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Archive for June, 2011

What’s It All About…

with 2 comments

For those of you who liked the title but didn’t get the reference to The Addams Family…um.

But it’s a little earlier this morning, and I may be a little more coherent.

The question of what makes a bad book of fiction is more difficult than the question of what makes a bad book of nonfiction, for this reason:  it’s more difficult to come to some kind of agreement about what a novel is for. 

Nonfiction books are of several types–how-to, argument, informative, polemic.   There are more, but you see what I mean.

Each of these categories has an internal logic.  A how to book that didn’t teach you how to do anything is objectively a bad how to book.  Even if we enjoy the book enormously, it has failed to do what it set out to do.

 I’m not sure we have the same kind of consensus about what a novel is for. 

Even genre novels, which at least theoretically have boundaries on what should and should not happen within them, turn out to have fuzzier borders than any of us notices at the beginning.

What makes a good mystery novel? 

I tried to make a case for the idea that the standard should be the mystery, specifically the fair play mystery–but most of the readers of this blog rejected that, in favor of more general standards having to do with character and plot that could really be applied to any fiction.

In some genres, there seem to be almost no established boundaries at all.  I’ve come to the conclusion that a novel is “science fiction” if its writer and its publisher say it is.  Beyond that, there doesn’t seem to be a lot to work with in the way of intra-genre definition.

But even the more general standards–characterization, plot, not being pulled out of the story–don’t help much, because we’re still left with coming to some consensus of what the novel is for.

If the novel is for the enjoyment of readers–if the novel exists for no other reason than to make readers happy–then even the most general of standards are useless. 

Bad grammar?  Bothers some people but not others.  Cardboard characters?  Some people positively adore them.  Plots full of holes?  Think of the fifth Harry Potter novel–it sold 850,000 copies in hardcover.  Anachronisms?  Hell, most readers won’t even notice them.

If the only purpose of a novel is to produce a subjective experience in a reader, then no novel can be called “bad” as long as it produces that subjective experience in some reader somewhere. 

My father called any mystery novel whose solution he could figure out before he reached the end “bad,” but I almost never care if I can figure the thing out.  It’s not what I’m looking for.   What was a “bad” mystery to my father was, very often, a very good one for me.

The problem goes farther than this.

Assuming that a novel is “for” giving the reader a subjective reaction, we can’t even say a novel is “bad” if readers get a different subjective reaction than the one the writer intended them to have.

For one thing, we’re in the same position with the writer’s intent here as we often are.  Writers think the intend things and subconsciously intend others.  Writers have died and their intent can no longer be divined with certainty.   Writers do things they didn’t intend that turn out to be much more spectacularly impressive than anything they did intend.

Milton was of the devil’s party and didn’t know it–and whether he intended it or not, he produced one of the most vibrant and compelling characters in the history of literature while doing it.

This is why, in the formal study of literature, the work always begins with definitions.  Before anybody can talk about “good” or “bad” books, they have to know what the book is supposed to be doing.

I think a lot of the arguments here about whether we can say that one work of literature is superior to any other are really arguments about what the novel is for–what it exists to do.

 My favorite expression of what literature is for is still Kesey’s:  it’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen. 

I used to think that was pretty clear, until I started writing this blog.

In the meantime, of course, I think I can define lots of things that would make a novel “bad.” 

Highest on the list for me would be clunky, awkward, or leaden prose.  In the end, the music of the writing will always be, for me, the most important part of reading fiction.

But I can’t even look to formal literary studies for support on that one.  There’s a lot in the canon–not just the “required reading list,” but the books that have survived for generations without benefit of English Departments–that seem to me to be leaden as hell.  Think of Middlemarch.  Or anything by Thomas Hardy.

As we go down the list, I tend to agree with most of you that anachronisms and other inaccuracies are a Bad Thing, but I’ve been told in no uncertain terms, by readers elsewhere, that that kind of thing doesn’t matter at all as long as there is  a “good story.”

But I don’t think we could even agree on what makes a “good story.” 

Looking through the openings people sent me to check out, the only one that grabbed me was the beginning of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and that was the only one I was really interested in reading, but I’d be willing to bet that that wouldn’t be the choice of most of you here, including most of you who are here because you read the books I write.

For a long time, I reacted badly when people told me that what was important was “a good story,” because what they seemed to mean by that was a book where lots happens! people go running around having action!  shots ring out!  cars explode!  aliens land!  everybody goes rushing around madly and never thinks about anything!

Anyway, if you want to know what I think makes a novel “bad,” ones that do that stuff are the top of the list.  And the use of that particular definition for a “good” book is common enough so that I can be pretty sure that if people start telling me it’s a “really good story,” I’m going to hate it.

If the purpose of the novel is that people should (subjectively) like it, then there can be no standard of good and bad. 

People will like anything.

Written by janeh

June 30th, 2011 at 7:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Wednesday, Not Addams

with 7 comments

Let’s put it this way:  I never want to revise a book this way again.

I finished up this morning and then looked through the pages I have that I can consider “done,” and what I’ve noticed is that it’s not that I’ve changed all that much as a total of the book, but that I keep changing the same things over and over again.

I know there are a lot of people out there who work piecemeal and even like it, but I am obviously not one of these. 

If I think about it, I am not even one of these when I read.  I like my books to feel whole and complete in a way that is not just the sum of their parts.

With this, I just kept doing things and then redoing them and then putting them back to the way they were before, so that now nothing feels as if I’ve got it right. 

And then, of course, the inevitable happened.  I looked up this morning, double checked the edit letter, and realized that at the end of it there were a stack of queries of small things on a page by page basis that I hadn’t even realized were there.

These are not huge deals, and they can be done in a couple of hours, but still.

The plan now is to do those first thing tomorrow morning, then start on Friday reading through the entire manuscript from top to bottom, just to see if it feels right.

And then I’m going to declare myself done, because I’m going to be out of time.

This is the second time in three years I’ve gone sort of bezerk over revisions.  I figure my editor is just sitting somewhere being grateful that I didn’t do what I did with Wanting Sheila Dead and rewrite the whole thing from scratch.

But something is wrong with my head these days, anyway, and I’m not too sure what to do about it.

Maybe it’s just this latest round of everything going wrong at once, but I’m becoming practically reclusive.  I usually have several days during the year when I have friends over, or students, or somebody.  This year I did nothing but work on Memorial Day, and I seem to be setting myself up to do nothing but work on the Fourth of July. 

I almost never talk to anybody on the phone except for lawyers. 

And I have no idea if that’s something I want, because I’m sort of unkinking from all the crap, or if I’ve just been sort of stunned into immobility.

I do think that it’s entirely possible that these revisions wouldn’t be taking so long to do if I was in my usual frame of mind.

Whatever’s going on, I feel sort of listless and lethargic, and nothing I do seems to be worth the time and trouble to do it.

I expect I’ll snap out of it eventually, but in the short run it’s not the cheerfulest I’ve ever been.

But, for the record, a couple of notes from over the past three days:

First, Cathy F knows I think she’s a paragon among psycholigists, but I was very careful to say that I was NOT talking about academic psychologists, but about what went on in K-12 schools.  And I think I’ve got that pretty well taped, at least as far as it concerns CT.   For better or worse, we have been saddled with a generation of school teachers, school nurses, and school social workers who have been encouraged to think of themselves as “experts” and of parents as (at best) dangerous obstructions, if not downright toxic elements in the lives of their children.

And all of that has been accompanied by a near mania for conformity–anything that does not conform to what these people have decided is “normal” is automatically viewed as “disordered,” as what somebody in the comments called “issues.” 

Even the kind of thing that seems to me to be self evident–for instance, that not all people want to “belong” or to “fit in” with whatever group they happen to be among; or that different people may feel differently about time spent alone and some people may actually like it–is undiscussable.  The kid doesn’t have a ton of friends?  There must be something wrong with her.  Find her a therapist.

Welcome to my childhood.  And that was well before this wave of coercise psychobabble.

Second, I don’t agree with whoever said that every book presenting an argument should be properly footnoted and sourced.  There are different kind of books, and I see nothing wrong with straightforward polemics that don’t pretend to be anything else.   Those can be a lot of fun, and the sourcing would add nothing to them.

My problem with Gore’s book is that he declared his intention of countering a culture that had abandoned reason and the resort to facts, and then he didn’t give me facts.

But even in a polemic, I’ll willing to say this:  particular is better than general.

“The study called ‘Evidence for Anthropogenic Global Warming in Polar Ice Cap Formation 2001-2007″ by a team of climate scientists led by Dr. Howard Fiddlecrab at Johns Hopkins University concluded that between .4 and .7 inches of ice was lost in Antarctica each year from 2002 to 2006.”

is an intrinsically better sentence than

“One study done by climate change scientists suggests that it’s possible that as much as .7 inches of ice is being lost in the Antarctic every year.”

The first sentence imparts actual information.  The second sentence imparts mush. 

That would be true even in a polemic. 

What’s more, putting words into quotation marks when they do not represent the actual quote is just sloppy.   These days, all you need to do is Google it.

If you want to see a polemic on the liberal side that is well written, try Eric Altermann’s Why We Are Liberals. 

Like the Gore book, it’s essentially preaching to the choir, and if you come in from the other side you’ll do a lot of eye rolling, but it’s well written, it states its particulars and it delivers actual information.

And it was clear and detailed enough so that, by the time I had finished it, it helped me understand why I’m a libertarian and not a liberal.

And also where my tendencies run closer to liberal than conservative, and where closer than conservative than liberal.

I’m going to go off now and get something to eat.

Written by janeh

June 29th, 2011 at 12:11 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Bad to the Bone

with 3 comments

So, okay.  Periodically, I generate quite a bit of heat on this blog by saying that I think that there are objective standards that can be used to determine if a book is “good.”

Let me go to a related question:  are there objective standards for what makes a book bad?

As with questions about what makes a book good, I’m not talking about taste, here–what I find enjoyable and what I find not enjoyable are entirely subjective, and rather beside the point.

I’m brought to the question of the day by a very specific book:  Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason. 

And interestingly enough, I’m not brought to it by any of the usual suspects.

Gore’s book is mostly a pile of platitudes with a peculiar quality of having  been written in a bubble.  Published in 2007, it laments the “fact” that Americans have been shut out of the public forum now that that forum has been taken over by television. 

Reading through it, I found myself checking back to the date, over and over again.  Gore seems to have missed the whole Internet-bloggers-rule-the-world thing, and to be fretting needlessly over a looming catastrophe that has already played itself out and passed into only dimly remembered history.

Whether or not you’re going to “like” this book has a lot to do with whether or not you buy into this particular set of platitudes.   If you do, you’ll love it and think it’s smart.  If you don’t, you’ll roll your eyes and pick up the next volume by Bill O’Reilly.

If you’re deliberately contrarian, as I tend to be, you’ll go slightly crazy during the long chapter on how government shouldn’t keep things secret but should put all the information out there so there can be reasoned public debate.

I went crazy during all that because I kept thinking:  fine.  Then let’s let everybody who practices affirmative action in college admissions and hiring put all their numbers out, by race, so we can actually see who’s right and who’s wrong about standards being either kept steady or bent in terms of race.

I also got a little nuts in the parts about how Americans are being subjected to a campaign of fear–after all, I’ve actually seen An Inconvenient Truth. 

The parts where Gore goes on at length–very superficially, but at length–about neuroscience just sounded like the text of a science class book reporter written by a mediocre seventh grader.

No, the thing that got me wondering if it was possible to call a book objectively bad was this:  there is an enormous, gaping disconnect between the book’s central thesis (we aren’t using reason and logic anymore because we don’t read enough, but watch television instead) and what the book actually does.

Or, rather, doesn’t do.

And what it doesn’t do is make an reference to books.

Okay, I’m getting convoluted here.

This book exhibits a nearly mindboggling dearth of actual references, and a nearly complete dearth of primary references.

There are end notes, but there are no markers in the text to tell you when something will have a note at the end.  You have to go to the back of the book and look up the page you’re on to see if there are any references to what you’re wondering about.

The chances are, there won’t be.  At one point, Gore misquotes Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli–or I think he does.  I only think because he does not identify ‘the treaty” by name in the text, and there is no note at the back identifying it either.  The quote is in quotation marks, signaling that it is supposed to be verbatim, and it is ascribed to a treaty signed by John Adams in 1797,  but there is no Article in the Treaty of Tripoli that says the US isn’t based on Christianity OR Islam OR Judaism OR any other religion.  The actual quote refers only to Christianity, and starts “As the United States is in no sense founded on the Christian religion…”

I have more patience than some of you do with the weasel word thing–the constant circumlocutions about how “it may be possible” that something happened “as much as X times.”    It doesn’t make me think that well of his character, but I get the bit about covering your ass.

What gets me, however, is that after references like this, I go back to the end notes and find, not a reference to the actual study–but to a newspaper or magazine article about the study.

So I’m told that “one study” “suggests” that “as many as 27” Iraqi prisoners were murdered by US service personnel, but I don’t get the name of the study or the auspices under which it was done, and when I look at the end notes I find a reference to a NY Times article about the study and no explanatory matter following the reference that would give me the name or the auspices.

And it’s just not that once.  It’s over and over again.  I have yet to find a single reference to an original source anywhere.  I get newspaper and magazine articles, op ed pieces, quotations from talking head news shows–it’s insane.

My son’s prep school wouldn’t have accepted this as a research paper in junior history.  Or English.

Hell, I wouldn’t accept this as a research paper. 

It began to get a little raw, being lectured page after page about how the Republicans are trying to destroy reason and logic by going for the emotions instead, and how they never presented any evidence–only to be handed nothing in the way of actual evidence for that thesis or any other.

For all I know, everything Gore says in this book may be true.  The simple fact is, given the research he’s presented to me, I could never find that out. 

I got excoriated somewhat a few years ago for saying that Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code was a bad book because almost every claimed ‘fact’ in it (including the streets in Paris) was wrong. 

In that case, though, the book was a novel, and the argument could be made–and was–that it didn’t matter what was wrong, as long as the story was good.

I do think, though, that if a book tells me it is defending the use of reason, logic and evidence in public debate, and then gives me absolutely none of the last and little of the first two–

I have an objective basis on which to say that book is bad.

Written by janeh

June 28th, 2011 at 2:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

A Little Clean Up, And An Addition

with 8 comments

So.  Experts.

Well, let me say something first–as long as we’re talking about the kind of thing Cheryl is, where what schools are doing is simple enforcing on-site behavior (sit still and shut up in class unless called on, for instance), I’ve got no problem.

I do have a problem with things like anti-bullying initiatives, and directing the school nurse/social worker/teachers/whoever with “identifying” children who are “at risk” for–well, you name it. 

I’ve got several problems with this.

First, forget an ideal world.  The fact that the world is not “ideal” doesn’t give a school–or a government–the right to run around policing the behavior of citizens who have been charged with no crime and then enforcing its ideas of what should be done to fix it.

Governments should be prevented from interfering in the private lives of their citizens except in cases where probable cause that a crime has been committed results in trial and conviction. 

And such a process should be undertaken only when the accused has been given full due process rights–the right to confront his accusers (no anonymous accusations with the accuser’s identity kept secret), no summary punishment before judgment, the right to a speedy and public trial, and all the rest of it.

“We’re just trying to help, it’s not punishment!”  is disingenuous.  If the government is coercing me into behavior I would not undertake without the coercion, it is indeed punishment.  If it’s forcing behavior and requirements on my child (drugs like Ritalin, therapy) against my best judgment, it’s punishing both me and my child.

This is the case even if the government is right in its assessment of what needs to be done.  Just because it w0uld be a good idea that we do X does not mean that the government has the right to require us to do it.  It doesn’t even mean that it is right that government get involved in the issue at all.

The second issue pertains directly to the school:  the purpose of the school is the academic preparation of children for later study and work.  The school is not a hospital.  It is not a social services center. 

When school becomes the locus for “identifying” and “treating” “at-risk” children, the very nature of it changes not only for the children so identified, but for all the children in that school and for all their parents.

We require children to be in school. For the vast majority of those children, that means public school.  And by making public school a place primarily concerned with “social services,” we leave parents in a position where they are unable to protect themselves and their children from government coercion in the latest fashionable conformity group think.

Schools should be schools.  If you think the government should get involved in “identifying” “at risk” children, then it should be done in its own venue and away from schools where parents are required to send their children whether they want the “services” or not.

And that would be true if the people who were doing the identifying were actually expert at something. 

But they’re not.

I don’t know what’s going on in academic and research psychology.  I do know that the teachers, nurses and social workers who do the “identifying” of “at-risk” children do it largely using checklists that are ridiculously broad and based on assumptions that are almost entirely unexamined and largely untrue.

Let’s take, for instance, the now discredited claim that Ritalin only works to improve concentration in children who actually have ADD and ADHD.  That one was hauled out for years as “proof” that these “disorders” actually existed,  and to bludgeon parents with the “imperative” to drug their children.

Well, oops.  Turns out, nobody had checked–and when they did check, it turned out that all kids responded pretty much the same way to Ritalin.

Right about now, Elf is going to jump in and say that if you’d ever met a real ADHD child, you’d see how extreme his behavior is.  And that may be true–but extreme behavior isn’t necessary for a child to be “diagnosed” on one of those checklists.  In fact, the principle characteristic of those lists is precisely that they assume that perfectly normal behavior is somehow a “symptom.”

In case you don’t believe me, let me give you this one:



Okay, you may have to copy and paste that to get it to work.

But–look at the items on that list.  Fails to pay attention when spoken to directly?  Have these people ever MET a ten year old boy? 

What’s more egregious, however, is the fact that there are no hard and fast standards for these things.  Whether or not some behavior is actually a symptom is left up to the discretion of the person doing the checklist–in other words, it’s entirely about subjective impressions.

And it’s NOT a case of the “professional” making a recommendation which the child’s parents can choose to accept or reject.  The “professional” has an array of coercive measures to use to impose her will, and she will in fact use them.

As I’ve pointed out on this blog before, back in the Nineties, when the craze for “diagnosing” children with ADHD was at its peak, Connecticut schools in several districts routinely threatened parents with referral to CPS if those parents refused to put their children on medication.

Somehow, “do what we tell you to do or we’ll do our best to destroy your family” doesn’t seem much like a platform for parental choice.

There are, by the way, checklists for things like bipolar disorder and childhood onset schizophrenia, too–and, in the hands of people who are not experts, they’re just as dangerous.

Hell, I’d say that even in the hands of experts, they’re dangerous.

As for things like the anti-bullying and anti-drug and alcohol programs–they’re almost universally based on assumptions that are just plain wrong, and they’re completely immune to the evidence against them.

One of the most popular “drug education” programs in the country was repeatedly shown to actually increase drug experimentation in students who completed its course.   It’s still being used in high schools nationwide. 

If this is “expertise” and “science,” then I’m going to consider becoming a creationist.

But the cure for it is simple–recognize that schools are there to teach academics, period.  Locate the “services” off the scho0l campus, where they can be accessed by families IF those families want them.  Allow the ordering of children and families into such programs ONLY when a full due process trial procedure has been negotiated.  Strip teachers, nurses, social workers and school psychologists of the right to diagnose anything.

And understand this–the government has limited legitimate functions.  This kind of thing isn’t one of them.

Written by janeh

June 27th, 2011 at 9:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

And In This Corner

with 8 comments

Every once in a while, I find myself stuck in situations and I can’t figure out what I’m doing there. 

This is one of them.  I have no idea why so many of you seem to have assumed that, because I presented the case I did yesterday, I wanted to school to be involved with it.

For what it’s worth, I spent the most of the blog post the day before yesterday saying I didn’t approve, or appreciate, the new school anti-bullying initiatives.

But just to clear up my position here:

1) I gave the case I did for two reasons.

First, it is obviously egregious.  As far as I know, all the students and all the kids knew that Marnie’s party was a deliberate attempt to destroy Carla’s, and that included Marnie’s own mother.  There was no ambiguity there about what was going on or why.

Second, because this particular case is much more similar to what girls to do each other than the usual definitions of “bullying.”

Cathy F says that the psychological definition of “bullying” would now include this under something called “relational aggression,” but I assumed there would be a way to shoehorn the incident into the definition.

If there hadn’t been, the schools would be pretty much precluded from addressing MOST of the adolescent cruelty occuring on their campuses.

2) I’m on record here of being opposed to the entire “whole child” view of education. 

And this kind of thing is an example of that.

“Whole child” education is first and foremost an attack on the child’s right to privacy, or even right to be left alone.

In a ‘whole child” environment, the school owns the child body and soul.  Every aspect of the child’s life is available for scrutiny and reprogramming.  No private space is left for the child to develop on his own, think on his own, believe on his own, be himself.

And the purpose of that education is assumed to be therapeutic.

What I want is schools that teach reading, writing, arithmatic and then higher education subjects, and that leave their students alone otherwise.

3) That having been said, there is no way that an incident such as this could have taken place entirely off school grounds.  Kids will talk about the situation.   They’ll talk about it at lunch.  They’ll talk about it at recess.  Everybody in the class will know, and everybody in the class will talk.

I still don’t think the school should be involved, but we need to get past the fantasy that anything that happens among a bunch of kids who go to school together will be entirely ignored once they get onto school grounds.

4)  When I say that teachers collaborate in the construction of “popular” and “in crowd” cliques in school, I don’t mean that they taunt “unpopular” kids.

In fact, running an anti-bullying initiative could–and I think most often will–be a form of “relational aggression” in itself.   No matter how the programs are run, everybody will know immediately who they are supposed to be “helping,” and the bad news will proceed from there.

But the more usual thing is simply in the body language and automatic choices of teachers, and, in my experience, especially of female teachers.  

Who gets chosen to run the class when the teacher is out of the room?  Who gets picked to go out and throw erasers at the wall (a big one when I was in elementary school)?  When a teacher has a great new idea for a project, who does she pick to help her start it?

When I was in junior high, the most popular teacher in our school–very young, taught Spanish–decided it would be a really great idea if we had a Tri-Y club, a Four-H thing for teenagers focussed on charitable projects, like working in the local Goodwill Thrift Store.

To get the club started, she picked the girls I think she was honestly convinced would be the ones who would really participate and get things done–it was just that ALL of them were card carrying members of the class’s “in crowd.” 

If you’d told her she was shoring up junior high status cliques, she’d probably have been indignant. She was just calling on the girls who participated most often and energetically at school!

High school status cliques affect everybody in a school, including teachers, and in ways no anti-bullying program ever could, or would, address.

5) When I said that Carla’s mother was trying to help her to be more “popular,” I didn’t mean what a number of you seem to think I meant.

I meant that Carla’s mother was trying to help her not be the one kid in the class who gets left out of everything.  That’s a painful position to be in.  And I don’t think any parent wants that for her child.

But I also have to admit that I always wondered why we call the people in a high school’s top status clique “popular.”  In my experience, such people are often the least popular–in terms of being ‘well liked”–people in a high school class, generating mostly recentment and anger rather than admiration and good will. 

(Drum roll here–anybody remember Molly Ringwald’s little speech in The Breakfast Club?)

6) The whole status clique thing last for many people far beyond high school.   It’s the basis of “clubs” without membership lists that leave who gets in to the discretion of the bouncer at the door.   It’s the basis for clubs with blackball rituals.  It’s the basis for the endless “who’s in and who’s out” features on entertainment television.

I don’t think we’re every going to get rid of it, and I don’t think we should inflict school “experts” on our children in an attempt to do so, no matter how egregious the case.

Yes, not even in that egregious a case.

Written by janeh

June 26th, 2011 at 8:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

And Even More Speechless

with 7 comments

I am having one of those mornings where I really shouldn’t write anything, not the blog, not a post card.  I’m in a foul mood for a reason that even I accept as being essentially trivial–but I’m like anybody else.  Push my buttons, and you will get a response.

So I’m going to try to ignore than, and go on with what I started yesterday.

The following is an actual incident.  It really happened.  I would like to know if any of you consider this incident bullying, and if not, what you would call it.  I’d also be interested in knowing what you think should have been done about it and who should have done it.

It is, if anything,  a perfect example of the way in which I think teachers and parents collaborate with the convoluted system of “in” and “out” that happens in American public junior high and high schools.

When my niece was in eighth grade–junior high, here–one of the girls in her class (we’ll call her Carla, I don’t actually  know the real name) decided to give a party.

Carla was chubby and shy and not very “popular,” and her mother thought she’d help make the party a success by allowing it to be the first girl/boy party given in this particular class.

And, indeed, at the beginning, it was a success.  Carla sent invitations to every single boy and girl in her grade, and the vast majority of them accepted immediately.

There was a lot of excitement in the class, and Carla was suddenly a lot more “popular” than she’d ever been before, and everybody was happy.

Then, about a week after Carla’s invitations went out, a girl we’ll call Marnie sent out another set of invitations, to her own party.

It was also a girl/boy party.

It was on exactly the same night as Carla’s.

And it did not include everybody in the class.  It purposely excluded the “dorks,” including Carla herself.

And that’s when the kicker happened, or what seemed like the kicker to me.

All the people invited to Marnie’s party dropped Carla’s party.  Carla’s party was left with only herself and two or three others. 

And the parents all knew that Marnie’s party had been organized specifically to spoil Carla’s. 

Among the people who knew that this was going on was my sister in law, whose response was, “well, you can’t make people like somebody they don’t like.”

I agree that you can’t make kids like kids they don’t like, but that didn’t seem to me to be what was going on here.  The issue, to me, was not who “liked” who, but rather simple manners–you’d accepted the first invitation, you’d better be seriously ill before you ditched it.

Needless to say, none of the parenets of the girls who ditched Carla’s party for Marnie’s felt this way–they all seemed to feel that this kind of thing was perfectly natural and not only couldn’t be helped, but required nothing on their part but accepting the brute fact of it. 

The school was a private (well, parochial) one, and therefore could actually have done something about the situation, but they didn’t feel it was their place, so that was that.

But in most cases I don’t think the school could in fact get involved, and yet this is the kind of thing–not name calling and taunts–that is most likely to be visited on “out” girls. 

I don’t see that it would fall under the definition of “bullying.”  I don’t see that a school would be able to do anything about it as long as the parents were willing to let it happen. 

And, for what it’s worth, I don’t think the incident came about because Marnie or the other girls who ditched Carla’s party had once been bullied or ostracized themselves.

In fact, I think most of this kind of thing is perpetrated by people who have been largely immune to both bullying and ostracism.

The urge to attack and destroy the weak seems to me to be inborn in human nature.  We have to teach out children out of it.  These parents–most parents–decided not to teach.

But even if the school tried to “do” something about this, I doubt it would have been worked.  In the long run, children accept the standards their parents set over those set by the school if there’s a conflict.

There was only one real way to save that situation–for parents to tell their children, “sorry, you accepted the first invitation, you’re committed.  You can’t change that now.”

It didn’t happen, because the parents themselves didn’t agree with that concept of civility.

So, was that “bullying”? 

Should the school have done anything about it?  Could the school have done anything about it?

And if the school had tried, do you think it would have worked.

Written by janeh

June 25th, 2011 at 10:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 8 comments

Every once in a while I get to just this point in the day and realize that I really have nothing to say. 

I suppose I don’t actually mean this literally, although it feels like I do. 

I think it’s more that I feel that nothing I have to say makes much of a difference. 

And I’m not the sort of person who has a lot of patience with people who run around saying that they “want to make a difference,” either.  The phrase always feels to me incredibly vague and not very well thought out. 

Make a difference to what?  In what sense?

Hitler made a difference.  In fact, he changed the world.  So did Stalin and Mao.  So did the Black Plague.

Of course, so did Washington and Jefferson and Adams, and Jonas Salk.  There are people who “make a difference” for the better. 

But the phrase always seems to me to be aimed at something more fundamental, and probably at something impossible to change. 

Or it’s something worse–it’s a catch phrase for not doing very much of anything, but feeling noble about it.

A lot of people seem to use it when what they actually mean is that they intend to go into one of the “helping” professions, and not make as much money as they might if they went into Wall Street.

I don’t have a lot of patience with the “helping” professions.  Sometimes they actually help, and sometimes all they do is apply the latest conventional wisdom to problems that they’re probably exacerbating.  They are, in fact, the chief source of social scientism–the declaration that this or that explanation is “science” and that we should all therefore do x or y whether we like it or not.

Competition is bad for children, that’s one of those things.  The most important thing for children is that we make them “safe.”  Between those two, we’ve seen schools eliminate dodge ball, jump rope and even jacks, and teachers patrolling recess to make sure that nobody gets “picked last” or not at all for games.

They’re then absolutely shocked when the kid hits junior high or high school and the kid can’t handle what’s now called “bullying.”

Let me back up a little here.

I know a little something about being “bullied,” although that wasn’t the word I would have used for it.  If you want to know what my life was like between seventh and ninth grades, Somebody Else’s Music is fairly accurate.

I don’t think it’s nice.  I don’t think it’s acceptable.  I do think that practically everything we now do about it is wrong.

The first, and most wrong thing, is the tendency to interject ourselves into the situation by getting the victim therapy.

Am I really, really the only person in the world who sees what’s wrong with this?

You have this kid who’s being harassed for being strange and different, and you send her off to a shrink, which just proves that she’s–strange and different.

When I bring this up to the “helping” professionals I know–the fact that the victim here sees herself as being punished (and told that her harassers are right) and that the harassers now feel justified in their harassment–I get indignant lectures about how it isn’t the way it used to be, therapy is far more accepted now.

We are now doing with “bullying”–sorry for the continued scare quotes, but to me, bullying will always be a physical act, like beating up another kid for his lunch money–

Anyway, we are now doing with bullying what we have done with physical stressors.   Fifty years of trying to make sure every possible germ was out of our children’s environment has resulted in higher numbers of children with asthma and more virulent food allergies.

We’ve only been at sanitizing our children’s “self-esteem” for about thirty years, but the results are similar, and the entire craze for “treating” “bullying” are only going to make them get worse.

Which doesn’t mean that I want schools to do nothing about bullying, even about the verbal and social bullying that has few if any physical aspects.

I’ve always thought–all the way back to the time when the victim was me–that that sort of thing could not happen without the collaboration of adults.  In my memories of junior high school, teachers were as enamored of the “popular crowd” and as disdainful of the kids who were “out” as any of the kids were. 

Looking at present-day proposals to “do something” about bullying, it often looks to me as if we mean to make that collaboration official.   That’s why there’s so much emphasis placed on getting the victim into therapy–obviously, kids wouldn’t be taunting you and calling you names if there wasn’t something wrong with you.

And these days, of course, there’s another factor.  The Internet is forever.  Mean girls can  now put there meanness out there where everybody can see and it could be raked up twenty years from now when the victim is looking for a job.

Maybe I’d be less annoyed about all this if I thought that all these bullying workshops would do anything at all to put a stop to that kind of thing, but they won’t.  For one thing, both parents and teachers are, as I said above, often collaborators here. 

What might do a little better is a law enforcement approach–both slander and libel are crimes.  Why not arrest and prosecute the perpetrators?

Knowing that if you get caught putting put lies about your classmates on the Internet, you’ll end up in juvie instead of the junior prom is more likely to have some effect than empathy exercises and watching your victim go off to the shrink.

Mostly, though, we’re back to “making a difference.”  This is human nature, and nothing you do will ever change it.

Written by janeh

June 24th, 2011 at 8:01 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Reanimation, Or Not

with 8 comments

For a long time I took part on an Internet forum called Rec.Arts.Mystery.   I suppose that, technically, I never stopped, since I still check in now and then, even if I don’t contribute much.

RAM was an interesting place for a number of reasons, but the most important was in the fact that it introduced me to a kind of reader I didn’t know existed.

My guess is that I read the way most of you say you do–a lot, all the time, more often than I breathe, and since I was a child.

In fact, I can’t remember learning to read.  I don’t think anybody actually taught me.  I remember the first time I knew that I could read, and everybody else knew it, too. 

We were on a visit to Washington, D.C., to visit my father’s sister.  My mother was pregnant, which means I had to be no older than two years and ten months old.  My Aunt Mary bought me a Little Golden Book about a platypus, and while the grown ups were sitting around talking, I parked myself in a chair and read it through, out loud.

I’d never seen the book before, so I couldn’t have been memorizing it–and they all knew  that.  They proceeded to get very excited about me and the book and to make a big fuss about it, and I sat there wondering what they were doing.

My mother was making a baby.  This seemed to me to be of considerably more importance than reading, which I was pretty sure “everybody” could do anyway.

Being able to “read before you were three” was a big deal when I was growing up, a marker that you were some kind of supergenius.

(Wyle E. Coyote, Sooo-per Genius.)

For a long time the reading thing defined me for most of the adults in my life, and given the way I read, the impression got stronger over time.

But even at the beginning, I did something I still do, and that I think most of the people who read this blog do, and most of the people who read my books do.

I reread things.  Often. 

If I found a book I really loved, I read it again, and sometimes again and again and again.

When I started to read “difficult” things, I reread them to make sure I understood them.

(If there’s life after death, I’m going to have to ask my father what he was thinking, giving me Beyond Good and Evil when I was twelve.)

But from the beginning, I reread even “easy” books if I liked them enough.  I reread the first book I was ever allowed to choose and buy on my own–The Ghost of Blackwood Hall, number 25 in the Nancy Drew Series–about forty times before my parents found a few more for me.

RAM was the first time in my life I ever met readers who did not reread things, and readers–usually the same ones who didn’t reread–who would stop reading a novel if it got at all difficult or asked them to know something.

I think I’m putting that last thing badly.

I tend to like things that stretch my mind.  I get an almost physical sensation when my mind is actually working, and it’s a pleasurable sensation, too.   I associate this feeling so completely with reading that when I want to let my mind go, I tend to opt for television or “variety puzzles.”  Variety puzzles–match-ups, escalators, syllacrostics–are the only way I get to sleep at night, and the only way I manage to make it through airplane trips.

Somebody explain to me how I spent fifteen years of my life damn near continuously on airplanes.

Anyway, RAM was the first place I had readers tell me that they would never reread a book, once they’d read it they knew how it went, and that they would never read a book that demanded that they learn something.

Now, I have a certain amount of sympathy–more than a certain amount–for people who don’t want their books to be “preachy.”  I don’t want mine to be preachy, either, unless I’m deliberately reading a book meant to preach (Godless, What’s the Matter with Kansas).

But there’s a difference between that kind of thing and rejecting a book because, for instance, I can’t understand it until I look up a few terms in the dictionary, or Google the history of art in Sienna. 

But the rereading thing just floored me. 

And it floored me even more because I was pretty sure that the people rejecting the idea didn’t reject the idea of seeing a movie more than once, or a television show.

Really first rate books almost have to be reread.  Nobody is going to catch everything going on in them the first time.

That is as true of really good mysteries, for me–I reread The Murder of Roger Ackroyd at least in part to see how the trick was done. 

And some books I just read over and over and over again.  These are not necessarily the books I would define as “best” on any technical level, nor are they necessarily classics, although some are.   They are, mostly, just books that live with me.  They change over time.

My first reaction to hearing people talk about reading that way–don’t reread, don’t bother with anything that makes any demands on you–was to wonder why these people were reading at all.  I mean, let’s fact it.  If you want something entirely superficial and easy, cable television is full of stupid people shows and the Internet is full of cats.

The simple fact that reading is reading means that it takes more effort at base than sitting passively looking at a screen.

My second reaction was to wonder what exactly it was these people got out of books. 

I’m not talking about taste here.  That’s eclectic enough.  I mean what was the nature of the satisfaction they took in reading–what did books give them that made them want to read?

That’s the kind of question I would have assumed–before I met these people–had a self-evident answer. 

But apparently not.

Written by janeh

June 22nd, 2011 at 6:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Someday, I’ll Get These Revisions Done

with 6 comments

Actually, it had better be soon, because they’re due back at SMP on the first of July.

Actually, I am, at the moment, in something of a conundrum.  I have never revised a book this extensively in this piecemeal a fashion before.  Usually, if I think I need to make extensive changes, I think I need another book.  I just chuck the thing and start over from the beginning.

In this case, I like the premise, I like the characters, it’s just that something is sort of off.  And it’s possibly to do with the fact that I did my cut on the first draft far faster than I usually do.  Maybe Iwasn’t paying enough attention. 

For whatever reason, here I am.  And it’s driving me crazy.  It kept me up last night, and when I got up this morning I managed about an hour before I had to put on the Frescobaldi. 

It’s going to be interesting to see how this turns out in the long run.

Or, you know, not.

But, frazzled as I am, and in need of jumping up and running around to do about forty errands, I have spent a certain amount of my time getting almost as depressive as some of the people who comment here.

Several weeks ago now, I think–I may be exaggerating the time–I asked anybody who wanted to to give me the name of the book they thought had the best opening paragraphs/pages/chapter, and lots of people posted recommendations.

Between now and then I’ve been looking into them.  I’ve been using Amazon’s “look inside this book” feature for some of them, and grabbing stuff off the shelves when I have them, and hounding bookstore shelves to read in the store (thank you for the chairs, Barnes and Noble). 

The results have been interesting, on a number of levels.  And I’ll get to them.

But today, what I did was to start to think about what made a good mystery, as opposed to what made a good book.

I still think that it’s not possible to write a really good mystery without writing a good book.  But it is true that a book can be a very good book and not be a very good mystery.

Part of the problem, of course, is in what constitutes a “mystery’ to begin with.  The common practice in the professional associations–Mystery Writers of America in the US, Crime Writers in the Uk–is to call all books with crimes in them “mysteries,” and then to divide the mysteries into types:  puzzle mysteries (or “fair play”), quest mysteries,  caper novels, police procedurals, etc.

And we’ve gone over that before on this blog, especially when I’ve been having little fits about cozies.

But right now, I want to talk about the fair play puzzle in particular.  It was the dominant form of the genre in the “golden age,” and has since dropped into a subsidiary part of the genre.

The reasons for that are, I think, closely connected to the existence of television and to the movie services.  Fair play isn’t really a very good foundation for a movie, made for TV or otherwise.  It’s took talky, and it requires paying attention to small details in a way that’s a lot easier when you can go back and forth through the pages of a book.

Readers, on the other hand, have the filmed versions on offer, and they have them on offer before they read the books that began the genre.

I’m doing really terribly here with syntax.

What most people actually seem to want in mystery books these days is some form of action/adventure, with the crime as not much more than the McGuffin on which to hang car chases, explosions, kidnappings, and all that kind of thing.

But right now, I want to concentrate on the fair play puzzle. 

And today, I made a list of what I thought were the best ones I had ever read.

They include (but are not limited to):

Murder on the Orient Express

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Gaudy Night

And it hit me that these are also among the best written–now, talking about the sheer prose and character development–of what came out of the Golden Age.

And Gaudy Night is out of print, at least as far as I can tell. 

But what struck me about the Christies–and these aren’t the only ones on my list–is that the ones I think of as really good mysteries are also the ones that could not be used again ever, by anybody else.  They are unique in their conceptions. 

Which leads me to wonder whether the reality is simply that there are only a finite number of Really Incredible Fair Play Premises, and that once those are used up, there isn’t much of a point to the form.

Except, as I’ve said before, as an excuse–a frame around which to write a different kind of novel.

Some of you reading this blog read fair play–because you read me, and I write fair play.

But lots of you who read the blog can’t get through a book of mine to save your lives.

Are you that way about all fair play? 

If you don’t read fair play, why don’t you?

If you do, why do you?

And yes, I’m soliciting comments again.

But first I have to go off and look at the art for this book I haven’t actually finished yet.

Written by janeh

June 20th, 2011 at 10:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with one comment

So, it’s Sunday morning, and as is usual on Sunday mornings, I’m not much interested in doing anything serious.

Of course, there are some serious things I have to do–I’ve got a book in revision, and I can’t stop now–but that’s different than thinking seriously about stuff I just like to think seriously about.

Still, something has occurred to me that seems relevant to something, so here goes.

One of the things I’ve gotten from my rereading of Too Big To Fail is an explanation of AIG and its bonuses that what actually happened there was not what we were told had happened there.

This may seem esoteric and beside any point related to everyday life, but it isn’t. 

Let me try to explain.

AIG is a massive, global insurance company.  One of the things they deal in are what are called “credit default swaps,” which are really nothing more complicated than insurance policies on investments.

Companies paid AIG premiums–just like you do with a life or auto policy–and in return, AIG promised to make them whole if the investment that had been insured tanked.

This has enormous implications in the financial meltdown of 2008, which I won’t go into here.   One of the other things I’ve been learning a lot about is banking law as it relates to the risks banks are allowed to take, and there’s no need to go into all that here.

What I want to concentrate on at the moment is the government bailout of AIG. 

As lots and lots of investments started to tank, AIG started having to pay off on its insurance policies.  And since the number of investments that tanked was far higher than anybody had anticipated, AIG just didn’t have the cash on hand to cover all its obligations.

The problem was that if AIG simply went bankrupt and stopped paying out on the policies it had issued, then the clients who had bought those policies would suddenly lose lots of money.

This would suddenly put thousands of banks into bankruptcy, too, who would  not have been there if the insurance policies they’d bought had paid out what they’d bought them to.

The US government was getting phone calls from the governments of other nations, because an AIG bankruptcy was threatening to bring down the economies of several small nations, and one or two larger ones.

Think about being, say, France, and having two thirds of your banks go bankrupt on the same day.  Nobody can get cash for the week-end.  Stores can’t stock their shelves. 

So the US government did what it had to do and gave AIG an $80 billion dollar cash infusion, and then, a few weeks later, another $80 billion.

And that’s when the excrement hit the rotary blades.


Because almost as soon it was announced that the government had given AIG the second infusion of money, the press began to report that AIG was using a hunk of that money to pay employee bonuses.

Now, this sounds completely inexcusable–bonuses, to people who had been losing money for the firm?  From a firm that had just almost gone bankrupt?

The outcry went on for weeks, with op eds, indignant press conferences by Senators and Congressmen, and death threats against AIG’s upper management.

In the meantime, the upper management was growing crazy trying to explain–to people who would not listen–that the story was all wrong.  Eventually, what came out in the media were stories that said:  well, AIG can’t legally avoid paying the bonuses, it’s in the contracts they have with their people.

Now this wasn’t wrong, but it didn’t even begin to cover the actual situation.  The problem was a word–“bonuses”–which did not actually mean what everybody thought it meant.

To most of us, a “bonus” is money we get over and above our salaries because we’ve done a particularly good job, or because it’s Christmas.

At AIG, however, the word “bonus” was being applied to something else altogether.

The deal AIG had with its traders on the floor was that they got paid a percentage of the profits of the entire company.  The perecentages were small, but the company made lots of money and the traders were paid well.

Unfortunately, in any quarter in which the company as a whole lost money–the traders got paid nothing.


Not a dime.

This made the traders’ situation bad enough even when the company had just one bad quarter.

AIG, however, was looking at losing quarters for a minimum of the next two years before they were turned around and making a profit again.

That meant that their traders would  have to plod on without getting paid for two years if they wanted to stay with the company.

Most of the traders did not want to go on with the company under those conditions, and I don’t think we have to resort to lectures about greed to understand why.  Most of us would not be willing to work for a company for two years without seeing a dime.

AIG was suddenly faced with the prospect of losing all its experienced personnel just when it needed them to turn the situation around.

So, in order to hold onto its people, long before it asked the US government for money, it made a detailed accommodation for 2009 and 2010 to make sure these guys got at least a base salary.

But they couldn’t call it a salary without doing all sorts of complicated legal things with their incorporation documents, and that would take months.   They looked around frantically for what they already had legally established that would let them do what they wanted to do, found “bonuses,” and called the money that.

This was not an unreasonable thing to do, and it was not what it became known as in the press–using the American taxpayer to pay bonus money to failing employees. 

This would have been good information to have at the time–especially in an election year.  And yet, as far as I know, nobody explained it, ever.

And that’s not that only thing that wasn’t explained.

Even as we speak, “bonuses” are still the public watchword for inflated salaries and corporate greed on Wall Street.

What almost nobody in the general public realizes, however, is that the vast bulk of those bonuses were paid in the firm’s stock and subject to withholding periods. 

A trader might make $100,000 in salary and then get a bonus of $4.5 million–but the $4.5 million would be stock he wouldn’t be allowed to sell any of for at least five years.

When the companies started tanking, that stock became worth less and less.  When Lehman went bankrupt, its employees lost all the money in their bonus accounts.  Since Lehman stock was worthless, so were their bonuses.

If there’s one thing the press is supposed to be doing, it’s explicating issues like these.

I’m still not a fan of the bailout, and I still think we should  have let the banks go bankrupt and unwound them so that ordinary citizens didn’t get hurt (which is what deposit insurance is for) while at the same time telling investment bank customers that, well, they weren’t insured, tough.

But discussion of things like the TARP funds are much less productive if nobody knows what they’re actually talking about. 

And nobody does, because nobody explains it.

Written by janeh

June 19th, 2011 at 9:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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