Saturday, June 15, 2013


Two years after my previous post, the "New Yorker Weekender Bag" is still a black plastic insult to its readers, but now the magazine has the good sense to have removed the New Yorker logo. It is easy to see why a magazine would not want to be associated with this bag. It is less easy to see why a magazine whose readers conceive of it as the epitome of the upper middle in America would continue to advertise a "gift" of a "weekender bag" to its subscribers that looks and smells like toxic waste.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

From the Archives: Diary

The French have l’esprit, the English have humor. The Russians have something else, broader, wilder, zanier. Bakhtin called it the carnivalesque. You can see it imprinted on K.’s face when he’s had a few vodkas, or even when he hasn’t, this antic spirit that can swing from sweet boyishness into rampaging vulgarity in a giddy second, all the while retaining a certain calculated wariness. K. has been, you suspect, doted on by his elders for being a naughty boy ever since he was old enough to interject precocious exclamations into serious adult talk. His grin possesses his face absolutely — thick lips, big white teeth, wide mouth, heavy brows lifted, round eyes popped wide open — flaunting the whites — in astonished mock-astonishment, with the promise of mad abandon perpetually exuding from their depths. His impish drolleries, taken out of context, are seldom witty or humorous, but each contributes to the earthily comic atmosphere he strives to maintain. They mean to convey one message: Fun! An appealling blend of cheerful savagery and cultivation partaking of a promiscuous mixture of Near Eastern and West Asian elements, his face, captured in different moments, moods, angles or lighting, could belong to a Turkish gastarbeiter or an Iranian Pasha, a Barbary pirate or an Uzbek warlord, an Armenian anarchist or a Bollywood singing sensation. Or even, for that matter (improbably enough) — a Russian Jewish intellectual. Like a rough-hewn leading man of action, he is both handsome and ugly. Always a little bit taller and less stoutly muscled than you remember, he is always a little bit swarthier and hairier than you have permitted yourself to believe.

 “I looked inside there,” he said, referring to the common room of the Sixth Street Community Center, where the interns and their friends had gathered in disappointingly sparse clusters. “It’s the lamest party ever!” The absolutist pronouncement is one of K.’s trademarks. At the last party on the Lower East Side, he had declared that “there are no beautiful women here,” causing a friend of L. to sputter on the cab ride home, his face flushing a deep crimson, “I c-c-can’t b-believe he said that! There were S-SO MANY b-beautiful w-women there!” But this is K.’s way. Periodically, he will pay lip service to the other side of his axiomatic worldview in a tentative, bemused way. “Maybe we’re just schlubs,” he intoned and let the possibility hang in the air for a pensive moment, tittering and growling nervously under his breath. “Maybe our superiority to all other writers isn’t so assured.” This was, of course, an outlandish joke — doubting the superiority, that is.

 “He is an interesting paradox,” mused M. “Of the four of us, who can you most easily picture running around with an Uzi? And yet, he is many ways furthest to the left on Israel.” “He is a Bolshevik for Menshevik ends,” I added. “Well, that does bring up a certain means-end disconnect,” M. mused. “Maybe so, but maybe it’s also exactly what is needed in times like the present. The rest of us bemoan our troubled condition, the corruption and rot that surrounds us, thickening every day. K. asks only — what is to be done?”

 Friday, May 20, 2005

 E.B. talks like she writes

 E.B. talks like she writes. Or maybe it’s better to say that she writes like she thinks. So many colorful anecdotes, so many toothsome ironies so amiably rendered, in the most off-hand way. When she sits down to write, she is a transcriptionist of her own internal monologue. All she has to do is type. Her stories begin like shaggy dog stories, and by means of the subtlest and most extraordinary transpositions, flirt with universal significance, and then deconstruct themselves to become shaggy dog stories again. In so doing, the form of her storytelling mimics the content of her message, dramatizing the universal truth to be found in the absence of any universal truth. When she is sitting across from you at an overpriced Chinese restaurant, her face — big and narrow, and loose, and exquisitely sculptured all at once — feigning its own genuine innocence and dissembling its omniscience — is lit by soft candelight and framed by shadow. Though she is six feet tall and superbly muscled along her lanky frame — all elongated limbs and torso — she is a lightweight drinker; a single glass of white wine has made her giddy. This fact has something to do with how I wound up with EB and Dr. B.

 “I have to meet my mother, why don’t you come?” she asks, rummaging through her pocketbook for a pack of cigarettes. “I don’t smoke, except when I see my mother,” she says. “I worry about my mother, I feel for her, it makes me nervous, I have to smoke. Would you like one?” We are standing outside of the Borders Books and Music at 57th Street and Park Avenue, where she drank a single glass of white wine and I drank four. We hit things off immediately, having so many important things in common. Among them: suburban New Jersey, half-Asian violinists, a certain confidential tone. I mentioned A., a former professional soccer player who attended the same private school with her.

 “Oh, him,” she remembered. “If I recall, he was the head of the diversity committee. He used to give speeches to the assembled student body about the importance of accepting people of different backgrounds. It was very strange,” she noted. “He has returned to the school as a teacher!’

 “It all makes perfect sense now,” I averred. “He was a closet homosexual!” Even as I say this, I realize that it is my own closet homosexuality that I have inadvertently projected onto the long-limbed, golden-haired avatar of all my frustrated youthful athletic ambitions. I recalled the incipient swelling of a man’s musculature beneath his close-fitted soccer jersey, the flop and sway of his straw colored hair, matted in sections, flailing in others, as he sliced through defenses with heedless aplomb. But the conversation soon turns to other things. “Did you go to Harvard?” she wants to know.

 “No, I went to Rutgers,” I say, with a certain defiant solemnity.

 “Ah, Rutgers,” she begins, with a smile.

 “You are about to say something charitable about the State University of New Jersey?” I demand. “

"No, no. It’s about my favorite English teacher.” She went on to tell a shaggy dog story about an English teacher at her private school with a PHd. from Rutgers: how she took EB. and a friend under her wing as her prized students, how she would assign five page papers and how E would turn in 40 page essays, and how the teacher dutifully, painstakingly worked her way through all of it, how the teacher eventually had her husband abandon her for the mother of the other favored student, how she wound up last Christmas in that very man’s apartment amid his paintings. Lastly, how she had gotten in touch with this teacher who relayed all of her sorrows to her, but concluded that she was once again in love with a poet.

 “Ah, the last is the most tragic thing of all!” I interjected.

 “So, anyway,” she concluded, “that is what I know about Rutgers.”

 We compared spiritual upbringings – I was confirmed in the Lutheran Church, her father was a Marxist-Leninist. “So you grew up with historical inevitability?” I asked. “In the eighties, no less!”

 “No, but we do play this game where we try to see if we can get my father to say that ‘religion is the opium of the people,” she says. Then she talks of her mother. A Chinese lab assistant who was fired by her mother is suing her mother, alleging that it was a racially motivated firing. “But, in fact, as my mother has pointed out to her – all of her employees are Chinese!” she exclaims. But then, the employee has shot back that her mother hires the Chinese because they are docile and can be exploited. “In fact, my mother loves the Chinese!”

 “We have been talking of all things!” she enthused to K. when he appeared to check up on us. “The fear of death, the yearning for eternal youth, the acknowledgment of the fact that one must fulminate against this corrupt desire, and yet our craven acquiescence to it.” “E. knows all things, and W. is interested in all things,” says K. with his accustomed condescension. K. was looking, as always, like a vision of rude health — swarthy, hairy, compactly massive, and all the more so for the tall, slender, dark-haired Jewess next to him. Later, EB would call her “the most observant girl I have ever known.” She certainly has bewitching eyes. K. went quickly on his way. L.’s amiable mother amiably nudged us up the escalators and out the door. We emerged into the clear and warm night air. I let her light me up. We made it the restaurant and met her Dr. B, who talked about experimenting on monkeys, prep schools, and her admiration and love for her daughter. The food was awful at $40 a plate, scarcely distinguishable from the slop served at all-night take out places with bulletproof plexiglass shields. My fortune cookie read: “You have an interest in Chinese culture and all things Chinese.” Outside the restaurant, we said brisk and oddly peremptory goodbyes. The buzz had subsided, and I walked thirty blocks downtown through clusters of gaudily attired women tottering drunk on stiletto heels to take PATH station home.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

 A foray into the world republic of letters

After the reading we found ourselves at a sidewalk cafe with a pushy waiter. Toward the meal’s end M. wondered aloud if there was anything our man could’ve done to be more rude. Mostly, he tried to make us feel small for ordering within our means. You imagined him making wisecracks at our party’s expense in the kitchen, mimicking the apologetic tone he was able to extort from us with his imposing height, wiry musculature, and oily smile broadcasting the chagrin at our reluctance to splurge on expensive bottles of wine that it affected to hide. You could see how effective it might have been with people more easily cowed or less defiantly cheap than our party. There were six of us — the two subcontinental novelists and their female companions, M. and I, and we were just geting to know one another.

 P. endured this with exemplary geniality. Ever since he accidentally bumped into that Times reviewer at that stylish magazine party in Lower Manhattan, he had had to contend with a reputation for being a repository of all human virtues. It’s just good breeding, the kind you get as a matter of course in ancient and proud civilizations like the one that still flourishes on the Indian subcontinent, but it was easy to see why it would tempt an American into grotesque hyperbole with an Orientalizing cast. “Here, surely, was the young Siddhartha Gautama himself:” our man at the paper of record had written, “a scholar-sophisticate, a personality both cosmopolitan and ascetic, at large and at home in the world,” and he followed this up with such kindly words about P.’s achievement in the book he was reviewing that no one could begrudge him his self-gratifying reverie. P. really did have a spareness and translucency of aspect such that never sullying his digestive tract with animal fats and byproducts (he has never tasted meat) might imbue, and an easy genuineness to his smile that might strike a New Yorker grown accustomed to the wheedling, manipulative grins of his metropolitan adversaries in the scrimmage of appetite as holy. You sensed that P. didn’t say “We _must_ get together soon,” without intending to do so, and so forth, none of which should be taken to mean that he didn’t have a wicked tongue when he needed to, or an powerful sense of irony, especially toward Westerners that wanted to make him into a object lesson of some kind or other. And, of course — let’s admit what boringly commonplace Americans we are and say that his soft Oxbridge accent tinged with Brahmin spice impresses us too.

In any case, there was only one Siddhartha at the table, and he was seated across from me. S.’s novel came out just last week, to good early notices, though the bulk of them are still yet to come. He is tall and husky and would be cast in the role of warrior-king opposite P.’s saint-prince, though he is no less measured and gracious in his speech and gesture than his peer. The novel he intended to write, he explained at the Half-King, was the novel he would like to read which did not in fact, exist prior to his writing it: a depiction of his remote and war-torn Bengali homeland which would have nothing at all to do with the metropolitan India depicted in Bollywood musicals or other Oriental kitsch popular with Westerners. After the reading he was subject to the inevitable questions. “How many hours a day do you write?” from a pretty blonde woman, who turned out to be Sebastian Junger’s girlfriend. S. handled them with his accustomed aplomb.

At the restaurant, S. spoke about the presence of the West in his youthful imagination. Growing up in the 1970’s, Bengalis had access to American movies of theWorld War II era, but the most up to date heavy metal music of the day: Judas Priest, AC/DC, Iron Maiden. The memory of long Bengali hair and band insignia etched crudely into the skin brought a smile to S’s face. Attending an Irish Catholic school in his village, S. aspired to a cosmopolitan destiny. He went to college in Calcutta, worked as a journalist for a year and then, in 1998, appplied to the graduate English program at Columbia University. By phone, Gayatri Spivak asked him if he wanted to study with her. He responded “No, I don’t really agree with much of the work you are doing.” She came back with a bracing candor. “I can see how you’d have your own perspective on these issues,” she said. “I’m glad that you don’t want to work with me. In fact, I’m tired of all the people that want to come here and replicate the work that I do,” S. recalled. She then proceeded to help him get into the program.

 After reading, S. was approached by one of the Half-King’s waiter who, in between serving his customers in the section of the restaurant, peeked in to hear S. read with growing excitement. It turns out the waiter was a Bengali. “It was clear that he was very excited and impressed by writers,” S. said. “He said that one of reasons he likes his job is that the bar is owned by Sebastian Junger, and he gets to meet and be in the presence of other writers.” We all cooed, enchanted by that special feeling we get when the humanity of those we might otherwise ignore is suddenly disclosed. “He wanted to know if I knew Jhumpa Lahiri. He said he saw her once buying candies in Jackson Heights. Then he wanted to know if I knew Monica Ali. I had to admit that I did not,” he said. “His name is Shilling,” S. added to cap it all off.

 “Shilling,” we asked, inclining our heads, quizzically. “Yes, his name is Shilling, his brother is named Dollar and his other brother is named Farthing,” S. said. “I asked him if he wanted to go back. He said he did not. It was too violent and dangerous, and depressing. Which is true,” conceded S.

 The talk turned to books and magazines, editorial visions, neocon projects and philosophies of history. The food arrived; quite good. It was revealed that J., the proprietor of the much lamented and defunct magazine had been a man of independent means, the heir to an underwear fortune. Was it Hanes or BVD? M. was quiet, himself the recipient of a (much scattered and dispersed) textile fortune himself. 

Later, taking a last drink after the two couples had left, M. offered his appreciation of the Indians. “They are educated men, and they know it,” he said, “and they do not apologize for it.” He had recently published a beautiful essay about smoking that has rewarded repeated re-reading. Certain phrases from it flit through my subconscious, especially this one: “The more I smoke the less I’m actually alive and the more I become a hysterical medium for other people’s lives.” This captured something I have been wanting to say. After all, none of us are real people, we are merely surrogates for the insubstantial motives and agendas of others, equally unreal, and they of ours. The effort to convince ourselves otherwise is the source of so much trauma, and yet we can never be free of it. Amid all this, lives build up all around us, even those of us that have done our best to hold any particular life at bay. M. bought a pack of cigarettes — $7.50! — apologized for “doing the bourgeois thing” and hailed a cab to whisk him uptown. I walked to the 23rd St. PATH station through the lingering brisknes of the softening late-April air, and, finding myself short of funds, jumped the turnstile. posted by wesley

| 7:28 PM Wednesday, April 20, 2005

At the National Arts Club The Women Come and Go

 V. comes dressed in a pinstriped suit of antiquated cut with a splash of red fabric around his neck. He has been handing out dead flowers all night to the proprietors of the upstart literary journal and the concentric rings of their friends, acquaintances, and readers who gaze searchingly at one another, wondering whether they can count themselves as a milieu. The opulent surroundings help; we are bathed in the amber light from the chandeliers of the National Arts Club, surrounded by luxurious appointments softened by the gentle deliquescence of just the right kind of neglect. Good cookies, free red wine, shabby gentility, well-dressed peers, and at least one young woman with a face the sight of which can, simultaneously, induce in the spectator an eerie dreamlike silence and stillness, and a sense of falling into an abyss. Every now and again a face pops out of the sea of our drab, common humanity and reminds one of the power that the human visage can exert over the adrenal glands. Think of the special fondness that a lifetime shared with a woman you loved and built a life with would inculcate, the dear familiarity of its ever-changing moods, each instilled with imponderable depths of sorrow and joy. Now imagine having all this reduced to nothingness by a glimpse of a strange woman’s face across a hallway. I stuff a third cookie into my mouth, savoring its fatty richness.

 You could say that V. is the upstart journal’s number one fan. By the stairwell we are talking about revolution, V. and I, the attractive sociologist, and B., the young novelist with the golden hair and the gracefully self-deprecating wit. Self-deprecation in its contemporary form usually signals distorted aggression against the self and others, televisual japing with an edge of hysteria. In B., it assume its classical WASP poise, signifying a superfluidity of self-esteem playfully dissembled. A man of genuine and tortured conscience, B. is susceptible to the blandishments of success and cheerfully admits to the naked hypocrisy of this, knowing you will be charmed by his candor. And though you know he knows, and he knows that you know that he knows, and though you are determined not to be charmed — you are charmed. This is charm! Stephen Jay Gould has written about the special proportions shared by all baby mammals — the head large in proportion to the body, the eyes large in proportion to the head — and how these dimensions are universally appealing to the protective instincts of adult mammals. B. is embarrassed by the lottery he won at birth, but there are many compensations for this embarrassment.

 The talk, as it often does, has turned to Ayatollah fanciers, Stalinoid apologists, enthusiasts for Che, Mao, Kim Il-Sung. And what of the revolutionary hopes of the present? Have they all been extinguished? Hugo Chavez, V. insists, only advocates the nationalization of industry and the distribution of jobs to the previously disenfranchised. Though he grandstands as a revolutionary, his meliorist ends incite no revolutionary passions elsewhere.

 “It’s enough to get him killed by the CIA,” I aver.

B. notes that, frankly, there aren’t enough Venezuelan intellectuals of the upper class to host an international brigade of liberal intellectuals in their accustomed style. “You’d have to go live in the huts with the people,” B. notes, his eyes twinkling mordantly. “That doesn’t sound like much fun. Now Argentina! That’s where you want to be! The dollar is very strong over there. You can live well, and help with the march of progress!”

 And then V. steers the subject abruptly to the avant-garde. “I come from a very bourgeois upbringing, a very proper Russian bourgeois education,” he says.

 “Yes, well, it’s a rare avant-gardist that does not come from the bourgeoisie,” B. notes.

 “Yes, yes,” says V. “Well, the truth is — if you want to have an intellectual avant-garde, you will have to deal with people like me!”

 It was the line of the night, and we told him so. Was it spontaenous? He admitted to sitting in his bedroom and thinking up aphorisms, like Oscar Wilde.

 “It’s true that Wilde was hardly spontaneous,” B. notes, “but did he admit it?”

 “Probably not,” conceded Vlad, and then produced from his inner jacket pocket a bottle of vodka and proceeded to swig from it. He offered it to each of it. We politely declined.

Later in the evening, after we have decamped to a bar, M. is scathing on the subject of V. Yes, he is merely a 20-year old kid, and wasn’t I pretentious when I was that age? M. asks, making the desultory case for tempering scorn with affection. But really, M. asks — what is he doing here? Why is he acting this way? V. proposed to write a manifesto for the upstart journal, M. discloses — a hodgepodge of shopworn ideas riddled with spelling errors that spellcheck could have easily caught. “This is not how it is done,” declares M. “It takes real work, real seriousness, not coming here among us and acting like an operator.”

 I overhear V. imploring B. to come to some event of his, and listen as B. strains the limits of his gracefulness to once again decline without giving offense. “If I were a woman I would gladly sleep with B.,” V. declares soon after B. leaves the bar.

 It is in the fatal narrative logic of such things that someday V. will put on a vivid display of his humanity that will make everyone cringe and recoil. His self-deprecation is a constant threat of this breakdown that extorts scrupulous politeness, and it is this extortion that breeds resentment. We get an inkling of the way that fraternities and football teams must feel toward their callow aspirants. We feel the root of the urge to haze. But we are not frat boys or callous people, so we keep our hazing to the level of bemused irony that V., not unintelligent by half, is smart enough to discern. “We’re dealing with you, V. — but there’s no intellectual avant-garde,” I say.

 What does he want?. V. wants acceptance. He wants mentors and friends, he wants to be a part of an intellectual avant-garde, and he lacks the negative capability to discipline his impulses. To him, this threabare improvisation of an upstart journal, “an absolute life-raft,” as M. puts it, is all he knows of glamour and worldliness, and he is hamming it up in a way that matches his own fantasies. He is unabashed about the wishes we have learned to dissemble, naked about the things we painstakingly clothe, and precisely because there is a little bit of him in all of us, he must be cast into the outer darkness where we strive to keep our own obscene human need obscured. Knowing this does not change the fact that this is so.

 Monday, July 11, 2005

 K. is sipping her coffee

 K. is sipping her coffee beneath a portentous, a slate-ochre, cloud-streaked summer sky. She watches me approach with staring, myopic, and unblinking eyes. “Watch the OC!” I urged in a hand-written note scribbled on the back of a postcard bearing a caricature of Mary McCarthy issued to new subscribers by the New York Review of Books. “Villainness Julie Cooper has your drowsy-intent, feline-myopic eyes!” K. is a bundle of nerves, anxious and alert, a burnt-out filament that still manages to issue a wobbly light. In a few days she will hear back from the human resources woman and discover that she has gotten a job that will roughly quadruple her salary. This will occassion an anxiety attack of an intensity such that she hasn’t endured in years.

“Why can’t I just take good things for what they are? I’m upset with myself for being so upset,” she will say over the phone, her voice breaking. K. doesn’t slur her words or mumble. She enunciates. And she does not have the apologetic tone of her peers. For now, picture her underneath the shade of that awning. Tiny and nimble with chestnut hair, pillowy lips, pale skin and those gray-green eyes softened by sadness and pain, slightly clenched with the effort of seeing, never quite managing to focus.

K. has been accepted into the MacDowell artist’s colony in the fall. L., who has a book contract was not. Who can say why? “She accused me of not showing her one iota of sensitivity to the fact that she needs that time to work on her book. I don’t know what more she wanted of me. I told her I was very sorry that she didn’t get it. What else did she want me to do? Hand over my spot to her?.”

 “I think that’s exactly what she wants.”


I tell K. how much I enjoy people’s humanness when they expose it. On the one hand, I want nothing to do with it. Please, world, spare me any visible indications of your human needs and desires. On the other hand, it is charming in its way. I tell K. that I have resolved to learn how to love the people I hate. I tell her that I intend to write about incest. This excites her.

“People tease me that I am in love with my brother. D. says that if he marries me he’ll have to live with the fact that I’ll never love him as much as I love my brother.”

 “So then your brother makes you glow in a way that your boyfriend does not. They have met each other.”

 “Yes, they have met, and it was a painful experience for D. But listen, my brother is hilarious, everything he says makes me giddy.”

 “Is he hot?”

 “He is very handsome. Women love him. I acknowledge his sexual allure, but I am not myself in love with him.”

 “But maybe you are in denial. Are you in denial?”

 “How can we know if we are in denial? I don’t think so. My feelings for him have always been more maternal than romantic.”

 When K. was in her early 20’s, K.’s mother got breast cancer and died. “I was embarrassed by how badly it affected me. I mean, everybody’s parents die eventually. But it took me many years to learn to deal with it.” I put these pieces together; the dying mother, the elder sister who shepherds her brother through adolescence.

K.’s brother is on his way to getting married. During the transition period in which K. ceased to be the most important woman in K.’s life, he took painstaking care to make her feel included— as a consultant on wedding issues.. “He did it with such sensitivity, and I am grateful to him for this. I have these emotions, and sometimes they are dippy and they are the grist for women’s magazines essays. But they are no less real for that.”

 When she tells me that she has gotten the job that she longs for and dreads, the one that will deliver her into a life of middle class respectability, I ask her the question that each of us is thinking. “Will K. become one of those Conde Nast girls?” “I say this, K. so that five years hence, as you are air-kissing Diane Von Furstenberg at Elaine’s, you will experience a melancholy frisson, thinking of all the innocence you have left behind you.”

 “Joan Didion also began as a Conde Nast girl,” she mentions. “But she came from a different place. She started self-entitled, and I am the opposite.” “I might seem self-entitled,” she goes on to say, in her confident, confidential tone, “but really I’m not. I come from the middle middle class.” Dear K. you don’t seem in the least bit self-entitled. You seem too marvelously human to be true.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The following letter, published in 1986 in the New York Times,articulates what has always seemed instinctively correct to me about the teaching profession:

Feminism and the Decline of Teaching Published: July 25, 1986

To the Editor: Your article on the differences in the lives of Radcliffe women and Harvard men of the class of 1961 (Week in Review, July 13) brought to mind my own recent high-school reunion, class of 1956. After rummaging through the biographies prepared for the occasion, I was surprised to discover that fully two-thirds of the women who went to college and ended up in the work force became kindergarten to 12th-grade teachers. I remembered many of these women, who graduated from college in 1960, as being among the brightest people in our class.

Naturally, this was the pre-women's liberation era, and so graduates from places like Wellesley, Barnard, Cornell and Tufts had limited vocational options. In addition, further professional training was out for many who had to bring in a paycheck to support their husbands in medical and law schools. The school systems of the period were the richer because they recruited from a captive pool that contained many of the best women graduates from our universities.

Today, task forces and blue-ribbon panels decry the declining quality of teaching in the public schools. Part of the problem has to be the laudable success of the women's movement. Why should women graduating at the top of their classes from the best universities choose teaching when all the other more glamorous and better-paying professions are at last open to them? No one would turn the clock back to the time when most college-trained women were locked into teaching careers. Yet, clearly, one unintended consequence of the women's movement has been the general decline in the quality of classroom teaching.

MELVIN SMALL Detroit, July 13, 1986

The writer is chairman of the history department, Wayne State University.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Sex, Lies, and Data Mining

I reviewed a book about Internet pornography by two computational neuroscientists for the New York Times Book Review.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Rage of the Loser Class

I've only written two pieces having anything to do with being Korean. The second piece was the New York Magazine cover story titled PAPER TIGERS.

The first piece, which was titled THE FACE OF SEUNG-HUI CHO, appeared in a small journal called n+1. n+1 asked me, as it does of all its writers, to write as fearlessly and ferociously as I could on a subject that felt urgent to me. It touched on Asian-American identity only obliquely.

I was reluctant to write this piece, and then to publish it, for reasons that should be plain to all who read it. But for anyone who was puzzled by the strange and combustible hybrid of reportage, criticism, and memoir that was PAPER TIGERS, THE FACE OF SEUNG-HUI CHO may provide some insight into who I used to be and how I came to be the unusual writer and person that I have since become.

Matthew Yglesias called it "by far the best thing I've read in a long while" back in 2008.

Jenny Schuessler, an editor at the New York Times Book Review, bloggedabout it NYT's ArtsBeat blog.

Amazon's staff reviewer described the 10,000 word essay thusly:

" Review
Wesley Yang has an acrobatic way with a turn of phrase. Whether he's describing "lips with the puckered epicene aspect that speaking the French language too young will impart to a decent American mouth," or "sycophants, careerists, and media parasites… redefining mediocrity for the 21st century," he employs this penchant for vivid, snapping description liberally. ("Liberals! They'll hand over the ammunition that their enemies will use to kill them.") Here Yang puts his considerable talents to work in a wandering essay that purports to recall the sad story of school-shooter Seung-Hui Cho, but is in fact about much more. Throughout, Yang unleashes short, summary judgments so eloquent that it hardly matters whether you agree with him. Touching on indie rock, identity politics, or the artistic ossification of Nikki Giovanni, Yang's laser-guided cultural lens focuses the reader's attention equally on his own coming of age, his ostensible subject, and ourselves. --Jason Kirk"

The essay, which has for years existed only in print issues of n+1, was selected for inclusion in the anthology BEST CREATIVE NONFICTION of 2008.

It is now available as a Kindle Single at Amazon.Com for $1.99.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A Reply to the Korean

[This is in reply to the very interesting and impassioned reply to my piece in New York Magazine called "Paper Tigers", written by the blogger who goes by the name "The Korean".]

New York law firms have more Asian associates than they do associates of any other minority group. But those Asian associates make partner at a rate lower than any other group. That includes blacks and Hispanics. This, too, is part of the scoreboard to which the Korean is gesturing.

So, racism can't be the only explanation for this gap. We all agree that blacks and Hispanics have it worse in terms of the perception of others than Asians. Asians are perceived as competent, hard-working, and technically skilled. Thus, in the same leadership study I quoted in my piece, the same engineering resume with a white name at the top would get a lower score for technical ability than it would with an Asian name at the top.

And yet, for just this reason, all that hard work and competence can often get turned against Asians in an insidious way that really discloses how race functions today. We no longer face the enemy in riot gear with water cannons. We don't face an enemy at all. Instead, we have these fugitive impressions that subtly undermine women, blacks, Asians in the workplace. We have racial communities that are divided within between the Asians, and blacks, and women, who have a demeanor that fits with the normative American leadership culture, who are not perceived as racially other at all, and those women, and blacks, and Asians, who do not fit into that culture, and who hit a ceiling.

Asians have bought into grade-based meritocracy more intensely than any other group, and have mastered grade-based meritocracy better than any other group. And yet, this very mastery is turned against them as a mark of their deficiencies in other areas of life.

This is not my observation, but the observation of Tim Wu, and Jane Hyun, and thousands of graduates of Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics. LEAP teaches Asian people: these stereotypes exist; they are applied to you by others whether or not you fit them; and even though they are half-flattering, they can easily end up being used against you, and get you cast as follower and not a leader, a technical grunt and not a creative visionary. And yes, I would add, and a great many Asian men would concur in this – a harmless nerd and not a person you'd want to go to bed with. 

This is an extremely subtle predicament that nonetheless ends up tripping up Asians, not just in banking and finance, but in every other field as well. And when these subtle micro-politics work themselves out over time, they produce these racially disproportionate effects, where 17 percent of an associate class at PwC are Asian, but only a handful of them can expect to make partner. These numbers obtain across the board, not just in the corporate world, but in government, academia, and elsewhere.

Another study found that a white American engineer given a math test will ace that test if he is told that he is being tested for quantitative ability in contrast to women. He will, however, do markedly worse on the same test if he is told that he is being tested for quantitative ability against Asian men.

Social psychological experiments like this are bringing to the surface all the hidden stereotypes that people carry with them, and they are showing how harmful they can be to the performance of the people who labor underneath them. We can also see the expression of these stereotypes by examining certain statistical regularities and irregularities. The bias toward height expresses itself: 58 percent of CEO's are over six feet tall.

My piece was, at its core, an inquiry into these racially inflected social dynamics as they affect Asian people. These stereotypes mean that Asian SAT scores are discounted to the tune of 140 points. Because when the deck is not stacked against them, they make up 72 percent of the school.

The controversial part of the essay, and the thing that has set the Korean off is that I also inquire into the relationship between those stereotypes and the reality of the way Asians behave. I do this not on my own initiative, but following the analyses and prescriptions of LEAP and Jane Hyun and other observers of the white collar workforce like them.

There is a dynamic relationship between stereotypes and the behavior upon which these stereotypes is based. We should acknowledge that relationship. Jane Hyun interviewed a group of 40 white executives about their perceptions of Asians. She found that it was the perception of these executives that Asians were hard working, cliquish, passive, unassertive, and tended not to speak up at meetings. These executives, I'm sure, were governed partly by stereotypes. They were also, I'm sure, observing things that were really happening in the actual behavior of their Asian employees.

These are the racial micro-politics of everyday life. Everybody gets their share of them - blacks, whites, women. Asians too. We can argue about to what extent the perception of Asian people is based only on racist projection or only on the behavior of Asians. There can be no definitive answer to this, since the answer only exists hidden in the minds of others. From one perspective, it looks like one thing. From another, it looks like another.

My piece tries to present a balanced view. It tries to flush out the racism of white people with the confrontational tone it takes at the beginning. It also tries to examine the behavior and values of Asian people for those aspects of the Asian demeanor and approach to life that don't work in an American environment and that require adjustment.

The fact is that it's a little bit of both. There's a way you're supposed to defer to a Korean authority figure in a Korean workplace or in a Korean home that is just different than the way you're supposed to act in America. And if you do the Korean thing in an American workplace, because that's how you were trained at home, the fact is that you're not doing yourself any favors. That's just true.

Now, lots of Asian people do make this adjustment seamlessly and without any need for outside intervention, and if you're one of those people, great. These people make up the 0.3 percent of corporate board members who are Asian, the 10 percent of managers in Silicon Valley firms, (which are 30 percent Asian among the engineers), etc. We need more of you and the likelihood that more will emerge with the passage of time.

But lots of Asian do not. If they did, we would not have any Bamboo Ceiling type numbers. We would not need a group like LEAP.

Another controversial observation I made was that just as Asians are over-represented in elite high schools and colleges, they are also overrepresented in pickup classes. Now, pickup classes are not a normal thing for any group. I'm not saying that all, most, or even more than a tiny handful of Asian guys do it or need to do it.

I am saying, however, that when Asian Playboy explained what an "Asian Poker Face" was, and gave the example of being at a a party and having a white dude ask him "Dude -- are you angry?" -- a packed room full of Asian American students at Yale burst into laughter. Did they do this because they did not know what AP was talking about from their own experience? Or did they do this because they did? I will submit to you that they laughed because the same thing had happened to them. I can same this with confidence because the same thing has happened to me too.

Did the Yale Asian American Students Assocation invite Asian Playboy to speak at a Master's Tea in Silliman College because they thought he was a creep who was bringing a message that had no relevance at all to the lives of Asian American men? Or did they invite him to speak at a Master's Tea in Silliman College because they thought he was a creep who was bringing a message that had some relevance to Asian American men, such that a roomful of Asian American Yale students would pack into the Master's living room, making for what the Master told me was the largest and liveliest such event of the year?

Does this mean that I am calling the Korean or any other Korean man a "dickless slave"? No, I wrote about AP because he was funny and great copy, not because I endorse his message, or because I think it applicable to anyone in particular. It is applicable to the readers whom it is applicable to, and the response I've been getting suggests that those people are not few in number.

But the aspect of my piece that angered the Korean, and most of my detractors the most, was obviously the personal material. I open by saying that it feels strange to be reminded by my reflection that I am Korean because I never bought into any of the cultural things that are supposed to define Koreanness. This is how one man -- me -- feels, though I know for a fact that I am not alone in this feeling. I'm entitled to express that feeling, as the Korean acknowledges. So, when I say Fuck this and Fuck that, I'm demonstrating rhetorically on the page how much I break from these values, because no person who bought into them could possibly write and publish that passage. I say this not because I want to boast about how unique I am, but because I am identifying myself as a part of the relatively large fractions of Asian American who feels as I do.

But. I still have a Korean face, and I am considered by others to be this thing that I am not. Saying fuck these values does not mean that I think Asian values are the reasons that Asian people face problems in the workplace. The problem is, as I explain in the LEAP section of my piece, is that these values lead to behaviors that are interpreted by white people in a certain way that leads them to perceiving Asians in a certain way.

They then impose  that perception on all Asian people -- including people like me, to whom they really do not apply -- which adds another layer of difficulty and complication. So if you fit the stereotype as defined by others, as many Asians do, they put you in a box and give you math problems to solve. And if you break from the stereotype, as many Asians do, they might say, as they did to Eddie Huang "You have a lot of opinions for an Asian guy." You're damned either way. Unless you are a very good and very adept, you're going to struggle. And the percentage of people who are adept in this way is going, by necessity, to be lower than the percentage who manage to do well on tests.

This is a kind of "post-racial racism" that I find fascinating. I told you about myself as a set up for the section in which I showed how it applied to me, despite my disavowal of these values for myself. I don't have Asian values, but I do have an Asian Poker Face. Not all Asian people have Asian Poker Faces. But as it turns out, I do. And this Asian Poker Face really was acting as a barrier to trust and acceptance by people who thought my demeanor meant one thing when it really was just my ordinary Asian face.

Lastly, I want to clear up something about my alleged "bitter loserdom." I am not a bitter loser. I am, in fact, more successful in my chosen field than the Korean is in his. Writing is poorly paid, and often involves a period of financial hardship at the beginning. It is a field in its way, just as competitive as finance or law. My period of hardship lasted way too long. But I've been doing well over the last three years and, with my contributing editorship at New York Magazine, and the recent sale of my last feature for New York to Scott Rudin and Sony Pictures, I've been doing even better this year. Writing is not steady work with a steady income, but once you've made it, it gets a lot easier. I now have a strong voice and a visible platform, and I can do and say what I want, which is all I ever wanted out of life.

So, during the years when the Korean was racking up tons of law school debt, and working 70 hour weeks to pay it down, I was leading a confused bohemian existence in which I was poor and unhappy and during which I both bitterly regretted not becoming a well-paid white collar worker, and remained determined to make it on my own terms as a writer. For the last three years, I've been making it on my own terms as a writer, with the expectation of more success to come. I also have a wonderful girlfriend. So, things have worked out for me.

I'm not saying this because I want to brag or compare my happiness to the Korean's. He's making six figures, and has a happy family and beautiful wife. We're both Korean American success stories. Hard work and discipline contributed to my success as surely as it did his. But, in the end, a certain cultural brashness contributed to my success even more than hard work did. That's just the fact. I respect his success and would never write anything designed to tear it down. In fact, I would celebrate it. I say in my piece that there are areas of Asian-American devoid of alienation. If he and his friends live there -- great. But I also say, contrary to the Model Minority stereotype that says that Asian people have no problems and face no racial obstacles, we do still have the Bamboo Ceiling, which ensnares many, and we do have this weird William Hung-style baggage that affixes to men. These problems might seem silly and inconsequential to people who view them from a distance, but to the people who are living these problems, they can really suck.

So, all the people who are saying that my piece is a bitter loser blaming Asian values for my failure are simply missing the point, and distracting from the real issues my story raises, which I think is a shame. I'm not a loser, and since I never embraced Asian values in my life, I can't possibly, and thus do not blame them for anything having to do with my life, either good or ill.

I do, however, know that having an Asian face -- an Asian Poker Face -- definitely had something to do with protracting the length of the period of social alienation I endured. I did not go through three years without a woman only because I was Asian. I went three years without a woman because I was poor, and struggling, and unhappy, and alienated, and too proud. That's all obvious and present in my piece. But you know what? During all that time, I was nevertheless always a strong, healthy, well-educated, well-spoken, variously talented man in the prime of my adulthood, and dudes like that, if they are white, even if they are total losers, or assholes, or drunks, or drug-addicts, or on a half-dozen psychotropic drugs, always have some girl wiling to bed them in this city where I live in and everyone knows it. And that's just reality too. So would I have gone three years without touching a woman if I were white instead of Asian? Of course I would not have. I'm sorry, but it's true. And thus I understand well enough what the 26-year old Asian virgin is facing, as do must Asian American men who are not in denial.

That's why I had empathy for the people whose stories I told in my piece, and that's why I thought an inquiry into the social dynamics that disfavor them, and me, and all of us Asians, was worth doing. I think it's sad but not that surprising that the people who have the least empathy for these guys and want to dump the most contempt on them are other Asian people. And I think it's sad, and paranoid, that so many Asian people think that my inquiry into these issues was an attack on them personally, and I think it's grossly ironic, though not at all surprising, that these are the same people that are calling my honest, vulnerable, painstaking self-accounting in my piece solipsistic or narcissistic. These people should spend a little more time regarding themselves in the mirror.

All this said, I enjoyed reading the Korean's response to my piece. Something that all people who think Asians are nerds and weaklings that they can pick on with impunity sometimes discover to their detriment is that Korean men, in particular, are angry, violent people who will fight and fight dirty.

So I think in certain ways, the Korean and I are more similar than we are different, in that we are both combative Korean men, even if he is a corporate lawyer married to a Korean violinist and I am a freelance writer dating a Jewish journalist. I just want to point out that the Korean's anger is totally misdirected, fratricidal, and aimed at a person who is on his side, which also makes him, in the end, also a very typical Korean.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

This is a complete disgrace

If the New Yorker promotional department could not afford to give out anything more expensive than a tote bag, it ought to have sent out handsome promotional tote bags, instead of this ghastly "New Yorker Weekender Bag" that smells like a gas station, whose material is perhaps one and a half increments in quality away from a trash bag purchased at a dollar store.