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What Happens to the Money

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In novels,  I mean, this time, and especially in  American novels.

But first:  I’ve learned a number of really odd things over the last week, the least important being that if you have a fever, cats will sleep on you. 

Somewhat higher on the list was that atheism might get better press, and have a better public profile genereally, if the people who tried to support it in public took a different tack than the one we’re used to.  The one we’re used to is, of course, angry/scornful/contemptuous/triumphant, and armed with all those facts and figures that have been around since the Enlightenment and never convince anybody but the already convinced.  There are two different sets of commandments!   The Gospel accounts don’t agree!   Nobody can respect a  God who wants his people to commit genocide to get some land!

And so forth.   I’ve got a real problem sometimes, wanting to go and fix other people’s arguements, on the assumption that if you’re going to argue a point at all, you  might as well argue it correctly.  I can make pro-life arguments better than most pro-life people.

But whoever it was who posted to the comments that it’s hard to teach people that understanding and being able to state an argument is not the same as agreeing with it was more than right.  The assumption is always, it seems, that if you’re able to make a good case for your opponent’s position, if you actually understand it, then you must support it. 

Fred Edwords, who used to be the editor in chief of The Humanist, the magazine put out by the  American  Humanist Association, used another strategy altogether.  He went on The O’Reilly Factor and was just happy.   He was so happy, I spent some time wondering if he’d taken some kind of anti-depressant medication, although I’ve  never seen those work that well.  Edwords was happy.  He was bouncy.   He was obviously having a good time.  O’Reilly couldn’t even manage to harangue him, and O’Reilly harangues everybody, even the people on his own side.  In the end, O’Reilly gave a pat little lecture about the AHA’s new ad campaign–why believe in God?  be good for goodness sake!–but his heart wasn’t in it, and Edwords was happy as a claim when the interview was over.

It was the last day when I was feeling really awful, and it was odd to watch it.  I went back and forth between it and the book I’ve been reading–I think I mentioned it before, William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair–and that’s when it struck me about the money.

Actually, it struck me about the money once before, when I was much younger, because for me, as a child, books were both promise and prophecy.  I knew I didn’t want any of the lives I saw around me.  My father worked too much and never seemed to be in a good mood.  My mother was a mass of neuroses, and so completely miserable as a stay-at-home  partner’s wife I used to wonder why she didn’t just get up and leave.  I also used to wonder why  she’d never done anything with the talents she’d been given, and she’d been given two:  she was a remarkably talented artist, and a coloratura soprano with a four octave range.

My mother was, however, one of those people who always had a reason why she couldn’t do what she wanted to do.   She spent a year in New York in the chorus of the Metropolitian Opera, and then she came home, because her father demanded it.  She spent several years, during the war, at a job where she spent her time coloring in the outlined drawings for the Sunday comics at a local newspaper.  When my father retired and she was quite old, she did some painting of her own, but she always copied other people’s work.   I don’t know why.

When I was growing up, I didn’t see the point of being miserable, and I was always planning my escape.   Any chance my mother ever had to go to college had been erased by the Great Depression.  Some of her brothers went, on the GI Bill, but her father wasn’t about to waste money educating a girl when money was tight, and colleges weren’t in the practice then of picking up most of the tab through financial aid.

I had a father and a grandmother–my father’s mother–who were determined that I would go to college, and started telling me all about it when I was tiny, so I had that, but what I really dreamed about was what was supposed to come after college.  I had only the very haziest ideas of how that would work, but I knew where I  wanted to start.

I wanted to go to  Paris.  I desperately wanted to go to  Paris.  It hd to be Paris, because all I really knew about the world I was learning from Hemingway.   I wore out three copies of A Movable Feast.  I had visions of dusk, with the lights coming on, and cafes with tables outside, except I wouldn’t be outside, I would be in, because it would be winter.

I am not entirely sure what I expected to be doing in the middle of all this.  It wasn’t a dream of doing, but a dream of being.  I could see myself as a figure, drinking coffee or liqeuers, wearing clothes that would have been out of date if I’d ever managed to acquire them.  High-heeled Mary Janes.  Skirts that went down to the bottom of my calves.

The thing that stopped me, the thing  I could never get past, was the money.  In the novels of  Hemingway, in the novels of the vast majority of American novelists, money doesn’t actually seem to exist.  Or, it exists, but independently of anything anyone does to acquire it.  It’s just there.

I might have been a dreamer as a kid, but I wasn’t so silly as not to understand that it takes money to live.  There would be air fares, and rent, and the price of all those cups of coffee in cafes–where was I supposed to get that?  Where did the people in Hemingway’s novels get it?

People in British novels write often and endlessly about money, and how to get it.  That was especially true of the Victorians, for whom securing a settled “place” was often the be-all and end-all of everybody’s life, although nobody was ever silly enough to want to take a job and work for it.   Still, they worried about it, and they were embarrassed abou tit, and they schemed and cried over it.

In most American novels, money simply seems to be a given–it’s there, somehow.   Hemingway characters rush off to London and Paris and live there…however.   He never actually says.   And it isn’t just his characters.  Think of the characters in any book by Ann  Beattie, for instance, or in the more conventional stuff by Joyce Carol  Oates, or in anything fictional by Joan  Didion.  Characters have nervous breakdowns.  They wander around the landscape doing odd, pointless things.  They leave on vacation or go to consult a guru in the Himalayas.  They get the money to do these things–we have no idea how.

The odd thing was that, in the midst of all this, twentieth century American novels always seemed more “realistic” to me than British nineteenth century ones did.  Lady Duff Cooper seemed more true to me than Cathy on the moors, although I didn’t want to be like Lady Duff Cooper.  Of course, I didn’t want to be like Cathy, either, so there was that.

Where is all the money in American fiction?  Why is it either not there at all, or there in a way that is so arch and intrusive that it’s just annoying?  Tom Wolfe wrote a novel Sheridan McKay and another about  Charlotte  Simmons.  In the first, everything is about money, money is the topic and the focus.  In the other,  money is, yet again, just assumed to be there.

Why is it that characters in American novels never do the ordinary thing of sitting down and working out the financial logistics of taking a month off, or going to Peru, or doing whatever it is they want to do?  How do they manage to live lives where it is possible to worry about the sex they’re having while never spending a moment figuring out if they can make the mortgage? 

People in real life–even fairly well off people in real life–think about money all the time, about how they’re going to get it, about how much of it they need, about what will happen to them if they have to live without it.  Characters in  American novels are not usually rich, and yet they do not seem to have anything like an everyday relationship to money.

When I was a kid, I would think about being all grown up and running away to live in Paris, and then I would stop, because I knew even then that I  had to have some way to support myself, and I couldn’t imagine how I’d do it.  Certainly none of the characters in any Hemingway novel seemed to be making a living.  Jake in The Sun Also Rises was supposed to work for a newspaper, but we never saw him actually working, and we really never saw him getting paid.

Why is it, exactly, that so many of us see so much fiction as plausible–and not just Hemingway, either, think of the genre fiction out there, the amateur detectives who don’t seem to have to worry how many days they take off, the private eyes who spend more of their time working on cases nobody is paying them for than on the ones that might bring in some bacon–when none of us ever lives this way?

Okay, it’s a small obsession, but there it is.  

At least for today.

Written by janeh

November 15th, 2008 at 6:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'What Happens to the Money'

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  1. Don’t cats sleep on you whether or not you have a fever? I had one who liked sleeping high on my chest so I got a mouth and nose full of cat fur. She was happy then, but eventually gave up the practice – probably because it was so unrestful for her when I woke, tossing and turning, from nightmares about suffocation. She wasn’t worried about me and the mouthfuls of fur.

    Anti-depressants, even when they work, aren’t supposed to make you cheerful; they’re supposed to make you less depressed. It’s not the same thing at all. Years ago, an idiot doctor gave me something that made me sit around and giggle while my roommates stared with astonishment. He didn’t believe in telling patients details of their treatment, but I’m pretty sure whatever it was wasn’t an anti-depressant and anyway I only took a couple of doses before I decided that whatever it was doing didn’t help the purpose for which it was allegedly prescribed. Maybe Fred Edwards had some of that stuff?

    I don’t get the New Atheists, or their followers. They don’t come up with anything that anyone who has given any thought to the existence of God hasn’t thought of, discussed and read about long ago; and they’re so angry about believers! It’s not as though I don’t know plenty of athiests and agnostics – just about everyone I know outside of church – that is, most of hte people I know – are atheists or agnostics of one kind or another (except for a sprinking of ”I’m spiritual but not religious” types, and another sprinkling of believers in various theologies and creeds, but all taken together, they’re a distinct minority unless you include the ‘social ‘ lot, who I’d personally mostly classify with agnostics). And almost none of the atheists and agnostics I know personally get all worked up about the existence of God, or of people who believe in a God. They are sure (or in the case of agnostics, not sure) that there is no God, they know other people disagree, and they don’t seem to worry much about it.


    I’ve been talking a lot in email about an old DVD of Cousin Betty (based on Balzac’s novels) in which money is right up there with sex in importance – in fact, most of the sex is in exchange for money or property. That’s from about the same period as the Victorian novels you mention, I think.

    I’ve noticed in a lot f TV and movies, people don’t live according to the means they are supposed to have, and mostly don’t worry or fret about making money, saving money, keeping a job, having saved money if they lose a job etc etc. That’s true in the more escapist type of fiction, too.

    I’d always put this down to escapism and fantasy. Most people worry enough about that sort of thing in real life, and for entertainment, they want something different. It would spoil the Cinderella story if the Fairy Godmother had to save up for months to get a ball gown.

    I suppose I’ve always considered it fantasy because in my life, being able to earn a living was of paramount importance. When (and where) I was a girl, many girls grew up with the idea that they might hold down a job for a few years or so, but eventually they’d marry – and then of course, it wouldn’t be their concern as to where the money came from. (By the way, I bet 95%+ of those girls, my female high school classmates, went on to fully or partially financially support themselves and/or their families almost all their adult lives.) More forward-looking parents at the time, like my own, insisted that all children, including girls, get some kind of post-secondary qualification that would enable her to earn money Just In Case. You Never Know. Accidents Happen. Husbands Die (or Become Disabled). So money was given importance as a survival tool, not as something to buy nice things with.


    15 Nov 08 at 8:51 am

  2. Yes, Cheryl, that’s what I was thinking – it’s escapism. People – a lot of them – have to spend so much time worrying about money that reading books were people worry about it doesn’t appeal.

    But people find money to do things that are important to them, too. I may not agree with their priorities – last spring I took a trip with a friend who used to be a really frugal traveler and has turned into someone with a love for $300 B&Bs, and she makes less than I do and I’d NEVER pay that much for a B&B on my own.

    And coincidentally – given Jane’s comment – my brother in on vacation in Peru this very moment. Well, he’s on his way to Peru. Today I think he’s in Ecuador, because he flew to Quito and is stopping at the Galapagos before going to Peru.


    15 Nov 08 at 10:30 am

  3. Hi, Mary!

    Yes, people do find money for things, or at least some things, they really want. It’s interesting to watch where some people’s priorities are – and how baffling some people find other people’s priorities. I used to travel, but now other things are more important to me. Given where I live and work, an obvious way for me to cut way back on my expenses was to not replace my last car – which some people find really bizarre! I used to get baffled comments on books, although I really don’t spend that much on them – one small town librarian told me, when I donated a pile of paperbacks, that as glad as they were to have them, I really didn’t need to *buy* books! There were lots in the library!


    15 Nov 08 at 10:50 am

  4. Two different subjects this time!

    Its become obvious that Jane and I read different types of books! She reads literature, I read science fiction, military fiction and detective novels. All of which will be forgotten 30 years from now. But I look for authors with a sense of logistics – the plots may be fantastic but the characters worry about where their next meal will come from or how to get food and ammunition to their troops. Its one of the things that define a “good” author to me.

    Jane, Cheryl and I all read a usenet group which seems to have a lot of liberal Democrats who are atheists of the type Jane describes. I don’t know if they are typical. The people I know simply don’t spend any time worrying about religion. They may be atheists or church goers but they don’t talk about it.

    I very much hope the newsgroup is NOT Typical because their view of Republicans and religious people terrifies me.

    Cheryl, someone once said “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.”

    I have done travel via Eurail pass trains, youth hostels and low cost B&B. I’ve also done luxury escorted coach tours and 5 star hotels at $300 a night. Rich is better!


    15 Nov 08 at 12:49 pm

  5. I think I’m innocent–well, at least not guilty as charged. I just ran the Bookcase of Exile, the Auxilliary Bookcase and five orange crates of paperbacks, and I know how every major character makes his or her living, and how they can afford their current activities–except when they can’t and know they can’t, of course. Mind you, my taste matches jd, with a bit of romantic comedy added to the mix. (And on previous form, jd, the best of those books will long outlive 30 years, while the Literary Book of the Moment will never see a second printing.)

    But I stand ready with an explanation–in fact, with two. First, various political persuasions don’t deal well with earning or making money: it’s supposed to just be there to be shared. This is why the steeper income taxes are on the “more fortunate” and not on the “harder working” or “shrewder.” These political persuasions are over-represented in Literature, though not necessarily in genre fiction. (I suspect both the politics and “mainstream” literature are a little overendowed the trustafundians, but I can’t prove it.)

    Second, and I think more to the point, fiction is about leaving things out. If the story is about some great heap of money–some of Dickens, of course, but also TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRES–well and good. If the story is about poverty or making money, that too, is different. Otherwise, the author needs the minimum acceptable explanation–that Gregor has a pension from the FBI and lives modestly, and that Bennis is a best-selling fantasy author–and then to get on with whatever the story IS about. Some audiences require less explanation than others.

    Possibly worth noting, that while many of my books are inhabited by people drawing salaries or by adventurers of the “rich today/flat broke tomorrow” sort, the rich Americans mostly “made their pile” and the rich Britons mostly inherited theirs. (Is there ANY sympathetic character in Dickens who wants to earn money or make a fortune? There are plenty who’d like to inherit one.)

    And cats sleep with you when you’re feverish because you’re warm. Set the electric blanket on “9” and watch them abandon you.


    15 Nov 08 at 4:03 pm

  6. Robert, I think I’d differentiate between literature and literary fiction before Jane gets back – some of the most scathing things I’ve heard her say were about literary fiction, but that’s not what Vanity Fair is.

    And John – yeah, sure I’ve done traveling both ways, and I prefer it with money. But even though I have an income that’s more than twice the national average, I still don’t usually spend $300 on a hotel room or B&B (actually my husband and I don’t usually go to B&Bs because we don’t like feeling obligated to talk to a bunch of strangers at breakfast). It just doesn’t seem money well spent to me. I’d rather save it and buy more books. I want clean, comfortable and respectable, and I can usually get that at a Holiday Inn Express or the like.

    I’m with Cheryl on the books, completely. (And how in the world did the person you describe become a librarian?)


    15 Nov 08 at 6:56 pm

  7. Mary,

    I don’t know your personal details but I’m 72 and not aging well. The comfort of a 4 or 5 star hotel is money well spent for me. :)

    But tastes differ


    15 Nov 08 at 9:58 pm

  8. Sure, they do, John. And I like nice hotels, too. I just usually forego them and spend my money elsewhere.


    16 Nov 08 at 1:11 am

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