Sunday, December 16, 2018

A centrist--Am I a centrist? I guess I'm sort of a centrist--discovers the "Enlightened Centrism" sub-Reddit

One of the themes I often push on here is that while I'm politically liberal, I also find a lot of contemporary liberal rhetoric either wrong or right for the wrong reasons. A friend of mine who reads this blog recently asked me if I've ever seen the Englightenedcentrism sub-Reddit. That community likes to point out flaws in centrist thinking, the main one being making a false equivalency between how the right and the left are wrong and falling into some default fallacy that "the truth is always somewhere in the middle."

As Reddit goes, it's a fairly not-stupid group. Like with a lot of online communities where much of the ideology is expressed through memes, it's a little tough for me to follow the logic sometimes. The community makes frequent use of a kind of irony where you have to be very careful about whether the speaker isn't saying what he really thinks. Even its name is ironic, making fun of those who smugly think they're coming up with an enlightened via media between conservatives and liberals. Often, the meme you see isn't the poster's true feelings; it's meant to be an example of the bad thinking the community opposes, only it's not labelled that way. You have to read a lot of the content to get the hang of it. (If it weren't for my son having taught me what little I know about memetics, I don't know if I'd understand half of the Internet.)

Some example content:

I'm guessing this one is an example of what the group DOESN'T believe in

Whereas the group probably DOES support the theme of this political cartoon

This last one has the face of a commentator named "Boogie2988," whom the Enlightenedcentrism community seems to see as a sort of poster child for bad centrism. A quick look through Boogie's YouTube content seems to suggest he's a...gamer? Furbee collector? I don't know. But I guess he's said some dumb stuff.

One particular target of the community is the concept known as "horseshoe theory," the idea that the far left and the far right are closer to each other than they are to the center. The group likes to point out examples of people using horseshoe theory to lazily dismiss debates with a knee-jerk "both sides are wrong" assumption. Trump's putting blame on "both sides" during the "Unite the Right" Rally in Charlottesville in 2017 would be perhaps the best example of this kind of stupid equivalence.

Centrism that makes sense

The group's main points are pretty strong. I'm never unaware of the pitfalls of a would-be centrist, although keeping them in the back of my mind doesn't mean I never fall into them. I had to fight hard not to fall into them in the post I did just before this one. It's always possible that in the hopes of maintaining an open mind, I might end up overlooking that one side in an argument is actually right. I also have to be aware of the temptation of wanting to be the good guy, the peacemaker, when actually what is needed is not a peacemaker, but someone willing to very much take sides.

So here are some principles I think are important for a would-be centrist to keep in mind:

1) My centrism was once somebody's radicalism: The right perspective isn't always in the middle. Belief that all adults should get a vote is normal now, but it wasn't always a normal belief. It's fine if most of my political beliefs fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, but if every single belief I have is centrist, then I probably have a problem. Surely, something in society is wrong enough to need radical alteration. Centrism without self-reflection can easily become a tool of conservatism, as it can be subject to the same aversion to change.

2) Truth is usually "somewhere in between," not "somewhere in the middle": Realizing that all sides have a good point or two to make is not the same as saying they're all equally valid. "In between" Chicago and New York might mean Gary, Indiana, not Ohio. Sometimes, getting a good argument to be a little bit better means moving it a couple of feet, not hundreds of miles.

3) Centrism is hard, so if it seems like the easy answer, you're doing it wrong: The 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia had to deal with a tension inherent in any political union. The greater number of people you can get to cooperate, and the more closely you can get them to cooperate, the stronger the power of the union relative to other political bodies will be. At the same time, the presence of all those people being forced into a position of greater uniformity also makes it extremely difficult to get the group to stay together for long. What makes the political body strong also makes it weak, as the very need to sacrifice individual tastes for the good of the community also makes people wonder if the benefit they are getting from the community is worth the sacrifice. It's a lot like how a sun is held together by gravity, but the nuclear fusion that gravity creates also threatens to blow the sun apart. A political body is a dance, a continual back-and-forth of centripetal and centrifugal forces. It's not easy, and if a proposal is being put forth as the easy solution, then it's not really centrism. It's just an easy stopgap meant to avoid dealing with the problem.

4) Centrism will, however, mean accepting things you really don't like sometimes: A few people on the Enlightenedcentrist sub-Reddit had a go at Abraham Lincoln. One seemed to suggest that his "if I could keep the Union together and maintain slavery, I would do it; if I could keep the Union together and abolish slavery, I would do it" statement was an example of bad centrism. To the community's credit, that post didn't get a lot of traction, and some people pointed out that Lincoln's views on slavery were fairly complicated, but that at the heart of it, he didn't think slavery could be maintained forever.

In Lincoln's debates with Stephen Douglass, Lincoln made it clear why slavery, combined with the Fugitive Slave Act, made it impossible for the current slavery compromise to hold. If a Southern slave owner could bring a slave with him into the North, and the North was bound by law to uphold the slave owner's claim to the slave, then essentially, the South could just export slavery into the North one slave owner at a time.

Nonetheless, as President, Lincoln tried to keep the union together, which meant making a number of conciliatory gestures to the South, even on slavery. In fact, if Lincoln hadn't been so conciliatory toward the South, it would have been much more difficult for him to fight the war. The fact that Lincoln showed patience as Southern states seceded, coupled with Southern impatience that led to them attacking first at Fort Sumter, helped galvanize Northern sentiment in favor of a war to preserve the union. Even then, Lincoln still offered a return to the status quo. It wasn't until nearly two years of the war went by that Lincoln realized the costs of compromise outweighed those of moving forward. To Lincoln's immeasurable credit, when that time came, he realized it and led the push for permanent dissolution of slavery, putting forth the Emancipation Proclamation and changing America forever.

Lincoln deserves great credit for being willing to take a bold step that destroyed the status quo. But it would have been impossible for him to argue for that change if he hadn't already bent over backwards in the direction of compromise. It would have seemed too cruel and aggressive. He was bold in compromise and bold to end a compromise. Having won the war, his initial instinct was to move to restore the union. There are two inscriptions at Lincoln's Memorial in D.C. One is the Gettysburg Address. The other is his speech at his second inauguration. After considering that the war might be God's punishment on a country that allowed slavery to continue for so long (a consideration that shows how far Lincoln's thoughts on slavery had evolved, perhaps), he concluded with these words:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

That's the centrism I try to follow. "Charity for all" means I try to keep in mind the opposition's best argument and assume, if not "noble intent" (a phrase I'm growing to hate), at least not assume ignoble intent. I will have firmness in the right but only as God gives it to me to see it, which is to say I will always be at least a little skeptical of my own beliefs until they are so overwhelmingly clear to me I can't picture a scenario in which they are wrong. More than anything, it means keeping in mind the point of any political union is "lasting peace." It's to keep gravity and fission both in a point where the sun gives light and heat. The only other choices are for the whole thing to blow apart or the whole thing to crumple in upon itself. 

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Is there another color pill besides blue or red?

I've referred a lot on this site to my past as an evangelical. There are a lot of reasons I keep recalling those days. One is that even though I was only an evangelical for about seven years, it has continued to have a pretty profound psychological impact on me for decades since. Another reason is that there are a number of sociological phenomena I witnessed in evangelical churches that I've seen play out in other settings.

But are we sanctified enough?

The church I went to as a teenager had a schism where about one-fourth of the church left. The argument? How to correctly understand the roles free will and pre-destination play in salvation through faith. It is very common in evangelical churches for believers to segregate themselves from other believers based on what would seem to an outsider to be small differences in belief. Those segregating themselves justify their decision to do so based on the notion that God would rather have a small group of believers truly committed to the right set of principles than a large group of only half-correct believers.

If homo sapiens had evolved with more than two hands, would we have become less binary in our thinking? 

I see this attitude reflected in the politically liberal circles I tend to orbit these days. Liberals naturally see themselves as distinct from conservatives. I'd argue that there is a respectable form of conservatism that liberals could learn from and use to refine their own beliefs, but let's accept here that we as liberals ought to generally have beliefs that set us apart from conservatives. That being said, there is a kind of liberal that is becoming more ubiquitous, one for whom accepting the general principles of liberalism is not enough. One has to accept an ever-growing set of specific beliefs, and if you do not accept their highly refined version of what being a liberal is, then this person will not consider you fit for fellowship.

An incident in the literary world from this past summer helps to illustrate this point. Anders Carlson-Wee published a really good poem in the Nation. It was a short narrative poem in which one homeless panhandler teaches another homeless panhandler how to play on the emotions of people to get donations. It has some great lines in it: "It's the littlest shames they're likely/to comprehend." Or, "What they don't know is what opens/ a wallet, what stops em from counting what they drop." It's a smart look at what motivates people to give to those in need, and suggests people are often motivated by what giving says about them rather than love for the person in need.

The objections to the poem

As the poet said, he hoped the poem would help "address the invisibility of homelessness." So it might seem surprising that there was an outcry against the poem, mostly coming from people who likely identify as politically liberal and who would tell you they believe it's important to think of the less fortunate in society.

There were two reasons, basically. One was the "ableist" language in the poem. At one point, the adviser-narrator of the poem tells his protege, "if you're crippled don't flaunt it." This criticism is incredibly thin, and can be dispatched pretty easily. The presence of something in literature doesn't equate approval of that thing. This is something we all learn pretty early on. A poem that includes a homeless person using a word that he plausibly would have used in real life doesn't mean the reader is supposed to approve of the use of that word. Rather, the reader is supposed to imagine a person who would use such a word. Using the correct lexical terms for the situation is part of building the imaginative landscape necessary to seeing the world through the narrator's eyes. If you are writing about a racist, it's appropriate for that character to use the N-word. That doesn't mean the N-word is a good thing.

The bigger objection to the poem seemed to be that it used what has been termed "literary blackface," a white poet using AAVE, or African American Vernacular English.

Use of dialect--aesthetic and ethical considerations


Can a writer borrow from a dialect that isn't the writer's own dialect? This isn't just an ethical question, it's also an aesthetic one. Over the last few decades, heavy use of dialect has fallen out of fashion. We don't get much Huck Finn anymore. It's not just that people find it untoward; it's also a little tedious. At some point, the reader is usually saying, "Okay, I get it, the character talks in dialect, and you know the rules of the dialect. Can I just read the story now?" Generally, the "rule" for using dialect now is to throw in enough to let the reader realize that the character speaks in dialect and that what is on the page is something of a translation of that dialect for the reader. That's what Colson Whitehead did in The Underground Railroad. He didn't kill the reader with 19th Century slave dialect, but there was enough "sampling" of the dialect that we were occasionally reminded that the characters were living in a different time and place. This keeps the story from being dull for the reader. It also keeps the author from having to spend years researching dialect in order to get it right. Whitehead is black, yes, but that doesn't mean he has any advantage over a white writer in knowing what a slave sounded like 175 years ago. So he picked a good compromise.

Aesthetically, Carlson-Wee seemed to follow this compromise fairly competently. His narrator speaks in dialect, but not obnoxiously so. A good taste of it is right in the opening two lines: "If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl,/say you're pregnant." That's twice it says "you" where schoolboy American English would give you "you've," or "you're." Having done this, though, the poem then shifts to the use of "you're" where it could have justifiably said the dialect-derived "you" again. (One of the characteristics of AAVE is a reduction in the number of verb tenses.) But on that third "you," the narrator reverts to "standard" English, because we've already had enough AAVE to establish how the narrator is really talking without needing to keep hearing it over and over.

In fact, I wouldn't have even been certain this was AAVE. It shares characteristics with other English dialects. "You got" isn't just AAVE. Neither is "you is." It could have been someone other than a black narrator. 


The ethical considerations of using a different dialect than the one the writer speaks in her daily life is a little trickier than the aesthetic one. We definitely consider it offensive for a white actor to wear makeup to look like another race. I'm not exactly sure why this is; we accept using makeup to look older or younger. Is it because it's creepy? Is it because the old minstrel shows were so insanely racist that anything with even a single point in common with them nowadays is too much to take?

Would anyone argue this is ageist? 

Whatever the reason, it seems a pretty commonly accepted point. Since ethics often comes down to common consent, let's accept that as a solid principle. The question then becomes, "Is using dialect from another community than the writer's own equivalent to blackface?" I am yet to hear a convincing explanation of how it could be. It's true that one can mimic an accent or a mannerism to be cruel and to mock. One can affect a Southern accent while saying something outrageous to make the point that one thinks Southerners are stupid. A racist might fake a "black English" dialect in order to mock that dialect. But there are clearly ways to use the accent that aren't cruel or mocking. One is simply to demonstrate it. For example, "Marylanders sometimes extend and round their long "o" sound, as in "I'd like to drink a Cohke and a Natty Boh while watching the Oehs."

For a white person who is not from an area of the country where he actually learned to speak AAVE as a "native language" to "try to talk black" in an everyday social setting is almost always offensive. To try to write a black character and let him talk in his own voice, however, is neutral. It works if it works. It doesn't if it doesn't. It has nothing to do with the race of the writer. I don't believe anyone would have objected to this poem if a black author had written it. Which is the same as saying there's nothing to object to.

Having a character speak a dialect so we can inhabit that character's psychological reality is more akin to the explanatory type of use than it is to mocking. For this reason, perhaps, we tend to accept an actor's use of an accent that isn't the actor's own accent much more readily than we accept manipulation of the actor's physical appearance.

Perhaps sensing there was something not quite right about calling Carlson-Wee's use of language inherently racist, those who objected to the poem didn't always take this route. They didn't all suggest that his use of AAVE was appropriation. For example, when Roxane Gay objected to this use of AAVE by a white writer, her objection was more pragmatic than ethical. She believed it was impossible to do it right:

To argue AAVE can't be used and learned like other languages is to deny its rightful status

I think "no white writer can ever write AAVE correctly" is a hard point to argue. We have an entire profession, employing millions of people in the world, that is built on the supposition that it is possible to take words in one language and render them in the words of another language. I'm one of those millions of people who make a living doing this. We have always accepted this as necessary and even useful. We often see translators and interpreters as necessary to achieving understanding between people. Nobody has ever suggested that there is a moral issue with translating from one language to another. We might wonder, on a philosophical level, how efficacious translation really can be, and whether it's really possible to fully translate from one language to another, but nobody questions that translation is, to the extent possible, a good thing to do.

If we believe that I can take a language like Korean, spoken by people on the other side of the world, and, after years of hard work, become skilled enough to sort of use it correctly, surely someone else can do the same for people who speak a version of the same language living ten miles away? Especially if they're not really trying, as in this poem, to fully reproduce AAVE, but just to give a flavor of it to help keep the reader in the character's point-of-view?

I include words in foreign languages all the time in my stories. They're right. I know they're right, because I've done the work to know they're right. That doesn't mean I'm going to give you the same insight into a Korean character that a Korean person might. But as a white person writing for an English-speaking audience, that's okay. I can offer a translation of that character. If I can do this for a character who thinks in a language where the syntax is all backwards from English, others can probably manage it for a dialect most white people can understand without ever taking a single class in it. If I can't do everying to AAVE I can do to French, then AAVE isn't a valid language (which it is).

No true Scotsman and why it's uncomfortable to be a Liberal

I return now to my days as an Evangelical. It is always possible to continually narrow the terms of what is necessary to be a part of your community. Doing so will help to prevent disagreement within your community, but it will also reduce your impact, because it will reduce your size. While it's true that a small but ideologically unified and motivated community can achieve a lot, this isn't typically what happens. Typically, the group becomes perpetually embroiled in the effort to achieve ideological unity, and it never gets around to the accomplishment phase of its existence.

When a church continues to require more orthodoxy of its members, when it requires that you not only believe that Jesus was the Son of God and that he died for our sins, but also that God created the world in seven days and that women are supposed to be subordinate to men because that's what Paul said, you are going to get objections.

"You can't be a Christian unless you believe in a literal seven days and a rest!"
"But I'm a Christian, and I don't believe in that."
"You're not a true Christian. No true Christian would doubt Genesis 1 is literally true."

It's the perfect example of the No True Scotsman fallacy. It seems to be more and more common among the community of people who identify as politically liberal. Something comes up like the controversy around Carlson-Wee's poem, and if I do not immediately declare that I found the poem terrible and ridiculous, I will be accused of being a Fox-quoting alt-right conservative. I will counter that of course I'm a liberal, because I support ideas X, Y, and Z that are textbook liberal issues. But because I do not agree with a position that isn't a core liberal belief, I am then met with an attitude that I must be a "red-pill" alt-right acolyte.

Isn't there something besides the red and the blue pill?

"Redpill" (which is now a verb somehow) refers to the realization some people believe they have when they awake to the lies they have been fed by a media in thrall to liberal ideals. It is "the beginning of a process of radicalization in which an individual becomes enculturated in an extreme, reactionary worldview," as Bharath Ganesh said. 

It very much feels to me like if I offer any critique of where I think liberal culture is headed, I will be seen as already on that path toward radicalization. This is true even if I go to great lengths to indicate that I am not trying to "redpill" anyone, nor have I redpilled myself. In fact, I'm not. I care about liberal ideas. I want those who fight for them to have their agendas as uncluttered by erroneous thinking as possible. So I express reservations when I think some movement is headed in the wrong direction. That's not equivalent to abandoning the basics of liberal political philosophy, and it certainly doesn't mean I'm a racist or a misogynist or anything that ends with -phobe. 

Taylor Swift recommended voting for Democrats this fall after years of being an ambiguous symbol of...something... for neo-Nazis (I still haven't figured all this out, and I don't want to...Google it yourself if you're interested). When this happened, instead of embracing her turn, a lot of liberals gave her a cold shoulder. This prompted one of the funnier Tweets I've seen lately (although I can't find it now). It said, in essence, that Liberalism is the only religion that punishes its own converts. I think that fits for what happened with Anders Carlson-Wee. He's a guy who obviously cares about things liberals care about. He fully apologized for his poem, although I believe he had nothing to apologize for. But if you Google the guy now, this story is what he's about. It will follow him around for the rest of his poetry life. 

You're never "saved" as a liberal. You always need to be purer, holier, more sanctified. You can't just agree to some broad, core beliefs and disagree about side issues. You have to keep accepting every non-essential belief. This seems to me to be especially true in writing circles. I'd do much in my quest to become better known if I uncritically co-signed and retweeted every statement from literary luminaries. Instead, I post long blog entries like this one about my own ambivalence, entries I'm sure get misread by the few literary editors out there energetic enough to read my blog before they decide to publish me. I wouldn't guess this blog has ever helped me get a story published. 

In the New York Times review of the Carlson-Wee story cited above, the NYT noted that the story was mostly covered by conservative outlets, who took a certain glee in pointing out the ridiculousness of liberal PC culture run amok. This doesn't do wonders for liberal outreach, or evangelism, to use the Christian term. Seeing us turn against one of our own over the application of a string of unexamined assumptions and logical fallacies isn't going to bring a lot of thinking people over to our camp. 

Beyond the liberal political camp, it's probably not great for serious poetry, either. Almost nobody reads serious poetry anymore. Folks have opted for easy-to-digest pop poetry, which now occasionally makes it onto the best sellers list, while top poetry journals pay contributors in copies of the journal. When the only press poetry gets is a spat over a man who obviously meant to do something good getting attacked for not doing good in the right way, I doubt that makes serious poetry seem attractive to anyone.

There's another lesson to draw, though, from the fact that conservative outlets are happy to pick up stories about liberals attacking each other. It's that when someone within the liberal camp is unhappy, he will have an easier time finding a voice in a conservative outlet than a liberal one. Unable to fix speak his doubts to the faithful, who will often be shocked to even hear the doubt exists, the wavering liberal ends up going underground and effectively redpilling himself. There is no alternative to the red and the blue pills. This is why we are becoming increasingly polarized. To belong to either camp is to fully take one or the other pills. There is no purple pill. You can't even argue for a better version of the blue pill.

When we force this kind of orthodoxy out of the people in our own communities, we make it impossible that there would ever be anything in common between completely different communities. If we are that suspicious of signs of unorthodoxy in our own members, we'll never find anything worth salvaging in the camps of those outside our tribes. 

Friday, December 7, 2018

Remember when you had to get news about celebrity bad behavior from magazines at the checkout counter?

Scrolling through Twitter this morning, I saw this post from Roxane Gay, the mega-star writer:

In what has become a routine, I read something on Twitter that made me go Google what the hell they were talking about. Turns out actor/comedian Kevin Hart tweeted a few years ago about not wanting his son to do "gay" stuff like play with dolls. He also called someone a "fat fag face" or something like that.

As I was figuring out what my opinion on this was, it occurred to me that people I look to for intellectual sustenance spend a lot of time these days on what used to be written off as celebrity gossip, brain candy. Just today, in addition to the Hart story line, there was something about Lena Dunham--whose name I've heard hundreds of times but whom I'm still not sure I've actually seen in anything--doing...I don't know...bad stuff about rape or something? I didn't look into that one.

A lot of the last two years has required me to do some fairly in-depth research into what bad thing a celebrity did, including exactly what way both the victim and the accused claim a certain touch went down. I know a lot about a date Aziz Ansari went on.

All of this involves a pretty significant shift in intellectual discourse. It's not necessarily wrong to talk about pop culture or sports or other light-hearted fare in a serious forum. I've offered serious analyses of a Star Wars movie and an Avengers movie. Just because something isn't aimed at intellectuals doesn't mean the intelligentsia can't treat it seriously. Pop culture may not be an intellectual product, but it does reflect the culture it was made by and for, and it's completely legitimate to study the artifacts of that culture in a serious way.

But I can't help thinking we're kind of taking that liberty a little far, and we're using it to indulge ourselves in stories that don't really concern us. I remember when I first realized I wanted to be smart, that I wanted to take learning seriously. I was a teenager, and one of the first things I did--perhaps needlessly--was to try very hard to avoid pop songs or celebrity news. I really thought just knowing the words to pop lyrics or knowing facts about celebrity lives would make me dumber. It was probably overly zealous of me, but I think we could do with a little of that zeal now.

It's hard to believe there are no consequences to intellectual life in America of a shift that now has intellectual figures talking about celebrity news on a routine basis as if that news were important. When key figures start to talk about a subject and others, under that influence, also rush to become informed about it so we can join in the discussion, that sets the intellectual agenda. Today, smart people who help shape what other smart people are talking about are in a deep conversation about Kevin Hart. He's a funny guy, but I don't know if he's as important to be talking about as, say, all the research on the coming climate disaster that's just emerged. There is almost no difference in subject matter between some "intellectual" discourse and what is probably being talked about today on The View. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Props to the Adirondack Review: The "encouraging rejection" is one of the best services a literary journal can provide

I've probably written about rejection more than any other subject on this writing blog. That's because it's the single most ubiquitous fact of writing life. That doesn't change after a few publications or a few dozen or a few hundred. Nearly every writer faces rejection, even the stars. True, if you're Cormac McCarthy, your form of rejection might be that you didn't win a Pulitzer this year, instead of that your story didn't get published by the Zimber Creek Review, but either way, you're going to face disappointment.

I've received a few rejections just this week, but one of them stood out. The Adirondack Review added a little note to the automatic notification. They wrote this: We really enjoyed your work, and it was a strong contender for publication in The Adirondack Review. However, we regret to write that it was not selected. We encourage you to submit again.

Literary journals, most of which make no money (in fact, they often have to exist off the largesse of a patron who endows the magazine), are providing a valuable service to American literature. They provide a training ground for the next important writers to emerge. Without small journals, there wouldn't be as much good work coming to the big journals, and there wouldn't be as many writers perfecting how they write enough to produce important novels. 

Choosing stories for publication is always subjective, by definition. A story later regarded nearly universally as great may spend years getting rejected before is gets published. Jacob Guajardo's "What Got Into Us," one of the choices for this year's Best American Short Stories collection, spent two years getting rejected before it finally found a home, which led to it eventually being picked for BASS.  

What that means is that there is nothing "right" about any choices a journal makes. A "good" story is more likely to get published than a "bad" one most of the time, but there are all kinds of reasons why a good story might be hard to recognize at first. It's also very hard for a panel of editors to pick the "best" of what they got. One editor might like it, another might hate it, and a third might be on the fence.

What I'm getting at is that even though small journals do a great literary service by giving developing writers a place to go to test how they are doing at developing as artists, the feedback writers get isn't always going to give the right messages. This is especially true if you are only getting a "yes" or "no" every time. I can tell you, as a former literary journal editor myself, that there are a hundred different kinds of "no," from "almost made it and probably should have made it, in retrospect," to "I quit reading after one sentence."

So when journals go the extra mile to let you know that you made it past the slush pile and got real consideration, that's incredibly useful feedback. It says you're on the right track, and there is probably something to the story you've got. It might need a tweak, or it might just need to be submitted more. But either way, it hit a nerve somewhere, which increases the likelihood it'll do the same somewhere else. It takes a minute to craft that extra language in the email, and I understand that every journal everywhere is overworked, but just writing a few of those kinds of rejection with every edition you put out makes a journal's impact to the writing community much stronger.

It was especially useful to hear this response on the story in question, which is really an oddball. I wasn't sure that editors would even be open to the premise at all. This is now the second rejection-with-feedback I've had on the story, though, so I guess I'll keep pushing forward with it. I'd never know, though, if it weren't for editors who care.

Monday, December 3, 2018

What is this strange feeling? Is this the humility people have always talked about?

One of the recurring themes I've tried to capture in this blog over the years is the internal struggle between believing in yourself as a writer enough to stay the course and being wise enough to realize when you need to change. It's the most difficult part of developing. Without heeding advice and changing here and there, you'll never improve. But without believing in your vision as you see it to such an extent you're willing to ignore all the advice, you're unlikely to write anything worth reading.

Be it bad advice or just too much good advice, sometimes, listening too much to various flavors of focus groups just produces crap. 

I've bounced around between the two poles, trying to find the right mix that works for me. I tend not to find a settled place in between, but more to swing back and forth between the two. One day I'm an island, the other I'm desperate for someone, anyone to tell me what I'm doing wrong.

The other day, though, I experienced something that wasn't quite either. I got a notice that someone was publishing a story I'd submitted. That now makes eight total acceptances (including the book) against maybe 250 rejections. Until now, when I've managed to snag an acceptance, I feel about two seconds of gratitude to the universe for allowing me some small measure of success, followed by the inevitable greed: it's great that I got it accepted, but maybe I should have held out for a bigger name journal? Last week, however, I didn't feel that at all. I didn't feel justified or relief or any of the expected feelings. I felt unworthy. Not fake unworthy, like in an Oscars acceptance speech, but really unworthy.

I think it has something to do with how I view artists as secular prophets. It's an extension of my former evangelicalism, which even though I now completely reject, continues to pervade my view of the world. If artists are prophets, then they should be wiser and holier than I am.

If that's not true, though--if prophet-artists are just screwed up, utterly lost people like me, then that invokes another old ideas from my Bible-toting days: grace and election. Artists aren't artists because they are better people than others. It seems like they should be, since part of art is to show us a better way to live, hopefully. But that's not how it works. Stories go where they choose to go. It's easy for anyone who's ever written to understand where the idea of muses came from. You work and work and work at a story, and the story eludes you, until one day you wake up and something totally different from what you were working on just shows up in your brain and you write it in three days and it's just right and it's exhilarating but also utterly humbling.

So I guess that's what I felt last week: another holdover from my days at Faith Bible Church, humility. I don't know what that means for how I write. Maybe it means I should try to exert less control over my stories, because they aren't really "my" stories. But I usually hate that kind of talk. It sounds like a writer being pretentious and trying to sound like an author. I think for me, it serves more to contextualize the failure I have such a hard time with. If I am "chosen" to write stories (by whom I do not know--I'm still as agnostic as ever), then I am also chosen to go through the failure.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

An idea for an anti-workshop

I think I've made it clear I don't like the writing workshop. Lately, though, I've been thinking of trying to teach a writing class, which is making me confront the idea of the workshop. There are two reasons I'm interested in teaching writing. First, I'm dreaming of being able to change jobs some day, and I hope that starting to build a resume in writing, or teaching generally, will help me to do that. Secondly, I'm starting to have enough confidence as a writer that I think I could actually do this and be helpful to others.

I also just really like teaching, at least when I don't have to follow a curriculum someone else created.

Here's my idea for how to handle a fiction writing class: as the instructor and presumed guy who knows what he's doing, I'd handle most of the close critiquing and suggestions for how to make what students give me better. I'd use examples from writing in each meeting/class to demonstrate common mistakes and how to fix them.

Instead of using the class time to go around and let everyone comment on the stories we're commenting on that week, I'd use the class in a different way. Student feedback is important, but not necessarily for improving the mechanics of the stories of their peers. Instead, I'd like to use them as testers of real readers. I'd tell each of them to read the stories we're looking at that week. Then, they would fill out a sheet anonymously saying whether they read all the way to the end or not. If they didn't, they should say where they stopped and why.

Readers are cruel. They have no reason to be nice. It doesn't take any special competence to be able to provide that service to writers trying to develop. Anyone can be a focus group. Even if you have a stupid reason for not liking the story, that's useful, because there are stupid readers that writers will have to deal with. As long as we're framing that feedback as realistic reader feedback and not helpful peer suggestion on how to improve, it's got its use.

I always wished that my creative writing classes in grad school were just one-on-one feedback from the instructors, not peer review. When I asked my adviser why we didn't do it like that, she said it's because the students in the class were, in many cases, going to go on to be writing instructors themselves, and they needed to learn how to give feedback. That's maybe valid at a college MFA program, but I don't think your average developing writer wants that. Most students are there to learn to write better and for no other reason. That's especially true of the classes I'd be looking to teach. So it makes sense to me to give them that and only that.

Anyone ever do a workshop like this? Any other ideas for how to run one, keeping in mind I'd like to avoid the traditional format?

Monday, November 19, 2018

Is literary society monocultural? On that Quilette opinion piece by Matthew Binder

Occasionally, news happens in the literary world with enough noise, even my non-literary friends hear about it. That's what happened when Matthew Binder, author of the soon-to-be-launched novel The Absolved, posted an opinion piece on Quillette on Friday. I actually heard about it from a mathematician friend before I started seeing literature folks posting about it.

There's not much controversial in the novel he wrote, it seems. It's a futuristic piece about the world of 2036, in which automation and AI have replaced nearly all the meaningful work in the world, leaving humankind listless. Binder compares the concerns of humanity in the 2036 of his novel to those of various groups in the 2016 election, only now, "they've gone beyond demagoging foreigners and immigrants, and are going after machines."

Sounds interesting enough, and probably timely, although the first thing it made me think of was how much it sounds like Kurt Vonnegut's novel Player Piano, which already was looking at themes like this sixty years ago. (I can't believe this novel of Vonnegut's isn't studied more. Unlike most of his work, the specific apocalyptic element in this one--much of humanity left without meaningful work to do--seems like a real threat in my children's lifetime.) But I'd have maybe been interested enough in the novel's premise to buy it, assuming reviews came in somewhat favorably.

What caused the fuss

What caused the fuss wasn't the novel, it was Binder's discussion of what it took to get the novel published. While working the literary circuit in New York, trying to find a sympathetic agent or publisher, Binder found two things: a homogeneously extreme liberal political mindset within publishing, and a prejudice against new, white, male authors.

As proof of the first characteristic of literary culture in New York, Binder offers the events of parties he went to, parties where Trump's America was routinely described as "fascist." Binder claims this view of politicians as fascist extended even to New York's centrist Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo.

Binder's proof of a bias against white male authors--or at least new, white, male authors--by the publishing powers-that-be comes from specific setbacks he faced in trying to publish his book. Assuming the things he claims happened really happened to him--and I have no reason to think they didn't--then his case is mildly compelling. He claims one acquisitions editor from an independent press showed interest, but this interest was blunted by the editor's boss, who sent an email (which the editor showed Binder) saying "We're not taking on unknown white guys this year."

Binder also says an agent scolded him for "bigotry" because his novel includes a successful Muslim revolt in Paris in the future. Another said the novel was "misogynist" because the main character--whom, Binder stresses, is an intentionally highly flawed anti-hero--was no longer attracted to his wife. A third basically said most readers are female, and the distinctly male voice of the novel would not resonate with them.

The reaction

I was especially struck with the reaction of Julie Barer on Twitter. Barer is an extremely successful New York literary agent. Her list of clients includes some powerhouses. She was the first agent I tried to pitch my novel to, partly because I studied under Luis Urrea, one of her clients, and I hoped (even though Urrea never answered my email to him) that this might give me some kind of in. Not surprisingly, I got a no.

Here's what Barer wrote on Twitter about this article:

Flaws in this reasoning

She's a major agent and probably has a much better sense of the industry than Binder does from his two years of struggling to publish a novel. I do think, though, that there might be some logical flaws in what she posted here.

First, her proofs she cites that men are doing fine are somewhat arbitrarily picked. It's like when you see those lists of "spooky coincidences" between Kennedy and Lincoln's deaths. Granted some of these things are true, do they really mean that much? For example, so only two of the top ten writers on the NYT Fiction list were women (actually, when I checked, it was three of ten). But six of the top thirteen were women. Next month, it might be six women out of ten. What does one week's list tell you? And how many of the top 100 are women?

Similarly, are last year's Pulitzer and Nobel that meaningful? In 2016, the Nobel for Literature went to Bob Dylan, so how much does the award really even matter to anyone anymore? I don't know how "top paid authors" is measured. When I think of really rich authors, I think of J.K. Rowling, E.L. James, and Stephenie Meyer, all women. I believe Barer's statistic about the top five, but I think there are probably enough high-paid female authors that the profession isn't really a patriarchy, at least not when it comes to money.

Much more importantly, though, Binder's opinion piece wasn't really about the literary world being anti-male or anti-white. It was about it being homogeneous, both politically and aesthetically, and it being difficult for an outside voice to break in. Binder claimed that the publishing industry eschewed profit for ideology. The things Barer said about the industry could be true and still completely vindicate what Binder wrote; if men are popular and sell well, surely, Binder would argue, that's a reason for getting more of them published?

Not really an endorsement, just a reminder that not being all right doesn't mean he's all wrong

It's tempting to give in to all-or-nothing thinking here. Either Binder's all right and the literary community is full of hypocritical ideologues, or he's all wrong and just whining about the world not immediately falling at his feet for a book that doesn't really sound all that original. We ought to avoid this kind of either-or thinking.

Binder's anecdotal evidence doesn't cement the case that publishers rabidly enforce a political orthodoxy, but I've certainly felt there is some evidence for this same thing. I'm center-left with a smattering of center-right or libertarian-leaning ideology, and I've often felt that's not nearly left enough when I hang out at literary gatherings. Being pretty far left is the assumed political ideology in literary fiction. Like Binder, I've also felt that I needed to keep quiet in certain literary circles and not say things like, "Are you sure Trump's America is actually fascist and not just potentially so?" This, even though I genuinely cannot stand to hear Donald Trump speak. It's not enough to dislike him; I have to believe he's actually Satan incarnate. 

Binder's work might not be that great. Many people commenting on Barer's tweet opined that the sample passage from his book sounded somewhat south of virtuosic. I'd agree with them. If I were judging on it, I probably would have passed. It's not bad, but it's also not scintillating. It's mid-range sci-fi writing, suffering from the typical sci-fi flaw of trying to explain everything about the universe in frequent asides. 

But it's too much to say Binder is just being petulant. For one thing, petulance is a pretty common reaction to being a new writer. My early blog posts are a testament to that. That just comes with the territory. You can write well and still get nowhere, and it's very hard to accept that. Assumptions that the game is rigged come kind of naturally. 

Furthermore, NOT accepting rejection can be a healthy trait. Binder continues to believe in himself even after extensive failure. That might have something to do with why he's got a novel coming out and my novel is still looking for a home. Stubborn belief in oneself might be annoying, but it's also effective more often than it's not. 

I've learned to accept that when I get rejection, it sometimes really is about me. That's been a hard lesson. I still have a tough time believing that someone like me, with a growing list of publication credits and a deep background in an important subject that no literary fiction writer has ever had, can forever keep failing to get my novel published, but I also don't think it's a conspiracy. It just hasn't happened yet. Partly, that's my lack of persistence. Binder is persistent, and his persistence extends to stubborn faith in his work even after frequent rejection. Maybe he could use a little more of the humility I've learned, but that's not a reason to hate him. If it weren't for his brashness, we wouldn't have read anything from him to begin with. 

Just take the evidence he offers for what it is

Binder offered anecdotal evidence of his experience and drew some conclusions from it. We can reject his conclusions, but the anecdotes themselves must mean something. You don't have to end up thinking that every publisher and agent in New York is a hypocritical fool. I certainly don't. I assume they work in a business, they know the business, and they generally have sound business-based reasons for the decisions they make. If it's hard to break in as a new white male writer, there are societal and market-driven reasons for this that have nothing to do with ideology. But if the things Binder said happened to him--and I think they probably did--then that means SOMETHING. 

Ultimately, my concern is twofold. First, America is becoming more polarized. I mean this in a literal sense: not just that we are disagreeing more, but that opposing sides are actually becoming more ideologically distinct. Republicans are getting more conservative and Democrats more liberal. That's not something in Binder's imagination. The Pew Research Center found in 2014 that "median Republicans polled as more conservative that 94 percent of Democrats (up from 70 percent twenty years earlier), whereas Democrats were more liberal than 92 percent of Republicans (up from 64 percent in 1994)." (Quote taken from the Times Literary Supplement, 10-26-2018, in a review by Eric Ianelli on two books looking at modern horror stories.)

This means you can no longer be a Democrat without being a complete Democrat, without accepting your party's full platform, preferably of the more extreme varieties, just to be safe. This doesn't seem healthy for America. There is no consensus to build. There is only winner-take-all war. 

Secondly, I'm concerned about the influence of literature. Agents and publicists are making, I'm sure, what they think are the best choices in order to stay alive, but literature is so small a part of American public discourse now, if it becomes any less a part of public discourse it won't be part of it at all. This isn't mostly publishers' fault, of course. There are macro-forces at work in society to make literature less influential. But I don't think Binder is off to think that publishers are hurting themselves by giving America what those publishers want to read themselves rather than what America wants to read. The choices now are thoughtless and mainstream or thoughtful but somewhat fringe and alienating. This while the Golden Age of Television is giving us countless choices that are politically mainstream but still intellectually challenging. 

Binder might irritate some in publishing with his observations, but they will ignore him at their own peril. They don't have to like him, but they ought to pay some attention to what he said, or they'll end up like characters in his story, looking for any kind of meaningful work to be had.