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The Last Ballad—A Classic "Social" Novel

I wrote a week or so ago about the general disdain for “social” or “social protest” novels (also called “social problem” novels) among the lit biz powers that be. Their prevailing attitude seems to be that readers aren’t interested in fiction that comes freighted with a message. As one acclaimed novelist put it, “The landscape of literary history is littered with the wreckage of writers who thought they were on a mission.”

Just as there’s no unanimity about the proper name for this type of fiction, there’s disagreement about whether the plot must revolve around the struggles of workers, or if protesting other social problems are acceptable literary fodder, such as the economic demoralization and destruction of the middle class. Ayn Rand certainly thought so, when she published what is arguably the most influential social protest novel of all time, Atlas Shrugged. And although my political leanings Read More 
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Is the Populist Revolt Over? Not if Robots Have Their Way

President Trump before he addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week. Credit Tom Brenner/The New York Times
What follows, without additional comment, is an excerpt from an article by Eduardo Porter that first appeared in the business section of the New York Times, January 31, 2018.

Does President Trump represent the new normal in American politics?

As the world’s oligarchy gathered last week in Davos, Switzerland, to worry about the troubles of the middle class, the real question on every plutocrat’s mind was whether the populist upheaval that delivered the presidency to the intemperate mogul might mercifully be over.

If it was globalization — or, more precisely, the shock of imports from China — that moved voters to put Mr. Trump in the White House, could politicians get back to supporting the market-oriented order once the China shock played out?

As Frank Levy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology noted this month in an analysis on the potential impact of artificial intelligence on American politics, “Given globalization’s effect on the 2016 presidential election, it is worth noting that near-term A.I. and globalization replace many of the same jobs.” Read More 
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An Enthusiastic and Heartfelt Bravo for “The Post”

“The Founding Fathers created a free press to serve the governed, not the governors.” That’s the money line in director Steven Spielberg’s fiercely gripping and extraordinarily timely new film, “The Post,” starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks as the publisher and editor of the Washington Post, Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee.

The words are those of Justice Hugo Black in the June, 1971 Supreme Court opinion that freed the way for the New York Times and the Post to continue to publish the Pentagon Papers, the 7000-page “Top Secret—Sensitive” government document that revealed how every administration since Truman had systematically lied to the American public about a hubristically misguided military action that only succeeded in prolonging an unwinnable Vietnam War. Black went on to state “only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.”

What message could be more necessary and telling at a time when the current occupant of the White House refers to a free press as “the enemy of the people?” What could be more effective in countering Trump’s heedless and self-serving mendacity  Read More 
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#MeToo

The following is a guest post from Audrey Insoft, author of Divine Fate, the true story of a Vietnam War veteran who confronts his demons by saving abandoned and forgotten children in the country that haunts his past. She is also the leader of a group of Westchester County, NY, writers who meet periodically to discuss and review their work.
Posting “Me Too” on my Facebook page is not a badge of honor nor is it something I would have ever chosen to do. But yes I posted it, because it’s the truth and women (and men) should have the right to speak out about harassment, sexual assault and the constant barrage of inappropriate behavior and conduct that has permeated our society. Read More 
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Posterity Can Wait

"Most Read Novel" in 2017
Novelists quickly learn that any book review is “subjective.” I recently discovered that a reviewer’s subjectivity extends beyond the novel itself to its genre. In an otherwise enthusiastic review of The Piketty Problem, the Kirkus reviewer opined that “the only problem with this absorbing story” was my describing it as a “social” or “social protest” novel along the lines of The Jungle or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, because “instead of depicting the struggles of the working class, the tale skillfully shows readers how middle- and upper-class people talk about the rights of workers.”

This narrow-minded opinion about what constitutes a social protest novel seems laughable at best, dangerously out of touch at worst. (I did complain to Kirkus, to no avail, that Uncle Tom’s Cabin wasn’t about the struggles of the working class either, unless the reviewer’s definition included slaves.) But it does seem to reflect the prevailing attitude in the lit biz,  Read More 
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The Robots Are Coming? Or Are They Already Here?

"Flippy" working the grill
Robots Will Transform Fast Food” reads the headline in the online edition of The Atlantic, and “That might not be a bad thing.

The Atlantic article goes on to describe how Japan—where else?—is already ahead of the curve, with a fully functioning okonomiyaki restaurant that makes a gin and tonic to serve along with the cabbage-and-meat-topped pancakes. Here in the US we’re still in the development and test phase, with “Sally,” a boxy robot from Chowbotics that assembles salads ordered on a touch screen, and “Flippy”—the inspiration for the McRobots in The Piketty Problem—who’s turning out 150 burgers an hour  Read More 
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The "Piketty Problem" Only Gets Worse

courtesy New York Post
“It’s going to be one of the great Christmas gifts to middle-income people,” is how President Trump characterized the Republican tax bill before he boarded a helicopter for meetings at Camp David last Saturday. Like many statements from our president, it falls into that gray area between a self-serving exaggeration and an outright  Read More 
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Jobs for Robots

Better than a minimum wage worker on a bicycle?
Jobs and robots have been making news recently, but in unexpected ways.

Economists and business leaders are finally realizing that the tax bill that President Trump and the Republican congress is trying to ram through as a Christmas present to corporations and the 1 percent, will create more jobs all right—for robots! A provision  Read More 
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Social Protest or Science Fiction?

Venice anyone?
Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel, New York 2140, (Orbit, Hachette Book Group, March 2017) presents a grim vision of the impact of a warming global climate. I’m sure Robinson could have easily conjured up a world like that in the lauded, 2016 movie Interstellar, where America’s farmland is sufficiently fried to create a new Dust Bowl and the only solution for humanity is to use gravitational propulsion to escape to a distant galaxy through a recently detected wormhole near Saturn. But instead, a writer who ironically is best known for his own space-escape yarns such as The Mars Trilogy, has set himself a more difficult challenge. Robinson visualizes a world where mankind can’t avail itself of improbable technological advances or convenient astronomical discoveries, and instead must struggle to adapt to a barely recognizable planet. Read More 
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The Law of Unintended Consequences

Perplexed?
There’s no need right now to dive into the details of the disastrous impact of the Republican tax bill on the well-being of the 99 percent. That should be apparent. What may not be apparent is how the corporate tax cut is likely to play out if, as the Republicans claim, the tax windfall  Read More 
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