Spent an hour yesterday trying to understand when the yeoman class disappeared in England

Hello friends, just came back from a trip to Los Angeles. Like all trips with toddlers it was very tiring. I have no idea what I am supposed to do today, but I haven’t done it. On the other hand, I spent an hour yesterday trying to research when exactly the yeoman class in England disappeared.

This is because I’m nearing the end of the first volume of Marx’s Capital, where he gets into the idea of where the original capital came from. How did the first manufacturers get their capital? And to this end he traces the history of wealth in England.

Now if you know England, you know they’re big into the concept of their yeomanry, which was their historical proto-middle-class. These were essentially small landholders who worked their own land. They were the backbone of the English army and of its identity and of its proto-democratic values.

But Marx was like, when the great landlords started enclosing the commons and kicking tenants off their estates so they could turn farm land into pasture land, that is when the yeomanry disappeared. And my question was, “How is that possible? If the yeomanry owned their own land, how could anyone kick them off of it?”

To this end, I did a lot of research, and in the process I found that there’s not an exact definition of what a yeoman is. What many people point to is the “forty shilling freeholder”, which is the person who was entitled to vote for representatives for the House of Commons. This requirement, enacted in 1440ish, limited the franchise to people who derived at least forty shillings a year of income from, essentially, rents. Although rents was widely defined. If you owned and worked land that would be worth forty shillings if rented out, that still counted, but you had to actually own the land. It had to belong to you by right, indefinitely–you couldn’t simply have a lease on it.

This is where the problem comes in. Many of the people commonly referred to as yeomen were not actually freeholders (i.e. they didn’t own their land outright, w/ no lord other than the king). Many were copyholders. These were people who farmed large plots of land on very long leases and who did not owe anything other than a cash rent on the land (i.e. they didn’t owe payment in service or in shares to their landlord). These people would not have been eligible to vote.

In practice, people often didn’t want to be eligible to vote, because people who met the property requirements for voting also met the requirements to serve on juries, which was a hassle.

The term “farmer” by the way, originally referred exclusively to people who rented land from a landlord in return for an annual payments. So a farmer could not be a forty shilling freeholder. But farmers were often very influential men in their communities. They employed labor, kept large houses, improved their properties, and exercised some influence over local affairs.

(This by the way is all separate from serfdom, which had largely died out by the 15th century, as most land w service obligations was converted to land where you only needed to pay a cash rent to the lord. However at roughly the same time, the poor laws were enacted, which made it VERY difficult to change the district where you resided, because your home district was responsible for taking care of you if you became poor, so in practice people were still unfree in that they couldn’t move from place to place in search of better wages and opportunities).

Anyway, to get back to enclosure, this process was disastrous for any form of leaseholder (except, sometimes, the largest farmers), because it entailed reducing an estate’s labor needs. You simply didn’t need tenants anymore, so you kicked them out (tenancy protections weren’t that strong in many parts of England). By walling off the commons, you also hurt small yeomen, because by this point in history a forty shilling freehold was relatively small (four acres or so would meet the requirement) and to make ends meet many freeholders also pastured animals in the commons. So walling off the commons made it difficult for them to make ends meets and resulted in them selling their land, which led to land consolidation.

But I also read an article saying the major decline in the yeoman class came in the years after the black death, when rural populations declined permanently, and that decline after 1750 wasn’t significant. But the article was also from 1910, so who knows.

Which is to say, colloquially, the term ‘yeoman’ referred to relatively well-off peasants (say, those who farmed more than thirty acres). Or what in Soviet Russia would’ve been called a kulak. But this class was divided into richer yeoman and poorer ones. The poorer ones were the ones Marx talked about who were destroyed by enclosure. The richer ones actually made lots of money and became, in Marx’s opinion, the foundation of the bourgeoisie.

Marx doesn’t care about the distinction between copyholders and freeholders, because he doesn’t see voting as a meaningful right, but many people colloquially called yeomen were actually copyholders, who simply leased lands on very long rents. These people actually had the potential to make a lot of money during the enclosure period bc their rents were fixed, there was general inflation, and the price of rural labor dropped. Thus, their obligations and costs decreased, while the price of their produce increased.

I’m just writing this blog post because I spent hours searching for this information last night and found it all over the place in bits and pieces. You know, for an economist that was at one point the basis for the economic system that governed half the world, Marx is kind of underexplained, at least in English. But I am sure someone else will try to google “Marx yeoman disappeared Capital” and will come across this entry and get some clarity.

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My writing to reading ratio is about 1 to 4, I think

My sister in law recently asked what percentage of my time I spend writing and what percentage I spend reading. I said that if she was asking for the ratio of those two activities then I spend at least three hours reading for every hour I spend writing. 

And yet I constantly wonder if this is enough. For instance today most of my reading has consisted of listening to this audiobook about Jack Welch (I began and finished it today in four-ish hours of listening) and an audiobook on Lenin. Meanwhile I’m still making my way slowly through Capital. And yet I’m taking time off to write this post. 

Writing is the ultimate aim. One wants to produce something that will last. And it’s sometimes pleasant to write, nice to think one has produced something today. But productivity can also lead you astray. Finished a story or essay or blog post or chapter can be a form of instant gratification, and I wonder—is this really necessary? Perhaps I could improve my work more by reading Capital. After all, most of what I write gets thrown out, but what I read never goes away. 

And yet I do think, I dunno, that when I die, or when my memory fades, that all this learning will go away. The Soviets for some reason always hated aestheticism in any form, they wanted all knowledge to be in service of the state. And I wonder what’s the point of reading just to know—isn’t it more important to transmute my reading into something more?

But I’ve lately taken a longer view. After all, according to life expectancy tables I can expect to live at least a few more years: twenty or thirty wouldn’t be unreasonable. That means my entire productive life to come will easily equal or exceed what has passed. And I don’t want to read 55 or 65 and think, I haven’t learned anything since I was 36. 

In this Jack Welch book they keep talking about how too much pressure, too much interrogation, squelches creativity. To be creative you need the freedom to fail. Jack Welch created an environment where performance was constantly measured and nobody had any room to just play around.

I have seen too many writers though spend too many years in play, writing outlines or doodling or doing research, like a Mr Causabon and never getting down to work. 

I’m not sure. I used to think I’d write my great book someday. But if I haven’t written it yet, then I’m at least aware that anything I write at this age needs to have at least some potential to be the great one. 

Notes on books:

I realized what’s been bothering me about Capital: it’s the labor theory of value. It states that all the value in a good is produced by labor. As such, profit can only arise from exploiting labor. I’ve been thinking very hard about it, and I realized the problem is Marx has some assumptions he doesn’t make explicit. The main one is he believes in a Malthusian world where wages will inevitably fall to the level of subsistence. The worker will get only as much of the value as it takes to keep them alive and reproduce their labor. He believes it’s the capitalist’s goal to create such a world, in fact. But…that isn’t really what happened. Wages in industrial societies for whatever reason rose instead. This undermines his whole point. Marx argues that the _purpose_ of capital is to give workers less power, to make them more expendable, and thus allow you to reduce their wages. Under capitalism, the workers will thus get to keep a smaller share of their labor than before capitalism. But it’s not entirely clear if that’s true, and there are empirical reasons for thinking it’s not. He makes a very well argued case though. 

Periodically I search the Penguin Classics catalogue for interesting books. I sometimes buy them but almost never read them (I’m horrible, I know). But the other day I came upon Path of Glory by Humphrey Cobb. It’s a 1935 novel about WWI that inspired a Stanley Kubrick movie that’s apparently much better known. Anyway it was reissued as a Penguin Classic, and it’s short so I took a look. It’s set on the Western Front, in a French regiment that fails in an assault. Afterwards, the ordinary soldiers are scapegoated by their vindictive general (who likes to boast he’s never once failed to take a position he’s assaulted), and three of the enlisted men are court martialed and executed as an example to the rest. It reminded me strongly of Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, which also used a war setting (WWII, in that case) to dramatize an ethical dilemma and whose second half was a courtroom drama. Oh, Crimson Tide also uses a similar conceit and structure. In both of those cases, the soldier eventually gets off, though there’s doubt about whether they should. This one is bleaker, as befits a WWI novel, and it castigates the entire machinery of war for giving people the ability to duck responsibility for what they’ve done. It was also quite well-written, albeit in an unshowy manner. The lines had natural elegance and rhythm. I finished it in one sitting—two hours. 

Articles of Note

  • Found lots to love in this article about one of the latest Fields medal winners (it’s like the Nobel for math, as anyone who’s watched Good Will Hunting will remember): “To hear him tell it, he doesn’t usually have much control over what he decides to focus on in those three hours. For a few months in the spring of 2019, all he did was read. He felt an urge to revisit books he’d first encountered when he was younger — including Meditations by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and several novels by the German author Hermann Hesse — so that’s what he did. “Which means I didn’t do any work,” Huh said. “So that’s kind of a problem.” (He’s since made peace with this constraint, though. “I used to try to resist … but I finally learned to give up to those temptations.” As a consequence, “I became better and better at ignoring deadlines.”)

Since this is basically a newsletter now, I’m putting a submission link below

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.

As far as I can tell, there’s not a lot of interesting book discussion online

I’m back!

After a tour of all the precincts of social media, including Twitter, Instagram, and Medium, I decided I still like my own blog best! It has zero reach and almost nobody reads it, but it’s fun, and it doesn’t actively make my life worse.

I decided, actually, to spend a little bit more time cultivating one-on-one relationships. When I thought of the most popular and charismatic people I knew, one thing that cut across them, actually, was that they tend to put little effort into social media and a lot of effort into developing intimacy with their friends.

Of course I don’t want to be one of those people who bags on social media. I’ve found it to be a very useful tool for getting better acquainted with people I already know. Facebook has given me a lot in this life. I’ve reconnected with several old friends, and I’ve becom better acquainted with scores of people who I probably would’ve lost touch with were it not for the platform.

But as a marketing tool or a tool for broader engagement with the intellectual world, I’m not sure social media is for me.

The truth is, sometimes I feel a little lonely, when it comes to my intellectual interests. For instance, right now I’m reading a lot of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, who was a 19th century writer of sensation novels. Essentially, her books are thrillers, she wrote thrillers. But because it was the 19th century, her thrillers proceed at a rather sedate pace. And yet she’s a master of keeping you in suspense. And her plots proceed in such a cunning and thoughtful manner that the writer in me is very impressed. Previously, I’d read a little Wilkie Collins, and although I liked it, I didn’t enjoy how contorted his plots were. The book seemed to be straining to deliver shocks and surprises. Whereas Braddon is very in tune with the virtues of the form. She’s still writing domestic stories and still writing novels of manners, but in her books the manners are now somewhat expanded, to include things like murder and bigamy. It’s good stuff! Particularly when you compare it to current domestic thrillers, which I also find to often be somewhat sweaty in their plotting. I think there’s a lot of value to reading books that were written before current standards cohered. Because she’s not working with the framework of the “thriller”, Braddon doesn’t need to try so hard to be thrilling.

But who is there to talk to about these things? I thought maybe I’d find somebody on Twitter, but to be honest, Twitter seems mostly concerned with discussing ephemera. Even in the literary world, there’s a certain level of faddishness that doesn’t excite me. I don’t hate what is new, but I also don’t instinctively think that it’s superior to what is old. And I don’t see why our conversation has to be dominated by books that came out this year and writers who are currently alive.

One might think that I’d find people to talk to within the academy, but again I don’t know. I find that academics don’t read in either the way a writer or an ordinary person does. They don’t seem to read for pleasure. They rarely read outside their field. And they read with an agenda, to prove or disprove some particular point. There’s no feeling of wonderment.

Oftentimes I think writers are the true heirs to the world of literature. Alone amongst peoples, we have permission to read widely and to read deeply and to read only the best of what literature has to offer.

The real problem here is that when we writers follow our own tastes, those tastes take us into peculiar and unique places, whereas if we just read whatever is getting reviewed this week in the New York Times, we’re able to read it along with everybody else, and, as such, we get the pleasure of discussing it. Because of that, current discussion will always, of necessity, be dominated by the new and contemporary. Everybody out there might be reading their own M.E. Braddon, but their Braddons are all different, while if we’re reading contemporary novels, we’re probably reading Sally Rooney.

It’s not anybody’s fault. It’s not even a problem with human nature. It’s structural, mathematical, a problem of the long-tail distribution of the books that sell and are read each year.

I guess I just wish that the current books that everybody was talking about were, like, better? I wish they actually merited all this discussion. I wish there was still something interesting to say about them. And I wish there was some way of talking about them without either being gushy or completely disdaining them. These are all things that, I think, come easier when a book is older and an author is dead. But by the time it’s possible to say something interesting about a book, everyone has forgotten it! So the only times you get a fun discussion about a book is when its stock is rising, as with John Williams’s STONER or John Okada’s NO-NO BOYS, or when its stock is falling, as with INFINITE JEST, and you get to have post-facto arguments about it that lead people to read it to see what the fuss is about.

Is there a middle ground between the average person and the heroes of literature?

Lately I’ve gotten that social media fatigue that everybody’s been complaining about for ages. I haven’t gone much on Twitter. Haven’t even logged into Facebook. Haven’t posted on this blog. I think one day I was on Twitter, and I was just like, why am I doing this to myself? I don’t know these people, and they don’t know me. So I decided I’d stop maintaining all these unidirectional relationships. Even watching TV, which I’ve been doing quite a bit, seems a better use of my time than scrolling endlessly through Twitter.

I’ve started to feel my years. Not in terms of “I’m not the success I want to be.” Instead I keep wondering, “Am I writing the way I want to be?” I find myself scrutinizing every sentence I write, thinking, “Is this the sentence a great writer would write?” I think, “Would Tolstoy use a phrase like ‘writer would write’? Probably not, to be honest.”

My writing style has matured considerably in just the last year. Now when I sit down and write a short story it comes out in this odd, this odd sort of, well it’s very hard to describe, but it’s sort of like a historian’s chronicle–event follows event, with lots of summary, and then a few scenes that explode outward in great detail. Thinking back over my reading from the last fifteen years, I honestly think no book has affected my style more than the Sarashina Diary. Which is an odd thing. It’s one of my favorite books, but not my absolute favorite. I’ve also learned from Tolstoy. When you read him, you’re like…this is so simple. Why can’t my work be this simple? You just tell the story. That’s all you do is tell the story. And if that includes a fifty thousand word soliloquy about Napoleon, then that’s what you need to include.

But I still look at my novels and my stories, and I think, is this it? I think there’s a point, fifteen years into your writing career, when you’ve learned quite a bit, and you suddenly wonder, “Do I have a voice? Do I have anything new to contribute?” It’s that whole anxiety of influence deal.

I came out of the world of commercial fiction, where, honestly, voice is deemphasized. Instead of voice, people talk about your world-building or your ideas. It’s like language is this set of bricks, and what matters is what you build. But language isn’t bricks. Language is atoms, and you can choose to form those atoms into bricks, or you can form them into some other, stranger sort of connector.

When I read literary fiction, I quite often think, wow, you tried too hard to develop your own voice, and you forgot how to tell a story. Because story and character are part of voice too, and there are numerous writers whose style is nothing special, but who added new ideas and new forms to the world of literature.

At the same time, I admire those literary writers (the ones with too much voice) for knowing, from early in their career, exactly what’s required if you’re to be a great writer. A literary writer often feels like a child. You read the book, and you’re like…did you put any thought at all into the overall structure of this story? But at the same time, they often have the wonderful ingenuity of a child.

I’ve been reading a lot of Ibsen. His plays aren’t too long, and I’ve read seven or eight in the past few days. I like them immensely. What I enjoy in a play is the feeling that I’m witnessing some sort of interaction that would normally be private. Many plays contain an absurdist element that doesn’t necessarily appeal to me. I want to know, instead, exactly what it’s like to see a husband and a wife, arguing alone in their room. Not in the theatrical, stylized way that people do for television. In the theater, characters argue differently, they speak differently. At times it can feel very honest.

I also think, “These plays weren’t meant to be read.” It gives me hope. In Ibsen, the beauty isn’t in the lines. To be honest, the words, at least in much of what the translations that I read, were a bit pedestrian. What was of marvelous complexity were the characters. And I think what draws me to Ibsen is also that his plays contain a hint of the ideal. They’re not entirely realistic. His characters have a heroism. This is particularly notable in his most famous plays, like in “Hedda Gabler”, which is about a vile, self-centered woman who cares only for style. What she wants is for the world to contain some element of panache. And when her former lover can’t even commit suicide right, she resolves, like Kirillov in Demons, to show the world how to end your life correctly.

For the realist writer, managing that hint of idealism is one of our toughest tasks. Because we don’t want to write characters who are too plebeian. We want our characters to contain mankind’s finest qualities. But at the same time, we don’t want them to be unrealistic.

In a lot of my work, I spiral around the concepts of strength and weakness. I can’t tell you the number of stories and novels I’ve written which were rejected because the main character was “too pathetic”. I think if most people were to be written about, we’d be dismissed by readers as “too pathetic”. I don’t want, in my writing, to shy away from the things in all of us that are, quite frankly, loathsome. I’m not talking about greed, I’m talking about its opposite. So many people seem so inert and apathetic. The heroic qualities we associate with the characters in literature are entirely absent from the average person’s life, so much so that if a person is capable for even a second of breaking free from inertia, then it almost seems a miracle.

I’m fascinated by that inertia. I’ve experienced so much of it in my own life. The feeling that I’m born along by fate, and that I’m unable to take control. And I’m not a weak person. I’m stronger than most, if the truth was to be told. But even so, I fall far below the standards set by literature. It seems to me that there must be some middle-ground between the average human and the heroes of literature. Some middle ground where people are a little bit heroic. Or a little bit powerful. Or where they occasionally rise above themselves. And that’s what I seek, not always successfully, to write about.

Elizabeth Hardwick writes about fiction that treats with the problems of being a woman

Someone once told me not to begin promoting your novel until, at the earliest, six months before its release date, because otherwise any hype you build will peak too soon. I have no idea whether this is true, but it’s a good enough reason to not write too much about my book. It’s out there, going to bloggers through Edelweiss and NetGalley, and it’s accruing blurbs from other writers as well. Response has been gratifying! By this time, a few weeks, after the public release of the ARCs of my first book, ENTER TITLE HERE, it’d already accumulated some extremely negative responses, which this one hasn’t yet done.

I am very pleased with the book. Mostly I’m just pleased that I took the time to completely rewrite it late last year and early this year even when I didn’t have to. I didn’t entirely think it’d make a difference in the book’s reception, but it clearly, to me, wasn’t where it needed to be, and now it is.

Anyway, I haven’t been blogging as much lately! This is the new book’s fault again. I’ve been trying to reach new audiences, which has led me back onto Twitter. I’ve been pondering Medium, but I’m not certain it’s entirely right for me. I dunno. Instagram is where you’re supposed to go, but I’ve no visual eye.

Reading-wise, I’ve been having a good month. The book I’d recommend most highly is Elizabeth Hardwick’s Beauty and Seduction, which I found through the simple expedient of checking out ten more or less randomly selected NYRB classics from an online library. This wasn’t even the first of those books that I’ve read. I also read Boredom, by Alberto Moravia (which was a bit tedious, to be honest), and Glenway Wescott’s Apartment in Athens, which was an intense and fascinating psychological thriller about the relationship between a Greek family and the Nazi officer who’s been forcibly domiciled with them.

Seduction and Betrayal is an essay collection! It contains individual essays on the Bronte Sisters, on Sylvia Plath, on the Bloomsbury Group, on the plays of Ibsen, and on the concept of seduction and betrayal in fiction. The book is loosely organized around the theme of, “Who are the authors who’ve said something interesting in fiction about what it means to be a woman?” In this Hardwick doesn’t mean, “Who has written great female characters.” In some cases, having great characters gets in the way of what she’s talking about. She wants to know what authors have treated sort of the essence of womanhood and woman’s place in the world. And each essay in its own way gets at those ideas.

I’m finding it hard to quantify what was so striking about the collection. I think it was the gentleness with which Hardwick treats many of these women and many of these characters. For instance, in an essay on amateurs—women known for their proximity to literary greats—she writes about Wordsworth’s sister, and how she achieved greatness in one of the only ways available to her, which was to subsume her life to her brother’s genius. In her essay on seduction and betrayal, she writes about how desire, how the momentary weakening of the senses, the thing that causes a woman to give in to seduction, is a great engine for fiction. She talks about how various women have been written about when it comes to desire. She compares the saintliness of Hester Prynne. She talks about Clarissa Harlowe, who wasn’t seduced (she was raped), but who also in some ways seems to be flirting with oblivion in how she deals with Lovelace. She writes about Hetty, in Adam Bede, who seems vain and not-thoroughly-good, but who doesn’t deserve the punishment she gets. Hardwick knows, obviously, that it’s wrong for the world to punish women in this way, but she’s not concerned with the world, she’s concerned with how fiction treats the problems of womanhood, and this is a very particular problem: men can have sex without biological repercussion, whereas women risk pregnancy. And how does this problem become a vehicle for fiction?

Similarly, in her essay on the Brontes, she engages in a bit of bio-crit, talking about how the sisters were almost driven into seeking literary success because of the poor range of choices available to them at the time. They couldn’t bear to be governesses, and they didn’t want to marry poorly. She writes about how Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre represent very different solutions to this same problem. (As as sidenote, I wish she’d included poor Anne! I still think she’s my favorite of the sisters, and I’m not saying that just to be contrary. I prefer the realist to the romantic, I’m sorry…)

I liked the essay on Ibsen the most, because I hadn’t read anything of his, hadn’t even really heard much about him before. But she writes about Ibsen’s characters—about his women who are driven to make something of their lives—and about the various paths they take, and the tragedies that befall them.

It’s a short book, maybe 300 pages, and definitely worth your time! NYRB classics 4eva

It’s been a minute since I’ve written about the books I’ve read, so let me tell you about David Graeber’s BULLSHIT JOBS

Most of my long-time readers probably don’t often visit the site itself, but in my menu bar there’s a link to an index of all the books I’ve ever written about (at least between 2008 and 2016). Just now whilst procrastinating I followed some of those links and revisited my thoughts on a few randomly-selected favorites. Part of me was appalled by the careless language (I really overuse ‘basically’) and part of me was appalled by the careless thinking, but I’m glad those posts exist.

This blog, in its second incarnation (it’s gone through at least three or four reboots), was primarily a book blog. I’ve maintained it through my entire time as a reader of the literary canon, and you can see, if you care to, my initial posts on Anna Karenina and War and Peace and Bleak House and other literary classics that for some reason seemed to demand comment from me.

Lately my reading hasn’t slowed, but I’ve felt less need to write about it. I long ago accepted that I don’t really want to be a ‘thinker’ in the way of a Samuel Delany or Lionel Trilling or Dwight McDonald. Nor do I want to be a smart cultural critic like Pauline Kael or Jo Walton. And I don’t even want to be an essayist of any stripe. Although I appreciate all these forms of writing, they don’t inspire me. There’s a certain density to all the popular nonfiction forms that I find myself uninterested in matching. I also have zero desire to look up quotations or research facts. I think what I enjoy most in the blogs I read is actually the opposite of this denseness; it’s the feeling of looseness and playfulness that comes from watching a mind at work (it’s what I value most about John Scalzi’s or Nick Mamatas’s writing, for instance), and it’s what I hope to give my own readers.

Sometimes I’ve thought of collecting all my posts about writing and putting out a little book. It’s a saturated market, but I probably have something original to say, both about the structure of the novel and about finding your inspiration. The most difficult lesson, at least for me, has been the process of learning to listen to the whisper-soft voice of my own longing (“This is what you really need to be writing…), and I know that other writers could use a little guidance along this own journey.

But that’s all a long aside. In this post we’re talking about book-blogging. That’s the topic, and I’m sticking to it.

It feels wrong to read so many books and to let them pass without comment. Particularly since I’ve lately been trying to read more obscure books–novels and essays and short stories that are less fully assimilated into our culture. And I see that in the past two months I’ve read a few books that’ve had a profound impact on my thinking.

Probably the most exciting of these was David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs, which is about the very broad phenomenon of people feeling as if their own jobs are, not just meaningless, but actually almost like some sort of scam. For my entire working life, people have paid me to do things whose utility has eluded me. I don’t just mean in the broad sense, that I didn’t understand why this project was necessary, I mean that in the micro sense: I didn’t understand how my work even contributed in any meaningful way to the completion of the project. If, as I learned as an undergrad economics major, I was being paid in some sense for my productivity–my added value to some completed economic project–then why couldn’t I perceive that value?

Instead of going with the standard economist’s answer (“You can’t necessarily perceive the larger picture under which your labor is necessary”), Graeber starts by assuming that people like me are, broadly, correct in our assumption that our labor is without productive value. Instead he develops some theories for how society could’ve developed in such a way that a large number of people are paid for valueless labor.

The theory is that the apocalypse foretold by mechanization has already occurred: most workers are already superannuated. Our economy simply doesn’t have a need for nearly as many workers as there are people. But obviously some immense surplus still exists, and for political reasons the owners of capital are unable to simply take all of it for themselves–they need to distribute the surplus in some way in order to create allies and maintain the political order. This isn’t some big conspiracy; it’s something that occurs organically. In large organizations, having employees means having power. You fight for a bigger budget so you can employ more people, and then the fact that you employ so many people means you get paid more and are more important. Repeat this many industries, and you have our current economy.

I don’t entirely buy the theory, for many reasons (a bit of the economics major lingers inside me still), but I highly recommend the book. It’s very worth reading, and it’ll explain these ideas far better than I ever could.

Carefulness and obscurity in fiction

I’ve been reading Stefan Zweig’s memoir The World of Yesterday. Zweig is a writer from the inter-war period whose literary reputation has really gone up in the last ten years. I remember 5-10 years ago reading this article that was like, “Hey, there’s this dude out there, Stefan Zweig. He wrote this story, ‘The Royal Game,’ that’s a metaphor for the conflict between nations that led to World War II.” And that was it. His reputation was confined largely to that one story. He was a curio piece.

Now, thanks to the translation and reissuing of his novels and, lately, of this memoir, he’s roared back to life. Thanks must be given here, as with many literary resuscitations, to the NYRB classics imprint. I read two of Zweig’s novels, Beware of Pity and the Post-Office Girl in NYRB editions. His memoir, however, was put out by the University of Nebraska Press! It’s almost unbelievable, considering that it has hundreds of Amazon reviews and has attracted quite a bit of critical acclaim.

Like Nabokov’s Speak, Memory (which I’ve never read), Zweig’s novel is an evocation of a lost world: the Vienna of the final years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was a particularly fertile period for fiction. Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities and Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March were also written during this time, as well as a host of lesser books that may or may not also be making a comeback (of the authors Zweig mentions in his book, I’ve read works by Hugo von Hoffmansthal and Arthur Schnitzler as well, and Schnitzler at least deserves to be more widely known).

As with all memoirs of bygone times, it’s hard to know what is real and what isn’t. Zweig describes a time of literary ferment, when everybody cared deeply for culture and art, when theater actors were mobbed on the street, when the conductor of the Opera or the Symphony was a superstar, and when 18 year old kids looked upon poets and authors almost as divine beings, completely separate from you and me.

I don’t entirely disbelieve this account. I’ve only been to Vienna once, but it struck me that even today, it’s a city that prides itself on being cultured. Even the commercials that showed on television had a very dreamy, artistic quality, and I have a vivid recollection of wandering through a public park as an aria from the Marriage of Figaro was pumped through the square by loudspeakers.

But even within this ferment, Zweig sought out a somewhat niche area. He avoided the popular press, he avoided the big imprints that sometimes published lighter fiction, and he exclusively sought out only the most renowned presses, theaters, and publications. As a result, his work, those of his fellows, and those of his idols, was often very unknown during the time in which he worked. He in particular recalls during his time in Paris that the writers in whom he was interested were the exact opposite of the super-star writer. They were humble people, who often worked minor civil service jobs, lived simple and bourgeois lives, and wrote without expectation of reward. He also comments that the three people in Paris who would later make the biggest impression on the literary world, Paul Valery, Marcel Proust, and Romain Rolland, were all entirely unknown even in the literary world at this time.

I’ve several times now read literary memoirs about small groups of highly intellectual people who wrote in periodicals with poor circulations or for small presses or in tiny editions, and who later had an outsized influence on the world (also coming to mind is Norman Podhoretz’s memoir Making It), and I can’t deny that there is something very attractive about this image.

It’s all farce and image, of course. Plenty of authors seek out immediate notoriety. Plenty of great authors write for money, or write for the commercial press. But I am attracted to the monastic quality that Zweig describes, the sense that the work itself has its own purity that will someday shine through. He tells, for instance, of going to visit Rodin in his workshop, and seeing Rodin start to work on a sculpture. The artist works for a few minutes, making corrections to a clay model, and when he’s done he’s surprised to find a strange young man in his studio: he’d entirely forgotten that Zweig was in the room.

This vision of artistic greatness has seeped into our culture and congealed. Books nowadays come with their own creation myths that are released in tandem, or even before, publication. The story of how The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao took ten years to write, for instance, or the idea of the immense periods of time that elapse between books by Donna Tartt or Jeffrey Eugenides. Yet oftentimes that labor is more of a reaction to celebrity culture than it is an inherent demand of the work. I think oftentimes authors take a long period to follow up on books simply because the pressure of delivering another success is so immense. In some ways this is the opposite of the careful, painstaking work of a Proust or of a Romain Rolland.

In my own revisions, I’ve really been enjoying the gentle suturing I’ve done on the book. Most of the changes I’m making aren’t going to matter to the reader, but they matter a lot to me. I do feel slightly resentful that the work needs to come to an end. Part of me thinks a few more rounds of revision would really be useful.

Everything about this book has been hurried. I wrote it to fulfill my contract with Disney, then after losing my agent and publisher, I rewrote it, feeling hurried and oppressed, because I wanted it to sell but I also didn’t quite have the same faith in the book. Then since it’s sold I’ve been working on my publisher’s (albeit very generous) deadlines. I’ve worked quite a bit on the book, but every word in it is also new since August of this year, and I feel that newness in the pages. Even now, I’m writing new scenes, and I think, well, these scenes are more or less going straight to press, they won’t ever get that time to sit and be mulled over.

The structure of the book is excellent. It’s as perfect a thing as I’ve ever put out, but I still somehow want more from it. And yet I also feel that the market won’t really reward that care. Whether the book succeeds or fails will depend entirely upon only the broadest possible reactions: whether people identify with the protagonist whether librarians and teachers think it’s ‘important’; whether it arouses in kids a sense of hope and longing. By the time they get to the third chapter, they’ll either be sold on the book or they won’t, and the rest won’t particularly matter.

I think all writers ultimately know this. Zweig had books and plays accepted by the most prestigious venues in Austria at an early age, and yet he pooh-poohs these works, saying he’s never allowed them to be reprinted. He knew instinctively that he hadn’t yet created anything truly great.

In the same way, I think writers need to hold themselves to higher (and different) standards than the market does, and yet that’s not an easy thing to do, because the mere fact that these standards are different means they are unrenumerated. Nor will you even have the satisfaction of seeing readers or critics grasp what you’re doing–they might like it, but they’re unlikely to like it because of those things you put into it. A really intelligent and sympathetic reading is something that most authors don’t get until they’re well into their careers.

This book is done (or almost so). I honestly don’t think I could handle another round of revision. But with my next book I hope to be able to take more care throughout.

Recently read a trio of novels that weren’t appreciated in their time (and also maybe are still not appreciated)

I love Edith Wharton. So much so that I slogged through her memoir A Backwards Glance. It wasn’t worth it. Most of it was not about writing. A substantial amount was about interior decoration. But there was some good stuff in there! For instance, Edith Wharton was _not_ really a part of literary high society, either in the US or in London. Her main writer friend was Henry James, with whom she was extremely close. But she does describe the literary productions of a few other friends, amongst whom were Howard Sturgis and David Graham Phillips.

Well what I always say is that if they’re good enough for Edith Wharton, then they’re good enough for me! I promptly ordered Sturgis’s Belchamber, which wasn’t even available from Project Gutenberg! Damn, you’ve gotta be obscure when even Gutenberg won’t archive your book. You’ve gotta be obscure when even the NYRB classics series, which specializes in reissueing obscure out of print books, has allowed their edition of your book to fall out of print.

And it was really good! I honestly don’t know why the book hasn’t gotten a great reception. It’s about this dude, Lord Belchamber, who is heir to a great fortune, but who is just a shy, bookish, timid, retiring guy. The problem is that his brother and his cousin are terrible wastrels, and because he has the purse strings, it falls to him to reign them in whilst also not allowing them to be ruined by their own excesses. Belchamber, although shy, has a strong sense of right and wrong and of his own responsibilities. He is the British sense of propriety, divorced from the British sense of masculinity. Lots of readers, apparently, hate him, but I thought he was sweet! Very, very worth your time.

Susie Lenox, David Graham Phillips’s book, is a bit more of an acquired taste. It’s about a girl in turn of the century Indiana who has an affair and runs off with this dandy, who of course promptly abandons her. Then she begins a picaresque adventure that takes her through the Cincinnati and New York underworlds. It’s like a mash-up of MOLL FLANDERS with HOUSE OF MIRTH. Lennox constantly flirts with prostitution, in various forms, but then flinches away, only to flirt with it again. The book goes on a bit too long, but I was quite engaged throughout, and I thought it had interesting things to say about morality, propriety, and relations between the sexes.

The third book I read that was unappreciated in its time, although Wharton does not mention it, was Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. So good!!! I read Agnes Grey, her first novel, a few years back, and I was struck even then by how different this book was from anything else I’d read from that period. She seems far more influenced by continental authors, by Balzac and by Stendhal, in particular, than by any English writers. There’s not a touch of romanticism in Agnes Grey. It’s all about the dreary, day-to-day experience of being governess to two brats.

But The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was even better!!!! Here the eponymous tenant, Mrs. Graham, details the story of her disastrous marriage to a rake and spendthrift. Bronte is excellent at making her husband seem initially to be not that bad, and to even be loving, before everything starts to slide downwards. Graham does her best to save him, and then she does her best to protect their son from him, and, finally, she feels she’s been left with no other option than to flee.

The book is a work of astounding moral force, and I loved the characters (except for the somewhat flat narrator of the framing tale, which is about a man who falls in love with Graham after she’s fled from her husband), but I was also struck by how much more mature the writing was than it is in many 19th century novels. The landscape, the architecture, the flowers and the plants, they all have a critical role to play in the symbology of the book, and unlike in many comedies of manners, you really feel like you’re inhabiting a living world (compare, for instance, Jane Austen, who never describes anything). It’s mostly a work of realism, but there’s a slight touch of the Gothic that, in my opinion, really improves and elevates the novel. I would definitely class it above Wuthering Heights (a book to which it bears many surface-level similarities, in setting, situation, and structure). I’m sorry Anne didn’t live longer; she would’ve written some great stuff.

On the other hand, maybe she would not have, because her book was panned, when it came out, for, essentially, its moral laxity. The reviewers faulted Anne for writing vulgar scenes where the husband and his friends are partying and tormenting the protagonist, and they fault her protagonist for choosing to leave the husband! Anne ripped the mask off of some realities that Victorian-era book reviewers really wanted to keep ignoring, but, more importantly, from the modern perspective, she did it while retaining her own humanity. This isn’t a novel about an oppressed woman; it’s about a woman struggling to live a decent life within oppressive circumstances.

In the end, that’s what all three of these novels share. These books are all deeply moral. They’re about people who have a strong sense of right and wrong, and who find that although their society pays lip service to their ideals, it does not expect them to actually follow those ideals.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more and more interested in the ways that ideals and morality impact personal behavior. There is so much fiction about how social systems interact with people and how people interact with social systems, but less about how it affects the ways they interact with each other. Or perhaps moral fiction has always been rare, but it’s only the moral fiction that survives. These three books, while they were not successful upon release (Susie Lennox was probably the most successful, and I see that it was adapted into a movie in the thirties, but Wharton refers to it as unjustly forgotten), all still have tremendous power even after more than a hundred years, and not many books of that (or any) era can say the same.