April 2, 2015

“Fierce Imaginative Possession”: Literature and Competition


View from an airplane landing at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (via YouTube)

View from an airplane landing at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (via YouTube)

Last week, Buzzfeed published an essay by the writer Isaac Fitzgerald about his encounters with books during his youth and early adulthood. In the piece, Fitzgerald described a few of the books that had moved him, inspired him, and made him feel less alone at various points in his life. As he struggled with parents who fought too much, with intense loneliness at school, and with a series of dead-end jobs, he turned to books to keep reality from crashing in.

What struck me, reading the essay, is that at no point did Fitzgerald suggest how these books had shaped his understanding of—or his relationship with—the world around him. Books, he implied, are always in competition with the world. They keep it at bay.

Fifty years earlier, in the New York Times Book Review, Irving Howe wrote of Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep that “is one of those novels—there are not very many—which patiently enter and then wholly exhaust an experience. Taking fierce imaginative possession of its subject, the novel scrutinizes it with an almost unnerving intensity, yet also manages to preserve a sense of distance and dispassion.” I can’t imagine a better description of what I see as the greatest of literary thrills: the destabilizing confrontation between literature and life. This is a world away from books as objects that drown out one’s surroundings. Rather, the most valuable literary experiences—at least to me—are those that force one’s assumptions into stark relief.

Here’s an example. A couple of years ago, I first read these lines in James Baldwin’s essay “Nobody Knows My Name: A Letter from the South”:

In the fall of last year, my plane hovered over the rust-red earth of Georgia. I was past thirty, and I had never seen this land before. I pressed my face against the window, watching the earth come closer; soon we were just above the tops of trees. I could not suppress the thought that this earth had acquired its color from the blood that had dripped down from these trees. My mind was filled with the image of a black man, younger than I, perhaps, or my own age, hanging from a tree, while white men watched him and cut his sex from him with a knife.

Growing up in Atlanta, I had given plenty of thought to Georgia’s soil: the way it foiled, time and again, my grandmother’s landscaping efforts; the way it left its mark immediately on crisp, new sneakers; and the way that, yes, it always made the city look dark red as the plane descended over the city’s wooded suburbs. When I thought of the soil, it was as a self-evident piece of the landscape. Yet through description, through empathy, through metaphor, Baldwin had endowed a fact of life with historical and emotional depth. Five short sentences by Baldwin transformed the way I understood my hometown, and radically altered, forever, the way I saw my surroundings. One does not come away unscathed from such moments.

The best word to describe this kind of encounter is “bracing.” “Chilling” is too negative, “revelatory” seems overwrought, “transformative” sounds vague. I like “bracing”—it suggests a quickening of the heartbeat, a sharpening of the senses. It’s also an adjective that—not coincidentally—I also use to describe many of the books and writers I edit.

One of those bracing writers is David Graeber, whose The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy came out in February. The Utopia of Rules contains many pleasures (find me another book that is as insightful on Michel Foucault as it is on George Wallace, the nineteenth-century postal service, and Dungeons & Dragons), but its central one is Graeber’s remarkable ability to transform our understanding of the world around us. This sounds vague, but that’s because there’s no more modest way to describe the book’s achievement. Graeber is an anthropologist, and his greatest gift is a professional one: he has an uncanny ability to make the familiar seem strange. (This, per Viktor Shklovsky, is also the artist’s gift: “The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By ‘enstranging’ objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and ‘laborious.’”)

In the book’s introduction, Graeber lays out his case for why everything we think about bureaucracy is wrong. This is not delivered in the inspirational, wide-eyed mode of a professional counterintuitivist, or even with the righteous anger of a skilled polemicist. What Graeber is after is something deeper: he wants us to think about our most prosaic rituals (our endless time on hold with customer service, the seeming inability of big companies to do anything efficiently) and try to see what’s really behind them. Why is it that the word “bureaucracy” seems intuitively to belong with the word “government,” when our greatest agents of frustration, inefficiency, and chaos are large corporations? And how did it get this way?

I first read the introduction to The Utopia of Rules last summer, and like all of my favorite things I’ve ever read, it seemed to explain everything. Graeber’s historical account of our transition into what he calls the “era of total bureaucratization” is marvelously straightforward: “a kind of strategic pivot of the upper echelons of U.S. corporate bureaucracy—away from the workers, and towards shareholders, and eventually, towards the financial structure as a whole.” The consequences?

For all its celebration of markets and individual initiative, this alliance of government and finance often produces results that bear a striking resemblance to the worst excesses of bureaucratization in the former Soviet Union or former colonial backwaters of the Global South.

As a reader (and as an editor), what’s exciting to me about this sentence is its force and its clarity, its—yes—bracing disregard for what we think we know. This is an argument—and a persuasive one—about the world we live in, but, just as importantly, about the extent to which that world is contingent. By showing us that no aspect of our current way of life is incontestable—that we live, as we always have, according to a combination of blind belief and material conditions—Graeber suggests that as bad as things are, there could be a way out.

I live for writing like this—writing that undermines assumptions so deep-seated I would never think to call them assumptions. It’s the kind of writing that lodges itself in my head and remains there, and indeed, in recent months, it’s been hard for me to read about the excesses of Silicon Valley or the greed of the financial industry without one insight or another from The Utopia of Rules tapping me on the shoulder. This is a book that’s about the world, and in the world, and which forces its reader to see the world through it.

Another encounter. I’m currently editing Joshua Stephens’s The Dog Walker: An Anarchist’s Encounters with the Good, the Bad, and the Canine, a very funny, politically astute book about dog walking. (You don’t hear that every day.) The book, which comes out in September, reads like something David Rakoff might have written if he had walked dogs for a living, and spent his non-dog walking time as a political activist. It’s the only dog book you’ll read that’s as insightful about the Zapatistas as it is angrily persuasive about why you shouldn’t ever board your beloved pet. (Hire a sitter!) Stephens writes about his former line of work with tremendous humor and irreverence, but his greatest strength is his insight into all aspects of the job: he understands, for example, all of the ways in which a dog walker’s relationship with his or her client is fraught and interesting—and weird.

Last week, I got to the following passage in The Dog Walker:

A recurrent and rarely understood feature of commercial dog walking outfits is the non-compete clause as a standard, baseline condition of employment. In effect, in exchange for any hope of being hired, an applicant is compelled to sign a document that enables their would-be employer to sue them for continuing to work as a dog walker after ceasing to work for the company in question. This [gives] a single employer outright ownership of their workforce’s relevant skill set. It also applies a de facto downward pressure on wages: one cannot translate one’s skills into a better opportunity, and one’s knowledge and ability of a given trade effectively dissolve into thin air when not generating revenue for a specific employer . . .

If one cannot take one’s skills elsewhere, only those with no skills will apply to work. And on the flip side, businesses will only hire those with no experience, for fear of being sued under a non-compete. Conventional logic would dictate this is a terrible marketing strategy, but employers are increasingly confident their customers are too stupid and undiscerning to ferret this out. Indeed, according to the New York Times, non-compete clauses are steadily proliferating to unlikely trades. Editors, landscapers, yoga teachers, personal trainers, hair stylists—even interns are being slapped with and bound to bans on working in the field for which they’re apprenticing.

So yes, not your standard dog book.

I’d read about the expansion of the non-compete clause before, but Stephens’s explanations were so thorough and persuasive that I couldn’t help but spend the rest of the day thinking about contract law. Here, again, was a story about an aspect of the world we live in, delivered so elegantly that it was hard not to suddenly see the non-compete clause as the world’s most important phenomenon.

A few hours after finishing my first read-through of Stephens’s manuscript, I discovered that, as usual, the publishing industry’s most consistently imaginative foe hadn’t missed out on the latest trend. In a bit of serendipitous timing, I stumbled on an excellent article in The Verge about Amazon’s temporary warehouse workers, who were bound by eighteen-month non-compete contracts:

The work is repetitive and physically demanding and can pay several dollars above minimum wage, yet Amazon is requiring these workers—even seasonal ones—to sign strict and far-reaching noncompete agreements. The Amazon contract, obtained by The Verge, requires employees to promise that they will not work at any company where they “directly or indirectly” support any good or service that competes with those they helped support at Amazon, for a year and a half after their brief stints at Amazon end. Of course, the company’s warehouses are the beating heart of Amazon’s online shopping empire, the extraordinary breadth of which has earned it the title of “the Everything Store,” so Amazon appears to be requiring temp workers to foreswear a sizable portion of the global economy in exchange for a several-months-long hourly warehouse gig.

The entire article is disturbing, well-documented, and absolutely worth reading. It paints a picture of Amazon with which readers of this blog will be familiar: an enormous and expanding company that demonstrates absolutely no concern for its employees, and which uses its scale to grow larger, conquer and monopolize more industries, and further hone its vision of “efficiency” at the expense of anything resembling human interest.

I’ve read more than my fair share of damning articles about Amazon, and I’m sure that the company’s commitment to destructive innovation will lead me to read many more. But this piece stood out. Having just read Stephens’s book—and with the lessons of The Utopia of Rules still very much my mind—it was hard not to see the overuse of the non-compete clause as some kind of insidious next phase in predatory capitalism. In its earlier iterations, the non-compete was used to protect sensitive information—it could keep, for example, a top-level executive from stealing company secrets on his or her way out the door—but Amazon’s application of the clause had none of this self-protective logic.

The day after the Verge story ran, Amazon backed down—a rare defeat. Still, I’m skeptical that the clause won’t reappear in some form in the future. Amazon’s controlling tendencies are notoriously robust, after all—last summer, the company became notorious for depriving its readers of a whole range of books because of a contractual negotiation. If a reader searched for a book published by a Hachette imprint, Amazon recommended a non-Hachette book. And this was only a variation on the games the company has played for years.

Does Amazon’s dalliance with the non-compete clause tell us something new about the company? Perhaps not—maybe it’s just business as usual. Still, I can’t help but see in the clause a kind of grotesque offense against the imagination, in addition to the other more obvious offenses. It’s one (bad) thing to underpay your workers or subject them to less-than-ideal conditions. It’s quite another (worse) thing to control and jeopardize their futures. Yet this is exactly what Amazon was trying to do: control the freedom and agency of people who no longer had anything to do with the company. (And I’m being generous in using the past tense. According to The Verge: “The company does have a history of aggressively pursuing such cases against white collar workers. Last year, after a former Amazon marketing manager took a job at Google, Amazon leveled a suit against him that was said to test the limits of noncompete law.”)

Last year, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told Business Insider’s Henry Blodget that books are too expensive, and that they need to “compet[e] against Candy Crush.” In other words, any inherent worth books may have is secondary to their status as disposable entertainments, and they must compete with other disposable entertainments in a race to $0. Of course, Bezos himself knows all about competition: he has succeeded, after all, by competing with—and crushing—an untold number of companies throughout Amazon’s two-decade history. Yet if Bezos’s former employees wanted not even to compete, but to make a living, they were prohibited from doing so.

This is a strange approach to competition. With its non-compete clause, Amazon committed itself not just to exploiting its workers, but to the ownership of their ideas—to the disengagement of its workforce from the world at large. But if, as I’ve said, literature is valuable precisely because it is a form of engagement with the world—because it transforms our understanding of it—isn’t there a terrible contradiction at work? The openness—the in-the-worldness—that we demand from literature was systematically stolen from its employees by the nation’s largest bookseller.

This may all seem like a game of hopscotch—casual leap, after casual leap. Any and all intellectual vulgarity—much less wrongheadedness—is exclusively my own, of course, but as vulgar, wrongheaded, or unformed as these thoughts may be, I hope they serve as a kind of tribute to a particular way of reading. Books like Graeber’s and Stephens’s, which have taken “imaginative possession of [their] subject[s],” have surprised me and even shocked me—they’ve pushed me into collision with the world.

Which isn’t to say that books can’t salve a wound, or keep solitude at bay, or alter one’s self-definition. But to see them in the context of the world that they describe is to see them as active instruments—as never-ending provocations. From dog walking, to non-compete clauses, to competition in its many forms: perhaps that’s one leap too far—but then again, shouldn’t we always strive to make that leap?


Mark Krotov is senior editor at Melville House.