Abstract digital art. An oblong shape on a dark blue background.
fiction, nonfiction, poetry

On the infinite expansion of reading lists

Over the past two decades, I’ve read fifteen hundred books. I’m not including newspapers, magazines, online articles, or sources briefly consulted. I mean books with ISBNs that I’ve read cover-to-cover. Over the same period of time, I’ve listed an additional two thousand books that I’d like to read but have not, to this day, yet read.

The “to read” list usually presents itself as a “to-do” question: When and how will I acquire copies of each book and sit with it? Won’t it take more than two decades to read them all? The “to read” list seems to prompt goal-setting. It’s an achievement that lies in my future. It’s an ambition. We are so often taught to think that way: Something we want to do is necessarily something that we are supposed to do, or else others will interpret us as disappointed, ineffectual, unhappy, and therefore pitiable.

There is a better way of understanding this phenomenon: I add books to my “to read” list at more than twice the speed that I read them. If this week is typical, I’m likely to add five books to my list, yet I can only read two. This is a permanent condition. I can’t catch up with my own list. This is not a problem. The only problem is in imagining that I can read five books a week. I can’t.

One solution is to want less. Just delete books from the list. Don’t tell people that they exist. Downsize my imagination to fit my capacity. This would make other people more comfortable around me because they would remain blissfully unaware that there are things I want to do that I will never do. I wouldn’t be giving them the terms by which to interpret me according to my unrealized potential.

But what’s wrong with having unrealized potential? The list does not have to be a source of frustration. Instead, it can represent abundance. It is the abundance of my own imagination regarding what I would like to do with my time. I may never cross everything off the list. That just means I will never run out of things I’d like to do.


‘Painting Dragons’ will be 99 cents for Kindle on Friday, July 31, 2020

If you haven’t had a chance to read Painting Dragons, now the ebook is on a flash sale! Beginning this weekend, Painting Dragons: What Storytellers Need to Know About Writing Eunuch Villains will be only 99 cents for Kindle! Put the URL in your calendar for Friday, July 31, 2020 so you don’t forget: https://amzn.to/2pU7lo1

The price goes up the longer you wait.

July 31, 2020 at 8:00 AM (PDT) $0.99
August 1, 2020 at 4:00 PM (PDT) $1.99
August 3, 2020 at 12:00 AM (PDT) $2.99
August 4, 2020 at 8:00 AM (PDT) $3.99
August 5, 2020 at 4:00 PM (PDT) $4.99
August 7, 2020 at 12:00 AM (PDT) Original list price $5.99

Painting Dragons: What Storytellers Need to Know About Writing Eunuch Villains
Painting Dragons by Tucker Lieberman

fiction, nonfiction

Jane Alison: ‘Complex narratives are networks’

Physicists and novelists alike “strive to describe the universe and understand the relationships between all its components,” Lee Randall says in an essay for Crime Reads. She quotes Jane Alison as having written in Meander, Spiral, Explode: “All complex narratives are networks…your experience moving through them is never purely linear, but volumetric or spatial as your thoughts bounce across passages.”

Abstract digital art. You may see a human torso in it.

Interviewed for Randall’s essay, S. J. Watson (author of Before I Go to Sleep) said, “This interest in understanding why is one of the things it [physics] has in common with writing and especially crime writing. Not just observing why train tracks buckle under the heat, but understanding why. Not just observing that someone murders, but understanding why you’d do that.”

If you truly know why something happens, chances are you can write a narrative that integrates this information throughout, so that you are not presenting a simple statement to the reader but rather an information network through which they can follow various paths to find the answer they seek–or perhaps an answer you didn’t even know you were providing!

Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism; detail from book cover
fiction, nonfiction

The ‘situation’ is what’s unfolding

“…throughout [this book] I define the genre situation in terms of the situation comedy or the police procedural. The police conventionally say: ‘We have a situation here.’ A situation is a state of things in which something that will perhaps matter is unfolding amid the usual activity of life. It is a state of animated and animating suspension that forces itself on consciousness, that produces a sense of the emergence of something in the present that may become an event.”

— Lauren Berlant

In “a situation,” as Lauren Berlant writes in her introduction to Cruel Optimism (2011), our relationships are in flux, and the very manner in which we must live out and storytell that personal or political change is also “unstable, in chaos.” Rather than think of ourselves as living in an ongoing state of exception with an ongoing set of traumas that are “exceptional shock[s]” to some presumed ordinary state, Cruel Optimism proposes that we consider ourselves as ordinarily dealing with “incoherence…in the face of threats to the good life [we] imagine.” It is thus more accurate to say that we experience “crisis ordinariness.” There is never not a crisis. Sometimes our crises just feel less prominent.

Berlant also gives us “perturbation,” which she describes in her introduction as “Deleuze’s word for disturbances in the atmosphere that constitute situations whose shape can only be forged by continuous reaction and transversal movement, releasing subjects from the normativity of intuition and making them available for alternative ordinaries.” A perturbation is a situation in which you have to make a conscious choice to act differently.

One further concept may be useful for fiction writers to attempt to distinguish whether their story focuses on the present or on a future resolution. “Transformation,” Berlant says in Chapter 2, “is always in the language of the aftertime; what the novels [The Intuitionist and Pattern Recognition] want is to provide the sensorium for a reconceptualized present.”

Abstract image. Light streaks on dark background.
art, avoidance, nonfiction

The term ‘writer’s grievance’

Here is a term coined by Minna Salami describing the weariness or frustration in noticing that other writers—because of their dominant race or gender—can adopt a particular tone that you could never take or can get away with less effort, less serious attention, or less critical analysis on issues that are central to you.

This grappling [with the impact of Europatriarchal dominance] has not led to writer’s block but to an equivalent sentiment that I refer to as writer’s grievance. Writer’s grievance is when you become starkly aware of the constant, howling objection in your words. It is when you wish that you could write about trivialities in the way that white male writers can. Or that you could be cool and impartial in writing about gender, as black male writers are. One cannot even single-mindedly write about a classic feminist issue such as the gender pay gap, as white feminists do, without that other issue spilling its Rs and As and Cs and Es onto the pages.

—Minna Salami, in her introduction to Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach For Everyone

Insofar as black women, in Salami’s analysis, never quite feel that they have the space, permission, freedom, or opportunity to view the world purely from their own point of view without the awareness of how white people and/or men perceive them, this “writer’s grievance” resembles what W. E. B. Du Bois called “double consciousness.” Their work tends to reflect how other people view them or constrain them. And it takes its personal toll. Salami says that “never placing myself (however constructed that self is) at the center of my worldview is the most harmful way for a black woman to live. I remain the ‘other’ even to myself.”

The desire for the freedom to make art and philosophy about “trivialities” is not itself trivial. There is a difference, after all, between being trivial and having the freedom to choose to be trivial. It is a reflection of the options that society makes available. People of dominant identities often criticize those of marginalized identities for “making the personal into the political” or “playing identity politics.” But do the people of marginalized identities have the full freedom to do otherwise, given how they must gain knowledge and make their way in the world?

Bertrand Russell, an early-20th-century white British philosopher, wrote this sentence 90 years ago which has been widely quoted. In unpacking it a bit, it sheds some light on the topic.

One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.

—Bertrand Russell, Conquest of Happiness (1930), Chapter 5

Russell seems to mean, first of all, that it is healthy and necessary to be able to step outside one’s work now and then, if only for a necessary respite to be able to return to the work with a refreshed perspective. Perhaps he also means that we must be humble and realistic about our eventual unimportance as individuals within history. But there is an additional meaning embedded here which he probably did not intend: Much of white men’s writing is unimportant because they have the luxury of writing that way. The way they gain knowledge is not, as it is for so many other people, biased by survival mechanisms due to their race and gender; instead it is biased by the way they benefit from and participate in upholding Europatriarchal dominance. And if a white man enjoys and promotes an existing system in which he is treated as nobility, then, regarding that system, his work is not revolutionary or transformative and, in that sense, it cannot be terribly important. If he thinks that it is, he is starting to suffer from a kind of delusion that is a product of the Europatriarchy itself.

As Salami put it:

Men are just as enslaved by the social system—one that they hesitate to criticize because it amplifies an illusion about who they are. In fact, men are troubled with frustrated desires; they are caught up in the competitiveness of the rat race; they are sexually needy; they suffer from suicidal inclinations in disturbing numbers; and they possess an insatiable urge for power.

—Minna Salami, in her introduction to Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach For Everyone

Thus, maybe—to alter and repurpose Russell’s observation—when certain thinkers and artists feel that they are approaching a nervous breakdown, they should reconsider whether their work is designed to describe or achieve anything sufficiently important. Those who are always trying to achieve something important already know who they are; they more likely have the “writer’s grievance” than the type of stressful self-doubt to which Russell refers.