Hello friends, I've been reading the very first superman comics, in a compilation from DC comics called: Superman in the Golden Age. It is excellent--one of the best comics I've ever read, and I personally liked it even better than my all-time favorite Superman story, All-Star Superman, which I wrote about a few years ago.The thing about the original Superman (he was first invented in 1938 and was an immediate hit) was that when he started, there were no supervillains. Superman was just a guy who was really, really strong and invulnerable. You didn't know his origin story at all. He worked by day as cowardly Clark Kent, who shirks from all conflict, and through his job as a reporter he hears about various wrongs, and then he quickly transforms into Superman and rights them!
But it's never as simple as just beating up someone or killing them (original Superman does occasionally kill people, though usually only by accident). Instead he creates extremely elaborate schemes to teach people the errors of their ways. So far, in the fourteen issues I've read he has:
Solved a hit-and-run problem in Metropolis by running around punishing speeders and by destroying a factory selling substandard cars
Helped a circus being shaken down by the mob, by giving the circus a new star attraction to pay its debts: The Superman himself!
Interfered in a college football game to prevent match-fixing, by posing as one of the players and leading the team to victory
Gone undercover in a prison, to uncover a warden who's abusing the prisoners
Taught a lesson to a mining magnate whose mines are unsafe--he leads the magnate down into the mines and traps him there and forces him to try and dig his way out
Broken into the governor's mansion with evidence exculpating a woman from murder, so she can be saved from execution with just minutes to spare
Helped a hoodlum being sentenced to prison for robbery, by exposing their gang-leader and teaching them that being strong means staying 'clean' (like Superman himself)
Stopped a war in central America, by finding the munitions maker who was selling arms to both sides, forcing the munitions maker to enlist as a marine in one of the armies, and making him undergo the horrors of war himself
It's so great. I cannot overstate how much I love him. Every plot is so Rube-Goldbergian. He finds a simple wrong and then spends the equivalent of many days and weeks concocting a plan to teach the wrong-doer their lesson (which usually ends with them agreeing to turn over a new leaf). It's a lot like that show Leverage (where a team of crooks interfere in some ordinary person's life to help them out, usually by blackmailing, stealing from, or framing their opponent). What a great concept! I wonder when Superman evolved away from this?
To be honest, I find the plotlines genuinely affecting, precisely because of how personal they are. Not only does Superman intervene when you have a problem, but he finds a very customized, personal solution to the problem. I think that, more than anything, is what gives the people of Metropolis hope: the idea that someone out there truly cares about them on an individual level.
I also really like the art style. It's very simple. Superman was originally going to be a newspaper strip (and after getting popular, it ran as a newspaper strip for many years), and you can tell, by the simple, stripped-down style. It's strongly reminiscent, actually, of today's indie comics. You can tell that all the penciling and inking is being done by the same person. Sometimes when comics are too realistic (as in the romance comics I posted about) you can get an uncanny-valley situation where the stillness of their face seems a bit unsettling and vacuous. You don't have that problem in Superman. It's cartoonish, but that fits with the story.
On a sidenote, people are sometimes surprised that I like Superman. People find him boring and unrealistic. And a lot of people have tried to humanize Superman-type characters by showing in real life they'd be depressed or racist or haunted by their own powers. And that's totally fine, that's a natural progression. But I think having someone who is genuinely good and caring is great, when done well! There's something about Superman that is just so hopeful--he really thinks that people can change and be better. And to me that's far from boring!
Hello friends, happy Boxing Day! I'm still using Typora, which is super fun. It's makes writing blog posts so much easier. And it's about as customizable as I'd need or want. A friend said they use Typora for their fiction writing too, which is pretty zany! I'm kind of considering it. I've always found Scrivener to be a bit over-designed for my taste, with too many options and too much customizability.
The sad thing about being a science fiction writer is that you love whizmos and gadgets, but writing is still pretty old-fashioned. The act of composition hasn't been substantially improved since the invention of the word processor (and, I'd argue, it's still essentially the same as it was back when people were composing using pen and paper, but that argument relies heavily on one's definition of the word 'essentially.') So it's always fun to discover a new word processing modality.
You might've noticed that I've been using more links now than I used to. That's because I always found hunting down the links to be a fiddly, annoying process. But with Typora and markdown, whenever I think of something that needs linking, I just surround it with brackets, [like this]. Then at the end of the document I create a link reference, like this:
[like this]: link goes here.
I think it's pretty nifty. Of course I'll get tired of it eventually, just as one gets tired of most things. But for now it's fun.
In terms of writing I have very little going on, just working on doing the line edits for my young adult book. Then will have to start work on my super secret nonfiction project that I hope to announce in January!
The Husserl I've been reading very slowly for at least a month (am halfway through!) I think it's honestly the best entry-point for Husserl. I believe that I previously read another of his: Ideas. But that felt very internal to some purely philosophical problems of consciousness and epistemology, whereas in this one ties it all in together with the big question: What is it possible to know? And how can we start to breach the boundaries of what we think is possible.
Vindication of the Rights of Man is the work that made Wollstonecraft famous. It's a response to Edmund Burke's Notes on the Revolution in France. Burke's is a foundational conservative document. It may very well be the first elucidation of movement conservatism as an ideology, within a liberal democracy. I read it upwards of ten years ago, so I don't entirely remember what it said, but as I recall, it's a polemic against the concept of radical change. Wollstonecraft's reply is like, you tell us that we're bound by tradition? But where does that stop? When are we allowed to change anything? What makes it striking is the intemperate, personal tone. It's not a matter of academic debate for Wollstonecraft, she goes hard at Burke. I found her extremely convincing. In the years since, we've seen the dangers of revolution, but at the time it's hard to imagine not being in favor of the French Revolution.
The graphic novels are what I've actually been reading the most of. Went through a Brubaker phase. Really like the work, but it's subtle. At first I was like...these are just typical crime stories. But it's something in how he draws this world together and shows how shaky it is, and, moreover, how its generational: how kids grow up with unstable home lives and then they replicate the same patterns as adults (even as they do their best to avoid them). This makes it sound like a work of sociology, and it is, a little bit, sociological. But the characters are also very human. Definitely work that grows on you the more of it you read.
Hello friends! Normally at the end of the year I go back through my written log of books and write about the books I 'liked' the best. But this time I'm not gonna do that. Instead I'm just going to go through from memory and talk about whatever struck me the most about my reading this year.
Probably the most influential book I read in the last twelve months was Jurgen Habermas's Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. This book attempts to trace the evolution of what Habermas calls "The Philosophy of the Subject", which is the idea that our perception inherently orders reality, and, as such, by examining the nature of our own experiencing, we can learn fundamental truths about reality, starting from Kant, through Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Adorno, and terminating in Foucoualt and Derrida.
I wasn't familiar with many of these concepts at the time (though I had read much of Kant), so I didn't understand a lot of what I was reading, but I frequently thought about this book over the next year. See, in the Anglo-American tradition, philosophers turned to logic: the study of how we can determine whether or not a statement is true. But, unfortunately, logic requires inputs. You cannot know, a priori, whether a given statement is true, unless you start with some truths. So as a way of getting to truth, it starts to seem a bit beside the point.
In the continental tradition, they kept searching for sources of validity--sources of those inputs--but continually rejected the idea of empiricism. They wanted some pre-scientific or non-scientific source of truth. Eventually, with fits and starts, they settled on phenomenology: can we find some kind of truth in the nature of experiencing. This is, on the one hand, not subject to empirical investigation, because experience isn't accessible to science (all that's accessible are peoples' linguistic and conceptual descriptions of experience). Secondly, if we're very careful, phenomenology can appear to give us things that are universally true. Now, can we know for a fact that causality truly exists in some way apart from the human brain? No. But we can know that causality is a core part of how we experience the world. The fact of causality--that everything we experience has some cause--is a truth. Of course, this gets us into trouble because it leads to the question of first causes, but Kant was careful to draw a line around what a human is actually capable of experiencing. Once we put the concept of 'cause' outside the realm of direct human experience (like, before the first human ever existed), then it breaks down--it becomes ungrounded.
Anyways, phenomenology is intoxicating because it allows you to say things with absolute certainty: this is what I am experiencing; I am definitely experiencing this thing. This then gets extended into the realm of meaning: this thing definitely means something to me. Science can't assign a meaning to this word or to this concept, but I can. I know what it means. I know for an absolute fact that I'm typing right now on a keyboard. I don't need to prove it logically. It's just self-evident.
And that seems to be intoxicating because we go from the skeptical approach, where we can know nothing, to a much more open approach, where, actually, there's a lot of things we can know! We can know what words mean! We can know what concepts are! We can know what parts of human experience those concepts refer to!
Unfortunately, as the philosophy of the subject progresses, it hits a dead end, because each person tries to create universal truth out of their individual experience, and it's not clear that this is possible. I can say what a word means with absolute certainty, but that doesn't mean it means the same thing to you. I can say with absolute certainty the meaning of a text (to me), but that meaning might not have validity to anyone else.
Habermas attempts to solve this conundrum through his theory of communicative action, which is the core of his philosophy (we can come to agreement, through discussion, about things we subjectively experience in common). I don't know much about that because I didn't read those books. This book is just his tracing, essentially, of the claim to universal knowledge, and the ways that claim gets subverted and eventually turns, over time, into the solipsism and irrationality of a 'critical' approach where, suddenly, the overt meanings of every word and concept are effaced, and now nothing means what you think it means. The philosophy of the subject leads to absolute truth, but it's incommunicable and, taken too far, it becomes irrelevant and sterile.
I found Hegel pretty frustrating. To put it bluntly, I don't think Hegel makes logical sense. Unlike Kant, who was obscure in a way that later commentators could clear up and explain, Hegel continues to be obscure to this day, because even in their original form, the ideas didn't make logical sense. His insight is that truth is developed through a historical process--essentially, he believes in progress, where over time, knowledge develops and develops and we get closer to the truth. What people fail to understand about Hegel (or willfully refuse to understand, because it's uncomfortable) was that he was a mystic. He believed in a kind of pantheistic notion of the universe, where the universe is one great spirit, and this spirit seeks to know itself. And Mankind is the knowing and thinking part of the spirit, which, through struggle, seeks to understand more and more of its essence, by incorporating more and more of the spirit into its thinking nature. To Hegel, this doesn't occur through a straightforward march of progress, but through a process whereby certain truths come into vogue and are then rejected, and then the rejection is rejected, which produces a new truth. But who is carrying out this process? Is it individual mankind? Or man as a whole? What are the mechanics of it? It's all very unclear.
The most interesting of his books is also the most difficult, Phenomenology of the Spirit is a wildly exciting look at the history of Western thought, and the ways it's shifted and permutated over time, the ways that sometimes it's embodied in an individual and sometimes in a society, and the ways that society, at war with itself, has produced new truth. Its very ambiguity--who is the protagonist here? How are they evolving?--is its strength. It's almost like a work of abstract art or a work of music, where you see certain themes taking on a life of their own and rising and falling. Philosophy of the Right attempts an equal performance when it comes to the nature of the Laws and the state, but it's not quite as bravura, because the answer is so predetermined (Prussia is the culmination of human civilization), The Greater Logic is his 800 page explication of his logical system. I read it so you don't have to--there's no system. Believe me. There is no system. It's so vague and fuzzy. He's more of an artist than a philosopher. He's like one of these provocative thinkers who throws out wild statements and crazy notions, and then is like, but it's all a SCIENCE, man. This is a SCIENCE.
After Hegel I read the three volumes of Marx's Capital. Very worthwhile. I studied Economics in college, and we were taught Neoclassical economics: the updated form of Classical economics that arose specifically to dispute with and disprove Marx. And we were told, implicitly, that Marx was illogical and had no solid empirical basis.
The thing about Marx is that his predictions aren't very different from those under Neoclassical economics. Under Neoclassical economics, in a system of perfect competition there will be no profits, aside from a certain set return to capital, which is necessary for anyone to invest in any productive venture. So "zero profits" under "perfect competition" actually means "four to five percent returns on capital." It's precisely through the division of Economics into macroeconomics (the performance of the economy as a whole) and microeconomics (the performance of individual firms) that Neoclassical economics effaces and ignores Marxist economics. Because Marx begins (in volume 1) with microeconomics, but unlike the typical Neoclassical economist, he looks at what happens to profits after they're generated. How does capital flow through the economy (volume 2) and then how is it eventually reinvested (volume 3). And this process of the flow of capital leads to certain predictions that are pretty intelligent and sound: he predicts ongoing capital accumulation, and an increasing share of production going to capital rather than to labor.
Alongside the purely economic argument, however, is the moral argument that all the returns from production ought to go to labor, and that capitalism, as a force, is nothing more than a way for a certain class to seize control of an increasing share of the returns from production. This is less convincing than his purely economic argument, but not entirely unconvincing. As a moral argument, though, it has to be analyzed like other moral arguments. And he definitely harms his work by not recognizing that he's not making an empirical argument here. Because even Marx admits that capitalist production produces a larger quantity of goods than pre-capitalist production, and that capitalist production is impossible without the accumulation of capital. So why should the accumulation of capital not be encouraged by having some return on capital? His arguments on this score are three-fold.
Excess Means of Production - The means of production are basically the means that produce shit. Under capitalism, the system will focus on making more means of production than people really need, because the means essentially are capital. When you produce means of production (rather than consumer goods), you're producing more wealth, and ultimately capitalism wants to produce wealth, not consumer goods.
Underproduction of Objects for the General Welfare - A concomitant of the means of production being underproduced is that capitalism is capable of producing lots of consumer goods for everyone, but it doesn't, because that doesn't result in increasing wealth for capitalists
Over-exploitation of Labor - For a capitalist, the primary cost is labor. The capitalist will always be driven to pay labor as little as possible, because that is the main source of profits. As a system (through a complex process that's too long to discuss here), capitalism will tend to expropriate more and more of a laborer's production. Essentially, his argument is that because capitalism allows the production of the necessities (the means of subsistence) for less and less money, it can afford to pay workers less and less for a full day's work (under the theory that capital will always drive the cost of labor to barely above the means of subsistence necessary to keep the laborer alive for a day's work).
The first two arguments are moral arguments about societal allocation of resources. How much capital stock is enough? How much is too little? How much of society's production should go to producing luxuries? It's kind of impossible to say, but it's not unreasonable to say that the decision should be made democratically, rather than through the private interest of the owner of capital.
The third argument is what's drawn the most flack, because although later commenters have tried to obfuscate this, Marx's argument against capital does, in some part, rely on the assertion that the life of the laborer under capitalism really, really sucks. And this has not proven to be empirically true. In the long run, real wages haven't fallen. Wages haven't been driven to the means of subsistence. And the share of profits going to labor, while it's sometimes gone down and sometimes gone up, hasn't trended inexorably in one direction.
Western Marxists (who largely tend to be in the humanities rather than in the social sciences) tend to attribute the prosperity of labor (relative to Marx's predictions) to a number of causes, but the main thing they say is, "The collapse just hasn't happened yet!" Lately there's been the concept of 'environmental capitalism' where looting the planet has allowed the inflation of prosperity for everyone. Before that we had the concept of impperialistic capitalism, under which other countries were being looted to allow ordinary people in the West to prosper. Now we also have the concept of Racial Capitalism, under which the continued exploitation of racial minorities creates a surplus for white workers.
Some of course also attribute the relative power of the worker, especially during the first seventy years of the 20th century, to trade unionism, but this ignores the core of Marx's critique, which is both practical and moral. The practical element is that the power of capital is destined to grow, as capital accumulates, while the power of labor will remain static or decrease, so over time capital will overcome any trade union. And, morally, an eight hour day is still slavery: why should the capitalist be allowed to keep any of their illicit gains.
I don't know the answer! It would be awfully convenient for Western Marxists if capitalism collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions sometimes soon, but it's unclear whether that will happen, and I don't think anyone truly expects it to. Ultimately, although the theoretical core of Marxism has proven to be the most accurate (re: how capital accumulates, how it will destroy other capitals, and how it will distort the state), it's the moral core that has proven the most enticing for intellectuals. People desperately seek the moral clarity Marx offers--the idea that private ownership of means of production is fundamentally wrong and illogical.
But it's precisely this part of his argument that has the least going for it. Even if we accept many of his conclusions about capital acting in such and such a bad way, it's also clear that it's created tremendous wealth and prosperity. Moreover, his conclusions were underpinned by the inevitability of capital's collapse (in a series of financial crises, which would radicalize the working class). It's this certainty of collapse which gave the feeling of eternal Truth to Marxism. If you were Marxist you weren't merely asserting that something was true (i.e. "Labor should get a larger portion of the world's wealth), you were also issuing a warning ("This will happen inevitably. It is the guaranteed end-point of capitalism.") But without that prediction to underpin it, Marxism loses a lot of its rhetorical power, particularly since state Marxism hasn't necessarily resulted in better social or economic well-being than capitalism.
But of course that's why Marxism is more or less dead in the social sciences, as an avowed philosophy, and continues only in the humanities, where people don't really understand the economic logic at play. In the social sciences, however, there's been great work done lately on state capitalism, on organizational capture, rent-seeking, corruption, and other political economy factors that underpin the niceties of the Neoclassical view. However, I would like to say that there's very little in Marx that, per se, doesn't accord with the Neoclassical view. Some say that marginalism--a modification of classical economics in which the prices of goods and labor are set by marginal utility and marginal cost (i.e. how much production will one extra unit of labor provide) has somehow disproved Marx's labor theory of value, but this doesn't really hold up. The whole idea of Marxism is that capital is illusory: all capital is merely someone else's labor. The machine you own isn't really creating anything: it's the laborers who created the machine who are truly, in some philosophical way, responsible for the machine's outputs. I think it's super interesting, and his ideas should be incorporated into economics curricula post-haste.
Okay, that endeded up being really long, but I want to finish by writing about Schopenhauer. I read a few of his books this year: namely The Four-Fold Root and World as Will and Representation, Volume 1. Loved Schopenhauer. Marx is a little easier to read than Kant and much easier than Hegel, but Schopenhauer is the first of these philosophers that writes in something approaching plain language. When you read Schopenhauer, you understand him. He writes so straightforwardly.
Because he's so straightforward I have a lot less to write here, but essentially he's one of the first phenomenologists. He's like, what is this nonsense about trying to seek truth outside our individual experience. That's like saying, "I want to know what's true besides all the things that I know are indisputably true". Essentially he's the first in a long line of people trying to pick fights with Descartes. Where Descartes in his Meditations performed the "Cartesian reduction" wherein he said maybe the world is an illusion, and nothing I know is real, Schopenhauer is like hold on, even if it's an illusion, what does that mean? You know that everything you're experiencing is something you're truly experiencing.
So while someone like Kant tries to seek a priori wisdom, Schopenhauer is like no, let's start with the sensing, experiencing world, and see what universal truth we can intuit from the fact of this world. Anyway, he agrees with Kant more than he disagrees with him (although his critique of Kant at the end of World as Will is incredible), but his main departure is where he tries to make some judgements about the nature of the 'thing-in-itself'. This is an idea that obsesses continental philosophers. Kant basically says, we can only know things as they appear to us, we can't know things as they truly are. For instance, we can measure the force of gravity, but we can't know why this force exists at this level, but not at some other level. On the more existential level, why is there something instead of nothing? Why does matter have such and such a property instead of another? Why are loud things loud? Why are soft things soft? Why aren't they spikey instead? Why are things how they are? We can know the answer in a causal way (they are this way, because something else is this other way, or because our organs percieve in this way). But we can't know why those relationships exist.
Philosophers hate that concept. Ever since Kant they're trying to get at the thing-in-itself. So Schopenhauer, being a very logical person, says, there is one example of the thing-in-itself that we CAN know. And that is...ourselves. When a person does something, there's always a proximate cause (they're trying to achieve this thing or avoid this harm), but you never know the deeper cause (WHY do they want to achieve this thing or avoid this stuff?) Why is Schopenhauer a philosopher and not a cartoonist? Even to Schopenhauer it's a mystery--as he puts it "We can do what we will, but we can't will what we will". Essentially, you can't change your own essential nature. But that nature is, as he puts it, your Will. It's a blind, terrible force of pure wanting, pure impulse. And he develops this into a long theme, but essentially everything is will. Why do planets move? Because they will it. And yes is it because of gravity? Totally--gravity is the exterior form of their movement (the representation or appearance) while Will is the interior form. If the planet was capable of thinking, it would believe that it moved because it wanted to. Similarly, people believe we are doing what we want to because it is our will, but everything we do is also predictable and predetermined. It's a whole complicated thing on free will. But very intuitive and understandable! Highly recommend
Anyway that was my major reading for the year. A bunch of German philosophers. I also read a few books by Husserl, but I won't even attempt to summarize him right now. After him I'll try Nietzsche probably.
In non-Germans, I was less of a prolific reader, and nothing is coming strongly to mind right now, so let me look at my book list.
Okay, I went through four distinct phases.
I tried to read more African-Americans this year, particularly older, classic books. I really liked Ann Petry's The Street and Charles Chesnutt's The Colonel's Dream and The Marrow of Tradition. They're essentially big social novels, in the early 20th century tradition, about African-American people and issues. People call Chesnutt the first African-American novelist, though it's not strictly true. His works failed commercially however, and for the last thirty years of his life he abandoned writing and built a successful court reporting business, I believe. I also got really into slave narratives, of which by far the best (of the ones I read) was Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. There aren't that many slave narratives by women, and fewer that deal frankly with the sexual aspects of slavery. I was very moved by the book, and I thought it was written incredibly well, too. It's one of the more famous narratives, and rightfully so. I also liked [Native Son](https://www.amazon.com/Native-Son-Richard-Wright-ebook/dp/B002BY779U/ref=sr_1_1?crid=MEFI26VKQG25&keywords=native+son&qid=1671754763&sprefix=native+son%2Caps%2C156&sr=8-1). It's little read now, and often considered a bit racist. Every white person in the book is nuanced and complex, and every Black person is awful and ignorant. As someone who often writes unflattering portraits of my own people, I respected the amount of feeling Wright must've had--the sheer anger--when he wrote this. It's not his fault white people loved it so much! I think he was really getting at something, in his own way.
I got into a phase where I tried to read a lot of popular novels. I got really into Walter Scott. The best of his books was The Antiquary. I'm pretty sure this book has no plot. It's just about an old guy who likes old stuff. Definitely listen to it in audio, via librivox, like I did. Can't imagine anyone would be patient enough to read it. Reminded me a lot of Bleak House in some ways, with its fiery protagonists and genteel older man. Scott's most famous book is Ivanhoe, which is a complete and total mess, but kind of fun--it features cameos from Robin of Loxley AND King Richard the Lion-Heart. It basically throws everything from 1200 into one big stew and sees what'll stick. There's tournaments, there's heroic Anglo-Saxons trying to defend their land, there's everything! Other charming popular novels were Little Women and Uncle Tom's Cabin. I thought the latter, in partcular, was deeply affecting. Was clearly cribbed wholesale from slave narratives and probably doesn't deserve to be read anymore (why read a white woman's reinterpretation when you could just read the original?) But as a powerful piece of rhetoric, which systematically combines and explicates and argues against every slavery trope (it starts with a kind master, progresses to an indifferent one, and ends with an evil one, to show that all are terrible and that there is no good slavery).
Finally, I had my Soviet phase, which was dominated by Nadezhdha Mandelstam's two magisterial memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned. Probably two of the best books I've ever read. They describe the spiritual corruption of Stalin's terror, and its effect on the intelligentsia in particular, in such close detail. And they're also full of love for Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and everyone else who managed to retain a shred of courage during the terror. Because Nadezhda Mandelstam managed to avoid the camps, they're also one of the few accounts you'll read of civilian life during the terror. Another good one in that vein was Lydia Chukovskaya's novella [Sofia Petrova](https://www.amazon.com/Sofia-Petrovna-European-Classics-Chukovskaya/dp/0810111500/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1JK96ROY7ESIJ&keywords=sofia+petrovna&qid=1671754784&sprefix=sofia+petrovn%2Caps%2C154&sr=8-1), about a working woman who loses her son to the Terror and, essentially, goes mad. It was written in 1940, when the terror was abated (because of the war), but hardly over. I got really fascinated in what being an official writer in the Soviet Union entailed, so I read Inside the Writer's Union. Great look at how the later Soviet Union co-opted writers with the carrot and not the stick. Being an official writer in the Soviet Union carried immense perks. The writer's union had its own resorts, its own clubs, its own apartment blocks. Writers could become incredibly rich, by Soviet standards.
Of course this only scratches the surface of all the cool books I read this year, and I doubt anyone besides my dad and my wife has even managed to read this far, so I'm just gonna have a final, unranked list of books.
Bambi was re-released this year in a beautiful NYRB classics edition. It's very clearly a parable about anti-Semitism. It's about Bambi's fear of Him--the hunter. But it's also a beautiful and emotional coming of age story as Bambi grows to take the place of the Old Stag (who turns out to be his dad).
My Experiments With Truth was a book I'd read in my teens, but I re-read it recently. I blogged about it earlier, but I just wanted to note the book was so human, and it made me feel connected to the India of a hundred years ago (Gandhi came from my region of India and is of a similar caste as my family) in a way I never had before.
The Great Impersonation probably should be listed under popular novels. Oppenheim was a bestseller in the teens and twenties. Literally all of his books are about how terrible Germany is. This is his most famous, about a german spy who kills a British nobleman and takes his place! It got me super into Oppenheim and I read two more of his books in quick succession.
Pull Devil, Pull Baker is one of those books it's impossible to recommend, because it's so strange. A novelist finds a Russian expatriate noblemen, penniless and dying, in a Hong Kong hospital, and she records his stories, along with some reflections on the nature of truth and storytelling. Apparently this guy really existed! I kept believing I was reading some post-modern fictional performance, but apparently not! Re-released this year by Boiler House Press, a great press.
Last of the Innocent is the sixth volume in Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips's critically acclaimed Criminals series. I got this as a Humble Comics bundle ages ago. This year, as part of my plan to collect all my comics in my calibre library, I ran across the series again. For the first few volumes, Criminals seemed like generic noir, but it's not. What sets it apart is how fully it inhabits that veil between regular life and the underworld. When you're in the underworld, everything is up for grabs, and it's rare that you're just an ordinary mentally stable person who commits crimes. I remember very well from my days as an addict, the feeling that anything is possible, and I grew to enjoy these reminisces. Also, the unnamed city where these stories takes place strongly resembles San Francisco. This is the best and most critically acclaimed of the seven volumes.
Manhunt is the book I read this year that made me feel the most feelings. An extremely complex exploration of gender and desire, combined with a gendercide fantasy about trans-woman in a post-male future who hunt down and kill TERFs.
The Recognitions is difficult, but not as difficult as its reputed to be. I thought it was a cynical and angry, but very human book, about what it means to be authentic in a world where so many people seem spiritually adrift. Pair it with Fire the bastards! which is an almost-deranged pamphlet that systematically dismantles the initial critical reaction the Recognitions got upon release. The writer of this pamphlet's viewpoint is, essentially, if critics can't recognize a bona fide masterpiece, then what are they good for?
The Byzantine Economy is definitely not of interest to anyone but me, but I kept wondering how Byzantium could continue to be Europe's richest state for so long. The usual answer is 'trade', but that's not really true. It wasn't a huge trading or naval power--much of its external trade was carried on by Italian city-states (which led to its downfall). The real truth lay in its administrative state. Almost alone of the nations of Europe, Byzantium had the power to directly collect taxes (i.e. there was a land tax, so every farmer or landlord paid the government directly, in coin). A highly monetized economy and relatively high literacy allowed it to, almost alone in the region, maintain a strong central state. I got really big into economic history this year and read a lot about some very abstruse issues, like monetization and the metal value of the currency. Also read a lot about medieval economic theory, which was fascinating, particularly the concept of a "just price" and a "just profit". It wasn't enforced, but merchants were theoretically only supposed to make such-and-such profit and no more. I also looked into the history of poor relief and welfare, which for most of the middle ages (esp. in England) was considered rather unobjectionable and was handled locally, since the assumption was that the only people who'd need it would be those who were sick, disabled, or old.
From Poor Law To Welfare State was the best book I could find about the development of the U.S.'s poor relief system. It's actually stunning how much of our welfare state was stealthily dismantled during the Clinton era. We really don't realize how much more there used to be, and how slowly that system arose.
Razorblade Tears is about a black ex-con and a white ex-con who team up to avenge the murder of the gay sons they were estranged from. Probably the most purely fun book I read this year, and perhaps ever. Highly recommend.
AND AND AND AND I JUST WANT TO MENTION THE FOLLOWING BOOKS WITH MINIMAL COMMENT. THEY WERE VERY GOOD THO
Gorbachev died this year. He was a really cool and honorable guy (by William Taubman)
New Teeth is Simon Rich doing his thing, writing funny short stories about whatever he happens to be doing in his life this year (in this case it's parenting)
Map: New and Selected is so wry, funny, and thoughtful. Grew to love Wislawa Szymborska's poetry. I always expect Nobel Laureates to be really heavy and serious (see: Tomas Transtormer), but she's so human!
Paths of Glory is basically The Caine Mutiny. Combo of a thorny ethical situation, military fog of war, and a courtroom scene. To cover their own incompetence these French generals order a random soldier in each corps executed for cowardice. Based on real life events! (by Humphrey Cobb)
This is only a fraction of what I read this year, and there are major authors I haven't included. Like I read City of God, by Saint Augustine. I read Little Women, Empire of Pain, Consent (by Vanessa Springora), Passing by Nella Larsen. I read The Bluest Eye! It was so good! But what am I gonna say in a blog post about The Bluest Eye? So I guess I'll have to leave it. Next year I'm really gonna try to write about more books during the year so I'm not left at the end with SO MANY it's impossible for me to talk about them all.
To show you out, here's a picture of Ol Blue Eyes himself: Hegel
Hello friends, just came back from a trip to Los Angeles. Like all trips with toddlers it was very tiring. I have no idea what I am supposed to do today, but I haven't done it. On the other hand, I spent an hour yesterday trying to research when exactly the yeoman class in England disappeared.
This is because I'm nearing the end of the first volume of Marx's Capital, where he gets into the idea of where the original capital came from. How did the first manufacturers get their capital? And to this end he traces the history of wealth in England.
Now if you know England, you know they're big into the concept of their yeomanry, which was their historical proto-middle-class. These were essentially small landholders who worked their own land. They were the backbone of the English army and of its identity and of its proto-democratic values.
But Marx was like, when the great landlords started enclosing the commons and kicking tenants off their estates so they could turn farm land into pasture land, that is when the yeomanry disappeared. And my question was, "How is that possible? If the yeomanry owned their own land, how could anyone kick them off of it?"
To this end, I did a lot of research, and in the process I found that there's not an exact definition of what a yeoman is. What many people point to is the "forty shilling freeholder", which is the person who was entitled to vote for representatives for the House of Commons. This requirement, enacted in 1440ish, limited the franchise to people who derived at least forty shillings a year of income from, essentially, rents. Although rents was widely defined. If you owned and worked land that would be worth forty shillings if rented out, that still counted, but you had to actually own the land. It had to belong to you by right, indefinitely--you couldn't simply have a lease on it.
This is where the problem comes in. Many of the people commonly referred to as yeomen were not actually freeholders (i.e. they didn't own their land outright, w/ no lord other than the king). Many were copyholders. These were people who farmed large plots of land on very long leases and who did not owe anything other than a cash rent on the land (i.e. they didn't owe payment in service or in shares to their landlord). These people would not have been eligible to vote.
In practice, people often didn't want to be eligible to vote, because people who met the property requirements for voting also met the requirements to serve on juries, which was a hassle.
The term "farmer" by the way, originally referred exclusively to people who rented land from a landlord in return for an annual payments. So a farmer could not be a forty shilling freeholder. But farmers were often very influential men in their communities. They employed labor, kept large houses, improved their properties, and exercised some influence over local affairs.
(This by the way is all separate from serfdom, which had largely died out by the 15th century, as most land w service obligations was converted to land where you only needed to pay a cash rent to the lord. However at roughly the same time, the poor laws were enacted, which made it VERY difficult to change the district where you resided, because your home district was responsible for taking care of you if you became poor, so in practice people were still unfree in that they couldn't move from place to place in search of better wages and opportunities).
Anyway, to get back to enclosure, this process was disastrous for any form of leaseholder (except, sometimes, the largest farmers), because it entailed reducing an estate's labor needs. You simply didn't need tenants anymore, so you kicked them out (tenancy protections weren't that strong in many parts of England). By walling off the commons, you also hurt small yeomen, because by this point in history a forty shilling freehold was relatively small (four acres or so would meet the requirement) and to make ends meet many freeholders also pastured animals in the commons. So walling off the commons made it difficult for them to make ends meets and resulted in them selling their land, which led to land consolidation.
But I also read an article saying the major decline in the yeoman class came in the years after the black death, when rural populations declined permanently, and that decline after 1750 wasn't significant. But the article was also from 1910, so who knows.
Which is to say, colloquially, the term 'yeoman' referred to relatively well-off peasants (say, those who farmed more than thirty acres). Or what in Soviet Russia would've been called a kulak. But this class was divided into richer yeoman and poorer ones. The poorer ones were the ones Marx talked about who were destroyed by enclosure. The richer ones actually made lots of money and became, in Marx's opinion, the foundation of the bourgeoisie.
Marx doesn't care about the distinction between copyholders and freeholders, because he doesn't see voting as a meaningful right, but many people colloquially called yeomen were actually copyholders, who simply leased lands on very long rents. These people actually had the potential to make a lot of money during the enclosure period bc their rents were fixed, there was general inflation, and the price of rural labor dropped. Thus, their obligations and costs decreased, while the price of their produce increased.
I'm just writing this blog post because I spent hours searching for this information last night and found it all over the place in bits and pieces. You know, for an economist that was at one point the basis for the economic system that governed half the world, Marx is kind of underexplained, at least in English. But I am sure someone else will try to google "Marx yeoman disappeared Capital" and will come across this entry and get some clarity.
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My sister in law recently asked what percentage of my time I spend writing and what percentage I spend reading. I said that if she was asking for the ratio of those two activities then I spend at least three hours reading for every hour I spend writing.
And yet I constantly wonder if this is enough. For instance today most of my reading has consisted of listening to this audiobook about Jack Welch (I began and finished it today in four-ish hours of listening) and an audiobook on Lenin. Meanwhile I’m still making my way slowly through Capital. And yet I’m taking time off to write this post.
Writing is the ultimate aim. One wants to produce something that will last. And it’s sometimes pleasant to write, nice to think one has produced something today. But productivity can also lead you astray. Finished a story or essay or blog post or chapter can be a form of instant gratification, and I wonder—is this really necessary? Perhaps I could improve my work more by reading Capital. After all, most of what I write gets thrown out, but what I read never goes away.
And yet I do think, I dunno, that when I die, or when my memory fades, that all this learning will go away. The Soviets for some reason always hated aestheticism in any form, they wanted all knowledge to be in service of the state. And I wonder what’s the point of reading just to know—isn’t it more important to transmute my reading into something more?
But I’ve lately taken a longer view. After all, according to life expectancy tables I can expect to live at least a few more years: twenty or thirty wouldn’t be unreasonable. That means my entire productive life to come will easily equal or exceed what has passed. And I don’t want to read 55 or 65 and think, I haven’t learned anything since I was 36.
In this Jack Welch book they keep talking about how too much pressure, too much interrogation, squelches creativity. To be creative you need the freedom to fail. Jack Welch created an environment where performance was constantly measured and nobody had any room to just play around.
I have seen too many writers though spend too many years in play, writing outlines or doodling or doing research, like a Mr Causabon and never getting down to work.
I’m not sure. I used to think I’d write my great book someday. But if I haven’t written it yet, then I’m at least aware that anything I write at this age needs to have at least some potential to be the great one.
Notes on books:
I realized what’s been bothering me about Capital: it’s the labor theory of value. It states that all the value in a good is produced by labor. As such, profit can only arise from exploiting labor. I’ve been thinking very hard about it, and I realized the problem is Marx has some assumptions he doesn’t make explicit. The main one is he believes in a Malthusian world where wages will inevitably fall to the level of subsistence. The worker will get only as much of the value as it takes to keep them alive and reproduce their labor. He believes it’s the capitalist’s goal to create such a world, in fact. But…that isn’t really what happened. Wages in industrial societies for whatever reason rose instead. This undermines his whole point. Marx argues that the _purpose_ of capital is to give workers less power, to make them more expendable, and thus allow you to reduce their wages. Under capitalism, the workers will thus get to keep a smaller share of their labor than before capitalism. But it’s not entirely clear if that’s true, and there are empirical reasons for thinking it’s not. He makes a very well argued case though.
Periodically I search the Penguin Classics catalogue for interesting books. I sometimes buy them but almost never read them (I’m horrible, I know). But the other day I came upon Path of Glory by Humphrey Cobb. It’s a 1935 novel about WWI that inspired a Stanley Kubrick movie that’s apparently much better known. Anyway it was reissued as a Penguin Classic, and it’s short so I took a look. It’s set on the Western Front, in a French regiment that fails in an assault. Afterwards, the ordinary soldiers are scapegoated by their vindictive general (who likes to boast he’s never once failed to take a position he’s assaulted), and three of the enlisted men are court martialed and executed as an example to the rest. It reminded me strongly of Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, which also used a war setting (WWII, in that case) to dramatize an ethical dilemma and whose second half was a courtroom drama. Oh, Crimson Tide also uses a similar conceit and structure. In both of those cases, the soldier eventually gets off, though there’s doubt about whether they should. This one is bleaker, as befits a WWI novel, and it castigates the entire machinery of war for giving people the ability to duck responsibility for what they’ve done. It was also quite well-written, albeit in an unshowy manner. The lines had natural elegance and rhythm. I finished it in one sitting—two hours.
Articles of Note
Found lots to love in this article about one of the latest Fields medal winners (it's like the Nobel for math, as anyone who's watched Good Will Hunting will remember): "To hear him tell it, he doesn’t usually have much control over what he decides to focus on in those three hours. For a few months in the spring of 2019, all he did was read. He felt an urge to revisit books he’d first encountered when he was younger — including Meditations by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and several novels by the German author Hermann Hesse — so that’s what he did. “Which means I didn’t do any work,” Huh said. “So that’s kind of a problem.” (He’s since made peace with this constraint, though. “I used to try to resist … but I finally learned to give up to those temptations.” As a consequence, “I became better and better at ignoring deadlines.”)
Since this is basically a newsletter now, I'm putting a submission link below
Hello friends! I continue to feel not-awful. My baby is the cutest baby, and life is great. My career is a nightmare, but over the last seven years I've grown to expect that. You know, so long as the writing is going okay, there's no bad news that can affect me.
I've started working on a fantasy novel. This is something I've said on this blog numerous times. Almost always I abandon the fantasy novel. I'm sure this will be no different. The problem I always face with fantasy novels is that I don't enjoy writing scenes where people hit each other with swords. And, moreover, I don't enjoy writing protagonists whose main strength is that they're great at hitting people with swords and/or shooting magic balls at people. It just doesn't interest me, no matter how much the rest of the story does.
This time I've found a way of writing action scenes that I think is a little more robust and, to me, interesting, but we'll see.
My reading has been so scattered lately. I'm still reading lots of intellectual magazines, been liking the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books. I like when they summarize a book for me, so I don't have to read it. Like there was a big article about Machiavelli's life, and now I don't have to read the eight hundred page biography that was the subject of the article!
I've been making my slow way through George Stewart's Names on the Land, which is an account of how places in America got their names. It sounds like the most boring book on the Earth, but it's not. You learn a lot! For instance, when the Spanish were exploring the Americas, there was a legend about an Amazonian kingdom in America that was ruled by women. There was also a romance, popular in Spain, about a queen named Caleyfia. An explorer reported to Hernan Cortes that he'd found a huge island to the West, and Cortes, disbelieving, said that must be the island of Caleyfornia (the joke being that it was imaginary, like the historical romance and like the Amazonian kingdom). And that's where California comes from!
Most of the stories aren't that great, but it's still interesting to discover why so many things are named after some people and not others. But the book can also be pretty dry. Let's see..I'm also reading Nicole Cushing's A Sick Gray Laugh. I got the book on sale. I've been Twitter acquaintances with Nicole Cushing for years and have run into her in various online places where writer's congregate. I had no idea she was such an incredible writer! This is a book that's too bizarre to describe adequately. Also pretty dense, and I'm getting through it slowly.
Have been reading lots of comics on DC Universe, DC Comics's subscription service. I don't read the standard superhero comic stuff, but there's a lot of bizarre and offbeat stuff in the DC universe. I'm attracted primarily to looser art styles, and I've started to look for artists instead of writers. Lately I've been reading Gotham City Garage, about a future where blah blah blah, the girls of the DC Universe blah blah blah rock out. I've also been reading Heroes in Crisis, which is uneven when it comes to storytelling and writing, but is still pretty fun intermittently: it's about a safehouse for superheroes undergoing mental breakdowns. I've also been reading Seven Soldiers, which...I'm not exactly sure what it is. It's a series of interlocking stories about some very bizarre sidecharacters in the DC Universe.
Outside the superhero world, my favorite comics imprint continues to be Europe comics! And my favorite writer / artist pair is Bruno and Fabien Nury. I first read their Tyler Cross series, which is a hardboiled series about a gangster who doesn't talk much, has a huge jaw, and usually has no mouth. I just love the art style, honestly. Nury also wrote Death of Stalin, which I've never read, but which got turned into a great movie, and Bruno and Nury also collaborated on The Man Who Shot Chris Kyle, which is a graphic novel about the life and death of Chris Kyle, whose exploits were dramatized in the Bradley Cooper movie American Sniper. I highly recommend the graphic novel, which is a bit difficult to describe. It's anti-war and anti-macho (after all, it was originally a French language comic). But there's something in its dry, dusty setting and it's spiraling tone that's really captivating. Finally, I read Shelley, another set of French graphic novels about the life of Percy Shelley. The first, detailing his seduction, abandonment, and the subsequent suicide of his first wife, is very interesting. Shelley remains a captivating character despite his louche behavior. The second, of course, focuses on the weekend at Via Diodati, but it ends in a rather bizarre manner. I approve of and am impressed by the ending, but I doubt I'd have made the same decision, and I'm not entirely sure it was the best one.
I feel great, like extremely good. It's unaccountable, since I've felt pretty not-great for most of the past two months. Can't explain it. Anyway, early in the history of this blog I used to do lists! My most popular one was eight writing manuals that aren't a total waste of time. And last night as I was falling asleep I started thinking about the classics, and how most of the time when you sell them to people, it's kind of like, well you've just got to stick with this. But really it's not always like that. My most favorite classic to recommend is Anna Karenina, and people are usually like, "Oh well I tried starting that, but I didn't get far...maybe I'll try again."
To which I'm like, "No! What're you talking about? The first page of Anna Karenina is one of the most charming and timeless pages of fiction in all of history. If reading the book isn't effortless, then don't force yourself to. Wait until you can appreciate it."
So Anna Karenina is obviously a classic that should not be work. But what're some others? It seemed like cheating to use books that were too modern (Catcher in the Rye comes to mind. I mean it's easy to read, but that's because it basically invented the modern novel, so in essence we've been reading it all our lives). Number two on the list, for me, is clearly Pride and Prejudice. Now this is a book I had to read in tenth grade and found unbelievably boring. I stopped halfway through and just used the Cliff's Notes instead. But when I came back to it ten years later, I was surprised by how funny it was. This is a book that ought to hold you right from the beginning.
Okay, now here is where it started to get more difficult. Finally I decided that number three would be The Warden by Anthony Trollope. I love Trollope. I've read something like twenty books by him. But he's frequently long-winded and boring. The Warden doesn't have that problem. It's a hundred thousand words long--relatively compact, by Trollope standards--and the plot also isn't quite so paint-by-the-numbers. Most Trollope novels concern some guy who's slowly going broke and/or a woman who's married or about to marry the wrong dude. This one is more complex: it's about the warden of church-run old folk's home who comes under fire by a crusading journalist, who says, look, this home only takes care of twelve people, but the warden is earning eight hundred pounds a year! It's essentially a sinecure! And the whole time you're like, but Rev. Harding (the titular warden) is such a nice guy! Except...he also really doesn't do very much for his money. But, on the other hand, nobody has ever asked him to do much. Anyway, it's a great first introduction to Trollope.
So that's five novels that are marvelous from page one. What's a fourth one? Preferably one written before the year 1900? I'm going to go with the Count of Monte Cristo. That's an easy one. A fantastic and morally complex adventure. It's like a thousand pages long, and I wished it was twice the length, Afterward I tried to read The Three Musketeers and found it very dull, couldn't finish it.
And for my fifth book, I dunno, maybe I'll choose...Dangerous Liaisons? That's an eighteenth century novel! Bonus points there. It's an epistolary tale whose plot should be vaguely familiar to you either from Cruel Intentions or from the movie with John Malkovich. But it's witty and brilliantly structured. I've looked for other epistolary novels with a fraction of its complexity and have never found one.
You know what, I'm gonna keep going. You know what book was shockingly non-boring? Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a Chinese novel from the 14th century, detailing the events surrounding the dissolution of the Han Dynasty in the 2nd and 3rd century. I read the unabridged Moss Roberts translation, and it's romp. It's like nothing else you've ever read: it's the Annals of Tacitus except not horrendously boring (love you, Tacitus, but you are a dull writer). Time moves rapidly, events succeed events, heroes arise and die the next page, and everything is reported flatly, without moral judgement. The only difficult for a Western reader is keeping track of the thousands of names. For my part, I started developing mnemonics for each character. I'd say the name phonetically (mispronouncing it horrendously of course) and then think what english word the name sounded like, and then I'd relate that word to whatever the character had done. Like if the character was named Cao Dai, then I'd be like..cow died. And maybe the character had made a last stand on some bridge, so I was like "Cow dying on a bridge." It's really dumb, and potentially racist? It's hard to say. But it really helps. If you can keep the names straight, this is an easy read. I mean the easiest thing would just be to have an index of characters, but I couldn't find a good one.
Other readable classics...hmm...Plato's account of Socrates' trial and death, as presented in Eurythro, Apology, and Crito, is some of the finest prose literature from before the 18th century. It's actually deeply affecting. Read the Benjamin Jowett translation you can find for free online. Definitely worth reading as fiction, even if you don't care for the philosophy.
Well I could keep going, but would just make me look bad, because it'd be a bunch of white guys (if I hadn't limited myself to before 1900 there would've been more women, I swear). But although their works aren't quite effortless, I certainly recommend a trio of Japanese ladies: Sei Shonagan, Lady Murasaki (author of the Tale of Genji), and the anonymous author of the Sarashina diary. The last writer, whose book I read under the title As I Crossed The Bridge of Dreams, out from Penguin Classics, has probably had as large an impact on my style as any other writer in the language. There's something about the way she plays with time that's really artful and affecting. I get chills just thinking about it.
After a tour of all the precincts of social media, including Twitter, Instagram, and Medium, I decided I still like my own blog best! It has zero reach and almost nobody reads it, but it’s fun, and it doesn’t actively make my life worse.
I decided, actually, to spend a little bit more time cultivating one-on-one relationships. When I thought of the most popular and charismatic people I knew, one thing that cut across them, actually, was that they tend to put little effort into social media and a lot of effort into developing intimacy with their friends.
Of course I don’t want to be one of those people who bags on social media. I’ve found it to be a very useful tool for getting better acquainted with people I already know. Facebook has given me a lot in this life. I’ve reconnected with several old friends, and I’ve becom better acquainted with scores of people who I probably would’ve lost touch with were it not for the platform.
But as a marketing tool or a tool for broader engagement with the intellectual world, I’m not sure social media is for me.
The truth is, sometimes I feel a little lonely, when it comes to my intellectual interests. For instance, right now I’m reading a lot of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, who was a 19th century writer of sensation novels. Essentially, her books are thrillers, she wrote thrillers. But because it was the 19th century, her thrillers proceed at a rather sedate pace. And yet she’s a master of keeping you in suspense. And her plots proceed in such a cunning and thoughtful manner that the writer in me is very impressed. Previously, I’d read a little Wilkie Collins, and although I liked it, I didn’t enjoy how contorted his plots were. The book seemed to be straining to deliver shocks and surprises. Whereas Braddon is very in tune with the virtues of the form. She’s still writing domestic stories and still writing novels of manners, but in her books the manners are now somewhat expanded, to include things like murder and bigamy. It’s good stuff! Particularly when you compare it to current domestic thrillers, which I also find to often be somewhat sweaty in their plotting. I think there’s a lot of value to reading books that were written before current standards cohered. Because she’s not working with the framework of the “thriller”, Braddon doesn’t need to try so hard to be thrilling.
But who is there to talk to about these things? I thought maybe I’d find somebody on Twitter, but to be honest, Twitter seems mostly concerned with discussing ephemera. Even in the literary world, there’s a certain level of faddishness that doesn’t excite me. I don’t hate what is new, but I also don’t instinctively think that it’s superior to what is old. And I don’t see why our conversation has to be dominated by books that came out this year and writers who are currently alive.
One might think that I’d find people to talk to within the academy, but again I don’t know. I find that academics don’t read in either the way a writer or an ordinary person does. They don’t seem to read for pleasure. They rarely read outside their field. And they read with an agenda, to prove or disprove some particular point. There’s no feeling of wonderment.
Oftentimes I think writers are the true heirs to the world of literature. Alone amongst peoples, we have permission to read widely and to read deeply and to read only the best of what literature has to offer.
The real problem here is that when we writers follow our own tastes, those tastes take us into peculiar and unique places, whereas if we just read whatever is getting reviewed this week in the New York Times, we’re able to read it along with everybody else, and, as such, we get the pleasure of discussing it. Because of that, current discussion will always, of necessity, be dominated by the new and contemporary. Everybody out there might be reading their own M.E. Braddon, but their Braddons are all different, while if we’re reading contemporary novels, we’re probably reading Sally Rooney.
It’s not anybody’s fault. It’s not even a problem with human nature. It’s structural, mathematical, a problem of the long-tail distribution of the books that sell and are read each year.
I guess I just wish that the current books that everybody was talking about were, like, better? I wish they actually merited all this discussion. I wish there was still something interesting to say about them. And I wish there was some way of talking about them without either being gushy or completely disdaining them. These are all things that, I think, come easier when a book is older and an author is dead. But by the time it’s possible to say something interesting about a book, everyone has forgotten it! So the only times you get a fun discussion about a book is when its stock is rising, as with John Williams’s STONER or John Okada’s NO-NO BOYS, or when its stock is falling, as with INFINITE JEST, and you get to have post-facto arguments about it that lead people to read it to see what the fuss is about.
Lately I've gotten that social media fatigue that everybody's been complaining about for ages. I haven't gone much on Twitter. Haven't even logged into Facebook. Haven't posted on this blog. I think one day I was on Twitter, and I was just like, why am I doing this to myself? I don't know these people, and they don't know me. So I decided I'd stop maintaining all these unidirectional relationships. Even watching TV, which I've been doing quite a bit, seems a better use of my time than scrolling endlessly through Twitter.
I've started to feel my years. Not in terms of "I'm not the success I want to be." Instead I keep wondering, "Am I writing the way I want to be?" I find myself scrutinizing every sentence I write, thinking, "Is this the sentence a great writer would write?" I think, "Would Tolstoy use a phrase like 'writer would write'? Probably not, to be honest."
My writing style has matured considerably in just the last year. Now when I sit down and write a short story it comes out in this odd, this odd sort of, well it's very hard to describe, but it's sort of like a historian's chronicle--event follows event, with lots of summary, and then a few scenes that explode outward in great detail. Thinking back over my reading from the last fifteen years, I honestly think no book has affected my style more than the Sarashina Diary. Which is an odd thing. It's one of my favorite books, but not my absolute favorite. I've also learned from Tolstoy. When you read him, you're like...this is so simple. Why can't my work be this simple? You just tell the story. That's all you do is tell the story. And if that includes a fifty thousand word soliloquy about Napoleon, then that's what you need to include.
But I still look at my novels and my stories, and I think, is this it? I think there's a point, fifteen years into your writing career, when you've learned quite a bit, and you suddenly wonder, "Do I have a voice? Do I have anything new to contribute?" It's that whole anxiety of influence deal.
I came out of the world of commercial fiction, where, honestly, voice is deemphasized. Instead of voice, people talk about your world-building or your ideas. It's like language is this set of bricks, and what matters is what you build. But language isn't bricks. Language is atoms, and you can choose to form those atoms into bricks, or you can form them into some other, stranger sort of connector.
When I read literary fiction, I quite often think, wow, you tried too hard to develop your own voice, and you forgot how to tell a story. Because story and character are part of voice too, and there are numerous writers whose style is nothing special, but who added new ideas and new forms to the world of literature.
At the same time, I admire those literary writers (the ones with too much voice) for knowing, from early in their career, exactly what's required if you're to be a great writer. A literary writer often feels like a child. You read the book, and you're like...did you put any thought at all into the overall structure of this story? But at the same time, they often have the wonderful ingenuity of a child.
I've been reading a lot of Ibsen. His plays aren't too long, and I've read seven or eight in the past few days. I like them immensely. What I enjoy in a play is the feeling that I'm witnessing some sort of interaction that would normally be private. Many plays contain an absurdist element that doesn't necessarily appeal to me. I want to know, instead, exactly what it's like to see a husband and a wife, arguing alone in their room. Not in the theatrical, stylized way that people do for television. In the theater, characters argue differently, they speak differently. At times it can feel very honest.
I also think, "These plays weren't meant to be read." It gives me hope. In Ibsen, the beauty isn't in the lines. To be honest, the words, at least in much of what the translations that I read, were a bit pedestrian. What was of marvelous complexity were the characters. And I think what draws me to Ibsen is also that his plays contain a hint of the ideal. They're not entirely realistic. His characters have a heroism. This is particularly notable in his most famous plays, like in "Hedda Gabler", which is about a vile, self-centered woman who cares only for style. What she wants is for the world to contain some element of panache. And when her former lover can't even commit suicide right, she resolves, like Kirillov in Demons, to show the world how to end your life correctly.
For the realist writer, managing that hint of idealism is one of our toughest tasks. Because we don't want to write characters who are too plebeian. We want our characters to contain mankind's finest qualities. But at the same time, we don't want them to be unrealistic.
In a lot of my work, I spiral around the concepts of strength and weakness. I can't tell you the number of stories and novels I've written which were rejected because the main character was "too pathetic". I think if most people were to be written about, we'd be dismissed by readers as "too pathetic". I don't want, in my writing, to shy away from the things in all of us that are, quite frankly, loathsome. I'm not talking about greed, I'm talking about its opposite. So many people seem so inert and apathetic. The heroic qualities we associate with the characters in literature are entirely absent from the average person's life, so much so that if a person is capable for even a second of breaking free from inertia, then it almost seems a miracle.
I'm fascinated by that inertia. I've experienced so much of it in my own life. The feeling that I'm born along by fate, and that I'm unable to take control. And I'm not a weak person. I'm stronger than most, if the truth was to be told. But even so, I fall far below the standards set by literature. It seems to me that there must be some middle-ground between the average human and the heroes of literature. Some middle ground where people are a little bit heroic. Or a little bit powerful. Or where they occasionally rise above themselves. And that's what I seek, not always successfully, to write about.
Someone once told me not to begin promoting your novel until, at the earliest, six months before its release date, because otherwise any hype you build will peak too soon. I have no idea whether this is true, but it’s a good enough reason to not write too much about my book. It’s out there, going to bloggers through Edelweiss and NetGalley, and it’s accruing blurbs from other writers as well. Response has been gratifying! By this time, a few weeks, after the public release of the ARCs of my first book, ENTER TITLE HERE, it’d already accumulated some extremely negative responses, which this one hasn’t yet done.
I am very pleased with the book. Mostly I’m just pleased that I took the time to completely rewrite it late last year and early this year even when I didn’t have to. I didn’t entirely think it’d make a difference in the book’s reception, but it clearly, to me, wasn’t where it needed to be, and now it is.
Anyway, I haven’t been blogging as much lately! This is the new book’s fault again. I’ve been trying to reach new audiences, which has led me back onto Twitter. I’ve been pondering Medium, but I’m not certain it’s entirely right for me. I dunno. Instagram is where you’re supposed to go, but I’ve no visual eye.
Reading-wise, I’ve been having a good month. The book I’d recommend most highly is Elizabeth Hardwick’s Beauty and Seduction, which I found through the simple expedient of checking out ten more or less randomly selected NYRB classics from an online library. This wasn’t even the first of those books that I’ve read. I also read Boredom, by Alberto Moravia (which was a bit tedious, to be honest), and Glenway Wescott’s Apartment in Athens, which was an intense and fascinating psychological thriller about the relationship between a Greek family and the Nazi officer who’s been forcibly domiciled with them.
Seduction and Betrayal is an essay collection! It contains individual essays on the Bronte Sisters, on Sylvia Plath, on the Bloomsbury Group, on the plays of Ibsen, and on the concept of seduction and betrayal in fiction. The book is loosely organized around the theme of, “Who are the authors who’ve said something interesting in fiction about what it means to be a woman?” In this Hardwick doesn’t mean, “Who has written great female characters.” In some cases, having great characters gets in the way of what she’s talking about. She wants to know what authors have treated sort of the essence of womanhood and woman’s place in the world. And each essay in its own way gets at those ideas.
I’m finding it hard to quantify what was so striking about the collection. I think it was the gentleness with which Hardwick treats many of these women and many of these characters. For instance, in an essay on amateurs—women known for their proximity to literary greats—she writes about Wordsworth’s sister, and how she achieved greatness in one of the only ways available to her, which was to subsume her life to her brother’s genius. In her essay on seduction and betrayal, she writes about how desire, how the momentary weakening of the senses, the thing that causes a woman to give in to seduction, is a great engine for fiction. She talks about how various women have been written about when it comes to desire. She compares the saintliness of Hester Prynne. She talks about Clarissa Harlowe, who wasn’t seduced (she was raped), but who also in some ways seems to be flirting with oblivion in how she deals with Lovelace. She writes about Hetty, in Adam Bede, who seems vain and not-thoroughly-good, but who doesn’t deserve the punishment she gets. Hardwick knows, obviously, that it’s wrong for the world to punish women in this way, but she’s not concerned with the world, she’s concerned with how fiction treats the problems of womanhood, and this is a very particular problem: men can have sex without biological repercussion, whereas women risk pregnancy. And how does this problem become a vehicle for fiction?
Similarly, in her essay on the Brontes, she engages in a bit of bio-crit, talking about how the sisters were almost driven into seeking literary success because of the poor range of choices available to them at the time. They couldn’t bear to be governesses, and they didn’t want to marry poorly. She writes about how Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre represent very different solutions to this same problem. (As as sidenote, I wish she’d included poor Anne! I still think she’s my favorite of the sisters, and I’m not saying that just to be contrary. I prefer the realist to the romantic, I’m sorry...)
I liked the essay on Ibsen the most, because I hadn’t read anything of his, hadn’t even really heard much about him before. But she writes about Ibsen’s characters—about his women who are driven to make something of their lives—and about the various paths they take, and the tragedies that befall them.
It’s a short book, maybe 300 pages, and definitely worth your time! NYRB classics 4eva