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Interview: Nick Wolven on “Caspar D. Luckinbill, What Are You Going To Do?”

– Tell us a bit about “Caspar D. Luckinbill, What Are You Going To Do?”

Let me start by saying a little about myself. I’ve lived a long time in the orbit of Columbia University, and one persistent feature of the area, along with student joggers and visiting high school groups, is a regular crop of sidewalk canvassers–young men and women with clipboards and a cheery demeanor, asking passersby if they’d like to lend help to democrats or women or the Earth. I’ve always wondered about the effectiveness of that kind of scattershot fundraising, and about the dynamics of awareness-raising in general. What happens when appeals to our deepest concerns–the plight of the unfortunate, the despoliation of the environment–become just another set of distractions in a so-called attention economy?

It’s an issue that goes back to the fifties at least, when cultural commentators worried about the combination of an emerging “affluent society” with the machinations and manipulations of television-empowered admen. The media critic Neil Postman used to complain about TV news programs, for instance, in which disasters and deaths and puppies and toothpaste commercials would follow one another in rapid succession. In the internet age, this postmodern blending of the monstrous and the mundane has become less linear (now this, now this, now this) than omnipresent (all this, all the time).

Anyway, that explains a bit of the thinking behind the piece.


– What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

This story has been floating around for many, many years. I’m hard-pressed to remember what originally inspired me to write it.

Way back, I had a friend who was something of a recovering Catholic. She used to talk about different kinds of good deeds, different reasons for helping people. It’s been a while, but I seem to remember her positing a set of distinctions between charity, compassion, and guilt.

The thinking goes like this. Say you want to help the poor. Well, what motivates you? Why bother?

Perhaps you do it because you feel guilty about your own comparative good fortune. If that’s the case, you’re really helping the poor to help yourself–to relieve the pain of feeling guilty. The problem is that once you stop feeling guilty, you stop helping. So distracting or consoling yourself becomes a tempting alternative to actually doing something useful.

Or let’s say you help the poor out of genuine pity, because you empathize with their hard luck. You’re not just doing it to get out of feeling guilty, but acting through real compassion. The problem here is that this ends up putting pressure on the poor to inspire compassion, to arouse our empathy and prove that they’re worthy of sympathy–like the sort of beggar who is compelled to reassure everyone that he doesn’t drink or do drugs. What if he does? This can end up holding the less fortunate to a higher moral standard.

And so we come to the concept of charity, which leaves human dessert out of the question (we’re all miserable sinners anyway, in the Christian formulation) and says we should just give what we can to others, period. Do it not for yourself, or even for those less fortunate, but for God, or for society, or just because. The problem with charity is that it depends on obedience to some higher power or institution–a church, a society, a government that gives tax breaks.

I seem to remember that my recovering-Catholic friend thought that her Christian-influenced culture was too wrapped up in questions of pity and guilt, and overly neglectful of charity–unlike Islam, say, which is a little more explicit about the centrality of almsgiving.

Anyway, I think back to those conversations often. Questions of guilt have become very troubling to me. To what extent should Americans feel personally guilty, say, about our government’s actions? Or about structural privilege? Is guilt the proper response to those things, or is it just another way to be histrionic and self-involved?


– What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?

Nothing substantial.


– What would you want a reader to take away from this story?

Well, having dished out all this stuff about politics and theology, I’m not sure what to say about the actual story. When I brought a much earlier draft to my Clarion workshop, Jeff VanderMeer busted my chops for writing a piece that was too political, while Karen Fowler thought it was a great idea with callow execution. What can I say? When I reread the piece, I usually chuckle a few times. Maybe it all goes back Richie Tozier’s outlook on life. If nothing else, you can read this story for the chucks.


– What are you working on now?

Oh, I’m still grinding away at a novel I’ve been working on. Slow going.


“Caspar D. Luckinbill, What Are You Going To Do?” appears in the January/February 2016 issue of F&SF.

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