This is a letter to a Big Hat at Simon and Schuster by one of its authors. It’s scary — and I thank the dark gods that people like him exist, with massive balls and a lot of edginess.
A short, universal manifesto for change
1. Piss them off!
Civil discourse, and those who plead for it, can only result in more of the same; civility operates, precisely, within a discursive context explicitly endorsed by the dominant.
2. Be violent.
Violence is not only physical; but the most brutal violence is always intertwined with physical pain. It is the suffering of the broken finger and the phantom limb. A broken heart may sound emotional, but the image is physical. If they don’t agree with you, you can cut out their tongues. If they claim to want you, demand an erection as proof.
3. Attack everything.
Changing just the one thing — changing it for good — demands changing everything. Fighting an injustice to the end is fighting the structure that permits it. At this point, you give up or you cut the jugular.
4. Your neck is your limit.
You are somebody’s enemy. It is not beautiful if you die by their sword: it is necessary: it is their duty to kill you. What happens after the guillotine touches your neck is none of your business. Accept the risk. Make the guillotine yours.
Don’t act out. Have a plan. Know that you will betray some allies if the danger you sense in them turns serious. Those who think ahead and anticipate their own demise — those are the eternal tyrants. Figure out how to be a monster while serving your cause. Accept the monstrosity of commitment to an overall vision.
My labor of love, a book about my mother’s life and the shitty time I put her through out of pure adolescent selfishness, will be released in 2012. I won’t share the details yet; there’s a lot of planning to do. Still, I’ve signed the contract and it’s happening.
PRAISE OF MOTHERHOOD, as I’m calling it for now, was my way of coping with the loss of my mother. I began it the same night she died, and several major revisions later, it’s more or less ready to be released. It will be dedicated to my sister.
I salute you all.
I am participating in NaNoWriMo this year. The point of this event is to get 50,000 words written during the month of November. It will not be art, but it’ll be a start.
I tried to take part four or five years ago, but failed. This time I think it’s feasible. I have begun a new novel.
Lately I’ve been submitting my work to more publishers than usual. Eventually they’ll bite; if they don’t, I’ll force-feed them. NaNoWriMo will be a good occasion to generate more material. Pretty sure that’s the key term: generation. It’s not crafting or polishing, it’s a process of churning out. A lot of it will be pointless, but at least the bones of a novel will be there.
Yes — it is just your opinion. There was no risk of any confusion.
Before you said, “This is just my opinion,” there was nobody in the room wondering whether what you were saying was the Truth as spoken by God, or just your opinion.
You will not fool anyone into thinking you’re humble by saying that it’s just your opinion.
You cannot deflect an attack on your opinion simply because it is an opinion.
Because it’s your opinion, and you are voicing it, you are, in effect, inviting us to form an opinion of your opinion. Toughen up.
When someone attacks your opinion, you don’t help your case by raising your voice and saying, “It’s just my opinion!” You don’t help your case by being shocked. You also don’t help anyone feel sorry for you by pretending that you are being attacked.
You are entitled to an opinion. You aren’t entitled to immunity from criticism.
Guest post by Liz Turner
My other half recently took off on an adventure, beginning in Europe with the view of working his way slowly over to Central Asia — in his words, “to those Stan places” — intending to be away for several months to learn, soak up, experience, and generally make life difficult for himself. I was in a pretty alarming state of mind on the day of my beloved’s departure, loudly considering myself abandoned, bereft, wretched and so forth to anybody who would listen, so my mum threw a book at my face to shut me up. She chose well, as the missile in question happened to be A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, and instantly all thoughts of the guy I’d just waved off from King’s Cross disappeared completely. It’s an extraordinary piece of work that anybody with a vague interest in stuff should read.
Generically speaking, the book is a travel memoir, chronicling Fermor’s memories of the first part of his own travelling adventure, from the Hook of Holland to Hungary. Before the phrase ‘gap year’ had entered anybody’s vocabulary, he decided as a teenager to walk through Europe on a journey that took him about a year to complete. During this time, he lived on pocket money sent from his parents, the hospitality of strangers and a huge amount of shoe leather, presumably dragging his colossal balls behind him at every step of the way. This is rich source material in itself, but there are a number of striking things about A Time of Gifts.
We’re right in the middle of the Interbellum, as Fermor belongs to the generation who grew up with the scars of the First World War and in the shadow of the Second. In December 1933, when he sets out, Hitler has already become Chancellor and set about destroying all German political institutions that present a threat to the Nazi party, and recently unified Italy is now under Fascist control, but it will be some years before other world powers go to war against them. Over in the East the tsars have been toppled and the Soviet Union has already been established, the Austro-Hungarian Empire has been dissolved and independent republics created, but their invasion and oppression are barely even a glint in Stalin’s eye. So we’re talking about a time of turmoil, the outcomes of which will shape modern Europe. As a 21st century reader, these events are not distant, but there is an inexorableness about them that makes it difficult to imagine things differently. Living through a time before this particular explosion of violence, and looking back on it with a retrospective eye, makes for some fascinating reading.
This is not to say that there aren’t potential issues with Fermor’s narrative voice, the nostalgia of which sometimes feels as if it’s intended to keep the reader at arm’s length. The tone is about as far away from the gritty realism of Down and Out in Paris and London as it’s possible to get, so much so that I occasionally found myself expecting the phrase “and we all had lashings of ginger beer” at the end of certain paragraphs. The way he romanticises his experiences, from the rosy-cheeked, horny handed peasants in Bavarian fields to the gently crumbling remains of the Austrian old school in high-up Schlosses, can be off-putting. Because of this, it’s tempting to jump to conclusions about the class prejudices running throughout the work: the rosy-cheeked peasants are perfectly happy with their lot and the nobility are a bunch of damned good fellows doing the best they can with what they have, in a world that’s going to pot. I think, on re-reading it, that this would be an injustice to the author. Fermor was fascinated by the now arcane subject of medieval history, which, to a less sympathetic modern reader, comes across on the page as being obsessed with Central European aristocracy. His preoccupation is as much aesthetic as anything else, as evidenced by a theory he develops on artistic motifs and principles based partly on portraits of such people. Additionally, he is so much a product of his society and background, and makes up for the annoying Just William passages in so many ways, and is simply a better yarn-spinner than he is a social crusader, that it seems pointless to pick on this for too long.
At worst, he is an over-enthusiastic schoolboy, and at best he is curious, charming and frighteningly knowledgeable about what it is we’re looking at. His powers of description, including his technical descriptions of architecture and familiarity with local history, are extraordinary for a self-proclaimed delinquent and school drop-out. Some of the best passages are made up solely of descriptions of a church roof, a strength that few travel writers can lay claim to. Fermor has a habit of contextualising his immediate visual experiences and relating them back to art, usually in terms of painting or poetry, which grounds his prose and prevents him from sounding twee or inauthentic. But he really comes into his own when looking back on his encounters with people. His delight in meeting strangers, talking to them, setting up mad-cap schemes for making money with them, and most of all partying with them, is what gives his work real charm. It is joyous to read. My favourite passage takes place on the border between Slovakia and Hungary, detailing his excitement at spending a night under the stars only to be mistaken for a notorious sugar smuggler operating in the area. Cool. Story. Bro.
Given this love of the eccentric in people, plus the unconditional hospitality of many of the characters towards him, plus his grasp of contemporary history, it’s interesting to imagine him deliberately using his authority as narrator to defend the people he’s met from the charge of being unequivocally pro-Hitler. He takes care to separate the general population who are nothing but kind to him, from the brownshirts who crop up from time to time in the Central European parts of the story, always appearing disgustingly drunk or horribly menacing when they do, and always met with quiet disapproval from the ‘real people’. Significantly, he avoids issues of future blame and guilt, which is at least a gallant gesture towards his old friends. The ethics of this are obviously tangled, and potentially better saved as a discussion for another time.
I could go on, but I won’t. Please read it, especially if you’re planning a long and arduous journey. It’s better than ploughing through a textbook or looking up stuff on Wikipedia. And engaging with the past in this way, through anecdote and description and story, is a great exercise in imagination and empathy. For me, it made sense to read A Time of Gifts and its sequel, Between the Woods and the Water, as a personal way of mourning the old Europe, and ensuring that it has a fitting burial.
I won’t pretend I have a passion for reading. I read every day, several times a day, but it is not a passion. The process of reading itself is not a passion, and no amount of ebook reading device promotions will convince me that I should make a big deal out of the fact that I read.
I won’t get offended when someone despises me because of my principles. I want to be liked, but I don’t want it badly enough that I’ll adapt my behaviour at every new encounter. I am prepared and eager to be hated by people whose values I consider petty, trivial, wrong or dangerous. It will boil down to being liked or liking myself. If I can’t do both, I’ll pick myself.
There are people whose deaths I would neither mourn nor even pay attention to. I don’t feel bad about this, and the next time someone suggests I should feel bad about it, I will want to know three things: Have they ever supported a war? Have they every eaten meat? How did they react when the WikiLeaks scandal broke out, or the Troy Davis execution, or the Roman Polanksi rape affair, or Chris Brown’s beating of Rihanna? I will dismiss any admonition concerning my indifference to the death of X or Y as condescending, hypocritical, narcissistic bullshit.
I will not attack “religion” unless I have something interesting to say. “Religion is stupid” is not an argument, it is a display of “passionate intensity” that will neither impress me nor convince me. I don’t believe in God, and I find certain aspects of the religious world more harmful than good. In the end, however, I side with the indifferent, educated Christian over the argumentative, never-read-the-Bible-but-has-lots-to-say-about-it, atheist. Without pretending that religion is a good (or a bad) “thing”, I still prefer to be around people who are deluded in faith than those who are deluded about their faithlessness.
I will treat science as a method and not an answer in itself. The scientific method is a wonderful development, but it is not “the solution” or “the ultimate way” — that’s the equivalent of numbskull religious discourse. I will pick a scientist over a quack, but I will not bow down to the scientist.
For a while now, I have assisted the team behind the Official Chuck Palahniuk Website in their noble and insane quest to create the ultimate online resource for writers: LitReactor. That site has now gone live.
LitReactor offers a full-time peer-reviewed creative writing workshop, a magazine section, specialized classes taught by popular authors, a forum, and some other cool stuff. There’s a membership for those who want access to the workshop. The magazine section is free. There are many staff writers working to make everything just a bit more awesome than it needs to be.
Join. It will be worth it.
In 2003, The Guardian published a piece on why the essay is not a good pedagogic tool. The essay, the author claimed, is difficult, alienating — a problem for students.
- [the essay] has to be undertaken at the end of the course, when only a few weeks remain before the assignment deadline. This time pressure makes it difficult for students not only to create their own sense of the relationships between a variety of new ideas, but to embody this new understanding in a written text. So, lacking sufficient time, they panic.
- the essay requires the student to adopt the (essentially unrealistic) stance of one who has now, after just a few weeks’ teaching, “mastered” a new topic
- the essay requires a specific style of writing, and, for many students, this style is difficult and alien, especially those returning to formal learning after a substantial break and those who are first-generation participants in higher education.
- The essay is the source of the problem – but what would real learning look like?
Charmingly patronising, but more importantly, it’s unhelpful. If a student cannot write an essay for the reasons the article outlines, then the student should not be a student.
A university essay is, among other things, an attempt at synthesising the various thematic and conceptual strands running through the duration of a class. It’s there to force a student to sit down and teach himself or herself, instead of sitting around passively “attending” lectures. Having to write an essay is a burden, but it’s not a cause for “panic” — and if, “lacking sufficient time, they panic”, then the problem lies with the students as much as with the concept of the essay. Nobody, incidentally, is claiming that a student writing an essay is a “master” of the subject.
If the style of the essay is “difficult and alienating”, then the student works to overcome the difficulty. The well-meaning university policymaker doesn’t need to pander to everyone’s individual academic difficulties, especially if these difficulties involve, quite simply, a lack of talent, issues with time management, chronic laziness, an inability to sit down and reading a book, or stupidity. Perhaps you’ve cringed as you read this paragraph. Why did you cringe?
“What would read learning look like?” If by real learning we mean becoming more knowledgeable about a topic than the minimum required by a curriculum — then it would like something like this:
1. Not going out getting completely wasted for every week of the first year of university.
2. Sitting down and reading the secondary material.
3. Not remaining content with being assigned “selections” from theoretical texts inserted into worthless anthologies, where they are taken out of context, and where the jargon becomes meaningless but “impressive” on its own.
4. Speaking up when you don’t understand what people are talking about.
5. Not leaving your essays until the last minute.
The article in the Guardian implies that the self-esteem of students is more important than their academic results, and also that self-esteem is the business of the university. Some students are happy to be condescended to like that. Many are not, but they like the leeway they’re given by their tutors and use it to fuck around and get nothing academic done. Life is not an academic exercise, but why be extra sweet and careful around students who spent their term doing very little and then have a panic attack two days before their essays are due? In the end, how does that build self-esteem?
I have a BA in Literature and an MA in Philosophy; and both of these disciplines require particular essay-writing skills that can’t just be abandoned in favour of small, continual assignments that involve group discussion and teamwork. I didn’t do amazingly brilliantly at either of my degrees, but I passed without difficulty and enjoyed my courses for the most part. What I certainly didn’t enjoy, especially in my undergraduate years, was the stream of emails and notices I received from every office on campus asking, in a generic and impersonal tone, if I needed special attention in this or that area, if I needed support with this issue or that, if I would be so kind as to fill out this short questionnaire so that they could improve the life of international students, if I wouldn’t mind taking a survey to see if the student union could be improved in any way, and so on. I got far, far more emails of this type than I did about, say, academic matters. You know, at a place of higher “learning”.
This isn’t to say that being supportive of students is a bad thing — if I hadn’t been treated by the English department with exceptional friendliness when my mother died in the middle of my final year as an undergraduate, who knows how I’d have coped with university life? But the flip side of this is uglier: I can, off the top of my head, count four students in my year who tried to have the deadlines for their essay submissions extended by cynically claiming they had “personal issues” that had prevented them from doing their work. These students might very well have had personal issues; we all do. But out of those four students, two were getting completely and hilariously drunk at a local club the weekend before their essays were due. These personal problems are extremely convenient.
I had two of my deadlines extended because of problems with that thing the doctors ominously called “psychotic depression” and then “schizoaffective disorder” — for ten days I had to be hospitalised halfway through my first year. I got the same deadline extension date as a girl whose personal issue turned out to be a funeral for a distant relative she told me she didn’t know particularly well. Without meaning to trivialise her loss or exaggerate my own suffering, I doubt the funeral lasted ten days, and I also doubt the numerous months the girl had before the unhappy event were used as efficiently as possible. Even I’m wrong about her, which I am prepared to be shown to be, the fact remains that an indiscriminately sympathetic attitude towards students, while wonderful, can be counterproductive.
The article in the Guardian about the need to get rid of the essay exemplifies the kind of pandering-to-pedagogy that makes the “university experience” feel more like a guided tour through a museum than an occasion to do something for oneself. Pedagogy is not directly synonymous with education. I want to be educated, not patronised. Before you talk to me about “lifelong learning”, before you teach me “how to learn”, you should probably make it clear what education means, what it’s worth. Otherwise learning becomes an empty box in which you are meant to put other empty boxes.
I have met the perfect bureaucrat. He is a civil servant in my area. His job is to make sure you pay your council taxes.
Halfway through the twentieth century, Theodor Adorno and his colleagues tried to determine what kind of personality would be likely to embrace fascism. Nowadays it’s not quite as fashionable to talk about authoritarian personalities, but the concept has lingered. If you ever wonder whether there is such a thing as a human being whose every action is somehow a struggle for recognition, power, domination, order, whatever — then you, too, are engaged in the debate.
The bureaucrat in question is a frightening figure. He’s not physically intimidating — he’s lanky and wears glasses and trembles a little bit — but it only takes a few minutes of talking with him to realise he was made to be a bureaucrat and nothing else.
I don’t want to make him identifiable, because I live in a small city and there aren’t that many people who would fit his description. I do want to make him seem vivid, though. He is condescending. His body language is uneven; sometimes he looks relaxed, and then at once he’s a little jittery, a little anxious to seem more relaxed than he is. He waves his hand a great deal when he speaks. He tells you that according to this or that law you do not, unfortunately, have the right to question this or that decision. He cites the actual regulation that prevents him from being flexible in this or that unfortunate situation. He appreciates that this is inconvenient for you, but there is nothing he can do about it. Condescending but agreeable enough.
But when you spoke to him earlier on the phone, before he knew he’d have to see you in person, he was different. He outright questioned what you told him, called it dubious, and mocked you with laughed when you said you were unaware of X or Y. He said, “That’s interesting!” and implied you were lying to him. He doesn’t have to be sympathetic, you see, so he’s doing you a favour when he decides to speak to you on the phone when clearly you haven’t paid the council taxes he thinks you were meant to have paid.
Our hero, the perfect bureaucrat, can refer you to the rulebook any time you don’t understand what he has said. He pulls the “Are you threatening me?” card as soon as you ask him not to speak to you like a child. He tells you, “You have now threatened me, and I can take action against that.” You haven’t threatened him. He knows you haven’t threatened him. But who’s going to believe you, when he’s risen in the ranks and now occupies the biggest desk in the office? He has been nothing but sympathetic, has he not? Hasn’t he mentioned that he has a meeting with another group in about thirty seconds? Could you not show him a little bit of appreciation?
Things change, of course, when you ask a very simple but unpleasant question. “With whom do I file a complaint?”
He doesn’t want you to file a complaint. If you file a complaint, he’s going to lose face. Still, he tells you he “absolutely doesn’t mind” if you file a complaint about him. He needs to keep cool, or the intern who sharpens pencils will think less of him. So he lowers his voice very slightly and offers the first piece of practical advice he’ll probably give all day. “All we need are such-and-such papers, to prove X and Y, and we can drop the matter.”
How simple. Why, then, did we have to witness the spiritual self-destruction of this, the most important man in his office? Because that’s not what a perfect bureaucrat does. He’s there to bully you and complicate things. That is his role.
Jacques Lacan spoke at length about the discourse of the university. Bureaucracy is one beautiful manifestation of this kind of discourse; as Mark Bracher puts it, bureaucracy is “nothing but knowledge; i.e. pure impersonal system: The System, and nothing else. No provision is made for individual subjects and their desires and idiosyncracies. Individuals are to act, think and desire only in ways that function to enact, reproduce or extend The System. Bureaucracy thus functions to educate, in the root sense of that term: it forms particular kinds of subjects.”
The perfect civil servant I’ve described, the trembling and glazed-eyed little man in a suit, steps into the office and immediately embodies the Law. He can be impotent, or lonely, or suicidal in his spare time — or perhaps he lives a sexually fulfilling life, has many friends, and wants to live forever; none of that matters, because when you speak to him in his office, you are in fact speaking to the System, and if you disapprove of the System, you can go fuck yourself. And he has permission to tell you to fuck yourself, because hey, that’s just his job.
Thank God he’s found his calling. I almost hope that one day I will be paid to play a role that doesn’t require you to act very well, it just requires you to act at all.