Saturday, July 24, 2021

A Pond in the Rain

George Saunders is almost certainly my favorite short-story writer today, and I've enjoyed his other works over the years as well: essays, profiles, a novel. I'm not entirely sure why I didn't pick up A Swim in a Pond in the Rain when it was released earlier this year, but I'm glad that I didn't, because my brother (no, my other brother) gave it to me as a long-term-loan-slash-birthday-present a couple of weeks ago.

 


In addition to writing fiction, Saunders also teaches writing at Syracuse University, and has done so for decades. This book is an attempt to capture some of what he teaches in a seminar built around nineteenth-century Russian authors, where he and his students will read those stories, analyze and discuss what the authors are doing and how they're doing it, and use some of those techniques in works of their own.

This book includes the full (translated) text of a half-dozen stories from Chekhov, Gogol, Tolstoy and Turgenev. Each story is then followed by a friendly, conversational essay and analysis. Saunders will ask questions of the reader, then offer his own answers. What is this part doing in the story? What would be lost if it was cut? Why did the author spend so much time describing this character who doesn't do much? After reading the last paragraph, did you also go back and re-scan the story to see if that message can be applied anywhere else?

It's all great stuff from a literary criticism perspective, but Saunders is doing something different, trying to figure out why these stories are so great and how we could apply those lessons to our own fiction. Of course, his words carry a lot of weight coming from someone who has been so widely read and admired over the years.

I personally hadn't read any of these stories before. They're different from one another, despite some repeated authors, and all great. I think I might have enjoyed Tolstoy's "Master and Man" the most, in large part because of the strong moral convictions of the author that suffuse the whole story; but Gogol's "The Nose" was terrific and might have been the most fun to read. (And I liked "The Nose" even better after reading the analysis, which repeatedly drove home just what a terrible job the narrator of that story is doing, and why Gogol is choosing to make the narrator that inept.)

There's a lot of terrific insight in this book, but a few specific things really stick with me. One is his focus on what he calls "meaningful action" (as a sort of substitute for the more nebulous term "plot"). A short story should frequently escalate as it continues. We want to grab a reader's attention, and be respectful of their time. Whenever things escalate, it re-acquires our focus and makes us ask questions that we'll need to continue reading to answer. ("How will Sam get out of this jam?" "Wait, why is Susan mad at Frank now?")

He says that he's observed that, when he compares his students who have gone on to be published authors with those who do not, the former have two consistent traits. First of all, they're willing to continually revise and rewrite their work. Secondly, they're able to convey causality within their stories. Things don't just happen: they show how event A causes event B which leads to emotion C which results in catastrophe D. Without that tight sense of causality, you can have a collection of interesting well-written scenes, but you don't really have a story.

Saunders talks pretty much exclusively about short stories in this book. I'm actually not a huge connoisseur of the form, reading way more novels than short stories. My unexamined prejudice has tended to be that short stories are easier to write than novels: they're shorter, have fewer words to write, and only need to be about one or two things. After reading this, though, I'm rethinking that assessment. Saunders repeatedly points out that the economy of the short story isn't a handicap, it's the whole purpose. Everything that's in a short story should be doing something. Not because it's an interesting idea the author thought about and wanted to write down, not because she liked the sound of a certain phrase. Every sentence in a short story should be crucial, such that the story would be worse if it were removed. There's a lot of discipline and focus that goes into each story, without the flexibility for minor digressions that a longer form like the novel can support.

It's probably a sign of a well-written book that during and after my time reading it I thought "Wow, I should write some short stories!" It brought me back to my own fiction writing course way back in college, which was a lot of fun, but I haven't done anything with that since then. But of course I have done a lot of other writing, both writing technical books for professionals and writing video game dialogue for fun. Those are very different things than short stories, but some stuff in this book really resonated with me. One thing in particular was George's focus on the importance of revision and re-writing. I've always felt and often said that I enjoy editing more than writing, and that I feel like I mostly write so I can get material to edit. I've thought of that as a limitation on my skills as a writer (if I really was a writer I'd love writing more than editing), but I'm now feeling better about my heart being more oriented towards making things better. (For the hundredth time, I'll note that I don't edit my blog posts, much to their detriment.)

The term I personally have used in the past when doing this sort of editing work is "tightening up." I've already gotten down the overall content I want to share, but it's often meandering and inartful. There are some technical things I do to it, like eliminating passive voice and chopping up longer sentences into shorter ones, but I'm also paying attention to how the words sound, and whether they make sense, whether they are engaging, something I'd enjoy reading. They usually get shorter and shorter the more I rewrite them, and I'll also tinker with them to try and heighten the content, make my voice more forceful and bold, or sometimes just toss out a whole sentence or paragraph and start fresh. The end result feels a lot like the writing exercises Saunders includes at the end of this book. I'm amazed at how much better a piece of writing becomes when you cut it.

I thought a lot about video-game writing and which of Saunders' lessons might apply there. His comments on voice really resonate with me: one of my favorite aspects of writing campaigns is coming up with a distinctive voice for major NPCs, and once I have that voice in my head that generates many natural ideas about things that character would do and what opinions they would hold. I don't think video games need as laser-sharp of a focus as short stories: it depends on the game, of course, but particularly for RPGs it can be really fun to have little slice-of-life vignettes that help make the world seem bigger and more real. (Shadowrun Hong Kong would be a much lesser game without Gobbet's noodle obsession.) I think his ideas on causality are extremely important for video games, though maybe through a slightly different lens. It's important for the player to understand how and why things are happening. And, in a video game, it's usually most effective if the causality is caused by the player, if their earlier decisions lead to the later consequences. Of course this is where the art forms significantly diverge, with the player being a participant in the game while the reader remains an observer of the story.

Besides chatting about these Russian stories he loves so much, Saunders also includes "Afterthoughts" as well, which talk about his own personal experiences as a writer: how an especially bad sentence in a student's paper inspired one of his best characters, or some feedback a New Yorker editor gave him, or how a certain story surprised him as he was writing it. I recognized a few of these anecdotes from a talk he gave in San Francisco back in 2013, especially a fantastic recounting of his early desire to be Hemingway and how he eventually realized that he needed to find his own voice. The George writing this book seems exactly like the George I met in real life: humble, kind, generous, funny without ever being mean.

I doubt that there are all that many aspiring short-fiction authors out there, but I think the rest of us can still find a lot to enjoy in this book. The Russian stories alone are worth the price of admission, and the overall experience feels like a return to college in the best possible way: sitting in an interesting seminar with a great teacher, thinking critically about great writing and discussing our various opinions about it. That's a feeling I've missed over the years (and honestly a big part of why I blog about books I've read), and it felt great to recapture a part of that here.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Eat The Rich

I rarely do this, but I got mad at an editorial, and now I'm writing about it on my blog!

The Washington Post Editorial Board recently wrote an editorial arguing that an increase in the capital gains tax rate would eliminate the need for a wealth tax. It's one of the dumbest things I've read, and it's a huge bummer to see it published in my favorite newspaper.

 

It's flat-out wrong, misleading, or missing the point from top to bottom. Hitting a few highlights here:

* They say that if the wealth tax is implemented, when the price of Tesla stock goes down, Elon would get a "tax cut". He would actually get zero dollars from the government when his wealth went down. Instead, he would pay a smaller tax the following year. If Tesla went bankrupt and Musk's net wealth was zero dollars, then he would owe zero tax. I'm not even sure what they're trying to say here.

* They lament that people with high wealth but low income (e.g. wealthy heirs) would have to sell stock in order to pay the tax. That isn't a bug, it's the whole feature! First of all, if you're doing anything at all with your wealth, you'll easily be able to afford the tax. (Your 100 million shares of $10 stock are worth $1 billion. They go up 4%. You owe 3%. You sell shares to pay $30 million in tax. You're now worth $1.01 billion.)

* Secondly, the whole point of this is to shake up the entrenched wealth of the top .0001%. We shouldn't be bending over backwards to ensure that billionaires can live comfortably in perpetuity.

* They worry about a downward spiral in markets. But markets are overwhelmingly owned by the wealthiest people. Stock is like any other asset: when it comes down in price, it's more affordable. If the stock market crashed in half today, people who automatically contribute to 401k's would be able to buy twice as many stocks as before the crash. Let's say it again for the millionth time: Wall Street is not the real economy, and we should not allow stock prices to dictate our economic policy. Markets should reflect reality, not drive it.

* They then pivot and say that the rich also have other assets that aren't easy to price, like fine art (maybe) and real estate (absolutely false). This is a specific point that Warren repeatedly addressed during her campaign, and I find it impossible to believe that the Washington Post Editorial Board isn't aware of it. As Piketty and others have shown, the vast majority of the wealth of the wealthy is held in financial securities. Fine art and the like is an infinitesimal fraction of that amount. Saying that it's hopeless to tax 98% of the wealth because it's hard to estimate the value of the remaining 2% is asinine. That would be like saying that because some people are paid in DogeCoin and that's hard to price we should stop withholding FICA payments on payrolls in US dollars. So, let's start collecting that 98% today, and tackle the remaining odds and ends (art, patents, copyrights, etc.) when we get to it.

* Piketty wrote at length in Capital And Ideology about why the European wealth taxes of the 1990s were a disappointment, and the very simple technical fixes to address them. (Use more progressive rates, re-appraise annually, don't let the uber-wealthy hide their wealth in secret tax havens.) I guess the Washington Post Editorial Board hasn't read this book. They really really should before they spout out about the wealth tax. Why the hell argue against something you don't understand?

* Reforming property taxes (real estate tax) is the dumbest possible way to try and reduce the wealth gap. The wealth of the middle class is mostly held in real estate, while the wealth of the top 1% is overwhelmingly held in financial assets. You could increase Jeff Bezos's property tax rate by 5000% and it wouldn't make any noticeable impact on his wealth.

* And yes, we should also increase the capital gains rates as the editorial says. The two are not mutually exclusive, which is why folks like Piketty and Warren argue for both!

* And refreshing the estate taxes would also be a great move to make. But again, not mutually exclusive! And estate taxes would not be needed as badly in a world with wealth taxes. It's a choice between a big bite at the moment of death, and smaller levies over a series of years.

* The editorial says in its final paragraph "If the inheritance tax were more substantial people could still aspire to bestow a legacy on their children, but without unduly perpetuating unearned privilege." That contradicts what they are arguing for. Without a wealth tax, and with an inheritance tax less than 100%, parents could bestow legacies on their children that last their entire lives, that will grow over their entire lives, and that they will pass down to subsequent generations, in perpetuity, without anyone needing to ever do any work. I'd call that "unduly perpetuating unearned privilege". Again, the whole point of a wealth tax is to stop exactly that. You can still get wealthy, and you can still inherit wealth, but you have to do something with it, or do something on your own, or else your vast fortune will over the years become merely a respectable fortune.

They say that Part 3 of this editorial is coming soon. I hope it isn't the hot garbage that Part 2 was.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

A Great Migration

I think a couple of readers know my Shadowrun CalFree campaigns, so I wanted to write a quick post notifying any interested parties that my Shadowrun mods will be departing Nexus Mods in the coming weeks. But not to worry! They’ll continue to be available via the brand-new site at www.calfree.net. And Steam players will still continue to get their mods through the Workshop like always.


I may or may not write a long and rambling post later about the reason behind this migration. The short explanation is that it’s in response to this policy change by Nexus. I understand why they’re doing it, but it’s still a bummer.