What I Know after Five Weeks

So THAT’s what’s behind there!
(Image by Jazmin Quaynor, via Unsplash)

I’ve really struggled with the opening of this novel. People talk blandly about “writers’ block,” which I think has innumerable varieties. For me, my difficulties have come because I didn’t know what events would matter most to this high school boy I’m writing about, would be likely to persist into his adulthood.

Now I do. It’s a story of divided allegiances, and Jim will be called upon (over and over and over) to negotiate competing forces.

The conflict that matters most to me in fiction is internal. I lose patience with the grand narratives of protagonist versus antagonist; I’m much more drawn to the person who simultaneously wants two or more opposed things. And that’s what this story now has.

But I also want to talk a little today about my perpetual irritation with how clueless important people can be about why they’re important. One of them is a literary agent crowing on her blog about how two of her clients are on the NYT bestseller list. Well, if your clients are Temple Grandin and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, you didn’t have to do a whole hell of a lot to get them noticed.

The whole business model of literary agentry can be traced back to Morton Janklow, a lawyer who got a better contract for his client William Safire’s book about Richard Nixon. Right from the beginning, agentry has been about making powerful people even more powerful. According to Janklow’s obituary in Variety last May, his client list included Pope John Paul II, Barbara Walters, John Glenn, Al Gore, Thomas Harris, Judith Krantz, John Erhlichman, David McCullough, Ronald Reagan, Michael Moore, Pat Riley and Carl Sagan. The rest of us… not so much.

But as bad as that is, something else pissed me off even worse today. A friend dropped off a copy of a book for us, a cookbook based on another intellectual property. (I’m being vague because I don’t want my friend to suffer consequences for my impolitic statements.) Our friend been hired to develop all the recipes for dishes that these characters would have consumed, according to the roles and cultures that had been devised within the lore of this world. The three credited authors of the book are the movie directors and writers of the intellectual property; my friend the chef is listed nineteenth among the 26 credited contributors of the book, behind the photo stylist and colorist and photo retoucher, but ahead of the indexer and the publicist. Dude, it’s a fucking cookbook! The guy who wrote, prepared, tested, sampled, and revised every single recipe in the book should not be three-quarters of the way down the list!

A third bit of irritation comes from a recent study published in Nature Human Behavior showing that almost a quarter of tenure-line faculty in eight major intellectual fields in American research universities have at least one parent with a PhD. (I’d found an even stronger proportion among my postdoctoral colleagues at Duke twenty years ago. The higher you climb, the more important the foundation becomes.)

And all of that leads us to today’s sociological principle, known as “the Matthew Effect,” a reframing of Jesus’ words in the gospel of Matthew: “to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” We can be technical and talk about this as “cumulative advantage,” or colloquial, as in “the rich get richer,” or echo Molly Ivins’ assertion about George Bush the Elder that “he was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” Powerful people are often in denial about the sources of their power, and imagine that they are somehow especially talented or virtuous. I suppose humility isn’t a productive virtue for those who want more power, but it’s not a good look to be quite so arrogant when an awful lot of their success has been showered upon them rather than pulled from the ground through raw effort.

What I Know After Four Weeks

Well, we must be going somewhere…
(image by chmyphotography, via Unsplash)

(First off: yes, I know it’s been five weeks. But since I’ve only done one week of writing in the two weeks since week three, it’s week four.)

I’ve been enormously distractible in the past couple of weeks, one hyperlink after another. We hosted a huge political gathering here on Sunday, I wrote a brief play, I’ve stacked some firewood, but it feels like I haven’t done much of anything at all.

I have, of course. Jim’s family has become clearer, and his love of working in the store is more grounded. I know how his mind works, I know what he notices when he watches other people, I know how he thinks about a simple algebra problem.

This, of course, is not a story. It’s ethnography, the rich description of a person within a culture. For it to become a story, I think it needs a little more uncertainty. To fulfill the work of the novel as Peter Ho Davies puts it—a machine to make us keep reading—we need the fundamental attitude of “I hope he makes it okay.” And that requires more difficulty than we’ve seen so far. I think there’s some backfitting to be done in the next couple of weeks.

Every so often, you come across a framing of a problem that clarifies the nature of that problem. For me this past week, it came in the New Yorker’s post-award profile of the work of this year’s Nobel laureate in literature, the French memoirist Annie Ernaux. The reviewer Adam Gopnik, a fantastic writer himself, had this construction early on:

The news of a new Nobel Prize in Literature tends to divide amateur readers into two camps: those who have never heard of the author and those who have, vaguely… Annie Ernaux [is] on her way to becoming a permanent writer to those who read for the love of it, not the game of it. [emphasis mine]

What a fantastic distinction! People who read for the love of it, because they want to be immersed in the lives and circumstances of others, and people who read for the game of it, for the formal exercise of narrative structures and the novelty of exploring some intellectual frontier. I recognize this divide in my writer friends, and lived it very closely during my years in architectural education, as I struggled to see anything interesting and humane in the high design of the various moments. It’s a common enough distinction that we see it even in bartending, where people who make good drinks stand on a somewhat different shore than those who make interesting drinks. The beverage writer Jim Meehan says that mixologists serve drinks, bartenders serve patrons.

A year or so ago, the New Yorker’s art critic Peter Schjeldahl talked about his difficulty feeling anything for the clearly expert work of Paul Cézanne. He wrote, in a construction remarkably similar to that of Gopnik, “I tire of being made to feel smart rather than pleased.”

I read, and write, for the love of it. I stand with the bartenders, and proudly so.