Why Didn’t I Think of That?

“I wrote a best-selling book. If you write a best-selling book, you can be a millionaire, too.”

That’s how Bernie Sanders responded to a New York Times interviewer asking him about his new-found wealth.

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The Power of No

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, 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 ficticities.wordpress.com, 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 salonpostisme.com. All e-books, all free, all open access.
  • If you want to get in touch, you can send me an email at portalic@gmail.com.

À bientôt,
John Doyle

Announcement: URL Change Imminent

Sometime in the next few days the web address for this site will change from ficticities.com to ficticities.wordpress.com.

Why? In part it’s because I don’t want to pay the $18 annual fee to WordPress for retaining the old URL. Also, I expect to be winding down my involvement on this site so it won’t matter if the address changes.

If you’re a subscriber to this website, you will still be notified by email of new Ficticities posts published under the new URL. If you don’t subscribe but visit regularly, I don’t know whether or not your search string link will still work. If not, type in the whole new URL and hopefully next time your computer will remember. But don’t do it yet, since the changeover hasn’t happened yet.

I expect to write one more Ficticities post under this old regime before the switcheroo is activated by my not anteing up the $18 extortion fee.

Postcapitalist Fictions Reconsidered

A.  Inferences from my recent string of posts

1.  Fiction writers earn next to nothing from their writings. The economic situation has gone from bad to worse, with today’s typical writer making half what the typical writer of ten years ago made. Self-publishing proliferates, but the self-published author earns even less than the traditionally published author. Fiction writers also earn next to nothing from writing-related work like editing, teaching, and reviewing; these supplemental revenue sources have likewise declined over the last decade.

2.  Texts published electronically can be distributed for free, instantaneously and without limit. Restrictions on duplication and distribution are often imposed artificially on e-texts, typically in order to charge a fee to readers.

3.  Most literary magazines pay their writers nothing or next to nothing. Nonetheless, there is an ample and burgeoning supply of manuscripts being submitted to these magazines. Many litmags publish as open-access websites, granting readers free access to their content. Nonetheless, literary magazines that charge a subscription fee and that pay their writers are deemed more prestigious than their free counterparts.

4.  Publishers that charge a subscription fee are motivated to publicize their offerings widely in order to lure more potential paying customers. Open-access publishers have no financial incentive to publicize; to the contrary, publicity costs time and money that the publisher cannot recoup via sales revenue.

5.  Like most writers of short fictions, writers of scholarly articles typically aren’t paid by the journals that publish their texts. Unlike most fiction writers, writers of scholarly articles are typically paid to do work related to their writing; e.g., teaching and research. Financially, scholars are more likely to benefit indirectly from wider distribution of their published work than from getting paid directly for their publications.

6.  As with litmags, open-access scholarly journals proliferate, while journals that charge a subscription fee are deemed higher-status publications. Generally speaking, free scholarly journals need not publicize because the potential readers of their articles typically use online search engines to seek out new texts that meet their interests. In contrast, few readers of open-access short fictions can rely on search criteria to identify specific texts of potential interest to them.

B.  What could be done

1.  It seems inevitable that free open-access fiction publishing will scale up from short stories to novels. Writers already edit and format their own texts. It costs no more to download an e-book than it does to read a web page or a .pdf file. There are plenty of unpublished novels out there, and even the published ones don’t earn much money for the authors. Writers of fiction merely have to abandon the fantasy that getting their short stories published is the pathway toward their becoming financially self-sustaining novelists. A few make it; a few win the lottery too.

2.  Open-access publishing needs to disconnect money from status. The disconnect is already happening in literary magazines and scholarly journals, where peer  and editorial review uphold selection criteria based more on excellence than on marketability. Open-access e-books need to overcome the widespread perception that you get what you pay for — that the professional publishers select only the best manuscripts, so that any book you buy as a commodity is probably better than any book you could get for free. Some means of vetting novels would need to be installed if open-access e-books as a category are to be deemed worth reading.

3.  Fiction writers derive no direct or indirect financial benefits from the publication or the distribution of their short stories in open-access compilations. Still, they keep on writing and submitting their texts for publication. Maybe they like seeing their work in print, or value the editorial judgment that deems their work worth publishing, or feel like they’re part of a larger fictional universe populated by other stories written by other authors. All of these benefits would be available to the authors of open-access novels if an adequately selective vetting process were installed, and if enough writers submitted their novels to the open-access publishing houses to achieve critical mass.

4.  Do the writers of fiction value having their work widely read, even if the readers don’t have to pay for the privilege? I’d say they probably do. Stories published in literary magazines are read mostly by other writers; most readers of fiction read novels rather than short stories. If adequate selection criteria were established for open-access novels, and if enough authors and texts could be assembled into a viable and visible multitude, then readers of fiction might gravitate toward free open-access novels. Other popularity-based metrics of excellence — numbers of downloads, reader ratings — as well as data-driven selection criteria — “people who liked X also liked A, B, C…” — could still prove effective if enough open-access books are downloaded by enough readers. But a rigorous up-front selection process would be needed in order to focus readers’ attention on open-access books already deemed worthy by recognized experts.

5.  If open-access books become popular among readers, it’s possible that some sort of scheme could be implemented for compensating authors financially. However, this scheme could not rely on selling books one at a time, nor would it likely turn into a way for authors to make a living from their writings. It seems more likely that widespread free access — a race to the bottom of writer remuneration — will prove difficult if not impossible to reverse. Keep your day job, marry into money, agitate collectively for increased grant funding in the arts, anticipate the arrival of guaranteed universal income or luxury communism…

6.  Even if free open-access novels become a thing, Amazon could easily co-opt the movement. They already hold a nearly monopolistic stranglehold over book distribution, squeezing authors and publishers alike. They already offer nearly unlimited access to their inventory via a monthly subscription program. If they wanted to, Amazon could drop the subscription fee to zero, making their money from mining readers’ data and selling it to vendors of products worth way more money than books; e.g., readers of these books tend to buy luxury domestic SUVs, tour packages to the Far East, SAT prep courses for their kids, etc. Breaking up Amazon wouldn’t be enough; you’d need to break up capitalism, or at least shift books into a non-capitalistic sector of goods and services.

C.  Conclusions

1.  When I started this website I deemed it necessary to conduct a series of experiments exploring the possibilities of building an anarcho-collectivist alternative to traditional publishing. The “collaborative laboratory” never took shape here. Maybe after all it wasn’t even necessary, since most of the R&D has already been done out there in the real world. Much of what needs to be demonstrated has already been accomplished; various systemic forces will facilitate or force certain radical changes while hindering or preventing others.

2.  It could be argued from observing transformations in the publishing industry over recent decades that intentional intervention is an obsolete model of social change, that emergence and spontaneous self-organization are the way things really happen. On the other hand, the publishing companies and distribution platforms that control the book business continue to impose order the industry from the top down. It might be possible for those controlled by the system — the writers and readers — either to exert strategic leverage at stress points or to slip out the back door.

3.  Somebody somewhere has probably argued that modern capitalism began with Gutenberg’s printing press, making possible the rapid production and wide distribution of virtually identical copies of a crafted artifact. It’d be ironic if books were among the first commodities to make the shift into a postcapitalistic economy.

D.  Next steps?

Maybe next post…

Apocalypse Porn

Thinking about the end of Wednesday’s post this morning before rolling out of bed, I realized that joining up with a collective of applied Ballardian fiction writers is just about the last thing I’d want to do.

I get it that Ballard exerts strong appeal in certain circles, and I do find myself intermittently drawn into their orbits. Ballard explicitly theorizes his own novels from inside the text — a kind of “theory fiction” that lends itself to traditional scholarly writing. And Ballard’s diagnosis of late-capitalist culture resonates with a lot of people. Here’s a passage from Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise:

These people were the first to master a new kind of late twentieth-century life. They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed.

Alternatively, their real needs might emerge later. The more arid and affectless life became in the high-rise, the greater the possibilities it offered. By its very efficiency, the high-rise took over the task of maintaining the social structure that supported them all. For the first time it removed the need to repress every kind of anti-social behavior, and left them free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses. It was precisely in these areas that the most important and most interesting of their lives would take place. Secure within the shell of the high-rise like passengers on board an automatically piloted airliner, they were free to behave in any way they wished, explore the darkest corners they could find. In many ways, the high-rise was a model for all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly “free” psychopathology.

That’s Ballardianism in a nutshell, or spilling out of the cracked shell. I’m skeptical that late-capitalist anomie and ennui, fermenting in the decay of traditional societal connections and expanding in the vacuum left by the collapse of traditional social constraints, is distilling itself into all hell breaking loose, the comfortably coddled bourgeoisie’s unrecognized and repressed desires frothing forth in a hedonic eroticized death drive pitting all against all and each against each. It hasn’t happened in the 44 years since High-Rise was published: the privileged bourgeoisie remain complacently conformist while those consigned to the lower storeys of the socio-economic high-rise are becoming more desperate, marginalized, precarious, more attracted to unshackling their aggression not as a Ballardian tonic for alleviating boredom but as an act of desperation.

Maybe the Ballardian reality is delayed but still coming. Maybe what seem like the side effects of late capitalism, the recoil from schadenfreudean hubris, the collateral damage and the unintended consequences, are really the main effects, the objectives. Maybe the distributed unconscious of the stock market really wants to crash. Maybe the multitude of immaterial labor — the creatives and bureaucrats and technocrats — really want to be made redundant by inhuman labor, tantalized by the nightmare of finding themselves suspended precariously above the abyss. Maybe the bored psychopathic elite really do mean to undermine their own security, to render the planet unlivable, to crank the creative destruction up to 11, to pick up the red phone and push the red button, to turn the controls over to an all-knowing psychopathic AI. Maybe Trump desires impeachment and imprisonment. Maybe the Democrats want to provoke the Trump followers to armed insurrection so they can call in the military to quell the insurgency, declaring martial law and suspending democratic process indefinitely. Maybe all of the Ballardian drivers are accelerating into the crash, thirsting for their own annihilation.

In contemporary theory, Ballardian notes can readily be discerned in Accelerationism, its Deleuzian lines of flight propelled by technology, capital, and intelligence, thrusting a disembodied affectless desire beyond the humanistic gravitational field into a posthuman exploratorium that to the normies left behind can look a lot like “the expression of a truly free psychopathy.” And Ballardianism permeates the world of fiction, from cyberpunk to the new weird to new horror into mainstream commercial entertainment. The medieval decadent ruling class in Game of Thrones and the well-heeled clientele of the futuristic Westworld theme park occupy recognizably Ballardian dystopian imaginaries. Are these cautionary tales or apocalypse porn?

Trump parades himself before his acolytes as a Ballardian president, flaunting his ill-gotten wealth and his “dark triad” personality traits of narcissism, machiavellianism, and psychopathy, aggressively provoking confrontation seemingly just for the hell of it. It’s a performance enjoyed by the master showman, his routine choreographed and scripted and staged as an opioid-glazed spectacle for entertaining the inert masses. Fake news mingles with real news; all of it gets weaponized. High-Rise again:

A group of residents, all from the 14th and 15th floors, leapt out and hurled themselves into the mêlée. They were led by Richard Wilder, cine-camera gripped like a battle standard in one hand. Royal assumed that Wilder was filming an episode of the documentary he had been talking about for so long, and had set up the entire scene. But wilder was in the thick of the fray, aggressively wielding the cine-camera as he urged on his new allies against his former neighbors.

Nowadays Wilder might be renamed Fox. But he’s not the only one…

‘They’re all making their own films down there,’ Anne told him, clearly fascinated by her heady experience of the lower orders at work and play. ‘Every time someone gets beaten up about ten cameras start shooting away.’

‘They’re showing them in the projection theatre,’ Jane confirmed. ‘Crammed in there together seeing each other’s rushes.’

‘Except for Wilder. He’s waiting for something really gruesome.’

Like I said, I’m not sure I’d want to hitch my anarcho-collectivist wagon to an alliance of applied Ballardian writers… unless, secretly and unbeknownst even to myself, it’s what I crave.