Works of Palliative Fiction

Let me prescribe a few of these.

Yesterday, we introduced the concept of palliative fiction, stories designed to ease suffering and renew strength. It can be hard, in our contemporary literary marketplace, to find the aisle where these over-the-counter aids are located. Just this morning, in fact, I saw a book praised for being “unsentimental,” a very sad and contemporary trait to celebrate. No, let’s look for some books that are, in fact, sentimental. Books that are motivated by generosity and hope.

Let’s start with an easy one: Walter Tevis’ The Queen’s Gambit. Yeah, the Netflix show was great, but you don’t know this story until you get into the weeds of this book. We meet Beth at age eight, when she arrives in the orphanage after her parents are killed in a car accident. Over the next couple of hundred pages, we watch Beth learn her powers at the board, occasionally falling to better players but using her anger at those losses to drive her to greater capability. We watch Beth become addicted to tranquilizers at the orphanage, watch her become more deeply held in their grip, watch her develop strength to resist. We watch her with her aimless adoptive mother, watch her learn some empathy for a woman she disdained. And none of her growth requires sudden superpowers. She has two superpowers right from her first moments at the orphanage: she’s fiercely intelligent, and she notices everything. Those two gifts underlie every action in the book, from sex to friendship to international chess tournaments. It is from front to back a novel with interest in agency, in Beth’s ability to see and then to act. 

How about The Calligrapher’s Daughter, by Eugenia Kim. Just an amazing story, so rich, so careful. The Confucian culture of early 20th century Korea comes through in every sentence, every gesture, every refusal to speak. The complications are vast. Tradition and modernity. Confucian and Christian. Brother and sister. Husband and wife. Elite class and servant class. Good child and bad child. Occupier and occupied. Wife and mistress. Teacher and student. At every step, with every person she encounters, Najin has to make choices, and she agonizes over every single one, never certain upon which ground she stands. I increasingly value stories about people who always try to do the right thing, even when they have no idea what the right thing is. I’m tired of cynical, opportunistic, craven stories. Give me a story of someone generous, someone smart, someone intelligent enough to know that they don’t know. The Calligrapher’s Daughter is exactly that.

Or maybe the best novel of the past twenty years that scarcely anyone’s heard of: Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness, by Jennifer Tseng. Mayumi, the narrator of this story, is a Japanese-British-American librarian who lets us completely, unguardedly, inside her mind as she navigates a web of relationships—family, work, and (most especially) otherwise. She is disgusted and at peace with her husband, loving and exhausted with her daughter, at home and alienated from her work. And she is ashamed and impatient and delighted and brazen with her lover. Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness is a treasure, a powerful and humbly honest story that defies summarization. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

I haven’t read his other books, but I stumbled across Kent Haruf’s final novel, Our Souls at Night, and I was immediately taken. Two small town neighbors, an older widowed man and and older widowed woman, turn to one another from simple loneliness and discover so much more. And together, they take on the project of reclaiming her grandson from his meager, uncaring family. A multidimensional book about the families we inherit and the ones we make.

YA literature is filled with books of hope and discovery. Two of my favorites are Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park. Any book where outsiders discover their capabilities, and discover people who can see and love those capabilities, is a win, and YA does that better than any other genre, because teenagers haven’t yet learned that being unsentimental is a good thing. Alexie tells the story of Arnold Spirit Jr., a delightfully profane young man who loves his family and friends but simultaneously wants something undefinably more, and struggles through his time away in a predominantly white high school to reconcile those two dreams. And Rowell puts two kids together who really don’t want to be, the Goth girl and the comic book boy, and lets them discover each other’s strengths.

There’s plenty more, but let’s start with these. I’ll write you another prescription later after you see how these go.

Palliative Fiction

Yeah, it’s tough, but we’ll make it. Maybe some of these books can help.

Palliative Care: an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problems associated with life-threatening illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems—physical, psychosocial, and spiritual.

World Health Organization

Last night, Nora and I watched the first episode of the Lynn Novick / Ken Burns series on Ernest Hemingway, in which one of the chattering commentators praised him for fully capturing the “brutalizing era” that he saw around him. I’ve written before about the artistic valorization of suffering that supposedly makes literature serious. And Hemingway brought us fully into the violence of life: into war, into the bullring and the sport-hunting trip, and always into his toxic relationships with women. And I wonder, I really do, what we as readers gain from that. I’ve missed out on a vast amount of important literature because I’m just not interested. I finally three years ago read The Great Gatsby, which really isn’t anything more than an extended cut of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, in which every character has exchanged their last scraps of honor and decency for champagne and nicely wrapped shirts, covering the shambles of their misery with an expensive skim-coat of gaiety.

What do we gain? Can attending a dog fight do anything other than brutalize us just a little bit more?

A friend of ours wrote a few days ago that his obituary should include the line “and also penned what has been described as the two most profound books of poetry never to have been published.” Nora was deeply touched by that, and wrote back to him about the importance of doing work that may never be seen. And she wrote the following about my work: Herb talks about readers and wanting people who take pleasure in the characters he shapes, who identify with them, see themselves as better because of them…but then I have always said he is a pastor in writer\academic\municipal leader’s clothing. And that’s true. As a college teacher, I was less interested in teaching what I thought students “should know,” and far more interested in sharing my enthusiasms so that they might find their own.

Any career has three elements, and each of them requires a different role from its guides.

  • There’s technical or content knowledge, the things our tribe knows that others don’t. Our body of knowledge, our mode of discourse. College is really good at content knowledge, and the teacher’s job is to convey that.
  • There’s logistical knowledge, the tasks and tricks that we need to know in order to employ our content knowledge. We need to know how to schedule and how to budget, how to acquire good materials and how to quickly discern materials that won’t last. How to build and manage a team, how to find funding, how to keep a client happy. The training of that comes from the supervisor.
  • And finally, there’s emotional and strategic knowledge, the reasons why we do whatever it is that we do. We need to know what draws us, both in the proximal sense of interesting projects and in the distal sense of life mission. And that’s fostered by the mentor.

When I taught at Duke and at the Boston Architectural College, I was an adequate teacher and a decent supervisor, but I was attentive every day to being a mentor. That notion of “the life of the mind” really did speak profoundly to me, far more than any specific expression of it. My best students have gone on to be lawyers and doctors, writers and historians, urban planners and engineers. I’m agnostic about the mode of joy any individual chooses, favoring joy itself in whatever form it emerges.

I had a conversation once with the president of a college now loosely affiliated with a religious denomination. I asked whether there was any tension for him between the intellectual and religious roles he played. He said, “We can teach students what to think, or we can teach them how to think. It isn’t possible to do both.”

I’ve struggled for a long time to find a rapid descriptor of my “genre.” I’ve tried out men’s romance, which is kind of true but self-denigrating. I’ve tried out men’s fiction, as a mirror of women’s fiction ( the WFWA defines “the driving force of women’s fiction is the protagonist’s journey toward a more fulfilled self”), but men’s fiction just sounds like more of the Hemingway macho adventurism that got us into this mess in the first place.

But Nora’s comment last night clarified things for me. I want to ease suffering and encourage enthusiasm. I want to find a character I care about and write them toward safety—and by so doing, to write my readers toward safety as well. We have all suffered, and we’re all going to die. Our condition seems to be terminal. So a palliative fiction, borrowing from the WHO’s definition of palliative care, would be one that improves the quality of life of readers and those around them through prevention and relief of suffering, addressing pain that is physical, psychosocial, or spiritual. That feels like a worthy enterprise to me.

So, for the moment, palliative fiction will be the shelf tag. Tomorrow, I’ll recommend some.

Peer Review

Yeah, funny.

I think often about the differences between art forms: different expectations for who does them, how often, with what level of review or oversight or feedback. I have a friend who’s a brilliant wood turner, for instance. He treats each piece of wood as its own event, has almost never made the same thing twice. But he doesn’t take a bowl or a vase that’s drying after having been turned, and carry it to a colleague’s house and say “have a look, tell me what you think about that curve there.” No, he trusts his experience and his eye and he does what he wants. And when he’s accepted to a juried show, the jurors carry no expectation that they’ll be able to say “We’ll take it, but we have some recommendations…” No, they accept it or they don’t.

But writers are different from that. We belong to writers’ groups, send our work to be workshopped, sometimes more than once, while we’re working on it. If we’re lucky enough to have an agent take it on, that agent feels entirely warranted in making substantial recommendations about the book they see hiding inside the book we wrote. And then if that agent is lucky enough to sell it, the author goes through it all over again with an editor. I’m not complaining about that—I’ve had really wonderful relationships with a couple of different editors who’ve helped me make stories better—but I’m just noting it as a fundamental difference between craft practices.

That wood turner has made about five or six hundred beautiful things in a dozen years of work; that works out to maybe one a week. Each one might be two years in the making, but he’ll be working on a bunch of them at once, turning some and drying others and finishing yet more. I’ve made a dozen things in seven years, not quite two a year. And in the writing world, that’s suspect, the notion that someone might be able to write a novel in four or six months. It must be rote, formulaic. Hack work. (And working fast certainly CAN produce hack work. I read a novella today as one of my free downloads on my new iPhone, by a writer who’s written almost three dozen books in the same period since 2013 that I’ve been writing fiction. And good lord, it’s awful.)

So we have different expectations by pace, different expectations by nature of review and editorial input. It’s fun, as a counterfactual exercise, to imagine taking on another way of working. To say, as a writer, that I’m going to work rapidly, trust my training and my instincts about stories, and the people who’ll like it will like it. Everybody else can go on to the next booth.

I’ve been doing some academic coaching lately. And without putting a precise dollar amount on it, I can say that I’ve made about the same in the past five months of that work than I’ll have made from everything I’ve ever published in thirty years. (You can make your own case as to whether one is underpaid or the other overpaid.) And that coaching is only possible because I’ve had twenty years of practice at doing what I do around assessment. I’m able to work rapidly, trust my training and my instincts about how colleges work, and get good products onto the table reliably and fast. The novelist William Saroyan once wrote that “I can write better than anyone who can write faster, and I can write faster than anyone who can write better.”

I watch my friend Aimee make jiseung. She’s been doing it for decades, works incredibly fast and without oversight, and produces beauty. Now she’s in Korea, watching the “intangible cultural resource holder” Bak Seong-chun make bamboo screens. He’s been doing it for seventy years, works incredibly fast and without oversight, and produces beauty. Jazz players improvise every night. Decades of practice makes them reliable. But in the twenty-five years since he became a professional golfer, Tiger Woods has had a daily swing coach in all but six of those years, seeing the things that Tiger himself could not, tinkering and tweaking every day toward incremental perfection. So the role of collaboration and oversight varies even at the highest possible levels of different art forms.

I’m self-taught in almost everything I do, though that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had feedback. And we all are, aren’t we. We all taught ourselves how to cook and how to be parents or friends. We all taught ourselves how to drive, really, and how to read, really, with only the lightest forms of coaching along the way. No state licensing board requires a masters degree in parenting before one’s first child, and THERE’s a high-stakes practice, isn’t it? And with only a few guides along the way, I’ve taught myself how to write.

As Marge Piercy wrote in her brilliant poem “For the Young Who Want To,” every artist lacks a license to hang on the wall. We just do the work, over and over, and occasionally we ask someone to look over our shoulder.

Forego the Crocodiles!!

Don’t even think about it.

Let’s ply some strands together today, shall we?

Strand 1. Back when I was in grad school, I discovered a faculty hobby: writing themselves extra salary. All these people had “nine-month contracts,” which meant that their salary was intended to represent nine months of service to the university (though their health care continued unabated over the summer). Those three summer months were free to do with as they pleased. And what they pleased was to write small research grants that included a summer stipend for two or three months of work at their pro-rated monthly faculty salary. They weren’t embarrassed about saying that they were looking for summer support. Better than selling ice cream at the beach, I suppose.

Strand 2. A friend of mine, a deep and devoted student of Italian language and culture, wrote to me about the Italian guild system for protected crafts. “Those inside it are well off and self-congratulatory as they ensure that the moat around them is filled with crocodiles. It is the reason why they stay inside its confines well past retirement and the young are left to rot outside the walls.” Huh. I seem to remember a book about that a couple of years ago…

Strand 3. I picked up a copy of Poets & Writers magazine on Saturday, because I clearly don’t have enough opportunities already to torment myself. I was browsing their section on summer workshops and retreats, and I kept coming across one name over and over as a workshop leader. And no, I won’t tell you their name, but it’s ubiquitous. One major conference in April, another major conference in July, a third major conference in August. And by “major,” I mean a conference that even the most casual writers would have heard of. 

This person is a faculty member at an elite institution, teaching two courses per semester. An adjunct faculty member teaching two courses per semester would make about twelve grand per year, with no benefits. This faculty member, based on Chronicle of Higher Ed data for their institution and rank, makes about $125K plus substantial health care and contributions to retirement. On, you guessed it, a nine-month contract. Leaving plenty of time for socializing around the country, making a few grand per week for a) being a star, and b) occasionally commenting on the work of the desperate climbers.

Strand 4. I forget the writer who said this, but he claimed that the fundamental distinction between commercial and literary fiction is that writers of commercial fiction make their living from writing, and writers of literary fiction make their living from university patronage. They needn’t actually sell much of anything, merely get the right publishers to put their work before the right awards committees. The author I mentioned in strand 3 published a novel twenty years ago, a second one five years ago, and a book of essays three years ago. Their total income from the royalties of all three of those books was likely at or slightly less than a year’s faculty salary. Perhaps quite a lot less.

The mystery writer Nevada Barr wrote 19 novels in her series about National Parks Ranger Anna Pigeon, between 1993 and 2016. Nineteen very good books in 23 years, not three books in twenty. And the first half dozen written while she was still working as a park ranger herself, not teaching elite undergrads in groups of a dozen. Her novels have been her primary job for a quarter of a century.

She’s not featured at three different writing conferences this summer. Because she writes commercial fiction. She’s not a member of the guild.

So what yarn shall we spin from these singles?

Well, the easy one is resentment, but let’s try to avoid that one for a minute.

Another easy one is the unpredictability of the universe. But that’s kind of nihilistic, liable to become a sweater with one arm, or with five.

No, I want to re-create the yarn plied together a few years ago by Robert Frank, in his book Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy. Frank, an economist by trade, argued that of course talent and hard work matter in attaining success. But he demonstrated over and over that millions of people have talent and work hard and don’t succeed, and that the last secret sauce is just having stood in the right place at the right time. Malcolm Gladwell also notes this, showing that all of the microcomputing billionaires were born between 1953 and 1956, so as to be at the right age when IBM’s first personal computer became widely available in 1975. All of the social media billionaires were born in the late 1970s and early 80s, so as to be at the right age when free college server space and vast internet bandwidth were becoming normal.

Frank further demonstrates that those who recognize how lucky they were are more likely to try to manufacture that luck for others, whereas those who believe they did it all on their own are more likely to hoard it all, like self-congratulatory Italian guild members.

So let’s take that as our lesson for the day. Those of us who got lucky (and yes, we were talented and worked hard, too, here’s a cookie) have a responsibility to build the conditions in which luck can fall more broadly. We have to introduce people around, make connections, get the work we like in front of the right readers. We have to make opportunities for our new colleagues, at every chance we get, knowing that we’re already doing just fine.

Forego the moat and the crocodiles. Build the bridge instead.

Mysteries of Faith

We’ll get back to you, probably…

So I’m 62 years old, yay me. And that means that, as of 8:15 this morning, I was eligible to register for my first COVID vaccine. So I did. Sort of.

I logged onto the Health Vermont portal, using the account that I’d created last week. It didn’t like my password. It came straight from my Apple keychain, I didn’t mistype it or misremember it, but who knows. So I created a new password. Fine. Then I logged in, went to my account page, and there was no button for making a vaccination appointment. A testing appointment, yes, but no vaccination appointment. I opened a new browser window and looked at the video for how to apply online, and THAT showed a vaccination appointment button… but mine didn’t.

I logged out, and logged back in. No button. I refreshed my browser. No button. The phone system was, of course, jammed, and you couldn’t hold, just “call back later.” Logged out, logged back in again. Nothing.

Finally, a little after 8:30, I logged back in (for literally the twentieth or more time) and NOW there’s a vaccination button. So I went through the appointment sequence, verified that I didn’t currently have COVID and wasn’t allergic and wasn’t pregnant, and set an appointment for Saturday 3/27. Great, only two days away. I confirmed, logged out, and a confirmation email had already come into my inbox.

Done, right?

Oh, honey, NO! This is the internet! You’re never done.

Two hours later, I got another email saying that my appointment had been cancelled. Well, what the hell, at least I know how to do it now. So I log back in, go through the sequence again, and make another appointment, again this coming Saturday. No harm no foul.

Confirmation email comes in. Followed ten minutes later by another email saying that my appointment had been cancelled. I go back online, and now nothing’s available any time in the next two weeks!

So I bucked up and called the phone line, intended only for those elderly hermits who’ve never seen a phone that didn’t have a plastic dial on it. (Vermont’s got a lot of those folks.) It rang through, put me on hold… and disconnected me.

I called back, it rang through, and to my amazement, immediately connected me with an employee, a pleasant young man used to dealing with elderly hermits. “Let’s go ahead and get you started,” he said, in that tone used to get Grandpa to come down to the sunroom and work on a jigsaw puzzle.

I explained to him that I was young enough to use a computer, and that I’d already made two appointments that had subsequently been auto-cancelled. “Yeah, we’ve had a lot of technical problems this morning,” he said, “everybody who was making vaccination appointments got routed into testing appointments instead.” But at least I’d verified my online bona fides (bolstered further by my not having a hotmail or AOL email address), and he stopped coddling me and we got on with the job, laughing together a few times at the randomness of the world.

As frustrating as all of this was, it was at least possible, with great persistence, to get an answer, and ultimately to get through the door. There are innumerable things that we apply for that are completely opaque, for which neither answers nor rationale will ever be available.

Apply to a college, for instance, and the answer months later will be either yes or no, in either case with no elaboration. Apply for a job. Apply for a faculty position. Apply for a fellowship or a residency. Yes/No, usually long enough later that we’d forgotten we’d ever applied in the first place. No other options, no further knowledge. No one will laugh with you about the system failures. No one will even talk to you in their grandpa-voice about what’s going on at the call center.

And writers have it even worse. Slightly more than half of the queries I’ve ever sent to literary agents have simply evaporated. The other half: Yes/No. (Actually: No. In three cases, Yes, followed a few weeks later by No.)

I was listening last week to an interview with a writer I like, and she said that before her current big-deal magazine gig and book contract, she’d been writing for an online magazine, and was responsible for writing two or three pieces a week that would get a hundred thousand views each. She meant it as an illustration of the pressures of making one’s private life public, but I heard it a little differently. She, on her own, would never have been able to muster a hundred thousand views. Her magazine’s renown (and its subscription mechanisms and its daily e-mail blast) was responsible for at least ninety thousand of that, and she was responsible, more or less, for not damaging the brand, not squandering the platform she’d been given, adding her marginal gains onto the established endowment.

If you write for the Atlantic Monthly, let’s say, you’re guaranteed to have a couple of million views. As Elizabeth Warren is fond of saying, “You didn’t build that on your own.” You’re borrowing the king’s cloak. But we see that work—just the quality of the work itself, not all the supportive infrastructure—and we think to ourselves, “I can do that.”

That’s the bait we talked about yesterday. That logical sequence from I’ve been well trained and put in the training time to I’ve done a smaller version of this thing and had it highly praised to therefore, I ought to be able to get this thing, right? That sequence of thought is what makes us click on the submittal button and open the portal. But that last step—that word therefore that spans from empirical past to deductive prospect—is where the bridge of logic collapses, where we’ve simply entered into matters of prayer that will or will not be answered. We will enter a world of silence, a limbo in which we are neither guilty nor innocent, merely set aside with all the uncountable others.

I’ve risen to that bait once again. It just looks so good. And the pursuit has given me the excuse to go back to a novel that I’d completed in draft but always knew had some weak areas, so that if I AM welcomed to paradise—by whatever miracle that I can’t invoke myself—I have something to offer St. Peter. But just the clicking of the button was traumatic, reawakened all of the fear of that invisible world. The world in which all the other kids are laughing at me, I just know it. All those other kids who know where the good parties are at, who call one another by nicknames, who’ve hung around each other every summer since they were in MFA together. As the founders of one notable literary journal said, “We didn’t even set out to do this, but we just knew so many people.” As is true for the afterlife, others must intercede on our behalf to get us through the gates.

That’s the difference, isn’t it, between the edible little fish that will nourish you and the balsawood minnow with the barbed treble-hooks that will pierce you and drag you along. If a patron knows you and asks for your work, it’s a fish. If you don’t know your potential benefactor, and you have to ask them to read your work, it’s a lure. But magical thinking comes true every rarely so often, which is enough to keep us imagining causality rather than grand cosmic accident.

It really does look like a fish, though, doesn’t it…

Rising to the Bait

Pretty, isn’t it…

One of the reasons I’m a vegetarian is that I have a low tolerance for violence. I understand: cycle of nature, food chain, blah blah blah… but one of the things that makes us human is that we get to choose how to participate, not merely play out some supposedly inevitable role as predator or prey.

I’m particularly annoyed by catch-and-release fishing, which is supposedly the humane, “sporting” alternative to eating what you bring home. But really, the only reasons to hunt and fish are a) to sit in the woods or on the boat and meditate, and b) to eat.

Let’s think about it from the fish’s point of view. The fish, I think, has a vocabulary of four words:

  • Whatever—nothing special going on here, just chillax
  • Huh—I wonder what that thing is over there
  • Yum—I’m going to eat that thing!
  • FUCK!!!!—That thing’s going to eat me!

I think that pretty much covers the gamut of fish inner monologue. (Some people, too.)

So here’s the short story of the catch-and-release experience from the fish’s POV.






Excerpted from “What I Did Last Summer,” by pretty much every bass in third grade

The trauma may not be lasting, the fish may not have an enduring sense of self into which this momentary assault will be permanently fit, but it’s trauma nonetheless, and I don’t need to participate in it.

A lot of our lives is catch-and-release, though, isn’t it. Being an adjunct faculty member can be like this: just doin’ our scholarly thing, seeing an interesting opportunity over there, swimming over to be told that “you’re just the right person to teach this, we’ve had a need in this area for so long…” And we hit the bait, only then to discover the barbed hook and the lack of nutrients.

Being a writer is much the same: just doin’ our fiction thing, seeing an interesting agent or magazine, swimming over to deliver the pitch, and biting down hard just to be strung along and eventually tossed back.

But damn, that bait looks good.

Really, the ideal life of the writer is only the first couplet of this abbreviated poem of experience: whatever and huh. That is, happily writing, and being interested in something new to write about. It’s the second pair, the external forces, that introduce the danger. The glittering lure that draws us; the unseen barb that snares us, thrashing for our lives.

More tomorrow.

Systemic, Dude

So the last couple of days, we’ve talked about tribes, and alliances, and alienation. But let’s think about it not just in terms of individual bonds with our own communities; let’s go broader, and take an ecological look at why so many of us seem to be at odds with ourselves.

About 125 years ago, Émile Durkheim proposed the idea of anomie, or the breakdown of values and norms. Although the term is often used to describe an individual’s state of mind, the real import of anomie is that it’s a collective condition; that our old rules don’t make sense any more. And certainly, in our year of COVID, it’s no surprise that we’re experiencing some anomie. We don’t get to be social, don’t get to hang out or date or go to class. But I think that there are a lot of forces of anomie right now: a confluence of absences.

  • More and more jobs becoming gigs, with everybody scrambling to stay one step ahead of the infinite crowd of replacements.
  • Tens of millions of college graduates, grad school graduates, med school graduates—well prepared and highly skilled, who played by the rules and excelled, now in numbers far too great to be employed.
  • A cultural cesspool of drive-by insults, of ill-will dropped into every online community from anywhere in the world. Maybe not even by humans.
  • A world of social rebalancing, in which mediocrity isn’t enough to protect white males any more, but excellence for women and people of color hasn’t yet brought about assured rewards (or safety).
  • The looming end of setting fire to fossil fuels, and the resistance of those still in the industry (and those for whom the artifact of a big-ass truck is a crucial validation).
  • The changing climate that reconfigures seasons and shorelines, that brings new weather and new crops and new pests.
  • The clinging decline of the Boomers, who sucked up all the air in the room and never made opportunities for anyone younger.
  • The crushing burden of wealth inequality, and the protection of its own power against the needs of hundreds of millions of hard workers.

I mean, just look around at any mode of human relations, and you’ll see the remnants of what had seemed stable, inevitable. To quote Marx, “all that is solid melts into air.” We’ve mastered a game that no one plays any more, and every time we try to learn the new one, we discover that’s already obsolete, too. I’ve gone through vinyl records and eight-tracks and cassettes and CDs and MP3s and MP4s. I’ve gone through MS-DOS and Windows 3.1 and Mac OS six through eleven. I was a star of my undergrad program and a star of my grad program and never had a chance on the academic market. All of us, doing everything we know how to do, within the context of events that cannot be predicted.

We’re asked to blame ourselves, to try harder, to do more. Our individualism sets us into perpetual competition, and so we look for scapegoats, people we can defeat, interlopers we should repel. As the old joke has it, three guys are sitting at a table with a dozen cookies. The capitalist has ten, the worker has one, and the consumer has one. And the capitalist says to the consumer, “watch out, that union guy’s going to steal your cookie.” We’re turned against each other, crabs clawing one another back down into the pot.

One of the most common conversations I’ve had since The Adjunct Underclass came out two years ago is some variant of “Yeah, it was like that for me, too.” So many people have just been relieved to learn that they are not uniquely defective, that their talents weren’t imaginary. That there are a vast body of others who’ve done well, done good, and done right, and not experienced any payoff from it.

Just as was true for the book, I offer no simple mechanism by which our anomie can be repaired. We are in an ecosystem, not a machine in which a lever drives a gear turns a shaft all in knowable proportion. But just that knowledge seems to be helpful: learning the fundamental wrongness of that all the cause-and-effect we’ve been taught gives us a chance to stop harming ourselves even further with a bad story. As Anaïs Nin wrote, “shame is the lie someone told you about yourself.” And those lies—that you’re insufficient, that you haven’t worked hard enough, that the next round will for sure be the winner—have vast power if we believe them.

We won’t be able to imagine what’s next if we hang onto what isn’t.

Where Is Your Tribe?

Won’t you be… my neighbor?

The title question of today’s post—where is your tribe?—will be nonsensical to those over a certain age, and irrelevant to those under. The notion that community and physical place are interwoven was once taken for granted and is now bewildering.

Geographers talk about relationship “friction,” as in a force resisting movement. For a long time, physical distance offered huge amounts of friction. When it took four months to get from New Hampshire to the frontier in mid-Ohio, very few people did it, and hardly anybody did it more than once. Now I could drive that in one long day. in 1907, the British ocean liner HMS Mauretania set a record from London to New York, making the trip in just under six days. Now it’s closer to six hours, on any air carrier you like.

Private couriers became public mail. Physical mail became telegraphs, telegraphs became telephones, telephones became email and text. Each of those innovations reduced the friction of communication, allowed distance to be overcome more easily.

Economists also talk about friction, in similar ways. That ticket on the Mauritania to get you to New York in 1907 was a luxury item: a second-class one-way ticket, adjusted for inflation, was about five times more expensive than a coach-fare flight today. So the cost of travel is also a diminished frictional force. Superfast internet connection enables everybody with a phone plan to be in contact with anybody anywhere, and the idea of worrying about “long-distance charges” is long past. (My mom was a telephone operator, and “long distance” was a big freakin’ deal when I was a kid. Calling my aunt Martha, from our home in Michigan to hers in Ohio, was a twice-a-year event. Now my writing group meets every month by video, from Vermont to North Carolina to Sweden, at no per-conversation cost.)

So the friction of distance is almost gone… or is it?

Where are you? Right now, as you’re reading this, where are you? Open Google Maps and figure out how far away you are from Middletown Springs, Vermont. If you’re Tom, you’re about 2,100 miles away. If you’re Jenn, you’re about 1,850 miles away. If you’re Diana, you’re about 185 miles away. If you’re Hugh, you’re about two miles from our porch; if you’re Sudeshna, it’s 7,100 miles. Aimee’s usually 550 miles away, but now 6,800 for a few months. All good friends, all over the map.

I have lots of friends here in town, but when I think about their networks, the geographic circles are different sizes. One of the fundamental divisions in our town are the old Vermonters and those who’ve come from away (even if they might have come from away forty-five years ago). If you don’t have generations in the cemetery, you’re more or less a newcomer.

For the old Vermonters, geographical friction is stronger. Sure, they’ve got Facebook friends here and there, but the circle of conversations for lots of families is concentrated between the poles of Granville NY and Rutland VT, an hour’s diameter. They get their news from the Rutland Herald and the Lakes Region Free Press, and more fundamentally from friends at the store and through the car window.

I received eleven personal emails today. Five were local within five miles, the other six ranging from 320 miles to 3,100 miles away. I read articles in the New York Times, the New Yorker, New York Magazine, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Atlantic Monthly, Inside Higher Ed

Where is my tribe?

I bought a cauliflower this afternoon, some blackberries, some turbinado sugar. I bought some onions, some cherry tomatoes, some lemons. I’m betting that those six produce items collectively traveled well over fifteen thousand miles to get here.

I would not do very well to be local. I would have less of interest to read, a different community of friends with a more enclosed body of interests and experiences. I would eat more seasonally, and less interestingly.

But I would know my local environment far more deeply. I would understand seasons in a completely different, full-bodied way. I would eat berries for three weeks every summer, and treasure them. I’d eat venison from the freezer for six months every winter, and remember where I’d shot it. I would know the same body of people from grade school to senior-citizen day at that same school eighty years later.

Where is my tribe?

I’ve learned to be multilingual over my life, to be an ambassador traveling between communities. I’ve learned ways to make my academic and professional skills beneficial to my small rural town, just as I had earlier learned to make my working-class upbringing a powerful tool for my scholarly and professional life.

But I think that’s left me globally alien, never quite at home anywhere. I read things like yesterday’s academic abstract and I roll my eyes, scarcely able to believe that anyone anywhere actually uses that heightened language. But I can tire quickly of local gossip at the general store, the unmediated conversations about I was gonna go into Rutland but then my sister called and she needed me to tell her how many eggs go into Aunt Sally’s squash bread, and I said, well, it depends on whether you’re using store eggs or fresh eggs… Honest to God, I’ve heard people fill twenty minutes without a single idea.

I don’t know who my tribe is, exactly, nor where. My very closest friends are from my life in higher education, spread across the United States… and from my life in Middletown Springs, within five minutes’ drive and in the same houses for twenty and thirty and forty years.

This blog is bilingual. It carries large ideas in small words, big concepts demonstrated through small examples. It shuttles back and forth between communities.

Let’s think about that word “alien,” and its paired idea of alienation. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes alienation as “the problematic separation of a subject and object that properly belong together.” It is a psychic state of disassociation between things that ought to be associated. We can be alienated from our family, or from our work. The hobbies that had once brought us pleasure can now feel remote and cold. In the most troubling sense, we can become alienated from ourselves—that we no longer recognize who we’ve become, can no longer make sense of ourselves. Every life crisis is a mode of self-alienation, that the story we’ve told about ourselves no longer hangs together but a new story hasn’t yet made itself evident.

Am I even part of my tribe?

More tomorrow.

I’m Sorry, WHAT?

Could you explain that again? Maybe slower? And I’d be happy to eat a rawhide bone while I listen…

I used to lead a summer writing retreat for science faculty at a small Eastern university. I’d done fine in physics, never taken chemistry, and didn’t remember much biology, so I wasn’t an obvious choice by discipline… but I knew how to craft an argument, how to marshal evidence, and how to read and respond to reviewers’ notes, and that was sufficient to make me helpful enough to be brought back for ten years. I used to tell them that I didn’t understand any of the nouns, but that I could help them organize the verbs, and that was enough.

Any writing is aimed at an audience, and all audiences differ in what they know, what they’re interested in, and the language they use to describe it all. That’s a lay description of what’s professionally known as a “community of discourse,” that label already marking itself as outside our everyday language—another noun that not every reader will know.

According to linguist John Sayles, a discourse community has six common features. Because you’re (probably) not linguists, I’ll paraphrase.

  1. A discourse community has common goals.
  2. A discourse community has ways for its members to communicate.
  3. A discourse community communicates in order to present information and to give and receive feedback: it’s two-directional.
  4. A discourse community uses a particular genre (a blend of topic and structure) to pursue its goals.
  5. A discourse community also owns a particular vocabulary.
  6. Because of those first five characteristics, there’s a certain level of expertise required in order to participate in the discourse.

This isn’t unique to academia by any means. Nora has introduced me to a vast discourse community in fiber spinning, and I’ve (gradually and incompletely) learned some vocabulary, some genre, and some of the community goals. I mean, if I can tell you the difference between maidens and the mother-of-all (neither of which have anything to do with people), I’ve developed some credibility, right?

So, this morning, I got a note from a colleague on LinkedIn about his new publication, and went to see the abstract of it, which—although outside my field of interest—looks like a reasonable contribution to the historical understanding of 20th-century literature. But then, in the related-articles field down at the bottom, I clicked on a different article, and fell completely through the portal into another dimension of discourse. Here’s the abstract of the article “Fractured Feminine Selves, Autospecular Affect, and Global Modernity: Meena Alexander and the Postcolonial Artist as a Woman,” by Parvinder Mehta, as published in The Journal of Foreign Languages and Cultures, 4:1, June 2020.

This essay takes up the modernist tradition of representing fractured feminine selves in the work of contemporary Asian-American author Meena Alexander (1951–2018), examining her representation of the postcolonial artist through a critical exploration of autospecular affect. Drawing on modernist impulses—the breakdown of human communication, the inefficacy of language, as well as experiences of alienation—Alexander depicts the creative act for the postcolonial artist as suffused with an autospecular desire to connect fragmented, displaced psyches through a reassessment of subjectivities. She delineates possibilities of moving past Eurocentric modernism through her articulation of the struggles of the postcolonial artist dealing with global modernity. Drawing from theories of specularity within affective paradigms, I trace the phenomenological process of self-other engagement in Alexander’s references to the autospecular subject looking in the mirror to understand herself and others around her. I also highlight how modernist writers such as Joyce, Eliot, and Woolf offer Alexander a metaphorical mirror wherein she sees the anxieties of the postcolonial artist and reflects them through renderings of their creative challenges. The essay concludes with a theoretical interpretation of Alexander’s autoscopic experiences in terms of Jacques Lacan’s “mirror stage theory” to understand subject formation in her work.

This is what happens when you eavesdrop on someone else’s discourse community: you don’t understand what’s being said, because you haven’t developed the threshold-level expertise necessary to participate. Just as is true in biochemistry, this simple abstract is filled with nouns that we have no access to.

Let’s just look at one single word there: specularity. I don’t know what that word means, and because it represents the core concept of the entire article, I have no access to any level of its argument. So we know, because of the -ity suffix, that specularity means “the condition of something specular.” And we know, because of the -ar suffix, that specular means “characteristic of a speculum.” (Any word composed with two suffixes is a great indicator of a specific sort of vocabulary, right?) So what’s a speculum? What noun are we dealing with?

  • in medicine: a metal or plastic instrument that is used to dilate an orifice or canal in the body to allow inspection. Probably not.
  • in ornithology: A bright patch of plumage on the wings of certain birds, especially a strip of metallic sheen on the secondary flight feathers of many ducks. Probably not that one either.
  • archaic use (from the original Latin): A mirror or reflector of glass or metal, especially (formerly) a metallic mirror in a reflecting telescope. Aha, that’s probably the one.

So specular would be “reflective,” and autospecular would be “looking at oneself in the mirror.” And autospecular affect would be one’s emotional response to what one sees in that mirror. (And of course, no contemporary work would be complete without reference to Lacan.)

I could go on—and in order to learn to read this article, I’d have to. That 200-word abstract has all kinds of language that clearly mark it as an act of participation in a particular discourse community, and that equally mark the rest of us as not being members. And that’s the work that I think is most interesting here: the clear message that civilians are not welcome, that this piece of work is appropriately read by maybe two hundred people worldwide.

Why do that? Why declare one’s work only of interest to a tiny, tiny community? If we were deeply enthused about something, why wouldn’t we want to expand the number of people who were also interested?

I think we do far too much of that in academia. We draw the fence in tighter and tighter, stop sharing and start hoarding. Higher education has become a culture of scarcity—not enough time, not enough jobs, not enough support—and I think it’s making us less generous, as we fear for our collective and individual futures. Just as Dr. Mehta has identified a particular kind of “postcolonial” work being done in the poetry of Meena Alexander, I would identify a particular kind of “postacademic” work being done by so many articles like this one. Not ‘postintellectual:” this is meaningful intellectual work. I mean specifically “after the fact of the academy,” or after the era of the stable community of teaching and learning. We have moved away from the idea of a teaching and learning community, and declare our primary allegiance to a widespread land of scattered specialists, just as our students have declared their allegiance not to learning but to survival on the career marketplace. That’s neither inevitable nor inarguably a good thing: it’s a decision, made in the face of contexts and conditions.

There’s a lot of blather about “why academics write so badly.” And I don’t think that’s the case. I think instead that we often write very well indeed—to our specific community and no others.

When I was an undergraduate at Berkeley, architecture was described by one faculty member as “an art practiced by a few dozen for an audience of a few thousand.” The notion that architecture encompassed social responsibilities and social opportunities, the simple fact of even a simple building being a multi-million dollar investment and not just a twenty-dollar watercolor notebook… all left behind, deemed common. Architecture, as practiced by a certain body of architects, was a very particular discourse community that purposefully excluded almost everybody. The conversation that mattered was the conversation in the right magazines, read equally by a few people in New York and a few people in Los Angeles and a few people in London and a few people in Hong Kong…

I’m struggling right now with the cultural question of what value the “local” has. I’ve argued for a long time that place matters, that our ideas and our work and our importance in the world is rooted in community. But I’ve increasingly felt as though “local” is too often “provincial,” exclusionary, isolationist. I’m really torn about what matters in being local, and about what’s lost.

More tomorrow.

Why Do I Gotta DO This???

NOOOOO! Don’t WANT to!

One of the very best things about working with other writers is that it makes me think seriously and in new ways about my own writing. I have to understand more fully why I make the decisions I do, the kinds of strategies I use to organize chronology and voice, when I sit in scene and when I do exposition. To use Michael Polanyi’s formulation, it makes my tacit knowledge more explicit.

In the past couple of days, I’ve had two different experiences with two different writers that have led me to understand my motivations for writing, why those motivations are individual rather than universal, and why some projects take off while others bump along and never rise.

The first was that I read a novel in manuscript, and wasn’t ever able to engage with it. When I reported that back to the writer, he laid out a long explication of his own motives for writing, what he was trying to accomplish, and other books that had done similar work. And it made my own motives more clear.

And then yesterday, a friend forwarded me a call for “short stories that envision the next 180 years of equitable climate progress.” And although it sounds like an interesting premise, I could recognize quickly that I wasn’t drawn to it. But why not?

The book I’ve been working on for the past half-year, for instance, has remained inert. Well crafted, but inert. And I think that it’s because it came from a seed stock that is, for me, sterile by default. It’s a novel about an idea, a concept-driven book that fits together like an interesting puzzle. And like a Rubik’s Cube, it offers no emotional life for me. I’m discovering that I have to start with an identifiable individual who deserves my compassion and generosity; then I can write. Without that person who needs my assistance to have their story told, there’s no story.

So this contest, interesting as it is, wouldn’t draw from my strengths. It wants to be a story about ideas. It’s designed to be a story about ideas. I don’t have enough lived sense of what the year 2200 would be (nor, I guess, enough interest in it) to find a character there for whom I can be generous, and so this story, in my hands, could never rise.

I think this dooms me to never writing “literature.” I write stories, which are different. Literature is about ideas. Literature advances the discipline. Just as some sociology is primarily a forwarding of sociological theory, some literature is aimed squarely at literary theory. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that… )

Yesterday’s email update from Random House was about one swath of spring 2021 books, prefaced with the headline “Feel-Good Fiction.” The subhead was “Find some comforting reads for stressful times. These are the novels to reach for if you want charming characters, sweet storylines, and good vibes.”

That’s where I’m headed as a writer. I have to find someone who deserves my generosity, and then I have to tell their story generously.

Because I’m compulsive, I sat down this morning, opened a new Word document, and did a strategic analysis of all the novels I’ve worked on in the past seven years. There are nine, plus the book of short stories, plus the nonfiction. But I just focused on the full length novels. For each one, I asked the following questions:

  • Who is the protagonist? Name, age, defining characteristics.
  • How is the protagonist stuck? How has he come to be in a rut and unable to grow? How have his dreams been forestalled, or been achieved and still found wanting?
  • What’s the mechanism of change? How does the ice break to start the avalanche of the story? What cracks the stability open? (To quote John Gardner, there are only two stories: a person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. Both are a rupture of stability.)
  • What’s the adventure? What big quest does the protagonist have to take on in order to ride his way through the disruption? And how does that quest enable him to become something greater than he currently is?
  • What’s the soup? That is, what are the big questions or themes that come up for me as this person navigates this context? What does the story come to be “about?”

I could answer all five of these questions easily for each of the first eight books. But the ninth book, the one I’ve been chipping away at for the past seven or eight months… the ONLY answer of the five that was convincing was “the soup.” It’s a book about ideas. It’s an architectural novel, in which each of the suites of a new small office building become the scene of someone’s dreams and desires: their new business, their growing career, their next steps and setbacks, the randomness of capitalism’s rewards. Not one of those protagonists has yet risen to the level of care; they remain avatars, types, puzzle pieces to be sorted into logical order.

I think that book #9, for me, is fatally flawed, because it started with the wrong question. It’s doomed to be literature, and will never become a story. And that realization gives me permission to set it aside, and to look for 9b.