I Can’t Wait to Get Started

Fictitious Overexcitement in the Works of Helen DeWitt

Spurious Enthusiasms, Artistic Sycophancy, Helen DeWitt’s Blog, Sellout Artists, The Biz, Bullshit, Binomial Distribution, Classics, Oxford, Euripides, High Anxiety and Latent Resentment, A Place with More Than Two Windows

I Can’t Wait to Get Started

Amber Husain
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Suppose I am awake three hours before the opening time of the day, attempting in a pre-morning state to write the start of this essay. Suppose this particular essay will be the kernel of the book that will buy me the luxury of quitting my job and writing at my leisure. Until then, all writing must take place on the cusp of the day, and at the table in the one-room apartment where I also eat my meals, compose emails, take phone calls, experience a range of feelings. Suppose my feelings are currently high anxiety and latent resentment. 

Based on data gathered daily over the course of eighteen months, there is a one-in-three chance that I will receive some form of demanding communication from my employer before I reach the day’s official threshold, after which eight hours are sealed for the renting of my labor to this man. Now, suppose the essay I am composing must, according to its editor, be filed by the end of this workweek. If I need five predawn sessions to complete this piece of writing, and assuming the independence each day of the likelihood that my employer diverts my attention in the sacred writing period, the statistical function known as the binomial distribution allows us to calculate the chance of a fatal disruption to the essay’s execution as 87 percent.

If, however, I can persuade the editor to yield to the typical scheduling demands of a writer who isn’t a writer, giving me twelve weeks of matutinal weekday hours in which to produce a longform piece, the likelihood of a fatal disruption—that is, a disruption on more than fifty-five of the sixty possible mornings—is 1.9 x 10-22, or 0.00000000000000000019 percent.

If we find that I continue to nurse high anxiety and latent resentment following this change of plan, it becomes clear that my emotions are inappropriate for the actual threat of disruption. As such, it falls upon me to adjust my ambient emotions such that they fall in line with something more befitting my goals. 

Suppose I work in publishing, which doesn’t seem unlikely, given the evidence that I harbor writerly aspirations. The maneuver whereby I adjust my emotions to accommodate the vicissitudes of my job will then likely involve affirmation of how lucky I am. In doing this, I might remind myself of all the important writers it is my privilege to work with. I might also reacquaint myself with statistics concerning job-market competition and the odds of securing a coveted position in the literary profession. I might think about how one of the writers I am honored to edit is the voice of his generation. I might also appreciate the odds I overcame in securing any job at all. I might think of the outsize fortune in my proximity to genius; I might also think of overdrafts past, present, and future. I might think of the architectural miracle of the sentence, but also, and more likely, I will think of the possibility of one day being able to rent a place with more than two windows. 

Suppose my employer has phoned in the crucial window because someone has written, in a periodical treasured by liberals of his generation, what he takes to be an exposé of what is probably a well-known phenomenon. The important thing, for him, is that this writer is what he calls “diverse.” He would like me to commission this writer to “do something [a book? a ‘project’?] on something”—something very much like the article he has read, but not exactly that same something. My instinct is to tell him he has misunderstood the meaning of the word diverse, but I must instead stay sane. I think of the empty jobs boards, the overdraft, the windows. “You don’t sound excited,” he says, in an employer’s tone of jovial menace. It would not be strictly untrue to say that the thought of more windows excites me. I close the document containing my now-stymied proto-essay and write the inevitable email. “Dear Joanne,” I address our collaborator-to-be. “We’re so excited by your work.” 

Fiction versus Bullshit

“Brutto,” the first story in Helen DeWitt’s 2018 collection, Some Trick: Thirteen Stories, concerns a financially challenged artist who is persuaded by an opportunistic gallerist named Adalberto to replicate a hideous suit (“Ma che brutto!”) she once made during a dressmaking apprenticeship. The suit is found discarded in the studio where the artist is trying to sell some paintings—the medium for which she is invested in seeking recognition. Adalberto, however, is really excited by the suit, and Adalberto, an unctuous man, is “this really hot potato.” Adalberto, we learn, is on the committee for the Venice Biennale, “so if Adalberto would like her work it would be phenomenal.” Adalberto wants this artist to make nineteen suits in two months for a show in Italy, a practically insane and artistically bankrupt idea, by the artist’s reckoning. Yet in the belief that Adalberto will otherwise direct his attention elsewhere, she cannot waste the opportunity. 

Having secured a show for the artist in New York, Adalberto senses a need to update her artistic offering. People in America are not so sophisticated; they need things spelled out. He asks the artist for a urine sample. “It’s about the body,” he says. “Hatred of the body. Denial of the body. The hanging [of the suits] requires the body.” He takes her to his gym as a guest member, instructs her to wear three sweatshirts and two pairs of sweatpants and to run on a treadmill. 

It took about an hour to collect the sweat. 

He said she could use an onion for the tears. 

He said if he gave her a cup she could spit into it. 

He said maybe she could get really drunk so they could get the vomit. 

By the end of this story, the artist, who’s now in London, has been nominated for a Turner Prize and is suitably disgusted by the honor. “The Turner selects these things,” we must understand, “that are exciting for people who don’t know anything about art.” The artist knows, however, that there remains the need to be canny. Her submission for the prize involves not only the offending suit but also, voluntarily, a jar of spermicidal jelly. 

If there is one type of person Helen DeWitt has less time for than a sellout artist—one who will harvest her effluvia to satisfy the whims of “the biz”—it is, of course, the biz’s representatives. The sellout has not only absorbed their agenda but has let them rewrite her emotional repertoire. Among the Adalbertos of Some Trick are gallerists, managers, and agents—publishing, music and art-world staffers, their mouths stuffed with spurious enthusiasms. “I don’t know how to deal with a world where there’s this language of infatuation that people use,” DeWitt told Christian Lorentzen for Vulture. “‘Infatuated!’ ‘Besotted!’ ‘Obsessed!’” It is an enthusiasm at odds, she feels, with the biz’s treatment of her work, for such treatment has generally evidenced less a true love of the author’s mind than a ruthless will to extract from it. Whether by means of onions, treadmills, or schmooze, the biz will wring from its artists whatever signs of engagement it can, always under the auspices of its own excessive excitation. 

That DeWitt is therefore suspicious of affective hyperbole might surprise those readers who know her work primarily through the discourse that has surrounded it. Take as paradigmatic the reputation for exuberance garnered by The Last Samurai (2000), the writer’s first published novel. The book plots the tale of an ardently scholarly mother-child duo, whose delight in the intricacies of ancient linguistics, musicology, and math can barely be contained within the book’s margins. Indeed, DeWitt’s struggle with the book’s typesetters to render her visual torrents of 




hectic, interrupted thoughts and rhapsodic, diagrammatic meditations, several of them involving Greek and Japanese scripts, is one of many documented feuds in the saga of Helen DeWitt–versus–publishing. At the center of the novel is the child, Ludo’s, baroquely cerebral upbringing by, on the one hand, his mother, Sibylla, and, on the other, Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Seven Samurai. In the manner of John Stuart Mill, who began learning Greek at the age of three, Ludo reads The Odyssey in his stroller and quickly outlearns his mother in Japanese through endless viewings of Kurosawa’s filmic masterwork. In rings within rings within rings of narrative digression, we become enthralled by Ludo and Sibylla’s zest for Homer, Schoenberg, Proust, and the distributive property of multiplication. “I’ve finished Odyssey 24!” cries he. “That’s WONDERFUL,” replies she, each of them sending uppercase raptures parading through the pages. “Wonderful marvellous wonderful marvellous cool.” Such extremities of stimulation doubtless contributed to reviewers’ and essayists’ portrait of DeWitt as a writer “perfervid” in her eclecticism, “exuberant” in her experimentation, “breathless” in her erudition. 

The Last Samurai was published the same year that James Wood declared a tendency toward “hysterical realism”  among “big, ambitious, contemporary novels” (ambitious being the backhanded word Wood would later apply to DeWitt’s five-hundred-page debut). At the millennium’s turn, there dawned, Wood thought, a lamentably “fervid intensity of connectedness,” through which stories and substories, sprouting on every page, had begun to defy the sacred literary categories of “human,” “beautiful,” and “true.” If the overzealous register of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest aesthetically apes its subject (a film so exciting that anyone who sees it loses the desire to do anything else), The Last Samurai could just as readily be charged with showcasing its protagonists’ “inefficiently intelligent” style. Just as Wood complained, regarding Foster Wallace et al., that “an excess of storytelling has become the contemporary way of shrouding, in majesty, a lack,” Myla Goldberg, in The New York Times, jibed that The Last Samurai, while exuberant, “worships too long at the altar of the intellect.” Daniel Mendelsohn, in The New York Review of Books,accused DeWitt’s characters of lacking “psychological texture.” “There are times,” he wrote, “when you feel less as if you’re reading a novel than sitting next to a brilliant crank at a departmental social event.” 

Yet where Wood sees inhumanity in literary overexcitement, whatever form it might take, DeWitt is more careful in distinguishing forms of emotional excess before ascribing any morality to them. The overexuberance of The Last Samurai’s heroes is nothing like DeWitt’s bête noire: the argot of artistic sycophancy that runs through Some Trick. Unlike the improbable joy in art that is channeled through Ludo and Sibylla, the response to artistic work evinced by DeWitt’s fictionalized adversaries is highly probable, recognizable, yet nevertheless an enemy of truth. From the oily Adalberto to his literary- and music-world equivalents, DeWitt’s sorry cast of biz personnel emit the appreciative rhapsodies of people who understand nothing of what they describe (and sell) or, worse, are indifferent to this kind of understanding. Their hearts were never to be won by beauty, humanity, or truth so much as by commercially oriented outcomes, outcomes they believe to be determined by immutable rules of the game.

Throughout Some Trick,we are confronted by compromised attachments of this nature. In “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” an author takes the time to explicate a personal obsession with the binomial distribution to his agent and receives a disappointing response. “This is fascinating,” says the agent, “but it’s way over my head.” Meaning: I don’t really get it at all, but I don’t need to get it. “What I can say,” he goes on, “is that a lot of people are very excited by your work.” In “Climbers,” when an agent does ask to know what a prospective author cares about, it is less as a means of engaging with the work’s preoccupations than an attempt to identify the author’s personal brand. “All the best writers are obsessives,” he explains, asking to see some “pages” of the author’s work-in-progress. 

What unifies the ersatz sentiments of DeWitt’s fictive antagonists is that they are boilerplate purveyors of “bullshit.” A 2008 post on DeWitt’s blog, paperpools, offers nothing but an unadorned quotation from On Bullshit, a book by Harry G. Frankfurt: 

What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to. 

“What publishers are up to,” DeWitt has observed, rarely describes an agenda that’s compatible with art or with the kind of sound reason that might support art’s creation. It is with this in mind that Peter, a children’s book author and the protagonist of “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” is at pains to explain to his agent the binomial distribution—the probability distribution of success/fail outcomes in a sequence of independent trials. This, as we have heard, is way over the agent’s head, but to Peter, it is extremely important. If, for example, a newborn child has a one-in-ten chance that the parent from whom they are born turns out to be a heroin addict, the number of days per year that one child in ten will have a heroin addict for a parent is 365. If, however, we find reason to increase the number of trials (creating a social system, for instance, that artificially increases the number of times, in the course of a life, that a parent is assigned to a child), the stakes of each “draw” are predictably diminished. After observing the progressively flattened distribution curves that result from progressively numerous trials, there are a number of inferences we might choose to make. For Peter, binomial modeling shows that the traditional family, in which a child is condemned for their lifetime to the luck of a single draw, is a barbarous institution. His point in addressing the agent is to argue against the convention of leaving to chance the specific expertise of the editor of one’s book. If society dictates that we cannot choose our parents, and publishing dictates that we cannot choose our editors (but rather must follow, respectively, biology and the money), then perhaps there are fictive worlds, arenas in which we have license to think beyond such conventions, as DeWitt proposes. Ludo’s innovation, in The Last Samurai, is to scope out seven potential father figures from which he might select one. Peter’s, in “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” is to propose that he forgo 70 percent of his next book’s income to avoid entrusting it to an editor unfamiliar with the work of Bertrand Russell. 

Unlike in the imaginative minds of Ludo and Peter, the art world depicted in “Brutto” is seemingly overdetermined by a cascade of cognitive woulds: “he would not find a way around the problem”; “he would just lose interest.” Adalberto’s expertise derives from his knowledge of what “people who know nothing” “would” want. But where a hypothetical conditional clause might ride on a subjunctive (“If Charles Saatchi would walk into the gallery and buy out the show… you would not have to worry any more”), DeWitt allows the would of the conditional clause to overtake both halves of the sentence: “If Charles Saatchi would walk into the gallery… you would not have to worry any more”; “If you would go to Greece…”; “If you would pour cold water on the idea of someone like Adalberto…” The effect is both that of a fait accompli and of something emphatically contingent—a window onto the gap between “must” as a logical necessity and “must” as simple obedience to rules. In all countries, “people are always building that cage of words,” observes the narrator of “Brutto.” Art exists with the purpose of rattling this cage. What happens, DeWitt’s fictions continually ask, when we divert the expected “if” clauses that structure our ingrained perspectives? 

If bullshit overexcitement is the dominant affect of the biz, fictitious overexcitement is DeWitt’s corrective of choice. Her best work might be read as advancing a kind of poetics of the hypothetical, each fiction pondering alternatives to the laws we habitually observe, the ways of seeing that narrow our thoughts and limit the shape of our emotions. The thrills of Sibylla and Ludo, and of Peter and other characters in Some Trick, are models of atypical, hyperauthentic sentiment such as might seemingly follow from atypically rational styles of thought. Sibylla’s
imaginative vision of an alternative apparatus of upbringing for Ludo represents an attempt to imagine how a child might be freed from the cage of a bullshit father: 

In a less barbarous society children would not be in absolute economic subjection to the irrational beings into whose keeping fate has consigned them: they would be paid a decent hourly wage for attending school. As we don’t live in that enlightened society any adult, and especially a parent, has a terrible power over a child—how could I give that power to a man who—sometimes I thought I could and once I even picked up the phone but when I thought about it I just couldn’t. I would hear again his breathtaken boyish admiration for lovely stupidity…

The young Sibylla had also imagined that Oxford University would free her from the cage of words that surrounded her hometown and its people—the cage that had rendered her hometown a place whose residents are excited to be getting its first motel. “Surely Oxford,” she had reasoned, “would not insist on mindless enthusiasm just to prove you can be enthusiastic about something.”

Emotional Eccentricity 

Suppose that—like Sibylla, like Helen DeWitt—I had studied classics at Oxford. If I am still the “I” that I professed to be in the opening section of this essay, we might infer that my involvement in the biz is particularly lamentable. We, like Sibylla, might presume that Oxford is a training ground for anomalies—outstanding minds capable of exceptionally rational thought, those who are uniquely unqualified to sputter convenient untruths and who therefore are most unlikely ever to get involved with the biz. And yet even Oxford proves itself susceptible to bullshit’s pernicious influence, much to the prodigious frustration of The Last Samurai’s fictive genius Raymond Decker. To be free of society’s bullshit is not, for Decker, to have gone to Oxford, but rather to have rejected the place for its concession to orthodox thought. 

Hugh Carey and Raymond Decker, Sibylla explains to Ludo in one of The Last Samurai’s lengthy digressions, were legendary Oxford classicists in the 1960s. They met at the Oxford entrance exam when RD was nineteen and HC merely fifteen years old. 

RD had read Plato’s Gorgias even before he “came up” to the University, and, being the type to take things to heart, he had taken it to heart. In Phaedrus, the rhetorician Gorgias is said to boast that he can give a long or a short answer to any question, and in Gorgias he says that when it comes to giving short answers, he is unsurpassed. Socrates, on the other hand, knows only one way to answer a question, some questions can be answered with one word and others may take five thousand, and the philosopher, unlike the rhetorician or the politician, will take as long as he needs. This places RD in a terrible dilemma.

RD’s dilemma is that admission to an institution that supposedly gardens one’s logical faculties requires the illogic of passing an entrance exam that allows a mere three hours to answer questions of a lifetime’s complexity alongside questions “so stupid it is impossible to say anything intelligent about them.” HC—whose application is motivated by the idea that “if I get in at 15 people will always say He got into Oxford when he was 15”—responds to RD’s distress by trying to show him the necessity, even the virtue, of simply playing the game. For a while, he succeeds. But at Greats, the name for the final exams of the course, RD can justify the ruse no longer. Seeing a question on Republic X, the Platonic text on which he knows the invigilator has been working for the last twenty years, RD sees what he must do. He writes: “I am not so presumptuous as to attempt in 40 minutes what Mr. JH has not achieved in 20 years.” On realizing, however, the potential offense he might thereby cause, he decides to abandon the exam altogether. 

RD is committed to truth or silence as the only conscionable paths in the face of a bullshit alternative; as such, he forfeits ratifying his education with a grade. This estranges him, predictably, from society’s rewards, or at least those that ride on a degree. HC, roiled that his own (top) first now seems empty and stupid, foresees that: 

no one would give RD a job, no one would give him teaching, he would end up working on a dictionary or an Oxford Companion, he’d get kicked off for missed deadlines, he’d end up marking A-levels and getting kicked off the board, he’d end up teaching English as a foreign language.

And yet in the eyes of Sibylla, RD emerges the victor from this tale. HC, Sibylla tells Ludo, might have won a fellowship at All Souls at the age of nineteen, but in light of RD’s rejection of the university’s values, all the fun had gone out of it. 

RD’s willful disobedience, however, earns him accolades—if not at Oxford or in the wider world, in the rubric of DeWittean fiction. The authenticity of his passion is shown to be the product of such a rational style of thought as is perfectly orthogonal to the rule book. You don’t want to wake one morning and find that your colleagues are getting excited about an acquisition that will make them all redundant (as Sibylla does at the publishing house where she works). If, like Sibylla and RD, you are concerned with maintaining the dignity of genius, you don’t want to awake one morning and find that your emotions are no longer rational. 

In a 2012 interview with Weston Cutter for this magazine, DeWitt described her sense that philosophy is “the key to integrity, the way to avoid adopting contemptible positions by unthinking conformity to social norms.” Her impression that reason operates as the opposite of convention, and unconvention as an antidote to unreason, maps itself in her fiction onto the gamut of cultural production. Sibylla lives, by necessity, on the outer outskirts of culture, typing up magazines with names like Tropical Fish Hobbyist in the interstices of tending to the hydra-like needs of her son. Yet even as she raises Ludo on the London Underground’s Circle Line, spending their days in transit to avoid the cost of heating her home, she is intent on inventing the child as though he were a work of art. But in DeWitt’s universe, even more enlightened and liberated than Sibylla are those who—despite having exempted themselves from the industrial centers of bullshit and thus the means of easy survival—are nonetheless able to generate works of art that are actually works of art. Those uniquely worthy of her approval as reasoned creatures are extra-preeminent artists, musicians, mathematicians, writers—illustrated phantasms of untraditional minds. 

Peter Dijkstra, the star of “Climbers,” whose work the agent we met earlier mistook for comprising “pages,” is a writer so anomalously talented as to inspire in others a reaction that Sibylla reserves for the likes of Bernini and Cézanne. One such fan even goes so far as to imagine his own joy were Dijkstra to steal all his belongings. Dijkstra is nevertheless a man who uses credit cards to shelter himself from inexorably mounting bills. He has spent time in a mental asylum, a fact that lends him the genius of those uncorrupted by social norms. He is able to respond politely to overeffusive emails and overzealous offers of representation, but is powerless to meet them on the affective plane that cultural mores dictate. In the face of an agent’s proposition, he feels he should be able to say “something along the lines of Dear Ralph, This is very exciting,” but is unable to muster the energy. That Dijkstra’s work reduces its readers to inarticulate wonder becomes the mark of a superior sensibility that’s incompatible with bullshit. 

Pity, then, the norm, someone vaguely content to inhabit the middle of his field, to whom the thought of destitution is simply too much. Pity the culture workers who opt for making a living and relinquish the pursuit of truth: aspiring writers who resign themselves to working as publishing lackeys; artists who succumb to the lobotomized glamour of life as galleristas; onetime starry-eyed musicians who settle into suits; scholars whose potential discoveries are mangled by professionalization. DeWitt, unlike RD, finished her Oxford degrees, but just as RD did, she then forswore the university and its bureaucracies. As Lorentzen reports, DeWitt was unwilling to cede to an obscure specialty in hopes of securing an academic job and realized that “she wasn’t interested in writing about writers writing about writers writing about Euripides. She wanted to be Euripides.” 

The Opposite of Artist

Does banishing convention from the schemas with which we formulate our manners and moods allow us, as DeWitt’s fictions seem to suggest, to transcend systemic bullshit? In recounting to Lorentzen the frustrations of her literary career, DeWitt compared the irrationality of editors to that of Plato’s Thrasymachus, Callicles, and Gorgias, “sophists who sulk whenever Socrates frustrates their conventional arguments.” If conventions are by their nature arbitrary, and reason is by nature orderly, one might be forgiven for thinking it follows that convention is an enemy of reason. And if reason constitutes our sole path to veracity, one might be forgiven for thinking it follows that convention is an enemy of truth. Occasionally I do wonder if my lust for the convention of financial security invalidates and renders irrational my equally convention-based claims that my work is “all very exciting.” If I have followed the convention of rising through the ranks of employment, a convenience in exchange for which my mind must descend into bullshit, does this render me unavoidably irrational? Does it make me an enemy of truth? 

When I say I believe that I relish my job, a truth-claim is involved. I am claiming that my belief that I relish my job is true. According to Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit, however, this belief is still hostile to truth. Since the motive that lies behind my belief is fundamentally ulterior, related less to the job than to a yearning for financial stability, I have deceived myself and others in what I am up to when I relish—precisely the bullshitter’s crime. Bullshit, Frankfurt argues, may not itself be untrue, but it erodes the capacity for truthfulness by rendering truth irrelevant to whatever the bullshitter says. As such, it is worse for the cause of veracity than genuine and palpable lies are. If we consider also that my relishing my job is motivated by a need to find reasons for enduring emotions like anxiety and resentment, we might also call my relishing, and my belief in this relishing, irrational. The reason we might call them irrational is that we have proven, by rational means, that my anxiety and resentment are invalid. 

If you recall, my anxiety centers on the threat of my employer’s interruptions to the writing of this essay, but the statistical likelihood that his morning intrusions prevent me from completing the essay is many, many times lower than my intuition suggests. As such, my belief that I relish my job is based on a faulty premise. And as such, I am regrettably guilty of both bullshit and unreason.

It doesn’t take a genius to identify flaws in this convoluted line of attack. For one, I am expecting too much of the binomial distribution, applying it to events it was never meant to predict. Can the likelihood of my boss calling on Tuesday morning really be considered independent of the likelihood of his having called on Monday? Was the eighteen months’ worth of data from which our “one-in-three chance” was pulled sufficiently representative to justify its reuse? The notion of objective probability relations between propositions and bodies of evidence is somewhat more convincing in the case of, say, rolling dice than in relation to human behavior. My use of this binomial example turns out to be no more sensical than Peter’s in “My Heart Belongs to Bertie”—the story in which he posits that parent-child assignment is a kind of lucky dip. 

But say these examples were actually perfectly modeled by statistical curves, meaning the chances of disruption I cited are rational and sound. Why, even then, should this determine the appropriateness of my emotions to the situation? Yes, my employer is unlikely to steal sufficient writing minutes to scupper this particular essay, but why should this be the only thing that determines my psychic response to the persistence, disrespect, and embittering triviality of his twenty-four-hour interruptions? If I work in publishing, which for now we must imagine I do, there are plenty of reasons that the demand for my unpaid attention might be grinding me down. The “labor of love” extracted from culture-industry workers is by now a well-known font of emotional hell. Perhaps the emotional labor has outgrown my wages, or outgrown my desire to live. Perhaps for every minute and calorie I expend in deep-throating the vanity of the people I depend on for employment, I am spending several hours detesting myself and plotting my escape. Why, in any case, should it fall upon me to adjust my unhelpful emotions rather than on all involved to consider righting this power imbalance? Why should the state resolve to redistribute the children of addicts rather than to help addicts lead better lives? Why should we assume that Peter’s A, whether or not they are a heroin addict, would make a worse parent than B, his alternative, whose “idea of a narcotic is Earl Grey tea”?

In an author’s note explaining the impulse behind “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” DeWitt asserts the importance of understanding why it is that statistical chance “matters”; how such an understanding is “crucial to the most basic questions of ethics.” The heroin addict example is demonstrative, she thinks, of the gap between how we intuitively feel and what probability dictates. Her belief is that in making visible the dangers of leaving parenthood to chance, while also demonstrating that the variables involved in probability relations are manipulable, readers will come to intuit that the fate of a child, or the assignment of a book’s editor, is more hazardous than expected yet more controllable than a whim of the gods. By steeping us in the oddball workings of a hyperrational mind, she has shown us the potential we have to bust out of the cage of illogic that surrounds us. 

What is reasoned, however, is not the same as what is objectively true, even less what is objectively ethical. Publishing, after all, is no more apt for description via binomial distribution than is the question of whether I ought to feel bad about my boss. DeWitt’s deployment of statistical probability in an ethical critique of publishing looks precise, but it is hardly rational. The notion, for example, that ending up with editor A versus editor B is the result of a random, independent trial neglects the extent to which “following the money” is a value-laden decision—less an arbitrary convention than a particular ideology of agenting. If we allow ourselves to stray from the “objective” domain of analytic philosophy, asking what desires and commitments inform the author’s choice of analytic tools, we find that even DeWitt is subjective in her line of attack. Her ethical propositions may indeed result from a process of induction, yet this no more makes them objective than it makes them sound correct. 

DeWitt’s disagreement with publishing dates back to before she completed her first book. In 1995, a colleague at the law firm where she was working as a secretary introduced her to an agent, who sent chapters of The Last Samurai, still in progress, to various editors. These editors, DeWitt recalls in a 2011 interview for The Los Angeles Review of Books, “disrupted the book for 18 months with unsolicited advice.” When the manuscript was finally accepted for publication, in 1999, DeWitt was again confronted with unwanted interference, this time in the form of an allegedly overreaching copy editor. The time spent clawing her original thoughts back from the depths of memory could have been spent instead, she reasoned, writing further books. A writer, she muses in a 2007 paperpools post, ought to have the freedom to live in such a way as to generate experience. “Young writers often talk to me about getting published, and something they often say is: ‘Couldn’t I offer to accept a smaller advance in return for publishing the book I actually wrote? I’d like to take the Trans-Siberian Railway/write another book/learn Mongolian, drink mares’ milk, live in a yurt/write another book/go to the Cabaret & explore totalitarianism & sexual perversion/write another book/spend a year at the monastery on Mt Athos/write another book,’ i.e. do some things with my life other than sit in a room with a keyboard.” Based on her view that an editor’s intervention in a book is merely a practice of self-indulgence, the product of a feeling “that tinkering with other people’s books is the fun part of the job,” DeWitt concludes that an editor wasting an author’s time—and so preventing the author from living—“does incalculable damage to the book’s successors,” surely an irrational practice. 

What does she mean, however, by “damage to a book’s successors”? The compromise in the quality of future books that’s effected by keeping their author from adventure? While inspiration is often a deeply nourishing thing for a writer, DeWitt’s assumption that the welfare of her books depends on how much time she has for leisure rests on only one part of the creative equation. DeWitt’s assumption that an editor is little more than a printer with aspirations to literary status is not necessarily unfounded, or necessarily untrue. It no more represents the editor’s function than a typewriter represents the author’s. An editor is always, and essentially, a figure of literary collaboration—an acknowledgment that artists are never alone in producing anything worth sharing. An editor aspires to be the conduit between inspiration and meaning, between the drama of composition and the flow of communication; an editor imposes convention to facilitate readerly comprehension and ensures that breaks with convention serve their audience as much as they do their creator. 

Perhaps, however, the “damage” DeWitt invokes is more simply a case of economics, of the time (and hence the money) she herself has spent “mired down in dealings with the publishing industry.” Yet if we accept that the making of a book is a necessarily collective effort, an effort to which the publishing house is generally somewhat central, we must recognize that someone’s investment of time is always required for the proper completion of the task. If an editor takes a book in a direction its author no longer approves of, the author, DeWitt told Cutter, “should have the right to walk away and do other things.” Do other things, that is, while still expecting a publicity campaign and subsequent royalties. (Such luxuries, of course, are not to be extended to disenchanted editors or agents. Between the publications of DeWitt’s first novel and her second, she responded to an agent’s decision to rescind his offer of representation by threatening to jump off a cliff.) Lightning Rods, her second novel, would turn out to be a satire in which women office workers are anonymously contracted to make their backsides available to male employees in need of a midweek release—
a metaphor, DeWitt elaborates, for how working with the biz can feel like getting fucked from behind. Why, she wonders on paperpools, won’t such deference cut the other way? “Writers,” she complains, “don’t even live in a world where agents or, indeed, the lowliest intern, will do anything to keep writers happy.” And so she determines that “the odds are heavily stacked against [authors’] doing their best work.”

DeWitt is not above appealing to the logic of commerce in the interest of getting her way. Yet if her aim is the subversion of convention and the arrival of a new kind of ethics, it is here that she is perhaps most irrational of all. In a blog post titled “wie immer” (“the usual”)—a catchphrase in German hospitality—she describes an ideal of the writer as a kind of restaurant-goer. She cites the following comments from the pages of The New York Times:

Increasingly, restaurants are recording whether you are a regular, a first-timer, someone who lives close by or a friend of the owner or manager. They archive where you like to sit, when you will celebrate a special occasion and whether you prefer your butter soft or hard, Pepsi over Coca-Cola or sparkling over still water. In many cases, they can trace your past performance as a diner; how much you ordered, tipped and whether you were a “camper” who lingered at the table long after dessert. 

“What would actually be so terrible,” DeWitt asks her readers, “about a publishing process where people were ANXIOUS to discover your preferences?” Assuming that what is good for business (a knowledge of customer tendencies) is also what is good for the consumer, DeWitt betrays a vision of the author less as a participant in the biz—a colleague, perhaps, or a collaborator in the production of literary goods—and more as a special variety of punter entitled to both customer service and a paycheck. A figure as special as the engines of surveillance capitalism would have its consumers feel, without the inconvenience of having to pay for any consumption. 

The problem with publishing, of course,  is not that it is illogical but that its logic is the logic of capital. As such, more exploited even than consumers mined for their personal data are those whose bullshit emotions are trained on making these consumers happy. Viewed in such a light, the agent who coaxes a children’s author to tone down the Bertrand Russell has more at stake than a personal love of the lowbrow, or even a sale. DeWitt’s arguments-from-reason as to what would “actually” serve the interests of the biz invariably rest on a partial perspective regarding what is best for a novel. As such, what she fails to see is that the figures most fucked by the biz are not authors subjected to edits but rather that “lowliest intern.” The fucked are the temps, editorial serfs, cleaners, and agents’ assistants, some of whom grieve for their own unrealized works of imaginative genius as they go about their workdays cultivating bullshit overexcitement about hers.

If DeWitt’s great gift is in showing us that something other than the norm is possible, her weakness is in looking for improvements within the system that governs the norm. “The mechanisms for getting something to happen are similar whatever the commodity,” she says in an interview in BOMB magazine. Any alternative process to untrammeled commodification exceeds the limits of even her imagination. In trying to imagine a world in which linguistic education is given greater prominence, she suggests that “we might have language restaurants, language gyms—places where you could just walk in off the street.” But even this, she thinks, is too far-out for people to understand. “The easiest thing,” she says, “always, is to see if you can piggyback on an existing institution.” The family, as one such institution,  may be “barbarous,” but rather than entertaining radically different notions of kin, DeWitt’s counterfactuals take the form of gimmicky twists or add-ons—robot companions, the rolling of dice, the auditioning of possible fathers. In her fiction, she neglects to explore alternative systems of valuation, alternative systems of distinction for those who divide the biz into castes. Instead, she invites us to dwell on what are already noxious oppositions: artist versus hack, genius versus dolt, prodigy versus troglodyte. In the end, the status of the artist as a supremely reasonable being attaches to nothing more substantial than an idea of his mind as eccentric. His status as ethically good attaches to nothing more substantial than his evident desire to be Euripides. 

However, even Euripides, if he had lived in a totalized market, might have been vulnerable to absorbing its habits of thought. DeWitt herself, looking for something to sell while awaiting her next advance, describes reaching for the sixty-thousand-word digressive passage, Lotteryland, contained within the novel Your Name Here—a book she wrote with the journalist Ilya Gridneff. “I wondered,” she recounts in her interview with Cutter, “if the publisher would be willing to let me take it out and put something else in its place.” In grasping at solutions to the challenges of subsistence posed to her by the industry, DeWitt is unable to retreat from the game, as Peter, RD, or Sibylla do. A flesh-and-blood writer can’t so easily shun their very means of survival; the Circle Line no longer goes around in an unbroken circle. DeWitt, should she choose to live there rather than pay to heat her home, would have to keep changing at Edgware Road and contending with the Transport Police. Faced with these realities, she cannot help but resolve to treat her own work as “pages”; cannot help but succumb, we might say, to fucking herself from behind. 

Critics might have misconstrued DeWitt’s fictitious overexcitement as something aesthetically false. DeWitt, however, in her blindness to the publishing system’s conditioning of both her prejudices and her frustrations, mistakes agents’ and editors’ expressions of excitement about her work as true. Believing that editors are simply entertaining themselves when they tinker, she complains to Cutter that “it’s readers and agents and editors who have an enjoyable relationship with texts most of the time, who expect to be excited and enthusiastic all the time.” The fact is that the deep and cerebral passions of agents and editors are buried in the rubble of bullshit that cascades into their minds each day. At work—a place no longer distinguishable from life—they will, however, generally “fall in love” with those things they believe will keep them afloat. 

Emotional Realism 

Fortunately, there is something in Helen DeWitt’s fiction for every reader. Those who identify as artists with standards as pure as Sibylla’s may find imaginative consolation in her impossible emotional range. There are those of us, too, who might relate to the expressive language of bullshit. For us there is greater clemency in DeWitt’s fictions than the screeds on her blog would suggest. Sibylla, after all, is as susceptible to stupid expression as anyone else. She would rather not spout banalities in the company of the clever, but in the presence of her publishing colleagues she finds it easiest to lower the bar. Having drunkenly slept with one of her company’s most valued authors, she finds herself unable to leave him a note that is both sufficiently inoffensive and true. Her chosen solution is certainly a diversion from any lie, but in terms of “what it is up to,” it is definitionally bullshit. Rather than drawing any impolite line under her own and the author’s recent interaction, Sibylla resolves instead to imply that she’s been wrenched from a riveting classics-based conversation. All she needs to do is spend an hour providing a short passage of Greek with translation, transliteration, vocabulary, and grammatical comments. This will take about an hour, she, thinks, “comparing favourably with the five-hour unwritable note,” and will guarantee that the man will never want to see her again. 

While DeWitt’s propensity for caricature may offer the impression that bullshit simply emerges from the core of bad personalities, the painfully realist settings in which she places her artists and hacks inevitably complicate this picture. Just as she attributes to certain figures the “genius of desperation,” in her writing, bullshit is no less a product of suboptimal material conditions. If an ethically realist novel tests the strength of its characters’ principles against the brutal onslaught of existence, DeWitt is a master of emplotting the bullshit of truth-tellers in the brutally real. Bullshit wafts through the workplace as emotions are coerced, and it wafts through heterosexual relations. It is surely no coincidence that bullshit in the wild pours so readily from the mouths of women. “Improvisation Is the Heart of Music,” in Some Trick,is the story of Edward and Maria, an engaged couple. Edward, we learn, is an eager raconteur, an agony Maria responds to with recourse to the bullshit playbook. As her partner begins a re-performance of his story about being shipwrecked, she panics about whether or not she can resort to repeating her previous raptures: 

Perhaps she had not responded well enough last time, so that Edward had had a niggling sense that proper performance of story and reception had not taken place; perhaps this was her chance to improve. This was an alarming thought: if she did not rise to the occasion, the story might be brought out again and again until she perfected her reply. “What a marvellous story!” she exclaimed hastily. “I’ve always adored The Count of Monte Cristo…”

Just as I might find myself appeasing my employer in hopes of curtailing an interaction, Maria resorts to bullshit only in a state of definitive duress. This is not to say, however, that her wishes aren’t real when she ends up inviting more retellings (“Have you ever told them about the splendour amidst which you were shipwrecked, darling?”). Whether the taking of hostages is carried out by bosses, clients, or tedious fiancés, the hostage will perform the emotions instructed until they arise without prompting. It would not be strictly untrue to say that the thought of more windows excites me, but neither do I imagine it would if I were an autonomous, window-owning agent. Agents, editors, mothers, wives, authors, artists, musicians—none of us emote as we imagine we might if we had written the novel of our lives. 

“The Oxford of my imagination was not the Oxford of the actual world,” DeWitt told The Los Angeles Review of Books. Nor is Ludo’s life of the mind available to mortals. “But going to Oxford did transform me intellectually,” DeWitt goes on; “it was the absolute impossibility of staying where I was, the ability to imagine something better… In that sense the Oxford of my imagination was more powerful than the real university.” Here she has landed on the mechanism that makes her work worth reading. The unspoiled joy of her heroes can only inspire us to imagine for ourselves. 

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