Links: Theory of mind and the novel, libraries, Patagonia, books versus natural resources, bisexual women in narrative, Seattle, and more

* Theory of Mind and The Importance of the Novel.

* Privatized libraries are working surprisingly well so far.

* Patagonia makes gear for demanding climbers and itinerant surfers. How’d it catch on with the rest of us? Short answer: people like me. Longer answer: see article.

* “Dear Science Fiction Writers: Stop Being So Pessimistic!: Neal Stephenson created the Hieroglyph Project to convince sci-fi writers to stop worrying and learn to love the future.”

* Pass the Books. Hold the Oil.

* Why Bisexual Women are TV’s Hot New Thing. (Maybe.)

* Apparently, you can’t be really French and Jewish.

* The Secret to Seattle’s Booming Downtown. See also Edward Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City.

* Let’s hope the MPAA ratings board dies; sample: “[. . .] while the MPAA board pretends to be a source of neutral and non-ideological advice to parents, it all too often reveals itself to be a velvet-glove censorship agency, seemingly devoted to reactionary and defensive cultural standards.”

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and what we’re really arguing about

There’s a fascinating moment in The Righteous Mind where Jonathan Haidt makes a point similar to one I wrote about earlier:

If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense. Keep your eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.

Compare this to my December 2010 post “What people want and what they are: religious edition:”

. . . as Julian Sanchez puts it, “a lot of our current politics has less to do with actual policy disagreements than with resolving status anxieties.” I think his overall post is right, but I suspect that people pick their preferred policies (beyond patriotism, which is his example) to signal what they’re really like or want people to believe they’re really like.

Take my favorite example, gun control: the pro-gun types want other to think of them as capable, fierce, tough, and independent. And who isn’t in favor of those things? The anti-gun types want others to think of them as community-oriented, valuing health and welfare, and caring. And who isn’t in favor of those things?

You could extend this to other fields too (tax cuts, health care, whatever the issue du jour is), and they don’t always map to a neat left/right axis. Anyone can have an opinion that signals values on complex political topics in a way they can’t about, say, theoretical physics, mostly because complex political topics often don’t have correct answers. So they can be easily used to signal values that are often divorced from whatever real conditions on the ground look like. Almost no one uses their opinions on vector calculus to signify what they most believe.

Haidt doesn’t use the word “signal,” but his idea of using moral claims to “justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to” is pretty close. This also describes why, over the past ten years, I’ve become a person much less invested in political, moral, or (many kinds of) intellectual arguments: most of those arguments aren’t really about their content, but about something else, below the surface, that doesn’t always bob up to the surface. Here’s Paul Graham on that idea in “What You Can’t Say:”

Most struggles, whatever they’re really about, will be cast as struggles between competing ideas. The English Reformation was at bottom a struggle for wealth and power, but it ended up being cast as a struggle to preserve the souls of Englishmen from the corrupting influence of Rome. It’s easier to get people to fight for an idea. And whichever side wins, their ideas will also be considered to have triumphed, as if God wanted to signal his agreement by selecting that side as the victor.

Most people seem to equate “winning” an argument in a lawyerly fashion with being intellectually right. This might be why lawyers have some of the reputation they do: they get paid primarily to construct arguments that may be specious, but that have to be convincing.

I also like to think that realizing how moral arguments really work makes me a better teacher: rather than fighting with students who bring up moral arguments, I try to ask them where their arguments come from and how they come to believe what they believe. In other words, I try to work at a higher level of abstraction—which is what Haidt is doing in The Righteous Mind.

One other point about Haidt: if you’re frustrated by “how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you,” imagine how you must act to them.

Cars and generational shift

In The Atlantic, Jordan Weissmann asks: Why Don’t Young Americans Buy Cars?. He’s responding to a New York Times article about how people my age don’t want or like cars. The NYT portrays the issue as one of marketing (“Mr. Martin is the executive vice president of MTV Scratch, a unit of the giant media company Viacom that consults with brands about connecting with consumers.” Ugh.) But I don’t think marketing is really issue: the real problem is that we’ve reached the point where cars suck as a mode of transportation for the marginal person.

Until the 1990s, car culture made sense, to some degree: space was available, exurbs weren’t so damn far from cities, and traffic in many cities wasn’t as bad as it is today. By now, we’ve seen the end-game of car culture, and its logical terminus is Southern California, where traffic is a perpetual nightmare. Going virtually anywhere can take 45 minutes or more, everyone has to have a car because everyone else has a car, and cars are pretty much the only transportation game in town. Urban height limits and other zoning rules prevent the development of really dense developments that might encourage busses or rail. In Southern California, you’re pretty much stuck with lousy car commutes—unless you move somewhere you don’t have to put up with them. And you’re stuck with the eternal, aggravating traffic. Given that setup, it shouldn’t surprise us that a lot of people want to get away from cars (I’ve seen some of this dynamic in my own family—more on that later).

The hatred of traffic and car commuting isn’t unique to me. In The New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten’s There and Back Again: The soul of the commuter reports all manner of ills that result from commuting (and, perhaps, from time spent alone in cars more generally):

Commuting makes people unhappy, or so many studies have shown. Recently, the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and the economist Alan Krueger asked nine hundred working women in Texas to rate their daily activities, according to how much they enjoyed them. Commuting came in last. (Sex came in first.) The source of the unhappiness is not so much the commute itself as what it deprives you of. When you are commuting by car, you are not hanging out with the kids, sleeping with your spouse (or anyone else), playing soccer, watching soccer, coaching soccer, arguing about politics, praying in a church, or drinking in a bar. In short, you are not spending time with other people. The two hours or more of leisure time granted by the introduction, in the early twentieth century, of the eight-hour workday are now passed in solitude. You have cup holders for company.

“I was shocked to find how robust a predictor of social isolation commuting is,” Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, told me. (Putnam wrote the best-seller “Bowling Alone,” about the disintegration of American civic life.) “There’s a simple rule of thumb: Every ten minutes of commuting results in ten per cent fewer social connections. Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness.”

I doubt most people my age are consciously thinking about how commuting makes people unhappy, or how miserable and unpredictable traffic is. But they probably have noticed that commuting sucks—which is part of the reason rents are so high in places where you can live without a car (New York, Boston, Seattle, Portland). Those are places a lot of people my age want to live—in part because you don’t have to drive everywhere. Services like Zipcar do a good job filling in the gap between bus/rail and cars, and much less expensively than single-car ownership. In my own family, it’s mostly my Dad who is obsessed with cars and driving; he’s a baby boomer, so to him, cars represent freedom, the open road, and possibility. To me, they represent smog, traffic, and tedium. To me, there are just too damn many of them in too small a space, and that problem is only going to get worse, not better, over time.

(For more on cities, density, and ideas, see Triumph of the City, The Gated City, and Where Good Ideas Come From.)

TV had to learn everything novelists already knew: an example from The Sopranos

From Vanity Fair’s brilliant Oral History of The Sopranos:

ALLEN COULTER (director): Sopranos gave the lie to the notions that you had to explain everything, that you always had to have a star in the lead, that everybody had to be ultimately likable, that there had to be so-called closure, that there was a psychological lesson to be learned, that there was a moral at the center that you should carry away from the show, that people should be pretty, that people should be svelte. The networks had essentially thrown in the towel on good drama. It’s like changing the direction of an ocean liner. But Sopranos did it. They changed the game.

It’s strange to read this, because it feels to me like novelists have always known this, or have at least known it since the 1920s. I think of writers like Henry Miller or James M. Cain, who were experts at unlikable characters and showing the only “psychological lesson to be learned” is that there is no psychological lesson to be learned.

Later, I think of someone like George V. Higgins, who specialized in unpretty, ungainly characters. But I wonder if TV took so long to learn these lessons because a) it was a mass medium that required appealing to everyone and b) because up until recently, there were only a handful of real outlets that could afford to produce real shows. So there wasn’t the same kind of experimentation that novelists could conduct, since a novelist needed nothing but time and paper (or, today, time and a computer) and a publisher.

Today, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple, and the Internet more generally are creating another shift, to the point where you don’t even need a publisher. We’ve already seen some fruit from that shift in the form of Belle de Jour and Tucker Max. Instead of the “ocean liner” that is television, writers get to pilot skiffs and other small craft that go places the big ships can’t or won’t go. In doing so, writers chart the courses that might one day be followed by the video people, who are so encumbered by budgets and specialization and accountants and executives.

(See also Edward Jay Epstein’s Role Reversal: Why TV Is Replacing Movies As Elite Entertainment.)

Not disappeared, just traveling:

I hate these kinds of posts, but here goes: I haven’t disappeared. I’ve just been traveling, first to New York then to the International Society for the Study of Narrative’s conference (hence “How to keep your customers happy on planes“). Said conference demanded a paper, which I’ve spent all my literary energies on that paper, rather than the usual blog posts, and academic tomes are dense and time-consuming, which cuts into “normal” reading time.

In other words: blah, blah, blah; normal posting to resume shortly.

March links: Dissertation changes, jazz, security theater, publishing, and the LSAT

* Dissing the Dissertation: MLA considers radical changes in the dissertation. This seems obvious, necessary, long overdue, and welcome.

* The Social Conservative Subterranean Fantasy World Is Exposed, and It’s Frightening; notice this: “Comedians may, in fact, be even bigger beneficiaries than Democratic politicians who are watching a stampede of women voters into their welcoming “we don’t hate you because you’re sexually active” arms.”

* On Jazz; “Listening to Jazz is like simultaneously hearing all the footsteps on the sidewalk of a city. . .”

* The real reason health insurers won’t cover people with pre-existing conditions.

* The Unwelcome Mat, on security Theater and how the U.S.’s idiotic stance border is hurting itself.

* With This Machine, You Can Print Your Own Books at the Local Bookstore; translation: self-publishing is going to grow as this kind of machine spreads.

* Who cares if book publishers are colluding with Apple to raise e-book prices?; as Matt says elsewhere, “the publishing industry is facing intense competition and disruptive change no matter what these guys do, and the DOJ may as well leave them alone.”

* A comment from my friend, “Laila:” “It seems somehow appropriate that your follower was a prostitute.” Oh?

* Fewer people are taking the LSAT—and, if they’re smart, fewer will go to law school.

Bad academic writing:

I’m reading for an essay on Tom Perrotta’s Election and Anita Shreve’s Testimony and came across this, from Timothy Aubry’s “Middlebrow Aesthetics and the Therapeutic: The Politics of Interiority in Anita Shreve’s The Pilot’s Wife:” “Although occasionally called upon to perform certain emeritus functions, the omniscient narrator has retired decisively from the scene of contemporary United States fiction.” Translated from academic-ese to English, this roughly means, “Contemporary writers seldom use omniscient narrators.” If absolutely necessary, you could say, “Contemporary American writers seldom use omniscient narrators.”

EDIT: And, for an entertaining counterpoint, Paul Dawson says in “The Return of Omniscience in Contemporary Fiction:”

I want to begin this essay by pointing out what I think has become a salient feature, or at least significant trend, in contemporary British and American literary fiction: namely, a prominent reappearance of the ostensibly outmoded omniscient narrator. In the last two decades, and particularly since the turn of the millennium, a number of important and popular novelists have produced books which exhibit all the formal elements we typically associate with literary omniscience: an all-knowing, heterodiegetic narrator who addresses the reader directly, offers intrusive commentary on the events being narrated, provides access to the consciousness of a range of characters, and generally asserts a palpable presence within the fictional world.

So what’s happening to omniscient narrators? Are they “seldom use[d]” or making “a prominent reappearance?” Or both?

Raylan and the pursuit of cool — Elmore Leonard

The major problem in Raylan is an implausibility the novel itself mocks. In the novel, marshal Raylan Givens investigates kidney theft—as in, thieves sedate a victim, surgically remove his kidneys, and leave him in ice water. Rumors about this have circulated on the Internet for more than a decade, and debunkers have attacked those rumors for almost as long; it does appear that a kidney theft ring operated in India, but the idea that drunken idiots in rural Kentucky would steal kidneys is simply ludicrous and, more than that, sloppy—much like the oil-tanker-shooting plotline in Djibouti. Leonard’s best novels, like Get Shorty and Out of Sight don’t resort to such dubious ideas.

Still, his characters are at least aware of the problem. Tim, one of the marshals, says, “It’s like that old story [. . .] Guy wakes up missin a kidney. Has no idea who took it. People bring it up from time to time, but nobody ever proved it happened.” Raylan replies, “It has now.” The problem is, I still don’t believe it, and the novel never really resolve the incongruity for reasons that I don’t want to reveal here. For one thing, if you had a fence for a kidney, you could probably find people to sell them for not much more than it costs to steal them, and without the police hassle involved.

Outside of that problem—and it’s a major problem, but one I’m willing to overlook for the laconic beauty of Leonard’s writing and the speed of his plots—Raylan has all the usual Leonard virtues, even if over the course of a dozen books they become less pronounced, like the gorgeous view of an apartment you own. But one thing I notice more and more is the drama of status that plays out, over and over, in his novels. In this one, for example, one of the cops named Rachel says of Cuba Banks, who might be one of the bad guys, “Slim body, has that offhand strut.” Raylan says that “He’s got a bunch of white genes but not enough to pass,” making Rachel speculate, “Or maybe he did but didn’t care for the life.” Raylan continues, “Lost his sense of rhythm [. . .] but he’s still cool.” Rachel shows that she’s cool too, by not having to ask what it means to be cool, by simply rolling with Raylan’s ideas. A few pages later, Raylan is talking to Cuba, and asks if “They call you ‘boy’?” Cuba says, “They do, I’m gone,” because he’s too cool to put up with that kind of racial slur. The lesser kinds of racial slurs he’ll tolerate, as long as he knows he’s willing to tolerate them, but not being called boy. He has pride. He’s cool enough to. He’s cool enough to know what he does, why he’s doing it, and why he’s willing to admit it: to gain status in the eyes of Raylan.

By contrast, drug dealers and idiots Coover and Dickie aren’t cool; Coover, for example, throws a dead rat on Raylan’s car, but in response Raylan didn’t move, “didn’t glance around.” He says, though, “What’re you trying to tell me?” and Coover says, “Take it any way you want, long as you know I’m serious.” There’s only one way to take it, as a threat, and Coover in effect accomplishes the opposite of what he says: someone serious doesn’t signal their intentions through something as strident and dumb as a dead rat. Someone cool doesn’t don’t need something as obvious or ugly, and Raylan has seen the general class of behavior before: “You’re telling me you’re a mean son of a bitch [. . .] You know how many wanted felons have given me that look? I say a thousand I’m low. Some turn ugly as I snap on the cuffs; they’re too late. Some others, I swear, even try to draw down on me. All I’m asking, how’d you come to take Angel’s kidneys?” He doesn’t need to react through further, explicit macho posturing: Raylan has already proven himself through the number of “wanted felons” who’ve “given me that look,” and delivers an implicit threat in the form of cuffs or drawing. Then he moves back to the central matter: kidneys. If he weren’t cool, he’d respond. As it is, he knows enough to wait.

The drama of cool pervades the whole novel, and there’s even a subtle dig at artistic pretension, as when marshal Bill Nichols says of a son, “Tim’s writing his second novel in New York. The first one sold four thousand. I asked him what it’s about, the one he’s writing. He [BREAK] said the subtext is the exposure of artistic pretension.” Which is itself pretentious and silly; start with a text before you focus on subtext. He’s not as cool, in Nichols’ reading, as the guys hunting down felons.

Cool extends to sex, too, and Raylan can decline without seeming prude. When sexy company woman Carol offers it, he says no, and she says, “You’re turning me down? [. . .] I’m surprised.” Raylan isn’t above sex, but he’s not going to reduce his perceived integrity, either, and he says, “You aren’t the only one.” Admitting to his own surprise is part of what’s cool: he doesn’t claim the mantle of dubious purity, which he establishes through admitting surprise. Later, when the sexy, knowing female poker star Jackie finds herself with Raylan, she says, “I might as well tell you now, because I know I will later. I’ve got a serious crush on you. I’m excited by how cool you are. You carry and gun and’ve used it.” She admits she sees Raylan is cool, while simultaneously establishing her own coolness through ditching games and simply saying she has “a serious crush.” The cool gain coolness by recognizing coolness in others; Jackie’s, however, isn’t derived from her looks, or at least not primarily from her looks: it’s derived from her ability to play poker and to talk, and to talk straight: hence the crush (in this respect, even Carol is cool, though not as cool as Jackie, because she approaches sex without obvious pretense or as a quid pro quo arrangement—still, as the company woman, she’s not as cool as freelancer Jackie).

Describing cool is antithetical to having it, but hey—I’m an academic, which means I’ve already forfeited cool to the pursuit of ceaseless questioning. So it goes. Some guys gotta chase felons. Others ask what the chase means and, more generally, what things mean and how they mean them. Raylan might look at me askance, and really look at me askance for using the word “askance,” but it’s what I do: notice. Here, I’m noticing what Leonard does, and I’ve been thinking about writing an academic article about Leonard’s dramatization of cool, which his characters so often use to establish a firm yet shifting landscape of values distinct to the peculiar world of hustlers and players write about so effectively. Most writers try to be cool and in the process fail; Leonard, through trying by not trying, succeeds. Establishing this idea textually is part of the challenge in writing the paper, because it requires a finely honed theory of mind and theory of cool, but I think I’m cool enough to recognize cool, even if I’m not quite cool enough to be it.

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