I was on the subway, watching a teenager text on his smartphone, when I realized that the idiom “all thumbs” might be doomed. I’ve had any number of such moments — what some people would call “ah-ha” moments — on the subway lately. A day or so before the “all thumbs” revelation, I was reminded once again that I am what used to be called “getting on in years”: I was standing in a crowded car when my eye happened to catch the eye of an attractive young woman who was seated in front of me. She smiled. I smiled. I was on my way to thinking that maybe she had me confused with George Clooney — a mix-up that, I’ll admit, does not occur on a regular basis. Then she smiled again, and offered me her seat.
After a blurry couple of days, I awoke on New Year’s Eve and felt back to myself again. It was too late to make my evening plans in New York; I discovered that ﬂights were far too expensive, but train tickets for midnight that night were available and reasonably priced. Many people would ﬁnd the prospect of spending a holiday on a train unappealing, but I am a glutton for awkward experiences. Therefore, instantly convinced that New Year’s Eve on a train would be a night to remember, I insisted on heading back to New York that night, by train. Why, I couldn’t wait to see all those strangers on Amtrak, whooping it up in the aisles, shaking their stuﬀ in the café car, to welcome 2013. Perhaps some passengers would kiss one another. What a strange situation, I thought: to be in motion, barreling through the night, while arriving into a new year.
Not all rejections have to be cold and calculated and automated. “I really enjoy the style and voice of this essay,” one rejection letter reads, the opening line throwing me off from the norm, “but it’s not really grabbing at me. It’s really just my subjective taste and someone else probably feels differently. Good luck with your writing endeavors.” Another begins more to the point, “Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider your work. The piece has much merit but is not exactly what we are looking for at this moment. We wish you the best with your writing.” Funny how the emails which took someone time to compose, the emails writers always complain they wish they got more of, scald the worse.
But questions must be asked: What constitutes someone being “grabbed” in their attention? What is the editor’s “subjective tastes” that bar them from not liking a piece enough? Who is this “us” and “we” who are not looking for a piece at the moment?
One might say that all this good behavior was only phony civility. Perhaps. But I believe in superficial courtesy too. I believe that sometimes, even a charade has the potential to become genuine. I will pretend to trust you and you will pretend to trust me, and we will keep on pretending until it becomes true. We will be able to say “What nice people” and they will be able to say “What nice people,” whether or not we truly believe what we are saying.
This is a story about a man, a dog, a color and the name they share. Hang on. We’ll get there.
Just like pizza or bagels, coffee is a spectrum. There is no “best bagel” or “best pizza” or “best coffee” because there are so many ways to make them, so many styles and executions. Okay, you think, so there are different categories: Neapolitan pizza, Domino’s (hell yeah), single origin peaberry, Dunkin…Can’t there be a best in each sub-category? What if I just prefer watery cart coffee because it’s comforting? That is somewhat the function of De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum: to each his own—a choice, a preference. You pick yours, I pick mine. We may disagree on the methods of preparation and the quality of the ingredients therein, but ultimately your personal, subjective favorite that you like to label the “best” comes down to an alchemy of factors, including your family history, your net worth, and whether your were breastfed (just kidding!!!!).
“The Fact in Fiction” offers the best of Mary McCarthy: her considered criticism of writers, her careful taxonomies, her bold and withering condemnations, and her impeccable, almost fastidious sentences. These were the qualities that made her one of the most respected—and feared—critics of her generation. They also reveal what she valued in fiction, both in what she read and what she wrote. Verisimilitude was paramount. Depicting a social world was more valuable than rendering a subjective consciousness, unless that consciousness was itself given to observations about the social world. A novelist could entertain, she could illuminate, but she must never swerve from the world as it is experienced. “Factuality,” her word for a precise and honest accounting of the observable world, was both McCarthy’s literary standard and her lodestar.
In earlier centuries curious men and women – knowledge-seekers, freethinkers, people who took “nobody’s word for it” – might pay for their curiosity with their lives; in some countries today they still do.