Monday, July 6, 2009


When I was 13 my father went to Cali, Colombia as American Consul. My mother was a member of the book club, which worked like this: each member would undertake to read a book and report on it at the next meeting. The books, I think, were bought out of membership subscription to the club, and became club property, which any member could borrow. The collection was housed in our day, courtesy of my mother, in the Consular Residence. (This strikes me as a much better system for a book club than the common model, under which a group of people settle on a single book and discuss it; my sister spent years in a club thanks to which she either a) could not read what she liked because she had to finish, as it might be, Ya-Ya Sisterhood for the book club or b) had demoralising discussions with people who did not like All the Pretty Horses (her selection) because they would not normally read books about cowboys.)

The result was that we had a large, miscellaneous library of Book Club books that did not belong to us, but which I could read whenever I liked. Among these was a substantial collection of books by Agatha Christie. Cheek by jowl, you understand, with Tristes Tropiques, The Raw and the Cooked, Territorial Imperative, Nicholas and Alexandra, I forget. The result being that by the age of 14 I had read pretty much everything Agatha Christie had ever written. (I would love to say that I was devouring Levi-Strauss at the age of 13, but honesty compels.)

The recent exchange between Alain de Botton and Caleb Crain, anyway, brings to mind this early reading. For those unfamiliar with the Christie oeuvre: one of Christie's crime-solvers was an elderly spinster, Miss Marple, who lived in the village of St Mary Meade. Londoners came down to the village, imagining that its inhabitants enjoyed an existence of placid, idyllic tedium - little guessing that they had nothing to do but spy on each other and gossip about it. The blogosphere does sometimes have a way of putting the village into the global village.

Gossip gossip gossip. AdB left a comment on Crain's blog. Was this out of line? Was the review really as bad as all that? Meanwhile the subject of the book and the review drops out of sight.

The review begins with this sentence: Work is activity that earns money.


So. Right. Say I start work on a novel. I have no way of knowing whether this is work or not! If I finish it and a publisher takes it on I then know that it was work, because I got paid. If I finish it but can't get it published it wasn't work. If an endless succession of timewasters disrupt, to the point where the book is never finished, none of the time I spent on it counts as work, because I can never get paid for it. Uh huh.

Or. I have a child. If I stay home to look after it, this isn't work, because I'm not getting paid. If I bring in a babysitter, however, the same activity counts as work because money changes hands. Uh huh.

Or. I'm 14 years old. I am legally debarred from performing tasks for money for more than a few hours a week. I am legally required to go school five days a week; if I want to qualify for decently paid labour somewhere down the line, I must carry out assignments at night and on weekends in addition to the time served in the classroom. But it's not work, because I don't get paid. What the teacher does is work, because s/he gets paid; if a parent comes in to help out in the class, on the other hand, this isn't work, because-- Uh huh.

Or. I'm a slave. I was captured in West Africa and taken in a ship to America and sold at auction. For the rest of my life I shall be required to pick cotton for my master, but it isn't work, because-- Uh huh.

Or. I'm not a slave, per se, I'm just an intern. I [work] for a company that has worked out that it can keep costs down by having a layer of unpaid persons doing what people used to get paid to do, by making this the entry-level position through which entry to doing the same things, only for, um, pay, is normally-- Uh huh.

Bourdieu talks at one point (sorry for bloggy vagueness, my books are in the other apartment) about the acquisition of a view of labour as something that is exchanged for a monetary reward, how ill this sits with certain cultures. He speaks of the indignation of a Kabyl father when a son asked to be paid to do tasks that would traditionally have been performed as matter of course by a junior member of the family at the request of the head of the family. That is, the question of whether an activity enters into a system of economic exchange depends very much on its cultural context; to state that an activity counts as work in virtue of successfully entering into such a system begs pretty much every question worth asking. (The UN Declaration of Human Rights outlaws child labour and slavery, and guarantees freedom of association; it includes the right to education; that is to say, it guarantees to every child the obligation to work without pay in a compulsory social setting till the age of majority by excluding school attendance from the categories of work and forced association.)

AdB cites Updike's requirement that a reviewer be fair. It might be better to ask reviewers to be useful. AdB's book has been written and published; it is too late for AdB to read Bourdieu et al. and bring their work to bear on his own. If someone who took the time to write a book on the subject of work missed seminal work on the subject, it's reasonable to suppose that the average reader of the NYTBR may also have missed this work; the reviewer could helpfully bring this work to bear. If the reviewer is himself unfamiliar with this work he might still be of some use if he were to give the subject two seconds' thought.


Andrew Gelman said...

Work is the stuff you have to do. We usually don't like work. That's why professors complain about teaching and do research for fun (I'm trying not to think too hard about the ones who do administration for fun or, worse still, the ones who blog for fun), whereas non-academic researchers such as Howard Wainer take adjunct professor jobs so they can teach, just for fun. In the latter case they're even getting paid for it, but it's not really work.

Helen DeWitt said...

Andrew, sorry, but this is slapdash.

This is starting to remind me of some kind of Wittgensteinian game (which is, admittedly, charming in its way).

Look. Let's imagine that I'm driving along the highway, and I see a group of men digging it up, pouring new asphalt, painting the lines and so on. On your view, I can't just identify all these men as workers from the fact that they're digging up the road etc. - to identify the workers I need to conduct a survey. I need to pull over to the side of the road and then go from man to man ascertaining whether they need the money, or whether they're just doing it for fun. At the end of the survey I tally my results, and...

Or. Let's take the example of a writer. Writing is not always fun, but it's interesting. The thing that HAS to be done, if one is to get paid, is spend months and months and months and months and months dealing with agents and editors and suchlike. So - a professional writer who writes isn't working? He or she is only working when not writing? When dealing with editors snd agents and publicists? I'm floundering here, but, um, ¿K?

Mithridates said...

Am I missing something here or do reviewers not own dictionaries?

H, I think you're giving the reviewer too much credit and going too far out of your way to show what an ass he is. It may (may) be too much to expect a reviewer to have read and remembered his Bourdieu. But it is absolutely not expecting too much of him to open a dictionary. Especially when he begins a review by, uhhhhhhh, defining a word. And if he opened, say, any Webster's, he would find that the definition "WORK = PAID ACTIVITY" is the fourth of fifth entry.

So we can't just go around saying that work is whatever we think it is. It has a number of definitions that we need to take into account.

This is one reason I think it's perfectly fine to commit whatever fallacy there is in deciding to verbally beat the shit out of people like this reviewer in a very non-semi-private way. (Not sure how anything in the print or digital world can be semi-private, by the way.)

The other reason is that I don't see any way around the examiner's fallacy. There is virtually no one who has spent as much time on a book as the author has, barring a few outliers like some lunatic Dublin cab drivers with PhDs who know Ulysses backwards and forwards. This would mean we couldn't criticize anyone, wouldn't it?

Students write papers that Professor Dodds grades; Dodds gets his panties in a bunch and says, Haven't these dumb bastards read their Wilamowitz?; and then he writes an article that is blithely unconcerned with all the constrains placed on the student. OK, it seems that no gets hurt in this scenario; Dodds just looks like a dick. But students also write teacher evaluations. This seems to be a closer analogy to the critic's review. A person who knows SCADS less than the teacher gets to say what he wants about him. Now, these are usually anonymous, which is bad, but I think it's a closer analogy. Wouldn't it be nuts if teachers' salaries depended largely on these evaluations? so that next year you might make a lot less because you had a particularly bad experience with last year's class, which was full of the usual angry stupid invertebrate piles of semi-animate hot hairy slush that snore their way through most of my classes? To some extent, evaluations do affect teachers' wallets; if you get enough bad ones you're out the door; but you have to get a lot of bad ones, and even if you do get a lot, it won't matter if you've got tenure. With book reviewing, I would imagine that a bad review in the New York Times could be quite damaging. There are, evidently, still a lot of people out there who think the NYTBR is intellectually honest and even worth reading.

So even if it weren't fair to pick on reviewers because of time constraints or whatever, they still affect the writer's wallet. Isn't this reason enough to claw them to death for being irresponsible and stupid?

Andrew Gelman said...

I agree it was slapdash. I'm no expert on definitions; I was just giving my quick thought. I assumed that it was clear that I was neither offering nor claiming general expertise and thought it was ok to offer this in a simple declarative form.

More properly, I would frame this (along with many of the blog entries I write), as follows:

"I am no expert in this area. However, I have a small bit of personal experience to share. From the perspective of this experience, I'd say . . .
[and then follow up with whatever I was going to post]"

With regard to your example, yes, I'd say if someone in the crew is doing it for fun, it's not work for him. On the other hand, it seems highly unlikely that someone over the age of, say, 10, would be digging a highway, pouring asphalt, etc., just for fun.

For writing, I'd say something similiar. I guess you could call me a semi-professional writer in that I get paid for it but it's not my main source of income. I enjoy writing (for example, I'm doing this just for fun, instead of doing work), but when I'm writing something I have to do, it does feel like work to me. It's pleasant work, but still feels like work. Dealing with editors etc. is unpleasant work (but some people actually like this sort of thing, I think). Similarly, I enjoy teaching and I hate grading--I think I share the latter view with just about every teacher in the world--but teaching still feels like work to me. Even pleasant work is something I feel like putting off.

So I don't think I was as far off as you think! But I do take your point that the definition-game is a restrictive way to pursue ideas.

Mithridates: Have you ever read George Orwell on book reviewing? He certainly made it sound like work, and not the pleasant kind.

Mithridates said...

Andrew--I'm sure it's work and potentially unpleasant, yes. But I still don't think that's an excuse for not opening a dictionary. Reviewing seems to be a one-way street for the most part, and I think reviewers should have more of incentive not to be sloppy or mean. Why James Wood hasn't been flayed by somebody who can actually reason is really beyond me. I do need to read more Orwell, though; it's embarrassing how little Orwell I've read. Where does he write about book reviewing? I have pretty much given up on book reviews, especially in the NYT. They generally don't tell me much about the book that I couldn't glean from a summary and a quick look through its pages. I know people who find them very useful but I'm generally pretty skeptical and see them as doing more harm than good. (I'm feeling like a Thomas Bernhard character these days. Pretty soon I'll be moving into the lime works and polishing my guns and talking about how nauseating everything is.)

Anonymous said...

Good grief! Isn't this very basic? AdB's book, and CC's review, are about jobs -- work you get paid for and do to make a living. Vocations, novels on spec, unpaid housework, pastimes salaried and unsalaried of the independently superwealthy, &c.&c. are all perfectly noteworthy and theorizable human activities but just not what either is writing about. AdB wrote a book about jobs and CC defined AdB's terms in his first sentence, what's the problem? (Any hypothetical asphalt-layer by the side of the road who turns out to be an anthropologist or volunteer would turn out not to be a relevant subject for this book.)