Hello! I don’t really blog much anymore, but you can find a lot of my work from around the web on this site. Basically, Guy’s Library now works as a homepage, where I collect links to things published elsewhere.

If you look at the tabs at the top, you’ll see that everything is organized into three sections: Essays (longer, in-depth pieces about different topics), Reviews (shorter, more conventional book reviews), and Misc. (everything else). I always post links when they become available, though I’ve stopped posting new blog posts each time something new is added. I mostly write essays, so that’s the place to start.

If you’re new to the site, and are just looking for a quick introduction to my work, these pieces are some of my personal favorites. (I periodically update this list, so it may have changed since your last visit):

Don’t Settle: The Journalist in the Shadow of the Commercial Web

Aristocrats of “Merit”

On Bureaucracy and the Left

The Ends Commands the Means: Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary

Fragmentary: Writing in a Digital Age

“More Real to Us”: The Art of Susan Sontag

Thanks for stopping by!

The Commercial Web Trilogy

The third piece in my series about the commercial web went live today at the LA Review of Books website. This one focuses on the concept of hyper-meritocracy, especially as articulated in Tyler Cowen’s book Average Is Over. I see hyper-meritocracy as fundamentally political and even “ethical” in its origins, which stands contrary to Cowen’s more tech-focused view:

But this kind of distinction doesn’t really exist in a hyper-meritocratic worldview. People are valued for their economic use and nothing more, and no other claim is really acknowledged. Essentially it elevates the market economy from a tool into an ethical system, the same way it elevates the computer from a tool to a way of sorting out who is “worthless” and who is not. Far from ideologically neutral, this worldview is exactly what makes hyper-meritocracy possible.

Like I said above, this is the third part of a the series. The first one introduced the idea of the commercial web and looked at Astra Taylor’s (important) book The People’s Platform. The second looked at the idea of digital cosmopolitanism, especially in light of Ethan Zuckerman’s book Rewire. And finally, there’s the latest piece, which examines hyper-meritocracy. They can all be read separately (though I do think of them as a series, and I think you’ll get more about of them if you read them together, in order). I imagine I’ll write about the commercial web again, but these three feel of a piece to me, so I wanted to link them all in the same post.


Another recent essay…

I’ve been really lazy about updating the blog (sorry), but I had a new piece up at the LA Review of Books a few weeks back. This one take a look at the idea of digital cosmopolitanism:

To become a thoughtful person, an imaginative person, we must engage with ideas, beliefs, and experiences that we do not “like.” We must challenge our beliefs and be cognizant of the limitations of our own perspectives. Ultimately, digital cosmopolitanism — like any other thoughtful engagement with the digital world — requires us to push against the architecture of the commercial web.

You can check out the rest here.

If you’re looking for something to read…

I forgot to post here when it first came out, but I have a new piece up at the Los Angles Review of Books. This one looks at the commercial  web through the prism of Astra Taylor’s new book, The People’s Platform:

When you look at culture and media from this point of view — asking not about how art, writing, and music are distributed but who holds cultural power — there has been a lot less “disruption” in the digital era than is often supposed. One of the most appealing aspects of the web is the way it seems to empower individual creators. Anyone can write a blog post or story, record a song, create an image, or film a movie and immediately post it online for anyone to experience. But in practice, a handful of big players dominate the web.

You can read the rest here. I actually have a companion piece to this that will be available soon. I’ll post a link when I get a chance…


My Back Pages

It’s been a while since I’ve updated the blog… and to be honest, I don’t expect to ever post as much here as I did on the original Guy’s Library. I just would rather devote my writing time to other projects. But I still plan on using the site to share my essays, reviews, and stories. With that in mind, I wanted to highlight a couple older pieces from elsewhere on the web, in case you didn’t see them the first time around. Links to all of these (and more) can also be found on the Essays page.

My piece “The Ends Commands the Means: Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary” is a pretty good place to start. It looks at the life and career of one of the most interesting political writers of the twentieth century, journalist/novelist/activist/revolutionary/dissident Victor Serge. (I’ve actually written about Serge a couple times.)

George Orwell’s work served as my primary introduction to political writing, and in many ways set me down the path to becoming a writer. As an adult, though, I find myself reading him a little differently. My piece “Getting to ‘No’: Snowball’s Chance, Animal Farm, and “Exemplary Truth” looks at how my views of Orwell’s work have evolved over the years.

I don’t always read political literature, of course, so after that I’d encourage you to check out “A Calm Place to Think: On Reading the Classics,” where I try and figure out the place of “classic” books in the digital era (and try to make sense out of my own reading habits).

The essay “Fragmentary: Writing in a Digital Age” is probably the best expression of my views on contemporary writing. It’s also my first attempt to look at how information technology interacts with the arts.

And finally, there’s my piece “More Real to Us: The Art of Susan Sontag,” which looks at the life and work of one of my favorite essayists and critics.

After that… well, it’s up to you. If you’re interested in reading even more of my work, just click on the tabs at the top of the page and dive in.

New essay

I forgot to post this when it came out. (Sorry.) I’ve got a new essay up at the Los Angeles Review of Books. This one takes a look at George Orwell’s Animal Farm, through the prism of John Reed’s parody, Snowball’s Chance:

Orwell, with his innate dislike for ideology and abstraction… [was] sensitive to the excesses of totalitarianism at a time when many were not, and that sensitivity is a prerequisite to any kind of political literature — to any reasonable politics at all. But a political literature, and a political understanding, that stops there is a deeply impoverished one. Problems exist, and they need to be addressed — and only shouting “no” will not accomplish that. Reed’s novel fails on many levels, but it succeeds in convincing the reader that merely removing Napoleon and his “Animalism” does not by itself guarantee that Animal Farm would be a happier place — and in so doing, he finally strikes a blow at Orwell’s original novella. Essentially, Orwell’s late, dystopian works — Animal Farm and 1984 — are the beginning of a conversation, not its end.

You can read the rest of the essay here.

New Essay Online

Hey everyone, I’ve got a new essay up at the Los Angeles Review of books site (check it out here). This one takes a look at Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary:

Serge is ultimately a literary figure, in the sense that watching the push and pull between his unsentimental practicality and the unabashed idealism on display in the Memoirs is essential to understanding his appeal. He can be quite blunt on the weaknesses of human nature, writing, “Totalitarianism is within us,” while at the same time insisting, “The future seems to me, despite the clouds on the horizon, to be full of possibilities vaster than any we have glimpsed in the past.” He is upfront about his inability to turn Soviet society against Stalin, admitting that he was “too much of an intellectual” to be an effective activist. The Memoirs tells a harrowing story — Serge spent most of his adult life in prison and/or exile and saw the Russian Revolution, which for him was the pinnacle of his life in radical activism, lead to one of the most brutal dictatorships in human memory. But it also is a forward-looking book, committed to recording the history of an era in the obvious hope that others will learn from it. It is both realist and idealist, an attitude that is essential to any functional left-wing, or even liberal, movement

Longtime readers might remember I also took a look at Serge’s fiction a few years back. If you haven’t had a chance, you can read that essay here.

Happy Bloomsday

In honor of Bloomsday, here’s James Joyce reading from Ulysses:

Follow-up: Pop Culture, Nostalgia, and the Novel

In my last post, I mentioned in passing that I worry that both Fortress of Solitude and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay might seem dated eventually because of the way they use pop culture. I wanted to clarify that a bit.

It’s not that I don’t think novelists should engage with pop culture–when done well, pop culture can be a really useful tool for situating characters in society. And lots of truly great novels use pop culture to great effect. For example, in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald references the 1919 World Series, the rise of Broadway, and jazz culture. All of these touches help create the world of the novel. What those references don’t do, however, is help carry the emotional weight of the story. Instead, they exist as part of the world the characters inhabit–they are part of the setting, and only part of the setting.

My concern for both Fortress and K&C, both of which I like a lot, is that the novels invoke not so much the “setting” of pop culture but readers’ nostalgia about the pop culture of their youth or adolescence. And then that nostalgia is asked to do some of the novels’ emotional work. For example, the ultimate uselessness of the magic ring in Fortress plays not only on the characters’ desire for a superpower that can “save” them, but for the reader’s nostalgia for that same desire. As the experience of actually reading comics continues to disappear (comic characters are bigger than ever, but fewer and fewer kids are reading comics themselves), the novel “changes”–in the sense that it can no longer rely on readers’ nostalgia to help underscore the “power” the ring holds in the characters’ imaginations. Perhaps the novel will hold up–I would like it to, to be honest–but I have a feeling it won’t. It may simply rely too much on its readers preexisting ideas and experiences. Basically, I suspect Lethem is working the room too much. And that when the room changes, the book will ring…if not false, then at least less true.

That’s the thing about books–over time, only the very strongest retain any kind of audience. A novel that relies too much on its readers preexisting ideas, prejudices, and nostalgia is setting itself up for a short lifetime. There’s no shame in that–sometimes a book is really great in its moment and then disappears. That doesn’t make it a failure–it makes it a product of its time. But I can’t help but admire books that push for more–that create an internal world so distinctive, so well-crafted, that it can exist even after its “moment” has passed away. Maybe I’m too pessimistic, and in the end Fortress and K&C will turn out be those kinds of books. But I suspect that they will end up closer to Armies of the Night–books that remain well-written, and interesting, but eventually come to seem like products of their particular moment.

A Few (Quick) Thoughts on Norman Mailer

I’m making my way through Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night. I’ve never been a particular fan of Mailer (to put it generously), but I was curious about the book itself, which is a “nonfiction novel” about an anti-Vietnam-War protest he participated in.

1. Harold Bloom has a concept he uses called “period pieces”–a fancy way of describing a book that doesn’t age well. Though Armies won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, it seems like the very definition of a period piece. It isn’t a bad book–there’s some interesting observations about both the country and the era, and Mailer was unquestionably talented–but it does feel dated now, at least to me.

2. The book’s key point comes as an aside, about halfway through: “(Mailer’s habit of living–no matter how unsuccessfully–with his image, was so engrained by now, that like a dutiful spouse he was forever consulting his better half.)” (Parenthesis in he original.)

3. It’s no great observation to say that Mailer’s primary subject is himself…but it’s true. The style of the book in particular–Mailer’s use of the third person; the tension between irony, self-awareness, and self-glorification that inhabits almost every page; the way Mailer focuses over and over on how others perceive him (and how he perceives them perceiving him)–all read as a dialogue with Mailer’s persona. Mailer of course inhabited a very particular kind of literary fame common at the time: originally famous as a novelist, he became a kind of provocateur, to the point where the fact that he would be arrested at an antiwar protest was genuine news. The book’s style–the way it inflates and deflates Mailer’s persona–adroitly plays with his reputation, and this is by far the most compelling part of the book (seemingly intentionally so).

4. The problem, of course, is that Mailer’s persona is largely gone now. First, Mailer, while still read, hasn’t been a pop culture figure for quite a long time (he really stopped being a celebrity, as opposed to a “literary celebrity” during his own lifetime). Plus, Mailer’s persona–the macho, antagonistic strut he made famous–has been parodied so much (by Neal Pollack, etc al) that doesn’t read the same way as Mailer intends it to. To put it simply, it’s now obvious just how contrived Mailer’s persona is–which means the irony Mailer uses to describe himself now feels so necessary that the reader can’t give him credit for it.

5. But most importantly, the book speaks to a particular audience in a particular moment (middle-aged literary intellectuals in the 1960s). And it doesn’t really challenge that audience. Throughout, it’s impossible not to get the sense that, with his snappy portraits of fellow lit stars Dwight Macdonald and Robert Lowell, or his carping on his (then ongoing) feud with Paul Goodman, Mailer is working the room. But the room has changed. And now it feels like…well, shtick.

6. For some reason, the book made me wonder about contemporary novels like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay or The Fortress of Solitude, which engage with pop culture. Mainly, I wonder if Chabon and Lethem are working the room in their engagement with comics or pop music. That they know the educated, middle-class audience they write for also grew up with the same comics and pop music, and that they will immediately identify not only with that world, but with how Chabon and Lethem use that world. To put it another way, I wonder if engagement with pop culture (at least in a straightforward way that takes a particular set of pop culture markers for granted) risks tying a novel to a particular audience at a particular time. I also wonder if that approach makes things to easy for that audience.

7. In the end, I feel like Armies of the Night doesn’t push its readers hard enough. There are some decent political observations–“Just as the truth of his material was revealed to a good writer by the cutting edge of his style…so a revolutionary began to uncover the nature of his true situation by trying to ride the beast of his revolution.”–but the reader is never threatened by them. Mailer’s own style doesn’t so much reveal the truth of his material as tame it, make it something a reader can look at from a distance. As a result, at no point does the reader feel like this revolution is going to ask anything of the reader himself.

8. It’s not that the book should be more “political”–it should just be…stranger. Really good writing doesn’t work the room–it opens a new one. That’s why a book’s longevity is (though imperfect) such a good measure of it’s quality. A book that does something genuinely new, that doesn’t cater to its audience’s prexisting ideas/tastes/interests stands a better chance with future audiences, if only because they will come to it on more or less the same (unfamiliar) terms as the book’s original audience.