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Monday, December 17, 2012

A Picture of What Makes Me Tick

... in case anyone is curious:

This lonely Wisconsin radio tower (funny, I think "Lonely Radio Tower" is the name of a song by a band from Milwaukee; their name escapes me because I was always bad with proper names and now I'm going senile, but they sounded a lot like the Replacements) is from a painting on Blotchy Blobs Blog, a bittersweet online collection  by John Shimon of J. Shimon and J. Lindemann.

Shimon and Lindemann are a couple of old punk rockers/collaborative photographer-artists/farmers from Manitowoc, WI who I first met when I was 21 and vomiting off my decrepit porch after a bungled drug raid by the Madison, WI police. (The cops missed the drug dealer, whom we'd kicked out six months ago for throwing his girlfriend at the wall, but they destroyed most of the house. By the time Julie and Johnnie saw it, it was, er, awfully picturesque.) Since long before I knew them (and that's, crap, 17 years ago now; geh stop the clock I wanna get off!) they were making images in a similar vein: part wistfulness, part humor, part sensuality, part matter-of-fact, mostly Midwestern and most from the lost landscape north of Illinois into which I had the dubious honor to be born.

They've always been painfully good at capturing the feeling of being wedged up against Canada, out of sight, mind, and kind of out of time as well. But till they started the Blotchy Blobs Blog I'd only seen them do it with a camera. The painting above gets the wistfulness from a different angle, so to speak; the radio tower looks at once like the inanimate object it is and like the friendly but lonely creature in the darkness that's steadfastly trying to send you a message. But the night is dark, and huge, and it's lost in that eternal un-floodlit sky, and first it must air a commercial message to justify its existence, but maybe then it will finally be able to bring you the song you want to hear...

Here's the main blog page if you want to see more of these:

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

It was even worse than I thought: some lit criticism I wrote ten years ago

I'm working on a book review and essay on the state of writing in the United States for a top-secret, world-destroying* project headed by Chip Smith of the still-criminally-undernoticed Nine Banded Books imprint. In order to get the reader up to speed on my previous thoughts on the matter, and also to remind myself of what I'd already written—both in order to avoid repeating myself excessively—I'm embellishing the essay with a link to an old piece I wrote for the Chicago Reader, literally a round decade ago. Looking back, I'm not only not embarrassed by what I had to say (although a few of my youthful turns of phrase do make me blush, and can you find the error added by a too-clever-by-half top-editor?), but I think I went too easy on litfic. It's only gotten worse. Anyway, you may enjoy this essay, you may disagree, or both—or you may be fortunate enough to not know what the hell I'm talking about.

*It's neither, probably; I just wanted to say that to make you curious enough to go check out his site, if you haven't (; my last book is still available there.

Songs of Themselves 

Literary fiction is thought to defy classification, but thanks to decades of workshopping and inbreeding, litfic's got as many trademark tics as mystery or sci-fi.

"Don't write genre fiction" is the first rule you learn in a creative writing program. I heard this from a friend with an MFA, who told his own students that beginners should learn fundamentals like character development rather than lean on the codified tropes of their favorite junk books to churn out plots. But in workshopping his own work he found that though he wasn't writing anything like genre fiction, his plotless and ruminative stories didn't sit well with a majority of his peers. In the face of feedback such as "this isn't teaching me how to read it," he wound up grousing after every class with a couple of like-minded mates, talking one another out of stomping away from school altogether. "There was an orthodoxy in place that did not respect what we did and didn't even recognize itself as an orthodoxy," he says. "I didn't think my writing was all that weird."
Literary fiction--or "litfic"--is descended from the late-19th-century realism that Grecophiles like Oscar Wilde enjoyed making fun of. Realist plots are limited to possible and usually ordinary occurrences, the narratives driven by nonidealized characters who tend to wind up learning a lesson about life.
Wilde called such stories "teacup tragedies," as they revolved around traumas as petty as broken heirlooms. The form is fairly young, but it requires less abstract inspiration than religious, fantastical, or mythological art does, and fast came to overwhelming favor among fine-art fiction writers--after all, learning to write prose at a high level is hard enough without conjuring a mythology to boot.
Litfic and "workshop fiction" are not identical, but they're closely related and have supported each other's ascent. After the founding of the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1936, university creative writing programs began to embrace litfictional realism as paradigmatic. By the mid-20th century allegories seemed experimental, religious art reactionary, social realism boring and polemical. The specter of the ubermensch that hung over the West after World War II understandably made idealized characters a bit scary. But if the hero is generous rather than xenophobic, isn't it possible for an ideal vision to make people better?

Ever read anything like this before? She looked down her chest, then surveyed her paint-stained palms as though seeing them for the first time, seeing what hands can do.
No? How about this? "Your father's been a little depressed lately," [my mother] whispered quietly. Previous conversation forgotten. Erased. Next topic....
"What's going on?," I asked.
"He still has dreams about Hitler, you know. Almost every night."
Sound familiar? Kind of?
OK, OK, both are quotes from a new novel, Some of the Parts, the literary fiction debut of New York resident T. Cooper, a drag king and zinester with a terrible haircut and an MFA from Columbia University. The combination punches of familial self-absorption and insulting prose (it's pretty hard to whisper deafeningly) are standard issue in the litfic game. So is quasiautobiography. Some of the Parts is the coming-of-age tale of a sexually ambivalent 30-ish drag king.
Though there's not a sharp, adept, original, or intentionally funny line in the text, Cooper's dopey play with gender is entertaining--barely--and there's some pleasure to be had in watching her shadow characters go through the motions. Halfway through the thing a light went on in my head: Cooper is close enough to conscious of the fact that litfic is just another genre to make its cliches work the way they're supposed to--pulling the reader along from plot point A to plot point B with a minimum of fuss. As there are squads of writers out there mining the same vein as she is, I should cop to the fact that my singling her out for abuse is as solipsistic as litfic itself. Her book simply happened to be in my lap when the notion congealed in my melon that we could be witnessing the birth of a generation of readable litfic pulp.
Any genre has its predecessors and progenitors, its great books, its great failures, its hackwork good and bad. Cooper's the good hack. She's not as skilled as, say, Douglas Coupland, who writes catchy prose, but in her way she's so likable I want to think her determination to see the extraordinary in the ordinary is some sort of elaborate Alice Munro-inspired spoof.
Many litfic writers--even the talented ones--appear to be so terrified by the thought that they might not be geniuses that they labor sloppily to create "style," shooting off the most far-fetched metaphors and images they can concoct without regard to taste, logic, or their own story lines. Take the example of master obfuscator Dave Eggers. Here's an overworked description from his second book, a novel called You Shall Know Our Velocity: "With the face of a shovel and the eyes of a wolf, he worked at a law firm." I don't know about you, but I would run for cover if one of my coworkers were a talking garden tool and a pair of squishy eyeballs. Recast the sentence as a line from classic pulp: "He had a hard face and steel-colored eyes, and he worked at a law firm." It would have been a lot more straightforward, and no more cliched than the observation Eggers is trying to make.
(A note to writers: If you think you've stumbled on a brilliant new technique, chances are that people don't write things that way because it doesn't make sense. If it's not worth writing something that won't make you immortal, you're not going to be able to force it; for God's sake either live with your humanity or go do something else. The book market's cluttered anyway.)
The great 19th-century realists, like Dickens, tried to broaden the form by rendering portraits of society on a grand scale. Aside from changes in the middle-class mores it examines (teacup tragedians would have had their stockings shocked off by Erica Jong) and the addition of modernist language-hating tricks, litfic differs from classic realism in that the scope of even the good works has collapsed. Modern practitioners tend to fix the point of view in a single character--a character who too often reads as an airbrushed self-portrait. Disdain Eggers for his fashionably illogical prose, but at least he admitted his first book was an autobiography. The second, while clearly an attempt to emotionally process his wealth and fortune, is disappointing in part because it's hypocritical. His protagonist travels the world trying to give away a wad of cash he feels he doesn't deserve--or rather, he feels everyone else suspects he doesn't deserve. T. Cooper's self-absorption is less egregious--her story does rattle around among multiple narrators--but the book's still basically about her struggle to resolve her gender confusion. Litfic is "I've got this friend who has a problem..." writ large.
Any decent science fiction writer attempts to disappear from his work. He's assembling it for the pleasure of his readers, a pleasure he can't have because he knows every bit of cobbling that holds together his effects. His work is generous by nature. Realist literature can show empathy--see Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Hardy, even Bridget Jones's Diary--but it's too easy to invest too much of yourself in the main character. For a solipsistic story to be as much fun to read as it is to write, the author must be not only such a wreck or an asshole that he's fascinating, but honest and a straightforward prose stylist, like Martin Amis or Denis Johnson. Single-perspective realism encourages every worst tendency of the writerly personality: the urge to self-justify, the paranoid suspicion that you're being treated unfairly because you're misunderstood or "different," the siren song of your own voice, the self-pity, and the eternal temptation to hole up in your studio, close the curtains, and leave but a middle finger sticking out at the world from under the covers. Bukowski's good, but he should've read a few romance novels.

Before the mid-20th century, universities accidentally produced writers by introducing lots of English literature students to the canon of greats and showing them how literature works. Litfic stole into the universities when, borrowing ideas from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, English departments got the bright idea of teaching undergrads to write "creatively" by giving them a set of rules for doing so--while reserving the discipline of composition for remedial students. Sounds counterintuitive and silly (c'mon, show me one 19-year-old master composer), but it caught on. Creative writing departments have sprouted like warts on English departments all over the country--many positing Raymond Carver, of all the downtrodden drunks to push on neophytes, as ur-writer.
Worse yet, in the 1980s and '90s many English departments replaced the dread old "dead white European male" canon with reading lists stacked toward multicultural and women's lit. Fairness GOOD, but the frustrating truth is that some civilizations developed written literature earlier than others, and men have been better educated than women in most societies until recently; thus the DWEM got a greater pool of years in which to accumulate published works for his filthy oppressive canon than the rest of us. No, it ain't fair--but since when does the distribution of raw talent get put to a plebiscite, either? The wrongness of so heavily weighting the most recent couple of centuries--thus sticking to novels and short stories at the expense of their sources--when reforming reading lists should be obvious, and it's an insult to a student's intelligence to tell her that Joyce Carol Oates is as good or as much fun as Milton.
In the October 7 Reader, I wrote about Mark Swartz, a writer who got his master's degree in art history. He balked at the suggestion that his first novel, Instant Karma, was reminiscent of Benjamin Anastas's Diary of an Underachiever. Both novels take the form of their heroes' diaries, perhaps a relative or one-note mutation of the epistolary genre. "No doubt that my book could be grouped with books by David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, Anastas, even Eggers," Swartz said, as part of a broader discussion of litfic as a genre. "But for many years I have strenuously avoided reading my contemporaries, if only to preserve the illusion that I'm not part of a genre." The interview was via E-mail, but hear the gears turn before he types the next line: "Perhaps that's a hallmark of the litfic genre--pretending it's not one." Ho ho! My thoughts exactly.
If litfic's ever going to make an honest living as a genre (and its nonwealthy devotees, toting student-loan debt, need it to do so but fast) it had best fess up and play catch-up. Point as it likes to its roots in great novels of earlier centuries, the categories litfic runs from are still kicking. Many writers who began reading genres in youth, then grew up to read classic novels but avoided the litfic trap, are bringing older traditions to bear on their childhood favorites; A.D. Nauman, author of last year's dystopian novel Scorch, for example, says she's deeply indebted to Aldous Huxley.
"The jump from the pile of mainstream books I've read would kill you if you jumped from it to the pile T. Cooper's read," claims Nick Mamatas, whose 2001 novel, Northern Gothic, was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for achievement in horror fiction. His favorite genre to read is sci-fi, but he lifted a device from fantasy novels to power his book: a wrinkle in time, given no technical rationalization but used allegorically to let the ghosts of New York City's past hover over the present. The book is funny and historically instructive whilst scary as hell.
Mamatas recently wrote an article proclaiming the resurgence of horror ("A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Evil," July 10) for the Village Voice. There, he conceded that horror fiction's too often "cheap and lazy, but it is also expansive, a genre named after its effect on readers rather than its content." Literary fiction, on the other hand, he wrote later in an E-mail, is "the fiction of the emergent middle class--about their thoughts, feelings and conditions."
Readers tend to wallow in their favorites--litfic's consumers just seem the least likely to explore. "Books are expensive and time-consuming," says Mamatas. "Most of them are awful. Who wouldn't play conservatively in such a marketplace? Also, books tend to console and reinforce--they make us feel better about bad things and offer some validation to what we already believe, as long as we pick the books that are marketed to us."
Most genres facilitate mental masturbation with fantasy; with litfic one explores the joys of self-love with the big pink dildo of memory. Genre fiction's often dismissed as escapist--its readers stand accused of temporarily smearing out the mess of their laughable little lives with ridiculous fantasies of power, lust, and intrigue. But any reading is to some degree escapist. Jane Eyre (not a "feminist" novel, you twits, but the prototype of romance fiction) just happens to get me out of my personal hell more effectively than Danielle Steele. The relief of reading is not so much that it provides an escape from pain as that it provides an escape from oneself, and litfic's obsessions aren't necessarily escapist. If the trouble in your existence isn't sustenance or even the struggle to get ahead, but simply the fact that you must get married then die, a genre whose hazy characters' reminiscences could be those of any chronically comfortable person might prove sufficient distraction. It keeps you smiling into your past, working out issues with your parents as you go--it's as good for you as therapy!
Litfic also functions, as Mamatas has pointed out, as an escape for other, less secure readers, though in a different way: Rick Moody's lower-class fans can vicariously thrill to a money-cushioned drama of leisure in the bits of free time they have to read The Ice Storm. But litfic's protagonists aren't necessarily more psychologically true and engaging than a fictional detective. I have the feeling that, for example, if stuck in the same room with John Updike's Rabbit and George Simenon's Inspector Maigret, I'd probably be able to converse only with the latter without fearing I'd laugh rudely at his improbability.
"Realism is just about a very small sliver of the universe," says Mamatas, "whether it's written by wealthy folks like Rick Moody or poor folks like some zinester. I don't care whether someone is sad and thus gets drunk on martinis or cheap beer. It's all nonsense. I'm interested in exploring the rest of the universe, in creating new categories and metaphors for understanding history, the physical world, notions of philosophy and ethics within these new categories. Realism is all about the individual--the middle-class individual, whether white or 'third world'-- as the measure of all things, and that is a notion that the size of the universe and the pull of history contradicts pretty transparently. Even the most conventional space opera or monster novel or Tolkien rip-off undermines the conventions of the standard adventure plot as it goes along, as adding elements to the human experience brings with it a set of implications that have to be tangled with, implications that realism ignores."
Litfic has had some interesting ancestors: Twain, Orwell, Faulkner, O'Connor. And just as V.C. Andrews stole her crazy ladies in the attic from Jane Eyre's Bertha and romance novelists stole their charming bastards from Heathcliff, it looks like modern litfic writers have swiped stylistic tics from their sources and turned them into cliches. Take the habit of narrating in the second person: yanked from the pages of Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City. Writing lists of possessions or pocket contents rather than working details into the narrative: somebody's trying to use Tim O'Brien's oppressive metaphor from his 'Nam-vet chronicle The Things They Carried, where it worked (grafting it onto stories where nothing happens to anybody is often unintentionally funny). Condescendingly loving portraiture of white trash, usually drunks: somebody's been reading too much Faulkner, or O'Connor if they're female hicks. Self-avowed and unapologetic well-heeled sots: blame Fitzgerald.
Speaking of blame, the old axiom says every plot needs conflict (or at least complaint), and many genres lean on politicized strife. In fantasy, the conflict is manifested in wars between peoples or races (Lord of the Rings), while sci-fi tends to universalize one political model, exaggerating modern real-world classes into an allegorical caste system. Where the politics of fantasy strive for nobility and those of sci-fi for intelligent anger, litfic--being all about the personal--politicizes gender and generation, and while it's every bit as facile to drape a narrative around space monsters as it is to write about a failed marriage, an eating disorder, a castrating mother, or even a roamy-pawed uncle, the less fantastic conceits are more likely to produce thin, claustrophobic metaphors that rarely resonate beyond the level of the sentence. Preoccupation with the battle of the sexes is better handled by comic novelists, who try to stare down on the champs de bataille without taking sides; Martin Amis, son of Kingsley--the poet and 20th-century master of the comic novel--says (in his memoir) that his father's worst books were produced when Kingsley had an ax to grind.

Should Cooper, Eggers, or Updike feel insulted if readers decide their work is genre fiction? Of course not. Being a genre writer doesn't mean you're in uniformly bad company. Sweet curiosity's called the best British writers thither for ages. Kingsley Amis wrote a James Bond novel and a fine specimen of science fiction, The Alteration, along with a book-length essay on sci-fi and a good deal of restaurant criticism. Huxley, best remembered for his work in the utopia/dystopia field, also wrote a delicious novel of ideas, Point Counterpoint. He made that form sing by opening it up: Instead of starring his own ideas (his stand-in came off as vaguely evil), he lived in every character's head and let them have at one another. If litfic belongs to those ideologically camped in the middle class, the novel of ideas belongs to the slummers and the bounders, people who are tired of their own neuroses and prejudices and want to see what happens when they learn how the other half thinks. As unique as Huxley's approach seems even now, when you really get going it's hard to think of any work of literature that can't be given a pigeonhole.
So why are Americans so terrified of writing derivative novels when they're all we produce? The Brits don't flog themselves so over categories. Not only could Amis write a Bond novel, he could speechify fuddy-duddily about preserving the canon of high English and DWEMs without losing his public. It may be because England's class system has been entrenched longer--because they're more comfortable with their positions, less nervously pretentious--but I don't think class insecurity's the only thing that scares American artistes away from the genre label. Americans have always been obsessed with novelty and originality. In the pioneer days, you needed new ideas because of their problem-solving utility. On the frontier you couldn't cling to traditional ways of doing things just because you liked them; necessity's the mother of invention, and in uncharted territory innovation's just more practical than stubbornness. But even on the frontier some traditions worked just fine, and there are always lousy new ideas. As our civilization matured and grew more comfortable I think we forgot why originality was good--we turned it into a moral instead of a tool. Now we're stubbornly, clumsily innovative, even in such hopelessly impractical realms as art, and even when it makes the art worse instead of better.
Also, American literature didn't really pick up speed until the age of the bourgeois novel--we missed the golden examples of early elite fantasists and mythmakers like Milton. Chalk up another one for the DWEM, I guess: No stream of American writing has had time to get terribly deep. Perhaps our scribes are snobs for the same reason our businessmen, seeing no venerable cathedrals around, put up imposing skyscrapers. Whereas H.G. Wells, Huxley, and Jules Verne were printed by respectable houses, Mamatas notes, "in the U.S. this stuff was born in pulps, except for Poe, and there was a realist end run around Poe too, to make sure that Lovecraft was obscured as his heir."
Oh, those rotten bourgeois with their sneaking and their end runs! They've murdered culture again! Pray don't let such observations inspire some dork at State U to shun clothing till the administration institutes a sci-fi workshop. Homer help us. If you've scraped up any degree of literacy you're not all that screwed; books aren't bread, and besides, you don't fight false pedants tit for tat. You laugh at them. Then you learn your work, put your ass in the chair, and spin your shining yarn.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

What are we?

I haven't written in this blog in months, because I'm kinda chasing my tail writing two books at once, and it doesn't leave much time or headspace for essay writing. But damn. Once in a great while, even whilst embroiled in fiction, I just get too confused and pissed off about an essay-lengthworthy topic to just bitch about stuff to my two-legged and four-legged roommates. So here comes an essay.

I admit it: the only TV news I can tolerate watching is comedy news. (John Stewart, the Colbert Report, South Park.) The reason being that they aren't just filling time and making words come out of people's mouths; they really have to kind of get their shit together if they want to get laughs. (Also, I'm addicted to comedy, and I usually hate what's going on in the world, so the laffs are the spoonful of sugar that makes the awful, awful medicine go down.)

What I'm confused and pissed off about, thanks to Stephen Colbert's recent short segment on prison labor, is the question: What the hell kind of economic system are we living under, anyway, and where's the fucking exit door? I think I've mentioned before that the new global economy often looks to me like corporate feudalism. The prison labor situation, on the other hand, makes the U.S. chunk of that globe look like someone just deliberately cherry-picked the worst aspects of a "free" (as in free-falling) large-scale corporate market system and the worst aspects of a communist system and threw them in a blender with about ten pounds of dog shit.

What's going on is this: UNICOR, a corporation that's owned by the U.S. government (whuh?!) has a contract to provide the U.S. government with goods such as military uniforms and solar panels. They pay their workers hourly rates as low as 23 cents. (For some reason, the federal minimum wage does not apply to prison labor. I guess they're supposed to be paying their "debt to society"... by undercutting law-abiding citizens for a job. Oh, that makes a lot of sense. So much sense my cerebral cortex just said "fuck it" and started trying to figure out how it can set up a whiskey distillery inside my skull.) Their contract stipulates that they are the ONLY company that can sell the government certain things (it used to also stipulate that they could only sell to the government, but now that restriction has been lifted, and they can now also compete on the free market... with companies who have to pay their workers a minimum wage. That's like making one guy fight with two hands literally tied behind his back).

(For more reporterly, less frantically-ranting information on the issue, look at this shit:

But wait, you say, how on earth can somebody in the U.S. feed themselves on only 23 cents an... ohhhhhhh, yeah. These are PRISONERS. They're living on prison food and sleeping in prison beds; hardly an enviable lifestyle, but one which is paid for not by the prisoners themselves but through taxes.

So as a taxpayer, you are actually subsidising, through the state, the feeding and sheltering of a SECOND dirt-cheap labor force--as though four billion starving third-world peasants weren't competition enough--which is now going to fuck over your going rate as a wage earner through the free market. WHILE YOU ESSENTIALLY PAY THEIR MISSING WAGES OUT OF YOUR POCKET. Your taxes are what is making them cheaper labor than you are, in other words. If you've ever wanted to star in a three-hole gang rape porn video, lucky you, because you're the only bottom who's going to enjoy this production!

Your taxes go up, your wages go down... too far down for you to buy health insurance, but not quite far down enough to get subsidized health care. So you'll also get to pay the new penalty tax for being uninsured (because where else are we going to get the money to subsidize health care for people who are barely poorer than you are?) WHILE you go without health care. Have fun dying of your next untreated disease! Well, by that point most people will probably be ready to be done with all this shit anyway.

Sometimes I think the government and big business have made a fun-times sport* out of fucking up people's lives, just to see which one can be more effective at it--and since they're our two major institutions (and one's binary-based political stance is supposed to be based on which one we "like" -- which only works for me if by that you mean which we would most "like" to see holocausted by a joint act of an extremely pissed-off coalition of every deity imaginable), this just looks like gloating to me. "Would you like to be a pro-business Republican and agree to get cornholed by megacorporations run by people whose families had the game tied up before your parents' parents were born? Or would you rather be a pro-government Democrat and agree to get cornholed by a tax system that will take part of your measly paycheck and use it on ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING BUT anything that would ever benefit you in any way? Your third choice is don't vote, and then you don't get to complain about anything we ever do to you because you're an irresponsible twat!" Uh, actually, if you could just drop me off on the moon next time you send a rocket up, I'd be fine with that.

* A sport where all the players are free agents and can swap teams at any time; if you'll recall, most members of Congress are either past or future corporate execs/consultants/lampreys

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

No, actually, it's not all about us

After somewhat obsessively reading the entertainingly hysterical forum-chat attacks on antinatalists that have been linked though Jim Crawford's blog over the past couple of years, and after recently being trolled extensively (also entertainingly) as an antinatalist in the comments section of Andy Nowicki's review of my book NVSQVAM on the AR blog ( ; it's a thoughtful and lovely write-up but my god, I had no idea such a large percentage of the male Internet population never gets laid, ha ha), I feel qualified to make a generalization about pronatalist arguments.

To wit: breeders* (or would-be breeders) will, upon encountering antinatalist ideas, angrily grasp and sling the closest ad hominem fecal mass, whether or not they know anything about the, er, homo in question.

One of the preferred dismissals is to assume and declare that anyone who avoids creating life must lead a particularly shitty one, and is merely having a tantrum out of his or her pathetic personal bitterness. Or conversely, that anyone with a negative life philosophy must have a terrifically privileged life, and is simply lying around being angry out of spoileditude. Though some trust-fund babies are no doubt unjustifiably sullen, and some antinatalists suffer terrible diseases which illustrate far too clearly to them the horrors life is capable of inflicting on its inmates, I get the feeling that most antinatalists are in fact ordinarily fortunate people.

Most of the antinatalists to whom I've spoken or whose posts I've read seem to hold down jobs (at least intermittently, during the past few economically inclement years) which we like or tolerate or hate to varying degrees; most of us have a decent level of education, whether gained through autodidactic methods, universities, or both; I for one, while disgusted with the current global economy and my own treatment at its hands, have been enormously lucky in some of the non-economic gambles life prods us to take.

I've been overall quite lucky in love and friendship, particularly at present; I'm terrific at keeping myself entertained, and while I'm too viscerally disgusted by the glad-handling and dissembling skills that a better economic life would seem to demand to successfully develop them, I do get along with my fellow humans quite well when I engage them on a sincere and not a business level (and even when the levels are mixed). I'm talented at work that impassions and entrances me, even if deep down I know all endeavors are pointless; I'm quite easily entertained, and I get probably more pleasure than the average yay-to-lifer from the oft-lauded simple things like pets, books, sunsets, good weather, walks, conversation, and fellow-feeling.

I may display some depressive and crotchety traits due to my relentless realism, but neither anhedonia nor schizophrenia has darkened my doorstep, and my sense of humor has yet to fail me in a tight spot. I do not live in a radioactive mud hut in Cambodia, nor do I live in a shiny condo that Daddy paid for; I'm neither a 40-year-old-virgin nor a genitally surfeited rock star. I've never been able to afford a car, but I live in an urban area with somewhat functional public transit; I can usually eat something reasonably close to what I want to eat, although the fact that I genuinely love peanut butter toast really helps; I enjoy good health except for my fragile knees, asthma, allergies, and chronic mysterious stomachaches; I'm nearsighted, but my prescription is exactly the same in both eyes, a rare bit of good luck within the bad which frees me from having to keep track of which side of the goddamn contact lens case I've stuck which lens in.

In short, a human of average fortune. Neither privileged nor especially miserable. I may object to life in principle, but I do a pretty fair job of enjoying my own, even if sometimes all I'm savoring is the tang of irony.

So why would I cruelly deny my ovarial fruit the chance to share in those kitties and sunsets, if I'm so content with my own lot?

Because I'm capable of realizing and appreciating how lucky I am. Because I'm aware of the suffering of others. More vitally, because I'm capable of realizing how fragile my luck is, and by extension how precarious a life I would offer my offspring, no matter how rosy things looked when I decided to get knocked up. The Greek tragedies have much to teach on that front, but simple daily observation of the sports pages should be enough to drive home the point that no winning streak lasts forever, no matter how great you are; to paraphrase a recent Onion bit, every athlete eventually loses his grudge match with Time. Christ, look at old Brett Favre. Tomorrow you could go nuts the way he did, or get cancer. Wouldn't cancer and pregnancy be fun to go through simultaneously? And what a lovely story that would make for your motherless child to tell her friends.

This precariousness should be particularly easy to understand for Westerners who are currently in their prime. A decade is a long time in the global economy, and it's going to take two of them for the baby who's currently safe in your middle-managerial, yoga-toned womb to grow into a full-fledged worker bee. If things seem tough now that a salary freeze has forced you to trim your caffelatte consumption, just think what might be by the time Junior is flat-out working for the Chinese.

Do you suppose I'd feel differently if I were living in a more perfectly stable place and time? No doubt I would. But I wouldn't think differently.

* My use of this term is indeed pejorative, though not in the usual sense; while gay pride-ists (as though being born with ANY set of genes justified the folly of human pride) use it to refer snidely to heterosexuals, whatever their actual reproductive behavior, I use it to refer snidely to anyone who deliberately makes children, including gay people.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Welcome to my blog, HR folks/prospective employers, or: Freedom of Speech is a Serious Thing

What is this, Communist Russia?

Yeah, my resume looked pretty good; I have not one but two hard-earned BAs in difficult subjects and an employment track record that includes five years of being entrusted with perfecting the copy at a major metropolitan weekly newspaper. But then you Googled my name and you found the blog which I felt I was forced to begin if I wanted to support my fiction writing with an online presence. Now that we're both here, instead of you summarily deciding that I am far too cranky and dark in my humor to ever slip into a persona that will work for your team, why don't we, instead, have a short word about freedom of speech, followed by a slightly longer one about hiring policies.

Allowing freedom of speech is one of the things that makes our society something to be proud of. Indeed, it is shameful for political regimes to lock people up for stating unpopular opinions.

But at least in prison, even most political prisoners get fed.

So why is it OK to de facto starve people who don't write what you consider to be the orthodox opinion on their Facebook pages, blogs, and Twitter feeds? Social media and the blogosphere remain the main access point to public and social speech that most people have.

Making hiring decisions based on what you read on my blog, or asking to see my Facebook feed, is not just impinging on my freedom of speech, it is failing to even recognize the existence of personas. Do you appear to others to be the same person at work that you are at your Zumba class? You don't do stupid dances in the boardroom, and I am not going to come into the office and lecture people about antinatalism.

In fact, I'm generally popular in the places I work, except with the assholes, whom I simply avoid if possible; I avoid office politics, even if I talk about politics on the blogosphere, and contrary to my cranky online presence I am actually quite chipper at work, simply because it makes others around me feel better, which in turn makes me feel better. It's rather a mistake for you to throw my resume on the rejects pile.

Now. Can we talk about the possibly even more shitheaded mistake you may turn around and make while rejecting me? Let's talk about "experience." May I ask what you're thinking when you write an ad looking for someone with five years' experience in an extremely specific sector of a specific industry? You do know what you're going to wind up with, don't you? Well, unless you get a very devious liar for a new employee--congratulations!--you will get someone who's merely been lucky.

Because we all know no one ever gets experience without having experience anymore; after all, you do design the hiring process to work that way! Someone who got that hard-to-get first experience is not necessarily going to be the best person to eventually shine at the work; they're more likely to be someone who got the job through their mom, or dad, or college roommate, or cousin... in short, someone who's not only been basically picked at random based on his degree of separation from Kevin Bacon, but someone who is not likely to appreciate his position, since he didn't have to do or achieve or prove anything to earn it. What's called networking these days has a more accurate name: nepotism.

My best experience card is a very unlucky one, since print media has rolled over and died, and you want five years' digital media experience despite the fact that most of what Americans write on the Internet is still typed in English, on a QUERTY keyboard, just like it was back in the crusty old year 2001. But let me tell you what I did to earn that now-worthless experience chip anyway.

I went to the Chicago Reader knowing absolutely no one there; several of my to-be coworkers would later tell me me that I was the only person who'd been hired there without having a previous connection in ten years. I got that job by passing a proofreading test that almost no one can pass. I passed it without any experience as a proofreader, through my sheer aptitude and eye for written language. So do you suppose I can learn your sub-sub-sub industry's preferred style? Do you suppose I can catch up to the lucky moron who has five years' experience with the particular software your company happens to use? Computer programs are designed to be user-friendly; anyone of reasonable intelligence can teach themselves or use an online tutorial to learn any program you have. And within gaining a fraction of his weeks of experience with using such a program, I guarantee I can run rings around your CEO's nephew.

Of course, you may still be thinking: "If this woman is so smart, what has she been posting all these weird opinions on the Interwebs under her real name for?" I've been posting them for courage and freedom of speech, mothers and fuckers. Courage and freedom of speech. If you think I should starve to death for that, have fun looking in the mirror.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Sometimes I'm a dick and I write poetry

Life's so littered with regrets
You want to get the broom
But what is done
is done
and done
And that's our shitty doom.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Feminism could have definitely worked out less nightmarishly for the worker bees

Damn, my boyfriend's apartment is a mess. I'm not saying he's a slob; he's actually a perfectionist and usually looks wonderfully slick despite a low-ass budget. But it's Wednesday, my midweek day off, and I just washed out the same containers we ate leftover Chinese from on Sunday. I also washed the rest of his dishes that were in the sink, absent-mindedly and quite contentedly, as I waited for my coffee to get strong in the press pot. He had at that point been at work for two hours already while I gently snoozed.

It certainly didn't feel like I was being dehumanized as I cleaned those dishes. Or oppressed. I think of those words when I see him going off to his shit job or myself running around to another temp gig, leaving depressingly messy apartments behind us. Let me repeat: on a day when I don't have to accept near-starvation wages to make someone else money so I can stay alive to go on making money for other people, I find it quite satisfying to do a bit of kind tidying for someone who is perpetually kind to me in return. It's called a human, as opposed to a financial/survival, reee-laaa-tionnn-shiiiiip. You know, where it's reciprocal and not based on screwing a less lucky player in this forced-march game blue.

I'm not saying we should go back to the 1950s, although I definitely get the feeling that the division of labor that old-fashioned sexism enforced left everybody with more free time. It also halved the number of people in the work force, give or take the spinsters and widows. I'm not saying I think that the mass (dare I say very nearly forced, in the case of everyone below the upper middle classes?) entry of women into the permanent workforce was the only force involved in the falling-over-a-cliff routine that wages have been doing since roughly the year I was born (I always seem to get lucky like that). Certainly we have globalization to hate as well. But if you have the slightest grasp on the concept of supply and demand it's hard to argue against the fact that if demand for labor stays roughly the same (there are still two adult consumers per average household, and now nobody has time to do the shopping!) but its supply doubles, its price is going to drop.

And when it becomes expected for a household to have two incomes so the lady of the house doesn't feel like a throwback to corseted times, well, who needs to pay any one employee enough to support an entire family? It's practically an insult to a guy's wife to give him a living wage!

I remember a rant that one of my beloved, well-meaning, feminist male cousins went on once about somebody snarking on his wife for going back to work so soon after they had their first kid, or something of the like; I was so shocked by the final point of his rant that I'm fuzzy on the details, but it boiled down to: "Gee, so sorry she wants to go out and have a job like a real human being!" Which is a nice sentiment insofar as "job" and "real human being" go together as concepts--as far as I can see, however, they go together about as well as roofing tar on toast. This cousin has always fared better than I have in the workplace, so it probably made sense to him, but I must have looked as if he'd just suggested his wife might find personal fulfillment in being gang-raped by hyenas.

I certainly couldn't think of anything to say. Even taking the SAT was less dehumanizing than the jobs I've had. What exactly would be "not a real human being" about making a nice cozy home for yourself and your favorite person in the world... not to mention spending your down time reading or writing or whatever floats your boat, with no supervisor tapping his foot and making sure you don't overstep the bounds of your unpaid half-hour lunch break? I'd take a life of going back for a nap after sending my best friend out as well-armed as possible into the cold cruel world. Hell yeah! I can't wait till he gets back here tonight and finds me here with the dishes washed--and hell, maybe I'll sweep the floor too. Tomorrow I have to go back to the unkind world myself, and believe me, I prefer today by a long shot.

Then again, if you've got somebody at home cleaning up for you and making a nice nest, maybe working isn't so bad. Imagine: if you made enough money that your partner could do all that fucking housework and shopping while you were gone, you would both have the rest of the day for yourselves and/or each other instead of having to go to work and then come home and schlep the laundry you needed done so you could look 'respectable' back in the mines the next day. So maybe after a while the person who was staying home and cleaning up might want to switch roles. Well... go for it! What's un-feminine about coming home from the office to a warm penis and a bubble bath? What's un-masculine about pampering your own personal Jeanne d'Arc when she's done fighting her half of y'all's battle for the day? If 1970s feminists had been less mindlessly pro-work and pro-career and less about measuring people's worth by silly social/"career"-bullcrap-related measures of "success" (why they rejected society's beauty standard but not the ditch-digging standard is beyond me) and more about actual equality, fairness, practicality, and (god forbid, America!) quality of motherfucking life, who knows? It might have been perfectly respectable by this point in time for couples to share a job and each work it for six months out of the year.

Sounds fair enough to me. But no, women in the 1970s had to be all envious of the shit sandwich male employees-for-life were eating (why? WHY?!?! It never fails to absolutely stun me how pointlessly masochistic the American work ethic is, even my own at times), and now we all get half the bread for eating twice the shit. CONGRATULATIONS.

Ah well. (That stock phrase is my way of taking a deep breath so I don't set things on fire.) At least I'll have time today to give him a shoulder rub. Oh, the degradation!