Vow is about adultery, and two people married to each other who both routinely commit it, and yet the most obvious question isn’t addressed until page 245 of 258:
People have asked me why Bill and I didn’t just have an open marriage. The answer is simple. We didn’t want an open marriage. If an open marriage is the route both spouses choose to go, that is one choice. It’s very cosmopolitan. I know a local couple who tried this for years, and it worked out to some degree. They had a lax attitude toward sleeping around. [. . .] But the idea doesn’t have much appeal to me. If we were able to do it, we would all do it. Almost no one I know could do it.
For a practice that “doesn’t have much appeal to me,” Plump sure did a lot of it; most people who don’t like Pilates don’t keep going to the classes. She effectively had an open marriage without labeling it as such, or getting the benefits, like hot threesomes. Not addressing the open marriage until the end is bizarre. Plumps and her husband appear to like the drama of lies more than the simplicity of truth.
A book like Never the Face (my essay about it is at the link) is about fundamentally more honest people: on its fifth page, David says to the narrator of his wife Maria, “She knows about it, and she’s okay with it.” The paragraph breaks: “What?“, the narrator thinks. Then: “For the next two days, my mind argued with itself.” Even if the narrator can’t conceptualize or accept the possibility of uncommon arrangements, her partner can. That’s what Plump and her husband are missing. Instead they get recriminations, and the problem of simultaneously wanting the other person to be monogamous while they don’t have to be. Cognitive dissonance is a bitch, and so is hypocrisy.
The overall effect yields the strangeness of art, from the level of the sentence to the level of the whole, which is why I feel compelled to write about Vow amid other projects and other purposes.
Still, Vow is spectacularly well written and yet spectacularly frustrating, because the simple, obvious solution to the problems between Plump and her husband is simply off the negotiating table. They don’t even try events like this one, slightly NSFW, described in Time Out New York.
Plump says that “I assume Bill approached the altar with every intention of doing the right thing. Don’t we all? I’m not sure that I did. Even as I took my vows, I was aware of some mocking little voice in my head, particularly when I got to that part about forsaking all others” (120). Then. . . don’t get married? Again, it’s the obvious solution to a book that’s about looking at the obvious and then doing something else.
Consequently, on some level Vow is one long yowl of cognitive dissonance and “I want.” Plump cheats, basically, because she feels like it: “So I was thrown off balance when I first met Tommy and felt an attraction so compelling I no longer cared that I was married” (8). That’s it, and at bottom it’s the reason most cheaters cheat. In Plump’s universe, feelings trump emotion; I’m not sure about the extent we should extrapolate her comments to all women, or all people, but there’s definitely a temptation to do so, though I’m going to refrain.
At one moment Plump writes:
I have tried many times to deconstruct allure. It is the least romantic of tasks, but it is marginally useful, if only to prove a point. When you take attraction apart, when you look back on what developed and how, you find that it is a physical impulse for about eight seconds before it moves on to something bigger. (50)
Many people, mostly guys, have worked to take attraction apart and to learn how to build it up. Neil Strauss is the most famous, but many others, like Roosh, have also field-tested what works in attraction, in allure. Women are now also producing their own material on overt allure. Note that I’m not necessarily endorsing Strauss, Roosh, or the linked Female Pickup Artists, but I am saying that they are attempting, through observation, trial, error, and research, to develop methods for attracting women or men—in other words, “to deconstruct allure.” Chances are that the peculiar alchemy involved in attraction will never be completely standardized, but pretending that there’s no way to “deconstruct allure” is just pointless and incorrect romantic mystification.
Plump says that “Immediately on standing next to Steven I felt a frisson snapping between us. Some neuron in my brain knocked itself loose and began rapping on my awareness, saying, Yo, are you still in there? Pay attention. You’re doing it again.” Chances are good that Steven was doing something, consciously or unconsciously, to make that attraction happen. Maybe he was just really hot. But maybe he’d begun systematically learning about what to do around women. Plenty of guys do.
Why does she sleep with these guys instead of some other guys? She doesn’t really say. What do they do? How do they behave? It’s lost to Plump, who isn’t asking why she likes what she likes: she’s just liking it. It’s the triumph of feeling and the reason so many guys, and some number of women, read The Game.
There’s also a lot of “I” in Vow: a lot of “I loved not only the way I felt with Steven, I loved who he was with me, as well.” There’s not a lot of thinking about what other people are thinking or feeling. That may explain the quality of Plump’s marriage, which demands “we” and “you” as much or more than “I.”
One also wonders why her husband, Bill, can’t or chooses not to understand presumed shifts in his relationship with his wife: “Sex with Bill became unwanted by comparison, through no fault of his. It changes utterly from an act of love and passion to an act of crushing obligation” (41). Perhaps she shouldn’t be married, then? Perhaps he should recognize what’s going on and leave? The obvious questions pile up, and Plump is telling us that she has no answers. Maybe there are none. There are only contradictions. She says that “Through it all, again, I was certain of one thing. I did not want our marriage to end. I was crushed but not finished.” For someone who doesn’t want her marriage to end, Plump behaves in strange ways.
Some niggling intellectual points bother; Plump, for example, must not have read much evolutionary biology: she writes that “They [friends] think I must have been aware that Bill was having an affair, as if suspicion were linked to some primal instinct we all have. I have no idea what imperative suspicion would serve Neanderthals such that it would repeat upward through the species to find its expression in us” (4). Leaving aside the question of mistaking Neanderthals for a major modern human ancestor, I can very easily imagine “what imperative suspicion would serve:” for men, suspicion is one way of ascertaining paternity. If you check a woman’s fidelity, her offspring are more likely to be yours. For women, jealousy is a form of resource guarding: if you want your mate’s resource capacity to be primarily devoted to you, and not to the hussy a few huts over, you want to make sure he’s not knocking her up (The Evolution Biology of Human Female Sexuality discusses these issues and empirical findings around them).
These obviously aren’t absolute, and the anthropological literature is filled with alloparenting, group sex, and other arrangements, but the basic utility of jealousy as an adaptation remains. Plump does note that her husband’s child with another woman “moved us into a whole new circle of deceit, into that tortured fraternity of women and men [ . . .] who are heaved by their loving spouses into the dirtiest of vortices—women who find out their husbands have fathered children elsewhere; men who find out their children are not biologically their own” (31). Right. It’s the “dirtiest of vortices” because of the tremendous resources invested in children. To have someone who is supposed to be investing your children investing in someone else’s is the cruel problem that jealousy is there, in part, to address.
I’m keeping Vow, though it’s the sort I would normally sell.
Those of you who are thinking about publishing your own books or already have—and I know you’re out there—should read Ted Heller’s “The future is no fun: Self-publishing is the worst” for a couple reasons, the most important being that it highlights the way self-publishing is probably not a path to fame and fortune for most of us. But Heller should also highlight that, for most of us, conventional publishing wasn’t a path to fame and fortune either.
He writes that he conventionally published three books between 2001 and 2011, then found that he couldn’t get a publisher for his fourth, West of Babylon. If he’d begun publishing in 1991 and had the same experience in 2001, that would’ve been it: self-publishing didn’t exist in a practical form, and now it does, which means his book at least has a chance.
It’s also clear that Heller is doing it wrong. He writes about sending review copies to newspapers and magazines (“I do everything I possibly can in about four or five paragraphs to inspire interest in whomever the email is sent to”), but that’s like me wanting to become a gigolo for female clients: the world just doesn’t work that way. Me wanting the world to work that way isn’t going to make the world work that way either. Newspapers and magazines barely review conventionally published books any more, and self-published books are explicitly forbidden by most of them; to the extent newspapers and magazines write about such books, it’s after they’ve become best-sellers (like 50 Shades of Grey).
Heller appears to have few personal connections with anyone at newspapers or magazines (“When I finally found contact information for someone at the show I’d been on, they did email me back [. . .] to politely tell me that they would not be having me back onto their show”), which means he’s wasting his time by sending out random P.R. e-mails. I know this. Why doesn’t he?
Heller doesn’t have a blog, as far as I can tell. He doesn’t say that he scraped the e-mails of everyone he’s ever corresponded with and sent a quick e-mail blast about his book. He apparently hasn’t been collecting the e-mail addresses of his readers. The price for West of Babylon —$8—is too high. It should be $3 – $5. The book sounds at best mildly appealing. Though the topic–has-been, 60-year-old rockers—makes me want to look elsewhere, it could be pulled off. Still, based on the description, I wonder: what’s at stake? Do I care about whether these guys can “pull the tour off?”
The Salon piece also makes Heller sounds like. . . I’m look for a euphemism but none come to mind. . . an asshole:
If there is one positive thing about this self-publishing business it is this: You separate the wheat from the chaff among your friends and acquaintances. Who is willing to lend a hand and who cannot wait to abandon you? Who will nudge someone they know and get your book to them and who just won’t even acknowledge your desperation or is laughing at you behind your back? Some people have been remarkable, others’ names are now forever etched onto my Eternal Personal Shit List.
Look, if your friend doesn’t like your book, it doesn’t mean shit, other than that your friend doesn’t like your book. I’m neutral towards 60% of the books I read, actively dislike 30%, and find 10% magical. Playing the straight odds, when a friend publishes a book, there’s a 90% shot that I’ll be neutral towards or dislike their book. The probability of me liking their book is probably lower, because the vast majority of books I read are books I choose.
When I start self-publishing, I doubt all my friends will like what I write. Which is okay. Having cancer and seeing who supports you and who doesn’t separates “the wheat from the chaff among your friends and acquaintances.” Publishing a book that you friends don’t love is hardly a reason to be “forever etched onto my Eternal Personal Shit List.”
Let’s examine the upside for a moment. Heller has a real chance to get his book in front of readers, which he wouldn’t have had ten years ago. He’s playing a game with low odds of success. Thousands of other writers, and maybe hundreds of thousands, are in the same game. But he’s living in a time when it’s possible to get in the game, and that itself is still something to celebrate.
EDIT: I should add that, based on what I’ve read, most writers at most major publishing houses get very little real marketing / PR help. The ones who do are the lucky exceptions. Throwing a stone into the ocean of literature and having it sink to the bottom is normal. Throwing a stone into the ocean of literature and having it turn into a cruise ship is not.
Movie star Zach Braff raised two million dollars on Kickstarter, and in the process a bunch of people on the Internet (and some who should know better) wrote critical commentary—this Reddit post is a decent summary of the slightly angry “Why is a rich celebrity seeking other people’s money?” point of view. Some people also used the Kickstarter to write reasonable, illuminating commentary, as Dan Lewis did in “Zach Braff, Amanda Palmer, and the New 90-9-1 Rule: The Indifferent, the Haters, and the Ones who Love You.“
But, for the most part, one important and subtle factor about Kickstarter got lost: Kickstarter functions as an easy-to-use signaling mechanism. Lots of people on Internet forums and real life say, “I want to see Garden State II or Season 3 of popular TV show X” or whatever. But the cliché is true: talk is cheap, and lots of people will say lots of things when they have nothing at stake.
Kickstarter, however, lets people put their money where their mouths are: instead of saying, “I want to see or read X,” they can say, “I want to see or read X so bad that I’m willing to pay $10 to make it happen.” That $10 is much louder than 10,000 posts. The money is important in and of itself, yes, but it also demonstrates that your fans care enough to give the creator something valuable.
Although I didn’t especially care for Garden State when I saw it in college, I can see why it appeals. My favorite movies are definitely worth way more to me than the relatively small amount of money I paid to see them. (Or, as economists would say in their racy, lascivious language, my consumer surplus is high, while it was pretty low for a movie like Spring Breakers and outright negative for awful movies.) How much is a movie like Blade Runner or the underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang worth to me? I don’t know, but if the team behind a movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang wanted to make another movie and tried Kickstarter, I’d give them some money (in Lewis’s term, I’m somewhere in the 9% of people interested but not super-fans; maybe I’m in the 12th to 15th percentile).
We’re still in the infancy of crowd-source funding, and it’s possible that we’ll see crowd-source funding morph towards being seen as an important signal too, and this blog post is a step in that direction.
Mike Beggs’ review of Debt expresses my reservations about the book better than I can. In Debt there are many solid micro-insights but the overall narrative doesn’t cohere. Beggs describes this better than I can.
One point: Graeber notes religious prohibitions on debt—”The Catholic Church had always forbidden the practice of lending money at interest, but the rules often fell into desuetude[. . .]” (10)—and religiously-inspired depictions—”Looking over world literature, it is almost impossible to find a single sympathetic representation of a moneylender—or anyway, a professional moneylender, which means by definition one who charges interest” (10)—but my understanding is that those prohibitions arose prior to the Industrial Revolution and Enlightenment—in other words, times when growth could be negative for decades, and when growth, even when it did occur, was usually under 1% a year.
In that atmosphere, taking on debts would be ruinous for the vast majority of people. Today, by contrast, many people can use debt safely and successfully for things like education or business. I don’t know how much of that is a just-so story and how much is empirically supported, however.
It is also easy to find many nasty representations of women in world literature, and especially of prostitutes, but, if I may stereotype for a moment, that doesn’t mean that a bunch religious lunatics from the Middle Ages should control modern conceptions of femininity or sexuality. Depictions of groups, professions, or practices from the past may be revealing or important, but they don’t and shouldn’t bind what we think in the future.
Another point: Graeber writes that, in recent times, “the bankers were doing it [that is, making "utterly irresponsible loans"] on an inconceivable scale: the total amount of debt they had run up was larger than the combined Gross Domestic Products of every country in the world [. . . ]” (16). I agree that having “too-big-to-fail” banks is a problem and that the U. S. federal government should get out of the business of subsidizing and guaranteeing mortgages, which are practices that contributed to the size of the financial sector but were probably not decisive to it, but that doesn’t stop me from also noting that every lender needs a borrower. So far as I know, few borrowers had guns held to their head with orders to borrow. Borrowers took loans freely. The story of the last five years should not be a homily about the evils of bankers; they played a role but did not act alone. Everyone who could have taken out a large mortgage in the 2000s but chose to rent instead knows this.
Graeber appears to successfully bury the idea, often mentioned in economic textbooks, that money systems arose from barter. But I don’t think that conception is essential to many, if any, modern ideas in economics. He seems to want to deliberately misstate what economics does:
for there to even be a discipline called ‘economics,’ a discipline that concerns itself first and foremost with how individuals seek the most advantageous arrangement for the exchange of shoes for potatoes, or cloth for spears, it must assume that the exchange of such goods need have nothing to do with war, passion, adventure, mystery, sex, or death. (32–33)
This misunderstands economics to a degree that seems like willful ignorance: economics is a discipline that studies how people respond to incentives and trade-offs.
The book is frustrating because it has many fascinating descriptions of how native peoples barter and trade, but those observations are marred by moments like this one. Graeber describes positively how native peoples develop ongoing business relationships, and that indeed sounds good, but having ongoing relationships with every single person with whom one wants to trade for goods and services would be incredibly time-consuming in a modern economy. The social arrangements that work well for native people will not necessarily work well for modern people dealing with clerks at Walgreens.
Some points are viable and important: for example, Graeber brings up the example of third-world debt incurred by autocratic leaders and enforced after those leaders are deposed. In instances like that he’s right: the people of third-world countries shouldn’t be forced to repay debts created by dictators. But that doesn’t mean all debt everywhere is automatically bad. Nor am I convinced that the sexual-economic practices of indigenous people, though interesting, necessarily tell us how we should arrange sexual-economic practices today.
Many indigenous people seem to have more fun than most Americans, and in that respect maybe we should emulate, but I can’t judge whether Graeber is cherry-picking examples. The U.S. could improve its sexual culture in many ways, and take some cues from indigenous people, but those cues can be lifted without taking along economic practices.
Debt ends this way:
A debt is just the perversion of a promise. It is a promise corrupted by both math and violence. If freedom (real freedom) is the ability to make friends, then it is also, necessarily, the ability to make real promises. What sorts of promises might genuinely free men and women make to one another? At this point, we can’t even say. It’s more a question of how we can get to a place that will allow us to find out. And the first step in that journey, in turn, is to accept that in the largest scheme of things, just as no one has the right to tell us our value, no one has the right to tell us what we truly owe. (391)
But a debt isn’t really “the perversion of a promise;” it’s a particular kind of promise. If you don’t like “math and violence,” then don’t take debt. It’s not all obvious, even after almost 400 pages, how Graeber gets from the first two sentences in the paragraph to the last sentence—is anyone “tell[ing] us our value?” Who is this person? And when we start life, “no one has the right to tell us what we truly owe,” but if we want to buy a car for $0 down and $499 a month, then someone does have the right to tell us what we owe, because we gave it to them. There are many edge cases, which you can read about in Contracts law textbooks, but the overall principle is reasonable.
It is hard for me to imagine wanting to re-read Debt.
(I title this post “Thoughts on” because I don’t have sufficient knowledge for a comprehensive review, and because the book is sufficiently broad in scope that a real review would probably need to be thousands of words even if many of them are citations.)