Help Me Narrow It Down, ‘K?

But seriously, WHY don’t you like my book?

So I screwed up my gumption once again and went out into the wilderness of literary agents. I usually start with the website of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, since they’ve got a decent code of ethical conduct. I put in some keywords to narrow the search, and found 167 names. There must be a pea under ONE of those shells, no?

So I picked one and went to the agency website. And it broke my heart, that very first one of the day’s session. So many of these people are such imprecise, vague writers! I mean, honestly, do they even like words and stuff? Here’s a couple of excerpts from different agents within that firm, about the kind of writing that they hope to find:

  • works with quality fiction – literary, historical, strongly written commercial – and with voice-driven nonfiction
  • looking for literary and commercial fiction featuring unusual stories and voices
  • represents high-concept suspense, literary, and speculative fiction
  • looks for books with deeply imagined worlds, and for writers who take risks with their work
  • on the lookout for writing that immediately draws her in, and stories that stick with her long after she’s finished reading
  • authors and artists who wish to look beyond the obvious and strive for the exceptional
  • a sucker for unconventional narratives that aim to do something unique and inventive
  • seeks out novels that pay equal attention to voice and plot

If they’d been my college freshmen fifteen years ago, I’d send them all back with some pretty sharply worded recommendations for revision. What a wretched list of non-ideas! We want quality. We want unusual. We want high-concept. We want writers who take risks. We want stories that stick with her. We want things that are unconventional and unique.

Don’t even try if you’re gonna do it that bad. This is the literature version of corporate-speak: the impactful win-win, the go-forward basis, the leveraging information. But these specific sentences were written by people in the industry that forms words into ideas. You’d wish they’d be better at it.

There was one—just one, of the thirteen agents in this firm—who said something deliberate enough for me to make a decision. She wrote: In general, novels with happy endings put her in a bad mood. And I was, like, That’s terrific! If you’re going to be a di… I mean, if you’re going to be a snarky, ironic jerk, thanks for letting me know right up front. You saved me some time.

We’re faced with hundreds of relatively opaque options, choosing what’s behind door number one, or door number two, or door number four hundred thirty six, digging through the box of unmarked keys. It’s like playing the lottery, but with the possibility of readers instead of money under the hidden, scratch-off future.

Maybe I’ll try another ticket tomorrow. But today was more than I could bear.

Maslow’s Genres

By Abraham Maslow, noted literary theorist 🙂

The original idea of this post was going to be titled “Why There Gotta Be So Many Dead People In These Books?” I’m tired of reading stories where people die, or might die, in what seem like manipulative ways. It just seems too easy, to build tension through holding our hand over that most existential on/off switch. I mean, if it’s a war story or a pandemic story or a spy story, then yes, we might reasonably expect that someone could be offed. But the rest of the time, let’s play that note with just a little more reserve, shall we?

There’s a related feminist critique of one specific model of the woman-without-agency, the sexual assault victim as a stock character. If we need to add menace to a cartoonish male character, we can have him sexually assault someone. (Elmore Leonard’s book Out of Sight is hideously guilty of this.) If we need to add empathy for an otherwise uninteresting female character, we can hint at her unresolved feelings about a sexual assault that she endured. It’s a lazy way to ramp up the stakes at women’s expense, yet again.

But as I was thinking about all this, I started to think that maybe we can understand something about genre in fiction as an examination of which level of Maslow’s Hierarchy is most central to the plot. You’ve all seen Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, in which he proposed that our needs are arrayed in a tier, with our more specifically human needs resting upon those that assure our basic mammalian existence.

In Maslow’s structure, the two foundational layers are about survival. Level 1 is physiological: food and water and warmth and air. There are plenty of books about that, mostly adventure novels. The hero is:

  • trapped below the surface of the sea with not enough oxygen in the scuba tank
  • caught in an avalanche, an earthquake, a landslide, a snowstorm
  • stuck in space

You get the drift. The basic stakes are that the hero may drown, suffocate, freeze, starve, and so on.

Horror and thriller and wartime novels are mostly about Level 2, safety. In this case, the threat comes not from hunger, but from malice. Something’s trying to kill us, dude! That’s a pretty good premise for a story, from the campfire onward. Who knows who’s out there in the dark, waiting to bludgeon us with their bloody hook…

Romance novels are almost entirely concerned with Level 3, belonging. The whole point is that a lonely person becomes not lonely, finds a partner with whom they feel connected. But not just romance: most TV sit-coms, for instance, are Level-3 shows. Nobody cares about the plot of an episode of The Big Bang Theory or Frasier or Friends or The Flintstones: the whole point is that the gang remains intact and bonded by episode’s end.

Magazines are mostly Level-3 endeavors; we might read about cars or homes or yoga or dogs or any of the hundred thousand things a magazine might be about, but at their heart, they’re doing the work of welcoming us to a community who care about those things. They show us a lifestyle, and help us feel as though there are others who share our enthusiasms and perhaps we could join them. The message of almost every magazine in the world is the same: you are not alone.

So what do we do with Levels 4 and 5? The four Rabbit novels of John Updike were almost exclusively Level-4 books about self-esteem, as Harry Angstrom unsuccessfully tries to regain some sense of capability in a world that no longer offers him an easy path toward it. Joan Didion’s Play It as it Lays shows us Maria’s loss of self in a movie-making community that no longer has a place for her.

Level 5 books about self-actualization are maybe the most rare. Think of Dancer, Colum McCann’s fictionalized story of Rudolf Nureyev; think of The Queen’s Gambit, Walter Tevis’ novel of an orphaned girl who becomes a chess champion. Siddhartha and The Story of O are the head and tail of the coin of the kind of self-actualization that comes from self-negation, two distinct but related forms of nirvana.

There aren’t really genres organized around Level-4 and Level-5 needs, are there? Too bad, ’cause that’s what I’m drawn to write about. Literary fiction picks up those themes more frequently than commercial fiction, which may be why I’m so frustrated when those books lose their discipline and just bump somebody off.

Now let’s get meta for a second. I’m not arguing that Maslow provides us the right way of reading a text, merely an interesting way or a useful way. What I’m trying to do is to rough up the surface of the ball so that someone else can get a grip on it.

And really, that’s what any theory is. That’s what any metaphor is. And that’s what most teaching is, at least in the humanities where I live. My job is to help someone see something they’ve seen a thousand times, and to rough it up enough to get a new grip on it instead of letting it slide past. My job in the classroom was to do that enough times, in obvious enough ways, that my students could themselves learn how to scuff the ball and produce their own friction.

Man, I miss that.

Leading and Following

Each of these people is good at something different… let them drive sometimes

One of my rules of thumb is that you can tell how healthy a college’s culture is by how often the college’s president has his or her picture in the magazine and online. The more megalomaniacal the graphic presence, the more oligarchical the institution is likely to be. I’ve worked for places in which the leader had to take credit for every single thing, surrounded by his anonymous “people.” Those workplaces are both personally miserable and organizationally ineffective.

One of the goals of leadership should be to surround yourself with people far superior to you in whatever that thing is that they do, and to take every opportunity to push them to the front, so that their best talents shine. And this is not merely a public strategy, this should also be operational strategy. The leader’s role is to hold the mission, to measure actions against the mission, to assemble the best possible team to advance the mission, and to use what charisma she or he has to rouse others to stay strong and join the cause. The leader’s role is also to follow… to follow the recommendations of people who know more, to follow the guidance of those who’ve immersed themselves in the data and the practices of their fields.

For decades, I’ve wished that presidential candidates were required to name the entirety of their cabinet prior to the election. I know that’s unfair to those cabinet nominees, who have to be public with their willingness to leave their current positions even with the uncertainty of an election ahead. But we deserve to know who a candidate believes should be our nation’s Attorney General… our Secretary of Defense… our Secretary of the Treasury. We deserve to know in advance whether an administration will be filled with intellectual leaders, professional practitioners, party holdovers, or personal sycophants.

In our time of COVID, it’s especially important for our leaders to know when to follow. This is not a political opponent with a strategy to outwit, and it’s not a business cycle to be timed correctly. It’s just a mindless virus that neither knows nor cares what we want, going about its daily business in a way that’s incompatible with our own. This is the time we follow… follow the guidance of the epidemiologists and public health experts who have decades of experience in studying other outbreaks, and have learned what has and has not worked.

Leadership is not always (perhaps not even usually) about exerting one’s will. Leadership is about surrounding yourself with smart people, and then listening to their recommendations in service to a common goal.

Proudly DNF

The last three books I’ve started to read have been DNFs—Did Not Finish. I don’t need to tell you what they were: other people liked them just fine, and I prefer to talk about books that I love instead of those that didn’t catch me. But I can tell you why they didn’t catch me: I didn’t want to spend time with the characters. There was nobody there who was both intelligent and good-natured. If I went to a party where there was nobody intelligent and good-natured, I’d go home from that, too.

It used to be that I would have kept those books. I would have either bulled my way through them, determined to cross some irrelevant finish line, or I would have left them on my nightstand with a bookmark in them, nagging at me to fulfill my responsibility and gathering dust. Now, I don’t feel bad for even a minute; I set them into a pile for a friend who runs a used bookstore and would be happy to sell a nearly-new copy of some otherwise well-regarded book. Maybe I’ll get a couple of bucks from her if they sell, and maybe those books will land with a reader who appreciates them in a way that I couldn’t.

Back when I was a runner, a DNF was a sign of defeat or disaster. I dropped out of my first marathon at mile 23, from hypothermia on a gray and drizzly Northern California March day. But for more elite runners, a DNF can be a strategic decision. If you’re having a bad day, there’s no reason to finish 26 miles just as a poorly-framed training run. Let it go, plan for your next race, and don’t hurt yourself. I later finished two other marathons, under better conditions.

I think of DNF’s with books the same way. I don’t need to prove to myself or anyone else that I have the gumption to finish a whole book: I’ve done that thousands and thousands of times already. I’m an elite reader, I don’t need to finish a bad novel just for the training. I can drop it and get myself ready for the next one.

A couple of days ago, a friend asked Nora and I for recommendations for novels she should read during this moment of isolation. And the ones on that list were the happy ones, the ones where finishing them was never in doubt. Allow me to introduce you to some of my friends:

  • The Fortunes: Peter Ho Davies
  • The Queen’s Gambit: Walter Tevis
  • Miyami and the Sea of Happiness: Jennifer Tseng
  • A Pocketful of Names: Joe Coomer
  • Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows: Balli Kaur Jaswal
  • Dancer: Colum McCann
  • The Calligrapher’s Daughter: Eugenia Kim
  • The Kiss Quotient: Helen Hoang
  • Fingersmith: Sarah Waters
  • Our Souls at Night: Kenth Haruf
  • Play It As It Lays: Joan Didion

I hope they’ll bring you as much joy as they did me. But if not… DNF them and go on to another. Read what you want.

Some years ago, the writer Daniel Pennac devised what he called the Reader’s Bill of Rights. The right to not read… to skip pages… to not finish… to reread… to read anything… to escapism… to read anywhere… to browse… to read out loud… and to not defend your tastes. These are not the rules that Sister Edna Marie would have led us to respect, but she’d have marked me down for the DNF’s, too. I’ve gotten over it.

Material Ontology

By all means, we should preserve our historic… PSYCH! (The Cardiff Gas Light and Coke Building being crushed beneath the Altolusso Tower, in Cardiff, Wales. Photo from the Guardian, 2014)

Nora’s been occasionally helping the local museum community identify the spinning wheels they own: their likely origins, the kinds of fibers they would have been meant to spin, and the things to look for when identifying a new acquisition. And as is true in all museum work, there’s some degree of debate about what constitutes “appropriate” preservation. How much of something can you change before it’s no longer the same thing?

Sure, you can clean a piece of art… unless the acquisition of detritus was one of the artist’s original intentions. You maybe can change a painting’s frame, but you can’t just grab one from Michael’s. If the varnish is cracked on a piece of furniture, you can probably try to clean it, but you can’t sand it down and throw some polyurethane on it, even though it’s a more durable material and the table would be better protected.

A lot of historic preservation in architecture is what I think of as taxidermy: we save the skin, fill it with a modern building, and stick a pair of glass eyeballs in it. What part of a building deserves to be preserved? Just the facade? Or the plumbing? Or the original interior walls? Should we put an elevator into a building that never had one? Should we keep storing hay for the police-wagon horses on the second floor? It’s easy to chase questions of preservation down to silly extremes, but the underlying question is always the same impossible, ontological dilemma: What, exactly, is the nature of the thing? What parts of the thing must remain part of the thing if it’s going to continue to be the thing? At what moment in the thing’s development must it be locked into place and not further changed?

Sometimes that question doesn’t matter at all. There are some car restorers who want to verify the exact original part of every element of their restoration, building a sort of archaeological record of what came off the assembly line. On the other end, I’ve long been a fan of car customization, in which whatever Detroit provided is merely inspiration for what could be.

This is NOT what a 1952 Chevrolet Styleline looked like in 1952. Photo by Mike Basso for Car Kulture DeLuxe magazine.

This car was completely reimagined by the brothers Yoshi and Kyohei Sakuragi and bodyworker Gene Winfield, to capture a love of curvature and solidity, and to hearken back to the late 50’s and early 60’s origins of “kustom kulture.” You could put it into one kind of museum as an exemplar of creativity and craft, but you couldn’t put it into another kind of museum as an historical record of auto production. So what do you want the thing to be?

One of the few books I’ve kept from my former academic interests is Preserving Cultural Landscapes in America, a book of essays that were edited together by Arnold Alanen and Robert Melnick. One essay by Richard Francaviglia offers a classification system for understanding what he calls “heritage landscapes,” but which we can use to think about any kind of historic object.

  • There are the passively preserved, “preserved unintentionally through continued traditions of use, ownership, and design.”
  • There are the actively preserved, “consciously preserved to retain their historic heritage or charm.”
  • There are the restored, “in which significant historic features have been reconstructed or replaced (or later intrusions removed) to enable them to regain their original character.”
  • There are the assembled, “in which historic designs and historical features are constructed to achieve a look of antiquity.”
  • There are the imagineered, “designed to appear historic but reconstructed to convey essence rather than re-create particular locale.”
  • There are the imagically preserved, “images, models, or dioramas that recreate vanished landscapes for viewing rather than entry.”

Most of Nora’s wheels are either passively preserved, rescued intact from someone’s mom’s house, or restored, with broken parts rebuilt from materials similar to the originals (like using cow or deer bone to make the bearings rather than nylon). There’s no pressure to modernize, to install stainless steel parts for increased production, so it’s easy to keep them more or less original. But sometimes, in order to get the machine to run at all, you make do: building a spindle harness from a leather belt instead of braided corn husks, for instance. It’s a little thing, but in some circumstances, little things matter.

In re-enactor culture, the question of material authenticity is a constant. Coming to a Civil War re-enactment with your contemporary Browning rifle wouldn’t do: the Browning company didn’t even exist until the 1880s, much less that particular instrument. Participants would be discouraged from bringing a polystyrene cooler filled with machine-made ice and canned beer. But lots and lots of re-enactors go beyond that. They make their own woolen underwear, forego their contact lenses in favor of glasses appropriate to the 1860s. But even that is about visual authenticity. Do they leave their Lipitor at home? Do they no longer get to participate once they’ve had a knee replacement or a composite-resin tooth filling? How about if they’ve studied contemporary sociology, and simply know things that wouldn’t have been known at Appomattox? Where do we quit?

It’s all about intentions. Do we intend to recreate an 1810 object in its precise detail? Or do we want to use it every day, and thus accept some improvements? And what level of imprecision becomes immediately noticeable and regrettable, like the photo at the top of today’s post? I mean, SOMEBODY approved that. A whole bunch of them, actually, the developer and the design firm and the local building council. So what were their intentions, and who are we to judge them?

And Two by Two They Came

So THAT’s why writing feels that way…

I love the heuristic value of a simple two-by-two matrix. I discovered its power when I was trying to understand why some of the teenagers I hung out with twenty five years ago during my dissertation were brilliant and funny and didn’t have a lot of interest in school, while others who were equally smart were teacher’s pets, somewhat dull and always dutiful. And it occurred to me that we were actually seeing two simultaneous variables. The first was whether or not they had families with sort of normal white-collar resources. And the second was whether they were engaged in testing the boundaries of what they and others knew, or were satisfied to follow the tracks laid out by others. And once I had that, once I could put it into a named model, I could suddenly see dozens of other ways that it played out.

The kids who had resources and were comfortable in how life played out were simply believers, those who knew that compliance brought rewards. But those who were both protected and wanted to know more took on the role of theologians, constantly questioning why some practice was in place, always looking for alternatives. The same contrast played out for those students with fewer resources. The ones who let it all wash over them because they knew it didn’t matter were agnostics, but the ones who felt personally threatened or demeaned and that the situation required resistance were the infidels.

I’m pretty convinced that you could take almost any two social variables, place them orthogonally to one another, and learn something interesting and meaningful about social relations and where individuals stand within them. And that’s where the uppermost graphic came from.

One of the benefits of social isolation is that you have time to a) clean out all the old articles you’ve clipped from magazines, and b) read them before recycling. So Nora had kept an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, November 21, 2003, by Alice Weaver Flaherty, called “Writing Like Crazy: a Word on the Brain.” This essay was a pre-publication excerpt from her 2004 book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain. (Thank god for the Chronicle’s pre-publication excerpts…)

Anyway, it’s a really interesting article, and the book’s probably pretty good, too. But the thing that stopped me dead was this:

Most researchers agree that a useful definition of creative work is that it includes a combination of novelty and value. Creativity requires novelty because tried-and-true solutions are not creative, even if they are ingenious and useful. And creative works must be valuable (useful or illuminating to at least some members of the population) because a work that is merely odd is not creative. This two-factor definition of creativity also provides an explanation of why the creative can be close to the crazy (unusual but valueless behavior).

And that explains so much of the travails of the early author. The attribution of whether our work is valuable is inevitably external; someone else must value it. Without that external validation, all we can know is that we’re doing work that hasn’t been done before. And the question of whether we’re creative or crazy becomes a daily (or hourly) dilemma. Steven King and Margaret Atwood don’t have to live quite so closely to that question, because the world has provided tons of validation for their work. For the rest of us, struggling to find readers… I think it’s natural that at least once in a while, we imagine ourselves to be fully insane. By definition, the writer of an unpublished work has created novelty without value; that status may change at some point, but we have no empirical grounds upon which to say that. We have no control over the value, and can’t fully trust our self-assessment.

We all know plenty of people who imagine themselves clever, but are merely annoying. The possibility of the Dunning-Kruger Effect always has to be recognized. One of the other quotes from Flaherty’s article was this simple laugh line:

As Eyler Coates put it, “We’ve all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually produce a masterpiece. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true.”

This was late 2003, remember. The exponential growth of the Internet since then has introduced us to an explosion of wonders, and an even greater explosion of idiocy. Sturgeon’s Law, introduced in 1957, still holds: Ninety percent of everything is crap. How can we imagine ourselves immune?


At least it’s spelled right…

A group of people in the United States took to social media on Tuesday to express shock at receiving a pornographic video while dialing in to a virtual social event held on Zoom, a California-based video conferencing platform… “Participants screamed and cringed while the hosts rushed to kick the troll out of the call. But they just re-entered under a new name and blasted the audience with more disgusting imagery.”

Reuters news story,

There’s a whole subculture devoted to shock and destruction. Of people who bring nothing to the table but a desire to disrupt, to disturb, to provoke.

Social workers Kim Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner have identified a few of the underlying causes of trolling in children, where it’s kind of normal:

  • Children are generally known for having a low tolerance for frustration. They want things to go their way.
  • They are unable to cope with their frustrations and extreme feelings, and destructiveness is a release of sorts.
  • Sometimes a child may learn that by breaking things or behaving in a violent manner, he will effectively frighten a parent into doing what he wants.
  • Intimidation may also give a child who’s feeling powerless a sense of control.

How is it that we’ve created an entire culture of these man-boys who have no other strategy than defiance and destruction? How is it that millions of people got stuck at eleven years old?

How is it that we elect them?

This nonsense about the “Chinese virus” has two goals. One is to encourage fear of the other, making us compliant with the hero who might save us. The other is to deflect attention from our own amazingly bad planning. (A century ago, we’d have probably called it the “Italian virus,” since Italy has been hit so badly, and we didn’t like Italians so much back then.)

Listen. Viruses don’t have nationalities or ethnicities. They don’t carry passports, don’t have allegiances to a homeland. They aren’t “attacking” us, since they lack motivation. They aren’t “aggressive,” since they lack emotion. They grow somewhat normally among animals, then at some point a human host is infected successfully, and then it’s just people all the way down after that. If people travel, viruses can come from far away. If people don’t travel, then once in a while, a virus takes down everybody in our little insignificant holler, and no one else ever hears about it.

The “Spanish flu” of a hundred years ago was originally from Kansas, then France, before discovered in significant numbers in soldiers returning to the US from Spain in World War 1. There was nothing any more Spanish about the Spanish flu than there was about the “Spanish rice” my mother made from Uncle Ben’s and paprika. There’s nothing any more Chinese about the “Chinese virus” than there is about the holiday cookies I make every year from melted chocolate and bagged chow mein noodles.

Viruses don’t come from bad sanitation. They don’t come from “dirty cultures.” They don’t follow family lines. They come from breathing on or sneezing on or coughing on or exchanging bodily fluids with somebody else. It’s as simple as that.

As Susan Sontag wrote forty years ago in Illness as Metaphor, our need to anthropomorphize everything gets in the way of understanding diseases on their own terms. The sick become flawed, the well become virtuous. And neither are true. It’s all just respiratory droplets, in the end. Bleach and alcohol and physical distance have positive effects, fear and blame do not.

There’s a common line in internet protocols: Don’t feed the trolls. To mean, ignore them and they’ll go away. Well, we ignored them for a long time, and they elected their king to be ours. We need to step up and do better. Trolls are vicious and dangerous, far more so than viruses. In the end, they can’t be ignored, or else we cede the ground altogether.

…When it comes to how we respond to them, our tactics can and will vary, and they may involve anger, humor, love, tolerance, blocking, or maybe even some productive discussion. But ultimately, if we care about abuse, we cannot care most about whether we have comforted, converted, or even fed them. We have to care more about the people they hurt.

New Depths

So you say there’s a race of men in the trees

You’re for tough legislation…

Thanks for calling.

I wait all night for calls like these.

Donald Fagen, “The Nightfly”

I’m acting as the Town’s emergency management director, which means I’m getting tons of info from the state department of health and the state emergency management office. I try to put out daily updates on our town website, so as to help people sort through what they can trust.

I know, at this moment, there’s a lot of misinformation out there about COVID-19 and how we might respond. Some of that is just mistaken, the flurry that comes when things change rapidly. Some of it is purposeful scamming and profiteering, the anti-coronavirus toothpaste or the Silver Solution. But sometimes…

Here’s a near-verbatim transcript of a conversation I had today at the grocery store, getting a few things before practicing shelter-in-place for a while. (First off, there was no toilet paper, paper towels, disinfectant anything, any kind of cold & flu. No meat, no chicken, no dairy, no bottled water. No pasta, no rice, no tomato sauce products, no beans. It was pretty apocalyptic, unnecessarily so.)

So I’m in the checkout line, working to sustain a respectful distance between me and the fellow ahead of me. But before I get to the conveyor, this person comes up behind me. Close behind me. Like she-could-choke-me-out-with-both-hands close behind me.

I turned over my shoulder and said, “Could I ask you to give me just a little more space?”

“Why? What happened?”

I didn’t quite know how to answer that. “Nothing happened. I’d just like to have a little more personal distance between us… as recommended by public health.”

I’m not sick!”

“Well, you don’t think you’re sick…”

“I know I’m not sick. And I don’t want to argue.”

And just as I gave up and turned forward to go about my business, she added…

“You need to look up 5G and chemtrails. The storm is coming…”

O! M! F! G!

It used to be hard to publish things. It used to be hard to spread lunacy. You used to have to stand on the subway platform and harangue the passers-by. But now there’s a whole alternate universe out there, where the like-minded can convince one another that “they” are out to get us. Depending on where you live online, COVID-19 is:

  • a way to digitally disable the organs of those who are non-compliant in the face of the New World Order, using 5G wireless technology and chemtrail-diffused “smart dust.”
  • the means of righteous execution of those responsible for the global pedophilia ring, which somehow includes Tom Hanks and the NBA because why not.
  • a tool of Big Pharma to scare us into accepting high-profit vaccines.
  • biological warfare by the U.S. (in China), or biological warfare by China (in the U.S.).

I’m sure there are a dozen others.

Public discourse relies on a public. And we no longer have a public, we have hundreds of thousands of specifically curated worlds that bear almost no relationship to one another.

Viruses are dangerous. But viral stupidity is what will kill us.

Oh, no, baby…

Golly… thanks so much… it’s really… ummm… special.

I’m a big fan of the Graham Norton talk show (or as they call them in England, “chat shows”). He brings all his guests on together, gives them drinks, and they make each other funnier and wittier as they tell stories, mostly having to do with some stupid or embarrassing thing they themselves have done. Here’s a part of one story from the American comedian Kevin Hart, about one of his early-career stand-up gigs:

I remember hearing a woman’s voice, an older lady, I tell a joke, and the joke doesn’t work. And I remember this lady just going, “Oh, no…” And I would much rather be booed than hear the disappointment from her voice. I remember, she said, “Oh, no, baby…” Like I had made a mistake with my whole choice of life.

Nora and I spent the day yesterday out of town at a craft center—I won’t tell you where, so as to not cast aspersions on perfectly lovely people doing their best. But…

You know how you can just tell when it’s not right? How you can spot the hobbyist acrylic painting, the church-supper poem, the crocheted pillow cover that won’t ever be displayed? How you can hear the tin ear, the stiff piano player, the story that might never end?

What do you say when you see the bad taxidermy, the tuna-noodle casserole, the birch branch jigsawed into a rough crucifix? What do you say to the rock polishers, the potholder-makers, the person who makes refrigerator magnets of tiny photos inside bottle caps?

And what if they’re me?

I live in perpetual fear that my work is just… precious, a nice hobby, like an endless series of knitted baby caps foisted upon every distant relative.

There’s an internet meme that says, “Being stupid is like being dead… you’ll never know it, but everyone around you will.” And that’s the fate of the artist, putting our work out in public, and having the public walk past, trying not to notice you… or having them pick it up, consider it silently for a few seconds, and set it back down.

Short of the National Book Award, the glowing review in the London Review of Books, the Booker or the Grand Prix… anything less than that leaves us to wonder, really, whether the work has mattered. The doing of the work matters, and matters enormously. To us. But the work itself, and its worth to others… it’s impossible to say.

And sometimes, when I’m in the galleries of ill-proportioned still life drawings, or undrinkable home-brewed beer, or yet another lumpy ceramic pot… the question feels awfully close to home.

My Favoritest Book in the Whole Wide World!

It’s been a wild couple of weeks, what with being the town’s emergency management director and getting three or four updates a day from the Vermont Department of Health and Vermont Emergency Management about current status and instructions re: COVID-19. I was going to do a workshop at a conference in DC on April 1-3; that got cancelled. The 50th anniversary event for my graduate program’s department got cancelled. The freakin’ NBA season got stopped. Everyone’s practicing self-quarantine and social distancing.

So stay home and read a book. I’ve got one for you.

As I promised a couple of weeks ago, I’ve finally gotten a drizzly day to read, and I re-read Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness, by Jennifer Tseng. I came across it a little over three years ago, when it was a relatively young book. And, like Mayumi herself, I was smitten with its freshness and youth. Now it’s a mature book, and I love it all the more.

Years ago, when Kenzaburo Oe won the Nobel Prize in Literature, I decided that I should expand my horizons a bit, and I picked up A Personal Matter. And from there, I discovered a body of fiction that didn’t move as much as it churned. The plot is secondary, physical and social details are shared only sparingly (and all the more remarkable for their rare appearance, like catching sight of a deer or a porcupine during a forest hike). The real work is to explore what goes on inside one’s mind. What we think, and the absurdity of our thinking that way, and the other plausible ways we might think about the same circumstance. What we imagine others are thinking, about us and about themselves and about our secrets if only they knew. 

This book is firmly within this tradition. Mayumi, the narrator of this story, is a Japanese-British-American librarian who lets us completely, unguardedly, inside her mind as she navigates a web of relationships—family, work, and (most especially) otherwise. She is disgusted and at peace with her husband, loving and exhausted with her daughter, at home and alienated from her work. And she is ashamed and impatient and delighted and brazen with her lover.

It’s easy to see that Ms. Tseng started her literary career as a poet; Mayumi thinks almost entirely in metaphor, always seeing one thing in the language and form of another, part of what gives the book such a surreal, shimmering light. I could point to hundreds of examples, but here’s one:

Transgression has a scent. One wears it like a perfume and there are those who smell it immediately. During the course of my affair with the young man, countless patrons confessed to me their crimes. Thierry Lambert’s wife was the nanny for whom he had left his first wife, Joe Fischer had been banished from the priesthood for his love affair with an altar boy, and Linda Cardo continued to meet with her childhood sweetheart in an off-island hotel where they drank Chianti and floated in the indoor pool. Why tell me? Why not any of the other librarians? I’m convinced I wore the perfume of transgression and that transgressors were drawn to it, perhaps even comforted by it. I was their kind.


There are several books that I’ve come back to several times, with years of life between readings that have made me into a different reader. Sometimes the book doesn’t stand up to that new examination; flaws that were once overlooked now seem to shout their presence, the only thing visible. But sometimes, the new reader simply finds new perfections, patterns unseen by the first viewer and waiting patiently for other selves to come. Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness is one of that second group. It’s a treasure, a powerful and humbly honest story that defies summarization. I can’t recommend it highly enough.