Discernment

It is true that you get accustomed to money very quickly, that the miraculousness of the idea of it wears away and it becomes unremarkable. … Around the neighborhood it became clear that I had money. I bought whole packs of Wings cigarettes and not only smoked them continually but was generous with them. In the pawnshop on Third Avenue where I went for the glasses I found a reversible satin team jacket, black on one side, and then you could turn everything inside out and presto it was a white jacket, and I bought that and strutted in the evenings in it. … So I was wearing that and with my cigarettes and new sneakers and I suppose my attitude, which I might not be able to discern in myself but which must have been quite clear to others, I represented another kind of arithmetic to everyone on my street, not just the kids but the grown-ups too, and it was peculiar because I wanted everyone to know what they figured out easily enough, that it was just not given to a punk to find easy money except one way, but at the same time I didn’t want them to know, I didn’t want to be changed from what I was, which was a boy alive in the suspension of judgment of childhood, that I was the wild kid of a well-known crazy woman, but there was something in me that might earn out, that might grow into the lineaments of honor, so that a discerning teacher or some other act of God, might turn up the voltage of this one brain to a power of future life that everyone in the Bronx could be proud of. I mean that to the more discerning adult, the man I didn’t know and didn’t know ever noticed me who might live in my building or see me in the candy store, or in the schoolyard, I would be one of the possibilities of redemption, that there was some wit in the way I moved, some lovely intelligence in an unconscious gesture of the game, that would give him this objective sense of hope for a moment, quite unattached to any loyalty of his own, that there was always a chance, that as bad as things were, America was a big juggling act and that we could all be kept up in the air somehow, and go around not from hand to hand, but from light to dark, from night to day, in the universe of God after all.

E.L. Doctorow
Billy Bathgate

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What Need?

Over the last few months, at the blog of the New York Review of Books, Tim Parks has been posting a succession of lighthearded but provocative musings on the norms and nature of reading and writing. In February, he questioned the transformation of writing from a personal vocation into a profession. “[W]hen did being a writer become a career choice,” he asked, “with appropriate degree courses and pecking orders? Does this state of affairs make any difference to what gets written?” In early March, he wondered under what circumstances it becomes acceptable to abandon reading a book. “Is a good book by definition one that we did finish?” he asked. “Or are there occasions when we might choose to leave off a book before the end, or even only half way through, and nevertheless feel that it was good, even excellent, that we were glad we read what we read, but don’t feel the need to finish it?”

Now, in his most recent post, Parks sets out to “tackle one of the literary set’s favorite orthodoxies head on.” The orthodoxy in question is the notion that “the world ‘needs stories.'” To illustrate just how orthodox this notion has become among the members of ‘the literary set,’ Parks quotes Jonathan Franzen as one of its major proponents. “There is an enormous need,” Franzen has declared, “for long, elaborate, complex stories, such as can only be written by an author concentrating alone, free from the deafening chatter of Twitter.” After unpacking Franzen’s self-serving motivations for expressing such a view, Parks goes on to catalogue several variants of the same position and then to relate an anecdote which illustrates the institutionalisation of that position: Continue reading What Need?