Many Revisions

I’ve been revising things lately.

My new editor at Tor got back to me about A Young Man Without Magic a couple of weeks ago, with suggestions for revisions he wanted. I’ve now completed those, and the book’s accepted and tentatively scheduled for November 2009.

With that done, I’m working on the sequel, Above His Proper Station. The first draft is finished, so I’ve been revising. I’m up to Chapter Five in the second draft.

FoxAcre Press is going to be reprinting two old science fiction novels I wrote for Avon back in the 1980s, and you wouldn’t think I’d be doing any revisions on reprints, but in fact the publisher suggested a few changes, so I’ve revised Among the Powers (formerly entitled Denner’s Wreck), and just today I revised Shining Steel.

I’m serializing Realms of Light (the sequel to Nightside City), and readers have caught a couple of mistakes in the first two chapters, so I corrected those. I don’t suppose that really counts as “revisions,” though.

While waiting to hear back about A Young Man Without Magic I finished the first draft of an unsold (and probably unsellable) science-fantasy novel called Vika’s Avenger, and I started revising that before deciding it was a waste of time.

So — lots of revising. Not a lot of writing from scratch.

Waiting for the Other Shoe…

No, I don’t mean the election, despite the date — if I decide I need to say something about that I’ll probably put it in my LiveJournal. This is about what I’m doing while I wait for word from my editor.

I delivered A Young Man Without Magic to Brian Thomsen, my editor at Tor, in September. Then I worked on the sequel for awhile; I was pretty confident that Brian would be pleased with it, since he’d recommended I write the series in the first place (as opposed to the more traditional fantasy, The Dragon’s Price, which I’d come up with at roughly the same time). Brian was the guy who talked Tor into a two-book deal for the series. He’d read the proposal, which included a hundred pages of the novel. He knew what he was getting. So I was working on the sequel.

Then on September 22, Brian dropped dead of a heart attack. Which sucked in many, many ways, as Brian was a very good guy, but one of the minor results was that it meant I got a new editor.

And the new editor, while by all accounts a nice guy and a good editor, had not read the proposal. He had not read the books that were my inspiration. He had never discussed anything with me. I have no idea at all what he’s going to think of the novel. My agent assumes it’ll all be fine, because after all I’m an established professional with a thirty-year track record, but my agent hasn’t read the novel yet and hasn’t really worked with the new editor much.

I’m not so sure. A Young Man Without Magic is not my usual stuff.

So I found myself unable to concentrate on the sequel. What if he wants major revisions on the first book that would affect the plot of the second?

So I’ve put aside Above His Proper Station until such time as I hear back from Ye Editor. Which I had hoped would be by now, but so far, not a word.

Instead I’m working on other stuff. Of which I have a surfeit; I have literally hundreds of unfinished stories lying around. I added a few pages to The Dragon’s Price. I finished a chapter of Realms of Light, the sequel to Nightside City that I plan to write as an online serial in the not-too-distant future.

Mostly, though, I decided I should finish Vika’s Avenger, a science-fantasy story I’ve had lying around for a couple of years. It was the closest to being complete of anything handy. Wrapping it up will decrease the backlog a little. It’s a sort of detective story. Sort of. But it’s set in a half-deserted city on another planet, thousands of years in the future.

So I’ve been working on that lately, and it’s been coming along, until a couple of nights ago when I ran into massive plot problems because my planned ending isn’t turning out the way I wanted it to. The characters have refused to cooperate, and they’re right to do so — my original plan really didn’t make as much sense as I thought.


But once I get past this next scene, it’s all just wrap-up, and I’ll have a complete first draft, probably 75,000-80,000 words. Now, if I can just figure out how to make it happen…

A Farewell to Helix

The tenth and final issue of Helix is now open to the public; check it out. Half a dozen of our usual fine stories, along with valedictory columns by the usual folks, and an assortment of poetry.

I have a story of my own in this issue, entitled “Jim Tuckerman’s Angel.”

And please remember, even though this is the final issue, we still want to pay the authors as much as possible, so please donate if you can.

A Story for Another Time

So what am I working on these days, and why?

Return with me now on the wings of memory to those dim, forgotten days of the 1990s, when I had but recently left my original home in the ferocious world of publishing, Del Rey Books, to take refuge at Tor. (The previous post explains much of why I made that move.)

When I first arrived at Tor it was with a Big Fat Fantasy novel called Touched By the Gods, which I had planned out originally with the idea of selling it to Del Rey, and which Del Rey had summarily rejected, not because there was anything wrong with the idea, but because I wanted a larger advance than they were willing to pay. To the best of my knowledge the people who decided against buying it hadn’t even read the proposal; they were focused entirely on the money.

The fine folks at Tor had no such qualms — at least, not immediately, though they have, since then, whittled down my advances, little by little. Which is annoying but not unforgivable, since in fact I’ve never yet earned out an advance the size of the one I got for Touched By the Gods. They bought the book, and published it, and that was good, but it left me (and them) with the obvious question, “Okay, now what?”

My intention at Del Rey had been to write another Ethshar novel next, and while bringing the series to Tor was definitely in my plans, and obviously we later managed it briefly, it was too soon. I needed another novel to establish myself first.

I had this idea I’d been mulling over, compiled from several sources, that I thought would do, so I wrote that. The title was Dragon Weather.

That worked just fine. I thought it was a very successful novel, both artistically and financially. It was not, however, especially original as far as the plot went — as many people (including me) pointed out, I’d swiped a lot of the story from Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

I was hardly the first to swipe from Dumas. Alfred Bester had swiped a lot of the exact same stuff I did for The Stars My Destination, and Steven Brust lifted much of the plot of The Three Musketeers and its sequels for his series that began with The Phoenix Guards. Hey, why not? These are great stories, long since out of copyright and become part of the general culture; some stories (King Arthur, Robin Hood, etc.) get recycled over and over and over.

Anyway, I wrote Dragon Weather and its two sequels, alternating with two Ethshar novels, and when those were done I wrote the Annals of the Chosen, which was a sort of deconstruction of the whole “plucky band of heroes defeats the Dark Lord” idea.

Usually I like to have at least two projects going at once, to keep myself fresh; that was why I alternated SF and fantasy back in the 1980s, and why I alternated Ethshar and the Obsidian Chronicles at Tor. The Annals of the Chosen didn’t alternate with anything, though, because Tor balked — they prefer, for sound marketing reasons, to have each series appear without interruption. I came up with side-projects, such as online serials and The Turtle Moves!, to break up the workload on the Annals of the Chosen, but it was a slog.

For one thing, I’d discovered that the Annals weren’t fun to write. The setting turned out to not be a congenial one for me to work in. I don’t really know why; it just wasn’t. When I’d thought it up it sounded like fun, but it wasn’t. That meant the whole series took much longer to write than it should have, because I faced each day’s work with dread rather than anticipation, and was all too eager to knock off rather than writing just one more page.

So when I finished The Summer Palace, and once again was faced with the “What next?” question, I was determined to write something that was fun to write. Ethshar is fun, but Tor wouldn’t take any more Ethshar stories. So, I asked myself, what else had been fun to write?

Dragon Weather. Dragon Weather had been a joy to write. I loved working on it.

I wasn’t about to go back and extend the series, though; as far as I was concerned, that story was finished. Yeah, I’ve had readers ask for a sequel, but I believe in the adage “Always leave ’em wanting more.” I’d plotted a prequel, Lord Dragon, about how Enziet became what we see in Dragon Weather, but prequels are very tricky, as you need to be extremely careful not to contradict anything in the already-written stories, and it would be a pretty downbeat story, so I didn’t think it was the fun I was looking for. No, I wanted something new.

So what had made Dragon Weather fun?

Well, the slightly old-fashioned style was a kick to write. Having stolen a tried-and-true plot had eliminated a lot of my usual worries, even if I did eventually diverge drastically from Dumas’ original storyline. It was a swashbuckler, and I like swashbucklers.

So maybe I should write another swashbuckler. Maybe I could even swipe a plot from some other classic swashbuckler.

I was mulling that over, but hadn’t really settled on anything, when someone gave me a DVD of the Leslie Howard/Merle Oberon version of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

There was a plot worth swiping!

But the thing is, there’s so much implied background to the story. You need to know the basics of the French Revolution to understand what’s going on, because the narrative never bothers to explain them.

And speaking of the French Revolution, that was background for The Count of Monte Cristo, too, though much less so. And it’s also the background for Sabatini’s Scaramouche, and for the Horatio Hornblower stories (another oft-imitated series I was tempted to swipe). In fact, most of the classic swashbucklers, unsurprisingly, draw on major events in European history.

I don’t want to write historicals. Too much research. Besides, I’m a fantasy writer; I want to use wizards and dragons and magic. But maybe, I thought, I could come up with a setting where I could fit all these classic plots and make them my own. I could put them all into a single series, that could run forever without running out of material. In fact, I could take some of the other plots and projects I had lying around unfinished, and tie them in, too.

What were key events in European history that I wanted to use, and what could I dump? Well, you need the fall of Rome, and the French Revolution, and the expansion of the British Empire, and the Age of Exploration, but you don’t need all that medieval stuff — that’s already been done to death in fantasy. You don’t need Scandinavia at all, or Greece, or Christianity. Oh, sure, they’re hugely important in European history, but I don’t need them for the stories I want to tell.

And I came up with the Good Parts Version of Europe and European history, which, when I was done, really didn’t look much like Europe at all. My Old Empire had its capital in Paris (now called Lume), not in Rome, and was ruled by wizards; it fell in six months, rather than over a period of centuries. The Iberian peninsula is gone entirely; if I need Spain or Portugal later I’ll improvise something. The English Channel became a stony desert inhabited by dragons. The moon is gone. No religious wars as such; the near-universal religion involves a god and goddess and ancestor worship, though there are lots of odd cults kicking around.

The French Revolution is now the Fall of the Sorcerers, when the magicians who rule the Walasian Empire are overthrown.

And I have dozens of stories I want to tell set in the Bound Lands, as my Western Europe analogue is called. I’m not going to follow chronological order for the entire thing, but I’m starting with the Fall of the Sorcerers, and I do want to keep that in chronological order, which means I can’t start with The Scarlet Pimpernel, since that begins with the Terror in full swing. Before I get to that I need to cover the Fall of the Bastille (now the destruction of the Pensioners’ Quarter), and a lot of other stuff. In fact, even the destruction of the Pensioners’ Quarter wound up in the second volume, Above His Proper Station.

Where did I start? Well, A Young Man Without Magic is dedicated to Rafael Sabatini; that’s a clue.

I’m not slavishly following any of the plots I’m swiping; they all twist and mutate as I play with them, and Walasia is very definitely not France. (And if you’ve read Scaramouche, you know there’s a really central plot point that, if I used it, would have people saying I was swiping Star Wars. So I dropped that entirely, and that changes the whole story.)

The feel of the series, though, is still modeled on swashbucklers — Dumas, Sabatini, Orczy, and a thousand obscure pulp authors.

So that’s what I’m doing. I hope readers will have as much fun reading these as I’m having writing them.

Everything but the Kitchen Sink

I’ve just delivered A Young Man Without Magic to my agent, so before I get busy with something else let me write my promised account of how the “Worlds of Shadow” series came about.

When I started writing for publication my ambitions were relatively modest; I just wanted to tell entertaining stories and make money doing so. While the cliché at the time was that every fantasy writer was imitating Tolkien, my primary models in fantasy were Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber Jr., Michael Moorcock, and L. Sprague de Camp. I wasn’t trying to write epics; I thought of myself as writing sword & sorcery.

I made the mistake of saying that once in front of Lester del Rey, who informed me in no uncertain terms that my work was not sword & sorcery, because Del Rey Books did not publish sword & sorcery.

Could’ve fooled me.

Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey had very definite ideas of what Del Rey wanted from their authors. Sometimes this caused a lot of friction with their authors; Tim Powers left Del Rey and went to Ace because what he wanted to write wasn’t what Lester wanted him to write, Phyllis Eisenstein went into a multi-year stretch of writer’s block after Lester got nasty about her plans for a sequel to Sorcerer’s Son, and Lester and Stephen Donaldson were constantly feuding, to the point Judy-Lynn hired an assistant editor whose primary function at Del Rey was to keep between them and prevent Lester from driving cash-cow Donaldson to another publisher.

Back then I generally got along with them just fine, though; the stuff I wanted to write was more or less what they wanted to publish.

However, Judy-Lynn started telling me somewhere around 1982 that I really ought to write a Big Fat Fantasy (her term, and the first place I heard it), something that had bestseller potential. So I started thinking about that, off and on.

Those were busy years, though; I was writing more than a novel a year, our daughter was born in 1983, we’d bought a small farm I was running and an unfinished house I finished, and I didn’t have a whole lot of time to devote to a big project. I got as far as plotting a novel called The Gates of Faerie, which I still haven’t written and probably never will; I had a proposal almost ready to submit in the autumn of 1985 when Judy-Lynn had a stroke and went into a coma. She died early in 1986.

That took the wind out of my sails on The Gates of Faerie. It had been targeted at Judy-Lynn, and she was gone. I never finished writing up the sample chapter for the proposal. Bits from the story have turned up in various works since, but the original project died with Judy-Lynn.

The idea of writing a Big Fat Fantasy, though, lingered. It would have to be aimed at Lester, and his tastes were a little different.

And then one day I was reading Locus, being annoyed that they never seemed to review my work, and I read a review of a Barbara Hambly novel (I forget which) that called it “another war against the dark,” and then went on to be a very favorable review indeed.

“They want a war against the dark, I’ll give them a war against the dark,” I said. “That can be my Big Fat fantasy.”

In fact, I told myself, if they want clichés, I’ll give them clichés. I’ll put every over-worked trope I can think of into a single story, but I’ll make them all new by treating them realistically, instead of the ways they’ve usually been treated.

I started collecting clichés — exiled princes, space pirates, elves, zombies, galactic empires, slave auctions, dark lords — and assembling them into a single story, which I called (of course) The War Against the Dark.

It was pretty dark and nasty. In the real world pirates are vicious thugs, people who try to overthrow tyrants mostly die without accomplishing anything, slavery is brutal and unromantic, and that’s how I was going to treat all this stuff. There would be humor, but it would be black humor. The idea was to present all these old clichés and show just how absurd they were.

Meanwhile, things at Del Rey were getting weird. With Judy-Lynn gone there was no one who could get Lester to meet deadlines, delegate duties, or prioritize his workload. Getting a proposal accepted could take as much as two years, as I discovered with The Spell of the Black Dagger. I wrote every word of Taking Flight while waiting for Lester to get around to reading a twenty-page (double-spaced) proposal for The Spell of the Black Dagger.

Lester was absolute ruler of fantasy at Del Rey; Judy-Lynn had run the SF program and everything else other than fantasy. The War Against the Dark had originally been planned as a fantasy, with the SF elements downplayed, but after the absurd delay on Dagger my agent and I decided to shift the emphasis, play up the cross-genre nature, and sell it to Owen Lock, who had Judy-Lynn’s old job as publisher and SF editor, because Owen could be expected to reply in a couple of months, instead of years.

Sure enough, Owen looked over the proposal promptly, and he and my agent started negotiating — and things got weird again. We’d set a minimum advance we wanted, and Owen had said he wouldn’t pay it, so it looked as if we were going to pick up our marbles, leave Del Rey, and talk to Bantam. (Given what happened to Bantam’s SF/fantasy line a couple of years later, I’m really glad that didn’t happen.) Owen didn’t want that, and broke the impasse in a creative (and in retrospect, downright stupid) way.

He offered three times what we’d asked if I would turn the project from one Big Fat Book into a trilogy.

That is, he wouldn’t pay X for one novel, but he would pay 3X for three. This would mean my very first (and so far, last) six-figure advance, and in theory it would mean Del Rey would have to put some push behind the book. It might well be the break-out project Judy-Lynn had talked about back in 1982.

When my agent told me that on the phone I was kind of stunned. That much money? But turn it into a trilogy? How? It was supposed to be one Big Fat Book.

So I started thinking about it, and concluded it could be done, so I agreed, and we signed the contracts.

What I did was to split the original story in half, as Out of This World and In the Empire of Shadow. I’d intended to have an epilogue, maybe 3,000-5,000 words, that would wrap up loose ends, and that wound up as the basis for The Reign of the Brown Magician, though obviously I added a lot more plot and stuff. I started writing.

I’m really not sure just how carefully Owen Lock had read the proposal; it was only well after the deal was made that he seemed to realize the story could be treated as fantasy, rather than SF. (Pretty dark fantasy, at that.)

While I was writing, Del Rey was changing. Lester was eased out, and then died. Owen Lock moved up the corporate ladder out of editorial. There was a shake-up of the editorial department, and my favorite editor in the entire world, who I’d been working with for years, Deborah Hogan, left the company. (Lester had been the acquiring editor, but Deborah was my line editor, doing the detail work, since about 1985.) Deborah was there long enough to accept Out of This World, but she was gone well before the second book was finished; in fact, there was no longer anyone at Del Rey who had read the original proposal and understood just how dark the series was meant to be.

So the first book was packaged as something relatively light, with a bright cover and a quote on the back about whether a flying car looks more like a Buick or an Oldsmobile. Horribly misleading. I think that the people responsible thought the other two volumes would cheer things up and lead to a traditional happy ending.

And while it was published as a hardcover, it was not the lead hardcover — Owen Lock, a huge fan of alternate history, had instead decided to put the entire promotional budget for the month behind the first volume of Harry Turtledove’s WorldWar series.

Sales, to be blunt, sucked. And I got hate mail from readers who had expected a light fluffy read and instead got grief and pain and despair.

So the second volume was published in trade paperback, instead of hardcover, and sold even worse, because who’s going to buy the middle book of a trilogy in a format the first volume was never in?

The third volume was then delayed so long that the contracts had to be amended, and eventually appeared only in mass-market paperback.

By that time I had left Del Rey and gone to Tor. Judy-Lynn and Lester and Deborah were all gone; there was no one at Del Rey I cared about, and no one at Del Rey who cared about me. I think the guy who “edited” In the Empire of Shadow was already gone, as well — in fact, I don’t even remember who edited The Reign of the Brown Magician. Probably the same guy, but I’m not sure. He was a nice guy, but in my opinion a lousy editor, which is why I’m not naming him.

And my sales hadn’t been good enough to keep Del Rey collectively interested in keeping me around — not at the price they’d paid per volume for the “Three Worlds” trilogy (as it was then known), anyway. When we asked the same price for Touched by the Gods, they didn’t negotiate, they just said no.

So I left, and got that advance from Tor, instead.

I’m much happier at Tor than I ever was at Del Rey after Judy-Lynn’s death.

Anyway, I think “Worlds of Shadow” is a good story, and I’m very proud of it, but when Wildside reprinted it, I made sure they packaged it dark, almost like horror, because that’s what it is. Del Rey mishandled it horribly, in my opinion. They never really looked at it to see what it was they’d bought.

If it had been marketed differently, I still think it might’ve been a hit.

This ‘n’ that

Yes, I know I’ve shamefully neglected this blog.

Although it’s very unlikely, it’s possible someone may notice I no longer allow comments to be added on certain old entries.  That’s because these entries seem to be particularly prone to getting spam; not allowing comments on them at all saves me the trouble of clicking the “spam” button on the moderation page every day or two.  Entries where I think actual further discussion might someday occur, or that have never been hit with comment spam, still allow comments and probably always will.

If you’ve never commented here before, your comment will be moderated.  If it’s not spam or obvious trollage it’ll be approved, usually within twenty-four hours.

I have a novel due on September 15.  I might actually make the deadline.  I’m hoping that once it’s turned in I’ll have more time to devote to stuff like blogs.

Is there anything anyone would particularly like me to post about?

Conventional Wisdom

Okay, I’m going to Denvention 3, the World Science Fiction Convention, this summer. I just got my first-pass programming schedule.

I don’t like two-thirds of it. I’ve asked to be removed from one item, and queried others. In fact, the remaining third is stuff that’s sort of mandatory — there is nothing on here that I actually think sounds interesting, new, fun, or particularly relevant to me in particular.

I get the distinct impression that the programming people have no idea who I am, beyond what I said on their questionnaire back in March. Which is fine; no one can keep track of every author out there. It’s a bit frustrating, though. I don’t know where they need warm bodies; they don’t know where I’d fit well. This could mean much muddling around to reach a solution that’s only marginally acceptable.

So it occurs to me to ask my friends, here and elsewhere — what Worldcon panels or other program items would you like to see me on? What topics would you want to hear me discuss? What areas do you think I’m unusually knowledgeable in?

Help me out here!

The Class Project 7: Playing by the Rules

What everything I’ve said up to this point comes down to is that different classes play by different rules, and a good deal of class conflict, and interpersonal conflict, results from this.  Members of one class will look at another and brand them either losers or cheats.

The middle class looks at the working class and considers them losers because they have less money.  The working class looks at the middle class and considers them losers because they’re so obsessed with money.  The lower class looks at the working class and considers them losers because they’re so risk-averse, tied down to jobs and family.

A lot of people misjudge class conflicts because they fail to recognize this difference in rules.  Marxists often assume that the working class must and should hate the upper classes because the upper classes have an unfair share of the world’s wealth, but this simply demonstrates that such Marxists are middle class in their attitudes — neither the working class nor the upper class considers money to be the most important thing going.  A lot of working class folks are perfectly happy letting someone else have all the money and power as long as they use it well and treat people with respect.  We are, as I said, hierarchical animals, and not everyone feels any great need to be at the top of the hierarchy.  There’s no need to squash the pyramid into a plane; people like feeling there’s a structure and that they fit into it.

Of course, you can go too far the other way, telling people they should know, and stay in, their place.  The problem there is that you don’t get to decide someone else’s proper place.  People find their own place, through a combination of choice and circumstance.  If someone rises above his station, well, good for him!

If someone plays by different rules than yours, that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

So when that keeping-up-with-the-Joneses suburbanite with thirty grand in credit-card debt looks at the working class folks in their little old house with the hand-me-down furniture and considers them losers, he’s wrong.  They aren’t losing at his game; they aren’t playing his game.  They’re playing a game where he would be a loser.

Sometimes people can switch from one game to another; people do move from one class to another, and I don’t just mean making more or less money.  Ambitious lower-class or working-class folks may move into the middle class and start using money to keep score — and burned-out middle-class folks may drop out of the rat race and find a slower-paced job where they’re more concerned with self-respect and a sense of accomplishment than with money.  Class isn’t inborn, it isn’t destiny, and it isn’t just money.  It’s attitude, belief, and the rules by which you determine your status and decide whether you’re a success or a failure.  Most people learn those from their families while they’re growing up, and never fundamentally change.  Others rebel against their upbringing, with varying degrees of success.

And that, except for a footnote about race and ethnicity, is pretty much everything I have to say on the subject.

As for that footnote — certain groups are disproportionately represented in certain classes.  The lower classes in the U.S. come in all colors, but are disproportionately black and Hispanic.  This has often resulted in a confusion between class prejudice and racial prejudice.  If you ask me, this has muddied the picture horribly, and trying to sort it all out is far beyond anything I want to tackle in a blog.  If you, dear readers, want to discuss it among yourselves, feel free, but I don’t think I have much to say on the subject.

The Class Project 6: The Status Civilization


Human beings are apes.  We’re social animals, prone to creating hierarchies.  We do this a lot, and we have several ways of looking at it.  We have formal and informal structures and terminologies; we talk about rank, pecking order, social position, alpha males, dominant and submissive, corporate pyramids, and on and on.  There seems to be a desire to keep it all simple, to reduce everything to, “I’m at THIS LEVEL, and she’s above me, and he’s below me, and I want to move up.”

Except that it isn’t really simple at all.  We don’t each have a single level.  Even in formal hierarchic structures like the military, there may be complications.  My father was a TSgt in the U.S. Army during World War II — that’s “Technical Sergeant,” and I suspect that would be some sort of Specialist in modern terminology — which theoretically meant that he had to obey the orders of any commissioned officer in the chain of command, except where those orders conflicted with other orders.  In practice, it didn’t work that way, and more than once he found himself giving orders to a full colonel and expecting them to be obeyed, with the full weight of Army regulations saying they had to be obeyed.  Humans specialize, and that conflicts with simple hierarchies.  In a life-or-death situation, a doctor gives orders; in cosmetic surgery, the patient does.

But we still want to know where we rank in our hierarchies.  We want to define our status.

There are lots of ways to measure status:  money, education, birth, occupation, manners, formal rank, popularity, accomplishments, awards, accolades, appearance.  In relatively primitive societies these tend to bunch up — the right birth gives you rank and access to education, bestows wealth, keeps you well fed so that your appearance isn’t marred by malnutrition or disease, gives you the time and training to learn formal manners, etc.  In modern society this is less true — not gone, certainly, but less definite.

This is the change that led some folks to proclaim the U.S. a classless society — we no longer had all these status markers concentrated in one small group at the top of a social pyramid.  Instead they’re strewn about all over the place.  It’s very confusing.

Some people, when considering the issue of class, simply choose one scale of status markers and use that to define class — wealth and birth are the most common ones, I’d guess, though occupation and education are in there.

I don’t think that works.  Remember, I’ve said before that I think class is defined more by attitudes than anything else, and those attitudes are influenced by all these factors, but not determined entirely by any of them.

The attitudes themselves don’t work well as status markers because they’re not immediately obvious enough, by the way, but I think they do influence how people respond to you and perceive your status.

And how do the members of various classes look at the various status indicators?  Well, that’s where this series of essays bogged down when I first wrote it, six or seven years ago, but let’s take a look.

For the lower class, it seems to me that the major status markers are clothes, style, and success with the opposite sex.   If a man’s got it goin’ on, got the threads and the looks and the ladies, then he’s a success, even if he can’t hold a job or pay his rent.  Being seen as dangerous, as someone people don’t mess with, is also a plus.

For the working class, I’m not sure.  For some people it seems to be a matter of character, of playing by the rules — if you’re seen as a solid citizen, a good spouse, a good parent, a good worker, someone who does his duty, then you’re respected and recognized as having high status, but is that it?

For the middle class, it’s money.  Money is how you keep score, and you show how well you’re doing by buying expensive stuff.  You buy the biggest house you can, in the best neighborhood you can, to show how well you’re doing, how you’re climbing up the status ladder.

For the professional class, it’s education and peer recognition of professional success — which is often reflected in money, but not always.  For the professoriate, publications are as important as pay.  Degrees count — if you have a doctorate, you’re higher status than someone with a mere master’s.  For a lawyer, the prestige of your firm is a marker, and you can collect status points by handling high-profile cases.  Addressing the Supreme Court bestows more status upon you than a mere raise in pay.  Awards and honors, speaking engagements — these are all ways to count coup.

And for the upper class — well, you get to choose.  You’re already in the top bracket, just by being who you are, and you can decide how you want to compete — or if you want to compete.   Some people do it with family connections, some by going into politics or philanthropy, etc.

Me, I decided to write.

The Class Project 5: Mine!

Possessions.  Property.  Things.

This is actually the subject that first led me to believe that my attitudes are not middle class, but upper class.

It’s also a category where upper-class attitudes that have functioned well for centuries sometimes run into problems nowadays.

I believe that one’s class — mental class, not current economic situation — strongly affects what you buy, what you keep, how you treat it.  This is hardly news.  What I find interesting, though, is just how perverse some of the attitudes are.

Specifically, the lower class tends to buy what they want, rather than what they need, and to do so on availability, rather than quality or price.  Nutritionists and social workers often bemoan this, and attribute it to ignorance.

I’m not sure it is ignorance; I’m not sure just what’s going on, but it seems as if it’s not a lack of knowledge so much as a lack of belief.  If you want a Big Mac now, maybe you know that it’d be healthier and cheaper in the long run to buy some groceries and make something at home, but damn, you’ve got five bucks in your pocket and here’s Mickey D’s and it’s not like saving a buck is ever going to matter, or like being healthy is important, because you know that you’ll never save enough to matter, it’ll all get ripped off somehow, and your health isn’t important because you can’t afford a doctor and someday you’re going to catch a stray bullet or some stupid virus or some toxic chemical from the scrapheap you live in anyway, and it won’t matter if you’ve taken care of your heart or your colon.  So you buy the Big Mac and live for the present.

If you ever have money, you want to show it off, so you buy something trendy and expensive.    You buy what you want while you can.

The working class, on the other hand, understands savings, and will buy cheap.  Clipping coupons and hitting the weekly sales at K-Mart, stocking up on bargains, etc.  You buy when the price is right.

The middle class buys what it can afford.  “The one who dies with the most toys wins.”  Possessions confer status.  A car is a statement of who you are, your personal style and your current level of wealth.  You replace things when better ones become available — new-model cars, software upgrades, etc.

The upper class buys quality, and keeps it.  Price is irrelevant.

This was the point I tripped over sometimes as a kid.  Friends would notice something odd about our household and comment on it — for example, that we ate all our meals with antique sterling silver flatware.  We would shrug; it’s what we’d always done.

“But this stuff is worth money!  You could sell it to an antique dealer for hundreds of dollars!”

Yeah, but then we’d have to buy new flatware; what’s the point?  We don’t need the money right now, and we do need forks.

(Later, when I went to college, and eventually bought my own stainless steel flatware, I finally discovered the point — I like the taste of steel better than the taste of silver.  But that’s just me.)

In fact, here’s a clear-cut example of class attitudes.  Let us suppose you discover that the fancy china Grandma gave you is rare, collectible, and valuable.  What do you do with it?

If you’re lower class, you sell it.  If you’re bright, to a respectable antique dealer, after dickering; if you’re stupid, you pawn it.

If you’re working class, you get it appraised, then pack it up very carefully and set it aside somewhere, figuring it’ll appreciate and you can sell it for even more someday when you need the money.

If you’re middle class, you put it on display somewhere in your home, probably safely behind glass, and point it out to visitors.

If you’re upper class, you shrug, say, “That’s nice,” and use it to eat your meals, same as before.

This is where the distinction between nouveau riche and upper class becomes obvious; the nouveau riche think that money is for showing off, for establishing status, and will therefore buy the most expensive goods and display them prominently, while the upper class think that you buy things to use, and will therefore buy the best stuff, regardless of price, and use it.  Nouveau riche buy Rolexes; upper class buy whatever watch looks good and keeps good time.  Which might be a Rolex — or a Timex.

The nouveau riche build huge ostentatious mansions.  The upper class live in whatever’s comfortable for them.