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Schadenberuhigung?

An old post of mine about the 80s pop band Milli Vanilli has suddenly gotten some unexpected traffic. I can only guess that this has something to do with Mariah Carey’s meltdown performance on New Year’s Eve in which pre-recorded high notes were a prominent feature.

Eight years ago I wrote a book called Schadenfreude, Baby! Schadenfreude is joy in the misfortune of others. I have to admit to enjoying the fiasco, but not quite in the “Schadenfreude” way.

It brought me back to the humiliating moment four years ago when I was contacted out of the blue by a booking agent for an NPR affiliate asking if I would be a guest on a regional program to talk about one of my old books. I wrote that book ten years ago now, and even then I did not have all of the facts at my immediate recall. I told the booking agent that my instinct was not to do the show, because it had been a long time, but he reassured me that it would be easy and sent me a list of some of the topics from the old book that the show planned to cover so I could cram. Unfortunately, I didn’t re-learn it all in time and the announcer did not stick to those subjects anyway. It was horrible. As I wrote at the time, “half way through the 1 hour interview, I fell silent after a question and had to admit I had no memory at all of the historical episode the host was asking me about.”

What I didn’t mention in the blog post about the interview was that there was another guest on the show in the studio. During the commercial the announcer, I assume not knowing that I could hear their conversation, complained to the other guest about my ignorance, and as I was trying to shake that off we came out of the commercial, the announcer cut back to me with yet another question about my own book which I could not answer. I got a fresh knot in the pit of my stomach for weeks whenever I thought about the interview. I still don’t like to contemplate it.

So when I saw everything falling apart for Mariah Carey I had a different species of Schadenfreude. It was not that I felt glee that she had been taken down a peg. I felt relief, “Well, it could have been worse. I could have been live on one of the most viewed five minutes of television the whole year.” The word that is the subject of this post, if my high school German has served me, (there is a good chance it hasn’t, as I have demonstrated, my memory of things decades old is sometimes questionable) should translate to “reassurance in the misfortunes of others.” It’s OK. Pop stars are screw ups too. Isn’t that just a little bit nice to know?

 

“That Makes Me Smart”

“Mr. Trump is a highly-skilled businessman who has a fiduciary responsibility to his business, his family and his employees to pay no more tax than legally required.”-Statement by the Trump campaign.

I have not been posting here as much as usual because I have been hard at work completing a book about a circle of friends who lived in the Victorian and Edwardian era. Their culture was still much more focused on “honor” than “success.” (This sent them to the libel courts in foolish attempts to preserve their reputations on a regular basis.)

Aristocrats were, of course, entitled and out of touch with the needs of the working class. Yet they did have an ideal of “noblesse oblige,” that is to say, if God favored you by allowing you to be born Lord Wibblebottom of Wembley then this fortune came with a responsibility to society and to those who were less fortunate. The sense of duty and honor was positively fatal to the aristocracy during World War I when so many sons were killed in battle. There was no question that a man had a duty to defend his country. Nobles did not always live up to this ideal, nor were they always aware of their class assumptions, but at least the ideal existed.

In the rarefied air of today’s super rich this ideal is not even present. People like Donald Trump use the language of duty and honor, as in the Trump campaign’s “fiduciary duty,” but “duty” includes no obligation to the larger society whatsoever.

A couple of points, there is no “fiduciary duty” to avoid paying taxes. A 2013 article in The Guardian notes:

Farrer & Co was commissioned to look at the issue by tax justice commissioners who fear executives are trying to justify tax avoidance on the grounds that their priority is to enhance shareholder returns.

The legal assessment from Farrer & Co, which numbers the Queen among its clients, states: “It is not possible to construe a director’s duty to promote the success of the company as constituting a positive duty to avoid tax.”

Farrer says company directors have a wide discretion when calculating the social impact of their decisions. If they choose to pay tax responsibly, they would in fact be protected by the applicable law rather than at risk of liability, it explains.

It seems amazing that this should even be a question. What is fascinating about the 2013 article is that it quotes a representative who says executives “are being told by their tax advisers that they have a duty to adopt anti-social tax measures.”

Think about this for a moment. A duty– a moral obligation– not to contribute to your country.

The idea that it is a moral obligation to avoid taxes is related to another myth that has taken hold of our discourse, the idea that the CEO of a company is morally bound to focus on nothing but maximizing shareholder value.  Yves Smith wrote in Naked Capitalism:

…that board and managements are somehow obligated to “maximize shareholder value” is patently false. Legally, shareholders’ equity is a residual claim, inferior to all other obligations. Boards and management are required to satisfy all of the company’s commitments, which include payments to vendors (including employees), satisfying product warranties, paying various creditors, paying taxes, and meeting various regulatory requirements (including workplace and product safety rules and environmental regulations)…

this idea did not come out of legal analysis, changes in regulation, or court decisions. It was simply an academic theory that went mainstream. And to add insult to injury, the version of the Jensen formula that became popular was its worst possible embodiment.

And as John Kay has stressed, when companies try to “maximize shareholder value,” they don’t succeed

the most profitable companies are not the most profit-oriented…In their 2002 book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras compared outstanding companies with adequate but less remarkable companies with similar operations…in each case: the company that put more emphasis on profit in its declaration of objectives was the less profitable in its financial statements….When a corporation becomes financialized in this way, the top executives no longer concern themselves with investing in the productive capabilities of employees, the foundation for rising living standards. Instead they become focused on generating financial profits that can justify ever higher stock prices – in large part because, through their stock-based compensation, high stock prices translate into megabucks for these corporate executives themselves.

The Trump campaign has gone even a step further with this, making the case that Trump has a duty to avoid paying personal taxes. This is framed as a responsibility to his family. Imagine if you were to try to make the case that you were not going to pay your income tax because you have a duty to your family to provide them with more money?

My interest in this is in how language is used. We use a different standard for middle class and upper class individuals when we talk about income. Trump has profits. Profits are good because they fuel the economy and create jobs. You have savings. Savings are bad because they show a lack of consumer confidence. In both cases the words refer to money that is being hoarded for future personal use.

Then there is the word “responsibility.” I would like to go back to something I said on this subject in 2013 (you can read the full article via the link above):

…Asked what “Thatcherism” was he said, and I’m paraphrasing, Thatcherism was not a political philosophy, it was a way of thinking.  Thatcher, he said, stood for “responsibility.”

I was thinking about this and it occurred to me that this is not a completed concept.  You can’t stand for “responsibility” you have to finish the sentence.  Responsibility to what?

I got to thinking about classical literature and all of those tales about duty and honor.  I thought of something David Denby wrote about the Iliad in Great Books, “Accepting death in battle as inevitable, the Greek and Trojan aristocrats of the Iliad experience the world not as pleasant or unpleasant, not as good and evil, but as glorious or shameful.”

sing the world “responsibility” without saying “to what” calls these types of commitments to mind.  It calls to mind the responsibility of a parent to child.

Yet when I think of Thatcher and Reagan it is a different kind of “responsibility” that comes to mind.  This is often phrased as “personal responsibility.”  It means that each person should take control of his own life, pull himself up by his bootstraps and make his own way. As the name suggests “personal responsibility” is actually a limiting of responsibility from society as a whole to one person.  I am responsible for myself, you are responsible for yourself…

Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is empowering when it means you have the opportunity to break out of rigid social hierarchies.  It is less empowering when it is used to explain why your boss does not have any responsibility to you.  “It is my responsibility to reduce costs and make the largest profits possible so that I can do my duty and create jobs.  It is not my responsibility to ensure that those jobs have living wages.”

Many of the super-wealthy got that way and remain that way by shielding themselves from personal responsibility while at the same time using the language of personal responsibility to justify not participating in the social contact that binds the rest of us.

The article linked above talks about and Wake Forest Law Review by Brent T. White of the University of Arizona that discusses how middle class borrowers were disadvantaged in the crash of 2008 because we held on to old concepts of honor and duty, which included paying mortgages even when underwater. “Norms governing homeowner behavior stand in sharp contrast to norms governing lenders, who seek to maximize profits or minimize losses irrespective of concerns of morality or social responsibility.”

White called this, in his academic parlance, “norm asymmetry.” What it means in layman’s terms is that most of us feel honor bound to pay our bills, and to avoid taking advantage of the system. (For example millions of people who are eligible for food stamps do not take them as a point of pride and a belief in the virtue of self-reliance.)

If using every advantage the system can provide is, as Trump suggests, “smart,” then those proud people are, it seems, “stupid.”

We, every day Americans, are proud of these virtues. We are proud that we respect the system, work hard and “play by the rules.” Words like “duty” and “responsibility” are meaningful to us.

But if “responsibility” when I use it means I have a responsibility to be contributing citizen, and “responsibility” when you use it means “every man for himself,” then we are not having the same conversation.

In an era when most members of congress are millionaires, and most of us are not, I think it is worth stopping and asking, when a politician uses a word like “responsibility” if he is really speaking the same language.

Cheeky and Informative

9781577151340The publisher Murdoch Books is describing my latest book as “cheeky and informative.” I’m happy with that. Just got my author’s copies today.

Whether cliches get under your skin or make you laugh, this dictionary of cliches goes the extra mile to provide an essential resource for students, teachers, writers, and anyone with a keen interest in language. Excellent reference for casual browsing or an in depth read. And that’s food for thought.

Cheeky and informative, each cliche is presented in such a way that is guaranteed to entertain. Know where your cliche comes from, so you won’t be afraid to use it.

Ask for it in a bookstore near you.

Restroom Anxiety and Verbal Violence

“I asked Mercedes to explain to me one of the great mysteries of modern shamings— why they were so breathtakingly misogynistic. Nobody had used the language of sexual violence against Jonah, but when Justine and Adria stepped out of line, the rape threats were instant.”-Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

Perhaps I should see it as a rite of passage. I’ve often read about how often women who challenge men online suffer this kind of verbal abuse. I’ve managed to write on line for years and it was only a few days ago that it happened to me.

“I hope someone comes into the bathroom in a dress and rapes you.”

The crux of the argument, such as it is, was that I was not taking the issue of women’s bathroom safety seriously enough, whereas my male counterpart understood how dangerous and fraught it was to be in a women’s room. If I didn’t see it, well, then he hoped I would get a first hand demonstration so he would be proven right.

One particularly odd thing about this whole exchange is that I had been wondering out loud why men were not offended by a lot of the conversation surrounding transgender bathroom laws. All of the discussion seems to focus on the fear that a penis might be in the women’s room. It seems to me that the underlying premise here is that people with penises are rapists. I am surprised more men are not offended by this assumption. So “I hope you get raped” seems like a feeble answer, unless his point was “yes, we’re all rapists, here’s some verbal violence to make that clear.” Perhaps it was, but I don’t think so.

Actually, what set off the most angry part of the exchange had little to do with this. I had abandoned the whole transgender rights vs. safety frame. My simple question was whether the law as it was written would solve the problem it was designed ostensibly to solve. That is to say, if we grant that these legislators were really concerned about restroom safety, (rather than, say making a point that people are always the gender that it says on their birth certificates and will not be accepted in any other way) would requiring people to use the restroom of the gender on a person’s birth certificate solve the safety issue?

Clearly no.

Let’s grant for a moment the premise that there is a big problem with men putting on women’s clothing for the sole purpose of going into public restrooms and raping or gawking at women. There is no evidence this is actually a thing, my sparring partner said that “there are cases” but didn’t care to be more specific. In any case, for the sake of argument let’s grant that this is a problem that needs to be addressed with a new law.

Assuming your state is not also budgeting to have people stationed at public restroom doors to check birth certificates, or requiring businesses to do so, then people are going to be on the honor system.

So now our fictional cross-dressing rapist can walk into a women’s restroom with complete confidence without changing his clothes. All he has to do, if questioned, is say “I was born Jane Marie.”

Clearly the legislators have not thought things through. Does pointing this out mean I don’t care about safety? Well, my conversation partner felt so. I gather he had passionate feelings about safety.

I read an interesting story in the Atlantic a day or two after this happened.

In a study published in the British Journal of Criminology in 2012, Moore, along with Simon Breeze, observed 20 public toilets in London and Bristol, and interviewed the men and women who used them. She found that though both sexes had plenty of complaints, women’s were more about the cleanliness and quality of the facilities than anxiety about other occupants. They were more relaxed and social overall, chatting with strangers in line, watching doors for each other, sharing makeup.

Men, on the other hand, were on edge. Moore goes so far in the study as to say that for men, public toilets are “nightmarish spaces.” The anxiety they reported was centered around “watching”—being watched by other men, or being perceived to be watching other men—and that this watching was linked to the possibility of sexual violence.

The theory Moore lays out is that, in public, the gender hierarchy makes women the ones who are watched (under the “male gaze,” as it were). But in the bathroom, sans women, men worry about being the object of another man’s gaze, a feeling they don’t often confront in other places. This can make them fearful, even if there’s no real threat present.

This may explain why my male counterpart was much more spooked by this issue than I was when the danger is supposed to be in the women’s room. It seems it is the men who are really anxious, and they are projecting because it is more socially acceptable for them to make the case that women and children must be protected than to say that they are kind of freaked out.

If this is the real issue, maybe designing men’s rooms for more privacy is the answer.

 

 

 

 

Publishing Contracts

An article came to my attention today through my social media feed. It is written by Kameron Hurley and has the title Traditional Publishing, Non-Compete Clauses and Rights Grabs.

In it, Hurley takes exception to certain standard contract terms offered in publishing contracts. In particular, she feels that non-compete clauses prevent authors from making a living wage and that they should be a violation of labor law.

“One of the big issues we’ve been dealing with the last 15 years or so as self-publishing has become more popular are the increasing rights grabs and non-compete clauses stuck into the boilerplate from big traditional publishers terrified to get cut out of the publishing equation,” she writes.

I can assure you, however, that these clauses– including the one most featured in her article– have been around much longer than easy self publishing has. The non-compete, as Hurley calls it, usually comes in the form of a right of first refusal of the author’s next book-length manuscript. In theory this is actually great for the author because it means the publisher will consider putting out another book and the hardest thing in publishing is not the writing but persuading publishers to take a chance on you and your book idea– and this is true whether you have written one or 16 books.

In practice, however, for a mid-list, non-celeb writer to make a living from book writing she must sell at least two books a year and almost no publisher is able to work at that pace. They want to see how the book performed before they commit to your next idea, which means waiting six months to a year for the book to come out, another three or four as per the contract to see how it performs and time to consider the next proposal. At that point, they’re just as likely to say no as yes. So the clause does, indeed, become a barrier to a writer being able to earn a living.

I have had success throughout my career asking to have that clause removed from my contracts. Sometimes you have to persuade agents to ask for what you want, because in my experience they will sometimes say a clause is standard and can’t be changed simply because no one has asked them to change it before.

I would like to play devil’s advocate here for a moment regarding another part of Hurley’s article:

When houses are investing in books and not authors, there’s less impetus to make congenial arrangements in contracts. They are buying widgets, not nurturing relationships, and every widget is a potential golden goose.

Is it not a bit unfair of us to complain on the one hand that we are contractors and should not be tied to a relationship with a publisher, and then to complain that the publishers are not nurturing relationships with us? When we want the freedom to go shopping around for the best deal on every title on our own timing regardless of what the publisher has done for us in the past, we too see every publisher as a “potential golden goose.” The fact of the matter is, the small and mid-size pulishers are struggling to stay in business these days too. I find in negotiations it helps to try to understand the publisher’s concerns as well. Do they really stand to make money from your title? What would need to happen with your book for it to be a gain and not a loss for them?

This old world where writers were nurtured in-house by publishing mentors is something of a myth. It has always applied to a few outliers who we imagine were typical because we so rarely hear the biographies of the mid-level struggling writers of the past.

The independent publishing revolution and ebooks have done a great deal to reduce incomes for writers. But writing has never been an easy profession.

It is understandable that publishers would like to have the one-sided option to hold on to an author who has a hit but not to have to publish another book from an author whose title flops or who has only one book in him. They will ask for what they want if they can get it, just as you would ask for a $50,000 advance if you thought you could get it regardless of whether the publisher stood to make that much on your book.

The truth is there are not a lot of writers out there actually trying to make a living from books, and the publishing industry is built on the premise that writers have day jobs or supporting spouses. Publishers are prepared for negotiations. But the playing field is tilted in their direction because few writers, when it comes down to it, are willing to walk away. We want our books in print– or a payday– more than the publishers need our particular title.

Do What You Love. The Money Won’t Follow.

There was an excellent review of the series Mozart in the Jungle in the L.A. Review of Books today. Although it is framed as a review of the series and a comparison to the book on which it is based, it is more than that a consideration of the state of arts funding in the 21st Century and that strange drive that pulls artists towards a careers that requires a vow of poverty of its practitioners and how the ethos that certain careers should be done for the love not the money can be used to exploit idealistic workers. (This is a particular pet peeve of mine as you can see by reading any of the posts tagged with “love and money.”)

It’s also very funny, because it’s built out of a hilariously unanswerable question. Why make art that no one wants to pay for?

It’s unanswerable because there is no reason; it is, literally, an irrational thing to do. And irrational people are at their funniest when they insist on continuing, and when — in order to continue — they must insist that doing so is the only reasonable thing to do. In this way, the show is a comic saga about art during our austerity, about the survival and suffering of the artistic vocation in the face of the endless and remorseless de-professionalization we are experiencing, as, year after year, it gets harder and harder to make a living doing the things you love.