Friday, May 19, 2017

Onward and upwards in my literature book

To my great pleasure and relief, I have finished the latest chapter in my literature book. Its title ended up being: "Anti-Success Manual?: Mark Twain's and Charles Dudley Warner's The Gilded Age."

These chapters differ from my prior writing in being more like music (if that's not too pretentious-sounding), and less like syllogisms. But I do feel that it's going well, and that I have the set of skills I need for this. The frustration in writing each chapter comes as I flail about for a while, feeling my way towards the right framing and direction, even as many of the pieces take shape early on. And I do feel that this one ended up coming together well.

Next up, Theodore Dreiser's The Financier and The Titan. I've already given them a preliminary read (plus I read them 30 years ago) - and they're great - but it's probably going to be a few weeks before I launch into researching and writing the chapter. BTW, one book that I plan to read early on in the process is John Franch's Robber Baron: The Life of Charles Tyson Yerkes.  Not only is the Yerkes the actual historical figure on whom Dreiser based his lead character, but I gather that he followed the actual incidents of Yerkes' life very closely. So it will be interesting to see how the historical and fictional figures relate to each other.

I have two distinct reasons for waiting before I launch the new chapter. First, I'll be in Europe from May 27 through June 7, delivering 3 distinct tax policy talks, for each of which I have already made PowerPoint slides. (More on this shortly, including the slides themselves after I've given the talks.) Second, I have to focus on a bunch of other things before I launch into something that will consume me a bit.

One of these other things concerns the book project as a whole. My sense of what the book is has been changing. It started out as more policy-based - a way of looking at high-end inequality given my conviction, as discussed here, that a conventional public economics framework is unusually inadequate for dealing fully with the issues presented.

I always felt a bit uneasy about that framework, because it risked being tendentious. E.g., using a social science framework to select books that were somehow "representative" was not at all what I had in mind. In truth, a key reason for doing the book was that I thought I could enjoy it and do it well, and that others would find it interesting, as well as unique. But that, in turn, had to do with what I thought I could bring to reading particular books in a distinctive way. It was about enriching perspectives, not about proving particular conclusions.

As I see it now, while there is an overall narrative, relating to the rise, transformation, and tensions of meritocracy, it's not about drawing Policy Conclusion X. Note also that, by the nature of the enterprise, it's primarily about feelings around inequality at or near the top. After all, my authors are generally affluent people (i.e., at least "middle class," a term that in common usage extends all the way up to the bottom portion of the top 1%), so they are writing mostly about feelings and tensions in that sector. But this is a very interesting and important subject - tensions within and between elites. It's well worth knowing about, from an enriched perspective that conventional social science could not easily bring, but it doesn't quite amount to, e.g., "We should tax the rich more" (or alternatively, less), apart from its helping to explode the narrow public econ view in which people only care about own consumption.

What should the book's title be? I'm still struggling with this, reflecting that I'm working out what the project as a whole is.  (I've now written 7 out of a contemplated 18 chapters on particular works - and I now have a very good sense of what a given chapter might try to do - but still an only incomplete sense of the trajectory.)

Early on, my working title was "Enviers, Rentiers, Arrivistes, and the Point-One Percent: What Literature Can Tell Us About High-End Inequality." But that might not be commercial enough.

This gave way to "Literature and the Rise of Toxic Meritocracy." But that might not be a good enough fit for what the book is turning out to be.

Daniel Markovits has already taken the title "Meritocracy and Its Discontents" for a book he's writing. Anyway, it probably fits his book better than mine.

"A Literary History of Meritocracy"? Probably not a good enough fit for what I'm doing, also it might create the wrong set of expectations.

I do strongly feel that the chapters are good, and that they are fitting together into a coherent whole. So presumably the title will come.

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