RSS Feed

Category Archives: Uncategorized

Gratuitous Violence About Fiction

Posted on

Louis Bouquet, La Mort d’Orphee, 1925-1939. Orpheus, torn to shreds by the Bacchantes, a sad symbol of what havoc jealousies and distractions can wreak on artists.

My apologies, readers: I had scheduled my next three posts to automatically appear while Bruce and I were visiting Germany, but, alas, something went wrong with my understanding of WordPress. I’ll try to catch up over the next few days. Maybe by now you all can bear another long post about clubby creative writing battles. I hope it doesn’t bore my non-writer readers. As this indicates, I am bored too, but my OCD side compels me to speak when readers of the New York Times have devolved into this kind of bickering. Friend Harold made me realize in a comment about last week’s manifesto about not restricting myself to creative writing that I nonetheless often do focus on these narrow issues. I promise to get away from this again soon, but it’s been an artsy month for me.

The New York Times is following in the footsteps of the tabloids, attempting to ratchet up controversy to get readers, at least that’s how it seems in this instance. The Times recently published a collection of articles in its Room for Debate series under the collective heading of “Is Fiction Changing, for Better or Worse?” Six very short articles then assaulted us with their inevitably epigrammatic brevity in attempting to answer the headline question.

The writers of these answers—six men and one woman in the finest discriminatory tradition of the major publications—can’t possibly win. Answering this question in the 300 words each was apparently given is an impossibility. But they try, mostly intelligently with perhaps one or two notable exceptions that I’ll save for last. One or two of them even make interesting points, bless them.

Still, the entire atmosphere around these mini-essays is one of contention and rivalry, with a plethora of nastiness directed all over the place, including at the poor authors themselves. Here’s a sampling of the befuddling attacks and counter-attacks in their mini-essays and mostly in the online comments that follow [with my observations in brackets]:

Comments on Jane Smiley’s “An Exercise in Empathy”

“While the quantity of books has increased there is certainly a decrease in the percentage of great novels being written.” Chris Wilson, Boston [Um, has he read them all? How does he know this with such certainty? Did this comment have anything to do with what Smiley said? Um, no.]

In response to a commentator who noted (albeit incorrectly) the overwhelmingly white and male composition of the panel of writers, this diatribe: “Get over it… no wonder there is racism. Because people like you insert it into every possible situation, whether it belongs or not, which in this case it most certainly does not.” Kafen ebell, Los Angeles [Again, I marvel at this person’s prescience, in this case the ability to know whether or not racism influences this situation. It certainly seems to have influenced this remark.]

“Fiction creates empathy in a way that nonfiction cannot. It places the reader in the head of someone else, feeling their feelings.” Anniken Davenport, Harrisburg [What an odd way to characterize the supposed superiority of fiction—by attacking just the quality that memoir is known for.]

“Truth is, our present-day writers, most of them urban liberals, have effectively repelled the sort of readers who used to admire Steinbeck, Wolfe, Faulkner, Algren, et. al. Really, could anything be more objectionable than, for example, the sort of Manhattan-approved good thinker who confesses that while Iowa might be all right (barely) for children, yet it remains so horribly provincial, don’t you know, for more elevated souls.” Tito Perdue reactionary novelist, ‘Bama [Huh? Talk about a comment that comes not from the article but from a predetermined, always-present agenda. This is prime.]

Comments on Robin Sloan’s “Welcome ‘The Sopranos’ and Twitter”

“I checked out the excerpt from Mr. Sloan’s novel, and it expresses everything one needs to know about the current strain of reductive techno-cheerleading infesting our culture. I highly recommend he stick to ‘inventing media,’ whatever that might mean.” Ilya Leybovich, Brooklyn, NY [While I agree that I was not sucked into Mr. Sloan’s opening page, I’m not sure that Ilya’s position represents anything but some vague resentment at techies, even though he seems to be a news editor for an online PR magazine, hardly the purest or most art-obsessed role in life. Perhaps he is also a frustrated novelist.]

“Today’s ‘novel’ has become the pointless snippets people post of their daily lives on social networking sites.” Evan Lockport, IL [All of them?]

“Such slapdoodle, the very kind of thinking these superficial media encourage.” An Ordinary American, Prague [I don’t disagree with this person, just perhaps with his/her harshness. But I had to include this one because of the use of the wonderful word “slapdoodle” and because of the combination of “an ordinary American” and the location of Prague, where all ordinary Americans no doubt hang out.]

Comments on Matt de la Peña’s “Novels Have Become an Escape”

De la Peña’s piece is an anti-positive psychology note in itself, and was my favorite of the six for that very fact. Perhaps for that reason, he received by far the most commentary on his article. But, of course, the comments became an argument between those who insist life is indeed sad and those who insist it isn’t. Of course, it is both, and some commenters acknowledged that well, but I quote here some of the deniers and other nasties, my point being that discussions on the internet so often devolve into this oppositional absurdity.

“why are multiple posters quoting this same kafka phrase/ did the nytimes include a quote in their assignment? is this high school English class?” j, LIC, NY

“So far, the only living American novelist with anything to say is Corum McCarthy [whoever that is, or, I mean, sic]. The rest is filtered out by the agent-seeking-money people and the bean-counters-seeking-money from the publisher’s financial group headquarters. Most of your commenters sound like they recently got theit [sic] writing MFA which teaches lots about technique to those with not much to relate.” anonymot, CT [Another MFA basher, and I hope he/she does have something to say since there’s no expressed need here to say it well or to even give any evidence for claims. Some people just have to get the MFA-blame into whatever they say.]

“Although I disagree with Mr. de la Peña, I can forgive an intelligent young man who has enough intelligent-young-man arrogance to think his [sic] has enough perspective to judge his own time against what came before.” J, R [Funny, he never really says what he disagrees about per se. Oh, well, a put-down is always effective, right? The condescension blew me away.]

“only in genre fiction can the half-stereotypes we all rely on be explored safely, because lit fiction, which is supposed to be addressing these, is only interested in one side” John, Brooklyn, NY [I’m pretty sure this is not what Mr. de la Peña meant. In other words, John is always looking for an opportunity to say what is already on his mind, no matter what.]

“I think you mistake a few elites for an entire ‘audience.’ Jane Austin [sic] and Shakespeare and Hemingway and Oscar Wilde and others were popular because they were entertaining not because they were literary.” ro, nyc [Etc. etc. with “ro” and “anonymot” dissing the “elite” “decision-makers” who unfortunately promote “serious” writing. Totally incoherent, really, but the readers and writers of junk fiction are always aggrieved, by golly. They get all the money in wide sales, but that’s not enough for them. They want also the literary recognition that they trash so much.]

“A session with current fiction, even an extended one, turning thinly-worded [sic] post-modern pages requires that we reach for the next while the current one is coming to a close. They’re pills in paper back.” mm, albuquerque [Again, I think that the commenter is blaming books that de la Peña doesn’t mean to blame.]

“Life is not sad. It is what you make of it…. Yes, we are all going to die but that is not what is important here. What’s important is living a life that serves each one of us.” Susannah, France [I’m glad she knows what’s important for all of us.]

“People do care. They are not always hiding. I think this is a good thing and invite you into a positive world.” Jack R. Williams, Atlantic Beach, NC [Because, of course, this very successful young writer must be in a bad way just because he points out the contemporary aversion to life’s hard side. This private citizen would like to give him advice about his life. Does that seem fitting to anyone?]

“What a load of waffle.” TV, CT

“Agree that intellectual challenge has downshifted, but strongly disagree regarding sadness and self reflection, the preoccupation with which seems to have become pandemic. Also, the memoir, an exaltation of self if ever there was one, may be supplanting the novel as a popular idyll.” marymary, Washington, DC [OMG, let’s beat up the memoir again. Who cares that the subject here is the novel, some people just have to bash the memoir.]

“as a person who suffers from clinical depression, the idea that bouts of melancholy can be ‘beneficial’ makes me want to throw my laptop through the window. Where does the Times find these people?” gobot90, new york [De la Peña distinguished what he was talking about from clinical depression, but this person just missed it, I guess.]

“The idea that the novel should be ‘serious’ is a 20th century invention, as James Gunn points out. Mr. de la Peña needs to study his literary history.” gobot90, new york [Above, he notes that the Times gets unqualified people to write these, but only after he has here cited one of the other panelists—with far fewer credentials as a writer—as a better expert. In other words, the popular fiction folks are angry again. I can just never figure out why.]

Comments on Thomas Glave’s “Stories and Readers Change Together”

This piece garnered only 3 comments, all rather disconnected from what he wrote.

“A well crafted novel has the potential to tell far more truth than non-fiction and, in an aesthetic manner. Art goes farther than imitating life—it can capture its essence.” David Chowes, New York City [Another hobbyhorse inserted willy-nilly: the superiority of fiction over non-fiction. Boring, boring, boring.]

The next two articles I found in themselves objectionable. As scholar-critics rather than writers, they felt a need to pass judgments that seemed to me ill-founded.

Objectionable quotes from William Deresiewicz’s “New Forms, but People Will Always Read”

* “As for political fiction, Sozhenitsyn and Steinbeck were important figures, but they weren’t necessarily good novelists.” [At least he talks about specific novels, but this is ill-advised in a column where you have no space to define exactly what you mean.]

* “’The Jungle’ may have sparked reform, but I daresay ‘Mrs. Dalloway has changed more people’s lives.” [Unfounded speculation.]

* “Stunted attention spans, Internet cacophony, consolidation and collapse in the publishing industry, the professionalization of the arts and the questionable influence of the writing programs, the long shadow of modernist greats: the novel’s facing headwinds, as it surely always has.” [Deresiewicz is, of course, a former literature professor at Yale and Columbia, now turned essayist, but basically a scholar and critic, so, of course, he has to slip in that the influence of writing programs is “questionable.” The MFA canard again.]

Comments on Deresiewicz

“To suggest that Mrs. Dalloway ‘changed more lives’ than The Jungle is wishful thinking at best. The Jungle resulted in reform that affected millions of people over decades whereas if Mrs. Dalloway was read even by 20,000 people I would be surprised. The market for Lit Fic is miniscule and supported mostly by libraries without which, the ‘genre’ of Lit Fic would collapse. ECW, Forreston, IL [The scholars hate the creative writers, even those of a literary bent, but the popular fiction aficionados hate both the scholars and the literary writers. Go figure.]

“[H]is conclusion is pure evidence-avoiding pollyanna.” Dudley, Saunders [I don’t disagree, but, still, the invective.]

“In the cities, on public transportation, in parks and restaurants, people can read what they really like without the fear of public censure once they abandon the lurid covers of conventional publishing and enjoy the anonymity of e-readers. Unless one is right on top of the e-reader, they can read whatever crap they want without having to suffer the smirk of social critics. On the other hand, it’s hard to attract that special someone on the bus when they can’t see the pretentious tome you are pretending to read.” richard kopperdahl, new york city [This one wins the award for a paranoid sense of aggrievement. I mean, really, since when did people hide their popular fiction? Really, it’s a funny thought.]

Objectionable quotes from James Gunn’s “Look to the Fringes of Fiction”

Another critic, who must pass judgment, but this time it’s a former English professor who no doubt felt that his research on science fiction wasn’t taken seriously enough in the academy. So he founded and directs the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. He has a huge axe to grind. I should just paste his whole little diatribe here, but I will select only a portion.

* “A century ago H. G. Wells had a public debate with Henry James about the uses of the novel. Wells, ever the pragmatist, thought the novel was a device to make an emphatic point about life or society or human nature. James, ever the esthete, maintained that the only purpose of the novel was aesthetic. James prevailed, according to the critics, and the literary novel has been judged ever since on aesthetic grounds…. Wells is still read…; James, not so much.” [Of course, he has to set this up in oppositional fashion, and he has to base his entire argument on something he can’t prove. The greatest novels, of course, both make a point about “life or society or human nature” and also pay attention to aesthetic issues. It’s not as though The Turn of the Screw says nothing about human nature. Yeesh.]

* “[T]he literary novel has never been a place to look for social or political protest, and the writers who dealt in such matters—Dickens, Sinclair, Wells, Stowe, Zola, Orwell—were never considered ‘serious’ writers in their own times.” [Really? And what about Morrison, Baldwin, Ellison, Wright, Faulkner, Dos Passos, Gaskell, etc. etc.?]

* “The most effective social documents these days are genre novels—crime novels, for instance, but particularly science-fiction novels.” [I know the stupid 300-word form creates a tendency for the unsupported generalization, but isn’t this just an example of self-justification? It’s just so easy to trot out numerous counter-examples on every side of this issue—“serious literary” fiction that does take up social issues and science-fiction that doesn’t question the status quo at all. Just another angry devotee of popular fiction, wanting what he ostensibly despises.]

Comments on Gunn

Thus ensued in the comments a debate about the relative merits of Wells and James more than anything else, with the added current of “science-fiction is underappreciated.” Um-hm, yup, that’s why so many people read it and almost all university English departments teach it. Um-hm.

I couldn’t agree more with one commenter on Gunn’s post who referred to the entire endeavor this way:

“So wrongheaded! But what can one expect? These Room for Debate features seem to parade ‘experts’ who have bizarrely random claims to the title—you’d want to say they therefore spoke for an interestingly random sampling of views if they didn’t mostly seem to have some very particular axe to grind. – So this guy was chosen as the pro-sci-fi, non-canonical view? But why should that view be helpful or interesting (especially when he makes such blatantly incorrect factual assertions, as if James has been relegated to the dustheap while Wells has become widely embraced and beloved)? The topics for these Debates are so large, and the response pieces so frustratingly narrow, brief, and thin (based on opinion or assertion rather than fact), that the whole thing just becomes an exercise in head scratching rather than debate.” sd, ct

George Cruikshank, Old Blucher Beating the Corsican Big Drum, 1814. Gebhard von Blucher, a Prussian field marshal, carried an irrational degree of hatred for the French and over and over again flogged the populace and its leaders to go to war.

In fact, I find that these four childish battles are a large part of what’s wrong with writing and reading these days:

* MFA vs. no academic support for writers

* popular and genre fiction vs. literary fiction

* entertainment vs. “serious” fiction

* fiction vs. non-fiction, especially memoir

These are indeed shibboleths and hackneyed distractions, and I am sick of them. I wish we could move our discussions of literature and writing beyond them. Surely, there is something more interesting about what we do than these hobbyhorses that repeat themselves ad infinitum in the press. In spite of the fact that bifurcation is almost never a smart way of thinking, people keep these oppositions alive, perhaps because they are easy and draw “controversy.”

I hereby declare that there is no controversy on these topics. In spite of the continuing echoes of irrationality, the jury is in:

* The MFA does not harm writers. It has its pros and its cons, and it is not all things to all people. But it helps some writers find a way, and it supports many others. This is a good thing. That so many people want to study writing is also our best hope for a continuing culture of reading and writing and our best hope against an illiterate society.

* Neither the genre aficionados nor the literary aficionados should trash the other. There should be room for both in the world. That the publishing industry is shutting off the oxygen to literary writers is true, and I decry this, but other opportunities in small press publishing and inexpensive online literary venues are going to keep the literary alive. The fucking genre people have no complaint, and they need to give up feeling discriminated against. Once upon a time they might have had a legitimate issue, having been subject to the disdain of critics, but they don’t any more, and truly great work in science-fiction and other genres regularly is attended to with literary awe. People read it, too, and its popularity is secure. So, what’s the problem?

* Serious fiction, however, is indeed different from a lot of popular fiction. Some of us are even “entertained” by something more serious than formulaic fare. But there is no hard and fast line between them. We need to get used to this and debate only the merits of individual texts, not entire categories. The categories do not serve writers, and barely serve readers—they are largely enforced by the publishing companies, bookstores, reviewers, and critics, who are all classifiers at heart. Their classifications are convenient for all of us sometimes, but they are not sacrosanct.

* Likewise with the ridiculous claim that fiction is always and necessarily superior to non-fiction and that memoir is a degraded form. This is just patently false and almost always asserted out of self-promotion or some other slightly less obvious self-serving belief. There are bad novels just as there are bad memoirs. And there are good in both genres. If you want to start a tally list and go through all of literature to demonstrate otherwise in any convincing way, then, as my mother used to say, “Go ahead, gourd head.”

Would that the squabblers would hear my song.

Karoly Ferenczy, Orpheus, 1894. Orpheus before everyone started fighting over him. Better days, no doubt.


Posted on

A beautiful song for the third anniversary of my marriage to Bruce. This “Hallelujah” was written by Leonard Cohen, whom I posted about just the other day, and is sung here by kd lang, who Bruce and I saw in concert here in Orlando last Sunday.

So many thoughts—

One reason why this song is perfect for today is that Bruce, like lang and Cohen, is a Canadian. “Canadian content” is one of our short-hand phrases for pointing that out—the distance from which we came together.

Another reason is that the love of people our age is complicated. Just this morning, I woke up with a low blood sugar and burst into tears over anxiety about our upcoming trip to Berlin—all my fears of not being able to keep up because of the arthritis in my foot and needing to rummage around in his friends’ kitchen for low-blood-sugar juice in the middle of the night and of my stomach getting upset over unfamiliar foods… Bruce and I had to talk it all out, and I told him after I realized what day it is that maybe I should wish him an unhappy anniversary. But, no, he loves me—and I love him—in spite of all the flaws of our human condition. “All the perfect and broken Hallelujahs have an equal value,” Cohen is quoted as saying about the song, and that seems appropriate today, even though I would not call my love a cold or broken hallelujah. Quite the contrary.

But even the kd lang concert the other night gave me much food for thought. Beyond the beauty of lang’s voice and the sheer pleasure of the concert, I have to note that it was not particularly well attended. Bruce and I—and no telling how many others—had gotten free tickets in a last-minute promotion, which was no doubt inspired by poor ticket sales. The Hard Rock Café concert space was even so only about 2/3 full, and I felt bad about this. Lang gave a terrific performance, and I know that non-sellout shows must be a standard feature of the musician’s life, but it was hard for me to believe that someone as distinguished as kd lang hadn’t filled the place up.

Bruce noted that there’s really no great way to keep up with events going on in Orlando, and several friends commented later that they, alas, had not realized she would be here. We ourselves had missed a John Prine concert just a few days earlier in spite of the fact that I’m his fan on Facebook and would have loved to be there. (I first saw him in concert in about 1977, and perhaps we should label him with “Appalachian content” to also indicate the different roots Bruce and I have.) It’s just hard to keep up, and we are distracted from our “entertainment” options, even the profound ones, by our work.

Such is the unpredictable and accidental nature of fame, art, love, and human life. Today, I am grateful to be experiencing all that together with him.

Faking Authenticity

Posted on

German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, by Leandro Gonzalez de Leon.

In my continuing effort to bring a variety of voices to this blog, I give you another guest post, this one a philosophical contemplation about “authenticity.” This post dovetails nicely with the one I did a couple of weeks ago on “Devious Discretion.” Bruce always makes sure I take a more careful look at things than I ordinarily might. That’s one of the reasons I married him.


* * *

Faking Authenticity

by Bruce B. Janz

The raison d’etre oft this blog is not just to chronicle the ways that we cry, title notwithstanding. The point is to think about genuine emotion in an ersatz world. Put more succinctly, the point is authenticity.

Now, this is an idea that’s come under a lot of scrutiny. Put simply, a lot of people aren’t sure that such a thing is possible. Others aren’t sure it’s desirable. And still others aren’t sure that we’d even be able to know it if we saw it. It seems like an idea from a different time, one where we had a clear sense of what was real and what wasn’t, and the ability to have faith that some things are true and others aren’t.

I guess the slide started in philosophy. Theodor Adorno wrote The Jargon of Authenticity, a critical work on the philosophy of existentialists like Martin Buber, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and others (and, for you philosophical purists, I’m aware that it’s debatable that any of those figures can be called existentialists). Adorno was a critical theorist, steeped in Western Marxist thought, and he was troubled by any philosophy that would short-circuit the search for the social causes of problems. He thought that the term was used to abstract away from the material conditions of the world, and make us think that the solution to our problems came from introspection. To be “authentic”, after all, meant to be true to yourself, and a psychological interpretation of that might suggest that you just have to look inside (or, appeal to a higher power), to figure out who that self was, and you could then be true to it. Any thought that you are the product of your world was lost with this talk.

That took hold, for a lot of people. Culturally, you can see both of these trends side by side. We are regularly encouraged to know ourselves, to unleash the true self within, to put ourselves in situations that will show our real selves. We look for the windows into our souls. Emotion is, in fact, a major candidate for such a window. Intellect is suspect, but your feelings won’t lead you wrong. Just get in touch with those, and you’ll know who you are.

At the same time, in philosophy and elsewhere in culture, there’s also suspicion about this real, true “self”. Adorno’s skepticism took hold, or maybe it was his sense that our problems needed something more than that old version of authenticity, the search for the true self that ignored our material and social world. He was not an old-style Marxist who thought that all we had to do was come to class consciousness by understanding our material alienation, and all would be well. Like the other critical theorists, he recognized that a great deal of our alienation came symbolically and culturally. He and the other critical theorists wanted to account for the problem of Nazi Germany, specifically, the question of why people who had clearly been under great economic stress since WWI, but who also had great art and culture during that time, could have turned to Hitler as an answer to their problems. Hitler offered authenticity – Blut und Boden, blood and soil, that captured the imagination and gave Germans a birthright in a place. The trouble was, this was all a sham, and authenticity just got manipulated, to disastrous ends. Adorno and the others saw that propaganda and culture had been used effectively to create a compelling but false version of reality. Authenticity, it turned out, could be faked.

Fast forward to our time. It’s not the same time as Adorno’s. At the end of the day, in Adorno’s time, there was still a sense that there was a truth at the bottom of everything. Propaganda disguised, distorted, misdirected, and inverted reality, but there was still a reality to do all that to. And then, The Left® invented postmodernism, or so the story goes. According to most of the world, this was the view that there is no reality, everything is just what you want it to be, everything was therefore relative, and so there could be no such thing as authenticity. Never mind that that depiction has little to do with what postmodernism actually is (or was), it was the version that caught the public imagination.

Now, The Right® was initially horrified at this. To the extent that The Right® was identified with conservatism (and, that is an equation that is debatable), there was a sense that the true authentic person was exactly the thing that was to be conserved. The “traditional family” was the location of that authentic person. The authentic person had character attributes stemming from inside of him/her. The authentic person was guided by a higher hand and holy rules. The authentic person was truly free, and that person’s interactions, in the form of market activity, formed the basis of all our social institutions, our prosperity, and all that is good about the world.

And then something interesting happened. The Right® realized that postmodernism might actually be useful. Ron Suskind reported, during the Bush presidency, the quintessential statement of this view:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

The “guys like me” were The Left®, who had previously been identified with postmodernism, but who were now seen as simply weak-willed. In an almost Nietzschean move, the speaker (later identified as Karl Rove) established that authenticity was a virtue of the weak, not of the strong.

So, whereas Adorno was suspicious of authenticity because he thought it disguised the real causes of people’s alienation from the world, Rove rejected authenticity because it held the empire back from creating its own reality. Adorno thought that authenticity stood in the way of truly making the world a better place, whereas Rove thought that it stood in the way of the empire asserting its power and achieving its goals.

Of course, Rove said that in 2004. And a lot has happened since then. We have a candidate in the Republican primary who latched onto authenticity as a prime virtue (Santorum), and another for whom authenticity seems to be about as deep as an Etch-A-Sketch drawing (Romney). But we also have the Tea Party, the Occupy movement, and the Ron Paul phenomenon, all of which trade in a desire for truth and reality in government (having said that, they differ deeply on what that truth and reality is, and seem differently inclined to taking empirical or scientific evidence seriously). Everyone on The Right® trips over themselves to cater to the most extreme elements of their movement, in hopes of showing their authenticity bona fides. After all, if a little capitalism is good, lots must be better. If a little military activity is good, lots must be better. More = better = truly authentic. It’s what a real Republican has come to mean.

People clearly desire something authentic, in politics, in life, everywhere. We want to know what people “really” think, what the “real” best decision is in shopping, in life, in everything. Whereas once we could tell the difference between reality and artifice or presentation, now we can’t. We can’t even buy a mattress or a piece of clothing anymore, because we can’t know how to compare anything. A lot of people feel like they are free-floating.

So, messages of authenticity are attractive. I wondered, months ago, why Santorum wasn’t doing better than he was. It was clear that he was projecting authenticity, and that he most likely really believed what he was saying. Now he’s in contention, and is the darling of the more=better=authentic crowd. But just like Adorno realized a long time ago, authenticity can be faked. The one doing the faking may even buy his own schtick, but it doesn’t make it true. There are some pretty good clues as to when it’s being faked. If it requires that we privilege some over others, it’s probably fake. If it requires that a particular group be vilified, it’s probably fake. If it means that you can willfully distort the other side, it’s fake. If it means that you can ignore science, create your own science, or pick and choose what science fits your version of the world and what doesn’t, it’s probably fake.

Is there a place for authenticity anymore? I think so, but not as a cover for the real conditions people live in, and not as a political calculation. It has to be something other than that. That impulse people feel, in both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement, there’s something to it. Even though the answers may be problematic (in the Tea Party, almost invariably, and in the Occupy movement, at least sometimes), the inarticulate question of the heart is still there. What’s real? What can enable me to go forward? How can we feel ok about who we are? Do we have to live with this gut-wrenching fear that the future will be a disaster, because of what we are doing today? These are all, in one way or other, questions about authenticity. We just haven’t yet found the way to ask these so that they won’t lead opportunists and ideologues to use them against us.

A prime example of fake authenticity--the posed, costumed cowboy pic complete with ties and suit coats. (Click on the pic for further explanation.) Bruce thinks these guys look a lot like Romney, Paul, Gingrich, and Santorum. That's Mitt, Ron, Newt, and Ricky to you.

SOPA Strike

I don’t have time today to figure out how to black out this blog in protest, but please know that I support the ongoing internet strike against the over-limiting bills that are in Congress.

The Sweet Hereafter

Today’s post commemorates Mychael Danna‘s soundtrack music, but also the film it was written for, The Sweet Hereafter, directed by Atom Egoyan, and the novel of the same name by Russell Banks. The novel and the movie, though distinct, both illuminate the aftermath of a tragic accident of a school bus and how it changes the people of a small town.

This is as wintry a tune as can be, and, though we don’t have much in the way of cold weather in Florida, I know that many are going about new semesters at school (or just another work week) in the snow or chilly rain or snappish air today. May this song make us all take a moment to remember to be careful in all our rushing around.

All of us, no matter the weather, suffer the blame game. We give it and we receive it from others and ourselves. At times designating responsibility is perfectly appropriate, but often the anger that goes along with blame masks the emotion that’s more at root and more genuine: sorrow. That old human condition is as tough as it is beautiful.

Here’s the trailer for and review of the film, and a brief interview with Russell Banks about his inspiration for the novel. And here’s an auto playlist for Mychael Danna in case you have more time for peaceful, interesting music in your day or evening.

Silent Night/7 O’Clock News

I often have difficulty finding time to reflect during the holidays, though it should be an important part of the season. As one year draws to a close and another looms, as the better part of the world celebrates salvation of one sort or another, and as we gather with our families, it seems that contemplation should play a role. However, in most of our Western world, the holidays are a whirlwind, a hurly-burly, almost a melee of materialism.

I debated a lot about what song to post this week—or whether to post a poem instead—and, in fact, I grew fearful of being a drag. So, I made myself go ahead and be a bit of a drag: it won’t hurt the crazy, over-the-top, excessiveness of the twenty-first century holiday if I take a little bit of air out of it. And I promise that Thursday I am cooking up something fun.

Simon & Garfunkel’s rendition of “Silent Night” with the overdub of a version of the evening news from 1966, for me, captures the ultra-mixed nature of the human condition. We have exaltation, and we also have depravity and war. We have the divine and we have the evil.

May we all, every last one of us, spend a little time on the side of peace this year.


If I remembered nothing else about Alice Sebold’s memoir Lucky, I would remember the reason for that title. Sebold, who was raped at knifepoint while a college student at Syracuse University, was told by the police immediately afterward that she had been “lucky” not to have also been murdered.

Unlike Sebold, I have never been raped by a stranger on a dark city street, but I have been told repeatedly how lucky I am when it seems an odd concept to apply. It’s hard to argue with this statement, as, yes, things could almost always be worse. When one survives, when one has a loving family, when one lives without severe economic hardship, when one has decent health insurance, one is lucky indeed. So, yes, I am lucky.

Still, I find it peculiar that so many people are so eager to tell me that I’m lucky, or worse, that I am blessed. This came up again a few weeks ago when I was in an elevator going to see my podiatrist about the newly diagnosed arthritis in my foot. I ran into a woman that I had met through my work with the UCF Book Festival. I hadn’t seen her in quite a while, as last year I’d missed some meetings after my brain hemorrhage. When she asked about my absence, I filled her in. She looked me up and down and immediately noted that God must have been looking out for me and that I was blessed to have escaped unscathed. (A certain Christian version of “lucky” is “blessed,” though those folks might see a big difference since they believe in a huge difference between random luck and God’s beneficial intervention. To me, these two terms have substantially the same effect, which is to deny my inferior suffering.)

A couple of weeks later, I was diagnosed with another health problem, which the docs and I are still sorting out. This is potentially a very serious issue, and no doubt I’ll talk about it here once I know what is going on. At any rate, within two hours after I’d received the initial news about this new wrinkle in my medical saga, my phone rang and it was my endocrinologist’s nurse, to whom I had placed a call with a question a few days earlier. When I told her about my new diagnosis, she, too, immediately launched into a discourse on how lucky I was because what had befallen me hadn’t been more severe than it was. She went on to tell me how she had seen patients who’d had more severe versions of my problem and how “pathetic” they were.

On the whole, yes, I feel lucky. But in that moment, within two hours after I’d received news of a new, serious health problem, it seemed incredibly insensitive for her to launch on my luckiness. Didn’t she know that my chances of becoming one of those severely impaired patients had just doubled or quadrupled? I wanted to tell her to go out in the street and find someone with no major health problems at all. “Tell that person she’s lucky,” I thought.

A couple of days later I talked to one of my friends who a few years ago received a double mastectomy due to Stage IV breast cancer, and I asked her if people tell her that, too. Of course they do. She said that she’s even been told she was lucky to have a double mastectomy because she just doesn’t have to worry about that any more. Some fools, she told me, even tell her that her breast cancer should be the best thing that ever happened to her. We talked about the difference between believing that an illness is a blessing and believing that a person can take an illness experience and learn and go on with better insight. Some people don’t seem to understand the distinction. We both feel that it’s up to us to determine the meaning of our illness experiences, not up to strangers to assume a stock meaning such as “If you’re not dead or severely crippled, you are lucky.”

On the surface, of course, it’s not bad to be reminded that things could be worse. The other day I did that very thing when an acquaintance posted on Facebook the question, “Could this day get any worse?” It seemed to mostly be about things like her sports team losing, so I said, “Yes, yes, it could. But I hope it gets better.”

I hope it gets better. Even when someone has some small thing go wrong, they deserve our empathy or at least our sympathy, the latter being recognition of a feeling we might not share. I sometimes wonder why people are so stingy about such things. I’ve come to believe that it’s a very selfish defense mechanism, augmented by an oversimplified belief that being upbeat is always beneficial. I mean, I don’t care that my friend’s sports team is losing—really, really don’t care—but I can still give her a word of encouragement. And encouragement doesn’t deny reality. I’m not going to tell her that her sports team is blessed because they lost 21-14 rather than 21-0.

In fact, this lack of empathy borders on the narcissistic, and I feel as though it has become rampant in our society as the tenets of positive psychology get oversimplified and dumbed down. Because people are so filled with this idea that “positive” is helpful, they fail to even register what other people are feeling, much less to respond appropriately.

And there is a huge fear of being “sucked down,” being forced into negativity. These people who want me to feel lucky don’t want my sadness or concerns about my health to worry them. But one of the things that is often forgotten in the common sources of advice about overcoming negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, depression, and fear is that the biggest fear of all can sometimes be the fear of these emotions. What does it mean when what we have is an unhealthy fear of fear? If a drop of sadness threatens to flood us with sadness? If we are more anxious about anxiety than about its original source? We are hard-wired to have these negative emotions, and they are part of our survival mechanism. To constantly blunt them with platitudes is to live a stunted life.

I don’t mean that we should respond to every and all emotional demands. Some are inappropriate. Some we don’t have the means to deal with. But it is just as easy to say, “I don’t know what to say. Glad it’s not worse” or “Hang in there” or “I hope it gets better” than it is to tell someone else they are blessed.

I feel very lucky about many aspects of my life. But I sure as hell don’t feel lucky about my health these days. I am trying to get better at expressing my negative reaction to those who assume I feel only lucky. I did manage to tell my endocrinologist’s nurse that it wasn’t very helpful for me right now to hear about all those worse off than me. But she kept insisting that her message was one I should hear. In person I have to admit I would have been tempted to shove her across the room. Instead, I am trying to practice my words of explanation and wondering how close I have to get to “F*ck off” before I can make people like that get it. Whatever response I have to health news, it’s up to me to decide, not up to them to tell me how I should feel.

To Politic or Not to Politic

Photo by Daniel Schwen via Wikimedia Commons.

That is the question. Truly, I am not much good at it.

On Monday I made a rather veiled post because I couldn’t yet deal directly with my Sunday. Even now my mind reels with a bunch of different things that came up and that I thought in response to the situation. The situation was this: on Sunday, I spent two hours on an airplane being attacked by three men for my politics. Trust me, I didn’t start it, but the only way for me to survive the conversation was… well, to persevere.

The least active of these men was an airplane pilot (flying for free as a perk of his job, I might add). He immediately launched a speech about how he home-schools his children because the public schools in Florida are questionable, but how he moved here because it was an inexpensive place to raise his family. Go figure. He promptly turned over and pretended to sleep, but then later woke up and told us what the “facts” are.

Between me and the pilot was a divorced businessman with two engineering degrees and an MBA who brow-beat me throughout the flight, frequently citing statistics I know aren’t true and for which he had no source, telling me that numbers are all we have, and frequently returning to the “fact” that money is everything that’s important. (Not to Jebus! I wanted to say.) He started the conversation by telling me that he disagreed with home schooling and whispering into my ear about his disrespect for the pilot; his only child attends a prestigious private school, and he relocated in order be close to whatever school his son wanted to attend. I tried to fight the good fight.

All the while I was getting glares from the beefy redneck in a green sports-logo shirt in the row in front of us. It became clear that were there not a seat and several people between us, he would have physically attacked me. Instead he waited until the end of the flight to yell at me about how he’d had to listen to me all through the flight, that I was a “damn typical liberal thinker.” I tried to tell him that it wasn’t me who started the conversation, but I couldn’t get a word in. Steam was practically coming out of his ears. It occurred to me that what I should tell him was that he really, really shouldn’t wear that shiny color of green, that it really made his red face look as though it would explode. Not at all flattering.

But, seriously, it’s no fun to be attacked. And it’s disturbing to live in a world where some people not only disagree with you, but truly believe that you have no right to exist and would kill you if they could get away with it.

This is one of the huge differences between the left and the right, at least so I tell myself. I believe these men have a right to exist. They manipulate through one dodge after another, they claim authority and superiority, they believe their bad luck is someone else’s fault but that they deserve and have earned every bit of good luck that has come their way. It makes me insane, but I try to acknowledge their right to exist. I may despair of them, and I may be outraged by them, and I may even plot about things that could change their minds. But I do not wish to wipe them off the face of the earth the way they wish it so on me.

There was nothing I could say, though, and there never will be. In their minds I don’t have a right to exist and my difference of opinion is not something to be queried or examined, just something to be derided.

I know it’s nothing new to anyone, but it still makes me sad that we have become a nation where people can’t hear each other and where the arguments have become so irrational that it’s impossible to get through. There almost seems to be no such thing as the “facts” as spin doctors massage numbers and statisticians twist results this way and that. I kept trying to tell the businessman that his facts didn’t sound much like my facts, but he was unwilling to consider anything other than that my facts were wrong.

This man had a veneer of education and politeness. But our conversation on healthcare soon demonstrated how in danger I really was near him. First, he brought healthcare up. As soon, however, as it became clear that I know a thing or two about healthcare, he told me that I was changing the subject from the economy to healthcare. Second, when I told him that the U.S. is the only developed nation in the world that doesn’t have some kind of government-sponsored health care and that my husband, a Canadian, is typically devoted to government-backed healthcare, he said that he knew some Canadians that had fled to the U.S. for healthcare. I told him that I suspected he was reporting from what the right says, not from personal experience, and that even if a few grow disaffected (no system is perfect and Canada has its share of right-wingers) the majority of Canadians are devoted. But when I tried to tell him that I know several individuals who have had terrible times due to lack of basic healthcare here in the U.S., he said dismissively that individual stories mean nothing.

When the individual stories are his, when the statistics support his argument, then they are valid; otherwise, they aren’t. And he doesn’t quibble about the particular truths. Instead he claims that each method of my argument is bad even though he’s just attempted the same method.

Shudder. But it got even worse. “Look, he told me, we all want people to have a roof over their heads, to have enough to eat, and to be taken care of when they’re ill.” He acted all socially concerned. But when I asked him how that was to be if we didn’t have government-mandated healthcare, he refused to answer. Instead, he leapt on exemptions. He clearly knew nothing specific about this, but he said that Congress should have the plan everyone had to have. I said that maybe we had found a point of agreement, but that Congress had pursued a plan that has a lot of unevenness instead of universal socialized medicine run by the state. The latter, I said, would never pass because of people like him. So the private profit industry remains, for better or worse. “So you’d rather have a universal system?” I asked him.

You’d have thought I put his hand to the stove burner. “Just don’t ever ask me to pay for someone else’s healthcare,” he spat out, showing his first sign of agitation.

“So, you’re one of those debate audience types,” I asked, “who would vote just to let the injured or ill die if they don’t have private insurance?”

He couldn’t bring himself to say that. He said everyone should receive care. “How?” I said. “Do you mean that charities should cover it or what?”

“Healthcare is not a right,” he said.

“To you it’s not,” I said. “To me, it should be. To most of the governments in the developed world it is a right.”

“It’s not!” he said. “Those people have made bad choices. Don’t hold those places up as examples.”

“So you would just let those people die?” I asked. “By the way,” I said, “the U.S. has the highest per capita expenditure on healthcare and we have a terrible record on life span.”

“It’s not a right,” he said.

“If it’s not a right,” I said, “then you mean you would just let people die?”

It could have gone on this way for ever. I really wanted to let go, to stop it, but I just felt that would seem like defeat, and I wasn’t willing to be defeated.

Thank Jebus for the landing of planes. After that I only had to deal with the redneck guy accusing me of being selfish because I temporarily moved forward to get my fragile bag out of the overhead bin where I’d been forced to locate it several seats away from mine after all the gentlemen had shoved me aside to grab up all the nearby space.

This is crazy and incoherent. Sorry. It hasn’t been long enough. It replays like a bad dream. Others wisely tell me not to talk with these people. But it saddens me to live in this world, split.

Bridge Over Troubled Water

Posted on

When I was young—and I mean pre-teen—my friends and I worshipped Simon & Garfunkel. We called their songbook our “bible,” and listened to them all the time. Why we were such moody children I’ve no idea, but I still love S&G like nothing else, and I miss the straightforward friendships of childhood.

“Bridge Over Troubled Water” isn’t my favorite S&G song—it would have to compete with “The Boxer” and “Homeward Bound,” both of which I really love more. But “Bridge Over Troubled Water” reminds me of that particular set of friends that I met in 5th grade and who I thought would always be my closest friends. I couldn’t imagine life without them. They and their horses and dogs and cats and the many, many allegorical stories we wrote together certainly contributed to the person I am today.

I first made friends with Mouse and Barndoor, who are sisters. We were also friends with a girl named Bee, and after I moved across the state another girl named Maggot joined the crew. My nickname was Sa, but my little icon was a drawing of a smiling saw. We each had a cutesy icon that always accompanied our signatures in our many letters. Today I suppose we would have avatars. But back then, we sent letters with wax seals and elaborate news. We all saw each other for weeks in the summer, and our parents trundled us back and forth across the state of Tennessee for these visits. I rode the Greyhound bus by myself.

I haven’t seen any of these women in years. I heard a rumor once that Bee is dead, and I haven’t been able to find her anywhere on the internet. I might be able to get in touch with her brother, now a Hollywood producer, and ask him: Death or marriage? How did she disappear so completely? But I don’t want to ask him painful questions, and he might not even remember me.

Maggot has become a physician like her father and lives near my mother in a completely different state than where we grew up. Maybe some time when I’m visiting, I will look her up.

It’s Mouse and Barndoor who haunt me, though. I loved them so much. From what I understand Barndoor has fared the better of the two, though her older sister dominated their childhood and was always more popular. Barndoor and I had in common that younger-sibling thing. I tried to stay in touch, but Barndoor was standoffish. I think she couldn’t wait to get away from her childhood. The facts I know are that Barndoor went through a short phase of evangelical Christianity, married and divorced very young, became a nurse, and at latest news was married to a “little person.”

Mouse, on the other hand, took all her potential and moved to New York City where she was a paralegal and then married a wealthy heir and became addicted to drugs. For years, I had no clue what was going on. She entered a master’s program in anthropology but didn’t finish it. She quit working. She volunteered at a senior center but then didn’t any more. I would plan to be in New York and see her and her husband, but she would call and cancel at the last minute. Sometimes this would be dramatic: they’d be in a cab on the way to meet me, and she would call and say she was terribly ill and had to go home. It was always her stomach, and her mother had died of a sudden stomach illness when we were teenagers, so I thought she just associated me with that painful memory.

When I was back home in Knoxville, I’d go to see their dad. Max (I had given up his nickname—Muck—as I got older) lived eccentrically—for a while on a houseboat, always with numerous cats and dogs and their barely contained (or not contained) mess. I would perch on the cleanest corner of a kitchen chair, and we would talk over the latest photos of Mouse and Barndoor on his refrigerator. After he was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, we talked about blood sugars, and I tried to encourage him to get better medical care, as his clearly wasn’t good. Finally, he told me that Mouse had been in rehab after rehab, but that her wealthy husband had given up on her and moved out. I saw him one last time in a nursing home, after his leg had been amputated.

With Mouse, I followed with calls and cards, with brochures about programs to help women re-enter the work force, with one or two visits that actually happened. We talked about her dog and my cats. We talked about my work and her dreams. I thought I might be able to be her bridge over troubled water. But eventually, Max died and Mouse became unreachable. Nothing ever got better for long, and I got tired. I gave up, though I still mail an occasional birthday card and hope against hope that she has found her way.

I also still have a tiny cross-stitch pillow that hangs on a doorknob, which she sent me after one of my flurries of support. It says, “Old friends are the best friends.”


Posted on

Many songs evoke tears based on a narrative basis–the lyrics tell a sad tale of woe or heartbreak–or a visceral basis–the “modulations in pitch, intensity, tempo, and rhythm” connect to our primitive sense of different types of expressive movement (“Why Does Music Make Us Feel?”). But John Lennon’s “Imagine” is a truly great song partly because it also evokes emotion on an intellectual basis. It is sad precisely because it is about an ideal that humanity never achieves. If I ever have a day when it’s hard to bring tears to my eyes, all I need do is listen to this one.

Of course, the song is also loaded with the tragic death of John Lennon himself, and nowadays with our nostalgia for more hopeful times, times when in spite of the horrors of the Vietnam War and social upheaval, a large swath of the population believed that positive social change and greater social justice were possible, even at our fingertips.

Noting that there are scads of YouTube versions of this song, I surmised that this hope is still alive. However, as I sorted through the versions and read the comments attached to many of them, I was horrified. The tendency of internet comment functions to attract nastiness was on hugely ironic display with many fights over interpretations and proper use of the song, whether soldiers themselves are good or evil, whether John Lennon was great or not, whether Mark David Chapman was evil or not, whether or not the song is anti-Christian, etc. etc. etc., all with plenty of vitriol. One guy on one site finally said, “Hey, the point of the song is to quit fighting!!!”