Sunday, February 24, 2013

Scott Fitzgerald's Man In Hollywood

My Sunday Guardian column.

For better or for worse, it’s a golden time for “adapted screenplays”, with more and more novels being turned into scripts. In this year's Oscar nominations -- the results of which we'll know today -- five of the films nominated for such screenplays are also among those in the running for best picture.

One of those that missed being in contention this year is Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, The Great Gatsby, as the release date was pushed to May 2013. Unfortunately, given the trailer, and on the evidence of Moulin Rouge and Australia, it's not hard to imagine the film floating free of Fitzgerald to become another bloated Luhrmann fantasy. As Pat Hobby once said, “This is no art – this is an industry”.

The person who uttered those words was a character created by Fitzgerald, born out of the writer's disillusionment with Hollywood. He worked with the studios on three occasions, between 1927 and 1937, and though the experience wasn’t a happy one he did gain material for his final, unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, as well as for 17 short stories featuring the cynical scriptwriter Pat Hobby. All of the stories were first published in Esquire magazine, the last few appearing after his death in 1940.

Once seen as “a good man for structure”, Pat Hobby is now a 49-year-old hack unable to ride the transition from the silent era to the talkies. He spends his days drinking, scrounging and working on occasional “polish jobs”. When he isn't contemplating blackmail, he tries to steal others’ ideas (both unsuccessfully) and firmly believes that “what people you sat with at lunch was more important in getting along than what you dictated in your office”.

A typical story starts with Pat on the edge of solvency when, through his own desperate attempts or through the whims of others, he’s given a break which then comes to naught following an ironic twist. There are moments of broad farce, such as when Pat grumbles about and is then mistaken for Orson Welles; some others are flippant, such as when Pat encounters his son’s stepfather, Rajah Dak Raj Indore, “the third richest man in India”. The best of the stories, though, such as ‘Pat Hobby's Preview’, ‘No Harm Trying’ and ‘A Patriotic Short’ do reach a level of keen poignancy.

Fitzgerald aims for a wry, comic tone throughout but essentially, these are stories of failure, of refusing to admit that life hasn’t panned out the way one would have liked, when dreams of glory are supplanted by schemes to stay afloat. (This, of course, is akin to Fitzgerald’s own tragic situation at the time he was writing them.) When Pat is offered a writing job, “it anesthetised the crumbled, struggling remnants of his manhood, and inoculated him instead with a bland, easy-going confidence”. Such confidence is always short lived; recourse is to be found in gin, to conceal the look of “whipped misery” in his eyes.

For the author, this jaded character was “the scenario hack to whom I am getting rather attached” and it’s tempting to scan the stories for Fitzgerald’s own views on Hollywood. In one of them, we read: “Distress in Hollywood is endemic and often acute. Scarcely an executive but is being gnawed at by some insoluble problem and in a democratic way he will let you in on it, with no charge.” Elsewhere, Pat says, “Authors get a tough break out here. They never ought to come...They don’t want authors. They want writers – like me”.

Pat isn’t among Fitzgerald’s finest creations; most of the stories were written quickly for money when he was in straitened circumstances, even though he worked hard on them. But one can't help but agree with the words of Arnold Gingrich, former Esquire editor with whom Fitzgerald corresponded, that he deserves “his rightful place, if not alongside Jay Gatsby and Dick Diver, then at least between Monroe Stahr and Amory Blaine”.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

English As She Is Spoke

My Sunday Guardian column.

Textspeak. The word “anyways”. The Twitter hashtag “epic”. Those are among my pet peeves. It turns out that in this, I’m being prescriptive when I should be descriptive. As Henry Hitchings says in his new book, The Language Wars, “a prescriptivist dictates how people should speak and write, whereas a descriptivist avoids passing judgement….So, one says what ought to happen, and the other says what does happen.”

Hitchings sets out to chart “the history of arguments over English”, the ways in which people have tried to control and modify it over the years. Defining himself squarely as a descriptivist, he points out that typically, celebrants and defenders of proper English are celebrating or defending something other than language. Status, snobbery, class, nationalism: all of these are at play. In Chomsky’s words, “Questions of language are basically questions of power” –take the demands for linguistic re-organisation of states in India, for instance.

The Language Wars also examines rules we’re supposed to adhere to, many of which have little to do with grammar and more with outmoded views on the status of English. The infinitive that Must Not Be Split, for example (which the opening voice-over of the Star Trek TV series boldly does); or not ending a sentence with a preposition. The origins of these turn out to be nothing more than a belief by classicists that English ought to mirror Latin. When Churchill was chided for ending a sentence with a preposition, he is supposed to have replied: “This is the sort of rubbish up with which I will not put”.Which would have warmed the heart of Raymond Chandler who, years later, wrote: “When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will remain split”.

Hitchings make clear that debates and hair-pulling over the drop in standards of English aren’t new; people have held views on the matter for centuries. Many have tried to straighten out affairs of pronunciation and spelling brought about by the language’s mixed roots. There was, for example, the alphabet devised by George Bernard Shaw after he pointed out that in current English, the word “fish” could well be spelled “ghoti”: gh pronounced like the f in enough, o like the i in women, and ti like the sh in nation. Never caught on, thank goodness.

Among the prescriptivists better known to us today are those such as Fowler and Strunk&White, who insist on simplicity and lack of ornamentation – something Orwell also spoke of in his essay, Politics and the English Language. Hitchings correctly points out that while there’s clearly nothing wrong with being simple and unadorned, equally, there are times one needs to express oneself in a manner that’s more complex. (Watch out for“government-endorsed sophistry and the flatulent rhetoric of politicians and political pundits”, though.)

Hitchings is, of course, against censorship and also defends the use of cuss words, should they be required, but I find him in choppier waters on issues such as those of gender or political correctness. I’m not entirely convinced that the descriptivist attitude is the right one here: perhaps the act of reframing also brings about a refashioning of attitudes, rewiring our brains to promote behaviour that’s more respectful.

The English language, then, is shifting constantly – in the vivid words of Emerson, it’s “a city to the building of which every human has brought a stone”. Robert McCrum writes in Globish that English is “floating free from its troubled British and American past…to take on a life of its own”; thus, some of the most significant changes in our time are occurring not in its birthplace but elsewhere. Hitchings points out that in India, “the language’s roots…are colonial, but English connects Indians less to the past than to the future”. In England itself one comes across “Jamaican Creole, certainly, but also Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Romani and various African Englishes”.One can almost hear editors of dictionaries let out a loud, collective groan.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Metaphors Be With You

Today's Sunday Guardian column

First, some random headlines from today’s papers: Slide in job generation. Smartphone war hots up. Pressure makes Davis Cup team go limp.

Metaphors. Keep an eye out and you’ll find them everywhere, including in this sentence. Leaving aside semantic differences between metaphors, analogies and similes, the practice of describing a thing by comparing it with another dominates not just our language but our outlook.

They are, of course, the lifeblood of poets (to employ an overused metaphor). From Carl Sandberg’s fog that comes on little cat feet to Emily Dickinson’s death-ridden carriage to Robert Frost’s road not taken, examples abound. Sylvia Plath even wrote a poem during her pregnancy titled ‘Metaphors’ in which every striking line was a metaphor. And Shakespeare’s metaphors have been quoted for ages: Juliet is a sun; the world’s a stage; a loved one is a summer’s day.

It’s not just in the realms of literature and news headlines that metaphors abide. Investors keep tabs on bulls and bears; IT geeks compare cloud storage and bandwidth speeds; diplomats argue over yesterday’s Iron Curtain and today’s Arab Spring; physicists dream about strings and the Big Bang; and marketers, when not spouting clich├ęs about pushing envelopes and thinking outside boxes, look at business as battle, with targets to be hit, campaigns planned and competitors fought. Military metaphors are rife in sports, too, with TV commercials and commentators breathlesslyreferring to world cups as though they’re world wars.

In his recent, fascinating book, I is an Other, James Geary makes a convincing case for metaphors shaping the way we view the world. As he says: “Metaphor is a way of thought long before it is a way with words”. He delves deep into the use of metaphor by groups and subgroups, and goes on to discuss findings from neuroscience that buttress his argument of metaphor being fundamental to perception. Mirror neurons, for example, which fire when we perform an action as well as when we see others performing a similar action, suggest that we’re hardwired to seek resonance.

Geary mentions the work of cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, whose pioneering 1980 book, Metaphors We Live By, did much to make clear the conceptual role of metaphors. In that work, they unpacked a few examples, most famously the way we look at an argument as a war: we defend positions, we attack points of view, we dig in our heels.  Other conceptual metaphors, too, were scrutinised: “time is money”, for instance, or “the mind is a machine”.

Lakoff and Johnson throw light on how we process such metaphors: we reframe the non-physical in terms of the physical.  Abstract concepts that we hold to be important -- such as emotions, ideas and time -- are cast in terms of more tangible concepts such as objects, sensory cues and spatial dimensions. Whether you’re feeling upbeat or downcast, or you find someone hot or cool, you’re speaking metaphorically.

For them, then, metaphorical thinking is supreme, uniting subjective imagination and objective reason. Lakoff has since gone on to work with the US Democrats, trying to promote a vision of society as a “nurturing parent”. His later work has been critiqued by Steven Pinker – who has written eloquently about metaphorical thinking himself, though with a note of caution: “the mind, at some level, must reason very concretely in order that these metaphors be understood and become contagious".

It’s evident, however, that people who seek to influence others, from politicians to advertisers, make use of metaphors to control and shape attitudes. Take nationalism: to call a country a “motherland”, to see residents as “sons of the soil” and to refer to the past as “our heritage” are all designed to elicit a certain response. Thoreau wrote that “all perception of truth is the perception of an analogy” and though we may be unable to live without thinking metaphorically, we can yet be mindful of the ones we choose to live by.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

My Apology

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

I apologise, I really do. I meant no harm, and it certainly wasn’t my intention to cause offence to any caste, creed, political party or non-human species. Especially the members of the last category that have claws and can bite.

Allow me to explain. In going over my past reviews and columns, I find that I have occasionally expressed a point of view. I’ve shared opinions. And I’ve criticized writers for not being up to the mark. I’d like to make it clear, now and forever, that I did so without any attempt to denigrate, or for any personal gain. I was not appeasing vote banks, taking aim at the minority, coddling the majority or being pseudo-secular, proto-secular or paleo-secular. (Tick one.)

When I expressed disappointment at the structure of a given novel, I was certainly not alluding to the structure of the great Indian republic, of which I am privileged to be a part. When I showed dismay at an author’s prose style, I wasn’t in any direct or indirect manner taking pot shots at the style of any member of any august legislative body, all of whom are doing a fine job of governing this land.

Let me go further, in an attempt to clear things up for all of those who have the habit of reading between the lines. When I wrote that I was concerned at the declining standards of today’s novels, it was not my intent to slyly refer to the declining standards of the society we live in. When I wrote that I was dismayed at a debut novelist’s follow-up work, I wasn’t referring to the follow-up actions of the country’s police stations and courts, which are and will always remain shining examples of our law-enforcement and justice systems.

It has also been brought to my notice that, on occasion, those about to be charged with real or imagined offences can apply for a wondrous mechanism called anticipatory bail. Think of this piece, then, as this columnist’s version of such an act. It’s not that I am taking back whatever I’ve written or feel that I have done something wrong; it’s simply a matter of clearing the air, wiping the slate clean and setting the record straight.  And it’s not easy to do all three at the same time, believe me.

Of course, not all my writing has been critical and negative. There have also been occasions when I have praised a writer’s work. I’d like to point out that such praise extends only to the work in question, and not to the writer’s caste or religion. I urge those belonging to other creeds not to see this as a veiled attack on their belief systems and not to start demonstrating and chanting slogans outside my house. It’s very difficult to catch up on sleep with such cacophony. Also, noise-cancelling headphones are expensive and the neighbours tend to complain.

Come to think of it, I have also at times applauded writers from other lands. This, again, is not to be construed to mean that I regard other countries as morally superior to India and hence worthy of praise. I have no plans to flee, emigrate or otherwise cross borders and so I would advise all of you -- with the utmost respect for your sentiments, not to mention your sensibilities -- to take a deep breath and calm down.

In closing, a suggestion that, in my opinion, would be the best course to take should you feel you’re about to be offended by me -- or by anyone else, for that matter. Simply turn the page of this paper and read something else. In saying this, I am by no means casting aspersions on your levels of literacy or understanding. All of you are fine and worthy folk and only have the nation’s best interests at heart. I stand ready to take offence at anyone who suggests otherwise.