Cash McCall, by Cameron Hawley

I first came to this author through his perhaps better-known book Executive Suite, but this book, his second, is the superior one. Hawley’s schtick was that he was, like Wallace Stevens, both a working businessman and a writer. His books, too, were comedies of manners and morals that centered around mid-sized American corporations like the one in which he worked (the Armstrong Cork Company). Basically, McCall is what’d happen if a smart person picked up The Fountainhead one day and really, really wanted Rand’s vision of the world to be true, but eventually realized that it just sort of wasn’t. There’s a sort of dialectical evolution here. Hawley obviously starts from a similar place as Rand: he believes in free markets and in the worthiness of building and constructing things. But at some point, his deeper knowledge of human nature intrudes and complicates the scenario.

Cash McCall seem to be about a businessman-hero in the Ayn Rand style: Cash McCall is a man who coldly assesses other people at a glance. He has plans within plans, and he sees the world at a much higher and more strategic level than do most. He also talks in these semi-philosophical speeches. But he’s not an architect, and he’s not a builder. He’s basically a corporate raider. McCall conducts what we would, in modern times, call a Leveraged Buy-out. He targets companies which are, for some reason, undervalued, and he borrows money to buy them. Unlike someone like Warren Buffett, he doesn’t even hold onto the companies: he revamps or disassembles them and unloads them after 6-12 months–usually for a profit.

The book centers around his acquisition of a small plastics company (and his romancing of the company founder’s daughter). Throughout, McCall is held up in opposition to Grant Austen, the founder, who stayed put and operated this company, Suffolk Molding, for thirty years. The book plays with you so expertly, never letting you come to easy conclusions about who’s the hero and who’s the villain.

I found myself admiring the book immensely. It is clunky at times, in that very 1950s and 1960s way that many popular novels, particularly by male authors, tended to be. It reminded me, for instance, of The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit or of the polemics of the era, books like The Organization Man or The Lonely Crowd. It’s just very…matter-of-fact. I don’t how to describe it. The book is very focused on its own tale, and not very focused on description or scene or dialogue.

And yet it has a subtle brilliance. This book, more than most I read, seems very fully-realized to me. It’s exactly the book that the author wanted to write, and I hope someday someone can say as much about a book of mine.

Wrapping up 2017!!!

Every year, my wrap-up blog posts get shorter, which I suppose is just a part of life. This year is one where I’ve stopped doing many of the little habits and rituals that were once an inextricable part of my life. I don’t track my progress in various spreadsheets with nearly the assiduity I once did. In fact I barely do it at all. Nor do I keep track of my word count or the hours I spend writing.

I still turn off my internet each day and block out the world and work on my writing. I just don’t keep records about it. Don’t feel the need to.

The best thing that’s happened over this year is that I got married. It was a really great wedding, but an even better bride. Rachel and I did it right, and the wedding didn’t completely dominate our lives and take up every spare moment of our time. It sort of happened on its own, actually, with relatively little work on our part (lots of money, but relatively little work–I still can’t believe how much a wedding can cost).

In my non-wedding news though, the best thing has been my slow and steady work on my second YA novel (now titled It’s Probably Just A Phase). My first book, Enter Title Here, was written in thirty-one days of white-hot fury. From the very beginning, the main character’s voice was so clear and distinct, and the story she told me is, to a large degree, the one that is on the paper.

This is a great experience to have. I recommend it to everyone. However it sort of doesn’t set you up very well for writing subsequent books, because you’re always waiting for the magic to happen.

With this second book I also wrote the first draft in a pretty truncated period of time, but…since then it’s undergone at least two major rewrites and three more significant revision passes. It’s been a process.

In the beginning I was excited about the book, but…cautiously so. I didn’t feel like it was gonna win any awards. Nor did I feel like it was my best work. I was writing it because I had to write something, and I didn’t know how to write better.

But in the process of working on it, the book has gotten deeper and deeper. Characters have taken shape. Events have gained weight and shading. For instance for most of the drafting protagonist I didn’t really love the deuteragonist (yeah I can use fancy words!) I saw him as weak and pathetic, and the other characters shared my view. But this summer something cracked open for me, and I for the first time really felt his quiet bravery.

Now I’m much more sold on this book! I like it way more, and I daresay it even rivals my first. Moreover, it’s been really good for me to experience a different writing process. I’ve learned that good things can come from careful, plodding work. And as a result I feel much better equipped to face the, you know, lifetime of writing that I have coming up.

The charismatic and visionary far right leader who we’ve yet to see…

Someone shared this FB post on my feed, so I spent the morning reading pro-trump Facebook groups, and it was definitely a little frightening. Trump still has a huge amount of support, because for these people it’s not about taxes or healthcare, it’s about taking America back. From the liberals, from the muslims, from the illegals, from the gays and transgenders.

I don’t really see the appeal of these ideas myself, but that’s probably because I don’t really have a country to take back. However, these people were constantly writing stuff like, “Kill the illegals” or “kill the muslims” and I don’t think they were 100% serious, but I do think that if their President came to them and was like, “Hey, the only solution is for you to pick up a gun and actually go out and kill the Muslims” then maybe they’d do it!

Reading these groups, I was actually afraid. Like, I was afraid that I’d do something to tip them off to my presence, and that they’d target me personally. These people are no joke. And the above-linked FB post is right: they’re here to stay. They weren’t created by Trump, and they’re not going to go away when or if he loses. There is going to be a large, authoritarian, far-right bloc of the American population, and there is a frighteningly large chance that they will usher in a totalitarian dictatorship within our lifetimes.

Democracy is really fragile, particularly within the confines of our specific system of strong executive power. And given that the military and the police are likely to be in the far right than against it, you can easily see the circumstances under which a charismatic and visionary President might tweet, “Hey, the Senate is trying to depose me, why don’t you stop them.” Maybe the military will act to stop him and maybe they want. What’s clear is that once a person like that gains the levers of power, he’s not going to give them up easily.

I’m not certain that Trump is that leader (though I’m also not certain he isn’t), but that leader will arise within our lifetime. And if he wins a Presidential election, then we’re all doomed.

Have been reading a lot of biographies of painters!

Watching this Doctor Who clip about Vincent Van Gogh got me interested in the painter, so I read an extremely long biography of him. It was tedious at times (the thing where he obsesses about some woman and barrages her with romantic overtures wasn’t even cute the first time he did it, much less the third or fourth) but overall I found it fascinating.

The best thing about Van Gogh is that he painted for ten years, and it’s not clear that there was even a single person in the world, including his brother, who thought he had any talent. And when he finally did get his big break (in the same year he died), it was because some young art critic was searching for an example of naive art that he could elevate. He, and the French public, was captivated by the idea of this artist, a known madman, who’d been hanging around the Parisian art scene for years and years without getting anywhere. The critic needed his art to be great, so he said it was.

There’s so much subjectivity in visual art. It’s incredible how people looked at Van Gogh’s work, and they really saw nothing worthwhile in it. This was during the heyday of impressionism, and his terrible life-drawing skills shouldn’t have mattered, but somehow they confirmed to his audience that this person didn’t really know what he was doing, that he was just some tyro and poser. He didn’t have that effortless control that artists are supposed to have. Oftentimes he aspired to realism, but failed.

And I’m not better than the rest. I think his work’s beautiful when hung up in a museum, but if I passed one of his paintings on the street, I probably wouldn’t stop to pick it up. What I’ve noticed in several of the artist biographies I’ve read in the past few weeks is that these artists, even more than public adulation, wanted just one good and sympathetic viewer: someone who could stand in front of them and gain some sort of honest, unmediated emotion.

But the person who can do that, and who’s able to have trust in the strength of their own feelings, is extremely rare, and, so far as I can tell, Van Gogh lived and died without ever finding that person.

Feel free to just summarize the parts that bore you

You know what’s awesome about novels? You can just write, “They had sex, and it was awesome” Or “then they fought with swords, and the bad guy died.” Or “Three weeks later, he’d climbed down from the mountain.”

In fact, you can even skip MUCH longer or more uncertain processes. You can write, “He was rescued by a kindly shepherdess, and by next fall they were married.” Just that line. There’s absolutely no problem with that. People will often talk about things in a story being “earned” or “unearned.” But what that refers to is emotional effects. You shouldn’t be trying to make your audience feel shit unless you’ve set it up appropriately. Like if in your next sentence, the shepherdess gets killed by the bad guy and sends your dude on a killing spree, then that’s sort of dumb. But you can absolutely skip or summarize things if you want! It’s soooo easy.

It took me a long time to realize I could do this within a scene. I didn’t need to write “Hello!” / “Hello!” I could write “they exchanged greetings.” Later on, you can expand and contract the amount of detail in the narration even without shifting focus from the interaction of these two characters. It’s pretty cool, and there’s no real analogue in film or TV, because in fiction it happens so deftly and subtly, whereas in visual media it needs to be accomplished with slow fades and quick cuts and other intrusive crap that nowadays is anyway not really in fashion.

After I took this to heart, all kinds of scenes became much easier to write, because I didn’t need to write the entire thing: I could focus entirely on the thing about the scene that actually interested me.



Until the voice is solid, the plot doesn’t matter

Still doing my thing where I work on a number of projects simultaneously (it’s possible I’ll one day refer to this as my ‘really stupid way of working’ period). Anyway on one of the projects I was spinning my wheels, trying to figure out the main character’s backstory, but ultimately I realized that the problem was that the character’s longing wasn’t really coming through in the voice.

Longtime readers ought to remember that I’ve always been very concerned with the problem of how to capture longing. The first step is to figure out the longing you want to write about / with, but the second, and equally difficult, step is to put it somehow on the page. In this case it wasn’t happening.

I’d say that this is where the art lies. Because there is something in the texture of the words that conveys longing. It’s in the diction, the punctuation, the rhythm, and the cadences. It’s in the way the camera’s eye notices detail and conveys information. The progression of sentences in a novel is also the leading edge of a consciousness, and unless that consciousness is animated by powerful concerns, the novel falls flat.

Now how do you, as the author, work on creating that effect? Welllllllll…I don’t know. But it usually involves a lot of trying and a lot of failing.

I still don’t really understand the Revolutionary War

51XWuULSWdL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Okay, so after finishing the Grant biography, I started two books about the Revolutionary War. One’s a biography of Washington (also by Ron Chernow) and one’s a history of early America by Robert Middlekauf. I’m halfway through them, so I’m getting a little more insight, but I have to say I’m still a little confused about why the Revolutionary War started.

Like, I totally understand the Civil War. The abolition of slavery was a direct attack on the source of the wealth of the Southern elite. If there was a political party today that made, say, owning stock illegal, then there’d probably be another Civil War! (Obviously I’m against slavery, just saying that the South had a strong economic incentive to secede.)

But the Revolutionary War makes much less sense to me. The war was led by upper-class farmers and merchants, people like Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Hancock, who were rich! The British weren’t trying to take away their wealth! In fact, the Revolutionary War, in many cases, hit them much harder in the pocketbook than any taxes would’ve done.

Furthermore, the British taxes weren’t really an existential threat to Washington and Jefferson in the same way that, say, a bullet is an existential threat. I don’t understand fighting and dying for the cause of, what, a bunch of tea merchants who were worried about being undercut by the East India Company?

I mean many of the things that Americans cite when talking about the Revolutionary War: the Stamp Act (a tax on all legal documents) and most of the Townshend Acts (a number of other tariffs) were repealed in response to American pressure! So really what was left was a tax on tea. It was the confiscation and destruction of this imported tea that led the British government to close the port of Boston and suspend Massachusetts’s self-government (which is what directly led to the Revolutionary War).

What’s more, the Revolutionary War was obviously one that had a large base of popular support. It wasn’t just the elite who were coercing everybody else into going along. Washington’s army was an all-volunteer force. So far as I know (I haven’t finished either book), there was no conscription during the war. So not only was Washington willing to die, but so were tens of thousands of other people!

I’m reading the Declaration of Independence right at this moment, and when you read that document, Great Britain certainly does seem tyrannical, but in practice, many of these things were based on isolated and rare instances. Yes, the King did dissolve legislatures, revoke charters, make arbitrary laws, etc. But, overall, the hundred and fifty year history of the American colonies was, up to that point, one of being left more or less alone and being allowed, more or less, to rule themselves.

And that fact is probably the key to the rebellion. The American colonies were founded, oftentimes, by people fleeing from Britain. They found in America the freedom to order things in the manner that they pleased. And they came to think of themselves as more or less in charge. But when Britain started to constrain them a little more and remind them a little more of its power, they felt this as an erosion of their liberties. People are much more likely to respond to the loss of something than they are to the prospect of gaining it.

This also, perhaps, explains why the white people of Canada and Australia never (successfully) rebelled. Canada contained a large subjugated population, the French-Canadians, who didn’t necessarily expect better treatment from the British than they got. And, similarly, Australia started as a penal colony. Again there was no expectation of freedom.

Furthermore, Washington didn’t know how history would turn out. He didn’t know, first of all, that the British would rule their (white) colonists with a relatively light hand (well except for South Africa…okay maybe I shouldn’t generalize). In retrospect, it’s surprising that Britain didn’t oppress America much more than it actually did, given America’s lack of representation in Parliament. Washington and the other Founding Fathers had good reason to fear that someday Britain might try to enrich the homeland at the expense of the colonies.

And, finally, the French and Russian revolutions hadn’t happened yet. I think that those two events (as well as the subsequent history of the 20th century) have given elites a deep, deep fear of popular revolution. If they’d possessed the example of the French revolution, I’m not sure if Washington and the rest would’ve dared to rebel. Even in their own time, they feared the power of the mob, but they hadn’t yet seen the havoc it could truly wreak (of course they did have the example of the English Civil War, but in that case the lessons were of a different sort).

Oftentimes, a work-in-progress will contain an empty space that you’ll later need to fill

This is a difficult idea to articulate, but I’m going to give it a shot. I’m in the process of revising a novel right now, and I’m in that part of the revision process where I sit back and try to figure out what exactly I need to change. It’s a pretty holistic process: once I decide that a book needs to be revised, everything becomes up-for-grabs, and I’m willing to make the most drastic changes I can imagine.

But oftentimes I don’t need to, because the novel itself is telling me what I need to change. Over and over again, I find that works-in-progress contains weak spots: placeholder characters or scenes or objects that I need to flesh out in order to complete the book. It’s not that I purposefully left a blank in the book when I was drafting, it’s just that a book, in order to be complete, needs to have a certain shape, and my subconscious, sensing this, put in something that’d make it so the book had more or less the right shape.

For instance, in the current draft, one of the characters has a boyfriend character who’s sort of hanging out, not doing much. But meanwhile I needed to figure out something to create tension between this character and another main character, and I was like, oh wait, the boyfriend: he doesn’t like the other main character. That’s it, that’s what he’s doing.

Now the boyfriend has been in the book since the first draft (written literally years ago), and he’s never really had much shape or pulled any sort of weight, but I knew he needed to be there, in order to represent whatever it was that kept this character tied to the real world (this is a fantasy novel).

I’ve also had this other amorphous character–a villain who was defeated long before the start of the book–called the Goddess’s Daughter, and in my recent revision thoughts, I realized that I can use her to provide a backstory for another character. The point is, she always needed to be there, but I didn’t always have exactly the right use for her.

Which is not to say that you don’t take things out. It’s just that I’ve noticed that, overall, the process of revision ought to make the book less complicated and more elegant. Revision is where the book starts to feel like, oh wow, the author was planning this all along (even though he wasn’t). It’s also where I start to think, “What’s this story really about? Where does the thematic weight lay? What is each character’s arc?”

Oftentimes in early drafts, the book is propelled forward by pure longing, which is to say that what I’ve successfully created is a need in the heart of the character. But that need is itself an empty space, and in later drafts I need to flesh out the nature of the need: where did it come from and why is it still unfilled? (Of course this is all lies, since real life human beings are, in truth, rarely so uncomplicated that our needs can be clearly explicated, but still, fiction requires these lies).

This book is unique in that I didn’t really know what my ending was going to be (except in broad strokes). Part of this was because I hate all that nerdy world-building stuff, especially the part where you have to explain the magic system. In my view, the magic system is that it works by magic. But that poses problems when you need to finally wrap things up. Because of this, I finally need to go back and think a little bit about how things work. It’s just as intensely boring as I always thought it would be, and as a result I’m thinking about what ending I really want. Originally I’d intended a whiz-bang magical ending, where the hero conquers some external obstacle to defeat the bad guys, but I’m thinking that’s not where my interest lies, and now I’m pondering ways to sap some of the drama from the third act.

Paradoxically, much of my progress as a writer has been about reducing tension, reducing excitement, and slowing down the pace. I know this doesn’t sit well with some editors and some readers, but most of my favorite books take place at a more human scale (to put it bluntly, nobody gets shot in Pride and Prejudice), and I sort of can’t tolerate the adventure story, since, to me, the entire narrative hinges on chance: the hero is the hero simply because an arrow doesn’t hit them in the chest. If an arrow did hit them, they’d be dead and ergo not the hero. But we know, from real life, that no amount of confidence and skill makes you immune to arrows.

(As an aside, I’m listening to the audiobook of Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant, and what I love the most about it is the role that chance plays in Grant’s life. In private life, he’s a terrible businessperson, and in his personal nature he seems to be somewhat diffident and retiring. It’s only the chance that puts him in the right place at the right time that allows him to shine as a general. This biography is rare in that it doesn’t downplay its subject’s virtues, but it also doesn’t exaggerate them. Grant is, above all, a lucky man. It makes me see my own world differently. If the clerk at the tannery in a small town in Illinois could, in the right circumstances, become a successful general and, eventually, the president of the United States, then who’s to say my plumber couldn’t have been a great novelist or that my hairdresser might not’ve made an excellent Emperor. The world is a far stranger thing than we can imagine, and whether you call it chance or you call it fate, outside factors have a much bigger influence on our lives than anything we’re able personally9780525521952.jpeg to do.)

On men’s contempt for women

1000x747.jpegFor the past two days I’ve been reading my friends’ “me too” posts on Facebook. I’m not particularly surprised by the number of stories, but the rawness and depth of emotion has been very affecting.

Like most men, I recognize myself in some of the stories, but most of them are way worse than anything I’ve done in my life. I think men tend to have two reactions to stories like this. They either feel defensive, or they seek absolution. Neither of these are particularly productive, and if that’s all I wanted to do, I wouldn’t bother to write.

As I posted a few days ago, I think a lot of men would act like Harvey Weinstein if they had the power that he did (a lot wouldn’t, however!) I’ll go further today, and I’ll say that I think most men can recognize in themselves the hatred and contempt for women that leads men to cat-call, grope, sexually harass, or rape. Now I don’t think this is universally true. I’m sure some men are free from that complicated relationship with femininity, but I do think that a contempt for women is a secret part of the character of many men.

There was a time when I thought I was uniquely monstrous because of the way I felt, and I’m sure many men still do feel like monsters. Men don’t talk about our feelings, and we especially don’t talk about the darkest of our emotions. But men often say things that, to me, only make sense if they too feel a secret anger against women.

For instance, the guilt that many men feel during times like this is completely out of proportion to anything they’ve actually done. Like, bro, most of these stories are about legit sexual harassment. The time you asked a girl out again after she said ‘no’ was sort of shitty, but it’s not remotely what people are talking about. But men don’t feel guilty about what they’ve actually done, they feel ashamed, instead, of all the things they’ve thought about, wanted to, or considered doing.

Similarly, men often have a need to minimize, reduce, or mischaracterize what people are saying. Like there’ll be a Harvey Weinstein type story and men will be like, “But am I not allowed to ever ask out any woman I work with???”

To which the reply is: Err, like, yeah, dude, that’s not what happened here. He wasn’t ‘asking out’ a coworker, he was luring subordinates into situations where he could sexually assault and rape them.

But the man’s reaction makes sense if you realize that we men know, in our hearts, all the times that we’ve crossed the line and put untoward pressure on women, and we feel a deep shame for those times as well.

Or when there’s statistics about campus rape, men will be like, “Women are saying every time they have sex while drunk was rape!” And it’s like, err, no, go read the questionnaires. The questions that lead to statistics like “1 in 5” aren’t about alcohol or fuzzy consent. They’re about forcible penetration. If anything they’re an underrepresentation of the truth.

But, again, men know about each time they’ve had sex with somebody who didn’t really want to have sex with them, and when they hear forcible rape being condemned, they think about all the things they’ve done or would have done.

Similarly, lots of my female friends talk about how they’ll be dating these guys who “don’t like to talk about their feelings” or “have a hard time connecting with people.” Several of my female friends have dated guys who called themselves “sociopaths” or “emotionless.” And I think women feel like guys are just blocked off. We feel the things women do, but we think it’s girly to talk about them.

But when you really put everything together, you realize what guys are saying is, “If you understood the depth of the hatred and violence inside of me, you probably wouldn’t love me anymore.”


What’s struck me so much about all the ‘me too’ stories is that while women are saying, “This is why I fear and distrust men,” what we see, when we look around at our society, is not an overabundance of women who fear and distrust men! Rather, we see the opposite: we see that women tend to give men too much benefit of the doubt. We see that women bend over backwards to see men in the best possible light. Women, despite all of these experiences, are anxious to find men who’re worthy of their love and respect.

If anything, in this society it seems to be men who fear and distrust women. And I don’t really know why that is. Even being a man–even feeling that emotion inside myself–I can’t describe this thing or where it came from.

What I can say is that men feel, I think, a longing for femininity. Men need it. Not just for sex–I think that’s a minority of it, actually. Rather, without femininity, we’d have nothing in our lives that was free or expressive or unguarded. I say ‘femininity,’ rather than ‘women,’ because I think sometimes we provide that femininity ourselves. What I’m struck by most often, when I see some of the most toxic guys, is the way they are drawn to the feminine: they wear pink, they hug and say ‘I love you’ and ‘bro’, they pamper themselves, they care about beauty and style and design.

I saw a photo earlier today of somebody making fun of bath bombs that were shaped like grenades, and the caption provided (this was, like, a Buzzfeed article) was something like, “When you’re a man’s man, but you still need a bath bomb.”

And I thought, that’s interesting. If men really only hated femininity, this bath bomb wouldn’t exist. Men just would never buy bath bombs and that’d be it. And if men had an uncomplicated relationship to femininity, men would just buy ordinary bath bombs, and then too the grenade-bombs wouldn’t exist. But the existence of this product is a testament to the push and the pull: the love that’s paired with contempt. In some essential way, the contempt is a byproduct of the desire for femininity, but I don’t know why.

I think it’s easy for people, men especially, to reduce it all to sex. Men want sex. Women won’t have sex with them. So they’re angry at the women.

But that doesn’t feel right. Because although there exists the incel, Elliot Rodgers-style rage, there’s also the casual contempt of the frat guy. No matter who you are, our society produces a form of toxic masculinity that comes in your size. And yet I do think the contempt is somehow a byproduct of being drawn towards women, because I know that when I was exclusively dating men, I loved how free I felt from this emotion.

Gay male culture has its problems, but sexual and romantic relationships between men are so much blessedly simpler than relationships between men and women. When I identified publicly as gay, my friendships with women were also a good deal simpler in some way that I can’t define, because it wasn’t just that they felt more comfortable with me, it’s also that I felt more comfortable with them.

(Not that gay men don’t have their own issues w/ objectification and contempt for women. Plenty of gay men think they have right to touch women whenever they want, although I’ll note that many women also feel the same way about gay men’s bodies!)

I do believe it’s our society that produces this terrible hatred that men have for women. It’s not something that’s inherent in our gender or our biology. It’s something else.

It’s easy to say, too, that it’s in the way we’re socialized as kids, but again I don’t know. I went to an all-boys school, but I acted in plays and musicals at girls’ schools in the area, and I remember my relations with them being relatively free and easy. None of my friends were dating, and I really almost never thought about sexual or romantic relationships. In fact, I remember feeling that girls were just like me.

But literally the moment I stepped foot on a college campus, the anger and contempt for women flowered within me. I mean it happened within weeks. There was something in the air. And it wasn’t necessarily in the way people spoke either. It was in the environment of college, which perhaps was just the environment of my own mind, where I felt suddenly like women were a currency that I needed to possess.

Paradoxically, it was at that same time that my longing for femininity increased. As a teen, I only cared mostly about boy-oriented things: space opera and military SF, video games about lone adventurers, etc (although I did also love musicals and Sailor Moon =). But in college, I got more into teen dramas and sit-coms and novels about, like, relationships between people.

Somehow at that time this division between the feminine and the masculine was created in me, and I’ve been, to greater and lesser degrees, trapped in that morass ever since.

I don’t know where to go in the future. I think in the short-term “trying to be better” is a good plan. Let’s try to be better and to teach our boys to be better. In the medium-term, I think the solution must be societal. There is a large subset of boys and men who’ve learned a secret: they will not be punished for crimes against women. Let’s make it so that’s not true, okay?

But…in the longest-term, I’d like to think that someday the root cause of this (and, as I keep mentioning, is in my opinion that root cause is the anger that men, for some reason, feel towards women) will be eradicated.

I don’t think that violence is an essential part of human nature. I especially don’t think that violence for the purposes of dominance or sexual coercion is something that we are unable to overcome. And, for me, women are proof of this. It’s become a dreary truism to state that 95%, or something like that, of murders are committed by men. But it’s still a little bit shocking to me. I mean, women face all the same problems that men do (more, even!) and yet they rarely resort to murder.

The easiest and most tempting thing to do is to put this down to an essential difference between the genders. But I’m wary of such explanations, because it seems that people are always trying to say “The situation right now, at this moment in history, is due to an essential part of human nature.” A hundred years ago, people would’ve said that homosexuality (they might’ve called it ‘inversion’) was essentially sick and that no homosexual relationship could be anything other than toxic. Now we know that’s untrue. Five hundred years ago, people in the Western World might’ve said that women were, by nature, unsuited to literary endeavor. Today, the pre-eminent literary form, the novel, is one that was pioneered and is dominated by women. We are always trying to say that some facet of our nature is set in stone, but I still feel, at least intellectually, the same way I did as a kid, which is that boys and girls are essentially the same, and that the differences between us are, if anything, more a proof of the elasticity of human nature than they are of the opposite.

In the shadow of disaster, we find out new facets of ourselves

There exist two really simplistic views of human nature. The first is that people have a certain essential character that tends to shine through no matter the situation. If someone is polite to waiters and gives up their subway seat to pregnant ladies, then they’re probably also honest in their business dealings and heroic when faced with calamity. In this point of view, there’s room for conflict and imperfection, of course, but that conflict is something deep inside the soul, and one tends to see this fissure in all sorts of subtle ways throughout the person’s life.

This is the point of view that tends to be adopted by most fantasy novels, for instance. For instance, Daenerys has a great well of pity for the oppressed people of the world (probably because she herself was oppressed by her brother), but she is also a conqueror who lusts for power. And these warring impulses come out on both the macro scale (conquering Slaver’s Bay) and on the micro scale (deciding whether or not to forgive Jorah for his treason).

The other simplistic, though perhaps more accurate, point of view is that the different parts of a person’s life have nothing to do with each other. This is the view that’s taken, for instance, by many historians, who’ve tended to observe that human beings often behave, when under extreme strain, in ways they’d never behave in private life. For instance, a man could run a concentration camp, but he’d never kick a dog or cheat on his wife. A man could pick up a machete and hack his neighbor apart, but he’d never give short change to that same neighbor if the man came by his market stall.

In many ways, this latter conclusion is difficult to avoid, whenever we look at genocides. Look at Rwanda, for instance, which was a genocide perpetrated on an intimate level, by ordinary people, oftentimes using machetes and clubs. If the fabric of society had never broken down, most of these people never would’ve become killers.

Furthermore, it’s oftentimes not the worst people, in ordinary life, who become killers or scoundrels during times of calamity. There are exceptions–people whose natural sadism or sociopathy was given freer reign by a disaster or by an authoritarian state–but these do feel like exceptions, and oftentimes when you look into the biography of people who commit atrocities, they don’t seem to have exhibited antisocial behavior in their private life.

I’m reading a book right now about private life in the Soviet Union, The Whisperers, and what’s striking is how often peoples’ friends and families turned on them once they were arrested or denounced. Sometimes this came from honest belief–“If you were arrested, there must be a reason”–but usually it was expediency. Children were left to wander the streets or to enter state orphanages by their own siblings or grandparents or uncles or aunts, who were themselves afraid (not without reason) that they’d be purged if they took the children in.

And yet some people weren’t. Some relatives took that risk. Some friends and strangers did too. In several cases, Moscow- or St. Petersburg-based relatives took in these children even though they were informed that if they did so it would mean they’d be exiled to Siberia.

There was no predicting who would be honest and who wouldn’t. Who would help and who wouldn’t. In some ways it felt like a mystery.

On a much different scale, I think this is what leads to literary critics who are reluctant to engage in “bio-crit”: the use of an author’s biography or psychology as a way of explicating a text. We, as readers, have simply observed too often that authors are frequently pretty ordinary people. Oftentimes, they’re not even more intelligent or insightful than the average educated person. Frequently they’re less so. Authors aren’t titanic, overweening individuals, they’re just human beings who sit down every day to write, rather than sitting down to cast accounts or to design computer chips, and frequently they live rather ordinary lives, no different from others who don’t produce great works.

And researchers have found that human beings have situational ethics. We believe in different ethical codes for different areas of our lives. This is why Donald Trump, somebody who seems to have the worst possible impulse control, can eschew alcohol and drugs. This is why someone who cheats on their wife isn’t necessarily more likely to cheat their business partner. People draw distinctions between various theaters of behavior that we, as outsiders, might not necessarily perceive.

As I said, though, this notion that the different parts of a person’s character are entirely unrelated oftentimes seems, to me, to be pretty simplistic as well.

I think partly that’s because I am an author, and I see that although what I write does come from somewhere mysterious and almost-inaccessible, it’s nevertheless true that the work is a reflection of me. When I write something, it seems an answer, in some ways, to questions I didn’t know I was asking. My work is deeply related to my own needs and desires.

In the same way, I think the way people act in a crisis also, obviously, comes from within them. People don’t just pick up a machete and slaughter somebody without thinking about it. There is some need or desire that’s being fulfilled there.

To me, I think the answer is that there’s far too much focus, in a lot of our thinking about other people, on the outer life. We see their actions and their words, and we create, in our minds, the simplest possible figure who’d be able to do and say these things, but we forget that so much more is happening inside them. People have immense parts of themselves that they never reveal to the outside world.

There is a dream life that we all lead. A life of fantastic and unrealized desires. And during moments of crisis, I think this dream-life often comes to the forefront. It’s in these moments that fantasies of omnipotence or of heroism crawl out of the realm of dreams and seem, in some way, realizable.

For some, the thing they realize is that they value their own lives too much. We all say that there are things we would die for, but is saving your sister’s kid really that thing? Because the risk existed: people were shot because they aided the children of ‘enemy of the people.’ You are a person with your own hopes and dreams. In most cases, you’re never required to make the philosopher’s choice: ‘What if realizing your ambitions required murdering two children?’ But during times of crisis, it does.

But for other people, the crisis is an opportunity. Their lives had been dull and untoward. And now it can mean something. They can stand up and be counted. They have, in some sense, been waiting for this moment. So they do what it takes to become larger than life. In some cases that means hacking their neighbor apart, and in other cases it means saving their kids.

On a slightly more specific level, this means that some huge percentage people would, if they lived in Nazi Germany and were assigned to Police Battalion 101, would go out and shoot innocent jews in the forest (not all of us, but roughly 90% of us). Some huge percentage of us would, if exhorted to do so, go out and kill our neighbor. Some huge percentage of us would, if we were Vikings, rape and pillage the castles and monasteries of innocent people. Some huge percentage of us, if we were rich antebellum white southerners, would own slaves. Note, not ALL of us! In all these times, there were people who were like, “Err, that’s not cool.”

But some huge percentage.

Similarly, when we read about Harvey Weinstein and his sexual harassment, we know that this behavior is really common amongst men in power. And if you’re a college-educated man, then you know that there’s no essential difference between you and the men in power–the only difference is that you happen to not be very successful. So you know, I mean come on, you know, that if we were powerful, some huge percentage of us would act the same. Not all of us! And it wouldn’t necessarily be the ones you think. But it would be some huge percentage.

For a novelist, that’s really interesting. I am happy to explore what separates the people who do from the people who don’t.

But from a policy standpoint, we shouldn’t expect people to be good, we should engineer systems that punish misbehavior. If Harvey Weinstein had known he’d get caught and lose control of his company, he wouldn’t have done this shit. But instead he lived in a consequence-free world. So, like, yeah, to me, from a public policy standpoint, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a good person or not, because barring some major change in your circumstances, I can’t really ever know the answer to that, what matters is if you support systems that make misbehavior more uncommon (and in this case public shaming is one of those systems, but that’s another blog post).