Reading the USA Trilogy

There was a year when I wrote three hundred posts on this blog. This year I’ve written thirty. I know. Depressing. I looked and saw I’d written just three entries this month. But life is still good. I mean the usual indignities, but they’re not a big deal. The most important thing is I’m writing, I’m reading, and my baby is still adorable.

Lately I’ve read a really odd book, Lionel Trilling’s Sincerity and Authenticity. Difficult to describe this one, not even sure why I picked it up, except that I adored Trilling’s book of essays, The Liberal Imagination. This book is about how over the course of about four hundred years, literature stopped emphasizing the importance of sincerity–the quality of being open about one’s beliefs and opinions and goals–and started to emphasize the similar-but-different quality of authenticity, which consists of knowing one’s beliefs, opinions, and goals, even if you don’t share them with others.

It’s hard to summarize his analysis–I don’t think I fully understand it myself. Hegel comes into play, and whenever someone trots out Hegel, you know that it’s soon going to become impossible to make sense of the article. I think what he’s saying, however, is that as society became more mechanized and less governed by personal relations, the quality of forthrightness (speaking truth to power and not being a sleazy suck-up or courtier) started to seem less desirable. People recognized that we were governed by these vast machines that demanded a certain insincerity for the purposes of survival. Similarly, our relationship to society is less restricted. Even the family has broken down as a source of authority. So we are left wondering who we are.

One thing I love about Trilling is that he and I have similar touchstones. Normally when you read a book of literary criticism, the author trots out a bunch of books you haven’t read, and you’ve got to take their word for it. Here when he writes about The Sorrows of Young Werther or about the work of Denis Diderot, I’ve read the sources, so his commentary has more meaning to me.

I’m generally suspicious of the idea that human character has changed over time, but Trilling is careful to emphasize that he’s talking about the values placed in literature. And I think it’s true that many of the heroes of modern literature would not’ve been heroes in prior times. More interestingly, there is a period of several hundred years in literature when you can see the tension between value systems. He writes movingly about Madame Bovary for instance, and about how Nathalie Sarraute (another author I love) wrote that Emma Bovary had no authenticity: that her flaw was that nothing inside her was truly her own, it was all a concoction created out of gimcrack romance novels. But if you really give a sympathetic reading to the novel, you realize that’s not true. There is a tension there. She has unrealistic dreams, it is true, but she’s also passionate and determined. There is iron inside her. Similarly, this same tension animates much of Jane Austen. Her characters are supposed to conform to their social roles and are most praised when they do, but they also have a certain authenticity: they are wild and willful, and the novels often toy with punishing them for their wilfulness.

Umm, alright, other books I’ve been reading…I’ve gotten into the first book of the USA Trilogy, by John Dos Passos. You’ve heard of this book: it’s the modernist classic told from twelve viewpoints, intercut with stream of consciousness sections, biographies of real people, and set of newspaper clippings. When people write about this work, they always write more about the technique than the content, but I was reading another collection of Lionel Trilling essays, and he wrote about how Dos Passos was one of the few early 20th century leftist writers who expressed skepticism about the organized left, and about how the USA trilogy was really about how industrialized society offers scope for moral choice. I was sold! The story is great. I’m not far into it yet (a third of the way into the first book), and so far the story sections follow Fenian McCreary, a printer and labor activist, and his personal struggle between living the life of an organizer and finding financial stability for his family. Early in the story, he gets a girl pregnant and ignores her importunate letters from San Francisco while he works on a labor periodical in a Nevada mining town. But his loneliness drives him back to her. He’s tired of the rough and tumble life. They marry, and he tries to go straight, moving to LA and working as a printer for the LA Times, ignoring the on-going labor disputes around him.

His political consciousness is formed early in his life, by his Uncle, a printer who is driven out of business because of his socialist sympathies. It’s a rough, untutored socialism: Fenian just has the sense that somehow, some way, life ought to be better.

And I’m still making my way through Names on the Land. Or I would be, if I could remember where I put the book. That’s the trouble with paper books: you’ve got to constantly remember where you put them down.

Have been reading a ton of French Graphic novels lately

Hello friends! I continue to feel not-awful. My baby is the cutest baby, and life is great. My career is a nightmare, but over the last seven years I’ve grown to expect that. You know, so long as the writing is going okay, there’s no bad news that can affect me.

I’ve started working on a fantasy novel. This is something I’ve said on this blog numerous times. Almost always I abandon the fantasy novel. I’m sure this will be no different. The problem I always face with fantasy novels is that I don’t enjoy writing scenes where people hit each other with swords. And, moreover, I don’t enjoy writing protagonists whose main strength is that they’re great at hitting people with swords and/or shooting magic balls at people. It just doesn’t interest me, no matter how much the rest of the story does.

This time I’ve found a way of writing action scenes that I think is a little more robust and, to me, interesting, but we’ll see.

My reading has been so scattered lately. I’m still reading lots of intellectual magazines, been liking the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books. I like when they summarize a book for me, so I don’t have to read it. Like there was a big article about Machiavelli’s life, and now I don’t have to read the eight hundred page biography that was the subject of the article!

I’ve been making my slow way through George Stewart’s Names on the Land, which is an account of how places in America got their names. It sounds like the most boring book on the Earth, but it’s not. You learn a lot! For instance, when the Spanish were exploring the Americas, there was a legend about an Amazonian kingdom in America that was ruled by women. There was also a romance, popular in Spain, about a queen named Caleyfia. An explorer reported to Hernan Cortes that he’d found a huge island to the West, and Cortes, disbelieving, said that must be the island of Caleyfornia (the joke being that it was imaginary, like the historical romance and like the Amazonian kingdom). And that’s where California comes from!

Most of the stories aren’t that great, but it’s still interesting to discover why so many things are named after some people and not others. But the book can also be pretty dry. Let’s see..I’m also reading Nicole Cushing’s A Sick Gray Laugh. I got the book on sale. I’ve been Twitter acquaintances with Nicole Cushing for years and have run into her in various online places where writer’s congregate. I had no idea she was such an incredible writer! This is a book that’s too bizarre to describe adequately. Also pretty dense, and I’m getting through it slowly.

Have been reading lots of comics on DC Universe, DC Comics’s subscription service. I don’t read the standard superhero comic stuff, but there’s a lot of bizarre and offbeat stuff in the DC universe. I’m attracted primarily to looser art styles, and I’ve started to look for artists instead of writers. Lately I’ve been reading Gotham City Garage, about a future where blah blah blah, the girls of the DC Universe blah blah blah rock out. I’ve also been reading Heroes in Crisis, which is uneven when it comes to storytelling and writing, but is still pretty fun intermittently: it’s about a safehouse for superheroes undergoing mental breakdowns. I’ve also been reading Seven Soldiers, which…I’m not exactly sure what it is. It’s a series of interlocking stories about some very bizarre sidecharacters in the DC Universe.

Outside the superhero world, my favorite comics imprint continues to be Europe comics! And my favorite writer / artist pair is Bruno and Fabien Nury. I first read their Tyler Cross series, which is a hardboiled series about a gangster who doesn’t talk much, has a huge jaw, and usually has no mouth. I just love the art style, honestly. Nury also wrote Death of Stalin, which I’ve never read, but which got turned into a great movie, and Bruno and Nury also collaborated on The Man Who Shot Chris Kyle, which is a graphic novel about the life and death of Chris Kyle, whose exploits were dramatized in the Bradley Cooper movie American Sniper. I highly recommend the graphic novel, which is a bit difficult to describe. It’s anti-war and anti-macho (after all, it was originally a French language comic). But there’s something in its dry, dusty setting and it’s spiraling tone that’s really captivating. Finally, I read Shelley, another set of French graphic novels about the life of Percy Shelley. The first, detailing his seduction, abandonment, and the subsequent suicide of his first wife, is very interesting. Shelley remains a captivating character despite his louche behavior. The second, of course, focuses on the weekend at Via Diodati, but it ends in a rather bizarre manner. I approve of and am impressed by the ending, but I doubt I’d have made the same decision, and I’m not entirely sure it was the best one.

Five classics that ought to capture you from page one

I feel great, like extremely good. It’s unaccountable, since I’ve felt pretty not-great for most of the past two months. Can’t explain it. Anyway, early in the history of this blog I used to do lists! My most popular one was eight writing manuals that aren’t a total waste of time. And last night as I was falling asleep I started thinking about the classics, and how most of the time when you sell them to people, it’s kind of like, well you’ve just got to stick with this. But really it’s not always like that. My most favorite classic to recommend is Anna Karenina, and people are usually like, “Oh well I tried starting that, but I didn’t get far…maybe I’ll try again.”

To which I’m like, “No! What’re you talking about? The first page of Anna Karenina is one of the most charming and timeless pages of fiction in all of history. If reading the book isn’t effortless, then don’t force yourself to. Wait until you can appreciate it.”

So Anna Karenina is obviously a classic that should not be work. But what’re some others? It seemed like cheating to use books that were too modern (Catcher in the Rye comes to mind. I mean it’s easy to read, but that’s because it basically invented the modern novel, so in essence we’ve been reading it all our lives). Number two on the list, for me, is clearly Pride and Prejudice. Now this is a book I had to read in tenth grade and found unbelievably boring. I stopped halfway through and just used the Cliff’s Notes instead. But when I came back to it ten years later, I was surprised by how funny it was. This is a book that ought to hold you right from the beginning.

Okay, now here is where it started to get more difficult. Finally I decided that number three would be The Warden by Anthony Trollope. I love Trollope. I’ve read something like twenty books by him. But he’s frequently long-winded and boring. The Warden doesn’t have that problem. It’s a hundred thousand words long–relatively compact, by Trollope standards–and the plot also isn’t quite so paint-by-the-numbers. Most Trollope novels concern some guy who’s slowly going broke and/or a woman who’s married or about to marry the wrong dude. This one is more complex: it’s about the warden of church-run old folk’s home who comes under fire by a crusading journalist, who says, look, this home only takes care of twelve people, but the warden is earning eight hundred pounds a year! It’s essentially a sinecure! And the whole time you’re like, but Rev. Harding (the titular warden) is such a nice guy! Except…he also really doesn’t do very much for his money. But, on the other hand, nobody has ever asked him to do much. Anyway, it’s a great first introduction to Trollope.

So that’s five novels that are marvelous from page one. What’s a fourth one? Preferably one written before the year 1900? I’m going to go with the Count of Monte Cristo. That’s an easy one. A fantastic and morally complex adventure. It’s like a thousand pages long, and I wished it was twice the length, Afterward I tried to read The Three Musketeers and found it very dull, couldn’t finish it.

And for my fifth book, I dunno, maybe I’ll choose…Dangerous Liaisons? That’s an eighteenth century novel! Bonus points there. It’s an epistolary tale whose plot should be vaguely familiar to you either from Cruel Intentions or from the movie with John Malkovich. But it’s witty and brilliantly structured. I’ve looked for other epistolary novels with a fraction of its complexity and have never found one.

You know what, I’m gonna keep going. You know what book was shockingly non-boring? Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a Chinese novel from the 14th century, detailing the events surrounding the dissolution of the Han Dynasty in the 2nd and 3rd century. I read the unabridged Moss Roberts translation, and it’s romp. It’s like nothing else you’ve ever read: it’s the Annals of Tacitus except not horrendously boring (love you, Tacitus, but you are a dull writer). Time moves rapidly, events succeed events, heroes arise and die the next page, and everything is reported flatly, without moral judgement. The only difficult for a Western reader is keeping track of the thousands of names. For my part, I started developing mnemonics for each character. I’d say the name phonetically (mispronouncing it horrendously of course) and then think what english word the name sounded like, and then I’d relate that word to whatever the character had done. Like if the character was named Cao Dai, then I’d be like..cow died. And maybe the character had made a last stand on some bridge, so I was like “Cow dying on a bridge.” It’s really dumb, and potentially racist? It’s hard to say. But it really helps. If you can keep the names straight, this is an easy read. I mean the easiest thing would just be to have an index of characters, but I couldn’t find a good one.

Other readable classics…hmm…Plato’s account of Socrates’ trial and death, as presented in Eurythro, Apology, and Crito, is some of the finest prose literature from before the 18th century. It’s actually deeply affecting. Read the Benjamin Jowett translation you can find for free online. Definitely worth reading as fiction, even if you don’t care for the philosophy.

Well I could keep going, but would just make me look bad, because it’d be a bunch of white guys (if I hadn’t limited myself to before 1900 there would’ve been more women, I swear). But although their works aren’t quite effortless, I certainly recommend a trio of Japanese ladies: Sei Shonagan, Lady Murasaki (author of the Tale of Genji), and the anonymous author of the Sarashina diary. The last writer, whose book I read under the title As I Crossed The Bridge of Dreams, out from Penguin Classics, has probably had as large an impact on my style as any other writer in the language. There’s something about the way she plays with time that’s really artful and affecting. I get chills just thinking about it.

Thinking about other things

I’ve sent out my sexy assassin book, Death Trap, and I feel good about it. The book is a bit of a pot-boiler, but I’ve always wanted to write a pot-boiler (a novel you write just to keep soup in the pot). Annoyingly, the book is actually less commercial than my literary novel, since it’s a bit trapped, like my protagonist, between the genres: too sexy to be marketed to a female audience, and too feminist to be marketed to a male one. So far I’m pitching it as KILLING EVE, but with the sly humor and international setting of MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER. We will see what happens, but it was a good experience, and I really love the character of my lost-girl Gen Z sexy assassin. If nothing happens with the book, I’ll definitely self-publish it.

Not sure what to do next. Earlier in the year I wrote a book called The Cynical Writer’s Guide to the Publishing Industry, which is a really cynical take on, essentially, how to pitch your book so it sounds like a potential bestseller. The book is incredible. It has a really intimate, confessional voice, and although it is cynical about the industry, it remains idealistic about the power of the individual writer to capture some unique vision. It’s probably time for me to go through the whole rigamarole and edit it and release it, but I’ve never gone through the self-publishing process for a book that’s so long. It involves looking into covers and designing the book and all kinds of crap! Maybe I’ll release it under Rahul, so it won’t mess up my new name.

Dunno what else is in the cards for me. I’ve had some ideas, but nothing immediately compelling. In fact, I actually can’t remember what made me write the sexy assassin book in the first place? Maybe it was a joke? I really can’t remember. I need to think of another joke.

I’m now going by Naomi

Hey friends, you may have noticed a certain change in nomenclature on my social media pages. It’s in the title of the post: I’m going by Naomi now instead of Rahul. If you ever call me Rahul ever again you’re officially a bigot.

No I’m just kidding. Just don’t vote for Donald Trump. But also don’t call me Rahul.

Anyway, this is all part of my glacial transition. Covid hasn’t been the worst thing in the world; has really taking some of the pressure off. I feel good about the name, which I workshopped privately for a year. Sounds good and is recognizably female. I think it just took me all that time to get used, myself, to the idea of going by a new name (which is not at all required! Many women don’t change their names, particularly since most male Anglo names tend to become unisex after a generation or three).

It’s hot here. Very hot. My brain is melting. I have a cute baby.

Only have half a day of childcare today, so need to get my procrastination in early

I was looking at my blog’s stats recently, and I noticed that I had just thirty posts last year! This is in comparison to, I think, 2013, when I posted literally every day (330 posts). That was excessive, I think the happy medium is somewhere in between. But now that I’m less active on Twitter and Facebook, I am finding myself with more desire to write here.

The election fills me with dread, as always. It’s looking highly likely that on Election Night Donald Trump will be ahead in the electoral college and that the election will be decided by mail-in ballots counted after Election Night. What a mess!

The thing that frustrates me is that although my opinion probably counts for something, the fate of the Republic really lies in the hands of Republicans. If there are exist Republicans who care less about winning than they do about the fate of our democracy, then we will be okay. But it just feels like anyone who cares about that shit is already voting for Biden. I don’t believe in the existence of Republicans who will vote for Donald Trump on election day, and then a week after the election will turn around and say, “Okay, well we lost, fair and square.”

I mean, to be honest, it’s not like Democrats are thaaaat much better. In 2016, I was a person who really wanted the electoral college to refuse to elect Trump–a hope that in retrospect seems laughable–because I regarded Trump as an existential threat to the country. The problem is that I was right, he is an existential threat, whereas Republicans who feared the same about Biden would be wrong. There’s no equivalence.

Whatevs. I don’t know. Writing continues apace. I only have a half-day of childcare today, so I’m trying to get in gear and get to work a little earlier.

I continue to read learned articles. It’s interesting. I think I’ll probably get a little tired at some point of a few of the tics that the various literary publications, in particular, tend to evince. For instance, many of the articles in the New York Review of Books seem to have a bit of an axe to grind. I just finished reading one about this survey of Wagner’s influence, and the reviewer started talking about whether the writer had proven whether or not genius is real, or whether a work’s aesthetic qualities are created and understood through the act of criticism. All seemed a little beside the point. I suppose that’s the charm of the publication: someone gets to give you a long and interesting opinion about a book you’re not going to read and probably will never read. And the articles are by and large very compelling: oftentimes I start one thinking I have no interest in this subject, and then I end up reading an entire article about Goya or something.

I just have two wishes. The first is that the articles evinced a little more humility. If you go off on a long tangent, then that’s your tangent, that’s your hobby-horse, don’t put that on the author and pretend it’s some flaw in the work. And the second is that in many cases, it’s clear that the works being reviewed are not particularly good or substantive. Why waste all this space in the magazine reviewing or talking about books that aren’t good? Surely you could write a long, interesting article about a book that’s actually worth that treatment. But I suppose that’s an outdated view of criticism: the point of a literary review isn’t to identify good books, it’s to practice the art of criticism, and there’s a certain mode of criticism that doesn’t work very well when the book in question is very good.

Well we’re all screwed

Today is the second day in a month when San Francisco has had breathable air. And I’m getting back into the swing of writing. Working on revising Death Trap, my assassin book. It’s looking fairly good. I don’t think it’ll require as much work as The Lonely Years did. This is a book that appeals directly to the id. So long as it’s sexy and dangerous, it should work out fine. It’s a good book; exactly the kind of book I’m always looking for.

My commitment to reading learnéd articles rather than tweets has continued. But it’s a little depressing. I’ve subscribed to a bunch of magazines and book review type journals, including two conservative ones. One of the conservative journals had a LONG paeon to Viktor Orban, being all like, yeah whatever, he rewrote the constitution, but it’s what the people wanted! And some of his supporters have bought up all the country’s newspapers, but wait…he ALSO stopped the refugees! And took a stand against ‘cosmopolitan’ elites. They were like, we need an Orban here in the US. A competent nationalist! It was appalling. Reading the conservative papers has made me realize, democracy is gone. We can’t go back to the American consensus, when the parties worked together to do simple stuff like…pass stimulus bills or increase the deficit cap or make routine judicial appointments. Or, rather, Democrats are willing to do that for Republicans, but Republicans won’t do it for Democrats. The inevitable result is increasing Presidential power, rule by executive order, and, eventually, a President who takes and keeps all that power. Maybe we’ve already reached that point, or maybe it’ll come in ten or twenty or thirty years. Maybe Trump is Julius Caesar or maybe he’s only Sulla. Either way, Augustus is coming.

The other review I read was of this book, Six Degrees of Warming? We’ve had one degree of global warming. All of the current chaos–fires, storms, droughts–is the result of that one degree. We can expect three degrees of warming (if not more) over the course of the 21st century. The results will be horrific. Maybe civilization will survive? I think it will, but I genuinely don’t know. Either way, large sections of the planet are going to become uninhabitable; other sections won’t be survivable for a portion of the year without AC. And every year, millions of people will lose their homes to natural disasters. It’s pretty depressing, but again, what can you do? It’s going to happen. Not to be fatalistic or anything, but I genuinely don’t see any way that I, personally, can alter these outcomes by one iota. The time to ‘do something’ has passed. The time when we can even mitigate these outcomes is also on its way out.

My mom would say that once upon a time people thought overpopulation was going to destroy the Earth. They saw it as a demographic inevitability that India, Mexico, China would run out of food and billions would starve to death. Instead the Green Revolution substantially increased crop yields around the world. Maybe something similar will come along to avert the climate-related doomsday scenario. All I can imagine is that at some point opinion will change and then, like a shot, within just five years, everything will be converted to renewable sources and emissions will drop precipitously. That won’t avert global warming, but maybe it will stop worst-case scenarios. I genuinely have no idea.

But on the other hand, I’ve got a great novel about a sexy assassin to sell you!

I’m a fan of political novels. Most aren’t very good. DEMOCRACY, by Henry Adams, is a good one

I read Anthony Trollope’s entire Palliser series. It was great. The Duke of Omnium and Lady Glencora Palliser are top-notch creations, and their marriage was glorious and complex. I love how he can eke the maximum drama out of relatively little things. But…although the entire book takes place at the center of British politics, and many of the characters are MPs, I still have almost no insight into the British political system (unless it happened to be true that being an MP was a total status thing and nobody cared one whit about the public welfare, which seems a little dark for Trollope).

The point is, politics is both easy and difficult to dramatize. At its core, it’s simple: it’s a sphere of life with high stakes, where people must have impeccable private lives, and where ultimately winning is a zero-sum game. Politics inexorably brings people into conflict.

But on the other hand, I think it’s very hard to write a political novel that’s more than merely a soap opera. Politics isn’t just scheming and wheeling-dealing and cover-ups. It’s also about doing (or not doing) things that you, presumably, think are for the best interest of the nation. And that tension between principal and expediency, ambition and idealism, is one of the hardest things to dramatize.

Probably nobody is better equipped to write a political novel than Henry Adams: the great-grandson of John Adams, the grandson of John Quincy Adams, and the son of Abraham Lincoln’s ambassador to the United Kingdom (Henry accompanied his father on the posting and acted as his secretary). But when I first started reading Democracy, his satirical novel about political life in 1880s Washington, I was like…this is just another soap opera. A well-off widow, Madeleine Lee, gets bored of New York society and decides to see what Washington is all about. She gets mixed up with a cast of characters: an Ambassador from Hungary; an intellectual looking for a diplomatic posting; a Virginia lawyer; and a US Senator from Illinois who came within three votes of being the nominee for President. And they fall in love with her and compete for her affections, and it feels like just another comedy of manners.

But around a third of the way into the book, the situation gets more complicated. The incoming President, an Indiana politician who is political rival of one of her suitors, Senator Ratcliffe, enrolls Ratcliffe in his cabinet, and Ms. Lee becomes witness to some of Ratcliffe’s machinations and to the inner workings of the DC government.

At this point, a number of themes start to come together. For one thing, there is the persistent influence of the Founding Fathers. This is 1880, and the founders of the country remain within living memory. Contemporary politicians both crave and dismiss the comparison to George Washington. They ask whether Washington could’ve survived in contemporary Washington. They wonder whether they embody his ideals, or whether even he embodied his own ideals. There is a persistent tussling with the past, especially during visits made by the protagonist, with her beaux accompanying her, to Mt. Vernon and to Arlington.

Ratcliffe knows that Ms. Lee isn’t quite in love with him, but he thinks he can ensnare her by appealing to her sense of duty: she can make him a better person. And in turn she wonders whether her duty to her country doesn’t require her to become involved in its governance in whatever manner she can.

And lurking through it all is the question of principle: Does Ratcliffe believe in anything? Why is he in Washington? Is he corrupt? Or, rather, is his corruption within reasonable bounds?

Ratcliffe is a very recognizable Washington figure: not an intellectual, not entirely educated, and quite self-absorbed, but very crafty, with a gift for figuring out what people want and how to manipulate them. He resembles Joe Biden in some ways. He’s able to voice high sentiments when it suits him, but are they real? Or is it another trick in his repertoire? Does he even know? Or is sounding high-minded simply such a natural part of being a Senator that he’s lost interest in the distinction between his own self-interest and that of the nation?

I’m not sure! I’m not finished with the book yet! But I am excited to find out.

Only doing a So-So job at not being anxious

Well my plan for combatting my anxiety re the agent search was threefold: surrender the illusion of control and put the agent search out of my mind; focus on the things I can control, like revising my assassin book; and, finally, when I’m searching for distraction, try to read magazine articles and books instead of scrolling Twitter.

On day one, the plan has gone…okay. This morning, unlike in mornings past, I didn’t check querytracker or hover over my email. I read a really excellent article in N+1 about our relationship with Iran. On a sidenote, I’ve always wanted to be an n+1 reader, but was stymied by their paywall. It’s only recently occurred to me that I can just, like, subscribe to things.

You know, it seems like every article these days in every liberal journal always talks about ‘capitalism’ and ‘imperialism’ and how the problems of the world are driven by the demands of ‘capitalism’…and I dunno. I agree, I guess, that large corporations do a lot of harm, and that certain goods ought to be highly-regulated and perhaps publicly-controlled. But I don’t know…did we invent some alternative to capitalism when I wasn’t looking? The socialism that many young American liberals advocate isn’t really an alternative to capitalism, it’s merely the divvying up of the economy into a massive public sector and a smaller private sector. But since we already live in an economy with a huge public sector (healthcare and education each make up twenty percent of the economy, and much of those expenditures are public), it’s really only a matter of degree. Our government is already quite large. Increasing its size by fifty percent wouldn’t exactly destroy capitalism.

I just hear all this criticism of capitalism, and I feel as if I missed a memo someplace. What’s the alternative? Statism is attractive in many fields, and it may provide better results, but even there one would want there to be some market-related pricing mechanism to create more efficient allocations of resources. The things that are built and created must in some way be controlled by how much people want them, and although under capitalism that pricing power is distorted because the people don’t have the economic resources to ‘vote with their feet’ and demand construction or provision of things they need (i.e. it’s not economically advantageous to provide those things), the problem there isn’t with capitalism per se, but with the distribution of income and of wealth. Let me put it this way, I’d rather live in a world where poor people had the money to rent the housing they wanted, rather than being forced to live in housing projects. I’m pretty sure that’s the world that poorer people want themselves.

It’s only a rhetorical strategy. When you dig down into liberal, or even radical/progressive, proposals, you often find that they’re not particularly anti-capitalist. Dramatically increasing the number of Section 8 vouchers, for instance, is in no way incompatible with private ownership and construction of housing. It was a program designed for the support of landlords, and it’s frankly a lot better and more popular than public housing proposals.

Oh well, the sky isn’t red today, but I’m living with literally the worst air quality in the world. Global warming will soon destroy everything. Maybe we need statism because it’s the only way to quickly reduce consumption of fossil fuel. I do not know. Sometimes I am very, very glad that I am not the person responsible for fixing the world’s problems.

As you can perhaps tell, I have not done much writing today.

Proud of this blog

Hello old friends. Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at my blog’s states on Google Analytics. Most people who read this blog do it through Facebook, or WordPress, or RSS, or through direct email subscriptions, so the number who actually click through enough to register on my site stats is pretty small. Of those who do, the vast majority come here through googling random stuff.

I dunno, I’ve been writing this blog since August of 2008: twelve years. It has upwards of, what, I dunno…twelve thousand posts? A fair amount of them are linked up above, through my compilation of all the books I’ve written about (at least through 2016). But most of my personal posts, my posts on writing or weight loss or sobriety, aren’t linked. People stumble into them at random. I like it.

The literary world has really turned me off lately. It just hasn’t been nourishing at all. Too petty, too small-minded, and, frankly, too cruel. I’ve stepped back from Twitter, and I haven’t posted as much on Facebook either. The blog is qualitatively different. It’s my voice only. It doesn’t really exist in community with other blogs: if I’d wanted a readership I should’ve been out there linking to other people and reading their stuff, but I never found many other sites that resonated with me and felt similar to what I was doing.

It’s okay. More and more, I think of the writing community and the literary world as something that are separate from me. I’ve been trying to recover my identity as a mere reader. It’s working! Nowadays when I open the NYT book review and hear about some young phenom who sold her first book for $2 million, I don’t burn with envy: I just think, that book sounds interesting?! Or that book doesn’t sound interesting. Either way it doesn’t affect my self-respect.

It’s hard to read. Not just because I’m a mother now, and because of all the disasters, and the election. It’s just hard to concentrate, to find the time. I’ve been watching more TV and playing more video games than ever before. I bought a Nintendo Switch Lite, and it’s been great: it’s small and casual enough, so I can pick it up and put it down–don’t have to open up my huge honking gaming computer or sit myself in front of a TV–and it’s got enough power to play some AAA games: I’ve gotten back into the Witcher 3 in fact! I’d gotten bored because it’d become too easy, but I imported my save from the PC (It was genius of them to allow cross-platform saves), and I decided to stop using the really cheap power that gives you a shield that makes you invulnerable to all hits. And now it’s slightly more interesting.

But that’s not the same as reading. Even graphic novels haven’t proven as interesting. Have had Adrian Tomine’s latest book The Loneliness of the Long Distance Cartoonist sitting on my shelf for ages: he’s one of my favorite artists in any genre. But I haven’t even opened it.

Lately I did read Juvenal’s Satires. I’m not entirely sure that they have that much to say to the modern consciousness, but they were fun. Written during the late Flavian and early Nerva-Antonine Dynasty, they’re a harangue on social decay in all of its forms, with frequent emphasis to sexual immorality: men who dress like women come in for frequent criticism. My wife asked me why I would read something like that. I could only shrug. It appealed to me at the time.

The Lonely Years, my literary novel, is out to agents, which is what’s gotten me all panicky and anxious. But I’ve got other things cooking. My sexy assassin novel, now tentatively titled Death Trap, is going through revisions. And I’m gestating a fantasy novel about a sorceress who wants to conquer the Earth, but who will lose all her powers if she falls in love. It’s hard to concentrate on that too. Every morning I intend to get all kinds of work done, but I get distracted wondering if I’ll hear from an agent, and the day slips past.

Have decided to focus more on things that are durable and less on the ephemeral. So instead of tweets I’m going to read magazine articles. This week’s New Yorker had a great profile of Susannah Clarke: the author of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (who is coming out with her second novel soon). Apparently she was struck down with a mysterious illness shortly after Jonathan Strange came out, and for fifteen years she’s been intermittently bed- and house-bound. Reading the book made me think of two things: one, her success is so much a product of the science fiction and fantasy writing world that I know. She meets her husband at a week-long workshop. She sells an early story to Patrick Nielsen Hayden at Tor. Her husband is friends with Neil Gaiman, who’s an early supporter. And, moreover, in her interest, in her introversion, in her hopes and desires, and in the reception of others to her work, she very much reminds me of people I’ve met at sci-fi conventions over the years. It kind of gave me a very warm feeling. I still remember the summer when I read Jonathan Strange. It was 2006, I was home after my junior year of college. I found a copy for free in a bookcase in the break room at the US Holocaust Museum (where I spent the a summer volunteering). And I read it the whole way through, but not carefully. So when I reread it, almost ten years later, in 2015, it was like reading a story that I’d only dimly heard about before.

The book is so good. It is a classic. People will be reading it in a hundred years. Which is odd, because it is, to some extent, a pastiche, not just of Jane Austen (although that’s an obvious influence) but of other nineteenth century novelists that I’ve never even read. It’s like if someone in 1860 was to write a contemporary book, in a world where there were magicians. The characterization and the world-building are superb. The plotting is tight (in fact that’s probably the major evidence that it’s not really a nineteenth century novel), and it really struggles with the line between the Romantic and the realist. What a book. Oddly, the profile was more concerned with Clarke’s illness, and with its relationship to the subject matter of her second book, than it was with discussing her work on its own terms. But whatever, it was arresting enough, and I was happy to learn more about her. Shocking to think that 1992, when she began work on Jonathan Strange, is almost thirty years in the past. What a different world that was.