Being wrong, and a partial list of ways I’ve been wrong

A variety of somewhat big-deal econ bloggers have written about things they now believe they were wrong about. Looking back on changed opinions (which is a slightly more polite of saying “I was wrong”) is a useful exercise in intellectual honesty—a trait most people lack. I might be among them but like to think that I’m more intellectually honest than I actually am.

Still, here are some (unsorted) opinions on topics about which I’ve been wrong or at least not as right as I could be:

1) I basically believed that the stock market’s average rate of return would remain 10% per year over reasonable time periods. That it will still average somewhere close to 10% per year still seems probable, but the “reasonable time periods” (like two decades or so) no longer does, and in the long run, as a famous economist whose name escapes me observed, we’re all dead.

2) Like McArdle, the “Great Moderation” seemed real up until the last six months or so.

3) There are some things I was wrong about that turned out well: I didn’t think we’d see a black president in my lifetime. In 2004, if you’d told me that a black man would be president in 2008, I probably would’ve laughed at you.

4) I didn’t get why people liked Jane Austen until I read James Wood’s How Fiction Works, with its description of free indirect speech, and his examples from Austen. Now I do.

5) The iPhone? Nice, but a fad. I didn’t think it would be as important as it has been, or that other phone manufacturers would be so slow to respond.

6) I didn’t think Facebook would become and stay as popular as it is; I signed as an undergrad chiefly as a quick way of figuring out which girls already had boyfriends. Now I seldom log on, but evidently I’m in the minority.

7) I used to believe that it was possible to have rational discussions about religion and/or politics with most people. Now I don’t. Both subjects is are seldom subjected to empirical tests, so no feedback mechanism can demonstrate when or if a belief is wrong. Politics are (slightly) more subject to such tests, via election, studies, and the like, but the broadest political beliefs aren’t really. See Paul Graham’s “Keep Your Identity Small” for more on this subject, along with “What You Can’t Say.” At best one can have meta-conversations about religion and politics (“Why do people need religion?”)

8) During the ramp-up to the Iraq war, I was in college, and many of my professors were virulently against the war and thought that the government was perfectly capable of dissembling and distorting the debate about weapons of mass destruction; some had lived through Vietnam, with its phony Gulf of Tonkin incident, and the later Iran-Contra hearings. I hadn’t and thought it wildly implausible that so many people and institutions would be hoodwinked by faulty information, so I was more or less in favor of the war, like a lot of my equally gullible compatriots.

Oops.

9) On first reading Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, I didn’t appreciate many of its most impressive qualities, especially regarding the narrative, the dialogue, and the extent to which the novel combines post-modern games with immense readability. Now I do.

10) I used to think that the sexual double standard was primarily due to misinformation, the cruel application of religious principles to individual lives, ignorance, and malice. Now I think the sexual double standard is primarily due to daughter-guarding by parents and parents’ influence on culture, female efforts to guard men through slandering their potential competitors’ reputations, general female competitiveness, the fact that the choosier sex is always the one that invests more in offspring, and differing economic and pleasure incentives acting on children than their parents.

These forces help explain a great deal of our culture’s confusion about sexuality and its mixed messages—especially among the young. I used to think this confusion would eventually devolve into a more laissez-faire, I’m-okay-you’re-okay attitude, which it still might, but now that day seems very far off.

(See my essay “The Weekly Standard on the New-Old Dating Game, Hooking Up, Daughter-Guarding, and much, much more” for details.)

11) A student question from two years ago prompted me to realized that, although I used to believe something close to the classical economic model of man in which behavior automatically reveals preferences and if someone does something, it must be because they rationally believe it will benefit them, now I’ve realized that context, framing effects, peer pressure, time preferences, and the like have a far greater effect than I once gave them credit for. Reading Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect and The Time Paradox, Neil Strauss’ The Game, and Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life contributed to my change in views.

It might not hurt for you to try this test for yourself: if you can’t think of anything you’ve been wrong about, does that mean that you’re consistently right about everything, or does that mean something quite different? If you need help, there’s an entire book on the subject by Kathryn Schulz named Being Wrong: Adventures on the Margins of Error, although I haven’t actually read said book yet.

Being wrong and a partial list of ways I’ve been wrong

A variety of somewhat big deal bloggers in economics have written about things they now believe they were wrong about. Looking back on changed opinions (which is a slightly more polite of saying “I was wrong”) is an exercise in intellectual honesty—a trait widely lacked.

Some (unsorted) things I’ve been wrong about:

1) I basically believed that the stock market’s average rate of return would remain 10% per year over reasonable time periods. That it will still average somewhere close to 10% per year still seems probable, but the “reasonable time periods” (like two decades or so) no longer does, and in the long run, as a famous economist whose name escapes me observed, we’re all dead.

2) Like McArdle, the “Great Moderation” seemed real up until the last six months or so.

3) There are some things I was wrong about that turned out well: I didn’t think we’d see a black president in my lifetime. In 2004, if you’d told me that a black man would be president in 2008, I probably would’ve laughed.

4) I didn’t get why people liked Jane Austen until I read James Wood’s How Fiction Works, with its description of free indirect speech, and his examples from Austen. Now I do.

5) The iPhone? Nice, but a fad. I didn’t think it would be as big a deal as it has been, or that other phone manufacturers would be so slow to respond.

6) I didn’t think Facebook would become and stay as popular as it is; I signed as an undergrad chiefly as a quick way of figuring out which girls already had boyfriends. Now I seldom log on, but evidently I’m in the minority. Pictures of dogs, food, babies… I don’t care but the evidence shows many, many people do.

7) I used to believe that it was possible to have rational discussions about religion and/or politics with most people. Both subjects are seldom subjected to empirical tests, so no feedback mechanism can demonstrate when or if a belief is wrong. Politics are (slightly) more subject to such tests, via election, studies, and the like, but the broadest political beliefs aren’t really. See Paul Graham’s “Keep Your Identity Small” for more on this subject, along with “What You Can’t Say.”

8) During the ramp-up to the Iraq war, I was in college, and many of my professors were virulently against the war and thought that the government was perfectly capable of dissembling and distorting the debate about weapons of mass destruction; some had lived through Vietnam, with its phony Gulf of Tonkin incident, and the later Iran-Contra hearings. I hadn’t and thought it wildly implausible that so many people and institutions would be hoodwinked by faulty information, so I was more or less in favor of the war, like a lot of my equally gullible compatriots.

9) On first reading Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, I didn’t appreciate many of its most impressive qualities, especially regarding the narrative, the dialogue, and the extent to which the novel combines post-modern games with immense readability. Now I do.

10) I used to think that the sexual double standard was primarily due to misinformation, the cruel application of religious principles to individual lives, ignorance, and malice. Now I think the sexual double standard is primarily due to daughter guarding by parents and parents’ influence on culture, female efforts to guard men through slandering their potential competitors’ reputations, general female competitiveness, and the fact that the choosier sex is always the one that invests more in offspring.

These forces help explain cultural incoherence about sexuality, especially among the young. A laissez-faire, I’m-okay-you’re-okay attitude seems very far off.

(See “The Weekly Standard on the New-Old Dating Game, Hooking Up, Daughter-Guarding, and much, much more.”)

11) A student question from two years ago prompted me to realized that, although I used to believe something close to the classical economic model of man in which behavior automatically reveals preferences and if someone does something, it must be because they rationally believe it will benefit them, now I’ve realized that context, framing effects, peer pressure, time preferences, and the like have a far greater effect than I once gave them credit for. Reading Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect and The Time Paradox, Neil Strauss’ The Game, and Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life contributed to my change in views.

Try the “What I’ve been wrong about” test for yourself. If you can’t think of anything you’ve been wrong about, does that mean that you’re consistently right about everything, or does that mean something quite different? If you need help, see Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong: Adventures on the Margins of Error, although I haven’t actually read said book yet.

Don’t rent an apartment from Navid Abedian in Tucson, Arizona, or, how I learned to be wary of lawsuits

In 2008 I moved in Tucson for grad school and rented a condo that turned out to be a decent place to live, except for the landlord and a neighbor universally referred to as “Crazy Nick” (he was not crazy in a good way). When my roommate and I moved, the landlord kept about $500 of our deposit after promising that he wouldn’t and saying that he’d refund it. Stealing our security deposit violated Arizona’s Residential Landlord & Tenant Act, which regulates the usual tenant-landlord problems.

Because I’m such a smart guy and was both unhappy about his lies and interested in our money, I decided to sue him in small claims court, where I eventually won a $1,350 judgment. He paid $350 after a debtor’s hearing in January and promised to pay the rest; in June I sought another debtor’s hearing to compel him to pay at which point he threatened to come over to my apartment and kill me. For those of you keeping score, this marks the second time someone has done so in one summer, up from zero times previously in my entire life.

I filed a police report, stayed at friends’ houses for a few days, and canceled the hearing: improbable though Abedian’s threat might be, it’s not worth shooting or being shot over $1,000. He’s also a cipher to me: all I know is that he works in a carpet store, bought a condo in Tucson near the height of the ’00s real estate boom and, according to a Google search, might have his house foreclosed on. In other words, he might be desperate, and people have killed each other over far less than $1,000.

Although running away sets a bad precedent—will he just threaten to kill the next tenant who comes along? am I not doing the right thing for my fellow man—I still think capitulating wiser than continuing.

What originally seemed to mostly be entertainment (i.e. going to court and pontificating), began to suck up way too much mental energy. In the Hacker News discussion of Paul Graham’s “The Top Idea In Your Mind,” grellas wrote, “There is a lesson here about lawsuits, which will drain you of both money and peace of mind all at the same time. Sometimes you can’t turn the other cheek, much as you would like to do so, and have no choice but to fight. Having the guts to stand up for yourself (or for your company) is in itself a virtue and there are times when it is best not to walk away.”

He’s right, and a lawsuit I’d imagined as entertainment and teaching a useful lessons that might turn into dividends for the next tenants backfired. It also occupied way too much space in my mind—space that I should’ve spent writing or doing research. Instead I worried about the sanity and desperation of a guy I didn’t know and who was probably armed.

In Francine Prose’s novel Touch, the protagonist is a 14- or 15-year-old girl named Maisie, who tells her preening stepmother, Joan, a version of what happened on a bus when two or three boys touched her breasts in somewhat murky circumstances. It isn’t clear at the narrative’s start whether she consented, but the event as narrated to us is also one in which the characters act without enough culpability to call what they did anything beyond adolescent horseplay and power struggles.

Joan wants to meet a lawyer, which makes Maisie think that “I was filled with dread. Pure dread. It felt like icy water trickling down my back.” Joan says, “It would be a matter of principle.” Most people don’t lead their lives solely according to principle; pragmatics matter too. Few of us want to be martyrs for a cause, and if we do, that cause better be worth it. Most of us want to get along. Altruistic punishment is real but can be overrated. Maisie would be harming her own well-being and self-interest. I thought I was standing up for the principle of tenants’ rights and for fairness, but I chose to give up that principle when Navid threatened to kill me. Pragmatics won.

Like Maisie, I’m choosing pragmatism—which I probably should’ve learned in the first place. I’ve started Bleak House a couple of times (I’m not a Dickens fan) and understand Jardyce vs Jardyce well enough to know that lawsuits are often vehicles for mutually assured destruction more than they are about fairness or rights. When in doubt or when it’s avoidable, don’t get the law involved. And, apparently, be ready to write off your security deposit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEDIT: It’s 2014 and I’d mostly forgotten about Navid, but I just got a letter saying that he declared bankruptcy. I’m a) somehow listed as a creditor and b) the Department of Justice somehow got my current address, in order to c) invite me on some kind of creditors’ committee. I wish I couldn’t say that I don’t feel a little schadenfreude, but, alas, I’m too small a person. Apparently his wife or ex-wife, Linda Kay Abedian Stevens—or Linda Kay Stevens? the wording is unclear—was also on the lease and on the property deed.

Since leaving Tucson I have been threatened with death zero times.

Has science fiction "run out of steam?"

This post began life as a Slashdot comment in response to Has Sci-Fi Run Out of Steam?:

I doubt it, any more than science or technology has run out of steam due to a lack of imagination. Rather, I wonder if the science fiction publishing business has either run out of steam or become an active roadblock between writers and readers. It seems that most publishers are trying a play-it-safe approach that demands repetition over originality. This is based partially on what I see featured in bookstores and partially on my own experience, which I discuss extensively in Science fiction, literature, and the haters. It begins:

Why does so little science fiction rise to the standards of literary fiction?

This question arose from two overlapping events. The first came from reading Day of the Triffids (link goes to my post); although I don’t remember how I came to the book, someone must’ve recommended it on a blog or newspaper in compelling enough terms for me to buy it. Its weaknesses, as discussed in the post, brought up science fiction and its relation to the larger book world.

The second event arose from a science fiction novel I wrote called Pearle Transit that I’ve been submitting to agents. It’s based on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—think, on a superficial level, “Heart of Darkness in space.” Two replies stand out: one came from an agent who said he found the idea intriguing but that science fiction novels must be at least 100,000 words long and have sequels already started. “Wow,” I thought. How many great literary novels have enough narrative force and character drive for sequels? The answer that came immediately to mind was “zero,” and after reflection and consultation with friends I still can’t find any. Most novels expend all their ideas at once, and to keep going would be like wearing a shirt that fades from too many washes. Even in science fiction, very few if any series maintain their momentum over time; think of how awful the Dune books rapidly became, or Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama series. A few novels can make it as multiple-part works, but most of those were conceived of and executed as a single work, like Dan Simmons’ Hyperion or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (more on those later).

The minimum word count bothers me too. It’s not possible for Pearle Transit to be stretched beyond its present size without destroying what makes it coherent and, I hope, good. By its nature it is supposed to be taunt, and much as a 120-pound person cannot be safely made into a 240-pound person, Pearle Transit can’t be engorged without making it like the bloated star that sets its opening scene. If the market reality is that such books can’t or won’t sell, I begin to tie the quality of the science fiction I’ve read together with the system that produces it.

If the publishing system itself is broken and nothing yet has grown up to take its place (I have no interest in trolling through thousands of terrible novels uploaded to websites in search of a single potential gem, for those of you Internet utopians out there), maybe the source of the genre’s troubles isn’t where PC Pro places it.

In addition, although science fiction publishing might appear sclerotic at times, science fiction in movies and TV shows continues unabated—many of which draw material from books. One commenter realized this: “The huge change in SF since I first started reading it in the 70’s is that these days, movie/TV SF is a gigantic, popular commercial enterprise, utterly dwarfing written SF.”

Still, I’ve found fun and fascinating SF writers thanks to the Internet: Jack Vance started as a recommendation and an article in the NYT magazine; Charlie Stross writes a blog; and others have sent good advice on where to look. But I think a lot of SF has turned towards the cerebral, towards alternate / fake worlds, and towards dealing with massive institutions on earth. These are all broad claims—too broad for a blog post—that I might follow-up in a future essay, but they’ve been churning in my mind enough for me to look for them in fiction—where they seem to be almost everywhere.

One other funny item: PC Pro uses the antiquated cliche “run out of steam,” which refers to steam engines that probably haven’t been widely used since the 19th century, to refer to a genre concerned with how the present represents the future. Maybe this indicates language itself can run far behind whatever the perceived times are.

August 2010 Links: Bookshelves, query letters, and more

* Good advice from Jaron Lanier: how to be on the Internet.

* Exactly the sort of thing that appeals to me: bookshelf porn (note: this link is entirely safe for work, unless you have an office that bans employees from looking at books).

* I want to read this book too, based solely on the query letter.

* The Golden State’s War on Itself: How politicians turned the California Dream into a nightmare.

* Awesome: In German Suburb, Life Goes On Without Cars.

* The inevitable envy among writers.

* Salinger’s toilet up for auction — seriously?. Note that the appendage “seriously?” is from Carolyn Kellogg, although she expresses my sentiments as well.

* I love Slate’s “Bogus Trend Stories of the Week” feature, in which they discuss stories based on questionable or phony numbers, anecdote, moral panic, hysteria, fear mongering, and the like. The best part: cited numbers or statistics often contradict the overall thrust of the stories themselves. Sex often plays a role, as it does in this week’s topic: Child pornography, sextortion, and Chinese hymenoplasties. Samples:

Presented with convincing data, I’m prepared to believe that child porn is growing. But if a Department of Justice report states that the number of offenders is unknown and the quantity of images and videos of child pornography being traded is also unknown, how can anybody say that the distribution of child porn is on the rise?

* Measuring colleges for what they do instead of who they enroll: finally.

* The bizarre place that is Russia:

For the disastrous Russian heat wave has exposed a key failing of Russian society: The flow of information has stopped. There is not a single newspaper that even strives to be national in its coverage. The television is not only controlled by the Kremlin; it is made by the Kremlin for the Kremlin, and it is entirely unsuited to gathering or conveying actual information. Even the Russian blogosphere is bizarrely fragmented: Researchers who “mapped” it discovered that, unlike any other blogosphere in the world, it consists of many non-overlapping circles. People in different walks of life, different professions, and different parts of the country simply do not talk to one another. The same is true of political institutions: Since the Russian government effectively abolished representative democracy, canceling direct elections, there is no reason—and no real mechanism—for Moscow politicians to know what is going on in the vast country. Nor do governors need concern themselves with the lives and the disasters in their regions—they, too, are no longer elected but are appointed by the Kremlin.

Some Americans suffer from information overload; Russians suffer from the opposite.

Eat, Pray, Love and the misery of the literary agent

Literary agents are flooded with pitches for the next Eat, Pray, Love. Fortunately, one of the few things I haven’t done wrong in searching for an agent is pitching the next Eat, Pray, Love, which probably isn’t a surprise since I read about 15 pages of the first one, thought it was dumb, and gave it back to the woman who had a copy (without my observation on its literary merit). To me, the oddest thing about the book is that it states or implies that going to exotic countries allows to discover yourself, or whatever. But to my mind, you can eat good food here (I try to and usually succeed), pray wherever, and love… well, that’s around too. Less common in the suburbs, I suppose, but still.

Mostly I’m reminded of friends in college who were like, “We’re going to MEXCIO for spring break to get drunk and hook up!!!” (Sometimes the destination would be Europe, the Caribbean, etc., and usually they’d say “party” as a euphemism for “get drunk and hook up.”) To which I would usually respond, “Can’t you do that sort of thing at home?” Usually they’d look at me strangely, like I’d suggested they consider eating a tarantula. It’s the same look I get when I suggest that You Will Suffer Humiliation When The Sports Team From My Area Defeats The Sports Team From Your Area.

I wonder if people implicitly believe that traveling changes the rules and social norms to which they’re accustomed, creating a Midsummer Night’s Dream-style scenario. If so, couldn’t they change the rules where they live through deciding, “I’m not going to play by the standard one rules anyway?” After all, Western culture has a rich tradition of this kind of thing: think of the Transcendentalists, Herman Hesse, Gay Talese, and Baywatch (Okay, that last one is a test of who’s paying attention). The epiphany is a regular occurrence in Joyce, especially The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. If we need to be “transformed by an experience that allowed us to step outside ourselves,” we might find that in fiction as easily as Indonesia. Katie Roiphe says that the TV show Mad Men offers “The Allure of Messy Lives.” We can make a mess and find self-fulfillment at home as easily as elsewhere!

Still, the Slate article says Gilbert is a good writer overall, and I read the book long enough ago not to keep slagging that part of it. To me, the setup sounds like the silliest part, but the money shot of the article comes at the end: “So be warned. If your proposal mentions a book that’s been on the bestseller list for more than 180 weeks, it may be a sign that your book isn’t worth writing.”

If your idea for life fulfillment comes from a book that’s been the bestseller list for more than 180 weeks, it may be a sign that you’re seeking fulfillment from the wrong place.

Summary judgment – Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee – Pamela Druckerman

Pamela Druckerman’s Lust in Translation is light on research, heavy on anecdote, and a nonetheless entertaining book in its examination of the contradictory responses adultery raises. It’s wrong, unless you’re in love, in which case it’s okay; it’s wrong, unless you’re in a country that permits multiple marriages, in which case it’s not adultery; it’s right, because everyone does it, in which case it’s okay, unless it’s not. Some countries appear more opposed to adultery and commit more of it while other appear less opposed while committing less. Opportunity matters: affairs are easier to arrange in rich countries where people have access to hotels, cars, and so on, but many rich countries (like the United States) engaged in relatively little adultery. Most of all, examining adultery brings out contradictions on both individual and societal levels.

Druckerman says, “Outside America, people have their own ideas about whom to have an affair with, how obliged the parties are to each other, and even how the whole thing should end.” Ditto for inside America, which, like most places, actually has many sexual cultures, not few. Druckerman points out that in some situations, like baseball teams, the culture conspires to allow adultery. Some novels play this idea took; think of Désirée Zapp in David Lodge’s Changing Places, who says, “I’ve always wanted to be chaste. It’s been so nice these last few weeks, don’t you think, living like brother and sister? Now we’re having an affair like everybody else. How banal.” In Désirée’s academic world (the novel was published in 1975 and probably has its roots closer to 1970 or 1965), everyone was having, or seemed to be having, affairs (Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man portrays a similar effect). Now, on the contrary, more academics appear to be leading the relatively tame sexual lives of businesspeople.

Unless they’re not. “They” could refer to businesspeople or academics. Today’s scandal de jour involves Mark Hurd, the former HP CEO, who didn’t get offed for adultery, but for falsifying company reports to try and hide the adultery. Tomorrow it will be someone else. Druckerman points out that American rhetoric about cheating often involves the lying being as bad or worse than the sex. That’s a rule she’s intuited through many conversations and some reading. It’s the kind of rule many people pick up:

Infidelity may seem like a secret, lawless realm, in which people make private decisions about how to behave. We learn the rules through, among other sources, stories and gossip about how affairs play out. These shared narratives defined what is ‘normal’ in each place and shape our expectations about what should happen to a couple in the course of a long marriage. Of course, no one’s life follows the rules exactly. The point is that everyone in a society knows what the rules are and where their own behavior stands in relation to the rules.

The question is, how many people know “what the rules are,” don’t like them, and want to change them? Probably a small number, and an even smaller number actively work to change them. Yet those few are where change comes from: Gay Talese might be on example, since Thy Neighbor’s Wife chronicles sexual change in America and implicitly endorses changing mores. Of course, since that book came out around 1980, and Lust in Translation came out in 2010, Talese’s book arguably hasn’t had the effect he might have intended.

Social scientists call these “rules” about any subject of human behavior “scripts,” which people implicitly learn from the culture around them. That we have imbibed scripts even for forbidden behavior shouldn’t surprise us: if the behavior is common enough to be forbidden and to have norms or laws prohibiting it, that behavior is also probably common enough to occur. Scripts change based on context. In Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus, Kathleen Bogle describes how the hookup script operates on college campuses—the same campuses that were once in loco parentis and now are closer to “anything goes as long as no one complains.” To Bogle, women complain about the hookup culture but feel powerless to do anything about it; this seems odd to me because women are the choosers and men are the chosen.

Their Chinese counterparts probably feel the same way at times, to return to Druckerman:

China’s sexual revolution [since the introduction of market capitalism] is very contagious. I keep hearing stories about married Western men who, after working in China for a few months, decide that monogamy really isn’t for them. Peer pressure shapes a sexual culture. When everyone around you is saying that cheating is normal, and that you’re entitled to indulge yourself and no harm will come of it, it starts to sound like a good idea.

“It starts to sound like a good idea:” presumably everyone thinks what they are doing is a good idea, while what their neighbor is doing is wrong, and what the people on the other side of the world are doing is worst of all, especially if those people are women. The most common thread running through Lust in Translation is hypocrisy, although Druckerman doesn’t take pains to point that out and follow where it might lead. She’s a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, which shows; I would’ve liked the book to draw broader, deeper conclusions, to examine more research on sexuality and culture, and to look more at evolutionary biology. Regarding the last, Druckerman says that “I assume that people everywhere have roughly the same mix of biological urges. I want to know how people in different cultures channel those urges.” But you can only do so if you have a reasonably strong understanding of what those urges might be and how incentives alter them.

You’re mostly left to draw your own conclusions from Lust in Translation, but the book is easy enough to read that you can finish it in three hours and still have enough substance to change the way you think—if you want to. Lust in Translation suggests that you’re less likely to change how you think and more likely to find cunning ways of justifying what you do and castigating what thy neighbor does. It’s not just the American way, but a common method of dealing with life all around the world.

Working out the plot with the Rejector, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and other friends

Over at the Rejecter, someone is asking whether an MFA program will teach her how to structure her novels. Actually, she’s asking about the professional and intellectual utility of MFA programs, but I want to focus on the plot issue, since that’s what the Rejecter doesn’t address. I had the same problems as the correspondent, but I don’t think I have them any more.

Specifically, the problem:

I have been writing novels since I was about seven. I literally think about it all the time. However, try as I might I have never been able to get beyond the 40,000 word mark before losing the plot and momentum of my story and deciding to start something else entirely. I’m a journalist on a big women’s glossy in the UK so it’s not getting the words down on paper that’s the problem, it’s rather getting my plot from A to B that stumps me.

That sounds really similar to me: the first two novels I actually completed are now, in retrospect, unpublishable, although I didn’t know that at the time and couldn’t have articulated why. Now I know: nothing happened. The novels had interesting premises but no action. There were a lot of bits of clever dialog and some good scenes, but nothing that held those scenes together. The novels lacked narrative tension.

The next two I wrote were and are publishable; they got a lot of agent activity and requests but no agents who took me on. Ditto for the latest, currently titled Asking Alice, which is still out. Look for my name in lights shortly.

One big thing changed between the first two unpublishable novels and the later three: I started writing outlines, which I’d previously considered unnecessary because I’m so smart that I can hold everything in my head (oops). Those outlines were and are pretty loose and fluid, but they’re outlines nonetheless, in which I asked myself essential questions about each chapter: what happens in it? Why? Why this chapter and not some other? What’s the central tension? What does each character worry about? These kinds of questions guided me toward writing better plots because I thought about how information was doled out and what kinds of things the characters are struggling to achieve. In addition, I thought about how drama works: is something important happening in this chapter? What is it?

If I can’t identify what’s important or why the characters should care, I’m probably doing something wrong.

This doesn’t mean each chapter has to end with someone getting shot, or the heroine declaring her love, or the revelation of a shocking fact, or an alien invasion.* But it does mean that I have to at least think about what the scene or chapter is conveying to the reader, what is happening to the characters, how it relates to the previous scene or the next scene, and, perhaps most importantly, what dilemmas it raise that have to be resolved in the future.

Every scene or almost every scene needs some kind of tension or uncertainty. Once again, this doesn’t necessarily mean a guy holding a gun: it could be highly cerebral. In Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze, the tension in some scenes concerns the interior dialog and sanity of John Clare: is he sane? Are we seeing the mind of someone else, or are we seeing his mind, which has assumed the shape of someone else? Those scenes can be quite tense but also quite subtle. Others can hinge on a piece of information, as when Randy Waterhouse realizes he’s actually building a datahaven in Cryptonomicon.

Over time, through reading and writing, you’ll learn where to end scenes and how the form of the novel works, and by “you” I mean “me.” You have to learn if you’re the kind of writer who wants to break that form successfully. I remember being on the high school newspaper and going to journalism contests. A lot of traditional news articles end with a whimsical or funny quote that’s not essential but does a good job of encapsulating the story. I’d read enough articles to have picked that idea up, and at one of the competitions I remember taking notes as a source spoke and putting a star next to something he said and thinking, “that’s my final quote.” I wrote the piece and later looked at what the judges had to say; I don’t think that was one of the times I won anything, but I do remember them commenting on the money quote at the end.

They did it because I’d successfully synthesized a principle no one had explicitly stated but that nonetheless made my article a little bit better.

Learning to write scenes is similar: you can’t enumerate all the principles involved, but over time you start to feel them. Once you become attuned to reading novels for what each scene does or what tensions exist in a scene, you’ll probably become better at plotting them for yourself—if you’re anything like me, at least. And you might start telling stories that build plots. I talked out a lot of Asking Alice, the novel making the rounds with agents right now, with a friend. It didn’t hurt and might’ve helped. Sometimes it’s also fun to make up a plot when you’re out. Michael Chabon portrays this in Wonder Boys, when the blocked English professor Grady Tripp and his gay editor, Crabtree, are in a bar:

‘Hey,’ said Crabtree, ‘look at that guy.’ […]
‘Who? Oh my.’ I smiled. ‘The one with the hair sculpture.’ […]
‘He’s a boxer,’ I said. ‘A flyweight.’
‘He’s a jockey,’ said Crabtree. ‘His name’s, um, Curtis. Hardapple.’
‘Not Curtis,’ I said.
‘Vernon, then. Vernon Hardapple. The scars are from a—from a horse’s hooves. He fell during a race and got trampled.’
‘He’s addicted to painkillers.’
‘He’s got a plate in his head.’

And they go on from there. They could be building a plot (telling the story of Hardapple’s rise and fall as a jockey) or they could be building the background. Either way, they’re doing something useful. Where do stories come from? Everywhere and nowhere. They’re not talking about plot, not just yet, but they begin moving in that direction.

The original querier to the Rejector has identified a particular weakness, which is a good start. My proposed solution: read some novels she admires; pick them apart and write outlines that focus on why characters do what they do, what information they reveal when, and so on. Some writers who I think do this particularly well: Ruiz Zafón, as mentioned; Elmore Leonard, especially in Get Shorty and Out of Sight, which I still think are his best; Anita Shreve in Testimony; Graham Greene in The End of the Affair; Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose. Mystery and detective novels are often very good at plot because all they have is plot. Note that this path is not recommended.

If anyone out there is sufficiently interested, drop me an e-mail and I’ll send you my quick-and-dirty outline of The Angel’s Game, although I wouldn’t recommend reading it until after you’ve read the novel. Ruiz Zafón is astonishingly good at making each scene count in both this novel and The Shadow of the Wind; one shocking thing about reading The Prince of Mist is how weak that novel is in comparison. Ruiz Zafón is clearly someone who’s learned a lot about writing over the course of his publishing career, and he’s an example that makes me more hesitant to condemn not-very-good first novels—even those that gets published. People learn over time. I’ve read Saul Bellow’s The Dangling Man and thought it was okay—but no Herzog.

That’s not a slam: very few artists of any kind in any medium do their best work on their first try. Like anyone else in any other activity, artists learn as they go along, and they have to assimilate a huge body of material.

Anyway, I’m not sure how many MFA programs teach plot or tell their students some ways to think about plot; if I end up teaching in one, you can bet I’ll talk about it some. As an undergrad, I took a lovely novel writing course from a guy named Bill Tapply, who passed away last year. Although I got a lot out of his class, he seldom talked much about plot, which in retrospect I find curious because his Brady Coyne mysteries work very well in this respect. From chatting with others who’ve taken fiction writing classes, I gather that this is common: they talk about language and ideas and description and all kinds of things, but not plot. If I ever end up teaching one, I’m going to talk about plot—not to the exclusion of everything else, certainly, but enough to give a sense of what my 19-year-old self needed to hear. And, from what the correspondent to the Rejecter says, what she needs to hear too.

This is important because I’ve read so many novels with dynamite first halves and dreary second halves, especially in literary fiction (one reason I like Carlos Ruiz Zafón and have been writing about him a lot lately: his novels hold together). Sometimes otherwise very good novels fall apart plot-wise. I started Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask a few days ago, based on an agents advice,** but gave it up because it feels too episodic and disconnected; the novel strays so fair that it loses me as I find my mind wandering and myself thinking, “So what? What’s at stake here?” By halfway through, the answer frequently felt like “nothing.” Too bad: the first page of The Ask is terrific. A lot of the droll humor works. It just lacks…

something.

Too bad I can’t better define what that something is. But I can talk around it enough to know when it’s missing.***


* For the record, zero of my novels thus far have featured an alien invasion, although I’m not opposed to that sort of thing on principle and my eventually deploy it. One of my ambitions is to eventually write a novel that begins as a fairly straightforward love story about modern urban couples / triangles and angst that suddenly shifts, about halfway through, when aliens attacks. I think this would be totally awesome.

** It was a rejection, but not a form rejection, which counts for a lot when they pile up and you’re looking for some pattern with no more success than people who see secret signals in the white noise of a random universe: “I hope you receive that as no more damning than had I written ‘I like hamburger dill pickles, but I love capers.’ ”

*** I’d like a book on plot that’s as good as How Fiction Works, which I could then add to my post on The very very beginning writer. Suggestions would be appreciated. The books I’ve found that deal with plot tend to be of the “heroine reveals her love” variety that I mocked above, instead of the, “this is how literature might work” variety that James Wood and Francine Prose offer.

Someone has probably already written a lot of what I wrote above. I just don’t know who that person is or where their work is.

Parties and sobriety

“I drank for years, and then I stopped drinking and discovered the sad truth about parties. A sober man at a party is lonely as a journalist, implacable of a coroner, bitter as an angel looking down from heaven. There’s something purely foolish about attending any large gathering of men and women without benefit of some kind of philter or magic dust to blind you and weaken your critical faculties. I don’t mean to make a big deal out of sobriety, by the way. Of all the modes of human consciousness available to the modern consumer I consider it to be the most overrated.”

—Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys

Notes on Christopher Nolan's Inception

I saw Christopher Nolan’s Inception last week and noticed a couple of strange or notable tendencies:

* The almost complete lack of computers: I think one or two peep out, but otherwise this movie could’ve been made in 1980. Or 1970.

* The equally anachronistic portrayal of what a “chemist” (really an anesthesiologist) works like. His shop could be an alchemist’s lair circa 1500.

* The movie, like DiCaprio’s earlier Shutter Island, recalls Descartes’ first meditation, in which the philosopher questions how we can trust our senses and how we know what we know. The answer: on some level we can’t. But Shutter Island and Inception both posit a world where we have enough evidence to engage the first meditation because there is some evidence we can’t trust our senses.

Obviously, Inception isn’t the first movie or book to ask these kinds of questions; The Matrix came out more than a decade ago, and Adam Gopnik treats it subtly in the linked New Yorker article.

* The almost complete absence of sexuality. The criminal team is composed almost entirely of hypercompetent men devoted solely to their job; the one attractive young woman gets virtually no sexual attention. Neither does anyone else. Their technocratic devotion is nearly perfect—perhaps a fantasy of our own competence and ability to discard what we might otherwise call distraction.

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