Nothing Is Neutral

Useful sometimes, less so other times

Sometimes things have to hit me several times in quick succession before I think about what they mean.

  1. This morning, I had a new colleague ask how to find reliable data on adjuncts. I told him that I didn’t think there was any, because all the data that IS collected is collected to serve a question that I’m not asking. The IPEDS differentiation between “full-time” and “part-time” faculty actually conceals what I’m trying to learn. Their question is about calculating student-teacher ratio, and my question is about the insecurity of intellectual life. It’s like using a kitchen thermometer to measure how many potatoes I have left; they’re both kind of about food, but they’re not mutual or interchangeable.
  2. Yesterday, my friend Aimee was talking about which of two gallery spaces was preferable for her fall show. And she was talking about the art world’s preference for the plain white wall, so that “the space wouldn’t compete with the art.” That, of course, privileges art that lives nowhere in particular, eliminates the notion that art could cooperate with a space rather than compete with it. (She actually used the term white box artist, which I think is its own wonderfully revelatory category.)
  3. Nora is trying to put a group of local food providers together with local people or families who are in need of that food during our time of home isolation. And we quickly realized that we don’t have a great way of doing that. The school knows the families that qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, but that only includes families with kids between 4 and 18 years old. The local social service agencies know the people they care for, but there are a fair number of families who have done everything they can to stay below the observation of social services, knowing that their lifestyle would draw scrutiny and possible intervention if it were exposed. Or we can just put out the call to say that food assistance is available, and run the risk of freeloaders (its own contextually defined category)
  4. I was pointed to the category of “under-recognized artist,” which the Harpo Foundation defines as an artist who hasn’t presented in major museums or events, hasn’t received multiple awards or grants, and isn’t represented by a prominent gallery. (Note the subsumed categories of “major” museums and “prominent” galleries.) Likewise, Bread Loaf divides its participants between Contributors, Scholars, or Fellows, based on number and scope of prior publications.

Every category we make serves some purpose, draws attention to some characteristics and ignores others. Think even about the photo at the top of this post. Having those four cards would be terrific in poker or in rummy, would be okay but not outstanding in cribbage (unless the cut card was an ace or an eight), and would be disastrous in a game of spades. Categories support rules, and don’t easily transport across rule systems.

If we accept data laid out in the categories provided by others, we’re kind of like the drunk looking for his lost car keys under a street lamp because that’s the only place he can see well enough to search. We’re often forced to rely on data that’s carefully illuminated but not helpful for our specific need. I’ve been published (and paid for my writing) for over thirty years, with three books, but not published specifically in fiction. So am I a contributor, a scholar, or a fellow? Am I an emerging artist, or a mid-career artist, or an established artist? Is my research part of the humanities, or the social sciences?

You want to play the game, you need to know the rules. The rules will determine the categories. And the categories, far too often, define who we are.

What a Weird Business

I’ve been working on my current novel most of the afternoon, after having completed my emergency management duties for the day. (Mostly I accomplished a two-paragraph transition between scenes, before I gave up and loaded the dishwasher, ate some cashews.)

But today’s email included one of the most delightfully random, or perhaps randomly delightful, messages I’ve received in a while. It began as follows:

Dear Dr. Childress: I am pleased to inform you that we have issued a translation license to Rye Field Publications, via Chinese Connection Agency, for a complex Chinese-language edition of THE ADJUNCT UNDERCLASS.

Well, how about that! Perhaps the very last development I ever imagined regarding this book is that it would be translated into any other language. (U. Chicago Press has already sold a different set of rights, for the creation of the audiobook. Now, if someone wants to make a movie out of it, I’d totally be on board for that… an eight-episode Ken Burns documentary about the end of American higher education.)

I’m interested in this notion of “a complex Chinese-language edition,” as it seems to carry political overtones. Rye Field Publications is a Taiwanese publishing house. According to Wikipedia, Taiwan has never adopted the simplified Chinese characters emerging from the People’s Republic, and the government prohibits its use in official documents. So my book will be one more twig added to the scale of the decades’-long balance between independence and unification. Not its intended purpose, of course, but our writing is almost never used for its intended purpose. Readers always get to decide what our work is for.

As I wrote in my last post, so much of what happens in publishing takes place within a sealed box, invisible to readers and writers alike. It’s fascinating when a cover panel gets removed once in a while, and we get a look at the gears.

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?