Planks First, Then Platform?

I suppose this post is a follow-up to this one from January, about the Democratic National Committee’s survey of party members. In line with the DNC’s cautious approach to political change, Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias writes:

A new Marist poll testing the popularity of a bunch of progressive ideas leads to a slightly tedious truth: Some are popular and some are not popular, and there’s not much of a pattern determining which are which.

The latest progressive activist fad on immigration policy, changing unauthorized entry from a criminal to a civil offense, for example, is badly underwater. But the old progressive standby of offering a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented residents of the United States polls very well. Massive investment in clean energy polls very well, but taxing dirty energy is much less popular. Free college is in between.

Yglesias’s summarizes his recommendation in the title of his article: “Democrats should run on the popular progressive ideas, but not the unpopular ones.”

I’m pretty small-minded, inasmuch as I regard this sort of inconsistency to be decidedly hobgoblinesque. Arguably my doctrinaire intolerance is an inconsistency on my part, since in many other regards I’m more swayed by the pattern of empirical findings than by logical coherence. Yglesias promotes a pragmatic, moderately progressive political strategy based on the popularity data:

There’s just a bunch of stuff, some of which is popular and some of which isn’t. And to the extent that issues matter at all in politics — a modest, but non-zero extent according to most accounts — the smart thing is just to pick the popular stuff.

Maybe so, but first it’s worth looking at the Marist numbers more closely. Take the “Medicare for all” policy — a national program that would cover all Americans, eliminating private health insurance. 41% of Americans think Medicare for all  is a good idea, while 54% regard it as a bad idea — an underwater policy that the Democrats would be smart to set aside, at least for now. However, breaking out results based on political orientation, 64% of Democrats think that Medicare for all is a good idea, while only 14% of Republicans think so. Republicans aren’t going to switch their presidential vote based on this one issue, since according to this same poll 90% of Republicans think that Trump is doing a good job and 89% will definitely vote for his re-election. What about unaffiliated voters, who might be swayed one way or the other based on policy? In the Marist poll, 55% of self-reported moderates regard Medicare-for-all as a good idea, while 40% think it’s a bad idea. So should the Democratic strategists court the 55% of moderates who support universal healthcare — a policy strongly endorsed — or should they scrap this popular progressive plank in hopes of wooing the 40% of moderates who dislike this policy? If you’re going with the numbers, it would make more pragmatic sense to lean into the policy that’s more popular with the moderate swing voters — Medicare for all.

On the other had, if you ask whether Medicare should be made available for all who want it, keeping open the choice of private health insurance, support from moderates goes up from 55% to 91% — empirical support for Yglesias’s more moderate pragmatism. But on this issue of Medicare choice the Republicans are about equally split. What’s to keep the Republicans from endorsing Medicare as an option? They’d retain their base partisan support but maybe tip more moderates their way, or at least neutralize the pragmatically progressive policy of the Democrats.

The same pattern holds up on nearly every progressive policy addressed in the survey: moderates are quite closely aligned with Democrats in supporting these policies. The progressive lean among moderates holds true for free public college tuition and carbon tax — policies that Yglesias flagged as possibly too progressive for the average American voter to get behind. Two notable exceptions are decriminalization of illegal border crossings and a guaranteed universal income of $1,000 per month, but even the average Democrat regards those two progressive policies as bad ideas. The only two policies on which moderates disagree with Democrats are the elimination of the death penalty and reparations for slavery: a majority of Democrats think those are good ideas, while most moderates disagree.

The empirical evidence supports the idea that most moderates are leaning Democratic for the next election. Moderates agree with most of the progressive policies. Only 31% of moderates think that Trump is doing a good job, which is much more closely aligned to the nearly unanimous Democratic renunciation of Trump than to the Republicans’ continued adulation. 89% of Republicans say they will definitely vote for Trump’s re-election; among moderates, 64% say they will definitely vote against Trump.

So if you’re the Democratic brain trust, why wouldn’t you lean strongly into the progressive agenda this time around? Converge on a reasonably appealing candidate and give it your best shot.

 

Advertisements

Googling the Random Short Fictions

I’ve written only 3 posts here since April, so it’s not surprising that there haven’t been many visitors to Ficticities. Still, I do get a hit here and there,  now and then. Today for instance someone came to look at this post — one of a series of fourteen posts from almost exactly a year ago, in which I interacted textually with short stories I selected at random from online literary magazines.

These occasional Ficticities visitors got me to wondering about hit rates. If I were to google the author and the title of each of the 14 stories on which I wrote a post last year, how high in the stack of google results would my posts appear? And how does each of my posts about these stories stack up popularity-wise compared with the original story itself, or the author’s website referencing their story, or the litmag’s tweet announcing publication of the story, or others’ reviews or comments on the story?

Well, let’s find out, shall we? I’ll google the stories in chronological order, using this search format: author’s name “title of story”:

“Cockatoo Tears” by Daniella Levy — the Ficticities post is the first result listed; the story itself comes in fifth.

“Pity and Shame” by Ursula LeGuin — Ficticities post comes in third, following the story and an interview with the author.

“Breadcrumb 398” by Olivia Hardwig — Ficticities post first, story second.

“Nobody Knows How To Say Goodbye” by Richard Spilman — Ficticities post first, story second.

“Christmas Lights” by Demian Entrekin — story first, Ficticities post third.

“A Legend is Born” by Calvin Celebuski — Ficticities post first, story third.

“The Singing Tree” by Shawn Goldberg — Ficticities post first, story fifth.

“Rattle and Spin” by Jeannette Sheppard — story first, Ficticities post second.

“The Wallaby & the Python” by Alexis Kale — Ficticities post first, story second.

“A Deceptively Simple Word Problem” by Samuel Rafael Barber — story first, Ficticities post third.

“Pop” by Carlo Gallegos — Ficticities post first, story not at all.

“Death for Serafina” by Rayji de Guia — story first, Ficticities post second.

“Big G Little G” by Kelsie Donaldson — Ficticities post first, story third.

“Entry 038::After Ash Wednesday>>Moon Quincunx Pluto” by Sade Lanay — story first, Ficticities post second.

So, for this random sample of 14 cases, the Ficticities post is the top google result for 8 stories, while the story itself gets top position for the other 6. That might be exciting for me, if I didn’t know how few hits these posts have received during their year of online existence. Still, on average these 14 story-based intertextual pieces fared better than other Ficticities posts I wrote that were original content, untethered from other published texts — which I find a bit disheartening.

I might find it even more disheartening if I were the author of one of these short stories. Why, I’d ask, should some random guy’s blog post about my story generate more Internet traffic than my actual story? To be fair, the stories might well have been read by a lot of people like me who happened upon the story while looking through the latest issue of the litmag in which the story was published. But still…

So:

  1. People are more likely to search for my posts about other writers’ stories than for the stories themselves.
  2. People are more likely to search for my posts about other writers’ stories than for my independently inspired posts.

Gossip? Do people want to hear what other people are saying about other people, rather than finding out what they have to say on their own behalf?

My takeaway, in the context of this website’s larger agenda, is this: If you’re a literary magazine, try to get other people to write something — anything — about the stories you publish, in order to draw greater attention to the authors and their work. If your magazine happens to be the work of a writers’ syndicate, then get one or more of the other authors whose work has previously been published in the litmag to write something about each of the newly published stories.

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.

 

 

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…

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…

Can Fictional Texts Do What Scholarly Texts Do?

In late December I wrote about having struck up an email correspondence with Jim, an old pal from high school I’d not heard from since forever ago. An environmental historian, Jim has long focused his research on African agriculture. As I worked my way through his book on the introduction and spread of maize, a New World plant, across the African continent, I learned quite a lot about something I didn’t even realize was a thing. At the same time I got a refresher course in how academic scholarship takes shape: incrementally, collaboratively, cumulatively, the work spanning vast swaths of space and time.

Typically the new ongoing work first appears in scholarly journal articles, researched and written by specialists, vetted and reviewed by specialists, read and interpreted by specialists, integrated by specialists into subsequent investigations. Audiences are sparse but intensely focused. The grand integrating narrative comes later, its author fully acknowledging that God and the devil are in the details. In the Acknowledgments section that follows his extensive End Notes and Bibliography, my friend Jim writes:

The historian’s task is the telling of a story that explains why and how, but the process is one that involves, in addition to inspiration, a great many people, institutions… This book had its genesis in farmers’ fields in Ethiopia, in research laboratories, around grain silos, in seminars, in libraries, and in dusty archives. Many people from all those settings — certainly even more than the few that I can mention here — deserve heartfelt thanks and acknowledgment.

The realm of academic scholarship spans the universe (that’s why they call it a university), an abstract N-dimensional matrix supporting thousands of disciplines and subdisciplines interacting and drifting apart in intermittent oscillations, scattered widely across an ever-expanding intellectual cosmos.

I’m not sure how literary magazines fit into that universe. Like a scholarly journal, a litmag aggregates into a single issue multiple short texts written by different authors. I get the sense that these magazines are read mostly by other writers, just as scholarly journals are read mostly by other scholars. A short story or poem, like a journal article, shines a narrow beam of illumination on a small fragment of the universe — or multiverse in the case of writers whose explorations aren’t bound by the parameters of the actually existing universe.

If you read a bunch of journal articles about the history of African farming — single-tine plowing in Kenya, sorghum harvesting in Tanzania, soil acidity in cleared tropical rainforests, the dispersion of maize varietals along the hajj routes, the impact of global warming on growing seasons and drought, the relationship between maize farming and malaria — you’d be able to assemble the architecture for a preliminary knowledge base, incomplete and tentatively held but cumulatively extensible, about the topic.

Does an assemblage of short stories written by a variety of authors allow the reader to assemble incrementally a tentative and incomplete yet extensible understanding of the multiverse in which those stories unfold? Arguably it does, but building the integrative constructs linking multiple fictional texts together is a task typically outsourced to the scholarly academy, the literary critics and cultural theorists for whom literary texts comprise a data set for their investigations. The novelists and short story writers aren’t regarded as interpretive experts for their own and one another’s work; instead the authors are subjected to the same sorts of outside scholarly analysis as are their fictional texts.

Theorists specializing in, say, the fictional oeuvre of J.G. Ballard might cluster together into a coherent interest group, reading and critiquing and building on one another’s work, organizing conferences and journal issues devoted to Ballardian studies. Fiction writers influenced by Ballard, not just stylistically but in the fictional worlds they explore, tend not to gravitate toward one another. Presumably the mandate to “find your voice” keeps authors ensconced in their splendid isolation. After all, they don’t want to be slotted as Ballard fan fiction writers, do they? Meanwhile these unique snowflakes tacitly cede to the theorists the task of — and the intellectual credit for — aggregating their fictional works together into an abstract neo-Ballardian category.

Intermittently over the years I’ve run across the “Ballardian” blog, hosted and mostly written by a guy who “explores tropes and motifs found in the work of J.G. Ballard.” A theory blog, in other words. Maybe not though — here’s an excerpt from the blog’s “About” page:

The site seeks to bind together a community of writers and artists who have been similarly inspired by the man and his writing. A key component of this project is to contextualise Ballard’s work, to analyse his sphere of influence beyond the stifling constraints of the literary realm and into the more expansive realms of music, film, visual art, fashion, cultural theory, architecture, even pornography.

Now I see that Simon Sellars, the guy responsible for this blog, has written a book — Applied Ballardianism: Memoir from a Parallel Universe. From the book description on the website:

Plagued by obsessive fears, defeated by the tedium of academia, yet still certain that everything connects to Ballard, his academic thesis collapses into a series of delirious travelogues, deranged speculations and tormented meditations on time, memory, and loss. Abandoning literary interpretation and renouncing all scholarly distance, he finally accepts the deep assignment that has run throughout his entire life, and embarks on a rogue fieldwork project: Applied Ballardianism, a new discipline and a new ideal for living. Only the darkest impulses, the most morbid obsessions, and the most apocalyptic paranoia, can uncover the technological mutations of inner space.

A novel, evidently; autofiction, most likely. Does the book exemplify what the website attempted, or in fictionalizing the concept is the author acknowledging the impossibility of applied Ballardianism? I’m going to try tracking down this book via interlibrary loan.