A year ago, I live-blogged my last novel, & Sons, keeping you (and myself) apprised of progress. That was fun, let’s do it again.
Last Tuesday, my new story appeared. Young Jimmy first presents himself in 1978 as a nine-year-old, riding his bike on a Saturday for his flanêur’s afternoon on Lincoln Street in Milwaukee.
The glass storm door sounded its usual welcome, a leather strap with jingle bells hanging from its inner handbar to alert the Johnsons to new arrivals. Jimmy knew every aisle and corner of the store, had spent innumerable hours there as a free agent, loosely overseen, able to let his mind and body wander. Mrs. Johnson, as always behind the register in her little retail island just inside the door, nodded at him in recognition but nothing further. Jimmy walked back into the store, through the aisle of Comet and Reynolds Wrap, brooms and Playtex dishwashing gloves, toward the curved-glass butcher counter behind which Mr. Johnson was stationed. Mr. Johnson would either be talking with a customer and putting cuts of meat or scoops of ground hamburger onto butcher paper on the scale, or cutting huge slabs of red-and-white-streaked meat on his bandsaw, ribs and hip joints cruelly bared from their formerly quiet lives within a cow or a pig. Jimmy imagined that Mr. Johnson had never actually seen him; the man was in constant work, fully intent on customer or display or carcass.
Even though he’s only in fourth grade, Jimmy has always been far more attuned to the everyday adult world than the kids around him, whom he mostly finds bewildering.
One of the things he liked about being with adults was that they didn’t need to be mean just for fun. The only problem with school was the other kids. Grown-ups sent kids to school to learn how to be adults, and then defeated their own purposes by surrounding them with the savage culture of children. Every kid had to decide for themselves which team would have their allegiance, and Jimmy, by virtue of having chosen wrong, earned the complete and total disdain of the other kids.
We’ll see Jimmy, then Jim, then James, at four different phases of his life through the course of the book, I think, as he grows into full expression of his nature. And I increasingly see that the book will serve as a love poem to the very idea of the sidewalk, the most urban of spaces.
In his book Craft in the Real World, writing teacher Matthew Salesses talks about the ways that traditional writing workshops can be places of hostility, even when (almost always) unintentional. The pitfalls come when some kinds of stories and narrative structures and characters seem so taken for granted that stories of other cultures or structures are deemed to be incorrect or out of bounds. There’s no “conflict,” no “arc of change,” and so therefore the story is faulty. Some stories are within the community’s unspoken expectations, and those that aren’t will be met with resistance.
The first writer I read that truly challenged those expectations was Kenzaburo Oe, the Nobel Prize winner in literature in 1994, who once said that his work was about “the dignity of human beings.” Oe’s stories don’t move us along as much as they ask us to sit, quietly, with the facts of a person and her or his circumstances. There is a story, a sequence, but it’s in the background, a simple chronological organization of a series of states of mind. When I teach fiction writing, I say that the basic logic of fiction is that there’s a pre-BOOM, a BOOM, and a post-BOOM; that is, that there’s one or more disruptive events that change the angle of the story. And Oe’s work helps me to see how cultural that expectation is, and how Western of me that I’d never imagined stories created otherwise.
My own work has some of that non-BOOM character, though, based on the fact that I was trained as an ethnographer rather than a fiction writer. I’ve always felt at home watching people in the everyday, trying to understand the unspoken cultural guidelines that shape the visible behaviors. And because of that, I’ve been told occasionally that it’s problematic that my stories don’t hit their point of conflict early enough. In response to reading the first page of one of my stories, one reader said, “So does anything happen to your boy Tim? If so, start there.” That expectation that we’re tossed immediately into tumult is a particularly cultural belief, and could be otherwise. But different stories rely on different readers, who are willing to sit and watch.
The most recent, wonderful example of a BOOM-less book I’ve read is Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata. Originally published in 2016, the book sold a million and a half copies in Japan, likely substantially less in its 2018 English translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori. The story is told through the person of Keiko, a woman in her mid-30s who has found a seemingly destined life through her work in a convenience store (“Smile Mart”). Others around her, her family most centrally, can’t quite understand why she hasn’t fulfilled one of the two culturally acceptable roles of womanhood—wife/mother or career woman. They acknowledge that she’s stable and capable, but not in a way that they deem “successful.” They’ve always tried to repair what they see as her faults.
The success of the book is in its deep ethnography. For readers willing to sit, we’re shown the inner workings of a mind untroubled by being “other.” Keiko has never been able to read the emotions of others, but she’s learned to mimic their expressions well enough to be adjacent to people, even as she’s never fully one of them. She’s learned to read the labels on others’ clothing so that she knows the “right brands” to buy, so that people will see her as acceptable. She’s learned what can and cannot be said—mostly the things that cannot, as when examining her sister’s baby: “Maybe this particular baby should be more important to me than the others, but so far as I could see, aside from a few minor differences they were all just an animal called a baby and looked much the same, just like stray cats all looked much the same.”
At eighteen years in the Smile Mart, she’s outlasted eight managers, every coworker, every individual product that’s ever been sold. In one of the most brilliant passages of the book, she talks about the underlying change that feels to casual observers like stability:
As she fished out her purse to pay, she again muttered, “This place really doesn’t ever change, does it?”
Actually, someone was eliminated from here today, I thought. But I merely told her “thank you” and started scanning her purchases.
Her figure overlapped with that of the old lady who had been the very first customer when the store opened eighteen years ago. She too had come daily, walking with a stick, until one day I realized she wasn’t coming anymore. Maybe her health had deteriorated, or maybe she’d moved. We had no way of knowing.
But here I was repeating the same scene of that first day. Since then we had greeted the same morning 6,607 times.
I gently placed the eggs in a plastic bag. The same eggs sold yesterday, only different. The customer put the same chopsticks into the same plastic bag as yesterday, took the same change, and gave the same morning smile.
There is a BOOM in the book, sort of, coming late, but its narrative function is to convince Keiko that she’s been on the right path all along, and wants nothing more than to sustain it. The work of the reader is not to be swept along in the flow of events—it’s to sit quietly with Keiko and experience those events with her and through her.
Western reviewers of the book often turned to a handful of terms to describe the book, or to describe Keiko. Words like “oddball,” “strange,” “weird,” “eccentric,” “quirky.” And that’s an example of the problem that Salesses tries to show us in his book. Even the most positive reviews of the book often described it in words that showed us that it was exotic, that it was outside the norms of the canon. If we came to literature knowing that there are a body of people who are asexual, then Keiko’s revulsion at sexuality wouldn’t be quirky, it’d just be who she is. If we came to literature expecting occasionally to read about people who are neurodivergent, then Keiko’s regular confusion at the norms of the world wouldn’t be oddball, it’d just be the story of someone navigating a culture. Praising a book for its “nutty deadpan prose and even more nuttily likable narrator” means that we’re treating it like a pet, a TikTok-able novelty, rather than a meaningful contribution to literature
Convenience Store Woman is one of the very best things I’ve read in ages, exactly because it makes a way of living and thinking so completely visible.
One of the things that differs across jobs is the degree to which the work is perpetual or episodic. When I worked in retail, one day was more or less the same as the others. Individual customers and their choices differed, of course, and I liked some of them (both customers and choices) better than others. I got held up at gunpoint once, that was a different kind of day. But mostly, I arrived at ten ’til ten, turned on the lights and the music, unlocked the door, and then did retail chores until six, when I reversed the opening sequence and walked home.
Lots of jobs are like that. Resource extraction, factory work, driving, restaurant service, dentistry. The goals are small, discrete, and repetitive; in their wholeness, the patterns don’t vary much by day, by week, or by season.
Other jobs are more episodic. They’re made of big chunks that have phases, deadlines, standards for completion. Writing is like that. The day-to-day experience of moving words around might look the same, but the article or the story or the book has components and progress toward an end state, and a moment in which they’re complete.
I haven’t been around much for the last month, because I’ve been completely immersed in a couple of episodic writing projects. Both clients have the same product to create for their reviewers, and both have the same date of submittal, right after Labor Day. Project management being what it is, both clients were playing catch-up a little during July and August, which meant that I was spending a lot of time helping them along. And college life being what it is, a Labor Day deadline means that their projects are due right when they’re dealing with the return of hundreds or thousands of students. So in both cases, the first half of August was the big push, since they need this project behind them as they get back to their real work of organizing students’ and teachers’ lives.
What that means for me is that one project was deeply immersive and lasted ten months; the other was a quick semi-final review that took a week. And both of them ended this afternoon.
I feel kind of like Wile E. Coyote, running along and suddenly realizing that there’s no ground left under him. I’m not sure what to do without this set of projects moving me forward.
Something will come along soon enough, I know. I’ve been itching for a new character to write a story about, and now there’s time for that fertile soil to grow a new crop. But it just feels disorienting to have worked so hard until 3:15 this afternoon and then have it all go to zero all at once.
Hey, speaking of writing, have a look at the “Books for Free” page of the website and send me a note to let me know what book you want. A novel or story collection in the mail, whenever you ask.
On Saturday morning, I worked my monthly volunteer shift at our tiny little library. I turned on the lights, checked the heat pump, turned on both computers and logged into the circulation system, put out the flag and turned the CLOSED sign over to OPEN.
The library’s only open for two hours on Saturday, from 10 to noon, and we had six patrons over the course of two hours. Including me, since I took out two books. I renewed a book, handed out and recorded an interlibrary loan, checked out two DVDs and a book, and handed out six boxes of COVID antigen tests that we got from the state’s Department of Health. But two other things presented themselves as miniature life lessons.
The first was that our librarian stopped by to take the trash and recycling to the transfer station, and to drop off the mail she’d just picked up. And she said, “Do you read graphic novels?”
“Not as something that I seek out, but I’ve read some really wonderful ones. Why?”
She walked over to the new books, and picked up a copy of Gender Queer, the graphic memoir by Maia Kobabe that first came out in 2019 and has just been re-released in a wonderful hardcover edition. She said, “This is a really wonderful book, it helped me understand someone’s experience who’s nonbinary, and asexual.” And then she smiled, and said, “It’s been on the top ten list of challenged books. Whenever the list comes out, I try to make sure that the Library has all of them.”
We don’t talk about this nearly enough, it’s a dangerous thing to say. But one of the foremost functions of education is to take children away from their families. To show them the diversity and wildness of the world, to keep them from being locked into their parents’ molds. Whether you grew up in a brokerage-funded Manhattan penthouse or a fundamentalist ranch house in Amarillo, your parents can only show you one way to live.
There are others.
And the role of school, and the role of a library, is to give kids access to the others. To let us see a broad array of possibilities from which we might choose, any of which might make sense in a given set of circumstances. To let is know that if we feel like a misfit, there are lots of misfits, that we’re not uniquely broken. I learned so many things from libraries, and from bookstores, that my parents would have liked to “protect” me from. Things that I needed to know.
Our homes are little worlds. Our books are big worlds. And the big world is contentious, and won’t reflect all of our values all of the time, and our kids need to know how to navigate that, too. The alternative is a binary: you’re either with us or against us. It’s a closed fortress with the drawbridge up tight, peering out through the keyhole at the enemy hordes.
I’ve now read that book, and I also think it was absolutely terrific. And scary, and illuminating, and uncertain, and honest about being all of those things. Intending to be all of those things.
Thank you to Maia Kobabe. And thank you to our librarian, and all of the librarians who teach us to not be afraid of the world.
The second thing I learned was a simple comparison. I was looking at the poetry to see if we had anything by Robert Hayden, the author of one of my very favorite poems ever. We didn’t. But because we’re a small library, the poems (Dewey 811, American Poems in English) are just adjacent to the essay collections (Dewey 814, American Essays in English). And I stumbled across an essay collection I hadn’t known about, Ursula Le Guin’s 2017 No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters. Le Guin was one of our wise elders, like Jane Jacobs and Barbara Ehrenreich, always able to think broadly abut the world, able to be generous and sharp simultaneously. Writers who afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.
And because we’re a small library, about six inches away from the essays of Ursula Le Guin were the essays of David Sedaris. Snarky, petty, utterly self-absorbed, not a second’s generosity available for anyone. I know which writer I aspire to become. And the adjacency was its own lesson.
Then, this afternoon, a related third lesson. A friend was doing her own volunteer shift at a local arts gallery, and knew that there wouldn’t be swarms of visitors on a 90-degree July afternoon. So she took my most recent little collection of short stories to keep her company for her three hours. Partway through the afternoon, she texted me:
The first story, “Loyalty,” is lyrical and stunning with its generosity and wisdom. Pretty amazing. On to “My Cupcake Pal.”
Then a little later:
In a world of partisanship and division, your stories are a refuge. People are kind and caring.
I’ll take it. That’s another thing that stories can do. As Le Guin says, “The direction of escape is toward freedom. So what is ‘escapism’ an accusation of?” Refuge matters in a storm.
The concept of consent and non-consent is at the heart of almost all criminal and civil law. The exact same action can be a socially agreeable interchange when mutually consented to, and a crime when done without the consent of one or more parties.
If I take money from someone, it’s a gift or a loan if they’ve offered it, and a theft if they haven’t.
If I take something from a store, it’s a purchase or a promotion if they’ve offered it, and shoplifting if they haven’t.
If I enter someone’s house, it’s hospitality and welcome if they’ve offered it, and trespassing if they haven’t.
If I take money from someone’s bank account, it’s an automatic payment or a Venmo if they’ve offered it, and fraud if they haven’t.
If I hit you, it’s within the rules if we’re boxing or playing hockey, and an assault if we aren’t.
And if I introduce an organism inside your body—one that will certainly make you sick and uncomfortable, and could well kill you, as it grows… and that you’ll legally be required to feed and protect for the next two decades—well, that’s pending parenthood if we’ve agreed, and a wildly violative assault if we haven’t. Someone who does that without consent ought to expect to go to prison for a very, very long time.
The writer Gabrielle Blair has argued the case, far better than I ever could, that every single unwanted pregnancy is the result of what she calls “irresponsible ejaculations.” And her argument relies entirely on the idea of consent, and the notion that women are worthy of being full participants in questions of consent.
Let’s talk about consent as it exists within sexual relations. It’s been ignored far more often than honored, but even when we do think about it, it shouldn’t be treated as a single yes/no question; it’s a whole series of ongoing deliberations, each of which is as important as the one before, with decisions that must always be mutual. Let’s take a simple example, a kind of flowchart of consent. In every case, the only acceptable answer (from every participant) that allows things to proceed is “yes,” preferably “yes, please.” Anything shy of that means that you stop, right that instant. If “yes,” and ONLY if “yes,” then you go on to the next question.
Do you want to have sex?
With this person or these people?
This kind of sex?
Under these conditions?
Now that we’re underway, we still good?
How about this next idea?
At any point along the way, what had been consensual can become nonconsensual, and things should come to a temporary or complete halt. It’s a whole continuum of agreements, each of which matters.
Now, what question is missing there? Oh, yeah. Do you want to have a baby?That’s an entirely independent question. You can have sex without having babies, and you can have babies without having sex. So the idea of consent over becoming pregnant is its own completely separate negotiation, one that women have been and will be criminalized for and men can just blow off. “Sowing your wild oats” is a long-honored tradition among men, leaving acres and acres of invasive plants behind them.
The law is filled with deliberations over what consent means, and under what circumstances it can be requested, offered, and relied upon. Children, for instance, cannot be considered to give consent (the age of legal adulthood in sexual relations is actually called “the age of consent,” but kids also can’t join the Navy or take out a car loan because of the same principle, that they can’t fully understand the implications of their choices). Someone who is intoxicated or drugged, who is asleep or incapacitated, cannot be considered to give consent. Acquiescence in the face of threat or violence cannot be considered to be consent. Power relationships (teacher/student, coach/athlete, supervisor/employee) make consent dubious at best, wound up as it is with all sorts of other necessary considerations—do you want to keep your job, get a promotion, be on the team, get a good grade? Any religious community that claims that women are inherently subservient to men has abandoned any interest in questions of consent. So any pregnancy that occurs under any of those conditions cannot meaningfully be thought to have been consensual.
We need to stop criminalizing women for men’s behavior. The nonconsensual causing of a pregnancy should be a felony.
Now, because I’m an essayist, I know enough that I should address some of the counterarguments that I might be able to predict. So here we go.
Consent can’t be proven. It’s just “he said/she said.” That’s true, and no different than lots and lots of court cases that are framed around disagreeing interpretations (and sometimes outright lies). He said I could borrow his truck. He signed the software licensing agreement. He should have known what he was getting into. He moved in a threatening manner. I was fearful for my safety. That’s what the legal system is set up to investigate and address, in its own flawed and human way.
Why should some young man have his life and his future ruined because of a single mistake? Good question, and I’d always prefer mercy to punishment. But why are we not asking exactly this same question on behalf of women? I mean, if somebody in this equation has committed a crime and is culpable for bearing responsibility, let’s be clear about who it was. And don’t even get me started on “fathers’ rights” when it comes to protesting a girlfriend’s abortion. Someone who has committed a crime has no legal claim to the proceeds.
Who are we, to play God? Great question. Who are we, to decide to have a child at all? Who are we, to invade a country, punish a crime, choose a college, have our kids vaccinated or not, buy a diesel pickup? There is no decision, either made or avoided, that is not a decision, with moral weight and collective impacts. We have to take responsibility for our own complicated and difficult choices, and the ways those choices affect others. And we have to expect that we won’t always agree with others, or even that we’ll always be convinced that we got it right ourselves.
Every life is God’s will. Well, this has three problems. Problem One is that even across Christian denominations, there are Biblically supported disagreements about whether abortion is justified and under what circumstances. Catholic doctrine still holds that contraception is violative of God’s will, too. (Cue Monty Python here.) Our dinky little town has half a dozen Christian clergy members who live here, who have wildly different positions on abortion among them from the same book. And then we move further to include Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and innumerable others, where the diversity is even broader and just as carefully argued, though from different source material.
Problem Two is that the whole notion of “God’s will” becomes completely circular and self-justifying. Was it God’s will that twenty-one people were murdered at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas? No, that was the presence of evil. Oh, okay, so the causing of an unwanted pregnancy is the presence of evil, then? No, that was God’s will. I mean, when God aborts fifteen or twenty percent of all pregnancies Himself, we’re outside any human understanding of what He thinks was a good idea. And again, it lets us off the hook for our own critical thinking and decisionmaking; someone already told us the answer.
And Problem Three is that, as I argued a few days ago, faith and doctrine have no basis to impinge on civil government. Religious liberty means everybody’s religious liberty, regardless of their faith or absence thereof.
It’s easy to think of this argument as a satire, as a Jonathan Swift “modest proposal” that simply points out our boundless hypocrisy. But if I were a member of a state legislature, I’d sponsor a bill tomorrow that would make the unwilling imposition of a pregnancy a serious crime with serious consequences. It would have at least three good outcomes. It would increase women’s autonomy over their bodies, behaviors and lives. It would be morally instructive to men that a hit-and-run pregnancy is not a trivial event. And it would cause the need for abortion to plummet almost instantly.
Scene 1: Nora and I volunteered to help out a few years back at the funeral service for the son of a town acquaintance. We didn’t know them well, had never met the son, but it’s what you do when your neighbors need you.
We were partway through the setup. Nora decided to go up to the sanctuary to hear some of the service while I finished laying out comfort food down in the community room. She told me later about what she’d heard upstairs. About how all of these hard-working people with remarkably difficult lives got to hear again that heaven awaited. That there was a guaranteed destination at which you would be identifiably your own self, but with all of your imperfections washed away, surrounded by all the very best versions of all the people you knew here. She talked about what a comfort that image would provide.
Scene 2: When I was a kid, I was raised within the American Lutheran Church, the sort of mildly-lefty, social responsibility church that emphasized feeding the poor, comforting the lonely, caring for those you don’t especially like. We heard a lot about “seventy times seven,” about the parable of Mary and Martha, about the Beatitudes. One of the most important moral lessons I ever learned was Luther’s assertion that it is equally a sin to give offense and to take offense. My very first realistic career aspiration was that I wanted to be a Lutheran pastor, to bring those comforts and generosity of spirit to others.
Then for junior high school, my parents sent me across town to a Lutheran K-8 school, but different Lutherans, those of the Missouri Synod, what I think of as the Lutheran Church’s Southern Baptist Outreach Wing. Generosity was gone, community was gone, and it was all about one’s own salvation, or lack thereof. It was the most remarkably self-centered theology I could imagine, drawn not only from the same Bible as the ALC churches, but from the same Martin Luther commentary on the Bible. Wildly different destinations from the same origin.
When that school ended after 8th grade, a new school, Muskegon Catholic Central. Now the Bible had extra books, and five more sacraments, and Purgatory, and saints and bingo and the veneration of Mary, and the priest got all the wine at communion. And after a couple of years of that, I informally converted to anthropology, fascinated by the vast variety of stories people tell themselves to make it through a difficult world.
But when I became an academic and a college teacher, I realized that I had fulfilled that first pastoral career, in a secular form. I got to read difficult, important texts, and think carefully about their meaning. I got to write, and do public speaking. I got to listen to people in emotional or material crisis, to encourage those who had lost courage for themselves.
And after The Adjunct Underclass came out, dozens of people reached out to me with their own stories of academic shame and failure, and I wrote back to them or talked to them. All of them. And one day, after a long call that Nora had heard one side of, faintly, from downstairs, she said “it sounds like you’re doing academic chaplaincy.”
Same job, different title.
Scene 3: Bumper stickers, at their best, are aphorisms with adhesive on the back. About forty years ago, I saw one that I hold close. Radical Agnostic—I Don’t Know, and Neither Do You.
Scene 4: I was working at the Town’s transfer station a couple of months ago, helping people unload their trash and recycling and running the compactors over and over from 6am to noon. Probably saw a couple of hundred people.
One of them was relatively new to town, had moved here to be with his son and grandkids. His son was in the church-incubation business, traveling into heathen regions like Vermont and trying to establish good Bible-based churches. Whatever that means. Snake handling is Bible-based, too, if you want it to be.
Anyway, he wanted to know whether I was part of a church community, and whether I’d be interested in coming to service. And I said, no, I’d grown up in the faith but had left it behind. And he was crestfallen, a little, but pushed further anyway for a few more minutes.
That’s a remarkably uncomfortable place to be. I understand that he’s doing me a favor, that he wants to save me from the flames. I get that, and in fact, I appreciate it. But I have no parallel interest in changing his thinking. If he’s comforted, then he’s comforted; I have no reason to want that to be gone from his life, to challenge his certainty. So we come into the conversation with asymmetric goals. He wants me to be like him: I want him to be like him, too, and to leave me out of it.
Nora and I have often talked about the traits of people that we find most enjoyable to be with, and foremost among them is curiosity. We love to spend time with people who see the world and ask questions, who want to understand someone else’s reasoning, who grow from the interchange and gradually become different people because of their interactions.
One of the great joys of academic life is that we’re paid to not know things. To live right on the very outer edges of what’s understood, and to step off the edge into the unknown. And it strikes me that curiosity and faith may be asymmetric and possibly incommensurate impulses. One is about the joy of not knowing, and the other is about the need for certainty. One is open, the other closed. When someone else’s faith tells me how to live, then we’ve entered into a form of colonialism in which one foreign power has dominion over everyone’s options.
I was reading a couple of days ago about why religious freedom, and religious neutrality, were so important to the attendees of the Constitutional Convention. And one of the core reasons is that they were still defending their own little state turf. They’d gotten to be rich and powerful men by having dominion over one or another of the Royal land grants, New Jersey or New York or New Hampshire, and the whole idea of States in the United States came because they weren’t about to cede that power. But each of the states at the time had pretty different religious communities at their core. Lots of them were Anglican, because duh. Maryland was Anglican, too, but they were more tolerant of the Catholics than the others. Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut were Congregational; Pennsylvania was Quaker. And the writers of the constitution recognized pretty quickly that if they wanted there to be a United in the United States, they had to get past those denominational certainties pretty firmly.
The alternative is Northern Ireland during the Troubles, when every trash bin or parked car might be your death. The alternative is the Sunni and the Shia, the Hutu and the Tutsi. There are hundreds and hundreds of Christian denominations in America, all of which would claim to be “Bible-based,” all of which look askance (or aghast) at the practices of the others.
In every theocracy, it’s not only the heretics who have to watch their backs. It’s the insufficiently or incorrectly devout. If the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod ran the nation’s government, the American Lutheran Church would immediately become an oppressed religious minority.
I hope that we can be brave enough to embrace uncertainty, and the curiosity that accompanies it. To admit that we just don’t know, but that we still try. To stand on principles like generosity and comfort and mercy and welcome, even as we know that we can’t even get those exactly right in every circumstance for all people. The alternative will be unthinkably cruel to all but those handful who have embraced the one true way.
Angry men with lots of guns who believe they know exactly what god wants… that’s always worked out well, right? Afghanistan, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen. Are those our aspirational countries? Because that’s the track that a lot of us have chosen.
We’re going through a lot of turmoil as a nation right now. And for those of us who are afraid, well, we should be. But I think we should understand why.
When someone’s default position is to be inclusive, to consider alternatives, to be empathetic, that’s just not an attitude that leads toward immediate and decisive action. It’s a deliberative position, one that acknowledges that we will never have full and complete answers but need to act anyway, always amending our course and our destination alike, but always in the service of making life kinder and more merciful to more people.
When someone’s default position is to know exactly and eternally what the right answer must be, there’s an innate ruthlessness to that stance. They’ll cut your throat and not think twice about it, knowing that they’re doing holy work. So those of us on the side of inclusion and mercy will inherently face a ruthlessness deficit when it comes to political combat. See, for instance, the sidelining of Merrick Garland for Brett Kavanaugh. That was just a political car-bombing, violence for the sake of the win. Its ruthlessness took half of us by surprise… but not the other half. It was an act of terrorism, the political strategy that inherently flows from ruthlessness.
In 1996, the linguist and philosopher George Lakoff published a book called Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know that Liberals Don’t. Lakoff’s research was motivated by the idea that our behavior is governed (often invisibly) by the metaphors we use to make sense of what’s around us. And he argued in this book that we are torn between two unspoken models of parenthood—what he called at the time the “strict father” and the “nurturing mother.” Social conservatives emphasize moral strength and moral obedience; social liberals emphasize nurturing, empathy, fairness and protection. The strict father leans toward reward and punishment for individuals; the nurturing mother leans toward the idea that mistakes are inevitable but that the fallen can always be welcomed back to the family.
The strict parent acts fast, with a belt or with his fists, to correct your errors. The nurturing parent sits you down on the couch for a two-hour talk about your choices and the alternatives you might have considered. The first has two benefits for its practitioners: certainty and immediacy. The fact that it’s also cruel, and raises people who perpetuate that cruelty, is irrelevant.
As has been said way too many times, and far too accurately, in the past five or six years: the cruelty is the point.
The fundamental blessing of America, the thing that has made us great (and the thing that marks all of the advanced economies and free people of the world) is exactly that we are a secular nation, always amending our course toward “a more perfect union.” The Founding Fathers (to use a particularly loaded metaphor—we might instead call them the original Washington elites, enormously wealthy, more than half of them trained as lawyers) were among the most well educated and secular men in the Colonies. They knew that they did not want to replicate the Church and Crown of England, in which the King was not installed by his people but ordained by God. They went out of their way, over and over, to ensure that common people could be heard, that we had the right to autonomy over our selves and our homes, that we needn’t be subservient to any person or faith, that the power of leaders was always harnessed. They wrangled endlessly, and not one single one of them believed that the Constitution they had brought forth was either permanent nor perfect. It was an act of human relations, and thus by definition messy and contentious and negotiated and incomplete.
If we believe that America will always be messy and contentious and negotiated and incomplete—that in fact those are our highest strengths—then we’ll always be able to push forward.
The alternative to this openness is ruthlessness, aiming only for the victory regardless of cost. The alternative to this openness is theocracy, in which one specific reading of one specific book must be the ruling force for us all. The alternative to this openness is oligarchy, in which wealth is its own justification for power.
So I might as well admit it. I have a spine fetish.
Book spines do SO MUCH WORK, and are so under-regarded. Everybody worries about the splashy book cover, and in the age of online book sales, cover art is indeed a big deal. But in the world of visual, material books—in bookstores, in libraries, even at home once you’ve bought them—that tiny little ribbon is doing almost all the work there is to be done.
And it is tiny. Even a giant, Song of Ice and Fire-sized brick has a spine that’s maybe nine inches by two in full hardcover expanse, a fifth of a sheet of notebook paper. Most of us get way less space even than that; most of the books that I’ve laid out for print are more like 8.5 inches by two-thirds, not even six square inches. By comparison, a standard business card is exactly seven square inches, so we can think of a book’s spine as a linear-format business card, offering both information and allure simultaneously. It’s an ingenious graphic design problem, and one that I wish we talked more about.
I’m not trained in graphic design, as you can probably tell. But I’ve hung around books for over sixty years, and I’ve learned to copy some things. Here’s the five spines of my five most recent books.
What’s going on here? Well, two things (at least). One is that the graphic language of the cover is carried onto the spine in some way, usually in color and typeface both and with some variant of the layout logic. So for my book Leopard, all of the cover text is doubled, in black and in red, rotated 180 degrees across an implied horizontal centerline, to suggest the idea of a table tennis table with two opponents across a net, and also to pick up on the fact that table tennis rackets have to be built with red rubber on one face and black rubber on the other so that your opponent can see what you’re hitting with. (Don’t even start… read the book if you want to know more than that.) The spine amends that idea while still adhering to it. The galvanized farm rust of & Sons is carried over; the single leaf of Trailing Spouse is carried over; even the gold accent line of the cover of The Abbot of Saginaw is carried over. If the cover is the first twelve lines of the sonnet, the spine is the last two, holding the same theme but in a new rhyming pattern.
The other thing that’s happening, and you can check this against the books on your own shelves, is that the title of the book is emphasized and the name of the author downplayed. Have a look at this image, from a “book spine poetry” contest entry that reads The Female Brain / Educated / GirlBoss / Yes Please:
There are four books here, and in three cases, you’re being asked to primarily consider the title; the author is more or less anonymous, not a brand name. In the fourth case, you’re being asked to consider the author, because Amy Poehler is famous and funny and we’ll read anything she writes. Go to the bookstore and look for whatever array of “big name authors” you can think of—Stephen King, Donna Leon, Louise Penny, John Grisham—and you’ll find that they’re quite literally “big names,” the authors whose name is bigger on the spine than the book titles. This is what agents and publishers talk about when they use the word platform: is your name big enough for the book to stand on and be visible in a crowd? Will people fundamentally buy you, and only secondarily care about the specifics of what you carry?
Look again at these four commercially-released spines. Visually, they aren’t doing anything especially flashy. They can’t, really: you risk illegibility when you’re too busy in a small space. They’re giving you information, about an interesting idea or an interesting person; they’re carrying over the colors and typefaces of the cover; and they’re hinting at a graphic feature (the frame around the text on the top book, the sharpened pencil point on the second, the hashtag/italics on the third and the illusion of a neon sign on the fourth). That’s it. That’s the vertical business card that people will use after their experience of the cover has faded.
These spines are also doing one other thing, which is vetting that the book has been sponsored by a legitimate publishing house. From the top down, we have the marks of Morgan Road Books, Random House, Penguin, and Harper Collins’ Dey Street. My professional books have those marks as well, but my novels do not, nor do they have ISBNs and barcodes on the back. That absence also does a little work, indicating that those stories inhabit the world of gift rather than the world of commerce.
I’ve looked at the edges of books for my whole life, mostly without thinking about it until twenty years ago when my own ideas started to be wrapped in covers. Book spines are compressed composition, remarkably ingenious when they’re done well, and deserve to be celebrated as an art form of their very own merit.
[George Clooney’s wife] Amal Alamuddin is a human rights lawyer who worked on the Enron case, was an advisor to Kofi Annan regarding Syria, and was selected for a three-person UN commission investigating rules-of-war violations in the Gaza Strip. So tonight, her husband is getting a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Tina Fey & Amy Pohler, Golden Globes 2015
We do love our round numbers. Whether it’s home runs in a career or the number of origami cranes we’ve folded this week, getting to 500 just feels like something different than having 496.
A couple of days ago, I got word that someone had mentioned The Adjunct Underclass in something they’d written, and in the roundabout way of hyperlinks, I ended up at my page on Google Scholar. And because we all want to verify that our lives have mattered, I counted the number of times that my work has collectively been cited by other scholars over the years.
If you’re in higher ed, by the way, this is not a trivial pastime. Citation count, and the various statistics drawn from it (H-index, G-index, I-10, and so on), are among the most central tools that scholars have to make their case when it comes time for tenure and promotion. Publish or perish, right? One of the things that serious scholars do is to contribute productively to the larger conversations of their field, and contribution (at least in part) means that your work has laid a path that others have pushed further. So looking at my body of work, I’ve written 13 books or articles that have collectively been cited in published scholarly literature 506 times. That means that at least five hundred times, my thinking has helped someone else move their intellectual work down the field or in a new direction altogether.
Now, is it the case that five hundred is a lot? Or is it like five hundred pieces of elbow macaroni, about half a box? I searched Google Scholar with the names of 25 people I know who’d had tenure-track jobs in the humanities and social sciences for twenty or more years, a meaningful comparison. And the answer is that I’m sixth out of those twenty-five in total citations.
And I’ve been that productive without access to academic libraries and databases, without paid memberships and annual travel to scholarly societies, without research assistants or grant support, without doctoral students and postdocs, without summers set aside for curiosity. Just imagine…
I was talking with a friend today about the end of my academic career twenty-five years ago.
School, from kindergarten to doctoral education, is carefully designed to offer you hurdles to cross, and feedback about how well you’ve cleared them. And because I never felt like I belonged anywhere when I was a kid, that need to belong got invested fully in school. I knew what my teachers wanted, and I did eight times that much so that they’d love me and want me to be with them. That worked in first grade, and sixth grade, and twelfth grade, and sixteenth grade, and twenty-first grade. I had found a community that valued me, that valued what I could do both as an individual and as a member of a larger body.
When that mechanism for challenge and feedback was removed, when I spent so many years sending letters to anonymous search committees whose first job was to remove as many candidates from consideration as possible and never let anyone know how they’d made their decisions, when I realized that there was nothing I could do that would let me continue to belong to the community that had once loved me, the word that came to mind for me today was terror.
I want that word to sink in. I want you to think about what it means to have your only social and emotional strategy suddenly be no longer successful, no longer welcomed. What it means to know that you will die alone in the wilderness, unable to speak, left to suffocate. What it means to go, literally overnight, from champion to discard.
And then think about knowing, twenty-five years later, that you’ve been so demonstrably productive for a community that didn’t want you. How other people’s real faculty careers have been furthered by the work you’ve done, even as you’ve been left to watch their safety from outside the airlock, as you hammer in panic on the impenetrable shell.
We all know Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, right? It’s not the definitive social science concept that it once was, but it’s still a pretty good tool for understanding emotional life.
First, we need to survive. We need to eat and breathe and not freeze or overheat.
Then we need to be safe, to be protected from harm and theft.
And once those two first bars have been passed (and I recognize that it’s a powerful privilege that I don’t have to personally worry about either), we need to belong. Way before self-esteem and self-actualization, we need to feel as though we’re part of a tribe, that we aren’t isolated. That other people want us to be there, value the work that we do.
I kept doing research and thinking in my field, publishing cited work regularly for over twenty years since my dissertation. I made plenty of money during my years in the wilderness. But I had no heart left in me. I had been broken.
I have since found other communities in which I belong. It took decades to do it, because I could only see the one.
We’re all taught to wrap up an essay with a summative statement, a moral lesson, a recommendation. I don’t really have one here, but I’ll lay out a few threads, one of which you might grasp.
First. If you’ve been exiled, from whatever community, please let go sooner than you think you want to. You can’t find a new community until you relinquish your futile grasp on the old one. You will never prove yourself worthy to them, so just stop, and walk away.
Second. You can be proud of the work you’ve done even if it hasn’t brought you the rewards you deserved. I mean, five hundred citations! That’s a marker of a lot of solid and beneficial thinking, from 1993 through 2019. And that’s enough. Give yourself your very own lifetime achievement award, sanctioned by no one and yet fully earned.
Third. If you’ve made it through the gates that have been closed to so many, take that opportunity you’ve been given and wring it dry. Don’t be the person with the sinecure who does well enough. Use all those resources at your disposal to be an all-star. That may not mean citations, but it does mean reaching every day for the very best of your own definition of scholar. (Or writer, or artist, or whatever competitive field you’ve entered that others have not.)
Fourth. Remember that word: terror. Remember that we are not talking about an objective status of hired or not hired, of economically safe or challenged. We are talking about the sudden and unexpected loss of our beloved community, of suddenly being rendered silent even as we try to speak. Try to exercise compassion for the exile, in whatever ways you can imagine.
In my very first novel, there’s a scene in which the pool player Robert Yoder and the bartender Charles Collignon are trying to decide whether they can partner to build a pool hall in Saginaw, Michigan. Robert has come to visit Charles in New Orleans, and Charles is taking Robert for an evening in town to teach him about hospitality. Here, he’s walked Robert through something as simple and as invisible as table-setting:
Under Charles’ tutelage, Robert worked his way through the entirety of the table: salt and pepper, napkin and tablecloth, flower arrangement, candle, the orientation and placement of plates as they arrived. Along the way, they had their Julep and Sazerac, along with a Vieux Carre and a Ramos Gin Fizz, Charles instructing Robert on the fine points of mix and presentation for each.
After dinner, Robert said, “You know, I just look at a table and see a table. But now I’m seeing decisions, hundreds of decisions.”
Charles nodded, sipping water. “And one goal of all of those decisions is to be unnoticed, to simply be at hand. You don’t notice that the handle of the bread knife is to the right, but since most of us are right handed, we reach for the knife and come to the handle. We hold the bread in our left hand when we butter it, so the bread plate is above the left service. You notice things that are wrong, like a stone in your shoe, but you just have a general sense of elegance and accuracy when they’re right. It’s just as real a sensation, but less easily named.” He signed for the bill to be applied to his tab. “I knew that I didn’t want to be a chef like my father—kitchen work is hot and sweaty, people yell at one another constantly, always under pressure to move faster. The front of the house is what always interested me, the management of people’s happiness.”
My books are “about” a hundred different things. They’re “about” playing pool and darts and table tennis, “about” university life and failed careers, “about” corn farming and urban policy and industrial decline, “about” adoption and the social forces that normalize children. But those are all culinary decisions, choices about cuisine and menu-building. There’s an entire paired but unspoken body of choices about the experience of dining, about how—regardless of cuisine—we can build a pleasing, immersive, unified experience.
And that’s what a good restaurant, or a good book, really is. It’s the unification of the culinary interests of the chef and her staff with the hospitality interests of the dining floor team.
Let’s look at one specific decision that I made in that excerpt above, a decision that I understand right now reading it again in a way that I understood natively nine years ago but never could have named. And the decision I want to call your attention to is the sentence He signed for the bill to be applied to his tab. Let’s think about that sentence the way we’d think about the placement of the bread plate: what exactly is it doing?
The most obvious thing that it’s doing is breaking up Charles’ long soliloquy into two parts. My characters tend to be well-educated people, and here, Charles clearly has Robert’s permission to be the teacher—that’s why they’re at that table. So it’s no surprise that Charles is able to deliver, in that moment, an unbroken 152-word statement, something that would take a minute or a minute-fifteen of real-time to say. It’s not a simple conversation, which would have lots of interruptions and mutuality. It’s a lesson.
But let’s look at the placement of that breaking sentence within the soliloquy. All of the statement before represents the conclusion to Charles’ analysis of the objective world before them: the tableware, the glasses, the sequence and presentation of courses. The statement after the breaking sentence is subjective: it’s about Charles’ own history within the world of fine dining, and his decision to attend to the front of the house rather than the kitchen. Without you ever knowing it, I’ve divided that one unified piece of discourse into two related but not identical topics, and signaled the mutual importance of each.
It’s doing a second thing, too: it’s reminding us that we’re at a table in a restaurant. Lots of beginner writers recognize the importance of breaking long dialogue into chunks, but they don’t quite realize that it’s a positive tool rather than merely a defensive act. So they’ll drop in a sentence like, “She sighed heavily” or “He fidgeted in his chair” as a sort of typographic device that breaks a long statement. But those kinds of stage directions don’t accomplish much; they reinforce (or sometimes act in the absence) of the emotional life that ought to be carried in the dialogue itself. We oughtn’t to hear her sigh, we ought to feel her weariness in every sentence she says. We oughtn’t to see him fidget this one time, we ought to see him perpetually as a nervous man in constant motion.
So when Charles signs for the bill to be applied to his tab, it’s an action specific to this location—the end of a meal in a fine restaurant—but it also does a third thing. It hearkens back to the fact that the maitre d’ and Charles greeted one another by name at his arrival, back to the fact that Charles knows exactly how they make a Vieux Carre and a Sazerac here. Charles has chosen this restaurant for his lesson because he knows it intimately, he’s a regular enough patron that they’re happy to have him run a tab. This is the kind of restaurant at which he feels the power of hospitality himself, and has returned to it dozens or hundreds of times—of course it’s where he’ll take Robert for his lessons. This simple sentence highlights the familial love Charles holds for this place.
You never saw any of that, did you? But in the context of reading, I think you’d have felt it. “You notice things that are wrong, like a stone in your shoe, but you just have a general sense of elegance and accuracy when they’re right. It’s just as real a sensation, but less easily named.”
For the past couple of months, I’ve been stuck about what my next novel might be. There’s lots of reasons for that. My wife and I both just recovered from Covid. I’ve been completely immersed in the work of a client college. I’ve just taught three months of short-story writing, and coached two friends into the editing of their own books. And there’s just the native emotional trough that comes with the completion of each book, a natural period of exhaustion and adjustment that must be endured before the next can begin.
But I find myself now eager to perform hospitality again. And rather than fret about starting from culinary choices, I’m ready to embrace my work as front-of-the-house manager, welcoming you again to a rich and engaging evening. Maybe it’ll be Thai food, maybe Kansas City barbecue. Doesn’t matter. I’m ready to be your host.