The Ask

So much fun! (not…)

At a conference in 2010, I heard Gabrielle Foreman of U. Delaware say something that’s stuck with me ever since:

For students from white-collar families, asking for help is called networking. For first-generation students, and students of color, asking for help is called begging, and they won’t do it.

I have rarely heard anything as true as that. If you’re a working-class kid, you’re taught from the tricycle onward to figure it out yourself, to keep working, to suck it up and do it again and take care of your own problems. Nobody’s gonna help you but yourself, and people in power are not your friends.

But I’m going to overcome my origins today, and make a request. If you’ve appreciated some of my work, whether on this website or in my books, tell your friends. If the work has mattered to you, or changed your mind, or given you pause to think about something you might not previously have considered, tell your friends. As the novelist Peter Ho Davies once said to me, “It makes no sense for writers to be greedy for money, but we can absolutely be greedy for readers.”

Thanks. We will return shortly to your regularly scheduled programming.

Exquisite Sheep

Who, US?

Sometimes, it’s just more than you can bear, you know?

Every week, the news-based Chronicle of Higher Education also includes its features magazine, The Chronicle Review. I have a fondness for both: the first, a newspaper about the workings of a massive industry; the second; a series of provocations to that industry.

Last spring, the Review published an absolutely brilliant account of Andrew Kay’s return to the conference of the Modern Language Association (MLA) as an exile from the academic community. Bitter, bewildered, longing, and raw, Kay’s essay was one of the most broadly read Review essays of the year. Early in his essay, he likened the MLA conference to a photograph of golfers getting in one last round while a wildfire illuminated the sky just behind them. “The conversion of this Edenic place into Dantean incandescence won’t interfere with the genteel game they know and love — or, if it will, they are determined to get in one last round before the region is razed,” he wrote.

Well, the golfers are back on the course again this year, and the Review has live coverage, an interview conducted with five attendees of the current January 2020 MLA. And it’s absolutely excruciating, five lucky winners of the academic lottery discussing how interesting it is to have won the Powerball and be allowed to ask such interesting questions at such an interesting moment in history.

When demanded to directly address the working conditions that their colleagues face, they say things like this:

I’m not sure we need to criticize ourselves for not paying enough attention to adjunctification. I think a lot of people have been talking about that for a long time. But asking us to advocate on behalf of our discipline both in terms of wanting more jobs for our graduate students and also, especially, for the epistemic good standing of our discipline, is all a good thing.

— Jonathan Kramnick, Professor, Yale

Oh, yes, it’s especially important that the epistemic good standing of our discipline is sustained. And we’ve been talking about adjunctification for so, so long! What more can we possibly be expected to do? I’m not sure we need to criticize ourselves for that…

Jesus Pete. This whole interview is so powerfully twee and self-congratulatory. It reduces the New Yorker writing of people like Jill Lepore (a tenured faculty member in American History at Harvard, by the way) to “trade work” that doesn’t address the precious capabilities of humanists to engage in the world on their own terms; it bemoans the interest by undergrads in the work of someone like Atul Gawande, who knows how to reveal the ethical concerns of a profession to outsiders. (Which, by the way, is exactly what Andrew Kay’s essay did last year.)

It assumes conditions that don’t broadly exist, like this:

It’s really important that there are not such big opportunity costs to going to graduate school. You’re paid a salary — it’s obviously less than you should be paid. But it is a salary, it is health care, it is defined work, it is phenomenal work: to be able to learn and think and teach all the time. Part of what people are signing up for is five years of doing something that is most likely better than what they would be doing otherwise, given what is available.

Anna Kornbluh, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago

The National Center for Educational Statistics reported that, in 2017, the average new PhD graduated with roughly $108,000 in student loan debt. In my five years of doctoral education, I got a fellowship one year, a teaching assistantship one year, a research assistantship one year, and a dissertation fieldwork assistantship one year. Each of them was exactly equal to my tuition. None of them carried health benefits. They were, basically, tuition waivers, not unlike the company store knowing exactly what its workers’ wages were and taking it all back every Friday. This notion that graduate school enrollment inevitably carries a “salary,” and “health care,” and carries no significant opportunity costs, is just lunatic, a complete misreading by the comfortable of the conditions endured by their less privileged colleagues. I mean, these five got their PhDs at Yale, and UC Irvine, and Hopkins, and Carnegie Mellon, and Yale again. So yes, they’ve had the charmed life that pays someone to go to grad school (and gives them the CV cachet necessary for tenure-streamed faculty life, and entry to interesting conversations that their institutions pay them to attend). But there are lots and lots of doctoral programs that just aren’t that way, and which offer far less reliable keys to the mansion.

How can such intelligent people be so clueless about their own industry? It’s agonizing, a lesson in what Sigmund Freud called the narcissism of small differences, the ways in which precision about trivial concerns leads us toward infighting and away from actual influence. It is an essay which exactly proves the point being made about the humanities that they wished to dispel. Lepore, in her own Review interview, noted that “The academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril. The retreat of humanists from public life has had enormous consequences for the prestige of humanistic ways of knowing and understanding the world.” This is a more precise (and more readable) version of exactly what Kramnick was tripping over his own vocabulary to ask for in that first quote, to “advocate… for the epistemic good standing of our discipline.” But instead of doing that public work, it’s so much easier for the protected to gather around tavern tables at the MLA, and reassure one another that they have the truth.

The Ethnography of Fiction

How do World One and World Two interact?

When [the author Hilary Mantel] is starting a new book, she needs to feel her way inside the characters, to know what it’s like to be them. There is a trick she uses sometimes, which another writer taught her. Sit quietly and withdraw your attention from the room you’re in until you’re focussed inside your mind. Imagine a chair and invite your character to come and sit in it; once he is comfortable, you may ask him questions. She tried this for the first time when she was writing “The Giant, O’Brien”: the giant came in, but, before sitting down in the chair, he bent down and tested it, to see if it would take his weight. On that occasion, she never got any further, because she was so excited that she punched the air and shouted “Yes!” But from then on she could imagine herself in the giant’s body.

“The Dead Are Real,” Larissa MacFarquhar, The New Yorker, October 8, 2012

I want to return to an idea I’d tested out on you a couple of months ago: that the people in our fiction are real, by any meaningful definition of reality, and that we owe them our most careful and generous observation.

Remember that we’d posited the notion that there exists a World One, within the novel, and a World Two, which we inhabit as daily people. In World One, there is a logic. There is a series of factual and moral connections between the characters who live there. There is a problem that vexes them, that they have different ways of resolving, toward different desired ends. As the reader and the writer, we do not live there; we have no ability to interact with them, to change their circumstances, to investigate their reasoning aside from what they’ve already revealed. And likewise, they do not live with us. They do not go to dinner with us, or use up our toilet paper. World One and World Two do not intersect in any experiential way; World One is observable to us over here in Two, but only observable and no more. (World Two is, of course, utterly outside the experience or interests of those over there in One.)

This is actually quite a common experience. I hardly have access to the thoughts and experiences of anyone at all. I can talk with people, ask them questions, watch them and listen to them, but I can never have a full understanding of who they are, what they love and what they fear, what childhood memories have driven them. I can’t inhabit their bodies, to know down in my cells what it feels like to drive a Formula One car or be a cellist. The more time I spend with my friends, and the more different experiences we share, the better my understanding of them might become. They have become fuller characters for me, but they remain eternally outside my complete understanding. (I remain outside my own complete understanding as well, but let’s leave that aside for now.)

What ethnographers try to do is to enter another community and to try to understand what matters to them. To enter that place and to shut up and hang out for a while. Maybe not even to ask any questions at first, because the questions we carry with us at the start won’t be informed by any meaningful knowledge anyway. No, we just go, and chat, and try to do whatever it is that the locals are doing, and listen to their stories and their grievances and their pleasures, to watch the ways they move their hands, to watch the ways they touch one another or avoid touching one another. How they touch the things around them, how they enter rooms and what corners they gravitate toward. To see who has permission, and who doesn’t.

We watch and listen and shut up. And slowly, some sense of the local rules begins to emerge. We start to see structures, patterns, habits. And we repeat those back to our new friends, and they laugh at us, and correct us, or say “well, yeah, sometimes it’s like that, but sometimes…” And eventually, if we’ve been careful, we get to a place where we can tell them something that sounds true.

And once we’ve gotten to that place of truth, once the locals believe that we understand them, we allow ourselves to report back to other outsiders. Not merely to tell them the facts of what we’ve seen, to tell them the patterns that we were clever enough to intuit, but to invest those facts and patterns with meaning, with gravity, with moral weight. To allow our readers to have an emotional connection with people whom they will never, ever know.

When we do that work well, the interests of the people of World One—that is, our ethnographic hosts—are primary to our concerns. We aren’t worried about ourselves or our careers or how we’ll be received or how our work intersects with the work of others. That’s all before and after, and not at all during. While we’re invested in World One, their lives and goals and joys and disappointments are primary to us.

And THAT, I realized this weekend, is why so much literary fiction feels like a disappointment to me, perhaps even a betrayal. The author isn’t actually doing justice to those in World One, isn’t letting them have their own voice, isn’t patient enough to just shut up and listen. The author, over here in Two, is being willful, is deciding what’s happening in One. Is paying them to stage a fight, is buying them drugs, is falsifying the data. Is lying. The characters in those stories are always firmly connected to the mind of the World Two writer, never allowed to become their own people and live their own lives.

When an author starts with the statement “I will write a story about betrayal,” or “I will write a story about social class,” or “I want to experiment with genre X,” the story is fraught with the danger of artifice, of being no more than a pretty fantasy of the author’s own making. In research terms, the author is going to manipulate the data to get the outcomes she went looking for in the first place. When the author starts with the question “I wonder what it’s like to be a really good musician?” or “I wonder what it felt like to live in 1930s Germany?” there’s a better chance. But when the author starts with “There’s this Irish guy, O’Brien, who was a 19th century circus giant, but he was also really well educated and sensitive” and then watches and listens as O’Brien tests out the capacity of chairs… that’ll lead you to the truth.

Every So Often

The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull’s-eye which confronts him. This state of unconscious is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, though there is in it something of a quite different order which cannot be attained by any progressive study of the art” — Eugen Herrigel 

Back when I was bowling competitively, I was pretty good all the time, and really good some of the time. But even at my best, there would be one shot every so often that was so exactly right, I could feel a strike while the ball was still in my hand. Didn’t have to look, didn’t have to wonder about the carry… ten in the pit, guaranteed. It was those rare, miraculous shots, one or two a week out of forty games, that were the drug, the sensation that drew me back and made the game worthwhile.

As a pool player, I get a shot like that every so often. As a writer, I get a sentence like that every so often. If I write for four or five hours in a day, I’ll get one sentence that comes as a gift; all the rest I have to work for.

Teaching can be like that, too. Every so often, you’ll get a group of people who can do miracles. I don’t think you can make it happen. You can pull together all the conditions for it to happen, you can bring together all the materials and all the preparation to make it happen, but those things are all necessary without being sufficient. When it’s worked… and it’s only been a few times that it’s really worked… there’ve been a few things that have all been true:

  • I’ve been enthused to teach whatever the course is about, wanted to learn something more about the ideas myself
  • I’ve built some sense of trust early on, that I won’t make fun of people or demean them for any honest effort
  • More than half of my students have been willing to think out loud, to say things they weren’t a hundred-percent sure of and see where it took us
  • More than half of my students were able to really listen to each other, and to be surprised at what one another had to say

Enthusiasm, trust, openness, and curiosity. When those things have all been present, the semesters have been astonishing, and every student in the room knew it.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve watched from a physical and electronic distance as my friend Aimee leads a group of college students through a four-week papermaking course. And it looks to me like she’s got that mix this time, that she and her students have arrived at that blessed place where every second is learning, where the ideas come like breath, with full focus and no intention.

They’ll all remember it forever.

Selling the Brand

Although I was a car-crazed little kid, I was mystified as to why the Ford Motor Company sold the same car under three different nameplates—Ford, Mercury, and Lincoln. Or why General Motors had Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac. Or why Chrysler had both Dodge and Plymouth. Even when I was ten, I knew that the Skylark and the Chevelle were the same car.

Who are you gonna believe, the marketing division or your lying eyes?

But brand loyalty is a big thing. If we’ve had a good experience, we’re likely to seek out that same provider and at least give them a first shot at providing us that experience again. A defining feature of rural life is the ritual stomping and pawing at the ground by Chevy or Ford or Ram truck owners, even though those manufacturers have copied one another’s good ideas for sixty years, their products by now far more similar than different.

That impulse toward the brand leads us to buy greatest hits albums, to collect out-takes and B-sides. To see yet another Marvel Universe or Star Wars franchise movie. It leads us to declare lifetime allegiances to sports franchises, and to use the word “we” when talking about a team’s fates. It leads us to prefer Lays or Jays, to prefer Sprite or 7-Up, to pledge allegiance to Bud Light or Coors Light. It leads us to believe, as Emo Phillips once had it, that the Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 was the one true faith, and that the Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912 was a heretical cult.

I’m subject to that impulse myself, of course. I’m buying a new laptop next week, another MacBook to replace the seven-year old MacBook I have now. I can say that I’m buying an Apple product because I like the operating system (which I do), but the larger reasons are that I don’t have to do as much product research, and because I’m “an Apple guy,” which is a stupid, but real, self-definition. And I bought a set of Nokian snow tires this morning, because I liked the Nokians we had before, and because I don’t want to investigate twenty other brands, and because I like the idea of having Finnish tires on the car. Don’t ask. I already said it was stupid. But that doesn’t make it any less real.

That’s one of the things that “the brand” does: to keep us from having to evaluate the individual merits of each of its iterations. Standing in a bookstore is exhausting—so many possibilities, so many ways to fail. I’ll just pick up another Knausgaard, or another DeLillo, or another Groff, because I know more or less what I’ll be in for. There are hundreds of other books in there that I would certainly enjoy more, but thousands that I wouldn’t, so I’ll go back to the well yet again.

I’ve had a few experiences of this recently with regards to writers, with the purchase of the brand being foremost. David Sedaris got twenty-five years of his diary excerpts into the bookstores, and the New Yorker is now publishing a sort of farewell tour of John McPhee. McPhee describes meeting Thorton Wilder, who, late in life, had taken to cataloguing the 431 full-length plays of Lope de Vega.

I am eighty-eight years old at this writing, and I know that those four hundred and thirty-one plays were serving to extend Thornton Wil­der’s life. Reading them and cataloguing them was something to do, and do, and do. It beat dying. It was a project meant not to end… I could use one of my own. And why not? With the same ulterior motive, I could undertake to describe in capsule form the many writing projects that I have conceived and seriously planned across the years but have never written.

I don’t begrudge anyone their hobby. But pages in the New Yorker are among our most valuable literary real estate, just as permanent college faculty lines are among our most valuable intellectual real estate. And in both cases, the fact of tenure, of the value of the brand rather than the product, limits entry to a new generation of talented thinkers. When the seats are held in perpetuity, the barriers to newcomers are near total.

About twenty-five years ago, Nora and I held a session at the annual conference of our then-young discipline. We called it “Founders, Stalwarts, and Heirs.” We asked five people who had been present at the discipline’s origins to talk about their understanding of our field; each of them asked one of their early students, now in their own mid-career, to talk about how the field had changed since they started; and each of those mid-life scholars asked one of their current graduate students or recent PhDs to talk about what was next. It was a terrific conversation.

I’d like to imagine that being one of the roles of any senior practitioner in any field: to use their renown and their connections in order to actively groom and promote their replacements, and to generously leave the court when the moment comes. To use their brand power to support the new brands of younger colleagues. To use McPhee not to sell more McPhee, but to tell McPhee customers how much they’ll appreciate Tolentino or Tevis.

GM and Ford and a college all have an interest in perpetuity, in outlasting any individual practitioner. But individuals themselves have finite careers, and one element of that knowable arc ought to be preparing the vacated stage for those who might come next.

Man of the House

The caller ID was unfamiliar, reading only the phone number and “Windsor VT.” But I answered. The Jack Webb voice on the phone was brusque and authoritative:

Can I speak with the head of the household?

I laughed, and said, “Well, that depends on what you mean.”

He sighed, impatient, and said, Can I speak with the man of the family?

No, I replied, and hung up.

Two weeks later, another call, from the same number, and the same voice.

Can I speak with the head of the household?

I figured this time, I’d let him go through with his spiel, so I said, Sure, go ahead. And sure enough, exactly what I’d expected, a call from some law enforcement benevolent association, asking me to donate to the families of officers killed in the line of duty.

Why is it that we can predict some things on the basis of others? That is, why is it that some traits so often seem paired? An impulse toward authoritative control seems to be linked to the assumption of male dominance. That of course a household has “a head,” rather than being collaborative and fluid in its operation and decisionmaking. And that by definition the head of the household would be “the man.”

Aside from the fact of the caller leaving out any mode of untraditional family—gay couples, lesbian couples, non-binary couples, polys, singles, on and on and on…—there’s just this assumption of the rightness of male leadership that makes me so disappointed in my colleagues and so concerned about our future.

The linguist George Lakoff once wrote that the core metaphor of our contemporary political life wasn’t the bifurcation between parties, or between “left and right” more broadly, but rather the bifurcation between the strict, disciplinarian father and the generous, ever-forgiving mother. The difference between “everyone deserves opportunity” and “you got what you deserved.” The difference between justice and mercy. The difference between welcoming newcomers and defending our own kind. Individuals holding one position or another can’t be perfectly correlated to sex, but they are gender roles, learned from and reinforced by a sad, patriarchal culture.

I’m about to step down from our town’s Selectboard after six years of service. During those years, even with shifting individual participation, the Board has comprised four men and one woman. Most often in our town’s history, it’s been five men, so I guess we’re making progress…

The term “old boys’ club” has two defining terms: they’re old, and they’re boys. What would a board of five women do differently? Why would that seem like some kind of artifice, as opposed to an all-male board, which would go unremarked?

We are not stick figures. We can learn to become new. At least, I hope that we can.

Considering Pool

Stout Sticker

Now that the new year has begun, I’m back to playing pool a little more seriously than I had been. And it put me in mind a few days ago of a piece I wrote seven years ago, never intending that it would be published. It was a pilot study in preparation for writing my first novel, a way for me to imagine the primary space in which the story would live. But I’ve had it in mind again, as I inhabit my own pool room once again, and consider my own intentions toward it.

So here’s a nonfiction short, called “Six Rooms.”