Every Rose Has Its Tome

If, like me, you purchased Use Your Illusion I & II on the day they were released and listened to them as many times as humanly possible (particularly “Get in the Ring,” which, many moons ago, was my favorite track), and if, like me, you are unashamed to confess that you still listen to Guns ‘N’ Roses from time to time (while remaining simultaneously disappointed in Velvet Revolver), then OPTR has dug up the apposite “Where Are They Now?” feature on one Axl Rose. Rose claims that, “People will hear music this year.” But we’ve been hearing that now for ten years. Most interestingly though, Rose is reading Philip K. Dick and watching movies.

Did Anybody TiVo Oprah?

The New York Times: “In a live broadcast of ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ from her studios in Chicago in which she interviewed Mr. Frey, Ms. Winfrey apologized to her audience for her call to ‘Larry King Live’ earlier this month defending the author. Today, Ms. Winfrey, alternately fighting back tears and displaying vivid anger, berated Mr. Frey for duping her and her audience.”

I’m really in no position to judge until I’ve actually seen the broadcast, but the immediate thing that comes to mind here is Jim Bakker, who cried on camera and confessed that he had sinned only after his debauchery had been exposed beyond a shadow of a doubt. Perhaps I’d have more sympathy for Oprah, had she had the courage to call Frey out during Frey’s Larry King Live appearance. But career opportunism is a tricky thing. So I can understand why Oprah played the status quo.

Maybe I’m naturally skeptical about television figures. But the sense I’m getting here is that Oprah assembled her top people into an expensive hotel conference room with a slide projector and a Powerpoint presentation and, over twelve hours, hashed out the pros and cons of all possible responses — in the end settling for the same “tears while the camera’s rolling” approach that worked so well for Nixon.

If I had to make any predictions here, I’d say that Oprah will stray away from any “gritty” titles for future Oprah Book Club offerings, opting for safer titles in which the events themselves aren’t so subject to questioning. Which is a pity, because of all people, Oprah’s audience needs to be exposed to these stories the most.

[UPDATE: Gawker liveblogs Oprah.]

In Defense of Cultural Reference

Jessa Crispin offers yet another one of her trademark “I hate it so I’ll spew vile without supportive examples” columns for the Book Standard. Beyond the troubling hyperbole (“Those books should die”), strangely reminiscent of an infamous 1933 conflagration, there are troubling generalizations here.

For one thing, Crispin cites only one novel (Miss Misery) while declaring a rampant epidemic. She writes, “Do we need to know what beverage these characters drank before filling out their meme? Good God, no,” before declaring, “It’s making an entire generation of men’s writing look bad.”

Let us give Crispin the benefit of the doubt, assuming for a moment that this emoboy novel plague has, in fact, tarnished the edifices of every Manhattan building, that nearly every publishing executive and publicist is hot to trot for the next touchy-feely dick lit title, and that half of every novel turned out by a thirtyish male writer might be styled “emoboy.” Even if Crispin utterly loathes these books (assuming that she can identify a second one beyond the Andy Greenwald title), is not Crispin’s complaint not with the books, but with the type of man portrayed in these books? And if fiction has a duty to portray the culture around us, is it not obligated in some way to present the banal fixations or the ugliness of this so-called emoboy culture so that future generations might understand it? (I’ll get back to this rhetorical question in a trice. Bear with me.)

Why set limits on what today’s novelists write about?

Further, what exactly is wrong with reference? When someone writes that they enjoyed last night’s Arctic Monkeys show, how are they capitulating to product placement or name dropping? It is no different from having seen Hostel the other night or watched the latest episode of The Bachelor. Or, for that matter, brushing one’s teeth. Whether we like it or not, we’re living right now in a world of cultural reference. And for those who decry this or require copious amounts of Percoet to cope, I would suggest that they take up the pen themselves or they come up with an alternative for how novelists should chronicle this, rather than dimissing, without example or justification, a novelist’s initial attempts to come to terms with this sociological phenomenon.

Cultural generalizations sometimes have certain advantages. To use Crispin’s example, anyone who is even remotely a music geek or a concertgoer knows that a My Morning Jacket fan in his early thirties is going to be one of those types still struggling to justify his desire to rock out while paying a mortgage or beginning a family. (Here in San Francisco, you often see such types at Bimbo’s 365 for lo-fi bands and, in the worst cases, for utterly shallow performers like Josh Rouse.)

I think that these so-called “emoboy novelists” (which, until further examples are provided, we can confine only to Greenwald) are merely describing the world around them, not trying to show how hip they are. Granted, when pop cultural references are used exclusively as a crutch and there is nothing more than these references, I agree with Ms. Crispin that this may be a problem. Then again, who are any of us to suggest that a particular writer’s method of chronicling the world is the right one? It seems then that Crispin has adopted the reactionary (and currently favorable) tone of such traditional critics as B.R. Myers and James Wood, whereby any novel outside hard realistic fiction should be dismissed on sight.

To go back to this question of cultural references as a qualifier, I should note that one cannot imagine reading the plays of Moss Hart and George Kaufman without the cultural references. In The Man Who Came to Dinner (and this is just at the top of my head; I know this because I once acted in a community theatre production of this play and in fact begged the director to keep in the 1930s-specific cultural references, despite the fact that we all knew they’d puzzle the audience), there are references to Philo Vance, Schiaparelli, Man Ray, the Maharajah, and Louella Parsons. Most of these are uttered by the protagonist Sheridan Whiteside and are absolutely indispensable in showing the considerable class division between Whiteside’s smug yet debilitated position and the earnest small-town eccentrics who try to attend to him.

But cultural reference goes far beyond mere class division. A few years ago, on a hypercurious lark, I went to the San Francisco Main Library and began photocopying Herb Caen’s columns from the San Francisco Chronicle. I still have an extremely thick bulging folder filled with these photocopies. I started from the beginning at 1938, studying them to see what had become of the City I loved so much. I discovered such fascinating (and forgotten) cultural references as the below:

  • Pins and Needles — The only Broadway hit produced by a labor union.
  • The Martha Washington Candy Shop chain — Once a prominent candy chain, the See’s of its time, and fondly remembered by many for its vanilla butter cream coated with dark chocolate.
  • The WPA Music Project — An opportunity for musicians to get funding during lean times. Even if the music might have been amateurish, there is still a very fascinating story of stipend cuts (with funds reallocated to interbay transport) which permitted the Oakland musicians to meet with the San Francisco musicians, and vice versa — thus giving the name an indisputably frugal association.
  • Alexander’s Ragtime Band — A hugely popular movie laden with historical inaccuracies (such as telephones appearing before their time), likely joked about among film geeks during the time in much the same way that today’s film geeks joke about the watches in Spartacus or the fact that Krakatoa is actually west of Java.
  • The Yosemite — the last ferry to transport cars across the Bay as the Golden Gate Bridge opened.

I should point out that many of these references simply involved the names alone and I had to find the context on my own. But doing the detective work proved invaluable for understanding some of the references I found repeated throughout Caen’s columns and within other literature that I had read from the same time period. More importantly, it gave me a sense of understanding the way that people related to each other. Because for the people who lived in the 1930s, these names and places were vitally important cultural reference points in their daily lives.

It’s often difficult for any of us operating in the present to understand just how ephemeral our world is and how the memories we hold dear, whether it involves meeting the love of one’s life for the first time while listening to Ella Fitzgerald playing in a Peet’s Coffeehouse. Sometimes the ineffable nature of a fluttering heart means that a writer must resort to a certain context in order to come closer to the experience. Further, whether fiction writers realize this or not, they are to some extent chroniclers and historians. So if we declare war on cultural reference and discourage its propagation, then how will tomorrow’s scholars (or amateur photocopiers) know precisely how or in what context (even the shallow ones) that we lived?


There have been some developments on the Guthmann plagiarism front. Also, I have been following up with several people to find out what has happened with other stories that have been tracked here over the past two years. Should any major revelations be uncovered, I will give them brand new entries. But for the obsessives, you can check the archives for any of the minor developments. (There are new jokes too, but you have to hunt for them.)

Ana Marie Cox: Unprofitable?

Total Advance Paid Out to Ana Marie Cox: $275,000
Total Number of Books Sold (thanks to Ron Hogan’s Bookscan detective work): 3,800
Price of Hardcover Edition of Dog Days: $23.95
Number of Copies of Dog Days That Need to Be Sold to Equal Ana Marie Cox’s Advance: 11,458

Now I’m hardly a financial genius and I couldn’t even guess as to the production and promotion costs associated with Dog Days. But even considering Cox’s upcoming appearances on the West Coast, if 3,800 copies is the number that comes after all that Gray Lady coverage, I’m guessing that either (a) there isn’t really much of a market for cutesy political novels or (b) bloggers aren’t nearly as salable as they think they are. Let’s consider the actual gross that goes straight to the publisher. Clearly with a sizable advance, Riverhead was hoping that this book would sell big. Somewhere in the area of 30,000 copies, I’m guessing.

So either Kate Lee[1] Gary Morris’s persuasive abilities are bar none or the waft of a shaggy dog travels fast.

[1] Thanks, Sarah!

The Bookstore That Cried Wolf?

Frances notes that Book Passage, the independent bookstore in Corte Madera, might be in trouble. It seems that a Barnes & Noble may be moving into the vacated storefront (once occupied by a Marshall’s) at the Town Center shopping mall. (At this point, Town Center management hasn’t revealed who the new tenant is.) A number of Corte Madera residents are quite upset about this.

Even so, the devil’s advocate in me has to ask why there’s so much uproar over what is, at this point, just an unconfirmed rumor. Why, for example, did the Independent Journal‘s Jim Staats fail to call Barnes & Noble Corporate or its legal counsel to get definitive answers? (Staats notes that he spoke with “Barnes & Noble spokesmen,” but judging from the article’s reliance managers at other B&N stores.) All we have then is this article are unsubstantiated rumors from the Corte Madera residents. Would not there be papers filed with the Corte Madera Zoning Administrator? City planning papers? Documents outlining any necessary retrofits of the property?

I’m wondering if there is much ado here about nothing. I’d hate to see Corte Madera literary types waste so much time over, say, another Best Buy store.

John Banville Radio Play

As widely reported, John Banville’s radio play, “Todtnauberg,” can be listened to at the BBC site. Banville proved to be more skillful a radio dramatist than I expected.

And as an aside, I have to wonder why American radio (read: NPR) doesn’t offer these sorts of extended opportunities for authors outside of This American Life. Wouldn’t it be great to see Eric Kraft offer a radio adaptation of one of his Peter Leroy novels or any of the Escapist comics rendered into radio plays?

I’m a Novelist, Not A _______

While we’re on the subject of what authors are up, I should note that Mark Haddon has a small chapbook of poetry coming out in April (already out in the UK). Proving to the world that Haddon will likely specialize in extremely long titles until the critical interest grows inflexible, this one’s called The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea. But the consensus indicates that it’s not so hot. Ranjit Bolt says, “[N]othing could prepare us for the tendentiousness, the unjustified formlessness, the ghastliness, of Haddon’s verse.” Neel Mukherjee of the Times is more encouraging: “If only his muse didn’t fall into the jerky stop-start motion of a nightmarish traffic jam on the M23, and he loosened his lines to let them breathe more.”

Caitlain Flanagan Declares War on Cocksucking

Caitlin Flanagan jumps the shark. No really. This book review has to be read to be believed. Everything from teenage oral sex to Ms. Flangan herself tittering at the prospect of mass fellatio (which, interestingly enough, Flanagan equates to “the province of prostitutes,” leaving us to wonder if Flanagan has somehow existed this long without experiencing the joys of oral sex) to an amateurish investigative effort by Flangan to confirm the mass fellatio. (Yes, really.)

I haven’t read an essay this unintentionally hilarious in a long time. That sentences such as “Somehow these girls have developed the indifferent attitude toward performing oral sex that one would associate with bitter, long-married women or streetwalkers” would be seriously considered in a 21st century magazine of ideas (the essay originally appeared The Atlantic) is astonishing to me. Maybe I just ain’t vanilla, but oral sex is hardly BDSM or felching or bukkake, nor does engaging in it immediately turn you into a jezebel or a gigolo. And by what standard do jejune yentas such as Flanagan determine what’s normal and what’s incorrigible? The magical gremlin permanently affixed to Flanagan’s skull who decides what’s right and what’s wrong after a drunken round of darts?

The kind of willing denial that Flanagan expresses here in lieu of trying to understand the issue (teenagers are becoming more promiscuous, like it or not) and in trying to parse whether the novel in question (Paul Ruditis’ Rainbow Party) answers this societal development is beyond preposterous. It’s dangerous. It promulgates a kind of fashionable bllindness in which it’s perfectly acceptable to remain horrified without trying to understand why one is having an emotional reaction. It imputes a mentality whereby one can never step outside of one’s hermetic paradigm and the results or effects of an sociological development are not just unexamined, but are immediately demonized as “evil.” Never mind that there’s likely some constructive value in trying to figure out why these “forbidden” impulses appeal to certain people, particularly when one is in charge of setting the boundaries. But in taking the myopic road out, Flanagan is no different from a paranoid Caucasian who immediately assumes that an African-American saying hello is out to carjack her.

That Flanagan’s essays have been embraced by the New Yorker and the Atlantic, while fostering such an anti-thinking approach, is a telling indicator that the world of letters isn’t ready for a serious discussion of these issues. It isn’t ready to accept the fact that, yes, teenagers have oral sex. More all the time. It isn’t ready to start answering questions. What does this mean? Is this necessarily bad? How did this develop and will we see teenagers start to embrace more violent and hardcore fantasies? And are these in turn bad? Is any of this a reaction to the way in which sex is so undiscussed in American society, particularly in the classroom? Was Jocelyn Elders ahead of her time?

The continued publication of Caitlin Flanagan’s essays is a disgrace to any magazine interested in raising these questions (or less provocative ones). Thank goodness that at least one of the Holy Trinity (Harper’s) has had the good sense not to publish such a flagrantly anti-intellectual writer.

For a more thoughtful take on a similar subject, see Naomi Wolf’s essay on how porn affects sexual conduct.

(via Jenny D)

75 Books, Books #5-7

Last week was a busy week, but if there was any advantage to MUNI’s stunning inefficiencies of late (thank you, Nathaniel Ford!), it’s the extra 45 minutes per day of reading time.

Book #5 was Gilbert Sorrentino’s Little Casino. When I initially started reading this, it seemed to me that this was not so much a “novel,” but more of a collection of throwaway pieces. The book is constructed in short chapters, each chapter split up into two sections. The first is a memory fragment of some unknown human, some random incident of a fey and often funny nature, the second is a sort of intellectual response to it that often clarifies details through a voice that may or may not be the “author’s.” Of course, this being the world of Sorrentino, each fragment involves either a grisly death, sex or a fixation on cigarettes. Even when a chapter isn’t successful (and there are plenty that aren’t, some of them read like as if they’ve been pulled out of an MFA student’s journal, but this approach may in fact be the point), the book can be enjoyed as a collection of vignettes or possibly an effort to track various characters (some of them specific names, some of them merely “hes” and “shes”) who may or may not match up.

Strangely, I found myself preferring Sorrentino’s stylistic exercises to many of the calls and responses. There is, for example, a “lengthy” deposition transcript that points out the hypocrisies of political correctness and frivolous litigation which is quite hilarious, but it could have been thrown into just about any Sorrentino novel. And while I always enjoy Sorrentino getting goofy with self-imposed prose limitations (one chapter, for example, has every sentence begin with “Had X not Y”), I wondered how much of the book was genuinely “experimental” and how much was filler. I didn’t so much mind the lack of unity, but, unlike Mulligan Stew, I really felt that much of this work was written to pad it out to 200 pages and didn’t always find myself relishing the work. So this book is probably for Sorrentino completists only. For everyone else interested in dipping their toes into Sorrentino, still one of today’s most underrated novelists, I highly recommend Mulligan Stew and Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things.

For more on Sorrentino, check out this lengthy Gerald Howard profile.

Book #6 was Jonathan AmesI Love You More Than You Can Know, a nonfiction collection that Ames had suggested to me was a collection of throwaway pieces — essentiallly, the remaining nonfiction that he hadn’t yet assembled in book form. I should have known that he was being typically self-effacing. This is not his answer to The Salmon of Doubt — in large part, because this isn’t a posthumous collection. Because many of these essays are as funny as anything Ames has ever written, particularly the leftover New York Press pieces. What’s particularly interesting is that Ames saved a good deal of essays involving his penis for this book. This time around, however, Ames seems even more introspective (if it can be believed) and a tad gloomier than his two previous books of nonfiction. Or perhaps I was a tad cheerier. Whatever the case, his more recent pieces from the past three years read as if they’ve been written under duress. But if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading Ames’ essays, it’s definitely worth it for the laughs.

Incidentally, the Young, Roving Correspondent will be talking with Ames again when he strolls through San Francisco. I’m honored to announce that Jonathan Ames will be the first guest to appear twice on the Bat Segundo Show. And while I’m unlikely to reveal any future Segundo-related books after the podcasts have been posted, in Ames’ case, I wanted to make a special exception, as I must honor the tacit agreement of constant Ames promotion.

[1/23/06 UPDATE: And as fate would have it, Jonathan Ames has a new essay about cleaning his fridge up over at The Morning News.]

Book #7 was Tim O’Brien‘s Lake in the Woods, which was my first O’Brien novel and it certainly won’t be my last. The book tells the story of John Wade, a veteran of My Lai and one-time teenage magician who morphs into a politician. One day, shortly after catastrophically losing a U.S. Senate race just after a personal scandal that isn’t entirely spelled out, his wife disappears. The reasons for her disappearance and the circumstances of Wade’s life are unclear, but are gradually revealed to the reader. What makes the book work so well is that way O’Brien plays with context and keeps many fascinating details from the reader. O’Brien is daring enough not to answer all of the questions and is deft at balancing style (chapters containing excerpts from “interviews” and books on war and politics provide context, as do other chapters offering hypotheses on what may have happened) with a reader’s expectations. Unfortunately, once O’Brien’s revealed his hand, the book starts to flag near the end. But as a study of concealment, both personal and historical, O’Brien’s book is gripping, written in an effectively austere manner.

It’s also interesting that shortly after writing this novel, O’Brien published a painfully personal essay about surviving My Lai and what his life was like years later. He revealed thoughts of suicide, sleeping pills and memories of a girlfriend who left him. He also reveals that the name of his real-life girlfriend is Kate (also the name of John Wade’s wife).

LBC Podcasts

Over at the LBC, the first of five podcasts can now be downloaded and listened to. Each podcast will be available for download early Monday morning over the next five weeks. (For regular Bat Segundo feed subscribers, these podcasts will eventually be available through entirely new shows at the main Segundo site.)

The first LBC podcast features author Ander Monson and a brief introductory interview with nominator Sam Jones.

Richard Powers on Mozart’s Skull

As regular readers may or may not know, we are mad about Richard Powers. I mean, we’re talking mad to the level of reading all of his books (two of them twice) and having a very special Richard Powers section on our stacks. So it was with considerable embarassment that one Tayari Jones snickered at us (wholly deserved!) for missing this New York Times article that the Goldbug Man wrote on Mozart’s skull a few weeks ago. We pledge to keep more vigilant on the Powers front.

Incidentally, Powers has a new book coming out in October called The Echo Maker. When we aren’t trying to produce five podcasts for the LBC (along with several others), we will begin thorough investigation to atone for our sins.

In the meantime, Radioactive Banana is on the case.

[UPDATE: Kirstin writes in to let me know that Richard Powers is contributing editor to A Public Space, a new magazine of “fiction that matters” put together by former Paris Review editor Brigid Hughes. There doesn’t appear to be a table of contents for Issue No. 1, but Kelly Link has a story and this definitely looks promising!]


The word sounds vaguely Orwellian, reminiscent of a major shift in current events. But it is necessary, given that categorizing the content here is the only way that anyone, least of all myself, can make sense of it all.

As of today, I’ve written around 2,600 posts – 1,600 posts which remain uncategorized. For any other blogger, this may seem a ridiculous sum to collate into a taxonomy. But since I’m known to be somewhat zealous and anal about setting my ducks in a row, and since the categories offer a valuable method of tracking the development of my thoughts (such as they are) and associations, it has become essential for me to get them all set up once and for all during the first quarter of 2006. (I should note that this is part of a general self-imposed regimen to get my shit together. I still consider myself to be a very lazy man, but then the indolence standard I apply is comparable to 19th century labor.) It helps immensely that WordPress 2.0, with its DHTML “Add” box, has made it especially easy to categorize things. And 1,600 posts, at 20 posts to recategorize a day, is not as arduous a figure as one might expect.

My goal then is to provide a kind of uber-meta context for everything so that readers can participate more fully in the discussions and call me on my shit if I end up striking the same chord far too many times. A mini-Wikipedia with more ruthless standards, if you will. I’m hoping that some of the topics and obsessions here can flesh out into something more concrete, possibly becoming entirely new entities separate from this blog. And for the extremely bored reader determined to sift through the 2,600 or so posts (at an average of 500 words per post, that adds up to easily over a million words I’ve written here in the past two years, a tally that truly astonishes me), I’ve added little updates and annotations noting changes in information that seem pertinent or slightly entertaining.

All this probably means nothing to 99.99% of you. But I suppose what pushed me over the edge was some email correspondence with a few people about Peter Greenaway’s Tulse Luper project. Apparently, I’m the only Yank excited about it, much less aware of it, even if I can’t get my hands on any of the films in question. What I admire greatly about Greenaway’s project is the way that he has dared to throw information out there in an uncompromising way and that perhaps only he and a few people will understand it. Much like the novelist William T. Vollmann, Greenaway is one of the few prolific artistic visionaries out there producing a disparate body of work that grad students and artistic appreciators will spend years sifting through long after Greenaway’s death.

While I wouldn’t dare put myself or these efforts in the same pantheon as Vollmann or Greenaway, I am nevertheless hoping that this blog, which I apparently spend more time on than I realize, can serve a similar purpose. For the past two years, I have been working on various projects (limitless false starts and hundreds of pages of dialogue that have been painfully written and painfully thrown away), hoping that I can find a way of applying the brio that seems to come naturally here to that form. If experience serves as a guide, hard diligence and an open mind eventually leads me closer to the direction I need to be wandering in.

Recategorization then is partly a personal quest, to see exactly how frequently I am writing about certain topics and to drop kick the diffidence I apply to others and pursue them further. Only an information-obsessed geek will understand this impulse. But hopefully a few readers might find something of interest along the way.