Adjusting To The Nonfiction Writer Lifestyle

I've been working on my nonfiction book recently. It's called What's So Great About The Great Books and is tentatively due out from Princeton University Press sometime in 2025. I am having so much fun. It's an amazing privilege to get to pick apart the issue of the canon and the classics in detail. But writing non-fiction is an adjustment.

My first-ever non-memoiristic nonfiction piece came out in 2021, and I wrote "Myth of the Classically Educated Elite" without really doing any research, just by drawing linkages from my own reading. In fact, I realize now that there are a number of inaccuracies in the piece, though not any overt falsehoods or anything that destroys the central argument.1

After writing the piece I was like, this is easy. I get how literary criticism works. You just use all the knowledge that's already in your brain, and you write from point to point, so it seems as if you know everything in the world.

Of course I find it impossible to do this in full, because it seems dishonest, so in my nonfiction book I'm open about the classics I haven't read (have never gotten through Aristotle's Ethics or Politics for instance).

One could pejoratively call this 'pseudo-intellectual' writing, since it lacks the presumed rigor of the academic, who reads extensively everything written about the field. And I think that when it's applied to, say, a Malcolm Gladwell or Steven Pinker, the charge of pseudo-intellectualism might be apt, since they're writing about really important stuff, with really important real-life implications, and, most importantly, very clear epistemological standards--you can't just say shit, you have to prove it and defend it.

I think the standard for writing about literature is a bit lighter. In the humanities, you're primarily dealing with the phenomenological: what is happening inside your own mind. Not, you'll notice, what is happening inside "a" person's mind or in "the average" person's mind--once you start generalizing, you've left the humanities and are now in the realm of the social sciences.

That's why in the humanities one tends to discuss ideas--the 'myth' of the classically-educated elite--and not the actuality itself. How did I imbibe this idea? What evidence do I have for believing it to be true? What evidence do I have that it's not true? By studying how ideas arise and are supported in the individual mind, the humanities has a broad field--it can study everything. It can even study science, so long as it studies science as the individual consciousness comes to understand it.

The thing about the humanities is that, for a certain type of criticism, a certain level of ignornace is valid, so long as you're not generalizing your ignorance. For instance, I've read a lot of Japanese Heian-era literature. I know very little about Heian-era society. In particular, my knowledge of the relations between the sexes is patchy. For instance, at what age did women enter seclusion? How remote were they kept from their male relatives? Sei Shonagan and Lady Murasaki were both court attendants, I know, but what was their exact role? How much seclusion did their public roles involve, as opposed to Mitsishune's Mother, who had no public role and was only a wife and mother?

I don't know the answers to these questions. Thus if I was to try and make some claim about the social purpose of The Tale of Genji, by saying, for instance, it taught women what men were like--I could very well be totally wrong, if in fact Heian women had extensive experience of their male relatives.

But if instead I read Genji through my own eyes--as a person approaching a work of art in the 21st century--it's difficult to be totally wrong. For instance, the most shocking thing about Genji is that he rapes hella women. One of them is so distraught she commits suicide and haunts him! It's a major plot point in the book. I can't say how that would've been read by a Heian-era woman, but to me it's intriguing! And it stands in stark contrast to other pre-modern literature, where rape is either elided (The Iliad) or romanticized (Ovid). And yet it's quite complex, because Genji is the romantic hero, and I, as the reader, percieve him as being a desirable, witty, and soulful person. So there's a tension in the text that exists for me. Did it exist in Heian-era Japan? I mean...probably? I imagine it did? But it undeniably exists for me, and I don't need to do any more research to indicate that.

In literary criticism, if you're careful, the question isn't 'validity' (is what I am saying true?)--instead it's generalizability ('would anyone else percieve what I have perceived?').

Which is just a really long way of saying that in writing my book on the Great Books I'm less interested in forming a complete picture of what's been said about the Great Books and more interested in creating an impression of what the average, educated person is likely to know or have heard.

But you know what? That still involves doing some research.

The great thing about research--and I realize this is something every academic already knows--is that whenever you read an academic book on a subject, they spend the first chapter summarizing everything else that's ever been said on the subject. Which means if you read three or four books on a subject, you rapidly get the picture of what's out there. For instance, I know that a frequent criticism of the Great Books is that they're ahistorical: they don't represent a unified ethnic or linguistic tradition, they're just a set of books tossed together by some dudes in the 1920s.

But then you can't just leave it at that, you've gotta find the quotes, you've gotta chase down the sources. It's a whole deal! It's a whole foofarraw.

And since I've never done sustained nonfiction research before, I've had to develop systems over time.

The key thing, I've learned, is that you want to capture stuff the first time you read it--or else you spent aeons chasing it down later, and potentially never find it again (oftentimes because in your mind you've mistated the case.) Like, for instance, that stuff about the Great Books being ahistorical--that point was raised most succinctly in an essay by F.R. Leavis. But when I read the essay, I didn't yet have a system in place for logging and recording things.

So now I'm gonna find that essay by googling FR Leavis great books. And here it is, on the website of the journal Commentary: The "Great Books" and a Liberal Education. But so I don't lose it again, I am going to save it to my citation software: Zotero. This software is also programmed to take a snapshot of the page so if it disappears I'll still have it. And I have shelved it in my "Canon" collection within Zotero.

But I also like, the first few times I go through something, to extract a few quotes from it, so I'm gonna skim the article again to find some good stuff. And here I find that Leavis has actually made several very common arguments against the Great Books. The first is simply that a liberal education just isn't for the masses. It's something that can be attained only by a very small elite, and to pretend otherwise is to doom the project:

I won’t for the moment argue about the relation of the Great Books and the Syntopicon to any intelligent idea of education, but will state my firm belief in this form: it is disastrous to let a country’s educational arrangements be determined, or even affected, by the assumption that a high intellectual standard can be attained by more than a small minority.

Here, though, is a quote about how the Great Books constitute a monstrous and unreal ideal:

The ideal intellectual culture advocated by the promoters of the Great Books is plainly a monstrous unreality fostered by such conditions. The hypertrophied academic innocence, the utter remoteness from realities, the lack of all sense of how things are and what they could be, is proclaimed in the belief that this culture might, and must, be acquired by everybody. Let us not be academic and esoteric—let us bring it into full and living relation with actualities!

Ahhh, but here, farther down, is the money-quote:

There may be some point in a student’s looking up the [Aristotle's] Poetics when he is going into Tragedy under the guidance of Gilbert Murray, Jane Harrison, Cornford, and the other anthropologizing Hellenists. But the man who leaves the university able to suppose that in the Poetics he has studied an illuminating treatise on the foundations of literary criticism has not used his time to real educational profit—even if he has won high academic distinction. It is characteristic of the academic conventionality of the Great Books ethos to endorse the conventional academic standing of the Poetics.

I am not of course being foolish enough to question the importance and greatness of Aristotle—which brings me to the second head of the proposition I threw out in the last paragraph. Every educated person must know something about the nature of that importance and greatness, but it doesn’t follow that he need have made a study of Aristotle’s works, or that it would have been good economy for him to attempt it. Every educated person must know something about Plato, and will undoubtedly have read some of the works, but it doesn’t follow that he must have read studiously through the oeuvre listed among the Great Books. And when it comes to prescribing that he must also have read the works of St. Thomas Aquinas and Kant and Hegel (I confine myself to philosophers—to which, of course, the Great Books are not confined) it is plain beyond question that the promoters of the scheme not only have no notion of the limitations of the ordinary man (or the ordinary member of the intellectually given minority); they have no notion of the nature of a trained mind—or (shall I say) of that kind of training of the powers of thought which must be central to any real education. The student has to learn, as a matter of firm personal possession, the difference between real thinking and what ordinarily passes for that. It is a difficult and painful business, and one that is far from always forwarded—or even proposed—by the academic regime and environment. To the would-be self-improver faced with the Great Books program as something to be seriously attempted, the difference, unless he is a genius or has unusual luck, will never present itself in any challenging form. The difficulty of learning what it is will elude his apprehension in the ardors and endurances, the confident new assaults on Everests of knowledge prescribed for him by Mr. Hut-chins. The typical product of that liberal enterprise, persisted in (if one can conceive of persistence on a big enough scale for there to be a typical product), will be that large, never-at-a-loss knowledgeableness, that articulate intellectuality, that happy confidence among large ideas, which condemns the possessor to essential ignorance of the nature of real—that is, of creative—thinking. And that is no real higher education which doesn’t bring the student some first-hand experience of creative thinking—enough at any rate for him to know what it is, and to know the worthlessness of mere confident articulate intellectuality.

Essentially, what Leavis is saying is that the point of a liberal arts education is to teach people to think, and that you don't learn to think by reading a bunch of disparate and very difficult books. You learn to think by reading books that're close to your own life (he disparages the Great Books program for not including more American authors, since it's mostly Americans who're involved in it) and thinking critically about them, often with the aid of outside commentaries. The Great Books on the other hand, is just a hodge-podge.

Of course, in this Leavis is begging the question a bit, since for many the purpose of a liberal arts education isn't to teach them to think but to teach them morality. However, if your purpose is to inculcate moral behavior, you're probably still not well served by Hegel or by Aristotle's Poetics.

The main point, however, is well taken. The mind you need to profit from the Great Books education--to bring everything into line and to think critically and to develop opinions about these books--is a rare one. And it's not something you can do as a part-time job. To be frank, I haven't had a full-time job since I was twenty-four. I'm now thirty-seven. It would be difficult for me to have done this course of reading if it wasn't, in some way, my job as a member of the intelligentsia. And in the course of this reading, I have become something of an expert on them, to the point where I am writing a book on them for an academic press!

It's an inarguable point: is this a good use of the average person's time? Probably not,

F.R. Leavis goes even further and asks, is it a good use even of the intellectual's time? To this I'd say, I don't know. Certainly it's not a good use of the academic intellectual's time. And I agree with him that if there existed an elite in America that was interested, as their birthright, in the liberal arts, I highly doubt they would read Hegel or Kant, for instance, or even Aristotle. They'd read Hemingway, Faulkner, Henry and William James, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, the Federalist Papers, Voltaire, and Edmund Burke--they'd be much more interested in political than in moral philosophy or metaphysics, simply because the latter haven't really influenced American culture very much. And if they did read philosophical or metaphysical works, they'd likely be Eastern ones: the Gita, the Platform Sutra, etc.2

But that elite doesn't exist in the United States, so far as I can tell. We have only have on one hand the academic intellectual and on the other hand a freelance intelligentsia that often hails from middle-class or immigrant roots.

What I'm not gonna do is look up everyone who's ever cited Leavis and find all the arguments for and against him. I won't discuss his ideas in terms of a tradition or in terms of an ongoing conversation--I'll take them on their own, as ideas. To do this risks overstating his importance (perhaps this essay wasn't a big deal) and it risks banality (perhaps there are very easy rebuttals to all his points), but this kind of laziness is the only real way for a non-academic to write literary criticism.

Anyway, having done this 'research' I am not going to take these notes and post them into my Obsidian database, where I keep all my highlighted passages and quotes from everything I've ever read, so they'll be waiting for me later if I ever need to refer back to this article.

With this one article I'm backfilling, but from point forward, whenever I read anything online that I might want to write about, I go through this same procedure of highlighting it and filing it, with the hope that it'll prove useful later

Speaking of which, I was reading a set of essays by the South African writer and literary critic, Njabulo Ndebele, and I came across this extract from the mission statement of the apartheid-era Black South African magazine Staffrider. For context, this magazine was associated with several writing groups in the Black townships, and they are writing about their policy of republishing, without editorial interventions, whatever these workshops sent them.

We define a literary artist simply: a producer of literary works. And we believe that a producer has a basic right of access to potential readers – in the immediate community in which he or she lives and beyond.

The phenomenon of art groups linked to particular township communities in present-day South Africa suggests the appropriate medium through which this basic right can be exercised. The art group puts forward the work it wants to be published, and then assists in the distribution of the magazine to the community. In this way editorial control is vested in the writers as participants in a community-based group.

Those who suggest that Staffrider should appoint an editor whose task is to impose ‘standards’ on the magazine are expressing – consciously or unconsciously – an elitist view of art which cannot comprehend the new artistic energies released in the tumult of 1976 and after. Standards are not golden or quintessential: they are made according to the demands different societies make on writers, and according to the responses writers make to those demands.

If standards are not imposed by elitist criticism but developed and maintained by practising writers the ‘workshop’ concept becomes crucial. It is here, in effect, that standards are set. We do not know of a writers’ group that would not welcome participation of critics in its workshop sessions: this is an invitation to leave the armchair or the lectern and become involved, practically, in building a new literature.
--Rediscovery of the Ordinary

I wish that I'd had this quote available when I was writing my essay in Tablet on writing workshops and MFAs. Here at Staffrider we see an attempt to decolonize the writing world, but it strikes me as much less wrong-headed than the measures propounded by Craft In The Real World. For one thing, there is a clear focus here on the means of production: ultimately a writing organization is meant to produce writing that actually gets read by someone. Here the decolonization is directly linked to a disintermediation--reducing the number of people who can prevent your work from being seen. Moreover, the editors of Staffrider don't pretend that quality doesn't exist, and they provide clear and cogent reasoning on how quality can be preserved even under their decolonized system.

Of course, this system fell apart after a few years (the magazine stopped featuring work from the township workshops, but didn't explain why) so maybe the results were less-than-satisfying in practice.

  1. The main inaccuracy comes from me eliding about a thousand years of educational tradition. What we call the classical education of the middle ages--the famed trivium and quadrivium--was primarily a rather rigorous scientific education. There was almost no literary component to this education. So to say that people in the middle ages aspired to a classical education would be false. The studia humanitas of the Renaissance era, as absorbed by British public schools and Oxford and Cambridge, is a different matter. The purpose of the British public school was primarily to prepare someone to study at Oxford and Cambridge. Students could attend Oxford and Cambridge rather young, often as young as fourteen or fifteen, and if they wished it was possible at certain times and places to receive a good literary or scientific education at those schools, and the situation obviously varied considerably between 1300 and 1900. My impression is that the overall Latin attainments and reading of the average student was rather higher earlier in that period, as opposed to later. For instance in Shakespeare's time, Latin education was a broadly available and highly valued tool for social mobility. Which is just to add some flavor to my assertion that the classically educated managerial elite has existed at times but not for as much time as people like to pretend. Nor has the connection between literature and power been as simple as many people, both on right and left, would have you believe. 
  2. The art that high culture can't survive in democratic societies (those without a hereditary elite) is most familiar to me, and probably to you, from T.S. Eliot's Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, which Leavis also cites. 

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Notes on a recent facial feminization surgery

As soon as one stops working, one feels as though one had never worked.
-- Jules Renard

Hello friends. Much of my upper lip and my cheeks are still numb from the surgery, but I'd say that I've more or less recovered. This morning was my first stint taking care of our child where I didn't experience that "Oh no I can't do this for longer than two hours!" feeling. Normally taking care of her is easy in the extreme: it's time-consuming and tedious, but doesn't sap my energy. Was very weird to not have that reserve to fall back on.

I want to write something about the experience of getting this surgery. When you're looking into surgeons and into the process for surgery, the best forum, bar none, is Reddit. There you'll find detailed extensive discussions of all the top surgeons. But it's still nice at times to feel like you're not taking advice from completely anonymous people on the internet.

When I first came out, I wasn't that excited about gender-affirming surgeries. I'm tall, broad-shouldered, balding, and I didn't feel like the knife could affect how I was gendered. But then about a year and a half ago I saw a picture of Elon Musk before his hair transplants, and I was like...I've got more hair than that guy had! So then I was like hmm, maybe with hair transplants I could get full coverage!

But I knew that if you're thinking about getting hair transplants, you should do them after getting facial feminization surgery (which alters any distinctly masculine facial features you might have), so I started looking into FFS.

I've got more hair than this guy

Choosing a surgeon

When it comes to FFS, there are top surgeons in Antwerp, Madrid, Minnesota, Boston, LA, Texas, and SF. I didn't want to travel, since I have, you know, a child to take care of. So I limited myself to options in the SF Bay Area. We have two of the most highly-regarded surgeons here: Dr. Jordan Descamps-Braly and Dr. Kyle Keojampa. Both have offices in downtown SF. I also tried to consult with UCSF's facial plastic surgery team, but they bumped my consultation at the last minute, so I'd have needed to wait six more months to see them, so I ultimately canceled my appointment there.

With DB and KK, I called their offices and asked for a consultation. In each case, I was given a consultation date almost a year in advance. Then DB allowed me to book a tentative surgery date about a year after that. So in April 2022, I was scheduling consultations in Dec 2022 / Jan 2023 and surgeries in Nov 2023. However both surgeons put me on the cancellation list so I could get a sooner appointment if one opened up, and they said since I was local I was likely to come in sooner.

And indeed that was the case. I ended up seeing Dr. Keojampa in July 2022 after he had a COVID cancellation and Dr. Deschamps-Braly in August 2022--about six months ahead of my scheduled consultation time. As I recall, both consultations were $300, and they required that I get high-res CT scans at the same place--the CTs worked well for both so I only needed to get them done once. That was $1000. Insurance didn't pay for any of this (more on that later).

Both have beautiful offices with nice staff. It's not uncommon for doctors, and particularly surgeons, who do work with the trans community to be quite transphobic--this is a function of their role as gatekeepers, determining who is worthy to get surgery and who isn't. But in this case I found both surgeons were great. Never caught an inkling of transphobia from any of them.

The consultations both started the same way--they looked at my face and told me, in their opinion, what I'd need in order to look more feminine. Seeing a plastic surgeon really isn't designed to improve your self-image. There's no "You're beautiful just as God made you" stuff here. Which, honestly, is what you want. Both recommended a forehead setback (they saw off your protruding forehead and shave the edges and staple it back on, but farther back), cheek implants, lip lift, nose job, and jaw reduction. DB has the smoother presentation--he has a strong focus on informing you about the risks of the procedure (not many)--and on making sure you're very informed, even while he helps to calm you down. Everything just feels very transparent.

Dr. Keojampa was less polished. His focus was that he does 250 of these a year, and he's been working for thirteen years, and he's simply the best. He's very insistent that he's the best. He also told me that after he was done I was almost definitely going to pass (which is a sales tactic, but I liked the confidence.) I also just liked how he talked about transgenderism and trans women. He was like, "My aim is simple. You have the brain of a woman, and I'm gonna give you the face of a woman to match it." When you're doing plastic surgery, you really don't want someone with an expansive idea of gender. You want someone who knows what a woman looks like and who's gonna turn you into one!

Ultimately what sold me was simply that Dr. Keojampa has done way more non-white people. He is a PoC himself, and his lookbook had faces of every ethnicity. Dr. Deschamps-Braly has a book on FFS that he gives out, and there's not a single non-white face in it. When I asked him about non-white people, he said, "Yeah I do think I have some ethnic faces [in the slide-deck]".

Both seem like good surgeons. Keojampa does have a reputation for being bolder, while DB for a more 'natural' look. I wasn't expecting to come out looking like a beauty queen though.

Less important, since I am capable of paying out of pocket, was the insurance situation. DB doesn't take any health insurance. He only takes these large tech-company plans that aren't really health insurance--you just submit an invoice to someone in HR and they pay it.

Dr. Keojampa does work with insurance, but he's not in network for any insurance.

After choosing Dr. Keojampa they scheduled me for a June 6th surgery (it was later bumped forward to March 6.) I believe that reserving my surgery date cost $5,000. This is also when I released my tentative date at DB's office, and they refunded my deposit for that date.

Getting It Covered

I didn't expect insurance to cover my treatment. Usually trans people have a lot of difficulty with FFS--insurance companies reject it as 'cosmetic'. They wouldn't cover a nose job for a cis patient, so why would they for a trans person? However I didn't know anything about insurance, so I figured it was worth giving it a try.

I'm covered through Rachel, and I have an HMO plan that essentially gives me free coverage so long as I get everything done at UCSF. I didn't totally understand HMO vs. PPO, or I'd have understood that this is an extremely BAD situation for getting stuff covered. My surgeon, Dr. Keojampa, was not part of the HMO. My plan does not have out of network benefits. It's pretty open and shut. I probably would not be getting this covered.

Moreover, because the hospital where I was booked didn't take cash patients, I needed my insurance to at least cover the cost of my anesthesia and hospital stay. Thus, if insurance failed me, I could've been very screwed and lost my surgery date.

Keojampa's office put through my claim in early January, and they started getting back ambiguous messages from insurance--talking about how the claim wasn't being forwarded to the right number. This is about when I learned what an HMO was and that if they didn't come through I couldn't get the procedure. Very nerve-wracking. If I was doing it over, I don't know if I'd have taken the chance. My sense is that the chance that they would've paid for the hospital was always pretty good, since the hospital was in-network, but still, it's always chancy when you're trying to get insurance to pay for trans care.

In this case, after several phone calls with the health team that administer's Rachel's plan UCSF Blue and Gold HMO, they gave me a preauthorization for my care. Oh, as an aside, this pre-auth requires two letters from mental health professionals attesting that you really have gender dysphoria. One was written by my old therapist. And she connected me to a group called GALAP that connects you to therapists who will write these letters for you for FREEE. From her I got connected to another therapist who wrote me another letter.

After getting pre-authorized, Dr. Keojampa wanted to get a Letter of Agreement in place covering his fees. Both DB and Keojampa made me promise not to share the details of their quotes, but they were both on the order of $80k, with about $10k of that being hospital and anesthesiologist fees. Anyway, he forwarded his quote to my insurance, and after more calls on my part, they signed a letter of agreement with him. I have no idea why they decided not to contest my claim by saying "we have people in our health group" who do this procedure. The details of their decision making are obscure to me. Nonetheless, I know it's quite rare for insurance to pay up (as they apparently are going to in my case) so easily. Perhaps the reason they paid is the passage of a recent law mandating all insurance cover trans procedures. The law doesn't cover many plans (it doesn't cover any large self-insured employer plan, for instance), but it certainly applied to mine. I really have no idea.

If they hadn't paid, I'd have needed to wire Dr. Keojampa circa 70k no later than a month before the surgery. As you can see, for most people, doing this surgery involves huge gambles. You need to book the surgery long before you can get a yes/no from insurance, and my sense is that sometimes the process of contesting and appealing and denying the surgery takes people down to the wire. In my case, I'd never have advised anyone, knowing what I do now, to rely on their HMO plan paying for an out of network surgeon. If I'd been dead-set on using insurance, I should've used UCSF.

However, in the case of UCSF, it felt like facial feminization was a bit of a hobby for their plastic surgeons, who also did lots of other procedures. With my face, I just wanted someone who did this and only this. And, frankly, I wanted one of the best. It's not an option everyone gets, but there it is.

The surgery

I had a pre-op appointment with my primary care doctor, and he signed off on me getting surgery. I went off estrogen a week before the surgery, which I recommend not doing unless you have risks for blood clots (which I do). I was so depressed the week before the surgery and had terrible headaches. Surgeons are worried about you getting clots because you're so immobile during and after the surgery, but I think there's also a harm that comes from putting your body through estrogen withdrawal right before such a big procedure.

The surgery itself is just normal stuff. You show up to the hospital. Mine was a 12 hour surgery, so it was before dawn. Went up, got undressed, waited, met the surgeon again, waited, met the anesthesiologist, waited, met the OR nurse, waited, got wheeled into the OR and put on a table and then put under anesthesia.

Woke up very confused in the recovery room. It was dark and after visiting hours. I was too groggy to use a phone but the OR nurse told my wife about it. However it was too late for her to visit, so I spent a long sleepless night in the hospital. Honestly one of the most miserable parts of the experience. Being hooked up to an IV makes you feel very chained down. The IV monitor goes off constantly, and the nurses take forever to answer it. I was groggy and a bit confused. Had the constant phantom sensation (bc of irritation from the catheter) that I needed to pee, so kept drinking water and trying to pee.

Just really miserable and frustrating and depressing. I'd never spent the night in the hospital before. I really don't recommend it. The doctor wrote my discharge papers early the next day though and I was out by 9 AM. Rachel drove me home--they won't let you leave unless someone is with you. If you're traveling and are alone, then you need to arrange transport with some sort of service, which I imagine is annoying and stressful.

The recovery

Every surgeon tells you the same stuff about FFS: it's an easy surgery, it's not that invasive, you won't feel much pain. And they're right in a way: if you had a twelve hour open-heart surgery, god knows what the recovery would be like. And it's true that there's surprisingly little pain. It's mostly just quite uncomfortable. First, my nose was blocked up with blood clots. I also had to sleep on my back and to sleep on an elevated pillow, so it was difficult to sleep. I was quite anhedonic. Reading and watching TV brought me no pleasure for the first few days. I was totally useless, was sleeping most of the day--couldn't help with Leni at all.

After about four days, I could enjoy watching TV, but I was still uncomfortable. My mouth was completely ringed with interior stitches, which I could feel whenever the painkillers wore off. I felt like a mummy or a science experiment. My head was held together by metal staples that were crusty and itchy and protruded from my scalp. I was dead-tired all weekend, and it was only on Sunday, about six days after my surgery, that I could take any kind of responsibility for our daughter.

She was great by the way. We bought her several "mummy is ill / on bed rest / going to the hospital books" and she got the idea. When I came home, she kept saying, "We are going to make mummy beddah!" And if I needed peace or quiet, I could get it by telling her I needed to rest to get better.

During this whole time I also didn't poop. Rachel finally forced me to take a walk, and that got it going.

On the Tuesday after the surgery (eight days later), I got out my head staples and my non-oral stitches. I still felt pretty beaten up all week, and my mouth stitches irritated me, causing canker sores. And I've been fairly tired until today. But all in all not terrible

The Face

Very TBD. I didn't have the world's highest expectations. It'd be nice to pass, but I also never expected it. When you first come out of surgery your whole face is swollen, and it gets even more swollen over time--you look comical, very chipmunky. The swelling takes about a year to fully come down, and underneath it, the face is doing a lot of shifting and healing. Much of the FFS process involves slimming down parts of the face (the nose, the jawline, the brow) in ways that are obscured by the bulkiness from swelling.

Which is to say, most trans women don't love the way they look after the surgery. Usually it's about one to three months before they feel like something good happened, and at around six months they're ecstatic.

One common reaction women have is, "He didn't really do anything". I didn't have this reaction. My face looks very different. My forehead has a totally different shape.

But at the same time, the overall look was pretty lumpy and not particularly female. However, as the days have passed, and the swelling has receded, I have started to see more of its final shape. And I like it! Overall I always had faith that whatever could be done, would be done.

On an emotional level, the only strange thing is I've been waiting for this for so long that I'm like, wow, life is empty, there's nothing to come next.

I haven't really looked into them, but after I've had this face for about a year, I plan to get hair transplants done. My hormone regimen has recently changed, and my estrogen numbers have gone up, and the result has been a huge increase in the amount of head hair. It's sort of astonishing what HRT can do. I have so much hair. I am still visibly balding, but much less so than before. In the meantime, I wear a wig for most of my appearances in public. But with my new face, it feels like I can just toss on the wig and not have to put on foundation to even out the shape of my face and present as more feminine.

Who knows? It's too soon to say.


Getting your whole face operated on is a huge deal. The experience left me with so much compassion for everyone who's ever had plastic surgery, for any reason. It's real medical procedure, but it can feel very frivolous and self-indulgent. I felt so guilty over the burden this put on my wife (even though she was really good about supporting me and never made me feel bad). I can't imagine how lonely it is for women who have to recover alone in recovery houses or hotels after traveling for this surgery.

I also think that because of the money and the time involved, this surgery carries the weight of peoples' hopes and fears. People look at their face, and they wonder, will I be able to date? Will I be able to find love? To walk down the street safely? To get a job? Everything depends on this surgery, and all that emotional turmoil inevitably complicates the recovery.

A lot of people in the world have a lot of problems that could be solved by $80,000. Part of me can't believe insurance paid for this. When you measure up the difference it'll make to me over the course of my life, it's probably a much better return on that $80,000 than would be the return on many forms of medical treatment (for example, late-stage cancer treatment that has a low survival rate), but it still strikes me as a large amount of money. It also strikes me that I couldn't even have taken the chance of trying to get it paid for if I hadn't already had the ability to pay out of pocket--yet another example of how the richer you are, the more things you get for free.

That's my experience. I put it here not for the regular readers of my newsletter, but for the benefit of anyone out there who is googling trans FFS insurance HMO keojampa, deschamps-braly, etc. Hope you find this useful.

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Extracted and analysed ten years worth of my Kindle highlights

Have spent a dozen hours this week slowly getting my highlights out of the Amazon cloud and then putting them into my own note-taking software. This lets me access roughly ten years of highlighted passages from over 500 books (it doesn't include the large number of public domain books that I read and highlighted, which is a shame.) It's interesting to see the kinds of passages that struck me.

Early on, I sometimes highlighted passages that struck me as good descriptive writing. I've never been great at descriptive writing, and I still mourn the deficit. Prose fiction is essentially composed of four things: sense perception; dialogue; narrative summary; and rumination. Nobody wants to overuse rumination (because the entire internet and most of the noise in our own head is already composed of rumination), so if you're not good at desciption, then you're essentially left with work that's mostly dialogue and narrative summary. Kind of a pain!

But at the same time, I just don't like describing things. In my own life, I'm not particularly observant or present--my life is mostly disembodied and mental, full of remembrances and thoughts and feelings and flashes of perception. Anyway, ten years ago I was still trying to get good at this stuff, which is why I would highlight passages like this:

The coast, the endlessly rewinding spills of the tide, green curbs of seawater breaking into flat white sizzling foam.
--Private Citizen by Tony Tulathimutte

That's pretty good descriptive writing. I probably wouldn't put 'rewinding' and 'spills' and 'curbs' into the same image, because it's a mixed metaphor--but the basic conceit (the ebb of waves looks like the rewinding of the initial crash) is something I could never come up with.

But that's really a minority of what I highlighted. In general, my highlights fall into three categories:

  • aphorisms
  • neat bits of narrative summary
  • good observations about human nature

I am a sucker for a good aphorism (who isn't?), and I've got hundreds in here. The Journals of Jules Renard provide a few good ones, like:

To have a horror of the bourgeois is bourgeois.


Modesty is becoming to the great. What is difficult is to be modest when one is a nobody.

Lol, whose are fun, aren't they? I've always wanted to be a person who knows quotes.

Neat bits of narrative summary
Once I stopped trying to become a better descriptive writer, I started leaning more heavily on narrative summary (where I've had a bit more success developing my skills), and over the years I've highlighted a lot of neat passages that show what a far-ranging narrator can do:

Here's a bit from the third volume of Knausgaard, for instance, which mixes summary and rumination:

After the moving van had left and we got into the car, Mom, Dad, and I, and we drove down the hill and over the bridge, it struck me with a huge sense of relief that I would never be returning, that everything I saw I was seeing for the final time. That the houses and the places that disappeared behind me were also disappearing out of my life, for good. Little did I know then that every detail of this landscape, and every single person living in it, would forever be lodged in my memory with a ring as true as perfect pitch.

Or this passage from Carol Shield's Small Ceremonies, which is not truly embodied, not truly in scene, but is more of a description of what it feels like to send out christmas cards.

This is a long, tedious task, and it irritates me to separate and put in order the constellations of our friends and to send them each these feeble scratched messages. But for the sake of the return, for the crash of creamy envelopes blazing with seals that will soon spill down upon us, I push on. For I want to hear from the O’Malleys who lived across the hall from us in our first apartment. I want to know if the Gorkys are still together and where the best man at our wedding, Kurt Weisman, has moved. Dr. Lawrence who supervised Martin’s graduate work and his wife Bettina always write us from Florida and so do the Grahams, the Lords, the Reillys, the Jensens. What matter that they were often dull and that we might have drifted apart eventually? What matter that they were sometimes stingy or overly frank or forgetful? They want to wish us a merry Christmas. They want to wish us all the best in the New Year. I can’t help but take the printed card literally; these are our friends; they love us. We love them.

Again, I wish that I was better at narrative summary. To work best, it can't just stay in summary (although sometimes it does)--it should move delicately through concrete details and rumination and memory and back into summary. Oh well, I'll get there someday!

True-feeling observations about human nature

This probably comprises the largest single category. It's just a bunch of stuff, whether from novels or nonfiction or memoir or philosophy or essays, that feels very true! It's a collection of that weird sort of fact that, when you hear it, you feel like you already knew this thing--even though you didn't.

Rutherford sometimes wondered, running his long nervous fingers over his pale brow and through his prematurely gray hair, if there was any quality more respected by the timid remnants of an older New York society, even by the flattest-heeled and most velvet-gowned old maid, than naked aggression.
--Collected Stories of Louis Auchincloss

Sometimes these observations come in the form of a type, where you instantly think: I know this person!

Everyone who knew Ovcharov proclaimed him a fine fellow. He earned this appellation through his deference to the ladies, amenability, tidiness, indefatigability, and his enthusiasm for all of society’s amusements, along with his customary readiness to expound on absolutely anything and equal readiness to listen to absolutely anything. But whatever society Ovcharov appeared in throughout his wandering life, he was never anything more than a fine fellow. Nowhere did he leave a strong impression; he was easily liked and easily forgotten. With women, in love and hate, he played only an incidental role; among serious people his presence brought on a slight sense of boredom; and through his entire life he had failed to attain a single devoted friend.
--City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya

Oftentimes these observations are aphoristic in style, like this one from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

The first moment of the public safety is devoted to gratitude and joy; but the second is diligently occupied by envy and calumny.

Sometimes writers say, "All your sentences should be beautiful." This is absolute nonsense. Nobody can read and remember every sentence. Your story as a whole should be beautiful. There is no need to write in soundbytes. I've read some fantastic books that haven't inspired me to highlight anything at all.

Nor do I think I'm a particularly highlighteable author. But when it comes to my two published books, my most popular highlights have been:

I'm not a sympathetic main character. My quirks are not lovable. I am not clumsy. I am not overwhelmed by life. I am not unlucky in love.
--Enter Title Here

The thing is, you can't just be yourself if whenever people look at you they see something entirely different
--We Are Totally Normal

I immensely enjoyed doing all this database work to pull everything out and get it organized. I taught myself the basics of regex so I could extract the author and title data from the file names and add in the proper taxes. Makes me feel quite accomplished. I do sometimes think maybe I ought to learn computers and become a computer-doing-person. I'd have been good at it. I have the mind for it. But it's fun enough as a little hobby.

Not sure what my next digital maintenance project will be. I do have lots of journal entries socked away in various places: might be worth extracting those and putting them all together in one spot. Have also been meaning to do some scanning projects.

Oh! I continue to highlight, of course. Right now I'm reading Es'kia Mphabele's Down Second Avenue. He's a mid-20th century Black South African writer, and this is his memoir of growing up and becoming a man.

My passion for reading grew stronger. The white family for whom my mother worked gave me old newspapers and periodicals. They merely shrugged their shoulders when my mother told them why I wanted the papers. More than that, they showed no interest. I was disappointed. I thought naïvely that if they were superior to me and my kind they should show some interest in a less fortunate creature who wanted to acquire something like the degree of literacy they enjoyed. Even if it were the kind of interest that might prompt one to retort: ‘Say, he reads English!’ Yes, I was very proud to be able to read English

I mean doesn't that seem so true? Obviously people whose lives are based in a system of racial superiority will be unwilling to see any signs of competence amongst the Black people around them. It's not that they're consciously putting down or dismissing him--they simply won't allow themselves to hear the fact that he might have a skill they could value.

Random Article

Do people want dogs only for their looks? What are the motivations, values and behaviours of those who decide to go out and buy a dog today? These questions are part of a small but growing area of study. Although the research is still preliminary, available data suggest that physical appearance is the single most important factor driving dog-acquisition practices in the United States and throughout much of the West. And the look that we’re going for right now is ‘cute’.
-- "Breeding Dogs To Be Cute And Anthropomorphic Is Animal Cruelty"

Mind is blown, is there a reason for wanting a dog besides their cuteness? Do some dogs do the dishes or something? Is there a dog that'll pay rent? There's a genre of article that seems to traffic in the weirdest sort of mock outrage. Of course people want dogs to be cute. Of course dogs are bred to be cute. Of course it's not good for dogs' health. If we cared about their health, there wouldn't be any dog-breeding at all. Sheesh. But all that aside, it's still a good article about the way cuteness works, how cuteness gets engineered into dogs, and the toll it takes on them (i.e. we may purposefully breed dogs with high needs precisely because being 'helpless' is cute)

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Rebranding this blog. Not moving to substack. Still hate transphobes

I started my personal journal in 2008, when the format was already dying. Now after fifteen years it's come back again--Twitter is done, newsletters rule the roost. I subscribe to like ten paid newsletters! And I've thought, you know, I probably shouldn't ignore this phenomenon entirely.

At the same time, the only reason I am still here is that I'm on an open platform, accessible from the web at large, and one where I have free access to the data. If I'd had a lot invested in my Twitter account, that would be gone now, for instance. Same if I'd gotten big on, I dunno, Medium or TinyLetter, which both seem like wastelands.

It makes a lot of financial sense to get in early on a platform and try to make a lot of subscribers quick. Early in the life of a platform, they tend to incentivize and promote discovery of new accounts. Eventually, platforms begin to monetize potential discovery though, by introducing advertising, so if you want to grow you have to pay to acquire subscribers (Twitter is one of the few that even ten years into its life cycle allowed some kind of organic discovery even for non-paid accounts).

Which is just to say, it's more sensible than not to chase the new platform and hope to grow quick enough that you can leap across platforms when the time comes. The moment of the open, freely-accessible internet will never come again. There's never gonna be a time again when mere search engine discovery will get you new users. You will always need a platform that incentivizes user discovery, as Substack currently does.

Nonetheless I'm not moving to substack. Just would hurt my heart to give up my little piece of the Internet that I built on my own, for fifteen years, and to give it over to a platform that seems like a bit of a haven for transphobes, quite frankly. On WordPress I remain. I thought about mirroring to substack, but that's not something either substack or wordpress wants you to do, so I thought fuck it, I'll just stay here.

That being said, there'll be a few changes around here! The first thing is a rebranding. I started to feel like the old layout was a bit stale, so I went with this new minimalist theme, it's called Seedlet. It allows me to just focus on the content. Secondly, I'm renaming the site again. It used to be called Blotter-Paper. Then in like 2013 I changed it to The War On Loneliness. And now I'm changing it to Woman of Letters.

Why? Well, just to keep things fresh. But that's also basically what I am.

As readers might know, I've gotten a bit heartsick over all the transphobia in the old-books-loving community. If Edmund Wilson or Lionel Trilling were alive right now, they'd most assuredly be transphobes. Most of the people online who are seriously interested in literature also seem to think the existence of trans people is somehow inexplicable or bizarre and go out of their way to invalidate us. As in the amusing case where an author decided to use they/them pronouns to describe people who had _only_ defined themselves as men. They argued that we can't know how they identified. But can't we? They identified as men! The use of they/them in this case was a middle-ground to allow some ambiguity in how they might've seen themselves and to avoid ahistorically 'claiming' them as trans people. But to not use male pronouns, especially for some of these people who lived and died as men, is a far greater anachronism! It's literally forcing our own notions of biological essentialism upon them (Here's the book, by the way).

I mean, yeah, but isn't it ahistorical in a MUCH BIGGER way to call them women? And yet most people think this way. They've got blinders on. They're like, oh, trans people are the crazy ones, projecting our notions onto the past, if we say a person who lived and died as a man, and often was regarded by their community as a man, was actually...a man. No, the litterateurs ay, they're a woman. To say otherwise is to be ahistorical.

People literally can't see the irony of this statement.

Part of me wants to go to war over this tendency, because it's so smarmy. The, JK Rowling style "I love trans people, I just care that some MEN are MENACING WOMEN in WOMENS PRISONS AND JAILS." Like, yeah, you love all trans people, except that "you" get to decide who's really trans and who isn't, and everyone who isn't, you get to dismiss as 'really' a man. Rape is illegal, whether you're a man or a woman. Men and women can rape. There is zero evidence that trans women are more likely than cis women to rape (though much more likely TO BE RAPED). So to dwell incessantly on the peculiar threat posed by trans women is the essence of transphobia.

And if people were just like, yeah I think trans women are gross and invalid, that would be one thing. But that very smarminess, that very pretense at caring, makes you think they could be reached. But they can't.

My response has been to treat all dispatches from the outside world as mere textual documents. I imagine myself at the top of a very tall tower, equipped with a pneumatic tube, and I open the messages, read through them, chortle about the affairs of the fallen world, and then look through the books in my library to find that one obscure quote that I need for my article. Hence, woman of letters.

Okay, to get off the whole transphobes in the literary world thing, I also have to say, my career is weird.

This month, my YA novel went to copy edits, I wrote and had accepted a YA short story for an anthology, I saw a short story come out in Analog of all places, and I think that I had a poem come out somewhere too (The Tampa Review?) and I had the piece come out in Tablet too. Who the hell has something come out in Analog and the Tampa Review in the same month. Weird! The fact that I have amongst the most high-brow interests and tastes of anyone I know is consistently amusing to me, especially when I get slammed as an elitist or something.

Like, gurl, I write young adult novels! Some chick whose novel is coming out from Knopf and who went to the Iowa Writer's Workshop is gonna be like, wow, this YA novelist and sci-fi writer is an elitist. Silly! Utterly silly! It's consistently amusing the way that literary writers pretend to some kind of mass tastes. Whereas I don't pretend to be of the people in any way, shape or form (in particular, I lack that mystical communion with the 'average American' that intellectuals love to channel in order to shout each other down), but out of all of us who write about literary stuff, I'm the only person selling books to average people!

Not a lot of average people, it's true, and even if it was a lot, it would be meaningless, since popularity of any sort is mostly a fluke, but it's still amusing!

No weekly links this week and maybe no more blog posts this week either. I'm getting over a bout of facial feminization surgery that I had last Monday. Was under the knife for twelve hours! Definitely quite fatigued for a week, and even today I'm not the tippy-toppiest, and my face is looking pretty rough. Will tell you about it later. Oh, and in the meantime, my new URL is The old ones will keep working indefinitely too of course! And of course here's the subscription link, if you want to start getting my newsletter as emails.

Switching to Android; and reactions to Aldington’s DEATH OF A HERO

Hello friends. I got a new phone, and it's an android. My wife said moving to android had impacted our marriage way more than me transitioning did. She's not wrong!

I just wanted a change, and I got tired of feeling beholden to a hardware company. Nothing wrong with Apple, but I should be able to buy whatever phone I want, and in this case that was a really fancy folding phone. It's the big samsung phone that unfolds into a small tablet. Not really something anyone needed or wanted, but I like it. Also the e-reader software I use (KOReader) isn't supported on iOS.

I also got a new phone number to go with the new phone, so it's been an adjustment. I still have the old number, so I'm not in a rush to switch everyone over. But it's nice to not be bombarded with spam calls and texts. The hardest thing is the two-factor authentification systems a lot of online services use, including a lot of random ones. So I'll want to, say, order something from Uber Eats and then I'll have to dig up my old phone to input the code. I don't really want to put my new phone number into the system bc then I'll get spam calls again. Eventually I'll move the old number to, like, a google voice app so it just becomes a virtual number or something. I dunno.

Android isn't as good as iOS. I can't whole-heartedly recommend it. Kinda like switching to windows, it works less well, but you can do more. With Android if there's something I want to do, I can change it. Like the interface for the home screen wasn't great, so I installed a new launcher, and now it's really cool and customizable, and I can access my apps however I want to. Of course with iOS you don't have these problems in the first place!

And one misses certain iOS features. Like when I was completely on iOS my headphones would switch seamlessly from device to device as I started using different ones. Now I have to fiddle with stuff to get sound from a new device.

But you know what? Maybe technology isn't meant to be seamless? Because ultimately, all the seamlessness just led to more efficient consumption of Twitter or Facebook or YouTube or Netflix. Not particularly useful stuff. Like lately I've been using the Samsung Fold Pen to write my texts (bc I find the virtual keyboard a bit difficult to use), and it's kind of fun to do handwriting, even though it's slower.

Who the heck knows?

This is my last day of childcare before my surgery. Am cleaning up some odds and ends. I've been reading a new different books lately, but last night I started Richard Aldington's Death of a Hero and found myself quite gripped. It's a novel that at least attempts to be a social history of the type of young intellectual who died in World War I--the way they were raised, their attitudes towards sex and work and religion, and their various despairs and confusions. The writing is lively and aphoristic. The book was censored heavily by the publishers (apparently most books were back then) but the author elected to mark the censored bits with a row of asterisks, which is fascinating, as it leaves you to wonder what's getting left out.

It's like no other British book of its era, very personable, intimate and modern, with a far-ranging omniscient narrator--almost as if Anthony Trollope had written a novel, but in a modern voice, or maybe like if George Orwell had allowed more of his rage to show through in his books. Here's a bravura passage:

How can we atone for the lost millions and millions of years of life, how atone for those lakes and seas of blood? Something is unfulfilled, and that is poisoning us. It is poisoning me, at any rate, though I have agonised over it, as I now agonise over poor George, for whose death no other human being has agonised. What can we do? Headstones and wreaths and memorials and speeches and the Cenotaph—no, no; it has got to be something in us. Somehow we must atone to the dead—the dead, murdered, violently-dead soldiers. The reproach is not from them, but in ourselves. Most of us don’t know it, but it is there, and poisons us. It is the poison that makes us heartless and hopeless and lifeless—us, the war generation, and the new generation too. The whole world is blood-guilty, cursed like Orestes, and mad, and destroying itself, as if pursued by an infinite legion of Eumenides. Somehow we must atone, somehow we must free ourselves from the curse—the blood-guiltiness. We must find—where? how?—the greater Pallas who will absolve us on some Acropolis of Justice. But meanwhile the dead poison us and those who come after us.

Oh, also, in case you pick up the book, this is one book where my habit of skipping prologues really got me in trouble. The prologue is a long set up to the book and introduces all the characters. It's really essential. I only went back and read it after I went looking for the introduction. I got interested in reading more of Aldington's novels after this (apparently he was a modernist poet, the husband of H.D. and a wrote a novella that's a long send-up of T.S. Eliot) but this book of his is the only one that's still in print! It was reissued by Penguin Classics.

I found the book because I have a terrible habit of just browsing the Penguin Classics on Amazon and impulse-buying the books that are currently selling for $5.99 or less (the prices of Penguin Classics tends to vary somewhat randomly, going from 4.99 all the way up to fifteen or even twenty dollars sometimes, though the latter is usually only for very long books that've been translated from other languages).

I am enjoying it a lot. You want to know my unpopular opinion about novels? They're fun to read, and they can compete with any other form of entertainment, up to and including video games. I know nobody wants to hear it, but there it is.

A short description of how I came to write for Tablet

This week, I had two pieces published. One was in Tablet. The first is my review of Matthew Salesses's Craft In The Real World. I read the book a year ago and was profoundly unimpressed. I simply didn't believe most of the things the author said about how fiction in other cultures works, and it was surprising to me that the author didn't seem to have read a lot of books that weren't by American authors. This is a book that people are constantly citing and gushing over, and it just seemed like a very "Emperor's New Clothes" situation. You don't want to shit on something that's promoting diversity and tolerance, so you say nothing. The world is full of nonsense, and sometimes it's simply rude to call it out, especially when so many poor and marginalized people seem to find comfort in this specific nonsense.

But when the author took a job at Columbia University's famously exploitative MFA program, I thought, well, if people are going to spend 150k a year to learn from this person, then their ideas should be held up to more scrutiny. I don't mind if people talk some nonsense just to sell books--we all have to make a living, and god knows I play the diversity game the same as every other queer or non-white writer--but ideally the aim is to just con a few dollars out of thousands of people. When you're a professor at Columbia, some of your students are literally ruining their lives with debt in order to study there. And that's fine, too--they're adults and it's their choice. But still, if you're going to make a living by ruining peoples' lives, then your work needs to be really good. The benefit to society has to be worth the cost to these specific people. And in this case, I didn't think the calculus held up.

The essay sat with an editor from LitHub for three months, who said it wasn't right for them. Then it was accepted by the LA Review of Books, by the old editor in chief, Boris. It was edited and ready to go on Jan 21, which happened to be the same week Salesses went viral for an absurd Columbia University syllabus (attracting the ire of Fox News and the like). The article didn't post. Boris had left the journal, but the managing editor said it had been bumped to next week. Next week it didn't post either.

I got a call from the new editor in chief of LARB, who essentially said she didn't agree with the piece politically--she believes that the advice given in Master of the Fine Arts programs was systematically racist and harmful to non-white writers. That may very well be true! It wasn't my experience as a non-white person in an MFA program--my experience was that the advice in MFA programs is systematically nonsense and if slavishly followed will be harmful to writers of any color, but that most people involved know the advice is nonsense, and you just need to pay attention and listen to what people have to teach and discard the rest. But my review wasn't a defense of the MFA, it was a critique of the specific claims made in this specific book.

The call didn't go well. She wanted edits. I was hesitant. We argued, and she pulled the piece. It's odd in the extreme to have a phone call with an editor, but I assume the reason was so there wouldn't be a written record of her objections that I could've then quoted in this blog post. I would have done exactly the same things! I don't fault her for pulling the piece--no editor will publish a potentially controversial article that they disagree with politically. Moreover, she's a new editor, and the LA Review of Books recently had a controversy where the last person they hired to fill her job loudly fell out with them, calling them racist. So it's understandable that she didn't want controversy. If I fault her at all, I fault her for having 'political commitments' that made her unable to see the truth of my arguments.

Feeling somewhat burned by this experience, I pitched Tablet, which is a Jewish journal that's rebranded itself as an anti-woke publication. It's not precisely conservative, but especially in the last year its coverage has taken a transphobic turn. They published a truly bizarre article last summer, for instance, about how the billionaire Pritzker siblings are brainwashing kids into accepting "Synthetic Sexual Identities" (the author of the article refuses to even use the term 'transgender'). The anti-trans stuff is disgusting, but the truth of the matter is that in 2023 it would be very difficult for me to find a journal that agrees with me on aesthetic matters but which isn't anti-trans. I actually have another essay circulating which is about that exact conundrum, but it hasn't found a home yet. The LA Review of Books would've been a fine place for it, but I doubt my work is welcome there anymore.

Well, c'est la vie. The piece is out, and I'm quite pleased with it.

Oh yeah, the second thing that came out was my story in Analog: "Citizen Science", Looking back, it's mostly about my experience as a literary critic who works outside the academy, and how the terms I use are often so different that people in the Academy don't even understand what I'm talking about. But that doesn't necessarily mean I'm wrong or confused (although it sometimes does)! Like in the case of this Salesses article, it's precisely because I am not an academic that I am familiar with both contemporary American MFA-derived fiction and with Classical Chinese literature--to find that combination in a typical English department would be rare in the extreme. But that's neither here nor there.

Watched IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, and I am forever changed

Last night I watched Wong Kar Wai's film In The Mood For Love, and I'm going to be honest--I am forever changed. It's the most beautiful film I've ever seen. It's profoundly humbling that within my lifetime something so gorgeous and ambitious has been made. The plot of the movie is simple: a man and a woman move into rooms in adjacent apartments in Hong Kong; they are both married, but their spouses are often absent; they grow closer and closer.

Everything about this movie was perfect. What stands out most is the color palette: pale green is the color that predominates in almost every shot; then there's often some red and yellow and occasionally blue. Even during the daytime, the colors are like nothing you've seen before. It's painterly, as if every frame is an Edward Hopper painting. The movie is told with incredible economy: the main characters' spouses never appear head-on. Events are clearly described, but only once: if you're not paying attention you'll miss, for instance, the slippers that the male protagonist gets for his room after the female protagonist spends the night there in her high heels and suffers from aching feet.

The music is haunting and captivating. All the conversations--even those about random stuff, like the conversations between Ms. Chan (the female protagonist) and her boss--are spot on, and only contain exactly as many exchanges as you need.

And of course Maggie Cheung is gorgeous: her dresses are perfect, her makeup is always on point, her hair is styled into a tall, voluminous 1960s haircut (the movie largely takes place in 1963), and her every gesture feels pregnant with meaning. The entire movie is just suffused with loneliness and with longing. And the ending is even more brilliant, showing how after a while we even become nostalgic for that pain. It's a sad movie, but it also felt hopeful, humanistic.

It's incredible that people in modern era are still able to make such ambitious films and to execute them so perfectly. I actually paused the movie twice and cleaned the apartment, took care of the dog, etc, because the pleasure I was experiencing was too much to bear.

That's something I also noticed lately, while I was reading too books by transfem authors: Imogen Binnie's Nevada and Alison Rumfitt's Tell Me I'm Worthless. I was experiencing so much pleasure that it became frightening, and that I at times was tempted to put the books back and not go back to them, simply because I enjoyed them so much and was so deeply immersed in them. They dragged me out of myself, making me give up my own thoughts and cares--or making those thoughts and cares painful--and that kind of depersonalization was painful. I like being myself! I don't love being a spectator to someone else's vision. But it reminds me a bit of Schopenhauer--to be deeply engaged with a work of art means viewing it impersonally, from the standpoint of the universe itself--and it's terribly frightening to leave the ego behind and let go of yourself, even though it's something we all long for.

In some ways, the ceaseless drive for distraction--podcasts, Twitter, etc--are a search for escape, but it's a safe, manageable escape. This form of escape is grounding, precisely because it still involves some residue of the self. It gives pleasure, but it doesn't feel like an attack.

The most complete escape a person can have nowadays is to play video games. Here it is possible to lose oneself completely for any number of hours, and, moreover, because you're in control of the action, you don't feel like a spectator--instead you create a new self inside the game, a self with its own identity and its own cares, and a self which is carefully managed, by the game, so that its frictionless and meaningful.

Games are a powerful aesthetic experience. My years spent adventuring in the wastelands of various Fallout games form a cohesive experience--I have been in zombie-filled amusement parks and in deep underground bunkers and on the ruins of Boston skyscrapers. I carry those experiences with me forever.

But at the same time, games feel very sterile. Because what do those experiences mean? They recur at odd times, and all I feel is a longing to go back and replay the game--they don't inform my view of the universe, they don't expand my character, or even deepen my aesthetic appreciation. Games have the formal structure of art (they're clearly an aesthetic experience) but not the content (an experience that sheds light on the human condition), just like track and field has the formal structure of hunting down a fleeing game-animal (the same running, jumping, throwing, etc), but not the content (if you win, you get to eat).

random articles

I just read Erik Hoel's [reasoned explication on why AI might be an existential threat to humanity]( I'm not convinced it will be, but I'm definitely convinced we should shut down AI research on the off chance that it might become a threat. Read the article and see if you agree.

Also enjoyed Rachel Connolly's article on life's losers. I'm also struck by the number of upper-middle-class people who just...don't seem to have any values? Like...why are they living? What do they want? What do they care about? This comes through whenever professors claim to be afraid of being canceled. People claim to idolize, say, Socrates, who faced death for his opinions, but they're afraid of stating their real opinions about, say, books, because they're afraid of people getting mad at them on the internet. If you truly think your opinions are valuable, then you ought to state them precisely because they are unpopular. People want to be rewarded for saying and doing the 'right' things, without bearing any risk. I don't think people should be fired for their opinions, but I also think everyone ought to have a few opinions that they're willing to be fired for.

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Watched Vertigo, Rashomon, and a bunch of other really old movies

Hello friendly people. I am going off estrogen today in preparation for gender-affirming facial surgery next week, so I'm going to try to take it easy and not be a monster. Three months ago I was off estrogen for a day and I vomited in the street. A few weeks ago I was off for a day, and I just got terribly angry about everything. But now I am prepared. I'm gonna keep control.

Lately I've gotten very into classic movies. It's because I switched to a Galaxy Fold 4 phone, which unfolds into a rather square tablet, which is perfect for watching movies and shows that have a 4:3 aspect ratio, so I was like...let's find some of those.

This is not the first time I've tried to get into old movies. I've had at least three goes at it in the past. And they inevitably went the same way: join the Criterion channel, watch several old French movies, be like, "I enjoy this a little bit I guess" and then stop and cancel my membership. The truth was that while I liked the movies (the only ones I remember were a few Godard films), I didn't enjoy them more than I was bored by them.

Something changed recently though, and I found myself much more engaged! I started by watching Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa's story of an investigation into an unexplained death. All of the witnesses, including the spirit of the dead man (consulted through a medium) have a different story about what happened. You know the conceit, it's a classic.

The movie is really anchored by Toshio Mifune's incredible performance as the bearded, loincloth-wearing bandit Tajomaru. He's just electrifying on-screen. He's like an animal. Very unsophisticated, rough, constantly scratching himself, laughing in peoples' faces and mocking them. His face is just unbelievable, especially when he opens his eyes wide, cackles, and then grimaces, pulls a momentary contortion and then lets it go slack. It feels melodramatic at first, and I suppose it is--especially since nobody else is on the same register--but as the movie progresses you see there's an act there. He is uncomfortable around more sophisticated people. He's emotionally quite simple and doesn't understand the psychodrama in which he's found himself.

I will say that I didn't really understand why the Buddhist monk came away so deeply believing that everyone was polluted and evil. In the story I saw, everyone seemed very flawed and afraid and almost like they'd been trapped into (some of) the crimes they'd done. And their lies came out of some vestigial sense of honor and integrity. It showed the opposite--everyone still has morality operating in them, even if it doesn't win out.

Anyway, that wasn't the only movie I watched. I also saw two version of The Lower Depths (one by Kurosowa and one by Renoir), and I watched Vertigo and Citizen Kane. I was a bit astonished by how good all the movies were. I mean they're obviously the best movies of all time, but they're also very old--the best old movies are as good as the best modern movies. Kind of makes you wonder why we even bother! To make a Citizen Kane so many things had to come together perfectly: script, acting, funding. Even the aging makeup was so flawless that I genuinely had no idea how old anyone was. Something, to me, seems very flawed with the auteur theory, because no one person could ever control all the variables in place. Whether you're allowed to make a movie freely or not is almost entirely luck (and sometimes your constraints work to your benefit!) But who knows, maybe I'll develop more opinions as I watch more.

I also rapidly grew dissatisfied with the tiny square screen of my phone and switched to the ipad (which has a similar aspect ratio). Oh, some of these old movies look so good remastered. Vertigo looked incredible. The colors were so vivid, and they'd managed to make it high-resolution without making everything look stagey and fake. It was a joy to watch, even though it was my least favorite of these movies. I mean it was a very charming film, and the performances were delightful, but I maybe just didn't get the broader picture. It sounds like I'm saying the movie had no social angle, but it's not that--Rashomon didn't have a social angle either--it's just that ultimately I felt like I didn't have that sense of theme. In particular, I didn't understand how Scottie's fear and vertigo and sense of failure all came together with the specific story being told. But who knows, maybe I'll get it someday.

Paul Park’s City Made of Words

Hello friends, I've moved on from Typora! Typora is old news! Now I write in Obsidian. Long live Obsidian. Obsidian is basically the exact same thing, but there's mobile apps and it's really good at syncing and there's a lot of plug-ins, so you can use it as an all-purpose journaling and note-taking app too. I'm writing a short story in it now, for an anthology! Story is going rather well.

Also managed to get my Calibre server up and running and accessible anywhere on the internet behind its own domain name! Am feeling very proud of myself, since that involved getting an SSL certificate and doing some other strange stuff that I'm not really qualified to do. I've been using the "Random Book" function on the Calibre web browser more often. Sometimes you don't want to do serious reading, you just want to gaze upon the vastness of your library in despair.

At some point I bought a StoryBundle curated by Nick Mamatas (I think?) that consisted of a bunch of PM Press's slim and attractive Outspoken Authors books. And one of them was apparently this volume by Paul Park. I'd read Park back when I was a kid, but I didn't remember much about his work. He's one of these well-respected but quite marginal science fiction figures, like Emma Bull or Maureen McHugh or Michael Bishop--a frequent award nominee but not a frequent award-winner. A writer's writer, in other words (the book has blurbs from Ursula Le Guin, Jonathan Lethem, and Kim Stanley Robinson). Anyway, I started reading the collection and quite liked it.

The stories have a very realist feel, despite their metafictional and fantastic conceits. They often have odd, sudden endings, as if the author has said all they need to say, but the endings work quite well. Several are set in academia and deal with internecine academic feuds, like that between the New Criticism and the insurgent French literary theory. My favorite story was about a professor at an MFA program who's being tortured by an interrogator who asks him to justify his life--the MFA professor is deeply in doubt about the worth of teaching writing, while the interrogator is an MFA-holder who wants to be told that there's some value in the practice. I liked the book, it was fun!

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Books show people at their best; Twitter at their worst

I've gone off the socials lately. I got really sad for a few days and was like, the socials are just making me unhappy. Not because of envy: mostly because of how dumb and transphobic everyone is. The number of people who are overtly transphobic in my end of the literary world is just depressing. It's like you either like old books or think trans women are women; you have to choose. Old books or trans women. I obviously can find lots of literary people who think TW are W (TWaW will be my abbreviation from now on), but they mostly don't like old books, so while I feel affirmed by them and count many of them as my friends, there's not as much point interacting with them as literary people, because our literary interests don't necessarily align.

Anyway that's why I'm not on Twitter. Facebook is much, much better, but I'm just not used to being on it as much. I used to facebook friend people as soon as I met them, to really lock in the friendship, but I got out of the habit.

Now that I'm not on the socials, when I think of something to say about something, I have to hunt down someone who actually knows about that thing, and then text it to them (or just not say the thing at all). My life is very hard

I'm still reading Kagero Nikki--Diary of a Mayfly--a book by a nameless woman known only to history as Mitsishune's mother.1 There's a persistent strand in literary criticism that's about the invention of the self. I've never really understood the concept, but I guess the idea is that with the rise of capitalism, people felt more mechanized and more deracinated from their communities--at the same time, they were provided with a large number of ways to individualize themselves. Thus, literature became obsessed with discovering the authentic self.

The implication is that somehow people in prior times weren't self-reflective and didn't conceptualize themselves as individual actors. Seems a bit iffy to me. Mitsishune's mother seems to have a healthy sense of self. She is very, very sad, because her husband ignores her. The purpose of her life is to serve as consort to this very important man--and she's beautiful and really good at poetry--but he just doesn't seem to come around very often.

In the part I just finished, Mitsishune's mother retreated to the mountains, threatening to become a nun, but her husband and son force her to come home because it looks bad for their wife and mother to abandon their household. She comes back, but she's changed--she doesn't care as much about her husband. She concocts a scheme to adopt his illegitimate daughter and displace some of her energies that way. Somehow her time in the mountains has made her a bit otherworldly, and her husband remains suspicious--he suspects her of continuing to pray and do religious stuff.

Reading the book, it's unbelievable that it was begun in 972 AD. The people seem so real and present. And I was thinking of everything I know about 972. It was a very active time in world history. The Byzantine empire was at a local peak, having incorporated Armenia. The Song dynasty is about to unite China. Central Asia is at the peak of its influence: the Samanid empire is at its height, and the cities of modern-day Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are probably the richest and most culturally vibrant places in the world; Ferdowsi is composing the Shah Nameh. Avicenna is about to be born. Most of our surviving Anglo Saxon manuscripts are being written or are about to be written in England. Otto II is dreaming of re-founding the Roman Empire. Vikings are establishing a state in Ukraine that will someday become Russia. The toltecs dominated the Mexican highlands. The Mississippi culture was developing: in a few years they would begin to create the largest precolumbian America. Just thinking of all these people, one wonders what it would've been like if they could've spoken. This woman, Mitsishune's mother, was clearly capable of such feeling and was drawn to contemplation and to the higher world. What would've happened if she could've been at the court of John Tzimmiskes? Or gone to Bukhara?

Well, who knows--but that's exactly the situation we are in today, and yet people seem so defeated by these possibilities. I think though that we can see the best of people or their worst. Twitter is people at their worst. Yeah they might like old books, but they don't talk about the books, they just talk about how much they don't believe TWaW.

Whereas in books (and, to a lesser extent, essays), we see people at their best. Yeah Mitsishune's mother was a bit of a whiner: her life was better than 99 percent of people alive in 972, but she was also a sensitive soul and a great poet, and she made something beautiful.

It's exciting! I can read a book written in Japan in 972--that's something most people in 972 couldn't do. Now does it mean anything? Will it change the price of butter? No! But it's an incredible aesthetic experience, if we allow ourselves to feel it.

  1. The translation I'm reading, which is AFAIK the only easily available translation, is available for free at this address! Go, go read it, go read it and see. The explanatory notes are also really good, although it's a bit awkward that they come before the page to which they refer, instead of after it. Oh wait, I see now there's another translation by Edward Seidensticker. He's a really good translator, and he did, IMHO, the best translation of Genji. Now I don't know what to pick. It's annoying that he translated the title so differently, or I'd have read his. This is something that happens quite frequently with East Asian literature: people use such different titles that you literally can't tell if a book has actually been translated or not. But Sonja Arntzen's translation (the one I've been reading) is quite good!