Saturday, May 26, 2018

The white novelist



In the sixties, the heavy hitter white novelists often included black and ethnic characters of all kinds in their novels. An interesting change in the field occurred with the advent of neo-liberalism and the spread of what I call euphemism culture (a culture in which racial injustices are corrected by finding soothing words to correct them). White novelists, the heavy hitters, seemed, often, to retreat to a segregated world of whiteness. While you could and should criticize a novelist like Tom Wolfe for stereotyping blacks in his novels, you couldn’t do the same for, say, the Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner because there are no blacks in the novel. Astonishingly, in this novel of the 1970s in NYC, the black portion of the population seems to have been whited out.

I think Rachel Kushner is a great novelist, and I’m re-reading the Flamethrowers and loving it, again, but I do think about this. I also think about the fact that few reviewers ever review novels featuring all white casts and bring up race.

I’m writing my second novel. It concerns, in no particular order, Paris, Atlanta, the beginning of the Obama era, pest control, financial skullduggery, genes, termites, poetry and performance art. And as I am developing the first two chapters, in which I am trying to establish the friendship between my two main characters, Leandra Cathcart and Karen Chamisso, I have been struck by how WASPishly I am laying things out. This “oversight” says something about my own bigotries. But I am going to fuck with that WASPy world. Not because I am a “better” person, but because the very Waspyness of this world is part of the story, is aesthetically interesting. 

If a certain kind of novel tries to speak about the “spirit of the age” – which is a very American line of novel – then the whiteout society of the upper middle and upper class has to be a big part of the story, especially for the manufacturers of cultural products. Euphemism culture has taken one very relieving lesson from the story of cultural appropriation, which is that white people can happily pretend black people, or Asian, or Hispanic, don’t exist. Cause if you imagine a Hispanic Texan, say, you imagine from your white root, and can get (oh horrors!) accused of racism. The solution to which is to embrace apartheid.

Forgive me if I find that an utterly bankrupt moral position. And one very telling for a decade in which appropriation – of black income and wealth – has proceeded like a machine, creating disparities in household wealth between races that are comparable to South Africa in 1980.
All of which means: stir it up, little darlings.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

strike, NFL players! And let the owners play the game

In my opinion, if the tubby little billionaire owners of football teams in the NFL want to control what the players think, the players should just let the owners play the game. Lets see how many stadiums are filled as Jerry Jones gets tackled by Zygi Wilf. Of course, what I'm expecting is for this to go to court, and for the Trump court to vote down the right to express an opinion as a minor and dispensible thing - in comparison with the enormous right to bear concealed arms at a college campus. 
Strike, players, strike!

by the book


Back before the NYT destroyed, or blandified, its Book section, it used to have a regular feature called By The Book. This consisted of questions like: What books are currently on your night stand? Who is your favorite novelist of all time? And your favorite novelist writing today? Do you have a favorite genre? Any literary guilty pleasures?

Etc. These questions form a sort of program: the writer – the novelist – is part of a profession, and spends his or her time reading and judging texts, which are also part of the profession. Even social time is professionalized: “You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?”
The limits of this set of questions imply an image of what the writer – and here, I am mostly talking about the writer of fiction, or poems, or essays, or memoirs – does as a laborer. The NYT is traditionally for management, so the questions are never about the means of production, as in, what do publishing  houses do correctly or not, what do you think about your book’s publicity, etc. Nor about the interaction between reader and writer.

Nor, going a bit further, is the writer contextualized in a broader culture. For instance, I don’t think I’ve ever read anybody ask about oral storytellers.

I consider this a bit odd. I know that myself, I used to like to go into Panera in Santa Monica, get a coffee, and listen to the old codgers bitch and brag to each other, sounds which fed into certain parts of my novel. But more than that, I am sure the stories I listened to when I was a wee little pea and my parents were giants gave me a total, preliminary sense of narrative possibilities. Not that I am special in this respect – you can hear narrative patterns passed along, generation to generation, from family member to family member. And you can hear characteristics that belong to vocation.

 My pop was an air conditioning man – he did the range of things, from working in a research laboratory (which he hated with all his heart) to repairing or installing hvac systems in businesses and institutions, to selling the machinery. It was the repairing and installing part that formed the heart of stories that usually had the motif: pops vs. idiot. The idiot could be the local repairman, the person running the business or institution, or the backup in the company, but most definitely the adventure of putting in hvac required an idiot to make the story juicy. Not that the stories were always so juicy by Hollywood standards. They often involved descriptions of working in impossible spaces in impossible conditions – small places in steamy hot weather, crawl spaces filled with toads and bugs, etc.
One of the formally interesting things about these stories is that they were sorta diagrammed: that is, repair work requires a pretty clear beginning, middle and ending. You begin with the problem (usually the result of some idiot making unbelievable mistakes installing some unit), you advance towards the solution (usually involving some hazardous or bizarre repair that might require doing certain things no normal man would do, such as dealing with electricity in a flooded, dark basement), and the solution comes about because of your action. Epic, really.

My Dad didn’t do certain things in his stories. For instance, I can’t recall him ever imitating anybody’s voice. I myself love to imitate accents. I like this not so much to mock those accents but to expand my musical range, although of course I know the usual thing about imitating accents is to mock their departure from some pre-supposed norm – everyday racism, innit?

My Mother’s stories were more complicated. This is because she worked as a school secretary, which  involved the more sinuous lines and complexities of human behavior, on various scales. There were many less idiots in her adventures, but many kids acting out, teachers having fits, and parents with many woes, which of course they told Mom. If the structure of my Dad’s stories had a classic cast not so distant from the old Writing Program dictate of showing and not telling, my Mom’s were closer to the underground of gossip and rumor, where telling is all and showing is a matter of glimpses and interpretation.
Of course, these are extreme paraphrases of my parent’s styles – but they certainly connect the act of writing to the natural life of language. I do think, like an old Commie, that you have to baptize the book in the stream of life of the people. That doesn’t mean making the book dumber – oh contrah, as they say around here. Ulysses is my notion of a novel that successfully takes its orientation from oral culture and the oldest of bookish traditions. It is ultimately a DIY novel, the best kind.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

against debating


Most intellectuals don’t have fans. They are lucky to have respondents to pieces they publish in small academic journals. But there are some intellectuals who do have fans. Especially among rightwing intellectuals who achieve a certain name recognition (Christopher Hitchens, Jordan Peterson, etc.) you will find an odd romanticism about “debate”. The fans are always lauding the debating skills of their idols.

I was a member of the debate club in high school – as I suspect few of the fans were – and the one thing you learn about debate is that it is not an instrument for truth. Rather, it is an instrument for winning an argument. The mark of the good debater is to win both as a supporter of “x” and as an opponent of “x”.

The dispute about the meaning and methods of debate are ancient. Around 500 BC, sophists – to give them a slightly anachronistic name – discovered and developed the techniques of argument and rhetoric. Discovered, here, means simply brought into consciousness styles of argument that no doubt pre-existed the sophists. You can see what argument looks like without these styles, or consciousness of these styles, in the book of Job, where Job’s friends make a mess of his excuses, but without any convention whereby Job would be convinced that his friends were right. In fact, Job’s friends provoke God’s wrath: which shows you how much one needs debating skills.

Plato was worried about the sophist’s art – worried that it was an art that obscured, rather than revealed, the truth. The truth, that is, about being. Plato wrote dialogues, so it wasn’t as if he were worried about argument per se. He was worried that debate was oriented towards winning. The idea that one should win at all costs sacrificed the very goal that the argument was meant to inch us towards.

I suspect that creating a sport out of intellectual work is at the heart of the rare phenomenon of the intellectual with fans. And it is a bit too snooty to think that brainwork and entertainment are separated by rigid ethical and veridical lines. I see no reason to believe that. But I also see no reason to jettison Plato’s worry: that debate debases the very truths it seeks to capture by making them secondary to the impulse to win.

Debates, in other words, are an inferior intellectual tool. And when they take center stage, you know that something shifty is going on.


Tuesday, May 22, 2018

the lesson of Martin Amis


Martin Amis has led one of the most puzzling careers in the contemporary novel business.

He started out of the gate with some obvious advantages. He had a good ear for speech, and an even better ear for caricaturing speech. He could create recognizable types – especially the aspiring Yob – in the great tradition of English comic novelists. And he had a believable misanthropy going for him – like his Dad, and like Evelyn Waugh.

These are great strengths. I tried to re-read Money a year ago, and didn’t get far, cause I wasn’t in the mood. But I could still see what a piece of work, in the good sense, it was.

With all of these qualities, Amis should have gone from strength to strength in Blairite GB. Instead, he jumped the track, and started producing these novels about Stalin’s Gulag and Hitler's concentration camps.

He came to these subjects with heavy handicaps. Amis’s great strength was, as I have said, aural. You could hear a lot of Money. But he has no sense whatsoever for spoken German or Russian. This immediately carves out about two thirds of what he has to work with. And then, who is the competition, here? Well, Russian and German (and Hungarian and Dutch and French) writers who had a very good sense of what the worlds they described sounded like. The competition, in other words, was already at the finish line while Amis was huffing along, getting all his notes in order. 

The novels become those notes: oh, here’s the part derived from Anthony Beevor. Here’s the Annie Applebaum part. And so on.
I do not understand this jumping of the tracks. Was it because he sought an American market, one that had only a vague idea of yob culture? I think that might be part of it. I remember a howler of a review in the New Republic when the book section was run by Leon Wieseltier that went on and on about Amis achieving true greatness with the novel about the Gulag. It was as if the novel were a surgical bomb that had hit its target. The Wieseltierish crowd was, of course, not going to be so excited about a novel like Money, cause it wasn’t “serious”. Plus, of course, being anti-Stalin was, for this crowd, an act of political courage.
It is a weird crowd.
But my complaint isn’t political. Amis’s rightwing politics don’t bother me as drivers of fiction – a novel is like a truck, and the drivers are various in their viewpoints, but the point is to drive it well. What I don’t get is the idea that to move into making a SERIOUS novel about ATROCITIES, Amis had to remove himself to the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. He could easily have turned to, say, the war in Kenya, or the starvation in Bengal, or Northern Ireland, or any number of theaters where he could both hear the culture and write about it. He could definitely have gotten his anti-Communist jones on by writing about British lefties in the 60s.
It is frustrating to see a good novelist take on subjects that are manifestly not going to pay off, and do it time after time. It reminds me, oddly enough, of the decay of the novel under Stalin, where writers who had avant garde impulses and brilliance were forced to write in a straightjacketed socialist realism mode.
I suppose there is a lesson in here somewhere about one’s convictions and the creation of that enterprise of othering and daydreaming, the novel. Sometimes, you just need to write an essay to give the first driver some road space.

Monday, May 21, 2018

negative externalities, y'all.

It is a semi-holiday here in France. I guess I should include the marker, pre-Uber France. Macronists everywhere despair about these holidays. So it is time to: reference an article by Stefano Bartolini that deals with growth using a Polanyi-style scheme of analysis. Naturally. You know I was a-goin’ there. It bears the rebarbative title (by which I mean a title fit for a cannibal's barbecue) “Beyond Accumulation and Technical Progress: Negative Externalities as an Engine of Economic Growth.”
The abstract, however, hearteningly poses questions that economists have generally ruled out according to the icky rule: if it shows that capitalism is icky, forget it.
“The traditional explanation of growth based on the primum and secundum movens of accumulation and technical progress, faces two major empirical anomalies. Why do people work so much i.e. why do they strive so much for money? The growth literature provides no answer to these question, nor to the further and very important one of why people are so unhappy. Moreover, finding a joint answer to the two questions seems particularly puzzling. Why do people strive so much for money if money cannot buy happiness? I argue that the solution to this 'paradox of happiness' can be provided by including in the theory a tertium movens of growth: negative externalities. These externalities can be of two kinds. The first are positional externalities, i.e. those due the fact that individuals may be interested in relative not absolute position. The second kind of negative externalities are those which reduce free goods. Some recent models, both evolutionary or with optimising agents, show the role of these externalities as an engine of growth. This approach emphasises that the growth process generates extensive negative externalities which reduce the capacity of the social and natural environment to furnish free goods. In these models individuals have increasingly to rely on private goods in order to prevent a reduction in their well-being or in their productive capacity due to decline in social and natural capital. This generates an increase in output which feeds back into the negative externalities, giving rise to a self-reinforcing mechanism whereby growth generates negative externalities and negative externalities generate growth. According to these models, growth appears to be a substitution process whereby free final (or intermediate) goods are progressively replaced with costly goods in the consumption (or production) patterns of individuals. From the point of view of this GASP (Growth As Substitution Process) models the two anomalies of growth theory are two sides of the same coin. People strive so much for money because they have to defend themselves against negative externalities: they work so much in order to substitute free goods with costly ones. But an increase in income does not improve their happiness because it involves a process of substitution of free goods costly ones. Some implications for environmental economics are drawn.”
Perhaps the implications don’t leap out at you. But they do in their way in everyday life. Moving to L.A.? Well, you best get you a car. Why? Cause the town is criss crossed with insurmountable barriers to walking or biking through it. And the mass transit system is slow, and subject to the massive traffic slowdown that provide the punctuation to the rhythm of the place. And those traffic slowdowns penetrate your sleep, because you best get used to getting up early in order to, perhaps, miss the traffic in the morning going to work. And if you have kids, you best have either a partner who can take them to school, a babysitter, or a relative on whom you can throw off the problem of what to do with them. Of course, having kids means you need more money, so put in that overtime, or lengthen that commute. You can play with them on the weekend!
On and on the merry-go-round goes, and luckily, we have wonderful anti-depressants for you!
One more quote.
“In short, the result of perpetual growth seems rather vulnerable to inclusion of a work/leisure choice in models. The plausible mechanisms emphasised by endogenous growth models which ensure a non-decreasing marginal productivity of capital over the long period are insufficient to generate perpetual growth. In order to generate it, individuals must work and accumulate i. e. must be interested in money, more than endogenous growth models predict. According to these models, in fact, individuals react to a long-period increase in labor productivity by enjoying life more than is necessary to ensure perpetual growth. This is as regards the theoretical problems.”