Scattered thoughts on estate plannIng

I continue to use my little digital typewriter dealy-hickey. It has three folders: A, B, and C. I use A for novel stuff, B for any form of non-fiction, and C for short stories. Right now I’m writing in the B folder, obviously.

Again, I do not by any means think that this is a necessity, or even necessarily an improvement over a computer. But it is kinda neat. It’s very light, about one and a half pounds (perhaps the weight of an iPad Pro), with an interesting form factor: long and narrow, like some old clamshell phone that had a physical keyboard. And the barriers to just opening it up and beginning to write are very very low.

You just open it, turn it on, and start typing. If you get frustrated with what you’re writing and want to start over, you hit the two red NEW keys on either side of the keyboard and a new blank document opens up.

It’s just very neat. And it is nice how it frees me from having to carry the computer around the house. What can I say, I like gadgets.

I’ve rejoined the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers Association of America) in order to improve my Nebula campaign for my recently published story “Everquest“. Oh! I think Nebula nominations opened yesterday or today or something. Just, you know, noting that here for anyone who might care.

Anyway, SFWA sent out an estate planning kit for writers. I took one look at it and my head started to hurt. There was all kinds of stuff about maintaining a file of all your contracts, etc, etc. It’s actually quite important: there are numerous writers who would be reprinted much more frequently today if anyone had any idea who owned their rights! Even in cases where you have a literary executor or a family member willing to act as one, they’re going to need a list of stories and of the unsold rights, which in each case is different and is governed by its own individual contract.

Yikes. Kind of a nightmare. I have informally appointed my friend Courtney as a literary executor, but I need to actually, you know, write a document. In my case, both my books were sold by different agents, who were at three different agencies, with three different publishers now involved. It’s potentially a big mess.

One of the better pieces of advice I got when I was starting out as a writer was to get and stay organized! When you’re making those first sales, it feels like such an irregular occurrence that you’re like, well I can just refer back to the email if I ever need to look at the contract. Which in one sense is true, but it’s better to have a folder in your computer where you have sub-folders for every completed story, and in those sub-folders it’d be good to include a copy of the contract (preferably the signed, fully-executed contract, though in most cases the unsigned contract is good enough.

Note, I do NOT follow my own advicce. I have contracts in boxes, on my email, in random folders in my computer. I do create a folder for each story, but it’s mostly a shorthand to manage the revision and submission process. Once a story is sold, I STILL go woo-hoo and forget about it. I am also terrible about returning signed contracts to editors. I keep meaning to just sit down and get organized, and I keep not doing it. And it only gets harder as you sell more stories (YES I KNOW THIS MIGHT SOUND LIKE FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS BUT YOU WILL HAVE THEM TOO SOMEDAY, I AM NOT EVEN THAT SUCCESSFUL OF AN AUTHOR).

You also might feel like oh well I’ll have an agent to sort this out, but you’ll probably have multiple agents over your career, and none of them will probably handle your short fiction, and almost all of them will refuse to handle subsidiary rights for books whose primary rights they didn’t sell.

I have no idea how people run real business (like with real revenues). I have friends who are freelance marketing consultants and designers and stuff; there must be so many contracts! Agh, at least in that case, your work only has value to THAT client.

I strongly believe in planning for both success and for failure. That means thinking about “What happens if this goes terribly wrong? How do I get back my rights? How do I avoid having to pay people money?” It also means thinking, “What if I have a breakout book and suddenly all my work is hot?” There are numerous cases of authors who couldn’t capitalize on success because they were tied up with bad contracts.

Anyway, one way of planning for success is by being organized. Another way is by leaving things in such a way that your heirs can make money off your books if the possibility arises. For most authors, your backlist is, at the time of your death, largely valueless. But something could happen! A fan of your book could become a film director and want to option it! You never know!

Anyway these are my assorted thoughts on the project of estate planning. Did I mention that this device makes it really easy to just write and write and write?

Writing-related Gadgetry: The Freewrite Traveler

Like many other people trapped in this nightmareish hellscape of a year, I’ve coped in part by resorting to shopaholism. I wouldn’t say it’s a problem, but let’s say that as someone ten years sober, I recognize certain similarities btween buying crap and being addicted to alcohol.

Nonetheless I’ve bought some stuff, and it’s been fun, and it’s diverted me temporarily from the collapse of democracy in America. My latest purchase is actually an old one, from an Indiegogo campaign I backed quite a while ago. I got this nifty little typewriter-style word-processing gadget: the Freewrite Traveler.

It’s essentially a keyboard attached to an e-ink screen. It connects to wifi and uploads your documents as text files. It has a very simple interface, and it’s intended to help you focus on generating text without doing anything else.

Longtime blog readers might remember that I went through a long phase where I developed increasingly complicated systems for shutting off my own access to internet while I wrote. At first it was only this app, Freedom, that forces you to reboot your computer if you want to access the internet before time is up.

That worked for about four years, until I finally got a smart phone. Then I bought these Kitchensafe boxes that I used to lock up my phone. And I bought bigger boxes to lock up my ipad. Eventually I started doing this thing where I would lock up everything before going to sleep and not set it to open again until 2 PM the next day. But at some point two years ago I got an iPad too big to lock up in one of the boxes, so I gave up on the practice.

By that time I’d outgrown it. I had learned the dangers of forcing myself to write when I had nothing to say. Now if I don’t feel like writing, I just don’t do it. Sometimes that feels bad and like a waste of time, but I think procrastination does have its uses. I’ve learned to listen to procrastination, to listen to my own disinterest in the text and feel what my unconscious is trying to tell me.

But I still do have a fascination with things that reduce the barriers to writing. For a time I used this app called FlowState where the text disappears if you don’t keep writing continuously. I wrote several short stories using that app, including, if I am not mistaken, my recently published story “The Leader Principle”, which came out in F&SF. I also wrote a number of chapters of my literary novel, THE LONELY YEARS, in that app.

But once I had a child, life became too chaotic for FlowState. There are always interruptions that might cause you to look away for too long and, as a result, lose the text. And I wouldn’t dare lock up my phone or shut off my Internet, because you never know when you might need to hurriedly google “How can I tell if the paint chips my kid just ate have lead in them?”

So now I have this doohickey. And…it’s okay. I like it. It’s one of those things I can’t entirely recommend, since I think other people probably wouldn’t enjoy it nearly as much. For one thing, the screen has a delay–the letters don’t appear until at least a half-second after you type. This, combined with the lack of arrow keys (there is a way of skipping backward in the text, but it’s cumbersome) means that for most people, especially those who are prone to frequent typos and spelling mistakes, this really wouldn’t be very useful.

For me, however, I really like devices that denature the text and make it seem less like a real book. I like things that feel temporary and trivial. The small screen and the cheesy look of the device makes it feel like everything you write in it isn’t really serious. And the simple file system encourages you to just turn it on and start writing.

For me the most annoying thing is the lack of first-line indents. This is a common feature of writing apps that are designed by programmers. They all use markdown for their formatting, and they are all designed with the assumption that your text is going to go on the internet (where there are no indents and where paragraphs are usually set off by a blank line). When writing a short story or a novel, that just really doesn’t feel right to me. And it often requires some annoying reformatting when I finally import the document into Word or Scrivener.

Anyway this was a thoroughly pointless blog entry. Do not buy this device. You do not need it. You do not need anything. If Flaubert could write Madame Bovary with pen and paper, then none of us need some fancy piece of machinery to churn out our fanfics and blog posts.

I’ve also been reading a lot of graphic novels, as I think I’ve mentioned. I read Greg Rucka’s STUMPTOWN. It’s about a PI based in Portland. It’s four volumes, and I think only really found its footing with the last one, which centers around a billionaire who’s trying to steal a coffee roaster’s special civet cat coffee. Before that, the tone just felt a little too heavy.

Also reading THE LONELY BONES, which is fantastic. I can’t believe this book sold twenty million copies. It is so good. And really intriguing structure. It has a “how do they catch the killer” element that keeps you reading, but the core of the book is the murdered narrator’s longing for the life she was pulled away from, and her description of the lives and struggles of the people she left behind. Beautiful book.

As for my own writing, I’m working on a very intriguing fantasy novel that blends several ideas I’ve been toying with for years. But it’s hard to say if it’ll ever really turn into anything. This book has made me remember why I stopped writing long-form speculative fiction. You neeed to get the premise really tight, both on a thematic and a logical level, before you even start, and oftentimes by the time the premise is in order, it’s so tight that it drains all the urgency from the text and doesn’t give you the ability to really get into the emotional arcs.

We’ll see. It feels good to write. It’s only in the last few days that I’ve felt excited about this book as anything more than just an exercise. Sometimes I despair of ever having another book published again. The path is just so long, and who knows if the world will even be standing by the time my book is finally on submission to publishers (much less the point at which it would come out).

I also feel like writing about trans themes and trans characters puts a barrier between me and the reader. They want to like and appreciate a book that’s about the T in the alphabet soup, but in truth the worries and concerns of the T are not particularly relatable even to the rest of the alphabet, much less to cis-hetero people. So the reader comes away wanting something that it’s impossible for the text to give them. They want to feel some connection to this story, but they can’t, because it is all about feeling alienated from exactly those things that the reader takes most for granted.

Reading the USA Trilogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have been reading a ton of French Graphic novels lately

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five classics that ought to capture you from page one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking about other things

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

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

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

I’m now going by Naomi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well we’re all screwed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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