Some writing news, also capsule reviews of two nonfiction books you probably won’t care about (they’re on adoption and on Jack Welch)

I’ve been enjoying blogging more. Still haven’t hundred percent worked out how to write a filler post. But here are some capsule reviews:

Lately I’ve been listening to The Man Who Broke Capitalization, by David Gelles. It’s a book about Jack Welch’s run at GE and his lasting influence over the business world. I guess I’m getting old enough that I can now read books about things I actually saw happen. When I was a kid Jack Welch was an icon. But recently GE has hit hard times and has suffered a precipitous drop in share price, which has made me wonder how Jack’s legacy looks in retrospect. Apparently, not good. The main drag on GE’s performance lately has been its financial services business (a far cry from making lightbulbs), which produced the cash that Jack Welch used to create profits year after year for twenty years. It’s an extremely complex sort of Ponzi scheme, but essentially he used sold GE bonds, backed by its substantial assets and revenues, to finance acquisitions of businesses and to speculate in financial products that would allow them to create the appearance of profitability. Of course this doesn’t exactly harm the business, but it doesn’t grow it either, and over time debt accumulates and the core business stagnates. 

Anyway, what I admire about the book is how it really takes a birds eye view: it spends no time on Jack’s early years, and it runs through his entire career at GE in about half its length. The second half discusses Jack’s long retirement and the careers of his protégés who took over other forms and tried to produce similar results. Ultimately, Jack’s management style, which was big on mergers and layoffs and cost cutting, wasn’t actually the core to his success. It was a bait and switch: he simply turned GE into an unregulated investment bank and used the cash to keep up the facade that it was still a manufacturing powerhouse. Ultimately this involved a significant level of risk, which ended up putting GE into a tailspin after the Great Recession from which it has never recovered. SUMMATION: I realize absolutely nobody who reads this newsletter shares my interest in finance and business books, but this is a good one. It’s not a puff piece, it asks good questions about how companies are managed and should be managed, and it’s quite well structured as well. The narrator of the audiobook has a very pleasing voice. 

Another book that might not be of general interest is Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children For Adoption In The Decades Before Roe v Wade. The author placed an excerpt of the book in Slate because of the Dobbs decision, so I thought it was a recent book, but apparently it actually came out in 2007. It does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s oral histories of women who surrendered their kids at maternity homes in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. I decided to read this book because I was so sad about Dobbs, and I wanted to remind myself what forced birth looks like.

It’s not pretty! Every single mother interviewed in the book seems pretty torn-up about it. They range from embittered to ruined. Most describe being bullied by parents, priests, and social workers. A few were outright lied to or had their babies essentially stolen (they refused to sign the papers the maternity home wanted, but they still never got their baby back). The women are mostly white and middle-class (the clientele of these maternity homes). They seem to experience an immediate life-long connection to the child. Most describe wanting to raise the child, only to be told repeatedly it’s impossible. A few consent to the adoption, thinking it’s for the best, but still feel terribly ashamed and feel a longing for their kid.

The stories were so uniform that at some point I was like…does anyone not regret giving up their kid for adoption? So I did some research. Apparently open adoption (almost all of these adoptions were closed, which means no contact between the child and the birth mother) has better results for the mother’s mental health, but there is still a large degree of regret. Some of the women who later had non-surrendered kids die say they felt similarly about the deaths as they did about the adoptions. They were equally bad. A few who’d had abortions said the abortions were not nearly as emotionally painful.

It was pretty brutal. I felt terrible for the birth mothers, for the kids, and for the adoptive parents. I also listened to this in audio, which was probably the only way to finish it, since the stories really do get quite repetitive, but it’s not well-organized for audio, since they only label the stories after the story is done, which means you have no idea who’s speaking at any given point. As a result, the stories combine into one big mass.

Took a break from Capital (I’ve finished Vol 1 and want to get to Vol 2 and 3) and I’ve been reading a few different books. Have read some of Marx’s political writings, about France and the Revolution of 1848, and his famous essay 18th Brumaire, about Napoleon III. Read a medieval travelogue by Father Odoric about his travels to Persia, India, Indonesia, and China in the late 13th century. And am reading a really cool book about the economy of the Byzantine Empire. But probably will need to discuss all these in greater detail later.

I got notes back from my editor on my YA novel. Apparently, shockingly, the book is actually going to be published, even though it’s exactly the kind of book half the country wants not to be in school libraries. My editor, Steph Guerdan, is excellent. I am normally wary of praising people I work with in the publishing industry, since it’s my experience that all relationships run their course eventually. At some point, you write a book they don’t like, and you need to part ways. You can’t really ask someone to publish something that it’s not in their best interest to publish.

But Steph really is an unusual editor. Brave, unafraid of controversy, and goes above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to treating authors fairly. They also have remarkably little ego when it comes to giving edits–nothing is set in stone, and I’m happy with the wiggle room I always have. So while I’m sure our working relationship will come to an end someday, I will continue to think they’re an excellent editor.

Am also very proud of Steph for their leadership role in the Harper Union and in their upcoming strike! I’m certain it’s not a decision that Steph and the other members of the union took lightly.

Links: Russian formalism and the terrible education at Eton

Since I started writing more on my website / newsletter / blog I’ve been taking the time to write draft posts in my Apple iNotes app. It’s been good I guess, except now I have seven draft blogs I’m not that into that I don’t want to post! Stupid selectivity. You know I’ve always wanted to do that thing where the person links to other articles they’ve found online that they like, but I am terrible at taking notes about and remembering things. But I think I’m gonna do it. This is gonna be my year.

The only post I can think of recently that I liked was this review of a book I’d never heard of by a literary critic I’d never heard of. I’ve gotten very interested in the literature of the Soviet Union lately, and what’s fascinating is that in the first years of the Soviet Union, before Stalin came to power, there was an efflorescence of avant-garde art. In some ways there’s always been a natural alliance between the left-wing and the avant-garde, because the avant-garde solves the typical problem of the left-wing artist, which is how can I maintain rigorous ideological orthodoxy to whatever is the current left-wing viewpoint without producing art that’s completely boring. One way of doing this is to concentrate on the formal elements of the art and to try to innovate using those elements. I knew that early Soviet Russia gave rise to structuralism, which is the idea that all art is a collection of structures that refer to and interact with each other, and that the artistry is a function of how the structures interact, rather than the content of the structures–this idea had a later influence on literary theory that can still be felt today, and it can be echoed in the repeated insistence by some writers that literature is words and nothing but words and that if you seek beauty at the level of the line, a story will emerge. Structuralism is nonsense (imho), but not complete nonsense. Fertile nonsense, let’s say. Thought-provoking nonsense! Am interested in reading this book, but who knows if I’ll ever get around to it. ( (Victor Shklovsky, On The Theory Of Prose)

Searching for that link took so long, though, and in the process I had to read so many tedious article titles. I swear to god, every article these days is like, “Transforming Whiteness: Politics In A Post-Racial Calcutta”. And you just instantly know you’re not gonna read that article. Like, it could be good or bad, but you’re just not gonna read it. Literary criticism is just a shockingly awful in its disregard for the time of its own audience–maybe I’d be doing a better service to humanity if I _didn’t_ aggregate these links. 

Oh here’s another link. So I wrote in my essay “Myth of the Classically Educated Elite” that elites in 19th century England didn’t actually get a great classical education. But then the Antigone Journal (a great Twitter accnt) sent around a photo of a test you had to take at Eton to get into the First Hundred, which was the top three forms of the school, and I was like whoah, this test is pretty serious stuff, was I wrong about what they taught at Eton?

So I looked it up, and it turns out that test was actually a result of educational reforms in the late 19th century. Until then, you basically just did a rote cram of the Iliad. That was it. That was your entire education. And for Latin you did the Aeneid. Terrible. This exam was instituted in 1868 to ensure that kids admitted to the first hundred (essentially high school) actually knew some Latin and Greek.

I wish critics would engage more with the meat of problematic ideas

Hello friends, I recently read a contemporary book of social science whose premise is so incendiary I’m afraid to reveal its name. My wife got mad at me for even reading the book, and she suggested that I should refrain from blogging about it. However, after reading the book, what disappointed me most was how shoddy its arguments were, especially given its sweeping conclusions. When I looked online for reviews of the book, I found no discussion of its actual methodology, I just found people attacking and discussing its conclusions. This seems to me a common problem. Oftentimes when you scratch the surface of controversial books, you find that the data really doesn’t support the conclusion–the book is simply not making a very convincing case. But everyone gets their back up about the conclusion and about the implications IF the conclusion happened to be true.

Thus, a lot of critiques of controversial ideas begin by implicitly adopting the premises of the author being critiqued. Maybe that’s because it’s simply easier and more fun to talk about big ideas rather than methods. But the problem is that truth matters–if a controversial idea is well-supported by data and argument, that’s very different from it being poorly supported. It’s like when people argue about treating trans kids and about whether it should be easier or harder for them to access care, a lot of people start by saying, “If you even question the idea that some kids shouldn’t get pills, then you’re supporting transphobic regimes in Texas and Florida!”

But there ought to be a step before that. And the step is, “Is there good data that kids are getting pills who shouldn’t?” And the answer seems to be…no. I haven’t seen any convincing argument in any of the various articles about trans kids that the current system, as it exists, is giving out pills too freely. It’s just a lot of _fear_ on the part of doctors that it _might_ be giving out pills too freely. Which is really lazy on their part. Do the research. This is an empirical question: how hard is it for kids to get pills? What assessments do gender clinics actually require? How much evidence of dysphoria do they actually need or desire? What is the status of gate-keeping as it currently exists?

Right now a lot of the research on this just seems profoundly lazy. It’s boring to actually create the methodologies, write the grants, make the connections, do the robustness checks you’d need to prove your assertions, and a lot of researchers simply don’t do it. They shoot from the hip instead. Or they come up with one little test or one little survey and extrapolate from that.

But when it comes to other people writing about the subject, it’s their responsibility to critique the evidence. Is this actually convincing? Has the researcher done enough work to make this claim? Researchers are often unwilling to criticize each other in print, so it can be up to the writer or journalist to do some digging themselves and to ask probing questions.

The risk in all these facile reactions is that you give readers the impression that there’s some truth here that you’re unwilling to engage. If trans kids were getting pills too easily and regretting it at higher rates than in the past, that would be really bad and worth addressing. But I saw nothing in, for instance, Emily Bazelon’s article, that led me to believe that this was actually the case. Nor did I gain any clear understanding of what the current system is for dispensing pills. All I saw was a lot of teens who navigated our complex health and mental health care systems and figured out the gender expression they needed / wanted and largely came to a bunch of conclusions that worked for them. There was certainly a lot of pain and soul searching involved, but there wasn’t strong evidence that kids are getting given pills like candy or that they’re undergoing hormone therapy without thinking it through. There was neither smoke nor fire, just a lot of anxiety that there might potentially be some smoke and someone could perhaps think about looking into it.

This is often the case with trend pieces though. They’re almost always false. A trend is a statistical phenomenon, and it needs to be supported with statistical analysis. Without that, you don’t have a trend, you’ve just got a bunch of anecdotes.

Anyway, the book I read was The Son Also Rises by Gregory Clark, a professor of economics at UC-Davis. It’s about social mobility across various societies. He uses one technique and one technique only, which is to look through historical registers of names, find rare surnames that are associated with elite status, and then look at contemporary registers of names and see how often those rare surnames show up in areas associated with elite status. For instance, he takes the names of Swedish nobility from the 17th century and sees how often they show up in registers of physicians, relative to surnames that are not especially associated with noble status. He has a lot of caveats and a lot of different ways of using the technique, but that’s it.

His main finding is that diffusion of these names isn’t nearly as rapid as you would expect. Names that were associated with high status in the 17th century are still disproportionately associated with high status in the 21st century. This conflicts with other findings about inheritance of wealth and education, which shows that families ought to regress to the mean after about three to five generations. Instead he says full regression should take about ten to fifteen generations. What he’s saying, essentially, is that because previous studies of social mobility took place over short timeframes (they often compare parents to kids, rather than comparing across five or six generations like he does), they overestimate the amount of randomness. But over enough generations and enough families, the randomness cancels out, because in reality a lot of the error terms are correlated with each other. It’s statistically complicated, and I have no desire to go into it here, but essentially he’s saying, look, if your grandparents were rich, you’re likely to be rich, even if your parents were not rich. He’s saying a family has a ‘natural’ social level, and sometimes through randomness they get below that level, but each generation they have a chance of regressing ‘back’ to their natural level. So impoverished nobility are more likely to get rich than impoverished middle-class people are.

This is a really cool study. If he’d just gone this far, it would’ve been neat: he’s demonstrated that class exists! Even in Sweden! In fact, he’s demonstrated the persistence of class across many different societies. I think that’s cool.

But Clark doesn’t mention class in the book. Nor does he mention racism or systemic bias. Instead, he can envision only two possible explanations for persistence of social status. Either your parentage must convey some material advantages, like money or education, or they must convey some genetic advantages.


You see where this is going? 

Clark leans heavily into the idea that what we’re seeing here is genetic superiority. That the Swedish nobles were on top in the 17th century because of their inherent fitness to rule, and that now, as a result, their umpteen-times grandkids have an inherent fitness to…become doctors? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Moreover, if that was a claim he wanted to prove, he could’ve done it in a number of ways. For instance, he makes a great thing about how even a thousand years later, Norman surnames are more likely to show up in Britain’s upper-classes. But if the elite in any given society is ruling because of inherent superiority, then shouldn’t the Anglo-Saxon elite have arisen again shortly after the invasion? What we ought to see is that in a few generations, Anglo Saxon names ought to have bounced back into the top ranks of society. But he doesn’t show this.

Indeed, he doesn’t seem particularly interested in really looking at the implications of his genetic inheritance idea and building a solid case that it’s true. Nor is he particularly interested in doing even the most basic robustness checks on his surname technique. Like, if you’re going to base an entire book on a single technique, at some point you need to figure out a basic question: “Am I learning something here about groups of people? Or am I just learning something about surnames?” Ideally what you’d do is compare your surname data’s results to some other results that you trust completely, to make sure that you’re not just learning something about how rare surnames diffuse and are adopted. But he never interrogates his own tool at all. He never introduces other sources of data either to calibrate his tool or check his results. Instead it’s all surname data.

It’s just profoundly lazy and quite disappointing, as is the fact that he doesn’t even think about addressing the idea that this lack of social mobility could be the result of racial or class bias. Instead, he treats as obvious the idea that, somehow, in some fashion, medieval society was a meritocracy, which seems inherently absurd. Like, why would William the Bastard’s ten thousand Norman followers have been inherently superior to the entire rest of the population of England? What would’ve been the mechanism for that? It doesn’t make any sense, and it goes profoundly against our intuitions.

But when I looked online for reviews of the book, I just found a lot of people calling it out for being racist (which it is), but none of the writers took the trouble to address the profound deficiencies in the argument, which is really disappointing to me. Indeed, the only reason I’m writing this blog post is so that if some future person googles “son also rises” “gregory clark” they’ll have this blog post as a referent.

I’m putting this subscription dingus at the bottom of every post now. Subscribe if you want to get my posts in your email, though I have no idea why you would willingly sign up for more spam.

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

Writers who fake it

Hello friends, I’m coming full circle! My various frustrations with the literary world have led me to reprioritize this blog as a vehicle for my writing. It’s a bit ironic because I started it back in the summer of 2008, before I was published at all. Now fourteen years later, I can go back in time and tell that girl, sweltering in the Sacramento Valley heat and having her first experience with stifling wildfire smoke, that being published isn’t all it’s cracked up to be!

I’m also trying to complain less. Recently I’ve become obsessed with my own petty frustrations, which is really not a good look for a writer. For every writer who feels underappreciated, there’s one who’s not getting published at all. And for every writer not getting published at all, there’s ten who can’t even find the time to write because their lives are so miserable. So either you need to have sympathy for all writers of your skill level who aren’t appreciated, or you need to think you are a unique, special genius who uniquely deserves success. Sometimes I do flirt with the latter belief, but I actually think it’s not true. Back in 2008 when I started this blog I definitely felt like a unique special genius. And I had hopes until quite recently that I was a unique special genius, but now I don’t even know if I believe in unique special genius anymore: I know too much about how literary reputations are constructed.

I think the final nail in the coffin for my own sense of specialness was my year-long search for a literary agent in 2020. It just confirmed to me, again and again, that agents didn’t see my work as special or unmissable. What’s weird is at the exact same time, I developed the unshakeable feeling that my work was better than most of what the agents _do_ consider special and unmissable. 

What characterizes my work is integrity—I say what I’m saying, and I don’t shy away from its implications—and integrity is a moral, rather than aesthetic choice. Most artists, to my eyes, are doomed from the get-go by their lack of integrity. Nothing they write can possibly be good. And people who have integrity in their work and who have gained any traction in traditional publishing are relatively rare, but at the same time it’s actually a very easy thing to do. It’s a choice you can make one day, to simply write as honestly as you can.

So I don’t really see making that choice, which is my main strength, as being a sign of any unique talents or powers. To me, it’s something anyone could do, if they wanted, and I’m surprised more people don’t. To make that choice is such a simple short-cut to creating good work, particularly in non-fiction and narrative fiction, that it’s almost a no-brainer. Of course, the work is less likely to be published, but I think most people genuinely want to write something they can be proud of, rather than just something that goes on the shelves.

For many artists, their lack of integrity comes out at the level of the line. They pretend to a sense of rhythm they don’t have. They read lyrical books, and then they use tricks to create that same poetic quality, but since they’re not actually ‘hearing’ the music, it comes out atonal and bad. I don’t know what it’s like to be that kind of writer, but I have to imagine that on some level they know their prose isn’t right, despite all the praise they get. And I think if you’re straining and introducing false effects at the level of the line, the story as a whole won’t be honest, whereas it’s more than possible (although rare) to have clunky or poorly-written prose that’s powerful and honest (see everyone’s favorite example, Theodore Dreiser).

It’s kind of nice for me that people have forgotten or have never heard of artistic integrity, because it really reduces the competition, but it’s also quite sad that people make choices which doom from the get-go their chances of achieving the lasting fame and impact they seem to deeply desire.


Okay I don’t know the exact right way to do this, but since I’ve stopped using Twitter, I need somewhere else to put my random thoughts. I’ve been wondering if Leni’s generation (Z+1) is going to think, after growing up w phone and social media obsessed parents, are gonna think those things are just totally uncool, kind of like how the kids of Gen X think being cynical and disengaged is uncool.  

photo of a turtle swimming underwater
Photo by Belle Co on

Tired of the incredible amount of lying in public life

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dobbs decision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have an essay up on LitHub about money and literary fiction

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

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

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

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

The reason literary critics are obsessed with wokeness and cancel culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finished Hegel, moved on to Adam Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am into it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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