Information hygiene

[This post is also available as an issue of my newsletter, Leaflet.]

In the early onset of adulthood, one often samples reckless hedonism—drinking away weekends, maxing out credit cards, counting peanut butter swirled into spaghetti as “dinner,” punctuating relationship conflict with cigarettes—but the obverse of utterly unimpeded freedom is that one is free to die alone in a cancer ward if one really wants to, and at some point, there is usually an accommodation with prudence and fear, and one sets about acquiring boring, sensible habits. Never drink juice or soda, for instance. Just buy baby shampoo, because then you don’t have to find a new brand every six months. One even becomes grateful for habits like brushing one’s teeth that come as it were pre-installed.

Information hygiene is one such regimen. It was probably easier in the era I grew up in. Sources of information then had distinct edges and well-known, widely agreed upon reputations, in part because information was almost always delivered in a physical form. By and large, in those days, the only way to read a news article in, say, the Evening Gazette of Worcester County, Massachusetts, was to read it in the ink-on-paper Evening Gazette. In a pinch you could catch the bus into Worcester and read an old article on microfilm in the library downtown, but in general if you were reading an Evening Gazette story it was because you were holding the Evening Gazette in your hands. And well before that, you knew—either because you grew up knowing or because you had quizzed the neighbors when you moved to town—that the Gazette was ever so slightly more liberal than the Worcester Telegram, the only local alternative, which was the morning paper in the area, and you knew that both papers were pretty reliable about facts and a little stodgy. (Not perfectly reliable, however. When the Gazette ran a candid photo of me one spring day, sitting on a swing in our backyard reading a collection of short stories about vampires, I was shocked to see my name misspelled, our address garbled, and the vampires miscategorized as “homework.”)

Nice people didn’t read the flimsy magazines for sale in supermarket checkout lines. (By the way, these were not the glossy perfect-bound tomes you find in supermarkets today, blandly commemorating World War II, or vegetarian recipes, or a pop star who has through death recently achieved embourgeoisement. These were more ludicrous, meaner in spirit, and much cheaper-looking.) This wasn’t because nice people thoughtfully upheld the values of curation and fact-checking. It was because of class war. It was understood to be a little soiling to be seen even leafing through such magazines. It was understood that Tom Brokaw delivered real news, and that the Evening Magazine TV show that preceded him didn’t (despite that one segment on Chippendales dancers that did have some special news for me in particular, one fateful Thursday). At 5:30pm we knew that what was coming out of the television wasn’t serious, and at 6pm we knew that it was.

Channels of information are not so sharply delimited today. A talk-show host you follow tweets a line from a Washington Post story: you can’t simply say you learned about it on a talk show, or that you learned about it by browsing Twitter, or that you learned about it from reading the Washington Post. It’s all mixed up. And partly as a corollary, the reputations of channels of information are no longer so clearly demarcated, either. Even people like me, who consider The Washington Post to be reliable in matters of fact, have to keep in mind that a line from one of its articles that’s been cherry-picked by a media personality might acquire a slant on Twitter that it didn’t have in its original context—that the line might even have been selected with the intention that it will be misunderstood. Moreover, nowadays there exists a community of readers in which the consensus is that the Washington Post is a duplicitous lackey puppet of some dire neoliberal conspiracy. A third novelty of our environment: the consumption of information is for the most part invisible. Is it déclassé to read TMI Feedzweb? Who cares! No one sees you reading it. And even if they could, the shame and scorn that once enforced information hygiene have been so overthrown that nowadays reading downmarket sleaze probably qualifies you as edgy, in a downtown, post-moral kind of way.

What’s a boring adult to do? As I see it, there are two desiderata here: not to have your time wasted, and not to have your mind poisoned. I immediately, humbly confess that I have let a lot of my time be wasted over the past decade or so of Twitter use. My husband and I have print subscriptions to more than a dozen periodicals, but whole issues of these have been recycled unread into sock fibers and Patagonia jacket liners while I was clicking through to try to figure out why someone I was a little scared of on Twitter was so indignant about the intellectual misprisions of someone else on Twitter whom I kind of liked. I didn’t want to get attacked someday myself, you know. Was it worth it? Sometimes it felt like it was, at the time. I got to be a spectator at the front lines; I got to see the bayonets going in, to hear the flump of the bodies falling into the mud. But sometimes it didn’t feel worth it. Even hot takes that feel urgent while you’re reading them usually evanesce a minute or two later. I’ll never get back all those hours I spent reading about why it was unforgivable/imperative to call out as fascist politicians who up to that point had only gotten as far as openly longing to become fascist. In retrospect, what if I had just read the stories in each week’s New Yorker that looked interesting to me, instead of scrolling slack-jawed until I could tell which ones were being either denounced or overpraised by my disembodied frenemies?

I have a pretty good b.s. detector. While a denizen of Twitter, I prided myself on never having retweeted that picture of the shark swimming down the street during a hurricane, or, for the most part, any of its text equivalents. I don’t think my own mind ever got poisoned, in other words, but I did see minds poisoned. (“Who goes redpill?” is an article I would like to read someday.) The thing is that on Twitter there’s always a hurricane, and a shark is always swimming toward you through its chum-filled waters. Repeatedly batting it on the nose takes effort, and is that how you want to spend your one and only life? I love my friends, but it isn’t by and large for their news judgment that I love them, so why should I let them choose what I read instead of trusting the professionals at the New York Times, the Atlantic, n+1, the New York Review of Books, and so forth? I’m actually pretty happy when I find a site like Four Columns that is willing to send me a small number of smart review-essays on varied topics once a week. I wish Bookforum’s Paper Trail came out as a newsletter, but as a certified internet old, I know how to plug its feed into my RSS reader.

I wish I could say that I logged out of Twitter last week because I finally started listening to all my own arguments against myself on this topic. The truth is, I logged out because of disgust. Musk had recently been carrying water for Putin, so when Musk took possession of the site, I logged out on a wait-and-see basis. I had promised myself that I would quit if he let Trump back on, as he has signaled he will; I can’t face swimming in unmediated sewage again. The end came sooner, as it happened. A few days ago, Musk tweeted (and then deleted) a link to a conspiracy theory about the violent assault on Paul Pelosi that was so nauseating that I couldn’t bear to contribute even my tiny and insignificant content stream to a media company that he owns. I’m logged out indefinitely now. (Not deleting, yet; things are changing too fast.)

A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a podcast discussion about artificial intelligence (AI) between the New York Times reporter Kevin Roose and the podcaster Derek Thompson, who believe we’ll someday look back on the text-generating and art-making AI released this summer as epoch-shifting. Quite possibly! Some of the dystopian side effects that Roose and Thompson foresee may already be with us, though. Roose imagines, for example, that writerless news websites will spring up, full of articles penned by text-generating AI. In fact, the internet is already overrun with sites that pose as trustworthy sources of local news but have ulterior, usually political, motives—one such site was the source of the vile story linked to by Musk—and though these sites are not yet written by AI (as far as I know), they might as well be. AI could hardly be worse than low-rent paraphrases of wire stories, republication of corporate press releases, and rightwing dog-whistles. Roose also wonders how the nature of art will change once machines are able to replicate technical facility in any medium and any imaginable style, but much the same reckoning was forced on art by photography more than a century and a half ago. At the high end of the art market today, mere craft is already of rather little value. Donald Judd structured his whole career as an artist around being hostile to craft, deliberately designing artworks that could be manufactured to specification without any special skill. At the higher levels of the market, art now consists mostly of innovations in the idea of what art is, or the way it is understood. Recruiting AI into that project won’t slow anyone down even for long enough to hiccup.

This morning, Tiffany Hsu reported for the New York Times about fears that manipulated videos and photos are spreading unrecognized on Tiktok. Again, to some extent, we’re already there, and we’ve been there for a while. When I watched a recent Tiktok of a deepfake Tom Cruise flirting with a person who seemed to be Paris Hilton, it was not at all clear to me that Hilton was real. I googled, and had to resort to an Entertainment Weekly article that explained what I had been looking at. In other words, I determined that Cruise was fake and Hilton real only by means of trusting Entertainment Weekly. This is startling for someone who grew up when fake photos were almost always too clumsy to fool anyone, but it isn’t a situation that exceeds humanity’s epistemological capacities. It’s photography that’s recent, after all; unreliability has been with us forever, and has been accelerating ever since printing presses became widespread. Welcome to the 17th and 18th centuries! How to distinguish truth from fake news was a major concern during the Enlightenment, and the answer philosophers came up with then was not to try to stop the spread of newsprint but to set up laws, institutions, and protocols that would make trust reasonable in a world where anyone was capable of ventriloquizing anyone else thanks to new technology. (Spoiler alert: Copyright was quite useful.) Maybe at the moment you have sharper eyes than I do and can see that Fake Tom Cruise’s head doesn’t attach to his neck at quite the right angle, but in another few iterations or so, AI will defeat even the sharpest human eyes. The only anchor to be found will be in regimens of information hygiene. In such a world, people in positions of authority who spread disinformation knowingly, or even just with reckless disregard for the truth, will have to be sanctioned as untrustworthy—or else we’ll all drown in an AI-generated video swamp. Or rather, they will have to be identified as untrustworthy and stigmatized as such by any community—by any subset of society—that is willing to adopt measures that further the spread of truth. There’s some bad news here: if you’re Diderot, you don’t really even hope that someday everyone in France will want to, much less be able to, distinguish truth from falsehood. All you’re aspiring to is a self-limiting network of fellow philosophes willing to adhere to a sufficiently rigorous information hygiene protocol. Your hope is that truth will be discoverable to the happy few.

It’s always been a mistake to think of news organizations as manufacturers of a product called news, and it’s a mistake, therefore, to imagine that AI might be able to manufacture the product more cheaply. What you are paying for, when you subscribe to a newspaper, is trust. Trust that the newspaper’s reporters will tell the truth about what their sources have said. Trust that they are doing their best to unearth and share all sides of each story. Trust that the editors will not suppress evidence that is unflattering to the rich and powerful, including the newspaper’s owners. Trust that if the newspaper does fuck up, it will publish its errors and leave intact a record of its mistakes. You are paying for a relationship, but it isn’t a personal relationship—when individuals fail in this department, alas, they tend to fail catastrophically—it’s an institutionalized relationship. Musk’s approach to Twitter so far gets basically everything wrong. He’s reckless with the truth, he believes in the myth of individual judgment while having terrible judgment himself, he erases his mistakes instead of going public about his errors, and he seems poised to gut what little mechanism Twitter has had in place for content moderation up to this point, which wasn’t great to begin with. Oh well! Parts of it were fun while it lasted.

A new short story, and some remarks

[This post is also available as an issue of my newsletter.]

I’ve been flushed out of my habitual cover by a couple of recent items of personal news. First, last week, at n+1’s annual fundraiser, I was given the Anthony Veasna So Fiction Prize, and was asked to give a very short speech. (A light-hearted report of the evening appeared in The Fine Print [subscription required].) I’ll reproduce my speech just below, for the curious.

Second, though I’ve written nonfiction for The New Yorker since 2005, this week, in its Sept. 26 issue, the magazine is publishing a short story by me for the first time. The story is called “Easter.” Please check it out! It’s my voice on the audio, by the way, if you were wondering what I sound like (I haven’t listened yet).

Remarks for n+1

N+1 has long been generous to me. Its first editors—Keith Gessen, Mark Greif, Chad Harbach, Benjamin Kunkel, Allison Lorentzen, and Marco Roth—published my first serious fiction. At Penguin and then Viking, Allison took the further step of publishing two novels by me. Charles Petersen not only posted my film criticism on the website, but I had the honor of going into battle at his side against a plan that would have compromised and probably bankrupted the New York Public Library. (We won.) In the past few years, a new generation, including Sarah Resnick, Mark Krotov, and Dayna Tortorici, have shepherded into print my forays into speculative fiction. And tonight I am grateful for this award in honor of the bold spirit of Anthony Veasna So. Since my relationship with n+1 spans my whole career, I would also like to thank my agents, Sarah Chalfant and Jackie Ko, for their canny, insightful support. And the members of my writing group, Ben Nugent, Andrew Martin, Christine Smallwood, Greg Jackson, and Gemma Sieff, for their honesty and kindness. And I thank my husband, Peter Terzian, my first and my essential reader, to whom I am hopelessly devoted and who makes it possible for me, every day, to take the risks that have led me here.

But enough about gratitude. I’m a writer, after all. Now I want to talk about my mixed feelings.

Is it really necessary to show other people one’s writing? In his last years, Thoreau wrote mostly for his journal. After John Clare was forgotten, the verse he kept writing survived only because the doctor at his asylum collected the scraps of paper. Writing feels most necessary to me when I’m working through something personal—exhuming feelings too hastily buried, turning over a puzzle in my life. Neither motive requires an audience. In fact, an audience, since it implies a marketplace, may be at odds with revelation or understanding. “I am in danger of cheapening myself,” Thoreau worried, after his most austere lecture, “Life without Principle,” became a hit. If, like me and, very likely, Thoreau, a writer is gay and grew up before acceptance became widespread, he will probably always think of what is closest to himself as both a shame he had better keep quiet and a secret he is desperate to reveal. Boys on the hunt for bird eggs imagine that the skylark makes its nest up high, Clare wrote, because that’s what boys would do if they could fly. But the skylark, Clare insists, “nests upon the ground, where anything / May come at to destroy.” Hiding can be as life-giving as flying.

I had a dream recently: I was naked, and as I was heading in through a revolving door, you came toward me, heading out, which made me aware of being two people, one who formed intentions, and had come up with the idea of going naked, and one who registered impressions, and was experiencing, for the sake of remembering it later, what it felt like to be exposed—humiliation, panic. Why do I keep doing this? I asked myself. (I could ask myself the same question right now.) Is the writer the one who decides to go naked or the one who remembers what it’s like? Can I be one but not the other? Is it possible to be honest without being exposed?

For years, I had it both ways: I was ambitious, and it seemed unlikely anyone was going to read my fiction, which left me perfectly free. It wasn’t until 2008, when I was forty, that n+1 published a novella of mine. Without that vote of confidence, I probably wouldn’t have written the two novels that followed. But it took my cloak of invisibility away.

A writer writes alone, and a reader usually reads that way, but the communication between them seems to have to be public. Maybe a writer has to believe he can make a living at it, or at least have the fantasy. Thoreau’s and Clare’s late writings for no audience took place after their understanding of themselves as writers had crystallized. Maybe an audience is only necessary in early stages, as a precipitant. The matter of literary ambition is as strange as its kind. Feelings and perceptions as much as words make up the raw material, but feelings alone would only amount to entertainment, and perceptions, to a sort of flimsy journalism. And no one cares about just words. The ambition has to be to change what fiction is—to make the interaction of its elements richer or simpler, subtler or louder, than other people have realized it could be. So here the writer is, naked in his ambition at last: it’s impossible to change other people’s minds about literary form without other people.

I hate this, frankly. I just want to do my thing—and have all of you read it. (“I am the least difficult of men,” as Frank O’Hara put it. “All I want is boundless love.”) I want to make novels out of a sensibility that’s gay, and maybe a little too vigilantly conscious of its own workings, and in which the felt awareness lags behind perception with a rhythm almost of syncopation. Lately I’ve been trying to accept that I can’t do even this little as peacefully as I’d like to. I have to leave edges ragged, some of the seams unsewn. I have to let my writing more openly have the condition of art, in the sense of being a series of experiments, many of which will fail. If, in the first part of my life, the challenge was to come out, now the challenge is to stay out, in the open, which may be even more unsettling. I may never come to terms with it. But I have to come to terms with not being able to come to terms. “People wish to be settled,” Emerson warned; but “only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”

Supporting roles

I recently had the honor of offering advance praise for Andrew Martin’s new story collection Cool for America, coming out from Farrar Straus Giroux on July 7:

Overeducated and undermined, the women and men in Andrew Martin’s stories fortify themselves with beer, weed, intensely felt verdicts about music and literature, and messing around with people they probably shouldn’t be messing around with. Martin’s prose is as melancholy and ruthless as Raymond Carver’s, and his wit is as dark and sharp as Mary Robison’s or Donald Antrim’s.

Order a copy from your favorite indie bookseller now!

This past Tuesday, I had an electronically mediated conversation, hosted by Brooklyn’s Community Bookstore, with Donald Nicholson-Smith about his new translation of Serge Pey’s new story collection Treasure of the Spanish Civil War, just out from Archipelago Books. The conversation was recorded and is now streamable.

A long time ago—maybe a year ago? in another lifetime, at any rate—I was interviewed by writer Barbara Nichol for a radio show about reading that she was producing for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She tapped me for some of the sociology and neurology that I reported on for The New Yorker more than a decade ago—reporting that I updated a couple of years ago. Her show is now streamable online, in three segments, each about an hour long: part one, part two, and part three. I don’t have a large role—a one-sentence cameo in part two, and a paragraph or two in part three—but it’s an interesting listen.

Fiction about the Spanish Civil War; new reviews of “Overthrow”

Some news . . .

On Tuesday, June 23, at 7:30pm, I’ll be having a conversation about Serge Pey’s The Treasure of the Spanish Civil War, a new collection of stories about the Spanish Civil War, with Donald Nicholson-Smith, who translated the book from French. The conversation, which will take place online (register here!), is being hosted by Park Slope’s Community Bookstore. I wrote about the American experience of the Spanish Civil War for The New Yorker a few years ago, but Pey’s stories are concerned with the way Spaniards experienced the war, including the experiences that some of them had as refugees in France afterward. Please tune in!

Phil Christman, author of the new book Midwest Futures, has written a great essay for the Christian publisher Plough that looks at my novel Overthrow and also at recent books on technology by L. M. Sacasas and on union organizing by Jane McAlevey, as well as a re-issue of Vivian Gornick’s history of American Communism. Of Overthrow, Christman writes, “It’s a Philip K. Dick plot as experienced by Henry James characters,” which is from now on my elevator pitch for the novel.

Pekka Torvinen has written a generous review of Overthrow for the Finnish student magazine Ylioppilaslehti. At least I think it’s generous; it’s in Finnish. According to Google Translate, in any case, Torvinen writes, “The book often describes the environment quite unnecessarily for the plot. But ah, how often such a point made me stop and think about my own life!”