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Best of Times, Worst of Times

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You may have noticed that I’ve gotten a little flaky lately. It happens to the best of us bloggers, though I have managed for more than a year to be fairly consistent in my twice-a-week schedule. It’s frustrating to go to a blog that sounds exciting or that is promoted on another blog or website only to find that its author has only ever posted once or twice ever or spends more time promising to “get back to it” than saying anything else.

But, as those bumper stickers used to say, Shit Happens.

I can’t feel too badly about it, either. One of the things about a rich life is that it is full of “so many things that we should all be as happy as kings” (to quote Robert Louis Stevenson). Or, at any rate, we should all be as overwhelmed with options and decisions and demands as kings, kings that are more than decorative anyway.

It’s been a wildly rich time around here—some of it wonderful, some of it just the painful maintenance of life and home. What has been great about it for me is that I’ve been able to keep some kind of productivity throughout, even if it hasn’t always been Joyous Crybaby. This is new for me—usually I am easily derailed. But this week, in spite of having our entire house re-piped, with its concomitant chaos of workmen and about thirty holes in our house’s walls; in spite of having to move all my clothes out of the closet and empty two tall, six-shelf bookcases in my study (still not restored); in spite of late-breaking announcements of class-size increases at my university and the requisite revamping of syllabi; in spite of whole new episodes of politicking over UCF issues; in spite of Jupiter’s cancer being back and him often to the vet again—I have kept working, on both the Oxford project and a new essay that I finally sent off on Monday.

I’ve tried to think about what has made this difference for me. One thing was a simple suggestion made by my therapist—when I started freaking out about the same old crap coming my way compliments of my employer, she said to me, “Try thinking about what’s different now, not just what’s the same.”

This has been a great strategy for me. Although I love my career choice and being a professor of creative writing, I have a frankly sometimes lousy employment situation. (Most of us do at least from time to time or in some ways. It is not a good era for workers of any type, professional or otherwise.) For a while, I didn’t think I would be able to tolerate it much longer, and one of the things that I’ve worked on this year is to change my ways of dealing with this work-related stress. I had to quit letting my university define me, and I have made great strides in that regard—expanding my community outside UCF, re-focusing on my writing rather than my service to the university in the way of curricular and course development, committee work, and other thankless and frankly mostly ultimately useless tasks.

Many things in my work life have changed for the better over the past year, and so I keep thinking about those things, not the same-old-same-old things. Many new opportunities have opened up, and I am sorry only that I won’t be able to do everything.

This blog has been a part of those good changes. Bruce told me this morning that I now have 322 subscribers, and I said, “Wow. Last time I checked it was just 50!” That’s exciting to me.

I also added a few new features to Joyous Crybaby this past week—I added an “About Lisa Roney” page—for those people who find the blog without knowing me already—and I set up pages to list the art, songs, movies & TV, and writing that I sometimes feature in posts. About this last—I would love to hear from my readers with more suggestions about that feature. I can at first just list artists or particular works, songs, movies, TV episodes, and particular pieces of writing or authors—and then later, if you want to do a guest post on them, great, or maybe I will incorporate more commentary later on—and then I can link them on the lists. So let me have suggestions, via the comments section or email at roney dot lisa at gmail dot com.

Bruce quibbled with me about this last—he said, “But ‘All Along the Watchtower’ doesn’t make me cry. I think of it as more of an angry song.” Indeed, I am terrible at titles and had a hard time figuring out how to succinctly label those pages. Any suggestions are welcome.

Another thing that Bruce pointed out is that there might be room for yet another one of those pages that would include a list of a different kind of writing—that is, more analytical stuff as opposed to the experiential literature currently listed. This might include analyses of happiness, such as Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided or Pascal Bruckner’s Perpetual Euphoria or of sadness in relation to the arts, such as James Elkin’s Pictures & Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings. There’s even a new book out by Adam Brent Houghtaling called This Will End in Tears: The Miserabilist Guide to Music. I’m going to have to look that up, but I want to be careful not to try to become too much of an archivist.

I leave you with a hallmark quote from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. It is, after all, the 200th anniversary year of his birth, and I think he would understand perfectly the relevant bumper sticker, though a man of his times would likely have resorted to the minced oath of “Stuff Happens.”

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

In the meantime, thanks for hanging in there during further blog evolutions. And happy crying!

Bloody Thursday

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Bloody Thursday memorial at the ULWU office, Mason & Beach streets, San Francisco, 2009. Photo by Liz Allardyce.

Today is the anniversary of Bloody Thursday, a dark day of San Francisco’s Maritime Strike in 1934. In yesterday’s many noisy proclamations of gratitude for our freedom in the U.S.A., few probably remembered Bloody Thursday. (I myself had barely heard of it.)

On that day, in the midst of a long-term strike, two men were shot and killed by police as the police attempted to break up strike barricades that prevented the flow of goods to and from the port via the Embarcadero. Later that night, the strikers were forced to withdraw by the use of the California National Guard, but sympathy generated by the funerals of the two dead men changed the general tenor in San Francisco, and soon the International Longshoremen’s Association (now the International Longshore and Warehouse Union) was joined in a general strike by dozens of area unions. Although the ultimate settling of the series of strikes all up and down the West Coast did not grant unions every concession they sought, and though there was violence well beyond Bloody Thursday, it is often credited as being a turning point that helped to establish the power of labor.

The ILWU’s “Why We Continue to Honor Bloody Thursday”
A Washington State history site on the overall West Coast strikes of 1934
Trailer for a PBS film on Bloody Thursday

When I was growing up, my parents both belonged to the National Education Association, but to me it was indistinguishable from the many other professional organizations to which they belonged. It was a time when what unions had accomplished in the previous decades was taken for granted, and I was hardly aware that my parents were union members. No more. Unions are now under attack again in our country, and those of us who rely on them to assure our minimally fair treatment and compensation have cause to be worried.

It is also one of those things that makes my jaw drop with disbelief that anyone who is a working person today can speak out against unions. Not that unions are perfect—they are subject to the same kind of corruption and mis-management as any other kind of human organization—but they are indeed a prime support of the so-called “freedom” that we celebrate, unless, that is, we only celebrate the freedom of the wealthy. More and more, it seems that large segments of our population somehow believe that wealth is justification for anything.

The implication of this, of course, is that the wealthy are actually better than the rest of us and deserve what they have. This is part and parcel of the acceptance of Mitt Romney noting that he “won’t apologize for being successful.” But what does it mean that millions of working-class Americans buy this line of reasoning, at least when it comes along with largely fake “conservative” emotional appeals. (See here for a more thorough analysis of Romney’s finances, just out from Vanity Fair.)

I am stumped by this phenomenon, but I also believe it is related to the positive psychology movement that indicates we have a “choice” about everything that happens to us. And it is in this way that I believe that Oprah, who is a big Obama supporter, nonetheless undermines reality-based politics and policies with her incessant, wealthy-woman insistence on the legitimacy of positive psychology. I guess she needs to believe that she deserves all of her wealth and that the rest of us could have it, too, if we only believed in ourselves. She retains one foot in the real-person world based on her modest beginnings, and therefore she can show some sympathy to others, but still… she’s forgotten too much.

In a recent conversation with an old friend, an incident from my past came up. Once, when I was helping to register voters in a poor neighborhood, one older black woman collapsed wearily into a chair as I went over to help her fill out the form. I gave her a pen and asked if she had any questions about anything the form said or asked. She sat back for a moment and eyed me up and down with clear suspicion on her face. “How is it that you here?” she asked me. “A nice, white lady like you—how is it that you on our side?”

Without hesitating, or even really thinking, I answered her. “Ever since I was twelve years old and diagnosed with diabetes, I have known that people don’t always get what they deserve.”

She nodded and turned back to filling out the form, gripping the pen and bearing down hard.

Truly, though, I don’t know. I had parents and a brother who understood this without having had diabetes, and grandparents who did, too. It was an answer, at least, that the black lady filling out the form could believe in, and that has often made me think about how she needed a reason to trust me. Comprehension of her situation without a bridge was inconceivable to her.

Yet, I remain flabbergasted that people buy into the story that everyone gets what they deserve. I want to start a new mantra:

If you are dumb enough to believe that everyone gets what they deserve, then I can’t wait for you to get what you deserve.

Of course, I know that it’s just as likely that you won’t.

Does anyone understand this belief better than I do? Is there any explanation for people who resent their own lot in life but who are willing to point to the even more downtrodden and say they must deserve it? Is there any effective way to point out the delusion inherent in this line of thought?

In my musings on the anniversary of Bloody Thursday, I wonder why so many want to strip away protections from others rather than extending them to more. I wonder why if they don’t feel they have what they deserve in terms of job security and working conditions, they think that others shouldn’t have it either. I wonder that those who have health insurance want it denied to anyone else, and I wonder even more at those without it who don’t want to be “forced” to share the financial consequences of their health risks. I wonder at working people’s susceptibility these days to being divided and conquered by the wealthiest of the wealthy, whose only interest is in maintaining their own power, their freedom to do to the rest of us what they will and to use us for their own ends, their freedom to take away ours.

Freedom in this country at least theoretically means that people have the opportunities to pursue health and happiness. The growing income inequity impinges on that, as does a lack of basic healthcare provisions for all citizens. We need to make sure that we all have those opportunities, not just a select, self-appointed few.

I think in the future, I will celebrate July 5 right along with July 4. They seem to me two sides to the same coin of freedom–freedom to rise a little bit as much as the freedom to accumulate vast wealth unimpeded.

Terrorized by the Supreme Court on Healthcare

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“Death of a Sinner,” part of The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things by Hieronymous Bosch, c. 1500. The Four Last Things are death, judgment, hell, and heaven. I know not everyone agrees, but I’ve always thought that leaving folks to die by the roadside is a sure turn toward hell.

Update: I’m so happy to report that I was wrong, and that today, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. I feel hugely relieved. Good analysis by MSNBC here.

I’m writing this with the fearful expectation that the Supreme Court will rule tomorrow that the health-care reform law is unconstitutional. After all, they’ve once again affirmed their ridiculous and absurd assertion that corporations are people and that, therefore, elections are for sale.

There are, as usual, much greater and more knowledgeable minds than mine that have weighed in on these issues in ways vastly subtle and complex. That’s fine, but I need to express my own sheer terror at what is coming. I am afraid, very afraid.

The main issue that the radical right has trotted out to argue that the Affordable Care Act is problematic is that it requires people to purchase a “product” they may not want, or else pay a fine. As usual, the Republicans turn logic on its head in order to make many of the people this Act would help most think it will harm them or is unfair to them. The Republicans have a real knack for that.

That certain elements in the Republican Party can sucker some of the public into believing their upside-down story is one thing. But that a Supreme Court judge might do so, much less the five that are likely to rule along ideological lines against the health care law, makes me frantic.

Usually, I speak out about health care reform as something beneficial to people who, unlike me, do not have health insurance and who suffer, potentially even losing their lives, because of this situation. Usually, I present my support as a matter of compassion and fairness to those less well off than I am, less protected from the vicissitudes of health.

Homeless and Cold by Ed Yourdon. This man is our stereotype of a person who needs charity healthcare. I’m fine with contributing to the care of such people, but unfortunately far more people besides those living on the streets are dying due to lack of healthcare. They’re just more hidden from view.

By no means are all of these people homeless, shiftless, or undeserving of care (if anyone is). I tell the stories of a few people I know:

* One of my former undergraduate students, a brilliant young man now in graduate school at NYU, suddenly in his senior year of college began having seizures. His working class parents had no health insurance coverage for him. I helped him find the resources to obtain health insurance, but he still carries the debt from a couple of hospitalizations and will carry it for many years to come. His entire future will be affected by this debt—his ability to buy a house, to provide for his children and their education, to start a business, etc., etc. He is not yet 25 years old.

* One friend who worked independently as a hairdresser was suddenly struck with cervical cancer in her thirties. Because she had other well-educated and persistent friends who helped her navigate the system, she got help, but she will be paying the hospital off for the rest of her life.

* My friend, a sweet and talented young woman who worked on an academic project with me—on grant funding without benefits—suddenly deteriorated into a psychotic state over a period of a few weeks. Several friends and her boyfriend rallied around and got her committed to the charity mental health hospital, where the only expertise anyone seemed to have related to drug and alcohol addiction. After her premature release due to a lack of health insurance, her boyfriend and brother took twelve-hour shifts watching her, but one night she managed to slip away. She went to a friend’s house—one who didn’t quite understand her state of mind—and after everyone went to bed, she tied a concrete block around her waist and drowned herself in a swimming pool. She should have still been in the hospital.

* In November 2009, a man walked into an office building here in Orlando and shot six people, killing one young father. His mental illness had responded to treatment in the past, but, as his mother-in-law reported, after he lost his job and his health insurance, he couldn’t afford to pay for his medications and treatment.

These cases have had a local impact on me, but they are not at all unusual. They happen on a daily basis all over the country. In a 2009 study by Harvard Medical School, researchers estimated that 45,000 deaths a year occur in the U.S. due to a lack of health insurance. That’s one every 12 minutes, and it doesn’t even count the ones like the young father who was murdered. These are my motivation for supporting universal healthcare and, short of that, Obamacare.

However, as I have contemplated the purported unconstitutionality of the “individual mandate” for most Americans to purchase health insurance, I must admit that I see where the right wing is going now, and it makes me tremble with even more fear.

The only way, in fact, that I can see the health care system as being something that “consumers” should be able to opt out of is that they will agree or be forced to opt out of it in a very dramatic and severe way. This article notes that the Justice Department countered the arguments about health insurance being a “product” that some might not want by saying “that since every American will need medical care at some point in their lives, individuals do not ‘choose’ whether to participate in the health care market.”

I couldn’t agree more, and I hope this logic will prevail. Lately, when I have one of those right-wingers get in my face and say, “Just don’t force me to buy insurance,” I now counter, “Then just don’t force me to pay your emergency room bills.”

I don’t really feel this way, but I could also add that I am very tired of having my own medical bills inflated to cover the costs of people who never pay theirs and who don’t carry health insurance to help them do so when it would be possible for them to do so. In other words, all of those people walking around with no health insurance are being carried by those of us who more regularly participate in the health care system. We have been paying for them for a long time.

Democrats don’t emphasize this side of the argument, because they can see, I’m guessing, exactly what I’m seeing in the future. There are also plenty of Republicans who do have health insurance and what they say often is, “Just don’t force me to pay for someone else’s health care.” If the Affordable Care Act is ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, then we are really opening ourselves up to a kind of divide that will allow more and more people to die. We are opening ourselves more and more to those who believe that if you don’t have health insurance, it must be your own “responsibility,” and that if you get sick that is somehow your own fault as well. Would that we could sort out those at fault and those not. But the Tea Partiers who don’t have health insurance are insane, that much I know.

The 45,000 a year estimated to die from lack of health insurance will continue to rise. That number is already up from an estimated 18,000 deaths in 2002 due to drops in the rates of the insured. Nearly a million lost their health insurance between 2007 and 2008 alone, and “public hospitals and clinics are shuttering or scaling back across the country.”

In other words, those radical elements in the Republican Party who have expressed their willingness just to allow the sick to die are going to get their way. That our high court may be laying the groundwork for this abandonment of the public good is appalling. I don’t know how anyone can support this political agenda. It is cruel, immoral, stupid, and Dark-Ages-like. I hardly recognize my own country in this debate. I’m a dedicated American, but this issue more than anything makes me wonder if I will always continue to feel that I belong here. It is far more subtle than the Holocaust, and the Rwandan genocide, but we are being set up for a slaughter nonetheless.

Tea Party march on Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC, 2009, by Patriot Room. One woman sports a sign that says, “Hello Obamacare, Goodby Grandma,” an example of the kind of mischaracterizations (lies) so common on the right. Maybe we should determine admission to the ER without insurance based on voting records. I’m reaching the point where I’m ready for these folks to put their money where their mouth is and not receive healthcare if they don’t have insurance or the cash to cover it.

Gratuitous Violence About Fiction

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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.

Hallelujah

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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

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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.

–L

* * *

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.

sopastrike.com