In this 40 minute radio interview, author Susan Cain discusses Quiet, differences between introverts and extroverts, Jung, conformity, Steve Wozniak, Csikszentmihalyi, and the fine line between introversion and misanthropy.
SPECIAL BOOK GIVEAWAY: Are we all prone to the malady of the introvert who turns away and gazes only upon the emptiness within? Perhaps this conversation about introverts will clear up this Bertrand Russell idea. And perhaps you, dear listener, can weigh in. The Bat Segundo Show is giving away two copies of Susan Cain’s Quiet. All you have to do is email ed @ edrants.com with the subject line QUIET GIVEAWAY before February 7, 2012. Tell us when you first knew you were an introvert or an extrovert and what effect this has had on your life. Don’t worry. If you’re feeling shy, you can stay anonymous and we’ll keep your names confidential. We’ll read some of the stories on a future program and give away two copies of Quiet to two random people.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if Zeno’s paradox is applicable to social types.
Subjects Discussed: Establishing terminology of introverts and extroverts, David Sloan Wilson, new Kinsey scales, Carl Jung, Jonathan Rauch’s “Caring for Your Introvert,” Google and Apple offered as “introvert comeback” examples, introvert glamour in the 21st century, how the loner idea has changed in American culture, Steve Wozniak, Edward Bernays, Western culture founded upon Greco-Roman ideals, how oratory has driven the spread of Western culture, going to business forces and corporations to understand introverts, Tony Robbins seminars, the self-help industry, the ideal self as a marketing device, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of flow, Peter Hills and Michael Argyle on happy introverts, how flow and happiness differs between introverts and extoverts, responding to myths that introverts aren’t social, the fine line between introversion and misanthropy, Jason Fried’s “No Talk Thursdays” idea, Wozniak’s Homebrew Computer Club, extreme positions from introverts and extroverts, “how to talk to strangers” workshops, the Solomon Asch experiments, conformity and groups, mimicking the opinions of other people, “fitting in,” Gregory Burns’s experiments with the amygdala and groups, high reactive types, shyness, introverted Asian-American populations in Cupertino, pluralism movements involving introverts and extroverts, Jerome Kagan, nature vs. nurture, interactionism, Alex Osborn and brainstorming, Robert Sutton’s response to the brainstorming dilemma, the problems with multitasking, group cohesion in brainstorming, avoiding lopsided perspectives, parents with introverted children, the No Child Left Behind Act, the advantages of role-playing and improvisation, smiling, public speaking as the number one fear, introverted actors and the performance mask, Brian Little looking into introverts being overstimulated, stage fright, being a member of Toastmasters, impromptu speaking, the advantages of anarchy, intense curiosity, Picasso, connections between solitude and creativity, and answers to charges that introverts are filled with hubris and narcissism.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I should point out that, as an ambivert, I’m one of those types who swings both ways. I go ahead and ingratiate myself with all forms of version. I’m wondering if it’s entirely productive to divide the world into these two austere bipolar categories. As you point out in the book, David Sloan Wilson applied these labels to the fruit fly. And I’m wondering if, say, a Kinsey scale of 1 to 6 — to pound the metaphor in here further — is probably more applicable for this kind of thing. I mean, why should introverts of all stripes be lumped together?
Cain: Yeah Okay. So that’s actually a really important question that you’re raising. And the reality is that there’s an introvert-extrovert spectrum and that we’re all situated on different points of the spectrum and that even people who are on the extreme end of the spectrum, whether introverts or extroverts, have sides to themselves that are the opposite side. And Jung — Carl Jung, who is the psychologist who actually popularized these terms — speaks about that. And he says that there’s no such thing as a pure introvert or a pure extrovert and that such a man would be in an insane asylum. So it’s an important question that you’re asking. But at the same time that this is true and that we’re all a glorious mishmosh of traits, there is also a reality to what it means to be, in general, oriented towards the outer world or, in general, more oriented to the riches that are inside your own mind. And these things I believe, these orientations, shape who we are in ways that are as profound as our gender shapes us.
Correspondent: But gradients of orientation. I mean, that’s the key thing. Jung, of course, as you point out, he popularizes the terms in 1921. You have Hans Eysenck doing research in the late 1960s, hypothesizing that humans sought “just right” levels of stimulation. And he ran some tests. So where do we, I suppose, calibrate ourselves if we’re all going to all refer to people as “You’re only an introvert” or “You’re only an extrovert.” I mean, we could get vertist, so to speak. (laughs)
Cain: Right. I guess I would take the “only” out of that formulation. It’s not “you’re only an introvert” or “you’re only an extrovert.” You’re a million other things as well. But I guess a metaphor that I could give for you, that I think is helpful here, is gender. So if I had written a book that presumed to say, “Here’s what men are like and here’s what women are like,” I probably would have been able to get it mostly right describing these categories as groups. But in the case of any one individual, there are going to be men with all kinds of female characteristics and women with all kinds of male characteristics. That doesn’t mean though that there’s no such thing as maleness or femaleness. And that doesn’t mean that these things aren’t hugely important and shape our lives in ways we need to pay attention to.
Correspondent: Yes, but such a book would spawn a million Jezebel threads.
Correspondent: There’s a danger, I suppose, in cleaving to these labels. And I guess maybe another way of trying to figure out what’s going on here in terms of the schism between the introverts and the extroverts is through a wonderful 2003 Jonathan Rauch article in The Atlantic, not quoted here.
Cain: Yes. Fantastic article.
Correspondent: “Caring for Your Introvert.” He was willing to go on the line and say that introverts are oppressed. I’m wondering if you would go on the line as well. You didn’t in this book. But to what degree are they oppressed? I mean, since 2003, we’ve seen Google and Apple, products of introverts, spring up. And we’re all enslaved by them. So I think the balance may be more or less stabilized. What do you think about all this?
Cain: Okay, so first of all, I would say I did go on the line in this book. And the central thesis of my book really is there is a severe bias against most introverts in this society and that operates to all of our losses. Certainly to the loss of introverts who get the message in a million different ways that there’s something wrong with who they are. But I think it operates to the loss of everybody. Because when we set up society in a way that depletes the energies of half to a third of the population, that’s not in anybody’s best interest. So that’s my feeling about it.
Correspondent: But no real oppression. I mean, if the extroverts are in control, do you think that there’s been enough of a comeback of the introverts in the years since that Rauch article?
Cain: Well, okay, so I think it’s an interesting thing. When I talk about a bias, I’m not saying, “Well, therefore introverts have had no happiness and no success in society.” And the examples that you just gave are very interesting and apt ones. But here’s the thing. Those examples, they’re not accidents. We tend to have respect for the loner who’s operating in his garage and is about to launch a fabulously successful company or who holds the promise of launching such a company. We have respect for that person. Because that person carries with him the whiff of great wealth or power. But what I’m talking about is something that operates at a deeper level of self. And the fact is that if you look at our schools and our workplaces, the institutions where we all spend our lives and where our daily happiness is shaped, those institutes are set up for extroverts. In ways that we’re not aware of. So children from the time they go into preschool at a very early age, they are going into an environment that is a group environment where they are expected to behave in certain ways. I’m not saying this is all a bad thing. But I am saying that it’s set up in such a way that introverted children from the get go are kind of expected to act in ways that are being not themselves.
Correspondent: Yes. But it’s interesting to me that the loner has moved from the sort of James Dean Rebel Without a Cause/Marlon Brando kind of thing to the guy going ahead, like Wozniak, and fiddling around with tools in his garage, in his bedroom, starting a company. And I’m wondering if the loner model has always been associated with introverts or whether there has been some outsider label instead. It seems to me that, because the idea of being a loner was predicated in some way on being a loner in relation to society, you weren’t entirely an introvert. You were more an outsider. You were still an extrovert in some sense. And yet it has moved in the decades since to the Wozniakian model, where you’re tinkering with some massive project that’s going to change the world in your garage. I’m wondering if you had some thoughts on why “loner” has almost been co-opted and has become more related to this introversion idea.
Cain: Oh, that’s interesting. I think that’s probably just a function of the role that technology has played in the last decades. You know, what you’re talking about really is ways in which we have shifted notions of glamour as attached to individual people. So in the ’50s, the decade of conformity, there was a glamour attached to the figure who could stand outside that and still have sex appeal. And then what happens in the decades of technology is suddenly we have introverts who, just because of their great technical competence, can create wealth and power. And so glamour attaches to them.
Correspondent: Introverts aren’t sexy? I think they are. I think they’re being celebrated in our culture. The “Think different” billboards that we got with Apple. It’s been all about “Yes, introverts are sexy. But we just don’t communicate with other people.” You think that they aren’t sexy these days?
Cain: No, what I was saying is that what was happening as technology grew up was that there was a glamour that was attached to that. But what I still believe is that that’s a subset of the reality of what it means to be introverted. And even if you go out to Silicon Valley, the heart of the subset where you would say that this glamour model for lack of a better word is operating — you know, even in Silicon Valley, I went out there while I was researching my book. And I talked to many introverts who were working there. And even there, they feel that their personality style is not validated, that it’s not celebrated. And they’re constantly exhorted to act in a way that’s not natural to themselves.
Correspondent: I suppose this relates to the initial line of inquiry. When you are talking about introverts, when you are promoting introverts, they inevitably feed into this marketing, advertorial sort of approach, where it’s not so much about trying to understand the introvert’s place. It’s more about promoting the introvert. This leads me to also name a figure who you didn’t name in the book — Edward Bernays. I mean, we were talking about Jung earlier. But he relied upon Freudian ideas to promote the idea of being empowered, that manipulation could be used to factor in the herd crowd. “Herd” is a word used frequently in your book. Do you think that one of the problems with introverts being misunderstood or not accepted has a lot to do with this maligning or skirmishing of psychology with these larger marketing forces?
Cain: Well, I think that it goes back even earlier than that. It starts out with there being this kernel in our society. We are a culture that is grounded on Greco-Roman ideals. And these are ideals that celebrate oratory and celebrate being able to declaim in front of people. So that’s a piece of it. But that’s only a small piece really. Because what really happened was, at the turn of the 20th century, we moved from what cultural historians call a culture of character and we moved into a culture of personality. And this happened because suddenly we had the rise of big business. And we had urbanization. So you had people flocking into the cities. And instead of living in small towns and working with people they had known all their lives, they’re suddenly in big cities applying for jobs at corporations, where everything depends on their abilities to shine at a job interview and to be able to sell their company’s latest gizmo and, of course, to sell themselves. At the same time, you have the rise of movies. And movie stars are the perfect model for this.
Correspondent: Of course.
Cain: They are the ultimate role models of this kind of charisma that people are starting to feel they need in their everyday lives. And so in a way, there used to be in the earlier years of this country’s founding, where it used to be that these oratorical skills and this ability to command a crowd was seen as being important only for political figures. Now it was something that everybody suddenly had to have. And at the core of all this was the corporation really. That was why people started to feel that they needed to have these skills.
In 1953, the idea of a single female police recruit to the New York City Police Department, let alone a handful, was big news. And when the New York Times wrote up the-then shocking idea of these women engaged in public outdoor physical activity as part of the examinations they needed to pass, naturally they included photos of the department’s newest members — including one young mother and engineer’s wife, born and raised on Ryer Avenue in the Bronx. A decade later, Dorothy Uhnak immortalized her beat-walking experiences — which included knocking down a robber more than twice her size — in her memoir Police Woman.
By the end of the 1960s, Uhnak had added to pioneering police work literary acclaim with a trio of award- winning novels following the career of Christie Opara, a detective protagonist as cool and methodical on the trail of multiple murderers (The Bait) political protesters (The Witness) and mobbed-up types (The Ledger) as she was raising a child on her own and considering a romance with her brash and sharp-tongued boss. Consciously or otherwise, Uhnak was planting the seeds for female detectives more private-minded — like Millhone, McCone and Warshawski — and subsequent generations of hard-boiled literary women. But until the Times reported Uhnak’s death of a self-administered drug overdose in 2006, her contributions went unnoticed by a great many readers — including me. I soon realized this void was shameful on several levels.
Uhnak dispensed with Christie Opara so quickly (a much-altered version of the character surfaced briefly on television in Get Christie Love) because her matter-of-fact prose and complex characters needed more room to breathe. Spurred by her editor’s desire to emulate such 1970s publishing phenomena as Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and Joseph Wambaugh’s The New Centurions, Uhnak made the leap from tight-focus cop chronicles to blockbuster sagas, including 1977’s The Investigation and Victims (1985), a loose account of the Kitty Genovese murder. Sadly, the only one of these novels that remains in print is the first, the meaty, multi-generational doorstopper Law and Order (1973), which charts the entwined fates of the O’Malley family and their perpetual employer, the NYPD.
Those twin worlds, depicted between 1937 and 1970, are insular ones. The O’Malleys, with their repeating names and vigorous breeding habits, are too busy taking care of their own — personally and professionally –to bother with what happens outside their Ryer Avenue environs or the codes, written or otherwise, of the department. A brutal opening scene sketches the boundaries of the mindset. When the elder Brian O’Malley, a hard-drinking, rough-living Irish cop, meets his grisly death at the hands of a black prostitute he frequents, “I don’t want any part of it,” thinks his brand-new partner, Aaron Levine. “God he wished they were on their way back to the precinct house. It was nearly time for the tour to end. He never thought that filthy precinct would feel like home, but it was where he wanted to be right now.”
Levine’s wilful blindness, which continues as he slides all the way up to a cushy academic position (the reward for his “not wanting any part of it”) is the key metaphor for how people operate in Law & Order. O’Malley’s death is covered up, blamed on a robbery gone wrong. His eponymous son Brian steps in his father’s place, a brilliant recruit on the fast track to becoming Detective Chief Inspector — but not before he also tunes out the disturbing signals that don’t fit the overall narrative of cop culture. As for the O’Malleys as a family, they too doom themselves to repeating the same mistakes, generation after generation. Margaret, wife of the original Brian, grows from a young woman fearful of the clan she’s married into a hardened shell prone to snapping at her children. Eldest daughter Roseanne pays the price of her insolent adolescence when the wild young man she fancies turns out to be a rotten husband (her niece Maureen, the daughter of Brian Jr., will make virtually the same mistakes decades later.) Brian is himself prone to self-castigation about “sins of the flesh”, going so far as to try purging himself at the confessional, but — even after marrying a girl whose supposed job it is to rid himself of base desires — he indulges in multiple affairs.
The sense of fait accompli comes out even in how Uhnak depicts Brian Jr.’s original police examination: “Thirty-three thousand young men took the examination for Patrolman, New York City Police Department. Fewer than twelve hundred survived the written, physical, medical and background check-out. The class at the Police Academy was comprised of the top 10 per cent of the resulting list of eligibles. Eighty-five per cent of them held college degrees. By the time they received their appointments, they all knew they were something special.”
No wonder then such recruits, like Brian, are invited to do as they please; to free, for example, a statutory rapist of a neighborhood girl considered to be a slut — while another man, guilty of raping Brian’s young sister, merits a life-threatening assault. No wonder certain recruits are allowed to take a doctored exam while others cavalierly murder in the name of shutting up a would-be snitch determined to expose department-wide corruption. It’s only when the stage is set for Brian’s son Patrick, fresh off a tour in Vietnam that’s exposed him as much to war as it has to racial divides, to take his place in the cop pantheon, that the presumptions undergirding the system are threatened.
Which is why, when the bad apples have been shaken loose and events mimicking the 1972 Knapp Commission partially reveal the fault line of corruption – as well as the truth about what happened to Brian, Sr. — we’re left with Patrick, having a drink with his old man, his mouth open and holding his hands up. “Christ, isn’t there a moral way to commit a moral act?” asks the younger O’Malley, sick with disillusionment over how the Department handles corruption from within. His father has none of it. “In all of my life I’ve found morality counts shit when it comes to getting a job done. What counts is doing it any goddamn way you can, but get the job done.”
When their minds meet, resolved in a middle ground, Law & Order completes its newest generational cycle, where innocence crumbles in the face of hard-earned cynicism and means justified by the ends. The NYPD is as much family as the O’Malleys, and in Uhnak’s hard-bitten world, both of them — no matter the cost — take care of their own.
In the January 15, 2012 edition of The New York Times, Dwight Garner reviewed Deborah Scroggins’s Wanted Women — a dual biography of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui — and leveled some irresponsible, reckless, and highly misleading charges at the book’s author. Accusing Scroggins of “a rowdy assault on Ms. Hirsi Ali,” Garner set forth a litany of misleading modifiers at Scroggins, claiming that she had accused Hirsi Ali of “being imperious, deceitful, egomaniacal and divisive, of whipping up racial hatred through her unsubtle criticism of Islam.”
The problem with Garner’s attack is that he has failed to dredge up any significant facts to support his foolhardy fulminations even as he has simultaneously omitted two key points in the record: (1) that Hirsi Ali lied about her asylum application, yet used this story to garner sympathy and eventually earn a Parliament seat in the Netherlands to promote her over-the-top attacks on Islam (motivated by a legitimate concern for radical Islam’s oppression of women which quickly grew to subsume considerations of Islamic pluralism: a peaceful pluralistic option that doesn’t work the first time doesn’t necessarily have to be thrown out with the bathwater) and (2) that Hirsi Ali demanded costly and possibly unreasonable overseas security while she was in the United States. (In overlooking the second point, Garner slams Scroggins by claiming that she “swings lower” in pointing out that Hirsi Ali “visited an ‘expensive hairdresser’ to straighten her hair.” As Development Cooperation Minister Bert Koenders stated at the time, “Hirsi Ali is protected in the Netherlands. She herself has chosen to go to the U.S.” It’s no surprise that Garner, fixated like a sad middle-aged man on Hirsi Ali’s looks rather than the vital crux of her actions, would be more interested in Hirsi Ali’s minor image-conscious offenses rather than her quite serious efforts to milk money from the likes of Nicholas Sarkozy and Benoit Hamon — the latter involving the unsuccessful establishment of a 50-million-Euro security detail. As Scroggins observes, Hirsi Ali’s appeals to various governments were futile. She returned to professional speaking with her tail between her legs, factoring the security costs into her lecture fees, before the Foundation for Freedom of Expression was established, in part, to solve the money problem.)
A more competent reader than Garner would easily comprehend that, in asking critical questions of Hirsi Ali, Scroggins is considering the need for free expression (which would include the 2004 film, Submission, which Hirsi Ali wrote for Theo van Gogh and resulted in van Gogh’s barbaric murder — another key fact elided from Garner’s review) along with the impact of unfettered words. None of Scroggins’s investigations state or implicate that Hirsi Ali should be silenced. But if a prominent figure is promoting Muslim liberation within Enlightenment values, shouldn’t the evolution of these thoughts be examined? Bear in mind that, in her Dutch political career, Hirsi Ali abandoned the Labor Party to join the more conservative VVD, viewed in the Netherlands as the “party of businessmen.” In 2003, as a member of Parliament, Hirsi Ali called Mohammed a “perverse tyrant.” And her belligerence didn’t stop with invective. As Hirsi Ali confirmed in a 2007 interview, she hoped to abolish Article 23 of the Dutch Constitution, which guaranteed freedom of education, and sought to close down all Muslim schools — even as she refused to consider reports which “emphatically stated that Islamic schools are no cause for alarm,” with most maintaining an open attitude towards Dutch society. And as she revealed in her book Infidel, Hirsi Ali’s hard-line stance against basic rights was often predicated on specious work experience:
I had also proposed dramatically reducing unemployment benefits and abolishing the minimum wage. From my experience as a translator with welfare cases, I knew that easy access to generous unemployment benefits leads to a poverty trap: people in Holland often make more money from welfare than they would in actual jobs. Everyone told me these ideas were far too right wing — meaning that they would lead to a society polarized between wealthy and poor, teeming with beggars and very rich people, with lots of violence and exploitation.
All of these facts are plainly stated in Scroggins’s book and are helpfully backed up by endnotes (many of which I have consulted for this piece). Scroggins’s book is a welcome reconsideration (rather than an attack) of a complicated individual who charmed the pants off many intellectual figures. Consider how Anne Applebaum (“a Muslim immigrant who embraces Western culture with the excitement of the convert” — a remarkably rose-tinted summation), Christopher Hitchens (“calls for a pluralist democracy where all opinion is protected” — but not moderate Muslim schools), and Sam Harris and Salman Rushdie (“one of the most poised, intelligent, and compassionate advocates of freedom of speech and conscience” — but not when it comes to freedom of religion, even when separate from state) all proved mostly unwilling to perceive any flaws in their cherished heroine. Is Hirsi Ali’s Manichean ultimatum between Islam and liberation tenable? Are all strands of Islam radical, dangerous, and anti-Semitic? Isn’t the truth more subtle and less one-sided? These are the questions which Scroggins’s book raises in examining two significant figures.
Garner has chosen to simplify these very important issues, reducing them to the muddled and tendentious viewpoint of a country bumpkin incapable of comprehending the other side of imperialism. He cannot seem to see how extreme fears of Muslims (like any extreme hate, including radical Islam) can produce figures like Geert Wilders or, even deadlier, Anders Behring Breivik (Garner suggests that Scroggins has laid the Breivik association “at Ms. Hirsi Ali’s feet” when she is merely pointing out that Breivik believed she should win the Nobel Peace prize). These intricate concerns require more than cheap dualities. They require serious thinkers, not suburban burnouts whose view beyond Levittown isn’t altogether different from a Helen Bannerman vista.
A detailed essay on John P. Marquand, who specialized in gentle satire, once graced the covers of Time and Newsweek, and reached millions of readers in the early 20th century, before becoming needlessly forgotten.
If there are no second acts in American lives, then John P. Marquand’s straying bankers and layabout lawyers certainly pine for a turning point.
Marquand, who won the 1938 Pulitzer Prize for his satirical masterpiece, The Late George Apley, has remained a remarkably overlooked author despite his midcentury accolades. Martha Spaulding, Terry Teachout, and Jonathan Yardley have all made valiant critical efforts to restore Marquand’s reputation, but, today, many of his novels remain out of print. This dropoff is astonishing, considering that Marquand once graced the covers of Time and Newsweek. But the Harvard-educated author’s razor-sharp examinations of upward mobility and class trappings also appealed to a mass audience, not unlike the weekly wistfulness of Dunder Mifflin workers depicted in the television comedy The Office. His rudderless protagonists are overly concerned with how they appear to others. They pine for the next rung on the corporate ladder, even as eidetic recall from the past freezes their possibilities in the present.
Marquand cut his teeth writing slick stories for The Saturday Evening Post, not unlike the early potboilers written by his satirical contemporary Sinclair Lewis. He found additional commercial success with a Charlie Chan knockoff named Mr. Moto, whose adventures were serialized in the Post before being published as books. And while this generated money, Marquand soon revolted against his agent’s hopes for steady lucre with an epistolary novel featuring a belated Boston aristocrat named George Apley, whose letters were organized by a fictitious biographer (and family friend) to reveal “the spirit of the man and his influence on the life around him.” While the novel found some Post supporters, more than a few editors felt it necessary to stick with the foundation. Unlike Marquand’s previous novels, only four excerpts from Apley were published. But to everyone’s surprise, including the author himself, Apley was a critical and commercial hit.
In Apley, it is the biographer’s voice, frequently proffering lofty context (“It would be a slur upon George Apley’s integrity to doubt the absolute sincerity of his statement”), that reveals a kind yet bumbling upper-class man attempting to be true to his inner ingenuousness while running afoul of societal expectations. A private matter of baby naming becomes a needless tempest with the in-laws (“It has been the custom in our family…to give the first son of a new generation one of the Apley names”). Apley takes up Saturday morning birdwatching with an “old playmate and lifetime friend, Mrs. Clara Goodrich.” Yet even this quiet moment cannot escape scrutiny. A reverend, also an old friend of Apley’s mother, fires off a letter: “Could you not arrange to see a little less of Clara Goodrich, or at any rate to visit her in the company of others?”
Marquand’s unique satirical approach involved skewering folkways, institutions, and other assorted tableaux while remaining sincere to his characters, even when his characters could not perceive their own telltale follies. In H. M. Pulham, Esquire, the eponymous attorney, Harry, attempts to read his way through The Education of Henry Adams for personal enlightenment, but he cannot discern that his wife is carrying on an affair with his best friend. Later in the book, Harry sees the two sitting in the dining room, but the ethereal affair has drifted into uncomfortable territory: “Bill must have been telling Kay again what a good time he had had, because they were both sitting saying nothing. Whatever it was that Bill said, it made Kay look awfully sad.”
Many of Marquand’s unhappy marriages are, like George Babbitt’s, founded and maintained on an almost conformist common ground. In Pulham, Harry reports of his marriage: “The best part of it was that Kay and I seemed to have a good many of the same ideas — the same tastes in furniture, the same ways of spending our time.” Marquand’s remarkably bitter final novel, Women and Thomas Harrow, offers what may be the author’s worst nightmare: a man defined almost exclusively by his relationships to wives and mistresses.
It is this juxtaposition between marriage and identity that likewise presents a troubling dilemma for Point of No Return‘s Charles Gray. Charles is a banker who commutes from his suburban “thirty-thousand-dollar house — not including extras” to his New York job on an 8:30 train “designed for the executive aristocracy.” Not having graduated from Harvard or Yale, he is sometimes embarrassed because “the New York banks he dealt with most were full of Harvard and Yale men.” He does not know if he will get a coveted promotion to vice president. But his wife Nancy coaches him on what he needs to do and how he needs to act, urging him as she does to turn out the downstairs light — because the neighbors might think they’re having a fight. And he certainly doesn’t want to remember Clyde, Massachusetts — the hamlet where he grew up and fell in love with a young woman from an affluent family. (Just as Lewis set many of his novels in the fictitious state of Winnemac, many of Marquand’s novels take place in the fictitious Clyde.)
Upon the 1949 publication of Point of No Return, Marquand’s six previous novels had sold nearly three million copies; three were turned into movies and three selected for the Book-of-the-Month Club. Some highbrow critics furrowed with suspicion. Edmund Wilson once wrote of Marquand, “We have plenty of novelists in America who make Mr. Marquand’s abilities seem as modest as his pretensions.” In the same essay, Wilson pardoned Sinclair Lewis for similar sins, suggesting that a Lewis novel was “a work of the imagination that imposes its atmosphere, a creation that shows the color and modeling of a particular artist’s hand.”
Wilson, however, overlooked the plain fact that Marquand not only got through to his audience, but embedded much beneath his seemingly slick formalism. Marquand’s characters frequently received the short end of the stick, but he was the very rare novelist to make domestic heartache both enthralling and entertaining. If Marquand gave into the demands of his audience, it was precisely because he hoped to impart his own particular atmosphere, conjured from careful observation with an abundance of Morris and Windsor chairs hiding in studies and lonely rooms, but without Sinclair’s smoky bluntness.
Unable to curry favor with a literati set demanding a refined spice, Marquand spent many of his years serving as a Book-of-the-Month Club judge, sticking his neck out for such titles as Animal Farm and Aurora Dawn for an appreciative populist audience. While Lewis tackled prejudice and a fascist president in his later novels, Marquand confined his narratives to domestic environments. And while this insular territory accounted for some of his limitations, Marquand recirculated his keen insight into the class aspirations that inhabited this modest sphere. It’s a literary injustice that this intriguing comic tension between the twain is now almost forgotten.
This 6,000 word document could be the most important American intellectual piece you’ll read in 2012. Taking a cue from a 1939 piece in The Pancake Review, we asked several prominent breakfast experts about The Situation in American Waffles. Their thoughts may alarm you.
In 1939, The Pancake Review sent out a questionnaire to a number of prominent waffle eaters, asking them about waffles, maple syrup, and their breakfast-eating identities. While the questionnaire hasn’t been completely forgotten (right now, a Henry Darger type in Chicago hasn’t finished his response to the initial survey; an excerpt of this man’s ongoing 12,000 page work, In the Realms of the Waffles will be published next year by New Directions), we felt that these breakfast-related questions were rarely being asked of today’s waffle eaters. Considering that 2011 was a year of significant waffle eating and that most questionnaires are inherently pointless, we felt that it would be particularly relevant to update The Pancake Review’s questions.
In pursuing these vital questions with today’s breakfast experts, some figures were forced to recuse themselves or offer short answers to mimic recent breakfast austerity measures in Europe. Susannah Breslin pointed out that her gluten allergy prevented her from consuming them, even as she recognized that “everything hinges on waffles.” Elizabeth Crane Brandt professed to be “blind to this plight.” Lev Grossman insisted that he was “a French toast man.” Sheila McClear didn’t quite answer our questions, but she did inform us that she didn’t eat waffles in regular New York diners. “I will say I had a waffle at a semi-upscale breakfast place about three years ago,” reported McClear. “I was with my boyfriend, and I was cheerfully dousing it with syrup. He found this display so repulsive he actually walked. out. of. the. restaurant. on me.”
Ed Park claimed that he didn’t eat waffles anymore, but revealed that he sometimes eats a bit of leftover Eggos if they remain on other people’s plates. Dan Chaon said that he didn’t believe in the existence of breakfast, and, wishing to respect his beliefs, we didn’t press him further. Emma Straub pointed out that the New Kids on the Block “always have their after-parties at Waffle House restaurants, which tells you all you need to know about the state of American waffles.” She followed this astute observation with a Rita Coolidge quote.
But many of the waffle experts we consulted were both confident and comfortable with our questions, very frequently answering all of them.
THE BREAKFAST EXPERTS
Megan Abbott is most recently the author of The End of Everything.
Diana Abu-Jaber is most recently the author of Birds of Paradise. She is known for writing food-related prose that makes her readers very hungry.
Adrienne Davich is a writer, journalist, and editor based in Brooklyn.
Laurel Snyder grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and now makes her haome in Atlanta. She does not miss scrapple, but neither does she bother with grits.
Sarah Weinman is an author, journalist, and freelance adventurer.
2011 was the year of the Sectarian Breakfast. There have also been massive protests in Greece, Spain, Britain, and most recently, the United States. Experts now say that the pancake/waffle conflict shows no sign of abatement in 2012. Does breakfast have a responsibility to respond to popular upheaval?
Marcy Dermansky: This is a serious issue. Breakfast does have a responsibility to respond to popular upheaval, now more than ever. My concern, rather than the waffle or the pancake, is the bagel. The bagel needs to made its presence known in Europe. I say this, currently living in Europe and feeling increasingly deprived.
Laurel Snyder: Honestly, my emotional response to the current situation is one of sadness and loss. I know that in my youth, my parents’ generation engaged loudly in the breakfast debate. They marched and demanded. They were such dreamers… but it always felt smart too, like an exchange of ideas. There was respect back then. Now it seems like we’ve lost sight of breakfast itself — and what it really means, what it stands for — almost entirely. I think it says something about this generation, about what America has become. Don’t you?
Sarah Weinman: Indeed it does. Breakfast preferences alter with time and as a result of economic hardship and revolutionary fervor. A waffle is more appropriate for boom times while pancakes thrive in recessions. But then it is also more likely for people to shout “let them eat pancakes!” So the conflict continues, unresolved.
J. Robert Lennon: I think breakfast has more integrity than that, don’t you? It can remain aloof.
Jesus Angel Garcia: Absolutely. In the United States at least, breakfast owes it to the people to listen to their needs. The people cannot survive on lunch and dinner alone.
Megan Abbott: Part of me wants to say that breakfast is in fact a part of that popular upheaval. It’s the thing we all share, after all. Where would we be without breakfast? How would anything begin? How would we know how to get through the day? That said, I rely primarily on legacy media to provide me with my information, and so I guess that marks me a dinosaur when it comes to breakfast considerations. But I am from Michigan.
Michael Schaub: It would be foolish not to. What we’re seeing in the world isn’t just, as some have posited, an inchoate anger. It’s not just a movement of bored young people who don’t fully understand the breakfast system. It’s the expression of population — several populations, actually — who have decided that enough is enough, that the old system is unsustainable. And they have a point — for too long the powers that be have forced their narrow-minded idea of breakfast on people who are just now deciding they want — they need — to think for themselves. If that means rejecting the eggs/bacon/pancakes model in favor of a gingerbread waffle with pecans, or even just a lowly Eggo, thrown in the toaster and eaten on the way to work, then that’s what is bound to happen. Huxley told us all we have the right to be unhappy, and if that means Toaster Strudels with alarmingly-colored frosting, then so be it. That is democracy; we expect no less.
Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: The best thing a waffle eater can do at a time of unrest is what he does best: eat waffles. In tumultuous times, people need something constant to remind them what really matters. Waffles provide that comfort. Sure, the way we take our waffles may change -— I gave up my beloved banana-nut waffles after reading Neruda’s “La United Fruit Co.” -— but as long as we continue to eat, life goes on.
Andrew Shaffer: Conflicts within the breakfast community are unfortunate but inevitable. Breakfast eaters tend to be emotionally engaged and passionate in their food preferences than non-breakfast eaters. The pancake/waffle conflict is minor compared to the eternal war between the breakfast eater and the non-breakfast eater. While skirmishes such as the pancake/waffle conflict break out from time to time (the ugly oatmeal/grits showdown during the Kennedy administration comes readily to mind), we need to be aware that pancake and waffle eaters are more alike than different.
Jacob Silverman: Yes, absolutely. For too long breakfast has allowed other meals to do the heavy-lifting when it comes for the lobbying of political rights and social change. If one takes the time to look at the burden borne by brunch during the aughts, frankly, it’s a scandal. We have much catching up to do.
Diana Abu-Jaber: Well, clearly this is the year of the Waffle Spring. After years of being marginalized — even vilified — as a kind of forbidding yet exclusive terrain, the “Waffle Street,” they’re making their way into the main stream, with all its inherent complexity.
* * *
Do you think that waffle eating should be directed towards a definite audience? If so, how would you describe this audience? Would you say that the audience for serious waffle eating (along with all related activities) has grown or contracted in the last ten years?
Jacob Silverman: We are long removed from the days when waffle eating was a serious social activity, when Buckley and Mailer ate waffles together on television, locked in mortal intellectual combat over which vintage of syrup reigned supreme. (Unsurprisingly, National Review, in its latter day jingoistic incarnation, has scrubbed from its archives all mention of Buckley’s preference for Canadian maple.) I do not expect the audience for serious waffle eating to recover. Like my friend Philip Roth, I anticipate that it will one day have all the popularity in this country of epic poetry. Unfortunately, that day may not be long in coming.
Jesus Angel Garcia: Like all good consumption, true waffle eating will always finds its audience.
Sarah Weinman: That’s a good question. The number of Waffle Houses have increased but the number of Eggo commercials are on the wane. I guess that means waffles are directed more towards those with disposable income, or who wish to celebrate their waffle-eating in public instead of heating up the frozen ersatz kind at home. So then: Waffles are So 1 Percent.
Laurel Snyder: I don’t think we can really talk about “the waffle” without first defining our terms. What is a waffle today? It isn’t the same waffle my grandmother knew. We eat waffles in our house, but they’re crappy waffles, frozen waffles. They’re an afterthought. We’re just to busy, or that’s what we say. I’d like to think there’s a bigger market out there for waffles, that we just need to find it. But with the current waffle, I’m not sure that’s true. I think of myself as a “waffle person” but half the time, I just eat a Stella D’oro Breakfast Treat on my way out the door.
Marcy Dermansky: I think waffle makers should be distributed at birth. How grateful I would have been if I had been given a waffle maker when Nina was born. I would make her waffles all the time. Instead, I have not made her a single waffle. She is two and a half years old.
Megan Abbott: I’ve never believed in eating only for oneself, for the sating of oneself. What is eating for if not for an audience? That won’t ever change. The way we do it -— the vehicle, the mode, even the time of day may change, but that longing won’t. Appetite is appetite.
Michael Schaub: It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. Direct waffle consumption toward the traditional audience — the affluent, Wall Street-employed Manhattanites who regularly line up at The Breslin or Fedora for their fix — and you risk extincting the doughy cake if and when the next economic meltdown occurs. But if you try to expand the audience, you risk turning something undeniably special into just another run-of-the-mill breakfast food. Still, I think it’s best to at least try to market the waffle to a slightly larger audience — while most blue-collar, lower-income Midwesterners won’t be willing to give up the foie gras and Almas caviar that constitutes their traditional morning meal, the survival of the cultural icon we call the waffle may well depend on it.
Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: Homemade waffles have certainly taken a hit from Eggos and other pop pastries, frozen or otherwise, but as the video of that riot over $2 waffle irons on Black Friday shows, there will always be a demand for quality.
Adrienne Davich: I think waffle eating is personality driven. People don’t love all waffles. They love particular waffles. Waffles with blueberries & whipped cream.
Diana Abu-Jaber: Look, the Pancake 99 percent has dominated our hearts and imaginations for far too long. Pancakes are Joe the plumber. I say it’s time to occupy the waffle maker — bring the batter to the people.
J. Robert Lennon: I don’t think about audience when I’m making waffles — I’m thinking about waffles. It’s about process for me — the process of baking, and the process of eating.
* * *
Do you place much value on the criticism your waffle eating has received? For the past decade we’ve seen a series of cuts to predominant pancake and waffle magazines, and in response, breakfast criticism has moved online. Do you think this move to the non-professional realm has made breakfast criticism more or less of an isolated cult?
Megan Abbott: I’ve always been a reluctant consumer in that regard. After you are made aware of how your waffles are received, how can one make waffles in a pure way again? Once we know what’s in them, everything changes, the waffles themselves change. You begin to think of them as a product. On the other hand, I count on these magazines to excite me about new waffles and occasionally even pancakes, so I rely on them, depend on them utterly. As one would on any cult.
Michael Schaub: I do what I do for the waffles, not the critics, and if they don’t get it, it’s their problem, not mine. I will say that the transition of waffle criticism from print to the Internet is not, in my opinion, a good thing. It’s become saturated with amateurs and bloggers, who think that just because they have an Internet connection and a (usually uneducated) point of view, their opinions are just as valid as the professionals. Those of us who have dedicated our careers to the art — yes, art — of waffles, even to the point of getting advanced degrees (in my case, Ph.D. in Breakfast Pastries, Dartmouth University, 2005), disagree.
J. Robert Lennon: I don’t read waffle criticism. I’m an eater, not a critic.
Sarah Weinman: Well, remember that the rise of breakfast also includes the meteoric commensurate rise of brunch, and lord knows that’s become quite the cult in rarified circles. But I’d like to see more breakfast criticism, not less! We need people to assert their opinions on the best of the best and pan the worst of the worst. Oh wait, I said “pan.” I think that’s a pun.
Laurel Snyder: I think it has value of a sort, because some interesting things have developed from the conversation, but yeah — it’s a closed loop. If you look at the comment threads, it’s easy to see people are just preaching to their own crowds, and occasionally seeking out a fight, to drive traffic, garner some attention.
Jesus Angel Garcia: Those who criticize breakfast wish they were eating breakfast all the time. Period. They’re fat and they’re hungry. You can’t fault them. We live in lean times. A time for foraging and hoarding. That said, it’s tough to take breakfast critics seriously, especially online where bagels with cream on their faces get more play than superdeluxe three — cheese omelettes with diced Kalamata olives, capers, cayenne pepper and cilantro. In print, this would never happen.
Marcy Dermansky: I fear that I am constantly criticized for my lack of waffle eating. I am ashamed to answer these questions. I fear the public outcry when my readership learns that I have never cooked my daughter a waffle. We recently ate freshly cooked waffles at a festival. They came with powdered sugar on top and were delicious.
Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: Thoughtful, constructive criticism should always be well received. If I’m chewing my waffles with my mouth open, by all means let me know. Unfortunately, democratization has, as always, been accompanied by mediocrity. With all the waffle products on the market now, it’s great that they can get individual attention from the smaller presses (no pun intended), but a green webzine writer who has spent one morning watching me eat is not going to provide the type of insights that one could get from the pages of Waffle Aficionado, which I, like many, was sad to see dissolve. I remember reading their review of Wells’ first Belgian waffle baker when I was in high school and being blown away. When was the last time a blog blew you away?
Adrienne Davich: Speaking from no experience, no. The move seems to have made breakfast less of an isolated cult. However, breakfast seems more fractured. I guess there’s more free breakfast too. I’m not sure how I feel about that as an eater.
Jacob Silverman: I do take such criticism to heart, and it may be my downfall as a breakfast eater. I find neither shame nor pride, only a weary sadness, in admitting that many are the days I have wasted rending my clothes and weeping over the vicious barbs of a breakfast blogger (pajama-wearing and basement-dwelling, no doubt!). Through these spells, I have torn apart many wardrobes, soaked all of my handkerchiefs to their very monograms, while Frederick, my Chantilly cat, eyes me, baffled. What can be wrong with him, he must be thinking. If only I had the meows to communicate my torment. Alas, it is bottomless.
Diana Abu-Jaber: Ho hum. Everyone who’s ever held a fork or photographed a plate of cheese grits now claims they’re a breakfast critic! I say, show me the bacon. Apple-smoked.
* * *
Have you found it possible to make a living by eating the types of waffles you want to, without other work? Do you think there is a place in our current economic system and climate for waffle eating as a profession?
Michael Schaub: Sadly, I’m unable to support myself solely by waffle eating. There was a time, of course, when one could do so — when the nation treasured its breakfast heritage more. Then came the Reagan administration, which abolished the Department of Breakfast and Brunch. (President Obama’s promise to reinstate the department has, sadly, proved to be a false one.) And without the DBB, the profession has faded into, in my case, a hobby. I’m not asking anyone to feel sorry for me. I’m asking them to feel sorry for America.
Andrew Shaffer: One could, theoretically, make a living eating waffles, but what kind of life would that be? Even if the waffles were given to you, it’s a terrifying prospect to even contemplate. While it’s true that you are unlikely to starve by eating waffles, man cannot live on waffles alone. You must also have butter. You must have Vermont maple syrup. You must have non-dairy whipped cream topping. You must have sliced strawberries. You must have crushed pecans. And, if you are doing it correctly, chocolate chips. For these reasons, it is simply not possible to comfortably eat waffles without a steady source of income in the current economic climate.
Laurel Snyder: It’s a hard question for me to answer. I’m hardly a committed full-time waffle person. My husband makes more than I do. I’m more of a hobbyist. I don’t take it as seriously as I should. This is a chicken-and-egg situation though. Am I not doing it full-time because my waffles are sub-par, or are my waffles sub-par because I’m not taking them seriously enough? Who can really say?
Jesus Angel Garcia: Are we being honest here? If so, let’s admit the obvious: Waffles aren’t real food. But that doesn’t mean anyone with a dream shouldn’t be given the same opportunities to succeed as defense contractors, investment bankers and drug dealers. That’s the United States of America I know and love.
Marcy Dermansky: It occurs to me now that perhaps the time has come for me to be a professional waffle maker. It is time for me to have a marketable skill. Thank you for the suggestion.
Megan Abbott: I’ve heard of some waffle eaters believing it can bring them millions, or that it can bring them the waffle-eating life they always dreamed of, as portrayed in popular television programs, where they will be portrayed by David Duchovny, or in motion pictures, such as those of Woody Allen, or fantasies that just, quite frankly, aren’t realistic, like appearing in a Vogue in sexy outdoors gear or having their image splayed across a massive billboard in Times Square. I’ve had dreams like that too. But it’s not the real world.
Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: Of course there will always be a few stars who are able to make a living off waffles. But the majority of us will increasingly have to extend our palates to other meals. There will be more chicken salad sandwich critics, more Salisbury steak critics. Many will even take jobs at IHOP or Denny’s. But some of our best critics were already working there anyway.
Adrienne Davich: I am glad you asked this question. But what about America’s waffle and pancake servers? The tipped minimum wage in many states has stagnated at $2.13 an hour. That means pancake and waffle servers across America are living below the poverty line, sometimes starving, while waffle eaters naval-gaze and intellectualize about breakfast values! At least waffle eaters eat. Have you been to IHOP lately? The people who cook, serve, and clean up your breakfast don’t have health care either.
Sarah Weinman: As I pointed out before, waffles are more for boom times. So when the economy rebounds, there will be much more waffle-eating among the proletariat. Needless to say I’ve supplemented my waffle-eating with a ton of frittatas, parfaits and other petit dejeuner foods to get by. A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do, right?
Jacob Silverman: No. The waffle eating economy has been torn asunder, and I assign equal blame to IHOP and the Huffington Post. As to how I sustain my lifestyle, that is between me and my court-appointed attorney.
Diana Abu-Jaber: You really have to hustle if you want to make it in the breakfast rat race. I, for one, have had to subsidize my waffle arts by offering hot iron workshops — mainly online, of course.
J. Robert Lennon: Well, I used to be able to make a living with the waffles, but at some point in the mid-2000’s I realized I would have to go on the job market, and now I’m the Director of Waffle Studies at Cornmeal University.
* * *
Do you find in retrospect, that your waffle eating reveals any allegiance to any group, class, organization, region, religion, or system of thought, or do you conceive of it as mainly the expression of yourself as an individual?
Diana Abu-Jaber: I discussed waffle allegiances at length with Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Mother Theresa. The jury is still out.
Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: I like to think that my breakfast menu is relatively eclectic, but if I’m being honest, when it’s 8 a.m. and I’m sitting at the kitchen table in my pajamas with a long day ahead of me, I’m a committed continentalist. After all, waffles, with their trademark grids, are the breakfast food most directly influenced by Descartes. Give me something sweet, something with meat, some coffee, and some juice. (Perhaps I inherited this from my grandmother, who was born in Belgium. She’s American now—also dead). We critics like to split hairs over how many pancakes make a short stack, what diameter makes a silver dollar, but at the end of the day—or the beginning, I should say (an old joke, I know)—we have more in common than not. Breakfast satisfies basic human needs—hunger, nourishment, community—and when all is said and done, what is a crêpe, really, but a thin pancake? And what is a pancake but a Euclidean waffle?
Sarah Weinman: 100 percent individual preference, though now I am might curious about the correlation between waffle-eating and Objectivism. Perhaps a study can be commissioned on this post-haste?
Laurel Snyder: Can I say both? I’m generally a fence sitter. I think of my waffle-life as deeply personal, an extension of my daily life, but how can I separate that from my life as a Jew? Am woman? A mother, above all else? And those things certainly define my politics…
Jesus Angel Garcia: You’re forcing my hand, Mr. Champion. I can’t honestly answer this question. I don’t belong in this conversation. I’m a charlatan, a fraud, but I am flattered that you think of me as a waffle eater. Truth to tell, for breakfast I only eat French toast (and granola).
Marcy Dermansky: It seems like I march alone, eating waffles only when they are available at street festivals in Germany. Truth to be told, I rarely eat waffles or pancakes. Recently, my friend Tami made me pancakes for breakfast and they were so good. Usually, when I go to brunch, I order an omelet.
Megan Abbott: I think if all of us looked inside, we’d see surprising attributes about ourselves that can explain the lure of waffle eating, or particular kinds of waffles. A kind of longing for an imagined idea about American breakfasting we’d like to be a part of. An American breakfast that perhaps never really existed. But it’s very personal, very private—and yet we like to attach larger ideological resonance to it. Maybe because it makes us feel part of something now. Are we the relics of lost civilizations? Are we the last vanguard against The End? Or are we the new revolutionaries, erecting a new challenge to society? All three of those options may all feel infinitely sexier than admitting we just like waffles. They make us feel good. They are delicious.
J. Robert Lennon: I think my waffle making and eating has really strengthened my connection to the Inuit people, and to white Southerners.
Michael Schaub: Of course I try to keep an open mind, and be objective as possible, with regard to my waffle eating. But my heritage necessarily influences my breakfast habits, and I see no point in trying to change that. I’m Southern, so I often put pecans on my waffles. I was raised Catholic, so I usually accompany my waffles with whiskey. I grew up in the suburbs, so quite often I find myself using Aunt Jemima “syrup” instead of the real, hardcore Vermont stuff. And I’m a male in my thirties, so I almost always eat waffles while viewing pornography.
Adrienne Davich: I think waffle eating without any allegiance whatsoever is impossible. Marguerite Duras said, “Every waffle eater is a moralist. It’s absolutely unavoidable. A waffle eater is someone who looks at the world and the way it works, someone who takes a close look at things every day and reports what she sees, someone who represents the world, the event, for others.”
Jacob Silverman: My waffle eating belongs to me and me alone. And any agribusiness conglomerate that wishes to sponsor me.
* * *
How would you describe the political tendency of American waffle eating, as a whole, since 2001? How do you feel about it yourself?
J. Robert Lennon: Politics come and go, waffles are forever.
Michael Schaub: There’s no doubt that 9/11 changed everything. My point of view is that of, I believe, most Americans: if we give up on waffles, if we toss our waffle irons in a box and leave it outside a Goodwill store, if we — God forbid — start eating pancakes, then the terrorists have won. The French toast lobby would like us, of course, to adopt a policy of appeasement. As a real American, I would not.
Diana Abu-Jaber: Now that we’ve got the plodding old biscuit-gummers and egg-boilers out, I’m hopeful that a bold, new, imaginative approach to buttering and syruping may once more hold sway over our fair nation.
Sarah Weinman: If waffles are for the 1 percent, as I theorized already, then it’s all about the plutocracy, baby. And money trumps politics.
Laurel Snyder: I don’t think people even notice the waffles in their lives very much. But when they no longer have waffles, they’ll notice. The waffles will become more and more rarified, more underground. One day people will wake up and say, “Where have all the waffles gone?” But by then it’ll be too late.
Jesus Angel Garcia: Since 2001? It’s not French toast!
Marcy Dermansky: Waffle eating is a subversive act. For years when I lived in the South, I went to Waffle House, usually not for breakfast, often in the middle of the night. I rarely ate a waffle or saw others eating waffles. I would order the hash browns, smothered and covered. I don’t think that has changed. In the war against terror, it is best not to eat tagines, delicious as they are.
Megan Abbott: Honestly, I’m surprised to be asked. These questions are rarely posed to those of us who have been placed firmly in the toaster oven category of waffle eating. I’m not sure why that is, precisely, but I try not to think about any of these things when I eat. Maybe those placed in the “artisan” or “slow waffles” categories do. Or maybe it’s just a quality that emerges in the eating, or doesn’t, without a plan or intention. Maybe at its best it is truly organic. Even for us Eggos.
Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: The passionate responses to Michelle Obama’s efforts to restructure the food pyramid, as well as her stance against cereal mascots, are, I think, emblematic of the situation in American breakfast. Yes, many of us take breakfast for granted, but it takes only the slightest change to remind us how much is at stake. Personally, I’m of the mind that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and if it’s that important, then it should probably be the best meal of the day as well. And, for me, the best is always homemade. Just ask my mom.
Jacob Silverman: To paraphrase Gore Vidal, it’s quite clear that the Bush junta sapped the political life from waffle eating. Its condition is much like blintzes after the Harding administration, and I fear that it faces a similar path towards irrelevance.
* * *
Over the past ten years, America has been in a state of constant war with its breakfast. This war has extended to fronts throughout the world. Have you considered the question of your opinion on an unending war on breakfast? What do you think the responsibilities of waffle eaters are in general are, in the midst of unending war?
Marcy Dermansky: I think waffle eaters have to realize that they have lost the war. Waffles take too long to make and waffle irons are too expensive for the working class. I would like to start a movement to increase the consumption of New York bagels around the world.
J. Robert Lennon: Look, man, my responsibility is to three things: the waffle, the butter, and the syrup. People who want to repurpose breakfast for their petty political aims should just sleep in and dump their burdens on cheese sandwiches and reheated coffee.
Sarah Weinman; I haven’t considered that question, to be frank. But if I did consider it I’d implore regular waffle eaters to be kinder and gentler to their pancake-eating brethren. The conflict may continue but there’s no need for bloodshed. Not even bloody steaks to go along with the eggs alongside the pancakes and/or waffles!
Laurel Snyder: Just to remember, to value, to continue to engage, to continue to both produce and consume. I want to be part of the dialogue, whatever it is. I’ve promised myself I’m going to try harder this year, do more. But then — I think I said that last year. I don’t know. I just don’t know.
Jesus Angel Garcia: As I understand it, America has been at war for 99 out of the last 100 years. This war on breakfast is nothing new to anyone with a basic grasp of history. Now that Obama and the Congress have passed the NDAA, which legalizes indefinite detention for American citizens on American soil for “breakfast transgression,” the definition of which is subject to the whimsical palate of any administration that happens to occupy the White House, no one is safe. The bottom line? If you want to eat — waffles, pancakes, even oatmeal for God’s sake! — if you want your children to be able to choose their own breakfast foods, you need to take a stand now before it’s too late.
Megan Abbott: Well, in the end, the world spins on, but what we need to remember is that we each have a personal relationship with breakfast, one that is primitive and essential. That goes back to our first moments in the world, as babies, as children. We need breakfast because it’s how we’ve always understood the world. Because it reminds us we are not alone because we all need it. And that’s true whether we like our breakfast in pancake form, or waffles, toaster or otherwise. Or any form at all. We need it. It feeds us. Call me old-fashioned, call me a throwback, call me a hopelessly romantic but I really do believe it is the most important meal of the day.
Michael Schaub: “Keep Calm and Carry On” has become a cliche ever since the British poster was made popular again earlier this century. Nevertheless, the sentiment is no less true. We have been through other wars on breakfast. We have sent our troops thousands of miles away, to Antwerp and Brussels, when the Belgian waffle was threatened by the German strudel and the Italian frittata. We have won these wars, and we have become better and stronger because of it. Our responsibility as waffle eaters? Keep the faith. Whether you top your waffles with fried chicken, whipped cream, syrup, butter, whatever — we are all in this together. And it is only through togetherness we can win. In the words of the great American statesman Benjamin Franklin, “This waffle is delicious! Now to find a buxom French whore.” And that’s as true today as it was then.
Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: Breakfast is over when the plate is clean and not a second before. Every crumb of waffle, every drop of syrup. The effects of an incomplete breakfast may not be immediately apparent, but eventually, some time before lunch, that hunger pang is going to strike, and it is going to strike with a vengeance. To ensure the productivity of our work (no trips to the vending machines) and the satisfaction of our lives, it is the responsibility of every man, regardless of what he eats, to clear his plate.
Adrienne Davich: I think waffle eaters have a responsibility to the truth.
Jacob Silverman: As is the American tendency, the war on breakfast is unlikely to end; it will only assume new forms. We can only bide our time, raise our meek, syrup-slathered fists in protest, and wait for a Predator drone to pick us off as we cram our faces with so many doughy cakes.
In this one hour radio interview, Australian novelist Elliot Perlman discusses The Street Sweeper, holocaust fatigue, memory as a willful dog, confronting emotional reality, and risking emotional sincerity in fiction to share the world.
Subjects Discussed: Perlman living across the street from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, whether an author has to reside in a place to write about it, why some Australians consider the US and the UK to be part of the same neighborhood, how to make New York your friend, smoking outside of a hospital, the Mayor of East 77th and York, the improbable idea of characters in their thirties listening to Jonathan Schwartz, Kafka’s Statue of Liberty sword, rental rates and gentrification, writing an “anything you want” book that takes on such a wide social canvas, knowing the endings of Seven Types of Ambiguity and The Street Sweeper, how research enriches the writing process, whether a novelist can entirely avoid coincidences and convenient run-ins, being “a child of the 19th century,” It’s a Wonderful Life, cutting art from the past some appreciative slack, cynicism vs. efforts by fiction to feel and grapple with the world, sincerity and postmodernism, writing something you believe in, fiction interpreted as too didactic, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, how certain types of postmodernism masks sloppy thinking, conducting vigorous research and gravitating to the visceral, novelists as professional liars, the obligation to get serious historical details right, finding comfort in Auschwitz by going there six times, the ground beneath one’s feet as a starting point, “memory as a willful dog,” Daniel Schachter’s The Seven Sins of Memory, positive people who don’t learn from the past, avoiding Holocaust book fatigue, Godwin’s law, people who think they know about the Holocaust but really don’t, the Musselmann state, Auschwitz being half the size of Manhattan, Ricky Gervais sending up the Holocaust, Perlman’s family background, moral efforts to rid ourselves of superstitions, the American civil rights movement, the fictitious Henry Border vs. the real David Boder, the adjective-verb ratio, being inspired an episode of This American Life, whether it’s fair to speculate on what real historical figures are thinking, how to respect historical figures in fiction, interviewing Illinois psychiatrists and Boder’s students, the Voices of the Holocaust project, characters who steal objects as a narrative bookend, failed teachers who perform irrational acts in Perlman’s fiction, the inevitability of parallel characters, how to live without hurting people, hurting other characters as an effective dramatic device, Ern Malley’s idea: “the emotions are not skilled workers,” heightened anxiety, Morningside Heights, inventing a fictive construct instead of confronting an emotional reality, real and fictional voices serving as narrative counterpoints, obsessing with the jet black hair aesthetic of a student, and not being able to tell everybody’s story.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Let’s talk about this research and the social canvas here. I mean, this book, it deal with the Holocaust. You have mid-20th century developments in American labor. You have a man who just got out of jail. You have the nature of history. You have the Great Migration. You have the academic world. You have the adjective-verb quotient ratio and wire recording involving Dr. Border — and I’ll get into that more in a bit. So it’s almost a kitchen sink book or perhaps, if you want to pay homage to [The Street Sweeper Chicago laborer] James Pearson, an “anything you want” book. I know that many of these elements came to you by serendipity. But I’m wondering how much you need to have these thematic connections worked out in advance. I mean, can you really deal with a novel when you have a scale that is this large — both with The Street Sweeper and Seven Types of Ambiguity? Were there any things that you threw out along the way?
Perlman: Oh yeah. Definitely. I know you hear a lot of writers say that they invent characters and characters grab them by the ear and take them along to the conclusion of the book. And I think that’s often true. But I think sometimes it’s not true. They say it. And perhaps it sounds romantic or in some way interesting. I’m not like that. I’m anxious and anal retentive — particularly with the last two books, The Street Sweeper and Seven Types of Ambiguity. I needed to know the books were going to end before I got too far into them. And pretty much at the beginning, I think even with Seven Types, I did. And I’m probably that way with pretty much everything I write, except maybe some short stories. The danger is that you spend years of your life writing these things and the end doesn’t satisfy you. And that would be a tragedy for me. And I’m not suggesting that the endings of those two books will satisfy everybody. But they need to satisfy me before I’m willing to commit. You know, what it’s really been — Seven Types of Ambiguity took almost four years to write. And The Street Sweeper took about five and a half years. So you want to be satisfied — at least I think — that it’s a story worth telling. So I do plan it out quite meticulously. And, of course, what happens is that it gets enriched by your research along the way. And there are certain things that don’t help you. So you’re disinclined to use them. But if there are certain things that do help you, well then obviously you grab it. And it might look like you’ve been building to that along the way. But it’s a combination of having the architecture or the spine of the thing worked out with certain key points that you’ve already researched. But then there are certain little things that you find serendipitously that can be incredibly helpful. And they go in. And it might look like you knew that all along when in fact you didn’t come to that a bit later.
Correspondent: Well, speaking of serendipity, I was curious about this. I mean, can you entirely avoid coincidences or convenient run-ins or contrivances with your method? Aren’t there certain strands where the bandage is not exactly neatly applied to the wound? How does this work?
Perlman: Well, you know, some people have said that I’ve used coincidence. I can’t even remember which book it was. And maybe it’s more than one book. I guess I try not to overdo it. But I have a little fondness for it. And maybe it’s because in certain senses I’m a child of the 19th century in terms of the stuff that was important to me as a young man growing up. And I try not to use it as much as it’s been used by some of my heroes. Because I don’t think in the 21st century a writer can probably get away with it in the same way as a filmmaker can probably couldn’t make something as beautifully sweet as It’s a Wonderful Life. As much as we all might love that movie, if somebody literally tries to make that now, it would probably not be revered anywhere near as much. Because society’s so different from the society that came to in which It’s a Wonderful Life was made.
Correspondent: How so? Is it because of sincerity?
Perlman: With It’s a Wonderful Life now, we’re cutting it some slack because of the time it was made. So we might cut, and I hope we do, so many of the 19th century greats some slack for coincidences that I might not be cut now. But having said that, I do use it a little bit. But whether I overuse it or not is probably for some readers to decide. I hope I don’t. I try not to.
Correspondent: You know, that’s a very crafty way of suggesting that contemporary fiction is perhaps not giving enough slack for depicting certain realities. Is that what you’re suggesting, Mr. Perlman?
Perlman: (laughs) I’m probably not being crafty. I’m probably being sleep-deprived and not expressing myself so eloquently. Look, I don’t know. I had the feeling — in the 90s at least — that we had become almost too cynical. A little too clever in the sense of: It’s all very well to delineate, even meticulously, what it is that you’re mulling over. What it is that you’re disenchanted by. But sooner or later, shouldn’t art remind us what we should really aspire to? And the danger with doing that is that you’re wearing your heart on your sleeve and you’re making yourself an easy target and super-hip, ultra literary people, they can be more interested and get more pleasure out of deriding the status quo and perhaps dreaming or aspiring to something better. And I’ll take the risk — whether it’s successful or not, I don’t know. Certainly in the three novels that I’ve written so far, and even some of the short stories, I’m trying to offer some hope. And I do that because that’s what I would like. I think that’s something that can be very helpful in art.
Correspondent: You know, Elliot, another way of phrasing this might just be this: I’m curious if, from the vantage point of Australia, you as a novelist were under siege with this wave that was against sincerity in fiction and against postmodernism in fiction. And that essentially the last two novels are partially a response to that. I mention this because I note that sometimes in your fiction, you’re very fond of saying “you” in a way that is rather curious. It’s not quite second person and it’s not quite omniscient. It’s somewhere in between. And I’m fascinated by that. There are also often these strange moemnts in your novels where you almost command the reader. And I can get into that. One thing I think of is: “Pay attention the small details. It is the mark of a professional.” That whole business with Adam Zignelik. And I’m curious if this has plagued you in any way or how this not quite omniscient but leaving room for taking room for perspective approach developed.
Perlman: Well, you know, that particular example that you brought up, Edward, is actually — well, I guess it’s a device really. It’s Adam, who’s a historian at Columbia. An insecure untenured historian who is certain that his time at Columbia is just about up and he hasn’t written anything new in five years. And he is delivering a lecture to his undergraduate students. So when he says things like “Pay attention,” it’s the character talking to his students. You might also say, “Well, that’s the author talking to his readers.” It doesn’t need to be taken that way but, look, I suppose I can’t hide the fact that I feel certain things quite strongly. And it’s very difficult writing anything. You may as well write something you believe in and that matters to you, and clearly I guess I put my heart on my sleeve with my political views with all of the books. And in doing that, sometimes perhaps I can be overly prescriptive. I don’t think it would have bothered me as a reader. And that’s why I put it in there. I suppose if someone has particular views that are really antithetical to mine, diametrically opposed, then they’re going to be annoyed by what might appear finger waving. But at the very least, I did in the context of a character talking to other characters. Look at me. I’m trying to troll through my memory of all the negative things that have been said about me in an attempt to bend over backwards to help you. Isn’t that pathetic? It has been said that I can be didactic at times. Again, it’s a question of degree. And obviously, you and I defend that movement and it’s sent to editors. I think it’s not totally didactic. To some people, it will be, I guess.
Correspondent: Well, let me clarify. I think that the “What is history?” chapter is one of the most interesting points in the book. I mean, you have this situation where Adam is describing the personal tidbits of Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer befriending this black man over the Union Theological Seminary, and things like that. So in that moment, you do in fact write not in Adam’s words but those of the narrator, “Pay attention to the small details.” But I thought that it wasn’t necessarily a command. It was more of a cue to the readers. But it also made me think, “Well, hmmm, I wonder if he’s up to some larger game to encourage readers to look almost beyond the book.” To look at the sources you have in the back. Or whether this was some modest gesture to postmodernism where you basically just thought that the whole thing was kind of a wild game. Or it was possibly a genuine interest on your part over whether history could in fact predict the future. But it sounds to me that what you’re saying is that that was driven from a pure moment of emotional sincerity and that’s pretty much how you operate. And this may explain some of the things I’m observing from your book. These very visceral heightened moments couched in really unusual philosophical terms?
Perlman: Well, gee, I dig your questions. I didn’t mean to say that. Because you already decided to interview me. But you really do. And I hope that in my sleep-deprived state I’m able to do justice to them. I guess what I’m trying to do, I think, is marry a certain passion that makes you want to write in the first place. Because it is in some respects an irrational activity. I mean, you’re alone. You’re frequently not particularly physically comfortable. And you’re never going to be adequately financially rewarded for all the hours it takes you to produce the thing. So in a sense, it’s for the most part an antisocial thing to do. So it’s an irrational activity. So why are you doing it? You’re doing it because something in you, you’d feel worse if you didn’t do it. It’s a kind of a passion. And you really want to grab the reader and hold him or her and say, “Look at this. Look at this story. Look at the world.” At least as I see it. And yet you go and impose some kind of order on it. And that’s where the other side of me — I suppose the anal retentive side. The side that became a lawyer or maybe it was fostered and assisted and nurtured by being a lawyer. Anyway, leaving aside any attempts to psychoanalyze myself on a long distance call, it is a marriage of the two — the passion and the intent to impose some order over it. And in a sense, the structure of the book is where I’m definitely using more intellect than emotion. But then within the pockets, there is an attempt to really say to the reader, “Yeah. Look at this. I’m thinking about it. Would you like to think about it too? And I’ll try to express it as eloquently as I can to get you to see at least common things from the perspective I have.” When it’s a character who shares what could essentially be described as a series of views which constitutes my worldview, but often — particularly in Seven Types — I might not be writing about characters who definitely don’t share my views. But even then you try and give as much as you can, imbuing it with every bit of humanity you can garner to make the suggestion that often means that there is more that we have in common which separates us. And if we could just put aside so much of our preconceptions, we might get on a little better. But that runs the risk of making it sound like literature is a tool to social cohesion only. And it isn’t. It does many things. And that’s only one of the things it can do.
“I won’t ruin it for you,” emailed my fellow Modern Library reader Steve, “but so far, that’s the 2nd worst book I’ve read for this project.” And while I was corralling my thoughts and feelings after finishing the latest tome for a project which I now realize (nearly one year after the gauntlet cleaved my happy little picnic table) will take me five to six years, I noticed that Devon S., another trusted Modern Library adventurer, served up only a soupçon more hope: “I don’t know how to judge my indifference to this book. Sometimes books are like calf leather gloves in August: sumptuous wonders of of craftsmanship and texture that we’d appreciate if only we weren’t too tired, too harried, too dull, too careless, too immature, too hot, at that moment.” Maybe so. But when the Brooklyn nights outside are 13 degrees and you’re still wondering why two stuffy high society types (one reappears very sparingly throughout the rest of the book) have chosen the “bronze cold of January” with its shivering swans, of all places, to dish dirt during the oddly loquacious opening of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, calf leather gloves in August feel as distant as last year’s milk. What the good Lydia Kiesling will have to say about Bowen is anyone’s guess.
Death is a novel quite at odds with a reader’s expectations, which is very much to its credit. Here is a book so blithe about its splenetic revelations that a cigarette lighter illuminates a telltale betrayal in the dark of a movie theater, the moment as casual as a chicken’s throat getting sliced on an abattoir assembly line. Yet even with the flashy reveal of a 20th century habit’s fire, Bowen is fixated on the “taut blond silk” of a character’s calf and fingers keeping up “a kneading movement.” If you’re thinking Bowen’s characters come off as positional objects more clay than flesh, then you’re catching on quick. At times, Death reads as if Bowen blossomed her bulb when describing a dining room’s “sideboards like catafalques” or characters who sit “with pencil poised, preparing to make disdainful marks” rather than with internal emotion. Yet even with Death‘s weird fixations on crudely general and somewhat ridiculous maxims (“There are moments when it becomes frightening to realize that you are not, in fact, alone in the world — or at least, alone in the world with one other person”) and carefree racism (“Matchett, who was as strong as a nigger”), I’d be hard-pressed to deny Bowen’s voice. In chronicling the numerous cruelties heaped upon the sixteen-year-old orphan Portia by servants and gentry alike, Bowen commits herself to an unremitting ugliness in a way rarely seen these days outside of a private party hosted by Roger Ailes.
Last year, The Rumpus‘s Charlotte Freeman described how she admired the way in which Bowen refused to save any of her characters. She asked, “Could one publish such a book now? A book in which no one is healed, in which everyone is, in fact, injured by contact with another?” Perhaps the real question to ask is this: Can a sanguine type of any stripe read such a book now? Joanthan Yardley suggested, in his fulsome praise for Death, that “[a] certain measure of experience, of exposure to life’s cruelties and compromises, is necessary for a full grasp of it.” Spoken like an unadventurous pessimist. Yet I didn’t detest the book like Steve, nor did I feel Devon’s indifference. I think there’s some credence to the idea that time and reference was Bowen’s real game with Death. Maybe Death, like many interesting books, is a Rorschach test. And if that is the case, the place to start surely is the reader’s temperament.
I’m not the type who flits through life without kenning that humans can be cruel (and I have had more than my share of this), but my approach is to be cheerful, protectively acerbic if need be. I’d rather believe that everyone — even the scabrous souls who make existence miserable, often without knowing it — has the power to be kind and decent. My earnestness may seem out of place in New York, but this is a city with a population who performs many quiet favors to strangers. And I’ve lived close to four decades with the good apples far outshining those rotten to the core. As Tracy says at the end of Manhattan, “Not everybody gets corrupted. You have to have a little faith in people.” Sensible advice. My disappointment rumbles when people choose to be mean and avaricious and subpar, especially when they do so without any corresponding set of virtues or they are driven by callow opportunism or stomp on other people on the way up or deliberately set out to destroy something dear to a decent person who isn’t doing any harm. Which is not to suggest that I haven’t sinned or that my own sense of what’s right may be another person’s wrong. (And any opportunistic pixie who props herself up as “fair and empathetic” without copping to the possibility that she may be more than a bit hypocritical in blind spots is not to be trusted. Idealogues come in several forms.) I’m not against healthy skepticism or getting revenge (although it’s better to stick with good deeds, when possible), but the idea of swallowing the bitter pill before seeking any delight, or assuming that people are driven first and foremost by malice, strikes me as a needlessly melancholy way to live.
And yet, on the page and from Bowen’s pen, these selfsame qualities are strangely alluring! So if you have a particular type of titivating heart, you may be confused by Elizabeth Bowen. I may protest Bowen’s worldview (and, after listening to this sour lecture broadcast in 1956*, I don’t think I’d want to know her), but I’m fascinated by how she could think this way. Sixteen-year-old Portia has no parents. The only family members she has to turn to are Thomas Quayne, her half-brother some two decades older, and his wife Anna, who is clinging to lingering youth in crueler, pre-Botox days. (She’s so inveterate that she finds Portia’s diary and reads it. One of Death‘s more brutal subtleties is that nearly all of Portia’s private thoughts are read by other characters. Is this Bowen’s way of scolding the reader?) Thomas and Anna send Portia away to a small town — allegedly “by the sea,” but of course not at all — so that they can have their vacation. Even if one accounts for the fact that Thomas works in advertising and has this tendency to stare at nothing “with a concentration of boredom and lassitude,” one ponders why wanton neglect would be the natural state. Yet as Bowen pushes Portia into a bigger mess — with various letters and diary entries spelling further hints of Portia’s despair; no accident that I thought of Jack Womack’s excellent and needlessly neglected novel, Random Acts of Senseless Violence, while reading these parts (Womack was kind enough to respond to my connective enthusiasm on Twitter) — it’s almost as if Bowen’s pushing the limits of how vicious she can be (which is, as it turns out, sometimes more sadistic than Evelyn Waugh). I haven’t even mentioned the disgracefully rakish 23-year-old Eddie, who not only leads Portia into sham chivalric romance, but doesn’t even know how to smooth things over, much less apologize, when he bungles things up. One of the novel’s high points is Eddie hitting the resort town where Portia is staying and causing a cringe comedy disaster that I cannot in good conscience spoil.
There’s some truth to the notion that Elizabeth Bowen may very well be the missing link between Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness and Iris Murdoch’s masterful fusing of behavioral study and philosophy. Yet as I’ve intimated above, Bowen can be curiously dictatorial and objectifying with her interior monologues:
She was disturbed, and at the same time exhilarated, like a young tree tugged all ways in a vortex of wind. The force of Eddie’s behaviour whirled her free in a hundred puzzling humiliations, of her hundred failures to take the ordinary cue. She could meet the demands he made with the natural genius of the friend and lover. The impetus under which he seemed to move made life fall, round him and her, into a new poetic order at once. Any kind of policy in the region of feeling would have been fatal in any lover of his — you had to yield to the wind. Portia’s unpreparedness, her lack of policy — which had made Windsor Terrace, for her, the court of an incomprehensible law — with Eddie stood her in good stead. She had no point to stick to, nothing to unlearn. She had been born docile. The momentarily anxious glances she cast him had only zeal behind them, no crucial personality.
A “young tree tugged all ways in a vortex of wind” sounds like an engineer maneuvering object-oriented data into a massively multiplayer video game universe. And it’s interesting how Bowen shifts from a simile into an entirely different metaphor (“whirled her free in a hundred puzzling humiliations”) before riding with geographic imagery (“the region of feeling,” “No point to stick to”) and concluding this section with highly general and irreversible conditions (“nothing to unlearn,” “born docile,” “only zeal behind them,” “no crucial personality”). While this language certainly mimics a teenage girl’s confused feelings very well, this deliberately incoherent poetic effect (the “new poetic order,” if you will) pushed me away from Portia as I wanted to relate to her. I could admire the language from an external vantage point, but I kept wondering what might have happened if Bowen had dared to give us more of Portia’s heart. Was I meant to read this book much as the young students in the photo above gaze at Bowen? Let me finish my Gauloise, my young pretties, or I shall send you to Samoa to be cooked in a white wine sauce by the cannibals! Fair for the reader or not, nevertheless, I was engaged enough with this novel to want to read more Bowen (still, given the choice, I would rather read more Iris Murdoch). I don’t think I would call The Death of the Heart a masterpiece, but it was good to find a book with a new hook to take me both outside and inside my zone. I never thought the Modern Library would have me affirming certain pockets of sanguinity.
* — Despite Bowen’s grating voice, which is so off-putting that I was compelled to open a window and happily stick my head into the frigid winter air about five minutes in before returning to the last six minutes, the lecture is still quite interesting in what it reveals about Bowen’s methods. She refers to self-conscious expression offered in lieu of description as “character analysis” and has this to say: “Two things may be remarked about the stream of consciousness as a showing of character. It does take time and it deals almost always with prosaic experience. Scenes are reacted to in a highly individual way. I don’t know whether we should ever have, for instance, a stream of consciousness novel about somebody scaling Everest. Because the scaling of Everest is quite exciting enough in itself. In the ordinary stream of consciousness, the excitement, the sense of crisis, resides in the personality. And all the other characters in the novel are likely to be very slightly out of focus.” These sentiments make me want to reach for John D’Agata, Nicholson Baker, Daniel Clowes, or Yannick Murphy and howl to the heavens. Why wouldn’t a mountain climber’s interior monologue be as exciting as the action? And yet I can’t help but marvel over Bowen championing the stylistic dialogue of Henry Green and Ivy Compton-Burnett, whereby there is often no distinction between characters, as a quality which might be altering the form of the novel itself!
Bat Segundo returns with a big bang in this jam-packed one hour conversation with Pity the Billionaire author Thomas Frank. With talking points ripped from headlines just in the past few days, the conversation gets into populist politics being co-opted, the tendency of politicians to reinvent history, a neighborhood where half the population has PhDs, NASCAR, Ayn Rand, and Frank’s collection of proletarian fiction.
Subjects Discussed: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s notion of “compromise,” the Republican failure to acknowledge Reagan’s complete history, Reagan’s Continental Illinois bailout, efforts to “erase” liberalism from Washington, Barack Obama’s failings, Congressional disapproval by the American people (as reflected by recent polls), how George W. Bush became a toxic Republican figure, the Tea Party movement, the Great Recession, how the Right co-opted populism after 2008, the 2010 extension of the Bush tax cuts and Bernie Sanders’s filibuster, Obama signing the NDAA “with serious reservations,” the Democratic Party less about the working man and more about expertise and technocrats, Obama’s TARP bailouts vs. Roosevelt’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation bailouts, government agencies that become instruments of Wall Street, “purified” capitalism, firing bank managers, conservatives mimicking progressive ideologies of the past and protest movements of the 1930s, co-opting outrage, Orson Welles’s influence on Glenn Beck, The War of the Worlds, being subscribed to Beck’s email newsletter, Jack Abramoff, Grover Norquist, the Republican base being united over the past few decades by “quasi-military victory” and lack of civility, Howard Phillips and “organized discontent,” why the Democrats are allergic to discontent and anger, Roosevelt’s tendency to stump and explain legislation vs. Obama’s failure to do so, the Democratic tendency to use experts as a selling point, Jon Stewart and the New Political Privilege, the Rally to Restore Sanity, Occupy Wall Street, blue-collar invisibility in DC, living in a neighborhood in which 50% of the population have PhDs, NASCAR, idiosyncratic hangover cures, diffidence and resistance against righteous indignation in the last few years, the hard times swindle, Scott Walker and attacks on the Wisconsin labor movement, attempts to investigate why liberalism can’t stick in recent years given The Wrecking Crew‘s suggestion that people inherently expect a liberal state, the myth of small business job creation (specific data breakdown on new jobs creation from 1992-2008 from Scott Shane discussed by Correspondent and Frank), George Lucas calling himself an “independent filmmaker,” C. Wright Mills’s White Collar, small business serving as a propaganda front for big business, America’s reticence in discussing how we are all corporate slaves in some sense, Tea Party memorabilia, Glenn Beck’s CAPITALISM painting, Rep. Nan Hayworth’s dodging questions about Verizon with empty utopian bluster, whether it’s possible to take back the term “small business,” the Black Panther Party, ways to organize political movements, whether it’s possible to build a dedicated base to combat a corrupt two-party system, legal blockades to third party movements, protesting out of resentment and self-pity, self-pity and the resurgent Right, whether the Tea Party is protesting with a shared sense of humiliation, populist politics as a gateway drug, searching for good things to say about the Tea Party, liberalism and populist movements, Atlas Shrugged, Walter Issacson’s Steve Jobs biography, Jobs being selfish with his money, why selfishness is a uniquely American draw, retreating into laissez-faire purity, Ayn Rand’s prose style, capital strikes as fantasy, leftist versions of Atlas Shrugged, John Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Frank’s collection of proletarian fiction, Upton Sinclair, the cold sex and descriptions of steel and machinery in Atlas Shrugged, the connections between recent political movements and mythology, German sociologists from the 1930s, the social construction of reality, Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia, how the Left might find political possibilities in passion, pragmatism, and anger, the neutered Left falling prey to forms of mythology that are just as nefarious as present myths on the Right, organized labor, Steven Greenhouse’s The Big Squeeze, how politics tends to inspire perverse behavior, and train wrecks.
Correspondent: Well, it was interesting. Because it reminded me very much of your book. I’m about to talk with you and this happens. So [Cantor] appears. And it’s this fairly amicable, typical segment. And then Lesley Stahl basically says, “Will you compromise in any way?” And he dodged the issue of being able to compromise on anything. And then Lesley, of course, brings up the Reagan tax increase.
Frank: The 1986?*
Correspondent: Yes. And he denies that Reagan ever did that. And then, to add an additional monkey wrench into this, there’s an off-camera press secretary who says that’s a lie. And then, of course, they play the clip.
Correspondent: Yes! And they play a clip of Reagan using “compromise” as a verb** when he’s talking about this tax increase. So this seems a very appropriate beginning to some of the issues in your book.
Frank: That’s amazing. That’s exactly what I’m writing about. These people who are essentially blinded by ideology. But when I say it that way, it sounds like some kind of slang term. Or something like that. But I mean it in a very serious way. That these are people who have bought an entire utopian way of seeing the world and are able to close their eyes to things that are obvious. And what you just said about Reagan, that would be a juicy detail that I would have loved to have had for the book. But there are so many other examples — essentially, they deny. Look, I went to a graduate school and studied history. One of the baseline things that historians agree on is that for the last thirty or forty years, we’ve been in a conservative era. That people around the world — governments, politicians, elites around the world — have discovered the power of markets and have moved in this direction towards markets that are deregulated, have privatized, have done all these things. This is common knowledge. A conservative movement today — you talk to a guy like Eric Cantor? No, that’s never happened. We’re still living under socialism. And we have been since Woodrow Wilson. Or something like this.
Correspondent: But why is it that Cantor and the Freshman Republicans want to just keep their blinders on about history? About their man Reagan? Is there a specific…
Frank: They have to have a hero and they’ve thrown George W. Bush under the bus. Because of the bailouts. But at the end of the day, look, it’s opportunism. Reagan is very popular. Bush is not popular. Nixon is not popular. So they have to have a hero. And it has to be someone who is beloved. Ipso facto, it has to be Reagan. But they have to deny all sorts of thing about Reagan. For example, Reagan bailed out Continential Illinois Bank — at the time, the biggest bank failure in U.S. history. Reagan, as you’ve just mentioned, raised taxes. Reagan sold weapons to Iran. You remember that one? Iran-Contra. I mean, there are all sorts of other crazy things that Reagan did that don’t look so good. I mean, Reagan really liked Franklin Roosevelt. Reagan was a more complicated person. But none of that is admissible. If you’re going to follow this ideology and this utopian vision that they have of what I call “market populism” — if you’re going to follow that all the way — and, of course, part of the idea of this is that you’re going to have to follow it all the way — and we’ll get into that a minute — you basically have to whitewash history. I mean, it’s almost Soviet, what you’re describing.
Correspondent: The phrase you use in The Wrecking Crew. “The Washington conservatives aim to make liberalism not by debating, but by erasing it.” And I’m wondering if there’s any past political precedent that would suggest they could entirely efface liberalism from our political machinations.
Frank: Or from our memory.
Correspondent: Or from our memory. It’s very strange.
Frank: Well, that was the big subject a few years ago — when The Wrecking Crew was published. One of the topics of conversation was these grand schemes that the Republicans kept coming up with. The Republicans in Washington here, I’m talking about. I’m not talking about your rank-and-file Republicans. But the Republicans in Washington kept coming up with the grand schemes for some kind of political checkmate. Some kind of move that would end the debate forever and yield victory for their side forever. And they include — privatizing social security was a big one. Another one — the one that I focused on in The Wrecking Crew — is deficits. And that, I’m sorry to say, I turned out to be right about the one. By deliberately running up the deficits in the Bush years, it doesn’t give them permanent victory, but it does stay the hand of whoever, whatever liberal follows — in this case, Barack Obama — and it has worked exactly as they planned it to. Although Obama pushed it a little farther than they thought possible with the stimulus package. But now look at what’s happened with the debt ceiling catastrophe and all that sort of thing. So that turned out to be effective. They were able to limit the debate by some deeds that they pulled while they were still in power. And some of the other things that they are trying or will try or I predict they’ll try, they are things about tricking the franchise. Somehow keeping or dissuading people from voting. That sort of thing. But there’s always this search for the doomsday device. Yes, and it still goes on.
Correspondent: But this level of no quarter, no compromise. I mean, isn’t there some kind of “uncanny valley” or Hubbert’s Peak to what they can do before it’s just not acceptable? I mean, there was that latest Rasmussen poll where Congress got a 5% approval rating. That was a few days ago.
Frank: Well, that makes a difference in the Presidential Election. But that really won’t make a whole lot of difference, strangely enough, in the Congressional Election. Because people might hate Congress, but they like their own Congressman. That’s the classic, the old saw. But, look, what you’re getting at is a really interesting phenomenon of these people, instead of being pulled to the center — as all of your political science theorizing and all of your DC punditry insists that the gravity of politics pulls people to the center. Political scientists have believed this for fifty years. And this is a pet peeve of mine. Because I think it’s rubbish, okay, for reasons that we’ll go into. But it’s been just dramatically disproven in the last couple of years. Think back to 2008. You had the Republican Party in ruins. You had all these scandals in the Bush Administration. All this corruption. And then it ends with this catastrophic meltdown in the market. The housing bubble bursts. The banks start to go under, one after another. Then Wall Street starts shedding 700 points per day. It’s this crazy disaster. The financial crisis. And then they do the bailouts, forever sealing Bush’s fate not only with the general public but with the Right. One of the most unpopular Presidents of all time. The Republican Party is in ruins in 2008. And you have pundit after pundit weighing in and saying, “These people are done for. Bush led them too far to the right.” The era of George W. Bush was where they went too far to the right, and Tom DeLay and all those guys, they went too far to the right, and now they have to make their way back to the center or they will risk being irrelevant forever more. Or for the next twenty years or something like that. And look what happened. They did the opposite. Guys like Eric Cantor, they did not embrace the moderates in their party. They excommunicated them. They purged them. I mean, these guys, they behave like Communists in a lot of ways. This is one of those things. They purged these guys. They throw people out. And they don’t want them in the Party anymore. And they moved deliberately to the right. Way to the right. That’s what the Tea Party movement is all about. And I’ll be damned if it didn’t work. They just scored their biggest victory in eighty years. Or seventy what — a whole lot of years in the 2010 off-term elections. They had a huge victory. So obviously that strategy has vindicated for them. It worked! It paid off! And there’s no reason why they would go back on something that just succeeded. It was a success.
Correspondent: But in the chapter in this book, “The Silence of the Technocrats,” you describe this collapse of Democratic populism from 2008. You point to the failings of the Democrats to challenge the Tea Party, people at the town hall meetings. You point also to the manner in which they formed corporate alliances with healthcare and also the bailouts that we were just talking about. The failure of the stimulus package. The list goes on. Only a few days ago, Obama signed into law the NDAA, which essentially gives the government the right to detain any citizen, and he had this whole “with serious reservations” claause that he did while he signed it. So the question I have is: if Democrats are offering the defense that Obama is being forced into this predicament…
Frank: They’re listening to the pundits. The Republicans did the opposite of what the pundits suggested. The Democrats are listening to them. There’s this DC elite that the Democrats are listening to. This is what Obama’s Presidency is all about — it’s looking for a grand compromise. But the Republicans, they’re not interested. Make him come to us, they say. He can come to us. He can compromise in our direction. Look, at the end of the day, this is something you can figure out with game theory. It’s really simple. If they’re the side that stands pat and makes the other guy come to them, they win. But that’s neither her nor there. I think the Democrats really misplayed the hand they were dealt with. I mean, misplayed it in a colossal manner. In a catastrophic manner. And Obama may well get re-elected in 2012 at this point. Who knows at this point?
Correspondent: Well, with the crop of candidates, it’s a big clown car.
Frank: Elected for what purpose? After what’s happened, why bother? They didn’t understand the needs of the moment. The cultural and political needs of the moment, which were populist. They didn’t understand that all that political science theorizing that I was telling you about, where the center is where the gravity always pulls you — you have to move to the center. You have to make compromises with the other side. That all of that old way of thinking about everything was discredited. The financial crisis. The Great Recession. The huge business slump. We were going into Great Depression II, it looked like back then. And what was called for was 1930s style politics. The conservatives offered it. The Republicans offered it. Or I should say the Tea Party offered it and has since grafted it on the Republican Party. And the Democrats behaved as if everything was just as it was in the 1990s. That if they acted like Bill Clinton, everything would be fine. They did not understand that the old scheme was completely out the window.
Correspondent: Why though would they continue to act as if they wished to rise above partisanship? This notion…
Frank: That’s who they are.
Correspondent: I mean, even after the whole debt ceiling showdown. That whole business.
Frank: Can you believe that? Don’t you think that that would be the big convincer?
Correspondent: But why do you think this is? I mean, why didn’t Obama just go to the people and say, “Look, this is going to have serious actions even if I approve it or veto it. I am actually going to you, the American people, and I am explaining to you that the Republicans want to throw the Bill of Rights into a flaming trash can…
Correspondent: “So I can’t in good conscience sign this.” Why do you think he can’t do that?
Frank: Well, the point where this really got out of hand — I mean, there were several big turning points in the Obama Presidency, but the one that really just blew my mind because it was such a misplayed moment. And we think Obama’s a very intelligent man. And he is. I met up. He’s a super-duper smart guy. But some of the political moves have just been total rookie mistakes. The one that got me was when he still had a Democratic Congress. It was a lame duck session. This would have been at the end of 2010. And he renewed the Bush tax cuts. Why not make the Republicans come to him and offer something in exchange for that? No. He just gave it to them. It’s like the biggest prize on the table. And he just handed it over.
Correspondent: Leaving Bernie Sanders to do that long filibuster. But that ended up being all for nought. Even though it was an impressive theatrical display. Everybody was behind Bernie Sanders. Finally somebody standing up.
Frank: Oh sure. But it wasn’t up to Bernie Sanders. It was up to Barack Obama. And he just gave it away — the one ace he had in the hole, he just gave it away. And so maybe he did it as a good faith gesture to the Republicans. And look what it got him? This terrible smackdown with the debt ceiling crisis.
Correspondent: An embarrassment.
Frank: The kind of naivete that that takes. To not understand that that’s how these guys play the game. There’s plenty of journalists that wrote about the DeLay Congress and the Gingrich Congress. We know how these guys play. Or George W. Bush. Look at the career of Karl Rove. These guys play to win. They don’t mess around. And the innocence of Washington that it took to make a blunder — let’s call it what it is. A blunder like that is shocking to me.
Correspondent: If he’s so smart, why does he constantly come to them? I mean, why give the game away like that?
Frank: Because that’s who they are. That’s the Democratic Party nowadays.
Correspondent: It’s been like that for a while though, you know?
Frank: It has. And, hey, let’s be fair. Obama isn’t the — all of their last six Presidential candidates have been cut from the same cloth. I think Obama is, in lots of ways, smarter and a better speaker, and more talented than a lot of their previous leaders. But this is who the Democratic Party has become. Many years ago, they were the party of the working man. Everyone knew that. They were also a party that had an ideology. An ideology that arose from organized labor, that arose from the New Deal. And that has been lost. They are the party of technocrats now. Look, everything I’m telling you right now is right on the surface down at Washington DC. The big Democratic Party thinkers talk about this all the time. We are the party of the professional class. And if we aren’t that yet, that’s who we’re going to be when we’re done. We’re going to get there eventually.
* — This is a very pedantic stickler point, but one that nonetheless demands clarity. Reagan raised taxes twelve times during his administration. Frank is referring to the Tax Reform Act of 1986. But, to be clear, Stahl was specifically referring to Reagan’s 1982 tax increase in the 60 Minutes segment.
** — Another highly pedantic (and perhaps needless) stickler point. Reagan used “compromise” as a noun, not as a verb: “Make no mistake about it, this whole package is a compromise.” And while Reagan’s specific words convey the same point (indeed more definitively with a noun), it is important to remain committed to painstaking accuracy — especially when the corresponding approach being discussed over the hour involves how political parties cleave to mythology.