Category Archives: culture

On Self-Publishing and Why I Do It

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Let me get one thing straight right from the get-go: I know self-publishing is not the same thing as publishing one’s work through a legitimate, acknowledged publishing company. I also know that self-publishing is looked down upon by the established writing community and by most readers. In fact, for the most part I agree with this estimation. After all, I spent much of last year writing freelance book reviews for Kirkus Reviews, so I know what’s being published by indie authors: some of it is ok, but much more of it is not very good at all.

Knowing this, then, why would I settle for publishing my novels on Amazon and CreateSpace? This is a tricky question, and I have thought about it a great deal. Whenever anyone introduces me as an author, I am quick to point out that I am, in fact, just a self-published author, which is very different from a commercial writer. (And if at any time I am liable to forget this important fact, there are enough bookstores in my area that will remind me of it, stating that they don’t carry self-published books.) When I meet other writers who are looking for agents, I do my best to encourage them, largely by sharing with them the only strategy I know: Be patient, and persist in sending your queries out.

So why, since I know all this, do I resort to self-publishing my work? I’ve boiled it down to four main reasons.

First of all, I self-publish because I am not invested in becoming a commercially successful writer. I write what I want, when I want, and when I decide my work is complete, I submit it to an electronic platform that makes it into a book, which I can then share with family and friends and anyone else who cares to read it. In other words, for me writing is not a means by which to create a career, celebrity, or extra income. I have long ago given up the fantasy of being interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air; my fantasies are more mundane these days.

Second, I do not need to be a commercial writer, with a ready-made marketing machine to sell my books, because I am not hoping to make any money from them. Rather, I look upon writing as a hobby, just as I look upon my interest in Dickens, Hardy, and the Brontes as a hobby. I am helped here by having spent many years engaged in academic research, a world in which publications may win their authors momentary notice, but certainly not any money, unless one happens to sell out to the lure of literary celebrity, as Stephen Greenblatt has. I have a few publications out in the academic world, but no celebrity and certainly no money to show for them–and I am totally fine with that. In my creative writing, I am lucky enough to have a hobby that satisfies me and costs me relatively little–far less, in fact, than joining a golf or tennis club would cost.

The third reason that I self-publish my work is that I actually enjoy doing so. There are some aspects of publication that have surprised me. For example, I have found that I really enjoy working with a great graphic designer (thanks, Laura!) to develop the cover of my novels. It is an extension of the creative process that is closely related to my work but something that I could never do myself, and this makes me all the more grateful and fascinated as I watch the cover come to life and do its own crucial part to draw readers into the world I have created.

As a retired writing professor, I realize how important revision and proofreading is, and to be honest, this is the only part of self-publishing that gives me pause, because I worry about niggling little errors that evade my editorial eye. But for the most part, I am old enough now to have confidence in my writing. Plus, the beauty of self-publishing is that it is electronic: if there are errors (and there are always errors, even in mainstream published books), I can fix them as soon as a kind reader points them out. So I suppose the fourth reason to self-publish lies in the fact that it is so very easy to do it these days.

These are four good reasons for me to self-publish, but the most important reason is that I apparently love to write, and self-publishing allows me to do this without worrying about submitting the same piece of work over and over again to agents and publishers, stalling out my creativity. While at the Bronte Parsonage Museum this past summer, I picked up a card that expresses how I feel about it, a quote from Charlotte Brontë: “I’m just going to write because I cannot help it.” (It is a testament to my literary nerdiness that I happen to know that this quotation comes from Brontë’s Roe Head Journal, but strangely enough, before I encountered it on a greeting card I never realized that it applied to myself as well as to Brontë.) In my idiosyncratic view, self-publishing allows the reader to decide whether a novel is worth reading, rather than punting that responsibility over to an overworked and market-fixated literary agent or editorial assistant. I am willing to trust that reader’s judgment, even if it means I will never sell many books.

And so today, as I am releasing my second self-published novel (Betony Lodge, available on Amazon and CreateSpace–and this is my last attempt at marketing it here on my blog), I am fully aware of the stigma of self-publishing, but I realize that what’s right for other writers may not be right for me. Today, then, I am taking my courage into my own hands and pushing that key to make the book go live.

And tonight I will be making my own champagne toast: here’s to living in the 21st century,  when digital publishing makes authors of us all!

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Filed under Criticism, culture, Literature, Publishing, Reading, Retirement, self-publishing, Uncategorized, Writing

A Reader’s Dilemma: On Books and Racism

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Image from Wikipedia

What does one do when one is reading a book that is entertaining but turns out to be blatantly racist? Does one stop and refuse to read it? Does one relegate it to the status of those books which, as Dorothy Parker famously said, deserve not to be set aside lightly, but thrown with great force? I pose this question as an ethical problem, not merely as a matter of taste.

 

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Wikipedia image

The book in question is Mr. Standfast, by John Buchan, a man more famous as the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps, which was made into a movie by the young Alfred Hitchcock some twenty years after its publication. John Buchan was a career diplomat who served in South Africa in the aftermath of the Boer War and as an intelligence officer in WW I. He is perhaps most famous, however, for becoming the Governor General of Canada in 1935, and by most accounts, he did a good job, as evidenced by his declaration, as Doug Saunders reports in this article, that Canada’s strength as a nation depends on its cultural diversity.

 

As one of his first public acts, Buchan created the Governor General’s Literary Awards, among whose later recipients number Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munroe, Margaret Atwood, Yann Martel, and Rohinton Mistry. By most accounts, then, Buchan was a fairly good guy, a champion for diversity and the arts, and a pretty good story-teller. So what am I to feel and to think when the first-person narrator of Mr. Standfast expresses open derision and contempt for conscientious objectors? Or when I read passages in which he makes fun of certain characters’ profound desire for peace, for an end to the debilitating war that has cut short hundreds of thousands of lives, hopes, and aspirations, an end to a war that has robbed not one but several generations of their hopes and dreams? What am I to feel when I see another passage which documents a disgusting contempt for the budding African movement towards self-determination, lines so replete with a complacent sense of superiority that I hesitate even to bring myself to quote them here? Such lines are particularly offensive to me because I have been reading Njabulo Ndebele’s excellent book, Fools and Other Stories, which offers a compelling view of life in Soweto, South Africa. So it infuriates me when Hannay, the narrator of Buchan’s novel, reports on “a great buck nigger who had a lot to say about ‘Africa for the Africans.’ I had a few words with him in Sesutu afterwards, and rather spoiled his visit.” It is significant, I’d argue, that the narrator offers neither the Sesutu words themselves, nor a translation, nor even a summary of them, an omission that renders his boastful declaration of a logical victory over the African speaker both empty and bombastic.

And yet I don’t think the answer to my anger and dismay about this is to throw Mr. Standfast across the room. Or perhaps it is to do just that, but then to go and pick it up again, after my temper has cooled, and go on reading it. Certainly my enjoyment of the novel will be less than if I had not encountered such ugly things in the narrative. After all, I would like Stevie Smith’s poems much better if I hadn’t come across baldly antisemitic sloganism in her Novel on Yellow Paper. (As it is, I like Smith well enough to have named one of my cats after her.) Rather, I think the lesson to be learned here is that racism comes in many forms; that, in all probability, it resides in every single human being. Furthermore, we must remember that we cannot eradicate racism by simply looking the other way, by trying to ignore its presence–either in our heroes or in ourselves.

Only by confronting racism dead on, by calling it by its true name without trying to excuse it, can we quash it when it rises up, as it will continue to do for the next few generations at least. At the same time, we cannot afford to dissimulate, as the Introduction to my edition of Mr. Standfast (Wordsworth Classics, 1994) does when it attempts to excuse Buchan: “Some of the language and many of the attitudes find little favour today,” the anonymous editor explains, “and have prompted some commentators to label Buchan with a number of those epithets that are fashionable among the historically illiterate. It should be remembered that Buchan was a high Tory politician, and also that the views he expresses are relatively liberal for his time.” No–this isn’t good enough. Let us admit once and for all that in this book at least, Buchan wrote as if he was a deplorable racist.

But let us also admit that the novel in question is a mere snapshot of him taken in 1919, and that it is unfair to judge the entirety of his life by this snapshot. It’s possible that he changed by the 1930s; but even if he didn’t, we can learn from his example. We can look at his works and see how very far we’ve come, and we can, without dissimulation or censorship, confront his racism for what it is: we can critique it, we can condemn it–and then we can move past it. If we choose not to, if we set the book down, then we miss out on the experience of reading it, and I’d say that would be a victory for racism, because it would shut down our capacity to explore human experience in its great variety.

I am not willing to foreclose on  such experiences. I believe that I am strong enough as a reader, indeed, as a person, to encounter racism in literature and to move past it so that I can gather a more complete picture of human culture, not as it should have been, but as it was. Distasteful as it can be to read reflections of ugliness, we must continue to do so if we want to try to understand our past and to control both our present and our future.

For me, it’s simply a matter of honesty. And so I will grit my teeth, shake my head, and continue reading Mr. Standfast. If it’s a good book, or even a spectacularly bad one, I may even write about it here in a few weeks.

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Buchan and Hitchcock, image from the Hitchcock Zone Wiki

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An Elegy for Pat McGee

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Stock Photo of Apple I from Getty Images

I am not particularly good at keeping up old friendships: time, distance, and differing life circumstances often seem to divide me from my past, which includes all the friends that I’ve had in different periods and places during my life. Yet I remain curious about my friends, and, while I rarely think of re-kindling a friendship through awkward online or actual encounters, I am only human, and so I do sometimes use the internet to find out what some of my old friends are up to.

The other night, when I was riding shotgun during a long trek home from downstate, I looked up, for some reason, my friend Pat McGee, whom I had last heard from some seven or eight–perhaps even more–years ago. Having recently started graduate school at a somewhat advanced age, he called me, knowing I taught at a community college, to see how I managed juggling several class preparations. I remember only the long silence that followed when I told him I was responsible for five courses a semester. Actually, I don’t think I offered him much help in his attempt to manage his two classes per semester–and perhaps I was rather stingy with sympathy as well.

I’d looked him up because I wanted to see whether he’d finished his program and which educational institution he’d ended up at. What I found instead, however, was profoundly troubling: an obituary for James Patrick McGee, dated 2015. The idea that Pat had left this life without me knowing it has been something of a shock to me ever since then. An even greater shock was that aside from this obituary, which was very perfunctory, with no details, Pat seemed to have left very little trace of his life at all on the web.

I am going to do my small part to rectify that.

I first met Pat many years ago, when I was a freshman at Rice University. He was much, much older (I now know that he was only nine or ten years older than me, but of course, when you’re eighteen, that seems like so much more than a mere decade). Although he was an old guy, he still hung around Rice, probably for one simple reason: he was a nerd, a computer geek, way before there was such a term in our cultural vernacular. Because computer science wasn’t even a discipline back in the 1980s, much less a major, Pat had stayed on at Rice after getting his Bachelor’s Degree to get a Master’s Degree in accounting. Then he kind of just hung around campus looking for good conversations and interesting people.

With his black-framed glasses, short-sleeved shirt, and pocket protector, Pat looked like the quintessential 1960s NASA programmer. But he had a lot more personality than one might first presume. In fact, I have several distinct memories about Pat to share in this elegy.

Pat McGee loved Chinese food, and he had been to a great many of the Chinese restaurants in Houston. If you wanted to know anything about Chinese food, or about where to get the best Szechuan food on a Sunday afternoon, Pat was your man. I’d been going to Chinese restaurants all my life, for example, but it was Pat who introduced me to moo shoo pork.

Another tidbit about Pat McGee: I first saw a personal computer–or something like it–at Pat’s house. “Come here, Suzanne,” he said one day. “I want to show you something.” Ordinarily, I’d have been wary of a man, even one who wore a pocket protector, beckoning me to his bedroom. But this was Pat, and I knew there were no ulterior motives. He pointed me towards his desk, where an old Panasonic portable television sat. Then he opened the right-hand drawer, where a jumble of metal boxes and wires lay tangled together. “What is it?” I asked. I wish I could say that he stared at me and said, “It’s the future,” or something significant like that, but I honestly can’t remember his answer. I just remember thinking he was spending a lot of time on something that had very little practical value–but then again, that was pretty much what Pat did, so I guess it’s natural that I didn’t really pay attention to his explanation of a device that would soon change the world.

A third memory: Pat had many jobs during his lifetime, but two of them were really interesting. In the 1990s, he worked as a computer programmer of some kind at Sandia National Laboratories, which focuses on nuclear national security. Later on, he worked for the Internal Revenue Service. Guess which job required him to take an oath of lifelong secrecy? It was the IRS, which tells you something about our government’s priorities.

The last memory I’ll share here is simply this: I first saw the Rocky Horror Picture Show in Pat’s living room, with a handful of other young people. It was a scratchy, out-of-focus bootleg copy of the film, and it was like nothing I’d ever seen before. To be honest, I wasn’t able to follow the plot. Then again, there isn’t much of a plot in that movie, so perhaps I didn’t miss that much.

These are my memories of Pat McGee, and, in the absence of any other kind of accessible testament to his existence, it seems important that I share them in some form, no matter how inconsequential. And I’ll just add this: as we move into our middle years, it’s not at all uncommon to think about mortality–our own and that of our loved ones. That’s to be expected. But surprisingly, it’s the deaths of those people we once knew, those one-time friends who played a role in our lives for only a short time and then disappeared into a quickly receding past life, that can blindside us, pulling us up short and making us realize with a dull shock how temporary this life is, and how transient our passage through it can be.

And so I offer my elegy for Pat here. I realize how inadequate the gesture is, yet I cannot refrain from making it. Sometimes we wave goodbye after the train has left, when no one is there to see our handkerchief flying in the breeze. It’s just human nature to do so.

So long, Pat McGee. Thanks for the memories.

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How I Spent My Winter Vacation

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It has been a long, dark winter for many of us. The key to surviving such bleak periods is keeping busy, and I am lucky to have found an absorping, yet perhaps a pointless, task. A project fell into my lap, and to explain how it got there, I have to go back to a very dark time indeed: Election Day.

In those days after the Election, I, like many other people, struggled to come to grips with a president who had not won the popular vote, who represented the very things that I have come to despise about my country, and who was, in short, an embarrassing representation of the intellectual and cultural vacuity that threatens the United States. I was in a dark place. I clutched at straws for salvation. One of the things I found online was a fine essay that I forgot to bookmark, which is now lost to me. But in that essay was a reference to the French writer Léon Werth, to whom Antoine St. Exupéry had written a moving dedication in The Little Prince.

My lost essay referred to Werth’s book 33 Days, which recounted the author’s harrowing journey to escape the German occupation of France in 1940. The book, it seems, was lost until 1992 and only translated into English in a few years later. (You can buy the book here, at Melville House Press.) After reading about Werth, I became interested in his second novel, Clavel Soldat (in English, Clavel the Soldier) which was published to some national acclaim in 1919.

I looked for an English translation, but could not find one, so I had my son, a student at Michigan State University, check out the original French version (which had to come out of “Deep Storage”–the very phrase sends shivers of excitement down this scholar’s spine). When at last he handed the book to me, held together with a string, and I held it in my hands, I was in for a shock: the pages had never been cut.

I knew what this meant well enough. No one, despite its presence in the MSU Library 20170402_163630from August 22, 1949, to the present day, had ever read this copy of the book. I now had a thorny ethical dilemma to resolve. Was it right for me to cut the pages, even if that meant that I would in all probability harm the book, perhaps destroying it? Like any other scholar, I respect the sanctity of the written word. And yet books are meant to be read, aren’t they? If I refrained from reading the book, wasn’t I doing the worst disservice possible to Léon Werth, by not reading a book over which he had labored? After all, I’ve done my own share of writing things no one can be bothered to read; I know how easy, perhaps inevitable, it is for a writer to become invisible. Looking at it from that perspective, I realized that I had no choice. I was compelled to read this book, to rescue it, at least temporarily, from complete obscurity.

Yet I was disturbed by the need to cut the pages, because it seemed somehow like a wanton act of destruction. And so I decided on a compromise of sorts. Though I am not a translator by any means, I can get by (je peux me débrouiller) in French, having majored in it in college some two thousand years ago. The last literary work I had translated was a mere twenty pages of  Mongo Beti’s Ville Cruel, which I had to do back in graduate school, but it was a cold, dark winter, Trump had been elected president, and I had to find something to keep me from succumbing to existential despair. It seemed clear to me that I was called on by some strange cosmic force to translate this novel into English, if only to prove that one person, at least, had read it.

And so I embarked on my translating work. I began some time after Thanksgiving, and each day I translated a few pages. It became a habit as well as a self-imposed duty. I used a cartridge pen (and at least 30 ink cartridges) to write by hand in a spiral notebook, in order to slow down the process of reading just enough to allow me some deliberation about wording. I relied on my very old Harrap’s French-English dictionary, a wonderful bookstand from A+ Bookstand with which to prop it up, a utility knife lent to me by my husband to cut the pages, and a total of three spiral notebooks. I resorted to on-line dictionaries as well when I came across difficult phrases.

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It was only when I was a third of the way through the translation that I began to suspect that no one had ever translated Clavel Soldat into English before. After all, 33 Days had only been translated in the mid 1990s; perhaps this novel had escaped the notice of international readers. I emailed the British Library to see if their copy was in English, as it was listed online; three days later, they emailed me back to say that it was, in fact, in French. At the moment, as I write this blog, I believe that I am the first person to attempt to translate Clavel Soldat into English.

Yesterday, I finished my first round of translating Clavel the Soldier. The task has taught me a great deal, even though I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to do with the translation (after I’ve done my best to polish it). Through translating Werth’s novel, I’ve obviously learned a lot about World War I. I’ve also picked up a great deal of out-of-the-way information–for example, Peter Kropotkin is now my hero, although I’d never heard of him before. And I’ve learned that our age does not by any means have a corner on the market of despair and cynicism. Most of all, however, I’ve learned about patience, about the art of slinging words together as well as you can to communicate with a reader, and, more important than anything else, about the need to engage in creative acts even during the darkest times, even when you think that you might be the only person in the world who will ever acknowledge or celebrate them.

That’s a lot to take away from one simple winter project. As I said, I’m not sure what will become of my translation of Clavel Soldat, but I am very grateful to have discovered the novel and to have done my part, however fruitless, to bring new readers to it. It has been a humbling but enriching experience, and I look forward to refining the translation in the months to come. After all, winter is over. Spring is just beginning.

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Could Capitalism Be the Enemy?

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Earth Day 1971 Poster, from Wikipedia entry on “Pogo”

Like many other people these days, I’m asking a lot of questions, and I’m not finding too many satisfying answers. But that doesn’t matter. We should all be suspicious of quick—and satisfying—answers. While it might produce a kind of temporary euphoria, the tendency to try to solve our problems quickly and neatly is precisely what seems to have landed the world in this precarious position, with climate changes staring us in the face as we confront unprecedented human migration across increasingly hostile borders. It is a scary place to be.

One question I’ve been asking is this: could capitalism, with its emphasis on constant growth and acquisition of wealth, be the evil spirit lurking behind this state of affairs? This is a difficult question to consider, and it’s likely that few people will be brave enough to confront and admit such a question. (For curious readers, here is an article in last week’s New Yorker that explains, at least in part, why new ideas and self-criticism meet such resistance.)  But it’s worthwhile to lay out a few arguments for this menacing explanation, even if not many people take the time to consider it.

First of all, capitalism, with its emphasis on garnering profit, depends on constantly expanding market shares. It doesn’t work in a static environment; in order for a capitalist economy to function well, it must grow. And yet, as any observant person realizes, constant growth simply isn’t sustainable. Eventually the market place becomes saturated. When that happens, there are few options for the capitalist enterprise: either it expands its market—in which the same thing will happen a few years, or decades, later—or it works to cut out competitors and appropriate their growth and their profit. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or an economist, to determine that this process isn’t feasible for long-term stability in a society dedicated to equity and the pursuit of happiness.

And that brings up the second problem with capitalism as it has developed. The acquisition of profit and material goods seems to be insufficient for the kind of capitalists, the captains of industry, we have created in recent years. In other words, the most successful capitalists have become so wealthy that it is ludicrous to suppose that they are intent on gathering still more money, or luxuries, for themselves. How many mansions are necessary for a person’s, even a family’s, happiness? Is it really necessary for Mark Zuckerberg to own 700 acres of prime Hawaiian land—and to sue longtime landowners to make sure that his privacy on this new piece of property is inviolable? One theory about the tendency of the super-wealthy to engage in this kind of action this states that capitalism’s great heroes and heroines garner not only wealth for themselves, but happiness as well. And, since happiness is not as easy to gauge as material wealth, the best way to determine whether one is happy is to compare oneself to those who are not happy. This, in essence, is what capitalism does: it takes happiness away from people in order to create a sense of happiness in the capitalist, who, numb to the thrill of wealth and plenty, cannot determine whether he is actually happy unless he can be sure that there are others who have been made unhappy by his own acquisitive actions. This view of capitalism presents it in a horrifying, sordid light. It goes something like this: once their quest for great wealth has met with success, capitalists create another quest for themselves: that of acquiring the happiness of others. This kind of theorizing leads to a truly disconcerting question: What if the “pursuit of happiness” mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, and so dear to every American citizen, has become a literal pursuit, in which the happiness of others becomes fair game for pursuing? This frightening scenario, in which capitalists resemble Dementors more than anything else, may well be taking place in our society.

But we need not enter the world of Harry Potter to find a third reason to reexamine capitalism in our time: it appears to be antithetical to the idea of ecological conservation. I could argue this carefully, in a step-by-step demonstration of the ways in which capitalism abuses the natural environment, but this is quite unnecessary, with stories like Standing Rock, Line 5, the Kalamazoo River oil spill, fracking, and other items in the news. We all know that big business cares little about the natural resources it uses, regarding these resources like factory machinery as it tries to figure out a way to produce still more oil for an ever-growing market. The argument that capitalism stands in opposition to safeguarding our environment has undoubtedly been made before, and it is unnecessary to go into it at length here.

Instead, I would like to offer a fourth reason that capitalism may be the enemy. It depends on competition, maintaining that competition brings out the best in people. But even Darwin, as this article in The Guardian points out, believed that cooperation was at least as  important in evolution as competition.

I have little hope that I can change anyone’s mind about capitalism. Most Americans cling to their belief that it offers us, and the world at large, the best way to live—period. Besides, changing our ideology would be too great a task to undertake.

Or would it?

As we encounter more and more crises, sooner or later we will have to face the fact that Americans are not always the good guys, as we have been taught to believe. Ideology is a difficult veil to penetrate—in fact, it may be impossible to penetrate the veil at all, and we may have to be satisfied with shifting it aside from time to time to try to catch a mere glimpse of the truth. Denying the efficacy and value of capitalism is a scary proposition, and doing so necessitates that we decide what will take its place—another scary proposition. It will take some time to reach the point where we can face these difficult ideological problems. But I believe we will get there. For now, let’s start by admitting that the old comic strip from 1971 was right: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

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The Art of Reading

 

The Library by Elizabeth Shippen Green, from https://thesleeplessreader.com/about/fellow-readers-favorite-paintings-of-women-reading/

The Library by Elizabeth Shippen Green   Image from The Sleepless Reader blog

 

“I sometimes think that good readers are poets as singular, and as awesome, as great authors themselves.”  –Jorge Luis Borges

 

“In short, reading is directed creation.” –Jean-Paul Sartre

As the number of blogs and podcasts about writing multiply with Malthusian abandon, overpopulating our digital feeds, the topic of reading seems much less popular these days. Of course, there are the articles published in the various newspapers and magazines stating that science bears out what every English teacher has always suspected: the act of reading makes us more sympathetic and thus better people. (You can read articles of this kind here and here and here.) But are these articles enough to make us better, more serious, “literary” readers?

Apparently not. And the reason is simple: the creation of better human beings is not the sum-total of what reading offers us. In other words, reading literature is too important an activity to engage in just because it might make us better or more moral people.

That might seem an incendiary statement, but I don’t mean it as one. In fact, I am echoing C.S. Lewis, who wrote in his short book An Experiment in Criticism, published in 1961 and thus one of the last things he wrote, “I have rejected the view that literature is to be valued (a) for telling us truths about life, (b) as an aid to culture. I have also said that, while we read, we must treat the reception of the work we are reading as an end in itself.” But this, he has said earlier, is precisely what most readers simply cannot do.

In this book Lewis theorizes that there are two kinds of readers: the unliterary readers (whom he calls “users“), and the literary readers (whom he calls “receivers.” Users tend to, well, use books to achieve a desired end: entertainment, escapism, gathering information. In fact, it’s not too far-fetched to theorize that the epidemic rise of unreliable news is due to the fact that there are too many users in our society and not enough receivers. According to Lewis, “the most unliterary reader of all sticks to ‘the news.’ He reads daily, with unwearied relish, how, in some place he has never seen, under circumstances which never become quite clear, someone he doesn’t know has married, rescued, robbed, raped, or murdered someone else he doesn’t know.” It’s just possible that these readers and the demand they place on profit-seeking media are skewing the type of reading that is available to us, leaving receiving readers out in the cold and clogging up our news feeds with sensationalist tripe. These users, Lewis might say, would be better off reading mystery, spy, or some other kind of thrilling novels, but their desire for “the news” precludes them from doing so.

Receivers, those who read in a literary way, exert their critical and imaginative faculties to treat the book as an end in itself, not as a link in a chain leading to a desired end. They give themselves fully to the experience of reading. As Lewis says, those of us who want to be receiving readers “must empty our minds and lay ourselves open.” Such readers, few though they may be, can change the way they see things, and in this way, they can help to change the world itself.

Yet the idea that reading makes us better people puts the whole activity of literary reading at risk, co-opting it for some kind of greater, communal good, which is in my view putting the cart before the horse. In other words, reading may be good for human beings, but it certainly won’t be if reading is relegated to the role of making good human beings. This kind of utilitarian advocacy of reading is dangerous. We have already lost so much to utilitarian ideas. In our universities, composition classes have been usurped to create students who can write discipline-specific reports and papers, not essays that allow for exploration and expression. In fact, college itself has become a mere step in the path to obtaining a good job (with the irony that going to college does not necessarily lead to a good job and almost certainly leads to the acquisition of debt). And of course there are those who argue that art must have a political dimension to be relevant. So many intellectual and artistic activities have already been offered up on the altar of utilitarianism. Must we really give up the act of reading, too?

My point is this: only in pursuing these activities in and of themselves–for example, in reading for the sake of reading, in educating oneself for the sake of being an educated person, in painting in order to depict the world, whatever shape it takes–only by doing these things freely, without the thought of some added benefit, can we engage in truly imaginative activities. We should be far beyond the point of saying that reading is good for us, that it makes us better human beings. That’s the kind of thinking that went out of fashion with the death of Jeremy Bentham (whose embalmed body presides over University College London). Instead, we should be asking ourselves this: how do we become better readers? And perhaps more importantly, how do we turn using readers into receiving readers?

Reading is something of a holy act when we do it freely, because it marries the ability to sound out words with the use of our intellect and our imagination, connecting us with the past and propelling us into the future. As Sartre says, “reading is a pact of generosity between author and reader. Each one trusts the other; each one counts on the other, demands of the other as much as he demands of himself.” Reading, as Borges says above, is its own art form. If we acknowledged this, we would be much less tempted to assign it additional value; reading would be enough in and of itself.

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Making Art in Troubled Times

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Image from the webpage of the Ashmolean Museum: http://britisharchaeology.ashmus.ox.ac.uk/highlights/alfred-jewel.html 

I will admit it: after the election in November, I succumbed to a sense of defeat. What is the point, I moaned, if autocracy and tyranny are not merely accepted but welcomed by the masses, if the great ideal of a democratic country is systematically dismantled before our eyes? Why bother with anything, much less with the last fifty pages of a novel that no one will ever read?

At the time, I was working through the last part of a story I’d begun a couple of years earlier, and I was ready to give it up, because, well, why would I finish it when the world as I know it is coming to an end? (My feelings arose not only because of the U.S. election results or the ensuing realization that a foreign power had tinkered with our “free elections,” but also because of the global rise of a dangerous populism, coupled with imminent global climate change.)

But a good friend gave me some advice, and I soldiered on and completed the draft. Right now, I am steadily working on it, revision after revision. And I am doing this not because I think my novel can change the world. It certainly won’t; it won’t be read by more than a hundred people, and that’s if I’m lucky.

But this short essay is not about the art of writing without readers; I will deal with that in a future post. For now, all I want to do is to encourage everyone who reads this blog to go on and continue their artistic activities. I say this not as a writer, or even as a reader, but as a scholar. And I have a very simple reason for doing so.

Art is the residue left by human culture. When civilizations disappear, when lives and institutions have crumbled into the dust, what remains is the art they created. Some of this art arises from genius, like the works of Mozart and Shakespeare; some of it comes from normal people, like the rest of us. But we need it all–every last scrap of it, not only the wonderful pieces that make us cry with joy or sadness, but even the average and ungainly works of art, because even bad art is an expression of human experience, and in the end, it is the experience of being human that binds us together on this lonely little planet.

So go ahead with your art. Draw, paint, weave, write, compose or play music. Do not worry that you are fiddling as Rome burns. Rome will, ultimately, burn–history tells us that. But what is left behind are wonderful murals that will take your breath away, mosaics, epic poems, statues and monumental structures. Don’t worry about whether your art will be appreciated; it is the act of making it that is important, not whether or not it is celebrated. Think of that lonely monk who produced Beowulf; he  was probably scared shitless that his Anglo-Saxon culture would be erased by the next Viking invasion, but he fought off this feeling of futility and kept going, thank goodness. Remember his small act of courage, try to emulate it, and above all, keep going.

Do not be afraid of working in the darkness; you may not be able to dispel it, but your work could provide light for others, not only now, but in the future as well.

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Jump-Starting the Revolution

Women's March on Rome

Women’s March on Rome

 

I woke up early this morning thinking of all the women I love and respect who are out today in the cold dawn, protesting an American administration founded on hatred, lies, and ignorance. In past years, I would be out there with them, raising my voice with theirs, matching my stride with theirs, fighting injustice with a show of peaceful but determined resistance. I’m not: I jumped the gun and raised my own thin voice too soon, missing an opportunity to be part of this powerful and impressive force for change. Yet there is work of all kinds to be done everywhere–in the streets of Washington, D.C.; in Rome, Italy; in Lansing, Michigan, and all over the world on this day and in the days to come. There is work to be done in my own study right now, as I hunch over my computer in the darkness with a small black cat and a steaming cup of tea to keep me company as I try to explain why a revolution is necessary.

This involves facing several hard but absolutely necessary facts, which I will lay out below.

First, education in the United States is not under attack: rather, for the last generation, it has been systematically eviscerated and dismantled. We are used to hearing that K-12 schools are under attack, and they certainly are. But what goes unnoticed is perhaps just as dire: Public education at the college level no longer exists in this country at all. The steep rise in college tuition, even at state schools, which we have accepted for decades as a matter of financial need and fiscal responsibility, means that few people can afford to go to university without making great sacrifices. College students today must be able to pay tuition that is, frankly, unaffordable–or they must be willing to hock their futures by taking out student loans that will shackle them for years to come. This is not public education. Public education is free, or available at a small cost. So, as one of the first steps in starting this revolution, let us first admit what we all know to be true: We live in a world in which getting a college education is reserved for the wealthy or the financially improvident. As a society, we are eating our young, telling them to go out and get an education for all the wrong reasons (namely, to get a job that probably doesn’t exist), and then we are imprisoning them in debt, a debt which forces them into penury and servitude for years, if not a lifetime. Student loan recipients should be in the streets protesting–and yet they can’t do so, or they would lose the paltry, minimum-wage jobs they must work to pay back these loans. The cause of all of this? It’s simply this: education is tottering on the brink of the abyss today, because for decades, power-seeking politicians have understood that an uneducated electorate serves them well.

Second, government is not an evil. Government is good and necessary. Since the Enlightenment at least, government has been essential to safeguard the welfare of a population. We have been told it is a sad necessity–we have even been told by some that the less government we have, the better off we will be–but this is not true. It is a lie. The only people who really believe that government makes their lives worse are the truly uneducated: people who accept the lopsided stories they’ve been told repeatedly and loudly by lying politicians who stand to gain by fostering this anti-government stance. These demogogues use a hatred of government to get elected, to create tax breaks for themselves and their bosses, and to continue to dismantle government entities that work to create a population of critical thinkers. We can argue about the amount of government we need, but to say that government is by and of itself bad is both wrong-headed and short-sighted.

Unfortunately, these two things go hand in hand. We live in a society that values ignorance over education, displays of strength over deliberative thought, and blind faith over a spirit of inquiry. We live in a society that is fearful and superstitious. We live in a society that vilifies those who are different, and ignores and marginalizes those who have diverse stories, backgrounds, and viewpoints.

And so I say let the revolution begin. We are running out of time, people. We need a revolution, because at this point in human culture, we are facing the most dire threat imaginable: not an alien invasion or a zombie apocalypse, but a sudden shift in our climate that will affect every human being on the planet. Because we are a resilient and clever species, chances are we will survive this threat, but to do so, we will need  to muster all our resources. We need to be educated, smart, and open-minded, so that we will be able to anticipate problems and crises, and to react to them with well-conceived solutions.

So on this morning, I say to my sisters out there marching in the cold: thank you. More than that–I tell them, Let’s start this revolution today, right now, and bravely face the future we have created for ourselves. It will be a hard job, but we must mend the miseducation of our society, just as we can end the diseducation that has been systematically thrust down our throats for the last 30 years. We can become a nation of thinkers who accept difference and welcome diversity. We can replace fear-mongering with critical thinking, and we can set American exceptionalism aside, once and for all, as we face our future together with people of all nations. Only by doing so will we have any hope of being prepared for the uncertain future that lies before us.

Let the Revolution begin.

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The Observer Effect in Local Politics

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An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, a painting by English Painter Joseph Wright (1768). Image from Wikimedia.org

 

I used to try to encourage people to become more active in politics by saying, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” I thought that in order for democracy to work well, people needed to get out and be part of the political system of which, whether they acknowledge it or not, they are a part. I believed that taking action–by running for office, working to get candidates elected, and keeping abreast of current issues–was the best, and perhaps the only, way to make government accountable to those it serves.

I now see that I was wrong.

Local politics is in fact the only level of politics that really matters to most of us, because it’s the only sphere of politics which most of us can affect. And local government functions better when it is played out in front of an audience. In other words, people behave differently when other people are watching them: they are more careful with their words and their behavior. I discovered this by accident; in the wake of profound disillusionment from the election, I took the only action I could. I started attending local governmental meetings: a city council meeting here, a coffee hour with a state representative there. I began to follow the local political news, just to have a sense of what was going on in my little world. It wasn’t much, but it was all that I could do, and I was tired of sitting at home in disgust, frustration, and fear.

What I discovered is that democracy is subject to what is called, in physics, “The Observer Effect,” which states that the mere act of observing a system changes it. Once we set out to observe something, even as a silent bystander, we have an effect on that which we observe. While this might make trying to get a good measurement of electrons impossible, it works to our advantage in politics. We can, as spectators, effect the changes we want to see in governance. With very little effort–by just showing up–we can begin to make our local political units more accountable, and hopefully, more honest and effective.

And so, I want to correct my earlier statement. Democracy, at its lowest but its most important level, can indeed be a spectator sport. We don’t all have to run for office, making speeches and participating in debates. We don’t even have to study the issues, although it would be better if we did. All we really need to do is show up and let our elected representatives know that we are, in fact, watching them. By doing so, we will inspire them to consider their ideas and words–and ultimately their actions–more carefully and thoughtfully. And we will do our part, however small and seemingly insignificant, to make sure that democracy not only survives, but thrives, during this difficult time.

 

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After the Apocalypse

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I am no  stranger to political loss. I ran a decent campaign for state representative in 2012, but my opponent, a well-funded Republican, beat me handily (58% to 42%). But today’s loss is different. This morning, we all woke up to a world that is not the same place it was yesterday. I have to wonder whether this feeling of grief and horror is how my elders felt on November 22, 1963. Something important, that was once beautiful though imperfect, is broken, perhaps irreparably.

I do not want to point fingers, to wail and moan about the coming years, to wring my hands with worry. I want to get past my feelings of anger and hostility, my disgust with an electorate so ill-educated and short-sighted that it has elected a person monumentally unfit for the highest office in the land. I want to put aside my fear for my children, my guilt for not doing enough to prevent this.

Maybe I’ll get there  tomorrow, or the next day.

Not today.

Today, all I can see is an America that is sick and dying. Today, I can only see that democracy is not the best form of government when a populace persists in selfish, xenophobic, and inhumane beliefs. Most painful of all, today I have to admit that the country I loved (despite my criticisms of it through the years) is a fiction, a mere chimera.

Today, I mourn for everyone who will be touched by this tragedy, and they will number in the millions. And to my readers across the sea and above and below the border, today I apologize for my country.

Today, I am ashamed to be an American.

Tomorrow, the resistance begins. Who will lead it? What form will it take? We will find out the answers to those questions when the shock and disbelief wear off, when the sharp edge of grief subsides. And until then, we can console ourselves with the knowledge that we will not give up fighting for what’s good, and decent, and right. Because that’s how Americans–true Americans, those who are not motivated by greed and fear–act.

Here, then, is my battle cry: I will not give up.

 

 

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