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Saturday, June 28, 2014

More notes for a novel in 1940s noir

by John MacBeath Watkins

"Get your mitts off me," I said.

"Those are your mitts," the bouncer answered. "See, they're connected with a string that goes through your sleeves."

It was a nice, quiet joint. There hadn't been a knifing in a month, and they'd hired librarians to shush the

The job sounded easy. Too easy. But what if those kindergarteners were tougher than I thought?

"Babe, I could go for a girl like you," I said, drinking her in with my eyes.

She had long legs, slender hips, lots of blond hair. Some men might not have liked the size of her Adam's apple, but I like that in my women.

The door to her bedroom was ajar.

"Let me go first," I said, pulling my snub-nosed .38 out of the shoulder holster. I slammed the door open and moved in fast, scanning the room with my eyes and my gun. Most of the bedding was on the floor, every drawer was pulled out and there was clothing strewn everywhere.

"Notice anything?" I asked her.

"It's just like I left it this morning," she said. "Don't mind the mess, it's always like this."

More here:

and here:

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Former professions of famous writers

John MacBeath Watkins

Most writers did something else before they became famous writers. I've long been fascinated by this, because the experiences they bring to bear on their writing shapes the narrative.

Herman Melville was a merchant mariner who later became a customs inspector when he found his writing wouldn't support him.
Aphra Bhen, secret agent

Mark Twain was a printer's devil, then a riverboat pilot before the Civil War and a journalist after that, before becoming a successful novelist, essayist and lecturer.

Dante Alighieri was a cavalry soldier and later joined the physicians' and apothecaries' guild before writing The Divine Comedy.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, better known only as Cervantes, was also a military man, serving as a marine in the Spanish Navy during the Battle of Lepanto, where he was wounded three times, leaving his left arm limp. Returning to Spain, his ship was captured by an Algerian corsair, and he worked as a slave for five years and made four unsuccessful escape attempts before his parents ransomed him and he could begin his literary career.

Solomon Northup, born free in New York, was kidnapped in Washington D.C. and worked for 12 years as a slave before he was rescued. New York had in 1840 established funding for rescuing its citizens who were kidnapped and sold into slavery, so apparently this was a problem for quite a few free New York blacks.

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery, and escaped at about the age of 18, later writing his autobiography and becoming an influential abolitionist and reformer.

Chester Himes get busted for armed robbery when he was 19, and began writing in prison. If you haven't read If he Hollers Let Him Go, do so immediately.

Nathaniel Hawthorne began writing while working at the Boston Customs House. He was also a magazine editor at one point, but earned most of his money in the customs service.

Captain Frederick Marrayat, who set the pattern of square-rigged adventure stories, served in the British Navy, as a midshipman under the infamous Lord Cochrane, later invented a lifeboat (and got the name "lifeboat" Marrayat) and developed a flag signalling system known as Marrayat's Code. After the Napoleonic wars ended, he held the rank of captain and could still get commands, but he wrote a novel, Frank Mildmay, or, The Naval Officer, and sent it off to a publisher. When he returned from a two-year voyage, his book had been published and he was a best-selling author. He gave up his commission and devoted himself to writing.

Like Twain, Ernest Hemingway was a journalist before he became a novelist, but not until after he served as an ambulance driver in World War I. George Orwell was a journalist as well as well, but not until after he'd served as a policeman in Burma. Orwell also served in an Anarchist unit in the Spanish Civil War.

Joseph Conrad ran away from his home in Poland at the age of 17, and became a merchant mariner. He became a Captain in the British merchant marine, and worked at that until his health forced him to return to land and become a writer. Another merchant mariner was Jack Vance, a science fiction writer. He was nearly blind, but memorized the eye chart to become a able-bodied seaman.

Vance also studied physics and engineering. Robert Heinlein, another science fiction writer, studied engineering at the Naval Academy and had a career as a naval officer until he was forced by his health to retire and become a writer. Isaac Asimov, famous for inventing the laws of robotics, was a biochemistry professor. Arthur C. Clarke was a pensions auditor before World War II, became a radar operator during the war, and studied physics and mathematics after the war.

Aphra Bhen, one of the first famous northern European women writers, was a spy until poverty and debt drove her to writing. Ian Fleming, Graham Greene, John le Carre, Muriel Spark, and Compton McKenzie (an early gay writer and author of Whiskey Galore) also served in intelligence. Christopher Marlowe, who bought jokes for his plays from Shakespeare, was also a spy.

Mary Wollstonecraft worked as a lady's companion and a governess before becoming pregnant out of wedlock, not once, but twice. The second time she married British author William Godwin and began her career writing and campaigning for women's rights.

Jane Austen, born to the landed gentry, lived at home and seems not to have worked outside of it before beginning her literary career.

Baroness Emma Magdolna Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála "Emmuska" Orczy de Orczi, aka Baroness Orczy, despite her noble birth, had little money and worked as a translator before writing Gothic novels which are still read.

Charlotte and Anne Bronte were governesses, and Emily Bronte worked as a teacher until the 17-hour days broke her health and she returned home.

W. Somerset Maugham was a medical student when he started writing, but he was so successful as a writer he had no need to practice medicine.

Dorothy Sayers is another who gained literary success without a prior career. She was also one of the first women to receive an MA from Somerville College in Oxford when those degrees became available to women.

Josephine Tey was the pen name of Elizabeth Mackintosh, a physical education teacher.

Ursula Le Guin did an MA in French and Italian literature, but worked as a secretary before she became one of the most respected living writers of science fiction and fantasy.

George Eliot was a magazine editor named Mary Evans before she was published as a writer under he pen name. George Sand was an often-straying housewife named Amantine Dupin before being published under her pen name.

Louisa May Alcott worked as a teacher, seamstress, governess, and domestic helper, before success as a writer allowed her to focus on this craft.

Jack London escaped long hours working in a cannery to become an oyster pirate. After his oyster sloop got damaged beyond repair, he worked for the Fish Patrol, hunting poachers such as he had been. He signed on with a sealing schooner, and on finishing the voyage, fell on hard times and became a tramp. At this point in his life, he was still only 17, and became a high school student. A saloon keeper lent him money to go to college when he was admitted, but finances forced him to drop out.

He was 21 when he left for the gold fields of Alaska, and suffered scurvy there. He decided that the only way to get out of poverty was writing, and early on even when published, he was paid badly and late. By 1900, his fortunes had turned, and he made $2,500 writing that year. Keep in mind, that's about what a modest house cost in 1900.

One might have expected a man with such a heroic career to write the ultimate hero stories, but that fell to Robert E. Howard, now remembered for the Conan stories. He did a little journalism and worked as a stenographer for an oil company.

Flannery O'Connor was interested in birds, and raised peacocks, emus and ostriches before gaining her literary fame.

Isabel Allende worked for the U.N. and later translated romances into Spanish before launching her literary career.

Maya Angelou worked as a street-car conductor, night club dancer, prostitute, madame, and actor before gaining success as a writer. Robert Ludlum, after serving in the Marines, became an actor and theatrical producer before writing thrillers.

William Faulner, rejected by the U.S. Army Air Force in World War I, changed the spelling of his name and lied about his birthplace to join the RAF. He was still training when the war ended. He also worked at a post office in New York before being asked to resign for "moral reasons." Faulkner was, of course, a drunk, and likely was drunk on duty. He often elaborated his RAF experiences, fabricating war wounds, including a metal plate in his head.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, born with every advantage, was doing badly in college when he dropped out in 1917 to join the army. He worked for an advertising agency before gaining a reputation as a writer, then drank himself to an early death.

More later.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

A nation founded on debt (rethinking liberalism)

by John MacBeath Watkins

There is an email making the rounds of elderly white conservatives that quotes the Founding fathers on "economics, capitalism, and banking."

A sampling:

#1 "A wise and frugal government… shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government." — Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801

#2 "A people... who are possessed of the spirit of commerce, who see and who will pursue their advantages may achieve almost anything." - George Washington

#3 "Government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government which impartially secures to every man whatever is his own." – James Madison, Essay on Property, 1792

#4 "Banks have done more injury to the religion, morality, tranquility, prosperity, and even wealth of the nation than they can have done or ever will do good." - John Adams
And 11 more along those lines. One problem is that in practice, the founding fathers borrowed a great deal of money, much of it from the Dutch, to finance the war. After we'd won our independence, they followed Alexander Hamilton's advice and funded the debt, creating a stable market for securities which private companies could tap when they needed money.

Hamilton argued that public debt would be a blessing if it didn't become too large, and so it has been. We've eliminated the national debt once in our history during Andrew Jackson's administration, and this was followed by an economic disaster.

Another problem with the chain email is with the headline. Capitalism hadn't been invented yet, which is why the founding fathers never used the word (which was invented by Karl Marx in about 1850.) They were talking about the economy, but not about capitalism.

Yes, markets and private property had existed since antiquity, but there is a great deal more than that to capitalism. In pre-capitlist societies, wealth was viewed as pretty much a zero-sum game -- I get my wealth by taking it from you. There might be resources not being used, fields not tilled, mines not dug, but the wealth was there waiting to be taken. The means of production, such as plows and spinning wheels, were usually owned by those who used them. The rich did not invest in looms or spinning wheels, those were for the peasants. You might do well as a merchant, but wealth was closely tied to power, because in a zero-sum game, wealth flows from the ability to decide who gets it.

Capitalism broke the relationship between the artisan and their tools. The capitalist was not an artisan who owned his tools, he was an investor in the means of production, and investment in constantly improving capital stock was the major source of growth. He hired artisans and laborers to use the means of production he owned (and in the early days, property laws insured this would be a "he.)

In Confucian thought, all wealth came from the land, and merchants just moved it around, artisans just re-arranged it. Physiocrats, a system of thought that started in France, thought the same. At the time of the American Revolution, the main alternative system of economic thought was mercantilism.

The concept that capital could lead to growth is a concept that was still being invented when this country gained its independence. The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, and the modern theory of value was invented about a century later in the marginal revolution.

The founding fathers fell mainly into two groups, the merchants and the planters. The planters, such as Jefferson, tended to be physiocrats. They believed in laissez faire capitalism, which was rather convenient in that the abolitionists were already proposing that the government should interfere in their slave markets (Jefferson made a lot of his money selling slaves: "I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm," Jefferson remarked in 1820.) Physiocrats also believed that all real value came from the land, another convenient thing for a planter to believe.

The merchants, such as Alexander Hamilton, tended to be mercantilists. They believed in trying to capture as much wealth as possible for their country. This meant high tariffs on imported goods, substantial government projects to develop the country, like the Erie Canal and the post roads, and if possible, colonies from which wealth could be extracted.

Both of these systems of thought were built on the notion that the wealth of the world is a zero-sum game. Capitalism is not a zero-sum game. David Ricardo wrote about the theory of comparative advantage in 1817, suggesting that if each country focused on doing what it does best and purchased from other countries what they could produce more cheaply, everyone would be better off. The mercantilists, though they were focused on developing the wealth of the nation, had at least some notion that investment could increase wealth. They came up with the American Way, a program for public and public-private investments for the development of the nation, but had not realized what a mechanism of growth private capital could be.

It is all too easy to impose our modern framework of thought on people long dead, but they had a different set of tools to work with. I don't think capitalism really existed until the idea that free trade and investment in the means of production were seen as essential to the creation of wealth. The physiocrats, such as Jefferson, were in favor of the former, the mercantilists, such as Hamilton, were in favor of the latter, but almost no one at the time the constitution was written was in favor of both.

More on physiocrats and mercantilists here, on the nature of capitalism here.

Now you can see that the founding fathers' quotes presented here were, in fact, not about capitalism, but about a physiocrat's view of government. However, in practical terms, what they actually did about government debt was based on a mercantilist's point of view, and it's a very good thing that happened.

This country was deep in dept by the time it had won its independence. The physiocrats in congress were generally in favor of screwing the investors, but Alexander Hamilton realized that the national debt could be a tremendous asset.

From this source:

His 1790 Report on the Public Credit proposed funding the debt, thereby creating a stable market in bonds in this country that enabled businesses to borrow more cheaply than they could have otherwise.

It is all very well to quote the physiocrats among the founding fathers on the subject of public debt, but their understanding of banking and debt generally was fairly primitive. They were wise enough to follow the advice of a mercantilist on the actual handling of the debt -- that "if it is not excessive, will be to us a national blessing."

Now, you might think mercantilists were really capitalists, but you'd be wrong. Mercantilists advocated the development of the nation, and wanted to get as much of the world's wealth in their country as possible. They were empire builders. Cotton grown in India would be shipped to England to be made into cloth, then shipped back to India, even though the shipping costs and the cost of English labor made the cloth more expensive.

Capitalism broke that bond as well, dooming multinational empires. Once global capital was able to move production to undeveloped countries where the labor was cheap, and avoid paying the taxes that had supported the empire, the feedback loop that supported empires was gone. It is in the nature of capitalism that empires don't pay, and the new world order is one built on alliances within trading blocs.

Rethinking liberal theory 1: Thomas Hobbes, blasphemer and patriot
Rethinking liberal theory 2: The outlaw John Locke, terrorist, liberal, and advocate of freedom
Rethinking liberal theory 3: A compact to protect property, or a conspiracy to create meaning?
Rethinking Liberal Theory 4: John Milton and the many shapes of truth
Rethinking Liberal Theory 5: Adam Smith, moral philosopher of the marketplace
Rethinking Liberal Theory 6: Mythmaking and manufacturing
Rethinking liberal theory 7: Hegel, the end of history, and the triumph of the liberal idea
Rethinking liberal theory 8: Liberalism and individualism: The invention of the Util and the way west
Rethinking liberal theory 9 Property and freedom: Why language is the basis for the social contract 
Rethinking Liberal theory 10: Physiocrats & mercantilists: The economic philosophies of the founding fathers
Rethinking Liberal Theory 11:Stateless income, global capital, and the death of empires
Rethinking Liberal Theory 12:Capitalism:So much more than market
Rethinking liberalism 13: What is money? 

Rethinking Liberalism 14: Tribalism and the emerging new world order
Rethinking liberalism 15: The poverty of neoconservative philosophy
Rethinking Liberalism 16: More on the poverty of neoconservative philosophy

Monday, June 9, 2014

More on the poverty of neoconservative philosophy (rethinking liberalism)

by John MacBeath Watkins

Thinking further on my earlier post on the poverty of neoconservative philosophy, it seems to me that I should explore further Leo Strauss's idea that totalitarian is a result of the modern nihilism found in Thomas Hobbes's work. Strauss claimed that what is opposed to this is the effort to build the just society.

First of all, we should note that Marxists are all about building a "just" society, by their own standards. They are great believers in the idea that a just society can be achieved by overthrowing capitalism and building a communist society. The fact that they in practice failed to build a just society reveals defects in their thinking. For Strauss, Marxism represented the negation of any need for the political and economic institutions of society. This is what is known as political nihilism.

James Madison
And it's true that Marx made the error of thinking that institutions that cause great harm in society, such as private property and religion, could be eliminated and the harm they caused would stop. He then imagined that the state would wither away, not realizing that when you take away major organizing institutions in society, the gap will be filled by the remaining institutions In this case, the state filled the gap, which is what has happened wherever Marxism has been tried.

But Marx was not the last Marxist. Lenin stressed the need for a vanguard of intellectuals to push for the revolution and head up the revolutionary government. Totalitarianism could not have come from political nihilism, which denied the need for the state, but only from people who firmly believed that they needed to be in control. To claim that Stalin was a political nihilist who didn't believe in the need for political or economic institutions is utter nonsense. Stalin clearly, based on his actions, believed in a strong, centralized state, firmly in control of the economy, the political life, and even the beliefs of its citizens.

Anyone actually wanting to practice political nihilism in a Stalinist state would have been killed. Marx may have preached a sort of political nihilism, but the lacunae in his own philosophy meant that in practice, all Marxist rulers have been firm believers in a powerful central state.

And what of the fascists? Did they believe in abolishing the political, economic, and social institutions of society?

Hardly. They were big believers in the ideology of nationalism, a strong central state, and strong cooperation between the state and industry. They were authoritarian not because they believed political institutions should be abolished, but because they believed in, as Benito Mussolini put it, in "All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state."
In short, Marxists were totalitarian in practice because they were not believers in the basic tenets of political nihilism.

But were they moral nihilists, a more familiar sort of nihilist?

Strauss deemed Hobbes a nihilist because his philosophy was based on "mere preservation." Hobbes, after all, said that we needed a ruler to enforce laws, so that we would not meet a violent death.

But in saying the ruler has value because he (and the ruler Hobbes had in mind was his pupil, Charles II) does a job of work for the citizen, he was laying the groundwork for democracy. After all, what if the ruler sucks at his job? Shouldn't you be able to fire him? And why should the ruler pass the job on to his first born son? Shouldn't the citizens be able to hire the rulers they want?

Hobbes had invented a new basis for the legitimacy of rulers, which was needed because the 30-Years War and the Reformation had destroyed traditional bases for the legitimacy of rulers. But this new basis for the legitimacy of rulers didn't really support the outcome he wanted, which was the absolute monarchy of his friend and pupil.
Was he a moral nihilist? It's a bit hard for me to see him that way. He believed that the injustice of violent death, of theft and banditry, could only be avoided by having a ruler with the authority to enforce the laws we want enforced. In fact, he wanted a society more just than the chaos of the 30-Years War would permit. He had seen what the breakdown of political and social institutions could do, and charted a path away from that.

In Strauss's eyes, this focus on the material matter of remaining alive made Hobbes a nihilist. Since he was arguing in favor of political institutions, he cannot have been a political nihilist, so he must have been indicting Hobbes as a moral nihilist.

If we were to accept that Hobbes was a moral nihilist, should we also accept that this was the sort of modernist approach to ethics that led to the totalitarian philosophies of fascist and Marxist states?

This seems dubious. Marx clearly was motivated by an effort to build a just society, the same goal Strauss admired; he just disagreed with what constitutes a just society. Lenin agreed with Strauss that society would inevitably be ruled by a small group of the "best" people, he just disagreed with Strauss about the nature of the group that should rule.

Were fascists moral nihilists? I believe that rather, they had a perverted sense of justice. Keep in mind, worse things are done in the name of justice than have ever been contemplated in the name of crime. Mussolini even referred to fascism as a religion.

The Holocaust, the Inquisition, and the killing fields of Cambodia were not carried out be people who believed in the evil of what they were doing. They were carried out by people with a deep conviction in the justice of purifying the world of bad people. They were following the tenets of their beliefs in building a just world to the logical conclusion. People without such an ideology, such a central myth, people merely concerned with the preservation of their own lives, would not have acted in these ways.

Which may explain why the Nocturnal Council in Plato's The Laws bears more than a passing resemblance to the Inquisition. Plato considered central truths, that is, a central myth of society, to be necessary for building a just society, and a body to enforce that belief to be essential. But when it was put into practice, this notion produced a system that was notoriously unjust.

This makes it rather odd that Strauss would place such emphasis on belief in a central myth as being necessary for building a just society. Straussians tend to call that central myth "American Exceptionalism," by which they appear to mean something different than the Marxists who coined the term. Those Marxists claimed that America didn't have the kind of stratified class structure that made Marxism attractive to European workers.

Neoconservatives seem to mean it more in the sense of John Winthrop's 1630 sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity" which referred to "A City Upon a Hill," indicating the notion that America is a model of what the world should be. This is really a claim of national greatness, not so very different, in fact, from the claims of national greatness  made by fascists in Germany and Italy in the 1930s.

Certainly I prefer Winthrop's vision of Christian love and charity to Hitler's vision of a triumphant Aryan race. But it is not the central idea of America. Winthrop wrote his sermon in 1630 for a Puritan audience. Most American settlers were not Puritan. Many were Anglican, or Baptist, or Methodist, or Quaker, or Catholic or Jewish. To say that the Puritan project was the project of America is to vastly overstate their importance. Many of my ancestors were Quaker, and became so after one of them was kicked out of the Puritan church for giving aid and comfort to Quakers. Being the descendant of those who where kicked out of the church Winthrop belonged to for being too inclusive in their associations makes me skeptical of the notion that a Puritan in 1630 defined the essence of America.

The essential nature of the American experiment has much more to do with the thought of John Locke than John Winthrop.Winthrop did not believe in religious tolerance or democracy. He presided over the trial of Anne Hutchinson, who did not agree with the Puritan credo that it took both faith and good works to get into heaven. Like many modern-day Christians, she believed that faith alone was enough. For this she was labeled a heretic and banished from the colony, and Winthrop called her an "American Jezebel."

Nor was Winthrop an admirer of democracy, saying:
"If we should change from a mixed aristocracy to mere democracy, first we should have no warrant in scripture for it: for there was no such government in Israel ... A democracy is, amongst civil nations, accounted the meanest and worst of all forms of government.  [To allow it would be] a manifest breach of the 5th Commandment."
To my Catholic and Lutheran readers I should explain that Winthrop was using the Calvinist system for numbering the commandments, so he was referring to "honor they father and mother," not "thou shall not kill."

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Bill of Rights, thought very highly of John Locke and did not approve of the intolerance of the Puritans.

James Madison, who had as much to do with the framing of the Constitution as anyone, argued in Federalist Paper #10 that religion was one of the major sources of faction in a country, and this tendency to faction could only be controlled in a large and diverse republic. Madison was also a major supporter of the Bill of Rights, in which the rule against the establisment of religion ensures that no one can be punished for not believing what people like John Winthrop might think they should.

The vision of America that Jefferson and Madison proposed was one that varies greatly with the vision neoconservatives insist on. The open society they wanted did not rely on perverse readings of ancient texts, but on easily understood concepts embodied in the constitution. Straussian readings tend to seek the hidden meaning of texts, but Jefferson and Madison and the other founding fathers were doing their best to make their meaning clear and persuasive. I don't think they would have seen the point of hiding their meaning, and I suspect any hidden meaning found is one made up by the reader.

In practice, the neoconservative notion of American exceptionalism amounts to an assertion of national greatness. In policy terms, the neoconservative idea seems to be that America can lick any man in the house, and should fight anyone who looks at us funny. Their American exceptionalism amounts to nothing more than Amerika über alles, hardly a slogan for a democratic country.

More on rethinking liberalism
Rethinking liberal theory 1: Thomas Hobbes, blasphemer and patriot
Rethinking liberal theory 2: The outlaw John Locke, terrorist, liberal, and advocate of freedom
Rethinking liberal theory 3: A compact to protect property, or a conspiracy to create meaning?
Rethinking Liberal Theory 4: John Milton and the many shapes of truth
Rethinking Liberal Theory 5: Adam Smith, moral philosopher of the marketplace
Rethinking Liberal Theory 6: Mythmaking and manufacturing
Rethinking liberal theory 7: Hegel, the end of history, and the triumph of the liberal idea
Rethinking liberal theory 8: Liberalism and individualism: The invention of the Util and the way west
Rethinking liberal theory 9 Property and freedom: Why language is the basis for the social contract 
Rethinking Liberal theory 10: Physiocrats & mercantilists: The economic philosophies of the founding fathers
Rethinking Liberal Theory 11:Stateless income, global capital, and the death of empires
Rethinking Liberal Theory 12:Capitalism:So much more than market
Rethinking liberalism 13: What is money? 

Rethinking Liberalism 14: Tribalism and the emerging new world order
Rethinking liberalism 15: The poverty of neoconservative philosophy
Rethinking Liberalism 16: More on the poverty of neoconservative philosophy

Friday, June 6, 2014

On reading young adult fiction

by John MacBeath Watkins

In the immortal words of John Rogers, "There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs. "

A Slate piece by Ruth Graham titled Against YA suggests that "...Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children."

I'm sorry, (he said, with icy politeness,) but Young Adult fiction is a marketing category, not the mark of Cane. Belonging to that category does not mean a book is badly written or emotionally unsophisticated. Moby Dick was published as a kids' adventure story, as was The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnAtlas Shrugged was published as a novel of ideas aimed at adults. But which of these has the greater emotional and moral depth?

 The truth is, you can't judge a book by its cover, but you can tell from its cover what the publisher thought its audience was. The thing is, publishers are seldom right. Quite a few rejected Animal Farm, one of them saying, "it is impossible to sell animal stories in the United States."

Robert Pirsig sent Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to 121 publishers before the 122nd bought it. If publishers understood their audience, they would have known this would be a best seller, but in truth, no one understands the reading public well enough to be certain which books will sell best, or which will be regarded as classics a century later.

In addition, most adult fiction has no particular claim to literary merit. Should people be ashamed of reading westerns, or mysteries, or fantasy novels? Why single out young adult fiction for the sneer? People don't read porn for the character development or the sophisticated prose, but those books are unquestionably aimed at adults. Should we feel shame any time we are reading something that a creative writing professor would give a B grade to? Are we to outsource our tastes and our choices to people with pretensions as arbiters of taste who may, in the end, miss the mark as badly as the 19th century pretenders who ignored Moby Dick?

How badly do the arbiters of taste miss the mark? Consider this rejection, with gratuitous misspelling of the author's name, of The Bell Jar
This is an ill-conceived, poorly written novel, and we would be doing neither ourselves nor the late Miss Play any good service by offering it to the American public…I don’t doubt that certain elements of the British press will puff the book nicely, but Mrs. Jones’s original four-line report strikes me as the only honest and responsible critical reaction to the work.
P.G. 3/29/63
 Miss Jones, the other Knopf editor who read the manuscript, gave her initial response thus:
[1] Reject recommended
I’m not sure what Heinemann’s sees in this first novel unless it is a kind of youthful American female brashnaess. But there certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.
Since two editors at a major publishing house thought the book was crap, should we be ashamed of reading The Bell Jar? Yet it has entered the 20th century canon as a classic.

Is there recent YA fiction that will someday be regarded as classic literature? I couldn't tell you, because that decision will be made by readers yet unborn. Maybe Louis Sachar's Holes will be regarded as great literature one day, maybe it will be forgotten, as most books are. I do not arrogate to myself the power to dictate the appropriate taste of any other reader.

In fact, I think past efforts to do so have been destructive to literature. When academics came to wield great power over which poets are regarded as good, poetry lost its organic connection to a mass audience. Increasingly, literary fiction is written by professors of creative writing, in part because it is becoming more difficult for authors to support themselves on what they can make. Is this a good thing, or will it enervate the novel the way this dynamic has enervated poetry?

I submit that the reason adults are attracted to YA fiction is precisely the fact that the arbiters of taste don't control it, the audience does. When I read Annie Proulx,  I get a good read, but I also get some prose that seems very written, very much intended to bring attention to the cleverness of the author. My preference is for authors who don't let the words get in the way, who let me look right at the story without demanding attention for themselves. Heart of Darkness isn't a great book because it has memorable sentences, it's a great book because the sentences disappear and leave you facing Kurtz. It's a great book because once you've read it, the book becomes a part of you, and changes who you are.

And it's a great book because generations of readers felt the same as I do on reading it. The formation of a canon does not depend on the utterances of experts, it depends upon a consensus formed by many readers over a long period of time.

Take the example of The Lord of the Rings. It came out at a time when critics preferred the then-fashionable style of social realism. But J.R.R. Tolkien wasn't writing some pale imitation of The Grapes of Wrath, he was writing an epic, something no one else was doing. It took a couple generations for critics to take it seriously, but if I had to name a book I was certain people would still be reading in a hundred years, the ring trilogy (originally intended to be one book) would be my choice.

Yet, had I followed the advice of Ruth Graham's Slate piece, I would have been ashamed to read it. It was written as a sequel to The Hobbit, which was very definitely a kids' book. It even won an award for "best juvenile fiction" from the New York Herald Tribune in 1937.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

All of our poetic posts

I've labeled as many of the posts I can find that are poetry or about poetry with a poetry tag, so you can find them all in one place.

Just click on the above link, and they will present themselves.