Back to Blood — Tom Wolfe

The real problem with Back to Blood is that you’ve already read it, most notably in The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full—and if you haven’t read those, you should start with them. Back to Blood has the same assortment of obsessions and interests: there is the child with an unusual name and an elite pedigree: “Last week he totally forgot to call the dean, the one with the rehabilitated harelip, at their son Fiver’s boarding school, Hotchkiss [. . .]” But does anyone still care about elite boarding schools? Does anyone still care about the Miami Herald other than the people who work there? The father of Fiver is the editor, and he thinks it is “one of the half-dozen-or-so most important newspapers in the United States” in an era when the era of newspapers has passed.

The Miami nightclub is named “Balzac’s,” after another Wolfe preoccupations. There is a prurient mention of girls who “were wearing denim shorts with the belt lines down perilously close to the mons veneris and the pants legs cut off up to. . . here . . .” Has anyone in the U.S. ever used the term mons veneris, outside of Tom Wolfe and medical schools? I think it appeared in I am Charlotte Simmons a couple of times too, and there it was even more improbable. And the word loins! In this case, “juicy little loins and perfect little cupcake bottoms.” I’ve heard loins described as loins before, but only by Tom Wolfe and the writers of the Bible. Someone born more recently than 1931 would use “pussy” if they wanted to be crude, “va jay jay” if they wanted to be hipster, or “vagina” if they wanted clinical directness. But not loins. No one but Tom Wolfe would use loins, and use it again and again.

Sometimes writers working out variations on ideas that iterate subtly book by book can work—Elmore Leonard is a good example. Others just feel like they’re repeating themselves. When I am Charlotte Simmons came out, I was in college and skipped class to read it, only to feel an increasing sense of disappointment with the wrongness of many scenes—like Charlotte feeling nervous about the cost of long distance calls. That was an anachronism. Most college students had free long distance by 2004. I would’ve let anyone who asked use my phone to call home. Or, for another example of reportorial wrongness, Charlotte gets a salvaged, pieced-together computer, like a salvaged car. By 2004, however, older but working computers were $25 on Craigslist, or outright given away by schools. These two examples are salient, but there were others, just as I am Charlotte Simmons repeated words, phrases, and ideas from Wolfe’s earlier books. It, and Back to Blood, repeatedly describe moments of cowardly prurience, with men likes wolves and women who didn’t want it or didn’t want to want it and submitted to it only reluctantly, like a female character from the 19th century and not at all like many of the contemporary women I know.

The period details in Back to Blood are wrong. Today, anyone cool would be driving a Tesla Roadster, or Fisker Karma, not a Ferrari 403; Ferraris might’ve been cool twenty years ago, but technology and culture have moved on. Then there’s the simply and wildly improbable: a French professor named Lantier thinks of his daughter that she wasn’t ready for “snobbery” because “She was at the age, twenty-one, when a girl’s heart is filled to the brim with charity and love for the little people.” Someone exposed to live students every semester is unlikely to think of their hearts as “filled to the brim with charity and love” for much of anything, except perhaps alcohol, condoms, iPhones, verbing nouns, and obsessive Facebooking. Not that there’s anything wrong with those things, but familiarity is a great slayer of illusions like Lantier’s belief about the hearts of most 21-year-old girls.

Back to Blood isn’t a bad book, but it has the same but lesser strengths of the earlier novels, with the same but exaggerated weaknesses of them. We’re told, not shown, that “Mac was an exemplar of the genus WASP in a moral and cultural sense,” without knowing why, if at all, that’s important. We’re told a lot of things, most of them not especially new if we’re familiar with the Wolfe oeuvre.

There are clever moments, as when Magdalena, in a fight with her Spanish-speaking mother (or, in Wolfe-land, Mother), resorts “to the E-bomb: English.” It’s a moment of geriatric cruelty, since “Her mother had no idea what colloquially meant. Magdalena didn’t, either, until not all that many nights ago when Norman used it and explained it to her. Her mother might know hang and possibly even slang, but the hang of slang no doubt baffled her, and the expression clueless was guaranteed to make her look the way she did right now, which is to say, clueless.” It’s clever, and the kind of cleverness that makes the scene fresh and unusual. It’s also the kind of cleverness missing in repeated references to the mons verneris, or to loins, or to high-end private schools.

Wolfe also gets and has gotten for decades the weirdness and power of modern media; its spotlight is restless yet powerful, and it plays a tremendous role in Bonfire. In Back to Blood, Nestor Camacho, a Miami cop, rescues a refugee from the mast of a ship and is recorded doing it; consequently, he becomes momentarily famous, such that: “Even now, at the midnight hour, the sun shone ’round about him.” The analogizing of fame to light seems obvious, even necessary, and although I don’t want to probe its deeper properties here I like how Wolfe avoids the spotlight metaphor, much as I didn’t a few sentences ago. Wolfe uses metaphor in an almost 19th Century fashion, usually effectively.

He gets the way civic booster types think of the arts not as a thing in and of themselves, but as a checkbox; an editor at the Miami Herald thinks that “Urban planners all over the country were abuzz with this fuzzy idea that that every ‘world-class’ city—world class was another au courant term—must have a world class cultural destination. Cultural referred to the arts. . . in the form of a world-class art museum” {Wolfe “Blood”@111}. He’s right, of course, but right in a generic way, like people are right about love being like a rose. If you’ve read anything about urban planning, or cities (and I have), you won’t be surprised at the editor’s knowledge, which he probably picked up in the same places I did, and which says very little about him as a character, exception that he, like so many Wolfe characters, is an information and status receptacle more than he is a person with his own needs and desires.

The complaint expressed throughout this post is similar to but a bit different than James Woods’, which concerns how Wolfe’s characters tend to speak in similar or identical registers, despite coming from wildly different backgrounds. That isn’t necessarily a weakness, but the verisimilitude of the characters must be maintained in novels that portray such startlingly different people in a similar register; that’s what Bonfire of the Vanities does and what Back to Blood doesn’t, quite. The earlier novel also doesn’t feel reported even if it was reported; the latter does, in the same way I am Charlotte Simmons misses the college milieu in a thousand subtle ways. If you swing, it doesn’t matter whether you miss the ball by a millimeter or a meter. The scrim of realism is pierced and the novel doesn’t quite work.

Wood also says that “Wolfe isn’t interested in ordinary life. Ordinary life is complex, contradictory, prismatic. Wolfe’s characters are never contradictory, because they have only one big emotion, and it is lust—for sex, money, power, status.” But this isn’t quite true: Wolfe is interested in ordinary life when it’s touched by big events, or ordinary life when its inhabitants have a powerful yearning for something other than ordinary life. That yearning, that drive, can be fascinating. Plus, there’s nothing wrong with writing about extraordinary life, which can be as fascinating, “complex, contradictory, prismatic.” Wood obviously isn’t making this argument, and I doubt he would make it in the kind of caricature I’m making it here, but it’s easy to draw this kind of false lesson from the Back to Blood review. Almost every Wood review is a momentary master class in the novel as a genre, which is why so many writers and would-be writers attend so carefully to them, and why it’s worth appending this brief commentary to a review that in some ways is more useful and interesting than the impressively hyped novel being discussed.

Back to Blood is drawing on capital built up from Wolfe’s earlier novels, and overall it leaves a sense of “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” If another Wolfe novel appears, I don’t think I’m likely to be fooled again. There are better novels about the state of America—Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is one—even if they don’t announce themselves as tomes about the state of America. Given how the voices of Back to Blood don’t quite work and the book-report function doesn’t quite work, there are probably better uses of one’s reading time.

Raylan and the pursuit of cool — Elmore Leonard

The major problem in Raylan is an implausibility the novel itself mocks. In the novel, marshal Raylan Givens investigates kidney theft—as in, thieves sedate a victim, surgically remove his kidneys, and leave him in ice water. Rumors about this have circulated on the Internet for more than a decade, and debunkers have attacked those rumors for almost as long; it does appear that a kidney theft ring operated in India, but the idea that drunken idiots in rural Kentucky would steal kidneys is simply ludicrous and, more than that, sloppy—much like the oil-tanker-shooting plotline in Djibouti. Leonard’s best novels, like Get Shorty and Out of Sight don’t resort to such dubious ideas.

Still, his characters are at least aware of the problem. Tim, one of the marshals, says, “It’s like that old story [. . .] Guy wakes up missin a kidney. Has no idea who took it. People bring it up from time to time, but nobody ever proved it happened.” Raylan replies, “It has now.” The problem is, I still don’t believe it, and the novel never really resolve the incongruity for reasons that I don’t want to reveal here. For one thing, if you had a fence for a kidney, you could probably find people to sell them for not much more than it costs to steal them, and without the police hassle involved.

Outside of that problem—and it’s a major problem, but one I’m willing to overlook for the laconic beauty of Leonard’s writing and the speed of his plots—Raylan has all the usual Leonard virtues, even if over the course of a dozen books they become less pronounced, like the gorgeous view of an apartment you own. But one thing I notice more and more is the drama of status that plays out, over and over, in his novels. In this one, for example, one of the cops named Rachel says of Cuba Banks, who might be one of the bad guys, “Slim body, has that offhand strut.” Raylan says that “He’s got a bunch of white genes but not enough to pass,” making Rachel speculate, “Or maybe he did but didn’t care for the life.” Raylan continues, “Lost his sense of rhythm [. . .] but he’s still cool.” Rachel shows that she’s cool too, by not having to ask what it means to be cool, by simply rolling with Raylan’s ideas. A few pages later, Raylan is talking to Cuba, and asks if “They call you ‘boy’?” Cuba says, “They do, I’m gone,” because he’s too cool to put up with that kind of racial slur. The lesser kinds of racial slurs he’ll tolerate, as long as he knows he’s willing to tolerate them, but not being called boy. He has pride. He’s cool enough to. He’s cool enough to know what he does, why he’s doing it, and why he’s willing to admit it: to gain status in the eyes of Raylan.

By contrast, drug dealers and idiots Coover and Dickie aren’t cool; Coover, for example, throws a dead rat on Raylan’s car, but in response Raylan didn’t move, “didn’t glance around.” He says, though, “What’re you trying to tell me?” and Coover says, “Take it any way you want, long as you know I’m serious.” There’s only one way to take it, as a threat, and Coover in effect accomplishes the opposite of what he says: someone serious doesn’t signal their intentions through something as strident and dumb as a dead rat. Someone cool doesn’t don’t need something as obvious or ugly, and Raylan has seen the general class of behavior before: “You’re telling me you’re a mean son of a bitch [. . .] You know how many wanted felons have given me that look? I say a thousand I’m low. Some turn ugly as I snap on the cuffs; they’re too late. Some others, I swear, even try to draw down on me. All I’m asking, how’d you come to take Angel’s kidneys?” He doesn’t need to react through further, explicit macho posturing: Raylan has already proven himself through the number of “wanted felons” who’ve “given me that look,” and delivers an implicit threat in the form of cuffs or drawing. Then he moves back to the central matter: kidneys. If he weren’t cool, he’d respond. As it is, he knows enough to wait.

The drama of cool pervades the whole novel, and there’s even a subtle dig at artistic pretension, as when marshal Bill Nichols says of a son, “Tim’s writing his second novel in New York. The first one sold four thousand. I asked him what it’s about, the one he’s writing. He [BREAK] said the subtext is the exposure of artistic pretension.” Which is itself pretentious and silly; start with a text before you focus on subtext. He’s not as cool, in Nichols’ reading, as the guys hunting down felons.

Cool extends to sex, too, and Raylan can decline without seeming prude. When sexy company woman Carol offers it, he says no, and she says, “You’re turning me down? [. . .] I’m surprised.” Raylan isn’t above sex, but he’s not going to reduce his perceived integrity, either, and he says, “You aren’t the only one.” Admitting to his own surprise is part of what’s cool: he doesn’t claim the mantle of dubious purity, which he establishes through admitting surprise. Later, when the sexy, knowing female poker star Jackie finds herself with Raylan, she says, “I might as well tell you now, because I know I will later. I’ve got a serious crush on you. I’m excited by how cool you are. You carry and gun and’ve used it.” She admits she sees Raylan is cool, while simultaneously establishing her own coolness through ditching games and simply saying she has “a serious crush.” The cool gain coolness by recognizing coolness in others; Jackie’s, however, isn’t derived from her looks, or at least not primarily from her looks: it’s derived from her ability to play poker and to talk, and to talk straight: hence the crush (in this respect, even Carol is cool, though not as cool as Jackie, because she approaches sex without obvious pretense or as a quid pro quo arrangement—still, as the company woman, she’s not as cool as freelancer Jackie).

Describing cool is antithetical to having it, but hey—I’m an academic, which means I’ve already forfeited cool to the pursuit of ceaseless questioning. So it goes. Some guys gotta chase felons. Others ask what the chase means and, more generally, what things mean and how they mean them. Raylan might look at me askance, and really look at me askance for using the word “askance,” but it’s what I do: notice. Here, I’m noticing what Leonard does, and I’ve been thinking about writing an academic article about Leonard’s dramatization of cool, which his characters so often use to establish a firm yet shifting landscape of values distinct to the peculiar world of hustlers and players write about so effectively. Most writers try to be cool and in the process fail; Leonard, through trying by not trying, succeeds. Establishing this idea textually is part of the challenge in writing the paper, because it requires a finely honed theory of mind and theory of cool, but I think I’m cool enough to recognize cool, even if I’m not quite cool enough to be it.

The meanest thing I've ever said

Someone asked, and I thought about it for a while: what makes a comment really mean? Context counts: strangers can say cruel stuff that should roll off, because you can’t take everything said by a random asshole seriously—especially on the Internet. Accuracy should count too: people who say mean but obviously false things can be laughed off, so mean things probably need to have enough truth to sting; they could be untrue but the sort of thing you’re worried about being true. Especially from people who know you well. Power dynamics might count too: a nasty comment from a boss or advisor might count for more than one from a peer.

With those parameters in mind, when I was an undergrad I was hanging out a party and this girl who was, uh, not conventionally attractive, began doing a mock strip-tease (I think / hope it was “mock,” anyway). One or two guys offered her dollar bills, and then she came over to me, and I said, extremely loudly, that I’d only pay her to keep her clothes on. The other guys laughed, but she looked like I’d just murdered her puppy.

I was mostly being funny. But women are used to being pursued and having sexual power over men; when they don’t, and when they have their lack of sexual power pointed directly observed, they become extremely upset in a way that I suspect most guys are used to (this is part of Norah Vincent’s point in the fourth chapter of Self-Made Man). This was around the same time I realized that being inured to a woman’s attractiveness yields the paradoxical-seeming result of being more successful with women. And I was realizing how many women are susceptible to status plays in sexual marketplace value, especially if they’re worried that theirs is low. An astonishing large number are. The mean thing is using this kind of status play on someone who isn’t conventionally attractive.

The meanest thing I’ve ever said

Someone asked, and I thought about it for a while: what makes a comment really mean? Context counts: strangers can say cruel stuff that should roll off, because you can’t take everything said by a random asshole seriously—especially on the Internet. Accuracy should count too: people who say mean but obviously false things can be laughed off, so mean things probably need to have enough truth to sting; they could be untrue but the sort of thing you’re worried about being true. Especially from people who know you well. Power dynamics might count too: a nasty comment from a boss or advisor might count for more than one from a peer.

With those parameters in mind, when I was an undergrad I was hanging out a party and this girl who was, uh, not conventionally attractive, began doing a mock strip-tease (I think / hope it was “mock,” anyway). One or two guys offered her dollar bills, and then she came over to me, and I said, extremely loudly, that I’d only pay her to keep her clothes on. The other guys laughed, but she looked like I’d just murdered her puppy.

I was mostly being funny. But women are used to being pursued and having sexual power over men; when they don’t, and when they have their lack of sexual power pointed directly observed, they become extremely upset in a way that I suspect most guys are used to (this is part of Norah Vincent’s point in the fourth chapter of Self-Made Man). This was around the same time I realized that being inured to a woman’s attractiveness yields the paradoxical-seeming result of being more successful with women. And I was realizing how many women are susceptible to status plays in sexual marketplace value, especially if they’re worried that theirs is low. An astonishing large number are. The mean thing is using this kind of status play on someone who isn’t conventionally attractive.

Why I write fewer book reviews

When I started writing this blog I mainly wrote book reviews. Now, as a couple readers have pointed out, I don’t write nearly as many. Why?

1) I know a lot more now than I did then and have lived, read, and synthesized enough that I can combine lots of distinct things into unique stories that share non-obvious thins about the world. When I started, I couldn’t do that. Now my skills have broadened substantially, and, as a result, I write on different topics.

2) For many writers, reviewing books for a couple years is extremely useful because it introduces a wide array of narratives, styles, and so forth, forcing you to develop, express, and justify your opinions if you’re going to write anything worthwhile. Few other environments force you to do this; in academia, the books you’re assigned are already supposed to be “great,” so you’re not asked to say if they’re crap—even though many of the assigned books in school are crap, you’re not supposed to say so. After going through dozens or hundreds of books and explaining why you think they’re good and bad and in between, you should end up developing at least a moderately coherent philosophy of what you like, why you like it, and, ideally, how you should implement it. You shouldn’t let that philosophy become a set of blinders, but it does help to think systematically about tastes and preferences and so forth.

You might not be saying much about the books you’re reviewing, but you are saying a lot about what you’ve come to think about books.

3) No one cares about book reviews. If people in the aggregate did care about book reviews, virtually every newspaper in the country wouldn’t have shuttered what book review section it once had. What a limited number of people do want to know is what books they should read and, to a lesser extent, why. Having established, I’d like to imagine, some level of credibility by going through 2), above, I think I’m better able to do this now than I was when I started, and without necessarily dissecting every aspect of every book.

It’s also very hard and time consuming to write a great review, at least for me.

Lev Grossman also points out a supply / demand issue in an interview:

There was a time not long ago when opinions about books were a scarce commodity. Now we have an extreme surplus of opinions about books, and it’s very easy to obtain them. So if you’re in the business of supplying opinions about books, you need to get into a slightly different business. Being a critic becomes much more about supplying context for books, talking about new ways of reading, sharing ways in which it can be a rich experience.

He’s right, and his economic perspective is useful: when something is plentiful, easy to produce, and thus cheap, we should do something else. And I’m doing more of the “something else,” using as my model writers like Derek Sivers and Paul Graham.

To return to Grossman’s point, we might also treat what we’re doing differently. Clay Shirky says in Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

Scarcity is easier to deal with than abundance, because when something becomes scarce, we simply think it more valuable than it was before, a conceptually easy change. Abundance is different: its advent means we can start treating previously valuable things as if they were cheap enough to waste, which is to say cheap enough to experiment with. Because abundance can remove the trade-offs we’re used to, it can be disorienting to people who’ve grown up with scarcity. When a resource is scarce, the people who manage it often regard it as valuable in itself, without stopping to consider how much of the value is tied to its scarcity.

Lots of people are writing lots of reviews, some of them good (I like to think some of mine are good) but most not. Most are just impressionistic or empty or garbage. By now, opinions are plentiful, which means we should probably shift towards greater understanding and knowledge production instead of raw opinion. That’s what I’m doing in point 1). I’m no longer convinced that book reviews are automatically to be regarded “as valuable in [themselves],” as they might’ve been when it was quite hard to get ahold of books and opinions about those books. Today, for any given book, you can type its name into Google and find dozens or hundreds of reviews. This might make pointing out lesser known but good books useful—which I did with Never the Face: A Story of Desire—and the New York Review of Books is doing on a mass scale with its publishing imprint. Granted, I’ve found few books in that series I’ve really liked aside from The Dud Avocado, but I pay attention to the books published by it.

4) It’s useful to keep When To Ignore Criticism (and How to Get People to Take Your Critique Seriously) by John Scalzi in mind; he says critics tend to have four major functions: consumer reporting, exegesis, instruction, and polemic (details at his site). The first is useful but easily found across the web, and it’s also of less and less use to me because deciding what’s “worth it” is so personal, like style. My tastes these days are much more refined and specific than they were, say, 10 years ago (and I suspect they’ll be more refined still in 10 years). The second is basically what academic articles do, and I’d rather do that for money, however indirectly. The third is still of interest to me, and I do it sometimes, especially with bad reviews. The fourth is a toss-up.

When I started, I mostly wanted to do one and two. Now I’m not that convinced they’re important. In addition, books that I really love and really think are worth reading don’t come along all that frequently; maybe I should make a list of them at the top. Every week, there’s an issue of the New York Times Book Review with a book on the cover, but that doesn’t mean every week brings a fabulous book very much much worth reading by a large number of people. Having been fooled by cover stories a couple of times (Angelology being the most salient example), I’m much warier of them now.

Unfortunately, academic writing is also usually less fun, less intelligent, more windy, and duller than writing on the Internet. Anything is accomplishes rhetorically or intellectually is usually done through a film of muck thrown on by the culture of academic publishing, peer reviewers, and journal editors. There’s a very good reason no one outside of academia reads academic literary criticism, although I hadn’t appreciated why until I began to read it.

5) Professionalization. To spend the time and energy writing the great review for this blog, I necessarily have to give up time that I would otherwise spend writing stuff for grad school. There could conceivably be tangible financial rewards from publishing literary criticism, however abstruse or little read. There are not such rewards in blogging, at least given academia’s current structural equilibrium.

(If you’re going to argue that this equilibrium is bad and the game is dumb, that’s a fine thing to do, but it’s also the subject for another day.)

6) People, including me, care more about books than book reviews. I’m better off spending more time writing fiction and less time writing about fiction. So I do that, even if the labors are not yet evident. A book might, conceivably, be important and read for a long period of time. Book reviews, on the other hand, seldom are. So I want to work toward the more important activity; instead of telling you what I think is good, I’d rather just do it.

Here’s T.C. Boyle o:

What I’d like to see more of are the sort of wide-ranging and penetrating overviews of a given writer’s work by writers and thinkers who are the equals of those they presume to analyze. This happens rarely. Why? Well, what’s in it for the critic? Is he/she going to be paid? By whom? Harper’s runs in-depth book essays, as does the New York Review of Books and other outlets. Fine and dandy. There would be more if there were more of an audience. But there isn’t.

For a long time, I did it free, though perhaps not at the level Boyle would desire; now I don’t, per the professionalization issue.

7) A great deal of art and art criticism does, in the end, reduce to taste, and the opinions and analyses of critics are basically votes that, over time, accumulate and lift some few works out of history’s ocean. But I’m not sure that book reviews are the optimal means of performing that work: better to do it by alluding to older work in newer work, or integrating ideas into more considered essays, or otherwise use artistic work in some larger synthesis.

8) In Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Norrell is having a debate with two toadies and says, “I really have no desire to write reviews of other people’s books. Modern publications upon magic are the most pernicious things in the world, full of misinformation and wrong opinions.” Lascelles, who has become a kind of self-appointed, high-status servant, says:

[I]t is precisely by passing judgements upon other people’s work and pointing out their errors that readers can be made to understand your opinions better. It is the easiest thing in the world to turn a review to one’s own ends. One only need mention the book once or twice and for the rest of the article one may develop one’s theme just as one chuses. It is, I assure you, what every body else does.

And because everybody else does it, we should do it too. Modern publications about literature probably feel the same as Norrell’s view of 1807 publications of magic, because it’s hard to tell what constitutes true information and right opinions in literature—making it seem that everyone else’s writing is “full of misinformation and wrong opinions.” (Norrell, of course, things he can right this, and in the context of the novel he may be right.) Besides, even if we are confronted by facts we don’t agree with, we tend to ignore them:

Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite.

Opinions are probably much the same, which explains how we get to where we are. Opinions about books even more so, which is how Lev Grossman came to say what he said above.

Anyway, Norrell realizes that book reviewing is often a waste of time, and Lascelles likes book reviewing not because of its intrinsic merit but because he thinks of it as high status (which it might’ve been in 1807). In 2011 or 2012, reviewing books might still be a waste of time and is a much lower status activity, so that even the Lascelles of the world–who I’ve met—are unlikely to be drawn to it.

As I said above, the best review of a book isn’t a review of it, but another book that speaks back to it, or incorporates its ideas, or disagrees with it, or uses it as a starting point. Which isn’t a book review at all, of course: It’s something more special, and more rare. So I’m more interested now in doing that kind of review, like Norrell is interested in doing magic instead of writing about other people’s opinions of doing magic, rather than writing about whether a book is worth reading or not. I’ll still do that to some extent, but I’ve been drifting away for some time and am likely to do so further. If Lev Grossman is remembered beyond his lifetime, I doubt it will be for his criticism, however worthy it might be: he’ll be remembered for The Magicians and his other literary work. I’d like to follow his example.

EDIT: Here’s Henry Bech in The Complete Henry Bech:

That a negative review might be a fallible verdict, delivered in haste, against a deadline, for a few dollars, by a writer with problems and limitations of his own was a reasonable and weaseling supposition he could no longer, in the dignity of his years, entertain.

Yet this is the supposition artists need to entertain; critics’ opinions are as cacophonous and random as a jungle, and listening to them is hard, and, the writers who react most vituperatively to critics are probably doing so because they fear the critic or critics might be right.

Updike is also writing close to home here: the better known the writer, the more critics he’s naturally going to attract. So the volume of critical attacks might also be linked to success.

Acceptable and unacceptable status in America

See this fascinating and largely accurate list of what kinds of inequality are acceptable and what kinds aren’t, by David Brooks; note especially:

Status inequality is acceptable for college teachers. Universities exist within a finely gradated status structure, with certain schools like Brown clearly more elite than other schools. University departments are carefully ranked and compete for superiority.

Status inequality is unacceptable for high school teachers. Teachers at this level strongly resist being ranked. It would be loathsome to have one’s department competing with other departments in nearby schools.

And people involved in each system probably believe in both without questioning why they do or how they came to believe what they believe.

Many English and humanities grad students and professors seem to find differences in income inequality abhorrent and believe they are probably the result of unequal access to resources or education but also believe differences in status and work quality in their own fields largely the result of merit, hard work, tenacity, and determination. When they get lousy papers from students, relatively few seem to attribute lousy papers to various kinds of inequality of opportunity and many attribute them to laziness, poor time management, and so forth.

In addition, academics, at least of the humanities varieties, don’t like flashy cards but do like flashy CVs. So the status of certain activities are different. Teachers appear to dislike both and seem to like markers of perceived equality, even though anyone who’s been through school is doubtlessly aware that not all teachers are equally skilled or passionate.

Also, on a personal note, I am a propagating this kind of inequality:

Cupcake inequality is on the way up. People will stand for hours outside of gourmet cupcake stores even though there are other adequate cupcakes on offer with no waiting at nearby Safeways.

The cupcakes at Magnolia Bakery in NYC and LA or Cupcake Royale in Seattle are so much better than most cupcakes that the difference astonishes. Yet part of my perception might be because they’re very hard for me, in Tucson, to find and acquire. (There is a place called Red Velvet that also sells expensive cupcakes, but they’re too dense and have the wrong mouthfeel.) PinkBerry used to be feel special, but now there’s going to be one a few miles from me, which means I’m much less likely to go out of my way to get one when I’m in LA. So maybe I’m actually consuming status as much as I’m consuming sugary confections. Now PinkBerry is opening at the University of Arizona, which means it won’t be a treat but something I walk past routinely.

I would be interested in seeing other lists of this kind and for other countries.

Brooks ends: “Dear visitor, we are a democratic, egalitarian people who spend our days desperately trying to climb over each other. Have a nice stay.” We may also believe that equality of opportunity doesn’t imply equality of results, although that itself might be acceptable to believe while it might not be acceptable to believe in many circles that we have equality of opportunity.

It is acceptable to believe that many kinds of inequality affect women and few or none do men, which Roy Baumeister writes about extensively in Is There Anything Good About Men?: How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men. For most people, it is also acceptable to have a very high number of sex partners as long as you don’t brag too publicly about it; rare, brash exceptions generate hilarity, as in Tucker Max or Chelsea Handler.

More on fiction versus nonfiction

Most of the books I’ve been wanting to write about and not getting around to are nonfiction, and I’m not sure why this is. It might be because both good and bad nonfiction are easier to write about than good fiction. Good fiction demands attention and time, which are in chronically short supply for me and virtually everyone else. So I foolishly put off writing about good fiction and instead spread time among lesser though still interesting vessels (this post comes as a followup to Nonfiction, fiction, and the perceived quality race, which got started from the question, “The quality of fiction seems to be decreasing relative to the quality of non-fiction, or am I just biased against active fiction writers vs. dead ones?”).

I expend a lot of my time thinking about good fiction in the context of making my own novel writing better, instead of writing about what makes good fiction good on this forum. So even though I think a lot about good novels, I write about them in a different context. For instance, the last novel I finished stole from Alain de Botton’s On Love and Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem; I’ve written about both books here, but not nearly to the proportion I’ve been thinking about. Alas: the novel I wrote got the most encouraging rejections, many along the lines of “I like it but can’t sell it.” If it had sold and eventually been published, I think it would be much easier for me to write about novels I care deeply about.

Even so, there are a bunch of novels—a couple by Michel Houellebecq, Elmore Leonard’s latest, Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist, more about Robertson Davies—I mean to write about, but but they’re outnumbered by nonfiction. This might seem strange, coming from a person in English graduate school, where we study nonfiction all the time, and when we study fiction, it’s often more like studying nonfiction than we care to admit.

I also simply don’t read as much fiction as I used to; I wonder if fiction is most useful to the young (who are trying to figure out who they are and how the social world works) and the old (who are trying to figure out what this crazy thing they just did actually means). A lot of people in the middle don’t appear to derive as much immediate benefit from reading fiction, although I have no data on this idea.

Finally, I can often read nonfiction much faster than fiction. This isn’t a change, but it is true: nonfiction often telegraphs where it’s going, which makes skipping large sections easier. Being able to read faster also indicates that too many books are too long, as Cowen has argued in various places, but it nonetheless means I very seldom have to invest as much in deep, close reading. I wish more nonfiction books rose to the level of deep, close reading, but few do, relative to good fiction.

What people want and what they are: religious edition

Shankar Vedantam’s “Why do Americans claim to be more religious than they are?” dovetails with my theory of why so much political discourse is so unsatisfying: a lot of it is actually about signaling values:

Beyond the polls, social scientists have conducted more rigorous analyses of religious behavior. Rather than ask people how often they attend church, the better studies measure what people actually do. The results are surprising. Americans are hardly more religious than people living in other industrialized countries. Yet they consistently—and more or less uniquely—want others to believe they are more religious than they really are.

Religion in America seems tied up with questions of identity in ways that are not the case in other industrialized countries. When you ask Americans about their religious beliefs, it’s like asking them whether they are good people, or asking whether they are patriots. They’ll say yes, even if they cheated on their taxes, bilked Medicare for unnecessary services, and evaded the draft. Asking people how often they attend church elicits answers about their identity—who people think they are or feel they ought to be, rather than what they actually believe and do.

And if you ask Americans about their sexual habits, you also find that straight women consistently report fewer partners than men; the most fascinating study on this subject, “Truth and Consequences: Using the Bogus Pipeline to Examine Sex Differences in Self-Reported Sexuality,” finds that women who believe their answers about sexual histories will be observed report the fewest partners, while those who believe they are hooked up a lie-detector (which actually does nothing) report the most—a number that puts them on par with the men in the study. The men’s answers do not change much. In both the case of religion and sexuality, “questions of identity” may be at stake. In the case of religion, as I note above, I suspect that religion becomes closer to a political question for many people, and political questions often aren’t really about the costs or benefits or desirability of the policy at hand. They’re about what the person espousing an opinion believes about themselves.

Or, as Julian Sanchez puts it, “a lot of our current politics has less to do with actual policy disagreements than with resolving status anxieties.” I think his overall post is right, but I suspect that people pick their preferred policies (beyond patriotism, which is his example) to signal what they’re really like or want people to believe they’re really like.

Take my favorite example, gun control: the pro-gun types want other to think of them as capable, fierce, tough, and independent. And who isn’t in favor of those things? The anti-gun types want others to think of them as community-oriented, valuing health and welfare, and caring. And who isn’t in favor of those things?

You could extend this to other fields too (tax cuts, health care, whatever the issue du jour is), and they don’t always map to a neat left/right axis. Anyone can have an opinion that signals values on complex political topics in a way they can’t about, say, theoretical physics, mostly because complex political topics often don’t have correct answers. So they can be easily used to signal values that are often divorced from whatever real conditions on the ground look like. Almost no one uses their opinions on vector calculus to signify what they most believe.

Richard Feynman noted this tendency in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!. A princess says to Feynman that “[. . .] nobody knows anything about [physics], so I guess we can’t talk about it.” He replies: “On the contrary [. . .] It’s because somebody knows something about it that we can’t talk about physics. It’s the things that nobody knows anything about that we can discuss. We can talk about the weather; we can talk about social problems; we can talk about psychology; we can talk about international finance—gold transfers we can’t talk about, because those are understood—so it’s the subjects that nobody knows anything about that we can all talk about!”

That was the end of his discussion with the princess. But I think Feynman is on to something, and that something has to do with how people use political issues as means to show their values. Since very few people will change their fundamental values over a short period of time (if they ever will), arguing with most people about Republicans and Democrats (or whatever) is usually not about policy, but about belief.

Since picking up on this idea, I’ve become far less interested in political arguments, which are often cover for values arguments, and it’s very hard to change people’s fundamental values. Unless people acknowledge that political and religious debates are often about values, instead of the surface phenomena being discussed, you won’t get good conversation. This is probably one reason why so much political discourse is so unsatisfying: no one will even acknowledge what it’s actually about!

And maybe Americans adopted religious status, as Vedantam has it, because we don’t have as many inborn status markers, as Andrew Potter notes in The Authenticity Hoax:

When most people think of status, they think of the rigid class structures of old Europe. In contrast, North America is considered to be a relatively classless society. Sure, we have various forms of inequality, income being the most obvious and socially pernicious, but we have no entrenched class structure, no aristocracy that enjoys its privileges explicitly by virtue of birth, not merit. Nevertheless, urban North Americans live in what is probably the most status-conscious culture on the face of the Earth. The reason we don’t recognized this fact is that most of us are stuck in a model derived from the old aristo/bourgeois/prole hierarchy, where status is linear and vertical, a ladder on which one may (or may not, depending on the status markers that are in play) be able to move either up or down.

Now, in contrast, Potter sees that hierarchy as “obsolete,” since we now focus more on being “cool” or alternative, not driven solely by money, and known more for what we like than what we have. Forms of status change, but status doesn’t. The “rigid class structures of old Europe” might not apply, but the somewhat rigid ideals of religion might still, even if we’re still shifting towards consumption and opinions as status markers. Religion often functions basically as an opinion—or an “identity.” And people will not readily alter their identity—except for me, of course, because my identity is built around being able to alter my identity.

I’m still not sure why people glom onto politics and religion to signal their identities, but I think Feynman is on the right track: we like things that are large and complex enough that only a very small number of experts can really afford to even understand the domain but that nonetheless lend themselves to sloganeering and the like.

Signaling, status, blogging, academia, and ideas

Jeff Ely’s Cheap Talk has one of those mandatory “Why I Blog” posts, but it’s unusually good and also increasingly describes my own feeling toward the genre. Jeff says:

There is a painful non-convexity in academic research. Only really good ideas are worth pursuing but it takes a lot of investment to find out whether any given idea is going to be really good. Usually you spend a lot of time doing some preliminary thinking just to prove to yourself that this idea is not good enough to turn into a full-fledged paper.

He’s right, but it’s hard to say which of the 100 preliminary ideas one might have over a couple of months “are worth pursuing.” Usually the answer is, “not very many.” So writing blog posts becomes a way of exploring those ideas without committing to attempting to write a full paper.

But to me, the other important part is that blogs often fill in my preliminary thinking, especially in subjects outside my field. I’m starting my third year of grad school in English lit at the University of Arizona and may write my dissertation about signaling and status in novels. My interest in the issue arose partially because of Robin Hanson’s relentless focus on signaling in Overcoming Bias, which got me thinking about how this subject works now.

The “big paper” I’m working on deals with academic novels like Richard Russo’s Straight Man and Francine Prose’s Blue Angel (which I’ve written about in a preliminary fashion—for Straight Man, a very preliminary fashion). Status issues are omnipresent in academia, as every academic knows, and as a result one can trace my reading of Overcoming Bias to my attention to status to my attention to theoretical and practical aspects of status in these books (there’s some other stuff going on here too, like an interest in evolutionary biology that predates reading Overcoming Bias, but I’ll leave that out for now).

Others have contributed too: I think I learned about Codes of the Underworld from an econ blog. It offers an obvious way to help interpret novels like those by Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, and other crime / caper writers who deal with characters who need to convincingly signal to others that they’re available for crime but also need not to be caught by police, and so forth.

In the meantime, from what I can discern from following some journals on the novel and American lit, virtually no English professors I’ve found are using these kinds of methods. They’re mostly wrapped up in the standard forms of English criticism, literary theory, and debate. Those forms are very good, of course, but I’d like to go in other directions as well, and one way I’ve learned about alternative directions is through reading blogs. To my knowledge no one else has developed a complete theory of how signaling and status work in fiction, even though you could call novels long prose works in which characters signal their status to other characters, themselves, and the reader.

So I’m working on that. I’ve got some leads, like William Flesch’s Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction and Jonathan Gottschall’s Literature, Science, and a New Humanities, but the field looks mostly open at the moment. Part of the reason I’ve been able to conceptualize the field is because I’ve started many threads through this blog and frequently read the blogs of others. If Steven Berlin Johnson is right about where good ideas come from, then I’ve been doing the right kinds of things without consciously realizing it until now. And I only have thanks to Jeff Ely’s Cheap Talk—it took a blog to create the nascent idea about why blogging is valuable, how different fields contribute to my own major interests, and how ideas form.

Even nuns work towards status: an example from Danielle Trussoni’s Angelology

In recent years Evangeline had been assigned to work in the St. Rose library as assistant to her prayer partner, Sister Philomena. It was an unglamorous position to be sure, not at all as high-profile as working in the Mission Office or assisting in Recruitment, and it had none of the rewards of charity work. As if to emphasize the lowly nature of the position, Evangeline’s office was located in the most decrepit part of the convent, a drafty section of the first floor down the hall from the library itself, with leaky pipes and Civil War-era windows, a combination that led to dampness, mold, and an abundance of head colds each winter.

That’s from page nine of Angelology (which isn’t very good overall). Even nuns have hierarchies, which might not involve money, but they nonetheless involve what the organization is designed to optimize—in this case, conspicuous charitability. But Evangeline doesn’t have that option: she has an “unglamorous position” that she appears to know is unglamorous, and the position doesn’t even have “the rewards of charity work,” which presumably include the recognition on the part of those being helped that you are helping them, or, if those being helped feel resentful or ashamed, the sense that one is able to rise above the circumstances. But books aren’t people and can’t provide the recognition that people can.

And the office itself is “located in the most decrepit part of the convent,” yet Evangeline doesn’t gain recognition from other nuns for the hardship that entails—including “dampness” and “mold,” although the “abundance of head colds” is a mistake on the part of either Evangeline, through free indirect speech, or Trussoni, since colds come from viruses, not from temperature drops. Still, the overall effect of privation without the recognition that would make up for the privation is apparent, as is the fact that money isn’t the primary mover of status in the nuns’ economy or society: it’s something else, something more vital to the organization’s purpose.

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