The problem with Michael Lewis is that, to me, his worldview rings false…

71y4yqkQjWLI’m reading Michael Lewis’ explication of the world of high-frequency trading, Flash Boys, and experiencing my typical issues with his work.

Let me just start out by admitting that I love Michael Lewis. I’ve read almost all of his substantive books (Liar’s Poker, The Big Short, Moneyball, The Blind Side). And they were all gripping and informative reads.

That being said, I have an intrinsic distrust of everything I read in his books, because they’re too personality-driven. The Michael Lewis formula is as follows: A) Find some complex and dramatic conflict within a field that people are interested in but don’t know much about (the management side of baseball, or the world of credit default swaps and subprime mortgages); B) Identify a group of people who are deeply involved in this world AND C) are willing to give you total access, and then D) make those people look like heroes.

That’s the problem with Lewis. The books always focus in on this one person or this one group of people who have the answers and who are doing everything absolutely right. And they’re opposed by a faceless group of bad guys: people who are on the wrong side of the issue.

There never really seems to be a trace of real journalism in Lewis’ books. For one thing, he never seems to have gone and spoken to the bad guys and gotten their side of the story. For another, he never appears to evaluate his good guys and figure out how good they really are. For instance, in The Blind Side, he never seriously asks: “Huh, would this black kid really have been adopted by this heroic family of white people if he hadn’t been such a good football prospect?”

Similarly, in his financial books, he never stops to think, “I know that I think my guys are on the right side of this issue, but is there any way in which they are doing something shady? Is there any way in which they are making money that they aren’t supposed to?”

And, finally, the biggest problem with Lewis is baked right into his world view. It’s that when you read his books, you come away thinking that the bad guys are stupid and the good guys are smart. You come away thinking that the world is full of heroic prophets who are leveraging so much intelligence and know-how to solve the world’s problems, and the bad guys are just a mindless horde that isn’t willing to look up for long enough to see that it’s going off a cliff.

But, ummm, I’m not sure that’s a healthy belief. What I’d say is that on any given day, in any given year, there are a ton of people who are predicting financial calamity for whatever reason. Most of those people are wrong. They lose their shirts. And they don’t get books written about them.

But if they, for whatever reason, are right, then Michael Lewis gives them the hagiographic treatment

What he never stops to consider though is, “Are these people really that special? Or are they just lucky?”

In the Lewis worldview, it’s not possible to be lucky in that way. Either you’re good and fantastically successful, or you’re bad. In his world, incompetent and immoral are synonyms. And that’s why the characters in his books always seem way too good to be true. For instance, the main character in Flash Boys is a Canadian banking executive who figures out what’s going on in the high-frequency trading world and then heroically eschews the temptation to make gobs of money and uses his information to try to protect people from the depredations of the flash traders.

And in order to do this, he assembles around himself a hardscrabble Irish tech guy who’s dreamed for years of entering the financial world (only to be repulsed by it once its doors open) and a former Bank of America product manager (the son of generations of firefighters) who only wants to work for a company that he can believe in and a Russian tech wizard who’s inspired by 9/11 to work on companies that are at the edge of crisis and etc etc etc

It’s too good to be true. No one is real. No one is motivated by pride or by money. They’re all either motivated by a desire to do good or out of an abstract techie idealism that draws them to solve the biggest problems that are available.

It’s a great story, but I know that at least part of it must be false (which inclines me to discount all of it).

Predictably Good Books (that I read in 2012), Part One

I feel like there’s no way to say “Pride and Prejudice was really good” without somehow indicating that you know it’s supposed to be good and that you’re not surprised it’s good. And that’s why this entry is titled “Predictably good books.”

_PnPPride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – I love Jane Austen. Before reading P&P, I’d read literally every other Jane Austen novel. But I had a mental block about the big P because it was the very first assigned-reading class (I was supposed to read it way back in 10th grade) that I just gave up on reading (beginning a long association with Cliff Notes). I really can’t say why I found this to be soooo boring when I was 16. But at age 26, I can tell you that this book is the bomb. It’s the only novel of hers, other than Emma, that’s reliably funny. Aside from the main triangle (Elizabeth Bennett, George Wickham, and Mr. Darcy) everyone in this book is hilarious, from the Liz’s overserious suitor Mr. Collins to her silly and clueless parents. And the book is well-plotted, too. The structure is interesting and interesting things happen. I don’t think there is anything about this novel that is not perfect. Well, except for Liz Bennett’s priggishness. Seriously, Jane Austen, I don’t understand why you hate dancing and joking around and having fun so much. Not since Mansfield Park (where the main character throws a huge fit because her cousins are putting on a play in their living room) have I been so mystified about what an Austen character’s problem is. Seriously, why is she down on her parents and her sisters? I guess that’s the curse of creating delightful comic characters—no one will believe you when you try to tell people that they are actually terrible and immoral people.

_SSSilent Spring by Rachel Carson – Yet another book I was supposed to read for class (during my junior year of college I took an English course called Visions of Ecology where we were assigned a ton of SF novels…the course probably would’ve been better if I’d actually done the reading…) But anyway, this is a really masterful document. Of course, you probably all know that this is a long tract about how pesticide spraying is killing tons of animals and probably causing cancer and stuff too. But, aside from the wonderfully ominous language, the interesting thing is how it’s structured. It doesn’t start off at the beginning, like most nonfiction books, by telling you, “This is the case I’m going to make.” And it doesn’t go from specific to general and then back to specific again. Instead, it’s this free-flowing impressionist mass of detail—die-offs and sprayings and extinctions are listed by the dozens—that are grouped in chapters according to some very intuitive progression. It’s a page-turner.

_MMMiddlemarch by George Eliot – This is a tome. I read it in Madrid and it took me a solid week. But it wasn’t difficult to get through. Each page is delightful. It doesn’t have the super-tedious stretches or the absurd plot elements that I’ve come to expect from Victorian novels, just page after page of good solid observation (and slightly outsized characters). Structurally, this novel kind of resembles Anna Karenina in that it’s about three pairs of lovers and contains one love triangle. The main love story, where Dorothea suffers through a marriage to the tedious priest Mr. Causubon was (while still interesting!) not the most fun part of the book. The other two plots, where Doctor Lydgate slowly has to sacrifice his intellectual ambitions in order to please his wife and where the feckless ne’er-do-well Fred Vincy has to shape up so he can marry his childhood sweetheart Mary Garth were, for me, the heart of the story. But there’s just so much stuff in here! It’s kind of amazing. For instance, it’s treatment of politics (all the characters have some interest in politics, and the capstone of one of its books is a very rough Parliamentary campaign) is one of the best I’ve seen (although it helps to do some Wikipedia reading so you know what bills and such they’re talking about). It’s kind of unbelievable how good this book is. I kind of want to reread it now.

_wwcwWhy We Can’t Wait by Martin Luther King, Jr – This is King’s account of the Birmingham Bus Boycott. It’s a wonderful document—a whole book written in that morally powerful voice that Kind perfected. The centerpiece of the book is King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and a fairly large portion of the book is dedicated to taking down the black and white moderates who are urging him to wait and to proceed slowly in his crusade for justice. Personally, I love this kind of squabbling, especially when it’s set as such a historical remove that I can imagine myself on the right side.

_TBSThe Blind Side by Michael Lewis – I feel like I’ve mentioned this one a few times in the last few weeks. It’s Michael Lewis book about Michael Oher, an NFL tackle who came from a very rough background and was adopted by a white family whose mother was later portrayed by Sandra Bullock in the Oscar-winning film of the same name, etc. etc. This was the most purely enjoyable reading experiences that I had this year. There was nothing difficult about this book. It was the perfect mix of narrative and analysis. It’s like Malcolm Gladwell meets Tobias Wolff. The story of the movie The Blind Side actually forms maybe only about one third to one half of the book (and it’s much more fleshed out in the book, too, of course, especially since it contains much more of Michael Oher’s own voice and own story). The rest of the book is about the changes in the game of football that made someone like Michael Oher into such a valuable property. Now, I don’t know anything about football and I don’t really care about football at all, and I still loved this book. Sports are driven by numbers and economics in a way that’s different from almost every other field of human endeavor. And I love reading about that.

Inaugurating Wrap-Up Season 2012 (oh, also, I watched the Blind Side!)

I am unapologetic in my love of all the yearly roundups that people post on their blogs at around this time of year, and ever since 2010, I’ve conducted my own month-long navel-gazing extravaganza called Wrap-Up Season. Typically, I begin by talking about the books I’ve read in the year. I divide these books into four categories: Predictably Good; Surprisingly Good; Books About Which I Have Mixed Feelings; and BAAAAAAAD (although somehow I never seem to get around to posting about the last category…that sort of thing just doesn’t enthuse me). Then I usually conduct some kind of blog round-up, looking at what kind of stuff I’ve posted in the last year. And finally, around December 20th (the day from which I date the beginning of my writing career), I write about the year’s writing statistics and accomplishments. Then, at the very end of the year, I post some personal stuff.

This year, I’m also thinking about posting a little (in a very nonspecific way) about my slush-reading gig (which is coming to a close), about my first semester of teaching, and about the MFA experience. So, yeah, that’s that. Here are links to my previous Wrap-Up Seasons. I think that this one will be the biggest and most complete of them all!


In other news, I watched The Blind Side yesterday. It was ermazing. And kind of a milestone for me, since it’s the first movie that I’ve completed in well over a year (I think the last time I watched a whole movie was when my brother and father and I made a family outing to Santa Barbara last Thanksgiving). Somehow, I’ve just lost the attention span for long-form audiovisual entertainment.

But I’d read the The Blind Side (by Michael Lewis) earlier in the year, and found it to be extremely excellent: one of the finest books I’ve read this year. And I love Sandra Bullock and tear-jerkers and inspirational sports movies. In fact, I love everything about sports (except watching sports games). Watching Sandra Bullock impersonate a gun-toting super Christian millionaire do-gooder was hilarious.

The Blind Side is my favorite kind of movie: the kind with no antagonist. There are no bad people in The Blind Side. There’s very little conflict of any sort, actually. The whole film is just about well-meaning people trying to reach out to this very closed-off young man.

I understand why people see this movie as having weird racial undertones. There is some really weird stuff going on here. For instance, the subject of the film–Michael Oher–is literally silent throughout most of the film. He does not speak. He is mostly ventriloquized by Sandra Bullock’s tough (but empathetic) character. Obviously, this is kind of a problem. Additionally, he’s portrayed as something of a tabula rasa. He’s a Lenny–a huge child (in fact, his deepest connection is with the Bullock character’s 9 year old son)–who is slowly filled up with knowledge and manners and even athletic skills by the savvy people who surround him.

In the book, these elements were not quite as overwhelming, because the primary story of the book was about how a person with little-to-no football experience can suddenly, after just a few high school games, come to be seen, by virtue of his outstanding physicality, as one of the year’s hottest recruiting prospects. That’s not really how it’s supposed to work: big guys are supposed to be a dime-a-dozen; it’s the training and the mental game and the discipline that’re supposed to raise them above the herd. But at least as it’s written in the book, it seems like being really big and really strong and really fast is enough, by itself, for Oher to be really exciting to a whole bunch of coaches.

Anyway, that’s not really what the movie is about. The movie is kind of poverty porn. It’s about how crazy it is that there can be a kid who no one cares about, who doesn’t even have a foster family, who has completely slipped through every crack, and who is completely adrift at age sixteen. Oh yeah, and it’s about exploiting the sheer visual craziness of his adoption by a family of white millionaires.

But…umm…well…it’s kind of impossible to justify this movie.

Still, it was really fun to watch.