I still don’t really understand the Revolutionary War

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

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

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

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

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War: the Stamp Act (a tax on all legal documents) and most of the Townshend Acts (a number of other tariffs) were repealed in response to American pressure!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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sky is orange, and I have a headache

The fires in Northern California have created a huge cloud of ash that’s settled over San Francisco. As problems go, it’s not nearly as bad as actually being menaced by wildfire, but it is a little hard on the lungs! People talk about how bad the air is in New Delhi, but I’ve never felt over there like I feel right now.

It’s odd how self-promotion can suck the joy out of things you used to do for free

I’m sure most people who read or know about my blog think that I write here as a way of maintaining a footprint so that people will read / buy my book!

Actually this is far from the truth. I’ve been posting here for nine years, ever since August of 2008. In that time, the blog’s gone through the normal vicissitudes as my interest has peaked and faded and then peaked again. It’s even gone through one (rather recent) name change! But it’s never been about selling the book or promoting myself. Indeed, I’d rather hoped for the reverse effect: I’d hoped that the release of my book would draw more readers to this space!

However now that my book has come and gone (though not entirely, the paperback is still in stores!) and since I don’t have a book coming out next year (nor, most likely, the year after that), I am somehow feeling a lot less pressure to post here. Which is an odd thing, when you think about it, since, as I said, I was posting here long before there was even the prospect of a book (long before I was writing novels at all, in fact).

Anyways, I’m rolling with it.

My life has been thoroughly unexciting lately. I came back from my honeymoon. Ummm, I’ve been writing a lot. I read Anne Applebaum’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the gulag (it’s entitled, unsurprisingly, Gulag: A History), and now I’m reading Orlando Figes’s book about private life in Stalinist Russia: The Whisperers. I’m pretty fascinated by the Soviet Union. It was such utopianism on such a grand scale that it seems unimaginable to me, and I thoroughly understand why it captured the minds of so many leftists in the West. I also understand the history of conservatism much better. It’s a lot easier to see the value of conservatism when it’s positioned as a defense against this sort of radical social change (as opposed to when the radical social change is, say, school integration or gay marriage).

 

One way into the heart of longing is through envy

Yesterday I was walking through Zurich’s Aaldstadt, the old city (yes, I’m still on my honeymoon), and it was sunny and the cobblestoned streets were full of young, beautiful, carefree people who were sitting at cafes and wandering the parks (just like me), and I was like…sigh. I want to be like them. I want to feel the way that I imagine they feel. I want to project the image that they project.

And I was thinking, as I walked, that there are so many people in the world that I envy, and that this might be a way to get into the heart of longing, so I got back home and I made a list of people I envy. I’m not gonna share it here, because it’s private, but the entries aren’t specific names, they’re actually very general (i.e. esteemed poets; rock stars; people who live with their best friends). But in each of the entries I saw a possible story.

I want to get good at something meaningful

I’ve been playing computer games recently, and it’s been really fun. There’s this service I signed up for: Nvidia GeForce NOW. It lets you play games on your crappy mac! Mine has no graphics card or anything, and I can play the best games at the best graphics settings. Basically the game is installed on some virtual machine someplace, and they just stream it to you. The whole thing is game-changing. Oh yeah, and you can also play PC games on a Mac, no problem.

Anyway I’ve been playing this Lord of the Rings game: Shadow of Mordor. It’s an open world game, sort of Grand Theft Auto style, where you’re a ranger trapped in Mordor, trying to assemble an army to take down Sauron. The game has a really steep learning curve. Basic combat is difficult to master, especially in the beginning, when you have no powers. Anyway before leaving on my honeymoon I played a bunch of this game, and it was really satisfying to get better at it! By the end, I’d finally gained the skills to be able to just hop into combat, no sneaking around or gathering resources necessary, and kill forty or fifty orcs.

But at the same time, the whole thing is a bit stupid. It’s not meaningful in the least. Playing games is blowing off steam, but it’s qualitatively quite different from reading books or watching TV. The latter are pretty passive, they don’t require much from you. You’re a receptacle. But when you play games, you’re gaining mastery. You’re improving yourself.

I feel like maybe that’s something which is missing from my life. I want to get good at something meaningful. Please no suggestions! I know you’ll just tell me to meditate or learn a language or some crap. No thank you. I’d like it to be something meaningful FOR ME, and I think I have a different definition of meaningful from other people.

We’ll see though. I’m gonna ponder it.

The most difficult and important part of writing is finding the heart of longing

Sometimes I think it’s a shame that I’m not a professor of writing, because I have so many lessons to impart that were never taught to me. The biggest amongst these is that a work of fiction (particularly a novel) cannot stand unless you’ve discovered the heart of longing.

In most cases, this longing will be the character’s longing: the desire that animates their action in the novel. But not always. Sometimes the longing suffuses the novel’s narration. In any case, I think each writer has to find their own path to the heart of longing. Moreover, it’s not something you capture once and then possess for all eternity; it’s something you need to find again and again.

The way I’m writing this advice, it probably sounds obvious to you, but I would say that most unpublished and apprentice works tend to lack the heart of longing. That’s because it’s very easy to write something that resembles a novel–something with a lot of verve and action–which is not propelled forward by the character’s own longing. For instance, if you write a book about someone being chased by a wolf, it’s very easy to write a book in which the character runs and fights and runs again, but never really exhibits that desperate desire to survive that would, in this context, constitute the heart of longing.

The heart of longing isn’t necessarily something you explain, though. It’s something that suffuses the work. I’m thinking of the movie Dunkirk, for instance, where none of the characters have any backstory, but they all exhibit such an immense desire to live, and this desire pushes them to do and attempt things that are unexpected and unusual.

Another example is the movie Gravity, which could very easily have been a “man is chased by wolf” story, except that Sandra Bullock’s performance was so magnificent: at each stage she dramatized the decision to fight onwards vs. give up.

Which is to say that it’s extremely difficult to point to any part of a book or film or story and say, “Here is where you need to add the heart of longing.” Instead it’s something that needs to suffuse the entire work. In fact, you probably shouldn’t even begin to write unless you’ve got the heart of longing. (Conversely, if you do have the heart of longing, then you should keep revising, even if the novel seems otherwise hopeless, because having the heart of longing is fifty percent of the battle).

Note that grasping the heart of longing isn’t enough by itself to get your work published. You need other stuff too. In fact, if all you have is longing, then people tend to be turned off. They feel like your character is too desperate. They need to not just have longing, but also to be in some way larger than life and heroic. It’s a tough thing to manage…

WITH THE EXCEPTION OF 20 STORIES, I’VE NOW READ BASICALLY EVERYTHING ELIZABETH GASKELL EVER PUBLISHED

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Since completing Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South on August 1st, I’ve read all four of her other novels (Ruth, Mary Barton, Wives and Daughters, Sylvia’s Lovers) as well as her novella collection (Cranford) and one story collection (Cousin Phillis And Other Stories). I’m currently reading her biography of Charlotte Bronte, which should finish me out on Gaskell, although I am seriously considering chasing down a few of her other short stories, just for completeness’s sake.

Aside from Sylvia’s Lovers, which is her second to last book and a rare misfire (I found the plot to be way too out-sized and Romantic), I’d say all of the above books were excellent and thoroughly worth your time! If I had to recommend one, I’d probably say Cranford, because it’s the shortest, lightest, and has the best humor.

I don’t know if I’m just crazy in thinking that Gaskell is far superior to many other Victorian authors that are generally esteemed more highly, or if it’s simply that my familiarity with those other authors has given a charm to Gaskell, precisely because she does things so many of them do not (I wondered the same thing a few years ago about George Gissing). Namely, would a person enjoy Elizabeth Gaskell if they hadn’t already gone through the work of Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot, Trollope, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Ann Bronte, and Jane Austen (not a Victorian, but definitely the mother of them all).

And the answer is…I don’t know. I think too that my newfound love for Gaskell might be a result for my love of 19th century Continental literature, which generally tends to be much more realist than Victorian literature. Balzac and Zola, in particular, were far just as concerned with depicting the nature of things as they were with eliciting strong emotions, and I love that about them! But I also love English literature’s ability to be sort of fuddly and warm and good-humored! Gaskell, at her best, combines both tendencies! For instance, there is no writer I’ve seen who is more concerned with precise amounts. I’ve learned more, from Gaskell, about the impact of the penny post on daily life than I did from reading nineteen Trollope novels, and Trollope actually worked for the postal service for most of his life!

Gaskell seems to have this insane ability to write about anyone, from any walk of life. North and South is about the relations between the family of a curate and the family of a manufacturer. Mary Barton is about mill workers. Ruth is about an orphan who goes to work in a dress shop. Wives and Daughters is about the gradations of rank between the children of a local lord; a country squire; and the nearby town doctor. Several of her stories concern laborers, servants, tenant farmers, and yeomen. Nobody else in the Victorian era is writing novels that cover the whole breadth of the economic spectrum.

Even today, almost nobody tries it! I mean the other day I was overhearing the conversation of two girls at a café, and these two girls were in town to begin college at SF State. One was going to study communications, and the other was going to study fashion design. Now you can go to the bookstore and you can search through shelf after shelf, and you won’t find a literary novel that’s about lower-middle class people. People write about themselves, and authors tend not to be lower middle class. And even when they are, they, like DH Lawrence, become so rapidly acculturated to upper- and upper-middle class mores that it seems never to occur to them to write about the people they left behind.

It’s an incredible achievement, in a time even more class-bound than today, to write novels of manners that are about lower middle class, working class, or poor people. Some of Gaskell’s protagonists are illiterate, or barely-literate, and yet she still effortlessly maps out their emotional life. It’s incredible! Even Zola has a hard time doing that–he views poor people as being too thoroughly marked by their class. Every character, for him, represents an archetype, and someone like Gervaise Macquart–a laundress who achieves brief prosperity before being toppled by alcoholism and economic insecurity–doesn’t get credit for her indomitable will to survive: even her virtues are nothing more than the sorts of virtues that a person would demonstrate in her situation. They don’t feel specific to her.

I think the best Gaskell story I read was “The Crooked Branch,” which is about a farm laborer who comes into money late in life, buys a farm, and marries his childhood sweetheart (herself now working as a maid). He has one child, a son, who he sends off to school, but the school educates his son to want better things, and the son develops dissipated habits. The father and mother have an inkling of what’s going wrong, but he’s still their only son! The child of their old age! And so they alternately rage against and enable him. It’s not a by-the-numbers situation. It’s a situation that could only occur to people of a certain class, but their fate doesn’t feel fore-ordained. They could have reacted, and the world could have responded, in so many different ways. And the brilliance of the story comes in the specific details of how these people respond to their trials.

Anyways now this blog post is perhaps too long, so I’ll leave off saying more, but she’s a good one! Definitely worth your time (I think).

I’ve never been too interested in “writing from within the body…”

One of those things that MFA instructors will tell you is that you should write from within the body. This means, capture the feeling of what it is to be a person living inside a body. Stay in the concrete, the real, the specific. Don’t allow yourself to zoom out or to speed through your scenes.

I think this is often pretty good advice, and I’ve read some great books that were written from deep within the body. But at the same time, I don’t really care to do it with my own writing. To be honest, I don’t think we’re really living our lives within our bodies. We get up every day, we eat, we walk to the bus, and our knees creak when we sit down, and none of it really makes any sense. To me, fiction isn’t about that. It’s about the drama of life. Why do we do what we do? What are we expecting? What is our view of ourselves and our place in the world?

And, most importantly, fiction is about the role of other people. What do I want from them, and what do they want from me? At least fifty percent of this, by the way, is psycho-drama. It’s not something you could film; it’s a drama that takes place entirely inside your own mind. Like with the white men I mention yesterday who are sure they’re oppressed, they’ve taken a few points of information and they’ve used them to create an entire world, and then they act as if that world is true. Fiction allows you to see that world! And that’s what I’m interested in: the stuff about life that’s not real and not of the body.

Phew! Overwhelmed by all the events. Also, by my paperback

Well, two weeks after concluding my agent search, I got married. That happened. I’ve got a ring and everything. Today the paperback version of Enter Title Here came out. I have no idea what I need to do to promote that. I’m not even sure that promotion is possible; I think the point of the paperback is that it’s cheap and more suitable for browsing and impulse buying.

I’ve been reading Elizabeth Gaskell, one of the lesser-known Victorians. She is pretty good! I’m not saying she’s another George Eliot or anything, but she, almost alone out of the Victorian novelists I’ve read, actually writes about the middle- and working classes! I just finished North and South, which takes place in a manufacturing town in Northern England and concerns, at least in major subplot, a strike in a textile mill! Pretty good stuff! The book got slightly tedious at times, but it was worth it.

In other news, my closest friends banded together to buy me an XBOX ONE for my birthday, and I’ve been playing Fallout New Vegas. This is the game that I hungered to play during the five long dark years when I was totally video game less (the last game I beat was Fallout 3). It’s pretty good! Took me awhile to realize though that they’d rejiggered the VATS system to make it less powerful, so the game is more of a first-person shooter than Fallout 3 was. It’s an atmospheric game, but after awhile you do get tired of the same old dusty, post-nuclear apocalyptic wastelands. I mean sheesh after two hundred years are there really no forests left in North America? I’m making extremely slow progress with it, but that’s okay.

Oh, you know the weird thing about me and gaming? Back when I was a kid I used to play games for dozens of hours, just faffing around, and never end up beating them. Now I actually beat them! I sit down and play and then the game gets over and I see the ending! It’s so bizarre. In my life, the number of games I’ve actually beaten is not that high, when compared to the number I’ve bought. It’s certainly under 25. But lately I’ve been beating all kinds of games. For instance, I picked up Diablo 2, which I never beat in YEARS of owning and playing it as a kid, and I beat the game in a day.

Being an adult is so great.

Concluded my agent search!

Alright, well that was the most nerve-wracking two weeks of my life. Got a lot of interest in the book, but finally ended up going with the first person who got back to me: Robert Guinsler at Sterling Lord.

Very pleased to be working with Robert. He has an excellent track record, but, more importantly, he really loved and seemed to get my book. Hopefully it’ll sell, but we’ll see. Hmm, now I need to update all the many places on my site where it says who my agent is…