Links: Books, Text Slang for Adults, public goods and bads, Qwests’s weak Internet access offerings, Picplum, unlikely secrets, and more

* Literary agent Jane Dystel: “All of this makes me think that my colleagues on the publishing side have lost sight of the fact that in these new wild, wild west days in publishing, this is the time for them to take more, not fewer, risks. Taking risks has always been what the business of publishing is all about. There are no sure winners, guys, and the more fearful and cautious you get, the more authors will want to publish on their own—and won’t need you anymore.”

* Reminder: in the age of the death of the book, “Publishers sold 2.57 billion books in all formats in 2010, a 4.1 percent increase since 2008. (See also: Umberto Eco and Jean Claude Carriere, This is Not the End of the Book, which is actually about a wide array of topics ancillary to the death, life, or zombiehood of books.)

* Text Slang for Adults. Sample: “NSR = Need some roughage”; “T4W = Time for whiskey.”

* Lev Grossman on writing The Magician King: “when you’re in a certain phase of novel-making, you’re like a magpie: when something gleams at you funny, you swoop down and grab it and take it back to your nest, because you know, you just know, you’re going to need it later.”

* This may be the most impressive blog comment I’ve ever read (it’s from Cory Doctorow):

Education is a public good. It is best supplied and paid for by the group as a whole, because no individual or small collective can produce the overall social benefit that the nation can provision collectively.

Education doesn’t respond well to market forces because many of the social goods that arise from education — socialization, a grounding in civics, historical context, rational and systematic reasoning — are not goods or services demanded by a market, but rather they are the underlying substrate that allows people to intelligently conduct transactions in a marketplace as well as establishing and maintaining good governance.

There is a long and wide body of evidence that people with wide, solid educational foundations that transcend mere vocational skills produce societies that are more prosperous, more transparent, healthier, more democratic — that attain, in short, all the things we hope markets will attain for us.

* If you can get FiOS, you should. Tucson’s Internet access choices are so bad that I effectively have a choice between Comcast, which offers ~12mb / sec down and ~2mb / sec up, and nothing. I saw “nothing” because Qwest offers “DSL” at 1.5mb / sec down, which would’ve been great in, say, 1999, but is terrible now. I actually sent an e-mail to Qwest Arizona president Jim Campbell asking if Qwest was actually going to roll out real competition in my area. To Qwest’s credit, his administrative assistant, Deborah Statt, replied and said there wouldn’t be any improvement in 2010. Also to Qwest’s credit, she’s followed-up consistently. Alas, however, responsiveness doesn’t mean improvement, and I’m still stuck with Comcast.

* Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union comes to life, at least in terms of villains.

* PicPlum calls itself “the easiest way to send photos.” I ordered some; we’ll see how it goes.

* We’ll Show You Ours if You Show Us Yours; “we thought it would be fun to round up the favorite dirty books of some of our most illustrious literary critics at The Times. Below, their spicy replies.”

* Someone found Grant Writing Confidential by searching for “secrets to writing like dan brown.” I would start by being incoherent on the level of the sentence.

How to be a faster writer: Don't

There’s a Slate article making the rounds on “How to be a faster writer,” which has lots of good advice, including some that a lot of people don’t seem to appreciate (like: you don’t become a good writer over night; you grow into it, like any other cognitively challenging skill.) It’s also got some not-so-good advice:

The research verifies that taking notes makes writing easier­—as long as you don’t look at them while you are writing the draft! Doing so causes a writer to jump into reviewing/evaluating mode instead of getting on with the business of getting words on the screen.

If research, outline, and so forth are actually part of the writing process, I think they can be smoothly integrated with the art of writing itself (as I write this, the Slate article I’m responding to is on the right and the Textmate window on the left, letting me look back and forth).

When I was writing completely unpublishable novels, I didn’t use outlines, and I ended up with piles of words that utterly lacked narrative tension and the many good qualities that stem from narrative tension. Such piles of words didn’t have much point, which more astute readers observed. One told me to think about writing a novel in which something happens.

So I went through a three-novel phase during which I’d heavily outline, and I’d usually have the outline on one screen (or one side of the screen) and a main document on the other. This prevented me from getting “stuck” or from writing off into nowhereville without the structure of a scene. A lot of amateur writers have trouble with plot: they think their novels should resemble famous ones they’ve read in school, in which characters spend a lot of time talking about their feelings in a very deep way, or the sense of being lost, or the ennui imparted by the modern world. There’s nothing precisely wrong with this sort of writing, if done well, but most people seem to like reading (and writing) novels where something happens in a series scenes that build to a climax better. Sure, a lot of novels you’ve read in school don’t really do that for various reasons, some very good, but if you imitate them, you’ll often be doing yourself and your reader a disservice. If you’re unconsciously imitating the boring novels you’ve read in school, that’s even worse, because you don’t have enough command over your craft to know what you’re doing.

These days, I still make a bit of an outline, but I can do a lot of the outlining in my head—the last novel I finished, One Step Into the Labyrinth, really needed an outline because the plot was complex; about half a dozen literary agents have the full manuscript or a piece of it, so you may yet see it in bookstores near you. The novel I’m working on now isn’t as complex, and although I’m not using an outline, I’m still writing in scenes that build up to something. In essence, I’ve learned how to write in scenes without necessarily needing an external structure to guide those scenes and make sure they work towards a whole. I suspect this to be a sign of growth, and, I hope, not a malignant sign, like cancer.

My Dad doesn’t write proposals using outlines. He’s internalized virtually everything he needs to know about delivering human services. When I gave technical writing students a proposal writing assignment for the Department of Education’s Educational Opportunity Centers (EOC) Program, however, I knew I couldn’t expect them to write like my Dad did, because what’s appropriate for experts isn’t appropriate for amateurs. I couldn’t just give them an RFP and let ’em rip—I had to get them to think about how services should actually be delivered and real-world constraints; many had a charmingly strong vision of the power and competence of volunteers. Others wanted to hire 30 staff people on an RFP that offered a $230,000 / year grant. Virtually all had to be taught to read between the lines. My Dad—and these days, I—will do that automatically.

Slate says that, during writing

the writer’s brain is juggling three things: the actual text, what you plan to say next, and—most crucially—theories of how your imagined readership will interpret what’s being written. A highly skilled writer can simultaneously be a writer, editor, and audience.

That’s basically what I’m describing above. Is something that took me a long time to grow but now that ability to be a writer, editor, and audience simultaneously exists. Even before it did, however, I used notes, outlines, a miscellaneous file, doodled; sometimes I had, and have, a chunk of text that I know will fit in a particular spot, as long as I find it, usually by digging through a miscellaneous file. In the novel I’m working on now, I’m still using two screens, as shown in the screenshots to the right (click to make them larger). Note: because this is work-in-progress, try not to read the text, because it’s not particularly important what it says and the conversation I was working on last night doesn’t make sense or have the same resonance out of context.

Anyway, as you can see, one screenshot shows my main window: I’m trying to use a program named Scrivener for the first time, which has a somewhat steep learning curve but is probably very useful for a novel with multiple speakers. The other is a second, 23″ Dell monitor which has a list of characters and a miscellaneous file where I drop notes, phrases, ideas, and so forth. I’m using Word at the moment, but I’ve used Mellel and all manner of other writing programs for this purpose. Nothing even remotely sophisticated is happening on those screens, so the word processor doesn’t matter much.

I can go for long stretches without referencing the second monitor, depending on the situation. But the second monitor, if anything, helps me stay in active writing mode. If I get an idea tangential to the main thread that’s developing, I don’t need to do a conditional jump and then try to find my way back to the main narrative. I hit the miscellaneous file, dump a couple sentences on the idea, and return to the main workspace. Sometimes I will read a lot of sentences on the second screen, comparing them with ones on the first. I don’t think this makes me move into strict “reviewing/evaluating mode,” because that’s part of the way I imagine “how [my] imagined readership will interpret what’s being written.” This might be something that comes from skill.

I’ve gone on long enough about a minor point of contention. I’d like to tremendously agree with some of the other points made in Slate, like this:

Second, read everything, all the time. That’s the only way to build the general knowledge that you can tuck away in long-term memory, only to one day have it magically surface when you’re searching for just the right turn of phrase. And, lastly, the trickiest part of writing—from a cognitive perspective—is getting outside of yourself, of seeing your writing through the eyes of others.

When people ask me what they should do to be good writers, I tell them to read a lot and write a lot. And, ideally, find a good editor. It’s nice to see that “science” agrees. If you pay enough attention to writers and would-be writers, I think it becomes apparent that a lot of them don’t quite have enough knowledge to pull off what they’re trying to do—yet. In her interview with James Franco, Terry Gross says that “I think that every young writer or painter actually goes through that […] putting out everything inside them, but there isn’t much inside them yet because they’re young and unformed.” And Franco agrees that he experienced the problems or possibilities Gross describes.

I should also explain why the last word of my post title is “Don’t.” I put it there because you don’t learn to become a faster writer through some kind of trick that will make you magically produce text faster. You become a better writer through experience and through reading. Those aren’t things you can do in a day or a week or a month. They’re things you do over years. The only way to start if you haven’t already is to start now, especially since the greatest value in writing isn’t always in writing for other people. I’ve been rereading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, which was even better the second time around than the first (probably because now I have the background knowledge to really grok it). He says:

[I]t is never a waste to write for intrinsic reasons. First of all, writing gives the mind a disciplined means of expression. It allows one to record events and experiences so that they can be easily recalled, and relived in the future. It is a way to analyze and understand experiences, a self-communication that brings order to them.

“A disciplined means of expression” is available to anyone, even someone with no readers. Csikszentmihalyi gets that writing isn’t just about writing: “If the only point to writing were to transmit information, then it would deserve to become obsolete. But the point of writing is to create information, not simply to pass it along. [. . .] It is the slow, organically growing process of thought involved in writing that lets the ideas emerge in the first place.” It’s about generating ideas that emerge through an attempt to express those ideas (Paul Graham says something similar in The Age of the Essay). Given that writing is about itself, we shouldn’t be as worried about how fast we’re writing; as demonstrated in Flow, when we’re really writing well we often won’t have a sense of time, because we’ll be in a moment-to-moment existence in which our task demands complete concentration and little else matters. Doesn’t that sound better than merely getting words on the page? It sure does to me.

By the way, you shouldn’t valorize writers and writing too much, because writing can have strange effects on the mind. In Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, Grady Tripp describes “the midnight disease” that writers suffer from,

[…] which started out as a simple feeling of disconnection from other people, an inability to ‘fit in’ by no means unique to writers, a sense of envy and of unbridgeable distance like that felt by someone tossing a restless pillow in a world full of sleepers. Very quickly, though, what happened with the midnight disease was that you began actually to crave this feeling of apartness, to cultivate and even flourish within it. You pushed yourself farther and farther and farther apart until one black day you woke to discover that you yourself had become the chief object of your hostile gaze.

And I don’t think this unique to writer: programmers, hackers, engineers, scientists, and others probably feel too: all the people who, like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, still desire to walk free under the sun even as they are compelled to return to darkness and solitude. The solitude is what it takes to do the work: but for writers, they’re writing about people, which is odd that one needs to get away from people to describe people, but it’s nonetheless true for many of us.

By the way, most of those delicious quotes come from DevonThink Pro, but they’re still evidence that I’ve done a certain amount of reading and thinking about writing that enabled me to write this post over an hour or so (back to Slate: “It’s obviously a huge help to write about a subject you know well”). If I was 19 and writing this post, I simply wouldn’t have been able to write it. Not like this, anyway. If you look at the blog archives—I discourage you, but if you must, you must—and compare early posts to the posts I write these days, there simply is no comparison. That’s because I’ve learned how to write blog posts effectively, or somewhat effectively, anyway. I’m capable of doing things now that I simply couldn’t do then. Want to really write faster? You can teach yourself how in ten years.

How to be a faster writer: Don’t

There’s a Slate article making the rounds on “How to be a faster writer,” which has lots of good advice, including some that a lot of people don’t seem to appreciate (like: you don’t become a good writer over night; you grow into it, like any other cognitively challenging skill.) It’s also got some not-so-good advice:

The research verifies that taking notes makes writing easier­—as long as you don’t look at them while you are writing the draft! Doing so causes a writer to jump into reviewing/evaluating mode instead of getting on with the business of getting words on the screen.

If research, outline, and so forth are actually part of the writing process, I think they can be smoothly integrated with the art of writing itself (as I write this, the Slate article I’m responding to is on the right and the Textmate window on the left, letting me look back and forth).

When I was writing completely unpublishable novels, I didn’t use outlines, and I ended up with piles of words that utterly lacked narrative tension and the many good qualities that stem from narrative tension. Such piles of words didn’t have much point, which more astute readers observed. One told me to think about writing a novel in which something happens.

So I went through a three-novel phase during which I’d heavily outline, and I’d usually have the outline on one screen (or one side of the screen) and a main document on the other. This prevented me from getting “stuck” or from writing off into nowhereville without the structure of a scene. A lot of amateur writers have trouble with plot: they think their novels should resemble famous ones they’ve read in school, in which characters spend a lot of time talking about their feelings in a very deep way, or the sense of being lost, or the ennui imparted by the modern world. There’s nothing precisely wrong with this sort of writing, if done well, but most people seem to like reading (and writing) novels where something happens in a series scenes that build to a climax better. Sure, a lot of novels you’ve read in school don’t really do that for various reasons, some very good, but if you imitate them, you’ll often be doing yourself and your reader a disservice. If you’re unconsciously imitating the boring novels you’ve read in school, that’s even worse, because you don’t have enough command over your craft to know what you’re doing.

These days, I still make a bit of an outline, but I can do a lot of the outlining in my head—the last novel I finished, One Step Into the Labyrinth, really needed an outline because the plot was complex; about half a dozen literary agents have the full manuscript or a piece of it, so you may yet see it in bookstores near you. The novel I’m working on now isn’t as complex, and although I’m not using an outline, I’m still writing in scenes that build up to something. In essence, I’ve learned how to write in scenes without necessarily needing an external structure to guide those scenes and make sure they work towards a whole. I suspect this to be a sign of growth, and, I hope, not a malignant sign, like cancer.

My Dad doesn’t write proposals using outlines. He’s internalized virtually everything he needs to know about delivering human services. When I gave technical writing students a proposal writing assignment for the Department of Education’s Educational Opportunity Centers (EOC) Program, however, I knew I couldn’t expect them to write like my Dad did, because what’s appropriate for experts isn’t appropriate for amateurs. I couldn’t just give them an RFP and let ’em rip—I had to get them to think about how services should actually be delivered and real-world constraints; many had a charmingly strong vision of the power and competence of volunteers. Others wanted to hire 30 staff people on an RFP that offered a $230,000 / year grant. Virtually all had to be taught to read between the lines. My Dad—and these days, I—will do that automatically.

Slate says that, during writing

the writer’s brain is juggling three things: the actual text, what you plan to say next, and—most crucially—theories of how your imagined readership will interpret what’s being written. A highly skilled writer can simultaneously be a writer, editor, and audience.

That’s basically what I’m describing above. Is something that took me a long time to grow but now that ability to be a writer, editor, and audience simultaneously exists. Even before it did, however, I used notes, outlines, a miscellaneous file, doodled; sometimes I had, and have, a chunk of text that I know will fit in a particular spot, as long as I find it, usually by digging through a miscellaneous file. In the novel I’m working on now, I’m still using two screens, as shown in the screenshots to the right (click to make them larger). Note: because this is work-in-progress, try not to read the text, because it’s not particularly important what it says and the conversation I was working on last night doesn’t make sense or have the same resonance out of context.

Anyway, as you can see, one screenshot shows my main window: I’m trying to use a program named Scrivener for the first time, which has a somewhat steep learning curve but is probably very useful for a novel with multiple speakers. The other is a second, 23″ Dell monitor which has a list of characters and a miscellaneous file where I drop notes, phrases, ideas, and so forth. I’m using Word at the moment, but I’ve used Mellel and all manner of other writing programs for this purpose. Nothing even remotely sophisticated is happening on those screens, so the word processor doesn’t matter much.

I can go for long stretches without referencing the second monitor, depending on the situation. But the second monitor, if anything, helps me stay in active writing mode. If I get an idea tangential to the main thread that’s developing, I don’t need to do a conditional jump and then try to find my way back to the main narrative. I hit the miscellaneous file, dump a couple sentences on the idea, and return to the main workspace. Sometimes I will read a lot of sentences on the second screen, comparing them with ones on the first. I don’t think this makes me move into strict “reviewing/evaluating mode,” because that’s part of the way I imagine “how [my] imagined readership will interpret what’s being written.” This might be something that comes from skill.

I’ve gone on long enough about a minor point of contention. I’d like to tremendously agree with some of the other points made in Slate, like this:

Second, read everything, all the time. That’s the only way to build the general knowledge that you can tuck away in long-term memory, only to one day have it magically surface when you’re searching for just the right turn of phrase. And, lastly, the trickiest part of writing—from a cognitive perspective—is getting outside of yourself, of seeing your writing through the eyes of others.

When people ask me what they should do to be good writers, I tell them to read a lot and write a lot. And, ideally, find a good editor. It’s nice to see that “science” agrees. If you pay enough attention to writers and would-be writers, I think it becomes apparent that a lot of them don’t quite have enough knowledge to pull off what they’re trying to do—yet. In her interview with James Franco, Terry Gross says that “I think that every young writer or painter actually goes through that […] putting out everything inside them, but there isn’t much inside them yet because they’re young and unformed.” And Franco agrees that he experienced the problems or possibilities Gross describes.

I should also explain why the last word of my post title is “Don’t.” I put it there because you don’t learn to become a faster writer through some kind of trick that will make you magically produce text faster. You become a better writer through experience and through reading. Those aren’t things you can do in a day or a week or a month. They’re things you do over years. The only way to start if you haven’t already is to start now, especially since the greatest value in writing isn’t always in writing for other people. I’ve been rereading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, which was even better the second time around than the first (probably because now I have the background knowledge to really grok it). He says:

[I]t is never a waste to write for intrinsic reasons. First of all, writing gives the mind a disciplined means of expression. It allows one to record events and experiences so that they can be easily recalled, and relived in the future. It is a way to analyze and understand experiences, a self-communication that brings order to them.

“A disciplined means of expression” is available to anyone, even someone with no readers. Csikszentmihalyi gets that writing isn’t just about writing: “If the only point to writing were to transmit information, then it would deserve to become obsolete. But the point of writing is to create information, not simply to pass it along. [. . .] It is the slow, organically growing process of thought involved in writing that lets the ideas emerge in the first place.” It’s about generating ideas that emerge through an attempt to express those ideas (Paul Graham says something similar in The Age of the Essay). Given that writing is about itself, we shouldn’t be as worried about how fast we’re writing; as demonstrated in Flow, when we’re really writing well we often won’t have a sense of time, because we’ll be in a moment-to-moment existence in which our task demands complete concentration and little else matters. Doesn’t that sound better than merely getting words on the page? It sure does to me.

By the way, you shouldn’t valorize writers and writing too much, because writing can have strange effects on the mind. In Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, Grady Tripp describes “the midnight disease” that writers suffer from,

[…] which started out as a simple feeling of disconnection from other people, an inability to ‘fit in’ by no means unique to writers, a sense of envy and of unbridgeable distance like that felt by someone tossing a restless pillow in a world full of sleepers. Very quickly, though, what happened with the midnight disease was that you began actually to crave this feeling of apartness, to cultivate and even flourish within it. You pushed yourself farther and farther and farther apart until one black day you woke to discover that you yourself had become the chief object of your hostile gaze.

And I don’t think this unique to writer: programmers, hackers, engineers, scientists, and others probably feel too: all the people who, like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, still desire to walk free under the sun even as they are compelled to return to darkness and solitude. The solitude is what it takes to do the work: but for writers, they’re writing about people, which is odd that one needs to get away from people to describe people, but it’s nonetheless true for many of us.

By the way, most of those delicious quotes come from DevonThink Pro, but they’re still evidence that I’ve done a certain amount of reading and thinking about writing that enabled me to write this post over an hour or so (back to Slate: “It’s obviously a huge help to write about a subject you know well”). If I was 19 and writing this post, I simply wouldn’t have been able to write it. Not like this, anyway. If you look at the blog archives—I discourage you, but if you must, you must—and compare early posts to the posts I write these days, there simply is no comparison. That’s because I’ve learned how to write blog posts effectively, or somewhat effectively, anyway. I’m capable of doing things now that I simply couldn’t do then. Want to really write faster? You can teach yourself how in ten years.

La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life — Elaine Sciolino

La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life started life as a New York Times article that’s definitely worth reading and retains some of the humor of the book (sample: “The Customer Is Always Wrong”). And the way to read La Seduction is as a comedy. It’s not very deep, but there’s something hilarious about Sciolino’s ceaseless focus on the myriad forms of French seduction, which take a primarily erotic term and extend it as a metaphor throughout French life, or at least a certain segment of French life. There’s a sense of bemusement throughout the book, as when Sciolino indulges a fascination with French sexual practices:

Unlike Americans, who are forced to take up the mantle of purity just when assuming high office might give them an advantage in the sexual game, French politicians are allowed to enjoy their enhance opportunities. This reality flows from centuries of precedent. The kings took sexual seduction to new heights. There was a hierarchy to the women in their lives: wives, significant others (known as ‘favorites’), and women passing through through the court who provided fleeting adventures. To make sure no one forgets France’s royal history today, the kings’ escapades are routinely retold in cover stories in mainstream weekly news magazines.

Notice the Americanisms creeping in her prose: they’re “allowed to enjoy,” rather just “enjoy” or some other verb. They’ve been granted implicit permission to be naughty, and the words that point out that implication sound American. Sciolino takes the role of tut-tutting American even when she doesn’t mean to; whether this is ingrained in her upbringing or part of her schtick is hard to say. France comes off as wildly appealing in this book, which is perhaps as it should be. Sciolino makes it sound delightfully cultured a lot of the time; she doesn’t focus much on what it’s like not to have a lot of money in France, but I bet that would be pretty different. The threads of appeal and privilege come together at moments, like this one:

Growing up in france, my two daughters were allowed to drink legally as teenagers. Champagne was served at their senior prom. They developed a healthy respect for moderation. Perhaps the biggest cultural shock they faced in college in the United States was binge drinking.

The integration of wine into daily life starts early.

If you normalize drinking, it won’t be as much of a problem and can simply be a pleasure. I wonder too if part of the issue is development patterns in the United States: everyone, almost everywhere, has to drive everywhere. So drinking naturally becomes more of a problem, since it’s intertwined with driving. And because it’s forbidden whole institutions, like college fraternities, and cultures, like the high school kegger, grow up to enable drinking. Sciolino doesn’t go in this direction, but she could: she’s bent on staying observational. It’s amusing to watch an anthropologist at work, especially one who’s divided between admiration and distaste. We get this in Sciolino’s discussion of sexual politics, which frankly sound like a lot more fun in France:

The game of the sexes also extends deep into the workplace. In the United States, the mildest playfulness during business hours and in a business setting is forbidden; in France, it is encouraged. In American corporations, men are told routinely that they cross the line when they compliment a female employee on the color of her dress or the style of her hair. In France, flirtation is part of the job.

This also applies to universities: one has the presumed right to be free from unwanted advances, which also has the effect of frequently being free from wanted advances, since it’s hard to tell one from the other until the advance has been made. Much of Sciolino’s chapter deals with this French attitude, where so much is, in one woman’s words, “based on humor, irony, complicity, and what is left unsaid.” Sciolino continues by asking a small, unrepresentative survey of women “whether they are outraged by the perpetual game of seduction in their professional lives. I found that if American women engage in a perpetual battle of the sexes, French women are more likely to collaborate with the opposite sex.” The battle is a game: notice the difference in metaphors. She goes on to say that “The most exasperating thing I heard was that there are no fixed rules. You just have to intuit them, as if you are feeling your way up a vertical rock formation.” Dealing with ambiguity is hard, but, to some people, fun. Yet social rules are notoriously hard to encode; if they weren’t, there wouldn’t be innumerable advice columns advising people on social issues. When you encode a rule like “don’t comment on someone’s shirt,” you get a presumed benefit—someone who doesn’t wish to be complimented on his shirt doesn’t have to be—and a presumed drawback—someone who wishes people would notice her shirt finds that they don’t. One could say that American sexual politics are more rule-based and business less so, while the French do the opposite.

One hundred and fifty pages later, we’re still talking about the sex thing:

[Carla Bruni] didn’t seem to care what others thought of her. She reportedly told Michelle Obama that she and Sarkozy had been late to meet a foreign head of state because they were having sex, a story recounted by journalist Jonathan Alter in his book The Promise. ‘Bruni wanted to know if, like the Sarkozys, Michelle and the president had ever kept anyone waiting that way,’ Alter wrote. ‘Michelle laughed nervously and said no.’ “

It’s hard not to laugh at this paragraph, not just for the reason, but for the question that implies a shared intimacy that evidently has not quite developed, based on the adverb “nervously;” indeed, the whole book makes France sound intensely comic in a way I’d never considered before. If you want to have the stereotype that French people are busily drinking wine, having sex, and discoursing about philosophy, this is not the book for you: although Sciolino takes time to cite statistics about the fall in wine consumption (50% of earlier highs) and the prevalence of fast food (more than 1,000 McDonald’s are open for service in France), the overall feel of the anecdotes is toward whispering about sex and outrageous dalliances, even if said things are more whispered about than done.

Innovation You — Jeff DeGraff

I started Innovation You because of this Arnold Kling post. Suggestion: read his post and this one instead of the whole book. If you’re interested in how innovation and ideas work, try Steven Berlin Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From and Derek Sivers’ Anything You Want. They cover similar territory infinitely better. DeGraff asks a lot of questions that feel absurd and obvious at the same time, like, “How do you innovate you?” The answer is obvious: read, write, try new things. If you don’t know how to do that, there might be no hope for you. Or very little hope.

So little hope that you’d be like a student I had who I’ll call “Sarah.” She didn’t know what to write her second paper on, so she came to my office hours for help. This isn’t at all uncommon and is exactly what you, if you’re a student, should do, and if you’re one of my students who happens to be reading this, make sure you do come to office hours. Anyway, Sarah didn’t know what to write about, so I asked if she liked anything we’d read. No. Okay, did she like anything we read in the first unit? No. What classes was she taking? It was something like business, econ, a humanities class. Did she like any of them? No. What did she like? She didn’t know—shopping, hanging out with friends. What was important to her? Getting a job when she graduated, her family. How was she going to get a job if she didn’t like any of her classes? She didn’t know. I backpedalled: almost all my assignment sheets include a caveat that, if you’d like to write about a book of your own choosing, you can as long as you clear it with me first (this is to weed out the people who want to write about Twilight or self-help books or things like that). I suggested that she use that option and write on a book of her own choosing. Sarah’s response: “I have no books.” That’s a direct quote. Mind you, this is on a university campus with a giant library and equally giant bookstore. She was beyond my help; I think she’s the only student who’s come into office hours who I’ve been utterly unable to assist.

Sarah might be helped by Innovation You.

DeGraff says things like, “These days, people from all walks of life come to me for individual guidance. Who am I?” Fortunately, the question of “Who am I?” is a very contemporary one, like asking, “Should I get the iPhone with less storage space or pay for more?”, and it has no history or background whatsoever. If you’re the kind of person who smacks your head and says, ” ‘Who am I?’ is a question I’ve never thought to ask before!”, this book is for you. It has lots of very short stories that reduce people to pawns. Don’t read this book, though there are some worthwhile bits. Here’s one, where DeGraff describes a woman who kept looking for a synagogue like the one she went to as a child and not finding one that met her standards, whatever those might be, because

She was evaluating and criticizing, not creating. She reminded me of certain older, unmarried people I’ve known who decide later in life that they want a spouse after all. They are experts at going on dates and evaluating what’s wrong with every possible candidate. And they’re right—there’s something wrong with everyone. We’re human. But we’re worthwhile anyway. People don’t marry when they’ve found perfection because there is no perfection. They marry wen they’ve found someone they love whose faults they can accept, and who can accept their faults in return. {DeGraff “You”@34}

Very true. It’s a lot of what Lori Gottlieb says in Marry Him! (link goes to a Megan McArdle discussion of said book). A lot of what DeGraff says is said better in other books. Here are the other two quotes worth going in Devonthink Pro:

“Most of the distractions and wasted time in your life tend to be created by a small number of distracting, wasteful people. So today, many of us focus on trying to do more for the most important clients or customers and to avoid whoever is wasteful or doesn’t show results” {DeGraff “You”@42}.

We also avoid a small number of behaviors, like obsessively checking e-mail. And:

“At a personal level, almost anyone you know will tell you that they are overly busy and overly stressed, but who controls that? The person saying so. So we suffer our ‘do it all’ mentality and inadvertently create a melange of mediocrity. Trying to have it all, all at the same time, is at best difficult, and, at worst, destructive” {DeGraff “You”@89}.

Congrats. I’ve now saved you from spending the $6 (Amazon used) or $14 (Amazon new) that you might otherwise have spent, because you’ve got almost all the book’s contentful sections in a handful of quotes. If you’re wondering how to live your life, read the epiphany posts at Hacker News and you’ll get basically the same thing.

Never the Face: A Story of Desire — Ariel Sands

Never the Face starts with the narrator recalling a dream. Or, rather, the dream seeks here, and she “found myself hurtling back across the years, back to a spring morning in California when I was—
Awake.”

This implies she isn’t awake while she’s writing. Notice too how she’s abrogated responsibility for her actions: she “found [herself] hurtling back across the years,” instead of going there willingly. She doesn’t make the choice, implying that she’s metaphorically asleep, waiting for someone to wake her again because she can’t awaken on her own. Dreams run throughout the novel (although this novel feels more like a memoir, given its intimacy and tone). On its penultimate page, the narrator is “Afraid that those fabulous, shimmering dreams he had dreamt for me—for us—were about to shatter.” She’s right, since dreams can’t last forever outside of science fiction. Even at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the characters must leave Titania’s forest. The same is true of Never the Face, but maintaining the dream isn’t the responsibility of the protagonist—notice how David, the “he” of this love story, is the one who “had dreamt for me—for us.” He does this through sexual bondage. The details are interesting but essential; read the book if you want them. Read this post if you want some of them and some idea of what they might mean.

The narrator says that she had dreams about David, and not about anything else. Still, there’s hesitation: “a dream was one thing. Did I want the reality? Assuming that it was real?” Judging by the 200 pages to follow, we can guess the answer is yes. She feels more real when she’s told what to do. When they begin having sex, David instructs the narrator to open herself. She does. He speaks to her like an animal:

‘Good girl. Now, what do you say?’
I said nothing.
‘You say, “Please fuck your bitch.” ‘
With the involition of someone in a dream, I heard my voice saying, ‘Please fuck your bitch.’

David “accepted the invitation.” The narrator is giving up agency, which gives the encounter its power. We have an effectively infinite array of choices. To have them removed is taboo, and in violating the taboo she feels pleasure. She is both dreaming and awake. Later, the narrator says that she “climbed into bed and surrendered myself to dark dreams, dreams I didn’t like to acknowledge even to myself. I am chained up, spread-eagled. But my lover is ignoring me. Another woman kneels in front of him, and he is fondling her breasts, he is about to—” We don’t know what. The “dark dreams” end, and the narrator “pulled my mind back.” It’s too much, which is strange, given what her fantasy life is like. She says, “I felt as if I was cradling a bomb that at any moment might explode and blow my head off. I pulled the blankets tight around my body.” Maybe she’s missing a sense of danger, and while some might fill that sense of danger with climbing mountains, she fills it with sex. One is socially valorized, the other socially castigated. The sentences the narrator ends with an em-dash represents those places even she feels she can’t go, the places where she needs to break off.

Those points of breaking off leave things to the imagination. At one point, David tells the narrator to “Tell me your fantasies.” She resists, momentarily, but that resistance feels perfunctory, like all or almost all of her descriptions of resistance. She says that she “took a deep breath, snuck up to my place of dark dreams, and opened the door. I am tied up, legs spread. Men, I cannot see their faces—” She says aloud that that she fantasizes about “Rape. Especially gang rape. That’s probably my most common fantasy.” Another metaphor appears here, this time about opening doors instead of sleeping / wakening. Such metaphors point to understanding, growth, development, knowledge, whatever word you want to choose. Of becoming by being.

The narrator notes that she doesn’t “really want to be raped,” and David says, “I know you don’t, Kitten. No one does. It’s the idea that’s powerful. Giving up control.” It’s not just giving up control, however, but giving it up to the right person; in their book Why Women Have Sex, David Buss and Cindy Meston describe some of the research around rape and say that “In erotic rape fantasies, the male is typically attractive, dominant, and overcome with sexual desire for the woman […] the fantasy typically contains no realistic violence.” Those are all traits the narrator sees in David. In addition, you don’t fully need fantasy to become reality; you need enough fantasy to alter your reality. It’s hard to imagine the narrator going back to the Bobbies of the world after she’s been with a David.

Bobby was the narrator’s former lover. While the narrator is speaking with a friend, she says:

A memory from years before came into my head. I am naked. Bobby is whispering, “I’m going to kiss you all over.” He begins kissing my neck, my shoulders, my ears. I know I am supposed to find this sexy, romantic. But while my body is lying there being kissed (now he’s at the small of my back, now at the back of my knees), my mind is thinking about calculus problems, and whether anyone might have taken my clothes out of the dryer.

Note the contrast between what the narrator is “supposed” to feel and what she actually feels. That conflict generates the narrator’s erotic tension; so does the way she wants to live in the radical present. David achieves that through pain. Bobby doesn’t: he lets her mind think “about calculus problems,” instead of jerking her mind into the now, away from the daily grind and towards the moment. She wants to live in the present tense, which is incredibly hard for some people. The narrator understands this to some extent: she says thinks it difficult “To generate a feeling of safe danger.” She’s looking for an oxymoron, and someone who can deliver it is special. She is “Exploring places you don’t normally go, scary places, with someone you trust. It’s very controlled.” The places are slightly physical but mostly mental; they’re about making the mind and body fuse. It helps that David has the traits of a romantic hero: he is self-assured, powerful, knowledgeable. She thinks, “I wonder if he’s good at [going down on women]. He’s good at everything else” (Emphasis in original). Being skilled and competent is attractive; he’s also conveniently rich, a man who “was on the waiting list” for a country club with “a joining fee of $70,000.” Maybe she thinks it easier to trust someone rich.

Regardless, his competence lets her trust. David tells her that what they’re doing “is about surrender, giving up control. It has nothing to do with liking pain or wanting to be hurt.” That’s specious: if it had nothing to do with pain, pain wouldn’t be the mechanism used to achieve the end David perceives as surrender. He would use some other mechanism. You can’t separate ends from means no matter how much you might want to. You don’t beat someone without that beating being somewhat about beating. In this case, the beating also serves as contrast, with poor Bobby being the punching bag. Midway through the novel, the narrator says:

I thought of Bobby, how he always fell asleep after he came. For a moment, I conjured him, sprawled on top of me as if I was part of the bed. He could sometimes manage sex twice a day. But David—

He’s superhuman. No: Superman. I’m fucking Superman!

Or, rather, she makes him into Superman. One wonders if Bobby could’ve been molded in the same way. Still, Bobby’s kisses are quite different than sex with David. When David comes in, he “twisted my hand in my hair, forced my face upward, and kissed me. The kiss was rough, violent.” He leaves, and the narrator’s body reacts in a way that will grow predictable but still perturbs her on some level: “Trying to ignore how aroused I was, I turned back to my books.” She can’t control the way her body feels, which is part of what she likes. It’s part of her divided mind. David has a theory about this: “Pain quiets your mind and opens you to pleasure.” Under this theory, pain is a borderland between normal existence and extraordinary existence. The question remains: how do we get to extraordinary existence? How can we travel there through experience? He says: “It’s that when you cry, I know I’ve got you. I know you’re completely present, a body reacting and responding. You’re not thinking about anything, or worrying: you’re just there.” It’s so hard to live in the present, especially among a certain segmented of the highly educated, highly repressed, highly skilled part of the population. It takes an effort to live in the specious present. You wouldn’t want to live there all the time, but for a while, it can be extraordinarily powerful because we do so so infrequently. Habit becomes stultifying: we need to break from it, at least if we’re unusually open to new experiences. This passage, a conversation between the narrator and her friend Sally, captures the idea:

“Well. I don’t know what your experience has been—do you find that sex with most guys is more or less the same?” I said.
“Yes,” she said, rolling her eyes slightly. “Yes.” She laughed. “Some of them like to carry you about more than others. But that’s about it.”
“This was different. Totally different.”

Difference can be scary; it also can’t be fully explained. Sally wants explanation; the narrator can’t fully give it. She prevaricates, because what else can she do? It’s a bodily experience unlike almost any other. The narrator knows how it would be judged, and she’s internalized her friends’ reactions; at one moment, she says, “I thought of what Sally would say if I told her, ‘You wore his wife’s skirt? To a restaurant? Are you insane?’ ” But that’s the point: to transgress. You aren’t supposed to have affairs, even with the wife’s blessing; you aren’t supposed to be a masochist, even if you are; if you do those two things, you definitely aren’t supposed to wear the wife’s skirt. The question starts to become, where are the lines? If you don’t have any, you become scary. Dangerous. The sort of person who might steal someone else’s mate, who is threatening the foundations of social order. Hence you have to be labeled as “insane.” The idea is hardy a new one: Hester Prynne gets her famous Scarlet Letter for transgression. She’s achieved the state David Axelrod describes in his article “Laws of Life:”

‘Internalization’ is the word psychologists use to describe the compliance with norms out of feelings of right and wrong. A norm is internalized if violating it is psychologically painful even when the consequences are otherwise beneficial. Thus, cheating on an exam might result in persistent guilt even if it were not punished and did succeed in raising the student’s grade […] if everyone [strongly] internalized a norm […], there would be no incentive to defect and the norm would remain stable.

Families and societies work hard to achieve exactly this effect, especially in educating the impressionable young, and they sometimes succeed. Still, it is rare for a norm to be so thoroughly internalized that no one in a group is tempted to defect.

Violation is psychologically painful but also satisfying. In Never the Face, the narrator’s main manifestation of guilt comes from the writing of the novel, and we can’t help but think that guilt is awfully minor. She doesn’t look into where that guilt comes from, but the usual suspects are out there: society, other women, religion, schools. In “Sexual Economics: Sex as Female Resource for Social Exchange in Heterosexual Interactions,” Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs posit that in many societies women are responsible for restricting female sexual agency. They might be right. But Ariel Sands isn’t asking those questions, even though they arise in my mind. Dan Savage said that “When it comes to human sexuality [. . .] deviation from imaginary and tyrannical ‘norms’ is the norm.” He’s probably right. Books like Never the Face make you think “probably” might not be strong enough.

The narrator says that “Those desires, those dark desires that lurked in the shadows of my mind—most of the time I tried to hide them, even from myself. I had never let myself speak of them.” She hasn’t, and relatively few others have. David has a theory, that at her “core,” the narrator is “Someone who wants to surrender, to be taken.” She “started to protest” but doesn’t. What is there to be said? This novel also arouses the fear that, if these “dark desires” lurk in the mind, others might too. What happens if they are awakened? What might we find there? The worst answer might be “nothing.”

While David leaves, the narrator “stood on the sidewalk, thighs and buttocks smarting, my body alive with desire.” If it’s alive with desire, is it dead the rest of the time? Or asleep? If so, then she should be glad: we like being woken up. It disturbs us to be asleep, to be unaware; that’s why so many stories deal with entering an unknown and previously unperceived world. In “The Unreal Thing: What’s wrong with the Matrix?“, Adam Gopnik writes that, in The Matrix, “reality is a fiction, programmed into the heads of sleeping millions by evil computers.” In this book, we get the sense that reality is, if not a fiction, then at least a tedious drag, programmed into the heads of sleeping millions by social convention that binds us without our knowing it. Notice how Gopnik, too, resorts to the language of slumber to convey his point. He goes on to point out the idea’s history:

The basic conceit of “The Matrix”—the notion that the material world is a malevolent delusion, designed by the forces of evil with the purpose of keeping people in a state of slavery, has a history. It is most famous as the belief for which the medieval Christian sect known as the Cathars fought and died, and in great numbers, too. The Cathars were sure that the material world was a phantasm created by Satan, and that Jesus of Nazareth—their Neo—had shown mankind a way beyond that matrix by standing outside it and seeing through it. The Cathars were fighting a losing battle, but the interesting thing was that they were fighting at all. It is not unusual to take up a sword and die for a belief. It is unusual to take up a sword to die for the belief that swords do not exist.

The idea of “what you see is what you get” probably goes back even further: hence the idea of what we might now term magical thinking among many pre-agrarian hunter-gatherers, who so often believe that spirits control and animate the world. Or contemporary people who send mental notes conventionally referred to as prayer, to a fellow who goes by various names but sits (if we imagine him being corporeal) in a cloud, seeing everything and noting down a demerit every time you masturbate. Whether you’r the narrator of Never the Face, Neo in The Matrix, a hunter-gatherer tribesperson, or a modern monotheist, you don’t want your everyday existence to be all there is. You want something more, but how do you get there? Through kinky sex, appeals to the spirits, gathering in a group of people and reciting chants / songs? Given the choice, I know which one I’d choose, but the similarity of the goal—transcendence, extra-normal power—makes me wonder what could connect all these practices, especially given how practitioners often dislike those using other methods. The highly kinky and heavily religious do not appear to have much overlap.

One thing that sets The Matrix apart from the innumerable comic book movies in which good guys and bad guys try to kick each other’s asses is the underlying idea that reality might not exist (Gopnik says the sequel “is, unlike the first film, a conventional comic-book movie, in places a campy conventional comic-book movie”). One thing that sets Never the Face apart from the innumerable books of erotica that describe, in detail, how things feel is the discomforting sense that maybe we never really will awaken from everyday life without the assistance of some activities described in the book; I shy away from using the book’s direct language—do I feel I haven’t earned it? Gopnik says that “the idea that the world we live in isn’t real is one that speaks right now to a general condition,” and I would posit that Sands feels the same way, or that her narrator does. But for her, the fake world is fake because it has been stripped of sensuality, of tactile sensations, of intensity; those feelings have been denuded by Big Macs, large personal spaces, telephones, and a social sense that forbids discussing erotic life for fear of any number of things, including political correctness. We don’t want to acknowledge what we might want if we really freed our minds.

It’s notoriously hard to look past our cultural and biological conditioning, even when part of our cultural conditioning is to recursively question our cultural conditioning. But we try anyway, because a certain number of us don’t like not being to think something that we could possibly think. To return to Gopnik, “In a long article on the first “Matrix” film, the Princeton philosopher James Pryor posed the question “What’s so bad about living in the Matrix?,” and, after sorting through some possible answers, he concluded that the real problem probably has to do with freedom, or the lack of it.” The “freedom” answer, however, still smells to me of cultural conditioning, but I buy it. Plus, it seems like cultures that value “freedom” appear to be better, on average, at getting along with their neighbors and not murdering their neighbors.*

And I buy the value of Never the Face not just for the dirty bits, but also because it seems like we should be free to want to be hit if we want to be hit, regardless of the important political and social convictions we might justifiably hold in other aspects of our lives. As Paul Graham says in his essay “What You Can’t Say,” “To do good work you need a brain that can go anywhere. And you especially need a brain that’s in the habit of going where it’s not supposed to.”** Freedom applies to sexual freedom too, and being able to explore your desires so long as those desires don’t hurt others.

For the narrator, sex and the activities around it let her live in the now. She says, “As usual after a savage beating, I was in a daze. My mind had gone blank; the internal monologue was silent. I as just there, in the now, without thought.” With Bobby, she thought about calculus; with him, she thinks nothing, which might be the greatest challenge for intellectuals. You wouldn’t want to go blank all the time, but for the moment it’s thrillingly, astonishingly different. In the novel’s rhetoric, it wakes her up, as discussed above.

Being awake lets the narrator see and feel things she wouldn’t otherwise. She sees the essential. She feels it. David says that beating someone is “Way more intimate than fucking. [. . .] Because it strips away pretense and self-consciousness, it reduces you to your essence.” The sex and bondage the narrator experiences isn’t, under this reading, about sex and bondage; they’re about understanding yourself and the world around you. The same thing that sports books say sports are about and that art books say art is about. The difference is that sports and art are valorized by society, while sexual exploration isn’t and probably never will be. It’s not just about the sex, either; as David explains in a perhaps self-serving way, the bondage “takes trust [. . .] You don’t need to trust someone to fuck them. But to put yourself in someone else’s power, to make yourself that vulnerable—that takes trust. [. . .] That’s why it brings such closeness.”

Is he right? The question is beside the point: he’s right in the narrator’s eyes. If he wasn’t, she wouldn’t stay with him. She wouldn’t want their relationship to continue when he breaks it off to stay with his wife, who knows about his relationship with the narrator. She encourages it. But the novel ultimately implies that such an arrangement can’t last. Society must be paid its dues. Plus, one challenge is simple: where does it end? Towards the novel’s end, the narrator says that David “had set upon me with if possible, a new level of ferocity.” Eventually, the logical conclusion becomes death, which I doubt the narrator wants. Neither does David. But you have to reach some maximum this side of the underworld.

Normally, I wouldn’t include spoilers in an essay about a book, but in this case “what happens” is besides the point, and the narrative tension doesn’t really exist. The book isn’t about what happens, but how and why it does. The answer is ultimately pre-verbal, like the reason for the adventure that propels Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. We can use language to approximate the feelings invoked by experience, but in this case the approximation is wider than most art. That, I think, is what feels so subversive: Never the Face suggests that you will never understand without trying it for yourself. If you do try for yourself, you will be indulging a set of possible desires that social life tells you you shouldn’t have, and if you do have them, they should be repressed, and if they can’t be repressed, they at least shouldn’t be spoken, and if they are spoken, they at least shouldn’t be written and distributed, and if you write and distribute them, you at least shouldn’t let others read it. The layers of taboo violation go deep.

She says that she had dreams about David, not about anything else. Still, there’s hesitation: “a dream was one thing. Did I want the reality? Assuming that it was real?” Judging by the 200 pages to follow, we can guess the answer is yes.


* Neal Stephenson discusses how our culture propagates itself visually in “In the Beginning was the Command Line,” which should be required reading for people who want to know how things work.

** Graham, later: “If you can think things so outside the box that they’d make people’s hair stand on end, you’ll have no trouble with the small trips outside the box that people call innovative.”

Books have been dying as long as they've been living: Walter Benjamin edition

“Now everything indicates that the book in this traditional form is nearing its end.” This could have been posted in the New York Times or Slate this morning. But it’s Walter Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, the original piece being published in 1928. Books have been dying for a very long time.

Books have been dying as long as they’ve been living: Walter Benjamin edition

“Now everything indicates that the book in this traditional form is nearing its end.” This could have been posted in the New York Times or Slate this morning. But it’s Walter Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, the original piece being published in 1928. Books have been dying for a very long time.

July 2011 links: Internet privacy, plot, Charlie Stross, Academia, typos, and more

* Has plot driven out other kinds of story? The market’s stress on keeping stories moving means we’re in danger of losing some truer fictions. If anything, it seems like the opposite to me.

* The Legislation That Could Kill Internet Privacy for Good.

* The only way to know how good you might be at something is to fail trying it. This is one reason I keep writing fiction: I do not wish to be 40, look back, and wonder why I didn’t try. Really try, which is much different than most people’s definition of “try.”

* Academic English Is Not a Club I Want to Join; may be behind a paywall.

* Charlie Stross, interesting as usual:

In the period 1997-2010, in the UK, Parliament created an average of one new criminal offence for every day the House of Commons was in session. I asked a couple of legal experts how many actual chargeable offences there were in the English legal system; they couldn’t give an exact answer but suggested somewhere in the range 5,000-20,000. The situation in the USA is much, much worse, with different state and federal legal systems and combinations of felonies; the true number of chargeable felonies may be over a million, and this situation is augmented by a tax code so large that no single human being can be familiar with all of it (but failure to comply is of course illegal).

Now, most of the time most of these laws don’t affect most of us. But there’s a key principle of law, that ignorance is no defence: I’m willing to bet that most human beings are guilty of one or more crimes, be it smoking a joint or speeding or forgetting to declare earnings or failing to file the paperwork for some sort of permit we don’t even know exists. We are all potentially criminals.

* He Sexts, She Sexts More, Report Says, this from the NYT.

* Why I will never pursue cheating again, which resonates too much with me and explains a lot of what’s wrong with contemporary school culture, which is itself a reflection of larger cultural forces.

* From a Scrivener case study: “Like serial killers (whom they in many ways resemble) writers tend to fall into one of two broad camps – organised and disorganised. Although I try not to, I work in a spectacularly disarranged manner. I keep a lot in my head, and in my head it kind of makes sense, in a hazy and optimistic way. But during the actual composition I’m all over the place.”

I tend towards disorganized, with the American spelling.

From an interview with Neil Cross.

* The Price of Typos, which also includes the “price” of their removal.

* How Cisco’s “unmitigated gall” derailed one man’s life.

This Beautiful Life — Helen Schulman

I heard about This Beautiful Life in a New York Times review and immediately worried: the novel sounded similar to the novel I’m working on that doesn’t have a title (I’m referring to it as “The Teacher Novel”). But reading This Beautiful Life makes me happy because the Teacher Novel is definitely not worse and almost certainly better. This Beautiful Life is too frequently boring; it’s disconnected from itself (the very short first and last chapters are effective and engaging, however). Anita Shreve’s Testimony and Tom Perrotta’s Election cover similar territory far, far better.

Other comparisons work too. Reading the first long section of This Beautiful Life, which belongs to Liz, the mother, made me reread the first three chapters of The Great Gatsby, because Gatsby isn’t just better, it’s on a whole different plane, even though it’s also covering the banal problems of rich New Yorkers. Gatsby retains its ability to amaze, especially at how deftly Fitzgerald transitions from scene to scene. He’s so damn technically good that 1) I wonder / doubt if I’ll ever do anything as good and 2) Schulman looks unfortunate in comparison (funnily enough, Jake, the 15-year-old boy, reads Gatsby towards the end; I wonder if he learns anything).

Schulman avoids transitions by not writing much in scenes. There are some good sentences (one example: Liz, Jake’s mother, notes his height and says that “It was as if, suddenly, three extra vertebrae had been added to the staircase of his spine”) and amusing bits, but most of the novel isn’t composed of scenes, and the writing isn’t quite enough to make up for that. I feel like I’m reading weekend New York Times articles on overly yoga-ified Upper East Siders. The novel lacks the fiery pop at the end of Election‘s chapters, as it does tension. The father, Richard, has the strongest section, mostly because he actually does something, instead of sitting around being acted on.

Like Testimony, This Beautiful Life has the problem of having a single, main event, without any other plot points or subsidiary issues, but Testimony has more voice. It has more knowledge of itself. This Beautiful Life also got a moral problem: a 13-year-old girl named Daisy sends a 15-year-old guy named Jake a sex tape, and he forwards it to one person. Who cares? She did it willingly, and although she’s young it’s apparent she has sufficient knowledge and agency of what she’s doing to make the question of her agency unimportant. The novel is set in 2003, which is essential: if it were set closer to the present, the idea of a sex tape becoming a social conflagration beyond the confines of high school would be wildly improbable.

I feel like the New York Times reviewer, Maria Russo, read an entirely different book than I did, or hasn’t read This Beautiful Life’s predecessors. Schulman teaches in New York, and I wonder if getting the cover of the book review was a sweetheart deal with Russo, her agent, and/or the book review editor (if so, I’d love such a deal). Not everything that makes the NYT Book Review cover is aesthetically or intellectually interesting (here I’m thinking of Angelology, an utterly forgettable book). Russo assume that social and cultural mores are permanent (“What can the future hold for unformed, vulnerable kids who bumble their way into the lowliest realm of the permanent record that is the Internet? (Or, in Daisy’s case, reach it by simulating sex with a toy baseball bat.) Should their parents be held responsible, or are they equally victimized by the seductions and traps of digital life?”) instead of fluid. Russo gets to the idea that cultural mores, but not until the last paragraph. I would’ve liked a stronger historical sense. These criticisms may be due to the brevity of the venue: the NYT only allows so many words, and I think her review is in the neighborhood of 1,200.

I suspect that, if it hasn’t happened already, sexting will be pretty normal and not enough to drive plots in the near future. For guidance on changing mores, look to the past. In 1900 – ~1965, you could drive plots using the question of whether teenagers have sex, given how much of society was set up against that. Today, if you did the same, you’d have to use religious prohibition or something similar to drive the plot, which isn’t very satisfying because the solution (“stop being a religious wacko; your parents are unreasonable”) is obvious. Caitlin Flanagan get some, but not all of this—I’ve seen her work in The Atlantic. We’re seeing the phenomenon of “shocking” behavior becoming normal much faster than we used to, which makes me worried about the Teacher Novel, because it might not age well if behavior considered daring or inappropriate today becomes obvious tomorrow. Fortunately, I think the central questions avoid sex tape plots, but still: looking at changes throughout history make me wonder what’ll happen next.

For example, one grad seminar assigned Dreiser’s famous novel Sister Carrie, which was apparently shocking for its day (IIRC, it was published in 1900, though it might be a little later—1910?). Reading it now is banal. Who cares if a woman divorces one guy and marries another? I wonder if these narratives about teenage sex tapes will have the same effect in the nearish future, once people who’ve grown up with sending naked pictures of yourself as a standard practice; Penelope Trunk gets this, but she’s uncommonly opened minded, and I sense a generation gap (am I on the wrong side, I wonder?).

The first and last pages of This Beautiful Life are very good and describe Daisy. The sex acts that begin this novel (and Testimony) are effective attention-getters because most people don’t believe or want to believe that 12- and 14-year-old girls can be sexual (raising the question: have most people forgotten what it’s like to be 12 – 14?). The second paragraph is a single sentence: “Still think I’m too young?” It’s a provocation, but the description isn’t sexy: she has “a hunky ponytail” and “A little roll of ivory fat nestled above the waistband” of her skirt. The suggestion is powerful anyway, and the pages to follow are largely the lead-up and comedown from the two that begin the novel. This has the unfortunate side effect of draining narrative tension; Election avoids this problem through a shadow story about how the party happens, which isn’t revealed until the very end of the novel. This, along with the sheer diversity of voices, makes it a better novel.

Still, This Beautiful Life is a reminder that the novel as a genre is still going places movies and TV can’t or won’t. If a director portrayed a video of a girl who in this scene: “The breasts inside were small, and at first she covered them with her palms, fingers splayed like scallop shells. Then she unhooked the bra in front and they popped out as if on springs”, she’d be arrested for depicting someone under 18 in a sexualized circumstance with nudity. The director could hint and imply but couldn’t show what the novel describes.

I have to read the first paragraph of the second section ironically: “As with so many things of consequence, it all began with a party.” It seems highly unlikely that many “things of consequence” started with a party; an idea, a conversation, a scribble in a notepad, maybe, but a party? Seems improbable. Pages 10 and 11 of the hardcover have a lot of superfluous stuff. I took a picture of a page with my edits, where I remove sentences the book doesn’t need. In rereading of Gatsby, part of what’s so amazing is how essential most of it feels. So mysterious. We don’t even meet Gatsby until chapter three, and then by accident. One of the novel’s letdowns is in Chapter 6, where Nick suddenly regurgitates a bunch of stuff about Gatsby’s supposed background (this is similar to what Mark Sarvas mentioned in 2007: that it’s important not to become overawed by the great). Too much of the novel should be tightened like the face of the mothers Liz lives among. On page 100, “Richard felt the skin on his face tighten.” You could remove that sentence and lose nothing. There’s also a strange mistake: Schulman writes URLs as “feigenbaum/blogspot.com,” when Blogspot URLS are always in the form feigenbaum.blogspot.com. It’s minor, but it galls.

So do aspects of the characters. Take this early scene from Liz:

It’s your butt or your face—you can’t have both, Liz thought. Some movie star had said this; she’d read it or heard something like it somewhere, and had stored a smudged replica of the quote in the hash of celebrity trivia her brain had accumulated without effort, along with all the other stuff and nonsense that passed for knowledge these days from print magazines and whatever: TV, the Net, idle chitchat, the air . . . But it was true, about your butt or your face.

The “hash of celebrity trivia” is what’s so odd to me about Liz: she used to be an art historian. She got a PhD in art history. Yet little to no knowledge of art, art theory, aesthetics, or related subjects trickles into her thought. By now I’ve met lots and lots of academics, and the ones who stick it out to the PhD don’t do so for the money, which is practically nonexistent; they do do so for the love of their subject. It’s bizarre that Liz imparts so little of this in her thinking; she says that “her dissertation had distinguished itself because she’d focused on the synthesis of art, design, and dance in a new and radical way” {Schulman “Beautiful”@38}. But what way is that? How does it differ? Liz “couldn’t remember the subtitle” of that dissertation, which is understandable: titles are easy to forget. But much of the content appears to have gone the way of that subtitle. If art plays a real role in her present life, it’s well-hidden.

People’s professions cast shadows over their conversation, but Liz’s appears to be a veneer that lies no deeper than the letters after her name. What happened to all the knowledge she must have acquired? Why doesn’t she ever think in ideas? Characters content to surf on the world of everyday minutia are boring; one thing that sets science fiction apart from other kinds, at least in the view of Neal Stephenson, is its focus on ideas. He elaborates in this Salon interview, where he defines science fiction’s big tent as

Fiction that’s not considered good unless it has interesting ideas in it. You can write a minimalist short story that’s set in a trailer park or a Connecticut suburb that might be considered a literary masterpiece or well-regarded by literary types, but science fiction people wouldn’t find it very interesting unless it had somewhere in it a cool idea that would make them say, “That’s interesting. I never thought of that before.” If it’s got that, then science fiction people will embrace it and bring it into the big-tent view of science fiction. That’s really the role that science fiction has come to play in literature right now. In arty lit, it’s become uncool to try to come to grips with ideas per se.

Knowing something of celebrity gossip doesn’t automatically preclude one from having ideas, thinking about ideas, or thinking about what might go beyond the tiny halo of an individual life. Thinking about ideas also isn’t incompatible with worry about the body, sexual attractiveness, how others respond to the body, and so forth. But this moment is emblematic of why Liz, as a character, tends to be boring: she doesn’t have access to those ideas. The writing isn’t as crisp and mysterious as Fitzgerald’s (but then again, whose is?). The structure isn’t as sharp as Shreve’s or Perrotta’s.

If Liz had really been the house intellectual, the person who understands the deeper cultural structures underlying what her family is going through, she could’ve been a fascinating character. Instead she seems to have hung up her mind when she became a former. I suspect not all women do. The noun she uses in the passage above—”trivia”—is the problem: her life appears to have become trivia. This isn’t a fact that dooms her altogether, but if you can’t rise beyond trivia, then why bother? And I’m not asking that she cite Foucault or tedious theoretical windbags; I’m just asking for more awareness of her own situation. Give me some cool ideas about what things are about. Literature that endures has ideas; Jane Austen, whatever her faults, is constantly questioning how families and social relationships should work. Her characters are attuned to the minutest questions of status. I’d like to see the same here.

Liz has some faint idea of her problem, since she notes the “nonsense that passed for knowledge.” But it doesn’t pass for knowledge “from print magazine and whatever:” it passes for knowledge because she consumes it. Anytime she wants, she can skip US Weekly and pick up The Atlantic. But she doesn’t.

This passage isn’t bad on its own; if it were embedded in a story with more power, I’d take from it what I think Schulman was shooting for: Liz’s struggle with the wealthy but stultifying environment she’s in and can’t easily leave without harming her family and her husband’s work. It’s a worthy struggle, but a frustrating one because Liz should have the intellectual and financial tools to understand it. But she chooses not to use them, and a character who seems pointlessly helpless is a tedious character too. And Liz does have some real thoughts. In this scene of self-criticism, she’s looking at her ex-flings writing and says:

He was smart, funny, but still immature. He hadn’t seemed to have developed distance from his own dilemmas or learned how to structure a narrative. At what point did potential, budding and nascent, turn into stagnancy? At what point did stagnancy equal tragedy? Is that what made midlife unendurable for so many? Is that what made each and every day feel so damaging?

All this is plausible, and notice how she moves from the guy’s writing to her own life: she stats off talking with him, and by the second sentence you still think she’s talking about him. By the third—”At what point did stagnancy equal tragedy?”—you get the idea that she’s not talking about someone else. She’s talking about herself, as critics so often are when they write criticism. So she gets some self-analysis by the end of the story.

So does her son. Jake is uncommonly knowledgeable, like so many adolescents in fiction; he notes how teenagers mostly “walked around, calling out to one another, ‘S’up. S’up.’ It was rhetorical, not ever a question. Nothing was up, usually, unless something was. They were kids; they were terminally looking for something to do.” They don’t find it. At the very least, this passage feels dangerous, knowing what we know about the novel from the dust jacket and the first two pages. There’s a sense of a transgression. But you’ve read these scenes before, especially if you’re a regular young adult reader, but Jake’s crush on a girl of Chinese descent is endearing; he notices what she wears and “thought Audrey’s haircut made her look French, although he had no idea really what that meant.” Who does, really? Maybe someone who’s read La Seduction. That he wants Audrey drives him forward and toward Daisy, who wants him and sets about luring him via video. Lesson: people do strange things for love. Perhaps it’s a lesson we already know, but so it goes.

He understands Daisy slightly better than his mother does: Liz says of Daisy, “That poor, wretched, stupid girl. Marjorie says the mother’s always away somewhere, that even when she was little she was always picked up by a nanny.” As if someone who wasn’t picked up by a nanny would automatically never make a sex tape. Plus, Daisy presumably wouldn’t have made the tape if she didn’t think it was a good idea; perhaps she has a high discount rate, and adults, with lower discount rates, are thus unhappy because they’re judging someone they don’t understand. Her husband does the same thing, but intentionally, to a reporter. He says that of the video “It looked like a junior league Debbie Does Dallas. I don’t know where the girl learned this stuff.” The answer is obvious: the Internet. Of course, lots of people “learn” stuff of this nature from the Internet and turn out to be perfectly okay, as Daisy does.

But Richard understands something that he doesn’t want to define; he watches the video (all the adults do, and one gets a prurient swirl of surveillance). When he does, he uses standard moralistic language, but he also notes, basically, that it’s also hot, a way similar to some of the comments in Testimony, when either Mike or Rob is describing the tape of Sienna. If someone is being intellectually honest, they have to acknowledge that erotic power isn’t flipped on like a switch when one turns 16 or 18. In some people it develops early. When Richard sees the video, he also says:

And for all the video’s dismal raunch, its tawdriness, for all its sexual immaturity and unknowingness, there is something about the way this girl has revealed herself, the way that she has offered herself, truly stripped herself bare, that is brave and powerful and potent and ridiculous and self-immolating and completely nuts.

He’s right; the nuttiness, the sense of going beyond the bounds, gives the video its power (does this language sound familiar? It’s similar to how I described Ariel Sands’ Never the Face). In the end, there can be something about such a video. Richard doesn’t understand everything; he says that “It looked like a junior league Debbie Does Dallas. I don’t know where the girl learned this stuff.” The answer is obvious: the Internet. Of course, lots of people “learn” stuff of this nature from the Internet and turn out to be perfectly okay, as Daisy does. The novel needs to be set in 2003, because if it were set in 2011, a viral sex tape wouldn’t be so shocking, and I’m somewhat confident that high school students have developed antibodies for the event (from what students tell me, that’s true).

What’s normal today may not be normal tomorrow, and, thus, the worries about the tape might eventually be as strange to us as Seventeenth Century European schisms and wars. Manufactured drama around sex can make the amorality of Gossip Girl attractive by comparison. What would Blair say to Jake and Daisy?

Virtually everyone in this novel is reacting to things. Jake reacts to Daisy. Liz reacts to circumstances. Richard reacts to Jake. The only person who really acts on their own volition in the novel is Daisy; if anyone’s the hero, she is. That the hero gets to say so little is unfortunate. Notice how The Great Gatsby is driven by several great wants: Gatsby’s for Daisy; Daisy for excitement or some way out of her stultifying life with Tom (he who cites The Rise of the Coloured Empires), Nick’s for figuring out who Gatsby really is. Without all that want, like the voice of “I want, I want” in Henderson the Rain King, you wouldn’t have a story in The Great Gatsby. You’d have a series of still lifes. This Beautiful Life is more animated than a still life but less than The Great Gatsby. It shows so much promise, and The Great Gatsby keeps creeping up in it.


She’s gotten a lot of good press. The NYT review is above; the Paris Review blog interviewed her. The Washington Post has a banal review not worth linking to. Reading such reviews reminds me of why I like James Wood so much, even when I disagree with his assessments.

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