One of the reasons I’m a vegetarian is that I have a low tolerance for violence. I understand: cycle of nature, food chain, blah blah blah… but one of the things that makes us human is that we get to choose how to participate, not merely play out some supposedly inevitable role as predator or prey.
I’m particularly annoyed by catch-and-release fishing, which is supposedly the humane, “sporting” alternative to eating what you bring home. But really, the only reasons to hunt and fish are a) to sit in the woods or on the boat and meditate, and b) to eat.
Let’s think about it from the fish’s point of view. The fish, I think, has a vocabulary of four words:
Whatever—nothing special going on here, just chillax
Huh—I wonder what that thing is over there
Yum—I’m going to eat that thing!
FUCK!!!!—That thing’s going to eat me!
I think that pretty much covers the gamut of fish inner monologue. (Some people, too.)
So here’s the short story of the catch-and-release experience from the fish’s POV.
Excerpted from “What I Did Last Summer,” by pretty much every bass in third grade
The trauma may not be lasting, the fish may not have an enduring sense of self into which this momentary assault will be permanently fit, but it’s trauma nonetheless, and I don’t need to participate in it.
A lot of our lives is catch-and-release, though, isn’t it. Being an adjunct faculty member can be like this: just doin’ our scholarly thing, seeing an interesting opportunity over there, swimming over to be told that “you’re just the right person to teach this, we’ve had a need in this area for so long…” And we hit the bait, only then to discover the barbed hook and the lack of nutrients.
Being a writer is much the same: just doin’ our fiction thing, seeing an interesting agent or magazine, swimming over to deliver the pitch, and biting down hard just to be strung along and eventually tossed back.
But damn, that bait looks good.
Really, the ideal life of the writer is only the first couplet of this abbreviated poem of experience: whatever and huh. That is, happily writing, and being interested in something new to write about. It’s the second pair, the external forces, that introduce the danger. The glittering lure that draws us; the unseen barb that snares us, thrashing for our lives.
So the last couple of days, we’ve talked about tribes, and alliances, and alienation. But let’s think about it not just in terms of individual bonds with our own communities; let’s go broader, and take an ecological look at why so many of us seem to be at odds with ourselves.
About 125 years ago, Émile Durkheim proposed the idea of anomie, or the breakdown of values and norms. Although the term is often used to describe an individual’s state of mind, the real import of anomie is that it’s a collective condition; that our old rules don’t make sense any more. And certainly, in our year of COVID, it’s no surprise that we’re experiencing some anomie. We don’t get to be social, don’t get to hang out or date or go to class. But I think that there are a lot of forces of anomie right now: a confluence of absences.
More and more jobs becoming gigs, with everybody scrambling to stay one step ahead of the infinite crowd of replacements.
Tens of millions of college graduates, grad school graduates, med school graduates—well prepared and highly skilled, who played by the rules and excelled, now in numbers far too great to be employed.
A cultural cesspool of drive-by insults, of ill-will dropped into every online community from anywhere in the world. Maybe not even by humans.
A world of social rebalancing, in which mediocrity isn’t enough to protect white males any more, but excellence for women and people of color hasn’t yet brought about assured rewards (or safety).
The looming end of setting fire to fossil fuels, and the resistance of those still in the industry (and those for whom the artifact of a big-ass truck is a crucial validation).
The changing climate that reconfigures seasons and shorelines, that brings new weather and new crops and new pests.
The clinging decline of the Boomers, who sucked up all the air in the room and never made opportunities for anyone younger.
The crushing burden of wealth inequality, and the protection of its own power against the needs of hundreds of millions of hard workers.
I mean, just look around at any mode of human relations, and you’ll see the remnants of what had seemed stable, inevitable. To quote Marx, “all that is solid melts into air.” We’ve mastered a game that no one plays any more, and every time we try to learn the new one, we discover that’s already obsolete, too. I’ve gone through vinyl records and eight-tracks and cassettes and CDs and MP3s and MP4s. I’ve gone through MS-DOS and Windows 3.1 and Mac OS six through eleven. I was a star of my undergrad program and a star of my grad program and never had a chance on the academic market. All of us, doing everything we know how to do, within the context of events that cannot be predicted.
We’re asked to blame ourselves, to try harder, to do more. Our individualism sets us into perpetual competition, and so we look for scapegoats, people we can defeat, interlopers we should repel. As the old joke has it, three guys are sitting at a table with a dozen cookies. The capitalist has ten, the worker has one, and the consumer has one. And the capitalist says to the consumer, “watch out, that union guy’s going to steal your cookie.” We’re turned against each other, crabs clawing one another back down into the pot.
One of the most common conversations I’ve had since The Adjunct Underclass came out two years ago is some variant of “Yeah, it was like that for me, too.” So many people have just been relieved to learn that they are not uniquely defective, that their talents weren’t imaginary. That there are a vast body of others who’ve done well, done good, and done right, and not experienced any payoff from it.
Just as was true for the book, I offer no simple mechanism by which our anomie can be repaired. We are in an ecosystem, not a machine in which a lever drives a gear turns a shaft all in knowable proportion. But just that knowledge seems to be helpful: learning the fundamental wrongness of that all the cause-and-effect we’ve been taught gives us a chance to stop harming ourselves even further with a bad story. As Anaïs Nin wrote, “shame is the lie someone told you about yourself.” And those lies—that you’re insufficient, that you haven’t worked hard enough, that the next round will for sure be the winner—have vast power if we believe them.
We won’t be able to imagine what’s next if we hang onto what isn’t.
The title question of today’s post—where is your tribe?—will be nonsensical to those over a certain age, and irrelevant to those under. The notion that community and physical place are interwoven was once taken for granted and is now bewildering.
Geographers talk about relationship “friction,” as in a force resisting movement. For a long time, physical distance offered huge amounts of friction. When it took four months to get from New Hampshire to the frontier in mid-Ohio, very few people did it, and hardly anybody did it more than once. Now I could drive that in one long day. in 1907, the British ocean liner HMS Mauretania set a record from London to New York, making the trip in just under six days. Now it’s closer to six hours, on any air carrier you like.
Private couriers became public mail. Physical mail became telegraphs, telegraphs became telephones, telephones became email and text. Each of those innovations reduced the friction of communication, allowed distance to be overcome more easily.
Economists also talk about friction, in similar ways. That ticket on the Mauritania to get you to New York in 1907 was a luxury item: a second-class one-way ticket, adjusted for inflation, was about five times more expensive than a coach-fare flight today. So the cost of travel is also a diminished frictional force. Superfast internet connection enables everybody with a phone plan to be in contact with anybody anywhere, and the idea of worrying about “long-distance charges” is long past. (My mom was a telephone operator, and “long distance” was a big freakin’ deal when I was a kid. Calling my aunt Martha, from our home in Michigan to hers in Ohio, was a twice-a-year event. Now my writing group meets every month by video, from Vermont to North Carolina to Sweden, at no per-conversation cost.)
So the friction of distance is almost gone… or is it?
Where are you? Right now, as you’re reading this, where are you? Open Google Maps and figure out how far away you are from Middletown Springs, Vermont. If you’re Tom, you’re about 2,100 miles away. If you’re Jenn, you’re about 1,850 miles away. If you’re Diana, you’re about 185 miles away. If you’re Hugh, you’re about two miles from our porch; if you’re Sudeshna, it’s 7,100 miles. Aimee’s usually 550 miles away, but now 6,800 for a few months. All good friends, all over the map.
I have lots of friends here in town, but when I think about their networks, the geographic circles are different sizes. One of the fundamental divisions in our town are the old Vermonters and those who’ve come from away (even if they might have come from away forty-five years ago). If you don’t have generations in the cemetery, you’re more or less a newcomer.
For the old Vermonters, geographical friction is stronger. Sure, they’ve got Facebook friends here and there, but the circle of conversations for lots of families is concentrated between the poles of Granville NY and Rutland VT, an hour’s diameter. They get their news from the Rutland Herald and the Lakes Region Free Press, and more fundamentally from friends at the store and through the car window.
I received eleven personal emails today. Five were local within five miles, the other six ranging from 320 miles to 3,100 miles away. I read articles in the New York Times, the New Yorker, New York Magazine, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Atlantic Monthly, Inside Higher Ed…
Where is my tribe?
I bought a cauliflower this afternoon, some blackberries, some turbinado sugar. I bought some onions, some cherry tomatoes, some lemons. I’m betting that those six produce items collectively traveled well over fifteen thousand miles to get here.
I would not do very well to be local. I would have less of interest to read, a different community of friends with a more enclosed body of interests and experiences. I would eat more seasonally, and less interestingly.
But I would know my local environment far more deeply. I would understand seasons in a completely different, full-bodied way. I would eat berries for three weeks every summer, and treasure them. I’d eat venison from the freezer for six months every winter, and remember where I’d shot it. I would know the same body of people from grade school to senior-citizen day at that same school eighty years later.
Where is my tribe?
I’ve learned to be multilingual over my life, to be an ambassador traveling between communities. I’ve learned ways to make my academic and professional skills beneficial to my small rural town, just as I had earlier learned to make my working-class upbringing a powerful tool for my scholarly and professional life.
But I think that’s left me globally alien, never quite at home anywhere. I read things like yesterday’s academic abstract and I roll my eyes, scarcely able to believe that anyone anywhere actually uses that heightened language. But I can tire quickly of local gossip at the general store, the unmediated conversations about I was gonna go into Rutland but then my sister called and she needed me to tell her how many eggs go into Aunt Sally’s squash bread, and I said, well, it depends on whether you’re using store eggs or fresh eggs… Honest to God, I’ve heard people fill twenty minutes without a single idea.
I don’t know who my tribe is, exactly, nor where. My very closest friends are from my life in higher education, spread across the United States… and from my life in Middletown Springs, within five minutes’ drive and in the same houses for twenty and thirty and forty years.
This blog is bilingual. It carries large ideas in small words, big concepts demonstrated through small examples. It shuttles back and forth between communities.
Let’s think about that word “alien,” and its paired idea of alienation. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes alienation as “the problematic separation of a subject and object that properly belong together.” It is a psychic state of disassociation between things that ought to be associated. We can be alienated from our family, or from our work. The hobbies that had once brought us pleasure can now feel remote and cold. In the most troubling sense, we can become alienated from ourselves—that we no longer recognize who we’ve become, can no longer make sense of ourselves. Every life crisis is a mode of self-alienation, that the story we’ve told about ourselves no longer hangs together but a new story hasn’t yet made itself evident.
I used to lead a summer writing retreat for science faculty at a small Eastern university. I’d done fine in physics, never taken chemistry, and didn’t remember much biology, so I wasn’t an obvious choice by discipline… but I knew how to craft an argument, how to marshal evidence, and how to read and respond to reviewers’ notes, and that was sufficient to make me helpful enough to be brought back for ten years. I used to tell them that I didn’t understand any of the nouns, but that I could help them organize the verbs, and that was enough.
Any writing is aimed at an audience, and all audiences differ in what they know, what they’re interested in, and the language they use to describe it all. That’s a lay description of what’s professionally known as a “community of discourse,” that label already marking itself as outside our everyday language—another noun that not every reader will know.
According to linguist John Sayles, a discourse community has six common features. Because you’re (probably) not linguists, I’ll paraphrase.
A discourse community has common goals.
A discourse community has ways for its members to communicate.
A discourse community communicates in order to present information and to give and receive feedback: it’s two-directional.
A discourse community uses a particular genre (a blend of topic and structure) to pursue its goals.
A discourse community also owns a particular vocabulary.
Because of those first five characteristics, there’s a certain level of expertise required in order to participate in the discourse.
This isn’t unique to academia by any means. Nora has introduced me to a vast discourse community in fiber spinning, and I’ve (gradually and incompletely) learned some vocabulary, some genre, and some of the community goals. I mean, if I can tell you the difference between maidens and the mother-of-all (neither of which have anything to do with people), I’ve developed some credibility, right?
So, this morning, I got a note from a colleague on LinkedIn about his new publication, and went to see the abstract of it, which—although outside my field of interest—looks like a reasonable contribution to the historical understanding of 20th-century literature. But then, in the related-articles field down at the bottom, I clicked on a different article, and fell completely through the portal into another dimension of discourse. Here’s the abstract of the article “Fractured Feminine Selves, Autospecular Affect, and Global Modernity: Meena Alexander and the Postcolonial Artist as a Woman,” by Parvinder Mehta, as published in The Journal of Foreign Languages and Cultures, 4:1, June 2020.
This essay takes up the modernist tradition of representing fractured feminine selves in the work of contemporary Asian-American author Meena Alexander (1951–2018), examining her representation of the postcolonial artist through a critical exploration of autospecular affect. Drawing on modernist impulses—the breakdown of human communication, the inefficacy of language, as well as experiences of alienation—Alexander depicts the creative act for the postcolonial artist as suffused with an autospecular desire to connect fragmented, displaced psyches through a reassessment of subjectivities. She delineates possibilities of moving past Eurocentric modernism through her articulation of the struggles of the postcolonial artist dealing with global modernity. Drawing from theories of specularity within affective paradigms, I trace the phenomenological process of self-other engagement in Alexander’s references to the autospecular subject looking in the mirror to understand herself and others around her. I also highlight how modernist writers such as Joyce, Eliot, and Woolf offer Alexander a metaphorical mirror wherein she sees the anxieties of the postcolonial artist and reflects them through renderings of their creative challenges. The essay concludes with a theoretical interpretation of Alexander’s autoscopic experiences in terms of Jacques Lacan’s “mirror stage theory” to understand subject formation in her work.
This is what happens when you eavesdrop on someone else’s discourse community: you don’t understand what’s being said, because you haven’t developed the threshold-level expertise necessary to participate. Just as is true in biochemistry, this simple abstract is filled with nouns that we have no access to.
Let’s just look at one single word there: specularity. I don’t know what that word means, and because it represents the core concept of the entire article, I have no access to any level of its argument. So we know, because of the -ity suffix, that specularity means “the condition of something specular.” And we know, because of the -ar suffix, that specular means “characteristic of a speculum.” (Any word composed with two suffixes is a great indicator of a specific sort of vocabulary, right?) So what’s a speculum? What noun are we dealing with?
in medicine: a metal or plastic instrument that is used to dilate an orifice or canal in the body to allow inspection. Probably not.
in ornithology:A bright patch of plumage on the wings of certain birds, especially a strip of metallic sheen on the secondary flight feathers of many ducks. Probably not that one either.
archaic use (from the original Latin): A mirror or reflector of glass or metal, especially (formerly) a metallic mirror in a reflecting telescope. Aha, that’s probably the one.
So specular would be “reflective,” and autospecular would be “looking at oneself in the mirror.” And autospecular affect would be one’s emotional response to what one sees in that mirror. (And of course, no contemporary work would be complete without reference to Lacan.)
I could go on—and in order to learn to read this article, I’d have to. That 200-word abstract has all kinds of language that clearly mark it as an act of participation in a particular discourse community, and that equally mark the rest of us as not being members. And that’s the work that I think is most interesting here: the clear message that civilians are not welcome, that this piece of work is appropriately read by maybe two hundred people worldwide.
Why do that? Why declare one’s work only of interest to a tiny, tiny community? If we were deeply enthused about something, why wouldn’t we want to expand the number of people who were also interested?
I think we do far too much of that in academia. We draw the fence in tighter and tighter, stop sharing and start hoarding. Higher education has become a culture of scarcity—not enough time, not enough jobs, not enough support—and I think it’s making us less generous, as we fear for our collective and individual futures. Just as Dr. Mehta has identified a particular kind of “postcolonial” work being done in the poetry of Meena Alexander, I would identify a particular kind of “postacademic” work being done by so many articles like this one. Not ‘postintellectual:” this is meaningful intellectual work. I mean specifically “after the fact of the academy,” or after the era of the stable community of teaching and learning. We have moved away from the idea of a teaching and learning community, and declare our primary allegiance to a widespread land of scattered specialists, just as our students have declared their allegiance not to learning but to survival on the career marketplace. That’s neither inevitable nor inarguably a good thing: it’s a decision, made in the face of contexts and conditions.
There’s a lot of blather about “why academics write so badly.” And I don’t think that’s the case. I think instead that we often write very well indeed—to our specific community and no others.
When I was an undergraduate at Berkeley, architecture was described by one faculty member as “an art practiced by a few dozen for an audience of a few thousand.” The notion that architecture encompassed social responsibilities and social opportunities, the simple fact of even a simple building being a multi-million dollar investment and not just a twenty-dollar watercolor notebook… all left behind, deemed common. Architecture, as practiced by a certain body of architects, was a very particular discourse community that purposefully excluded almost everybody. The conversation that mattered was the conversation in the right magazines, read equally by a few people in New York and a few people in Los Angeles and a few people in London and a few people in Hong Kong…
I’m struggling right now with the cultural question of what value the “local” has. I’ve argued for a long time that place matters, that our ideas and our work and our importance in the world is rooted in community. But I’ve increasingly felt as though “local” is too often “provincial,” exclusionary, isolationist. I’m really torn about what matters in being local, and about what’s lost.
One of the very best things about working with other writers is that it makes me think seriously and in new ways about my own writing. I have to understand more fully why I make the decisions I do, the kinds of strategies I use to organize chronology and voice, when I sit in scene and when I do exposition. To use Michael Polanyi’s formulation, it makes my tacit knowledge more explicit.
In the past couple of days, I’ve had two different experiences with two different writers that have led me to understand my motivations for writing, why those motivations are individual rather than universal, and why some projects take off while others bump along and never rise.
The first was that I read a novel in manuscript, and wasn’t ever able to engage with it. When I reported that back to the writer, he laid out a long explication of his own motives for writing, what he was trying to accomplish, and other books that had done similar work. And it made my own motives more clear.
The book I’ve been working on for the past half-year, for instance, has remained inert. Well crafted, but inert. And I think that it’s because it came from a seed stock that is, for me, sterile by default. It’s a novel about an idea, a concept-driven book that fits together like an interesting puzzle. And like a Rubik’s Cube, it offers no emotional life for me. I’m discovering that I have to start with an identifiable individual who deserves my compassion and generosity; then I can write. Without that person who needs my assistance to have their story told, there’s no story.
So this contest, interesting as it is, wouldn’t draw from my strengths. It wants to be a story about ideas. It’s designed to be a story about ideas. I don’t have enough lived sense of what the year 2200 would be (nor, I guess, enough interest in it) to find a character there for whom I can be generous, and so this story, in my hands, could never rise.
I think this dooms me to never writing “literature.” I write stories, which are different. Literature is about ideas. Literature advances the discipline. Just as some sociology is primarily a forwarding of sociological theory, some literature is aimed squarely at literary theory. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that… )
Yesterday’s email update from Random House was about one swath of spring 2021 books, prefaced with the headline “Feel-Good Fiction.” The subhead was “Find some comforting reads for stressful times. These are the novels to reach for if you want charming characters, sweet storylines, and good vibes.”
That’s where I’m headed as a writer. I have to find someone who deserves my generosity, and then I have to tell their story generously.
Because I’m compulsive, I sat down this morning, opened a new Word document, and did a strategic analysis of all the novels I’ve worked on in the past seven years. There are nine, plus the book of short stories, plus the nonfiction. But I just focused on the full length novels. For each one, I asked the following questions:
Who is the protagonist? Name, age, defining characteristics.
How is the protagonist stuck? How has he come to be in a rut and unable to grow? How have his dreams been forestalled, or been achieved and still found wanting?
What’s the mechanism of change? How does the ice break to start the avalanche of the story? What cracks the stability open? (To quote John Gardner, there are only two stories: a person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. Both are a rupture of stability.)
What’s the adventure? What big quest does the protagonist have to take on in order to ride his way through the disruption? And how does that quest enable him to become something greater than he currently is?
What’s the soup? That is, what are the big questions or themes that come up for me as this person navigates this context? What does the story come to be “about?”
I could answer all five of these questions easily for each of the first eight books. But the ninth book, the one I’ve been chipping away at for the past seven or eight months… the ONLY answer of the five that was convincing was “the soup.” It’s a book about ideas. It’s an architectural novel, in which each of the suites of a new small office building become the scene of someone’s dreams and desires: their new business, their growing career, their next steps and setbacks, the randomness of capitalism’s rewards. Not one of those protagonists has yet risen to the level of care; they remain avatars, types, puzzle pieces to be sorted into logical order.
I think that book #9, for me, is fatally flawed, because it started with the wrong question. It’s doomed to be literature, and will never become a story. And that realization gives me permission to set it aside, and to look for 9b.
A couple of things have come across my inbox over the weekend that I’ve taken great inspiration from. One was an interview of Spike Lee, by the New Yorker’s Vinson Cunningham. I’ll pull a couple of quotes:
But, to be honest, I didn’t go to film school thinking that the professors were going to teach me how to be a filmmaker. And I say that with no disrespect. All I wanted—and Ernest Dickerson and Ang Lee, who were my classmates, too—we just wanted the equipment. We wanted the equipment to make our films. We wanted to learn the basic stuff—how to read a light meter and this and that. But, as far as teach us how to make a movie, we would teach ourselves. Give us equipment.
And the summer between me graduating Morehouse and then going to N.Y.U. film school in the fall, I was lucky enough to get an internship at Columbia Pictures. First time I’d ever been in L.A. And I was at the first screening—not a première, but the first public screening—of “Apocalypse Now,” at the Cinerama Dome, on Sunset Boulevard. And every time I see Francis, I bring it up. He says, “Spike, you told me that a million times already.” But I only say that because it had a great impact on me. I remember sitting in the Cinerama Dome and—with the great sound work by Walter Murch—these helicopters flying over my head. I’m turning around, looking, like, Where the fuck is this helicopter coming from?
These two paragraphs tell you everything you’d ever need to know about great teaching. You teach students craft, not content. You give them the best tools you can find, and insist that they use them with care. You show them inspiring work. You surround them with other talented and passionate kids. And you hang out with them yourself outside class.
So as I was considering this list, as evidenced in the life and work of Spike Lee, I got this obituary of Walter Gretzky. Let me pull a couple of quotes from that as well:
The Gretzky home at 42 Viradi Ave., in Brantford, has become something of a national shrine over the years. Walter Gretzky happily welcomed strangers wishing to see the backyard where the rink known as “Wally’s Coliseum” started a 3-year-old Wayne on his way to hockey superstardom.
The family had one golden rule — “Get your homework done first” — and then everyone could play as long as they wanted, on what Wayne’s father liked to call “glass ice.”
“He would be out here hour after hour,” Walter Gretzky told The Globe and Mail in 2008, “twisting in and out between pylons we made from Javex bottles. He used to tie a can off a string and hang it in the net and see how many times he could hit it. He used to pay kids a nickel or a dime to play goalie for him.”
It was Walter who told Wayne to “skate to where the puck’s going and not to where it’s been.” The superstar son always maintained that he developed his game “right in my own backyard,” under the tutelage of his father. Walter Gretzky had been a fine young player in his own right, but at 140 pounds he was considered too small to move into Junior A hockey, then the traditional route to a professional career.
The same lessons are here, in a small-town backyard in Ontario, just as they are in film school in New York City. You teach students craft, not content. You give them the best tools you can find, and insist that they use them with care. You show them inspiring work. You surround them with other talented and passionate kids. And you hang out with them yourself outside class.
We surround so much education with infrastructure that doesn’t advance any of these five goals. That actually obliterates them. As the education writer Ivan Illich once wrote, we often think that we learned things in school, but when challenged to actually think it through, we surrender that illusion pretty quickly. His example there was learning another language. “You learn a language when you go live with your grandparents for a summer. Or when you fall in love with someone from another country.” Lessons can help us, sometimes, do something we already want to do. But they can’t help us want to do them, and that’s the core of all learning.
If you have to choose between school and learning, learning is always the answer.
Careerist: A person whose main concern is for professional advancement, especially one willing to achieve this by any means. —Oxford Online Dictionary
I just read (and re-read) a long article in the Spring 2021 issue of Bookforum about a new biography of Philip Roth, in which Roth is painted as the most “careerist” of 20th century novelists. It seems like an awful lot of words chewed up to describe something really recognizable.
As Christian Lorentzen, the writer of this piece, defines it, “careerist” seems to be a careful attention to one’s self-image; an immediate and sharp response to perceived slights; and never turning down a public-relations opportunity. And it made me wonder, what famed author hasn’t done those things? Mark Twain was famous for his lecture tours, several cross-country journeys in the 1860s, 1880s, and 1890s that saved him from authorial poverty. Gore Vidal was on all the TV talk shows from the 1950s through the 80s. (Talk shows don’t book writers any more, alas.) And when Truman Capote, of all people, calls someone a careerist, that’s nothing more than projection.
The contemporary word for the careerist writer is “platform,” as in the thing you can stand on that lifts you above the crowd. Rachel Maddow has a great platform; there’s not another PhD in Political Science who could write a book about Spiro Agnew and sell a hundred thousand copies of it. If she wasn’t a TV star, if she were merely Dr. Maddow on the poly-sci faculty at UMass-Amherst, she’d have published that same book with Routledge and sold twelve hundred copies. It’s a good book, but there are a million good books; the platform made it a successful book.
A string of bad work can collapse your platform, but good work has very little to do with building it. (Exhibit 1: the Kardashians.) The platform comes from labor unrelated to your talent or your commitment. In our age of author photos, it really helps to be attractive. (You can grow the Michael Chabon “victory beard” later, after your eighth or tenth book.) Getting your MFA from Michigan or Irvine or Cornell is a great education, but it’s also a careerist move, because those are the training grounds where agents and editors camp out on the sidelines with binoculars, waiting to grab the promising young recruits. It’s not who you know… it’s who knows you, who’ll recognize your name in the inbox, who’ll return your calls. Who’ll recognize your name in the bookstore and take a $30 chance on it.
The platform determines which books get acquired, and which of the acquired get the advance. The platform determines which books get shipped in boxes of fifty and laid out on the “New and Notable” table at the bookstore, and which get shipped in a mixed lot to be slotted into the shelf spinewise as one of the strays sadly awaiting a new home. The platform determines who gets the reviews, the blurbs, the invitations to do Q&As with Bookforum and Poets and Writers.
We’ve known all of this for forever. There’s nothing new about it, and nothing unique to Philip Roth for knowing how to do it once the platform made itself evident. The term “big-name author” is kind of a metaphor, with “big” standing for “well-known…” but it’s also literal, in the case of those authors whose name on the cover or spine is gigantic and the title much smaller. What’s the product being sold? Not Dressed for Death, but Donna Leon, and the readers’ anticipated backstage experience of Venice. Not The Institute, but Stephen King, and the readers’ anticipated experience of supernatural menace. Not In Pieces, but Sally Field, and the readers’ anticipated experience of a guided tour through the Boomer Hall of Fame. Look on your bookshelf at the spines of your books; only seven of the roughly 350 books in the shelf next to my bed have the author name more prominent than the title. Three are by Joan Didion. One by Nick Hornby, identified on the spine only as Hornby. The current novel by Peter Ho Davies. Two are late-career autobiographies by musicians, Bill Bruford and Andy Summers. When the name is big, the publishers are betting on you buying the name, the work only an incidental. The vast majority of writers are merely listed on the cover as aids to alphabetical shelving, and the work has to sell itself.
And the advice books aside, nobody knows how to build a platform. It helps to be born to someone prominent in the industry you’d like to be part of, but we’ve always known that, too. But really, it’s pretty random. You can be super talented and work super hard, and some people will have their work land on the pavement and be washed away in the next storm, while others have their work land on fertile soil and take root. Our “hope labor,” writing for free in the online magazines, only pays off if that magazine as a whole is suddenly noticed and rewarded in the Zeitgeist; all the other people who wrote great things for magazines that go undiscovered receive no platform points.
All we have is the work, and occasionally lifting our eyes from the desk to scan the horizon for opportunity. Opportunity that may or may not pan out, may or may not be illusory. Opportunity that seeks the already established channel.
I got an email from a friend last night. I will identify them as “they” and not locate them anywhere except within the lower 48 United States, but I will say that they are an adjunct faculty member at a couple of colleges. That’ll narrow it down to maybe a million people, so I think we’re safe.
They teach at one college that has returned to in-person instruction.
That college has started a vaccine administration system on its campus.
Adjuncts are not offered vaccination.
60% of their teaching force are adjuncts.
I mean, just from a public health standpoint, this is brick stupid. Why would you want a substantial part of your herd to not have been immunized, when you’re in a close-contact community?
And here’s the deal. I don’t think this is mean-spirited. I don’t think anybody’s standing at the gate, gleefully cackling “No Pfizer for YOU, dearie!!!” I think this is just the kind of thing that happens when a class of people have become invisible. Have become non-people.
This is the kind of thing that happens when we crow about having “a sense of community,” and then forget to actually think about who’s part of our community.
Lots of folks get upset at the idea of structural racism or structural sexism. They prefer to see a world of individual competitors who succeed or fail on the fair playing field of life. They insist that, because THEY THEMSELVES aren’t biased, that biases play and have played no role in their lives. They insist that, because THEY THEMSELVES aren’t biased, that bias plays no role in the lives of others
But my friend the adjunct has no way of competing for this vaccine on this campus, even as they have given years of service to this body of students. There is nothing that they could do, or could have ever done, to make them eligible for a benefit that others receive freely. There is absolutely nothing that is “their fault” about this decision made outside their control and without their consideration.
If a real estate agent shows people of color houses in only one part of town (knowing that they won’t “fit in” elsewhere), then that family will buy a house that won’t appreciate as rapidly, in a neighborhood that won’t be served by great schools, and won’t leave as much wealth for the kids to inherit. This used to be part of Federal housing and lending policy—now it’s cultural, a sense of who belongs and who doesn’t, cultural norms that add up over millions and millions of iterations into something stable and stubborn and enduring. Did those kids choose to be born six steps behind on the wealth stair? Of course not, just as George W. (“Daddy got me into Yale”) Bush or Mitt (“Daddy bought me a house in Boston while I was doing my MBA”) Romney didn’t choose to be born at the very pinnacle of that staircase. But it’s intellectually dishonest to not acknowledge those starting points, and the larger cumulative weight of history that they represent.
I was raised in a working class family, came from no economic privilege. But I can name you half a dozen times that I did some dumb thing as a teenager or young adult that, because I was white, got me a stern talking-to by a cop. If I’d been Black or Mexican American, each one of those would have been far more likely to have gotten me arrested. Or left me dead. It was bad enough being a long-haired hippie with a backpack in Amarillo, Texas in 1979… if I’d been a person of color, it would have been over.
We’re good at seeing individual cases and really, really bad at seeing patterns. And we’re absolutely terrible at seeing patterns we don’t want to see. So: was Eric Garner breaking the law by selling individual cigarettes on the sidewalk for a dollar? Sure, absolutely he was. Is my white neighbor breaking the law by having fifty leaking, dead cars scattered across his property, leaching motor oil and fuel and antifreeze and lead from the batteries into the soil above the river? Absolutely he is. So which one’s dead?
See, that’s what we mean by structural. It’s just another way of saying “patterns.” Patterns that maybe we should look at more closely.
When I accepted the challenge to write The Adjunct Underclass, I was clear from the start with my editor that I didn’t want to write another “combat narrative” of evil administrators and beleaguered teachers. I believed then, and believe even more strongly now, that what we’re seeing is an ecological collapse in which the species of college teachers is dying off. A combination of demographics and state funding and co-curricular services and educational technology and transfer credits and the broad cultural abandonment of workers have all contributed their tiny component to a structural discrimination in which someone who’s dedicated years of service to their students isn’t deemed a “real person” for purposes of public health.
But we see simple cause-and-effect more easily than we see systems. We see individual cases more easily than we see patterns. And we see, and accept, what is more easily than we imagine what might be instead.
I subscribe to a daily message from The Creative Independent, a Kickstarter offshoot that conducts interviews with well known, lesser known, and unknown artists about their origins, their processes, their ways of working through frustrations or transitions. Today’s was an interview with the musician Sarah Beth Tomberlin. And, as often happens, there was one line that stopped me.
A song is finished when you connect to it and you don’t feel like you’re lying.
That feels right. It feels like what I see when I look at the work of my friends who are woodworkers and paper artists. You can look at their work from every direction and see no loose ends, no decisions that could have been made but weren’t. Nothing “good enough,” just good.
When we make things, there are several levels of done-ness at which we could stop.
There’s “I don’t really care about this,” which might prevent us from starting it at all.
There’s “I can’t get this to work,” which may be momentary and may be terminal. The novelist Lee Martin says that his father’s gruff, farm advice was “Can’t never got nothin’ done.”
There’s “good, now it’s running,” which might be enough for a couple of days while we think about next steps or wait for the new parts to arrive.
There’s “that’s pretty nice… but I hope they don’t turn it over…”. It’s that moment where it’s really come together except for that one wonky thing that just never got resolved.
And then there’s “finished.” When you connect to it, and there’s no places where you feel like you’re lying.
The premise behind The Creative Independent, behind all those writers’ talks and MasterClass sessions, is that getting to “finished” is just really, really hard. Not just technically hard, but emotionally hard, because we live most of the time in some lower level of done-ness, straining to bring the beast along in parts toward “finished,” and then knowing that the completed parts don’t yet add up to an equally-completed whole. So we take encouragement and inspiration from the occasional glimpses we get of finished work, and we want to see how. That’s why we ask writers whether they drink coffee or have sworn off cigarettes, whether they write in the morning or at night, whether they think we should enroll in an MFA program or just sit down and go. We’re hoping to borrow some strategies for finding “finished,” not about the work but about our relationship to the work. About believing that “finished” is an attainable state.
I love finding things that are “finished,” and then learning how they got to be that way. A couple of weeks ago, I spent an hour and a half watching the musician Jacob Collier demonstrate the ways in which his arrangement of the song “Moon River” came about. He walked us through it, simultaneously sounding out chords on his desktop keyboard and showing us how he arranged the 4,719 different vocal tracks in his Mac Logic software. (That image at the top of today’s post is a screenshot of Collier’s Logic display of a different song; each of those little scraps of color is him singing a vocal part of seconds apiece, the scraps then assembled into an auditory mosaic.)
Yesterday, I spent some time reading about the custom 1959 Cadillac that won last year’s Ridler Award for automotive creativity. There is absolutely nothing about this car that wasn’t re-invented, re-shaped, taken four paces past reasonable… to “finished.” Two years of work and two million dollars invested, to win a ten-thousand-dollar prize. “Finished” is often an unreasonable aspiration, which is why we can recognize it when we see it.
We also need to know—our own unique, personal assessment—when “finished” is unnecessary. We only have so many hours, and I’d prefer to get a few things “finished,” so I leave lots of others “good enough.” My wood stacking technique is meager, as is my snow shoveling. But the walkway is safe, if you’re paying attention… and the wood is under cover and drying, as long as I don’t bump into that one faulty tower at the northwest corner and bring it down. That work does what’s needed, and leaves me time to aspire toward “finished” in some other area.
These blog posts aren’t “finished.” I give them an hour or two, helping me think through what’s on my mind, and (I hope) offering some encouragement or a few interesting minutes to others. But my real writing… that’s the unreasonable labor of making sure that no matter which way it’s turned, it remains integrated and legible and beautiful. The blog, in a way, is the gym where I get stronger and learn new ideas before I bring them to the performance floor.
The status of “finished” is also a unique, personal assessment. It has no bearing on whether the work speaks to others. It is, as they say, necessary without being sufficient. It is a baseline threshold for releasing the work into the world as a creative person, but what others do with it is beyond our influence. I have no place in my heart for opera or classical European ballet, even as I can recognize that it’s fully finished, elegant, thoughtful work. I have a neighbor who’s a professional, academic, renowned, award-winning poet (it’s quite a little town we’ve got here), whose work doesn’t speak to me at all. Nora doesn’t like Jacob Collier’s music, though she can recognize its level of craft. The state motto of Vermont should be “Huh… I don’t know that I’d’a done it that way…” As Martha Graham once said, “What other people think about you is absolutely none of your business.”
All we can do is to find some areas of our lives that deserve unreasonable labor, and then to dedicate ourselves to taking some piece of that work to “finished.” We all owe ourselves that much. It is our very best self, made material.
My writers’ group was meeting on Sunday, discussing a truly wonderful story from one of our members. She’d started with this story fifteen years before, had built it into a novel that became something of a shambling beast, and wanted to go back to the story as a stand-alone and rediscover what had drawn her to write about this specific moment.
The story still carried some remnants of its novelization, like scraps of plaster stuck to the back of a painting’s frame when it’s taken from a long mounting on the wall. Most specifically, it ended with a narrator from some long distant future, enclosing this perfectly rendered instant within a more inert historical frame. We thought about how, if that retrospective conclusion were removed, the story might otherwise end; thought about different modes of denouement that would land the characters into a modified world.
And one of our group said that he wasn’t sure that a denouement was needed at all. “A novel has to make friends with you,” he said, more or less, “but a short story just has to run up, slap you in the face, and run away.”
Ummm… okay… and we want that why, exactly?
I mean, think about that metaphor. In what other mode would we want meaningless, random aggression that we’re left to figure out on our own? Isn’t that a definition of terrorism? Domestic violence? Do we want our stories to give us micro-dosed PTSD?
Larry David, the lead writer of Seinfeld, said famously that his two rules for the show were “no hugging, no learning.” And that’s just a sad, disappointing recipe for a life.
Years ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece about young scholars’ transition to faculty life, an editorial essay called “That Guy.” The premise was that we’ve all run into jerks in our professional lives—the dissertation adviser who never returns papers, the self-important professor who reads the same lectures off the same crumbling, handwritten notes for decades, the senior scholar now allergic to any of the new thinking of his field—and that those modes of jerkishness can act as positive motivation for our own career. We can take, as part of our developmental task, to “not be that guy.”
I feel the same every time I run into another instance of our modern fetish for hostility lit. It simply convinces me, once again, that I don’t need to be that guy. I can hold that up as an opposed magnetic force that pushes me toward my own aspirations.
Let me go back to a couple of things that I noted in my comments about the passing of Barry Lopez a couple of months ago.
From the Inuktitut language, the word for “storyteller” is isumatuq, which means “the person who creates the atmosphere in which the wisdom reveals itself.”
Storytellers are pattern makers. If our patterns are beautiful and full of grace, they will have the power to bring a person for whom the world has become chaotic and disorganized up from their knees and back to life.
If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive
Back when I was doing academic research, I devised a framework for myself that I called “narrative research,” which was the idea that everything we learned about some person or culture or community could be seen as an expression of an important collective story, and that my job was to understand and to tell that story. Part of this came from my particular field of interest, which was ethnographic work among teenagers. I came to mistrust the “hard science” of developmental psychology, with its inevitable sequential Piagettian stages from sensorimotor through pre-operational to concrete operational to formal operational cognition. I was more drawn to Piaget’s contemporary (and competitor) Lev Vygotsky, who framed youth as an apprenticeship in the ways of life that adults wanted to teach, learning the stories that mattered.
Contemporary adolescence is best understood, for me, as a time of lost story. The story of childhood has been removed, but the story of adulthood is yet withheld. Teenagers don’t have a legitimate cultural story in our structures; they’re no longer A, but not yet B.
Life is filled with those moments of narrative gap, which we often call “crises.” We move from college to career. From free single to young parent. From a house with kids to a house without kids. From fertile to menopausal. From married to divorced. From married to widowed. From employed to retired. From mostly well to mostly infirm. In every case, there will be some liminal period in which we’re no longer A, but haven’t yet figured out how to be B.
Every single one of my stories, now that I look back at them, is a story of someone attempting to build a new B now that A is no longer available to them. I write passages from one nation to another, stories of exile and new home. It doesn’t matter whether the story is 1,500 words or 95,000 words; what matters is that someone in uncertainty, in a “life of quiet desperation,” is helped to find a new community and build a new self. What matters is that they can help a reader for whom the world has become chaotic and disorganized to rise from their knees and back to life.
Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.