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October 4, 2013

Hacking Around

Americans have a funny concept about the relationship between art and money. We don’t seem to mind when artists get paid a bundle for their work – Occupy Wall Street was not protesting Ben Affleck’s getting paid millions for his last movie – but we don’t want that bundle to be their motivation for working. In fact, we’re quite disdainful of artists who work in order to get paid (rather than because The Muse is calling them): They’re known as hacks.

Common wisdom says that you can recognize a hack by the volume of work produced. Real art takes time, so if you’re knocking out the novels, you are clearly producing uhhhh . . . fake art. Hackery. The easy second-rate.


I’ve been thinking about this in the context of reading Michael McDowell’s journals; in the 18 months covered by them, McDowell churned out an incredible amount of work – novels, scripts, short stories, the various “treatments” and pitches that Hollywood loves to demand. Hollywood because that’s where McDowell was increasingly looking to sell his work – TV and the movies pay a whole lot better than publishing houses, and McDowell did indeed care about money: In 1985 he earned well over half a million bucks (in 2013 dollars).

The key word here is “earned.” The journals are full of what the Brits would call hard graft: It was a very rare day that McDowell didn’t put in both a morning and an afternoon’s work – typically on two separate projects, and often with a business lunch in between. Furthermore, that work involved a lot more than dribbling words onto a page: The “Jack and Susan” books, for example, are set in very specific time periods, and McDowell insisted on getting the details right. In “Jack and Susan in 1913,” for instance, one of the characters makes a living writing for the (then) shiny new motion-picture industry: McDowell hunted down filmscripts from the period, as well as books on how to write them.

For “Jack and Susan in 1933,” he read through stacks of the “adventure books” that were the big bestsellers of that period; he knew he wanted “1933” to have a deliciously over-the-top plot and these books – with their thrilling locales, mysterious visitors, disguises, spies, and stolen letters – were the perfect research.

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