Monday, December 24, 2012

Murdering Darlings

During a writing course it is almost inevitable that the instructor will say something like, "As Faulkner said, you have to murder your darlings."  Sometimes the quotation is attributed to Mark Twain or Agatha Christie. It means that the writer must go through the work and prune out any phrase that seems particularly fine.  I have never understood this advice and believe it to be wrong.

In the first place, it was not Faulkner, nor Twain, nor Christie who said it.  (Faulkner's darlings were well-treated and in fact fill volumes.). As near as can be determined the phrase was coined by Arthur Quiller-Crouch in a lecture published as "On the Art of Writing" in 1916.  Mr. Q-C was a distinguished scholar and literary gent but his name does not loom large in the annals of fiction.  Perhaps he slew too many of his.

What I supposed is meant by the advice is that writers should read over their work and if some phrase seems overwrought, fussy, or inappropriate in the context they should cut it out.  But it seems to me that if, when so revising, one comes across a phrase that seems particularly good (a darling) one should, well, leave it be.  I mean the point of writing is to write good stuff, and the writer is the judge of what's good in the work.  How else can one write?

Of course if one's darlings are actually crap, if one has, in fact, impaired judgment, then one is a bad writer, and no advice is apt to help.  The fame of this advice and of many others of the same type exposes the problematic nature of all writing instruction.  One could argue that great surgeons or great engineers have profited from great instructors.  We may prefer a cardiac surgeon who went to Harvard med school and interned at Mass General--it's not a guarantee of quality, of course, but it's reasonable sieve for patzers. But the same is not at all true for writers.  Although many decent writers have been through the schools, many of the best ones arise like mushrooms from obscurity in a manner that remains mysterious.  And there is dreadful writing, containing nothing that anyone would call darling, that is wildly successful.

I suppose the only advice that I'd take from the murder your darlings diktat is to read your work over after leaving it for a period and then ask yourself whether, had you paid cash for it, you'd feel cheated.  Yeah, thin stuff, but teaching writing is all thin stuff.  This leads to a consideration of the obvious case that there is a colossal amount of awful writing put out that lots of people buy, as well as ever greater masses that no one reads.  This is a vaster and different topic.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


I haven't posted here much lately because I am writing hard on the novel, which is gradually becoming more consuming.  Maybe historical novels are like that, I mean more than other sorts of novels, thrillers or contemporary literary novels, because the writer becomes immersed in a world that no longer exists. I suppose this is why Henry James famously told his brother that historical novels were all humbug.  In a contemporary novel the writer is fed by experience and by what's going on at the moment.  The characters he creates have open futures, in a sense, and the pace is necessarily the pace of contemporary life, which is fast.

The past, however, was slow.  The novels of the past are slow reading.   The first problem of rendering the past for the modern reader hinges on how to deal with this pacing.  I feel like I'm slowing down in response, closing of, filtering the gush of information down to a trickle.  The second problem is how to avoid pastiche, while still reproducing the minds and speech patterns of the long-dead, in a lively way.  I have no idea if I am solving these problems.

I started this thing with a detailed outline, which is now largely abandoned. Writing is now like walking into a dark cave with a small light.  I'm always surprised by what comes up.  It's extremely enjoyable, though.  I've always loved history, read a lot of it from a boy, and making it live in fictional form is a treat.

There's the worry about whether it will come out right and whether it will be any good.  This is not idle worry, since my record at producing non-thriller adult novels stands at 0-1.  In any case, I seem to be committed to carrying this out.  I have about 200 pp. in the can, which may be half done or a third done--I can't really tell.  I like it, and it's amusing to write.   Perhaps that will have to do.

Meanwhile, I'm accumulating a list of ideas I want to post about and sooner or later I'll hit a gnarly patch in the fiction and I'll want to write non for a while.   It shouldn't take long.

Monday, November 26, 2012


It is the constant complaint of older people that younger people have no manners.  This is not a modern complaint, either--the Romans cursed the manners of their children, and complaints about how the young don't know how to behave are a constant in literature.  But clearly, the decline in manners cannot be continuous throughout history or else we would have no manners at all by now and social life would have collapsed.  So there has to have been a fluctuation, a waxing and waning throughout history, and clearly some societies pay more attention to manners than others do.  Americans have always been famous for bad manners since the beginnings of the Republic.  Mrs. Trollope and Charles Dickens both commented on this during their American sojourns, although Oscar Wilde observed that the best manners he ever encountered were among the silver miners of Colorado.   He may have been being facetious, but maybe not.  Manners, in the sense of not wishing to give offense, are typically punctilious in societies where men are armed and ready to use arms to revenge offense.  Examples include the European gentry, the Japanese samurai, and the inhabitants of the Southern United States.   My sense is that actually Americans have comparatively good manners, at the extremes of social interaction.  The British House of Commons is a place of appalling rudeness compared to the U.S. Senate.  Within a particular social context, the risk of paying with life or limb seems to put a capper on untrammeled  rudeness.

Outside that context--the society of gentles, let us say, or a familial or hierarchical structure--manners may vanish entirely and people can behave like brutes.  We are all familiar with societies in which the home or shop is a place of wonderful manners, while out in the street it's dog eat dog.  We should also not confuse bad manners with misunderstanding social mores.  It seems to me that this is the origin of the reputation of Americans as boors.   A famous example: in the saloon, Americans used to (and perhaps still do in certain locales) place a bill on the bar when ordering a drink and let the bartender take the price of each drink ordered out of the ten or twenty, leaving the change, until nothing remained or the customer left, leaving a tip.   When US servicemen tried this in British pubs during the war it was accounted grossly insulting.  Bad manners, G.I's!   

It is the case, however, that cultural sensitivity is not America's strong suit.  That we are made of a mix of cultures seems, oddly enough, to work against cultural sensitivity abroad.   At home we seem to be better than most at living and letting live. When we kill (at least recently) it's personal and not in mobs bent on massacring across ethnicities; although we do kill personally more than any other rich nation.  This may account for the famously good manners apparent in the most violent sections of the nation.

At bottom, manners are ways for people (especially strangers) to interact without causing animosity, distress or hurt feelings, and this requires a certain dissimulation.  You say thanks for the lovely gift even when you hate it, you finish the awful meal with a smile, you ask for the butter instead of snatching it, and so on.   Pushed too far, or course, dissimulation can produce a stifling, rigid, social order.  Polite dissimulation can morph into hypocrisy, and enough hypocrisy presages the doom of a civilization, the familiar examples being ancient Rome, the imperial realms of Europe, and the late USSR.   But from time to time, dissimulation goes out of fashion.  Frankness and self-expression become the prized values, hypocrisy the only sin, and manners are a casualty of such an age.  

We live in such an age.  As the classes become more isolated in reality, we deny the existence of any demand for deference--the clerk is your best pal and calls you by your first name.  Ceremony is drowned, formal relationship is abandoned, casual Fridays encroach on the rest of the week, the untrammeled child becomes the social ideal, and actual children are utterly uncontrolled.  But people can't live like this forever--it's literally inhuman--and the pendulum has begun to swing back.  There is a reason why so many people are reading Jane Austen and watching Downton Abbey.  Men are buying more suits, and the bookstores are full of books of rules.  The cooking craze, with people sitting down for elaborate multi-course meals, is part of this trend, as are those books lambasting American child-rearing practices.

I'm going on about this because my novel is largely about two of the great historical transformations in manners, the one that occurred at the time of the French revolution, when the manners of the ancien regime  gave way to the manners of the revolutionary-Romantic era, and the one where that in turn gave way to the manners of the Victorians.  The central relationship in the novel is between a man who cam of age in the 1780s and his grandson, a product of the 1840s.   Those who lived through the manners apocalypse of the 1960s will undoubtedly feel right at home.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


I read about a big retrospective exhibition of Andy Warhol's work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, so I wrote this.

First the idea of beauty dies, but still there survives the belief that a work of art should contain some visual interest, to delight the eye, or move the feelings or stimulate the aesthetic sense.  With Monet, for example, we have the wonderfulness of light, with Renoir we have the joy of social life, with Van Gogh we have the crazy energy that sparkles off living things, with Cezanne we have the fascination with the material world itself, the magic of physical existence.  All this art says, look, look and be changed!  That relict commitment to attract the eye's interest continues in painting through the middle of the 20th century, with slowly decreasing confidence.  Abstract expressionism was interesting to a degree, and was carried on by people with at least some attachment to what had gone before, although we were told then that painting was  not about anything but paint.  Yet there is real energy and interest in, say, Pollack, and it's clear that he descends from Van Gogh, as Picasso descends from Cezanne.  

It was Warhol's genius to discover that, given the state of society and the art market, the requirement of interest was no longer limiting. The energy of artists need no longer be trained by study and practice to entrance the eye.  Quite the contrary: instead, Warhol directed his energy toward the creation of an art that was as boring as it could possibly be, ending with a vast oeuvre, no single item of which is worth the trouble to view.  That is its point.   Rich people buy Warhols and hang them in home and office, but for all the purely visual experience they represent, they might just as well hang notices on their walls stating, "I paid $11.3 million for a Warhol."  Commoditization has reached its apogee.

In this sense, Warhol is as important to the history of art as Giotto or Manet.  It is, after all, a gigantic achievement to have liberated art from the necessity of being interesting.  That said, it still puzzles me why anyone would take the trouble to visit a Warhol retrospective.  Because if art is ultimately about experience, then boredom is the negation of experience.  If you went to a Giotto or Manet retrospective you would have had an experience.  You might be angry or inspired or transformed, but something would have happened to you.  A visit to a Warhol retrospective would, in contrast, actually sap experience; you would have endured a sort of negation.  This is boredom's work, and why we endeavor to avoid it, and why boredom is characteristic of totalitarian regimes--those endless queues for eggs or licenses.  The regime is saying that it exercises total control of your life and can impose boredom at will.  A Warhol retrospective is thus an analog not of a regular exhibition but of the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The question then remains why the upper crust of our society should have voluntarily submitted itself to this quintessence of boredom, praising it, lionizing this dreadfully boring man, and paying huge sums for his work.   Perhaps it is because people whose every whim is satisfied and who have no real spiritual existence must make their boredom into a cult, of which Warhol's studied presentation of common crap and familiar photos are the sacramental objects.  And in his boringness, Warhol was undoubtedly sincere, although, of course, sincerity is the least attractive of the saving graces. That he was not a con-man is his tragedy.

 It's often pointed out that Warhol's work descends from Marcel Duchamp's Fountain of 1917, an unadorned urinal signed with the name of a comic strip character.  But Duchamp was not sincere.  He was making a joke, the point of which was that if the bourgeois persisted in commoditizing art, art might as well be urinals.  The joke was not got, however, and the urinal now sits proudly in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, also a major buyer of Warhol's work, including the famous Campbell's soup can. Another difference, perhaps as important, is that you can actually piss in the urinal, but there's no soup in the can.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Devil Dogs

I see where Hostess Baking has gone bankrupt, a cultural watershed and front page news in the New York Times.  They say that all the molecules in the human body are replaced every seven years, but were that not true, I would be, physically, a monument to the good folks at Hostess. We were a Wonder Bread family, by and large, although unlike many Americans of the post-war era, we were ethnic enough to understand what actual bread tasted like.  But Wonder was the spine of virtually every sandwich I ate while I was living at home, the core of stuffings, the support of party hors d'oeuvres, and (this I believe unique) the main ingredient of the blini my mother served us.  She would cut off the crusts and roll the copious air pockets out with a rolling pin, plop heavily sweetened cottage cheese in the middle, roll it up, dip it in egg and fry it in butter.  Many years later, I tried this myself and found the results disgusting, although at seven I thought they were the food of the gods.   And sadly the same goes for the rest of the Hostess line. Of all the revolutions I've been through over the past half-century, I would guess that the one that makes the most difference to my daily life is the Great American Palate Reformation.

  And what exactly is it that happens to your palate that makes confections you loved as a kid taste like shit now? It can't be just sweetness, because I still like baklava and halvah, which are probably sweeter than Twinkies, but I know that unless Western Civilization collapses and I am among the last survivors sheltering in the ruins of the Twinkie warehouse, I will never consume another Twinkie.   

 Which brings me to the Drake's Devil Dog.  The Devil Dog, some may recall, is (or was)  a velvety brown pastry about the size & shape of a large knockwurst, filled with a sweet white 'creme.'  It has a hole in each end where they shot the creme in.  It tasted rather like a huge soft Oreo.  If you are the vulgar sort of junior high school boy, you can pose with one of them emerging from your fly, and squeeze it, expelling the creme in a jet.  I never did this, but Jerry Tabachnik did.  I swore I would never tell, but I can't bear to keep it on my conscience any longer. NOTE:  If you are hosting a birthday party for 12-year-old boys, eschew the Devil Dog.  Trust me on this.

I refer, of course, to the Old Devil Dog (pre-1960s).  The New Devil Dog is a mere chocolate "cake"sandwich filled with the white ichor of Twinkie fame.  But back in the 1940s, when men were men and we blasted the Luftwaffe out of the skies and taught the Jap he couldn't mess with Uncle Sam and Democracy and the right to vote for the party of your choice without regard to race, creed or national origin, THEN, we had Devil Dogs to match our Nation, no palid Frenchified 'sandwich' but a solid integral tube of filled cake just firm enough to repack the main bearing of the mighty Allis-Chalmers rotary engine so that many's the time a crewman would use 'em to get a wounded Hellcat launched off the flaming deck of the Hornet and back in the the flak-filled skies to snag some more Zeros.  That's the kind of pastries we had then!  Do you wonder the country's gone down the drain?

 In his World War II biography, It Was A Lot Like Croquet, George H. W. Bush describes how he and other Navy fliers would replace the kapok inserts in their life vests with Devil Dogs.  The tube pastries were just as buoyant and (some said) a lot tastier than kapok, providing a welcome snack for our boys after a ferocious dog fight (so to speak) over the Solomons.  Few now recall that the dimensions of the original Devil Dog were just right to serve as supplementary ammo for the 37 mm anti-tank cannon.  Allowed to dry out for a few days, the brick-hard confection made an excellent anti-personnel fragmentation round. Drakes was working on an armor-piercing Devil Dog when the war ended.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Beautiful Losers

I finished reading Beautiful Losers, a novel Leonard Cohen wrote in 1964, and I have to say I'm glad he didn't quit his day job.   It's a period piece, a message from the heart of the 60s, a little Henry Miller, a little James Joyce, a little William Burroughs, a young man's novel; and of course it's mainly about sex. It concerns three people, a French Canadian man, a English-Canadian ditto and an American Indian woman.  All are having sexual relationships with one another, and this triangle is overlain on the story of Kateri Tekakwatha, the Lily of the Mohawk, who was just recently canonized by the Church.  The Kateri story at least is coherent and beautifully told in intense, poetic language.  It's an epic story and well documented by the ever-assiduous Jesuits who converted her.  The connection between the three people humping one another in 1964 and St. K. is a little obscure but as we all knew well back then, everything is connected!

For one example, the first person miraculously cured by the saintly Mohawk was a Captain Du Luth.  Later, a city in Minnesota was named after him.   And who was born in that city exactly 260 years after Kateri died, and who made his debut record the very year that Cohen published his book?  Bob Dylan!  Coincidence?   I don't think so!


I've been contemplating recently the astounding fragility of contemporary society.  One walks through the streets of New York on an ordinary day and the place seems geological in its permanence: the great buildings, the ordered streets, the lights and amenities.  And then a little wind, and little water and it becomes barely habitable.  New York seems to have done a remarkable job of cleaning up after Sandy, although the City's confidence appears to have been shaken.  Leaders are now discussing spending real money on surge protection and many have drawn an association between the damage and global warming.

I still find it odd that the people who make a living from fossil fuels have fought so hard to trash the science on which the theory of global warming is based and how strongly so many people throughout the world have been able ignore a fairly simple set of well-established facts.  Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and the more of it that gets into the atmosphere the warmer the planet will be.  That's as solid as anything in science.  The problems come with determining how much CO2 is attributable to us, what the planet will do with it, what the immediate results of the proliferation will be, as well as the timing of such results.  We rely on models for this information and the models are subject to some error.  What does not appear to be subject to error are the brute facts that the earth is getting warmer because of human activity.

It may be that this phenomenon will not yield to the normal political process.  People throughout the world want cheap power and the life that cheap power provides and they will continue, I believe, to burn coal and oil at present and even increasing scales--in China and India, for example--until the whole thing plays out.  It could get very bad indeed.  We had the big Asian tsunamis and Katrina and various earthquakes over the past decades, but we have no experience with a world in which weather-related disasters are a constant.  People in immense numbers may move away from the shore, and since probably a third of the world's people live in coastal regions, along with many of the world's great cities, it is not a pretty picture.  No one really can get this into their heads, which is why our policy apparatus is paralyzed, not that we have the sort of world-spanning authority we would need to cope with a planetary-scale event.  The earth is one, but the world is not, as we used to say in the sustainable development movement.

There is one cure for global warming that requires no intergovernmental cooperation, however, and that is nuclear war and the nuclear winter that will result from it.  Is there a more frightening concept?

Absent that, I suspect that this will be one of the epochal changes and will affect humanity like the Neolithic, the Agricultural and the Industrial Revolutions did.   For one thing, I don't see how national sovereignty can survive in its present form.  In fact, maybe the last act of sovereign nations will be to cooperate to stop global warming from doing its worst.

Friday, November 2, 2012

psychopaths: Gone Girl

How thriller writers love the psychopath!   There is hardly a thriller that does not have one of these folks chewing the carpet and spreading woe, and aren't we glad when the hero consigns him or her to an imaginative end?  I suppose psychopathy must be considered a disability (though perhaps one not covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act) yet in thrillers psychopaths are always brilliantly competent.  They've been to medical school, they're scientists, politicians, captains of industry, they're capable of fiendish planning, perfectionist in attack and escape, covering all possibilities, confounding the hero who is trying to catch them.

But in real life, the psychopath is characterized not only by lack of empathy and manipulation but also by impulsiveness and lack of self-control.  The limited empathy of psychopaths, which is what makes them so cruel and manipulative, also leads to mistakes.  They can only read people up to a point, and so are prone to errors of judgement.  They have grandiose conceptions of themselves, which also works against self-discipline, and gets them into trouble, from which they try to extricate themselves via increasingly implausible lies. There are a lot of psychopaths in prison for incredibly stupid crimes.  It's also an uncomfortable mode of life, which is why so many of them self-medicate with booze or drugs.  Psychopaths may be cold to the sufferings of others, but they are not without suffering themselves.  On the up-side, psychopaths are typically fearless and aggressively bold.  Some psychopaths even lack the normal startle reflex, and this indeed has been used as a diagnostic sign.  Psychopathy is poorly understood.  We suppose that there are successful psychopaths, but virtually all the psychological study of these people has been carried out on prisoners.  Characterization of the successful psychopath is largely an enterprise of fiction.

I started thinking along these lines because I've just finished reading Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, which features a woman described as a psychopath.  Ms. Flynn, by the way, is a terrific writer, with a flair for describing character and delineating class.  Her prose is taut and witty; she understands how to move a story along.   In her story, Amy, the psychopath, is a beautiful, wealthy woman who marries Nick, a small-town boy making it as a magazine writer in New York.  They live a happy gilded life based on the fraudulent personas they invent, but financial disaster ensues and they move  to Nick's home town in Missouri, where the action of the book largely occurs.  Not to insert a spoiler, but the matter of the plot is that Amy, distressed by an affair Nick has begun, concocts her own disappearance, along with an elaborate plot that implicates Nick as her murderer.  She wants him jailed and executed.

I found the book acutely disturbing, because it is both well-written and utterly false.  This is the problem with being a good writer.  If a hopeless hack like famed author Dan Brown writes poppycock it is no loss; when a good writer does, you wonder why, I mean besides the lure of gold.  Ms. Flynn writes a strong plot because she is not afraid to make her stand clear: that love is a fraud, that it is all manipulation and persona wrangling, that self-giving is a lie.  The only couple depicted as loving is Amy's parents, and their mutual obsession produced their monster of a daughter.   It's the most misanthropic take on the human condition in popular fiction since Patricia Highsmith, another fraudulent presentation of psychopathy.

Now, thrillers are supposed to be preposterous, and we are willing to suspend disbelief in return for the thrill--that's the tawdry deal we make with the reader.  But there are limits.  The decent, chivalrous private eye is a lie, but we accept it, because we can at least imagine that there could be such a person.  But the masterfully plotting psychopath, who fools everyone and gets away with it is out of bounds, at least for me.  It'd be like a multiple amputee winning Olympic gold in gymnastics.   A psychopath might yank a girl off the street on impulse and rape and murder her and he might be able to do this a lot (Ted Bundy, e.g.) but psychopaths never devise plots that would baffle Hercule Poirot.  The very impulsiveness that makes them dangerous always trips them up.

And in fact, the whole genre of whodunits is based on the obvious notion that the more complexity in a plot, the more things can go wrong, because no one is perfect, even (and especially even) perfectionists.  The detective always notices the misaligned wine bottle, the unwound clock, the gun in the wrong hand.  And, to demonstrate the point, in devising her unbreakable scam for Amy, Ms. Flynn leaves holes you could drive a tank through and has to defuse them with hand-waving.  

One of the functions of the thriller in popular culture is to focus our fear of the generalized evil in the world upon one person--the villain--who is defeated.  When the villain is not defeated, as in Highsmith or the Hannibal Lechter books, the thriller becomes a sick joke, a bath in ordure.  There is a vogue for this kind of book in France--think of CĂ©line or Houellebecq--in which the clothing of an excellent style is hung on a rotten corpse.  Gone Girl is such a book and if you like that sort of thing, you will like this too.  I feel badly, however, for the poor, traduced psychopaths.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Fruits of Victory


The Framers of the U.S. Constitution had a justifiable fear of the concentration of power in their new republic, with results that we all learn in the fifth grade: separation of powers on the national government level,  an independent judiciary, a delegation of powers to semi-sovereign state governments, a Bill of Rights, and a Constitution that’s hard to change.   Thus it’s hard to gain total political control of the USA—hard, but not impossible.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot,  because the heated rhetoric of this political season suggests that we are at least potentially moving toward a situation so polarized, based on views of what’s good for the nation so divergent, that it’s worth taking a moment to consider what might happen if the extremes we’ve heard so much from recently actually took control of the nation.  We tend to be lulled by the existence of a stable center, a mass of voters who decide national elections, one reason why the extreme views of primary candidates typically get squishy in the general election campaign.   Still, it’s possible for a powerful minority to impose its views on the majority.  Slave owners did for a long time, and prohibitionists famously did in 1919.  You could also argue that civil rights was an imposed minority view in many areas of the country.

When I say total control I mean control of the White House, a two-thirds + majority in the House and the Senate, and control of thirty-eight states, both state-house and legislatures.  I haven’t done the math, but that can’t be much above five thousand people.  If you have that, you can change the Constitution and remake the country any way you like.  Five thousand people out of three hundred million is not an impossible burden.  Assuming we take extremists at their word, what might America look like after a total triumph for the Tea Party/religious right or the Occupy/social democratic left?

Right America
The right as currently conceived stands above all for two things: unleashing business and the imposition of a set of values in public life.  Liberty is the slogan, but in practical terms this means liberty restricted to the owners of capital and guns and those who share a set of values derived from the American brand of Protestant Christianity.  It’s long been pointed out that these two bases of the right are in conflict, but there is no reason why politics could not work these out.   At a minimum under such a regime we could expect to see:
  •  constitutional amendments prohibiting abortion and same-sex marriage
  •  the repeal of the 17th Amendment providing for direct popular election of senators and of the 16th Amendment authorizing income taxes
  •  a modification of the 14th Amendment eliminating automatic citizenship for people born of illegal immigrants
  •  modification of the 1st Amendment to allow school prayer and public support for religious schools and (perhaps) a statement that the US is a Christian nation; and further, perhaps, to control pornography and make it easier to sue for libel
  • clarification of the 2nd amendment, to make clear it applies to the individual right to own guns
  • clarification of the 5th Amendment to recognize all regulation as a taking that must be compensated
  • reduction of federal power to the status quo ante 1890: little power to regulate; no anti-trust laws; no social or health programs; privatization of federal property; self-regulation the rule for industry; the effective end of unions; a national sales tax to support a federal government that would consist mainly of the military, the courts, the police power, the prisons, the state department, and a few odds and ends
  • mass expulsion of illegal immigrants and restrictions on the franchise so as to make it more difficult for poor people to cast votes

What would America be like under such a regime?  Well, in a sense we’ve already seen what it was like, because the world of 100 years ago remains accessible via historical records.  We also have examples of contemporary nations where extreme individualism and feral capitalism have been given free rein.  We should expect, therefore, an increase in poverty, suffering from poverty, and crime.  We should expect a health system divided into three tiers—superb services for the well-off, mediocre, cost-rationed services for the majority, and charnel houses for the poor to die in.  We should expect to see even vaster differences between the life styles of the top ten per cent and the rest.  The national government being rendered impotent, we should expect to see the states become more significant and this means, if 1890 is the model, the complete dominance of corporations and their leaders over the business of the states.  Externalities will not be controlled, and we should expect to see an increase in product-based poisonings, industrial injury and industrial disasters.  Recovery from natural disasters would be increasingly the responsibility of private efforts and of charity.  Privatization will generally increase, as the business-controlled government sells off the profitable parts of the public investment and leaves the remainder to rot.

The upside of this would be an increase in the opportunity to become rich for those capable and lucky enough.  A substantial portion of the population would regard it a paradisiacal situation.  Desperate people with no safety net would be willing to work under any conditions and for any pay on offer.  Manufacturing, free of unions and environmental and occupational controls, might therefore revive, in the Chinese style.  It will be increasingly easy to find servants, and many more people will be able to afford them.  White person servitude will have a renaissance. Criminal justice/prisons will increase as a share of GDP and will be entirely privatized.  There is no reason why the greatly increased number of prisoners should not be rented out for the agricultural, industrial and service tasks that the expelled immigrants once did, and many will be happy to see black people slaving in the fields again in chains. 

In finance, we should expect to see the historic cycles of boom, bubble and bust continue and grow more violent, in the absence of financial regulation.  Monopolies will flourish, but so will competition from gray and black markets.  Again, some people will get very rich.   Looting of natural resources and pollution will increase, and the public fisc will serve even more as a piggy bank for the new oligarchy.

Education will be largely privatized and its function as a vetting system for the elite will be enhanced.  Outside the elite, schools will become even more like jails and will function essentially as holding pens for populations destined for actual prisons.  A small number of students will be rescued and made into elite stars to justify the neglect of the vast majority, who in any case are not needed for industry or agriculture anymore, except (see above) as prison labor.   It will be found, in general, more efficient to continue to export our manufacturing to, and import the required intelligentsia from, South and East Asia, rather than suffer the irritation of an educated population of Americans.   The resulting passive and ill-educated population will be kept docile by drugs and sports of ever-increasing violence, and encouraged to die early.

In public morals we should see a new era of hypocrisy. A sort of American ulema will drive deviance underground and out of sight.  Some of the recent advances in feminism and civil rights may be rolled back, perhaps not directly but as a result of the other changes mentioned.    The availability of porn will decrease, but the availability of prostitution will increase, and become cheaper.  Orphanages will come back as will the red-light districts.  Sodomy laws may be revived and gay people pushed back into the closet.  Contraception and sex education will be harder to get in many states and venereal diseases and illegal abortion will increase, so that the actual abortion rate may end up higher than it is now, as in, for example, Bolivia, which has very severe legal barriers to abortion.

In summary, we should expect the country to resemble a gigantic Guatemala, with a somewhat more populous overclass living an extremely pleasant life, quite insulated from the rest of the American people whose lives would resemble those of the so-called Third World even more than they do now.  But the society will probably be more exciting, violent, and colorful than the one of today, and many people will thrive in such an environment.

Left America
Here too, we have examples of what life is presently like in the country that America could become in the event of a total triumph of the left: that is, northern Europe, Canada or Australia. The Constitutional changes here would be less extensive but might include:
  •  a modification of the 1st Amendment to prohibit the use of the public airwaves for political advertising
  • A Constitutional commitment to full employment
  • A reinterpretation of the 2nd Amendment to clarify either that it really meant the militia and nothing else; or, that it meant the right to bear only the kind of arms available when the amendment was passed—black powder, single-shot weapons and swords
  •  a clarification that controls on the externalities of production are not takings; and a strengthening of the commerce clause to allow easier regulation
  •  the abolition of the electoral college; restrictions on state efforts to restrict the franchise

Beyond that we would see free single-payer universal health care and free education continued through university, plus serious vocational education programs, with an associated commitment to service on the part of  the young people thus aided.  Most doctors would be salaried, and working in non-profit comprehensive health centers.  Tax rates would return to Eisenhower-era levels.  The capital gains exemption would be severely restricted and inheritance taxes raised.  The government would take a somewhat larger percentage of GNP; incomes would gradually become more equal.  Regulation of the economy would be much stricter, in banking and finance, in safety, in the environment.  There would be massive infrastructure investments in schools, clean energy, rapid transit and high-speed rail.  Banking and finance would become dull again and not the destination of the brightest and most ambitious.

The  social status of teachers would be raised to levels observed in Scandinavia and Singapore.  They would be recruited from the top quintile rather than from the bottom one, as we do now.  The poorest students might be educated in the sort of environment available now only to the wealthiest, but, of course, the poorest would not be nearly so poor to begin with.

This sort of society would be safer, cleaner, healthier, more productive and better-educated than the one we have now, but it would also be far more regulated and offer less individual opportunity to grow rich.  Religion would have less influence on the public sphere—abortion would be not only legal but free, contraceptives would be supplied to high school students and sex education would begin in  middle school.  Abortion rates would fall, as, for example, they have in the Netherlands and Belgium.  Crime, especially violent domestic crime, would drop.  Guns would be far more controlled.

In summary, we should expect the country to resemble a gigantic Finland, with almost all people living a secure and pleasant life, with incomes tending toward equality, a great deal of leisure, and excellent public facilities, but with relatively restricted opportunities to make a killing and achieve vast wealth.  Social mobility may be decreased in both directions.  Growth as usually measured will slow.  There may be less radical innovation, but also less volatility: a peaceful if somewhat dull society.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

stocks & bonds?

The market was up the other day because retail sales were up.   Last week it was down because of Euro worries.   Note that "because."  I have to admit that I have never quite understood the whole idea of stock markets.  Why should they go up and down like that?  How does the "because" fit in?

I look at starling flocks in the sky: sometimes they're here, sometimes they're there, the mass darkens and fades in response to mysterious messages, and the people who buy and sell stocks must be like that too.  Everyone's going here.  Let's go here!   No, everyone's going there.   Let's go there!  And starlings do it without six-figure bonuses.

The way I always understood it, and I'm being purposively naive here, the point of the stock market is to bring people with money to spare together with people who need money to do useful, or at least profitable, stuff.  In this imaginary world the stock market as a whole would reflect the current business climate and the stock price of any firm would reflect what the market thought about its prospects.  If this were actually the case, we would expect stock markets to be rather like other markets--supermarkets, for example, which bring people with money to spare together with groceries--that is, calm and efficient places operated by clerks, with fairly stable prices.

Obviously, the stock market is not like that.  The stock indexes and individual stocks go up and down, not only daily, but micro-secondly, and we read in the commentaries on these movements that they were "caused" by fluctuations in data, news about employment, housing starts, deliberations on the Euro, or some such, always after the fact.  These must be  explanatory fictions, since the fate of an actual existing firm cannot (except in the special cases, as, say, when a drug company's new drug fails or when one firm purchases another) be tied to the fate of some transient variable.

The number of variables that could possibly affect the real fate of firms must be so large as to be incalculable, and therefore these fluctuations must be in the same class as the roll of dice or the flight of my starlings.  It has been pointed out many times, by distinguished economists, that success on Wall Street is a random walk, and that it's really impossible for any stock market management to consistently beat the indexes.   We would expect, therefore, that the handling of stocks, like the handling of tomatoes, would be a clerkly function, and paid accordingly.

This, to put it mildly, is not what we see.  Colossal amounts of money are made in finance, and I don't think anyone really understands where it comes from.   What is the ultimate source of this Amazon of riches?   I used to think I knew what made money happen.  There's value added, for example.  Dirt gets turned into food and fiber.  Capital helps in this process by funding machines that make it more efficient, the society gets wealthier and everyone prospers.   There's innovation.  Everyone agrees that innovation should be richly rewarded: an industry springs into being where none was before.  There are various kinds of services that save time, from retail to airlines, and time is money.  (There are numerous actual investors in all this, people who study companies and buy and hold chunks of them, in the old fashioned way, and most people would agree that this is part of capitalism, and that the people who were smart enough to back Apple and Intel should get their share.)  But how did it happen that what should have been a mere ancillary service, greasing the transfer of money from savers to businesses, developed instead into the hypertrophied organism we now observe in New York and other financial centers?  Where do the billions actually arise and how does it flow in such volumes into the pockets of these guys?  Is it theft?  Is it looting?  What's the source? One is baffled and not a little annoyed; because one has a sneaking suspicion that some of those bucks should have ended up in my pocket, and yours.

And it's not as if these individuals are being rewarded for taking risks with their own money, to which some premium might conceivably be attached.  Heaven forbid!  Basically, or so it seems to me, they're being rewarded for going to Vegas with other people's money and putting a chip on red.  As long as red comes up, they're financial geniuses, the toast of Wall Street.  When black appears, they give way to the next genius, who has discovered the virtues of black.  They leave the scene with their hundreds of millions, a just reward, we think, because not everyone can place a chip on red with such flair.

Also, if the market is, indeed, a random walk, then anyone who consistently makes money through financial manipulations in the market, year after year, must be not a genius, but a cheat.  He knows, because someone told him, that red will come up on the next turn.  Yet no matter how many financiers are indicted and jailed, the whole thing goes on and on, and, as we've seen, in infects the real economy too.  It always has and it always will, until it's stopped.

It'd be real interesting to see someone come up with a general solution to the problem of financialization, although I don't expect the current batch of politicians to do it.  It's an Easter Island-level problem for us.  We've always built giant statues, ever bigger one, and we always will, until the society collapses.

 I should say that I have a simple financial plan.   When I first started to make serious money from my writing and realized that it could not last and that I had to put some of it away, and not into a place in Tuscany, I asked the guy who did my taxes what I should do.  My ignorance of markets was complete; never bought a stock in my life, missed many opportunities for billionairehood, I guess, but there it is.  He said, "Vanguard index funds, 60 per cent stock and 40 per cent bonds, stick a fifth of your gross in there, forget about it and you'll be fine."   So I did and I am fine.  I never made a lot of money, but I never lost a lot of money either, even in the crashes, since I started this plan.   I have more than enough to support my fairly modest life-style, even if I never sell another sentence.   This is how ignorant I am of financial affairs.  

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sexual revolution

 I don’t know what made me think about J.  Maybe reading the Sunday newspaper and picking up the sexual undertones.  A good deal of the conflict in the modern world is between the cultures that have gone through the sexual revolution and those who have not, and that got me thinking about actually going through the sexual revolution, back in the day, and that lead to J.

This was on a scientific research vessel converted from a North Sea trawler, and J. was a sort of bosun.  He was the senior member of the crew and he made the machinery go.  He also made a lot of money playing chess.  The scientific party would be inveigled into a game with this simple sailor and they would get their asses handed to them; major money was sometimes bet.   In any case, a formidable man, heavy jowled, mustached, with a bad haircut of thick black hair, just going gray.  He spent a lot of time in the galley and we grad students would have conversations with him there, at slack times while we cruised to a new station.

So we arrive at a port in a tropical nation.  We have been at sea a while and working, actually fairly dull work, dropping and retrieving trawls, taking samples of the water, seining plankton and looking through microscopes to distinguish between two virtually indistinguishable crustaceans or whatever.  To me, boredom itself, to a taxonomist the most fascinating thing in the world.

That evening we went ashore to get a meal and explore the town, a sleepy, steamy little port, the sort of place that a film company would use as background for a bad movie about seedy remittance men and exotic beauties.    J. recommended a brothel.  We went to the brothel.  We returned to the vessel.  How was it, asks J.  Terrific, we say, great.  (It was not great.  It was far from great.  It was as far from great as the present space-time continuum allows.)   But we liked J. and wanted to show appreciation, and also to show we were real men and not nerdy science types.

Then we got under way again.  Then we had whore stories, a genre that had escaped my notice until then.   J. had fucked a very, very large number of whores, it appeared, and he had a good memory (chess!) and a vast store of anecdotes, often hilarious, often horrible.    According to J.,  the crown and apotheosis of  whoredom was Germany in 1945.  J. had served on tankers in the North Atlantic, been torpedoed twice, had spent days in open boats, the whole nine yards.  Now he was shipping peacefully the oil that kept the Occupation running and he had plenty of shore leave, plenty of money, and a twenty-three-year-old body.  He told us, wonder yet in his voice, that you could fuck anyone, anyone, for a pack of Luckies.  Everyone in the country was whoring:  you could fuck blondes who looked like princesses, who might have been princesses, for a carton and a chocolate bar.

They he asked us what the brothel had charged and we told him and then he told us we'd been ripped off and asked what we usually paid in the city where we were based.  Embarrassed looks; then one of the scientists said that we didn’t pay for sex.   Then we were all married?  No we were not.  Nor, as he then jokingly proposed, were we homosexuals.

And then as we tried to explain that we got laid because women also liked to get laid and if we liked each other we just did it, clouds started forming in his eyes, and we turned the conversation to safer ground: he was not a fellow you wanted angry at you.  Because he thought we were making fun of him.  He thought we were implying that Germany, 1945, without the cigarettes had become the permanent condition of people under thirty, which was impossible, unthinkable, because it would mean that women liked sex, in which case many of the assumptions on which he had based his existence were incorrect, for example, that no woman would have sex with a man unless she was paid off in some way.  Guys like that may be extinct in the US now;  or maybe not.  There is certainly a great deal of prostitution.  So many separate moral universes exist in any society and it is hardly surprising that the mores adopted by the chattering classes (as reflected in the Sunday papers) may not obtain in all of them.  I suppose that’s one of the reasons for novels.

Seattle Rain Festival

I’m happy to say that our terrible Indian Summer (a phrase, by the way, that Native Americans must resent) here in Seattle in finally over.  Throughout August and September and into October (!) the sky was a boring, featureless blue, the air was balmy, and people were saying, ‘If we wanted this crap we would’ve stayed in San Diego.”  Now, however, Seattle is back.  The sky has returned to its default color, varying from yogurt to dust bunny, and the background audio is once again the tip-tap of raindrops on foliage, every miniute of every day.  That means that the 2013 Seattle Rain Festival is about to kick off and are we pumped!  If you’ve never been to the SRF, you’ve got a treat coming—it’s like Burning Man except without the loud music and instead of naked girls morose Swedes dressed in layers.  So hurry on down!  It only lasts until July.   As a foretaste, here’s my report on last year's event.

As usual, the thrills begin at the festival center, five acres of glistening asphalt, which we enter under an arch announcing this year's theme: "Seattle: The City Phlegmatic."  We pass by Lars Eric Nilson's heroic bronze of the Norwegian carpenter, officially titled "Man Who Left His 3/8th Drill on the Truck," which symbolizes the limited horizons that mean so much to this city.  Beyond, we see through the showers what must be one of the supreme examples of the art of flat-roof concrete-block stucco architecture anywhere in the world, the famous Rectangle Building.  Let's go in!

In the center ring, we're just in time for the slime mold judging. Iridescent life forms writhe on their "logs" while their nervous owners make last minute primps.  The slime mold is not only the state bird of Washington--it's a local mascot as well.  Nearly everybody owns one or two, but these here are not your common basement lurkers.  No, these are true aristocrats of the myxomycete world, trained not to move or make a sound despite the most intense prodding.  Here come the judges--the throng holds its breath--and the blue ribbon goes to Mrs. Irma D.  Christiansen of Enumclaw for her fine gray-green Lycogala bitch, Ch. Rum-bum Altair Domino III.  Way to go, Irma!

Next, we head for the gallery area, where we take in the fascinating exhibit, A Century of Galoshes, and move on to The World of Rain, in which different kinds of raindrops are preserved in lucite. A continuous video show—Our Fogs--delights the eye, and we marvel at Old Mingo, at 29.7 pounds the largest raindrop ever recorded.  And it fell right here in Seattle, in 1957! To my mind, however, the most endearing feature here is the Kiddie Park, where children born after the beginning of the festival, and who have thus never seen the sun, are shown photos of the solar orb and allowed to stand for a few seconds under a sunlamp, just enough to raise a few blisters. What fun they have spraying one another with Solarcaine!   And other kids are poking fingers into this year’s special guest mascot, the Pillsbury Doughboy.  Nice tan, dude!

Of course, the climax of the festival is attained on Derby Day, when racing banana slugs from all over converge on the Dixie Lee Ray Memorial Track in Tukwila.  (For those not in the know, Tukwila, The Queen City of Apple Maggot Quarantine Area #7, is located some ten miles south of Seattle and is famous for having more motel rooms under $25 than all but seven other US cities.) We had intended to race our blue-spot mare "Penny" this year, but she bruised a slime gland on a bit of ornamental ironwork and went lame.  Nevertheless, it was a thrill to sit in the stands, chomping on the track's special gray weiners, chugging on a Rainier Beer, Seattle’s beloved Green Death, and watch the noble molluscs tear around the wooden oval.  The track this year was well-mucoused and quite fast.  The favorite, Degoutant, having been scratched (it failed a slime test) the palm went to a fleet two-year-old, Slubbergullion, who finished in the astonishing time of 8 hours, 20 minutes, 4 seconds, paying $14.50.As the crowd left the old wood-bowl for another year, sad but happy, sorry to see the old festival fade away but taking comfort in the fact that the next one starts in a mere sixty days.  Hope to see you there!.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

What's real

What a lot of fantasy there is in popular fiction!  We seem to have a taste for magic, although almost no one actually believes in magic.  We can see this very well in the Harry Potter books, which are entirely devoid of magic, their ostensible subject.  It's all special effects, like in the movies, devoid of the spiritual element that is an essential part of magical practice wherever it survives in the real world.  What we have instead of magic is a kind of magical materialism--you say the magic words and the thing is done, just like computer code.

This is all very well, and great entertainment, along with all the vampire and angel stuff that's so popular, not to mention the sword and sorcery tomes.  It's fantasy, it's fun.   But what I'm interested in is magic that's not fantasy and not fun, that's real as rocks.  Of course, the problem with this idea is that magic has been entirely cast out of the realm of the real by the operation of science.  Science makes a claim on the entirety of the real: if it can't be demonstrated according to the methods and assumptions of science it can't be classified as real.  This is why much is made of "exposing" charlatans.  Professional stage magicians like to do this--it's all a trick, and it's manifest that the stuff they do expose are tricks indeed.   But it's also obvious to me that actual magic, if it exists at all, would be perfectly invisible to the tools of science.  Science wouldn't even know it was happening.

To believe that you would have to accept that the reality science deals with is not the complete reality, that materialism, positivism, naturalism--all ways of insisting the opposite of this--are deficient descriptions: true as far as they go, but not exhaustive of the real.  Religious people, of course, do believe that there is a separate reality, and that it is able to touch them.  Materialism must therefore discount all these widely reported phenomenon,  and must regard the entire religious and spiritual history of mankind as benighted illusion, even insanity.  Someone has a religious experience?  It's some defect in their medial temporal lobe, and not only that, we can make people have such experiences by stimulating those neurons.  Therefore, the experiences are not real, just as the sun is not real because we can demonstrate nuclear fusion in a bomb.  A hundred people have a religious experience together and that is just mass hallucination, even though we don't know quite how that would work.  But it does stop up the hole in the approved reality.

One would think materialism is on firm ground, given its association with the power conferred by technology.  The iPhone works; therefore there are no spirits.  In our culture we are allowed to dismiss phenomena by calling them "mere subjectivity," but no one is allowed to say "mere objectivity."   The objective viewpoint, so-called, has an invincible seniority over the subjective view. This requires the assumption of an objective view, perfectly impersonal and hence likely to be true.  The mechanism of science, in which the views of a number of observers are compared to establish "reality"is said to account for any subjectivity that has crept into observation, except where those observations include things that can't happen, in which case they're still mere subjectivity.  Another unspoken assumption here is that human intellect is the ultimate court of reality.  If human intellect, as represented by Western science, cannot understand how a thing can be, then that thing cannot be.  The idea that there are intellects lounging in a different reality that are as much superior to us as we are superior to roundworms cannot be entertained.

What I like to do in fiction (getting around the barn to the actual subject here) is try to punch a very small hole in the fabric of objective materialism.  It has to be small.  Zombies in the streets or angelic wars or demons with yellow eyes are too easily dismissed as fantasy; which they are, of course.  If there are spiritual forces at work in the world then they are going to be totally cryptic, and this is also the conclusion of people who take such things seriously.  The corollary is that anyone who claims the manifestation of spirits is likely to be a fraud, or deluded.  On the other hand, there is no reason why a fraud should not have actual contact with a wider reality, and it makes an interesting plot.  I don't like to commit as author to any particular view of reality, although I use characters that report sensing beyond the conventional reality, and events that partake of this reality are always presented in a way that enables them to be explained conventionally: just like in real life.

My sense is that this can be far scarier than the zombies/vampires stuff.  I always mention Lord Dunsany in this context.  He was a horror writer back in the early 1900s and someone asked him what was the most horrible thing he could think of and he chose two.  One was going into an English garden on a lovely June day, and the roses start singing.  The other is waking up in the middle of the night to find someone in your room, and it's a clown.  The art then is in twisting reality just that little bit, just enough to deprive the reader of ontological security without allowing him to turn on the objectivity machine.   Hard to do, always worth it.

Friday, October 5, 2012


I had a little fender-bender a couple of weeks ago.  I was entered a tricky intersection when I heard a thump and my left-side mirror bent in on its hinge.  I made the turn I was planning and then pulled over, thinking that the other car would do the same and we could exchange cards, but no other car was doing this, and so I drove on, thinking I was side-swiped by a truck or van that didn't even notice the bump.  Later I found a tiny crack in the plastic wheel-well cover and decided to forget about the incident.

But this morning I got a call from an insurance claims adjuster.  The other party had put in a claim and he was trying to reconstruct the accident.  I told him I didn't recall enough about the accident to help him much, but he persisted.  I realized that he wanted me to construct a narrative not based on actual memory but on the legal requirement for some narrative on my part, in order to assess liability.  I told him I could not do that, and he informed me, more or less, that if I didn't have a narrative, the tale told by the other party would prevail.

Well, this is our legal system.  But as it happens I've done a good deal of research on memory, for my amnesia-themed novel, and it turns out that human memory remains one of the great mysteries.  Clearly we do have memory, in that we can tell what happened in the past, but how that memory is stored in the brain, or how reliable it is, remains obscure.  We do know that it's not at all analogous to a computer hard disk, with specific neurons or neuron groups storing specific episodes of life.  Certainly, the famous failures of observation and of eye-witness testimony are evidence of this lability and unreliability of memory retrieval.  In fact, as the adjuster pressed me, I found myself making up a story. This is, in fact, all we can do--make up a story, and whether it is an actual recounting of a past event is entirely indeterminate--it may be, it may not be.

This got me thinking about memoir.   Writers purport to render the past accurately, like a video does, but this does not seem to be a capacity that humans actually have.  I personally have no confidence at all in my memory.  I know I have 'memories' of things that did not in fact happen, and for that reason I would not ever attempt a memoir.  Published memoirs I regard as mainly novelistic, although they can, of course, be wonderful literary products.  Here is an example.  It is my first actual, retrievable memory, and it's interesting because it is linked to an historical event.

When I was a child, we lived on the top floor of a two-family home.  One entered from the street into a small hall, and then chose one of two keyed doors, one leading to the ground floor flat and the other to a stairway up to the upper flat, where we lived.  At the top of our stairs was a hall and a railed barrier separating the staircase from the hallway, and I used to like to play there.  In this scene I am playing with toy soldiers.   They are made of a kind of hard, grainy rubber, with a smooth brown-colored surfaces, or else crudely painted lead.  One of these toys is a strange one: it depicts a man sitting at a control board of some kind.  He has a headset on. Towering above him are three large hollow cones on a stanchion.  Before the invention of radar, such devices were used to detect the rumble of oncoming bombers.  It was  a very stupid toy, but it is burnt into my memory, and is vivid after over sixty years.

As I play, my mother and my young aunt, my father's sister, are in the apartment, separated from me by a doorway.  The downstairs doorbell rings.  My mother comes out of the apartment and goes downstairs.  It's a telegram.  She comes upstairs with it and goes into the apartment.  There comes a horrible shriek and the sound of wailing.  The telegram has just informed my aunt that her husband has been killed in action.

I am later informed that my uncle has died on Omaha Beach, on D-Day.  Omaha Beach and D-Day as phrases have thereafter particular resonance for me, and of course, they lock my memory into historical time--the second week in June, 1944.  Since everyone else involved is dead, I have no confirmation that it actually happened that way.  You would think that trauma would help establish the memory as true, but maybe not.  I spent a lot of time in that hallway.  My uncle really did die on D-Day.  The rest is narrative;  it makes a good story, but who knows?  The past is really gone, except as we assemble it to serve our present selves.


I'm reading Dostoyevski's The Demons, mainly to get some idea of how politics drove people nuts in the early 19th century.  It's always a little dangerous to read Fyodor when one is writing a book.  One is tempted to say, oh, why bother?  But actually, any comparison would be unfair, because no one can write a Dostoyevsky novel nowadays.  He's far too dense and multilayered, and just, well, better that anything in modern literature, and far, far better than anything in the kind of popular books I write.  One is tempted into trying for unmarketable psychological depth; but I believe I can resist.

Nicolas Freeling, the late, great writer of European policiers, had a take on this subject.   In his volume of essays, Criminal Conversations, Freeling asked a question about the ultimate purpose of genre writing, using genre painting as an analogy. He describes a visit to the Mauritshuis Museum in the Hague, which has one of the world's great collections of 17th century Dutch genre paintings.  (Genre is a term of art criticism that is now applied to certain forms of popular writing.  It refers to interior scenes of ordinary life, as opposed to religious, mythological or historical themes.)  So he describes the line of wonderful genre paintings by the best artists in the field--De Hooch, Gerard and the rest--in which all the aspects of the life of those times are expertly rendered. The porcelain and pewter, the lace and brocade, the tiles, the colored glass, the food on the tables, the jolly ladies and gentlemen at leisure are all as they should be, vivid and charming.  And then, he says, you come to a painting that is not like that, that partakes not of the transitory genre world, but of, in a sense, eternity.  This is The Girl with the Pearl Earring, by Vermeer.  It's hard to precisely describe the difference, but I've been in that museum and I know what he's talking about.  Somehow, Vermeer has managed to capture mortality itself, to convey the beingness of his subject in a way that the other genre paintings do not for theirs.  And so Freeling says that as the existence of genre painting provides a backdrop against which the genius of Vermeer shines forth, so does the work of genre writers like him (and me) enable a truer appreciation of Dostoyevsky's grandeur.

It's the case that when genre writers gather and talk to one another, there's a certain spite in the air with regard to literary fiction.  You hear people say that genre writing is good writing, or can be good writing, or is better writing than some of the writing sold as literary fiction.  All this can be true, but it's also true that literary fiction has a higher and more important aim than genre, which is ultimately mere entertainment.  Literary fiction is about changing the life of the reader, or rather explaining their lives to them, giving them a different central narrative by which they can understand their existence.

I actually try to do this, to the extent allowed by the constraints of a genre novel, but basically the constraints block the effort from developing too far.  Meanwhile, being the backdrop to Dostoyevsky seems a reasonable purpose for my career as a writer.