Regarding Amanda Claybaugh’s discussion of Tom McCarthy, I never said that McCarthy’s version of the avant-garde represents “the only alternative” to lyrical realism. I said the book Remainder “offer[ed] a glimpse of an alternate road down which the novel might, with difficulty, travel forward.”
Big difference, at least to me.
Also, my strong appreciation of Remainder did not obscure a skepticism towards McCarthy’s avant-garde credentials: “The INS demands that ‘all cults of authenticity . . . be abandoned.’ It does not say what is to be done about the authenticity cult of the avant-garde.”
Finally, Claybaugh argues that some great writers, like Tolstoy and Joyce, effectively transcend the distinction. I think we agree:
“Friction, fear, and outright hatred spring up often between these two traditions—yet they have revealing points of connection. At their crossroads we find extraordinary writers claimed by both sides: Melville, Conrad, Kafka, Beckett, Joyce, Nabokov. For though manifestos feed on rupture, artworks themselves bear the trace of their own continuity.”
— Zadie Smith
MFA = NYC
In February, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs rolled into Washing- ton DC, taking over two hotels not far from where I live. I’d never been before—I’d never wanted to go—but this year I had no good excuse. Proximity is, I suppose, the mother of resignation. Anyway, I was looking over a conference schedule when I thought of your essay “MFA vs. NYC.” The rubric you set out is persuasive, but you miss how the MFA world aspires to be like its more famous, better turned-out cousin NYC. At this year’s AWP, card-carrying members enjoyed readings by such bright young stars of New York publishing as Joshua Ferris and Gary Shteyngart, writers you claim the MFA world ignores as simply too popular, too of the moment. Such featured presenters were joined by Colson Whitehead, Rick Moody, the musician Roseanne Cash, and keynote speaker Jhumpa Lahiri. As you say, there are exceptions, writers who traffic back and forth between the worlds, but with so many exceptions, can there still be rules?
Your magazine happened to arrive in the mail the same week that Ann Beattie’s New Yorker Stories was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. As you note, Beattie teaches at the University of Virginia, but doesn’t it seem more telling to enumerate the ways she’s decidedly not a program writer? Her book, after all, is a gathering of fiction she first published in the New Yorker, more than five hundred pages of stories, all printed in the preeminent organ of NYC publishing. Moreover, this collec- tion of short fiction—certain marketplace poison, you suggest, repeating the ancient wisdom of agents—was put out by a major house (Scribner) and then featured in the nation’s most respected (or is it just the last?) book review. As I read through your gallery of program writers, what I saw were not just writers who teach but writers embraced, like Beattie, by big publishing. Even “canonical MFA-culture story writer” Stuart Dybek, who, as you say, “one could . . . live a long full life in New York without ever hearing” about, published his stories with Knopf and, most recently, FSG. His poems even come out from a big publisher, and in hardcover no less.
Where then are these authors who, after landing work in “unread, university-funded” literary magazines, throw all their slight, immature stories into hastily assembled small-press books and then rise to tenured comfort in one of the nation’s 854 MFA pro- grams? Newly minted graduates, I’m sure, crave more specific instructions on where they might best observe these glamorous writer-teachers.
The reality is that for at least the last two years, the job market for creative writ- ers has been poor to nonexistent. The old hands just aren’t retiring. And when they do, cash-strapped universities often seek to replace the pricier tenured lines with part- timers or no new teacher at all. What you term adjunctships, as if academic temp work should be thought of as a rich reward, like a fellowship, are exploitative jobs, posi- tions without benefits—no health insur- ance, often not even gym access—for which teachers are paid by the course, usually about $2,000 or so. Not a particularly gaudy salary and, with cramped basement offices packed full with three or four other instruc- tors hunkered down at their desks, grading, commenting on drafts, meeting with stu- dents, not particularly propitious working conditions either. MFA programs long ago discovered that the surest way to compete for the best students is by hiring big-name writers from, that’s right, NYC. Just look at any advertisement for an MFA program, with its obligatory roll call of bold-faced names, those literary luminaries whom applicants might one day work with. Just a few years ago, when a writer at one of the top creative writing programs retired, the department sought to woo a young bestsell- ing author who had no MFA and no experi- ence teaching. In the end, the author wasn’t interested even in applying, but I doubt that stopped the school from gazing longingly over the hedges, to NYC.
Room for Improvement
Thank you for the excellent piece on “elitism.” The invocation of Bourdieu and Ortega is a surprise that works perfectly. Two thoughts: first, I’m not sure the epithet is restricted to quite so narrow a class any more. The Palin-era right uses it for scientists, lawyers, and other educated types, as long as they’re pursuing the ideology of social improvement using specialized knowledge. And second, the cultural elite of the Yale English Department/Nation magazine type, who do bear the brunt of the hostility, should take to heart your self-improvement imperative. Over the same thirty years that education has consolidated inequality, they’ve made themselves increasingly irrelevant to the political square where humanism and the humanities are so badly needed.
— George Packer
Localize the Banks
Nikil Saval’s engaging and prescient article on the woes of California is largely on target. I would suggest, however, the need for a more nuanced account of the potentials and the limits of local political initiatives.
There is a tendency on the left to celebrate “the local” as an ostensibly more progressive and democratic alternative to the current regime of increasingly globalized systems of governance. I would disagree with this assessment. The local is neither more transparent nor more democratic than other levels of political and economic government. The local sphere can be rife with parochialism, petty corporatism, and consistent elevation of personality over program, not to mention limits of scope due to the circumscribed resources under the direct jurisdiction of local government. Local action cannot replace political engagement at the state or national level.
Nevertheless, local initiatives still matter. The intent of the Community Congress was not to establish San Francisco as a “city on the hill.” Rather, it reflected a desire to figure out what could be done. Barring a major technological revolution that will simultaneously address issues of looming resource scarcities and provide a major stimulus to private investment, economic stagnation and the fiscal crisis of our public institutions will in all likelihood be quite protracted. We need to develop both the political will to raise taxes on the rich and expand the scope of government. We also need to articulate a new vision of the relationship between government and popular constituents. Central to this project is creating new forms of governance predicated upon expanding publicly controlled, democratically managed institutions empowered with real economic resources.
This is the thinking, for instance, behind forming a municipal bank in San Francisco. Imagine if San Francisco shifted several hundred million dollars into a local municipal bank, and used these funds to promote alternative systems of local development. Imagine that some other major US cities followed suit. Then add in smaller cities that — collectively — control a significant pool of financial resources. Add in a couple of state governments that decide to emulate North Dakota, which already has a public bank. We would then be looking at an entirely new sector of the capital market with resources to pursue alternative forms of development.
Certainly other ideas need to be proposed and debated. In every case, however, the left must begin to move beyond a politics of reaction and propose initiatives that point toward real alternatives to a trajectory of corporate development that looks increasingly unsustainable over the long-term. Local initiatives are one component of this re-visioning process.
— Karl Beitel
With the most recent Health Department statistics declaring that 39 percent of all New York City pregnancies end in abortion, it was refreshing to read Kristin Dombek’s nuanced and compelling “The Two Cultures of Life.” “How many of us,” Dombek asks, “keep the same belief our whole lives, or even for two years in succession?” As much as I claim to be pro-choice (I mean, hell, I’m a liberal New York woman), I was stunned last September when I landed in a Midtown abortion clinic because of a failed wanted pregnancy. The clinic specializes in second-trimester abortions, and the ease with which the doctor performed his tasks (he does hundreds a week) both comforted and haunted me. Every woman I spoke with at the clinic — and they ranged in age from 15 to 40 — was electing to have the procedure done. Each woman told me she hadn’t realized she was pregnant; one thought her “period was just really, really late.” These women were five months pregnant; their “baby bumps” were visible! Pairing this with the latest Health Department statistics (for minorities the numbers are even higher, with more than 60 percent of pregnancies for black women ending in abortion), it’s not hard to see these babies moving “down the conveyor belt” of Dombek’s childhood mind. Dombek does beautiful work not crucifying any of these women. Her writing is extremely intelligent and also surprisingly imagistic, but most vital is her message. She reminds us to really think, to truly weigh, and that “this weighing is not some calculus of suffering, the measuring of pain as if pain were countable, as if it were not endless.” We must listen not to the ever flowing rhetoric but to our own uncertain selves.
— Nicole Callihan
You guys talk a pretty good game about the avant-garde and how it matters, and about how you don’t want to waste space on writers who are dead when you could be giving some oomph to the living. And then you spend God knows how many pages talking about Freedom, which, while a fine book, is written by someone so successful he may as well be dead and which, as a basically realist novel, does not actually require critical exegesis to unpack its themes. They are myriad, of course, but each reader is sure to hit on some of them.
So let’s instead talk about C for a minute. Now maybe this book was a total Freedom-style juggernaut in the UK, but in the US every review was some completely idiotic list of words starting with the letter C. It is an incredible book whose referents I do not understand (except the obvious Magic Mountain x-ray scene homage) and which I would love everyone I know to read and talk about instead of talking about Freedom. Maybe you all can help me out.
— Josie Clowney
Mark Greif says that Freedom is “a beautiful book,” and Marco Roth says it’s as good as Middlemarch. At least he didn’t say it’s as good as The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead, a book that Jonathan Franzen has championed in print, and one I am rereading now with renewed amazement because I can no longer read Freedom.
Keith Gessen says, of the characters in Freedom, “You’d have to be some kind of monster not to sympathize with these people, not to understand them.” I must be a monster, then. I neither understood nor sympathized. I didn’t care what happened to them. There was nothing in the language of the book that enticed me to read it. I was bored and frustrated and annoyed with it, instead.
I think it would have been good if you had asked at least one woman to respond to the book. Four men is a lot of men. Also, I noticed that there wasn’t a lot of quoting of the book in any of the responders’ pieces. Is this because they had the same problem with the sentences that I did, or do they read books for the ideas alone?
Even so, thanks to your responders for their interesting and in some cases eye-opening discussions of the book. I’m prepared to respect Freedom. To a point. But too bad I can’t love it.
— Amanda Ghest
Kill the Electric Car
In his essay “Electric Cars,” Daniel Albert describes the forking paths that led from electric auto engines to the standardization of the internal combustion engine in the early 20th century. In a previous, much less serious piece, “Flying Cars” [Issue Five], Albert looked toward the ever deferred promises of airborne motorways and poked fun at real world, contemporary prototypes, one of which he described as a “flying penis car.”
That you should feature a number of articles on cars is not unexpected — the car is the lodestone of American culture (even bookish, intellectual culture) and ever more a part of the infrastructure and social life of the rising middle classes in the developing economies of India and China. What does surprise me is to find a piece uncritically advancing a car-centric future on what seem to be narrow technological and environmentalist grounds, without regard for the social and cultural ramifications of what the British sociologist Mike Featherstone and others call “automobility.”
Automobility defines a system of movement and “enforced flexibility” that has become second nature, part of the warp and weft of both our urban and suburban lives. A repressed but integral part of this system is the built-in, gratuitous death in car crashes of 1.2 million human beings each year, many of whom are the road’s most vulnerable users — pedestrians, bicyclists, and carless residents of the third world. Every system generates some waste. It is the constructed, systematic, and ultimately more harmful than helpful effects of this system that are not reckoned with by the “environmentalist,” pro-electric car movement.
Albert’s article on electric cars debunks a number of “myths” regarding the technological infrastructure and function of electric car engines. This focus on minimal improvements in efficiency and production goals aligns Albert and other e-car proponents with an outmoded form of techno-environmentalism even as the electric car is sold as what’s next. Electric cars will not reduce the exorbitant number of traffic deaths nor end gridlock nor ameliorate the excesses of urban sprawl. One need only look at the style of the Tesla Roadster to recognize that this movement is not so much about the future as it is about salvaging the broken, perverse infrastructure of the past. There are a number of important technologies in America with deep potential for political and social change. Our transportation system is one of them. A more equitable and less violent street life is possible. This possibility depends on our willingness to imagine moving beyond the incredibly costly system of automobility that rules most American lives. Walkable communities, bicycle-friendly streets, and traditional mass transit will be key components of this better world, and there will surely be other new hybrid technologies that borrow from but ultimately change the current system. Such systems are the focus of John Urry and Kingsley Dennis’s After the Car (2009), the book I most wished to see added to Albert’s bibliography.
— Justin Eichenlaub
Commonwealth in Cairo
When you published Bruce Robbins’s review of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Commonwealth only four months ago, it was the same unimaginative critique that has been circulating for years. Now, after the insurrections in Tunisia and Egypt, it has become indefensible. On the streets of Cairo, the multitude answered Robbins’s demand that it appear and prove itself. His complaint that “an organization without unity or leadership is one hand clapping” transforms from a glib dismissal back into a koan when juxtaposed with scenes of ad hoc Egyptian safety committees battling police mobs.
There’s poetic justice to one of Robbins’s most unfair criticisms of Commonwealth, which arises from an either careless or willful misreading of Hardt and Negri’s concept of exodus. He writes, “it makes more sense to think of the task of politics as staying to fight. . . .” But as Hardt and Negri write, “this exodus does not necessarily mean going elsewhere. We can pursue a line of flight while staying right here, by transforming the relationship of production and mode of social organization under which we live.”
Once again, Egypt models exodus. And its multitude is not going anywhere.
— Malcolm Harris
Bruce Robbins replies:
Watching the courageous and inexhaustible crowds in Tahrir Square, Malcolm Harris must have felt the thrill of divine revelation. This had to be the long-awaited sign. Surely here at last was the messianic “multitude” for which so many readers of Hardt and Negri have searched in vain on all terrestrial maps.
Yes, what happened in Cairo did seem miraculous. Revolution always does. But now that things have calmed down a bit, it becomes clear that the spontaneity in Tahrir Square had been prepared for by months and years of coordination by well-organized antigovernment groups including churches and labor unions as well as the April 6 Youth Movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Academy of Change (see the New York Times, February 14, 2011). The overthrow of Mubarak was an astonishing feat of digitally assisted but otherwise old-fashioned organization — the sort of politics that Hardt and Negri see as obsolete or worse. Those who look for the source of the events in concepts like “immaterial labor” or “exodus” or “the multitude” are welcome to keep looking for them as long as they like, and no doubt they will. These concepts are so vague and unanchored in empirical reality that they could apply (or, equally, not apply) anywhere on earth.
Luckily, the people confronting the Mubarak regime did not wait for or otherwise acknowledge the radical conceptual innovations of Hardt and Negri. We don’t need those concepts either. All we need right now is to remind ourselves that, as the old slogan says, this is what democracy looks like.
I enjoyed reading Mark Greif’s essay “On Repressive Sentimentalism” [Issue Eight]. I also enjoyed Greif’s response to the letters in Issue Nine. Forty-five percent of the general population is currently unmarried. That 45 percent is disproportionately poor, female, nonwhite, older, and lacking a college degree. Many live with siblings, friends, cousins. When the government and our financial institutions discriminate by marital status, they deny almost half of the population legal, financial, and medical self-determination. This is what our sentimentalism truly represses. It is undeniable that marriage has internal benefits, emotional, sexual, and financial. It is deplorable to use that fact as a stick to beat someone else.
Greif hopes that gay marriage will be a first step toward empowering the unmarried 45 percent. It could just as easily go the other way, with gay marriage giving everyone a permission slip to wallow in sentimentality. Ending discrimination against gay and lesbian couples certainly doesn’t make marital status discrimination any nicer.
In terms of “what to do,” The Alternatives to Marriage Project is the only national organization that challenges conjugality within our legal, medical, and financial orders. In terms of “what to read,” I have found much insight in Nancy Polikoff’s Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage and Stanley Cavell’s Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman.
— Elise Harris
I just received my subscription re-up, including Paper Monument 3. Hooray! As I tell everyone that will listen to me, n+1 is one of two magazines I buy regularly in paper form, not only because it is worth the cash, but because its physical presence is so expressive. I love the long-form articles and thick, perfect-bound spine. It’s something I can really heft, which while being a metaphorical, physiologic sort of scholarliness, is something that this antique bookworm can really appreciate. So, as always, thanks.
But I’m writing with a suggestion. I couldn’t help but notice that my thick tome of intellectual erudition came to me shipped in a Tyvek bag. Tyvek is a great material for mailing. It is light and almost impossible to tear. But, it is also almost completely un-recyclable. It is made of a patented plastic blend by DuPont, and can only be recycled by shipping it back to them, not with any sort of consumer recycling, of the pick-up-at-the-curb variety.
I know this might be a screwy West Coast complaint. But over the past year, my partner and I have been reviewing our trash content in an effort to find ways to reduce the amount of stuff we are throwing into holes in the earth and the sea. After recycling everything that can be recycled, throwing food waste into our backyard, and even reusing graywater, we’re left with one main source of waste: packaging. Why do veggieburgers come individually wrapped in plastic inside the box? Why do jars need security seals both inside and outside the lid? Why are electronics wrapped in multiple layers of plastic? I’m sure there are reasons, but it is with this sort of stuff that we fill bags and bags, week after week.
So, while I appreciate the care with which n+1 arrives at my doorstep, I would totally take a dinged corner, if only I could be sure I could recycle the envelope.
— Adam Rothstein
The office replies:
Several years ago, a team of n+1 interns determined that Tyvek was the best packaging material by repeatedly throwing a Tyvek-wrapped Issue Four (Reconstruction) against a wall. But Tyvek is also, as Adam Rothstein notes, spunbonded plastic, making it almost impossible to recycle, and as a result of his letter we are now researching more environmentally responsible, monomaterial-based alternatives. The most promising option seems to be the Fastpak, made of a tough monomaterial Polyethylene blend. Pending samples, and further tests, recyclable mailers will become a reality.