What makes interesting fiction: Stephenson edition

In his Salon interview,* Neal Stephenson says this about “the broader vision of what science fiction is about:”

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

The implied vacuousness of “arty lit” is clear and, more depressingly, accurate. It’s something a lot of people who like to read but who don’t care much for a lot of contemporary lit fic feel but don’t always articulate. It’s a tendency I’ve been been noticing in one form or another for years. It helps to account for why nonfiction may be winning the perceived quality race. A lot of highly praised fiction is, at bottom, boring, and about boring people.

Many self-consciously literary novelists and critics don’t seem to mind. So lit-fic books accumulate blurbs that make them sound like the next coming of Shakespeare when they’re actually about dull people leading dull lives, but with interesting language that is supposed to elevate dull people above their surroundings. Sometimes this works (Raymond Carver, Ulysses). More often it doesn’t, or, even if it works, who cares? Murder mysteries are popular for many reasons, but one may be that there’s automatically at stake. Per Megan McArdle:

Eventually I decided the truth is this: We watch so many crime dramas because there are no big stakes in middle-class American life. The criminal underworld is one place where decisions actually matter — and can be shown to matter, dramatically”).

Science fiction also tends to focus on encounters with aliens, threats to the human race, jarring technology changes, and so forth. The stakes are high. Literary fiction writers might want to take some cues from Stephenson and, strangely enough, TV.**

* Collected in Some Remarks, which is a way of collecting previously published pieces in one convenient place and turning them into money.

** Stephenson is also fond of novels with plot:

What I’m doing here is writing novels, and novels — never mind what anyone else might tell you — novels are pop entertainment, and they have to tell a story and they have to engage the emotions. There are a few basic tricks they use to do that. One is to tell a good yarn and the other is to make you feel empathy for the characters involved in the doings of that yarn, but you’ve got to have that yarn. That’s what I seize on first. That’s what gives me confidence that I’ve got a pony I can ride. Characters tend to come out of that, and ideas — I don’t know where they come from. The yarn that got me going on “Quicksilver” was Newton pursuing and prosecuting an archvillain in London at the same time as the dispute with Leibniz is at its peak.

Academic purity guilt and blogging

The Little Professor says:

Unlike some of the academics to whom Katherine Firth links in her post about the “Academic Purity Cult,” I’ve never received any professional pushback for blogging (well, aside from the people who don’t like something I’ve blogged, but that’s a different issue).

I have—a lot of it, in fact, at conferences and from professors. That may be in part because I’m a grad student or because of my department, but pretty much everyone in academia who has deigned to comment on the issue has disparaged blogging or any writing whatsoever that doesn’t entail peer-review. I find this bizarre because I see the primary activity of studying English being to read things, learn things through reading, write about things, and disseminate them—and the web is a very good medium for that, especially for anyone who wants to be read. Academic journals aren’t a good way to get people to read.

To me, the revealing comparison is to math, physics, CS and other fields: post to arXiv.org, say, and let the peer-review and publication catch up to the cutting-edge research. If a science-based academic learns something new, it’s imperative to get it out there as soon as possible! It’s important and treated as it’s important.

By contrast, most humanities profs appear at best indifferent and at worst hostile to those kinds of open processes, and they’re willing to endure months or years of delay between finishing a piece and seeing it published. Peer-reviewed journals won’t accept work previously published on blogs or other online forums. Evidently what we’re doing isn’t sufficiently important to others to be worth publishing in a timely manner. Instead we’re stuck in the mannerist world of journal publishing, and disdain for alternate modes of dissemination (like blogs) is part of that world. One word that keeps getting used by my professors about me is “journalistic” which they see as an insult (I by and large don’t write in deliberately obscured prose) but which I see as a quasi-compliment (I write in a way that other people can understand).

English literature doesn’t appear at all interested in “impact factors” or even readers, which I find strange given the accessibility of English, relative to, say, math proofs.

Popularity isn’t the only valuable metric for new work, but in contemporary academia it isn’t even considered. That should change.

EDIT: I’m not the only one to notice. This is from Gerald Graff’s 1979 book Literature Against Itself:

Where quantitative ‘production’ of scholarship and criticism is a chief measure of professional achievement, narrow canons of proof, evidence, logical consistency, and clarity of argument have to go. To insist on them imposes a drag upon progress. (97)

What matters is the quantity of work produced and where it is published, rather than whether it is right—or, as Graff says, “canons of proof, evidence, logical consistency, and clarity of argument.”

August links: Golden rice, the midlist, spy agency takeaways, RED cameras, and more

* Why most modern action films are terrible.

* Golden rice, lifesaver.

* How the Mars Spirit Rover died, an unexpectedly moving piece.

* “Can the Minerva Project do to Ivy League universities what Amazon did to Borders?” I hope so. Still I would note this: “Too much of undergrad education is the dissemination of basic information that at that level of student you should expect them to know.”

* We should be suing and charging parents who don’t vaccinate their kids.

* Midlist crisis, midlist life.

* Charlie Stross: “Snowden leaks: the real take-home;” hard to excerpt well but I would note this:

We human beings are primates. We have a deeply ingrained set of cultural and interpersonal behavioural rules which we violate only at social cost. One of these rules, essential for a tribal organism, is bilaterality: loyalty is a two-way street. (Another is hierarchicality: yield to the boss.) Such rules are not iron-bound or immutable — we’re not robots — but our new hive superorganism employers don’t obey them instinctively, and apes and monkeys and hominids tend to revert to tit for tat quite easily when unsure of their relative status. Perceived slights result in retaliation, and blundering, human-blind organizations can slight or bruise an employee’s ego without even noticing. And slighted or bruised employees who lack instinctive loyalty because the culture they come from has spent generations systematically destroying social hierarchies and undermining their sense of belonging are much more likely to start thinking the unthinkable.

Edward Snowden is 30: he was born in 1983. Generation Y started in 1980-82. I think he’s a sign of things to come.

PS: Bradley Manning is 25.

Still, I would also note that my generation’s thinkers are steeped in knowledge about how the Holocaust happened, how the Soviet Union happened, how Watergate happened, and, more generally, how these events can and will happen again. Right now the United States’s spy agencies have begun a power grab and turned, like an overactive immune system, against the United States itself. Snowden and Manning are symptoms and harbingers, revealers of evil not doers of evil.

* Why we should fear rapid methane release due to global warming.

* Jim Jannard of RED fame’s last forum post; see also the Hacker News discussion. Jannard built the infrastructure of the present, which was then the future, and he’s still building the future. Virtually anyone who has watched any TV show or movie made in the last five years has been the beneficiary of his work, either directly because he made RED cameras, or indirectly, because competing camera manufacturers were forced to compete at a higher level.

* “Affordable Excellence. . . This book is a clear first choice on the Singapore health system and everyone interested in health care economics, or Singapore, should read it. It is short, clear, and to the point.” I am struck by how many people have strong opinions about healthcare without really understanding the system. Sloganeering is rampant and understanding scant.

Thoughts on the movie Lovelace

* Much—though not all—of the material in Lovelace probably merits comedy, not drama. The scenes in which the real stars mimics porn stars with little talent for acting were funny.

* Linda has very little agency in the movie; her only real choices are to get with Chuck Traynor in the first place and, finally, to leave him. This doesn’t make her a satisfying protagonist, since she is almost always acted upon and rarely acts herself.

A happy porn star might not make for much of a movie, since such a movie would lack dramatic tension. A TV show like Entourage could provide a template on how to instill tension among a person or group that already has pretty much everything. But the dramatic tension in Lovelace feels forced. The director and screenwriter did a lot here with a little material.

* Chuck Traynor as presented is like a Nazgûl: strongest in the dark, away from other people.

* People who make bad decisions often suffer for them and suffer out of proportion of the seeming importance decision at the time. Linda’s parents appear to understand the world better than Linda does, although they are not depicted sympathetically. They know something easily forgotten today: that life is often hard and trade-offs are real.

* As noted above the movie does a lot with a small amount of material, but a small amount of material is still fundamental to the movie.

* Whenever you’re doing something socially castigated, claim it’s art, but post-Pop Art it’s also useful to remember the inverse isn’t necessarily true: just because it’s socially castigated doesn’t mean it’s art.

Employment, attitude, and educational entitlement

This whole attitude is weird to me:

He says his name is George but declines to give his last name. He’s 29 years old, holds a master’s degree in economics, and has been unemployed for a year and a half, not counting the five months he worked as a street cleaner.

“It’s more difficult for the highly qualified,” he says. “The market thinks we will cost too much.” He’s applying for a position as a secretary, a job that requires a high school degree. For a couple of minutes, he and Stratigaki discuss whether his education will be an asset or a liability, and then their names are called.”

People aren’t owed jobs because of (possibly bogus) qualifications or credentials; they get jobs because they can do something valuable for someone else. Degrees don’t necessarily show that, and I’ve met plenty of doofuses in advanced degree programs or with advanced degrees, who I wouldn’t hire, and plenty of people without degrees, who I would hire.

That point doesn’t say much about the macro situation in Greece, which is dire and a human tragedy. Nonetheless, the idea that being “highly qualified” automatically makes someone worthy of a job is bizarre to me yet also seems endemic among many of the people I run into, who view educational credentials as accurate proxies for valued skills. Yet I look at many of the people I’ve met in various forms of higher education (law school, grad school in English lit) and am struck by how few of them I would hire to write proposals.

Among people in the English grad department, I can think of no one I would want to hire—students or professors. Perhaps I am judging them unfairly, but the stories about marginally employed “professors” on food stamps makes sense to me, because what else are many of these people going to do? Many don’t even seem to realize that, given their sometimes tremendous writing talents, getting a blog is the way to spread ideas and make connections. Many seem to have a limited sense of possibility. On the other hand, I’ve met two different people on the Internet who, if I suddenly needed a writer, I’d seek out, since both are already competent writers who can get things done.

By contrast, generic grad students frequently spend a decade in grad school and have literally nothing to show for their effort other than their degrees; a few have peer-reviewed articles that are only 25 pages long and intellectually vacuous at that. Many perpetual students don’t seem to care about whether they provide value for someone else or somehow just deserve jobs for existing.

To my mind, the question of “What value do I provide for other people?” is paramount, so much so that I keep citing it again and and again in this post, even if “What degrees do I have or can I get?” is easier.

Bureaucratic Heroism

Merve Emre’s “Bureaucratic Heroism” is among the best pieces I’ve read about contemporary movies and fiction; it’s hard to excerpt because the entire piece feels essential and it makes many subtle points, but I will point to this:

Bureaucratic heroes are not cartoon heroes, heroes for children who do not yet understand that the social world places limits on their actions. Nor are they adolescent, “dark” heroes like Batman, alternately rebelling against and ingratiating himself to lame authority figures. Bureaucratic heroes are “ultrareal” heroes for working, law-abiding adults: beholden to, yet eager to please, the systems of governance in which they operate. The rules they follow are not universal rules of justice, morality, or even common sense. They are rules that only make sense—that are only justifiable—within a particular institutional context, be it the CIA, the CDC, the corporation, or Hollywood itself. They are rules that perpetuate the self-preserving logic of the institutions that articulate them in the first place

The last bit is especially important: the “self-preserving logic” that holds institutions together is also always incomplete and inadequate for dealing with the needs of the complex real world. Everyone in the institution still has to make judgment calls of various kinds, and, because those judgment calls often entail breaking the rules, they leave violators vulnerable to institutional censure later on (here’s one example of an absurd experience that comes from refusing to break the mindless rules; the phrase “Kafkaesque” is surely used in the modern world with the rise of the bureaucratic state and corporation).

Following those rules also often yields sub-optimal or absurd outcomes, as pretty much everyone in industrialized countries has experienced at some point or another. Yet institutions still need those rules, and, as Emre points out in the introduction to his piece, “[Contagion‘s] true hero turns out to be the CDC, a tight regiment of epidemiologists and administrators whose acts of heroism are largely bureaucratic in nature: functional and routine, incremental and hierarchically situated, and keyed to the collection of data.”

San_Francisco-1905Contagion, maybe not coincidentally, is one of the few really good movies I’ve seen in the last few years. It’s taut and plot-driven yet simultaneously thoughtful; too few movies rise above being stupid spectacles. There is a place for stupid spectacle but it’s not in practically every movie, which is the impression I get from most movie ads and reviews.

Novels are better in this respect, but even then relatively few plumb what modern bureaucracies are like; one thing I like about Tom Perrotta’s Election is his subtle but real portrayal of education politics. Francine Prose is similarly skilled in Blue Angel, in which sexual harassment tribunals in universities utterly fail to understand what actual human relationships are like. Automatic, incorrect assumptions about life and sexuality get applied in a way that distributes tremendous power to the potentially unhinged.

Perhaps the best novel I’ve read in the last year also has a bureaucratic, corporate facet: Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, in which scientist Anneck Swenson wrangles the funders of her research as a jungle guide might wrangle a python. Most of the novel occurs among a remote Amazonian tribe, yet even there athletic company symbols and university apparel appear on people otherwise living a pre-agricultural existence. Swenson fits into the heroic mode described this way by Emre, as “a ‘cinema of volition’ whose narrative tensions trade on the clean break between the hero’s boundless animus and the inertia that surrounds him.” In this case the hero is a her, but Swenson does experience “boundless animus” and overcomes the bureaucratic inertia that simultaneously enables her by providing money and holds her back by demanding results.

Why would you want to own a car if you could avoid it?

My Dad sent “Who’s Buying ‘Youth’ Cars? Seniors Aging Boomers Are Prime Buyers for Small Vehicles That Auto Makers Target at Hipsters,” because he bought a Mini Cooper a few years ago, which is probably targeted at “young” people. But I replied with a larger point:

Why would you want a car if you could avoid having one?

Young people don’t care about cars. They care about smartphones. See here for more:

Why are younger Americans driving less?

Brad Plumer considers several good hypotheses, including the recession, gas prices, student debt, tougher legal requirements, and a stronger desire to live in places such as Brooklyn. I would add one other factor to his list: because they are working less. A more speculative additional hypothesis would be “because it is easier to have sex without driving to get it.”



A nice car is still a status symbol but a much less important status symbol than it used to be. Cars are expensive, dirty, and cause a lot of traffic. Old people like you (wrongly) associate cars with freedom and the open road, because when you grew up the roads were relatively empty.

Young people today associate cars with traffic and their parents and death. Cars are like jails. In ye olde days getting laid meant cruising to drive-ins or malls or whatever. Today getting laid means texting, Facebook, and OKCupid. Former students have talked about Tinder (sp?), which is Grindr for straight people. Going back to the status symbol point, is it more useful for a guy looking to get laid to work his ass off for a BMW or to learn guitar and get a YouTube channel? For someone with no financial constraints the obvious answer is “both,” but for someone choosing between them I suspect guitar + YouTube would win.

An iPhone is much cheaper than a car. Even an iPhone, iPad, and laptop together are much cheaper than a car. See also Philip Greenspun on this.

DUI laws are also now heavily enforced and draconian (A BAC of .1 is much more reasonable than .08) and everyone knows someone who’s had ten thousand dollars or more in court costs and hassles related to DUI. Even so, a cop can ruin your night and next day for pretty much any reason if he suspects you’ve had anything to drink. Gas is much more expensive in real terms than it was even in the late 90s / early 2000s.

No one with half a brain would want to drive more than they absolutely must, so I am skeptical that any “youth-oriented pitches” will succeed because really who cares? Driving sucks. Part of selling is having something to sell that people want. And, as you yourself pointed out, you spent much of your working life in high school and college trying to keep a car in working order. AAA estimates that the average car costs $10,000 TCO, or about one quarter of median income. Even knocking $2000 off for a cheaper car, I suspect a lot of people could allocate $2000 to transit / bikes / Zipcar / etc. and come out way ahead.

Almost anyone who can avoid commuting by car is better off ditching their wheels. Even you, Dad, would be much more financially secure by selling your car, renting your parking spaces, and getting a Zipcar subscription.

[Note: My Dad doesn’t have to drive to his office.]

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