Sunday, December 06, 2015

Literary struggles

Now that I have taught my last classes of what has been a very taxing (so to speak) semester, in terms of demands on my time for both teaching prep and travel, I have finally, after months away from it, been able to return to working on my still tentative but definitely intended book-in-progress, "Enviers, Rentiers, and Arrivistes: What Literature Can Tell Us About High-End Inequality."

This project was originally inspired by the idea of wanting to do a better and more interesting job of looking at literature, in relation to evaluating high-end inequality, than Thomas Piketty does in Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

This is not meant as a shot at Piketty - it was clever of him to use illustrations from Austen and Balzac to illustrate his concerns about high-end inequality, and it helped him to attract attention that he deserved on other grounds. But just saying that those books illustrate the evils of a rentier society opened my eyes to the possibility of doing more with literature - especially since Balzac in particular is not just about a rentier society, but is centered on arrivistes who are trying to crash the heights of such a society, taking advantage of the fact that things are growing socially and economically more fluid.

Then I had the idea that Wodehouse, whose work I absolutely love, beautifully illustrates the "Great Easing" - the period when rentiers were at their low ebb, relatively speaking, hence making it plausible for Bertie Wooster, the aimless rentier par excellence, to be a mocked and comic, albeit not quite beleaguered, figure. (Unless the threat of being frowned at by your aunt and excluded from chef Anatole's splendid dinners meets the threshold for being beleaguered).

But here are two problems I encountered with this project. Well, three, if we count its being outside my usual comfort zone and having really no close models to draw on (while other people have of course done other interesting things with literature, none that I've seen is quite the same as what I want to do).  One is that I thought it would just be fun, both for me and hopefully for readers. But in a project of this scope, there has to more than that - there has to be clear purpose and direction, which I found myself needing to look for, and to keep on developing and revising, on the fly. It's turning out to have at least a 2 to 1 hard-to-fun ratio, at least in the still-early stages.

Second, I've been struggling with what I call the "Hegel problem." This refers to an I think famous quote about Hegel's work, to the effect that you can't understand the whole until you understand all of the parts, and you can't understand the parts until you understand the whole.

My version of this problem is that it's hard for me to figure out what I want to do with each literary work that I examine, until I know my general approach. But it's hard for me to figure out my general approach, until I've thought about particular literary works in close derail.

To change the metaphor, it's hard to get the chicken without the egg, and the egg without the chicken. But I think (or hope) that I'm getting closer.

Most recently I've been reading scholarly literature about Jane Austen, after initially thinking that I could write about Pride and Prejudice based just on my own reactions and resources. I'm finding this helpful, even though what I'm on about here is NOT to try to add to the body of Jane Austen literature (although this is a subject on which I have now developed some views). I had thought I could write the Jane Austen chapter straight up, then just one more (on Stendhal's The Red and the Black), and then I'd write a more general earlier chapter on just what I am aiming to get from the literary works that I examine. But I think now that I have to write that earlier chapter first, leaving it to be enriched and filled out as my work on later chapters causes me to understand it better.

In short, it seems like the right approach will have to be a back-and-forth mixture of incremental with iterative.  Feasible, I hope, but certainly not easy (and leading to fluctuating confidence levels about the project).

I'd also really like to test the market for getting this book published in a decent placement. This is a project with both upside and downside. It could come closer to mass market than my work usually does. Or it could be hard to publish because I can't pitch it as being wholly within my core expertise. I'm hoping literary critics will like it, but I'm certainly not expecting (or wanting) them to view it as being actually on their turf. And while the thing to do, at some point well before I'm finished, is to look for an agent or publisher, I think that is best put off until I have written not only the first 3 chapters, setting forth my aims and methods, etc., but also at least two chapters on particular literary works. Which requires greater progress on the incremental versus iterative front first.

The book I want to work on next, after this one, should be a lot easier so long as the publisher is interested. I want to update my book, Fixing U.S. International Taxation, to reflect subsequent developments plus how my own thinking has changed or at least clarified. But even if I didn't want to write the literature book first I would want to wait at least 2-3 years before undertaking this, given the continuing pace of international tax policy developments.

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