Some Supposedly Fun Links
February 22, 2012

English: David Foster Wallace at the Hammer Mu...

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Yesterday would have been David Foster Wallace’s 50th birthday. I’m not quite the DFW superfan I once was (I haven’t even read The Pale King yet), but I still feel an enormous debt of gratitude to the man. As much as his writing gets accused of being solipsistic or self-involved (often by his old friend and rival Jon Franzen), I’ve always read it as an antidote to solipsism. Okay, so comparing his legacy to that of Dostoevsky is a little hyperbolic, but the two did have similar projects: both were obsessed with finding a way out of the compulsive self-abuse of everydayness and into something approaching real grace and compassion.

Some recommended DFW reading:

The famous “This is Water” speech he delivered at Kenyon University’s 2005 commencement ceremony:

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.

Jon Baskin on Wallace v. Franzen:

The episode indicates what really united Wallace and Kierkegaard—not, as Franzen implies in “Farther Away,” their narcissism, but rather their profound appreciation of its death grip on the modern self. Central to both was the conviction that narcissism was a matter predominantly of belief, less a defect of personality than a symptom of spiritual vacancy. It was not something that could be addressed by smart social policy, abstract argument or higher-quality news. Perhaps only organized religion had ever checked the narcissism of the contemporary person, for whom the difficulty was not to be sophisticated, cynical and “free,” but to invest herself in some definite course of action. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard had introduced the “knight of faith”—his version of a modern hero—who, he said, would look from the outside “just like a tax collector.” In Pale King, Wallace encourages his sophisticated modern reader to acknowledge the glory of the tax collector, a job that is “truly heroic” because “a priori incompatible with audience or applause”—that is, with narcissism.

Such a definition of heroism may seem sentimental or silly; it is nonetheless important to acknowledge that Wallace meant it.

Big Red Son, one of DFW’s most darkly hilarious nonfiction essays. It also has one hell of an opening:

THE AMERICAN ACADEMY of Emergency Medicine confirms it: Each year, between one and two dozen adult US males are admitted to ERs after having castrated themselves. With kitchen tools, usually, sometimes wire cutters. In answer to the obvious question, surviving patients most often report that their sexual urges had become a source of intolerable conflict and anxiety. The desire for perfect release and the real-world impossibility of perfect, whenever-you-want-it release had together produced a tension they could no longer stand.

It is to the 30+ testosteronically afflicted males whose cases have been documented in the past two years that your correspondents wish to dedicate this article. And to those tormented souls considering autocastration in 1998, we wish to say: “Stop! Stay your hand! Hold off with those kitchen utensils and/or wire cutters!” Because we believe we may have found an alternative.

Every spring, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presents awards for outstanding achievement in all aspects of mainstream cinema. These are the Academy Awards. Mainstream cinema is a major industry in the United States, and so are the Academy Awards. The AAs’ notorious commercialism and hypocrisy disgust many of the millions and millions and millions of viewers who tune in during prime time to watch the presentations. It is not a coincidence that the Oscars ceremony is held during TV’s Sweeps Week. We pretty much all tune in, despite the grotesquerie of watching an industry congratulate itself on its pretense that it’s still an art form, of hearing people in $5,000 gowns invoke lush clichés of surprise and humility scripted by publicists, etc.—the whole cynical postmodern deal—but we all still seem to watch. To care. Even though the hypocrisy hurts, even though opening grosses and marketing strategies are now bigger news than the movies themselves, even though Cannes and Sundance have become nothing more than enterprise zones. But the truth is that there’s no more real joy about it all anymore. Worse, there seems to be this enormous unspoken conspiracy where we all pretend that there’s still joy. That we think it’s funny when Bob Dole does a Visa ad and Gorbachev shills for Pizza Hut. That the whole mainstream celebrity culture is rushing to cash in and all the while congratulating itself on pretending not to cash in. Underneath it all, though, we know the whole thing sucks.

Your correspondents humbly offer an alternative.

A review from The Canadian Review of Books that includes a quote DFW loved (and which is often misattributed to him):

Irony, we’re all coming to discover in the Age of Irony, is the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.

And lastly, here’s a review I wrote of David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, his book-length conversation with DFW.

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Idle Chatter
September 1, 2010

Jonathan Franzen on the online, info-saturated modern era:

I continue to believe it’s a phony palliative, most of the noise. You have the sense of “Oh yeah, I’m writing in my angry response to your post, and now I’m flaming back the person who flamed me back for my angry response.” All of that stuff, you have the sense, “Yeah, I’m really engaged in something. I’m not alone. I’m not alone. I’m not alone.” And yet, I don’t think—maybe it’s just me—but when I connect with a good book, often by somebody dead, and they are telling me a story that seems true, and they are telling me things about myself that I know to be true, but I hadn’t been able to put together before—I feel so much less alone than I ever can sending e-mails or receiving texts. I think there’s a kind of—I don’t want to say shallow, because then I start sounding like an elitist. It’s kind of like a person who keeps smoking more and more cigarettes. You keep giving yourself more and more jolts of stimulus, because deep inside, you’re incredibly lonely and isolated. The engine of technological consumerism is very good at exploiting the short-term need for that little jolt, and is very, very bad at addressing the real solitude and isolation, which I think is increasing. That’s how I perceive my mission as a writer—and particularly as a novelist—is to try to provide a bridge from the inside of me to the inside of somebody else. 


This is something I’ve written about before.

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Back to Pen and Paper
July 19, 2010

My Messy Moleskine
Image by adulau via Flickr

I tend to write fiction—or abortive attempts at long form writing in general—in fits and starts. There will be a burst of activity followed by a lengthy dry spell, which I’ll conclude with the sudden realization that it’s time to stop talking about seriously committing to writing again and actually do it. Then I’ll start again, and it will be wonderful, and I’ll be able to sustain a slow but steady productive clip for, oh, a couple weeks.

No doubt a lot of people are in the same boat as me. And I’m sure it’s for similar reasons, chief among them being that when the initial rush of enthusiasm peters out, it becomes hard to maintain discipline. (In that way, among many others, writing is similar to exercise, or eating healthy, and many of the other good habits that other people seem to consider a part of their normal, functional lives.)

There are a lot of obstacles to discipline, but I think I’ve finally identified one of my big ones: the computer. Writing about one subject in the long-term is hard under normal circumstances, and it’s even harder when wi-fi is everywhere and Microsoft Word has to share a screen with Twitter, GMail, Feedly, etc.

So from now on, all of my first drafts are going to be written written, as in using my hand to guide a pen or pencil across a piece of paper in a notebook. They will be written in longhand. And, if all goes according to plan, they will be written while I’m not even in the vicinity of a computer screen.

If the only outcome of this new routine is that I become a more industrious writer, that’s fine by me. But my hope is that it will also make me a better writer. Writing by hand is, after all, more reflective than typing things out. Not only does it demand your undivided attention in a way that Word cannot, but it forces you to write at a far more deliberate pace (I don’t know about you hunt-and-peck types, but I type faster than I scribble). You labor over each sentence for longer, which should mean, at least in theory, that you think about it longer. And it’s no longer so easy to go back and delete stuff, which means you’re required to think a little more before you shoot. At least, again, in theory.

But I think the biggest thing for me is I’m hoping this will restore a little bit of the fun to writing. I don’t like being shackled to my computer whenever I want to get real work done, and it would be nice to feel some sort of tactile connection to the words I produce. Besides, with little to show from many years of keyboard pounding, it seems like it’s well past time to mix it up a bit.

I know I’ve got a few readers whose interest in writing extends beyond blog posts and hyperlinked articles, so maybe I’ll open the floor to you guys: what tools do you use to get the job done?

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The Personal Cost of Oversharing
July 15, 2010

neurotics not-so-anonymous
Image by Malingering via Flickr

My last post on oversharing was a little muddled, because I didn’t clearly distinguish between the two separate arguments I was making. My broader concern in writing that post was oversharing as a societal issue: basically, my feeling is that every soapbox comes attached to certain ethical propositions, and there is something ethically dubious about using a soapbox solely to emote and promote the self, with no thought to the interests of the readers or others.

But I ended up talking more about overshare as a personal concern, and so I think I need to clarify why it would seem to be equally problematic for the individual. For that, I think we need to clarify what, exactly, oversharing is.

First off, it’s significantly different from straight-up memoir, or autobiography. Work in that genre, at least when done well, is written with the benefit of perspective, and with the interests of others in mind. Oversharing is done in the moment, and is done either to draw attention, solicit sympathy, or simply to vent.

Of course, even the most private individuals have interactions where they seek those ends. It’s just that, in most cases, we seek attention and sympathy from our friends, families, and loved ones. When, in exchange for our self-expression, we need further guidance, we’ll seek out someone like a therapist, or a clergy member.

This venting and emoting can betray deep, potentially malignant growths in our consciousness, and it’s important to reveal those growths to someone you trust to help you deal with them in a healthy way.

I’m going to illustrate my point with a personal anecdote. Go ahead: Savor the irony.

Less than a year ago, I went into therapy in order to address self-loathing and social anxiety issues that were rendering me almost wholly dysfunctional in certain situations. The first few weeks of those sessions, I was pretty much the only one to do the talking, and all I did was obsess about the trivia that was making me so unhappy. But eventually my therapist started challenging the premises on which those obsessions were founded. At first, it irritated me that she was challenging my assumptions, but that was only because I knew deep down how ridiculous and indefensible they were. Once I was forced to acknowledge that to myself, I became a much healthier, happier person.

More importantly, therapy helped me develop the tools to deal with other concerns in the same way: with rigorous skepticism and self-scrutiny. That wasn’t an easy thing to come to, and it’s something I maintain imperfectly at best. Doing so requires focus and solitude.

But I still feel the need to vent, as does everyone. And when I do, the best person to vent to is someone who is wise enough, and knows enough about me, to not reaffirm those assumptions and justify my odd neurotic tics and obsessions. In other words, I need someone who isn’t an enabler.

My concern is that when it comes to oversharing, the Internet can often serve as one giant enabler. If we garner an audience because of our willingness to share our neurotic self-obsession (and as a neurotic myself, I reluctantly concede that in our fits of anxiety we are, practically by definition, self-obsessed), this validates it. Which is probably the worst thing you can do for a neurotic.

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The Novel As Truth
June 19, 2010

The cover of the first edition of The Great Ga...
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I’m a big fan of the blog Rationally Speaking, but here I think Julia Galef misses the mark. Part of the reason, I suspect, is because she fails to sufficiently define the premise she’s arguing against, and that leads her into a chain of sound reasoning based on deeply faulty assumptions.

To be clear, if you interpret Bloom’s assertion that literature teaches us about “the way things are” to mean “literature provides empirical observations about the external world,” then yeah, you’re going to be disappointed. That isn’t to say literature can’t do that—I, Claudius contains some factual content about Ancient Rome—but if your intention is to communicate some factual information about a certain place or time, then you’re better served writing a work of straight history.

What literature does is tell us about “the way things are” not in the external world, but within ourselves. If you find the actions of a character in an extraordinary situation—say, Gregor Samsa’s reaction to be turned into a giant insect—to be completely plausible, it is only because you recognize something of your own experiences and though processes in the character.

I’ve written about this a little bit in the past, but if we’re going to talk about it in philosophical terms, I think what the novel does well is a form of a priori thought experiment about the nature of personhood. Of course, the best literature never wraps up in a neat moral or lesson, which was why I found Galef’s references to the “argument” of The Great Gatsby pretty wrongheaded. The point isn’t to instruct through presenting us with an argument, but to instruct by getting us to ask the right questions—about ourselves, our relationships, and our commonalities with others.

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Tilting at Windmills Progress Report
March 2, 2010

After several aborted attempts at writing down the entire Juan Way story as I experienced it–which is really both less than and more than the actual story, because I wasn’t there for parts of it and I’m likely going to wind up including a lot of pseudo-philosophical rambling and anecdotes about stuff that happened before or after the trip–I’m taking a new angle: I’m just writing down a four- or five-word summary of every single anecdote or stray thought I’ve ever had related to the trip. When I’m pretty sure I’ve collected all of them, I’m going to jumble up the chronology and make a chart that I think displays them in a way that makes both thematic and narrative sense.

Then, presumably, I’ll write about all of them in that order, cutting, adding and reshuffling stuff along the way.

So we’ll, uh, see how that goes.

Lyrics by free association
September 14, 2008

I’m sick of politics – let’s talk about something else today. Like, for example, the craft of songwriting, and the soulful, uplifting tunes of Radiohead.

Every once in a while, I’ll take a fitful stab at writing my own songs – occasionally I would even post them on the Internet, until my sense of shame would kick in and I would take them down again. The problem with my songs, I decided, was that I couldn’t write songs. I can’t really write instrumentals or sing either, but I looked at geniuses like Bob Dylan and that seemed like less of a hill to climb. The lyrics were the key, and my lyrics sucked.

Radiohead got me thinking about that again recently. Specifically, their song “Optimistic.”


Shadow Stabbing
September 3, 2008

Can I just say, in this rare, non-politics post today, that I’ve been on fire this whole day? Writing-wise, I mean. I just sat my ass down and in 90 minutes banged out, count ’em, 2,000 words without breaking a sweat. That was one whole chapter right there, and a couple phrases added to the one before it.

I don’t have days like this too often, especially not when I’m busy with school and stuff. Writing is hard. But I just broke the 30,000 word mark last night, and 50,000 doesn’t seem too far away right now. And then after that, 85,000, and then as many arbitrary milestones after that as it takes to reach the epilogue.

Maybe this will be the draft I actually finish.

World Building
August 10, 2008

Guest posting over at Ezra Klein’s place, Alyssa Rosenberg has a great post on the timeless allure of the Star Wars universe.

It wasn’t a surprise that the Star Wars universe is complete and complicated, but I’d forgotten the extent to which Lucas tosses us off the deep end without a guide, like Harry Potter, who is as new to the world we’re exploring as we are. More than literally any other work of art I’ve ever encountered, in Episode IV, Lucas isn’t afraid to not explain things, and to throw out a ton of cross-chatter that either only resolves later, or never gets resolved at all. We don’t learn who Jabba the Hutt actually is until the third movie, even though he influences almost all of Han’s decisions. In the original cut of A New Hope, we have no idea who Biggs Darklighter actually is, or what the extent of his relationship to Luke has been other than a brief reference to him on Tatooine (his reunion with Luke on Yavin is one of the additions in the new releases of the original movies that I actually enjoyed). My man Wedge Antilles shows up incredibly briefly. We learn next to nothing about C-3PO and R2’s previous adventures. My brother asked me during the movie’s final sequence as Han and Luke are gettin’ all spiffed up and being rewarded by Princess Leia, “So, are they becoming Jedi now?” and I realized Lucas doesn’t even explain how you tell if someone has potential in the Force or not! Pretty much every time since I first watched Star Wars, I sat down to rewatch the movies with a ton of knowledge I’d picked up somewhere else because I just HAD to figure out what was going on. Lucas did something completely addictive: he imagined an extremely wide-ranging world with coherent rules, hinted at it in his movies, and let fans run absolutely amok with it.

I feel like this may be something that popular fantasy and sci-fi may have lost. To use an example from the post, if you read the Harry Potter books, they basically tell you all the rules of the wizarding world – it feels like a place where there’s basically one big story, and you’re reading it. And that’s fine – but I love reading about worlds where it seems like there are a million different stories and a million different things going on in the background that are barely hinted at. That’s what the real world is like; it’s a complicated place, and it would be nice if stories about alternate worlds reflected that all the time.

Unfortunately, particularly in film, it seems like everything you need to know about the story’s world and its rules gets handed to the audience on a silver platter. There are a lot of exceptions – Children of Men had a million background details that give you a picture of a complete world without spelling it out to you – but Children of Men is a rare breed of film.

What modern alternate worlds are good at sucking people in and making them feel like they’re real? I’m a big fan of China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, and the other books in that series. Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind takes place in a world that’s a little bit more familiar, but it’s also consistent and very well though out. Anyone got any other favorites?

Because forming my own opinions is hard
July 31, 2008

On Tuesday I’m going into the city to speak at this New Voices panel in front of a group of Scholastic employees and executives about Generation Z and the future of publishing. Generation Z, for those who don’t know, is the generation born roughly between the mid-nineties and right now. It’s going to be an interesting crowd to watch, I’m told, because they’re going to be the first true children of the Internet age – technologically literate, socially conscious, and globally connected. They’re also the final generation before we officially run out of letters, and their children will probably have either serial numbers or Greek letters. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Here’s the dilemma I’m facing right now: I’m on the panel in my capacity as a political writer, both of fiction and non-fiction, to talk about the future of publishing to cater to the aforementioned socially conscious, globally connected kids. And, in that capacity, I feel like just a little bit of a fraud. Who am I to prognosticate about anything? I’m not really an expert in anything particular, least of all publishing. I know what I, personally, would like to read more of – and like any writer, that’s what I try to write – but any resemblance or relation my work may have to some sort of larger publishing zeitgeist is completely coincidental. Mostly I’m just writing for myself.

But then I remembered I have a blog. It’s not a blog that a lot of people read, but some of those readers are people who are smart about writing and smart about publishing. And while I more or less have an idea of some of the things I’d like to say, I’d love to hear input from you guys. If you were a child of the digital age, what would you want to read?

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