The Art Market

A 1986 sculpture by Jeff Koons just sold for $91.1 million. Why is art so expensive? “The short answer,” Gaby Del Valle writes, “is that most art isn’t.”

The high-end art market is “driven by a small group of wealthy collectors who pay astronomical prices for works made by an even smaller group of artists, who are in turn represented by a small number of high-profile galleries.” A few newcomers break through, but first they’ve got to find a gallery to represent their work. Gallerists shop for promising new talent at MFA programs.

As Roberto Ferdman observes, “only one out of every 10 art school graduates goes on to earn his or her living as an artist. So spending, say, $120,000 on an art education is often more of an extended luxury than an investment in an adolescent’s future.” Galleries sell mostly to the ultra-rich, for whom spending a few million on a painting signals their good taste in luxury goods while also providing them with a potentially lucrative investment if the market goes up for the artist whose work they’ve acquired.




I Re-Upped the Domain Name

On the last day before expiry I walked it back from the brink by anteing up $18 to WordPress. I’m  not sure why — mostly it’s ambivalence about what to do next.

But also I’m outraged by the domain name reselling industry. If I let lapse, some reseller might have scooped it up for a buck or two, then offered to sell it back to me for a couple hundred. Most likely resellers rely mostly on sellers’ remorse — people like me who let their domain names lapse and who later, wishing they hadn’t, pay the ransom.

So I’ve gone ahead and re-rented the name, along with WordPress’s hosting service, for another year.

Small Plots Unfolding in the World

Passing under the pear tree on my morning walk I looked up at the branch that hangs over the chemistry grad students’ front door. Tightly clustered but quivering as it revs up for the day, the miniswarm is all that remains of the big swarm that showed up a week ago and assembled itself on the pear branch, a seething mass the size and shape of an American football.

Maybe a week earlier a persistent buzzing under the lawn chair had distracted me from the book I’d been reading. A bee swooped up past my face, then dove back under the chair. Yellow, but smaller and fuzzier than a yellow jacket — a honeybee? I’d not seen one yet this spring; for that matter I didn’t recall having seen any last summer. Then one afternoon the swarm showed up.

“Honeybees?” the office manager for our complex asked the next morning. I told her I didn’t know, that I wasn’t prepared to get close enough to verify. We’d googled it: it seems that only honeybees go in for this sort of swarming behavior. When the hive gets too big the queen sets out with half the workers and a team of scouts in search of a new home, leaving the old hive and the rest of the colony to her successor. It’s how honeybees expand their population. setting up shop temporarily in an exposed place, often a tree branch, until the scouts come to an agreement about the most suitable option for establishing a permanent hive. Beekeepers can be called in to capture a swarm, adding workers to the honey farm while diversifying the gene pool with the hardy resourcefulness manifested by a successful and expanding feral bee population. The office manager said she’d place the call.

That afternoon and evening it rained, hard. Next morning the swarm was still there in the tree, having shifted and rotated its position entirely to the underside of the branch. The previous day the office manager was supposed to have taken a photo and sent it to the beekeeper, confirming that the swarm was worth his while to come out and harvest, but what with the rain she hadn’t gotten out there to take the photo. I walked her to the tree. “Oh my God!” Bees, ten thousand or more, all piled on top of each other, the ones on the surface writhing and twitching, a few launching themselves into loose eccentric orbits around the living mass clustered on the branch. She took her photos and returned to the office. Later that afternoon when I went for a run I passed by the swarm: it seemed more energized, the bees on the surface flapping and seething and waggling. When I returned forty-five minutes later the swarm was gone. Had the beekeeper gathered them up? No: he’d come with his equipment, but by the time he showed up the bees had already gone. A hundred or so remained, a miniswarm: maybe they’d been out feeding and scouting while the coordinates for reaching the new location was being communicated through the swarm. By the time these outliers returned to the branch it was too late: they’d been left behind.

And there they are still, five days later, their numbers diminished a bit through the ordinary attrition of a short lifespan exacerbated by exposure to two more torrential storms. The tight cluster on the branch has reorganized itself a few times — once they formed an acrobatic chain, a few gripping the branch, some holding onto the backs of their anchored comrades, and so on and so on, until they’d contoured themselves into a dangling scaffold maybe twenty layers deep. Now they’re nestled in a notch underneath the branch, affording them at least some protection from the rain.

What will they do now? Their queen and their colony have gone away, leaving no forwarding address. Apparently they can’t return to the old hive from which the new colony splintered off — maybe they’d now be regarded as intruders, carrying the old queen’s pheromones into a population infused by the scent of a new queen. The worker bee’s usual lot is to find food, return to the hive, and regurgitate into the cells of the comb to feed the larvae. But the miniswarm has no princess queen it can nurture into maturity. There will be no eggs, no larvae, no need to feed them. What do worker bees do when they don’t have any work to do anymore? Do they lose their purpose, their will to live? There’s plenty of pine pollen in the air: do the hiveless bees continue to feed themselves even when no longer charged with feeding the next generation? I’d guess so — otherwise they’d likely have starved to death by now. Why don’t the scouts — there must be at least one scout left behind — find a more protected place for the retired workers to live out their lives of newfound leisure?

On my walk this morning I noticed, on the edge of the sidewalk about a quarter mile from here, a black mound roughly the same size and shape as the swarm had adopted when it was at full strength. More like half a swarm though, one hemisphere of a football, not seething but inert, a convex muddy dome rimmed with ragged edges. I nudged it with my toe: it wobbled, twice, before rocking back into its original position. I nudged it again: another rocking back and forth — was it a fraction slower this time? — then nothing. I walked on. Something about that wobble had seemed animated by more than mere mechanics. An inverted nest, fallen from a tree during the overnight storm, its hatchlings feebly pushing up from underneath trying to escape? Instead of following my usual course home I retraced my route, picking up a stick from the edge of the trail that I could use to probe the muddy mound. I passed back along the stretch of sidewalk: no sign of the black shape. I doubled back: nothing. Dropping the stick under a stand of trees I walked on

Reaching my front door I was buzzed by a solitary honeybee sweeping out from under the lawn chair. A scout from the miniswarm? But wait: wasn’t this bee already hanging around under the chair even before the swarm showed up?


The Power of No

– So far this one-word tweet on @dril, dated 15 Sept 2008, has generated 55,675 retweets and 90,837 likes.

Eileen Chou summarizes her key research findings in the title of her 2018 journal article: “Naysaying and Negativity Promote Initial Power Establishment and Leadership Endorsement.” The rationale:

Humans evolved as social animals, reliant on power hierarchies to preserve order. Power is a means of influencing others through the control of rewards and punishments. Therefore it’s adaptive for humans to be attuned to cues that signal power; e.g. expansive posture, height, the tendency to spring into action. Naysaying seems to be another signifier of power. Why? For one thing, powerful people are perceived as primarily concerned with getting things done, so they focus more on identifying and correcting mistakes that hinder success than on making people feel good. Two, powerful people are regarded as less constrained by conventional norms that serve to preserve group solidarity through mutual agreeableness, in part because powerful people can reshape group norms.

Do people view naysayers as more powerful than cheerleaders? The participants in Chou’s experiments did. In the multivariate structural model derived from her empirical findings, people regard others’ negative judgments as indicative of their being free agents, able to express their true opinions unconstrained by social expectations. The free exercise of agency in turn implies the ability to wield social power over those whom they criticize. Consequently, people expect a naysayer to be a more effective leader than a cheerleader, even when the naysayer isn’t perceived as being more competent. People voluntarily follow the naysayers’ leadership, even if that means subjecting themselves to the naysayer’s negative judgment of themselves.

Chou’s experiments support the idea that people perceive naysayers as more powerful than cheerleaders. What about the naysayers themselves: do they feel more powerful? Chou conducted some additional studies in which participants were asked to invent arguments for or against some proposition about which they held no a priori opinions; e.g., positive or negative reviews for an imaginary restaurant. Afterward, the negative reviewers reported feeling more powerful than did the positive reviewers.

A positive feedback loop is activated here: Expressing a negative judgment not only makes you feel more powerful; it also causes other people to regard you as more powerful. Once you’ve been rewarded for your negativity, you’re more likely to repeat your performance, becoming a chronic naysayer and rising in the social power hierarchy.

Trump. Disagreeable workers who get higher-income and higher-status positions than their equally competent but more agreeable counterparts (Judge, Livingston, & Hurst, 2012). Publishers that reject 99% of submitted manuscripts without explanation and that are acknowledged as elite cultural tastemakers by the rejectees themselves…

Book E-Fetish

Over in the right column of this website you’ll find a link to a pamphlet I wrote called “Book Fetish.” Today I found out that “Book Fetish” is also the name of a website that sells book-related accessories. As Hannah McGregor explains it:

Book Fetish is a testimony to the nigh-complete expansion of bookishness into a consumer category. It is, to be clear, not about books, but about book-proximate accessories likely to appeal to people (particularly women) who identify as bookish. A scan of a few recent columns gives a sense of the range of things: pencils, notepads, and bookmarks, sure, but also cross stitch patterns, enamel pins, tea pots, dish towels, t-shirts, mugs, jewelry, planters, art, and more and more and more.

Books as decorative objects, as status symbols? God forfend! A book isn’t a mere object; it’s an experience. Hmm…

[L]et’s think about what it means to call a book an “experience.” The status of the book as object is at once denied and overburdened: the physical codex is both a stand-in for the act of reading and a trophy to demonstrate that you have the correct emotional and intellectual relationship to that act. Mere book-owners may see books as things that can be repurposed as decor or given away when they’re no longer needed, but readers know that books contain other worlds — and their book collections become status symbols, signs of their heightened sensitivity.

The bookish don’t object to categorizing books as objects; they object to banalizing the book-object. A book is a sacred object, an iconic portal. McGregor briefly traces the history of bookishness, from 18th century gentlemanly bibliophilia, through the Book-of-the-Month Club commercialization of middlebrow middle-class housewifely self-improvement and emotionality, to the contemporary book scene:

All of these forces — class-consciousness, hyper-mediation, the link between reverence and commerce, the feminization of book consumption, and especially the figure of the general, or recreational, reader — come together in the figure of the 21st-century “bookish” individual.

Has the e-book curbed the impulse toward valorizing the book as a status symbol and a fetish object? McGregor doesn’t think so:

The movement of book culture online — from buying books on Amazon to reading them on a Kindle and reviewing them on Goodreads — has far from curbed the commodification of the book world: instead, it has heightened to a degree those 18th-century bibliophiles could never have imagined. The incorporation of Goodreads into the Amazon megalith further exacerbates this situation, the special status of books somehow serving as a smokescreen for whatever Amazon is really up to (fun fact: googling “what is Amazon REALLY up to” yields 1.4 billion hits!). At the same time, this leakage of book fetishism beyond books themselves into the lifestyle accessories associated with bookishness has been a major factor behind both the survival of Canada’s bookstore chain Indigo — which recently expanded into the U.S. while rebranding as “the world’s first cultural department store” — and the resurgence of independent bookstores. Is it overkill to imagine the niche indie bookstore, with its combination of carefully curated books, quality scented candles, and ironic enamel pins, as a modern-day version of the homemade manuscript anthology — a curated space in which bibliophilia might flourish beyond the limits of books themselves?


On the Go-Forward

The next step would be to launch an open-access publishing house specializing in long fictions.

It’s already being done for short fictions. No technical or logistical obstacles hinder extending the open-access model to novels and novellas, single-author and single-themed compilations, and other more experimental formats. The economic obstacles are minimal: most short story writers don’t get paid and published novelists get paid next to nothing, yet there’s no shortage of newly submitted texts. The obstacles are psychological and sociological…

If in the course of hosting this website, after 16 months and 144 posts, I’d been able to find any fiction writers who wanted to collaborate in exploring alternative models for publishing novels, I’d be eager to get started. That hasn’t happened. Alternatively, if I’d ever been a publisher or editor, or if I was now or ever had been enrolled in an MFA or undergraduate creative writing program, or if I’d ever taught in such a program, or if I belonged to a formal or informal writers’ group, of if I wrote short fictions and participated actively in the litmag scene, or if I’d had a novel published by a traditional publisher, or if I’d attracted significant numbers of readers to my self-published long fictions…

I imagine fiction writers getting together with their writer friends over drinks or over cell phones, talking about starting a co-op publishing house together. I imagine open-access litmag publishers wondering about branching out into novels. I imagine that some open-access novel publishers are already up and running and that I’ve just not heard about them yet…

Which future is going to show up? Maybe the system is working fine: novels still get published and read, authors still get paid, publishers and bookstores still make money. Supply and demand might seem out of whack, but the invisible hand of capitalism is always-already on the job, continually maintaining a dynamic equilibrium. Or maybe the system is broken beyond repair and it’s just a matter of time before enough fiction writers stop kidding themselves and wise up, organizing themselves into a different system. Maybe — probably — something else will happen…

Ficticities has been a work of fiction. Forecasting has always been part of the project: tracing multiple interacting trajectories from the past through the present into alternative possible futures. More importantly, Ficticities was to have been an alternate present reality in its own right — a collaborative laboratory, an experimental zone, a heterochronic heterotopia, a ficticity. When, in characterizing the agenda of this imagined laboratory, I invoked the term “postcapitalism,” I wasn’t so much pointing down the road toward what comes next, what succeeds capitalism. After all, anticipating the next thing and accelerating into it is the engine that drives capitalism. The word “novel” is a paradigmatically appropriate term for a capitalistic work of fiction, the production apparatus continually extruding the next new thing and displaying it on the shelf for a couple of weeks, then clearing it out to make room for the next next new thing. I anticipated that Ficticities might open up an alternative fictional reality inside the already-existing reality that surrounds it, an expanding bubble universe…


For the past year and a half I’ve been occupying this bubble universe. The bubble has continued to shrink, down and down, until by now it feels like I’m the only one inside it. I find myself shrinking right along with the bubble…

Here’s what I think I’ll do now.

I’m not going to launch an open-access publishing house focusing on long fictions.

I’m going to abandon my efforts to build a collaborative laboratory.

I’m going to step back from this website. It’s easy not to write any more content; it’s harder to stop thinking about the ideas. I want to to both, before I disappear along with the ever-shrinking bubble that enshrouds me.

What’s going to fill the void? I’ll probably get back to writing fictions. Not like this kind of fiction, the fiction of this website, the designing of an imagined reality that could serve as a catalyst for constructing an actual material reality —  kind of like how a blueprint catalyzes a building. Trying to engineer a way out of capitalism into some preferable alternative entails a lot of problem solving, working through and around constraints via systematic logic and Bayesian probability trees, generating requirement specs and design parameters, collecting data and analyzing it, simulating and modeling, tinkering and iterating and overhauling. I used to do this sort of thing for a living before I got tired of it and started writing novels. I remember hitting the problem-solving phase in the middle of my first novel — it felt too much like work. A year or two later when I picked up that novel again I found myself writing with a freer hand. I’ve already written several interconnected long fictions, but nothing lately. I want to get back to it, to freehand imaginings, see if they’re still there. Let the catalysis operate in the reverse direction, the architecture of the actual world serving as blueprint for imaginary worlds.

What about blogging? For years I’d run a blog before launching Ficticities, where I wrote a lot of posts and engaged in a lot of online discussions. Blogging affords its satisfactions and frustrations. Ficticities wasn’t meant to be a blog. Originally I set it up as a staging ground for collaborative projects, but when those didn’t take shape the site morphed into a blog. Surely the most different sort of posts I’ve written here on Ficticities were my engagements with online published short stories. Those posts were moderately successful in generating visits from the stories’ authors and from their social media friends, though those interpersonal connections petered out after a few days without extending conversationally into the website’s collaborative experimental agenda. Not reviews, nor even commentary, the posts unfolded more as a strange sort of fan fiction. Even though I was maneuvering within the thematic and stylistic terrain laid out in the short fiction I’d just read, it felt freeing, even adventurous, to write my way into some alternative pathway that I’d find opening up through my active interaction with the text, moving around freely inside the fictional worlds revealed by these stories. Even if the authors of those short stories didn’t quite get what I was up to, I experienced a sense of intersubjectivity — or, better, a subjective sense of intertextuality.

I’ll continue reading fictions, novels mostly. In trying to track down writers on this website I found a renewed appreciation for the short form and for writers who excel at it. The open-access litmags open up the possibility of authorial experimentation unconstrained by commercial interests — constraints that too often render published novels more polished but also more predictable and less interesting. So I’ll leave open the possibility of reading more online open-access stories and writing something about them: probably not fanfics this time, not reviews either, but brief commentaries on aspects of the texts that resonate with my interests. Instead of posting my written responses on this website in hopes of luring the authors into my project, I’d send my observations directly to the authors if I can figure out how to reach them.  Somehow though I’ve got a feeling that this possible personal interactive future might not take shape — it’s too tied up in the Ficticities microcosm I’m trying to escape.

I could try to write up a brief rationale for the open-access novel publishing idea. I’d not try to persuade writers or recruit them into a joint venture or even engage them in discussion. I could imagine sending it out in an email to the writers whose short fictions I read online. I’d just present the idea for consideration. Maybe it’ll trigger something in their neural or social networks, if not now then later. Maybe some of them will be better positioned than I am actually to do something with the idea. This project too is probably a bad idea; hopefully it’ll fade over the next few weeks.

Another aspect of Ficticities that I’ve liked is investigating fiction not just as a vehicle for storytelling but as a way of imagining, both individually and collectively, aspects of reality that don’t exist in the here and now — the future and the past, the possible and the impossible, hopes and fears, nostalgia and regret, purpose and meaning. I could imagine extending this interest into a project, writing up my findings and musings here on Ficticities. I also see these more abstract musings about fiction finding their way into the worldbuilding and narrative aspects of my own long fictions. But here and now as I’m writing this I’m experiencing déjà vu, so maybe I’ve already been here before. We’ll see what develops.

So, on the go-forward, here’s where you’re liable to find me online:

  • For possible further meta-explorations of fiction, look here at Ficticities. As I mentioned in my last post, the URL will soon change to, though now it seems that the transition will happen a month from now.
  • For my novels and other loose-handed fictional texts — the novels and novellas already in the can, the ones that need final editing and formatting, the fictions that haven’t yet been written — go to All e-books, all free, all open access.
  • If you want to get in touch, you can send me an email at

À bientôt,
John Doyle