Briefly Noted: Tenth of December — George Saunders

George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year” inspired me to read Tenth of December, but as often happens the headlines deceive. In the last twelve months I’ve read phenomenal books like The Great Man and The Black Swan. I’ve also read Tenth of December, which isn’t exactly bad; I felt like a Good Person for having read it.

Yet feeling like a Good Person isn’t the same as saying a book is fun or great (which are not always the same thing). Some stories in Tenth of December are funny; “Exhortation” in particular made me laugh, written as a deranged memo from the “Divisional Director” to the “Staff” and saying things like

We all know very well that that ‘shelf’ is going to be cleaned, given the current climate, either by you or the guy who replaces you and gets your paycheck…

Saunders does corporate euphemism frequently (“given the current climate”) and often well. He also does sad, as in this diary extract:

When kids born, Pam and I dropped everything (youthful dreams of travel, adventure, etc., etc.) to be good parents. Has not been exciting life. Has been much drudgery. Many nights, tasks undone, have stayed up late, exhausted, doing tasks. On many occasions, disheveled + tired, baby-poop and/or -vomit on our shirt or blouse, one of us has stood smiling wearily/angrily at camera being held by other, hair shaggy because haircuts expensive, unfashionable glasses slipping down noses because never had time to get glasses tightened.

There’s a Raymond Carver feel* (the dropped “youthful dreams of travel,” the unforeseen children, the sense of potential squandered in the detailed “unfashionable glasses”) mixed with Modernism’s dropped words. Yet it’s hard for me to get excited about passages like this one, which I feel like I’ve read before; too many stories leave me saying, “So what?”, even though there are some extravagantly wonderful passages:

At that point, I started feeling like a chump, like I was being held down by a bunch of guys so another guy could come over and put his New Age fist up my ass while explaining that having his fist up my ass was far from his first choice and was actually making him feel conflicted.

Yet these sections are too rare for me and the random detritus of fiction too frequent. Too often I found myself thinking, “So what?” There is admirable weirdness in some stories but less so perhaps than Ian McEwan’s early short stories. I read people saying things about how Saunders has the pulse of America or writes about an America others don’t or whatever, but I’m not sure that his work reflects America so much as it does an imagined reflection of America common in many journalistic and academic minds.

In addition, literary fiction habitually condescends to jobs, workplaces, and businesses. Sometimes that condescension is justified but more often it feels like misunderstanding intensified by the expert use of language. Saunders treads the lines where satire, condescension, and realism meet. There are interesting literary novels set in workplaces that have yet to be written—something like Last Night at the Lobster, a novel that I think will stay with me long after Tenth of December has faded.

More Carvarian, reproduction-related unhappiness, from another story: “We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us.” From this and countless similar renditions of the same perhaps we should assume that maintaining equanimity in the face of children should be an explicit goal.

Grad students lack market power, and it shows: Or, the UC-Riverside non-scandal

A brief wave of academic outrage hit when UC-Rivderside’s English department sent job candidates an e-mail about MLA interviews five days before the conference. (MLA stands for “Modern Language Associate;” it’s big the soiree for English jobs). The outrage is somewhat justified because UC-R is in fact acting like a jerk. But many of the angry commentators are also missing something essential: from an employers perspective, a job search is often not about getting the absolute “best” or the most right person for the job. It’s about getting someone who meets or reasonably exceeds the qualifications. Search costs are real and high. Paul Graham wrote about these issues in “Two Kinds of Judgement” (The excerpt is long, but I can’t find a way to make it shorter while still retaining the point):

There are two different ways people judge you. Sometimes judging you correctly is the end goal. But there’s a second much more common type of judgement where it isn’t. We tend to regard all judgements of us as the first type. We’d probably be happier if we realized which are and which aren’t.

The first type of judgement, the type where judging you is the end goal, include court cases, grades in classes, and most competitions. Such judgements can of course be mistaken, but because the goal is to judge you correctly, there’s usually some kind of appeals process. If you feel you’ve been misjudged, you can protest that you’ve been treated unfairly.

Nearly all the judgements made on children are of this type, so we get into the habit early in life of thinking that all judgements are.

But in fact there is a second much larger class of judgements where judging you is only a means to something else. These include college admissions, hiring and investment decisions, and of course the judgements made in dating. This kind of judgement is not really about you.

Put yourself in the position of someone selecting players for a national team. Suppose for the sake of simplicity that this is a game with no positions, and that you have to select 20 players. There will be a few stars who clearly should make the team, and many players who clearly shouldn’t. The only place your judgement makes a difference is in the borderline cases. Suppose you screw up and underestimate the 20th best player, causing him not to make the team, and his place to be taken by the 21st best. You’ve still picked a good team. If the players have the usual distribution of ability, the 21st best player will be only slightly worse than the 20th best. Probably the difference between them will be less than the measurement error.

The 20th best player may feel he has been misjudged. But your goal here wasn’t to provide a service estimating people’s ability. It was to pick a team, and if the difference between the 20th and 21st best players is less than the measurement error, you’ve still done that optimally.

It’s a false analogy even to use the word unfair to describe this kind of misjudgement. It’s not aimed at producing a correct estimate of any given individual, but at selecting a reasonably optimal set.

One thing that leads us astray here is that the selector seems to be in a position of power. That makes him seem like a judge. If you regard someone judging you as a customer instead of a judge, the expectation of fairness goes away. The author of a good novel wouldn’t complain that readers were unfair for preferring a potboiler with a racy cover. Stupid, perhaps, but not unfair.

Most of the angry applicants for the UC-R job appear to have been in school for too long and not to realize that each employers’s goal isn’t to judge them perfectly. It’s to get someone who is reasonably okay and then get on with their lives. It’s also almost impossible to tell based on interviews and recommendations alone whether someone is a good for for a job; usually it takes months of working together to realize whether someone is actually good. In academia, I’m not sure one professor ever really knows if another is any good, since they don’t tend to take each other’s classes.

UC-R appears to think that it can get someone reasonable even though it’s doing something mean. They’re probably right.

English PhDs feel the heat because they lack market power. Many posted jobs get dozens or even more than a hundred very good-seeming candidates, almost any one of whom would be fine. They’d show up to department meetings, teach competently, publish in peer-reviewed journals. At that point, departments can pretty much post the candidates’s photos on a dartboard and pick the one who their darts hit.

A lot of grad students (and professors) also appear to have or want to have the same relationship with universities that children have to parents. But the universities aren’t there with their best interests in mind; the universities are doing their own thing. Realizing this is quite painful and probably helps to explain the anguish being expressed on blogs and Twitter. To the extent those blog posts and Tweets discourage others from starting or continuing grad school, they’re doing something useful (I myself have contributed to the genre).

In normal employment situations, employers who behave like jerks get punished because people won’t work for them. UC-R is unlikely to have that problem. They could probably restrict their entire search to Southern California and still easily have 10 or more very good candidates. Given that, UC-R isn’t even behaving in a way that is “stupid,” to use Graham’s word.

The curious thing is that so many people want to stay in academia despite the way it treats them. Megan McArdle wrote about the obvious solution: “Can’t Get Tenure? Then Get a Real Job.”

Links: The long-distance reader, Flowers in the Attic, goodbye camera, get a real job, and more

* The loneliness of the long-distance reader.

* “Goodbye, Cameras;” in the last two or three years I’ve become more interested in photography.

* “The Flowers in the Attic generation grows up;” after reading innumerable pieces like this one I read the novel a couple years ago and found it boring, perhaps because I’m not a teenage girl?

* “Most likely you go your way and I’ll go mine.”

* “Can’t get tenure? Then get a real job.” I’m following this advice.

* “Don Jon” [the movie] Is A Blue Pill Disaster.

* Tyler Cowen on Megan McArdle’s The Upside of Down,” a book I was ready to dismiss as a writer (who I generally like) recounting the usual papers, but Cowen says “It is extremely well written, engages the reader, is based upon entirely fresh anecdotes and research results, and makes an important point.”

* D. G. Myers: Academe quits me.

* I was prepared to hate “Written Off: Jennifer Weiner’s quest for literary respect” and yet admire the even tone and frequent humor. I’ve often read descriptions of Weiner’s books, considered them, then gone on to something else.

Thoughts on New York life as seen through the lens of Britain

Megan McArdle’s “American Household Gadget Exceptionalism,” which is about the rapid dissemination of labor saving devices, but even in the U.S. that dissemination is not even. It seems to have missed much of New York, where a lot of apartments lack stuff that I’ve always taken for granted, like dish washers. In this respect New York is apparently like Britain:

The British housing stock was older and less easily adapted to the new electric wonderworld. Obviously, this is not a permanent obstacle–I live in a 1905 rowhouse with a very nice dishwasher. But such retrofitting is expensive–especially if your house never had electricity in the first place.

Much of Britain lagged behind the U.S. in adopting household gadgets. This data matches my own experience with the UK, which I wrote about in 2010. Since living in New York, however, I’ve noticed that New York also lags the rest of the U.S. Until moving here I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone without a dishwasher. Now most New Yorkers I know don’t have dishwashers.

On New York in general, Penelope Trunk is right: a lot of people fundamentally don’t belong here. Beyond the not-so-good apartments, I observe:

* The subway system is incredible if you happen to live near a major node, like the Barclays Center, the downtown hubs, or Union Square. But many of the major nodes are surprisingly under-built: to continue with the Union Square example, buildings on avenues from 4th to 1st are rarely more than four or five stories tall, when they should be forty.

* The heat in the summer and cold in the winter has a much greater effect on daily life because so many people walk. In addition, much of the housing stock lacks air conditioners and modern furnaces; many apartments are too hot or cold.

* Despite or perhaps because of the high rents, there is more interesting, more cheap, and more available food than anywhere else I’ve ever seen in the U.S.

* New Yorkers are stereotyped as rude, but that hasn’t been my experience at all, with the exception of various flavors of municipal workers, bureaucrats, and quasi-bureaucrats. People working in, at, and around airports are almost always awful but the New York seem worse than average.

* There is “something to do” every night if you’re the sort of person who has a broad definition of “something.”

* Most people acclimate to wherever they live.

* In Seattle many tourists and immigrants are Asian; in New York there are obviously many Asian tourists and immigrants, but they seem outnumbered by Europeans, perhaps due to the relative proximity of Seattle to Asia and New York to Europe.

* New York seems to collect people who hit the trifecta of smart / beautiful / successful. Most places specialize in at most two of those.

* Almost no one really “knows the city;” they know their own neighborhoods and maybe a few others very well, have sporadic knowledge of a couple others, and that’s it.

One other point, not by me but by Paul Graham:

People who like New York will pay a fortune for a small, dark, noisy apartment in order to live in a town where the cool people are really cool. A nerd looks at that deal and sees only: pay a fortune for a small, dark, noisy apartment.

That’s in an essay about how to be Silicon Valley, but paying a fortune for a small, dark, noisy apartment is still true and perhaps even more true than it was in 2006. NIMBYs are still shockingly powerful. People still love living in New York and we see evidence of this in the form of high rents. One interesting thing, however, is that Silicon Valley has become at least as expensive as New York, if not more so. Living there now costs a small fortune.

Let me return to the dishwasher problem for a moment: I hate washing dishes relative to the time it takes, so this may simply be a pet peeve. But it’s one of these notable things that probably isn’t obvious until one lives here. (I’m also not spending a lot of time with hedge fund titans who are presumably renting more expensive places. Still, the lack of what I consider normal appliances in Manhattan is startling, as is the number of noisy radiators that don’t quite work correctly.)

The reason for the lack of dishwashers (and power outlets, and non-claustrophobic kitchens, and so on) also comes from another shared Britain-New York feature: it’s hard to build stuff. It’s very, very hard to build new stuff in Britain, which means that buildings designed around modern life are pretty scarce—just as they are in NYC. And scarcity implies higher prices. New York, however, has a key advantage: it’s very easy to leave it and move to another state. In places that are gaining population (like Texas), building is pretty easy, so lots of people have dishwashers and AC that works and so on.

Links: Modern sex dynamics, making American literature, journalism, morality, ideology, and more

* The Making of American Literature: The correspondence of editor, critic, and Lost Generation chronicler Malcolm Cowley. I’m not sure that I’ve even heard of Cowley before this article.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA* The Tragedy of Common-Sense Morality: Evolution didn’t equip us for modern judgments. Or, for that matter, many diffuse, modern threats. The book concerns Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, which is very good—just not quite as good as Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Both answer a lot of fundamental questions about morality, group thinking, and ideology.

* “Does journalism have a future?” When I graduated from high school, I guessed not and have lived my life accordingly. I’m glad I made the choices I did in this regard. Instead of making the mistake of trying to be a journalist, I’ve made different mistakes.

* Camille Paglia on Rob Ford, Rihanna and rape culture. Paglia is giving many interviews lately though not because she has another book out. She’s also in the WSJ on the end “suicide of a civilization.” Though I would ask: Suicide, or evolution?

* People are moving to Florida because it’s cheap.

* We Pretend to Teach, They Pretend to Learn: At colleges today, all parties are strongly incentivized to maintain low standards. Having been on both ends of the college teaching / learning experience, I’ve rarely read a truer article. I’m just not convinced that today is much different than 50 years ago, except for having much higher financial stakes on both sides of the table.

* “More ominous than a strike,” a post responding to Dr. Helen’s Men on Strike: Why Men Are Boycotting Marriage, Fatherhood, and the American Dream – and Why It Matters. The book is okay but is more a collection of blog post blockquotes than a real book. Nonetheless it’s somewhat useful for people who just started thinking about modern gender dynamics but haven’t done much reading on the subject.

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