A Year in Reading: M.C. Mah

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Standing athwart the evident passage of a year, shuddering, “No.” Never have I claimed to be well-read; I exhibit reading behavior. Taking honest account of it feels akin to my book of the year 2017, Alissa Nutting’s “Grub Street Diet,” wherein she wrote, “I like texture more than flavor.”

Because I tend to read what’s in the vending machine. At the end of this Year in Reading installment I will award the 2018 Achievement in Vended Prose from among these ruffles, puddings, and cool, ranch-flavored corn crunches: Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer; KellyMom and Lucie’s List; the indistinct voice of Maggie Haberman and coauthor; half a dozen servings of sportswriting for my health; “TFW” Patricia Lockwood has been assigned a review; “Russian meddling”; Rotten Tomatoes audience reviews for “research”; Babycenter’s “My Baby This Week” emails, a little on the nose; NYT’s “Sunday Routine” or, “Roast a chicken to graze on for the rest of the week—what’s wrong with you?”; Janet Malcolm and “SJW garbage”; Zadie Smith and r/Relationships (where peevish 21Ms ask nicely that their girlfriends lose weight); tweets urging newspapers to use the word “lie” in their headlines; Elif Batuman’s “Japan’s Rent-a-Family Industry” as read aloud by my mom; the epic of heterosexuality that is Allison Benedikt and John Cook’s entry in “Our One Fight”; buzz for A Star Is Born so I’d know just how seriously I was supposed to take it when I went to see it alone.

I read about unaffordable cities and segregated schools, every time. Because it’s up to us not to want what we want.

A Year in Words Mattering
“Words matter,” it is said tragically, because of the damage they can do even when strung together incompetently. Words matter because people believe them. I believed Caitlin Flanagan’s “I Believe Her.” And Jia Tolentino on the front lines of male anxiety: “He would ask me if I didn’t think it was dangerous to lump all these things together, and I would try to find the words to say that the fear of things being lumped together does more to lump them together than all the speaking up.”

But if words matter in that good writing still affords deep human pleasures, this was the year of the Taffy Brodesser-Akner profile. On Goop, GP in the flesh, and the price of feeling improved: “We are doomed to aspire for the rest of our lives. Aspiration is suffering. Wellness is suffering.”

(Pause.) The nominee in the category of Words Mattering: Sarah Miller’s “The Movie Assassin.” Clip:
Everyone talks about the country falling apart in November 2016, but maybe it fell apart in November 1996, when America went to see The English Patient. What if we had all turned to each other and said, “This garbage is our idea of rave-worthy cinema? Anyone else see a big problem here?”, and then there had been a massive riot?
This “butterfly flaps its wings” scenario differs significantly from the one about the housing bust, fentanyl, and the alt-right because it imagines instead street riots over the critical consensus regarding Minghella’s Best Picture winner. And yet I found it plausible: to pinpoint a time when the culture fell out of its delicate balance; when it stopped being serious, and at the same time, lost its sense of humor. Does the edgy joke overtake the country in a timeline that includes the English Patient Riots of ’96? I don’t think so.

A Year in Nothing Mattering
Here’s the thing: I read what you read. I read apologies. I read testimonials and denials. I read evenhanded appraisals, self-congratulations, and baseless claims. I read the takes and the takes read me. So I can’t be alone here: I hate reading anything about Trump; I hate reading anything that doesn’t take place in a world where the giant novelty scarecrow came to life, outperformed polling in the upper Midwest, and governed on white identity. My loyalties lie with a presiding anguish. Traister, Cobb, M. Gessen, Bouie—I regret to inform you that what cannot be allowed to stand, stands.

I read all criticisms of Facebook, rooting for the articles to break through the supposedly salient issue of digital “privacy,” as if, in the end, small fighters could fly preposterously to a central engine and destroy it. I read a tweet about the privilege of deleting Facebook (practically synonymous with Internet access in some countries) approximately 15 seconds before news of its role in the murderous expulsion of the Rohingya in Myanmar. I’ve thought about it every day since.

At times, reading felt like perpetual debate prep. Bari Weiss’s “Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web”—you read it, I read it, we looked upon our friends who had not read it with envy and then resentment—the arrogance! To make us read it for them! (To salvage that rare good tire out of the tire fire, try Amia Srinivasan, “Does anyone have the right to sex?”) We tend to think of reading as exemplary, enriching. What is the opposite of that? 2018 was a banner year in abject reading—hostile, morbid, “social.”

I tried and failed to not read amorphous content by those dedicated to the defeat of people like me in rhetorical combat. Day and night they worked to flatten us in the post-lecture-Q&A-session-before-the-raucous-university-audience of their minds. I take it that I find there to be no biological differences between women, men, squid, and cauliflower; I want to repeal the first amendment; I am unable to disagree in a civil manner. And if you believe that, Reader, fuck you.

There is no nomination in the category of Nothing Mattering. Nobody deserved one.

A Year in Making Certain That an Infant Is Breathing
“The cube is fun for everyone,” sings the cube. The cube’s fine reviews did not mention the sounds it made.

However problematic it may be to lay my incapacity at the feet of an infant, I have found it difficult to read and work. (I didn’t get into Knausgård—this is not a defense of the wage gap.) Little known to the unparenting, those manuals one promises themselves that they’ll read in dire preparation for what otherwise, it is said, cannot be prepared for, are virtually unreadable lists of number-ranges in reference to behaviors and bodily functions in the zero to six rough months at the start. Even now I am left with the feeling that I did not read what I had to, only what I could: the Boards, over-the-shoulder Slack, the newsletters (Laura Owen’s I’ll Be Right Back, Emily Gould’s Can’t Complain), and Bringing Up Bébé, the only parenting book to make an argument (the galling superiority of the French style. “Le Pause,” I say to the baby. “I have spit up,” he says, or more precisely, does not say).

For advice on gender roles in parenting, Rachel Cusk, Aftermath: “My notion was that we would live together as two hybrids, each of us half male and half female.” Sure, I’m there. On the spiritual logic of procreation, the great and generally acute Heather Havrilesky: “Have a baby. Then have another baby!”

Parents themselves I like. In their own way, they keep pace with troubled times. I see them everywhere, their progeny swathed in Big Muslin and reclined in Uppababys, and I try to respect and dignify them, as I would anyone who publicly admitted to a willful mistake.

An honorable mention for first story, first sentence, goes to Lauren Groff’s Florida: “I have somehow become a woman who yells…” But the nominee in the category of Making Certain That an Infant Is Breathing is Meaghan O’Connell, And Now We Have Everything. Clip: “For the first few weeks I was always expecting to catch the baby, somehow, mid-death.”

The lights are off; it is hard to tell.

A Year in Reading IRL
The sheer scale of the irony of the Internet! The techno-polymorphic way forward turned out to multiply our envy, streamline our anger, tease our anxiety, and make an independent sense of value—the very sense one would have to have to ably exist with the Internet and within it—seem like snobbery or, what’s worse, performative contrarianism. We know for sure that our reading habits, books culture, and journalism literary and otherwise were upended by five companies that gave no aforethought to what it might do other than earn them market share, but the distinct effects of this gerrymandering our minds is an open question.

My wife and I “read the Internet,” which is a casual way of saying we barely read anything about everything. My wife would read the Internet while nursing. I would read the internet in line at Trader Joe’s, where I am able to go on civil weekday afternoons to buy eggs and rolled oats and some other bullshit. Or is it that we read everything about nothing? Before the baby was born I read all day, but didn’t have much to say about it save for an over-cultivated sense of what other uncompromising people would have to say. We were never right about anything, but what chance did we have? The technological distillation of both reading and writing is pressing again and again that button that says we’re just as different as everyone else.

But late at night, in the lulls between tragedy and farce, the writers do their affirmations; that genres other than Speculative Mueller are not only viable but necessary: Fiction! The post–personal essay! I must confess that I find these songs of relevance to be well-meant but off the mark. There is no principle that makes writing essential to the reader. Truly necessary writing is defined by scarcity, anomaly. At the same time, I don’t mean to lionize “failure,” now a euphemism describing a kind of moxie-building pre-success. It’s just that a piece of writing almost never works.

It is not as though culture cannot continue now that children have been caged, but if form and subject matter have narrowed for writers as their readers’ moral imaginations are strained to a breaking point, then so be it. There is no accounting for the era that does not find the culture diminished. This is going badly for all of us.

So badly indeed that it is with a renewed sense of unexpectedness that we find the culture alive and well. My 2018 Year in Reading Award goes to Caity Weaver, taking it upon herself to personally taste-test one of four new flavors of Diet Coke, Diet Coke Feisty Cherry:
A better name for this drink would be “Diet Coke Psychotically Violent Cherry.” After sitting open for hours, the potency of the feisty black pepper flavor diminished not one iota. It is sobering to sip a soda and realize while every day I inch closer toward death, the soda is only growing stronger, smarter, and more powerful.
Hearing so often as of late that words matter, one could get the impression that they don’t. But what if they did, to anyone or anything? If words are to matter, our problems only deepen. Words mattering is the problem. The language will never achieve wellness. If anything, the present moment has made plain our insufficient disillusionment; it is not now, nor has it ever been the case that if words mattered, there’d be nothing left to do but tell the truth.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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Travesty and American Usage

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Just what possessed those millions of voters in the free and mostly fair 2016 election we can never be sure. But one thing was unmistakable: not only had the worst candidate won; it was the worst possible candidate. It was disgraceful, absurd, a low-brow shock; the gloating man himself reminiscent of a comment below an article written by a woman on the Internet. Given that the “hallmark of our democracy” is a peaceful transition, the term for what to otherwise resist was given: normalization. As jargon goes, it could have been worse, but I wasn’t sure I’d ever used the word before, and had to wonder if it was quite right.

Since then our politics have tended to bottleneck and stop, preceded and eclipsed by a dispute over words themselves: racist, sexist, supremacist. If an epithet, the answer is Who, me? If a term of ideology — alt-right, PC, fake news, identity politics — each means something precisely different to every speaker. One of the goals of the new administration is strictly rhetorical — to draw false equivalences, rob words of their meaning. The credibility of the press is constantly attacked, especially when it deigns to describe what the administration’s policies do, or read back what it has said.

In David Foster Wallace’s “Authority and American Usage,” ostensibly a long review of a dictionary, he describes a “Crisis of Authority in matters of language,” one set off by prescriptivists and descriptivists, grammar’s conservatives and liberals, give or take a few analogy-ruining specifics (the white working-class doesn’t wear bow ties, and none of the signs at the Women’s March read “All usage is relative.”). Point is, language is political. Arriving at its rules and conventions is an endless tug-of-war — what is the “correct” way to use the language and who is to judge? — which in Wallace’s view said usage dictionary artfully and persuasively irons out. To explain how, Wallace begins by reading off the rhetorical menu like so: there’s the “Logical Appeal ( = an argument’s plausibility or soundness, from logos),” and the “Pathetic Appeal ( = an argument’s emotional impact, from pathos).” In a sense, “A&AU” is a rave review of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage’s author Bryan A. Garner’s third way.
[Garner’s] main strategy involves what is known in classical rhetoric as the Ethical Appeal. Here the adjective, derived from the Greek ēthos, doesn’t mean what we usually mean by ethical. But there are affinities. What the Ethical Appeal amounts to is a complex and sophisticated “Trust me.” It’s the boldest, most ambitious, and also most democratic of rhetorical Appeals because it requires the rhetor to convince us not just of his intellectual acuity or technical competence but of his basic decency and fairness and sensitivity to the audience’s own hopes and fears.
To these we can make a recent addition: the Unethical Appeal ( = an argument’s capacity to provoke, humiliate, and deflect, as well as flatter the “rhetor” with claims of persecution for his outspokenness.) The Unethical Appeal may be used to lie, rile, and show contempt for the very reaction it seeks. It longs to drink “Liberal tears.” Recent, though hardly unfamiliar, the Unethical Appeal is the primary rhetorical style of the new administration.

Punditry has been slow to come around; there have been slightly embarrassed defenses — almost as if making a grammatical correction — of norms. The most oft-repeated sentiment was surprise that Trump had not disqualified himself repeatedly. It was a series of bewilderments: first, that one could insult; then, that one could lie; and even then that one could be exposed. Nothing seemed to matter the way it used to (“You couldn’t make it up”). As of this writing, we’re still trying to catch the president and his aides in the act, as if they were particularly shy about vandalizing the free world. Does this swamp look drained to you? we ask of some late hypocrisy. Yes, they say, all drained.

When they go high, you go low. Blame three million illegal voters — a massive horde of ghosts — for losing the popular vote. In response to anti-Semitism, casually fly a false flag. When Trump says, “Obama founded ISIS,” it is not meant to be verifiably true. It is meant to be rhetorically uncompromising, to valiantly prove its own point about what can be said.

A common complaint among his supporters is this perceived inability to say anything — some mysterious, impolitic truth at the core of their resentment. (“Merry Christmas.”) But that sense of grievance is readily voiced in various online subcultures, by Gamergaters or viral craftsmen of reactionary Periscopes. Still, the “ironic bigotry” of a YouTube star remains unknown to most anyone who doesn’t watch him play video games online. It’s fair to ask what the boards at 4chan have to do with Trump carrying Pennsylvania. Suppose the influence of alt-testosterone has been indirect, meme-driven — purely rhetorical.

The unspeakable unites the disparate parts of Trump’s constituency: the red hats at the rallies, the 53 percent (of white women), the fake-news factories, the Twitter eggs, and the spineless skin-crawling Priebuses of the Republican establishment who came out regardless of Trump’s objective repulsiveness. A metastasized rhetoric connects people who don’t believe what they’re saying with those who hear what they want to hear.

The Unethical Appeal will be linked from a Facebook post; it will show up in replies to a tweet expressing sorrow for the Holocaust; it will be shouted at people just to see who will startle; it will come from the White House Press Briefing Room, and from the president himself.

As Wallace wrote “Authority and American Usage,” he made note of every grammatical infelicity he happened upon (“10 items or less,” etc.). In the same vein, it took me just a few hours on November 9 to produce a list of singular reasons for the calamity.
White people
People who did not vote
Democrats who stayed at home
Every media outlet that normalized Trump
“Young men came to these online groups for tips on picking up girls & came out believing that it was up to them to save Western civilization” (Siyanda Mohutsiwa)
Your neighbors and relatives
“Race, gender, or class, fucking newsflash: it’s about all three” (Michael Lutz)
Trump fed on outrage
“America’s neglect of its own health comes directly from its stubborn insistence that nothing is as bad as it looks.” (@absurdistwords)
Virulent hatred
Let it burn
TV news
Republicans and Democrats who treated him like a joke
53 percent of all white women
Jill Stein
The whole idea of a single cause for the election result didn’t stick — it was even subject to Unethical Appeals (“This is why you lost”). But if a singular diagnosis presented itself, it centered on a lack of “empathy” for Middle America. Our polarization seemed to address the election-forecast models’ inaccuracy. The prescription essentially has been to make more logical and pathetic appeals to one another.

Accordingly, facts, such as the number of acts of terrorism carried out by Syrian refugees in the U.S. (zero), should be cited; and we should, on the basis of those facts, bid the travel ban’s proponents have an ounce of shame. But the whole expository gymnastics — our filter bubbles, the disaffection of the white working-class, the gaming of the media — is predicated on explaining to the earnest world why so many would celebrate a liar for his honesty.

We could have hardly expected the entire country’s “Crisis of Authority” to apply to the truth itself, but this ship has sailed something fierce. Which calls for a certain vigilance. “Now is the time to talk about what we’re actually talking about,” wrote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. “Resistance starts with plain speaking,” tweeted Alex Steffen. This characterizes much of the protest rhetoric that meets a now-familiar litany of race-baiting and broad-daylight falsities.

Wallace spends a good part of “A&AU” self-consciously parsing the fact that “language is by its very nature public.” What we’re actually talking about — the information conveyed — is inflected by the expression of ourselves by other means. Variables include the several dialects (“Urban Southern,” “Maine Yankee,” and/or “Standard Written English”) in which a speaker is versed, and the idea that “the dialect you use depends mostly on what sort of Group your listener is part of and on whether you wish to present yourself as a fellow member of that Group” (a dry response to the right-wing talking point about words liberals supposedly refuse to say i.e. “radical Islamic terrorism”). Wallace, who was male and very white, recounts his delivery of his patented remedial grammar spiel to a bright young black student as a means of painfully demonstrating how rhetoric is conjoined with whoever is making the argument — or “privilege.” Suffice it to say the road to meaning is long and winding. And all this amounts to a necessary inconvenience: the community decides what is plain, and now what is, in rhetorical terms, plainly true.

“U.S. Presidential Campaign” is also a dialect: straitlaced, clipped, pompous — and repetitive! It’s a dialect the Obamas were able to temporarily elevate but that the Unethical Appeal ultimately made mincemeat of. Adichie identifies “balanced,” “alt-right,” “liberal bubble,” “identity politics,” “women” as words that have had their use diverted, and are worth setting straight. But the Unethical Appeal is in the business of sabotaging these meanings. An Iowan’s conviction that a system takes her tax dollars and redistributes them to undeserving people from Chicago is profoundly racist to us. But the U.S. electorate, as a community, is swayed by the unethically appealing idea that racism is a hysterical accusation — and not the American legacy.

The debate is framed and reframed ad nauseam — should we seek to convert our fellow citizens, or speak to the courage of our convictions (and risk alienating swing voters)? A paradoxical stalemate is quickly reached, where either party accepts the other is right in principle. Such is life in an unacceptable democracy.

Words should be used clearly, without buzzy euphemism or fear. But it remains that there is no language above the fray, especially not when it comes to supposedly private meanings — hateful, privileged, woke. After stints reporting on Bay Area tech gentrification and Oberlin College, Nathan Heller has a more abstract imperative: “Let’s drive our language out of private circles, back toward the public sphere.” Until we do, what is said loud and clear will fall on ears not exactly deaf, but tuned to a different reality of subjective truths, and now will not be the time.

“Jokes were a superior way to tell the truth,” wrote Emily Nussbaum, nostalgic for satire that didn’t seem as insufficient as its target is broad — a “Drumpf” hat atop the ash heap of history. The joke in play was well-known to combatants in recent culture wars, the campus politics beat, and all heavy users of Twitter. Precisely, it’s always both a joke and a supposedly trenchant critique of those too censorious to think it funny. This was novel enough to shock mainstream political reporters, unfamiliar with “how dangerous it could be for voters to feel shamed and censored — and how quickly a liberating joke could corkscrew into a weapon.” (“I don’t understand how the president can make an attack like that.” — Jake Tapper, emphasis mine. The dirt-simple answer for which is overlooked by a seasoned reporter like Tapper because he is seasoned.) The Unethical Appeal is the song of adolescence: the rise out of you is all that matters. As rhetoric, it’s less of an attempt to persuade than a bomb threat to get school canceled. Not everyone laughed out loud, but Trump’s voters walked out of class anyway.

Even worse, the joke is direly unfunny — it needs to be explained. This was an election won — and an administration conducted — in bad faith. What a person feels in their heart of hearts is for them to know, but Trump has done much worse than bear personal animus. “Birtherism” rested on the assumption that those who don’t look like you must have cheated, that they do not deserve what should be reserved for people who do look like you and are from the same place you come from. Possibly not even “racism” does justice to this vicious selfishness. The President of the United States names and points, telling his supporters who to blame, a rallying call — against immigrants, Muslims — that human beings aren’t good enough or strong enough to resist. It’s no secret that he does this not out of some ideology with which we might disagree, but in order to stay on TV and hear distant cheers. The true reason for his illegitimacy — Russian interference or not — is that he makes America worse.

The Unethical Appeal is a permanent part of Internet culture — its founding rhetoric, perhaps. It’s a cheat code, nonbiodegradable trash. A rhetoric is a kind of technology, and we would just as soon vanquish the Unethical Appeal as we would bring back factory jobs, or speak to one another on the phone. Its pervasive role in the election — and the elevation of those for whom the Unethical Appeal is their sole expertise — is what’s truly unprecedented; I imagine it also accounts for the distinct feeling that we’re living in a revenge porn of a country.

But people who reject the Unethical Appeal are still subject to it. Identity politics and “political correctness” are defended on their antagonists’ terms. Troubleshooting techniques on hand — leaning on the targeted to sign off, fact-checking on HillaryClinton.com, or waiting for corporate social media to act in our best interests — have all been found wanting. But an almost anti-rhetorical show of strength seems to be working. Service was nonexistent at the Women’s March in D.C. — it’s possible I hadn’t read a tweet in hours. At a burger joint sometime after five, when a newscast showed Chicago and L.A. and London, a cheer went up. During its rocky organization, and while the zeitgeist was scanned for its after-effects, it was said that the march could have been better articulated; perhaps that is as it should be: a powerfully inarticulate expression of opposition.

The recommendations of “Authority and American Usage” are just maybe instructive for the historical moment. When A Dictionary of Modern American Usage makes its case for the value of prescriptive grammar, Wallace fawns over Garner’s style — reasonable, democratic, and so much less pointy-headed and elitist than somebody. Searching for a way to describe it, Wallace looks up “authority” in the dictionary. After the first definition — about the right to power, obedience, and judgment — he finds this: “2. Power to influence or persuade resulting from knowledge or experience.”

In his op-ed defending BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the “golden shower” dossier, editor-in-chief Ben Smith argued that a gatekeeper’s secrecy makes less sense than trusting his audience enough to show them a document that had already been in the possession of both their representatives in government and news organizations for some time. The “purity and incorruptibility” of traditional reporting he dismisses out of hand. A lot is at stake here — and let’s allow that the responsibility for false equivalences lies ultimately with those who make them (“FAKE NEWS”) and not with those who may have invited them. Transparency — showing readers your journalistic work — is an interesting, open question to Smith. For whatever reason, credibility — a reader-citizen’s capacity to trust that which she hasn’t seen with her own eyes — is not.

A contempt for the media is nearly unanimous; it’s a song lyric, a night tweet from the current White House, and a lament of the resistance Left. The remark is typically made without any consideration of where a media absent authority leaves us. With max efficiency we were delivered to the bottom of a slippery slope — Facebook made fraud easy and profitable; fakes were seen more than real news was read. Twitter proved a brutally effective technology for the siege — propaganda, harassment — but not the besieged. The question is how to restore the authority of journalism — not as a given, but according to the “knowledge or experience” with which it performs its role in our democracy. CNN and Fox News on mute at the airport does not an informed citizenry make. We might want to subscribe to a magazine with more full-time fact-checkers than the zero employed by companies with cool native ad templates. Or we could read that newspaper the president says is on its last legs. When I ran this argument by a friend of mine, he thought I was “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” None of this is going to be easy; I don’t imagine I make it any easier on myself by mounting a defense of elite journalism and calling for throwing out at least part of the baby. Still: now is the time to say that the disruption of journalism was led by tech companies that are moral failures.

An authority is one that can tell us which rule is truly arbitrary and which rule preserves meaning. “People who eat that kind of mushroom often get sick.” — Wallace’s own pithy demonstration of grammatical value. (If you can spot that error, try to parse: “By law he can’t have conflicts.”) Twitter and Facebook were created to fill market niches, not to do the things that they are most often used for. This “open platform” ideology held even as they proved to be optimized primarily for rampant abuse and the generation of profitable user data. Their significant potential for political organizing is skewed by self-congratulation. “Twitter’s amplification of marginal voices and contributions to comedy stand alone. (Facebook — its user growth at an all-time high — is, as ever, described by its most devoted users as a complete waste of time.) Together, the two are offering us little but mushrooms that often make us sick.

“A&AU”‘s other recommendation comes at the outset: a “Democratic Spirit,” defined as a “passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others.” I doubt it’s just me who finds this ethic concedes that which we can no longer afford. “The premise for empathy has to be equal humanity,” wrote Adichie — a premise impossible to square with Trump’s 63 million votes. What could it mean otherwise? The American cultural divide is literal, geographical: rural and urban. If we live inside bubbles, we should ask ourselves if at least something on those glistening surfaces represents a value worth holding on to. In the last few years, I’ve spent a good deal of time in the Midwest. The people are lovely, we shake hands, I’m welcomed into their homes. But in the places they live, there’s less countryside and more vast parking lots of chain stores, sprawl in neon and gray. It is American culture as advertised from sea to shining sea, in long aisles where people — who have been told that they are all different — confront a market-scape made for everyone indistinguishably. In contrast, urban America offers all sorts of people one hasn’t met before, and a cultural distinctiveness that, while it may include $18 cold brews ripe for parody, is vital, diverse. Living in cities best embodies the Democratic Spirit — again, a nearly impossible argument to make during a real-estate boom that’s done much to make our country almost feudal with inequality.

Writing about Obama’s invocation of Selma in his farewell speech, and his longstanding rhetoric about American unity in general, Ezekiel Kweku noted, “The victories won by those marchers weren’t about consensus, about ‘our’ decision to change; they were about one vision of what America should be confronting and defeating a competing vision. ‘We, the people’ wasn’t all of us.” Part of the election-shock came from the lingering presumption that a people, or a country itself, could be, by nature, good. This is a mistake, a misplaced modifier, an obvious typo even. It might take a while for the truth to prevail. But if we hold out for the word that belongs to us all, and to which we are all equally subject, the truth is, it won’t.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In Order to Live: Story Structure in the Horoscopic Style

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In the late 12th century, the father of teenage Leonardo Fibonacci takes him off the North African streets and sets him at the feet of gruff Arab tutors. They can’t help it — they like the kid, who they can tell is going to be a nightmare until they agree to teach him the Art of Nine Symbols. Back in Pisa, Fibonacci discovers an axiomatic sequence in which each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21). The corresponding ratio describes the pleasing spiral he’s been staring at all day — it just looks right. Eight hundred years later, a creative-writing student drafting a story is told it might help to draw its plot. And there it is. (See figure A.)

Here come the metaphors. John McPhee compares writing a story to prepping a meal, and to the gathering — crystallizing — of salt underground. His essay, “Structure,” traces the Continental Divide, pulls on “chronological drawstrings,” and knits the presumed narrative scarf from the “threads” everyone keeps talking about. McPhee encourages students to diagram a story as “a horizontal line with loops above and below it to represent the tangents along the storyline, a circle with lines shooting out of it that denote narrative pathways” (See Figure B.) The rhetorical free-for-all disguises the wide influence of the gist — the anatomy of storytelling. Speaking of stories, “the shape of the curve is what matters,” says Kurt Vonnegut. Whereas Gustav Freytag’s muse was, sadly, a triangle, the sign and symbol of Fibonacci-McPhee is more like a map. But they’re manifestations of the same idea: of stories seeking, building, bending like a river, or anyways conceived of less as an appeal to a reader than as science-ish fieldwork. This definition of structure — indeed any definition of it — begs the question: What if structure is not that geometric or quite so cosmic or even, according to an au courant diagnosis, “televisual?” What if structure consists of questions themselves and not strictly the objects of those questions with which plotting is synonymous: A dead body. An excess of suitors. “A fully armed and operational battle station.”

Stories posit a teller in the service of the told, who are now able to, if they must, rate that service with a fractional number of stars. But the novel especially is a kind of hopeless democracy of two. An author and a reader staring at the same machine — the same story — not sure if and when it worked. Two privileged children — serialized TV and narrative nonfiction — have done so well for themselves that they should have laid the framework bare. But an erudite incoherence about structure is the rule. One thing for sure is that structure’s an anxiety, about a better way to tell a story, and surer proof of our discernment — that we get it. And so the idea of order in nature settles the nerves. The golden spiral is in the leaves, in shells — in stories?

The Fibonacci-McPhee Sequence
Early on in Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire there’s a transition in point of view, from William — scion, dilettante, and ex-singer in a punk band — to a blank-slate teen, Charlie, as he removes from its sleeve “the first Ex Post Facto LP from ’74.” This raised my hackles — though perhaps I should admit to having the quick-trigger hackles of someone with too many bookmarks in too many novels, not to mention paused places in the middle of episode three of season two, etc. Along with the ambitious size of the book, the coincidences of City on Fire have been well scrutinized: “…overstuffed with characters, and the lines of action uniting them fray to the point of breaking;” “overuse of chance discoveries of buried evidence.” There’s a wariness about what exactly the novel’s up to, despite the fact that just a little later it more or less tells you. In what is either a cool nod to, or a hearty embrace of, genre convention, Charlie’s crush, Samantha Cicciaro, is mysteriously shot. But thereafter the book occupies itself less with whodunit than with the shots’ sound waves ringing out into the night, washing over 10 other characters and, in a quantum-mechanical whisper, telling them that no one is alone.

City on Fire is a needle threaded between conventional plotting and ambitious “structure.” It finds itself among contemporary novels exhibiting an inflated sense of connection — storytelling in a kind of horoscopic style. It’s always been an odd thing to chalk up to a matter of belief: that one reader’s definition of a story is to another not a story at all. In a twist you would have never seen coming, “narrative architecture” becomes our term for what’s not necessarily there.
In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.
— Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science”
We have no idea what we’re talking about when we talk about structure. The following terms were used to describe the structure of narratives bearing the mark of horoscopic style (David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, City on Fire, and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s TV adaptation Game of Thrones): “stereoscopic,” “televisual,” “kaleidoscopic,” “unfilmable” — at least before the film. These structures were “non-linear,” “multi-head,” “multi-thread,” “rhizomatic,” “fragmented” — this last appearing so often that I had to wonder just what constitutes whole, homogeneous storytelling. What was it about these structures that was so “innovative” and “experimental?” Or, for that matter, “soap operatic” and “ruthless?”

To wit, Cloud Atlas is defined by “mapping” and “maplessness.” Its structure is “cool.” Here’s what happens: The novel’s five story lines culminate palindromically in one central section before the stories pick up in reverse order in the second half of the book (A, B, C, D, E, F, E, D, C, B, A). But that’s not what’s happening. Circumstantially, the story lines are connected by a birthmark, and, thematically, by music. The Five Narratives are also connected by the fact that Mitchell wrote them impeccably and, in accordance with genre, faithfully. It is said that the author pulled it off by “immersing himself in the different narratives one at a time, even keeping them in different ‘folders.’” Here is structure conflated with something more like process — the scout’s knot tying oneself to a chair. The story is a function of the author’s method of organizing for himself. McPhee describes his own use of Nabokovian note cards: “Then I move the cards around to see where I’m going to find a good structure, a legitimate structure.” It seems fair to ask: Who’s immersing whom here? Shall we perhaps hold each part of the story and think about whether or not it brings us joy?

These are the perils of “world-building.” A Game of Thrones episode marks time by cutting to each of its story lines, from Winterfell to Meereen, ne’er betraying a particular imperative to move the story in any direction but between. There’s a similar call-sheet structure to A Visit from the Goon Squad (the aforementioned rhizome); in her review, Sarah Churchwell sums up horoscopic style quite nicely:
Egan’s vision of history and time is also decidedly, and perhaps reassuringly, cyclical: the impacts these characters have upon each other are engineered not by coincidence but by connectedness itself, as the people we bump against and bang into become the story of our lives.
Not coincidentally, here is how Hallberg describes his intrepid journalist character: “A receiver. A connector. A machine made exactly for this.” Let us remember our Borges: that absolutely accurate “Map of the Empire” is torn to faded shreds, except, perhaps, where it showed us those places we’d put down our novels. Granted, these books are in almost every way excellent; Egan, Mitchell, and Hallberg are genius naturalists. Capable of invoking anything — any clipper ship or anxiety or rhododendron. But that kind of genius can be difficult to distinguish from a painterly need to get into the corners of the frame. Structure should be instrumental to a thing’s use; a handle for the writer’s talent. And yet the imperial cartographer’s exactitude somehow became a suitable answer for how to keep a reader in thrall. These novels have been praised for, among other things, ambition, inventiveness, and that they are, but what connects them more than anything else is that they’re romantic about structure.

The least we could do is to stop insisting that we’re all referring to the same thing. Which is, generally, convention. Structure is nearly synonymous with aiming for the cheap seats of genre, where the detective and the wizard and the submissive sit together and watch the game. We’ve come to regard suspense as a market force — an outline in chalk with which to take ingenious exception. And so we’re flush with cool hybrids. MacArthur fellows take on zombies; Ursula K. Le Guin gatekeeping Kazuo Ishiguro; a market for post-apocalypse in full bloom. But whenever much attention is paid to exceptions to the rule, one can only assume the rules are very clear. I’m speaking of genre, but also rent. Writing to market or furiously curating a social media platform are seen as considerations on the level of food on the table. A cottage industry in semi-pro writing has met popular — and extremely earnest — demand. In this sense, horoscopic style is both product and allergy to the “tools” of the craft industry; links to a “weak verb converter;” intensive three-day seminars for the low, low price of $995 for tuition and Final Draft software.

If our entertainments were piles of San Andrean rubble, wouldn’t we know? Perhaps, but structure has a way of passing itself off as an answer to the very question it presents — it’s what works. “You can build a structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages,” McPhee writes. And the other way?
“Listeners, we are currently fielding numerous reports that books have stopped working.”
— Welcome to Night Vale, “Station Management”
“Fiction is the posing of narrative questions,” is actually something the writer David Lipsky has said aloud on multiple occasions. Lipsky teaches a class of singular usefulness, from which I basically repeat back lessons in a dazed monotone. Men call him Lipsky, and women call him David. We were of one mind to get a good seat, and another to duck and scribble. In class, Lipsky calls on people, a barbaric pedagogic practice literally frowned upon by most of us, and what’s more, there was a preponderance of correct answers — never a drawing. The idea was that story — or, synonymously — structure, is no more and no less than to ask the reader leading questions in the hopes of interesting them. Of a given character — will she or won’t she be fired, loved, caught, absolved? In the end, the class was approximately half Immunes, with the other half wearing white smocks sporting one of David’s terms of art printed in bold: withheld data.

No one likes to be asked what the story’s about. But Lipsky was never referring to the about of the abstract painting or the period of the historical novel. Nothing was an allegory of post-whatsit America. He meant: a girl is trying to fit in at a private school. Or: those letters were forged. And once the story’s little knife is stowed, and a quorum had nodded or squinted or furrowed, he would say ask us to make an annotation in the margin: If a particular story, once begun, should find itself resolved, another story has to take the baton.

Now and then I’ll read a novel by a writer who seems to have bought in. Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies is a novel in two — the technical term here would be “parts.” Groff sets up the reader for any number of things — matriarchs withholding approval; a million-dollar bet on the marriage of an implausibly successful playwright to an “Ice queen from nowhere.” Readers will note the use of brackets. Nowhere-ian royalty Mathilde is “pretending to be faithful. [perhaps not].” Groff has referred to these bracketed asides as a “Greek chorus,” but what they are really is an efficient method of opening up dramatic-ironic gaps — questions. “She couldn’t know, he thought. [She did!]”

Ironically it’s the alternatives to “narrative architecture” that can seem a little bloodless and technical. Structure, to George Saunders, consists of “tools with which to make your audience feel more deeply.” These being tools at anyone’s disposal, no matter how inconveniently literary. After all, there are high stakes in life as it is ordinarily lived, which is to say, pitched anxiously between desire and embarrassment. A story that works makes room for the possibility that it won’t. “It wouldn’t have to be good,” says the imperious, soon-wedded older sister in Rebecca Curtis’s “The Toast.” It just “needs to be appropriate.” And yet there are some of us who wouldn’t be caught dead using a “tool.” We might keep it in the drawer by the bed, but what writer told to tell their story, find their own voice — “in order to live” — would want to feed it through “clunky machinery.”

Who Cares? Case Studies
About Star Wars: The Force Awakens, critics had 8, 10, 11, 18, 32, 43, and 77 “questions,” 6 of which were of the “big” variety, 11 of which were size “huge.” And 7, 15, 17, and 25 questions had gone exasperatingly “Unanswered.” Question in this context means “plot hole,” of which 5, 9, 40 (and “20 more” on top of that) were “unforgivable.” Admittedly, some of the enumerated are more like inconsistencies — does one need a map to reach coordinates in space? — but many of these questions are entirely intentional plot devices. Where is Luke Skywalker? gets you the movie. Rey’s parentage gets you all three. To be clear, the notable equivalence here is between functional storytelling and the galling lack thereof. It’s hard to say just how this happens, but there might be a clue on the white smock, a variation on the lover’s quarrel: What’s the difference between not telling and a lie?

One more case study from the relevant world: Serial. When it became clear that a radio documentary had become a blockbuster, that people loved this murder, Sarah Koenig, it seems, felt herself painted into an ethical corner. Here she is, bristling at the notion of enacting “suspense,” with the NYT Magazine’s question in bold:
But the podcast is a hybrid of journalism and entertainment. You have a lot of information, and it seems you’ve structured it for maximum suspense. I don’t think that’s fair…To us, it didn’t feel that different from a really long magazine story or — you know, any story that you would take care in structuring.
In the very first episode, Koenig describes Adnan Syed ’s mild manner — he doesn’t seem like a vicious psychopath. “I know, I’m an idiot,” says Koenig, her tone pitched to effective self-deprecation. Koenig knows that 12 podcast episodes won’t decide whether in fact evil is human or inhuman. (Not even Janet Malcolm knows: “The concept of the psychopath is, in fact, an admission of failure to solve the mystery of evil — it is merely a restatement of the mystery.”)

If not “suspense,” Koenig admits to “structuring.” But this distinction doesn’t hold up to scrutiny — not that I question whatsoever Koenig’s integrity. Actually, Serial is too good, and too intelligently structured for her to have a leg to stand on. “I’m an idiot” is a play for identification. (“Silly me.” — Season Two.) This line — about looking into Adnan’s big brown eyes — is right there in the script where, perhaps, there could have been a breakdown of cell-phone tower data (and after a useful delay of an episode or two, a questioning of its accuracy). I have little doubt about which was the better choice. When David Remnick asks Koenig about her method, she says, “I think I’m trying to convey that you can trust me because I’ve done my homework.” And in this sentiment, she sounds a lot like David Lipsky (“Bond with your reader. Tell them honest things.”). This trust is also a kind of structuring — I know, I’m an idiot. But there are a lot of stories out there, and we tend to pick the one that looks us in the eye and asks, maybe a little preposterously, Can I tell you a secret?

Koenig is then asked about decisions she made with Serial’s decidedly unpatented voice. Co-producer Julie Snyder levels with her after an unsatisfying cut:
Edit after edit after edit…“It’s not working…It’s not good. I need to know what you — Sarah Koenig — make of all this. Otherwise I don’t care. I don’t know why you’re telling me all this…You need to make me care.” I was quite uncomfortable with that initially, but then I realized…That’s the thing that’s going to make you listen to the stuff I think is important.
If that sounds a lot like “Keep your eye on the ball,” you’re not wrong. But rest assured that our culture-making class hadn’t even thought of the ball much less kept an eye on it. (See: testaments to their confidence approximately everywhere you look.) Koenig’s discomforted by the idea that making someone else care is indistinguishable from selling it to them. To name just a few of the principled stands against Caring What Anyone Else Thinks: morning pages and the art-therapy discipline; The Compulsive’s Way — simply not being able to stop; “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching,” or art as vocation (“I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present.” — Elena Ferrante, not on Twitter). This has to do with one’s basic orientation as an author: Is art a means to cultivate or to reach? And if you must insist on writing, I have to ask — just how acutely do you feel the need to be borne witness to? Because a singular question harries stories at every turn, echoing the unminced words at the Serial editing bay: What is any of this for? Inevitably, the answer occurs somewhat too late: Making someone else care is the highest commandment of structure.

Which is why, after the remedial instruction, almost all of what David Lipsky does is prose tips. The theory being that thinking unapologetically in terms of setting things up and paying them off frees the writer to devote themselves otherwise to sentence-making. The syllabus, with few exceptions, is composed of those writers who can really launch ships prose-wise: David Foster Wallace, Lorrie Moore, Vladimir Nabokov, Zadie Smith. In fact, the “system” — would that it were my own batch of Kool-Aid — kinda dead-ends at despairingly scintillating talent.

But generally speaking that talent is not responsible for America’s mass-market mysteries on short flights; or that which manages to hit her dull and chipped funny bone; or sate her great appetite for vanilla S&M and truer detectives. A working fallacy results. Tent poles such as Game of Thrones, The Marvel Universe — they have a kind of ideological monopoly on What happens next? But the more we accept the premise that what succeeds in the market works, the easier it is to convince ourselves that the market itself strives to give us the culture we need. [It doesn’t.] The challenge for lit is the same for our culture at large from here on: distinguishing the market’s products from actual voices.
“Implausibility is part of the design.”
— Louis Menand, “The Time of Broken Windows
It’s not that Hallberg commits the ordinary fictional sin of superimposing a false meaning on his novel, which is ultimately just as believable as a line drawn to connect any one thing to another. City on Fire may be elaborately plotted, and a story richly told, but it is not given, not structured for us. Though, we can easily exaggerate the author’s sacrifice. It’s not quite walking in front of a tank; maybe more like picking up a shift. A sense of the uncanny, of a kind of empathic genius at work, is as essential an aspect of reading as structure, but most readers, I think, experience design as unforeseen plausibility.

Some things do work every time. For example, I go to the physical bookstore and get the “ambitious” book over and over, like Charlie Brown when Lucy promises to hold the football but instead of a football it’s that thing when The Times runs a review by Michiko Kakutani in the daily and then another on Sunday. Tour de force in hand, I go home and read the first chapter with a sheepish sense of my own demography. Along those lines, I can imagine how refining the concept of narrative structure must seem a split-hair, just another narcissistically small difference. Dirty tomatoes and organic stories at $26/lb — not those factory-farm stories wrapped in pink blood on a bed of Styrofoam. But in the bathwater of authenticity are plenty of real distinctions — I’m looking at you, Texas barbecue, starting a band, and the notion of a high literature that tells “honest things.” Whenever I hear that triumphalism — lines grayed, blurred away! — I find myself fondly missing the clarity of differences.
If you divide ten thousand by forty-one, you get two hundred and forty-three, which is Cascadia’s recurrence interval…That timespan is dangerous both because it is too long — long enough for us to unwittingly build an entire civilization on top of our continent’s worst fault line — and because it is not long enough.
— Kathryn Schulz, “The Really Big One
This is where it seems as if I should offer some kind of agnostic politesse. Endorse a descriptivism of storytelling — all structures are “legitimate.” Any structure that makes you happy. “You don’t choose it so much as it chooses you,” says Carmine Cicciaro, Samantha’s father. It’s always tempting to side with anti-dogmatism. But I can’t do that. Because, what if there is a moral to this story?

Structure abides. Ex Machina’s key cards and power-outs; Groff’s unreliable Rashomon-esque narrators of sex after marriage. An out-of-print novelist sees a picture of Britney Spears exiting a restaurant holding a pack of cigarettes, her phone, “and then she’s got my second book.” (“Case #2: Britney”– Mystery Show.)

But it is literary reporting that has pretty much become structure’s standard bearer. In Rachel Aviv’s “Where Is your Mother?”, a healthy child cries in an empty apartment, and dust plumes off the bed. “I was born overseas,” the mother says, and nothing else. In “The Strange Case of Anna Stubblefield,” Daniel Engber asks “What if D.J. had a private chamber in his head, a place where grown-up thoughts were trapped behind his palsy?” Story writes itself, as they say. [Nope.] Then again, a sound almost like clockwork accompanies Kathryn Schulz writing of sixth-century tsunamis, barking dogs ahead of the wave, and a number: 243. In the first few paragraphs of these stories, it feels as if inspiration taken from McPhee’s looping squiggles was only ever as important as his old-hand assurance that the storytelling principle is ethically OK in “narrative nonfiction” or where’s-the-line journalism.

I’m not so worried about some moralizing theory of declining attentions spans — our “distraction.” In fact, nothing could distract me from another form of anxiety: I desperately want to pay relentless attention to only the few, mattering things. Structure, truly evident, directs that attention. If stories are a means to tell us what you “think is important,” then by all means.

The policy of bracing honesty has these lesser known clauses: that you have to figure out what most needs to be said, and why anyone should want to hear you say it. If you happen to read pop physics, there’s what’s called the “observer effect.” Any observation affects the experiment (the “collapse of the wave function” — what happens emerges from a prior limbo of possibilities). The observer effect also applies to the question of structure and the black box of process: none of it works, because it cannot be verifiably shown to have done what it intended to do. Writing is nothing until the precise moment the reader intuits a meaning. I want to tell you something. I can draw the map. Only you can tell me if it goes anywhere. Say the word.