It’s All Good, Man…

Don’t harsh my mellow…

Let’s recap the last couple of days. We’ve discussed the perpetual fussing over the boundary between literary and genre fiction, and proposed instead that we should be discussing the difference between writing that acts as a pioneer into unknown terrain, and writing that acts as a settler of that opened frontier. As I wrote yesterday, that diminishes the value judgment inherent in assigning something “literary worth,” since one can be a good or an inept pioneer, a good or an uncivil settler.

So we’re left with the question of “good,” the question that drove Robert Pirsig to madness as he pursued his study of Quality. What makes some things good and other things less good? And why can we disagree about a thing’s quality?

Arthur Krystal, the guy whose essay started my little Chautauqua, talks about the writer’s (and by extension, the reader’s) sensibility, the ability to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences. So in this formulation, multiple opinions about quality are simply judgment errors made by those without sufficient sensibility. If you like Cardi B or Doritos or muscle cars, you just aren’t mature enough to know better. We spend far too much time in this place, blaming one another for their decisions rather than trying to understand them. That position of judgment is its own act of low quality, leading to our current irretrievable polarization.

But the opposite shore, that of radical relativism, offers us nothing better. “It’s all good, man” is nothing but an abdication of agency, an assertion that no decision can ever be seen as better than another. As the philosopher John Cougar Mellencamp put it, “nothin’ matters and what if it did.”

Let’s propose a new path. To do that, we’ll assert that nothing exists on its own, but rather in community with every other thing. An ecological understanding of quality, let’s say, in which we ask how all other things are affected by this one. In that formulation, we would then ask: does this thing enhance other things, or diminish them? Is it generous, or hostile? And of course, to claim that something enhances other things would mean that it makes those things also more generous, in a long and not fully predictable chain.

The relationship between any individual object and its ecosystem gets pretty complicated. Let’s think of sports, for example. The grace of beautiful, superhuman physical action lifts us all. LeBron James’ famous block of Andre Iguodola’s late-game layup, for instance, is one of those moments of grace that will stay with its viewers for years. And yet, any sporting event can also be reduced to chest-thumping tribalism in which we all try to enhance ourselves by the very fact of diminishing others. The way we consume an object is also part of its fate, part of its quality judgment.

When we speak to our political opponents, do we try to defeat or demean them, or do we try to move them a quarter-inch further down the road toward wisdom? And are we willing to be moved incrementally as well?

When we listen to music, do we hope that it washes over us, a soundtrack to our tedium and inattention? Or do we try to hear decisions, try to understand what it’s doing and what its alternatives might have been?

When we read, are we engaging the work from a place of growth and kindness and humility, or a place of hubris and ranking, or a place of distraction no different than scrolling at random through YouTube? And when we write, are we creating something that will lift, or illuminate, or offer? Or are we creating monuments to our own intellect, or marketable content, or more fuel for a flame war?

Show me something that inspires you, and tell me why. That’s where Quality resides.

Pioneers and Settlers

Covered Wagon in Kansas Windstorm, Harper’s magazine, 1879

We talked yesterday about the difficulties in differentiating between literary fiction and commercial fiction. Today, I’d like to offer an alternative classification scheme. But I need to give you a little backstory first.

I’ve written before about an editor at a major house describing one of her recent acquisitions as “the first millennial post-apocalyptic office novel.” I was, and remain, unimpressed by the innovation, but I know that people love to put things together in new ways. And this takes us to another of the comments I’ve received from my writing group:

The academic angle by itself would be a tough sell, and the foster angle by itself has been done many times over. Put them together and there’s great potential for new energy.

This, I think, is perhaps one of the most crucial differences between what we think of as literary fiction and all the rest. Those who would aspire to the “literary” label must be pioneers. They must construct something unlike what has come before. They are pushing the boundaries of what is known about fiction; their allegiance is to literature as a practice, rather than to any particular story itself.

I’m grateful for pioneers. But a vastly larger number of writers might better be described as settlers, building productive and neighborly lives on land already cleared.


Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.

C. S. Lewis

Where does this drive to novelty (the word novel, of course, being closely related) come from? Well, there’ve always been pioneers, in every field. But to oversimplify, I think that a lot of the pressure to create self-consciously literary fiction comes from the second half of the 20th century and the normalization of the MFA in creative writing. University faculty have their jobs not merely because of what they know, but because they’re engaged in the creation of new knowledge. They research and publish things that the rest of the world has never before understood.

That’s easy to demonstrate in the world of physical and social science. We do a literature review that tells us what we do and don’t know about some phenomenon, and then we propose a question and a set of methods that will help us know something more than we did. MFA faculty are likewise pushed to create that which has not before existed; not merely a more perfectly honed version of a known form, but a new form that advances (and occasionally unsettles) the field. The abilities to name the established knowledge and to formulate a hypothesis are substantially different than they are in more “tame” fields, but the drive toward advancing our knowledge is the same.

Since college faculty recreate their own interests among their students—not through imitating the smallest areas of content and form, but in dedication to the larger principles of originality and advance—all of those MFA grads who now populate agencies and editorial offices and book-review columns are trained to see novelty as a definitional trait of serious fiction. It’s a paradoxical sort of meta-copying, nervously looking over our shoulder to see the wave of current interest crashing down behind us. We will surf, or die.


I often find it useful to compare one’s field to others; the comparison helps to highlight things we take for granted in our work, that are entirely unlike the work of different crafts.

There are a handful of restaurants, for instance, that carve out the boundaries of what can be done with food. Molecular gastronomy, cellular aquaculture, gas-injected protein foams—the culinary world is always moving, just as any craft is always moving. But the proportion of restaurants that live out on that edge is minuscule; most restaurants are just trying to provide a good evening of hospitality, as its particular body of customers defines that. And that’s noble work, and damned hard to do well.

Culinary schools and kitchen apprenticeships focus on known craft, and teach their participants how to do good work reliably, efficiently, and with some degree of grace. If there were a master of fine arts in culinary production, the restaurant professions would shift much more thoroughly toward the pioneer rather than the settler. Conversely, if writers were trained in literary institutes, preparing for steady professional lives in writing, those programs would be turning out lots and lots of settlers who were prepared to offer solid genre experiences.

And let me be clear that the difference I’m proposing between pioneers and settlers is in no way a value judgment, whether we’re talking about dining or reading. It’s a statement of preference rather than absolute worth, and it relieves us of the burden of deciding what’s “canonical.” We’d quit worrying about representation and dead white men, and we’d be talking about different kinds of experiences for different communities who held different preferences—and we’d be talking in detail about those preferences and experiences, and thus broadening all of our own.

One last pass through this stuff tomorrow.

Dismissed

When I was in architecture school in the late 1980s, there was a commitment to architecture that could not be easily understood. Architecture that stood apart from its surroundings, offering aloof commentary. Architecture that was entirely about the creation of logical order, and not at all concerned with either the logistical or emotional support of those who would encounter it.

That was really what Modernity and Modernism were about, no matter what field we were engaged in: the idea that rational progress was the only goal, and that any sorts of emotional or cultural attachments were merely sub-rational reflexes which we could be trained to leave aside.

I wasn’t wired in the correct intellectual array to accept Modernism. I was a working class kid from the Midwest who knew that people wanted to come home after a long day in the shop to some combination of comfort and delight, both of which are concerns declared out-of-bounds in Modern discourse. And so it’s not a surprise that, as a writer of fiction, I again have no clear footing in the academic categorization within which books of Literature are on one side of the fence, and those of Genre or Commercial Fiction are on the other.


A few days ago, my Sunday New Yorker feed linked to eight or ten “classics,” articles from the magazine’s archives to which I, as a subscriber and member of the cultural elite, am granted access. And one of them just pissed me off: the October 2012 essay on literary fiction by Arthur Krystal entitled It’s Genre. Not That There’s Anything Wrong With It!

To sum up quickly, Krystal argues that there is an inevitable and true boundary, like a river, between the lands of Literature and Genre. The relations between the two nations are occasionally friendly, occasionally hostile, but the root fact is that they represent two entirely different cultures, and that it’s crucial that we all understand the difference. He insists that we acknowledge that “good commercial fiction is inferior to good literary fiction.”

The problem with his essay, perhaps inherent to the limitations of magazine real estate, are that he leaves all of his terms undefined. There is no firm definition of what constitutes “commercial” or “literary” fiction; no firm definition of the good in “good fiction” of either type; and no firm definition of what would make something “superior” or “inferior.” It’s a shaggy essay that ought to be sent back for revision.

But let’s do what we can. Let’s see if we can intuit what he means by any of this. He’s in the New Yorker, after all, so his ideas must be worth exploration, unlike some guy with a blog.

Let’s start at the end, with his examples of things that fit into one or the other camp.

Quality comes in different forms: there is Cole Porter and there is Prokofiev; the Beatles and Bach; Savion Glover and Mikhail Baryshnikov—the difference between them is not one of talent or proficiency but of sensibility.

Because we’re culturally savvy, we’re supposed to quickly read the differences between those pairs. So what are the differences?

  • the Popular side are from the 20th century; the Serious side are from traditions much older;
  • the Popular side were aimed at the masses, and the Serious side at the more educated elite; and
  • let’s be honest: the Popular side are drawn from the non-white traditions of jazz and rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop, those from the Serious side from Northern Europe

If the differences between the Popular and the Serious are “not one of talent or proficiency but of sensibility,” then we need to take the idea of sensibility (the ability to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences) seriously. We are either “able” to appreciate complexity or we aren’t; it is a moral judgment of the consumer as much as of the producer.

And literary trends are by definition about the reader. If a whole bunch of us go left, then the sales figures will show that; if we then move right, that trend will emerge as well. Literature of all stripes by necessity has writers and readers; a verdict about which camp a book falls into is a verdict about both parties in the exchange.

Krystal trots out a few possible differentiating field markings of literary or genre fiction, and then immediately disqualifies them himself. The division isn’t based on plot versus lyricism. It isn’t on the quality of language, of raw sentence-craft (though he spends a lot of words on genre’s “language that is at best undistinguished and at worst characterized by a jejune mentality and a tendency to state the obvious”). It isn’t about the writing at all, in fact. Let me try to cobble together a working definition of the boundary from his essay:

A good mystery or thriller isn’t set off from an accomplished literary novel by plotting, but by the writer’s sensibility, his purpose in writing, and the choices he makes to communicate that purpose. There may be a struggle to express what’s difficult to convey, and perhaps we’ll struggle a bit to understand what we’re reading… One reads Conrad and James and Joyce not simply for their way with words but for the amount of felt life in their books. Great writers hit us over the head because they present characters whose imaginary lives have real consequences (at least while we’re reading about them), and because they see the world in much the way we do: complicated by surface and subterranean feelings, by ambiguity and misapprehension, and by the misalliance of consciousness and perception.

So as best I can make out here, literary fiction is literary because a) it’s hard, and b) its characters are conflicted. That’s pretty thin porridge. It’s kind of like the schism between the Orthodox and Hicksite Quakers in the 1820s, a community who divided themselves forever on the slimmest theological grounds. The divide is, simply, books that are read by people like us… and books that are read by people like them.

And note again his examples. Joseph Conrad. Henry James. James Joyce. The marble busts in the library, carved into their perpetual scowls.

Modernism is merely an intellectual manifestation of masculinity, the last pre-feminist landscape of the humanities. So it’s no surprise that it employs masculine justifications for its reading biases. It sorts the world quickly into tribes, and declares one of those tribes to be superior and deserving of our loyalty. It valorizes the stoicism of “close reading,” picking one’s way across stony and inhospitable fields, and denigrates ideas like generosity and welcome. It’s all head, and no heart.


With all that in mind, let’s look at some of the recent critique of my own writing, from my group of friends who meet monthly or so to read and talk about one another’s work. Critique is always hard business—we’ve put our very best work on the table, for review and dissection by others. And the critiques are really wonderful, after the bruises heal. We see our own work in new ways, see doors that we’d overlooked on our first visit. These friends are talented writers and readers who have enriched my craft.

But sometimes, the terms in which the critiques are framed are revealing of our differences across this boundary of “serious” and “commercial” fiction. Here are a few selected excerpts:

  • Perhaps your main challenge will be to avoid ‘Melrose Place’ territory, and I’m sure you aspire to more than a soap-opera plot
  • I’m not sure whether this opening is departing all that much from the conventions of the romance novel
  • The repartee between Dan and his sister is good, but maybe you can hint at some darkness there.
  • I felt very strongly that the story was suddenly organizing itself around a classic love triangle: unhappy/neglected wife finds new vitality with another man.

Because my friends are serious writers, they’re quick to sniff out the rot of genre, to wish always for “ambiguity and misapprehension, the misalliance of consciousness and perception.” They’re uniformly quick to point out the quality of the writing itself, that it’s polished and has wonderful turns of prose and carries the reader effortlessly from front to back (one of my favorite comments ever was “it does crack along!”). But that craftsmanship is not sufficient to the demands of Modern intellectual fiction, which is always about ambiguity and uncertainty and the struggle for the reader to understand what’s going on.

Those concerns are simply not of interest to me, just as they weren’t in architecture school. And as Krystal points out, the difference between literary and genre fiction is at least in part “the writer’s sensibility, his purpose in writing, and the choices he makes to communicate that purpose.” So I guess I know which nation I’m a citizen of.

More on Friday.

Skimming

You’ll notice they’re both wearing suits… that we paid for.

All of the names related to today’s learning have been redacted, because it’s just too much to deal with. And really, the specifics don’t matter. It’s the pattern. Always look for the pattern.

Nora and I just refinanced our home loan, taking advantage of lower interest rates. We always prefer to do business with people and groups we like, rewarding them for their prior good work, attempting to build a longer relationship. So we used a mortgage lender affiliated with our retirement investment company.

You know what? It’ll be simpler if we just use letters.

We have our retirement accounts with financial group A. They have a division (A1) that does mortgage work, so we used A1 for the refinance. At the closing, we discovered that A1 had already transferred ownership of our loan to mortgage lender B. We hadn’t even signed the closing documents, and there was already another partner in the deal.

Before we could even make our first mortgage payment, we learned that Fannie Mae (C) had bought the loan from B, so that B could have more money to make more loans. That’s what Fannie Mae is: a liquidity engine that lets banks keep lending the same dollars over and over without having to be big enough themselves to cover it all. But B will continue to be our “mortgage servicer,” which means they’re handling the bookkeeping of our payments and the escrow for taxes and insurance, so even though we bought the loan from A1 and it now belongs to C, we pay B.

Good so far?

So we called B today because we wanted to clarify a small inaccuracy in the property taxes, and we were told that the tax component of the escrow payment was only an estimate, that B would pay the actual billed amount of tax, and that we’d re-balance the escrow account when the annual tax rates are recalculated next summer. B uses a different company altogether, D, to actually make the phone calls to county offices and insurance companies to verify actual rates; according to our very nice customer service rep at B, all the mortgage lenders hire D to do this for them.

For every transaction, so many people in line with their hands out, demanding their vigorish to organize the game. Every time you spend money, there are invisible people skimming their percentage to lubricate the proceedings.

When a farmer sells milk, they don’t get the $4.50 per half gallon that organic milk costs in the supermarket. The farmer sells it to the coop for processing, who sells it to a packager, who pays a distributor, who gets it into the grocery store. And each of those intermediaries gets paid. The farm price for raw milk in Vermont is about a sixth of its final retail value; about 85% goes to all the others in the sequence.

I was corresponding with a friend who’s an adjunct college teacher. She told me that she was finishing a twelve-week graduate writing course for eighteen students, a course for which she’d been paid $2,000. So the teacher’s cut was $9.26 per student per week. Each student was getting a rich and closely personalized intellectual experience for about the cost of a mocha frappuccino and a pumpkin scone plus tax. She should have a tip jar.

The school charges each student twenty-six times that much, just so you know. Or, to calculate it a different way, our beleaguered teacher receives 3.8% of the total tuition for the course.

When you buy a $28 hardcover book, the author gets about $2.25. (And then subtracts 35 cents for her agent.)

When you buy a pound of Rainier sweet cherries for eight bucks at Whole Foods, the field picker got twenty cents.

It’s really astounding how many people have their hands out, and how little of the final take actually goes to the worker. We support all of those invisible skims every time we offer our labor in the marketplace, and pay them with every transaction.

The Reliquary of Unknown Writers

Language of the Birds, by Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn. San Francisco, 2006-08.

I have discovered my next project. A repository of sentences created by the unpublished and unseen writers all around us.

In every endeavor, there are those few who are celebrated and remembered. That celebration necessarily obscures the contributions of the multitude—anonymous on the field—who also played our necessary roles. There are so many writers whose work, crafted with every fragment of attention we can muster, will never reach publication. Will never reach readers. Will never move those who would most benefit from it.

The heroes will have their statues and awards, as heroes do. We will have our own reliquary of the works we have brought about—a reliquary containing shards, scraps, the fossilized remains of our dreams. We may never be known, but in this space you will see the artifacts we have made. They come to you, as fossils do, incomplete. Without context, without attribution, with precise histories unknown. They are left for you to interpret as you will… and to honor, for a moment, the unknown writers who have brought them into the world.

This project will bring us one tiny passage from each of the larger works submitted. Will remind us that even in the least fan-fiction, in the least eighth-grade short story, grace is possible. We watch the world carefully, we writers. We bring news from the front, forecasts of emergent climates, signals from space. We are secular oracles, carrying prophesy that we do not entirely understand ourselves.

Each passage will bear its own magnetic charge, which may draw readers slightly away from their planned course. We may find ourselves subtly rearranged by forces too small to be seen.

These scraps will appear at random, unsequenced, as though by hand of fate. They will not be searchable. They will not bear the name of writer or story. They will simply be sentences, which is all the writer ever has.

The reader can use each sentence as it arises, as they choose, as readers always do. Sometimes as pleasantry, sometimes as divination, sometimes as meditative koan, sometimes as a spur to writing of their own.

This project will grow over the coming months, and probably will look different than I currently imagine it. But now it exists already, because it has been named. Because it has been made into words.

It will be a beautiful landscape, a monument to labors unseen and unacknowledged. A landscape that will reward our patience and consideration.

I have been bitten by many innocents, but sometimes that’s what kindness gets you. 

Before Utah they carried their clothes in sacks on their backs. His father taking them from beet farm to beet farm. In Nebraska, the harvest took every ounce of their energy. 

There is public property that is not meant to be touched. 

The new god said: Worship me and I will save your children both in life and in death. 

There were no lentil salads in Orlando. There were no fresh scallops atop a bed of greens. 

He didn’t think of himself as a lawyer. And he felt the pressure coming on of not only having to speak and behave as though he were one – well, in fact, he was one – but also to speak and behave as though he were comfortable being one and thinking of himself as one. 

You’re not even twelve and yet I have nothing to teach you. It would be easier to produce the ordinary, to be ordinary. But I know you won’t settle for that. I fear for you. 

It is this easy access to casual voluptuousness that so agrees with her. 

I tried really, really hard to think of her as a colleague rather than a girl with pretty fingers and a cute haircut. 

But that was all in the days before she started secondary school where the art teacher started in on her, filling her head with notions, turning her sights on different landscapes.

Swimming Against the Current of Unearned Confidence

There’s a nineteenth century saying—variously ascribed to Mark Twain and Josh Billings and Will Rogers (probably not) and Artemus Ward and Kin Hubbard—that encapsulates how I feel about the world today:

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

There’s a vast crowd of people who get their information from Facebook who believe that mail-in voting is a scheme for massive voter fraud, even as they aspire to more “local control” over elections, local control that’s been demonstrably (and almost definitionally) uneven.

The birthers are back, this time wondering if Kamala Harris is eligible to be VP. “I heard it today that she doesn’t meet the requirements… I have no idea if that’s right.”

Nora was called to the town office today to review the one minor-party ballot cast in last Tuesday’s state primary, to see who got the one write-in vote. The Board of Civil Authority (BCA) members present, along with our state representative and our town clerk, representing both major parties, unsealed the ballot bag and took careful notes along the way. But they were told firmly by a state representative from another district (a friend of the clerk) that what they had done was ILLEGAL. Not merely that it didn’t comply with best practice, though I haven’t looked up the state code to see what it says, but ILLEGAL. The BCA members appropriately called the secretary of state’s office and described what they had done and why, and were reassured that it was all perfectly acceptable, and thanks for checking.

Stupid people lean on their caps lock, both figuratively and literally. They seem to equate loud with true, repetition with fact. The concept of slowing down and looking something up has never once occurred to them. And in the time it takes me to look up and debunk one bullshit thing, they can broadcast seventy-four more. The ratio is off. And when they’re disproven, they back away from it, and say, “I just thought it was funny.” Honest, I spent a whole Saturday back before the 2016 election carefully looking up each so-called fact that someone had sent me in a giant group e-mail, taking each one apart with real statistics, and sent it to the fellow who had first forwarded the nonsense to his group. His reply? “I just thought it was funny. Something to think about, right?”

No. No, it’s not something to fucking think about. It’s something that should never have made it to the table in the first place, because it makes no sense. Don’t be stupid.

I was reading an online comment a few years ago by someone claiming that Social Security was imminently about to go broke because of the aging population. Well, that’s a claim that can be tracked actuarially and investigated in both policy and finance, but he followed that by saying “75 million Americans retire every year now.” And that’s just stupid. Do the arithmetic. There are about 330 million Americans altogether, from birth to advanced age. A lot of them are under 18. A lot of them are already retired. So let’s just guess that there might be 250 million Americans of working age. A third of them are going to retire every year? Every single American will be retired in the next three or four years? Really?

I mentioned this to my correspondent, who became wildly belligerent. “Just ’cause you don’t like it don’t mean it ain’t true,” he said. Well, that’s correct. I don’t have to like it or not, but I do know that 250 divided by 75 equals bullshit.

The internet has fully weaponized the Dunning-Kruger community, and the mob has seized the day. But Dunning and Kruger themselves have posed the remedy:

Dunning and Kruger suggest that as experience with a subject increases, confidence typically declines to more realistic levels. As people learn more about the topic of interest, they begin to recognize their own lack of knowledge and ability. Then as people gain more information and actually become experts on a topic, their confidence levels begin to improve once again.

So there’s today’s lesson. Slow down, look it up, ask other people if what you just said makes sense, and work harder to learn more before you speak. Peer review is just as self-corrective in community life as it is in intellectual life.

A Great Idea, Strangled by Bad Ones

This fall’s COVID shambles is laying bare an awful lot of things about higher education that had long been comfortably ignored by the day-to-day habits of moving forward in a normal way. We’re discovering that really bad politicians make really bad college presidents in those states that were misguided enough to have elected them in the first place. We’re discovering the power of peer pressure, that as soon as the Big 10 conference cancelled fall sports, the Pac 10 followed within an hour with its own announcement of the same decision. You go first… no, YOU go first...

We’re discovering that we didn’t really need standardized tests after all, since they really mostly measured family income. The information provided by the SAT was redundant to that from the IRS.

We’re discovering that the “college wage premium” is no longer a reliable investment, but that the loans taken out to get that promise are non-negotiable.

We’re discovering that tenure-track faculty will not now nor ever take concrete steps on behalf of their contingent colleagues. In a time of fear, everyone scrambles for the lifeboats, and the weak will drown.

We’re discovering that any college leader found doing vile, criminal things is gently protected and sheltered in order to protect the reputation of the institution. It isn’t until years, or decades, later that we discover how many victims were silenced, and how many professional colleagues knew and did not speak.

We’re discovering who gets the golden parachute, and who gets the brick.

We’re discovering that a university will be brought to economic panic for reasons that have nothing to do with education. Because its “teaching hospital” lost half a year’s revenue of lucrative elective surgeries, or because the TV licensing for its football program didn’t come through. We’re discovering how gigantic and invasive the parasites have become… and we’re discovering that the endowment must never ever be touched. We may be in a torrential storm of unseen scale, but the “rainy day fund” will be kept dry before any of the members of the community.

In an epic rant published yesterday, sportswriter Drew Magary argued that our current moment provides the perfect opportunity to kill off college football forever, and with it the NCAA, which has reliably proven itself to be always anti-educational. (Sally Jenkins said the same thing in The Washington Post.) But one line in Magary’s piece yesterday was larger than that. He wrote: We’ve reached a point in history where it’s crystal clear that American universities are where corruption goes to get laundered. 

College sports is big and visible. But college sports is not alone in stealing time and money and attention from the real work of higher education. We have constructed a massive, beautifully outfitted sailing ship, and have forgotten the destination.

Vampire Stories

No, not that kind…

I once knew a doctor who said that, in his own training, his residency director had given him a can’t-miss tool for quickly diagnosing someone with depression. “When they leave your office and YOU’RE depressed, they have depression.”

Why is so much of contemporary literature compelled to leave us in worse emotional shape than when we picked up the book in the first place? Why is meaningless, unrequited suffering the go-to mode for serious fiction?

I just finished a book about half an hour ago, and no, I won’t tell you what it was. You might love it, and I don’t need to prejudice your reading. (Except toward things I admire. I have no compunction whatsoever about recommending books I admire.) Anyway, this book was shortlisted for a couple of important European literary prizes, it’s got lots of quotably lyrical passages, and when I finished it, I fired up this website and started this essay because I needed some little shot of lifeblood after that story had drained it all away.

Vampire books are everywhere. Books with vampires as characters, to be sure, but more importantly and more harmfully, books that suck all of the optimism and gumption out of us, leaving us with only one life lesson—the same lesson I wrote months ago about a different book: Well, we’re all fucked.

I wonder if these books make their authors happier. Like literal vampires, maybe those writers live longer and more joyful lives through ingesting all of the joy and hope they’ve sucked away from us. I know that Zuckerberg will live to be older than Methuselah simply by virtue of hoarding all of the time that he’s stolen away from billions of innocent people.

Please, my fellow fiction writers: deliver us some hope now and again. Let a character be healed, let a story rejuvenate its readers. If you need to mimic a mythological character, let it be a bodhisattva and not another vampire.

Thinking in Slow Motion

Kristen Renn, Michigan State University

Philosophy is thinking in slow motion. It breaks down, describes and assesses moves we ordinarily make at great speed – to do with our natural motivations and beliefs. It then becomes evident that alternatives are possible.

John Campbell, Philosophy, University of California at Berkeley

One of the great joys of academic life is that we haven’t the faintest idea where we’re going. This allows us to actually examine what’s around us, ask questions about why it exists in the form that it does, ask whether other forms might be possible.

(This sets academic life in direct opposition to university administration, of course, in which the daily facts of money and buildings and regulations and investments constrain our options to near zero. The fact of moving from faculty to administration means leaving behind, forever, the possibilities of unfettered investigation—the unfettered investigation that drew us all in the first place.)

One of the people I’ve worked with in my academic writing coaching has spent many years investigating the issues around marketing toward multi-racial consumers. For instance, if one has both white and Black family, does one identify more fully with advertising featuring white or Black actors or spokespeople? What radio stations do you spend your advertising dollars with?

She’s relied extensively on the work of Kristen Renn, the person whose photo is at the top of today’s message. One of Renn’s key contributions to our thinking is the idea that our identity—the identity we think of as entirely individual—may not exist solely within our own history, or our own DNA. She has developed a body of theory called situational identity or ecological identity, the core of which is that whatever circumstance we find ourselves within offers us some range of identities that we can take up. Specifically, in her own research around multi-racial college students, she says that some students identify strongly with one race or another; some identify specifically as multi-racial; some reject the idea of race and refuse what they believe to be artificial categorization; but some identify differently depending on the situation they find themselves in at the moment. They might be the Blackest person among their white friends, and the whitest person among their Black friends. They might choose to take up different aspects of multiple cultures, and those choices might change over time, or in relationship to different institutions. Just the form we receive that asks us to check a box does two things: it restricts our identities to those named, and then requires that we select only one of the options. It is a situation that enables a particular kind of response.

The idea of ecological identity is way more complex than I can lay out here. (I’ve used it extensively in my own fiction writing, a development that Renn likely never would have predicted.) My point today is that we can only develop productively unsettling ideas when we have the time to do that. Our drive toward speed and efficiency (and distraction and constant engagement) makes it much less likely that we will spend the time required to ask fundamental questions about why and what else. To spend the time to explore the contradictions that inevitably arise in any system of beliefs, and to not paint over them but to take them apart and discover why they exist, what they imply.

The great blessing of being (semi, sort of) retired is that I don’t have to go to any more meetings. I don’t have to write reports that respond to someone else’s outline, for someone else’s purposes, reports in which the outcomes are foreordained and all we do is fill in the local color. Writers get to ask annoying, nonproductive questions, and then write our way out of them. We get to think in slow motion.

I can’t imagine anything more fun.

Good Things Don’t Scale

Now I would like… five hundred more sets.

Back in the late 70s, before Xerox was a generic term meaning “photocopier,” the Xerox company made an advertisement about their new and remarkable product. Brother Dominic (at right, above) had painstakingly hand-illustrated a manuscript, and eagerly brought it to the monastery’s abbot (at left). “Very nice work, Brother Dominic… very nice. Now I would like… 500 more sets.” So Brother Dominic sneaks out and goes to the Xerox shop, and returns soon after with the stacked sets. The abbot says, “It’s a miracle…”

Well, no. It’s just a mechanical reproduction, with none of the attentiveness or love of the original.

I got an e-mail this week from someone who’d recently read The Adjunct Underclass, and was telling me about her teaching expectations at a third-tier state university. Four courses per semester, averaging 35 students per course, plus all of her departmental and university service work. That’s just mechanical reproduction, with none of the attentiveness or love that we would hope a real education could carry.

I’m in the final days of teaching my independent fiction course, with twelve students. For each of the first five weeks, I wrote two assignments, and thought through what each participant had sent in each case. For the past three weeks, they’ve moved from research to writing story drafts, and I’ve marked up anywhere from six to a dozen drafts for each of the twelve participants.

Twelve students for eight weeks. And I’m tired. It’s real work to be that attentive to that amount and that diversity of work. Just the logistics of organizing papers and naming files and making sure that I’m looking at the most current draft is an addition to the effort.

So when I think about 140 students for 15 weeks, or 21.875 times the workload I just finished, it scares me. It scares me because the only way one human can do that much work is to rely, like Brother Dominic, on mechanical reproduction. To repeat the lesson plans, to make the homework into quizzes, to give every student one bite at the apple rather than sit with the repetition and revision that enables understanding and seals growth into place.

For the students, too. Each of my dozen writers has been at work on the same story at least twice a week for three weeks. They’ve swapped out characters, dropped whole hard-won scenes that were necessary for manufacture but not for use, have circled closer and closer to their prey. We’re at the point now where we’re considering punctuation and typography, microscopic but meaningful contributors to the voice of story. And they’re exhausted, too. But in a week or two, when they recover, they’ll know what they’ve gained.

Education… real education… is slow, and expensive, and (to use the awful language of marketing) “high-touch.” It used to be a luxury good, purchased only by the wealthy. And so what we offer now is a vastly diminished version, a mechanical reproduction that carries the content without the care. This is not the fault of any participant; everyone involved is smart and hardworking. But like any product, what was once sold at Bonwit Teller bears only passing similarities to what is now sold at Dollar General. The fate of all mass products is that they are mass products, subject to regulation and reproduction and worker quotas. They become commodities, responsive to price pressure rather than quality pressure, interchangeable across providers.

There are no miracles available to us, only love and attentiveness and focus. When those are removed, we are left with quantity, and marketing, and loss.