Surveying the Texts: Fictional Counterfactuals

This morning I woke up thinking about the number of short fictions I’m likely to track down and read over the next 3 months. I intend to survey the authors of those texts, but what about the texts themselves — why not survey them too?

The central organizing scheme of Ficticities Mach 2: each day I track down a few online short fictions; I excerpt some portion of each text that refers to some aspect of the setting in which the narrative takes place; I accumulate a single day’s excerpts into a single post, as if I’d witnessed each of these scenes or events in sequence while strolling through a fictional city; all of these strolling posts displayed together on the site comprise a kind of grand tour of the fictional city. It’s sort of the complement to Calvino’s Invisible Cities, in which what seem like descriptions of various fictional cities all refer to the same actual city of Venice.

So I’m wondering: what sort of data could I accumulate from these multiple short fictions that is relevant to the site’s core conceit? Each of the short fictions takes place somewhere in particular, but from the standpoint of the website the particulars aren’t of central concern; it’s the relationship between the fictional and the actual that comes into focus. I wonder: in a short story, can textual indicators of fictional versus actual be discerned? I don’t mean actual versus fictional places and times during which the stories unfold, nor am I concerned particularly with the author’s use of “realism effects” to make the setting seeem actual. I’m wondering about the extent to which the place and time in which a story takes place drift into realms of the imaginary, the speculative, the abstract, the unreal — the fictional.

I’m going to assay the feasibility of such a project with reference to the next story in James Purdy’s volume of short stories, a library book that I just renewed. I’m going to read it for the first time right now, making observations relevant to the proposed textual survey project.

*   *   *

I hadn’t the slightest intention of pampering Naomi, the story begins. Intent isn’t actual; it’s speculative, about achieving some desired future state. And here it’s a negated intention, an undesired future state, implying two possible futures, one in which Naomi is pampered, another in which she’s not.

the wages I paid her were far in advance of their day when she came to me… — Here the narrator is reflecting on the past, which of course isn’t the story’s actual present; further, she’s regarding the wages she paid back then as in advance of their day, manifesting a future state that would later be actualized, even though its actualization is by now part of the past.

the rumor she has been circulating… — a rumor is a dubious recounting, unverified, probably fake news — a hypothetical situation that probably varies from the actual fact.

what I did to Naomi could never, not even in a court of law, be construed as striking — again, a counterfactual speculation.

Naomi had changed. She was not a double personality… — the narrator invokes the idea of a doubled reality while at the same time revoking it.

Naomi had simply become another woman… not a doubled reality, but an altered reality.

And that’s just the first paragraph. The next paragraph begins with dialogue: “You’re a woman of at least forty, though you lie to your men friends about your age!” — again, a counterfactual.

I went on, nearly beside myself… — is this just a hackneyed old-lady expression, or is the narrator herself beginning to occupy two realities at once?

*   *   *

I can see already that the task of distinguishing actual from fictional within a fictional text would entail a lot of work. The textual indicators of counterfactuality aren’t readily reduced to sets of keywords I could easily gather and count; close reading seems required. But maybe Purdy is exceptional in this regard; maybe contemporary writers of short fiction stick more resolutely to the actual heres and nows of their storied worlds. Still, finding a needle in a haystack requires sifting the whole haystack — just as much work as finding a dozen needles.

Maybe the thing to do is to select story excerpts based on their textual counterfactuality. Or maybe I should select excerpts based on other criteria, then conduct the counterfactual analysis post hoc?

Heading Out the Door

Here’s what’s going to happen now on Ficticities.

I’m going to attempt to lure a bunch of writers who have recently published short fictions in open source online literary magazines. I’ll do this by going to those magazines and reading a selection of pieces published there, then I’ll post excerpts of those short fictions here on Ficticities, along with links to the original sources. If the writers of these texts are googling themselves, they’ll come across the Ficticities references and will likely click through to see what’s going on.

When they show up here, the writers will find excerpts from their short fictions embedded in a “fictiCity” — an imaginary city comprised of various imaginary places: the Bar, the Office, the Neighborhood, the School, the Courthouse, the Dump, etc. Each place in the fictiCity will be populated by excerpts from multiple fictional texts. The idea is to create an imaginary sense of collective identity among fiction writers, all of them occupying a fictional ecosystem cobbled together from a wide variety of disparate fictional worlds.

Illustration: I just flipped to a random page in The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy, a book I checked out from the library recently. I landed on page 519, which is part of a story entitled “Easy Street.” Here’s an excerpt from page 519:

One thing of course they could not help noticing. Bewie hardly ever returned without he was carrying a heavy package or two. At the ladies’ look of astonishment, he sat down and said in a joking tone, “My wardrobe. In my profession, you have to look your best. And the film people of course insist on it.”

I could post this excerpt in the Shopping Mall section of fictiCities, or perhaps in the Menswear Store.

While they’re here at the site, the fiction writers will see prominently displayed an invitation to participate in brief online surveys. These surveys will be designed to evaluate fiction writers’ attitudes toward specific components of the fiction publishing industry, as well as attitudes toward possible alternatives. For example, a survey could ask respondents to evaluate the importance to them of getting published, of being read, and of making money from their fiction writing. Survey results will be compiled and analyzed, with results posted on Ficticities. The survey questions will encourage writers to self-reflect; the published results will give them a glimpse of themselves in the aggregate, as a virtual collective called “fiction writers.” Hopefully the surveys and findings will generate enough interest for writers to keep returning to the site, perhaps also to recommend the site to fellow writers. And of course results will be useful in evaluating assumptions about the perceived attractiveness to fiction writers of a postcapitalistic alternative model to traditional publishing.

There will also be a brief description of the alternative postcapitalistic publishing scheme I’ve outlined here previously; the rest of the content — posts and discussions, pages, pamphlets — will be removed.

Let’s say this version of Ficticities runs for three months. Suppose I find, read, and excerpt from 30 short fictions per week: that’s nearly 400 texts, 400 writers. Let’s further say that I put up a new survey every week: that’s 13 surveys, plus results and analyses. By then maybe it’ll become clear what comes next.

So there will need to be a complete overhaul of the site, which will take some time. I’ll leave it open, maybe posting occasional progress reports.

Wading Out of the Water

Integral to human understanding and invention, fiction plays an essential role in imagining alternatives to reality, in shaping reality, in disguising reality, and in providing avenues of escape from reality. Fictional narratives are more than entertaining stories; they are simulations of worlds, not unlike scientific experiments, algorithms, and AIs. Realizing that they are trapped in an artificial world invented to serve commercial interests, writers and readers of fictional texts can escape together into an alternative world of their own invention.

– from the Postcapitalist Realities outline

What constrains fiction writers in perpetrating a collective escape from escapism? Habit is a big limiting factor:

People adapt to environments, even artificial ones. Adaptations become habits, hard to break even when moving into an alternative environment where those habits are no longer adaptive. Freed from the constraints of the traditional publishing world, would readers and writers of fictions remain locked into their habitual ways of reading and writing? Or would the alternate reality of writers’ syndicates and readers’ duplicating libraries establish a different ecology, calling for different adaptations from which different habits take shape?

Erdman has endorsed this idea of fiction writers being immersed in a habit-forming ecosystem. In the Blog Fail post he analogized from a DF Wallace commencement address:

An older fish swims along and two younger fish pass him coming the other direction . “How’s the water,boys?” he asks. “What’s water?” is their reply. Since capitalism is the water we swim in, most humans – and particularly Americans – have no idea there is anything else or that capitalism even exists. Why does a fish even need to know what “water” is when there’s no other reality in which they can live? Why do we need to know what capitalism is, since there’s no other reality in which we can survive? I run into this quite a bit in discussing socialism. It’s hard enough to talk about capitalism as though it exists, even harder to talk about it as though it doesn’t exist (as though there is another reality).

Wallace’s fish story doesn’t offer much room for optimism. Even if the fish realize they’re in the water, why would they want to escape from it? Water is the medium in which they evolved, to which they’re adapted, which provides the essentials for their survival. The older fish gets it, understands that he’s swimming in water, but he’s managed to get old by staying in the water, not by trying to make a go of it in some other medium. If fiction writers are adapted to a capitalist ecosystem, why would they want to get out of that water only to flounder around on dry land? As Erdman remarked on the Profession of Doubt post:

Americans thoroughly identify as capitalists, and as such I think that the psychology is one and the same. We sort of assume that the market is always working things out in the best way possible, more or less… As such, capitalism is so thoroughly our way of being that it drives our creativity, and I think that most American artists are more or less okay with that.

In my response to Erdman’s comment I conceded that most fiction writers seem to be trying to succeed in marketplace terms, either by writing popular fiction they hope sells well or by padding their CVs with published stories that don’t pay at all but that might eventually get them a gig teaching creative writing.

So let’s assume that most fiction writers are adapted to swimming in the waters of capitalism. But what if the waters are drying up while the number of fish is increasing — so many fish swimming around in shrinking ponds that there’s no room to move, no oxygen to breathe, nothing to eat. That’s the scenario I was trying to sketch in one of the earliest posts on this site: hardly any novels get published, and even published novelists typically earn a pittance from sales of their books, while most self-published authors make next to nothing. I’ve not yet written about the writing schools, but the situation is comparably dire: far fewer teaching slots than qualified applicants, the jobs being mostly adjunct and temp positions that don’t pay enough to make a living. In short, the capitalistic ecological niche can’t support most of the fiction writers whose talents and predilections are optimally adapted to that niche.

If Erdman is right — if most fiction writers aren’t consciously aware of how their immersion in the capitalistic pond influences the way they write — then describing an alternative postcapitalistic ecosystem to them isn’t likely to alter their habitual writing practices. The alternative ecosystem I’ve outlined on this sight doesn’t actually exist, so it’s not possible to lure writers into it to see how they adapt.

But what if Erdman is wrong? What if fiction writers are aware that they’re adapted to an ecosystem that can’t support them? Would that awareness make them more likely to climb out of the water and step into an alternative ecosystem, even if that ecosystem is only an experimental laboratory that’s not ready to support life on an ongoing basis?

One way to find out would be to open up the alternative ecosystem, issue invitations to writers to step in through the portal, and see who responds. The biggest obstacle is that the alternative ecosystem isn’t an empty habitat waiting for occupants, like a newly constructed housing subdivision waiting for buyers to move in or a newly established corporation waiting for applicants to reply to its help wanted ads. It’s more like a bunch of homesteaders building a settlement together, with houses and shops, a corral and a railway station, a church and a schoolhouse and a tavern, a town hall and a Boot Hill… Another way to find out whether writers are adapted to an alternative ecosystem is to ask them. Maybe don’t ask them point blank if they’d like to pitch in, sign up as one of the pioneers in the homesteading project. Instead, ask them about themselves as fiction writers: their preferences and practices, their hopes and fears. Ask them also about their perceptions of the fictional ecosystem in which they operate: its features and its bugs, what it affords and what it prevents. Eventually ask them to speculate about possible features of alternative fictional ecosystems. We’d learn something about writers’ enthusiasm and readiness for getting out of the water, while writers would learn something about themselves and about one another.

And what if I too am wrong? What if there already is a fictional habitat compatible with the postcapitalistic scheme I’ve outlined here? Would it be possible to expand and deepen that habitat?

There are a lot of online open-access literary magazines: readers don’t pay to read; writers don’t get paid for writing. I’ve been assuming that fiction writers publish in these venues as a way of paying their dues, building up their résumés, establishing credibility with agents and publishers when eventually they submit novels for consideration as commercially viable commodities. But maybe writers write short stories for free because those publishing venues encourage more variety in style and content, more experimentation in art and craft, than do the commercial publishers. There are, to be sure, some boutique publishers of long fictions that emphasize artistic merit rather than potential popularity, but those publishers, being short on staff and on revenues, tend to put out only a small number of new titles every year. Maybe these more adventurous writers would thrive in an alternative fictional ecosystem, a habitat run by and for writers themselves, a venue where they can edit and publish and distribute long fictions of distinction, its capacity constrained only by the merits of the books themselves.

I’m closing in on a redesign of this site…


Mystic Autistic Artistry

Linking the idea of professing oneself to be a writer to a Judeo-Christian tradition in which naming it makes it so, Erdman commented: Like the act of fiction there’s always this sense that the faithful can remake reality based on their imaginative vision of what it could or ought to be.

The reality of fiction interests me. An imagined reality need not be an actual reality. I can remember the past even though the past is no longer actual. I can plan for the future even though the future isn’t actual yet. My own understanding or description of the actual present world is different from that world: it’s an understanding, a description, a work of the imagination. There’s always a gap between what I imagine the actual world to be and what the world actually is.

If I can acknowledge the gap between actual and imaginary, I can try to narrow the gap. I can gather evidence about the past: descriptions written when the past was still present; objects existing in the present that originated in the past; forces that traverse temporal boundaries, with the present actual state of things being regarded as but an isolated moment in a continuum stretching from past into future. In making a plan for the future I can investigate and enact the processes and intermediate states that must occur if the actual present is to be transformed into the imagined desired future. I can compare my own understanding of the actually existing world with others’ understandings and with evidence, using my findings to make my understanding conform more closely to the parameters of actuality.

In a complementary fashion, if I recognize the gap between actual and imaginary realities I can try to widen the gap. I can imagine that I was born on another planet and was secretly transported here in my infancy. I can imagine myself conducting an ongoing reconnaissance mission here on earth, periodically transmitting my findings to my home planet via alien brain waves undetectable by any human technologies. I can imagine a series of future intragalactic apocalypses precipitated by the arrival on earth of a landing party from my home planet.

I’ve imagined an alternative postcapitalistic fictional reality, a reality that isn’t actual in the present but that might become actual in the future. I’ve described this imaginary fictional reality at some length in a series of texts posted on this website. The gap is fairly wide between the proposed postcapitalistic scheme and the capitalistic actualities; at the same time, a series of bridges have been sketched out for spanning the gap from the present to the imagined future. So far those bridges too remain imaginary; the gap, unspanned.

Perhaps the easiest course would be to blow the imaginary bridges sky high. Instead of narrowing the gap, widen it — push the alternative reality further away from the actual, beyond the far fringes of the unlikely into the impossible. I recently posted an excerpt from a novel about a man “designing out of thin air the most complete and complex urban plan history had ever known”:

…while the city now stood, after fifteen years’ solid work but with no end in sight, as by far the biggest and most complex urban plan ever conceived by man or committee and which I could not help thinking, as I sipped my beer and watched, would, if he stuck at it long enough, eclipse the whole fucking world, this map of a kingdom that existed nowhere on this earth but in his head, this masterpiece with its clueless overlord, a mad king who knew nothing of the real world but was nevertheless on such intimate terms with the infinite intricacies of his own mind that he needed nothing more than a rule and pencil to draw them forth and lay them on the paper, this city as a kind of neural maze, a cognitive map which would reach out, street by street, to cover the whole world…

I could carry out a program like this, imagine a complete and complex postcapitalist fictional reality, extend its ambit infinitely and its level of detail infinitesimally, enthrone myself as its clueless overlord, document it in fifteen years’ worth of text that nobody but I would ever see. Hell, I’ve already written a book’s worth of content — plenty more where that came from. It would be a pure act of fiction, a work of mystic autistic artistry fully unhinged from actuality.

The Sacred Order of the True Fiction

I’ve been reflecting on an exchange I had with Erdman in the discussion of my recent Profession of Doubt post. I wondered whether I regarded myself a professional novelist. Originally a profession was a public declaration of vows taken upon entering a monastic order, I wrote. In a comment Erdman remarked: I am a writer for no other reason than that I profess to be… In the Hebrew scriptures, there was sort of this idea that if you name it as such it would occur. My response: Maybe there is a monastic order of Fictionalists, a secret society, keepers of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans through which True Fiction reveals itself…

I’m particularly keen to explore what it takes to actualize an imagined reality. I could profess myself a novelist even if I’d never actually written a novel: does my profession make me an actual novelist? Well maybe it does, in the sense that I could already have the potential to write a novel before actually writing one. But now there’s the potential/actual distinction to consider. A seed has the potential to become a plant, but that doesn’t make it an actual plant.

And He spoke many things to them in parables, saying, “Behold, the sower went out to sow; and as he sowed, some seeds fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate them up. Others fell on the rocky places, where they did not have much soil; and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of soil. But when the sun had risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. Others fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them out. And others fell on the good soil and yielded a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.” (Matthew 13:3-9)

A seed has the potential to become the subject of a parable, but until that parable is spoken and the reference to the seed is made, the seed’s potential as parabolic subject remains unactualized.

So let’s say I’ve already actualized my potential to be a novelist by actually writing a novel. Am I justified now in professing myself to be a novelist? Or, in making the profession, am I offering my response to a higher calling, issued by some standard beyond myself, a standard to which I aspire, an actualization of a potential that resides not in me as writer but in the standard, in the sacred order of the True Fiction?

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. (Genesis 1:3-4a)

Verse 4 introduces a formulaic phrase of the creation narrative: And God saw that X was good. The phrase appears six times in the six days of creation. The light, the earth and the seas, the plants, sun and moon and stars, creatures of sea and land and air. Once for each day? Not quite: it’s used twice on the third and fifth days, but not at all on the second and sixth. Perhaps what got created on certain days just wasn’t quite up to speed? That would be curious, because on day two God created Heaven. Man, the work of day six, doesn’t come in for special commendation either – which is perhaps a more understandable omission. Finally, though, in the very last verse of chapter one, God makes his pronouncement a seventh time, this time with a slight but important variant, dispelling all doubts about the overall quality of the job: And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. Not only were the separate parts of the creation good; the creation in its entirety, as a whole and completed thing, was also good – and let’s not leave it at that, because it was very good.

Good in what way? Our cultural heritage leads us to assume that whenever the Bible says something is “good,” the writer means that it’s good morally, good as opposed to evil. But that’s not right. That was a good apple; you did a good job; have a good day; she looks good; the job offers good benefits – the Hebrew word for “good” has a wide variety of uses, just as it does in English. It’s an all-purpose word connoting excellence of whatever type is appropriate to the context: ethical, sensual, aesthetic, juridical. As usual, though, the writer of the Genesis 1 narrative doesn’t elaborate.

The creation was very good. God doesn’t say how it was good, and neither does the witness. In Genesis 3 Eve sees something good: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Good how? The woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise (Genesis 3:6). Compared to God Eve comes across as a veritable connoisseur of goodness – almost as if the forbidden tree is projecting into Eve’s mind its knowledge of how a thing can be good, enticing her to take that first bite. To Eve the tree looked good for something – food, delight, wisdom: personal benefits that Eve hoped to gain from eating the fruit. We’re quite familiar with this sense of instrumental value, where “good” means “good for me.”

Maybe everything God made – the light, the plants and animals, the people – was useful to God himself. In declaring the goodness of the creation, he was proclaiming its fitness for use in accomplishing some larger end. As anthropocentric readers we would like to think that God created the universe for our benefit. But again, we go back to the text: at the end of the week God lumps us in with all the rest when he pronounces the whole creation’s goodness.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth — We can infer from the beginning of the narrative that God intended to create an entire reality. In verse 3 God uses light as the first strand in knitting his creation together. Perhaps what the light is for, then, is to contribute to the contours of this larger reality. If so, then the light was good as a core construct for making sense of the raw stuff of the universe. Light is a good idea; it maps well onto natural phenomena; it seems understandable even to the narrator who bears witness to the creation.

God saw that the light was good. In the “Let there be…” and there was… creation formula of Genesis 1 God speaks the creation; now, in evaluating what he’s created, God sees that it’s good. He didn’t say “Let the light be good,” which we might have expected if he had first created the light and then created its goodness. Instead, God saw the goodness of the light as a property the newly-created light already possessed.

God didn’t simply declare the light to be good, sight unseen, which is what we might have expected if he had been making a material version of some pre-existing ideal version of Light. If God already knew what kind of creation he was going to make before he started, wouldn’t he have known without looking that the light was good? After all, Beethoven knew his own music was good even though he couldn’t hear it. Yes, but there could have been a gap between the score and the performance, between the plan and its implementation. Not every orchestra plays Beethoven well; maybe not every visible manifestation of the idea of light lives up to the idea. Suppose the creator was attempting to replicate in the heavens and the earth some property that already existed in its pure form in the home of the gods. God might not have been certain that the replica would be good enough until after it was built and put in place.

God saw that it was good. He didn’t say “I’m pleased with the light” or anything else to imply that the light’s goodness is a subjective judgment – even if that judgment happens to be rendered by God himself. Again we remind ourselves that in Genesis 1 God is creating a reality that’s totally other than himself, so the light doesn’t automatically contain within itself its creator’s goodness. The goodness of the light belongs to the light itself. Also, we recall that God is interested in the result, not the process – which means he doesn’t have to judge the quality of his work, but only what comes out the end of the chute. Neither does the creator reflect on what a pleasure it is to create. When he proclaims that something or another is good, or even very good, he’s looking away from himself and toward the creation. We can infer that God experienced a sense of pleasure and satisfaction in a job well done, but that’s not what the words say. “It is good,” says the creator; not “I’m doing a good job,” not “I feel good about this.”

God, not the narrator of the Genesis creation story, saw that it was good. God revealed his creation to the narrator as witness. If he had made the creation for the witness, then conceivably God could have left it to the witness to judge whether or not the creation was good. Or, if God had wanted to shape the witness’s opinion, he could have told the witness that the light was good. Instead, we’re left with this scenario: God sees the creation, points it out to the witness, and says to the witness: “there is light.” The witness turns, looks, sees, understands, repeats: “there is light.” Together, God and the witness are looking at the creation. In silent contemplation God sees the goodness in the light. Apparently there’s no need to speak, because the creation speaks for itself. Maybe the witness casts a glance back toward God, sees the rapt admiration in the creator’s face, and understands what it means. Maybe, for the witness, being able to see God’s created reality meant seeing it the way God did, as a good thing. God didn’t need to speak the words; the witness just knew, by empathy and identification – as if he was becoming transformed into the very image and likeness of the creator himself…

God saw that it was good. The theme of Genesis 1 is creation. Now, obliquely, we’re introduced to the idea that God has an eye for goodness. Soon the Bible turns into a history of man acting badly and God trying to set him straight. Back on day one, though, God’s disappointment with mankind hasn’t set in yet, so God can contemplate the goodness in what he’s made. Something within God is resonating with something inherent in the reality. Goodness turns out to be a dimension of the reality he’s created. Like all of God’s work in Genesis 1, the creation of goodness looks a lot like discovery. To see, to respond with imagination, to pull forth from the formless void an abstract property that extends over a wide array of raw stuff, and to assign a name – goodness – to the abstraction: isn’t this exactly how the gods create?



until I chanced upon a documentary which showed

a grown man lying on a floor covered with large sheets of paper, A2 sheets on which there were some very complex and detailed line drawings, page after page covered, and this narrow shouldered man in a white shirt stretched out in the middle of them, drawing away with pencil and rule, adding yet another detailed sheet to all those around him and I must have recognised the sort of drawings they were because I found myself sitting forward in the armchair, prodding the zapper in my hand to turn up the volume so that I could hear the voiceover tell me that this man — some French man whose name I can’t remember — suffered from a sort of high-level autism that left him socially inept and completely without any sense of humour or irony but who was nevertheless designing out of thin air the most complete and complex urban plan history had ever known, a project which had come to light when a few of the drawings were used to illustrate a Sunday Times Magazine article on autism, which brought him to the attention of an urban planner at London City Council who marvelled at the precise beauty of its streets and thoroughfares but who was a lot more intrigued by the sprawling harmony hinted at beyond the margins of the cropped fragments and so took himself off to France to investigate this gifted planner whom no one in the urban design community had ever heard of, finding him eventually in a little village in the Vosges where he lived with his partner, a mathematician and herself autistic, and who, after he’d spent a couple of days there, convinced the planner that he had encountered a fully fledged genius — a visionary who had not only a coherent sense of the vast megalopolis which, after fifteen years, was still metastasizing, day by day over pages and pages, an astonishing achievement in itself but more impressive from the point of view of a city planner was this man’s ability to hold in his mind’s eye a sense of the city as an enormous, dynamic organism which was continually morphing through the vast tides of those circadian rhythms that governed all its streets and infrastructure and which this seer outlined with sweeping gestures over the sheets of paper spread across the sitting-room floor, speaking in a toneless voice which swept through the city with a running commentary on how it was performing at any specific time of the day, how and where all its crowds and traffic were flowing and what routes they took to what points of convergence in the early morning rush hour, and what exactly the drain on utilities would be — how all its vertical and horizontal circuitry was functioning when water and electricity followed in the wake of crowds converging for work or entertainment in various parts and times of the city while disgorging a flow of sewage, hydrocarbons, and CO2 emissions from those same points, this savant holding in mind all the flows and shifts through the city’s streets and conduit, vast rhythms he could gauge to any hour of the day, any day of the week or any holiday, a phenomenal feat which had the urban planner at a loss to find some comparative image or simile — he talked about a 3D chess game and a multi-tiered symphony  of people and environment — all vivid and suggestive but each one falling some way short of the city’s majestic, multi-harmonic sprawl — while all the time speaking to camera the seer himself was down on the floor behind him with his pencil and square, adding yet another precinct to the city’s expanse — a working-class suburban enclave with housing grouped around schools and shopping facilities, parking and leisure amenities, the concrete substratum of a fully realised community — while the city now stood, after fifteen years’ solid work but with no end in sight, as by far the biggest and most complex urban plan ever conceived by man or committee and which I could not help thinking, as I sipped my beer and watched, would, if he stuck at it long enough, eclipse the whole fucking world, this map of a kingdom that existed nowhere on this earth but in his head, this masterpiece with its clueless overlord, a mad king who knew nothing of the real world but was nevertheless on such intimate terms with the infinite intricacies of his own mind that he needed nothing more than a rule and pencil to draw them forth and lay them on the paper, this city as a kind of neural maze, a cognitive map which would reach out, street by street, to cover the whole world and possibly for this reason or for some other I could not fathom, the programme filled me with a sour bloom of resentment the focus of which I could not clearly discern but which quickly had me feeling so foolish I was embarrassed to be alone with myself in the sitting room, feeling that someone invisible outside of myself was standing judge and jury over me, pointing a finger at me, saying

have you nothing better for doing at this time of night than getting pissed off at the television

– from Solar Bones (2016) by Mike McCormack

Profession of Doubt

For a long time I worked in healthcare, an industry where the capitalism-socialism debate is a lively one. Why haven’t I jumped more actively into that fray? Though I doubt I’d have much to offer that’s not already been covered, it’s mostly because I’m not in that business anymore. I write novels now — I’ve changed industries. Fiction writing too seems ripe for exploring postcapitalistic alternatives, even if it isn’t the subject of heated public debate. As I wrote at the end of the “About” page on this website: This time it’s personal. This time it’s fictional. This time it’s real.

I worked in healthcare; I did a job and I got paid for it. When I’d work on spec as an entrepreneur, I did it with the expectation that eventually I’d get paid. Do I work in fiction? As writer I’ve been a speculative entrepreneur, but those bets didn’t pay off. Even if the postcapitalist scheme I’ve been outlining on Ficticities were to be actualized, I still wouldn’t be able to make a living from writing. With resolute frugality financed by 401ks, index mutual funds, and social security (a classic mix of capitalistic and socialistic revenue streams), we figure we can make it to the end of the race. Projected revenues from books? They don’t even factor into the equations.

Do I nonetheless deem myself a professional writer of fictions? I’ve had no formal training, don’t hold the advanced degree emblematic of professional status. Originally a profession was a public declaration of vows taken upon entering a monastic order. In professing oneself a writer of fiction a vow of poverty is required; chastity and humility are optional but generally frowned upon. When in public I admit to being a novelist it feels less a profession than a confession.

Once while walking in Nice I came across a young man handing out copies of his poetry, begging bowl on the sidewalk in front of him: a profession of poetic monasticism. That’s not me. Recently I’ve engaged in an extended email exchange with a professional poet: he teaches poetry in an MFA and Ph.D. program; a few volumes of his poetry have been published. He writes:

I try to be as creative as possible in my private life. Going around the house I will write out-loud. Whole scat-poems (maybe scat in several senses). There are only two rules: I write as best as I can at the very tip of moment’s tongue, and I don’t allow myself to remember any of it.

That’s not me either.

I don’t associate with other novelists, either professionally or socially, so I’m not motivated by affective solidarity to pursue postcapitalist fictional alternatives. Worse: I don’t much like what other novelists write. Of the novels on the New Release shelves at my local public library fewer than ten percent draw my attention, and most of those were written by foreign authors. My working assumption is that published American novelists are holding themselves in thrall, conforming to the bland expectations set by an industry that values return on investment more than excellence and distinction. There might be plenty of American novels out there that I’d want to read, but they never see the light of day because most likely they wouldn’t make enough money. Relax the commercial constraints and the New Release shelves will spontaneously overflow with American novels that I’d like to read. I acknowledge this is a kind of blind faith on my part, unsupported by any tangible evidence other than my own novels. But what if I’m wrong, and American novelists are already giving it their best shot? What if they’re already happy with what they’re writing, inspired by commercial standards rather than constrained by them?