The power of conventional narratives and the great lie

In Confessions of a Sociopath M. E. Thomas describes manipulating bureaucratic sexual harassment structures in a way that reminds me of Francine Prose’s Blue Angel. That novel is about a college freshman who sleeps with her creative writing instructor, thinking that he’ll get her book published, and then alleges sexual harassment when he doesn’t. The school’s bureaucracy largely rallies around Angela’s dubious claims. I wouldn’t argue that Angela, the female protagonist (or antagonist) is a sociopath, but the novel itself is good and the story about what happens when people of bad will have access to institutional structures designed around imagined goodwill.

I sent a note to Thomas about Blue Angel, and she replied that many “well-intentioned people having access to institutional structures designed around imagined ability to ascertain the real ‘truth’ of a situation and accordingly enact justice.”

She’s right, and that theme keeps showing up in various novels and nonfiction pieces. “What happened to Jamie Leigh Jones in Iraq?” is one; the whole story is worth reading and difficult to excerpt, but I will note this:

As it turned out, I found smoking guns, but not of the sort I was expecting. The next morning, I started looking through the filings posted online on PACER, the federal judiciary’s Web site. There I found expert witness reports filed by KBR, psychological evaluations of Jones conducted by workers’ comp companies, medical records, and much of what later came out at trial about her many previous rape claims and complicated mental health history. The trial record was so at odds with Jones’s public story that I was simply dumbfounded.

As best that reporter can say, Jones probably fabricated a rape story and in doing so tapped into a powerful narrative about sexuality and about the way evil corporations (and men) try to abuse and suppress women. Her case is at the very least much more complicated than that and at worst she made up her story. But powerful narratives have a way of overriding specific particulars that don’t support the narrative.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn does very well in playing out the way a media circus creates heroes and villains based on limited information. Like Blue Angel it’s also a lot of fun. Both also contain an element of terror: what happens if you’re the one the narrative turns against. There must be others.

Philip Greenspun’s review of Divorce Corp. is also relevant:

What is important is a story and it is always the same story: “There is a victim and a victimizer. Then you need a third person, a rescuer, which is sometimes an attorney and sometimes a judge.”

We’ve got these stories in circulation and almost no one is publicly fighting back against them.

Life: Why read edition

“Literature is an endless source of courage and confirmation. The reader and beginning writer can count on being heartened by all the brave and original works that have been written without the slightest regard for how strange or risky they were, or for what the writer’s mother might have thought when she read them.”

—Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer

EDIT: Another brilliant observation:

art implies a kind of freedom, the freedom of choice, of possibility, of the individual imagination. Which is why dictators—and large corporations—tend not to like art and artists, except those of a highly predictable and malleable sort.

Links: Fashion and fiction, travel is overrated, modern art, Average is Over, and more

* Francine Prose: “Commerce, fantasy, fetishism: Should we care about fashion?” For a long time I answered no but increasingly I now answer yes. Note especially how she points to the paucity of literary descriptions of fashion, which I have long been blind to.

* Travel is much more boring and aggravating than people give it credit for.

* CDC: Many U.S. Girls Not Getting HPV Vaccine Despite Its Effectiveness.

* Is it modern art or a four year old’s drawing?

* “A bachelor’s degree could cost $10,000 — total. Here’s how.” The short version is, “Unbundling.” I think we are going to see some version of this tried in various places.

* Average Is Over—if We Want It to Be.

* There are few if any new and interesting things to say about Shakespeare.

* Which Job Skills Will Be Most Important In The Coming Years?

* “Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?” As an alternate explanation, see Philip Greenspun, “Women in Science.”

* What we eat affects everything.

* If You Aren’t Technical, Get Technical. One could also replace “technical” with “literate,” although “technical” certainly has more immediate financial returns.

* Roosh: Katie J.M. Baker Purposefully Distorted My Work.

Summary Judgment: Confessions of a Sociopath — M. E. Thomas

Confessions of a Sociopath came from Tyler Cowen’s recommendation, and it’s the perfect book to get from a library: I learned from it but am unlikely to want to re-read it. There isn’t enough depth to justify purchase but there is more than enough to justify reading. Like Cowen I would read this as closer to a novel or memoir—which is usually a way of saying “I make shit up but don’t want to admit it”—than a work of strict nonfiction.

Confessions of a sociopathI kept hoping for more lascivious content but the author appeared at first to have led a sedate life in that respect, perhaps due to her affiliation with the Mormon church, although there is a late chapter on this subject. Her sex life is dealt with in a way that seems decorous by modern standards, despite her affairs with women.

This passage in particular stood our as characteristic of the way people can attack the modern tendency towards explicit rules:

While she [a somewhat unattractive, insecure supervisor] regularly billed as many hours as humanly possible, I exploited our [law] firm’s non-existent vacation policy by taking three-day weekends and weeks-long vacations abroad. People were implicitly expected not to take vacations, but I had my own lifelong policy of following only explicit rules, and then only because they’re easiest to prove against me. She could sense that I flouted this and other unspoken rules with little consequence by a quick look at my time sheets and my less-than-formal office attire.

Explicit rules can often be turned against the people who aren’t following them. Working around governments and universities has given me special aptitude for figuring out what the explicit rules are and how people break them, because explicit rules are often impossible to follow completely, or following them completely is stupid in the real world, or both. Nonetheless our present bureaucratic world is rife with rules created by well-meaning bureaucrats, and those rules are ripe for exploitation by anyone who takes the time to read them.

Confessions of a Sociopath demonstrates how people acting in bad faith can activate biases and bureaucratic institutions for destructive ends; Thomas tells stories about repeatedly manipulating people and institutions through sexuality and sexual harassment claims and innuendoes, and in this she is in some ways recapitulating ideas from Francine Prose’s Blue Angel, although that novel is about a straightforward though misunderstood quid pro quo gone bad.

Thomas has an unusually direct understanding of her own apparent condition in a way that many professionals don’t; this section shows something important about professors—Thomas is a law professor—and why people (like me!) want to be them, and something important about Thomas:

People are often surprised to learn that I teach less than six hours a week, less than eight months out of the year. In many way it’s a dream job for someone inherently lazy and unable to do grunt work like me, but eventually I’m sure I’ll get bored of it too. After I do, I don’t know what, but I’m sure things will work out. They always do.

Being a law professor doesn’t appear to be a particularly challenging job from a teaching perspective, since the professor is continually repeating information mastered long ago to students with no familiarity, in an environment in which the professor has absolute power over the student but not vice-versa (sample moment from the book: “They can try to fight me, but in that classroom I am God. I write the test. I give them the grade”). The professor is part of a legal regime that prevents lawyers from existing save through credentialing from other lawyers. People who want an honest test of their skills sell to markets; people who can’t handle an honest test of their skills go to school.

To be sure school does sometimes offer honest tests of skill and imparts important skills but that appears to be the exception, not the rule, based on my experiences on both sides of the desk. It’s not clear how to make utility and intellectual interest the norm instead of the exception.

The distinction between social and personal power may be relevant here; as the authors of the linked paper say, “social power [is] power over other people and personal power [is] freedom from other people.” Sociopaths appear particularly good at the latter, since they don’t appear to care what other people think except to the extent it affects them.

I am not convinced that we aren’t seeing huge selection bias problems with sociopaths, which limits broadly applicable ideas. Note that I wrote this sentence before re-reading Cowen’s linked post above, in which he said essentially the same thing.

The editing is good and the book moves; few sentences or ideas are essential in and of themselves.There could have been more and/or better research citations, but the stories were consistently entertaining, and challenging; she describes seeing a struggling baby opossum in a pool and then, instead of helping it as most of us would have, drowning it. That’s towards the beginning of the book and the opossum story dares us to keep reading. Its placements in this blog post is not an accident, given that my overall impression of the book is positive.

People like A Game of Thrones? The novel, I mean?

The writing in George R. R. Martin’s novel A Game of Thrones ranges from pretty good to indifferent to pretty bad to silly: it’s filled with cliches, the characters all sound the same, and I can’t figure out why we should care if one bunch of schemers rules the realm instead of another bunch of schemers. In the end, the peasants are still covered in shit. The politics are complex, but they’re complex in the way of corruption everywhere, with people mostly out for their own interest. This sort of thing led to the U.N. and democracy in the West and Japan.

Presumably the world of A Game of Thrones will head in that direction if it hits an industrial revolution, and you could have a lot of fun grafting contemporary parallels on the world. As this description shows, it’s somewhat hard to take this sort of feudalism seriously.

Corruption can be fun to read about, but the prose doesn’t work in A Game of Thrones. The book can’t decide on a faux medievalism or a relatively current register, so it goes for both. With most sentences, you could remove a sword, drop in a gun, and still have the same basic idea. The language remains modern while the nominal concerns are medieval; this is the problem so many fantasy novels have that Tolkien doesn’t. These problems start early; on the second page, “Will could sense something else in the older man. You could taste it; a nervous tension that came perilous close to fear.” Using “perilous” instead of “perilously” is the kind of thing that might could for style, but the sentence itself is still cliche. How many times has something been so close or immanent that a character could taste it?

The inverted word order is also evident early: “All day, Will had felt as though something were watching him, something cold and implacable that loved him not.” The last few words are equivalent do “didn’t love him,” and they’re okay on their own, I suppose, but such inversions are as far as style goes. You don’t have to be Martin Amis to find this tedious after a while (Another example, this time in dialogue: ” ‘Direwolves loose in the realm, after so many years,’ muttered Hullen, the master of horse. ‘I like it not.’ “). A few pages later, we skip to the point of view of Bran, who “rode among them, nervous with excitement,” another description that I’ve never seen in a novel before. There are repeated appeals to honor throughout, as on page 4: “The order had been given, and honor bound them to obey.” Honor appears to bind them to do things so stupid that they die for them.

Then there are “as you know, captain” speeches: “The blood of the First Men still flows in the veins of the Starks, and we hold to the belief that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” Blood the first man might have been original before the numerous references to the blood of Numenor in Tolkien. By now, appeals to genetic similarity dictating present behavior grow tiresome, along with anger flashing in eyes, “I was born a Tully and wed to a Stark [. . .] I do not frighten easily,” and so on.

Viserys Targaryen gets introduced early too, and in case you didn’t really know he was the bad guy, tells his sister than he’d let a 40,000-man barbarian horde rape her to regain his throne, and he also gives her a terrible “titty twister,” (also known as “purple nurple“) which is a term I don’t think I’ve heard or thought about since middle school. Are these phrases insanely juvenile? Absolutely, but a book like A Game of Thrones calls them forth. The dialogue is precisely what Francine Prose described in Reading Like a Writer:

This notion of dialogue as a pure expression of character that (like character itself) transcends the specifics of time and place may be partly why the conversations in the works of writers such as Austen and Brontë often sound fresh and astonishingly contemporary, and quite unlike the stiff, mannered, archaic speech we find in bad historical novels and in those medieval fantasies in which young men always seem to be saying things like, ‘Have I passed the solemn and sacred initiation test, venerable hunt master?’ “

Prose is parodying bad fantasy novels, but the parody is hardly a parody: most fantasy writers haven’t figured out how to make their characters’ speech work on multiple levels or how people vary their listening and speaking according to status. People assume a great deal; as Prose shows elsewhere, they assume a great deal about their audience, speak obliquely, are riven by multiple desires, and so on. When we read the ponderous speechifying so popular in fantasy, it breaks the very fantasy it’s trying to accomplish for anyone who knows how people actually speak.

There are some good sections but they’re intermittent and relatively simple changes could lead to tremendous improvements.

One thing I like about The Magicians is that it doesn’t succumb to this kind of speechifying: the characters often talk past one another, and they are constantly interrogating themselves. Quentin’s major flaw is his narcissism: he’s so wrapped up in his own misery, and then his own relationship with Alice, and then the consequences of the his-and-her cheating set, that he sets himself up for the pain that follows. Too bad. If you like standard sword-n-sorcery fantasy, you’ll like A Game of Thrones. If you’re looking for something different, like Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, you’ll be disappointed. Martin might admire Tolkien, but he doesn’t have Tolkien’s consistent command of language to make his work comparable.

Since people can’t be reading Martin for the writing itself, what are they reading him for? The most obvious answer is plot, since it’s fun and fast-paced. The novel demands careful reading if you’re going to follow who’s killing whom and why, if not for the quality of its prose. Even if you are following the reasons for murder, expect to be confused at points (in this respect, and only this respect, does A Game of Thrones resemble John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor). It’s surprising: in the fist novel, a seemingly major character dies. There are three more published. Maybe other characters will get the unexpected axe too. According to “Just Write It!: A fantasy author and his impatient fans” in The New Yorker, “Martin transgressed the conventions of his genre—and most popular entertainment—by making it clear that none of his characters were guaranteed to survive to the next book, or even to the next chapter.” This is refreshing and a major improvement.

So are the other virtues mentioned:

Martin’s characters indulge in all the usual vices associated with the Middle Ages, and some of them engage in behavior—most notably, incest—that would shock people of any historical period. Characters who initially seem likable commit reprehensible acts, and apparent villains become sympathetic over time. [. . . ] “When Indiana Jones goes up against that convoy of forty Nazis, it’s a lot of fun, but it’s not ‘Schindler’s List,’ ” he explained. He wants readers to feel that “they love the characters and they’re afraid for the characters.”

They’re true, but the article wisely avoids focusing on the sentence-level of each story. The big difference between Martin and a lot of fantasy writers is his relatively realistic depiction of sex: lots of powerful royals aren’t particularly nice to their partners and use their positions to further their sexual agendas, a bit like they did (and do) in real life. Not everyone views life in a realpolitik fashion, of course, and the Starks form the moral center of the show, which is especially important in large-scale works where most people are simple schemers. After all, in tit-for-tat style encounters, people who behave honorably consistently will tend to eventually win out over those who don’t.

There’s not a lot of humor in A Game of Thrones, and what there is is mostly courtesy of the martini-dry Tyrion, a dwarf in a world without the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition, who cares who sits on the throne? In The Lord of the Rings, the return of the true king symbolizes a wide array of both restoration and advancement. In A Game of Thrones the game is supposed to be a metaphor, since nothing real is at stake in most games. Instead, it feels real, in the sense that a game has no important consequences once it terminates. Does it matter whether one set of schemers or another sits on the throne? Not to this contemporary reader: they have far fewer substantial policy differences between them than, say, Republicans and Democrats.

Still, this doesn’t necessarily bode ill for the much-advertised HBO series; the first two seasons of True Blood rose above their source period through their tongue-in-cheek campiness. One doesn’t often get to say, “The movie was way better than the book,” but for True Blood it was true. I’m hoping for the same in A Game of Thrones. At the very least, it’s unlikely to be worse than Camelot.

Slate’s Nina Rastogi does like A Game of Thrones, although he doesn’t talk a lot about sentences. Here’s the most amusing comment so far in a review of the TV show: “One scene, luxuriantly offensive, involves what is either a gladiatorial rape tournament or a Jersey Shore homage.”

Don’t rent an apartment from Navid Abedian in Tucson, Arizona, or, how I learned to be wary of lawsuits

In 2008 I moved in Tucson for grad school and rented a condo that turned out to be a decent place to live, except for the landlord and a neighbor universally referred to as “Crazy Nick” (he was not crazy in a good way). When my roommate and I moved, the landlord kept about $500 of our deposit after promising that he wouldn’t and saying that he’d refund it. Stealing our security deposit violated Arizona’s Residential Landlord & Tenant Act, which regulates the usual tenant-landlord problems.

Because I’m such a smart guy and was both unhappy about his lies and interested in our money, I decided to sue him in small claims court, where I eventually won a $1,350 judgment. He paid $350 after a debtor’s hearing in January and promised to pay the rest; in June I sought another debtor’s hearing to compel him to pay at which point he threatened to come over to my apartment and kill me. For those of you keeping score, this marks the second time someone has done so in one summer, up from zero times previously in my entire life.

I filed a police report, stayed at friends’ houses for a few days, and canceled the hearing: improbable though Abedian’s threat might be, it’s not worth shooting or being shot over $1,000. He’s also a cipher to me: all I know is that he works in a carpet store, bought a condo in Tucson near the height of the ’00s real estate boom and, according to a Google search, might have his house foreclosed on. In other words, he might be desperate, and people have killed each other over far less than $1,000.

Although running away sets a bad precedent—will he just threaten to kill the next tenant who comes along? am I not doing the right thing for my fellow man—I still think capitulating wiser than continuing.

What originally seemed to mostly be entertainment (i.e. going to court and pontificating), began to suck up way too much mental energy. In the Hacker News discussion of Paul Graham’s “The Top Idea In Your Mind,” grellas wrote, “There is a lesson here about lawsuits, which will drain you of both money and peace of mind all at the same time. Sometimes you can’t turn the other cheek, much as you would like to do so, and have no choice but to fight. Having the guts to stand up for yourself (or for your company) is in itself a virtue and there are times when it is best not to walk away.”

He’s right, and a lawsuit I’d imagined as entertainment and teaching a useful lessons that might turn into dividends for the next tenants backfired. It also occupied way too much space in my mind—space that I should’ve spent writing or doing research. Instead I worried about the sanity and desperation of a guy I didn’t know and who was probably armed.

In Francine Prose’s novel Touch, the protagonist is a 14- or 15-year-old girl named Maisie, who tells her preening stepmother, Joan, a version of what happened on a bus when two or three boys touched her breasts in somewhat murky circumstances. It isn’t clear at the narrative’s start whether she consented, but the event as narrated to us is also one in which the characters act without enough culpability to call what they did anything beyond adolescent horseplay and power struggles.

Joan wants to meet a lawyer, which makes Maisie think that “I was filled with dread. Pure dread. It felt like icy water trickling down my back.” Joan says, “It would be a matter of principle.” Most people don’t lead their lives solely according to principle; pragmatics matter too. Few of us want to be martyrs for a cause, and if we do, that cause better be worth it. Most of us want to get along. Altruistic punishment is real but can be overrated. Maisie would be harming her own well-being and self-interest. I thought I was standing up for the principle of tenants’ rights and for fairness, but I chose to give up that principle when Navid threatened to kill me. Pragmatics won.

Like Maisie, I’m choosing pragmatism—which I probably should’ve learned in the first place. I’ve started Bleak House a couple of times (I’m not a Dickens fan) and understand Jardyce vs Jardyce well enough to know that lawsuits are often vehicles for mutually assured destruction more than they are about fairness or rights. When in doubt or when it’s avoidable, don’t get the law involved. And, apparently, be ready to write off your security deposit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEDIT: It’s 2014 and I’d mostly forgotten about Navid, but I just got a letter saying that he declared bankruptcy. I’m a) somehow listed as a creditor and b) the Department of Justice somehow got my current address, in order to c) invite me on some kind of creditors’ committee. I wish I couldn’t say that I don’t feel a little schadenfreude, but, alas, I’m too small a person. Apparently his wife or ex-wife, Linda Kay Abedian Stevens—or Linda Kay Stevens? the wording is unclear—was also on the lease and on the property deed.

Since leaving Tucson I have been threatened with death zero times.

Books I've started and stopped lately

* John Irving’s Last Night in Twisted River. His newest book is better, at least in its first 50 pages, than the abysmal Until I Find You, but still doesn’t that umph that animates The Hotel New Hampshire, Garp, and A Prayer for Owen Meany, which seem to me his best books, although I still haven’t read The Cider House Rules. Yet.

* Nicola Keegan’s Swimming, which has an interesting premise about a rising Olympic swimmer and her obsession with the pool and, presumably, how that does and doesn’t translate to dry land. Only the dialog is rendered in annoying italics (a minor point, but still), and, at least in the early sections, too many parts say things like, “The window sits still, boring a hole in the flat sky. Why are you mean to me all the time?” Overall, Swimming is tough to get into and awakens a strong, almost irrepressible urge to read Lolita instead, which is perhaps the ultimate novel dealing with obsession (among other things). Really, why resist?

* Robert Kaplan, Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts. An up-close look at the parts of the military that work, and probably a useful corrective to hit’n’run media coverage of foreign places (Yemen is in the news again! Give me a 30-second soundbite!). As with Imperial Grunts, Kaplan delves deep, but stretches read like the spec sheets in Tom Clancy, and I’m looking for more… what? Synthesis? Something like that? Tough to say. The book isn’t bad, but it doesn’t feel essential, as something like Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience does, although that covers a wholly different subject.

I’d write more, but I just can’t summon the energy for it. As Orwell said:

[…] the chances are that eleven out of the twelve books will fail to rouse in [the reviewer] the faintest spark of interest. They are not more than ordinarily bad, they are merely neutral, lifeless, and pointless. If he were not paid to do so he would never read a line of any of them, and in nearly every care the only truthful review he could write would be: “This book inspires in me no thoughts whatever.”

I don’t think of myself as a reviewer—I prefer to imagine myself someone who happens to like to write about books—but the truth is that the works above inspired few thoughts in me whatsoever. None is outright bad. They just leave me… unfeeling. Too many books leave me feeling, or at least knowledgeable, to spend a lot of time on those that don’t.

Books I’ve started and finished lately:

* Francine Prose’s Touch and Goldengrove. Why didn’t I read these earlier?

* Most of Alain de Botton’s oeuvre, including On Love, The Architecture of Happiness, and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. This is half pleasure—everything de Botton has written, except The Romantic Movement, is enormously pleasurable—and half for a project I’m working on.

* A.S. Byatt’s Possession, as discussed at the link.

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