Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier — Edward Glaeser

When I lived in Seattle, I was driving a friend home when she said she didn’t like all the new buildings because they pushed poor people out of the city. I was confused by her argument and that building more housing units will make it easier for poor people—any people, really—to afford to live in the city, but she argued that wasn’t true because the existing buildings were “worse.” But that doesn’t matter much: if a given parcel of land goes from having four units on it to four hundred, that’s vastly more supply. The conversation’s already low level of intellectual content degenerated, but I thought of it as I read Triumph of the City, which gathers a lot of useful information about cities and what they offer in one place. Yes, the title is overwrought, but the content is useful, and I especially noticed this, about Jane Jacobs:

Because she saw that older, shorter buildings were cheaper, she incorrectly believed that restricting heights and preserving old neighborhoods would ensure affordability. That’s not how supply and demand work. When the demand for a city rises, prices will rise unless more homes are built. When cities restrict new construction, they become more expensive.

It’s basic supply and demand, but, from what I can tell, relatively few cities actually discuss supply, demand, and housing costs—which is unfortunate given the extreme costs of many desirable cities that offer intensive knowledge spillover effects. If how we live affects what we think and how we think, we should pay a lot of attention to how we live. Yet few of us do, though more of us should. Triumph of the City is the kind of book unmoored young people and people contemplating career changes need to read, because where you live affects so much of how you live. This part speaks to a dilemma I’m facing:

In the year 2000, people were willing to accept lower real wages to live in New York, which means that they were coming to New York despite the fact that higher prices more than erased higher wages. It’s not that New York had become less productive; the city’s nominal wages, which reflect productivity, were higher than ever. But housing prices, fueled by the robust demand to live and play in the city, had risen even more than nominal earnings. If housing prices rise enough relative to nominal incomes, as they do when cities become more pleasant, then real incomes can actually fall during a period of great urban success. Manhattan had changed from a battlefield to an urban playground, and people were willing to pay, in the form of lower wages, for the privilege of living there.

I’m likely to move to New York and live for at least two years. Which raises questions: am I willing to “accept lower real wages” because of the housing cost increases? How valuable is “an urban playground?” Perhaps not valuable enough to keep me there. I love New York and just wish I could live there. L.A. has similar problems, and I have some friends who want to leave Tucson—for which I blame them not at all—and are contemplating where to go; based on their disposition and temperaments, Seattle or Portland would be obvious choices. They’re much less expensive, and moving to either will probably result in an increase of 10 – 20% in real income terms, as Virginia Postrel shows in “A Tale of Two Town Houses.” (Glaeser speaks to L.A., too, however indirectly: “Cities grow by building up, or out, and when a city doesn’t build, people are prevented from experiencing the magic of urban proximity.” L.A. has replaced proximity with traffic.)

And there tend to be clusters of artists and other creative types in cities that offer dense environments, not totally dysfunctional politics, and cheap housing. The 1920s Paris immortalized by Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and recently recreated in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris was such a place; today, as Glaeser says, “Restrictions on new construction have ensured that Paris—once famously hospitable to starving artists—is now affordable only to the wealthy.” It’s a useful reminder that you can’t beat economics with raw policy alone, and so many articles about rising rent prices or changing demographics utterly fail to connect housing costs with the needs of the poor outsiders who will one day start startups or be artists (for a recent, positive example, see Megan McArdle’s post “Empty Apartments, Stupid Laws“).

Artists simply can’t afford Paris anymore, and New York is becoming expensive too.

The really famous, important parts of the world—New York, London, Tokyo, Beijing—are important because of what large networks of hundreds of millions of people have done with and to them. They’re not intrinsically important because of the land they occupy. Cities that want to emulate their example and distinguish themselves from surrounding suburbs and rural lands need to build up, not out (or not at all). New York’s housing prices are so high because lots of people want to live there—because it’s awesome. As Glaeser shows, we should want them to be able to live there, too. But we often can’t.

This doesn’t just hurt us as individuals, or economies composed of people who can’t live in spaces where they connect with one another: it also hurts the environment because: “Traditional cities have fewer carbon emissions because they don’t require vast amounts of driving. [. . .] Department of Energy data confirms that New York State’s per capita energy consumption is next to last in the country, which largely reflects public transit use in New York.” And:

Good environmentalism means putting buildings in places where they will do the least ecological harm. This means that we must be more tolerant of tearing down the short buildings in cities in order to build tall ones, and more intolerant of the activists who oppose emissions-reducing urban growth.

But I think he misses something here: for a lot of people, environmentalism is just a pose, a way to show they care—provided it doesn’t harm or affect their life in some immediate, substantial way (those of you firing up your e-mail clients to send me angry missives should hold off: this applies to lots of other subjects too, like religion). So the people who claim to be environmentalists are really claiming that they want you to think they care about the environment, and that’s a cheap stance until people start to complain about construction noise, or loss of a neighborhood’s dubious “character,” or whatever other excuse comes up. As Alex Tabarrok says in Launching The Innovation Renaissance, one major, underappreciated problem the U.S. faces is the sheer number of veto players who can affect any building project at any scale. Glaeser is in effect pointing to a single facet of this general principle.

In essence, there’s too much regulation of what happens in most cities. For example, take parking policies: if people (especially those who claim to be environmentalist) want good public transportation, one useful strategy is to raise the real cost of cars, which is an especially good idea because Free Parking Comes at a Price. And that price is innumerable underutilized parking spaces. I see this price every day in Tucson, where miles and miles of land are given over to hideous parking lots that make walking virtually anywhere impossible.

One interesting missing piece: a concrete theory of why cities offer the advantages they do. We have lots of indirect information showing the advantage of cities, combined with some theories about why they offer the things they do, but little else. Steven Berlin Johnson is similarly indirect in Where Good Ideas Come From; like Triumph of the City, it’s a fascinating book (and he speaks to cities as innovative environments in it), but it also has this gap that I don’t know how to fill. Perhaps no one can at current levels of technology and understanding.

A lot of the prose in Triumph of the City is uninspired, and occasionally garbled, like this: “Urban proximity enables cross-cultural connection by reducing the curse of communicating complexity, the fact that a garbled message increases the amount of information that is being transferred.” But the density of ideas makes up for the weakness of the language, and Glaeser is also a native economist, rather than a writer.


Here’s Slate’s (positive) review. I don’t think I’ve read any negative reviews; if you’ve seen any, post a comment.

Paul Graham and not being as right as he could be in “The Age of the Essay”

Paul Graham often challenges people who say that he’s wrong to cite a particular sentence that is untrue; see, for example, this: “Can you give an example of something I said that you think is false?” Elsewhere, although I can’t find a link at the moment, he says that most people who say he’s said something wrong aren’t actually referring to something he’s said, but something they think he’s said, or imagines he might say. Hence my italicization of “something I said:” Internet denizens often extrapolate from or simplify his often nuanced positions in an attempt to pin ideas to him that he hasn’t explicitly endorsed. So I’m going to try not to do that, but I will nonetheless look at some of what he’s said about writing and writing education and describe some of my attempts to put his implied criticisms into action.

While I think Graham is right the vast majority of the time, I also think he’s off the mark regarding some of his comments about how writing is taught in schools. I wouldn’t call him wrong, exactly, but I would say that trying some of the things he suggests or implicitly suggests hasn’t worked out nearly as well as I’d hoped, especially when applied to full classrooms of students drawn from a wide spectrum of ability and interest.

I’ve long been bothered by the way writing and related subjects are taught in school. They’re made so boring and lifeless most of the time. Part of the problem, and perhaps the largest part, is the teachers. I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating how to improve the writing class experience. Some of that effort appears to be paying off: a surprisingly large number of students will say, either to me directly or in their evaluations, that they usually hate English classes but really like this one. Yes, I’m sure some are sucking up, but I don’t care about sucking up and suspect students can detect as much. I really care about what happens on their papers. But some of my experiments haven’t worked, and I’ll talk about them here.

In “The Age of the Essay,” Graham starts:

Remember the essays you had to write in high school? Topic sentence, introductory paragraph, supporting paragraphs, conclusion. The conclusion being, say, that Ahab in Moby Dick was a Christ-like figure.

Oy. So I’m going to try to give the other side of the story: what an essay really is, and how you write one. Or at least, how I write one.

Graham doesn’t say so explicitly, but the implication of “the other side of the story” and “what an essay really is” is that essay writing in school should be more like real essay writing. To some extent he’s right, but trying to make school essay writing like real essay writing doesn’t yield the kinds of results I’d hoped for. Graham is right that he hasn’t directly said that school writing should be more like real writing, but it’s an obvious inference from this and other sections of “The Age of the Essay,” which I’ll discuss further below. He also does a lot with the word “Oy:” it expresses skepticism and distaste wrapped in one little word.

The way Graham puts it, writing a school essay sounds pretty bad; concluding “that Ahab in Moby Dick was a Christ-like figure” in a pre-structured essay is tedious, if for no other reason than because a million other students and a much smaller number of teachers and professors have already concluded or been forced to conclude the same thing. I think that a) teaching literature can be a much better experience and still serves some institutional purposes, and b) teaching writing in the context of other subjects might not be any better.

Passion and interest

Graham:

The most obvious difference between real essays and the things one has to write in school is that real essays are not exclusively about English literature. Certainly schools should teach students how to write. But due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature. And so all over the country students are writing not about how a baseball team with a small budget might compete with the Yankees, or the role of color in fashion, or what constitutes a good dessert, but about symbolism in Dickens.

I’d love to get well-developed essays on baseball, economics, and fashion. But most students either don’t appear to have the kind of passion that would be necessary to write such essays or don’t appear able to express it. Alternately, they have passion, but not knowledge behind the passion: someone who’d read Moneyball and other baseball research and could put together this kind of essay, but almost no students have. Even those who do have the passion don’t have much knowledge behind their passion. I’ve been implicitly testing this theory for the past three and a half years: on my assignment sheets, I always include a line that tells students something like this: they can write on “a book or subject of your own choosing. If you write on a book or idea of your own, you must clear your selection with me first.” Almost none exercise this choice.

Now, one could argue that students have been brainwashed by 12 years of school by the time I’ve got them, and to some extent that’s probably true. But if a student were really, deeply interested in a subject, I think she’d be willing to say, “Hey, what if I mostly write about the role of imagination among physicists,” and I’d probably say yes. This just doesn’t happen often.

I think it doesn’t happen because students don’t know where to start. They aren’t skilled enough to closely read a book or even article on their own. They don’t know how to compare and contrast passages well—the very thing I’m doing here. So I could assign a book about baseball and work through the close reading stuff in class, but most people aren’t that interested in the subject, and then the people interested in fashion will be left out (even then, most students who say they’re interested in fashion actually appear to mean they skim Cosmo and Vogue).

If you’re going to write about a big, somewhat vague idea, like money in baseball, you need a lot more knowledge and many more sources than you do to write about “symbolism in Dickens.” Novels and stories have the advantage of being self-contained. That’s part of what got the New Criticism technique of “close reading” so engrained in schools: you could give students 1984 and rely on the text itself to argue about the text. This has always been a bit of a joke, of course, because knowing about the lead up to World War II and the beginnings of the Cold War will give a lot of contextual information about 1984, but one can still read the novel and analyze it on its own terms more easily than one can analyze more fact-based material. So a lot of teachers rely on closely reading novels, which I’ll come back to in a bit.

There may be more to the story of why students are writing about 1984 and not “what constitutes a good dessert” beyond “a series of historical accidents.” Those accidents are part of the story, but not all.

Amateurs and experts

What’s appropriate for amateurs may not be appropriate for experts; Daniel Willingham makes this point at length in his book Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom; he says that “Cognition early in training is fundamentally different from cognition late in training” and, furthermore, “[. . .] years of practice make a qualitative, not quantitative, difference in the way [scientists, artists, and others] think compared to how a well-informed amateur thinks.” We don’t get there right away: “Experts don’t think in terms of surface features, as novices do; they think in terms of functions, or deep structure.” It takes years of that dedicated practice to become an expert, and ten often appears to be it: “There’s nothing magical about a decade; it just seems to take that long to learn the background knowledge to develop” what one really needs to do the new, interesting, creative work that defines an expert.”

Graham is an expert writer. He, like other expert writers, can write differently than amateurs and still produce excellent work. Novice writes usually can’t write effectively without a main point of some sort in mind. I couldn’t, either, when I was a novice (though I tried). Graham says:

The other big difference between a real essay and the things they make you write in school is that a real essay doesn’t take a position and then defend it. That principle, like the idea that we ought to be writing about literature, turns out to be another intellectual hangover of long forgotten origins.

He’s right in the sense that real essays don’t have to take a position and defend it, but teachers insist on thesis statements for the same reason bikes for three-year olds have training wheels: otherwise the student-writer will fall over. If you don’t get students to take a position, you’ll get—maybe—summarization. If you don’t ask for and emphasize thesis statements, which are basically the position to be defended, you’ll get wishy-washy essay that don’t really say much of anything. And it’s not that they don’t say much of anything because they’re trying to explore a complex problems: they don’t say much of anything because the writer doesn’t have anything to say, or is afraid of saying anything, or doesn’t know how to explore a problem space. If you want an academic-ized version of what essays are, Wolfgang Holdheim says in The Hermeneutic Mode: Essays on Time in Literature and Literary Theory that “[…] works in the essay genre (rather than presenting knowledge as a closed and often deceptively finished system) enact cognition in progress, knowledge as the process of getting to know.” Students don’t have the cognition in progress they need to enact Graham-style essays. They haven’t evolved enough to write without the scaffolding of a thesis statement.

When I started teaching, I didn’t emphasize thesis statements and got a lot of essays that don’t enact cognition or make a point. The better ones instinctively made a point of some kind; the worse ones summarized. After a while I realized that I could avoid a lot of heartache on the part of my students by changing the way I was offering instruction, because students weren’t ready to write essays without taking a position and defending it.

So now I teach thesis statements more or less like every other English instructor. I try to avoid boring theses and encourage deep ones, but it’s nonetheless true that I’ve realized I was wrong and have consequently moved on. I consider the no-thesis-emphasized experiment just that: an experiment that taught me how I should teach. In the future, I might try other experiments that could lead me away from emphasizing thesis statements. But for now, I do teach students to take a perspective and defend it. Many don’t actually end up doing so—their papers end up more exploratory than disputatious—but the overall effect is a positive one.

I’m not the first one to have noticed the problem. In Patrick Allitt’s I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student, he says this of student writing in a history class:

Certain errors are so common as to be almost universal. The first one is that almost no student really knows how to construct an argument and then deploy information to support and substantiate it. Usually student papers describe what happened, more or less, then throw in an indignant moral judgment or two before stopping abruptly.

I know the feeling: students, when they start my class, mostly want to summarize what they’ve read. And, as Allitt notes, they badly want to moralize, or castigate other people, or to valorize their own difference from the weakness of the writer’s. I find the moralizing most puzzling, especially because it makes me think I’m teaching a certain number of people who are a) hypocrites or b) lack the empathy to understand where other writers come from, even if they don’t agree with said writer. They use ad-hominem attacks. When I assign Graham’s essays “What You’ll Wish You’d Known” and “What You Can’t Say,” a surprisingly large number of students say things like, “Who is this guy?”

When I tell them something along the lines of, “He started an early Internet store generator called Viaweb and now writes essays and an early-stage startup investment program,” their follow-up questions are usually a bit incoherent but boils down to a real question: Who gives him the authority to speak to us? They’re used to reading much-lauded if often boring writers in school. When I say something like, “Who cares who he is?” or “Shouldn’t we judge people based on their writing, not on their status?” they eye me suspiciously, like six-year olds might eye an eight-year old who casts aspersions on the Tooth Fairy.

They’ve apparently been trained by school to think status counts for a lot, and status usually means being a) old, b) dead, c) critically acclaimed by some unknown critical body, and d) between hard or soft covers, ideally produced by a major publisher. I’m not again any of those things: many if not most of my favorite writers fit those criteria. But it’d be awfully depressing if every writer had to. More importantly, assuming those are the major criteria for good writing is fairly bogus since most old dead critically acclaimed writers who are chiefly found between hard covers were once young firebrands shaking up a staid literary, social, political, or journalistic establishment with their shockingly fresh prose and often degenerate ideas. If we want to figure out who the important dead people will be in the future, we need some way of assessing living writers right now. We need something like taste, which is incredibly hard to teach. Most schools don’t even bother: they rely on weak fallback criteria that are wrapped up in status. I’d like my students to learn how to do better, no matter how hard.

Some of the “Who is this guy?” questions regarding Graham come from a moralizing perspective: students think or imply that someone who publishes writing through means other than books are automatically somehow lesser writers than those whose work is published primarily between hard covers (Graham published Hackers & Painters, as well as technical books, but the students aren’t introduced to him in that fashion; I actually think it useful not to mention those books, in order to present the idea that writing published online can be valid and useful).

Anyway, trying to get students to write analytically—to be able to understand and explain a subject before they develop emotional or ethical reactions to it—is really, incredibly difficult (Allitt mentions this too). And having them construct and defend thesis statements seems to help this process. Few students understand that providing analysis and interpretation is a better, subtler way of eventually convincing others of whatever emotional or ethical point of view you might hold. They want to skip the analysis and interpretation and go straight to signaling what kind of person they want the reader to imagine them to be.

Not all students have all these problems, and I can think of at least one student who didn’t have any of them, and probably another dozen or so (out of about 350) who had none or very few of these problems when they began class. I’m dealing with generalizations that don’t apply to each individual student. But class requires some level of generalization: 20 to 30 students land in a room with me for two and a half hours per week, and I, like all instructors, have to choose some level of baseline knowledge and expectation and some level of eventual mastery, while at the same time ensuring that writing assignments are hard enough to be a challenge and stretch one’s abilities while not being so hard that they can’t be completed. When I see problems like the ones described throughout this essay, I realize the kinds of things I should focus on—and I also realize why teachers do the things they do the way they do them, instead of doing some of the things Graham implies.

Reading Allitt makes me realize I’m not alone, and he has the same issues in history I have in English. His other problems—like having students who “almost all use unnecessarily complicated language”—also resonate; I talk a lot about some of the best and pithiest writing advice I’ve ever read (“Omit unnecessary words“), but that advice is much easier to state than implement (my preceding sentence began life saying, “much easier to say than to implement,” but I realized I hadn’t followed my own rule).

Graham again:

I’m sometimes accused of meandering. In defend-a-position writing that would be a flaw. There you’re not concerned with truth. You already know where you’re going, and you want to go straight there, blustering through obstacles, and hand-waving your way across swampy ground. But that’s not what you’re trying to do in an essay. An essay is supposed to be a search for truth. It would be suspicious if it didn’t meander.

But defend-a-position essays, if they’re taught and written well, shouldn’t be completely opposed to meandering, and they’re not about “blustering through obstacles.” They’re about considering what might be true, possible objections to it, addressing those questions, building roads over “swamp ground,” changing your mind if necessary, and so on—eventually getting to something like truth. In Graham’s conception of defend-a-position essays, the result is probably going to be lousy. The same is likely to be true of students who are taught the “hand-waving your way” method of writing. They should be taught that, if they discover their thesis is wrong, they should change their thesis and paper via the magic of editing. I think Graham is really upset about the quality of teaching.

Thesis statements also prevent aimless wandering. Graham says that “The Meander (aka Menderes) is a river in Turkey. As you might expect, it winds all over the place. But it doesn’t do this out of frivolity. The path it has discovered is the most economical route to the sea.” Correct. But students do this out of frivolity and tend to get nowhere. Students don’t discover “the most economical route to the sea;” they don’t have a route at all. They’re more like Israelites wandering in the desert. Or a body of water that simply drains into the ground.

Why literature?

Graham:

It’s no wonder if this [writing essays about literature] seems to the student a pointless exercise, because we’re now three steps removed from real work: the students are imitating English professors, who are imitating classical scholars, who are merely the inheritors of a tradition growing out of what was, 700 years ago, fascinating and urgently needed work.

We may have gotten to teaching students how to write through literature via the means Graham describes, but I don’t think the practice persists solely because of the history. It persists because teaching through literature offers a couple of major conveniences: literature can be studied as a self-contained object via close reading and offers a narrower focus for students than larger subjects that require more background.

The rise of literature in university departments started in the nineteenth century and really took off in the first half of the twentieth. It was helped enormously by the rise of “close reading,” a method that had two major advantages: the trappings of rigor and a relative ease of application.

The “trappings of rigor” part is important because English (and writing) needed to look analytical and scientific; Louis Menand covers this idea extensively in a variety of forums, including The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, where he says that the argument “that there is such a thing as specifically literary language, and that literary criticism provides an analytical toolbox for examining it—was the basis for the New Criticism’s claim to a place in the structure of the research university.” So students look at literature because teachers and professors believe there is “specifically literary language” that’s different from other kinds of language. I used to not think so. Now I’m not so sure. After having students try to write analyses of various kinds of nonfiction, I can see the attraction in teaching them fiction that doesn’t have a specific message it’s trying to impart, primarily because a lot of students simply don’t have sufficient background knowledge to add anything to most of the nonfiction they read. They don’t read nonfiction very carefully, which means they have trouble making any statements other than bald assertion and frequently saying things that be countered through appeals to the text itself. Getting them to read it carefully through the asking of detailed questions is both hard and tedious.

Enter close reading. It supplies literature with a rationale, as stated above, but it also works pretty well when used in classrooms. As a method, it only requires knowledge of the tool and some text to apply it on. Like literature. To do close reading, you have to know you should pay attention to the text and how its writer or speaker is using the language it does. From there, the text becomes what Umberto Eco calls “a machine conceived for eliciting interpretations” in a way that a lot of nonfiction isn’t.

Paul Graham’s essay “What You’ll Wish You’d Known,” which I teach in my first unit, almost always generates vastly worse papers than James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” because Graham has deliberately covered most of the interesting territory relating to his subject. “Sonny’s Blues,” on the other hand, is just trying to tell a story, and the possible meanings of that story extend incredibly far outward, and they can be generated through close readings and relatively little other knowledge. Students who want to discuss “What You’ll Wish You’d Known” intelligently need a vast amount of life experience and other reading to even approach it cogently.

Students who want to discuss “Sonny’s Blues” intelligently need to pay attention to how the narrator shifts over the course of the story, how sound words recur, what music might mean, and a host of other things that are already mostly contained in the story. Students seem to have much more difficulty discovering this. When I teach Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, students almost never realize how the story subtly suggests that Connie is actually in a dream that plays out her anxieties regarding puberty, adulthood, and encroaching sexuality. It offers a lot more substance for discussion and decent papers than Graham’s essays and a lot of other nonfiction.

Perhaps the bad papers on Graham are my own fault, but I’ve tried a lot of ways to get students to write better papers on nonfiction, usually without much success. I’ve begun to suspect they’re just not ready. Students can be taught close reading that, in an ideal world, then gets applied to nonfiction. The reading of literature, in other words, is upwind of the reading of other kinds of nonfiction, however useful or interesting those other kinds of nonfiction might be. If you’re dealing with not-very-bright high school teachers and students who know even less than college students, the advantages of close reading literature as a method are magnified.

This is a relatively new affair, too; here’s Louis Menand discussing where English departments came from and how T.S. Eliot influenced them:

The English department is founded on the belief that people need to be taught how to read literature. This is not a self-evident proposition. Before there were English departments, people read stories, poems, and plays without assuming that special training was required. But most English professors think that people don’t intuitively get the way that literary writing works. Readers think that stories and poems are filled with symbols that ‘stand for’ something, or that the beliefs expressed in them are the author’s own, or that there is a hidden meaning they are supposed to find. They are unable to make sense of statements that are not simple assertions of fact. People read literature too literally.

Now, maybe people don’t “need to be taught how to read literature” as literature. But they do need to be taught how to read closely, because most people are really bad at it, and literature offers advantages to doing so.

Most students don’t have very good reading skills. They can’t synthesize information from books and articles effectively. So if you turn them loose on a library without direction, they’ll dutifully look some stuff up, and you’ll get back a lot of papers with citations from pages three to nine. Not very many cite page 221. And the citations they have feel random, rather than cohesive. In a structured class, one can spend a lot of time close reading: what does the author mean here? Why this sentence, why this turn of phrase? How is the piece structured? If it’s a story, who’s speaking? These skills are hard to build—I’m still building mine—and most freshmen simply don’t have them, and they don’t have the energy to engage with writing on its own terms in an unstructured environment.

Giving them a topic and telling them to write is akin to taking a random suburbanite, dropping them in northern Canada, and wishing them luck in finding their way back to civilization. Sure, a few hardy ones will make it. But to make sure most make it, you’ll have to impart a lot of skills first. That’s what good high school and undergrad classes should do. The key word in the preceding sentence, of course, is “good:” lots of humanities classes are bad and don’t teach much of anything, which gives the humanities themselves a bad rap, as people recall horrific English or history teachers. But one bad example doesn’t mean the entire endeavor is rotten, even if the structure of schools isn’t conducive to identifying and rewarding good teachers of the sort who will teach writing well.

Bad Teaching and the Real Problem with Literature

English, like most subjects, is easy to do badly. Most English teachers teach their subjects poorly; that’s been my experience, anyway, and it seems to be the experience of most people in school. I’m not sure broadening the range of subjects will help all that much if the teacher himself is lousy, or uninterested in class, or otherwise mentally absent.

It’s also easy to understand why English teachers eventually come to scorn their students: the students aren’t perfect, have interests of their own, aren’t really willing to grant you the benefit of the doubt, aren’t interested in your subject, and don’t understand your point of view. Notice that last one: students don’t understand the teacher’s point of view, but after a while the teacher stops trying to understand the students’s point of view. “What?” the teacher thinks. “Not everyone finds The Tempest and Middlemarch as fascinating as I do?” Er, no. And that kind of thing bleeds into papers. The world might be a better place if teachers could choose more of their own material; I’ve read most of Middlemarch and find it pretty damn tedious. Perhaps giving teachers more autonomy to construct their own curriculum around works students like better would solve some of the literature problem. But if the median student doesn’t read anything for pleasure, what then?

Too many teachers also don’t have a sense of openness and possibility to various readings. They don’t have the deft touch necessary to apply both rigor and openness to their own readings and students’s readings. Works of art don’t have a single meaning (and if they did, they’d be rather boring). But that doesn’t equate to “anything can mean anything and everything is subjective.” In teaching English, which is often the process of teaching interpretation, one has to balance these two scales. No one balances them perfectly, but too many teachers don’t seem to balance them at all, or acknowledge that they exist, or care that they exist. So you get those essays that find, “say, that Ahab in Moby Dick was a Christ-like figure.” Which is okay and probably true, but I wouldn’t want to read 30 papers that come to that conclusion, and I wouldn’t order my students to come to that conclusion. I’d want them to figure out what’s going on in the novel (then again, in composition classes I teach a lot of stuff outside the realm of “English literature”).

Not being a bogus teacher is really hard. Teachers aren’t incentivized to not be bogus: most public high school teachers effectively can’t be fired after two or three years, thanks to teachers’ unions, except in the case of egregious misconduct. Mediocrity, tedium, torpor, and the like aren’t fireable or punishable offenses. Students merely have to suffer through until they get to college, although some get lucky and find passionate, engaged teachers. But it’s mostly a matter of luck, and teaching seems to actively encourage the best to leave and the worst to stay. Even at college, however, big public schools incentivize professors and graduate students to produce research (or, sometimes “research,” but that’s a topic for another essay), not to teach. So it’s possible to go through 16 years of education without encountering someone who is heavily incentivized to teach well. Some people teach well because they care about teaching well—I’d like to think I’m one—but again, that’s a matter of luck, not a matter of systematic efforts to improve the education experience for the maximum number of students.

Teachers can, and do, however, get in trouble for being interesting. So there’s a systematic incentive to be boring.

In an essay that used to be called “Good Bad Attitude” and now goes by “The Word ‘Hacker,’” Graham says that “Hackers are unruly. That is the essence of hacking. And it is also the essence of American-ness.” Writers are unruly too. At least the good ones are. But many teachers hate unruliness and love conformity. So they teach writing (and reading—you can’t really do one without the other) on the factory model, where a novel or whatever goes in one end and is supposed to emerge on the other like a car, by making sure every step along the way is done precisely the same way. But writing (and, to some extent, reading) doesn’t really work that way, and students can sense as much in some inchoate way. Graham, too, senses that the way we teach writing and reading is busted, and he’s right that we’d be better off encouraging students to explore their own interests more. That’s probably less important than cultivating a sense of openness, explicitly telling students when you’re ordering them to do something for training-wheel purposes, admitting what you don’t know, acknowledging that there’s an inherent level of subjectivity to writing, and working on enumerating principles that can be violated instead of iron-clad rules that are almost certainly wrong.

Most students aren’t interested in English or writing; one can do a lot to make them interested, but it’s necessarily imperfect, and a lot of classrooms are unsatisfying to very bright people (like Graham and, I would guess, a lot of his readers), but that’s in part because classrooms are set up to hit the broad middle. And the broad middle needs thesis statements, wouldn’t know how to start with a wide-open prompt, and aren’t ready for the world of writing that Graham might have in mind.

While a series of historical accidents might’ve inspired the teaching we get now, I don’t think they’re solely responsible for the continuation of teaching literature. Teaching literature and close reading through literature continue to serve pedagogical purposes. So Graham isn’t wrong, but he’s missing a key piece of the story.

Writing this essay

When you’re thinking about a topic, start writing. I began this essay right after breakfast; I started thinking about it while making eggs and thinking about the day’s teaching. I had to interrupt it to go to class and actually do said teaching, but I got the big paragraph about “status” and a couple notes down. If you’re not somewhere you can write, use a notebook. I like pretentious Rhodia Webbies, but any notebook will do. If you don’t have a notebook, use a cell phone. Don’t have a phone? Use a napkin. Whatever. Good ideas don’t always come to you when you’re at your computer. They often come while you’re doing something else.

By the way, Paul Graham gets this: in “The Top Idea in Your Mind,” he wrote:

I realized recently that what one thinks about in the shower in the morning is more important than I’d thought. I knew it was a good time to have ideas. Now I’d go further: now I’d say it’s hard to do a really good job on anything you don’t think about in the shower.

Everyone who’s worked on difficult problems is probably familiar with the phenomenon of working hard to figure something out, failing, and then suddenly seeing the answer a bit later while doing something else. There’s a kind of thinking you do without trying to. I’m increasingly convinced this type of thinking is not merely helpful in solving hard problems, but necessary. The tricky part is, you can only control it indirectly.

Most students don’t do this and don’t think this way. If they did, or could be instructed to, I suspect Graham’s ideas would work better.

Knowing it

Students themselves, if they’re intellectually honest, know a lot of the advice given in this essay on some level. One recent paper writer said in a reflection that: “My first draft does not have a direction or a point, but my final draft does.” Not all writing needs a point, but if you read student writing, you find that very little of it lacks a point because the author is trying to discover something or explore something about the world. It lacks a point because it’s incoherent or meandering. Again: that’s not me trying to be a jerk, but rather a description of what I see in papers.

Here’s another: “You were correct in telling me that writing a paper by wrapping evidence around big ideas rather than literary analysis would be difficult, and I found that out the hard way.” Again, these writers could be trying to suck up or tell me what I want to hear, but enough have said similar things in a sufficient number of different contexts to make me think their experiences are representative. And I offer warnings, not absolute rules: if students want to write “big idea” papers, I don’t order them not to. Many suffer as a result. A few thrive. But such students show why English instructors offer the kinds of guidance and assignments they do. These can be parodied, and we’ve all had lousy English classes taught by the incompetent, inept, and burned out.

If I had given students assignments closer to the real writing that Graham does, most simply wouldn’t be able to do it. But I am pushing them in the direction of real writing—which is part of the reason I tell the ones who really want to write to read “The Age of the Essay.” I love the essay: it’s only some of the reasoning about why schools operate the way they do that bothers me, and even then I only came to discover why things are done the way they are by doing them.

If you think you can teach writing better, I encourage you to go try it, especially in a public school or big college. I thought I could. Turned out to be a lot harder than I thought. Reality has a surprising amount of detail.

EDIT: In A Jane Austen Education, William Deresiewicz writes:

My professor taught novels, and Catherine was mistaught by them, but neither he nor Austen was finally concerned with novels as such. Learning to read, they both knew, means learning to live. Keeping your eyes open when you’re looking at a book is just a way of teaching yourself to keep them open all the time.

Novels are tricky in this way: they’re filled with irony, which, at its most basic, means saying one thing while meaning something else, or saying multiple things and meaning multiple things. That’s part of what “learning to live” consists of, and fiction does a unique job of training people to keep their eyes “open all the time.” Most teachers are probably bad at conveying this, but I do believe that this idea, or something like it, lies underneath novels as tools for teaching students how to live in a way that essays and other nonfiction probably doesn’t do.

A lot of people seem very eager to stop learning how to live as quickly as possible. They might have the hardest time of all.

A writer's complaint about realism

A writer friend: “I’ve suffered from too many books made boring in the name of realism to indulge it myself.”

Amen. If you have a trade-off between verisimilitude and cleverness, choose whichever will be the most fun. I’ll forgive hilarity but not tedium. Most of us are surrounded by boring people with incoherent, shallow thoughts all day long, and we don’t need to read about them too. Many of us are such people, however witty we may want or imagine ourselves to appear in our writing.

A writer’s complaint about realism

A writer friend: “I’ve suffered from too many books made boring in the name of realism to indulge it myself.”

Amen. If you have a trade-off between verisimilitude and cleverness, choose whichever will be the most fun. I’ll forgive hilarity but not tedium. Most of us are surrounded by boring people with incoherent, shallow thoughts all day long, and we don’t need to read about them too. Many of us are such people, however witty we may want or imagine ourselves to appear in our writing.

On "Amazon Signs Up Authors, Writing Publishers Out of Deal"

Seemingly everyone in the book “blogosphere” has something to say about Amazon Signs Up Authors, Writing Publishers Out of Deal, which points to Amazon’s growing presence not just in book retailing but in book publishing (“Amazon will publish 122 books this fall in an array of genres, in both physical and e-book form. [. . .] It has set up a flagship line run by a publishing veteran, Laurence Kirshbaum, to bring out brand-name fiction and nonfiction”). And that’s just its big-name efforts: it now offers a platform for any moron, including this one, to upload and publish eBooks.

Naturally, as someone mulling over options, I’ve been thinking about this stuff:

1) There are a couple of problems publishers have. One big problem is simple: they offer lousy standard royalties on eBooks. Publishers apparently offer a measly 17.5%, before the agent cut. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and so forth will offer 70% (if the author is using an agent, presumably the agent gets a cut). Big-name authors can presumably get better deals, but probably not 70% deals. So an author can sell many, many fewer eBooks and still make more money.

2) Smart authors are probably thinking about whether publishers are going to be in business at all in anything like their current form five years from now. This means authors, especially younger ones, might not want to lock in their eBooks at a 17.5% royalty rate for the rest of their lives only to discover that, five or ten years from now, virtually no one is reading paper books and virtually no one is using conventional publishers in conventional ways. If you’re a writer and you have a longer-than-the-next-quarter outlook, this makes a lot of sense.

3) On a subject closer to home, publishers and agents probably have too many false negatives—that is, people who they should offer representation to but don’t. For a long time, those people simply had no real recourse: they went away or kept trying through the rejections. Lots of now-famous writers went through dozens or hundreds of rejections. If I one day become a now-famous writer, I’ll have the same rejection story. But we don’t know about the could-have-been-famous writers who had to give up for various reasons. Today, if writers are sufficiently determined, they can start selling on their own (I may fall into this category shortly) and see what happens. Chances are good that “nothing” happens, but chances are good that “nothing” happens in traditional publishing land too. But if something happens, it would be hard to imagine that writers used to taking home 70% will happily roll over and let publishers give them 17.5%.

4) Publishers more generally are facing a classic Innovator’s Dilemma-style problem: what happens when the old model is fading but the new one is less profitable in the short to medium term? You run the risk of startups and new-model companies overtaking your business, leaving you in the position of Kodak, old-school IBM, Polaroid, everyone who ever competed with Microsoft prior to about 2004, and innumerable other companies who’ve been killed by shifting markets.

5) Since the massive bloodletting at publishing companies in the 2008 – 2009 neighborhood, it seems to have gotten even harder to get the attention of publishers, which exacerbates numbers 3 and 4, and probably drives more people toward self-publishing, thus accelerating the overall dynamic.

The major publishers aren’t daft and know all this. But they are constrained and can’t do much about it. They can’t distinguish between standard slush and what I’d like to think is my own worthwhile stuff, because if they could, they wouldn’t say no to duds and pass on hits. So this may simply be the sort of thing everyone can see coming and no one can do anything about.

EDIT: This, from Jamie Byng, is worth remembering too: “Publishing is also about finding new talent, rigorous editing, championing the books you believe in, and all that doesn’t just disappear with digital books.” The essential challenge of writing remains even if the distribution changes.

EDIT 2: Literary agent Jane Dystel:

Last week while I was following up on a proposal I had out on submission to publishers, I heard back from a senior editor at one of the top six publishing houses. This person is someone who I consider to be very smart and who has great taste. I had sent him a proposal which he acknowledged was very well done and which covered a subject he was interested in. In turning it down, he sounded discouraged and demoralized as he said that the higher ups in his company were no longer allowing him to buy mid-list titles that in the past he had been able to turn into bestsellers. Rather, he said, they were only allowing him to buy “sure things,” which I took to mean books that can’t fail.

If this story is actually indicative of a general trend in publishing, the number of false negatives should be going up and, concomitantly, the number of writers willing to try new things should too.

On “Amazon Signs Up Authors, Writing Publishers Out of Deal”

Seemingly everyone in the book “blogosphere” has something to say about Amazon Signs Up Authors, Writing Publishers Out of Deal, which points to Amazon’s growing presence not just in book retailing but in book publishing (“Amazon will publish 122 books this fall in an array of genres, in both physical and e-book form. [. . .] It has set up a flagship line run by a publishing veteran, Laurence Kirshbaum, to bring out brand-name fiction and nonfiction”). And that’s just its big-name efforts: it now offers a platform for any moron, including this one, to upload and publish eBooks.

Naturally, as someone mulling over options, I’ve been thinking about this stuff:

1) There are a couple of problems publishers have. One big problem is simple: they offer lousy standard royalties on eBooks. Publishers apparently offer a measly 17.5%, before the agent cut. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and so forth will offer 70% (if the author is using an agent, presumably the agent gets a cut). Big-name authors can presumably get better deals, but probably not 70% deals. So an author can sell many, many fewer eBooks and still make more money.

2) Smart authors are probably thinking about whether publishers are going to be in business at all in anything like their current form five years from now. This means authors, especially younger ones, might not want to lock in their eBooks at a 17.5% royalty rate for the rest of their lives only to discover that, five or ten years from now, virtually no one is reading paper books and virtually no one is using conventional publishers in conventional ways. If you’re a writer and you have a longer-than-the-next-quarter outlook, this makes a lot of sense.

3) On a subject closer to home, publishers and agents probably have too many false negatives—that is, people who they should offer representation to but don’t. For a long time, those people simply had no real recourse: they went away or kept trying through the rejections. Lots of now-famous writers went through dozens or hundreds of rejections. If I one day become a now-famous writer, I’ll have the same rejection story. But we don’t know about the could-have-been-famous writers who had to give up for various reasons. Today, if writers are sufficiently determined, they can start selling on their own (I may fall into this category shortly) and see what happens. Chances are good that “nothing” happens, but chances are good that “nothing” happens in traditional publishing land too. But if something happens, it would be hard to imagine that writers used to taking home 70% will happily roll over and let publishers give them 17.5%.

4) Publishers more generally are facing a classic Innovator’s Dilemma-style problem: what happens when the old model is fading but the new one is less profitable in the short to medium term? You run the risk of startups and new-model companies overtaking your business, leaving you in the position of Kodak, old-school IBM, Polaroid, everyone who ever competed with Microsoft prior to about 2004, and innumerable other companies who’ve been killed by shifting markets.

5) Since the massive bloodletting at publishing companies in the 2008 – 2009 neighborhood, it seems to have gotten even harder to get the attention of publishers, which exacerbates numbers 3 and 4, and probably drives more people toward self-publishing, thus accelerating the overall dynamic.

The major publishers aren’t daft and know all this. But they are constrained and can’t do much about it. They can’t distinguish between standard slush and what I’d like to think is my own worthwhile stuff, because if they could, they wouldn’t say no to duds and pass on hits. So this may simply be the sort of thing everyone can see coming and no one can do anything about.

EDIT: This, from Jamie Byng, is worth remembering too: “Publishing is also about finding new talent, rigorous editing, championing the books you believe in, and all that doesn’t just disappear with digital books.” The essential challenge of writing remains even if the distribution changes.

EDIT 2: Literary agent Jane Dystel:

Last week while I was following up on a proposal I had out on submission to publishers, I heard back from a senior editor at one of the top six publishing houses. This person is someone who I consider to be very smart and who has great taste. I had sent him a proposal which he acknowledged was very well done and which covered a subject he was interested in. In turning it down, he sounded discouraged and demoralized as he said that the higher ups in his company were no longer allowing him to buy mid-list titles that in the past he had been able to turn into bestsellers. Rather, he said, they were only allowing him to buy “sure things,” which I took to mean books that can’t fail.

If this story is actually indicative of a general trend in publishing, the number of false negatives should be going up and, concomitantly, the number of writers willing to try new things should too.

The Marriage Plot — Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot is very competently done, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with it; some things may even be done particularly well. The problem is, as my faint praise indicates, a novel isn’t a student essay: it’s not enough for nothing to be particularly wrong. Something has to be smashing and fantastic for it to really matter. The Virgin Suicides, with its ceaseless questioning of what happened to the Lisbon sisters and its unusual narrative structure in the form of a chorus of outsider men who were once boys attempting to understand something they never quite can, had this quality. There’s a haunting, melancholy quality to the story and the way its told. Middlesex is imaginatively powerful because of Cal’s parents’ unusual relationship (does love conquer all, including biology?) and Cal’s own inter- or transexual state, which is so unusual amid novels that mostly cover straight people, occasionally cover gay people, but very seldom cover people whose bodies and minds don’t quite match like they should.

I keep copies of both Eugenides’ earlier novels, but I’m selling my copy of The Marriage Plot. I can’t imagine rereading it. In The Curtain, Milan Kundera wrote something that has long stayed with me because of how right he is:

Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional—thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious—is contemptible.

Eugenides has that ambition. I concede The Marriage Plot might outlast its author. But I’m skeptical it will: the religious stuff Mitchell experiences doesn’t measure up, and the mostly banal problems faced by recent college graduates doesn’t quite live up to anything. Leonard is the only person with real problems, both in terms of his ailment (manic depression) and his work (as a biologist: he is confronting the natural world, and some of the most interesting sections describe both his efforts in taming yeast and his status in a science lab). Madeleine, like so many of us, is committed to love with a person who maybe isn’t worth it. In listening to her sister’s trouble, we find this: “like anyone in love, Madeleine believed that her own relationship was different from every other relationship, immune from typical problems.” She isn’t, and her relationship is more like that of other people than she’d like to imagine it to be. And The Marriage Plot is more like other novels than I want it to be.

There are long sections of background that we might not need. We find that “Leonard had grown up in an Arts & Crafts house whose previous owner had been murdered in the front hall.” Grisly, but not vital to the story. “[. . . ] Madeleine took the opportunity to make herself more presentable. She ran her hands through her hair, finger-combing it.” Nothing wrong with this: it’s just average. Maybe too Victorian. Later: “Ground personnel rolled a metal stairway up to the plane’s first door, which opened from inside, and passengers began disembarking.” Do we need this? Or can it be eliminated? On their own, these sentences are okay, and I’ve committed such sentences many times, despite Martin Amis warning me not to. I want to put this book on a diet, to convince it to render only the essential. Too much of it makes me want to cut more; I can also now say that the only thing worse than taking an essay test of your own is reading about someone else’s essay test, especially when that essay test involves religion.

There are also some strange sentences; this one makes me wonder if the last word is a typo: “Years of being popular had left her with the reflexive ability to separate the cool from the uncool, even within subgroups, like the English department, where the concept of cool didn’t appear to obtain.” What does “appear to obtain” mean? Perhaps it’s supposed to be “appear to apply.” The good ones are still good, though: “Dabney had the artistic soul of a third-string tight end.” I’ve met Dabneys. And I get what Madeleine gets: people who declaim one kind of hierarchy or status system are always setting up another, whether they recognize it or not. I also find it intriguing that Madeleine can be an intense reader and also intensely popular. The two seldom appear together in fiction. Perhaps the combination makes her an astute social reader of everyone but herself.

She also understands Mitchell, who acts as a beta orbiter for most of the novel. He provides her with extra male romantic attention mostly because he’s a fool, and she knows it on some level: “Mitchell was the kind of smart, sane, parent-pleasing boy she should fall in love with and marry. That she would never fall in love with Mitchell and marry him, precisely because of this eligibility, was yet another indication, in a morning teeming with them, of just how screwed up she was in matters of the heart.” Being “smart, sane” and “parent-pleasing” is another way of saying “boring.” He also doesn’t make a move when he’s effectively asked to. At one point, Madeleine takes Mitchell home and goes to his attic room wearing only an old shirt—then resents him for not making a move when he obviously wants to and she does too.

She has a point.

When Mitchell is too eligible, that “eligibility” gets held against him. And he buys into ideologies that encourage him to remain a fool. A priest says to Mitchell: “Listen, a girl’s not watermelon you plug a hole in to see if it’s sweet.” Tell that to most women who do the same of men. There are plenty of sexist assumptions in this statement alone to get a feminist writing an angry paper about women, innocence, desire, and sexuality. Perhaps you shouldn’t take romantic advice from someone sworn to a life of celibacy and thus ignorance in a realm that most of us take to be vitally important. To be fair, Mitchell mostly doesn’t, but that he’s seeking knowledge from a source like that tells us he doesn’t even know where to begin to look for help. And Madeleine exploits this weakness. She says, “[. . .] one night the previous December, in a state of anxiety about her romantic life, Madeleine had run into Mitchell on campus and brought him back to her apartment. She’d needed male attention and had flirted with him, without entirely admitting it to herself.”

Rather nasty. Even worse than he falls for it. The optimal solution for Mitchell: find another girl, ideally one hotter than Madeleine, and use the other girl as leverage. Moping around doesn’t get the girl. As Sean Connery says in an otherwise lousy movie called The Rock, “Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and fuck the prom queen.” Mitchell hasn’t realized or internalized this. Contrast Mitchell’s neediness with that of his rival’s distance: “The more Leonard pulled away, the more anxious Madeleine became.” She’s desperate for Leonard, which enables him to make her like him even more. Mitchell is on the opposite side of this recusive dynamic. He should read Radway’s Reading the Romance, which describes how women like to read romance novels in which the heroine falls for major alpha males. Radway doesn’t use this term, of course, and works to explain away women’s preferences for alpha males, but the descriptions still shine through.

Still, there are funny bits to The Marriage Plot; on the same page where Madeleine assesses Mitchell as a beta, her mother says that she “saw a program about Indian recently,” as if “a program” on TV could convey much about the country—but wanting to say she’s seen it does convey a lot about her. She goes on to say, “It was terribly depressing. The poverty!” Mitchell says “That’s a plus for me [. . .] I thrive in squalor.” The unexpected reaction to Madeleine’s mother and reframing of expected values makes this funny and shows us that Mitchell isn’t the stiff he might otherwise appear to be. And the book isn’t the stiff it might otherwise be. It’s just not funny consistently enough or deep consistently enough. It’s a muddle, even when I do laugh at lines like, “Madeleine’s love troubles had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.” Love isn’t so easily eliminated, however: it only takes belief to sustain it.

And the characters are more self aware than I’ve sometimes depicted them here. Madeleine, for instance, knows that graduating from college, for a certain class of person who is expected to go to college, just isn’t that hard. On graduation day, “she wasn’t proud of herself. She was in no mood to celebrate. She’d lost faith in the significance of the day and what the day represented.” If college is mostly a test of showing up, it’s hard to blame her; and majoring in English probably isn’t very hard for most hard-core readers (it wasn’t for this one, anyway; to me reading was fun, which meant that I did so much more of it than most of my classmates that class itself wasn’t very hard). And she finds that the deconstructing education she receives isn’t much use when she’s confronted with the messy reality of interpersonal relationships, including her relationship with Leonard. Saying manic depression is a socially constructed discourse won’t get help like lithium will, even with lithium’s side effects.

Leonard’s stay at Pilgrim Lake, a biological research facility something like Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory, is among the novel’s most interesting sections. I would’ve liked it longer and Mitchell’s Indian sojourn shorter. Leonard is researching reproduction in yeast; this yields a predictable but impressive number of metaphors for human dilemmas. His work also can’t be solved by appeals to socially constructed discourse, and I suspect many of the scientists at the lab are more interesting than Madeleine at Mitchell. For example, Madeleine observes one of the very few female research scientists and observes:

Madeleine guessed that MacGregor [who just won a Nobel Prize] made people uneasy because of the purity of her renunciation and the simplicity of her scientific method. They didn’t want her to succeed, because that would invalidate the rationale for their research staffs and bloated budgets. MacGregor could also be opinionated and blunt. People didn’t like that it anyone, but they liked it less in a woman.

Tell us more about the “simplicity of her scientific method.” How does that relate to literary theory? Could we see MacGregor take more of an interest in Madeleine? Who are the people who “didn’t want her to succeed,” and how does she react to them? I wouldn’t want to turn the novel into Atlas Shrugged, but there are rich idea veins here that go unmined in favor of Mitchell’s noodlings. My suggestions are somewhat unfair, as I’m violating Updike’s first rule of book reviewing—”Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt”—but I think an exploration of gender in science more interesting than an exploration of gender and mating habits among relatively average 20-somethings. Maybe because I fit into that group I’m too close to the subject to find it remarkable, but I think the novel has a smaller-than-life quality to it, in the same way B. R. Myers describes Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom at the link:

One opens a new novel and is promptly introduced to some dull minor characters. Tiring of them, one skims ahead to meet the leads, only to realize: those minor characters are the leads. A common experience for even the occasional reader of contemporary fiction, it never fails to make the heart sink. The problem is not only one of craft or execution. Characters are now conceived as if the whole point of literature were to create plausible likenesses of the folks next door. They have their little worries, but so what? Do writers really believe that every unhappy family is special? If so, Tolstoy has a lot to answer for—including Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s latest. A suburban comedy-drama about the relationship between cookie-baking Patty, who describes herself as “relatively dumber” than her siblings; red-faced husband Walter, “whose most salient quality … was his niceness”; and Walter’s womanizing college friend, Richard, who plays in an indie band called Walnut Surprise, the novel is a 576-page monument to insignificance.

The Marriage Plot is a much better novel than this, but one detects the same kinds of maladies at work: “dull minor characters,” a problem beyond “craft or execution” (which are, again, well done here), “little worries” for the most part (until an unconvincing ending), and a general feel that life is elsewhere. Around the same time, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Bill Joy, Richard Stallman, and many others were coalescing around Silicon Valley to change the world. I wouldn’t be communicating with you right now via this medium if it weren’t for their work. Which isn’t to say every novel set in the late 70s or early 80s should be about computers, technology, or technologists: but in the face of banality, I can’t help drifting toward thoughts of people whose work really, incredibly, resolutely matters.

Eugenides is clearly interested in the inner workings of people—the problem is that Mitchell and Madeleine do not have particularly interesting or engaging insides. Mitchell needs a copy of The Game to be time-warped to him, stat, and Madeleine needs to better realize what reading nineteenth-century novels should prime her to know: that she’s not the first person in the universe with unwise love decisions or family problems. Why doesn’t she better analyze her own situation in terms of the novels she loves so much? Why doesn’t she better realize that, yes, her life could be one of the fragments in Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse? It could be, as Eleanor Barkhorn says in “What Jeffrey Eugenides Doesn’t Understand About Women,” that Madeleine doesn’t have any real female friends, but I’m not convinced: I’ve met women who have few or no real female friends, and I don’t think that aspect of Madeleine’s life is unrealistic. The bigger problem is her lack of friends in general, so those friends can’t say the obvious to her: Why Leonard? Do you realize what you’re giving up? And if she does, and she gives up much of herself anyway, then the problem is her own blindness—a topic that I don’t find tremendously satisfying to read about, since it basically implies Madeleine is stupid. Characters can only be stupidly blinded by love for so long before one removed the “blinded” and turns “stupidly” back into a noun.

Most of my problems with the novel aren’t with its prose on a micro level, although it has those issues: it’s with the dearth of real ideas in the novel. It doesn’t quite go with the literary-theory-as-life metaphors, which drop out partway through. It doesn’t quite go with the alpha-beta-male decision that Madeleine faces. It doesn’t quite go with the manic-depression-as-serious-issue-maybe-linked-with-creativity issue that Leonard has. It’s a host of “almosts” that reminds me some of a sunnier version of Michel Houellebecq, especially in The Elementary Particles and Platform.

Houellebecq, however, is willing to engage in a kind of brutal realism—for lack of a better phrase—that Eugenides doesn’t get to. Yet that’s what the characters need: less understanding of their petty problems and more context, or a harder eye, or someone to smack Mitchell and Madeleine, then explain both their problems. I could explain their problems. I’ve met a million Mitchells and Madeleines. Hell, I used to be one in some respects. But the world has a habit of correcting your faults, if you’re paying attention to the signals the world is giving. Mitchell and Madeleine aren’t. That’s what makes them so unsatisfying. As three of the characters go, so does the very, very competent novel that doesn’t get past competence and into transcendence.


You can read my initial impressions here.

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