The Unlikely Path to Literature

Nobody could have predicted that one of my greatest loves in life would be books. Not me and certainly not my parents or teachers. The most common theme that ran through my grade school, middle school and high school report cards was untapped potential, goofing off, and laziness. I got decent grades but my teachers could tell that I wasn’t applying myself, especially my teachers in English or, as we sometimes called it, Language Arts. Indeed, I was a mediocre student at best and harbored a special kind of animosity towards reading and books. To me, books were the clever invention of teachers to prevent little boys from playing outside. Summer reading lists were Hell’s itinerary, a way to burn perfectly good sunlight.

I cannot pinpoint any single event that made me a convert. The scales did not fall off my eyes in an instant. There wasn’t any single book or author. Rather it was the cumulative force of small endevours into literature. First dipping my toes into C.S. Lewis and Ernest Hemingway during lunch breaks as a lifeguard, and finding myself strangely moved in a way I had never before experienced, not even my favorite movies had made me feel this way, as though I was changed in a way that could not be reversed, seeing things in a way that could not be unseen. Then I happened on other good books. Sometimes I read a book because the idea came from somewhere on high that this was a very good and important book to read, canonical and so forth. That worked a few times. I loved (and still love) Charlotte Brontë, Shakespeare, and Richard Wright. But other times it didn’t work very well. I had to force myself to finish books by James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Jack Kerouac. But little by little, before I knew it, I was suddenly developing something resembling a literary taste that had characteristics indicating certain traditions. Traditions I had never heard of with academic names like Minimalism and High-Victorianism. Using these as guideposts I then found other authors who were part of the same clubs as my favorite authors but realized that these guideposts were rough at best, because literature of the highest level is an expression of unique personhood. So, for example, you might say that many of your friends have similar personality types but you probably have noticed they do not all act exactly the same. They might have generalizable characteristics but each is their own person. In the same way, developing a love for a certain type of literature (or of any art) is a process of self-discovery as much as anything else. You are learning about how you personally respond to certain styles. Now, the academic apparatus that produces access to those styles, genres, and groupings is not perfect. If you look for many years you will inevitably find artists who have been unjustly left out of the major canons to varying degrees of obscurity, i.e. “writer’s writers”—who are known only in specialist circles—like Samuel Beckett, Anne Carson, and Joy Williams; and the rabbit hole is about as deep as you are willing to go, to even more intense levels of geekdom and obscurity, i.e. “writer’s writer’s writers” like Robert Walser, Henry Green, and Pedro Páramo.

But, by the time I had gone this far down the rabbit hole, it was becoming apparent that my love of literature, my obsession, was going to be a lonely journey. Reading is already a solitary practice. You sit by yourself and apprehend words that were put to paper long before (sometimes very long before) they go into your brain. Now, in our time of digitization, reading is an ever more unlikely habit and therefore even more lonely. The data for book sales in the 21st century is not good. But even more than this, let me tell you dear reader, and you probably already know this, but I’ll say it anyway: it’s getting weirder and weirder, in the age of Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and Instagram, to be the person rummaging through stacks of used hardcovers as though it were a worthwhile thing to do.

I am not lamenting the slow death of books. Artforms come and go. As long as humans are humans (although, seriously, who knows how long before we all become robots?) creativity and art will find mediums of expression. But it is strange to have happened upon literature and to have been so impacted by it in its twilight years. Perhaps that is how a devotee of an artform proves their salt. By staying on the bandwagon regardless.

The weirdest part is how hard this all is to explain. I have tried many times and failed. Nothing anyone says can articulate the peculiar joy of reading. Until you happen to sit down with a book and it bites you in the right way, you cannot be preached or coaxed into it. And nothing can explain the sadness of watching your favorite art die a long and painless death as it sails away into a moonlit night to the country of the forgotten. You would like to somehow swim after the ship and bring her back to shore. But you can’t. She is too big, old, and rickety. And you are but one swimmer.

That’s kind of what it feels like.

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Pictures Worth a Thousand Kavanaughs

Today, September 28, 2018, at 1:30PM, the Senate will vote whether or not to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

This has obviously been a very large and newsy type issue with many think-pieces flying on all sides; some having gone so far as to declare the Kavanaugh hearings and impending nomination a watershed moment in American politics. At the very least current news events of this magnitude tend to take on a form that is larger than life. They are, dare I say, symbolic.

I spent a good deal of time watching the hearings yesterday. More time than I probably should have.

First, Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s accuser, came forward with allegations that when they were teenagers Kavanaugh drunkenly pinned her to a bed and attempted to rape her but was thwarted in his attempt by another boy, Mark Judge, a friend of Kavanaugh’s, who jokingly jumped on the two of them and toppled the group of them onto the floor, giving Ford time to escape the room, which had been locked.

Ford’s testimony was emotional and heartfelt—obviously symbolic for many women in America who have undergone similar experiences.

Then it was Kavanaugh’s turn. Kavanaugh had previously and unequivocally denied Ford’s allegations, plus those of two other women, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnik, each with their own stories of Kavanaugh’s behavior, but with less consensus in the media as to their credibility.

Since the hearing there seems to be more discussion of Kavanaugh’s testimony in the media, more disagreement as to its merits, as to what it symbolized, etc. Kavanaugh, a usually very mild-mannered person in his many years of public life, was, as you might expect, visibly shaken and angry—either because he was an innocent man wrongly accused of heinous acts or a guilty man rightly accused of heinous acts, on the grandest and most public stage imaginable.

Today the internet is a broiling cauldron of spicy hot-takes in re the Kavanaugh hearings. If you want to find an opinion out there on the internet that matches your own, surely you know where to find it. Or if you want to do some rage reading that calls out all the bleating zombie sheep on the other side, you know where to find that too.

I am not as interested in what the Kavanaugh hearings represent as I am in how the media talks about big events, and how the average viewer or reader’s access to these events is conditioned by the selective use of information or lack of information, and how the internet reinforces over and over the perpetuations of memes or story-lines which are marketed to us based on our taste for certain brands or flavors of media.

In 2014 Pew Research put out one of my favorite charts of all time. It’s a snapshot of the ideological makeup of some of the world’s largest and most influential media outlets:

pewpic
Pew Research

I decided to do a little experiment after the Kavanaugh hearings. Rather than pour through every article across the ideological spectrum and painstakingly piece together the logic of each position, usually with futile results, as is my usual wont, I decided to simply take the leading headlines and corresponding pictures of Kavanaugh, following the chart above, to see how each spot on the ideological spectrum was telling the story at a visual, gut level.

The results were… interesting.

  1. Breitbart
breitbart
Breitbart

2. The Blaze

theblaze
The Blaze

3. Drudge

drudge
The Drudge Report

4. Fox News

fox news
Fox News

5. The Wall Street Journal

wsj
The Wall Street Journal

6. NBC News

nbc news
NBC News

7. MSNBC

msnbc
MSNBC

8. New York Times

nyt
New York Times

9. Buzzfeed

buzzfeed
Buzzfeed

10. Slate

slate
Slate

11. The New Yorker

newyorker
The New Yorker

Is it just me or does Kavanaugh become more meek the further right you go and more menacing the further left you go?

I don’t know what the overall takeaway from this experiment is. Surely it adds little to the specifics in re the allegations against Kavanaugh, or his impending nomination.

But probably that’s up to you to decide.

Maybe it surprised you. Maybe it didn’t. In either case, it’s interesting to see how editorial decisions are made, how a public personae can be molded to fit a narrative through images so that, wherever we lie on the continuum, we can rest assured, thank goodness, that we have the one true gospel.

 

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Court Jesters, Norm MacDonald, & Imaginary Castles

   

1.

     In just about every time and place in human history, those who are in positions of power regard eccentric behavior with suspicion. Especially eccentric behavior that contravenes or even simply ignores the dictates of the ruling order. Of course not every society is totalitarian. Some are more lenient than others. But every civilization, from the tiniest groupings of tents to the largest empires, have standards by which they define themselves, which holds the group accountable. The question of who sets those standards is profound enough for an entire book and can hardly be addressed in a single blog post. But underneath just about every form of government is the premise that a productive and orderly society necessitates an imbalance of power. Sometimes through conquest and the propagation of a royal bloodline. Sometimes from a person who wins a majority of votes. But in any case once power is won, people tend to want to hold on to it.

Even very powerful and authoritarian rulers have in some cases hired court jesters. It was a common practice in medieval and Renaissance times for a jester to make crude and unflattering remarks towards the royal court and their assemblage. It has even become something of an archetype, the professional fool who acts as the safety valve, releasing tension with jokes.

There is one interesting anecdote from Barbara Tuchman’s book The Distant Mirror, in which the court jester was chosen to be the one to inform Philip VI of his defeat in battle:

No one dared tell the outcome of the battle to Philip VI until his jester was thrust forward and said, “Oh, the cowardly English, the cowardly English!” and on being asked why, replied, “They did not jump overboard like our brave Frenchmen.” The King evidently got the point. The fish drank so much French blood, it was said afterward, that if God had given them the power of speech they would have spoken in French.

And yet there are other examples where jesters were banished from their courts for going over the line. One famous example was the expulsion of one of the most famous jesters, Archibald Armstrong, for making a joke about the archbishop William Laud’s policies in Scotland. After a long and successful career, Charles I unceremoniously banished Armstrong on the spot.

     2.

     You might think we’ve come pretty far since medieval times. But have we?

The most famous example of a banished jester in modern times were the multiple arrests of comic legend Lenny Bruce, who was eventually charged with Obscenity, in 1964, in the United States of America, specifically for saying the word “cocksucker” and commenting that Eleanor Roosevelt had “nice tits.” Writers such as Norman Mailer and James Baldwin testified in Bruce’s defense, but he was convicted and sentenced to spend four months of labor in a workhouse. Bruce died of an overdose shortly before his case was overturned upon appeal.

Talk about an actual free speech issue.

While it is almost unthinkable for a comedian to have criminal charges brought against them today, the context of Lenny Bruce’s historic case is much more familiar to us than that of a court jester. We do not live in a world of kings but of petty oligarchs, lawyers, local politicians, powerful business executives, shareholders, media companies, and, for heaven’s sake, Congresspeople, all who weigh in on our collective culture with varying degrees of influence. Power dynasties may be harder to keep track of since there are so many cooks in the kitchen. But the egos of those in power are still fragile; some can abide court jesters and eccentric behavior more than others.

3.

     When I was a kid the most prominent critics of mainstream comedy were conservative Christians. Many of my own friends and family.

I remember the first time I ever saw South Park, luckily over at a friend’s house, feeling deeply scandalized as a statue of the Virgin Mary pooped blood all over the Pope. I never told my parents, but I thought it was hilarious. It was the first time I realized that it was possible to make light of deeply held convictions, some of my own deeply held convictions, and the world didn’t come to an end. Fire and brimstone did not rain down on me. In fact, it gave me an opportunity to laugh at myself and to see myself from another person’s perspective, someone who might not view me or my convictions in a completely positive light, and you know what, I survived.

Albeit, I was not a person with any power. I was just a kid. But Christianity was much more of a political force at that time, which was the heart of South Park’s critique.

Over the years South Park has put many different versions of hypocrisy within its crosshairs. Although nowadays it spends almost no time satirizing religion or conservatism—not that religious or conservative hypocrisy has disappeared. But instead Trey Parker and Matt Stone have shifted to critiquing what they see as the greater power in our time: performative wokeness, political correctness, a vague set of orthodoxies held in media culture and on ivy-league campuses, sometimes proclaimed in the name of very worthy causes but which are ultimately designed to weaponize and/or manufacture public grievance to boost ratings, or for the sake of personal prestige.

Not everybody has been happy with South Park’s shift in focus. Namely, journalists who consider themselves progressive activists. Which is, well, exactly what you’d expect. Many a think-piece has been written on South Park being “out of touch,” and/or “tone-deaf” to the present moment. Some have gone further, claiming SP has had a direct role in the rise of the alt-right.

It’s difficult to assess the validity of these claims, which are in any case impossible to prove, but the reaction does call to my mind the timelessness of powerful groups of people who cannot take a joke. We’ve come a long way from Lenny Bruce. Nobody talks about locking up comedians anymore. But as progressive values and wokeness have made great cultural headway since the Obama years, the question about how they will handle newfound power is still relatively open. The paradox which has yet to fully germinate is what happens when a cultural and political movement predicated on uplifting those without power gains power itself? Who then is the dog and who is the underdog?

     4.

     While the critiques of South Park have been relatively mild, due in part I think to it’s long-time influence and deftness at redirecting criticism into material for further joke-making, other comedians have been less-than-agile in their navigation of a changing media landscape. Many tenured comedians have had negative opinions on the changing tides; Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, John Cleese, Ricky Gervais, and Stephen Fry have all been vocal opponents of the limitations that a new set of standards has imposed upon their creative processes. But last week the heat was on Norm MacDonald because of comments he made in a Hollywood Reporter interview critiquing what he considered certain overzealous strains of the #MeToo Movement.

Norm was promoting his new Netflix show Norm MacDonald Has a Show, a casual wide-ranging grab bag of what Norm usually does on his podcast and his comedy specials. If you aren’t familiar with Norm’s work here is an awesome video crash course in the bizarre world of Norm MacDonald:

Very quickly after the Hollywood Reporter interview in which Norm questioned whether or not the entertainment industry is being fair to Louis CK and Roseanne Barr, Jimmy Fallon canceled MacDonald’s appearance on The Tonight Show, saying that executive producers were in tears over his comments. Not wanting to hurt the show, MacDonald agreed and apologized in a tweet and on Howard Stern, and then had to apologize AGAIN on The View for his first apology on Stern when he said, “You’d have to have Down syndrome to not feel sorry for harassment victims.” On The View a contrite and sad-looking MacDonald called his own words unforgivable and meandered awkwardly through questions about whether or not Barr or CK should ever come back from exile, to which one host commented, “Are you worried to speak now because of the backlash that you’ve received this week? Now are you thinking twice before anything comes out of your mouth?” And in a weird and telling moment the host smiled at her own remark, and the audience applauded. By the end of the segment, after apologizing again and again, MacDonald looked down sheepishly and said, “Well, I hope I didn’t offend any of you guys today.”

     5.

     I’m not a betting man, but I’d wager almost nobody in the general public was offended by any of Norm’s comments. Maybe I’m wrong. But other celebrities and publications have had far edgier and more wide-ranging hot takes on the #MeToo Movement, with hardly as much controversy. Examples here, here, here, and here. One recent Vox survey showed that 95% of women have at least some level of concern about men being falsely accused of sexual assault. And a recent Pew poll shows similar results.

But the Norm MacDonald story was never meant to reflect the concerns of a wider culture, it was concocted from beginning to end by the media itself. Reporters asked him the questions and reporters wrote the op-eds criticizing his answers. And, at no point along that continuum, did any one of them canvas the country for opinion survey data, or polls such as Vox and Pew, to compare MacDonald’s take with those of the general population, or even the general population of women, to find out whether or not his opinion deviated from the, ahem, norm. The “backlash” is never from the general population. It’s almost always from the journalists themselves or a very vocal minority on Twitter, from whence the journalists are happy to draw ire and drama to fuel clicks.

Although, in the end, nobody forced Norm MacDonald to apologize for his comments. He may have been advised by his manager, or he might have felt pressure from various camps, or he may have felt he said something out of line and apologized of his own accord. But he wasn’t forced, his show wasn’t cancelled, he will hopefully continue working in largely the same manner as before, writing offbeat jokes, shooting from the hip, and hopefully not thinking twice before speaking.

6.

     Who holds the power in a democracy is not always a straightforward question. We live in an age of mini-kings and mini-queens; there are many castles with many functions. Some castles fight. Some are allies—

Now in a technocratic democracy no less, where media and social media warp every message through several lenses of emphasis, over-emphasis, under-emphasis, shareholder interests, etc, by the time the message gets to us, the mere peasantry, who knows what this once pristine piece of truth is now? It looks like a mutilated shard of pixels. Twisted and stretched beyond recognition to fit a pre-determined script. And these refracted shards are lobbed between castles like cannon balls while we are left to argue over the wreckage.

Whatever your opinion of #MeToo or any other socio-cultural phenomenon, comedians give us the opportunity, in our embattled time, to see our sacred cows from another person’s perspective. It doesn’t take a big person to shit on someone else’s sacred cow. Pretty much all of human history is the story of people shitting on other people’s cows. But it does take a big person to double-take their own cow and realize that it’s not the center of the universe. You may have a super valid cow. But if you never poke your cow you’ll never get to hear whether or not it makes funny noises.

There is only one test for a comedian—laughter. A comedian cannot fake audience laughter. They say laughter is medicine. That may be true. But laughter is also a window into yourself. Have you ever laughed at something you know you shouldn’t have laughed at? Maybe it was your own sacred cow. Did you ever stop to think which one was the real you—the you that laughed or the you that wanted to suppress the laughter?

Only a comedian, either amateur or professional, can give you the opportunity to see your divided self in this way. Because your laughter is undeniable. You can’t hide behind what you find funny. It speaks for itself. And yes, sometimes that’s scary. What you find funny may even surprise you.

7.

     You don’t have to like comedians or seek out other perspectives. But if you’re confused about what you think or feel, it might do some good to seek them out and do some reflecting or have a laugh. I’m rarely disappointed at an opportunity to do so. The worst that can happen is that a comedian isn’t funny or another perspective doesn’t reward investigation. It happens. You move on.

We would do better to direct our negative attention towards those who would rob us of this opportunity, rather than those who would grant it to us.

 

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Get off my lawn

I live basically in a suburban town, somewhat out in the country, with a lot of farmland and neighborhoods that are sprawling between long country roads, etc.

In other words where I live most people aren’t plugged into high culture that is produced in cities. Other than popular entertainment, which also is produced in cities, the people where I live center their lives around more simple expressions of humanity, if I can put it that way. Sometimes it feels like being in a time capsule, because although I do live out here, I am plugged into the bastions of high culture and intellectualism. I read The New Yorker, for example and The Atlantic. And it is, to a certain extent, a schizoid existence. Many political and/or cultural upheavals that have recently been brought to the surface have really hit home for me because I think I am a somewhat, although not totally, extinct form of human being that lives in two worlds and can see or at least conceptualize the inconsistencies and the paradoxes that live between these worlds, that distort and otherwise make communication between the worlds next to impossible.

One of my least favorite conventions to come out of Hollywood and other places of high culture is the supposedly insightful critique of American suburbia. Most of these retread the same ground that was first walked by Sinclair Lewis in his greatest novel, Main Street, in which the main character Carol Kennicot is endlessly tormented by the bleak reality of living in a rural community, when she herself is inwardly craving culture and the heights of human progress.

It’s an old story.

But unlike Sinclair Lewis, most of these more recent depictions tend in the direction of either deliberate farce or they’re just unfair. Although it’s true that rural and suburban communities do have unique problems and are not always perfectly amenable, most of these depictions are overblown. Wherever human beings congregate there will also be neuroses and pathology. And there are not nearly as many critiques of city life coming from a person who lives out in the country or suburbs, probably because who would finance such a thing? Is there a suburban equivalent to the NYT? And where would this perspective come from and how would it arise? Most country people do not go to the city, etc.

Here is one example of one such annoying hot take in which Michael Pollan, a Harvard Professor of journalism, critiques, of all things—wait for it…

Front lawns.

Now his critique has some truth in it. Although, gosh, Pollan, like so many of his cohorts in this manner, is such an unwitting asshole that, in my opinion, it neutralizes whatever point he might have.

Pollan says Americans spend no time on their front lawns. Has he personally been to every neighborhood in America? I have a front lawn. I’ve spent all kinds of time on front lawns. All the kids in the neighborhood. We played on our front lawns constantly. They are usually better shaped than backyards for games of wiffle ball or stick ball. And you can use the street, too, for an outfield if you happened to live on a street that isn’t very busy.

To me, Pollan’s take on lawns is deeply ironic. As if humans congregating together in giant asphalt super-structures is any more natural than having a patch of grass to play wiffle ball on in the front of your house? Cities are just as deeply weird. If an alien came down to a city and saw how many people in little concrete boxes are living on top of each other, you don’t think there would be anything to note? Of course it all depends on how the aliens live…

Maybe I just hate intellectuals. They think that because they’ve read a book on something that they actually know it. If something occurs to them as a little funny, a little weird, from their one-bedroom studio apartment in the West Village, they dispatch it with the utmost confidence that it’s not complete horseshit, that it isn’t simply the bloviating, fart-smelling, incontinence of a deranged human brain that needs a little sunlight, a little fresh air.

The Atlantic web-page that houses the original video prefaces Pollan’s take by using a neat little example of what I highlighted above:

In the opening scene of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, a man mows his front lawn. It’s a quintessentially American sight: freshly-hewn grass, blue skies, vibrant flowers, a white picket fence. Then, the man collapses. The camera follows him to the ground, where, just beneath the earth, a grotesque scene emerges—the grass is teeming with insects. Underlying this manicured suburban idyll is a sinister, chaotic underworld.

     Just as Lynch exposed the underbelly of suburbia in middle America, Michael Pollan reveals the irony of its most prominent institution: the front lawn.

Oh boy, the underbelly of suburban America. Everybody watch out.

I don’t know how they crank this stuff out.

What’s funny is, like I said before, nobody out here in middle American gives two shits about what Michael Pollan or David Lynch says about anything. Well okay. Some do. But most don’t and will find their information and/or entertainment from people who do not despise them as much as these luminaries of our time. These towering bastions of insight and carefully cultivated fart smelling.

The deeper question which underlies all this contemplation about lawns, suburbs vs cities, etc, is what is the right environment for a human being to flourish in? It’s not an easy question to answer. As Pollan points out, we mostly evolved on grasslands and so many people favor that environment. And if I may invoke a little prognostication of my own, ahem, I’m sure Pollan and many intellectuals who live in cities, view their city dwelling as a triumph over their evolutionary desire for a more natural environment. So many natural desires need to be suppressed in order for society to flourish. What could be a more clear picture of that than the modern day city? A towering middle finger to nature, entirely constructed by man, in which each resident sees and lives in only what has been manufactured. Besides perhaps a small block of sky over their heads. This is quite the image for me. I’m not sure you could make a case that it is more natural than anything, really. Strictly speaking, a city is very unnatural.

And I can conjure up an artistic image just like David Lynch’s. Imagine a city and all that goes on there. Now imagine one man, let’s say he’s a lowly worker type who doesn’t subscribe to The Atlantic or read Michael Pollan books, who lives in a 300 sq ft apartment. He might work right on the street, and say a small sink hole opens up and he falls through into the sewer, and say he falls to his death and dies in the sewer. What do you think his dead body finds there? The sum total of 8 million people shitting into underground streams. The concentrated filth of humanity. He falls to his death in what is perhaps a far worse reflection of human conceit and hypocrisy, or at least pride.

Let me tell you from first hand experience that the cultivation of a lawn is actually a very minute and fine art. It is not as simple as mowing. There are many different kinds of grass and weeds, and the ability to make your lawn your own sometimes takes many months of experimentation and visits to your local hardware store.

Ultimately the art of lawn care is about balance. The beauty of lawn care is that it represents man living in relative harmony with nature. We do not pave over our lawns, and yet we do not let our grass grow out of control, making it uninhabitable, but instead we take care to strike the right harmony. Far from some symbol of American hypocrisy, I believe the lawn is a symbol of interaction and of symbiosis.

My own yard for instance is on a slope and is near a small stream, which means that the extra moisture which runs into my yard must be managed in a way that is healthy for the grass and also somewhat habitable for my kids and dog to play in. With this moisture also comes a weed which is called nutsedge, a long grass-like weed that grows at about three times the pace of normal grass, and has to be dealt with, otherwise there will be high-lighted green splotches all along the areas where moisture builds up, attracting mosquitoes and other insects as well.

This means that I, as the owner of a piece of land, am ultimately answerable to nature as the backdrop for these challenges. The angle from which I tackle these problems is the age old picture of man having to contend with something much larger than himself, from which he came, and from which he will eventually return. My care for the ground I walk on does not represent some deeply ingrained hypocrisy, it is a love of the land I own and the mental practice of cultivating a relationship to it rather than disregarding or fleeing from it. You could think of it as the balance between chaos and order.

City people have a hard time relating to this experience. Whenever there is a problem, even in their own apartment, since they most often rent that place and do not own it, they call the super. Some guy in coveralls to fix it for them. Now, that is a modern symbol of something. But owning a house and a piece of land means that responsibility ultimately falls on you. Unless you want to pay for it, you can’t simply call a super or have someone else come take care of your problems. You take care of it yourself.

So with all due respect to Pollan, Lynch, and Lewis, et al—

Get off my lawn.

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Why Animal Farm is the Best Dystopian Novel

I recently watched an Intelligence Squared debate between two inimitable men of letters, Will Self and Adam Gopnik, on the motion entitled “Brave New World vs Nineteen Eighty Four.”

But the real purpose behind the debate, much more than a simple literary analysis of two great novels, became clear immediately with the moderator’s introduction. “Rarely can a debate [such as this] claim to be so urgently topical. And yet somehow with two novels, one written in 1931 and the other written between 1948 and 1949, you nevertheless have two works that speak to us in our own time with great urgency and topicality.”

Ah, yes. The great urgency and topicality, always, of dystopian fiction.

In one sense it’s a completely ridiculous statement to make. The world today is far from a dystopia; and, in fact, it’s becoming increasingly less like a dystopia. Consider just a few key metrics: Poverty, Literacy, Health, Freedom, Population, and Education. Max Rosner, economist at Oxford and the founder of Our World in Data, plots each one of these variables from 1820 to today, giving us a snapshot at how things have actually changed over time.

Over 90% of the world was living in extreme poverty before the year 1820. Only a very priviledged few lived on more than $1.90 per day (today’s dollars). The rest of the world eked out a hard existence as either subsistence farmers or laborers. But industrialization, economic growth, and technological advancement began to completely reshape our relationship to wealth and the resources it begets. This change was even occuring at the time Brave New World (76% in poverty) and Nineteen Eighty Four (72% in poverty) were being published. Slowly, more prosperous modes of trading goods and services were being made available to more people. This didn’t happen magically overnight and wasn’t achieved without serious challenges to overcome like child-labor, widespread pollution, and the many other burdens of industrialization. But to be born in today’s world means being born with a 90% chance (as opposed to 10%) of living a materially comfortable life. And if you enjoy such a life it may do well to seriously ponder your luck and its implications.

The numbers for Basic Education, Literacy, Democracy, Child-Mortality, Population, and Vaccination are all very similar.

In light of these facts there might be many reasons why a highly-educated, influential, and wealthy British man might stand on a stage and opine with a straight face that debating which dystopia our world most closely resembles “speaks to our time with great urgency.”

For one thing it’s true human life has improved incredibly but there’s no guarantee things will go on getting better indefinitely. Just because things have been going really well for the past 200 years doesn’t mean serious reversals are impossible. In fact, as things continue to get better we will by definitition also have more to lose. (This was pointed out to me by futureofreading in re my post Coffee Stains, ‘Nam, and Donald Trump, where I probably don’t emphasize this enough.)

Another reason is that with the economic/technological expansion of the 20th century also came bloody wars and genocide on a level heretofore unprecedented, with European totalitarianism playing no small part in the bloodshead; so, um, maybe some of the preoccupation with dystopian novels, especially on the part of European intellectuals, is partly understandable regardless of the current state of the world.

But something in me cannot help laughing at the image of three educated, highly literate men making the case that a primary lens through which to see our current situation should be a dystopian novel, not simply as a piece of entertainment but as serious social criticism.

I don’t know. It’s a feeling, man.

For what it’s worth I think the most instructive dystopian novel for our times is Orwell’s other dystopian novel, Animal Farm. A far better book than Nineteen Eighty Four, in my opinion.

The original subtitle of Animal Farm, which was dropped by all but one publisher, was “A Fairy Story.” This is instructive, and partly the reason why Animal Farm is a higher form of art than most dystopias. Most dystopias are either, scientific, political, or both. To take an example beyond the two above, The Handmaid’s Tale for instance is based entirely on politics and futuristic speculation, exaggerating certain elements for dramatic effect. Atwood has said she didn’t use anything in Handmaid’s Tale that hasn’t actually happened historically, but in order to make it a dystopia and not simply a history book the stakes must be raised. This is where the social criticism is always buried in a dystopic story. Wherever the writer exaggerates into the future is what they think is going wrong in the present. Nineteen Eighty Four can be said to be a critique militarism inherent in totalitarian states, while Brave New World is a critique of hedonism and consumer pleasures, and The Handmaid’s Tale is a critique of conservative politics.

But Animal Farm is different for a few reasons. Firstly, as we’ve said, it’s a fairy story, a fantasy. It doesn’t take place in the future or in some totalitarian world-state with carefully exaggerated elements for the purpose of social criticism. Animal Farm is a metaphor. In fact, many critics at the time faulted Orwell for the metaphor saying that it was too blatant a riff on the Russian Revolution, to which he replied, “Of course I intended it primarily as a satire on the Russian revolution. But I did mean it to have a wider application in so much that I meant that that kind of revolution (violent conspiratorial revolution, led by unconsciously power-hungry people) can only lead to a change of masters. I meant the moral to be that revolutions only effect a radical improvement when the masses are alert and know how to chuck out their leaders as soon as the latter have done their job.”

The story begins when a pig on the farm named Old Major has a dream that he wants to tell the other animals. In the dream the animals rise up and take over the farm from their human masters, running it more productively and equitably, living more peaceable and happy lives.

Well, the animals do just that. Old Major dies. They honor his memory and vision. Some of the younger pigs follow his lead and begin to organize—to quick and very climactic success. They have a battle with the humans. They kick the humans off the farm. They begin to produce crops of their own. The farm is renamed from Manor Farm to Animal Farm. At first everything is going great.

The job of the reader of Animal Farm is to determine where and when things go wrong after the animals take over the farm. Things progress slowly, almost imperceptibly, from happily ever after to very very bad. It’s in these details that Orwell outshines any other dystopian prognostication whose premise is political. Animal Farm is universal in that it describes how any well-meaning movement can turn into a power grab. It doesn’t discriminate, in that sense.

If you haven’t read Animal Farm, please, close this window and go read the book. You’re missing out on one of the most perfect novels in the English language.

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How Reading George Saunders Can Make You a Better Writer

 

The problem with George Saunders is that he makes writing fiction look easy. After reading, you might be tempted, because of how intuitive his stories are, to think, I can do that! Well, sorry to be the one to to tell you this, but… you can’t. I don’t care where you went to school or got your MFA. You really can’t write a George Saunders story. It looks easy. But that’s a trick. It’s not easy.

Probably the only way to prove this to you is to look at a specific story and try and unpack it’s glorious difficulty.

But which one?

“My Chivalric Fiasco” is a good example of a seemingly simple story with a complex underbelly. Published in his most recent collection, The Tenth of December, it contains many classic Saundersian elements which we will analyze in due course.

Pull up your chairs boys and girls.

The story begins one evening in a medieval theme park—

Once again it was TorchLightNight.

Around nine I went out to pee. Back in the woods was the big tank that sourced our fake river, plus a pile of old armor.

Don Murray flew past me, looking frazzled. Then I heard a sob. On her back near the armor pile I found Martha from Scullery, peasant skirt up around her waist.

Martha: That is my boss. Oh my God oh my God.

I knew Don Murray was her boss because Don Murray was also my boss.

All of the sudden she recognized me.

Ted, don’t tell, she said. Please. It’s no big deal. Nate can’t know. It would kill him.

Then hightailed it out to Parking, eyes black underneath from crying.

Cooking had laid out a big spread on a crude table over by CastleTowerIV: authentic pig heads and whole chickens and blood pudding.

Don Murray stood there moodily picking at some coleslaw. And gave me the friendliest head shake he’d ever given me. Women, he said.

Fake river. Pile of armor. Scullery. Peasant skirt. CastleTowerIV. Authentic pig heads—

Images and settings meant to evoke a kind of theme park of the mind. This is a mode so associated with Saunders it’s easy to forget most of his stories don’t take place in a dystopian theme park. But when they do, almost always, the technology & setting of the parks is of the future—i.e. science fiction—while their theme evokes the past. Take for example one of Saunders’ first ever published stories “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” which is the name of a theme park set in the near future, with elements of tech that seem familiar and yet slightly further advanced than our time, that is both literally and figuratively haunted by ghosts of the Civil War. Another example is “Pastoralia,” which goes back even further to the time of the Caveman.

One way to read this tendency in Saunders is to say that he’s predicting theme parks will continue play a part in modern life. Another is that the theme park is meant to be a symbol for escapism or consumer entertainment, and their exaggeration is meant to be a critique of our own culture. But, to me, this common thread that runs through CivilWarLand, Pastoralia, and especially through My Chivalric Fiasco is a clue to look even deeper. The juxtaposition of future and past in the parks, I think, isn’t coincidental; it’s the deep third layer which allows Saunders’ stories to have emotional teeth, a layer that will become more important as we move into the 2nd and 3rd acts.

See me, said a note on my locker next morning.

In Don Murray’s office was Martha.

So Ted, Don Murray said. Last night you witnessed something that, if not viewed in the right light, might seem wrongish. Martha and I find that funny. Don’t we, Mar? I just now gave Martha a thousand dollars. In case there was some kind of misunderstanding. Martha now feels we had a fling. Which, both being married, we so much regret. What with the drinking, plus the romance of TorchLightNight, what happened, Martha?

Martha: We got carried away. Had a fling.

Don: Voluntary fling.

Martha: Voluntary fling.

Don: And not only that, Ted. Martha here is moving up. From Scullery. To Floater Thespian. But let’s underscore: you are not moving up, Martha, because of our voluntary fling. It’s coincidental. Why are you moving up?

Martha: Coincidental.

Don: Coincidental, plus always had a killer worth ethic. Ted, you’re also moving up. Out of Janitorial. To Pacing Guard.

Which was amazing. I’d been in Janitorial six years. A man of my caliber. That was a joke MQ and I sometimes shared.

Erin would call down and go: MQ, someone threw up in the Grove of Sorrow.

And MQ would be like: A man of my caliber?

Or Erin would go: Ted, some lady dropped her necklace down in the pigpen and is pitching a shit fit.

And I would go: A man of my caliber?

Erin would be like: Get going. It’s not funny. She’s right up in my grill.

Our pigs were fake and our slop was fake and our poop was fake but still it was no fun to have to don waders and drag the SifterBoyDeLux into the pigpen to, for example, find that lady’s necklace. For best results with the SifterBoyDeLux, you had to first lug the fake pigs off to one side. Being on auto the pigs would continue grunting as you lugged them. Which might look funny if you happened to be holding that particular pig wrong.

Some random guy might go: Look, dude’s breast-feeding that pig.

And everyone might laugh.

Therefore a promotion to Pacing Guard was very much welcomed by me.

I was currently the only working person in our family. Mom being sick, Beth being shy, Dad having sadly cracked his spine recently when a car he was fixing fell on him. We also had some windows that needed replacing. All winter Beth would go around shyly vacuuming up snow. If you came in while she was vacuuming, she would prove too shy to continue.

That night at home Dad calculated we would soon buy Mom a tilting bed.

Dad: If you keep moving up the ladder, maybe in time we can get me a back brace.

Me: Absolutely. I am going to make that happen.

After dinner, driving into town to fill Mom’s prescription for pain and Beth’s prescription for shyness and Dad’s prescription for pain, I passed Martha and Nate’s.

I honked, did a lean-and-wave, pulled over, got out.

Hey Ted, said Nate.

What’s up? I said.

Well, our place sucks, Nate said. Look at this place. Sucks, right? I just can’t seem to keep my energy up.

True, their place was pretty bad. The roof was patched with blue sheeting, their kids were doing timid leaps off a wheelbarrow into a mud puddle, a skinny pony was under the swing set licking itself raw like it wanted to be clean when it finally made its break for a nicer living situation.

I mean where are the grown-ups around here? Nate said.

Then he picked a Snotz wrapper off the ground and looked for somewhere to put it. Then dropped it again and it landed on his shoe.

Perfect, he said. Story of my life.

Jeez, Martha said, and plucked it off.

Don’t you go south on me too, Nate said. You’re all I got, babe.

No I am not, Martha said. You got the kids.

One more thing goes wrong, I’m shooting myself, Nate said.

I kind of doubted he had the get-up-and-go for that. Although you never know.

So what’s going on at your guys’ work? Nate said. This one here’s been super-moody. Even though she just got herself promoted.

I could feel Martha looking at me, like: Ted, I’m in your hands here.

I figured it was her call. Based on my experience of life, which I have not exactly hit out of the park, I tend to agree with that thing about, If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. And would go even further, to: Even if it is broke, leave it alone, you’ll probably make it worse.

So said something about, well, promotions can be hard, they cause a lot of stress.

The gratitude was just beaming off Martha. She walked me back to the car, gave me three tomatoes they’d grown, which, tell the truth, looked kind of geriatric: tiny, timid, wrinkled.

Thank you, she whispered. You saved my life.

The situation of both characters, Ted and Martha, is becoming more explicit. This is a textbook lesson in how to write the middle section of a story. Raise the stakes. We know explicitly what each character has to lose.

The victimization of Martha is drawn out with great detail and nuance. It seems so simple, but think of Martha’s position. Low on the totem pole. “Peasant skirt.” Taken advantage of in just the way certain medieval female peasants were by members of the male aristocracy. But the modern touch feels as relevant as you could possibly get. #MeToo? Anyone? Don can’t simply crush the peasantry underneath him into submission. Like a good modern day oppressor, he’s bound by the conceit of offering hush money.

Aha! So we see the action of the story is highly modern while the thematic undertones connect with the past. With the characters’ relative positions in the park, and what they represent as characters, it’s as if Saunders is saying: Things have always been this way. The aristocracy lord their power over the peasantry. The only difference in our time is things have been slightly nerfed. Rather than being raped and then, as a result, stoned to death or beheaded, Martha is raped and allowed to live, bearing the indignity of her position with a few extra bucks every month and a pat on the head.

And Ted is dutifully keeping quiet.

For now.

Next morning in my locker were my Pacing Guard uniform and a Dixie cup with a yellow pill in it.

Hooray, I thought, finally a Medicated Role.

In came Mrs. Bridges from Health & Safety, with an MSDS on the pill.

Mrs. Bridges: So, this is just going to be a hundred million grams of KnightLyfe®. To help with the Improv. The thing with KnightLyfe® is, you’re going to want to stay hydrated.

I took the pill, went to the Throne Room. I was supposed to Pace in front of a door behind which a King was supposedly thinking. There really was a King in there: Ed Philips. They put a King in there because one of our Scripted Tropes was: Messenger arrives, charges past Pacing Guard a lack-wit, Messenger winces, closes door, has brief exchange with Pacing Guard.

Soon Guests had nearly filled our Fun Spot. The Messenger (a.k.a Kyle Sperling) barged past me, threw open the door. Ed called Kyle reckless, called me a lackwit. Kyle winced, closed door.

Kyle: I apologize if I have violated protocol.

I blanked on my line, which as: Your rashness bespeaks a manly passion.

Instead I was like: Uh, no problem.

Kyle, a real pro, did not miss a beat.

Kyle (handing me envelope): Please see that he gets this. It is of the utmost urgency.

Me: His Majesty is weighed down with thought.

Kyle: With many burdens of thought?

Me: Right. Many burdens of thought.

Just then the KnightLyfe® kicked in. My mouth went dry. I felt it was nice of Kyle not to give me shit about my mess-up. It occurred to me that I really liked Kyle. Loved him even. Like a brother. A comrade. Noble comrade. I felt we had weathered many storms together. It seemed, for example, that we had, at some point, in some far-distant land, huddled together at the base of a castle wall, hot tar roiling down, and there shared a rueful laugh, as if to say: It is all but brief, so let us life. And then: What ho! Had charged. Up crude ladders, with manly Imprecations, although I could not recall the exact Imprecations, nor the outcome of said Charge. 

Kyle departed anon. I did happily entertain our Guests, through use of Wit and various Jibes, glad that I had, after my many Travails, arrived at a station in Life from whence I could impart such Merriment to All & Sundry.

Soon, the Pleasantness of that Day, already Considerable, was much improved by the Arrival of my Benefactor, Don Murray.

Quoth Don Murray, with a gladsome Wink: Ted, you know what you and me should do sometime? Go on a trip or something together. Like a fishing trip? Camping, whatever.

My heart swelled at this Notion. To fish, to hunt, to make Camp with this noble Gentlemen! To wander wide Fields & verdant Woods! To rest, at Day’s End, in some quiet Bower, beside a coursing Stream, and there, amidst the muted Whinnying of our Steeds, speak softly of many Things—of Honor; of Love; of Danger; of Duty well-executed!

But then there Occurr’d a fateful Event.

To wit, the Arrival of the aforementioned Martha, in the guise of a Spirit—Spirit Three, to be precise—along with two other Damsels in White (these being Megan and Tiffany). This Trio of Maids did affect a Jolly Ruse: they were Ghosts, who didst Haunt this Castle, with much Shaking of Chain and Sad Laments, as our Guests, in that Fun Spot, confined by the Red Ropes, did Gape & Yaw & Shriek at the Spectacle provided therein.

Glimpsing Martha’s Visage—which, though Merry, bore withal a Trace of some Dismal Memory (and I knew well what it was)—I grew, in spite of my good fortune, somewhat Melancholy.

Noting this Change in my Disposition, Martha didst speak to me softly, in an Aside.

Martha: It’s cool, Ted. I’m over it. Seriously. I mean it. Drop it.

O, that a woman of such Enviable Virtue, who had Suffered so, would deign to speak to me in a Manner so Frank & Direct, consenting by her Words to keep her Disgrace in such bleak Confinement!

Martha: Ted. You okay?

To which I made Reply: Verily, I have not been Well, but Distracted & Remiss; but presently am Restored unto Myself, and hereby do make Copious Apology for my earlier Neglect with respect to thee, dear Lady.

Martha: Easy there, Ted. 

At this time, Don Murray himself didst step Forward and, extending his Hand, placed it upon my Breast, as if to Restrain me.

Ted, I swear to God, quoth he. Put a sock in it or I will flush you down the shitter so fast.

And verily, part of my Mind now didst give me sound Counsel: I must endeavor to dampen these Feelings, lest I commit some Rash Act, converting my Good Fortune into Woe.

Yet the Heart of Man is an Organ that doth not offer Itself up to facile Prediction, and shall not be easy Tam’d.

We’ll stop here just a few pages before the end—

Perhaps now it’s clear. The theme park is a necessary backdrop for Ted’s transformation. In other words, the surface of Saunders’ text is in full interaction with the heart of the story and with the plot. The zaniness isn’t mere style. KnightLyfe® shapes Ted’s language which in turn shapes the way he thinks about his own moral agency. Of course Saunders is being funny too. The riffs on old English serve as a catalyst for jokes, but we are beginning to take Ted’s transformation seriously when we fear he may let out Martha’s secret. Saunders is putting KnightLyfe® into the mind of the reader as well.

“My Chivalric Fiasco” is a great example of short story writing for many reasons. It’s entertaining and funny, never letting the reader down with spurious detail, in sentences tight and economical, weaving effortlessly in and out of character dilemmas that are original but not over-literary or over-cerebral. This tendency in Saunders is often mistaken for simplicity or goofiness. But if we look closer we see a many-layered conundrum, and, like all of Saunders’ stories, it’s a tale both dark and comic, playful and emotionally resonant.

What to finish “My Chivalric Fiasco” and find out whether or not Ted spills the beans? Check out Tenth of December on Amazon:

From Quora: “Is it bad if I never open up about my feelings?”

It depends on what you mean by ‘bad,’ and ‘never.’ If by bad you mean bad for those around you—family, friends, etc.—probably it’s not great if you never express your feelings. How else will they be able to know where you’re at? And what about you? If you really never express your feelings, how do you know where you’re at?

You will hear a lot of cliches in regards to the expression of feeling/emotions. Self-helpy stuff will say you only have great things to gain from opening up. It’s true that there is much to gain from being vulnerable, but like anything of value it also comes with a cost.

Many people hide their emotions because they’re afraid to face what they really mean. Maybe you feel something and don’t know how to handle it so you bury it, you may be afraid of what somebody might think or feel about what you think or feel, or maybe the words just aren’t there to express what you mean. It can sometimes seem easier to simplify everything and just ignore what you think and feel and instead socially coast on what seems acceptable or safe or hide behind some other affectation.

I honestly believe many people live their entire lives like this.

But consider what could happen if you really confronted what was going on in your head. There would be much to gain and much to lose. Once you confront what you are and let that be known, you will lose everything false that went before it. Every mask you hid behind. Every pretense. Every lie. Gone. Truth is like fire. It will burn the dead wood off. You have to be ready for that.

But oh the rewards!

You can be who you really are for once.

I would recommend taking small steps. Pay attention to your thoughts for a few days. Take notes, mental notes, whatever. After going that for a little bit go out of your way to express one small thing to someone, maybe a loved one, or a trusted person. It doesn’t have to be anything grandiose. It could be about anything. What you thought/felt about a movie or a conversation. See how it goes. Pay attention to what you’re thinking and feeling while you’re sharing. You might feel a little nervous. That’s okay.

Keep doing this in small ways until you’re comfortable maybe trying it on bigger things. Eventually, if you get acclimated to this, you may eventually say something/do something that pisses someone off or hurts them. Another cost. It will happen. Own up to who you are without being a jerk. Have an idea of the best version of yourself to keep pushing for. Try to love others well, etc. Once you pay attention to what’s going on in you, you can pay attention to what’s going on in others and help them too. You may lose friends but you will certainly gain them too.

Here’s a C.S. Lewis quote, for kicks:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

Good luck, friend.

Dan

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