The Rub of Time — Martin Amis

Language is imprecise. Push words too far and they fall apart. This is annoying, for obvious reasons, but also interesting, for artistic ones, and Amis does “a great deal of polishing” in these pieces, “trying to make myself clearer, less ambiguous, and more precise.” And sometimes, I think, imprecise or allusive in interesting ways. As a writer he also confronts the way words also contain a lot of historical residue. Amis mentions Northrop Frye, “a literary philosopher-king to whom I owe fealty.” Fealty: a curious word associated with the Middle Ages and a set of social-economic circumstances that don’t exist in Western Europe or the United States anymore. I’m sure Amis knows it’s a curious word and one that does strange work, here. A lot of Amis words do strange work and that’s part of the reason we like him.

To me, if you’ve not read nonfiction Amis, you’re best off starting with The War Against Cliché, which changed the direction and tenor of my own work. My affection for War may be a historical accident: right work, right time, right mind for a major collision. But it may be that good, and it offers some context for The Rub of Time. The essay that most stands out to me may be the one on Larkin: suddenly, I want to read him, and that’s a great effect of a great essay. “No: Larkin is not a poet’s poet. He is of course a people’s poet, which is what he would have wanted. But he is also, definingly, a novelist’s poet. It is the novelists who revere him.” I’d never thought so. Yet now I do.

Amis gets humor: this will make his own work age well, I think, particularly in an age when momentary political rage too often replaces humor. The humorous Amis is not readily quotable, though, because he’s too contextual. On Twitter, rage seems more common than comedy, when in life the opposite seems true. The smartest people I know seem much fonder of comedy than outrage. And the replacement by outrage of comedy in contemporary universities seems one of their problems, and yet one that no one is doing anything to address. Comedy pierces conventional pieties, of the sort that seem very popular on campus.

Some essays are, in my view, wildly skippable—like the one on a Republican National Convention, or the Trump one. Both the RNC and Trump are fact-free zones; to the extent either generates what might be termed “ideas,” those ideas are too unmoored from something like reality to be worth considering. The best one can hope for regarding the current incarnation of the Republican party is resounding defeat in 2018 and 2020, which leads to a reformation. Then again, I would’ve hoped for the same in 2014 and 2016, by which point the madness in the party had manifested itself, and it didn’t happen. A million intellectually sophisticated essays have done near zero to affect voting outcomes. Which is disheartening to someone who likes writing and reading such essays: if an essay falls in a forest, and no one reads it, does it make a sound?

And some Amis essays are just dated. The porn industry moves fast, and “In Pornoland” is useful historically and to someone interested in the history of the industry, but given that it was published in 2000, it feels its age. The first four paragraphs are hilarious, though, and I won’t quote them so as to not spoil the effect.

Amis is a noticer in his fiction and a noticer in his nonfiction: it’s fun to see the expert doing his thing. He’s done the reading, like most people haven’t. He’s got the context for the reading. He writes that, “Accusing novelists of egotism is like deploring the tendency of champion boxers to turn violent.” He also acknowledges when things have changed. He wrote a long piece on the actor John Travolta, but the postscript notes that “As it turned out, Travolta’s resurgence lacked staying power.” Lacking staying power, however, “is not to be compared with the death of Jett Travolta, in 2009 (a seizure, related to his autism). Jett was 16.” That’s how the piece ends, now: with perspetive, which can sometimes be absent in writing about celebrities.

Amis makes me want to be a better writer. I hope he does the same for you.

“The right really was coming after college next”

Excuse the awkward headline and focus on the content in “The right really was coming after college next.” Relatively few people point out that college has been coming after the right for a very long time; sometimes college correctly comes after the right (e.g. Iraq War II), but the coming after is usually indiscriminate. I’ve spent my entire adult life hearing professors say that Republicans are stupid or people who vote for Romney or whoever are stupid. Perhaps we ought not to be surprised when the right eventually hits back?

A few have noticed that “Elite colleges are making it easy for conservatives to dislike them.” A few have also noticed that we ought to be working towards greater civility and respect, especially regarding ideological disagreement; that’s one purpose of Jonathan Haidt’s Heterodox Academy. Still, on the ground and on a day-to-day level, the academic vituperation towards the right in the humanities and most social sciences (excluding economics) has been so obvious and so clear that I’m surprised it’s taken this long for a backlash.

Because I’m already imagining the assumptions in the comments and on Twitter, let me note that I’m not arguing this from the right—I find that I’m on the side of neither the right nor the left, in part because neither the right nor the left is on my side—but I am arguing this as someone who cares about freedom of speech and freedom of thought, which have never been free and have often been unpopular. It’s important to work towards understanding before judgment or condemnation, even though that principle too has likely never been popular or widely adopted.

It seems to me that homogeneous, lockstep thought is dangerous wherever it occurs, and increasingly it appears to be occurring in large parts of colleges. One hopes that the colleges notice this and try to self-correct. Self-correction will likely be more pleasant than whatever political solution might be devised in statehouses.


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.

Getting good with women and how I’ve done almost everything in my life wrong: Part III

This is the conclusion to a series; the first part is here. The second is here.

An interview between me and Tucker Max about how I used to suck with women and now I’m okay just went up on his Mating Grounds podcast. You should go listen or read the transcript. This essay grew out of my notes for that podcast.

Context and environment

Surroundings matter enormously in many contexts, and dating is a major one. Enough people who are dating form a dating market, and you should see this podcast and its transcript for details about markets. It can be important to change contexts if the current context is bad. Particularly bad contexts for straight guys include the military, engineering schools, rural areas, and Silicon Valley. My high school context was very bad and my college context very good. The ratio of men to women in a given situation has more short-term impact on success or failure than almost any other variable.

Let me tell another story to illustrate this. My fiancée went to Arizona State University for undergrad and she says that at ASU she didn’t like the pretty one, which is baffling to me. Maybe she felt that way presumably because a lot of the culture there revolves around sorority girls, bleached blond hair, and so forth. Nonetheless that she feels she got little attention seems insane to me.

Still, now we’re in New York City, and other guys hit on her all the time; she might be in the right cultural environment for her temperament. There are lots of attractive people in New York, but there’s a much stronger intellectual, change-the-world vibe than there is in Arizona (or L.A.).

The above paragraphs remind me of another point that’s applicable when you, the guy reading this, starts to get successful: If you’re going to be with a high-status, attractive woman, other guys are going to hit on her. If she responds to that in a really positive way you have a problem. But it’s going to happen. If you’re in a relationship you’ll find other women hitting on you too, albeit usually in a less obvious and less overt way. In high school and college, a lot of the smartest guys have exit options ready to go in the event they leave their relationship or their girlfriend leaves them; girls like guys with options and like guys who other girls have approved.

It’s also possible to check on girls in a relationship in a reasonable way. For example, we were part of a group in Arizona, and one guy was my fiancée’s colleague, and he eventually moved away. A couple years later they were chatting on Facebook, and he was like, “Are you still with Jake?” She said yes, and he replied, “Well, that’s too bad. If you break up, call me.” Which is a way you hit on someone without being a giant asshole about it. She told me about it and I was like, “Well, that’s fair.” People do break up for various reasons.

This illustrates another point: if you’re with a woman who wants to leave, she’s going to leave, either cleanly and reasonably or in a foot-dragging, poisonous way. You can’t force a person to stay. Desirable people are always in short supply. Learning to live with loss is part of learning to live with success.

To return to market issues, I don’t think I would’ve thrived at ASU or the University of Arizona as an undergrad: the bro-ish frat types seem to be optimized for those schools, and I wasn’t either one. I didn’t aspire to go to them. If you’re like I was in high school, you shouldn’t either, regardless of whether your friends are a fratty, party-down types. I did reasonably really well with women in college because I was a) athletic by the standards of my school, b) had learned a lot through painful trial and error in high school, and c) my school was about 60% female and 40% male. That meant there were always single girls around who were looking for guys. Friends who went to engineering schools had the opposite experience, since those schools were 60 – 70% male; some would have been better served romantically by majoring in engineering at big public schools.

If you’re in high school you’ll likely find it difficult or impossible to dramatically change your environment in the short term. There aren’t good solutions for you. Sorry. I don’t believe in telling comforting lies, however, and I do believe that some problems don’t have real or good solutions. I wish I’d admitted so earlier.


* The way a girl who says no will sometimes say yes if you find another girl. If one girl says no, move on. It is at best extremely difficult and more likely impossible to change someone’s initial response. To the extent it can be done, it can be done through rivalry.

* It is very hard, if not impossible, to fix most broken people. Don’t try. If you get with a girl who has very serious mental health problems, or makes very bad choices, let her be someone else’s problems. You don’t need to fix the world, and broken people can be dangerous. If you’re a straight guy you’re presumably not too worried about dating guys who are fundamentally broken, but women with serious mental issues can be really bad.

If you identify someone like this, let her go. If you’re inexperienced you might be bad at identifying this kind of person, but if you do, keep your distance. Move on. Don’t return their emails, texts, and phone calls.

* I’ve gone through very promiscuous phases and very monogamous phases, and this is probably typical of a lot of college / urban young people who aren’t participating in some religious sub-culture and who are paying attention to sex and dating.

* Most of the world’s major religions discourage sex for reasons that probably made sense in say the year 1,000 but may or may not make sense anymore. Decide for yourself whether a set of rules and principles for running a society in the year 1,000 make sense in a modern, urbanized, industrialized society.

* I’d emphasize this: “a shockingly large amount of human social life, or like intellectual life, or other life boils down to trying to prove that you’re not a moron and trying to test to see if other people are.” The sooner you learn to do this, the better.

* So much of life consists of defaults. Understanding and in some circumstances getting away from those defaults is vital. The Internet can actually help enormously in this regard by making a lot of information much more available—for those willing to seek it.

* Schools like prestige because it makes the schools look good; parents like prestige for similar reasons, and because they want their children to be economically independent. But prestige isn’t necessarily that good or important for average people. Success in school isn’t essential to success with women. Prestige as conceived by schools and parents isn’t necessary or often  even helpful for success with women, and it may be counterproductive. In the long term we’re all dead and there is no absolute definition for prestige.

* What people say and what people do are often vastly different. What they do counts ten times as much as what they say. Take note of people whose behaviors habitually don’t match their words. With women, if she wants to be with you but does anything else except be with you, she doesn’t want to be with you. In this and many life domains, it should be HELL YES or no.

* When someone says no, take it gracefully and move on. “No” is permission and encouragement to do other things.

* You will very rarely if ever truly know another human being, and another human being will rarely if ever truly know you. Accept it and be ready to be surprised.

* People who don’t read usually don’t know much (or they know a lot about a single, narrow area that’s usually related to their work). A good book distills years or decades of experience, insight, and knowledge into a single volume that can be read over a couple of hours. Consider that when you’re allocating your time.

Not the best

In most domains I’m not the best. You don’t have to be the “best” either. I’m not the best athlete, I’m (probably) not the best intellectual (depending on one’s definition), I don’t make the most money, I don’t have the coolest job, I’m not the most outgoing, I’m not the best conversationalist, I don’t have the best sense of humor. But in all of these domains I’m above average and by now I’ve been above average for a long time, and that’s a huge advantage over guys who don’t even try. Success in any domain starts with trying.

But trying can be scary because it comes with it the possibility of failure. It took me a long time to embrace failure as a part of the process that leads to success. The link in the preceding sentence goes to Megan McArdle’s book The Up Side of Down: Why Failing ell is the Key to Success. In it she writes of the “deep, soul-crushing periods of misery following stupid mistakes that kept me awake until the small hours of the morning in a fog of anxiety and regret.” But while that was obviously horrible:

It was only later—much later—that I saw the wreckage of my previous hopes become the foundation for something bigger and better.

Writers in particular are terrible procrastinators because they were good at English in school. They know on some level that no actual piece of writing is as good as it seems in their heads. The trick in becoming a productive writer is to either have tons of deadlines or to realize that an actualized piece of writing is always better than a perfect piece of writing that only exists in the head. And “Falling short: seven writers reflect on failure” is a great piece in which seven writers reflect on failure. Success also rarely comes from not failing, since not failing implies not trying; success comes from failing, learning, and then trying again. In the real world there are no no-lose propositions.

In most domains, even the ones I’m now “good” at, I’ve failed in some respect, and I’m still not the best. But that’s okay. For most guys, being the absolute best at a thing is overrated compared to being above average in a range of domains. During my initial interview with Tucker I related the story of Scott Adams, who has said he’s not the best artist and he’s not the funniest guy but he combines both effectively in Dilbert (he also discusses the role of failure in his own life). Combining disparate skills is still underrated. Steven Berlin Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From is good on this subject.

Most guys don’t have to be the best athlete or musician. They should, however, be better than other guys, and the amount of effort it takes to be “better” is often much smaller than anticipated (and also depends on the comparison group). I’m not and never have been the best athlete, but by now I’m probably better than 80% of other guys simply because I care enough to run and lift. This is a huge, key advantage, because women do evaluate men based on physicality, especially in short-term situations; arguably women can afford to be choosier than men in short-term situations because women are warier of those situations.

Anyway, as I said earlier, this essay was supposed to be a couple notes but it turned into more, in part because I suffer from logorrhea and in part because most of the content in this essay is already drifting around in my head.

See also “The appeal of ‘pickup’ or ‘game’ or ‘The Redpill’ is a failure of education and socialization” (note: “Feminism didn’t come from nowhere. Neither has pickup.”) and “The inequality that matters II: Why does dating in Seattle get left out?

Getting good with women and how I’ve done almost everything in my life wrong: Part II

This is the second part in a series; The first part is here.

An interview between me and Tucker Max about how I used to suck with women and now I’m okay just went up on his Mating Grounds podcast. You should go listen or read the transcript. This essay grew out of my notes for that podcast.


I did some online dating years ago, primarily in Seattle and a little bit in Tucson, and some of the girls I got to know showed me their message streams. Some messages were disgusting or outright idiotic, but most they were boring and poorly thought out: “Hey.” “How are you?” “Your profile is interesting.” Pretty girls get dozens of them every week. Hell, even average girls do. I was thinking, “If I were a girl, I’d get turned off by all this crap too.”

Most of the girls I talked to—even the ones who just wanted to get laid—were in fact tired of all that crap. They got so many low-quality messages, or messages from guys who’d copied and pasted an initially clever come-on but couldn’t follow-up. Those women wanted something a little different. They were bored, which is a point I’ll come back to later. Dating for women is different in important ways than dating for men, and I wish I’d understood that sooner.

Reading those messages also explained why I was doing fairly well, since I was deliberately trying to say something non-obvious and ideally slightly lascivious without being gross. That class of message stood out. Being tall and in shape obviously helped too. My photos were pretty good. I didn’t spend much time playing games, and if women didn’t want to meet quickly I would stop messaging them (which would often lead those who were reluctant to meet for whatever reason to want to meet).

The girls from the Internet taught me something else useful too: some said they liked online dating because it let them meet guys without their bitchy, judgmental, hypocritical friends around (they didn’t use those words, but that’s what they meant). Without the chorus of shame squawking in their ears, real desires emerge. The real upholders of the sexual double standard are actually women, not men.

Somewhere along the way I realized that lots of women are lonely and looking for connection, and that loosened me up as far as approaching women and asking them out. I’ve asked out women on the street, in buses (if you’re a guy on the prowl you should love public transportation), in grocery lines, on running trails. Usually the conversation starts with something observational, then moves to whatever is going on that day or week. If you have nothing going on, get something going on and get talking about it. Energetic people are on average more attractive than sluggards.

I’m still not inured to rejection—is anyone?—but if a girl on the street says no, it doesn’t matter. Move on. She’ll forget, and perhaps I’ll make some other girl’s day, and she’ll go home and tell her friends that a cute stranger was hitting on her.

This isn’t something I experienced directly, but a friend’s recent adventures helped teach me too. She’s posted to a well-known amateur porn site (without her face in the shots). On this site she gets a lot of responses from viewers, and she’s shown them to my fiancée and me. They’re voluminous, amazingly bad, and unintentionally hilarious. Hundreds of guys write to her, almost all of them saying some variation on “You’re so hot” or “I want to fuck you.” And these guys have no idea where she lives.

The messages were pathetic, and when we were reading them my fiancée said something like, “This is what all women have to deal with.” In that moment so much became clear to me. I knew that, intellectually, but seeing the really low-value, unsuccessful messages from guys on the Internet reinforced that point. It’s such a waste of time to send those messages. They’re more a fantasy projection that a real attempt to meet women, but every minute or second they spend sending “Ur so hot show me ur butthole” is a minute or second they’re not doing something useful. If I were a woman I couldn’t imagine looking for quality men on amateur porn sites. Yet these are doing so, and the way they’re doing it is all wrong, and yet they persist in doing it the wrong way.

And our friend is not the primary motivator for them. She’s reasonably attractive but not incredibly spectacular—most guys and girls who have a taste for other girls would be happy to date her. But you won’t see her on a Victoria’s Secret runway. she’s getting this kind of response, which is a distillation and intensification of what many women experience otherwise. In real life most guys won’t go up to women and say “show me ur butthole” for good reason; online, with the cloak of pseudonymity, they’re willing to. In real life, guys would probably like to say that, but they can’t or don’t.

On a separate subject, reading Norah Vincent’s book Self-Made Man taught me about the lack of empathy women have for men. So did stories told by women about gross and very insistent guys, or nasty comments from parents and other girls. Reading “The Daughter-Guarding Hypothesis,” since it showed how fear and loathing around sexual behaviors get inculcated in women from an early age.

Looks count

Looks and style matter, and like many nerds (and especially nerds growing up in nerd-infested places like Seattle) I wanted to believe they didn’t. But people make snap judgments for reasons that I now realize are quite good: we communicate a huge amount of information based on what we wear, how we hold ourselves, and so forth. For both men and women wearing clothes that fit matters. Women learn this almost immediately; it took me until I was 25 to figure it out.

Still, when I was 14 or 15 I started lifting and running consistently relatively early, and that was a definitive advantage that continues to be an advantage—not only in dating but in long-term relationships. If you’re old enough to know people who’ve been in long-term relationships, you’ll have seen the pattern in which one or both parties in a long-term relationship let themselves go, which usually coincides taking their partner for granted. That’s probably a mistake at any time or place, but it’s really a mistake in contemporary American society, since in this society and culture the rigors of the dating market never really end. That may be a bad thing but it is a thing. You can’t let yourself go, both for your partner’s sake and because you never know when you’re going to be involuntarily dumped back into the market.

Younger people probably shouldn’t be focused on very long-term relationships because they change so much. I didn’t have a somewhat stable, developed personality until I was 24 or so. People evolve through their lives but that evolution is particularly rapid and pronounced from puberty well into the 20s. If you’re 20, chances are you won’t be dating the same person for five years. Understand that you’re going to be on the market a lot, and it’s difficult or impossible to hide from market tests.

Guys who pay attention to their posture, to what they wear, and to their workouts are in the game. Guys who don’t probably aren’t. That doesn’t mean guys have to become obsessed with these issues—I never have been—but it does mean being aware of them and taking care to do them right.

The last part is here.

Journalism, physics and other glamor professions as hobbies

The short version of this Atlantic post by Alex C. Madrigal is “Don’t be a journalist,” and, by the way, “The thinks it can get writers to work for free” (I’m not quoting directly because the article isn’t worth quoting). Apparently The Atlantic is getting writers to work for free, because many writers are capable of producing decent-quality work, and the number of paying outlets are shrinking. Anyone reading this and contemplating journalism as a profession should know that they need to seek another way of making money.

The basic problems journalism faces, however, are obvious and have been for a long time. In 2001, I was the co-editor-and-chief of my high school newspaper and thought about going into journalism. But it was clear that the Internet was going to destroy a lot of careers in journalism. It has. The only thing I still find puzzling is that some people want to major in journalism in college, or attempt to be “freelance writers.”

Friends who know about my background ask why I don’t do freelance writing. When I tell them that there’s less money in it than getting a job at Wal-Mart they look at me like I’m a little crazy—they don’t really believe that’s true, even when I ask them how many newspapers they subscribe to (median and mode answer: zero). Many, however, spend hours reading stuff for free online.

In important ways I’m part of the problem, because on this blog I’m doing something that used to be paid most of the time: reviewing books. Granted, I write erratically and idiosyncratically, usually eschewing the standard practices of book reviews (dull, two-paragraph plot summaries are stupid in my view, for instance), but I nonetheless do it and often do it better than actual newspapers or magazines, which I can say with confidence because I’ve read so many dry little book reports in major or once-major newspapers. Not every review I write is a critical gem, but I like doing it and thus do it. Many of my posts also start life as e-mails to friends (as this one did). I also commit far more typos than a decently edited newspaper or magazine. Which I do correct when you point them out.

The trajectory of journalism is indicative of other trends in American society and indeed the industrialized world. For example, a friend debating whether he should consider physics grad school wrote this to me recently: “I think physics is something that is fun to study for fun, but to try to become a professional physicist is almost like too much of a good thing.” He’s right. Doing physics for fun, rather than trying to get a tenure-track job, makes more sense from a lifestyle standpoint.

A growing number of what used to occupations seem to be moving in this direction. Artists got here first, but others are making their way here. I’m actually going to write a post about how journalism increasingly looks like this too. The obvious question is how far this trend will go—what happens when many jobs that used to be paid become un-paid?

Tyler Cowen thinks we might be headed towards a guaranteed annual income, an idea that was last popular in the 60s and 70s. When I asked Cowen his opinions about guaranteed annual incomes, he wrote back to say that he’d address the issue in a forthcoming book. The book hasn’t arrived yet, but I look forward to reading it. As a side not, apparently Britain has, or had, a concept called the “Dole,” which many people went on, especially poor artists. Geoff Dyer wrote about this some in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. The Dole subsidized a lot of people who didn’t do much, but it also subsidized a lot of artists, which is pretty sweet; one can see student loans and grad school serving analogous roles in the U.S. today.

IMG_1469-1Even in programming, which is now the canonical “Thar be jobs!” (pirate voice intentional) profession, some parts of programming—like languages and language development—basically aren’t remunerative. Too many people will do it free because it’s fun, like amateur porn. In the 80s there were many language and library vendors, but nearly all have died, and libraries have become either open source or rolled into a few large companies like Apple and Microsoft. Some aspects of language development are cross-subsidized in various ways, like professors doing research, or companies paying for specific components or maintenance, but it’s one field that has, in some ways, become like photography, or writing, or physics, even though programming jobs as a whole are still pretty good.

I’m not convinced that the artist lifestyle of living cheap and being poor in the pursuit of some larger goal or glamor profession seems is good or bad, but I do think it is (that we have a lot of good cheap stuff out there, and especially cheap stuff in the form of consumer electronics, may help: it’s possible to buy or acquire a nearly free, five-year-old computer that works perfectly well as a writing box).* Of course, many starving artists adopt that as a pose—they think it’s cool to say they’re working on a novel or photography project or “a series of shorts” or whatever, but don’t actually do anything, while many people with jobs put out astonishing work. Or at least work, which is usually a precursor to astonishing work.

For some people, the growing ability of people to disseminate ideas and art forms even without being paid is a real win. In the old days, if you wanted to write something and get it out there, you needed an editor or editors to agree with you. Now we have a direct way of resolving questions about what people actually want to read. Of course, the downside is that whole payment thing, but that’s the general downside of the new world in which we live, and, frankly it’s one that I don’t have a society-wide solution for.

In writing, my best guess is that more people are going to book-ify blogs, and try to sell the book for $1 – $5, under the (probably correct) assumption that very few people want to go back and read a blog’s entire archives, but an ebook could collect and organize the material of those archives. If I read a powerful post by someone who seemed interesting, I’d buy a $4 ebook that covers their greatest hits or introduced me to their broader thinking.

This is tied into other issues around what people spend their time doing. My friend also wrote that he read “a couple of articles on Keynes’ predictions of utopia and declining work hours,” but he noted that work still takes up a huge amount of most people’s lives. He’s right, but most reports show that median hours worked in the U.S. has declined, and male labor force participation has declined precipitously. Labor force participation in general is surprisingly low. Ross Douthat has been discussing this issue in The New York Times (a paid gig I might add), and, like, most reasonable people he has a nuanced take on what’s happening. See also this Wikipedia link on working time for some arguments that working time has declined overall.

Working time, however, probably hasn’t decreased for everyone. My guess is that working time has increased for some smallish number of people at the top of their professors (think lawyers, doctors, programmers, writers, business founders), with people at the bottom often relying more on government or gray market income sources. Douthat starts his essay by saying that we might expect working hours among the rich to decline first, so they can pursue more leisure, but he points out that the rich are working more than ever.

Though I am tempted to put “working” in scare quotes, because it seems like many of the rich are doing things they would enjoy doing on some level anyway; certainly a lot of programmers say they would keep programming even if they were millionaires, and many of them become millionaires and keep programming. The same is true of writers (though fewer become millionaires). Is writing a leisure or work activity for me? Both, depending. If I self-publish Asking Anna tomorrow and make a zillion dollars, the day after I’ll still be writing something. I would like to get paid but some of the work I do for fun isn’t contingent on me getting paid.

Turning blogs into books and self-publishing probably won’t replace the salaries that news organizations used to pay, but it’s one means for writers or would-be writers to get some traction.

Incidentally, the hobby-ification of many professions makes me feel pretty good about working as a grant writing consultant. No one think when they’re 14, “I want to be a grant writer like Isaac and Jake Seliger!”, while lots of people want to be like famous actors, musicians, or journalists. There is no glamor, and grant writing is an example of the classic aphorism, “Where there’s shit, there’s gold” at work.

Grant writing is also challenging. Very few people have the weird intersection of skills necessary to be good, and it’s a decade-long process to build those skills—especially for people who aren’t good writers already. The field is perpetually mutating, with new RFPs appearing and old ones disappearing, so that we’re not competing with proposals written two years ago (where many novelists, for example, are in effect still competing with their peers from the 20s or 60s or 90s).

To return to journalism as a specific example, I can think of one situation in which I’d want The Atlantic or another big publisher to publish my work: if I was worried about being sued. Journalism is replete with stories about heroic reporters being threatened by entrenched interests; Watergate and the Pentagon Papers are the best-known examples, but even small-town papers turn up corruption in city hall and so forth. As centralized organizations decline, individuals are to some extent picking up the slack, but individuals are also more susceptible to legal and other threats. If you discovered something nasty about a major corporation and knew they’d tie up your life in legal bullshit for the next ten years, would you publish, or would you listen to your wife telling you to think of the kids, or your parents telling you to think about your career and future? Most of us are not martyrs. But it’s much harder for Mega Corp or Mega Individual to threaten The Atlantic and similar outlets.

The power and wealth of a big media company has its uses.

But such a use is definitely a niche case. I could imagine some of the bigger foundations, like ProPublica, offering a legal umbrella to bloggers and other muckrakers to mitigate such risks.

I have intentionally elided the question of what people are going to do if their industries turn towards hobbies. That’s for a couple reasons: as I said above, I don’t have a good solution. In addition, the parts of the economy I’m discussing here are pretty small, and small problems don’t necessarily need “solutions,” per se. People who want to turn their hours into a lot of income should try to find ways and skills to do that, and people who want to turn their hours into fun products like writing or movies should try to find ways to do that too. Crying over industry loss or change isn’t going to turn back the clock, and just because someone could make a career as a journalist doesn’t mean they can today.

* To some extent I’ve subsidized other people’s computers, because Macs hold their value surprisingly well and can be sold for a quarter to half of their original purchase price three to five years after they’ve been bought. Every computer replaced by my family or our business has been sold on Craigslist. Its also possible, with a little knowledge and some online guides, to add RAM and an SSD to most computers made in the last couple of years, which will make them feel much more responsive.

Life: Love edition

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

—Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind

Martin Amis, the essay, the novel, and how to have fun in fiction

There’s an unusually interesting interview with Martin Amis in New York Magazine, where he says:

I think what has happened in fiction is that fiction has responded to the fact that the rate of history has accelerated in this last generation, and will continue to accelerate, with more sort of light-speed kind of communications. Those huge, leisurely, digressive, essayistic, meditative novels of the postwar era—some of which were on the best-seller lists for months—don’t have an audience anymore. [. . .]

No one is writing that kind of novel now. Well [. . . ] David Foster Wallace—that posthumous one looks sort of Joycean and huge and very left-field. But most novelists I think are much more aware than they used to be of the need for forward motion, for propulsion in a novel. Novelists are people too, and they’re responding to this just as the reader is.

I think people aren’t reading the “essayistic, meditative novels” because “essayistic, meditative novels” reads like code-words for boring. In addition, we’re living in “The Age of the Essay.” We don’t need novelists to write essays disguised as novels when we can get the real thing in damn near infinite supply.

The discovery mechanisms for essays are getting steadily better. Think of Marginal Revolution, Paul Graham’s essays, Hacker News, The Feature, and others I’m not aware. Every Saturday, Slate releases a link collection of 5 – 10 essays in its Longform series. Recent collections include the Olympics, startups, madness in Mexico, and disease. The pieces selected tend to be deep, simultaneously intro- and extrospective, substantive, and engaging. They also feel like narrative, and nonfiction writers routinely deploy the narrative tricks and voice that fiction pioneered. The best essay writers have the writing skill of all but perhaps the very best novelists.

As a result, both professional (in the sense of getting paid) and non-professional (in the sense of being good but not earning money directly from the job) writers have an easy means of publishing what they produce. Aggregators help disseminate that writing. A lot of academics who are experts in a particular subject have fairly readable blogs (many have no blogs, or unreadable blogs, but we’ll focus on the readable ones), and the academics who once would have been consigned to journals now have an outlet—assuming they can write well (many can’t).

We don’t need to wait two to five years for a novelist to decide to write a Big Novel on a topic. We often have the raw materials at hand, and the raw material is shaped and written by someone with more respect for the reader and the reader’s time than many “essayistic” novelists. I’ve read many of those, chiefly because they’ve been assigned at various levels of my academic career. They’re not incredibly engaging.

This is not a swansong about how the novel is dead; you can find those all over the Internet, and, before the Internet, in innumerable essays and books (an awful lot of novels are read and sold, which at the very least gives the form the appearance of life). But it is a description of how the novel is, or should be, changing. Too many novels are self-involved and boring. Too many pay too little to narrative pacing—in other words, to their readers. Too many novels aren’t about stuff. Too many are obsessed with themselves.

Novels might have gotten away with these problems before the Internet. For the most part, they can’t any more, except perhaps among people who read or pretend to read novels in order to derive status from their status as readers. But being holier-than-thou via literary achievement, if it ever worked all that well, seems pretty silly today. I suppose you could write novels about how hard it is to write novels in this condition—the Zuckerman books have this quality at times, but who is the modern Zuckerman?—but I don’t think anyone beyond other writers will be much interested.

If they’re not going to be essayistic and meditative, what are novels to be? “Fun” is an obvious answer. The “forward motion” and “propulsion” that Amis mentions are good places to start. That’s how novels differ, ideally, from nonfiction.

Novels also used to have a near-monopoly on erotic material and commentary. No more. If you want to read something weird, perverse, and compelling, Reddit does a fine job of providing it (threads like “What’s your secret that could literally ruin your life if it came out?” provides what novels used to).

Stylistically, there’s still the question of how weird and attenuated a writer can make individual sentences before the work as a whole becomes unreadable or boring or both. For at least a century and change, writers could go further and further in breaking grammar, syntax, and point of view rules while still being comprehensible. By the time you get to late Joyce or Samuel Beckett’s novels, however, you start to see the limits of incomprehensibility and rule breaking regarding sentence structure, grammar, or both.

Break enough rules and you have word salad instead of language.

Most of us don’t want to read word salad, though, so Finnegans Wake and Malone Dies remain the province of specialists writing papers to impress other specialists. We want “forward motion” and “propulsion.” A novel must delight in terms of the plot and the language used. Many, many novels don’t. Amis is aware of this—he says, “I’m not interested in making a diagnostic novel. I’m 100 percent committed in fiction to the pleasure principle—that’s what fiction is, and should be.” But I’m not sure his fiction shows this (as House of Meetings and Koba the Dread show). Nonetheless, I’m with him in principle, and, I hope, practice.

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