model of how to live with each other on the backs of the people who actually made the movies: "The skirmishes between studios and agents . . . essentially erupted over stars . . . [that were] a studio’s most visible assets." Agents connived in the most lucrative deals for their clients and themselves, and studio executives, under relentless pressure to maintain a 50-picture-a-year slate for theatrical release, connived right back. Cat and mouse, predator and prey, but which was which?

 

Even a loyal agent as I guiltily know from experience  weighs "negotiations in terms of the relationship with his client and the long-term relationship with studio executives." You walk "a fine line between representing a client’s grievances and alienating the producer." Kemper points out that "these steady relationships formed an almost conspiratorial syndicate between the agency and production executives." I like that "almost."

 

As studios matured, accommodation (and a form of industrial efficiency) came in the form of two temperamentally opposed uber-agents who ushered in the modern era. Kemper builds his book around the files and archives of neurotic, "taciturn and brutish" Myron Selznick, who pushed client Vivien Leigh into the Scarlett role in his older brother David’s "Gone With the Wind"; and the "finely tailored," dapper, graceful-in-his-skin "career engineer" Charles Feldman. The angry, insecure Myron Selznick and the socially adept Feldman pretty much monopolized Hollywood’s high-priced talent, including almost all the stars seen today on Turner Classic Movies.

 

Keep the money in mind. In one year alone, 1949, when a school teacher’s annual salary was $1,400, Feldman, with a few phone calls, earned a $250,000 commission on a single deal.

 

Like many agents at the time, including me, Myron was an alcoholic; unlike most agents, "Charlie" Feldman was legally trained and could read a contract the way Einstein read an algebraic equation (which a lot of studio agreements resembled, then as now).

 

What both men shared, Kemper underscores, was a crucial Southern California family background in the movie business. The Hollywood agency racket was a deeply tribal phenomenon. (My boss, Sam Jaffe, head of his own agency, was the brother-in-law of Paramount mogul B.P. Schulberg, and Jaffe hired relations galore who hired their sons.) For years, New York-centered agencies like the band-booking MCA and stage-and-radio power William Morris failed to gain a foothold in Hollywood because they had no blood connections here. Then, choosing their moment, they rudely bought their way into Hollywood by corporate takeovers that squashed the char- ismatic, personality-driven, "one-stop powerhouse[s]" like Feldman, Selznick (for whom contracts were "a form of trickery") and Leland Hayward.

 

Reading Kemper’s original and deeply researched study, I couldn’t help thinking of Hollywood’s golden oldie days. Then agents tended to be a colorfully mixed (mainly Jewish) bag. My colleagues were war veterans who included a furniture-removal man, a tennis bum, a secret-ops military officer, a former labor agitator, a trust fund baby rich men, poor men, beggar men and thieves with some considerable wild, woolly life experience. Today’s agents go to film, business or law school and come up through the mailroom, guzzle sparkling water instead of gin and work out at the gym. They are healthier, cooler, more handsome, less emotional and less angry and much, much more innocent about life.

 

A glaring omission in Kemper’s book is the absence of any mention of Hollywood’s then-current labor racketeer troubles, violent strikes, criminal conspiracies and the blacklist in which the agents played a key, and unheroic, role. Kemper’s de-politicalization of what was, in fact, a lasting trauma for the entire industry one hopes he will remedy in a forthcoming history of talent agencies in a later period.

 

Sigal is a screenwriter, novelist and a former Hollywood agent whose firm represented, among others, Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, Jack Palance, Joseph Cotten and Peter Lorre.

 

—from the Los Angeles Times, December 24, 1009

scenes from the writing life: the silent estate of louis zukofsky

"I can perhaps understand your misguided interest in literature . . ."

[Zuk_alone1.jpg] 

Don’t quote me

 

In any alphabet of modern American poets (Ashbery, Bishop, Creeley … ), Louis Zukofsky (1907- 78) conveniently fills twenty-sixth place. He is less well-known than contemporaries such as Langston Hughes and Kenneth Rexroth, or even his friend Lorine Niedecker, who has benefited from "a posthumous boom in her reputation", according to David Lehman’s recent Oxford Book of American Poetry. No boom has sounded in Zukofsky studies, and none will do so in the near future, if the poet’s son has his way. Paul Zukofsky, who administers the author’s estate, has posted a "Copyright Notice" on an independent website devoted to his father’s work:

 

People have been misled into thinking that, in terms of quoting LZ, they may do what they want, and do not have to worry about me. These people are then suddenly faced with the reality of an irascible, recalcitrant MOl, and are confronted with the very real prospect of years of work potentially down the tubes.

 

He wants scholars and critics to know that he is planting "an obvious ‘do not trespass ‘sign where LZ aficionados may see it". He has no desire to cultivate interest in his father’s poetry, the most prominent example of which is the long poem "A", which occupied fifty years of Zukofsky’s life. "I urge you to not work on Zukofsky, and prefer that you do not", Paul writes. "You will be more appreciated working on some author whose copyright holder(s) will actually cherish your work. I do not."

 

Should you insist, you and Paul may "more or less amicably work out the fees that I demand". Otherwise, "remove all quotation; or we can turn the matter over to lawyers". As for those (like us) who believe that the "fair use" clause in copyright law permits reasonable quotation for critical purposes, be warned. "I promise to do my utmost to hamper, hinder, and preferably prevent all quotation."

 

The TLS is one of the few mainstream journals in the English-speaking world to have paid critical heed to Zukofsky, an allegedly "difficult" poet. In the issue of September 7, 2007, Marjorie Perloff reviewed a biography by Mark Scroggins. Needless to say, she quoted all she needed to qualify her well-informed argument. Would Zukofsky have enjoyed the serious attention devoted to his poetry? Probably yes. Does Paul? No.

 

I can perhaps understand your misguided interest in literature … but one line you may not cross, ie, never never ever tell me that your work is to be valued by me because it promotes my father. Doing that will earn my life-long permanent enmity.

 

You wouldn’t want that. You could, alternatively, calm your nerves by reading Zukofsky. We recommend the charming "To My Wash-stand", included in Mr Lehman’s Oxford Book.


—from the Times Literary Supplement, November 13, 2009

scenes from the writing life: robert graves, poetry and mushroom cults

Rent "The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs" book by Marcus Boon by BookSwim Rental Library Club.

 

. . . The other great psychedelic pioneer of the 1950s was a J. P. Morgan vice president and amateur mycologist named R. Gordon Wasson. Wasson and his wife had already written a voluminous work on the history of mushroom lore, Russia, Mushrooms, and History (1957) when, apparently through a conversation with the English poet Robert Graves, he found out about the continuing existence of a cult in Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, that used teonanacatl, the vision-inducing mushrooms that Spanish writers had talked of after the conquest of Mexico. This mushroom cult had been discovered by an Austrianborn physician, Blas Pablo Reko, and picked up on by the Harvard botanist Richard Evans Schultes, who had traveled to Oaxaca in 1938 with Reko to witness the ceremonial use of the mushrooms. Schultes’ interest in the cult was botanical (he claimed that he experienced none of the visionary dimensions of the plants he “discovered”), but Wasson saw the cultural and religious significance of the story and traveled to Oaxaca, where, on August, 15, 1953, he took the mushrooms (which were of three species, the best known being Stropharia cubensis) with the Mazatec shaman Maria Sabina.Wasson published a widely read account of his trip in LIFE magazine in 1957, but was apparently appalled when others who read his account began traveling to Oaxaca. Wasson argued that psychedelic mushrooms provided the key to many of the world’s religious mysteries, including the soma of the Vedas, the Eleusinian rites of Ancient Greece, certain visions related in the Zend Avesta, the holy scripture of Zoroastrianism, and the tree of good and evil in the Bible, but made no comment on contemporary use of the drugs. Forgetting his own LIFE article, he later criticized the vulgarization of contemporary discourse about the drugs, calling the term “psychedelics” “a barbarous formation,”101 and with a group of colleagues proposed a new term, “entheogen,” to describe the drugs—a term that conveniently obscures the nontheogenic nature of most twentieth-century use of the drugs.

 Robert Graves also believed that the psychedelics provided a source for much of the world of classical and preclassical mythology. In a review of Wasson’s work published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1956, he already speculated that the cult of Dionysus held mushroom orgies.102 On January 31, 1960, when he was sixty-four, Graves took mushrooms with Wasson in New York, and wrote an essay about it called “The Poet’s Paradise” (1961), which he read to Oxford students in the early 1960s. Graves described his experience in highly mythical terms, feeling that the mushrooms were taking him back to the world of Gilgamesh and the Babylonian paradise. He experienced worlds of jewels, demons, and erotic fantasy, while Wasson played a tape recording of Mazatec shaman Maria Sabina chanting. Graves was impressed, although he noted caustically, that “what was for thousands of years a sacred and secret element, entrusted only to persons chosen for their good conduct and integrity, will soon be snatched at by jaded sensation-seekers.”103 Such people would be disappointed, however, because instead of drunken oblivion they would experience heightened insight into themselves—which they might find less than recreational. Yet Graves believed that the experience of the mushroom was passive when compared to that of poetic trance: “It seems established that Tlalocan [Aztec word for paradise], for all its sensory marvels, contains no palace of words presided over by the Living Muse, and no small white-washed cell . . . to which a poet may retire and actively write poems in her honour, rather than bask sensuously under her spell.”104 A little later, Graves had an experience of synthetic psilocybin with Wasson, which disappointed everyone involved. Graves wrote that it had been “all wrong, a common vulgar drug, no magic, and followed by a nasty hang-over.”105 In the late 1960s he dismissed marijuana in print as being a low-class type of drug.

 —from Marcus Boon, The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs. Harvard (pp 253-255).

Notes 

101. Wasson, R. Gordon, Stella Kramrisch, Jonathan Ott, and Carl Ruck. 1986. Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 30.

102. “Centaur’s Food,” reprinted in Graves, Robert. 1960. Food for Centaurs: Stories, Talks, Critical Studies, Poems. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. A review of Wasson’s “Soma, Mushrooms, and Religion” was published in Difficult Questions, Easy Answers (1973)—in which Graves notes that Wasson does not credit him for developing the idea of Greek soma. The book also contains another essay on the mushroom experience, “The Universal Paradise.”

103. Robert Graves, 1969. On Poetry: Collected Talks and Essays. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 380.

104. Graves, 1969, 382.

105. Graves, Richard. 1995. Robert Graves and the White Goddess, 1940–1985. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 306.

 

 

john cheever: “he’d destroy everything just so he could get a drink, just so he could get blown”

. . . Cheever was forever on at Susan about her weight; he wanted a pretty slip of a daughter, and thought her too greedy. But perhaps Ben had it worse. Cheever would complain in his journal that his elder son was effeminate, and to his face would tell him: "Speak like a man!" and "You laugh like a woman!" There was a time, Ben tells me, when he began to wonder whether he was, in fact, gay, and only acting heterosexual to please his father. Just to cap it all, it was to Ben that his father came out two weeks before his death, in a telephone call to Ben’s then office at Reader’s Digest. "What I wanted to tell you," he said, bluntly, "is that your father has had his cock sucked by quite a few disreputable characters…"

Does this mean that Ben hadn’t, until that moment, realised what Max was to his father? "No, I hadn’t. In fact, I remember Maxflirting with me a little, and I was shocked; I thought Daddy would be horrified if he knew Max was a homosexual. But I think actual knowledge follows intellectual knowledge. My father told me that, but I didn’t really… realise it until some time afterwards. It was upsetting but it wasn’t as upsetting as being screamed at when you’re a little boy for being effeminate. I’ve had to [over the years] reorganise a lot, and to some extent I’m still involved in that process. But this [the biography] is a story I can live with. Daddy has redeeming values. He was so funny."

Has it been hard, being Benjamin Cheever? "Yes and no. I was interested in being a writer, and I didn’t like people telling me that they would have expected something better from John Cheever’s son. That was tough. My first novel got turned down by lots of people, and no one could believe that. I’m sure there are lots of people who feel, with some confidence, that they would be a lot better a writer than me if they had my name. Everybody has a father; everybody has a psychic load. But I’m also lucky. In my attempts to figure him out, I have all these documents, and they’re pretty well written, too. You’re exactly right, though, to think that I had my ups and downs with him, even after he died. Sometimes I’d think: boy, he was a hero! He overcame all these terrible things. But then, other times, I’d think: boy, what a prick! He’d destroy everything just so he could get a drink, just so he could get blown.

—from Rachel Cooke, “The demons that drove John Cheever,” The Observer, October 18, 2009

 

 

 

scenes from the writing life: dinner with balzac and other insane people

 

So the next time you hear a writer on the radio or catch him on the tube or watch him on the monitor or find yourself sitting next to him at dinner, remember he isn’t the author of the books you admire; he’s just someone visiting the world outside his study or office or wherever the hell he writes. Don’t expect him to know the customs of the country, and try to forgive his trespasses when they occur. Speaking of dinner, when the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt told a friend, a Parisian doctor, that he wanted to meet a certifiable lunatic, he was invited to the doctor’s home for supper. A few days later, Humboldt found himself placed at the dinner table between two men. One was polite, somewhat reserved, and didn’t go in for small talk. The other, dressed in ill-matched clothes, chattered away on every subject under the sun, gesticulating wildly, while making horrible faces. When the meal was over, Humboldt turned to his host. "I like your lunatic," he whispered, indicating the talkative man. The host frowned. "But it’s the other one who’s the lunatic. The man you’re pointing to is Monsieur Honoré de Balzac."

—from Arthur Krystal, “When Writers Speak,” The New York Times, September 25, 2009