The Evil Overlord Constructs a Literary Conspiracy Theory

Jennifer Pelland, talented short story writer, tireless chauffeur for various snot-nosed VPXers, and all around Good Egg, finds herself freshly irritated by the literary vs. genre divide:

I emailed a literary review journal based at my alma mater to see if they’d make an exception to the “we don’t review genre fiction” rule for an alum, and was told that no, they only reviewed “literary” fiction.

I meant to chime in with some hopefully soothing words, “Don’t worry, ‘literary’ as that journal defines it is really a genre,” aka the Key Lime Pie Theory of Literary Fiction. But one of Jen’s commenters, apintrix, already had an interesting take on that:

[Pierre] Bourdieu’s theory, in a nutshell, is that part of what has defined the discourse of “literature” or the literary since C19, as well as “high art” more generally, is a resistance to commercial or market pressures– the genius aesthetic, basically. The more your art is separated from the market, the more “pure” and “literary” it is. There’s something to that idea, I think, beyond it being “just another genre”; particularly because one of the central oppositions in the “literary field” is precisely between literary and genre fictions, which Bourdieu might say are “genre” because they cater to particular markets, and are explicitly heteronomous between the field of actual capital and cultural capital.

(The name “Pierre Bourdieu” rang a bell. As it turns out, David Brooks mentions him in Bobos in Paradise, which I’m embarrassed to admit I even read, let alone found amusing in parts, so let’s please just pretend I didn’t say any of that. Good? Good.)

Anyway, as apintrix observes, it’s interesting that “… ‘genre’ fiction appropriates the language of the market and of industry — authors ‘working hard’, being ‘productive’, all this stuff — while in literary fiction you’re more liable to see language like ‘inspiration’ or ‘transcendence’.” That does seem like a fundamental difference, not to mention a fairly new idea. Our ancient literary predecessors were certainly concerned with winning popular acclaim and economic success. If this has changed, I suppose the only fair thing to do is to blame Rousseau.

Ultimately, I think this is related to the argument sketched out in James Miller’s Is Bad Writing Necessary?, which discusses the tension between deliberately opaque writers like Theodor Adorno and deliberately transparent writers like George Orwell. To the Opaques, the fact that the Transparents have more popular acclaim and influence outside the academy “fuels their suspicion that plain talk is politically perfidious — reinforcing, rather than radically challenging, the cultural status quo.”

As quoted in Miller’s original article, Katha Pollitt has a scathing response:

When intellectuals on the left write in a way that excludes “all but the initiated few,” [Pollitt] remarked, what almost inevitably results is “a pseudo-politics, in which everything is claimed in the name of revolution and democracy and equality and anti-authoritarianism, and nothing is risked, nothing, except maybe a bit of harmless cross-dressing, is even expected to happen outside the classroom.”

The parallels between Literary Fiction and Opaque Non-fiction are striking. To what Pollitt said, I can only add that if I were The Man, Evil Overlord and Oppressor of all that is Radical and True, I could think of no better allies than those who exhort their colleagues to remain safe in a self-constructed academic ghetto. After all, shooting radical writers is messy and counterproductive. The optimal strategy is to convince them to endlessly chase their own tails.

California Ballot Proposition Algorithm

It’s election time this Tuesday in California, and you know what that means. Yes, once again we have a raft of ideas so bad they couldn’t be shoved through the Legislature shiny new ballot propositions offered for our consideration.

Fortunately, I have painstakingly developed a straightforward algorithm for evaluating ballot propositions. It goes something like this:

Is the proposition related to water infrastructure?
  If yes, do my two friends who are professional water engineers support it?
    If yes, vote YES.
  Else vote NO.
Else vote NO.

A small caveat: Lobbyists are hip to the fact that Californians tend to vote NO on propositions all things being equal, and so sometimes they cleverly craft a proposition such that a NO vote actually implements the opposite of what the voters might think it does. So the algorithm only works if you first unscramble any Bizarro Ballot Propositions such that NO really means NO, not YES. Me am not understanding? You am not understanding? Good!

Anyway, let’s apply the algorithm. Since none of the propositions relate to water engineering, we fall through to NO on each one. What could be simpler?

But wait — we need to check our work. Let’s pretend for a moment that we don’t have access to this powerful algorithm, and actually look at these propositions one-by-one:

  • Prop. 91: Ensures that fuel taxes are spent on automobile infrastructure rather than public transportation infrastructure, thus helping maintain our state’s traditional massive subsidies of unsustainable transportation systems. For what it’s worth, this one was such a stinker that apparently its backers have bailed out. Analysis = NO. Algorithm = NO.
  • Prop. 92: Lowers community college fees from $20 to $15 per unit and fixes a particular minimum percentage of the state budget for community colleges. Frankly, $20/unit is a fantastic deal for two years of college education, and further subsidies are already available to low-income students. I might support an expansion of these subsidies, but not a general fee cap. What’s far more pernicious is that this is yet another proposition that locks in a certain percentage of expenditures to particular interest, making it even more impossible to actually produce a budget. Analysis = NO. Algorithm = NO.
  • Prop. 93: Reduces term limits to 12 years, but allows 12 years service in one house. My cousin grudgingly supports this one, but would rather see a limit like 30 years in the legislature. I’d rather see 30 years, too. I’d vote for that. I’d be even more excited about lifting term limits altogether — all we’ve done with term limits is trade our corrupt legislators for corrupt, stupid legislators. Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, Prop. 93 is tinkering around the margins of a dumb idea for no obviously good reason. Pathetic, go away, Analysis = NO. Algorithm = NO.
  • Prop. 94-97: Indian gaming propositions. If Superbowl ads are to be believed, if you vote YES, you’re fucking over Native Americans. And if you vote NO, you’re … fucking over Native Americans. What to do? As it turns out, these propositions are simply how Schwarzenegger is implementing his payback to certain tribes for backing him in the 2006 election. While it’s admirable that Schwarzenegger sees fit to deal so honestly with his political supporters, I see no particular reason that I should bother to help him out here. Analysis = NO, NO, NO, NO. Algorithm = NO, NO, NO, NO.

Uncanny! The algorithm works perfectly. Tune in next election, when we’ll find out whether the algorithm works on English as an Official State Language, or whatever dipshit thing they’re putting up there next time around.