I just finished reading The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction by Samuel Delany and…I don’t know what to think. Oh, I don’t mean that I don’t know what to think about the book. The book is great.
I mean that generally speaking, I don’t know what to think. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I don’t know how to think.
About two years, I started to become aware that my undergraduate education in economics had combined with the graduate degree in demography that I earned by growing up as the son of a professor in sociology to create a comprehensive set of strategies with which to approach all of the world’s problems.
Economics is the study of how human beings exchange things. Within the conceptual framework of economics, it does not matter what those things are. They might be exchanging money for goods, or services for prestige, or work for wages, or if exchanging something in the present in return for something else in the future. All that matters is that they have some allotment of things (and we all, at least, have our bodies and our time), and they want to expend some of that allotment in order to get other things. Economics does not care why they want the things they want. Nor does it seek to dictate what they should want.
Because that part of the equation is already provided for. People are telling you what they want. They tell you by the way they spend their time. People spend their time pursuing love. They spend it working in order to afford expensive, high-status objects, or entertainments, or stuff that will make their kids happier. They spend it working in order to achieve success in their field and the acclaim that comes with it.
(And here is where we depart a little bit from what the economics I learned in school says and venture more into what the ideal version of economics that I have in my head says. So don’t reproach me with some crap that Paul Krugman said, or something)
Because, for economics, no question is more meaningless than what people should want. What matters is what they do want. And that question can be answered. They’re telling you the answer. They’re telling you all the time.
(Now, even this question can’t be answered very easily. Because the main proxy being used for value is money. But someone could want something very desperately and not be able to afford it. What does it even mean to want something and not be able to pay for it? How can that desire be said to exist vis a vis all the other desires you can actualize? How does it affect your actions? Of course there are also some things you can’t buy with money. And peoples’ valuations fluctuate, and there’s evidence that relative rankings of things are not rational in the way you’d expect…etc…)
But what’s nice about the question “What do people want?” is that it is answerable in a way that the question “What should people want?” never can be. It’s very hard to answer the former question. You need to define a lot of terms. You need a lot of caveats. You’d need to run a lot of very innovative experiments. You’d probably need to bring in some neurobiology, psychology, evolutionary biology, etc. No one’s really done it yet, sure. But it can be done, and the reason it can be done is because of the central assumption that people’s actions reveal their desires.
But the latter question – What should people want? — cannot be answered. If you need a proof that there is no answer to that question…I refer you to…some philosopher (probably Hume). But it’s always seemed intuitively obvious to me.
Still, with economics, I have a way to approach problems. First, you look at what people are doing. That tells you what they want. Then you throw up your hands and say, “This is the way things are because people want a lot of stuff and have interacted in such a way as to produce this situation.” Yes, the economics-in-my-head is a very fatalistic system.
Like, let’s say someone is talking about a book, like…the Twilight series. The Twilight series has sold millions of copies. The fact that people buy it shows that they like it. People who don’t like Twilight often buy different books. Those books don’t sell as well as Twilight, and their authors don’t make as much money. Oh well! People don’t like those other books.
Why do people buy Twilight? Well…I can follow that line of reasoning a little farther down…
For instance, I can posit that there are a large number of readers who feel comforted by the notion that millions of other people are reading the same thing as them. These readers are much more likely to read a book they see someone else reading. It spreads virally and little hits become big blockbusters.
This theory would seem to have a certain amount of proof in something like Oprah’s Book Club, which can manage to move millions of copies of any book, from Jodi Picoult to Leo Tolstoy, through this mass-comfort.
Whereas there is another group of readers that feels comforted by the notion that they are strange and special and unique in reading something no one else is reading. They are repulsed by books they see in others’ hands, and settle on something else. This group is the group that really hates Twilight.
None of this has anything to do with the qualities of the book. That is because I am still very suspicious of the notion that a book can be “good” or “bad”. The notion of “good” is tied up with “should”. If a book is “good,” then people “should” want to read it. It seems to me that as long as one person likes a book, then it is good to somebody.
(If no one in the world likes a book in any way, even then I would not feel confident in calling it bad. There may someday be born a person who will like it.)
If I was to describe the quality of a book, I would not use literary analysis. Instead, I would find a random sampling of people, get them to read it, and then survey them as to their opinions of the book. I would assemble a demographic profile of my survey respondents, and ask them all kinds of other questions, and then I would come out and say, “This is the kind of person who likes this book. This is the kind of books he or she likes to read; he/she has this level of education, this income, this kind of occupation.”
(My working definition of a “good” book is a book that people are more likely to like if they’ve already read a lot of books. My working definition of a “bad” book is one that people are more likely to like if they’ve only read very few books.)
Maybe I would assemble a huge group of people with just the same demographic profile and give them all that book to read and scan all their brains (both before and after). And I’d look for variations in neural make-up between the did-likes and didn’t-likes to try to explain, even in this demographically similar group, why some liked it and why some didn’t.
(I know this isn’t how people really do experiments, but c’mon this is a blog entry and not a grant proposal.)
And hopefully, somewhere in this process, I would have a model that I could maybe even use to predict who would like this book and who wouldn’t. Maybe I could use this model to find other books that that person would like. Maybe I could use this model to tweak the book slightly so that more people would like it, or so that these people would like it more.
But at no point, would I ever feel comfortable saying, “This book is great, and people should read it.” Because I don’t even know how to begin to think about that statement. There is nothing in my worldview that can allow me to make sense of it.
Except I just did that. You might have missed it. It was like twelve hundred words ago.
Because my comprehensive worldview is really good for…something, I’m sure…
…but it’s not good for anything that I actually have to do in my life. I’m not out there running surveys to figure out what people think about books.
All I really have to work with is what I think.
Except…nothing in my training has really taught me how talk about that.
And…it should not be that hard. Because I do things. I act. I am one of those people who I would potentially be surveying. I clearly want things, and like things.
But talking about why I like them, or why something is good, and why something is bad is really difficult for me. It’s something that Delany does really well in this book. For instance, he undertakes a 60-page dissection of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. And I read it. And I was impressed. But I still don’t know how he could have the gall to do it.
I suppose my problem is…I am never going to undertake these surveys and brain scans and such…for the rest of my life, my main data point is going to be my own reaction to things. And how can I possibly use that to generalize to other people?
But even my own “reaction” is suspect. The connections I see are largely a function of what I’ve been told. Most of the things I think are just regurgitations of what I’ve read (see…well…everything in this blog post).
How can I, in good faith, attempt to generalize from my own experience?
And this is not an idle concern. It’s of central importance to my attempts to write. What I write will succeed or fail on the basis of whatever kernel of novelty it contains. It will depend on my perceiving that there is something missing from what I’ve read, something that my life contains which the works I’ve encountered do not, and putting that missing thing into my own work…
…which is made a little harder by me not even having the first idea of how to systematize my thoughts about a work…because under the worldview I’ve always operated under, those thoughts didn’t matter.
So, on another note, I think I can safely call The Jewel-Hinged Jaw a mindblowing work. It’s actually not as inaccessible as I’d feared. Although I can’t shake the persistent notion that Delany is using words somewhat idiosyncratically. He tosses out a term like “inchoate didacta” as if it had some sort of formal meaning (as a phrase)…because as individual words, that means nothing to me. “Inchoate” is like…beginning, or half-formed. “Didacta” is like…a teaching? I don’t think “didacta” is a word in English. Still, you can sort of figure out what he’s talking about, and most of it isn’t like that.
(in his usage “didacta” seems to be the background information in a novel, like the fascistic military-service voting system in Starship Troopers or the nature of the egalitarian, anarcho-collectivist society of the Anarresti in The Dispossessed).
Anyways, you should read it.