Have journalists and academics become modern-day clerics?

This guy was wrongly and somewhat insanely accused of sexual impropriety by two neo-puritans; stories about individual injustice can be interesting, but this one seems like an embodiment of a larger trend, and, although the story is long and some of the author’s assumptions are dubious, I think there’s a different, conceivably better, takeaway than the one implied: don’t go into academia (at least the humanities) or journalism. Both fields are fiercely, insanely combative for very small amounts of money; because the money is so bad, many people get or stay in them for non-monetary ideological reasons, almost the way priests, pastors, or other religious figures used to choose low incomes and high purpose (or “purpose” if we’re feeling cynical). Not only that, but clerics often know the answer to the question before the question has even been asked, and they don’t need free inquiry because the answers are already available—attributes that are very bad, yet seem to be increasingly common, in journalism and academia.

Obviously journalism and academia have never been great fields for getting rich, but the business model for both has fallen apart in the last 20 years. The people willing to tolerate the low pay and awful conditions must have other motives (a few are independently wealthy) to go into them. I’m not arguing that other motives have never existed, but today you’d have to be absurdly committed to those other motives. That there are new secular religions is not an observation original to me, but once I heard that idea a lot of other strange-seeming things about modern culture clicked into place. Low pay, low status, and low prestige occupations must do something for the people who go into them.

Once an individual enters the highly mimetic and extremely ideological space, he becomes a good target for destruction—and makes a good scapegoat for anyone who is not getting the money or recognition they think they deserve. Or for anyone who is simply angry or feels ill-used. The people who are robust or anti-fragile stay out of this space.

Meanwhile, less ideological and much wealthier professions may not have been, or be, immune from the cultural psychosis in a few media and academic fields, but they’re much less susceptible to mimetic contagions and ripping-downs. The people in them have greater incomes and resources. They have a greater sense of doing something in the world that is not primarily intellectual, and thus probably not primarily mimetic and ideological.

There’s a personal dimension to these observations, because I was attracted to both journalism and academia, but the former has shed at least half its jobs over the last two decades and the latter became untenable post-2008. I’ve enough interaction with both fields to get the cultural tenor of them, and smart people largely choose more lucrative and less crazy industries. Like many people attracted to journalism, I read books like All the President’s Men in high school and wanted to model Woodward and Bernstein. But almost no reporters today are like Woodward and Bernstein. They’re more likely to be writing Buzzfeed clickbait, and nothing generates more clicks than outrage. Smart people interested in journalism can do a minimal amount of research and realize that the field is oversubscribed and should be avoided.

When I hear students say they’re majoring in journalism, I look at them cockeyed, regardless of gender; there’s fierce competition coupled with few rewards. The journalism industry has evolved to take advantage of youthful idealism, much like fashion, publishing, film, and a few other industries. Perhaps that is why these industries attract so many writers to insider satires: the gap between idealistic expectation and cynical reality is very wide.

Even if thousands of people read this and follow its advice, thousands more persons will keep attempting to claw their way into journalism or academia. It is an unwise move. We have people like David Graeber buying into the innuendo and career attack culture. Smart people look at this and do something else, something where a random smear is less likely to cost an entire career.

We’re in the midst of a new-puritan revival and yet large parts of the media ecosystem are ignoring this idea, often because they’re part of it.

It is grimly funny to have read the first story linked next to a piece that quotes Solzhenitsyn: “To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. . . . it is in the nature of a human being to seek a justification for his actions.” Ideology is back, and destruction is easier the construction. Our cultural immune system seems to have failed to figure this out, yet. Short-form social media like Facebook and Twitter arguably encourage black and white thinking, because there’s not enough space to develop nuance. There is enough space, however, to say that the bad guy is right over there, and we should go attack that bad guy for whatever thought crimes or wrongthink they may have committed.

Ideally, academics and journalists come to a given situation or set of facts and don’t know the answer in advance. In an ideal world, they try to figure out what’s true and why. “Ideal” is repeated twice because, historically, departures from the ideal is common, but having ideological neutrality and an investigatory posture is preferable to knowing the answer in advance and judging people based on demographic characteristics and prearranged prejudices, yet those traits seem to have seeped into the academic and journalistic cultures.

Combine this with present-day youth culture that equates feelings with facts and felt harm with real harm, and you get a pretty toxic stew—”toxic” being a favorite word of the new clerics. See further, America’s New Sex Bureaucracy. If you feel it’s wrong, it must be wrong, and probably illegal; if you feel it’s right, it must be right, and therefore desirable. This kind of thinking has generated some backlash, but not enough to save some of the demographic undesirables who wander into the kill zone of journalism or academia. Meanwhile, loneliness seems to be more acute than ever, and we’re stuck wondering why.

On the “manosphere” or “Red Pill”

Someone wrote:

I’m a reader of your blog and enjoy your thoughts on a wide variety of things. I’ve gone in the deep end regarding the Red Pill, I just don’t know what to believe and I’m seriously doubting myself at this moment. I picked up a book called The Rational Male by Rollo Tomassi and while it has good stuff in it, I can’t shake the feeling that it treats women like objects and whores ready to move on to the next guy. My gut tells me that isn’t the case but I could be totally wrong. I guess I’m looking for a deep connection with another woman and in that denial phase with all this information. I was inspired by your articles “Getting good with women and how I’ve done almost everything in my life wrong,” thought you could have some answers. I’m lost and it all seems so insane, if this stuff is true.

First, I wrote about some of the issues with the communities formed by guys who lose or aren’t succeeding with women in “The appeal of ‘pickup’ or ‘game’ or ‘The Redpill’ is a failure of education and socialization” and Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser.

Second, men in the communities you’re referencing ends up in them because they’ve failed in sense. I am not the first to observe that the hardest core feminists and hardest core Red Pillers are more alike in tone and stridency than they’re like normal people who are curious.

Some readers and writers are mostly intellectually interested in the matters discussed by the communities. In many domains, it’s a bad idea to take advice without knowing something of the person giving the advice, what their interests are, so and forth. Taking advice from a pseudonymous stranger on the Internet who knows nothing of you and your life, while you know nothing or them or there life, is… unwise. As Gildor says in The Fellowship of the Ring:

” ‘… The choice is yours: to go or wait.’ [Gildor said.]
‘And it is also said,’ answered Frodo, ‘Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.’
‘Is it indeed?’ laughed Gildor. ‘Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill. But what would you? You have not told me all concerning yourself; how should I choose better than you? But if you demand advice, I will for friendship’s sake give it.’ “

Gildor’s reluctance is the reluctance of wisdom.

Be wary of taking advice from anonymous strangers on the Internet with no stake in the outcome of the event itself (this includes taking advice from me, though I do at least use my real name). Some things in The Red Pill and the constellation of related sites are interesting and possibly true, but those things are dwarfed by nonsense, so relying on it for life guidance is at best perilous. What’s the incentive for posting there?

Online communities adversely select for pontificators, because doers are doing. I read the Rollo Tomassi book, The Rational Male, and it’s interesting in places. But it’s also badly written, badly edited, and badly laid out (the version I read suffered from all three). There’s a better book lurking in the book I read. Writing a good book, from the level of the individual word to the level of the book as a whole, is hard—which is why few people do it. Writing a good book is poorly remunerated relative to other activities that take similar time and dedication. On the whole, the number of people with the skills and grit necessary to learn to write a good book are better financially served doing other things. Robertson Davies famously said that the only reason to write a novel is because you feel like you must, or go mad, or die. Few writers have that drive. Maybe Tomassi will. Or maybe he’ll remain overly dogmatic.

Avoid dogma.

Finally, the people who really matter are the artists and the movers. Be one or the other or both. Talk to real people in real life. Get off the computer. The people on Reddit and Twitter and whatever succeeds those two have no sense of art or beauty. The really important things aren’t happening there: they’re happening in the actual world. Diversity exists and matters—not in the politically correct sense of the term “diversity,” but the real sense. Ideas do matter, but they matter most in art and science. If you aren’t taking an idea and spinning it into art, or science, or technology, or business, the idea doesn’t matter. How many angels dance on the head of a pin? For centuries theologians cared. No one does today. Choose what matters: there is some truth in the stuff you’re reading, but the whole story is bigger and broader than any of the reducers to celestial mechanics can imagine.

Do millennials have a future in Seattle? Do millennials have a future in any superstar cities?

Over in the Seattle section of Reddit someone asked, “Millennials of Seattle: Do you believe that you have a future in this city?”* My answer started small but grew until it became an essay in and of itself, since “Seattle” is really a stand-in for numerous other cities (like NYC, LA, Denver, and Boston) that combine strong economies with parochial housing policies that cause the high rents that hurt younger and poorer people. Seattle is, like many dense liberal cities, becoming much more of a superstar city of the sort Edward Glaeser defines in The Triumph of the City. It has a densely urbanized core, strong education facilities, and intense research, development, and intellectual industries—along with strict land-use controls that artificially raise the cost of housing.

Innovation, in the sense Peter Thiel describes in Zero to One, plus the ability to sell to global markets leads to extremely high earning potential for some people with highly valuable skills. But, for reasons still somewhat opaque to me and rooted in psychology, politics, and law, (they’re somewhat discussed by Glaeser and by Tyler Cowen in Average is Over), liberal and superficially progressive cities like Seattle also tend to generate the aforementioned intense land-use controls and opposition to development. This strangles housing supply.

The combination of high incomes generated by innovation and selling to global markets, along with viciously limited housing supply, tends to price non-superstars out of the market. Various subsidy schemes generate much more noise than practical assistance for people, and markets are at best exceedingly hard to alter through government fiat. So one gets periodic journalistic accounts of supposed housing price “crises.” By contrast to Seattle, New York, or L.A., Sun Belt cities are growing so fast and so consistently because of real affordable housing. People move to them because housing is cheap. Maybe the quality of life isn’t as high in other ways, but affordability is arguably the biggest component of quality of life. Issues with superstar cities and housing affordability are well-known in the research community but those issues haven’t translated much into voters voting for greater housing supply—probably because existing owners hate anything that they perceive will harm them or their economic self-interests in any way.

Enlightenment_heathSomewhat oddly, too, large parts of the progressive community seem to not believe in or accept supply and demand. Without understanding that basic economic principle it’s difficult to have an intelligent discussion about housing costs. It’s like trying to discuss biology with someone who neither understands nor accepts evolution. In newspaper articles and forum threads, one sees over and over again elementary errors in understanding supply and demand. I used to correct them but now mostly don’t bother because those threads and articles are ruled by feelings rather than knowledge, per Heath’s argument in Enlightenment 2.0, and it’s mentally easier to demonize evil “developers” than it is to understand how supply and demand work.

Ignore the many bogeymen named in the media and focus on market fundamentals. Seattle is increasingly great for economic superstars. Most of them probably aren’t wasting time posting to or reading Reddit. If you are not a superstar Seattle is going to be very difficult to build a future in. This is a generalized problem. As I said earlier, voters don’t understand basic economics, and neither do reporters who should know better. Existing property owners prefer to exclude rivalrous uses. So we get too little supply and increasing demand—across a broad range of cities. Courts have largely permitted economic takings in the form of extreme land-use control.

Seattle is the most salient city for this discussions, but Seattle is also growing because San Francisco’s land-use politics are even worse than Seattle’s. While Seattle has been bad, San Francisco has been (and is) far worse. By some measures San Francisco is now the most expensive place in the country to live. For many Silicon Valley tech workers who drive San Francisco housing prices, moving to Seattle immediately increases real income enormously through the one-two punch of (relatively) lower housing prices and no income tax. Seattle is still a steal relative to San Francisco and still has many of the amenities tech nerds like. So Seattle is catching much of San Francisco’s spillover, for good reason, and in turn places like Houston and Austin are catching much of Seattle’s spillover.

See also this discussion and my discussion of Jane Jacobs and urban land politics. Ignore  comments that don’t cite actual research.

Furthermore, as Matt Yglesias points out in The Rent Is Too Damn High: What To Do About It, And Why It Matters More Than You Think, nominally free-market conservatives also tend to oppose development and support extensive land-use controls. But urban cities like Seattle almost always tilt leftward relative to suburbs and rural areas. Why this happens isn’t well understood.

Overall, it’s telling that Seattlites generate a lot of rhetoric around affordable housing and being progressive while simultaneously attacking policies that would actually provide affordable housing and be actually progressive. Some of you may have heard the hot air around Piketty and his book Capital in the 21st Century. But it turns out that, if you properly account for housing and land-use controls, a surprisingly large amount of the supposed disparity between top earners and everyone else goes away. The somewhat dubious obsession that progressives have with wealth concentration is tied up with the other progressive policy of preventing normal housing development!

This is a problem that’s more serious than it looks because parochial land-use controls affect the environment (in the sense of global climate change and resource consumption), as well as the innovation environment (close proximity increases innovation). Let’s talk first about the environment. Sunbelt cities like Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta have minimal mass transit, few mid- and high-rise buildings, and lots and lots of far-flung sub-divisions with cars. This isn’t good for the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, or for the amount of driving that people have to do, but warped land-use controls have given them to us anyway, and the easiest way to get around those land-use controls is to move to the periphery of an urban area and build there. Instead of super energy efficient mid-rises in Seattle, we get fifty tract houses in Dallas.

Then there’s the innovation issue. The more general term for this is “economic geography,” and the striking thing is how industries seem to cluster more in the Internet age. It is not equally easy to start a startup anywhere; they seem to occur in major cities. It isn’t even equally easy to be, say, a rapper: Atlanta produces a way disproportionate number of rappers (See also here). California’s San Fernando Valley appears to be where anyone who does porn professional wants to go. New York still attracts writers, though now they’re exiled to distant parts of the boroughs. My own novels say, “Jake Seliger grew up near Seattle and lives in New York City” (though admittedly I haven’t found much of a literary community here, which is probably my own fault). And so on, for numerous industries, most of them too small to have made a blip on my radar.

These issues interest me both as an intellectual matter and because they play into my work as a grant writer. Many of the ills grant-funded programs are supposed to solve, like poverty and homelessness, are dramatically worsened by persistent, parochial local land-use policies. Few of the superficial progressives in places like Seattle connect land-use policies to larger progressive issues.

So we get large swaths of people priced out of those lucrative job markets altogether, which (most) progressives dislike in theory. Nominal progressives become extreme reactionaries in their own backyards, which ought to tell us something important about them. Still, grant-funded programs that are supposed to boost income and have other positive effects on people’s lives are fighting against the tide . Fighting the tide is at best exceedingly difficult and at worst impossible. I don’t like to think that I’m fighting futile battles or doing futile work, and I consider this post part of the education process.

Few readers have gotten this far, and if you have, congratulations! The essence of the issue is simple supply and demand, but one sees a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation in discussions of it.

In addition, I don’t expect to have much of an impact. Earlier in this essay I mentioned Joseph Heath’s Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring sanity to our politics, our economy, and our lives, and in that book he observes that rationalists tend to get drown out by immediate, emotional responses. In this essay I’m arguing from a position of deliberate reason, while emotional appeals tend to “win” most intuitive arguments.

By the way: In Seattle itself, as of 2015 about two-thirds of Seattle’s land mass is reserved for single-family, detached houses. That’s insane in almost any city, but it’s especially insane in a major global city. Much of Seattle’s affordability problem could be solved or ameliorated by something as simple as legalizing houses with adjoining walls and no setback requirements. The housing that many people would love is literally illegal to build.

Finally, one commonly hears some objections to any sort of change in cities:

* “It’s ugly / out of character for the neighborhood:” As “How Tasteless Suburbs Become Beloved Urban Neighborhoods” explains, it takes about 50 years for design trends to go from “ugly” or “tacky” to “historic.” It’s hard to rebut people saying “that is ugly!” except by saying “no it isn’t!”, but one can see that most new developments are initially seen as undesirable and are eventually seen as normal. “Character” arguments, when made by owners, are usually code for “Protect my property investment.” It’s also not possible to protect the “character” of neighborhoods.

* “Foreigners and their money are buying everything up and making them more expensive:” Actually, real estate is, properly considered, an incredible export:

The key is to let more development happen in the in-demand, centrally located areas where the economic benefits are largest and the ecological costs the smallest, not just “transitional” neighborhoods and the exurban fringe. Take the existing stacks of apartments for rich people and replace them with taller stacks. Then watch the money roll in.

* “Gentrification is unfair:” Oddly, cities began to freeze in earnest, via zoning laws, in the 1970s. One can see this both from the link and from Google’s Ngram viewer, which sees virtually no references to gentrification until the late 70s, and the term really takes off later than that.

If gentrification is unfair—and maybe it is—the only real solution is to build as much housing as people want to consume, which will lower real prices towards the cost of construction. Few contemporary cities pursue this strategy, though. No other strategy will work.

EDIT: See also “How Seattle Killed Micro-Housing: One bad policy at a time, Seattle outlawed a smart, affordable housing option for thousands of its residents.” The city’s devotion to exclusionary housing policies is amazing. It’s not as bad as San Francisco, but compared to Texas it’s quite terrible.


* I’m reading “Millennials” as referring to people under age 30 who have no special status or insider connections. Few will have access to paid-off or rent-controlled housing in superstar cities. They’ll be clawing their way from the bottom without handouts. In cities like New York and San Francisco, a few older people have voted themselves into free stuff in the form of rent control. Most Millennials won’t have that.

Subjectivity in writing and evaluating writing

This essay started its life as an e-mail to a student who wanted to know if all writing was, on some level, “just subjective,” which would imply that grading is bogus and so is much of what we do in English classes. I didn’t have time to offer a nuanced explanation of what makes good writing good, so I wrote to him later that night. He didn’t reply to this e-mail.

I was thinking about our conversation and realized that I have more to say about the issues of subjectivity and skill in writing. As you observed, there is an element of subjectivity in judging what’s good writing and what isn’t. But it’s also worth noting that dominant opinions change over time—a lot of the writing from the 18th and 19th Century, for example, was considered “good” if it contained long sentences with balanced, nested clauses. Such stylistic preferences are one reason why a lot of contemporary students have trouble reading such material today, because most of us value variety in sentence structure and value less complexity, overall, in sentence structure. This is normally the place where I could go off on a rant about Facebook and cell phones and texting speak and how the kids these days are going to hell, but I’ll avoid that because it doesn’t appear true overall and certainly isn’t true regarding writing. The trend, including among professional writers writing for other expert writers, has been towards simpler structures and informality (which may speak about the culture as a whole).

IMG_3049That being said, if you want to write a paper full of long, windy clauses and abstruse classical allusions, I’m not going to stop or penalize you and may even reward you, since few if any students write in such a fashion, and I (like most contemporary people) value novelty. As long as the content is strong, I’m willing to roll with somewhat unusual stylistic quirks, and I’m fairly pluralistic in my view of language use.

So how do you, the seeker, figure out what good writing is? You practice, you read, you think about it, you practice some more, like you would if you were learning to play a guitar. I’ve never heard guitar instructors say that their students say all music is subjective; playing the guitar appears to be transparently hard, in the sense that you know you’re bad at it, in a way that writing isn’t. Still, if you’d like to know a lot more about good writing, take a look at Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, James Wood’s ıHow Fiction Works, and Jan Venolia’s Write Right!

When you’re done with those, move on to B. R. Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto. When you’re done with that, move on to the New York Times’ series Writers on Writing. Collectively, these books will teach you that every word counts and every word choice says something about the writer and the thing the writer is conveying, or trying to convey. Not only that, but every word changes, slightly, the meaning of every word around it. Good writers learn to automatically, subconsciously ask themselves, “Does this word work? Why? Why not? How should I change it? What am I trying to convey here?”

Eventually, over time, skilled writers and thinkers internalize these and other ideas, and their conscious mind moves to other issues, much like a basketball player’s shot happens via muscle memory after it’s been practiced and tweaked over 100,000 repetitions.

In addition, skilled writers are almost always skilled readers, so they have a fairly large, subconscious stock of built-in phrases, ideas, and concepts. Somewhere along the line I’ve read a fair amount about how athletes practice and how athletes become good (perhaps some of that material came from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience). I know how important practice and repetition are to any skill-based human endeavor. So I combined the idea of skill with writing and skill in basketball, since many students are more familiar with sports than with writing. Where did that analogy come from? I don’t know, exactly, but it’s there now, along with the idea that analogies are good, and explaining what I’m doing is good, and so are many other things.

To return to the athletic analogy, skill in sports also has a subjective element. Is Lebron James now better than Michael Jordan was when Jordan ruled? You can have this argument with morons in bars all day long. I’ve heard it and find it particularly tedious because the outcome is so unimportant. But both players are very clearly good, and at the top of their peers in their respective eras. The comparison at least makes sense.

One could also argue about whether Elmore Leonard or Alain de Botton is the better writer, although I would argue that they’re too different to make that a fruitful comparison; Elmore Leonard would be better matched against someone like Raymond Chandler or Patricia Highsmith. But Leonard and de Botton are both fantastically better writers than most freshmen; for one thing, most freshmen haven’t yet mastered the mechanical parts of writing, like how to use commas consistently and correctly (if they wish to), let alone higher questions about vocabulary, metaphor, and so on.

If you really want to get better, spend a lot of time reading, writing, and thinking about those activities. Then look back at your earlier work and judge its quality for yourself. Few students think the first draft of their first paper is as good as the final draft, and I tend to agree. Few people who consciously work throughout their lives think their work as, say, 20-year-old students is as good as their work at age 30.

With regard to thesis statements, good ones tend to have some aspect of how a text (I hate the term “text,” but it fits here) shows something (“Free-indirect speech in ‘She Wasn’t Soft. . .'”), what a text shows, usually symbolically (“is used to demonstrate how Paula and Jason, despite being a couple, really disdain each other”) and have some larger point to make (“which shows that what people think and how people behave don’t always match”).

That’s not a great thesis statement because I’m doing it quickly and freeform, but a better one might say something like, “The use of free-indirect speech in ‘She Wasn’t Soft’ demonstrates that Paula is actually soft, despite her repeated claims to the contrary, and that Jason and Paula’s mutual loathing sustains their relationship, despite what they say.” That’s still not the sort of thesis statement I’d use to write a publishable academic paper, but it’s closer. Many if not most student papers are missing one of those elements. Not every thesis needs all three, but they’re not bad ideas to check for.

Over time and with experience, I’ve developed, and you’ll develop, a fairly good eye for thesis statements. Eventually, when you’re sufficiently practiced, you won’t necessarily use explicit thesis statements—your thesis will be implied in your writing. Neal Stephenson doesn’t really have an explicit thesis statement in “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out,” although his last line may function as one, and Roland Barthes definitely doesn’t have an explicit one in “The Brain of Einstein.” Thesis statements aren’t necessarily appropriate to all genres, all the time.

When I started teaching, I thought I was going to be a revolutionary and not teach thesis statements at all. I wrote about that experience here. The experiment didn’t work. Most undergrads need thesis statements. So I started teaching them, and student papers got better and more focused, and I’ve been doing so ever since.

Your question or questions are about the inherent challenges of writing, and those don’t have easily summarized answers. The problem also comes from language. Language itself is imprecise, or, alternately, layered with meaning; that’s where so much humor and misunderstanding comes from (and humor could be considered a kind of deliberate misunderstanding). I’ve read about how, when computer scientists tried to start making translation systems and natural-language processing systems, they ran into the ambiguity problem—and that problem still hasn’t been fully solved, as anyone who’s tried to use text-to-speech software, or Google translate, can easily find (I wish I could find any citations or discussions regarding this issue; if you happen to run across any, send them over).

This line of questioning also leads into issues of semiotics—how signs, signaling, and reception function—and the degree of specificity necessary to be good. Trying to specify every part of good writing is like trying to specify every aspect of good writing: you get something like McDonald’s. While McDonald’s does a lot of business, I wouldn’t want to eat there, and it’s pretty obvious that something is lost is the process (Joel Spolsky’s article “Big Macs vs. the Naked Chef” (sfw) also uses McDonald’s as a cautionary tale, this time for software developers; you should definitely read it).

I’m going to interrupt this essay to quote from Joel:

The secret of Big Macs is that they’re not very good, but every one is not very good in exactly the same way. If you’re willing to live with not-very-goodness, you can have a Big Mac with absolutely no chance of being surprised in the slightest.

Bad high school teachers often try to get students to write essays that are not very good in exactly the same way. I’m trying to get students, and myself, to write essays that are good and that a human might want to read. This guarantees that different students will approach the problem space in different ways, some more successfully than others, and different essays are going to be good in different ways. I’m trying to get students to think about the process and, more broadly, to think not just about the solutions, but about the domain; how you conceptualize the problem domain will change what you perceive as the solution. Learning to conceptualize the problem domain is an essential part of the writing process that’s often left out of high school and even college. That being said, if you ever find yourself in front of 20 or 30 novice writers, you’ll quickly see that some are much better than others, even if there’s much wiggle room between a C and C+.

I don’t get the sense that students who are unhappy with their grades are unhappy out of a deeply felt and considered sense of aesthetic disagreement about fundamental literary or philosophical principles. I suspect I feel this way partially because I have a fairly wide or broad sense of “good” writing—or at least writing good enough to get through undergrad English classes, and someone with sufficient sophistication and knowledge to make a good argument about aesthetics or the philosophy of writing would be very unlikely to get a sufficiently low mark to want to argue about it. Rather, I think most students who are unhappy about their grades just want better grades, without doing the thinking and writing necessary to get them.

These issues are compounded by the a meta-issue: many if not most K – 12 English (and other humanities) teachers are bad. And many of them aren’t that smart or knowledgeable (which tends to overlap with “bad”). So a lot of students—especially those on the brighter side—inchoately know that their teachers are bad, and that something stinks, and therefore they conclude that English is bogus anyway, as are related fields. This has a lot of unfortunate consequences on both the individual and societal level; books like C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures are one manifestation of this larger problem.

In general, I’d like for people to try and get along, see each other’s points of view, and be tolerant—not only in fields like religion and politics, but also things like the humanities / sciences, or reason / emotion, or any number of the other possibly false binaries that people love to draw for reasons of convenience.

Finally (at least on this topic), if you think I’m completely wrong about what makes good writing (and what makes writing good), you have a huge world out there and can judge the reaction to your writing. Twilight and The Da Vinci Code are poorly written novels, yet millions of people have read and enjoyed them—many fewer than have read Straight Man, one of my favorite novels and one that’s vastly better written. Who’s right: the millions of teenage girls who think they’re in love with the stilted, wooden prose that makes up Edward, or me, who sees the humor in a petulant English department? It depends on what you mean by “right.” If I were a literary agent or editor, I would’ve passed on both Twilight and The Da Vinci Code. Definitions of “good” are uncertain, and the ones I embrace and impose on students are worth questioning. If you can at least understand where I’m coming from and why I hold the views I do, however, I’ll consider my work a relative success.

Most people’s conception of “good” differs at different points in their lives; I’m in my 20s and view writing very differently than I did in my teens. I would be surprised if I view writing the same way in my 40s. One major change is that I’ve done so much reading, and probably will do so much reading. Someone who doesn’t read very much, or doesn’t challenge themselves when they do read, may find that their standards don’t change as much either. I could write much more on this point alone, but for the most part you’ll have to trust me: your tastes will probably change.

This email is a long way of saying, “I’m not trying to bullshit you, but the problem domain itself is hard, and that domain is not easy to explain, without even getting into its solution.”

The short version of this email is “trust me,” or, alternatively, spend the next ten years of your life pondering and contemplating these issues while reading about them, and then you’ll have a pretty good grasp of what good writing means. Writing is one of these 10,000 hour skills in that it probably takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to get good. Start now and you’ll be better in a couple years.

Sharp Objects — Gillian Flynn

The first time through Sharp Objects I though it totally absurd, since the characters in it behave like fantastical morons perpetually rolling on ecstasy or akin to faeries from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The plausibility of the plot is so low that I almost gave up, exasperated.

But I kept reading the first time and was curious enough to reread the second time and realize that Sharp Objects is not about a realistic story of realistic detection; instead, it’s a mythic-Freudian* work about the anxiety that comes from two related phenomena: transitions to adulthood and the muddying of lines between the generations. Camille, the protagonist, is supposed to be an adult (she’s a reporter for paper, she covers murders, she pays the rent) but around her mother she acts like a child and around her 13-year-old sister she acts like a peer.

Sharp_ObjectsOnce this alternate reading became clear, Sharp Objects became pleasant. It’s not supposed to be realistic (or, if it is, it fails so badly at its purpose that it might as well be read my way). It’s a fairy tale with a bit of media critique thrown in, and it says that girls and women have the dark urges that are often absent from fiction and from the news. Camille needs to reconcile her family relationships and her family’s history in order to understand the murders she’s investigating. Conventional reportorial skills and abilities are of little use; at best one might say she employs some aspects of New or Gonzo Journalism, since she does in fact drop ecstasy at one point.

In the novel Camille is dispatched by her editor to her home town to investigate a murder that becomes a series of murders of girls. The novel signals its intentions early. Camille is describing the home town she came from, and she ends the first chapter with this:

When I was still in grammar school, maybe twelve, I wandered into a neighbor boy’s hunting shed, a wood-planked shack where animals were stripped and split. Ribbons of moist, pink flesh dangled from strings, waiting to be dried for jerky. The dirt floor was rusted with blood. The walls were covered with photographs of naked women. Some of the girls were spreading themselves wide, others were being held down and penetrated. One woman was tied up, her eyes glazed, her breasts stretched and veined like grapes, as a man took her from behind. I could smell them all in the thick, gory air.

At home that night, I slipped a finger under my panties and masturbated for the first time, panting and sick.

The blurred mental lines between sexuality, animals, reproduction, and early age remain a theme that runs through the novel.

Attention is also a scarce resource in the novel: Camille constantly seeks it from her mother, even at the risk of being dangerous, and also seeks it from men (at least at first). Her sister is repeating Camille’s experience. Parents are either absent (from page 21: “I wondered where their mother was”) or overwhelming. Family sexuality recurs; here is one early example, from Camille’s narration:

The Victorians, especially southern Victorians, needed a lot of room to stray away from each other, to duck tuberculosis and flu, to avoid rapacious lust, to wall themselves away from sticky emotions. Extra space is always good.

“Stray” is an exact quote. And if extra space is always good, why then does Camille go to her mother’s house? She returns to a point of danger in search of information, like Little Red Riding Hood entering the Wolf’s house. The novel itself keeps pointing to Fairy Tales. Amma, Camille’s sister, says:

now we’re reunited. You’re like poor Cinderella, and I’m the evil stepsister. Half sister.

A few pages later, Camille speaks with a boy who says that he saw a “woman” take the second girl, who turns up murdered. She thinks this of him:

What did James Capisi see? The boy left me uneasy. I didn’t think he was lying. But children digest terror differently. The boy saw a horror, and that horror became the wicked witch of fairy tales, the cruel snow queen.

No one believes that the killer is a woman because women don’t behave that way. But wicked and evil women are pronounced in fairy tales.

This details occurs in Camille’s mother’s house:

Walking past Amma’s room, I saw her sitting very properly on the edge of a rocking chair, reading a book called Greek Goddesses. Since I’d been here, she’d played at being Joan of Arc and Bluebeard’s wife and Princess Diana—all martyrs, I realized. She’d find even unhealthier role models among the goddesses. I left her to it.

There are more. These are enough.

Seemingly no one grows up in Sharp Objects. Nearly every woman in Wind Gap still gossips like she’s in high school. Growing up is hard and harder for some of us than others. Perhaps we never fully leave childhood behind. Camille can’t. Her sister Amma is in some ways eager to leave childhood (she behaves like a pro when it comes to the inciting the desires of men) but in other ways wants its protections. In our culture, she can legally at least get both,** and she behaves in both ways. At one moment Amma is behaving like an infant:

Amma lolled sleepy as a newborn in her blanket, smacking her lips occasionally. It was the first time I’d seen my mother since our trip to Woodberry. I hovered in front of her, but she wouldn’t take her eyes off Amma.

In others she doesn’t, as when she says that after her mother takes care of her, “I like to have sex.” Then:

She flipped up her skirt from behind, flashed me a hot pink thong.
“I don’t think you should let boys do things to you, Amma. Because that’s what it is. It’s not reciprocal at your age.”

Camille’s counsel is distinctly odd, coming from someone who did similar things at similar ages and, it would appear, for similar reasons. But she doesn’t at this moment have the power to break the familial cycle, with its hints and implications of incest. That waits until later.

Camille’s decision to enter this cauldron of weirdness reinforces the idea that Sharp Objects is more about family patterns and dynamics than detection. In one of the flimsier rationales in the book, Camille stays with her mother, her stepfather, and her adolescent sister, ostensibly for the sake of saving the paper money, but this decision is insane given her relationship to the family. That she continues to stay as events become more and more macabre and surreal are equally insane and implausible. Camille should leave, and that’s obvious to any sane reader and should be obvious to her. That she stays anyway indicates that the story has motives different than the ones I initially assumed.


* Freud has a much stronger mythic element to his work than is commonly supposed—and so I’m justified in using myth and Freud in this way. Much of his work is unfalsifiable, giving what is nominally a scientific body of work a distinctly literary quality, and the supposed universality of many of his concepts (the death drive, the Oedipus complex, etc.) are not supportable.

* Let me reproduce the footnote at the link:

As Judith Levine notes in Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex: “One striking pair of contradictory trends: as we raise the age of consent for sex, we lower the age at which a wrongdoing child may be tried and sentenced as an adult criminal. Both, needless to say, are ‘in the best interests’ of the child and society.” And, as Laurie Schaffner points out in a separate essay collection, “[…] in certain jurisdictions, young people may not purchase alcohol until their twenty-first birthday, or may be vulnerable plaintiffs in a statutory rape case at 17 years of age, yet may be sentenced to death for crimes committed at age 15 [….]”

Laws [. . .] reflect race and gender norms: white girls are the primary target of age-of-consent laws, while African American youth are the target of laws around crime and delinquency. The contradictory trends are readily explained by something rather unpleasant in society.

I didn’t elaborate on what the “unpleasant” thing may be and won’t here, either, but you’re welcome to take a shoot at your best interpretation in the comments.

“All American fiction is young adult fiction: Discuss”

Via Twitter Hollis Robbins offers a prompt: “‘[A]ll American fiction is young-adult fiction.’ Discuss.” Her takeoff is A. O. Scott’s excellent “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” which you should go read; oddly, it does not mention the show Entourage, which may be the best contemporary narrative artifact / fantasy about the perpetual party.*

American fiction tends toward comedy more than “young-adult” because comedy = tragedy – consequences. AIDS fiction is tragic because people die. Most contemporary heterosexual love stories are comedy because the STIs tend to be curable or not that important; people who are diligent with birth control rarely get pregnant. Facing death, starvation, or other privations have always been the adult’s lot, and adults who made sufficiently bad choices regarding resource allocation or politics died. Think of the numerous adults who could have done everything they could to flee the area between Russia and Germany in 1914 and didn’t, or the ones who didn’t after 1918 and before the Holocaust. The example is extreme but it illustrates the principle. Frontier and farm life was relentlessly difficult and perilous.

Today by contrast we live in the a world of second chances. America is a “victim,” although that is the wrong word, of its own success. If you color more or less inside the lines and don’t do anything horrendous, life can be awesome. People with an agreeable and conscientious disposition can experience intense pleasures and avoid serious pain for decades; not everyone takes to this (see for example the works of Michel Houellebecq) but many do. The literary can write essays, the scientists can do science, the philosophers can argue with each other, the business guys have a fecund environment, and the world’s major problems are usually over “there” somewhere, across the oceans. If we ever get around to legalizing drugs we’ll immediately stabilize every country from Mexico to Chile.**

What are the serious challenges that Americans face as a whole? In the larger world there is no real or serious—”serious” being a word associated with adulthood—ideological alternatives to democracy or capitalism. Dictatorships still exist but politics are on the whole progressing instead of regressing, Russia and parts of the Middle East excepted.

One could reframe the question of all American fiction being young adult fiction to: “Why not young adult fiction?” Adults send young people to war to die; adulthood is World War II, us against them, thinking that if we don’t fight them in Saigon we’ll have to fight them in Seattle. Adults brought us Vietnam. Young people brought us rock ‘n’ roll, rap, and EDM. Adults want to be dictators, whether politically or religiously, and the young want to party and snag the girl(s) or guy(s) of their dreams.

Adulthood is associated with boredom, stagnation, suburbs, and death. Responsibility is for someone else, if possible, and those who voluntarily assume responsibility rarely seem to be rewarded for it in the ways that really count (I will be deliberately ambiguous on what those ways are). Gender politics and incentives in the U.S. and arguably Western Europe are more screwed up than many of us would want to admit, and in ways that current chat among the clerisy and intellectual class do not reflect or discuss. If adulthood means responsibility, steady jobs, and intense fidelity, then we’ve been dis-incentivizing it for decades, though we rarely want to confront that.

Many people are so wealthy and safe that they are bored. In the absence of real threats they invent fake ones (vaccines) or worry disproportionately about extremely unlikely events (kidnapping). Being a steady person in a steady (seeming) world is often thus perceived as being dull. In contemporary dating, does the stolid guy or girl win, or does hot funny and unreliable guy or girl win?

A lot of guys have read the tea leaves: divorce can be a dangerous gamble while marriage offers few relationship rewards that can’t be achieved without involving the legal establishment or the state more generally. A shockingly large number of women are willing to bear the children of men they aren’t married to: 40.7%$ of births now occur to unmarried women, and that number has been rising for decades.

Why take on responsibility when no one punishes you for evading it and arguably active irresponsibility is rewarded in many ways, while safety nets exist to catch those who are hurt by the consequences of their actions? That’s our world, and it’s often the world of young adulthood; in fiction we can give ourselves monsters to fight and true enduring love that lasts forever, doesn’t have bad breath in the morning, and doesn’t get bored of us in four years. Young adult fiction gives us the structure lacking in the rest of our lives.

Moreover, there has always been something childlike in the greatest scientists and artists. Children feel unconstrained by boundaries, and as they grow older they feel boundaries more and more acutely. I’m not about to argue that no one should have boundaries, but I am going to argue that retaining an adult version of the curiosity children have and the freedom they have is useful today and in many cases has always been useful.

The world has gotten so efficient that vast pools of money are available for venture capitalists to fund the future and tech guys to build or make it. The biggest “problem” may be that so many of us want to watch TV instead of writing code, but that may be a totally bunk argument because consumption has probably always been more common and easier than production.

In this world fiction should tend towards comedy, not the seriousness too typically associated with Literature.

If American fiction is young adult fiction, that may be a sign of progress.***


* Another show, Californication, mines similar themes but with (even weaker) plots and total implausibility. Here is an essay disagreeing with Scott: Adulthood Isn’t Dead.

** Breaking Bad and innumerable crime novels would have no driving impetus without drug prohibition. The entire crime sector would be drastically smaller almost overnight were we to legalize drugs and prostitution. That would be a huge win for society but harmful to fiction writers.

*** Usually I eschew polemics but today I make an exception.

The appeal of “pickup” or “game” or “The Redpill” is a failure of education and socialization

Since posting “The inequality that matters II: Why does dating in Seattle get left out?” and “Men are where women were 30 years ago?” I’ve gotten into a couple discussions about why Neil Strauss’s The Game is popular and why adjacent subjects like “pickup” and the “Redpill” have become more popular too. One friend wrote, “It’s so tedious to see how resentful men get—a subject much in the news lately because of the Santa Barbara shooting…”

That’s somewhat true, but underlying, longer-term trends are still worth examining. The world is more complex than it used to be in many respects, and that includes sex and dating. Until relatively recently—probably the late 60s / early 70s—it was common for most guys to marry a local girl, maybe straight out of high school, and marry a girl whose parents the guy probably knows and her parents probably know the guy’s. Parents, families, and religious authorities probably had a strong effect on what their children did, and a lot of men and women married as virgins. The dating script was relatively easy to follow and relatively many people paired early. In the 60s an explosion of divorces began, and that complicated matters in ways that are still being sorting out.

Today there are more hookups for a longer period of time and fewer universal scripts that everyone follows, or is supposed to be following. Instead, one sees a proliferation of possibilities, from the adventurous player—which is not solely a male role—to early marriage (though those early marriages tend to end in divorce).

Dating “inequality” has probably increased, since the top guys are certainly having a lot more sex than the median or bottom guys. To some extent high-status guys have always had more sex, but now “top” could mean dozens of partners at a relatively early age, and the numerical top is more readily available to guys who want it. In the old regime it was probably possible for almost everyone to find a significant other of some sort (and I think families had more sway and say). Now that may be harder, especially for guys towards the bottom who don’t want to realize that if they’re towards the bottom the women they’re likely to attract are likely to be around the same place. We don’t all get a Hollywood ending, and Hollywood itself is unrealistic.

Guys who notice that movies, TV shows, and some books portray an unlikely or unrealistic set of dating and marriage patterns should start to wonder what the “real thing” looks like. The Game isn’t bad, though it is dated, and I expect Tucker Max and Geoffrey Miller’s book Mate to be popular for reasons similar to the ones that made The Game popular.

I’ve also noticed an elegiac sense that a weirdly large number of the “pickup artists” or “Red Pill” (sometimes it’s used as two words, sometimes as one) or “manosphere” guys have about the past, and how back then it was relatively easy to find, date, and marry a woman. Much of this is probably mythological, and I don’t think most of them would be happy marrying at 20 or 24 and having two or three kids by 28 or 29.

Like all generalizations, the stereotype above are riddled with holes and exceptions—see further the oeuvre of John Updike—but I’m examining broad trends rather than specific details. Today almost no one gets married straight out of high school. Routine moves from city to city are normal, and each move often rips someone from the social networks that provide romantic connections. Families play a smaller and smaller role. Twenty-somethings, and especially women, don’t listen to their parents’s romantic advice.

If you don’t have the infrastructure of school, how do you meet lots of new people? Jobs are one possibility but looking for romantic prospects at work has obvious pitfalls. Online dating is another, but people who can’t effectively date offline often aren’t any better on—and are often worse.

Technology matters too. Technologies take a long time—decades, at least—to really reach fruition and for their ripples to be felt throughout societies and cultures. Virtually all big ideas start small.* That’s an important lesson from Where Good Ideas Come From, The Great Stagnation, The Enlightened Economy, and similar books about technological, economic, and social history.

A suite of interrelated technologies around birth control (like hormonal birth control itself, better forms of it, and easy condom distribution and acquisition) are still playing out. Same with antibiotics and vaccines against STIs. VOX offers one way to think about this in “From shame to game in one hundred years: An economic model of the rise in premarital sex and its de-stigmatisation.” It begins:

The last one hundred years have witnessed a revolution in sexual behaviour. In 1900, only 6% of US women would have engaged in premarital sex by the age of 19, compared to 75% today . . . Public acceptance of premarital sex has reacted with a lag.

Culture is still catching up. Pickup, game, and the Redpill, regardless of what you personally think of them, are part of the the cultural catchup. They’re responses from guys frustrated by the way their own efforts fail while some of their peers’s efforts succeed. A lot of women appear less interested in an okay guy with an okay job and an okay but not that exciting or fun life, relative to guys with a different set of qualities. Men invest in what they think women want and women invest in what they think men want, and relative wants have changed over time.

Almost every guy sees or knows at least one guy and often a couple who do spectacularly well with women. Guys who are frustrated or who can’t achieve the romantic life they want start to ask, “What are the successful guys doing that I’m not?” Pickup or game or the Redpill are different strains of systematic answers. All three may have things wrong with them, but all three are better than nothing. Saying “Women are mysterious” or “No one knows what women want” is bullshit, and guys only have to look around to notice it.

Pickup artists and those who read them are responding to a cultural milieu in which most guys get terrible socialization regarding dating and women. Pickup artists are stepping into that gap. They’re trying to answer questions in a concrete way, which most people, including their detractors, aren’t. In a review of Clarisse Thorn’s Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser I wrote:

feminism does very little to describe, let alone evaluate, how micro, day-to-day interactions are structured. Pickup artists, or whatever one may want to call guys who are consciously building their skills at going out and getting women, are describing the specific comments, conversations, styles, and venues women respond to. The pickup artists are saying, “This is how you approach a woman in a bar, this is how you strike up a conversation at the grocery store, and so forth.” In other words, they’re looking at how people actually go about the business of getting laid. Their work is often very detailed, and the overall thrust is toward the effectiveness of getting laid rather than how male-female interactions work in theory. Feminism, in Thorn’s view, appears to be silent, or mostly silent, on the day-to-day interactions.

Who else is doing that? Almost no one. As with virtually any other topic, one can muddle along through trial and error (and mostly error) or one can try to systematically learn about it and apply that learning to the problem domain, along with the learning others have done.

To be sure, the worst of the group if just trying to sell shit, and sell as much of it as possible to fools. The best of the group is saying things that almost no one else is saying.

Max, Miller, and Nils Parker wrote Mate: The Young Man’s Guide To Sex And Dating, which is, among other things, a description of modern dating and a description of why so many guys do it so badly for so long. Confusion reigns, and the book promises to be the sort of fun-but-comprehensive read that can be given to unhappy, puzzled guys who understand something is wrong but don’t know how to fix it.

One strategy in response to new social circumstances is to figure out what you should do to be reasonably successful and what you can do to make yourself more appealing. This is not a male-only question: virtually every issue of Cosmo is about how to attract men, retain men, and deal with female friends and rivals. Another is to blame women, or withdraw from dating, or kill innocents because of your own frustration.

If you think half the population isn’t into you, the problem is with you, not the population. There’s an important similarity to business here: If you start a business and no one wants to buy your products or services, you can blame the market or you can realize that you’re not doing what people want.

It’s easier to blame women than it is to make real changes, and there is a tendency among some of the self-proclaimed “Redpill”-types to do that. Paul Graham says the real secret to making wealth is to “Make something people want.” In dating the real “secret” (which isn’t a secret) is to be a person people like. How to do that can be a whole book’s worth of material.

Blame is easy and improvement is hard. Short guys do have it harder than tall guys—but so what? Go ask a fat girl, or a flat-chested one, how much fun dating is for her, compared to her slenderer or better-endowed competitors. Honesty in those conversations is probably rare, but it is out there: usually in late-night conversations after a couple drinks.

I don’t hate “pickup artists” as a group, though I dislike the term and wish there was something better. Many of the critics are accurate. But so what? criticizing without recognizing the impetus for the development in the first place is attacking the plant while ignoring the roots. This post, like so many of the posts I write, is looking at or attempting to look at the root.

Feminism didn’t come from nowhere. Neither has pickup.


* Which is not to say that all small ideas will automatically become big. Most don’t. But ideas, technologies, practices, and cultures spread much more slowly than is sometimes assumed, especially among the rah-rah tech press.

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