I Am Allergic to Abstraction

What does it mean to explore the world through stories? Martin Eiermann sat down with scholar and writer Carlo Rotella to talk about vivid characters, Bostonian accents, and the future of suburbia.

The European: I want to talk about storytelling. What does it mean to experience the world not through numbers or theories, but through the stories we tell each other?
Rotella: A large part of my work is finding a vivid character for the foreground of a story, and then telling the story of how that character is living the consequences of some larger process or history. Often, that is how academics write for trade publications. We tend to sit on a body of knowledge and have to figure out, ‘how do we communicate this to people who aren’t experts?’ I wrote a profile about a fighter named Shannon Briggs, who was one of the last top-flight American heavyweight boxers. He presented himself as the “Great Black Hope” when all the other heavyweights were Eastern Europeans. We have often tended to see the heavyweight championship not just as an American thing but as an African-American thing; so how did we reach this point that Shannon Briggs can present himself as America and the black hope against all these Russian and Ukrainian fighters? It turns out that there’s a really big story about the transformation of Eastern Europe and the amazing flow of talent out of Eastern Europe: Boxers, gymnasts, piano players, gangsters, strippers, porn stars, all kinds of hard-boiled, skilled people. The corollary question is what all the other big Americans are doing. Turns out, they are all playing football. But Briggs has asthma, so that’s why he never got to play football.

The European: What is the purpose of those stories? Is it taking the reader by the hand and walking him or her to the larger conclusion, or is this a process of exploration, where you start by saying: This looks interesting, let’s see what we can find!
Rotella: I tend to fit the approach to the story. I once had a travel piece about going to Chicago to see music, but I tried not to see blues, which is what I had been raised on. I ended up going to all these polka places, which got me into Eastern European and Mexican Chicago because the music is quite similar. That was very much an article that said, “Let’s go and see what we find.” And sometimes I’m a fly on the wall, which is quite different. Those stories tend to be about how someone got good at something. Buddy Guy was a Chicago blues musician, and the story I wrote on him came out saying, “there was once a guy who played the guitar, and who had two particular traits: He liked to make not just music but noise, he liked to play with the boundaries. And he also had a pathological need to please audiences, even by the standards of a performing artist.” He arrives in Chicago in 1957 and plugs himself into the thriving institutional blues world of independent record labels and small clubs and the Muddy Waters band, and he watches as that world falls apart around him. He’s thrown into a state of flux as Chicago and the blues world change. His music changes, his singing changes, his influence changes. Suddenly, he is free to be influenced by rock musicians. So on the way to looking at how Buddy Guy and the blues changed, let’s hear the story of the transformation of American cities.

The European: And that is where the scholar comes in…
Rotella: Yes. My training is in American studies, and one of the fundamental questions in that field is really about how style is connected to history. The cliché question is why does a culture tell itself a particular story in a particular way at a particular time? What does it mean to play the blues properly? It meant one thing in 1955, and another thing in 1975 or 2005. And when you begin to answer that question, it gets you to issues that scholars are very interested in: As the industrial city declined, tourism became really important in Chicago. Only when the industrial sector began to tank in earnest in the 1970s did Chicago really become known as the home of the blues. The questions that social scientists are interested in filter through the enthusiasm for the blues and the way Buddy Guy made music.

The European: One of my favorite childhood stories was always “The Little Prince,” which includes the beautiful sentence that “what is essential is invisible to the eye.” That seems to be a strength of storytelling: that it speaks not just to our sensory faculties but to our capacity for imagination.
Rotella: The trick is that the evidence of the senses has to be present. If the story is just abstract, all telling and no showing, it doesn’t work. There’s a misapprehension when scholars write for general audiences, and it goes like this: You take the kernel of your scholarly knowledge and wrap it into a piece of baloney of narrative and character. It’s like feeding a pill to your dog by wrapping it in a piece of meat. It’s exactly wrong. The better way is showing how messy, three-dimensional characters live the consequences of a bigger argument. That gives the reader a sensory experience, and as an author you are undertaking a project of persuasion to convince the reader that the contours of the larger thing are evident in the way someone boxes, or the way someone makes music. The advantage that academics have is that you can waste a significant percentage of your life learning about one thing, so when it is time to write the deep background paragraphs – well, you’ve already written the 300-page version of them. When you hang out with true freelance writers, they are always finishing two stories, researching two stories, pitching new stories. When you go to parties with them and they find an editor at the bar, they have to pitch their ideas. The luxury we have as academics is that we can pick the right moment to bring our goods to the market.

The European: How do you stumble upon your stories?
Rotella: A lot of the craft is having one foot in the academy, and one foot outside in reporting. I write a column for the “Boston Globe” because I’ve always wanted to try my hand at being a columnist, and also because it is a way of writing your way into where you live. It tends to pull you into going out and meeting people. Academics are sitting on a big pile of knowledge that usually doesn’t get used. You don’t want to maximize the return on everything you are doing, but writing is a way to balance out the patience and long-wave interests of academia.

The European: You recently wrote an article on running, and on how running has allowed you to experience the city of Boston. How important are those local contexts?
Rotella: I’m allergic to abstraction. Especially in my first two books, I was telling the story of the transformation of urban America, especially in the so-called “rust belt,” and of the decline of the industrial city and the rise of post-industrialism. But I could only tell it as a series of locally inflected stories about particular characters at particular moments in particular landscapes. They are almost always creative characters: Writers, or musicians. These characters are often filled with some urge, and I am basically writing the biography of that urge. How does the urge to play the guitar find expression in certain styles, which are attached to certain institutions, and then to the city? How does a person take that creative impulse and pour it into the containers that are available to him or her to give shape to it? Those stories are almost always local, but they can be attached to the institutions, and then to the larger landscape.

The European: Whole schools of thought are based on the premise that we can conceptualize the world at a more abstract level. Even the natural sciences have sometimes abandoned empirical observations in favor of thought experiments or simulations.
Rotella: For me, writing non-fiction is the study of what people have been up to. In the humanities, that is what interests me, and it stands in contrast to writing about nature, for example. The reason I go out into the city, or why I am interested in urban landscapes, is to pursue that question. My thoughts are already influenced by the work of big scholars like David Harvey, the people that you read in graduate school and cannibalize and use as a template for your own thinking. What I want to avoid is finding real world examples that prove their theory. I’m much more interested in the opposite: In following people through the world until I can arrive at a more general understanding.

The European: As you said, many of these characters are either creative or athletes. What do they have – in terms of storytelling – that your average Joe is lacking?
Rotella: One of the things that makes sports a good subject is that it has the two components that American Studies thrive on. Tom Wolfe, a guy with a Ph.D. in American Studies, said that he’s concerned about form and money. Sports has lots of signifying form in the way people box, or play basketball, in the way styles change. An observer of sports and a student of poetry often look at similar things: at genres, at schools of thought. There’s the West Coast offense in American football, and there’s this way or that way of responding to that offense. And money is interesting as well. I like to study cases where the bar is lowest; a small boxing gym, a few hundred bucks to fight across the state for the Golden Gloves, the blues clubs in 1950s Chicago where you could get in for a quarter dollar to see Otis Rush play. Even a bit of money can have a huge influence in those contexts, and boxing is great for studying that. Follow the money, and you’re suddenly at the level of HBO.

The European: Is it easier to write about the underdog?
Rotella: I don’t know whether it is easier. I’m interested in journeymen, like the fighter with a 16-17 record or the blues player who’s pretty good but not quite in the spotlight. Looking at those people often allows you to really explore the world in which they live. If you are a cultural historian, it’s sometimes better to follow the orthodox practitioner rather than the genius who broke the rules and changed them. It also allows you to minimize the influence of publicists and networks. I’ve profiled Floyd Mayweather Jr when he was one of the highest-paid boxers in the world. Part of the challenge was that he would stay on message all day. Those sentences are interesting as a minor form of poetry, but it takes a lot of work to actually engage someone like that. The instinctive reaction is, “there’s a guy with glasses taking notes, so here is what I always say to guys with glasses taking notes.”

The European: You can’t really write about someone unless you can have a beer with them?
Rotella: Or twenty beers at different times. I always wonder why I should take the assignment of the twenty-minute interview with a movie star. That’s interesting as a craft challenge, but I am really more interested in shadowing someone for a long time. And you better have an interesting story to tell in the end, or your editor is going to ask, “so why exactly should I care about a boxer who’s 16 and 17?” Well, I can tell you: Because of what his story illustrates about the transformation of America.

The European: When we look at American popular culture, one thing I find interesting is the resurgence of the Western movie in recent years: “No Country for Old Men,” “The Assassination of Jesse James,” “Open Range,” “3:10 to Yuma.” Is there something about this moment in time that makes those frontier stories relevant again?
Rotella: The phenomenon is not pronounced enough to say that something is going on in myth-making. Some of the movies have been solid, some are more paint-by-numbers, but I wouldn’t look at it and say that they have really changed much. I think “Unforgiven” was probably the last landmark Western. In America particularly, the genre has always been around, so this resurgence is not necessarily signifying some big shift.

The European: You could say the same thing about sports movies.
Rotella: Yes; if you looked at the number of boxing movies that are produced in Hollywood, you would think that it’s a much more popular sport than it actually is. Here’s a development that I find more in need of explanation: We’ve recently seen all kinds of Boston movies because of the film tax credit in Massachusetts. It’s form plus money again: There are good financial reasons to shoot in Boston, but as a result Hollywood has developed a fetish for these ultra-micro gradations of cultural difference that even here in Boston only a thousand people really care about. Now we have millionaire actors who are trying to talk like working class people from Dorchester or South Boston or Lowell. And we see dialogue coaches who used to make money teaching working class people from Boston how not to talk like that, who are now teaching millionaires from New York and Wales how to talk exactly like that. There are probably some veteran movie goers in Kuala Lumpur who can now pick apart a Southie and a Somerville accent. The big story of globalization has been the removal of regional content from American movies and American culture, so that it feels universal. But the Boston movies are like a wrinkle in that trend; a wishful claiming of something that has really been disappearing over the past 40 years. Many of these stories start with the premise of crime and then discover something else, like the transformation of the city.

The European: Is this a conscious realization where people have woken up and said: Hold on, American culture is more than Coca Cola and “Mission Impossible”! Let’s put the grittiness on film as well.
Rotella: I think what has happened is that Boston has come to stand for localness. People like Mark Wahlberg or Ben Affleck or Matt Damon are really from Boston. But you also have myth-makers like Martin Scorsese, Mel Gibson or Clint Eastwood, who come to Boston to get in on this emergent local mojo. That’s quite funny if you consider the history of Boston, which wasn’t really a place that people scrambled to for most of the 20th century. It was really a backwater, but it has come to stand for white localness. There’s a scene in Ben Affleck’s movie “The Town” where one of the characters says, after a fight with a Somali woman, that “we need to show them that there’s still some serious white people in Boston.” Sometimes you get the impression that Hollywood is really smitten by the idea of atavistically tough white people in the streets of Boston, in a sort of 1920s fantasy way.

The European: How important is the question of race in American pop culture?
Rotella: The cliché is that Americans find it hard to talk about race but I think that they find it almost too easy, and find it much harder to talk about class. Usually, they feel like the conversation is over as soon as they’re done talking about race. What I liked about the TV show “The Wire” is that it talked about the way that people are connected to another, about urban structures of power and resources. The generic response to “The Wire” is to say, “it’s a great show about race.” But to me it’s foremost a great taxonomy of the way that cities are arranged, and of the way power and money work in that environment.

The European: Follow the drugs, and you’ll get the drug dealers. Follow the money, and you don’t know where you’ll end up.
Rotella: Exactly. I’m a great fan of Emile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart novels, and I always thought that “The Wire” was as close as Americans have ever gotten to that form of storytelling: Let’s pick a place, and really look at it.

The European: Is there something you find especially interesting about the way in which American literature deals with contemporary American issues?
Rotella: Chang-Rae Lee is someone who is always worth reading. He can be pigeon-holed as an Asian-American, but I think he’s also a great suburban writer – and the question of suburbia is an ongoing one in American culture. When I say that I study cities, I don’t mean to suggest that the city suddenly stops and the suburb begins. That is a logic that doesn’t make sense to me, so I try to see suburbs as part of a larger metro area. If you take that perspective, you notice that we spent a lot of time exploring the inner cities especially in the 1960s and 1970s but that the suburbs were often really at the periphery of attention and are only now beginning to be explored more. We’re still figuring out what to think about cities.

The European: How is the way that cities are constructed related to how we live our lives?
Rotella: It’s hard for me to talk in the abstract, but I can tell you something about this city. Boston is very small and layered. You can walk around and peel back the layers in a way that would be harder in Atlanta or Houston. One of the things that Boston exemplifies is the greatness of the mid-size city. Boston is the capital of American mid-sized cities, like Pittsburgh or Providence or maybe Seattle, that are livable but complicated. They used to be seen as cities in a futile struggle to be world cities but they are now regarded as the Goldilocks Mean. You can lead a walking life, and rely on public transportation, and the reputation of those cities is really rising.

The European: To European eyes, this always seems a bit surprising. We’ve often grown up with the idea that America is bigger, shinier, more effective – and suddenly, there are big trends that seem to cast doubt on those stereotypes, and those trends are maybe becoming more visible than they were before.
Rotella: I see what you are saying, but I would argue that a certain regional stand-offishness is also pretty American: “Thanks, but we’ll do it our way!” Boston is maybe the crabbiest city in America, and I have really come to appreciate that. It’s not like everywhere else, physically and culturally. The landscape is not interchangeable, so it is easier here in Boston to insist on your local difference when you are not driving down a big highway to a strip mall and a chain store. I’m from Chicago, and I will never really belong here – but I sure like living here.

The European: I wonder whether the importance we now attach to the idea of localness is signifying something else as well: It seems that the big narrative of the 1950s about modernization and progress is showing cracks.
Rotella: Urban sprawl has long had a bad name among urban elites, but it has recently been associated almost pathologically with economic crisis, rising gas prices and the mortgage meltdown. The dislike of sprawl has been democratized. But so many lives are organized around sprawl, and that’s only increasing. That is why I like it when a midsize city takes a stand and says, “there’s a different way of living in this place.” That is how those dependencies begin to change. People are astonishingly adaptable; it’s one of the most amazing things about this species. But we will never be as adaptable as money and as flexible as capital, especially in relation to our culture. For the foreseeable future, we are stuck with families living in detached homes, and we cannot just tear that legacy down and start over. In this country, the two ways of becoming middle class are by owning property or going to college. The GI Bill after World War II made both of those things possible for many people. So the narratives you mention are really the product of a massive program of social engineering in the postwar years, of a particular set of policies at a particular moment. The question is: What is economically possible, and also compatible with that cultural legacy?

The European: And your response would be…?
Rotella: The idea of owning your own house seemed like such a no-brainer – but maybe it’s not. Many people in my neighborhood rent apartments until their kids finish high school because the school district has a very good reputation. It’s an atavism to think that you have to own a detached house. Most people I know couldn’t afford it.

The European: Now, the mortgage crisis has presumably taught us to know our limits. It’s tempting to live on credit – but when everybody starts doing it, we’re building a dangerous bubble.
Rotella: This is venturing into abstract territory, so I’m hesitating. Let’s move carefully and then get out as quickly as we can: Until the meltdown, the idea was that you do whatever you have to do to get a mortgage. Look the broker in the eye, nod, shake hands and sign whatever you need to sign. Get a house, and then deal with the rest. Today, fewer people think that way, and some of the mythology has been stripped off. The irony is that because of all the foreclosures, it has now become easier to buy a house in those neighborhoods.

The European: Often, when we talk about these economic questions we tend to talk in numbers and not about the human stories. It’s relatively common to write about sports in anecdotal terms, or make sports movies – but it’s potentially harder to turn those economic trends into gripping and illustrative narratives.
Rotella: I’ve seen a bit of very good reporting recently – Jake Halpern followed someone who’s in the foreclosure business and wrote a very compelling piece about it. What is interesting about the mortgage crisis is that it gives shape to two basic urges: One, the urge to own a house, which has been actively encouraged by American culture for the last half-century. And on the industry side, there is the urge to profit from the mistakes of other people, to buy low and sell high. When those two urges encounter each other, it’s an epic story.

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