Posting will be light over the next couple of days. I won’t go into the details, but it’s been the kind of week that drags you through a deep residue of pigshit, kicks you repeatedly in the gut, and presents conditions that challenge you to rise with grace, faith in humanity, and your dignity intact. (And it makes generous shoutouts like this that much more special.) Plus, I have serious rewriting to do.

In the meantime, check out Laila’s interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, watch Sam’s space for upcoming musings on literary theory, and hope that guest blogger Kevin Wignall doesn’t fall prey to dial-up noise over at Sarah’s grand pasture.

Super Speed Dating

CONDITIONS: Each participant has five seconds to talk to a member of the opposite sex before the buzzer sounds. The participant is then hied away to another table with another participant and another conversation. This procedure ensures that all participants dwell upon that pivotal first impression, which is, as unspecified studies show, the most telling indicator in finding a long-term mate or at least a good lay.

CANDIDATE 1: “So tell me about yourself.”
ME: “Well, I’m…”


ME: “What’s your name?”
CANDIDATE 2: “Rachel. What’s yours?”
ME: “E….”


ME: “We don’t have much time.”
CANDIDATE 3: “I know.”
ME: “You…”


ME: “High maintenance?”
CANDIDATE 4: “No, low.”
ME: “Sweet.”

BUZZ. Short break. Coffee and bagels with lowfat cream cheese are served.

ME: “I think I’m getting the hang of this.”


CANDIDATE 5: “Do you like it standing up?”
ME: “Depends. I…”


ME: “First impression?”
CANDIDATE 6: “You stink.”
ME: “You don’t.”
CANDIDATE 6: “Good.”


ME: “This is silly.”
CANDIDATE 7: “Got a phone number?”
ME: “Sure. 415…”


ME: “Quick. Tell me your favorite color!”


The organizer then asked me if I hit it off with any of the candidates. I mention that there was an ineluctable plus with Candidate 5, but I was more interested in learning Candidate 8’s favorite color. Candidate 5, however, had found someone who could articulate his sexual proclivities quicker and the two had disappeared from the rented room. Strangely enough, Candidate 6 thought that we had a connection, but that was only because I was the only man who hadn’t shivered shortly after talking with her.

I went home and watched Jeopardy alone. Somehow, I was able to fire off answers faster than the contestants.

Tanenhaus/Keller Watch

A few days ago, I feared that Tanenhaus was turning the Times into a book form of TV Guide Insider. Today, the ongoing trend of cerebral profiles of pop authors with the aw-shucks human interest angle continued. Today’s profiles are an interview with Intimacies author Eric Brown and another with Tom McNulty, concerning his book Clean Like a Man: Housekeeping for Men (and the Women Who Love Them. Intimacies is a novel composed of emails, IMs and websites, which, as Sarah suggested this morning, is akin to partying like it’s 1999. And it’s safe to say that years from now, Clean Like a Man won’t be remembered with the same enthusiasm as, oh say, Gulag or even Final Exit. So why give it credence?

When you apply NYT highbrow syntax to everyday situations, it comes off as damn absurd:

“The challenge is summed up neatly in a piece of advice on changing sheets.”

“Mr. McNulty is careful not to disturb the dust on men’s attitudes and habits involving housekeeping, and he has an innate respect for their haplessness toward cleaning chores and their particular pride of place.”

“The stain removal chapter is a litmus for the presence of men at home.”

“He works with what he calls his M.C.U., or mobile cleaning unit, which is a double bucket with cleaning agents like Pledge and Windex that operates as his basic handyman’s kit in each room.”

“Mr. McNulty is not perfect yet, as a white glove test revealed.”

“Although they have attracted a lot of attention, digital epistolary and message fiction like ‘Intimacies’ are not the only electronic forms of literature vying for attention on the Web.”

“Still, Mr. Brown’s digital novel has drawn praise from some scholars interested in new media, especially those who hope to take e-literature mainstream.”

It would be one thing if the content had something to do with the latest from Stephen Elliott or David Mitchell. Under the aegis of an actual idea, we might buy sentences like this. But as I read these offerings, I felt as if I was being bathed in a lukewarm light blinking in a dark, fetid room. Each sentence represents an effort to suffuse flash on a surface of nothingness.

If this is the way it’s going to be, I fear that Tanenhaus’s early efforts are tarnishing the Times. Where’s Eurotrash on this?

[UPDATE: It suddenly occurs to me that the two profiles came, respectively, from the Circuits and Garden sections, and that Tanenhaus isn’t necessarily responsible. Even so, the articles were placed in prominent slots on the online Books section as of this afternoon. Why would anybody serious about books be interested in this thing? I suspect Bill Keller’s hand has been caught in the cookie jar.]

Censorship in Germany

Chancellor Schroeder has obtained a court ban against a novel that involves a shopkeeper assassinating a chancellor. The titular and dying charater in Reinhard Liebermann’s The End of the Chancellor: Shooting in Self-Defence apparently bore close resemblance to Schroeder.

By contrast, here in the States, Stephen Coonts’ Under Seige had no problems including an explicit assassination attempt on President Bush I (with the truly terrifying result of Dan Quayle taking over the nation). And in Loren Singer’s novel, The Parallax View, there was a presidential assassination (unlike the A-1 Alan Pakula movie, which took a few liberties with the text).

Woody Allen Downgraded from Multimillionaire to Millionaire

The Post: “Sources tell The Post’s Braden Keil that the Woodman has gone to contract on his 40-foot-wide Carnegie Hill mansion for just $2 million less than his asking price of $27 million. Brokers thought the comedian had gone bananas when he put the 22-room house on the market last September. Spies now say that Allen is looking to spend about half that amount for a smaller home in the East 70s or 80s.”

Guess the tell-all biography bidding war wasn’t enough to keep the mansion. Can we expect Woody’s next film to be about a neurotic New Yorker ready to let loose his personal demons upon the publishing world while watching his fortune dwindle?

Bush Applied to Contemporary Life

Recently, President Bush addressed the nation in a press conference. He offered many answers to questions on Iraq. In an effort to understand the Bush administration’s motivations, I’ve tried applying some of Bush’s answers to everyday situations.

BUSH: “It’s not a civil war; it’s not a popular uprising.”
ME (to Peet’s employee): “It’s not a cup of coffee; it’s not a popular uprising.”
PEET’S EMPLOYEE: “No, sir. It’s a cup of coffee. Revolution has nothing to do with it. Please leave.”

BUSH: “The nation of Iraq is moving toward self-rule, and Iraqis and Americans will see evidence in the months to come.”
ME (to IRS): “The nation of America is moving toward self-rule, and America and the IRS will see evidence in the months to come.”
IRS: “Actually, sir, if you don’t pay your taxes on April 15, you will face severe penalties and arrest.”

BUSH: “Iraqi’s neighbors also have responsibilities to make their region more stable.”
ME (to landlord): “My neighbors also have responsibilities to make their apartments more stable.”
LANDLORD: “If you have a legitimate gripe, fill out this grievance form.”

BUSH: “Over the last several decades, we’ve seen that any concession or retreat on our part will only embolden this enemy and invite more bloodshed.”
ME (to sibling): “Over the last several decades, we’ve seen that any concession or retreat on our part will only embolden our family and invite more internecine disputes.”
SIBLING: “Ed, do you need a hug?”

BUSH: “And as to whether or not I make decisions based upon polls, I don’t. I just don’t make decisions that way. I fully understand the consequences of what we’re doing. We’re changing the world. And the world will be better off and America will be more secure as a result of the actions we’re taking.
ME (to co-host of party): “And as to whether or not I organize parties based upon other people’s opinions, I don’t. I just don’t make decisions that way. I fully understand the consequences of what we’re doing. We’re changing the party. And the party will be better off and the apartment will be more secure as a result of the plans we’re making.”
CO-HOST: “All right. But don’t count on any future invitations.”

BUSH: “I hope I — I don’t want to sound like I’ve made no mistakes. I’m confident I have. I just haven’t — you just put me under the spot here, and maybe I’m not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one.”
ME (to lover trying to reconcile relationship): “I hope I — I don’t want to sound like I’ve made no mistakes. I’m confident I have. I just haven’t — you just put me under the spot here, and maybe I’m not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one.”
LOVER: “Jesus, can’t you take any kind of initiative?”

BUSH: “And my message to the loved ones who are worried about their sons, daughters, husbands, wives, is: You’re loved one is performing a noble service for the cause of freedom and peace.”
ME (downsizing employee): “And my message to your loved ones who are worried about how you will support your family is: Your loved one has performed a noble service for the cause of capitalism and profit.”
EMPLOYEE: “Oh, just give me my severance pay and shut up.”

Politics and Literature

Recently, Orson Scott Card wrote an inflammatory essay that’s about as vile a screed as one can write. However, he is also the author of Ender’s Game (a good book) and a solid writer. Maud writes that she won’t be reading him. Jessa notes that a novel and a political essay are separate conduits. I’m inclined to agree with Jessa. If politics was a factor in my own fictional choices, then I’d have to discount Action Francaise member Andre Gide, Nazi Knut Hamsun, right-wing isolationist Robert A. Heinlein, and fascist Ezra Pound (or, for that matter, anti-feminist Dave Sim’s strong early Cerebus work), to name just a few. And that would, in my view at least, be a tragedy.

While I can understand it when someone is bothered by the poltical motivations of an author (name a single person who really wants to read another bloated Barbara Kingsolver essay), I’m troubled by the idea that an author’s political viewpoint spreads like a vicious cancer into his work. This morning, Mark posed a question about whether politics makes for great art. The only immediate examples that came to my head were Elizabeth Gaskell, Arthur Miller, and Margaret Atwood. But even in these offerings, the politics is relatively subdued, more subject to a reader’s individual impressions. It’s a far more subtle thing for Atwood to point out the politics of gender in Cat’s Eye by showing us how girls are reluctant to touch bugs in a university building, implying that 1940s society carried an unspoken stigma that an entomologist’s line was verboeten to women. The great thing about Willie Loman is how both the lower-class can identify with Loman’s struggles for success, while the successful businessman can relate to Loman’s sense of failure. It is human behavior which guides art. Sometimes, the behavior is politically charged, but more often or not, it is the reader’s own political sensibilities that make the connections.

As amusing as David Kipen’s Tanenhaus column is, there’s the deeper question of why Tanenhaus’s politics matter so much — at least, in relation to the fiction coverage. (And full confession: I still have concerns that “liberal” nonfiction books won’t be covered as abundantly as they were under Chip McGrath’s tenure.) In all the top ten lists listed at Barnhardt’s, is there a single political one on the list? Although a case can be made for Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, there’s the question of whether it’s a politically charged novel with echoes of Huey Long or a novel about seduction and selling out. Again, personal sensibilities determine the individual reader’s distinction.

So add me to the list of curious bystanders. Can anyone take up Mark’s challenge and name a Great Political Novel and explain why it succeeded?

[UPDATE: Maud and Rasputin respond.]

Textbook Price-Fixing Under Fire

For those following the exorbitant textbook issue, there’s some interesting reform going on up in Oregon. Oregon Congressman David Wu has proposed a bill that would require the U.S. General Accounting Office to report on the circumstances that lead a textbook publisher to set prices. The legislation was sparked by students in Oregon and California complaining about being fleeced. However, Pat Schroeder, president of the Association of American Publishers, noted in the CNN article that the student report was flawed.

The Blog Warrior

James Marcus: “Already there are turf wars, low-level spats. No doubt a pecking order will gradually materialize, since even cyberspace operates according to the familiar logic of Animal Farm: All bloggers are created equal, but some are more equal than others. There will be stars, contract players, boffo traffic numbers. There will be a proliferation of advertising on the most visible sites — there is already, in fact — and a defiant tug-of-war between the early bloggers and their entrepreneurial successors.”

NEW YORK (AP): Lit blogger Edward Champion was announced as Maud Newton’s bitch last night. Mr. Champion, who lost his right to blog about literature shortly after being beaten to a pulp by Ron Hogan in a backalley brawl last April, had long been targeted by the Final Three: Sarah Weinman, Jessa Crispin and Newton.

Mr. Champion’s hair has been shaven off and his limbs have been replaced by QWERTY keyboards connected to Google News. Newton and her gang plan to use Mr. Champion as either a modular bookshelf or a footstool.

Hogan, however, has not declared any firm loyalties to Newton. Independent sources report that Hogan has been conspiring with Mark Sarvas and the disgraced Terry Teachout (fired from his Wall Street Journal and Commentary gigs shortly after OGIC defected over to the Weinman camp).

Crispin remains a formidable force. Shortly after having TFMTML’s liver for dinner last week, she announced that Sam Jones would be her World Domination Consultant.

Despite Ms. Weinman’s clear lead among the Final Three, there are rumors that
Laila Lalami is planning a coup with Nathalie Chica and the Old Hag.

Robert Birnbaum remains missing. Newton’s camp has claimed responsibility.

(via Rake)

Weirdass Cinema Review #2

The Longest Yard (1974): I can just envision the studio execs sitting in the boardroom:

“Hey, man, there’s this great Bill Lancaster script called The Bad News Bears in development. A comedy about this losing Little League team coached by Walter Matthau.”

“Sounds great, but isn’t that Burt Lancaster’s son?”

“Yes, but screw the nepotism. We think this script will sell like gangbusters.”

“Needs another angle.”

“Well, Chuck, that’s exactly what I was thinking.”

“What’s Bob Aldrich been up to? I was having lunch with him the other day and he’s looking for another project.”

“Well, not much since The Dirty Dozen.”

“Wait a minute.”

“What’s that?”

“What if we took the Dirty Dozen formula and crossed it with this Bad News Bears thing?”

longest2.jpg“Burt would know.”

“Not if we cast another Burt in the role.”

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“Hey, my wife subscribes to Cosmopolitan. I just read it for the articles.”

“That Burt Reynolds is something, isn’t he?”

“Well, if he’s hot stuff with the ladies, this will give us the cross-demographic appeal we need.”

Or something like that. It’s safe to say that The Longest Yard has one of the silliest premises I’ve ever heard of. Burt Reynolds plays a former pro football quarterback who beats the tar out of his girlfriend (the nature of the relationship is nebulous at best, but it’s safe to say Burt won’t be sending her a box of chocolates anytime soon) and then decides to go on a drunken joy ride in her Mazerati, empty glass of bourbon near the stick shift, getting into a car chase with the police. He dumps the car in the harbor and then gets into a bar brawl with police officers.

Before you can say Cool Hand Luke, Burt’s in the joint in an unspecified area of the South. He’s working detail, dealing with racist but apparently good-hearted guards. He rolls in the mud with one fellow prisoner. Another inmate has a crush on him, performing one-armed push-ups and various other exercises in an effort to get Burt swooning. The prison warden then cuts Burt a deal to QB a football game between the inmates and the guards. Burt is free to pick the teammates he wants and apparently train them without a single guard in close proximity.

One character, The Caretaker, is taken on as team manager. The Caretaker, a fat-faced man with little in the way of screen charisma, is apparently so skillful at acquiring contraband goods that he’s able to get joints, liquor, deluxe fruity foods, prison team helmets, and a 15-minute “pesonal services” visit with (really, I couldn’t make this up) an uber-beehived, pre-Pennies from Heaven Bernadette Peters. Peters is not only the warden’s secretary, but she apparently learned a few tricks in Tallahassee.

As absurd as this all sounds, believe it or not, The Longest Yard is a fairly enjoyable film, even with the “modern film effects” provided by Steve Orfanos. (These “modern” effects are hastily cut split-screen effects for the climactic football game. They’re mercifully brief, somewhere between the heights of Brian De Palma at his best and the lows of More American Graffiti and Woodstock.) Lest we forget, the Prison Movie and the Football Movie have pretty much operated on the same basic formula. Get a bunch of rough-and-tumble guys, have the audience root for their inevitable victory, and keep the movie going with some general, but crowd-pleasing narrative arcs. It makes perfect sense to conjoin the two genres. In The Longest Yard‘s case, that means at least a few deaths, a couple of token scuffles, the obligatory gentle giant, a few 1970s “Ebony and Ivory” moments, and even a mentally disabled man, who reacts to Burt’s invitation to play football by throwing large bales of hay into the air.

The silly formula doesn’t preclude The Longest Yard from espousing a few subtextual points about honor. There is, however, one disastrous turn in which Burt offers a fabricated story about his father.

The unfortunate thing is that Adam Sandler is set to remake this movie with Anger Management director Peter Segal, scheduled for release next year. The Longest Yard is hardly a movie that calls out to be remade. I can’t imagine how the Sandler-Segal combo will recreate the original, particularly since prisons are hardly as innocuous today (in image, at least) as they were back in 1974.

Tanenhaus’ Times: A Highbrow TV Guide Insider?

The reign of Tanenhaus has begun, and it looks like we’re off to a juicy start. Dinitra Smith has a fun little profile-cum-review up about author humiliations. Carlo Gebler was trying to read in front of a bunch of drunken students. Carl Hiaasen arrived at a reading, only to find he was scheduled at the same time as a chili-cooking class and a football game. Rick Moody’s mother gave reviewed one of his books for Amazon and gave it only three stars. More in the article.

Is Emma Brockes A Competent Interviewer? No.

I’m getting really tired of these Margaret Atwood profiles that paint Atwood as an overly serious and dowdy woman, rather than concentrating upon her writing talents. The headline here may as well have read: Margaret Atwood: Humorless Bitch or Not? Well, certainly her novels can be bleak, but it hasn’t occurred to Emma Brockes that she might be asking some really moronic questions. And I have to wonder if the Guardian would have been as nasty if, say, Martin Amis was as forthright as Atwood is in this article.

The Top Ten

A number of folks have been asked what their favorite ten novels are over at Professor Barnhardt’s. If I had to pick my own choices, today, they’d be (in no particular order and subject to change in the next five minutes):

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth
The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Absalom! Absalom! by William Faulkner
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Recognitions by William Gaddis
Hunger by Knut Hamsun
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain