Sometimes, Bright Blue is Just Bright Blue

Anthony Lane on internal practice: “I tend to send my copy in on deadline, which by New Yorker standards is tacky. It has to go through three or four proofs. The fact-checkers proof; the grammarians proof. And it is amazing. Someone does go to see the film, to make sure I’m not lying. If I’m reviewing a Tim Burton film and I say that Ewan McGregor’s wearing a bright blue shirt, they’ll say to me, ‘It’s more like bright turquoise’. But you should get it right, especially if you’re going to have some fun with it. Otherwise it’s cheating. The New Yorker is the only place in the world where you can pull a piece to change a comma to a semi-colon. It’s a haven for the pedant. I love it.””

Quick Links

Apparently, self-publishing at the office pays off. Bruno Perara wrote a novel called Little Murders Among Partners. The book portrayed his co-workers for what they were. The firm fired him. But a mediation court ruled that Perara was unfairly dismissed and awarded him £50,000. So if you can’t get that lucrative advance, I suppose there’s always the unexpected rewards of the middleman.

Mao’s little red books still bear influence.

Edwin Abbott’s Flatland has been mined once again for inspiration (after Rudy Rucker’s Spaceland) — this time, for VAS: An Opera in Flatland, which takes a biogenetic approach. For those interested in the original Flatland, public domain has effected its availability. Fun stuff, if you never read it. (via The Complete Review)

B&N fiction buyer Sessalee Hensley is drunk with power, albeit unknowingly. Even worse, all thrillers are inexplicably held up to a Barbara Kingsolver litmus test.

And, apparently, writing is good for your well-being. Too bad that your life expectancy is slim if you want to be a full-time professional. Go figure. (via Moorish)


xmas prop a gander did we vote?
ears calumniated by duplicitous speakers
silent sales sandwiched between stale scrambled


unilateral steel toe lapping blood hard red green bow

spirit of giving

pint special sale medicine holed up
phone dead analog nosound
bathtub hot cold
alone at last



On the Return of the King front, David Hudson has again outdone himself with some great armchair analysis. Beyond collating some ideas on what this might mean for the Oscars, he offers some hypotheses based on critical ramifications: “One wonders if there was a sense of alarm at all, and if so, what color the alert was over at New Line when, early on, the National Board of Review not only passed Rings over for Best Film but didn’t even include it in its top ten. Had they given conventional wisdom a nudge that would snowball into serious momentum away from Rings?”

Personally, I’ve recused myself from getting involved with the hype, largely because anything I put down on paper (or the Web) is pointless before I’ve seen the film in whole. I feel uncomfortable calling any opus a Great Thing (or even a Piss-Poor Thing) before I’ve experienced it (to use the PR parlance of our time). Not unlike a chowderhead who sounds off on a topic he hasn’t read one single book on. Have we truly become a culture in which we’re prepared to love every high-profile film well in advance? Is there no longer any room for an evaluation that dares to suggest There is No Santa Claus?

When I watched the supplements on the Two Towers Extended Edition, one thing that struck me was the unbearably placating tone. There seemed to me a strange amount of attention trying to explain the filmmakers’ motivations behind the much-derided changes to Faramir and Tom Bombadil. All fine and dandy. Some people need to be educated. But the supplements seemed curiously targeted, directed towards the hard-core fanboys with an almost apologetic tone. With the conveniently timed November relase, it was almost as if the boys on the fourteenth floor took the time to scour the Internet, conduct a few focus group meetings, and address everyone’s privations, thus clearing heads, assuaging nerves and gearing the audience up for an experience entirely designed for them.

The same fanboys whose mouths foamed after the Christopher Lee fiasco are now prepared to love this film no matter what. And it’s due in no small part to Jackson’s low-profile courting of illiterate fanboys like Harry Knowles and even the presence of avidity in the Gray Lady (see “journalist” Jesse McKinley working himself into a frenzy over Bombadil). But, unlike Star Wars, the Lords fanboys are more common. It’s okay to announce your love for Lords around the water cooler, and to tell everybody that you’re going to see the first show at the stroke of midnight. This wasn’t the case with Star Wars or even the Matrices. With Lords, the fanboy has suddenly acquired a mainstream legitimacy.

The marketing has been so good, so eerily transcendental and cross-demographic, that I almost expect a war room somewhere on the New Line lot containing a wall-sized blackboard, a space to project Powerpoint presentations on demand, and envelopes marked TOP SECRET revealing every known opinion on the film.

The question I have: Why do we have to see the film the first week? Or opening day? There are plenty of films out there, plenty of media to consume, and plenty of stories far superior to Tolkien that you can find in a bookstore (see Fritz Lieber, Michael Moorcock or Mervyn Peake, to name three). And more importantly, plenty of things to experience in the real world.

Dickens Not in Vogue

This morning, I was shocked to learn of the news that Charles Dickens is “not in vogue these days.” While Boston Globe reporter Sam Allis’s statement was brazen, it is, nevertheless, absolutely true. Unfortunately, a 2,000 word section that cited specific examples was cut by the Globe. One of my inside sources, referred to here as “Tina,” explained to me that a part-time copy editor opposed the section, believing that Mr. Allis was somehow channeling his subject. (“Tina” reports that Mr. Allis’s word rate is “unbelievably lucrative.”)

So what we received instead was an unsatisfactory generalization to back up Mr. Allis’s findings (“He is no longer the staple in humanities courses on this side of the Atlantic.”). However, “Tina” was kind enough to forward me a summary of what Mr. Allis’s original draft included:

1. Arthur Quilip, the little-known dwarf actor who was Verne Troyer’s stand-in in Bubble Boy, came very close to landing roles in Bad Santa and Carnivàle. However, he was narrowly beaten out by Tony Cox and Michael Anderson for the respective parts. The casting directors on both productions had read The Old Curiosity Shop and quipped to Quilp that he had, in the words of Oscar Wilde, “a heart of stone.”

2. Oliver Twists, once a popular cocktail at a Ramada Inn bar (“two for one Tuesdays!”) in Louisville, Kentucky, have declined in sales. Customers are now gravitating towards whiskey sours.

3. At an El Torito restaurant in Bridgeton, Missouri, a table for four, reserved in the name of Pickwick, was withheld at the request of the manager. Four elderly gentlemen were left to stand around while others enjoyed their “fine Mexican meals.” A few customers complained at the presence of these men, referring to them as “old, smelly and decidedly not in vogue,” and were thrown out of the restaurant by Boris, short-order cook and salsa preparer, with characteristic pugilism.

4. Back in September, a young boy by the name of David had walked hundreds of miles to Manhattan to escape an unfortunate domestic disturbance. Hoping to unwind his weary feet, and having been given a pass to the VIP room at Club Copacabana by a cheery busker, David showed up at the club and attempted to redeem the pass, only to be told by the bouncer, “No magicians in dis place.” David has since subsisted in a studio apartment that he shares with other orphans, but only by selling his own blood on a thrice-weekly basis.

5. Calvin Klein has called upon all of his underfed models to lead a public burning of the collected works of Charles Dickens. His circulars have had remarkable results. Kate Moss is said to keep her nose up in the air for at least four minutes when she hears the words, “Barnaby Rudge.” Naomi Campbell plans to take full-page ads in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal that read in part, “Thank god that son of a bitch didn’t finish Edwin Drood. Who needs him?”

You’ve Got the Touch

I stumbled onto this and was perplexed. But now I think I understand what goes on in the Upper West Side. And, yes, frankly, it’s a little weird to me too, but not that weird. But I respect it, even if there’s no way in hell I could adopt it. Taking the contrarian stance in a society that acts out the opposite takes (no contrarian pun intended) a good pair of balls. But if the likely result is loneliness without touch, well then goodness me.

The Reluctant Tries to Remain Impartial Too, But…

The BBC has banned its journalists from writing newspaper and magazine columns pertaining to current affairs. The m.o.? “Impartiality.” The ban extends to both staff and freelancers. There is at least some consolation: voicing vitriolic opinions on things like food is considered impartial. Whether such a restriction will trickle over the Atlantic to the “fair and balanced” networks remains to be seen.

Mayor Cleese? (via Tom)

New OED words: “fuckwit,” “non-homosexual,” “Norman Rockwellish,” “no-talent,” “cut and shut,” “fist-fucker,” “gang-bang,” “huevos rancheros,” and “super-unleaded.”

The Illustrated Complete Summary of Gravity’s Rainbow (via MeFi)

Mary Shelley’s original MS. for Frankenstein has been saved thanks to a grant. The draft, with Shelley’s handwritten corrections, can now be found at Oxford’s Bodleian library.

Books I Did Not Read This Year

This whole gambit reminds me of that moment in David Lodge’s Small World where academics confessed titles they had not read. I’ll see Crooked Timber’s list, and raise the ante with more egregious not-reads, this year or any other year:

1. Anything written by Jhumpa Lahiri
2. Brick Lane by Monica Ali
3. Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
4. Anything written by the Believer ultra-vixens (Vida & Julavits)
5. The Bug by Ellen Ullman
6. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
7. Anything written by ZZ Packer
8. Anything written by J.M. Coetzee
9. Anything written by Jane Smiley
10. Anything written by Kinky Friedman
11. My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey
12. Bruce Wagner’s cellphone trilogy

Boo yah, baby! Take that!

Of course, I was too busy reading Quicksilver, catching up on William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Kevin Starr’s California Dream books, Robert Caro’s LBJ biographies, and Richard Powers, along with discovering folks like Frederick Prokosch and John P. Marquand, the latter now judged by the silly copy you see on his covers. (He ain’t delicious trash, baby. He’s a clean writer; a tad dated perhaps, but no less relevant. Write a novel more brilliant than Sincerely, Willis Wayde and then come back to me, darling.)

But, really, where do you people find the time to read all this stuff? What dimensional plane do you folks saunter off to? Or perhaps my rampant quasi-literacy has a lot to do with the fact that I’m attracted to big books, generally around 700 pages or so, written in microscopic fonts and requiring regular assualts on the unabridged.

Forgotten Legacy

From Kevin Starr’s Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era:

The Chinese had preceded the Japanese into the fields of California. By 1880 fully one-third of the state?s agricultural labor was Chinese. As the Chinese presence in agriculture increased in the 1870s with the fall-off of mining, so did violence against them. On 15 March 1877, for instance, an organization of white gunman calling itself the Order of Caucasians broke into a cabin of Chinese workers near Chico, robbed the immigrants, then set fire to the cabin, killing four Chinese men. After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 [the first anti-immigration bill at a national level, passed shortly after the transcontinental railroad] cut off Chinese immigration to California entirely, the Chinese held their own in rural California for a while but tended in the 1890s to drift back into cities and towns. At first, as the Chinese left the countryside in search of better opportunities, the large-scale farmers and ranchers of California gave serious consideration to importing blacks from the South to the replace them, but by the 1890s not blacks but Italians, Portugese, Japanese, and later Mexicans began to replace the Chinese in the fields.

By 1900 nearly half, 45 percent, of California?s total farm labor was Japanese. At first the Japanese underbid their competition, including the lingering Chinese work force, in order to gain a foothold. They entered the fields strongly organized, hiring themselves out through kieyaku-nin, trusted middlemen who negotiated contracts and guaranteed living arrangements, including smoothly functioning eating and boarding clubs and other support services. Once they had eliminated the competition through low bidding and efficiency, the Japanese began to behave just like union labor: controlling their numbers to keep wages high, negotiating one grower against another, organizing quick strikes when they felt exploited, boycotting farmers they did not like. They also began to rent land whenever they could and eventually to buy their own farms. Skilled in intensive farming (their California farms averaged 54.7 acres), Japanese agriculturists were capable of paying higher rents or paying more to own marginal land ($15 an acre in 1910, when the going rate was $10) because they could coax a higher yield from the soil once it was theirs.

By 1910 some 1,816 California farms, for a total of 99,524 acres in Los Angeles, Orange, Fresno and Sacramento counties, most of it in vegetables, potatoes, fruit, berries, grapes, sugar beets, and other intensive crops, were controlled by Japanese. By 1913, 281,687 acres were in Japanese hands, either owned or leased; 383,287 acres by 1920. One San Joaquin Delta farmer, George Shima, who arrived in California as a young laborer, controlled 28,000 acres by 1913, from which came 85 percent of California?s potato crop, earning Shima the undisputed title of Potato King. Not only did the Japanese outdistance all other groups in farm ownership, they also established an interlocking network of marketing cooperatives and protective associations, presided over by the United Japanese Deliberative Council in Northern California and the Central Japanese Association in the South.

Bested in farm ownership, outproduced, outmarketed, excluded from employment (only George Shima showed any willingness to hire non-Japanese labor), white California grew envious, then angry, then overtly anti-Japanese, complaining, as did Elwood Mead, of the impending Asiaticization of California agriculture. The major offense offered by Japanese success was that it cut to the core of a dream that just was not working: small family farms for white California.

The Cole Valleyites

Cole Valley seems to be populated by a sizable faction of urban professionals who can kindly be described as Gavin Newsom voters, and can less kindly be referred to as smug, elitist fuckheads. I do my best to ignore these people, living by a maxim I once overheard while working at the docks (“Whatever floats your fuckin’ boat, motherfucker.”). The intent of this quote, as passed from one day laborer to another, was less benign. But the basic principle still holds water.

Despite my willful avoidance, these people accost me. They approach me as I’m scribbling shit down in a notebook. Or if I’m walking up to the Haight. I dress prgamtic. A shirt and blue jeans. Sometimes a T-shirt. And, yes, I wear a pair of Timberlands, but fuck you. How the hell was I supposed to know that these were au courant couture at the Great Mall of America? All I know is that I went to the shoestore and found a fairly robust pair to serve my needs. And then I started seeing the ads every Sunday in the New York Times Magazine. Goddammit.

I wear glasses. But some days I forget to shave. Outside of a receding hairlilne, there is nothing about me that says “yuppie scum.” Or so I believe.

Tonight, as I was walking up Cole, it happened again. Shortly after a homeless man, trundling north with a sleeping bag on his shoulder, asked me for change (my wallet was exhausted of cash and I apologized), I overheard another man behind me, a Cole Valleyite, a thirtyish man who had shaved his pate to disguise the fact that he had no hair on top, sporting some sort of bullshit L.L. Bean chamois. Cole Valley was trying to “understand” this man, but not giving him a damn thing in the way of change or compassion. His right, of course. Judging by the slow gait and the weary expression, the homeless guy had seen it all. But then Cole Valley started kvetching to the homeless guy about how many times he was panhandled on any given day.

Then the following conversation went down:

COLE VALLEY: Did you hear what I said to that guy?

ED: [ignoring him]

COLE VALLEY: I said, did you hear what I said to him? Goddam. Fuck. Biggest headache living in this City is how many times I get panhandled.

ED: The biggest headache in this City is that no one has the plan or the wherewithal to do something for the homeless.

COLE VALLEY: That bleeding heart liberal I was nineteen, twenty, he’s dead.

ED: No remnants?

COLE VALLEY: Fuck that, man. You live here long enough, you get wise. You and Michael Moore are so fucking clueless, you know that?

ED: Michael Moore doesn’t speak for me, man.

COLE VALLEY: If I lived in any other city, I’d be a liberal. Here I’m a conservative. Anti-death penalty and I’m a conservative. This is the greatest fucking country in the world.

ED: I hear you.

COLE VALLEY: You know what Howard Stern says about Michael Moore? He says he’s a left-wing Limbaugh with worse hygiene. [walking away]

If I was still a brash, choleric twenty-two, I would have beat the shit out of him. But not today. Let the guy walk away. Because one day, if he talks like that with the wrong person listening, his mouth is going to get him into some major trouble.

A Guest Column from Patti Thorn

[Because Mr. Champion has become temporarily unavailable due to the holidays, Return of the Reluctant turns over the rest of today’s content to Patti Thorn of the Rocky Mountain News. Ms. Thorn has graciously offered to expand upon her previously expressed concerns within these trusted waters.]

Dear Motherfuckin’ Santa: Goddam you and the reindeer you rode in on. Rudolph can lift his leg and piss on David Remnick’s head for all I care. And while we’re at it, let Graydon Carter choke on those Dunhills he’s always sneaking into his office. I’m Condé Nasty, you son of a bitch. And don’t you forget it!

thorn.jpgI’m writing this open letter to you for three reasons. First, my Prozac prescription ran out. Since that thin girl behind the counter always wears a Santa hat, I figured that you were the one I should address.

Second, the Rocky Mountain News editor-in-chief has accused me of suffering from a rare apoplexy known to affect book critics. How dare he! Michiko may go a little crazy from time to time, Laura Miller may remain humorless and John Updike may very well be steeped in formal language. But, outside of Dale Peck, that doesn’t make us any less important or any less sane! When I left the hospital shortly before I embarked on my journalistic career, I was given a Certificate of Sanity. You better believe I earned that thing, taking tests, mopping floors, getting in touch with my inner child. I stood on the dais next to the other young ladies jumping up and down in red robes. They may have filled the halls with their terrifying ululations. But I stood still, even when I felt the temptation within my solar plexus to howl to the seven winds. Their saliva oozed down their pendulous chins, Santa. But, oh no, not mine. I kept my reserve. The antidrool impulse inside me was impeccable. Months of telling myself that there was always something else to blame seemed to put things into perspective. I had a small paper napkin, something I had stolen from the kitchen long before. After carrying this napkin with me for six months, this final rite empowered me to use it. I wiped the corners of my mouth. I remained misty-eyed, yes, in light of the ritualistic transition to sanity. But other than this, my face was clean. Antiseptic. The man shook my hand, handed me my certificate, and said, “Go! Go, Young Patti! To the moutains, you shall find your destiny!” I replied, “Thank you, Uncle Ted. I will spend the rest of my time on this earth looking up.” Well, Santa, you know where I am today.

I can’t quite remember the third reason, but I’m pretty sure it involved you delivering some editorial assistant’s head on a platter. I’ve always had a thing for Baptists named John.

In conclusion, books are troubling things. The words wend and blur when I stare at the page. And those publishers. Who do they think they are? Why does the newspaper pay me? Why do I read? Why do I write?

My therapist says that I should look within for answers. But why effect personal achievement when I can take out my frustrations on a small readership?


A Perplexed Critic on the Edge,

On the Run

Move over, Ali (Muhammad, not Monica). MIT scientist Michael Hawley has created the largest book. And he has the Guinness credentials (the record, not the beer) to prove it. Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Kingdom is 5′ X 7′, 112 pages and costs $2,000 to produce. Hawley’s charging $10,000, with the balance going to charity.

Madonna’s interested in a Ph.D. I don’t know what’s more frightening: the idea that Madonna has intellectual pursuits or this photo. (via Bookslut) [UPDATE: Well, goddam. Maud reports it’s a hoax! That’s what I get for racing through the newswires in a hurry.]

Richard Kopley has tracked down an unexpected Hawthorne inspiration source: an anonymous novel entitled The Salem Belle.

Hilary Clinton: “‘I love independent bookstores. I tried to go to as many of them as I could on this book tour. I had promised to try to go to the top markets and I’m slowly but surely checking them off.” Funny. The Simon Says site seems to be down, but she sure seems to be hitting a lot of Barnes & Nobles.

[Insert your obligatory Moses/Rasputin/Unabomber/Nostradamus-Hussein comparison here. Ha ha.]

Heft, Hate, Outlines and Vanity

Looks like Vollman’s got competition. Muhammad Ali’s definitive life story weighs 75 pounds, runs 800 pages, costs £2,000, and includes over 3,000 photographs. The mammoth bio, however, is a team effort, with contributions by Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe. However, Greatest of All Time does suffer from an unfortunate acronym.

The Bakersfield yokels are hoping to ban Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye from classrooms. Because anything dealing with sexual abuse and racism is, you know, “provocative.”

Patrick O’Brian’s unfinished 21st book in the Aubrey-Maturin series is being talked about for possible publication. O’Brian had an outline and a few chapters. But thankfully HarperCollins doesn’t plan on hiring a ghostwriter.

Forget Zoe Trope and the Gen Y spokesperson fracas over at Moby Lives. Factor in vanity presses and there’s plenty of speakers to go around, albeit unreadable ones. Mom and twelve year old are trying the self-publishing racket.

And is this headline the case of an overtaxed copy editor ready to slit his own throat because of all the Xmas hype?

Bad Santa

Bad Santa is a beautiful movie. It’s the kind of risk-taking, no-holds-barred razor held against a sacred cow that comes but once in a generation. I think Alexander Payne’s going to be duking it out with Terry Zwigoff over who gets to fire the satirical howitzers.

Only someone foolish enough to buy in completely to the hypocrisy that is Xmas would hate it. If that’s your thing, go see Elf instead. Bad Santa has at least five kicks to the crotch. It features an antihero who has no compunction about fucking heavy-set ladies in the Plus Size fitting room, but has problems being accused of “fornicating.” It has an indelible image of Billy Bob Thornton and Tony Cox walking across a parking lot in slow-motion, Thornton with a bottle of bourbon and a cigarette. It includes John Ritter in a great role as a politically correct manager who was “against the Clinton impeachment.” It has Bernie Mac as a man who cannot stop putting terrible things into his mouth. It has a sweet, pudgy kid who remains a hapless believer in the face of misery. It has Ajay Naidu from Office Space as a lunatic looking for a fight. It has one of the best dwarf roles seen in cinema since Even Dwarves Started Small. It features a woman who cries, “Fuck me Santa. Fuck me Santa,” in the back of a car.

It is unapologetically dark. It will piss off the prissy. But, strangely enough, you’ll come away feeling damned good about the human race. Bad Santa is probably one of the funniest films I’ve seen this year. Joe Bob says check it out.

Literary Grandson to Launch Unexpected Career

mailerbaby.jpgIn response to the recent news that 25 year old John Buffalo Mailer, the youngest child of Norman Mailer, will be taken over the reins of High Times, Return of the Reluctant has learned that Ishmael Harris Bellow, the illegitimate grandson of novelist Saul Bellow (and little-known son of Adam Bellow), age 2, will become editor-in-chief of Playboy Magazine.

“We needed credibility,” said original founder Hugh Hefner. “Someone in touch with the next generation’s tastes.”

The decision to hire Bellow came hot on the heels of other noted family involvements (Drew Barrymore’s mom and Michelle Pfeiffer’s sister, to name two pictorial collaborations). Magazine insiders report that the Bellow decision, not unlike the Mailer hire, is nothing less than a desperate attempt to boost sales of a magazine that has lost its cultural relevance.

“Hugh Hefner is the worst publisher of his generation,” said Dale Peck, who then declared Playboy “homophobic” because it had refused to publish his stories.

“Goo goo ga!” replied Bellow, who then demanded to be burped and had two unpaid editorial interns close the door to his spacious Manhattan office.

Dale Peck Statistics

Number of times the word “gay” is mentioned in the profile:

Salon: 3
James Atlas’s NYT Profile: 3
The Guardian: 2
Gawker: 0

Word Count of Profiles:

Salon: 2,629
James Atlas’s NYT Profile: 4,123
The Guardian: 3,288
Gawker: 2,379

Comparatively, Approximate Word Counts for Classic Short Stories:

O. Henry, “The Gift of the Magi”: 2,000
James Thurber, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”: 2,050
Ray Bradbury, “A Sound of Thunder”: 4,300
Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”: 6,200

A Sure Way to Keep Dale Peck from Manhattan: “For the next year I am working for Howard Dean or whatever Democrat gets the nomination or whenever Hillary decides to enter the race, I guess. And if a Democrat wins, I will be far more prone to stay, but if George W. Bush is reelected I think I really want to leave and just get the hell out of Dodge.”

Dale Flexing His Wit : “I am not sure if you can print this. But they are a bunch of pussies.”

If You Disagree With Peck, You’re…: “ditch-dirty stupid” or “homophobic.”

The James Atlas Memorial Brown Nose Generalization Award: “This really is a man writing, as the cliché has it, for his life: Domestic violence is a gift and postmodernism is the religion through which he interprets it.”

Dubious Peck Prose Sample: Zoetrope, “Making Book”: “‘Fuck off!’ I yelled at the TV in general and at Ace’s ass in particular, but with the video paused and the television suddenly silent–there had been a bass track, courtesy of these two like totally obnoxious dudes who’d been next to us on the beach, but it disappeared when I paused the video–I could almost see my words carry past the television to my door, and then push on through to my mom at the top of the stairs.”

Better Peck Prose Sample: Zoetrope, “Bliss”: “The shapeless clouds, the crisp diamond lattice of the chain-link fence through which I saw them, the fat gate guard, his uniform stretched so taut across the gelid curves of his body that it seemed to cry out for the pierce of bullet or knife. Black eye-shaped puddles reflected the limestone walls of the prison and rendered them hollow, insubstantial, penetrable, until a car traveling the length of the parking lot spat grit into them, causing the walls to disappear momentarily. Then the water stilled, revealing the image of Shenandoah Manson. He was dressed in stiff jeans and a chambray shirt faded nearly white, the sleeves rolled up over arms nearly as faded, and etched by pale blue veins and razor-blade-and-Bic-ink tattoos of Jesus, Mary, and a snarling Ford pickup.”

Slow Fade to Black

Jan Wong has some great tips on how to kill your journalistic career. “Try to come across as sympathetic, nice and non-threatening,” she says to aspiring journalists. Wong apparently reads through hundreds of articles, looking for contradictions. That kind of preparatory work is fine. But Wong isn’t applying her bum rush approach to sacred cows. Instead of going after potential contradictions within the story of a breast cancer survivor performing self-biopsies in Antarctica, Wong asked her subject about her troubled marital woes. And when a Beijing University student approached Wong for help in fleeing to the West, Wong turned the student over to the Communist Party.

And that’s not all. After putting away her tape recorder and paper, Royal Bank CEO John Cleghorn confessed to Wong off the record that his wife had, at one point, left him. Wong used the quote anyway.

It’s one thing to be a muckraker, asking the tough questions and exposing the hypocrisies within a subject. Rattling the chains is what good honest journalism is all about. But when trust means nothing, when one cannot distinguish between the interview environment and the off-the-record comments that subjects confess sotto voce (I’ve heard more than a few in my on-again, off-again work and, no, I ain’t fessin’), then what’s the point of journalism? In the long run, as more subjects catch whiff of Jan Wong’s style, they’ll be less likely to reveal anything or even present themselves for an interview.

This is exactly what happened to Rex Reed. Reed made a name for himself in the 1960s with frank, confessional pieces (if you can find it, the now out-of-print Do You Sleep in the Nude? includes some of these career-building interviews), even earning Tom Wolfe’s seal of approval, before he humiliated Warren Beatty in Esquire. The Beatty interview (in name only) involved Reed writing a lengthy profile about trying to interview Beatty, using hearsay and unsubstantiated facts in an effort to sabotage him as a has-been, just as Bonnie & Clyde was to be released to the American public. It didn’t work. Predictably, Reed’s career drifted away from profiles, towards uneducated and flamboyant film reviews (case in point: read the end of this Roger Ebert Jurassic Park 3 review) — all best avoided, unless you think the vapidity of People Magazine is sui generis. The Reed-Beatty “interview” is now regarded as a textbook example of dishonest journalism.

Of course, Wong’s hypocrisy has had a few side effects. The article also notes that Wong can be found cowering from Margaret Atwood and Allan Fotheringham at Toronto writer functions. My guess is that in ten years’ time, we’ll find Wong replacing some major critic on a Canadian movie reviews program, before writing a column that nobody reads in a major Toronto newspaper.

The Voices of Authors

The New York Times (user: dr_mabuse, pw: mabse): “When A. A. Milne reads from ‘Winnie-the-Pooh,’ his creations sound like Victorian gents ? soothing, paternal Victorian gents reading a bedtime story, it’s true, but rather Victorian nonetheless…..Virginia Woolf is startling for a different reason. The voice that is so graceful and elegant on the page sounds deep and distressingly like that of an effete schoolmarm…..Arthur Conan Doyle is as crisp and straightforward as you’d expect Sherlock Holmes’s creator to be, explaining how he decided to write a story in which, he says, ‘science would take the place of chance.’….And although there is a crackling sound behind the 1890 recording of Tennyson reading ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade,’ it captures how well his sonorous reading suits the heroic attitude of the poem.”

Incredibly, you can listen to a few samples of these recordings online. Doyle is, yes indeedy, beautifully crisp with a charming Scottish lilt. Florence Nightingale, who was recorded at age 70, is edgy and feisty, offering us a hint of the grand reformer she was early in life. And Edith Sitwell reads William Walton’s “Man from a far countree” along with an orchestra, but she doesn’t seem to know whether she should sing or read. And Edgar Wallace, who was the UK king of the mysteries during the 1920s, is more formal than you might expect for a man describing horrific behavior.

Putter Patter Silver Platter

Hugh Hefner plans to auction off his black books. Among the entries? “Big blonde from ‘Wild Women of Wongo.'”

Brian Stillman remembers Hal Clement.

Stories from Eric Kraft at The Hamptons.

Life working at B&N (via Maud).

Sad news from Ohio: Almost half of the third-graders failed a reading test, with a wide gap in race. And in Scotland, half of the 14 year-olds failed a national writing test. Writing of an altogether different sort might be in the horizon for NYC subways.

And a comparative oldie, but a goodie: J.M. Coetzee’s Nobel speech.

[1/20/06 UPDATE: What I didn’t know at the time was that The Wild Women of Wongo was a bona-fide film directed by James L. Wolcott (no relation as far as I know to the blogger) and not a secret codeword at all. This Wolcott, apparently born in 1907, is still alive. But which of the blondes did Hugh Hefner bed? Further, the black book question raises other issues, such as whether other celebrities’ black books are worth auctioning. And is Hef’s black book the closest we get to Casanova’s memoirs?]

The Golden Scam

I don’t have cable. Hell, aside from a DVD every now and then, I barely turn my television on. But Gary Dretzka’s TV Barn column makes me wish I did have cable, if only for an hour. It seems that Trio’s got sixty salacious minutes making the rounds. A modest tell-all ditty from When We Were Kings director Vikram Jayanti called The Golden Globes: Hollywood’s Dirty Little Secret. The doc goes into length on how the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the junket whores behind the Golden Globes, is granted endless loot and, well beyond the shameful nod to Pia Zidora in 1982 and other dubious merits, the awards ceremony is inclined to favor young, dumb, and full of come mythos.

Jeffrey Wells has more on the subject: “With relatively few exceptions, the HFPA members are a bunch of eager-beaver pseudo-journalists (a fair portion of them write for publications in Germany and Japan) who smile much too broadly and get far too excited when celebrities are in the room. They’re not ardent admirers of the art of motion pictures as much as people who appreciate huge bowls of tasty shrimp sitting on studio-supplied buffet tables. They’re pigs who squeal on cue in order to flatter Hollywood and keep themselves feeding at the trough.”

It’s not unlike what seems to be going down in the literary world of late, at least as Choire Sicha reports it.

(It looks like there was some serendipity in finding the links, but Greencine Daily led me to Wells.)

Rictus in Training?


newsomhair.jpgWhat disturbs me more than the mouth is that not one of his follicles is out of place. If ever there was a poster boy for pomade, Gavin Newsom is it. Too bad he couldn’t straighten his tie though. But that could be the hard front lighting.

[1/20/06 UPDATE: I should note that, at the time I wrote this post, I was looking for any kind of chinks that I could find in Mayor Newsom’s carapace, short of cracking jokes about his crumbling marriage. I voted for Matt Gonzalez (he was the long-haired, far left candidate and he lost) and to easily explain the niceties of the 2003 San Francisco mayoral race to out-of-towners, the only way I could do this without droning on for 15 minutes, delineating each candidate by positions and the like, was to concentrate exclusively on each candidate’s hair. Presumably, this spilled over after for a few months after the election and made its way here. But in light of what he accomplished only a few months later, I learned to like Gavin — certainly a lot more than Willie Brown, the slick milliner of hopeless corruption who preceded him.]

Nureyev By Subway

Who’s Got the Biggest Balls of All? “Does one really need the perimeter of three subway seats to provide salvation for the sensitive seed?….Bizarre that the same boys who cringed at junior high school calisthenics are now exercising their manhood with the barbaric bravado of Baryshnikov.” (via Maud, who has more to say on the subject).

The odd thing is that here in San Francisco, only the young gangsta wannabes seem to do this. But then the fact of the matter is that our subway cars are too crammed at rush hour to allow for this. But I suspect there’s a correlation to the male need to read while on the crapper. (Oddly enough, while I’ve been known to read in the buff, I don’t like the idea of reading as I defecate. Or shortly after.)

An Open Letter to Sara Bauer

Dear Young Woman Who Writes Snotty and Unfunny Open Letters for McSweeney’s:

The first moment I read you, I knew you were the same. The same as all those other passive-aggressive tidbits they seem to publish over there. Here, in the midst of (not amidst?) these publishing conglomerates, was independent prose. Look at her relentless second-person stance! Look at the soft snark extant within the piece, hypocritically unchecked from Julavits and Vida, addressed to no one in particular! How convenient! My partially digested dinner went up my esophagus and out my mouth to you.

I know it’s hard for you. Most McSweeney’s writers are thirtysomething Donald Barthleme wannabes who wouldn’t know funny if it bit them on the ass. I know you deal with wanting to get published, sans compensation, in this environment, and having to proffer the wonted generalizations. Your cowriters like you, but they receive the same rejection notices, because they really don’t understand you. They’ve read the same books you’ve read, they continually revere people like Julie Orringer as sages (“It is extremely important to hang out with non-writers and be interested in things that have nothing to do with writing.” Duh.), and fail to ponder the intellectual value of hunky authors and authoresses salivating over, rather than questioning seasoned veterans like Joan Didion.

You’re lonely. Writing’s a lonely racket. And you want to find someone who will publish you. But you’ve picked the wrong target, missy. That Chain Bookstore Worker’s probably just doing her job, working close to minimum wage, and using any leverage she can get in the smiles department to get through the day, to deal with smug fucks like you, because she’s quasi-literate at best and she’d like to read more. But there’s that second job to get to.

The world, you see, isn’t all about you after all. And should you ever publish a book, I will photocopy your little satire and distribute it amongst workers at Barnes & Noble and Borders. I will watch as they move your book away from a prime spot in the new books section and into some poorly lit corner. Because chain bookstore clerks are people and they do read. And I will laugh my ass off.


Edward Champion

[1/21/06 UPDATE: Sara Bauer, incidentally, never contributed another piece to McSweeney’s again, nor contributed anywhere else. The only trace that I can find of her online is Ths online petition. Presumably, she has become a busy student at Butler University. Perhaps it had something to do with McSweeney’s online move from letters to bulleted lists. Bauer’s piece, however, isn’t the only time where the mean-spirited streak of McSweeney’s revealed itself. But I do hope that this post helped Bauer realize that snotty, mean-spirited humor, particularly of an elitist and insensitive stripe, is the mark of a one-trick pony.]

No More Politics Until March 1

Sure, I’m a bit disappointed. Derek, meanwhile, is ready to draw blood in a post entitled “Motherfucker.” I should remind Derek that in the 1999 runoff, Ammiano lost to Brown by 40,000 votes. Gonzalez, meanwhile, tonight lost by a mere 10,000 votes. Sure, it sucks. But this is progress. By all reports, the Gonzalez campaign was disorganized. The Newsom folks hit upon the brilliant idea of victory by absentees. And the voter turnout in the Bayview/Hunters Point, Visitation Valley, and Ingleside areas was nothing short of abysmal, because neither of the candidates wanted to recruit the downtrodden. But don’t listen to me. Look at the precinct breakdown on the SF Department of Elections page.

But, really, that’s enough about politics until March 1, 2004. This blog, in its return, has become polluted with simplistic liberal sentiments within its slightly more informed opinions on literature and the like. And who needs more of that? It’s about as unpalatable as suffering through another warblog. As such, I shall make every effort not to mention politics until things heat up in the inevitable Dean-Bush showdown next year. You deserve better than my chiaroscuro.

Perhaps I should mention that I’m casually drunk right now.

[8/9/05 UPDATE: Boy, there used to be a lot of posts here put up in the evenings after drinking. In the end, I finally figured out that answering email or composing blog entries probably isn’t wise after a few glasses of wine or whiskey. I should still probably drink much less than I do. One of the reasons I refrain from writing about politics (although not thinking about them) all the time is that such silly statements as the above (“the inevitable Dean-Bush showdown”) become so ridiculously dated in mere months. One of the risks with anyone I suppose.]