Briefly noted — Do I Make Myself Clear? — Harold Evans

If you’ve read in the vast genre of how-to-write books—everything from Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style to John Trimble’s Writing With Style to Zinsser’s On Writing Well—you’ve already in effect read Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters. It’s a good book, just not one that advances the art or covers material you’ve not seen covered elsewhere.

It starts with Orwell and “Politics and the English Language,” which indicts “bad English for corrupting thought and slovenly thought for corrupting language,” then goes to say that “eternal vigilance is the price of intelligent literacy.” Problem is that I don’t think we’ve been vigilant and I don’t see signs of increasing literacy—in political terms, if anything we see the opposite. The kinds of people who need to read Do I Make Myself Clear? don’t read and don’t care.

Elsewhere we find that

There is no compulsion to be concise on either the Internet or the profusion of television and radio channels; and in writing of every kind, Twitter apart, we see more words, more speed, less clarity, and less honesty, too, since with “demand media” you never know whether a review of Swan Lake will conceal a hard sell about toenail fungus.

I like a good rant as much as the next guy, but do we know we’re seeing “more words, more speed, less clarity?” How do we know? How would we even measure this? I don’t know. Does “speed” mean speed of writing, speed of reading, both, or neither? I don’t know that either. Knowing is hard.

To be sure, there’s a long history of language exhortations violating the very rules they posit (few of those who decry adverbs and passive voice fail to use both). But it can be interesting to apply the same principles being espoused to the work doing the espousing, to see if it follows its own command.

Is most narrative art just a series of status games?

In The Righteous Mind Jonathan Haidt writes:

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

And those post hoc constructions are often “crafted” subconsciously, without the speaker or listener even aware of what they’re doing. It occurs to me in light of this that most narrative art and the moral reasoning implied in it is just a set of moral status games: someone, usually the narrator, is trying to raise their own status and perhaps that of their group too. Seen in this way a lot of novels, TV shows, and movies get stripped of their explicit content and become vehicles for intuitive status games. Police shows are perhaps the worst offenders but are by no means the only ones. Most romance novels are about raising the heroine’s status through the acquisition of a high-status man.

One could apply similar logic to other genres. While realizing this may make most narrative art more boring, it may also open the possibility of writing narrative art that is explicitly not about status games, or that tries to avoid them to the extent possible. Science fiction may be the genre least prone to relentless status gaming, though “least prone” may also be faint praise.

Where does personality come from?

In “Sentences to ponder, The Strong Situation Hypothesis,” Tyler Cowen quotes from a study:

This hypothesis, based on the work of Mischel (1977), proposes that personality differences are especially like to be outwardly expressed in “weak” situations offering no clear situational clues and a wide range of possibilities as to how to behave. Conversely, individual differences are expected to have less room for expression in “strong” situations where the choice of behavioral outcomes is severely limited and where everyone is bound to behave in a similar way.

That’s especially interesting to me because I’ve long said that many literary novels are concerned with family, love, politics, and the like because those are open-ended domains that tend to be places where personalities can be expressed. In many “flat” thrillers, by contrast, there is one obvious right thing to do (stop the bad guys, don’t let the nuclear device go off, etc.) and the only important question is whether the thing can be accomplished and how it can be accomplished. In that respect personality becomes backgrounded to the task at hand. The interior mental state of the characters become binary: They succeed or they fail. Their sense of interiority isn’t that important.

In a genre like science fiction one can see the thriller model at work in a novel like The Martian, in which survival is the only important question, and the broader model at work in a novel like Stranger in a Strange Land, or in many others. In real life, the kind of music a person who is starving to death likes is not very important, but the kind of music a person who is on a date likes may be very important.

Alternately, one could say that personality is a relatively high point on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (whatever the other deficiencies of the hierarchy model).

(In another world, this point could be part of the “Character” chapter in How Fiction Works.)

I wrote a little more about this here, previously, in 2011.

Two visions for the future, inadvertently juxtaposed: Nell Zink and Marc Andreessen

Last week’s New Yorker inadvertently offers two visions for the future: one in a profile of the writer Nell Zink and the other in a profile of the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen. Both profiles are excellent. One of their subjects, however, is mired in a fixed, contemporary mindset, while the other subject looks to a better future.

This is Schultz’s description of Zink: “Zink writes about the big stuff: the travesty of American apartheid; the sexual, economic, and intellectual status of women; the ephemerality of desire and its enduring consequences.” Is any of that stuff really big? Does it matter? Or is it just a list of somewhat transitory issues that obsess modern intellectuals who are talking to each other through magazines like The New Yorker? The material well-being of virtually any American is so much higher than it was in, say, 1900, as to diminish the relative importance of many of the ideas Zink or Schultz considers “big.” At one point Zink “delivered a short lecture on income stagnation: a bird ridiculing its fellow-bird for stupidity.” But global inequality is falling and, moreover, the more interesting question may be absolute material conditions, rather than relative ones. One gets the sense that Zink is a more parochial thinker than she thinks. I sense from The Wallcreeper that she writes about the motiveless and pathless.

Here, by contrast, is Andreessen as described by Tad Friend:

Andreessen is tomorrow’s advance man, routinely laying out “what will happen in the next ten, twenty, thirty years,” as if he were glancing at his Google calendar. He views his acuity as a matter of careful observation and extrapolation, and often invokes William Gibson’s observation “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Jet packs have been around for half a century, but you still can’t buy them at Target.


The game in Silicon Valley, while it remains part of California, is not ferocious intelligence or a contrarian investment thesis: everyone has that. It’s not even wealth [. . . .] It’s prescience. And then it’s removing every obstacle to the ferocious clarity of your vision: incumbents, regulations, folkways, people. Can you not just see the future but summon it?

Having a real vision counts, and it seems that too few people have a vision for the future. Andreessen is thinking not of today but of what can be made better tomorrow. I would not deny the impact of slavery on contemporary culture or the importance of desire on life, but I would ask Zink: if the U.S. is doing things poorly, who is doing them better? And if the U.S. is doing things poorly why then is Silicon Valley the center of the future?

One of these people reads as an optimist, the other as a pessimist. One reads as someone who makes things happen and the other as someone who complains about things that other people do. One reads as a person with a path. The other doesn’t.

Don’t get me wrong. I liked The Wallcreeper when I read it a couple months ago. I didn’t have much to say about it on this blog because it seems kind of interesting but left me without much feeling. But I can’t help thinking that Andreessen’s vision for the future is big, while Zink’s vision of the present is small.

As a bonus, check out “All Hail the Grumbler! Abiding Karl Kraus,” which is poorly titled but describes Jonathan Franzen’s relationship to art, technology, and other matters. He’s in the Zink school; perhaps something about studying German inculcates an anti-technology backlash among writers, since Germany and the U.S. are both among the most technophilic societies in the world (for good reasons, I would argue). From the article:

Kraus’s savage criticism of popular newspapers, suspicion of technology, and defense of art all appeal to Franzen, whose nonfiction essays strike similar notes. For instance, in the spirit of Kraus, Franzen has attacked the intrusiveness of cellphones and the loss of private space as people bark out the dreck of their lives.

But even “privacy” is a relatively new idea: being alone to read books only really got going in the 18th Century, when books got cheap enough for normal people to borrow them from libraries. The luddites of the day lamented the withdrawal from the private sphere into onanistic privacy. They asked: Why wrap yourself in some imaginary world when the big real world is out there?

As you may imagine I’m more neutral towards these developments. Like many literary types I think the world would be a better place with more reading and less reality TV, but I’ll also observe that the kind of people who share that view are likely to read this blog and the kind of people who don’t aren’t likely to give a shit about what I or anyone like me says.

Much later in the essay its author, Russell Jacoby, writes: “Denouncing capitalist technology has rarely flourished on the left, which, in general, believes in progress.” I get what he’s saying, But denouncing technology in general has always been a fool’s game because a) pretty much everyone uses it and b) to the extent one generation (or a member of a generation) refuses a given technology, the next generation takes it up entirely. Franzen may not like technology circa 2015 but he is very fond of the technology of the printing press. At what point does Franzen think “good” technology stopped?

I’m reminded, unfairly perhaps, of the many noisy environmentalists I’ve known who do things like bring reusable bags to grocery but then fly on planes at least a couple times a year. Buy flying pollutes more than pretty much anything anyone else does. A lot of SUV-drivers living in exurbs actually create less pollution than urban cosmopolitans who fly every two months. By the same token, the same people who denounce one set of technical innovations are often dependent on or love some other set of technical innovations.

Almost no one wants to really, really go backwards, technologically speaking, in time. Look at behaviors rather than words. I do believe that Franzen doesn’t use Facebook or write a blog or whatever, but he probably uses other stuff, and, if he has kids, they probably want smart phones and video games because all their friends have smart phones and video games.

I’m not saying smart phones and video games are good—quite the opposite, really—and I’m sympathetic to Zimbardo’s claim that “video games and porn are destroying men.” But I am saying that the claims about modern technology doing terrible things to people or culture goes back centuries and has rarely if ever proven true, and the people making such claims are usually, when viewed in the correct light, hypocrites on some level. Jacoby does hit a related point: “Presumably, if enough people like SUVs, reality TV, and over-priced athletic footwear, little more may be said. The majority has spoken.” But I want to emphasize the point and say more about not the banal cultural stuff like bad TV (and obviously there is interesting TV) but the deeper stuff, like technology.

The Andreessens of the world are right. There is no way back. The only way is forward, whether we want to admit it or not. The real problem with our cultural relationship to technology—and this is a Peter Thielian point—is that we’re in denial about dependence, need, and the need to build the future.

Novelty, art, business

“[T]he most important task in business—the creation of new value—cannot be reduced to a formula and applied by professionals,” as Thiel says in Zero to One, which, if you haven’t read it, you should stop reading this post and go read it instead. Read properly it’s about art as much as business. The most important task in art may also explain why art schools bother us (sample: “Why Writers Love to Hate the M.F.A.?“): they take what might be successful master-apprentice relationships and make them professional—that is, more like consultants than like artists. Maybe the best consultants are artists.

There’s more evidence for this: Genre writers often bother literary writers, perhaps because genre writers tend to execute a formula rather than innovate (the word “tend” is key here). If genre writers do come up with a new formula, they tend to iterate on that formula rather than seeking to discover a whole new one; while this might be admired in science and to some extent business it rarely is by artists, who often value noble, large-scale failure over commercial success. It’s easier to scorn what people want than it is to give them what they want, or make what they want.

Many writers of literary fiction are attempting to be novel, though I would argue that most attempts, even those that are highly praised, are actually bad. They may be bad in a way likely to provide tenure for future English professors, but the badness remains, and it isn’t clear that MFA and related programs help inculcate the idea that the most important task is the creation of new value, which by definition can’t be foreseen ahead of time. If someone foresaw it, they would execute, and the value would be there. Unpredictability may also be why so many artistic careers are difficult: you don’t know if you’re really creating value until it’s too late. Efforts at standardization are futile. Value may not even be recognized in your lifetime. You really are Sisyphus. When I first read the core part of The Myth of Sisphyus, in high school, I thought it stupid, yet it remains with me because it touches something at the core of not just art but life.

As Jonah Lehrer wrote, “although we are always surrounded by our creations, there is something profoundly mysterious about the creative process.” That mystery exists across fields.

The inequality that matters II: Why does dating in Seattle get left out?

In “Amazon is killing my sex life: The tech boom in Seattle is bringing in droves of successful, straight single guys — all of them insufferable,” Tricia Romano writes about how she “wasn’t going to be able to get it up for a boring tech dude” and says that “as Amazon grows, the number of (boring) men grows too.” In Palo Alto, men “had money, but they were boring.” Meanwhile, “On the dates, they flash money around.” By now you sense a theme. In Romano’s narrative—which I don’t entirely buy, but let’s roll with it—these guys could make an effectively infinite amount of money and that money in her view wouldn’t improve their dating prospects. They are yuppie losers to a refined writerly sensibility.

Romano doesn’t make an interesting connection to national income inequality. By now much of that argument is well-known, and Piketty’s Capital is one surprisingly famous take, though I am a bleacher skeptic. Still, there is a lot of media noise around income inequality, perhaps in part because media people tend to congregate in very expensive cities like New York and L.A., where making six figures can feel genuinely middle class and where the proximity to the stupendously wealthy invites invidious comparisons.

Nonetheless, Romano’s article should be required reading for anyone who writes about or inveighs against inequality in purely financial terms. In the U.S. there are many different status ladders and finance is only one. For many, like Romano, it’s not even the most important one.

Income is not the only thing that one can choose to optimize and indeed of the guys I know the ones who get or seem to get more / better women tend not to be the richest. Artists or the artistically inclined tend to have lower income but higher-seeming satisfaction. The “seeming” qualifications are important because it’s hard to tell from the outside what someone really feels, but in the absence of better measures I tend to accept what appears on the surface.

Elliott Rodger, the guy who murdered half a dozen people at UCSB, apparently “Led A Life Of Luxury” but still felt like he couldn’t get laid. Clearly there were many things wrong with Rodger, but money did not alleviate those things. He was on the right side of monetary inequality and the wrong side of dating inequality.

I don’t have a major point in this except to note that there is a (media) obsession with income inequality. That obsession tends to gloss other status ladders and other things people value. Some kinds status can also convert into money: certain kinds of fame, for example. Attractive women can earn supernormal wages through stripping or prostitution; I’m not arguing those are desirable life choices but they are viable options for some people and not others. There are still some strength- and endurance-based jobs that guys find within reach—think commercial fishing and fracking.

I’m focusing on sex in this post but that is merely a salient one and there are others, like academia. Romano probably values being a writer more than making a lot of money. In “Taxing a Professor’s Privilege,” Megan McArdle writes about how job guarantees are financially valuable even if that value isn’t traditionally measured in dollars (she also wrote the post that gave this post its title: “The Inequality That Matters“).

If those guys Romano dated imbibed the messages that a) their earnings matter tremendously to women and that b) being at the top of the financial heap matters most, then they’ve presumably misallocated resources. They’d be better off with less time working at Amazon and more time reading Starting Strength and hitting the gym.

Romano’s post doesn’t sit alone. It’s got a similar vibe to “I Got Shipped to California to Date Tech Guys,” which sounds like the beginning of a romantic comedy but is really a jeremiad about what it seems to be about.

To be sure, everyone seems to like to complain about dating, so maybe everyone, everywhere, complains all the time. For most of my life I’ve heard straight women complain about men and straight men complain about women. The specifics of the complaints change but the complaints themselves remain.

Finally, as with so many modern social issues this is tied into building restrictions and real-estate issues, since many guys who are exciting but not rich presumably can’t afford to live in Seattle. Seattle and many other areas (New York, L.A.) could improve both dating prospects and finances through increasing the supply of housing, as Matt Yglesias argues at the link, but they choose not to.

Fundamentals in fiction and the question of obligations

The context is David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk and the great mathematician G. H. Hardy’s hatred for the “tripos,” a now-defunct series of math tests at Cambridge that served as a sort of hazing ritual something like modern-day dissertations (Hardy despises them for “The tedium. The sense of energy diverted, imagination stifled”). To pass, many candidates received encouragement and expert tutoring. In this exchange a character named Gaye speaks first, after learning that Hardy, despite his feelings about the Tripos as an institution, will tutor someone about to undergo them:

“Coaching an undergraduate for the tripos. The tripos, of all things! And after all the screeds I’ve heard you deliver against the damned—”
“He won’t make it otherwise,” [Hardy said.]
“Is it your job to save him?”
“Someone saved me.”
“But Love didn’t coach you. He just sent you back to Webb. [. . .] Yours is a more specialized erotic thrill, that of rescuing the fair damsel from the jaws of the dragon.”

There is a perpetual tension discussed here: how much, if any, obligation do we have to others and do they have to us? The question can never be satisfactorily resolved, only explored, and for that reason it is likely to be of interest to novelists (or anyone creating narrative art). Gaye and Hardy are both in their own ways right. Two or more people or viewpoints who both have reasonable claims to rightness is a fertile place for intelligent drama.

One joy of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is the conflict between Marina and Dr. Swenson: when one speaks I agree with her; when the other speaks I agree with her. It’s not easy to sustain this level of conflict without giving one character the upper-hand, the right answer. Novels that do so often descend to the level of propaganda rather than art.

To return to Hardy and Gaye: Relatively few of us go through life completely, callously indifferent to the suffering and travails of others but equally so very few of us devote everything we can to “saving” others (for one thing, they often don’t want to be saved, and can’t be saved from themselves). Somewhere between those poles of total indifference and utter devotion we wander erratically, with no consistent reason, helping some—even making it our “job”—and ignoring others.

Often, however, in helping others we are also helping ourselves in some sense. Hence Gaye’s reference to the erotic thrill: it’s easier to innocently “help” someone attractive, or who is likely to be in a position to pay back a favor, but very easy to deny mixed motivations—until someone else, or some other character, points them out.

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