Sunday, June 9, 2019

Flab-Bull-Gasted: A response from an editor from Bull Magazine just floors me

I might one day write the great American masterpiece, but an editor from Bull Magazine has already written the great American personal rejection note. I wouldn't normally post something an editor had written to me, since I assume words between a magazine and me are private, but in this case, I think the response I got was so excellent, I really just want to praise the magazine.

Bull, if you don't know, publishes "men's fiction," although they don't define in any sense what that means. I thought I had a story that might work for them. It's been close with a few other journals, including placing as a finalist in a Glimmer Train contest last year. Nobody has quite bitten on it yet, though, and I think it has something to do with how they're not quite sure of the story's themes relative to sexual harassment. The story's main character is a lawyer at a large company in charge of keeping the company on the right side of the law when it comes to harassment, but he's got his own past of bad behavior to contend with.

Anyhow, here's the note that came with a rejection from Bull:

----------------

Dear Jacob,

My sincerest apologies for how long this has taken me to get back to you. There's no good excuse I could give you to make up for the sheer shittiness of leaving you hanging. Suffice it to say I'm kind of terrible at being a functional adult who can be depended on and this is a really fucked up thing to be as someone in charge of a lit mag with authors like you putting your work in my hands. Sorry.

As for Collision, I was really torn on this one, man. The absurdity of premise and the voice all the way up to the ...conclusion are really great in a George Saunders kind of way that I really appreciate. 

In the end, unfortunately, I just felt like we needed Jenna and some of the other women in here to be able to rise to the narrator's sheer volume. I appreciate that you're going against type with Jenna being sensitive, but I feel like it's a bit too easy for the narrator to have Jenna switch to sensitive so quickly and not beat up on the narrator a bit more to be as interesting and nuanced as he is.

Of course, remember that this is just me and I'm kind of an asshole/know-nothing/lousy shithead who leaves a writer like you hanging this long, so really fuck me and my lousy opinions. 

Thank you sincerely for your great patience and sorry that this all ended with such a shitty disappointing low-blow like this email.

Best of luck. 

BULL
-------------------

I can't believe an editor, as busy as they all are, took the time to write something as funny and thoughtful as that. Getting a note like that is nearly as good as getting published. I don't even really disagree with his reasons for not publishing it. I tend to think all stories have an Achilles heel in them, and a good story isn't so much a story that avoids having a weak point as one where the strengths make the reader not care about the weak point. This editor wasn't quite there. I've had the same experience with stories when I edited for the Baltimore Review, and some stories just flat-out left me feeling there was no right answer. In the case in that link, another magazine took a story I just couldn't decide on. So maybe the same thing will happen with this story.


The greatest service literary journals provide is to promote the careers of developing writers. Obviously, the best way they can do this is to publish stories, but letting writers know whether their stories were even close is nearly as useful. Taking an extra minute to say a story got consideration is hugely helpful for writers. It lets them know whether a story is way off or nearly there. If your journal accepts five stories an issue, you should consider also trying to give feedback on another five you thought were close to getting accepted.


Bull did that. (In fact, this is the third time I've had this kind of feedback from them.) So I just wanted to give them a shout-out and say the editors are doing it right.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Neuro-divergence is not a super power: Almond by Son Won Pyeong

A week ago, I finally finished the novel Almond that took me about two months to read. I kept getting sidetracked, and then it was difficult for me to get going again, both just from a "what the hell was going on, again?" standpoint as well as an "I should really read instead of waste time on the Internet" perspective. But I got through it.

There is no English translation of this book, so for most of you, the write-up I'm about to do is the only contact with this book you'll ever get. Bridging the cross-cultural divide: just one more free benefit the world gets out of Workshop Heretic.

Almond is about a teenager named Yun Jae who has alexithymia. When I looked up what alexythmia was, I wasn't sure how it was different from Asperger's, which I've heard of before because of friends' kids. Essentially, it's a condition in which someone can neither experience emotions the way most humans do or recognize emotional reactions in others. It shares some outward traits with both autism and Asperger's.

The title has a two-fold origin: First, the novel tells us that the origins of alexithymia are in an underdevelopment of the amygdala, the almond-like structure in the brain. (If you look around on the Internet a bit, you won't actually find this to be a prevalent explanation of the origins of the condition. For the sake of enjoying the novel, I found it was best to just accept the in-book explanations of things, at least as far as analyzing the story itself goes.)  The second reason why the novel is called "Almond" is because the boy's mother, hoping to somehow get his brain to develop so he could be "normal," force-fed him scores of almonds, believing nuts were a good brain food.

The book rather reminded me of Mark Haddon's 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, a story about a 15-year-old boy with autism or something like it. Both are told by a point-of-view narrator who's got his work cut out for him if he's going to be able to communicate with would-be readers. In Haddon's novel, we are told that the narrator got help from one of his counselors to write the book, which allows us to deal with suspension-of-disbelief issues. In Son's novel, although Yun Jae himself would not have been able to write with such well-tuned emotional pitch, we somewhat accept it because Yun Jae grew up with a mother who ran a used book store. So Yun Jae has read thousands of examples of stories, although he doesn't really understand the emotions the characters are experiencing in them.

The first quarter of the novel is dedicated to Yun Jae's formative years. He lived with his mother, but not his father, because his father died in a freak accident before Yun Jae was born. After a few years of trying to raise Yun Jae, her mother realized it was beyond her, so she made up with the mother she'd stopped talking to over a fight about the boy's father. Yun Jae grows up with both his mother and grandmother. He seems to have an easier time understanding his grandmother, a straight-talking, soju-drinking woman who calls her grandson a "beautiful monster."

While I'm on the subject of autism spectrum and Korean stories, I have to take the time to HIGHLY recommend the 2005 Korean movie "Marathon," about an autistic young man who trains to run a marathon. 


Yun Jae's mother tries to brute force her son's way to her vision of normalcy. She explains the outer phenomena of emotions to him, hoping he can at least learn to recognize the signs of anger or sadness, even if he can't feel them himself. She hangs posters of the Chinese words for emotions like love or sadness around the house, hoping something will sink in by osmosis.

The novel's big turning point is when both the mother and grandmother are attacked by a homicidal lunatic at the end of his rope. The grandmother dies, and the mother becomes a vegetable. Yun Jae watches the entire attack. Soon after, he meets a new group of people he was never able to come in contact when his mother protected him, and his growth begins.

The new character with the most impact is Goni, the class bully. Goni was abducted at four years of age from his real parents, lived a terrible childhood, and then was reunited with his parents as a teenager just as his mother, worn away by grief from losing track of her son at the park, died of cancer. Goni has issues.

Being a bully, Goni immediately targets Yun Jae for torment. But Yun Jae, although he does get physically mauled by Goni, never shows fear. This fascinates Goni, who eventually befriends Yun Jae. Part of what Goni is attracted to is Yun Jae's inability to feel sadness or fear, which Goni equates with strength. Goni has been hurt, and he wants to not be hurt anymore.

Ultimately, Yun Jae, through his various friendships, does learn to feel on his own, at least in some sense. It's kind of a Pinocchio story, with Yun Jae noting that his story really ended at the point when he began to feel, because he had been replaced by a new peson.

Neuro-divergence in the world at present


There's been a movement in the last decade or so I have to confess I'm a little mystified by. It's a movement against "ableism." Some of its aims I find understandable and easy to get behind: greater access to society for those considered "disabled" in some sense. It doesn't matter if we're talking blindness, deafness, cognitive issues, or whatever. And that's great.

But along with this has come the rise of a "you must not even think of these conditions as disabilities" mindset. I get that in a certain sense: one doesn't want to concede to limitations. But it's also a little absurd to not only state that a person without the ability to hear is no worse off than one who can, but then to also police the language of anyone who doesn't agree.

Then, there's an even more extreme version: not only are disabilities not really disabilities, they're actually extra abilities. Recently, someone at my office just came back from a forum on autism saying this very thing. He really believed that in the future, autistic people would come to be very powerful, because of their superior way of viewing the world and processing information.

In the history of human evolution, there certainly have been moments where traits that were a disadvantage one moment became useful the next. So-called "deleterious genes" usually are weeded out of a population, but once in a while, they stick around, and then suddenly, those who carry them end up with an unexpected advantage when the environment changes. I'm totally willing to accept this could be the case with any type of neuro-diversity. But that's not the same as insisting that these conditions are not any kind of disadvantage in the current environment, including the sociological environment.

The novel Almond neither fetishizes Yun Jae's condition nor belittles it, which strikes me as the right position to take. The reader certainly is invited to try to understand how Yun Jae thinks--at times, the description is almost too clear, and we have to simply accept it or the whole novel will disintegrate in disbelief issues. It's easy in some points of the novel to see advantages to Yun Jae's way of processing information. For example, even while getting bullied mercilessly, he eats and sleeps as he always does and doesn't fret about something that is about to happen. It's impossible to make him suffer after the immediate physical stimulus is gone, which, as well all know, is the real hell of suffering.

At the same time, it's clear that the lack of emotion is a loss. Goni tortures a butterfly in front of Yun Jae, and Yun Jae does not understand why Goni is so upset that Yun Jae will not stop him from doing it. Yun Jae cannot comprehend why he should desire for the suffering of something that is not him to end. He does not understand empathy, and this does seem like a profound gap, however much emotional strength he might gain from not being able to worry about the things that drive most humans crazy.

The best part of the book is the dual empathy-learning that takes place. Yun Jae learns what empathy means in some sense while we, the readers, are learning to try to empathize with him. His quest to learn what it means to feel forces us to ask ourselves what feelings mean. In this sense, Yun Jae performs the same useful social role that any kind of "other" plays: His difference forces the rest of us to examine things we have always assumed could not be any other way.

Ultimately, for any outsider, the best society can try to offer is a tenuous balance between remaining different with the admiration of society and blending in. This novel offered a better statement of how that might actually work than many non-fictional statements I've seen. I'm hopeful that the level of credulity I had to give the story to make it work for me doesn't mean that such a balance is impossible in the real world.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Jon Snow, Aragorn, and the myth of the ruler who doesn't want to rule

Vanity Fair ran a piece last week wondering whether Jon Snow would, like Frodo in Lord of the Rings, end the series not as a king, but by leaving for the Gray Havens--the closest thing to that in the violent world of Game of Thrones being the North. Last night's episode where Daenerys goes full dragon-PMS blew that theory up--it's hard to imagine Jon going off to live a life of luxury knowing his family would be subject to a ruler who is now revealed to be a tyrant. But last night does revive the possibility that Jon may end up as king.

That same Vanity Fair article touched upon an idea that's been popular in America since George Washington: the best rulers are the ones who don't want to rule. For many, this brings to mind Aragorn from Tolkien's legendarium, a legendarium Game of Thrones creator George R. R. Martin has admitted his series is in dialogue with.

Aragorn didn't want to be king, so he was the perfect king, the thinking goes, and now that Daenerys is definitely not the right person for the job, reluctant ruler Jon Snow will be the man for the job.

But is this really a good criterion for a ruler? Doesn't being a ruler require someone who has prepared an entire life specifically for that role?

The idea that Aragorn didn't want to be king is entirely from the movies. Tolkien's Aragorn very much wanted to be king. Elrond, the father of his true love Arwen, would only give his daughter to Aragorn if he first became the king of a united Gondor and Arnor. Aragorn actually spent decades preparing for the test. (True, he trained to win the throne by wandering and being a badass, not to be a good ruler by reading a lot, but it still shows he wanted to be king.)

If there is anything the show has taught us, it's that ruling is always a terribly deft art of threading an impossibly thin needle. There are dangers of being too soft and being too hard. There is danger in too much ambition and too little. You can show too much strength or too little. Someone like Daenerys who has been taught to believe in her destiny to rule might end up going too far in one direction, but a Stark who is always naively good might just as well go too far in the other. The only person right now on Game of Thrones who might be fit to rule is Sansa. Or Tyrion, if he could stop making one wrong decision after another.

A lot of people don't have the ambition to rule. That doesn't mean they should rule. 


I see three possibilities for the last episode next week:

-Daenerys is evil, and she is killed/ousted in favor of someone else, like Jon, Sansa, Tyrion, etc. (A cool scene could take place in which she tries to dragon blast Jon for not bending the knee to her after her nuking the city, and the dragon either won't do it or it doesn't hurt him because he's a Targaryen.)

-Daenerys is evil, but the show ends without a coup being fully carried out. Instead, we're right back where we started with a mad Targaryen and the need to find a king slayer. You can't break the wheel, because in trying to break it, you only make it go round. The entire show was about the futility of trying to escape the game. The game is inevitable.

-Daenerys is, against all reason, right. She had to do what she did. After listening to her advisers tell her over and over to go lightly, she finally had to get raw with her enemies. It's a dark and Machiavellian ending, one in which the worst thing power can do is to be half-hearted. She gets to work and does a good job ruling, after first overpowering everyone who opposes her. (Personally, I don't see this as possible. I think the graphic images of innocent people dying are clear indication she's gone too far to save. But it wouldn't be totally out of line for a show that's been pretty close to an endorsement of realpolitik throughout.)

Whatever happens, I hope we don't think that Jon can save us because of his pure heart that doesn't really want to rule unless we all ask him really nice so he just has to. 

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Given that The Avengers is about American Militarism, what is the finale trying to say?

Whether it's to say that superhero movies of the 21st century have tended to support American adventurism and imperialism or to suggest that some of the 22 Marvel movies since 2008's Iron Man have subtly questioned American militarism even while supporting an essential conservatism, a lot of critics of the series have noted the rather obvious links between the Avengers as a team of superheroes and American military power. I tend to think Nick Schaeger got it right four years ago when he showed how deftly the franchise managed to use tension between right-leaning and left-leaning superheroes in order to get both liberals and conservatives to pay for movie tickets. Both sides of the political spectrum could see themselves in the films, so both supported it.

The films do fall into a basic conservatism, but only if you're willing to think of conservative and liberal in terms broader than Republican Party and Democratic Party. In the 21st century, White Houses of both parties have supported wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both launched drone strikes in countries we weren't at war with. The parties differ in the ends American power should serve, but neither really questions the underlying validity of that power. Both Republicans and Democrats are essentially opposed to radical ideas, and in that sense, both conservative.

And that's essentially where we still are at the end of Avengers: End Game. I wondered, after seeing Infinity War a year ago, where the moral center of the Avengers universe lay. Thanos may have been delusional, but at least his philosophy was internally consistent and coherent. Where was the statement of the good guys' moral center to counter it? Throughout the entire series, the only radicalism, the only suggestions of alternatives to continuing on in the same manner doing the same things, comes from the bad guys. And the good guys don't really waste much time formulating philosophical retorts. The response to "this is all bad and must be destroyed so a better way of doing things can emerge" is always just "you're insane." There is so explanation of why the villain is insane, because that's axiomatic and self-evident. There's a reason the finale chose time travel as a key plot point: in time travel, it's best not to think about it too much. And that's how to deal with the whole series, especially when it comes to questions about WHY we should root for the Avengers.

This refusal to face philosophical threats head-on is a characteristic of comedy. There are many heavy moments in the series, especially in the last two Avengers movies, but at its heart, the series is a comedy. Comedies don't question the underlying rightness of survival, because they are about survival. The Avengers is about the survival of humanity, but by not really saying why humanity should survive, it becomes a paean to the status quo for its own sake

My son is currently the sort of teenager who hates everything. Even he walked away from Endgame saying "most of the jokes landed."


Avengers is sort of like cable news: it will offer equal time to the left and the right, but if you see anyone really radical on there, they're only there to look foolish and be the straw man for everyone else. Iron Man and Captain America can bicker about personal freedom versus public good. They can argue whether the Avengers should act on their own initiative or under the control of a quorum of well-intentioned bureaucrats. But neither is going to argue the Avengers should cease to exist, or that their role is to overthrow the bureaucrats and give people the same level of autonomy the Avengers enjoy for themselves.

It ends a little bit to the right


Although Avengers tried to keep a balance between right and left in order to maintain its profitability, it ended just a bit to the right. How? Well, the entire 22-movie arc is a little bit like the United States itself: it has a Civil War round about the middle of its existence, and that changed everything. Prior to Civil War, Iron-Man was more or less a fuck-you-I-do-what-I-want kind of guy. But after Age of Ultron, he realized that he really needs boundaries, so he was happy to accept a UN proposal to put the power of the Avengers under the authority of a world government. In a twist, law-and-order nerd Captain America was the holdout. (One writer even pointed out this was a twist because Iron Man is the "red" or Republican guy, while Captain America is the "blue" or Democratic guy, but they flipped their roles in the movie relative to how the current reds and blues feel about the UN.)

In a sense, Captain America represents individual-rights-over-state-control Jeffersonian America, while Iron Man is the Hamiltonian who is willing to accept centralization and control for the greater good. Since America has more or less adopted Hamiltonian views, it's appropriate for the anachronistic Captain America to be the one holding on to the old way of thinking. For most of the rest of the series after Civil War, the two powers are more or less equally balanced.

But that's not how it ends. Iron Man is the selfless one. Although he's managed to escape Thanos's mass extermination with his family and good life intact, he's willing to risk it to give others back what they lost. It's really this willingness to risk his own family for others more than his ultimate death stopping Thanos that is the meaningful sacrifice. His willingness to put his own happiness aside for others ultimately gives him a moral authority that Captain America had always held until that point.

Meanwhile, Captain America ends the film in a strangely selfish way. He ditches his superhero responsibilities in order to "get a life" and go have that dance with the girl he loves--the same dance he turned down way back at the beginning of the Avengers' life cycle in order to save others.

This turn gives Iron Man the moral highground by the end. It's significant that after Iron Man makes Captain America promise he won't die when they go back in time to reset the clock, Iron Man never gets to say dying words to Captain America commenting on how it turned out. Captain America isn't that important. The dying words go to Iron Man's family--reaffirming traditional family values.

Ultimately, although Tony Stark's reckless individualism fueled by the extremes of capitalism once put humanity in peril, it was Stark who saved us. Capitalism's winners can save us all if they're just good enough. Iron Man has returned to the right side of the political spectrum, and that return coincides with his redemption.

The Marvel franchise cleverly resisted being pinned down politically over its arc since 2008, and that has fueled its success. The point wasn't to have a point, it was to thrive, and they succeeded wildly at it. Marvel used the apparent back-and-forthness of the series to hide the fact that it was avoiding a deeper back-and-forth that might have happened. You can question how the machine operates, but never the essential inevitability of  the machine itself.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

The downside of writer prompts

Occasionally, I'll give writer prompts a try. If you're not a writer, you may be unaware that just like muscle heads can find a thousand workouts-of-the-day on CrossFit fora all over the Internet, writers can find thousands and thousands of writer prompts. There are many purposes to a prompt. At the most innocuous, they're just there to get your juices flowing, as it were, to give you a reason to write something. Hopefully, the thinking goes, writing the prompt may trigger something creative you can use in your real writing. Some prompts are more like an etude in music, meant to develop a particular skill. For example, in order to strengthen your ability to write descriptively, you might get a prompt to describe a scene, only the point-of-view character is upside-down. That kind of thing.

I don't use prompts a lot, but occasionally I find them useful or fun. As the kind of person who craves approval, prompts trigger the person who overachieved on assignments in college. There is a job to do, so I do it. It makes it easier to write without questioning myself why I'm writing, because the answer is that someone told me to write.

On a very rare occasion, the prompt succeeds beyond all reasonable expectation, and I end up with something that goes right into a story. The only problem with this is that I feel like it then becomes obvious that I used a prompt, which would kind of destroy the suspension of doubt of the reader. No artist wants to leave traces of, well, tracing in the drawing they did. It's the same thing for a writer. I just had a breakthrough on a story I gave up on a year ago, but a prompt helped me get there, and that's weighing on me as I continue on with the rough draft.

Maybe I'll just go with it. An artist might playfully leave the tracing paper glued to the canvas. I could just make it clear that part of the story really did start with a prompt. Or is that too corny?

The only thing I'm sure of is that just like every good CrossFit bro must post photos of his workout, I must also post photos of myself writing my prompt.

Intense. 

Sunday, April 21, 2019

What I've learned about editing and reviewing makes me wonder how good literature ever gets published

I spent a year as an editor/reader for the Baltimore Review, mostly to thank them for being the first journal to publish one of my stories. I've also been the lead fiction reader/editor for the Washington Writers' Publishing House, the co-op publisher that put out my only book a few years ago, for the last two years. As a reader who gets hundreds of entries for a very small number of openings, I often rejected stories after one page. I felt bad about this at first, but it's really unavoidable. We don't have enough readers to get through everything if we're going to read it all carefully from beginning to end. And besides, readers are going to be even more fickle than editors: if I don't want to keep reading after a page, what reader, who has no obligation to keep going, is going to keep going? So we limit ourselves to work that compels reading from page to page.

Of course, you want writing to be compelling, so maybe this is just a quick way of getting to the good stuff. But as I've been doing more serious review/critiques for the last year, it's required an entirely different kind of reading from me. I read every story twice. Often, my opinion of the story completely changes between reading one and reading two. I've frequently been ready to rip apart a story, then something about it opened up upon further reflection, and I ended up writing a very positive review.

In theory, that's how you should read every story. A story written seriously deserves a serious reader. No journal should expect they will fill their pages with stories worth reading seriously if they don't take the time to read seriously. But nobody can really do this.

So how do stories like the ones in Best American Short Stories, stories that don't reveal their secrets until you've poked and prodded at them a bit, get published? I think the answer, for the most part, is that they're written by people who already wrote enough of the kinds of stories you need to write to get past editors, and now are given enough rope that they can write a different kind of story. Yes, there are new writers in BASS every year, but it's mostly filled with established commodities, people who probably got a different kind of reading when they sent work in than others did, a more sympathetic kind of reading.

It's an old realization that readers approach a known commodity differently from an unknown one. If you put a story in front of college literature students and told them it was written by Joyce Carol Oates, you'd get a completely different reading than you would if you told them it was a story by another student submitted for a workshop.

After getting several stories published and then the book, I tried to transition to a different kind of story, one that was a little more at the core of the things I care about. Some of the stories ended up being longer. All are a lot more uncomfortable. I've had some positive feedback from editors, but the things they've pointed out about why they didn't ultimately accept the work seemed to me to be the kinds of things you'd say if you hadn't read very carefully. Two have opined on a story in a way that made me think they didn't read the key passage in the story, the one that (I hope) tied together all the questions about the main character.

This is really at the heart of why I've been in a place for a few months where I just can't even write. I'm never at a loss for words or stories or ideas. It's not that I have writer's block. It's that I don't trust myself as a writer. That's largely because I no longer trust myself as a reader. If I can write a story and put it aside long enough to look at it from the outside, and I see something in it that no editor sees, the problem isn't me as a writer, it's me as a reader. That's kind of an identity crisis for me, because if there's one thing I've always felt pretty confident about, it was that I was a fairly insightful reader.

So what do I do? Write "in the manner of a story that is likely to be published," or write my stories, even though experience should have taught me by now that's not a way to succeed? For the last few months, the answer for me has been to just not write.

Most writing advice websites emphasize how important it is to keep going through rejection. I wonder how many will tell you that at some point, rejection isn't an obstacle to push through, but a sign to be heeded? 

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Not really filling me with confidence here

I took a little break after finishing my critique of all the short stories in this year's Puschart Anthology. In my own fiction writing life, it's been more of the same: a bunch of near success, a lot more not-so-near success, also known as failure, and then the questioning of whether I want to keep doing this.

This last question has been a never-ending loop of self-inquisition for me, not just for the last six years I've been seriously writing, but for the twenty years since I first picked English as a major in undergrad. There are so many problems in the world that need addressing, and my life is passing by. I've had a small impact on a few things that maybe made the world better, but all in all, I don't know if I can really justify the resources the world put into making me who am I now when measured against what I've given it back. I believe stories have value and that they can make the world better. But how much better? And is it likely I personally will make the world better through stories?

As I was pondering whether a long-odds attempt for literary relevance is a good use of my remaining time on Earth, Literary Hub just posted an article about the role of fiction in addressing climate change. I think it was meant to be inspirational or enlightening, but it had the opposite effect on me. Climate change is obviously a massive threat to our species, and there aren't really many more critical issues in the world. So if fiction had a role to play for the better, you'd think it ought to have something to do with climate change.

The article is basically a couple of paragraphs of introduction followed by one or two paragraph statements from a number of writers who've recently created literary fiction with climate change as a major element. Here are the five main moments of this article for me:

1) "...smart policy is needed as much as great art" -from the introduction:

In reality, one drop of good policy is worth an ocean of great art, and an ocean of great art is worthless without good policy. They're not equals.

2) Two writers noted that the main thing fiction does well is create empathy, and this might be a way to engage people to do something about climate change. First, empathy might move those who aren't immediately affected to care about those who are. Secondly, empathy might motivate everyone to care more about the world that stands to be lost.

That's true; creating empathy might be what fiction does best, its most redeeming characteristic. But if I'm being honest, I feel a lot more empathy for the species being wiped out when I watch a nature documentary than I do reading a story. Only the best of the genre, like Ted Chiang's "The Great Silence," can create that level of feeling for another species in me.

3) But even if I do feel empathy, so what? One writer wrote rather anemically that "The fact that we can’t put out the fires and lower the seas with words or pictures or music doesn’t mean we’re off the hook for trying." But how is trying to create empathy really trying to save the world? As fate had it, I also just read an article from the Atlantic about Just, a company trying to master lab-grown meat (or, as they would have it, "cultured meat"). If successful, it would eliminate the suffering of millions of mass-grown animals. But the CEO of Just understands that the company's future isn't in satisfying people like me, the guilty carnivores who fail through on-again, off-again vegetarian periods. As CEO Josh Tetrick aptly put it:

“I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, so imagine one of my friends who doesn’t care about any of the shit that I’m doing now,” he said, while perched on a bar stool in front of Just’s test kitchen. This hypothetical friend goes to a Piggly Wiggly to buy burgers. Except—oh wait!—next to the animal-based patties wrapped in clear plastic, he sees a Just burger patty for less money. “That, to me, is what it’s gonna take in order to break the dam of a habit,” Tetrick said.

In other words, without giving a damn about the welfare of animals at all but by just applying good science and business principles to a problem, Just and companies like it might do more for animal welfare than all the activism in the world has ever done.

The article said this company also makes plant-based eggs, which are available at the Silver Diner, a restaurant in my area. I intend to try them soon. 


4) "One hard lesson I’ve learned from my fifteen years as a community organizer is that changing the minds of our enemies is less important than giving hope and power to our friends. I’m not writing for the people who are against us. I don’t mean to say that it’s impossible to convince people with great art—other writers might legitimately feel like the role of fiction in the climate change fight is to convince the skeptical—but that’s not my priority." -Sam Miller

What did I draw from that? It merely reinforced for the millionth time how similar the literary community is to the evangelical Christian churches I once attended. "Do I focus on evangelism or on discipleship?" is the Christian version of this issue Miller is addressing. And right now, "if they don't get it, then let God deal with them" is a pretty ubiquitous stance among literary folks. This has made literary gatherings feel fairly insular to me, and even the attempts at whatever the liberal political and literary version of evangelism is seem rather lame.

5) "I doubt that many people in power are poring over speculative literary fiction for inspiration to enact climate change policy. But they should be." -Helen Phillips

Yeah, but the thing is, they don't. Maybe they should be, but they don't. And I have to think that if people have to be shamed to read literary fiction, the fault can't entirely be with the people who don't want to read it.

Yes, fiction can be powerful. In the mosaic of intellectual tiles that have made up who I am, a couple of stories are among the most important pieces. But if fewer and fewer people are going to read what I would call serious fiction, fiction that has the power to be transformative, then the possible space to find a wide enough audience to make fiction matter is shrinking. The odds that fiction will be a useful endeavor--by which I mean an endeavor that makes life better for others--is small. It might be small enough that it just doesn't make sense to keep doing.

Or maybe I'll keep going. But this article wasn't the help it meant to be.