The specious reasoning in Lawrence M. Mitchell’s “Law School Is Worth the Money”

Lawrence M. Mitchell’s “Law School Is Worth the Money” is one of the best examples of specious writing I’ve seen outside of writing produced by the federal government. It seems appropriate for me to comment Mitchell’s ideas, given how I praised Paul Campos’s book Don’t Go To Law School (Unless): A Law Professor’s Inside Guide to Maximizing Opportunity and Minimizing Risk. I’m going to respond to Mitchell’s major points:

The starting point is the job market. It’s bad. It’s bad in many industries. “Bad,” in law, means that most students will have trouble finding a first job, especially at law firms. But a little historical perspective will reveal that the law job market has been bad — very bad — before. To take the most recent low before this era, in 1998, 55 percent of law graduates started in law firms. In 2011, that number was 50 percent. A 9 percent decline from a previous low during the worst economic conditions in decades hardly seems catastrophic. And this statistic ignores the other jobs lawyers do.

Most other jobs don’t require the assumption of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to get a legally-mandated piece of paper that lets them perform those jobs. That’s the real catastrophe. Law school only has one purpose: to prepare people to be lawyers. If half aren’t able to become lawyers, that’s a catastrophe for those with the debt burdens that deans like Mitchell aren’t lining up to forgive.

Looking purely at the economics, in 2011, the median starting salary for practicing lawyers was $61,500; the mean salary for all practicing lawyers was $130,490, compared with $176,550 for corporate chief executives, $189,210 for internists and $79,300 for architects. This average includes many lawyers who graduated into really bad job markets.

Notice the weasel words: “the median starting salary for practicing lawyers.” What about the 50% of graduates who can’t find law work? The same is true in the second half of the sentence: “the mean salary for all practicing lawyers was $130,490.” People who get law degrees and then can’t practice are screwed. This is a classic example of How to Lie with Statistics. Mitchell is fishing for the credulous.

Thirty years ago, getting a law degree made a lot more economic sense: the tuition was much lower, and so low that people who got law degrees but didn’t practice weren’t effectively signing up for a decade if not decades of perpetual student loan payments.

The average student at a private law school graduates with $125,000 in debt. But the average lawyer’s annual salary exceeds that number. You’d consider a home mortgage at that ratio to be pretty sweet.

Again, notice the bit about “the average lawyer’s annual salary,” which ignores how many lawyers, and especially recently graduate lawyers, are unemployed. It also ignores the misery of being an associate at a big firm, and the fact that not all or even most big-firm associates are going to make partner. Some of those average lawyers aren’t going to be lawyers for their entire careers.

The graying of baby-boom lawyers creates opportunities. As more senior lawyers retire, jobs will open, even in the unlikely case that the law business doesn’t expand with an improving economy.

People have been saying this about professors since at least the early 90s, and it’s been untrue for professors for at least that long. As Paul Campos points out, there are about twice as many J.D.s being graduated as there are jobs. That means an excess of lawyers and potential lawyers that’s only growing with time.

In the meantime, the one-sided analysis is inflicting significant damage, not only on law schools but also on a society that may well soon find itself bereft of its best and brightest lawyers.

Mitchell’s analysis could only make sense to someone arguing a legal case; it makes no sense to someone trying to assess the truth. He says, “For at least two years, the popular press, bloggers and a few sensationalist law professors have turned American law schools into the new investment banks.” That’s apt, because his essay reads like an investment banker making an idealized case for investment banking, despite the evidence all around us.

Dare Me — Megan Abbott

There’s something compelling about Dare Me that shouldn’t be compelling: stripped of its narrative voice, Dare Me is about teenage cheerleaders and their coach, who may as well be a teenager, competing to be the neighborhood’s queen bee. It’s unfair to summarize a novel like this—Lord of the Ring could be reduced to, “Midget chucks ring into mountain; local vagrant crowned king”—but it’s also useful, because interesting novels usually have characters who are trying to learn something about the world and who have larger ambitions to do things that will have more than just local effects.

Addy narrates the novel in an insistent present-tense voice that offers a sense of immediacy. Her primary aspiration, however, is to maintain her status on the cheer squad, chiefly as the “lieutenant” of the captain, Beth, who is the chief bad girl and doer of drugs, men, and deeds that Addy might want to do but can’t bring herself to. Beth, however, is stripped of her captaincy by the new Coach, who demands more from the girls than their previous coach:

Back then, we could hardly care, our moves so sloppy and weak. We’d just streak ourselves with glitter and straddle jump and shake our asses to Kanye. Everybody loved us. They knew we were sexy beyotches. It was enough.

But part of life is the “it” not being enough: skills count, more than merely being admired. Plus, contrary to what Addy thinks, it’s unlikely that “Everybody loved us.” The cheerleaders in Dare Me love themselves much more than any outsiders could possibly love them. And the cheerleaders never quite ask if they should want to be anything more than “sexy beyotches.” They certainly have a strong sense of sexuality, although sexuality in the novel is primarily used to express dominance among the various girls (and their Coach), rather than as an end in itself. The novel’s prime source of antagonism is between Beth and the new Coach, whom Beth describes this way: “Colette French [. . . ] Sounds like a porn star, a classy one who won’t do anal.” Beth tells us more about herself than she does about Coach: that she thinks about porn stars, that she has a dirty yet moralistic streak at the same time.

Most of the girls do. They want what most of us want, but that doesn’t stop them from castigating others. None of them recognize their own hypocrisy, and they probably wouldn’t care if someone did point that hypocrisy out to them. At one moment, Addy says, “Beth and I made loud comments across the gym about how Brinnie’s slutty sister got caught making out with the assistant custodian until Brinnie ran off to the far showers to cry.”

Women really do slut-shame each other much more vigorously than men slut-shame women. Addy doesn’t notice that, however. She only notices how she can use what she perceives to be raw power: the “loud comments” and the derogatory adjective, “slutty,” forming without much thought about what’s underneath her ideas. Despite what the two say about Brinnie’s sister, Addy also reports that “In eighth grade, no, summer after, at a beer party, Beth put her scornful little-girl mouth on Ben Trammel, you know where. I remember the sight.” Why is Beth’s mouth scornful? We don’t find out. But she says a moment later that “We don’t judge,” when the page prior Beth and Addy were judging Brinnie’s sister.

Dare Me, however, isn’t about consistency. It’s about inconsistency, expressed through power and dominance. Beth versus Coach, but sexuality is the weapon—not fists. The girls use it against each other, although I won’t describe how here. The only character who apparently isn’t competing is Addy. She doesn’t really get much in the novel, and she gives a weak excuse about why: “There’s not a lot to interest me at Sutton Grove High.” That’s another way of saying that being alone and being the cheer squad’s resident observer is more valuable to her than the experience of a “real” relationship. About Jordy, a boy at the school, the best Addy can summon is that “He looks like he’s thinking things [. . .] Like maybe he actually thinks about things.” Does that mean Addy and her friends don’t? And, if so, perhaps we again shouldn’t be reading about them. She does get with him, after a fashion, and his giving in disappoints Addy: “His wanting, so easily won—well, it bores me.” Everything does. The boredom she feels at his being “so easily won” is how guys end up affecting cruel uninterest in order to win women. But that’s another thing Addy doesn’t know. Her lack of sophistication is realistic but grating; there are answers to the questions she doesn’t know to ask.

She does know, however, that a military recruiter is aloof and thus desirable. He has a nickname that denotes his position: “Sarge, though, is above all this. All the girls are hurling themselves at him, but he never blinks, not once. He smiles, but his smile doesn’t really seem like a smile but the kind of thing you do with your mouth when you know everyone is watching.” He’s smiling that way because he has to, and he knows that the penalties for indulging in “the girls” who “are hurling themselves at him” is probably worse than the pleasure that he might gain from indulging them. There’s also a link between the two: by apparently standing above the girls making offers, he’s making himself more alluring. He contrasts with the “easily won” Jordy. The harder the prize, the sweeter the accomplishment, at least in Addy’s eyes, and hence the challenge of being a better cheerleader is the challenge of doing harder stunts, of doing more than “shak[ing] our asses to Kanye.”

The physicality of motion counts for a lot, and so does the wanting eyes Addy imagines her body inspiring. Addy thinks, “This is my body, and I can make it do things. I can make it spin, flip, fly.” She can also make it the object of male adoration, which, regardless of what else cheerleading might do, does that first. Addy also doesn’t perceive the way the boredom of her own life is partially of her own making, as when she says

Ages fourteen to eighteen, a girl needs something to kill all that time, that endless itchy waiting, every hour, every day for something—anything—to begin.
‘There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.’

This is given like a law of the universe, an ahistorical fact that must be true of all times and places, like respiration. It isn’t. For all I know, in many hunter-gatherer tribes fourteen year olds were often mothers, or members of adult societies: their life had already begun. Addy is really commenting on contemporary Western society, even if she doesn’t have the language to realize it.

Has she read Paul Graham? Boredom is endemic to the high school experience. But boredom itself is dangerous to the mind, because it’s a waste of the planet’s most valuable resource: minds. I don’t need to rely on vague assertions like “There’s something dangerous;” I know what’s dangerous, in part because I was reading enough at the time to eventually learn how to use words to express complex ideas. Addy hasn’t gotten there yet.

That should make her an uncompelling narrator, but she isn’t. She’s naive in some ways, which shouldn’t be a surprise given her age, but she also observes the bad-girl behavior around her, and that bad-girl behavior is underappreciated in much of the larger society. Addy can also see what boys see, at times, as when she describes her teammate: “Emily whose balloony breasts and hip-cascades are the joy of all the boys, their ga-ga throats stretched to follow her gait, to stretch around corridor corners just to see that cheer skirt dance.” Addy’s awareness is a form of power, but it’s a limited form of power, and it’s counteracted by the limits that she accepts. The “endless itchy waiting” is imposed in part because we, collectively, don’t want to believe in the bad girl and want to see fourteen to eighteen year olds of both sexes as children, even when they’re clearly not. So we, collectively, take their autonomy away and are surprised when they’re unhappy. To return to Graham, in “Why Nerds Are Unpopular:”

What bothers me is not that the kids are kept in prisons, but that (a) they aren’t told about it, and (b) the prisons are run mostly by the inmates. Kids are sent off to spend six years memorizing meaningless facts in a world ruled by a caste of giants who run after an oblong brown ball, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. And if they balk at this surreal cocktail, they’re called misfits.

Addy doesn’t even bother with the “memorizing meaningless facts,” but she does accept high school as “the most natural thing in the world.” In her own way, she’s a misfit by believing in “this surreal cocktail,” and believing that the world of cheer is the only one that counts.

The only real hope of the society is that the “teenage girls” who Addy represents don’t realize the power of their bodies over men. Addy realizes it. Beth does too. They find cheer to be ridiculously helpful: Addy says that “It made things matter. It put a spine into my spineless life and that spine spread, into backbone, ribs, collarbone, neck held high.” If cheer is enough to make things matter, she must have a dull life—but she’s already established that she does.

She says that “Coach gave it all to us.” Meaning, in other words. And that “She was the one who showed me all the dark wonders of life, the real life, the life I’d only seen flickering from the corner of my eye.” But whose fault is it that Addy hasn’t seen “real life” before? And what is this “real life” that Addy keeps mentioning? It sounds like something she herself has constructed.

The questioning of what is “real,” however, reappears again and again in the novel. Addy says, “Could [Coach] see past all of that to something else, something quivering and real, something poised to be transformed, turned out, made?” Addy’s repeated use of “real” makes her seem convinced of her own unreality (“By Saturday practice [. . .] we’re already—some of us—starting to look forward to that pain, which feels like something real”). If it takes pain to be “real,” something in your life might be amiss. When the girls learn to do a pyramid, Addy says that “the momentum makes you realize that you are part of something. Something real.” Was she not part of something before? Does she have any theory or coherence beyond her theory of reality? She doesn’t, not really, and it takes death and rivalry to make something real.

Addy could say no to cheer and yes to Python, or sculpture, or the guitar, buts he doesn’t. She isn’t really interested in being real, in doing the things that other people might value. The only real value she, and Beth, offer to the world is sexuality, but they don’t even ask, really ask, what their sexuality means. At one point Beth says that “I’m not even interested in our lives.” This, however, raises an important point: Why should readers be? Addy as a narrator is one answer. The fact that she constructs a story out of something other than who gets to take the most popular boy to Prom is another. Her moments of inchoate realization is a third:

We’re all the same under our skin, aren’t we? We’re all wanting things we don’t understand. Things we can’t even name. The yearning so deep, like pinions over our hearts.

She should learn the names, and the things that most people most desire are obvious, money, sex, and social status, in some tangled, interdependent triangle. For a smaller but still significant number of people, intellectual curiosity is as or more important as those first three. Those things can be understood, especially by people who want to understand them. Addy doesn’t, or doesn’t have the intellectual context she needs to understand them. As someone very happy to be out of high school, I see a lot of the things that Addy doesn’t, though she should: she’s narrating the story from an unnamed future point, even as she drops into the present tense.

One problem with Addy or her narration is that we don’t know what any of these characters are like, other than mean and, in a petty, squabbling fashion, stupid. But Addy’s voice carries the novel, along with her fascination with Beth, which in Addy’s view is like staring at a serpent: fascinating, even as you hope it doesn’t bite. What do Addy and Beth do when they’re not cheerleading? What is Beth’s favorite color? If she had to answer the question, “What do you want to do when you grow up,” what might she say? Is the prospect of college or a technical school anything more than a distant glimmer in their eyes, along with a source of older boys?

To the extent Beth and Addy have character beyond their sexuality and social status, we don’t see it. If the slice of character we see is their primary character, then they’re not very nice people, and, perhaps worse, they’re not very interesting people. Beth is willing to violate taboo by sleeping with older men, which speaks well of her low opinion of convention, but is she willing to extend taboo violation to, say, playing the corporate game as hard as the cheer game, or cutting across gender stereotype to build web apps for bad girls? The interesting thing is not just her as a bad girl, but what she can do with being a bad girl.

Perhaps that kind of question is for the sequel. Dare Me deals in a surprisingly plausible murder plot, with Addy and the reader the last to know what all the other characters seem to. The frustrations of Addy and Beth as characters doesn’t prevent the book from being compelling, in part because the girls’ blindness to anything important seems characteristic of their age, time, and generation. That should be scary.

Coach’s husband, Matt French

There are men in the novel: the aforementioned Sarge, is one. The other major male character, Matt French, is Coach’s husband. He misallocates resources. Coach says, “Oh, you know him, he’s working. He never, ever stops.” On the next page: “He is always on his cell phone and he always looks tired.” Addy says, “He works very hard, and he’s not interesting at all.” This misallocation of time and energy leads his wife to seek sexual solace elsewhere, as it so often does, and Matt apparently doesn’t realize that she, like most women, need tending. If he won’t keep the garden, someone else will.

Predictably, someone else does. When the girls catch Coach in the act with another man, she explains that “what [. . .] I have is a real thing [. . .] A true thing.” By that standard, what she has with Matt must not be a true thing. It must not count. She excuses herself by saying, “I never thought I’d feel like this,” as if the invocation of feelings trumps any and every other consideration. The girls don’t challenge her. They probably believe the same thing.

But the affair is a commentary on Matt’s folly. He should cut work and increase sex. We never learn why he doesn’t, or anything about his job. He’s a pathetic ghost of a man who enables the fake world of high school, which his wife joins. Addy and Beth show little interest in him, while they show a lot of interest in Will. The only exception comes at a moment when Addy tries to imagine what Matt is like:

Poor Matt [French], in some airport or office tower in Georgia, some conference room someplace where men like Matt French go to do whatever it is they do, which is not interesting to any of us, but maybe it would be if we knew. Though I doubt it.

Except sometimes I think of him, and the soulful clutter in his eyes, which is not like Will’s eyes because Will’s eyes always seemed about Will. And Matt French’s seem only about Coach.

That he is only about Coach, and not about anything else, makes him seem weak and replaceable to her; still, Addy’s analysis appears to be wrong because Matt is really about work, at least as measured by time spent doing an activity. We don’t get enough information about Matt French’s thought process to understand why he ignores his wife in favor of constant work that appears to weaken, not strengthen, his relationship, and leave his wife bored and frustrated. It should be obvious to anyone who has observed the people around them or been in serious relationships that bored, sexually frustrated people will find ways to get their needs met.

To return to the point I raised in the first paragraph, the problem with realistic but limited perspective Beth, Addy, and Coach have is with the scope of their vision and concerns. Adam Gopnik’s essay “The Unreal Thing” encapsulates some of their problems:

In a long article on the first “Matrix” film, the Princeton philosopher James Pryor posed the question “What’s so bad about living in the Matrix?,” and, after sorting through some possible answers, he concluded that the real problem probably has to do with freedom, or the lack of it. “If your ambitions in the Matrix are relatively small-scale, like opening a restaurant or becoming a famous actor, then you may very well be able to achieve them,” Pryor says. “But if your ambitions are larger—e.g., introducing some long-term social change—then whatever progress you make toward that goal will be wiped out when the simulation gets reset. . . . One thing we place a lot of value on is being in charge of our own lives, not being someone else’s slave or plaything. We want to be politically free.”

For Beth, Addy, and Coach, political freedom isn’t important. Competing with each other is the only important thing. Their ambitions are so “small-scale” that they don’t matter. Their achievements will be “wiped out” when they leave high school, which is its own Matrix-like simulation, and the smarter, more aware residents know it. So do adults who remember what high school was like: Paul Graham says in “Lies We Tell Kids:”

By 15 I was convinced the world was corrupt from end to end. That’s why movies like The Matrix have such resonance. Every kid grows up in a fake world. In a way it would be easier if the forces behind it were as clearly differentiated as a bunch of evil machines, and one could make a clean break just by taking a pill.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he uses The Matrix as an analogue for high school. Both high school and The Matrix put a natural cap on ambition, which the better high school students will challenge. Beth, Addy, and Coach don’t challenge that system; Addy even thinks that it’s the only thing that matters: “God it must be terrible not to be on cheer. How would you know what to do?” You wouldn’t know what to do, but pretty much anything you do in lieu of cheer, aside from watching T.V., vegging out, or playing on Facebook is likely to be more substantive than cheer. But Addy is so firmly plugged in that she doesn’t recognize her “fake world,” to use Graham’s term, and maybe she can’t. Maybe, if she were a different sort of person, someone would point it out to her, like the teacher in The Perks of Being a Wallflower implicitly does. Cheer for Addy is a kind of Matrix-within-a-Matrix, a way of further shrinking her social and competitive world. Addy wants to give up the kind of political freedom Gopnik and Pryor are describing. Abrogating freedom makes her seem like a fool, or a slave to the conformity imposed most obviously by Beth; perhaps this is why Addy wants to be Beth’s lieutenant, and why she doesn’t aspire to be the top girl.

Not wanting to be the top girl makes sense. But wanting to be in a social milieu where all that matters is being the top girl makes less sense; it’s like aspiring to slavery, or perpetually wearing glasses with a red tint, such that you can’t experience the full richness of the world. Addy doesn’t realize that she’s wearing those glasses, and that, finally, makes her seem sad. She’s missing so much, and she doesn’t even realize it.

Links: The Amis obsession, Roosh’s hate mail, quiet, feminism and Ke$ha, and Alan Jacobs on taste

* The Amis Obsession.

* Roosh: “This is the fourth time where I’ve woken up and had an entire country mad at me. It does make the day a little more interesting…”

* “The Quiet Ones.” This describes me, and wanting quiet sometimes makes me feel increasingly out of place, or out of time. The Hacker News discussion is also good, and Paul Graham said this:

I think the fundamental problem with noisy people is not that they’re inconsiderate, but that they don’t have any train of thought to interrupt, and they thus don’t realize the havoc they’re wreaking.

When I was living in Providence, working on On Lisp, I told my loud but well-meaning neighbors that I was writing a hard computer book, and that made them be quiet. Ordinary people can understand that you need quiet if you’re working on some specific, hard task, like doing math homework. What they don’t grasp is that someone would want their mind to work that way all the time, as a matter of course.

* “The attention paid to terrorism in the U.S. is considerably out of proportion to the relative threat it presents. That’s especially true when it comes to Islamic-extremist terror. Of the 150,000 murders in the U.S. between 9/11 and the end of 2010, Islamic extremism accounted for fewer than three dozen.” My favorite annoying question when I hear people discussing the contemporary impact of terrorism is this: About how many Americans die in car accidents every year? If they don’t know the answer, they probably aren’t all that serious about evaluating real dangers and priorities. Sometimes it takes re-framing an issue to make sense of it.

* A highly dubious yet interesting observation:

If prominent feminist thinkers of the last century or so were to get together and design their composite “woman of tomorrow,” what would she be like?

Weirdly enough, she might look and act kind of like… um, Ke$ha.

* Alan Jacobs: “Ranking the Writers,” on how literary tastes change over time.

Warning: Don’t buy James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure: (Techniques And Exercises For Crafting A Plot That Grips Readers From Start To Finish)

I bought Plot & Structure because the issue of how a novel’s narrative moves seems to be understudied by academics, who tend to produce jargon-laden, overly analytical nonsense, and by novelists themselves. I’d really like an equivalent of How Fiction Works, but for an important matter that James Wood disdains (“the novel soon showed itself willing to surrender the essential juvenility of plot”). My ideal book would, as Wood says, ask “a critic’s questions and [offer] a writer’s answers.”

Unfortunately, Bell asks few questions and offers fewer answers. This is frustrating to me because, when I started writing, plot was a major weakness. The first two novels I actually wrote to completion had no real plots and thus weren’t very good novels (my Dad pointed out the former and let me infer the latter). Since then I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about plot, and being dissatisfied that I’ve never seen it addressed well elsewhere. Self-consciously literary writers and critics tend to discount it (as Wood does), sometimes to the detriment of their own work.

Genre writers tend to understand plot but either aren’t known to me, critically speaking, or write so poorly on a sentence-by-sentence level that their work isn’t interesting. To me, the best novels combine plot/story and language in a single, cohesive package. That, however, is difficult to do, and the difficulty may explain why we see so many arid academic-feeling novels about, oh, I don’t know, language and pure consciousness and What It Means To Be Alive Today, while so many genre novels with ticking bombs and handsome heroes and buxom heroines who put out surprisingly easily and simple words laid out in simple ways that won’t confuse anyone.

Not only is this dearth annoying because of my own flaws, but because I can’t point aspiring writers to a particular book and say, “Read this.” I can talk about some of my own techniques—I’ve written plot outlines for a number of books I admire, like an artist tracing his favorite paintings in order to imbibe their spirit and technique. With scenes, I’ve learned to ask what each character wants, what stands in his or her way, and why he or she is doing to overcome that barrier. I don’t always have answers—the characters often don’t have them, either—but at least asking the questions provides some structure to what might otherwise be a misaligned mess.

One can’t, of course, separate plot from character, setting, narrating, and other technical features in a novel. It would be stupid to try. But plot is a great blindspot in Wood’s criticism, and it’s a blind spot I aspire to see, or to see someone else seeing.

Bell, however, is blind.

Elmore Leonard on what it means to write

“I’m glad I’ve always had a commercial bent. I want to make money doing this. I had no dream of going to the Iowa Writing School, or whatever it’s called, and learning to write that way. When The New Yorker guy asked me to send him a story, I said, ‘I don’t write New Yorker stories. The stories I write I can always understand.’ And I can. My stories always have a definite ending, a payoff. I think he was a little insulted.”

—Elmore Leonard, in an interview with Keith Taylor for Witness

Summary Judgement: Sweet Tooth — Ian McEwan

For a novel about a spy, Sweet Tooth is surprisingly slack. Maybe it’s slack in defense of realism. The cause eludes me, since the writing is as customarily crisp as the story isn’t. Excellent quotes are easy, from the first page, with this description of Serena’s father, an Anglican Bishop: his “belief in God was muted and reasonable, did not intrude much on our lives and was just sufficient to raise him smoothly through the Church hierarchy and install us in a comfortable Queen Anne House.” The parents are distant to the point of barely believable indifference: much later in the novel, Serena thinks, “Would the Bishop even notice I’d been away?” She’s free of parents, like an orphan in a 19th Century novel or a teenager in a contemporary TV show.

That doesn’t detract from the aforementioned beauty, like this, to go back to the second page: “We liked to think of ourselves as bad girls, but actually we were rather good.” Serena, on learning about the difficulties of writing, “went for important walks,” the silliness and accuracy of the phrase “important walks” working so well to conceptualize her state of mind and what many people with intellectual dispositions end up doing.

But the beauty of sentences eventually feels like backdrop when a second or third act fails to develop. The novel ends with a great, revisionary secret, the sort of secret that powers PhD dissertations more often than it does readerly love. We’ve seen these surprise techniques before—most notably in Atonement, but also, after a fashion, On Chesil Beach.

Like many writers, including this one, McEwan, through Serena, is at least interested in and perhaps obsessed by what reading and books do to people. Serena works in books as much as she’s a spy and sleeps with authors (which is the sort of practice I’d like to encourage). She notes what she reads and how she reads it. The book becomes about a love of books, but it does so to the point that the occupant of this book becomes dull. What does the book talk add up to? I’m a person sympathetic to books and book talk, but in Sweet Tooth the answer is “not much.” It becomes easy to lose focus midway through. Sure, for Serena, reading is how she both constructs and understands her world, but then you have to, you know, go do something. That’s not to say that she isn’t artful or funny. Consider this problem, about Jeremy, Serena’s first lover who turns out, predictably, to prefer men:

I wanted him to have a secret and shameful desire that only I could satisfy. I wanted to make this lofty, courteous man all mind. Did he want to smack my backside, or have me smack his? Was he wanting to try on my underwear? This mystery obsessed me when I was away from him, and made it all the harder to stop thinking about him when I was supposed to be concentrating on the maths. Colette was my escape.

Colette was her escape, but into what and from what? From mysteries? From something she can’t quite articulate, perhaps. And Serena, as a narrator, is also willing to ostentatiously tell us that she’s older and wiser now: “What I took to be the norm—taut, smooth, supple—was the transient special case of youth. To me, the old were a separate species, like sparrows or foxes. And now, what I would give to be fifty-four again!” This intrusion of the future self reminds us that we’re reading something from the future of events, with two pairs of eyes: the eyes of the undergraduate Serena and the eyes of the much older Serena, imagining her younger self from a position of greater articulacy and knowledge. Done too often, though, it becomes tedious. The notes in my copy trail off as the novel advances, and as I hope for Serena to become more than an acted-upon reporter of events. Her own life feels like it happened to someone else. Later in the novel, much later, the reason for this is revealed. But the view at the end of a long trail doesn’t always redeem the journey. The reason is clever, cerebral, not expected and not forced, and doesn’t make me want to read Sweet Tooth again, unless the next reading is part of some academic project about the usual sorts of academic things.

Serena says this of her reading habit:

All thanks to my mother, I didn’t stop reading. I’d never read much poetry or any plays at school, but I think I had more pleasure out of novels than my university friends, who were obliged to sweat over weekly essays on Middlemarch or Vanity Fair. I raced through the same books, chatted about them perhaps, if there was someone around who could tolerate my base level of discourse, then I moved on. Reading was my way of not thinking about maths. More than that (or do I mean less?), it was my way of not thinking.

Reading can be a powerful way of not thinking. I know from experience, even if most people think of reading as a highbrow, intensely intellectual activity these days. It isn’t, necessarily. And the assigned essay can be a chore instead of a pleasure. Serena wants it to be a pleasure:

My needs were simple. I didn’t bother much with themes or felicitous phrases and skipped fine descriptions of weather, landscapes, and interiors. I wanted characters I could believe in, and I wanted to be made curious about what was to happen to them. Generally, I preferred people to be falling in and out of love, but I didn’t mind so much if they tried their hand at something else. It was vulgar to want it, but I liked someone to say ‘Marry me’ by the end. Novels without female characters were a lifeless desert. Conrad was beyond my consideration, as were most stories by Kipling and Hemingway. Nor was I impressed by reputations. I read anything I saw lying around. Pulp fiction, great literature and everything in between—I gave them all the same rough treatment.

Simple intellectual and erotic needs might be easier to fulfill than complex ones, in one sense, but also harder, in the way that a simple task executed perfectly may be harder than a complex task executed with a margin for error. Still, Serena should have known that it isn’t vulgar to want love and marriage and plot. It’s vulgar that professors and highbrow critics might make her think it is vulgar to want those things, to want fiction that might be, to use that overused term, “relatable.” That one might be able to follow effectively. Serena isn’t a close reader, or someone practicing towards being a professional.

But she is someone who learns how to be through books, which makes her different from someone who learns how to be from in other ways, or someone who never learns how to be. She says, “I caused amusement among my Newnham friends studying English when I told them that Valley of the Dolls was as good as anything Jane Austen ever wrote. They laughed, they teased me for months. And they hadn’t read a line of Susann’s work.” Her friends are snobby and dismissive. Given the choice between snobby and unrefined but passionate, I’ll take the latter. The difference between those becomes a running issue, as when Serena begins to write a little column, and, like bloggers, something unfortunate happens: “I had written half a dozen jaunty pieces when something went wrong. Like many writers who come by a little success, I began to take myself too seriously.”

It’s a narrow act, the stance that straddles too serious and not serious enough. When I’m waffling between them, I try for “not serious enough:” after all, we’re talking about fiction here, not life and death. But for Serena the two become bound together because of her work. That’s an interesting theme; if only the plot were drilled more vigorously through the loam of Serena’s mind and story.

About the University of East Anglia (UEA): Why you shouldn’t go

About the University of East Anglia (UEA): Why you shouldn’t go

In 2005 I made a mistake by studying abroad at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, England. The school was—and still could be—a study-abroad factory that marketed itself to foreign students because foreign students paid a lot more in tuition than English students. The school is consequently incentivized to pursue the international market. A friend and I were sufficiently peeved about the low quality of the school that we wrote an illustrated guide that warned our friends away from going to UEA.

Some recent discussion made me dig up “About UEA: What You Should Know Before You Go.” Reading it now, I see weaknesses in my skills as a nascent writer (I want to edit my younger self) but think the document might still be valuable for undergrads seeking UEA-related information. The photos convey some of the bleakness of that university; I remember the day I said, “Fuck it, I should put these journalism skills to use because I have to tell people about this” and went around campus to shoot them. By which point I realized I’d been conned by UEA’s marketing and that I should tell what the UEA experience is actually like.

Back then I didn’t have a blog—although I should have; I was writing a lot—so I only sent “About UEA” to other undergrads I knew who were prospective UEA students. Today, the combination of a blog and Google mean that “About UEA” could retain some value, which it definitely won’t on my hard drive. Perhaps I can save others from making my mistake.

That experience also informed “Europe, the United States, living standards, GDP, and the University of East Anglia (UEA),” and UEA also made me predisposed to believe Richard Posner’s comments about the shabbiness of England in the 1980s. From the perspective of Norwich in 2005, things hadn’t changed much.

Have they now? Maybe. I have no desire to find out firsthand. If you’re an American or Canadian student currently studying at UEA, however, you should leave a comment.

Before I went, I also noticed that my peers who studied abroad at UEA said they had a great time. After I came back, in more candid conversations, many of the same peers admitted to experiences much closer to mine. Culturally, I think we have a script that says study abroad must be a transformational, transcendental experience that changes everything about a person. It must be “fun” (and I put scare quotes around fun in a very Houellebecq way). It must be amazing. People who don’t have fun or don’t experience transcendence are viewed as defective or simply grumpy. Explaining what was wrong with UEA couldn’t happen in a casual conversation. The problems with it were obvious but weren’t acknowledged. This piece is an effort to rectify that silence.

EDIT: I’m pretty sure UEA administrators or PR people are monitoring the comment thread.

The place of literary criticism

A second Zadie Smith quote, also from Changing My Mind: “Here’s the funny thing about literary criticism: it hates its own times, only realizing their worth twenty years later.” This is remarkably close to what I wrote to a friend not long ago, concerning why I like blogging despite the fact that I’m also enmeshed in an academic context that only values peer-reviewed articles and books: “English profs always show up to a fire long after the house has been burned down and the fire already long extinguished.”

Blogging, if the blogger is any good, offers the possibility of getting to the fire when it’s still going, or even building a fire of your own. Maybe in twenty years this will be more widely recognized.

Life: Love edition

“[T]he choice one makes between partners, between one man and another (or one woman and another) stretches beyond romance. It is, in the end, the choice between values, possibilities, futures, hopes, arguments (shared concepts that fit the world as you experience it), languages (shared words that fit the world as you believe it to be) and lives.”

—Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind

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