Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Q&A with Professor Paula Rabinowitz

Paula Rabinowitz is the author of the new book American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street. Her other books include Black & White & Noir: America's Pulp Modernism, and she has co-edited the series Habits of Being. She is professor of English at the University of Minnesota.

Q: How did you first get interested in studying pulp paperbacks?

A: I’ve been collecting books since I was in 6th grade, stealing off my parents. The first long book I read was their copy of Doctor Zhivago. Over the years, I’d end up in used bookstores and would find them--NAL books, Signet books; I was most taken with how Hemingway and Faulkner were turned into some sleazy writers with those covers!

My work as a scholar is on mid-20th century [popular culture]. My first book was on proletarian novels, and the last book, Black & White & Noir, was about film noir, and the stories that get told about America via crime narratives. It was a way to circulate stories about sexuality, class relations, and so forth.

The book came out in 2002, and I realized there was another way to think about pulp modernism. Pulp modernism was a vehicle for circulating some of these ideas…

[With the pulp paperbacks] I am talking about these objects, these collectibles. You can go on line and there are blogs and websites about pulp. I get positive and negative responses to the book; [some say] I’m not using “pulp” in the most precise way. To me, it’s a metaphor…

Q: What is your definition of pulp?

A: First, there’s the material level of it. I had a fellowship at Oregon State, and I would drive back and forth by giant pulp mills, mountains of pulp. The literalness of the cheap paper is what pulp is.

Some levels of aficionados claim that pulps can only refer to the cheap magazines published in the ‘20s and ‘30s, as opposed to the “slicks.” What I’m talking about are mass-market paperbacks. I recognize on some level that I’m misusing the term.

On another level, there’s the question of using it in a much more metaphorical sense, the vernacular modernism, the low modernism of the street.

There’s a specific critical definition [of modernism] connected to the particular period of the 1890s through 1930s; the ways in which various art forms paid attention to the form and the medium as much as to the content…

Everyday people had access, even if they didn’t know it, to the world of modernist thinking. To me, pulp is about the modernist procedure in which new ways of thinking about the world were spread around, and done in a very industrial way, through cheap paperbacks or films. Pulping, to me, is making the modern legible…

The paperback books were perfect emblems of all of this. You got works of art on the cover, works of [literature] or science inside, lists of other books you might be interested in inside—and you got to own it all for [almost] nothing!...

Q: You mentioned the covers of classic, serious novels during the period you’re looking at that were very sensational and sexy. Why were those covers so popular then, and what accounted for their decline?

A: Sex sells! That’s the great line in Preston Sturges’s “Sullivan’s Travels.” There’s a director, Sullivan, who [has made less serious films] but wants to make a serious film about labor and capital, and his producers say, Yes, but with a little bit of sex!

They [the pulp publishers] had to compete…they were marketed the way candy bars, cigarettes, and magazines were marketed. They were very rarely sold in bookstores, and few libraries bought them because they were thought to be too flimsy to survive. They were distributed to supermarkets, drugstores, bus stations…

[The decline came about beginning in] the early ‘50s, when censorship cases were brought in various locations, and there were hearings in Congress at the end of 1952…there was a recession going on, and book sales were falling.

Around that time, Vintage/Anchor books started putting out classier [versions] of classics. That corresponded to the rise in college attendance with the G.I. bill…College courses began to use paperbacks, and it didn’t look too [collegiate] to have these smutty covers. It was a combination of things that were going on…the heyday of the smutty covers was 1930-59, but they were already on the way out by the early ‘50s.

Simultaneously with that, there also were very modernist abstract covers [with] bold colors and stark images….

Q: Are all the images in the book from your collection?

A: Every one of them! They’re all from my collection…

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m at the very, very, very beginning stages of a project that may or may not happen. It’s a double biography of my father-in-law, who I never met, and my father, [looking at] how smart sons of immigrant Jews made it in America.

My father-in-law was surveilled by the FBI as a potential spy who perhaps was running a spy ring. My father was the head of [the Defense Department’s] Project Defender; he ran Intercontinental Ballistic Missile defense. I’ve gotten a series of files that have been declassified from the Defense Department…

I have a title: "Cold War Dads." I’ve come up with the title; [now I feel] I’ve got to write that book!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m hoping [American Pulp], like pulp, would appeal to a broad range of people….I’m a literature scholar and so it’s a seriously researched book. But I hope it has appeal to a larger audience of people who are interested in reading and thinking, [or] are collectors.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 26

Nov. 26, 1922: Cartoonist Charles M. Schulz born.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Q&A with author George Lerner

George Lerner is the author of the new novel The Ambassadors. A television producer, he has worked for CNN, Reuters, and PBS. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Q: How did you come up with your character Jacob?

A: I hear Jacob’s voice. That’s what came through—a man who is obsessed with his own vision of the world.

You take a man with clear boundaries, clear ideas, and a clear construction of the world, and [put] him in a place that challenges that. First, picking sides in a war he has no understanding of. Second, needing to return to the past to revisit what he comes to understand as his own betrayals.

The novel started with the two first chapters; [they are] essentially the first two chapters I wrote. A woman wondering how to tell her son she has a terminal diagnosis; a man in an airport going somewhere.

Q: Did you know when you wrote those first two chapters how the rest of the story would unfold, or did you fill it out as you went along?

A: Yes to both. I had an idea. I knew where this was going, but I didn’t know how I would get there. I had characters and I had a novel before I knew what would happen within the novel. The novel grew out of those characters.

The novel was informed by my work as a journalist. I spent a month in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in what seemed like the end of a long and terrible war.

I asked the question, how did the war start, how do I tell the story about the beginning of a vicious war, how do I fit Jacob in. I started the novel in 2003; I was a full-time television news producer. A few years later, I filled in the novel.

Q: Yes, I was going to ask you about how your work as a journalist affected your writing of this novel, in terms of your experiences but also in terms of the actual writing process.

A: A few ways. There’s a very practical element—I get invited into people’s lives, and I get to record their lives so I can listen again. There’s a certain rhythm of a voice.

There’s no one [among the characters] I can say, Oh, that’s this person. There are certain historical figures, but people are not named, not any particular person.

I had to learn something that took me a while to pick up on. I thought about Garcia Marquez and Hemingway, being journalists and breaking away from it. I had to unlearn some journalism to make way with the novel. The more I broke with journalism, the more the writing came alive. The more I wrote what I could testify to, the more the writing was leaden.

Q: Why did you decide to include both the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide as part of the book?

A: I looked at events. I am not a child of survivors, though I had two great-grandmothers who perished in the Shoah, and other relatives. Just as fact and fiction informed each other, I grew up with a father [who told] stories of being a soldier in the occupation [of Germany after World War II]. My father was not Jacob, but he was informed by my father’s stories.

At the same time, as I discovered as a reader about the Rwandan genocide and as a journalist about the [impact] of the Rwandan genocide…the idea of the Holocaust kept coming up.

It came up in Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families; in Samantha Power’s seminal book on the genocide, A Problem From Hell; in Alison Des Forges’s writings in Human Rights Watch on the Rwandan genocide.

The questions of the Rwandan genocide: “Never again”—well, it did happen again. The cost of stopping it would have been very low.

Back to your first question, what prompted this character, these are questions that Jacob is asking, how could it potentially happen a third time, arguments about whether this is another genocide, a third genocide. I chose to ask them novelistically.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen?

A: One comment I get [is about whether it’s a reference to] the Henry James novel. I say, no, it’s the Holbein painting...

There are obviously a lot of disparate themes in the novel; it’s a complicated novel. For me, metaphorically, this painting, at the court of Henry VIII, the ambassadors, the presence of the skull, these men, particularly the lead ambassador, this painting itself took on life 400 years after it was painted.

It’s a painting rich with symbolism. I didn’t feel the need in a novel like this to embark on that symbolism, but in a way, Jacob and Susanna, the husband-wife communication, the way she sees her family, as rugged men she can’t relate to--but she needs and seeks Jacob’s comfort.

Q: Are you working on another novel?

A: This one took me a long time! I have another novel in the works. I’m used to, in television, to have an air date. With a novel, there’s no air date.

I think the next one is more autobiographical, though it’s not an autobiography. It’s a different kind of novel, but it has similar themes: family, maybe not as many grand events of our time, but illness, courage, and despair.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: What drove this book is that I looked around and thought that this was a story I hadn’t read, characters like these—I hadn’t read these characters. The central characters and the secondary characters.

I intended Dudu to have echoes of Sancho Panza and Falstaff, but I hadn’t read [my character] Germaine and her steadfastness, or the captain and his bitterness. I looked for diversity in the [characters in the] band. There are very much echoes of friends of mine in Brooklyn; [they are from] across Africa, how they interact. It’s critical to show the diversity of personality, goals, and ambitions.

It was very important to me to echo what friends of mine had said, Zimbabwean…Senegalese: It’s not all about war. I focused on a terrible war, [the worst] humanitarian crisis in my lifetime, but I wanted to focus on more than this.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with author Bing West

Bing West is the author of the new book One Million Steps: A Marine Platoon At War. A Vietnam veteran, he served as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in the Reagan administration. His other books include The Village, The Strongest Tribe, and The Wrong War. He lives in Newport, Rhode Island.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on the Marines of Battalion 3/5 in your latest book?

A: In my embeds over the years in Afghanistan, it became clear to me that the top command had a theoretical strategy of winning hearts and minds of 9th century tribes, while our troops were fighting for their lives. I wanted to show how our platoons were actually fighting, as contrasted with the foolish theories at the top.

Q: You write, “The counterinsurgency doctrines in Afghanistan and Vietnam were polar opposites in emphasis.” What were some of the key differences, and what impact did the two strategies have on the respective conflicts?

A: In Vietnam (where I served in the grunts), we fought to drive the Viet Cong guerrillas out of the villages. In Afghanistan, our grunts were told to drink tea with the elders, rather than to fight. That order made no sense. South Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese army with Russian and Chinese tanks and artillery, not to guerrillas.

Q: Looking ahead, what do you see happening in Afghanistan?

A: President Obama will be forced to keep U.S. troops there in combat. Were Mr. Obama to keep his foolish pledge to pull out all U.S. troops before he leaves office, Ms. Clinton would have to run for the presidency while disowning the Obama decision. That will insure the Taliban do not take over the cities, although they will control much of the countryside.

Q: Have you stayed in touch with the Marines you wrote about, and what is your overall sense of how their experiences affected them?

A: Yikes! I have friends in three generations of Marines! My son is a Marine. The generations show marked changes. During Vietnam, coming so soon after WWII battles like Iwo Jima, we accepted heavy casualties and death as normal. Today, fortunately, casualties are fewer and each loss is more publicly grieved.

Separately, the newest generation rely upon IT gadgets for their social interaction. This characteristic is brand new and has consequences for training and for performance in units that we do not yet know how to measure or direct.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am writing a book with General Jim Mattis, a renowned warfighter, about his leadership style and how it changed as he commanded at higher and higher levels.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: We are at war. The Islamist revolution sweeping the Middle East has not been tamed. Mr. Obama, as our commander-in-chief, has the obligation to explain why this is a war, why we will continue to take casualties and the means by which we must win. He has not done this. So within the American public there remains an unease about our commitment and about the stakes.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This interview also appears on

Nov. 25

Nov. 25, 1890: Poet Isaac Rosenberg born.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Q&A with author Louisa Lim

Louisa Lim, photo courtesy of Leila Navidi
Louisa Lim is the author of the book The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited. She has reported from China for many years, for NPR and the BBC, and is a visiting professor at the University of Michigan. She lives in Ann Arbor.

Q: You write, "To write about present-day China requires an almost impossible calculation, weighing the risks and consequences of every sentence." How did those difficulties affect you as you wrote this book--and also as you reported in China for many years?

A: My biggest concern has always been the safety of those whom I have interviewed, and with this book that was always a big unknown.  

When people agreed to be interviewed, we were all aware that there was simply no way of predicting how much the political climate might change by the time that the book came out, so I felt like people were placing extraordinary trust in me by simply telling their stories to me. I felt that I needed to honor their trust by making sure their stories were told. 

I wrestled for a very long time over the issue of whether to use people’s real names or not, but for the most part, their experiences had been so distinctive that there was simply no way of disguising them.

In the event, 2014 marked the biggest crackdown in the run-up to the anniversary of [the Tiananmen Square crackdown of] June 4 [1989] in a quarter century with 152 people detained, arrested or placed under house arrest according to overseas rights groups.  

In the past, public acts of commemoration were forbidden, but this year for the first time, private acts of commemoration were also punished.

This new clampdown affected several of the people in my book. The soldier-turned-artist in the first chapter, Chen Guang, was detained for more than a month after he created an art installation referencing the crackdown and its disappearance from the collective memory.    

One of the Tiananmen Mothers, Zhang Xianling, who lost her son in 1989, was one of 15 people who attended a private seminar commemorating the deaths; five of the attendees were arrested, and one of them – lawyer Pu Zhiqiang – is now awaiting trial.  

Zhang Xianling was not detained, but she was questioned by police, then stopped from talking to the press. For me, any difficulties were very trivial compared to those facing those who had trusted me with their stories.

Q: What do you see as the most important changes in China in the past quarter-century, and what has remained more or less the same?

A: I could write a whole book just to answer this question!  China has changed enormously in the past quarter-century in all kinds of ways. 

One of the most significant changes has been the withdrawal of the state from ordinary people’s lives; back in 1989, you needed permission from your work unit to get married, get a passport, go overseas or change job. That’s no longer the case, so individual freedoms have increased. 

And Deng’s decision to push forward with economic reforms has made everyone richer, with disposable incomes seventeen times higher than in 1989.  

But the apparatus of state control remains very much in place, and even strengthened through the use of modern technology.  For those who venture out of the safe zone, for the dissidents and activists who live under the gaze of China’s surveillance state, the repressive nature of the authoritarian regime is unchanged. 

Indeed, at the current moment we are in a cycle of repression with waves of detentions, tighter controls over the press and ideological campaigns that hark back to Mao-era China.  So political liberalization has been frozen since 1989. 

Q: How did you conduct your research for the book, and what surprised you most?

A: I found it very difficult to do research while I was in China, due to internet censorship and a general lack of access to information.  

So I only began seriously researching the last chapter – where I uncovered details that had never been reported before of a deadly crackdown in the city of Chengdu – after I left China, and every step of that was surprising to me. 

To begin with, it was astonishing to discover the scale of the protests – that had paralysed almost every major city in China – and then realize the fact that these have been forgotten both in China and overseas, where the 1989 protests are misremembered as something that only happened in Beijing. 

To find out more about Chengdu, I began tracking down Western eyewitnesses who still had written reports and diaries, and taken their own photos. 

At the same time, I was also looking through official Chinese state media reports which acknowledged that eight people had died in the Chengdu crackdown, though judging by the descriptions and U.S. diplomatic cables, the real figure was likely considerably higher. 

I also drew upon other sources, including U.S. diplomatic cables, and documents in U.S. university libraries, to try to piece together a better picture of what had happened. 

What I discovered was three days of street fighting and chaos, during which outnumbered government forces withdrew from the streets. 

During one bout of fighting eight were killed and 1,700 people were injured, according to government figures. But foreign eyewitnesses told of a second, far more brutal crackdown in the courtyard of a hotel, where they believe they saw people beaten to death before their eyes.

At the start, I was so discombobulated by the discovery that there had been a deadly crackdown outside Beijing that I found it hard to believe, so I kept plugging away at the research – trying to find more witnesses, more reports, more proof – just to help me understand what had happened.  

Given the scale of the protests and the ferocity of the crackdown, it was astonishing that all this could be literally erased from the collective memory, yet over time China’s Communist party has managed to politicize memory, that most personal of all spaces.

Q: How was the book's title selected?

A: When I wrote the book, I was in Beijing, working for NPR and writing the book in secret. I told almost no one and never spoke about it at home or in the office because I was worried that, as a foreign journalist, I was being bugged.  

I had one very trusted friend, who read an early version. We used to occasionally meet in noisy coffee shops to talk furtively about the book, and it was during one of those meetings that we came up with the title together. 

Originally, my publisher was slightly reluctant to use such an oblique title  – they would have preferred Tiananmen in the title – but after they read the finished manuscript, they were happy with “The People’s Republic of Amnesia.”

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a new foreword for the paperback version of the book, which will be released next spring.

Since the book came out, hundreds of thousands of people in Hong Kong have taken to the streets in massive demonstrations demanding universal suffrage. 

As in 1989, the protests were initially led by students, who even appropriated the iconography of the Tiananmen movement, launching their own campaign beneath a replica of the Goddess of Democracy statue that towered over Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Now Hong Kong’s “umbrella movement” has lasted longer than the Tiananmen protests. This has given my book a new relevance – so I have been writing and thinking about that right now.

I’m also working as a visiting professor of journalism at the University of Michigan, so I’ve been very busy teaching classes.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 24

Nov. 24, 1849: Writer Frances Hodgson Burnett born.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Q&A with author David M. Friedman

David M. Friedman, photo by Marion Ettlinger
David M. Friedman is the author of the new book Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity. He also has written A Mind of Its Own and The Immortalists, and worked for New York Newsday and the Philadelphia Daily News

Q: Why did you decide to focus on Oscar Wilde’s tour of America in 1882?

A: I first heard of Oscar’s trip to America in an American history class at college, where my professor, a man who loved to tell stories, told us a long, amusing –and partially accurate – story of how Oscar had ended up at the bottom of a silver mine in Colorado, where the miners intended to leave him, until Oscar so charmed his hosts that they brought him up to the surface, and then carried him, on their shoulders, through town.

Most of this was greatly exaggerated, but the notion that Wilde had visited America always stuck with me.

Years later I decided to find out what really happened. I assumed that the Oscar who came to America in 1882 was already Oscar Wilde the famous author, and was shocked to find out that I was wrong – in fact, he hadn’t written any of the works for which we honor him today.

Most Americans had never heard of him, yet, when he left nearly a year later, after giving nearly 150 lectures on interior decorating – singing the praises of sconces and embroidered pillows while wearing satin breeches, patent-leather pumps, and a velvet coat with lavender lace trim – he was the second-most-famous Briton in America, behind only Queen Victoria.

I first asked myself: How did he do that? Then I realized the more important question was: Why did he do that?

Q: You write, “Oscar Wilde created the value system we now call celebrity culture.” How did he do that?

A: When I say that Wilde created the value system we now call celebrity culture, I mean that he was the first person to understand, and then act on, the principle that achieving fame is an achievement in and of itself.

Before Wilde, fame was understood solely as the reward a person received for having accomplished a noteworthy feat, whether in politics, war, athletics, the arts, or any other field.

It was unthinkable in Victorian Britain for someone to become famous merely for being famous – the “achievement” that defines celebrity culture – until Wilde.

This isn’t to suggest that Wilde didn’t later achieve fame the old-fashioned way: as a writer of timeless works of drama, comedy, fiction, and non-fiction.

But what made Wilde stand out from his peers even before he became a revered author is that he decided fame would launch his career as a writer, not cap it.

Q: During his trip to the United States, Wilde sat for a series of photos with portrait photographer Napoleon Sarony. What did those photos accomplish in Wilde’s quest for celebrity?

A: Actors, sportsmen, singers, and politicians had used photography to enhance their celebrity before Wilde, but he was the first to realize the power of photography to create fame.

Though it is a tribute to Napoleon Sarony’s artistry that he took the most famous portraits of Wilde on one day in 1882 at his studio in New York, the credit for that achievement belongs equally to Wilde, who came to that studio with a clear idea of how he planned to present himself to the American public: as the Aesthetic Adonis, a man both of his time and removed from it.

And it worked. His face – reproduced on photographs sold to the public, printed in magazines and on posters, and caricaturized in countless newspaper cartoons – became one of the most recognized faces in the country.

His image was used to sell not only Wilde, but commercial products ranging from cigarettes to women’s “bust enhancers.” Not bad for a writer who had yet to write anything.

Q: You write that Wilde “failed to see a crucial pitfall of the new culture of self-promotion: the danger of believing the hype, especially your own.” Why did Wilde fall into this trap, and how did it play into his last years?

A: It’s impossible to say with certainty why Wilde failed to see a crucial pitfall of the culture of self-promotion that he had pioneered – the danger of believing the hype, especially your own.

My guess is that, while seeking the intoxicating immortality of renown – something he pursued with an energy and expertise rarely matched, either before him or since – Wilde became intoxicated by the fame he achieved as an author, which clouded his judgment.

When put on trial for sexual “crimes,” Wilde thought of his appearances in the witness box as just one more “star turn” – another chance to lecture those less sophisticated than he, to show the world he really was the author of those witty plays, to take another curtain call.

It was an error only someone star-struck by his own fame could make. Fame makes you a star, but it also makes you a target. This is well-understood today, in the age of Internet snark. But it was not widely appreciated in the late nineteenth century. And certainly not by Oscar Wilde.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m considering two ideas for my next book, but I haven’t made up my mind yet.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 23

Nov. 23, 1920: Poet Paul Celan born.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Q&A with author Hindol Sengupta

Hindol Sengupta is the author of the new book Recasting India: How Entrepreneurship Is Revolutionizing the World's Largest Democracy. He is editor-at-large at Fortune India and the founder of the nonprofit Whypoll Trust, and his other books include The Liberals and 100 Things to Know and Debate Before You Vote. He is based in Delhi and Mumbai.

Q: You write that you chose your title because “India is being recast, remolded, and redefined.” What do you see as the major ways in which this is happening, and what do you predict looking ahead?

A: The one major thing that is happening in India at the moment - and which is almost always missed out in Western commentary about India - is a massive social churning that involves the fall of a corrupt, often dynastic, elite that has ruled India for most of its 67 years of independent existence after British colonial rule.

This elite ruled not just government but also industry and business, and academia and intelligentsia at every level. The levers of political, economic and narrative power were defined by a handful of people for all these years.

These were often people from the same class - people who went to the same schools, colleges, clubs, married one another, a complete self-sustaining, incestuous coterie. As we say in India, a durbar, a royal court.

What is happening in India is essentially class war. Subaltern voices suppressed for a long, long time are finally speaking up. Here's the interesting thing - in many cases economic liberalisation, capitalism if you will, is helping this war against the elite on the side of the subalterns.

Let me give you an example - till 2006, membership to the Bombay Stock Exchange was almost hereditary, passed on almost always from father to son. The license to trade was an elite tool until the markets opened up and that coterie got destroyed.

I give many examples of this in my book but the most potent perhaps is the example of Dalit entrepreneurs from the so-called lower castes in India who have used economics and enterprise to fight the caste system that discriminates on birth.

More often than not, it is the elite in India who want to keep laws weak and implementation abysmal, so that in the name of helping the poor, all sorts of backdated restrictions are kept alive so that competition is never really introduced in the market.

So the rich businessmen along with corrupt politicians keep all the wealth for themselves while mouthing platitudes about helping the poor.

There was a famous slogan once given by a famous Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, which said “Garibi hatao.” The joke today in India is that she said garibi hatao (in the Hindi language that means “shift poverty”) and not garibi mitao, which would mean eradicate poverty.

But strategically shifting and yet keeping alive poverty, by romanticizing it, the Indian elite have kept people poor and deprived while exponentially increasing its prosperity. Wherever the markets have been applied freely, the biggest beneficiaries have been the poor - from telecom to automobiles.

My argument is not for unabashed capitalism - that is impossible to argue in a country like India with its poverty. The state has a vital role to play in ensuring justice, in providing essential services like health and education and big-ticket infrastructure. 

But instead, the state has often stifled competition, prevented entrepreneurs from flourishing, and colluded to crooked big business people to keep the poor in despair while looting the wealth of the country. 

Q: In the book, you state that “India is unlikely to have a cohesive spring of revolt.” What are the factors that make that unlikely?

A: Let me answer this first by telling you a joke that my friends in Pakistan are fond of telling. As you know, there have been many military coups in Pakistan, but none, at least till now, in India.

The joke goes that the Indian Army can never pull off a coup because, say, the northern commander wants a coup, inevitably, the southern commander will say, I have never liked you northerners, so we are not part of your coup. The eastern commander will say, today is a holiday in our part of the country, and the western commander will say, my men will only participate if we are leading!

Moral of the story is - India is so diverse that for everyone to agree on one thing and have a revolt on the basis of that is tough. It was last successfully done, to an extent at least, during the independence movement, but at that time the oppressor was an outsider, the British colonial rulers.

Even the anti-corruption movement that started and brought thousands to the streets finally fizzled out and what happened in its place is a massive election with record voter turnouts in many places.

This is India's way - democracy. When we get tired of our government, we vote them out ruthlessly and increasingly voters are coming up with more and more clear and unambiguous verdicts in the country.

I am not suggesting a mass revolt cannot happen - it could if the oppression and corruption keeps growing. After all, for years now there has been an armed revolt of sorts in the tribal heartlands of Central India by Maoist guerrillas who aim to overthrow the state, but even that has been calming down in the last one year or so.

While the state cannot take the patience of the people for granted, till now there is every evidence to suggest that Indians prefer a democratic path. 

Q: One of the companies you examine in the book is The Maids’ Company. What does its existence say about the role of poor women in India, and about present-day class divisions?

A: There are two lessons in the existence and success of The Maids' Company. First, more than ever before, rights and freedoms are important to India and its young population. There is a massive pressure from the young on traditional injustices in the country - from gender discrimination to caste battles and religious obscurantism.

In the course of the last one year, two influential Hindu “godmen” have been put behind bars for crimes ranging from rape to murder, a host of Muslim clerics arrested after evidence surfaced that they were fueling terror plots, and at least one Christian preacher severely reprimanded for pushing discrimination between faiths.

There is more talk and protest against gender discrimination in India than ever before. And in this, The Maids' Company is a vital organisation that shows a solution - not mere protest.

It shows how the problem can be addressed through empowerment and economics. It is clear, not just in India but around the world, that one of the best tools of empowerment for men and women, but especially for women in societies traditionally patriarchal, is financial freedom, economic empowerment.

The Maids' Company shows one of the best ways to achieve this among some of the poorest women in India. So the big lesson from the work of The Maids' Company is - India still has a huge gender problem but it is being fought in myriad ways and in ever so new and innovative ways. 

Q: Can you say more about how entrepreneurship among the Dalits in India has helped them fight the caste system?

A: There are parallels here between the feminist movement and the caste movement. For the longest time, the political assumption in India was that such evils in our society could only be fought with political action - like job reservation, etc.

While these tools remain powerful, they are also often mired in corruption, and therefore the additional tool of economics has become very relevant and very useful.

As the famous Dalit scholar Chandra Bhan Prasad explains to me - nothing defeats caste bias, which is a form of racism in India, more effectively than jobs, wealth creation, economic prosperity.

Caste has always been a barrier that reduces to people just to their birth grouping. But India has changed rapidly in the last two decades, and with economic growth and rapid urbanisation, a lot of the old markers of identity have fallen by the wayside.

As Prasad's famous line goes - pizza delivery has no caste. This is an incredibly powerful line. It captures centuries of oppression and then liberation from that oppression in one small sentence.

One of the biggest and most evil ideas of caste was that the upper caste would not accept food from the hands of the lower caste - a distinction purely made by the accident of birth. You are born into your caste.

But when the young ambitious lower caste person moves from the trap of the village where it is impossible to escape the identity of birth to the liberty of anonymity of the city and gets his or her first job, perhaps as a pizza delivery person, and when they deliver their first pizza, and a customer unthinkingly accepts the food from their hand, without thinking even for a split second about their caste, that moment is magic.

In that moment, Adam Smith's greatest dreams come true. In that moment, perhaps even dreams that Smith did not dream dare to come true. This is the magic of economics. This is the magic of entrepreneurship and enterprise. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am now working on a book that looks at the entrepreneurs of classical and medieval India and their lives and achievements. There are some startlingly powerful and barely told stories there. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: That I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a blind capitalist. In fact, I come from a home which can be described, in the Indian context, as lower middle class.

My father is an honest government engineer who made very little money in his life. Neither of my parents received their education in the English language, and at one point, my father was so impoverished by the deaths of both his parents from cancer, he didn't even have money for bus tickets.

So today that I am able to write these answers to you in the English language is a matter of great pride for me.

Every job I have ever had in my life came to me because India opened its economy. In the old so-called socialist system every door was closed to those who did not have pedigree.

In fact, my parents are particularly proud that I am today able to publish a book in the English language in America and elsewhere in the world when even 15 or 20 years ago people from my kind of impoverished background would never get a chance to publish books.

I got this chance because I had published several books in India but that happened because the economy opened up. In the old system, which had only one or two good publishers in the English language in India, these opportunities were only for people who were well-connected, who went to the elite schools and colleges and came from pedigreed, networked family backgrounds.

I am an example of how India has changed and is still furiously changing - for the better. My argument, therefore, is not that capitalism is the answer. My argument is merely that enterprise and freedom of enterprise solves many problems - though the state still has a vital, vital role to play in delivering justice and enforcing the rule of law so that market greed does not destroy us.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 22

Nov. 22, 1819: Writer George Eliot born.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Q&A with Professor Paul Strohm

Paul Strohm is the author of the new book Chaucer's Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury. His other books include Social Chaucer, England's Empty Throne, and Conscience. He has been the J.R.R. Tolkien Professor of English at Oxford University and Garbedian Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University. He lives in New York and in Oxford, England.

Q: You’ve written about Chaucer before. Why did you decide to return to him in this book?

A: It's a matter of audience. I'm proud of my academic books, but they were written for a rather specialized clientele of Chaucer scholars and their graduate students. 

I wanted to share my enthusiasm for Chaucer with a more inclusive group of readers: people who might have encountered a bit of his poetry in a college survey course or in high school, or even not at all, and would like to learn more. 

This book has some things in it that academic specialists might like to know and I'll welcome them as readers, but it's the intelligent non-specialist that I'm after. 

Q: You write, “In the closing months of 1386 Chaucer experienced a devastating cluster of reversals that has every appearance of defeat. But sometimes the grim particulars of a defeat can create a new opening, a fresh alternative.” What happened to Chaucer during that time, and how did it affect his plans?

A: Almost every bad thing you can think of happened to Chaucer within a period of several months at the end of 1386. He was a member of an increasingly unpopular political faction (supporting king Richard II) and he had a rather tainted job (as a customs inspector in the famously corrupt wool trade). 

In these dark days of 1386 he lost his job, he was ousted from his rent-free London dwelling, he was insulted in Parliament, his wife was dying, and he went into self-imposed exile in sparsely-settled and culturally uncultivated Kent. 

Perhaps most seriously of all, with the move to Kent he lost his London base and, with it, the supportive audience of his earlier poems. Chaucer's entire understanding of poetry was that you wrote it privately, but then you read it aloud to an intensely interactive and--for the most part--appreciative circle.

The word "audience," in Chaucer's English, meant "those within hearing." With the move to Kent, he lost contact with his primary audience. He found the idea of circulating his poetry, in manuscript form to people he didn't even know, very unnerving. 

In difficult circumstances there in Kent, he hit on a brilliant idea: he conceived a poem that would contain its own audience. This would be a portable audience, immune to uprootings and life-changes. Its members were his galaxy of invented Pilgrims. They constantly quarrel about tales because tales are important to them.  Their delightful tales, and their vivid quarrels, live to this day.

Q: You note that there’s a lot more documentation of Chaucer’s life as a civil servant than of his life as a poet. Why was that?

A: Chaucer's official and bureaucratic life is documented in 494 surviving records: official posts he held, gifts and annuities he received, records of Exchequer, and the like. Some of them are quite engaging and revealing, such as the royal mandate of a pitcher of wine a day, to be delivered to him at his place of work on the waterfront. 

But not one single attested life-record refers to him as a poet or concerns his poetry. This is partly because the kinds of records written down and preserved deal mainly with official business; nobody was keeping track of poetry readings, purchases of pens and ink and parchment, and the like. 

But there's another reason too. Throughout most of his career, and certainly well into his middle age, Chaucer's literary activities were occurring under the radar, on his own time and on occasions when he read his verse aloud to small groups of personal friends. 

I'd go so far as to say that, even at the end of his life in 1400, only a few hundred people knew him as a poet, and only a handful knew his poetry well. But, in and around the crucial events of 1386, his attitude toward fame--and especially eventual fame--was beginning to change.

Q: How did his approach to literary fame change after 1386?

A: You can see the first signs of change in 1385-86, when he has just finished his first undeniable masterpiece, his Troilus and Criseide. After a [couple] of decades as a highly skilled amateur, he's beginning to realize that he has something that looks like a literary career on his hands. 

At the end of Troilus he reflects, with considerable agitation, on the idea that it might be copied and circulate in manuscript to people who would read it privately, when he wasn't even around.

Then comes the cataclysm of 1386 and his withdrawal to Kent. The bright underside of this dark period is that he suddenly has plenty of time to write. All the time in the world, but no audience!   He brilliantly addresses this problem by creating his imaginary audience of Canterbury Pilgrims. And he's off and running.    

A number of small signs suggest that he expected his Canterbury Tales to circulate in manuscript, if not during his lifetime then after. Although the tales are not quite complete upon his death in 1400, he takes care that they have a clear beginning and ending, and he includes clear indications of his overall design. 

The final work of assembly rested with others--his favorite scribe and, most likely, his son Thomas as literary executor--and modern scholars still argue about the exact order of the surviving tales. But the design is there. 

Additionally, the tales seem sometimes to suppose an absent reading public. Chaucer says to his readers at one point in his prologue to the "Miller's Tale" that "If you don't like what you're hearing, then turn the page and read another tale." 

Here he reveals the shift of his own expectation from a circle of present hearers to a less defined group of absent readers. Absent readers turning the pages of a manuscript or book, with no Chaucer there to guide their response. Readers like us.

Q: You write that “no audience as varied as Chaucer’s Pilgrims had ever been implied or imagined within a literary work.” How do you think Chaucer was able to create this work?

A: I think this might be a case where he came, through literature, to a fuller view of life.

This is a guess, but he appears to have started with a wish to assemble a varied collection of tales: varied in genre (romances, fables, tales of moral instruction), and in style (from some very formal writing to some notoriously bawdy stuff), a mashup of everything that might be considered "high" and "low." This was itself new, in some respects unprecedented, in world literature. 

And then he imagined and assembled a Pilgrim band just as various (a knight, a plowman, and everything in between: sincere and less sincere religious figures, people of commerce, lowlifes, even a criminal on the run). Dryden said, "Here is God's plenty"--and he was right.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My greatest wish is that those who read my book will then treat themselves to some own Chaucer's own poetry. In fact, they're welcome to put my book down in the middle and go looking. 

For new readers, I recommend "interlinear" translations, which let the reader see Chaucer's own "Middle English" (which isn't nearly as difficult as some fear) in close association with an accompanying Modern English translation, enabling them to go back and forth. 

One good one is available free of charge on a Harvard University-sponsored website.  Just typing "Harvard" and "Chaucer" into a search engine gives a usable prompt.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb