Leon Wieseltier Reviews His Kitchen

The question of the place of the refrigerator is not a scientific question. It is an issue of taste and instinct. Refrigerators, being elephantine appliances that I despise with every fiber in my being, can’t account for why people purchase so much food. And yet these mammoth boxes grow bigger and bigger, and it is not an insult to one’s aesthetic sense to say so. If the refrigerator can be said to be the cornerstone of any kitchen, then it would be difficult indeed to top the disgust I feel every time I enter my own kitchen and make a roast beef sandwich.

There is a certain orthodoxy to these midnight pilgrimages, the tedious rumbling of the stomach that promises indigestion after a meal, these strenuous efforts to keep me alive through ignoble viands while applying my poison pen for a Tanenhaus assignment or declaring my appreciation for any and all assfucking memoirs. Again, I refer not to the refrigerator alone, but the general notion that one must keep up a kitchen. Why am I compelled to keep the kitchen stocked rather than order takeout? There is a malicious havoc when contemplating these trusted routines and realizing that my expansive home possesses a room for the preparation of food, with its cabinets which must be filled with cans that I may never use and its drawers filled with limitless kitchen gadgets and Emeril-manufactured pans. My kitchen then is a document which reveals my own bitter impulses. I cannot find a way to transmute this room into a source of joy. I stopped feeling euphoria when I turned thirty.

The kitchen flatters itself that it is some kind of second-string dining room. And for those ignoble apartment dwellers in the Bronx, I suppose it is. The kitchen theatens to subsume my attention and does not absolve itself. Its cabinets demand that I stock it with limitless cans and its drawers expect me to fill them with flatware. I believe it was Aristotle who once said, “If things do not turn out as we wish, we should wish for them as they turn out.” I have been wishing my kitchen into some kind of resolution for many years and it still does not prove pliant or complaisant.

If my kitchen could be styled a corporeal entity, I would want to sodomize it. I would want to snap its head back and pull its hanks of hair hard with my hands. I’d want the kitchen to be my bitch. I would want to apply painful clamps to its nipples and hear my kitchen scream, “Leon, my master! Please! Please! Please don’t stop!” My kitchen is such a disreputable millieu that I wouldn’t even give it a safe word.

What this shallow and self-congratulatory room establishes most conclusively is that there are many architetural hymens to be borken.


  • Scott Sigler‘s Earthcore is the first “podcast only” novel. For $9.99, you can download all 20 episodes. The original novel was published by Dragon Moon Press, which, while styling itself a “traditional publisher,” is in the habit of not paying its authors an advance. Eight Ball says “Glorified Vanity Press? All Signs Point to Yes.”
  • Michael Crichton: global warming expert for the Bush administration? If so, it’s good to see our government consulting novelists to determine public policy. Personally, I’m hoping Bush can meet with Erica Jong, so that our sheltered manboy president might become acquainted with the “zipless fuck.”
  • A good friend and I have been discussing the forthcoming release of Basic Instinct 2. Between the constant references to the first film (“Ever fucked on cocaine, Ed?” reads one email subject line; “You wanna play? Come on!” reads mine in return), we’re wondering two things: (1) Will this film help to make older women sexier? (If so, huzzah!) (2) Isn’t this film a few years too late (like, say, a decade) to be riding on the coattails of the first film? Well, it appears that even the film’s advertisers don’t know how to market the film properly. Come on, Columbia. Surely you can be more explicit about why people are planning to see this film.
  • John Gregory Dunne: worthy nonfiction writer?
  • Give Kinky Friedman props for the world’s goofiest bumpersticker, although I would have selected, “There’s a Little Bit of Kinky In All of Us.”
  • Richard Flanagan, political crusader.
  • An Elizabeth Browning exhibition is going down at the British Library.
  • If you’re a writer, Zoetrope Virtual Studio sounds like a bad cross between fan fiction and American Idol. Apparently, one is not permitted to be “mean” (read: offering honest, ball-busting advice which might actually help a writer to advance in his craft) to other writers. If you want to be a serious writer, why bother with this nonsense? If you need that kind of affirmation, enter a county fair or join a twelve-step support group instead.
  • Dai Smith offers 10 Welsh alternatives to Dylan Thomas.
  • Do the Canadians have an answer to J.K. Rowling?
  • Jeff has the goods on a Hold Steady show. Unfortunately, the Hold Steady (a band highly endorsed by Return of the Reluctant!) didn’t make their way through San Francisco. But word on the street is that one Tito Perez somehow managed to see them.

Well, Fuck Me: The Swearing Festival Report

I had spent a few days recovering from a cold and general malaise. The time had come to get out of the house or die trying.

swearingcrap.JPGThe crowd drinks and swears.

Several people had mentioned a Swearing Festival that was going on at Edinburgh Castle, a fantastic little pub in the Tenderloin that hosts various artistic and cultural events. I had no idea what a Swearing Festival was. Was it in any way like a Ren faire? Or was it an excuse for strangers to shout “Fucking hell!” and drink beer? I had the feeling that various strangers shouting profanity would galvanize me and perhaps restore my senses. And since I tend to trust my gut instinct on these things, I decided to check it out.

I arrived at 6:45 PM. I sailed through the doors as effortlessly as a duck jetting across an expansive pond.

Since I had styled myself as some kind of half-assed journalist (many people, seeing the rinky-dink camera around my neck, approached me as I was some professional chronicler), a pint was regrettably out of the question. I was on the job. And besides I would need both hands to take notes. There was a panel to pay attention to.

The panelists included Dr. Jonathan Hunt, a Stanford man dressed in a crisp grey worsted suit and a slightly mistied red bowtie. His sartorial complement was so adorable that I wondered how I would react to him if I were gay. Plus, there was the neat economy of his name. It sounded as if he traveled to far off locales. Perhaps when he wasn’t teaching at Stanford, he was an adventurer not unlike Allan Quatermain or Indiana Jones. As I learned later, he was a married man. The other two panelists were Beth Lisick, of which more anon, and a British journalist named Andrew Orlowski, whose work from the Register I was acquainted with.

I alighted to the second floor, which houses a diminuitive theatre. By the time I got there, it was SRO. Amazingly, the folks at Edinburgh Castle had only anticipated about 20 people to show up for this panel and were quite astonished that so many people were interested in seeing the great local minds of our time discussing the use of “cunt” in mixed company.

My shoes became instantly glued to the sticky floor. I tried my best to sway my body around to allow other people to pass. But alas, one only has so much maneuverability when one’s legs are locked in an inert position. Sure enough, my right foot went fast asleep on me about halfway through the panel.

Concerning the theatre, there were no lights in this room to speak of, save two small China globes and what looked to be two meager 650 watt arcs cross-lighting the area, angled and positioned stage left and stage right. (And indeed these lighting conditions should explain the rather grainy quality of the accompanying photos. For this, I apologize.) Behind the table was a red curtain that suggested a bawdy cabaret act. And as the crowd pushed their way into this small room, I got a distinct 1962 Cavern Club vibe. I briefly considered the possibility of a Great White-style conflagration. Would I roast alive? I didn’t even have a last will and testament prepared. Should I scribble an impromptu version down on my notepad and let the lawyers sort it all out?

Fortunately, these fears passed as I saw a chair raised up into the air from the front row and passed back over two aisles to accommodate two very nice women standing next to me, both of whom I had apologized to, because I am a tall man and I was occluding their view of the front, because I was in a fixed position, because of the sticky floor.

There were at least three people in the crowd who I thought I might know. But the soles of my shoes had by now settled into the glutinous floor. I wondered if I had something in my bag that would help extract me. Or perhaps I would have to improvise like MacGyver and use the cover of the hardback I was reading to scoop my feet up like two dignified pancakes. Oh well. Such solutions would have to wait for later.

There were at least two podcasters in the crowd, not counting myself. One dark-haired and bespectacled young lady, with headphones affixed to her ears and a minidisc recorder in her hands, was trying to plug into the unmanned sound board at the back right of the room to capture the discussion in full. I offered brief technical advice. Apparently, she worked for a program called “Weekend America.” The other podcaster sat at a table about seven feet in front of me. He was explaining to his friend that he had recorded a podcast in which he had explained for ten minutes what the purpose of the podcast was. He was apparently still mystified about what his podcast was all about. But it sounded quite lovely. We should all be so gracefully confused. That is one of the podcast medium’s virtues.

The other notable individual was a stunningly attractive blonde to my right. She was alone. And I was too shy to talk to her. So I smiled. She responded with a look of contempt, presumably to ward me off. Perhaps I resembled a unpleasant man she had once known. Or perhaps the fact that I was wearing a dark wool coat in a somewhat salacious locale made her think that I was a flasher. Not impossible, given that I was in the Loin and you see a lot of interesting things in that area. But she warmed up to the “Weekend America” gal. Oh well. The next time I cover one of these things, I’ll have to strap audio equipment to myself and not be so shy.

The panel sets up.

The crowd was almost entirely Caucasian, presumably because Caucasians enjoy swearing the most. They could be easily split up into two groups: tidy metrosexuals and scruffy-looking folks clad in grunge chic. You could tell the difference between the two groups in the way that they held their pints. The metrosexuals tended to curve their fingers delicately around the pint glass, as if they were attending a reception for some event of cultural importance. Their fingers remained locked in place. It seemed a faux pas for them to even place their glasses on a table. The grungy crowd valued function over form and emphasized that point between thumb and forefinger as the major source of strength in the hand. Or perhaps they were simply more experienced drinkers.

Many of the latter group of pint graspers had their origins in the United Kingdom. It was now approaching 7:15 and the audience was starting to get antsy.



“START THIS SHIT UP!” (I should note this third remark came from an American. Perhaps “fuck” was not in his regular vernacular. Or perhaps the ferocity of the first two statements, which had came from Scotsmen, intimidated him. Whatever the case, I think I preferred the first two cries to the third.)

The delightful coordinator of Edinburgh Castle, whose name unfortunately escapes me, apologized for the delay. He was instantly called a prick. “Thanks very much,” he replied, “I’m Scottish, not English.”

The panelists were introduced. Many of them were decried with “fucks” of all calibers.

The moderator, who held a black Moleskine notebook with prepared questions, asked the panelists what would happen if we loosened television restrictions on bad language. Would television improve?

Hunt and Lisick field questions from the audience.

Beth Lisick answered this question. And it became immediately apparent that she was a bit tipsy. (Where the other two panelists had settled upon pints for their panel drinks, Lisick had a martini and two bottles of Calistoga. What kind of person drinks a martini at a Scottish pub?)

She was distraught over the fact that the bleeps over the words had become shorter. It begs the question: why bleep at all? Lisick called for more innovation in swearing.

Hunt noted that cussing began in medieval times and there was some discussion about how profanity would evolve without God. After all, with the advent of cell phones in public places, we’ve become a sound-oriented culture.

Orlowski suggested that if swearing would disappear, there would be a new lexicon of swearing. With the Internet, there was an abundance of swearing. Would swearing lose its impact?

Hunt remarked that in the early 20s, someone proffered the suggestion that swearing will die out, possibly in collusion with the League of Nations.

The moderator asked now that “fuck” was increasingly permissible, what were the new taboos?

Hunt pointed to an interesting 1934 essay called “An Obscenity Symbol,” in which it was pointed out that “fuck” had quite a fascinating history and that certain taboos were instrumental in the formation of other substitutes (“ass” and “cock” were presented as chief examples). When pressed for a substitute for “fuck,” he daringly responded, “Use your imagination.”

The moderator noted how class played into the acceptability of use, singling out the opening of Four Weddings and a Funeral, in which Hugh Grant utters “fuck” multiple times. There were several examples proffered by Lisick about how swearing is on the decline: people, for example, using “fucking” as a modifier ad nauseum: “My fucking iPod broke down. And I went to the fucking Apple store to fucking replace it.”

Is there any real reason to use “fucking” in this context? There’s simply not as much punch.
Still, as one audience member pointed out, there was a colossal difference between using “Fuck me” versus “Fuck you.” The former was acceptable and used in the context of genuine surprise. The latter was threatening.

Orlowski pointed out that in the UK, it was fairly common to refer to a friend as a “cunt.” He noted that unless you had a watershed, “there’s no distinction between adults and children.” He observed that on British television, one could find all manner of anal sex jokes after 10:00 PM.

Hunt remarked that every book on swearing had a chapter devoted to Scottish swearing.

It was agreed by all the panelists that the lower your stature, the freer one is to swear.

It was then posited whether swearing represented some cheap artistic shock value. Lisick noted that she took great care in her writing to place a “fuck” at the right moment.

She then relayed an anecdote about a friend of hers named Bucky Sinister and realized that she had made a colossal mistake in allowing her mouth to flap off. Now I wouldn’t have revealed his name, but I’m committed to telling the truth here. Besides, Lisick had a troubling tendency to interrupt the other two panelists with inebriated swerves for the mike, all this with staccato bursts of adenoidal slurs, when not propping her slightly drowsy head up with an arm, that quickly got on my nerves (and I suspect several others), particularly when these wild interjections disrupted Hunt and Orlowski when they had things very interesting to say. Further, Lisick prefaced her story with a pugnacious warning, “If anybody is a blogger, fuck you.” Clearly, diplomacy and sangfroid are not Lisick’s strong suits.

Anyway, Sinister met a woman in a bar, got lucky, and, the morning after, found pillows with the words FUCKING COCKSUCKER and the like needlepointed on them. This suggested then that swearing can be creepy and psychotic when applied to a throw pillow.

Hunt suggested that the rise of “fuck” and “cunt” in everyday discourse might have something to do with its inclusion in several dictionaries during the 1970s, thus giving it a sort of mainstream acceptance.

swearingandrewpuzzled.JPGOrlowski, apparently puzzled by Lisick’s response.

Lisick offered another anecdote of a friend of her father’s who suffered from Tourette’s syndrome. Throughout the 1960s, the Tourette’s sufferer would repeatedly ramble “Goddam.” During the late 1960s, this had shifted to “Shit” and during the 1970s, it had become “Motherfucker.” She suggested with this empirical tale that the Tourette’s sufferer had subconsciously picked up the words that were suddenly acceptable.

Orlowski offered a rhetorical question: When God was out of swearing, what do we swear by? Is hate speech all we have left?

Hunt noted that up until the 19th century, censorship was limited to subversion or sexuality. But he noted that what the state censors doesn’t necessarily match what is considered profane in everyday conversation.

Just as Hunt was about to cite some interesting examples of this, Lisick cried out, “We’re going to take back the cunt!” to a largely bemused audience reaction, who had not expected this gruff segue. I suppose she assumed the crowd hadn’t heard of Eve Ensler or the many books that had announced this noble goal in the 90s.

Was it possible to eliminate swearing altogether?

Hunt noted that you had to swear to testify. So he didn’t think so.

Lisick suggested that the words would simply shift if you removed the taboo on the current words.

Orlowski offered an interesting example of how soccer referees in the UK were often called wankers or cunts when making a call that the crowd didn’t care for. But he noted that Italy had gone one step further by saying, “That ref’s a cuckold,” which seemed to him a more diabolical thing to impute.

There was some brief discussion of the origin of the word fuck, which, as all scatological philologists know, originates from the German “fleichen.”

Lisick noted that assfucking was the new blowjob.

Hunt remarked that the word “to occupy” once had obscene connotations during the 18th century, before reemerging as a more benign word years later.

I then got a chance to ask a question based on something I had once read in Ashley Montague’s great book, The Anatomy of Swearing. In that book, Montague makes the case that saying “What the fig” instead of “What the fuck” was just as profane. And did the professor (Hunt) have any thoughts on this?

Hunt was very clear to tell me that he was not a professor, but a lecturer. Stanford is apparently quite specific about these things. And I realize now that you can’t always judge whether a man is a professor on his bowtie and worsted suit alone.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get much of an answer from him, in large part because the audience and panelists alike were mystified by the idea of anyone saying “What the fig.” Although Orlowski did bring up Norman Mailer’s use of “fug” in The Naked and the Dead.

At this point, the lights went down and my notes become illegible. But the crowd was then urged to disperse.

I was then faced with a predicament. How could I leave the room? My right foot was asleep and the soles of my shoes were stuck to the floor.

I asked a gentleman to my left if he could push me.


“I’m afraid I can’t move,” I said. “My feet are stuck to the floor.”

Thankfully, the gentlemen, who seemed to take far too much pleasure in helping out a stranger, did indeed push me. Much harder than I expected. There is now a welt on my left arm from his blow. But this did manage to knock me off balance and release my left foot, which was not asleep, and I was able to pry my right foot off the floor with some effort.

After repeatedly stomping my right foot into tactile sobriety, I made my way downstairs to see what other marvels the Swearing Festival would offer. I figured that a pint of Newcastle would restore my feet to a healthy and agile condition. While obtaining my drink, I met a very beautiful go-go dancer who was being accosted by a gravelly-voiced man who called himself “The Devil” as well as a gentleman who introduced himself as “Curtis Mayfield.” Mayfield proceeded to ogle the poor go-go dancer and I then attempted to save her by getting involved in a tete-a-tete. The Devil and Mayfield, who apparently had some shared yet difficult to parse history of conquests and sundry debauchery that they hoped would impress the go-go dancer, soon became enamored of their respective bravado and backed off. Copious amounts of alcohol will sometimes do this to men. Unfortunately, once the Devil and Mayfield disappeared, so did the go-go dancer, whose name I never learned.

“And I say….fuck that.”

The main center of action was up the staircase, where a screen projected various images of words. Not long after this an ecclesiastical figure appeared and proceeded to deliver a number of benedictions to the audience, concluding each passage with the words, “And I say….fuck that.”

What was particularly interesting about the Swearing Festival was that I noticed that people were using “fuck” far more frequently in their regular vernacular than usual. And that’s saying something, given the denizens you’ll encounter at Edinburgh Castle.

But I had somehow formed the impression that the Swearing Festival would be more theatrical and audience participatory. Yes, it is true that the moderator guy (whose name I still don’t know) did invite the audience in a profane round robin. But the Festival relied far too much on shownig video clips of Rowan Atkinson’s “Headmaster” sketch and George Carlin, playing such obvious music as Prince’s “Sexy MF.”

Co-Ed Prison Sluts.

Then there was a gentleman named Dennis McIntyre and another actor who performed a scene from Co-Ed Prison Sluts, which I know as being a long-running musical that played in Chicago. Unfortunately, the delivery was amateurish. They led the audience in a half-hearted singalong of “Shit Motherfucker” (the chief chorus being “Shit. Motherfucker. Fuck you, you cunt or prick. Blow job. Suck my dick!”). The song didn’t come across as particularly musical or even amusing from a puerile perspective. Or perhaps I was still thinking about the go-go dancer.

Shortly after all this, I took my leave, in large part because it seemed that most of what was prepared involved prerecorded clips from movies and standup acts. And if I wanted to watch television, I could always do that at home. But I’m not much of a television watcher.

When I left, there was a long line of people waiting to get in. Hopefully, they got some fucking thing out of it.

[2/21/06 UPDATE: A reader writes in suggesting that I mischaractertized Ms. Lisick. This individual, who is acquainted with Ms. Lisick, notes that Ms. Lisick is quite naturally ebullient. I have never met Ms. Lisick, but if this is the case, then I contend that it is within the realm of possibility that alcohol was not as severe a factor as I have described and that Ms. Lisick and I might share a common personality trait. You see, I’m one of those idiots who tends to interrupt people with the crazed ideas running around in his head — and all this without alcohol. I’ve been working on this problem for years.]

[UPDATE 2: The SFist has a report up.]

Stacy Valentine Interview — 1999

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today, I’ve been feeling under the weather. So in lieu of content, here’s an interview I conducted back in 1999 with porn star Stacy Valentine, back in the days when I was allowed to write more or less full-time.

She talks with the remnants of an Oklahoman drawl, relaying conversational anecdotes in that curious Californian way (“he goes, she’s like”). She’s candid about her former life as a porn star, a career she has recently departed from to form her own clothing line, but she still questions her future.

She is Stacy Valentine or Stacy Baker, depending upon your point of view, and the subject of a new documentary entitled The Girl Next Door from filmmaker Christine Fugate (The Tobacco Wars).

Fugate followed Valentine for two years, chronicling her ascent from housewife to porn star. Ushered into the adult film business by an abusive husband, the documentary portrays how Valentine got there. Valentine is seen sweeping up ants that have populated the area that she’s expected to perform in, finding solace in her three cats, and, in one particularly gruesome moment, under the liposuction knife to maintain the rigid physical demands of the job.

I caught up with Valentine while she was doing publicity for the film in San Francisco.

CHAMPION: How are the cats doing?

VALENTINE: Oh, they’re great. George, Gracie, and Beavis are doing fine. My petsitter comes in and plays with them twice a day.

CHAMPION: I actually learned this morning that you had left the adult film industry in February and that you’ve just started a clothing line. How did you come at that decision?

VALENTINE: I’d been in the business for four years. I’m 29. I’ll be 30 in August. And it’s a young girl’s game. And I’ve done everything. I climbed that ladder and I got to the top. And when you’re at the top of that platform, you look around and there’s nowhere else to step but down. And I wasn’t interested in doing that. So I thought, “I think I’ll pull a Seinfield and say thank you and good night,” and go out on time. Because I was fortunate enough to get a contract and receive an award and the recognition and all that. And it was an amazing feeling being on top. So I just felt that it was time to step aside and let someone else take that spot. Because it’s amazing that I had it. And there’s no need to be greedy. And I want someone else to feel that way. Because it’s a great feeling.

CHAMPION: Did your involvement with The Girl Next Door have anything to do with your decision?

VALENTINE: It had a little to do with my decision and learning a lot about myself. And becoming happy with who I am, and realizing that there’s more to life — I mean, I always knew that there was more to life than just porn. But I just got really comfortable. I started to like myself. Because I watched the documentary and I’m like, “Oh! I guess I am a nice person with the competition and everything.” My makeup artist is one of my really good friends and she would always tell me, “Oh, I heard this about you today. I heard that. I heard someone saying it.” God, you know, I’m not. People say that I’m difficult and that I’m a prima donna and that I’m this and I’m that. I mean, I don’t even know who these people are. They’ve never been on the set with me. And I just thought, “You know what? Screw that.”

CHAMPION: How did you feel about having cameras on you for two years?

VALENTINE: Actually, I was already trained to ignore the camera. So that wasn’t much of a problem. And with Christine, the filmmaker, I felt such a bond and a closeness to her. When she would come over, she’d set the tripod up and set the camera on it and hit record. And she’d sit down and she’d go, “So what did you do this weekend?” And it was just like I was talking to your friend. I’d be like, “Well, you’ll never believe what happened to me on Saturday.”

CHAMPION: Sort of like a journal.

VALENTINE: Yeah. And I would just start gossiping with a girlfriend. And she was very — you know, she wasn’t like always in my face with the camera. She would stay in her spot and just observe and let everything happen. And she was able to get the footage that she did because it was just her and her camera. She didn’t really have lighting and sound and a crew with her. And so people forgot about it and just kind of dismissed it. And Christine refers to herself. People just thought that she was just a chick with a camera. And didn’t pay any attention and didn’t think when we’d say, “We’re doing a documentary,” they’d be like, “Oh. Okay. Whatever.” Because that’s how I accepted when my manager at the time, Jack Gallagher, introduced me to Christine, she started telling me what she was going to do and I was kind of like, “Uh huh. Uh huh.” She said, “If I end up following you for a year, I’ll be in every aspect of your life,” I was like, “Oh. Okay.” She just kind of looked at me like, “You know, I’ll be with you for a whole year. Always in your life.” I said, “Oh. Okay. Whatever.” And she kept giving me this insane look. But on an adult set, there are always camera crews on a set saying, “I’m doing a documentary for Europe.”

CHAMPION: Oh really?

VALENTINE: There’s always a camera crew there doing a documentary. So people after a while…

CHAMPION: Everyone’s doing a documentary.

VALENTINE: Yeah. So I thought, “Okay, this chick — this woman’s going to try to follow me around for about a month, lose interest, and that will be it.” And it ended up being way more than a year. Things just kept going. My career just kept going. And she’s like, “Ah! I can’t stop shooting now.” So it was over two years. And finally it was like, “I can’t stop shooting now, but I have to. I have to stop. Because I just keep filming.” And there are still so many times when she’s like, “Oh God. I wish I had a camera. I wish I was still filming this.” Because there’s still so many things that have happened since then.

CHAMPION: There could always be a Girl Next Door 2.

VALENTINE: That’s true. We’re meeting with HBO in a couple of weeks.

CHAMPION: Oh really? You’re still in touch with Christine?

VALENTINE: Oh, we talk daily. I’m so trained that anytime anything happens, I’m like picking up the phone, jotting her number. “You won’t believe what happened to me.” And she’s like, “Oh really?” (laughs) So that’s how it all came about. And when I was saying, “Okay!” she’s like, “Okay. Before you actually accept, I would like you to come and see a documentary that I’ve already done.”

CHAMPION: The Tobacco Wars?

VALENTINE: No, mothers and daughters. It was about mothers and daughters. It was called Mother Love. And it followed four different groups of mothers and daughters. Have you seen the documentary — my documentary — yet?

CHAMPION: Yeah, I have.

VALENTINE: Oh, okay. Well, I’m a mommy’s girl. And so I’m watching this and it brought out so many emotions. And I went on such a roller coaster ride. And I felt that it brought about so many emotions. And when the documentary was over, I was like crying and I called my mom, telling her I missed her and I loved her. And she was like, “Okay, is something wrong?” And I was like, “No. I just saw a documentary that was on mothers and daughters.” And she was like, “Oh. Well, I love you too. Are you sure you’re not drunk?” I’m like, “No!” (laughs) And I got off the phone with my mom and I turned to Christine and I said, “Let’s do this.” Because I immediately — I took it. I just dismissed it in the beginning as, “Oh, whatever,” to, once I saw it, realizing that she was for real. There was really a documentary. She really did want to. Because the other people, who knows? They could just be walking around with a camera. Any old schmoe can do that. But it was for real and the way she was able to capture all that, I was like, “Oh my God!” This is going to happen. And it’s real. I was like, “Whoa!” I was like, “Let’s go!” And she’s like, “Right on.” So off we went.

CHAMPION: There’s that moment in the movie where your mother’s talking to you at the table. And she says, “What kind of person are you going to have when I’m gone?” I’m wondering if you’ve managed to find, not necessarily a significant other, but possibly a greater sense of yourself now that you’ve started the clothing line?

VALENTINE: My mom and I, we go back and forth. That dialogue takes place all the time. We go back and forth on that all the time. She’s never said, “What if I’m not around?” I was like, “I don’t know.” And it’s still, you know, anytime I think of my mom. But — I lost my train of thought. Sorry. (Her eyes begin to water.) Yeah, we’re always babbling with that. She wants me — you know, she’s a dependent person and I’m very obviously independent. And it just frightens me to think if I did get married and have someone take care of me. And it has a lot to do with my trust issue. What if he leaves me? What if he decides, “I’m sick of you and I’m going to get this little twenty year old”? Or just whatever. Leave me. Where am I going to be? What am I going to do? I’d have to pick up the pieces and start over from the beginning. And I don’t want to do that. And I’m scared. I’m scared to. As much as I would love to have someone that loves me and that would take care of me. Because I think it would be really great. ‘Cause I do have that in me to take care of someone and to be like a good wife. I would love to do that. But I’m just too scared. I don’t know.

CHAMPION: You have to believe in yourself before you commit to someone else.

VALENTINE: Exactly. And hopefully some day I’ll meet — I know he’s out there somewhere. I’m just — I just have to wait until — I feel that people come in and out of your life for a reason that they’re kind of, in a way, keeping you busy until you find that right person. That’s why all these relationships don’t work out. Because they’re not meant to. Even though that hurts. And it doesn’t at the time doesn’t make any sense. Why is this happening to me? and all that. But there is a reason. And so I just have to, with all the toads I keep kissing, I know that there’s a reason why I’m kissing those toads. (laughs, sniffles)

CHAMPION: It started perhaps from how you got involved in the business at a certain time in your life. And in an environment. There’s the fan in that movie who puts his hand on your breast.

VALENTINE: Well, the thing that’s funny about that is that has nothing to do with the adult industry. That was at the red carpet at the Cannes film festival while we were walking around in the mainstream section.

CHAMPION: I’m talking about the fan element. Of just people actually viewing you not as a person, but…

VALENTINE: Right, as an object. Like this chair. (Valentine slams her hand down on a chair.) They’re like, “Oh. This is made of wood. Let me feel it.” You know? (laughs) I’m not an object to be fondled. So, yeah, I really have a problem with that. But it’s something that I’ve always just dealt with just because I knew what I was getting into when I got into this. I mean, not that. That’s not fair. They don’t have the right to be touching me, but to a degree you have to give them a little leeway. Because otherwise, people are like, “Well, what did you expect? What did you think that people would think of you?” Even though that’s not fair. I mean, just because I have sex on film doesn’t mean, “Hey. Anybody. Fondle me whenever you want.” You know, that’s not the way it goes. But to a degree I just kind of have to roll with it. Because otherwise I could just flip out and get all pissy. And it’s not really good.

CHAMPION: Do you still get recognized on the streets?

VALENTINE: Now I am getting recognized. For this movie more than anything else. Actually, in New York is where I got the most recognized. Because in L.A., they’re so many celebrities that it’s not like people are all, “Oh my God! Did you see that?” So people always see you out of the corner of their eye because everybody’s so into their own thing. Their whole L.A. thing. They don’t want to drop their guard to look and gawk at some celebrity because they’re pretending that they’re one. That they’re an important person too.

CHAMPION: “Oh, Antonio Banderas. Saw him last week.”

VALENTINE: (laughs) But in New York, we were walking on the streets. And I don’t dress provocatively. Especially when I’m out in New York. I was totally covered. I had jeans on. And I went walking down the street minding my own business. And there were people, guys driving by. One screamed out, “I just saw you on Spice last night! I saw you in Playboy!” And screaming that out their window. And I’m like, “Oh my God! Don’t say that!” Because it seemed like everything — all the traffic noise stopped. Everybody stopped like a slow-motion thing. Everyone turned around to look. “Who? What?” You know, and I’m like (Valentine completes the sentence by applying a bashful expression to her face.). Because it’s very obvious that they’re probably talking about me.

CHAMPION: Suddenly the world stops.

VALENTINE: And I’m like, “Dude. Don’t scream that at me on the streets of New York.” So that’s the most recognized that I’ve gotten in New York. Pretty much. I live in San Diego and people just really don’t pay that much attention to me. Because I don’t wear makeup and I put my hair up in a ponytail and a baseball hat. I smash my boobs down with a sports bra and a T-shirt and shorts and tennis shoes. You know, just kind of try to ho-hum it around. But I just don’t really know if they’re staring at me because I look like I’m someone famous or they recognize me or they stare at me a little bit longer because they’re like, “I know I’ve seen you somewhere. I can’t quite place it.” So unlike celebrities, they know why people are staring at them. Me? I don’t know. I’m not quite sure if they’re recognizing me or what. In L.A., what always seems to be really funny is that people come up to me and ask me the dumbest questions to try and find out who I am. One guy, the other day, when my designer and I we were out shopping getting shoes downtown at the garment district for a fashion show. And the guy’s like, “Oh. Are you getting wardrobe for your next project?” And we just kind of looked at him. We were like, “No.” It was like, “Oh. Well, uh, you…” and he’s sitting there just trying to think of something and I’m like sitting there thinking, “You know what? Just ask. Just say are you Stacy Valentine?” Just say it. Because I know he knows. And so we kind of like just dismissed him. And as he started walking off, he goes, “I love your movies.” I’m like, “What a jackass!” Just come up and say, “Are you Stacy Valentine?” And I’ll say, “Yes I am.” Don’t beat around the bush. Just say it. ‘Cause don’t be embarrassed that you watch them. Because I’m doing it so you will watch them. I want you to watch them.

CHAMPION: Why did you go through the surgery?

VALENTINE: That was because of the business. Because I always felt like I was fat. I always had this battle going on in me. And now that I can look back, I see that I was always sabotaging myself. Because I would be really good on my diet until about two weeks before I would shoot a movie. And I would start by eating and eating. And I would have that fight going on. I’m like eating but I’m feeling guilty. It’s like really good food. But I feel guilty. Because I’m not enjoying the food that I’m eating. And that was just the most miserable part.

CHAMPION: The broccoli part in the movie.

VALENTINE: Oooh. And I still hate broccoli. I can’t eat broccoli.

CHAMPION: (laughs) Now that you’ve left the business, have you been finally enjoying some pizza these days?

VALENTINE: Yeah, as soon as I quit, I probably put on at least five pounds. And a happy five pounds! I’m fine with it. Because I don’t have to be naked anymore. So I’m going to heal because I’m a very extreme person. So I try to be extreme on the diet side. But when I’m not on the diet thing, I’m way off on this side.

CHAMPION: But how extreme is five pounds?

VALENTINE: Well, yeah. In the industry, it is. But now it’s not that big of a deal. And I needed to do that. To just eat as much as I want and not have that guilt feeling. And I know so many people can relate to that. Because you feel so bad. You’re like, “Oh man, I really shouldn’t be eating like that.” But you’re still eating it.

CHAMPION: And not just people in the industry, but women in general.

VALENTINE: No, women in general.

CHAMPION: That’s one thing I champion. I’d like to see more normal-looking women on film. Everyone’s constantly thin and perfect-looking. The people that I know aren’t like that.

VALENTINE: Exactly. Yeah, people are real people. But in the industry, they’re real people, but they are, but they aren’t. They’re into this perfection mode and it was really difficult for me. And I couldn’t think of it as, you know, you’ve got a lot of fans. You’ve got a big following. You’ve got people offering you contracts. So something must be working with your weight and all that. But I just couldn’t see it. Because all these people I was around were thin and then the biggest criticism comes from editors. People who review movies in the business. You know, if someone has gained weight, they write about it. “Oh, this person’s packing on the pounds in the hips.” Just comments like that. And you know what? You look at these guys who are writing the reviews and things, and they’re fat, ugly losers — well, not all of them of course. But a lot of them are and like you have no room to talk but they’re defense is, “Well, I’m not naked.” And I’m like, “Thank God for that.”

CHAMPION: That’s unbelievable. Weightism to such an extreme.

VALENTINE: That was something that I was always just trying to battle with. So I tried the plastic surgery and that didn’t work. And one of the reasons that I’m glad that that’s in there is that a woman that feels. And that’s what I think is so great about this movie is that women can actually relate to me, even though you wouldn’t think that you had anything in common with me, you see that I go through the same things that all women do. What woman hasn’t done the thing with fat? Or, Oh if I could have liposuction, life would be so much better. You know what? It’s not. It doesn’t make it that much better. And so with the plastic surgery, if I could not change someone’s mind, if I don’t want to do that, if they will at least think about how serious, see that, and go whoa. That’s pretty brutal. That’s a pretty violent operation. And that’s the way that I went into my surgery. I was like walk in fat and walk out skinny. Don’t tell me anything else. It’ll be fine.

CHAMPION: There was pain and the wheelchair.

VALENTINE: Blood and cutting and all that. So if I can affect one person by just making her go, “Wow, that’s pretty major.” And she could go ahead and do it anyway. But at least for her to think, “Ooh. That’s going to happen to me. I had no idea until I watched the film.”

CHAMPION: The great thing about that scene is that it shows the mechanical element of the process, that a body is not flesh. The body is suddenly mechanical and it doesn’t have any kind of soul.


CHAMPION: Why was recognition so important to you?

VALENTINE: The recognition at the time. I think that at that time I thought that that was the way to get some kind of acceptance. Because I think that just human nature, I think what everyone deep down craves is acceptance. And what we fear most is rejection. And I wanted that acceptance. And I worked really hard to get — I didn’t have things handed to me. I had very generous people. But no one just said, “Oh, Stacy Valentine, just give it a shot.” You know , I earned all that. And the industry places so much importance on the AVN [Adult Video News] Awards show. And I was up for five awards. And the ones that I always get nominated for, they’re for starlet of the year, best actress, performer of the year, things like that.

CHAMPION: I noticed that they didn’t mention all of the categories in the documentary.

VALENTINE: Well, it wasn’t Best Anal. Because I don’t want people to come over and go, “Hey, come over to my mantel. Look, I won Best Anal scene.” No, it was like best actress, video, performer, video. Now I can’t remember. But getting passed over, I think that that was a great thing to go. I mean, that was — not so much a sympathy thing. Because you see on the Academy Awards, you know don’t you wonder about the people who lose, what they’re thinking.

CHAMPION: Well, you do see that in the five windows before they zoom into the window. You see their mouths form the words, “Oh shit!”

VALENTINE: And then the people have to go, “Oh, yes.” (mock clapping) You know I heard that a lot of people, when their category’s up and they don’t win, they leave. As soon as they don’t win, they leave. And I was a trooper. I stuck it out and sat there after listening all five times and my heart started racing really fast. And then not getting called, it was like, “Oh, well, maybe the next one.” And I think that that was important to show that you really do go, “God damn.” I guess that there were a lot of people that weren’t in the same position that I was in at the time, and it seemed to be so important and now I realize that it’s really not that important. I didn’t even go to the awards show this year. But I am leaving tomorrow for France for the Hot d’Or show. I’m up for best actress. DMJ6 [Devil in Miss Jones 6]. I won best actress in Barcelona for DMJ6.

CHAMPION: The DMJ series?

VALENTINE: Yeah, Devil in Miss Jones. It’s a pretty good series. They kept it going and they just bring in like the top directors of that era. The Gregory Dark and all that. And then it built up Antonio Pasolini, who did DMJ6. So I guess at the AVN show, it was the number one renting tape of last year. So I totally attribute that to The Girl Next Door. Because at the end of the documentary, it said the flash that it said at that time. They’ve changed it since then. But they announced, “Stacy’s working on DMJ6.” And so many thousands of people saw that documentary that had never seen porn, that had never seen an adult movie. And that raises a curiosity. “Hmm, so I’ll get DMJ6.” So they went out and rented DMJ6. So I think that’s why that DMJ6 won best renting tape of the year.

CHAMPION: Are you nervous about going to France again after already winning the Hot d’Or before and going to an element of your past that you’ve turned your back to?

VALENTINE: Oh no, I would never turn my back to the adult film industry.


VALENTINE: No, I’ll always be Stacy Valentine. I’ll always be a porn star. And I think a big mistake that people make is when they decide, “Oh, I hate the business. I’m getting out and it’s just so bad.” I mean, sure, there are elements that are bad. But there are elements that are good too. I wouldn’t be here without it. So I need to always be thankful of where you came from. And I think it’s a big mistake to try and put it into the past. Because you’ll always be a porn star. You spread your legs for a camera. These videotapes are going to be around for years and years and years. It’ll always be there. So if you treat it as a bad thing, it will be a bad thing. But if you just go, “Well, yeah, I did it. Yeah, Stacy Valentine, that’s me,” what are they going to do? That’s when someone can pick out a weakness if you’re trying to deny something or cover it up. And that’s when people really give you a hard time, it’s when they know that you’ve got that soft spot and they’re going to dig. So, yeah, no soft spots around there.

CHAMPION: Here’s the history, no problem.

VALENTINE: Yeah, you want to know what kind of a video to watch? Well, I’ve got sixty-nine of them, I’ll tell you all of them.

CHAMPION: (laughs) That’s ironic. Sixty-nine.

VALENTINE: Yeah, I had to go out on a good number.

CHAMPION: Why was this documentary banned in Oklahoma?

VALENTINE: Because it had to do with themes of an adult nature.

CHAMPION: Just that?

VALENTINE: Yeah. But who has the right to tell me what I can or cannot see? I certainly don’t have the right to tell you what you can or cannot see. I’m not going to walk up while you’re watching something and grab the remote control and turn it off and go, “No no. You’re not watching that. That is an offensive thing. I don’t care if you like watching it, but you can’t watch it because it offends me. Therefore, you can’t see it.” Who are you to tell me what you can or cannot see?

CHAMPION: How did your parents feel about your decision to leave the business?

VALENTINE: Oh, my mom was just like, “Well, now what are you going to do now.” I’m like, “Well, I’m starting a clothing line.” She’s like, “Oh, Nicole.”

CHAMPION: (laughs) The straightforward Oklahoman.

VALENTINE: (laughs) She’s like, “Well, now that’s a tough job.” I’m like, “So what are you saying?” She’s like, “Haven’t you met a nice boy yet?” I’m like, “Oh no, here we go again. No I haven’t and I’m starting another career.” She’s like, “Well, now you can always move back here and move in with me.” I’m like, “Oh thanks. I’ll think about that.” She’s like, “Now Nicole…” — my middle name’s Nicole, she always calls me Nicole — “…now Nicole, I think it would be much better for you to come home.” I’m like, “Oh, okay.” I just go, “Oh, okay,” and she goes, “You’re not coming home, are you?” “No, I’m not.” “Well, I just thought I’d ask.” I’m like, “Oh okay. Well you just keep on asking.” “Well, I will.”

So she’s happy. And when I got into the business, when I told her, she’s like, “Well, I guess I can’t ground you, can I?” And I’m like, “No, you can’t.” She’s like, “Well, okay. Is it safe? Are you happy?” And I’m like, “Yes, I’m safe. Yes, I’m happy. And I’m making my own money and I’m able to support myself.” But she’s like, “You just need to find a nice boy.” “No, I don’t! I don’t! I don’t!”

So she’s still hoping that Prince Charming’s out there and he’s going to sweep me off my feet. But the problem with those fairy tales is that they always end at people going off in the sunset. They don’t show what happens the next day. The reality of the next day. There’s plenty of men who I’m sure would have no problem sweeping me off my feet and riding off into the sunset. But it’s that next day. Are they going to be around? And am I going to want them to be around? We’ll just have to wait until that happens.

Indie Sheetcred

Patricia Storms has been offering reports and interviews on independent bookstores. Her latest report is on The Bookmark and is starting to delve into interesting description and history. I’d say that between this, The Bookstore Tourism Blog and Betsy Burton’s memoir, The King’s English: Adventures of an Independent Bookseller, indie bookstores are starting to nab their respective due for posterity. But why has no one thought to write a history of independent bookstores as a whole?

Jonathan Ames at the Booksmith

I suppose I could blame Jonathan Ames for missing a good chunk of Saturday’s Chinese New Year Parade and the Valentine’s Day Pillow Fight at the Ferry Building. But that really wouldn’t be fair because, in at least one case, I was blissfully unaware of the limitless events happening in my own city. Besides, I’m a grown man responsible for my own actions. Or so the theory goes. And if I was idiotic enough to ignore the Laughing Squid list for a week, then Jonathan Ames is not to blame. In fact, he should be commended for confusing me. We can never be confused enough in life.

Needless to say, on Tuesday night, an evening that what was referred to by at least one friend as Drink Without Guilt Night, I certainly wasn’t the only one at the Booksmith. Some 55 people showed up, many of them arriving late because of a stunning rush hour power outage at Montgomery Street Station and MUNI’s regrettable failure to provide rush hour buses in lieu of subway. Many of them were, in fact, couples. One couple I talked with revealed to me that they were there because Ames’ essays might unite them together for effective copulation. The power of Ames’ work knows no limits. Lust conquers all.

jonathanames.jpgJust before the reading, I said hello to Ames. I was glad he got a chance to see the On the Road MS. upon my recommendation. I asked him if he had been frightened by Peter Coyote’s disembodied voice, but he had to dash off. As it turned out, he had a lot to prepare for. Thomas, the Booksmith’s event coordinator, pointed out to me that Coyote had been one of the Diggers. I knew this, of course. But I didn’t think he would understand where I was coming from: namely, the notion of having Coyote’s voice interrupt you as your awe and concentration is devoted to the roll. Coyote’s voice can be unnerving at times, particularly when it is turned up loudly through a small television speaker and resonating in a room without windows. I suppose this is why he is used for so many documentaries, voiceovers and commercials. So I foolishly remained silent. I am shy and avoidant that way sometimes.

The event began. Ames was introduced. And he expressed his hope that, after the reading, “things will become more amorous.” He then offered an explanation on the I Love You More Than You Know cover controversy. Ames had previously concluded that the world can be divided into two groups of people: those who like scatological humor and those who don’t. The cover had revealed a second dichotomy: those who believe that Ames is revealing his testicle and those who believe it to be a shadow. Ames is currently taking a poll among his readers about this and the details can be found here.

Ames then unveiled an oral version of his tale, “I Called Myself El Cid,” which can be found in the latest book. This essay concerns an unexpected fencing triumph in Ames’ youth with an ending that I shall not reveal. Ames delivered this with considerable animation, adopting a slight Shakespearean tone and seizing a pen in his hands as a surrogate sword. I could definitely see such brio could be used to win a sword fight. It was now being used to tell stories.

The oral story was received with great applause and Ames stopped to catch his breath, reading “Club Existential Dread” in the vocal timbre that I’d style Jonathan Ames Mode 1. Mode 1 is a slight sophisticated Anglicized inflection that I thought had been confined to his fiction, but apparently applied across the board. What was interesting to me was that the part of this essay that I had always found particularly interesting, the moment where five girls are lying on a bar, was rejoined with a kind of silent horror. Could Ames really be reading this in public? I suspected that Ames sensed the same problems with tone that I did, because he later suggested to the audience that there were parts where, contrary to expected responses, one was not expected to laugh. I can only chalk up this audience response confusion to the fact that we were assembled in a bookstore on Valentine’s Day.

Just before reading “No Contact, Asshole,” Ames was perturbed by the presence of a small child in the audience. Upon getting sanction from the mother, he read this and followed this up with “The Thick Man.” During the latter piece, Ames apologized, mid-read, for being so modifier-happy with female anatomy, noting that “Sometimes it happens when you write these things.”

There followed a session of Q&A.

There was a question that wasn’t really a question about Ames appearing on Oprah about the truthfulness of his work. Thankfully, Ames’ response was brief. Something to the effect of “I don’t think so.”

Ames was then asked if he was happy with his current book tour. He said that he was on this latest tour, largely because Nextbook has already coaxed him away from Brooklyn and he persuaded the publisher to chip in for a few more cities along the way. He pointed out that authors were never completely happy about their book tours, in large part because they genuinely believed that the publisher never provided enough PR. But he did note that the chip on his shoulder had grown smaller over the years.

Ames had received many interesting things from readers along the way. An offer from a transexual escort, the like. But at the Seattle reading, Ames had received a comic called “Things Are Beautiful,” a small chapbook bound in red string. (Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any trace of this online.) Ames had been delighted with the first 10-12 pages, in which various objects were declared beautiful, with accompanying text. But after this, things took a turn for the worse. Ames encountered a pair of glasses, with the words, “These glasses would be elegant…” He turned the page, only to see a picture of a bald man that looked suspiciously like Jonathan Ames himself. The text then read, “…if I hadn’t ripped your eyes out like Oedipus!” Ames wondered if there was a subconscious message. After all, he was bald and this illustration closely resembled him.

Since I had forgotten to ask Ames (a second time!) when I interviewed him, I asked him about his use of exclamation marks. He simply stated that he wasn’t against them and that he didn’t understand why people are told not to use them. He mentioned Graham Greene’s use of colons.

When asked about whether he included “everything” in his nonfiction, Ames pointed out that he was not a polymath. He name-checked David Foster Wallace, pointing to these “great folders” (i.e., the footnotes) that DFW had a tendency to open up in his essays. He openly wondered why DFW was wasting his time in fiction when he could be working for the government.

The last time Ames had come through the Booksmith, he had stripped down to his waist to display acupuncture cupping marks. Given this and the testicle issue on the cover, there was a question then implying whether Ames was some sort of subdued exhibitionist. Ames revealed that the current cover came about because of a photo shoot. The boxer photo had not been used. The original book cover had “I Love You More Than You Know” displayed on the back of a flasher’s coat. Ames was appalled by this. Flashers weren’t exactly strong selling points.

During the writing of I Pass Like Night, Ames had used his father’s boss’s name during one of the drafts. His father was paranoid about this. After the book was released, everybody in Ames’ family went to family therapy. And yet with his father in the audience as he performed on stage, his father had laughed when other scatological revelations had been revealed.

Ames then performed a hairy call and bid the audience good night.

An unexpected errand prevented me from staying. And since Ames was mobbed, I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. (Sorry, Jonathan!)

But on the way out, I ran into Steve Rhodes, who had snapped a good deal of photos during the reading. I’m hoping he’ll post some of them in the not too distant future.

There’s also another Ames Segundo interview in the can that I hope to get up in the next week or so.

Even More Abu Ghraib Photos

Carrie and others have alerted me to this Salon article (specifically, this archive) of additional cruelties being meted out on Iraqi prisoners, captured by photographs.

Richard Nash writes in to let me know about David Griffith’s A Good War is Hard to Find, a book of essays written in the spirit of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others. Sontag’s original New York Times Magazine piece can be found here. Near the end of her life, Sontag wrote:

The pictures will not go away. That is the nature of the digital world in which we live. Indeed, it seems they were necessary to get our leaders to acknowledge that they had a problem on their hands. After all, the conclusions of reports compiled by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other reports by journalists and protests by humanitarian organizations about the atrocious punishments inflicted on ”detainees” and ”suspected terrorists” in prisons run by the American military, first in Afghanistan and later in Iraq, have been circulating for more than a year. It seems doubtful that such reports were read by President Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney or Condoleezza Rice or Rumsfeld. Apparently it took the photographs to get their attention, when it became clear they could not be suppressed; it was the photographs that made all this ”real” to Bush and his associates. Up to then, there had been only words, which are easier to cover up in our age of infinite digital self-reproduction and self-dissemination, and so much easier to forget.

The pictures will not go away. But don’t tell that to the major U.S. media outlets. As I write this, no mention of these photos can be found anywhere on the main websites of The Washington Post, the New York Times (save this Associated Press article about Iraqi officials urging calm, as if one is supposed to react to this savagery as if one has just perused a mildly scandalous article), the Los Angeles Times, CNN, and MSNBC. At a time in which journalists should be asking questions about how extant these cruelties are and how frequently they run, at a time in which they should be speculating on how this will irrevocably alter our perception among Muslims, they remain stone-deaf, when it is clear with these new images that what we saw before was a watered down run of the real horrors. Much as the Danish cartoons were kept from the public in order to “protect,” this wholesale blackout and the encouragement here not to discuss or vent or begin any sort of discourse coming to terms with the divisiveness that suspends invisible in the air is supposed to “protect” us from what’s really going on. We are supposed to keep our heads in the sand and keep our four ventricles beating at a healthy, low-carb pace. But don’t worry. There’s Häagen-Dazs in the freezer for desert!

I’m amazed at the audacity of anyone having the temerity to tell us how to think and feel, as if the Iraqi population, seeing their peers treated like animals, and the American public, seeing their soldiers commit ineffable barbarities, are inchoate herds of sheep. The whole point of being a functioning adult member of American society is to question everything, especially one’s own viewpoints and especially the entreaties that come from the top tiers, Republican and Democrat.

Hitch Goes After Keillor

Slate: “Yellow-dog Democrats like Keillor spend a lot of time whining about how America’s standing in the world has declined of late, but this is how he treats a guest who spends half his time combating anti-Americanism in France. Simply because [Bernard-Henri Levy] mentions a fact that has actually caught other eyes (the tendency of Americans to become riotously fat) he is addressed like this: ‘Thanks pal. … Thanks for coming. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. For your next book, tell us about those riots in France, the cars burning in the suburbs of Paris. What was all that about? Were fat people involved?’ One moans for shame that such a vulgar jerk is thought of, and even known overseas, as some kind of national entertainer.”

Birnbaum Watch

Okay, an effort at moving forward. It won’t be easy.

For now, check out Birnbaum’s interview with James Lasdun. Lasdun’s latest book is Seven Lies, which somehow made its way into my hands at BEA. I don’t really remember how this happened, but, for the most part, I dug the book, even if it seemed to borrow just a tad too much of its feel from John O’Hara and Christopher Isherwood for my tastes.

More Abu Ghraib Photos

Here. These were, of course, kept secret from the public. Disgusting. Definitely NSFW. I’m ashamed to be American. And I think I’m going to roll into a ball. Because if these photos don’t get America horrified, I don’t know what will.

NPR, of course, is silent about these images this morning.

I’m looking at CNN’s website and there’s a tiny link to the right when this should be the top story.

Nothing at the Washington Post or the New York Times. Or even my hometown paper, the San Francisco Chronicle.

In short, the American media is thoroughly bought and paid for at a time when Americans absolutely need to bear witness to the inhumane and cruel actions that Americans — yes, that would be us — have inflicted upon the Iraqi people. They need to understand that these images were kept from them by a government all too determined to “protect” them from the knowledge that war is well beyond hell.

I can’t imagine what kind of atavistic asshole you have to be to turn away and ignore these images and walk into work with that bullshit skip in your stride, that Starbucks cup in your hand, and say to yourself just how great it is to be an American.

[UPDATE: Transcript from Australian news program containing more details on the video and link to video itself. Utterly atavistic. (Thanks for the lead, Tayari!)]

[UPDATE 2: Brian Sawyer writes in to note that the images are now the front-page story on CNN and Google News. The San Francisco Chronicle? A Valentine’s Day pillow fight at the Ferry Building is apparently more important than these new photos. See screenshot below.]


Yippie Kayee, Mother Oprah

In an utterly baffling development, James Frey has found an unexpected supporter in Bruce Willis: “Look at what happened to James Frey in the last two weeks,” says Willis. “That’s a great book and so is the follow up book. And just because his publisher chose to say that these were memoirs, it took it out of being a work of fiction, a great work of fiction and very well written to this guy having to go be sucker punched on OPRAH by one of the most powerful women in television just to grind her own axe about it. ‘Hey, Oprah. You had President Clinton on your show and if this prick didn’t lie about a couple of things I’m going to set myself on fire right now.'” (via Defamer)

The Impatient Insist on the Dust Heap

Dan Green on John Barth: “These days Barth is most often criticized for failing to “move past” the metafictional game-playing for which he has become perhaps the emblematic figure. But where, exactly, is he to go? Toward some more conventional kind of narrative strategy? Presumably he determined long ago that this was not the direction in which his talents would take him or he would never have abandoned conventional techniques iin the first place.”

The Powers of Celebrity

A fun thread over at I Love Books about coming face-to-face with authors. The most interesting one:

Richard Powers was at the University of Illinois when I was there (he might still be down there, not sure) and he subbed in for a couple of my creative writing classes one year, and came to speak to a film class I was taking that dealt with artificial intelligence- talked about Galatea 2.1, and kept grinning about being a character in his own book. Completely normal, down to earth guy, friendly, etc., but obviously smarter than anyone you’ve ever met. I had to read one of my stories for the creative class at one point, and the thing was just horrible. I couldn’t even read the story out loud for the class, it was so bad; I had a friend read it for me. And Powers was great- very generous, and somehow acknowledged the fact that the story “needed work” without being condescending or making me feel bad about it.

Tanenhaus Brownie Watch: February 12, 2006


It reappeared, as if from a silly dream. Or perhaps in Mr. Tanenhaus’s case, an honest nightmare he thought was over.

WEEKLY QUESTION: Will this week’s NYTBR reflect today’s literary and publishing climatet? Or will editor Sam Tanenhaus demonstrate yet again that the NYTBR is irrelevant to today’s needs? If the former, a tasty brownie will be sent to Mr. Tanenhaus’ office. If the latter, the brownie will be denied.

To determine this highly important question for our times, three tests will be conducted each week, along with ancillary commentary concerning the content.


Fiction Reviews: 4 full-page reviews, 5 half-page reviews. (Total books: 10. Total space: 6.5 pages.)

Non-Fiction Reviews: 5 one-page reviews, 2 half-page reviews. (Total books: 7. Total space: 6 pages.)

For those who remember the old game, in order to earn his brownie point, Tanenhaus must offer a 48% minimum of review coverage to fiction. Blurbs do not count. Comparative reviews do.

Amazingly, despite the mystifying coverage granted to Jackie Collins’ Lovers & Players, in which Collins, Hackneyed be her middle name, is characterized as some faithful and possibly misunderstood observer of Californian culture, Tanenhaus just beats out the number, garnering 54.1% of the coverage.

Brownie Point: EARNED!

Alas, the attention paid to Collins, complete with a photograph labeled “Jackie Collins and Jaguar,” as if a vehicle obtained with puerile and materialistic impulses is somehow pertinent to understanding Collins’ work as a novelist (though, of course, one can hazard associative clues), detracts from these hard-won inches. And so Mr. Tanenhaus easily earns a bitchslap.

BROWNIE BITCHSLAP FACTOR: Jackie Collins? Must you contribute to furthering an east wing on Ms. Collins’ palatial estate? How, by any stretch of the imagination, can Jackie Collins be qualified as literature? SLAP! (Minus .6 points.)


This test concerns the ratio of male to female writers writing for the NYTBR.

Of the women reviewing fiction, it seems Tanenhaus’s continuing homage to pre-Susan B. Anthony America of chicks reviewing chicks (including Jackie Collins) still holds true, with the major literary title written by a woman (Deborah Eisenberg) going to Ben Marcus. I wonder if Tanenhaus was even aware of the irony in referencing Marcus’ most recent novel, Notable American Women, in his accompanying bio. Because from where I’m sitting, notable women simply aren’t that much of a concern in the NYTBR. The bio may as well have read, “Ben Marcus has a dick and Joyce Carol Oates does not. Hence, we assigned him this review.”

The nonfiction offering is even more dreadful, with six of the seven reviews going to men (including that indefatigable blowhard David Brooks) and only Alexandra Starr garnering a nonfiction title called, yes you guessed it, Lighting the Way: Nine Women Who Changed Modern America.

One would think that the recent passing of Betty Friedan and Wendy Wasserstein might have reminded Mr. Tanenhaus that, contrary to recent Supreme Court justice nominations, women can in fact write and think too. But I suppose Tanenhaus was too busy enjoying sherry with Bill Keller at the private men’s club, presumably after a long day of deer hunting and chewing venison.

Brownie Point: DENIED!


With the exceptions of Ben Marcus, Regina Marler and maybe James Gorman, none of the reviewers have been matched with anything approaching a quirky pair-up. Yes, give Pankaj Mishra the Indian novel! He’s Indian, right? We have the usual gang of dependable Gray Lady staffers. David Brooks, Jonathan Freedland, Jim Holt. Yawn.

Brownie Point: DENIED!


Dan Chiasson’s first several sentences are preposterous. “This is an American tale, a very American tale.” This is trying to pad your word count, Dan, desperately trying to pad your word count. Between this and such ridiculous observations as, “One of the pleasures of reading the novel is experiencing its sheer variety of actual things.” Really, Dan? Thank you for that groundbreaking statement! I mean, hell, the next thing Chiasson will be telling us is that reading a novel also allows you to get from the beginning to the end of a book. No Brownie Bitchslap Factor here. Chiasson’s review is too unintentionally entertaining.

Leave it to David Brooks to offer an equally jejune paragraph: “These men, the psychiatrists concluded, had suffered a stunning mental shock in captivity. In the extreme environment of a P.O.W. camp, their minds had been altered.” You know, I’m no psychiatrist, but I can definitely offer you the same conclusion after about ten drinks and a three-paragraph summary of the book. Brooks’ review does terrible injustice to Rebecca Lemov’s World as Laboratory, a book that, quite interestingly, deals with cognitive readjustment through psychiatric experiments of varying degree. Of course, reading Brooks’ review, you wouldn’t know what Lemov’s level of research or scholarship was — in large part because Brooks himself seems to be having great difficulty understanding the concept. Perhaps Brooks is too busy maintaining that sturdy neocon carapace of denial about Guantanamo Bay. Bobos in Paradise? Try Bozo on Page 9.

While Ben Marcus’s review seems strangely concerned with cinematic parallels over literary ones, unlike Chiasson and Brooks, he cuts straight to the point and managed to gush without fawning too much. Pankaj Mishra’s review is similarly taut. But one ponders if these two reviewers were pushed harder or were allowed to flex their respective critical acumen rather than summarizing a book. (Mishra, for example, offers an interesting thesis pointing out that a novel set in the 1980s might better understand life after 9/11. But he seems unwilling or unable to follow through on this.)

Jim Holt’s review of Happiness: A History is fun and accessible. Chelsea Cain’s review of the Waldman novel isn’t granted enough space to ask whether Waldman follows through on how society expects women to conform.

As for Ms. Sittenfeld’s article, which many of you have emailed me about, the short answer is: Methinks she doth protest too much.

But here’s the long and more inflammatory answer: Aside from the fact that Sam Tanenhaus has ignobly bankrolled an article that is tantamount to a LiveJournal bitchfest, I’ve met very few writers who are so hubristic enough to accept that their idea of the novel as the only one that matters. Certainly, most writers are defensive by nature. And this is understandable. Because it’s a tough, lonely and backbreaking business. But just as the wisest humans understand that their life view isn’t the only one that matters, the smartest writers realize that their own views of their work aren’t the singular reference point. Is it not the writer’s function to just shut the hell up and listen when someone is being kind enough to offer a hard and honest take on their novel instead of the predictable flattery? Is it not the writer’s function not to take any of these thoughts personally?

Most authors have suggested to me that the perspectives they hear from others are not only of immense value to them as artists, but, much as teachers often learn more than students do in the classroom, I suspect that an author learns much about her work from what a thoughtful and erudite person has to say, or even how a less literary person grasps the story.

Perhaps I’ve been lucky. Or perhaps the reality here is that Ms. Sittenfeld simply has no appetite for ambiguity or varying opinions, much less any interest in evolving as an artist. It’s absolutely paralogical for any serious writer to state, “It’s pretty obvious that some readers say they hate your protagonist as a more polite way of saying they hate your entire book, but when I want to hear from people who hate my book, I prefer doing it in the comfort of my own home by looking at customer reviews on Amazon.” Such a sentence assumes not only a remarkably conspiratorial opinion of the human race, but it also implies that writing should be easy and effortless.

Cry me your body mass in tears, Curtis.

Writing sure as hell isn’t easy. If writing a novel were as simple as slapping together a sandwich, then we’d be up to our arms and legs with books. Because everybody would be doing it. (And by doing it, I mean getting the sucker published and sold.) Furthermore, given that the customer reviews on Amazon are — how shall we say this exactly? — mostly incohrent and toothless drivel written by slavish fanboys, how can any writer worth her salt hone her wares by customer reviews alone?

Is it possible that the NYTBR‘s climate has grown so solipsistic and singular in thought that these precious gray areas are not allowed to germinate? Sittenfeld might have had a hell of an essay if a less sycophantic editor actually challenged her to come to terms with how other people view her novel, exploring whether any of this has might make her a better novelist. Instead, and this is not necessarily a judgment of her character — I don’t know the woman — but rather the perception I get from the essay, she comes across as a drama queen of the lowest order.


Overall, as the NYTBR goes, this isn’t too bad of an issue. But it’s far from consistent. Tanenhaus’s recidivist reviewing pairup are uncalled for in the 21st century. And there are still troubling concerns in tone.

Brownie Points Earned: 1
Brownie Points Denied: 2
Brownie Bitchslap Factor: -.6 points


[UPDATE: For another take on this issue, see Levi Asher’s.]

Indiana Jones and the AARP Membership

On Indiana Jones 4: “I’d like to get it over with so I don’t have to answer the god-damned questions [about it] anymore.”

On doing stunts: “”I don’t do stunts! I do physical acting! That’s a big f—ing difference.”

Perhaps he’s just bitter because The Pink Panther beat out Firewall, proving that audiences are, despite previous predictions, getting tired of seeing Harrison Ford kick ass and bark, “I want my family back!”

To My East Coast Pals

I’m not the only Californian who has experienced a certain level of discomfort when speaking to folks on the East Coast. The problem, of course, is that we’re having spectacular weather out here in February (even here in San Francisco) while you East Coasters are stuck in a terrible blizzard.

Yes, this is unfair. But please know that I am not to blame for this. I empathize completely, even though I’ve never been stuck in a blizzard in my life. But in the past two days, there have been many phone calls and email volleys from folks expressing understandable resentment

I’m not responsible! There were no snow dances on this end, I assure you! There were no secret government projects bankrolled by this scheming millionaire. I didn’t do it! Look, I can’t help it if the weather is making me feel happier and more relaxed. Can you blame me? We had three months of almost continuous rain here. The time has come to leap with joy and to run in the park! You’ll have this moment too, I’m sure. You know, it’s just possible that the tables will turn in a month and California might be hit with another terrible El Niño storm while you East Coasters will get fair weather again. And that’s when you East Coasters get to laugh. Because as anyone who has met a Californian knows, we’re wusses when it comes to the weather.

Please wait it out and let your enmity for West Coasters settle. Justice will be served in a trice — the minute it dips below 45 degrees again and we whimper like cowards and turn our central heating units up as if the digits on a Kelvin thermometer suddenly shifted to Celsius. And then both sides know who the real heroes are.