Wednesday, December 13, 2017

I am not a cat person, but I am sort of a "Cat Person" person

If you haven't heard--and I hadn't, before I woke up Wednesday morning--a short story from The New Yorker has gone viral. Or as viral as a short story gets, anyhow. Kristen Roupenian's "Cat Person" has, improbably, not only drawn commentary from literary heavyweights, but is the subject of conversation among normal folks.

The fact people are even talking about it is part of the fuss

Nobody pays attention to short stories nowadays. The joke among all the hundreds of journals that publish them is that the only readers are other writers hoping to get published. But even those writers are just hoping to publish short stories until they can get a novel published, when you might finally get large numbers of regular people to notice you.

It wouldn't surprise me if part of the hate this story got--and there was hate--comes simply from people in the literary community who are irritated that this one story is getting so much love. As Vox's summary of the hub-bub on this story put it:

The short story is a medium already granted precious little respect — and now people barely acquainted with it were holding up “Cat Person” as exceptional rather than typical. Hackles rose; not necessarily at the story’s readers, but at the literary culture that makes it so easy to skate by on knowing the three short stories everybody reads in 10th-grade English, and to treat the great short stories that are written every year as afterthoughts.

I have to admit, while reading the story, I had to fight feelings of jealousy or maybe territoriality, wondering what it was that made this story, out of the tens of thousands of stories published every year, so popular. I myself wrote a story in the same thematic family this year, one in which a young woman wonders about the dating credentials of a man who isn't the paragon of masculinity. My main character does not share "Cat Person's" main character's other privileges, but she is dating a guy she's not entirely sure is up to snuff with the expectations she's been conditioned to have. I can't get the fucking thing published. So it was hard for me to deal with this story's explosive popularity. I got over it, though, and I'm glad I did.

Key issues people are arguing about

One major reason the story is so hot is pure serendipity. There is a bad date followed by bad sex that Margot, the main character, is wishing she weren't having. That bad sex forces the reader to ask a lot of questions. At a moment when America is having a come-to-Jesus experience about unwanted sexual acts, this story's central event takes place when a girl misinterprets a guy, ends up initiating sex she really doesn't want, and then following through because she feels the imperative to be nice. A really good story puts the reader in a tough moral space and forces us to ask hard questions of ourselves. In this case, one question is: "Was this consensual sex?"

It's a hard question to answer. It wasn't not consensual. It wouldn't hold up as rape in court. Or would it? He is 34, we find out, after the date, and she is only 20. He bought her beers. He questions whether she is drunk. It appears momentarily that he is going to turn down her sexual advances--which she clearly starts, not him--based on the possibility she is drunk. He is unable to resist, though, when she persists. He's a man. And probably not one who is all that successful with the ladies. One is now throwing herself at him, from what he can tell. He's only going to be able to say no for so long.

He never seems to force anything on her. He's not good in bed. She's dying for it to be over. But he doesn't know that.

It's a good story precisely because there's no easy answer to just how culpable both parties are. Bad decisions were made, and there is some blame to pass around.

I'd wager that most people would have given Robert--the sad sack guy--more benefit of the doubt if it weren't for the story's ending. He seemed to me to just be a guy who stumbled into dating above himself, got lucky, and then faced inevitable dumping. The dumping is brutal. Three days after sex, when Margot has ignored him nearly the whole time, Margot's roommate takes her phone and texts Robert this message: “Hi im not interested in you stop textng me.”

Robert sees Margot in a bar a month after that text. He texts her after seeing her. He starts off okay, just wanting to know if he did anything wrong, but he ends in a rage, asking if she is fucking the guy she was with in the bar. The last line of the story is Robert calling Margot a whore.

So maybe the guy was bad news all along, and not really so innocent that night.

Fat shaming

Some who didn't like the book, including literary all-star Roxanne Gay, hated Margot's attitude to Robert's body. The main reason she is repulsed by him is that he is fat. She notices “his belly thick and soft and covered with hair," his penis “only half visible beneath the hairy shelf of his belly.”

Margot appears to be a young woman of some privilege. She is in college. She is thin. While Robert is apparently touchy about her high-brow views of film, she is equally touchy about being seen as high-brow.

While some have criticized the story for its obsession with fat, others have pointed out that characters are not required to be role models. Margot is a product of the culture she inhabits, and that culture has conditioned her to have feelings toward fat bodies. The story is just being honest about the thoughts of a young woman dating.

A light touch of mansplaining

A lot of men apparently don't like this story.  I do. I especially liked the treatment of Margot's back-and-forth creation of a narrative for minuscule clues from Robert on their date. But I'm going to push back a bit on how Robert is being interpreted in a way that I'm sure some will find just so typical of a man. I think that when Robert calls Margot a whore at the end, we're supposed to lose all sympathy for him. The author suggested as much. But why do we forgive Margot's fat shaming, but not Robert's decision to try to hurt her with words after she has rejected him? You shouldn't call someone names like that, but he was probably drunk, had just seen the girl who dumped him after sex in a rude text three days after their date, and was at a very low point. He didn't attack her physically. He attacked her with a text.

I think we're meant to extrapolate back from that ending into the story and see him as something of a monster throughout. Margot wonders more than once whether he might be a murderer, since she knows so little about him. We are supposed to wonder the same thing at the end.

But I don't think so. I think that text is the lowest Robert is likely to go. He's a ball of insecurities. He's what my one friend calls a "Beta." He's a man without either the physical or social qualities a manly man is supposed to possess. He's got cats (probably), for crying out loud. That is not a good harbinger of a man's masculine qualities in our culture. He got his hopes up, because a girl out of his league seemed to hit on him in a movie theater, then pursue a relationship with him, then initiate sex, and then the whole dream came crashing down. He's devastated. 

Some might say he was a scoundrel for dating someone 14 years younger than him. I don't think Robert is the kind of guy who can afford to be that scrupled. She's legal and she seemed to be into him. He also seems to have thought she was older than she was when he met her.

Does calling a woman a name meant to demean her sexual conduct eliminate a person's claim to sympathy? I'd guess you'd get a statistically significant spread of responses from men and women on this. At least some men can feel some sympathy for Robert. I don't claim I'm right, only that I do feel it, too.

This story came at a good time for me

In addition to all the news of the past few months, in the past two weeks, I've also watched two shows on Netflix that dealt a lot with the issues that young women face while trying to figure out dating, love, and sex. One was Spike Lee's series "She's Gotta Have it," the other was the Korean drama translated as "Hello My Twenties." Both had a few scenes that were hard for me to watch, because they did an excellent job of showing how for women, the time of life where you're trying to find yourself can switch from magical to terrifying in a heartbeat. In her New Yorker interview after the story, Roupenian quotes--strangely enough--Louis C.K.: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid men will kill them.” This story was a punctuation mark on a couple of weeks' meditation on this theme.

Like most short story writers, I'm glad a short story is getting so much attention. It's not a perfect story. That ending strikes me as possibly an unearned surprise, or a bit of a hokey shock ending. But it still a very good story, and worthy of attention. That isn't less true just because there are thousands of other stories every year also worthy of this much discussion.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Writing is not your day job, so don't treat it like it is

In grade school, I loved the math game we called "travel." You've probably played it, even if it was called something else. Two students stand and the teacher reveals a math question on a flash card. Whoever shouts out the right answer first moves to the next desk and faces off with whoever is sitting there, and the process repeats itself. The student who travels the most desks during the game wins.

I guess I must have been a cocky kid. Strange, since now I have almost no confidence in anything I do (or, more accurately, I vacillate wildly between total confidence and crying in a corner), but I liked that there was a game that not only tested whether you knew something, but how quickly you could get through it. It was a way to show how easy math was for you.

In graduate school, when I read Castiglione's Book of the Courtier, I learned of the notion of virtu, which the kids today might translate as "skills." Castiglione proposed that a distinguished gentleman of court would strive to not only show himself skilled in all the subjects a gentleman should be adept in, he should also strive to make it look easy, to show his virtu, his skills. It wasn't enough to succeed, you had to succeed with style, to hide the hard work that went into becoming adept in the first place.

Trying to make it look easy can win you admirers, but there's also an obvious downside to it. Josh Waitzkin, the one-time child chess prodigy who was the subject of the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, noted once that when he was a child, he would often beat better chess players because they were hurrying, trying to make it look like beating a child took nothing out of them to accomplish. Trying to look cool cost them big time, and they ended up looking like doubly uncool as they would have if they had just let everyone see that beating this particular kid was not that easy.

At my day job, I am sometimes guilty of trying to make the work look easier than it really is. Part of this is just work politics: if bosses think there's no work I can't handle, then I get the good assignments and more responsibility. In theory, one day this will lead to me getting promoted and paid more. I also tend to mistrust the perfectionists, whom I sometimes believe are using the quest to make zero mistakes as an excuse for malingering. Whatever picayune mistakes I might sometimes make, I more than make up for in quantity of work.

Don't quit your day job, but also don't try to do your day job at home

But I sometimes take this attitude home with me to the stories I write. I act like just having written a lot of more or less passable stories is what I'm aiming for, instead of ripping into the depths of myself to write the best story I possibly can right now, even if it's the last thing I do. I try to charge through my writing to-do list like it's a list of weekend chores: finish rough draft of story about the unfairness of the immigration system; touch up story about a young woman's ambivalent search for her own racial identity, but really ratchet up the tension in the climax and if you can, see about making that description of the hospital unforgettably beautiful and yet haunting.

It doesn't work like that. Writing isn't raking leaves.

I blame those writing advice givers for making me think it is. I mean the ones who tell you to write every day, as though writing were nothing more than a set of push-ups to do in the morning. Writing is hard. Or, it's hard if you're doing it right. That doesn't mean that every time you sit down to write something, it's going to feel like drawing blood. Sometimes, the writing comes rather naturally. But getting into that state where the writing comes to you--that's what's hard. You're not going to be in that state every day of your life.

I'd wager one of three things is true about those who write every day:

1) They're professionals. All they do is write, so they can arrange every day in such a way that they are in the right space to write;
2) Their writing sounds like it was cranked out by force (i.e., it sucks); or
3) They write a lot of wasted words.

I realize everyone has their own way of approaching writing. If writing every day works for you, and you don't mind writing a lot of words that are going in the trash, have at it. I find that just wears me out, and delays me getting into the right head space to do the good writing I need to do.

In my last post, I indicated that I hadn't written in a few months. It was partly a loss of self-confidence, but it was also just exhaustion. Work has been very tough the last few months, and I eventually wore out trying to match my energy during the day when I came home every night. I needed a few weeks of mindlessness, of doing anything except writing, in order to get to where I could write again. The writer's mind is a well. It can run dry if you are over-using it. You have to give it time to fill up, and you have to give it reading and experiences and just plain idleness so it fills up again.

I just had one of the most productive weekends I've ever had. All that lack of self-confidence I had a few months ago melted as the words just came to me. I'm on such a roll right now, that I really need to give it a rest for a few days. Common wisdom might be to keep going while I'm on that roll, but I think it's really better to leave while you still want more. In a few days, I'll come back to where I was with fresh eyes and new energy.

Some people fear that if you don't keep pushing through the same work while you're in the same frame of mind, it will end up sounding like it was written by more than one person. I actually don't think this is always such a bad thing for a story. Most stories I read for my magazine where I volunteer start off pretty strong and then flag. They get bogged down and lose their initial energy as the writer starts trying to get into the exposition. This is a very difficult thing to avoid, but doing different parts in a different state of mind can actually give each its own propulsion. You are really taking the work of another person--the writer you were the last time you were working on this story--and riffing off of it as the person you are now.

You can probably write a story all in one go if you're writing micro-fiction. If you're not, it's going to take you a while to write the story. It really is. That's because writing is hard. If it seems hard to you, that means you're doing it right. Don't try to keep pushing through as though it isn't. 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Can you actually desensitize yourself to rejection?

Following my latest trend of reading whatever the algorithm gods have suggested I read, I recently perused a parenting advice article on getting your kids to become "rejection proof." It had to do with getting your kids inured to hearing no, so they aren't afraid of asking for what they want. The premise was that the more you ask for something, the more you get used to being told no, so the more courageous you become.

I wondered, "Does this work for wrirting?" Am I becoming more desensitized to rejection, and therefore more able to work through it?

I don't think so. The last few months, I've been almost completely unable to write fiction. I stopped in the middle of a rough draft of a story in October. Prior to that, I'd been on a roll. Feeling pretty good about myself, I submitted all of my recent work since the book, six stories in all, to many of the top 50 literary journals in September. In October, the rejections started coming in, and they haven't let up. One day, my creative mind just stopped firing, tired of producing work that is just going to sit on my hard drive.

You'd think I'd be used to it by now. I've had over 130 rejections to only six yesses as a writer, one of those yesses being the book. But apparently, I'm not used to it. Neither has my work for a literary journal, where I see how long the odds are and how haphazard the process of selection sometimes is, helped me to be philosophical about rejection. It feels personal every time. 

I think there are a few reasons rejection in writing is a more difficult thing to get used to than the kinds of rejection this article on raising kids was talking about.

1) Although "never settle for a no" is a rule in sales, if a customer doesn't want to buy your widget, that's not a slam on you as a person. But rejection of your writing is in a class with being turned down for a date or a job. It feels like someone is saying no not just to your work, but to you.

2) No matter how many times I get rejected, I can't keep myself from getting excited every time I see a notice come in. Every no, two seconds before opening it, has the potential to be the definitive yes that could make getting your work out there easier from now on. It could be the yes that means you're taken seriously. I cannot make myself stop doing this. So every rejection hurts a little bit, because it represents a little flicker of hope snuffed out as soon as it starts to burn.

3) Rejections have a strange way of coming in at a bad time, like right after you get the bill that says that your insurance isn't paying for that trip to the emergency room, or right after you find out you didn't get a promotion at work. They are often a fuck-you cherry on top of an already shitty day.

4) Would you want to date someone who machine-gunned through dating rejections until he got a yes? Probably not. Neither, I think, would you want to read the work of someone who didn't put enough thought into his work and who he was sending it to that every no stung at least a little.

5) Courage isn't an obstacle, like it is in sales. I don't talk to the people who read the story and reject it. It's a very impersonal interaction. It feels like nothing. It's not like asking a girl to the dance. It's like applying for a loan. 

Overall, I'm probably a little able to withstand rejection than I was five years ago, but I'm more like rejection-resistant than rejection proof. I can withstand a little splash of rejection, but don't drop me in a pool of it, or I won't keep functioning. I'm pretty sure I'll get through this current patch and get back to writing stories before too long. I'm drying out, so to speak. But I don't think rejection in writing is something you can harden yourself to the way a salesperson can learn to ignore it. That's like saying the best way to protect yourself against getting hit in the ribs with a baseball bat is to do it repeatedly until it doesn't hurt anymore. 

Sunday, December 3, 2017

On taking it easy on yourself

It occurred to me today that there was a period of a few years when I was younger where nearly everyday of my life, I would listen to a commercial with these words:

Honeycomb's big
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
It's not small,
No, no, no.

So if I sometimes struggle during a key moment in a story to come up with a passage that seems sufficiently lyrical, I ought not to blame myself too much. Our society is meant to produce consumers, not artists.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The smugness you don't even know you have

This isn't going to be a scorch-and-burn attack. If I were interested in getting clicks, that's the kind of post I'd write. My son listens to enough of those kinds of things on YouTube--one YouTuber making a living off of attacking another one. Milo Yiannopoulos has become famous and wealthy exploiting this kind of thing. The subject, however, is too important to turn into an opportunity for chest-thumping.

I've been putting off posting this for a long time, because I can't see that anything personally good will come to me from posting it. But if I am really committed to writing about truth as I see it, this is a post I have to publish. 

The rhetoric of those who claim to speak on behalf of racial equality is awful. It's conceited, it's condescending, it's preachy, and it's irritating. It reminds me a lot of the kind of rhetoric I encountered among evangelical Christians when I fell into that group for several years as an old child and young man. It slows racial progress by turning the focus from practical areas of improvement to a cultural war over language.

A recent blog post by a mother who seems like a very good person hits nearly every obnoxious trope of the priesthood of self-appointed curators of correct language on race. From its title, "The Kind of Racism You Don't Even Know You Have," I knew where it was going, and it wasn't going any place good. It used at least four of the rhetorical devices that are the worst, most logically inconsistent, most condescending tropes of the genre.

1. The title. "The kind of racism you don't even know you have." There are a number of problems with this, but some of them will be dealt with later, so I'll just stick to this one: It's in the interests of those who claim to have the truth on racial linguistic propriety to mystify it. If everybody feels uncertain about how to talk about race, then we need a Brahmanic caste to explain it to us. Believe it or not, there are people who make a living out of telling others how to talk about race. Government agencies usually have an EEO office, as do many larger corporations. There is a good deal of investment into keeping on the right side of racial policy, both for genuine, selfless reasons (it's good to treat people decently), and for profit reasons (nobody wants to get sued or boycotted). If it were easy to understand concepts of practical racial discourse, companies and governments might start to wonder if the investment were necessary. Best to keep it spooky: "You might be a racist and not even know it!"

There's a tone here reminiscent of eleven o'clock news "the silent killer" stories. To wit: "In fact, there’s an even more insidious kind of racism than the Neo-Nazism we saw running amuck in Charlottesville. It’s insidious because you don’t even know you’re infected with it; it’s covert, it’s invisible."

The article opens with an insincere feint at sympathy: "Look, I get it. I totally understand your reluctance to discuss racism. I know that even hearing the words racism or worse, racist, feels accusatory – offensive, even." It then ascribes several thoughts to its hypothetical skeptical reader that I do not myself think, even though I am a skeptical reader: thoughts like affirmative action is reverse racism or that because I've never owned a slave I'm not complicit in systemic racism. But these things have nothing to do with my reluctance to talk about racism. My reluctance stems from the fact that we have introduced such a dumb vocabulary to talk about racism, and because the vocabulary is enforced with such blind vigor by those who think they've accomplished something by learning it. 

2. The definition bait-and-switch: I get that there is an academic, pinpointed, specific sociological definition of racism. The article provides a pretty good example of this definition, citing Debby Irving. Racism is "the system that allows the racial group that’s already in power to retain power." That's fine. I have no objection to that as a formal definition. But that's not the definition people are usually expecting when they enter a conversation about racism.

Racism, like many, many concepts, has a formal, term-of-art meaning as well as a regular, everyday meaning. There's nothing wrong with this, and it doesn't mean that people using the everyday meaning are stupid or even wrong to expect that meaning when they hear the word. 

There are a lot of science-minded people who sneer when they hear someone talk about wanting to steer clear of "chemicals" in their daily lives. You'll hear these people say things like, "Oh, yeah, you going to avoid water? Because that's a chemical!" To a chemist, all matter is made of chemicals, because all matter can be reduced to a chemical formula. But that's not what normal folks mean in everyday talk. "I want to avoid chemicals" means something like, "I want to avoid man-made ingredients and substances that might have side effects we don't fully understand yet." That's not a stupid thing to say. That's just how normal folks talk.

When you drop a title like "the kind of racism you don't even know you have," you are playing a click-bait game, because you know many people will read it thinking you mean, "You believe people of a different race are inherently inferior, and you don't even know it!"  This, of course, means you're going to get push-back, but you've got that ace up your sleeve of saying, "But wait! You have to use the correct definition of racism!" 

Yes, there is institutional racism. Yes, the choices that almost all of us make--intentionally and unintentionally--prop up a system that makes life generally easier for white people. So your formal definition stands. But it wasn't that long ago we were a lot more concerned about the man-on-the-street definition. When I was a kid, we were still trying to get everyone to agree that the informal definition of racism--thinking one race is inherently inferior--was a bad thing. That was still an important social war to fight. Not everyone is past that point yet. 

In any event, is racism of this sort something you can actually "have"? It's something you can be a part of, but do you "have" it? No, you can only "have" the layman's form of racism. 

3.  Just plain using words wrong. The article calls out whites who complain about "playing the race card," but only focuses on one meaning of this term, and not the more common one. The article acts like it means using racial status to get advantages, like those offered by Affirmative Action. But the more usual meaning is "using racial status to get out of trouble," like when a black person who has really done something wrong tries to suggest he or she is being targeted because of racism. The article claims that playing the race card "is not a thing," but that's referring to the first, less common meaning. To prove that the second meaning really exists, you'd only need one example of it actually happening. 

O.J. Simpson. 

It's a thing. It may not be the most common thing, but it's a thing.

Wanting to brush it aside, like saying "there is not reverse racism although black people can be prejudiced against white people" but then not really wanting to talk much about how what black prejudice means to racial theory as a whole. White people who have faced considerable amount of prejudice, like Mrs. Heretic, who worked in Baltimore City Schools for over five years, might be willing to accept that they faced "prejudice" rather than "reverse racism," but that doesn't make the experience any more pleasant. Whether it was overt, like notes from students that said, "I hate white people," or hidden, like being shunned and passed over by black principals in ways that were hard to prove but felt real, it happened and it was wrong. Are we really telling her that because it wasn't systemic racism, we don't need to talk about it? That's what it feels like.

I agree that white people often use examples of black people playing the race card--along with examples of black prejudice (or black-on-black crime, etc.) to distract and derail a conversation from the very real effects of racism. But that doesn't mean those things don't belong in the conversation at all.

4. Got a problem with white privilege? You must not understand it!  I can't count the number of articles I've read that are written "for your white friends who still don't understand white privilege." This article does the same thing: "The next concept, white privilege, may be one of the hardest for my fellow white people to understand, but stick with me..." This is nails-on-a-chalkboard kind of condescension. I got this from evangelicals all the time: "You think evolution makes sense? You just need to read this creation scientist..." This would be ignoring the fact that I had already mentioned the same creation scientist twice in the same conversation and that I'd already offered a critique of that person's points. I can understand something you hold dear and still disagree with you.

At its heart, I don't object to the notion that white privilege is a thing, because it clearly is. Whiteness is one of those things that tends to have a beneficial influence on one's chances for material success. But there is a racial essentialism summoned by "The Racism You Don't Even Know You Have," which often wants to act as though whiteness is the only determining factor. This article itself cites in a positive way another, much better article, "Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person," which is an article that acknowledges that race is just one of many things people are born with that effect their chances in life. Others are: citizenship, class, sexual orientation, sex, ability, and gender identity. I'd add "skill of parents at parenting" to that list as maybe the most important. "Explaining White Privilege..." doesn't try to claim that whiteness will always trump all the other disadvantages one might have. It's possible to be born rich and black and have it better than someone born white and poor. It's just a statistics thing, which means we're dealing with averages. On average, whiteness helps. On average, the system hurts people of color. Other things being equal, whiteness yields better results. But that's not essentialism. It's not saying race is the only issue. 

Ta-Nehisi Coates is America's best writer on race because he doesn't let America forget how important race is on that list. We should not lose that focus. It is. Institutional racism is much more pernicious, much deeper, lasted with legal sanction until much more recently, and has directed the landscape of the present much more than most white people are willing to accept. However, even he can sometimes make too much of race as the only issue worth considering. In his article on Donald Trump as the first president who was elected specifically because of his whiteness, he cited some voting statistics. (I believe his statistics match those here.) Coates points out that Trump won with every white group, debunking the notion that his was a "middle class victory," but Trump won non-college whites by 37% and whites with a college degree by only 3%, a fact Coates passes by without comment. Surely that means that there are other factors that have a profound impact besides just whiteness. 

Along with explanations of how racism can to be in a thing in America that focus exclusively on use of race, I think there are other, useful ideas to consider. A neo-Marxist might make the point that those in power--largely white males--are happy to use racism as a tool to keep their power, but might also, under certain circumstances, abandon racism as a principle in order to keep power. The white slaveholding caste didn't race bait because it really believed black people were the inferior children of Ham, in other words; they invented the notion that black people were the inferior children of Ham because it was a useful way to keep power. Coates has sometimes objected to policies that attempt to deal with racism by sweeping them up into broader policies aimed at poverty in general, but someone who sees racism as one tool of in the tool chest of power--even if it's the tool power uses the most--might be more willing to compromise.

Where does whiteness fit in the complicated web of factors, unmerited, that contribute to one's fate? It's an interesting, complicated question. It's also one I can't see obsessing over if what you really care about is FIXING racism, not elaborating upon it to death. The obsession with proper terminology as a sine qua non to being accepted into the fellowship of those committed to a better world seem like something you do when you're trying to avoid the hard work of actually fixing the mess.  

The smugness in not just this article, but nearly every article from a writer frustrated with the intransigence of people like me to accept their terminology, is palpable. If we feel any sense of indignation while reading their rhetoric, that's not a sign that the writers are being superior know-it-alls, it's a sign that they're right, and I'm upset with how on-the-nose their keen insight is: "What is your knee-jerk reaction to being called out for “racism?” In actuality, insults only hurt deep down if they’re true." This reminds me of some Christians I knew who sometimes acted obnoxious about their faith, then blamed the reaction they got on the world's rejection of Christian truth. Sometimes, the reaction you get tells you more than you might want to admit. Not always--certainly, the mob can be wrong. But you can't automatically overlook the reactions you get without giving some consideration to whether the reactions are understandable.

I'm not hurt but this kind of talk, I'm annoyed. One group has stolen the megaphone and is shouting down anyone else who cares about racial equality. It's like the Protestants are in power, and they're insisting that us Catholics aren't even Christian enough to work with to feed the poor...

I'm going to end the list there, although I originally had a few more in mind. The point is, this is all very familiar to me. I have been in churches where to be a Christian was really nothing more than knowing how to use a few select Christian cliches in the correct context. I have been in churches that argued endlessly over pre, mid-, and post-tribulation schemes, and used varying answers to these abstruse questions as reasons to be or not be in fellowship with others. That's what this feels like. 

The writer of this article concludes by talking about how unpopular her views are, how often those who express them are attacked for them. I have not found this to be the case. Generally, I've found that if you want to avoid being called racist, the things she said are the things you have to say. This is the orthodoxy you have to stick to. I'm afraid to post this response. Mrs. Heretic is always warning me not to write about race. Some of my friends think that honest discourse about race is impossible in our culture and a waste of time to try. That's kind of how I know I ought to post this.

The writer seems very certain that those who object to what she writes are acting out because they don't want to talk about race. I think that the very tone of this kind of insistence on orthodoxy is what hinders racial discourse, not unwillingness to engage in what's hard. I think the very false mystification, the insistence that only the gurus of racial thought, those who have been handed the sacred fire of the correct words with the correct definitions, is what prevents more people from being involved.

If you haven't seen this episode of "Lady Dynamite," watch it. "If you're white, keep it light."

I have avoided naming the writer of this article here. That would have made this into an attack. I don't want to call out the writer, with whom I am probably a natural ally. I want to call out the rhetoric. The writer felt her article was "reaching across the aisle," because of its awkward attempts to sympathize by putting the wrong words in the mouths of her would-be interlocutors. Rather, I think this is the kind of talk that has widened the gap.

The writer points out how polarizing race rhetoric and hate speech have become more prevalent since Trump took office. That's true, but the writer seems to want to only point the blame in one direction. In her mind, we went backwards not because some people felt so frustrated trying to meet the moving goal posts of what we were all supposed to think and say about race that they gave up trying, but because racism was pushing back against change to the system meant to protect power. That's certainly part of it, but I don't think liberals--and on race, I am one--should let ourselves off the hook for our own sins being part of it. I think we're partly to blame for the thing we hate.

I haven't believed in evangelical Christianity for over 20 years, but I'm always fascinated by how often sociological truths from church play out away from that environment. It's possible to be a Christian without really understanding much Christian doctrine at all, just by trying to love as Jesus did. You'd never guess that from the way some churches spend nearly all their time going over doctrine, though.

Similarly, I think the current liberal racial discourse is too focused on saying the right things, even though it's possible to have it all wrong and still do the right things. You can be a kindly old person who never got the memo about "white privilege" and "whitesplaining" who just knows that she wants to help, so she fosters black kids from poor communities and does a really good job of it. If a certain brand of liberal heard her insisting her kids try to overcome systemic racism and assume personal responsibility for their actions, the mom, unhip to the right terminology, might be accused of being racially insensitive. In fact, she's just a good mom.

I wish we were as obsessed with right action as we are with right speech. I wish that, rather than testing each other for the shibboleth of using the right definition of "racism," we tested to see what work we are doing to practically solve systemic racism. I know that old line about "as a man thinketh, so is he," but if I had a dime for every time that was used as a reason for a church to spend all its time studying the Bible and no time doing anything, I'd be as rich as Joel Osteen.

I'm done with my critique, and now that I'm done, I have no wish to keep fighting with people who do talk like the writer of this article. This critique of mine shouldn't be a reason to divide natural allies further. I hope it's nothing more than a call for liberals to self-examine how we talk. I feel that moderate conservatives and moderate liberals together form a true political majority in this country, and we've been kept apart from each other because we've been taught to make more of little things than we ought.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Be careful of the advice you take (with bonus microfiction)

I get sent links in my email to columns about writing, because some algorithm has figured out I'll read some of them. The articles I read are a mix of good and bad, with both usually being pretty easy to spot early on. The danger is when you read an article that's good in general, but all wrong for you.

The other day, the algorithm sent me an entry from this little blog by a woman named Mary Jo Campbell. I knew nothing about her, but it was a focused entry on how to write micro-fiction, so I read it. I thought it was fairly well done; it contained some advice most writers already know, like the importance of details and creative use of language, but it was generally worth my five minutes. However, if I hadn't already known the conventions of literary fiction pretty well, I'd have been led astray by some advice she gave. Here's the 100-word story she wrote that she shared as an example:

What Brings Us Together

My fingers are cold yet sweat drips down my armpits, under this black polyester suit jacket. Mom’s smile is her phony-phone-voice as she busies herself introducing the families that enter. The chosen groomsmen are called to the front of the aisle, one brother taller than the next, sleek in their dark combed hair, smooth complexions, pressed suits. Solemn handsome faces contrasted by the pink blotches on the bride-to-be’s cheeks. They are each handed a pair of too-small, bright-white gloves. I swallow hard as my brothers line either side of Bob’s casket.

I've said before I'm not a huge fan of 100-word stories, but they are a thing, and it's a way to get your name out there, so I guess I'd grudgingly write some if I thought I could do it well. But there's something about this story that doesn't sit right with me, at least as literary fiction. It seems to violate a critical aesthetic principle, voiced by Meg Wolitzer in the Introduction to this year's Best American Short Stories anthology. Wolitzer begins by discussing how the first short stories she was assigned to read in middle school were always the kind with a surprise ending, stories like "The Gift of the Magi." These stories conditioned her to always look for the big twist at the end, to consider it a sine qua non of a good story. Later, however, she came to realize that "if everything is surprising, then nothing is," and to dislike "an unearned surprise for a surprise's sake." She later comes to a more mature understanding of surprise: "...the idea of 'surprise' wasn't abandoned entirely; instead, it was given a shine and polish and a more mature translation. It's possible to see that a whole story--not just the ending--might itself take on what had been considered the function of an ending."

In other words, the whole story should shock one's expectations, should undo the reader's way of seeing things.  As a reader, you will "find yourself in a place you didn't know about before."

Campbell, however, specifically recommends the shock ending, calling for "...a twist the reader won’t see coming. But after a re-read, they feel that gut-punch of realization." The story above seems mostly designed for the sake of the surprise ending. There are details given that are clearly meant to lead the reader astray, like the mention of "groomsmen" and a "bride-to-be." (Campbell writes in the blog that this was taken from a cousin who died just before getting married. That's nice to know, but the story as it stands is a little confusing. Why are groomsmen at a funeral? When I read it, I wondered if someone died at the wedding, and they just had the funeral right there that same day because the church was already booked.)

It's nicely written, it has good details, and the unexpected, jangling simile of the smile actually "being" the voice is nice. So is the alliterative word play of "phony-phone-voice." There's nothing wrong with the story, except that it's not literary fiction. I finally realized at this point that Campbell's blog clearly calls attention to the fact that she mainly likes YA fiction. I missed that up front, because I was assuming the algorithm was smart enough to know I write one and not the other.

The lesson is to pay attention to the advice you're getting and where it's coming from. Most writing advice is universal, like use good details. There are some principles, however, that change according to tastes and are genre-specific. So pay more attention that I did.


Just to give everyone a chance to shit on my writing, instead of me just picking on someone else's (even though I've said I liked her story), I hereby submit to you all the only 100-word story I've ever tried to write. According to the rules, the title isn't included in the word count

Professor Mulkin Equivocates before a Greater Power

Professor Mulkin tried to be both seen and invisible in the Book Bonanza!; he hadn’t been in a bookstore since Borders closed, hadn’t even known they still existed. He saw only DVDs of TV shows and tween vampire fiction. His wife, recovering in the hospital, had asked for an adult coloring book.

He had written for the Times criticizing such fare and those who read them. They signaled the end. Now, he asked for them out loud. He paid for his purchase with his card, finding it suddenly easy to forgive every crime in history. 

I have no idea if that's a good literary fiction 100-word story. Like I said, I don't know of any of these things that have really dazzled me. I think they're just an effort to be cute and prove literature isn't always stuffy--like churches telling us that Jesus is cool. This was my best effort to do something with the form. If it sucks, it won't really hurt my feelings much.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

An obscure writer looks at Borges' "Secret Miracle"

A few years ago, a friend of mine shared his draft novel with me, the one he's been trying to find a publisher for for years. I didn't think it was very good; it was a Christian novel that also had vampires in it. Just because I didn't like it doesn't mean it wasn't any good, of course: I thought all the Twilight stories were terrible, but millions of thirteen-year-old girls can't be that wrong. I think he realized that he was fighting an uphill battle trying to merge Christian themes and vampires in a way that would appeal to any audience an agent could sell the book to. But when we were talking about the odds of getting it published successfully, he told me this: "I can't give up. If I gave up, I don't think I could go on with my life."

I can relate to that feeling, as can a lot of writers who don't write fiction as our main gig. Fiction gives us a feeling that we exist for something more than our day jobs, much like every waiter/waitress in Hollywood is really an actor or every waiter/waitress in Nashville is really a singer. Certainly, in my case, after several false starts in life, when I really started to write seriously, it was a moment in my forties when I was asking myself if the life I was leading was really all there was to it.

Like dreams of making it as a singer or actor or professional athlete, one could find fulfillment in the activity even if one never really "makes it." For simplicity, let's say "making it" means being able to make a living entirely off the activity. Even if you can't sing on Broadway or at the Grammy Awards (is that still a thing?), you can sing at Karaoke nights or in churches. You can act in community theater. You can play basketball in a rec league. Even on this much smaller level, talent and hard work will produce better results, so you can still use it as an outlet for your desire to better yourself.

But what if you knew that was as far as you were ever going to get? I suppose it's easier to realize this at an earlier stage as an athlete. For one thing, sports gives us more objective feedback about our ability; zero points in a game means something in a way editors quickly winnowing down the slush pile doesn't. There's also the age factor in sports (and, let's be honest, in acting and singing to a great extent), which doesn't really exist in writing. This makes it possible for a writer to follow a false hope for much longer.

This is a subject I've possibly beaten to death already, but it continues to weigh heavily on my mind. I've had some success in the writing equivalent of community theater, but I haven't had my big break yet. I wrote some stories this year that I really felt were my best yet, and I sent them to the top journals I'd been avoiding. I've had zero breakthroughs. The "right" thing for a writer is probably to just roll with those disappointments and not give them another thought, but I've never been one for doing things the right way. It doesn't seem like an overreaction after four years to doubt that the big IT is ever going to happen for me.

Borges' Secret Miracle

I've referred to this story before, because I can't stop thinking about it. If you haven't read it, there's a decent-ish translation here, but the synopsis goes something like this: Joseph Hladik is a literary critic in Prague of mixed Jewish ancestry who is arrested by the Gestapo in 1939 when they take over. He is condemned to death and spends a little over a week contemplating his life and impending execution. His life hits home for me:

Hladík had passed forty years of age.  Apart from some friendships and many habits, the problematic study of literature constituted his life; like every writer, he measured the virtues of others by what was done by them and asked that others measure him by what he glimpsed or outlined.  All the books he had given to the press infused him with utter remorse.  In his examinations of the oeuvres of Boehme, Abenesra, and Fludd, he had essentially taken part in mere application; in his translation of Sephir Yezirah, in negligence, fatigue, and conjecture.  The Vindication of Eternity he judged to be perhaps less deficient; the first volume recounts the diverse eternities that men have devised, from the motionless Parmenidean One to Hinton’s modifiable past; the second denied (with Francis Bradley) that all the deeds of the universe integrate a temporal series.  It argues that the number of man’s possible experiences is not infinite and one sole “repetition” would suffice to demonstrate that time is a fallacy... Unfortunately, the arguments that demonstrate this fallacy are no less false; Hladík used to go over them again with a certain scornful perplexity.  He had also written a series of Expressionist poems; these, to the poet’s embarrassment, figured in an anthology of 1924, and no anthology after that failed to inherit them.  From all of this equivocal and languid past Hladík wanted to redeem himself with the play in verse The Enemies (Hladík praised verse because it impeded spectators from forgetting unreality, which is the condition of art).

So he's had some small successes, and he's been able to glimpse some big ideas, but hasn't really realized them. And now it's too late, because he's about to die.

So Hladik asks God to help him finish the one work he thinks will justify his existence. "In the darkness, he spoke to God: If I exist in any way, if I am not one of Your repetitions and errors, I exist as the author of The Enemies.  To come to the end of this play which can justify me and justify You, I require one more year.  Grant me these days, You who are the centuries and time.  It was the last night, the most atrocious, but ten minutes afterwards, sleep had washed over him like dark water."

In the end, God grants the miracle, but it is known only to Hladik. As Hladik stands before the firing squad, God halts time, but only Hladik is aware of the miracle. Hladik cannot move, but he can think, and, helped by the metrical nature of his play, he is able to write the play entirely in his head. It is slow going, but he keeps at it--what else is there to do?

Interestingly, he is not writing the play for God, who created the miracle: "He did not work for posterity, nor even for God, of whose literary preferences he knew little." For whom is he writing it, then? I think the answer is in Hladik's prayer: to "justify me and justify (God)." Merely to have written the play will accomplish justification. It is not necessary that anyone should read it.

That's a nice story, but do I really believe this?

A good friend of mine keeps telling me that since I seem to have a predilection for writing fiction, I should just accept that the odds are always going to be long that I'll "make it" and write for myself. Joseph Hladik, standing secretly in an alternate reality before the firing squad, would probably agree with my friend. But is this just mystical hogwash? What difference does it make if I write a story in my head, or--as has really happened--a novel and other stories I'm having a hard time getting published? Does this really justify my existence?

I've often stuck to the line that if I knew, through some divine messenger, that nobody would ever read what I wrote, I'd stop writing. Although I wonder if this is true; I write on this blog without a terribly large audience. I get between fifty and a hundred hits after each post, more or less. I assume half of those are bots or some other kind of Internet weirdness. Maybe there are a few silent folks from my target audience of struggling writers out there, but if I quit writing this blog tomorrow, the world wouldn't notice. For some reason, though, that really doesn't bother me with the blog. I write the blog to help people if possible, but also just to put words to thoughts stuck in my brain so I can then move on to other thoughts.

When I write non-fiction for this blog, I write like my friend would want me to: for the sake of writing itself. But when I write fiction, I take things personally. Rejections hurt--every damn time. Does that mean that I'm actually a non-fiction writer mistaking myself for a fiction writer? Since I can do the former without really caring about the results, is that my real "calling," the real thing that justifies me and the clunky creator who made me?

That's a possibility that occurs to me more and more as time goes by, but I still keep feeling compelled to write one more story. Blog posts generally feel breezy and--with some exceptions--come without me chasing them too hard. Most of the stories I write seem to run from me like Jonah ran from God. They cost me a lot of work to write, which is why I can't help but wonder why I write them when I fail so often to get anyone to read them.

The world seems a graver place to me every day, and I continue to get older. I may not be sentenced to die tomorrow, but the end will come sooner or later--sooner today than yesterday. In 2018, I'm moving in one direction or another with writing. I'm either going to take a long break from it to see if I still want to do it, or I'm going to double down and write a lot more. I haven't decided yet. Eighteen months ago, when I finished my novel, I thought I had already had my moment of justifying myself and God. Maybe God is just taking a long time to decide what to do with what I made.