I’m about to do two faculty writing workshops, aimed at slightly different functions. One, a half day, is about helping faculty members describe their research plans in an abbreviated form that will help others be interested in receiving a funding proposal for the work. The other, four days long, is more about helping faculty members select from their years of accumulated knowledge and wisdom to create a specific, bounded project. And because I generate metaphors, I woke up this morning thinking about those two processes as they relate to an entirely different profession.
A professional chef goes through both of those same endeavors. She starts her day in the market, in the wild profusion of produce and pasta, of aiolis and herbs, of breads and brisket. She’s capable of making a fine dinner out of any of that, but some combination suggests itself to her, some reduction of the fifty thousand items in the supermarket to the eight that will make its way into a single dish. Putting the whole market into a blender isn’t a meal; it’s a mess. The creation of a meal requires the assembly of a few finely related ideas, and the temporary setting aside of thousands and thousands of others. The fact that this particular dish doesn’t include avocado doesn’t mean that she doesn’t value avocado, merely that her deep knowledge of avocado won’t help this particular raspberry tart that has come to her mind.
So she uses her half-dozen chosen ingredients to make her fabulous, brilliant tart. But then she has to sell it. She’s not going to cut one into tiny little bites and send it out to every table to see who wants a whole one. No, she has to come up with a description of that tart that will fit in the menu, that will do the work of enticing the patrons to take a chance on it. The work of the menu (the work of any advertising) is future-oriented, predictive—it claims “You’re gonna love this!” It’s not merely descriptive, it’s creating an experiential image that a customer is willing to have some borrowed faith in.
Any form of writing, whether academic or popular, whether fact or fiction, goes through these same steps. We reduce the possibilities of the market, of our full and rich mental lives, to a coherent meal that we’d be proud to offer. And then we create a description of that meal for the menu—a pitch letter, an abstract, a proposal—that attempts to capture the essence and importance of the work well enough to entice a reader to choose it ahead of all the other alternatives.
The meal is always the goal. But my work as a writing coach has mostly been to help people recognize when they’re still in the market and need to leave good opportunities behind, and then to help them write a paragraph for the menu that will get their meal chosen.
Every college now has a broad array of enterprise software, a set of computing tools that helps to organize the business as a whole rather than the individual productivity of its members. The two that are most visible are the learning management system or course management system (LMS/CMS), like Blackboard or Moodle, that allow for the work of individual courses to be posted, shared, and recorded—and the information management system like PowerCampus that retains student and faculty data. But there’s related management software all around campus:
in admissions, to plan recruitment and track expressions of interest and applications (it’s the same software that car dealers use to check in on people who visited the lot a couple of Saturdays ago)
in financial aid, to track individual borrowing, lending limits, and institutional default rates
in advancement and donor development, to track the invitations and communications and contacts that convert friends into donors
in accounting, to organize the endless array of accounts payable and receivable, of contracts and partnerships
in facilities management, to record construction and maintenance and scheduled interventions
in security, to enable the card swipes that open doors and gates, record entries and exits, archive endless hours of surveillance video
It’s often difficult to get these things to talk with one another—they were often bought at different times, often from different vendors. And converting from one system to another is so daunting that they tend to become perpetual; the accuracy of data transfer from one platform to another is fraught with danger.
This stuff is crazy expensive. I’ve not seen a strong economic analysis that honestly compares the relationship between the actual costs of option a (enterprise software, and the IT personnel and resources required to run them) and option b (added staffing of administrative assistants equipped with PCs and Microsoft Office), but progress cannot be questioned. For today, let’s just grant that it has business benefits, even though colleges operated for a long, long time before enterprise software existed.
In the face of our humble acquiescence, the question I have for the day is: with all of this information at our disposal, why don’t we do a better job of making it available? Information, unlike water, tends to flow upward rather than down, and “the Enterprise” who benefit from this organized data is reduced to a scarce handful of its members. I was working with a faculty group a couple of weeks ago, and their union had actually hired a forensic accountant to understand actual expenditures. In the absence of data, we’re left to guess at how much (and why) we spend on some things and not on other things. We shouldn’t need to subpoena the line-item budget; it should be two clicks away from the home page.
I recognize issues of privacy, but that’s easily managed by installing password protection on certain domains of data. In the absence of meaningful need for protection, the default should be open data doors to members of the community. A budget is a statement of values, but we need more transparency to have real operational conversations about those values on any individual campus. How much do we actually spend, overall, on adjuncts? Where are they deployed, by department and by course level? How many have been with us for how long? What do their workloads look like? What could we do without, in order to bring on more full members of the community?
It’s easy to point to executive salaries or climbing walls or food courts as easy culprits, but that’s all just guesswork in the absence of data. And the whole point of enterprise software is the seamless integration of tons and tons of data. We’ve invested in the tools; why not let any number of people be involved in secondary data analysis, using the data sets to ask questions they find meaningful? I’ve often thought that questions about one’s own campus might form the basis for powerful undergraduate research projects, for instance. We ought to be able to learn more about our own environments, the case study we know best.
As a writer, I’ve gotten used to working on my own. I spend hours and months and years in isolation to bring something to life. It’s a great lifestyle for an introvert like me.
One of the unexpected pleasures of having a book be relatively successful is that it’s gotten me out of the house, in a very specific way. I’ve done interviews and podcasts and book talks, which are wonderfully constrained, enclosed encounters that last a knowable amount of time. They’re fun and engaging and totally fit my need for human interaction. I’ve always enjoyed one-on-one conversations and small groups, feel overwhelmed in big cocktail parties and potlucks. And when doing a presentation, even a presentation to a room of 600, it’s still an enclosed performance followed by a series of one-on-one questions and comments. Works great.
But there’s been one particular kind of one-on-one that’s been harder to take: when someone sees my work as a validation of their long-held beliefs, and wants me to join their crusade. Sometimes those are just silly. One of the very first comments I got about the work was from a father who’d sent his two sons to Texas A&M, and who said (in paraphrase), “You really hit the nail on the head! I didn’t spend all this money to have my kids taught by foreign-speaking foreigners, and the H1B visa program is a disgrace, and…” What he read is not what I wrote—often enough the case, I suppose.
Others are harder. Education reformers and social reformers alike have wanted me to join their community, to lend my weight (and my money) to their cause. And some of them really won’t get off the porch. Because I’m a nice guy and I was raised to please other people, it’s hard for me to just say “No. Go away. This conversation is over.” I can do that with salespeople, because they’re totally used to it, and they’ve got two thousand more names on the contact list after I hang up the phone. But the reformers really are motivated by what they see as noble goals, and I can empathize with their intentions even while I think that their messianic strategies aren’t likely to achieve what they want. They see me as a potential ally in their journey to utopia, and that’s a tough stance to negotiate with.
One of the difficulties with those conversations is that they’re asymmetric. I respect their beliefs, and their project. I have no interest in convincing them that I think they’re wrong. They’ve found work that they’re committed to, a circumstance deeply to be admired. But because of their convictions, they have no similar reticence about trying to convert me. “If you’d only just read [fill in the blank… L Ron Hubbard, The Book of Mormon, Franklin Graham, Jacques Derrida, Noam Chomsky…], you’d see the truth!” Well, I could read a lot of things. I could read the Koran, the Bagavad Gita, the collected works of George Fox. I could read The Art of the Deal, Your Best Life Now, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Every evangelist has the book that provides the answer. And I have no interest in trying to undermine their faith.
I admire evangelical fervor. I have it myself, in the classroom. But I know enough to know that not everyone will be interested in following my particular path, and that each of the people I talk with can discover any number of ideas and connections that will add meaning to their life and their work. Being an enthusiast is not the same as being a missionary. You have to know when to let it go.
This is the final of a five-part series on fiction and fiction writing. If you haven’t been tracking it, I’d suggest starting at the beginning.
I’ve talked quite a bit about all of the paratext I’ve carried into my reading of Ling Ma’s Severance, beginning with the book being originally introduced to me as important in the way that my own work could never be, followed by a limited knowledge of the author’s biography, followed by the book’s location within the genre of millennial ennui, followed by the book itself as an object of highly advertised consumption. It’s a book that weighs a ton, even as it fits easily in my briefcase.
But, as the phenomenologists say, let’s bracket all that. Let’s try to take the book on its own terms, as a being in itself, an être-en-soi.
The first thing to notice is that the book is clever. I don’t mean that in a fussy, faint-praise way, I mean clever like ingenious, like an intricate wooden joint that fits together in unexpected forms. The idea of nostalgia is taken up in multiple ways, for instance. Nostalgia is the basis of the very first thing we see Candace take up as a planned event, her 1980s formal dinner with her friends—ironic nostalgia, of course, since Candace and her friends would have experienced very little of the 1980s as conscious human beings. She wouldn’t have been an early adopter of Depeche Mode at age two or three. The irony is a protection from the death sentence of earnest nostalgia, a literal death in this story, nostalgia and repetition of the past being a marker of disease.
Imitation and inauthenticity is a theme. Candace disdains the Gemstone Bible that she helps to produce, noting that the Bible is the most remarkable example of a single stable object gussied up to sell in a thousand varieties. She becomes a critical connoisseur of the varied imitation leathers of book covers. But she also takes delight in her first business trip to China and her discovery of the layers of imitation, stacked like a filo pastry:
What surprised me in Hong Kong, however, was how many iterations of the same thing were available. Take a Louis Vuitton bag, for example. You could buy the actual bag, a prototype of the actual bag from the factory that produced it, or an imitation. And if an imitation, what kind of imitation? An expensive, detailed, hand-worked imitation, a cheap imitation made of polyurethane, or something in between? Nowhere else was there such an elaborate gradient between the real and the fake. Nowhere else did the boundaries of real and fake seem so porous.
Candace herself has moments of this kind of gradient. She spends her first summer in New York wearing her mother’s old Contempo Casuals dresses, sleeping with whatever man is most convincing that afternoon, loving no one. She takes serious photographs based on her own observational capabilities, but then derides them as “Eggleston knock-offs, Stephen Shore derivatives.” She is closely aware of the levels of authenticity in the city’s varied Asian communities, which blocks are most unselfconsciously Chinese because they’re free from the tourist gaze, but when visiting China, she’s deeply aware of her own limited language, with her inability to name a Chinese food aside from General Tso’s chicken and Peking duck. She loves New York in part because everyone’s already experienced it before they ever arrive, through Woody Allen and Sex and the City and Seinfeld. Her own authenticity is just as layered as an array of Louis Vuitton bags.
The office politics of commerce and the office politics of cults (and even the office politics of boyfriends) are found to be not dissimilar. The talentless but overbearing men convinced of their own sophistication, the urgency around whatever trivial mission is on the docket, the shifting allegiances among co-workers as they vie for favor, the perpetual uncertainty over where one stands.
As I say, it’s a smart book, cleverly interwoven, everything in simultaneous motion with no solid center. But so far, it’s really an essay more than a novel, one of a long heritage of participatory social critiques born of Joan Didion: David Foster Wallace, Joni Tevis,Andrew Kay. Severance fits right in, a book about ideas. In order to become a novel—and there it is, right on the cover, “A NOVEL”—it needed a motor, a way to get from A to B. So, like a pickup truck underneath the parade float, we have the zombie story.
Taken on its own, the zombie story is pretty good. The road trip to The Facility, the really unusual way that the zombie infection manifests itself (I’m trying really hard here to not do any spoilers, something I didn’t need to worry about with the first part of the book, because essays don’t have spoilers, there’s no plot twist to worry about revealing), the details of the survivors’ mode of scavenging. The last sixty pages, taken on its own, was moving and suspenseful, a page-turner mostly distinct from the slower, chewier thematic work preceding it. The alternate title for this novel might have been Candace Wakes Up… And It Only Takes a Zombie Apocalypse to Do It.
Okay, now let’s bolt the paratext back on, slowly. Severance is (was) a publishing phenomenon, inexplicable as hits always are. It’s a good book, to be sure, but the bookstore is jammed with good books, most of which go nowhere. If we knew how to make a hit, we’d get it right every time. Part of what made it a hit… part of what got it acquired in the first place… was authorial pedigree, the right MFA and the right magazine jobs and the right preceding publication record. This same book arriving in the slush would have had a hell of a time not being swept into the storm drain with the rest.
The book is a hit in part because it landed at the right moment, landed at a time when “well, we’re all fucked” is a recognizable literary and experiential theme, landed with two generations of Americans coming to terms with the lies we left behind for them, landed when we see the active dismantling of almost every social good ever created. And it’s a hit in part because the star-making machinery behind the popular song (to quote Joni Mitchell) went full-throttle, getting the book reviewed by the tastemakers and the influencers.
And now it’s out there on its own, acquiring stars and likes and thumbs-ups, themselves a form of currency tradable for dollars in an uncertain exchange rate. It’s hard to leave a book review on Goodreads, for instance, without assigning stars… the whole POINT of Goodreads is stars, is the quantification that makes a 3.85 book mildly disappointing and a 4.25 book a rousing success. The star-making machinery has moved on to the new and shiny, and peak-Severance is behind us.
I think we’ll call this the fourth of five. I should probably use the final one to talk about the story itself. Here are parts one and two and three.
The protagonist in one of my novels, Katie, works in advertising in Chicago. Here, she explains why writing TV commercials is sort of fulfilling:
So you’ve got thirty or sixty seconds to tell a story. It’s all framed in present tense, there’s no backstory, but you can arrange two people on a couch and make it instantly obvious whether they like each other or they’re sick of each other or bored with each other. So you pack all of this prior relationship into the first few seconds, and then the product arrives and improves their relationship or solidifies their relationship or makes them more exciting people. Every commercial is a love story, in its own way. You buy some tacos or some dryer sheets or some ketchup and it’s happily ever after. It’s pretty sappy, kind of fun.
John Berger once wrote of advertising that its goal wasn’t to make you envious of the person who already owned the thing for sale. It was to make you envious of your own future self once you’d purchased it. I could be surrounded by girls if I have Bud Light. And I could, in fact, buy Bud Light. Therefore, I could be this better, more appealing self.
Ling Ma’s Severance is often spoken of as a critique of late capitalism, in which everything and everyone are perpetually for sale. The book “invites readers to recognize both the humor and the dangers of America’s decadent consumerism” (Madeline Day). It’s a “scathing portrait of a society collapsing under its own ungovernable appetites” (Claire Fallon). And indeed, the book is filled with brand names, the talismans and ritual goods of the presumed future self. The Clinique 3-Step skin care. The Noguchi coffee table. The Uniqlo scarves. The things we buy to become idealized versions of our own selves.
The irony of irony, though, is that it also encourages consumption. This book, this object, is as heavily covered with advertising as the concourse of a shopping mall. It carries more than twenty blurbs, three awards or award nominations, eighteen “best book of the year” citations. Buy this book, and you’ll be the kind of person who buys this kind of book, the cover tells us. Smart, sharp, young, hip. You’ll be seen on the bus with an award-winning new novel, one that knows you well enough to know that you don’t take anything too seriously, even as every word on the cover wants you to know how seriously you should take it.
As Jhumpa Lahiri would be the first to tell you, none of this is the author’s fault. Ling Ma didn’t design the cover, acquire the blurbs, choose the typefaces or the pull quotes. But the sales work of the cover, the momentary heat of the commodification of her work, wouldn’t surprise her; she predicted it in the book herself.
And after this, in another few years, the jobs will go elsewhere, to India or some other country willing to offer even cheaper rates, to produce iPods, Happy Meal toys, skateboards, American flags, sneakers, air conditioners. The American businessmen will come to visit those countries and tour their factories, inspect their manufacturing processes, sample their cuisines, while staying at their nicest hotels built to cater to them.
The third in a series on fiction and fiction writing. The first two are here and here.
It was twenty years ago this fall that I embarked on my most spectacular failure.
I’d finished my dissertation, got a publication contract for it, and was casting about for my next project. I decided to write a close ethnography of one young man I’d met as a high school senior, who had continued correspondence with me as a young-twenties adult. He was making absolutely no headway toward what we might think of as adult life, and I wanted to learn how he was configuring that project. So I moved in with him and his two housemates for a month.
The House of Ennui, which will never be published*, is the record of that month, and of my own descent into despair over the adulthood I’d created for myself. Pete’s life was nothing but inertia, a block of resistance moved only temporarily and resentfully by any outside force. There was no word in his language for “toward.”
One of the books Pete shared with me that month was Michael Chabon’s debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Here’s part of what I wrote about it.
The basic logic of fiction is that a protagonist—a character having certain strengths, weaknesses and motivations—is set into a situation in which those strengths are tested, those weaknesses emerge, and those motivations are fulfilled or denied or come into question.The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, the first novel by Pulitzer-winning Michael Chabon, is a fascinating experiment in fiction because it omits one of those three elements: its protagonist has no motivation whatsoever. As such, it is by far the most annoying well-written book I’ve ever read, Art Bechstein the least interesting leading character.
Nothing that had ever happened to Art happened because he had desired or pursued it for himself. As he’s finishing his last college paper—late—in the school library in June, he sees a pretty girl, gets chatted up by a pretty boy, and proceeds to be dragged around all summer through an endless series of social circles, near-events, and pointless drama. The pretty young woman and the pretty young man both pursue him, because he is beautiful and because his blankness offers them the reflections of themselves they both desire. His pursuers dislike and distrust one another, and Art cannot choose between them, and so offers himself to whichever is nearest or speaks with more persuasion at the moment. He loves neither, because “to love” is a verb, and Art does not do verbs. Art is far too distant and disengaged for any effort beyond observation and reportage.
The current book on the table, Ling Ma’s Severance, falls exactly into this same camp. Candace cannot bring herself to do anything, or to want anything. She eats, but takes no pleasure in it. She has sex, but takes no pleasure in it. She has #friends, but takes no pleasure in them. The other people in the story are props, flat and unsophisticated, not because the author is careless but because Candace is.
And it all makes me wonder. I wonder why such talented and driven people are writing about such motivationless characters. Michael Chabon went to college at Pitt and got his MFA from UC Irvine, a program with a 2% acceptance rate. Ling Ma went to college at U.Chicago and did her MFA at Cornell, a program with a 1.6% acceptance rate. Jia Tolentino, who wrote of Severance that it was “the best work of fiction I’ve read yet about the millennial condition,” was an undergraduate Jefferson Scholar at Virginia and did her MFA at Michigan, a program with a 1.5% acceptance rate. These are not people who sit around and let the world happen to them.
The identifying field mark of literary fiction is suffering. No one’s aspirations are satisfied for even a moment before being dashed in even more baroque ways. Even imagining a happy ending is seen as naïve and implausible, perhaps even irresponsible. No possible indignity can be spared; no misfortune can be too unlikely; no character can be respected strongly enough to have her best intentions fulfilled for more than fleeting moments before the next humiliation. As perhaps befits our zeitgeist, too many of the most celebrated literary novels of recent years have portrayed life as tormented, degraded and diminished. “Realism” means unrelenting layers of misery. We’re far more likely to suspend disbelief about vampires, dragons and zombies than we are about regular people living regular lives with some degree of nobility and hope.
This body of anhedonic, anti-aspirational literature does harm, I think. Like Ma’s imagined Shen Fever, its spores are everywhere, slowing us to nostalgia for when things were all okay, leaving us less able to take action in the face of the troubles around us. “Well, we’re all fucked” is nothing but a declaration of inertia, a raising of the white flag so that maybe we won’t be hurt even further. We are oversupplied with irony and mockery, are left anemic by our deficiency of hope.
*That book, in its draft form, did a lot of harm to the people I wrote about. As Joan Didion said, “A writer is always selling someone out.” Now they’re all twenty years older, and don’t deserve to undergo public scrutiny of their pasts. And Pete isn’t really his name.
This is the second of a multi-part series on fiction and fiction writing. If you haven’t read the first yet, you should start there.
Ling Ma, the author of Severance,
teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Chicago. A quick
look at their faculty page shows us that even a well-heeled institution like
Chicago isn’t immune from contingency. Five of their thirteen “core faculty”
are within the tenure stream, seven are professors of the practice (a polite
term for an academic job with a term limit), and one a postdoc. And these
thirteen core faculty are surrounded by a larger group of seventeen visiting
faculty, to whom the university takes an even more delimited obligation.
Again, it all depends on how you count. By my count, there
are thirty people teaching in this program, and five of them are faculty.
Looking at their bios, there’s remarkable diversity in
detail, remarkable sameness in structure.
MFAs from Virginia, Harvard, Boston University, Cornell, Iowa. PhDs from Berkeley, Yale.
Fellowships and residencies with Bread Loaf, Macdowell, Sewanee, Millay
Awards: the Rome Prize, the Guggenheim, PEN Emerging Writers
Publications in Granta, Threepenny Review, Glimmer Train, Virginia Quarterly Review, Antioch Review, Ploughshares
There’s no walk-ons on this team. The pedigrees are
immaculate, groomed through years and years of the right connections, the right
programs, the right mentors. This is not to say that they aren’t all wonderful
writers, wonderful people. I’m sure they’re lovely. But they came to the team
through the scouting reports, through the minor leagues, passed up the line
from hand to hand. These are the kinds of credentials it takes now even to be
contingent at an elite school.
They didn’t come to their publishers as unknowns, either, as a crumb of ice within the slush. They came through cocktail parties, through conversations on the lawn in Vermont and Tennessee, through conference panels and service on the editorial boards of the little magazines. Their three-paragraph pitch letter didn’t stand on its own—it was supported by volumes of paratext, the things we know about texts before we ever encounter them as texts. Their pitch didn’t come in a batch of fifty, to be cleared through in the hour commute on the train—swipe left, swipe left, swipe left. They came in personalized e-mails, with subject lines like “Nice to meet you at Joan’s…” They came over lunches, the vague, handwaving got-an-idea-for-a-story that gets incubated over a salad and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. They come through publishing chapter after chapter as standalones in literary journals, a habit that becomes its own form (the medium, as we know, being the message), the novel reduced to a twitchy series of short stories.
All of this is, as I’ve said about faculty life, a form of
sponsorship, of standing members vouching for the newcomer to the rest of the
community. If you don’t have a sponsor, you don’t get to join the lodge. Or, to
use a Chicago story, Abner Mikva (future judge) walked into a Democratic Party
ward office in 1948 and asked the ward chairman, Tim O’Sullivan, if he could
volunteer for the Adlai Stevenson campaign. “Who sent you?” O’Sullivan said.
“Nobody sent me,” Mikva replied. O’Sullivan jammed his cigar back into his
mouth and said, “We don’t want nobody that nobody sent.”
The response to “Who sent you?” is a form of paratext, a
larger knowledge within which we read the specific story. If the answer is the
Iowa Writers’ Workshop, or The Sewanee
Review, we’re predisposed to read the story generously. If the answer is
the submissions-form portal on the agency website, we’re predisposed to think
poorly of it.
And again, this is not to imply that those who’ve come up through the system aren’t deserving, in authorial or faculty life. It merely implies that there are an awful lot of people whose work is deserving, many of whom will not be properly introduced.