Lovers, writers, and scheduling

A friend who I’ll call “Heather” was describing a common problem among artistic types in their teens and 20s: she wants time to write, but she also wants time for sex, and sometimes the time that might be spent on the former gets slotted into the aftermath of the latter.

“Gets slotted into the aftermath of the latter” is a strange phrase I should explain further: Heather said that she’d invite a guy over after she gets home from work and they’d make dinner, and hang out, and watch a movie, and chat, and get down to it; all these activities necessarily took all night, while I got the impression she was most interested in one of them. Heather also said she’d feel bad about giving a guy the boot on a Saturday morning after he’d stayed over on a Friday, instead of spending most of the day with him. But she also wants to be a writer—would-be writers tend to clump—and she said she’d also feel bad if an entire week had gone by without her managing to accomplish anything because she’s busy running from work to guy to sleep back to work, leaving no time for any substantial projects of her own.

The solution seemed obvious to me, but I have a fair amount of experience in this department, and, as with many matters romantic, the honest and simple solution is often best. Instead of inviting someone over as soon as you get home from work, say, “I’ve got an hour between eight and nine. Bring a bottle of wine.” Or, if you’re more direct, just say, “I’ve got an hour between eight and nine. Come over.” As New York Magazine’s sex diaries series makes clear, this is not unusual or unreasonable behavior. On a weekend, you do your morning thing—like E does in that one episode of Entourage*—and say something like, “I’m going to start writing. You need anything?” If the answer is no, start writing. If the answer is yes, and if it’s concrete, do something about it. Ignore the pouting that may result (more on that below).

Heather and I chatted some more and it came out that the problem is not really the simple stuff—it’s what Heather worried that her actions said about her and/or the guy she’s dating. To me, saying, “Hey, I’m going to start writing this morning” doesn’t say anything other than, “I want to get some writing done.” To her, however, it says a host of other things bound up with femininity: that she can’t be a person who might be perceived as an “easy lay,” whatever that means; that she has to want to develop a deep relationship quickly; that a “deep relationship” means spending nearly every waking moment outside of work with someone; that two people can’t see each other for an hour and still care about each other. She kept saying things like, “I can’t do this to someone!”, until I said, “Your language is all wrong. You’re not doing to someone. And the guy might be happier anyway.”

It turns out she’s internalized social norms into some voice in her head. We talked about that some, and she said—by this point I realized there was a solid blog post in our conversation—”I know what I want. I want it now. Then I’ll create a block: ‘No, you can’t.’ ” The answer, of course, is that she can. And it’s not even really Heather doing it to Heather: it’s what she imagines other saying about her: “You know what gets me into trouble? Other girls. We are a factory of bullshit.” My observation: she just needs to stop caring what she imagines other girls think and how some vast cultural narrative of how relationships works. Because real relationships seldom fully work like they’re supposed to (which is why Dan Savage coined the term “monogamish,” which I just taught Textmate how to spell). Heather said that she feels like if a relationship or hookup isn’t serious, if a girl isn’t being treated in a certain way (whatever “a certain way” means)—it’s automatically bad. But why? There isn’t a great answer.

Philosophy is good at digging underneath assumptions, and so are teachers; while we were talking, I was basically digging at assumptions. After Heather figured out what was going on, she wanted to know: “How do I avoid this shit?” I didn’t have a perfect answer, because it would be something like, “Internalize some of the feminist arguments about cultural conditioning,” which isn’t an easy or short-term process. A more practical, immediate approach is to be conscious of it. Tell yourself: you can make boundaries. The whole argument about, “Am I getting taken advantage of?” go away. Heather feared what others would think of her. That’s a status question, and once you become cognizant of the status games people play you can, I hope, become like Neo when sees through the Matrix and learns to manipulate the fabric of perceived reality itself. You can’t be taken advantage of if you’re getting what you want and giving someone else what they want.

Besides, I told Heather something important: “You are not like other girls: you want to be an artist.” Other girls can be perfectly happy wasting an infinite amount of time sitting in their boyfriends’ or fuck buddies’ apartments (which I know, having been on the receiving end of the sitting treatment before I knew better) not doing anything. If you want to be an artist, you can’t do that, or you can’t do it all the time.

Note that this isn’t an argument for not spending time with another person, or for avoiding intimacy, or for any number of misreadings I can already imagine. It’s an argument for recognizing priorities and for realizing that work, sex/love, sleep, and being an artist can coexist, if you want them to. The trick, of course, is sticking to your offers. When nine rolls around, say, “I’ve got to go to work in the morning.” If the guy (or girl) doesn’t take the hint, say, “I’ve got to got to work in the morning—you should take off.” Very few people will refuse, for obvious reasons, especially if you remain firm.

Heather observed that she was worried she’d get attached to a guy who wasn’t attached to her. It’s not an illegitimate fear, but my response to it was simple: so what? The sex in the meantime is probably better than none. Being the kind of person she is, Heather observed that, if she gets attached and the guy doesn’t, she still gets a net Pareto improvement, demonstrating that, as Dan Ariely and Tim Harford have shown, economics does apply to love. And she’s right. There’s been a spate of dumb movies about what happens when people in their teens or twenties who start out mostly just having sex develop feelings; No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits are the most recent I’m aware of, although there are doubtlessly others. People who’re just doing it often develop feelings. And if they don’t, that’s okay too.

Look: you don’t need to have a stopwatch next to your bed, couch, chair, or kitchen table, and no one wants to feel like they’ve been scheduled into a slot. Or they don’t want to in the heat of the moment. But it’s also reasonable, if you’re an artist or want to be an artist, to make time for your work. You can find a million posts and essays and so forth like “Find the Time or Don’t” (which is John Scalzi’s version) that all say what his title says: people who find writing (or other art) valuable will find time to do it. Those who don’t, won’t. But you shouldn’t have to compromise on your love life. And you don’t, which I pointed out to Heather. You can be reasonable about time: you don’t need to fit someone in a “slot” every day, and it’s reasonable to spend an hour hanging out when you wake up on a Saturday. If you’re a writer, you can also involve your “friend” by asking him or her to read your work, since almost everyone knows how to read even if many people are effectively aliterate. If you’re reading this, you’re highly unlikely to be aliterate, but there’s a decent chance you’ve also slept with someone who has been. While their comments might not be as helpful as an editorial assistant for a literary agent, who I’ve been told are good to sleep with for multiple reasons, reading tens of thousands of words also takes at least a couple of hours, during which you, the writer, can produce some more words.

Even if you can’t get that person to read, after an hour or so you can get up, make breakfast (if you need to), and say, “I’m going to start writing. Do you need anything?” If the person says yes, and it’s a small task (“I need potato chips”), give it to them, and if they say no, start writing. If the person interrupts you with questions like, “What did you think of The Social Network?” Turn and stare at them for a good three to five seconds. Say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t care” and go back to writing. They’ll stop interrupting you. Print a copy of “A Nerd in a Cave” if the need arises. If they’re bored and don’t have anything to do, suggest they go home; meet up with them later in the evening, perhaps with new pages for them to read.

The danger is lounging in bed for two hours, then going for a leisurely brunch, then coming back to “hang out” (assuming “hang out” is not a euphemism for something more fun), then going to Bed Bath & Beyond (which is like death itself condensed into one shiny, plasticized place), then you find it’s 5:00, which means you’re going to meet some friends for a drink, or you promised your family you’d have dinner with them, or the person who you found in your bed that morning wants you to have dinner with their family, and so on. The occasional day like that is obviously okay. Having every weekend day like that while you work a weekday job means that you’re not going to get any real writing done, and any kind of writing can only be done one keystroke, one word at a time. So if you don’t guard your time to some extent, you’re going to let it through your hands until you wake up and realize that you haven’t accomplished whatever you wanted to accomplish, and the fault is your own.

The other extreme—simply saying, “no sex while I do this”—sounds even more unpalatable than having someone slurp your entire weekend into nothingness, and I suggested to Heather that one can have both. If, of course, you’re willing to set boundaries. In her case, that meant understanding the social conditioning she’s had, which implies that a) she always has to be on the hunt for a “serious” relationship, b) that she needs to play games to gauge a guy’s commitment, c) that feelings might be hurt by her having other interests, and d) that the person you’re sleeping with has to be at the entire center of your being. None of those have to be true, but when they’ve been ingrained since, if not birth, then your advent into American culture,

None of this is especially true: feminists have been saying stuff like this for years. Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own. But the conditioning remains, and if you’re not willing to dig underneath the assumptions that are preventing you from doing what you need to do, you might also simply not have the tools to be a writer. Heather does, from what I can tell, and if she has those tools, she should also be able to apply them to the conditioning she’s undergone as a member of our society. She once said, “I can’t help it. I’m a girl. Our foreplay starts 12 hours before the actual sex.” That might be true, but she can help it, or re-channel her energy, or take other steps to make sure she’s not wholly bound by other people’s desires. I’m merely pointing out to her that it’s possible for her to do so.

If it’s possible for her to do so, it should be possible for you to too.


* Found it: Season 2, Episode 2, “My Maserati Does 185.” Worth watching for, uh, educational purposes.

Sugar in my Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex — Edited by Erica Jong

Sugar in my BowlI can’t really generalize about the pieces in Sugar in my Bowl other than to say that most have a quality of the forbidden about them. Michel Foucault famously argues in The History of Sexuality that we’ve always talked about sex and that the “regressive hypothesis,” which holds sex can’t be discussed, is wrong. But I think he’s wrong, or at least wrong regarding the United States: it’s still difficult for many people, especially women to speak and write of sex, which is why Erica Jong—the editor of Sugar in my Bowl—can cite what amounts to a version of the regressive hypothesis in her introduction. Maybe we’re now collectively allowed to express all kinds of sexual signs, but moving from physical expression of signs like the ones seen in movies and porn to intellectual analysis is or feels forbidden. What happens in the mind is so intimate relative to what you’ve got under your clothes. Anyone can shuck their clothes, and Victoria’s Secret has built a massive business on the promise that most of us will, but relatively few people have the ability to really express what’s happening in their minds. Susan Cheever writes that “A one-night stand is the erotic manifestation of carpe diem—only we are seizing the night instead of the day,” but one has to wonder: how many people have felt precisely that and never found the words to express it?

Without the words to express it, one can’t create the writing that will allow others to feel empathy. I don’t buy the school of thought that holds men and women can’t fundamentally understand each other, or that either sex is incapable of writing characters from the other effectively in fiction. People who want to learn what other people are thinking will find a way to do so, and, if they’re good, they’ll be able to reproduce what other people are thinking. There’s a cultural meme, for example, that women automatically “give up” sex to men who “take” it from women. While that no doubt describes many encounters, especially first encounters, it doesn’t describe all of them. Consider Anne Roiphe describing her first, or what I assume to be her first, time, after playing doctor with a boy as a child:

Years later when Jimmy and I were thirteen we were kissing in the dark at a party. We were sitting on a table in my classmates’ living room. Couples were curled up together in every corner of the floor, despite the fact that the carpet was rough and scratchy. Louis Armstrong was playing softly in the background. Abandoned in a corner was the Coke bottle that had begun it all. It was a game of spin the bottle that had brought Jimmy and I to the moment. ‘Do you remember,’ I said, ‘when we played doctor.’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Do you have hair there now?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I really need to see it,’ he said. We found a closet. I showed him. He showed me his penis, larger, straight penis, full of some mysterious fluid.

This isn’t merely a my-first-time description (although it is that too), which litter memoirs and the Internet like discarded water bottles after a concert. It’s her way of delving into what’s nominally about the development of sex but really feels like the growth of an artist:

The thing about sex is that each act while different from the other even with the same person, even with the same person for forty years, is not a single act. It builds on the sex the night before, the year before, the decade before. Sex is a matter that unfolds like an accordion in the brain, the past is connected to the near past to the present and the future stands there waiting to be attached. So the feeling in the body, the feelings for someone else, the excitement of the new or the welcome of the familiar rises and falls, depends on memory, gains its depth from what happened at the beginning, a while ago, in the imagination, in reality.

You get older, you try things, you realize that, say, writing “is not a single act,” that it “builds on the [writing] the night before, the year before, the decade before.” Experience makes you good, and, although, there’s a sense that experience contrasts with innocence and is somehow bad, Roiphe doesn’t buy it. Neither do many of the writers in Sugar in my Bowl. They’re too heavily thinkers to buy the bullshit, and when thinkers break down their lives, they realize how much more valuable experience is than ignorance. It’s ignorance, and the celebration of it, that they’re really fighting, collectively, through writing, which is a powerful and impressive thing if you take the time to think about it. Maybe even more powerful than sex, which is their putative subject and the one that branches into so many other subjects; as so often happens, writers inevitably write about other things while they nominally write about one. Those “other” things can’t help being present to those who care to look. Susan Cheever writes, for example, “Sex feels like a series of shared secrets, a passage through a maze leading to the most wonderful feelings available to human beings.” But it’s so often hidden, and hidden deliberately, that one might ask why something wonderful must be “a passage through a maze,” unless seeking is part of the finding. Others want it to be religious, like Fay Weldon when she says:

I have been convinced not just of the significance and marvel of sex, but also of its sanctity, and its healing power, and the importance it plays in our lives, and how it is wrong to deny this. And if for a time thereafter, as I fled from bed to bed in search of love, I became a positive priestess of Aphrodite, it was not for long. I had a baby, as I was bound to, and steadied up. The psychoanalyst told me I suffered from low self-esteem, but my version is I was just born to like sex, and inherited the tendency from my father.

Notice the “sanctity,” the way she becomes a “priestess,” and the way she might not be in full control of her sexuality—she’s is “just born to like sex.” So if she did it, she did it, and so what?

There’s a wide and funny drift of self-knowing hypocrisy in these essays, many of which feel like the writer is talking to their younger selves, as when Ariel Levy says: “I smoked pot when I was twelve. I dropped acid when I was thirteen. Losing my virginity was the next logical step. It’s not like these things were necessarily fun. Well, the pot, actually, was great—unless you are reading this and you are twelve, in which case it was awful.” This reminds me of the first weekend I smoked pot, in high school (it wasn’t great: I don’t much care for the feeling, although I understand that many others do). The next week, a friend said she was going to the elementary school a block from my house to talk about D.A.R.E., which is a dumb and ineffective program. She invited me to go with her. Most importantly, this got me out of a couple classes. I went, spouted platitudes, felt like the world’s most terrible hypocrite. When we left, I told my friend about my experience with pot. She said, “I got wasted this weekend.”

So far as I know, we both turned out reasonably okay. So why not admit, unabashedly, “the pot, actually was great,” and leave the qualification out? I can imagine reasons, like the ones Megan McArdle pointed out:

In my experience, the big dividing line [between favoring drug legalization and not favoring it] is having kids. Read this interview with P.J. O’Rourke and discover some shocking things coming out of his mouth about how he doesn’t want his kids to do drugs. Having kids makes you realize how narrowly you escaped killing yourself–and remember all the friends who overdosed, or got arrested on a DUI, or spent their twenties working at a job that would let them smoke up three times a day, only to realize at age 35 that they had pushed themselves into a dead end. [. . ..]

in my experience, as the kids approach the teenage years, a lot of parents do suddenly realize they aren’t that interested in legal marijuana any more, and also, that totally unjust 21-year-old drinking age is probably a very good idea.

That’s not a good intellectual argument, but it is a very persuasive one that explains why we are where we are. (Does Levy have children, I wonder?) Still, Ariel’s line is funny precisely because of the discomfort she experiences at imagining a twelve year old wanting to follow in these particular footsteps.

I like Sugar in my Bowl more than it probably deserves, which may say more about my present preoccupations and less than its absolute merit. But, as I said above, while the anthology has the drawback of anthologies it also has the virtue: any piece that doesn’t resonate is only a few pages from being done and is easily skipped. And if you don’t care for reading a collection primarily about sex, you can also read it for what it says about history, relationships, politics, and writing. Jong thinks it’s also important because it equalizes an unlevel playing field some; she writes about

the fear some potential contributors had that they would not be taken seriously if they wrote for my anthology.

Anaïs Nin had made exactly the same argument in 1971 when I asked her why she allowed her diaries to be bowdlerized for publication: ‘Women who write about sex are never taken seriously as writers,’ she said.

‘But that’s why we must do it, Miss Nin,’ I countered.

And that is why we must do it. We must brave the literary double standard.

I can’t tell if she’s right, though she sounds the same note in the “Acknowledgments” section, where she writes that “Women who write about sex still get no respect—but we don’t give a damn!” Really? I don’t think I’d take someone less serious for writing about sex or not writing about it; Jong sounds certain that it’s true, however, and I wonder: who is giving the respect needed here? And, if someone is giving this respect, is it actually worth having? Isn’t an assumed position on the outside of some presumed literary establishment a necessary precondition for eventually getting in the literary establishment? The questions presume the answers, and, by creating this anthology, Jong does imply that 1) she can probably get more respect with it than without and 2) writing about sex is probably more literarily respectable now than it ever has been.

What Stephen King does and most writers should do:

Don’t be put off by the first sentence of this excerpt:

A serious engagement with a wide range of social and political issues forms the undercurrent of much of King’s work, but it is free of cant or dogma. His characters speak up, never lapsing into thumbsucking anomie. King himself, rather than picking at emotional scabs, taps directly into the underlying marrow, and, though there are notable exceptions, a consistent message resonates: ‘It really isn’t about your parents; it’s about you’re afraid.’ King’s balm is his generosity as a storyteller. ‘He’s got to be the most casually dismissed great storyteller we have,’ his friend the humorist Dave Barry believes. ‘What makes writing interesting is the story. Except for English majors and English teachers, most people like a story. And Steve just has the capacity to see a story everywhere and in everything.’

It’s from “What Are You Afraid Of? Terror is Stephen King’s medium, but it’s not the only reason he’s so popular—and so frightening” in The New Yorker, and although it’s hidden behind a paywall, if you’d like to read the whole thing, send me an e-mail and I’ll see what I can do.

I’d like to say something wise to extend the thoughts expressed above, but I don’t have any. You could take some lessons from this—avoid dogma, think about stories—but they’re ones most artists and would-be artists probably absorb over time.

Sexting and society: How do writers respond?

In a post on the relative quality of fiction and nonfiction, I mentioned that fiction should be affected by how society and social life changes. That doesn’t mean writers should read the news de jour and immediately copy plot points, but it does mean paying attention to what’s different in contemporary attitudes and expression. I got to thinking about “sexting,” an unfortunate but useful portmanteau, because it’s an example of a widespread, relatively fast cultural change enabled by technology. (Over a somewhat longer term, “From shame to game in one hundred years: An economic model of the rise in premarital sex and its de-stigmatisation” describes “a revolution in sexual behaviour,” which may explain why a lot of contemporary students find a lot of nineteenth century literature dealing with sexual mores to be tedious.)

Laws that cover sexting haven’t really caught up with what’s happening on the ground. Penelope Trunk wrote a an article called The Joys of Adult Sexting, in which she does it and thinks:

And what will his friends think of me? Probably nothing. Because they have women sending nude photos of themselves. It’s not that big a deal. You know how I know? Because the state of Vermont, (and other states as well) is trying to pass a law that decriminalizes sending nude photos of oneself if you are underage. That’s right: For years, even though kids were sending nude photos of themselves to someone they wanted to show it to, the act was illegal—an act of trafficking in child pornography.

But sending nude photos is so common today that lawmakers are forced to treat it as a mainstream courting ritual and legalize it for all ages.

Sending a naked photo of yourself is an emotionally intimate act because of the implied trust you have in the recipient. When you act in a trusting way—like trusting the recipient of the photo to handle it with care and respect—you benefit because being a generally trusting person is an emotionally sound thing to do; people who are trusting are better judges of character.

Trunk’s last paragraph explains why, despite all the PSAs and education and whatever in the world, people are going to keep doing it: because it shows trust, and we want significant others to prove their trust and we want to show significant others we trust them. You can already imagine the dialogue in a novel: “Why won’t you send me one? Don’t you trust me?” If the answer is yes, send them; if the answer is no, then why bother continuing to date? The test isn’t fair, of course, but since when are any tests in love and lust fair?

Over time, as enough kids of legislators and so forth get caught up in sexting scandals and as people who’ve lived with cell phone cameras grow up, I think we’ll see larger change. For now, the gap between laws / customs and reality make a fruitful space for novels, even those that don’t exploit present circumstances well, like Helen Shulman’s This Beautiful Life. Incorporating these kinds of social changes in literature is a challenge and will probably remain so; as I said above, that doesn’t mean novelists should automatically say, “Ah ha! Here’s today’s headlines; I’m going to write a novel based on the latest sex scandal/shark attack/celebrity bullshit,” but novelists need to be aware of what’s going on. I wrote a novel called Asking Alice that got lots of bites from agents but no representation, and the query letter started like this:

Maybe marriage would be like a tumor: something that grows on you with time. At least that’s what Steven Deutsch thinks as he fingers the ring in his pocket, trying to decide whether he should ask Alice Sherman to marry him. Steven is almost thirty, going on twenty, and the future still feels like something that happens to other people. Still, he knows Alice won’t simply agree to be his long-term girlfriend forever.

When Steven flies to Seattle for what should be a routine medical follow up, he brings Alice and hits on a plan: he’ll introduce her to his friends from home and poll them about whether, based on their immediate judgment, he should ask Alice. But the plan goes awry when old lovers resurface, along with the cancer Steven thought he’d beaten, and the simple scheme he hoped would solve his problem does everything but.

Asking Alice is asking questions about changes in dating and marriage; if you write a novel today about the agonies of deciding who to marry with the metaphysical angst such a choice engendered in the nineteenth century, most people would find that absurd and untrue: if you get married to a Casaubon, you divorce him and end up in about the same circumstance as you were six months before you started. But a lot of people still get married or want to get married, and the question is still important even if it can’t drive the plot of a novel very well. It can, however, provide a lot of humor, and that’s what Asking Alice does.

A lot of literature, like a lot of laws, is also based on the premise that women don’t like sex as much as men, don’t or won’t seek it out, and are automatically harmed by it or wanting it. This is a much more tenuous assertion than it used to be, especially as women write directly about sex. A novel liked Anita Shreve’s Testimony, discussed extensively by Caitlin Flanagan here and by me here, engages that idea and finds it somewhat wanting. So does the work of Belle de Jour (now revealed as Dr. Brooke Magnanti), who basically says, “I worked as a hooker for a long time, didn’t mind it, and made a shit ton of money because I made a rational economic decision.” A lot of academic fiction premised on professors having sex with students examines the idea that female students can want/use sex just as much as men; this is how Francine Prose’s Blue Angel works, and Prose is a canny observer of what’s going on and how it connects to the past.

Note that women wrote all these examples, which I don’t think is an accident, since they’re probably less likely to put other women on pedestals than men are. I’ve been reading a lot of sex memoirs / novels written by women (Never the Face; Nine and a Half Weeks; two of Mary Karr’s memoirs, which are good but overrated; Abby Lee (British sex blogger); Elisabeth Eaves’ Bare) in part because I want to write better female characters. After reading a lot of this stuff, I’m even less convinced than I was that there are stereotypically “male” or “female” ways of thinking or writing about the world, but knowledge itself never hurts and I don’t regret the time spent. On a similar note, Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance is totally fascinating, even when Radway tries to explain away retrograde features of romances or how women are often attracted to high-powered, high-status men.

She write in a time before sexting, but I wonder if she’s thought about doing a Young Adult version using similar methodology today. For writers and others, sexting shows that teenagers can make their own decisions as people too, even if those are arguably bad decisions. To me, this is another generational gap issue, and one that will probably close naturally over time. One older agent said on the phone that maybe I needed a younger agent, because her assistant loved Asking Alice but she didn’t want to rep it.

Damn.

I’m old enough to have lived through a couple medium-scale social changes: when I was in high school, people still mostly talked to each other on the phone. In college, people called using cell phones and often communicated via IM. After college, I kept using phones primarily for voice, especially to arrange drinks / quasi-dates, until I realized that most girls have no ability to talk on the phone anymore (as also described Philip Zimbardo and the ever-changing dynamics of sexual politics). As I result, I’d now use text messages if I were arranging drinks and so forth. Around the time I was 23, I realized that even if I did call, women would text back. That doesn’t mean one should race out and change every phone conversation in a novel that features a contemporary 19-year-old to a text conversation (which would be tedious in and of itself; in fiction I write, I tend not to quote texts very often), but it’s the kind of change that I register. Things changed between the time I was 16 and 23.

I’m in the McLuhan, “the medium changes what can be said,” which means that the text is probably changing things in ways not immediately obvious or evident. Sexting is one such way; it lowers the cost of transmission of nude pictures to the extent that you can now do so almost instantly. Laws are predicated on the idea that balding, cigar-chomping, lecherous 40-year-old men will try and coerce 16-year-old girls outside cheer practice, not ubiquitous cell phone cameras. Most parents will instinctively hate the cigar-chomping 40-year-old. They will not hate their own 14-year-old. So you get for all sorts of amusement where laws, putative morals, conventional wisdom, technology, and desire meet. Still, when pragmatics meet parents, expect parental anger / protectiveness to win for the moment but not for all time. Nineteenth and twentieth century American culture is not the only kind out there. As Melvin Konner wrote in The Evolution of Childhood:

Contrary to some claims of cultural historians, anthropologists find that liberal premarital sex mores are not new for a large proportion of the cultures of the ethnological record and that liberal sexual mores and even active sexual lives among adolescents do not necessarily produce pregnancies. In fact, a great many cultures permit or at least tolerate sex play in childhood (Frayser 1994). Children in these cultures do not play ‘doctor’ to satisfy their anatomical curiosity—they play ‘sex.’ They do play ‘house’ as Western children do, but the game often includes pretend-sex, including simulated intercourse. Most children in non-industrial cultures have opportunities to see and hear adult sex, and they mimic and often mock it.

Perhaps our modern aversion to sex among adolescents is in part because of the likelihood of pregnancy, economic factors, and others. Given the slow but real outcry from places like the Economist and elsewhere, this might eventually change. That’s pretty optimistic, however. A lot of social and legal structures merely work “good enough,” and the justice system is certainly one of those: we’ve all heard by now about cases where DNA evidence resulted in exoneration of people accused of murder or rape. So maybe we’re now heading towards a world in which laws about sexting are unfair, especially given current practice, but the laws remain anyway because the law doesn’t have to be optimal: it has to be good enough, and most people over 18 probably don’t care much about it unless it happens to be their son or daughter who gets enmeshed in a legal nightmare for behavior that doesn’t result in tangible harm.

Something like a quarter to a third of American adults have smoked pot, but we still have anti-pot laws. America can easily afford moral hypocrisy, at least for now, and maybe sexting will be something like weed: widely indulged in, a rite of passage, and something not likely to result in arrest unless you happen to be unlucky or in the wrong situation at the wrong time. The force generation the prohibition—that is, parents engaging in daughter-guarding—might be much stronger than the force of individual rights, utilitarianism, or pragmatic observations about the enforcement of laws against victimless crimes that do not result in physical harm.

There’s more of the legal challenges around this in Ars Technica’s article “14-year old child pornographers? Sexting lawsuits get serious,” which should replace “serious” with “ridiculous.” In the case, a 14-year-old girl sent a 14-year-old boy a video of herself masturbating, and then her family sued his. But how does a 14-year-old be guilty of the sexual exploitation of children,” as is claimed by the girl’s family—if a 14 year old can’t consent to consent to this kind of activity, then a 14-year old also can’t have the state of mind necessary to exploit another one. Paradoxes pile up, of the sort described in Regulating Sex: The Politics of Intimacy and Identity, where the writers show how the age of consent has been rising as the age of being tried as an adult has been falling. Somewhere inside that fact, or pair of facts, there’s a novel waiting to be written.

Questions like “What happens when people do things sexually that they’re not supposed to? How does the community respond? How do they respond?” are the stuff novelists feed on. They motivate innumerable plots, ranging from the beginnings of the English novel at Pamela and Clarissa all the way to the present. When Rose and Pinkie are first talking to each other in Brighton Rock, Rose lies about her age: ” ‘I’m seventeen,’ she said defiantly; there was a law which said a man couldn’t go with you before you were seventeen.” Brighton Rock was published in 1938. People have probably been evading age-of-consent laws for as long as there have been such laws, and they will probably continue to do so—whether those laws affect sex or depictions of the body.

Adults have probably been reinforcing prohibitions for as long as they’ve existed. Consider this quote, from the Caitlin Flanagan article about Testimony linked above:

Written by a bona fide grown-up (the author turned 63 last fall), Testimony gives us not just the lurid description of what a teen sex party looks like, but also an exploration of the ways that extremely casual sex can shape and even define an adolescent’s emotional life. One-night stands may be perfectly enjoyable exercises for two consenting adults, but teenagers aren’t adults; in many respects, they are closer to their childhoods than to the adult lives they will eventually lead. Their understanding of affection and friendship, and most of all their innocent belief, so carefully nurtured by parents and teachers, that the world rewards kindness and fairness, that there is always someone in authority to appeal to if you are being treated cruelly or not included in something—all of these forces are very much at play in their minds as they begin their sexual lives.

In Testimony, the sex party occurs at the fictional Avery Academy; Shreve imagines Siena, the girl at the center of the event, as a grifter, eager to exploit her new status as victim so that she can write a killer college essay about it, or perhaps even appear on Oprah. For the most part, the boys are callous and self-serving.

Flanagan has no evidence whatsoever that “teenagers aren’t adults” other than bald assertion. That “they are closer to their childhoods than to the adult lives they will eventually lead” has more to do with culture than with biology, as Robert Epstein argues in The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen and Alice Schlegel and Herbert Barry argue in Adolescence: An Anthropological Inquiry, and even then, it depends on when a particular person hits puberty, how they react, and how old they are; nineteen-year olds are probably closer to their adults selves than thirteen-year olds. Saying that teenagers believe, according to an ethos created by teachers, that “the world rewards kindness and fairness,” indicates that Flanagan must have had a very different school experience than I did or a lot of other people did (for more, see “Why Nerds are Unpopular.”) As I recall, school was capricious, arbitrary, and often stupid; the real world rewards fulfilling the desires of others, whether artistically, financially, sexually, or otherwise, while the school world rewards jumping through hopes and mindless conformity. If I don’t like the college I go to, I can transfer; if I don’t like my job, I can quit; if I don’t like some other milieu, I leave it. In contrast, school clumps everyone together based on an accident of geography.

In Testimony, Shreve misses or chooses not to emphasize that Sienna enjoys the attention, and she’s not actually got much beyond that. She says that “I”m going to start a new life. I can be, like, Sienna. I can whoever I want” {Shreve “Testimony”@27}. In Rob’s voice, Sienna is described this way:

I remember that Sienna started moving to the beat, a beer in her hand, as if she were in a world of her own, just slowly turning this way and that, and moving her hips to the music, and little by little the raucous laughter started to die down, and we were all just watching her. She was the music, she was the beat. Her whole little body had become this pure animal thing. She might have been dancing alone in her room. She didn’t look at any of us, even as she seemed to be looking at all of us. There was no smile on her face. If it was a performance, it was an incredible one. I don’t think anyone in the room had ever seen anything like it. She was in this light-blue halter top with these tight jeans. The heels and her little jacket were gone already. You just knew. Looking at her, you just knew.

She took off her own clothes, and “We watched as she untied her halter top at the neck. The blue cloth fell to reveal her breasts. They were beautiful and firm and rounded like her face. You knew at that moment you were in for good [. . .]” Later, he says “It was group seduction of the most powerful kind.” Given how Mike, the headmaster, describes the video in the first section, it’s hard to see Sienna as lacking agency, or someone who’s coerced into her actions. That, in the end, is what I think makes the Caitlin Flanagans of the world so unhappy: if the Siennas will perform their dances and give it up freely and happily, does that mean other girls will have to chase the market leader? Will they have to acknowledge that a reasonably large minority of girls like the action, like the hooking up, like the exploring? If so, a lot of Western narratives about femininity go away, if they haven’t already. If you’re a novelist, you have to look at the diversity of people out there and the diversity of their desires. Shreve does this quite well. So does Francine Prose in Blue Angel. If you’re writing essays / polemics, though, you can questionable claim that teenagers are closer to their childhood selves all you want.

I like Flanagan’s writing because she’s good at interrogating what’s going on out there, but I’m not the first to notice her problems with politics; William Deresiewicz is more concise than I am when he writes Two Girls, True and False, but the point is similar. Flanagan wants to imply that all people, or all girls, are the same. They aren’t. The ones unhappy with the hookup culture are certainly out there, and they might be the majority. But the Siennas are too. To deny them agency because they’re 14 is foolish. Matthew, J. Dot’s father, says that “The irony was that if a few kids had done something similar at the college, they’d be calling it an art film.” He’s right. Things don’t magically change at 18. Our culture and legal system are designed around the fiction that everything changes at 18, when it actually does much earlier. The gap between puberty and 18, however, is a fertile ground for novelists looking for cultural contradictions.

August links: Why Software Is Eating The World, reading for the plot, Brooklyn, the writer as hustler, Moleskine lies, and more

* Why Software Is Eating The World by Marc Andreessen—one of the most impressive essays I’ve read recently.

* Has plot driven out other kinds of story? The market’s stress on keeping stories moving means we’re in danger of losing some truer fictions. If anything, it seems like the opposite to me, but that might be an artifact of the books assigned in graduate school.

* How sad: “It’s a Pattern: London Rioters Are Leaving Bookstores Untouched.” Rather sad, this. When I’m in restaurants or out and about, I make sure to take expensive electronic devices with me if I have to leave for a short period, but I leave books on tables; they’re always untouched.

* File this under, “Really?”:

[Brooklyn] may own only a small sliver of America’s attention, but as Mr. Hughes writes, “more people live in Brooklyn than in San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; Boston; and Miami put together.”

As I wrote in an e-mail to a friend from the borough, “Maybe one day I will be there, with a $4 latte, a fixie, literary pretensions, and a jaunty hat.” Also, the linked essay, “I Write in Brooklyn. Get Over It, is fucking hilarious, as my students say.

* What happens to doctors who think outside the box? Answer: nothing good.

* Goodbye, cruel Word.

But: I’m not sure programs like Scrivener will be useful to most people, for reasons tangentially related to this post on Scrivener and Joyce.

The main reason I say is because I think a lot of people, based on the amateur writing I’ve seen, don’t need a fancier way of arranging words so much as they need to focus on 1) the quality of their sentences and 2) how one event drives another in their plots. I worry especially regarding point 2) that Scrivener lets people work in parallel when they should be working in serial, with one event driving another organically. Too much amateur writing I see is, for lack of a better term, plotless: meandering around feelings, or random encounters, or designed to show how *deep* the author is—instead of telling a story.

Scrivener will help with some things, as I’ve written elsewhere, but I’m not sure it’s really enough for the vast majority of what writers and would-be writers are working on.

* On English as a language:

[. . .] there’s no subject, however technical or complex, that can’t be made clear to any reader in good English—if it’s used right. Unfortunately, there are many ways of using it wrong

This reminds me of the Grant Writing Confidential post How to Write About Something You Know Nothing About: It’s Easy, Just Imagine a Can Opener.

* Do Sex Offender Registries Reduce Crime? Answer: Probably not, or at best modestly, in part because such registries are too broad. As Tabarrok says:

Bear in mind that teenagers having sex with other teenagers, hiring or trying to hire a prostitute and even streaking can make a person fall under the sex offender statutes. Moreover, contrary to popular belief, sex offenders have low recidivism rates, much lower than for most other crimes.

* I Wrote It, Must I Also Hustle It? Apparently so.

* Does a Moleskine notebook tell the truth? Answer: probably not. I’ve been trying various notebooks over the last couple months and have probably settled on the Rhodia Webbie, an unfortunately named but quite nice notebook that appears much more durable than its competitors. More to follow.

Looking them in the eye and Peter Shankman's story

There’s a back-and-forth going on at Hacker News over Peter Shankman’s post, “The Greatest Customer Service Story Ever Told, Starring Morton’s Steakhouse.” First, read Shankman’s post, because what Morton’s did is, in fact, amazing, and I say this in an age where most of what people call “amazing” is, in fact, not. And I don’t want to spoil the surprise, beyond noting that he sent this Tweet as a joke: “Hey @Mortons – can you meet me at newark airport with a porterhouse when I land in two hours? K, thanks. :)”

The top Hacker News commenter said, “With modern communication systems, flying in airplanes to lunch meetings and flying back that night is such an absurd waste of resources it qualifies as obscene.” Someone else disagreed: “The difference of quality between meeting face to face and through a webcam is so high that it’s sometimes worth taking a plane just for one lunch.”

The second person is right: sometimes the quality of a face-to-face meeting is worth a plane trip. As Paul Graham said in “Cities and Ambition:” “The physical world is very high bandwidth, and some of the ways cities send you messages are quite subtle.” You don’t reproduce the same effect meeting someone in person when you “meet” them online. This doesn’t just apply to romantic partners, either, although that’s an obvious example of the effect described: how many people want to see their lovers solely on the Internet?

The high-bandwidth physical world argues for meetings, and I suspect Shankman wasn’t just going to New Jersey for the meeting—he was going to communicate how important the meeting was. You don’t just spend hours on a plane for something frivolous; he was sending a signal and reaping face-to-face rewards. If someone flew to Tucson solely to meet with me, I’d be impressed. Very few people fly on a whim.

A brief story, although it‘s not on the same scale as Shankman’s: I’m a grad student in English Lit at the University of Arizona, which means I teach freshman composition. Students e-mail me all the time. Constantly. Unless there’s some compelling reason to reply, I usually answer their emails in class; if they want or need a longish explanation, I tell them to come to office hours (note: if they can’t make office hours, I also do office hours by appointment, so I’m not doing this to stiff them).

This strategy has a three-fold benefit: it cuts down on the amount of e-mail I receive over the course of the semester because students realize I won’t answer frivolous e-mails twelve hours after they’re sent. If I have follow-up questions, or the student does, those questions are easier to ask face-to-face. Misunderstandings caused by not not being face-to-face are evaded; it’s hard to ascertain context from e-mail. I think everyone has had misunderstandings and hurt feelings caused by dashed off e-mails that aren’t carefully considered. Finally, if students want me to read their papers or other work and show up to office hours, I know they really want me to edit their work, and their desire to get feedback isn’t just a passing fancy as ephemeral as a Facebook status update. The back-and-forth that can come from reading work and immediately responding to it can’t be easily duplicated—especially among non-professionals—over e-mail or other asynchronous communications.

I meant to list three things, I really did. But the reasons kept popping into my head, and I think they’re all valid.

Taken together, these issues point to why I doubt face-to-face meetings will disappear any time soon. If anything, their value might rise as they become less common. When I can, I interview writers, and I only do such interviews face-to-face because I think they’re more valuable. I’ve signaled to the writer that their time is valuable enough for me to come to them, and the conversations that result are, on average, deeper than I think they would be otherwise. There’s something about a person sitting across from you that you don’t get over the phone or Internet.

EDIT: Regarding students and e-mail, this story by Wired’s Chris Anderson also gets it right: “Why is e-mail volume getting ever worse? I believe it’s because of a simple fact: E-mail is easier to create than to respond to. This seems counterintuitive — after all, it’s quicker to read than to write. But reading a message is just the start. It may contain a hard-to-answer question, such as ‘What are your thoughts on this?'” The solution is to reduce e-mail wherever possible by making it equally expensive for emailers as e-mail receivers. Office hours help do this, and showing up at them signals that the student isn’t merely wasting time.

This principle affects other scales, too. Big tech companies still have central offices, usually in very high-rent areas, where they make sure everyone in the company gets together on a regular basis. The willingness of companies to pay for offices indicates they still get a lot of utility from having large numbers of people hanging out in a concentrated area—perhaps because of knowledge-spillover effects, which is Edward Glaeser’s explanation in The Triumph of the City.

If there weren’t such spillover effects, companies would disburse to avoid paying for office space, people would move to rural areas with fast internet and low real estate costs, education wouldn’t consist of a group getting together in a classroom, and the world would look much different than it does. Even in an age of social media, a lot of people want to live in Manhattan—a city not exactly renown for its wonderful weather. Commenters have been predicting the death of distance and the death of place and so on since the dawn of the Internet, if not earlier, and so far they’ve proven wrong. As long as humans remain basically as we are today—in the absence, in other words, of some singularity-type event—I don’t think people are going to want to stop seeing each across a table, or standing next to each other in a room. Social media has not turned our world in Snow Crash, at least not yet. Shankman knows this. Digital technologies complement, rather than substitute for, real world experience. He uses Twitter and flies for face-to-face meetings. That’s the essence of one aspect of modernity: being able to handle multiple registers of communication fluently and realizing that most of them have their place for most people.

Looking them in the eye and Peter Shankman’s story

There’s a back-and-forth going on at Hacker News over Peter Shankman’s post, “The Greatest Customer Service Story Ever Told, Starring Morton’s Steakhouse.” First, read Shankman’s post, because what Morton’s did is, in fact, amazing, and I say this in an age where most of what people call “amazing” is, in fact, not. And I don’t want to spoil the surprise, beyond noting that he sent this Tweet as a joke: “Hey @Mortons – can you meet me at newark airport with a porterhouse when I land in two hours? K, thanks. :)”

The top Hacker News commenter said, “With modern communication systems, flying in airplanes to lunch meetings and flying back that night is such an absurd waste of resources it qualifies as obscene.” Someone else disagreed: “The difference of quality between meeting face to face and through a webcam is so high that it’s sometimes worth taking a plane just for one lunch.”

The second person is right: sometimes the quality of a face-to-face meeting is worth a plane trip. As Paul Graham said in “Cities and Ambition:” “The physical world is very high bandwidth, and some of the ways cities send you messages are quite subtle.” You don’t reproduce the same effect meeting someone in person when you “meet” them online. This doesn’t just apply to romantic partners, either, although that’s an obvious example of the effect described: how many people want to see their lovers solely on the Internet?

The high-bandwidth physical world argues for meetings, and I suspect Shankman wasn’t just going to New Jersey for the meeting—he was going to communicate how important the meeting was. You don’t just spend hours on a plane for something frivolous; he was sending a signal and reaping face-to-face rewards. If someone flew to Tucson solely to meet with me, I’d be impressed. Very few people fly on a whim.

A brief story, although it‘s not on the same scale as Shankman’s: I’m a grad student in English Lit at the University of Arizona, which means I teach freshman composition. Students e-mail me all the time. Constantly. Unless there’s some compelling reason to reply, I usually answer their emails in class; if they want or need a longish explanation, I tell them to come to office hours (note: if they can’t make office hours, I also do office hours by appointment, so I’m not doing this to stiff them).

This strategy has a three-fold benefit: it cuts down on the amount of e-mail I receive over the course of the semester because students realize I won’t answer frivolous e-mails twelve hours after they’re sent. If I have follow-up questions, or the student does, those questions are easier to ask face-to-face. Misunderstandings caused by not not being face-to-face are evaded; it’s hard to ascertain context from e-mail. I think everyone has had misunderstandings and hurt feelings caused by dashed off e-mails that aren’t carefully considered. Finally, if students want me to read their papers or other work and show up to office hours, I know they really want me to edit their work, and their desire to get feedback isn’t just a passing fancy as ephemeral as a Facebook status update. The back-and-forth that can come from reading work and immediately responding to it can’t be easily duplicated—especially among non-professionals—over e-mail or other asynchronous communications.

I meant to list three things, I really did. But the reasons kept popping into my head, and I think they’re all valid.

Taken together, these issues point to why I doubt face-to-face meetings will disappear any time soon. If anything, their value might rise as they become less common. When I can, I interview writers, and I only do such interviews face-to-face because I think they’re more valuable. I’ve signaled to the writer that their time is valuable enough for me to come to them, and the conversations that result are, on average, deeper than I think they would be otherwise. There’s something about a person sitting across from you that you don’t get over the phone or Internet.

EDIT: Regarding students and e-mail, this story by Wired’s Chris Anderson also gets it right: “Why is e-mail volume getting ever worse? I believe it’s because of a simple fact: E-mail is easier to create than to respond to. This seems counterintuitive — after all, it’s quicker to read than to write. But reading a message is just the start. It may contain a hard-to-answer question, such as ‘What are your thoughts on this?'” The solution is to reduce e-mail wherever possible by making it equally expensive for emailers as e-mail receivers. Office hours help do this, and showing up at them signals that the student isn’t merely wasting time.

This principle affects other scales, too. Big tech companies still have central offices, usually in very high-rent areas, where they make sure everyone in the company gets together on a regular basis. The willingness of companies to pay for offices indicates they still get a lot of utility from having large numbers of people hanging out in a concentrated area—perhaps because of knowledge-spillover effects, which is Edward Glaeser’s explanation in The Triumph of the City.

If there weren’t such spillover effects, companies would disburse to avoid paying for office space, people would move to rural areas with fast internet and low real estate costs, education wouldn’t consist of a group getting together in a classroom, and the world would look much different than it does. Even in an age of social media, a lot of people want to live in Manhattan—a city not exactly renown for its wonderful weather. Commenters have been predicting the death of distance and the death of place and so on since the dawn of the Internet, if not earlier, and so far they’ve proven wrong. As long as humans remain basically as we are today—in the absence, in other words, of some singularity-type event—I don’t think people are going to want to stop seeing each across a table, or standing next to each other in a room. Social media has not turned our world in Snow Crash, at least not yet. Shankman knows this. Digital technologies complement, rather than substitute for, real world experience. He uses Twitter and flies for face-to-face meetings. That’s the essence of one aspect of modernity: being able to handle multiple registers of communication fluently and realizing that most of them have their place for most people.

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