Life: The writer edition

“Isabella, if you really want to devote yourself to writing, or at least to writing something others will read, you’re going to have to get used to sometimes being ignored, insulted, and despised and to almost always being considered with indifference. It’s an occupational hazard.”

—Daivd Martín in Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Angel’s Game

Links: Libraries, writers, “Turned Down For What?”, parody, masculinity, feminism, and more

* “How to Keep A Library Of (Physical) Books;” I am going to write a post about the new bookshelves.

* Median incomes for writers, which in Britain “last year was just £11,000.” Interestingly, almost everyone I know has overestimated the amount of money I’ve made from Asking Anna.

* “Turned Down for What?, explained, which even I thought obvious, perhaps thanks to all that literary training.

* “How will we know if the ACA is working?” Or: Questions that are rarely asked.

* “Platform Monopolies:”

The author of the NY Times piece tells the story of Vincent Zandri, an author of mystery and suspense novels, who has moved all of his publishing activities over to Amazon’s platform and is enjoying the benefits of doing that.

This could easily have been the story of the journalist who moves her writing from The Wall Street Journal to her own blog, or the story of the filmmaker who moves from the Hollywood studio system to Kickstarter and VHX. It could be the story of the band that leaves their record label and does direct deals with SoundCloud and Spotify. It could be the story of the yellow cab driver who moves his driving business to Uber or Sidecar.

The story of Vincent Zandri is the story of our times.

* Sam Altman on Net Neutrality.

* “How To Make A Hit Pop Song, Pt. 1,” or “You look sexy when you do that.” Amazingly accurate.

* “A critique of Ian Ironwood’s The Manosphere: A New Hope For Masculinity,” which also shows the positive potential of often-stupid Amazon reviews. It is missing direct quotes from the book, however.

* Related to the above, “Not Every Man Can Handle A Beautiful Woman;” as a reminder, linking does not imply agreement or endorsement. Also relevant: “Men are where women were 30 years ago,” which is true but not in the way the writer imagines.

Humanities, writers, money, and sex, which could all be seen as the same subject

* Stop defending the humanities.

* What is Dark Matter?

* “How much my novel cost me: Writing my first book got me into debt. To finish the next one, I had to become solvent,” in which the author learns many things that seem like they ought to be obvious and also mis-prioritizes things in a way that most people grow out of by 30.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA* “Q&A: The Duke Freshman Porn Star,” which is interesting and yet I 1) can’t help by marvel that anyone today thinks they can appear in porn and, given the contemporary appetite for it, not eventually be recognized and 2) think that anyone going to a school costing more than $50,000 a year ought to expect it to be filled with rich kids. In addition, I don’t see the appeal of schools like Duke or USC; yes, they have big sports teams, but the basic experience and structure is similar to that of most public schools costing half to a quarter as much.

* “Goodbye Academia,” which is part of a growing genre and I agree with this comment: “I feel liberated and happy, and this is a very bad sign for the future of life sciences in the United States.”

* “What good are children?

* “The Scary New Evidence on BPA-Free Plastics,” probably overwrought but interesting nonetheless.

* Why Google Fiber will never come to Seattle; this is both important and depressing.

* “From bestseller to bust: is this the end of an author’s life? The credit crunch and the internet are making writing as a career harder than it has been for a generation.” Except I’m not sure I’d call it “harder;” I’d call it “different.” Weirdly, neither “self-publishing” nor “Amazon” are explicitly mentioned.

The number and percentage of writers who have ever been able to make a full-time, middle-class living at writing novels is small and has always been small. That’s one reason so many get gigs at MFA programs: for all but the most popular writers, there’s more money in teaching writing than writing.

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work — Mason Currey

Daily Rituals is charming, and almost every entry feels like the right length; if anything, I would have liked each to be slightly longer, perhaps because the quirks and weirdnesses of the famous artists described provide justification for the quirks and weirdnesses of non-famous artists.

daily_ritualsThe answer to the title is “divergently,” but with some patterns. Many like walks, routines, and stimulants. Exasperation with TV is common, and even the non-writer artists tend to read. Many artists also exasperated lovers and spouses through their compulsions and tics. Given the low remunerative value of art and the low probability of success through recognition, being an artist is a compulsion for many of those described within—Currey even uses the word in his description of Patricia Highsmith: “Writing was less a source of pleasure for her than a compulsion, without which she was miserable.” Daily Rituals may be best read by anyone romantically entangled with or biologically related to artists, as well as any artists who want to justify their own weird predilections. I love it when people explain myself to me.

Currey wants to answer questions like, “are comfort and creativity incompatible, or is the opposite true: Is finding a basic level of daily comfort a prerequisite for sustained creative work?” But they don’t have answers, because artists work in all sorts of places in all sorts of ways. It’s like asking about alcoholics: people who really want to drink will drink in elegant bars like Pouring Ribbons or chug Natty Lites in a dark Chinatown alley. Most might prefer the former to the latter but will settle for the latter when necessary. Currey also writes:

“The book’s title is Daily Rituals, but my focus in writing it was really people’s routines. The word connotes ordinariness and even a lack of thought; to follow a routine is to be on autopilot. But one’s daily routine is also a choice, or a whole series of choices.

Most of the artists in here establish routines whenever they can, much like the writers in Writers on Writing. The number of people who need routine, who need defaults, speaks to its utility, among artists or anyone trying to accomplish a task with an artist’s dedication (like entrepreneurs, who might be the artists of the modern age). Distraction might also be handier than ever, giving rise to essays like “Disconnection Distraction:

Some days I’d wake up, get a cup of tea and check the news, then check email, then check the news again, then answer a few emails, then suddenly notice it was almost lunchtime and I hadn’t gotten any real work done. And this started to happen more and more often.

If you get into that habit, you’ll be well-informed on unimportant news and less likely to make the thing that becomes the news. One question you might ask is: “Are you reading or making the news?” Aim for the latter. The former isn’t wrong, exactly, and it’s worth reading a lot, but as a secondary, not a primary, activity. Reading the news on the Internet or checking e-mail are especially dangerous in this regard because they can feel like working though they’re not.

I mentioned the compulsive aspect of art. That reappears again and again. Currey writes of Simone de Beauvoir that “when she took her annual two- or three-month vacations, she found herself growing bored and uncomfortable after a few weeks away from her work.” Long, pointless idleness is is boring, like binging on TV, but that’s because most artists seem to like what they do, or like it like an addict likes. Voltaire’s secretary “estimated that, all told, they worked eighteen to twenty hours a day. for Voltaire, it was a perfect arrangement. ‘I love the cell,’ he wrote.”

Such stories may be why, in Currey’s words, “Looking at the achievements of past greats is alternately inspiring and utterly discouraging.” The line made me laugh because of the juxtaposition of opposites, but also because he’s expressing a fundamental truth: if you look at the work as work, it can be “discouraging,” since so many artists do so much of it, but if you look at it as an extended form of play, it should be “encouraging.” It should also be “encouraging” because you can do it too—if you want to. Which means the limiting factor between you and art is you—which oscillates back to discouragement.

Still, Daily Rituals is at its heart a manual for dealing with and/or understanding someone with an artistic disposition, which might be described as imagination and execution. A surprisingly large number of people seem to imagine that being an artist is all about the “imagination” part and not much at all about the execution part; wandering around coffeeshops, bars, and parties, doffing a funny hat, and making enigmatic pronouncements is not the majority of what being an artist, broadly defined, is about. It’s about results, and Daily Rituals is about getting them and enabling the conditions necessary to get them. “Necessary” is the key word: a condition may be necessary but not sufficient, and it’s possible to treat a daily ritual as an empty ritual with no real output.

There are also a fairly wide range of ways to succeed. Some artists do spend a lot of time drunk or at parties. At least one prefers to work hungover, which would make me crazy. The artists appear approximately split between those who like noise and those who prefer quiet. I’m among the latter and can barely believe that anyone really gets anything done in noisy coffeeshops, tapping on laptops, but enough successful writers have testified to the contrary that I’m forced to believe them. The fundamental idea remains, however, that artists are artists because of their output. That’s it.

Some passages in Daily Rituals are funny; you wouldn’t expect this book to be a comedy and yet I laughed frequently. Two examples:

[John Cheever] had what appears to have been an unusually robust sex drive (the actress Hope Lange, who had a brief affair with Cheever, said that he was ‘the horniest man [she] ever met’) combined with frequent bouts of impotence, probably brought on by his alcoholism but no doubt made worse by his sexual guilt and a frequently rocky marriage. All of this was distracting from his work, especially since Cheever placed a high value on the salutary effects of erotic release. He thought that his constitution required at least ‘two or three orgasms a week’ and he believed that sexual stimulation improved his concentration and even his eyesight: ‘With a stiff prick I can read the small print in prayer books but with a limp prick I can barely read newspaper headlines.’

or:

The German poet, historian, philosopher, and playwright [Friedrich Schiller] kept a drawer full of rotting apples in his workroom; he said that he needed their decaying smell in order to feel the urge to write.

The sex plot: a discussion for novelists and readers

I wrote to a friend:

I wonder about the extent to which novels in general are continuing to have trouble with sexual liberalization; so many major novels in the canon deal with that topic, but it’s much harder to use those tropes in a permissive age.

He replied: “This intrigues me, but I’m not sure what you mean. Can you elaborate?”

Yes!

The novel as a genre has tended to thrive on sexual repression, and has used steadily increasing sexual liberation as fuel for plots. Leslie Fiedler wrote about this in Love and Death in the American Novel, and Tony Tanner wrote about it in Adultery and the Novel. In taking courses about the novel as a genre, I was struck by how many times I heard or read phrases like, “X pushed the limits of the sexual mores of his / her day,” where X is any number of writers ranging from Richardson to Flaubert to Dreiser to Roth and Updike. (Weirdly, however, the Marquis de Sade has always been lurking beneath the history of the novel as a genre, mostly unacknowledged and often hidden from the reading public).

But working against sexual repression as such doesn’t really work so well as a plot device anymore because the barriers are mostly down. If you’re over age 18 today, you can more or less do whoever you want as long as they’re not under 18. This may be why professor-student plots are somewhat popular: it’s one of the few forbidden-but-plausible-and-not-gross relationships left.

There are only so many sexual lines one can cross, and too many books like 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed, to make the mere crossing of the few lines left all that interesting. When an entire society is set up to repress, re-channel, and control sexuality, a novel like Lady Chatterley’s Lover is shocking. In our society, it’s not. Today, if you want it, go get it—just don’t make promises you can’t keep. It’s not hard to live a life of constant sexual novelty and most parts of society won’t really censure you, provided that you don’t marry someone else, and even then lots of people divorce.

It’s much harder to get wring major consequences from affairs and what not. Don’t want to cheat? Don’t get married. It’s not impossible to use sex and romance plots—my to-be-self-published novel, Asking Anna, is a comedy about such subjects—to get material from these fields, but it’s a greater challenge than it used to be, and hard if not impossible to shock. A novel with the sexual politics of Stranger in a Strange Land wouldn’t have the same shock-value today then it did when it was published, though actually now that I think about it I still think it would raise a few eyebrows.

Some genres, like science fiction, don’t rely on sex plots as much, but even in SF sex plots are still often present. The growth of murder mysteries and thrillers may also represent some veering from sex plots, since premature death is still a big deal and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

On a separate but related note, it also seems that many “literary” writers borrow SF-ish ideas. Think of Ian McEwan’s Solar. Not a great novel, but I liked a lot of what McEwan was doing by meshing discovery, politics, social ideas, environmentalism, science, and a not-very-nice character into one bunch. It’s McEwan, so the writing is good on a sentence-by-sentence level. The technical descriptions are also interesting and too uncommon in novels. I like the idea of writing about intellectual, social, technical, or business discovery as a motive. It’s underutilized as a driver of plot.

One section of Paul Graham’s essay “The Word ‘Hacker’” addresses this point and continues to have a profound impact on me:

Hacking predates computers. When he was working on the Manhattan Project, Richard Feynman used to amuse himself by breaking into safes containing secret documents. This tradition continues today. When we were in grad school, a hacker friend of mine who spent too much time around MIT had his own lock picking kit. (He now runs a hedge fund, a not unrelated enterprise.)

It is sometimes hard to explain to authorities why one would want to do such things. Another friend of mine once got in trouble with the government for breaking into computers. This had only recently been declared a crime, and the FBI found that their usual investigative technique didn’t work. Police investigation apparently begins with a motive. The usual motives are few: drugs, money, sex, revenge. Intellectual curiosity was not one of the motives on the FBI’s list. Indeed, the whole concept seemed foreign to them.

Most novels focus on money, sex, revenge. Why don’t they focus more on intellectual curiosity: perhaps how intellectual curiosity relates to money, sex, revenge, and similar topics? That seems like a fruitful avenue, especially because we might be moving towards a world where many people’s material needs are met, making money less immediately important; though of course many people are still driven by keeping up with the Joneses, in large swaths of the industrialized world we have plenty of money and plenty of stuff.

(A relevant side note about money: Among people interested in “game” and picking up women, it has become a common observation that additional money above the amount needed to buy drinks, dress reasonably well, and live independently doesn’t do much help most guys. A guy making $50,000 a year and a guy making $200,000 a year are mostly on a level playing field, and if the guy making $200,000 has to work 60+ hours a week, he’s at a disadvantage. Personalities and tenacity count far more than incomes, all else being equal. This could be seen as a variant on one of Geoffrey Miller’s points in Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior.)

I don’t see money, sex, or revenge—and motives for revenge usually reduce to money and sex—becoming unimportant as long as humans remain humans and not brains in vats or on chips, but intellectual curiosity and a sense of wonder and discovery should be more emphasized in narrative. I think the tedium of Jonathan Franzen’s novels can in part be explained by the tedium of his characters: if those characters had a greater sense of discovery and possibility, they wouldn’t be so annoying. The other day I was listening to a friend describing single electron chain reactions in photosynthesis and how she misses research and life in the lab. It’s very interesting stuff, and the sort of thing that is rarely really discussed in novels.

But it should be!

Plus, the progression of science, technology, economics, and the attitudes that go along with them have ameliorated a lot of the money-revenge resource-distribution fights that used to define every aspect of human existence, instead of most aspects of human existence. To the extent major societal problems in the future are going to be solved—most obviously involving energy, but certainly involving other topics too—the solutions are going to come from intellectual curiosity and the intellectually curious. Maybe we, collectively, should be thinking about art that cultivates and glorifies those traits, instead of art that cultivates or glorifies simple status domination, or the ability to be cooler than the other guy or girl.

Another Paul Graham quote, from “How To Make Wealth:”

Making wealth is not the only way to get rich. For most of human history it has not even been the most common. Until a few centuries ago, the main sources of wealth were mines, slaves and serfs, land, and cattle, and the only ways to acquire these rapidly were by inheritance, marriage, conquest, or confiscation. Naturally wealth had a bad reputation.

Two things changed. The first was the rule of law. For most of the world’s history, if you did somehow accumulate a fortune, the ruler or his henchmen would find a way to steal it. But in medieval Europe something new happened. A new class of merchants and manufacturers began to collect in towns. Together they were able to withstand the local feudal lord. So for the first time in our history, the bullies stopped stealing the nerds’ lunch money. This was naturally a great incentive, and possibly indeed the main cause of the second big change, industrialization.

A great deal has been written about the causes of the Industrial Revolution. But surely a necessary, if not sufficient, condition was that people who made fortunes be able to enjoy them in peace. One piece of evidence is what happened to countries that tried to return to the old model, like the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent Britain under the labor governments of the 1960s and early 1970s. Take away the incentive of wealth, and technical innovation grinds to a halt.

People still steal to get rich, and even more people make many movies and write many books about stealing, along with efforts to thwart thieves. Making stuff people want is, again, an under-explored avenue. It’s also harder to represent dramatically. The movie The Social Network does this successfully, albeit at the expense of accuracy; most of the important parts of Facebook actually happened in the heads of Zuckerberg and other programmers, not in interpersonal drama.

Still, The Social Network works as a movie, and it does something very different than yet another version of Fast & Furious, which is about sex, power, tribal loyalty, and blowing shit up—like most movies (sample from the link: “Like any reasonable person, I watch the Fast and the Furious film franchise primarily for its insights into moral philosophy and political economy. At a fundamental level, the franchise is about what Harvard philosopher Christine Korsgaard identifies in The Sources of Normativity as the ‘intractable conflicts” that arise from our conflicting practical identities'”). I like Solar despite its flaws in part because the protagonist, Michael, makes his money and gains status by discovering something that may turn out to be essential in solar panels.

Solar and The Social Network don’t deploy straightforward sex / family plots, and that’s refreshing. They’re part of an answer to the question of what happens in a world where you can, if you have sufficient skill or are sufficiently desirable, sleep with anyone who’ll have you? Because that’s the world most people above the age of 18 or 19 find themselves in. Marriage rates are dropping. Arguably the most interesting parts about marriage and children right now are economic: what’s happening with alimony and child support, and how those issues affect behavior and emotions.

Moreover, for the highly sexually experienced—people who’ve had their share of three-ways, sex work, group sex, etc.—the sex plot is going to be dull. Juvenile. If you’ve slept with five people in a week, agonizing over who you’re going to sleep with for the rest of your life isn’t going to seem that important. It’s going to be more important that you find someone who loves you but who also has an sufficient level of adventure compatibility. Arguably a more interesting question is what it takes to be a highly desirable person, which a lot of romance novels appear to be exploring (strangely enough) and how to become that desirable person if you aren’t already. Becoming the sort of person who can get the man / woman / men / women of your dreams is often more interesting than the immediate process of getting him / her / them.

Sex plots need a sense of the sacred attached to sex, along with the dangers of pregnancy that can be ameliorated by IUDs and other forms of birth control. Danger used to generate sacredness. Most people today still don’t want their significant others to sleep with random people, even though many obviously do anyway, but taking away or reducing the risk of pregnancy also reduces the fear and risk of affairs or multiple partners. One reason Vow: A Memoir of Marriage (and Other Affairs) got written is not just because of the affairs Plump and her husband have, but because he knocks up the other woman, or the other woman deliberately gets knocked up by him. Women tend to fear that their man will impregnate another woman and thus split his resources / time / affection, and men tend to fear that their woman will be impregnated by another man and thus stick them with the costs of raising another man’s child. While these fears can obviously be alleviated by the judicious use of birth control, not everyone is diligent about birth control and deeply seated fears aren’t always allayed by modern technologies laid over atavistic drives.

The highly adventurous and experienced probably don’t represent a hugely overwhelming portion of the general population, but they probably represent a portion that is either growing or coming out of the closet. Through divorce and other means, many people are already leading a serially monogamous and/or hypocritically adventurous life, though perhaps because they are bad at anticipating what temptation and desire feel like in the moment and good at rationalizing. The only thing missing is intellectual honesty, which may itself be rarer than fidelity.

There will probably always be challenges in admitting to fantasies or taboo desires, and it will probably always be difficult to find another person with roughly similar tastes, predilections, and preferences, but I’m not sure how easy it is to build a novel around those ideas. That question might be best answered in novel form.

Once you get away from the sex plot, where do novels go? Martha McPhee’s Dear Money is one successful recent example. Cryptonomicon is another. Solar, which I mentioned before, is a third. Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is a fourth. More writers need to get this memo, and more readers need to use their attention to direct writers towards topics that matter instead of those that have been exhausted by the tradition.

Further discussion:

* Sexting and society: How do writers respond? Sample:

Questions like “What happens when people do things sexually that they’re not supposed to? How does the community respond? How do they respond?” are the stuff novelists feed on. They motivate innumerable plots, ranging from the beginnings of the English novel at Pamela and Clarissa all the way to the present.

Pamela and Clarissa are interesting as historical documents, but it’s not easy to project the modern mind backward into the dilemmas of someone with a very different set of social and intellectual concerns.

Links: Sex at Yale, bikes, writing, TV, margins, urban life, editing, and more

* Where are the Bicycles in Post-Apocalyptic Fiction?

* Sex in the Meritocracy: Performance anxiety, not hedonism, motivates Yale’s sexual culture.

_MG_8659* In Writing, First Do No Harm.

* A model of TV viewership:

For TV I do not think upfront bingeing can become the norm. The model of “I don’t really care about this, but I have nothing much to talk to you about, so let’s sit together and drop commentary on some semi-randomly chosen TV show” seems to work less well when the natural unit of the show is thirteen episodes and you are expected to show dedication.

I hadn’t conceptualized TV this way, but the description is accurate and may explain the confusion, verging on horror, that people express when they register the absence of a TV in our apartment. I hesitate to include the previous sentence because I don’t want to become this guy and do use an iMac to watch TV sometimes. Nonetheless it is striking that so many people have so little to talk about.

* Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns the camera on paparazzi; they don’t like it.

* “Margins:”

If you have bigger lungs than your competitor, all things being equal, force them to compete in a contest where oxygen is the crucial limiter. If your opponent can’t swim, you make them compete in water. If they dislike the cold, set the contest in the winter, on a tundra. You can romanticize all of this by quoting Sun Tzu, but it’s just common sense.

* Cool news watch: the bulb discussed here: Switch LED bulb: The long-awaited light bulb is finally here. Is it worth $50? is now available.

* “The emergence of “YIMBY” [Yes In My Backyard] organizations in American cities would be a welcome counterpoint to the prevailing tides of NIMBYism that often dominate local government. But it is worth saying that broader institutional reforms are what’s really needed.”

* “Editing, Silvers advises me, is an instinct. You must choose writers carefully, having read all of their work, rather than being swayed by ‘reputations that are, shall we say, overpromoted’, and then anticipate their needs, sending them books and news articles.” Editing is also an act of sympathy: an editor needs to be sympathetic to the writer’s work. I would be a terrible editor of genre romance novels, and some of my friends have not cared much for my own writing out of taste.

* For writers, along with the above: “The Business Rusch: Hiring Editors,” which is a problem I’ve been thinking about and don’t know how to solve. She confirms, however, that it’s probably impossible for self-published writers to hire effective content editors. Line editors and copyeditors, yes, but not content editors. I can see writers’ groups becoming more important in an era of self-publishing.

Life: Comedy edition

“The comic impulse, then, is about a willingness to dwell in the awkward, shameful places we’d prefer not to dwell. It’s what allows us to face the truth of ourselves on behalf of others.”

—Steve Almond, “Funny is the New Deep,” from The Writer’s Notebook II: Craft Essays from Tin House

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