How does one cope with today’s endless stream of poisonous news? People have wide-ranging methods, none of which completely suffice. They console or goad one another on Facebook. They distract themselves with a binge-worthy streaming series or a good book. They (quite reasonably) decide to get drunk or high on occasion.
Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker tells himself, and us, that life is actually getting better in his new book, Enlightenment Now.
I decided to post this love poem, a bit belatedly after Valentine’s Day. The poem originally appeared in Antiphon’s Issue 21 last year.
Sometimes I wish I were still back
in the city, astonished to find her
standing tremulous outside the door of
my fifth floor walk-up, radiating belief
and determination. Yes and yes and yes
and yes again, as a sudden cascade of
comprehension sweeps my wits away.
I feel my soft defenses dissolve
in a quickly rising light that seems to come
from everywhere as we embrace
and exchange our silent vows. The glow
envelops us and cushions us and lifts us up
to float on a stream of bodily joy
down the narrow stairwell to the streets below.
And now the city’s raucous throb drifts
outside as we walk hand-in-hand within our cloud
along the crowded sidewalk, awash in reflected
traffic lights, illuminated windows and the shimmer
of a thousand strangers’ eyes, who recognize us
and yet do not. We breathe in and leap up,
far above New York, to a night sky High Line
where our bodies feel free
to stroll forever
weightless and without pain.
We are amazed how time has flown.
We would do anything to fly again.
This may be an aesthetic question, or perhaps it’s a question of craft. Maybe it’s both. Put simply, the question is: how important is it for a fiction writer to get the facts straight—particularly the technical facts?
As someone now writing fiction who has previously worked in technology, I probably have a special interest in the question. For me, flubbing a bit of technical description brings the narrative to a crashing halt. It also undermines the writer’s credibility to some degree, depending on the writer’s overall talent and the power of his or her narrative. (The same would be true, I believe, if a writer botched the terminology or tools of medicine or law.)
Granted, writers have a built-in license to modify anything in the interest of the story, so I should be clear: I’m speaking about inadvertent mistakes when describing technology in the course of the narrative.
I should also note that I’m not referring to the kind of genre fiction where facts already seem secondary. For example, I’m not speaking of a fantasy novel like The Book of Joan, where technology in general is lazily glossed over—the author doesn’t regard specifics or plausibility as important and her readers likely don’t, either.
The writer who raised this question of technical accuracy for me most recently is instead an extremely talented generalist, who has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. I’m speaking of Adam Johnson, and specifically of the story “Dark Meadow” from the National Book Award-winning collection Fortune Smiles.
“Dark Meadow” is a compelling and disturbing tale of a pedophile (“made,” not “born”; his own abuse as a child contributed to his sexual development) who is trying hard to purge his urges. The narrator (who was nicknamed “Dark Meadow” by his molester) works out of his home as a kind of jack-of-all-trades computer technician; people hire him to repair, troubleshoot and secure their systems. But in the meantime Dark Meadow himself has disconnected the internet in his own house, and is whittling down his collection of child pornography photos to almost nothing—he crops pictures so that only a pair of eyes, a hand, or some other non-sexual detail is all that remains. And before the story has finished he will dismantle his computer completely and destroy its hard drive.
The technical errors in Dark Meadow’s narrative could be viewed as minor—for one thing, a solid majority of readers probably won’t be aware of them at all. And even for those who are, the errors ultimately don’t wreck the story; Johnson’s work is too well-wrought in every other respect for that. Still, the errors are troubling.
Here’s an example: “I stopped using Tor, eDonkey and Fetch.” These are three different kinds of technology that don’t plausibly fit together for a child pornagraphy addict. Tor, which provides a degree of online anonymity, yes; though Tails would have been a more appropriate choice. eDonkey and Fetch, no. eDonkey is a file-sharing network but would have been risky to use; Fetch is an old Mac FTP client (though it’s since been updated) that dates all the way back to the 80s and would have been riskier still. Plus, the name itself seems dated. Several lines later, Dark Meadow references his “Fetch Dropbox,” conflating the FTP program with the popular online storage service. (You can set up Fetch to link to Dropbox, which I suppose is what Johnson means here. But Dropbox is not particularly secure either, unless you provide your own encryption.)
As I said, these are small errors. But, with a writer of Johnson’s stature, they bother me. “Dark Meadow” was published in Tin House in issue 60 (Summer 2014); apparently no one at the literary magazine had the technical chops to question these usages. And when the story was incorporated into the Fortune Smiles collection published the following year by Random House, no one there seemed to offer any suggestions, either. Did Johnson himself ask for technical guidance at any point? He’s based at Stanford, so nearby expertise is certainly plentiful.
To answer my own question, then: yes, writers should get their facts straight. And given the ubiquitous role technology plays in life today, that goes double for tech references.
In absolute terms, humanity hasn’t been around very long at all. From our own perspective, though, evolution seems to be taking an eternity. As a species, we remain profoundly stupid.
We haven’t learned to share, or to work toward our common interests. We befoul our own nest. We continue to develop weapons which threaten annihilation. With every small step forward made by an Einstein, a Beethoven, a Tolstoy, the species as a whole has trouble following. We lurch toward progress, then rapidly retreat again—witness the 2016 U. S. election.
Do we need somebody—or something—smarter to step in and take charge? AI may fit the bill, especially artificial intelligence of the “superintelligence” variety discussed in Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom’s thought-provoking book of the same name.
But of course, as with all things human, the answer is not so straightforward. You may have read that scientific and tech luminaries such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have sounded warnings about the potential dangers of artificial intelligence technology. Indeed, Musk calls AI an “existential threat” to human civilization and has co-founded OpenAI, a non-profit, open-source AI research company, to try to foster collaboration in developing “friendly AI” as a result.
Bostrom sounds an alarm in Superintelligence, as well. The concern is that research into and continued development of AI might lead to an “intelligence explosion” that would create an entity or entities so much smarter than us that we would become redundant and dispensable. Bostrom has coined the term “Singleton” to designate such an all-controlling superintelligence. A “bad” Singleton would be the end of us.
However, a vein of optimism runs through Superintelligence, too. Bostrom believes, or would like to believe, that humanity has a potential “cosmic endowment” which could be realized through a benign superintelligence. He acknowledges that the odds would seem to be against this, and likens humanity and superintelligence to a child with an undetonated bomb in its hands. The core problem is one of control: how do we create a superintelligence that will not jettison humanity but rather work to enhance it?
We must, Bostrom says, “hold on to our humanity … maintain our groundedness, common sense, and good-humored decency even in the teeth of this most unnatural and inhuman problem. We need to bring all our human resourcefulness to bear on its solution.” This is, Bostrom maintains, “the essential task of our age.”
At a moment in history when bellicosity and benightedness are ascendant, this is a very tall order indeed. Yet contemplating Bostrom’s suggested cosmic endowment is a worthwhile exercise in staving off despair. One must hope there remain enough intelligent and altruistic people at work in the field of AI (and in every other important field) to make envisioning a better future viable.
Below, the text of a speech delivered by retiring Senator Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) earlier today. The occasion: Trump’s farcical announcement of “Fake Media Awards.” The Senator’s speech is a thoughtful, high-minded critique of Trump’s dangerous behavior requiring no further comment. Except: While I admire Flake for this speech, I feel his criticism of our sitting President could have been much harsher still. Trump is a reprehensible piece of shit* who is in the process of destroying this country. He needs to be called out as such, and stopped.
Mr. President, near the beginning of the document that made us free, our Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident….” So, from our very beginnings, our freedom has been predicated on truth. The founders were visionary in this regard, understanding well that good faith and shared facts between the governed and the government would be the very basis of this ongoing idea of America.
As the distinguished former member of this body, Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, famously said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” During the past year, I am alarmed to say that Senator Moynihan’s proposition has likely been tested more severely than at any time in our history.
It is for that reason that I rise today, to talk about the truth, and its relationship to democracy. For without truth, and a principled fidelity to truth and to shared facts, Mr. President, our democracy will not last.
2017 was a year which saw the truth — objective, empirical, evidence-based truth — more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government. It was a year which saw the White House enshrine “alternative facts” into the American lexicon, as justification for what used to be known simply as good old-fashioned falsehoods. It was the year in which an unrelenting daily assault on the constitutionally-protected free press was launched by that same White House, an assault that is as unprecedented as it is unwarranted. “The enemy of the people,” was what the president of the United States called the free press in 2017.
Mr. President, it is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies. It bears noting that so fraught with malice was the phrase “enemy of the people,” that even Nikita Khrushchev forbade its use, telling the Soviet Communist Party that the phrase had been introduced by Stalin for the purpose of “annihilating such individuals” who disagreed with the supreme leader.
This alone should be a source of great shame for us in this body, especially for those of us in the president’s party. For they are shameful, repulsive statements. And, of course, the president has it precisely backward – despotism is the enemy of the people. The free press is the despot’s enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy. When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn’t suit him “fake news,” it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press.
I dare say that anyone who has the privilege and awesome responsibility to serve in this chamber knows that these reflexive slurs of “fake news” are dubious, at best. Those of us who travel overseas, especially to war zones and other troubled areas around the globe, encounter members of U.S. based media who risk their lives, and sometimes lose their lives, reporting on the truth. To dismiss their work as fake news is an affront to their commitment and their sacrifice.
According to the International Federation of Journalists, 80 journalists were killed in 2017, and a new report from the Committee to Protect Journalists documents that the number of journalists imprisoned around the world has reached 262, which is a new record. This total includes 21 reporters who are being held on “false news” charges.
Mr. President, so powerful is the presidency that the damage done by the sustained attack on the truth will not be confined to the president’s time in office. Here in America, we do not pay obeisance to the powerful – in fact, we question the powerful most ardently – to do so is our birthright and a requirement of our citizenship — and so, we know well that no matter how powerful, no president will ever have dominion over objective reality.
No politician will ever get to tell us what the truth is and is not. And anyone who presumes to try to attack or manipulate the truth to his own purposes should be made to realize the mistake and be held to account. That is our job here. And that is just as Madison, Hamilton, and Jay would have it.
Of course, a major difference between politicians and the free press is that the press usually corrects itself when it gets something wrong. Politicians don’t.
No longer can we compound attacks on truth with our silent acquiescence. No longer can we turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to these assaults on our institutions. And Mr. President, an American president who cannot take criticism – who must constantly deflect and distort and distract – who must find someone else to blame — is charting a very dangerous path. And a Congress that fails to act as a check on the president adds to the danger.
Now, we are told via Twitter that today the president intends to announce his choice for the “most corrupt and dishonest” media awards. It beggars belief that an American president would engage in such a spectacle. But here we are.
And so, 2018 must be the year in which the truth takes a stand against power that would weaken it. In this effort, the choice is quite simple. And in this effort, the truth needs as many allies as possible. Together, my colleagues, we are powerful. Together, we have it within us to turn back these attacks, right these wrongs, repair this damage, restore reverence for our institutions, and prevent further moral vandalism.
Together, united in the purpose to do our jobs under the Constitution, without regard to party or party loyalty, let us resolve to be allies of the truth — and not partners in its destruction.
It is not my purpose here to inventory all of the official untruths of the past year. But a brief survey is in order. Some untruths are trivial – such as the bizarre contention regarding the crowd size at last year’s inaugural.
But many untruths are not at all trivial – such as the seminal untruth of the president’s political career – the oft-repeated conspiracy about the birthplace of President Obama. Also not trivial are the equally pernicious fantasies about rigged elections and massive voter fraud, which are as destructive as they are inaccurate – to the effort to undermine confidence in the federal courts, federal law enforcement, the intelligence community and the free press, to perhaps the most vexing untruth of all – the supposed “hoax” at the heart of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
To be very clear, to call the Russia matter a “hoax” – as the president has many times – is a falsehood. We know that the attacks orchestrated by the Russian government during the election were real and constitute a grave threat to both American sovereignty and to our national security. It is in the interest of every American to get to the bottom of this matter, wherever the investigation leads.
Ignoring or denying the truth about hostile Russian intentions toward the United States leaves us vulnerable to further attacks. We are told by our intelligence agencies that those attacks are ongoing, yet it has recently been reported that there has not been a single cabinet-level meeting regarding Russian interference and how to defend America against these attacks. Not one. What might seem like a casual and routine untruth – so casual and routine that it has by now become the white noise of Washington – is in fact a serious lapse in the defense of our country.
Mr. President, let us be clear. The impulses underlying the dissemination of such untruths are not benign. They have the effect of eroding trust in our vital institutions and conditioning the public to no longer trust them. The destructive effect of this kind of behavior on our democracy cannot be overstated.
Mr. President, every word that a president utters projects American values around the world. The values of free expression and a reverence for the free press have been our global hallmark, for it is our ability to freely air the truth that keeps our government honest and keeps a people free. Between the mighty and the modest, truth is the great leveler. And so, respect for freedom of the press has always been one of our most important exports.
But a recent report published in our free press should raise an alarm. Reading from the story:
“In February…Syrian President Bashar Assad brushed off an Amnesty International report that some 13,000 people had been killed at one of his military prisons by saying, “You can forge anything these days, we are living in a fake news era.”
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has complained of being “demonized” by “fake news.” Last month, the report continues, with our President, quote “laughing by his side” Duterte called reporters “spies.”
In July, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro complained to the Russian propaganda outlet, that the world media had “spread lots of false versions, lots of lies” about his country, adding, “This is what we call ‘fake news’ today, isn’t it?”
There are more:
“A state official in Myanmar recently said, “There is no such thing as Rohingya. It is fake news,” referring to the persecuted ethnic group.
Leaders in Singapore, a country known for restricting free speech, have promised “fake news” legislation in the new year.”
And on and on. This feedback loop is disgraceful, Mr. President. Not only has the past year seen an American president borrow despotic language to refer to the free press, but it seems he has in turn inspired dictators and authoritarians with his own language. This is reprehensible.
We are not in a “fake news” era, as Bashar Assad says. We are, rather, in an era in which the authoritarian impulse is reasserting itself, to challenge free people and free societies, everywhere.
In our own country, from the trivial to the truly dangerous, it is the range and regularity of the untruths we see that should be cause for profound alarm, and spur to action. Add to that the by-now predictable habit of calling true things false, and false things true, and we have a recipe for disaster. As George Orwell warned, “The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.”
Any of us who have spent time in public life have endured news coverage we felt was jaded or unfair. But in our positions, to employ even idle threats to use laws or regulations to stifle criticism is corrosive to our democratic institutions. Simply put: it is the press’s obligation to uncover the truth about power. It is the people’s right to criticize their government. And it is our job to take it.
What is the goal of laying siege to the truth? President John F. Kennedy, in a stirring speech on the 20th anniversary of the Voice of America, was eloquent in answer to that question:
“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”
Mr. President, the question of why the truth is now under such assault may well be for historians to determine. But for those who cherish American constitutional democracy, what matters is the effect on America and her people and her standing in an increasingly unstable world — made all the more unstable by these very fabrications. What matters is the daily disassembling of our democratic institutions.
We are a mature democracy – it is well past time that we stop excusing or ignoring – or worse, endorsing — these attacks on the truth. For if we compromise the truth for the sake of our politics, we are lost.
I sincerely thank my colleagues for their indulgence today. I will close by borrowing the words of an early adherent to my faith that I find has special resonance at this moment. His name was John Jacques, and as a young missionary in England he contemplated the question: “What is truth?” His search was expressed in poetry and ultimately in a hymn that I grew up with, titled “Oh Say, What is Truth.” It ends as follows:
“Then say, what is truth? ‘Tis the last and the first,
For the limits of time it steps o’er.
Tho the heavens depart and the earth’s fountains burst.
Truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst,
Eternal… unchanged… evermore.”
Thank you, Mr. President. I yield the floor.
* Were the President anyone other than who he is, I wouldn’t use this sort of language. But if he can use “shithole” to describe the home countries of many Americans, I feel free to use “piece of shit” to describe him.
So, Doug Jones prevailed against the odds in Alabama. This is a legitimate reason to feel optimistic, but just for a while. The Democratic win in the Deep South came under unusual circumstances and against a spectacularly flawed Republican candidate—it is no reason for the Democratic Party to feel overly confident about its prospects next year. Besides, there are too many other problems out there that challenge our frayed two-party system to warrant celebrating one unexpected swing of the pendulum.
A few days ago I received an email from MomsRising, a generally progressive pro-family group. It cited five actions its million-plus members should take this week. They were:
Tell FCC and Congress: Protect Net Neutrality! (Net neutrality was killed today, by a 3-2 FCC vote along party lines.)
Sign Up to Deliver a Tax Letter to Your Local Members of Congress’ office! (Well, I suppose anything can still happen but it’s generally conceded that some sort of favor-the-rich, screw-everyone-else GOP tax bill is going to be signed into law before Christmas.)
Urge NO on National Concealed Carry Reciprocity! (There is still some hope we can stop this insane House legislation.)
Be an #ACAdefender for Open Enrollment 2017! (This seems to be working; there is strong demand for Affordable Care Act enrollment before the December 15 cutoff.)
Protect DREAMers. (There remains a chance the 800,000 young adults in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program may be able to stay past the current March 5, 2018 deadline. Here is an instance where the Doug Jones victory may actually help achieve a concrete result.)
Needless to say, the MomsRising list is by no means complete. The Republicans continue to dismantle almost every government agency they get their hands on, with dreadful consequences for the environment and Americans’ general well-being, and the insufficiently publicized danger of a nuclear exchange continues to grow. (At least the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) won the Nobel Peace Prize this year.)
But, it’s the holidays! Enough doom and gloom, at least for the moment. Let’s try to look on the bright side, enjoy what’s good in our individual lives, and hope that some degree of civic sanity can be restored in the coming year.
Of all the many spectacular failings our country has experienced over the past year, the ongoing gun crisis is both the most visible and the most illogical. What other country would tolerate so many mass shooting episodes? What other country—or what other country’s leader—would claim, with a straight face, that arming still more of its citizens is the solution? If you can picture America as a person, then that person is in the back of an ambulance, bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds and speeding to the emergency room with sirens blaring.
The patient may not make it. And if the country does manage to survive, it is not likely to be in its current two-party, 50-state form. The U.S. is too divided, and too sick, to bounce back into its younger state of health.
I and others have written about the country’s new kakistocracy, which is almost entirely Republican. Today’s Republican party is a vicious fungal infection that is pushing America into an ever more perilous condition. On virtually every issue, including the gun issue, the Republicans are not merely wrong—they are unbelievably wrong. Some of this is self-interest and cynicism, of course. But most of it is simply mind-boggling stupidity, especially among the party’s base. President Trump is a glaring, throbbing, dangerous manifestation of this. If he doesn’t manage to plunge a steadily weakening America into some sort of nuclear exchange he still stands to promote the dissolution of the country’s most important institutions, including democracy itself.
Where the gun issue is concerned, the Democratic Party is also to blame—it has displayed unforgivable cowardice. For every Democratic politician like Connecticut’s Senator Chris Murphy (who represented Newtown in Congress at the time of the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre) urging Congress to “get off its ass and do something,” many other Democrats stay silent. And advocacy groups for gun control also fall sadly short. Groups such as Americans for Responsible Solutions, founded by Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly, do not go nearly far enough in their proposals and remain hamstrung in their deference to the wildly misinterpreted Second Amendment.
The Supreme Court’s disastrous, conservative-led 5-4 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller that “the Second Amendment protects a personal right to keep and bear arms for lawful purposes, most notably for self-defense within the home” has somehow morphed into the right for anyone to bear arms anywhere for any purpose, which of course is the NRA’s and now our so-called President’s stance. This is quite insane yet it is the law of the land, a land currently led by “a fucking moron” as our Secretary of State has said.
As we contemplate that ambulance speeding toward a hospital with a dying democracy inside, it’s important to note that guns are only one of America’s deadly symptoms. A dysfunctional federal government, a chaotic health care system, and the rollback of almost every ethical, social and scientific advance made over the past century are others. But if we can’t address the gun issue it’s likely we can’t cure any of our other serious illnesses, either.
Can we address the gun violence emergency in this country? Not with our currently divided political system. As British journalist Dan Hodges wrote about Sandy Hook, “Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.”
I hope you’ve noticed I haven’t used the words “Sutherland Springs” in this post. What difference would they make? That little Texas town is just the latest in a long procession, the latest recipient of America’s thoughts and prayers. We’ll soon move on to the next locale.
My thought, or rather my hope, is that both of our national parties will fragment into their constituent parts and we will, sooner rather than later, be able to put together a government representing a coalition of the sane. Multiple political parties would break the gerrymandered stranglehold that Republicans hold over so much of America and enable a coalition government, say between a new progressive party and the remaining Democrats, to have a decent shot at power. That coalition would then be able to enact laws resembling those in Britain and Australia, where personal gun ownership is very tightly controlled. How those laws would then be enforced is a subject for another post.
I’ve just published a poem, “Transient,” in Poetry Quarterly (issue #30, Summer 2017, running a bit behind schedule). Because the magazine is behind a paywall, you would need to purchase a rather expensive printed copy or else subscribe to the online version to read it. That being the case, and because the poem is about empathy, a quality sorely needed today, I’ll reproduce it here.
A damaged person on the floor,
filthy, scuffed, like the station itself.
Above the person hulks a cop, hand
on holster. The cop smirks and says, get up.
Get up scumbag and move the hell out.
His victim tries to stand but slumps back down,
a person in transit who needs to rest awhile.
No vagrants in the terminal
the cop says. Port Authority badge.
I remember this the only way I can,
hazily, since I
was drinking myself.
All this many years ago, when
the city’s days were dim and grim.
What was wrong with that person?
Couldn’t he/she rise?
Has karma messed that cop up by now?
I walk over and see the dull badge
has no name, only a number. Meanwhile,
the individual moans.
We need some help here, I say.
Some help my ass the cop says.
He kicks the prone figure once, then leaves.
I bend down to check:
that numb stare could yet be anyone’s.
Society’s conception of sin continues to evolve over time. Religious instruction we may have received as children might not match up with our conception of what’s thought sinful today. In addition, the categories of sin have expanded to include the institutional and the national, among others, in addition to the personal. And sin’s contextual setting is generally secular.
Despite this fluidity, two recent novels tackle subjects that qualify as sinful from almost anyone’s vantage point. The multiple-award-winning (National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize) novel The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead tackles America’s original sins of slavery and genocide (violence and theft perpetrated against Native Americans appears as a thread throughout the book). This year’s buzz-generating novel, My Absolute Darling by debut author Gabriel Tallent, is focused on the personal: child sexual abuse and incest. The two novels are quite different but both are intensely gripping reads.
Let’s begin with The Underground Railroad. Whitehead has done a number of extraordinary things with this book. First, he has done a phenomenal job of describing the experience of slavery and the pervasive, lasting damage it caused. The novel’s primary heroine, Cora, is completely believable in her fluctuating fear and courage, hesitation and anger. Cora is pinpointed within her biological (her grandmother Ajarry and her mother Mabel are nicely delineated) and geographical (Cora starts her journey on a vicious plantation in Georgia and travels the railroad from there) settings, so she seems very tangible and real, as do her antagonists. One of these, the “slave catcher” Ridgeway, reminds me of of the judge in Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian in his flamboyantly malevolent behavior and philosophizing. Among its other sterling qualities, The Underground Railroad is a real page-turner. It’s a hell of a story.
The story is even richer for its ingenious sci-fi twist: the underground railroad is a literal railroad, complete with tracks and actual trains traveling unseen through hidden tunnels laboriously carved out beneath the earth. The stations are hidden under the homes and barns of abolitionist sympathizers deep in the South. This literal railroad is handled with subtlety and actually seems quite believable in context. Its operators run enormous risks, and some of them pay dearly. The Underground Railroad presents a unique and unforgettable view of the horrors of slavery, and its lessons pack unfortunate relevance in today’s America. The fact that the novel is also a fabulous read only adds to its achievement.
The case for My Absolute Darling is not quite so convincing. It too is a stunning read, but in an entirely different and more claustrophobic way. It was published quite recently and hasn’t garnered any awards yet, but it has received extraordinarily extravagant, not to say hyperbolic, praise. Stephen King has already hailed the book as a “masterpiece”; this strikes me as a bit premature.
The core of the book concerns the struggles of 14-year-old “Turtle” Alveston to survive the depredations, sexual and otherwise, of her charismatic but dangerously out of control father, Martin. The Alvestons (Martin’s wife has already died under sketchy circumstances) live alone, in a remote setting nearly off the grid outside Mendocino. Martin is a survivalist as well, and browbeats his daughter on a regular basis to master the necessary skills. Between that and the incest, it’s small wonder that Turtle struggles in every way at school and is a conspicuous outcast.
It has to be acknowledged that the book is exceptionally well-written. Tallent’s mother Elizabeth (one of his two mothers; he was raised by lesbians) is a well-regarded writer in her own right, having published stories and essays in The New Yorker and many other publications. So writing runs in the family. And Gabriel was brought up in the area where the book is set, which contributes to its sense of authenticity. His writing on Northern California flora, and the distinctions to be drawn between various firearms, is incredibly detailed and adds another layer of verisimilitude. Furthermore, Tallent’s depiction of Jacob, a high school boy who starts to draw Turtle out and eventually draw her toward the outside world, is marvelously done. Jacob’s sophisticated banter and essential innocence ring completely true.
Yet there is an ugliness in the book that revolves around its subject matter. Tallent has stated, in interview after interview, that he wanted to handle the sexual abuse of a teenage girl by her father gingerly without any hint of exploitation. He probably does this as well as it can be done but the subject stands regardless and continues to radiate its own unhealthy attraction for the reader.
I want to give Gabriel Tallent the benefit of the doubt, simply because this book is so well written. But the book’s denouement gives me pause: it is written in such a sweeping cinematic style that it is as though the writer were simply transcribing the scene from the film that is sure to come. My Absolute Darling is going to transform Gabriel Tallent’s life and make him famous (well, as famous as a writer can be these days) and wealthy. Did he set out to achieve this? You might reply that the book is so masterfully done it doesn’t really matter. But if Tallent chose to depict Turtle’s sufferings simply to draw readers in, wouldn’t that be a kind of sin in itself?
The monstrous rain from Hurricane Harvey that has immobilized Houston and adjacent parts of Texas and Louisiana has been predicted in many climate studies—hurricanes and other storms are expected to become more frequent, and more severe. Whether or not Houstonians or other Texans believe in climate change is immaterial at the moment; thousands of people need immediate help and thousands of other people are doing their best to provide it, despite the fact that many streets and highways are underwater. It is the kind of selfless community effort that has been in extremely short supply lately, and it represents the sort of empathetic teamwork and can-do cooperation that America was once known for.
Another kind of cooperation is represented by the nine Northeastern states of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative that have teamed up to implement a far-reaching cap-and-trade program to improve the environment and deliver more efficient energy to the region. Not surprisingly, California has implemented a similar effort, and it would represent a great step forward if the people involved in these efforts on both coasts would decide to combine their efforts. Adding Oregon and Washington State, along with traditionally blue states in the Upper Midwest and the holdout states in the Northeast (Chris Christie’s New Jersey, plus Pennsylvania), would be a bolder move still.
The two instances of citizen and governmental cooperation cited above are very different: one has arisen in response to a grave natural disaster, and it has brought out the best qualities of the many people serving as rescuers and volunteers. The coastal environmental programs are a more considered and more thoughtfully planned effort to head off the sort of catastrophes afflicting Texas and Louisiana at this very moment, or at least reduce their frequency and impact. Both efforts have one very important factor in common, though: they run counter to current Trump administration policies aimed at stripping government power from every area of public life.
Trump, who pardoned racist Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio as Hurricane Harvey made landfall because he thought media ratings “would be far higher than they were normally,” plans a visit to Houston today. The city is not really equipped to receive a presidential visit during this emergency, and it’s hard to imagine Trump touring the city by boat. He would serve the area best by staying away.
So far, the dysfunction at every governmental level that was evident from the beginning during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 seems missing—the Harvey rescue efforts appear to be working for the moment. But massive, years-long rebuilding efforts are forecast, and it remains to be seen how helpful Trump and whoever remains in his administration will be in delivering the needed assistance for those efforts.
Citizens working together to help one another in Houston are a refreshing counterpoint to the multiple Trump rallies at which everyone outside his base is excoriated. And the “blue” state governments that have decided to take on the environmental work the Federal government has turned its back on may yet help save the country from even worse weather-related events. In both cases, local citizens and governments are cooperating with each other in order to resist the destructive dismantling of government in Washington. (The selfless Texas rescuers may not think of it this way, but that is what they are doing nonetheless.) Both examples are essential and heartening, and we need to see more on both fronts.
One of my first posts on this site was in praise of Ulysses, the very stylish and capable writers’ text editor I used to write my 50,000-word novella during last fall’s NaNoWriMo. I continue to admire and enjoy this software but I’m about to stop using it. The reason? Ulysses is switching to a subscription-only model.
I oppose such a model on philosophical grounds, which I’ll try to outline below. I also think this switch will prove to be a failing business model for Ulysses, unless there are more dilettante/hobbyist writers out there than anyone previously realized. In fact I hope this model does fail, and Ulysses returns to the standard software practice of buy once, then pay for occasional significant updates.
Adobe was the conspicuous pioneer in subscription software and the model has apparently worked for them. The big difference here, though, is that Adobe is the industry standard for designers everywhere. (Since I’m not a designer, I promptly stopped using Photoshop and other Adobe products and was able to replace the functionality I needed with no difficulty.) The equivalent standard for writers, at least where submission for publication is concerned, is Microsoft Word. And Word still offers the ability to purchase the software, instead of subscribing to it. There is no standard software for the process of writing. If there were to be such software, Scrivener would probably be the most likely candidate.
Ulysses actually suits the way I write better than Scrivener does, but so do many of its rivals, some of which also offer cross-platform capability (Ulysses is Apple only). And Scrivener itself can be a marvelous writing tool when pared down to its composition mode. The program is not as “pretty” as Ulysses but it does far more. Scrivener is essential for its excellent templates and for its comprehensive export capabilities. You can use it to write fluidly, reorganize and revise in fine detail, and then prepare a flawless manuscript for submission. No other software, including Ulysses, can do all of that nearly so well.
iA Writer, Sublime Text (properly configured) and the up-and-coming Write! all provide attractive, customizable writing environments with a left-hand sidebar for project navigation and organization (Write! just recently introduced a local sidebar and is already working to improve it). Update, 4/9/18: I no longer use Write! software and can’t recommend it. See this article for more information. Any of these programs can substitute for Ulysses during the first draft process, with Scrivener coming into play after the first draft is complete. (The software I’m using to write this post, Byword, would also qualify if it would just add a navigational sidebar.) What’s more, all of these programs employ traditional files and folders to organize your work. Ulysses, in contrast, hides your work deep in a largely inaccessible database, though you can deliberately create external files and folders if you wish. Some people think this system provides advantages; I don’t.
Here are a few reasons why a I think a subscription model for Ulysses is a really bad idea:
The cost for the end user becomes disproportionate. Let’s say you paid $45 to purchase Ulysses. Suddenly, you’re asked to pay $40 per year to continue using it. (Granted, existing users pay “only” $30 per year.) Now, this isn’t cost-prohibitive per se. Ulysses is excellent software and many people would argue it’s worth the added cost. But suppose you also buy Scrivener for $45 and then pay for two upgrades at $30 each over a 10-year period. That’s $105 over 10 years for what is arguably the one truly indispensable writers’ program, vs $300-$400 for Ulysses. Ulysses is not worth that cost differential; I think its developers are being a bit greedy here.
Suppose every bit of software you use regularly suddenly demanded that you subscribe in order to continue using it. Apart from the significant added cost, it would drive you crazy to keep track of all the required payments. The historical purchase-once, pay-to-upgrade model for software makes far more sense.
Ulysses is writing software. Its developers argue they need the extra subscription money in order to deliver “continuous improvements”. Writing software does not need continuous improvements—indeed, constant change for the sake of some supposed “improvement” would actually be detrimental. Once a writing program offers a flexible and pleasing interface, basic editing features and word count and the ability to navigate and modify project file structures, anything beyond is extraneous at best. I don’t use many of the extra features Ulysses already offers.
So, unless or until Ulysses comes to its senses, I’ll be using iA Writer and Sublime Text, among other programs, for short fiction and poetry and Scrivener for long-form work and revisions.