By THOMAS CHATTERTON WILLIAMS APRIL 7, 2014, 8:00 PM
In “The Writing Life,” Annie Dillard points out that “[a writer] is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write.” I’ve encountered versions of this adage — along with the more extreme, don’t read anything while writing, lest you contaminate your voice — from a variety of sources and have often wondered how it could possibly be true. After all, I’ve spent my share of time with Dostoyevsky and Camus and I’m still waiting. Such admonishment always struck me as one more of those superstitions writers cultivate for the sake of it, like never discussing a work in progress or stopping only when you know what happens next.
That is not to discount the power of inspiration or the usefulness of outright theft. When I published my first book, a memoir, the experience taught me that writing something of any significant length was an endurance sport as much as anything else. You need patience, stamina and plenty of fuel. I tried to fortify myself with the best nonfiction and fiction I could lay my hands on, from the essays of James Baldwin and Joan Didion, to the stories and novels of Ralph Ellison, Roberto Bolaño and Céline. Distinctive voices like these were a source of constant nourishment on all range of matters, from punctuation to philosophy. They were catalysts for the creative act.
But so were newspapers, movies and music, snippets of conversation, photographs — even the smell of certain foods. Doubtless, reading good books benefited me during the months and years of writing, yet I remained skeptical of any tight correlation to what I produced. That was naïve.
For the better part of three years I’ve been working on a novel about a shooting on Long Island. The manuscript began in a noisy apartment I shared with my fiancée in Bushwick. Since then it has traveled with me and grown in spite of a wedding, stints spent living out of suitcases, and a time-consuming move to Paris. It has survived in the face of increased domestic responsibility, labyrinthine French bureaucracy and the development of a sudden and devastating addiction to online chess. Throughout all of life’s little interruptions and distractions, I prided myself on keeping my work focused and relatively unscathed.
Then two Thanksgivings ago I broke a rib and, while recovering in bed, made the fateful decision to download HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” These enchanting narratives of knights and princesses scheming in a make-believe kingdom were so unexpectedly compelling I ended up binge-watching the first two seasons in as many weeks. Later, when I raised this new obsession with my friends, I was astonished to find out how many serious adults I knew who were deeply invested not just in the TV show but also in the long — sometimes more than a thousand pages long — “Song of Ice and Fire” books by George R.R. Martin, from which it is adapted. One friend, an ear, nose and throat surgeon, confessed to me that he almost bungled his medical boards on account of his reading.
My interest piqued, I still couldn’t picture sitting down to consume Proustian amounts of “Game of Thrones.” (If I were going to read thousands of pages of anything, I felt it should be, well, Proust.) Resistance proved futile, however, when I received the boxed set for Christmas. I picked up the first volume and spent the slow days until New Year’s Eve thoroughly enmeshed, forgetting all about chess or keeping any semblance of a regular schedule. The other books I had going fell by the wayside. By the time January got under way and I resumed work on my manuscript, I was so deep into the habit of “A Song of Ice and Fire” that I was taking it with me into the bathtub.
Early in the series, the dwarf Tyrion explains that he reads a lot because “a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone if it is to keep its edge.” This is a shrewd assessment, though to my chagrin, I was learning the hard way that the more I read about swords and whetstones, the more the vocabulary and imagery of the Middle Ages began stealing into my prose. Hovering in the back of my mind was the ludicrous urge to describe characters dressed in breeches and doublets, sipping horns of mead. And in a moment of sheer delirium, I came close to calling my protagonist’s parents “his lord father and lady mother.”
Worse, despite his prodigious imagination, the fact is Martin traffics in some exceedingly clichéd language (“Gilly’s face went white with fear.”) Under his spell (see?), I could no longer let a building simply be tall, now it had to “lance” the clouds. Doors “moaned” when they opened and the afternoon sun was “as hot as dragon’s breath.” I began to regurgitate a few pet words like one of those deranged messenger ravens, ever eager to note that a road “wended” slowly or a yard was “dappled” with shadow and light.
Even though I was supposed to be dealing with blacks and Italians in Suffolk County, my mind was frozen in Martin’s vernacular landscape. In a novel concerning itself with contemporary American life, this led to some abominable sentences and a lot of wasted pages. The problem revealed its full magnitude to me, however, only when in the course of putting together a short review of a travel memoir, I caught myself contriving to force the words wended and dappled in the text. When I realized what was going on, I wanted to throw my laptop against the wall. George R.R. Martin was officially wreaking havoc on my prose.
I do not mean to sound presumptuous: There are far worse things than crafting a massively successful, carefully plotted and highly lucrative series of fantasy novels. The problem for me was that I wasn’t writing anything close to as good as the books whose language and thought patterns I was so haplessly aping. Nor was I any longer making the kind of work I’d set out to create in the first place. I was somehow pumping out a terrible sausage of the two.
The logical thing would have been to bury the books deep inside a dresser drawer and pretend I’d never seen them. I did make one lame attempt to do just that before swiftly relapsing. By this point even my emails had devolved into long-winded discourses, thick blocks of text that slowly wended around themselves, dappled with gratuitous descriptions … I was getting desperate.
Salvation arrived (knock on wood) when I decided to give Teju Cole’s “Open City” another go. This was a streamlined book I had tried several times to start without any traction. Coming back to it in the middle of “A Song of Ice and Fire” was a revelation. No matter how much Martin I had ingested, 15 minutes with Cole was like a palette cleanser on my mind, a spoonful of cool sorbet after a long and heavy meal.
I repeated the experiment with some Peter Stamm stories and a little Alberto Moravia. Both left me in the clear and neutral state I needed to be in to proceed. The solution, I’m convinced now, isn’t to read less (that would be boring) or even, as Dillard suggests, to censor what is taken in. On the contrary, the answer seems to be to take in more. So far so good. If that doesn’t hold I’ll pray to R’hollor the Lord of Light himself that I finish my novel before the next installment arrives.
MARCH 31, 2014
By NATALIE ANGIER
The “Iliad” may be a giant of Western literature, yet its plot hinges on a
human impulse normally thought petty: spite.
Achilles holds a festering grudge against Agamemnon (“He cheated
me, wronged me … He can go to hell…”) turning down gifts, homage, even
the return of his stolen consort Briseis just to prolong the king’s suffering.
Now, after decades of focusing on such staples of bad behavior as
aggressiveness, selfishness, narcissism and greed, scientists have turned
their attention to the subtler and often unsettling theme of spite — the
urge to punish, hurt, humiliate or harass another, even when one gains no
obvious benefit and may well pay a cost.
Psychologists are exploring spitefulness in its customary role as a
negative trait, a lapse that should be embarrassing but is often sublimated
as righteousness, as when you take your own sour time pulling out of a
parking space because you notice another car is waiting for it and you’ll
show that vulture who’s boss here, even though you’re wasting your own
Evolutionary theorists, by contrast, are studying what might be
viewed as the brighter side of spite, and the role it may have played in the
origin of admirable traits like a cooperative spirit and a sense of fair play.
The new research on spite transcends older notions that we are
savage, selfish brutes at heart, as well as more recent suggestions that
humans are inherently affiliative creatures yearning to love and connect.
Instead, it concludes that vice and virtue, like the two sides of a V, may be
“Spitefulness is such an intrinsically interesting subject, and it fits
with so many people’s everyday experience, that I was surprised to see how
little mention there was of it in the psychology literature,” said David K.
Marcus, a psychologist at Washington State University. At the same time,
he said, “I was thrilled to find something that people haven’t researched to
Reporting in February in the journal Psychological Assessment, Dr.
Marcus and his colleagues presented the preliminary results from their
new “spitefulness scale,” a 17item survey they created to assess individual
differences in spitefulness, just as existing personality tests measure traits
like agreeableness and extroversion.
A total of 946 college students and 297 adults were asked to rate how
firmly they agreed with sentiments like “If my neighbor complained about
the appearance of my front yard, I would be tempted to make it look worse
just to annoy him or her” or “If I opposed the election of an official, I
would happily see the person fail even if that failure hurt my community”
or “I would be willing to take a punch if it meant someone I did not like
would receive two punches.”
(That attitude, said David Sloan Wilson of the State University of New
York at Binghamton, recalls the Eastern European folk tale in which a
genie offers to grant a man’s wish as long as his hated neighbor gets
double the prize; the man says, “Put out one of my eyes.”)
From the survey and related experiments, the researchers determined
that men were generally more spiteful than women and young adults more
spiteful than older ones, and that spitefulness generally cohabited with
traits like callousness, Machiavellianism and poor selfesteem — but not
with agreeableness, conscientiousness or a tendency to feel guilt.
Dr. Marcus also identified circumstances that can provoke spiteful
outbursts from otherwise temperate people: partisan politics, for example.
(“If the other candidate wins, I hope the economy crashes.”) Or bitter
divorces, like the husband who threw his savings into a trash bin, Dr.
Marcus said, to avoid sharing any money with his exwife.
For their part, evolutionary theorists have long been intrigued by the
origins and purpose of spite, and a new report suggests that sometimes
spite can make right.
Taking the increasingly popular approach of applying game theory to
probe human social behavior, Patrick Forber of Tufts University and Rory
Smead of Northeastern designed a computer model of virtual players
challenging each other to single rounds of the famed ultimatum game.
According to the rules, Player A decided how a pot of money was to be
shared with Player B: half and half, say, or 80 percent for A and 20 percent
for B. If B consented to the split, both received the agreedupon portion; if
B rejected the offer, neither player received anything.
The contestants were assigned one of four predetermined strategies,
from the easygoing approach of “when you’re Player A, you share 5050,
but when you’re Player B you accept any offer, no matter how stingy” to
the spiteful “when you’re A, you make a stingy offer, but when you’re B you
spurn a stingy offer.” The researchers then allowed the players to coalesce
into mock societies, and they were startled by the results.
Although groups of excessively spiteful or selfish players quickly
collapsed, and rigidly fairminded societies were readily destabilized by
influxes of selfish exploiters, the flexible sharers not only proved able to
coexist with the spiteful types, but the presence of spitefuls had the
salubrious effect of enhancing the rate of fair exchanges among the
genials. By the looks of it, Dr. Smead said, “fairness is acting as a defense
The results echo other recent research suggesting that human decency
and cooperation require a certain degree of socalled altruistic
punishment: the willingness of some individuals to punish rule breakers even when the infraction does not directly affect them — challenging the
guy who broke into the line behind you, for example.
“It could be that Nietzsche was right about punishment,” Dr. Forber
said, “that it originated as spite and only later was turned into a
mechanism for maintaining fairness and justice.”
Frank Marlowe, a biological anthropologist at the University of
Cambridge, argued that what looks like spiteful behavior in the real world
may really be a matter of imagemaking. He and his colleagues have used
the ultimatum and similar games to study barter and exchange in a broad
crosssection of nonWestern cultures, including foragers, pastoralists and
farmers. They found that no matter how hardscrabble the life or how
much the players obviously could have used even a sliver of a potential
award, game participants would reject a partner’s stingy offer indignantly,
an apparent act of spite that left both emptyhanded — at least for the
“It’s probably not spiteful when you’re looking at the long term,” Dr.
Marlowe said. “If you get the reputation as someone not to mess with and
nobody messes with you going forward, then it was well worth the cost.”
Omar Tonsi Eldakar of Nova Southeastern University in Florida has
studied the link between cooperative behavior and what he calls selfish
punishment. “Why is everyone always assuming that it’s the good guys who
are doing the punishing?” he asked. “Selfish individuals have more reason
than anyone else to want to get rid of other cheaters.”
The idea of selfish punishment came to him as a biology graduate
student who also competed in track and field. “I noticed it over and over
again,” he said. “The people who were most vocal against others using
performanceenhancing drugs were the ones who were using performance
Using game theory models, Dr. Eldakar has demonstrated that when
selfish players intent on maximizing their profits regularly punish other
selfish players or exclude them from the group, the net outcome is an
overall decline in selfish exchanges to a reasonably stable state.
“It’s like the Mafia,” he said. “They end up reducing crime in the areas
Agamemnon needed his Achilles — and we need our Tony Soprano.