Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Midnight Palace and The Prince of Mist show moments of promise, and yet. . .

I bought Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Midnight Palace and The Prince of Mist because I loved The Angel’s Game and The Shadow of the Wind so much. But The Midnight Palace and The Prince of Mist are disappointing. The most fascinating thing isn’t their generally low quality, however. It’s the moments when the later Zafón pokes through, showing what’s to come. I left The Prince of Mist and The Midnight Palace at my parents’ house, and when my Dad started reading one, he stopped and mentioned how awful they were. But they have moments where Zafón shows what he’ll later become—where he describes places, engages and rewrites cliches, talks about shocking family secrets, reveals the semi-supernatural villain. Unfortunately, cliches dominate, the writing is flat, and characters hold the interest of small-town human interest stories. But his later work gets those things right.

I wrote a whole post describing why the young adult novels are bad and pointing out the germs that later sprouted into his stronger, later work. But you know what? All those examples don’t matter. The books are weak for all kinds of reasons that are obvious on a first reading. I deleted all my earlier commentary because I realized that Zafón is an example of an experimental artist, as defined by David Galenson in his fascinating book Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity. Zafón’s books are important only because they also show the danger of assessing an author based on a single work: Zafón’s young adult novels came out before his later, better novels. If I’d read them first, I doubt I would’ve read what came next. Fortunately, however, those books weren’t translated until after Zafón became successful.

In Galenson’s distinction, experimental artists tend to grow slowly; their early work is very seldom considered their important work. By contrast, Galenson describes conceptual artists who tend to do important early work that totally redefines their field; their later work tends not to have the punch it might otherwise have. Experimental artists often don’t have a single defining work, but rather a large body of production that often feels like a unified whole. Conceptual artists often have one or a small number of significant works. The theory is much elaborated from this unfortunate sketch, which naturally loses many of the details that make Galenson good. But you can graft his analysis directly onto Zafón. If I thought the earlier books were worth the effort, I would take your time and mine to do a major compare and contrast between them. They’re not, however. What is important is the lesson one can draw about not prematurely judging a writer based on premature work that might not show the late emergence of talent based on experience and extensive effort in a field.

I’m not going to read Zafón’s other young adult novels; he wrote four prior to The Shadow of the Wind. But when his next novel in the Shadow of the Wind and Angel’s Game sequence emerges, I’ll gladly clear the decks to read it.

Why these assignment sheets: The world isn't going to be a routine place, and writing projects shouldn't be either

Phil Bowermaster writes:

Increasingly, perhaps, a job is something that we each have to create. We can’t count on someone else to create one for us. That model is disappearing. We have to carve something out for ourselves, something that the machines won’t immediately grab.

Bowermaster is describing on a macro scale what I try to do a micro scale with the papers I assign to students. The important part of my assignment sheets for freshman composition papers are only two paragraphs long, and students sometimes find them frustrating, but I do them this way because the world is headed in a direction that offers less direction and more power to do the right or wrong thing. Here’s an example of an assignment sheet:

Purpose: To explain and interpret a possible message or messages suggested by a) a text or texts we have read for class, b) a text or texts in Writing as Revision, or c) a book of your own choosing. If you write on a book of your own, you must clear your selection with me first. Your goal should be persuade readers of your interpretation using the texts studied and outside reading material.

You should construct a thesis that is specific and defensible and then explicate it through points, illustrations, and explanation. See Chapters 8 and 9 of A Student’s Guide To First-Year Writing for more information on the nature of textual analysis.

That’s it. Students can read more about the assignment if they want to, and they have a lot of freedom in picking a topic. Students often want more direction, which I give to some extent, but I don’t give step-by-step instructions because a) step-by-step instructions yield boring papers and b) in their real-life writing, the real challenge isn’t the writing. It’s the deciding what to write about and how to write once you’ve decided to start. The writing assignment often isn’t given; the writing assignment is made.

It’s a big leap to go from “write-a-good-paper” assignment sheets to conceptualizing “a job [as] something that we each have to create.” Maybe too big a leap. But the thinking and rationale behind my decision is clear: jobs that can be easily codified and described as a series of steps—jobs that are easily explained, in other words—are increasingly going away, either to off-shoring or automation. The ones that persist will be the ones that don’t exist now because no one has thought to do them. But a lot of school still appears to consists of a person in front of the room saying, “Follow these steps,” having the students follow the steps, and then moving on.

That model isn’t totally wrong—you can’t create something from nothing—but maybe we should more often be saying, “Here’s the kind of thing you should be doing. What steps should you take? How should you take them? Do something and then come talk to me about it.” That kind of model might be more time consuming and less easily planned, and I wouldn’t want to use it in every hour of every day. Many basic skills still need to be taught along the lines or “This is how you use a comma,” or “this is how an array works.” But we should be collectively moving towards saying, “Here are some constraints. Show me you can think. Show me you can make something from this.” And class isn’t totally devoid of support: unlike the real world, class has mandatory drafts due, lots of discussion about what makes strong writing strong, and the chance to see other people’s work. The imposed, artificial deadlines are particularly important. It’s not like I hand out assignment sheets and shove students out to sea, to flounder or float completely on their own.

Still, from what I can see, the world is increasingly rewarding adaptability and flexibility. I don’t see that trend changing; if anything, it seems likely to accelerate. If schools are going to (collectively) do a better job, they probably need to work on learning how to teach adaptability in the process of teaching subject-specific material. Offering the kinds of assignments I do is a microscopically small step in that direct, but big changes usually consist of a series of small steps. The assignments are one such step. This post is another.

In “A Welcome Call to Greatness,” John Hagel discusses That Used to Be Us, a book by Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum that discusses what Hagel calls “creative creators” – “people who do their nonroutine work in distinctively nonroutine ways.” And that’s what I’m trying to do above: train students into being able to do nonroutine writing of a sort that will be distinctive, interesting, and well-done, but without a great deal of obvious managerial oversight from someone else. Great writing seldom springs from someone micromanaging: it springs from discussions, ideas, unexpected metaphors, connections, seeing old things in new ways, and form a plenitude of other places that can’t be easily described.

In “The Age of the Essay,” Paul Graham says:

Anyone can publish an essay on the Web, and it gets judged, as any writing should, by what it says, not who wrote it. Who are you to write about x? You are whatever you wrote.

Popular magazines made the period between the spread of literacy and the arrival of TV the golden age of the short story. The Web may well make this the golden age of the essay. And that’s certainly not something I realized when I started writing this.

He’s right. The most challenging writing most of my students will do isn’t even going to have the opportunity for someone else to micromanage it. The writing will increasingly be online. It will increasingly be their own decision to write or not write. As Penelope Trunk says, it will increasingly be essential for a good career. It won’t be routine. As I said above, routine work that can be codified and described in a series of steps will be exported to the lowest bidder. Valuable work will be the work nobody has dreamt up. Jobs will be “something that we each have to create.” I’m sure a lot of people will be unhappy with the change, but the secular forces moving in this direction look too great to be overcome by any individual. You surf the waves life and society throws at you, or you fall off the board and struggle. The worst cases never get back on the board and drown. I want students to have the best possible shot at staying on the board, and that means learning they can’t assume someone else is going to create a job—or an assignment—for them. They have to learn to do it themselves. They need to be creative. As Hagel quotes Mandelbaum and Friedman as saying, “Continuous innovation is not a luxury anymore – it is becoming a necessity.” I worry that too few students are getting the message.

I think of some of my friends who are unemployed, and when I ask them what they do all day, they say they spend time searching for a job, hanging out, watching TV. To me, this is crazy. If I were unemployed, I’d be writing, or learning Python, or posting on Craigslist with offers to work doing whatever I can imagine doing. The last thing I’d be doing is watching TV. In other words, I’d be doing something similar to what I’m doing now, even when I am employed: building skills, trying new things, and not merely sitting around waiting for good things to come to me. They won’t. Good things are the things one makes. Most of my employed friends seem to get this on some level, or have found their way into protected niches like teaching or nursing. I wonder if my unemployed friends had teachers and professors who forced them to think for themselves, or if they had teachers and professors who were content to hand them well-defined assignments that didn’t require much thinking about the “how” instead of the “what.”

Why these assignment sheets: The world isn’t going to be a routine place, and writing projects shouldn’t be either

Phil Bowermaster writes:

Increasingly, perhaps, a job is something that we each have to create. We can’t count on someone else to create one for us. That model is disappearing. We have to carve something out for ourselves, something that the machines won’t immediately grab.

Bowermaster is describing on a macro scale what I try to do a micro scale with the papers I assign to students. The important part of my assignment sheets for freshman composition papers are only two paragraphs long, and students sometimes find them frustrating, but I do them this way because the world is headed in a direction that offers less direction and more power to do the right or wrong thing. Here’s an example of an assignment sheet:

Purpose: To explain and interpret a possible message or messages suggested by a) a text or texts we have read for class, b) a text or texts in Writing as Revision, or c) a book of your own choosing. If you write on a book of your own, you must clear your selection with me first. Your goal should be persuade readers of your interpretation using the texts studied and outside reading material.

You should construct a thesis that is specific and defensible and then explicate it through points, illustrations, and explanation. See Chapters 8 and 9 of A Student’s Guide To First-Year Writing for more information on the nature of textual analysis.

That’s it. Students can read more about the assignment if they want to, and they have a lot of freedom in picking a topic. Students often want more direction, which I give to some extent, but I don’t give step-by-step instructions because a) step-by-step instructions yield boring papers and b) in their real-life writing, the real challenge isn’t the writing. It’s the deciding what to write about and how to write once you’ve decided to start. The writing assignment often isn’t given; the writing assignment is made.

It’s a big leap to go from “write-a-good-paper” assignment sheets to conceptualizing “a job [as] something that we each have to create.” Maybe too big a leap. But the thinking and rationale behind my decision is clear: jobs that can be easily codified and described as a series of steps—jobs that are easily explained, in other words—are increasingly going away, either to off-shoring or automation. The ones that persist will be the ones that don’t exist now because no one has thought to do them. But a lot of school still appears to consists of a person in front of the room saying, “Follow these steps,” having the students follow the steps, and then moving on.

That model isn’t totally wrong—you can’t create something from nothing—but maybe we should more often be saying, “Here’s the kind of thing you should be doing. What steps should you take? How should you take them? Do something and then come talk to me about it.” That kind of model might be more time consuming and less easily planned, and I wouldn’t want to use it in every hour of every day. Many basic skills still need to be taught along the lines or “This is how you use a comma,” or “this is how an array works.” But we should be collectively moving towards saying, “Here are some constraints. Show me you can think. Show me you can make something from this.” And class isn’t totally devoid of support: unlike the real world, class has mandatory drafts due, lots of discussion about what makes strong writing strong, and the chance to see other people’s work. The imposed, artificial deadlines are particularly important. It’s not like I hand out assignment sheets and shove students out to sea, to flounder or float completely on their own.

Still, from what I can see, the world is increasingly rewarding adaptability and flexibility. I don’t see that trend changing; if anything, it seems likely to accelerate. If schools are going to (collectively) do a better job, they probably need to work on learning how to teach adaptability in the process of teaching subject-specific material. Offering the kinds of assignments I do is a microscopically small step in that direct, but big changes usually consist of a series of small steps. The assignments are one such step. This post is another.

In “A Welcome Call to Greatness,” John Hagel discusses That Used to Be Us, a book by Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum that discusses what Hagel calls “creative creators” – “people who do their nonroutine work in distinctively nonroutine ways.” And that’s what I’m trying to do above: train students into being able to do nonroutine writing of a sort that will be distinctive, interesting, and well-done, but without a great deal of obvious managerial oversight from someone else. Great writing seldom springs from someone micromanaging: it springs from discussions, ideas, unexpected metaphors, connections, seeing old things in new ways, and form a plenitude of other places that can’t be easily described.

In “The Age of the Essay,” Paul Graham says:

Anyone can publish an essay on the Web, and it gets judged, as any writing should, by what it says, not who wrote it. Who are you to write about x? You are whatever you wrote.

Popular magazines made the period between the spread of literacy and the arrival of TV the golden age of the short story. The Web may well make this the golden age of the essay. And that’s certainly not something I realized when I started writing this.

He’s right. The most challenging writing most of my students will do isn’t even going to have the opportunity for someone else to micromanage it. The writing will increasingly be online. It will increasingly be their own decision to write or not write. As Penelope Trunk says, it will increasingly be essential for a good career. It won’t be routine. As I said above, routine work that can be codified and described in a series of steps will be exported to the lowest bidder. Valuable work will be the work nobody has dreamt up. Jobs will be “something that we each have to create.” I’m sure a lot of people will be unhappy with the change, but the secular forces moving in this direction look too great to be overcome by any individual. You surf the waves life and society throws at you, or you fall off the board and struggle. The worst cases never get back on the board and drown. I want students to have the best possible shot at staying on the board, and that means learning they can’t assume someone else is going to create a job—or an assignment—for them. They have to learn to do it themselves. They need to be creative. As Hagel quotes Mandelbaum and Friedman as saying, “Continuous innovation is not a luxury anymore – it is becoming a necessity.” I worry that too few students are getting the message.

I think of some of my friends who are unemployed, and when I ask them what they do all day, they say they spend time searching for a job, hanging out, watching TV. To me, this is crazy. If I were unemployed, I’d be writing, or learning Python, or posting on Craigslist with offers to work doing whatever I can imagine doing. The last thing I’d be doing is watching TV. In other words, I’d be doing something similar to what I’m doing now, even when I am employed: building skills, trying new things, and not merely sitting around waiting for good things to come to me. They won’t. Good things are the things one makes. Most of my employed friends seem to get this on some level, or have found their way into protected niches like teaching or nursing. I wonder if my unemployed friends had teachers and professors who forced them to think for themselves, or if they had teachers and professors who were content to hand them well-defined assignments that didn’t require much thinking about the “how” instead of the “what.”

"Free Agents," the TV show, proves itself dumb in the first three minutes through the "slut" debate

Free Agents, the TV show, begins with two characters in bed, and one opens a full condom drawer. The guy sees and says something like, “What are you—a slut?” The woman replies, and they have an excruciating discussion whose underlying content is a typical rehash of an ancient calumny about female sexuality. The scene is neither funny nor genuine, and the two problems are related.

If your characters are old enough to have a B.A., they’re old enough not to care about the idea of the “slut.” Younger characters, especially ones in high school, might still be interested in whether someone is a “slut,” but that’s mostly because a) teenagers are projecting uncertainty and fear regarding their own sexuality on others, b) many have parents who engage in various forms of daughter-guarding and other forms of shame internalization, and c) girls, especially, will use social approbation and shaming as a form of mate guarding behavior. If older characters like those in Free Agents are still concerned about the same problems as high school students, they’ve not matured enough to even be interesting. Even a show like Californication, whatever its other flaws, has moved beyond the “slut” question.

Like Free Agents, it’s also about someone with a stunted emotional life, but at least Californication is intellectually honest enough not to go for the “slut” question. Rather, it assumes that people who want to do it, do it, and people who don’t, don’t, which seems like the way the world is heading. Besides, by college graduation or thereabouts, most people will never really know about their partners’ past, and, again, by the time one graduates from college or reaches the age at which college graduation occurs, everyone is someone’s sloppy seconds. The median age for first sex in the United Sates is somewhere in the neighborhood of 17 (see Google for more); by the time a person hits their 30s, asking number questions becomes pointless if potentially amusing.

I’m not annoyed only because the concept behind word “slut” does, as Mark Liberman put it, “project bad associations based on a framework of ideas that I don’t endorse.” Even if you do do endorse that framework, endorsing it with someone you’re about to have sex with probably isn’t the optimal place to engage the issue. It only makes you look like a hypocrite and a fool, but, from what I can tell, that wasn’t what Free Agents was going for. It played the issue straight. To go back to Liberman—who is himself also writing about a TV show, albeit Sex and the City—”The word slut itself clearly retains strong negative connotations, quite apart from one’s opinions about sexual morality, but such things can change if enough people want them to.” TV shows aren’t necessarily a medium that promotes social and intellectual

I can see why TV show writers might go for the “slut”: they think it can create dramatic tension. But it’s a false dramatic tension, which is why I said the issue isn’t “genuine,” and false dramatic tension leads to jokes that aren’t funny either, because such jokes don’t engage any substantive ideas; really funny jokes often or usually do. Pretty much every single person with the proverbial half a brain has condoms around. Their presence doesn’t mean anything more than, “I’m prepared for the best,” which is a refreshing change compared to people who are prepared for the worst. It would be stranger if the woman in the show was single and didn’t have condoms.

So the “slut” problem reduces to one of two issues: the writers are lazy, so they introduce being a “slut” or not to create artificial tension; or the writers are dumb because they deal with a dead issue. Neither bodes well for the show. But it does hold an important lesson for narrative writers, whether visual or written: don’t focus on dead or dying issues. Focus on live ones. Feminists have been arguing against the “slut” framework of ideas since at least the 1960s if not earlier; Leora Tanenbaum wrote whole book on the subject, subtitled “Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation.” People’s behavior, if not their rhetoric, shows the issue to be dead. So instead of using it, why not skate to where the puck is going, instead of where it’s been?

The question is supposed to be rhetorical, but I’m going to answer it anyway: knowing the puck’s present location is easy. Knowing where it’s going is much, much harder, and a lot of the big media businesses, including TV, are too big and too expensive to take major risks on the unknown. Better to leave those big risks to dingy writers living in their parents’ basements or hiding from the real world in graduate school. That solution probably worked pretty well in a pre-Internet era. By now, however, people who want to take intellectual, social, and artistic risks can coalesce on the Internet. While Hollywood dithers and debates about sluts, the innovators are moving or have moved online. Don’t be surprised if the audience follows. And if you’re the kind of person who wants to be in the vanguard, don’t watch so much TV. Check out the bookstores and libraries instead. You’ll find it there. TV used to be the medium of the future, but in some ways it feels like the medium of the past.


EDIT: It appears Free Agents is heading towards cancellation. I’m tempted to say something like puerile like “good riddance,” but the problems described above transcend this show and will no doubt be repeated by successors, in more or less subtle guises.

“Free Agents,” the TV show, proves itself dumb in the first three minutes through the “slut” debate

Free Agents, the TV show, begins with two characters in bed, and one opens a full condom drawer. The guy sees and says something like, “What are you—a slut?” The woman replies, and they have an excruciating discussion whose underlying content is a typical rehash of an ancient calumny about female sexuality. The scene is neither funny nor genuine, and the two problems are related.

If your characters are old enough to have a B.A., they’re old enough not to care about the idea of the “slut.” Younger characters, especially ones in high school, might still be interested in whether someone is a “slut,” but that’s mostly because a) teenagers are projecting uncertainty and fear regarding their own sexuality on others, b) many have parents who engage in various forms of daughter-guarding and other forms of shame internalization, and c) girls, especially, will use social approbation and shaming as a form of mate guarding behavior. If older characters like those in Free Agents are still concerned about the same problems as high school students, they’ve not matured enough to even be interesting. Even a show like Californication, whatever its other flaws, has moved beyond the “slut” question.

Like Free Agents, it’s also about someone with a stunted emotional life, but at least Californication is intellectually honest enough not to go for the “slut” question. Rather, it assumes that people who want to do it, do it, and people who don’t, don’t, which seems like the way the world is heading. Besides, by college graduation or thereabouts, most people will never really know about their partners’ past, and, again, by the time one graduates from college or reaches the age at which college graduation occurs, everyone is someone’s sloppy seconds. The median age for first sex in the United Sates is somewhere in the neighborhood of 17 (see Google for more); by the time a person hits their 30s, asking number questions becomes pointless if potentially amusing.

I’m not annoyed only because the concept behind word “slut” does, as Mark Liberman put it, “project bad associations based on a framework of ideas that I don’t endorse.” Even if you do do endorse that framework, endorsing it with someone you’re about to have sex with probably isn’t the optimal place to engage the issue. It only makes you look like a hypocrite and a fool, but, from what I can tell, that wasn’t what Free Agents was going for. It played the issue straight. To go back to Liberman—who is himself also writing about a TV show, albeit Sex and the City—”The word slut itself clearly retains strong negative connotations, quite apart from one’s opinions about sexual morality, but such things can change if enough people want them to.” TV shows aren’t necessarily a medium that promotes social and intellectual

I can see why TV show writers might go for the “slut”: they think it can create dramatic tension. But it’s a false dramatic tension, which is why I said the issue isn’t “genuine,” and false dramatic tension leads to jokes that aren’t funny either, because such jokes don’t engage any substantive ideas; really funny jokes often or usually do. Pretty much every single person with the proverbial half a brain has condoms around. Their presence doesn’t mean anything more than, “I’m prepared for the best,” which is a refreshing change compared to people who are prepared for the worst. It would be stranger if the woman in the show was single and didn’t have condoms.

So the “slut” problem reduces to one of two issues: the writers are lazy, so they introduce being a “slut” or not to create artificial tension; or the writers are dumb because they deal with a dead issue. Neither bodes well for the show. But it does hold an important lesson for narrative writers, whether visual or written: don’t focus on dead or dying issues. Focus on live ones. Feminists have been arguing against the “slut” framework of ideas since at least the 1960s if not earlier; Leora Tanenbaum wrote whole book on the subject, subtitled “Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation.” People’s behavior, if not their rhetoric, shows the issue to be dead. So instead of using it, why not skate to where the puck is going, instead of where it’s been?

The question is supposed to be rhetorical, but I’m going to answer it anyway: knowing the puck’s present location is easy. Knowing where it’s going is much, much harder, and a lot of the big media businesses, including TV, are too big and too expensive to take major risks on the unknown. Better to leave those big risks to dingy writers living in their parents’ basements or hiding from the real world in graduate school. That solution probably worked pretty well in a pre-Internet era. By now, however, people who want to take intellectual, social, and artistic risks can coalesce on the Internet. While Hollywood dithers and debates about sluts, the innovators are moving or have moved online. Don’t be surprised if the audience follows. And if you’re the kind of person who wants to be in the vanguard, don’t watch so much TV. Check out the bookstores and libraries instead. You’ll find it there. TV used to be the medium of the future, but in some ways it feels like the medium of the past.


EDIT: It appears Free Agents is heading towards cancellation. I’m tempted to say something like puerile like “good riddance,” but the problems described above transcend this show and will no doubt be repeated by successors, in more or less subtle guises.

Bare: On Women, Dancing, Sex, and Power — Elisabeth Eaves

Bare has lots of good parts but goes on too long, follows too many random tangents (the “Kim” character doesn’t illustrate anything), and repeats itself too often. But I also liked it and learned some things from it I might not have otherwise, and Eaves is usually a perceptive reader of both her own and larger social hypocrisy. She seems sensitive, or she adopts a sensitive persona in the book. I only wish she’d taken more economics classes; the big thing she’s missing is micro 111 and 201. She’s missing game theory. And evolutionary biology and psychology. Those taken together explain a lot about the double standards she justifiably complains about. Take this section, about Eaves’s dawning sexual awareness:

I had this notion until my teens that my body was my own. How to clothe it, how to gratify it, whether to impregnate it—I had believed these to be matters of personal choice. And I had a notion that the rules of society should be applied fairly to all. With the discovery of a sexual morality especially for girls, equality suddenly seemed to have been an idea meant to go the way of Santa Claus. My shock and anger would have been difficult to overstate.

She’s right. But the main disappointment of Bare is that it doesn’t go deeper into why these social forces exist, especially in the discrepancy between what parents want for their offspring and what offspring want for themselves. Girls bear the greater cost of pregnancy, and society believes that they are at greater risk of sexual predators, so parents take much greater efforts to restrict that sexuality (for more on this, see, for example, “The Daughter-Guarding Hypothesis“). If you want to deal with double standards, attack parents first, since a lot of the double standards are parentally inflicted. When parents say, “You can’t go out looking like that,” they usually mean, “you’re sending signals about sexual availability and interest that I disapprove of.” Almost no parents say the second one, however. If you could get them to, you might at least move toward greater honesty. Good luck using this vector, however.

And girls will sometimes impose double standards on themselves. Here’s another example of a spot where Eaves notes this but doesn’t go deeper:

Fraternities permitted the consumption of alcohol, whereas sororities did not. Guys could have girls over to fraternity houses any time of the day or night, but girls could have guys over only under heavy restrictions. In my sorority we could invite boys to our rooms only on Tuesday evenings from seven to ten, and most girls had three or four roommates. The upshot was that boys never made the walk of shame. The rules of the Greek system upheld an intricate web of double standards. Sororities had to have a resident ‘house mother,’ a supervising adult; the fraternities had no equivalent. When I asked other sorority girls about this rule, they told me that a house mother was required to get around an old law that classified a group of women living together as a brothel.

But sorority girls (and, perhaps, the parents who pay for their college experience) are willing to put up with “heavy restrictions”. Why doesn’t a sorority house offer a frat-style experience? If the market is there, girls will join it. That girls are willing to accept sorority rules shows that those same girls are getting something out of them, even if they complain. Think about reveled preferences here: if what people say and what they do diverge, look at what they do first.

If girls refused to enter a system that “upheld an intricate web of double standards,” the system would change. Yet they don’t. Note that I’m not advocating for double standards or saying they should exist: I believe the opposite. But Eaves should look harder for what powers and purposes these guys of social rules serve, who is enforcing them, and why, in the face of logic and the rhetoric of freedom, they persist. As I said previously, I think you can trace a lot of double-standard behavior to parents, and until you deal with that issue, you basically haven’t dealt with anything substantive. You’re making the same arguments women have been making since at least the 1960s and probably earlier. Also, I’m not convinced other sorority girls are a sound source of legal advice, or that such rules about multiple females living together would pass contemporary constitutional muster, especially if a lawsuit regarding them found its way in front of a female judge.

Plus, I can imagine what would happen to a fraternity that forbade its members from having women in their rooms: the fraternity would quickly have no members, since so much of its real purpose is ensuring sex to its members. That women don’t respond similarly en-masse to sorority rules shows that sorority girls are getting something; I could make up stories as to what (many are probably uncomfortable with having strange or partially clothed men wandering their halls), and so could you, but the important thing is starting the analysis.

This leads toward questions of how one can change larger cultures. Eaves does engage those; she starts with whether she’ll speak to others about her profession. She mostly doesn’t:

I was nowhere near as open as Zoe, a dancer with whom I became friends. She believed firmly in telling everyone. Her parents knew, as did her sister, boyfriend, and most anyone she met. I told her once that I didn’t tell certain people because I didn’t want to deal with their judgments and preconceptions. ‘That’s why you have to tell them!’ she said. ‘How are those stereotypes going to change if people like you and me don’t talk about what we do?’ She had an energy for changing minds that I lacked.

Zoe is right: maybe if people were more open about what they actually did, the many stigmas around sexuality would fade over time: but by hiding what one actually does, one allows assumptions to go unchallenged and to calcify into convention. By not speaking of then, Eaves lets the double standard get infinitesimally stronger, and by speaking of it in her writing, she at least makes it slightly weaker. You can’t complain about the double standards and simultaneously lack the “energy for changing minds” someone else has. And it makes sense that Zoe told “most anyone she met.” In high school, the essential question is, “What kind of music do you like?”, in college it’s, “What’s your major?” and once you leave the educational system it’s, “What do you do?” I don’t hide my professions. To do so would seem to hide an essential part of myself.

Still, the mere fact of being a stripper causes some change in the person. Here’s Eaves discussing some:

Stripping put me in a new world with new conventions. Having ditched the moral framework of the outside world, I was now ethically adrift where nudity and sexuality were concerned. I actually felt as if I had divorced myself from the moral norm years previously, simply by growing up and becoming sexual. But when I entered pink-and-red stripperland, my departure became official. Having given up the old norms I needed new ones, and where none were provided, I had to make my own.

Good. That comes from page 88. Two hundred pages later, from 291 – 292, we’re still there:

The sexual morality I grew up with was rife with inconsistencies. It had words to insult promiscuous women but not men, it ticketed strippers but not their customers. It imposed on women, far more than men, an intricate code of modesty that came down to a few inches of fabric, and then read a woman’s clothing or lack thereof as an indication of character. I didn’t want the morality that said I must cover my body, and that if I didn’t I was responsible for whatever came my way. I didn’t want the morality that said I should be coy and shameful about sex.

Again: there’s lots of “what” but very little “why,” which is disappointing. Why do strippers accept a sexual morality that “tickets” them (note the nice word, implying just the right amount of censure). If Eaves doesn’t want the morality—and I can’t blame her—she should be looking for more about why the morality exists. She also understands her power—”Being young, female, and attractive was one long bout of intoxication, with all the dizzy pleasure and vulnerability the word implies. In the careening, can’t-get-off, sex-saturated roller coaster from puberty to adulthood, I discovered I could hold sway over boys and men”—but not why people might use different means of finding what they want. She doesn’t like placing lonely hearts ads:

A column inch of newspaper, struck me as a sterile way to find someone compatible, whether for life or just an affair. I didn’t think of myself as romantic, but when it came to meeting men, I was attached to ideas of chemistry and coincidence. I was convinced that sex and love would follow naturally from other things I did—work, hobbies, or friends. By definition they would be unplanned and messy, but all the more exciting for it. I couldn’t understand why I would want to engineer an affair as though I were buying or selling a used bed.

Spoken truly like someone who’s attractive enough to have plenty of offers to accept or reject. The rest of us need to gin up more offers and do what it takes to do so. It’s easy to be “attached to ideas of chemistry and coincidence” when you’re young and attractive. Lots of men will offer their services, so to speak, and she gets to pick from them. For others—who are either bored with the standard offers or looking for something better—she doesn’t speak or acknowledge why they might do what they do. I know very attractive women who’ve signed up for online dating because they’re tired of the men they meet in their everyday lives. Eaves seems unusually lucky with “work, hobbies, or friends.”

Bear in mind, too, that Bare has over-readings and inconsistencies of its own, as in this description of one of Eaves’s boyfriends who has admitted to hiring a prostitute:

For men to pay for sex as a matter of course seemed to show a profound insecurity or worry about women—that women wouldn’t want to sleep with him without payment, or that when they did they wouldn’t be kind and acquiescent enough, or that a man’s and a woman’s sexual wishes simply couldn’t coincide. I also thought paying for sex indicated a subtle sense of guilt—if a man was uncomfortable facing the women he had sex with, he could pay for the promise that he wouldn’t have to.

Alternately, it’s possible that men paying for sex doesn’t mean anything, and that women who dance for sex doesn’t mean anything more or less than any other profession. She doesn’t consider that the men might just want to get laid. Not everything has to mean something. That would make for a much shorter book, of course, since books about sexuality thrive on analysis even when that analysis might not be warranted. And, sometimes, “a man’s and a woman’s sexual wishes simply [don’t] coincide”: how many women want a tall, handsome, wealthy alpha male with an impressive job who could get any woman he wants but chooses her? How many men want a perky young pneumatic blond with who is, as Ludacris once put it, “a lady in the street but a freak in the bed,” and who also thinks he’s witty and looks up to him and doesn’t make the very reasonable demands women in the real world tend to want?

Maybe Eaves isn’t really unhappy about a subtle sense of guilt: maybe she’s actually unhappy that sex-for-money subverts her own sexual power by making it easier for men to obtain a lot of what they want quickly. She has her own sexual morality that might not be much better than the one she derides. She can’t or doesn’t want to imagine why people would use dating services, and the same is true of prostitution. By writing what she wrote, Eaves has helped ensure that more men will lie about the hookers they’ve hired, since they know they’ll be judged by women like Eaves.

Consider this, on the same subject:

What angered me, specifically, was his easy acceptance of a buyer-seller relationship between men and women. In some ways I came to regard Paul as I would a customer: someone cynical, who didn’t place a high value on sexual honesty, who was easily manipulated by female facades. I could never bring myself to trust him completely. And though I wasn’t fully conscious of it, on some level I decided that he wasn’t due the respect I would have accorded a different kind of man. For me, Paul symbolized men who preferred buying women to knowing them.

Is a “hard” acceptance somehow better? Is nattering on about morality and improvement? And maybe Paul is just a dude, not someone who should be held as a symbol for all men. This preference Eaves expresses actually indicates she doesn’t like conflating market and gift norms, or that she doesn’t like it when a man she’s with does it but doesn’t mind when she herself does. Or this is another random boundary. I suspect it’s conflating gift and market economies; lots of people have addressed this, including Lewis Hyde in The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World Geoffrey Miller in Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior. But these are issues Eaves doesn’t address: her own blindspots are there for people to see. Mine probably are too, but no one has taken the trouble to observe them.

Eaves also makes the mistake some of my freshmen do in their papers: she assumes there is some unified thing called “society” “culture,” or “the media,” which gives her and others a single message. It’s not that easy. Words we use to flatten the dialectical nature of collective individual desires, like “society” or “the media” leave so much out of them. This is one lesson of Michel Foucault, however problematic some of his other comments might be. Eaves, for example, listens to this idea:

There was very little stigma attached to being a passive sex object. Images of the legs, breasts, and lips of strangers suffused my life thoroughly, from billboards to magazines to television. Far from shaming the bodies’ owners, society made them starlets, supermodels, and video queens, glorifying them with money and fame. Yet to actively pursue sex-object status—to say, ‘Okay, I agree, please look at me’—in this I felt as if there was reproach. The difference between a stripper and a woman modeling bathing suits was that the stripper acknowledged her intention to arouse, whereas the model could pretend ignorance.

Do most people make the “passive sex object” and active pursuit of “sex-object status?” Maybe they do, but it seems like an unlikely distinction to me. Plus, as I said in the paragraph above there is no “society” inflicting a sole message on you. There are only individuals who respond. It sounds like Eaves is wrestling with her own feelings and her own internalized demons and then re-projecting those on a nebulous “society” at large. The experiences of someone growing up in a small town with a highly religious family probably experiences a much different “society” than Kate Winslet’s children, since the actress “talks to her kids about same-sex feelings — reminding even liberal parents to go beyond pink and blue.”

Those two are extremes. Eaves probably grew up somewhere in the middle; she says this about when she starts having sex as a teenager:

Sex also mitigated an asphyxiating boredom. I lived on a dead-end street on a hillside, where every house sat in the middle of its own private patch of green, with views of the water and the mountains. The street was surrounded for miles by detached houses and an occasional park or school. It took about an hour on city buses to get downtown, and I had no car. [. . .] It was beautiful, peaceful, and the urban equivalent of a sensory deprivation chamber. [. . .] Boys, though, were a world to be discovered. While I waited for my life to begin, I had sex.

Suburbs are boring. That’s why parents move there: to protect their children from perceived dangers. But they don’t realize that, to a 15-year-old, the boringness of suburbia makes life itself look boring and pointless. No wonder so many yearn for college. Paul Graham gets this too:

If I could go back and give my thirteen year old self some advice, the main thing I’d tell him would be to stick his head up and look around. I didn’t really grasp it at the time, but the whole world we lived in was as fake as a Twinkie. Not just school, but the entire town. Why do people move to suburbia? To have kids! So no wonder it seemed boring and sterile. The whole place was a giant nursery, an artificial town created explicitly for the purpose of breeding children.

Where I grew up, it felt as if there was nowhere to go, and nothing to do. This was no accident. Suburbs are deliberately designed to exclude the outside world, because it contains things that could endanger children.

And as for the schools, they were just holding pens within this fake world.

Notice how Graham goes a little further than Eaves, to the “why:” “Suburbs are deliberately designed to exclude the outside world, because it contains things that could endanger children.” Eaves’s parents, whatever they did right or wrong, presumably thought they were doing the right thing. She was also doing the right thing, since sex does quite effectively mitigate (some might even say “relieve”) “asphyxiating boredom.” But she’s old enough to be able to empathize with her parents—to ask, “Why did they do what they do?” She’s smart enough to empathize with men like the hooker-hiring boyfriend. Unlike, say, Norah Vincent in Self-Made Man, however, she doesn’t. It’s too bad, because the stretch is so easily within her reach.

Bare has its problems, and it has too many weak sentences like this one: “He was tall and angular, with chiseled features, pale skin, and black hair and eyes.” It’s too much description and too little analysis. But it’s fun, and it offers access to a world not easily entered by outsiders. At the very least Eaves starts the conversation, and she does so in a way better than how many others would try to finish it.

September 2011 links: Jobs, leads, feminism, the new pants revue, shoulds and wants, demand for software engineers, plagarism, and more

* This is how you catch someone’s attention with the lead: “I became a feminist the day my sixth-grade math teacher dismembered and spit on a white rose, telling us, ‘This is you after you have sex.’

* The shoulds and the wants, highly recommended and possibly related to the link immediately above. See also the penultimate link.

* One Path to Better Jobs: More Density in Cities.

* My job is to watch dreams die.

* The New Pants Revue, by Bruce Sterling: “Since I’m a blogger and therefore a modern thought-leader type, my favorite maker of pants sent me some new-model pants in the mail.”:

I should explain now why I have been wearing “5.11 Tactical” trousers for a decade. It’s pretty simple: before that time, I wore commonplace black jeans, for two decades. Jeans and tactical pants are the same school of garment. They’re both repurposed American Western gear. I’m an American and it’s common for us to re-adapt our frontier inventions.”

If I didn’t live in Arizona, where pants are appropriate maybe three weeks of the year, I would’ve already ordered a pair. I, too, have too much gear.

(Hat tip Charlie Stross.)

* Demand for software developers is still high.

* Turnitin: Arming both sides in the Plagiarism War. The term “plagiarism war” is part of the problem: it’s not a “war,” and students and instructors shouldn’t be adversaries. I don’t spend a huge amount of time hunting for plagiarism, mostly under the theory that the primary person hurt is in fact the plagiarist, who isn’t developing the writing skills he or she will one day need. The market punishes people without skills harshly enough, as so many of the unemployed have discovered the hard way in the last three years. If I find plagiarism in students papers, I deal with it, but I wonder if schools would be better off adopting honor codes and expecting students to abide by them, rather than militarizing the issue, even metaphorically, and hunting for violators.

* Someone found this blog by searching for “french sex games.” I suspect they were disappointed, although I also wonder what else they found.

* More on that ever-popular topic, “Why does the female orgasm exist? A popular theory has been criticized as male-centric, but it might have unexpected feminist results.”

* Two thousand years in one chart, or, “we make a lot of stuff these days.”

The Magician King — Lev Grossman

I love The Magicians. I like The Magician King.

The Magician King has many of the qualities that made The Magicians special: twists on standard fantasy tropes; impressive language in many sentences, although not quite as impressive its predecessor; and a consistent willingness to instill a sense of wonder about the world and about what the characters might be able to accomplish. Happy endings aren’t foreordained, which is to be admired.

But The Magician King lacks the surprising urgency of The Magicians and feels like another lap after the race is over. Consider a passage from page six, after Quentin, Julia, Janet, and Eliot have returned to Fillory as benevolent if distracted monarchs. They’re hunting a magic hare who can see the future, which sounds like a bum gig; life’s excitement comes from not knowing what happens next:

The point wasn’t really to catch the hare. The point was—what was the point? What were they looking for? Back at the castle their lives were overflowing with pleasure. There was a whole staff whose job it was to make sure that every day of their lives was absolutely perfect. It was like being the only guests at a twenty-star hotel that you never had to leave.

Does this sound familiar? If you read The Magicians, it should, since The Magicians is endlessly concerned with the questing for meaning that can’t be imposed from without. I’m going to spend the next couple paragraphs looking at similar rhetoric from The Magicians; if this sort of thing bores you, skip to the paragraph that starts with a series of bolded words. Rhetorical comparisons aren’t everyone’s forte, but they’re essential for understanding how The Magician King is too often a rehash of the same problems presented in The Magicians but without a new angle on those problems.

In The Magicians, Quentin thinks:

You just had to get some idea of what mattered and what doesn’t, and how much, and try not to be scared of the stuff that doesn’t. Put it in perspective. Or something like that. Otherwise what was the point?

“What was the point” is a decent question for someone with an adolescent temperament. Quentin spends the rest of the novel ineffectively trying to answer the question. He doesn’t answer it, not perfectly, but somewhat understands that you make the “point” for yourself. You make meaning for yourself, because meaning can’t be imposed by external social forces, and death itself gives meaning to life. One would think the sheer realism of The Magicians’s end would show Quentin as much. When the party reaches Ember’s Tomb at the end of The Magicians, two large, evidently hostile animals charge, and we find our hero panicking: “Oh my God, Quentin thought, this is really happening. This is really happening.” You don’t make something merely by saying it, although the prospect of death wakes him from the upper-middle class reverie where he’s been living. Death, especially violent death, is not beautiful or noble—it is terrifying and shocking. It reminds you of why so many people move to the quiet suburbs and get jobs in middle management. Beats the hell out of getting the hell beaten out of you.

The repetition of “This is really happening” is like a refrain designed to keep Quentin awake. He watches the death of the Ferret and thinks, “He wasn’t ready for this. This wasn’t what he’d come here for.” He wasn’t ready then and he never will be—unlike Alice, whose maturity contrasts with his throughout The Magicians. She says, “[…] don’t talk to me about death. You don’t know anything about it.” She’s right. The disappointing thing is that he still doesn’t in The Magician King. He hasn’t internalized the central fact that death is connected to finding meaning because death and its predecessor aging can’t be avoided. I am not opposed to characters who don’t realize this; I am opposed to characters who don’t realize this, have a series of events that should cause an epiphany, appear to realize it, and then forget that they’ve realized it in the next novel.

Early in The Magicians, Quentin is still in a mostly mundane reality and thinks that

He’d spent too long being disappointed by the world—he’d spent so many years pining for something like this, some proof that the real world wasn’t the only world, and coping with the overwhelming evidence that it in fact was. He wasn’t going to be suckered in just like that. It was like finding a clue that somebody you’d buried and mourned wasn’t really dead after all.

And now, in the time of The Magician King, he’s a king in Fillory and still dissatisfied. You can’t get no satisfaction, Quentin, but the problem eventually shifts from the world’s fault to your own. He is still “looking for something else. He didn’t know what it was.” You were looking for something else in Brooklyn and now you’re looking for something else in Fillory. No one, not even a Seeing Hare, can tell Quentin. Whenever “Life was good” for Quentin, it was time to fuck it up for no particular reason. Seeing someone fuck up a perfectly good life through understandable hubris and dumb social dynamics is thrilling and sickening once, as it is in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Seeing someone do so twice is just daft.

In The Magician King, Quentin is still in awe of where he is: “You really knew you were in a magical fantasy otherworld when a beautiful woman wearing a skimpy dress made of leaves suddenly jumped out of a tree.” But he’s been seeing magic constantly for, presumably, years. Are talking animals not enough? Still, the novel’s fidelity to the bureaucratic grit of life is impressive—Janet says of Dryads, “I spend enough time listening to them bitch about land allocation.” Ruling Fillory becomes associated with petty zoning squabbles of the sort you can find at City Hall if you’re so inclined. That Grossman includes such ideas is part of what makes The Magicians and its sequel special. But it also raises expectations, and when he includes something that’s wrong, it’s disquieting, as with this:

Fillory wasn’t England. For one thing the population was tiny—there couldn’t have been more than ten thousand humans in the whole country, plus that many talking animals and dwarves and spirits and giants and such.

A population that small wouldn’t be sufficient to get Fillory into medieval-level specialization; at best, 20,000 people could support a slightly elevated hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Plus, why is the land so infertile that it can only feed 10,000 people? Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the Malthusian paradox ensured that populations grew to approximately the size of the agricultural capacity of the land itself. With only 10,000 people and 10,000 magical non-people, there couldn’t have been much arable land, and certainly not enough to sustain any kind of specialization network (for more on similar topics, see, for example, Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy and Clark’s A Farewell to Alms, along with the vast corpus of economic and historical literature about historical development patterns and the Industrial Revolution). Fillory is big enough to have a navy. Countries of 20,000 don’t even have an army, and the knowledge necessary to grow a ship-building industry must span thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people. Suddenly, I’m jolted out of a fictional universe and into the various economics textbooks I’ve read by a seemingly trivial detail.

And this isn’t the only scene of questionable economics. Quentin goes on a quest to collect taxes from an outer island with a single-digit population, and while there an uncanny resident says:

Tomorrow I’ll take you out to see the gold beetles. They’re amazing: they eat dirt and poop out gold ore. Their nests are made of gold!

If a source of apparently infinite gold is available via a short ship ride from the mainland, the logical thing to do is to begin farming and set up a trading route. Why hasn’t anyone done so? The Spanish imported so much silver from the Americas in the age of colonization that some economists believe it caused inflation in the European economy. People are very good at acting on incentives and exploiting commodities. Why aren’t the Fillorians? It could be because the novel states that there’s an abundance of everything, again for reasons that aren’t obvious, but that’s not a terribly satisfying explanation.

You could get over these errors and others by waving your hand and saying, “It’s magical”—Quentin says “Magic was part of the ecosystem”—but it still rankles in a book devoted to showing the “real” side of magical living. These are minor details, but they stand out in a book devoted to realism.

Quentin has a small-l liberal, educated, and modern knowledge of how group formation works (a hilarious sample of his liberalism: “If I were a Fillorian I would depose me as an aristocratic parasite”), as shown by his unwillingness to identify with the putative patriotism embodied in a tapestry

that depicted a marvelously appointed griffin frozen in the act of putting a company of foot soldiers to flight. It was supposed to symbolize the triumph of some group of long-dead people over some other group of long-dead people whom nobody had liked, but for some reason the griffin had cocked its head to one side in the midst of its rampage and was gazing directly out of its woven universe at the viewer as if to say, yes, granted, I’m good at this. But is it really the best use of my time?

“The triumph of some group of long-dead people over some other group of long-dead people:” your own fears, prejudices, and beliefs will one day probably appear the same way to many others. Are your beliefs so strong and important that the issues they represent will still be important 100 years from now? Five hundred? A thousand? Or will you be another long-dead person of limited importance, with ridiculous but firmly held allegiances to minor causes that turn out to be historical blips?

Many parts of The Magician King are funny: “Quentin had some idea that Australians were fun-loving and easy-going, and if that was true he could see why Poppy had gotten the hell out of Australia.” Quentin draws his sword, but he has trouble: “Nothing made you look like more of a dick than standing there trying to find the end of your scabbard with the tip of your sword.” Although The Magician King is, alas, less sexed than its predecessor, one doesn’t need Freud to realize Quentin is talking about more than a sword, especially when he thinks: “Let somebody else be the hero. He’d had his happy ending” (if that isn’t enough, Eliot also makes a sword-related double entendre on page 29). I guess it takes a while to recharge after a happy ending, even for a king.

The humor both conceals and reveals vital truths. Quentin has never really been the hero, so thinking he should let somebody else be the hero is presumptuous. This is played for comedy, and successfully. The comedy naturally and appropriately falls away as the novel progresses into darker days, much as it does in The Magicians, but the jokes make the novel fun. So do the moments of self-recognition, like this one:

Quentin couldn’t think who Benedict reminded him of until he realized that this was what he had probably looked like to other people when he was sixteen. Fear of everybody and everything, hidden behind a mask of contempt, with the greatest contempt of all reserved for himself

Quentin’s diagnosis the problems of others more easily than his own: “Maps of places, rather than actual places, were obviously where young master Benedict preferred to live.” Replace “Maps of places” with “The Internet” and “actual places” with “the real world,” and you’ve got a decent description of a lot of contemporary adolescents. The novel is very good at these mappings onto the real world.

The “good,” however, is not consistent; even the novel’s first line has an “almost, but not quite” feel: “Quentin rode a gray horse with white socks named Dauntless.” Is Dauntless the name of the white socks or the gray horse? The context makes it obvious, but I had to double check. There are also reflections of contemporary society—the quartet, who are listlessly hunting a magic rabbit, “moved in silence, slowly, together but lost in their separate thoughts.” Rather like people and their cell phones: if you look around, you’ll often find couples or groups all of whom are looking into their phones, as if searching crystal balls for answers. Do they find them? I sometimes want to ask. But I don’t. Usually.

There aren’t as many of those spectacular sentences as there were in The Magicians; there are some, like this: “Casually, like she was calling over a waiter, Julia summoned a tiny songbird to her wrist and raised it up to her ear.” Nice: the metaphor makes magic seem normal, a part of her life, which contrasts with Quentin’s continued shock at magic. The magic blends with the technological; a paragraph later, Quentin notices how Julia “was always giving and getting little secret messages from the talking animals. It was like she was on a different wireless network from the rest of them.” Talking animals and wireless networks correspond to fantasy/fairy tale and to science fiction / literary fiction, but these two sentences join them. If you’ve ever accidentally tried connecting an 802.11b device to an 802.11n network, you’ll understand the frustration of knowing that everyone around you can use, theoretically, up to 130 Mbs / second while you’re stuck at 11 Mbs / second (Grossman makes the technological metaphorical; I extend the metaphor). A few days ago, my class was talking about James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues,” and I wrote on the board that music functions like TCP/IP. Did anyone notice? I’m not sure.

The wireless network comparison reminds me of this description from The Magicians, of Eliot: “That guy was a mystery wrapped in an enigma and crudely stapled to a ticking fucking time bomb. He was either going to hit somebody or start a blog.” The equivalence between hitting someone and starting a blog, which one senses many do because they wish they had the courage to hit someone, is so biting, so surprising. More surprising than the wireless network, however appropriate the wireless network comparison is.

Grossman hides a lot in a small space. The Magician King opens in Fillory while The Magicians closes in New York. That gap is filled in swiftly: “But then he and the others had pulled themselves together again and gone back to Fillory. They faced their fears and their losses and took their places on the four thrones of Castle Whitespire and were made kings and queens.” There’s a whole novel in those lines. The passage is also strange because pulling themselves together has never been a strong suite for the collected magicians; they seem much better at tearing each other pointlessly apart.

You could argue that much of this review consists of quibbles, small points, and things easily ignored. You’d be partially right. Taken on their own, many of the things I’ve written about are unimportant. Taken together, they begin to form a pattern. I don’t expend this kind of energy on every good but somewhat disappointing book that comes my way; most I don’t write about at all, let alone at this length. I’m writing about this one because of how good The Magicians was. You don’t hold a college athlete, even an accomplished one, to the same standards as an Olympian, and The Magician King should be competing at the Olympic level but instead settles for keeping one eye on the NCAA rankings, hoping to make it to Nationals. That’s not quite ambitious enough, however impressive competing at the college level might be.

In The Magicians, Julia was an object of Quentin’s misdirected adolescent lust at the start and reappeared at the end, riding a broomstick and rescuing Quentin from himself. Quentin does need to be rescued from himself routinely; this pattern holds in The Magician King. Hell, Julia even says, “Sometimes you just have to do things, Quentin [. . .] You spend too much of your time waiting.” Yes. We know.

Her story takes up a large narrative chunk of The Magicians, which is really two threads in two separate time registers: Quentin’s, moving forward on his self-conscious quest, and Julia’s regarding her progression as a magician outside the Brakebills track. But her story lacks urgency. In an interview, Grossman said: “It was almost an engineering project to retrofit that particular timeline. Because in Magician King, we go over the same period of time that happened in The Magicians, and we fit Julia’s story in there.” The engineering shows where it should be hidden, and, more than that, it feels. Since you—the reader—already know Julia becomes a magician, there’s not much narrative tension until the scene where she loses some of her humanity (which I won’t describe further here, though it’s shocking and powerful). Otherwise, she’s going through a bizarro-world version of what Quentin has already done. Since we know she learns magic, the means of getting there aren’t all that important. Neither are the various somewhat arbitrary hoops she goes through, which resemble the spiraling downward of despair one sees in drug addiction narratives. The culmination of the narrative is strong, but the getting there is too long and feels too much like padding. Or engineering, if you prefer.

More on that in the next section.

Don’t read the rest of this post if spoilers irritate you. A friend wrote to say this, and only this, in an e-mail with the subject line “Just finished the Magician King:”

Magical fox-rape cum… really???!!!

The worst.

I’m actually not opposed to the scene my friend is referencing: it is hard to read and vile, but then so is rape, and rape is part of the world, and the world should be the novelist’s subject. I think my friend is fixated on a scene she would’ve respected or accepted in a different context—a context that was a main story, not a subsidiary one. The scene is the culmination of Julia’s powers and makes us understand what she’s given up, so to speak, to get where she is. It’s a powerful point. But the temporal shifting of the scene, from Julia’s distant past to her present, isn’t as important as it should be because it’s grafted onto Quentin’s saving Fillory quest. The Julia story should’ve been told in its own book, with its own details and tensions, and the larger Magician King story should’ve been a third, standalone novel. Conflating them makes an awkward chimera of a novel.

So we get a somewhat ungainly hybrid, with the false crescendo of the fox-God rape being a prelude to the true ending. It doesn’t work as well as it should. Which isn’t to say the scene doesn’t work at all: it does. It’s only disappointing because of the sense that the scene and its story could’ve been so much better—like The Magician King itself. The novel is good. As I said in the first line of this review, I like it. But The Magician King doesn’t have that essential feeling, that power, that grip that made me say to friends who like fantasy or want book recommendations, “Heard of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians? No? Get a copy.” Now those friends have heard of Lev Grossman, and they want to know how the new ones is. I tell them it’s okay—and it is—but I also ask: have you already read Philip Pullman? Ursula K. le Guin? Tolkien? Elmore Leonard? If not, start there. I wish Quentin had new problems. The world is full of unmet needs and desires. Why can’t he realize that? Read The Magician King if you have the time and inclination. But literature is very big, life is short, and sometimes incredible writers don’t produce the book you most hope for.

Well, there goes the weekend, thanks to Neal Stephenson's Reamde

I have a late Henry James novel to finish and a paper to write about it. And  paper to write on John Updike. Plus some miscellaneous other writing I should be doing. But then the UPS guy shows up with this:

And I realize: thanks to Reamde, my plans have changed. If you’re reading this and thinking, “What’s the big deal?”, I’ll just say: start with Cryptonomicon.

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