Sunday, March 28, 2021

Am I writing what I really want to write?

The last year has been weird for everyone, but the weirdest thing about it for me is that it's been maybe the best year of my life in terms of good things happening to me. This has been true both at work--where I recently left the job I've had for seventeen years in order to take what seems like a dream job to me--and in writing. It's of course hard to feel like celebrating these good things when the world is falling apart, and a big part of me is waiting to see what the comeuppance of all these oddly timed nice things will be, but since it's hard to make genuine progress in life or in writing, I'll take it wherever and whenever it comes.

In writing, the three biggest breakthroughs were:

1) Getting my story "Jajangmyeon" published in The Chattahoochee Review, just before they closed for good. (We might, before it's all said and done, lose as many literary journals as restaurants to the pandemic). I'd like to post to the work, but TCR generally puts only a limited amount online, leaving the rest for the print journal. When they closed up, they seem to have done it in a hurry, not even saying goodbye on Twitter or on their website. So there is literally nothing online from their last journal. The most I can do is link to the Tweet they put out announcing the final volume

2) Winning the Robert Day Award for fiction with New Letters for my story "Lobu Hoteru." This story was, in some ways, the culmination of my career at the job I just left, because it is a working out of my feelings about both North Korea and the paradoxes of surveillance. 

3) I'll have a story published soon by The Bellevue Literary Review. This story is loosely based on one of my three brothers, who joined my family through adoption from Hong Kong when I was eleven. He came with his biological sister. They had what must have been a befuddling existence in Ohio, and this story was my attempt to get at the emotional truth of what it might have been like for them, if not the factual truth. 

"Why I write" is a boring question, but here's an answer anyway

If I never publish anything else ever again, I'm satisfied with what I've done now, and least in terms of answering the "am I any good?" question. Satisfying one's own need to be validated isn't maybe the best reason to write, but I'm sure I'm not alone in that I can't deny it has been a reason for me. 

It's not the only reason I write, though, nor the biggest. The strongest motivator for me to write is something like this: I feel like the universe is constantly gaslighting me, and I want to explain how it's doing this, in order to see if I'm alone, or if anyone else feels the same way. I'm hoping that I might write something that can be like the opening of the floodgates when one person says they've been abused by someone, and then another comes forward, and another, and then it's pouring in from all over. 

My deepest impulse to think and write probably all stems from one small, insignificant episode when I was in first grade. I was standing in line to come back in from recess and regretting that I had to go back in. Normally, seven-year-old kids are trained by that age to accept that you can't always get what you want, and there are things you just have to do, so there's so sense complaining. Normally, that was me. I was a model student in first grade. But at that exact moment, I wondered for just a few seconds about why the world is a place where we must come in from recess, why we can't just spend our lives doing the things we enjoy. Surely, it could have been something else. It could have been anything, so why was I sheepishly trudging along in a line to go back into the building when that's not what I wanted to do? In fact, when you got down to it, why was there something rather than nothing at all?  

These weren't original thoughts, of course--not that I knew that then. But with these kinds of thoughts, it's not really the novelty of the thought that gets you, it's the occasional moments when the undeniable truth of it hits you square during your unguarded moments. It's the visceral nature of the realization when it sneaks in and becomes momentarily more than just an abstract concept. It happened to me the other day, when I was worried I might not be up to the challenge of my new job, and I consoled myself by thinking, well, I'm well over halfway to death, in all likelihood, so if I screw my life up, at least I'll have done it for a short amount of time. That then led me to realizing that I really am going to die one day, a realization that hit me closer than I usually let it.  

Life seems to be some kind of joke, but I can't really get the punchline, and while I'm puzzling it over, everyone wants me to go on with life paying bills and going to the dentist and folding laundry. All of which just makes me feel like everyone is messing with me. How can everyone go on with the show like there isn't a giant, burning question making everything we do seem pointless? I mean, I do go along with it, because at heart, I don't trust myself that they don't all just know something I don't know, but at the same time, a big part of me is undone by the weirdness of being here and how I can't make sense of it. Somewhere, there's a Jake Weber who never really came in from recess that day, and is still roaming the playground at Orchard Hill Elementary School, muttering to himself.

I know, I know, I KNOW! -- This kind of thinking is a privilege 

Unsurprisingly, the kind of writing I tend to intuitively connect with the most is that which speaks in some way to this essential alienation of humankind from the cosmos in which we are placed. Moby Dick is my go-to answer when someone asks me about my favorite novel, an answer I haven't improved on in the twenty-five years since I first read it. 

That's not to say I don't appreciate writing focused on other concerns. Modern American fiction focuses a lot these days on issues related to gender, racial, and other identity-driven equities. I don't dislike this kind of writing, and I don't want to suggest I think it's somehow less than writing concerned with the alienation of humanity or other existential dread-focused considerations. 

I rather think of culture the way Tolkien described the origin of the universe in The Silmarillion: everyone only knows part of the whole melody, and we can only begin to understand the entirety of the theme if we all join our voices. I might not have heard the original voice of God when it comes to racial or gender issues, but I can still hear and appreciate when others sing from that part of the overall theme. It's just that to me, those issues are always going to be in brackets. Yes, it'd be nice to figure out how to make life better for everyone, but can we please get back to the question of what the point to all this is?

It's at this point that I preemptively state, like Kurt Vonnegut's alter-ego narrator in Slaughterhouse Five, "I know, I know, I KNOW!" I know that being able to be more concerned with what the point of life is than the struggle to merely preserve life is a function of the various types of privilege I enjoy. It's easy to whine about the absence of a clear reason to life when nobody is actively putting a boot on my neck to put an end to my life. I know. Perhaps the types of concerns I'm talking about belong only to those privileged enough to worry about them.

I don't think so, though. It's not like these worries are ever totally absent from the best writers who mainly focus on equity concerns. The irreducible, baffling, disorienting absurdity of life is there in Danielle Evans and Jamel Brinkley. One senses, reading them, that they are aware that once their characters fight through identity issues in a more specific sense, there is still the much larger identity issue to deal with--not just "Who am I?" but "Who are any of us?" 

Is this what I'm really writing about?

I've gotten better. That's my whole trajectory as a writer since my early forties, when I really started to try. Getting better has meant marginally more and more success with publications, but I want to be sure that when I'm getting better--a big part of which is reading the best fiction of the day--I'm not abandoning that fist grader who still needs me to find a voice for him. Of course those identity and equity issues are important, but Jake Weber probably isn't the best guy to write about them, because that's not what got seven-year-old Jake Weber into such a tizzy he's never gotten over it. Maybe a story that's close to home about my siblings is an exception, and it's sad to me that the story is coming out at time when violence against Asian Americans is suddenly back to what it was for them sometimes when we were growing up in Ohio. Mostly, though, that's not going to be my forte. 

I don't mean to say that I'm writing cynically, trying to craft stories about equity or identity I don't myself care about, imitating many of the stories that are received well in American fiction now. I mean more that being aware of what editors want might be influencing me in small ways. For example, my story "Jajangmyeon" got a lot of positive feedback from the first thirty places I sent it, but nobody was quite ready to pull the trigger on it. I made a small but significant change to one passage, one that turned the main character from sexually confused and possibly asexual to clearly homosexual. I did it, I think, because I was trying to make him a character with motivations that would be immediately intuitive to the reader. The change accomplished that, but I wonder if it might have taken away some of what made the story unique. The old passage: 

He doesn’t feel sexual attraction to Doug. He is pretty sure he isn’t gay, although he wishes sometimes he could be just to traumatize his mother. If he’d been gay, he figures, he’d have known for sure when he was in the army.

He’d had more than enough chances in the army to know if he was attracted to men. There’d been hundreds of naked men and plenty of lack of supervision that presented opportunities. But it never seemed right to him.

At the same time, he couldn’t think of a girl he’d ever been that attracted to, either. He figured it had something to do with how he had never met one he couldn’t imagine eventually turning into his mother.

I felt like that was something honest, a guy who's so messed up from childhood, he can't even figure out what kind of person he's really attracted to, because his mother is so in his head in everything. Now, here's the change. I didn't change much else except to take out those passages above and substitute with this:

Before driving a moped, the last time he felt an excitement like this was when he read those sexy manhwa or went to the bath house with the soldiers in his company in the army. If it hadn’t been for church, he wouldn’t have known to feel shame about it, but because he did, Jong-min avoided scrubbing the backs of his comrades, who thought he was aloof because of it. 

You could say I was just making the story more streamlined, and I'm sure that's what I thought I was doing. It's a story quality I was thinking a lot about when I made the change, and that's why I made it, not in order to give the story more appeal to an editor looking for the right diversity to fill out a volume. But I'm not sure the story didn't eventually get picked because of that. It finally got picked up soon after that change, and when I pulled it from other journals I'd sent it to, another editor said he'd been just about to pick it, too. 

The long and the short of it

In any event, from now on, I'm writing only stories that would have appealed to that seven-year-old Jake. If it doesn't scream from hell's heart I stab at thee, I'm not writing it.

Resigning from my old job and starting a new one means I'm going to be busy learning new things at work and not have much time to devote to writing for a while. I knew this, and I'm okay with it. Certain sacrifices had to be made, and overall, I'm hopeful they'll be worth it. So when I do have a few minutes to devote to writing, it's going to be on what matters most to me.

I probably won't be blogging much for a while. I've already fallen off a lot in the last few months, hoping I'd get this new job. It's going to get worse before it gets better, but again, I think this is a good thing for me overall. Hopefully, I'll feel solid enough in six months to get back to blogging next year's BASS.  

Saturday, March 6, 2021

The best cure to extremism is cultivating uncertainty

"For it was the loyal, the idealistic and the brave who did the real damage. The devout and patriotic leaders of Jerusalem sacrificed tens of thousands of lives to the cause of freedom. Vespasian and Titus sacrificed tens of thousands more to the cause of civil order. Even Agrippa II, the Roman client king of Judea who did all he could to prevent the war, ended by supervising the destruction of half a dozen of his cities and the sale of their inhabitants into slavery. How much better for everyone if all the principal figures of the region had been slithering filth like Josephus."

-P.J. O'Rourke, "The Two-Thousand-Year-Old U.S. Middle East Policy Expert" 

The military, apparently suddenly aware that its ranks include those who dream of taking up arms to protect the country from all enemies, including itself, is enacting a "stand down" (break in routine to conduct training) on extremism. While acknowledging the training is not a panacea--Really? All those safety stand downs on drunk driving before long weekends don't stop people from driving drunk? Then why did we have to do them before every long weekend ever?--the Department of Defense looks upon this as an important first step.

The training is available online, so even if you're not in the DoD, you can still treat yourself to the thrill of a dry-as-dirt, utterly uninspired and uninspiring look at "the meaning of the oath" to the Constitution both the military and civil servants take. It's likely to be what all DoD training is: a dull preaching to the choir to nearly everyone, and an invitation to rebel even more to the few intractable outliers. 

I was talking recently with a friend about the "Flight 93 Election" piece arguing for supporting Trump prior to the 2016 election. Published by Claremont Institute member Michael Anton under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus, it argued that conservatives who weren't thrilled about Trump should get off the fence and support him. That's because the 2016 election, in his view, was a last stand against encroaching liberal views that would sink the republic. 

There's an underlying premise to the argument, which I would term the "if I am right" premise:

If conservatives are right about the importance of virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character and so on in the individual; if they are right about sexual morality or what came to be termed “family values”; if they are right about the importance of education to inculcate good character and to teach the fundamentals that have defined knowledge in the West for millennia; if they are right about societal norms and public order; if they are right about the centrality of initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift to a sound economy and a healthy society; if they are right about the soul-sapping effects of paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions; if they are right about the necessity of a strong defense and prudent statesmanship in the international sphere—if they are right about the importance of all this to national health and even survival, then they must believe—mustn’t they?—that we are headed off a cliff.

It's tempting to laugh this off as marketing. Every political backer in my entire lifetime has called every election "the most important election of our lifetime." But there's something about Anton's tone that is different. He really means it. 

The stability of society rests on people lacking the strength of their convictions. No, really.

It's easy to be terrified by Anton's reasoning. In his view, America is a war between opposing ideologies, and there is no reconciling the two, however much we really do seem to make an uneasy compromise work day-to-day, even if it's a compromise held with ill will by both sides. There is no choice but full-scale resistance by any means necessary. Conflict is inevitable, even desirable, and perhaps it's better to bring the conflict to a head sooner rather than later. 

What makes Anton scary isn't what he believes, it's the certainty and strength with which he believes it. Every "if we are right" has an assumed, unwavering "and we are" to it. The reason a particular brand of conservative has troubled the councils of the great isn't that they believe in something they're naming "originalism," or that they don't believe there are thirty-seven genders, it's how much they believe in it, enough that some are willing to "charge the cockpit." They're ready to overthrow the generally good thing we've got going, because in their minds, it's not good at all, and the day after tomorrow, it's going to be a literal hell on Earth unless they act and act now. 

Wouldn't many liberal beliefs be equally dangerous if held with the same strength? Wouldn't any belief that's willing to interrogate an "if I'm right" proposition unflinchingly to its logical conclusion without entertaining at least a sliver of doubt that it might not be right? For example, if all the liberals who like to fob off the axiom that "there is no ethical consumption under capitalism" really believed that to their core, they'd be physically attacking the system every day of their lives. Or, if they didn't want to firebomb oil rigs or assassinate heads of banks, they'd at least take their own consumption out of the equation by killing themselves. If you really believe every economic decision you make in a capitalist society is inevitably unethical, then don't you have a duty to at least stop making all decisions? If you don't want to kill yourself, you could at least go try to live in the woods.

But very few liberals who claim to believe in the fundamental rot of capitalism take these kinds of actions. They might claim to respect the few who do, but ultimately, most are going to shrug their shoulders and say, "Well, whattareyagonnado?"

Ah, Hormone Monster Rick, you truly are the spirit guide we need in these troubled times.

Conservatives are wont to chide liberals for being hypocrites. To which I say, "Yes, you're right, and that's why I'm with them." If liberals are, on the whole, marginally less likely to take their beliefs to extremes, if they are troubled enough by doubts--or just apathy, because after all, there's a latte with your name on it about to finish being made--then that's the group for me. I'm with the group willing to consider it might be wrong, even if it only acknowledges that possibility in a practical sense while still verbally asserting its certainty it is never wrong. 

I imagine a reader might be troubled by how glibly I seem to be endorsing indifference, which I understand. A reverence for an uncertainty that makes our convictions lose the name of action could easily lead to a compliant population, one unable to stand up for its own rights. But of course I'm not a stickler for hardcore political agnosticism anymore than I'm a hardcore proponent of any belief. I'm agnostic about being agnostic. If you are generally resistant to agitprop because you realize that taking the tenets of said agitprop seriously would have unsettling intellectual consequences, then you're exactly the kind of person who can start to trust herself when you feel a situation really does require strong action. Even Hamlet, the patron saint of self-doubt, roused himself to strong action when he realized that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were taking him to his death.  

Furthermore, I'd say there are probably one or two issues on which every person is likely to be deeply educated enough to merit sustained and deep engagement. But if your whole life is taken up by one life-or-death struggle after another in issues ranging all over the political spectrum, then it's likely you have an addiction to heroic action, not a reasoned commitment to a limited proposition based on your tenuous determination that it is the right course. 

A world of people humble enough to doubt their own positions isn't a dystopia. Self-doubt strong enough to make radical opposition rare is something you can't build a stable society without. Imagine if everyone really did believe whatever they believed with the strength of conviction the "Flight 93" essay is calling for. You couldn't get a zoning law passed in the smallest city council in America. 

Being willing to put your own security aside in an emergency for the sake of others is, without question, heroism worth admiring. It's human behavior at its most sublime. But being willing to put your doubts aside to more or less let a thing operate, even imperfectly, is only slightly less admirable, because if that weren't the default position of nearly every human being on the planet, there might not be human beings on the planet. 

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Liberal purity

Accusing liberals of being the thing they rail against is an old conservative trick. Some examples:

"Nobody is more intolerant than the so-called agents of tolerance."

"People who believe in a universe with no God criticize those who have faith, but doesn't believing something comes from nothing take the most faith of all?"

Lately, I've been seeing different versions of comparing some current in liberal political circles, like anti-racism, to religion.  

I'm hesitant to even appear to join in this kind of criticism, but to some extent, I find the comparisons between the sociology of religion and the sociology of political groups to be inevitable. My first committed ideology in life was evangelicalism, and even though I left it for good over twenty years ago, my experiences as an evangelical have shaped how I view all ideological communities since. Sometimes, when encountering some kind of interaction at the intersection of sociology and ideology, there's really no way to avoid the rather obvious feeling of deja vu. 

To compare liberal political ideas and the behavior of the groups who hold those ideas to evangelicals or even to cults isn't entirely pejorative. To think it is demonstrates the kind of hardline resistance to facts liberals sometimes show, a resistance that makes them vulnerable to "liberals are hypocrites" kinds of attacks. (I say "them" about liberals, but I could say "we." I identify with liberal ideas more than I don't.) Of course groups founded on belief systems will show similar sociological and socio-psychological traits, even if some are founded on relatively more empirically defensible positions than others. To think that a community of humanists won't end up acting in many ways like a community of theists is similar to the kind of anthropocentric thinking that makes some people reject comparisons between humans and other animals. We don't want to accept that we're essentially of the same genus as other things, because we think it makes us less special. 

Just because groups built around a shared liberal ideology might act in some ways similar to groups built around religious beliefs is not to say they're both the same in all ways, or that they're all equally invalid. Even if there is a large-sized overlap in sociological phenomena in the two types of groups, the differences can still be (and in my view, are) significant enough to make belonging to one group relatively more desirable than to another. But that doesn't mean we can just overlook the similarities, or realize that our group has many of the same problems internally that other kinds of groups do. 

Since realizing I was a secular humanist and a political liberal in my twenties, I've certainly felt similarities between groups that share my beliefs and groups I used to belong to that shared my old beliefs. Here's an example. I saw this meme shared on the social media pages of two people, one a writer I follow on Twitter and one a liberal friend on Facebook:

In evangelical circles, there is a tendency to reject the idea that Christian belief (i.e. "the truth") shares much with ideas outside itself. That's a heresy, one that gives into the need to be accepted by the secular world. In reality, evangelicals believe, the truth and the world are so different that they will hardly agree on anything.

It's hard to know what issue the author of this meme had in mind. Had she been arguing with someone who really believed racial equality was impossible because some races were inherently better than others? What is the uncrossable line that was crossed here? I don't deny those lines exist, but I would deny that those lines are crossed all that often. Acting like those outside our group are nearly always outside the bounds of "human decency," however, tends to make our group's ideas stand out. It makes being a part of our group seem more urgent. It makes separation from the other group less a matter of intolerance and more a natural outgrowth of belief. 

This "they're so wrong there's no way to find common ground" way of thinking manifests in other ways. Within Christian circles, there is always a debate between those who think it's worthless to try to "argue someone into the Kingdom of Heaven," those who feel that if a skeptic doesn't agree with you, it's best to walk away rather than cast your pearls before swine, and those who believe they have a responsibility to "give an answer for the hope that is in them." (That is, those who willingly will argue with skeptics and those who will not.) 

In Christianity, for the most part, the apologists are winning that internal cultural war. I'm not saying your average Christian argues terribly well, but your average American Christian has at least memorized an opening argument on a number of objections a skeptic might raise to Christian beliefs. It feels to me, though, as though the "come out and be separate" crowd is winning in many political groups on the left. The idea that it's not worth engaging with conservatives is becoming more and more ubiquitous, with the basic rationale being that we shouldn't try to engage with someone who has "odious" beliefs.   

What are these odious beliefs?

Not so long ago, the Republican Party in America was still the ideological descendant of the Reagan/Bush era. It was trying to figure out what "compassionate conservatism" meant. It wanted a kinder, gentler America. It gave us presidents who wanted an immigration policy most liberals agree with. It gave us a president who originally wanted to make education his top priority before 9/11 happened and changed the course of his presidency. It wasn't really a progressive party, but it was a party in dialogue with itself about whether conservativism and progressivism had some goals in common that conservativism could adopt for itself. 

I'm not saying I agree with those presidents, but it's hard to see how the general drift of this kind of Republican's beliefs are "odious." I do not find the editorial stance of, say, The Economist to be odious. I don't find it beyond the bounds of human decency.

The general bounds of Reagan-era conservativism are still where a lot of conservatives are. That was more or less where Romney and McCain were. We as liberals had a right to object to much of the discourse: we might have disliked the jingoism, the willingness to reject spending on social programs but never to reject increases in military spending, the views on abortion meant to placate the religious base. We certainly were right to reject post 9-11 American adventurism (although most Democrats in Congress did not when it mattered). But that kind of Republican isn't odious. We were wrong to smear Romney and McCain with accusations of being racists. We realized, I hope, how wrong we were when a real racist came along and Romney and McCain were among the few Republicans willing to stand up to him. 

Trump's rise took nearly everyone by surprise, including Republicans. There were different reactions among Republicans about how to deal with it. Some outright rejected Trump. Some wanted to try to guide Trumpism to better goals more in line with the last thirty years of Republican goals. Others jumped in all the way with the new wave, even when it wasn't clear what Trump stood for. Not all of these people, who might be the sorts of folks to disagree with you on social media, are odious.

We can't recognize heterodoxy in others because we don't recognize it in ourselves

It's hard for us to accept the plurality of voices opposing us, because we don't really accept the plurality of voices within our own community. Here's another evangelical sociological conundrum: should we define membership in our community in a narrow way, in order to ensure purity, or define it broadly, in order to bring more in? I don't think one side of that argument ever won in American evangelicalism as a whole, although one camp or another certainly won in some churches. (The church I went to as a teenager was a "Christianity, narrowly defined" kind of church.) But I do think that American evangelicalism realized that it couldn't grow by becoming so diffuse that it was nothing. There had to be barriers to entry in terms of professed belief. These barriers, ironically, probably led to growth, because the difficulty of getting in made people more motivated to stay once they had invested the effort to pass the barriers. Having somewhat tough requirements for belonging made members appreciate belonging more.

There is no church for political liberals. I mean, there are churches out there that largely share a politically liberal viewpoint, like the Unitarian Church, but nobody is required to be part of a church in order to be part of the ingroup of the politically liberal-minded. Nonetheless, liberals seem to have adopted some of the tougher barriers to entry evangelicals did, perhaps because liberals have seen the advantages this approach gave their political adversaries.

Liberals might, in fact, be drifting toward being even stricter than evangelicals. Maybe it's the lack of human connection a church gives that pushes us in this direction. In a church, you might think Robby drinks too much to be a good Christian, but you know the guy, and you played on the softball team with him, so you're willing to forgive him. That's not true of online liberal communities. 

I generally tend to agree with liberal political ideas, but that doesn't mean I agree with every liberal orthodoxy of the moment. When I was an evangelical, I didn't agree with everything I was supposed to believe in order to be a member of most churches. My choices were to keep my mouth shut and stay a member or to say what I really believed and lose membership, even though at one point I still shared many of the group's core beliefs. It's not easy to stay part of the community as an uneasy, partly orthodox practitioner. At some point, it makes much more sense to just leave.

That's how I feel now as a liberal. There are some issues where I don't quite agree with what I feel like I'm supposed to agree with. It feels like too much of a risk, though, to say that I only agree with seventy percent of what I'm supposed to agree with, and here are my reservations about the rest. That feels like a one-way ticket to excommunication. 

I'm not here to tell any liberal how to act online. I don't know the conservatives you interact with. Maybe the ones you know really are the odious kind. It's of course up to you and your own conscience how to interact online. This isn't meant to be a manifesto on what sort of philosophy liberals should adopt when it comes to questions of evangelism and fellowship. It's the feelings of one liberal, which I suspect are also the feelings of a lot of others. What I feel is that liberal discourse leaves me without a path to membership. The most I'll ever be is a protest vote for Democrats, because as not-at-home as I feel among liberals, I'm even less at home among conservatives. I don't think that's enough for a solid future for an ideology. There is always a balancing act between being open enough to allow people in and being strict enough that membership means something. Right now, I feel the balance is tipping in favor of purity in a way that makes me think I'm fine not being an active member.  

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Don Draper diplomacy: How the U.S. could move forward by going backwards

It's probably always a little dangerous to apply principles from interactions at a personal level and apply them to nation-states. For example, drawing lessons from the economies of individual families and suggesting countries should do similar things is usually an imperfect analogy, because debt means different things to nations and families. When I was an evangelical, most believers I knew would twist themselves into knots trying to show why "turn the other cheek" was an individual principle, not one for countries to apply to their militaries. Whether their hermeneutics were sound, I can't say, but it's clear they knew somehow that this had to be the way to read it, because reading it the other way would have meant the end of the American way of life they enjoyed. 

While respecting that what applies at an individual level may not make sense at a macroscopic, national level, we can still use metaphors and similes from everyday life if we're just using them the way metaphors and similes are meant to be used: figures of speech of limited value, meant only to illustrate one particular ground (point of the comparison) through a specific vehicle and tenor (thing and other thing it's being compared to). 

Mad Men and America

I have a fondness for reading the show Mad Men as an allegory of America, or at least a fairly extended metaphor for America. Don Draper especially seems to me like a microcosm of the United States in many ways. His past is poor farm life, but he pretends the real him is flash and dazzle and top-of-the-line new products and Madison Avenue. He tells himself his past doesn't matter, and that through thinking only of the promise of the future, he will find salvation. In the clip from the show that Netflix used over and over for its preview segment, Don waxes rhapsodic about happiness, which he seems to understand well when he needs to use happiness in a cynical way to sell something, but doesn't understand at all when it comes to finding his own happiness. 

One important characteristic to Don Draper's America is that every generation has its war. It's just assumed you have one, and admission to the grown-up table in America means you have to be able to talk about the war you were in. Roger Sterling has World War II, and is, therefore, the one who feels most entitled to his creature comforts, because World War II was obviously America's greatest moment. Don had Korea, the "forgotten war," but even forgotten wars mean you get to consider yourself a man in America with all the benefits that brings. The show takes us from the end of the fifties to the end of the sixties, and Don's identity crisis that becomes progressively more difficult for him to manage mirrors the identity crisis of America. Part of that identity crisis is a country asking itself the question of whether every generation really needs to have a war. 

(Like a lot that Don Draper says, I tend to think this speech sounds more profound than it actually is. A lot of his dazzle is bullshit with a high production value.)

The firm loses the cigarette business

For a long time, the firm Don works for has Lucky Strike as its biggest client. The company does some humiliating and even immoral things to keep the horrible client and the business he brings, but eventually, Lucky Strike abandons them. The firm is worried about losing the income from the account, but even more worried about how they will be perceived. If they're seen as a smaller firm that just lost its biggest account, they'll have a hard time getting other accounts to take Lucky Strike's place, because other clients will assume they're on life support. 

Don comes up with a unique strategy, one he doesn't clear with the other partners in his firm. He puts a full-sized ad in the Times, one that says, "Our company is never going to work for another cigarette company. Cigarettes are bad for you. It's a poisonous product. Our company will be happy to work for companies that don't sell cigarettes." 

His other partners are furious. Over the course of the show, the strategy does backfire a few times, as some clients are leery of working for the company that bad-mouthed a former client in the press, but overall, Don's gambit does what it's supposed to: it changes the narrative of how his company and Lucky Strike parted ways. As Don's future wife puts it: "I get it. She didn't dump you. You dumped her." (Applying yet another metaphor from personal life to something on a larger scale.) 

America might be losing Lucky Strike soon

America has been a great world power my entire life. They've been a great world power for the entirety of my parents' lives. We're so used to being a great world power, we've forgotten the country could get along just fine without being one, but we likely could. We might even be better off. 

It's already been a long time since America has been THE world power, if there ever even was such a time. The term "post-hegemonic world" has been around for decades, and if anything, it's a truer phrase now than it once was. Perhaps the only thing making it less true is that China is stronger now than when the phrase was originally introduced, and China also seems to have achieved something of an alliance with Russia, making both stronger. Meanwhile, the U.S. has temporarily, at least, weakened some of its own alliances, although probably not irreversibly so. Nonetheless, the U.S. holds even less of a share of total power than it once did, and long-term, may keep losing ground.

Presidents promise different paths to regaining some of this lost power in the world: either through strength (military, economic) obtained after a competitive struggle, or through cooperation, a cooperation in which America is always the lead partner. 

But why this obsession with being seen as a world power? Will it really be the end of us if we aren't in the same position of solitary strength we are accustomed to? Aren't there plenty of countries in the world that have a great standard of living without being world powers? In fact, isn't the lack of burden of being a world power part of what helps them achieve that standard?  

Artificially extending the era of America as a world power isn't buying us time for us to weather the storm of the latest challengers, after which we'll come out back on top. If anything, it's just going to make the landing harder. It's driving up our debt on things that won't make us better in the long run, which robs us of the improvements in infrastructure, education, health care, and public-funded science and technology research that could improve our long-term outlook. 

We could also include soft power projects in the list of things that could help re-shape the new America and its role in the world. Increasing the amount of foreign aid we give could be one way to offset Chinese influence in parts of the world. U.S. companies do partner with those in the developing world, but not in a strategic way designed to increase U.S. influence the way Chinese state-owned companies do. The only way for the U.S. government to offset the coordinated Chinese effort is to launch one of its own. We can't tell a U.S. company to build roads and power in Zimbabwe, but we can pay for these kinds of projects directly, giving countries an alternative to giving the Chinese footholds all over the world. 

The point here isn't to shift competition from the military arena to soft power, but to change America's basic outlook on the world from a sphere of militaristic competition to one where we seek to share the benefits of an essentially non-militaristic people. For most of America's history, we have actively sought to stay out of world affairs. We became a country strong enough to alter world history precisely by not seeking this strength until we had to. 

I'm not talking about naivete. China wants power. Russia wants power. They're willing to push the boundaries of what's acceptable to get them. They both have ways of life that involve invasions of personal liberty we consider unacceptable. We need a strong enough deterrent to be taken seriously, but we don't necessarily need to match one-for-one every strength China has. 

Much of America dreads the moment when we are no longer a great world power. I actually kind of look forward to it. Obsession with world power is a distraction for us. The Constitution shows no trace of a desire for world power. It's not in our political DNA, and the only way we've been able to sustain our quest to keep our power has been to continue to ignore the spirit of the Constitution, giving the president far more power than anyone ever dreamed of in 1776. 

If we start this shift from preservation of our clout world-wide to concern for our own character and prosperity now, while we still have enough power to be taken seriously, we can claim we did this on our own because of an awakening on our part. We will be seen as a country that willingly changed its interactions with the world in order to be more consistent with the better angels of our nature. In a future world looking for alternatives to whatever the dominant power to come may be, America is more likely to be seen as genuine and good, a partner countries would want to have, if we start this exit from world power status now. 

We can spend the next decade or two in a quixotic but futile fight to preserve our status as a world power, for reasons that have to do with little more than our pride, or we can try to navigate an exit from that precarious position strategically, so we end up, ironically, stronger precisely because we have stopped worrying so obsessively about our strength. There is a window, though, on when America can change its view of the meaning of power and world power on its own, and when the decision will be thrust upon it, willing or no. 

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Social media and the writer's happiness

Every writer knows you've got to be on social media if you want to sell books. Some would even suggest it impacts your ability to get published in the first place, and I'd say this isn't too far out there as an idea. I've definitely come across publishers I've sent my book proposals to who cared at least as much about my social media reach as the book itself. 

A few weeks ago, I turned my Facebook off, as I often do at the holidays in order to avoid adding to the melancholy I always feel at how little I think I've achieved in my life by seeing how much other people have done. However, a publisher who seemed interested in a book I pitched to him asked last week about whether I was on Facebook. He told me they published authors as well as books. I thought he was concerned about my social media reach for its ability to sell books, but turns out what he really wanted was just to know more about me and what kind of person I am. Either way, I turned my Facebook back on, and all the benefits I'd been enjoying of being off went away. 

Facebook is really nothing, though, compared to Twitter when it comes to creating anxiety. With Facebook, I at least mostly know the people I'm looking at feeds for, which limits how personally I take what I see. If I know the guy posting something is a knucklehead from Canton, I can kind of write it off, but on Twitter, I'm subjected to a non-stop cross-section of thoughts from random people. Mostly, it leaves me with the impression that democracy is doomed. Rather than the questions of whether I'm a personal failure Facebook gives me, Twitter makes me ask what it matters whether I accomplish anything, because the whole world's screwed, anyway.

I've never been on social media to sell books. I was on Facebook back before I even tried writing seriously. My Twitter account, on the other hand, only exists for writing, but my goal isn't to get rich as a writer. The only reason I ever write anything, whether it's a story, a blog post, an email at work or a love note, is to say: the world seems thus to me, am I missing something? I generally write out of a sense that the world is fucking with me, that I'm being gaslit, because conventional wisdom says one thing, but that's not how I perceive the world. I write, generally, out of a sense that either the world is crazy or I am, and I genuinely want to know which it is. I don't necessarily want to SELL books, but I do want readers, because without someone to respond to what I'm observing, nobody can enter into a conversation about whether things seem the same way to them.

Given that I need readers to fully scratch the itch that made me write in the first place, I've figured that having a social media account was a necessary evil, a tradeoff of a little bit of sanity for the more critical big of sanity that comes from being able to talk about what matters to me with someone. (This is why I'm sometimes surprised when writers don't respond at all after I tag them on Twitter about a positive review. Like, you write literary fiction. It's not like you've got thousands of people reviewing your work. I know, because often, my blog is the top Google result for your story. I'm on Twitter to find readers who think seriously about the things I write. So aren't you happy enough to hear from a serious reader that it means at least something to you? I realize I'm offering it gratuitously, but I'm surprised, I guess, that only maybe one in four posts gets even a thumbs-up.)

I'm not sure, though, that Twitter is a good bargain overall. At least one publisher out there has written a pretty convincing argument for why authors shouldn't be on social media. I agree with all three of their reasons: 1) people don't pay much attention to writers on social media anymore, 2) it takes away time from writing, 3) the anxiety it causes will hurt you personally and as a writer. 

Most writers probably need a fair amount of solitude. That doesn't mean they're necessarily "introverted," a word I increasingly think is stupid, just that thinking about the things they think about means the world needs to shut up sometimes. Certainly, there are times when the author doesn't want solitude. For centuries, writers have sought out other minds to challenge them and shared drinks, drugs, and bodily fluids with those other minds. I'm certainly willing to sacrifice solitude to engage with a thoughtful reader, but Twitter seems like an increasingly bad bargain. 

Does this mean I'll be able to ditch it sometime soon? I don't know. Like I said, just last week, someone was interested in something I wrote, and that interest was at least partly conditional on whether I had some sort of social media existence. If I weren't a writer, I think I'd likely be the sort of person who surfs back and forth between having social media and not having it. It's convenient for some things, but it does have an impact on my happiness. 

It's not like I have a ton of followers or anything. I have 71 followers on Twitter. I don't really seek them out, which I guess defeats the purpose of being on in the first place. I'm just motivated enough to do Twitter badly, I guess. I should probably either be all-in or all-out, but I don't really see my relationship to it changing soon. 

Saturday, December 26, 2020

The limits of literary fiction: a wrap-up of Best American Short Stories 2020

I believe this is the eighth year I've read Best American Short Stories now, and I'd put the 2020 edition in the top three of those eight in terms of quality of stories.  One of the unique merits it had, which I'll credit to guest editor Curtis Sittenfeld, was something I alluded to in my post on the last story in the anthology, "The Special World" by Tiphanie Yanique. That is, the volume worked better as a whole than any other edition I've seen. It was amazing how much the stories, none of which were written with the other stories in the volume in mind, responded to one another. Nonetheless, in spite of the excellence of many stories individually and how well they worked together (in fact, perhaps because of how good a volume it was), BASS 2020 also kept reinforcing for me a number of limitations of literary fiction that have more or less been in the back of my mind since graduate school. Sittenfeld's own introduction to the anthology served to crystalize a few of these limitations in my mind:  

1. Literary fiction moves slow: BASS in any given year looks at stories published in the year before. The basic model seems to go something like this: series editor Heidi Pitlor picks 120 stories from however many stories she starts with--likely several hundreds that were originally published between December of the year prior to November of the current year. Pitlor then gives those 120 stories to the guest editor in several batches between November and March of the next year. The guest editor finishes picking twenty by the end of March, the proofs get ironed out, and it gets published in October (COVID-19 made it late this year). 

That means the 2020 BASS featured stories originally published as far back as December 2018, which means the stories themselves could have been written as far back as 2017 or even earlier, since once a story is written, it can take over a year to find a market to publish it, and then another several months for it to be published. 

Both Heidi and Curtis mentioned COVID-19 in their remarks on this year's anthology, but because both wrote those remarks in the early spring, by the time BASS came out, their thoughts were completely overtaken by events. Naturally, none of the stories in Best American Short Stories 2020 is aware COVID is a thing, which means the short story anthology bearing the name of the year the pandemic struck doesn't address the pandemic. That will have to wait until the 2021 anthology. Or maybe 2022, since most of the stories published in literary magazines in 2020 were written in 2019, also before the pandemic, meaning nobody was aware of it in those stories, either. (I wrote a pandemic story in the first weeks of the outbreak. Four of the journals I sent it to have not yet looked at it, to give you some idea of the speed at which literary journals work sometimes.) 

Roxane Gay, writing in a BASS introduction a few years ago, defended fiction writers for not being able to crank out the definitive story on the meaning of the Trump election in the months after it happened. She pointed out that fiction writing doesn't work like that. You can't just say "here is crisis X" and expect writers to produce work on that crisis. Great work takes time to process events. Sometimes, it takes a very long time, in order to get enough distance to get control of the subject. (Here, I think of the first chapter of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, where he discusses how his anti-war novel was the first novel he tried to write, but he kept failing at it for decades, until he'd written many other books, before he finally knew how to write it. It's worth noting that BASS 2020 had one story in it about the fallout of the 2016 election, "In the Event," reflecting somewhat how long it can take for art to reflect changes in reality.) 

I understand all of that, and maybe it is enough to be able to point, in an emergency, to a book written earlier though the slow-cooking process that seems to respond to something similar. Maybe there was no great novel in 2020 about the pandemic, but there is The Plague by Albert Camus. 

Still, it feels sometimes like how long it takes to create work that responds to current events is a huge limitation of literary fiction. There are TV shows now that work COVID into the story lines. If a TV show, with all the massive logistics that go into it, can respond on that fast a timetable, why can't literature, which really just requires the ability to transmit text? 

Journalism relies on a two-tiered approach. It does both breaking news and longer-term, in-depth reporting. Both are needed to give a democratic society the information it needs to make good decisions. I can't help but feel that literature could also benefit from stories written from the gut in the middle of a crisis, stories that have limited editing and are turned around quickly. 

There are some places where this exists, some journals that turn things around on a dime. But with so many journals out there, it's difficult for any one story to gain enough traction culturally to have an impact on the public psyche. Fiction writing is failing to inject itself into public discourse meaningfully. For better or worse, anthologies like BASS are required to give a busy public the essential reading they need. Even I rely on the anthologies, because there are thousands of journals, and I'm not going to read through them all or even more than maybe a small handful of them, although I likely read more literary fiction than about ninety-eight percent of the general public. But the time lag with anthologies means the stories people read in them are always going to be unaware of today's events. It has the effect of making literary fiction always feel behind the times, maybe even a little irrelevant. 

I have no doubt editors are always working hard, but books get published on slower schedules than the ones used by general contractors. 

2. Literary fiction as a business suffers from both hegemony and post-hegemony. Sittenfeld wrote in her introduction about being "disenchanted with the so-called literary industrial complex," even while admitting she benefitted from being on the inside of this complex. She felt the industry has a penchant for producing buzz not in line with the quality of a work. Everything is supposedly spell-binding or mesmerizing, while Sittenfeld often finds herself bailing on these supposedly spell-binding works early on. 

The reason every work must be praised to absurd levels is because the supply of quality literary work far outstrips the demand. There are still a few gatekeepers with the power to sell enough books for a work to succeed commercially. Oprah. To a lesser extent, Roxane Gay. High-profile reviewers still have some influence, although not nearly as much as they once did. Awards also tend to give book a much-needed shot in the arm. Outside the few lucky writers blessed by these gods, there are hundreds of finely crafted novels every year languishing for the attention they deserve, along with thousands of short stories. It's like an electronics market in Seoul where everyone is selling the same things; the only thing to distinguish them is how loud the person hawking his wares is. 

BASS is definitely inside the literary-industrial complex. It tends to feature more big-name authors than, say, the Pushcart anthology does, and the guest editor is unfailingly a big name. Being in BASS is one of the few gifts the industry can still bestow on an undiscovered author to give her career a shot in the arm. (Although some of the writers I follow on Twitter were published in BASS and now still seem to be struggling.) BASS helps overcome the lack of hegemony in publishing by providing one place where writers can rise above the noise of the marketplace somewhat. It's hard to sell your work as a writer, but if you've been in BASS, you have a somewhat better chance. In that sense, the power of the few remaining outposts of literary establishment strength are of great value to writers. Hegemony is helpful. It might not be great for those outside it, but at least there's a goal to strive toward that, once achieved, will provide writers with some semblance of what they were hoping for. Without an establishment, there could well be a sort of law of thermodynamics of the marketplace in effect in which there are thousands of writers, none of whom can gain enough notice to sell more than a handful of books. 

Or would it? Are markets really not able to self-regulate? Aren't there always a few outsider books that succeed without the help of the establishment, through word of mouth? 

The establishment's effect on aesthetics 

Sittenfeld listed, as most guest editors do, a sort of "what I look for in a story" summary in her introduction. It's pretty similar to what I'd have said while I was an editor with The Baltimore Review, or what I now say as a fiction editor for the Washington Writers' Publishing House: "My favorite feeling as a reader is the confidence that the writer is in control, is one step (or more) ahead of me, possesses a knowing sensibility that he or she is unfurling as the narrative demands." In other words, as readers, we like to have a feeling we're in good hands. I completely agree. 

There's something else I look for in a story, though, that I would describe as the feeling the writer could not help but write this story, that it was eating a hole in her gut, and that she is personally invested in it in much more than a professional sense. Occasionally, this leads to a story, or at least parts of a story, where it seems to me the writer is not totally in control, where it seems the narrative has become so full of fury or passion that the writer is now throwing punches with all his might, heedless of technique or the need to keep his own guard up. Writing with no technique and all passion is unreadable, but writing that's all technique and no passion is unmemorable. 

The literary establishment is useful in that at least some writers can succeed commercially nowadays, but it comes with a cost. The cost is that there is a way to write to get into that establishment and a way not to write. I don't think it's true, as some people charge, that everyone with an MFA writes the same, and I don't believe all the stories in BASS sound the same, but there must be some real thing people feel that makes this such a common statement. 

Maybe it would be accurate to say there is a general center of gravity for the "literary establishment aesthetic." There are certain things a writer does to give editors the feeling of being "in control" of the story, and there are, perhaps, certain political viewpoints that are considered safe, certain topics one is at least advised to stay away from, if none that is specifically recommended. 

On the other hand, the editors of the Pushcart anthology have expressed that a certain unpolished rawness is something they actively seek out. Stories in Pushcart more often seem to speak to issues that affect me on an existential level. They feel more like they were written by people thinking things I think and living the kind of life I live, whereas BASS sometimes has a more rarified feel. (NOTE: This year, Pushcart and BASS overlap on FOUR stories, something I've never seen before.) Not that BASS never allows in outsiders. Clearly, they do. I think every editor strives for balance when putting together a volume, and part of that balance is picking new voices. But the very careful selection of that balance sometimes feels a little contrived, and I might actually prefer something a little unbalanced. The best BASS I've read yet was that one put together by Roxane Gay, which was the one that made the least effort to spread around the demographics equitably

Sittenfeld spoke of a middle ground between wide-eyed wonder at the excellence of stories and cynicism about the marketplace. I think there is also, maybe, a middle ground between the well-polished, industry-approved story that makes no impact in the lives of its readers and the written-in-a-coke-addled-weekend raw story of existential dread. Of the stories I thought best from BASS 2020, some fit my "story that felt like the writer had no choice but to write it" criteria ("Godmother Tea," "This is Pleasure," "Rubberdust," "Kennedy," and "Octopus VII") and some did not ("Something Street" and "The Nanny"). Just like a writer can have a burning existential issue and seek to find the fictional technique to fit it, a writer can feel a story come to them from a more aesthetic than existential place, but find the existential importance of the story while writing it. All the stories in BASS 2020 that didn't work for me, though, (and where, unlike Sittenfeld, I don't think it's just a question of the story not being for me, but the story actually not being worth reading) felt like they were written by a professional writer straining to find a story to write about, "The Apartment" being chief among those. ("Liberte" I can chalk up to my own idiosyncrasies, as well, perhaps, as "Enlightenment.")  

I can indulge a writer in almost anything she wants to try, but I cannot abide a writer who does not consider that a reader comes to her work looking for answers to certain burning questions of how to make sense of the world, nor writing that seems as if the writer has left all those burning questions behind her, like only naive and pretentious freshmen like those in "The Special World" ask such questions. I don't have time for writing written by someone who isn't made dizzy continually by being in a world that ultimately makes so little sense. 

Perhaps these two limits of literary fiction, the lack of timeliness and the way establishment fiction sometimes fails to address the central-most questions of its readers, are related. The need for emotional distance needed for art always risks becoming a little too distant, much like the pastor who spends so much time preparing his sermon he is not aware that half his congregation was just laid off. There is both a prophetic role for authors as well as a pastoral one, if I may use that analogy, and in the best writers, the ones who matter most to me, the two roles work together. 

I do not write to indict the literary fiction establishment (which, let's be honest, struggles so much with commercial viability it's a little hard to think of it as an "establishment;" in the big picture, even the giants of lit fic are indie darlings). Obviously, the big names of literary fiction speak to me often enough I spend time every year carefully reading Best American Short Stories, responding to every entry. I mean only to suggest as a reader with existential needs that "establishment" stories tend, when they fail, to do so because they leave me a little cold when I consider why they matter, whereas "outsider" stories, if they fail, do so because the writer has not gained enough control over the thing that matters I learn anything new about it.  

Monday, December 21, 2020

The story I thought would never get published

Although I've been fond of this story since it came off my fingers two years ago, I really thought it would never get published. As a friend of mine I shared it with told me, even though it seems like I'm not making fun of #metoo, it's not so clear that an editor can be sure, so they're just going to be safe and reject it. I finally found one editor at the Maryland Literary Review crazy enough to take a chance on it. See what you think. Wonderfully fabulist tale of wrongs that can't be undone, or white guy spewing nonsense: 

I give you: Collision.