Tired of the incredible amount of lying in public life

Hello friends. I was unexpectedly floored by the Roe decision, which, to my eyes, was meretricious beyond belief. I think conservatives have a point when they say that in 1976, it might’ve been a stretch to read a right to abortion into the constitution. But what they ignore is that removing that right in 2022 requires a MUCH STRONGER basis than simply “I would’ve decided it differently fifty years ago.” They know that this is true; it’s one of the foundations of the Supreme Court. Without that principle, nothing would work.

To that end, it’s simply absurd for Samuel Alito to bring up a thousand and one precedents regarding abortion and how NOBODY could POSSIBLY think it might be a right, but to ignore the one precedent that is most germane, which is the one from 1976. Furthermore, his rationale for revisiting this decision is that abortion concerns two human lives, and that the fetus also has rights as a human being under the constitution. But he does not subject that claim to the same level of scrutiny that he subjects Roe to. There is not a strong basis for believing, under either law or custom, that people have viewed fetuses in the first trimester as human lives.

The fact is, the historical animus to abortion was not rooted in any concern for the sanctity of unborn life. It was rooted in two things: a sense that women should be punished for having sex; and the fact that abortion was extremely dangerous.

Neither of those two things hold anymore, thus there is no reason for holding the prejudice against abortion to be any deeper or more sacred than any other prejudice our court no longer regards as being worth considering.

Alito claims he isn’t asking the court to hold to any particular definition of when human life starts, but this is plainly incorrect. His entire ruling hinges on the idea that the fetus at some point may constitute human life. This idea is the only part of the opinion that matters:

What sharply distinguishes the abortion right from the rights recognized in the cases on which Roe and Casey rely is something that both those decisions acknowledged: Abortion destroys what those decisions call “potential life” and what the law at issue in this case regards as the life of an “unborn human being.” See Roe, 410 U. S., at 159 (abortion is “inherently different”); Casey, 505 U. S., at 852 (abortion is “a unique act”). None of the other decisions cited by Roe and Casey involved the critical moral question posed by abortion. They are therefore inapposite. They do not sup- port the right to obtain an abortion, and by the same token, our conclusion that the Constitution does not confer such a right does not undermine them in any way.

Dobbs decision

Does the fact that governments have an interest in protecting the life of the human that may arise from a fetus justify overruling fifty years of precedent? To say ‘yes’ is to make a moral argument that is not grounded in the history of abortion law. Historically, fetuses prior to quickening were not considered human beings. And it’s just fudging to dance around this by calling the fetus “potential human life”. My sperm is potential human life too. Every human being constitutes the possibility for potential human life. To draw a direct life between unquickened fetus and a human being is ahistorical, and it contravenes the very common law that Alito is resorting to. This is the claim he should be holding to the strongest possible scrutiny, but in fact he holds it to almost no scrutiny at all. It is intellectually dishonest in the extreme.

What I am staggered by is just the sheer amount of lying conservatives do. They know that they don’t think abortion is murder. Of course they don’t! They can claim up and down that they think fetuses are human beings, but deep in the depths of their own soul, they know it’s not a fact. They only think abortion is wrong because they think women should bear consequences for sex. That’s the reason. Be honest about it. Don’t lie to us.

I feel truly depressed about the sheer amount of intellectual dishonesty in the world. It’s gotten so that we don’t even expect people to believe the things they say–all that matters is whether or not we can explicitly disprove those things. But what the fuck! I mean come on!

I’m all for taking people at their word, but sometimes what they say simply doesn’t add up. If Republicans were genuinely motivated by the sanctity of life, they would be against the death penalty. They would be against all these other things. But of course they can make some BS argument about why those things are different. But they’re just lying.

What annoys me is that because lying is so endemic, nobody expects anyone to tell the truth anymore. Like, whatever I write on this blog is what I actually believe. It’s not just some provocative argument advanced for clicks. But if you look on Twitter you see people constantly saying things they don’t believe, and it’s like…have you no shame? How can you look at yourself in the mirror?

It’s not just Republicans who do it. Here in SF we recently recalled our DA, over concerns about crime and disorder. But anyone who paid a modicum of attention would know he bore no responsibility for those problems. Crime is flat since 2019. Homelessness is up a little bit (less than most cities on the West Coast!) and the DA has nothing to do with homelessness! Being homeless isn’t a crime!

But the subtext here is that the people who voted for the recall want someone to lock up the unhoused. It’s abhorrent. But they’re allowed to lie and say, “Oh, our DA lets people commit crimes.” People are also allowed to peddle other falsehoods, like the idea that people move to SF to be unhoused on our streets, far from their friends and family, because our services are so good. This is not true. People don’t even move to SF from Oakland to be homeless here. Almost all of SF’s unhoused people were last housed in SF and lost their housing here.

But people don’t care. They tell lies, or they believe untruths because they want to. They feel no responsibility to the truth. And it’s not both sides equally, of course. The right is fully gone. Their minds are just gone. Like, many of them wouldn’t take COVID vaccines to save their own lives. If they can’t be motivated by the idea of saving their own and only life here on Earth, then no self-interest can motivate them. They’re living entirely in a fantasy-land.

But people on the left also lie routinely. We force people to lie, because we dog-pile people if their beliefs don’t fit the party-line. Thus, we make people say shit that’s not true, and we know it must be untrue, but we don’t care. Like, you’re supposed to say you sweat over and rewrite every single sentence. That’s true for some people, but not for most prose writers. I mean Virginia Woolf wrote Mrs. Dalloway in seven months, and yet people will have you believe it takes ten years of writing before a book’s prose is honed sufficiently to be published. Good prose is about rhythm. Rhythm is something you hear. Revision is correcting places where the rhythm doesn’t work–it really doesn’t take that long (at least for most writers). But you’re forced to lie. And then other writers hear the lies, and they spend years rewriting because they think they’re supposed to.

That’s the problem. Writers say shit in their interviews that they don’t believe, but then the next generation does believe them. They don’t know it’s BS. Like when marginalized people (who are published by big five publishers) say, “I don’t write for white people. I write for my own people.” Come off it, bro. Seriously. You don’t write with a white audience in mind? It could be true, but it’s almost certainly not. Like, I’ve read Indian books not written for a white audience (i.e. popular fiction published in India for the Indian market), and it often has strings of untranslated Hindi in it. Oftentimes it also has social mores that are baffling to Americans and go unexplained. It is not accessible, and as a result those books do not get republished in America.

But writers hear that stuff and say, “Oh I’ve just got to write for my own people, and I’ll end up like this person who’s getting interviewed in the New York Times,” and then they write that book and it doesn’t get picked up, because they believed you! Like, these lies have real consequences. Because they didn’t understand you were just saying a line, they spent years writing a novel that will not sell. Moreover, when you say that, you’re upholding this system that you think is so oppressive. You’re saying, “I am an honest and good writer, who doesn’t compromise, and I succeeded, and you can do.” But it’s not true. It’s the opposite of true, and you know it. The truth is you compromised as much as you thought you had to in order to be published.

It’s just exhausting. Like, my LitHub essay on money and writers. Nobody critiqued or called it out. The whole industry knows it’s true, but they’ll never say it. And next week someone will write an essay saying the industry is racist, and everyone will hop on to tell their own stories.

Like, I just don’t get it. Is success really that great? What is success for, if not to tell the truth and be honest?

It’s like with Liz Cheney. She is not a hero. She simply realizes the truth: being a congresswoman in a country where the President is allowed to lead armed insurrections is simply not worth the compromises. Similarly, it’s simply not worth the compromises to be a well-respected author if it means having to lie to people. Like, that’s fundamentally not what being an author is about. I mean at that point it’s just a paycheck, and who knows, maybe that’s all that writing books means to a lot of people. But a lot of people in this world have given up a lot more than…a fake reputation that’s founded in your ability and desire to kowtow to a bunch of phony mythologies. Like, you’re not an activist if you lie.

People don’t care though. They don’t care if anyone believes their lies. They don’t even understand that they are lying, because they’ve stopped (or never started) doing that thing where you have a self-check, “Oh, do I really believe the thing I’m saying?” It’s like with the ‘stolen’ election. Every Republican, from Mike Pence to Raffensperger to Trump’s own staff, realized that the election hadn’t been stolen. It’s so striking how many people refused to help Trump overturn the election. And it makes you realize: these people aren’t special; they just didn’t want to commit a crime. There is no difference between these officials and all the congress-people who openly espouse the stolen election rhetoric. They all know the truth, it’s just that some of them, if they acted on the lie, would be committing a crime, whereas others, by acting on the lie, got to keep their jobs. That’s all it was. And it continues all the way down. All the ordinary people who supposedly believe the election was stolen? It’s all a fucking lie. They don’t believe that shit. It’s just easier than believing they lost.

And it’s the same with Democrats (although without as tragic a consequence), everyone who believes that the Russians fixed the election for Trump–it’s just a lie. They ran a bunch of Facebook ads, it’s true, but Hillary Clinton outspent the guy massively–he didn’t win just because people saw more ads for him. And he didn’t win because he lied about stuff either. He won because he openly said racist stuff, and people wanted the racist stuff to happen. And then he was elected, and he delivered on his racist promises. It’s a very simple transaction.

We are the fools for believing that the mass of people voted for him for any reason other than overt, conscious racism. I’m not talking implicit bias either. I’m talking “We do not like Black people, and we think they are inherently inferior, either genetically or culturally, to white people” racism. The idea that they don’t overtly, consciously have racist beliefs is just a lie on a massive scale.

And because we know that, we go pick-pick-picking at people, trying to find the places where the lie shows through and reveals their true belief. That’s why people get cancelled for seemingly innocuous statements. It’s because we know people are lying about what they believe. And yet it’s the possibility of cancellation that makes them lie! And then most of their supporters also know their avowals of non-racism are also a lie! Everything has to be coated nowadays in this layer of plausible deniability about what you’re really saying or really believe. It’s pretty exhausting. I don’t know, maybe people need to lie, to preserve their livelihoods, I’m not sure. I do know that we aren’t going away, and the people w overtly racist beliefs aren’t going away either. So I don’t know how we all live and work together in the meantime, I really don’t, I just don’t know.

Have an essay up on LitHub about money and literary fiction

Hey friends, just a quick post today, to push my essay on LitHub: “If literary writers want to be published, they can’t be honest about money.” Wrote this ages ago, but it’s taken a while to move to the top of the publication stack.

Can’t exactly remember the genesis of this essay, but it’s based on one of my least favorite kinds of literary criticism: the phony trend piece. Basically, it’s when critics are like “Why don’t people write about X” when we all know the answer is “Because X wouldn’t get published”. In this case, X is honest takes on money and occupation in literary fiction. And it’s because literary writers have an incentive to obfuscate their/our origins and financial situation in order to appeal to middlebrow readers.

I will say, I don’t think it’s really a race thing. Lots of non-white authors come from very financially secure backgrounds and/or have spent a lot of time in situations where they didn’t have to worry about money (whether due to a professorship or early critical success or whatever). I also don’t think it’s a solvable problem. Literary fiction is the fiction of a certain subset of people (what conservatives would call ‘the liberal elite’), but it draws much of its power by appealing to people who are outside that elite (which I call ‘the book club audience’). The book club audience, although it tends to be white and college-educated, is MUCH more diverse than the liberal elite, so in order for our fiction to be relatable, there needs to be a purposeful obfuscation about certain things. Like, we’re like, “My parents were lawyers” and the audience is like, “I too am a lawyer, my kids could write books like this.” But oftentimes our readers do, like, family law, while our parents are the kind of lawyer that makes seven figures a year defending Wal-Mart from labor lawsuits. But we’ve created a fantasy world where “lawyer” has a unitary meaning, and these differences are effaced, and the existence of that world is critical to our success as writers!

contemplative asian lawyer working on laptop in law firm
This is a lawyer, probably. But actually they’re just a stock photo model trying to be a lawyer. Photo by Sora Shimazaki on Pexels.com

The reason literary critics are obsessed with wokeness and cancel culture

Hello friends. I’ve been feeling a little stifled lately. Everything is so backed-up and slow. I’ve been writing proposals, books, essays, but it all sits on someone’s desk for god-knows-how-long. People have other concerns, which is fine, but as a result I’ve decided to make better use of the one platform I control fully, which is this blog!

I wrote an essay recently, which I’m trying to place, on whether East Asian novels really do eschew conflict and plot (I don’t think so), and its made me reflect on how much I love reading. Which is a pretty uncontroversial thing to say, I know. In fact, the subject has gotten so saccharine and so filled with lies that I don’t think anyone who truly loves reading would dare to admit it, because, ironically, the statement has come to signal the opposite, which is that you’re a conventional thinker who speaks and writes in cliches.

On a panel once with the host of an insipid local radio show, we were asked something about literature and about whether books had a future in the world given the existence of phones, games, TV, etc. And I said, I don’t think reading is morally superior to watching television or playing video games. Which was really not a popular statement with my interlocutor, who I could tell was going to dismiss me as a YA writer. I think people make a lot of exaggerated claims about books. They claim that it improves empathy, which has not been satisfactorily demonstrated, even scientifically, since few of the studies use other forms of narrative (e.g. video games or television) as a control.

What’s always fascinated me about the defenders of literature, both in its weak form (people who defend books versus other media) and in its strong form (people who defend literary fiction versus commercial fiction or literature versus contemporary books) is how unnecessary it all is. The value of all these things is self-evident. What needs defending are things that seem bad. Television seems like it stupefies and wastes time and dumbs us down. It may not, but that’s an argument that has to be addressed.

People often say, “Well, novels used to be derided as stupefying entertainment for the masses. And before that people derided certain kinds of poetry as stupefying entertainment for the masses.” To which I say, a lot of novels and poetry are stupefying when read in large quantities. To read a huge number of novels that are all trying to accomplish the same thing and evoke the same emotions with the same tools is going to stupefy you.

Like, recently I’ve gotten very interested in commercial fiction from previous eras. I read a lot of Walter Scott, I read M.E. Braddon, I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I’ve been looking into the history of the novel, particularly in French, where the novel seemed to spend a lot of time developing between the publication of Don Quixote in the early 1600s and when the novel really burst onto the English scene in the 1740s. For a while, the fad in France was for immensely long court novels, often written by aristocrats, with historical settings. They weren’t entirely romances, but they also weren’t domestic novels as we know them. Some of these books, like Scudery’s The Grand Cyrus (set in Ancient Persia, I believe) ran to twenty volumes. (English also had some immense publications, like a similarly long picaresque called The English Rogue that was published in the 1680s). Those novels, if that was all you read, were probably pretty stupefying.

To me, what matters isn’t what you read, it’s whether you have curiosity. I think the written word is always going to exist, because it’s a very good way of feeding one’s curiosity. It’s not the only thing that can do it, and there are many incurious ways of using the written word, but to me the odd thing about all these defenses of literature are the way they underestimate one simple thing: curiosity.

Don’t you want to know? Don’t you want to know the best of what people have thought or said? Don’t you want to know what ideas have animated the world? And, moreover, don’t you get tired of intermediation? You lose so much when people explain things to you. For instance, lately people have been talking a lot about CRT, and on both sides say complete nonsense. Republicans say it makes white people hate themselves, and Democrats say it’s just a quaint, minor, harmless legal theory that has had no influence on the way leftists today talk about race. So I bought a book called Critical Race Theory, edited by Kimberle Crenshaw, and I read about it myself. You don’t have to listen to spin; you can go to the source itself.

The problem is that a lot of defenses of literature occur within an expert culture. So you have professors telling people that reading a book is important, but they also want to retain for themselves the right of interpreting it. Except you can’t have it both ways. Something is only important to read if you’re allowed to assimilate and reinterpret it. Otherwise why bother? That’s why there’s no point digging into medical research on your own: people with an ordinary amount of knowledge can’t understand it.

None of the humanities, with the exception perhaps of analytic philosophy, are quite so specialized. You can read the books yourself. You can draw your own conclusions. You might disagree with what a lot of the experts have to say about it, but in a lot of cases, the experts don’t know a lot. For instance, even Hegel himself said nobody in the world understood his philosophy, so how can any professor? The fact of the matter is, his philosophy doesn’t make internal sense, and if an expert says it does, they’re not being truthful.

With curiosity, though, comes a commitment to speaking the truth, insofar as you understand it. I think being incorrect is fine, but I think it’s morally wrong to purposefully mislead other people. For instance, I was reading a profile of a very young artist who’s recently become successful, and it went to pains to portray her as coming from a middle-class background, then talked about how, despite her fame, she still lives in the “modest” 675-foot Upper West Side apartment where she’s lived since moving to New York five years earlier at age 22.

Now come on, who’s kidding whom? That’s a $3,000 a month apartment (at least), and her first job was as the assistant to another artist.

What the article was trying to say was, “This person isn’t a member of the New York intelligentsia. They are provincial gentry.” Like, we’ve all read French and Russian novels, we understand the young man from the provinces phenomenon–I’m a young man from the provinces myself! But don’t bullshit us.

I hate that. It makes my skin crawl. Like I obviously don’t support myself through writing, and I’d like to think I don’t go around pretending to be a middle-class outsider-type person.

When I talk about the value of literature and of curiosity and seeking / telling the truth, people are often like, “That’s a privilege that ordinary people can’t afford.” And that may be true–I have no idea what ordinary people can or can’t afford to do. I cannot say whether reading Plutarch is a better use of peoples’ time than watching Top Chef. I can certainly imagine that financial cares could disincentivize caring about literature, and I don’t think that a person should, like Karl Marx, let their kids sicken and die so they can write, or, like so many woman writers and artists, eschew having kids entirely in order to devote themselves to art. Those aren’t decisions I’ve made myself, obviously. I live a very comfortable life that has required relatively few compromises of that nature.

But the search for truth is a self-evident good. You don’t need to argue in favor of them. In fact, they’re so self-evident that when we come across works that decry wisdom, like Kohelet does in Ecclesiastes (“a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: because though a man labour to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea further; though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it”) it comes across as purposefully shocking and contrarian.

Seeking truth is good. Even if seeking truth was unerringly punishable by a bolt of lightning from heaven, it would remain good (albeit impossible). And while one can certainly make the case, in abstract, that you can seek truth without reading literature, I think we know that you cannot seek certain kinds of truth without accessing the wisdom of ages.

Seen in that sense, I just don’t think literature needs to be defended, in either the strong or the weak sense. I think that people who seek a certain sort of truth will inevitably be drawn to literature, and that (although this is less common) at least some people who study literature will be inspired with a love for truth.

In my case, the truth I sought was a very small one. I wanted to know how to write well. I always saw myself as a science fiction writer, but I didn’t want there to be anything about the writing of fiction that I didn’t understand. I didn’t want to be a writer who was bored by Tolstoy or Chekhov. So I read them. And curiosity drove me to read other things. And it’s been immensely rewarding, and after these many years of reading, I do think there are truths which I know.

For instance, I know that if you’re making a political argument in a book, then you must construct the argument as honestly as possible. You cannot pit the weakest form of your opponent’s argument against the strongest form of your own. That is why I liked Uncle Tom’s Cabin so much. It might not be aesthetically beautiful, but it was created with a singular purpose: to demonstrate the wrongs of slavery. And it moves through its arguments quite methodically, by showing how the system works under ‘good’ masters, mediocre ones, and cruel ones. It uses tools and details drawn directly from slave narratives, and it shapes them with an eye to what a typical racist, apologist white reader might say. The book has flaws, including what some might call racist caricatures, but it was written with a deeply serious purpose. The book wasn’t written to secure a book deal or to sell copies or to preach to the converted. It was written to persuade people that slavery is morally wrong and must end. I cannot say whether it was effective or not, but you can tell that the effort was made in good faith.

In contrast, lots of novels and TV shows that’re written nowadays with a political purpose are deeply dishonest. For instance, that movie everyone loved, Don’t Look Up: it accurately conveyed how senseless climate denial is to people who believe in climate change, but it didn’t even pretend that anyone on the other side was acting in good faith or was anything other than an idiot. As such, it lacked persuasive power. Slavery is a much graver moral evil than denying climate change, but because of that, the writers of the time thought they had a moral duty to engage in effective agit-prop. You can see this in the slave narratives too: in Twelve Years A Slave and in The Life of Harriet Jacobs you can see the impulse, both artistic and moral, to draw subtle distinctions of character between the slave-masters, all in service of the broader point, which is: there is no moral way of upholding this institution. The works have moral power precisely because they are so humane. The same is true of a novel I recently read by Ulrich Boskwitz, Passenger, which was written in 1938, by a Jewish refugee from Germany, about the contemporary situation in Germany for Jewish people. It’s about a white-passing Jewish person who learns the SS want to pick him up, so he goes on the lam, taking circuits on the train all around Germany. And he continually meets other people who understand that life is difficult for him, but, well, for them it’s just not a pressing issue. It’s exactly the way you or I might feel about a woman trying to get an abortion in Texas. Our heart goes out to them, but that’s their problem. They have our sympathy or even our vote, but nothing else.

I’ve been reading, as well, a number of books about literature in the Soviet Union. As you know, there were essentially five eras in Soviet literature: the brief post-Revolutionary period (roughly corresponding to War Communism and then the NEP), where writers had freedom and engaged in stylistic experimentation; Stalinism, when writers were terrified and many were executed or sentenced to the gulag; the Khruschev Thaw, where a few writers were allowed to publish work that was critical of the Stalin era; and then the several decade-long Khrushchev-Brezhnev-Andropov era, when all literature once again had to glorify the party and state; and, finally, glasnost, which is an interesting era with its own dynamics. And what’s most interesting is that most writers were happy with state control of literature. Few people supported Stalin’s terror (at least once it was safely in the past). But during the Thaw and, especially, during glasnost, many writers fought to preserve the monopoly of state control over literature.

Their reasoning was, “Under capitalism, you can write whatever you want, but nobody will read it, and you’ll starve, and your work will have no social utility. Under communism, you have to glorify the party and the state, but you’re guaranteed high social status and high earnings, and, most of all, you know that your work matters.” Writers basically understood the kind of thing that would get published, so they wrote that thing. There was less need than you’d think for formal censorship procedures, because the choice wasn’t between publishing good work and publishing bad work, the choice was between publishing correct work or not publishing at all. So the whole system self-selected for people who would say the right thing, because the others simply weren’t allowed to become writers in the first place.

The result was an immense quantity of literature about how great the Soviet state was. Really, the only problem was…nobody read it. The Writer’s Union would publish five million copy print runs (with a royalty on printing to the writer for each copy) of the books of its leaders, and they would be distributed all over the country and…nobody read them.

Oddly enough, people didn’t even want dissident literature. They just wanted to be entertained. Apparently the black market demand for Agatha Christie books was intensely high. At some point even some successful Soviet writers of jingoistic thrillers (their equivalent of a Tom Clancy) were like, what is with this Writer’s Union BS: can’t you publish more authors people want to read?

Anyway, Soviet authors were quite content to justify their system as being superior to the capitalist system, which, in their view, also produced tons of books that reified the capitalist system. After all, under capitalism a book can only exist if it is profitable, and the mere fact of it existing is enough to show that capitalism ‘works.’ So in the act of buying a book, even an anti-capitalist one, you are supporting capitalism.

And I was thinking, “How are they wrong?” Both systems produce an immense number of books whose main purpose is to propagandize and stupefy the masses. In America, we have a drearily endless number of books that are in some sense ‘about’ racism, but which don’t convince anyone or in any way improve our understanding of the phenomenon. And they’re written because reading them in some way makes people feel good, and people read them, not to search for wisdom, but in search of that feeling.

But at least under capitalism you can read other things. You can read Uncle Tom’s Cabin or the slave narratives. You can even read Soviet literature if you want! (I’ve ordered a few books by non-dissident writers and am trying to read them). But I think, yeah, for whatever reason–mostly economic, probably–not many people in America will ever have the ability to do what I’ve done, and to pursue their curiosity in the way I’ve done. I can’t say that our system encourages this kind of reading, but at least it isn’t banned.

Through this post I’ve been circling around the issue of left-wing censoriousness and closed-mindedness. It’s a real phenomenon. Many people on the left think you’re a bigot if you disagree with them on relatively minor issues, including matters of terminology. People are constantly on the look-out for evidence that, despite your professed belief in equality, you’re really racist or transphobic or misogynist or whatever.

I think the behavior is mostly due to hopelessness. We know that our democracy is crumbling, and our civil liberties are eroding. The people responsible aren’t listening to us, and they will likely never listen to us. We who make art feel unable to stop the terrible and senseless persecutions we see around us. And the truth is, we likely are unable. We live in a country with three hundred and fifty million people, and no words we say, and certainly none we can write, have the power to stop the rest of those people from doing as they’d like to.

Some people say this is proof that misinformation and bad ideas are too powerful and must be censored. I’d say it’s the opposite: it’s proof that in the modern era, censorship is of limited use. After all, if the entire intelligentsia of a country–the people in charge of creating its ideas–has supported for several decades certain notions of freedom and equality, and if it has used all of its power to push those ideas, and those ideas still have not entirely won, then I don’t know if censorship is going to succeed either.

But I also don’t think it matters one way or another. It doesn’t matter, particularly, if Dave Chappelle is on Netflix or not. It doesn’t matter if Joe Rogan is on Spotify or not. It certainly doesn’t matter if a sci-fi author otherwise known for supporting racial equity uses a word that strikes some people as offensive. The truth is, I don’t know how to change the world. Maybe some people think that left-wing censoriousness and ‘deplatforming’ will have some impact: I think that idea is foolish.

But I also don’t know if left-wing censoriousness is particularly harmful. To be honest, it merely strikes me as a symptom of the times, rather than a cause of them.

The only way in which this censoriousness interests me is in its effect on art. Because although right-wing ideas are very influential in our country at large, they are not particularly influential in literature. This isn’t true at all times and for all places: in early 20th and 19th century Germany, right-wing ideas were influential both in the universities and in their written literature. But at this time and place, when it comes to writing books, the publishing and writing environment are far more influenced by left-wing ideas. And at the moment the prevailing idea seems to be a version of the Soviet partynost: you should not write anything that could be read as a criticism of left-wing ideas, because doing so weakens them and makes the right-wing stronger.

This party-mindedness has a large effect on me. I try to write the truth. I live in San Francisco, amongst people who range from liberal to left-wing. I am non-white; I am a trans woman. And the truth is that all people, in all places, have an ugly side. All people, in all places, face genuine moral conundrums. And oftentimes those ugly things and those conundra are directly related to their identity. Under the spirit of partynost, I should never write, for instance, about a trans girl who lies to her parents, saying she is certain she wants to be on hormones, and then, once she is on them, is like, phew, okay, this is great, that was a good decision. That is probably one of the worst offenses against the party I could ever write, because one of our central themes right now is that trans kids need to be on hormones (if they want them) #BelieveTransWomen.

And yet this conflicts with a truth that parents understand quite clearly, which is that kids are still kids. And sometimes they’re just not sure about things (hell, oftentimes adults aren’t sure about things).

It would be easy to close the loop here and say, look, we improve our argument when we deal realistically, as Harriet Beecher Stowe did, with the ideas of the opposition: if we can show that it’s good even for the unsure girl to have the option to be on hormones, then we’ve strengthened our argument. But that’s not how most people in the party feel. They feel we should simply deny the phenomenon of unsureness. And I don’t have any empirical proof here of whether they’re right or they’re wrong about that.

That idea–the notion that we should self-censor or hide ideas that might be injurious to our cause–has a major effect on literature today, and it’s simply absurd to pretend it doesn’t. Now, does this mean that left-wing censoriousness is ruining America? No. But if what you care about is literature and the effect and power of literature, then left-wing censoriousness is a lot more interesting to you right now than right-wing fascism is (even though you’re a lot more scared of the latter than the former).

And that is an example of an article that a journal today would probably hold onto for six months because they were squeamish about publishing it. What a totally innocuous article, right? Anyway, hopefully more to come!

Finished Hegel, moved on to Adam Smith

Hello friends! After something like five months, I’m finally finished with my Hegel reading. Most of that time consisted of my reading of the Greater Logic, which is 770 pages long. I really wanted to understand Hegel’s system and how it worked. But it also took about a month each to read Philosophy of Right and Phenomenology of Spirit.

Finally, late in the game, while reading Philosophy of Right, I understood Hegel. He is a mystic. He thinks that everything is governed by a Spirit that is trying to know itself. Thus, his method, which he calls a science, although it seems like intuition and speculation to us, is to him actually the Spirit attempting to know himself.

This is why he is so focused, too, on historicism and collective wisdom. Any one person can be led astray or confused, but in the working out of ideas at a historical level, he sees an inevitability–these ideas needed to progress in these ways.

That’s why it’s so hard to find a method in Hegel–it’s all post-facto analysis. You can attempt to use Hegel to reach forward and say “This is what is going to happen”, but there is no particular reason to think you might actually be right. Hegel himself distinguishes, in most cases, between the formal properties of a thing and its “determinate content”. The formal properties are the things that are definitionally true about it. Like, mankind will inevitably be torn between the fact that it wants its morality to both be self-determined (i.e. willed for its own sake) and that it wants a rational basis for that morality (i.e. a basis that comes from outside himself). That’s the formal property of modern ethics. But that tells you nothing about what that ethics will actually require. For that determinate content, he says, you have to look to history and society, which will go through many different determinations, over time, as the spirit works out greater and greater amounts of the truth.

What people also don’t necessarily understand about Hegel is that for him, this process was done. He had figured it all out. He understood everything. Prussia was the culmination of the Spirit, everything was finished, done, over. So there was really no need to project forward. Indeed, he says at one point that philosophy is just a process of catching up and codifying what the Spirit has already done on its own account.

So, basically Hegel is completely useless. But you already knew that! Still, it provides an interesting model for how to think about the formation of ideas. It’s interesting to think about how ideas have a natural negative, and that they grapple with this negative, until you eventually learn to hold both the positive and negative together at the same time (not a synthesis, as some would put it, but a truth that encompasses both in their distinct particularity).

I am into it!

Now I was going to read Marx, but I decided that I ought first to read Adam Smith, so I could understand the state of economics. Like, Hegel provides the polito-philosophical side of Marx, but the other side was classical economics. I am theoretically familiar with this, because I was an Econ major in college, and my business cards when I worked full-time said “Economist”. But I am very impressed with Adam Smith. The thing about being an Econ major is you never read actual books. Not even textbooks! Instead they give you these expensive course readers, and you read those (or if you’re me you just read the powerpoints the professor uploads to the course website).

So I hadn’t seen how these ideas got worked out in their original form. There is a lot to be said for Smith’s style of argumentation. He definitely understands how things should be proved in economics. He makes a hypothesis, then demonstrates it, using certain relationships. He doesn’t mess around with correlations and R values and charts, he explains things in words. So for instance, he says that if money works in this particular way, we would expect a bank that operates in this particular way to fail for this particular reason, and indeed that is what we see.

He also has very definite ideas about what constitutes the wealth of a nation (literally what the whole book is about). The wealth of a nation is the goods it produces, and its method for distributing those goods. He does not count services in this. In his mind, people buy services as a luxury out of the profit they get from creating goods. And there is a certain logic to this. His definition of capital is also admirably exact. It’s the money you use to make money. So a shopkeeper’s capital is his stock. He has money invested in his stock at any moment. A farmer’s capital is the value they’ve invested in improving their land. A manufacturer’s capital is their stock and their machines and the money they pay their workers. It’s all very simple in a way that it’s actually not when you learn it in econ class, after people have muddied everything up so thoroughly.

I think he also gets to the crux of the matter, which is, how can we have a wealthy and prosperous nation? For him, the core of a nation’s productivity is its capital. The only way for it to become richer is to for it to save up money and invest in itself.

This also made me reflect that, you know, this is what separates the middle-class from the working-class. The middle-class is running a small business. It invests in its own education, and it invests in housing. Of course, the way our economy has involved, this has become a generational process: parents pay for their kids education and their kids houses, so there’s really no way for a working-class person to break in. But still, it made me see that the middle-class truly is involved in the process of building capital in a way that I hadn’t necessarily understood.

Very, very useful. Not certain whether I’ll read Malthus and Ricardo when I’m done or will jump right into Marx. But Wealth of Nations is very long, so might take a while. On the other hand, it’s not total nonsense, so it’ll probably take less than six months. It also makes me wonder what in the world they were putting in the water in Scotland back in the 18th century. I mean, for this tiny nation of a million people to produce an Adam Smith and a David Hume in the same generation seems nuts–easily on par with Classical Athens producing a Plato and an Aristotle, but there were also a bunch of other extremely influential Scottish doctors and scientists at the time.

In the 18th Century, men were men, and men wore turbans

What I’m working on these days

Hey there friends. I did that thing where when you’re on book deadline you don’t update your blog anymore. I’m okay with it!

Anyway now that I am not on deadline anymore, I am trying to do things that are energizing and are good for me and all that junk. My first step was accepting that I do most of my reading in audio. That’s just where I am right now. I spend A LOT of time ignoring Leni and waiting for her to go to sleep, and that’s audiobook time. The bulk of my textual reading this year has been reading friend’s books on the kindle and reading Hegel’s Logic. Right now I’m trying to read Philosophy of the Right. It’s slow going, but I’m hanging in there. After this I want to move on to Marx. Anyway, I’m meeting myself where I am at.

Am also trying to prioritize my health the way I prioritize my writing. I don’t want to be 50-60-70 and feel like the window has passed for me to improve my achy joints and lower back.

In terms of writing projects, I’m working on a proposal for a nonfiction book of literary criticism about the canon. An editor contacted me after reading my essays in LARB and wondered if I could expand some of those ideas into a book. I feel laughably unqualified to write about the canon, but also…not a lot of professors have the kind of broad base of reading you’d need to write the specific book I’m envisioning, and very few books about the Canon (which in my case includes some Eastern books that’ve come out in good English translations, but obviously is mostly tilted toward the Western Canon) have come out from people of color. So maybe it’ll be a good contribution to the field. I hope that I get to write it! My mom said “That book would be tenurable!” But thank God I’m not a professor and don’t need to worry about that.

Also working on a sci-fi novel. But that’s something I’ve said numerous times before, and it’s never quite worked out. Maybe this time it will though!

And…that’s what I’m doing. The end.

My relationship to bias against trans people in the publishing industry

I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on my ‘career’ (so to speak) as a trans writer for teens, which (oddly enough) now includes being one of the enemies du jour for a substantial part of the country!

Personally, it doesn’t bother me that much. I don’t lose sleep over it. If I got harassment or felt unsafe, I’m sure that would change. All the consequences are professional. There’s a huge appetite for trans narratives now, but I think they’re also risky, and that more marginal or nuanced perspectives like mine are just not what the country feels like it needs. That’s even aside from the risks of a book being banned by the right or cancelled by the left (or, as in a few cases, cancelled by right-wing trolls who pick out seemingly-offensive passages and use them to get the left riled up)

I see being trans the same way I see being a woman or being brown: it’s a definite professional liability, and it probably makes publication and acclaim harder to come by, but it also makes the work more meaningful. In a way, it’s kind of a privilege to be able to write about things that people care about, to say stuff that they might not’ve heard before, and to have a perspective that’s valuable. Which is to say, if it wasn’t harder for me to succeed, the would be less worth doing. I do think that if you want to produce something valuable, it’s always going to be more difficult, precisely because what is valuable is rarer, less-understood, and doesn’t have the same immediately-intuitive appeal.

But the fact is, I don’t rely on writing to pay the bills. That is the X factor. Other writers could disagree, but personally I think racism and prejudice are a lot easier to bear when your life and livelihood aren’t under threat. As I wrote earlier this year, if I never wrote another book, my family wouldn’t starve. That’s not true for most trans writers. There are a lot of people out there who need writing to work if they’re going to survive and have a good life. And these people just want to write. They just want to do the thing they’re meant to do. And if they were white, cis, straight, etc, they would have a much better chance of succeeding in this profession! It’s really sad! People come to me looking for reassurance, and I’m like…I don’t know what to say. It doesn’t always happen. It doesn’t always come together. People don’t always sell books. And that’s an injustice. It’s not the world’s worst injustice, but it’s hard when you see it happening to people who really do deserve better, and you know it’s happening because the industry just isn’t good to those with an outside perspective.

But speaking purely for myself, I’m fine. It’s not an ideal world, but I’ve made my peace with it, and I’m able to keep working and, basically, to just not think very much about that sort of discrimination.

I was remarking to Rachel recently that I think a lot of Indians of my parents’ generation, especially, just don’t get that worked up over American prejudice. And it’s because…they didn’t really expect better. Like, you don’t come across an ocean to a new country and expect the people in the new country to treat you like you’re one of them. You come for a better life. You come so you can get an education and do your work, and as long as you can do those things, you’re like, well…that’s pretty good! With regards to myself, that’s sort of how I feel: I don’t really expect anything better of the publishing industry or, really, of the world around me, so I’m rarely disappointed!

A little log of my writing progress on this draft

Hello friend-os. I did that thing where a blogger is like “I’m on deadline so I’m not gonna be posting for a while,” except I never actually said that, I just went silent. But now that I am coming to the end of this YA novel (Just Happy To Be Here, my third book), I’m feeling an odd urge to do the blogging again. It’s been a pretty wild writing time–I’ve essentially written a novel between Feb 15 and today! Two months?

Scrivener lets you generate a little log of your writing, so I have one here. I did writing on this project in Jan-Feb too, but I ended up scrapping most of that, so this is a log of me writing this actual draft of this actual book–the draft I will email tomorrow or the next day to my editor

DateWordsTotal
3/3/2227950
3/4/222032814
3/7/221037
3/8/222138
3/9/222119
3/10/221756
3/11/22340210623
3/12/224819
3/13/22220117643
3/14/225505
3/15/223407
3/16/22242428289
3/17/222615
3/18/22345234356
3/21/2265433657
3/22/222106
3/23/221272
3/24/2254937584
3/28/221530
3/29/225310
3/31/22278847212
4/1/22272249934
4/4/223518
4/5/22487958331
4/6/223255
4/7/22159963185
4/8/22221365398
4/9/2246065858
4/11/2294666804
4/12/2210242
4/13/229677142

That’s a pretty good amount of writing! And as you can see, I didn’t even write much on the weekends. I like the book. I feel good about it. I wrote it while feeling a slight sense of social responsibility occasioned by the fact that trans kids are a topic of such intense persecution these days. Normally I feel like the YA genre is WAYYYY too self-congratulatory–authors are always talking about how kids need their books. I don’t think kids need my books, or that my books will improve lives. I think my books are entertaining, artful, and truthful, which are three qualities that many YA books do not have. And that’s really what I aspire to. But with this one I was like, sigh, the book probably will help some kids or something! Some kid probably does need this dumb book. Was kind of a lot of pressure.

Anyway, it’ll hopefully come out summer 2023, unless something goes disastrously wrong (which is not as unlikely as you might think it would be)–but it’s hard to imagine that someone somewhere won’t want to publish this one, so I hope you’ll eventually get to read it!

Getting close to the end of this revision

Hello friends. I’m entering the home stretch of revising this YA novel. After this I will have NO looming deadlines! Got some things I might try out, including a proposal for another YA novel, but we’ll see what happens! Anywaysssssssssssssssssssssssssssss…I started reading Hegel’s Philosophy of the Right—definitely should’ve read it before The Science of Logic. It’s a thousand times more comprehensible, and it makes clear certain of the assumptions that underpin the Hegelian system. Essentially, in Hegel you’re trying to intuit the concepts that underlie the way things are. So when it comes to morality, you’re looking at systems of morality and trying to intuit their essential principles, and from these you develop an idea of how things ought to be. Except the Spirit outpaces philosophy, so philosophy is inevitably always playing catch up and trying to figure out and justify the developments the Spirit is undergoing. The problem here is obvious—you can’t use this philosophy to figure out how things ought to be. Or, rather, you can say that a certain system is not in accordance with how the spirit is currently developing, but someone else can be like, no this system is part of that development. So it doesn’t fulfill the essential function of metaphysics, which is to give us truth about things that are beyond our senses—the truth of how things should be and what is their essential form.

On the other hand, the book makes it more clear that Hegel’s system is grounded in actuality, and it’s also grounded in a sort of mystical feeling that there is an order to the shape of society—it’s not all random or arbitrary.

Also finished reading The Diary of Anne Frank, brilliant book, kind of funny how hard it would be to get published as YA: the fact that they’re in hiding adds poignancy and drama to the story, but it’s largely about her own development, her understanding of herself and her character, her development as an artist, and her attempts to connect with other people. Really, really liked it.

Now am trying to listen to some other stuff. We’ll see how it goes.

The YA novel has been tough. I mean, the writing has gone okay. It’s been of about medium difficulty—was kind of stumped at the beginning, but once I figured out my approach it hasn’t been too bad. It just ended up being on a short deadline (sort of my fault for not figuring out my approach for a while) and came at a difficult time, so have had to just be head’s down and move forward.

I’ve really been feeling the responsibility involved in there being so few YA novels by and about transfem people. I know that probably only a very few trans girls will read this, but I feel like I’ve got to warn them about some things, and those things are gonna make non-trans people unhappy. It’s just astonishing the amount of lying people do (not just to kids, but to everyone). Anyway, going into that mindset has been really tough, but only tough in a relative sense—I mean it’s better than digging ditches.

Here’s a picture of a dog. Not my dog. Just a random open-source public-domain creative commons dog.

Am back, have been reading so much Walter Scott

Hello friends. I’ve been struggling to get stuff done, so I’m devoting today to doing all the random extra stuff on my To-Do list. I’ve already funded my ROTH IRA, and now I’m writing a blog post. My last blog post was I don’t know when–a long time ago. Weeks? It was in the before times. And by that I mean “before my toddler stopped sleeping” times. For a while I was sleeping in her room with her, on the floor, which made me feel every morning like someone had beaten me up. We’ve since managed to get things into somewhat sharper order, hence me having the time to write this book!

I’ve also been revising my YA novel, a process that as always had has its ups and downs. I really like the book, I have to say. It has my trademark nuance, sharp characters, complicated relationships, and this time I even put in a plot. This draft has focused on building out a lot of the supporting cast more, filling them up with their own little hopes and dreams. I love my main characters, but they always partake too closely of myself to feel really distinct to me. The supporting cast are what I love even more! I’ve given up on creating realistic characters, instead I like to make the best version of a person. What would someone be like if they were totally awesome in this particular way? As a result, even my villainous characters seem great to me.

The revision is about 2/3rds done. I’m at a place where I had to pause and do some stuff. It’s looking pretty good, I think. Will be sad to leave this group of people behind, but I suppose that’s how writing works.

Another thing I did was get into a BIIIIIGGGGG Walter Scott phase, listening-wise. It was all Walter Scott all the time: I listened to Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, The Antiquary, Old Mortality, and Kenilworth. Scott is a historical novelist who wrote relatively early in the 19th century and had an incredible influence on the development of the novel in the 19th century. If you want to look at how novels stopped being the picaresque, playful creatures of the 18th century and turned into the brooding, baroque (and lengthy!) novels of the 19th century, the route runs through Walter Scott (and Ann Radcliffe, another novelist who I need to read).

Scott has a terrible reputation these days. People talk about him like he was a 19th-century hack or something–a writer with no skill, nothing to say, and certainly no verbal facility. That’s a very undeserved reputation. Is he Jane Austen? No. But he certainly does aspire to write realistic characters, to accurately convey manners, and to just generally write exciting and informative books. They’re better than almost any commercial novels you might read (and better than most literary books as well). My favorite of the ones I’ve read is probably Old Mortality, since it’s a well-constructed book with a lot to say (though you might want to read up a bit on 17th-century Scottish religious history before you start). However if you DO read Scott it’s hard to imagine you won’t start with his most famous novel, Ivanhoe, which is a really strange mid-period novel of his that features, amongst other things, Richard the Lion-hearted and Robin of Loxley teaming up to protect the fiancé of a virtuous Saxon noble, the eponymous Ivanhoe. Just a truly, truly bonkers book (reminded me in some ways of the Heath Ledger movie Knight’s Tale). Definitely worth a read.

Placed a story in American Short Fiction

Hello friends! Some writers are very reticent to talk about their short story sales (or ‘appearances’, as a literary writer might say?) before a contract is signed. I’ve never had that reticence. Usually if an acceptance disappears it’s because the journal has gone out of business, and that can happen whether you’ve signed a contract or not.

In any case, I have now signed a contract, so can doubly announce that a story will appear in American Short Fiction–a relatively high profile literary journal (certainly the highest profile in which I’ve placed a story). This prompted me to go through and update my various bibliographies. I maintain many now: one for essays, one for literary stories, one for science fiction stories, and one for poetry. But just looking at the short stories, I see that this makes my 62nd short story ‘sale’ and my 41st at professional rates, as defined by the Science Fiction Writers of America back when I first started writing (five cents a word). I think SFWA has since bumped their criteria up to eight cents a word, and it’s a good thing too, what with inflation and all. But I am sticking to five cents as my ersatz definition, mostly to cut out the short stories I sold to tiny embarrassing magazines early in my career. Many of those journals aren’t on the internet anymore, so I suppose I could simply scrub them out of existence if I wished! But I don’t.

Forty two! That’s a lot! I could put together a collection if I wanted. But I don’t.

There’s no demand for a collection by me, and I think perhaps a collection will wait until the distant day when there is. Maybe at the end of my career I’ll put one together. Most of my stories, I have to say, are not necessarily ones I’d want to put before the reading public again. I’m not sure if off the top of my head I can think of ten I’d truly recommend. Hmm, certainly ‘Bodythoughts’ and ‘The Leader Principle’, which appeared originally in F&SF. My forthcoming ‘Nick and Bodhi’, which is coming out in a YA LGBT SF anthology, Out There, is pretty good. Several of my Lightspeed stories, most notably ‘The Girl Who Escaped From Hell‘ and ‘A Coward’s Death‘ are worth reading. Probably ‘Everquest’, which also appeared in Lightspeed. And then hmm…well I suppose ‘Sexual Cannibalism‘, which appeared in Birkensnake, and ‘The Anti-Fascist‘, which appeared in West Branch, are both pretty good. Hmm, that’s eight. ‘Corridors‘, which appeared originally in Nature, is a hell of a ride. ‘Empty Planets’, which was reprinted in one of Rich Horton’s Year’s Bests, and which originally appeared in Interzone. And that’s ten. But all together that can’t be more than thirty thousand words. Half a collection.

Oh there’s other stuff I could throw in there–my three stories in Asimov’s and one in Analog and my three Clarkesworld stories, and a few of my other literary stories too–but I don’t know if it really adds up to anything. I’d feel difficulty recommending it whole-heartedly, the way I can recommend my novels or my cynical guide to the publishing industry.

Anyway luckily I don’t have to sell anyone on a collection, because it doesn’t exist! I don’t even campaign for science fiction / fantasy awards anymore–something I’ve at times done assiduously. If I’d won or even been nominated, I’d probably have become an inveterate campaigner, but as my efforts came to nothing, I’ve thankfully been rescued from that practice. Now I just throw the short work out there without any expectations. They’re fun to write, and the psychological reward of selling a story far exceeds the amount of effort it takes to produce and submit one. And in the last five years I’ve also been selling a much greater percentage of what I write. During my first 14 years as a writer, I wrote 210 stories and sold 48 (22%), more than half of which were to complete no-name publications. In the last four years (holy crap, I can’t have been doing this for more than eighteen years, can I?) I’ve written 43 and sold 15 (35%), almost all of them to respectable publications, and the unsold number for the last five years includes fifteen or so that I’m still submitting and which might yet sold.

Feels good! Feels like a sort of accomplishment.