Sunday, May 13, 2018

Now my failure is complete (and I'm fine with that)

Not only did the Washington Independent Review of Books review my debut book last year, one of their editors actually took enough interest in a local writer that she invited me to speak at this year's Washington Writers' Conference. Jenny Yacovissi, who holds down a full-time and part-time job in addition to volunteering for the WIRB, also organized the conference this year. Somehow, she found enough time to also read and review all the books of all the panelists she invited, including mine. I was on the last panel of the conference on May 5th, and she looked like she was about to drop after it.

The panel I was on was called "There's Always a First Time," and it featured four writers who recently had their first book published (five, including moderator Jenny, who also published a book). Here's us:

I didn't plan to be in the middle and look like I was important. Everyone just sort of moved around me.

We were supposed to be the inspirational end of the day. Leading up to the conference, though, as the five of us were sort of plotting out what kinds of things we might say, we realized we all might end up giving the message that it's all luck. That's not the point of a conference. When you've got hundreds of people looking for ways to make their writing dreams come true, you want to lead people to believe they really can do things that will make it happen.

I commented last year, after my first writing conference, that I was actually a little skeptical of the message of hope. Most of the people at any writing conference are unlikely to ever get a book published in something other than self-publishing. Those who do get published are unlikely to meet with any kind of commercial success. But the message at writing conferences is all about the million ways you can theoretically improve your odds. It rather reminds me of Christian conferences or revivals I attended when I was younger. The important thing is just to have an atmosphere of possibility and let people enjoy the emotional high of sharing that experience with others who want the same thing. Nobody presents at a Christian conference on the theme of "Why you will probably be the same person in ten years that you are now."

One of the people on the panel really was an inspirational story. Paula Whitacre (back right in the photo) pitched her book at this same conference two years ago, and her biography of Julia Wilbur was a result of her pitch at that conference.

Jenny is the one on the top left. The other two women are Caroline Kitchener, author of the non-fiction book Postgrad, and Melissa Scholes Young, author of the novel Flood. These two made me feel fairly out of place. They are both very successful and very young. Caroline wrote her book about young women facing the world after college when she was barely past that stage in life herself. But her obvious talent, which got her an internship at the Atlantic, also gave her an in to breaking through.

Melissa was--to me--even more impressive. Her novel, Flood, has been praised by some impressive company. It got some real backing and sold fairly well. One thing that caught my eye about her book was that the top blurb-providing name on the back of her book was Luis Urrea. Luis is a top-notch author, but I also have a personal connection to him. He was the instructor of a poetry workshop I took in my last seminar at University of Illinois at Chicago. He seemed to respond to my work. Moreover, he seemed to respond to me. He sent me an email once when I called a girl out in the class for writing poetry that was too esoteric to make any sense to anyone. She got upset, but he told me that I was spot-on. I really liked him. He did a lot of work with Latino kids at a time when I was still working with Latinos as a volunteer. We had a couple of good conversations. I thought we saw writing and the world in similar ways.

But when I wrote to him in grad school asking him pointedly how I could go about trying to break through, he never answered my email. He also never answered my email when I wrote him last year about the book getting published. I assume the first time he didn't write me back, it was because he couldn't come up with a polite way to say he didn't think I had the goods. The second time, I assume it was because he didn't remember me.

I made a joke about this at the conference, noting how you could measure Melissa's success relative to mine by how Luis responded to us. But it also kind of hurt a little bit. Sometimes, life gives you little pointed reminders of how you've failed. I was definitely on the stage with people who outclassed me.

I'd been dreading going for that very reason. I was worried this conference would feel like a final nail in the coffin of my lack of success as a writer. But at the end, realizing I may have definitively failed as a writer didn't really feel that bad. For one thing, a lot of it really is luck. Working on a literary journal has done nothing so much as confirm that belief. But even the parts of it you can control involve strategies I'd probably prefer not to put in place.

Author and Writer

The conference was full of talk about the business aspect of writing--separating the artistic role of "writer" from the professional role of "author." And all the things being pushed on us sounded terrible. I'd heard them before. One strategy that is considered a sine qua non for authors now is to have an active social media presence, particularly on Twitter. To me, it sounded a lot like we were being told to force our way into groups that could help promoting our books. A lot of that comes from helping other authors promote theirs. It sounded like kissing ass in order to have a social media network to help promote you.

I've known how important Twitter is considered for authors for a while now. Some agents I tried pitching my novel to basically said they wouldn't even talk to you unless your Twitter game was on point. But I never even had a Twitter account until a few weeks ago. I got one just to send one person a message, because her Twitter was the only contact I had for her. While I was there, I started following a few people to see what Twitter is really like. Twitter seems as awful to me as I always imagined it was. I know part of the Jonathan Franzen hate parade has to do with his opposition to Twitter, and I'm likely to end up also being considered both wrong and snobby, but my short introduction to the content on Twitter so far has confirmed what I suspected about it. I followed a few authors I admire, and I am suspicious that a fair amount of the re-tweeting and sharing of news of other authors is partly out of self-interest. That's doesn't mean they aren't promoting authors they really like (in the hope--at least partly--that those authors promote them back). But I don't believe all these writers are on Twitter because it's particularly a good place to soak up a vibe to improve your writing.

My dislike of Twitter isn't you won't find any good content through it. You can link to something smart with zero characters. But it is very hard to have an intelligent conversation about the linked topic through short messages. It leads to a rhetoric that is entirely built around quippiness and wit rather than sustained argument. It rather reminds me of courtly rhetorical styles that were encouraged in the Renaissance. The goal was to quickly dispatch your interlocutor with the quick jape. It's fine to develop wit. Being clever in brief statements is a useful skill, and people often do remember short statements more than long ones. Unfortunately, this leads--both in courts of the past and on Twitter now--to a culture that really thinks that a good clap-back really has "destroyed" the opposition's argument. 

 I can also see it becoming a huge time waster. The more people you follow, the more the long list of undifferentiated junk to go through gets. I'm sure I could learn to filter to get more of just what I want, but that seems like a lot of work to invest in learning something I'd rather just not use. I also just know myself. I can't be trusted around social media. That's why I only have one social media account, and I don't keep it on my phone. I can only look at it when I'm home. And I limit myself to one scroll through the feed a day. Otherwise, I start wasting way too much time on it.

Twitter isn't the only part of being an author that seems awful to me. These conferences are full of terrible-sounding self-promotion techniques. (Carry around post cards with information about your book on them!) And the thing is that none of them really help sell that many books. If you sell 5,000 books nowadays, you've really killed it. Most of the authors on the panel sold far fewer. But even 5,000 books is not enough to make any real money. You'd still have to have a day job. You wouldn't be any closer to writing for a living.

It would be nice, of course, to have more readers. I write because the things I write about matter to me, and I want others to read them so I can have shared the things that matter to me. Of course I'd rather have more readers. But I feel like in the process of getting those extra readers, I'd lose some ability to write the way I want to write.

So my takeaway from this conference is that I'm fine with never becoming an "author" in any professional sense. The road there involves things I'm just not willing to do. I don't know if that means I won't write. I can't imagine not writing at all. That's something I just can't help doing. But I do feel differently about it now.

One of the most depressing feelings in life is the sense of being redundant. Sitting at conferences with thousands of other people all trying to crowd into the limited available spots the flaccid publishing industry can provide makes me feel extremely redundant. So I'm resolved not to spend any time trying to crowd into the trough for the paltry scraps available. I'll write. I'll send to publishers. If they don't accept me, fine. I'll even ask for reviews (and be turned down or ignored if that's what happens) if I need to. But I'm not going to do something that feels disingenuous in order to improve my odds. If someone reaches out to me to talk to me about something I've written, I'd like to feel they did that because they really felt moved by it, not because they view me as a vector to promote themselves.

None of this is to say that the people at these conferences are all phonies. Jenny, for example, takes time out of what she does to volunteer because she cares about writing. There is a difference between community service to the writing community and using the writing community in a cynical way to serve your own interests. If the road to becoming a name brand author goes through being more cynical, I'm fine never making that journey.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

If Thanos is the force of moral evil in Infinity War, what is the force of moral good?

Critics and fans were both worried that Infinity War might fall into the trap that Avengers: Age of Ultron ran into, one where it had too many characters, and the plot either failed to get them all in and out in ways that developed each of them in meaningfully or it would slog as they all ran into each other. Those who are praising Infinity War-which seems to be the majority of people--find that the movie managed to avoid the pitfalls of having dozens of protagonists by making the central narrative focus instead upon the one villain, Thanos.

Thanos is both complicated and, in many ways, sympathetic. He is willing to use power to remake the world not for himself, but for others, at least as he sees it. He believes the universe has a problem with its intelligent life: it is the nature of sentient life to use up its resources, leading to famine, war, plague, and pestilence. His solution is a cataclysmic culling of the population. He wants to wipe out half the population of intelligent life in the Universe, and he fights to obtain the six infinity stones that will give him the power to do it effortlessly. He is willing to be brutal in order to obtain the stones--the torture of his quasi-daughter Nebula is unsettling--but by obtaining the stones, he is able to complete his objective of taking out half the universe by simply snapping his fingers. There is no suffering for any of those who are randomly chosen to die. They simply disintegrate softly.

Thanos and Malthus

Thanos's philosophy is so reminiscent of 18th-Century thinker Thomas Malthus, I was sure I wasn't the only one who noticed it. Sure enough, Googling "Thanos and Maltus" overwhelmed me with results. A lot of them dealt with the links between Malthus and Thanos better than I could. (see here, here, and here, for example, or even here for a quiz on whether a quote is from Malthus or Thanos.)

Malthus wrote his most influential work right before the industrial revolution. He saw a frightening increase in not just the population, but of the indigent population, and he theorized that people increase faster than resources to feed them. Therefore, if civilizations did not intentionally manage their own populations, they would inevitably find themselves in cyclical, cataclysmic events that culled the population for them: wars, famines, etc. Britain once used this thinking to justify not giving aid to the poor.

The only beauty contest Malthus would ever win

The main rebuttal of Malthus' thinking is that a technological society can break free of the limitations on its resources. Our world has done this on a number of occasions. The Industrial Revolution was one. A second was the revolution in food production of the 60s and 70s, which is one reason why zero population growth hasn't been an important agenda item for any politician in recent memory. In a knowledge economy, people are not just a thing to feed; they are themselves the resources that find ways to feed them. Losing one person might mean losing the one person who can figure out the solutions to our problems.

It's worth noting that at least one review seriously treated the question of whether Thanos has a point. It's possible that we will soon come to an end of our ability to solve our problems with technical solutions, and we may end up with a Malthusian conundrum after all. Thanos is a villain who presages a problem we all sense may face soon. 

What's the good guys' answer? 

The Avengers/Guardians/Dr. Strange don't offer the "knowledge economy" response as their reason for why Thanos is wrong. Most don't offer much reason at all. Their objections are instinctive and not deeply thoughtful: "You're insane," that kind of thing. Those to whom Thanos explains himself somewhat: Dr. Strange, Tony Stark, Gamora, tend to critique his plan rather crudely, by simply asking "so your solution is genocide?" or something like that.

The closest we get to an antithesis to the villain's belief comes, we shouldn't be surprised, from Captain America, the moral center of the Avengers since they first formed. Thanos is a utilitarian thinker. He believes the individual should be sacrificed for the good of society. Captain America, from his first scene, refuses to listen to a plan that involves sacrificing one member of the group for the rest of them. This is consistent with Captain's character; he has, through many movies, refused to surrender individual autonomy for the good of the state. Some even think he took his beliefs too far in Civil War, and should have been more willing to listen to a UN plan to control the Avengers. (He is never more American than in his resistance to the UN.)

So maybe Captain is the voice of moral good in the movie: all human (or whatever Vision is) life has value. We treat every single person as though their  individual lives have as much value as all of us. It is worth risking many to save one. To lose one person is a tragedy as great as losing everyone. By treating life--every life--as though it has this much meaning, we are morally centered in a coherent way where it makes sense to fight Thanos.

Only, as Vision points out, Captain America doesn't really believe his own philosophy. Captain America once sacrificed himself for the greater good (in a scene that really makes no sense and has been mocked over and over). Vision keeps trying throughout the movie to convince Scarlet Witch to use her powers to destroy one of the infinity stones that lies in his head, even if it means killing him in the process. Vision can see that there is a place for sacrifice, for putting the good of everyone ahead of the good of one person.

So there are limits to Steve Rogers's way of thinking. Steve himself is too stubborn to see the contradictions in his own thought, but it works for him. His certainty gives him clarity and the ability to work with resolution. He is like Thanos, in a way, in  his admirable resolution and his ability to carry on in a single direction in spite of obvious flaws in his philosophy.

Rogers/Captain doesn't refute Thanos's utilitarianism on utilitarian grounds the way an economist would. Rather than saying that Thanos's strategy will not achieve its end because humans and others like them can be resources for solving problems as well as consumers that cause problems to solve, Steve objects to Thanos's utilitarianism on idealistic grounds: life is valuable, even life that is inconvenient for the rest of us.

Roger's idealism is neatly counter-balanced in the film by Doctor Strange. Strange is willing, he says, to sacrifice others for the common good. He tells Iron Man he won't hesitate to sacrifice either him or Spider Man to protect the stone in his keeping, because too much is at stake. Strange is a utilitarian, although of a more limited variety than Thanos. His willingness to sacrifice some lives to save others is pitted against Thanos's willingness to do the same, even if Thanos's method is far more shocking and extreme.

But Doctor Strange makes an unexpected pivot. After holding his own against Thanos perhaps better than any of the other good guys (except the mighty Thor at the very end), Strange unexpectedly offers his infinity stone to Thanos if Thanos will spare Iron Man's life. It seems like the most foolish act in the movie (except dumb-ass Star Lord losing his shit when they almost had the gauntlet off Thanos's hand), but we are led to believe that it is actually part of Doctor Strange's plan.

Strange, we know, traveled forward in time to view over 14 million different possible future outcomes. The good guys only win one of those outcomes, and Doctor Strange is making choices to try to bring about that one outcome. Neither the audience nor the other heroes know the plan, but it evidently involves a logic in which a Rogers-like idealism on Doctor Strange's part can somehow stop Thanos.


We don't know how this is going to work. I don't even really know yet if Infinity War was a great or just a good movie. I kind of need the next installment to tell me. As Doctor Strange is being disintegrated by Thanos at the end after Thanos has all six stones, he tells Iron Man that "this was the only way." We are back to the notion of sacrifice. Strange has sacrificed the many for the one, his belief in utilitarianism for idealism, and himself for Iron Man.

The idea of sacrifice is at the heart of the story now, although in an enigmatic way. Thanos had to sacrifice his daughter to obtain one of the stones, and we find that he--unexpectedly--actually loved her. Vision keeps insisting he be allowed to sacrifice himself. He finally convinces the woman he loves to destroy the stone and himself with it, but the sacrifice ultimately fails.

Since I assume that not all of the heroes (and half the world) who died at the end of the movie are going to stay dead, I'm wondering if we're going to end up in territory where those who sacrifice themselves come back from the dead. I'm wondering if we will get an ancient and mystical answer to a modern philosophical question.

The Marvel movies of the last decade have been an incredible cultural achievement. Just keeping the business side working while still making movies that nearly everyone found fun to watch was an amazing achievement. But the movies have only occasionally challenged our notions of good and evil. Civil War was the best at this, but most of the movies have given us good and bad where it was easy to know where your allegiances should be placed. If the sequel to Infinity War manages to satisfactorily offer an answer to the utilitarian-idealist question it has raised, the series will have become something more than just an impressive business model. It will have been a true work of art for our times.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Why I sometimes feel like the literary fiction community is full of self-assured, shallow liberals

If anyone were to piece together the occasional political strands of this blog, he might be tempted to conclude that I was a political conservative. After all, I've used a number of posts to complain about liberal rhetoric or liberal culture (here, here, here, here, and here, for starters). But I write these posts because I consider myself to be more liberal than conservative myself. I'm a mix of some centrist-liberal and some centrist-conservative ideas, but if I had to pick an island to live on and the only two choices were Isla Conservativa and Isla Liberal, I'd go with the liberal one. I write critiquing liberal modes of expression because I don't want the people I share an island with to talk like idiots. We are supposed to be better than that.

Habits of how we talk about complex things should be even less cluttered by bum thinking in the culture surrounding serious literature. Since literature often operates for me as a stand-in for religion, I rely on the people who take that kind of literature to heart to exemplify solid thinking. It ruins my faith in the value of literature when those who are closest to it are lazy thinkers, much as it ruins the faith of a Christian when everyone in the local church is judgmental and selfish.

But the default political views in literary fiction, views that seep into everything, seem to be a very lazy stripe of liberal politics. For example, an essay this past week on the usually excellent and reasonably influential website Lithub committed all the sins I've come to hate from people whose politics I generally agree with. While writing "When Fiction Pulls Back the Curtain on American Conservatism," ostensibly a review of two novels with conservative main characters, Colette Shade first veers to the side to spend more than half the article talking about why American culture is essentially conservative. By "conservative," Shade means "the theoretical voice of animus against the agency of the subordinate classes," a definition she takes from Corey Robin's The Reactionary Mind. Much of her quick analysis of conservatism and the last 50 years of American politics comes from Robin.

In the course of developing her views on conservatism, Shade exemplifies three characteristics of liberal rhetoric I've come to dislike. She dismisses the strengths of conservative arguments, she argues against a straw man version of conservatism, and she is unable to argue effectively for why a liberal philosophy is better, or even what such a philosophy would entail.

Sin number one: dismissing conservatism

But first, an aside

Conservatism and liberalism are two forces that ought to exist in dynamic tension with one another. Consider a poor, black child in Baltimore. She is up against every hurdle in the world. A conservative would say you have to encourage that child to rise up above her circumstances, to believe that with hard work, she can achieve whatever she puts her mind to. The conservative is right. A liberal would say you have to teach the child how the past has conspired against her to put her at a great disadvantage, at no fault of her own. You must make the child understand that if she fails, it is not her fault, because otherwise, the child may grow to think there is something inherently wrong with her instead of the world she was born into. The liberal is also right. For the child to have a chance, she will have to inhabit a space where she both accepts personal responsibility and also understands that there are factors beyond her control. Too much of one and she has no self-esteem. Too much of the other, she has no agency. 

This dynamic tension needs to exist in hundreds of ways. We need personal freedom, but we must also sublimate personal freedoms for the good of the community. We need to try new ideas, but we also need stability. We need peace, but we also need to defend ourselves when peace breaks down. For liberals, conservatism isn't the enemy. It's the balance we need for our ideas to exist. 

And now, what I mean by "dismissing conservatism"

Shade mostly talks of conservatism in neo-Marxist and economic terms, rather than strictly political ones. For her, the conservative world is a world in which "the right of property ownership has superseded even the right to clean air and bodily autonomy for those without means." Conservatives, in her logic, exist only to enrich themselves at the expense of others. Conservatives, in a word, do not care about the good of the world as a whole, they care only for themselves.

There is a reason why conservative ideas got into the world. It wasn't entirely something pushed on the poor by the rich. There were environmental stresses that caused the poor to accept the rule of the rich. The poor continued to accept these rules partly because of political oppression, but also because the poor often judged that rule by the rich was better than the alternative. Pre-historic Central American citizens of large cities chose to continue to live in the town under authoritarian rule rather than flee to the jungle. People made a choice for security over individual freedom. We might deride the choice, but unless we've lived with true environmental stress and scarcity, we really can't judge.

A friend and I were talking recently about the rights of trans-gendered people. He, the more conservative one, made a point I had a hard time arguing with. The fact that our society is able to even talk about these issues is a sign that we are living with abundance. In a time of stressed resources, nobody gives a damn about these kinds of things.

This is what I feel is missing from the Hulu show The Handmaid's Tale. It's easy to root for the oppressed when she's fighting to get the boot of her oppressor off of her neck. But the show takes place in a world that is dying. What would the oppressed do to save that world if they were in charge? We don't know. It's possible that, as in the musical Urinetown, the soft-hearted underdogs would, if put in charge, end up making everything worse.

Shade's essay, though, sees only the boot. It does not see conservatism as a force that keeps community together. There is no dialetic to be achieved through synthesis with its forces; it is only a thing to be annihilated.

The closest Shade comes to offering respect for conservatives is when she calls it a "frighteningly coherent ideology." But she fails to interrogate its coherence. In fact, the internal consistency of some conservative philosophy is what gives it universal and perennial appeal. To be coherent, in philosophy, is difficult to achieve, and not something to be lightly dismissed. Liberals wish they had as much coherence.

This musical ought to be required viewing for anyone about to write a story about a spunky underdog. 

Sin number two: arguing against a straw man version of conservatism 

Shade claims that the novels she is reviewing--The Sport of Kings and Mr. Bridge--provide the reader with "valuable attempts to use fiction to peer behind the facade of American conservatism." She compares reading these books--one about a man who uses his privilege to try to breed Triple Crown-winning horses, the other about a quiet racist--to reading Lolita. She views conservatives on a level with pedophiles in this analogy. She believes we can understand these loathsome beings, but that such understanding should never imply acceptance.

Although assuring the reader that the best fiction "embraces the moral totality of human existence--the range of good and bad actions of which people are capable--and suggests that there is some value in understanding all of it, including the bad," Shade is herself offering only the bad sides of conservative ideals. She has picked two books with awful conservative characters and joined her analysis of them to a one-sided essay about how America is essentially conservative, meaning it always seeks to stomp out the little guy.

Shade briefly alludes to conservative intellectuals who reject Trump, such as the folks at The National Review, but then quickly dismisses such conservatives by claiming they are a small minority and that most Republicans like Trump. She does not interrogate the notion that Trump himself is not, as The National Review would tell us, a conservative, nor does she interrogate whether the Republican Party itself is becoming something other than a conservative party.

She seems to be a breed of liberal who see in conservatives only hypocrisy. There is a kind of liberal who wonders why Christians decry abortion but do not themselves adopt, ignoring the rate at which Christians do, in fact, adopt. There is a kind of liberal who wonders why religious people ignore Jesus's injunctions to help the poor, ignoring that conservatives are either more generous than liberals or at least no less so.

Back when I was a Marine living in Hawaii, my first wife worked for a very conservative oral surgeon. I was just starting, then, to discover a lot of liberal ideology, and I would bring books like A People's History of the United States to the office to read while I waited for my wife to get done working so I could take her home with our one car. The doctor would come out from the back, where Rush Limbaugh was playing on the radio, and criticize the book I had and all such "revisionist history." I would roll my eyes at how little he understood.

But that same doctor routinely provided extensive medical care for young people whose parents, he knew, would never pay their bill. He might grouse about it and criticize parents for having kids they couldn't afford to take care of, but he gave them expert medical care, free of charge. "What am I going to do, let the kids suffer?" he'd say.

Conservative economics basically believes that if people follow their own interests, rather than having those interests directed for them, then economic growth as a whole will be greater. This growth benefits society in a broad sense even while it hurts some individual members of it. Conservative economics does not teach that you cannot donate the money you earn out of your own self-interest to charity. It does not stop the wealthy from forming charitable organizations that carry out large-scale philanthropic projects. And, of course, there a ample examples of rich people doing exactly this kind of thing. Liberals may argue that these are just crumbs to the poor after robbing them of a meal, to which conservatives reply that inequality is better than everyone being equally poor, as has happened in some socialist experiments.

I am not an expert on these things. Most literary writers aren't. We present the world as we see it in great detail. That doesn't make us economists. We can certainly present portraits of the unevenness of capitalism by showing the contradictions within society. We can be the voices of the people who tried for the American Dream and failed for reasons not entirely within their control. We can show the ugliness that exists beneath America's gilded promise. But we ought to be circumspect about conclusions we make with too much certainty. That's not considering "the totality of human existence."

Shade has essentially reviewed two books in which the worst kinds of conservatives are presented, then tried to link these portraits to an argument that conservative ideals are evil and have always threatened to destroy America. If someone else had reviewed two novels with extremist Islamist terrorists, then tied that to a brief history of how Islamist governments violate human rights, readers would have cried foul. But Shade isn't capable of granting that there are good conservatives--and even a good conservatism--with as much liberality as she would grant to Muslims and Islam.

Sin number three: not knowing how to argue for liberal ideology

Right at the outset, Shade acknowledges that she is probably preaching to the choir: "Whether you like it or not (and if you're reading this, the answer is probably "not"), America is a deeply conservative country" (emphasis mine). She is admitting two things by starting this way: that the literary fiction community is deeply liberal, and that she can assume this political viewpoint when addressing the readers of a prominent literary fiction website.

Because Shade is also part of this community, there is a cost to this ideological unity: Shade and others in that community are insular and exhibit a provincial way of thinking. They are so used to assuming a particular political philosophy in those around them, they have lost the ability to even articulate that viewpoint to outsiders. They are like Christians who only associate with other Christians who have lost any ability to "give an answer for the hope within them," to use St. Paul's phrase. If anyone challenges their views, they grow anxious and upset, and rather than engaging in the marketplace of ideas, they insist they do not have to engage with racists and misogynists.

Shade is not, to be sure, without some facts at her disposal. She is able, aided by Robin, to present at least something of a case for how America is fundamentally conservative and why this is bad. She cites several facts of life in America for the poor--many of which I very much agree with as realities that should be at the top of our agenda to address--as examples of the failure of our conservative beliefs.

I’m not referring to policy polls, party registration, or even the fact that Donald Trump is our president. Rather, I am referring to the material realities of daily life in America: the $2 a day on which our poorest citizens live, the for-profit healthcare system and the 45,000 Americans who die because of it every year, the veneration of the U.S. military at sporting events (and even at the putatively liberal Oscars), the fear of a violent black underclass that’s used to justify the imprisonment of millions of mostly poor people, the bipartisan obsession with “competition” and “innovation,” and the corporate exploitation of the natural world that imperils all life on earth.

Again, I agree with a lot of these assertions. However, there is a lack of balance to the picture Shade is presenting here. For example, many countries have a class living in abject poverty. America has the means to at least preserve the lives of most of these people (often through the volunteer efforts at soup kitchens of essentially conservative people). So in some ways, our system is better for our poor than it is elsewhere.

She also fails to acknowledge that there are a lot of conservatives who care about the same things. The libertarian strain of conservative is probably the most ideologically committed to ending mass incarceration. Some conservatives actually take seriously the "conserve" portion of their philosophy. Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland, just agreed to make Maryland one of the states supporting the Paris accords. Hogan has also asked for Maryland to be exempted from offshore drilling.

Shade is quick to push aside Trump and insist that the problem with conservatives predates him, but the two examples she chooses for novels are exactly the kind of people who put Trump over the top. They are not conservatives in any considered sense.

We have quickly forgotten how much America was not particularly thrilled with either Trump or Clinton. We have ignored the extent to which many people voted for one or the other candidate as a default least-terrible option. We have forgotten that many conservatives voted for Clinton and many liberals thought both candidates so terrible they voted for neither.

But liberals have adopted a siege mindset since the advent of Trump. We have no independent vision of the world, only a rebuttal of all things Trump. We are utterly wrecked. Rather than take this as an opportunity to remake ourselves, we are doubling down on simply opposing what we see as ugly rather than proposing what we view as beautiful.

We could be trying to reach out to conservative intellectuals right now, people who have fled the Republican Party since Trump showed up. We could be remaking a platform that represented a new vision of the sweet spot in the dynamic tension between conservative and liberal ways of looking at the world. Instead, we are constantly focused on cutting up all the bands that tie us together with conservatives in a dynamic tension.

If Trump proves anything, isn't it that America is essentially NOT conservative? That we're willing to blow up the status quo and try new things, even if those new things are really, really stupid?

How this all poisons the world of literary fiction

A lazy, self-assured liberal politics is the default political position in literary fiction. Shade clearly assumes it in her readers. That's the world I'm trying to enter when I submit stories to serious literary journals. That's the assumed view of the world on the minds of many gatekeepers reading those stories, and it's the worldview of the senior editors those stories get passed on to.

It's no accident that the stories I've been able to get published so far are all about people whom capitalism has failed in some sense. I've written a number of stories I think are possibly better than the published ones, but if you don't count my book, I've only had one story about a white, middle-class, American character published. (Joke's on those publishers, though. Nearly all of my downtrodden characters maintain a belief in the American dream, a belief they continue to hold onto at the end of all the stories I had published.)

Literature ought to keep an open mind to the data the universe is giving our senses. That includes data that refutes the deeply-held beliefs of the literary community itself. The literary community ought to be a place full of lively debate of all kinds of beliefs about the world. It should not be a place where one can assume liberal politics when addressing the community. That leads to tepid, boring work. Even when I read something I agree with, I find it dull.

I'm not trying to put myself out like Tim Allen or James Woods do, saying a liberal establishment is against me because of my conservative politics. I am, by and large, politically liberal. If, in the tension between personal freedom and social good, you are not sure what choice to make, I believe you should always err on the side of personal freedom. I'm not asking people to change their political beliefs. I'm begging, with tears in my eyes, for literary people to do what literary people ought to do: consider how what you are saying seems to others who view things differently from you. Consider whether your rhetoric increases understanding and healing or just makes both sides dig the trenches deeper. Consider that your own entrenched beliefs may be part of what brought us Trump, not the antidote to him.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Asking the right kinds of questions of literature

There are two things about my life I've beat to death on this blog: that I used to be a rather devout evangelical Christian, and that when I stopped believing, literature partly filled the gap in my life where Christianity used to be. I ask a lot of literature. So I was intrigued by an essay that appeared on Lithub last week by Rachel Vorona Cote, who confessed to a similar habit. As she put it in her essay ""The Complicated Comforts of Marilynne Robinson,": "I have a nasty habit of asking too much from books."

Her essay is a personal look at her own pain and an attempt to use literature to overcome it. In late 2017, she was discouraged by the first year of Trump's presidency and personally undone by her mother's death. She was in a place where people often turn to religion, but knowing ahead of time from personal experience that heading to church would end up fruitless, she was looking around for something religion-like to fill the void. 


She tried Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. It is a very well-regarded novel about an aging Congregationalist minister, John Ames. I read it last year. Almost nothing happens in it in the present. There is some action that takes place in flashback, but much of the action in the novel gets sidetracked by Ames' own theological musings. Still, it's not like being preached to for the length of the novel. Ames, in fact, is a bit too introspective to be a fire-and-brimstone preacher. In one of the few passages I highlighted from the book, he says of himself that "...there is tendency in my thinking, for the opposed sides of a question to cancel each other more or less....If I put my thinking down on paper perhaps I can think more rigorously. Where a resolution is necessary it must also be possible." 

But Ames never really quite succeeds in achieving his resolution. The conflict of the book, if it can even be called that, is that Ames is concerned that the ne'er-do-well son of his lifelong best friend is going to try to move in and marry his much younger wife when Ames dies. But the conflict more or less takes care of itself. 

Cote found comfort in reading the book. She had hoped that Robinson could be her Virgil, "a woman of faith to guide me through her theological web--and who could believe in my stead what I feared couldn't possibly be true. That I would find my mother again. That she had not been obliterated by death. That our shattered country might stumble onto a path of progress, however slow and aching." 

Although Ames asserts that the "purpose of a prophet" is to "find meaning in trouble," you won't find that meaning explicitly stated in Gilead. I found reading it to be akin to looking at a painting for an extended period of time. I was left more with a continuous mood or feeling than with what you might call a discursive kind of impression. 

This was enough for Cote, at least mostly:

 "Gilead could not entirely soothe my despondence: it couldn’t assure me that Mom was peeping into my apartment’s darkened windows, or directing her love-filled gaze at Dad while he slept. It couldn’t even convince me that her soul awaited mine in some obscure afterlife. But John Ames would have believed this to be the case, and somehow, that was enough for me." 

She found that simply vicariously huffing off the faith fumes of someone else was close enough to the experience itself to bring comfort. She read another Robinson novel, Housekeeping, which I have not read. But then, she did something I find telling: she read a book of essays by Robinson. As Cote put it, she was hungering "for a more explicit manifesto." She had been comforted by living in Ames' head for a bit, but she was looking for something that offered a less poetic sense of meaning here in the modern world. 

But Robinson's refusal to be more certain of herself in her non-fiction is a double-edged sword for Cote. Robinson is not an agitator; she is too circumspect about her own conclusions for that. On the one hand, this is the hallmark of a rational thinker, but on the other hand, too much self-circumspection can lead to inaction. 

It's a familiar conundrum for liberals. Cote nicely sums up this conundrum in the concluding paragraphs:

If Robinson’s nonfiction feels insufficient in the face of a political crisis, it’s because certitude seems foolhardy, and a bit smug. The agnosticism that plagues me in mourning strikes me as productive, even necessary in the political sphere. We do not have the luxury of always being sure, especially when we are a solitary voice within a purportedly democratic cacophony. To achieve anything worthwhile we must writhe and grapple like blind animals in a net, stumbling upon deliverance without the satisfaction of knowing it’s within our reach.
          Still, too much fear and doubt becomes unwieldy...

Truth and Comfort

"Too much fear and doubt becomes unwieldy?" Tell me about it. Agnosticism seems to me to be the most intellectually honest position to take, but the thing about agnosticism is that its adherents are, well, agnostic. Which doesn't mean, of course, that they are "indifferent," as many people are now starting to use the word. It means they just don't know what's right. An agnostic can look at the faith of a true believer and be genuinely jealous. Look how that person seems filled with certainty. Look how much she accomplishes. I wish I could believe like she does. 

I don't think it was wrong of Cote to expect a lot from a book. I keep reading because I am constantly hoping I will find something that can help me resolve my honest uncertainty with my desire to be more certain. But I'm not sure Gilead is the right place to look. Musicians and prophets may both have been inspired by the gods, but they bring different things. Musicians--and Gilead is more like music than a sermon--bring comfort. Prophets bring truth that demands action. 

There's nothing wrong with comfort, but even an agnostic like me can see the wisdom in C.S. Lewis's warning: "If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth--only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair." That's the reason Cote found herself wanting to read non-fiction: she wanted truth. 

In fact, I'd say that it's only because Cote was steadfast in wanting truth that she found any comfort in Robinson at all. It wasn't a deep and satisfying comfort, but it was a small comfort. It was enough to keep going on. And maybe that's the most an intellectually honest person will ever get. The most you can hope for is to string together enough moments of hard-won comfort until you reach a point, like John Ames did, where you live long enough "to outlast any sense of grievance you may acquire." 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Hump day thoughts on the artist and the day job

Quartz recently ran an article, based on a letter from 19th Century French novelist Gustave Flaubert to his mother, on the notion of an artist taking a day job to survive. Flaubert himself called the notion an "illusion," claiming that such pursuits were for the mediocre, and that if he were going to commit himself to writing, he would only do it if he could apply his entire energy and strength to it:

When one does something, one must do it wholly and well. Those bastard existences where you sell suet all day and write poetry at night are made for mediocre minds — like those horses equally good for saddle and carriage — the worst kind, that can neither jump a ditch nor pull a plow.

The article was balanced, offsetting Flaubert's artistic puritanism with examples of writers (Kafka, Harper Lee, Jennifer Egan) who had succeeded as writers in spite of holding down day jobs. It also pointed out that Flaubert's parents were fairly well-off, which is not a privilege every writer has. 

The problem isn't work; it's kids

Long ago, when I was in my mid-twenties, didn't have kids yet, and wanted to be a great writer more than I wanted anything in life, I wrote a personal creed of sorts in which I said words to the effect of "anyone can raise kids, but only a select few people can be prophets who create great art, so if I have to choose, I will choose not to have a family so I can create great art." 

It's hard for me to believe that puttering away at the kind of job needed to preserve a subsistence living for one person is going to keep you from being a great writer. You can do almost anything full-time, and if you're willing to make personal sacrifices like having a roommate, you will be able to sustain yourself. (Assuming, of course, you don't have unusual obstacles like expensive health issues.)

Furthermore, the kind of job you need just to pay your own bills isn't going to be so taxing you can't still write when you get home. It probably isn't going to be the kind of job where the boss is on your ass so much you can't sneak away for a few minutes to jot down the idea you just had so you can work on it when you get home. You think the manager at a drug store is going to write you up because you took five minutes to jot something down? As long as you more or less show up on time and more or less don't insult customers and more or less don't steal from the store, you're going to be fine.

A single person with a day job should be able to discipline herself to write when she can and still write everything she needs to write to accomplish her goals. It's when kids enter the picture that things become difficult. First, you're going to need a better job, the kind that sucks your best energies and makes you expend brain cells. You'll maybe have some fleeting idea for your story while on the job, but you need to run to the bathroom or you won't have time to go before the next meeting starts.

Then, of course, when you get home, there is a whole other set of people with problems that require your attention. A single writer with a day job can still put writing first in his life; a conscientious parent will be lucky if it's a distant third.

Priest vs Preacher

I have no issue with someone making a conscious decision to avoid the responsibilities of family life to pursue art. If artists are in some sense prophets, then they are entitled to follow the long tradition of beliefs in the world that espouse the need for spiritual leaders to avoid Earthly entrapments. The Catholic Church, for example, wants its priests to remain unmarried so that they can focus fully on pastoral care. It wouldn't be hard for me to believe that the writers who are the greatest virtuosos with language were also the writers with limited familial responsibilities. The music inside their heads was seldom blasted away by The Wiggles.

But the Protestant in me feels like this isn't the only route, and not the one for me. I feel like it's a little rich to be doling out life advice when you aren't yourself experiencing the one thing that most profoundly affects the lives of nearly all your adult parishioners. I'd prefer to take my advice from someone who struggles to deal with his kids fighting each other as he writes his sermons on the kitchen table. As Clint Eastwood's preacher put it in Pale Rider, "the spirit ain't worth spit without a little exercise."

The only photo of this scene I could find. 

At the very least, I think you have to agree that once you have kids, your responsibility for them is greater than your responsibility to create art. I may not still be a Christian, but C.S. Lewis's evaluation that a Christian writer must know from the outset that saving one soul is worth more than all the great works of human history still checks out with me.

How can you be a vessel of divine truths when you neglect the needs of your own family? In my experience, words and images worth committing to paper are hard to come by. You have to place yourself in a position somewhere between the most abject humility and the most unjustified certainty. I don't see how one could even get in such a place while ignoring the welfare of the people you are responsible for.

The decision to not have kids is a great life decision. I don't want to deride it in any way. But I can't believe that taking on such a basic part of human existence--even if it comes with all kinds of mundane extras like having a job-- makes one unable to write about the mysteries of that existence. My two favorite writers, Melville and Vonnegut, both had heavy family responsibilities. In Vonnegut's case, it altered the way he wrote, because he needed his books to sell. In Melville's case, it dogged him his entire life. They both still managed to write great art.

For me, developing the discipline to be a father, including all the pain of having a grown-up job, has also helped me develop the discipline to be a writer. I might miss out on a few scenes I'd otherwise have written if I were able to write on "event time," but I think I gain more than I lose.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The benefits of occasionally rage-quitting writing

By all accounts, when you get a personalized rejection letter from an editor, it's supposed to be encouraging. They don't send those to everyone. They don't have the time to tell you they liked it if they didn't. They publish a few stories and send out a few more notes to those who almost made it. If you got a personal note, you were in the top one to three percent. So you should feel good about it.

Video games and me

I tend to get pissed off kind of easily while playing video games. I was like that playing tennis as a kid, too. I broke a fair number of rackets. Nowadays, if I keep playing a tough level in a video game over and over and can't beat it, I have a tendency to chuck the controller on the ground, swear a lot, and quit playing. The kids call this "rage quitting." They generally mock rage quitters, especially in a multi-player game where you leave your teammates down a player, but I can't even pretend that's not me.*

The benefits of the rage quit

As disconcerting as it might be to watch a grown man have a fit over playing a stupid game, there are some benefits to the player. It's sort of a giant reset button. You get away from the problem for a while, maybe go take care of the things you ought to have been doing for the last four hours while you failed at your game. You know, because you're a grown man and all. You remember there are other things in your life besides the game. You could live quite happily without ever beating the game. You don't need to beat that level. And suddenly, you've got it. You realize the way to beat the stupid thing. Sometimes, the best you'll ever play is immediately after coming back from a rage quit.

The getting published part of writing is a lot like a boss level of a video game to me

I usually like writing stories. I usually like editing them. But getting them published is a pain. I have little control over it. Luck is involved. I think I've written the story I always wanted to read, but editors have their own ideas of what they've felt was missing in their lives. You can keep putting a story up over and over again, only to have it fail repeatedly to get past the final level.

This would be an interesting form rejection letter for an editor to use

This is especially frustrating if it's a story you're personally invested in. Last year, I started puttering around with a story and I realized while writing it that I was writing about my adopted daughter and how she'd changed my life. It's been a bit of an obsession to me to get this story published. I feel like I owe it to her. 

I recently got my third encouraging rejection letter, a.k.a. the "almost" letter, on this story. I ought to be encouraged, but really, I feel more like I've now gotten to within seconds of beating the final boss only to have it all fall apart. It's more than just disappointing; it's infuriating. 

So I'm rage quitting for a bit. I don't believe in waking up each day and answering to some higher calling to be a writer. If it's not making me happy, I don't want to do it. But the very act of acknowledging that I can live without it is often just the thing to get me past the hurdle. Either I'll think of some way to change the story that will put it over the top or I'll come up with something new. But I'd never have gotten either without first clearing my head through a little purifying rage. 

*I don't really play video games that much. I haven't for most of my life. But for a while, I was playing a lot when my son's interest in the games exceeded his manual dexterity, and he kept asking me to get him past the hard parts. That phase is long gone, now. But there were definitely some times when I was trying to beat levels for him that I threw controllers across the room. 

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Train to Busan: Post-apocalyptic Gothic that works

A few weeks ago, I contrasted "Gothic" stories with a more rigorously defined science fiction. To summarize quickly, the Gothic is more concerned with the interior, psychological landscape of its characters, while science fiction is concerned with how humanity interacts with the environment, especially as technology both shapes humanity and is shaped by it.

In a science fiction post-apocalyptic or dystopian tale, for example, much time will be spent on how humanity got into the mess it's in, the social and technological steps it is taking to survive, and the specific details of day-to-day existence. The science doesn't necessarily need to be so rigorous it would pass muster in a peer-reviewed journal, but it must exist, and it must be central to the story. Interstellar comes to mind as an example.

In a Gothic post-apocalyptic or dystopian story, on the other hand, the focus is more on how the change in society wrought by environmental distress affects humanity psychologically. Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a perfect example. McCarthy never even explains how the world inhabited by his characters came to be cold, gray, infertile, and lawless. We see the characters struggle to survive in great detail, but there's not much science that goes into it: scrounge, sneak, steal, get lucky. That's the formula. Mankind doesn't overcome the trouble by applying rational thought to solving problems, but by keeping hope alive.

The first Korean zombie blockbuster

I decided recently that my Korean skills have atrophied to an unacceptable level, so I started watching nearly everything Netflix had to offer in Korean. (I haven't yet committed enough to get Drama Fever or one of the Korean-only apps.) Netflix now has Train to Busan, the 2016 zombie blockbuster. I loved it. It reminded me a lot of the 2008 hit The Good, The Bad, and The Weird, which was Korea's first hit "Western" (set in the Gobi Desert). That movie took a quintessentially American genre that Americans have used to understand themselves for over 50 years and turned it on its head. While the American Western was about settling the frontier, The Good, The Bad, and The Weird was about what happens when where you live is someone else's frontier to be settled. I saw it as a working out of the old Korean proverb about how geopolitics apply to a small country: "When two whales fight, the shrimp breaks its back." This movie was about how the shrimp can learn to survive.

Train to Busan also took a common Western genre--one that's becoming more and more common by the day, it seems-- and gave it a uniquely Korean twist, one that managed to have moments in it of meditation on the rapid changes in Korean society.

Train to Busan (부산행) was as good as any Western movie about zombies, and better than most.

The story focuses on Seok Woo, a fund manager who will happily screw whoever he needs to in order to come out on top. He reluctantly agrees to take his daughter, whom he temporarily has custody of while he and his wife work out the details of their divorce, from Seoul to Busan to see her mother. He agrees because he feels sorry when he buys her the same birthday present he got her for Children's Day because he works too much to notice what she likes. He also missed her recital, when she wanted to sing the song she'd been practicing for him. So he gets on the train with her on her birthday.

Along the way, the great zombie outbreak happens. It's very sudden. We get very little explanation of what caused it. We learn that the company responsible for the virus was a company Seok Woo's fund was working with, so he bears some responsibility. But we don't know what the company was trying to accomplish or where they went wrong. That's not what the movie's about.

Before the train gets going, we get little peeks into the lives of some of the other passengers Seok Woo will interact with. There is a high school baseball player and the girl who likes him but he is too shy to like back yet. There are two elder ladies (ajuma), one of whom is much more caring than the other. And then there is Yoon Sang Hwa and his pregnant wife. All the passengers will work to change how Seok Woo sees the world, but Yoon will be the strongest impetus to Seok Woo's catharsis.

Seok Woo's daugher, Soo Ahn, is different from him. As the crisis unfolds, he tries to convince his daughter to take care of herself and let others worry about themselves, but she insists on helping others. She naturally takes to Yoon and his wife, who also exhibit concern for other passengers. Seok Woo's personal change takes place when Yoon unselfishly helps him and when he sees how upset his own daughter is with how much he only cares for himself.

It's not a complicated twist for a character to make, but why should it be? One thing about Zombie fiction is the way it breaks human behavior down to its rawest elements. When a crisis hits, you either throw others ahead of you to save yourself or you try to help others.

We don't get a whole ton of exposition about what abilities the zombies have. They're strong, but not the most powerful zombies we've seen in film. Tougher passengers can fight them off. We know they get confused by the dark and that they immediately calm down when they do not see live humans. One difference between them and other zombies I've seen is that the disease passes to new hosts very quickly. You get bit, and within seconds, you're turned. (The movie does cheat at the end in order to give us a tender moment, but it was worth it.)

The quickness with which the zombie virus passes is mirrored by how quickly selfishness spreads among many of the human survivors on the train. When faced with fear, they turn on each other with lightning speed.

The part where I make it about something more than just the movie

"In order for the culture to have a future, we have to go back to the past." -Korean rappers Epik High

The movie reflects an angst in Korean society that's been growing for some time. Korean society modernized with unbelievable rapidity, going from a medieval society to hyper-modern in a little over a generation. It hasn't slowed down its pace of change. Standards of living for most Koreans have skyrocketed, but along the way, old relationships that kept society together have collapsed. Korean parents used to put all their money into their children rather than retirement plans, because their children were their retirement plan. But a strapped young generation cannot pay for their elders, leading to an impoverished older generation being stuck into sub-standard poor houses.

It's not unlike when feudal relationship broke down in the West. On the one hand, they needed to go. Nobody wants to be born into relationships and kiss ass to everyone born above him. On the other hand, even though it sucked to have to serve a lord, that lord did have responsibilities to take care of you. Similarly, in Korean society, you had to show a shocking (to me as an American) amount of deference to your elders, but they in turn owed you care and concern.

In the West, The enlightenment was a result of the breakdown of feudalism, as was democracy. But so were the nightmare capitalist and industrial societies Dickens wrote about. Korea went through that, but on a highly compressed timeline.

We often see zombies as a warning of how mindlessly people now live their lives. It's a commentary on how we consume media and, nowadays, social media. Train to Busan turns zombies into something more basic. The cause of the zombie outbreak is selfishness, and the zombies are nothing more than an external monster representing what people are becoming internally.

Zombies have power on our imagination because they are humans stripped down to the reptilian brain, devoid of empathy and sympathy. This movie doesn't overthink what to do with that thematically. What is opposed to non-human humanity is human humanity. Caring for one another isn't just hippy-dippie crap. There's a strong biological basis for it, and the better we are at it, the better able we are to survive stresses in our environment, whether they are slowly creeping socio-economic changes brought about by globalization and technology or monsters hurling themselves as us as we speed through life on a train.