The sprawling narrative and Ta-Nehisi Coates' reading of Middlemarch

In “Into the Canon: ‘Middlemarch,’” Ta-Nehisi Coates says he’s halfway through the novel and that “Eliot’s rather omnivorous employment of voice and excerpt is bracing.” He gives an example and then says: “I wonder if young writers, today, are attempting this sort of sprawling narrative. I’m not particularly well-read–especially in the area of modern fiction.”

My answer: sometimes, but rarely. Two contemporary examples that work come to mind: Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell* and Cryptonomicon. Neither is quite the same as each other or two Middlemarch, but great works of art are supposed to be singular, and both contemporary novels are long, have many moments of weird narrative (in which it’s hard to tell who speaks), and are highly detailed. Perhaps overly detailed.

In Encounter, Milan Kundera says, correctly, that “Almost all great modern artists mean to do away with ‘filler,’ do away with whatever comes from habit, whatever keeps them from getting directly and exclusively at the essential (the essential: the thing the artist himself, and only he, is able to say).” Coates is responding to the contrast between the modern tendency to cut “filler” and get at “the essential;” I think consciously about doing both when I write, and the “filler” often bothers me about 19th C novels—but then I suppose his point about voice is that voice can make filler into the essential, at least for some readers. I tend not to be one of them, but I can make exceptions—as I do for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Cryptonomicon, and as I don’t for the late, tedious novels of Henry James.


* I’m reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell at the moment, and, while it’s hard to give an example of the novel’s vastness (do we really need the level of detail we get in the Spanish campaign sections? and what is “need?”), I would note this description of Jonathan Strange following the apparent death of his wife:

[Jonathan’s] words and his face were what all his friends remembered — with this difference: that the man behind them seemed only to be acting a part while his thoughts and his heart were somewhere else entirely. He looked at them from behind the sarcastic smile and none of them knew what he was thinking. He was more like a magician than ever before. It was very curious and no one knew what to make of it, but in some ways he was more like Norrell.

There are a couple of traits similar to the “sprawling” narratives Coates mentions: most of the time we’re listening, as we are here, to a straightforward third-person omniscient narrator, and we’re not motivated to think this observation comes from a particular character’s point of view. Notice how “no one knew what to make of it:” how does the narrator know what everyone thinks, in order to say that “no one knew?”

This kind of pronouncement is uncommon in contemporary novels, or at least the contemporary novels I read. Perhaps more importantly, the quote above could easily be omitted, and Strange’s behavior left to the reader to interpret, without authorial comment. We should be able to infer Strange’s change in character and manner from the way he acts, but Clarke chooses (or, in her mock-19th Century idiom, “chuses”) to give it to us—as she tells us a few sentences later that “They ordered a good dinner consisting of a turtle, three or four beefsteaks, some gravy made with the fat of a green goose, some lampreys, escalloped oysters and a small salad of beet root.” It’s lovely to know they ate “gravy made with the fat of a green goose,” whatever that means, but I’m not sure how desperately we need to know.

In most books such details would be irritating; in this one they’re mostly charming. Call it the book’s magic.

For a similar example in Cryptonomicon, see the famous Cap’n Crunch scene, a portion of which is at the link.

The sprawling narrative and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ reading of Middlemarch

In “Into the Canon: ‘Middlemarch,’” Ta-Nehisi Coates says he’s halfway through the novel and that “Eliot’s rather omnivorous employment of voice and excerpt is bracing.” He gives an example and then says: “I wonder if young writers, today, are attempting this sort of sprawling narrative. I’m not particularly well-read–especially in the area of modern fiction.”

My answer: sometimes, but rarely. Two contemporary examples that work come to mind: Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell* and Cryptonomicon. Neither is quite the same as each other or two Middlemarch, but great works of art are supposed to be singular, and both contemporary novels are long, have many moments of weird narrative (in which it’s hard to tell who speaks), and are highly detailed. Perhaps overly detailed.

In Encounter, Milan Kundera says, correctly, that “Almost all great modern artists mean to do away with ‘filler,’ do away with whatever comes from habit, whatever keeps them from getting directly and exclusively at the essential (the essential: the thing the artist himself, and only he, is able to say).” Coates is responding to the contrast between the modern tendency to cut “filler” and get at “the essential;” I think consciously about doing both when I write, and the “filler” often bothers me about 19th C novels—but then I suppose his point about voice is that voice can make filler into the essential, at least for some readers. I tend not to be one of them, but I can make exceptions—as I do for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Cryptonomicon, and as I don’t for the late, tedious novels of Henry James.


* I’m reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell at the moment, and, while it’s hard to give an example of the novel’s vastness (do we really need the level of detail we get in the Spanish campaign sections? and what is “need?”), I would note this description of Jonathan Strange following the apparent death of his wife:

[Jonathan’s] words and his face were what all his friends remembered — with this difference: that the man behind them seemed only to be acting a part while his thoughts and his heart were somewhere else entirely. He looked at them from behind the sarcastic smile and none of them knew what he was thinking. He was more like a magician than ever before. It was very curious and no one knew what to make of it, but in some ways he was more like Norrell.

There are a couple of traits similar to the “sprawling” narratives Coates mentions: most of the time we’re listening, as we are here, to a straightforward third-person omniscient narrator, and we’re not motivated to think this observation comes from a particular character’s point of view. Notice how “no one knew what to make of it:” how does the narrator know what everyone thinks, in order to say that “no one knew?”

This kind of pronouncement is uncommon in contemporary novels, or at least the contemporary novels I read. Perhaps more importantly, the quote above could easily be omitted, and Strange’s behavior left to the reader to interpret, without authorial comment. We should be able to infer Strange’s change in character and manner from the way he acts, but Clarke chooses (or, in her mock-19th Century idiom, “chuses”) to give it to us—as she tells us a few sentences later that “They ordered a good dinner consisting of a turtle, three or four beefsteaks, some gravy made with the fat of a green goose, some lampreys, escalloped oysters and a small salad of beet root.” It’s lovely to know they ate “gravy made with the fat of a green goose,” whatever that means, but I’m not sure how desperately we need to know.

In most books such details would be irritating; in this one they’re mostly charming. Call it the book’s magic.

For a similar example in Cryptonomicon, see the famous Cap’n Crunch scene, a portion of which is at the link.

Thoughts on Steve Jobs — Walter Isaacson

I don’t think Steve Jobs, seen as a whole package, holds much of a lesson for us mortals, as Gary Stix argues here. Nonetheless, Steve Jobs the book is as fascinating as one should expect. The broad contours of his life and the book’s contents are well known, so I won’t repeat them here; I will note a few things:

1) As early as 1980, Jobs was “thrashing about for ways to produce something more radically different. At first he flirted with the idea of touchscreens, but he found himself frustrated. At one demonstration of the technology, he arrived late, fidgeted awhile, then abruptly cut off one of the engineers in the middle of their presentation [. . . .]” Notice how early he was thinking about a product that didn’t make it into shipping products until 2007. But I’m not that interested in touchscreens because, at least so far, they’re lousy for typing and other kinds of content creation. More than anything else I’m a writer, and I don’t see much use for iPads beyond checking Facebook, reading e-mails, and watching YouTube videos. Maybe they’d be useful as menus and such too. Charlie Stross gets this, and he a) actually has one and b) explains more about their uses and limitations Why I don’t use the iPad for serious writing.”

2) Not all of the book’s writing is great—phrases and ideas are too often repeated, and Isaacson shies from figurative or hyperbolic language, like a 13-year-old not quite ready to approach the opposite sex. Nonetheless, the books has enough evocative moments to balance its stylistic plodding, as in this moment: “Randy Wigginton, one of the engineers, summed it up: ‘The Apple III was kind of like a baby conceived during a group orgy, and later everybody had this bad headache, and there’s this bastard child, and everyone says, “It’s not mine.”‘”

I have yet to see an “individual orgy,” as opposed to a “group orgy,” but the metaphor nonetheless resonates.

3) Jobs didn’t think the same way most of us do about a wide array of topics. He didn’t think like the idiotic managers who think anything that can’t be measured automatically has no value. One can see non-standard thinking that works all over the book—it would be interesting to look too at people with non-standard thinking who fail—and I noticed this moment, at a Stanford class, where Jobs took business questions for while:

When the business questions tapered off, Jobs turned the tables on the well-groomed students. ‘How many of you are virgins?’ he asked. There were nervous giggles. ‘How many of you have taken LSD?’ More nervous laughter, and only one or two hands went up. Later Jobs would complain about the new generation of kids, who seemed to him more materialistic and careerist than his own. ‘When I went to school, it was right after the sixties and before this general wave of practical purposefulness had set in,’ he said. ‘Now students aren’t even thinking in idealistic terms, or at least nowhere near as much.’

Students are too shocked, and by the time they get to me they’re too often well-behaved in a dull way. I’ve mentioned weed in class, and the students are usually astonished. But I remember being a freshman, and most of the shock is undeserved. I went to school at Clark University, where mentions of pot smoking and LSD seemed fairly normal.

“Practical purposefulness” can be impractical when it blinds one to alternative possibilities that the well mannered simply cannot or will not imagine.

4) The last four paragraphs of the book are perfect.

5) Here’s Steven Berlin Johnson on the book; notice:

After devouring the first two-thirds of the book, I found myself skimming a bit more through the post-iPod years, largely because I knew so many of the stories. (Though Isaacson has extensive new material about the health issues, all of which is riveting and tragic.) At first, I thought that the more recent material was less compelling for just that reason: because it was recent, and thus more fresh in my memory. But it’s not that I once knew all the details about the battle with Sculley or the founding of NeXT and forgot them; it’s that those details were never really part of the public record, because there just weren’t that many outlets covering the technology world then.

This reminded me of a speech I gave a few years ago at SXSW, that began with the somewhat embarrassing story of me waiting outside the College Hill bookstore in 1987, hoping to catch the monthly arrival of MacWorld Magazine, which was just about the only conduit for information about Apple back then. In that talk, I went on to say:

If 19-year-old Steven could fast-forward to the present day, he would no doubt be amazed by all the Apple technology – the iPhones and MacBook Airs – but I think he would be just as amazed by the sheer volume and diversity of the information about Apple available now. In the old days, it might have taken months for details from a John Sculley keynote to make to the College Hill Bookstore; now the lag is seconds, with dozens of people liveblogging every passing phrase from a Jobs speech. There are 8,000-word dissections of each new release of OS X at Ars Technica, written with attention to detail and technical sophistication that far exceeds anything a traditional newspaper would ever attempt. Writers like John Gruber or Don Norman regularly post intricate critiques of user interface issues. (I probably read twenty mini-essays about Safari’s new tab design.) The traditional newspapers have improved their coverage as well: think of David Pogue’s reviews, or Walt Mossberg’s Personal Technology site. And that’s not even mentioning the rumor blogs.

So in a funny way, the few moments at the end of Steve Jobs where my attention flagged turned out to be a reminder of one of the great gifts that the networked personal computer has bestowed upon us: not just more raw information, but more substantive commentary and analysis, in real-time.

Except I’m a native to this environment: by the time I came to be cognizant of the world, this was already, if not a given, then at least very close. The later sections of the book had the feel of stuff I’ve already seen on the Internet, and much of the most interesting work analyzing Steve Jobs’ personality, predilections, and power had been done earlier.

To some extent, it’s always easier to chart rises than plateaus, and this is certainly true in Jobs’ case. The very end of Steve Jobs described the steps he’s taken to try ensuring the company continues in the mold of a company capable of producing great stuff—unlike most companies, which slowly come to be ruled by bean-counters and salarymen. Japanese companies like Sony are instructive here: Akio Morita‘s departure from the company coincided with its stagnation, which is most evident in its failure to see the iPod coming.

6) There are many subtle lessons that would be easy to miss in Steve Jobs and from Steve Jobs.

Late December Links: Sleep deficits, narrative power, tea, iPads, bikes, pubic hair, and more

* Sleep Deficit: The Performance Killer. This should be obvious, and medical residency directors ought to read it.

* “[N]one of my contemporaries seem to be interested in the things that interest me, such as fast, clear, several-stranded narrative, action, character, violence.” Can you guess the context? It’s actually about poetry, but it fits literary fiction too and my feelings about so much lit fic.

* Tea: Not Just for Girls; I find this intriguing, since I am a guy:

My customers are about 60% male, and men make up the majority of attendance at my tea tastings. Why guys? I think guys are fascinated by the history and culture of tea, and view tea as a hobby — seeking out the best of the best, matching tea with tea ware, using ancient steeping methods.

* Charlie Stross: Why I don’t use the iPad for serious writing. But he’d like to. And I’d like to. I don’t own an iPad primarily because it looks like a media consumption device, and while I read and watch a fair bit of “media,” I want to focus more on the production side of things most of the time.

* Famous Authors’ Harshest Rejection Letters. It’s amazing to me not only how little we know, but how little we know how little we know (read that twice).

* Jurors Need to Know That They Can Say No; “The First Amendment exists to protect speech like this — honest information that the government prefers citizens not know.”

* This Bike Could Save Your Life: An Infographic On The Massive Benefits Of Bicycling.

* The New Full-Frontal: Has Pubic Hair in America Gone Extinct? To me this reads like old news, like a lot of the reporting “old” people do on “young” people. I wonder when I join the old people reporting instead of the young people, with their shocking, new-fangled ways, being reported on.

* David Henderson’s “Occupy Monterey” talks are fascinating in part because they reveal the basic economic illiteracy of much of his audience. There are three parts, all at the link; some of the comments shouted from people in the audience remind me of things I’ve heard peers and profs say in English departments.

* The No-Brainer Issue of the Year: Let High-Skill Immigrants Stay:

Behind Door #1 are people of extraordinary ability: scientists, artists, educators, business people and athletes. Behind Door #2 stand a random assortment of people. Which door should the United States open?

In 2010, the United States more often chose Door #2.

* Get Ready for Manufacturing’s Big Comeback; “As the cost of doing business in China rises, U.S. manufacturing could be on the verge of a renaissance.”

Humor as an antidote to frustration, from Christopher Hitchens

I think of Christopher Hitchens more along the lines of Katha Pollitt, who “want[s] to complicate the picture even at the risk of seeming churlish.” And she does. Still, Hitchens was sometimes spectacularly right, as in this introduction to Arguably: Essays:

The people who must never have power are the humorless. To impossible certainties of rectitude they ally tedium and uniformity. Since an essential element in the American idea is its variety, I have tried to celebrate things that are amusing for their own sake, or ridiculous but revealing, or simply of intrinsic interest. All of the above might apply to the subject of my little essay on the art and science of the blowjob, for example [….]

Be almost as wary of the humorless as you are of the people who pride themselves on humor.

The frustrations of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape

I started Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape in the hope that it would cover sexuality and sexual dynamics thoroughly. It didn’t, mostly because few of its writers know anything about evolutionary biology / psychology, game theory, incentives, or economics. Instead, they offer unmoored political polemics about how people should act, or how culture operates. Few of the writers discuss how incentives shape behavior or how the choices made by individuals do, in the aggregate, form culture itself.

Yes Means Yes feels like descriptions of the physical world before Newton formulated his laws. The major exception is Julia Serano’s “Why Nice Guys Finish Last,” because she has a sense of how we’ve gotten to an equilibrium that explains why a lot of women are unhappy because many of the guys they sleep with treat them like dirt afterwards (and, often, before), while a lot of men are unhappy because they find sexual success linked to domineering behavior. She says:

Any attempts to critique men for being sexually aggressive, or to critique women to fulfilling the role of sexual object, will have a very limited effect. These tactics, after all, fail to address the crucial issue of demand. So long as heterosexual women are attracted to men who act like aggressors, and heterosexual men are attracted to women who act like objects, people will continue to fulfill those roles.

Serano at least understands the problem and the forces at work. Most of the rest of the writers don’t, rendering the book not worth reading. One could understand a book like this in, say, the 1960s, before a lot of contemporary research in numerous venues on subjects relating to sexuality. But Yes Means Yes was published in 2008.

Time preferences, character, and The Novel in my novel

A friend was reading a novel I wrote called The Hook and asked: “I’m curious. . . Do you believe this?” of this passage, in which the speaker is a teenage girl describing her teacher:*

But Scott sometimes said that if we do something, it shows that we wanted to at that time, even if we regret it later. So other people can’t really “make” us do anything. He said that people want different things over different courses of time—so in the short term, you might want one thing, in the long term, something else, and when you’re in the heat of the moment, the short term is pretty sweet.

The answer to my friend’s question is: mostly, but not entirely. Zimbardo and Boyd wrote The Time Paradox, which describes how some people default to “past,” “present,” or “future” orientations or dispositions; hedonic people tend to be present-oriented, high achievers (probably a lot of engineers) tend to be future-oriented, and nostalgic, content, family-centered people tend to be past-oriented. These categories obviously aren’t hard and fast, and everyone has some of all of them, but I think the overall idea stands. And people who have one central orientation probably don’t understand others well, just like extroverts tend not to understand introverts; I think reading helps people better understand others not like themselves.

People are also pretty strongly biased by random emotions, feelings, and environments; for example, in Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational, he describes how people in a sexually aroused state make very different or predictions decisions from those in a “cold” state—one might say they become much more present-oriented, which is probably obvious to those of us who have been in that state and are willing to think consciously and rationally about it afterwards. Most of us have probably been in that state, but relatively few of us want to admit what it’s like when we’re not in it. On a separate note, Ariely speculates that this may apply to hunger and other states too.

Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow describes the numerous biases that we’re prone to, including a bias towards present consumption in lieu of future consumption. So if we’re in the moment being offered the pleasures of alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, spending, or whatever, the “future” might seem very far away and uncertain (that’s what Karl Smith gets when he writes “If I Were A Poor Black Kid” that so many other commenters miss). So people are inclined to do things they say they “regret” or say “wasn’t them,” even when it probably was: it’s just that the person who gave into their craving was thinking in a different frame of mind, and the person in a “cold” frame of mind probably wants to present themselves differently than a person in a “hot” frame of mind acts. You may notice that a lot of people say, “I was drunk,” as if that means they had no control over what they were doing, but their rational self decided to take the first drink. It seems that many people go through a two-step process to get what they really want: they drink, which gives them an excuse to decry their actions while drunk at a future date while achieving their hedonic ends—which are often sexual.

This is how you get people suffused with regret for acts they very much enjoyed previously. Sex is the most obvious example here, but there are others. What a lot of people call “attraction” or “chemistry” looks to me more like people being attracted to specific behavioral or physical traits they then cloak in other words. This, basically, is what Neil Strauss explains in The Game and other self-proclaimed pickup people discuss in different venues. But it only works if women are attracted to the kind of show that such guys put on; many women in clubs / bars appear to be, at least to some extent, because if they weren’t then “game” wouldn’t work. I find this stuff more intellectually interesting than immediately applicable to my day-to-day life, but it nonetheless shows that a lot of social life happens below the level of consciousness and in ways that I didn’t appreciate when I was younger.

As I said earlier, people who tend to be highly logical and future oriented (I’m somewhat like this; you seem like you are too, although I obviously can’t speak for you and am not totally sure) often don’t “get” or understand people who aren’t. And vice-versa. People who are hedonically oriented in one moment and disavow their hedonism the next seem like hypocrites—and they are. But most people seem to be hypocrites and don’t take the time to deeply analyze what their “feelings” are telling them. Kahneman develops the idea of two “systems” that people use: the first is a fast, heuristic system that guides us to make instant, snap decisions; the second slows us down to analyze situations, but it’s much more laborious and harder to engage. Most people live in system one most of the time, including us. It takes a lot of effort to motivate system two. So we get a lot of biases from system one that sometimes make our system two self unhappy later.

I think one problem intellectuals like me have is an unwillingness to be sufficiently present-oriented, to slip out of our eggheads and into the now. A lot of cultures and societies have festivals or rituals that encourage this sort of thing; you can see a contemporary example in Brazil’s Carnival and numerous examples in older cultures (Donna Tartt’s excellent novel The Secret History exploits this interest for its plot). But ours doesn’t, which might in part be a function of our wacky religious heritage. We don’t have a lot of space for ritual; the closest we get is something like Halloween and extreme drinking parties, where people get to release or transcend the self in ways that may produce great pleasure. But, again, what is pleasure? Merely neurochemical? Or something else? I don’t have good answers, though I’m very curious.

So: do I believe what Stacy says Scott asserts? Somewhat. I think Scott’s mistake is assuming there’s a single, unified person in there somewhere. Either that, or Stacy, who’s speaking in the section you marked, misunderstands Scott, or can’t apply what he says because she doesn’t have the background to do so.

As you can probably tell from the above, I don’t really know what I believe; I’m guided in my thinking by some of the things I’ve read and observed, but the issue is complex enough that I don’t think they tell the whole story. When I was younger, I believed in a unified self; if someone did one particular thing at one particular time, that was a revealed preference, that’s who they were, and that’s the end of the story. Now, a lot of the work of behavioral and evolutionary psychologists and economists has forced me to rethink those ideas, and consciousness is much stranger than I really appreciated!

If you want to judge for yourself, the books I cited above are a good and lucid place to start. But I don’t think they’re the end of the story; maybe the story has no end. That’s not a real satisfying statement, but it’s what I’ve got and where I’ve gotten with my own imperfect thinking. Deep, much-debated issues often are that way because there isn’t a “right” answer per se—only a range of possibilities that are continually deepened over time through research, observation, and writing.

Note: The next paragraph has some material germane to the novel but that won’t make a lot of sense outside the context of the novel.

I mostly wish someone had explained a lot of this to me when I was younger. But they didn’t, which might be why Stacy repeats what Scott says to her (there’s so much I try to convey to people who’re younger than me, but I suspect most of them don’t really have the framework necessary to situate what I’m telling them, and thus they can’t really deploy it in behavioral changes). In the context of The Hook, I think Stacy and Arianna make their video at Sheldon’s coaxing because they’re caught up in the moment, and they’re obviously unhappy when the video gets shown to the whole school. So is Stacy the girl who is willing to bare her stuff for the camera when she’s sexually excited and not really thinking about what comes next, or the girl who can stand up in front of the whole assembly and walk nobly down and out, transcending the moment and trying to show herself beyond high school bullshit?

Both and neither. Which is, I hope, what makes her interesting as a character, and why I suspect narrative fiction will continue to enchant us even when research has surpassed many of the nonfiction writers on whom I’m drawing when I’m drawing characters.


This post started life as an e-mail to my friend, and I’ve edited it some before publishing it here.

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