Hildegarde

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Archive for February, 2010

Snow Day Hangover

with 3 comments

It’s the morning after a big storm that went on late into the evening, which means that my walk and my driveway are not yet shoveled out.  This happens sometimes.  After a while, it just gets too dark to do anything sensible, and then it gets dangerous to handle a snowblower. 

The problem, of course, is that the temperatures tend to go down during the night, and that means what started out as wet, easily handled snow turns into ice.  As I write this, it’s about twenty-five after four in the morning, and there’s someplace I’m supposed to be at eight.

Well, before eight.  I’d do better to get there at seven thirty.  It will get light here around seven this morning, which is going to make it all a good trick.  I’m also obliged to show up for classes, no matter how impossible it seems to get out of here, unless the university decides to  postpone opening this morning, which I truly hope it will.

I complain about students a lot, and I have a lot to complain about, but the ones I don’t complain about tend to be almost aggressively over-responsible.  If they’re the kind who come to class and do their work, their the kind to risk their necks driving in dangerous situations to make it in to school.

And I have a damned hard time getting them to call the weather phone first.

This is the obverse of the things I talk about most of the time.  When kids who have been disadvantaged for a long time, or done something really awful and screwed up their lives before now big time, decide to get their acts together, they tend to go all the way to the other extreme. 

They’ll come in sick so that they don’t miss class, deliver papers over the Internet from their hospital beds, bring their suddenly-babysitterless babies with them to final exams, and not sleep for a week to get the research paper done.

And they’re battering rams.  They’ll take the course and fail it, take the course again and fail it again, take the course the third time and finally pass it. 

I don’t know if they learn how to live with failure or if they simply learn how to grit their teeth and survive it.

It does occur to me, though, that the failure issue is one we never address in programs like the one I teach in. 

An awful lot of the kids I teach have never known anything but failure.  Their schools were bad, not only in the sense of badly funded (not enough textbooks, bathrooms with clogged toilets unfixed for weeks on end), but in the sense of being staffed largely by teachers who just didn’t give a damn.

Many of them were passed along year after year without actually learning anything.  Some of them get to me unable to read in any sense, never mind in any meaningful sense. 

Obviously, dropping out and joining a gang, or having a baby at fifteen, is self-destructive behavior, but I think I only know that because I know what the possibilities are.  A lot of my kids don’t know, or they assume that they’re just not good enough to have possibilities. 

I used to think that the ugly phenomenon in some minority schools of kids who don’t study beating up on kids who do for “acting white” was caused by anger at being presented with the possibility that they might actually get somewhere if they worked at it.  A kid from their own neighborhood who succeeds and goes on to college proves to all the ones who don’t that it’s just their own fault that they didn’t.

I’ve been changing my mind on that lately.  I think a lot of the anger is anger at a universe in which they did not get whatever lucky gift their classmate did–I think they see it as a case of some people are born beautiful, and some people are born smart, and they were born neither.

I think it would be difficult to underestimate the crushing sense so many of these kids have, at least by the time they finish high school, that they are utterly worthless and unredeemable. 

Some of these kids, some very few, crash through all this by main force and end up first in my classrooms and then in other classrooms and finally with a degree, although not usually a good one.

It occurs to me, however, that it’s not possible to achieve anything really significant in this world without being able to swallow a lot of failure along the way.  It’s the old thing about Babe Ruth having not only the record for most home runs but the record for most strike outs. 

Getting somewhere means taking the risk of trying something you might fail, and with really hard things the chances are you’ll fail a lot before you succeed.

A lot of my kids have no tolerance for failure.  They’ve never done anything else but fail.  Unlike., say, me, they can’t look behind them and go–oh, yeah, I failed at that other thing and then I tried again and I succeed, I can get through this.

They see failure as an absolute because failure is, for them, an absolute.  They’ve never known anything else.  When they fail, they assume that’s the end of it–because that has always been the end of it.  They’ve got no reason to expect that if they keep on keeping on, as the man said, they’re going to see anything like a light at the end of the tunnel.

I have no idea what to do about this kind of thing.  I have no idea if there is anything that can be done about it.

I just know I’ve got to get in this morning because the three kids who will kill themselves getting there will kill themselves getting there, and I won’t quit work in the middle of the term because I don’t want to put those same kids in the position of losing time and money they can very ill afford.

If it was just up to me, though, I’d cancel everything and pretend like this day didn’t exist.

Because it’s going to be ridiculous trying to get out of my driveway. 

Off to David Hart Bentley and tea for an hour, and on to the Orthodox Churches tomorrow morning.

Written by janeh

February 17th, 2010 at 7:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Areas of Contention

with one comment

Yesterday, I did something I almost never do.  I accessed the blog page from my home computer.  I access the page I write on from home a lot, but I tend to look at the blog page itself on computers at school.

Imagine my surprise when I saw that the type font was suddenly teeny-tiny small, something it was not when I wrote it and had no reason to expect it would be when I published.

This problem does not seem to occur when I write from school and then publish, although I don’t know why not.

At any rate, I’m trying something new today, and with any luck it will mean no m ore teeny tiny type for AOL users, since I assume this must have something to do with the interaction between the blog site and the AOL browser.

Keep your fingers crossed.

In the meantime, we finally have the snow day we were supposed to have last week.  In a kind of equal and opposite reaction, this time the weather people swore it was going to be no big deal. 

I figure we’ve got three to four inches on the ground already, and it only started snowing for real about noon.  The good news, I suppose, is that the local schools are on winter break this week, so it’s only the colleges that are exploding in panic.

I’ve decided to make a meatloaf, which is something I rather like–okay, my meatloaf may not be what you’re used to–but that I don’t get the time to make very often.  And I’ve done all my correcting, so that I don’t have to worry about it tomorrow.  And I’m halfway through the new book.

The new book is called Atheist Delusions:  The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, and it’s by somebody named David Bentley Hart, and published by Yale University Press.

First, the “revolution” in the title is nothing recent.  Hart is talking about the rise of Christianity at the end of the Roman Empire.

Second, David Bentley Hart is something of a mystery.  I’ve definitely Googled him, but none of the links I came up with tell me, say, what year he was born or what his education has been.  The book only says that he’s published other books.  Wikipedia calles him “an Eastern Orthodox theologian,” which is interesting on a number of levels.

Members of the Eastern Christian Churches don’t generally think of themselves as “Eastern Orthodox.”  They’re Russian or Greek or whatever, at least partially because the relationship between Church and State was closer in the Byzantine Empire than it was in the West, and because as church establishments they operated exclusively in their nation of founding. 

But, on top of that, you don’t find a lot of Greek or Russian theologians named “David Bentley Hart.”  If you see what I mean.

It’s an interesting book, one of the most interesting I’ve come across in a while.  I thought, when it was originally given to me, that it would be yet another counterscreed to the New Atheist screeds I’ve got a whole bookshelf full of.

And it is a counter, if not a screed, in a way.

But what it really takes aim at is the Enlightenment narrative, what I’ve called elsewhere the “atheist narrative.” 

And I thought I was the only one.

At any rate, it’s heavy on the history, and the only thing I regret is the fact that, every once in a while, when Hart is really angry, his writing comes off a little like Clifton Webb doing Mr. Belvedere.

On the other hand, he’s also funny when he writes that way. 

I’m going to go back to reading for another half an hour, and worrying about whee I put the pine nuts. 

Maybe I’ll have this finished by tomorrow, and have something more substantive to say.

In the meantime, until this book, I’d never asked myself what it meant for a person to be “free.”

It’s a more interesting question than you’d think.

Written by janeh

February 16th, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Opa!

with 3 comments

Yesterday, in a fit of I-don’t-know-what–sloth, maybe, or a violent need for self flagellation–I sat down and watched The Movie for the first time in over a year.

In a way, I suppose it’s odd that I can put it that way–that, considering the way I feel about this thing, I can write about the last time I watched it in a way that makes it clear I’ve watched it many, many times.

And I have watched it many, many times.  I’ve watched it because people like watching train wrecks, although it’s not a train wreck as a movie.  In fact, it’s pretty well done.  That’s part of what’s wrong with it.

I’ve watched it the way people watch things that make them angry because, sometimes, they want an excuse to be angry.

But this isn’t just an excuse.  This makes me legitimately angry.

In case you’re wondering, by now, The Movie is My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

If you happen to be one of the eighty five million people who love this thing–tough.  I know it’s very well made, and so heartwarming it makes me dizzy, but its portrayal of Greek Americans and Greek American life is so inaccurate, so one-sided, so skewed towards the least admirable people of that particular immigration that it makes my head spin.

I’m not saying that no Greek Americans exist like the ones in this movie, because they do.  I even have a few in my own family, and you have sometimes heard me complain about them on this blog.

But–Greeks who object to their children getting a college education, or studying things like art and the humanities?   Greeks who treat their daughters as worth nothing if they don’t get immediately married, quit anything like a career, and settle down to have jobs?  Which Greeks?  Where?

Okay, yes, I know.  Those Greeks do exist.  I do have them in my own family.

Well, sort of.  Even in the most anti-intellectual corners of my family, there was never any objection to girls going to college.  In fact, we were all encouraged to do it, practically from birth, and to put off getting married until we’d  “gotten an education.” 

All but two of my female Greek cousins went away to very decent colleges–a bigger percentage than what the boys did–and then quite a few of us went on to graduate school.  We’ve got a minimum of three PhDs among the girl cousins of my generation, and of those all but one married and had children, too.  The girls who didn’t marry either didn’t go to college or didn’t finish. 

And not one of us, advanced degrees in hand, quit it all to take care of the kids.  Quite the contrary.  My cousin Annie even went back and got a law degree to go with her doctorate.

Nor did we all study “practical” things, maybe because so many of us went to the kind of liberal arts colleges that didn’t offer practical things.  We majored in English and history and philosophy and let graduate school take care of the professional training.

I probably sound like I’m spinning my wheels here, but what bothers me about The Movie is its implication that it’s really all right, and very nice, to be not only anti-intellectual but anti-education, that we should cherish our Greek heritage as a heritage of island superstitions (spit on people for luck!), IQ-in-double-digits mulish suspicion of “book learning,” and culturally oblivious throwback attitudes on the roles and destinies of women.

When the movie first came out and I would blither like this, I would get told by people–virtually none of them Greek themselves–that the movie did in fact portray what Greeks were like given the Greeks they knew (wasn’t I a Greek they knew?), and that i was making too much out of what was really just a convention in romantic comedy.

And it’s true.  The immigrant-family-as-embarrassment-but-ultimately-good-for-us is a romantic comedy convention.  What’s more, the immigrant-family-as-embarrassment is another kind of convention, one deeply rooted in American literature. 

Writers from every immigrant community in the United States have managed to produce this same story–the story of the kid with aspirations to Better Things who leaes his embarrassing, unsophisticated, still-peasant immigrant family behind.  Philip Roth made a career out of it, and a form of the story predates the literature of the children of immigrants by a few decades, since that’s the same story that people like Sinclair Lewis were so fascinated by.

The one exception to this, interestingly enough, is the work of the African American writers who have come to prominence in the last fifty years.  For whatever reason, that is a literature of people who care about what happens to the people they leave behind.  And if you want a good example of it, see Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use.”

But Nia Vardalos does not care about the people she leaves behind, because she doesn’t want to leave them behind.  She wants to treat them like cute little pets, wohse foibles make great stories, and who should be loved and honored for the sweet unsophisticated cutey-pies they are.

All that book learning, Vardalos said, is best jettisoned as soon as it seems to be getting in the way of your real life.  Greeks can teach you what real life is, because they don’t care a damn about any of that stuff you have to go to school to do.

If you think I’m misreading My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I suggest you try Vardalos’s second effort, My Life in Ruins. 

For that one, she manages to go all the way to Greece to have her main character taught about Really Important Things in Life by a Greek tour bus driver and a bunch of tourists who make the cast of Dumb and Dumber look like mental heavyweights.

And just so that you don’t misunderstand the point here, the main character, played by Vardalos itself, has a PhD in classical history and is trying to get a job at a university in the states.

She even gets one, at the end, at Michigan, of all places–but of course she gives it up to go on being a tour guide and have her love affair with the bus driver.

In other words, all the tourists are right when they declare the history of classical Greece, the mythology, the philosophy, the art and architecture, “boring,” and when they demand trips to the beach and stories about the oracle at Delphi’s virginity–all those things are boring.  Real life is getting drunk on ouzo and having three-ways in the hotel rooms.  That’s what Greece has to teach us.

Ack.  Okay.  I’m being cranky today.

But that movie drives me crazy, and it drives me even crazier that the first Greek American to get a platform to make movies about Greek American life in Hollywood is this idiot, who seems about as determined as some of my cousins to declare the glories of mindlessness against the background of the Parthenon.

Written by janeh

February 15th, 2010 at 9:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Wages of Sin

with 6 comments

For a number of complicated reasons, including the fact that the state of Connecticut is insane on the subject of holidays, this is the start of a three day week-end for me–meaning not three days when I don’t have to work, but three days when I don’t have to drive people anywhere at insane hours.  I’m therefore down here with my tea and my music at an hour when other people might actually be up.

Maybe it was because I was half asleep when I sat down to read two or three pages this morning–I was waiting for tea water to boil and the computer to boot up and that kind of thing–but I suddenly actually focused on a piece of information I’ve been reading about for decades now, but never really thought about.

Or rather, I’d never really thought about it in its historical context, or about its having an historical context.  When Jerry Falwell got on the air and announced that the 9/11 attacks were–well, what he actually said was that the “feminists and abortionists and homosexuals” had to accept some responsibility for them, but you get what I mean.

But when Falwell said that, and Pat Robertson seemed to imply, when the news first came of the Haiti earthquake, that the people of Haiti had once made a pact with the devil and that explained why the place was such a mess all the time–I did notice those things, and generally threw them off as people acting stupidly on international televised hook-ups.

It’s really amazing to me not just that people are so fond of being stupid, but that they’re so found of being stupider the bigger their audience is.

At the moment, I’m near the end of the book on early Medieval history I’ve been reading for a week and a half or so, and that I’ve mentioned here before.  I’ve just reached the point where the Vikings have started a series of raids into England and Ireland.  And there, right there on the page, is Alcuin, one of the most learned men of his time, remarking on the idea that these terrible things would not have been happening to England if there wasn’t something deeply wrong and displeasing to God in her society.

And there’s something else.  This isn’t the first time this kind of thinking has been reported in this book.  Nor has it been reported only of Christian societies.  In several cases, we get the same kind of reports from Muslim societies when there is drought, loss in battle or other devastation.

I tried to think, this morning, about whether or not this kind of thinking had characterized other societies that I know of.  I have no recollection of reading anything similar about Greece or Rome, although there are certainly passages in the Bible that seem to imply the same kind of thing in Hebrew society over time.  I don’t know enough about Hindus or Buddhists to comment.

I am more acquainted than I want to be with the individualist version of this kind of thinking.  I will guarantee you that if you ever have the misfortune of caring for somebody dying young of some disease, half the people you meet will want to speculate on what he did wrong to make this happen to himself.   It’s his weight or her smoking or his drinking all that diet soda.  It doesn’t matter how farfetched or ridiculous, the healthy people around you want to be assured that the patient did something wrong. 

We do not accept the idea that we can do everything right and still fail, or still die young, or still be visited by catastrophe. No matter how much money we spend on lottery tickets or trips to Vegas, we are convinced, somewhere deep in our souls, that the world is run not by fate or luck but our own volition.

It makes me wonder, sometimes, why we react so violently against statements like Falwell’s and Robertson’s.

Mind you, I think it’s right that we react violently against them.  I think that that kind of talk is outrageous and morally wrong.

But then, I think that the talk about what a cancer patient “did” to cause his cancer is also outrageous and morally wrong.  Every once in a while there is such a direct link, but you’d be amazed at how often there isn’t.

Why is it that we’ve been able to give up blaming the victim in the case of whole societies suffering disaster and not in the case of individuals doing the same? 

And I mean that in a wider sense than you’d think–after Hurricane Katrina, there was nearly universal sympathy for New Orelans the city, but hundreds of nagging complaints about the individual people therein–why didn’t that woman get out of her house and go somewhere?  why did that guy stay in the shelter instead of heading out on foot to see if he could get to somewhere better?  He was young!

I don’t think I could count the number of articles and blog posts I read directly after the event blaming the scope of the Katrina disaster on everything from Hip Hop Culture to Welfare State Mentality to the personal corruption of various workers in nursing homes, h ospitals and even roadside diners.

At least the criticism of politicians–Ray Nyland, George W. Bush, Brownine–made a certain amount of sense, even if it was sometimes a little off the mark.  These men actually had a responsibility here, while private individuals do not have much more responsibility but to try to survive and (maybe) to help the people around them to survive.

It’s an interesting dichotomy–if we think that individuals are responsible for the bad things that happen to them, even the most random bad things (natural disasters, rare cancers, being hit by drunk drivers), why do we recoil so thoroughly when the same implication is made about entire societies?

The issue is not why we find Falwell and Robertson’s statements outrageous, but why we don’t find it outrageous when somebody says, of my late husband, for intsance, “oh, that must have happened because he was overweight.”

He was overweight, but weight is not a risk factor, never mind a cause, of the cancer that killed him.  It is, however, enough of an explanation for a whole load of people.

The other question, for me, is when we stopped assuming that disasters that happen to our society were the result of our society’s sin.

Because not only is that theme constant in the book I’m reading and during the period I’m reading about–up to about the year 1000–but it was fairly common in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, at least for the Christian majority of those societies.  The Plague, raging wildfires in Bavaria, right down to the eighteenth century Lisbon earthquake–all of it was assumed to be the result of that society’s turning away from God. 

When I finish this book, which I’m going to some time today, I’ve got one somebody sent me called Atheist Delusions–rats, can’t think of the whole title or the author at the moment. 

It’s a counterargument to all those New Atheist things (which is why somebody sent it to me), and I wonder if it will deal with the Falwell 9/11 thing.

I’d like to understand that way of thinking a little better, and understand whether we’re moving away from it (to a point where we’ll stop blaming human beings for getting cancer) or back towards it, because there’s something in us that cannot abide the power of chance and circumstance.

Written by janeh

February 14th, 2010 at 8:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Anthony Daniels and Theodore Dalrymple

with one comment

By now, you’ll have figured out that Anthony Daniels IS Theodore Dalrymple–rather, that “Theodore Dalrymple” is Daniels’s most commonly used pseudonym, taken up so that he could write about the world he was living in while he was still a doctor and at work.

I don’t, however, read the “book review” in the same way Robert does.  First, because I know the kind of “book review” it is, and it’s an approach to writing about books I rather enjoy.   All of The New York Review of Books is written like this–the books are not “reviewed” in the sense of being judged good or bad, but used as part of an article on a larger subject.  In the course of an article about, say, the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, a writer for TNYRB will mention one or two or half a dozen books that have come out on the subject, with only intermittent mention of whether thse are “good” books or “bad” ones, if that’s mentioned at all.

That said, that essay–which I take as an essay about Rand, not about the book about Rand, which is what this kind of thing does (see above)–managed to express a lot of my uneasiness with Rand’s work over the years, and with what I knew of Rand as a person through people I knew who were part of her circle in New York.

Okay, they were a fringe part, and that was the very end, but one of the professors from my college was among the group, and it was interesting to hear what was said.

My first problem with Rand was, from the very beginning, the way in which she portrayed the relationships between men and women.  They say that stylized rape fantasies are common among women, but they were never anything to me but deeply disturbing.  I’ve never had the least inclination to be mastered by a man, sexually or otherwise.

And yes, I may be in a minority here, given the popularity of vampire books these days.

Even so, that sort of thing made me hinky from the beginning, and it hasn’t gotten better with age.

Rand always seemed to me to be a person much more comfortable with ideas than with people, although she could be a pretty good analyst of the core motivations of some people.  Let me stress the some. 

Those particular analyses of core motivations–I’m thinking, particularly, of the attempts of some people to use guilt as a way to control others, which seems to me not only to fit some particular human relationships I’ve known but also to explain a lot of what goes on in present-day European anti-Americanism–

Anyway, the particular analyses of core motivations are not enough to explain individuals, because individuals are rarely emotionally or morally monotonal.  People are not as simple and straightforward as Rand wanted them to be.  People who are very bad indeed–or unholy messes–in one part of their lives can often do extraordinary things in other parts.

It’s said of Thomas Jefferson that he was a great man but not a good one, but the great one got me the Declaration of Independence and a lot of what later went into the Bill of Rights, so I’ll give him a little pass on the good part.

Part of the problem, for me, is that I am not a Romantic.  I do not have a Romantic sensibility, which Rand had in spades, and I don’t have much patience for Romantic thinking.  The artist as genius bores me silly–because I think it is silly.  There is genius in the sense that there are people who are extraordinarily well endowed with talent in one area or another, but I do not believe that this results inevitably in tortured alienation and a lot of self-destructive behavior. 

I don’t think there’s anything attractive about burning the candle at both ends and dying young.

That said, what really struck me about this is what Daniels/Dalrymple said about Rand’s approach to the poor and the destitute.  And I think one of the reasons why I like reading Dalrymple–aside from the fact that he writes really, really, really beautiful prose–is that his take on that is the closest thing I can find to my own.

In the first place, I agree with both Dalrympe and Rand that the problems most people have–I should say most people in Western industrialized societies–are volitional.  That is, they are the result of choices.

And even people who are not very bright can learn to make better choices, if they want to learn and if anybody is willing to teach them.  In the course of the last ten yeas, I have stumbled across extraordinary stories among my students, stories of triumph over not only poverty but violence, abuse, squalor and destitution by people who were not DuBois’s “talented tenth.”  It can be done, and with drive and determination it is done, not often, but often enough to prove that the possibility is there.

But.

It’s not just the people who are old or sick through no fault of their own–the people with cancer and MS and all the other diseases that can knock out any one of us.

It’s not just the people born with handicaps, who can’t walk or see or breath on their own.

It’s also the bottom end of which my students comprise the top, the people they leave behind in ghettos and housing projects and those rural pockets where people still put waxed paper where the window glass should be and use that black tar paper stuff instead of proper roofing.

I think we can teach everybody to live better, if they want to learn.

I also think that we can’t take a seventeen year old girl with an IQ of 98, raised by a crack-addicted other, raped by mom’s boyfriends from the time she was nine years old, turned out on the street before she was fourteen, beaten up and battered on a regular basis by mom, mom’s boyfriends, kids in the street, her own boyfriends–

We can’t take that person and go:  sink or swim.

Because she can do nothing but sink.  It’s all she knows how to do.

Public schools may be good, bad or indifferent, but a good public school is the best shot this kid has got.  Her parents are not going to be actively seeking a good education for her, or any education at all.  She herself is not even aware that a life different than her own really exists.  She’s seen it in the movies, of course, but–well, that’s the movies, and the television, and it might as well be a fairy tale. 

She certainly has no idea, on her own, how to get to a life like that, or even just a life better than her own.

I think it’s leigitimate to ask how much of this problem we have created ourselves, through well-meaning but ill-advised welfare and social service policies.

I don’t think it’s legitimate to conclude that we can or should do nothing, that the kid’s mess of a life is “her own fault,” and that it’s just a matter of willpower and determination and that will solve everything.

Rand always seemed to me to divide the world into two kinds of people, and to leave too many kinds of people out.

She seemed to me to worship a “strength” that was fundamentally inhuman. 

I know it was a strength she didn’t possess herself.

Written by janeh

February 13th, 2010 at 7:43 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Another Link

with one comment

Okay, three posts in one day is egregious, but I can’t help myself, and it’s my blog.

This

http://www.city-journal.org/2010/20_1_otbie-john-kenneth-galbraith.html

is Theodore Dalrymple on John Kenneth Galbraith–if the last one was him arguing in one direction, this is him arguing in the other.

And the description of Galbraith as a person ought to make some of you froth at the mouth.

Written by janeh

February 12th, 2010 at 4:15 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

A Link

with 4 comments

Okay, got to do it.

I know, I know.   Two posts in one day.

But this link goes to an essay by Theodore Dalrymple on Ayn Rand:

http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Ayn-Rand–engineer-of-souls-4385

and I’m dying to know what you think.

Written by janeh

February 12th, 2010 at 1:03 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Midlist, Schmidlist

with one comment

Ack.

I know it’s hard to believe, but there are plenty of people out there who think that contemporary literary fiction has a lot to say.

My numbers are, if anything, more flattering to genre novels than they should have been.  Go into any Barnes and Noble or Borders, and you’ll find lots of those contemporary literary novels all through the main fiction section–and the chains don’t stock what they can’t sell.

The typical bottom-of-the-midlist mystery novel sells around 4000 copies of its initial hardcover print run.  The typical bottom of the midlist literary novel sells the same, and those are not the books that serve as course adoption titles. 

For one thing, there are a lot fewer CATs (course adoption titles) than you’d think–freshman English almost never requires the reading of actual books any more, even in its literature-and-comp version, and most places don’t bother to require literature-and-comp.  None of the libraries in the Connecticut system close enough to me to check carries any kind of fiction at all, except UConn, and most of what they carry are classics.

What’s more, some contemporary literary novels do very well.  Sue Miller’s first, The Good Mother, made every best seller list in the country and was turned into a movie with Diane Keaton, Liam Neason and Jason Robards.  Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic became first a movie of the same name (with Stockard Channing, Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock), and then the basis for a television movie called Sudbury.

Then there’s almost anything by Anne Tyler, or, for that matter, Barbara Kingsolver.

The fact that some kind of fiction does not have anything to say to us doesn’t mean it doesn’t have something to say to other people.  And although the lives of the people depicted in, say, The Accidental Tourist may be alien to you, it’s not necessarily alien to me.

I picked those three writers in particular for a reason–every single one of them sells more books in bookstores than I do, a lot more.  And every one of them has written at least one book that said a lot to me.

But let’s get one thing out of the way–I didn’t include the “heavy hitters” in either category for a reason.

Heavy hitters in publishing are largely flukes.  If publishers could actually figure out how to spot them before they published them, this would be a very different business.  Every time we have this discussion, somebody chimes in to say that “of course those are the people who write the best stories” and somebody else chimes in to say that it’s the people who write the best characters or most appeal to people’s fondest fantasies–but the simple fact is that, if y0u analyze the actual work, you can’t come to any conclusions.  

America presents a huge and fragmented reading audience, and nobody gets to be a heavy hitter here unless he or she can sell to people who buy books maybe once or twice every five years.  The midlist audience is a steady audience.  It comes back to favorite writers.  

And there is a solid midlist audience for contemporary literary novels.

But back to those three writers–those three writers have each written at least one book that had a lot to say to me, so let me get to that:

First, Sue Miller wrote a novel called For Love, which has the distinction of being the only contemporary novel I wish I’d written myself.  It’s what finally got me off my butt to not only write but actually finish Somebody Else’s Music, something I’d tried and failed to do on and off for nearly twenty years.  Yes, it’s about the disconnect between what we are as children and what we become as adults, and also majorly about class–class, not money.  

Then there’s Alice Hoffman’s Seventh Heaven, which has nothing to do with the television show of the same title, and came first.  It is about a neighborhood, one small street, in what is obviously the newly built Levittown, and the people who live there, and what happens to them over a period of a few years. 

Alice Hoffman is also the writer of Blue Diary, which I mentioned here before, because it’s in a way a crime novel–the story of one of those guys who has committed a terrible crime in his past and disappeared to take another identity.  For more than twenty years, he’s been the perfect husband, father, and neighbor, and now they want to haul him back for this murder.  And it doesn’t develop, or end, in any way that you think it will.

With Anne Tyler, I just often like what she does, but my two favorites are Celestial Navigation and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.  Especially the second one.

My problem with most contemporary literary fiction is not that it has nothing to say–I could say the same of most cozies–but that it too often says the same thing, and it too often is written by people who do not realize that anybody else is out there.  Of the three writers above, I’d say only Sue Miller shares those failings, and she doesn’t in the one book of hers I truly love. 

Of course, now that I’ve said that, I’d have to point out that The Good Mother was an enormous best seller at least in part because it dealt with a subject (accusations of child sexual abuse in custody battles) that touched a lot of people who do not share Miller’s academic or social background.

I’m sorry if I seem to be belaboring this whole thing, but the demand that I prove that people actually read this stuff sounded to me a lot like the kind of thing I heard as a child–you don’t really like that stuff, you’re just saying you do to be a snot!

People really do like this stuff, and they even like the stuff I find mind-numbingly boring (Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, or anything by Ann Beattie).  There are actually many people out there, thousands of them, who live in the world these writers write about, and who are interested in novels about that world because those novels tell them something about themselves and the world.

And now I’ll shut up and go off and get some work done. 

I’ll just put in one more thing–

I’m not necessarily opposed to “elitism,” which, to me, has nothing to do with forcing things on you that you don’t want and everything to do with accepting that some things are Michaelangelo and some are not.

Written by janeh

February 12th, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Public Displays Of…

with 2 comments

As it turned out, the snow day was practically perfect–everything was cancelled before the day even started (we didn’t have to wait around wondering when administrations were going to cave in to the weather), and there was virtually no actual snow. 

Well, there was snow all day, but that really fine stuff that doesn’t even look like flakes, and it melted with contact with the ground.  It was warm enough so that I didn’t  have to put on a sweater all day, and warm enough this morning that I’m not wearing one now, either. 

Some of the snow did stick last night, but it’s no more than can be taken care of with a little rock salt on my front walk and a minor shovel at the end of my drive, where the snow plows put up a barrier when they plow the road.

Snow days without shoveling.  What a concept.

To get back to ugliness in art, or sort of back to it–none of the instances I can think of has anything to do with government funding.  In fact, with a few minor exceptions, government funded art tends to be mostly bland and sort of pointless, at least as far as I can see.

We get two PBS stations in my part of the state–Connecticut and New York–and when I turn them on I get either the mind-numbingly boring (Antiques Road Show), or entertainment for old farts.

I can remember the first time I watched PBS after we came back from England in 1994, an experience more striking because in the twenty years previous I’d either not had a television at all (all through college, graduate school and living in New York), or had British television, which is pretty damned funny in its own ways.

I remember when we first heard about public broadcasting, which was, I think, during the Kennedy administration.  At any rate, I always associated public broadcasting, both television and radio, with the Kennedys, and I think I associated things like the National Endowmen for the Arts with them, too.

And the impression I got, at the time, was that the point of public broadcasting was to make “good” art available to the masses–to offer Beethoven and Shakespeare in a sea of Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best.

What’s on PBS these days seems to be Wayne Newton, Liberace and Lawrence Welk, all doing the kind of music that I associate with the “variety shows” of a certain period. 

And it’s the really bland, would have passed the network censors version of that music, too.  The one time I heard “Cutest Little Dinghy in the Navy,” I heard it on a for-profit Fox affiliate radio station called WATR, which broadcasts old fart music on Saturday mornings.  Some of those old farts had really interesting lives.

With the National Endowment for the Arts, the original purpose was–and the function often still is–to fund local hgh-art groups like regional professional ballets and symphony orchestras.  One of our local community colleges gets some of that money, and by combining it with its music department’s own budget puts on concerts of chamber music throughout the year. 

I’ve been to a few of those–I go, especially, when students or former students are playing–and they’re not terribly well attended, but they’re not empty, either.  And the area is not like the area further south, where you could probably fund performances like that on ticket sales and supporter subscriptions alone. 

So it seems to me that the NEA is now doing mostly what it was originally set up to do, and I’ll have to admit that I’m glad the grants to individual “artists” are gone, although maybe not for the reasons some of you are.

As a matter of principle, I don’t see why governments should fund the arts–but then, I don’t see why they shouldn’t, either.  New York City has a long tradition of funding museums and artistic venues, and the result has been a flexible ticket pricing system that makes it possible even for people with virtually no money to experience the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There are, I think, good arguments for why a city would want to spend some of its money making such things available, and good arguments for why it might not, so I feel confident leaving that up to the city.

What I  don’t like, and never have, is the grant of government money directly to supposed “artists.”

Let me untangle this a little.

By “government money” here, I mean grants from a government organization like the NEA directly to the artist in question.

I do not mean academic posts like writer in residence or composer in residence at a college or university that happens to be government-run. 

I actually don’t much like that system either, but it’s a different issue from the one I’m talking about now, and I’ll get there later.

Okay, it’s a different issue with the same fatal flaw.  But I really will get to that later.

For me, the problem with grants to individual artists is this:  as with any patronage system, the guy handing over the money becomes the only audience of any importance for the artist receiving it.

The guy handing over the money, in this case, is not The Public, but the members of the committees that allocate the grants.  These people tend to run to a certain type and to hold certain ideas and prejudices in common, and those ideas and prejudices may have very little to do with what the rest of the world thinks.

What’s more, because these people are all generally like each other, they tend not to realize that some of the things they find perfectly obvious are completely incomprehensible to anybody else.

I want to stop here and make a point of something–I am not talking about “elitism” or “elitists.”  I’m not talking about these people “looking down on” the public, although some of them (not all of them) do. 

My problem is that there are so few of them, they all think the same way, and their standards for deciding what’s worthy of being funded and what is not are very narrow, very limited, and very one-dimensional.

I think that that is inevitable any time you try to make a panel of any kind–academics, church ladies, the local Chamber of Commerce–rather than the public at large the judge of what ought to be seen, shown, heard or read.

Note my list of bad ideas for forming artistic grant committees–an artistic grant committee composed entirely of members of the local Chamber of Commerce would have different specific problems than one composed of local college art professors, but they would still have problems and the problems would still stem from the same source.

The simple fact is that most of us do not know what the rest of us will value in art, any more than most of us know what the rest of us will value in life.  We just don’t.  Each of us makes that decision in her own mind.

What’s more, most of us don’t understand what the rest of us will understand when it comes to art, either.  Images and musical passages that speak to some people do not speak to others. 

But what’s most important here is this:  artists, be they writers or composers or musicians or painters or sculptors or whatever, need to learn to speak to audiences. 

Some art is obscure only because it’s very new and people have a hard time grasping the very new.  Once they get used to it–the way they’ve gotten used to Joyce and Faulkner, for instance–it is no longer obscure.

But some art is obscure because the artist hasn’t learned how to communicate what he’s doing, and that is at least part of what an audience is for. 

The Great Tradition,  I’ve said before on this blog, is our conversation with the dead.   Contemporary art is our conversation with artists, who, if they’re any good, are better at thinking in a certain manner than the rest of us are, and therefore are able to explain us to ourselves more completely than we can do on our own.

But first they have to communicate.  And in times and situations where the “audience” is six people in a room somewhere making all the decisions, they don’t learn to do that.

It’s why French film is such a mess.  French filmmakers have only second-hand contact with the real audience.  Their primary audience is the grant committees.  Then, when they desperately want to do something “popular,” they produce saccharine crap that corresponds to their delusions about what the general public will like.  They don’t actually know what the general public will like, because they’ve never dealt with it.

The situation in colleges and universities is slightly different.

First, the academic arts system that runs through both private and public universities throughout the country does in fact constitute an audience, and a fairly large one. 

A contemporary literary novel, for instance, will sell at least four to six thousand copies–about as much as a midlist mystery–and it will be easier to market than most books.  That’s because we know where the audience is and what they’re doing. 

But I can’t say that the writer of contemporary literary fiction does not respond to his audience, because he very definitely does.  And if the four thousand people who constitute the audience for that midlist mystery are a “real” audience, then the four thousand people who constitute an audience for the contemporary literary novel are a “real” audience too.

The problem is that academia is a particular kind of place with a particular set of rules, and most damagingly a place where conformity and process are at the forefront of virtually everything.

Artists–writers and composers and sculptors and painters and whatever–who work within an academic environment or find their primary audience there are almost guaranteeing that any work they do will be both safe and largely unoriginal. 

Maybe that’s why academic departments are so crazy on the subject that art must be “transgressive”–because no art they deal with or produce is transgressive in the least.

What they seem to mean by “transgressive” is “the kind of thing we think will upset those people we don’t know very well.”

For better or worse, I think artists do themselves less damage when they just take their chances with the general public, even though that means–as it always has–that many of the best of them will not be successful until after they’re dead.

Written by janeh

February 11th, 2010 at 9:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Storms in Winter

with 2 comments

I’m sitting here in my office, having a very odd morning.  The weather predictions are that we are about to see the biggest nor’easter of the season so far move through today, and the predictions have been so dire for so long that pretty much everybody in the state cancelled today as of yesterday evening. 

At the moment, however, there’s either no snow at all, or only a very fine and barely detectable periodic fall, which means I’m spending a lot of time talking myself out of running off to the store for a second for last minute supplies.  And I really don’t want to do that, because this is really not supposed to be good.

Instead of that, then, I’ve been up and around and doing things since fairly early, in spite of not having to be.  I have one of my favorite CDs playing behind me in the living room, with the sound turned up so that I can hear it in here.  This is a two-CD collection of chamber music–mostly violin concertos–by a man named Francesco Geminiani, one of the great composers for strings of the eighteenth century and, like Handel, a man who trained in Europe and lived most of his professional life in England. 

There’s something going on there that I need to investigate.  The Eighteenth Century is the Englightenment, and I tend to side with those people who think there were really two Enlightenments, not one: a French and an English.  And it occurs to me that I have plenty of music by people who went to England in this period, but none by anyone who went to France.

That doesn’t mean that no great composers of the period went to France.  I don’t know enough about the musical history of the period to be able to say.  Maybe this just says something about the kind of music I like, and the relationship between a taste in music and a  preference for other kinds of ideas.

As for those other kinds of ideas–

First, I’d like to point out that ugliness in art started long before the Beats.  It arrived in the US with the Armory Show of, I think, 1918. 

But the real issue is the hyperrationality, because hyperrationality is not particularly rational.  It is relentlessly logical, but that’s something else again.

And, in aid of that, I recommend the following like

http://www.hoover.org/publications/policyreview/82722522.html

about “bioethics” and “bioethicisists.”  

It was up on Arts and Letters Daily this morning, and it seems to me to express exactly what I think of as the professionalization of everything–with “professionalization” meaning a particular thing categorized by its ties to university academic departments and paper credentials.

I’ve said before on this blog that I don’t think that moral relativism ever actually lasts long, it’s too unstable.  And in periods where there is no consensus about what is moral and what is not, something always arrives to fill the vacuum.

I think this is what is trying to fill the vacuum at the moment, at least for people who do not accept religion as a valid source of moral principles.

And, as I’ve said before, there are a lot of those people, and even more who, although they accept a religious basis for morals, accept a “religious” one, not a specifically Christian or Jewish or Buddhist one.

And two things interest me about the whole bioethics thing.

The first is that it should be established as a academic discipline, and get what credibility it has from being an academic discipline.  We really have gotten to the point where we simply assume that “school” is the answer to anything and everything.  We call it “education,” but it’s not education we’re actually looking at.

The second is that, as far as I can tell, the people involved in this movement are advancing a set of moral principles with no foundation whatsoever.

They have no reason for why their particular set of principles ought to prevail, no reason for why we should accept that what they call “moral” is in fact “moral.”

In fact, like most philosophers of ethics over the past thirty years or so, they don’t even address the question.  They just assume that whatever it is the favor–altruism, or equality, or whatever–is true, and they rely on that truth as rigidly as any fundamentalist abslutist.  

And, of course, once you accept their founding principles,  the system is closed–everything else follows logically.

Ack, I know.  It’s the kind of thing that endlessly fascinates me, and that makes all your eyes glaze over. 

But it does fascinate me, not least because the moral structure of a society defines that society–defines it even when everyday human beings are incapable of, or uninterested in, living up to what they profess.

Part of me is interested simply because it affects me so directly–I wouldn’t want any of these people determining the “ethical” thing to do for me if I’m in a coma, and I don’t much like what the assumptions they espouse have made of the kids I teach and the education (or lack of it) that they have received.

But maybe I just ought to give it up.   Right in the middle of the blog, I ran out and got the couple of things I needed at the store, and  got back before it even started half-assedly snowing again.  So now I’m calmer, and maybe it will turn out that this thing misses us.

Which would not be a bad idea.

Maybe I’ll go back to reading about Charlemagne and listening to Geminiani and nuzzling cats, and then make something elaborate and time consuming and good for dinner.

Written by janeh

February 10th, 2010 at 11:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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