Gentle Elitism

The Fiction Issue of The New Yorker

So, how far behind am I? I just finished reading the June 10 and 17, 2019 issue of The New Yorker. A lot of the articles, particularly the ones referred to goings on about town are probably out of date a year and a half, plus a pandemic, later. The reviews, though still valid, probably aren’t as fresh as they could be, either.

But a fiction issue, as this one purports to being, should be okay, so I read it with enthusiasm. All right, let’s qualify that: I don’t normally love the fiction in TNY. I find it a little too dull and boring.

The three stories in this issue were not bad. Not memorable in any way (Sanctuary in the Artist’s Studio is probably the best of the three), but not bad.

More interesting is the fact that they sprinkled the usual content with something called border crossings, where immigrants in different parts of the world describe their experiences. This is non-fiction, and it’s kind of weird to see The New Yorker voicing it. Weird because I expect TNY to show an idealized intellectual-progressive view of things, which obviously doesn’t exist when you bring the real world into it. Even more shocking to me was an honest article about what life in supposed socialist paradise (and failed state) Venezuela is like. It’s the kind of thing one would expect TNY to sweep under the rug, as it will definitely make a good portion of its readership uncomfortable.

So my respect for the magazine–despite still feeling the fiction is just okay–went up a few notches this time. It’s nice to see realism even among the intellectual elite who tend to try to block it out and live in an idealized world where theory rules and when reality doesn’t support that way of thinking, it’s reality that’s wrong.

If you need to understand The New Yorker by reading one issue, this is the best one to pick up of the ones I’ve seen.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans several genres. His literary fiction is collected in Love and Death, a novel in short story form that tells the tale of several families, intertwined through generations. You can check it out here.

How do they keep it up, week after week?

We’ve spoken about The New Yorker here before. As was probably evident from that post, I am not a subscriber to the magazine, but I am an enjoyer. Essentially, I buy the available issues whenever I’m in the US and read them when they cycle through my TBR pile (apparently, it’s currently sitting at a year and a half).

While some of the news items in The New Yorker are obviously not going to be relevant all that time later (I’m clearly not going to make it to the July 2019 premiere of Midsommar), most of the content can be enjoyed whenever. Even the political stuff doesn’t change that much from one year to the next.

For a magazine that prizes itself for getting high-quality hot takes into its readers’ hands, one thing I admire is how enjoyable it is much later. Long-form journalism of this type appears to be a dying breed and where it isn’t, it is so skewed by the writer’s (or the editor’s) political leanings that to be almost unreadable. The New Yorker has a political lean, of course, moderate left, but they attempt to avoid letting that skew get in the way of the truth.

Take this issue’s cover story, for example: “Faith & Other Drugs”. It could have been an attack on Christianity, especially hyper-organized big-church Christianity in the US, but it wasn’t. It was an introspective piece on the comparative effect of religion and drugs on the mind and persona of one specific person. As such, it’s readable by all, alienating no one.

The thing that amazes me most is how they manage to sift through the reams of submissions to find the nuggets that work, and to print an eclectic selection that keeps everyone engaged. I can only imagine what kind of a constant tornado the TNY offices must be.

Of course, no one is perfect, and the fiction I’ve seen has been uninspiring at best and depressing at worst. Now, I can’t say that this is a constant because I read maybe three or four issues a year. I may just be unlucky. This issue’s story, unfortunately, is not among the best fiction I’ve read this year by any stretch of the imagination. I may be suffering from excessive expectations – I assume that TNY has access to the best work from the best writers… but I never seem to see that in the published work. It’s also possible that I may simply prefer a very different kind of fiction, and the problem is in the reader in this case. But I find the fiction–and only the fiction–pretty much pointless.

But other than that, it’s invariably a great read. Snobbish and elitist? Perhaps, but that is part of the enjoyment. I like nodding along when I’m in on the subject as much as the next person… and when I’m not, I’ll learn something. Win-win.

A subscription wouldn’t make it to Argentina, and I don’t have time to read one of these cover-to-cover every week, but I will continue (and have continued) to buy them whenever I travel. Watch this space for more thoughts as they get to the top of the pile.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose literary fiction appears in Love and Death, a novel told in short story form which, he hopes, isn’t quite as pointless as the fiction he’s encountered in TNY so far. You can check it out here.

A Musing on the Democratization of Political Discussion

Back when I reviewed Woolf’s feminist classic, A Room of One’s Own, I was delighted to see how measured, logical and calm her arguments were. She was right, and it would be obvious to anyone who wasn’t emotionally invested in it for some reason that she was right.

When was the last time you saw a political argument online that you could say that about? If you take the recent US election as a benchmark, most of the argumentation on the news and online, which is to say the stuff most people were exposed to, was shrill and alarmist on both sides. You could see the wheels of the propaganda machines turning, demonizing the opponents and trying to limit arguments to what each side wanted their followers to believe about the other. Even supposedly intelligent people bought into the rhetoric of the extremists, a sad situation.

Of course, even back then, it wasn’t a bed of roses, but I argue that it’s gotten worse today, mainly because of something that many people think is good… and I don’t: the democratization of everything.

By this, I don’t mean political democracy. That’s fine and, as they say, it’s the worst system of government ever discovered except for all the others. I’m talking about the democratization of literally everything.

Take taste, for example. It used to be that there was good taste and bad taste, and most people with good taste could tell the difference, and it was fine to laugh. Now, though, social media allows those with awful taste to find their peer group… and they’ve suddenly discovered that people with bad taste outnumber those with good taste. By the laws of democracy, where numbers rule, that means bad taste is better than good taste. And they rest their case.

That’s just one example, but everything works that way. Anything good that few people understand or enjoy is “voted” down by these representatives of the tyranny of the majority. Whether that be art or food or movies or lifestyle choices, the pressure to conform is… just as high as it would have been in a tiny village in Spain in 1850. Which is to say, very high.

Isaac Asimov used to complain about how the ignorant made a cult of treating the intelligent or educated as undesirables, but he never imagined the internet, where the words of a mechanic from Iowa or a hairdresser from Harare (or Seattle) are deemed as important as the informed opinion of an authority figure. Because telling someone that another person is more qualified is elitist.

The attitude spills over into politics. If a lot of poeple think something (maybe that democrats are socialist or republicans are racist, to take a recent example of intentionally incorrect statements that seem to have become bywords among certain groups), then, by the rules of democracy, that’s a valid opinion.

Except it isn’t. It’s just a silly popularization. There’s a saying in Spanish that essentially translates as: “Eat poop. Millions of flies can’t be wrong.”

That is what I think every time someone tells me that I’m wrong because everyone else thinks I’m wrong.

I may be wrong… but that’s not the reason.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who has just released a book where dinosaurs and genetically created monsters attack journalists, scientists and Russian special-forces troops in the Ural mountains. (So if you were thinking he’s elitist for writing the above, you need to consider that). You can check out Test Site Horror here.

The Creative Impulse

My social feeds are essentially composed of two very distinct types of people: friends from my everyday life and people I’ve met through my writing, be that other writers, editors, comic book artists or even cover artists.

The interesting thing is that the people from the writing world are much more likely to be painters or artists than the rest. There’s even a sculptor or two among them. (I can’t say much about music, because I’ve been singing in choirs since childhood, so a LOT of my non-writing friends are in the music scene).

But let’s look at that fine arts trend. People who should be spending an enormous amount of time sweating at the keyboard are apparently spending a good chunk of that at the easel.

Why? Why do these people still feel the need to create even though they’re already building literary works.

Herman Hesse – Ticino in Switzerland

Psychologists probably have hundreds of different explanations for this, but my own take, as far as I’m able to read my own impulses (I draw cars. They probably aren’t “fine art” but I like them) is a combination of wanting recognition for having made something beautiful combined with a desire for immortality.

But shouldn’t the writing itself take care of these urges? After all, my writing friends are mainly published authors who have had at least a few editors tell them “I love this, I’d like to publish it.” Added to this is the fact that somewhere before that, people were already telling them: “hey, this is really good, you should consider publishing.” So the desire for approval is, to a degree, met by writing.

And immortality? No writer knows how that will play out. Melville died a forgotten failure. So did Poe. And then there were the writers who wrote the bestsellers from a hundred years ago. Lauded and fêted, they are forgotten today (if you want to have a bit of fun, here’s a list of the ten bestselling books per year, starting in 1900… a LOT of utterly forgotten writers on that one).

Worse, there’s the survival factor. Do we have any idea whether Beowulf was a good ancient story or just mediocre hackwork? Not in the least, because its contemporaries haven’t survived. It’s great because it’s here. Same with Gilgamesh. So maybe only writers who get their work in print books will survive. Or maybe sea levels will rise and paper books will be used to absorb excess moisture in houses, and only a few authors published in non-paying online journals will represent this generation of writers. We just don’t know.

So why, to that, add painting? My own theory is that adopting another art form allows authors to create without performance anxiety. When we’re writing, we’re always creating for an imaginary editor, a reader or a Pulitzer Prize judge (to each his own). What we create has to be good. It has to be literary. It has to entertain, or teach, or preach, or emote. It has to be memorable.

And under that pressure, some of the innocence of creation cedes. The joy of writing a good paragraph might be exactly the same, but it is tempered by the fear that it might not be good enough. And that’s true whenever you’re writing for publication, whether you’re a writer with a single story published in a 4-the-luv magazine, or a Nobel Prize winner (admittedly, I’ve never been a Nobel Prize winner, but I’ve read things where they say this).

But painting a picture? Sure, I can sit down with a YouTube tutorial and do a watercolor. I can buy a box of colored pencils and draw cars. Or I can go straight to oil paint and pretend to be Renoir. My friends and family will say things like “that’s very nice”, and I will have the satisfaction of having given pleasure to someone via something I created and left behind palpable proof of my existence to survive in garage sales and flea markets long after I’ve gone from this Earth.

And no one ever rejects my drawings.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina. His book of interconnected short stories, Love and Death, gives a complete narrative of several families across generations, allowing the reader to delight not only in the events of the stories themselves but in the irony of the twists and turns of fate. If that sounds like something you’d enjoy, you can check it out here.

The Allure of Beautiful Libraries

Those of you following along at home are probably aware by now that I have a thing for libraries, particularly beautiful ones. My home bookshelves are an eclectic mix of fine editions and ancient destroyed paperbacks, with most of the better books being “keepers” of which I bought a decent copy to replace a paperback that was falling to pieces.

Besides my own book buying tendencies, I also love reading about libraries, especially when it’s a lavishly illustrated book about them.

So it should come as no surprise that one of my dreams in life is to own a truly spectacular walk-in library with hundreds of meters of shelving. Those familiar with the Abbey Library at Saint Gall will understand the concept, but I never did like the aesthetics of these cold–albeit imposing–abbey libraries.

For myself, I much prefer the coziness of an English country house style library and study. It just seems a better kind of surrounding for a modern polymath. All right, it might be a bit of an antiquated concept, and the gentleman scholar a bit of a cliché, but I find that it fits my self-image better than most everything else. I’ve been accused of being a little elitist, but I maintain that I’m a gentle example of the breed.

CMC 39

So if I ever get one of these, you’re all invited to discuss literature, art and pretty much anything else that comes to mind in the feast of reason.

You’ll certainly find me happy.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose novel Ice Station Death is a look at what could happen if prehistoric creatures resurfaced in Antarctica and encountered an expedition. It’s a fast-paced romp where enemies take many forms: monsters, weather and, perhaps worst of all, other people. You can check it out here.

Apparently, Aristocracy is Inevitable

Time for a digression, not something even remotely academic, but something I have often thought about, and something I’m pretty certain is true: aristocracy is inevitable.

So, yeah, in 1917 and the years immediately after, the Russian people rose against their rulers, killed the Czars, inspired the Anastasia conspiracy theories and installed a communist government.

Aristocracy, they told us, was dead.

Russsian Revolution

A handful of years later, the party elite had their Black Sea dachas and were driven around in chauffeured cars while everyone else watched the carriages with undisguised resentment.

Exactly the same as in the pre-1917 era.  The only thing the communist revolution managed was to industrialize the country and create a new royal family.  (in their defense, they also defeated Hitler, but I’m not trying to make a different point here, not criticize communism per se).

China, another communist country, currently has 373 billionaires while a good billion people live the agrarian life of a Russian serf.

Another notable revolution that was supposed to get rid of the aristocracy was the French.  France currently has 40 billionaires…

So, whether capitalist, socialist or communist, society naturally seems to stratify into classes.  An upper class defined by either wealth (or in the case of communist Russia, by access), education or refinement springs up in every system.

Even the failed nations, the African warlord republics or Venezuela have a clear definition of haves and have-nots.  In Venezuela, the dictator’s corrupt cronies live like kings, for example.

Why?

I think I know: people with talent and drive don’t want to be counted among the masses. They work hard to achieve status so that either they or–failing that, their descendants–can have an easy life and enjoy themselves.  After all, enjoying yourself is much better than any of the alternatives.

Elon Musk worked to make his billions and now works just as hard at doing stuff he loves.  His definition of enjoying himself might put mankind on Mars.  Which means that, annoying as his electric cars might be, we’re all rooting for him.

And that’s the wonder of the modern world. You don’t need to be born a von-Anything to gain access to the world of the aristos.  All you need to have is drive, brains and a modicum of luck and you will get there, eventually.   Or be a really good soccer player.  Or a brilliant neurosurgeon.  Or guitar virtuoso.  There are infinite roads, but all require talent and hard work.

Unless you live in a communist country.  In that case, you will need political ability to enjoy the spoils.  But the same principle applies: if you’re GOOD at it, you’ll make it.

So I generally oppose systems which pretend to make the world an equitable place.  Evidence shows that the only way to enforce this is to give more and more power to the government, which just means a different subset of people fill the role of the aristocracy.

Since I generally respect talent and hard work more than I do political ability, I’ll probably always want the free-market people to win.

But whoever ends up in the drivers seat, know this: a talented group willing to put in the hours are going to have stuff the rest of the people don’t.  All the current political divide is doing is trying to define which group that will be.

Me?  I will stay on the sidelines wondering why it’s important for some politician on the left to have everything versus some dude who started a company.  I don’t actually care who it is, but you’ll generally find me in free-market countries because my talent does NOT lie in political acumen.

Anyway, just some random thoughts to break up the reviews for once.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose published work spans every genre from literary fiction to comic fantasy.  His dark fantasy is collected in Pale Reflection.  You can have a look here.

London, Frozen in Time

For many of today’s globetrotters, London is a signature city, a mixture of modern design and old-world charm. They go there for reasons financial or for reasons advertising-related and see only the modern, progressive city of young, hip global citizens.  They never stop to think of what the new town was built on.

For readers of Dickens, however, London is a very different city.  For those of us who grew up with his fiction London will forever be the smoky motor of the industrial revolution, full of shady characters and dark, twisting alleys.  The vicissitudes of hipsters, no matter how many generations of hipsters, will never alter that reality.  (Also, filmmakers have gotten the message across as well).

Dickens' London by Charles Dickens

However, there is an even better window into the world Charles Dickens moved in than his novels.  He was also an essayist–well, his writings are almost essays and at the time, they were denominated “sketches”–of amazing note.  His “Sketches by Boz” and “the Uncommercial Traveler” actually made his name before Oliver Twist or David Copperfield turned him into a worldwide superstar.

And he deserved every accolade that these sketches sent his way, if the collection in the Folio Society volume entitled Dickens’ London is any indication (in case you’ve forgotten, we love the Folio Society’s beautiful books).  This book essentially brings together those essays of Dickens’, slightly satirical but still mostly true, that deal with life in the metropolis.  From the condemned cell of the jail (gaol, of course) to lonely midnight walks, it tells you just as much about the writer as it does about the town.  The full force of Dickens’ critical but affectionate relationship with London and with the common people who were its pulse, shines through clearly.

If you have an image of London that coincides with the modern city, this book will correct that error.  The way the great man interacts with the city will leave an indelible image than no amount of traveling in the modern “reality” will ever overcome.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His most popular book is a science fiction novel entitled Siege.  You can check it out here.

Aristocracy… The Natural State of the World?

Madame Le Guillotine

In 1789, a bunch of people in France decided their nobles were a bit too tall and began shortening them by use of the guillotine.  A little over a hundred years later, bored Russian intellectuals raised an army and killed off the Romanovs for want of anything better to do (the above might be a slight simplification of actual historical events).

In both cases, the earlier aristocratic way of life was wiped off the map, supposedly forever.

Of course, by the time of the Russian Revolution, the French had replaced their aristocracy with captains of industry who drove enormous motorcars and drank expensive champagne and made the court of Louis XVI look like a bunch of unwashed yahoos (all right, the French are always unwashed, but you know what I mean).

I suppose that if one takes a socialist view of things, you could say that it’s only natural that the capitalist society born of the Industrial Revolution would spawn gross inequalities, but that would also be a lie.  If one looks at the Soviet state a few years later, one would find the same inequalities between the Party elite and everyone else.  Within the limits of the disastrous Soviet economy–communism is not a system that motivates people to generate wealth–there existed an aristocracy.  Sure, they had crappy cars and their Dachas were not particularly sumptuous, but compared to everyone else, they lived like kings.

And the pattern is repeated everywhere.  Among every single group of humans whether living in free market economies or closed systems there arises a group that everyone else envies, that has more stuff than others, or access to a more enjoyable form of life.

French Life in the 1930s

An aristocracy in all but name.

Why, though.  Weren’t aristocrats supposedly a cancer on society that the countless revolutions were aimed at eradicating?

Supposedly.  But reality says that the revolutions only succeeded in changing the names, not the structure.  There is still a tiny portion of the world that has all the fun while everyone else is on the outside looking in, resentment growing day by day.

And this is why I never listen to the people who argue for the redistribution of wealth on a global scale.  They’re ignoring every lesson history has ever taught, and expecting everyone else to blithely ignore them as well.  Of course, fanatics always have a “Yes, but that was a special case” argument, but when every single time turned into an exception, one begins to suspect that those exceptions are actually the rule, and that the utopians are a bit misguided.

So, instead of spending our time trying to give the wealth of the planet to a completely different minority group, I propose that the readers of Classically Educated dedicate their lives to hedonism and itellectuality.  You can’t see the flaws of the world through the bottom of a bottle, and, as Blake said, we should open the doors of perception (the substances you use for that purpose are your own business…).

I know this isn’t my greatest insight ever, but one needs to understand that it’s Monday morning, and you can’t expect too much.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose latest book, Timeless, has a lot of hedonism wrapped up in the trappings of intellectuality (a romantic thriller hinging around a book written by a monk is almost the definition of that combo).  You can check it out here.

The Other Airport Read

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke of one of my usual airport purchases: Scientific American.  Well, there’s another mag I often buy in airports, and that one is The New Yorker, proving that I’m not only a pretentious twit, but that I’m a stereotyped pretentious twit.  I guess I can live with that.

The New Yorker - September 16th, 2017

My most recent moment of weakness came in September of 2017 (see cover above) but, as you can see, I’m reviewing it over a year later.  Just like my scientific American, the reason for that is that I only read the first few articles, the ones that are time-based such as concert dates and the like, before tossing the mag onto by To-Be-Read pile, which is a beast about a year in height.

Of course, once I got to the mag, the concert dates were no longer relevant, and many of the theater reviews referred to shows I could no longer watch, but I read through them again anyway.  The reason for this is that I’m always fascinated by The New Yorker’s combination of two things: an appreciation for the finer things in life such as symphony orchestras and the breathtaking capacity to discuss run-of-the-mill stuff in terms that makes you think they belong among the finer things in life.  As an example of this latter trend, it’s impossible to tell whether a couple of the lesser-known bands they talk about are just a bunch of friends who’ve been practicing in a garage and sound like it or the second coming of the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

I spend this time on the social news at the beginning of the magazine because that sums up the whole attitude perfectly.  It’s a local section that doesn’t feel local: you get the idea that the writers truly feel that a concert happening in a bar in New York needs to have a global audience, but it’s also an exercise in discussing everything, regardless of relative quality or banality, in the most exquisite language possible.

Of course, 95% of the people who pick up a copy of the mag will fall into one of two groups: those who shake their head in disgust at the pretentious nature of the writing, and those who think that reading it will somehow “improve” them (some of the latter group may be right, so I encourage them to keep trying).

For the five percent remaining, this one is a guilty pleasure.  We know what the editors are doing, and yet we love the magazine anyway.  We can take the pretentiousness, or leave it aside to read less opaque prose, but whenever we do come back, we find it charming.  I like to think that a lot of the readers of Classically Educated are the same way (although I often hope they don’t think we’re in any way pretentious twits…).

A final note for the fiction section, which, as you can imagine, I always read with particular attention.  The story in this one was well written… but I always seem to buy the editions with the suburban angst and sorrow.  Where are the great, bold stories of yore?  I guess they’re gone to wherever the bold men and women of yore have been laid to rest–after all, the fiction does reflect the readership, or at least it should.

Anyhow, if you’ve never picked up a copy of The New Yorker and read it cover to cover, you owe it to yourself to do so.  Even an old copy bought used is a good bet.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer based in Buenos Aires.  His literary heroes include Borges, Wodehouse and Asimov, and if you can reconcile those three, you are a better psychologist than he is.  His short fiction has been collected in Virtuoso and Other Stories, and you can check it out here.

 

The Rich Tapestry of a Small Island

A you may have surmised from this blog, I am not exactly someone who has their finger on the pulse of popular culture.  In fact–and we need to have this discussion someday–if I’m sitting at a table with people discussing famous actors, pretty models who are married to sporting figures or the latest diet craze, I’m usually the guy in the corner rolling his eyes and wondering how 21st century civilization manages to survive if its citizens are concerned about those things.

A few exceptions exist, usually literary.  I read The Da Vinci Code when everyone was reading it (I happen to like that kind of thing and turn a blind eye to the obvious shortcomings) and also read and watched the Harry Potter series in nearly real time (I began with the first movie).

That’s not normally the case. I usually sneer at popular culture as the modern equivalent of the prefrontal lobotomy.

But sometimes–not always, or even usually, but sometimes–popular culture ends up becoming part of the canon and it’s nice to be beaten over the head with it and discovering it twenty years later (twenty years seems to be the benchmark–if it dies before the 20 years are up, it wasn’t really worth much, was it?).

Notes From a Small Island - Folio Society Edition - Bill Bryson

I frequent a few of those places where popular culture makes the transition to high culture and I discover things that I might have missed.  One of those places, strangely enough, is the Folio Society website.  Yes, the Folio Society is mainly known for its pretty editions of classics, but they also have a fine sense of when a book or author is making that transition between the popular and the canon.  If your book becomes a Folio edition, you have, in a real sense not necessarily measured in dollars, arrived.

For readers like myself, who are often have no way of telling the popular culture wheat from the chaff, it’s a great place to find out what is making that transition and to discover authors that everyone but I have already heard of.

To that list, I have now added Bill Bryson, and specifically his amazing book Notes From a Small Island.  For those who are as sadly clueless as I was, Bryson is an American journalist who lived in Britain for many years.  Before returning to his homeland, he decided to take a sort of Grand Tour of the Isles and write it up.  The result is a delightful, often laugh-out-loud-funny, and affectionate glimpse at Britain through the eyes of someone who can tell what is so funny about it and make us understand.

It’s one of those delightful books that definitely make life richer.  If you haven’t read it, track down a copy–you won’t regret it.

In fact, finding things like this is almost enough to make one want to pay more attention to what is going on in popular media, or even to pay attention to what the people around you are discussing at lunch.

Almost.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and insufferable elitist who expounds his unsustainable worldview in a number of novels and collections which he only wishes would become a part of popular culture and make him a millionaire.  Branch is a novella about evolution in the next few years and, as a shorter work, is probably a good introduction to his oeuvre.