Sunday, October 3, 2021

Submittable settings might make objectivity harder for editors

 I have a friend who is kind of obsessive about not wanting to talk about movies he hasn't seen yet. It's not just that he wants to avoid hearing spoilers; he wants to not even hear a very broad opinion, like, "I liked it." He feels that even hearing this generic endorsement will color how he watches the movie, and he'd prefer, when he watches, to be doing so completely free of outside influence. 

That's hard to do for movies or shows on streaming services where buzz makes opinions ubiquitous in everyone's social media timelines. To be sure you don't get contaminated, you'd have to avoid social media and continually remind your co-workers within earshot that you want to avoid hearing any mention of the show. That's a lot of work, and likely to make you an unpopular co-worker with some people who really like to talk about what they've seen. 

It shouldn't be that hard for editors of literary journals to do with stories submitted for consideration, though. After all, these are unpublished works they're dealing with. The only people who've seen them, maybe, are small workshop groups. There's no danger of having been contaminated by a public discourse on a story that's still seeking to enter public discourse. 

Except there is. The danger arises from the way Submittable presents work in progress to editors. In a typical set-up, stories sit in a queue, usually according to the date submitted (you can arrange them by other criteria, but this seems to be the fairest way to go through a queue, starting with what came in first and working to what came in last). There are a number of ways journals handle the first stages, depending on the preferences of the head editor and the staff on hand. 

One common method is for first-line editors to pick entries and vote on them. Once the first vote is made, subsequent readers can see that a vote has been made and, more importantly, which kind of vote. 




The snip above is from my own Submittable work queue. I was the one who voted no on the three entries you see there. This means that everyone except the first reader (me) is going to already know what another reader (me) thought before starting in on reading. If that second reader has any particular feelings about me, those could end up influencing the next vote. It could be, "Jake's usually a good reader, so I'll probably agree with him," or it could be, "I hate Jake, so I'm going to vote the opposite of whatever he said," or it could be anything in between. The point is that my vote is likely to have at least some influence on the next votes, even if it's an unconscious influence. And that means objectivity, always difficult to achieve for judges, is going to be a little bit more tainted.

For many journals, the majority of readers doing the lion's share of the work are new. The work is unpaid and grueling, so it's understandable why journals would cycle through readers. When someone new comes on board, it's natural for them to feel their way out before they get comfortable. When I read for the Baltimore Review, I had two conflicting impulses: to vote with the majority so people didn't think I was a pain in the ass, and to vote against the majority so it appeared I had a unique take that made me valuable to have around. Both of these impulses were a distraction from what should have been my only desire, which was to vote the way I really thought. 

No matter which impulse I followed, the presence of other votes represented an influence on me. This was especially true because the Baltimore Review used a two-strikes-and-you're-out approach: the editor figured if two readers both didn't like something, it had too long of an uphill climb to make it, and she'd send a rejection notice. That means that once I saw something had a down vote, there was a motivation for me to go in and vote no, too, because then the story would be out of the queue, which felt like progress. 

A lot of journals use a blind reading to protect them from knowing who the writer is and being influenced by that. They do this in the interests of fairness. Journals should probably also consider protecting themselves from their own influence internally. It's possible there may be some way to configure Submittable settings so you can see that a vote has been made, but not know what the vote was or who made it. But if so, it's not the default setting, and I sure can't figure out how to apply it. A journal could instead have everyone send a private note to a central editor with votes and thoughts, so that only the central editor could see them. But that's a big burden on that one editor, and a system like this would mean Submittable wasn't much more efficient than a journal working entirely off of email. 

If a technical solution became available, making anonymous and masked voting possible, that doesn't mean votes shouldn't stay anonymous and hidden forever. Once enough are in, the blinders could come off, and if necessary, editors could have discussions among themselves and argue through points of disagreement. The idea isn't to avoid disagreement. Quite the opposite. It's to avoid agreement that comes too easily. Journals struggle to achieve diversity in their editorial staff in order to be fair in judging work. That diversity can be undone, though, by subtly encouraging groupthink through the voting process. A simple tweak to Submittable could probably do a surprising lot of good for encouraging diversity. It would certainly be an interesting experiment for journals to try and see if they get more disagreement than they've had before. 

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Admitting to yourself it's never going to happen without sounding morose

Is hope a good thing? Saint Paul listed it, along with love and faith, among the three heavenly things that abide here among us. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which has been one of the biggest influences in my life, seems to hold in low regard those who abandon hope, even when despair seems reasonable, as in the case of Denethor. That doesn't mean we must maintain an unrealistic view of our own hopes, only that we have to keep trying until the last possible ember of hope is extinguished. Gandalf is the architect of the plan that ultimately defeats the greatest evil of his day, in spite of his own admission that "there never was much hope....just a fool's hope." 

On a practical level, it's hard to imagine our society surviving long without it. While the engine of capitalism can run even if few people have a truly realistic chance at achieving their dreams, it can and will run as long as most people have just enough hope to believe they might achieve them if they only keep going a little further. Hope is so strongly grounded in Western culture and so necessary to maintaining our way of life, questioning its value might seem sometimes like questioning whether murder is bad. 

There is another tradition, though, one that views hope as ego getting in the way of our own growth. This is the tradition embraced by Canadian author Steven Heighton in his article "Hope is Good. Disappointment is Better."Heighton recalls how his own buoyant faith in his bright literary future retarded the very growth as a writer necessary to achieve that future. Heighton discusses the two terms "disillusion" and "disabuse," suggesting that the second is better, both because it lacks the confusing double-negative equaling a negative of "disillusion," and also because it suggests that sticking to hope involves abuse the way an addiction does. 

Heighton cites Buddhist teacher Thích Nhất Hạnh, who teaches that hope is harmful because it's based on an illusion. Although hope has a biological basis that is essential to survival, this biological urge can, over time, train us to avoid any type of discomfort. Most elite athletes, Heighton writes, learn to stop thinking in terms of hope, because hope is a distraction: 

As every athlete finds out, action contaminated by hope (If only I can nail this next serve . . . I’ll win if I nail this next serve!) usually fails. Hope is a fatal distraction. It creates a kind of skip, jitter, or satellite delay in the nerves. Where there’s hope, there’s fear, their relationship an alternating current. On the other hand, a play or movement executed in a fully present, fearless frame of mind—without hope—often succeeds.

Worst of all, hopefulness—that “if only!” state of mind—becomes a mental habit that does not just go away once things improve a little or a lot. The relief of every hope realized creates a new hope, new fears. So we go on, slinging ourselves ahead of ourselves toward death—in fact hastening its approach, our actual lives left uninhabited.

Easy for you to say

Heighton was discussing hope in terms of his own development as a writer, tracing how his early novel lacked necessary focus and refinement, because to have kept working on it then would have felt like admitting his own shortcomings, something that would have conflicted with his internal narrative of himself as a rising literary star. He argues that failure is often the only thing that will teach us, because we are so resistant to admitting we need to improve we will deny and deny our weaknesses until undeniable failure makes us unable to continue to live with our own illusions. 

My own experience from a life not quite as long as Heighton's is that he's right. My life has been a series of waves of unearned confidence that I would transfer my reasonable but not unprecedented talent into easy and unprecedented success. Those waves of confidence have been successively broken, which forced me to reevaluate. The greatest developments I've made, both personally and skill-development-wise, have almost invariably come at my moments of greatest humility. 

Yet there's a difference between what Heighton is writing about and what I'm facing as a writer. Heighton is looking at it from the perspective of someone who's published eighteen books. He may have had to grow as a writer, but that's just it--he's growing as a writer. People identify him as a writer, whereas most people--the few who are even aware of my existence--would identify me as something else. Writing is something I do on the side, but it isn't who I am. The difference between Heighton and me is that he's had enough signs in his life that writing is the thing he ought to be concerned about getting better at in order to know he's probably in the right place. When he's thinking of the balance between hope and disappointment, he at least has a reasonable certainty that writing is the place where he should be seeking that balance. 

I have no such reassurance. I've had about fifteen stories published, along with one book. I've won two awards. All of what I've done has been on a pretty small stage, within a field that is among the most glutted on Earth. When Heighton writes, hope is a threat that, left unchecked, could keep him from passing through the uncomfortable refinement needed to reach greater excellence. For me, hope is something without which I couldn't write a single word, because I have no reason to believe the odds are in my favor that more than a small handful of people will ever read anything I write. 

To return to the image of the athlete, if I discipline myself to focus on the present and not to lose myself in fantasy, but all it helps me accomplish is that I go from eighth place to fourth place in my local rec tennis league, does it even matter? Isn't this level of mental focus, this ruthless plucking out of hope, only for pros? For the rest of us, isn't it kind of harmless, or even necessary to get us through the day-to-day humdrum of our otherwise unremarkable lives? 

I don't want to play rec tennis

I write because I believe I have things to say worth saying that aren't being said by others. I write because I think those things I have to say are important. If I'm wrong--if all I am is really nothing more than one of the better players in my local league of writers, then I'd rather not be spending time on it at all. 

A lot of people tell me that's the wrong approach, that I should write because I love it and only focus on being the best writer I can be and enjoying it and if I happen to also have success getting published and winning awards and being discussed seriously by serious people, to take that all as a bonus. They tell me I should write the same way some people play guitar or paint miniatures or participate in a tennis league or sing in the church choir--for the pure love of the thing. 

That's probably a healthy attitude if the goal is happiness. It's also something I'm unable to settle for. Anything other than "going pro"--being able to support myself as a writer, being known widely as a writer, having what I've written become part of public discourse--seems so unsatisfying to me, I'd rather not write at all. 

But it looks like I really am a rec player

Of course, the world doesn't care about what I wish were true. At this point, it looks like the level I'm at is the level I'm going to stay at. There have been a few thrilling moments when it looked like I might be able to break through, at least enough to be in the show if not to be one of the stars, but those never panned out. Assessing my prospects as a cold and impartial third-party observer, I'd say my chances of achieving what I want to achieve are maybe better than winning the lottery, but still so unrealistic that continuing to hope for it is almost a pathology. Reality is that I either need to become okay with writing at the rec league level or quit writing and find something else to do, maybe something I don't mind doing as a mere hobby. 

Of course, writing and tennis aren't perfect analogies

In tennis, the best players tend to win the most, because the winner of a tennis match is almost a perfectly objective matter. There can be some influence from judges (although instant replay has reduced that influence), and certainly bad luck can be involved. In any particular match, the lesser player might prevail. Over time, though, the best players tend to show themselves. Federer and Djokovic really are some of the best to ever play. 

Writing is much stranger. It isn't completely subjective, as some people rather recklessly claim, but it's not close to objective in the way that tennis is, either. Those considered our best writers today probably are in a meaningful sense worth reading more than many others who don't make it. There's a meaningful difference between a good writer and a bad one. That doesn't mean, though, that there is a meaningful distinction between one good writer and another. I know this not just as a writer, but as someone who's spent time as an editor whose job it was to pick the best writing to publish out of a huge pile of possibilities. I had some sense of what I considered good, and I could explain the contours of that aesthetic sensibility somewhat, but in the end, picking a winner always had a little bit of a darts-at-a-board feeling to it. Which means there is always some luck involved.

In an article about how Sally Rooney's success is a symbol of a new aesthetic of the "pose" over the "voice," Stephen March discussed how much the potential for success in writing has shrunk in the last fifty years. He compared it to a children's party game called "shark," similar to musical chairs, in which the space to land on keeps shrinking, until only one child can fit on the final spot. The only problem with that analogy as it relates to writing is that while the space available for writers to succeed in finding an audience, fame, relevance, and fortune is shrinking as print culture dies, the number of writers trying to cram into the few remaining spaces is actually increasing greatly. It's like if the PGA tour had cut its number of possible spots for golfers in every tournament by eighty percent since 1960, at the same time as the sport was undergoing a change from being primarily something wealthy white Western people did to something people of all kinds of backgrounds from all over the world do. 

Which means I'm in a game of musical chairs where there are eight chairs every time I play and six thousand people playing. To make it worse, the people who get the chairs aren't simply those who got there first, but those who got there with the most style, according to a style manual the judges can only partly explain. And for some reason, I'm not just playing for the love of musical chairs; I'm playing because getting a chair has somehow taken on life-or-death significance for me. 

Hope block

I've never struggled with writer's block. There's never a day when I woke up and didn't have things I wanted to say. It's been months, though, since I've really sat down to write those things, not because they aren't still queued up in my brain waiting to come out, but because every time I start to write something, I am overcome by a feeling that there's no point. Either I'm mistaken about the worth of what I want to say, or I'm just not one of the lucky elect. Either way, writing for me is, unless I'm holding dearly onto hope, an exercise in onanism. 

It's too much trouble to go back and count, but I've probably intimated on this blog a dozen times that I intended to quit writing, only to get back to it after a break. This is easily the longest break I've taken, so long that it no longer feels like a break. It feels like I'm really done, and in the end, I didn't even really decide to be done. The necessary impulse to write just sort of left me. 

It's possible to look upon this as a necessary, if painful, shattering of hope, of being, at last, disabused of my fantasy. It could be a good chance to go focus on something else. There are a couple of reasons, though, that I find it hard to just move on.

First, yes, it is possible I could live with the realization I'm not the writer I want to be. I'm also not the chess player I want to be, nor is my Korean as good as I'd like it to be, nor can I lift as much weight as I wish I could. None of those failures keeps me up at night or keeps me from doing the activity, so I should similarly learn to live with writing as another thing in which I wasn't born with the talent to match my ambitions. The only problem with that is that while I could live with being a less-than-stellar writer, I have absolute faith in my ability as a reader. If I'm wrong about my perceptiveness as a reader, then I literally know nothing. And the whole reason I've kept writing is because when I looked at my own writing as objectively as I could, it seemed to me to have worth. Failure as a writer, then, isn't just failure as a writer, but failure as a reader, which is a far more fundamental hit to my identity. 

Secondly, there's the question of what I do with the work I've done that never got published. I'm especially thinking here of the novel I wrote about the work I did for seventeen years, the novel I thought would help make sense of the otherwise senseless direction my life has taken. The novel I can't believe I couldn't find a publisher for, the novel whose failure to get published calls into question my soundness as a reader more than any other failure. Do I suffer the indignity of self-publishing, or do I keep my two unpublished novels and dozen unpublished short stories that comprise what I consider to be my best work in a drawer, to be brought out ceremonially to remind me of the perils of unmerited hope? 

Third, if I'm not a writer, what animates me? What gets me through the endless hours of my day job, a job which, while better than I deserve in life, is, as it is for almost everyone, not really what I set out to do in life? I've talked with more than one writer in similar circumstances to myself who has said he writes because if he didn't, he doesn't know what he'd do with himself and would probably just end it all. 

I know the title of this post has to do with confronting the end of your dreams without sounding morose, but it wouldn't be honest if I didn't at least admit that suicide is part of the equation for a lot of people when they hold onto the illusion of hope. The end of that illusion can be fatal, which is why many people continue holding onto the increasingly false hope their dreams will come true, or they keep themselves distracted with the endless noise and narrative that a connected age makes possible. 

Of all the illusions I've found it difficult to shake, the one I've had the hardest time overcoming is that I'd like for life to have a purpose. It would be best if it had a purpose generally, but failing that, I'd at least like for my life to have a purpose. I'd like for my own life to make sense in the way a satisfying narrative makes sense. Writing has always seemed like the way to make that happen, perhaps in too obvious a sense, which is maybe why it's such an illusion. 

Since I first abandoned religion about twenty-five years ago, I've always been struck by how much braver life without God requires one to be than even that required of a saint. When I read Sartre's Nausea, for example, I felt like nausea wasn't just a literary trope. It's how I really felt thinking about living a life without a higher power making sense of it for me. I felt rudderless and lost and a little bit terrified. I never really got over that feeling, even though it hasn't made me recant the "disabusing" of the notion of God. That feeling of being lost is a lot of what I've always wanted to express, the thing I thought made what I had to say worth reading. Not that it's a new concept, but that it's an idea that always needs to be made new, and I wanted to try.  

As brave as I've tried to be, I've never really gotten over thinking, without admitting it, that maybe life had some meaning I just couldn't see. I kept that feeling hidden away in a part of my brain somewhere, because I honestly needed the hope. If I'm now to finally be disabused of this last illusion, making me  fully live like a Sartrean Saint without hope, do I have it in me to do that? Do I have the strength to be definitively disillusioned? 

Monday, August 2, 2021

Story that won the award now available online

Nothing has changed. I'm still too focused on other things to manage to blog these days, but since New Letters has put my story that won the big award last year available online, I thought I'd at least throw together a five-line post to point readers toward it. It's here. Other than the story I can't seem to get published right now and maybe the novel I can't get published, either, I think it's probably the best I've managed to do as a writer. Thanks for reading. 

Friday, May 14, 2021

Just checking in

This is the longest I've gone without posting in years. It's not that anything's wrong, really, it's just that I started a new job in late March, and it's absolutely taking everything out of me to keep up. I decided to switch jobs somewhat late in life because I really needed a change. I had a job I could do well and that mostly only required forty hours a week plus maybe an hour or two of skills maintenance a day on my own. That was good for writing, but it wasn't good for me personally, for reasons that are specific to that job and too boring to go into here. When I saw a chance to do something new, I took it, even though I knew it was a stretch and a risk.

I'm working around the clock now to try not to fail at it. That's great for reviving my belief that I can actually adapt to new things, but it ain't so great for writing. 

Essentially, I'm having the problem every writer has had since the beginning of writing. Either you have a job that sucks but is easy, and you have time to write but then you deal with penury, or you have a good job that takes care of your life needs, but it also eats up your time. I'm not complaining. I made my choice a long time ago. Family comes first. Maybe in a few years, when my son is eighteen, I'll feel like I can radically change my life again, take something that's just a minimum-effort bill-payer and really spend the last years of my working life trying to leave something as a writer people will remember me for. 

In the meantime, nothing's wrong. Writing taking a back seat for a minute is part of the plan. In the past, a break from writing has usually meant a outburst of productivity sometime later, so that's what I'm hoping will happen. Whenever it is that I'm not drowning in work that's all new to me. 

I feel bad I'm not reviewing Pushcart or O.Henry this year, and might not even be able to do BASS in the fall. As rinky-dink as my blog is, I like providing the most thoughtful feedback I can for writers who often don't get the serious consideration they deserve. But it can't be helped. There's no way out of this now but all the way in, so all the way in I go.  

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'd had for seventeen years in order to take what seems like a dream job to me--and in writing. It's hard, of course, 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 literal 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 brief but memorable episode when I was in first grade. I was standing in line on the playground 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?  It was a combination of both the theodicy question and Leibniz's great question, and they both came crushing down upon me at the same time. 

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? Modern fiction's predilection for stories that focus on the experience of being other from white and male and cis-gendered and straight strike me a little bit like what a class in etiquette might have felt like five minutes after coming back to the classroom from my lightning bolt moment on the playground. I understand that it's important to be kind to one another, but can we please talk about what just happened out there? 

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 as much as it is in Shakespeare or Melville. 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. I sometimes feel that I'm writing what people want to read now instead of what I myself want to read all the time. 

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. Clear motivations is a story characteristic 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.