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Posts Tagged ‘Malcolm Cowley’

23 JANUARY, 2014

The Future of Love: Malcolm Cowley’s 1930 Parodic Prediction for the Age of Data


The Stimulus and the Response go on a date.

In 1930, as the culturally raucous Jazz Age was coming to halt with the onset of the Great Depression and America was dreaming up a brighter, technologically advanced world of tomorrow, a curious anthology titled Whither Whither, or After Sex What?: A Symposium to End Symposiums (public library) crept onto bookstore shelves. Exploring the futures of such diverse subjects as prosperity, history, literary criticism, art, music, and the atom, it featured parodic predictions from a formidable roster of future literary titans, at the time in their early and mid-thirties, including E. E. Cummings, Edmund Wilson, E. B. White, and James Thurber (the latter two had just come off their own collaboration on a piece of equally entertaining cultural commentary, the 1929 gem Is Sex Necessary?: Or Why You Feel the Way You Do), illustrated with charming cartoons by the Bill Gropper.

One of the best contributions, both for its humor and its unintendedly poignant prescience, comes from the beloved novelist, poet, journalist, and literary critic Malcolm Cowley — he who contemplated the stages of the creative process some three decades later — and considers a subject that has occupied humanity for millennia: Love.

After a series of parodic predictions poking fun at the era’s scientific novelties like psychoanalysis and eugenics, some of which were dismissed as appropriately laughable decades later, Cowley considers “what Love will be — and society in general” in the envisioned new age, beginning with the concept of childbirth:

First, the children of the future will no longer be conceived by the methods unthinkingly adopted by our parents. Children will be had at special pharmacies out of glass vials — tied with blue ribbons for boys, tied with pink ribbons for girls, and tied with variegated ribbons to indicate all the new sexes that we may confidently expect to see developed by the intensive application of modern laboratory methods. Life will thus be greatly simplified. And to think of the relief to bashful parents who hesitate to reveal the biological facts to their children! Little boys and girls will no longer have to be told that the doctor brought them or that the stork dropped them down the chimney. They will know darned well that they came from the corner drug store.

'One of the possible methods of reviving the stork ceremony of birth in the future. A child is produced by laboratory methods, thus avoiding the present system of procreation which is disagreeable to some people and which can henceforth be reserved purely for purposes of debauchery. The infant is placed in swaddling clothes, attached to the beak of a mechanical stork. The expectant mother, who is trained from early girlhood for this serious task, is then given a large butterfly net, and at a signal from the head obstetrician the bird is released, to soar eagerly in swift mechanical flight. The young mother leaps forward, captures the stork with its precious burden, and an heir is born.'

Cowley, writing in the age of truly gobsmacking rules of romance, then moves on to the question of courtship in the future:

We may confidently predict that the mating pattern will be changed by the application of scientific Behaviorism. The post-adolescent male will have learned to condition away the fear reflexes which inhibit hugs and kisses. By producing a box of candy at every visit, he will offer a stimulus certain to produce a favorable response to himself. By taking his girl to the movies (if he can’t make love at home), he will behavioristically surround himself with an atmosphere proportious to the development of heterosexual affection. By gifts of jewelry and flowers, he will condition the sweetheart to a belief in his own prosperity.

But while Cowley’s intent was purely satirical in 1930, a time long before the discovery of DNA and the invention of the modern digital web, the prescience of his parody turns tragicomic in the context of today’s quantified self and personal genomics, where we obsessively measure our psychophysiology and proudly advertise its high points in online dating profiles — ours is, after all, love in the age of data. Cowley continues:

And when the moment comes to pop the question, he will not be so foolish as to say, “Will you marry me?” That would smack of the old Victorian repressions — and besides, marriage will long since have been abolished. Instead the lover (hereinafter to be known as “the Response”) will exclaim to the sweetheart (hereinafter to be known as “the Stimulus”):

“My IQ is satisfactory, my blood count satisfactory, my basic metabolism satisfactory, my male hormones present in satisfactory qualities. My instincts are wholly mature, my thyroid and pituitary glands properly adjusted, and I am capable of following the higher mammalian mating pattern. Will you live with me happily ever after in heterosexual matehood?”

“Let’s synthesize!” the Stimulus will reply, as hand in hand these twain go marching into the heterosexual dawn.

'The eternal triangle is not always husband, wife, and lover. It is sometimes, as we learn from the more prosperous psychologists, husband, wife, and child -- or, to bring the matter nearer home, husband, wife, and Pomeranian. This is but one of the problems which will be solved by a careful reading of the present Symposium, this last Symposium, this Symposium to end Symposiums.'

Though long out of print, Whither, Whither, or After Sex, What? can be found online and is well worth the hunt. Complement Cowley’s contemplation with its modern, non-satirical counterparts exploring the natural history of love, the math of its odds, and its alleged science, the very concept of which Cowley so elegantly derided.

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25 APRIL, 2013

The Paris Review Origin Story and Their Secret to the Art of the Interview


“Authors are sometimes like tomcats: they distrust all the other toms, but they are kind to kittens.”

Most interviews today tend to fall somewhere on the spectrum between lazy conversation and blatant publicity puffery, the truly exceptional interview a kind of near-lost art. But it wasn’t always so. In the spring of 1953, The Paris Review built from scratch a new paradigm for the art of the interview, which endures as a gold standard sixty years later. In the introductory essay to the 1958 anthology Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, First Series (public library) — which also gave us this fantastic anatomy of the four stages of writing — the inimitable Malcolm Cowley, who edited the collection, recounts the Paris Review origin story and examines the secret of what made their interviews such a timeless echelon of the craft:

Most of the interviewers either have had no serious interest in literature or else have been too serious about themselves. Either they have been reporters with little knowledge of the author’s work and a desire to entrap him into making scandalous remarks about sex, politics, and God, or else they have been ambitious writers trying to display their own sophistication, usually at the expense of the author, and listening chiefly to their own voices.

What makes the Paris Review interviewers and their ethos different, Cowley observes, can be boiled down to two essentials — homework and humility:

The interviewers belong to a new generation that has been called “silent,” though a better word for it would be “waiting” or “listening” or “inquiring.” They have done their assigned reading, they have asked the right questions, or most of them, and have listened carefully to the answers. The authors, more conscious of their craft than authors used to be, have talked about it with an engaging lack of stiffness.

Even more interesting than the question of interview style is that of motive — what prompted George Plimpton and his co-founders to forever change the face — and economics — of literary writing by redefining the art of the interview when they launched The Paris Review in 1953 in what closely resembles contemporary startup culture? Cowley writes:

The new quarterly had been founded by young men lately out of college who were in Europe working on their first novels or books of poems. Their dream of having a magazine of their very own must have been more luminous than their picture of what it should be, yet they did have a picture of sorts. They didn’t want their magazine to be “little” or opinionated (engagé, in the slang of the year) or academic. Instead of printing what were then the obligatory essays on Moby Dick and Henry James’s major phase, they would print stories and poems by new authors and pay for them too, as long as the magazine kept going. They wanted to keep it going for a long time, even if its capital was only a thousand dollars, with no subventions in sight. They dreamed that energy and ingenuity might take the place of missing resources.

George Plimpton party (The Paris Review)

But The Paris Review differed from other literary magazines in one crucial aspect: Its intricate osmosis of art and commerce.

Like [other magazines] it wanted to present material that was new, uncommercial, “making no compromise with public taste,” in the phrase sanctified by The Little Review, but unlike the others it was willing to use commercial devices in getting the material printed and talked about. “Enterprise in the service of art” might have been its motto. The editors compiled a list, running to thousands of names, of Americans living in Paris and sent volunteer salesmen to ring their doorbells. Posters were printed by hundreds and flying squadrons of three went out by night to paste them in likely and unlikely places all over the city. In June 1957 the frayed remnants of one poster were still legible on the ceiling of the lavatory in the Café du Dôme.

And thus the interviews themselves became at first a kind of merchandizing gimmick designed to build circulation — The Paris Review needed big names to hook readers, but couldn’t afford original writing, so the interview offered a welcome loophole of unpaid name-dropping:

“So let’s talk to them,” somebody ventured — it must have been Peter Matthiessen or Harold Humes, since they laid the earliest plans for the Review — and “print what they say.” The idea was discussed with George Plimpton, late of the Harvard Lampoon, who had agreed to be editor. Plimpton was then at King’s College, Cambridge, and he suggested E. M. Forster, an honorary fellow of King’s, as the first author to be interviewed. It was Forster himself who gave a new direction to the series, making it a more thoughtful discussion of the craft of fiction than had at first been planned.

But soon, it became clear that the interview itself held unique allure as its own genre of literary entertainment and The Paris Review team quickly honed its craft down to a science:

Interviewers usually worked in pairs, like FBI agents. Since no recording equipment was available for the early interviews, they both jotted down the answers to their questions at top speed and matched the two versions afterward. With two men writing, the pace could be kept almost at the level of natural conversation. Some of the later interviews … were done with a tape recorder. After two or three sessions the interviewers typed up their material; then it was cut to length, arranged in logical order, and sent to the author for his approval.

The most obvious question, of course, is why some of the era’s most revered literary legends would agree to discuss, in print, the most intimate and profound details of their craft with a duo of recent college graduates. Here, we once again see the human element — that quintessential blend of empathy, sheer goodwill, and indulgent delight in a tickled ego — come into play:

Some of [the authors] disliked the idea of being interviewed but consented anyway, either out of friendship for someone on the Review or because they wanted to help a struggling magazine of the arts, perhaps in memory of their own early struggles to get published. Others … were interested in the creative process and glad to talk about it. Not one of the interviewers had any professional experience in the field, but perhaps their experience and youth were positive advantages. Authors are sometimes like tomcats: they distrust all the other toms, but they are kind to kittens.

Cumulatively, Cowley argues, the interviews painted a powerful portrait of the writer:

In spite of their diversity, what emerges from the interviews is a composite picture of the fiction writer. He has no face, no nationality, no particular background and I say “he” by grammatical convention, since [some] of the authors are women; they all have something in common, some attitude toward life and art, some fund of common experience.

Though The Paris Review has since released all of the archival interviews online, as well as in an irresistible boxed set, Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, First Series is worth a read even if only for Cowley’s lengthy and insightful introductory essay, which explores in over twenty pages such facets of the writing craft as daily routines, motivations, and work ethic.

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05 APRIL, 2013

Malcolm Cowley on the Four Stages of Writing: Lessons from the First Five Years of The Paris Review


“The germ of a story is a new and simple element introduced into an existing situation or mood.”

The kind of literary voyeurism that concerns itself with why great writers write and how, exactly, they go about it has long held especial mesmerism to aspiring authors and voracious readers alike.

In 1953, a trio of literary enthusiasts founded The Paris Review. Spearheaded by George Plimpton, who edited the magazine from its founding to his death in 2003, it forever changed the face of literary journalism with its singular brand of incredibly in-depth, borderline existential conversations with beloved authors on the art and craft of writing. Five years later, they published the finest of those interviews — featuring such literary luminaries as William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker, and James Thurber — in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, First Series (public library). Though The Paris Review has since released all of the archival interviews online, as well as in an irresistible boxed set, what makes this particular volume noteworthy is the lengthy introductory essay by the great Malcolm Cowley, who edited the anthology.

Malcolm Cowley

Among his keen insights on the craft, synthesized from the interviews, is a theory of how the creative process works, outlining the four stages of writing:

There would seem to be four stages in the composition of a story. First comes the germ of the story, then a period of more or less conscious meditation, then the first draft, and finally the revision, which may be simply ‘pencil work’ as John O’Hara calls it — that is, minor changes in wording — or may lead to writing several drafts and what amounts to a new work.

Cowley illustrates each of the four stages with anecdotes from the interviewees.


In outlining the first, he echoes Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling’s insight on where ideas come from, and writes:

The germ of a story is something seen or heard, or heard about, or suddenly remembered; it may be a remark casually dropped at the dinner table (as in the case of Henry James’s story, The Spoils of Poynton), or again it may be the look on a stranger’s face. Almost always it is a new and simple element introduced into an existing situation or mood; something that expresses the mood in one sharp detail; something that serves as a focal point for a hitherto disorganized mass of remembered material in the author’s mind. James describes it as ‘the precious particle … the stray suggestion, the wandering word, the vague echo, at a touch of which the novelist’s imagination winces as at the prick of some sharp point,’ and he adds that ‘its virtue is all in its needle-like quality, the power to penetrate as finely as possible.

He goes on to give a specific example of this compelling “sharp detail” in action:

In the case of one story by the late Joyce Cary, the ‘precious particle’ was the wrinkles on a young woman’s forehead. He had seen her on the little boat that goes around Manhattan Island, ‘a girl of about thirty,’ he says, ‘wearing a shabby skirt. She was enjoying herself. A nice expression, with a wrinkled forehead, a good many wrinkles. I said to my friend, “I could write about that girl…”‘ but then he forgot about her. Three weeks later, in San Francisco, Cary woke up at four in the morning with a story in his head—a purely English story with an English heroine. When he came to revise the story he kept wondering, ‘Why all these wrinkles? That’s the third time they come in. And I suddenly realized,’ he says, ‘that my English heroine was the girl on the Manhattan boat. Somehow she had gone down into my subconscious, and came up again with a full-sized story.’

Similarly, he cites Anne Porter:

Any book I write starts with a flash, but takes a long time to shape up.

Georges Simenon


This shaping up takes place during the second stage, which reflects T. S. Eliot’s notion of idea-incubation and the third step, “unconscious processing,” of James Webb Young’s five-step “technique for producing ideas.” Cowley writes:

The book or story shapes up — assumes its own specific form, that is — during a process of meditation that is the second stage in composition. Angus Wilson calls it ‘the gestatory period’ and says that it is ‘very important to me. That’s when I’m persuading myself of the truth of what I want to say, and I don’t think I could persuade my readers unless I’d persuaded myself first.’ The period may last for years, as with Warren’s novels (and most of Henry James’s), or it may last exactly two days, as in the extraordinary case of Georges Simenon. ‘As soon as I have the beginning,’ Simenon explains, I can’t bear it very long . … And two days later I begin writing.’ The meditation may be, or seem to be, wholly conscious. The writer asks himself questions — ‘What should the characters do at this point? How can I build to a climax?’ — and answers them in various fashions before choosing the final answers. Or most of the process, including all the early steps, may be carried on without the writer’s volition. He wakes before daybreak with the whole story in his head, as Joyce Cary did in San Francisco, and hastily writes it down. Or again — and I think most frequently — the meditation is a mixture of conscious and unconscious elements, as if a cry from the depths of sleep were being heard and revised by the waking mind.

Like artist Maira Kalman has attested, this gestational period can take place during activities wholly unrelated to one’s creative craft. Cowley writes:

Often the meditation continues while the writer is engaged in other occupations: gardening, driving his wife to town (as Walter Mitty did), or going out to dinner. ‘I have never quite known when I’m not writing,’ says James Thurber. ‘Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a dinner party and says, “Dammit, Thurber, stop writing.” She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, “Is he sick?” “No,” my wife says, “He’s writing.”‘

James Thurber


Next comes the third stage, the writing of the preliminary plight of putting words down on paper:

The first draft of a story is often written at top speed; probably that is the best way to write it. Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who is not among the authors interviewed, once compared the writing of a first draft with skiing down a steep slope that she wasn’t sure she was clever enough to manage. … Frank O’Connor explains the need for haste in his own case. “get black on white,’ he says, ‘used to be Maupassant’s advice — that’s what I always do. I don’t give a hoot what the writing’s like, I write any sort of rubbish which will cover the main outlines of the story, then I can begin to see it.’ There are other writers, however, who work ahead laboriously, revising as they go. William Styron says, ‘I seem to have some neurotic need to perfect each paragraph — each sentence, even — as I go along.’ Dorothy Parker reports that it takes her six months to do a story. “I think it out and then write it sentence by sentence — no first draft. I an’t write five words but that I change seven.’

Frank O'Connor


In the fourth and last stage, rewriting and revision — something the current U.S. children’s poet laureate has advocated — take the reins:

There is no stage of composition at which these authors differ more from one another than in this final stage of preparing a manuscript for the printer. Even that isn’t a final stage for O’Connor. ‘I keep on rewriting,’ he says, ‘and after it’s published, and then after it’s published in book form, I usually rewrite it again. … Françoise Sagan, on the other hand, spends ‘very little’ time in revision. Simenon spends exactly three days in revising each of his short novels. Most of that time is devoted to tracking down and crossing out the literary touches — ‘adjectives, adverbs, and every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence is there just for the sentence. You know, you have a beautiful sentence — cut it. Joyce Cary was another deletionist. Many of the passages he crossed out of his first drafts were those dealing explicitly with ideas. ‘I work over the whole book, ‘ he says, ‘ and cut out anything that does not belong to the emotional development, the texture of the feeling.’ Thurber revises his stories by rewriting them from the beginning, time and again. ‘A story I’ve been working on,’ he says, ‘… was written fifteen complete times. There must have been close to two hundred and forty thousand words in all the manuscripts put together, and I must have spent two thousand hours working at it. Yet the finished story can’t be more than twenty thousand words.’ That would make it about the longest piece of fiction he has written. Men like Thurber and O’Connor, who rewrite ‘endlessly, endlessly,’ find it hard to face the interminable prospect of writing a full-length novel.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Cowley then dichotomizes how novelists and short story writers approach the process and its stages:

For short-story writers the four stages of composition are usually distinct, and there may even be a fifth, or rather a first, stage. Before seizing upon the germ o fa story, the writer may find himself in a state of ‘generally intensified emotional sensitivity … when events that usually pass unnoticed suddenly move you deeply, when a sunset lifts you to exaltation, when a squeaking door throws you into a fit of exasperation, when a clear look of trust in a child’s eyes moves you to tears.’ I am quoting again from Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who ‘cannot conceive,’ she says, ‘of any creative fiction written from any other beginning.’ There is not much doubt, in any case, that the germ is precious largely because it serves to crystallize a prior state of feeling. Then comes the brooding or meditation, then the rapidly written first draft, then the slow revision; for the story writer everything is likely to happen in more or less its proper order. For the novelist, however, the stages are often confused. The meditation may have to be repeated for each new episode. The revision of one chapter may precede or follow the first draft or the next.

Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, First Series is worth a read even if only for Cowley’s deeply insightful, wide-ranging twenty-page introductory essay, covering many more facets of the creative process and the techniques of various literary greats. Complement it with these 9 books to help you write better, then follow up with the 1939 gem A Technique for Producing Ideas.

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