Links: Books, Is Marriage Worth Saving?, drinking, new Stephenson, standing desks, swagger, and more!

* Matt Yglesias thinks Amazon is doing the world a favor by crushing book publishers; see also my related post “Tyler Cowen on Paul Krugman on Amazon on the buzz.” The section “book publishers are terrible at marketing” is particularly interesting.

* “Is Marriage Worth Saving?” Given the subject of Asking Anna it should not be a surprise that I read with interest.

* “An interactive map of gender ratios among single people in cities;” virtually all cities have more unattached men than women in the 20 – 34 demographic, implying that many women are willing and happy to date older—sometimes substantially so.

* “Why College Kids Drink Like They’re Getting Extra Credit for It,” maybe.

* First details of Neal Stephenson’s next novel, Seveneves.

* “How Standing Desks Can Help Students Focus in the Classroom;” I’m all for it and since reading this I’ve been encouraging my students to stand when they write in class. I use a standing desk.

* “Prof. Alan Dershowitz: ‘Harvard’s policy was written by people who think sexual assault is so heinous a crime that even innocence is not a defense.‘”

* How to get swagger.

Links: Adjunct unhappiness, the art of translation, marriage plots, men, and more.

* Why Adjunct Professors Don’t Just Find Another Job? There is a lot of blah-blah-blah in this article, because the real answer is something kind, like “They’re acculturated to academia,” or something less kind but equivalent, like “Despite advanced degrees, they’re stupid.”

* The Art of Translation: William Weaver, who translated The Name of the Rose.

* “Why the Marriage Plot Need Never Get Old” (unlikely).

* “Simple answers to the questions that get asked about every new technology,” in comic form.

* “Why Men are Withdrawing from Courtship.”

* I edited “An economic model of paid sex: Coase’s ‘The Nature of the Firm,’ gains from trade, and the gift economy.”

* Related to link one: “Death of a Professor: An 83-year-old French instructor’s undignified death became a cause célèbre for exploited academics. But what really happened to Margaret Mary Vojtko?” Side note: this is an extreme example showing why it’s not a great idea to start a humanities grad program.

* The American Police State: A sociologist interrogates the criminal-justice system, and tries to stay out of the spotlight.

Vow: A Memoir of Marriage (and Other Affairs) — Wendy Plump

Vow is about adultery, and two people married to each other who both routinely commit it, and yet the most obvious question isn’t addressed until page 245 of 258:

People have asked me why Bill and I didn’t just have an open marriage. The answer is simple. We didn’t want an open marriage. If an open marriage is the route both spouses choose to go, that is one choice. It’s very cosmopolitan. I know a local couple who tried this for years, and it worked out to some degree. They had a lax attitude toward sleeping around. [. . .] But the idea doesn’t have much appeal to me. If we were able to do it, we would all do it. Almost no one I know could do it.

For a practice that “doesn’t have much appeal to me,” Plump sure did a lot of it; most people who don’t like Pilates don’t keep going to the classes. She effectively had an open marriage without labeling it as such, or getting the benefits, like hot threesomes. Not addressing the open marriage until the end is bizarre. Plumps and her husband appear to like the drama of lies more than the simplicity of truth.

A book like Never the Face (my essay about it is at the link) is about fundamentally more honest people: on its fifth page, David says to the narrator of his wife Maria, “She knows about it, and she’s okay with it.” The paragraph breaks: “What?“, the narrator thinks. Then: “For the next two days, my mind argued with itself.” Even if the narrator can’t conceptualize or accept the possibility of uncommon arrangements, her partner can. That’s what Plump and her husband are missing. Instead they get recriminations, and the problem of simultaneously wanting the other person to be monogamous while they don’t have to be. Cognitive dissonance is a bitch, and so is hypocrisy.

The overall effect yields the strangeness of art, from the level of the sentence to the level of the whole, which is why I feel compelled to write about Vow amid other projects and other purposes.

Still, Vow is spectacularly well written and yet spectacularly frustrating, because the simple, obvious solution to the problems between Plump and her husband is simply off the negotiating table. They don’t even try events like this one, slightly NSFW, described in Time Out New York.

Plump says that “I assume Bill approached the altar with every intention of doing the right thing. Don’t we all? I’m not sure that I did. Even as I took my vows, I was aware of some mocking little voice in my head, particularly when I got to that part about forsaking all others” (120). Then. . . don’t get married? Again, it’s the obvious solution to a book that’s about looking at the obvious and then doing something else.

Consequently, on some level Vow is one long yowl of cognitive dissonance and “I want.” Plump cheats, basically, because she feels like it: “So I was thrown off balance when I first met Tommy and felt an attraction so compelling I no longer cared that I was married” (8). That’s it, and at bottom it’s the reason most cheaters cheat. In Plump’s universe, feelings trump emotion; I’m not sure about the extent we should extrapolate her comments to all women, or all people, but there’s definitely a temptation to do so, though I’m going to refrain.

At one moment Plump writes:

I have tried many times to deconstruct allure. It is the least romantic of tasks, but it is marginally useful, if only to prove a point. When you take attraction apart, when you look back on what developed and how, you find that it is a physical impulse for about eight seconds before it moves on to something bigger. (50)

Many people, mostly guys, have worked to take attraction apart and to learn how to build it up. Neil Strauss is the most famous, but many others, like Roosh, have also field-tested what works in attraction, in allure. Women are now also producing their own material on overt allure. Note that I’m not necessarily endorsing Strauss, Roosh, or the linked Female Pickup Artists, but I am saying that they are attempting, through observation, trial, error, and research, to develop methods for attracting women or men—in other words, “to deconstruct allure.” Chances are that the peculiar alchemy involved in attraction will never be completely standardized, but pretending that there’s no way to “deconstruct allure” is just pointless and incorrect romantic mystification.

Plump says that “Immediately on standing next to Steven I felt a frisson snapping between us. Some neuron in my brain knocked itself loose and began rapping on my awareness, saying, Yo, are you still in there? Pay attention. You’re doing it again.” Chances are good that Steven was doing something, consciously or unconsciously, to make that attraction happen. Maybe he was just really hot. But maybe he’d begun systematically learning about what to do around women. Plenty of guys do.

Why does she sleep with these guys instead of some other guys? She doesn’t really say. What do they do? How do they behave? It’s lost to Plump, who isn’t asking why she likes what she likes: she’s just liking it. It’s the triumph of feeling and the reason so many guys, and some number of women, read The Game.

There’s also a lot of “I” in Vow: a lot of “I loved not only the way I felt with Steven, I loved who he was with me, as well.” There’s not a lot of thinking about what other people are thinking or feeling. That may explain the quality of Plump’s marriage, which demands “we” and “you” as much or more than “I.”

One also wonders why her husband, Bill, can’t or chooses not to understand presumed shifts in his relationship with his wife: “Sex with Bill became unwanted by comparison, through no fault of his. It changes utterly from an act of love and passion to an act of crushing obligation” (41). Perhaps she shouldn’t be married, then? Perhaps he should recognize what’s going on and leave? The obvious questions pile up, and Plump is telling us that she has no answers. Maybe there are none. There are only contradictions. She says that “Through it all, again, I was certain of one thing. I did not want our marriage to end. I was crushed but not finished.” For someone who doesn’t want her marriage to end, Plump behaves in strange ways.

Some niggling intellectual points bother; Plump, for example, must not have read much evolutionary biology: she writes that “They [friends] think I must have been aware that Bill was having an affair, as if suspicion were linked to some primal instinct we all have. I have no idea what imperative suspicion would serve Neanderthals such that it would repeat upward through the species to find its expression in us” (4). Leaving aside the question of mistaking Neanderthals for a major modern human ancestor, I can very easily imagine “what imperative suspicion would serve:” for men, suspicion is one way of ascertaining paternity. If you check a woman’s fidelity, her offspring are more likely to be yours. For women, jealousy is a form of resource guarding: if you want your mate’s resource capacity to be primarily devoted to you, and not to the hussy a few huts over, you want to make sure he’s not knocking her up (The Evolution Biology of Human Female Sexuality discusses these issues and empirical findings around them).

These obviously aren’t absolute, and the anthropological literature is filled with alloparenting, group sex, and other arrangements, but the basic utility of jealousy as an adaptation remains. Plump does note that her husband’s child with another woman “moved us into a whole new circle of deceit, into that tortured fraternity of women and men [ . . .] who are heaved by their loving spouses into the dirtiest of vortices—women who find out their husbands have fathered children elsewhere; men who find out their children are not biologically their own” (31). Right. It’s the “dirtiest of vortices” because of the tremendous resources invested in children. To have someone who is supposed to be investing your children investing in someone else’s is the cruel problem that jealousy is there, in part, to address.

I’m keeping Vow, though it’s the sort I would normally sell.

Keeping Romance Alive in the Age of Questionable Journalism

Keeping Romance Alive in the Age of Female Empowerment is a somewhat dumb article about women who earn more than their partners, or who earn enough to apparently “scare off” guys with inferiority complexes or generalized fear; I started laughing when I read this bit: “Ms. Domscheit-Berg, who is also active in the European Women’s Management Development International Network, has three bits of advice for well-paid women: [. . .] And go after men who draw their confidence from sources other than money, like academics and artists.”

I sent this to a couple friends, one of whom replied, “Perhaps men are simply afraid of someone named Ms. Domscheit-Berg. I bet she yells Achtung! in bed….. just saying.”

Besides, who really cares if one’s partner earns more, as long as you yourself are doing real work (that might, of course, just be the artist in me). The quality of one’s life is seldom measured in dollars, or dollars alone.

Bernard Prieur, a psychoanalyst and author of “Money in Couples,” says men who earn less than their partners struggle with two insecurities: “They feel socially and personally vulnerable. Socially, they go against millennia of beliefs and stereotypes that see them as the breadwinner. And the success of their partner also often gives them a feeling of personal failure,” Mr. Prieur said in the November issue of the French magazine Marie-Claire.

I suspect a couple of things: 1) that, to the extent this is a real problem and not another bogus trend story in the New York Times (well-documented at the link), the women involved aren’t unhappy about money, per se, but that they feel like they’re dating a guy who’s too much of a beta for them. 2) The guys involved are not actually worried about money, per se, but about something else, and are using money as an excuse for something else.

The “bogus trend story” issue, however, is a real one, because the most conspicuous absence in this article is data. Katrin Bennhold writes, “There is a growing army of successful women in their 30s who have trouble finding a mate [. . .]” but cites no evidence that this is true. So romance might be alive, but journalism, on the other hand. . .

Summary judgment – Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee – Pamela Druckerman

Pamela Druckerman’s Lust in Translation is light on research, heavy on anecdote, and a nonetheless entertaining book in its examination of the contradictory responses adultery raises. It’s wrong, unless you’re in love, in which case it’s okay; it’s wrong, unless you’re in a country that permits multiple marriages, in which case it’s not adultery; it’s right, because everyone does it, in which case it’s okay, unless it’s not. Some countries appear more opposed to adultery and commit more of it while other appear less opposed while committing less. Opportunity matters: affairs are easier to arrange in rich countries where people have access to hotels, cars, and so on, but many rich countries (like the United States) engaged in relatively little adultery. Most of all, examining adultery brings out contradictions on both individual and societal levels.

Druckerman says, “Outside America, people have their own ideas about whom to have an affair with, how obliged the parties are to each other, and even how the whole thing should end.” Ditto for inside America, which, like most places, actually has many sexual cultures, not few. Druckerman points out that in some situations, like baseball teams, the culture conspires to allow adultery. Some novels play this idea took; think of Désirée Zapp in David Lodge’s Changing Places, who says, “I’ve always wanted to be chaste. It’s been so nice these last few weeks, don’t you think, living like brother and sister? Now we’re having an affair like everybody else. How banal.” In Désirée’s academic world (the novel was published in 1975 and probably has its roots closer to 1970 or 1965), everyone was having, or seemed to be having, affairs (Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man portrays a similar effect). Now, on the contrary, more academics appear to be leading the relatively tame sexual lives of businesspeople.

Unless they’re not. “They” could refer to businesspeople or academics. Today’s scandal de jour involves Mark Hurd, the former HP CEO, who didn’t get offed for adultery, but for falsifying company reports to try and hide the adultery. Tomorrow it will be someone else. Druckerman points out that American rhetoric about cheating often involves the lying being as bad or worse than the sex. That’s a rule she’s intuited through many conversations and some reading. It’s the kind of rule many people pick up:

Infidelity may seem like a secret, lawless realm, in which people make private decisions about how to behave. We learn the rules through, among other sources, stories and gossip about how affairs play out. These shared narratives defined what is ‘normal’ in each place and shape our expectations about what should happen to a couple in the course of a long marriage. Of course, no one’s life follows the rules exactly. The point is that everyone in a society knows what the rules are and where their own behavior stands in relation to the rules.

The question is, how many people know “what the rules are,” don’t like them, and want to change them? Probably a small number, and an even smaller number actively work to change them. Yet those few are where change comes from: Gay Talese might be on example, since Thy Neighbor’s Wife chronicles sexual change in America and implicitly endorses changing mores. Of course, since that book came out around 1980, and Lust in Translation came out in 2010, Talese’s book arguably hasn’t had the effect he might have intended.

Social scientists call these “rules” about any subject of human behavior “scripts,” which people implicitly learn from the culture around them. That we have imbibed scripts even for forbidden behavior shouldn’t surprise us: if the behavior is common enough to be forbidden and to have norms or laws prohibiting it, that behavior is also probably common enough to occur. Scripts change based on context. In Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus, Kathleen Bogle describes how the hookup script operates on college campuses—the same campuses that were once in loco parentis and now are closer to “anything goes as long as no one complains.” To Bogle, women complain about the hookup culture but feel powerless to do anything about it; this seems odd to me because women are the choosers and men are the chosen.

Their Chinese counterparts probably feel the same way at times, to return to Druckerman:

China’s sexual revolution [since the introduction of market capitalism] is very contagious. I keep hearing stories about married Western men who, after working in China for a few months, decide that monogamy really isn’t for them. Peer pressure shapes a sexual culture. When everyone around you is saying that cheating is normal, and that you’re entitled to indulge yourself and no harm will come of it, it starts to sound like a good idea.

“It starts to sound like a good idea:” presumably everyone thinks what they are doing is a good idea, while what their neighbor is doing is wrong, and what the people on the other side of the world are doing is worst of all, especially if those people are women. The most common thread running through Lust in Translation is hypocrisy, although Druckerman doesn’t take pains to point that out and follow where it might lead. She’s a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, which shows; I would’ve liked the book to draw broader, deeper conclusions, to examine more research on sexuality and culture, and to look more at evolutionary biology. Regarding the last, Druckerman says that “I assume that people everywhere have roughly the same mix of biological urges. I want to know how people in different cultures channel those urges.” But you can only do so if you have a reasonably strong understanding of what those urges might be and how incentives alter them.

You’re mostly left to draw your own conclusions from Lust in Translation, but the book is easy enough to read that you can finish it in three hours and still have enough substance to change the way you think—if you want to. Lust in Translation suggests that you’re less likely to change how you think and more likely to find cunning ways of justifying what you do and castigating what thy neighbor does. It’s not just the American way, but a common method of dealing with life all around the world.

Tender is the Night — Fitzgerald

Early in Tender is the Night, we find this about a relatively minor character named McKisco:

“I don’t see what it’s all about,” he said helplessly. “I don’t see why I’m doing it.”

The context is a conversation putatively about duels, but one could take McKisco’s confusion as a synecdoche for the novel as a whole: no one see what it’s all about or why they’re doing it. Even Dick Diver, psychologist, doesn’t really; he’s supposed to have mastered the mind but hasn’t mastered his own. Some of the novel’s descriptions and transitions mirror this confusion or uncertainty, which makes Tender is the Night feel more Modernist than its predecessors. Take, for example, this:

When there were enough Americans on the platform the first impression of their immaculacy and their money began to fade into a vague racial dusk that hindered and blinded both them and their observers.

The description goes from a relatively literal rendition of the Americans’ surface into a metaphoric one of their souls. But I have no idea what “vague racial dusk” means, which is perhaps why it needs “vague” out in front, or why that would blind observers; perhaps those theoretical observers are used to judging based on categories that Americans defy, or think they defy. If so, the novel is a journey into the ways Americans are more ensnared by history than we might want to be, and why we might be more obscure than we’d like to imagine. In this way, the structure of the novel mirrors its themes: it cuts many of the “she shifted her attention to the fight” transitions that might otherwise make this easier to follow:

Nicole was glad he had known so many women, so that the word itself meant nothing to him; she would be able to hold him so long as the person in her transcended the universals of her body.
“Hit him where it hurts!”
“Hey, what I tell you get inside that right!”

A chorus shouts after Nicole’s Deep Thought, and in re-reading Tender is the Night I see where Tom Wolfe got some of his techniques for representing speech.

Some of the stylistic tics, like the “vague racial dusk” are meant to make us poetically see something in a new light, but they often feel more like work compared to a novel like Gatsby. It feels more indulgent, too: this is Fitzgerald wanting to write a novelist’s novel, meaning that it should have enough strangeness to make it hard to figure out what’s happening and why. This brings pleasures of its own, especially on second reads, but the danger of obscurity for obscurity’s sake remains, as when a voice suddenly shifts from third person limited to first:

All that saved it [the offer of marriage? something else?] this time was Nicole finding their table and glowing away, white and fresh and new in the September afternoon.

How do you do, lawyer. We’re going to to Como tomorrow for a week and then back to Zurich. That’s why I wanted you and sister to settle this […] (166)

My confusion mirrored McKisco’s in this narrative jump. Eventually that confusion was (mostly) remedied, but not so remedied as to make the novel boring.

Continuing was worth it: Fitzgerald knows how to end a novel. Tender is the Night isn’t quite so overtly poetic as Gatsby, with its boats being beaten back into the past, but it has a sense of melancholy and emotion that few novels do. I’m being vague because I don’t know how to describe the feelings evoked; perhaps that is one definition of a powerful novel. Melancholy is a part, but like a good wine, it’s only a single strand of a complex weave, one cannot appreciate the whole without appreciating all its parts.

There’s one other thing that Tender is the Night reminds me of: the habit that literary history has of doubling back on itself. Received opinion—so received that I don’t know where I got it from—holds that people didn’t start really writing about divorce and affairs and torrid sex and so forth until Updike and Roth. Marriages were more stable, at least as depicted artistically, and the really great fireworks caused by social changes didn’t hit until the 1960s. But the more I read the less that narrative seems to fit: Tender is the Night encapsulates Updike’s Marry Me: A Romance and maybe even Couples. Middlemarch has marriages that end. Even Pride and Prejudice has its affair between Lydia and Wickham, although the sex they’re having is so powerful that it remains unspoken.

Madame Bovary doesn’t encapsulate Tender is the Night but at least presages it. The drama of adult relationships, which I’d thought a (relatively) recent invention in fiction, isn’t. Neither is the childishness that such relationships sometimes entail. More continuity exists over the course of history than I thought, and what seems new in terms of content no longer does. Even the style of Tender is the Night holds up: if it were published today, I’d not know the difference. one can see greater stylistic continuity from Fitzgerald to the present than from, say, Middlemarch to Fitzgerald (this is part of what James Wood discusses in his nominal discussion of Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered, a topic that I will return to later).

I don’t know what to do with this idea concerning continuity and change save note its existence, at least in my reading. Perhaps the rhetoric of the love story hasn’t changed that much, except perhaps for the inclusion of overt female desire in a larger number of more recent novels; it’s hard to see a good precursor of Allison Poole in Jay McInerney’s Story of My Life. Poole feels a long way from Nicole Diver, but the feeling of a search for something that cannot be adequately defined continues, and the inability to find that absent something propels novels and stories forward.

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