Most people don’t read carefully or for comprehension

Dan Luu has a great Twitter thread about “how few bits of information it’s possible to reliably convey to a large number of people. When I was at MS, I remember initially being surprised at how unnuanced their communication was, but it really makes sense in hindsight” and he also says that he’s “noticed this problem with my blog as well. E.g., I have some posts saying BigCo $ is better than startup $ for p50 and maybe even p90 outcomes and that you should work at startups for reasons other than pay. People often read those posts as ‘you shouldn’t work at startups’.” In other words, many people are poor readers, although “hurried” or “inattentive” might be kinder word choices. His experiences, though, are congruent with mine: I’ve taught English to non-elite college students, off and on, since 2008; when I first started, I’d run classes by saying things like, “What do you all think of the reading? Any comments or questions?” I’d get some meandering responses, and maybe generate a discussion, but I often felt like the students were doing random free association, and it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out why.

After a semester or two I began changing what I was doing. An essay like Neal Stephenson’s “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out” is a good demonstration of why, and it’s on my mind because I taught it to students recently (you should probably read “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out” first, because, if you don’t, the next three paragraphs won’t make a lot of sense—and you’re the kind of person who does the reading, right?). Instead of opening by asking “What do you think?”, I began class by asking, “What is the main point of ‘Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out?’” Inevitably, not all students would have done the reading, but, among those who had, almost none ever have, or give, good answers. Many get stuck on the distinction between “geeking out” and “vegging out,” even though that’s a subsidiary point. Some students haven’t seen or dislike Star Wars, and talk about their dislike, even though that’s not germane to understanding the essay.

Stephenson says at least three times that Star Wars functions a metaphor: once in the third paragraph, once in the second-to-last paragraph—although that technically compares the Jedi to scientists, rather than Star Wars as a whole to society—and again at the end (“If the ‘Star Wars’ movies are remembered a century from now, it’ll be because they are such exact parables for this state of affairs”). Most students don’t know what a “parable” is, which also means I wind up asking what they should do if they come across a word they don’t know. It’s also not like the essay is long or using numerous complex words: it’s only about 1,300 words and it’s about pop culture, not some abstract topic.

The first few times I taught “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out” this way, I wondered if I was getting unrepresentative samples, but I’ve done it many times since and have consistently gotten the same results. I think most high-school students, to the extent they’re being taught to read effectively at all, are being taught to skim a work for keywords and then vomit up an emotional reaction (I assign free-form, pass-fail student journals, and most take this form). Very few students seem to be taught close reading, although when I was still in grad school, I had a cluster of students who all had had the same junior or senior year high school teacher, and that teacher had drilled all of them in close reading and essay writing—and they were all proficient. She seemed to be the exception, not the rule, and I meant to send her a letter thanking her but never did. Teaching “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out” usually takes somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour, in order to go through it and look at how the essay is constructed, how the sentence “What gives?” functions as a turning point in it, and other related topics. I tell students at the end of the process that we’ve not talked about whether they like “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out” or not; the goal is to understand it first, and evaluate it later. Understanding before judgment: Internet culture encourages precisely opposite values, as I’m sure we’ve all seen in social media like Twitter itself.

At the end of class, I ask again, “What is the main point?” and get much better answers. I’ll sometimes do the same thing with other argumentative essays, and often the initial answers aren’t great. I posit that most students aren’t being taught close reading in high school, and part of that theory comes from me asking them, individually, what their high school English classes were like. Many report “we watched a lot of movies” or “nothing.” Sure, a few students will have taken “nothing” from excellent classes and instructors, but the answers are too uncomfortably common, especially from diligent-seeming students, for me to not see the pattern. In high school, few students seem to have looked closely at the language of a given work and how language choices are used to construct a story or argument. To my mind, and in my experience, doing that is a prerequisite for being a proficient writer, including on topics related to “social justice.”

It’s not just “turn On, Tune In, Veg Out;” when I assign Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” I’ll get strange responses from students about how it’s so totally true that these days the English language is being used poorly. After enough of those kinds of responses, I began to open class by asking students to take 20 or 30 seconds to write down when “Politics” was written. In case you think this is a trick question, “1946” is displayed in huge font at the start of the version I’m using, and it’s repeated again at the very end. In the text itself, Orwell cites a Communist pamphlet, and he mentions the “Soviet press,” and such choices should be clues that it’s not contemporary. Nonetheless, if a third of a given class gets in the right ballpark—pretty much anything between “1930s” and “1950s” is adequate enough for these purposes—that’s good, which implies two-thirds of a given class hasn’t done the reading or hasn’t retained what I’d call an elemental idea from the reading. Students routinely guess “2010s” or “2000s.”

Right after college I taught the LSAT for two years, and the LSAT is largely a test of reading comprehension. I worked for an independent guy named Steven Klein, who’d started his company in the late ‘80s or early ’90s, before Kaplan and Princeton Review became test-prep behemoths. He and his business partner, Sandy, would marvel at the students who had 3.8, 3.9, sometimes 4.0 GPAs in fields like sociology, communication, English, or “Law, Society, and Justice” but who couldn’t seem to understand even simple prose passages. The students would get frustrated too: they were college grads or near college grads, who were used to being told they were great. The LSAT experience made me a sympathetic reader of the book Paying for the Party, or Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Has Crippled Undergraduate Education, both of which describe how most colleges and universities have evolved vast party tracks that require minimal skill development and mental acuity, but reliably deliver high grades. I think of those books when I read about the massive, $1 trillion and growing amount of outstanding student loan debt. Many college and university students would be better served with apprenticeships and vocational education, but as a society we’ve spent 40, if not more, years disparaging such paths and exalting “college.” Articles like “41% of Recent Grads Work in Jobs Not Requiring a Degree” are common. We have many bartenders and airline stewards and stewardesses and baristas who’ve obtained expensive degrees: I’m not opposed to any of those professions and respect all of them, but a four-year degree is a very expensive way of winding up in them.

The LSAT is a standardized test, and many schools still like standardized tests because those tests aren’t changed by how rich or connected or otherwise privileged a person is. Some Ivy-League and effectively-Ivy-League schools are doing away with the SAT, in the name of “diversity,” but that usually means they’re trying to give themselves even more discretion in “holistic” admissions, which tends to mean rich kids, with a smattering of diversity admits for political cover. “Race Quotas and Class Privilege at Harvard: Meme Wars: Who gets in, and why?” is one take on this topic, although numerous others can be found. The students who had gotten weak degrees and high GPAs were flummoxed by the LSAT; when they asked what they could do to improve their reading skills, Steven and Sandy often told them, “Read more, and read more sophisticated works. The Atlantic, The New Yorker [this was a while ago], better books, and do it daily.” I’d sometimes see their faces fall at the notion of having to read more: they were hoping to learn “One Weird Trick For Improving Your Reading Skills. You Won’t Guess What It Is!” When I’ve taught undergrads, they often want to know if there’s a way to get extra credit, and I tell them to do the reading thoroughly and write great essays, because I will grade based on improvement. This seems particularly important because many haven’t been taught close reading or sentence construction. I also see the disappointment in their faces and body language, because they think I’m going to tell them the secret, and instead I tell them there is no real secret, just execution and practice. A lot of school consists of jumping through somewhat ridiculous, but well-defined, hoops, and then being rewarded for it at the end, but real learning is much stranger and more tenuous than that. Sarah Constantin argues that “Humans Who Are Not Concentrating Are Not General Intelligences,” which is consistent with my experiences.

Many, if not most, English and writing professors also seem strangely uninterested in teaching writing or close reading. I get peculiar looks when I talk about the importance of either with other people teaching writing or English; one woman at a school I taught at in New York told me that social justice is the only appropriate theme for freshman writing courses. I know what she meant, and grunted noncommittally; I didn’t really reply to her at the time, although I was thinking: “Isn’t developing high levels of skill and proficiency the ultimate form of social justice?”

This is a long-winded way of saying that poor reading comprehension may be closer to the norm than the exception, and that may also be why, as Dan observed, very few bits of information trickle down from the C suites in big companies to the line workers (“I’ve seen quite a few people in upper management attempt to convey a mixed/nuanced message since my time at MS and I have yet to observe a case of this working in a major org at a large company (I have seen this work at a startup, but that’s a very different environment)”). I’d imagine the opposite is also true: if you’re a line worker, or lower-level management, it’s probably difficult or impossible to tell the C suite people about something you think important. Startups can disrupt big companies when a few people at the startup realize something important is happening, but the decision makers and the BigCo don’t.

I’ve also learned, regarding teaching, a message similar to what the MS VPs had learned: not much goes through, and repetition is key. One time, my sister watched me teach and said after, “You repeat yourself a lot.” I told her she was right, but that I’d learned to do so. Teachers and professors repeating themselves endlessly made me crazy when I was in school, but now I understand why they do it. I’ll routinely say “Do [stuff] for Thursday. Any questions?” and have someone immediately say: “What should we do for Thursday?” There’s a funny scene in the movie Zoolander in which the David Duchovny character explains to the Ben Stiller character how male models are being used to conduct political assassinations. He goes through his explanation, and then Zoolander goes: “But why male models?” The David Duchovny character replies: “Are you stupid? I just explained exactly that to you.” Derek Zoolander is a deliberately stupid character, but I think inattention is probably the most relevant explanation in the real world. Big tech companies like Microsoft probably have very few stupid people in them. Most students aren’t stupid, but I think many haven’t been effectively challenged or trained. It’s also harder for the instructor to teach close reading than it is to have meandering discussions about how a given work, which has probably been at best skimmed, makes students feel. I’ve written on “What incentivizes professors to grade honestly? Nothing.” There’s a phrase that floats around higher education about a rueful compact between students and teachers: “They pretend to learn, and we pretend to teach.” Students, I’m sure you’ll be shocked to know, really like to get good grades. I of course grade with scrupulous honesty and integrity 100% of the time, just like everyone else, but I have heard rumors that there’s temptation to give students what they want and collect positive evaluations, which are often used for hiring and tenure purposes.

Politicians appear to have learned the same thing about repetition and the limits of the channel: the more successful ones appear to develop a simple message, and often a simple phrase (“Hope and change,” to name a recent one: you can probably think of others) and repeat it endlessly, leaving the implementation details to staff, assuming the politician in question is elected.

When Paul Graham confronts readers mis-reading his work, he’ll often ask, “Can you point to a specific sentence where I state what you say I state?” It appears almost none do. Even otherwise sophisticated people will attribute views to him that he doesn’t hold and hasn’t stated, based on the mood his essay creates. In Jan. 2016, for example, he wrote “Economic Inequality: The Short Version” because he saw “some very adventurous interpretations” of the original. In April 2007, he wrote “Microsoft is Dead: The Cliffs Notes” because many interpreted his metaphor as being literal. I often teach a few of his essays, most notably “What You’ll Wish You’d Known,” and some students will report that he’s “arrogant” or “pretentious.” Maybe he is: I’ll ask a version of the question Graham does: “Can you cite a sentence that you find arrogant or pretentious?” Usually the answer is “no.” I tell students they could write an essay arguing that he is, using specific textual evidence, but that never happens.

I’ve told bits and pieces of this essay to friends in conversation, and they sometimes urge me to try and make a difference by making an effort to improve college teaching. I appreciate their encouragement, but I don’t run any writing or English departments and have a full-time job that occupies most of my time and attention. I like teaching, but teaching represents well under 10% of my total income, tenure-track jobs in humanities fields haven’t really existed since 2009, and adjunct gigs offer marginal pay. To really encourage better classroom teaching, schools would need to pay more and set up teaching systems for improving classroom teaching. The goal of the system is to propagate and perpetuate the system, not to disturb it in ways that would require more money or commitment. Pretending excellence is much easier than excellence. I’m okay with doing a bit of teaching on the side, because it’s fun and different from the kind of computer work I usually do, but I’m under no illusions that I’m capable of changing the system in any large-scale way. The writing I’ve done over the years about colleges and college teaching appears to have had an impact on the larger system that’s indistinguishable from zero.

Links: Surprisingly SFW links, family mysteries, notebooks, new cities, violence, Tolkien, and more!

* “Casual Sex: Everyone Is Doing It?” This is in the New Yorker, so it’s not the usual, and the website itself is interesting (likely SFW, as it’s text only, but clicker beware).

* “In Berlin, Unraveling a Family Mystery,” an incredible, beautiful, and moving story: “And so in the year 2015, names and faces were put to two more victims of the Holocaust — my mother’s brother, Szilard Diamant, and his wife, Hella.” Particularly given the current rhetoric around immigration, the story of Szilard Diamant’s struggles matter.

* “Professors investigated by a ‘Bias Response Team’ for presenting opposing viewpoints.” This is not The Onion.

* “Why the Humble Notebook Is Flourishing in the iPhone Era.” This should sound familiar to you.

* Y Combinator is looking into building new cities.

* “Enforcing the law is inherently violent,” a point that ought to be more salient.

* “How J.R.R. Tolkien Found Mordor on the Western Front.” Maybe.

* “What you read matters more than you might think;” this is part of the reason I oppose showing movies in class, at least in most circumstances.

Links: Entitlement, Ferguson, blogs, reading, war

* “The Problem of Entitlement: A Question of Respect,” especially worth reading for teachers and students, though it is excellent throughout. This especially resonates:

The world of grad students two decades later is a lot different. Nearly all the students have smartphones, which they bring to class. Nearly all of them spend more time staring at screens than at books.

And the students I encounter seem to value reading less and less. I remember one especially galling workshop that I taught a few years ago, in which I asked the participants to read a single story, “Guests of the Nation” by Frank O’Connor. Hardly any of them bothered. They didn’t seem to understand—they were too entitled to understand—that the production of great literature requires a deep engagement with great literature. In fact, they were more likely to talk about a movie or TV show, or what they just posted on Facebook, than the last great book they read.

When I go into coffeeshops computers and phones outnumber books at least 10:1. That is worth contemplating for anyone who writes or aspires to write books. In many ways writing is more important than ever—in an email yesterday I said that books may be the (financial) wagging the cultural dog—but people are arguably getting paid either less or differently for it.

women with cell phone in coffee shop-1829* “How we’d cover Ferguson if it happened in another country.”

* Blogs will outlast the various “Social Media” companies.

* Housing policy is the biggest thing “blue states” are screwing up.

* “The Great Unread: Why do some classics continue to fascinate while others gather dust?” What is the role of the reader, and how will a given society evolve? To most 19th C writers, coming secularization probably wasn’t totally obvious. What are 21st Century writers underestimating?

The other reality of reading is that an infinite number of books can be read at a given moment. Even dedicated readers rarely read more than 100 books a year.

* Fundamentalists are not traditionalists.

* We cannot really understand the horror of the Eastern front in World War II.

Links: Reading, photos, teaching, life

* Inadvertently depressing, though it does raise the relative status of photographers: “Photos are the killer content type on mobile. Quick to consume like text, but easier to produce on a phone.”

* “The Moral Inversion of Economic Thinking,” or, why economics offends through counterintuitive facts and principles.

* “Putting Teacher Tenure In Context,” which has revised my opinions.

* “Reading: The Struggle” (maybe).

* Is tax evasion the key to understanding nonsensical-seeming data about first-world indebtedness?

* Someone found this blog by searching for “nurses making love.” I don’t know either.

* “When Literature Was Dangerous.”

* “Teaching college is no longer a middle-class job, and everyone paying tuition should care.

The purpose the Canon serves

What Is Literature? In defense of the canon” has a lot of interesting things to say but one thing it doesn’t mention is the purpose served by the Canon, or a canon: as a guide through infinity. An individual needs some means for sorting through the millions of books that have been published, and an agreement on some of the “good” ones, even for an imperfect definition of “good,” is better than nothing. A map that says “there are mountains a hundred miles away” when there are actually mountains fifty miles away is better than no map at all: an awareness of mountains ahead is useful. Some writers also do more sophisticated and interesting things with words than others, and those are for the most part the writers who endure.

Krystal does write, towards the end of his essay:

Here’s the trick, if that’s the right word: one may regard the canon as a convenient fiction, shaped in part by the material conditions under which writing is produced and consumed, while simultaneously recognizing the validity of hierarchical thinking and aesthetic criteria

“Convenient” is key. An unusually dedicated reader of books for adults might get two books a week; a “professional” reader (academics, critics, some writers) might do more, but even five books is probably a stretch for all but the most voracious and speedy fast. If one reads two books a week starting at say age 15, that’s only 3,120 books over the next 30 years. There are more novels than that being published this year. How does one search and sort?

There is no perfect answer, but a canon of some sort, that other hard-core readers have thought about, is one possible and perhaps most importantly reasonable method. Krystal writes of how

canon formation was, in truth, a result of the middle class’s desire to see its own values reflected in art. As such, the canon was tied to the advance of literacy, the surging book trade, the growing appeal of novels, the spread of coffee shops and clubs, the rise of reviews and magazines, the creation of private circulating libraries, the popularity of serialization and three-decker novels, and, finally, the eventual takeover of literature by institutions of higher learning.

but while that is true “convenience” should probably appear as well, and appear prominently.

Links: Joseph Epstein, A Smart (Finally) Women-in-Tech Piece, Gary Becker, Reading, and More

* “On Joseph Epstein,” which is of interest even when it is wrong; I’m also struck by how much things have changed: “In her 1939 essay ‘Reviewing,’ Virginia Woolf called the nineteenth-century reviewer ‘a formidable insect’ with ‘considerable power’ to alter the public reception of a book.” Today the barbarians aren’t just at the gates but in the temple.

* “It’s Different for Girls,” which is one of the only good women-in-tech pieces I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot of them); the last paragraph is especially good.

* Gary Becker died; here are a few of his papers.

* “How Creativity Could Save Humanity: Stefan Zweig, the obscure Austrian writer whose life and work inspired The Grand Budapest Hotel, believed imagination could help propel society toward universal tolerance and accord,” which has many counter-intuitive (to me) points; I especially like the comparisons between Europe and Brazil.

* Talent management in Silicon Valley.

* “U.S. children read, but not well or often: report.” My guess—and it’s purely a guess—is that the top end is doing extraordinarily well and perhaps better than ever (books are cheaper, good writing more available due to the Internet, good writing is more useful and visible, etc.—see Penelope Trunk’s dubious argument in “The Internet has created a generation of great writers “), and the bottom end that can barely read and write effectively has been with us since at least the 1960s and probably earlier. As with so much else I suspect that the middle is the real issue lies and where the real action is.

Part of this view comes from teaching English at the University of Arizona, where most honors students were at least competent writers for their age and some were really good—sometimes much better than I was at their age. Many professors and teachers do the standard bemoaning of the-kids-these-days-with-their-newfangled-gadgets, but I didn’t see much of that among those with real skills.

Why fiction? Why reading?

When we pick up a decent book, we live not once but twice, and each new book allows us to live again and absorb the thoughts of someone who has absorbed thousands of other people’s thoughts. The book is the most powerful medium yet invented for intellectual stimulation, growth, and change. The bounty is endless and in the contemporary world very cheap. Most, though, reject the gift. Is this not strange?

Pretty much everyone who is deeply interested in reading gets and/or writing gets some version of the utility question that I answered in the first paragraph (and have answered in other places). Each answer has its own idiosyncrasies, but I think they have a common core that revolves around knowledge and pleasure. The issue is on my mind because a friend wrote me to say regarding Asking Anna, “thanks for having thought through that book content and made it available for people like me to read and then not have to do some of the work. I like that.” The crazy thing is that crazy people have been doing this for centuries: packaging many thousands of hours of thinking into works that take only a few hours to read.

That’s true of fiction and nonfiction, and in some ways lately nonfiction has been leading the perceive quality race. But historically fiction has tended to advance the state of the art in prose, with novelists especially leading the charge towards renewing the language. Arguably this tendency has decreased over time, but I’ve never read a great nonfiction writer who didn’t also read fiction, or read a lot of fiction at one point.

Good novelists tend to be obsessed with the quality of their prose in a way fewer nonfiction writers are. Too many nonfiction writers focus on content at the expense of form and beauty; some have been glamored by some of the stupid literary theory that passes for erudition in some academic circles (Katharine Frank’s books, like Plays Well in Groups: A Journey Through the World of Group Sex, suffer from this, though she is merely a salient example and far from the only offender).

Fiction tends to train us to attend to language, and books like Wood’s How Fiction Works and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer do the same. When one becomes sufficiently attuned to language, poorly written work or even work that is merely competent becomes aggravating, like a song messed by a drunk guitarist.

That’s my short utilitarian defense of fiction, but I read it for pleasure. The history of the West is one in which pleasure is suspect, especially in the Judeo-Christian tradition; sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for less-good reasons. That tradition encourages us to make sure that pleasure is always deferred, and that’s the tradition that led to the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution and hence to the present day. We’re still getting somewhat used to enormous material wealth, at least by historical standards. But pleasure has its own importance, and there is pleasure in the many lives we can choose to live through books. Perhaps the most interesting thing is that so many people do not make the choice.

Every great book is the result of years or decades of studying and experience, distilled into a volume you can read in a few hours. How could you not want that?

Life: The readers edition, and Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan

Both Huet and Bayle were erudites and spent their lives reading. Huet, who lived into his nineties, had a servant follow him with a book to read aloud to him during meals and breaks and thus avoid lost time. He was deemed the most read person in his day. Let me insist that erudition is important to me. It signals genuine intellectual curiosity. It accompanies an open mind and the desire to probe the ideas of others. Above all, an erudite can be dissatisfied with his own knowledge, and such dissatisfaction is a wonderful shield against Platonicity, the simplifications of the five-minute manager, or the philistinism of the overspecialized scholar. Indeed, scholarship without erudition can lead to disasters.

—Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan, a book that I had erroneously believed I had already “read” through the many references to it made by other books and articles. I turned out to be completely wrong, as the book is still original and almost every page has some unexpected insight; like Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind I consistently cannot predict the brilliant observations and extensions that come from the unfurling of a basic idea that is simple to understand.

Regarding the quote itself, I would add that it is not only the quantity of reading but the quality that makes erudition; reading a great number of, say, romance novels is unlikely to yield the erudition of reading broadly yet deeply. Reading a few romance novels might be essential to deep thinkers, however, for reasons that I will leave to you, or to commenters, to explain.

I also have defended reading, especially to those who say they somehow do not “have the time,” by pointing out that books often encompass years or decades of a writer’s life and thinking in a volume that can be read in just a few hours; who would not want the wisdom of 20 years distilled into an easily digestible chunk? Yet apparently many people don’t want such a gift, which is widely available for $10 – $15 at bookstores or for less from Amazon or free from many libraries. Satisfaction with your own knowledge is a sign that a mind has become barren without even realizing its own barrenness.

Dare Me — Megan Abbott

There’s something compelling about Dare Me that shouldn’t be compelling: stripped of its narrative voice, Dare Me is about teenage cheerleaders and their coach, who may as well be a teenager, competing to be the neighborhood’s queen bee. It’s unfair to summarize a novel like this—Lord of the Ring could be reduced to, “Midget chucks ring into mountain; local vagrant crowned king”—but it’s also useful, because interesting novels usually have characters who are trying to learn something about the world and who have larger ambitions to do things that will have more than just local effects.

Addy narrates the novel in an insistent present-tense voice that offers a sense of immediacy. Her primary aspiration, however, is to maintain her status on the cheer squad, chiefly as the “lieutenant” of the captain, Beth, who is the chief bad girl and doer of drugs, men, and deeds that Addy might want to do but can’t bring herself to. Beth, however, is stripped of her captaincy by the new Coach, who demands more from the girls than their previous coach:

Back then, we could hardly care, our moves so sloppy and weak. We’d just streak ourselves with glitter and straddle jump and shake our asses to Kanye. Everybody loved us. They knew we were sexy beyotches. It was enough.

But part of life is the “it” not being enough: skills count, more than merely being admired. Plus, contrary to what Addy thinks, it’s unlikely that “Everybody loved us.” The cheerleaders in Dare Me love themselves much more than any outsiders could possibly love them. And the cheerleaders never quite ask if they should want to be anything more than “sexy beyotches.” They certainly have a strong sense of sexuality, although sexuality in the novel is primarily used to express dominance among the various girls (and their Coach), rather than as an end in itself. The novel’s prime source of antagonism is between Beth and the new Coach, whom Beth describes this way: “Colette French [. . . ] Sounds like a porn star, a classy one who won’t do anal.” Beth tells us more about herself than she does about Coach: that she thinks about porn stars, that she has a dirty yet moralistic streak at the same time.

Most of the girls do. They want what most of us want, but that doesn’t stop them from castigating others. None of them recognize their own hypocrisy, and they probably wouldn’t care if someone did point that hypocrisy out to them. At one moment, Addy says, “Beth and I made loud comments across the gym about how Brinnie’s slutty sister got caught making out with the assistant custodian until Brinnie ran off to the far showers to cry.”

Women really do slut-shame each other much more vigorously than men slut-shame women. Addy doesn’t notice that, however. She only notices how she can use what she perceives to be raw power: the “loud comments” and the derogatory adjective, “slutty,” forming without much thought about what’s underneath her ideas. Despite what the two say about Brinnie’s sister, Addy also reports that “In eighth grade, no, summer after, at a beer party, Beth put her scornful little-girl mouth on Ben Trammel, you know where. I remember the sight.” Why is Beth’s mouth scornful? We don’t find out. But she says a moment later that “We don’t judge,” when the page prior Beth and Addy were judging Brinnie’s sister.

Dare Me, however, isn’t about consistency. It’s about inconsistency, expressed through power and dominance. Beth versus Coach, but sexuality is the weapon—not fists. The girls use it against each other, although I won’t describe how here. The only character who apparently isn’t competing is Addy. She doesn’t really get much in the novel, and she gives a weak excuse about why: “There’s not a lot to interest me at Sutton Grove High.” That’s another way of saying that being alone and being the cheer squad’s resident observer is more valuable to her than the experience of a “real” relationship. About Jordy, a boy at the school, the best Addy can summon is that “He looks like he’s thinking things [. . .] Like maybe he actually thinks about things.” Does that mean Addy and her friends don’t? And, if so, perhaps we again shouldn’t be reading about them. She does get with him, after a fashion, and his giving in disappoints Addy: “His wanting, so easily won—well, it bores me.” Everything does. The boredom she feels at his being “so easily won” is how guys end up affecting cruel uninterest in order to win women. But that’s another thing Addy doesn’t know. Her lack of sophistication is realistic but grating; there are answers to the questions she doesn’t know to ask.

She does know, however, that a military recruiter is aloof and thus desirable. He has a nickname that denotes his position: “Sarge, though, is above all this. All the girls are hurling themselves at him, but he never blinks, not once. He smiles, but his smile doesn’t really seem like a smile but the kind of thing you do with your mouth when you know everyone is watching.” He’s smiling that way because he has to, and he knows that the penalties for indulging in “the girls” who “are hurling themselves at him” is probably worse than the pleasure that he might gain from indulging them. There’s also a link between the two: by apparently standing above the girls making offers, he’s making himself more alluring. He contrasts with the “easily won” Jordy. The harder the prize, the sweeter the accomplishment, at least in Addy’s eyes, and hence the challenge of being a better cheerleader is the challenge of doing harder stunts, of doing more than “shak[ing] our asses to Kanye.”

The physicality of motion counts for a lot, and so does the wanting eyes Addy imagines her body inspiring. Addy thinks, “This is my body, and I can make it do things. I can make it spin, flip, fly.” She can also make it the object of male adoration, which, regardless of what else cheerleading might do, does that first. Addy also doesn’t perceive the way the boredom of her own life is partially of her own making, as when she says

Ages fourteen to eighteen, a girl needs something to kill all that time, that endless itchy waiting, every hour, every day for something—anything—to begin.
‘There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.’

This is given like a law of the universe, an ahistorical fact that must be true of all times and places, like respiration. It isn’t. For all I know, in many hunter-gatherer tribes fourteen year olds were often mothers, or members of adult societies: their life had already begun. Addy is really commenting on contemporary Western society, even if she doesn’t have the language to realize it.

Has she read Paul Graham? Boredom is endemic to the high school experience. But boredom itself is dangerous to the mind, because it’s a waste of the planet’s most valuable resource: minds. I don’t need to rely on vague assertions like “There’s something dangerous;” I know what’s dangerous, in part because I was reading enough at the time to eventually learn how to use words to express complex ideas. Addy hasn’t gotten there yet.

That should make her an uncompelling narrator, but she isn’t. She’s naive in some ways, which shouldn’t be a surprise given her age, but she also observes the bad-girl behavior around her, and that bad-girl behavior is underappreciated in much of the larger society. Addy can also see what boys see, at times, as when she describes her teammate: “Emily whose balloony breasts and hip-cascades are the joy of all the boys, their ga-ga throats stretched to follow her gait, to stretch around corridor corners just to see that cheer skirt dance.” Addy’s awareness is a form of power, but it’s a limited form of power, and it’s counteracted by the limits that she accepts. The “endless itchy waiting” is imposed in part because we, collectively, don’t want to believe in the bad girl and want to see fourteen to eighteen year olds of both sexes as children, even when they’re clearly not. So we, collectively, take their autonomy away and are surprised when they’re unhappy. To return to Graham, in “Why Nerds Are Unpopular:”

What bothers me is not that the kids are kept in prisons, but that (a) they aren’t told about it, and (b) the prisons are run mostly by the inmates. Kids are sent off to spend six years memorizing meaningless facts in a world ruled by a caste of giants who run after an oblong brown ball, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. And if they balk at this surreal cocktail, they’re called misfits.

Addy doesn’t even bother with the “memorizing meaningless facts,” but she does accept high school as “the most natural thing in the world.” In her own way, she’s a misfit by believing in “this surreal cocktail,” and believing that the world of cheer is the only one that counts.

The only real hope of the society is that the “teenage girls” who Addy represents don’t realize the power of their bodies over men. Addy realizes it. Beth does too. They find cheer to be ridiculously helpful: Addy says that “It made things matter. It put a spine into my spineless life and that spine spread, into backbone, ribs, collarbone, neck held high.” If cheer is enough to make things matter, she must have a dull life—but she’s already established that she does.

She says that “Coach gave it all to us.” Meaning, in other words. And that “She was the one who showed me all the dark wonders of life, the real life, the life I’d only seen flickering from the corner of my eye.” But whose fault is it that Addy hasn’t seen “real life” before? And what is this “real life” that Addy keeps mentioning? It sounds like something she herself has constructed.

The questioning of what is “real,” however, reappears again and again in the novel. Addy says, “Could [Coach] see past all of that to something else, something quivering and real, something poised to be transformed, turned out, made?” Addy’s repeated use of “real” makes her seem convinced of her own unreality (“By Saturday practice [. . .] we’re already—some of us—starting to look forward to that pain, which feels like something real”). If it takes pain to be “real,” something in your life might be amiss. When the girls learn to do a pyramid, Addy says that “the momentum makes you realize that you are part of something. Something real.” Was she not part of something before? Does she have any theory or coherence beyond her theory of reality? She doesn’t, not really, and it takes death and rivalry to make something real.

Addy could say no to cheer and yes to Python, or sculpture, or the guitar, buts he doesn’t. She isn’t really interested in being real, in doing the things that other people might value. The only real value she, and Beth, offer to the world is sexuality, but they don’t even ask, really ask, what their sexuality means. At one point Beth says that “I’m not even interested in our lives.” This, however, raises an important point: Why should readers be? Addy as a narrator is one answer. The fact that she constructs a story out of something other than who gets to take the most popular boy to Prom is another. Her moments of inchoate realization is a third:

We’re all the same under our skin, aren’t we? We’re all wanting things we don’t understand. Things we can’t even name. The yearning so deep, like pinions over our hearts.

She should learn the names, and the things that most people most desire are obvious, money, sex, and social status, in some tangled, interdependent triangle. For a smaller but still significant number of people, intellectual curiosity is as or more important as those first three. Those things can be understood, especially by people who want to understand them. Addy doesn’t, or doesn’t have the intellectual context she needs to understand them. As someone very happy to be out of high school, I see a lot of the things that Addy doesn’t, though she should: she’s narrating the story from an unnamed future point, even as she drops into the present tense.

One problem with Addy or her narration is that we don’t know what any of these characters are like, other than mean and, in a petty, squabbling fashion, stupid. But Addy’s voice carries the novel, along with her fascination with Beth, which in Addy’s view is like staring at a serpent: fascinating, even as you hope it doesn’t bite. What do Addy and Beth do when they’re not cheerleading? What is Beth’s favorite color? If she had to answer the question, “What do you want to do when you grow up,” what might she say? Is the prospect of college or a technical school anything more than a distant glimmer in their eyes, along with a source of older boys?

To the extent Beth and Addy have character beyond their sexuality and social status, we don’t see it. If the slice of character we see is their primary character, then they’re not very nice people, and, perhaps worse, they’re not very interesting people. Beth is willing to violate taboo by sleeping with older men, which speaks well of her low opinion of convention, but is she willing to extend taboo violation to, say, playing the corporate game as hard as the cheer game, or cutting across gender stereotype to build web apps for bad girls? The interesting thing is not just her as a bad girl, but what she can do with being a bad girl.

Perhaps that kind of question is for the sequel. Dare Me deals in a surprisingly plausible murder plot, with Addy and the reader the last to know what all the other characters seem to. The frustrations of Addy and Beth as characters doesn’t prevent the book from being compelling, in part because the girls’ blindness to anything important seems characteristic of their age, time, and generation. That should be scary.

Coach’s husband, Matt French

There are men in the novel: the aforementioned Sarge, is one. The other major male character, Matt French, is Coach’s husband. He misallocates resources. Coach says, “Oh, you know him, he’s working. He never, ever stops.” On the next page: “He is always on his cell phone and he always looks tired.” Addy says, “He works very hard, and he’s not interesting at all.” This misallocation of time and energy leads his wife to seek sexual solace elsewhere, as it so often does, and Matt apparently doesn’t realize that she, like most women, need tending. If he won’t keep the garden, someone else will.

Predictably, someone else does. When the girls catch Coach in the act with another man, she explains that “what [. . .] I have is a real thing [. . .] A true thing.” By that standard, what she has with Matt must not be a true thing. It must not count. She excuses herself by saying, “I never thought I’d feel like this,” as if the invocation of feelings trumps any and every other consideration. The girls don’t challenge her. They probably believe the same thing.

But the affair is a commentary on Matt’s folly. He should cut work and increase sex. We never learn why he doesn’t, or anything about his job. He’s a pathetic ghost of a man who enables the fake world of high school, which his wife joins. Addy and Beth show little interest in him, while they show a lot of interest in Will. The only exception comes at a moment when Addy tries to imagine what Matt is like:

Poor Matt [French], in some airport or office tower in Georgia, some conference room someplace where men like Matt French go to do whatever it is they do, which is not interesting to any of us, but maybe it would be if we knew. Though I doubt it.

Except sometimes I think of him, and the soulful clutter in his eyes, which is not like Will’s eyes because Will’s eyes always seemed about Will. And Matt French’s seem only about Coach.

That he is only about Coach, and not about anything else, makes him seem weak and replaceable to her; still, Addy’s analysis appears to be wrong because Matt is really about work, at least as measured by time spent doing an activity. We don’t get enough information about Matt French’s thought process to understand why he ignores his wife in favor of constant work that appears to weaken, not strengthen, his relationship, and leave his wife bored and frustrated. It should be obvious to anyone who has observed the people around them or been in serious relationships that bored, sexually frustrated people will find ways to get their needs met.

To return to the point I raised in the first paragraph, the problem with realistic but limited perspective Beth, Addy, and Coach have is with the scope of their vision and concerns. Adam Gopnik’s essay “The Unreal Thing” encapsulates some of their problems:

In a long article on the first “Matrix” film, the Princeton philosopher James Pryor posed the question “What’s so bad about living in the Matrix?,” and, after sorting through some possible answers, he concluded that the real problem probably has to do with freedom, or the lack of it. “If your ambitions in the Matrix are relatively small-scale, like opening a restaurant or becoming a famous actor, then you may very well be able to achieve them,” Pryor says. “But if your ambitions are larger—e.g., introducing some long-term social change—then whatever progress you make toward that goal will be wiped out when the simulation gets reset. . . . One thing we place a lot of value on is being in charge of our own lives, not being someone else’s slave or plaything. We want to be politically free.”

For Beth, Addy, and Coach, political freedom isn’t important. Competing with each other is the only important thing. Their ambitions are so “small-scale” that they don’t matter. Their achievements will be “wiped out” when they leave high school, which is its own Matrix-like simulation, and the smarter, more aware residents know it. So do adults who remember what high school was like: Paul Graham says in “Lies We Tell Kids:”

By 15 I was convinced the world was corrupt from end to end. That’s why movies like The Matrix have such resonance. Every kid grows up in a fake world. In a way it would be easier if the forces behind it were as clearly differentiated as a bunch of evil machines, and one could make a clean break just by taking a pill.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he uses The Matrix as an analogue for high school. Both high school and The Matrix put a natural cap on ambition, which the better high school students will challenge. Beth, Addy, and Coach don’t challenge that system; Addy even thinks that it’s the only thing that matters: “God it must be terrible not to be on cheer. How would you know what to do?” You wouldn’t know what to do, but pretty much anything you do in lieu of cheer, aside from watching T.V., vegging out, or playing on Facebook is likely to be more substantive than cheer. But Addy is so firmly plugged in that she doesn’t recognize her “fake world,” to use Graham’s term, and maybe she can’t. Maybe, if she were a different sort of person, someone would point it out to her, like the teacher in The Perks of Being a Wallflower implicitly does. Cheer for Addy is a kind of Matrix-within-a-Matrix, a way of further shrinking her social and competitive world. Addy wants to give up the kind of political freedom Gopnik and Pryor are describing. Abrogating freedom makes her seem like a fool, or a slave to the conformity imposed most obviously by Beth; perhaps this is why Addy wants to be Beth’s lieutenant, and why she doesn’t aspire to be the top girl.

Not wanting to be the top girl makes sense. But wanting to be in a social milieu where all that matters is being the top girl makes less sense; it’s like aspiring to slavery, or perpetually wearing glasses with a red tint, such that you can’t experience the full richness of the world. Addy doesn’t realize that she’s wearing those glasses, and that, finally, makes her seem sad. She’s missing so much, and she doesn’t even realize it.

Why publishers are scared of ebooks — the standard reasons and Amanda Hocking as symbol

Amanda Hocking, the now-famous indie writer, has an interesting post where she says, “Here’s another thing I don’t understand: The way people keep throwing my name around and saying publishers are “terrified” of me and that I really showed them.” They aren’t terrified of her, specifically, as an individual (which she notes), but they are scared of her as a symbol and what she represents: a world where you don’t need publishers as much. She just happens to be an early example of how to make it financially via ebooks. At the moment, publishers have one big advantage that no writer, no matter how skills, can replicate: distribution. If you take that advantage away, a lot of the raisons d’état of publishers goes away.

Later, she says: “And just so we’re clear – ebooks make up at best 20% of the market.” But that’s up from virtually nothing in 2006. In 2001, discs sold on shiny platters made up the vast majority of the music business. In 2011, the “music business” as it existed from the days of the first records until about ten years ago is gone. You still need a big record label if you want to be Lady Gaga, but almost no one else does. Music industry profits have never recovered. This is great for people who want to listen to music but not so good for people who want to make money from music, especially if they can’t actually make music themselves. Media executives, including publishers, know this, which is why they’re watching what happens in book-land so carefully.

“Nobody knows what makes one book a bestseller. Publishers and agents like to pretend they do, but if they did, they would only publish best sellers, and they don’t.” That’s the scariest thing of all: no one knows. This has long been a truism in lots of forms of art. William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade came in 1982, if I recall correctly, and he said almost the same thing about movies: “Nobody knows anything. Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess—and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.” Or, Scott Adams, if you prefer someone with even less movie experience than Goldman or me:

Evaluating whether an idea is good enough for a movie is a bit like an automobile expert saying a certain brand of car doesn’t taste good. It’s absurd. You can only hold the opinion that a particular movie concept is a good or bad idea if you don’t understand what a movie is or what an idea is.

Movies have a slight advantage in that making movies technically pretty (which requires foley artists, on-set locations, lots of actors, careful detail to light, and lots of other stuff) is still pretty expensive. A lot of people also still go to movie theaters, so that advantage hasn’t completely disappeared. With books, all you really have is the book.

There are probably lots of undiscovered bestsellers out there, which, if writers get tired of submitting to agents and all the rest, they can now relatively cheaply and easily put online and let the market sort it out. Again: if enough people succeed at this, publishers go away.

Big publishers might be dying in the way Paul Graham describes Microsoft being dead. Microsoft will continue making lots of money for the foreseeable future, but it’s no longer leading anything in tech. (Enough people misinterpreted him that he wrote the Cliff’s Notes version too.) They’re not dying in the sense that whoever owns Alfred A. Knopf is going to be gone tomorrow, or the day after. But if their relevance starts to slip, they could fail with surprising speed. Look at what happened to Blockbuster: Netflix undermined them, and within a decade of Netflix on the scene all the Blockbusters near me have “going out of business” signs on them.

Back to Hocking: “Traditional publishing and indie publishing aren’t all that different, and I don’t think people realize that.” They might not be as different as some make them out to be, but from the perspective of shareholders they’re very, very different, in that shareholders can make money off publishers in one model and they probably can’t in the same way in the other. From the perspective of the writer, she’s certainly right, as she goes on to say: writers still have to put in an enormous amount of time and effort. As I’m only too aware.

I’m not the only one saying this. Here’s what Kevin Kelly says: “I don’t think publishers are ready for how low book prices will go. It seems insane, dangerous, life threatening, but inevitable.” It’s scary because $.99 isn’t going to support cushy Manhattan offices, long lunches, interns, marketing departments, and everything else modern publishers do. It’s not going to support 5–10% growth every year, which most investors assume before they part with their money. As mentioned elsewhere, publishers can see what trend lines are like and they’ve all read The Innovator’s Dilemma, like everyone else who does anything business-related. The upshot of the book is that incumbents often recognize disruptive technologies and products and then fail to respond to them effectively anyway. Think of Microsoft and the Internet, or record labels and the Internet, or newspapers and the Internet. Yeah, I keep using “the Internet” as an example, but you can see this in other areas, like American car companies when the Japanese first entered the U.S. market. Microsoft is probably the best example, since the famous “Cornell is WIRED!” e-mail alerted them to the threat, and they responded with Internet Explorer.

Today, 17 years after that e-mail was sent, I’m typing this on an iMac, Google and Facebook are arguably the dominant Internet players, and Microsoft failed utterly to foresee the importance of search, like a lot of other people. Publishers know that they can’t really compete with $.99 – $2.99 ebooks, and that, in most genres, readers just aren’t that picky. Publishers know the sound of a market shifting underneath them because some of them have been to Harvard Business School or hired people who have been to tell them about the history of companies failing to adapt to new models and environments. That’s scary.

I pay some attention to this stuff because I’m about to take the latest plunge in the crocodile pit that is agent land. If I fail, sometime in the next two years or so I’ll probably say, “Screw it, I’m self-publishing.” Chances are, I’ll be the person who wastes a lot of money and time doing so, but that’s also true of traditional publishing. There’s still that small chance I’ll succeed. Although I’m hardly the best judge of these things, I think I would want to read my own novels, and at some point, I won’t have anything to lose by not self-publishing, if the choice is between that and letting my work sit on my hard drive. There might be other people who want to read my work too. Publishers don’t know. I don’t know. But Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple will make it easier for me to find out than Alfred A. Knopf ever did.

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