Big Sex Little Death — Susie Bright's Memoir

Big Sex Little Death is weirdly boring. I say “weirdly” because you’d expect a book about sexual awakening, development, politics, and exploration to be more exciting; this Slate article on Bright and being wrong convinced me to buy the book. Skip it: read the reviews instead.

Big Sex Little Death has some clever lines and individual section, but as a whole the memoir feels prosaic. There’s an obligatory section on birth, parents, sides of the family, unlikely anecdotes; we find that “My mom didn’t drink” and that “My grandpa was a butcher and ran a chicken ranch,” which is eminently respectable in a memoir and somewhat tedious too. There’s a conventionally slightly broken childhood—isn’t it a requirement that people writing memoirs focus on childhood?—that leads to an adulthood that should hold the reason we’re reading the memoir. It does explain that, sort of, and tells a story about economic sexual censorship that I didn’t realize existed as late as the 1980s. Then again, looking at Amazon and Apple’s policies towards sexually frank books, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. I also hasn’t realized that Bright’s women-run erotica magazine, On Our Backs, even existed.

In disentangling herself from the financial pit that On Our Backs turns out to be, Bright finds the only thing rarer than a hooker with a heart gold: a lawyer with a heart of gold, whom she has say, “Ms. Bright, I’m going to take care of this for you,” without making her pay. Reviews of memoirs often want to engage the question of how much is “true,” and I can believe the whole thing except perhaps for the exchange on page 310. Gun threats, underage and unwise sex, cruelty: all believable. Kind lawyers: less so.

There’s not a lot about the intellectual development that led Bright to work on On Our Backs, or that led her not just to get a lot of action but to write about getting a lot of action. Maybe it’s impossible, or nearly impossible, to describe what leads to intellectual engagement: “I read a lot, liked it, thought about it, and transformed thought in my mind” isn’t very satisfying. And it’s not easy to make actions symbolize intellectual development. If someone knows a good example of such changes shown effectively in literature, I’d love to hear them (one exception: The Adventures of Augie March. Bildungsromans might be as close as we get).

Once Bright gets past the parent bits, she describes how, as a teenager, she starts having sex with socialist, many of them older than her; she says that “lucky for me, some of them were really, really good in bed—and since everyone was down with women’s liberation and nonmonogamy, that made things extra good for me.” This continues:

I was in no one’s debt; I was no one’s property. What little I thought about school anymore involved feeling bad about how scared everyone was: scared of having sex, scared of leaving their gilded cage, scared of dreaming about anything that hadn’t been premeditated by their parents.

And they still are. It’s one of the moments in the book that translates across generations and feels right, since so many parents still treat their children as property. Elsewhere, Bright has finely observed moments, though they sometimes go slightly awry:

People always imagine there is something happening in Los Angeles because of the celebrities. They think that because they see a movie star buy a bag of marshmallows, it must be an event. They think wiping their ass with the same toilet paper that a movie star’s maid wiped her ass with is an accomplishment. This is a company town, and Hollywood is just as crushing as a Carnegie Steel mill. The vast majority of Angelenos have so much nothing in their lives that ‘celebrity nothing’ makes them feel like they have something.

This is almost true: people do imagine something is happening in L.A. But the next sentence is choppy, with all the “t” sounds and the repeated use of the word “they:” “They think that because they see. . .” Still, Bright understands the vacuousness of celebrity worship, but she’s wrong when she says L.A. is “a company town.” There are at least five major movie studios, compared to a single Carnegie Steel mill, and L.A.’s economy is much vaster and more diverse than Pittsburgh’s ever was. That’s part of the reason it was able to thrive; as Edward Glaeser describes in Triumph of the City, cities with diverse economic bases tend to thrive. L.A. is one, even if the movie studios—notice the plural—are very visible.

During that time in L.A., Bright says, “I could not take one more minute of trying to convince the people of Los Angeles that a workers’ revolution and a complete overhaul of society were a tiny bit more exciting than getting a bit role in a Burger King commercial.” I’d like to know what exactly a “workers’ revolution and a complete overhaul of society” means. Revolutions don’t have a great track record, since they tend to include a lot of mindless bloodshed and power struggles. The “workers’ revolution” in Russia that led to the Soviet Union might be the single bloodiest event in human history, according to Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands. These demands aren’t a coherent political platform; they’re teenage angst writ large and the result of a mind that would be much assisted by taking some economics classics. I’ll take the Burger King commercial and maybe a faster CPU next year, thanks.

So her politic-politics might not be great, but her sexual politics and stories sometimes make more sense. Bright says that women making porn was shocking in the 1970s and 1980s. Apparently, however, women making porn for women is still news, and people are still going, “This is still news?!” I don’t see an end to this cycle. In the personal ream, Bright’s memoir could be titled, “Getting Some Ass From Unusual Places,” since relatively few people have gotten it from such diverse places: a union organizing camp; from college dropouts after she dropped out of high school; from lesbians; from men; and probably people in between. An appropriate subtitle might be, “And Then Thinking About It Afterwards,” Like Karen Owen, Bright has taken quite a survey of her escapes; unlike Owen, Bright isn’t alienated from herself or desires. She’s also more explicitly political, which can be both annoyingly polemical and deeper. Most people don’t think of their lives in overtly political terms, even when it might help them too, and it makes someone who does unusual.

That might be the biggest difference between Bright and many other writers about and havers of sex: she doesn’t regret what she’s done, has actualized her experience, and has never particularly bought into the sex-is-bad paradigm that, although weaker than it once was, still dominates culture for many people. We like everything leading up to sex—sexiness, attractiveness, revealing clothes, preening, buying expensive objects—but we still judge the people who move from signaling to action, despite or because of our own desires for action.

Bright imagines that, after the sexual revolution,

Women wouldn’t be catty. No one would bother to be jealous. Who would have the time? Sex would be friendly and kind and fun. You’d get to see what everyone was like in bed. You’d learn things in bed, and that would be the whole point. Romances would seem like candy cigarettes. You could have all the sex and friendship you wanted for free. Exclusivity would be for bores and babies.

I’m all for it. Alas, the pragmatist or realist in me sees this as so unlikely that I want to label it idealist in the worst sense of the word. Bright knows as much, however, and the eyes of experience looking backward demonstrates that she knows precisely how unlikely this is.

I wish there was more connective tissue between Bright’s experiences and better writing when she describes them. She knows the problems memoirs tend to have:

At the onset of my memoir, I thought I would bring myself up to date on the autobiography racket. I researched the current bestsellers among women authors who had contemplated their life’s journey. The results were so dispiriting: diet books. The weighty befores and afters. You look up men’s memoirs and find some guy climbing a mountain with his bare teeth—the parallel view for women are the mountains of cookies they rejected or succumbed to.

I think she gives men’s memoirs too much credit, since so many of them are equally inane and poorly written. And there are probably reasonably interesting memoirs written by women out there, but I think the bigger problem is “reasonably interesting memoirs” in general. Alas: I’m not sure Big Sex Little Death is one.

You can read more about Bright in this interview. Consider it and the other links in lieu of the book itself.

Fool Me Once: Hustlers, Hookers, Headliners, and How NOT to Get Screwed in Vegas — Rick Lax

The only person being fooled in Las Vegas is the one who willfully wants to be fooled. That’s not quite the lesson, to the extent there is one, of Rick Lax’s Fool Me Once, but it’s an obvious moral to take from a book about moving to Vegas after law school and being something like a flaneur observing the scene (if there are other things going on, like work, they’re not part of the story). Vegas only works on you to the extent you let it, and for all of Las Vegas’ marketing and sexual innuendo, the city is really built on getting you to believe that it’s okay or even wise for you to lie to yourself about things you should know. You know, for example, that hookers still charge; the house always wins in gambling; you can run all you want and still not leave yourself behind.

Fool Me Once describes this dynamic. The chapters are vignettes with recurring themes: The hot roommate Oxana appears; a non-relationship with a girl named Zella culminates in a three-night hookup between her other shags, much like that one weekend you had in college; being a magician appears, disappears, and reappears; quasi life lessons come from a hooker named Kiana. The major weakness of Fool Me Once is its lack of a main narrative thread, since one section has little to do with another. This doesn’t make individual moments weaker, but one does start to wonder whether the book is going in any particular direction. Although I don’t wish to spoil the end, the answer is probably obvious. Still, parts are clever and the book is pretty funny: “My fellow law school graduates went off to Europe to ‘find themselves,’ ” and an asterisk says “I’m pretty sure this is code for do drugs.”

Elsewhere, a few sentences capture what hot clubs are like, or aspire to be like, and why they’re so irritating unless you’re “Girls Only,” which I never am: “JET had four separate lines: one for nobodies, one for people on the list, one for ‘Girls Only,’ and one for VIPs. The lines snaked and weaved and did everything else lines could do except move forward.” Better to realize this and understand the system than complain about it. Later, we find that “Men can’t comprehend that when it comes to monitoring professional sporting teams, I don’t have the attention span of a Buddhist monk on Ritalin.” I like the juxtaposition of images even more than I like the idea of someone who doesn’t care much about sports, since I don’t either. I reference “You Will Suffer Humiliation When The Sports Team From My Area Defeats The Sports Team From Your Area” from The Onion when the topic arises, since becoming rapturously involved in a group of large men I’ve never met, joined contractually together only by larger salaries to chase a ball doesn’t appeal to me. I understand that sports voyeurism functions as a form of social bonding and displaced primeval small group formation, but that doesn’t make sports any more tedious to watch (as opposed to playing, which I like).

Here’s a sample of one moment from our friendly hooker, Kiana, who says, “Vegas will be good for you. [. . .] It teaches you how the world works. But until you figure things out for yourself, here’s a general rule: If you think somebody you’re interested in is sleeping with somebody else, they are.” Statements about “how the world [supposedly] works” usually say more about the people making the statement than they do about the world. The world works differently for many of us, depending on what we show we value, and for hookers who probably see a lot of married men coming through town on business, the world probably looks quite different than it does for many, but not all, of the rest of us.

Such supposed wisdom is cheap: everyone thinks they know how the world works, but no one actually does, with the possible exception of physicists, who as a group probably don’t spend huge amounts of time gaming clubs in Vegas. A chapter is titled “How I’d Gone from Studying for the Illinois Bar Exam to Cavorting with Las Vegas Prostitutes and Con Men in Such a Short Period of Time.” The answer is pretty obvious: he flew or drove, which doesn’t take very long from anywhere in the lower 48. Neither prostitutes nor con men are hard to find, as long as they think you have money.

Lax has an eye for status distinctions and how they’re constructed, although he doesn’t talk about the subject as much as he might. For example, he tells us in a footnote, “Strippers pride themselves on not sleeping with guys for money; call girls pride themselves on not getting naked before large groups of men.” I believe it: people are very good at deluding themselves into thinking they can put someone nominally “below” them, even if the “below” in this case relies on female sexual fears. Going on Lax’s interest in deception (which becomes more nominal as the book goes on), I would guess the call girls are being more honest in the service they provide.

Lax mentions the Las Vegas motto of “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas:”

[. . .] the ‘What happens’ ad campaign’s implication is crystal clear: If you come to Las Vegas and gamble away your children’s college fund and cheat on your wife with, say, two prostitutes you meet at the Palms food court [sic], the city’s tourism board will credit your bank account and fly you home in a time machine so you can un-cheat on your wife and preserve the sanctity of your marriage. That message hits home with a lot of people; every year 40 million visit Las Vegas, and do their best to hang on to their money in the process.

Does it still counts as “deception” if we know we’re going to be deceived? As the way I put it implies, the answer is “no.” Maybe Vegas helps us let out the person we want to be, but more likely it encourages a slightly different mindset than one might have otherwise (more on that later). Still, even as Vegas flouts its supposed difference, Fool Me Once punctures the bravado. There is a certain amount of ordinariness, despite how Vegas is supposed to be ludicrous; Lax dates a girl and says:

Zella seemed to really like me, but judging from what she told me about her ex-boyfriends, she also seemed to have really bad taste in men. I was careful not to discuss her most recent ex or the breakup [. . . ] We talked a lot about her and Austin [Zella’s boss at a club]. About what a strange, demanding guy he was. And the more she told me about him, the more worried I got.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a girl who said she has great taste in men; all of them seem “to have really bad taste in men.” Almost all of us who date have a “most recent ex” or breakup. Very few people love their bosses, primarily because in many circumstances bosses have interests that are antithetical to the employees: bosses need or want more work out of employees and employees need or want more money out of bosses. Many of us tell similar stories because the incentives we face cause the stories to turn out like Zella’s. Women often find indifferent bad boys who exhibit social proof and have game attractive for short-term flings but find them exasperating in longer relationships, then announce their “bad taste in men” as if that’s a surprise—when it’s actually a conflict between short- and long-term desires. This dynamic appears to be common throughout the dating world; maybe Vegas amps it somewhat, but the problem again remains built into relationships.

Lax describes some of the ways deception works and how people lie to each other. But lying is partially a function of repeated interactions with people over time, and William Flesch’s excellent book Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction describes some of the ways deception, the punishment of deception, and signaling work in narrative—and in life. One of the most successful strategies that game theory describes is called “tit-for-tat,” which means that you react to others primarily based on how they present to you. I suspect that most of the world actually plays variations on the tit-for-tat game: if you are mostly honest with others, they will mostly be honest with you. If you are mostly dishonest with others, and looking for dishonesty in others, you will mostly find it, and the optimal way to avoid dishonesty is to punish those who defect from the honesty game by refusing to interact with them. This is probably the most evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS), and it ensures that authentic knowledge of real dishonesty means that most people will refuse interaction with the dishonest.

Furthermore, the “costly signals” in Flesch’s book and evolutionary biology in general are those that are hardest to fake because they’re expensive, or costly. The canonical example is the peacock’s tail, which can only be as large and beautiful as it is if the bird itself is very healthy and has excess calories to burn. An example closer to Fool Me Once might be the much reviled “bottle service:” most guys can’t really afford $500 for a $30 bottle of booze, so buying bottles is a more honest signal of wealth than, say, claiming to be wealthy.

Still, if you combine costly signaling with one-off transactions (especially those of a sexual nature), you begin to get Las Vegas. As Lax implicitly points out, tit-for-tat strategies don’t apply if you consciously seek out dishonesty, which is basically the purpose of Las Vegas: cultivated dishonesty in which you know that most people are lying to you in some form, which in turn enables you to lie to most people without normal consequences if you lie to someone who is basically operating on a normal tit-for-tat level. I think this is basically why I found Vegas more boring than not: in order to exit the market for dishonesty, I had to leave the city. I think I understood this dynamic intellectually before I went, but it’s one thing to understand it intellectually and it’s another to have it spangling you everywhere you look.

Lax notes this tendency, although he doesn’t wrap it in the language of game theory and evolutionary biology, as I do:

The city is filled with fakers, from celebrity impersonators to magicians. From casino hosts who tell high rollers that they’d ‘be happy to’ oblige their most obnoxious, demeaning requests to gambling addicts who tell their spouses they don’t have gambling problems. From strippers who, for a price, will shed their clothes and pretend that everything you say is charming and hilarious to escorts who, for a price, will pretend that everything you say is charming and hilarious and then shed their clothes and then sleep with you.

No wonder so many people hate Las Vegas.

I went to Las Vegas for the first time a few weeks ago (my brother got a lot of mileage out of telling people that I’m 27 and visiting Vegas for the first time; most responded with mock astonishment; I shrugged). If Vegas is “filled with fakers,” so is everywhere else: perhaps it has more magicians, strippers, and hookers per capita than elsewhere, but the essence of being one of those things (as well as being a novelist) remains. The major difference is that in Las Vegas, faking is institutionally encouraged in the form of casinos. But you can find gambling anywhere, if you want to seek it out. One could view going to Vegas as a form of seeking it out. And it’s never been hard to find people who will “pretend” sexual interest in you “for a price,” but something about travel makes people more willing to lie to others or themselves about what they’re doing and why. Self-deception and its cousin hypocrisy are so common that they begin to seem like part of that elusive animal, human nature, which so many commentators and philosophers chase but so few manage to shoot, let alone bring down.

“So many people hate Las Vegas” because hate is one way we punish defectors: by castigating them in vile terms, we try to convince others to stay away and activate our own repulsion system. Hate is a very expensive emotion: I went to Vegas, and although the above makes it obvious that I don’t love the place, I don’t hate it either, perhaps because I understand why it exists and that it fills a need. Lax gets some of that too: he says “I don’t hate deception and deceivers, though. In fact, in a strange way I’m drawn to them.” I’m drawn to them too, but more as an object of study and interest than anything else. Maybe the above criticism of Vegas stems in part from the fact that I’m not a particularly skilled deceiver, and whatever skills I possess are poorly suited for the Vegas / club / bar environment, where I’ve tended to do reasonably okay but not fabulously well. But if others privilege an environment where I don’t thrive, I probably should “hate” that environment as a way of discouraging others from entering it. But I would rather understand things than hate them, and I might lie to myself by saying that I understand why people fake things.

In the clubs, I think most people are dishonest, and their skill at dancing is consistently low, but there’s basically no penalty for it or reward for skilled dancing. In contrast, at salsa clubs or ballroom events, the penalty for low dancing skill and an unwillingness is a dearth of partners. The only major exception is, as in Vegas clubs, very attractive girls, who will still find partners who are often skilled dancers. A lot of the girls in Vegas weren’t good dancers. I’m not an especially good dancer, but at least I’ve learned enough to do more than grind, which was great as a 15-year-old at youth group but becomes somewhat tedious more than a decade later.

There’s this whole Vegas mythos that’s been encouraged by gangsters, writers, and corporations; the “What happens” campaign is an example. By writing this post and reading Fool Me Once, I’m partially reinforcing the mythos even as I pretend to reveal what’s beneath.

Despite all that, if someone asked me to go back again, I would.

The reason Lax gives for becoming interested in deception isn’t especially convincing: a girl he’s dating falls for a con man who offers her a dubious paralegal job that obviously doesn’t exist and probably is a setup to acquire sex. After this experience, Lax says that “my innate fear multiplied” and that “I’m terrified of being conned and I don’t want to be taken advantage of [. . . .]” But the circumstance that ignites this fear is so preposterously obvious that Lax, like the reader, knows it’s a setup. This is a bit like saying I never want to fly commercial airlines again because my buddy’s homemade hang glider resulted in injury: the difference in magnitude and kind between source and reaction are so large as to make the comparison spurious. Like Las Vegas. Like many other things, if you care to look for them. Lax addresses the issue:

I don’t think I was being overly paranoid. If you stop and think about how much deception there is in the world—in business, in advertising, in media, in politics, in romance—I think you’ll agree that my fear was justified.

I don’t agree: there is a certain amount of “deception” in the world, which one can find without looking very hard (it’s probably an ESS to lightly deceive), but deception is often enough a product of people trying to shade things rather than people trying to con you outright, as happens to the girl chasing the phony paralegal job. There’s a difference in kind between her experience and someone in a law firm implying the firm is more important than it is in order to motivate employees. The passage quoted above might be implausible, but it functions as an excuse to start the book with some kind of purpose, and though that purpose is lost, it still brings up a useful point: If we’re this worried about deception, we should react by not reading Fool Me Once, which contains this disclaimer in the front matter:

While the events described in this book are essentially true, I changed the names and identifying characteristics of certain individuals. In other cases, I used character composites. I also reconstructed dialogue and altered details of certain events, including their timing and location.

“Essentially true” might be another way of saying “not true.” “Character composites,” “reconstructed dialogue,” “altered details”—these are all synonyms for “made up.” If you stop and think about how much deception there is in the world of writing, I think you’ll agree that my fear of being taken by a lying author is justified. If we apply Lax’s standards of paranoia to his own work, the logical reaction is to stop reading it and read fiction, which we at least know is “made up”—unless, of course, it uses copious detail from “real life” to make its point, in which case I guess we can’t trust it, either. The argument about fiction’s relationship with reality goes very far back, to at least Don Quixote if not earlier (see Ortega y Gasset’s Meditations On Quixote for more on that subject; for the novel in general, various theorists have discussed this, including Watt in The Rise of the Novel and others who write about the enchantment of Romance).

The basic problem is that radical skepticism leads one to think in paradoxes, like there is no truth, including this statement, which therefore invalidates itself. It leads one to question all epistemology, and it leads one towards Descartes’ seventeenth century formulation; as Tom Sorell describes it in Descartes: A Very Short Introduction, “In the First Meditation Descartes makes himself doubt that he has an idea of any really existing thing. He rejects as false all his beliefs about material objects, even his faith in the reality of simple material natures.” But that point of view leaves us essentially nowhere: it’s like philosophers who sit around, decide there is no such thing as reality, and then go to lunch. That strain of thinking led towards pragmatism, which argues that what really matters is what ideas cause us to do differently.

Most of us have a reasonably pragmatic relationship to the truth: we know that Lax’s girlfriend is being conned, as does Lax, as should his girlfriend (unless she is willfully deceiving herself, which might otherwise be called stupidity—and the optimal way to deal with people we think stupid is often to exit the market, so to speak, with them). We also know that doubting the the truth of anything is “being overly paranoid,” which is why Lax has to tell us that he “thinks [we’ll] agree” that his fear is justified. We won’t, and claiming we will points to the fear we won’t. A professor once told me (or was it to an entire class? Memory is awfully faulty) that anytime a student writes something is “obviously” or “clearly” true, he looks more closely at the proposition being argued, because something marked as obvious isn’t, otherwise it wouldn’t need to be marked. Show me what you fear and I’ll show you what you lack, as the cliche goes. Or something like that.

Fortunately, this pragmatic philosophy also means that I’m inclined to accept Lax’s caveat: the events probably are essentially true, unless he’s pulling a James Frey or really lying to us. But I have no way to tell, and if I find out he is, I’ll put a disclaimer at the top of this post saying that he’s a liar and that you shouldn’t read his book. In short, I’ll punish him for the transgression, which I would find a significant one. But unless the lie is really egregious, I’ll let him go because he can point to the disclaimer that says he might be lying to me, but only in minor ways—much like pretty much anyone in a serious relationship is accepting that their partner has probably fudged at least a little in their past, putting an orange filter over the bright white stage lights of life. Whether we decide something is a serious transgression or minor quibble is mostly a matter of pragmatism, and it varies by person. Lax argues he’s not being overly paranoid, but I think he is—and I think you’ll agree with me, based on this post, or based on reading his book yourself.

Keith Richards’ Life and what the world used to look like

I skimmed Keith Richards’ memoir Life, which might be of interest to virulent Rolling Stones fans and people interested in how to live despite ingesting massive quantities of poisonous substances in search of altered states (answer: luck). Although most of the memoir is forgettable, this passage stands out because it describes a kind of insanity that feels completely foreign and bizarre to me:

It was 1975, a time of brutality and confrontation. Open season on the Stones had been declared since our last tour, the tour of ’72, known as the STP. The State Department had noted riots (true), civil disobedience (also true), illicit sex (whatever that is), and violence across the United States. All the fault of us, mere minstrels. We had been inciting youth to rebellion, we were corrupting America, and they had ruled never to let us travel in the United States again. It had become, in the time of Nixon, a serious political matter. He had personally deployed his dogs and dirty tricks against John Lennon, who he thought might cost him an election. We, in turn, they told our lawyer officially, were the most dangerous rock-and-roll band in the world.

Must be gratifying to be the most dangerous rock band in the world. It’s also astonishing to imagine that a rock-and-roll band could marshall this kind of attention; these days, the youth who were rebelling in the 1970s have grown up and assumed the reins of power, such that rock-and-roll has grown up with them, becoming rock-and-roll instead of rock ‘n’ roll.

Now it’s no longer subversive, so we have to turn our attention to other topics, like rap, but even that doesn’t inspire so much fear as Richards says the Stones did; rap is regularly reviewed in the New Yorker. Today, nothing is worse than being square. Almost anything goes. 1975 looks bizarre from the perspective of someone born after it: what was all the fuss about? The real question is what subjects generate all the fuss today that will be the same way in the future. I could generate a list of them but choose not to, per Paul Graham’s “What You Can’t Say,” but I bet regular readers could imagine a few things that might end up on the list.

There are other moments of bizarre provincialism too:

When I was growing up, the idea of leaving England was pretty much remote. My dad did it once, but that was in the army to go to Normandy and get his leg blown off. The idea was totally impossible. You just read about other countries and looked at them on TV, and in National Geographic, the black chicks with their tits hanging out and their long necks. But you never expected to see it. Scraping up the money to get out of England would have been way beyond my capabilities.

Although many people today no doubt feel the same, the rise of deregulated air service makes leaving virtually any industrialized country within the reach of a large proportion of the population. Not everyone, to be sure, but it’s much more normal now than it once was. Many fewer find the idea “totally impossible.” It’s easy, at least for me, to forget what the past was like. I think we all have a tendency to assume that the present is “normal,” along with whatever our situation is, and the past different. Then I read about someone who “never expected to see” a foreign country and remember that the time and place I live in is very different from those others have lived in. Such moments are the most revealing part of Life. The book made it on the New York Times bestseller list. Prediction: a large number of copies hit the used book market within six months. If you want to read the book, wait and snag a used copy cheap, or get it from the library.

Novels, notoriety, and memoirs

Megan McArdle discusses contemporary literary culture in the context of yet another fake memoir that’s apparently famous but I’d never heard of prior to its notoriety:

I do think, though, that Matt has hit on something about our own time, though I’m not quite as down on contemporary fiction as he is. Since the modernists, all contemporary literary fiction–including narrative fiction–has focused less on certain aspects of telling a story. I understand that some cognitive scientists theorize that the reason we enjoy stories so much is that they activate the parts of our brain that deal with social cognition and learning. The reason that genre fiction, even though it is usually not a masterpiece of prose styling, can be so absorbing is that it provides this function. The fantasy of a space opera or a bodice-ripper is compelling because we’re imagining ourselves as the hero–imagining ourselves as a better, more interesting version of ourselves. We’re also exploring how we should/would act in certain (unlikely) situations; the novels that do best in these genres are the ones where the hero ultimately acts rightly, which is to say, producing the best result in some sense. This is possibly silly, even counterproductive–one sees women actually acting like heroines of romance novels, and wondering (though not in so many words) why men do not respond to them in the same way as in the book. But it’s a deep element of most peoples’ fantasy lives.

This is an itch that contemporary novels try very hard not to scratch. “The moral of the story . . . ” is an archaism.

So for people who wouldn’t be caught dead reading a bodice ripper, memoir fills that space. Having neatly separated fact and fiction, we now read only “fact” as a way to learn about correct behavior, where a hundred years ago people were perfectly accustomed to taking moral or social lessons out of obvious fiction (from whence the term “morality play”). Memoir alone do we permit ourselves to read for the (now conscious) purpose of obtaining information about how human beings behave in other situations than ours.

My take: I’ve never been interested in memoirs because fiction and journalism are vastly more interesting than what a person did/has done, especially if that person hasn’t done something vital or important. Call this preference for something vaguely important an offshoot of the popes and princes school of history. My lack of interest in the memoir notwithstanding, the genre seems to be quite popular, and I suppose McArdle has as plausible an explanation about why this is as anyone.

But I’m not sure I buy the premises that McArdle’s piece is based on, which I’ll call the stultifying literary hypothesis theory or the literary/genre split theory. Neither, apparently, do some of McArdle’s colleagues. Good writing is good writing, no matter where it comes from, as was discussed recently. Furthermore, I don’t think I’ve seen all that many people highly invested in defending airless literary fiction; if I could find these strawmen who wield influence out of proportion to their size, I would love to meet them.

Furthermore, the biggest problem with these literary / genre distinctions is that different people have different wants, and the quality of writing itself cannot be measured by what “genre,” if any, a book belongs to. I hesitate to say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but it’s true, and how a novel uses language to express itself is an important quality of what makes good fiction. What the fiction says is, I think, a separate issue that too often gets muddled in with how it is said.

That being said, I think the novel still has many places to go, and rumors of its death have been circulating such a long time that I wouldn’t be surprised if it is still dying whenever I am. Being 24, I hope that won’t be for a while yet.

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