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Archive for February, 2009

Wealth, Poverty and Bernie Madoff

with 5 comments

Okay, here’s the thing.

I’m a compulsive reader.

I mean, I’m a really compulsive reader.  I read all the time.  I’d read in traffic if I could figure out how to hold the book.   I’ve got to have something to read, no matter where I am, orwhat I’m doing. 

So yesterday, after complaining, for good reason, about Little Women, I came across an interesting fact.  The book we know as the “novel” Little Women is actually two separate books, published six months apart.  What is now labeled “part one” of a single work was originally the entire novel, and what is now labeled “part two” was the sequel.

So, I thought, I had an out–I could finish part one and say I was actually done, since that was an entire book, even if it didn’t seem like it given the formatting of my edition.  I mean, I read a single story in a collection sometimes, why not one of two novels in a compendium.  Or whatever you want to call it.

This was a great idea, but it ran into a serious problem.  I finished part one while I was waiting to get into my classroom, and suddenly there I was, in an empty hall, on a nice cushioned bench, and the only thing I had to read was…part two.

And I knew, if I started on part two, I’d have to finish it.

So I tried.  I really did.  I roamed up and down the hall looking for reading material.  One of the problems with having the kind of student who “hates the news” is that they don’t read newspapers, and they don’t discard them, so I couldn’t find one.  I found a bunch of promotional materials for students looking to apply to Western Connecticut State University, the name of which always gives me a fit of the giggles.  I’m old enough to remember when this was Danbury Normal School, meaning a teacher-training school in the days before elementary and high school teachers had to have “degrees.”  It was nice promotional material, as far as that kind of thing goes, but there were more pictures than words, and in no time at all I was staring at…

part two.

So, you know.  I had a half hour wait.  I started part two, and now I’m sitting in the middle of it, trying very hard not to engage in the kind of avoidance behavior tha tmakes bad books last so long with me.

That said, however, I have a few observations.

One is that, from the evidence of the chapter detailing Jo’s first success in publishing novels and short stories, not a whole lot has changed in a hundred years.  Reviewers, especially, seem to run the same gamut, as if they’re places are being filled generation after generation by clones.  There are lots of good reviewers out there, and there are some I take very seriously, but I know that guy who wants to lecture me about how I’m promoting Communism/capitalism/degeneracy/whatever and  yet can’t remember the names of any of the characters, and the guy who cribbed his review from one of the ones in the industry press–except the industry press got bound galleys with mistakes in them and this guy is complaining about a mistake tha tno longer exists in the finished copy he was actually sent. 

But the bigger issue is the question of poverty, which I alluded to a little yesterday, and also to what it means to say that somebody is “culturally middle class” as opposed to “middle class.”  That second one came up in the lottery one.  So let me try this.

It’s possible to have a middle class income and yet not be culturally middle class (or upper middle class), and to be culturally middle or upper middle class and yet have little or no money. 

I have a suspicion that I’m going to make a complete hash out of trying to explain this, but let me give it a shot.

Sarah Palin is culturally middle class, or maybe even culturally lower middle class–I’m sure she has an upper middle class income as governor of Alaska, but the culturally upper middle class do not send their sons into the armed services directly after high school graduation.  And if they go into the services at all, the go to the academies.

The culturally upper middle class work out, support NPR, read real newspapers, read other things, and tend to be obsessively and competitively career oriented–if you have a choice between your work suffering and your family suffering, your family is what goes.  The associates in my father’s old law firm work ninety to a hundred hours a week until they make partner.  Then they go on working that much as long as they remain partners.  When I was growing up, my father was almost never home before I went to bed, and home on the week-ends only sometimes. 

Then there are schools and colleges–to the culturally upper middle class, it makes sense to go tens of thousands of dollars into debt to make sure that your children attend academically rigorous private schools.  The price tag on a place like Andover or Taft taps $40,000 a year, and will actually cost close to $6,000 even with financial aid.  But such places make it much easier for a student to get into a first-tier university, and the first tier is the goal.  And even if the kid can’t manage the first tier, living away from home on a campus is simply expected.  At least part of “the college experience” is that living away from home thing.  What’s m ore, “majors” must be traditional majors–English literature, art history, philosophy, biology, political science.  Undergraduates in the Ivies can’t major in business or teaching–those options aren’t even offered.

The culturally middle class work to live, rather than the other way around.  If a crunch comes between work and family, it tends to be work that suffers.  They’re careful about moving to towns with good public schools, and they use them.  And they’ve got nothing against the kid going to Harvard if he gets in.  On the other hand, they’re not wedded to the idea that the kid has to live at school.  Something closer to home will do just as well, and “majors” are expected to be something “practical,” that will get the kid a job after graduation. 

A lot of the reaction to Sarah Palin, I think, was the perception that she was not culturally upper middle class, which nearly anybody who makes it as far as a career in the national media would have to be.  Even the self-proclaimed conservatives who say they champion the middle class are themselves culturally upper middle class, and it matters to them.  Think about Ann Coulter, who had a hissy fit over the Harriet Myers appointment because Myers had gone to Southern Methodist University, instead of a “good” (read Ivy) school. 

I am really making a hash of this, but what I’m trying to get around to is this:  on different class standards, different things are considered so essential that they cannot be denied.

In Little Women, that thing is a maid.  No matter how poor the Marches are, and they’re often poor enough to have to mend holes in clothes because they can’t afford new ones, they’re always Hannah, helping to cook and clean.

For the culturally upper middle class, there are those tuitions–if you suddenly fall out of work and find yourself reduced to penury, the administration at any first-rate private school will turn itself into a pretzel making sure your kid can stay, because, of course, going to public school is out of the question.

But what stopped me, thinking about Hannah the maid in this thoroughly idiotic book, was the Bernie Madoff problem–which is also the Citigroup CEO problem and the Lehmann Brothers problem.  There are those huge bonuses, and they’re nonnegotiable–the idea that one would have to do without that particular thing is unthinkable.

And courts buy into this.  As Enron was inking, Lay and Skilling were being granted all kinds of financial concessions to make it possible for them to go on doing things like maintaining club memberships and going on vacations because–well, because, those things are nonnegotiable, everybody has those, you can’t deprive people of them.

Okay, I really am making a hash of this.  I think what I’m trying to say here is that the courts should not assume that it is necessary to keep someone materially in the class in which he culturally belongs–“everybody” does not really have club membership money, at least as long as you’re defining “everybody” in some sensible way.

Okay.  Blah.  Bleh.

I really am doing this badly.

Written by janeh

February 12th, 2009 at 12:58 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with 4 comments

Sometimes, reading this blog makes me feel like an old fogey–just using the term “old fogey” makes me feel like an old fogey.  But I  can’t believe how many of you just assumed that the lottery winners who went wild and to held were young.  In fact, every single one of them was over forty but one, and he was definitely over 35.  The couple portrayed at the end as “good” winners who handled it well were in their twenties.  

But, whatever, what I really want to get into here is the fact that I think I’m about to do something very unusual, and I was wondering if I’m a little off in this sense. 

When I was very small, my father told me that it was a disaster ever to leave anything unfinished.   Too many people, he said, go through life with good ideas, and start good projects, only to lose interest and wander away, and therefore losing any benefit that might have been had from finishing.   A college education only “counts” if you get that degree.  It doesn’t matter how smart you are, or how much knowledge you have, if you drift off at the end of sophomore year.

I was about seven or eight at the time of this conversation, so  I’m not sure why college was the object of the lesson–although in my house, I not only knew that I was going to college by the time I was three, but I’d picked out the place, and it turned out to be the place when the time came–but I know what made it memorable.

That was the fact that, at the time, I was in the habit of starting stories, or even whole novels (The  Susan Derringer Mystery Books!), and then just sort of never getting around to doing anything about them.  And I could see my father’s point.   It wasn’t enough to have a long list of titles for the books that were to come in the series.   You had to have the actual books.  Which meant you had to write them.

Now, this was very good advice, and in general it’s done me well over the years, but it does have one drawback–for most of my life, I’ve been damned near incapble of  NOT finishing anything.   And I do mean anything.   But at the moment, what I want to talk about is books.

In the whole of my life, I’ve probably put down and refused to continue with a total of maybe five books, and there have been many more than that that haven’t been worth finishing.  I’m rather proud of myself for having given up on The Da Vinci Code, but I was almost driven into that one.  I kept making notes in the margins and on the flaps about historical inaccuracies, the author’s complete and appalling ignorance of both the Middle Ages and the general rules of logical inference–anyway, it got to the point where I couldn’t follow the plot any more because all this other stuff kept getting in the way.

In the years since, I have managed to force myself through some books that I’ve positively hated, and some of them have been long.  Over the past week, however,  I’ve been reading a book that has managed to bore me more than most technothrillers do, and that’s saying something, because I am a woman who goes to sleep during sword fights and car chases.

The book is Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott.  Alcott was the daughter of Bronson Alcott, who established one of the first American communies (before the Civil War!), called  Fruitlands, where everybody was supposed to share the manual labor and not eat meat.  She grew up in Concord and had her first girlish crush on a relatively superannuated Ralph  Waldo Emerson.  She was a child of the Transcendalists in a literal sense, and one of their sharpest-eyed chroniclers throughout her life. 

If Little Women was about the Transcendentalists, I might have liked it better.  Instead, it’s a book deliberately aimed at children–girl children–in Alcott’s desperate attempt to make enough money to keep her family afloat.  This wasn’t easy, because her father was just the kind of irresponsible hippie he would have been if he’d lived in 1960 instead of 1860.  There was never enough food in the house and the Alcotts were continually being evicted from one house or the other for nonpayment of rent.   If it hadn’t been for good old Waldo, they probably would have starved.  As it was, old Bronson Alcott was fond of giving Louisa long lectures about why she was a “dark” child and largely both untalented and evil.   When he wasn’t doing that, he was calling family meetings to explain why marriage was an unacceptable restraint on the liberty of the individual and he was going to book it right this second and try his luck on his own in the West.

He never actually went, which might have been the bad news.

At any rate, I had this book on by TBR stack in my office, and I don’t remember buying it.   I do know why I didn’t read it as a child.  I had a positive horror of “children’s books” when I was growing up.   I thought their very existence was an insult to my intelligence.  I mean, what were these books trying to say?  That I couldn’t read real books?  I don’t know why I didn’t equate  Nancy Drew with “children’s books,” but it was a good thing I didn’t, because if  I had, I’d never have read them.

The odd thing about Little Women, however, is the fact that I don’t remember buying it.  It was up there on the stack, so I must have, and it isn’t too old–the papers aren’t yellowing yet–and I don’t think I would have been given it as a gift, since it’s a Barnes and Noble  Classics edition.

If you don’t know about these, you should.  Barnes and Noble, the American bookstore company, has put out a whole slew of classic texts in cheap but solid trade paperback editions.  Their two-volume set of the complete Sherlock Holmes is the best you can get anywhere if you aren’t interested in the kind of footnoted edition that can provide blood types for Holmes and  Moriarity both.

So the book was there, and I’m still making notes for an essay on Hawthorne and company, and I thought I’d give it a shot.   I knew a few things that I hadn’t back when I’d been avoiding it as a child, and that included the fact that it was, for many yeras, right up through th ebeginning of the Great Depression, the best selling novel in  America.  In the twenties, a survey asking what book the respondents felt had had the most influence on their lives got Little Women as an answer more often than the  Bible.  And did that for three years of surveys in a row.

Obviously, something was going on here, and to an extent it still is.  Little Women is being read by generation after generation of  American girls.  It’s still being taken out of libraries and its editions still make money, if not so much as they used to.  What’s more, it’s not a matter of this having become a course adoption text (CAT–I like the acronym), because usually it isn’t.   It wasn’t assigned in school when  I went, and I know it isn’t assigned now.  It won’t show up on a college curriculum unless you take a special course in children’s literature or are working on the gradduate level in American Studies, at which point it’s treated like Uncle Tom’s Cabin–interesting as an artefact, not as a novel.

So here is all this stuff going on, and it’s evident that lots and lots of people over lots and lots of years, even generations, have really loved this book.

I just have no idea why.

I mean, for God’s sake.  I know the thing was written for children at a time when all literature for children was supposed to be composed of moral homilies, but this thing is so sickly sweet I want to kick it.  And I want to wring the necks of virtually all the girls except Jo, and with Jo I keep wishing she’d suddenly decide to come out, and I don’t mean as a debutante. 

What’s more, the whole moral patina of the thing hides some very odd stuff.  The family is symbiotic to the point of weirdness, with the girls–even the older girls–hating the idea of marriage because it will break up their little circle.  Then there’s the long sequence that results in Beth’s getting scarlet fever because she does an errand that was supposed to be Jo’s responsibility. It’s not the sequence itself I object to as much as the way the characters respond to it–Jo herself, and all the people around her, take her responsibility for  Beth’s illness and near death with about the same amount of moral outrage they’d use to scold her if she’d been expelled from school for cutting classes.

I have absolutely no idea why anybody reads this book.   One of the posters in the comments said a few weeks ago, I think, that she liked to read books where people had goals and didn’t drift.  Well, this is not the book for her, really.  There doesn’t seem to be any kind of actual point.  The girls and their mother just go through life, with little treats and moral homilies and a few asides about the troubles caused by their “poverty,” which is the poverty of the nineteenth century middle classes–they hav very little in the way of clothes, and they all have to work, but they still employ one servant.   The woman who wrote the introduction to the edition I have is very perplexed by the servant, but I get it.

I don’t need a strong plot in a novel if the characters are interesting to me.  These characters are too unrealistic to be interesting to me.   I can understand the desire to set down an account of the way we live now, and I understand that in  America that project has often been done through children’s books–Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Little House on the Prairie, Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn.  But this isn’t that, either.

I also understand Alcott’s desperate desire to create on paper the sane and loving family she never had, to take a childhood of misery, chaos and grinding penury and transform it into one she could actually live with, but it’s not one I can live with.   I can’t remember being this bored with a book in a long time. 

But I also can’t seem to force myself to put it down.  If the thing was actively bad, I might have a chance.  Anger moves me to action more than boredom does. 

What I do is read page after page, often very slowly.  Then I put it down, do something else, pick it up–a book that should have taken me three or four days to read has already eaten up two weeks, and I have a feeling it’s going to take me a lot longer.

I have no idea what it would take me to give up on this.  I  just wish  I could find the formula.

Written by janeh

February 11th, 2009 at 6:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Really Strange Interlude

with 3 comments

So, yesterday, after writing the blog, I went in to school.  I stopped in at the division office to check up on some paperwork, and the secretaries took one look at me, turned me around, and sent me back to my car. 

Which was how I managed to be lying on my couch at three o’clock yesterday afternoon with the remote all the way across the room and the television somehow stuck on E!  You know  I’m sick when the TV is on E! and I’m too tired to do anything about it.

At any rate, what E! was showing was something the channel info bar called a ‘documentary,” which I suppose it actually was, technically.  The name of this thing was Curse of the Lottery, and its supposed premise was that people who win the lottery are worse off because of it, terrible things happen to them that wouldn’t have happened if they’d never won the money.  I say this was the “supposed” premise because, like a student paper, the damned thing changed its subject about three quarters of the way through.

About the first three quarters, though, a couple of notes.  First,  I’ve got nothing against people playing the lottery if that’s what they want to do.  I tend not to bother unless we get into one of those things where it’s the biggest news at six and the jackpot is in the ridiculous range, but I don’t see what’s wrong with it if you’re not getting stupid about it.  This means, however, that I also don’t know anybody who plays regularly, and the only time I did was in the first stages of my mother’s dementia, when she became for a while a Powerball fanatic.   Then she forgot about it, the way she forgot about most things.

I make these points to provide a caution–I have no way of knowing, or judging, whether the stories presented in this program are typical of people who play the lottery.  In fact, there was an interesting difference in the people profiled in the last quarter of this thing that makes me think that the people in the first three quarters were not necessarily typical at all.   That said, a number of observations:

1) It was remarkable how many of the people who won big and then got into enormous amounts of trouble seem to have spent most of their lives before the win being close cousins to my most passive students.  Some of them were drifters literally, living on disability checks or not much at all.   Some of them were convenience store clerks and factory workers and janitors.  It didn’t matter.  All of them, from the testimony of their friends, had been floating for years.

2) I found it really surprising how many of these people seem to have had “substance abuse” problems long before they won money.  Is it just me, or does everybody have trouble figuring out where people like this get the money to indulge their tastes in chemicals?  So-and-so has “a five hundred dollar a day habit”? If you’re working behind the counter at the local  Dairy Queen and can come up with five hundred dollars a day to buy God knows what, you should be able to put aside money for a house.  Where do people like this get all their cash?

3) It’s really, really remarkable how many of these people don’t seem to be able to add and subtract.  To be fair, I notice this same thing when MTV or somebody highlights the lifestyles of various pop and movie stars.  If you’re Paris Hilton, you probably have a trust fund and lawyers who restrict what kind of cash you can lay out, and they’re probably very careful to make sure you only spend income, not capital.  But a lot of the lottery winners were like a lot of the pop stars–as soon as they got a few million, they went out and spent five times that and then, of course, in no time at all, most of the money was gone. 

4) The craziest thing about the money spent as above, was the amount of it that was spent on complete silliness–collectable plates, six cars (why does anybody want six cars?  why?),  whatever.  And, of course, lots of it was spent on houses, which would be all right except that the houses were then tricked up in ways that I found it hard to take in–plasma TVs as big as movie theater screens hung on bedroom walls, for instance.  The houses were all absolutely huge, and they all looked incredibly uncomfortable to live in.  They also got foreclosedon at a really impressive rate.

5) A fair amount of the trouble these people got into involved violence.   Not spectacular violence, mind you, mostly the same penny-ante stuff that shows up every week in the Police Blotter section of my town’s (weekly) newspaper, but violence even so.   There were the usual round of domestic violence calls, but one woman was involved in a DUI that killed her passenger, walked away from it and ended up in jail for hit and run.   Another man’s granddaughter died of a drug overdose just before he himself was mugged for half a million dollars he was for some reason carrying around in his pockets.

6) The press attention never seemed to go away.  There were clips from press conferences several years after the lottery win, as if once these guys won money the local newspapers and television stations were watching their every move.  I have no idea if this is typical.  I admit to never having seen a story about a local lottery winner on the local news, or to have heard of any of these people except one, who was rather a flamboyant sort to start with.   Maybe I’m just not paying attention, but I don’t know the name of a single lottery winner, not even the flamboyant one.  There did seem to be lots of attention, though, with plenty of headlines reading things like “Lottery  Winner Jailed for  DUI” and “Lottery Winner In Divorce Shocker.” 

I said at the start that the last quarter of this thing changed subject, and it did–to highlighting people who had done well with the money they won and giving advice on how, if you won, you could be lucky with it instead of unlucky.  And there were a few things the doing-well people had in common.  One was that they were all culturally middle class–they had decent jobs, they already owned houses, they had functional educations, they had no histories of run-ins with the law or substance abuse.  The other thing was that they could add and substract.   Instead of buying million dollar houses and stuffing them full of the products of the Franklin Mint, they paid off their own mortgages and those of their children, put grandchildren through college, and did all the things most people would do if they go a bit ahead.   In one case or two cases, the win having been very big indeed, they bought “nice” houses that were nowhere near the kind of MTV cribs things the “tragic” lottery winners couldn’t stay away from.

The last thing they had in common was this:  there didn’t seem to be anything in the way of headlines about them.  Obviously, people knew who they were–otherwise, they couldn’t have been profiled for this program–but they didn’t seem to generate the kind of interest the disasters did.

I don’t actually know if I’m going anywhere with all of this.  Part of me wishes I understood the dynamic of the publicity.  Why would people be interested not just in hearing that so and so won the lottery, but in what such a person was doing afterwards, often for years afterwards?  Why would such a person be a continuing object of interest  for total strangers?  And why is what people want to hear about most the disasters and the failures and the general bad news?

There was something else that was only alluded to once or twice that I found fascinating, but that I see no way to research:  apparently, once your name has been in the paper as winning a lot of money, people not only approach you looking for handouts, they go on approaching you, for years.   The begging requests never stop.

All of this makes me wonder about the entire phenomenon–the people who play, the people who win, and the problems a certain segment of the population seems to have with good news. 

And it’s just possible that I may have had to have a decent fever to be interested in this at all.

Written by janeh

February 10th, 2009 at 6:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 3 comments

So I’ve been thinking about it.  Robert said that the result of more people being more engaged in the political process seems to be that more people head for the extremes, but I don’t know that that’s what’s happening here.

In the first place, Idon’t think more people are involved in the political process than there used to be.   In fact, I think there are less, at least as a proportion of the adult population.  It’s hard for me to come up with even an anecdotal defense of this, since the only political incident I can remember from my childhood was an all-school poll on the 1960 election, in which, given the overwhelmingly Irish Catholic make-up of our student body, went to  Kennedy in a landslide.

I just don’t know, however, if there was much in the way of the equivalent of the vast majority of my students, who often don’t know who’s running (asked who  Joe Biden was, they guessed Sarah Palin’s daughter’s baby daddy), or, if they do, get the basics wrong (MSNBC favored Obama, one student wrote, which meant they were Republicans, who were the liberals). 

It seems to me that a number of factors, however, contribute to less involvement in politics by more people, one of which is certainly the fact that we can now avoid politics if we want.  The last time I remember a situation where almost every channel suspended regular programming to deal with the news, it was 9/11, and even then it was only almost every channel.  

It was entirely possible to go through this last election, the most historically significant since FDR, at least, and possibly since Lincoln, and never hear a word about it.   Radio music stations, the Soap network, you name it, there was a way to avoid it.  I think a lot of people used to be “informed” mostly because they had no choice.  There were three broadcast television stations and all of them had the news on at the same time.  For an hour or so each day, if you were watching at all, you were stuck getting to know things.

But I also think that fewer people participate because the process has become so distasteful in so many ways.  It’s easy to poke fun at the Bush is a fascist war crimine!  Obama is a Communist selling the soul of America into totalitarianism! people–and they deserve to be made fun of–but the fact is that when the discourse becomes dominated by people like these, something profouindly destructive is being done to democracy.

I think that a lot of people have just been turned off by the hyperbole, and by the endless name calling, and by the tactics–and on both sides.   I also don’t think most people are in need of a new narrative, or insecure with the one they have.  They’ve mostly come to some compromise they can live with.  They’re not feeling threatened.

But the people who are doing the yelling and screaming are feeling threatened, and in a way they have a right to be.  I think that both the religious narrative as it is promulgated by the evangelicals in politics and the secular narrative as it is presented by the main secular/atheist organizations are deeply flawed,  and neither of them has the actual support of the majority of the American people. 

I think that the polls are right when they say that most Americans believe in God, for instance, but I don’t think the God they believe in has much in common with the one being presented by American folk Protestantism.  That is, most Americans seem to think that being homosexual or not is a person’s own business, and that God won’t be sending anybody to hell just for that.   God is a vaguely comforting, important person out there somewhere, who really just wants us all to be good and decent and happy and to behave well towards each other.

I think that the fact that the polls also show that most Americans wouldn’t touch an atheist with a ten foot pole has less to do with their understanding of atheism–most of them don’t understand it, and a fair number think atheists worship Satan–than with the fact that the public face of atheism in this country has become strident, angry and pinched.

Whether or not the local high school gets to have a Christmas pageant is important to exactly two groups of people:  the committed Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, who want to promote their religion, and the committed secularists, who want to stop them.  The rest of the student body, and their parents, think that Christmas is this neat time where there’s Santa Claus and presents and that sweet story about the three kings–and what the hell is everybody getting so worked up about? 

I think there’s a fair amount of a pox on both your houses in this mess–to the vast general public, the “Christians” are the people trying to ban the Halloween party and the “atheists” are the people trying to ban the Christmas party, but in both cases, what we’ve got is some group or the other trying to stop the rest of us from doing what we want to do

I think that it would be difficult for anybody to get involved in the process if this was what they saw it as, first hand.  If you’re happy about where you are, if you’re not feeling as if you’re very identity is threatened, then you want to enter the process to get things done, like the town sewer system being extended out to the Fire District or a new middle school being built to replace the one that’s started falling down.  When you can’t do that, when getting involved means getting in the middle of a shooting war between two groups of people who seem to be ready to taste blood over issues you find trivial, you retreat to your living room and watch another episode of Friends.

I have no idea what it is we’re supposed to do about this.  I know that the clash between these two ways of looking at the world, of constructing an American identity, are real enough, and that they’re not compatible.

But they’re also not new.  You can find most of the same themes in the New England of the years that ran up to the Civil War.  The two strains, liberal and conservative, have been with us always.  When Thomas Jefferson ran for  President, the churches denounced him as an atheist–and although he wasn’t, quite, he came damned close.   When Franklin Delano  Roosevelt ran for President, he was disinvited from the reunion of his Groton School class, because his fellow preppies had no intention of shaking the hand of the man who had “betrayed” them.

But even though there was always turmoil, up until very recently it was also always possible for Americans to be Americans first and all this other stuff sort of as a hobby.  We managed to assimilate Catholicism and dozens of ethnic groups, so that pizza and tacos and General Tso’s Chicken and bagels with a shmear are all now “American” foods, and there are now myriad styles of “being  American.”  Tony Soprano is as American as David Rockefeller. 

I’d be a lot more coherent here if I had an answer for all this, but I don’t.  I think that the clash of narratives, and the rise of political classes who feel threatened by the fact that the rest of the world doesn’t validate their story, was inevitable.  The sheer amount of information available to larger and larger numbers of people means that any narrative we choose must necessarily bump up against others and against evidence that at least some of its claims are false.  

I don’t know, though, that I am royally sick of it.   I don’t think Bush is a fascist war criminal and I don’t think Obama is a Communist plant bent on destroying democracy and the free market.   I’m tired beyond belief of policy issues become ideological ones.   I’m even sicker of the ideological issues becoming so paramount that we’re unable to actually figure out what the consequences of our policies are going to be and act on those. 

Maybe it’s just that I’m still more than a little sick–and Cheryl is right, this is always worse when you have students, who seem to carry some kind of superbug around with them just to give the teacher a fever–and so my ordinary annoyance with all this is getting out of hand. 

Or maybe it’s just that Glenn Beck and Keith Olberman are driving me crazy.

Written by janeh

February 9th, 2009 at 6:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

I Really Hate Flu Season

with 3 comments

Not that I have the flu, mind you.   I’m told on good authority that I  have something called a “sub flu,” which gives flu-like symptoms but is not actually the flu, and therefore my flu shot has been no good to me whatsoever.  It’s at times like these that I begin to think that no matter how much I dislike Florida, I ought to move there.  At least I wouldn’t be cold on top of having one.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking, sor of, when I haven’t just been falling over like a tree and sleeping for hours at a time, and what I’ve been thinking about is that modernity has presented a distinct problem for human beings and their narratives.

In a world with the communications systems of ancient  Rome, for instance, a people could have their narrative and have it virtually unchallenged.   They would be aware of other cultures and other narratives, but they wouldn’t have to confront them on any regular basis.

In modern societies, though, we are all hit with contradictory narratives every day, and we don’t so much pick and choose between them–although we do a little of that–as assimilate what we see sort of willy-nilly.  But no matter how much we know or see of those other narratives, we know them only partially, and we’re no better at really understanding the differences between people, cultures and habits of mind than the Romans were.

I don’t think fiction provides us with narratives.  I think it rather embodies narratives already in the culture around us.   And most people need more than one narrative at a time–a personal one, surely, and one for their country, and one for the world at large. 

The problems come, I think, when one of these narratives will not fit with the others, when we find it impossible to embed ourselves in an explanatory framework that actually explains anything.

Narratives are not wholly self-delusional.  They do and will come in contact with reality, and that means they will sometimes run into it like a car hitting a brick wall.  This is what has happened to a large segment of the Islamic “community.”   Their metanarrative says that Islam is the only true religion and Muslims are destined by God to rule over the earth.  Their reality says that the people who rule the earth are not only not Muslims, but opposed to Islam on so many points they’re almost anti-Muslim.

People do very odd things when their narratives hit that brick wall, and not only things on the scale of suicide bombings. 

Consider the rash of hoax “hate crimes” that occured across the country a couple of years ago, including one where a professor in the Midwest who claimed to have been set upon by a raging Christian fundamentalist because he’d (the professor) said negative things about Christianity on the  Internet. 

After all, if your metanarrative says that you are surrounded by people who are violent and malicious and want to kill you because you uphold Truth and  Right and Reason, and then these people don’t do anything to you  at all, and don’t do anything to anybody that you can see–what does it take for you to go on believing in your metanarrative?

Narratives provide our lives with meaning, and we cannot live without meaning.   What’s more, narratives provide us with self-respect, with the ideas that make it possible for us to look in the mirror and affirm that we are good people.  If our narratives so flagrantly contradict reality that those contradictions cannot be ignored, we’re in big trouble.

One of the ways in which people protect their narratives from reality is to restrict their contact with other people, as far as possible, to  th ose people who accept their narrative.  Conservatives watch Fox News but not MSNBC, read The Weekly Standard but not The Nation.  Atheists read Free  Inquiry and books by Paul Kurtz, but nothing by Augustine or Alvin Plantinga.

But the problem remains–there is no way to restrict our contact with other narraties, not in this technological society, not now.  And that means that we are constantly being threatened by people and events that could easily destroy our narratives entirely.

It’s this–this threat to narratives–that I think is the real explanation for the total insanity of so much in US politics recently. 

We used to be able to disagree with each other and leave it at that, but that is no longer possible for many people on either side of the political divide.

Republicans started out screaming that the Clintons had had Vince Foster murdered and then responded to Obama by calling him a Socialist, a Communist, and–in the case of one  Glenn Beck–comparing him to Hitler. 

And that’s okay, in a way, because liberals spent the Bush administration comparing W. to Hitler, calling him a fascist, and demanding he be tried for “war crimes” becuase he’d sanctioned “torture.’

And those people are back, by the way, now that  Obama is in office.  Fortunatly, the Obama people actually seem to have more sense.

But these are not political disagreements we’re witnssing, they’re the class of narraitives.   The two sides do not see the world and what is important in it in the same way, and one of those ways will, eventually, fall by the wayside and be overtaken by the other. 

The danger of the Bush administration was not that it was evil and totalitarian–it was neither, although I didn’t like it much–but that it portended a world in which that paradigm becomes predominant and the other kind is marginalized.

The danger of the Obama administration is not that it’s evil and totalitarian, but that the man’s sweeping victory seemed to indicate a sea change in the attitudes of the  American public, suddenly marginalizing conservative ideas and beliefs and making them irrelevant to the wider society.

The good news is that the majority of the American public seems to be on neither side.  I think Obama’s biggest selling point was his repeated assertion that there are not liberal Americans or conservative Americans, but just Americans.  The United States actually has a pretty good metanarrative that is servicable for people of many different faiths and philosophies, and it’s one of the better omens of the future that a majority of people want that one and not one of the two more partisan ones that have taken over so much of our discourse in the past few years.

It’s of course never been the case that every single American has been able to adopt the American metanarrative as her own–that would be impossible with so many other options on offer-but the emergene of two large and vocal minorities both of whom reject it in favor of narratives that are considerably less congruent with reality is an interesting circumstance, and one  I don’t know I’m able to solve. 

If I’d have to make my best guess, I’d say that the majority of the militantly “evangelical” wing of the Republican party only says it believs in God.  It is apparently unable to maintain that belief in a society that does not support it both officially and unofficially. 

I’d say the view from the other side is similar.  There are some atheists who, like me, essentially just grew up with atheism.  We never believed in God to begin with, and so we don’t now, and it’s no big deal.

A large part of the atheist movement, however, is made up of converts, and like all converts they tend to be far more fanatical than the average. People like me have n o problem with calling the December concert the “Christmas Concert.”  People who have left what were once strong attachments to faith often do, and  I do think that that is, in part at least, a result of the fact that they’re not really 100% sure they’re right.  I knew a man on the Internet for a while who would get absolutely hysterical if you even suggested that you thought Jesus Christ might have been an historical person–if it was even possible for  Jesus to exist, this man seemed to be coninced he was going to hell.

I have no idea what we’re supposed to do with all this.  The Founding Fathers thought that some things–religions and personal philosophies, certainly–would be best handled by keeping them private and out of the public areas of contention.   There is no way for us to keep any of these things private any longer, because just turning on the televisoin set means that we will be assaulted by ideas that oppose ours.

On one level this is the good news–an awful lot of creativity is born of this kind of friction–but on a personal level, for many people, it can be profoundly psychologically destabilizing.  Even small challenges to our personal narratives can be that.

I have no idea what we’re supposed to do about any of this.   At the moment, my chief desire is to make some chicken broth and go watch Matilda, which is what I do when  I’m too out of it to function. 

With any luck, I’ll be feeling more human tomorrow.

And the cats will stop fighting me for the ice cream.

Written by janeh

February 8th, 2009 at 9:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 3 comments

Okay.  I’m on round two of winter health crud here–this time it seems to be just your standard cold, sore throat, feel like yuck, you know what I mean.  But with the schedule I  keep, I’m bone tired and can’t sleep in until  Sunday–my younger son has classes on Saturday, which means getting up at three thirty even on the week-ends–so I’m feeling a little disorganized.   So let me try to cover a few things without worrying about the structure of the whole, so to speak.

First, I never said that fiction didn’t “change lives.”  I said the humanities–literature, music, art (and history, but I’ll get to this in a minute)–didn’t make us good people, and it doesn’t.  On the individual level, the jury is still out on what people like Arnold claimed that an understanding of the humanities would do–that is, make the individual better than he would have been without them–and I’ll leave determination of the truth or falsity of that to whoever figures out how to test it.

But on the society-wide and culture-wide level, there’s no doubt at all–it is narrative that shapes out societies and changes them.  And those changs are often enormous.   Uncle Tom’s Cabin did more to turn public sentiment against slavery, and make it impatient of resolution, than the thousands of abolitionists tracts and lectures that had been issued across the county in the decades that preceded it.  When Virgil wanted to give  Rome a sense of identity, he didn’t write a philosophical tract on the glories of the Empire, he wrote The Aeneid, convinced that it was the Iliad and the Odyssey, not Aristotle and Plato, that had made the Greeks the great civilization they were.

Human beings live and die by narrative, and this narrative is almost always at least partially finctional.  It is always consciously shaped.  Remember how I said I’d get back to history?   History has always been considered one of the humanities–not the “social sciences”–because from the beginning, history has been about producing narratives and claiming them to be ‘true stories!”

I don”t mean that there”s no such thing as fact in history. Of course there is.  The problem is that, if all you had was a list of facts, without framework or interpretation, you wouldn’t have anything particularly useful, or particularly of interest to just about anybody.  Herodotus and Thucydides both knew this, and they felt no compunction at all about making up speeches to put in the mouths of historical figures, or turning entire events into platforms for moral instruction.

These days we’re more careful.  We don’t do anything so blatant as simply to make up what somebody is supposed to say.  But we don’t just stick to the facts, either, because we can’t.   A list of all the facts that make up the Civil War would tell us very little about the Civil  War–that’s why Bruce Catton writes narratives called histories, not fact sheets.  And even if every single fact he gives is verifiable, the further fact is that he only gives us some of them and leaves others out.  In that choice itself the “facts” are fictionalized, and history becomes an art and not a science.

If you don’t believe me, think about a scientist conducting an experiment about a new drug, who decides to keep in the data on one set of side effects but to leave out the data on another set.

Like it or not, narrative is the most important fact about us individually and as a society, and narrative is what both makes us what we are and pushes us into change.

What’s more, the Great  Conversation has, in the West as in everyplace else, always been carried on primarily through the arts (and therefore fiction), not through philosophy or other nonfiction work.

Robert was wrong to say I care very little about the nonfiction end of the Canon.   Any look at The Western Canon According to Me will show that at least half of it is taken up with nonfiction.

But the simple truth is that philosophers speak mostly to each other.   If their ideas remain in philosophy texts without being translated in any way into fiction, those ideas will be of no ultimate important to civilization at large.   Sartre and Camus both understood this, which is why, aside from writing philosophy, they always made it a point to write novels that embodied that philosophy as well.  And to this day, you can learn a lot more about existentialism as philosophy and as way of life from The Stranger than you can from Being and Nothingness.

Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom and its ideas had no currency in everyday life whatsoever until a generation which had been reared on Atas Shrugged discovered it.  Suddenly it was popular enough for multiple reprintings and references on Internet web sites by people who know no more of Leibniz or Macchiavelli than I do of carburetors.

Human beings think in narratives, and the narratives they think in determine their personal identities and the nature of the societies they live in.   Change a society’s narrative, and you change everytbing about it.

And that will, I guarantee you, change lives.

What’s more, once a narrative becomes strongly entrenched, it maintains itself even if it’s drastically, destructively wrong.

Consider both Karl  Marx and Sigmund Freud, two thinkers whose chief claim to fame is to have come up with some of the worst ideas every written down on paper, almost all of which have been decisively refuted on almost every level.  

I say almost every level, because Ayn Rand notwithstanding, there’s been very little in the way of counternarrative out there to deconstsruct the worst of the idiocies their narratives left behind.   In the case of Marxism, the effect has been even stronger than it might have been because its narrative is in fact an offshoot of an older one, with enough of that older one’s elements to feel “naturual” to the people taking it up–Marxist narratives are always variations on the Gospel,  with History made to stand in for  God and Oppressed Humanity made to stand in for Christ on His Cross.

A  philoosphy that is never expressed in narrative dies, or becomes a simple academic enterprise of interest to nobody but scholars in universities.   It you want to chane the world, you must tell a story, and get other people to adopt your story as ‘true.” 

All of the great questions of our time will be decided not by logical discussion,  not by philosophical or political debate, but by which naratives come to be adopted by the most people.  Abortion, gay rights, the welfare state, pre-emptive war, the Islamic resurgence–you name it, and the best and most compelling story will win. 

What strikes you as more immediate and true–the stoy of the rape victim who finds herself pregnant by her rapist and is trapped, screaming and desperate, with no way out of undergoing even more pain and suffering?  or the story of the small child in the womb, trusting to its mother and the rest of the the world to feed and comfort and protect it, suddenly attacked by knives and suction cups and ripped to pieces?

Or how about this–the story of an old and suffering woman, condemned to die a slow death from a debilitating disease, without hope, without relief from pain, unless someone will help her put herself out of her misery?  or the story of the old woman who is suffering but still wants desperately to live, constantly in fear of the “medical professionals” around her who think her clinging to life makes her a “greedy geezer’ and is completely irrational, determined to “put her out of her misery” even if she thinks that isn’t what she wants?

Our narratives are who we are, and the Great Conversation is first and foremost a history of and competition between narratives. 

And, if that’s a hobby, it’s the most important one ever invented, far more important than most of the rest of what we do.

Written by janeh

February 6th, 2009 at 6:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Contradictions in Terms

with 2 comments

I’m going to glide over Cheryl’s comment that somebody once told her that The Da Vinci Code was a great way to learn history, because if  I think about it too much I’m going to cry.

But Robert says that I want three very different things that are not necessarily even compatible with each other, so let me start there.

First, as to everyone having wisdom–yes, of course I want that, anybody sensible would, but I don’t expect that it can ever be achieved.  If there’s anything you learn from being deeply immersed in the Western Canon, it’s that human beings have very little wisdom to share among them and they often seem determined to get rid of that.  Seek the mean in all things, the Greeks said, and then they executed Socrates and took on Alexander the Great.

The other two things I definitely do want, but although  I don’t think attaining either of them will lead to the other, I don’t think they’re incompatible.

The first and most important thing, of course, has to be that civility, that respect for each other and for what we owe each other without which there can be nothing called civilization. 

I think we think of civilization, too often, as something we have.  We live in a civilized country, we tell ourselves, and then we sit back and wait for it to deliver safety, security, prosperity, and enough entertainment to keep us amused.

In reality, civilization is not something we have, but something we do.  It exists to the extent that each and every one of us chooses to go on doing it.   The young mangiving up his seat on the bus to a pregnant woman, the old lady in the store being courteous to the clerk who is waiting on her, are just as important, in the long run, as the rule of law.  In fact, without them, the rule of law cannot exist.

Obviously, we’re not going to convince our fellow citizens to do civilization by “a course of reading,” which is how I vaguely remember Robert putting it.  The habits of mind that produce civilization need to be taught out of school as well as in, and in practice as well as in books. 

On this score, I think it’s less important that a child learn to read  Shakespeare than that he learn that bullying will make him a pariah, cheating will ruin his education, and helpig the weak and unfortunate even at significant cost to himself is an imperative–and that he learns those things not by reading about them in books, but by having them played out in his own life by the people around him.

I’m not saying schools have no place in forming such habits of mind, only that they help to form them not in the contents of their curricula but in the policies and practices of their day to day operation.   A child caught cheating should fail the course he cheated in, absolutely, without question, no reprieve.   A bully should be penalized for bullying, and he should not be validated by seeing his victim sent off to some mandatory course of ‘therapy,” as if the victim is the one who has a “problem” that needs to be “fixed.”

On one level, it would be possible to teach these particular lessons without reference to the Canon at all.  Many good and decent people are both good and decent while knowing almost nothing of the Canon.  Many bad ones know a lot about  Chaucer and  Blake.

But the Canon isn’t negligible either, because there’s something else we have to do if we are to “do” civilization, and that is to know what it is and who we are.

I get a little prickly at the idea of “a course of reading,” maybe because I’ve never thought of the Canon in that way.  I haven’t read what I’ve read because it was assigned to me.  I was well into my doctoral program before a teacher ever gave me an author I hadn’t already read at least something of, and even then the new-to-me books tended to be relatively minor works of history and philosophy from Italy, Spain and Greece.

There’s a lot to be said for reading just to read, which I did, and many of the books I read even as a child were ‘classics.”  Nobody told me to.   They were just there.  And the stuff we were asked to read in school, and the “new” stuff I talked my father into buying for me, often seemed terribly thin in comparison.

The point of introducing people to the Canon, however, is to help them understand who and what they are.   Robert sent me notice of a column by Ralph Peters in  yesterday’s New York Post in which he says that he thinks of the Taliban and other fundamentalist Muslims sort of like aliens–he is sick of hearing about how they are “just like us” and want the same things we want, when they are neither.

I don’t much like the idea of thinking of my fellow human beings as anything but fellow human beings, and I don’t think that doing it goes to places we want to get to, but I do take his point.  We have a very hard time accepting the fact that there are people in the world whose ways of thinking are radically different from our own.  For all the blather about respecting other cultures that has made the rounds in the last couple of decades, the “respect” demanded of us has been largely superficial.  Faced with real differences, we tend to proclaim that anybody who notices them is a racist scumbag who doesn’t deserve to be listened to.

Western civilization is a particular thing with a particular set of ideas and principles that exist noplace else on the  planet, and that are often in contradiction to what does exist.  The idea that each individual human life should be treated as important, that individuals have rights and must be allowed to choose their own “values,” that everything must be examined and questioned, that men and women are morally and should be politically and economincally equal, that sex is a private matter between two consenting adults that should not be interfered with by any third party for any reason whatsoever–I could go on with this list, and it’s very long.

None of these ideas has been accepted in any other culture anywhere, except in so far that compromise with them seems to be necessary in order to participate in the global market.  Some cultures–and that of the Taliban is among them–reject these ideas so strongly that they’re willing to forgo the market, too. 

Robert said once that he did not think that we and Europe still shared a common culture, but we do–we shared that entire orientation with “rights” and “choice” that is Western and nothing else.  That there are differences between Anglo Western culture and the Western  culture of  Europe proper there is no doubt, but we are still all more like each other than we are like the Taliban, or China.

For the sake of m ost of us reading this blog, however, Anglo Western culture is the issue, and it has some particularities we want to hold onto, not least of which is a concentration on the political and moral equality of all citizens that is honored more in the breech than the observance almost anywhere else. 

Of course, to an extent, it can be honored only at least somewhat in the breech even in those countries where it arose and where it is still a vital principle.   Complete equality of condition is achievable only by abandoning m ost of the rest of what we find valuable in the culture in qustion.  You can have liberty or equality, but not both.  The  Anglophone sphere tends to err on the side of liberty, and I think it’s made the better choice.

But it has been a choice, and right now we have a situation where many of the citizens of Anglophone countries don’t know that that’s the case.  They don’t actually know what the founding principles of Anglophone civilization are, they don’t realize that these principles were reached through long and difficult struggle, and they’re completely unaware that most of the world finds them incomprehensible and repugnant.

“Of course there must be freedom of speech,” one of the imams in  London said in the middle of the anish cartoon controversy, “but freedom of speech can’t be absolute.  Nobody has the right to insult cherished religious beliefs.”

Part of the reason I want as many people as possible to be familiar with large areas of the canon is that I want those people to understand what their civilization is and how it differs from others, and because I want to recruit them to a defense of its maintenance.  Western civilization does not posit particularities–“this is true for us, but it may not be true for you.”

In fact, no civilization posits any such thing.   It couldn’t and survive.   The Taliban do not think that their brand of fundamentalist Islam is ‘true for them.”  They think it’s true for everybody and should be imposed on everybody who does not voluntarily agree to get with the program.

Western civilization posits universals–that women and men should be politically and socially equal, that speech should be free of government coercion on any topic at all, that religion is a matter of personal choice and should be left to the conscience of each individual–and therefore also posits that societies that do not accept and practice these universal principles are objectively wrong. 

Contrary to what some people claim to believe, knowing and accepting all this does not require us to invade other people’s countries and impose these principles on them.  It does require that, for the same of the people hurt by injustices like forced conversion, forced abortion, female genital mutilation and all the rest, we understand what we’re supposed to stand for and advocate for it, not just as ‘ours,’ but as univerally applicable, as loudly and as long as we can.

The greatest accomplishment in the history of human life ever achieved was the abolition of slavery across the planet, almost entirely at the will and behest of the British Empire.

In the last three decades or so, as we’ve more and more been declaring that all cultures are the same and equally valuable, slavery has been creeping back, defended by its practitioners as “their culture” that we have no right to judge or interfere with.

We need both the habits of mind thar insure civility and the knowledge of history and ideas that make it possible for us to understand who we are and to defend our principles not as something  “just for us,’ but for all human beings, everywhere.

A world where men and women are political equals, where freedom of expression and conscience are honored, where slavery does not exist–is better than all the other options.

Written by janeh

February 4th, 2009 at 8:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Drop Kick Me, Jesus, Through the Goal Posts of Life…

with 5 comments

Okay, that’s a really old song that a lot of people I knew in college used to sing, usually right before expressing confusion as to whether or not it was a joke.  I still don’t know.

But Lee suggested reading Susan Jacoby’s book The Age of  Unreason, which  I have, and that line from that song sort of explains why I was disappointed with it.

First, let me say that I got ahold of a copy of that book as soon as I could, because I was hoping that a) it wasn’t really a new take on Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and b) that it would be a critique of cultural relativism from the left for once. 

I got both my wishes.   Hofstadter’s book is not about anti-intellectualism as we have been discussing it here, but about the resistance of large segments of the American public to rule by “experts.”  To Hofstadter, thinking that your local elementary school principal has her head up her ass because she wants to use “see and say” instead of phonics is “anti-intellectual.”   Personally, I think resistance to “expert” opinion in things like this is one of the great strengths of American society. 

Jacoby is not on that particular rag, however, and she is trying to talk about the anti-intelligence thing I started out talking about myself about a hundred or so posts ago. 

And I wasn’t even upset by the fact that, after excoriating the Right for page after page for swallowing a lot of nonsensical crap wholesale as if it were Holy Writ, she then swallows a lot of different nonsensical crap herself, just “liberal” nonsensical crap instead of “conservative” stuff.  If we want a poster child for critical thinking and reational thought, Jacoby is definitely not it.

(I didn’t know what to do with her ringing defense of the loonier segments of the Sixties Left as being motivated by high ideals and a passionate commitment to justice and right.  I mean, for God’s sake–the Black Panthers?  The Weathermen?)

But, like I said,  I could live with this, because we desperately need a critique of the “everything is just as good as everything else” school from the left.  After eight years of a  Republican culture that had so far departed from the principles laid down  by  William F. Buckley that it seemed to be running on the assumption that “stupid is better,” a defense of education, expertise and high culture was just what I was looking for.

Jacoby’s book ended up failing for me, however, because throughout it all I could never figure out what it was she wanted–other than the end of the Bush era, which she got.

We do a lot of the same things here.  We spend a lot of time complaining about students and the general literacy level of the public at large, but we don’t ever seem to come to any kind of decision about what we want the world to look like instead.

And I’m not too sure I know, exactly.  There are some specific points that I’m sure of.  I’d like more people to be more skilled at reading, whether they chose to do it often or not.  I’d like more people to know the basics of their own history and the workings of their government. 

A lot of times, however, I’m very conflicted.   Decadence is ore a habit of mind than a set of specific policies, or even events.  It consists in the decision that the only standard by which we need to judge our behavior is whether or not it gives us what we want.  Homosexuality is not decadent.  The attitude that the only thing we need to consider in deciding whether to extend government recognition to gay marriages is how gay people will feel about it (or its lack) is.

I am a big supporter of government recognition of gay marriage, by the way.  I think there are good, practical reasons for such recognition, and there are getting to be better ones every day.  The purpose of government recognition of marriage has always been, first and foremost, to ssecure the rights of children to their father’s property, and these days, with adoptions and sperm donors and what all else, it is sometimes the case that the “father” in a relationship is another woman, or that there are two fathers.  To exclude Jack and Sally from the benefits–Social Security suvivor benefits, for instance–guaranteed to one of their parents because that parent’s marriage to their existing adoptive parent wasn’t recognized in law, even though it had been going on for twenty years, seems addled to me.

But the argument that “you can’t legislate love” does nothing for me, because I do not consider marriage, as the law does not consider marriage, to have anything to do with “love.”

What I want, I think, is to shift this culture away from the assumption that right and wrong, good and evil, acceptable and unacceptable are to be determined by what we “want,” and to move it back to a place where we understand that what we want is not a definitive answer to anything. 

I mean, even when the question is what to choose from the desert menu, we’re usually smarter to think about health issues and cost issues and who knows what else.

I suppose what I’m trying to say here is that anti-intellectualism, for me, the anti-intelligence kind, is about sloth, mental and spiritual and moral and intellectual sloth.  We don’t read long books because they take a certain amount of effort.  We don’t read James  Joyce or The Iliad or (in the case of many of my students) Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods because they’re “too hard.” 

I can think of big scale plans for making sure my next round of students–or the round six or seven years away–knows the things my present students do not, but I don’t think it will matter much of they still have the attitude that the only thing that matters is what they feel. 

“Some people may like writing because it gives them a chance to express their feelings,” one of my students wrote once, and then he couldn’t think of any other reason why people would like to write. 

He couldn’t think of a single reason why people would like to read.

It’s a change in the habit of mind that I think is my ultimate goal in all this, and I think too many of us, including me, substitute superficial manifestations for the deeper issue.

Once, pregnant with my younger son, I got on an overcrowded bus near Camden Town just behind a tall young man with piercings all over him and a rainbow mohawk of truly epic proportions.  He sat down in the only seat available, looked up, saw I was pregnant, got out of his seat and gave it to me.

“You sit down, miss,” he said.  “You’re going to do yourself harm if you try to stand up when you’re that way.”

I like Theodore Dalrymple a lot, but he makes a lot of fuss about piercings and tattooes and other body art.  I don’t care about the body art if I can have the civility and the courtesy and the sense that we owe each other something as human beings. 

And I think that’s the first step on the way to figuring out what my goal in all this is.

Written by janeh

February 3rd, 2009 at 10:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

What Does It Mean To Say That Somebody “Knows How To Read”

with 6 comments

It’s Monday again, and that means  I’m not going to have access to a computer after the next hour or so, so I’ve decided to start this early.

I’ve been looking at the comments, and a couple of things occur to me.

First is that it’s absolutely true.  Even twenty years ago, the students I teach would mnever have seen the inside of a college classroom, and in all likelihood neither would the students in the tier just above them.

Besides the remedial, make-up-for-what-you-should-have-learned-in-high-school stuff, we have “associate degree” programs in things like auto mechanics and licensed practical nursing, occupation with little or no connection to academic work, or academic talent, of any kind.

But I wasn’t asking that we should turn any of these people into even baby literary scholars.  Nobody has to be a scholar to read James Michener’s Hawaii or Irving Wallace’s The Chapman Report.  You don’t need an extensive knowledge of cultural context or a sophisticated understanding of literary forms.  You don’t even need a really large vocabulary.  These are what publishers call “commercial fiction”–as opposed to both genre fiction and literary fiction–and the entire point of them was to reach a mass audience of general readers with no particular expertise in literature.

Several people have suggested that the absolute number of readers in the country has grown over the last forty years, not shrunk, andthat the percentage of people who read is probably similar to what it was in 1960.  But I think it’s undeniable that these are not the same kind of readers as existed then.  

Publishers are in the business of making money, not supporting literature, and they seem to be convinced that no serious market exists for books like these.  And it’s not a matter of people not liking this kind of story, because similar stories do enormously well as movies or HBO miniseries.  The Sopranos was a lot of things, but it wasn’t a genre anything.  It had more in common with The Forsyte Saga than with crime novels. 

People are still more interested in people than in anything else.  The Higher Gossip is still the main draw of narrative.  It’s just that the Higher Gossip has disappeared from our bookshelves.

Robert suggests that slapping a genre label on a book–it’s a mystery! it’s a romance!–will tell the readers something useful and that only minor repercussions will result when they find out Scarlet doesn’t end up with Rhett.

I don’t think slapping a genre label on a book that doesn’t really belong in a genre tells us anything useful, and I do think that it tells lies that have much broader repercussions than just one or two unsettled readers.  Genre does not just tell us how the book ends, it tells us many other things about it.  GWTW is not a genre romance novel not only because Scarlet and Rhett don’t end up together, but because Scarlet is neither virginal nor admirable.  She’s a scheming, conniving, selfish sociopath who’s buried two husbands by the time she marries Rhett.   There is room for such characters in genre romance, but they’re always the evil Other Woman, not the heroine.

If you want to see just how much trouble such expectations can cost, I give you the one and only time I ever had a book picked up by the Mystery Guild.  That was Somebody Else’s Music, and I can only assume that nobody at the Guild read it, because when it appeared in the catalogue it was promoted as a cozy and was without the little warning note they append when a book contains graphic violence, explicit sex or “strong language.” 

Unfortunately for me, and my chances of ever having another book in a book club, SEM is not a cozy and it contains all three of the things forbidden in cozies–there’s plenty of strong language (inludeing the f-word), a fair amount of graphic violence and, yes, some explicit sex.  Readers, having counted on the genre label to insure certain things about the book, were furious.

I also don’t see what’s so difficult about telling readers what a mainstream novel is about.  The Thorn Birds?  It’s the story of a young woman growing up in Australia who has an affair with a priest and how that impacts her life, his life, and the lives of all the people around them.  The Chapman Report?  It’s the story of how this big sex survey comes to town and interviews all these women, and the impact those intervies have on their lives and their marriages.

I’m very aware of the fact that I’ve chosen a couple of chick lit volumes above, but I could do the same with any other mainstream novel.  And, like I said, it’s not that readers would have difficulty with such descriptions, since they seem to be able to handle them when they’re appended to television programs and movies.  From the evidence of box office receipts and DVD rentals, there’s an enormous audience for this kind of story out there, it just isn’t translating into an audience for books.

Nor do  I think that the popularity of the Harry Potter books is necessarily a hopeful sign.  Harry Potter is a series for children, and because it is a series for children it is restricted in both vocabulary and plot complexity.  Granted, the later books are less so than the early ones, but even with the seventh and last volume we are dealing with work that has consciously been aimed at readers assumed to be less sophisticated than grown up ones.  It’s also the case that every book in that series has pretty much the same plot, and the plot is a genre fantasy plot that has been with us at least since  Tolkein, if not before.

What’s worse, the numbers for the Harry Potter series, although stunning in book sales terms, or abysmal by any other measure.   A Harry Potter hardcover now sells through at around 850,000 copies.  The paperbacks do two to five million, and many of those are repeat sales, books sold to readers who have the hardcover but don’t want to damage it, or who have lost it, or whatever.

A movie or a television show that did this kind of business would be considered an utter failure, and even if we assume (wrongly) that every single copy sold represents a distinct reader, 6,000,000 out of 300,000,000 is only 2%.  This is not evidence of a nation of readers.

So the question comes down to this:  what does it mean to say somebody “knows how to read?” 

At the very least it should mean that the person understands the words on the page in their most straightforward sense, that he doesn’t read “there are two kinds of thinking, religious and scientific, and the religious is wrong’ as if it said “there are two kinds of thinking, religious and scientific, and everybody should pick the way that’s right for them.”

I didn’t make that one up.   It’s a response I get from students over and over again after I’ve asked them to read a very short essay by Richard Dawkins.  I think that what’s  happening, in this case, is that they are sure they know what the article is going to say, and stop paying attention to it after the first line or two.  

This is also, I think, what they are able to do with genre fiction, what many people are able to do with genre fiction, and what might account for the fact that it has gained so much more support against mainstream fiction than it used to have.

If you already know what the book is going to say, you need to put ery littl effort into “reading” it, and you don’t ven need to ‘read’ it at all in any sense in which m ost of the people who read this blog would define “read.”  When the book breaks the rules a little you don’t notice it.  When the book breaks the rules a lot, or comes without rules, you declare that you don’t “understand” it.

And maybe you don’t.  But I would say that anybody–including the nurse and the garage mechanic–who can’t follow the plot of Gone With The Wind or  Hawaii cannot be said to be able to read in any sense at all.

And the problems they have with books like that will show up as problems elsewhere, in books that are not fiction.

Because part of this seems to me to be a case of not being able to pay attention.

Written by janeh

February 2nd, 2009 at 10:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Genres 2

with 7 comments

Oh, ack.

In the first place, I didn’t say that a genre was a book with a “pat” ending, and although the endings of genre novels are predictble in the sense that they are predermined–the heroin will marry the hero who will turn out not to be the brutal thug he’s appeared throughout the entire book; the detective will solve the murder mystery–that’s a long way from saying that they are always predictible in their details.

What’s more,  I don’t agree that a genre can be defined only by its scene or setting.   I left some fudge room for  SF, because in my experience SF writers and readers like to claim just about anything, no matter how tenuous its connection, as SF.  So I’m giving them the rope they seem to want to hang themselves with.

What’s more, I don’t think that the mainstream novel is “about” the “interior lives” of the characters.  Saying that a novel allows us to enter into a character’s head and think the way he thinks for a while is not the same thing as saying that the novel is about anybody’s “interior life,” or even that the character is self aware enough to have an interior life.

A genre is a predetermined narrative structure into which the writer fits whatever else she wants to do or say.  There is nothing pejorative about the term, and there are genre novels in the canon–Frankenstein and 1984 among others.

Gone With The Wind is a mainstream novel.  So are The Hunt for Red October, Peyton Place, The Da Vinci Code, To Kill a Mockingbird, Exodus, Little  Women, Valley of the Dolls, Foucault’s Pendulum, The Way We Live Now, War and Peace, August 1914, The Razor’s Edge, Magnificent Obsession, The Robe, Moby Dick, The Portrait of a Lady, The Great Gatsby, Seven Days in May and The Bridges of Madison County.

Some of those books are good, some of them are bad, none of them are genre, and none of them are literary.  Most of them have plenty of action and incident. 

What’s more, the simple fact that a mainstream novel has one element or another that might appear in a genre, or even several, dones’t stop the novel from being mainstream or make it genre. 

And Cheryl is right–all these distinctions are, and must be, fuzzy around the edges.  What’s more, genres and subgenres come and go. When Scruples was published, it was a mainstream  novel.  Ten years later, after a couple of dozen novels all written on the same pattern, we had a new genre, usually calling, in the business, the “shopping and effing novel.”  The plot elements had solidified, and dozens of writers created books to fit them.

The mere fact that a book fits into a genre does not disqualify it from the canon, nor does it disqualify it from being a good book.  Some genres, or more usually subgnres, become so rigid that working within the guidelines makes it close to impossible for a writer to write a good book–the serial killer novel is getting very close to this–but that’s because any predetermined form necessarily limits a writer’s choices and those limits are necessarily artificial in the sense of being outside the writer’s own judgment.

But Cheryl is right that it’s hard to think of mainstream fiction on the market now, because there’s nearly none of it.  

To the extent that there was disrespect for the genres in publishing, that disrespect came from the fact that up until recently genres sold very little relative to mainstream.  Books by Irving Wallace and Leon Uris were huge best sellers.  Horror practically didn’t sell at all and science fiction sold in paperback and that only in limited quantities.

Genre novels didn’t become the big sellers in publishing until the Eighties, and by now they’ve nearly wiped mainstream off the shelves.

And the question is why.   I can certainly understand why contemporary literary novels don’t sell.  Halfway through a book by Ann Beattie I’m likely to start muttering, “stop whining already!”

But something like Iriving Wallace’s The Man. about a freak accident that kills several members of the US government and puts the White House in the hands of its next black President, or Leon Uris’s Exodus, about the founding of the state of Israel, or any of the Michener books–it seems to me that there was certainly enough action and incident, enough varied and surprising characters, to interest any ordinary reader.  And none of these books is in any way hard to read.

I am beginning to wonder, though if  the problem is that I set the bar too high when I think that somsthing is not hard to read.  All the books mentioned in the last paragraph were enormous best sellers in their time.  They sold to and were read by plenty of people who had not gone to college.   Even my mother plowed her way through Valley of the Dolls, and she resisted reading the backs of cereal boxes. 

But I deal more and more with people who can’t understand Terry  Pratchett’s Small Gods–and I don’t mean they can’t understand the extended metaphor, or the references to religious history.   I mean they can’t follow the plot, and it’s not that hard a plot to follow. 

John sent me a series of links to a three part article about students and reading.  If you go here


you’ll find Part Three, with links to parts one and two. It’s best to start from the beginning. 

John complained that the writer was ‘too highbrow” for him, and he definitely comes out of the high art tradition, and the works he’s talking about are definitely canonical (The Odyssey, The Aeneid), but the question of reading comprehsnsion remains no matter what the books you’re talking about. 

And there does seem to be some kind of weird problem going on with linear thought, with putting one idaafter another and following it to a third. 

And I’m not talking just about students here, either. 

That’s a far cry from worrying about whether or not people can read truly difficult books in or out of the canon, or whether they can benefit from a writer’s ability to let them experience the way other people think–which is not a parlour trick, but the very purpose of fiction, and the only thing that makes a book worth anything as fiction.

Of course, a book may be worth a lot on other standards of value–as entertainment, for instance, or as a cultural artefact–but the real stuff of fiction is in the way it expands our understanding of the full range of what it means to be human.\

But I’m not asking for that now.

I want to know if there’s become a problem in “getting it” on a much more basic level. 

Maybe the reason that genre fiction has taken over the place mainstream fiction used to have–the commercially most viable place, the most widely read place–is that there are many more people now who are unable to follow a story if it isn’t largely predetermined, if it isn’t already familiar and predictable.

And that makes me a lot more worried than Indian casinos and the John  Edward show–and maybe they’re all connected.

Written by janeh

February 1st, 2009 at 11:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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