A Second Meditation on Category Failure

We talked a few days ago about the failure of categories to sometimes deliver us useful policy information. The categories, for instance, of Latino and Asian American, which reveal some facts and conceal others. Lots of categories contain differences that can be misleading when lumped together without care, a beige that conceals its red and yellow and black and blue pigment components. And a friend of mine gave me a new one to think about yesterday. As she wrote in her email, with regards to the fallout from last week’s election:

And when I heard yesterday that a LOT of college-educated white women voted for DumpsterFire, I thought, I don’t think “college-educated” holds water anymore, because what is college these days, anyhow?

As I wrote in The Adjunct Underclass, the term “college” is similar to the word “restaurant,” another category that contains vast dissimilarity. Alinea, for instance, is a restaurant. In order to get reservations (two months in advance), you need to go to their website at exactly 11am Eastern time on the 15th of the month and hope that you click first, like a game show. Dinner for two with wine will easily crack a thousand bucks. Taco Bell is also a restaurant, of an entirely different sort.

Now that “college” has become as ubiquitous as “restaurant,” we start to see that the category does less meaningful work. You could have a college degree from, say, Williams—its cost of attendance is $75,000, they accept only 12% of their applicants, students at the bottom range of their incoming SAT scores are in the top five percent of the nation, and faculty teach two small courses per semester. Or you could have a college degree from… well, you can fill that in with your own local favorite, the affordable school that accepts 98% of its applicants and graduates 30% of them, the school where the permanent faculty teach four or more huge courses every semester and the temporary faculty (who constitute most of the teaching force) make $2500 a class. Schools like those can do good things… but they don’t do the same things. They’re just set up to accomplish different outcomes.

There’s a lot of chatter about how colleges have become bastions of leftist bias, which I suppose may be true in English and Women’s Studies and so on at Ivy League schools, but far less true in the state-college free-market business schools or the libertarian professional-prep programs where the majority of our students spend their time.

The Classical (that is, Greek and Roman) model of education focused on the “liberal arts,” or the cultural and strategic knowledge befitting a free man who would have standing in public debate and policy. (Slaves and peasants had to get things done, and were trained rather than educated.) And it’s not etymologically surprising that the core practice of liberal education is deliberation, the work of judicious discussion that reveals the hidden corners of what might have seemed to be settled matters. This model held sway through the early parts of the 20th century, when only a single-digit percentage of young men attended college: they were being groomed to rule the world, as their fathers and grandfathers had before them. They needed to learn strategy and analysis and synthesis rather than information.

But now that a majority of high school grads attempt college, and half of those who start actually graduate, college has become reconfigured in ways that make the category less coherent. The risky and speculative fields of math and science are on the decline in college majors, for instance, while various forms of immediately useful technology have grown by orders of magnitude. Look in the want-ads of your local paper: you won’t see jobs in “math” or “physics,” but you can get a job in medical technology. And so our preparation has geared itself away from deliberation and toward workforce development, the accumulation of settled information and practices that can be correctly applied. The children of wealth and privilege will continue to go to deliberative schools that prepare them for entirely different lives—and entirely different attitudes.

“College graduate” is a sticky political-polling category exactly because it used to be scarce. But now, the National Center for Education Statistics shows that although about 15% of Americans over 70 have college degrees, that’s up to near 30% for people under 35 (and more women than men, another important cultural shift). It’s just another box that holds too much dissimilarity to be deliberatively useful.

We have a lot of handwringing about why political polling is less than perfectly accurate. I think it’s not because people are lying to pollsters, and it’s not because the pollsters don’t understand sampling methods. It’s because they’re relying on antiquated and unexamined demographic categories that aren’t as unified as we might imagine.

Today’s Vocabulary Words

And I want to watch a TV show about dim, venal, mean-spirited people because why? (Photo by George Lange/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

I don’t watch much TV any more, and I rarely watch movies. I find that far too often, I don’t have the emotional capacity to watch people being cruel to one another, which is what an awful lot of television is about. I mean, take any piece of sitcom dialogue and say it, without warning, to your wife or your dad. (Actually, don’t.) It’s just snotty and mean. The characters get over it, because the writers move them on to whatever’s next, but the rest of us wouldn’t. It would become a chip in the accumulated slag heap of disrespect and diminution that we would bear forever. It would become yet another of our collected GIFs of mortification.

And today I learned that there’s a word for that experience of not being able to watch TV because I identify too closely with the characters being dim or venal or mean-spirited. It’s a German word: fremdschämen, meaning “borrowed shame.” I read about it this morning in an article by Dianne de Guzman in the San Francisco Chronicle, in which she talks about being unable to watch PEN15 or The Office. I know that I’ve never been able to watch even an entire single episode of Seinfeld, and quit watching Frasier back in the day as Frasier Crane dug his craven well deeper each week. Will Ferrell has talked about every single one of his characters being someone with undeserved self-regard. He thinks that’s funny. I don’t, and I can’t watch it.

One particular episode of The Office, called “Scott’s Tots,” is used as a litmus test for fremdschämen. In this episode, the dim, venal, craven Michael Scott has followed his native instinct for self-aggrandizement to promise a bunch of Scranton kids that he’ll cover their college tuition when they graduate from high school. It gets him photos in the paper when they’re in grade school and all, but then the kids graduate, the debt comes due, and the entire episode is his staff’s anticipation (with glee or with horror) that he’s going to have to stand in front of a bunch of high school seniors and tell them that he’s lied to them for ten years. Those of us susceptible to fremdschämen could never bear to watch that, because we have some degree of empathy with both Michael and with the kids. Because we internalize that experience of having let people down, or having been let down by someone you trusted. Because we know it too well.

The contemporary literary world presents us a similar test. Do I want to read six entire books about Karl Ove Knausgård being an asshole? No, I do not. Do I want to watch Lauren Groff or Jennifer Egan drag her characters through endless cruelties? No, I do not. A friend described his Faulkner reading group, and one member of the group saying “When will something GOOD ever happen to one of these characters?” To which my friend said, “You might be in the wrong reading group.”

The alternative isn’t sunny Reader’s Digest “good news” stories. We aren’t limited to a binary of trauma and treacle. The alternative to misery is agency, people deciding what they value and taking halting, difficult steps toward achieving it. They may never get there, they may discover that their values change, they may get part of the way and become a new person while they’re doing it, but they’re doing their best. That’s what I want to live with, that experience of aspiration and effort and wanting.

Our political landscape bears this division as well, between those who can watch cruelty without feeling it and those who can’t bear it. The desire to “own the libs” or to take pleasure in “the tears of the snowflakes” (or, as one of my neighbors does, the ability to fly a Trump 2020 flag that bears the tagline “Fuck Your Feelings”) reveals exactly the kind of person I never want to be. Why would I ever think that someone’s misery is funny? I mean, Timothy Snyder, in his important little book Our Malady, cites public health and political research to show that one of the very strongest predictors of a county voting for Trump in 2016 was the severity of its opioid addiction. I don’t celebrate that. I don’t want them to suffer, even if at their own hands. I always want people to thrive.

Snyder coins his own term for our political landscape: sado-populism, an isolated rage that leaves us unable to see past our own pain, that leads us to visit miseries upon others because it momentarily deflects from the injustices we believe have been delivered unto us. It is the injured dog that bites you while you try to help it, the child who swats away your hand while you comfort him. And the inability to empathize, to look beyond ourselves, has led to the casual degradations of reality TV and Seinfeldian cruelty. It has led to a Senate whose only operational rule is to kneecap the opposing party. We have become a ruthless people, unable to offer or to receive help. And we will die from it.

We can continue the cycle, or we can try to break the cycle. We can rub it in, or we can try to rub it away. And we get to decide every single minute which we want to be.

Demographics Will Not Rescue Us

One day after this election is over I am going to write a piece about how Latino is a contrived ethnic category that artificially lumps white Cubans with Black Puerto Ricans and Indigenous Guatemalans and helps explains why Latinos support Trump at the second highest rate.

Tweet on November 3 from historian and journalist Nikole Hannah Jones

One of the most fundamental things we learn as children, and reinforce for the rest of our lives, is seeking similarities. From sorting our toys by shape and color, to the Linnaean taxonomy that underlies biology, to endless amounts of inept political guesswork, we rely on categories to help us make sense of a complex world.

It’s crucial to remember that all categories are the answers to particular questions. A piano, for instance, would be classified differently by your high-school music teacher (classroom equipment, like a whiteboard), your furniture mover (heavy and finicky, like a pool table), and your accountant (expensive, like a sports car). Same thing, placed in different boxes by people who hold a different interest in it.

In reviews of my book The Adjunct Underclass, I took criticism from several commentators who took umbrage with what they saw as a conflation of categories. Adjuncts, they said, were not the same as graduate students or post-doctoral researchers or the college’s IT worker who teaches an occasional software course. And in some ways, they absolutely are not. They fill different category systems in the university’s org chart; they have different jobs. And yet… if we ask the question “Who conducts a significant amount of the work of higher education with no offer of permanence and no protection of intellectual freedom?”, then we absolutely are warranted in a larger inclusion of people who properly answer that question.

We are in a desperate search today for the demographic key that will unlock our understanding of America. We believe that Red and Blue America can be explained by gender, by ethnicity, by age. By education, by religion, by urban and suburban and rural. By social media platforms, by relationship to the former Union and Confederacy. I read a fascinating piece yesterday that talked about the power of talk radio for lonely people who do dull work all day; is that our master demographic variable?

What questions will we ask to understand ourselves?

It’s important also to understand the difference between a category and a coalition. When we need to gain political power—whether in a workplace or a neighborhood or in a national election—we gather together people with whom we otherwise might not have too much in common.

When I first went to Muskegon Catholic Central high school in 9th grade, I walked into a cafeteria that already had most of its social sorting figured out. There were Sacred Heart tables and St. Francis de Sales tables, St. Michael the Archangel tables and St. Thomas the Apostle tables. Ten different parishes that sent their kids to a unified high school, parishes dividing our county geographically, and thus also dividing our county by family origin: the Irish Catholics, the Italian Catholics, and the Polish Catholics. All those kids had been clustered in their ten different K-8 parish schools, had their intramural rivalries. But when Friday night came along and the Crusaders took the field, those small internal differences were set aside in favor of mutual hatred of the Mona Shores Sailors, or the Muskegon Heights Tigers, an army of thousands of spectators wearing their green-and-gold allegiance alongside people they would never have encountered at work or in a restaurant.

We often don’t think of ourselves as an us until we need to be afraid of a them. And so a lot of social and political organization is based on fear, on knowing that we are small and must band together with others to become larger in the face of an oppression or an injustice.

The term Asian American was created in 1968 by Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee, and fostered in the universities of the San Francisco Bay Area, a region with a substantial Asian population. After centuries of exclusion and demonization, in the shadow of the recent history of internment, and in the heat of the immediate involvement in Vietnam, a diverse community became a coalition in common resistance to larger American policies. The term heartland, though it has a longer history, was politically employed in the 1970s by those who felt that their industrial and farming lives were at risk in a broader global and strategic economy. It’s another coalition, embracing a diverse underlying membership ranging from a Lubbock cotton worker to Betsy DeVos, people who certainly wouldn’t be members of the same country clubs.

Coalitions are based on perceived oppression or perceived threat. The Neo-Nazi chant of “You will not replace us!” is the howl of a coalition explicitly perceiving its cultural superiority as threatened. Our local State house election was won by a coalition of people who have little enough in common. We had the anti-abortion community, the pro-gun community, and the no-tax community all banding together in the face of some perceived communist overthrow of American values. Three thousand years of political history seems to be summed up in the ancient Sanskrit wisdom, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Who we fear seems to be a huge component of who we are.

Theory is based on classification; practice is based on specificity. One of my fictional characters, a relatively ruthless policy analyst, once sent an email to another character saying “Public policy 101: you can’t worry about every blade of grass if you want to get the lawn mowed.” But the gift that artists give us is the relentless focus on specificity, on the exact and unique detail that sets this moment apart from any other. The world of specificity, of love, of art, of care, has no room for that impulse to casually ignore the individual.

As much as anything, I’m tired of partisanship because it is incapable of love and attentiveness. We are by necessity reduced to one demographic cluster or another in order to get the lawn mowed. And so those who set the strategy find fear to be a fundamentally effective tool in coalition-building.

That’s why I’m so committed to a writerly practice of seeing the world as generous and open to possibility. I just don’t see any way forward from the coalitions of fear and oppression. It’s time for us to turn to what Carol Gilligan called an ethics of care, an ethics that privileges compassion above justice. It’s harder work, because it requires us to see individuals and their context rather than categories and their opposition. But the alternative, as we’ve seen, is monstrous.

Sleight of Hand

From Noel Qualter, close-up magician

One of my very favorite ways to spend a few minutes is to watch clips from the tv show Penn and Teller’s Fool Us, a show in which professional magicians get to perform a trick on stage to see if Penn and Teller can figure out how it was done. And that’s basically the way most people think about magic… they want to see if they can figure it out.

But when magic is done beautifully, we lose that ego-sense and just give ourselves over to the fact that we’ve seen something amazing. I give you four quick examples, in four very different modes:

There are innumerable others. Some are funny, some are mystical, some are conversational and some are gigantic and stagey. But they all rely on the magician’s ability to make one action seem like another.

The magician Noel Qualter differentiates between what he calls sleight of hand and flourishes. In sleight of hand, the viewer/participant sees nothing at all of the underlying mechanism. The act can seem simple, even skill-less. And yet, the outcome is never as we expect. With flourishes, the magician does all kinds of showy mechanical manipulation—fancy cuts, the coin rolling across the back of the knuckles, all acting as a kind of misdirection for the real work going on unseen.

Sleight of hand is pure craft, the endless practice that allows a manipulation to be not merely obscured but convincingly unseen. The magician has to not merely master the props and the hands, but also the face and the patter. No hesitation or furrowed brow at the moment of truth, just fluid movement, seamless across the before and the after.

Writing is a form of sleight of hand. When it works, the viewer/participant stops thinking about letters and words and sentences, and just falls completely into the world of ideas and characters and problems and opportunities. Every decision a writer makes is in service to sleight of hand, the invitation to let the reader feel as though something else is happening. Something larger that can’t be predicted by the mechanical facts of spelling and syntax.

I’m good at it. I’ve been doing it for a long, long time, and most of my tricks are now just native. I can employ them in different forms, but my readers are pretty reliably lost to the illusion rather than just watching my hands. And that’s no accident, just practice. Lots and lots of practice. And I keep trying to learn new tricks, to expand my repertoire. There’s always more craft to take on, and to respect.

The reason I raise this question today is because I’m working on two different stories at once, and in both cases, I haven’t manufactured the next step of the illusion. I’m watching my hands in the mirror as I do the next part of the trick, and in both cases, I can see the mechanical move. I can spot the drop or the pass or the force that ought to go unseen. And if I leave it that way, it’s going to be visible to you, too, and the magic will at that moment crumble entirely. The illusion will disappear and we’ll just be left watching a shuffle. So I have to push past “good enough” to “exactly right.” Good enough is rarely good enough.

I think that’s a lot of what people talk about when they use the term “writer’s block.” Sometimes it’s that we’re sick of the craft, that we don’t feel like we’re learning. Sometimes it’s that we haven’t heard the idea or the character speaking to us yet who’s worth days or months or years of our time. But often, I think it’s those long periods of watching our hands in the mirror and saying, over and over, “Nope. Nope. Close… Nope.”

It’s super frustrating, that time before the right sequence of motions makes itself evident. I’ve gotten used to it, and I have confidence that I will be able to manufacture the illusion again. But it always feels clumsy, until it doesn’t.

Keeping Up with the News

She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, speaking of Mrs. Bennet

Isn’t this the best, most polite description of gossip ever? “Visiting and news.”

I once read a line by a retired urban reporter who’d moved to a rural place, who said that one of the very first things he had to learn in his new home was how to lean. Most of the conversations between men in his community took place while leaning on a truck fender at the store, or leaning on a fence post while taking a break from field work. A friend and I catch up on conversation every hour or so while we’re splitting wood, in the few minutes that we’re refueling and getting something to drink. A lot of it has to do with our neighbors, as casual conversation often does. A study by researchers at UC Riverside showed an average of 52 minutes a day spent in workplace gossip, with no meaningful difference between men and women.

There are a few people in any town who act as large-capacity gossip conduits. They’re extroverted and like to talk, and they interact with lots of people and thus have lots of source material to draw from. These informal information networks can become something like the small town version of a think-tank: when you have a problem or an issue that’s troubling, you turn to the people you’ve leaned against the truck with for forty years, the people you’ve had church-fellowship coffee with since your grandma was the head of the altar guild. That’s both natural and problematic. It closes us off to new ways of thinking, and deepens the channels already dug.

Our sources of social information are just as much sorting mechanisms as our sources of professional media information. It’s been almost fifty years since Jim Duncan’s famous study of the two communities of Bedford, in which he found that the long-time WASPy residents and the recent Italian-American arrivals kept to themselves in every way. They lived in different parts of town, belonged to different clubs, sent their kids to different schools, and had entirely different values for the appearance and messaging of their homes and landscapes. Our little town is much like that. The people who used to go to Nan’s potlucks and the people who are members of the volunteer fire department are a Venn diagram with nearly no intersection. The people who buy lunch at Grant’s General Store and the people who buy lunch at Sissy’s Kitchen are similarly dissimilar.

The Old Vermonters and the Flatlanders. The pickup and the Prius. The people who shower before they go to work, and the people who shower after work. We have so many ways to divide ourselves into tribes, invisible to the rest of the world but clearly spoken among those who matter, like a twin language, bonding us forever in opposition.

Over the decades, these harden into feuds and grudges. The origins are no longer precisely recalled, but every interaction offers the opportunity for reinforcement, an opportunity to teach our own biases to our kids who will carry them on in perpetuity.

And trust me, I know fully that I’m not innocent of this. I talk smack about people far too often. I make the inside joke, the cutting remark; and it makes me laugh when other people do it, too. As Tip O’Neill famously said, all politics is local, a wisdom born of Boston and its perpetual—often bloody—battles between the WASP academic-finance old guard, the Catholic Italians and the Catholic Irish.

And let’s go back to our originating quote from Jane Austen, its own model of demeaning the morally-inferior other. “She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temperament.” You can imagine Jane over tea with her friends, chatting and smiling about the poor Mrs. Bennet and her limited world.

We need to belong. But we often do it through the mechanism of naming those who don’t belong.

Sorting Mechanisms

Not perfectly grouped, but far from random.

I’ve often thought about opening a pool room, but I know the likelihood that I’d attract the crowd that comes to pool rooms. (The American Poolplayers’ Association guide for league operators literally has pages of instructions on how to handle match outcomes if they’re interrupted by a brawl. I don’t think the Royal and Ancient Rules of Golf, for instance, laid that out in such detail.) But I think I could forestall most problems by instituting four basic business practices:

  1. No coin-operated tables
  2. No domestic beer.
  3. No televisions.
  4. No jukebox, and the sound system playing chamber music.

The kinds of people who cause problems in poolrooms wouldn’t stay more than five minutes in this one, and it would leave the place for the grown-ups.

I was put in mind of this on Sunday, when I went to the political meet-up I described a few days ago. They had a trio performing there—guitar, mandolin, upright bass. All three were good technicians on their instruments, all good singers… and I had no more interest in listening to that music than I would in watching football. Music is a remarkable sorting mechanism, dividing us not by talent but by culture.

And music isn’t alone. Every art and every craft attracts a body of people committed to that mode of work, even as others find it incomprehensible or dull. All of writing is a sorting mechanism, with readers bumping off the gates until we find the slot that fits us. Contemporary Christianity is a blizzard of incompatible readings of the same book, with literally thousands of denominations each believing that they have the direct track to divine truth (not to mention those billions of other people who are adherents of their own books of wisdom, each of those communities also subdivided into incompatible sects). Auto racing is just as sectarian as religion: Nascar, Indy car, rallies, off-road, dirt track, drag racing, F1, CanAm, monster trucks—each with committed fans who wouldn’t spend a dollar to see the others.

I just read a term yesterday that’s undoubtedly been around for a decade or more: the splinternet. We can now tune our cultural consumption to only those things that please us. I grew up with what were called “variety shows” on television, the most famous of which was hosted by Ed Sullivan on CBS on Sunday nights. An hour-long episode of the Ed Sullivan Show had eleven or twelve acts, almost always including a crooner, a pop music act, a rock music act, a stand-up comic, a comedy sketch, a big choreographed dance number, and a juggling or tumbling act. The Muppets were an early and frequent part of the show. My mother and I both watched it together every week.

The variety show fell victim to the more sophisticated demands of advertisers in the 1970s. Mere size of audience was no guarantee of advertisers’ happiness; they wanted demographics, wanted shows that would subdivide a mass audience in order to more directly target the likely buyers of their cars or foods. TV shows were the first data-harvesting tools of the modern era, allowing us to be micro-targeted with pop-up advertising (then, of course, just called commercials.) A show that a junior-high kid could watch with his 50-year-old mother did not suit the demands of the marketeers.

There are no right answers to this, just as there are no right answers to any social question. I miss the idea of the variety show, the common knowledge on Monday morning of what every kid would have seen the night before. And yet, I’m as guilty as anybody of watching TV almost exclusively now on YouTube, consuming only eight-minute bits of an hour-long show already pretty tightly targeted. I’ve never watched an entire episode at its scheduled time of the things I seek out in scraps: Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Graham Norton, Penn & Teller’s Fool Us. We microdose on our culture.

The question, I think, is whether we can encounter variety without needing to demean it or brush past it. And that’s hard, even for those of us who try to be well-meaning. I too often recoil from or just ignore the unfamiliar, and I have to challenge myself often to find the beauty in something that isn’t immediately apparent to me. It’s usually there, if I can slow down and look.

American Divorce

I was listening to NPR this morning, about the vast increase in violent and illegal gangs militias across the nation, and their common language of “prepare for civil war on November 4.” And I had the thought I’ve had dozens of times in the past twenty years: Why a war? Why not a divorce?

There’s no particular reason why the United States has to take the same form in perpetuity; it’s already changed lots of times already. The geographer Joel Garreau wrote thirty years ago about the “nine nations of America,” from the Ecotopia of the Pacific Northwest to the Caribbean cultures of the Gulf Coast. Let’s acknowledge that we have fundamentally different beliefs about a good life and about our responsibilities to one another, and go our own ways without being beleaguered by the other any longer. Cultures matter, and different cultures would benefit from their own values being more broadly enacted.

Even though there are red swaths in blue states (California’s Central Valley, Oregon’s eastern rangelands) and blue dots in red states (Austin, Atlanta, Raleigh/Durham), we would have to come to terms with geography. It’s not possible to have a political government without adjacency; we can’t be members of a different nation with a different constitution and different laws than our the other people on our street. This isn’t as simple as Ford trucks and Chevy trucks, where I can park whatever I want in my driveway. So I’d propose some version of Washington/Oregon/California out west, and some version of New England and the Mid-Atlantic on the west. That might be two different blue nations, or it might be one, but the big red one in the middle is clearly different. And that’s fine. “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…” We’ve done that before. No need for shooting this time; just call it a day.

And Canada’s not an option. The population of Canada is just shy of 40 million; Blue America, the larger of the two, is about 200 million. It wouldn’t be fair to impose ourselves, like an outsized houseguest who decided to just stay. The Canadians are lovely people and all, but we can’t look to them for rescue. We’re responsible for taking on our own future.

Lots of folks will have to move from one place to another to fit their social and political choices. That’s fine, we can allow two years for migration before we establish border protocols.

I mean, this sounds snide and snarky, but I really do think that it might be time to establish an American Dissolution Commission. Divorce is never pretty, but it’s a lot better than domestic violence. There’s no reason to continue to make each other miserable.

Departure and Arrival

This is how stories work

I had an interesting day on Sunday. Part of it was catching up with friends at a masked-and-distanced meet-up for a local State House candidate who’s done a terrific job for us for the past six years. As part of that, I was able to chat with two friends we haven’t seen for eight months, and talk about writing and writers. One of them said that the thing that has always captured him in fiction, and the thing that he so often finds missing in modern fiction, is an arc of motion. That completely mirrors a metaphor I’ve used before, which is that any story is a form of travel, taking us from one place and delivering us safely to another.

The rest of Sunday was taken up with writing a story myself. All morning, most of the afternoon, and an hour or so after dinner, and I’d taken an idea that came to me on a country drive on Saturday afternoon and developed it into a solid draft of a 2,700-word story. I’m proud of it, but that’s not the point. The point is what it does. Does it do the job of being story-ish?

That’s the question, isn’t it. What is the job of being story-ish? I’m enormously weary of those stories that lead us right into the heart of an emotional morass and then end. These stories follow a “choose-your-own-adventure” theory of literature that basically says that, since the reader is doing most of the work anyway, we should leave it to the reader to imagine what they would do if their lives sucked as badly as the one’s portrayed in the story. So we quit while the father is running down the side of the freeway during a schizophrenic episode. We quit while the adult brother and sister are just learning that the same man abused them both. These stories always feel as though they’re missing the last third or so. Climax and denouement are seen not merely as old-fashioned, they’re somehow intellectually dishonest, a summing-up that is unavailable in life and thus must be withheld in fiction as well. The crisis is all that we have.

Nope. Nope nope nope. I still feel that it’s the author’s responsibility to land the plane, to pull up to the gate and lower the ramp. The author can surprise us endlessly with delights along the journey, and the destination itself might be something other than we imagined, but a story is fundamentally a trip from A to B—for the characters, and for us.

The story that stops in mid-stream is, for me, the very definition of a chapter. It is the cliffhanger that invites us to come back tomorrow, the tension suspended across reader-time until we pick the book back up again after dinner. A story—whether flash or short or novel-length or epic—is a journey that can reasonably be said to have been completed.

The twentieth century modernists and their post-y offspring were just as unkind in music and architecture and visual arts as they have been in literature. We are mocked for wanting, for carrying expectations, for having hopes. Emotion is suspect; we are just brains in jars, logical sequences, information processors, data clouds. (The human mind used to be a watch, with intricate connections and levers. Now it’s a computer, with memory storage and processing capacity. Metaphors are insidious if we leave them to be invisible.)

One of the great losses brought about by recorded music and radio was songs that ended. Magnetic tape and mixing boards allowed the sliders to gradually descend at the end of the record, and the necessity of the DJ to talk over the space between records led to songs that didn’t have to end at all except at the demand of networks and advertisers. (Now that the role of the DJ has changed, songs can end again, except in various modes of electronica and dance music, where the DJ continues to be responsible for continuous sound and songs still needn’t be composed to a conclusion.)

[If I were David Foster Wallace and this were paper text instead of a website, each of the parenthetical remarks closing the last two paragraphs would have been footnotes. The medium remains at least part of the message.]

Songs and stories are similarly linear. The composer places us onto time’s arrow and fires us off in the direction they’d aimed. Einstein supposedly said (actually, it was science fiction writer Ray Cummings, in 1919), “Time is so everything doesn’t happen at once.” But time also allows emotion, because it allows anticipation. We know what happened, and we know where we are now. “And then what happened?” we say, unable to go to sleep until we know.

If we told stories at the campfire the ways that some of our contemporary writers told them, we’d be pelted with marshmallows until we finished the damned thing. You took us up here—it’s your job to get us back down.

So that, for me, is the job of being story-ish. It begins from one whole and entire place and brings us, moment by choreographed moment, to another whole and entire place. It is, as David Littlejohn once said about teaching, an opportunity to create an experience more shapely than our daily lives.

Same Time, Same Channel

Come back again next week for another thrilling episode!

Let’s revisit an idea we started a few days ago, about the chapter and the work of being chapterish. I’ll begin by quoting the novelist Peter Ho Davies (who has a new book coming in the first week of January, hooray!), from his essay “Only Collect:”

Novels, in the most basic sense, whether we’re talking about Jane Austen or John Grisham, are machines to make us keep reading. If we love a novel, again irrespective of genre, we’re apt to say things like “I couldn’t put it down,” “I stayed up all night to finish it,” “I couldn’t stop turning the pages.” The most fundamental novelistic skill, one might argue, is the ability to keep us reading, which perhaps explains why novelists – even gifted ones – aren’t great at endings, at stopping us reading.

And yet, most novels DO stop us reading, several times. Every time we reach the end of a chapter, we are not merely permitted, but indeed encouraged to at least go to the fridge for a refill; maybe to close the book and lay it on the nightstand in the trust that we can rejoin it again tomorrow.

Why would a writer do that? As has often been said, we can lose a reader at an almost infinite number of moments in a book; why would we voluntarily give them an off-ramp? Why wouldn’t we just make a single giant chapter, like the world’s biggest bag of Doritos, and ask our readers to rip it open and gorge themselves in a single sitting? (I have no idea, for instance, how to read a book like Ducks, Newburyport. A single continuous thousand-page sentence? Any moment of cessation would seem arbitrary if the author isn’t controlling it, a sort of no mas surrender to exhaustion as we drop the book from our weary hands.)

Generosity isn’t about quantity, and it isn’t about demanding the reader’s unending attention, like the boorish party guest who just won’t shut up about the five primary varieties of beard oil. We’re inviting a conversation of sorts with our reader, and we need to encourage their active participation.

The conclusion of a chapter consolidates its ideas or its arc of action. It doesn’t necessarily resolve it; in fact, usually not. We almost always know we’re going to come back to that same problem again, that our characters aren’t done with that concern yet (or that concern hasn’t finished with our characters). But it closes a scene or a moment of a relationship by asking the reader to consider a question.

Sometimes, as in the cliffhangers of old, that question is both overt and simple. Will Dudley DoRight arrive before Nell is run over by the train? Will Batman and Robin save themselves from the evils of Mr. Freeze, or will they be turned into human Frosty Freezies? “Has the diabolical Mr. Freeze outwitted the Dynamic Duo after all? Hope for a miracle, and stay frozen in your seats until tomorrow…”

But more often, the question is implied.

  • It might be an open-ended question: how will this turn out? (knowing that there are any number of answers to that, not just two.) Ideally, if we care about the characters, an implied second question would be how do I hope this will turn out?
  • It might be a larger, broader question: will things get better for our protagonist, or will they get worse? Are we engaged in a tragedy of declining circumstances, or a comedy of rising circumstances?
  • It might be a question of how the two or three or six threads that we’ve launched will ultimately come together and reveal themselves to be one. Of how Chekhov’s gun, introduced in the first act, will be ultimately fired in the third.
  • It might be a question about ourselves as readers. How would I feel at that point? What would I do in a circumstance like this? Have I ever been as dumb as that, and been as oblivious about it?

I think that a chapter leaves us considering what’s been and what’s to come. It’s a place designed for the reader to get out their figurative (or literal) journal and do some work themselves.

Beta Testing

Women’s fiction is an umbrella term for women centered books that focus on women’s life experience that are marketed to female readers… There exists no comparable label in English for works of fiction that are marketed to men.


My brother-in-law is retired from a high-powered executive career, and with new time on his hands but the continued need for full strategic investment, he’s been forwarding news bits from the New York Times and the Washington Post and 538.com and Politico and HuffPost. Mostly, I let the rain fall without comment, but I occasionally click on a link.

The good news is that, like browsing in a library, I almost always see something in the adjacent sidebar that’s much more interesting than what I came to find.

A couple of days ago, that was this article by Andrew Reiner, called “It’s Not Only Women who Want More Intimacy in Relationships.” In this article (a preview of a coming book) he talks about the ways in which all of us, men and women alike, are trained to understand what men should do, and should want, and should merely endure. The cultural fetish for competition and stoicism and command are taught to us, repeatedly: by entertainment media, for sure, but more importantly by teachers and parents who themselves learned it as simply right and true.

Reiner talks about a common moment in a relationship:

it goes well for these men the first time they make themselves vulnerable. After that, though, the warm reception cools. They’re often met with such responses as ‘You’re much needier than I thought you were’… Another common reaction from female partners is one they have long endured from men: “They’re told that they shouldn’t get so worked up and emotional about things.”

I once described my body of fiction to a thirty-year agent who’d made much of her career and her livelihood representing women’s book-club fiction. As I talked about the goal of writing books in which men could experience the construction of a more satisfying self, she said, “You’re asking men to think about their emotions. They don’t want to do that.”

She has no empirical evidence for that statement. It’s merely learned mythology, just as masculinity itself is a learned mythology. And just as encompassing.

Real alphas don’t let women tell them what to do, whether those women are women’s libbers or debate moderators or the governor of a major state. Real alphas see the world only in competitive terms: attack and defend. They’re governed by a binary switch, their responses toggled between two positions.

I already know, if the Reddit-bro community ever read my novels, what they’d call them. They’d be cuckbooks. A clever wordplay that indicated how unsuitable they were for real alphas. (Sorry, boys, I already made this one up. Find your own.)

Real alphas know what women should do with their bodies, what they should do in the workplace, what they should do at home. We’ve always known that alpha-ness is threatening to women’s autonomy. But it’s threatening to men’s autonomy as well, and the only acceptable way to resolve that threat is to adhere to the rules of the game as played. As Susan Faludi wrote over twenty years ago, the level of cultural messaging about appropriate manhood aimed directly at men is profound. “And men respond profoundly—with acquiescence.”

Beta life is unacceptable. To men and to women. And that’s why it’s brave.

You know why the first public semi-release of new software is called a beta test? Because the alpha test was shoddy and misshapen and not worth showing anyone. The alpha test is the first draft, the sketch, the things we’d be embarrassed to have out in the world. Let’s create a beta masculinity. As our lead Alpha has often said, “What do you have to lose?”

But damn, it’s gonna be an uphill trek. It’s like clearing out the house in an estate sale, there’s just a LOT of debris to go through. Some of it can be reclaimed, but a lot of it will have to be discarded. Like this. And this. And this. We breathe this air every single minute, men and women both.

And like anyone on the forward edge of a cultural change, we’ll be labeled. We’ll be deviants. We’ll be unnatural, working against inherent traits of sexual evolution. We’ll certainly be opposed by masculinist constructions of religions in which women are to be subordinate “protected,” and men are to be assholes “leaders.” We’ll be repellent to readers of fiction in which men take charge, and women are swept into the whirlwind of romance. Or fiction in which men take command, and women are protected from evil.

We’ll have to clean ourselves of the debris as well. It’ll be too easy, too comfortable, too right to just fall back into the rules we’ve learned so thoroughly. And we will, sometimes. We’ll lose our vigilance, drop back into the channels that have been dug for us. They’re deep and pervasive, awaiting every weary moment. They invite us back to the reassurance of understanding our place.

Real strength isn’t compliance. Real strength is embarking on a path that we consciously choose, knowing that we might never reach a destination but that the trip itself is worthy, and that others might follow the rough trail we’ve begun. (Or not. Autonomy is no guarantee of success; it’s merely the opportunity to live as we see fit.) We have the right—and the responsibility—to define ourselves as we see best. We only get one self, right? We should make it ours, not a shadow of someone else’s.