Art and argument. Popping fresh.
(July 2001 archive)
        Tell all the Truth but tell it slant--
Success in circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

(--Emily Dickinson)

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"Plot is a literary convention. Story is a force of nature."
(--Teresa Nielsen Hayden)

"Just because you're on their side doesn't mean they're on your side."
(--Teresa Nielsen Hayden)

"Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die."
(--Anne Lamott)

"You will never love art well, until you love what she mirrors better."
(--John Ruskin)

"They lied to you. The Devil is not the Prince of Matter; the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt. The Devil is grim because he knows where he is going, and, in moving, he always returns whence he came."
(--Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose)

"Details are all that matters; God dwells there, and you never get to see Him if you don't struggle to get them right."
(--Stephen Jay Gould)

"For every complex question, there's a simple answer. And it's wrong."
(--H. L. Mencken)

"History is the trade secret of science fiction."
(--Ken MacLeod)

Monday, July 23, 2001
7:00 PM: Sometimes Tom Tomorrow strains for his effects. And sometimes he's absolutely spot on.
Sunday, July 22, 2001
7:00 PM: Review of a book I haven't read, but would like to: Jonathan Rose's The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. Rose has evidently scoured nineteenth- and early twentieth-century memoirs, archives, oral histories, and educational records, to paint a picture of the culture of working-class self-education centered on (but not limited to) the Victorian era: lectures, workingmen's clubs, Welsh miners' institutes, and of course the movement for public education. According to reviewer John Carey, what he comes up with stands as a rebuke to the notion that avid consumption of the "great books" leads to political quietism:
Almost all his witnesses record that culture opened up wider perspectives and made them more articulate and critical. Far from reinforcing conservative values, art and literature became symbols of social revolution, allowing the oppressed control over their own minds. "Greek art will never keep the workers from claiming their world," a woman sweat-shop worker affirmed. "In fact, it will help them to realise what a stunted life they have hitherto led." Those struggling to educate themselves commonly testified that only through reading did they come to think of themselves as individuals. For a Birmingham factory hand, Everyman's Library's cheap classics brought "self- realisation". Reading Tess of the d'Urbervilles, with its working- class heroine, gave a downtrodden housemaid the sense that she was a "person in her own right" even when her employers treated her as if she did not exist. "This book made me feel human."
6:40 PM: They rule. Compelling interactive Web page that allows you to trace the many and fascinating ways various corporate boards interlock. Browsing the "Load Map" menu is interesting, since other users can save their work; some of the available maps are stupid and pointless, but some are very revealing. Read the instructions under "About"; it's pretty easy to use. Requires Flash.
6:00 PM: A lot of you will have seen it, but I want to note it anyway. Brooke Allen in the Atlantic makes exactly the defense of the evil chain bookstores that I have been making in casual conversation and on convention panels for years. This is in no way to slight the quality and importance of good independent bookstores -- but most parts of the US haven't got anything like Cody's, Powell's, or Tattered Cover, and never did. Meanwhile:
What if fifteen years ago someone had suggested a nationwide network of gigantic bookshops, carrying about 150,000 titles each, staying open until 11:00 P.M. or midnight, and offering cafes, comfortable chairs, and public restrooms? And what if these sumptuous emporia were to be found not only in the great urban centers but also in small cities and suburbs all across the country--places like Plano, Texas; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Mesa, Arizona? Wouldn't we have thought that sounded like pure, if unattainable, heaven? Well, that is what the superstore chains--Barnes & Noble; Borders; and Books-A-Million, based in Birmingham, Alabama--have brought us. Why, then, the chorus of disapproval from the cultural elite? Why the characterization, spread by a vocal group of critics, of the chain bookstores as a sort of intellectual McDonald's, a symbol of the dumbing-down and standardization of American life? [...] A look around any of the superstores will show that more risky and experimental fiction, more first novels, and more serious nonfiction are available to general readers all over the country than ever before.
I'm as mistrustful of corporate hegemony and centralized cultural control as anybody, and certainly I make no brief for the many ways in which chains -- Barnes and Noble, Starbucks, Wal-Mart -- move in on successful independents and drive them out by strategically undercutting them. The problem, as Allen points out, is that the standard critique of the book superstores isn't about thei corporate misbehavior. Rather, it's rooted in the fundamentally unthoughtful notion that little bookstores with fewer choices are somehow better for us -- and the (loonily counterfactual) idea that smaller bookstores are more effective at selling odd, non-mass-market, idiosyncratic books.

In other words, most of the prejudice is about style, not substance. As if what really mattered was styles of retailing. But what really matters is books.

Thursday, July 12, 2001
12:47 AM: Look. No, don't look. No, look. No, don't. No, do.
12:00 AM: "Zero tolerance" strikes again. An Oregon woman was assaulted by her husband. She was hospitalized for her imjuries; he was arrested and put in jail. She got a restraining order against him, which she gave to the resident manager of the publicly-subsidized low-income housing development in which she lived. Two days later, according to an article in yesterday's New York Times, she
received a notice to vacate the apartment within 24 hours. The notice said, "You, someone in your control, or your pet, has seriously threatened immediately to inflict personal injury, or has inflicted substantial personal injury upon the landlord or other tenants," and specified her husband's assault. [...]

In the HUD investigation, Creekside Village's supervising property manager said the policy of evicting the entire household when anyone in the household has been a batterer is designed to protect tenants from witnessing recurring domestic fights if the restraining order is defied.

"The reason we take such a hard stance on the issue of violence is to maintain a peaceful living environment for all tenants," said Inez Cronevsky, the supervising property manager.

Also because I'm a empty-headed ninny with the moral sensitivity of a houseplant, supervising property manager Inez Cronevsky did not say. But should have.

(So, of course, should anyone else connected with devising and implementing such a sorry "policy." As Teresa observed, "to maintain a peaceful living environment for all tenants" means "we don't want to have to deal with messy victims." Battered people should just go back to Battered-People-Land.)

Unsurprisingly, the evicted woman is now suing. Aside from the obvious harm she's suffered, it's notable that her case is being advanced (by the American Civil Liberties Union's Women's Rights Project, along with Legal Aid Services of Oregon, NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Advocates for Victims of Domestic Violence) as an instance of...wait for it...sex discrimination. What, it would have been okay to evict the husband if it had been the wife who'd put him in the hospital?

"Because domestic violence affects women disproportionately, this kind of zero-tolerance policy hurts women far more than men," said [ACLU official Lenora] Lapidus[...] "It's particularly difficult for low-income women who are depending on subsidized housing to find stable living arrangements, and when they're in the crisis of domestic violence, it's all the more difficult."
No kidding. And yet, is the fundamental unfairness of this kind of "zero tolerance" policy really located in the fact that more women are battered by their men than men by their women? Or might it possibly be that any policy in which all members of a household are evicted because one of them wreaks violence on the others is--quite simply--monstrously indifferent to the sort of basic fairness apprehensible by even a child? Can the deliberate enforcement of such a "policy" really be called anything other than depraved?
Wednesday, July 11, 2001
11:00 AM: This weblog is no longer "powered by Blogger"; it is powered by manually editing HTML files. Blogger is a good idea, and perhaps someday it will work. Right now, I'm out of patience with service interruptions, archive features that don't behave as they claim they will, and (most vexingly) a discussion-and-support area that is inaccessible more often than not. Also, watching Blogger's browser interface lock up Teresa's (not exactly underpowered) Mac on a regular basis, whisking away unfinished writing of hers in the process, has been less than encouraging.

I've reorganized this weblog's archives and (for now) eliminated the permanent link found at the end of each post; I'll rethink how to better do these things, when I have a little more time.

8:57 AM: I have no particularly original points to make about it, but I thoroughly enjoyed White Teeth by Zadie Smith, a first novel from a 24-year-old that won the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Guardian First Novel Award, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. (Denizens of the SF world will recognize that last as a mainstream award won a few years ago by Christopher Priest for his brilliant fantasy novel The Prestige.) White Teeth is currently omnipresent in Britain, prominently displayed not only in bookstores but in even the smallest railway newsstands. It was first recommended to me by Roz Kaveney, and then at the SF Foundation conference China Mieville made passing reference to the author as a "phenomenon." On my last day in the UK, I picked up a copy in a Smith's at the Manchester airport. I started it on the plane, and--you know, the old book-jacket cliches are just impossible to get rid of. No, really, I couldn't put it down. (Here's an excerpt. Yes, it is available in an American edition. Yes, I know it has been endlessly covered and discussed in the publishing world on both sides of the Atlantic for months, and where have I been. Yes, that'll be enough of that.)

Okay, what's it about? Er um. Two families in northwest London, one Asian, one part Jamaican and part English. Destiny and Fate, and the many zany hallucinations people contrive to have about these. Genetic engineering. Family secrets and their gradual decoding by the sharper members of the younger generation. Unintended consequences, big time. The incorrigible randomness of things, and our many lurid illusions of control. The inescapability of history, and the urgent necessity of sometimes telling history to just shut up. The irreducible direness of all notions of "purity" applied to human affairs. Assimilation as an endlessly fecund engine of irony:

This has been the century of strangers, brown, yellow, and white. This has been the century of the great immigrant experiment. It is only this late in the day that you can walk into a playground and find Isaac Leung by the fish pond, Danny Rahman in the football cage, Quang O'Rourke bouncing a basketball, and Irie Jones humming a tune. Children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical checkups. It is only this late in the day, and possibly only in Willesden, that you can find best friends Sita and Sharon, constantly mistaken for each other because Sita is white (her mother liked the name) and Sharon is Pakistani (her mother thought it best -- less trouble). Yet, despite all the mixing up, despite the fact that we have finally slipped into each other's lives with reasonable comfort (like a man returning to his lover's bed after a midnight walk), despite all this, it is still hard to admit that there is no one more English than the Indian, no one more Indian than the English. There are still young white men who are angry about that; who will roll out at closing time into the poorly lit streets with a kitchen knife wrapped in a tight fist.
With a family-saga plot fueled by shameless dollops of coincidence, it inevitably elicits comparisons to Dickens, and its subject matter and ambition make comparisons to Rushdie equally likely. (Rushdie himself helps out by supplying a laudatory quote.) But this is one of those books that drags you through by the sheer confident energy of its voice.

It's also one of those mainstream novels that go straight to the science-fiction receptors in my novel-reading brain--a book whose literary nutrients are 100% cross-tolerant with the pure SF drug. And finally, it is extremely, painfully, near-to-lose-control-of-basic-bodily-functions funny. It is a book that leaves you living in a larger and more interesting world than you did when you started it.

7:17 AM: Long, provocative Sean Wilentz essay dissecting David McCullough's new (and very popular) John Adams biography. Wilentz places McCullough firmly in the tradition of storyteller-historians who eschew difficult analysis for spectatorial appreciation, "edification and pleasant uplift."
McCullough's book ... is a prudent but deeply admiring study of an enormously talented and remarkable patriot who was also one of the most suspicious, pugnacious, and at times pig-headed conservatives of the early American republic. In conveying so much about Adams's goodness, in vivid and smooth prose, McCullough slights Adams's intellectual ambitions, his brilliance and his ponderousness, his pettiness and his sometimes disabling pessimism. McCullough scants, in other words, everything that went into rendering Adams the paradox that he was: a great American who would prove virtually irrelevant to his nation's subsequent political development. And in its very smoothness and vividness, McCullough's life of Adams is useful also in another way. It gives a measure of the current condition of popular history in America, in its strengths but also--rather grievously--in its weaknesses. [...]

The paucity of McCullough's picturesque characterological approach to the past is underscored by his life of John Adams. For Adams is a well-studied historical figure about whom McCullough has virtually nothing new to reveal. He is a figure whose sharp edges and mixed political record defy grateful appreciation. And he is a figure whose importance stems from his intellect and his politics, not from his character. [...]

Absent a thorough or even a reliable evaluation of Adams's ideas and politics, it is impossible to comprehend what made the man tick. But McCullough, drawing on immense reserves of as yet unpublished Adams letters as well as on Adams's famous diary, does show that he and his wife, Abigail, lustily adored each other; that Adams was all too gloomily aware of his strong streak of vanity; and that Adams was a blunt, candid man who, though unloved by the masses, could be charming and witty and immensely approachable in private. Narrative, narrative, narrative.

All true. And it's hard to watch McCullough's evident desire to sell Adams as the Truman of the Enlightenment, the doughty, authentic American Guy amidst the phonies, without wondering about the interests that are handily served by this sentimental re-envisioning of the figure who, of all American Presidents, came closest to ruling as a dictator.

But when Wilentz throws up his hands about "narrative, narrative, narrative," it's also hard to avoid wondering: yes, and what else so reliably engages human attention and caring? We're hardwired for story and character; for portraits of eminent persons and tales of their great achievements and human quirks. For lives of the saints. We love hearing about how the hero slew the monster and we love hearing about how the hero was an asshole to his brother-in-law. We have a never-ending appetite for this stuff, and we do everything we can to shove it around on our plate and build Devil's Towers of meaning out of it.

Interestingly, Wilentz's essay springs to life when he descends into the gutter of character and sentiment and engages McCullough's arguments on direct characterological terms:

Between the fugacious Jefferson and the doughty Adams, McCullough is much more at ease with, and appreciative of, the latter. Indeed, in his portrait of Adams one can detect, ever so slightly, the lineaments of his modern hero, "Give 'Em Hell" Harry. But Jefferson, although never less than a great American in McCullough's world of great Americans, comes across as narcissistic, artificial, and unsteady. Those are traits that, in McCullough's mind, run against the good old American grain.

Yet much of the value of this contrast depends on the beholder. Jefferson's elusiveness and deviousness could just as easily be praised as his protean genius, an indispensable quality for one who would lead a new nation of sovereign squabbling individuals. By allowing different constituencies to see in him what they wanted to see, Jefferson mastered the democratic art of leading while appearing to be a follower, and of following while appearing to be a leader; and by practicing those arts he was able to defeat the Federalists, to complete the Louisiana Purchase, and to reform the federal government. Honest, argumentative, dogged John Adams, by contrast, was entirely unsuited for the President's House; and so he wound up being the first of only eight presidents in all of American history (one of the others being his son) to be denied re-election after four years in office.

But by and large Wilentz's fine essay is one side of a debate within historical writing that will probably be, in some form, always with us. We need David McCullough and Ken Burns and sad fiddle music and edifying portraits of the doings of eminent women and men; they make us care about history in the first place, because what people care about is stories about people. And we need the Sean Wilentzes to remind us to dig beneath the cartoons. We need sentiment, and sentiment is never enough.
This is a poignant story. It is the tale of a courageous and good man who fell out of touch with the country that he loved and that he served so diligently and often so well. But it is a story that simply eludes the pieties of McCullough. By giving us the admirable Adams--by celebrating what he calls Adams's "bedrock integrity, his spirit of independence, his devotion to country, his marriage, his humor, and a great underlying love of life"--McCullough has written merely another valentine. But it is one thing to be swept away by a major figure of one's own lifetime, and quite another to cast as an exemplary political figure a man who died one hundred and seventy-five years ago in another political age--especially one whose connection to our own rambunctious democracy is as tenuous as Adams's.

The result is a biography that fails to ask many difficult questions about its subject, and thereby makes him less interesting than he actually was. Benjamin Franklin, who grew to loathe Adams (the feeling was mutual), remarked in 1783 that Adams "means well for his country, is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses." McCullough regards this as a calumny, which is too bad. A finer taste for ambiguity might have helped him to grasp the accuracy of Franklin's judgment. So would a surer sense for what the idiosyncratic Bernard DeVoto recognized as the slightly mad strain in all of American history--an indispensable sense of American strangeness that seems to have disappeared among our leading popular historians, for whom madness is just a kind of charm and strangeness just a kind of color.

Monday, July 9, 2001
11:28 PM: Okay, I'm back. I spent a week and a half in London, with side trips to Reading, Cambridge, and (in a very American fit of geneological curiosity) the East Anglian village of Heydon, site of one alleged branch of my ancestry. Then a half week in Liverpool, attending the excellent "2001: A Celebration of British Science Fiction" conference at the University of Liverpool, sponsored by the equally excellent Science Fiction Foundation.

As I always do in Britain, I immersed myself in newspapers and political commentary, indulging my low taste for British parliamentary politics; and British parliamentary politics obliged by staging one of its great perennial Grand Guignols, a Tory leadership contest, complete with all the drama, eccentricity, backstabbing, toadying, spectacle, blatant handicapping, and unwitting irony that "the stupid party" can always be counted on to provide.

I've been to the UK six times, four of them since 1995, but this was the trip on which I really grasped, on a hand-level basis, just what a profoundly damaged place post-Thatcher England is, and how deeply illiberal are its new Blairite masters. I don't mean illiberal the way the American Democratic Party is basically a centrist outfit, rather than a redoubt of progressivism. I mean that, compared with people like Prime Minister Tony Blair, Chancellor Gordon Brown, and new Home Secretary David Blunkett, conservative and consensus-oriented Democrats like Tom Daschle and Richard Gephardt are wild-eyed libertarian leftists. I'm normally suspicious of lefty purism--I have very few polite words for people who supported Nader in 2000--but anyone who doesn't see that "New Labour" is essentially the culmination of the Thatcherite project to loot British society just hasn't been paying attention.

I trawled the web extensively for a single article that would sum all this up for American readers--the corroded public services, the enormous regions of utterly demoralized poverty, the manifest determination of the supposedly left-wing central government to pursue right-wing privatization schemes against all common sense and expert advice, and most of all the strangely painted-on feel of modern England, a country that feels more and more like an apartment cheaply renovated in order to sell quickly. (A feeling which, it seems to me, evaporates as soon as one enters Scotland.) I finally found such a piece--in the New York Review of Books. It's an article by Tony Judt called "'Twas a Famous Victory."

In opposition, Labour...rightly saw Major's Railway Act of 1993 as an unworkable absurdity, a form of asset-stripping, whereby the government chopped up a public service into marketable lots, sold them off for a quick profit, and refused to contemplate the human and economic costs of its handiwork. But once in office, Blair has been curiously silent. Indeed, encouraged by the Treasury (and some of the same senior civil servants who oversaw the rail privatization), he has pressed hard for a similar model to be applied in the proposed sell-off of London's Underground system.

Britain's privatized railways are a cruel joke. Train users pay the highest fares in Europe for some of the worst (and as it turns out, most dangerous) trains in the Western world--and now, as taxpayers, they are paying out almost as large an annual subsidy as they were when the state owned the system. This might be more tolerable were it not for the widespread British awareness of developments overseas. As British journalists have been pointing out, you can now travel by train from Paris to Marseille in great comfort and just over three hours. The same distance in Britain (from London to, say, Pitlochry in Scotland) will take at least double the time and cost twice as much. There have been only four derailments on France's peerless TGVs since they entered service in 1981; there were thirty-three deaths on the railways in Britain in 1999 alone. [...]

New Labourites rightly claim that Britain is a post-political (actually post-ideological) society. From this they deduce that people aren't interested in doctrinal disputes over the state and the market. They just want whatever works--hence Blair's carefully pragmatic emphasis on mixing public sector and private profit (which is why he pulls his punches even when faced with the mess on the privatized railways, a disaster he could legitimately blame on Tory incompetence and worse). But my own feeling is that England in particular is fast becoming a post-post-political society.

By this I mean that Thatcher and Blair have so successfully uprooted the old left-right, State-market distinctions that many people can no longer remember why they need feel inhibited in favoring a return to the state. Why, they ask, should we not have a transport network/health service/school system that works as well as the Swedish or French or German one? What does it have to do with the market or efficiency or freedom? Are the French less free because their trains work? Are the Germans less efficient because they can get a hospital appointment when they need it?

Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister), has built his political career on the claim that he has made Labour a party of economic responsibility. But a large minority of British voters wasn't even born the last time Britain had an economically "irresponsible" Labour government. For them that's history, and voters aren't interested in history. If economic "irresponsibility" reduces grotesquely long hospital waiting lists, makes the trains run safely at affordable prices, or gets a math teacher for your child's school, what, they ask, is wrong with it?

That is Britain's real "European" question, and British politicians will not be able to dodge it indefinitely.

I'm quoting too much, and this is only one of several excellent points Judt makes. Read this piece.

All contents copyright 2001 by Patrick Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.