The inequality that matters II: Why does dating in Seattle get left out?

In “Amazon is killing my sex life: The tech boom in Seattle is bringing in droves of successful, straight single guys — all of them insufferable,” Tricia Romano writes about how she “wasn’t going to be able to get it up for a boring tech dude” and says that “as Amazon grows, the number of (boring) men grows too.” In Palo Alto, men “had money, but they were boring.” Meanwhile, “On the dates, they flash money around.” By now you sense a theme. In Romano’s narrative—which I don’t entirely buy, but let’s roll with it—these guys could make an effectively infinite amount of money and that money in her view wouldn’t improve their dating prospects. They are yuppie losers to a refined writerly sensibility.

Romano doesn’t make an interesting connection to national income inequality. By now much of that argument is well-known, and Piketty’s Capital is one surprisingly famous take, though I am a bleacher skeptic. Still, there is a lot of media noise around income inequality, perhaps in part because media people tend to live in very expensive cities like New York and L.A., where making six figures can feel genuinely middle class and where the proximity to the stupendously wealthy invites invidious comparisons.

Nonetheless, Romano’s article should be required reading for anyone who writes about inequality in purely financial terms. In the U.S. there are many different status ladders and finances are only one. Income is not the only thing that one can choose to optimize and indeed of the guys I know the ones who get or seem to get more / better women tend not to be the richest. The artists or artistically inclined tend to have lower income but higher-seeming satisfaction, and so on. The “seeming” qualifications are important because it’s hard to tell from the outside what someone really feels, but in the absence of better measures I tend to accept what appears on the surface.

Elliott Rodger, the guy who murdered half a dozen people at UCSB, apparently “Led A Life Of Luxury” but still felt like he couldn’t get laid. Clearly there were many things wrong with Rodger. But money did not alleviate those things.

I don’t have a major point in this except that there is a (media) obsession with income inequality. That obsession tends to gloss other status ladders and other things people value in their lives. Some kinds status can also convert into money: certain kinds of fame, for example. Attractive women can earn supernormal wages through stripping or prostitution; I’m not arguing those are necessarily desirable life choices but they are viable options for some people and not others. There are still some strength- and endurance-based jobs that guys find within reach—think commercial fishing and fracking.

I’m focusing on sex in this post but that is merely a salient one and there are others, like academia. Romano probably values being a writer more than making a lot of money. In “Taxing a Professor’s Privilege,” Megan McArdle writes about how job guarantees are financially valuable even if that value isn’t traditionally measured in dollars (she also wrote the post that gave this post its title: “The Inequality That Matters“).

If those guys Romano dated imbibed the messages that a) their earnings matter tremendously to women and that b) being at the top of the financial heap matters most, then they’re presumably misallocated resources.

Romano’s post doesn’t sit alone. It’s got a similar vibe to “I Got Shipped to California to Date Tech Guys,” which sounds like the beginning of a romantic comedy.

Finally, as with so many modern social issues this is tied into building restrictions and real-estate issues, since many guys who are exciting but not rich presumably can’t afford to live in Seattle. Seattle and many other areas (New York, L.A.) could improve both dating prospects and finances through increasing the supply of housing, as Matt Yglesias argues at the link, but they by and large choose not to.

Fundamentals in fiction and the question of obligations

The context is David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk and the great mathematician G. H. Hardy’s hatred for the “tripos,” a now-defunct series of math tests at Cambridge that served as a sort of hazing ritual something like modern-day dissertations (Hardy despises them for “The tedium. The sense of energy diverted, imagination stifled”). To pass, many candidates received encouragement and expert tutoring. In this exchange a character named Gaye speaks first, after learning that Hardy, despite his feelings about the Tripos as an institution, will tutor someone about to undergo them:

“Coaching an undergraduate for the tripos. The tripos, of all things! And after all the screeds I’ve heard you deliver against the damned—”
“He won’t make it otherwise,” [Hardy said.]
“Is it your job to save him?”
“Someone saved me.”
“But Love didn’t coach you. He just sent you back to Webb. [. . .] Yours is a more specialized erotic thrill, that of rescuing the fair damsel from the jaws of the dragon.”

There is a perpetual tension discussed here: how much, if any, obligation do we have to others and do they have to us? The question can never be satisfactorily resolved, only explored, and for that reason it is likely to be of interest to novelists (or anyone creating narrative art). Gaye and Hardy are both in their own ways right. Two or more people or viewpoints who both have reasonable claims to rightness is a fertile place for intelligent drama.

One joy of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is the conflict between Marina and Dr. Swenson: when one speaks I agree with her; when the other speaks I agree with her. It’s not easy to sustain this level of conflict without giving one character the upper-hand, the right answer. Novels that do so often descend to the level of propaganda rather than art.

To return to Hardy and Gaye: Relatively few of us go through life completely, callously indifferent to the suffering and travails of others but equally so very few of us devote everything we can to “saving” others (for one thing, they often don’t want to be saved, and can’t be saved from themselves). Somewhere between those poles of total indifference and utter devotion we wander erratically, with no consistent reason, helping some—even making it our “job”—and ignoring others.

Often, however, in helping others we are also helping ourselves in some sense. Hence Gaye’s reference to the erotic thrill: it’s easier to innocently “help” someone attractive, or who is likely to be in a position to pay back a favor, but very easy to deny mixed motivations—until someone else, or some other character, points them out.

My novel, Asking Anna, is out today

Wordpress cover image-3My first published novel, Asking Anna, is out today as an eBook; the print book should follow next week. It’s fun and cheap and you should definitely read it. Here’s the dust-jacket description:

Maybe marriage would be like a tumor: something that grows on you with time. At least that’s what Steven Deutsch thinks as he fingers the ring in his pocket, trying to decide whether he should ask Anna Sherman to marry him. Steven is almost thirty, going on twenty, and the future still feels like something that happens to other people. Still, he knows Anna won’t simply agree to be his long-term girlfriend forever.

When Steven flies to Seattle for what should be a routine medical follow up, he brings Anna and hits on a plan: he’ll introduce her to his friends from home and poll them about whether, based on their immediate judgment, he should ask Anna. But the plan goes awry when old lovers resurface, along with the cancer Steven thought he’d beaten, and the simple scheme he hoped would solve his problem does everything but.

Asking Anna is a comedy, in the tradition of Alain de Botton’s On Love and Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, about how the baggage you bring on a trip isn’t just the kind packed in a suitcase.

I’ll be writing more about Asking Anna next week. I’ve been writing fiction with what I’d call a reasonably high level of seriousness since I was 19; I’d rather not do the math on how long ago that was, but let’s call it more than a decade. It took me four to six false starts to get to the first complete novel (as described in slightly more detail here) and another two completed novels to finish one that someone else might actually want to read. Asking Anna came a couple novels after that.

People who don’t write novels are often surprised to hear about aborted and unreadably bad novels, but producing a few before finding the knack is a pretty common trajectory among writers who, again, produce work that someone else might actually want to read (this may sound like a low standard, but even hitting it is much harder than is widely supposed). It takes a long time to really figure out how to tell a story and how to use the primary tool authors use to tell stories (words) effectively. It’s also hard to find other people who can a) know enough to give good feedback (which doesn’t mean “nice” feedback), b) who are sufficiently sympathetic to what you’re trying to do to not dismiss it outright and c) are interested enough to really talk about writing in general and one’s work in specific.

The preceding paragraph may be getting too far into the weeds of novel writing, but everything in it was a surprise to me when I finally figured it out, and surprises are often worth sharing and worth writing about.

Life: Why read edition

“Literature is an endless source of courage and confirmation. The reader and beginning writer can count on being heartened by all the brave and original works that have been written without the slightest regard for how strange or risky they were, or for what the writer’s mother might have thought when she read them.”

—Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer

EDIT: Another brilliant observation:

art implies a kind of freedom, the freedom of choice, of possibility, of the individual imagination. Which is why dictators—and large corporations—tend not to like art and artists, except those of a highly predictable and malleable sort.

What the writer does: Sherlock Holmes edition

Most people, if you describe a train of events to them, will tell you what the result would be. They can put those events together in their minds, and argue from them that something will come to pass. There are few people, however, who, if you told them a result, would be able to evolve from their own inner consciousness what the steps were which led up to that result.

That’s Arthur Conan Doyle, from A Study in Scarlet, and it applies to what novelists do too: not just describe events, but put “events together in their minds” and see what happens as those events play out.

One reason I tend to argue against people who say they have no time or inclination for fiction is reality: in the form of nonfiction, even narrative nonfiction, it imposes limits on the imagination in a story (which may be one reason why so many people, especially those writing memoirs, are inclined to make shit up to make the story better). Fiction removes the reality constraint, and instead imagination imposes its own necessary and proper restraints on imagination.

At times fiction also pokes at the problems posed by reality, as in Richard Russo’s novel Straight Man. A chair is the pretext for a major fight between a married couple, and the man is describing a scene to his father-in-law:

“When she wouldn’t get out of the way, I set the bag down and took her by the shoulders. . . . Then . . . I don’t know. She must have tripped over the bag. I heard a crash, and when I turned she was there on the floor. She’d fallen into . . .”
He stops, unable to continue.
“The chair,” I say.
He stares at me through moist, confused eyes. “No, the stereo cabinet.”
“Oh, sorry,” I say. I my writing workshop I’d have explained to my students why, for symmetry, in had to be the chair.

In fiction symbols can align neatly as they so often don’t outside of fiction. The “train of events” runs smoothly or unsmoothly on the writer’s tracks, or on “their own inner consciousness.” Not always to an interesting end, but to an end that shows things nonfiction, whatever its virtues, often doesn’t.

Your hours

Raymond Chen has a hilarious and quietly insightful post in “I wrote FAT on an airplane, for heaven’s sake,” which ends this way:

During the development of Windows 3.0, it was customary to have regular meetings with Bill Gates to brief him on the status of the project. At one of the reviews, the topic was performance, and Bill complained, “You guys are spending all this time with your segment tuning tinkering. I could teach a twelve-year-old to segment-tune. I want to see some real optimization, not this segment tuning nonsense. I wrote FAT on an airplane, for heaven’s sake.”

(I can’t believe I had to write this: This is a dramatization, not a courtroom transcript.)

This “I wrote FAT on an airplane” line was apparently one Bill used when he wanted to complain that what other people was doing wasn’t Real Programming. But this time, the development manager decided she’d had enough.

“Fine, Bill. We’ll set you up with a machine fully enlisted in the Windows source code, and you can help us out with some of your programming magic, why don’t you.”

One deeper point: Bill “wrote” FAT on an airplane, but in a sense he’d been learning how to write it for a decade or decades. Any complex thing anyone does is built on a wide, deep, specialized foundation. Writing works that way too—I may “write” a given post or essay or proposal in a few hours or days, but in a sense I’ve been learning how to write for at least a decade. Maybe longer. When a post is executed cleanly and well, it’s not because I have some magical ability. It’s because any time spent at the keyboard is the tip of a spear that extends back through thousands of books and hours spent practicing things I’ve done wrong or seen other people do wrong.

Everyone has or should have a skill like that, or should be developing one. What’s yours?

(Chen wrote a similar follow-up post.)

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