Monday, March 28, 2016

Embrace the Messy Now

There's an analogy I like to use when describing what it's like to manage an association. It's like working on the engine of your car, while you're driving it down the freeway at 70 miles per hour. By which I mean that it has been my experience that association professionals always seem to be working on the under-performing systems that they rely on to produce member value and benefits. There is seldom (or, seemingly, never) a time when we can put our "car" in the shop, or even pull it over to the side of the road, and get the thing fixed properly. If we did that, we'd miss the next member meeting, the next newsletter deadline, the next dues cycle. We'd fall hopelessly behind schedule, and never, ever catch up again. In the world of associations, getting there with a beater that's coughing out oil smoke is always preferable to getting there late with a well-oiled machine, or not getting there at all.

And this reality creates something others have called the Messy Now--the time, unlike the fondly-remembered past or the anxiously-hoped-for future, when nothing seems to work, no one seems up to the task, and there's never enough money in the budget. Competing strategic priorities, diffused leadership models, organizational demands, professional development goals, increasing project requirements, looming deadlines--they all combine into a whirlwind of confusion and paralysis.

The trick, of course, is to embrace this time, to embrace the Messy Now. Let it swirl around you and don't flinch from it. It will push you to your limits, but you can't let it bully you. Instead study it, and understand it the best you can. It has things to teach you if you're quiet and calm enough to learn them. But don't look for clarity within it, because the Messy Now has no clarity to offer you. The most important thing is to understand that it is you, and only you, that must impose clarity on the Messy Now, whatever clarity you think is necessary to keep the engine running and the car moving down the road.

That's your job. Didn't anyone ever tell you that?

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, March 21, 2016

It's Working...Now What?

Last week I bragged a little. I said the plan my Board has been working on, the plan to elevate our conversation out of the weeds of programs and activities and into the clear horizon of vision statements and success metrics, was actually starting to work.

I had just come off the excitement of a Board meeting and our Annual Conference, and I was giddy with the realization that the Board had spent its time talking about what we wanted to achieve, not how we're going to do it. About what success would look like and how we would know when we got there. About idealized future states and the reality that, sometimes, good is good enough. About when to declare victory and when to re-allocate our time and resources to address other pressing concerns. About long-term investments in programs that appear to be working and bringing to a close those that don't.

It was great!

But there's something else I didn't say. A question that was on everyone's mind and which a handful of people even voiced. With this clarity, with this understanding that we had arrived at the summit of the strategic mountain we had been climbing for the past few years, came another realization.

Now what?

If we have well-articulated vision statements that describe the world we want to create for the benefit of our members...

And if we have measurable indicators whose movement translate directly to the realization of those vision statements...

And if we have a set of programs and activities that are capable of moving those indicators...

And if we have the resources we need to execute and grow those programs and activities...

And if we have ways to monitor and report the progress of all of those things...

Then what is there left for the Board to do?

With all of that work accomplished, work that has consumed Board meeting agendas for years, it is perhaps not an unreasonable question for a Board member to ask (and, frankly, a few of them did). Busy professionals that they are, some even suggested that perhaps the Board no longer needed to meet as frequently, or to convene for as long a period of time when it did meet. Should we, perhaps, move into a kind of maintenance mode? Checking periodically on the progress of our agenda, making minor adjustments if needed, but primarily allowing the automated machine we had built to run and produce the member value as it had been designed?

It's a tempting proposition. And, truly, some form of that "maintenance mode" will be needed if we actually want to realize our vision. But just because our "automated machine" won't work without on-going maintenance and repair, I would caution the Board not to abandon the mountain climbing metaphor yet.

We've reached the summit of the mountain we've been so focused on climbing. And, by all means, let's take a moment to catch our breath, do an inventory, and make sure we have all the gear and supplies we need to continue our journey. Because now that we're at the summit, we can look out, and see that there are dozens of other strategic mountains to climb.

In fact, look at that one, far in the distance. We couldn't see it before because the rockface of our current mountain obscured our view. But that one looks even taller than the one we're standing on, doesn't it? Should we be happy with our existing achievement, or should we go scale that one, too? And if so, should we abandon the mountain we've struggled so long to scale, or reinforce our position here and try to secure both peaks?

That, in my opinion, is the work that lies ahead for our Board, and it will be even more challenging than the work they have done so far. There will always be taller mountains to climb, and some will be worth climbing and some of them won't. But now we know we can only make that assessment while standing on a mountain peak, not when we're down in one of the valleys.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Reason Driven Life by Robert M. Price

I feel I have to confess something. Robert M. Price, or more specifically his podcasting nom de plume The Bible Geek, is one of my guilty pleasures. I don’t remember how I discovered him, but I currently have several hundred back episodes of his Bible Geek podcast queued up on my smart phone, and I fear the day when I actually catch up and have no more to listen to. Listening to him answer questions about the origins, contradictions, and hidden meanings in the Bible is one of my favorite things to do.

So when I heard he had written a rebuttal to Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, I knew I had to check it out. Having suffered through Warren’s infantile treatise on the “greatest, largest, most diverse and most significant cause in history,” I couldn’t wait to read what someone who actually understands the Bible thought of the whole thing. I was already pretty firm in my own convictions, but what would the “great and exalted Geek” think?

And with this desire in mind, The Reason Driven Life doesn’t disappoint. The best parts are when Price does exactly what I hoped he would--persuasively convict Warren of the crime of not understanding the historicity of the book on which so much of theology in The Purpose Driven Life is based.

Reverend Warren is completely out of touch with the actual book he is constantly and opportunistically quoting. One would have not the faintest idea of what the Bible was about if all one read was Warren’s comically out-of-context snippets from it.

To defend this position, Price cites example after example. Here’s one:

Similarly, he accounts for the origin of the great hymnal of Judah, the Psalter, in this trivial fashion: “To instruct us in candid honesty, God gave us the Book of Psalms … every possible emotion is catalogued in the Psalms.” Talk about the dog gobbling up the crumbs that fall from the table (Mark 7:28)! The Psalms are a treasure trove for understanding the mythology, the liturgy, and the royal God-king ideology of ancient Judah. The emotional utterances to which Warren refers are all dramatic lines, formulaic scripts, probably intended for the ritualistic use of the king during times of national crisis or triumph.

And here’s another:

[Warren says:] “He is a God who is passionate about his relationship with you.” This is supposed to be Exodus 34:14, which in an actual translation from the Hebrew reads: “The LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” I prefer quoting from the New American Standard Bible, which happens also to have been translated by a committee of evangelicals, but these translators left theological interpretation to others and actually rendered what is in the Hebrew and Greek texts. Warren likes to quote from, in the case, the New Living Translation, one of several fundamentalist paraphrases of the Bible that seek to increase the ancient text’s usability for born-again devotionalism by transposing the original into the idiom of that brand of piety. Just look at the context, and you will readily see how Warren and his fellow ventriloquists have hijacked the meaning of the text. Originally it formed part of the dictates of Jehovah commanding his people to overrun and vandalize the old hilltop shrines (“high places”) sacred to other deities such as Asherah. The text is about what we would today call religious intolerance (but as long as it’s in the Bible, fundamentalists are okay with it). It has nothing whatever to do with the storm deity Jehovah being our pal. In fact, it was looking at such passages that led Harry Emerson Fosdick to comment, “One does not go into one’s room and shut the door to commune in secret with such a deity.”

Remember that Price is an actual Bible scholar, someone who has studied and who understands the origins and original purposes of the many different texts, traditions, and translations that have come together to form what most people just call “the Bible.”

My point is, however, that “the Bible” as Warren presents it bears little resemblance to the ancient book that so fascinates scholars. It might as well have been written in the 1970s or 1980s for born-again Christians. Come to think of it, given the raft of new, gooey devotional paraphrases he likes to cite, it was!

So when Price indicts Warren like this for peddling new-age mysticism based on what he wants the Bible to say, I find it simply delicious. But Warren does worse things (or better, depending on your perspective) than just misinterpreting the meaning of Bible passages.

According to Warren, “If you want to know how much you matter to God, look at Christ with his arms outstretched on the cross, saying, ‘I love you this much! I’d rather die than live without you.’” Uh, where in the gospels does Jesus say anything like this? Of course Warren does not mean to be quoting scripture; he provides no citation. But he is, in effect, creating his own scripture. Just as the gospel writers did in their crucifixion accounts, Warren is putting words into the mouth of the crucified Christ in order to set forth his own understanding of the so-called salvation wrought there.

That’s right. According to Price, Warren is not just taking Bible passages out of context, he is actually writing his own scripture. Not satisfied with just interpreting the existing text in his own image, he’s willing the create and insert new words to support that interpretation. After all, is anyone, other than Price, likely to understand the difference?

So that makes The Reason Driven Life a fun read. But, having read both The Reason and The Purpose Driven Life, I do have to concede that Warren’s work has a coherence that Price’s lacks. I don’t agree with Warren’s premise or his conclusions, but the forty essays and study guides that he has assembled for forty days of examination and reflection do all effectively serve his greater point, that the purpose of life is to worship and glorify God.

Price organizes his book on the same superstructure, reacting in forty short chapters to the points made in Warren’s forty essays. But in doing so, I think he has a harder time finding a single principle on which to direct and construct his manifesto for leading a life driven by reason. The nearest thing I could find to a central message on that theme is an often-repeated plea for mankind to grow up and admit that there probably isn’t any divine being that cares about what happens to us.

I believe Freud was correct: maturity depends on realizing there is no Creator, no divine lawgiver, no author of destiny and meaning, and no giver of eternal life.

And it is in this context that Price makes another compelling point. Essentially, the more fundamental one’s religious beliefs, the more immature their intellectual (and moral) understanding of the world around them. And Warren’s brand of religion is, in Price’s estimation, pretty fundamental, and therefore pretty immature. Across his forty chapters, Price repeatedly goes to lengths describing and analyzing Warren’s text to show us something that was apparent to me even on my surface-level reading. Warren’s God is very “human” one--that is, a God that loves, gets jealous, and needs attention and adulation. Like many theologians, Price finds such a human God philosophically incoherent.

I confess that I have lost patience with such contradictions. I do not think a coherent God-concept survives them, and a god of raw mythology such as Warren promotes is simply unbelievable. Warren is stuck in Sunday School-level, pretheological fundamentalism. It is religious infantilism of the kind that led Freud to conclude that religion is nothing more than neurotic wishful thinking and the refusal to grow up. I believe there is a good bit more to religion than that, but I’m afraid Freud was right about Warrenism. It is a pinata, made of brightly colored paper, filled with sweet candy, and too easily knocked apart.

Ouch. But Price revisits the subject again and again, holding less and less back each time he does.

Do you think anyone would hold up a sign saying GOD SAYS KILL FAGS if he didn’t believe he had the infallible truth of God in his hip pocket? Do you think that thoughtful individuals who carefully reason out evidence and come to provisional, tentative conclusions, the only kind science allows, would ever be found howling for the blood of homosexuals? You begin to see that the very belief of mortals that they have God’s certain truth is a corrupting hubris. And it short-circuits the process of intellectual growth. Even character growth.

[Paul] Tillich says, “The decisive step to maturity is risking the break away from spiritual infancy with its protective traditions and guiding authorities. Without a ‘no’ to authority, there is no maturity.”

Spiritual infancy with its protective traditions and guiding authorities. From where I sit, this perfectly sums up Rick Warren and The Purpose Driven Life. But it isn’t just name calling. There is a larger point to be made here.

Religion admits that it deals with invisible realities that we must take on faith. Thus it is hard to evaluate religious claims by anything but faith. But occasionally we are lucky enough to find an empirical factor that we can use to test the validity of religious claims. Here is one of them: if a particular approach to moral responsibility presupposes a state of arrested moral and emotional development, then we can reject that approach. The approach is plainly revealed as a product of minds that have not yet reached maturity. And that is incompatible with divine origin. Reverend Warren’s faith is one predicated upon moral immaturity. That alone should be enough to discredit it.

In other words, any religion that requires you to look at the world the way a five-year-old would cannot have any claim on the design and intentions of the divine creator of all things.

I'd have to agree.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, March 14, 2016

It's Working

Funny thing happened at my Board meeting last week.

The plan we've been working on for a year or more, the plan to elevate the conversation out of the weeds of programs and activities and into the clear horizon of vision statements and success metrics, actually started to work.

How do I know? Well, the Board spent its time talking about what we want to achieve, not how we're going to do it. What success will look like and how we will know when we get there. They talked about the idealized future states and the reality that, sometimes, good is good enough. When to declare victory and when to re-allocate our time and resources to address other pressing concerns. They talked about long-term investments in programs that appear to be working and bringing to a close those that don't.

Does this sound like what happens at your Board meetings? No? Well, don't worry. Until recently, it didn't really happen at my Board meetings either. Although we've had our strategic structure and terminology in place for a while now, this meeting seemed like the first where things actually clicked, and the Board members around the table understood and embraced their governance role.

It was exciting, not just for me, but for the Board members themselves. Based on the comments I got from several after the meeting, it was very much like the picture on the puzzle we have been assembling over the past year was starting to become clear.

It was quite an accomplishment. I assume you'll forgive me if I put my feet up on my desk for a few minutes before tackling what comes next.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, March 7, 2016

Never Speak to Strangers

This week I'm off to my association's Annual Conference. Two days of Board and leadership meetings, followed by two days of presentations, networking and facilitating deeper engagement with my members. I was only partly joking with a friend last night when I said this is the week where I earn my annual salary.

And in that conversation with my friend (who, coincidentally, also has a conference of his own to attend this week and presentations to give) we fell to discussing public speaking and the role it has come to play in our professional lives.

I've been making presentations and speaking from the podium since I moved into my current position nine years ago. The conference I attend this week will, in fact, be my tenth Annual Conference with my current association.

And I still remember the stage fright and the uncertainty I felt in my first few years. It's my job in these presentations to communicate our association's strategy to our membership, to tell a compelling story about what it is we're trying to achieve, and the successes we've had in pursuit of those goals. Early on, I had plenty of doubts over if I could do that effectively. It wasn't just a generic worry about speaking in public. It was a specific concern about how well I understood my material, how effective I could be at telling the story. New as I was, would they believe me? Would they even listen?

But over time those fears have gone away. The butterflies in the stomach have never really left, but after a few years it felt like a switch had been flipped. I remember it clearly, happening as it did in mid-presentation, standing there on the stage, looking out into the assembled audience of my association's membership. Suddenly, while looking around at all those faces looking up at me, I came to a startling realization.

Literally, I knew everyone in the room. Many of them on a first-name basis. They weren't a crowd of strangers, potentially hostile and quick to anger at any misturned phrase I might make. They were, in a way I hadn't realized before, my friends and colleagues.

That changed everything. Now, I look forward to this busy time of year when I have to distill the work we've been doing into that compelling story. It no longer feels like I have to convince a group of skeptical strangers. I'm just sharing some good news with a group of friends.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, March 5, 2016

Moo by Jane Smiley

I remember listening to someone talk about their experience in reading Moo long before I got around to reading it. Oh, Smiley skewers them! I remember this person saying. It’s about Iowa State University, where she was an English professor, and she tears that place and the people she knew there apart.


She does paint a comically accurate portrait of the Midwest, especially for the benefit of people unfamiliar with it.

Cecelia Sanchez, assistant professor of foreign languages and teacher of Spanish, too found the Midwest eerie, but it was not only the flatness that threw her. Each day of the past two weeks she would have picked a different source of dislocation. Right now it seemed eerie to look out on twenty-one blond heads, in rows of five, unrelieved by a single brunette. Last night she’d thought the humidity was going to suffocate her. A few nights before, her rented duplex had seemed uncannily muffled by trees. Sometimes it seemed that everyone she saw, everyone in every room, was determined to be very very quiet. In the almost empty streets there was no shouting, no music. When she went into stores, the customers seemed to be gliding around on tires. Salespeople appeared beside her, smiling significantly, murmuring, apparently ready to flee. No one wanted to negotiate or even talk about a purchase. You were supposed to make up your mind in some kind of mysterious vacuum. The smiling itself made Cecelia uneasy, because it didn’t seem to lead to anything, and whatever the distinctions were between types of smiles, they were so fine that she couldn’t make them out. On all sides, her neighbors were dead quiet, the hum of air conditioners substituting for conversation and argument. She saw men in gas stations exchanging sentences a single word long and understanding what they were getting at.

And she manages to subtly reveal the undercurrents of Midwestern culture and how it has shaped the sensibilities of her native characters, often without them fully realizing it.

In Bob’s former opinion, girls had been generally unremarkable. Some future one had your name on her, but her likeness to your sisters or aunts or mother was major, and reassuring. He had long assumed a relationship to the whole realm of girls that was very similar to his father’s relationship to his mother--respectful, with much understood, little actually declared. He had been subtly warned against anything else, for one thing. His father and grandfather spoke disapprovingly about boys and men who followed their dicks around; his mother and aunts reserved their most puzzled scorn for girls and women who didn’t fit in, didn’t ask for recipes, and thought themselves better than other people. It was easy to see the rational basis for all of this disapproval, too--that kind of man and those kinds of women made no one happy, least of all themselves.

And she does send-up the mistrust and mistaken impressions that exists between “liberal” state universities and their often much more “conservative” stewards in the state legislature and governor’s office.

It was well known among the citizens of the state that the university had pots of money and that there were highly paid faculty members in every department who had once taught Marxism and now taught something called deconstructionism which was only Marxism gone underground in preparation for emergence at a time of national weakness.

It was well known among the legislators that the faculty as a whole was determined to undermine the moral and commercial well-being of the state, and that supporting a large and nationally famous university with state monies was exactly analogous to raising a nest of vipers in your own bed.

It was well known among the faculty that the governor and the state legislature had lost interest in education some twenty years before and that it was only a matter of time before all classes would be taught as lectures, all exams given as computer-graded multiple choice, all subscriptions to professional journals at the library stopped, and all research time given up to committee work and administrative red tape.

But it seems to me that she is not just skewering one university, but all universities; or at least the intellectual culture that seems to pervade most universities, sharpened to a razor sharp point, but aimed mostly at paper tigers.

For example, when she describes a faculty meeting…

Dr. William Garcia, professor of psychology, could see them taking up their roles as soon as they walked into the meeting room. Father Lionel, humorless, even, you might say, witless, big with gravity though actually a rather small man. Mother Levy, full of feminine power that was profound but essentially reactive, bringing sustenance in the form of coffee to the meeting, which she would certainly offer around at some point. Sister Bell, the youngest, perhaps the most brilliant, probably (as she hadn’t even opened her mouth, and Garcia had never actually met her before) the most recalcitrant (though she would experience her recalcitrance as authentic rebellion). Brother John Vernon Cates, a black man who had fled to science and would fruitlessly strive to bring “facts” to bear on every conflict between Mom and Dad. And finally himself, of course, a lifelong mediator--he could already feel the tension and it already hurt him. He was better in groups of boys, he had been great, in his youth, on the playground, big enough, quick enough, good-looking enough, well-meaning enough, good at sports. Most men, in fact, were competent in groups that mimicked the playground, incompetent in groups that mimicked the family; that was why all-male committees ran the most smoothly.

...Smiley is not just caricaturing faculty meetings at Iowa State, not even university faculty meetings everywhere, but meetings of all kinds in all organizations with a diffused model of leadership.

But I think Smiley is also doing something more. She is not just lampooning this university culture. She is in some ways mourning what came before it. In Moo, a university is a kind of interloper--a doppleganger, even--an institution that came in to replace something that worked with something that doesn’t work at all.

This perspective becomes clear in the novel’s closing pages, as we are allowed to look through the nostalgic eyes of one of her many characters.

What is a university? Ivar couldn’t help but pause and wonder. When he’d first come to this particular university, at eighteen, he had easily found what he was looking for. It was 1953, and angular men in glasses, crewcuts, and bow ties were everywhere, a benign army of uncles, who liked to point things out with the stems of their pipes. He and Nils had themselves worn crewcuts and bow ties and answered to “Mr. Harstad” whenever they were called upon in class. Across the campus, in their own compound, protected by parietal rules and housemothers, the girls in their circle skirts and sweater sets were clearly a species apart, and were clearly being groomed for a mating ritual that Ivar and Nils eventually elected not to participate in, choosing instead to join the uncles. The place was merely a college then, a group of colleagues. It made no claims to universality.

Over the years he had learned that the uncles tended to squabble a lot, that, in fact, the more any two uncles seemed to look alike superficially, the more bitter and profound was their antagonism toward one another. Another thing he had learned was that while from the outside it did appear that the greatest change in university life had been the grand infusion of money from all federal, state, and private sources, this infusion had had no effect upon intramural hatreds--they burned no hotter, and no less hot, simply because there was lucre at stake.

He and Nils had easily understood the single promise of “a college experience” that would last as long as they made the grade. This college experience would cost their parents a rather modest sum and the return on their investment would be equally modest--a small measure of extra respect, a bit of added insurance that Nils and Ivar would live their lives in the middle class. In the fifties, colleges had to sell themselves a little. It hadn’t been obvious to everyone that spending money on higher education was worth postponing a good job or an apprenticeship to a well-paying trade. One of the brochures the college had put out began, “A college education opens doors.” A graphic of a hallway, two or three doors opening onto inviting groups of smiling men. A limited promise extended to a limited group.

Money was one aspect of present universality. The uncles in their crewcuts had been succeeded by other uncles in Afros, ponytails, razor cuts as up-to-the-minute as any on Wall Street, as well as by aunts in bobs or curls or chignons, aunts in blue jeans whose locks flowed to their waists, even, on one memorable occasion, by an aunt who clipped her hair very close--one quarter of an inch--and put a note on her office door advising students who desired to meet with her that should could be found on the university rifle range. Uncles and aunts all over the university taught in a universal diversity of accents. The students responded in kind.

And the university shamelessly promised everything to everyone, and charged so much that prospective students tended to believe the promises. While a state university, unlike an Ivy League institution, did not promise membership in the ruling class (Wasn’t that the only real reason, Ivar thought, that four years at Harvard could cost $100,000?), Ivar’s university, over the years, had made serious noises to all sorts of constituencies: Students would find good jobs, the state would see a return on its educational investment, businesses could harvest enthusiastic and well-trained workers by the hundreds, theory and technology would break through limits as old as the human race (and some lucky person would get to patent the breakthroughs). At the very least, the students could expect to think true, beautiful, and profound thoughts, and thereafter live better lives. At the very very least, students could expect to slip the parental traces, get drunk, get high, have sex, seek passion, taste freedom and irresponsibility surrounded by the best facilities that money could buy. Its limits expanding at the speed of light, the university could teach a kid, male or female, to do anything from reading a poem to turning protein molecules into digital memory, from brewing beer to reinterpreting his or her entire present.

In other words, a university is a lie. Everything it tells you it is, it isn’t.

Over the years, Ivar thought, everyone around the university had given free rein to his or her desires, and the institution had, with a fine, trembling responsiveness, answered, “Why not?” It had become, more than anything, a vast network of interlocking wishes, some of them modest, some of them impossible, many of the conflicting, many of them complementary. Ivar himself resisted neither the wishes nor those who offered funds to pay for them. The most that he could say for himself was that, from time to time, he had felt obscurely uneasy.

And that’s pretty much what this book is. Following the stories of its major characters, Moo, like the universities it satirizes, is a vast network of interlocking wishes, some of them modest, some of them impossible, many of the conflicting, many of them complementary.

And that’s okay, if that’s your cup of tea. Add to that Smiley’s brilliant writing--as crisp and as lucid as I remember it being from her other books I have read--and you should have something that keeps you turning page after page.

But I have to be honest. Despite understanding the theme and enjoying the prose, I had real trouble following the basic story that the book was trying to tell.

There are too many characters, for one thing. Moo’s Wikipedia entry lists 35 of them, and as I scan down the list, there are only a handful that I can honestly classify as minor. With so many characters and intersecting or diverging stories to remember, I frequently felt a little lost in the woods. And when I finally realized (once on page 140, and again on page 273) that what I had thought we two different characters were actually the same one being referred by the narrator and by other characters in the story by different names, I truly felt ready to give up.

One of my coping mechanisms was to zero in on the handful of characters I felt the most kinship with, but then I was frequently disappointed by the amount of screen time they received.

One of these kindred spirits was Gary Olson, a student in a fiction writing class, who writes terrible stories by doing exactly what his teacher instructs.

It was late, almost two. The riot, Gary thought, had been terrific, a real experience for his literary alter ego, Larry. He didn’t want to write about it too quickly, though, because Mr. Monahan had always advised letting things settle, steep, ferment, lie dormant, lie fallow, germinate, etc. Still, he’d had his notebook out the whole time, writing down notes. He was especially proud of one section: “Some woman comes out in a red coat. The guy I’m standing next to says to this other guy, ‘Bet you a six-pack of Molson’s that I can get this through that little window in the door there,’ the other guy says, ‘You’re on,’ and then he beaned her right on the forehead, and the two guys were just standing there saying, ‘Fuck, man! Fuck, man! Did anybody see us? Fuck, you hit her, man! Shhh! Fuck, did you mean to hit her? Nah! I meant to get it in that broken window, man, and she stepped right in the fucking way! What if she’s fuckin’ dead, man? She’s not dead! Fuck! I can’t believe it! Let’s get the fuck out of here!’” He had taken down the dialogue just the way Mr. Monahan had had them do it the first semester, only by now he was faster, and got it down more accurately. It was good dialogue, too, dramatic, though not, he realized, especially revealing of the idiosyncratic personalities of his characters. He would have to add that on his own.

Smiley is doing something wonderful here. It seems obvious that she is using Gary as an archetype of all the talentless aspiring novelists she must have encountered in her stint as an English professor at her midwestern university, but I think it is something more than that, too. It’s not just about the hapless student. It’s about the craft of writing fiction itself. Gary shows us that it is clearly something more than just as the sum of its parts. The novelist is not just putting the jigsaw pieces in all the right places, as Gary’s attentive but fruitless labors demonstrate, precisely following the picture on the cover of the puzzle box. The novelist must use those interlocking pieces, not to create someone else’s picture, but to paint her own, her own original picture never before seen in the world.

Some of Smiley’s other novels do that. Moo only comes close.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at