Sunday, May 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author and Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 5, 2018

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

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

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

Thanos and Malthus

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

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

The only beauty contest Malthus would ever win

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

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

What's the good guys' answer? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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