Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Saving the American Economy AND the Literary Novel. Really.

So, courtesy of our fragile and increasingly unreliable airline industry, I'm blogging from an airport again, during yet another delay: indeed, from the very same airport from which I blogged during the first leg of my trip. And since my Junot Diaz novel is long since finished, I'm reading blogs.

So, courtesy of James Fallows, I discovered a post by David Brin, arguing that the quest for "efficiency," and especially the "just-in-time" inventory model, has created the vulnerable, inflexible Victorian invalid that our national economy has become, escalating a bad case of the economic flu into life-threatening contagion. Brin writes:
For decades, we’ve been told -- by the same fellows who brought us “efficient finance” -- that manufacturing and commerce should be fine-tuned to squeeze every penny of profit, by trimming away all “fat.” Industries that hew close to the teachings of W. Edwards Deming and Toyota’s Taichi Ohno require that their suppliers deliver parts and raw materials at the precise moment when they are needed. Under this principle, any reserves that are kept on-premises will only encourage sloppy management and incur unnecessary storage costs -- a calculation that has long been exacerbated by shortsighted tax policies that punish warehousing and inventory-keeping.

This approach, called “Just-In-Time,” is based upon the very same postulate that led the business-major types to bet our economic farm on arcane financial instruments, leading to catastrophic failure, in 2007 and 2008. A wholly unjustified wager that the economy and its supporting systems will always remain stable and never experience disruption.


Our ancestors’ age-old wisdom of putting a little aside for just-in-case robustness has been replaced by a delusion of just-in-time efficiency, based on a belief in perfectly reliable global interdependence.

But, in real life, animals - even efficient ones - carry fat reserves. Surprises and disruptions happen. And when they do, we worry less about tweaking widgets-per second, and more about survival.

This speaks to me, of course, because it's the "efficiency" of the beleaguered airlines that has made it impossible for them to adjust even to predictable "surprises" this travel season, so that every flight delayed by completely-unforeseeable winter weather in Chicago leads to a backup of canceled flights and stuck travelers from coast to coast. (And sticks me in Philadelphia again, blogging.) When your plan depends on everything going just right, without even the smallest glitch, none of the glitches will be small. I'm a big fan of robustness at the moment, and not just for airline travel.

The policies that Brin points to as damaging the general economy long ago wrecked American publishing, which I suspect is why this insight comes so swiftly to Brin. The near-extinction of the American mid-list writer, and of the model whereby literary writers could gradually build followings, was caused by those "shortsighted tax policies that punish warehousing and inventory keeping," and Brin, as a science fiction writer knows it.

If you read, say, Poets & Writers you will occasionally be treated to an essay about the plight of the mid-list writer, which typically gestures vaguely to the pernicious influence of corporate ownership before going on to bemoan the lack of great literary editors and ask, essentially, "Where has Max Perkins gone?" If you read science-fiction trade journals such as Locus, you'll learn the practical answer: the American publishing inventory and the mid-list writers whose books constituted that inventory have been decimated by U.S. vs. Thor Power Tools, a Supreme Court opinion about tax law.

The "just-in-time" model excludes any time for readers to gradually discover a writer. Mid-list writers don't flourish because their books are remaindered as soon as possible. (It is more profitable, from a tax standpoint, to remainder all of the unsold books at a quick loss than to keep them and sell some more slowly.) "Just in time," for publishers, means selling the books that they can sell immediately, which means the books that customers have already decided they want. There is no leisure, in this model, including no leisure for the customer. They must decide what they want right away, or they can never have it. Least of all is there leisure for any growth or complication of readerly desire.

A new emphasis on robustness, on inventory, would be great for America's economy, and perhaps best of all for American writers and readers. It's important to put things aside for a rainy day, and what could be better on rainy days than an interesting book?

Friday, December 26, 2008

Traveling Cities

I'm flying across the country today, to the annual MLA conference. It's in San Francisco this year, one of my favorite cities, but the MLA itself, an overwhelming and enormous meeting of literary scholars from across the country, is a roving metropolis in its own right.

Like any great city it's a place to go to pursue ambitions, to meet people you've heard of but never seen, and to make friends who share the obsessions that everyone in your home town found odd. People dress up and ride elevators. The hours are brutally long. There are fabulous booksellers. It's exhilarating and Dickensian and anxious, like any great city, and even the people who prefer the suburbs couldn't do entirely without it.

As a tribute to the Metropolis of Literary Arguments, and to the pleasures of San Francisco in December, here is an excerpt from Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities:

Cities and Desire 2

At the end of three days, moving southward, you come upon Anastasia, a city with concentric canals watering it and kites flying over it. I should now list the wares that can be profitably bought here: agate, onyx, chrysoprase, and other varieties of chalecedony; I should praise the flesh of the golden pheasant cooked here over fires of seasoned cherry wood and sprinkled with much sweet marjoram; and tell of the women I have seen bathing in the pool of a garden and who sometimes - it is said - invite the stranger to disrobe with them and chase them in the water. But with all this, I would not be telling you the city's true essence; for while the description of Anastasia awakens desires one at a time only to force you to stifle them, when you are in the heart of Anastasia one morning your desires waken all at once and surround you. The city appears to you as a whole where no desire is lost and of which you are a part, and since it enjoys everything you do not enjoy, you can do nothing but inhabit this desire and be content. Such is the power, sometimes called malignant, sometimes benign, that Anastasia, the treacherous city, possesses; if for eight hours a day you work as a cutter of agate, onyx, chrysoprase, your labor which gives form to desire takes from desire its form, and you believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when you are only its slave.

-Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (Le Citta Invisibili), 1972
English translation by William Weaver, 1974

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Consolations of Literature (Holiday Travel Edition)

There's nothing quite as good, on a long winter's night featuring multiple flight delays and eerily quiet airline terminals, as having a truly wonderful novel to read.

Fortunately, tonight I have Junot Diaz'sThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which is as good a travel companion as any becalmed traveler could ask. Original, engaging, and utterly fascinating. Even winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, an ominous portent many years, cannot diminish its charms.

The consolations of getting your rental car between two and three in the morning and of driving through the bleak cold night are, by necessity, less about literature than about kickass rock and roll. WBCN, te amo. No one will be listening anyway, so just play me a little Iggy and get me through my miles. That's what three AM is for.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Hilzoy on Teaching

The always-brilliant Hilzoy responds to a Jill Tubman post about Jill's experiences as a student at Sidwell Friends, with a brief editorial on teaching ethics that's worth framing.

Jill describes a charismatic teacher, "Mr. E." who led his students through an extended unit on the evils of apartheid, and a school outing to protest apartheid, despite the fact (indeed because of the fact) that the daughter of the Reagan State Department official in charge of making nice with South Africa was in the class. It was Mr. E's way, Jill divines in retrospect, of pressuring the father through the daughter's personal unhappiness.

Hilzoy comments

First things first: the way Jill writes about Mr. E, both in the post and in comments, suggests that Mr. E was a very, very gifted teacher. He clearly inspired her, and to inspire a student is a rare and wonderful thing. I don't want to deny that for an instant. Nor do I want to get too hung up on the question whether it's OK to take a class to demonstrate (I think not, for the same reasons that make me oppose making kids say prayers.) What really bothers me is the idea of using a thirteen year old to get to her father. And not just any thirteen year old: one whom it is your job to teach and to nurture. I think that is just wrong.


At this point, someone might be thinking: but changing American policy towards South Africa is much more important than the feelings of one (very privileged) American kid. She might have become "increasingly moody and withdrawn", but kids in South Africa were getting shot, or losing their parents, or growing up in squalor and deprivation. And of course this is true.

One of the reasons I wanted to write about this is just to say: that might be relevant if we knew, somehow, that our only two options were (a) to use Rennie in this way and have a chance to save the children of Soweto, or (b) to do nothing in the face of the massive injustice of apartheid. But that's almost never the kind of choice we face, and the idea that it is is similar to the idea that Bush and Cheney had a choice between (a) torturing people and (b) letting Osama bin Laden blow up Manhattan.

The whole post is well worth reading.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Throwing Shoes: A Very Brief History

I'm going to avoid blogging about partisan politics today, and write a bit about theater history (which is what I'm often doing when not blogging).

The gentleman above is the great clown William Kempe, acting partner of William Shakespeare. We can confirm that he played Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing and Peter, the foolish servant, in Romeo and Juliet. He was the company's primary clown until around 1599. And he was an enormous star: much bigger, in the early days, than Shakespeare was. (The picture above is from his ill-conceived solo career after he broke up with Shakespeare, Burbage, and the boys. If that seems like a huge mistake, remember that no one had an agent to talk sense to them.)

Kemp was a master of physical comedy and dance. His extended comic jigs after the ends of plays were famous. And for one reason or another, one of his signature bits was throwing his shoe at people onstage. People could not get enough of this; throwing the shoe evidently slayed the crowd every time. It operated something like the pie in the face did later.

Of course, a lot of Elizabethan comedy seems impenetrable from the distance of four hundred years. Why anyone would laugh at someone throwing his shoes at someone else is a mystery that I can only leave you, Dear Reader, to resolve on your own.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Some Things Are Not Political

During the last month of the election, I used this blog to urge John McCain and Sarah Palin to dail back their rhetoric before someone was hurt. Last night, someone set fire to Palin's church in Wasilla, Alaska. According to the AP, people were inside when the fire began, including two children.

Whoever did this should be found and punished. I hope to see the people responsible convicted on multiple counts of attempted murder, and imprisoned for the rest of their lives.

Nothing more than that need be said, but some are already saying it. Bloggers, both on the left and the right, are already speculating confidently about the motives of the nefarious unknown parties responsible. This is unseemly and wrong. No one knows who did this, and therefore no one knows why. If you do know why this was done, please deliver the guilty parties to the police. If not, kindly hold your tongue.

John Cole's response, at Balloon Juice, should be a model to the rest of us. Really, one should be even quicker to decry violence against political adversaries than against political allies. Ultimately it's our refusal to accept violence against our political opponents that ensures a peaceful democracy.

I can imagine no good reason for doing such a thing, and of course, I don't expect that anyone who shares my politics did it. But if this did turn out to be lunatics from my end of the political spectrum, I would be unhappy and ashamed. But I certainly would not make excuses for them. No excuse is possible.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Poem for a Friday in December

The Haw Lantern

The wintry haw is burning out of season,
crab of the thorn, a small light for small people,
wanting no more from them but that they keep
the wick of self-respect from dying out,
not having to blind them with illumination.

But sometimes when your breath plumes in the frost
it takes the roaring shape of Diogenes
with his lantern, seeking just one man;
so you end up scrutinized from behind the haw
he holds up at eye-level on its twig,
and you flinch before its bonded pith and stone,
its blood-prick that you wish would test and clear you,
its pecked-at ripeness that scans you, then moves on.

Seamus Heaney
The Haw Lantern, 1987