Ursula K. Le Guin’s Blog

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10. On Prospero’s Island

My husband was not bothered by Prospero being “Prospera” in the new film of The Tempest. I was bothered by it. This bothers me.

The botheration has nothing to do with the quality of Helen Mirren’s performance. She is a very fine actor, her heart is in her part, and she knows how to speak the poetry. (Some of the younger actors in the film don’t; they just don’t get the beat.) Once or twice she looked so dishevelled and harried that the word “menopausal” came into my mind, which it shouldn’t have; but that was costuming, makeup, more the director’s fault than the actor’s. Mirren was splendidly in control, as she must be, control being the mage’s great and perilous gift. She showed affection for her daughter most convincingly — a matter of body language and expression, mostly. And in the great speeches, the camera’s closeness to her worn face and clear eyes lent touching immediacy to her strong, straightforward rendition of the words. If Shakespeare was saying farewell to his art, his own magery, in this play, as it seems he surely was, Mirren has the age and the authority to make that farewell most poignant.

But all the same, it bothered me that she wasn’t the Duke of Milan but the Duchess, not Miranda’s father but her mother, not a wizard but a witch.

So what?

What difference does it make?

Do I believe a woman can’t be a great mage? Am I an Archipelagan quacking “Weak as woman’s magic, wicked as woman’s magic”? (a line that still gets quoted as if to show that my fiction exists to deliver my opinions and that what my characters say is my opinion.) No, that’s not it. Making the mage a woman didn’t bother me because I think a woman isn’t up to the job. Far from it.

What bothers me about Prospera is this: she isn’t Prospero. She isn’t the same person. She’s somebody else.

Of course every actor who plays the part is a different Prospero. But I believe there are limits to how far you can change the physical being of a character in a play without putting both the character and the play at risk.

A famous example of such limit-testing by an actor (and an interesting reversal of this one) is Sarah Bernhardt’s playing Hamlet when she was a middle-aged woman with an artificial leg. She didn’t turn Hamlet into a woman; she played the Prince not the Princess of Denmark. So the experiment was a different one. But she tried to prove that the limits of gender, age, and physique were not limits to her genius.

Some surviving reports by the witnesses of her Hamlet make polite efforts to admire, but have a kind of stunned, disbelieving tone. It was just a bit too much. It didn’t work.

It’s sad to think about. By all accounts Bernhardt was a genius, and she still had her golden voice, her passionate temperament, and her adoring audience. So why couldn’t she play the greatest role in English drama? It wasn’t fair...

It isn’t fair.

Fair or unfair, I question the wisdom of radically changing a Shakespeare play just as I’d question the wisdom of chipping at the Venus of Milo to make her thinner so as to suit modern ideas of beauty, or repainting the Sistine Ceiling to brighten it up, or performing the Halleluiah Chorus in waltz time.

I can do some thought experiments on this subject. For instance, a male Rosalind in As You Like It.

Yes, I do know Shakespeare’s women’s roles were played by young men, the convention of the time. It hasn’t been the convention for several hundred years. And it doesn’t explain much about his women except their convenient propensity, which Rosalind shares, for dressing up as boys. (If you want to see a wonderful momentary glimpse of what the reality was probably like, get the 1940’s film of Henry V with Laurence Olivier and watch the transformation of the French princess into the boy who acted her in Shakespeare’s time.)

I didn’t get far with my thought experiment of a male Rosalind. I got stuck as soon as he dressed up as a girl.

I got a little carried away with my thought experiments. For example, Richard III played by a blond, blue-eyed, six-foot, gorgeous young hunk, to show that the Tudor myth about his being a monster was a bunch of lies. . . The problem is that everything Richard says and does in the play is magnificently, mythically monstrous. He is the Tudor myth. He is Shakespeare’s Richard. He can and should be fascinating, but to make him pretty would be idiotic. Even Olivier succeeded in looking sort of ugly when he played Richard, which shows what a good actor can do with unpromising material.

But I should stick to gender reversals. So, how about making Kate the Shrew into a man, and Petruchio the Shrew-Tamer a woman? Has it been done?

If it were done, would it show or prove anything beyond the director’s egoism and the actors’ virtuosity? The Taming of the Shrew is an explicit comedy of injustice. As such it makes us laugh and rage, teases our complacence, goads us by its endorsement of male triumph and female submission, and through its partiality may lead us to look at facts we’d like to deny and lies commonly accepted as fact. To change the genders of the main parts would diminish it to a portrait of a couple of odd bods, a bullying woman and a sharp-tongued but weak guy.

Arguably, gender is important in As You Like It and the Shrew because Rosalind and Kate are young women, sexual beings in passionate heterosexual relationships. Whereas Prospero is the widowed father of a fifteen-year-old daughter. Anybody that old doesn’t have any sex, really, right? He’s fifty, he’s past it, what gender he is doesn’t matter, right?

So then how about King Lear? Lear’s even older than Prospero, maybe even sixty, seventy...

Serious consideration of the proposal of a Lear sex-change leads me to declare that there’s something at stake in the gender of this character beyond mere sexuality. I find the idea of Queen Lear intensely silly. Though for all I know she’s blundering half-naked across a blasted Hollywood heath towards me at this very moment, bellowing “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!”

The relationships in Lear’s highly dysfunctional family have a lot to do with gender, since gender has a lot to do with power, and power, again, is what the play is about. The exercise of it, the sharing of it, the lust for it, the loss of it. And the renunciation of it. Lear handles and mishandles his power as a man, having been taught certain ideas of what it is to be a man, as all men are taught. His daughters seek power as women, who’ve learned what it is to be a woman — as all women learn — and how a woman can get power through manipulating men. Cordelia is as much a manipulator as her sisters, though she is motivated by self-respect and affection as they are not. She wants to shore up her father’s power, not to take it from him, but her behavior is as gendered female as his is gendered male. None of them can break out of the expectations and limitations their society has set around them.

We in the 21st century, some of us at least, have a little more freedom as regards gender, larger expectations. So we grieve to see Lear and Cordelia trapped in a narrower, meaner definition of what a man is and can do, what a woman is and can do. We know that gender is not destiny; we know that the idea of gender as binary leaves out an endless number of actual and possible variations and combinations; we know that gender as we commonly experience it is to a great extent a social construct, often an extremely cruel and stupid one. And so we can lament at seeing Shakespeare as a man of his time caught in the prejudices of his time.

But I don’t see that that ability to make a moral judgment gives us any reason or right to change his plays. Reinterpret them, endlessly, yes. Rewrite them, no.

Though very few words were changed in this Tempest, to change the sex of the main character of a play was a major rewrite.

Prospero is an imaginary person, who exists only in the words the playwright wrote for him to speak. He is the words he speaks, and they belong to Shakespeare.

Prospera is another imaginary person, one not invented by Shakespeare. But she speaks Prospero’s words. And so she bothers me. Is she a person or a ventriloquist’s puppet? If she is genuinely a character, why has she co-opted another character’s speeches?

A gorgeous movie with Helen Mirren playing a powerful magician-queen on Hawaii’s Big Island full of frustrated monsters and airy spirits and sweet music and the best poetry in the world — if somebody could write that script and shoot that movie, I’d go see it, sure!

But when I see The Tempest, I want to see The Tempest. I want to see Prospero. I’ve known him for years and years, and every time I see him played by a different actor I learn a little more about who he is, see a different side of him. I love and admire the man, cross-grained as he is.

In this Tempest he wasn’t there. Somebody else was there.

I liked her; I’d like to meet her — somewhere else. Only not there. Not on Prospero’s island.

3 January 2011

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11. The Tree

We took down the Christmas tree this morning. It was a very pretty little fir, three and a half or four feet tall, a table-top tree, said the woman at the florist’s next to Trader Joe’s, where we bought it—. We put it on a wooden box in the corner window of the living room, as I believe a Christmas tree should be seen from outside and also should be able to see outside. To be exact, I don’t think a tree can see, but it may be aware of light and darkness, of insideness and outsideness. In any case it looks right with the sky over it or through its branches. Before we decorated it, it stood there, sturdy, plain dark green, a complicated higher organism, a very definite presence in the room. When we had an artificial tree, its nonentity made me realise what I feel about a living tree, not only the splendid, big, tall ones we used to have when I was a child and when my children were children, but a litle one too — that it is as much a presence in a room as a person or an animal. An unmoving present that says nothing, but is there. A very taciturn visitor from Norway, perhaps. Speaking no English, entirely undemanding, wanting nothing but a drink of water every few days. Restful. A pleasure to look at. Holding darkness in it, a forest darkness, in the green arms held out so calmly, steadily, without effort.

Our Norwegian visitor leaned out into the room a little, we couldn’t get it quite vertical with the screw-pins in the base; but nobody could see it from the side anyhow, as it stood between the writing desk and the bookcase, so we didn’t worry. It was beautifully symmetrical without having had half its branch-tips sheared off with a hedge-trimmer, as lot trees so often have. It certainly was a lot tree. It had never been in the forest I saw in it. It had grown on some slope not far from Mount Hood, probably, along with hundreds or thousands of other young firs in straight rows, one of the dreariest sights in our farmlands, almost as soul-blighting as a clearcut, often a sign of the small farmer giving up crop growing, crowded out by agribusiness, or the non-farmer putting in a tree lot as a tax write-off. Our tree had not known forest. It was a forest tree all the same. And it had known rain, sun, ice, storm, all the weathers, all the winds, and no doubt a few birds, in its day. And the stars, in its night.

We put the lights on the tree. We put the old golden bird with the ratty tail on top. The small gold glass snail-shell ornaments we bought for our two-foot tree in Paris in ’54, a dozen of them and a dozen gold glass walnuts — one walnut left, and nine snails, one with a hole in its tissue-fragile shell — go on the top branches, because they are small and weigh nothing and you can see them there. The bigger glass balls, some of which are so old they are crazed and translucent, go lower down, the bigger they are the lower they go, it is a rule of life. The little beasts, tigers and lions and cats and elephants, dangle on loops from the branches; the little birds sit up on them, clutching with unsteady wire claws. Now and then a bird loses its grip and is found upside down under its branch and has to be reseated.

The tree looks very nice, a proper Christmas tree, except the LED lights are really much, much too bright for it. They are small, but violent. Old-fashioned frosted lights, too big for this tree, would suit it better, with their soft, diffuse glow which you could hide among the branches. And some of the colors of the LEDs are terrible, a screaming magenta is the worst. What has magenta to do with Christmas, or anything else? I’d take off all the magentas and airport-landing-strip blues and have it green red and gold, if I could, but the strings come with five colors, and they don’t seem to sell replacement lights, you have to buy a whole new string, which will, of course, have the same five colors. I made little tubes of tissue paper and slipped them over the small, fiercely glaring bulbs, but it didn’t make much difference, and it looked kind of crummy. All the same I left them on.

So Christmas came, and the tree shone each day and each night until I unplugged it before going to bed. I know you don’t really have to turn the lights off, LED’s burn so cool, but safety is safety, and habit is habit, and anyhow it seems wrong not to let a tree have darkness. Sometimes after I unplugged it I stood with it and looked at it, silent and dark in the dark room, lit only by the glow of the small electric candle behind it that illuminates the sign in the window that says PEACE. The candle cast faint, complicated shadows up on the ceiling through the branches and needles. The tree smelled lovely in the dark.

So Christmas went, and the New Year came, and on the day after New Year’s Day I said we ought to take the tree down, so we did. I wanted to keep it one more day after we took the lights and ornaments off. I liked the tree so much without any decorations. I didn’t want to lose that quiet presence in the room. It hadn’t even started to drop needles. But Atticus is not one for half measures. He took the tree out into the garden and did what had to be done.

He has told me that when it came time for his father to kill the pig he’d raised by hand all year, he’d hire a man to do it, and would leave the house, and not come back till the sausage was being made. But Atticus did this deed himself.

After all, the tree had already been cut from its root, its life with us was only a slow dying. A real Christmas tree, a cut tree, is a ritual sacrifice. Better not to deny the fact, but to accept and ponder it.

He saved me some of the dark branches to put in water in a bowl in the front hall. When the trunk dries out it will be good firewood. Next Christmas, maybe.

Jan. 2, 2011
(posted Jan. 5, 2011)

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12. A Riff on the Harper Contract

New language in the termination provision of the Harper’s boilerplate gives them the right to cancel a contract if “Author’s conduct evidences a lack of due regard for public conventions and morals, or if Author commits a crime or any other act that will tend to bring Author into serious contempt, and such behavior would materially damage the Work’s reputation or sales.” The consequences? Harper can terminate your book deal. Not only that, you’ll have to repay your advance. Harper may also avail itself of “other legal remedies” against you.

From a blog by Richard Curtis.

* * *

Dear Mr Rupert Murdoch,

Forgive me, for I have sinned.

Because I did not read my contract with your wonderful publishing house HarperCollins carefully, I did not realise my moral obligations.

There is nothing for it now but to confess everything. Before I wrote my book Emily Brontë and the Vampires of Lustbaden, which you published this fall and which has been on the Times Best Seller List for five straight months, I committed bad behavior and said bad words in public that brought me into serious contempt in my home town of Blitzen, Oregon. In fact the people there found me so seriously contemptible that I am now living in Maine under the name of Trespassers W. This has nothing to do with the fact that some parts of my book come from books by Newt Gingrich and other people, in fact quite a lot of them, but everybody borrows from great novelists, because information wants to be free. It was nothing really materially damaging, only just the money and i.d. I stole from the old man with the walker and some things I said about some schoolgirls with big tits back in stupid Blitzen. I have really suffered for my art. I hope maybe you will forgive me and not terminate me and make me pay back the money because I can’t because I already had to give most of it to some stupid lawyer who said I had defaulted on a loan and was behind in my child support which is just a lie. That stupid brat never was mine. I am sure you will understand better than anybody else could that the only actual crime I have committed was writing my book. And I believe you will see that it was expiated by your giving me the contract for it and publishing it and making a lot of money out of it. So it is all right, I hope. I really hope so because I have nearly finished the sequel Alfred Lord Tennyson and the Zombies of Sex-Coburg and my agent says it is going to be a blockbuster as soon as it comes back from the person who is rewriting it. You would not want to miss it I am sure! And here in Maine I am paying strict regard to public conventions and morals just like you do. I would not go to a Democrat Convention if they paid me and crime is the farthest thing from my mind. I would feel so terrible if I damaged the reputation or sales of my Work, or your reputation. You are my Role Model.

Please believe me your loyal and obedient author,

Trespassers W.
18 January 2011

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13. The Horsies Upstairs

Photo by Caroline Le GuinOn the eve of Christmas Eve the family was all out in the forest where my daughter and son-in-law and three dogs and three horses and a cat live. Three of them live in the horse-barn and the pasture at the top of the hill, five of them in the log-cabin-style house at the bottom of the hill, and one of them in great style in a studio cottage with a heating pad all her own, which in winter she deserts only to hunt mice in the woods. That afternoon it was raining, as it had been all December, so everybody was inside, and the kitchen-living-dining room was pretty full of people, the eldest eighty-three and the youngest two.

The two-year-old, Leila, was visiting with her mother and her step-aunt from Toronto. Seven of us had come over for the afternoon, and six were staying there — the hosts upstairs, the Torontans in the study, and one hardy soul out in the trailer. (There is no bed in the studio cottage and Mimi does not share her heating pad.) The dogs were circulating freely among us and there were many good things to eat, arousing much interest in the dogs. For anybody as young as Leila, it must have seemed pretty crowded and noisy and full of strangers and strangeness, but she took it all in with bright eyes and sweet equanimity.

That morning, when it stopped raining for a while, she had gone up the long, steep driveway with the women to the horse-barn and riding ring. They played with pretty Icelandic Perla, and Hank, who stands a stalwart ten hands high and is convinced of his authority as the only horse (as opposed to mare) on the premises. Leila sat in the saddle in front of Aunty Cawoline on Melody, the kind, wise, old cutting horse, and very much enjoyed her riding lesson. When Mel picked up her pace, Leila bounced up and down, up and down, and softly sang “Twot! Twot! Twot! Twot!” round and round the ring.

So, then, that afternoon, indoors, at some point among the various conversations, somebody said it would be dark before you knew it. And somebody else said, “Pretty soon we’d better go up and feed the horses.”

Leila took this in. Her eyes grew a little brighter. She turned to her mother and asked in a small hopeful voice, “Are the horsies upstairs?”

Her mother gently explained that the horsies were not up in the loft but up in the pasture at the top of the hill. Leila nodded, a little disappointed perhaps, but acceptant.

And I carried her question away with me to smile over and to ponder.

It was both charming and logical. In Toronto, in the limited world of a two-year-old, when somebody talked of going “up,” it would almost always mean “upstairs.”

And to Leila the log-walled house, which is very tall though not really very large, must have seemed immense, labyrinthine, unpredictable, with its doors and staircases and basement and loft and porch, everything unexpected, so that you enter the back door at ground level, walk through the house, and go down a long flight of steps to get to ground level … Leila had probably been up the loft stairs to the bedroom only once if at all.

Anything could be up those stairs. Melody, Perla, and Hank could be there. Santa Claus could be there. God could be there.

How does a child arrange a vast world that is always turning out new stuff? She does it the best she can, and doesn’t bother with what she can’t until she has to. That is my Theory of Child Development.

I wrote a short story once, all of which was true, about going to a conference on the Northern California coast among the redwoods, and having not the faintest idea I’d ever seen the place, the cabins, the creek, before — until I was told, and realised it was true, that I’d lived there for two intense weeks of two summers — that this very place was Timbertall, the camp my friends and I went to when we were thirteen and fourteen.

At that age, absolutely all I had noticed enough to remember about the location of Timbertall was that we all got on a bus and rode north for hours and hours talking the whole way, and got off, and were there. Wherever there was. There was where we were. With the creek, and the cabins, the huge stumps, the high dark trees, and us, still talking, and the horses.

Oh, yes, there were horsies up there, too. That’s why we were there. That was what mattered, at that age.

I was a kid who, thanks to a wooden jigsaw puzzle of the U.S.A., had the states fairly well located, and had been taught enough geography to acquire some notion of continents and nations. And I knew the redwood country was north of Berkeley, because my parents had driven with me and my brother up that coast when I was nine, and my father was always clear about compass directions.

And that was all I knew at fourteen about where Timbertall was, and all I cared to know.

I am appalled by my ignorance. Yet it had its own logic. I didn’t have to drive the bus, after all. I was a kid, carted around by adults the ways kids are. I had an adequate arrangement of the world, a sufficient understanding of my position, for my needs at the time.

No wonder kids always ask, “Are we there yet?” Because they are there. It’s just the harried parents who aren’t, who have to have all this huge distance between things and have to drive and drive and drive to get to there. That makes no sense to a kid. Maybe that’s why they can’t see scenery. Scenery is between where they are.

It takes years to learn to live between, and thus to get the relationships between things arranged, to make sense of them.

It probably takes the weird adult human mind, too. I think animals are where they are in the same way a baby is. Oh, they know the way between places, many of them, as no baby does, and far better than we do — horses for sure, if they’ve been over the ground once. Bees, if another bee dances it for them. Terns above the trackless ocean…. Knowing the way, in that sense, is knowing where you are all the way.

At fourteen, unless I was in a very familiar place, I had very little idea where I was. More than Leila, but not that much more.

But at fourteen I knew the horses were not in the loft bedroom. I knew Santa Claus was not at the North Pole. And I was giving a good deal of thought to where God might be.


Children have to believe what they are told. Willingness to believe is as necessary to a child as the suckling instinct is to a baby: a child has so much to learn in order to stay alive and in order to be human.

Specifically human knowledge is imparted largely through language, so first we have to learn language, then listen to what we’re told, and believe it. Testing the validity of information should always be permitted and is sometimes necessary but may also be dangerous: the little one had better believe without running any tests that the stove burner could burn even when it isn’t red, that if you eat Gramma’s medicine you will be sick, that running out into the street is not a good idea... Anyhow there’s so much to be learned, it can’t all be tested. We really do have to believe what our elders tell us. We can perceive for ourselves, but have very little instinctive knowledge in how to act on our perceptions, and must be shown the basic patterns of how to arrange the world and how to find our way through it.

Therefore the incalculable value of true information, and the unforgivable wrongness of lying to a child. An adult has the option of not believing. A child, particularly your own child, doesn’t.

A scenario: Leila, instead of contentedly accepting the information, begins to wail in disappointment, insisting, “No, the horsies are upstairs! They ARE upstairs!” A soft-hearted grownup smiles and coos, “Yes, dear, the horsies are upstairs, all cuddled up in bed.”

This is a lie, though a tiny, silly one. The child has learned nothing, but has been confirmed in an existential misunderstanding which she’ll have to sort out somehow, sometime.

That “up” means up the stairs, up the hill, and a whole lot of other places too, and that its meaning may depend on where you are at the moment, is important information. A child needs all the help she can get in learning to take that vast variety of meanings into account.

Lying, of course, isn’t the same as pretending. Leila and a grownup might have a fine time imagining the horsies in the bedroom, with Hank hogging all the blankets and Perla kicking him and Mel saying Where’s the hay? But for this to work as imagination, the child has to know that the horsies are in fact in the horse barn. In this sense, truth to fact, insofar as we know what fact is, must come first. The child has to be able to trust what she’s told. Her belief must be honored by our honesty.


I brought in Santa Claus for a reason. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the way we handle him. We had Santa Claus in my family (in fact my mother wrote a lovely children’s book about Santa Claus in California letting his reindeer graze on the new winter clover.) When I was a kid we read “The Night Before Christmas,” and we set out milk and cookies by the fireplace, and they were gone in the morning, and we all enjoyed it. People love pretense, and love ritual, and need both. Neither of them is counterfactual. Santa Claus is an odd, quirky, generally benign myth — a real myth, deeply involved in the ritual behaviors of the one great holiday we still have left. As such I honor him.

Very early in my life, like most kids, I think, I could distinguish “Pretend” from “Real,” which means I knew myth and fact were different things and had some sense of the no-man’s-land that lies between the two. At any age I can recall, if somebody had asked me, “Is Santa Claus real?” I would, I think, have been confused and embarrassed, and blushed red in case it was the wrong answer, and said No.

I don’t think I missed anything not thinking Santa Claus was real the way my parents were real. I could listen out for reindeer hooves with the best of them.

Our kids had Santa Claus; we read the poem, and left milk and cookies out for him; and so do their kids. To me, that’s what’s important. That the bonding ritual be honored, the myth re-enacted and carried forward in time.

When I was a kid and other kids started telling about “when they found out about Santa Claus,” I kept my mouth shut. Incredulity is unlovable. I am opening my mouth now because I am too old to be lovable, but still incredulous when I hear people — adults! — mourning over the awful day they found out that Santa Claus wasn’t real.

To me what’s awful is not — as it is usually presented — the “loss of belief.” What’s awful is the demand that children believe or pretend to believe a falsehood, and the guilty-emotion-laden short-circuiting of the mind that happens when fact is deliberately confused with myth, actuality with ritual symbol.

Is what people grieve over the pain not of losing a belief, but of realising that somebody you trusted expected you to believe something they didn’t believe? Or is it that in losing literal belief in our fat little Father Christmas, they also lose love and respect for him and what he stands for? But why?

I could go on from here in several directions, one of them political. As some parents manipulate their children’s beliefs, however well-meaningly, some politicians play more or less knowingly on people’s trust, persuading them to accept a deliberately fostered confusion of actuality with wishful thinking and fact with symbol. Like, say, the Third Reich. Or Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom. Or Mission Accomplished.

But I don’t want to go there. I just want to meditate on the horsies upstairs.

Belief has no value in itself that I can see. Its value increases as it is useful, diminishes as it is replaced by knowledge, and goes negative when it’s noxious. In ordinary life, the need for it diminishes as the quantity and quality of knowledge increases.

There are areas in which we have no knowledge, where we need belief, because it’s all we can act on. In the whole area we call religion or the realm of the spirit, we can act only on belief. There, belief may be called knowledge by the believer: “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” That’s fair, so long as it’s fair also to maintain and insist upon the difference, outside religion, between the two things. In the realm of science, the value of belief is nil or negative; only knowledge is valuable. Therefore, I don’t say I believe two plus two is four, or that the earth goes around the sun, but that I know it. Because evolution is an ever-developing theory, I prefer to say I accept it, rather than that I know it to be true. Acceptance in this sense is, I suppose, the secular equivalent of belief. It can certainly provide endless nourishment and delight for mind and soul.

I’m willing to believe people who say they couldn’t live if they lost their religious belief. I hope they’ll believe me when I say that if my intellect goes, if I’m left groping in confusion unable to tell the real from the imagined, if I lose what I know and the capacity to learn, I hope I die.

To see a person who’s only lived two years in this world seeking and finding her way in it, perfectly trusting, having her trust rewarded with truth, and accepting it — that was a lovely thing to see. What it made me think about above all is how incredibly much we learn between our birthday and last day — from where the horsies live to the origin of the stars. How rich we are in knowledge, and in all that lies around us yet to learn. Billionaires, all of us.

26 January 2011

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14. Egypt

I have not wanted to write directly political blogs, having no real confidence in the rightness or the usefulness of my opinion. And the virtue of most blogs is that they expose an opinion to the give-and-take of discussion, but I duck and cover from that. I don’t have the energy, the will, or the conviction to take on a public argument about anything other than the Google Settlement. But I can’t keep silent about what’s been happening in Egypt without feeling that silence is a betrayal of something very great that I have honored all my life.

I am bitterly disappointed in President Obama’s withdrawal from his first, apparently spontaneous support of the uprising, his agreement that Mubarak must go and go now for there to be a real movement towards democracy. Once again he vacillated and came down on the side of “compromise,” which in the circumstances means compromising America’s moral position.

The man who told us Yes, we can, now seems almost to have taken for his motto: WWWD?

The men who replaced the Commie Bogey with the Bogey of Islam huddle about him whimpering that the various corrupt Middle Eastern autocracies we fund are all that has stood between us and universal jihad for 30 years and we must go on propping them up with “moderate” policies, i.e. billions of dollars in aid and weapons and oil payments, or the tide of terrorism will descend upon us all.

That the crowds in Tahrir Square are not immoderate, that they are not religiously but politically motivated, that what they are demanding is not the rule of the imams and ayatollahs but democratic process, self-rule, freedom — this means nothing to the people who make their money and get their power out of the three American wars, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and against terrorism. Whatever would we do if we didn’t have all those wars? Take the billions spent on “defense” and spend it on schools and public works and health care and stupid stuff like that where nobody gets killed? Well, the military and corporate war profiteers will see to it that that doesn’t happen, by letting just enough of the profits keep trickling down to their advocates in Congress.

If the American president had delivered a clear message of moral solidarity with the peaceful crowds in Tahrir Square and then stood by it, if he were talking now not just with old-crony-Suleiman but with Mr El Baradei and the leaders of the Egyptian Army and the Moslem Brotherhood, that would do more to defuse radical Muslim terrorists, and to weaken the half-demented regime in Iran, than anything else we could do.

If we want to see Israel survive, Egypt offers us a chance to try to force Mr Netanyahu and his party back from the brink to which, in a death-instinct as determined as that of any jihadist, they keep dragging their people closer and closer.

Old Egypt is offering us a new and great opportunity: to break free from out-dated, noxious alignments and policies in the Middle East, to speak out for freedom from tyranny, to support a people reaching for democracy, to remember what being on the right side is like. The opportunity won’t last long. They never do.

9 February 2011

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15. Footnote to my Egypt Blog

No, Obama didn’t do what W wudda done, and I’m sorry I got all despondent and impatient because he seemed to be so slow, undecided, and halfhearted in doing what he shudda done.

And he is currently doing what he oughta do, it seems, in the Bahrain situation.

Yes, we have no right to run the affairs of other nations. But we do it. We can’t pretend that we don’t carry decisive weight in the affairs of a country like Bahrain. What’s the good of the elephant pretending that it’s not in the room?

What behooves the elephant is to move its feet very, very carefully, use its trunk with delicacy, be patient and restrained as befits its great size and strength, and above all, never go into musth.

21 February 2011

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16. Uniforms

The United States went to war with Germany and Japan when I was a kid of eleven. One of the things I remember is how — overnight, it seemed to me — the streets of Berkeley filled up with uniforms. All during the war, men in civvies were in the minority downtown. But the uniforms didn’t bring uniformity into the city. If anything they were an improvement on the drab, same-old clothing of the end of the Great Depression.

The Army and Army Air Force wore khaki in various shades of brown, greenish, and tan: handsome jackets, creased pants, shined black shoes, all very trim. But never quite a match for the Navy uniforms, the gobs in their white tunics and pants and little round white hats in summer, and in winter, blue wool tunics with a sailor collar and pants with a thirteen-button, square flap fly, I kid you not. Cute little round butts looked terrific in that uniform. And the officers in their crisp white or navy blue, gold buttons, gold braid, were a breed apart, sharp as tacks. There were no Marine bases near Berkeley that I know of, anyway we didn’t see Marines around much, but they looked quite grand in the newsreels.

My brother Clif’s ship was commissioned in San Francisco Harbor and we went to the ceremony: a fine show, formal, traditional, embellished by those dandy dress uniforms. The men looked terrific lined up there on the deck, all blue and white and gold in the sun. What boy wouldn’t want to look like that, and be seen looking like that by everybody?

A uniform, ever since the eighteenth century when they first really started inventing them, has been known as a powerful aid to recruitment.

I can’t say that that was true for the uniforms women got handed in WWII. They imitated the men’s, of course, with skirts instead of pants, but were poorly designed, the taut, snappy look becoming tight and stiff on women; even granted the severe rationing of cloth, the uniforms were unnecessarily skimpy, prim, and awkward. I certainly wouldn’t have joined the WAVES or the WAC for the uniform, only in spite of it. Fortunately for the WAVES, the WAC, and me, I was fifteen when the war ended.

During the next several American wars, the whole concept of the uniform evolved away from good fit and good looks towards a kind of aggressively practical informality, or sloppiness, or slobbishness. By now our soldiers are mostly seen in shapeless, muddy-looking spotted pajamas.

This uniform may be useful and comfortable in the jungles of Viet Nam or the deserts of Afghanistan. But do men need camouflage when flying from Reno to Cincinnati, or combat boots on Fifth Avenue? I guess soldiers still have dress uniforms — I know the Marines do, they seem to put them on way more often than the other services, maybe because they get so many photo ops in D.C. — but I can’t remember when I last saw an Army private on the street looking sharp.

I know that for many boys and men, camo has taken on the glamor that a handsome uniform once had. Grotesque as it appears to me, it looks manly and fine to them. So I guess the uniform still serves as an aid to recruitment, luring the boy who wants to wear it, look like that, be that soldier. And I don’t doubt that young men wear it with pride.

But I wonder very much about the effect of the camo-pajama uniform on most civilians. I find it not only degrading but disturbing that we dress up our soldiers in clothes suitable to jail or the loony bin, setting them apart, not by looking good, looking sharp, but by looking like clowns from a broken-down circus.

This whole change in style of uniforms may be part of a change in our style of war, and with it a changed attitude towards service in the military.

Possibly it reflects a newly realistic opinion of war, a refusal to glamorize it. If we cease to see war as an inherently noble and ennobling thing, we cease to put the warrior on a pedestal. Handsome uniforms then seem a mere parade, a false front for the senseless brutality of behavior in war. So “fatigues” can be grossly utilitarian, with no thought for the appearance or self-esteem of the wearer. Anyhow, now that most war is waged not between armies but by machines killing civilians, what’s the meaning of a military uniform at all? Didn’t the child dead in the ruins of a bombed village die for her country just as any soldier does?

But I can’t believe the Army thinks that way, that it’s making uniforms ugly in order to encourage us to think war is ugly. Perhaps the fatigue uniform reflect an attitude they aren’t conscious of and would never admit, a change less in the nature of war than in our national attitude to it, which is neither glamorising nor realistic, but simply uncaring. We pay very little attention to our wars or to the people fighting them.

Right or wrong, in the 1940’s we honored our servicemen. We were in that war with them. Most of them were draftees, some quite unwilling ones, but they were our soldiers and we were proud of them.

Right or wrong, since the 1950’s and particularly since the 70’s we began putting whichever war was on at the moment out of sight and out of mind, and with it, the men and women fighting it. These days they’re all volunteers. Yet — or therefore? — we disown them. We give them pro forma praise as our brave defenders, send them over to whichever country we’re fighting in now, keep sending them back over, and don’t think about them. They aren’t us. They aren’t people we really want to see. Like the people in jails, the people in loonybins. Like clowns that aren’t funny, from a third-rate circus we wouldn’t think of going to.


Now shall we talk about how much we pay, how we are bankrupting our future, to keep that circus going?

No. That’s not something we talk about. Not in Congress. Not in the White House. Not anywhere.

25 February 2011

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The Center of Warmth in Tahrir Square

A Guest Post by Mona Elnamoury

Mona ElnamouryIt has been called the Republic of Tahrir Square, a place very much like Annares; everybody cooperates, no leader; everyone is a leader. Art and music and dramas and creativity and dreams are reborn there not for Egypt only but for humanity. It has been the center of warmth to all chilly Egypt during the last month of the Egyptian revolution. But what is the future of the revolution?

Tahrir Square, Liberation Night, 11 February 2011

Finally it is coming true!
Tahrir Square, Liberation Night, 11 February 2011

As a middle class Egyptian woman, I cannot say whether the revolution will stumble or fall; succeed or fail. As a university professor, I still find it hard to see exactly what may come next in Egypt’s future. No one can tell. But what I can surely tell is the fact that this revolution will never fail easily. The honest Egyptian people will simply die hard especially after they have tasted the joy of freedom and after they have known about the amount of corruption that has sucked their blood for so long . But let me summarize it in points because it is so complicated.

  1. Who started the revolution were the middle class educated youth not the poor toiled people. I have previously wondered why the “Proles” never rebelled (to use Orwellian language). I know now. They are always too tired and too absorbed in the daily struggle for bread and the mere primitive basics of life to revolt. The comfortable youth; who had the luxury to read, discuss, surf the net, know different languages and think were the ones who started the revolution. They started it in the virtual world of the net and amazingly enough they had all the instructions on the net all the time. Then, everyone else followed: Moslem brotherhood, Christians, the workers, middle class families, rich people, university professors, the poor, and even some army officers. They could follow after the original youth broke their fright fear at last.
  2. Thirty years of totalitarian ruling is enough to destroy two generations in many subtle ways. The intricate network of corruption that was gradually interwoven in Egypt over the last thirty years is Egypt’s greatest challenge now. It is so tough and widespread that it needs real perseverance and patience to “deconstruct” to use Professor Nasr Abo Zaid’s term: “deconstructing corruption”.
  3. The old regime is still very much in power. As I have just mentioned, the network is widespread and the list of the people who need to be expelled out of the country is extremely large. Now I know how genius was the idea of “leaving Omelas” all together. It looks to me like the best answer now to this problem. I am not sure how many Egyptians will be left if — theoretically speaking — the corrupt ones were forced to leave. In fact, I think that somehow we have all been infected by this corruption either by participating or by being silent or finally despairing. So, the old regime is still in power working, hiding facts, manipulating with people’s minds again; trying all the time to figure out new ways to survive.
  4. The relationship between the people and the army is ambivalent. There is an unacceptable slowness in carrying out the demands of the young people; namely:
    1. Changing all the current temporary government because it is actually the tail of the old government and forming a new cabinet. (They give that one month)
    2. Discharging all the local councils and all the governmental universities’ presidents and all the deans.( in 1 month)
    3. Setting free all the political prisoners.( in 1 month)
    4. Presenting all the ones responsible for the violence and killings of the last events to quick trials.( in 1 month)
    5. Deconstructing/reconstructing the Interior Ministry (police) in 1 month
    6. Presenting all the corrupt ones to trial and bringing the hundreds of stolen billions back to the country.
    7. Having a seriously transparent and democratic presidential elections in 6 months.

These are the basic demands. From the side of the revolution, they seem fair and easy to accomplish. But why they are not? We cannot frankly express our concerns about the army performance not out of fear but out of cautious wisdom. The army might be the last ally to the people and it has always been honorably biased to them. So, should we totally lose it with no serious evidence? Also, we know that it is being cornered. There is the burning Libyan border, the unrest down in the Nile Basin countries, the everlasting threat from Israel in the east, the daily strikes in many places all over the country, unstable economy, and finally the countless corruption cases pouring on their heads every day. The army is faced with terrible inheritance. Can one actually totally dismiss that some of its sectors might have been touched by corruption too?

So, all in all, we are having a state of half a revolution! Again, you can count on the people; the youth who have decided to camp in Tahrir Square since last Friday till the demands are carried out. They have not been nicely treated by the tired army neither are they exactly accepted by many ordinary worried Egyptians who misunderstand their intentions or wish to see normal life back. There is the fear that the homeless hungry people may rebel against the rebels if the economic situation keeps deteriorating (which is one way to explain the term ‘counter-revolution’).

One last feminine thing; it has been extremely difficult to be a mother during that month. You are either the mother of a young man/woman or a child. If you belong to the first category you can either have him/her in Tahrir square in spite of your fears and tears fighting for the freedom of their country and getting the near risk of losing their lives or one of the eyes at least. Or, you may have the kid at home safe and sound in front of TV but despicable and shameful. If the mother of a child, you had to explain what was going on in the best way you could (and sometimes it was just impossible) and at the same time you had to keep the child away from all the tension on TV or outside when the runaway prisoners (freed by the old regime to terrorize the people) and thugs filled the streets. Most important of all, you had to keep the faith and the hope and the smile to give them to everyone. I used to figure myself in the center of the warmth of Tahrir Square when it was cold and grey enough for everyone. Only then, the colors became bright again.

Keep your fingers crossed for Egypt.

— Mona Elnamoury
2 March 2011

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17. Would You Please Fucking Stop?

I keep reading books and seeing movies where nobody can fucking say anything except fuck, unless they say shit. I mean they don’t seem to have any adjective to describe fucking except fucking even when they’re fucking fucking. And shit is what they say when they’re fucked. When shit happens, they say shit, or oh shit, or oh shit we’re fucked. The imagination involved is staggering. I mean, literally.

There was one novel I read where the novelist didn’t only make all the fucking characters say fuck and shit all the time but she got into the fucking act herself for shit sake. So it was full of deeply moving shit like, “The sunset was just too fucking beautiful to fucking believe.”

I guess what’s happened is that what used to be a shockword has become a noise that’s supposed to intensify the emotion in what you’re saying. Or maybe it occurs just to bridge the gap between words, so that actual words become the shit that happens in between saying fucking?

Swearwords and shockwords used to mostly come out of religion. Damn, damn it, hell, God, God-damned, God damn it to hell, Jesus, Christ, Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ Almighty, etc. etc. A few of them appeared, rarely, in nineteenth-century novels, usually as “——” or more bravely as “By G—!” or “d—n!” (Archaic or dialect oaths such as swounds, egad, gorblimey were printed out in full.) With the twentieth century the religious-blasphemy oaths began to creep, and then swarm, into print. Censorship of words perceived as “sexually explicit” was active far longer. Lewis Gannett, the book reviewer for the old NY Tribune, had a top-secret list of words the publisher had had to eliminate from The Grapes of Wrath before they could print it; after dinner one night Lewis read the list out loud to his family and mine with great relish. It couldn’t have shocked me much, because I recall only a boring litany of boring words, mostly spoken by the Joads no doubt, on the general shock level of “titty.”

I remember my brothers coming home on leave in the second world war and never once swearing in front of us homebodies: a remarkable achievement. Only later, when I was helping my brother Karl clean out the spring, in which a dead skunk had languished all winter, did I learn my first real cusswords, seven or eight of them in one magnificent, unforgettable lesson. Soldiers and sailors have always cursed, what else can they do? But Norman Mailer in The Naked and the Dead was forced to use the euphemistic invention “fugging,” giving Dorothy Parker the chance, which naturally she didn’t miss, of cooing at him, “Oh, are you the young man who doesn’t know how to spell ‘fuck?’”

And then came the Sixties, when a whole lot of people started saying shit, even if they hadn’t had lessons from their brother. And before long all the shits and fucks were bounding forth in print. And finally we began to hear them from the lips of the stars of Hollywood. So now the only place to get away from them is movies before 1990 or books before 1970 or way, way out in the wilderness. But make sure there aren’t any hunters out in the wilderness about to come up to your bleeding body and say Aw, shit, man, I thought you was a fucking moose.

I remember when swearing, though tame by modern standards, was quite varied and often highly characteristic. There were people who swore as an art form – performing a dazzling juncture of the inordinate and the unexpected. It seems weird to me that only two words are now used as cusswords, and by many people used so constantly that they can’t talk or even write without them.

Of our two swearwords, one has to do with elimination, the other (apparently) with sex. Both are sanctioned domains, areas like religion where there are rigid limits and things may be absolutely off-limits except at certain specific times or places.

So little kids shout caca and doo-doo, and big ones shout shit. Put the feces where they don’t belong!

This principle, getting it out of place, off limits, the basic principle of swearing, I understand and approve. And though I really would like to stop saying Oh shit when annoyed, having got on fine without it till I was 35 or so, I’m not yet having much success in regressing to Oh hell or Damn it. There is something about the shh beginning, and the explosive t! ending, and that quick little ih sound in between....

But fuck and fucking? I don’t know. Oh, they sound good as curses, too. It’s really hard to make the word fuck sound pleasant or kindly. But what is it saying?

I don’t think there are meaningless swearwords; they wouldn’t work if they were meaningless. Does fuck have to do with sex primarily? Or sex as male aggression? Or just aggression?

Until maybe 25 or 30 years ago, as far as I know, fucking only meant one kind of sex: what the man does to the woman, with or without consent. Now, both men and women use it to mean coitus, and it’s become (as it were) ungendered, so that a woman can talk about fucking her boyfriend. So the strong connotations of penetration and of rape should have fallen away from it. But they haven’t. Not to my ear, anyhow. Fuck is an aggressive word, a domineering word. When the guy in the Porsche shouts Fuck you, asshole! he isn’t inviting you to an evening at his flat. When people say Oh shit, we’re fucked! they don’t mean they’re having a consensual good time. The word has huge overtones of dominance, of abuse, of contempt, of hatred.

So God is dead, at least as a swearword; but hate and feces keep going strong. Le roi est mort, vive le fucking roi.

9 March 2011


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18. To my Readers in Japan

I wrote my translator-friend Akemi Tanagaki in Tokyo a brief email note. She answered,

“Thank you for your concern.

I’m all right and my family is all right.

Only we feel so sad, helpless and worried.”

And she asked if I would put a brief and simple message on my site for my readers in Japan — “but I know that it is very difficult to find words with which to talk to those suffering very much.”

Yes, dear Akemi, it is difficult, it is impossible. But I am honored by your asking me to try.

To My Japanese Readers:

There is an ocean between us, yet that ocean joins us.

The great tsunami that struck Japan travelled on, growing weaker, until it came to the west coast of America. Here it did little harm. But with that wave came to us the great wave of your grief and suffering.

I hope you know that there are many, many people here who are thinking of you now, and crying for you, and praying that the worst will soon be past.

I admire, more than I can say, the quiet courage the ordinary people of Japan have shown amidst so much loss, suffering, and fear. Your strong and patient faces are beautiful to see. I look at them and cry. I wish you strength and the hope of better days.

With love,
14 March 2011

Update 16 March 2011: Japanese translation at http://r2fish.cocolog-nifty.com/1day1book/2011/03/post-d47e.html


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19. Unfacts Concerning the Google (Un)Settlement

In discussions concerning the Google Book Settlement — and now Judge Chin’s ruling against it — I keep running into the same misunderstandings over and over.

Some of these are simply mistaken ideas of what copyright is and does. Most of them naturally arise from the very complicated nature of the issues. All have been perpetuated by inaccurate, confusing, tendentious language.

I’ll cite these “unfacts” as I come upon them and have time to discuss them. I welcome corrections of factual mistakes and will revise to include them. My opinions are just that, my opinions.

1. Unfact: Everybody who opposed the Google Book Settlement hates Google and everything it stands for and wants to destroy the Evil Corporation root and branch and go back to carving runes on rocks.

Fact: Most of us who opposed the Settlement use Google all the time. Whatever misgivings we may have about corporate control of information, Google’s performance in offering access to information without strings attached has so far been admirable and immensely impressive. And most of us strongly favor the idea of a free digital library.

The problem is that Google saw fit to defy copyright law by digitalizing works without permission from the copyright holders.

Discussion: I don’t understand why Google did what they did. If they’d just done it right — followed their own motto “Don’t be evil!”

I know... the Library of Alexandria consisted mostly of stolen books taken by force from the libraries of subject cities. But in this case there was no need for theft. Many authors would gladly give permission for their out-of-print books to be included in a great free digital library (especially if it paid usage royalties, as European public libraries do). The harm came when Google began digitalizing works without permission, and thus attacking both copyright and moral right.

2. Unfact: Copyright is a selfish grab by rich, famous authors so they get to make all the profit out of their books.

Fact: Copyright is a limited and carefully designed law to protect authors from poverty. It allows authors control over the rights in their books, so that they, like any worker, can make what profit they can from their work.

It’s called “copy” right because it involves, literally, the right to make copies of the work.

An author contracting with a publisher sells the publisher a limited piece of her copyright: that is, the right to make copies (i.e., publish the work in a certain form for a certain period of time) in exchange for a share (usually 15% or less) of the publisher’s profits.

Discussion: Copyright has existed only since the 18th century. Till then, writers mostly lived by finding and sucking up to a rich patron. Since then, writers have been able to make an independent living… well, dependent on the whims of publishers — but after all, publishers and writers have pretty much the same stakes in the very chancy game of making books.

Only ignorance or irresponsibility dismiss copyright as “irrelevant to the Digital Age.” It’s needed more than ever, to protect authors from trying to live by selling themselves to corporations or selling their text space to advertisers. Copyright law has to be extended and rewritten to work with the new technologies of publishing. The notion that it’s unnecessary makes it all the harder to get that necessary work done.

A lot of people quote Stu Brand: “Information wants to be free.” I wonder why they hardly ever quote the other half of Stu’s sentence: “It also wants to be paid for.”

Information can be free to the user, the reader, and pay a living wage to the originator, the author: Think of the free Public Library.

This balance can extend to the Internet, if we can rewrite copyright law to cover the new technologies.

Sneers and sloganeering ain’t going to butter the beans. It will take hard and careful work. Can you imagine trying to explain to the current Speaker of the House how it might be done and why it’s important to do it?

3. Unfact: Out-of-print and out-of-copyright are the same thing. “Orphaned” books are out of print and out of copyright.

Fact: A book that is “out of print” is one which no publisher currently claims to have in print and available.

A book that is “out of copyright” is one whose copyright has expired. It is said to be “in common domain.” No one can own the rights — anyone can copy it, reprint it, etc. at will.

Out of print and out of copyright are entirely different things. Most books go out of print within a year or two, but their copyright goes on for decades.

An “orphaned” book means a copyrighted book whose copyright owner — author, or estate, or trust, or representative — can’t be located.

An orphaned book is usually out of print, but it is NOT out of copyright. It’s “orphaned” because the copyright owner can’t be located to send royalties to, or ask for permission to excerpt, copy, reprint, digitalize, etc.

Discussion: “Orphaned” books were always a problem in publishing, but didn’t become a huge problem until the recent grotesque extension of the period of copyright (called the Mickey Mouse Act because a lobby led by Disney Corp. strongarmed it through Congress.)

Copyright used to be 28 years, plus a 28-year extension at request. It is now the lifetime of the author plus 70 years (that could be 120 years!) — an indefensible crippling of the intention of the Copyright Act, which was to give living authors the rights and profits they’d earned, and then let the book go into “public domain” — become free to everybody.

Under Mickey Mouse, a huge number of books are going to end up orphaned — trapped in useless copyright.

It is (God help us!) up to Congress, with the guidance of the Justice Department, to figure out how “orphaned” books should be handled. The best first step would be to knock down the Mickey Mouse Act and return to a rational duration of copyright. If this is unthinkable, perhaps the Copyright Office should be enabled to declare a copyright void if the copyright owner cannot be found — after a bona-fide search plus a period of say two years.

It’s a real problem. But it has nothing to do with Google’s illegally digitalizing books without getting permission from the copyright owners.

The use of “orphaned” as if it meant “uncopyrighted” is an obstinate, unfortunate confusion of terms, clouding the whole debate: and many of those who have used it that way surely know better.

And the sneakiest gambit is that of talking as if only orphaned books are being illegally digitalized. All the time the Settlement has been in the courts, Google has been blithely going ahead digitalizing any book it wanted without obtaining permission, let alone contractual terms. (I can attest to this, since they have thus pirated several of my books, with no attempt whatever to contact the publishers, my agent, or myself — none of whom are exactly hard to locate.)

Such methodical theft looks like more than corporate indifference to the law. It looks like a deliberate effort to destroy copyright. In other words, the corporation would like to do away with the concept of workers getting a fair share of the profit from their work.

That would “be good” for the corporation. Not good for the worker, the writer — or for readers, or for anybody else.

28 March 2011


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20. Unfacts Concerning the Google (Un)Settlement

Part 2

Continuing, and I hope ending, my discussion of certain often-repeated misunderstandings and misinterpretations of issues related to the Google Book Settlement and copyright:

Unfact: The failure of the Google Settlement spells the end of the “Alexandrian” dream of a great digital library open to all.

Fact: It does nothing of the kind. By denying Google its bid for total control, it may well make that dream more possible.

Discussion: Supporters of the Google digitalization project appear to believe that a private, for-profit corporation is the likeliest agency to establish and maintain a universal, free, public library. This is a leap of faith I cannot make.

Supporters have often spoken as if Google’s archiving project were the only one, on which therefore all hope depends. Surely they are aware of other ongoing digitalization projects that have no corporate strings attached and whose purposes and policies are open to view — such as Project Gutenberg.[i]

Yet, however impressive volunteer projects such as Gutenberg may be, I can’t help thinking that it’s the United States Government that should be founding and operating a digital archive/library, exactly as they founded and maintain the Library of Congress.

The project should be a Digital Library of Congress — using the skills and meeting the standards maintained by our national public library, and funded by Congress for the good of the American people. (If other countries develop such digital libraries, they can all meet on the Internet, in the greatest Alexandrian Library ever.)

Given the know-nothing, starve-the-poor-to-stuff-the rich rant now prevalent in Congress, it’s easy to dismiss such hope as mere wishful blither and say that we should give the job to the people who can do the job… That is, hand it to a hugely successful profit-making corporation dealing in information technology, which has proved its indifference to copyright law and its eagerness to control both the content and the availability of every book ever published in America?

I haven’t an awful lot of faith or hope in Congress, but given the choice, I’ll take Congress over Google, hands down.

(Just as I’ll take Google over Amazon, if it ever comes to that.)


Unfact: “Fair Use” is a clearly defined and clearly understood concept, which Google has observed scrupulously in its digitalization project, by delivering only “snippets” not full texts of copyrighted material.

Fact: It is even harder to determine precisely what Fair Use is than to determine than what “snippets” are.

Some useful definitions of Fair Use:

The primary definition, obviously, is the one supplied by the United States Copyright Office, copied below.[ii]

If you Google “Fair Use Definition,” Barron’s Law Dictionary has a useful discussion, and Wikipedia a long and interesting article.

Discussion: In my last blog, I stated what I recalled as the duration of copyright before the “Mickey Mouse” extensions. My Webmistress and friends at the SFWA emended this before the piece came out. Readers at BVC suggested further useful corrections, which then, in classic Internet fractal mode, led to anti-corrections, leading to hyper-corrections, and a whole wonderful garden of forking arguments, full of thorny niggles, and quibbles in full flower.

I fear what any attempt by me to define “Fair Use” might lead to. A Great Dismal Swamp, with a thousand opinions emerging like velvety green untrustworthy tussocks from the peat-black water… That’s where most discussions of Fair Use I’ve heard end up. I’m not going there.

I will stick to mere personal history, followed by a metaphor.

For decades, I or my agent have invoked Fair Use: either when I want to use a brief quote from a copyrighted book I’m reviewing or discussing or citing — or, conversely, when people ask my permission to use a quotation from my work. If they ask to reprint a whole poem or story, or use an excerpt of over a page or two, or a chapter of a book, then we request full and formal acknowledgment, including citation of the source and copyright information, and if their use of it encroaches on the salability of the original work, we ask a fee. If the quote is of a reasonable size (on the order of a few lines from a poem, a sentence or a paragraph from a story or book), I or my agent thank them and tell them they don’t need formal permission, because such use of a brief quote comes under the Fair Use provision of the rules of copyright; all we ask is that they say who wrote it and where it came from.

I believe that this process is exactly what the Copyright Office’s definition of Fair Use is intended to reinforce and expedite. Like so many not entirely precise definitions, it works fine — perhaps better than super-precise ones. It worked fine for me for forty years and is still working fine.

The problem comes when somebody, for whatever reason, redefines Fair Use to mean you can take pieces of any length out of a copyrighted work and do what you please with them without notifying or obtaining permission from the copyright owner, let alone arranging for appropriate compensation.

This irrational extension of a rational policy begins to reach Moebius-strip circularity when we find a corporation digitalizing an entire copyrighted book without permission and then invoking the doctrine of Fair Use to justify the procedure, since only portions of the book, called “snippets,” have so far been released onto the Internet.

It’s as if pirates captured a galleon as it sailed home from the Indies, then took a couple of sailors and a few pieces of eight from it, put them in a rowboat, and sent them home ahead of the ship.

Seeing it, the ship-owner shouts to the pirates, “Hey! You stole my ship!”

“Whatever do you mean?” say the pirates. “It’s just a little snippet of a rowboat and we didn’t steal it, it’s all yours.”

“But where is my ship?” cries the owner.

“Ship?” say the pirates. “What ship? Oh, that galleon? That’s ours. We digitalized it. See the skull and crossbones?”

[i] Project Gutenberg is a non-profit volunteer project that has for four decades been digitalizing texts that were never copyrighted or are out of copyright. As of December 2009, it was offering 34,000 items and adding fifty new e-books a week — mostly in English, mostly literary. The copyright status of all these titles has been ascertained and recorded. The Project doesn’t claim new copyright on titles in the public domain, as some digitizers do; but, if the Project Gutenberg trademark is used, certain restrictions apply — the text is not to be changed, or used for commercial purposes. (To evade these restrictions, all a user who wants to censor, alter, mash-up, or try to sell the text has to do is omit the header and trademark.) The few copyrighted texts so far included in the Project are distributed with permission of the copyright holder, and are subject to whatever restrictions the copyright holder may specify. PG texts are fully accessible (not the so-called “snippets” offered by Google) and are checked for completeness and accuracy.

The Project was started by Michael Hart in 1971. It is operated through the Internet by volunteers. In 2000 it affiliated with Distributed Proofreaders (DP), greatly increasing the number of volunteers and texts. A non-profit corporation, Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation, handles the project’s legal needs and receives tax-deductible donations.

[ii] Definition of Fair Use from the Copyright Office:

“One of the rights accorded to the owner of copyright is the right to reproduce or to authorize others to reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords. This right is subject to certain limitations found in sections 107 through 118 of the copyright law (title 17, U. S. Code). One of the more important limitations is the doctrine of “fair use.” The doctrine of fair use has developed through a substantial number of court decisions over the years and has been codified in section 107 of the copyright law.

Section 107 contains a list of the various purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered fair, such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Section 107 also sets out four factors to be considered in determining whether or not a particular use is fair:

  1. 1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  2. 2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. 3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  4. 4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work

The distinction between fair use and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.

The 1961 Report of the Register of Copyrights on the General Revision of the U.S. Copyright Law cites examples of activities that courts have regarded as fair use: “quotation of excerpts in a review or criticism for purposes of illustration or comment; quotation of short passages in a scholarly or technical work, for illustration or clarification of the author’s observations; use in a parody of some of the content of the work parodied; summary of an address or article, with brief quotations, in a news report; reproduction by a library of a portion of a work to replace part of a damaged copy; reproduction by a teacher or student of a small part of a work to illustrate a lesson; reproduction of a work in legislative or judicial proceedings or reports; incidental and fortuitous reproduction, in a newsreel or broadcast, of a work located in the scene of an event being reported.”

Copyright protects the particular way authors have expressed themselves. It does not extend to any ideas, systems, or factual information conveyed in a work.

The safest course is always to get permission from the copyright owner before using copyrighted material. The Copyright Office cannot give this permission.

When it is impracticable to obtain permission, use of copyrighted material should be avoided unless the doctrine of fair use would clearly apply to the situation. The Copyright Office can neither determine if a certain use may be considered fair nor advise on possible copyright violations. If there is any doubt, it is advisable to consult an attorney.

FL-102, Reviewed November 2009.”

5 April 2011

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The Painful Slow Process of Creating Utopia

Guest post by Mona Elnamoury

Mona ElnamouryFrom my point of view, it is hard to find the revolution, half revolution or even the counter-revolution in Egypt these days. The brief idealistic utopian moment seems to be fading away in the background. What you actually find is politics in action: all the tactics, maneuvers, secret/public deals, interests talking. Where are the rebels? They are still trying to gather forces every Friday in Tahrir Square asking for the rest of the true Egyptians’ fair demands. But you know what ? As I wrote that phrase “true Egyptians’ fair demands” I wondered a great deal. Who are the true Egyptians and what are their demands? The crystal moment of the liberation night where we all wanted the same thing and looked at the same direction is somehow dimmed. The rebels, my husband, and I together with the educated people want a free Egypt capable of keeping its wonderful history together with a reaching promising future. The religious political movements want more power. However, millions of the hard-working toiling people want economic security and a return to normalcy. Somehow, we want that too together with the lacking general national security. The police is still not in full control again after the famous shameful retreat and setting prisoners free followed by setting the police stations on fire on 28th of January. Thugs are still on the streets committing many kinds of crimes. Serious children kidnappings are taking place. (My heart sinks as I see my children to their school bus everyday!) Traffic offences are being committed all the time. The police does very little about them all. Something went very wrong between the ordinary people and the Egyptian police officer. Their relation is more wrong than the oppressive relation they used to have before: it is suspicious and careless.

Though the violence may no be more serious than it could be on the nights of New York, this chaos in the security situation is all newly and surprisingly becoming real to us. Before, we vaguely knew what danger and from which direction, but now it is very possible that we are shooting in the dark.

The Council of Armed Forces, which is actually ruling the country now, is still acting suspiciously slowly leaving the previous big wigs to sort things out before arresting them under public pressure! The next rebellious move should be against the army from inside the army, I guess.

I feel people are tired. And though we all enjoyed a new democratic trait in the recent referendum over the constitution, oddly enough there seems to be a vague fatigue of the new issues of freedom and responsibility amid this chaos. Even my 8-year-old daughter wants everything to be settled soon as she is afraid she should study all these long messy details in history books in the coming years !

I still count on the Friday demonstrations to bring out the genuine spirit of utopia again. I am still mysteriously optimistic. We had reached the lowest lowest bottom of it before in the final months of Mubarak’s rule. Surely we are rising, no matter how slowly that is happening.

Mona Elnamoury

Mona Elnamoury is Egyptian and is a correspondent of UKL. Her guest blogs begin with an eyewitness account of Liberation Night in Tahrir Square.

11 April 2011


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21. Beige

Beige is the only color I can think of that is used as a fashion sneer. “Everything she wears is beige,” with a falling, faintly snarling tone to the word. Or, more personally, “Oh she’s such a beige person...”

Of course you could say that beige is hardly a color at all. For a moment today I thought it wasn’t even a word.

When I want to write about anything that’s likely to be in the Oxford English Dictionary, I look it up there first. I have the cumbrous 2-vols.-w.-magnifying-glass edition. Cumbrous but invaluable. It tells you where the word came from and who first used it when and all kinds of good nerd stuff like that. So I looked it up – and it wasn’t there.

That had never happened to me before with the OED. It wasn’t there? A word wasn’t in the OED? Beige wasn’t in the dictionary?

Is the world coming to an end, word by word?

After I had sat awhile stunned, magnifying glass useless in my trembling hand, it occurred to me that after all, beige is a French word. The OED doesn’t list words in other languages, it can’t do everything, after all, and maybe beige was still considered foreign and printed in italics in England when the entry was made in the OED, perhaps years before its first edition in 1971 — yes, almost certainly, B being so early in the alphabet. And I’d heard the word in England pronounced very frenchly, behzh, not comfortably diphthonged into bayzh or bayge, as in America. So I put away the magnifying glass and tucked big fat Vol I back in its case and took down the French-English dictionary next to it.

I have to admit it was a relief to find beige right where it ought to be. “Beige, adj. [f. It. bigio] Beige, natural; serge ~, serge of undyed wool; une robe ~, a beige frock.”

Frock? Ah yes. The Concise Oxford French Dictionary is British too... But since its first definition of beige (in French) is beige (in English), the 1952 COFD had got a jump on the 1971 OED.

I liked the second definition, “natural,” and the mention of undyed wool. But before pursuing these I wanted to find out about bigio, so I took down my Hoare’s Italian Dictionary (a classic, and the source of the classic question, What does she need a dictionary for?) and looked it up. Bigio means grey. It is the basis of the name of several Italian birds, dimishing sweetly as they go: A warbler is una bigia, a black-cap is una bigiola, a whitethroat is una bigiarella. Bigiolino (the little grey one) is an edible fungus, and bigiolone (the big grey one) is a fungus which I expect you’d better not try eating because Hoare doesn’t say anything about edible.

The Italian word for grey that I knew was grigio, so I looked it up too and there it was; but no birds or mushrooms. I don’t have a real Italian-Italian dictionary, which might distinguish usages, so it’s just my guess that grigio might be the “colder” kind of grey that shades into blue, and bigio the “warmer” kind shading off towards tan. Chalk pastels come in these two distinct kinds of grey, with a full range from light to dark in each; and you need both, cold for sky, warm for earth.

So, after this little trip to Europe, back to beige in English. My original reason for writing about it was: Why is it looked down upon? Why is it used as a sneer-word?

Its use in English is mostly for clothes and wall paint. And I guess, in clothes and wall paint, it’s hard to make a statement in beige. You need screaming lime, or hot fuchsia, or stark black. Beige avoids making statements. It turns away and murmurs; you can barely hear it. It’s an introverted color. Unadventurous. Uneventful. Dull.

The reason I got thinking about it was that I realised about half my clothes are either beige or very near it, and most of the rest (leaving out an enclave of bluejeans and blue t-shirts) are black, which goes well with beige. I hate the Spring catalogues that come out thirty seconds after Xmas with all the pretty sherbet pastels and the bright redwhiteandblues and the lilac polka dots and there won’t ever be any hope of anything beige until next October and then they’ll probably be off on one of their screaming lime kicks again.

If I had black or brown skin I still wouldn’t go for screaming lime, but I’d be a sucker for crimsons and scarlets and golds. I love the colors and they’d look good on me. If. But they don’t, because my skin is beige. Most of the year it’s a kind of fishy, pallid beige; sometimes in summer by sitting in the sunshine the way the dermatologists say we must never never do, I achieve a warmer tone, a feebly reddish speckled tan, like a farm egg. Never more than that.

So, do I wear beige as camouflage – to make me disappear?

I think it’s the other way round. I think it’s because if I wear scarlet or screaming lime, that’s when I disappear — all you can see is the clothes. Grigio hair, bigio skin, pouf – gone – dimmed to invisibility. Real camouflage. If I wanted to be seen, I’d have to take off all my gorgeous lime and scarlet clothes and appear in my natal, naked beigeness. That would be a statement, I guess.

So what did I want to say about the color? Was I just being defensive about my skin and my clothes? There was something more than that. A positive feeling. A defense of beige itself. A real liking for that range of color – the bigios, the gentle, subtle, lively earth colors. The color of unbleached, undyed wool. The dun of a dun horse. The color (aside from the black and white and pink etc. of their markings and decorations) of the feathers of sparrows and towhees and finches and quail and robins and phoebes .... a sort of default feather color. The tan or dun or light brown of many lovely, common kinds of wood. The color of many rocks — sandstones, volcanic ash, beach sand. The color of very old paper. The soft color of dust.

22 April 2011

PS. After writing all that, I remembered that at the end of my 2-vol OED is a Supplement of newer (or dirtier) words that didn’t get into the first edition. So I looked for beige in the Supplement, and there it was, yessirree, at least two inches of it in agate type. All interesting, including the fact that it was an undyed cloth before it was a color, but not really adding anything to what I wanted to say here, except for defining it as “yellowish grey.”

I’m still thinking about whether I agree with that or not. Yellowish? I’d be inclined to call beige a light brownish grey or greyish brown, or a shade between grey and dun. But perhaps, without the very faint hint of a yellowish tone, it would shade off into greige? Greige is, I believe, a strictly English-language word, made up by textile and fashion people, and a nice one, too: exact, expressive. I’d like to have a greige silk jacket right now. Come on, catalogues, enough with the screaming lime.


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22. First Contact

I have seen many rattlesnakes, I have eaten fried rattlesnake; but only once have I ever been in contact with a living rattler. Though ‘contact’ is not the word I really want — it is metaphorical and inexact. We did not touch. Maybe it was communication, though of a very limited kind. As communication between alien species is perhaps doomed to be.

I have told the story often as a comedy, a story in which people behave ridiculously, with a happy ending. Here it is:

We were at the old ranch in the Napa Valley and I was just about to sit down on one of the 1932 iron chaise-longues (carefully, because if you sit too far toward the end, the whole unwieldy thing stands up and throws you off like a bronco) when I heard a noise I recognised. That was the first communication. It was the hissing buzz of the rattlesnake’s rattles. Startled by my movements, it was heading off into the high grass, rattling away. About fifteen feet away it looked back, saw me looking at it, and stopped there, its head up and facing me and its gaze fixed on me. As mine was fixed on it.

I hollered for Charles. The rattler paid no attention. I believe they are deaf. I suppose they ‘hear’ their own rattle as vibration in their body, not in the air.

Charles came out and we discussed the situation — not calmly. I said, “If he goes off into the high grass there, we’ll never dare walk out in the pasture the whole time we’re here.”

We thought we had to kill the rattlesnake. That’s what you do, generally, in the country, certainly at a place where little kids come and run around.

Charles went and got the big heavy long-handled hoe my father called the Portugee hoe, with which rattlers had been killed before, by others. Not by us. Charles got close enough to strike.

The rattler and I had never taken our eyes off each other, or moved.

Charles said, “I can’t.”

I said, “I couldn’t either.”

“So what do we do?” we said.

The rattler was probably thinking the same thing.

“Go see if Denys is there?” Charles said.

I said, “I don’t think it’ll move so long as we keep staring at each other, so you go.”

And Charles went up the driveway and down the road a couple hundred yards to our only near neighbors, the Cazets. It took a while. All that while, the snake and I did not move and looked steadily into each other’s eyes. They say a snake’s gaze is hypnotic, but who was hypnotizing whom?

We were like people newly in love who “can’t take their eyes off each other.” This was not love, but it was something equally intense, and even more immediately a matter of life and death.

It is this brief time, five or six minutes I suppose, ten minutes at most, that over the years I have thought of again and again, always with the vividness of the moment and always with a sense of its importance, or import: of there being a great deal to learn from it.

During this time, the rattlesnake and I were alone together. Alone in all the world. We were held together by common fear — bonded. We were held in a spell — entranced.

This time was outside ordinary time, and outside ordinary feelings; it involved danger for both of us; and it involved a bond between creatures who do not and cannot ordinarily relate to each other in any way. Each would naturally try not to relate — to just get away – or to kill in self-defense.

In all these respects, I think it isn’t amiss to think of this time as sacred.

The sacred and the comic are not that far apart, something the Pueblo Indians seem to know better than most of us do.

Charles and Denys came panting down the driveway with the big galvanized garbage can and a piece of semi-rigid white plastic tubing about fifteen feet long. Denys had the tube; he knew what to do because he’d done it before. A distinguished artist/author of children’s books, he was a year-rounder in the Valley. And his house was on a pretty little property which, before the house was built, we used to call Rattlesnake Clearing.

The snake continued to look at me only and I at it only, while Denys set the garbage can down on its side with the opening facing the snake, maybe twenty feet from it and very visible to it. Then, coming quietly round behind it at full tube-length, he flicked the end of the tube near its head. That broke the spell. I looked away from the snake at the tube, the snake looked away from me at the tube, and then flowed hurriedly away from the thing flicking about in the air behind it and made straight for the welcoming dark cave of the garbage can. It flowed right into it — at which Charles ran to upend the can, and clapped the lid on.

A mighty and wrathful commotion took place inside the can. It shivered and trembled and all but danced. We stood in awe and listened to the rage of a truly angry rattlesnake in an echo-chamber. It finally quieted down.

“Now what?”

“Anywhere a good ways away from the house.”

“There’s the millionaire up at the end of the road,” said Denys. “I’ve turned several snakes loose up there.”

A pleasing thought. The millionaire was never there, nobody lived on his lovely hilltop. Excellent rattlesnake territory. The three humans and the garbage can all got in the car and drove up the road, the snake in the can making some vicious criticisms in a low, hissing buzz along the way. At the end of the road we got out and laid the can down, knocked the lid off with the invaluable plastic tube, and watched the split-second disappearance of the snake into a thousand acres of wild oats.

It was our garbage can, the one that still stands up at the top of the driveway where the garbage company can collect on Mondays. I have never looked at that can since, in all these years, without thinking of what it held, once.

A teaching, a blessing, may come in strange ways, ways we do not expect, or control, or welcome, or understand. We are left to think it over.

18 May 2011

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23. The Middle of What?

When I was a kid America had three classes. Upper class was yachts, Harvard, Cartier, caviar, crass fat bankers in tailcoats with cigars in newspaper cartoons. Middle class was tree-lined streets in neighborhoods, State U, a class ring, meat and potatoes, Helen Hokinson ladies in New Yorker cartoons. Working class was dust bowl, soup lines, grey faces under cloth caps, cartoons of bums with their toes coming out of their shoes — then overnight it was three shifts at the shipyards and the steel mills, housing shortages, housing developments, public schools full to bursting, and Rosie the Riveter.

And men in uniform. The uniform that cancelled class, or anyhow made it semi-invisible.

Now I’m old, it’s less interesting. America, I’m told, has only one class: the middle.

But doesn’t a middle need the stuff it’s the middle of — the above, the below, the left, the right, the front, the back?

Apparently not. We are, as it were, all middle. There are of course “the wealthy” (never called the rich — rich is a four-letter word) but they occupy a private stratosphere, they are above class, just as they are above paying taxes. “Upper class” is something Americans like to think only the British have. “Lower class” ditto. And the variant forms of lower-classness have vanished too. “Proletariat” was always a commie word. “Working people” sounds so old fashioned. “Labor” — I wonder how many kids, knowing no other connotation for the word, think Labor Day has something to do with having babies? As for “the working class” — haven’t heard of it for years. It probably died (in more ways than one) with the birth of Reaganomics.

I thought maybe my union, the United Auto Workers, could bring itself to talk about the working class, but no. The union magazine, Solidarity, does not use the term working class for its members. An article in the latest issue called “Rebuilding Middle Class is All About Priorities” does mention people who are able or unable to “work,” but uses the word “workers” only once: “the American middle class was built by workers’ struggles.” Evidently now that the middle class has been built, the workers and their struggles are no longer needed.

I used to dislike the phrase working class because it seemed to imply that the other classes all lay about on cushions doing nothing. The middle-class people I knew certainly worked for their living. But at different kinds of work than the working class, less physically consuming, and better paid; so that, however imprecise, the term indicated a real difference. Now even the distinction of blue collar/white collar workers seems to be out. Euphemisms abound. I wonder if terms such as “service industries” obscure discourse more than they clarify it.

Marx thought the workers of the world were going to inherit it, forming a classless society. Our speech now, and our speeches, imply that we live in such a classless society. But where are the workers?

Do we in fact all belong to what Marx called, with loathing and contempt, the bourgeoisie — those supported on the labor of the working people?

To attain a bourgeois standard of living was the so-called American Dream. Have we all achieved it?

Well, if we’re all middle class, I guess so. But I can’t help asking how come so many of us middle-class folks are looking for a job, month after month after month, till they drop us off the rolls so we don’t have to be counted as unemployed any longer? How come a school lunch is the only hot meal, or the only meal, a middle-class kid may get all day (and not on weekends and not all summer)? Why is the nice bourgeois house on the tree-lined street boarded up, lost to mortgage default? Aren’t middle-class young couples supposed to have 2.3 kids and a dog and two jobs and be doing better than daddy did? Don’t middle-class middle-aged people belong on the golf course, not waiting at the unemployment office? And what the hell are all those old bourgeois doing lined up at the Food Bank?

Well, it’s a hard thing to define, the middle class, and who belongs to it.

The only people who clearly can’t belong to the middle class, because they can’t possibly share the American Dream, because they are and can’t ever be Americans, are those illegal people that come across the border and live and work here for forty or fifty years and think their illegal kids ought to be educated by American taxpayers. Well they can just go back where they came from and take their brats and their shovels with them. We’ll dig our own ditches and educate our own kids. Yessirree. Just watch us doing it.


Denial is ingenious. One of its neat tricks is to up a bogey between you and a reality you don’t want to see, so you can fear, and control, the bogey, while it hides the uncontrollable reality.

Fear and hatred of a “communist threat” that never really threatened us led to the use of “socialist” as a bogey-word to blacklist any program for institutionalising social justice. Certain favored institutions and programs that operate essentially socialistically, such as Medicare or the Armed Forces, are exempt from the blacklist — militant patriotism and immediate self-interest do wonders with whitewash. But in most cases, the bogey, the specter of creeping socialism — a term that slithers all the way back past Reagan and Nixon to the so-much-admired Eisenhower — is invoked against any governmental program involving mutual social responsibility, and against any suggestion that the playing field isn’t level.

So, because those foreign unAmerican commie socialists talk about the working class, America can’t have a working class. Or working people. Or, for a very large number of us, work.

But who needs work? We’re all middle class — all living the American Dream.

25 May 2011

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24. To Save Free Enterprise, Books Must Die

Publishers Weakly — May 27, 2011

The publishing house Harpy (formerly Harpy & Roe, then Harpy Collie, then HarpyCollie, now just Harpy again), a wholly owned subsidiary of the international corporation headed by the egregious Rupert Merdle, has announced a new policy designed to make Harpy equally egregious.*

The new policy ensures that e-books bought from Harpy by public libraries will “expire” — disappear — after they have been taken out of the library 26 times. If a library wishes to keep the e-book accessible, it will have to buy it all over again from Harpy.

By allowing their clients to take out hardcopy books an unlimited number of times before they have to be replaced, public libraries have been cheating Mr Merdle out of thousands of dollars a year via Harpy books, thus causing a dangerous drain on the resources of his corporation.

No way to prevent this disturbing library-caused loss to healthy corporate growth has yet been discovered, because a hardcopy book once bought cannot be controlled. It can be bought and sold again and again, or, far more disturbingly, can be given, or loaned, and thus used over and over by different people, in the most blatantly socialistic fashion, without anybody making any profit out of it.

Not so, however, with e-books!

An e-book cannot be worn out, cannot fall to pieces, can go on existing as long as technology supports it and electricity is supplied, and therefore never need be bought but once — a terrifying prospect.

Publishers Macmillion and Slime & Shyster avoid the terror by not allowing any of their e-books in libraries. But they are losing potential profit from sales.

The solution of the problem lay in realising that the existence or nonexistence of their e-books is entirely up to Mr Merdle and his Harpies.

Expiration is the answer. The death of the book. Nothing could be simpler.

The public library buys the e-book, planning to slip it furtively and indefinitely often into the unwashed hands of the kind of people who go to public libraries — but now they can only get away with this 26 times. The twenty-seventh reader who put the book on hold is out of luck. The book expires. Dies. Ceases, as far as the library is concerned, to exist.

If the library wants it, they must buy it again. And again. And again.

And thus capitalism will be safe. . . until the next assault from the anarcho-socialist-librarian underworld. Even now, some egregious libraries are refusing to buy Harpy e-books, thus cheating Mr Merdle out of thousands of dollars a year — a loss unacceptable, as mentioned before, to a corporation whose resources run only to the two-figure billions.


* The word “egregious” is not a slur or insult; it is from Latin ex grege, outside the herd, and merely means “outstanding,” or anyhow it did for about 2500 years. If you want it to mean something else, feel free.


Current information on the status of e-books in libraries may be found, among many other sites, at:


26 May 2011

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25. Petty Expectations

Part One. Critical Expectation: Genre and “Literary” Fiction

I’ve been pondering, tracing connections, wondering about expectations. The first object of my brooding is a pair of sentences from a book review by Terence Rafferty:

“In a horror story or a mystery novel, the flow is all toward narrative resolution, and is — or should be — swift and fierce. Literary fiction, by its nature, allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way. [“Reluctant Seer,” Terence Rafferty, NYT Sunday Book Review, 4 Feb 2011]

This little paragraph contains several assumptions, or expectations, that I find no less questionable for being very familiar.

The distinction Mr Rafferty draws between literary and genre fiction, though cherished by many critics and teachers, was never very useful and is by now worse than useless. The opposition — genre rushing hell-for-leather and plotbound to resolution, literature meandering sweetly like a brainless tot in a folktale forest — is absurd.

I seldom read horror, outside Edgar Allen Poe, but I do read mysteries. Mr Rafferty says their flow must be “swift and fierce.” “Fierce” appears to be decorative, “swift” is the operative word. But is it accurate? Some mysteries move swiftly. Many mysteries don’t. Some of my favorites move almost glacially, plodding along from detail to detail gathering irresistible impetus. Like glaciers, they’re in no hurry, but you don’t want to try to stop them.

At some point in every slow-paced mystery the pace will quicken suddenly. That is a great part of the art of pacing: variety. Some people crave the relentlessly “swift, fierce” pace of the pop thriller, but it’s by no means the only way to tell an exciting story; and to many of us it becomes, within a very few pages, merely tiresome.

All novels (except perhaps those by Marguerite Duras) have to move forward, and plot-driven novels have to move with some apparent, though often indirect, onward impetus; but the movement certainly need not be “all to narrative resolution.” In narrative, impetus and pace are their own reward. What is essential is continuity — keeping the story going. (None of its many devoted readers for the last 260 years would ever have got through Clarissa if its interminably prolonged story weren’t told with unfailing (epistolary) continuity, as well as considerable variety of pace — given that its general rate of progress is that of a coach drawn by one ailing horse on a very bad road in January.) Where the story goes is much less important, during the telling of it, than that it goes.

Even in mystery, so formally plot-driven and end-directed, resolution is by no means always the goal. The end of a mystery is very often a let-down. The end of most novels is a let-down. As Leonard Woolf remarked, the journey not the arrival matters. I’ve lost my copy of Aspects of the Novel and am trying to recall E.M. Forster’s definition — “the novel is an extended prose fiction that ends disappointingly”?

Authors whose novels move forward sometimes with great swiftness, even “ferocity,” and sometimes move deliberately, even appearing to loiter, include Austen, Tolstoy, Dickens, the Brontes, Melville, Kipling, Hardy, Tolkien, Patrick O’Brian, Mark Twain (in the two great novels), Henry James (in the earlier novels), Virginia Woolf (notably in To the Lighthouse), Owen Wister, Conan Doyle, Arnoldur Indridason, Karin Fossum.... oh, this is ridiculous! Variety of pace without loss of impetus is characteristic of every good novel I can think of.

Unless you read only for ceaseless cut-to-the-chase, I’ll bet that whatever novelists you admire as being really good writers, “genre” or “literary,” vary their pace, and yet never cease to move their story forward, however quietly and sinuously.

And never for one moment do they “lose their way.” They may mislead you — confuse you, even lose you — but they know where they’re going, and if you stick with them you’ll find out where it is.

Finally, I disbelieve in the existence of “stray beauties” in a good novel (unless the phrase means naughty ladies). What is beautiful in a good novel hasn’t strayed in accidentally. Beauty in the novel is bone-deep, essential.

Everything in a good story or novel is essential.


Part Two: Reader Expectation and the Young Adult Fantasy

A friend of mine submitted his young adult fantasy novel to a publisher. After initial encouragement, the editor had the kind of talk with the author that authors don’t want to have with an editor. This is how my friend reports what the editor said:

“Your book does not meet reader expectation for a YA fantasy. YA readers expect fantasy to be plot-driven, not character-driven. They expect the protagonist to be self-confident, to meet distrust only from other people. They expect the magic in the book to be overt and direct, not subtle or metaphorical. They expect no moral ambiguity: all characters or magic powers should be clearly good or clearly evil. They expect the story to move very quickly with no slowing down at any time. A novel that does not meet reader expectation will not sell.”

The editor’s final reason for rejecting the book: “Your book isn’t fantasy, because it’s open to interpretation. It’s literary.”

This editor’s verdict is almost certainly based on the opinions of his Marketing or Sales departments, whose interest in fantasy is limited to the mindless yearning to repeat Harry Potter over and over and over forever. However, the basic misconceptions here — fantasy cannot be literature; literary novels are open to interpretation, young adult novels are not — are probably the editor’s very own.

I first began to meet this mindset from editors when I submitted my last two YA fantasies, Voices and Powers, a few years ago. It was nowhere near as rigid, however, as what my friend ran into. Now, it seems, there is an orthodoxy: Fantasy for younger readers must have no toxic taint of psychological depth or moral subtlety, and be driven forward mechanically by plot, not by the natures and passions of their young protagonists. The story must allow of only one interpretation: Good Fights Evil and Wins the War, thus remaining ethically simplistic to the point of infantility. YA fantasies cannot use metaphor. Fish cannot swim in water. No, sorry, that is from another edict. YA readers expect fantasies to contain nothing they have not already read in other fantasies. We the Publisher know what the readers expect. We are God? No, but we know what we’re going to give them, and they needn’t expect anything else.

Well, so, there’s a separation of “genre” from “literature,” performed with a Texas chainsaw.

And not by a literary snob, but by a genre editor, who might be expected to know better.

So, goodbye, Alice. Goodbye, Curdy. Goodbye, Mr Toad. Goodbye, Little Prince. Goodbye, Frodo. Goodbye, Sam. Goodbye, Ged. Goodbye, Will. Goodbye, Wart. Goodbye, Deeba. Goodbye, goodbye... for a while...

You’ll be back. Full of passions and subtleties, doing evil while intending good and vice versa, unpredictable, ambiguous, and breathing metaphor as your native air.

Poor editor, poor bean-counters in Marketing! Never to have crossed the border into the Other Kingdom, never to have seen the fair folk there...

But meanwhile, poor authors of fantasy, told to be imitators of imitators of the secondrate, ordered off to the assembly line at the baloney factory!

And poor kids, who come to that twilight border across which the misty mountains can be seen, only to find a chainlink fence and a NO ENTRY sign, in front of which under a peeling golden plastic arch a nasty little man is selling second-hand hamburgers fried in fusel oil...

4 June 2011

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26. Against Eisenhower

From “Ghosts of Guatemala’s Past,” by Stephen Schlesinger, in the New York Times, June 3, 2011:

Eisenhower’s attack on Guatemala was brilliantly executed. A faux invasion force consisting of a handful of right-wing Guatemalans used fake radio broadcasts and a few bombing runs flown by American pilots to terrorize the fledgling democracy into surrender. Arbenz stepped down from the presidency and left the country. Soon afterward, a Guatemalan colonel named Carlos Castillo Armas took power and handed back United Fruit’s lands. For three decades, military strongmen ruled Guatemala.
The covert American assault destroyed any possibility that Guatemala’s fragile political and civic institutions might grow. It permanently stunted political life. And the destruction of Guatemala’s democracy also set back the cause of free elections in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras.


This is kindly, honest, grandfatherly “Ike.”

This is the president who for decades has been praised for telling us as he left office that we should beware of giving “the military-industrial complex” too much power or letting it direct our national policies.

To destroy democracy in Guatemala he used American military or paramilitary force in the interests of an enormous American corporation, United Fruit. After employing militarism to serve industrial capitalism for eight years, his pious warning against both seems incredibly hypocritical.

Yet on it has been built a whole tower of adulation of Eisenhower as a far-seeing statesman, above party politics.

He was nothing of the kind. He was an Army general, accustomed to using violence to gain his goals, accustomed to the undemocratic, unquestioning obedience of the military, and fiercely opposed to any control over industrial capitalism, let alone any social alternative to it. He was the Cold Warrior par excellence. He saw “creeping socialism” everywhere. He was the grandfather of present-day reactionary Republicanism.

He might not like some of its present forms, the open religious and racial bigotry, the fiscal irresponsibility; but these demagogues are his political descendants, and though he might wince at their hate talk and shameless lying, his own policy was built on xenophobic fear (called “anti-Communism”) and protected by deception and hypocrisy.

I have felt for a long time that Eisenhower’s election (in 1952, defeating Adlai Stevenson in a landslide) was a cross-roads. We took the road that led us away from a rational future towards a mythical past; that led us away from hope, which is such hard work, towards fear, which is so easy; that led us to give up social justice as a guiding principle in favor of short-term-profit capitalism. Nixon, Reagan, Bush all came to power along that road, and each took us farther along it.

Another notable thing Eisenhower said as he left office was to the effect that “the future lies in packaging.” Not what is produced, not why or how it is produced, not who it is produced for, but how it is packaged — disguised — presented, represented, misrepresented, in order to be sold.

So here we are, suffocating under mountains of discarded plastic packaging — our armed forces engaged in three wars which bring profit to international corporations while bankrupting America — and our citizens still hearing that they can’t be safe unless they live in terror. Welcome to Eisenhower’s future.

13 June 2011

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27. Exercises

The man in Georgia who posted a lot of blogs pretending to be a Syrian lesbian involved in the anti-government protests in Syria and the congressman in New York who posted a lot of pictures of his crotch to women around the country ought to get together. The Georgian has explained his impersonation blogs as being “a writing exercise.” What he can do now is dress up as a Syrian woman, with veiled face of course, and go oooh! ooooh! at the congressman’s crotch. Then he can write a blog about it as a writing exercise. The congressman can parade his crotch, both veiled and unveiled, to the admiring Georgian. Then he can lie and say he didn’t. Then he can explain to his wife and constituents that he did it as a prevarication exercise.

Then perhaps they can both go somewhere a long, long way away, where I will never have to hear or read about them again.

I am trying to think where. Maybe Las Vegas. Maybe they could be a night-club act in Las Vegas. With Sarah Palin. Sarah Palin will lecture on the History of the Colonial Period and flash her glasses and shout Gotcha! while explaining how she gets healthy exercise while controlling predators by shooting wolves from a helicopter. Meanwhile the veiled Georgian blogger will perform the hootchy-kootchy and the unveiled New York congressman will perform the crotchy-crotchy.

They can call it the Cirque Sans Honte. The news media will eat it up.

24 June 2011

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28. It Doesn’t Have To Be the Way It Is

The test of fairyland [is that] you cannot imagine two and one not making three but you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail.

The quotation, from G.K. Chesterton, is from an interesting article by Bernard Manzo in the Times Literary Supplement of June 10, 2011 (he didn’t give the source in Chesterton’s writings). It got me to thinking about how imaginative literature, from folktale to fantasy, operates, and to wondering about its relationship to science, though I’ll only get to that at the very end of this piece.

The fantastic tale may suspend the laws of physics — carpets fly; cats fade into invisibility leaving only a smile — and of probability — the youngest of three brothers always wins the bride; the infant in the box cast upon the waters survives unharmed — but it carries its revolt against reality no further. Mathematical order is unquestioned. Two and one make three, in Koshchei’s castle and Alice’s Wonderland (especially in Wonderland). Euclid’s geometry — or possibly Riemann’s —somebody’s geometry, anyhow — governs the layout. Otherwise incoherence would invade and paralyse the narrative.

There lies the main difference between childish imaginings and imaginative literature. The child “telling a story” roams about among the imaginary and the half-understood without knowing the difference, content with the sound of language and the pure play of fantasy with no particular end, and that’s the charm of it. But fantasies, whether folktales or sophisticated literature, are stories in the adult, demanding sense. They can ignore certain laws of physics, but not of causality. They start here and go there (or back here), and though the mode of travel may be unusual, and here and there may be wildly exotic and unfamiliar places, yet they must have both a location on the map of that world and a relationship to the map of our world. If not, the hearer or reader of the tale will be set adrift in a sea of inconsequential inconsistencies, or worse yet, left drowning in the shallow puddle of the author’s wishful thinking.

It doesn’t have to be the way it is. That is what fantasy says. It doesn’t say, “Anything goes” — that’s irresponsibility, when two and one make five, or forty-seven, or whuddevva, and the story doesn’t “add up,” as we say. Fantasy doesn’t say, “Nothing is” — that’s nihilism. And it doesn’t say, “It ought to be this way” — that’s utopianism, a different enterprise. Fantasy isn’t meliorative. The happy ending, however enjoyable to the reader, applies to the characters only; this is fiction, not prediction and not prescription.

It doesn’t have to be the way it is is a playful statement, made in the context of fiction, with no claim to “being real.” Yet it is a subversive statement.

Subversion doesn’t suit people who, feeling their adjustment to life has been successful, want things to go on just as they are, or people who need support from authority assuring them that things are as they have to be. Fantasy not only asks “What if things didn’t go on just as they do?” but demonstrates what they might be like if they went otherwise — thus gnawing at the very foundation of the belief that things have to be the way they are.

So here imagination and fundamentalism come into conflict.

A fully created imaginary world is a mental construct similar in many respects to a religious or other cosmology. This similarity, if noticed, can be deeply disturbing to the orthodox mind.

When a fundamental belief is threatened the response is likely to be angry or dismissive — either “Abomination!” or “Nonsense!” Fantasy gets the abomination treatment from religious fundamentalists, whose rigid reality-constructs shudder at contact with question, and the nonsense treatment from pragmatic fundamentalists, who want to restrict reality to the immediately perceptible and the immediately profitable. All fundamentalisms set strict limits to the uses of imagination, outside which the fundamentalist’s imagination itself runs riot, fancying dreadful deserts where God and Reason and the capitalist way of life are lost, forests of the night where tigers hang from trees by the tail, lighting the way to madness with their bright burning.

Those who dismiss fantasy less fiercely, from a less absolutist stance, usually call it dreaming, or escapism.

Dream and fantastic literature are related only on a very deep, usually inaccessible level of the mind. Dream is free of intellectual control; its narratives are irrational and unstable, and its aesthetic value is mostly accidental. Fantastic literature, like all the verbal arts, must satisfy the intellectual as well as the aesthetic faculty. Fantasy, odd as it sounds to say so, is a perfectly rational undertaking.

As for the charge of escapism, what does “escape” mean? Escape from real life, responsibility, order, duty, piety, is what the charge implies. But nobody, except the most criminally irresponsible or pitifully incompetent, escapes to jail. The direction of escape is toward freedom. So what is “escapism” an accusation of?


“Why are things as they are? Must they be as they are? What might they be like if they were otherwise?” To ask these questions is to admit the contingency of reality, or at least to allow that our perception of reality may be incomplete, our interpretation of it arbitrary or mistaken.

I know that to philosophers what I’m saying is childishly naïve, but my mind cannot or will not follow philosophical argument, so I must remain naïve. To an ordinary mind not trained in philosophy, the question — do things have to be the way they are/the way they are here and now/the way I’ve been told they are? — may be an important one. To open a door that has been kept closed is an important act.

Upholders and defenders of a status quo, political, social, economic, religious, or literary, may denigrate or diabolize or dismiss imaginative literature, because it is — more than any other kind of writing — subversive by nature. It has proved, over many centuries, a useful instrument of resistance to oppression.

Yet, as Chesterton pointed out, fantasy stops short of nihilist violence, of destroying all the laws and burning all the boats. (Like Tolkien, Chesterton was an imaginative writer and a practicing Catholic, and thus perhaps particularly aware of tensions and boundaries.) — Two and one make three. Two of the brothers fail the quest, the third carries it through. Action is met with reaction. Fate, Luck, Necessity are as inexorable in Middle Earth as in Colonus or South Dakota. The fantasy tale begins here and ends there (or back here), where the subtle and ineluctable obligations and responsibilities of narrative art have taken it. Down on the bedrock, things are as they have to be. It’s only everywhere above the bedrock that nothing has to be the way it is.

There really is nothing to fear in fantasy unless you are afraid of the freedom of uncertainty. This is why it’s hard for me to imagine that anyone who likes science can dislike fantasy. Both are based so profoundly on the admission of uncertainty, the welcoming acceptance of unanswered questions. Of course the scientist seeks to ask how things are the way they are, not to imagine how they might be otherwise. But are the two operations opposed, or related? We can’t question reality directly, only by questioning our conventions, our belief, our orthodoxy, our construction of reality. All Galileo said, all Darwin said, was, “It doesn’t have to be the way we thought it was.”

29 June 2011

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29. Without Egg

Visiting Vienna in the early 1950’s, Charles and I stayed in style for very little expense at the old König von Ungarn hotel, which had been there since at least the 1820’s. We ate breakfast at a café around the corner. Always the same café and the same breakfast: good coffee, fresh fruit, crisp rolls with butter and jam, and a soft-boiled egg. Perfect. Invariable. Every morning.

I don’t know why I got it in my head one morning to vary it, but I did, and when the tall, middle-aged waiter arrived in his impeccable dark coat, I indicated that I wanted the usual breakfast, without the egg.

He appeared not to understand, which, given the quality of my German, was understandable. I repeated something like, “Kein Ei,” or “Ohne Ei.”

He responded slowly, in a shaken voice, “Ohne Ei?”

He was disturbed. I was ruthless — Yes, I said, without egg.

He stood for quite a while silent, trying to handle the shock. He visibly forced himself not to appeal, or plead, or show his disapproval. He was a waiter, a disciplined, skilful, Viennese waiter, and must obey the most perverse customer. “Without egg, Madame,” he said softly, almost unreproachfully, and went away to fetch my eggless breakfast, which he brought and set before me with silent, funereal dignity.

We still laugh recalling that tiny incident of nearly sixty years ago, but it is also kept alive in my memory by a sense of guilt. For one thing, in 1954, in Vienna, an egg meant something. The city was just coming out of very bad times. It was still occupied, divided among the US, the British, and the Russian armies; the Cathedral had re-arisen and the Opera House was re-arising from the rubble of bombing, but damage and destruction was everywhere, and the effect of privation plain to see in the faces and bodies of people on the street. An offer of food in a city that has gone hungry is not a small matter.

Also, I wilfully and needlessly disturbed the order of that waiter’s universe. A very small universe, the Viennese café breakfast, but a stable, orderly, perfected one. Better not change something that has achieved excellence. And it was unkind to demand of a person who spent his working life maintaining that excellence to impair it, to do something he so clearly felt was wrong. After all, I could have let him bring the egg and simply not eaten it. He was far too good at his job to have taken notice, except possibly for a mild, commiserative, “Madame doesn’t feel hungry this morning?” To have an egg and not to eat it was my privilege. To refuse to let him bring the egg was to interfere with his privilege, which was to bring me a complete and proper Viennese café breakfast. I still want to laugh when I think about it, and I still feel a twinge of guilt.

The guilt has increased since I began, a couple of years ago, to have a soft-boiled egg for breakfast— to have, in fact, a Viennese café breakfast — every morning. Invariably.

I can’t get those lovely, light, crisp, European rolls. (Why do the Artisanal Bread people in this country think crust should be thick and tough? The more leathery the more artisanal?) But Thomas’s English Muffins are very good, so I have them, with tea, fruit, and a three-and-a-half-minute egg eaten, as in Vienna, from the shell.

To soft-boil an egg I put it in a small pot with cold water to cover, set it on high heat till it boils, take it off at once, turn over the egg-timer (a three-and-a-half-minuteglass) and start the muffins toasting. When the sand is through the minuteglass, the egg comes out of the water and into the egg cup.

As you see, a certain care and ceremony is involved, which is what I wanted to talk about, and also why the egg cup is important.

If you crack a soft-boiled egg and dump it out into a bowl, it tastes the same but isn’t the same. It’s too easy. It’s dull. It might as well have been poached. The point of a soft-boiled egg is the difficulty of eating it, the attention it requires, the ceremony.

So, you put your freshly-boiled egg into the egg cup. — But not everybody is familiar with egg cups.

In this country they are usually an hourglass shape, with one lobe or bowl bigger than the other. The small end is just big enough to hold the egg. You could eat it there from its shell, but most Americans take it out, turn the egg cup over, crack the egg, and dump it into the larger bowl where they smoosh it around and eat it.

British and European egg cups don’t offer that option; they have no big bowl; they are just a small china cup on a short pedestal, like a goblet, in which the egg sits upright. You have no choice but to eat your egg out of its own shell. This is where things get ceremonial and interesting.

So, you put your freshly-boiled egg into the egg cup — but which end up? Eggs are not perfect ovoids, they have a smaller end and a bigger end. People have opinions about which end should be up, i.e., which end you’re going to actually eat the egg out of. This difference of opinion can become so passionate that a war may be fought about it, as we know from Jonathan Swift. It makes just as much sense as most wars and most differences of opinion.

I am a Big-Ender. My opinion, which I will defend to the death, is that if the big end is up it’s easier to get the spoon into the opening created when you knock off the top of the egg with a single, decisive whack of your knifeblade. — Or possibly — another weighty decision, another matter of opinion, with advocates and enemies, the Righteous and the Unrighteous — you lift the top of the egg off carefully from the egg-encircling crack you have made by tapping the shell with the knifeblade all the way round about a half inch down from the summit.

Some mornings I whack. Some mornings I tap. I have no opinion on the matter. It depends on my mood.

Some elements of the ceremony offer no choice. The knife has be steel, since the sulphur in eggs blackens silver, and the egg spoon must also be untarnishable — stainless steel, or horn. I’ve never seen a gold egg spoon, but I’m sure it would do. Whatever the material, the spoon has to have a small bowl with a fine edge on it: a thick edge can’t coax all the eggwhite off the inside of the shell. The handle is short, for good balance and easy handling. An egg spoon is a tiny implement that, like the Viennese breakfast, cannot be improved. Like all good tools, it gives pleasure by its pure aptness. It does one thing only, but does it perfectly, and nothing else can do it. Trying to eat an egg from the shell with a normal spoon is like mending a wristwatch with a hammer.

The sole imperfection of the egg spoon is that it’s so small it gets lost. Horn spoons are larger, but the beautiful horn spoon my daughter gave me finally wore out, its edge becoming coarse and fibrous. Replacement can be a problem; most Americans don’t eat their eggs from the shell, and the implement has become rare and hard to find. When I see one, I acquire it. My current egg spoon is stainless steel; on the handle are the letters K L M. I will not go into how we came to own this spoon.

You see what I mean about difficulty. Eating an egg from the shell takes not only practice, but resolution, even courage, possibly willingness to commit crime.

If you are in the whacking mood, the first whack of the knife on the shell is decisive. A firm whack on a good shell in the right place decapitates the egg cleanly with one blow — ideal. But some eggshells are feeble and crumbly, and sometimes your aim is tentative or faulty (after all, this is something you have to do before breakfast.) If you hit too high, the opening isn’t big enough; too low, you get into yolk, which you don’t want to do yet. So maybe you choose to tap instead of whacking — nowhere near as exciting, but you have more control of the outcome.

So, now, you have opened your egg. You stick the spoon right down into it, but not too suddenly, or the yolk will well up and dribble wastefully down the outside of the shell. The three-and-a-half-minute egg white is barely firm, while the yolk has thickened just enough to make a beautiful golden sauce for the white. Your job is to mix the two nicely so you get a balance of yolk and white in each small spoonful, while not destroying the delicate little bowl you’re eating from, the eggshell. This takes attention.

The more complete the attention, the more you actually taste the egg.

It may be apparent by now that this whole blog is a subtle blow against doubletasking, and a paean to doing one single thing with, as the Bible puts it, “all thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.”

Nor is there any breakfast there. The grave is without egg.

The flavor of a fresh soft-boiled egg is extremely subtle. I like salt and pepper on a fried egg, but nothing at all on a boiled egg. It is completely satisfactory in and by itself. If a little butter from the muffin gets into it, that’s fine too.

The soft-boiled egg experience is the same every morning and never the same. It remains endlessly interesting. It is invariably delicious. It delivers a small, solid dose of high-quality protein. Who could ask for more?

Of course, I’m very lucky: I can get toxin-free eggs at our co-op from local farmers who don’t cage their birds in pest-holes and don’t feed them on carrion. The eggs are brown, with strong shells and orange yolks, not the weak, pallid things laid by hens kept in filth and torment all their lives. The Oregon Legislature has at last decided to ban poultry batteries, hurray — the ban to take effect in 2024, unhurray. The lobbies who run our lives demand that torture, ordure, and disease continue for thirteen more years. I will not live to see the birds go free.

18 July 2011

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30. Riffing Again

Dear Mr Rupert Murdoch,


This is your author who your company Harper publishes under the pen name of Scrad Riske, and who is living in Maine under the name of Trespassers W. because of being persecuted in Oregon for some things I was accused of about some old guy’s wallet and defaulting and child support and stuff.

I wrote you a while back* and told you how that was just lies and the only crime I ever actually committed was writing my book you published, Emily Bronte and the Vampires of Lustbaden. I am now very confused because I have finished the sequel, Alfred Lord Tennyson and the Zombies of Sex-Coburg, only my agent said to change the title to Lord Alfred Tennyson and the Zombies of Sex-Coburg so it would be in the right order and I always do what my agent says, but what confuses me is this. In your contract for my book it said that if “Author’s conduct evidences a lack of due regard for public conventions and morals, or if Author commits a crime or any other act that will tend to bring Author into serious contempt, and such behavior would materially damage the Work’s reputation or sales,“ my contract would be terminated. And so I told you then that I was paying strict attention to public conventions and moral just like you do, and you were my Role Model. And I was looking forward to making lots of money from my new book so I could pay the woman that rewrote it several times and my lawyers. But now you yourself have personally shown conduct that evidences a lack of due regard for public conventions and morals, and are accused of crimes that tend to bring you into serious contempt by absolutely everybody, except The Wall Street Journal and Fox News. So it is hard to know what to think. I have stopped watching Fox News because after I watch it I cannot think at all for several hours. Can it be true that what is wrong and bad for Authors to do is OK and fine for rich people to do? I am so confused I wonder maybe should I terminate our contract myself and go back to Blitzen, Oregon, where it seems like crime is sort of simpler and not so many people are quite so contemptible. If you have any advice for me I would like very much to hear it.

Your Troubled Author,
Trespassers W., a.k.a Scrad Riske
21 July, 2011


*See #12, A Riff on the Harper Contract, 18 Jan. 2011

Dear People at Book View Café and Webmistress Person:


I feared this would happen. Scrad was just so anxious and miserable, I had to let him write you again.

I am his aunt who he sends his mail through because of living in Cogneeto the way he has to.

I can tell you in confidence that Scrad’s real name is Dood Royal Ganglehard, but he likes to be called by his pen name. He isn’t really from Blitzen. He is from Fresno, but he started writing novels when he was sort of hiding out in Burns for a while. He was so happy when the Harper Publisher printed his book!

Now today Scrad read this in the news and just nearly went all to pieces.

“I feel that people I trusted— I don’t know who, on what level — have let me down, and I think they have behaved disgracefully, and it’s for them to pay.”
(RUPERT MURDOCH, denying personal responsibility for the phone hacking scandal that has racked his media empire.)

You see Scrad is very sensitive and so he feels it’s his fault letting poor Mr Murdoch who was his Role Model down like that. By behaving disgracefully. Scrad just doesn’t know how to make it up to poor Mr Murdoch. He’s talking about going to the House of Parliament and trying to apologise to all the lords and things there and tell them not to persecute Mr Murdoch and his boy Jimmy. Scrad knows what it’s like to be persecuted by the police and all them.

He just feels so bad for Mr Murdoch. And also Mr Murdoch says it’s for him to pay but he doesn’t have anything to pay with. He was hoping maybe Mr Murdoch did.

He would be cheered by your sympathy.

Yours Very Truly,

Mrs F. T. Thang (Ganglehard)

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31. Papa H

I was thinking about Homer, and it occurred to me that his two books are the two basic fantasy stories: the War and the Journey.

I’m sure this has occurred to others. That’s the thing about Homer. People keep going to him and discovering new things, or old things, or things for the first time, or things all over again, and saying them. This has been going on for two or three millennia. That is an amazingly long time for anything to mean anything to anybody.

Anyhow, so the Iliad is The War (actually only a piece of it, close to but not including the end), and the Odyssey is The Journey (There and Back Again, as Bilbo put it).

I think Homer outwits most writers who have written on The War, by not taking sides.

The Trojan war is not and you cannot make it be The War of Good vs Evil. It’s just a war, a wasteful, useless, needless, stupid, protracted, cruel mess full of individual acts of courage, cowardice, nobility, betrayal, limb-hacking-off and disembowelment. Homer was a Greek and might have been partial to the Greek side, but he had a sense of justice or balance that seem characteristically Greek — maybe his people learned a good deal of them from him? — His impartiality is far from dispassionate, the story is a torrent of passionate actions, generous, despicable, magnificent, trivial. But it is unprejudiced. It isn’t Satan vs Angels. It isn’t Holy Warriors vs Infidels. It isn’t hobbits vs orcs. It’s just people vs people.

Of course you can take sides, and almost everybody does. I try not to but it’s no use, I just like the Trojans better than the Greeks. But Homer truly doesn’t take sides, and so he permits the story to be tragic. By tragedy, mind and soul are grieved, enlarged, and exalted.

Whether war itself can rise to tragedy, can enlarge and exalt the soul, I leave to those who have been more immediately part of a war than I have. I think some believe that it can, and might say that the opportunity for heroism and tragedy justifies war. I don’t know, all I know is what a poem about a war can do. In any case, war is something human beings do and show no signs of stopping doing, and so it may be less important to condemn it or to justify it than to be able to perceive it as tragic.

But once you take sides, you have lost that ability.

Is it our dominant religion that makes us want war to be between the good guys and the bad guys?

In the War of Good vs Evil there can be divine or supernal justice, but not human tragedy. It is, by definition, technically, comic (as in The Divine Comedy): the good guys win. It has a happy ending. If the bad guys beat the good guys, unhappy ending, that’s mere reversal, flipside of the same coin. The author is not impartial. Dystopia is not tragedy.

Milton, a Christian, had to take sides, and couldn’t avoid comedy. He could approach tragedy only by making Evil, in the person of Lucifer, grand, heroic, and even sympathetic — which is faking it. He faked it very well.

Maybe it’s not only Christian habits of thought but the difficulty we all have in growing up that makes us insist justice must favor the good.

After all, “Let the best man win” doesn’t mean the good man will win. It means, “This will be a fair fight, no prejudice, no interference — so the best fighter will win it.” If the treacherous bully fairly defeats the nice guy, the treacherous bully is declared champion. This is justice. But it’s the kind of justice that children can’t bear. They rage against it. It’s not fair!

But if children never learn to bear it, they can’t go on to learn that a victory or a defeat in battle, or in any competition other than a purely moral one (whatever that might be) has nothing to do with who is morally better.

Might does not make right — right?

Therefore right does not make might. Right?

But we want it to. “My strength is as the strength of ten because my heart is pure.”

If we insist that in the real world the ultimate victor must be the good guy, we’ve sacrificed right to might. (That’s what History does after most wars, when it applauds the victors for their superior virtue as well as their superior firepower.) If we falsify the terms of the competition, handicapping it, so that the good guys may lose the battle but always win the war, we’ve left the real world, we’re in fantasy land — wishful thinking country.

Homer didn’t do wishful thinking.

Homer’s Achilles is a disobedient officer, a sulky, self-pitying teenager who gets his nose out of joint and won’t fight for his own side. A sign that Achilles might grow up some day, if given time, is his love for his friend Patroclus. But his big snit is over a girl he was given to rape but has to give back to his superior officer, which to me rather dims the love story. To me Achilles is not a good guy. But he is a good warrior, a great fighter — even better than the Trojan prime warrior, Hector. Hector is a good guy on any terms — kind husband, kind father, responsible on all counts — a mensch. But right does not make might. Achilles kills him.

The famous Helen plays a quite small part in the Iliad. Because I know that she’ll come through the whole war with not a hair in her blonde blow-dry out of place, I see her as opportunistic, immoral, emotionally about as deep as a cookie sheet. But if I believed that the good guys win, that the reward goes to the virtuous, I’d have to see her as an innocent beauty wronged by Fate and saved by the Greeks.

And people do see her that way. Homer lets us each make our own Helen; and so she is immortal.

I don’t know if such nobility of mind (in the sense of the impartial “noble” gases) is possible to a modern writer of fantasy. Since we have worked so hard to separate History from Fiction, our fantasies are dire warnings, or mere nightmares, or else they are wish-fulfilments.

I don’t know any war story comparable to the Iliad except maybe the huge Indian epic the Mahabharata. Its five brother-heroes are certainly heroes, it’s their story — but it’s also the story of their enemies, also heroes, some of whom are really great guys — and it’s all so immense and complicated and full of rights and wrongs and implications and gods who interfere even more directly than the Greek gods do — and then, after all, is the end tragic or is it comic? The whole thing is like a giant cauldron of ever-replenished food you can dive your fork into and come out with whatever you need most to nourish you just then. But next time it may taste quite different.

And the taste of the Mahabharata as a whole is very, very different from that of the Iliad: above all because the Iliad is (unjust divine intervention aside) appallingly realistic and bloodthirstily callous about what goes on in a war. The Mahabharata’s war is all dazzling fantasy, from the superhuman exploits to the super-duper-weapons. It’s only in their spiritual suffering that the Indian heroes become suddenly, heartbreakingly, heart-changingly real.


As for the Journey:

The actual travel parts of the Odyssey are related or ancestral to all our fantasy-tales of somebody setting off over sea or land, meeting marvels and horrors and temptations and adventures, possibly growing up along the way, and maybe coming back home at the end.

Jungians such as Joseph Campbell have generalised such journeys into a set of archetypal events and images. Though they can be useful in criticism, I mistrust them as fatally reductive. “Ah, the Night Sea Voyage!” we cry, feeling that we have understood something important — but we’ve merely recognised it. Until we are actually on that voyage, we have understood nothing.

Odysseus’ travels involve such a terrific set of adventures that I tend to forget how much of the book is actually about his wife and son — what goes on at home while he’s travelling, how his son goes looking for him, and all the complications of his homecoming. One of the things I love about The Lord of the Rings is Tolkien’s understanding of the importance of what goes on back on the farm while the Hero is taking his Thousand Faces all round the world. But till you get back there with Frodo and the others, Tolkien never takes you back home. Homer does. All through the ten-year voyage, the reader is alternately Odysseus trying desperately to get to Penelope, and Penelope desperately waiting for Odysseus — both the voyager and the goal — a tremendous piece of narrative time-and-place-interweaving.

Homer and Tolkien are both also notably honest about the difficulty of being a far-travelled hero who comes home. Neither Odysseus nor Frodo is able to stay there long. I wish Homer had written something about how it was for King Menelaus when he got home along with his wife Helen, whom he and the rest of the Greeks had fought for ten years to win back, while she, safe inside the walls of Troy, was prissing around with pretty Prince Paris (and then when he got bumped she married his brother). Apparently it never occurred to her to send Hubby #1, Menelaus, down there on the beach in the rain, an email, or even a text message. But then, Menelaus’s family, for a generation or two, had been rather impressively unfortunate or, as we would say, dysfunctional.

Perhaps it isn’t only fantasy that you can trace right back to Homer?

18 August 2011

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32. Dangerous Writing, Dangerous Cover Copy

“Edgy” has passed its high point as the highest word of praise in the sophistico-critical vocabulary, but I’m sure something similar is replacing it at this very moment — an edgier word to imply dangerous, daring, nerve-wracking, aggressively shocking. Something like “fugu” — that Japanese fish that maybe kills you maybe doesn’t? — “For the fugu experience of your life, read Tad Grimgrocer’s fearless semi-fictional exposé of the kinky underbelly of the tampon industry.”

Meanwhile, we’ll have to coast along with “gut-wrenching.” Cover hype and blurbs continue to assure us regularly that if we read this book our guts will be wrenched. Also our eyeballs are very likely to be seared and our complacent assumptions shaken. That they go on repeating these phrases year after year must mean that it pays off, that readers want to be wrenched, seared, and sneered at.

It seems odd. If my assumptions are complacent, am I likely to go looking for books that discomfort, that disembowel them? Complacency, by definition, refuses to be made uncomfortable. Truly complacent people often do not read at all, because almost all reading is likely to tell you something you didn’t know and thus upset your complacency. There are complacent readers, of course; they read reassuring things that agree with their politics and their religion and bolster their assumptions. Probably the cover says it is “life-affirming.”

However, it seems to me that there’s something very complacent about announcing that your play or your book will shake people’s complacent assumptions.

Who are these complacent people anyhow?

The boojwazzee, I suppose... Artists are suppposed to épater le bourgeois, or we tell ourselves that we do, or we boast about doing so. But we have met the bourgeois and he is us.

In 21st Century America we don’t hear about the working class any more; we are all middle class. (A lot of us don’t have jobs and more of us than ever before go to bed hungry, which didn’t use to characterize the middle class, but never mind that.) There are the filthy rich of course, but they don’t read, they never have, there’s no profit in it. That leaves the middle class to épater itself.

My French dictionary says that épater means to break the foot off a wine glass, or “(slang) to flabbergast.” Can fiction still really flabbergast its readers, shock, shake, amaze, dumbfound, disturb, frighten them? Or can it merely continue meeting the expectations of those whose literary diet consists of revelations of infamy, perverted sexuality, violent injustice, monstrous brutalism, physical deformity, deliberate cruelty, and the mutual infliction of misery on one another by the members of dysfunctional suburban families?

These are revelations?

Is it news to most readers over five that people can be really, really mean to each other?

Or do they just like to read about it?

They do. I do. I sit open-jawed, horrified, enchanted to watch Atreus’s or Hamlet’s dysfunctional families destroy everybody who comes in contact with them in the process of destroying themselves. I am fascinated by Heathcliff’s cruelty and Ahab’s wicked madness and Lennie’s innocent murderousness.

But I don’t think Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Bronte, Melville, or Steinbeck were writing to horrify, to shock or frighten or sicken, to sear eyeballs or to wrench guts. They were aware of audience, oh yes indeed, but their intentions were not violent. They were not in assault mode. A writer whose intention is to frighten and distress the reader has a very aggressive program and a very limited goal. Serious writers want to do something beyond asserting power over their audience, beyond self-satisfaction, beyond personal gain — even though they may want all those things very much.

I think the mystery of art lies in this, that artists’ relationship is essentially with their work — not with power, not with profit, not with themselves, not even with their audience.

If this is true, a writer’s relationship with readers has no need to be aggressive, exploitive, coercive, or collusive. To writers whose essential relationship is with their work, the shock, distress, and fear their work may cause their readers to feel are means to an end, their only way of saying what they have to say. They will use these dangerous means carefully, sparingly, at need. The effect can be immediate, long-lasting, and profound. It can last several thousand years.

Writers whose work is not an end in itself but a means to gain fame, power, money, etc., may find that causing shock, fear, digust, etc. are a direct means to that end and can be hugely effective. They use them as a pusher uses drugs. The effect is immediate, brief, and trivial. It lasts until the next best-seller.

Readers who want no more than to get their jollies from the latest exploitation of the latest shock fad are praised by the blurbs for their courage in daring to read dangerous revelations, but I suspect that they’re just as complacent as the readers of “cozy” fiction — risk-free, knowing exactly to expect.

Good writers ask for our consent, in fact our participation in their work, our collaboration in its recreation on the stage as we watch it or on the page as we read it. I guess the reason they’re “good” writers is that they’re so good at winning consent and participation from us, persuading us to give them our trust, and rewarding it with something we did not expect.

That’s quite different from asking us to sit there guzzling another jolt of starbug caffeine while reading a novel in order to have our panic buttons pushed again.

Trust somebody who’s going to give us something we didn’t expect? But that could be dangerous!

Never fear. You’re safe. Just trust the cover copy folks. They’re all out there, ready to wrench your guts and serve them up in a presentation of fried eyeballs and fugu in complacency sauce. Bon appétit!

12 September 2011

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33. Clinging Desperately to a Metaphor

“Unless the people benefit, economic growth is a subsidy for the rich.”

— Richard Falk
“Post-Mubarak Revolutionary Chances”
English Aljazeera 22 Feb 2011

It’s as silly for me to write about economics as it would be for most economists to write about the use of enjambment in iambic pentameter. But they don’t live in a library, and I do live in an economy. Their life can be perfectly poetry-free if they like, but my life is controlled by their stuff whether I like it or not.

So: I want to ask how economists can continue to speak of growth as a positive economic goal.

I understand why we’re in a panic when our business or our whole economy goes into a decline or a recession: because the whole system is based on keeping up with/outgrowing the competition, and if we fail to do that, we face hard times, collapse, crash.

But why do we never question the system itself, so as to find ways to get around it or out of it?

Up to a point, growth is a plausible metaphor. Living things need to grow, first to their optimum size, and then to keep replacing what wears out, annually (as with many plants) or continually (as with mammalian skin). A baby to grows to adult size, after which growth goes to maintaining stability, homeostasis, balance. Growth much beyond that leads to obesity. For a baby to grow endlessly bigger would be first monstrous, then fatal.

In taking uncontrolled, unlimited, unceasing growth as the only recipe for economic health, we’ve dismissed the ideas of optimum size and keeping the organism in balance.

Maybe there are organisms that have no optimum size, like the enormous fungal network one hears about that underlies the whole Middle West, or is it just Wisconsin? But I wonder if a fungus wandering around thousands of square miles underground is the most promising model for a human economy.

Some economists prefer to use mechanical terms, but I believe machines have an optimum size much as living organisms do. A big machine can do more work than a small one, up to a point, beyond which things like weight and friction begin to ruin its efficiency. The metaphor comes up against the same limit.

Then there’s Social Darwinism — bankers red in tooth and claw, surviving fitly, while small vermin live on the blood that trickles down... This metaphor, based on a vast misunderstanding of evolutionary process, hits its limit almost at once. In predatory competition, bigness is useful, but there are endless ways to get your dinner besides being bigger than it is. You can be smaller but smarter, smaller but faster, tiny but poisonous, winged... you can live inside it while you eat it... As for getting a mate, if combat were the only way to score, large size would help, but (despite our battle-fixation) most competition doesn’t involve combat. You can win the reproductive race by dancing gracefully, by having a bluegreen tail decorated with eyes, by building a lovely bower for your bride, by knowing how to tell a joke... As for living space, you can crowd out your neighbors by outgrowing them, but it’s cheaper and just as effective to corner all the water in the vicinity, like a juniper tree, or to be toxic to sea-anemones who aren’t closely related to you... The competitive techniques of plants and animals are endless in variety and ingenuity. So why are we, clever we, stuck on one and one only?

An organism that settles on a single survival stratagem and ceases to seek and find others — ceases to adapt — is at high risk. And adaptability is our principle and most reliable gift. As a species we are almost endlessly, almost appallingly adaptable. Capitalism thinks it’s adaptable, but if it only has one stratagem, endless growth, the limit of its adaptability is irrevocably set. And we have reached that limit. We are therefore at very high risk.

Capitalist growth, probably for at least a century and certainly from the turn of the millennium on, has been growth in the wrong sense. Not only endless but uncontrolled — random. Growth as in tumor. Growth as in cancer.

Our economy isn’t just in a recession. It is sick. As a result of uncontrolled economic (and population) growth, our ecology is sick, and getting sicker every day. We have disturbed the homeostasis of the earth, the ocean, and the atmosphere — not fatally to life on the planet; the bacteria will survive the corporation. But perhaps fatally to ourselves.

We have been in denial about this for decades. By now the denials are hysterical in every sense of the word — What do you mean, climate instability? What do you mean, overpopulation? What do you mean, reactors are toxic? What do you mean, you can’t live on corn syrup?

We go on mechanically repeating the behaviors that caused the sickness: we bail out the bankers, we resume offshore drilling, we pay polluters to pollute, because without them how is our economy to grow? Yet increasingly, all economic growth benefits only the rich, while most people grow poorer. The Economic Policy Institute reports:

From 2000 to 2007 (the last period of economic growth before the current recession) the richest 10% of Americans received 100% (one hundred percent — all) the average growth of income. The other 90% received none.

At this rate, by the time we admit that cancer is not health, that we’re sick, any cure must be so radical as almost certainly to require dictatorial rule, and to destroy more — physically and morally — than it can save.

Nobody in any government seems able even to imagine alternatives, and people who talk about them get little attention. Some of the alternatives that existed in the past had promise; I think socialism did, and still does, but it was run off the rails by ambitious men using it as a means to power, and by the infection of capitalism — the obsession with growing bigger at all cost in order to defeat rivals and dominate the world. The example of the Socialist State is about as heartening as that of the giant underground fungus.

So, what is our new metaphor to be? It might be the difference between life and death to find the right one.

19 September 2011

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34. TGAN and TGOW

When I was a young novelist, fairly often a reviewer would get fervent and declare that an obscure book such as Call It Sleep, or a hugely successful one such as The Naked and the Dead, was The Great American Novel. By writers the phrase was used half-jokingly — What are you writing these days? Oh, you know, The Great American Novel. I don’t think I’ve seen the phrase used at all for a couple of decades at least. Maybe we’ve given up on greatness, or anyhow on American greatness.

I began quite a while ago to resist declarations of literary greatness in the sense of singling out any one book as TGAN, or even making lists of The Great American Books. Partly because the supposed categories of excellence omitting all genre writing, and the awards and reading lists and canons routinely and unquestionedly favoring work by men in the eastern half of the United States, made no sense to me. But mostly because I didn’t and don’t think we have much idea of what’s enduringly excellent until it’s endured. Been around quite a long time. Five or six decades, to start with.

Of course the excellence of immediate, real impact, of an art that embodies the moment, is an excellent kind of excellence. Such a novel speaks to you now, this moment. It tells you what’s going on when you need to know what’s going on. It speaks to your age group or social group that nobody else can speak for, or it embodies whatever the current anguish is, or it shows a light at the end of the tunnel of the moment.

I think all the enduringly excellent books began, in fact, as immediately excellent, whether they were noticed at the time or not. Their special quality is to outlast the moment and carry immediacy, impact, meaning, undiminished or even increasing with time, to ages and people entirely different from those the novelist wrote for.

The Great American Novel... Moby Dick? Not greatly noticed when published, but canonised in the twentieth century; no doubt A Great American Novel. And The Great (canonical) American Novelists — Hawthorne, James, Twain, Faulkner, etc. Etc.... But two books keep getting left off these lists, two novels that to me are genuinely, immediately, and permanently excellent. Call them great if you like the word. Certainly they are American to the bone.

I won’t talk about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, much as I love and admire it, because I want to talk about the other one.

If somebody came up to me in a dark alley with a sharp knife and said, “Name The Great American Novel or die!” — I would gasp forth, squeakily, “The Grapes of Wrath!”

I wouldn’t have, a year ago.

I first read it when I was 15 or 16. It was utterly and totally over the head of the little Berkeley High School girl (maybe ‘under her radar’ is better, but we didn’t know much about radar in 1945 unless we were in the Navy.) I liked the chapter with the tortoise, early in the book. The end, the scene with Rose of Sharon and the starving man, fascinated and frightened and bewildered me so much that I couldn’t either forget it or think about it.

Everything in the book was out of my experience, I didn’t know these people, they didn’t do things people I knew did. That I had been going to Berkeley High School with the children of the Joads simply did not occur to me.

I was socially unaware as only a middle-class white kid in a middle-class white city can be.

I was dimly aware of changes. In the forties, the shipyards and other war employment brought a lot of people into Berkeley from the South and Southern Midwest. What I mostly noticed was that, with no discussion or notice taken that I was aware of, the high school lunchroom had become segregated – self-segregated – white kids this side, black kids that side.

So, OK, that’s how it was now. When my brother Karl, three years older than me, was at BHS, the president of the student body had been a black kid — a Berkeley kid. That little, artificial, peaceable kingdom was gone forever. But I could keep living in it. On the white side of the lunchroom.

I lived in it with my best friend, Jean Ainsworth. Jean’s mother Beth was John Steinbeck’s sister. A widow with three children, Beth worked for Shell Oil and rented out rooms in their house, higher in the Berkeley hills than ours, way up Euclid, with a huge view of the Bay. The peaceable kingdom.

I got to know Uncle John a little when I was in college in the East and Jean was working in New York City, where he then lived. He was fond of his beautiful red-headed niece, though I don’t know if he quite realised she was his equal in wit and heart.

Once I sat hidden with him and Jean under a huge bush at a huge wedding in Cleveland, Ohio, and drank champagne. Jean or I foraged forth for a new bottle now and then. It was Uncle John’s idea.

At that wedding I had first heard, spoken in all seriousness, a now-classic phrase. People were talking about Jackie Robinson, and a man said, heavily, threateningly, “If this goes on, they’ll be moving in next door.”

It was after that that we hid under the bush with the champagne. “We need to get away from boring people and drink in peace,” Uncle John said.

He did a bit too much of both those things, maybe, in his later life. He loved living high on the hog. He never went back to the austerity of his life when he was working on The Grapes of Wrath, and who can blame him, with fame and money pouring in on him? Maybe some books he might have written didn’t get written and some he wrote could have been better.

I respect him for never jumping all the hoops at Stanford, even if he kept going back and letting people like Wallace Stegner tell him what The Great American Novel ought to be. He could write rings around any of them, but they may have helped him learn his craft, or at least showed him how to act as if he had the kind of writerly confidence that life on a farm in Salinas didn’t provide. Though it provided a great deal else.

Anyhow, when Jean and I were still in high school, 1945 or thereabouts, I read her famous uncle’s famous novel and was awed, bored, scared, and uncomprehending.

And then sixty-some years later I thought, hey, I really ought to re-read some Steinbeck and see how it wears. So I went to Powells and got The Grapes of Wrath.

When I got towards the end of the book, I stopped reading it. I couldn’t go on. I remembered just enough of that ending. And this time I was identified with all the people, I was lost in them, I had been living with Tom and Ma and Rose of Sharon day and night, through the great journey and the high hopes and the brief joys and the endless suffering. I loved them and I could not bear to think of what was coming. I didn’t want to go through with it. I shut the book and ran away.

Next day I picked it up and finished it, in tears the whole time.

I don’t cry much any more when I read, only poetry, that brief rush when the hair stirs, the heart swells, the eyes fill. I can’t remember when a novel broke my heart the way music can do, the way a tragic play does, the way this book did.

I’m not saying that a book that makes you cry is a great book. It would be a wonderful criterion if only it worked, but alas it admits effective sentimentality, the knee-jerk/heart-string stimulus. For instance, a lot of us cry when reading of the death of an animal in a story — which in itself is interesting and significant, as if we give ourselves permission to weep the lesser tears — but that is something else and less. A book that makes me cry the way music can or tragedy can – deep tears, the tears that come of accepting as my own the grief there is in the world — must have something of greatness about it.

So, now, if somebody asked me what book would tell them the most about what is good and what is bad in America, what is the most truly American book, what is the great American novel... a year ago I would have said – for all its faults — Huckleberry Finn. But now — for all its faults – I’d say The Grapes of Wrath.

I’d like to say more about Steinbeck, next blog. I just want to add now: yes, I saw the movie of The Grapes of Wrath, and yes, it’s a good movie, faithful to the elements of the book that it could handle, and yes, Henry Fonda was fine.

But a movie is something you see; a novel is something made out of language. And what’s beautiful and powerful in this novel is its LANGUAGE, the art that not only shows us what the author saw, but lets us share, as directly as emotion can be shared, his passionate grief, indignation, and love.

3 October 2011

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35. More About Steinbeck: Troubled Waters

My friend Roger Dorband told me I had to read Steinbeck’s book about Baja California and the Gulf of Mexico, The Log from The Sea of Cortez.*[1] Of course I went to Powells, and of course Powells, existing under the grace and blessing of heaven, long may it do so! had a paperback copy. Charles and I read it aloud, enjoying it greatly, and I wanted to write about it, because it’s a beautiful book and not very well known. But then, when I read the introduction to the 1995 edition (I generally leave introductions till after I’ve read the book) I almost thought I didn’t want to write about it. What I learned troubled me and greatly complicated my response to the book.

But Steinbeck was a complicated man. No use trying to simplify him. And if, in writing The Log, he dodged certain complications, that’s no reason why I should.

The book chronicles a six-week, 4,000-mile journey in a fishing boat (a Monterey purse-seiner), undertaken in the spring of 1940 as a scientific collecting trip to and in the great arm of the sea between Baja California and the mainland coast of Mexico. It is recounted day by day, as a log. It appears unmistakably, solidly factual: a record of the weather, the places visited, and the inter-tidal creatures seen and collected on the trips ashore. Yet in the telling of this straightforward narrative, something very important is not told. The story is true, but it is not the whole truth, and therefore cannot be nothing but the truth, since a lie by omission is no less a lie for being invisible.

Why did Steinbeck need to lie?

In The Grapes of Wrath, he kept his passionate temperament under a fierce, masterful control. He thereby achieved an honesty that I’m not sure he ever achieved again. In the alternate chapters of that book, many of them praising the splendor of the land – beautiful, passionate descriptive writing, filled with the pain that informs the whole book, the pain of seeing something absolutely good misused, abused, broken – his handling of the material is powerful and flawless. He describes; there is little explaining and almost no preaching at all. That is what I mean by control. He controlled himself, in the interest of seeing clearly and telling what he saw as completely, as honestly as he could.

In his early books, the material sometimes gets out of hand, and truthfulness gets warped by opinion or by over-facile emotion. Tortilla Flat (1935) isn’t the insightful book I expected about Monterey people by a man who had lived with them and knew them, but a rather patronising confection masquerading as machismo and confusing alcoholism with spirituality.

 It was his first success, and a big one. Yet he had the strength to move almost directly away from that kind of success. He wrote In Dubious Battle and Of Mice and Men, and then his masterpiece. The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939.

Two years after it came the original edition of Sea of Cortez, co-authored with his friend the marine biologist Ed Ricketts. The Log is Steinbeck’s narrative of the voyage, excerpted ten years later from that first, collaborative version.

They were, he tells us, aboard the Western Flyer, one scientist doing research on tidewater fauna, one writer helping the scientist, and four crew, professional fishermen. His portraits of the crewmen are affectionate, humorous, and respectful. Now and then a bit of the Monterey-boys-drink-hard-and-thus-are-wise stuff turns up; but it’s only right and natural that a book about hardworking men in a small ship will include some of the predictable, traditional forms of male bonding. And because all six of them really were working hard, not running away from work in order to booze, Steinbeck can be very funny, without getting coy or boastful, about the amount of beer aboard, and the port visits.

So, four Monterey fishermen plus the two researchers who hired them. It worked out fine. All six of them were nice guys, and they had a hell of a good time, and it’s a hell of a good story.

But — perhaps reading aloud one notices these things more — something about the way it’s told kept making me uncomfortable. Steinbeck uses the first person plural, speaking throughout as “we.” This may reflect the fact that the original version of the book was a collaboration, but it’s confusing, tricky. Sometimes “we” means all six men. Sometimes it means himself and Ed Ricketts (not named in the book, though the crewmen are). Sometimes it’s evidently Steinbeck repeating things he learned from Ricketts. And sometimes it’s definitely Steinbeck going off on philosophical journeys by himself, making large, cloudy preachments or thinking fascinating thoughts. So some of the “we”s seemed truer than others, some had an odd, artificial ring.

Then I read the Introduction and discovered that all the “we”s are false.

The all-male crew of six is a fiction. There were seven people aboard the Western Flyer. One was a woman, Steinbeck’s wife Carol. He took her, or she chose to go, in an attempt to salvage their troubled marriage.

When he wrote the book, he – to use a verb that has never lost for me its terrible resonance from the dictatorships in Argentina and Chile – he disappeared her.

That they divorced soon after is neither a surprise nor a justification.

So in The Log, Steinbeck presents a falsified record as a factual one. Defended as artistic license and by the nobody-knows-what-truth-is argument, such fact-bending and lying by omission is now far more acceptable than it was in 1940, indeed rather fashionable. I doubt it will bother many people as much as it bothers me. I just wish, I bitterly wish, that he’d had the self-respect to know that all he had to do was tell the story straight on, first person, with all the people on board, and Ed Ricketts’ incredibly prescient insights to illuminate it, not as a fairy-tale of six guys on a jolly escape from ordinary life, but as a true story of seven people on an extraordinary voyage through a difficult, beautiful, haunting, and – for two of them, surely — painful reality.

Well, so, you have to forget the disappeared wife. You can’t wonder about her, if you want to read the book. And I still say read it, because though the author evaded instead of controlling his material, so it missed being all it might have been, still, it is a delight. Telling the story day by day, using all his marvelous power of accurate, immediate description, Steinbeck takes us with him on that little shrimp-boat in those strange, mirage-laden, inland waters, so lonesome then and so remote. An unforgettable trip.

And his meditative flights, though a bit pompous sometimes, are often brilliant and lovable. I can only give a taste, such as this from page 178. Their work in the Sea of Cortez was identifying, counting, and collecting the creatures of the tide pools. He’s been talking about the relative importance of common species and unimportance of the rare ones. He’s using ideas he learned from Ed Ricketts, a true pioneer in ecology, whose ideas are part of the foundation of a great deal of our thinking now. But the language and the mystical delight are pure Steinbeck.

[…It] seems apparent that species are only commas in a sentence, that each species is at once the point and the base of a pyramid, that all life is relational to the point where an Einsteinian relativity seems to emerge. And then not only the meaning but the feeling about species grows misty. One merges into another, groups melt into ecological groups until the time when what we know as life meets and enters what we think of as non-life: barnacle and rock, rock and earth, earth and tree, tree and rain and air. […] It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.

Or, from the last page of the Log proper, as they head north on the grey, fierce ocean, away from the sunlight and shallows of the Gulf:

There was some quality of music here, perhaps not to be communicated, but sounding clear and huge in our minds. The boat plunged and shook herself, and rivers of swirling water ran down into the scuppers. Below in the hold, packed in jars, were thousands of little dead animals [...The] wind blew off the tops of the whitecaps, and the big guy wire, from bow to mast, took up its vibration like the low pipe on a tremendous organ. It sang its deep note into the wind.

8 October 2011

[1]Viking published Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research, by John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts, in 1941. In 1951, Viking published the narative part of the book separately as The Log from the Sea of Cortez, by John Steinbeck. This is the book I read, republished as a Penguin Classic in 1995, with Steinbeck’s tribute to Ricketts, and a very useful Introduction by Richard Astro.

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36. Readers’ Questions

I recently got a letter from a reader who, after saying he liked my books, said he was going to ask what might seem a stupid question — one I need not answer, though he really longed to know the answer to it. It concerned the wizard Ged’s use-name Sparrowhawk. He asked, is this the New World sparrowhawk, Falco sparverius; or one of the Old World kestrels, also Falco, or their sparrowhawks, which are not Falco but Accipiter?

(Warning: You can get into something of a tangle with these birds. Many people use the words “sparrowhawk” and “kestrel” interchangeably, but kestrels, Eurasian or American, are all falcons, while not all sparrowhawks are kestrels, or vice versa. You see what I mean? I am only sorry we lost the beautiful British name windhover. But we have G.M. Hopkins’s poem.)

I immediately answered the letter as best I could. I said it seems to me it can’t be any of the above, because it’s not an Earth bird but an Earthsea bird, and Linnaeus did not go there with his can of names. But the bird I saw in my imagination when I was writing the book was definitely like our splendid little American sparverius, so maybe we could call it Falco parvulus terramarinus. (I didn’t think of “parvulus” (small) when I wrote the letter, but it should be there. A sparrowhawk is a quite small falcon. Ged was a scrappy boy, but short.)

After I’d answered the letter, I thought about how promptly and with what pleasure I’d done so. And I looked at the never-decreasing stack of letters waiting to be answered, and thought how much I wanted to put off answering them, because so many of them would be so difficult, some so impossible... Yet I very much wanted to answer them, because they were written by people who liked or at least were responding to my work, had questions about it, and took the trouble to tell me so, and thus deserve the trouble — and sometimes the pleasure — of an answer.

What makes so many letters-to-the-author hard to answer? What have the difficult ones in common? I have been thinking about it for some days. So far, I’ve come up with this:

They ask large, general questions, sometimes stemming from some branch of learning they know way, way more about than I do, such as philosophy or metaphysics or information theory.

Or they ask large, general questions about how Taoism, or feminism, or Jungian psychology, or information theory has influenced me — questions answerable in some cases only with a long PhD thesis, in others only with “Not much.”

Or else they ask large, general questions based on large, general misconceptions about how writers work — Such as: Where do you get your ideas from? What is the message of your book? Why did you write this book? Why do you write?

This last question (which is in fact highly metaphysical) is often asked by young readers. Some writers, even ones who don’t actually write for a living, answer it: “for money,” which certainly stops all further discussion, being the deadest of dead ends. My honest answer for it is “because I like to,” but that’s seldom what the questioner wants to hear, or what the teacher wants to find in the book review or the term paper. They want something meaningful.

Meaning — this is perhaps the common note — the bane I am seeking. What is the Meaning of this book, this event in the book, this story. . . Tell me what it Means.

But that’s not my job, honey. That’s your job.

I know, at least in part, what my story means to me. It may well mean something quite different to you. And what it meant to me when I wrote it in 1970 may be not at all what it meant to me in 1990 or means to me in 2011. What it meant to anybody in 1995 may be quite different from what it will mean in 2022. What it means in Oregon may be incomprehensible in Istanbul, yet in Istanbul it may have a meaning I could never have intended…

Meaning in art isn’t the same as meaning in science. The meaning of the second law of thermodynamics, so long as the words are understood, isn’t changed by who reads it, or when, or where. The meaning of Huckleberry Finn is.

Writing is a risky bidness. No guarantees. You have to take the chance. I’m happy to take it. I love taking it. So, my stuff gets misread, misunderstood, misinterpreted — so what? If it’s the real stuff it will survive almost any abuse other than being ignored, disappeared, not read.

“What it means,” to you, is what it means to you. If you have trouble deciding what, if anything, it means to you, I can see why you might want to ask me, but please don’t. Read reviewers, critics, bloggers, and scholars. They all write about what books mean to them, trying to explain a book, to achieve a valid common understanding of it useful to other readers. That’s their job, and some of them do it wonderfully well.

It’s a job I do as a reviewer, and I enjoy it. But my job as a fiction writer is to write fiction, not to review it.

Art isn’t explanation. Art is what an artist does, not what an artist explains. (Or so it seems to me, which is why I have a problem with the kind of modern museum art that involves reading what the artist says about a work in order to find out why one should look at it or “how to experience” it.)

I see a potter’s job as making a good pot — not as talking about how and where and why she made it and what she thinks it’s for and what other pots influenced it and what the pot means or how you should experience the pot. She can do that if she wants to, of course, but should she be expected to? Why?

I don’t expect her to, I don’t even want her to. All I expect of a good potter is to go and make another good pot.

A question such as the one about sparrowhawks — not large, not general, not metaphysical, and not personal — a question of detail, of fact (in the case of fiction, imaginary fact) — a limited, specific question about a particular work — is one most artists are willing to try to answer. And questions about technique, if limited and precise, can be intriguing for the artist to consider (“Why did you use a mercury glaze?” or “Why do you/don’t you write in the present tense?” for instance.)

Large, general questions about meaning, etc., can only be answered with generalities, which make me uncomfortable, because it is so hard to be honest when you generalize. If you skip over all the details how can you tell if you’re being honest or not?

But any question, if it is limited, specific, and precise, can be answered honestly — if only with “I honestly don’t know, I never thought about it, now I have to think about it, thank you for asking!”

I am grateful for questions like that. They keep me thinking.

Now back to Hopkins and “The Windhover” —

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-

    dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

High there...

Ah, we could explain that, and talk about what it means, and why and how it does what it does, forever. And we will, I hope. But the poet, like the falcon, leaves that to us.

17 October 2011

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37. Notre-Dame de la Faim

I visited a great cathedral this week. It’s situated in a mixed industrial-small business-residential area not far from the Portland Airport, an odd place for a cathedral. But it has a huge congregation and is full of people, not just on Sundays but every day of the week.

And it’s big. Notre-Dame de Paris covers about 67,000 square feet. This one is nearly twice as big, 108,000 square feet, two full city blocks (and its overflow, adjunct building across the river covers 94,000 square feet).

Notre-Dame, with its towers, is much taller, and is built of stone all carved with saints and gargoyles, and is endearingly ancient and beautiful. This one looks rather unimpressive as you approach it, partly because there are buildings near it and you can’t really get a view of it, and partly because it wasn’t built long ago to celebrate and embody spiritual worship, but recently, in dire need, for a specific material purpose. Still, I wouldn’t discount a very large element of the spirit in the building of it.

From the outside it looks like a particularly huge warehouse, but it hasn’t the strangely menacing, fortress-like look of the great windowless citadels of consumerism, WalMart and the rest. When you get inside, you see the cathedral. The high, airy entrance hall leads you first, on a elegantly stone-tiled floor with little bronze decorations set in here and there, to an area of offices and cubicles. Most churches hide their administrative department, but this one puts it right out front. The walls are blond wood, everything is spacious and handsome. Like the high nave of Notre-Dame, the startlingly high ceiling of steel-braced wood soars above all the small human activity down on the floor beneath. In the old cathedral that height creates a great, mysterious, upper space of shadows. But the space beneath this vault is luminous.

It wasn’t till I entered the interior, the cathedral proper, that I understood why they’d built the ceiling so high. As there should be, there are great doors to open into the sacred space. And as a sacred space will do, the first sight took my breath away. I stood silent. I remembered what the word awe means.

Much of the interior of the huge building is visible from that doorway, or would be except that the whole floor is covered with immense, towering blocks and piles and stacks of crates, cartons, boxes, and containers, arranged in gigantically severe order, with wide aisles between each tower or bay. Only down the aisles can you see the far walls in the far distance. There are no permanent walls or divisions. The immense, splendidly cantilevered ceiling stretches serenely above it all. The air is cool, fresh, and clean, with the faintest smell of garden stuff, fresh vegetables. Vehicles run quietly up and down the aisles, mini-forklifts and the like, looking quite tiny among the high blocks and stacks, constantly busy at moving crates and boxes, bringing in and taking out.

Well, it isn’t a cathedral. That was a metaphor. It’s just a warehouse, after all.

But what kind of warehouse stores nothing to sell? Nothing, not one item in all these (literally) acres of goods, is or ever will be for sale.

Actually, it’s a bank. But not the kind of bank where money is the only thing that happens.

Here is where money doesn’t happen.

This is the Oregon Food Bank. Every box in the great cubical stacks between the aisles, every carton, every can, every bottle, every crate, holds food. Every carton, every can, every pound, every ounce of that food will be given to the people of Oregon who haven’t the money to buy what they need to live on.

It is a cathedral, after all. The cathedral of hunger.


Or should I say the cathedral of generosity? Of compassion, or community, or caritas? It comes to the same thing.

There are people who need help.

There are people who deny it, saying that God helps those who help themselves and the poor and the unemployed are merely shiftless slackers sponging on a nanny government.

There are people who don’t deny poverty, but they don’t want to know about it because it’s all so terrible and what can you do?

And then there are people who help.

This place is the most impressive proof of their existence I ever saw. Their existence, their efficiency, their influence. This place embodies human kindness.

In, of course, the most unspiritual, lowly, humdrum, even gross way. In a thousand cans of green beans, in towers of macaroni boxes, in crates of fresh-picked vegetables, in cold side-chapel-refrigerators of meat and cheese… In hundreds of cartons with improbable names of obscure beers on them, donated by the brewers because beer-cartons are particularly sturdy and useful for packing food… In the men and women, employees and trained volunteers, operating the machinery, manning the desks, sorting and packaging the fresh produce, teaching survival skills in the Food Bank classrooms, kitchens, and gardens, driving the trucks that bring food in and the trucks that take food out to where it’s needed.

For these towering walls and blocks and reefs of goods — 12 to 18 thousand pounds of food in each bay of the warehouse — will vanish, melt away like sandcastles, tonight or in a few days, to be replaced instantly by the supply of boxed, canned, glassed, fresh, and frozen food, which in turn will melt away in a day or a week, going where it’s needed.

And that’s everywhere. The Food Bank distributes in every county of the state of Oregon plus one county of Washington State. They don’t have to look far to find people who need help getting enough to eat.

Anywhere kids are, to start with. Many school-age children in our country, towns, and cities don’t get three meals a day, or even two. Many aren’t always sure if they’ll get anything to eat today at all.

How many? About a third of them. One child in three.

Put it this way: If you or I were a statistic-parent with three statistic-kids in school, one of our three children would be hungry. Malnourished. Hungry in the morning, hungry at night. The kind of hungry that makes a child feel cold all the time. Makes a child stupid. Makes a child sick.

Which one of our children… which child… ?


Here’s Oregon Food Bank contact info, in case any reader would like to support their work with money, or lend a hand in doing it, or find out more about it, or about similar programs in their state. Some Facts and Figures follow, for those of us who like them.







Street mail:

OFB HQ: POB 55370, Portland, OR 97238



Facts and Figures:

The food: In 2010-11, the OFB Network received 81 million pounds of food for distribution. (You see why they need the cathedral.)

All of it that was suitable for distribution was distributed — given away.

40% of the food came from the USDA. Nearly 38% was donated by the food industry. 18% was bought by the OFB. 4% came from food drives.

Each month, about 260,000 people received Emergency Food Boxes. Over a million boxes, this year. That’s 12% more than last year, a quarter-million more than before the Great Recession, which the money-people keep telling us never amounted to much and is over with.

The CEO, Rachel Bristol, who has been doing this work for decades, says, “I have never seen the demand for emergency food this high.”

  • The people: OFB has 130 paid employees. Thousands of volunteers donated the equivalent in workhours of 56 fulltime employes.
  • The money: Many Oregon institutions, trust funds, and businesses, including banks and Native American casinos, have and continue to donate generously.

This year there were 30,000 money donors: the average gift was under $100.

It goes a long way. Ten dollars buys a meal for thirty people.

Administrative/fundraising costs were 5.6 percent of the 56.8 million dollar total revenue (which includes the value of the food donated).

  • The distribution: The network is large and complex: food is collected and distributed by four OFB branches, 16 independent regional food banks, 923 partner agencies. OFB leads statewide community programs in education in gardening, cooking, and wise buying — how to get the most beans out of your buck — and other programs aimed at finding why people go hungry in this land of vast agribusiness and markets overflowing with food, and what can be done about it.

24 October 2011

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38. Long-Term Discouragement

Our government decided over fifteen years ago that certain citizens, categorized as “long-term discouraged workers,” do not exist. The category exists, but the citizens don’t. When the Bureau of Labor or other entities give the numbers of the unemployed, these men and woman are excluded: they are not there. They are our government’s version of the Disappeared.

Strangely enough, though out of work, they do not belong to the category of “the unemployed.” The Disappeared (according to an excellent article in DailyFinance) consist of those who “had pursued jobs in the past 12 months but, discouraged by the lack of opportunity, had stopped looking altogether.”

Now how, exactly, does the United States Government know that all these people stopped job-hunting? Gave up for good? Are stretched out in the recliner in front of the TV with a beer, or more likely in front of no TV with no beer and no recliner due to lack of income, and have been lying there for months? Does the Bureau of Labor Statistics knock on their door (assuming they haven’t been foreclosed and evicted and still have a door) and come in, and ask, and observe them for a week or two to see if they are or are not going out looking for a job? Well, no. The statistics on unemployment are gathered rather more indirectly than that.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics counts as “unemployed” only people who have “actively looked for a job in the previous four weeks.” The number of people in the category, “the unemployed,” is based on the number of reports of frequent, continuous job-hunting, which people out of work are required to submit, in order to qualify for unemployment benefits – up until the set date when those benefits cease. After that, the unemployed cease to be even the unemployed. They cease to be counted. They disappear.

And yet the government knows something about them. It knows, for certain, that not one single one of them is looking for work. It knows so because it says so.

It seems odd that people would stop looking for work just the very moment when the dole they were getting by on stops. But remember! They are not the unemployed. They are not even people. They are a category: “the long-term discouraged.” Clearly a negligible category — slobs, louts, layabouts, no entrepreneurial spirit, no good ole American get up and go. They aren’t counted because, frankly, they don’t count.

Currently, around two and a half million American citizens don’t count.

It’s an amazing effective trick, replacing human beings with categories. The statistics present us the highly managed category “the unemployed” as a reality; editorial writers and TV pundits intone it over and over; and it’s only too easy to accept it — until you realise it entails the belief that two and half million unemployed Americans aren’t looking for a job, won’t look for a job, wouldn’t look for one if there were any to look for. Do you believe that?

The trick was perfected in 1994 to pad employment figures. It has worked beautifully ever since.

It allows the government to keep telling us that unemployment is “only” around 9%. The actual figure, once the padding is removed, is certainly over 16% and probably over 22% — very near the worst days of the 1930’s.

It allows the government not to provide job opportunities and works projects. Who needs ’em?

It allows the government to let people starve. Starve? Who? Them? But they don’t exist!

Even if they did exist they’d be so lazy they wouldn’t even vote. Forget ’em.

Some of these non-existent Americans have been visible, recently, joining the tent cities and demos of Occupy America. (But don’t worry, those discontented liberal whine-ins never get anywhere. We’re still testing bombs, we’re still in Viet Nam, racial segregation is still enforced by law, and this recession’s a blip that trickle-down will fix in no time. And it’s morning in America.)

What I don’t know is, how do we refuse to play along any longer — how to demand that the Bureau of Labor Statistics stop padding and give us an honest count? I guess it begins by simply refusing the padded figure every time we hear or see it — correcting it, protesting aloud. Lies grow in the silence of those who hear them.


5 November 2011

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39. Ninety-Nine Weeks: A Fairy Tale

Once upon a time there was a poor woodcutter who lived with his wife and their daughter and son in a cottage at the edge of a forest. He loved his trade, and worked hard at it. But most of the land belonged to rich ogres, who kept the forests for their own use. Firewood was so expensive that ordinary people had begun to heat their houses with coal. The woodcutter went from door to door offering timber or firewood, but again and again he was turned away. His wife was lame and could not walk far, though she worked hard and well, keeping the kitchen garden and the house. The daughter and son went to the village school. Young Janet looked after the mayor’s wife’s babies every afternoon when school was out, and young Bob earned a penny here and there doing odd jobs. That bit of money the children could bring home was all the family had now, and every penny had to go for rent to their ogre landlord. They had no new clothes or shoes, and ate only from their garden. Their life had grown hard, and winter was coming on.

“Maybe you could get a job at the coal mine, John,” said the woodcutter’s wife.

So he went up the road ten miles to the coal mines and asked for work, but, as he had feared, they told him he was too old to learn that craft, and sent him off.

He trudged homeward, downhearted, though he was by nature a hopeful man. Evening was coming on. Shadows fell across the road. Among the shadows he saw a tall, beautiful woman standing. “Woodcutter,” she said, “be of good cheer! I am your Gift Fairy, and I will give you and your family enough to live on. You will have food, and can buy shoes for your son and daughter!”

“Gracious lady,” said the woodcutter, “you are very kind. What can I do to deserve such a gift?”

“To deserve my gift, woodcutter, you must not work, but every day you must look for work,” said the lady. “You must try four times a day to find a job. No matter if there is no work to be found, you must not stop looking for it. I will be watching you. I will know if you grow discouraged. If you cease to look for work for one month, I will know it, and my gift will cease to appear.”

“Lady,” said the woodcutter, “I’d be glad to have work, but if I ask for a job four times every day in the village, I’ll be going to the same people all the time, because it’s a small village, and they’ll get sick of me.”

“That is not my concern,” said the lady.

“Could you maybe, instead of giving me money, give me some kind of job — any kind?” said the woodcutter, who, as we know, was a hopeful man. “I’m not too old to learn a new craft, and I’ll turn my hand to anything.”

“That is not my department,” said the lady. “The Works Fairies are not functioning at present. All I can offer you is my gift, on the terms I have told you.”

“I accept,” said the woodcutter, with a sigh, “and my family and I are grateful.”

“That is proper,” said the tall woman, and she vanished into the long shadows of the evening.

The woodcutter went home. As he came to his house he happened to put his hand in his pocket, and felt something there, and drew it forth, and lo and behold! it was a silver coin, enough for them to live on for a week. So he went in, and his wife and children gathered round him asking eagerly, “Did you get the job at the mines, Dad?”

“No, they won’t have me,” said he, “but I met a magic lady and she gave me this,” and he tossed the silver coin up spinning in the air. And while they passed it around and admired it and wondered at it, he told them that the magic lady would give them the same every week, so long as he would seek work wherever it could be sought for.

“Now Bob,” he said, “go change this coin at the brewer’s, for he’ll have the change, and bring home a pitcher of beer, for we’ll celebrate tonight. And Janet, you go put four fine chops on our tab at the butcher’s. And dear wife, come give me a good kiss while the kids are out, eh?”

So they made merry that night.

Next day the woodcutter went into the village asking for work at every door, and he did so faithfully, day after day, until the villagers began to say to each other that John Woodcutter was daft, coming back and back when they’d told him and told him they hadn’t a thing for him. And what did he think he’d find, anyway, with the roads already full of men out of work?

The brewer’s wife offered him the job of cleaning out her cow-barn, since she no longer kept a cow, but it was only two or three day’s work, and she wouldn’t give him a silver piece for it, nor half one, so he had to turn her down. After that, when she poured beer for people in the brewery bar she told them that John Woodcutter went around asking for work but when you offered him a job he was too lazy to take it. And some of the people nodded wisely and said, “What do you expect of people who’ll take money for doing nothing?” and others said, “The fairies have no business handing out good money to layabouts and wastrels,” and the mayor said, “Fairy money is foul money. It corrupts those who take it. Mark my words, we’ll soon see John driving a carriage and his wife wearing silken gowns!” Then they all nodded wisely, except one man who had just lost his job of road-paving, and was spending his last coppers on a half-pint of beer to drown his sorrows. That man drank his beer, went out onto the road where John had told them he had met the tall, beautiful lady, and waited for her to appear. And there she was. And she offered her bargain, and he took it.

John kept going about his village, and villages for miles around, seeking and asking for a job. He longed with all his heart to be doing an honest day’s work, but wouldn’t take the part-time jobs he was offered, for they’d bring him in less than the lady’s gift did; so his reputation as a working man was soon lost. His wife Mary’s rheumatism kept growing worse and now was very bad, so he and young Janet kept the house and garden. The boy Bob dropped out of school and got himself prenticed to a carpenter, and they were proud of him, but the fee was a fifth of their silver piece, and Bob as a prentice brought no money in. After a whole year had passed, John was feeling almost as desperate as he had felt coming home from the mine. That evening he went down to the road, and there among the shadows stood the lady, tall and beautiful.

“Lady,” he said, “I look for work, I ask for work, but there’s no work to be had. And people have lost patience with me, bothering them for jobs, but not able to take the little they can offer.”

“You may cease to look,” said she, “whenever you wish.”

“But that would break our bargain.”

“Yes,” said she. “By seeking work, you prove that you are a hopeful man, who believes that good people always have enough money. To cease seeking would prove that you have lost that righteous belief. It would show that you are discouraged. The Gift Fairies cannot see discouraged people. You would become invisible to me. You would become ineligible for my gift.”

“Ah, well,” said John. “We won’t be discouraged, then.”

And month after month, he trudged about, wearing out his shoes, which he couldn’t replace because Mary’s medicines cost a great deal now, and young Bob’s appetite was something ferocious, and young Janet no longer looked after the mayor’s children because the mayor’s wife said her clothes were too shamefully shabby. Mary wept because her pretty daughter didn’t have a decent dress on her back, so John bought cloth from a peddler, and Mary sewed Janet a new dress.

“Tsk, tsk, look at John Woodcutter’s Mary flouncing about in silks and satins, and her dad taking money from those fairies and never doing a lick of work...“

The weeks passed, and every week the day came round when John would feel in his pocket and find the magic piece of silver. Eagerly did he wait for that day, and the money was spent almost before he had it. Then one week the gift-day came, and he felt in his pocket, and nothing was there.

He waited a minute, and felt again. Empty.

He went and weeded the potato patch, and then felt in his pocket, and his other pocket. He went all about the house looking at the ground to see if the silver coin had fallen from his pocket. Nothing.

Evening came, and he went down to the road to that place where the lady stood, tall and beautiful. “Oh, lady,” said John, “your gift didn’t come today. And Mary’s worse, and we really need it.”

The Gift Fairy looked at him silently, as if from a long way off. “John Woodcutter, is it?” she said at last. “I can barely see you. Your ninety-nine weeks are up.”

“What ninety-nine weeks?”

She seemed to look through him as she spoke, and her voice came as if from far away. “You had ninety-nine weeks to look for work. You found nothing. You are now officially discouraged.”

“Oh, but lady, I’m looking for a job every day as hard as ever, even though it’s been close on two years — truly I’m not discouraged — I keep hoping!“

“You are officially discouraged, you have officially ceased to look actively for work, and you are officially invisible to the Gift Fairies.”

“Oh, lady,” cried John in despair, “for how long?”

“Forever,” said the faint, cold voice of the Gift Fairy.

And no matter what John said to her after that, no matter how he pleaded, she did not reply, and gave no sign of hearing or seeing him at all.

Terribly downcast, he set off for home at last. But on the road just as night was falling he met his landlord, the rich ogre who owned most of the property for miles around. “You,” said the ogre, looking down from his tall black horse, “you’re the troublemaker in the cottage by the forest. You haven’t paid your full rent for months. You’re to be out of there at the end of the week.”

“Mr. Ogre,” said John, “if we paid full rent out of what the Gift Fairy gave us, we had nothing left for food and clothing. And now she says she has no more to give us at all.”

“The Gift Fairy, is it!” said the ogre. “Living off the fairies — I should have known it! Do you realize those fairies of yours are trying to raise my taxes — MY taxes — to pay for your roads, and your damned schools that teach you sedition and irreligion, and your police that should have put you long since into one of the jails I have to pay for with MY taxes? Fairies! Everything that’s wrong with this country is the fairies’ fault! Get out of my sight before I give you a whipping!” And the ogre flourished his whip at John, then slashed his horse hard with it, and galloped off into the night.

The rest of that week, John went looking for any work at all, whatever it was and whatever it paid, but another man had always got there before him.

Hearing they could no longer pay for young Bob’s prenticeship, the carpenter sent him home. Bob’s sister Janet had just finished school, and the two young people talked it over and planned what they might do.

On the last evening of the week the brother and sister went down to the road where their father had met the Gift Fairy, and sure enough, she was there among the shadows, tall and beautiful. But she did not look at them.

“Lady,” said young Bob, “I’ve been looking for work and cannot find it, so maybe you’d give me the silver coin, until I do?”

But the lady paid no attention to him at all.

“Lady,” said young Janet, “I’m through school now, and I can teach, or look after babies, or look after sick people, or garden, or cook, or anything at all almost, but my mother needs me, nights, and I can’t find work in the village. So maybe you’d give the silver coin, until I do?”

But the lady paid no attention to her at all.

Bob pleaded, Janet wept, but to no avail. She never looked at them.

A little red fox looked out of a covert by the road and laughed. “She can’t see you, young’uns,” the fox said. “You’re invisible.”

“But I’m hopeful,” Janet said, and Bob said, “But I’m not discouraged!“ And both of them said, “But we’re here — right in front of her!”

“Maybe,” said the fox. “But you didn’t lose your last job.”

Janet and Bob stared at him. “How could we lose a job when we’ve never had one?”

“A good question,” said the fox. “But since you’ve never been employed, you’re officially entering the work force: and so, you’re not eligible for fairy benefits. You’re invisible. It’s wonderful,” said the fox, snapping at a flea on his flank, “how fairies think, and what they can see and can’t see. My opinion is, they’ve been listening far too much to rich ogres. My opinion is, they’d do a better job at being fairies if they listened to the other ninety-nine percent.”

But young Bob and Janet, trying not to weep with disappointment, were already trudging off up the road to help their parents pack up what little they owned and leave their home forever in the morning.

The fox shrugged his narrow shoulders, looking after them through the shadows of the night. “Nobody ever listens to foxes,” he said.


Some Foxy Figures

Official Bureau of Labor Statistics figures for 2010:

About 14 million people were officially counted as unemployed.

(5.9 million of these people had been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer.)

People without work or without full-time work but NOT counted as unemployed:

8.9 million “involuntary part-time workers” (would work full-time if they could)

6.1 million “wanted work but did not actively seek work”

Of these, 2.5 million had looked for work within the past year; the rest had not, because, according to the BLS, they did not expect to find any (the “discouraged”), or they could not take a job because of a disability, or were in school, or had no way to get to and from work, or had children but no child care.

Also not counted among the unemployed by the BLS are more than 2 million people currently in American prisons.

The total of unemployed not counted as unemployed is at least 17 million; added to the counted figure of 14 million, 31 million people were out of work last year.

The figures have not substantially changed so far this year.

There was a good deal of hoopla recently when the number of oficially unemployed dropped from 14 million to 13.9 million, so that we have “only” 9% official unemployment. This drop is mostly because the “long-term unemployed” simply have been shifted into the “did not seek work” category. Same bods, different pigeonholes.

The true rate of unemployment remains between 16 and 25%.

(It is much the same in European countries that do not fudge the figures as we do.)

The number of unemployed people receiving benefits (less than half) has dropped recently: this is not, as the media say, because we are “recovering from the recession,” but because so many people have been out of work for more than 99 weeks. Their eligibility for benefits has run out.

Even of the 14 million “officially unemployed,” about 30% have been out of work so long they have lost benefit eligibility.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that every dollar spent on unemployment benefits brings the country $1.90 in “economic growth.” A bargain, says the little red fox. (But Fox News would not agree.)

21 November 2011

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40. Five Bad Myths

I was impressed by a recent MoveOn.org emailing (November 23, 2011), listing five myths — actually pieces of disinformation — relentlessly propagated by reactionary politicians and news media. There are of course dozens more such myths or lies — President Obama was not born in the United States, etc, etc — but these five are, at the moment, the biggies. To have them all in one place, clearly stated, was useful to my thinking about Republican tactics and the deliberate or unthinking compliance of the media.

These myths have been accepted and repeated by speakers and writers without strong political convictions or who seek to give “balanced coverage” of events, without considering that you cannot balance myths, in the sense of propaganda, deliberate misinformation, with facts.

The murder of six million Jews in Germany did not take place: myth (denial). Six million Jews were murdered in Germany: fact (history). You cannot “balance” or reconcile the myth with the fact and arrive at fact.

You don’t ever get information by repeating disinformation.

Two lies — or five — or a thousand — don’t make a truth.

You can find MoveOn’s myths and debunkings at http://front.moveon.org/top-5-fox-myths-to-debunk-this-thanksgiving/.

And many thanks to MoveOn for all the good work they do!

As I read the list of myths, I began to arrive at my own personal debunks or demystifications, harsher and more radical than theirs.

And here they are:

MYTH #1: The congressional Super Committee failed because both sides refused to compromise.

REALITY: It failed because the Republicans in Congress, following the Party Line, now refuse ANY compromise on ANY issue offered by the Democrats.

Reaganist Republicanism has become a rigid ideology, as Stalinism was.

To be a Republican politician now, you must be, literally, politically correct.

If you don’t correctly parrot the Party Line, you will be exiled to (shudder!) Liberal Siberia.

MYTH #2: Nobody knows what Occupy Wall Street is about.

REALITY: Everybody knows what Occupy Wall Street is about.

But some people are so frightened by the trouble our country is in that they’re in denial about it. The goals of the Occupy Movement make these people morally uncomfortable, threatening their complacency — and so they deny that it has any goals at all.

MYTH #3: Occupiers should stop protesting and just get a job.

REALITY... And the American children who go to bed hungry every night should stop whining and just go buy a supersized burger with fries at MacDonalds, and the homeless should get off the streets and move into a nice house, and the old retired people who are losing medical insurance should ah, umm, well, they should just shut up and get a job. Or die. Or something.

MYTH #4: Occupy Wall Street is intent on provoking violence, especially against banks and the police.

REALITY: A few people have used the Occupy movement as a front for their antisocial behavior, just as a few people have used Republican hatred of Obama as a front for their psychopathy.

The Occupy movement, facing a violent police force in several cities, has so far remained nonviolent. If they can hang on to their nonviolence, they will have made a moral statement comparable to that of Gandhi, or the Freedom Riders, or the young people of Tiananmen Square.

MYTH #5: The biggest crisis facing our country is out-of-control government spending.

REALITY: Our crisis is a loss of active citizenship — a weakening of confidence in democratic ideals and principles. This loss, this weakening, is directly aggravated by Reaganist ideology and propaganda.

Reaganism, seeing extreme inequity as the engine of capitalism, says that the poor should be taxed heavily, the rich more lightly, and the very rich should not have to pay taxes at all. Democracy seeks to share the cost of maintaining government (taxation) equitably, each contributing according to income.

Reaganism says that the government is the enemy. Democracy is the idea that the people are the government.

So, are we our own enemy?

Pogo, thou shouldst be living at this hour.

28 November 2011

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41. Literary Bests

The Award System. A while ago I was invited to choose, from a list of winners of a certain literary prize, “the three best works of American fiction of the last sixty years.” The three works that got the most votes from the invited voters would be announced as the three Best American Novels since 1950.

I’ve judged literary competitions or juried literary prizes pretty often. Every time I did it the responsibility seemed heavier, and so did my conscience. At first, this simple choice from a list seemed like it might be fun to do. But I found I couldn’t do it at all. The list was strong in well-known names and had some fine books on it, but it wasn’t the best sixty American novels since 1950. It was just a list of award winners, some excellent, many mediocre.

I wrote the director of the event explaining my inability to participate, and got back a kind and unreproachful letter. It was both reassuring and troubling to find that he understood my feelings. He asked, off the record, if I ignored the prescribed list of prize winners and picked any three American novels as my choice of the best of the last sixty years, could I do that?

I had to think hard, and I had to say no.

I found that I don’t believe there are three “best” works of American (or any) fiction of the last sixty years. Or ten “best.” Or a hundred. Several hundred? That’s more like it.

There are a whole lot of good writers and good novels. Yes, OK, there’s even more mediocre and bad fiction. So what?

Some good novels are outstandingly good. And I have my favorites, sure. All of us do. That means that they’re my best, or your best, but “the best”?

Maybe within one narrow genre, or a few years, a general agreement on the favorites might show up: but within a few years the results would probably be quite different.

Not long ago, in a vast poll of British novel-readers, The Lord of the Rings came out on top. I was delighted — the vote was such a lovely smack in the eye for trendy snobs and ignorant pedants. But I didn’t believe for a moment that it meant The Lord of the Rings was the best English novel ever written. That would be incredibly naïve.

Yet it is what the award system, the “best” system, asks us to believe.

Voting is the dangerous but essential tool of democracy. In art, voting is dangerous without being essential. Often it’s not even appropriate. In art, even given a carefully selected jury of peers, there’s no way to guarantee that a vote reflects informed, unprejudiced judgment not influenced by fashion, faction, or mere personal quirk. Anybody who’s juried an award, or just argued about a book, knows that.

Novels and stories that a whole lot of readers, plus honest and serious teachers and critics, have continued to hold in esteem for over six decades are surely beginning to deserve the status of “excellent” or even that slippery and over-used adjective “great”. But there are so many different kinds of fiction, so many standards by which to judge a novel, so many ways in which one work may excel another — Whose judgment is so widely and deeply and disinterestedly informed that they can presume to say which handful of them are “the best”?

And when you’ve said it, what have you gained?

And what have you lost?

To say Don Quixote is the best Spanish novel is another way to say it’s the greatest Spanish novel. And when you’ve said it either way, where has it got you? Better to ask, as a good scholar, critic, teacher, asks: why and how is Don Quixote excellent? Why can every Spaniard quote from it? Why is it read and loved after 500 years? Those are real questions, useful questions, that can help lead a reader into and through the book.

Scholars, critics, and teachers who know how to ask and answer these questions are capable of making serious choices, of establishing a canon of literature. The danger they run in doing so is that they and others almost invariably believe their choice to be complete and immutable.

All canons of art are overly restrictive. And all of them are out of date before they are declared.

Used with great caution and suspicion, a literary canon, a list-of-the-best, may have some use in guiding and informing inexperienced readers, but I think probably it’s far more useful as a target of intelligent argument and dissent.

Literary awards are useless for guiding and informing and don’t even make good targets. In declaring a book as “the best,” a literary award serves that book. It does not serve literature. On the contrary, it does literature a considerable disservice.

Awards serve above all to supply commercial booksellers with a readymade commodity and lazy-minded readers, teachers, and librarians with a readymade choice. They needn’t pay attention to the books that didn’t win the prize, they needn’t exercise their own critical faculties, they don’t have to think, they can just order the prize book and believe they’re reading what’s “important.”


The Idea of The Best. There really may be a best mouse trap or salad spinner, at least till a better one’s invented or the technology is improved. And certain inventions are more important than others. But what would be the sense or use in saying something or other is “the best” technological invention of the last year, or decade, or century? It’s a nice parlor game, but it has almost no intellectual or practical value.

Similarly, in art you might be able to pick one work as the best from a set of similar works of the same general period in the same genre. But, applied to a huge set, such as all the American novels of sixty years — or even one year — “the best” is a meaningless concept. You cannot usefully compare the excellence of oranges, eggplants, knives, hats, French poodles, and dreams.

The idea of “the best” is most comfortable in the sphere of measurable competitive activities — sports. Elsewhere it enforces a competitive attitude that is profoundly out of place.

Once, on a literary jury for a local award, I said I wished we could give the award to the whole excellent shortlist. A couple of the other jurors liked the idea, but one, a librarian, oddly enough, fought it tooth and nail: “Nobody would care if five or six people won,” she said. “Nobody gives a damn unless it’s a horserace. I certainly wouldn’t.”

She got her way, and we chose our one winner. But I left depressed and discouraged. Seabiscuit or Secretariat ran faster than the other horses, they won. A jury didn’t pick them out as “the best.” When you have a jury, it’s not a horserace. It’s a choice. And it may very well be quite arbitrary.

Awards are supposed to spur competitive excellence. But despite the theories of (almost universally male) critics and psychologists, the practice of art is not inherently a competitive activity. It can be made into one, of course. Male or cultural competitiveness often makes it into one. But I do not believe and see no evidence to prove that the passion to do something you have a gift for doing is originally driven by the need to excel or even to show off. Most people who have a gift work extremely hard at it, if they are able to, because the work is intensely, immediately, and reliably rewarding. You have to make a living, but art is very seldom a practical way of doing so. Most artists are in it for the satisfaction of knowing they’re doing, literally, the best thing they can do. In that sense of doing one’s best, and only in that sense, “the best” means something in art. To consider art as a competition to be “the best” is to miss the point.


The Use of Literary Awards. I’m not saying literary awards should be done away with, or that they have no use at all — only that we shouldn’t take them as meaningful literary judgments.

There have been literary competitions ever since ancient Greece, and though they tend like all competitions to select the predictable, to favor work by men over work by women, and to become ingrown or corrupt, still they serve as spurs to artists who want or need spurring to do their best.

Competitions and awards arouse interest in the audience, even if it’s the kind of interest appropriate to a horse race — witness the hysteria of betting on some of the “big” literary awards — which brings much-needed money to artists and those who support or invest in their work. This is a service principally to the business of art, but also to its vitality in the culture.

And to an author, early in a career, an award can be a true and needed validation — a beautiful reward, like the Boss sings about. The first literary prizes I won, the Nebula and the Hugo, were beautiful rewards to me. They gave me strength by justifying both my trust in my readers and my trust in myself as a writer. They come from the science fiction community: one is awarded by writers, the other by readers. They are of value almost solely within that community. They are ignored or actively despised by those who institute themselves the guardians of capital-L Literature.


Waste, Injustice, Ungenerosity. When it comes to capital-Literature, the prizes I’ve juried, awarded, or been awarded have left me increasingly uneasy about the arbitrariness and injustice of the choice and the arbitrary need to pick a single winner. Particularly with the “major” national prizes, the pleasure of award and recognition, given or received, is damaged and diminished by knowledge of how the system plays into the prejudice and exclusivism of a literary establishment or coterie, and the advertising machinery of the bookselling business. Praise becomes fame becomes commodification and so on round.

The “majorness” of the “major” awards is itself almost entirely arbitrary and factitious. Why has everybody heard of “the PEN/Faulkner,” while the other PEN awards go unknown and unnoticed? Are the jurors of one PEN prize somehow of ineffably higher calibre than the jurors of the others?

At least we know who they are. The jurors who pick the MacArthur “Genius” Awards are so ineffable, or so anxious about their corruptibility, or so afraid of the vengeance of disappointed non-geniuses, that they accept permanent anonymity. I think this is wrong. In fact I think it’s despicable. Anonymous judgment is a slap in the face of responsibility.

Then there is the waste factor. Of course a good book deserves recognition, but the one-winner-takes-all award ensures that the also-rans — all the good books on the shortlist — are pretty much dumped — forgotten. To name one winner is to create a whole slew of losers. Why? What good is that?

Survival of the fittest, sure, but you can overdo it. Would you shoot every horse in the race but the winner? “Best” book all too often comes to mean “only” book – of the month, the year, the decade…

How mean, how ungenerous we are! I wish that, instead of picking one and dumping all the rest, we celebrated our writers continually and in droves.

I wish we gave literary prizes freely, the way they used to give prizes at the Pet Show at Codornices Park in Berkeley when I was a kid. Every kid in the neighborhood brought their pet, and every pet got a prize, an ad hoc, unique prize: for Soulfulness — for Loud Meowing — for Unusual Spot Placement — for Being the Only Skink…. There was no Best of Breed (in those days there were many mongrels and few breeds), and certainly no Best of Show.

I‘d have some trust and interest in literary prizes like that. For Soulfulness — for Sitting Up and Begging Nicely — for Passion Well Expressed – for Excellent Use of Semi-Colons — for Being the Only Novel About Elderly Female Entomologists in Love….

You think literature would suffer, if prizes were given so freely? You think sharing praise diminishes its worth? You think good books are written in order to win huge advances and one-a-year prizes? Maybe so. I think not. I think the desire to excel in competition, whether for prizes or for money, is likely to produce a mediocre and predictable novel on a trendy topic in a mode recognised as “safe” by the sales department of a large commercial publisher.

I think good novels are written by writers who want to write this novel, their novel, which is like no other. And which is therefore unpredictable, unsafe, and unlikely to win a prize. Given time and chance and a little publicity, of course, it may keep winning readers for years and years to come. But most corporation-owned publishers could care less for the years to come. Bottom line this month is all that matters.


Book Groups as the Opposite of Awards. I don’t mean Oprah or commercial ventures, I mean the kind of reading group organised by private people among their friends and acquaintances, that have become common in the last twenty years or so. These groups often consist of modest people who don’t trust their own taste and therefore accept too meekly the publicised judgment of PR departments and award-givers. The book club that always picks the newest best seller or Big Prize winner for next month isn’t doing much for literature, although the cookies or the wine and cheese may be terrific.

But a lot of book-club members have been reading all their lives. Reading people tend to be a bit balky, independent, resistant to being told what they ought to read, inclined to go off and discover it for themselves. There are a lot of book groups doing quite serious independent reading and discussion. I wonder if they aren’t doing more to preserve and celebrate literature than all the national awards and lists of Bests.

And how about all the Internet sites and blogs that discuss books read? Some of them are awfully naïve — some of them are awesomely knowledgeable.

There are various ways to sneak around the fences and monuments erected by the Guardians of Literature and the Awarders of Awards in order to get to where we can find out and talk about what’s actually going on in literature. Maybe readers of this blog can suggest some other sneaky routes.

28 December 2011

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