The Different Modes of the Chaplain

Comedy and Tragedy for the 21st Century

As you might have seen with the most recent two posts, I’ve had a fraught couple of days. So Nora and I had a long talk last night, a lot of which had to do with the functions that writing accomplishes in the world. It was pretty wonderful, and made me realize all over again just how lucky I am.

She’s described a lot of my work in the wake of The Adjunct Underclass as “academic chaplaincy,” talking with people by phone or by email to help them know that they’re not alone. Even the book itself did that work, letting readers of all stripes know that the emotional dislocation and disrespect they experienced was normal, should be expected, wasn’t shameful, wasn’t a weakness. I said to Nora that my fiction was intended to have that same effect. All of my stories, no matter when or where they’re set, are about someone who has done all the right things, looks successful enough from the outside, and feels as though they haven’t reached what they’d hoped for. Or had quit hoping altogether. And my stories are there to say to readers, It’s normal to feel stuck. It’s normal to feel like your success doesn’t look like it showed in the catalog. But you have the capabilities already within you to reinvent yourself. You don’t have to accept who and where you are. There’s more possible. It’s an attempt to offer a different mode of chaplaincy, through fiction.

And Nora said something really interesting, which I’ll paraphrase since I wasn’t taking notes and it was eleven o’clock at night. She said, “I’ve never looked to fictional characters for role models or life lessons. I’ve never looked at a character, no matter how much I’ve identified with them, and thought that I could take lessons for my own progress.” And I think that’s not surprising; she’s an ethnographer down to the bone, learning about others, constantly focused on the experiences and the welfare of those around her. She reads with empathy, learning what it must be like to inhabit those circumstances, that time and place, that culture, that body. She focuses outward.

I guess I’m more selfish. I read lots of things both to imagine those lives and to re-imagine my own. We can go through all kinds of dollar-store psychology about what our reading says about our personalities, our ego stability or fragility. Whatever. I do think, though, that neither Nora’s nor my style of reading are idiosyncratic. Both modes exist in the world.

I’ve written extensively about my desire to write hopeful books, to act as a countervailing force against a literary landscape that seems daily to become more lurid, more hopeless. That would, in the classic distinction, make me a writer of comedy (books with an upward arc) rather than tragedy (books with a downward arc). Comedy isn’t necessarily funny; it’s just about ascent rather than decline.

And just today, Katy Waldman in The New Yorker wrote about the work that comic novels do. I’ll leave aside her extended discussion of P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster books, and Richard Russo’s novel Straight Man, as well as her recommendations for comic novels worth reading during the quarantine. Instead, I’d like to highlight an important distinction between two different functions of comedy, a distinction that pretty closely mirrors Nora’s and my conversation of last night.

Waldman differentiates between stories intended to lighten our load and those intended to help us adjust and reshoulder our load:

Russo, whose protagonist often wavers between sorrow and hilarity, wants to emphasize that applying a comic framework to life is a choice. Hank refuses to play the straight man in his routine with the universe. Seriousness poses danger; better to make the cracks than to endure them. In this sense, Hank’s clowning illuminates his character, even invests it with tragedy, and Russo offers an alternative to the Wodehouse novels. Bertie is an innocent portrayed ironically; Hank is an ironist portrayed sincerely. One path leads to escapist distraction, whereas the other leads to a set of implied instructions: This is how humor might help—or fail to help—a person cope…. What is our disposition toward a fickle universe? Do we claim agency through humor? Or strive for a jolly and wide-eyed surrender?

Katy Waldman, “Two Paths for the Comic Novel (and the Funniest Books to Read in Quarantine), New Yorker, April 27, 2020

This is absolutely my experience. Some novels are about agency, about recognizing our absurdity and taking action nonetheless. And others are just fun, page-turners that help us get through a hard day. As Waldman says:

From an aesthetic perspective, one vision—pessimistic or optimistic, active or passive—isn’t better, or funnier, than another. But there’s a larger truth here. Before the shelter-in-place orders, I was not seeking out the books that made me laugh as a kid. Now I am. This fact somehow seems to get at the essence of comedy—an art that becomes more real, more fully itself, within a shared, tragic frame.

And that’s the work of comedy as chaplaincy, the recognition that things really ARE fucked up and that we have a responsibility to be honorable anyway.

Gumption Traps

Let’s examine Scripture once again…

A couple of years ago, I was at a writers’ conference held at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. One of the staples of those events is some venue where each participant, no matter how far along they might be in their career, is given the opportunity to do a brief public reading. At Bread Loaf, there’s the Blue Parlor; at VCFA, there were pre-dinner readings in which the members of each cohort got their time at the lectern. You get three minutes, or five minutes, to show what you can do.

As a college teacher, I’d done public speaking for a long time, and I know something about how to honor a circumstance like this. So at VCFA, I read an excerpt of my very first novel, a roughly three-minute piece that I knew would hang together without backstory, a piece that had some degree of sonic music to it.

Afterward, I interacted with several of the faculty at the event who said how much they’d appreciated my piece. But one in particular stuck with me, a poet who said, “When you started, I thought, ‘this isn’t going to be a subject I’m interested in.’ But you made it interesting, you made it matter to me.” She paused for the briefest moment, and said, “Where can I read more of your work? Are you published?”

“Not in fiction, no. I’ve sent it out quite a lot, but it hasn’t gotten any traction.”

“Well, people are just stupid.”

Well, yes. Yes, they are. And that’s the Chautauqua for today.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig lays out a number of what he calls “gumption traps,” circumstances that can dispel one’s attempts toward Quality. He divides them into two kinds:

The first type are those in which you’re thrown off the Quality track by conditions that arise from external circumstances, and I call these “set-backs.” The second type are traps in which you’re thrown off the Quality track by conditions that are primarily within yourself. These I don’t have any generic name for—”hang-ups,” I suppose. (299)

Pirsig lays out several set-backs. There’s the out-of-sequence assembly, in which you’ve got the thing almost back together before you discover some step you should have done long before, an oversight that requires disassembling all the work you’ve done. There’s the intermittent failure, the thing that works fine when you go to examine it on the bench, so you put it to use again and discover the same problem. There’s the parts set-back, in which the part you need either isn’t available, or you forgot to get it when you went to the shop, or it wasn’t manufactured right and doesn’t actually fit where it’s supposed to go.

The hang-ups (or “traps”) also come in a three-pack, and Pirsig claims that the traps are far more damaging, and common, than the set-backs. First, there are value traps, in which your preconceived diagnosis of a problem prevents you from actually looking at what’s in front of you. Your preconceived diagnosis of the problem may also be about yourself as a problem-solver. About your ego, or your anxiety, or your impatience, or your boredom. The problem itself doesn’t change because of your anxiety or impatience, but your ability to understand it and address it absolutely does.

There are truth traps, in which we presume that we’ve framed a question in which all of the possible answers can be named, but by its very framing, leads us toward unhelpful answers. Pirsig uses the Japanese Zen teaching of mu as a useful response to that framing. The answer may be neither yes nor no, but mu, which can best be translated as “unask the question.” The best way I can explain truth traps is through the conversation we had a couple of days ago about metaphor. It may be that the very metaphor we hold for what a phenomenon is, is exactly what prevents us from asking better questions about it.

Finally, there are muscle traps. Bad tools, uncomfortable working conditions, and insufficient feel or tactile memory. The things that cause us to make physical mistakes, break parts, burn ourselves or rack our knuckles.

Pirsig drew both the setbacks and the hangups from his own long experience of mechanical work, the “motorcycle maintenance” part of his title. But I think they all apply to writers as well. The external setbacks certainly exist. We put things together in the wrong order, and have to go back and disassemble. Every writer in a workshop knows the experience of having ten radically different reactions to a story, and ten different diagnoses about the location of the flaw and the prescribed remedy.

And, as with mechanical life, the hangups are even more serious. We stop ourselves by our anxiety, we press forward with a bad idea out of ego, we truncate a scene through impatience. We use the wrong metaphor to contain our ideas, and imagine we’re writing a book about some theme instead of letting the characters tell us what themes they’re living. We write in awkward places, at bad times. (Joyce Carol Oates says that the nemesis of the writer isn’t lack of talent, it’s interruption.)

But although writers face the same array of gumption traps as motorcycle mechanics, we have our own special array to add on. As the poet Philip Larkin has it, They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.

So there’s a literary agent who has a blog. It was recommended in an article I once read, and as someone always on the search for the key to the castle, I went there and read it for a while, even participated in the discussions for a few months.

It was miserable. The agent herself, with decades of experience, used the blog mostly to complain about writers’ misguided aspirations, or about whatever injustices she felt burdened by that day. It was a cynical stew. And several of her regular comment participants were abrasive, confrontational, mean-spirited. (That blog, in fact, is why I decided not to enable the comments on this one. There’s always someone who wants nothing more than to pee in the pool.) So after about four months, I let it go, stopped visiting.

But here we are in Covidland, all sitting at home without even random errands to run or a restaurant to visit. We need some things to do. So I made the mistake of going back to see what this agent had been up to recently. Her most recent post began:

Lately, lots of off-the-wall submissions. Definitely feels like end of days. And as always they evoke a spectrum of feelings and reactions in me. First, self-pity. Why me? Why do I get these letters and why do I feel I have to answer. Next, annoyance. Can you not be bothered to do a a simple Google search and discover that I’m not interested in self-help, how-to, sci-fi, fantasy, new age and books on spirituality? Books on spirituality in particular enrage me. Then there’s the writing thing. Most people who get published work at their writing for YEARS. These query letters generally come from people who just turned on an Apple for the first time and believe that whatever comes out deserves to be published. 

I had my own “spectrum of feelings and emotions” about this, which I’ll spare you. But all that reactive fizz settled quickly, of no more consequence than the bitters that foamed it up in the first place. And the residue that separated out was a third form of gumption trap, perhaps unique to the creative fields, which we might call the misdirection trap. In creative fields, we’re told to work on our craft, to seek out opportunities for growth, to demonstrate our individual capability. Talent and effort, talent and effort, we om to ourselves, like dwarves off to the mines.

And then we find that the seats we’d earned through our craft and labor are already filled by the Harvard kids and the NYU kids who had enough parental money to run their own magazines for a few years without getting paid, who got into the right parties and had the right people mention their names in conversations. We discovered that our PhD or MFA from the wrong school was a counterfeit currency that couldn’t be spent, no matter how much the salespeople had touted it, no matter how much we’d learned and been published.

That’s what literary agents get paid for. To insert your name into the right conversations, to sell you a card or two from their Rolodex, to overcome your social shortcomings with outboard connections that they’ll lease to you if they feel like it. But the world of agentry is opaque. We send our materials, after hours of research, to an agent who never responds. Or who responds with a form letter about how “it’s not right for my list,” but that writing is a subjective business and someone else might LOVE your deformed offering. We have no feedback from which to learn, merely silence.

So then to discover occasionally that those people don’t merely ignore us but actively demean us—well, that just a hard fact of the world to encounter. In Pirsig’s words, it knocks you off the Quality track, it makes it difficult to find the gumption to face the story again. All of us gullible, naive children who learned the word meritocracy early on and then discovered that its definition was entirely wrong… that sad shantytown of the poorly born, discovering that we are not merely blocked from the mansion but mocked by those inside… it makes you believe bad things about yourself. Beliefs that aren’t warranted, but that have to stand in the absence of other evidence. Beliefs that make trying again just seem wrong-headed and feeble.

I’ll write again, soon, because the writing is always worth it. In the novel I’ve been working on for the past three months, Cassie is just now starting to trust me enough to show me who she is, and the growth of her story will be its own reward. But the thought of putting that story and all the others on the table for sale again is gruesome. I can’t even think about it, or it wipes all of my good will away for hours. For me, it is the biggest gumption trap of them all.

I’ll close where I began, with my colleague the poet and her elegant refrain, “Well, people are just stupid.” The question is: who among us does that best describe?

Family Resemblance

I’ve mentioned before that I get updates every couple of days from Random House, with new entries in some category or another. Yesterday, I was asked to Fall In Love with This April’s Romances.

It doesn’t take a decade of architecture school to notice that there’s some kind of graphic-design collusion going on here. (And not all of these are from Random House; I browsed in Goodreads and found these and dozens of others just like them.) Whether the romance in question is straight or gay, whether the couple are white or multiracial, romance books this season are cartoons. Solid, saturated colors edge to edge. Big, blocky text with no borders or shading. The couple in question portrayed by drawn figures, barely more than silhouettes, their clothing and hair also only blocks of solid saturated colors.

Publishing, which we wish were more about individual stories, is really about product, as is true of most industries. (Certainly it’s true of colleges, which have to make their own products uniform enough to be transferred across schools and adhere to disciplinary-society standards.) These books are being sold as just nine different flavors of Doritos, the same chip with different powder, the same bag with different colors, the same general experience with a little twist.

So the literary agent community—just salespeople in the end, like Realtors who have to make each unique home into a commodity—start to ask for these categories, with all of the expectations that they entail. Fads abound, rocketing and exploding and fading into the night. Here’s a bet; romance covers won’t look like this in three years. Some other flavor profile will have taken the fore.

And in closing, let me say this. If one of my fiction books is ever published, they can do whatever they want with the graphic design of the cover; that’s product design, not storytelling. But I promise you that I will fight every last step to ensure that the words “A Novel” do not appear anywhere. What the hell is that even about? I mean, they’re not cookbooks. They don’t look like SAT prep guides, or nonfiction history, or religious tracts. We’d find them in the fiction section of the bookstore. Of course they’re novels! Are we so afraid of collections of short stories that we have to have some kind of safety seal on the book cover? Bah.

I’ll write more tomorrow about why I’ve been so crabby the past couple of days. It’ll help me get over it.

What IS a College?

The defunct Green Mountain College, What exactly was lost? Depends on who you ask.

So yesterday we talked a little about the ontological work of the metaphor, that a metaphor represents a base-level claim about what a thing is. So what is a college?

We know what a college does, but that’s different. A college brings people together to take and to deliver courses, and sometimes to conduct research. That’s its role, not its essence. It’s remarkable how many different definitions people bring to the core nature of a college.

A college can be thought of fundamentally as a business. It’s a specific kind of business, to be sure, but so is Starbucks or Sony or your neighborhood tattoo salon. What a business sells is irrelevant to its nature as a business, with its financial responsibilities and outcomes. This kind of examination of a college leads to sentences like this, in today’s Chronicle of Higher Ed email briefing: “If you don’t know the cost of your college’s programs and departments, and their return on investment, this information is essential.” ROI has become its own metaphysical master term, a thing people say when they want to sound sophisticated.

A college can be thought of fundamentally as a member of its community. Community colleges, by name and definition, are built to be one organ within the urban body. But that same role is played by innumerable lesser state colleges, who pay local people to educate the local kids for local lives. The Chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges, who can read a spreadsheet as well as the rest of us, last week proposed the closing of the two campuses of Northern Vermont University and one campus of the Vermont Technical College. This led State Senator Richard Westman to say “It will have devastating effects to all of the Northeast Kingdom, all of Lamoille County, and all of the region across the northern part of the state.” Those devastating effects had nothing to do with education; they were about state subsidies and the jobs they create, the peripheral jobs they sustain.

A college can be thought of fundamentally as a branch of government. As such, its role might be to provide opportunity to those who have less social and economic capital, just as other branches of government take responsibility for children and the elderly and those who are ill and homeless. Government, in the great configuration of Jane Jacobs, is by necessity a countervailing force to business; it keeps rapaciousness in check, and provides opportunities that businesses don’t find profitable but that citizens deserve.

The diametrically opposed definition of a college is to be the training arm for industry. Its fundamental role is to serve businesses with young people ready to go onto the assembly line, whatever form that might take. It’s an apprenticeship program with specific, nameable client employers awaiting newcomers.

There are colleges that configure themselves as empires, based only on acquisition and dominance. Harvard and NYU and Duke are basically the Dutch West India Corporation of the 20th and 21st centuries. There are colleges that are fiefdoms, in which all endeavors are conducted for the benefit and vanity of its president-overlord. And there are colleges that are God’s instrument, doing the earthly work of some deity or another. Sometimes these three are hard to tell apart.

This would all be merely interesting, an ethnographic study of varied language habits, except that these fundamental definitions determine the internal and external relations of the institution. The responsibility that a business bears to its employees (none) creates one form of faculty life; the responsibility that a community member bears to its employees and the larger local economy (significant) creates a different form of faculty life. An endowment based on empire would be evaluated only through growth; an endowment of a branch of government is a running balance spent for service and support. An overpaid president of a business is a common symptom of our CEO culture and thoughts about the worth of scarce talents; an overpaid president of a fiefdom is simply receiving the tribute that they are natively due from their subjects.

We might imagine that different lineages of ethical thought are interesting ideas that we deliberate and choose. But I think they’re just the set of relationship rules that are inherent within the underlying definition of an institution. An ethic of justice posits us as discrete individuals with competing interests that must be reconciled; an ethic of care posits us as existing within webs of relationships that have their own reality; a utilitarian ethic posits us as entries within a larger social balance sheet, “the greater good” devised as a simple mathematical function.

So listen closely to what colleges say, even in their most trivial (and thus least guarded) messages. What kind of relationships and responsibilities and actions are they proposing as native to their identity? If their messages seem to rely on a unified underlying metaphor, believe it. If not, question its coherence as an enterprise, and where the fault lines lie.

It’s All Metaphor

Illustration from PC World Magazine

The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in the dissimilar.


Well, thanks, dude!

When Nora and I started Teleidoscope Group seven years ago, we gave ourselves the job titles we wanted, instead of the normal CEO or President or such nonsense. I became the Director of Metaphor, and Nora, who has an innate capability of luring anybody into a rich conversation, became the Director of Dialogue.

Aristotle’s attribution of genius aside, I don’t know why I’ve always been drawn to see things in terms of other things. We all do this, of course, but we don’t always know that we’re doing it, and so we don’t think about alternatives. And metaphors always have alternatives.

A simile or other comparison is a simple affair. X is like Y, because they share some common feature. It’s a tool for noticing. A metaphor, on the other hand, is an ontological claim about what a thing is. When we wrestle or grapple with ideas, we mean that those ideas are dangerous opponents that we need to master. When we come to terms with ideas, we mean that truth is a bargain that we need to negotiate. When we interrogate an idea, we mean that it’s concealing its truth from us and we need to get past its superficial alibi. The way we define and approach any problem is based on what we think the problem is.

Twenty years ago, I spent some time in all four of California’s state mental hospitals. (As a consultant, not an inhabitant, thank you very much.) Those hospitals had become mostly populated by people who had arrived due to some form of court sentence: not competent to stand trial, not guilty by reason of insanity, and a special population that the Legislature had invented in 1995, the sexually violent predator who had served his prison term but was deemed unsafe for general release.

Those hospitals were governed simultaneously by two opposing metaphors. The security perimeter, the entry protocols, the restrictions against contraband, all of that came from seeing those institutions as prisons. And they were. They were guarded and set apart from the civilian world by the California Department of Corrections. But once you got through the sallyport and into the units, you were in a hospital, governed by the California Department of Mental Health. And those two communities despised each other, because they each saw everything about the place through their own governing metaphor. The prison guards saw the mental health staff as naive coddlers, and the residents as inmates; the mental health staff saw the prison guards as punitive and draconian, and the residents as patients. One institution was being simultaneously overseen by two communities with two fundamentally different definitions of what the institution was. You can guess how well that worked.

I think it’s far easier to change someone’s mind than to change their metaphor. Once someone has decided that social life is a Darwinian competition over scarce resources, no argument based on collaboration stands a chance. Once someone brings out the word “liberty,” it’s difficult to ask that they temper their behavior in favor of responsibility. If metaphors are fluid, then reality itself becomes fluid, and that’s just scary. It places lots more responsibility on us if we have to choose the metaphor we want to employ; safer to pretend that it just is what it is.

We think of language as a post hoc means of describing reality: the thing is there, sitting immaculate and innocent, and we decide how to talk about it. But I think it makes just as much sense to say that we create reality through language, that what we see and hear can only be known through the metaphors we’ve created to hold it. Your plans to pass a pleasant evening listening to Killswitch Engage can easily be disrupted by your dad hollering down the stairs, “Turn off that noise!” Same song, two definitions.

More tomorrow.

Some Excerpts from Pirsig

Not what the book “is about.” Merely some of the many things that it is.

The school was what could euphemistically be called a “teaching college.” At a teaching college you teach and you teach and you teach with no time for research, no time for contemplation, no time for participation in outside affairs. Just teach and teach and teach until your mind grows dull and your creativity vanishes and you become an automaton saying the same dull things over and over to endless waves of innocent students who cannot understand why you are so dull, lose respect and fan this disrespect out into the community, The reason you teach and you teach and you teach is that this is a very clever way of running a college on the cheap while giving a false appearance of genuine education. (140)

When you’ve got a Chautauqua in your head, it’s extremely hard not to inflict it on innocent people. (161)

[on teaching writing…] A student would always ask how the rule would apply in a certain special circumstance. Phaedrus would then have the choice of trying to fake through a made-up explanation of how it worked, or follow the selfless route and say what he really thought. And what he really thought was that the rule was pasted on to the writing after the writing was all done. It was post hoc, after the fact, instead of prior to the fact. And he became convinced that all the writers the students were supposed to mimic wrote without rules, putting down whatever sounded right, then going back to see if it still sounded right and changing it if it didn’t. There were some who apparently wrote with calculating premeditation because that’s the way their product looked. But that seemed to him to be a very poor way to look. It had a certain syrup, as Gertude Stein once said, but it didn’t pour. But how’re you to teach something that isn’t premeditated? (170)

Quality… you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from, the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on? Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others… but what’s the “betterness”? (178)

It’s nice to start journeys pleasantly, even when you know they won’t end that way. (184)

I think metaphysics is good if it improves everyday life; otherwise forget it.

…it’s the student’s choice of Quality that defines him. People differ about Quality, not because Quality is different, but because people are different in terms of experiences. (244)

…getting stuck is the commonest trouble of all… your mind gets stuck when you’re trying to do too many things at once. What you have to do is try not to force words to come. That just gets you more stuck. (271)

Traditional scientific method has always been at the very best, 20-20 hindsight. It’s good for seeing where you’ve been. it’s good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can’t tell you where you ought to go, unless where you ought to go is a continuation of where you were going in the past. Creativity, originality, inventiveness, intuition, imagination—”unstuckness,” in other words—are completely outside its domain. (273)

The solutions all are simple—after you have arrived at them. But they’re simple only when you know already what they are. (281)


So since I can’t concentrate, why not subject all of you to low attention span as well? Here are a few things I’ve discovered in the past few days as I’ve tried to not make myself crazy.

  1. I went from my newspaper website to the King Features syndicated page to do a crossword puzzle. Along with puzzles, King Features also owns the rights to a bunch of daily comics: Beetle Bailey, Zits, Baby Blues… that kind of stuff. But the thing I hadn’t expected is that each of those comics has a comments section, with sometimes dozens of comments! I mean, in what universe do people have an urgent need to make comments about Beetle Bailey?
  2. I was contacted this morning by the person who’ll be doing the translation of my book into Chinese. That person has a difficult task ahead, since the book’s written in a pretty colloquial voice, and they asked if they could reach out for guidance. The example they used was my reference to the fictional Wassupwich U. I spent a long paragraph to try to explain working-class constructions and Bullwinkle and the fact that lots of kids go to colleges that just aren’t very good, and I’m 100% sure that I wasn’t helpful. I feel really awful for this person as she or he takes on an impossible task.
  3. The underground yellowjacket nest in my front yard is now vacated, leaving a basketball-sized hole. My friend Derrick thinks that mice may have burrowed into it over the winter and eaten all the larvae. Thanks, mice! Good job.
  4. Nora and I have engaged in lengthy discussions about whether a piece of fiber has been twisted clockwise or counterclockwise; whether it matters which end of the yarn you look at when you say that; and whether the correct jargon for clockwise is “Z-twist” and counterclockwise is “S-twist,” or whether we’ve got it backward. It’s simultaneously testing my spatial-orientation skills, my language skills, my memory skills, and my patience.
  5. No matter what you try to do, other people will interpret it differently than you meant it. I’ve been asked this morning by one person to limit the number of people I send my daily emergency-management updates to, and asked by another person to be on them. And they’re both right. It’s a question without a correct answer, even though several people imagine that they’re correct.
  6. The world is awash in conspiracy theories, mostly generated from fear and anger in the midst of confusion. They give us power when we feel powerless. Everyone’s looking for some kind of master narrative that helps disparate phenomena make sense; the fact that a lot of those constructions are pretty rickety doesn’t matter as much as the comfort they provide.
  7. I was watching a YouTube video of a former literary agent talking about the seven reasons why the first page of your manuscript will get it rejected. And one of them was that the core conflict of the book isn’t contained on page 1. She said that back in the ’90s, books could take fifty or sixty pages to lay out the back story, but nowadays, readers want immediate action. And I thought four things, almost simultaneously. A) Nonsense. B) We’ve Twittered ourselves into intellectual submission. C) I love that “back in the ’90s” is unimaginably distant. and D) many of today’s readers were also readers in the 1990s, and the 1970s. It’s not like software, there aren’t reverse-compatibility issues that limit the use of legacy systems.

That, times about eighty-three, is the state of my head today. And I know, from talking with friends, that I’m not alone in that. So give yourself permission to be scattered and disjointed and not at your intellectual best today. It’s not reasonable to expect ourselves to be normal when nothing else is. Be gentle with yourselves and others.

Three Cheers for Crappy Printing!

The used-car lot of ideas. They’ll still get you where you want to go.

I had a conversation with a friend yesterday in which I said that I was half considering just taking all my novels, converting them to pdf or mobi or epub formats and just giving them away. And she said that she hated to read on screen, never owned an e-reader.

Well, that was a smack in the head. Duh! Neither do I!

I got a Kindle as a gift seven or eight years ago, downloaded one or two books, and hated every bit of it. It’s just an unappealing way of reading. I love holding a paper book. I like the clutter of having paper books around me, of seeing my reading history in a bookcase.

One of the obvious things that gets in the way of creating real paper books is the cost of production. I’ve had the experience of working with an Espresso print-on-demand publisher; after the original set-up costs, the unit cost per book was about eight dollars. Those books cost way more than they needed to. And part of the cost is due to our contemporary expectations about how words sit on pages.

Here’s an image of the innards of two paperback books on my kitchen table, both just over 400 pages. The upper one was printed in 2018, the lower one in 1976. Let’s do a comparison:

  • Size 1976: 7 x 4.12 x 0.9. Size 2018: 7 x 5 x 0.9.
  • Layout 1976: Single spaced, 10pt type, paragraphs marked only with indentation. Layout 2018: 1.5 spaced, 11pt type, paragraphs marked with extra line break.
  • Words per page 1976: about 400, or about 14 words per square inch. The book totals about 150,000 total words. Words per page 2018: about 270, or about 8 words per square inch. That book totals about 110,000 total words.
  • List price 1976: $2.50. List price 2018: $19.95

Writer friends, we’ve been sold a lie! White space! Leave the readers some white space! Giant blocks of text are just so… intimidating! Well, bullshit. We LIKE words. We make words and organize words and sell words. Words are what we make people out of. Why are we trying to sell blank paper on behalf of somebody else?

Look at that brick of a book from 1976, the yellowing chintzy paper disappearing under the ideas. That book—Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 19th reprinting of the Bantam paperback—wasn’t influential because of the elegance of its page layout. It was influential because of the elegance of its thought.

The book itself, the object… it’s a hooptie, a beater, a third-hand ride with its warranty long behind it. The body panels aren’t aligned, it doesn’t close right, there’s a lot of paint missing and a 75-cent sticker crooked on the hood. And it doesn’t matter. The ideas haven’t deteriorated. It’s still a reliable mode of transportation to another world.

As Kazuo Ishiguro (author of Remains of the Day, among others, and the 2017 Nobel laureate in literature) said, “I think of my pile of old paperbacks, their pages gone wobbly, like they’d once belonged to the sea.” Nobody’s ever going to say that about their Kindle…

The only file format that matters to the writer is FTP. Fill. The. Page. It’s time to reclaim the power of the crappy print job. To reclaim the unbleached paper, still true to its piney origins, covered with words. It’s time to reject the upscaling of our books, to return to line after line after line of beauty.

Hollow Honor

Us against them.

An old joke—Ever hear of Boston Alzheimer’s? You forget everything except your grudges.

There’s been decades of research on what are known as “honor cultures,” in which every perceived slight must be met instantly and harshly. Any insult, whether against individual or clan, is cause for retribution. As Dov Cohen of the University of Illinois and his colleagues put it:

Approximately 20,000-25,000 Americans will die in homicides this year, and tens of thousands more will be injured in stabbings or gunfights that could have ended in death. In about half of the homicides for which police can find a cause, the triggering incident seems argument- or conflict-related; and, in many of these cases, this triggering incident might be classified as “trivial” in origin, arising from a dispute over a small amount of money, an offensive comment, or a petty argument. Such incidents, however, are not trivial to the participants in them. Rather, the participants behave as if something important is at stake. They act as if they were members of what anthropologists call a culture of honorin which even small disputes become contests for reputation and social status.

These honor cultures tend to have several historical commonalities:

  • They come from places whose origins were in herding rather than crop farming, so poaching and violent defense were common activities. We see the same things now in gangs and organized crime and vulture capitalism: when most of one’s wealth can be taken away at once by hand (in cash or drugs or hostile stock raids), poaching and violent defense are again common economic and political strategies.
  • They come from places where political stability was rare, and clans were the dominant form of control. Loyalty to tribe was a matter of life and death.
  • They come from places where law enforcement is scarce or non-existent or corrupt, and every man was responsible for his own and his own family’s welfare.

Where cultures of honor persist, we see these attitudes carry over into even small elements of social life. People from honor cultures “stigmatize men, described in brief scenarios, who did not respond with violence, criticizing them for being ‘not much of a man’ if they failed to fight or shoot the person who challenged or affronted them.” The old cliche from Western films still holds true in a lot of places: Them’s fightin’ words!

So we have a condition in which the social norms of precarious masculinity that we described yesterday are amplified by cultural patterns of perceived threats to honor, and the perceived necessity of immediate response.  

We can productively apply this understanding to any number of social or political phenomena, from party politics to sports rivalries. Will Blythe wrote a book about how the UNC-Duke basketball rivalry was more about loathing them than loving us. He called it To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever.

And I find the whole thing exhausting, and tragic. When the universe is defined as us versus them, we have lost the capacity for generosity, the capacity for empathy, the capacity for good will. We leave innumerable people crushed, helpless, as we bulldoze our way toward our own benefit. It leaves us all as our own bargain-sized Ozymandias, our own less-than-cinematic Citizen Kane, surrounded by the debris and carnage of our hollow honor.

We can stand our ground, and see who’s left standing. Or we can stand for others, and make ourselves greater.

Article referred to: Cohen, Dov, Nisbett, Richard E., Bowdle, Brian F., and Schwarz, Norbert. “Insult, Aggression, and the Southern Culture of Honor: An ‘Experimental Ethnography’.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, May 1996 Vol. 70, No. 5, 945-960.


Step right up, sir… let’s see if you’re a REAL man!

I was at our local general store the other day, standing on the porch, wearing my face mask and waiting for Kathye to hand my bag through the take-out window. I could hear from up the road a motorcycle with a loud radio on. (Between the wind noise, the engine noise, and the helmet, motorcycle music systems are kind of a dumb idea. But other people get to hear it, which seems to be the point.) Sure enough, ten seconds or so later, two guys coasted past the shop up to the four corners. I was just about to turn away from the window when they blasted off from their stop, pipes wide open as they accelerated up and over the hill.

There’s a common trope having to do with sports cars and loud bikes and big trucks and lots of guns all having to do with threatened masculinity. But it’s not just folk wisdom; there’s a significant body of social science behind it as well. Researchers Joseph Vandello and Jennifer Bosson of the University of South Florida have developed the concept of precarious manhood, that being seen as a man requires “continuous social proof and validation.” A woman can be seen as a “good” woman or a “bad” woman or somewhere along that gradient, but a man is more likely to be seen as either a “real” man or “a pussy” or “a faggot” or “a wimp” or “a boy” or some status other than a virile, heterosexual male. It’s a simple, binary, yes/no condition: are you a real man, or something else?

To quote the title of their most important theoretical paper—pulling together 130 prior works across psychology, sociology, and anthropology—manhood is “hard won and easily lost.” And along with three other colleagues (Rochelle Burnaford, Jonathan Weaver, and Dov Cohen), they set out to propose a few tests. In their article “Precarious Masculinity,” they discussed the outcome of several experiments:

  • Male and female participants were asked to agree or disagree with statements like “Manhood (Womanhood) is hard won and easily lost,” or “Manhood (Womanhood) is not a permanent state, because a man (woman) might do something that suggests that he (she) is really just a ‘boy’ (‘girl’).” Both men and women participants agreed in significant majority that manhood was precarious, disagreed that womanhood was. Men were even more likely than women to believe that manhood could be lost.
  • Participants were asked to read a somewhat ambiguous life story, concluding with the statement “My life isn’t what I expected it would be. I used to be a man (woman). Now, I’m not a man (woman) anymore.” For the stories about men, the favored interpretation was that the loss of man-status was a social condition: that he felt shamed, felt like a failure. For the stories about women, the favored interpretation was that the loss of woman-status was a physical condition, the result of an operation or menopause or aging.
  • Participants were given a set of “psychological portraits,” generic drawings intended to express some larger condition rather than to be a verbatim image. For a story having to do with men, the portraits were of an attractive man, an unattractive man, and a boy; for stories having to do with women, it was attractive woman, unattractive woman, girl. The story went that the person involved was emotionally troubled, conflicted by spiritual doubts, and had recently discovered that they were infertile. For the story about a woman, the most common image chosen to represent the story was of the unattractive woman; for the same story about a man, the most common image chosen was of the boy.
  • Participants were given a set of questions about stereotypically gendered tasks and roles: sports and mechanical and automotive questions for male participants, cooking and children and fashion questions for female participants. They were told that they were going to be scored on how far toward the “masculine” or “feminine ” ends of the scale they performed. The results were fake: both half the women and half the guys were told that they’d scored normal for their gender, the other half told they’d scored normal for the opposite gender. Then they were given a second test, a series of words with missing letters, and told to complete the word. Guys who’d just been told that they’d scored low on masculinity were more likely to complete _IGHT as fight than night or right or sight, more likely to complete SHA_E as shame than shade or shale or share. Male participants were far more likely to complete the words in an anxious or violent form if they’d just been told they weren’t very manly. For female participants, there was no meaningful difference.
  • As a follow-on to that last study, participants were asked a) if they’d be comfortable if their friends and family members knew their results of the gendered-knowledge test, and b) if they thought the results would be different if they could take another shot at it. For male participants, guys with “masculine” results were fine with the results being known, and figured that the outcomes would be the same if they did it a second time; guys with “feminine” results didn’t want the results known, and believed strongly that they’d score better if given a second chance. For women, there was no difference between the participants who’d been given “feminine” or “masculine” results.

The upshot of all of these studies suggests that people believe that “manhood” is an absolute status rather than a gradient, that it’s a fragile condition that can be easily lost, and that threats to one’s manliness are shameful and needed to be repaired, by force if necessary.

More tomorrow.

The papers referred to today are (1) Vandello, Joseph A. and Bosson, Jennifer K., “Hard Won and Easily Lost: A Review and Synthesis of Theory and Research on Precarious Manhood.” Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 2013, Vol. 14, No. 2, 101–113. (2) Vandello, Joseph A. Bosson, Jennifer K., Cohen, Dov, Burnaford, Rochelle M., and Weaver, Jonathan R., “Precarious Manhood,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2008, Vol. 95, No. 6, 1325–1339.