Harper’s Notes

The Harper Review’s weekly newsletter: publishing, policing, paganism, and more.

The editors

November 10, 2023

On agreeing with your friends: “It’s temptingly simple to turn ‘friends should share your values’ into a screening process,” writes Annie Ma in her contribution to this quarter’s missive debate. Her warning, however, is this: “It doesn’t work.” Ma concedes that friends may share the same interests. But to reduce one’s friends or potential friends to their values is to rationalize that which resists rationalization and to ignore the messiness, capacity for change, and imperfection that is the point of friendship in the first place. Read Ma’s letter at the link.

Postmodern paganism: What comes after Christianity? Nothing good, argues Louise Perry in a recent essay for First Things titled “We Are Repaganizing.” Comparing the modern practice of abortion to ancient Roman infanticide, Perry’s essay has won praise from religious conservatives. But Perry, a writer best known for her book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, is herself an atheist, and writes with undogmatic thoughtfulness and originality. Perry’s primary concern is not the legal status of abortion, but rather what the practice reveals about the society we inhabit. Her conclusion—that we are regressing into barbarism—is an indictment of what inhabitants of the twenty-first century often call “progress.” Her essay invites us to consider how technology masks the brutality of modern life, and asks whether paganism ever left us, or is simply creeping back out of the shadows.

A changing literary landscape: Publishing a novel today means something completely different than it did just a few decades ago, according to Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature. The recent book, written by assistant professor of English at Emory University Dan Sinykin and published by Columbia University Press, points to Cormac McCarthy as a prime example of a literary career that would be impossible today. McCarthy, remembered for books like Blood Meridian and The Road, was at first a total commercial flop. Today an unsuccessful debut would mean the demise of an aspiring novelist’s career, but editors who believed in McCarthy’s vision supported the author until his novel All the Pretty Horses became a huge success. As for why McCarthy’s career path cannot be representative today, Sinykin pins it on the conglomeration of big publishing houses. Since fewer publishing houses exist, the competition for publishing spots has become stiffer—and more focused on commercial success. However, as writer Kevin Lozano points out in his New Yorker review of Sinykin’s book, one thing remains the same: luck is one of the biggest factors in who tops the bestseller list.

American insecurities: As police departments retreat in the face of post-black lives matter defunding and public backlash, private security companies rush to fill the vacuum. Are they up to the task? Time magazine investigated this question recently in a three-part series. As the public has demanded reform, public police forces have often been accused of trapping minority neighborhoods in cycles of poverty and crime. But over the past couple of years, a crime wave has surfaced across the United States, posing a challenge to progressive politicians who have been trying to institute policy changes. Many business owners, small and large, could not wait for policymakers to solve the problem, and turned instead to private security firms such as Allied Universal. The series by journalist Alana Semuels outlines the practical shortcomings of privatized security and argues that police departments must take back their role as the first line of defense against lawlessness. Whatever criticisms may emerge, the responsibility for public security must rest with the state.

Two hundred years of resilience: Visit the Seminary Co-op Bookstore on Monday, November 6, to hear Sara Marcus discuss her new book Political Disappointment: A Cultural History from Reconstruction to the AIDS Crisis. Marcus, a professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, examines American artists and writers throughout United States history who were frustrated by a lack of social progress. Drawing on the works of sociologist and historian W. E. B. DuBois; essayist and lawyer Charles Chesnutt; and painter and photographer David Wojnarowicz, among others, Marcus argues that political defeats nevertheless give rise to a resilience that keeps the dream of a better world alive. Marcus will be joined in conversation by University of Illinois Chicago English professor Peter Coviello.