Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and The School of Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2014.
Alison Osworth, on behalf of the The School of Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Vikram Chandra about his book Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, The Code of Beauty (Graywolf), which is among the final five selections, in the category of Criticism, for the 2014 NBCC awards.
Alison Osworth: You cite Ceglowski’s essay Dabblers and Blowhards, as well as a ton of other sources that grant valuable insight into the way a system or culture works and are also problematic. In the case of Dabblers and Blowhards, as you pointed out in Geek Sublime, the essay assumes all programmers are straight men and that “women are (ideally) pants-less.” How do you feel about engaging with sources that are misogynistic or racist? What mental and emotional tools do you use to deal with hurtful material in an intellectually rigorous way?
Vikram Chandra: In A Dangerous Profession, Frederick Busch’s book about the writing life, he pointed out that “Something that is part of the gift is also a compulsion: that we seek the darkness, not the light; that we serve up grindings of glass in blood sauce rather than the Fifth Avenue soufflé most readers want.” His point was that the enormous energy required to write a book comes in large part from obsession, and that we are often obsessed with that which we hate. But systemic discrimination or oppression takes a huge mental toll on everyone who lives within such a system, not just writers. It’s exhausting and debilitating, and it can be – as for women – a lifetime effort. When I look back at my own life, I can see my own development being marked by post-colonial constructions of history, of rationality, of what it means to be human; I remember my twelve-year old dismay on reading a British encyclopaedia’s description of a heroine of the Indian struggle for Independence: “the mad queen of Jhansi.” And just yesterday I read a very fine essay by Ankur Barua titled “Is there ‘Philosophy’ in India?” The fact that Barua still has to write this essay against the notion that the tough- minded project of “pure enquiry” has always existed only in the West indicates, I think, the resilience of the colonial tropes that still construct our mental landscapes in modernity. But there’s no avoiding the confrontation with these models – they are the world we live in. And it’s very hard to remain detached, to address these questions without anger and sorrow.
Busch argues that some degree of self-care is essential for writers; I think I’ve found mine in narrative, in fiction and film. The Tantric philosophers I write about in Geek Sublime thought of aesthetic pleasure as a spiritual exercise. I’m not a very good yogi – not enough mental or physical discipline – but after a day of writing hard about what hurts, a good book and a good movie serve as reviving tonics.
AO: To continue off of that, you also write regarding your work’s reception: “The un- modern half of my book tended to confuse my American writing-program peers. In our workshops, the prevailing aesthetic tended toward minimalism; the models were Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie and Bobbie Ann Mason. The winding tales I brought in were judged, at least initially, to be melodramatic, mystical, exotic and strange.” What moved your compatriots from their initial judgements of your work, and what mental and emotional tools do you use when dealing with bias from your peers? Are they at all similar to the kinds tools you use when dealing with problematic sources—if not, how are they different?
VC: Like every other person who went through an MFA program, I still carry the memories of a couple of bruising workshops. At the time, I found solace in drink and the reassurances of a couple of good friends. When you’re young and haven’t published, that kind of reception can really unbalance you; you start to wonder if you’ve fooled yourself into thinking you have any talent, into believing that you have something interesting to say. I can’t say I had any
sophisticated mental regime to reconstruct myself. I was just compulsive about writing, and very very stubborn. Also, I had the incredible luck of finding two teachers – John Barth and Donald Barthelme – who were generous and responsive to the work from the first encounter on. And a little bit of faith from two people like that can carry you a long way. So I just kept working, and my peers – many of them, anyway – finally came around when they began to understand the internal logic of the novel I was writing, and of the form of this novel. Literary norms, like any other system of culture, have their own internal consistency, and axioms which the tradition builds on. So if you’re reading across cultures, you have to learn the language of the foreign genre, as it were. I had to do this when I began reading American novels. The trouble, of course, is that some people seem to be convinced that literary quality exists in some objective, culture-free space, so that some conventions get typed as “universal.”
AO: The scope of this piece is massive—I guess my big, true earnest question about that is: how does one keep from getting scared by the sheer amount of heads on the hydra when starting something this giant? How did you begin to work on Geek Sublime?
VC: I started Geek Sublime thinking I was writing a short, glossy-magazine essay, a quick ethnography of programmers. In thinking about where to begin, it occurred to me that the concern of programmers for the beauty of language was something that was not very well known outside of the industry. This, of course, led directly to thinking about the “hackers are artists” claim that programmers make, and that led to an exponential explosion of concerns. So soon I was thinking about the formal-language aspects of Sanskrit, and how ninth-century Indian literary theorists thought about beauty. Finding a form to hold all these ideas together was really hard and quite satisfying. I should say that this process of starting from a seemingly simple seed and then finding a branching growth is usually what happens for me with fiction as well. In fiction, though, I can follow the characters to figure out the architecture of the book. Story grows from their individual plots. In non-fiction, I felt I was floating about in some very abstracted, conceptual space. It felt very freeing, and also terrifying.
AO: Even though you call into question and problematize the link between writing creatively and writing code, you cite so many examples in nerd culture at large of the parallel being drawn. Given the relationship in popular thought between coding and writing poetry or fiction, what do you make of the recent push for everyone to learn to code?
VC: What code incarnates and makes real is the age-old intuition that language can directly cause material change in the real world – therefore magic spells, incantations, secret words, and so on. This is really strong in Indian culture and metaphysics: the universe itself is created by the dynamic generativity of language, the universe is language. So code makes this massive linguistic power available to mere mortals. When you talk to Siri, you set machines in motion. We live now in a world permeated with machinery, and so I think some version of coding will inevitably become part of basic cultural literacy. My six-year old daughter is learning about computers as she learns mathematics and writing, and I think this is quite necessary. Of course this doesn’t mean that she will become a “programmer” in the specialized sense, but I’d be happy if future software platforms allowed her to use language to manipulate her environment, if only to upload pictures to her web site. Right now, I think programming is still too hard to be generally available. There’s a vast amount of ceremony you have to go through just to do the most basic things, a half-dozen pieces you have to assemble on your computer to get started. It’s an interesting and complex software problem, and I do know of some efforts to make the power of code and algorithmic thinking more democratically available. Someone’s inevitably going to do it, but it’s going to be hard.
AO: You write quite a bit about the masculinity of coding. A few passages that stood out to me included:
“Not to put too fine a point on it: these guys were assholes. Preeminence among programmers was often decided by competitions of assholery, a kind of ritual jousting. This unfortunate condition has only intensified over the decades.”
“So if there are no women in programming, it is because they don’t or can’t code, because they are not interested in the craft. The world of programming is as it should be, as it has to be. One of the hallmarks of a cultural system that is predominant is that it succeeds, to some degree, in making itself invisible, or at least presenting itself as the inevitable outcome of environmental processes that exist outside the realm of culture, within nature. The absence of women in the industry is thus often seen as a hard “scientific” reality rooted in biology, never mind that the very first algorithm designed for execution by a machine was created by Lady Ada Byron, never mind Grace Hopper’s creation of the first compiler, and never mind that the culture of the industry may be foreign or actively hostile to women.”
Being plugged into nerd and tech culture when one is anything other than a straight white man can sometimes be a bit painful — how have you been engaging with #GamerGate, or how have you been avoiding it? Do you have any thoughts on the matter? How is this craziness reflective of the history of masculinity in technology as you explained it in Geek Sublime?
VC: #GamerGate is fascinating. I was struck especially by the rhetoric of proprietorship and military defence used by the gamers: their gaming universe was being invaded by Social Justice Warriors, etc., etc. So the language itself frames the controversy in terms of war and masculinity, and demonstrates also the fragility of these constructions of masculinity. As always, the bluster about integrity (read “honour”) hides a pervasive fear that masculinity is being threatened. Here, the threat of un-manning comes directly from women and their words, so it is terrifying and requires an extraordinary response. The entire episode is going to be endlessly mined by future historians and sociologists when they write about the travails of industrialized masculinity in the twenty-first century.
Vikram Chandra is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, Sacred Games (2007), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. His first novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995), won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book and the David Higham Prize for Fiction. His collection of short stories, Love and Longing in Bombay (1997), won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book (Eurasia Region) and was a New York Times Notable Book. He lives in Oakland, California and teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.
Ali Osworth is earning her MFA in Fiction from The New School. She’s also the Geekery Editor of Autostraddle, The Deputy Editor for The Inquisitive Eater and Co-Founder of qu.ee/r Magazine. She’s writing a novel about violent masculinity in the technology industry. Keep up with her on Twitter @AEOsworth.