Literature is not like fine wine

Literary magazines are not very popular these days.

That might seem like bad marketing in the pages of a literary magazine; it doesn’t reflect the sort of positive self-promotion a PR firm might recommend. That’s because we are a literary magazine and don’t make enough money to hire a PR firm that could stop us from talking about this.
There’s a tension, not just in literature but in other art like movies and music, between “pop” creations and highbrow art. One the one hand there are the action movies, the thriller novels, and the shallow songs with a contagious beat. On the other hand there are what are often called “indie” movies, books and films that have small, devoted and almost always insufferably snobby audiences.

On the one hand, fans of pop art seem to feel that if they don’t get an adrenaline rush, a shot of pure entertainment, it’s not worth their while. And art snobs seem to feel that if bands or writers make it big, their art must not be very good. Otherwise, why would so many dumb ordinary people appreciate it? This may be one reason why, if an indie band becomes successful, it is invariably accused of “selling out,” and its fans go find another band with an exclusive group of fans who are the only ones who “get it.”

On the literature side, it sometimes seems that the most praised works of writing are those that are dense, difficult to understand, and have almost zilch entertainment value. The characters are unlikable, their adventures are uninteresting, and the genius of the piece is bound up in the “lens” through which it views the world; the artists and their uniqueness then become the focus. This is not objectionable to the artist, of course, but it can be very boring for everyone else.
It seems that artists have lost their way. On the one hand, we have immensely talented people creating works that are technically very skillful, but not really that appealing or interesting (think John Updike). If a piece flops, it’s convenient, and less painful for the artist to blame the audience. Those poor plebes — I’m just too good for them to appreciate.

And on the other hand we have works that are thrilling and catchy, but not skillfully done (a good half of everything you’ll find in a bookstore, by a generous estimate).

We’re all used to the movie critics who slam films that don’t meet their high standards but inexplicably draw huge crowds. Maybe these critics would get more respect if they also tore apart works that are technically well done, full of artistic genius and soul, but virtually unwatchable.
Great art does not have to be popular, of course. There are many reasons for a creative work to never become famous — the editor wouldn’t publish it, the agent didn’t think any radio stations would be interested, the artist kept it in her attic and never tried to get it published, and so on. But some art deserves to be unpopular.

The artist’s goal should be a creation that is skillfully done, interesting, enjoyable, and meaningful. If the Sacred Cow and other literary magazines publish such pieces, we might be able to stop moaning about how nobody likes good literature anymore.


The Nations Underfoot

By Andrew Sharp

Two books have greatly shaped my thinking about the history of the United States, and they vary wildly in style. One speaks in barely suppressed rage, and the other calmly analyzes.

The calm one is “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,” by Charles C. Mann. He examines new scholarship that contradicts the story about how the “New World” was lightly populated by roving “savages.” Instead, Mann reports, it was full of established agricultural communities, permanent settlements, and highly advanced cultures.

The enraged book was “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” a horrifying (if sensational) account of how the last few of the North American native cultures were exterminated in the West. It’s full of stories of greed, lies, betrayal, and cold-blooded murder that often amounted to genocide.

If the Americas were not wilderness, then “settlement” is the wrong word. In the interest of accuracy, we need to use the word “conquest.” And then we need to confront the way in which that conquest was done, and ask if some justice is overdue.

While “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” certainly has a sensationalist slant, painting the white advance with as black a brush as possible, it contains a great deal of uncomfortable truth, along with an invaluable telling of events through the eyes of the conquered, not the conquerors.
You could argue that the U.S. war on American Indians was bad, but it might not have been quite as bad as the book says. If saying that theft and murder were exaggerated helps you sleep better at night, by all means dismiss this book. But that doesn’t work for me.

A simpler way to examine the issue is to ask yourself, “Would I switch places with these people? If my ancestors were the original inhabitants, would I be pleased that things turned out as they did?” You can nit-pick over some of the generalizations made by historians sympathetic to Indians, but to argue that whites had a right to all the land they ended up with is not sober historical analysis. If you’ve never read the Cherokee appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to avoid deportation from their lands, I recommend you take the time.

The United States has held itself up as a “city on a hill,” an example for the world to see. It’s no wonder, then, that we have had to gloss over our history.

Henry Whipple, chairman of the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the wars with the Sioux, summed it up well.

“I know of no other instance in history where a great nation has so shamefully violated its oath. Our country must forever bear the disgrace and suffer the retribution of its wrongdoing. Our children’s children will tell the sad story in hushed tones, and wonder how their fathers dared so to trample on justice and trifle with God.”*

The scope of the injustice perpetrated calls for more than regret and apology. It calls for practical steps to make restitution as much as possible. Although cultures cannot be unmurdered, things that have been stolen may be returned. Why do we return art and jewelry stolen by Nazis but not return Indian land? World War II occurred only decades after the Indian Wars.

Far from being comfortably buried in the remote past, the defeat of the American Indian occurred in the late 1800s, decades after slavery had been abolished. Apache warrior Geronimo died in 1909 (a year after Ford began manufacturing Model Ts). Red Cloud (Oglala Lakota) died the same year. Scattered armed uprisings continued until 1924. To put this in perspective, my grandparents (most still living) were born in the 1920s. There are still people alive — albeit very few —who were born while Geronimo was still living. My father remembers visiting an elderly woman who had gone out to the West on a stagecoach around the time of the Western Indian wars.

Many American Indians today live marginalized on small reservations, a sort of glorified cattle corral, where they have no real chance to rebuild a nation (or sovereign tribe) in any dignified sense of the word. You can argue until you’re blue in the face that it’s their fault if they aren’t making meaningful lives for themselves (many of these arguments are encores of “drunk worthless savages”). But would you be happy if your people had the leftovers?

Any honest attempt at genuine restitution is likely to be very painful, as is only natural when attempting to redress great pain. It will also be complex and difficult to sort out.

But it’s past time to start.


The Window That Looks Back

By Matt Swartz

In my lifetime, only two tech-related companies have become so ubiquitous that their proper names have become commonly-recognized verbs. And they couldn’t be more different. Xerox, the older of the two, is now inextricably linked with a fundamentally simple process.

Xerox (verb) means what Xerox (noun) made its billions doing: to produce, with a scanner and a printer, an exact copy of a sheet of paper. The process is simple; on older machines it leaves no record of what has been done. It’s a camera and a printer wired together, and while there are additional features available on newer models, the fundamentals remain unchanged: Any piece of paper one puts under that lid and exposes to that scrolling bright light will emerge beneath with its contents reproduced. The task completes with complete indifference to the original contents of the paper.

The schematic of a stealth bomber reproduces just as nicely (and just as discreetly, except on newer models with internal hard drives), as Nana’s raisin bread recipe. The machine Xerox is utterly indifferent to the contents Xeroxed.

With google (verb), the act of using Google (noun’s) website, to search the Internet, on the other hand, matters could hardly be more opposite; the way the former works is utterly dependent on the caprices of decision-makers employed by the latter, in a way that’s poorly understood. To make matters worse, according to Barton Gellman and Laura Poitras, in a June 17, 2013 article in the Washington Post, the whole process leaves a permanent record, both in Google’s servers and in a backdoor pipeline that runs into a National Security Agency intelligence-gathering program called PRISM.

Tech enthusiasts who skew utopian praise the new era of transparency that digitization of information online offers, and they’re not wrong to do so. This afternoon, without leaving my desk, I can access millions of government documents for free, the abstracts of innumerable academic journal articles, as well as most public-domain books. In a sense, it’s like having the best library in history at my disposal.

Except it’s not American library; American librarians are bound by a code of conduct that precludes their revealing the contents of patron checkouts and inquiries, except when subpoenaed. And in fact, there’s more anonymity even than that; one doesn’t have to give his or her name to browse a library’s stacks or databases. As long as you’re quiet and conscientious, you can do whatever you want in American library from its opening to its close, and never have to explain your purposes to any government employee.
I’ve had the distinct pleasure of photocopying and uploading an entire rare book to my Internet cloud service. No questions were asked, no explanations were given. I walked away with a rare treatise about the Kennedy assassination in my pocket.

The Internet offers no similar experience. Google keeps a record of every search made, and they’re catalogued by IP address. That means that they know where the searches originate from, at what time, and it’s a small step between that and knowing by whom.

One of my friends was visited by Secret Service agents and asked to explain the specifics of some of the searches he was making. The burden of proof was on him to prove that they were innocuous, not, as one would expect from our English Common Law roots, on the government to prove that they were not. His answers were judged satisfactory, and he was ultimately left alone, but being visited by armed federal agents is bad for one’s blood pressure, and of course records of that visit are never going away.

Not only are Web searches catalogued forever by Google, as noted by Tom Foremski in a 2010 article in his Silicon Valley Watcher, but they are subject to scrutiny by forces that, while not exactly hidden, are less than transparent. They’re also not necessarily an accurate representation of all available information about a given subject.

When I Xerox a page, I get two pages exactly alike, assuming I’ve got the paper lined up correctly. Every square micrometer of page, every scintilla of printed data, is reproduced from one page to the other. When I google a subject, on the other hand, I have no certainty that I’m getting results that correspond perfectly with what Google has in its databases, nor that they’re ranked in a mathematically transparent way.

We don’t know what Google’s search algorithms are, because that’s a trade secret, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. We also don’t know how they differ depending on what’s searched for. The ability to rank what one sees when googling, for example, political candidates, is a power more total than that of any single mass media outlet, and yet far less frequently discussed.

It’s common knowledge in the search-engine optimization community that only a tiny percentage of searchers click through to the second and third pages of results. After reading the listed summaries for the first 10 articles, and perhaps clicking one or two links, they likely move onto the next subject or person feeling informed, as if they’ve done their due diligence. If they’re under 40, they’ll congratulate themselves on Going Directly To The Source, rather than relying on what’s broadcast to them. If they’re under 30, they’ll call people who get their news from the newspapers and TV more often than from Google sheeple (a portmanteau of sheep and people) for their credulity. Google as a source, as a potential font of bias, goes widely unconsidered.

In that vein, imagine a close election; moderate voters turn to the Web search for answers. And then one candidate’s name auto-completes to add “racist” or “irritable bowel syndrome” after his name. And we know of this one instance, we don’t know what we don’t know. Google’s algorithms are a trade secret.

What can we take away from this? What courses of action are necessary/possible? Your poor correspondent could hardly be less qualified to answer (perhaps he’d be less qualified if he didn’t view it as a problem, but that’s about it). But imagine if Web search were open source, with the algorithms used to filter and rank search results subject to perusal in real time.
We could also lobby our federal government to stop monitoring those parts of the Internet, like search, that could reasonably be described as private, under the older constitutional understanding that warrantless search is forbidden, and that individuals have an inherent right to privacy (barring extenuating circumstances, which by definition, cannot exist categorically). Federal antitrust mechanisms might help us by breaking Google up, as they did Bell Telecom in the 1980s and Standard Oil in the early 1900s, but these are distant goals.

Search isn’t going to be like photocopying in our lifetime, and perhaps the best we can do is be aware of the differences and the power patterns they create. In that sense, you, by reading to the end of this piece, by perusing more than the first few pages of my authorial results, might have struck a small blow for government and corporate transparency and personal anonymity, merely by familiarizing yourself with the unprecedented changes that have taken place and musing about whether or not they strike you as problematic.

The Back Page: Optimistic About Pessimism

Empty glass

By Ben Herr

Speaking only for myself, but expecting others to relate, pessimists are largely a misunderstood, misrepresented group of individuals. Pessimism is viewed as a character flaw at worst, and a bad mood at best. But is it really? Should it be completely written off without often giving it a second thought? Because I believe in pessimism. I believe it is a valuable mindset to society, and has things to offer the individual.

First, the most common, and most quickly dismissed, argument in favor of pessimism: A pessimist’s approach to life is actually more optimistic than an optimist’s. You’ve almost certainly heard this explained in an overly simplistic way.

For example, an optimist and a pessimist start cleaning out the garage at 10 a.m. The optimist says, “If we work hard, we can get done by noon!” The pessimist says, “I doubt it, we will probably finish by 2.” While it may seem like the pessimist has a gloomy approach now, how about when they finish? If done by 12, the optimist’s expectations will merely have been met, while the pessimist will have been wonderfully surprised. Whereas if finished at 2, the optimist will be disappointed, but the pessimist’s expectations will merely have been met. Win-win for the pessimist.

This scenario is, on paper, in favor of the pessimist. Discuss it with a group of people, however, and it depends on the individual as to how beneficial that kind of pessimistic mindset is. Since people are wired differently, they will have different responses to the idea.

The pessimist’s perspective is more, however, than estimating cleaning time. It becomes more strongly optimistic the deeper you go. To me, pessimism is a powerful indicator of hope. Because the moment I stop being pessimistic about the world will be the moment I have given up hope in it. The moment I stop expecting poor performances is the moment I have stopped having standards that I hope to see met. The moment I stop lambasting the flaws of the governmental system is the moment I have given up hope that they might ever be corrected. The moment I stop being pessimistic is the moment I will have given up on optimism, because pessimism is really nothing more than a dirty term for how some people strive to be optimistic.

In this way, pessimism is an indicator of the desire for improvement. Take harsh movie critics. They are typically viewed by the moviegoing public as cranky, unappreciative people who simply love tearing films down. As a fairly harsh movie viewer myself, however, I can vouch that the opposite is often true. I critique because I see wasted potential, because I see ways that things could have easily been improved. Ultimately, when pessimists depict something in a negative light, it is because they want, or expect, it to be done better. Their criticism is an expression of hope that it can be done better in the future.

Finally, pessimists are more likely to give you an honest and frank opinion. They are less concerned with putting things in terms that seem appealing and optimistic, and more concerned with saying things how they see them. If I ever needed dependable input on how a system was working, I would ask a pessimist. Not only for the honesty, but if something is going wrong in a less than obvious way, it will likely be a pessimist who notices it first. That is a kind of feedback that I think is incredibly valuable.

These are just a few reasons to view pessimistic thought in a more positive light. Yet, to try to convert to pessimism if it is not how you are wired would likely be counterproductive. After all, someone could write a piece like this showing the value in optimistic thought.

What I hope to have accomplished is for the word “pessimism” to have become a little less dirty. I hope that people start recognizing the pessimist’s way as an alternative option, rather than an inferior one. I hope that more people will see pessimists as desiring, seeking, and striving for improvement. And most of all, that more people will see these as foundational things that pessimists and optimists alike will agree on.

Ben Herr lives in Lancaster, Pa., where he works as a dorm adviser for international high school students.  He writes short stories, humor, and opinion pieces about whatever current ideas and projects interest him.

Here Comes the T-Rex from the Rear

By Tamara Shoemaker

Don’t you just love the whole atmosphere of a gym? Cardio, fitness, ambition blazing in the sweat-soaked faces of hard-core people bound and determined to burn at least 500 calories in the space of 20 minutes?

I like watching the joggers. Lithe, smooth, graceful. Kind of like gazelles. They push off from one foot, the opposing leg stretching forward in a smooth arc, landing in a light roll from the heel to the toe. Repeat as needed.

I wish I looked like that when I run. A graceful doe bounding at the head of the pack.
I’m more like the T-Rex, lumbering along at the rear. Thud THUD, Thud THUD. Thud THUD. Clear the track! Ponderous heavyweight coming through!

I certainly don’t resemble the majority of gym-enthusiasts who frequent the fitness facilities, muscle tone oozing from every pore of their bodies. “Tone” in my book runs more along the lines of a spot-on musical note. But that’s beside the point.
The point is, I am bound and determined to succeed at health.

But I don’t eat salad every day. Protein smoothies do not constitute a major portion of my life. I even sneak a brownie into the closet now and then out of view of my kids’ prying eyes and attack it like a starving animal.

However, in my slow, determined, lumbering way, I drag myself to the gym (or the track or the street, or to the front of the TV for an aerobics routine) and doggedly burn away those calories.

When the mental fatigue hits (usually about a mile into my run), I think, I can’t do this anymore. My feet plod slower and slower in front of me as I heft my weight from one foot to the other, to the first one, to the second one. Just. One. More. Lap. I. Can. Do. It. No. I. Can’t.

Enter the good guy. The Encourager.

I like to call him that. He’s a regular at the gym at which I often run. He’s always there, pink cheeks glowing from exercise. He wanders around the weight machines, nodding to one person or another, always giving a word of encouragement. “Great job!” “Five more reps, you can do it!”

He usually comes out of the weight room about the same time I’m rounding the curve of the track to cross the mile-marker. My mind has shut down. All I can think of is taking the next step. And the next. And the next. My lungs are burning, oxygen is short, and I won’t be able to sustain even that much effort very long.

Then the grin crosses his face like lightning, shooting a bolt of new energy into my tired muscles. “You’re doing great!” he says. “Keep it up!”

And suddenly, I find I can do one more lap. Sure, why not? What’s a little fatigue when it’s all said and done anyway?

I’ve often watched the other people at the gym, most of them petite, fit and and obviously in better shape than I am. I wonder what they think of me, trotting around the track at a snail’s pace, gasping for air like I’ve just swallowed a gallon of sea-water. I think to myself that I’m doing pretty well, with three young kids at home, a side-career as a writer vegetating in front of a computer, carving out a few extra minutes to get some cardio in. But that pep talk doesn’t even cut it in the throes of fatigue.

What does cut it is that one encouraging word. That extra smile that boosts me for another lap. The smile that says, “We’re all in this together; it doesn’t matter what your body build is or the amount of sweat you drop in a 20-minute period of time.”

So when you hear the tell-tale thunder of Jurassic Park behind you on the track, think about how that person may be watching you with a little admiration, even a little envy, and throw a smile their way.

We can’t all be gazelles.

Tamara Shoemaker is the author of several books, including “Broken Crowns,” “Pretty Little Maids” and the recently released “Ashes, Ashes.” She lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with her husband, Tim, and their three children.

On Red Meat and Mortality

By Matt Swartz

The other evening, I visited a newly-opened grocery store. The marketing and signage made it clear to me from the street that its intention was to compete with Whole Foods. I pulled in hoping that its strategy would be price competition, rather than an escalation in the arms race of foodie esoterica that has recently gotten so obnoxious (“I wanted some gluten-free pine-nut-based energy snacks with acai berries in them, but the only ones I can find have soy isolates in the ingredient list! Thanks, but I can’t buy these. I care too much about my family!”)

On the whole, my expectations were met. The innards of the store were filled with healthy snacks at inflated prices, much like a Whole Foods, but all the important deals are on the outside edges of a grocery store anyway: produce, dairy, bulk dry stuff and meat. These were wholesome and reasonably priced, so much so that I intend to return regularly. But I had an interaction at the butcher’s counter that stayed with me.

At the butcher’s counter, I could see that they were doing everything right. My powers of description aren’t anywhere near equal to the shiny redness and thickness of the steaks, marbled, stacked high, and priced cheaper than I’d expected. On the wall behind the counter, various marketing blurbs were written (did I mention how good ALL of the typefacing on this store’s advertising looked? Painstaking effort had clearly been taken.)

One of the blurbs was styled like this: “ask me about _______ .” “Me” was clearly the butcher, so I asked him the scripted question. He paused for a moment, considering, I suppose, that we were of  similar age, build, social class, and level of grizzeledness, and went off script: “Oh, they have a big speech I’m supposed to give you, but basically it just means we massage the cows before we kill ’em.” We MASSAGE the cows, before we KILL THEM.

I bought two steaks and left, but on the drive home, I realized that in his parting words, I’d found an ace that I could keep (apologies to Kenny Rogers, of course). It is a natural fact that every one of us is going to die, and we don’t know when. Luxury deadens our awareness of this looming fact, in the same way small acts of conscientiousness (Buy grass-fed! Buy organic!) lead us to imagine that we can delay it. But neither change facts. On a day we don’t and can’t plan, we’re going to be led down the chute, and when we get to the bottom of it, whatever massages we’ve had recently will be utterly beside the point.

My drive home took me past what I think is the oldest cemetery in Columbus, Ohio. I looked over the stone fence into the  tree-filled, shadowy resting place of those now, some of them, nearly 200 years dead. Some are marked with crosses, some with obelisks, and a few, signage informs me, aren’t marked at all. Those people ate grass-fed and organic, and I suppose if they’d had health care plans they liked, they would have been able to keep them. But they’re gone and forgotten.

I’m a Christian man; I have hope for the next life, and for that I’m thankful. But what I don’t have, what nobody has, is control over this day or that one. Our mortality is a fact that bears reflection. And when a meat cutter at a yuppie grocery store can spur that reflection, it’s been a good day.

Income vs. jobs: The minimum wage Red Herring

By Andrew Sharp

The guy ringing up your order of fries can’t survive on his minimum wage paycheck. But can anything be done about that? Recent debates about the minimum wage — what it should be and whether there should even be one — have been brought to the forefront by fast food workers demanding their pay be doubled. Well-meaning people take different sides of this argument. The problem is that it’s the wrong argument.

The standard argument generally runs as follows:
Kind-hearted labor advocate: These people can’t live on the money they’re making. They deserve fair pay and the minimum wage needs to be raised to give it to them. People should make enough at their jobs to pay the bills.

Thoughtful capitalist: Raising minimum wage won’t help. Rich business owners will keep their money, and they’ll just raise the prices on all of us to cover the higher wage. Then there will be fewer jobs.
Arrogant capitalist, chiming in: Yeah, and the poor people need to get college degrees or actually get a real job that pays the bills, not a high-schooler’s job. They signed up for that wage, they should just be happy with it or go work somewhere else.

I hardly need to rebut arrogant capitalist; his argument is snide and flimsy (especially because I made it a straw man). But the other ideas are worth careful thought.
Many of those who argue against raising the minimum wage insinuate — or say outright — that there shouldn’t be a minimum wage at all, because then the free market could have full reign as God intended and there would be plenty of jobs for all.

Presumably, we could then all go back to a happier day when everyone had a job at whatever rate the rich people felt like paying, and lived in squalid shacks without health care or enough food or heat in the winter.

In those golden days, when the free market reigned with an iron hand, its serfs often lived and died in squalid conditions. Ask your grandfather, if he’s still around, how he liked breathing coal dust for a living in Appalachian mines. He died at 39, you say? Well, at least it’s a mercy that the family has been able to make a new life on the inheritance he passed down, since he received a fair reward for his hard work. What’s that? Penniless? Oh.

Therein is the flaw, of course. Rather than argue about whether the minimum wage will fix anything, why are we not questioning rich business owners who refuse to cut into their profits for fair employee benefit, but instead choose to pass the costs along to the customers? Of course it’s legal — and good capitalism — but does being legal make it good? The relationship between law and justice is often only a casual one.

While we argue over whether the minimum wage will work, we often ignore the deeper issue of whether free market capitalism, as touted by many of its proponents, is really a good thing. At this point in the discussion, some people will start to get very upset. Their faces flush. They breathe faster. They howl, “BUT THAT WON’T WORK PEOPLE ARE GREEDY AND SELFISH CAPITALISM IS THE BEST WAY CONSIDERING HUMAN NATURE ADAM SMITH HARD-EARNED GAINS NO WELFARE STATE YOU CAN’T FORCE PEOPLE TO BE GENEROUS” and so on.

Sure, maybe unchecked capitalism works, for some people. But again, is it good? If we let people compete savagely with greed and selfishness, with only the fit surviving, we may indeed end up creating vast wealth. But will we end up with a prosperous, happy society? Minimum wage is not a fix, in such a system. Rather, it is a sad symptom of greed.

While I can’t answer these profound questions that people have been wrestling with for centuries — this is an opinion column, not a philosophical breakthrough — I would like to make two simple suggestions. (And no, for those who have been getting worked up, it’s not to get rid of capitalism.) One suggestion is that we no longer assume that business owners who hog all the wealth they can get are somehow virtuous, achievers of the American dream, if they got there by screwing their workers. That kind of behavior should be a shame, spoken of in hushed tones, rather than lauded as success.

And two, I submit that a minimum wage is a good check on greed. If we raise it back up to 1970 levels, adjusting for inflation, and as a result we all have to pony up a few more pence for a hamburger, I don’t think it will kill us. Although the hamburger might.