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Archive for April, 2009

Morphing Out

with 3 comments

A couple of nights ago I watched this movie, called How to Lose Friends and Alienate  People.  I’d been dancing around it for a couple of weeks, because I recognized the title, and yet I couldn’t imagine a movie made from the book I’d read.  For one thing, the book was a memoir, and a memoir that involved whole rafts of well knosn people likely to be willing to sue.  For another, the narrative arc itself left something–well.   Let’s just say it lacked a lot of the elements American audiences would be likey to pay to see.

As it turned out, the movie was indeed based on the book, although very useful.

Toby Young’s memoir is about his time working for Vanity Fair, a clueless Brit low-level journalist suddenly catapaulted into US Celebrity Central, which is where he thinks he wants to be.

What follows, in the book, is a dismal record of failure–in an American media culture that expects professionalism, drive, and nearly fanatical devotion to work, never mind absolutely fanatical devotion to watching what you eat and drink, he rampaged through the landscape making one mistake after another until the magazine packed him up and sent him home.

I read this book a couple of years ago, and what struck me most about it was the end, which consisted of a long diatribe about how absolutely awful and unnatural “American” women were.

I put the American in quotation marks there because it’s fairly obvious from the book that  Toby met few if any American women.  What he met instead was a particular kind of New York female whose counterparts in Los Angeles and a few other places represent the only examples of the type on the planet, never mind in the country.  If he’d anted to meet actual American women, he should have gotten out of the claustrophobic clutches of celebrity journalism and met people who, you know, wouldn’t recognize Nick Nolte if they saw him in the street, and wouldn’t care if they did.

The movie dispenses with all the inconvenient facts presented in Young’s memoir–the alcoholic haze, the lack of work eithic–and gives us instead a man named Sydney Young who, if clueless, quite definitely has a heart of gold.

He’s also got a lot of other things Americans want their British-born heroes to have:  a master’s degree in philosophy from a good university; a father who is not only a ditinguished academic but a Lord, which means our hero has a minor title; and a narrative arc that takes him straight to the top of the magazine world before he realizes he can’t stand any of these people and runs off to be with his true love, the Misplaced Magazine  Staffer Who  Is Really A Serious  Novelist.

I”m making this movie sound an awful lot worse than it is.  I actually liked it a lot and watched it twice in two days. 

But likable as the movie is, it is not particularly original and it doesn’t have anything new–or even true–to say.   I sympathize with the underlying premise.  I’ve actually worked with these people, and although I never reached the exalted heights of Vanity Fair, I put in my time on NY glossy magazines. 

But sympathize as I do, Iknow thata most of the people who make serious careers in that world believe heart and soul in what they’re doing, and would not want to be doing anything else.  I’m also fairly convinced that had the real Toby Young made a success of it, he wouldn’t have been claiming to have no use for it now.

What interests me here is why the people who made this movie made this movie.  It’s a nice enough little thing. It has some moderately big names–Kirsten Dunst, Jeff Bridges–plus Simon Pegg, who starred in Hot Fuzz, one of my truly favorite movies.  The photography is good, the sets are shiny, the actors playing the stupid celebrities the magazine chronicles are really, really good at appearing too stupid to breathe in and pump blood at the same time.


The damned thing is a cliche from start to finish, right down to the final apocalyptic smash-up at the Academy Awards.  There’s nothing new in it.

And for all the deficiencies of the original memoir, there was quite a lot that was, if not entirely new, then entirely true, in that.

I’m not one of those people who think that moviemakers must stay “true to the book” whenever they translate it to the screen.  Different artistic forms have different requirements, and there’s good reason why second-rate books make better movies than first-rate ones.

In this case, though, we weren’t dealing with a first rate book, just a book that said some things that the people who made the movie found no reason to pay attention to.  It’s hard to understand why they bothered to pay Toby Young the money to use his title.

Absolutely the best thing about this movie is a fake trailer for a nonexistent movie called Teresa:  The Making of a Saint, in which a gorgeous but mentally brain dead Hot Young  Actress plays the young Mother Teresa as…well, you’d have to see it to believe it.

It runs during the credits, and it, unlike the movie, has a point.

Written by janeh

April 19th, 2009 at 8:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

More Fan Mail

with 6 comments

So, okay, I was going somewhere with all that stuff I was saying yesterday but between then and now, I’ve received yet another e-mail caused by a complete inability to understand what’s happening in third person multiple viewpoint.

And I’ve got to admit that the Internet is not my friend in some ways.  When I used to get these things by snail mail, it was easy to just ignore them. 

I even manae to ignore a lot of them now, but this one–.

Okay, it wasn’t just the first e-mail, which I answered in what I thought  was a pleasant manner, but which my correspondent thought was “haughty.”  And because I don’t use the common e-mail convention for italitics, but use caps for emphasis instead, she also thought I  was shouting.

But the problem remains the same, and it’s driving me absolutely crazy.

In this case, the reader objected to the fact that some character in Cheating at Solitaire had thought dismissive and inaccurate things about the Harry Potter novels.  She didn’t tell me which character this was, and the remark was obviously some kind of aside, so I have no way of tracking down what I did and what I meant to do for the character involved when I did it.

Now,  I’ve got nothing against the Harry Potter novels.  I’ve read them all.  I own every single one of them.  I own every sinle one of the DVDs, too, and in deluxe expanded editions on top of it.

I do know, however, that there are people out there who do not like these books, and others who just don’t get what the fuss is about.  In Living Witness,. tere is at least one Christian fundamentalist character who is convinced the books are agents of witchcraft.  And those people really exist.

And when I write from the point of view of such characters, then they will think what they really think about Harry Potter and everybody and everything else.

And  I explained that to her, and she went on to say not only that I was shouting and being “haughty”  (I really wasn’t–I got to that in my response to her second e-mail), but that I should have put a disclaimer at the back saying that these were the thoughts of my characters and not mine, and how I really do like the Harry Potter books, so that readers wouldn’t be put off reading them because of what my characters think.

Oh, and she kept putting the word “character” in quotes, to indicate that of course she knew I was lying, what the “character” said was obviously my opinion.

This thing is going to make my head explode eventually.

Third person multiple viewpoint is an extremely common literary device.  It’s used by thousands of writers, and not just literary ones.  It’s a staple of Stephen King’s work.  It shows up in every genre and every historical period.

If there really are hordes of people out there who do not understand this  process, then there are hordes of people out there who can’t understand much of what they read in fiction. 

And then it hit me.

Harry Potter.

I was thinking a while back of the curious fact that a lot of what has become popular for adults in recent  years has actually been written for children.  That’s true not only of Harry Potter, but of a raft of reissues and movie adaptations of older children’s books.  Think The Golden Compass.  And Inkheart.

What all these books have in common is this: they employ a relatively restricted vocabulary, and a very restricted set of literary conventions.  They’re utterly straightforward–no multiple points of view to confuse an audience not yet trained to understand how to read that’ no complex systems of allusions to baffle people not old enough yet to get what we would assume to be common references for adults.

With Harry Potter novels, you’re always completely clear on who is good and who is evil.  You are told what you are supposed to think about everyone and everything, and the only narrative voice in existence is the voice of the author.  If she wants you to know that one of the characters is thinking something, she puts in “he thought” so you’ll know for sure.

And there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this.  Lots of literature has been written this way.   It’s called the omniscient narrator, and Dickens liked it a lot.

But it’s not the only literary device out there, and it’s nearly died out completely in adult literature over the last century.  The closest writers get to it these days is to write an entire book in third person, single viewpoint, which means the reader stays in the head of only one character throughout.

Third person multiple iewpoint makes it possible to present human beings in all their variety in ways that are not possible with omniscient narrators or single viewpoints.  And it makes it possible to present these characters in a way that allows the reader to make up his own mind about the moral worth, intellectual ability, even likeableness or loveableness of the character involved.

I don’t understand readers who want lectures instead of fiction, who want to be told what to think. 

When my Christian fundamentalist characters dismiss Harry Potter as witchcraft, that tells you something about them, about the way that they think, about their limitations of intellect and even of morality.  When Gregor Demarkian throws up his hands in exasperation because he can’t figure out what’s going on with Harry  Potter and those books, he’s exhibiting the fact that he is a male in late middle age who grew up in a traditional family and was educated by traditional educators in an era when any mention of magic or the supernatural made a novel automatically unworthy of consideration by adults.

And that is, in fact, who Gregor is, just as Bennis (who writes fantasy) is very different, and Tibor is ery different, and each of the suspects in each of the books is very different.

But they are all themselves, and they have a right to their opinions just as much as any reader does.

And if all their opinions are mine, then I’m a Christian fundamentalist atheist  Republican Democrat Communist Anarchist Ayn Randian straight woman lesbian traditional housewife who cares only for her career.

To name just a few of the opinons my characters have had over the last few years.

Maye we should all stop worrying about whether students are reading the Canon and start concentrating on teaching them basic literary forms that my generation knew by the time we got out of elementary school.

Written by janeh

April 18th, 2009 at 9:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 2 comments

To answer John’s question first, the book I’m reading is called Intellectuals:  From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky, and since I got it years ago–in a Barnes and Noble brick and mortar store, if I remember corectly, I’ve got no idea how it’s being present online.

That said, I’d like to take up a couple of things, most of them I think said by Robert.

The first is that we hear more about this kind of reprehensible behavior, and just petty meanness, in the cases of intellectuals than in those of other versions of Great Men.

I’d say this is certainly true, but I’m not sure it actually indicates that intellectuals are in reality m ore prone to this behavior than highly successful businessmen, statesmen and inventors.

The simple fact is that intellectuals write more than other people do, and they write about everything, including themselves and each other.  One of the interesting side issues in Johnson’s book has to do with just how many of these men and women kept extensive “private” diaries, most of them fully expecting that those diaries would be published eventually, if only after their deaths.  These diaries not only included personal thoughts and reports on personal activities (like the sex in their marriages), but commentary and reports on their fellow i ntellectuals. 

We have, therefore, a vast amount of material on these people that exists to this extent for no other group.

The fact that we don’t know petty and shameful things about the private behavior of someone like  Aristotle may mean only that such commentary was less common at the time, a or that it hasn’t come down to us.  Some commentary on the private habits of Socrates, however, has–in Aristophanes’s The Clouds–and it is not only not complementary, it bears an uncanny resemblance to complaints about “bohemian” behavior now. 

Of people who were not intellectuals for whom we have a wealth of reports, I’m not sure they do much better.  Lorenzo de Medici, for instance, was a brilliantly entreprenuerial, brilliantly cultivated thug, and there was more than a little sarcasm involved in his contemporary nickname of “Lorenzo the Magnificent.”

The big issue, for me, is the idea of ‘genius.”  Part of my problem is that we use the word in a number of different ways, some of which are unexceptionable.  But the idea of genius as a man of great talent, so great it is nearly unique, whose cmpetence is so far above the rest of ours that it constitutes a difference of kind and not a difference of degree, and who cannot therefore be expected to behave the way the rest of us do, is very new, and I think it may be the most pernicious idea in the history of the arts in the  West.

When I say the idea is new, I’m acting like an academic–we’re back to The Sorrows of  Young  Werther again, which introduced the mythic archetype of the Suffering Genius into the world.  The Sorrows of  Young  Werther is a thoroughly silly book, and worse. It’s also the pilot fish and the founding document of the Romatic period.  What it isn’t is an accurate depiction of any known human being.

Michaelangelo, who probably was one, would have laughed himself silly at the entire idea of “genius.”  Leonardo would have had no use for it.  That some men were smarter than others, and more talented, was something they knew from first hand experience.  That being significantly smarter and more talented than the people around you makes you lonely, they knew as well.

But then, being men of the Renaisance and not products of the Enlightenment, they didn’t expect to be perfectly happy on this earth.   They probably saw loneliness a fair trade off for the other things they had.

And I’m not denying that this loneliness is often all too real on a practical level, and that it can sometimes be dangerous to the “genius” involved.  A contributor to a couple of forums I’ve been on, the psychologist Ctherine Fiorello, has pointed out on numerous occasions that teachers who are not intellectually gifted often find the behavior of students who are as “indistinguishable from psychosis.”   If you’ve ever had a child in that position–and I  have–you know what an incredible mess it can be.

All that said, however, I think the idea of the genius is essentially fraudulent.   Human beings exist on a continuum on a whole raft of traits–not only raw intelligence, but imagination, visual acuiity, musical ability, and a lot of other things.

When my brother was very young–I want to say twelve, but it might have been fourteen–he brought home the reck of a car and parked it in our garage.   This was going to be his car, he said.  He’d have it up and running in no time.

My mother freaked.   My father told her not to bother, Zennie was never going to get that thing going.   Not in a million years.

It didn’t take him even half a year.  He’d never worked on a car before.  He had no one to teach him how to do it.  He just looked at the hing, and knew.

I don’t think there’s much difference in what Zennie’s brain was doing than in what Moxart’s was doing when, at the age of four, he was sat down at a keyboard by his father and found that he could just play.  

In both cases, their brains were simply so constructed that in this particular thing, they were “naturals.”  Both of them had to work hard, and study, to turn that natural talent into something more serious, but the naturalness was a simple gift of nature.  Not everybody gets that gift, but it’s wonderful to watch the people who do.

We paste the label “genius” on people who have that kind of natural talent for things we respect, or take seriously, or have decided are “hard.”   I grew up with a kid who had that for mathematics, so that he was literally incapable of “showing all work” in algebra class.  What work?  You look at the equation, and the answer is obviously 42. 

When they got this little hitch straightened out and sent him off to college at the age the rest of us were going to high school, he was roundly deemed a “genius,” by which people meant “really, really, smart, because he can do mathematics and we can’t.’

And he was an incredibly intelligent kid.  He was not, however, as intelligent at everything as he was at mathematics.

All the intellectuals in Paul Johnson’s book are “geniuses” in the sense that they’re naturals at one particular kind of thing.  Almost all of them have been infected by the Romantic notion that geniuses are “special” people to whom the rules and conventions of society do not apply, and by the equally pernicious (and Romantic) idea that such genius resides in their differences from their fellow human beings, and therefore in their “originality.”

This seems to me to be an incredibly dysfunctional way to think of high intelligence of any kind.   It not only encourages highly intellegent people of every kind to think of themselves as divinely ordained to rule the idiots for their own good,  it makes bad art nearly inevitable.  A urinal sits in a display in the Museum of Modern art because Goethe demonstrated conclusively that the only way to be sure you’re a genius is if all the non-geniuses can’t understand you, and because trying to come up with an “original” improvement on the Pieta is like asking God to make a rock too big for Him to lift.

Anyway, I’m up to Memingway at the moment, and that chcapter has revealed one of those truly wonderful trivia things I’d never have guessed.

It turns out that, from the age of fifteen, Ernest Hemingway’s favorite author was…

wait for it…

Rudyard Kipling.

Written by janeh

April 17th, 2009 at 10:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Character Development

with 3 comments

It’s been a long time since I read Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals, and I find, in rereading it, that I’d forgotten a lot of it.  I’d also mischaracterized it in my mind.  There are certainly lots of details about the private lives of people like Ibsen, Shaw and Tolstoy, but there’s a lot else that’s here, too.  And I’d forgotten  how much Johnson admired many of these people as writers, even when he didn’t much approve of them as human beings.

But there’s a bigger issue here, and one that I hammer a lot, so let me go there:  I don’t think it’s possible to write a fictional character who will be as complex, and often contradictory, as the most complex and contradictory of human beings.

Take Jean Jacques Rousseau, a man whose written work drives me up a wall, and one of the most brilliant and destructive thinkers in history.  He was also most likely mentally ill, with a full blown paranoid persecution psychosis that included believing that members of the government of whatever country he was in were plotting against him, subverting all his friends in the process and lying in wait to clap him in prison. This resulted in his doing things like sneaking away from the friend who was escorting him to the boat that would take him back to France from England, dashing into a cabin and locking the door behind him, all in an attempt to escape an “apprehension” that was not only not actually occuring, but had never even been contemplated by anybody.

We like to have our Great Men all of a piece, just as we like to have our heroes in fiction.  We’d all feel better if Gandhi hadn’t had that taste for very young girls, or if Hitler hadn’t been, as he was by most accounts, a consummately funny man. 

Some of the things Johnson covers matter a great deal to the ideas proposed by the men and women whose lives he examines.  Certainly Marx’s claim to be constucting a “scientific” socialism should be reexamined in light of the fact that he did no first hand research of any kind, consistantly rejected any imput from actual working  people on his experiences, falsified a lot of the secondhand research he did use and usually took that research from studies that were decades out of date.

Some of the portraits are, really, just sad.  Ibsen’s childhood was a monument to abuse, neglect and deprivation.  It left him almost entirely incapable of forming close attachments to other people for the rest of his life, something that was not happy for his wife and children.  Still, I don’t see how this invalidates any of the things he said or believed.  He didn’t do the damage to himself, and I’m not sure I’d feel justified in demanding that he at least try to reverse it.  There’s lots of damage in my life taht I’m not able to reverse, and some I can’t even be convinced to want to.

Anotber set of problems seems to me to come not from being an intellectual, but from being a “bohemian.”  The only thing is that when people want to live like that–hand to mouth, no regular employment–and are not “intellectuals” (or “artists”), we don’t call them bohemians.  We just call them bums.  I’ve known a small smattering of people in my life who lived like this, and I’ve never understood.  It looks like a miserable way to live, and also a lot more work than actual work.

But I wonder if some of what is going on here is just the way things are.  It doesn’t matter how much talent you have, if you don’t have the drive to go with it, you don’t get anywhere.

That means that people who do get somewhere, who succeed on a reallyhigh scale, are almost always horrifically driven people, and horrifically driven people tend to be jerks.  

World class drive requires a kind of tunnel vision, the inability to see anything clearly except the goal.  It’s practically the definition of selfishness, and almost nobody acquires it except through pain, failure and unhappiness.

It’s not so much that being driven makes people unhappy, as that being unhappy makes at least some people driven.  Almost all the portraits in Johnson’s book are of people whose early life was marred by one kind of disaster or another, people who were poor, or laughed and spit at, or bullied, or failures, or unwanted. 

The one possible exception so far has been Percy Bysshe Shelley, who seems to have been a kind of spoiled brat who was never forced to grow up.  But maybe that’s not too different from the other thing.

All I know is that I had that kind of drive when I was younger, for reasons that there’s no point in going into now, but I lost it as I got older.  The kind of damage that’s necessary to fuel ambition is first and foremost personal, and I had lot of that as a child and adolescent.  As an adult, though, my life has been remarkably happy in all the most deeply important ways–great friends, an excellent marriage, two children whose company I actually enjoy and who seem to enjoy mine.

The ways in which my adult life have been unhappy–and there have been ways–have largely been in areas external to my own inner self-assessment.  For better or worse, it’s been decades since I was convinced that I was the ugliest person who ever lived and not worth the time it took people to reject me. 

I don’ t want to give the wrong impression here.  I haven’t lost all my ambition–I’ve still got things I want to accomplish, and I still have the energy to go do them.  It’s just that I’d be content, now, with being a decently known and decently successful mystery writer.  When I was twelve, nothing less than becoming the next Hemingway would have done.

These days, I know what you pay for being a person like that.  And I’m glad some people are willing to pay it.

I’m also glad that I’m not one of them.

Written by janeh

April 16th, 2009 at 12:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Things I Need To Know

with 6 comments

Well, okay, maybe not need.  It’s tax day,  I got up very early this morning, and I’ve been working ever since.  Sometimes I get to the point where little things just stick in my head.

For one thing, why is it that tax day in the US is  April 15?  I know the idea was to make sure people had enough time to gather their information and work with the forms, but why not April 1 or  April 30, rather than a day in the middle of the month?

Then there is the casino problem.  I don’t go to casinos.  I think I’ve been inside one maybe three times in my life, and all three times the places–including the really expensive, shiny, flashy one–seemed depressing and sad to me.  Nobody looked like they were having fun, and everybody, including the staff, looked tired and a little desperate.

All those people can’t have gambling “addictions,” as we like to put it these days.  I even know people who hit Atlantic City or Vegas for a few days once a year, and who have what sound to me like sensible policies for personl gambling:  set aside a budget and when that money is gone, just stop.

Maybe if I’d gone with one of thse people, my experiences would have been different.   As it was, the tension in the air was palpable, the games weren’t fun because of it, and it took me less than an hour each time to want to go home and to sleep.

Then there are pawn shops, which are also depressing, but I’ve only seen one of those, so my sample may be skewed.  I went to my first and only one on three separte occasions a few years ago because a  character in a short story  I was writing was supposed to go to one, and I thought it would be a good idea to go see how the places worked and what they felt like.

I chose one on the edge of the city, in a neighborhood that wasn’t half bad–well, okay, the local branch of the state welfare office was on the same road just a few dozen yards away, and a strip of fast food restaurants.  But it wasn’t the kind of place I drive through now and then, where the windows are all boarded up and half the storefronts are empty. 

The first thing that struck me about this place was that it seemed to be stocked with nothing but televisions, dozens of them, and really large ones, too.  I’ve never owned a television like that and the impression  I get is that they cost a lot of money, at least in four figures.   I suppose everybody pawning these things could be a drug addict or alcoholic feeding a habit, but I can’t get over the feeling that it stands to reason that some of them must have belonged to ordinary people who apparently thought buying a $2000 television set when they couldn’t be absolutely sure of making their rent made sense.

On some days, the world seems to me to be full of slightly desperate people, and I suppose this is one of them.

Not much of a post, but the tax forms have to go to the post office…

Written by janeh

April 15th, 2009 at 7:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Pub Date

with 2 comments

Well, I could go on with stuff, I suppose, but I’m pretty sure that this is the official publication date of Living Witness.  I say that because it’s the date that those of you on my mailing list are supposed to get an e-postcard, and it makes sense that that date was set for pub date.  Besides, the online stores seem to have been shipping the thing for most of the week.

Pub dates are weird things.  For one thing, they’re largely fictional–they’re the date on which retail reviews (newspapers, for instance) have the okay to publish a review.  Industry reviewers published theirs weeks ago.

But I can never get to a pub date without wondering if I’m doing the right thing, in the short run and the long.  Gregor and the gang on Cavanaugh Street have been around for a long time now.  Sometimes I get sick of them, and sometimes I get angry with them, and sometimes I’m happy to be back.  This time I was happy to be back, but this book is more complicated than that.

I write straight murder mysteries that are just about the mystery (and the characters), but I also write ones that deliberately take on the personalities around social conflicts.  Living Witness is about a small town in Pennsylvania being torn apart by a move by a member of its school board to promote Intelligent Design in its public schools.

Now, I’ve read my share of mysteries that take on issues, and by and large I don’t like them, because by and large they falsify the very issues they’re supposed to be illuminating.

Years ago, I read a book in a series I liked very much where the issue was whether or not a group home for the mentally ill would be established in a neighborhood.  The book was written so that the people opposing the group home were invariably misguided–they had no reality-based objections to the establishment of such a home, just groundless fears and ignorance (in the best cases) and prejudice and malevolence (in the worst).

Coincidentally, there was at the time I read that book an almost identical argument going on in the town in which I live, although the group home was to be for the mentally retarded and not the mentally ill.  So I knew that there really a solid, objective problems with placing these sorts of institutions in neighborhoods.

For one thing, whether we want to admit it or not, the resale value of homes in the vicinity goes down precipitously in such neighborhoods, and many of the people in my town objecting to the establishment of this group home had a perfectly practical objection:  their entire life savings were tied up in their houses, and their retirement years would be better or worse on the basis of what their houses sold for when it was time for them to leave. 

And this was not just a lot of selfish greed on the part of the people in this neighborhood.  It was the reason this neighborhood was chosen and not the one half a mile away where all the houses went for three times as much–rich people can count, especially if it’s their own money.

There were other considerations, too, having to do with security, garbage collection, the protocols for who would and would not be admitted as a resident, that were sketchy at best and would have an enormous impact on the quality of life in that neighborhood. The residents were, I think understandably, unhappy with the idea that all decisions would be in accord with “good social work practice.” 

All this is leading up to the admission that, in writing Living Witness, I went out of my way to make the situation actually correspond to the one that existed in the Dover case.  That is, the school board is not trying to get science teachers to actually teach Intelligent Design. nor is it insisting on the strategy of teaching what is supposedly “wrong” with the theory of evolution.  Instead, it is asking that a disclaimer be placed in each book–some people don’t agree with evolution–and a book, called Of Pandas and People,be placed in the library for students who want to investigate a different point of view.

Now, I tend to agree with the Dover decision.  The theory of evolution is no less well grounded than the theory of gravity, and if you’re going to start handing out disclaimers about oneyou should be handing out disclaimers about the other.

That said, I think the majority of Americans would be completely mystified as to why there was a court case in a situation like this.  To people who don’t care much one way or the other about the theory of evolution, all the people in the Dover case must look nuts.  And I mean on both sides.

So Living Witness tries to get inside the way all these people think, the good, the bad, and the ugly.  The only two really admirable characters in the whole thing are a school administrator named Catherine Marbledale and a Holiness Church preacher named Nicodemus Frapp.  There are enough pretty unadmirable characters, including two bone-stupid Fundamenatlists and a rabid atheist bully named Henry Wackford, of the town’s most important law firm, Wackford Squeers.

Oh, and in case you haven’t guessed yet, I did that thing where I name characters or places or institutions after something that exists in literature or history, the way the characters in Glasss Houses are named after various people in the Tudor saga.

I have no idea how this book is going to go over.  I like novels that deal with issues.  I like political and social points of view.  Lots of people, though, don’t want to be bothered.  They think it makes the books less of an escape.  They just don’t care, one way or the other, and they’re tired of people nattering on about all this stuff.

If any of you read it, though, I’d be interested in knowing what you think.  I’d be especially interested if you have strong feelings on one side ofthe issue or the other.

In the book I’m working on now–yay!  almost finished!–I’m back to an entirely frivolous setting, so to speak.  Not as frivoless as Cheating at Solitaire, but, you know, reality TV is hard to take seriously.

Although I do think all those women fighting to become Flavor Flav’s next girlfriend should have their heads examined.

Written by janeh

April 14th, 2009 at 12:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Vanguard Nation

with one comment

Robert says that the “”best” people–the intellectual cutting edge–had abandoned freedom and democracy well before manhood sufferage and commercial freedom were widely accepted.”

I’ve thought about this for a minute or two, and I think it’s largely wrong, and for two reasons.

One is the simple fact that in any society in which he and I  have lived, the “best” people have never included the intellectual vanguard in any sense.  The Anglophone nations are notorious for being determinedly middlebrow, dedicated to sport and more than faintly anti-intellectual.  It was one thing to go to Oxford.  It was another to actually study while you were there. Boston made fun of its bluestockings.  It valorized its merchant bankers. 

If you want your daughter to come out at a really exclusive presentation ball, you’d be better served learning to ride to hounds and ski impressively than in reading anything at all.   As any student at a first-rate prep school can tell you, there are two kinds of people who go to such places–the smart ones, and the rich ones.

But the more important point is that this is not the trajectory that American intellectual history followed.  The  Transcendentalists may have given up on  Reason–and common sense, too, in some cases–but in no sense had they given up on democracy, or on “commercial liberty,” or on liberty of any kind.

And I’m not sure that the Romantics in Europe gave up on those things to begin with.  I tend to doubt that they ever had them.  European culturs are essentially monarchical.  They’re monarchical now as much as they were then, although their rhetoric is different.  England came closest to a democratic tradition, but it was always a truncated one. 

What’s more, the common assumptions of British social life–note, social, not intellectual–were transmitted to this country by virtue of the fact that it was emigrants from Britain who founded it, and although they included a nominal respect for “education,” they were mostly about birth and breeding and the ways in which such things would “tell,” and class would be inescapable.

Whatever the Romantic movement was in  Europe, its American counterpart was, if anything, more committed to liberty and democracy than the general public, whatever its class.   It was the Transcendentalists who championed universal manhood suffrage, not the Boston merchant class or the working class that took its wages.  

And many of these people put their lives and fortunes on the line to do it, making their homes stops on the Underground Railroad, for instance, when being caught at it would not only get you generally arrested, but subject you to mob attacks by the populace at large.

And some of them even tried to live their theories in a real life that wasn’t very forgiving of them–inviting Frederick Douglas to dine, for instance, when doing so often meant having half your guests walk out the door when they discovered they’d be sitting at table with “monkeys.”

In an era when fortune and livelihood often depended on connections, this kind of thing could get you into serious financial difficulty.

For better or worse, anti-democratic intellectualism in the United States has largely been a foreign import, and the importation was from non-Anglophone countries, and it first arrived around (and usually after) the Civil War.   America’s first intellectuals were democrats to a man (and woman), in favor of ending slavery and of valorizing “good practical work,” even when they wer e incapable of understanding it.

The country would have been better off if it had been more in step with its intellectual elite–such as it was–in 1848, because they were the people who were insisting that slavery had to be ended, period.  They were also the great champions of universal free education.  Citizenship in a free republic required that every man learn to read and write, and every woman, too, so that she could bring up the next generation of patriots.

And that was another thing–these people were fiercely patriotic, and about as committed to the ideas of the Founding as fundamentalists are to scripture.  

If there’s a point in learning intellectual history, it’s that it makes it possible to see that not only is correlation not causation, but that it isn’t even always correlation.  At the time I’m speaking of, we were involved in the Mexican War, that ended up annexing much of what is now Texas.  Most of these people were as opposed to it as any anti-Vietnam protestor was to the war in Vietnam, but they managed to do it without excoriating soldiers and the military and without demoting the United States to the status of rogue nation or international embarrassment. 

The “best” people are never in favor of democracy, but the “best” people are never intellectuals, either.  In the US, they’re largely the descendants of the makers of the great fortunes of the Gilded Age.  In another fifty years or so, they’ll also be descendants of the makers of the great fortunes of our age.  They do not live democratically.  Their children do not go to public schools, and in fact are brought up to be as different from the children who do as it is possible to get.

When I was growing up, this included carefully inculcating an accent that most ordinary people would find grating as hell, but also in constructing a set of experiences that would be shared by nobody outside the circle:  “dancing classes” that were not about dancing but about proper manners at formal parties; “subscription dances” that staged just such formal parties (starting in junior high school); mass presentation balls for the college set.  And then there are things like the Knickerbocker Greys, a quasi-military marching society for boys, with uniforms and swords, invitation only, and money (if it’s the wrong kind of money) won’t get your son through the door. 

This set of experiences is so radically different from anything “most” Americans are used to–no proms, remember, no cheerleaders that anybody cares about,  “cool people” sports as tennis, squash, and skiing and the school may not even have a footall team–that the products of this sort of upbringing often find themselves incapable of communicating with their more conventionally raised classmates when they finally get to a college where they have to live with everybody else.

But they’re not intellectuals, elite or in the vanguard or anything else.

Written by janeh

April 13th, 2009 at 5:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Raising The Dead

with 2 comments

Okay, you know, what the heck.  It’s Easter.

But I was thinking about the responses to the last post, and once again it feels to me as if I didn’t get myself across.

What I was going for was a matter of cultural climate, I think, although that might be the wrong term.

To me, a world that photographs is different in thought and feeling than a world that produces only portraits.  Certainly you can lie with photographs just as you can lie with portraits, but it’s a different kind of lie.

And when you make this particular kind of mistake–when I think of Hawthorne as being “back then” but Emerson, who was a contemporary, as being “modern”–you tend to distort the reality of an era in ways that significantly affect your interpretation of it.

I get this a lot with another figure from just a little earlier in history–Jonathan Edwards.

It is nearly universally assumed, even by people who pride themselves on their education, that Edwards is a figure from the early days of the  Massachusetts colony, an old  Puritan from the time when witches were hanged in Salem and local gossips spent time in the stocks.

But Edwards was not only from Connecticut and not  Massachusetts, he was a contemporary of  Benjamin Franklin, and if he hadn’t died relatively young from what would now be a treatable illness, he would have seen the Revolution and the founding of the new country..

What’s  more, he not only did not oppose Enlightenment thinking, he shared many of its enthusiasms, especially for the natural sciences and mathematics.  He was, in short, nothing at all like the sort of person people who have read only “Sinners at the Hands of an  Angry  God” imagine him to be.

It’s just that this book has made me start to wonder how much of intellectual history  I’ve been distorting in my mind, how many assumptions I’ve been holding that do not realy fit the time and the place.

It’s one of the virtues of timelines that they can present a picture of the ways in which various ideas and thinkers related to each other in time that is often conterintuitive otherwise.

To me, as to most Americans with anything like a decent grounding in American history, 1776 is the high point of the Enlightenment, the place where Enlightenment ideas (at least, the ideas of the English Englightenment) brought forth a practical result, the United States of America.

But the Romantic period, the revolt against Reason, began with Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young  Werther, and The Sorrows of  Young  Werther was published in 1776.  It’s common to say that the Enlightenment died in France in the  Terror, but the fact is that it was already over even as the  United States was beginning.  For better or worse, the educated “elites” of  Western Europe had already rejected the idea that life could be founded on reason alone long before the first guillotine was erected in  Paris.

For me, that phrase–“by reason alone”–will always have connotations that are essentially medieval.   To the medieval Church, and especially to the Thomists, “by reason alone” meant without recourse to Revelation. 

So the Church of the middle ages believed, and it is to this day a dogma of the Catholic Church, that men and women could know some things–the existence of  God, the basics of the moral law–even if they’d never had the gospel preached to them, and even if they’d rejected it.  God had so created our minds, our wills and our hearts, and so created the world they inhabited, that we could discover those things for ourselves.

It was how the Catholicism of the time solved a paradox–how could God be just if he condemned millions and millions of people to Hell whose only real fault was to have lived in a time or a place where the Gospel was not available to them?

Still, the habits of mind of the two eras were different, what came before the Enlightenment, although it necessarily provided the foundation for what came after, was a different world in a far more fundamental sense than we usually accept.

And I still say that photographs, no matter h ow meretricious, chaned the way we thought about ourselves and our fellow himan being, that we werenot the same kine of people, or the same kind of societies, in a culture where they had become commonplace than we were in that same culture before they existed.

And I’m

Written by janeh

April 12th, 2009 at 8:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Photographic Negative

with 3 comments

So, okay, I warned you.  The new book is actually doing well and I’ve got a lot of other stuff going on, so the blog is going to be sporadic.

But it’s not only the blog that’s sporadic these days.  I’m also taking forever to read anything, and that includes my desperation book, The Concord  Quartet.  T

This is one of those books that has, scattered throughout in intervals, glossy pages with photographs.  Given the era, all these photographs are in black and white–but given the era, I keep running up against a wall in my head that is somewhat astonished that there are photographs at all.

And this isn’t helped by the fact that Hawthorne, one of the quartet, is represented in no photographs until he reaches old age, while the others are represented by many taken over a long period of time.

And they’re not the posed, deliberate portraits I’m used to seeing from this era, either.   There are many of people at least thoretically caught working at their desks or reading by the fire.

Hawthorne, though, has only one head shot taken when he was grayed and almost broken down, and it’s the only photograph I’ve ever seen of him.   For a picture of him as a younger man, we’re left with the famous portrait of him looking vaguely like an American Byron, and even better looking.

What stops me cold, however, is the fact that this lack of photographic evidence–this requirement that I see Hawthorne as a portrait where the other four (Emerson, Thoreaou and Bronson Alcott) are snapshots, does something to the way I conceive of Hawthorne as a writer and a person.

These men were all close to each other in age, but my head keeps classifying  Hawthorne with Washington, Jefferson,  Madison and  Adams and the other three with the more modern America of the Civil War era.

Part of this is that I’m bad at imagining any sort of regularity of rhythm in the passage of time.  The Founding and the Civil War were closer together than my head envisions them, and the Founding and the period of great abolitionist agitation were even closer.   Many of these men had fathers and uncles who fought in the revolution, and all of them had grandfathers who did. 

But although all that seems perfectly plausible when I look at Hawthorne’s portraint, the rest of them, erect in head shots or leaning over piles of papers in paneled studies, seem closer to me in both sensibility and experience than the Revolution could ever be.  I can imagine Hawthorne in a wig.  I can’t imagine Emerson.

I wish  I knew something about the history of photography, when it started, when it became common.  Obviously it was not so common in the era I am talking about.  Otherwise, we’d know if Hawthorne was as spectacularly good-looking in the flesh as the portraits of him always made him out to be.

And by the time we get to the Civil War itself, the practice was common enough so that almost every family at least sat for a formal photographic portrait. 

Then there’s what makes it worse, sort of–the issues these men dealt with are issues that, in slightly altered form, concern us still.  I’m not in intellectually harmony with Bronson Alcott, but I’m not in intellectual harmony with Hawthorne, either, who rejected abolition and wasn’t all that interested in seeing the slaves freed. 

I sympathize with the Hawthorne of The  Blithedale  Romance–communes are always idiotic–but if I had to pick a writer or a work that comes closest to the way I think, I’d have to ditch the writers and pick a single work, Thoreau’s Slavery in Massachusetts.

I have no idea why photographs make so much of a difference in the way I perceive writers, but it’s interesting to think that there are many writers who were never photographed but who could have been, and that my perception of their work and their thinking is unalterably affected by the fact. 

And that’s even more confusing, because photography as a common practice for writers seems to have hit England after it hit the States

Somehow, I think Byron would have been much less of a romantic figure if we’d ever had a photograph of him–and Byron without the romance is mostly a bad poet.

Written by janeh

April 10th, 2009 at 9:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 3 comments

No, I’m not kidding.  As I was coming here to teach, it was actually snowing.  It was warm, and it wasn’t sticking, but still.

So, I’ve been thinking about sincerety.  It seems to me that sincerity matters more in determining what the person is worth than in determining what the ideas are worth.

If you’re reading someone who is suggesting that you can make a change to your life, especially one that you don’t think is really possible, then whether or not he is able to follow his own advice can help you determine whether or not you’ll sign on for the program.

But even there, what you really need to know is whether anyone could follow the advice and succeed.  I quit smoking cold turkey in 1991.  I know it’s possible because I did it.  People around me know it’s possible because I did it.  If the guy recommending cold turkey on television is still a nicotine addict, it’s still the case that it’s possible and I know because I did it.

I agree with both Robert and Lymaree that the Hobbesian stance is probably the default stance, but I’m bemused by how many of you seem to assume dehumanization means blanking out entire groups.

Lately, the dehumanization I notice is of individuals by individuals, or individuals by institutions.  There are an incredible number of people out there who decide “this is the way you should behave,” and if you resist and disagree, feel justified in doing whatever it takes–lying manipulating, threatening, bullying–to get you to do it.

Okay, that sentence should be shot.  But my point is further this:  although Hobbes may be the default mode, I do think most of us in this society at this time have been brought up to believe that the default is a bad option, that we should behave differently.

It would embarrass me to do some of the things I see people do, and especially some of the things I see various officials of various organizations do.  Consider, for instance, the SLAPP lawsuit, which is fortunately illegal now in many states.

The SLAPP lawsuit works like this:  somebody in the community objects to the fact that your company wants to build a plant there, and publishes op-eds or sends letters to the editor of the local paper detailing all the awful things your company has done.

This somebody is telling the truth.  Your company really has done all these things.  You know that if you launch a lawsuit against this person for what she’s said, you’ll lose–

But you don’t have to win.  You only need to make the who process so expensive, your critic will be forced to shut up.  You also send a message to other potential critics–if they say anything you don’t like, you’ll cost them enough money to put their houses, their children’s educations, their very lives in jeopardy.

I’d really like to look into the mind of the person who thought up the SLAPP suit.  We’re not dealing here with a marginal issue.  That this course of action is both politically and morally wrong would be easily discerned by the vast majority of the population.  For one thing, the suit asserts a lie, since it claims defamation where the company knows none exists. 

The other thing I’ve seen, quite frequently, have been attempts to get workers or students to quit.

I’m not talking, now, about truly difficult situations where an employee cannot be fired or a student expelled, but his behavior is such that there has to be some way to get him out of there.

At one of the places I’ve taught, for instance, there was a tenured professor who’d  become an habitual drunk.  He’d come in drunk, teach drunk, and leave drunk.  His classes had degenerated into hour and tweny minute long rambles on his life, his tastes in music, whatever.  He was supposed to be teaching American government.  If students left papers in his campus mailbox, he would pick them up, then lose them, then forget he ever had them, then fail the students for never handing them in.

Firing a tenured professor is damned near impossible.  I don’t think the administration did anything wrong by going in for guerilla tactics–moving his parking space to a lot in the Sibera across the highway, “forgetting” he was supposed to have his check directly deposited into his account and giving it to him in check form instead (thereby causing a delay that bounced a whole stack of checks he’d written on the assumption the money would be there), finding it nearly impossible to get the air conditioning working in his office when the heat hit 100 degrees.

My problem is that I see too much of this when it’s completely unnecessary, and especially against students.  In one case I knew of, a teacher took a student’s note cards–nearly three hundred of them–when the student wasn’t looking, making the student incapable of finishing a research paper on time and giving the teacher the opportunity to hand over an F.  The F put the student’s GPA under the bar for staying in school.

And that was, in fact, the point.  The teacher wanted the student gone.  The student went.

If I was the one who wanted the student gone–and I admit that it isn’t the kind of thing I’m prone to–it would make sense to me to tell the student so, or to do something direct that would might get me what I wanted, like complain to the administration about the student’s behavior.

But even if I was unwilling to do that, I’d have a hard time stealing the notecards and then staging a convincing hissy fit over the student’s “irresponsibility.”  And irresponsibility is what this teacher accused this student of.  Of course, the student hadn’t really done all that work, made all those note cards.  He was just slacking off again.

My son calls this approach to human relations “corporate,” but it certainly doesn’t restrict itself to corporations. 

And unlike the practice of stigmatizing groups, it requires one person to directly face another, to look straight into someone’s eyes and do it anyway.

Am I really the only person left on the planet, or one of the few, who can’t do this sort of thing without at least looking guilty?

But I’m blithering again.  And I found my copy of The Intellectuals. 

Written by janeh

April 8th, 2009 at 2:05 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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