The ‘situation’ is what’s unfolding

Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism; detail from book cover

“…throughout [this book] I define the genre situation in terms of the situation comedy or the police procedural. The police conventionally say: ‘We have a situation here.’ A situation is a state of things in which something that will perhaps matter is unfolding amid the usual activity of life. It is a state of animated and animating suspension that forces itself on consciousness, that produces a sense of the emergence of something in the present that may become an event.”

— Lauren Berlant

In “a situation,” as Lauren Berlant writes in her introduction to Cruel Optimism (2011), our relationships are in flux, and the very manner in which we must live out and storytell that personal or political change is also “unstable, in chaos.” Rather than think of ourselves as living in an ongoing state of exception with an ongoing set of traumas that are “exceptional shock[s]” to some presumed ordinary state, Cruel Optimism proposes that we consider ourselves as ordinarily dealing with “incoherence…in the face of threats to the good life [we] imagine.” It is thus more accurate to say that we experience “crisis ordinariness.” There is never not a crisis. Sometimes our crises just feel less prominent.

Berlant also gives us “perturbation,” which she describes in her introduction as “Deleuze’s word for disturbances in the atmosphere that constitute situations whose shape can only be forged by continuous reaction and transversal movement, releasing subjects from the normativity of intuition and making them available for alternative ordinaries.” A perturbation is a situation in which you have to make a conscious choice to act differently.

One further concept may be useful for fiction writers to attempt to distinguish whether their story focuses on the present or on a future resolution. “Transformation,” Berlant says in Chapter 2, “is always in the language of the aftertime; what the novels [The Intuitionist and Pattern Recognition] want is to provide the sensorium for a reconceptualized present.”

The term ‘writer’s grievance’

Abstract image. Light streaks on dark background.

Here is a term coined by Minna Salami describing the weariness or frustration in noticing that other writers—because of their dominant race or gender—can adopt a particular tone that you could never take or can get away with less effort, less serious attention, or less critical analysis on issues that are central to you.

This grappling [with the impact of Europatriarchal dominance] has not led to writer’s block but to an equivalent sentiment that I refer to as writer’s grievance. Writer’s grievance is when you become starkly aware of the constant, howling objection in your words. It is when you wish that you could write about trivialities in the way that white male writers can. Or that you could be cool and impartial in writing about gender, as black male writers are. One cannot even single-mindedly write about a classic feminist issue such as the gender pay gap, as white feminists do, without that other issue spilling its Rs and As and Cs and Es onto the pages.

—Minna Salami, in her introduction to Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach For Everyone

Insofar as black women, in Salami’s analysis, never quite feel that they have the space, permission, freedom, or opportunity to view the world purely from their own point of view without the awareness of how white people and/or men perceive them, this “writer’s grievance” resembles what W. E. B. Du Bois called “double consciousness.” Their work tends to reflect how other people view them or constrain them. And it takes its personal toll. Salami says that “never placing myself (however constructed that self is) at the center of my worldview is the most harmful way for a black woman to live. I remain the ‘other’ even to myself.”

The desire for the freedom to make art and philosophy about “trivialities” is not itself trivial. There is a difference, after all, between being trivial and having the freedom to choose to be trivial. It is a reflection of the options that society makes available. People of dominant identities often criticize those of marginalized identities for “making the personal into the political” or “playing identity politics.” But do the people of marginalized identities have the full freedom to do otherwise, given how they must gain knowledge and make their way in the world?

Bertrand Russell, an early-20th-century white British philosopher, wrote this sentence 90 years ago which has been widely quoted. In unpacking it a bit, it sheds some light on the topic.

One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.

—Bertrand Russell, Conquest of Happiness (1930), Chapter 5

Russell seems to mean, first of all, that it is healthy and necessary to be able to step outside one’s work now and then, if only for a necessary respite to be able to return to the work with a refreshed perspective. Perhaps he also means that we must be humble and realistic about our eventual unimportance as individuals within history. But there is an additional meaning embedded here which he probably did not intend: Much of white men’s writing is unimportant because they have the luxury of writing that way. The way they gain knowledge is not, as it is for so many other people, biased by survival mechanisms due to their race and gender; instead it is biased by the way they benefit from and participate in upholding Europatriarchal dominance. And if a white man enjoys and promotes an existing system in which he is treated as nobility, then, regarding that system, his work is not revolutionary or transformative and, in that sense, it cannot be terribly important. If he thinks that it is, he is starting to suffer from a kind of delusion that is a product of the Europatriarchy itself.

As Salami put it:

Men are just as enslaved by the social system—one that they hesitate to criticize because it amplifies an illusion about who they are. In fact, men are troubled with frustrated desires; they are caught up in the competitiveness of the rat race; they are sexually needy; they suffer from suicidal inclinations in disturbing numbers; and they possess an insatiable urge for power.

—Minna Salami, in her introduction to Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach For Everyone

Thus, maybe—to alter and repurpose Russell’s observation—when certain thinkers and artists feel that they are approaching a nervous breakdown, they should reconsider whether their work is designed to describe or achieve anything sufficiently important. Those who are always trying to achieve something important already know who they are; they more likely have the “writer’s grievance” than the type of stressful self-doubt to which Russell refers.

How introductions improve nonfiction books

Here’s a few pitfalls I’ve noticed in nonfiction books. No need to name names, as these problems are common enough that you may have noticed them in your own reading, too.

One problem is that, in giving advice, authors sometimes say things that are dreadfully obvious. “The goal is to complete the project.” “It’s better to do things well than to do them poorly.” And so on. This can happen with books that document facts, too. Sometimes it seems as if the book is just a list of facts. The facts struggle to elevate to the level of a concept, and they don’t reach the level of story. Even if the facts are obscure, they are “obvious” in the sense that they already exist in an encyclopedia somewhere in much the same format. Whatever unique meaning the author might have lent them in a book-length treatment isn’t fully delivered.

Another is that, in classifying problems, authors sometimes juxtapose problems of wildly different severities and psychological impacts. “Sometimes you have a bad day: you know, you stub your toe, or your child dies.” “Cultivate your personal network so you can get a good job and escape the country if there’s a genocide.” It’s hard to keep track of the author’s originally intended point when the examples muddy the emotional content.

One overarching problem can lead to both of these bad results: The author’s neglect to explain why they wanted to write this book in the first place. Here’s my theory of how that works.

Presumably the author knows a lot and cares about their thesis. They don’t think what they are saying is factually obvious; they want to add something new. They’re also aware that the phenomenon they’re pointing out has many different manifestations with different emotional and moral meanings and applications; as an expert, they’re probably capable of making those distinctions. But if the author doesn’t open the book explaining their qualifications and interests, and if they don’t make the case that this book needs to exist and that they’re the best person to create it, then the book doesn’t get off on the right foot. The writer may not yet have adequately interrogated their knowledge base or their agenda (in which case they really aren’t quite prepared to write the book) or they may simply lack confidence in themselves. Without a proper introduction, the reader, similarly, has no basis on which to have confidence in the author. Furthermore, the reader may not trust the author to handle a psychologically deep topic. The writer has not extended their own voice and made the personal connection with the reader.

That’s why I believe nonfiction introductions are important. When the author establishes their qualifications and passions up front, they are less likely to make the mistake of endlessly listing platitudes and facts and winding up with bizarre and insensitive juxtapositions. They will remember why they are writing the book. When the book is complete, readers will appreciate coming along for the ride.

Why is ‘Ten Past Noon’ 480 pages?

Ebook distributors estimate Ten Past Noon to be around 320 pages. The paperback takes up 480 printed pages because I selected a large, beautiful font that’s easy on the eyes.

But why is it not, say, 150 pages? Why didn’t I write a book that was half the length?

I am reminded of a dialogue from when I was a high school student over twenty years ago.

“Expectations for this class: A final paper,” the teacher said. “Ten pages I want.”

“I can’t write that much,” a student said.

“You have all year,” the teacher said.

“Can it be two?” the bargain began.

“No, ten,” the teacher said. “They are qualitatively different arguments: the two-pager and the ten-pager. It’s ten I want.”

Short sentences are arresting and therefore memorable. They are a good delivery method for complex information made simple. Short sentences are how we communicate “a message.”

But not all information packages are reducible to two pages nor even two hundred. Sometimes an author labors for years, gathers expertise, and develops an idea that is big and nuanced. Then the author no longer has a single message, but a thesis. A teacher often wants a student to demonstrate that they have worked hard, learned many things, and grasped subtleties. That’s what this teacher wanted to see: a thesis.

An early draft of Ten Past Noon was less than a hundred pages. My readers were bored to tears. When I doubled, then tripled the length of my draft, those same readers became increasingly interested. This particular book needed to be long. That’s because Ten Past Noon doesn’t deliver a simple message. It has complex theses, and it works partly through its poetry. Reading it is an artistic experience.

Can a book ever be too long?

Why, yes, yes, yes, it can be. That pitfall, in fact, lies at the heart of Ten Past Noon. The risk of writing too much is part of what I wrote about. So give the book a spin to find out my answer to that question.

Who’s going to write your book?

abstract art

“Our disconnectedness from the [imagined] older version of us,” psychologists believe, is “a surprisingly powerful subconscious influence on our behavior.” So wrote Leon Neyfakh in the Ideas section of the Boston Sunday Globe on January 6, 2013, in his article, “Meet Future You. Now Be Nice.”

The conundrum is that, the more we imagine that we will change significantly as we age, the less we want to sacrifice today’s pleasure for tomorrow’s happiness because it seems to us that tomorrow’s happiness will belong—somehow—to a different person. Why should people feel motivated to save money, give up dessert, tell the truth…if the benefits will go to their future selves that they can’t yet recognize as “themselves” in their imaginations today?

Neyfakh quoted psychologist Anne Wilson as saying: “You have to find that sweet spot. You need to feel connected enough and care enough about [your future self] in order to pursue [your goals], but not feel so close and connected that you just reap the benefits before you’ve actually done the work.”

Based on how I understand this article, I identify another sweet spot: You need to feel distant enough from your future self to understand that there’s a goal you haven’t achieved yet and into which you must therefore invest effort if you ever want to become that imagined future self, but not feel so distant that you resent working so hard as if you were doing it on behalf of a total stranger.

Hal Hershfield, a professor whose research interests include decision-making, was quoted in the article as saying, “It’s fine to think about that future self as another person—it just has to be another person you feel close to and have a lot of overlap with,” since “the marriages that work best and the friendships that work best are the ones where people feel like the other person is almost part of them.”

Today—having happened across the saved newsprint in my paper hoard—I think about this advice in the context of how much time we invest in our artistic projects. When I make any piece of serious art, I grow as a person just from the process of envisioning it, discovering a way to express it, and seeing it through to the end. When I think of certain accomplishments as very distant, as in, Someday I’ll be the sort of person who can write this book, the book doesn’t get written because I’m essentially telling myself I am not yet the sort of person who can do it. But when I think of certain accomplishments as achievable by me—because the accomplishments are, let’s say, in my “zone of proximal development”—I’m more likely to sit down and write a first draft. I realize I’ll have to grow and change a bit to see it through to the end properly, but it is still I, and not some barely imaginable stranger, who is able to put in the effort and take credit.