Danaerys is the villain, I mean come on everyone, that’s the whole point

Dany is the villain. That is the point of her arc.

She is turning into Mad King Aerys. We are explicitly told that when a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin: genius or madness. Dany's coin is starting to land the wrong way. Like her father, who was charismatic in his youth, Dany is likeable right now, but she is slowly strarting to enjoy the fire burnin' just a wee bit too much.

On discussion forums I've seen many a misognyst talk about how tired they are of seeing her "smug" face. In Episode 4 of Season 6, however, that was part of the point. 

She was smug.

She was enjoying her self.

And that's ****ed up.

She was enjoying herself roasting a bunch of people alive. 

We were not supposed to cheer for her.

(I mean, sure, on the one hand, screw those guys. On the other, that doesn't make it less messed up. This isn't Dexter.)

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Jaime's monologue in the bath with Brienne about Aery's obsession with wildfire is crazy on-the-nose if you apply it to Dany. 

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"He burned anyone who was against him."

Yeah, that sounds familiar.

What's Dany's go-to strategy again? Oh.

It's just that we've been lulled into rooting for Dany, only to slowly come to grips with the fact that what she's doing is not okay, and we're rooting for her only because we're reading her through standard fantasy tropes, rather than through what the text is showing us.

The difference between Aerys and Dany is that Dany didn't burn in the fire. Aerys didn't expect to die, and Dany didn't expect to die. Dany just happened to actually survive, and happened to "rise again" — not as a dragon, but with three baby dragons.

But let's be real: this doesn't justify everything she does.

Like if ol' "Mad" King Aerys had just… not died when he tried to burn everything with wildfire, that wouldn't make him right. It's just that the the form of the story — that of a fantasy or romance — invites us to interpret Dany in precisely this fashion.

Sure, there's a certain amount of awe that everyone shows her immediately after that scene, but it's no longer a "oh this seemingly helpless girl overcame all the odds and survived fire, and now magic is real and maybe we'll actually survive this, hurrayyyy…." like it was when her dragons were born at the end of Season 1. 

It's awe in an old Testament, fear-inspired kind of way. Even her lover, Daario, isn't mesmerized by her in the sense of oh wow, this woman I'm with is amazing; instead, it's a genuinely fearful kind of awe. 

What we just witnessed in that scene, and immediately after, was mythic violence, in the Benjaminian sense of the word. It was the performance and display of state power that keeps the populace in check.

That's uh… that's not a good thing.

Also, that's before you bring her dragons into the picture. 

They're pretty much the metaphor for state power and mythic violence par excellence: "Do what I say because I have the magic dragons."

That's a terrible justification, and I think both George R. R. Martin and the showrunners are aware of that.

The criticism that the Khal-burning scene in Season 6 echoes the end of Season 1 is missing the point. The point is that yeah, she's doing it again–except, oh wait, maybe burning a bunch of people alive and taking control of an army isn't really that great.

Maybe "miraculously surviving the flames" actually isn't a very good justification for doing whatever you want, even though we're trained to read fantasy and/or medieval romance texts in that manner.

A typical medieval romance, upon which 99% of fantasy is based, usually serves to entrench the aristocracy in their aristocratic positions: the rightful king is discovered and restored, everyone is happy. Heck, it even happens in Lord of the Rings. (Seriously, doesn't that "blood of Gondor" stuff make anyone else uncomfortable?)

The books and the show subvert a lot of fantasy and medieval romance tropes because the books and the show are not A-OK with what those tropes represent. That is, fantasy and medieval romance tropes are the way they are because they are connected to the political climates which gave birth to them. This is the argument of Fredric Jameson's The Political Unconscious. The idea of the rightful king being restored to the throne as the "solution" to the standard problems of medieval romance comes from a very specific political climate. 

That's why in the books and show, a lot of time is spent emphasising just how much the War of the Five Kings is screwing over the country side, and now there's a bloody Marxist revolution being run by the church. Also, Dany's entire arc in Mereen is an allegory for hundreds of years of colonialism: British, American, take your pick. It's also a subversion of, you guessed it, more fantasy tropes (the white savior, etc.) which — yep, you guessed it again — stem from very specific political climates.

Here's my prediction for how the rest of Dany's arc will play out:

Instead of "stabilizing" Mereen, she'll use her new Dothraki army, her Unsullied (whatever's left of them, I guess?) and her dragons to burn the hell out of both Yunkai and Astapor. So instead of "getting rid of slavery yayyyyy!!" what she'll "accomplish" before finally (finally amirite) going to Westeros will be a terrible swath of death and destruction. 

"Hey Westeros I just screwed over half a continent. Now I (think) am the rightful heir to the throne, and I've got magic on my side (in the form of weapons of magical mass destruction). This is totally cool, right? Right? I'm justified in starting yet another war that screws over the populace? R… right?"

Readers and show watchers have been clamoring for her to "finally" get to Westeros.

Why hasn't she?

Because first she needed to leave a path of death and destruction. The dragons growing up is minor. (It could have been explained with "magic" anyway.) What was more important was that we needed to see that "Fire and Blood!" isn't a call of the people, it's a call-to-arms given by the privileged elite, the ones with all the power and the (magic) weapons.


Final Thoughts (+ Predictions)

If you don't believe me, juxtapose the arc I'm claiming Dany is having to the one Jaime has already had. It's just that Dany is going in the opposite direction. Jaime started out as a child murderer and obvious villain, but the books and show refused to deny him his humanity. This isn't "relativism," or anything like that, just an acknowledgement that human beings are human, even the shitty ones. Jaime is still a terrible person. But he's a terrible personIt's also similar to how the Khals were obvious jerks who in between sessions of raping and pillaging just spouted nasty misogynist absurdities, and yeah they probably deserved to die far more than most people in this series (which is saying something), but still: at the end of the day, burning them alive with a look of glee on your face isn't really the mark of a hero. Sorry. It just isn't.

On the opposite end of the spectrum to Jaime, Dany started out as the heroine. And yes, she does have good intentions, but she's got just a wee bit of the Targaryen craziness and a sense of aristocratic entitlement in her, from her father, Aerys. 

The character I'm not sure about is Jon Snow. Like he seems like he should be… worse, somehow. Here's what I mean:

Dany is subverting her role as a pure heroine, as I argued above. Well and good. She's a real person, not an empty vessel of wish-fulfilment.

In the books, Tyrion has had his privilege shoved in his face, and he's been shown to not be very perfect (e.g. Shae was handled differently). He's mostly not a standard hero, either. 

Ned was the "standard male hero" from a typical fantasy story–and it got him killed. Cool. 

Bran is also doing nasty things, and is clearly not the hero. The way he takes over Hodor sometimes is NOT AT ALL OKAY. Note that I actually feel like Bran is the Northern equivalent of Dany. If she's the human villain of fire and the Doom of Valyria in the South, Bran is the human villain of ice and the Others beyond the Wall. It's just there's less interesting stuff to say about him. Like he seems a bit innocent and might become a cool wizard, but then he does a thing that is obviously not okay (taking over Hodor, not to mention probably feeding on people via Bloodraven, etc.). Dany's arc is more subtle, and more interesting.

But Jon seems to be getting away kind of unscathed, and I'm not sure why.

I have two ideas:

1. When he's resurrected in the books he won't be the same. The show, so far, has yet to really show the consequences of this. Maybe it'll move towards that direction.

2. If Dany is the villain from the south, the villain of fire, etc., and the daughter of Mad King Aerys, and Bran is the villain of the north, the villain of ice, etc., and the son of a Stark (oh hey the Night's King is actually a Stark), then Jon is in the middle: the son of Lyanna and Rhaegar, he's the song of ice and fire. That's why he's a hero without the fantasy-tropes deconstruction we see everywhere else in the series. (Yet.)


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How to Bulk Speed Up MP3 Files for Your Audiobooks

I recently got a new iPhone, and I’m spoiled by its ability to play audiobooks at 2x speed in the iBooks app, and to do the same for podcasts in the podcasts app.

My iPod Nano always had a “2x” function, but it was lying to me. It says "2x," but it is actually 1.5x at most. I don't know why they've done this.

Unfortunately, although I love the new "real" 2x speed, my new iPhone is large, and I don’t like wearing those armbands when I work out or go for a run. By contrast, my old Nano is a 6th generation, so it's just a tiny clip-on thing, which is perfect for running and working out. (Note: Apple, please go back to having the clip-on thingies for your Nanos. My workout shorts don't always have pockets, and I don't want to have to buy an accessory for something so simple.) 

That's all a long way of saying I’d prefer to use the Nano, but without giving up the speed of the narrating/podcasting.

Also, it occurred to me that it’d be cool if I could listen to audiobooks at speeds even faster than 2x. Right? Right. Blazing through long-ass Victorian novels in a few days’ worth of dog walks, errands, and running is pretty aces, actually.

After some fiddling, I figured it out.

The main obstacles are as follows:

1) Doing bulk MP3s, all at once, without spending all day doing them manually, one by one, like a chump.

2) If you just speed things up, your narrator sounds like a chipmunk.

3) To account for (2) above, you end up fiddling with pitch and tempo, but this can make the narrator hard to understand.*

* Note, if you jump immediately from normal playback speed to 2X just like that, it will seem hard to understand no matter what you do. Go in increments. I promise you: your brain will adjust. I’m to the point that 1X seems agonizingly slow. I can no longer stand it. It's terrible. Literally, it sounds like someone’s slowed down the track to an absurd degree and my brain has trouble parsing the idea that this is somehow “normal.”

Anyways, I started Googling to figure out how to do this.

I first saw this article on Lifehacker that shows you how to bulk speed up MP3s using the open source Audacity app. (The Lifehacker screenshots look like they’re on Windows; I used the Mac version 2.1.2 with no problems at any stage.) It's the basis for what I recommend below.

Now, in Lifehacker's instructions, they recommend speeding up the tempo instead of the speed, in order to avoid the aforementioned chipmunk effect. I tried increasing only the tempo at first, but the result just sounds weird; it’s oh-so-slightly garbled and hard to understand once you increase it past a certain point.

To counteract this, my next experiment involved adjusting the tempo by only so much, but also adjusting the speed by a little as well, figuring I could do with “a bit” of the chipmunk effect. Turns out even a "bit" of the chipmunk effect is annoying.

Then I came across this video on Youtube:

Basically, according to it, it is the speed you adjust, but after you speed up the mp3 by [A] percentage, you adjust the pitch by that same percentage, but going the other way, so that if you increase the speed (moving the slider to the right), you decrease the pitch (move the slider left the same amount).

So, in my final version, here’s what you’re doing:

Increase the speed by [A] percent.

Decrease the pitch by [A] percent.

Increase the tempo by [B] percent.

In Audacity, you’ll want to do it in that order, using the “Move Up” or “Move Down” options to make sure. (See below.) 


The Step-by-Step Instructions

Step One.

Download the Audacity app.


Step Two.

You need your files to be in MP3 format.

If you ripped your audiobooks from CDs, you're golden. (Note: If you have family members who are readers, and who were adults in the 90s and early 2000s, you'll find they often have old CD audiobooks lying around. Trust me. Just ask. They're probably hidden in a basement, and they're probably John Grisham books.)

If you're a real cool person who likes saving money, and your audiobooks are from Librivox, this shouldn't be a problem, because they're in MP3 to begin with.

If your files are not in MP3, Audacity can convert some formats to MP3 for you. Some formats might need an app like AlltoMP3 or something. Some formats might get difficult with DRM, especially if they're downloaded from Audible or elsewhere online. I don't actually know what the legalities of that are. Use Google.

If you're doing this for podcasts, you'll be able to get MP3s somewhere on your computer. Go to iTunes, right click (or command click or whatever) on the podcast file, and click "Show in Finder" (or "Show in Windows Explorer" in Windows). 

You'll find all the mp3s for that podcast. 



Step Three.

You'll be setting up "chains" of actions in Audacity. A chain is a set of actions that allow you to tell the program to automatically perform one or several actions to the files you feed into it (a lot like Mac's Automator app). 

In Audacity, click File > Edit Chains.


From there, click "Add" in the lower left, and name the new chain whatever you want. Then from there, you'll want to insert your actions by clicking "Insert."

click-addYou'll want insert four action, so that you have five actions in total:

1. ChangeSpeed

2. ChangePitch

3. ChangeTempo

4. Export MP3

5. End. (This one will already be there.)

five-totalFor each one, you can double-click on the action to change it, then to change the percentage, click "Edit Parameters." 


edit-parameters2Back in the Edit Chains Screen, you can click "Move Up" and "Move Down" to get them in the right order.

Here's what mine looked like:


Based on the numbers, you can see I increased speed by 18%, decreased pitch by 17%, and increased tempo by 45%. Yes, that'll be crazy fast, even on my Nano. I was happy with this result. You might not be.

You can experiment with what you like by only feeding in a single MP3 file at a time in the next step, before you do all of them or the whole audiobook.

Also, note that you can either speed things up to exactly how you want to listen to them, or you can speed them just a teeny bit on your computer, so that when you then listen at 1.5x or 2x on your iPod, it's perfect. To test what the new file will sound like if sped up further by 2x or 1.5x, just open the MP3 briefly with VLC Media Player. (Click Playback > Drag the slider to 1.5 or 2 or whatever you want.) That way you don't have to transfer it to your iPod each time.


Step Four. 

Once your chain is set up with its actions, go back to the main screen of Audacity. Click "File" and click "Apply Chain." Navigate to where your MP3 files are saved on your computer, and select all of them.

At the end of the process, the "new" files will appear in a subfolder called "cleaned."


Step Five (optional)

Use Audiobook Builder to turn the MP3s into an actual audiobook file with chapters. I've been doing this for years, and quite like it.

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But did you pay the IRON PRICE?

If you’ve read far enough in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire you’ve probably met Theon Greyjoy’s people, the iron islanders. The iron isolanders feature more prominently in A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, if I remember correctly.

Theon’s father, Balon Greyjoy, is obssessed with paying the “iron price” for everything, and the iron price means using your (iron) sword and murdering some guy and taking his stuff.

The iron islanders are basically vikings, so they have to pillage everything they have. The Greyjoy house words are “We do not sow.” As in, they’re not supposed to farm. They just steal everything they need.

Balon insists that you have to pay the iron price for everything you own or have. If you’ve watched the Game of Thrones tv show you’ve seen that scene where Balon mocks Theon for not paying the iron price for that armor he has.

The thing is, the whole idea of “paying the iron price” is obviously totally unfeasible.

What about food or fishing? Why do we see fishermen among the iron islanders? What about trade? How do they survive?

Like, why would anyone else in the seven kingdoms put up with these assholes if, instead of trading, they just murdered people and took their stuff? Repeatedly? [1]

[1] Side note: Okay, everything I’m about to say aside, If you’ve read the series, “why does anyone put up with the iron islanders?” is actually a really good question. They’re generally useless and back stab and rise up in rebellion all the time. But anyway.

The answer, regarding what’s up with the iron price, is that of course it’s not feasible at all, and it’s not supposed to be.

It’s a great example of a really transparent and silly ideology that nonetheless everyone just goes along with, because hey, it greases the wheels and keeps the system working.

This is actually what makes the iron price so great. It makes no sense and stands up to not even the tiniest bit of scrutiny if you take it too literally.

But no one does, because that’s not how it works.

Instead, it’s a nuanced social code that everyone knows how to navigate in order to actually get things done:

Guy 1: “Hey, did you pay the iron price for all this stuff you obviously farmed?”

Guy 2: “Uh, sure. Yeah, technically. One of the shovels I used I took from some guy I murdered.”

Guy 1: “Cool. Well, I need some grain, so I’ll give you these coins that we’ll just assume were probably stolen at some point in the past.”

Guy 2: “Done.”


Guy 1: “Hey, I’m hungry, you got any fish? I stole these coins, you can have ’em. But I need fish.”

Guy 2: “Yeah, I got lotsa fish!”

Guy 1: “Did you pay the iron price for them?”

Guy 2: “Insofar as my fishhooks were made of iron, and I ‘stole’ them from the sea, yes, yes I totally paid the iron price.”

Guy 1: “Cool.”

See? Stuff gets done. Trade happens.

Everyone’s happy.

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History, retrospection and narrative

How does art stand in relation to the tradition and history which preceded it? How is the meaning of history made, un-made, or re-made?

It is not that “history is written by the victors.” No, the proper cliché to mention here is the moment in the classic adventure film when the hero’s friend or partner is killed, and, succumbing to his grief, he is brought out of it by the injunction, “Make his death mean something!”

“The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.”

– Jorge Luis Borges, “Kafka and His Precursors.


“Articulating the past historically … means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.”

– Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” p. 391


“Of course only a redeemed mankind is granted the fullness of its past—which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. Each moment it has lived becomes a citation a l’ordre du jour [a citation to be taken up as part of the business of the day]. And that day is Judgment Day.”

– Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” p. 390


“To imagine one’s self-composed obituary read at the Judgment Day constitutes the farthest reach in the anticipation of retrospective narrative understanding. It is one that all narratives no doubt would wish to make: all narrative posits, if not the Sovereign Judge, at least a Sherlock Holmes capable of going back over the ground, and thereby realizing the meaning of the cipher left by a life.”

– Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot, p. 24.


“The energy generated by deviance, extravagance, excess … maintains the plot in its movement through the vacillating play of the middle, where repetition as binding works toward the generation of significance, toward recognition and the retrospective illumination that will allow us to grasp the text as total metaphor, but of therefore to discount the metonymies that have led to it.”

– Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot, p. 24.


“In the whole history of Marxism, there is probably only one point at which this non-historical ‘ex-timate’ kernel of history was touched — at which the reflection of history was brought to the ‘death drive’ as its degree zero: Theses on the Philosophy of History, the last text by Walter Benjamin, ‘fellow-traveller’ of the Frankfurt School. the reason for this is of course that it was again Benjamin who — a unique case in Marxism — conceived history as a text, as series of events which ‘will have been’ — their meaning, their historical dimension, is decided afterwards, through their inscription in the symbolic network.”

– Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, p. 151


“Strong poets make history by misreading one another, so as to clear imaginative space for themselves.”

– Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, second edition, p. 5.


“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of æsthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them.”

– T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” par. 4.

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Art, Poetry, the Imagination and the Future

Is poetry a message in a bottle? A message from the future? Does it unearth the things we know, but cannot yet say?

“In March 2003, Donald Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophising: ‘There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.’ What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the ‘unknown knowns’, things we don't know that we know – which is precisely the Freudian unconscious. […] To unearth these ‘unknown knowns’ is the task of an intellectual.”

– Slavoj Žižek, “The Empty Wheelbarrow” in The Guardian, 19 Feb 2005


We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life; our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest.”

– Percy Shelley “A Defense of Poetry


“The primary Imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception.”

– Samuel Coleridge, ch. 13 in Biographia Literaria (1817)


“The case of radical inventions [of semiotic codes] is rather different, in that the sender more or less bypasses the perceptual model, and delves directly into the as yet unshaped perceptual continuum, mapping his perception as he organizes it.

[…] Take the case of the Impressionists, whose addressees absolutely refused to 'recognize' the subjects represented, and said they 'did not understand', that the painting 'did not mean anything', that real life was not like that, etc. This refusal was due to the addressees' lack not only of a semantic model to which the mapped items might be referred, but also of a percept to guess at, since they had never perceived in this way.

In such cases what takes place is a radical code-making, a violent proposal of new conventions.”

– Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979, p. 254.


"Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gaslamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows ?

– Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying


Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life

– Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying


code-making and invention are aesthetic activities."

– Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979, p. 254.


“For [the poet] not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time.”

– Percy Shelley “A Defense of Poetry


“The great Thinker came, the original man, the Seer; whose shaped spoken Thought awakes the slumbering capability of all into Thought. It is ever the way with the Thinker, the spiritual Hero. What he says, all men were not far from saying, were longing to say.”

– Thomas Carlyle, “The Hero as Divinity” in Heroes and Hero-Worship (1840)


"It is naive to think that writing is a simple two-stage process: first you decide what you want to say, then you say it. On the contrary, as all of us know, you write because you do not know what you want to say. Writing reveals to you what you wanted to say in the first place. In fact, it sometimes constructs what you want or wanted to say. What it reveals (or asserts) may be quite different from what you thought (or half-though) you wanted to say in the firs place. That is the sense in which one can say that writing writes us."

– J.M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point, 18


"But poetry, too, can be ahead. La poési, elle aussi, brûle nos étapes."

Paul Celan, "The Meridian" in Selected Prose, trans. Rosemarie Waldrop, New York: Routledge, p. 45


I always assume that a good book is more intelligent than its author. It can say things that the writer is not aware of. 

– Umberto Eco, "The Art of Fiction: No. 197," in The Paris Review

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J.D. Salinger’s “Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” has been leaked

Four years ago (!) I wrote a post about hard to find, unpublished short stories by J.D. Salinger, including his short story “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls.”

Since then I’ve taught a few English Lit courses that have had several of Salinger’s short stories and Catcher in the Rye on the syllabus. Also (more sadly) J.D. Salinger passed away, and because of this, there has been some news about his estate: some of his unpublished stuff is going to come out. (Whoa.)

And now, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” has leaked, and it’s online. (Double whoa.)

I find “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” interesting because it sheds a lot of light on Salinger’s more famous novel, Catcher. The story is about Holden’s brother, Allie (called “Kenneth” in the story). Allie’s death has totally traumatized Holden, and this colours his inability to grow up or let other children “fall” into experience.

Here’s one bit I think is interesting, from Holden’s letter to his older brother, Vincent (the narrator of “Bowling Balls”):

“This place stinks. I never saw so many rats. You have to make stuff out of lether [sic] and go for hikes. They got a contest between the reds and the whites. I am supposed to be a white. I am no lousy white.”

“I am no lousy white” is pretty great, especially compared to what Holden says in Catcher in the Rye.

When Mr. Spencer insists that life is a game, Holden thinks to himself, “Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game, all right–I’ll admit that. but if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hot-shots, then what’s a game about it? Nothing. No game.”

In other words, Holden feels like shit for 1) actually being on the winning side (recall his guilt about having a “bourgeois” suitcase) and 2) because he’s not on the side of innocence (white) but rather experience (red).

It’s a whole other blog post, but what I like about Catcher is that you’re supposed to think Holden’s a total jerk, but you’re supposed to sympathize with him anyway.

Why? Because your problem sympathizing with Holden (a phony) is the same problem Holden has sympathizing with everyone else.

It’s like there are three levels of engagement with the novel.


Holden’s great! The world is full of phonies. Screw everything! I am a unique and beautiful snowflake! *insert impotent cry of rage at how dumb society totally is*

(You know those crazy people who go on murder sprees and then Catcher in the Rye is, like, found in their jacket pocket? Yeah, they’re on this level.)

But then you realize something:

Hey wait a minute, Holden’s just a jerk! A total hypocrite! Screw him! That phony!

And, finally:

Oh, wait. I’m supposed to sympathize with him anyway, just the way he should really grow up and sympathize with everyone he calls phony. Right.

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Resources for Non-Academic Careers and Humanities PhDs

Note: Contact me if you have additions or even ideas for additions.

THE SKY IS FALLING (if you’re a PhD)
Relax, Friend: There Are Non-Academic Opportunities
We Need to Fix the Academy
Cool Programs Aimed at Taking that Initial Step
It’s OKAY to Leave

(if you’re a PhD)

“Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go”
by Thomas H. Benton in The Chronicle of Higher Education. 30 Jan. 2009. Note that Thomas H. Benton is the pseudonym of William Pannapacker.

“The Humanities, Unraveled”
by Michael Bérubé in The Chronicle of Higher Education. 18 Feb 2013. From the president of MLA! Argues that humanities education “is a seamless garment of crisis: If you pull on any one thread, the entire thing unravels.”

“Forward: The Institution as False Horizon”
by Mark Bousquet in Workplace 1 (1998). The link is to a PDF. Degree holders as institutional “waste.”

“PhD Numbers Have Doubled But Few Graduates Will Find Teaching Jobs, Ontario Study Finds”
by Simona Chiose in The Globe and Mail. 30 April 2013.

“Academia’s Indentured Servants”
by Sarah Kendzior in Aljazeera. 11 April 2013.

“Professors Making $10,000 a Year? Academia Becoming a Profession Only the Elite Can Afford”
by Sarah Kendzior in Alternet. 22 August 2012.

“The Disposable Academic: Why Doing a PhD is Often a Waste of Time”
in The Economist. 13 Dec 2010.

“From Graduate School to Welfare”
by Stacy Patton in The Chronicle of Higher Education. 6 May 2012. Adjuncts on food stamps. Fun times.

Ph.D. Poverty Guest Post I
at The Professor Is In. 17 May 2012. These three guest posts were posted as a kind of “follow up” to the “From Graduate School to Welfare” article by Patton above.

Ph.D. Poverty Guest Post II
at The Professor Is In. 24 May 2012.

Ph.D. Poverty Guest Post III
at The Professor Is In. 31 May 2012.

“So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities?”
viral YouTube video

“Should You Go to Grad School?”
by Ron Rosenbaum in Slate. 27 Dec 2012.

100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School
A blog that is slowly going through 100 reasons, giving each one an in-depth discussion. It’s almost done.

The Adjunct Project
Crowdsourced project to gather “pay and working conditions data about the nation’s adjuncts.” Mostly US-based.

Relax, Friend:
There Are Non-Academic Opportunities

“So What are You Going To Do With That?”: Finding Careers Outside Academia
by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius. 2001. This could easily be filed under the “It’s OKAY to quit” section, as there’s a lot of good advice about whether or not, or how, to leave, either before or after earning finishing the dissertation.

“Few Academic Jobs, But Canada’s Need for PhDs Grows”
by Brent Herbert-Copley in The Globe and Mail. 29 May 2013.

“Crossing the Chasm From Academia to Business”
talk by Geoffrey Moore at Stanford’s Bibliotech Conference. 10 May 2012. Go watch this right now. It’s really good. Moore is an English PhD-turned-venture capitalist.

“Another Career Choice for Ph.D.’s: Management Consulting”
by Gabriela Montell in The Chronicle of Higher Education. 12 Nov 1999.

The Versatile PhD
Resource for those targeting or at least considering non-academic careers. Great discussions on the forums, from those in the midst of crossing the chasm, those still considering it, and those that have already done so. Some subscribing institutions get extra perks.

What Are All the PhDs?
“What Are All The PhDs? provides an outlet for sharing the various career paths of PhDs.”

#Alt-Academy: A Media Commons Project
A study of PhDs with non-academic careers. The full study isn’t completed/released as of writing. You probably want to read the Rebecca Rogers below, for now.

“Why Marketing Could Use Humanities PhDs – And Vice Versa”
by Dr. Jessica Langer, at her blog.

We Need to Fix the Academy

“No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History”
by Anthony T. Grafton and Jim Grossman in Perspectives in History. 2001. Argues that students internalize negative professorial attitudes towards alt-ac careers. Suggests systemic changes to make such careers a viable, primary goal for a larger portion PhD degree seekers.

“Stanford Moves Ahead With Plans to Radically Change Humanities Doctoral Education
by Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed. Stanford is moving ahead with an attempt to make it feasible to get a PhD in five years, “down from the current average of seven at the university and much longer elsewhere.”

“Overeducated, Underemployed: How to Fix Humanities Grad School”
by William Pannapacker in Slate. 27 July 2011.

“Rebooting Graduate Education in the Humanities”
by William Pannapacker in The Chronicle of Higher Education. 7 Jan. 2013. NOTE: William Pannapacker also writes as Thomas H. Benton.

Cool Programs Aimed at Taking that Initial Step

Stanford’s Bibliotech Conference
Mentioned above. A cool conference aimed at Connecting Liberal Arts PhDs with Forward-Thinking Companies.” The videos are great. The “Designships” sound like they might be similar to what MITACS does (below).

New Route PhD
A new UK program for PhDs, which “retain[s] the core elements of the traditional UK PhD but are augmented by additional formal training to support the academic and individual development of the student.”

The Praxis Network
A Canadian/American network of universities aimed at “rethinking pedagogy and campus partnerships in relation to the digital,” and which is also focused on alternative academic careers. Each university in the network has a slightly different mission, just because each university exists in its own particular ecosystem.

Illuminate: UBC’s Coop Program Conference Site
UBC is actually creating a co-op program for its PhDs. (Very cool, because our generation’s increasing reliance on unpaid training or internships is rather uncool.)

University of Victoria’s Coop Program
Similarly, the University of Victoria is one of three Canadian universities currently offering co-op placements for PhD students.

University of Toronto’s Graduate Professional Skills (GPS) Program
“GPS focuses on skills beyond those conventionally learned within a disciplinary program, skills that may be critical to success in the wide range of careers that graduates enter, both within and outside academe.”

MITACS provides paid research collaborations with industrial partners as well as career training. There’s a place on the website where you can browse past collaborations by discipline. Based on my discussions with MITACS representatives at various campuses, a nice selling point is that *most* of the projects become something that looks good on an academic CV and a non-academic resume.

It’s OKAY to Leave

at The Professor Is In. The Professor in this case is an alt-ac who specializes in helping academics with the academic job hunt, but also helps people cross the chasm over to the non-academic track, should they so wish.

“Thesis Hatement”
by Rebecca Schuman in Slate. 5 April 2013. Outlines the rather more unpleasant aspects of the PhD process.

  • And… Schuman again! “My Academic Metamorphosis”
    by Rebecca Schuman in The Chronicle of Higher Education. 17 May 2013. Compares academia to a cult, after Thomas H. Benton (see below).

“Is Graduate School a Cult?”
by Thomas H. Benton (aka William Pannapacker) in The Chronicle of Higher Education. 28 June 2004.

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Joe Hill’s NOS4A2: Creativity, Inscape, and Horror

Joe Hill has a new book out, and it’s filled with references to his father, Stephen King, to David Mitchell, and to Gerard Manley Hopkins (and to others, I’m sure). Although the references to Mitchell are somehow the most surprising to me, it’s the references to Hopkins’s notion of “inscape” that intrigue me the most. (Then again, it’s the use of “inscape” that might explain the references to Mitchell.)


nos4a2-coverThere are a few characters in the novel who have special creative abilities.  The protagonist, Vic McQueen, can find lost objects or people using her “Shorter Way Bridge,” when she travels over it with a vehicle of some sort (a bike, a motorcycle, etc.). Charlie Manx, the principle villain, uses his own vehicle, a Rolls Royce Wraith, to take children to a place called “Christmasland,” a place in his “thoughtworld” or “world of inscapes” that’s inaccessible to anyone without a special creative inscape or ability.

Another of these characters with special abilities, Maggie Leigh, works in a library and through her extensive reading she discovers that Hopkins’s notion of “inscape” describes  these special creative abilities perfectly. According to Catherine Phillips’s introduction to the Oxford edition of Hopkins’s major works, “Inscape is often used of the characteristic shape of a thing or species. An artist’s analysis, […] it is used for the crucial features that form or communicate the inner character, essence, or ‘personality’ of something; one portrait is preferable to another, for example, because it conveys not just a passing mood but the personality of which that mood is a part.” Inscape is “the result of mental analysis and perception” (xx).

What’s interesting here is the importance of the observer, the necessary interplay between the thing and the artistic observation of the thing, in creating that inscape or essence. The inscape is the truth, yet it is the “result of mental analysis and perception.” Even if that perception or artistic representation is fictional, it’s what captures the real essence. The same is true in NOS4A2, as Maggie explains:

There’s the real world, with all its annoying facts and rules. In the real world, there are things that are true and things that aren’t. Mostly the real world s-s-s-suh-sucks. But everyone also lives in the world inside their own head. An inscape, a world of thought. In a world made of thought—in an inscape—every idea is a fact. Emotions are as real as gravity. Dreams are as powerful as history. Creative people, like writers, and Henry Rollins, spend a lot of their time hanging out in their thoughtworld. S-s-strong creatives, though, can use a knife to cut the stitches between the two worlds, can bring them together. Your bike. My tiles. Those are our knives. (p. 100) [fn. 1]

The point above is the use of creativity by these “strong creatives” to learn about the world around them, to cut into it and get at its essence. And as with Gerard Manley Hopkins, the inscape world, or the thoughtworld, or the idea-world, is real. (“Emotions are real as gravity. Dreams are as powerful as history.”) Later in the novel, Maggie says of Christmasland, “Oh, it’s a real place. Ideas are as real as rocks. Your bridge is real, too, you know” (p. 552). I’m reminded here of Žižek’s virtuality of the Real:

The big Other is a virtual order which exists only through subjects ‘believing’ in it; if, however, a subject were to suspend its belief in the big Other, the subject itself, its ‘reality,’ would disappear. The paradox is that symbolic fiction is constitutive of reality: if we take away the fiction, we lose reality itself. (Less Than Nothing 93).

For Žižek, as for Joe Hill and Gerard Manley Hopkins, ideas constitute reality. Now, this goes far beyond saying, “Well, sometimes really good ideas affect reality.” I mean, that’s just patently obvious, and fairly banal. Who doesn’t understand that? Žižek goes further, saying that ideas constitute reality. The Real is itself virtual. The capital-R Real, the real Real, the Real that is so Real we can’t actually full access it, is virtual (though the Real is still that which “resists” symbolization). In NOS4A2, this means that creativity is important; and fiction is important. The truth is accessed — insofar as it can be accessed — through fiction. In an interview, Hill calls NOS4A2 his “senior thesis on horror fiction.” [fn. 2] Throughout the novel, Hill highlights the importance of fiction itself, and he engages with what [horror] fiction is, or what it’s potential is.


Vic McQueen, uses her special inscape ability to find things she’s lost, such as a photograph she left at school, or a fancy bracelet left in a restaurant. And what she needs to do this is a “vehicle” and a “bridge.” Sound familiar? It sounds to me like the very definition of a metaphor. When Vic explains her creative ability, she says, “People who could do impossible things if they had the right vehicle” (p. 311; my emphasis; see also p. 408 for the same basic phrasing). Vic’s “vehicle” is a bike that she has to drive headlong over a shaky wooden “bridge” called the “Shorter Way Bridge.” By definition, metaphors are conceptual bridges. They unite two unlike things; they take “the shorter way.” In order to do this they use a “vehicle.” In rhetoric, the “vehicle” of a metaphor is the unlike object to which the comparison is made. For example, if I compared my mistress’ eyes to the sun, the eyes are the “tenor” and the sun is the “vehicle.” [fn. 3] The vehicle is what takes your understanding of a given idea to a new conceptual realm.

Vic’s journeys over her bridge are headlong (sometimes her brakes aren’t even fully working), and she never knows if it’s safe to cross, or where she’s going to end up. Isn’t this the experience of the creative act? You don’t know what you’re going to write before you write it. It’s dangerous. You try something, rushing headlong into it, and you don’t know if it’s going to work, where you’re going to end up, or what you’re going to find.

In her spare time Vic writes a successful children’s book about a character called “Search Engine.” Why “Search Engine”? Because that’s what her Shorter Way Bridge is for: searching for lost objects. And, as above, isn’t this a good way of thinking about what the creative act is like? It’s a search until you realize, Yes, this is what I was looking for, and this word choice or metaphor is just right—I’ve found it, and this finally captures that essence I was looking for, but could not yet articulate. Thomas Carlyle said the Poet says what all men were longing to say. Percy Shelley said the Poet sees the future in the present, and that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. In a weird way, I think Joe Hill is playing in the general area of this tradition; he’s engaging with how the writer or the poet makes that headlong leap using the semantic or metaphoric bridge to find what was already there, just out of our reach, lost then found. Which metaphor, which clearly “unrealistic” intrusion of the supernatural captures the “real” essence?

The Ethics of Horror Fiction in NOS4A2

It’s with Charlie Manx, the villain of the novel, where it becomes clear what Hill is doing with inscape’s relation to horror. Like Vic, Manx uses a creative, metaphoric “vehicle.” Only this time his vehicle is evil—a Rolls Royce “Wraith” with license plate number “NOS4A2.” Manx uses his inscape and his vehicle to drain “unhappiness” from the children he kidnaps, when he brings them to Christmasland, a place where it is Christmas every day. This destroys the children, because when they “can’t understand anything except fun” they’re literally turned into monsters. Maggie says, “Innocence ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, you know. Innocent little kids rip the wings off flies, because they don’t know any better. That’s innocence” (p. 552). Wayne, Vic’s own child, begins doing this to a butterfly when he is kidnapped by Manx. In short, children can be little sociopaths if they don’t understand or care what’s evil, or horrific.[fn. 4] According to NOS4A2, you need both innocence and experience, happiness and unhappiness, in order to be a balanced human being. You need a little bit of horror fiction, says Hill. It’s good for you. Because if you rob someone of their ability to experience horror, such that the horror isn’t horror, then where does that leave you? You’ll be like Wayne, ripping wings off butterflies and not understanding what’s wrong with that.

Although he is a “strong creative,” Manx’s monstrosity stems from his lack of imagination. Christmasland represents the “limits of Charlie Manx’s imagination” (p. 641). He can’t imagine or understand the horror of a situation. Maggie describes Christmasland as Manx’s “idea of endless fun, endless youth, dressed up in a form his dumb little mind can understand” (p. 552). It is this idiocy, this limited imagination that turns Manx into a monster, and allows him to turn the children he kidnaps into monsters in precisely the same kind of way. During the climactic battle, Vic realizes, “Whatever the children had become, whatever [Manx] had done to them, he had done to make them safe, to keep them from being run down by the world. He believed in his own decency with all his heart. So it was with every true monster, Vic supposed” (p. 651).

George Eliot agreed with Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments that “the sympathetic imagination is the foundation of all morality” (Austen 560). And for Eliot, literature fostered this imagination. I suspect that although George Eliot was a staunch Victorian realist, she and Joe Hill are really on the same page. (See also Dickens’s contrast between Fact and Fancy in Hard Times for more of the same idea from another Victorian “realist.”) A weak imagination means an inability to sympathize with others—one fails to imagine oneself in another’s shoes. If that someone else is experiencing something horrific, you won’t sympathize in the proper way. And if you can’t sympathize, you don’t fully understand what’s happening.

Hill explores the effects of a lack of imaginative sympathy further after Manx is defeated. We realize that Manx’s kidnapping victim, Wayne, is still damaged by his experience. Wayne discovers that he takes a kind of sick pleasure in horrific things. When he sees things like a plane crash or news stories about wars in other parts of the world, Wayne feels “charged, jolted by excitement and guilt, as if he were looking at pornography” (p. 677). This is the flipside of horror fiction; it’s exactly what happens when horror loses half its effect, and becomes, instead, a kind of pornography. In the interview I quote from above, Hill notes “I’ve always detested when horror in the late ’90s turned into torture-porn,” because such works “failed at accomplishing the aims of horror.” In other words, they left out the most important part, the ethical dimension of horror. This is also the hardest part, because it requires real imagination. You have to imagine yourself in the shoes of the victim in order for the horror to really hit home, in order for you to fully understand it.

The references to David Mitchell, especially those to Jacob de Zoet, make a little bit more sense in this context. Even though it’s set at the turn of the nineteenth century, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is very much about finding a moral compass in the modern world; so too is NOS4A2. The generational conflicts, and especially the long echoing effects of individual actions — which I’ve talked less about here — also helps explain the references to Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The thinking about the nature of creativity, and the ways in which the artistic process is an encounter with the New, a headlong rush over a shaky bridge into the unknown, seems one of the most important ways in which NOS4A2 engages with the work of Hill’s father, Stephen King; I’m reminded of the latter books in the Dark Tower series, in which King often talks about how he doesn’t know what’s going to come next, and can’t control the story as much as he’d like. (The author is just a channel for Gan or whatever.)

I find it refreshing to see horror that wrestles with the problems of its own genre, and with fiction more generally. I agree with Wayne Booth that there is a “rhetoric of fiction.” Every novel takes a stance, posits an implied author, puts you into a subject position, regarding this or that theme or ethical dilemma. This is not true only of propaganda fiction–all fiction does this, and must do this. The really good novels question or complicate their own stance, or the stance of their entire genre, as well as the nature of how such stances come to be. To my mind, NOS4A2 succeeds in this endeavor.


[1] The reference to the knife reminds me of Carol Ann Duffy’s “Little Red Cap,” in which the speaker discovers that the poet-wolf she’s sleeping with “howls the same old song at the moon, year in, year out, / season after season, same rhyme, same reason,” so she ventures out on her own, and uses an axe (read: a pen) to deconstruct the world around her: “I took an axe / to a willow to see how it wept. I took an axe to a salmon / to see how it leapt. I took an axe…” (lines 35-8).

[2] Joe Hill interview at the AV Club.

[3] You probably shouldn’t compare your mistress’s eyes to the sun, though. Shakespeare basically already called you out on how lame this is.

[4] The Onion agrees: Kids are sociopaths.

Other References

Austen, Zelda. “Why Feminist Critics Are Angry with George Eliot.” College English 37.6 (1976): 549-61. Print.

Hill, Joe. NOS4A2: A Novel. New York: William Morrow, 2013. Print.

Phillips, Catherine. “Introduction.” Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. xv-xxxv. Print.

Žižek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. London: Verso, 2012. Print.


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Mad Men and Desire

I’ve been re-binging through AMC’s Mad Men. I caught up, having missed the last season and a half, and then decided to hell with it–I’ll just start over. Watching it now, I think the interplay between desire and condemnation in Mad Men is really where a lot of the meat of the show is, and that’s also where it gets difficult to unpack.

What do I mean here? A common (bad) criticism of Mad Men might be, “Oh, but look at all the drinking, racism, and sexism! That stuff is bad!” to which the obvious response is a somewhat confused, “Uh, okay, but it’s obviously condemning all those things, so I don’t know what your problem is?” The former criticism seems, at first glance, to be a bit like thinking the writers of the Sopranos are pro-murder, or that the writers of Breaking Bad are in favour of drug trafficking, and destroying your family and those around you in order to ensure your ego is satisfied. The criticism is stupid, and it comes up again and again with any form of art that portrays “bad” things, or has an anti-hero, or whatever. Hell, even Dickens received that criticism. But just because a given behavior or ideology is depicted does not mean it is being advocated. Duh.

But with Mad Men there’s more to it than that. Yes, we’re condemning Don Draper’s adultery and lifestyle choices, the drinking, the rampant sexism, the consumerism, and so on, but doesn’t the camera like to play with the fact that we also desire (many aspects of) this lifestyle? Don’t we ogle over those perfectly tailored suits, those perfectly trim haircuts? Even the drinking and the sex in the office? And don’t we admire the “legend of Don Draper” (to quote a character in the show) such that, when the really troubling stuff comes up with him (the racism, the sexism) it’s a bit jarring? (As opposed to when Pete or some minor character shows they’re a massive, privileged bigot, which is just par for the course.)

I’m not just saying there are people who don’t “get” Mad Men, and that these people just sort of tune out the fact that maybe the show isn’t always advocating Don’s lifestyle. (Though I’m sure these people exist.) No, I’m saying that according to the logic of the show, you should feel a bit of desire for everything Don has, for what Dick Whitman has become, the man he has turned himself into. He’s not just something to condemn. If you find yourself, like various characters in the show, occasionally lured in by the myth of Don Draper… well, good. You’re paying attention.

First, Don knows he’s selling something that’s unattainable–the objet petit a, in Lacanian terms. As Don says, “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” The fact is, we want to be like Don, we want that lifestyle, even as we condemn it for being ultimately empty. Don understands this, but when Dick Whitman is given a new name, and can construct any identity he wants, what does he pick? Being a successful creative ad man, a partner in a firm, wearing the latest fashions, but without being too obviously a slave to fashion trends (note that in Season Six Don hasn’t yet adopted sideburns, unlike Pete and Roger). Don is fully aware of who and what he is, that he’s totally just a part of the machine, workin’ for the man, or whatever, but at the end of the day that’s exactly where he wants to be.

In 2013 we’re obviously still living in an age very much created by the self-styled “mad men” of Madison Avenue. Now we want to think we’re sophisticated, and that we’re totally aware that all this consumerism stuff is just “phony” (side note: I loved Sally’s recent use of this word, plus her visit to the New York Museum of Natural History — has she been reading her Salinger?), and yet, there we are, all the same, often participating in the very same aspects of our culture we tend to criticize. Ironic distance doesn’t really solve much; it just keeps us in a social position from which we can criticize the thing we don’t really want to change, because if it did change, the social position from which we are free to criticize would be upset. Just look at all those times in Mad Men Season 1 where Don calls out members of the counter-culture for being just as hypocritical as he is, if not more so.

I’m reminded of two Zizekian ideas. First, Zizek’s “subject supposed to believe,” the idea that Oh, no, I don’t really believe X–I just fake it, because that other guy believes X. But if everyone’s pretending, putting on a performance (like, say, Dick Whitman), what’s the difference? Even if you don’t “believe” in X, you’re still enjoying it. You’re still enjoying that position from which you’re free to pretend you don’t believe in it. We all condemn consumerism — seriously, who doesn’t do this, to some extent? Isn’t it even just a bit obscene when someone is fully invested in it, without that bit of self-conscious distancing? — but then, in real life, it’s like, goddamn, look at those sweet jeans! And they’re on sale!

Secondly, I’m reminded of Zizek’s dialectics. First you have the stupid appearance (boy, Don Draper is cool!), then you have the ingenious correction, the contradiction inherent in the initial proposition or appearance (but wait: everything that makes Don cool is ultimately presented as empty!), but then, finally, you have the return to the initial, stupid appearance (I know that lifestyle is supposed to be empty, and yet… I still want to enjoy all of it, and I still go to my hair stylist and ask for “the Mad Men cut”).

One of the solutions to ironic distance (which is really just the occupation of that final position, where we’re free to enjoy) is the New Sincerity, which can be seen in the refreshing earnestness of Parks and Recreation (at least, Parks and Rec is my favourite example; the author of the link above lists Wes Anderson). But maybe, just maybe, it can be seen in Mad Men as well, at least in terms of the way the show calls us out on that which we claim to condemn; it calls us out on the insincerity of our condemnations.

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John Grisham’s Calico Joe

I finished up reading John Grisham’s Calico Joe last night. It was a very quick read.

Was it good? Yeah, it was pretty good. But what struck me is that it was just so goddamn *readable*. I bought the book because I had a flat tire on Sunday, and I desperately needed something to read in Canadian Tire while I waited for them to replace the wheel, after I’d hobbled in on the spare. Normally, I’d have no desire to read a book featuring baseball, but at Shopper’s I didn’t have a lot of options. Yet Calico Joe was actually very difficult to put down.

If I describe Grisham as *eminently readable,* am I plagiarizing something? I don’t know, but boy, Grisham sure is eminently readable. I had the same reaction reading Grisham’s Playing for Pizza, though, ironically, I actually didn’t finish that one. I think I will now, and I might even try his really popular books (The Firm, The Pelican Brief, etc., y’know, the ones that feature “lawyers and stuff,” and were made into movies), even though, again, the genre is not my cup of tea. At all. But I still want to read more, because I respect that skill.

It’s easy to slot Grisham in with various other airplane fiction fluff (Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, et al.). But actually writing a good book that’s impossible to put down is a skill to be respected. And I think Grisham does it better, if only because — of the books I’ve read — he doesn’t rely on traditional suspense techniques. Calico Joe is hard to put down, but there is no global conspiracy, no promise of either riches combined with dire risks of death for the protagonists, and no traditional McGuffin. You keep reading because you want to see Joe and Warren Tracey meet. That’s the hook. And by itself, who cares? Two fake baseball players meeting? Boring. But the novel itself makes the hook what it is. And I did care. That ain’t easy.

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