Year of Mysteries, Part 9: The Name of the Rose

I’m honestly a bit shocked at how resistant I’ve been to this book the whole year. I knew it would be “hard,” so I kept putting it off. But I love Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow and a bunch of hard books.

This book has a reputation it doesn’t deserve. I didn’t think it was hard at all in the same way those other ones are. It’s actually written in a very similar way to the way I write. There are so many interesting layers to this book that it will be hard to discuss the “mystery novel” aspect, because that was only one piece (and kind of the least interesting).

Early on, we get one of my favorite characters. He can’t speak any known language, but he’s lived in so many places that he’s developed his own. It takes from all the common languages and merges into a strange thing anyone can understand.

Eco doesn’t do this in the abstract, either. The speech is written out fully. This character is a synechdoche for the book itself. The Name of the Rose isn’t a historical work or pure fiction or a mystery novel or postmodernist metafiction or theology. It draws on a bunch of sources and amalgamates them to a strange hybrid a reader from any of these backgrounds could appreciate on a different level.

Eco doesn’t hide the pieces. They are all in plain sight through the characters. We have Jorge de Burgos representing Jorge Luis Borges. We get William of Baskerville representing Sherlock Holmes. And the title itself is obviously a reference to Romeo and Juliet.

…Or is it? Eco actually tells us the true inspiration is a Latin verse by a Benedictine monk named Bernard of Cluny. Since Eco was a semiotician, I have to believe he also had Wittgenstein in the back of his head, too.

What is the mystery?

The narrator travels to a monastery, and upon arrival there is a mysterious death of one of the monks. He appears to have thrown himself from the window of a library. Over the next few days, many more deaths occur.

This occupies the main narrative momentum, but I basically want to not discuss this further. Anyone who reads this book for the mystery is in for a shock. Let’s get back to the references.

Everyone sees some of the obvious Borges references here from his famous stories. But if you’ve read Labyrinths, you might start to think every single story in the collection gets referenced.

Much of the early part of The Name of the Rose has to do with navigating a complicated labyrinth (Labyrinths, The Garden of Forking Paths) to get to the library (The Library of Babel). They must crack a code (Death and the Compass, The God’s Script). They speak theology to each other (The Theologeans, The Three Versions of Judas). Issues of authorship with the narrator (Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote). Strange language spoken by the characters (Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius).

I think I’ve made my point. It’s not just “The Library of Babel,” like many people believe. It’s almost a transformation of the themes of the full collection of stories into a novel.

Another fascinating, easy to overlook aspect of the book is the chapter summary at the start of each chapter. At first, I thought they were mere summaries. But they got long and weird and pretty humorous as they went on.

Most people probably skip them thinking they offer nothing but a summary. Here’s one:

In which, though the chapter is short, old Alinardo says very interesting things about the labyrinth and about the way to enter it.

It doesn’t say much, but it teaches you something important: these summaries will provide commentary in addition to the summary. Here’s another:

In which the labyrinth is finally broached, and the intruders have strange visions and, as happens in labyrinths, lose their way.

If these were just summaries it shouldn’t provide commentary on the length of the chapter or how “interesting” a certain conversation is or remark “as happens in labyrinths.” I grew to love these summaries as much as the chapters themselves.

I’m not sure what else to say. I’m excited to re-read this. I think it will be as exciting as the first time through as I catch more and more references and understand the themes better.

I must caution that this is absolutely not for everyone, but if you find any of this post interesting, I can’t recommend this book enough. It is brilliant and well-deserved of the praise it has received over the years.

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Let’s Get Experimental

multicolored abstract painting
Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

I’ve been thinking a lot about what to do on this blog. I’m not thrilled about “book reviews,” not that I do those often, because there are a million reviews out there for every single book. No matter how good mine are, they won’t add much to that noise.

I’m also not thrilled with the “writing advice” type of posts. Again, there’s a million articles saying exactly the same types of things I say.

Back in July, I wrote something called Maybe Infinite Jest is About Addiction. It was an experimental piece of writing. It was part essay, part narrative, part literary criticism, part fiction, part nonfiction, part writing exercise in imitating DFW’s style, part philosophy, etc.

It’s not very easy to describe. The point was to have each piece reinforce the other bits.

It took everything I had to bite my tongue when people seemed to think it was just an essay trying to make the straightforward argument that Infinite Jest is about addiction. I still don’t want to overly describe it, but I think it’s fair to say, pretty much everyone missed the point.

(Like, did people really think I was consuming Infinite Jest everyday just like an addict and obsessing over its meaning just like the characters did with The Entertainment, and even waking up with withdrawal symptoms in an increasingly frantic narrative voice despite it being a written essay?)

Anyway, that was partly my own fault. I haven’t really done stuff like that on this blog. It’s also the type of thing I like doing more than the other stuff. It feels valuable and creative in a way the other stuff doesn’t. It adds something to the blogosphere you can’t find in a million other places.

It also feels somewhat particular to this medium in the sense that book reviews and writing advice is so much easier to digest through a Youtube video or podcast. Video and audio have cornered the book review/writing advice market.

Experimental essays that dive into social commentary and philosophy and literary criticism are better suited to the written word, in my opinion. Being, you know, essays.

What I’m trying to say is that I want to cut back on writing a post every X days by riffing on a poorly constructed sentence just because that’s all I could come up with. Instead, I want to focus more on these harder to produce, more creative posts that are unique to me.

I will keep doing the “Year of …” series, because I’m pretty excited for the one I have planned next year (and The Name of the Rose is pretty great). I also expect to keep doing some book reviews and writing advice things and random things that pop up. I’m just not going to force it.

Good luck!

On the Accuracy of Memory: or a Nuanced Approach to Current Events

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Trigger Warning: Rape is discussed.

Bias disclaimer: I am strongly opposed to Brett Kavanaugh being on the Supreme Court for many reasons, the most obvious being the overwhelming evidence of criminal activity of the current president. Kavanaugh has taken a firm stance that sitting presidents should not be indicted. I’m also a liberal who has never voted for a Republican for any office, no matter how small and local. Etc, etc.

Current event summary: Christine Blasey Ford has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of attempted rape from 36 years ago at a high school party based on her personal memory of the event.

I didn’t want to weigh in on this, but as someone who has written extensively on math, science, Bayesian statistics, cognitive biases, truth, and knowledge, I just didn’t see any articles out there with nuanced, clear thinking on this issue. So here goes.

The world is not black and white. People think there are only two options when it comes to Ford’s accusation against Kavanaugh.

The first is that it is perfectly understandable why she didn’t come forward until now. She has nothing to gain and everything to lose, so she must be telling the truth. The other is that this is an opportunistic, political move and clearly a false accusation.

The truth almost never falls in such partisan terms.

The human brain, and memory in particular, is a complicated thing. How about we ditch partisan politics for five seconds and try to take a nuanced approached to things?

No one wants to believe their memory is faulty. Memory is basically our whole sense of self. To make an attack on the accuracy of memory feels like an attack on our selves. But it’s not.

Try to distance yourself from this for a bit, and let’s examine what the science says from a cool, rational perspective. If you feel yourself getting angry, take a deep breath, and chant the mantra: nuance, nuance, nuance.

In 1984, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino was raped. She paid careful attention to detail, and had vivid, horrifying memories of the event. Fortunately, she was able to identify the assailant with “100% certainty” only a few days later: Ronald Cotton. He spent 10 years in prison for the crime.

Whew. Thank God for memory.

Except that he was released from prison after 10 years because DNA evidence exonerated him of the crime.

In 1985, a woman was raped and murdered in Beatrice, Nebraska. Six people were found guilty. Ada JoAnn Taylor was one of those people, and she confessed to the crime. She still has “vivid” memories of committing the crime. When something that horrifying happens, you never forget the details.

In 2008, DNA evidence exonerated all of them. Ada did not commit the murder, yet she has clear memory of doing it. If you read that sentence without getting goosebumps, read it again and again and again until you fully grasp the significance of it. She has a vivid memory of committing a murder she didn’t commit.

Most people talk about how vivid and clear the details of where they were when September 11, 2001 happened. It was a traumatic event in most of our lives. How could we ever forget such things?

Fortunately, a collective of memory researchers got right on that. They interviewed thousands of people while the memory was fresh. A mere one year later, they asked people to recall the event. A majority of people had high confidence in their accuracy (how could you ever forget such things?), yet they were totally wrong about things as major and fundamental as people with them and their location. In fact, consistency was only at 63%.

The shifting of details only gets worse over time. One can imagine how much will have changed in 30+ years.

Recollection of these short, traumatic experiences are called flashbulb memories, and decades of research show they have something in common: they are vivid, people have high confidence in their accuracy, and they are wildly inaccurate. In other words, the listed examples above are not isolated outliers; they are the norm.

No matter the trauma of the event, memories are notoriously faulty. Sometimes we mis-remember small details, like who was with us when we found out about the September 11 attacks. Sometimes the event happened, and despite a vivid, clear recollection of the perpetrator, this major detail is false.

Sometimes our brains fabricate entire traumatic events, like when someone truly remembers being abducted and abused by aliens.

In all these cases, the person is telling the truth about their experience. In other words, the person isn’t lying or making it up or intentionally falsely accusing. The experience and memory is real. But, unfortunately, this tells us very little about the accuracy of any of it. This is why this sort of testimony doesn’t stand up in court anymore.

Deep breath: nuance, nuance, nuance.

So where are we now? Vividness of a memory does not make it accurate. Confidence in a memory does not make it accurate. Trauma surrounding a memory does not make it accurate. The more time that passes, the less accurate a memory gets.

These are all scientific facts about the human brain. To deny these facts in the service of politics is as bad as Republicans who deny climate change for political reasons. We have to be honest, not partisan, when it comes to scientific facts of the world, no matter how inconvenient.

And please do not post your own traumatic experiences here. I get it. You remember every detail with high confidence like it was yesterday. You’re sure it’s all accurate, because it has played out in your mind everyday since it happened.

I’m sorry that happened to you.

Deep breath: nuance, nuance, nuance.

What is the nuanced approach to the situation we find ourselves in?

It’s to say to Christine Blasey Ford: I believe you. This event happened. You’re not lying. You’re not making it up for political reasons. The memory of the event is crystal clear, and Kavanaugh was the one doing it. We understand why you didn’t come forward until now.

Unfortunately, in the world we live in, we must take the position that this memory alone is not disqualifying for him, because memories, even major details like the perpetrator of a crime, are often wrong.

I think there are plenty of reasons to not confirm Kavanaugh, but let’s not set this one as the precedent.

Anti-empiricism is never progressive. Denying reality is no way to change reality. -John McWhorter

~

Additional Reading:

Memory Distortion for Traumatic Events: The Role of Mental Imagery 

Trauma, PTSD, and Memory Distortion

A mega-analysis of memory reports from eight peer-reviewed false memory implantation studies

Notes as of 9/24/2018: I wrote this about a week ago, mostly as a way to vent against the black and white thinking I saw. New information has come to light, like a new accusation against Kavanaugh and a date for Ford to give her testimony.

This post is not meant to weigh all the current and cumulative evidence that can come to light in the coming hours and days.

Year of Mysteries, Part 7: The Intuitionist

This was a somewhat enjoyable, quick read, but I had a lot of problems with it.

The Intuitionist takes place in a strange alternate world. It’s presumably alternate history, because much of the politics has to do with integration and Lila being the first female, black elevator inspector.

But it’s not quite our world, because there’s a huge bureaucracy of elevator inspectors, including a training institute (Institute for Vertical Transport), professional society, and even textbooks on philosophical schools of thought on proper inspection techniques.

The setup of the novel is that Lila Mae Watson is an “Intuitionist” inspector with an impeccable record. She inspects elevators by riding them and “intuiting” any problems. This is opposed to the school called the “Empiricists,” which inspect the old fashioned way: getting into the innards with their hands and eyes.

One of Watson’s elevators goes down, and she suspects it was sabotaged to make it look like the Intuitionists are untrustworthy. There’s also other political motivation going on with it being an election year.

So far, so good. This is quite a great premise setting up a way to discuss serious issues surrounding theory of mind, epistemology, etc.

What were my problems with it?

Well, there’s this idea in art that if you treat something as serious, no matter how unbelievable and silly it is, you can get it to come across as believable. But this takes really committing to the idea.

Whitehead commits.

This world is full of tons of details from what such a society would look like, yet I just never really bought the concept. I think part of the problem was that it tried to do too much, especially with the race aspect, which I haven’t even brought up yet.

I think the book would work better if she was set up because she was black or if she was set up because she was an Intuitionist. Trying to have it both ways created a lot of unnecessary awkwardness, and it softened the force of truly committing to one theme. By splitting the difference, neither came across as particularly compelling.

I’ll try to explain this a bit more.

The novel works on a speculative fiction level without bringing race into it at all. The Empiricists want to get rid of the Intuitionists. They are looked down upon both within the world of inspectors and in the world at large.

It makes sense that someone would set up the main character to have one of her elevators fall. Then the world can blame her for not “properly” examining the elevator, and the whole Intuitionist school of thought takes a hit for more “reliable” methods (though, statistically intuitionists do better, a clever twist Whitehead put into the world).

It would work brilliantly as both a mystery plot and as a work of speculative fiction in which Intuitionists play the role of a scapegoated, marginalized population.

In fact, when race gets brought up, it’s almost like an afterthought and thrown in because that’s Whitehead’s “thing” rather than working naturally in the novel. The book will be in the middle of something else, and then it kind of pops up randomly: oh, yeah, and you’re black! So it’s probably that, too!

So, as astute readers, we’ve noticed this is what Whitehead wants to do, and we’re a little annoyed that characters keep implying this conflation of race and Intuitionists. But then Whitehead commits the ultimate writing sin, and he decides he doesn’t trust readers to figure this out (though it’s sooo obvious).

A character says:

“So I don’t know what the official story is, but you get the gist from his speech. He’s making it into a political thing because you’re an Intuitionist. And colored, but he’s being clever about it.”

No. Just no.

I mean, is it still an allegory if the writer flat out tells us what the pieces mean?

If, as a writer, you’re ever tempted to talk directly to a reader like this through a character because you’re afraid they haven’t caught on, then you’ve done something wrong. If you’re that worried, make it clearer through subtext some other way. Or, as I’ve proposed, maybe just clarify what the themes and metaphors are instead of trying to conflate a bunch of stuff.

After such on-the-nose dialogue, I kept expecting our main character to blurt out at some point: I chose the elevator profession because it raises and lowers people to different social strata with the rich bankers having parties on the roof and the lowly doorman at the bottom. The elevator is the great equalizer. Anyone can move to any position in an instant as long as good inspectors keep them working.

Yikes. I wish I could say such a moment never came, but it did. It was a much pithier and eloquent formulation:

…horizontal thinking in a vertical world is the race’s curse.

As I said, it definitely kept my attention with a unique premise and fully fleshed out speculative world, but it could have used a lot more focus and subtlety. Not to be mean, but it reads like a first novel, and that’s what it is. The flashes of the more confident Whitehead we see in his later The Underground Railroad are in here, and they are brilliant when they happen.

I’ve seen this book compared to The Crying of Lot 49 and Invisible Man. Both are apt comparisons, but I’d rather read the former for political conspiracy theory paranoia and the latter for its excellent racial commentary than something that tries to do both at the same time, just worse.

Mother! is Awesome

There haven’t been a lot of movies I’ve seen in the past year or so that I thought were great. Last month I saw Mother!, and it was awesome.

Now, I’m not going to spoil the more disturbing things in this movie, so I don’t think I need a “trigger warning” for this post. In fact, I tend to think they aren’t necessary in most cases.

But in this case, there is a seriously disturbing thing that happens near the end of the movie in pretty graphic visuals, so if you are at all queasy watching gruesome things, you might want to skip this movie.

It’s trendy to say things like: this book/movie can’t be described in words. It defies genre and expectation. It’s wildly inventive. Blah, blah, blah.

But in this case, it’s really true. I can’t even guess at a genre that would make sense. Some call it a psychological thriller. It might be closer to allegorical magical realism.

Around ten years ago, I wrote a blog post about one of the best things that can happen in a work of art (talking about Joanna Newsom’s album Ys). It’s when the art is based on very concrete, clear events that have high emotional resonance, but then it is all abstracted into something more universal.

Honestly, this isn’t a groundbreaking idea. That’s essentially the argument of Campbell’s “monomyth” theory.

Darren Aronofsky has done exactly this in Mother!

Interpretation Spoilers. I don’t plan to spoil plot things (if this movie even has a “plot” to be spoiled). But I’m going to give my interpretation of the movie as a way to describe it.

Here we go. You’re warned a second time.

Mother! is a history of the world as described in the Bible, but it’s done symbolically in a single house. The character known as Mother is Mother Earth. The house is her domain/Earth. The character known as Him is God.

To give you a feel for how the symbolism plays out, I’ll try to describe some stuff in the beginning. Mother and Him are living in the house. Then a man shows up. This is Adam. Then his wife shows up. This is Eve. Him gives free reign of the house to them except they can’t touch his crystal thing (Tree of Knowledge), which has the power to let him write his profound poetry (the Word/Bible).

Mother doesn’t really understand why Him is letting these humans run amok without consulting her first. Eventually, they touch and break the crystal thing, so he banishes them from his office (the Garden of Eden). The couple’s children come, and they play out the Cain and Abel story symbolically.

This goes on and on. It’s all very obvious–even on a first viewing.

At this point you might be thinking: that sounds terrible. And if that was it, it would be terrible. Here’s where it gets awesome.

The whole thing is filmed in this claustrophobic framing of Mother. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is insanely good. She might be in every second of this movie. As people start to fill up the house/Earth and the people start to break things and overpopulate and pollute, she gets more and more upset and confused and scared.

Mother has no idea why any of this is happening, and there’s nothing she can do to stop it. One of the most chilling parts of the movie is when she asks one of the people who is breaking something, “Why are you doing this?” He replies, “Because He gave it to us.” (Or something like that. I don’t have the movie in front of me and it’s been a while to recall exact wording).

How many times have you heard this from certain politicized Christians when asked why they aren’t concerned about climate change and destroying the Earth?

To me, this is the point of the movie. It personifies the Earth and then puts the viewer inside of her mental state. It’s a terrible experience, but that’s the point. It’s supposed to make you think about your own actions in the world from a different perspective.

I do have some problems with it. For example, this obviously isn’t a great way to make the rational argument, because it basically boils down to: how would you feel if you were the Earth? The symbolism and message are so overt and strong, it leaves a bit of a sour taste at the end.

It’s quite interesting to see what most other people have written as problems with the movie. The first type of hater thinks the more disturbing aspects of the movie serve no purpose other than shock value. They think the movie is a pretentious and pointless “arty” film. Then they go on to point out: it’s not even that shocking or gruesome.

Of course it isn’t! That fact alone should make one consider: this isn’t what the movie is intending to do.

As I’ve pointed out already, this criticism can be dismissed as complete nonsense. The opposite is true. It’s too obvious what the movie is about, and hence it cannot be the case that the movie is about nothing and a pure shockfest.

The more interesting criticism can be summarized by this comment: “Jennifer Lawrence’s character infuriated me. She kept making reasonable requests, and everyone ignored them. It was like she had no agency. She spends the entirety of the film in a state of traumatized bewilderment. It made me deeply uncomfortable and annoyed.”

Well, yeah! That’s literally what the movie set out to do. The fact that it succeeded in its goal shouldn’t be seen as some sort of negative criticism and a reason to hate the movie.

The real question is: were you annoyed enough to look at your own actions and make some changes, or are you going to continue to be the people you despised in the movie, wrecking the house of someone with no agency to stop you?

That’s what makes Mother! awesome. Not only does it evoke visceral reactions in those that watch it, but it asks the viewer to bring those reactions back to the real world and do something about it.

Maybe Infinite Jest is About Addiction

And so but I’ve been re-reading Infinite Jest in this strange, almost purely subconscious way, where I take on just a few pages (seriously, like 2-3 pages) every night right before sleeping. I’ve done the calculations, and so you don’t have to tell me it will literally take years to finish it this way.

I’m in no rush. I’ve read it before.

If you’ve never read it, you really must. It’s terrifying how prescient it is. How could someone in the mid 90’s have seen the coming technology that would be so entertaining it would totally consume our lives? I’m thinking Twitter and Facebook and our phones and the games on them. But DFW actually has a Netflix-like system where people can watch any TV they want at any time. That was unthinkable back then.

It also predicts that we’d come to live in an opioid epidemic.

And all of the below, etc.

Anyway, I digress.

This weird thought occurred to me around page 300 (yes, I’ve been doing this for 100+ days already):

Maybe Infinite Jest is about addiction.

Hear me out. This is one of those things that’s so obvious it requires justification.

I know, Don Gately is in a halfway house for Demerol addiction, and the opening scene is of Hal’s (supposed) reaction to taking DMZ destroying his life, and the kids at the Tennis Academy do pot and alcohol and amphetamines and have tricks to pass urine tests.

I know, the title refers to entertainment so infinitely addicting you pee and poop yourself and then die rather than pull yourself away, and that one character, whose name I can’t remember, holed up in the bathroom stall of a library and drank cough syrup every day to avoid withdrawal but had to go out at some point and ends up having a massive DT withdrawal on a train and probably dies.

I know DFW, himself, had addiction problems and was in AA.

Etc, etc.

But hear me out. It’s not as obvious as it seems. Addiction is everywhere in the novel, but what is the novel about?

What if someone said to you: Breaking Bad is about addiction.

You’d say: Whoa! Hang on. Addiction is everywhere in that series, sure, but that’s not at all what the show is about. Not. Even. Close.

DFW is famous for complaining about the reviews (even (especially) the positive ones!!) when it came out, because no one could possibly have read it in the two-week window (or whatever it was) and actually understood what it was about.

I owed it to him to understand what the book was about if he would rather have crappy reviews than positive reviews by people too intimidated by it to admit they were clueless as to what the book was even about.

I took his comments to heart.

Infinite Jest wasn’t about addiction. That was too obvious. Everyone would immediately understand the book if that’s what it was about.

DFW was also obsessed with literary theorists and philosophy and Wittgenstein and psychiatry and math and semiotics and postmodernism and irony, etc. I looked to these for answers, and I found a treasure trove of ideas.

I won’t try to go into depth on what I came up with. You can see early thoughts in some other posts I’ve done: Westward and Preparation for Infinite Jest among others.

Basically, one can read Infinite Jest as a critique of the psychological theories of Jacques Lacan. The “Entertainment,” at least as much as we can see in the novel, is an on-the-nose manifestation of his ideas.

Language is central to our subconscious, and Saussure’s signifier/signified distinction live on different layers. Wallace thought these poststructuralists were brilliant but flawed. Infinite Jest wants to use postmodernism to show why they were flawed.

Now we’re on to what the novel might actually be about!

Many scenes support this reading, mostly having to do with the various recovery methods. Wallace wants to say: how do we break free of our addictions? Well, it’s obviously not what these theorists were saying! Look what that would look like.

DFW presents a parody as refutation.

This view is also supported by all the circumstances under which characters literally lose their ability to speak. Sure, drugs are the proximate cause, but think through the other circumstances of their lives at that time. Think about Hal’s encounter with the therapist after finding his father having committed suicide.

Why was Wallace upset at people calling the novel funny?

Maybe it’s that things that were supposed to be deep references to Lacan were seen as surface-level jokes.

Corporations subsidize years in the future. Most of Infinite Jest takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (YDAU). We laugh, thinking about what it would be like to have to sign checks with the year being the name of an incontinence product.

No!

It’s more than that. The year wasn’t chosen purely for humor. It’s saying that when our society progresses to this point, adults will have regressed back to babies. All we think of is: want, want, want. We rage at the TV like a baby when Netflix goes out for, heaven forbid, 30 seconds.

In Wallace’s version of the future, terrorists use this entertainment as a tool of both terror and placation. In our reality, we entertain ourselves to death with Facebook while our adversaries use it to elect our presidents for us.

And so but then we don’t care. We want reality stars to be our leaders. It keeps us entertained.

What in the world was this post even about anymore? How did I start talking about real life when this is supposed to be about a book published over 20 years ago?

Focus.

I thought Infinite Jest was about this brilliant refutation of heady philosophers. It cleverly uses addiction to get these points across in multiple ways. It invents its own language to poke at the signifier/signified hypothesis.

Then I woke up in the middle of the night with cold sweats, heart pounding, disoriented (probably withdrawal), and I thought to myself:

Maybe Infinite Jest is about addiction.

Then I realized it doesn’t matter.

Your phone notified you of 10 more interesting things since you started reading this. You haven’t made it this far, and we can’t progress. Our eyes are stuck to the screen. We won’t be able to pull ourselves away. We will poop and pee ourselves and wish we had put on our Depends until it doesn’t matter, because we’ll all be dead.

The thought brought me comfort, and I went back to sleep.

Literature is for the Other

I’ve decided to end my silence by responding to a recent Tor article by Liz Bourke entitled Sleeps With Monsters: On the Question of Quality.

I have one main beef with it, and it comes as a fundamental misunderstanding of the importance of literature. But before I get to that, I want to address a throwaway comment that gets at a pet peeve of mine.

She says, “Past a certain level of prose and structural competence, ‘quality’ is a nebulous concept.”

No, it’s not. This is one of those things people say that aren’t true. In the best-case scenario, she hasn’t thought very hard about this. In the worst-case scenario, it’s a rhetorical trick used to defend works of dubious quality.

If quality were as nebulous and subjective as Bourke wants us to believe, all editors may as well quit. Let’s inform the big publishers they can save millions of dollars a year. Those suggested edits won’t improve the quality of your manuscript.

Why waste time as an author even going beyond your first, rough draft? Your edits might change the words on the page, but there’s certainly no sense in which you’ve improved the writing, because, hey, quality isn’t a real thing. While we’re at it, no more literary agents. Everything in the slush pile is a masterpiece to someone.

Since this was published at Tor, let’s also inform those people at Writing Excuses that they’ve wasted twelve years of their lives teaching people the ins and outs of various aspects of the craft of writing. Because, hey, that’s like just their subjective opinion, right? Following that advice can’t improve the quality of your writing. Quality isn’t even a well-defined concept.

What about the hundreds of books on writing and writing programs across the country. Call up Robert McKee and tell him story structure is meaningless. Let’s burn our copies Strunk and White, since prose style doesn’t matter. We can save universities tons of money by canceling Freshmen Composition classes, too. Why not kill the whole English department? What’s to be learned in a literature class when all that matters is what you subjectively feel as you read. Those professors can’t add anything.

I’ve done dozens of “Examining Pro’s Prose” articles pointing out aspects of high-quality writing. I’ve also done a few “Lessons in the Fundamentals” pointing out low-quality writing.

Anyone who has consider the idea for more than a few minutes knows that quality is not a nebulous concept. The notion of “quality” is reasonably objective and fully separate from whether anyone connects with or appreciates the product. One is related to the craft of writing, the other to the art of writing.

End rant and on to the real point of this post.

Bourke writes:

I wrote a column in September about the utter shock of feeling catered to, of feeling seen, of feeling centred in books as a queer person. It was a shock that brought home to me that this is how straight white cis men can rely on feeling when they come to a narrative. After a lifetime like that, it must be disconcerting to experience narratives in which you are present but not central.

It must be alienating to come to narratives where you are an afterthought, or not there at all.

Sit with that for a minute. Just sit with it.

You can feel the smugness emanating from those words. She feels so clever, like she’s struck upon something profound. I almost feel bad that she has literature exactly backward in its importance.

More than any other art form, literature can transport you inside the soul of another person no matter how distinct their identity or experience is from your own. We read literature precisely to get the understanding and empathy that a perceived other is just as worthy of compassion and consideration as our own in-group.

It’s why I chose to be a writer.

It is such a shallow, egocentric, and frankly embarrassing admission to say an important revelation of your reading life was seeing yourself represented. Literature is for the other, not for the self.

Some of the most profound reading experiences of my life were reading James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, and getting a glimpse at what it was like being a bisexual black man in very dangerous time for both of those identities. And The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, and The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and Jhumpa Lahiri and Joan Didion and Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison and and!!!

These books all made me a better person precisely because I was not represented as the main character. They gave me empathy and understanding I wouldn’t otherwise have had.

People who LARP (live action role play) have a name for this: bleed. When you inhabit someone other than yourself, those effects can be profound and lasting on your life. The narrative experience “bleeds” over to real life. This only happens when reading about people dissimilar to oneself, and it’s the most important and powerful part of great literature.

(My next novel delves into this concept considerably).

You know what wasn’t a powerful experience for me? Seeing myself as a main character in a book. I’m gay, and I can’t even tell you the first time I read a gay main character. I read The Perks of Being a Wallflower in high school, and this had a gay side character. If I had to guess my first gay main character would be from the novel At Swim, Two Boys. That is a beautiful book, but I don’t know for sure.

Do you know why this wasn’t a “shock” to me? Because I already had that experience. It was me. There wasn’t as much to learn from it. I’ve also never had trouble jumping right into the mind of a character of any sexual orientation, gender, race, etc.

I find it kind of disturbing that Bourke thinks people other than herself (namely straight white cis men) would find a book centered on a character of differing identity “disconcerting” and “alienating.” This probably says more about her than about the people her article is lambasting.

I’ve just made the correct argument for quality diverse literature in the world. It allows people to inhabit the other and find common ground and understanding. It unites through revealing the human condition.

You know what is not a good argument for diversity in literature? To see yourself represented. That creates a useless bubble, and I’d be embarrassed if I read books for that purpose.

As a postscript, I wouldn’t make the same claims about visual media. Representation in film or tv, where you are separate from the character, and their physical traits are present all the time is a different scenario and underscores how important literature is as a distinct storytelling medium where you inhabit another person for a time.