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CAN WRITERS HAVE FRIENDS?” Jane Smiley asks in this anthology’s most provocative piece. Twenty women writers, some famous, many not, give their own answers. For Japanese American Sylvia Watanabe, the friend is her grandmother; for Meg Pei, it’s her father; for Terry Tempest Williams, an unusual uncle. Joyce Carol Oates speculates about a dead friend, while Phyllis Rose ruminates on her tie to a gay man. In her introduction, editor Mickey Pearlman cites Julia Child’s credo: “Life itself is the proper binge.” We’re offered essays on family, place, loss and consolation–a tasty smorgasbord so varied that Pearlman herself expresses surprise at the responses she received. But though I love indulgent dining in good company, I hunger for more on the particular issues friendship raises for writers.
Jane Smiley cuts to the core of the writer’s dilemma in a unique piece which required her to “dig new wells.” When her best friend’s brother was told that he resembled one of her characters, Smiley agonized over a response. Writing him an apology was out; the rules of etiquette didn’t seem to apply. Smiley notes that most people who recognize themselves in a writer’s work don’t feel complimented or flattered, even if the writer thinks they should. And there’s the rub: if writers inevitably end up writing about their friends, “is it actually possible for them to have friends?” In fact, when Smiley decided to stick to her principles and ignore his complaints, she felt relieved.
This episode led Smiley to compare fiction writing with gossip. She argues that gossip allows us a way of “understanding and assimilating daily events,” thus helping us to live a moral life. She identifies five stages in these verbal exchanges: “wait-till-you-hear-this (information), are-you-kidding? (amazement), I-can’t-stop-thinking-about-it (fascination), you-know-why-she-did-it (speculation), and actually-I’m-not-surprised (understanding).” Like gossip, fiction sets up a joint act of contemplation between reader and writer that can help readers refine their moral decisions in a participatory way.
Though Smiley believes the mature writer draws not from one but many human models, a person who recognizes herself in a supposedly fictional piece is usually distressed by familiar physical details. Having fat thighs or a disagreeable odor is more troubling than “having been portrayed as a serial killer,” she notes. Indeed, ironic distance, the writer’s most important tool, can be very hard on friendship. Smiley knows that writers reveal far more about themselves than about their real-life models, but this fails to comfort friends who appear in one’s work.
I know purists who claim they never base characters on friends for fear of invading someone’s privacy. Once I confronted this quandary by asking a friend’s permission to tell her story. Fearing the worst, I sent her the result, and was enormously relieved when she responded positively. But what if an experience is shared among friends who are also writers? When I based a story on a writer friend who decided to have a child alone, she was furious–and not because I’d used the “material.” Since we’d been close during the final months of her pregnancy, she couldn’t deny my role in the experience, but she found the character modeled on her to be too disagreeable. Our friendship never recovered.
Smiley’s essay raises many prickly but important issues. If women writers reject drawing material from our friends’ lives, don’t we risk being too well-behaved and timid? Shouldn’t we cultivate the distance necessary to write what we need to say? Some writers might choose repression instead. Scottish-born Margot Livesey is amazed by the self-disclosure of many North American writers. “There are things that cannot and should not be told,” she writes. But I prefer Smiley’s view that introducing friends into one’s work is to bring them “into the ongoing cultural investigation of what it means to be human.” If and when I see myself depicted ironically in a friend’s work, I hope I’ll remember Smiley’s words.
Women writers are often credited with being more cooperative and nurturing than our male counterparts, but what happens when one friend becomes a star, while hardworking peers remain unrecognized? Playwright Wendy Wasserstein thinks women are forced to compete because “there is only room for so many of us at the table of satisfaction.” In “The Ties that Wound,” she attributes the painful loss of a best friend to her own ambition, which didn’t mesh with her friend’s more domestic life.
My own women’s writing group dissolved after twelve years on the heels of one member’s withdrawal. Our response to her literary success disappointed her; in her eyes we could no longer be counted on as friends. Indeed, support and competition are hard to reconcile. We may criticize the exploitative literary or academic star system, yet we genuinely wish for success. It’s no surprise, then, that we react ambivalently to friends who make it…
The answer to Jane Smiley’s question is: yes, of course, women writers can have friends–they may live in memory or in daily life; they may even be relatives or men. As Mickey Pearlman notes, friends are necessary for creating the food of literature, and she presents many satisfying tastes in Between Friends. Still, I look forward to a companion volume that would focus more precisely on the role writing plays in friendships–one that includes mothers, lovers, teachers, students, writing buddies, and all the other missing ingredients.
Kyle Rowland writes: Stream got 28k live viewers on twitch! Interesting conversation.
HasanAbi: How much do you personally, Sargon, care about protecting the ‘Western race’ in comparison to Nick, I just want to understand and distinguish your thoughts from his.
Sargon: I’m not really interested in answering that question, because it’s obviously loaded and pointless –
HasanAbi: No, I don’t think you agree with Nick, that’s why I am trying to make the distinction here –
Sargon: I’m not really interested in [indistinct – policies?] like that because it’s never going to happen, but the thing we can talk about, and this isn’t a racial question, this is a civilizational question — the idea that American civilization somehow excludes black people is ridiculous, they’ve been there from virtually day 1 —
Destiny: That’s not a good point. Just because they’ve been here from day 1, I’m pretty sure if you came here as a slave, I’m pretty sure you’d feel excluded from society, just the fact that they are there doesn’t make you feel included
Sargon: No, they had a place in society, it wasn’t a good place, but —
Destiny: OK, but generally when someone says something is inclusive, they don’t mean just a place —
Sargon: I never said anything was inclusive.
Destiny: I thought you said included. My bad.
Sargon: They were a part of it, but inclusive is a particularly ideologically loaded word. It means something to progressives. They were still part of that society, and they had a particular role, and it wasn’t a good role, and I completely agree obviously with the abolition of Jim Crow and slavery and all this nonsense. But the point is, from the position we’re at now, Western birthrates are actually declining quite rapidly, and it looks like this could actually be a bad thing in the long run. So the question is, is our society worth continuing, and then it’s like OK, how do we continue society, well we have to make the voluntary choice to have, y’know, at least 2-3 children each. So is that worth us doing? Is it a good idea? Because if it is a good idea, if we do think that maybe the West actually figured morality out better than the rest of the world, we do have an obligation to keep that going because otherwise we’re gonna get people who are not believers in western values, who do not come from western cultures, who are just simply going to exist longer than we will and will basically forget about us when we’re gone.
Destiny: I’m super curious, where does that obligation to continue society come from?
Sargon: Our moral judgement that our society is a good society.
Destiny: Where do those moral judgements come from? Because if we’re gonna make this argument, we gotta go real foundational here.
Sargon: Our thoughts. Our own moral perspectives.
Destiny: So let’s say that you have a family, and this family, a husband and wife, these two people wanna be programmers, you think that you have the moral authority to tell them, no, you are going to have children, because you have to, because we have an obligation to continue western society —
Sargon: That’s a false dichotomy.
Destiny: OK, OK, let me soften that a little. Let’s say that you have a society full of people that could better allocate themselves into jobs where they would be personally happier, do you think you have the moral authority to push so much kind of cultural norms to these people that some of them decide to have children instead?
Sargon: I think that we can have people who procreate and work at the same time.
Destiny: Well yeah, but it seems like given the option to choose to have children, people seem not to if they have the ability not to. That seems to be, I mean for all that Nick talks about natural choices, that seems to be naturally what happens, if you look at countries —
Sargon: That’s not natural at all, that’s totally artificial –
Asmongold: Don’t you think that’s an outcome of the current economic climate?
Destiny: No, this is a well observed phenomenon, as countries enter first world status people just have less children, they don’t need to have as many children to populate —
Nick: Except for Israel, Israel’s birthrate is going up, but, nevermind that there are–
Destiny: For one second, if we could not focus on fucking Jewish people, I know it’s real hard for you Nick —
Sargon: I’m more with Destiny here —
Hassan: Before we get into foundational philosophy, I just wanna really understand what you mean when you talk about Western civilization. Can you point to a specific example that does not include other cultures and other civilizations and other technological achievements, created in, like, the Islamic culture for example, in the Golden age of Islam, that the Western civilization has built itself upon.
Sargon: Hassan, I’m not saying that Western civilization has not been influenced by other civilizations.
Hassan: It’s not just influence. I mean, this is how it works, we’ve always had globalism, we’ve always had globalization, as a consequence of trade, wars.
Sargon: I agree, people always fought with each other, and traded with one another. Humans move, yes, I agree.
Hassan: Ok, so when you talk about the preservation of Western civilization, and you talk about birthrates… [unrelated moderator interjection]… more importantly the thing I am trying to understand is, why are we trying to preserve civilization or western civilization or why are we trying to make sure that like, mankind continues is an interesting conversation I guess, maybe, it’s not to me. What I am specifically trying to understand right now is why we’re talking about birthrates without talking about the actual factors that contribute to birthrates declining. We know that technological achievement is one of them, sociological status is one of them, and we see this with like, immigrant cultures that are also coming in, or immigrants that are coming into like, American society, and integrating into American society, and by the third generation completely adapting, and their birthrates adjusting to the existing ethnic groups that are already living in America, or in Western civilization in general. This is consistent across time, and it’s consistent in all of these other countries. So when we talk about the declining of the birth rates, it’s not a matter of ‘other people are coming in and replacing the original ethnicity of that country’ it’s more so that people are fucking less, quite frankly, because they have more access to technology, and they are wealthier, and they use condoms and shit. So how do you want to reverse that if you actually want to reverse that?
Sargon: I don’t really care about the ethnicity, it’s not really the question. Because what you’ve identified, correctly, is that this is a malaise that is gonna affect humanity, eventually, when all nations will eventually reach a sort of level of technological expertise and wealth, where the question is really, do we have a responsibility to what we’ve inherited, to pass that down to someone, or are we allowed to be selfish enough to be the end-point of that.
[Five full seconds of silence]
Asmongold: That’s a big question.
[Discussion moves on to next segment]
Kyle writes: I think this exchange is really interesting and significant. Sargon basically advances an ethnicity-neutral pronatalism that has the potential to radically improve the West’s prospects, and gets very little pushback on that front from the left-wing members of the panel. There are certainly antinatalist sentiments on the left, but they are vastly weaker than anti-racist sentiments.
In the debate, Nick Fuentes’ most radical stance (which probably got him kicked off twitch) was that he does not believe interracial relationships are healthy, and that they should not be depicted in film. I question the necessity of that stance. First of all, I don’t think it is possible to reverse societal acceptance of interracial relationships, particularly in a country as multiracial and free as the US.
Second of all, it seems to indicate some underlying misunderstanding of the nature and implications of racial differences. There are average differences in important traits between races. Moreover, when someone differs radically from their parent population, their offspring will tend to regress to that parent population’s mean. This is a matter of great importance in predicting and understanding the cause of gaps between races, between ethnicities, and between classes.
However, none of this can be taken to imply, even remotely, that a child with inherited characteristics from any major human population is better off not existing. People who have children should be celebrated for bringing new life into the world. To reject that principle is to take on a misanthropic and utterly self-destructive view of the world. If you claim that the world would be better off without entire demographics in it, you are revealing some combination of mental illness, misanthropy, and lack of social awareness. The worm immediately turns on you – why should someone who is so unconscious of the values of their country, and so harsh in their condemnation, not be condemned and excluded themselves?
Fundamentally, the moral and practical response to dysfunction in certain demographics, is to point out correctly that the burden will rest on those demographics to sort out their issues. If they never sort them out, then the burden rests on them forever. It is for each individual, and each organized group to attempt to sort out their future as well as possible.
Some people and some groups will be future-oriented. They will know that all important human traits are highly heritable, and maximize the chance that they have children who will flourish. They will understand that if they encourage this behavior among people associated with them, their children’s future will be even better than it would otherwise be. They will freely consider technologies, rules, and contracts that will take advantage of the opportunities afforded by knowledge of the high heritability of important traits, and the immense value brought by children.
Other people and groups will be less future-oriented. They will ignore the realities of heritability, and ignore the need for children to make the future bright. One can only hope that they live great, adventure-filled lives. Those whose children will walk the paths between their graves can only wish them the best.
Mitt emails: On Luke Ford show while reviewing Edward Dutton show, Kevin Michael Grace surmised pop culture has gotten dumber because of falling IQ.
Probably not. Take Japan. It used to make great films and produced a number of first-rank writers. But by the late 60s, the power of TV destroyed the film industry and 80% of all movies made were porn. And by the 80s, Japanese culture had become mostly pop idol music and cartoons. How did Japanese culture become so stupid even though its IQ didn’t drop?
Combination of TV, youth culture, complacency, decadence, and materialism made everything shallower and sillier.
Also, the rising new norm shamelessness made pop culture more vulgar and animal. Even a smart person, if raised in a culture of shameless vulgarity, will turn animal. Maturity isn’t same as intelligence. An person of average intelligence can be remarkably serious and mature, and a person of high IQ can be trash, vain, and shallow… like that Sirius radio Jewish oligarch who is really a man but prances around as a ‘woman’.
While overall IQ may have fallen in the West, there are still lots of smart people at the top. Also, brain-drain from the Third World added Asian brains to the West. And yet, the culture had gotten so stupid. Why? Decadence, youth culture, hedonism, and stupidity.
In contrast, Iran is a repressive nation with lower IQ, and yet its overall culture is more mature because the authorities do not allow rampant youth culture, hedonism, and degeneracy to run wild.