Gather.com, the folks who put together a chat with Jonathan Safran Foer not too long ago, have announced a new writing contest. Online writing contests are a dime a dozen, but the cool thing about this one is that the four winning short pieces (fiction or non-fiction) will be “published and sold on Amazon Shorts,” which would undoubtedly be a terrific venue for any aspiring writer. In fact, it’s along the lines of what I hoped Amazon would do with its Shorts program.
Unlike in recent years, I didn’t get a ton of books this year for Christmas nor did I give any – and, no, this had nothing to do with Joe Queenan’s recent screed in the New York Times against giving books as gifts – though I can see where he’s coming from. Nonetheless, I did get a couple of pretty cool items. The one that I’m most thrilled about is the shiny, new Complete New Yorker that my parents – who know me well – gave me. When I first heard about this back in June, I said this: “My fear is that once I got my hands on this set, I would be compelled to consume every word of it at the expense of school and work and everything else, possibly even eating and sleeping. I may have to put myself into forced hibernation starting in October in order to keep those DVDs from falling into my hands.” But now that I actually own it, I’m willing to take the risk. In fact, I can’t wait to get back to Chicago so I can start digging into this thing. I’ll let you know how it goes.My brother gave me another cool “complete” set, the National Geographic Maps collection which contains every single map supplement published in the magazine from 1889 through 1999 on CD-ROM.From my parents, I also received a collection of interviews with writers like Thomas McGuane and William Styron called Story Story Story. Mrs. Millions, meanwhile, received a weighty tome called The World’s Greatest Architecture: Past and Present from her folks.My favorite non-book gift, though, would have to be the XM Radio that Mrs. Millions gave me. I actually can’t wait for our 14 hour drive back to Chicago so I can soak in all that satellite radio goodness.
From the far side of the Great Financial Meltdown, 1994’s Speed, ostensibly just another popcorn flick, starts to look instead like a brilliant allegory. Pop quiz, hot shot:
Dennis Hopper: “The airport. Gunman with one hostage. He’s using her for cover. He’s almost to a plane. You’re a hundred feet away.”
Keanu Reeves: “Shoot the hostage.”
Don’t see it yet? Consider: Keanu is the government, Hopper is the neoliberal consensus, the crazy person waving the Glock around is the financial industry, the bullet is two trillion dollars in losses, and the poor schmo being jerked hither and yon is you and me.
Readers concerned to further understand the dynamics of our own particular hostage crisis would do well to look at a couple of more recent documents: The Big Short and Diary of a Very Bad Year: Confessions of an Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager. Their charms are complementary. In the former, Michael Lewis, a Salomon Brothers alum, brings an insider’s savvy to the subprime crisis. In the latter, N+1 (in the person of Keith Gessen) lends an outsider’s ear to the brilliant disquisitions of a guy caught in the middle of it all. And read side-by-side these books do something even more valuable. They suggest that our captivity is at least partly in the mind – that even the most astute critics of what Lewis calls “The Doomsday Machine” have internalized some of the premises that made it possible.
In the case of The Big Short, that suggestion feels accidental. Lewis (also the author of The Blind Side, among other bestsellers) knows that every good story needs someone to root for, and so, against the big New York investment banks, he fields a kind of Magnificent Seven of scrappy smaller investors. (Smaller is a relative term, of course; most of these guys have tens of millions of dollars of assets under management.) Most compelling is his central character, Mike Burry, a California-based hedge-fund principal with a glass eye and Asperger’s syndrome. Burry, as Lewis tells it, was one of the only people in America with the acumen – and, thanks to the Asperger’s, the patience – to evaluate the actual mortgage tranches underlying those now infamous “toxic assets.” And, with our American admiration for an underdog, we cheer Burry on as he tries to find a way to monetize his discoveries before the subprime market collapses.
Lewis explains with great lucidity how, via the esoteric financial instruments Burry engineers (or rather, has Goldman Sachs engineer) theoretically endless profits can be manufactured from a single piece of subprime paper, like Xeroxes from an original. What he never quite spells out, though, is that the huge profits Burry amasses shorting the subprime market also represent huge losses for his counterparties – and thus (by way of bailouts and layoffs) to taxpayers all over the world. Perhaps this is why the The Big Short, in the end, lacks a sense of moral payoff. It’s as if the Wall Street Journal narrative of enterprise as an end in itself has gained traction not only with Burry, but with Lewis. At the very least, it says something that he takes as his hero of the financial crisis…a hedge-fund guy.
Gessen is more explicit about the amorality of postmodern finance. In an introductory note about the anonymous hedge fund manager who is his subject (henceforth, and in the book, HFM), he laments “that a mind so excellent, so generous, so curious, should spend all its time on relative trading in foreign jurisdictions and yelling at people who refuse to pay him back. . . .” But in this note, as in the interviews that follow, we can feel him being seduced, as we are, by HFM’s formidable intellect. Indeed, Gessen wants us to feel that seduction. HFM’s mind is “excellent” – and makes for excellent reading. Listening to him discourse on capital flows, currency speculation, real estate, literature, and hedge-fund folkways is like taking a terrific college elective, minus the final exam:
There’s some people who think the problem is so bad that if you actually recognize the losses, that it’s akin to smashing the equipment in the factory. Because these institutions can’t exist anymore, right? That for a bank, if you say, “Look, you can’t exist anymore. You’re so deeply insolvent that everybody’s fired and everybody’s got to leave,” at that point financial intermediation won’t work anymore. It doesn’t matter that you’ve marked everything down to the level that makes sense – you don’t have a financial system anymore. And a lot of people think that’s one of the reasons the Great Depression was so difficult to get out of, that the financial machinery was smashed. So I think which camp you fall into depends a little on how bad you think the damage is.
Still, like Burry’s, and perhaps even Lewis’, HFM’s is a captive mind. For all his candor about the causes of the financial crisis, he speaks from within a framework of essentially Friedmanite, free-market fundamentalism. As he’s speculating about martial law and breadlines, his biggest worry remains not widespread unemployment, but…the possibility of inflation and its effect on currency values. (His concessions to Keynesianism seem to evaporate as the immediate crisis of the Lehman Brothers collapse recedes.) Nor does HFM appear to see the shenanigans of the financial sector as systemic, rather than as tokens of personal fraudulence on the part of unsavory “dirtbags.” Gessen’s interviewing strategy – to present himself as a novice in search of instruction – succeeds brilliantly, in that it gets HFM to open up in all kinds of compelling and admirable ways. On the other hand, it means that his macroeconomic premises tend to go unchallenged.
Narratives about the horrors of stimulative deficit spending, in particular, have lately become a viral element in the body politic. As with New York’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s, or the various currency collapses of the 1990s, the public is being set up to choose between punishment at the hand of “bond vigilantes” or draconian “austerity measures” designed to ward off default. Notice, though, that those bond vigilantes are the very people who got us into this mess in the first place. Notice that the rate of inflation reported a few days ago was essentially 0%. And notice that, if we accept the choice as it is being framed for us, the hostage is screwed either way. I invite you to think back to Speed. One of the first questions we’re trained to ask about any narrative is whether the narrator is reliable. And if history has taught us anything, people, it’s that Dennis Hopper is f-ing crazy.
I’ve been submitting my fiction to magazines big and small for six years, since I was a senior in college. It took two years to receive my first acceptance, and another two years to receive my second. Since then, my record has improved: I had a story published last year, and two more are forthcoming. Still, the rejections come. My first year at Iowa, I took a seminar with Cole Swensen called Poetics of the Book. Our first assignment was to make a book out of unconventional materials. One student wrote a poem on gingersnap cookies; another student silkscreened words onto panes of glass. I took my big pile of rejection slips and sewed them together with some ugly brown thread. The stitching was poor (I can’t even replace a button), and because I hadn’t done much planning, the book unfolded in many different directions and was difficult to puzzle back together. Still, my work was impressive (Wow, look how many times I’ve been turned down!), and also pathetic (Wow, look how many times I’ve been turned down!). At the very least, it was proof of my tenacity. I’ll admit, the process was therapeutic. Those slips, some small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, now had an artistic function, and if my stories weren’t going to be bound, at least something could be. I continued to sew new rejections to the collection, and it didn’t take long for the thing to grow unwieldy. Finally, I put it aside. Now I’ve got a drawer stuffed with new rejections. What should I do with them? Sometimes I imagine having a dress made out of the slips, a shift maybe, or some slinky thing with an open back, to wear on a future book tour. Or I consider building a mobile to hang above my desk – as a threat, perhaps? I’ve heard that Amy Tan wallpapered her home’s bathroom with past rejections, and in his book On Writing, Stephen King talks about the spike on which he impaled his rejections. And there’s always this idea. But why I am keeping the damn things anyway? On author M.J. Rose’s blog, Dr. Susan O’Doherty explains: It is the childish, hypersensitive, irrational aspects of our psyche that connect us with the deep, primal themes and images that drive our most powerful writing. That primitive self is woven into the manuscripts we have the highest hopes for–and that self experiences every rejection as a blood wound, no matter what we know intellectually. I suspect that it’s this self that doesn’t want to let the slips go.Dr. Sue suggests a ritual of letting this pain go, perhaps by lighting a fire and burning each rejection, bidding goodbye or a fuck you to each one. I found Dr. Sue’s advice via Literary Rejections on Display, a blog devoted to the anger, pain and frustration that follows every “Good luck with placing your work elsewhere” from an agent or editor. This blog is itself an answer to what to do with your rejections: throw them away, but first, complain about them on the internet! The posts, penned anonymously, are sometimes funny, but the bitterness and wrath sadden me, especially when they’re aimed at small literary journals. Stop blaming them, and start subscribing. As much as I fret about my rejection slips, and get pissed off when I get a new one, or wonder when such-and-such magazine will get back to me, I try my hardest not to encourage the fixation. Too much attention on publication means less attention on the work itself: to the sentences, the images, the characters. Whenever I get frustrated by a rejection, I remember something my teacher Lan Samantha Chang once told me. “Publishing a story won’t change your life,” she said, “but revising it until it’s the best it can be, will.” Let’s all remember that the next time the mail comes.
Michael J. Arlen’s 1958 humor piece “Are we losing the novel race?” (which can be found in the New Yorker’s anthology of humor writing) starts out thusly: “As if things weren’t bad enough already, word has just reached me that the Russians have recently published a 1,600 page novel.” The amusing little piece, published at the height of Cold War hysteria, spoofs both the nation’s fear of an impending nuclear war and the literary world’s longtime obsession with heft. The Cold War is over now, but people are still fascinated by really big books.The latest really big book is a 1,360 page debut novel called Hunger’s Brides: A Novel of the Baroque by a Canadian named Paul Anderson. An article in the NY Times – which includes this quote from Anderson’s publisher: “I told him, ‘You can’t not go there.’ And that’s how it got longer.” – is dutifully descriptive on the subject of the book’s size: “It weighs 4 pounds, 9 ounces, equivalent to two and a half copies of The Da Vinci Code, and it is thicker than Verizon’s Manhattan telephone directory (either the white or yellow pages).” Luckily, the author seems to have a sense of humor about having published such a, shall we say, weighty book: his official Web site includes a slideshow of “safe reading positions”. And if you’re really curious, there are several excerpts up as well.
Millions contributor Emily’s award-winning review of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale has been posted by VQR. Check it out.