Don’t Discount the Discount Store

I’m a native Californian. So this makes me something of a clueless wuss when it comes to East Coast winter. You see, here in California, unless we head up to the Sierra Nevada mountains, we rarely experience any weather below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. In fact, we Californians shiver and complain when the temperature hits tepid winter levels, and this makes us something of an understandable laughing stock. (This does not, however, explain California’s rampant libertarianism, nor its wacko New Age movements.)

There’s a corollary to this Left Coast predicament. California’s relative warmth also means that many of us (or at least me) are utterly clueless about winter wear. Hats? Scarves? Gloves? You don’t say! What the hell are those? I have a trusty full-length wool coat that gets me through the cold winter nights, thank you very much. And if you push me against the wall, I’ll drag out my thermal underwear under duress, which I honestly can’t remember where I put. But I’m pretty sure it’s somewhere in my apartment!

I hit New York this weekend, where the weather ranged from 15-30 degrees. With my Californian idiot thinking in play, I likewise figured that the wool coat would serve me well in these comparatively freezing conditions. This worked out okay for me, except when I ventured beyond three Manhattan blocks in the cold. After three blocks, I began to experience an astonishing freezing sensation in my cheeks! This was something new and strange (and, dare I say it, exotic) to me, and I did my best to hide my panic. When my silly masculinity dissipated and I began to realize that this was not a good winter wear situation, it was suggested by certain folks kind enough to comprehend my cluelessness that covering my ears and hands would probably be a good thing.

So I sallied forth to do this. But I could not find a trusty cap or gloves for sale in a ten block area. This was New York! Why was it possible to order smoked Cuban fish at 2:30 AM, and yet not find winter gear? I was prepared to abandon my quest altogether, silently shivering and risking possible frostbite, until I stumbled upon one of those 99 cent stores. I walked into this dubious outlet with some trepidation.

I was stunned to discover a hat and gloves, which I obtained for the amazing price of $2.58. The freezing feeling in my cheeks disappeared! There was better body heat distribution! I began to walk proudly in the cold, thinking that (at least for this weekend) I could probably pull a Travolta strut and ask for two, two slices of pizza somewhere.

There is a moral to this story: a discount store will save you from the cold more effectively than one of those silly Duane Reade outlets that purport to serve the general public.

AMS Update While On the Road

I had planned to report on today’s bankruptcy hearing, even though I am now writing this post from an airport. But it appears that the fates (or, rather, the Judge) have decided to continue the hearing until later this week, making my job a little easier. Judge Christopher Santochi has informed publishers that they may sign with both NBN and Perseus, if they so desire. This puts NBN in the spot of getting the appropriate paperwork together before Wednesday afternoon. (And if NBN does not, then Perseus’s offer will be approved on Thursday morning.)

This puts the ball squarely in the courts of NBN and the respective publishers to do the mad scrambling. We shall find out soon enough whether PGW will operate the aegis of NBN or Perseus soon enough. Tomorrow, I will attempt to determine if there are any hesitations some publishers may have in going through NBN. And while NBN’s offer is certainly a sweeter pot than Perseus’s, I will attempt to determine any possible disadvantages.

Meanwhile, Publishers Lunch reports that AMS plans to sell “the majority of its assets, excluding PGW” to Baker & Taylor. The release can be found here.


* — Conclusion based on personal emails between Champion and Doctorow, 2001-2006, although third parties assure me that Doctorow is “nice.”

Maureen Dowd & Leon Wieseltier Party Like It’s 1999!

I’d lambaste Maureen Dowd for her uninformed column, but Ron Hogan has already done my job for me. I’ll only add that asking an assman like Wieseltier to comment on chick lit is a bit like asking a pornographic filmmaker about the artistic merits of a Skinemax flick. In both cases, the “expert” can’t be counted upon for a reasonable assessment because of his innate coprophilia.

It’s a Humanist Position, Really.

Sloganeering: “Much fan fiction is poorly written, and can cause actual brain damage in unsuspecting readers. The obvious response to this is to not read fanfic. But that’s not going far enough for some readers. The mere fact that this stuff even exists somehow poisons the world for them; much like knowing that someone, somewhere is, as we speak, putting the finishing touches on a Two and a Half Men spec-script or even — heaven help us — eating a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich made with nine-grain bread and wondering why he isn’t losing any weight.”

Comedy on Both Sides of the Atlantic

Simon Pegg: “It’s not so much about having a different sense of humour as a different approach to life. More demonstrative than we are, Americans are not embarrassed by their emotions. They clap louder, cheer harder and empathise more unconditionally. It’s an openness that always leaves me feeling slightly guilty and apologetic when American personalities appear on British chat shows and find their jokes and stories met with titters, not guffaws, or their achievements met with silent appreciation, rather than claps and yelps. We don’t like them any less, we just aren’t inclined to give that much of ourselves away. Meanwhile, as a Brit on an American chat show, it’s difficult to endure prolonged whooping without intense, red-faced smirking.

Come On, What Do You Really Expect When You Add Bloggers to the Payroll?

New York Times: “Mr. Edwards could keep the women on his staff and have to answer for the sometimes vulgar and intemperate writings posted on their personal blogs before he hired them late last month. He could dismiss them and face a revolt in the liberal blogosphere, which is playing an increasingly influential role in Democratic politics and could be especially important to his populist campaign. Some bloggers saw the controversy as manufactured by conservative groups.”

So Much for My Secret Plan to TP the Homes of the Least Geneva-Friendly Supreme Court Justices

New Scientist: “In a recent study, the technology was 70% accurate at predicting whether participants planned to add or subtract a pair of numbers. Paralysed people may one day be able to use devices based on the technique to carry out complex actions, the researchers say. However, ethical concerns have been raised about its possible use in interrogation.”

Sleep-Deprived Roundup

BSS #97: Ngugi wa Thiong’o & Carrie A.A. Frye


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Avoiding impostor kings.

Guests: Carrie A.A. Frye and Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Subjects Discussed: Satirical plausibility, Wordsworth’s willing suspension of disbelief, narrative explanation and interconnectedness, queuing, The Wizard of the Crow as a history of Africa and a global epic, poverty, truth vs. fiction, metamorphosis in nature, comic literary references, Jonathan Swift, how dialogue carries the narrative, theatrical metaphors, Tajirika as charming villain, writing in Kikuyu and translating in English, Kenyan cultural politics in the 1960s, and being imprisoned for writing in an African language.

(A co-production of the LBC, Pinky’s Paperhaus and The Bat Segundo Show)


Thiong’o: Getting a character mentioning, or the narrator mentioning, something in passing, which may look very almost — if a reader is not careful, he may actually miss it. But then as you go on, the small thing mentioned at the beginning becomes larger and larger, and more and more significant. For instance, the issue of queuing. The way it begins is almost offhand and then, as it goes on, it increasingly becomes more and more important, more and more central, connecting the various events.

The Dangers of Confessional Writing: Two Case Studies

There was a point in my life when I revealed damn near everything about myself on the Web. I ended up attracting a stalker who tracked down my home address. This ostensible “fan” knocked on my door and announced that she was going to “help” me. I was baffled by this. I was just some guy on the Internet. And as far as I’m concerned, to this day, I remain “some guy on the Internet” lucky enough to talk with authors and get paid for his writing every so often.

This stalker and I talked. It was creepy enough that this stalker discovered where I lived. But she also divined aspects of my personality that I had unintentionally revealed through my words and that she, a troubled soul herself, related to. This, she explained, motivated her trek to San Francisco. (I was somewhat relieved to learn that she lived in the East Bay, as opposed to some Midwestern town halfway across the country. It was as if this shorter distance somehow undermined her troubled temperament or partially justified her stalking.)

We chatted for about twenty minutes. I felt extremely exposed, but I somehow steered the conversation away from my personal life. I listened to her tell me about her life and, when she claimed that honest writing was the existential answer, I suggested that she keep a journal. A safe place for her to record her thoughts and tell the truth. I never heard from her again. I hope she turned out okay.

This incident made me acutely aware of what I revealed every time I wrote a personal essay. I eventually decided to reveal aspects of myself only when I felt sufficiently informed or wise enough to translate my character into essays. I began seeing a therapist, who helped me to overcome many lingering demons, and I got out my often feral personal confessions in a more constructive manner. (I stopped seeing the therapist a few years ago, save for one visit after last year’s skirmish with the police because I was terrified that I would slip back into territory that I had thought long conquered. But I do keep a journal and take long brisk walks whenever I come up against my neuroses. And I am prepared to go back again if I ever fall off the wagon.)

I also decided to take down my earlier incarnation of, although I kept and adapted many of the styles I employ to this day. There’s a marked disparity between the various voices I adopt on this blog and the person who I really am, just as there are certain crossover qualities. While I do my best to remain as humble as I can, even I must confess amusement when some of my more outrageous posts are taken seriously. I’m also immensely entertained when people are absolutely convinced that they know me exclusively from my writing and form the most amazing impressions. I respond to this game by fabricating additional details to throw them off further. (By the way, did I ever tell you about the time when I was terrified of walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, or the time I entered a hot dog-eating contest, or the time I jumped naked into the Pacific Ocean? Only one of those anecdotes is true. Believe at your own peril.)

* * *

Which brings me to John Freeman.

I should note from the onset that, despite all of my criticisms of the man, I happen to believe that John Freeman is a good guy.

The two of us went to high school together. I can tell you that he was one of the only middle-class jock types who didn’t tease me mercilessly because of my comparative poverty, my hair in recurrent need of a barber’s scissors, the dark trenchcoat I wore to hide my wiry and hungry frame, my Looney Tunes tees (acquired not so much because of cultural loyalty, but because they were extremely cheap at Marshall’s and there wasn’t a lot of money to go around), and pockmarked jeans.

I talked with John Freeman on the phone last year and I can tell you that he’s still a good guy. And it is because I believe him to be a good guy that I must write this.

I was prepared to say nothing, but a few months ago, Freeman began turning out a series of essays that were overly confessional, much as my personal writing had been many years ago. I figured that, after many hard years freelancing as a book critic, John Freeman was entering a transition phase, searching for a more ambitious voice. But in Freeman’s ambition, I recognized the voice of a man who doesn’t know himself nearly as well as he thinks or, to be more equitable, a man who didn’t seem to be aware how much he was really confessing. And I grew concerned. I had once walked down the same road.

I didn’t want to embarrass him. So I didn’t link to this Babble essay about being childless, which, unlike other Freeman bylines, didn’t list Freeman as NBCC President. It was the kind of personal essay written without hard introspective insight, much like the essays I once wrote. It was the kind of writing you never want to reveal to the public because you’re still too immersed in the turmoil to see it clearly.

(I must pause here and point out that, with enough hard thinking, one can write about an ongoing personal dilemma. As evidence, I refer to Tim O’Brien’s infamous 1994 essay. Despite some shocking revelations, such as O’Brien revealing his suicidal impulses, it doesn’t come across as embarrassing. O’Brien has clearly mulled over his predicament, demonstrating in compelling and lucid language the development and continuing existence of a twenty-five year old problem. Additional examples of such essays include nearly anything written by Joan Didion and, more recently, Jonathan Lethem’s “The Beards,” which can be found in his essay collection, The Disappointment Artist.)

Then I stumbled upon this essay in The Believer (to be found in the current issue) and became even more uncomfortable by what Freeman was revealing about himself. It was very much like Ayelet Waldman’s troubling 2005 essays for Salon or Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone, where the writing serves as a surrogate for therapy (or, for those who disbelieve in therapy, a reasonably healthy method of confronting personal trauma). Freeman’s essay likewise featured brazen revelations, embarrassing for all parties, thrown into a thesis (in this case, how John Updike’s writing serves as a personal crutch, not dissimilar from Jonathan Franzen’s extraordinary revelation that he wanted to learn how to live by continuously reading Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters) and didn’t feature a resolution, or at least a conclusive cognizance, after a linear progression of events, but a man making the same mistakes over and over again and possibly not seeing this.

Then there was this outburst on the Critical Mass site, which was picked up yesterday by The New York Times. While I didn’t entirely disagree with Freeman’s comment, as NBCC President, I was surprised by Freeman’s decidedly undiplomatic tone, particularly this sentence:

I’d be curious to know how many of my fellow NBCC board members who voted for this book have been inside a Muslim household, let alone a Muslim country?

This led fellow NBCC member Jennifer Reese to remark that she had lived in a Muslim household for two years and had voted for the book, despite its controversial content. And it led me to wonder if Freeman’s personal confessions were creating more rancor than resolution.

I don’t know what’s going on with John Freeman, and I can’t profess to know. I’m not a mental health professional. I write here as an observer and a humanist who hopes that John Freeman is aware of what he is doing, or I hope that he becomes aware by way of this essay, assuming he doesn’t take offense at my speculations.

I must observe that writing, in and of itself, is not a panacea for personal problems. Writing is certainly a starting point for half-formed visceral or intellectual reactions to the world around us that we writers often discover later, if we’re smart enough (and often we’re not), or we have pointed out to us.

But it is not the manner in which one goes about finding an identity. That takes much more. To begin with, it takes a remarkable degree of confidence, discipline and/or drive to carry on as a writer. (Even those working writers who view themselves as sacks of shit have some ability to continue writing and not let anything stand in their way. Whether this is compulsion or confidence, who can say?) It is certainly not a profession for the weak of heart. It is an often absurd vocation. Every writer, no matter how good, is greeted with continuous rejection, with an acceptance accompanied by a paycheck of varying dollar value. A writer often never knows when her next paycheck is going to come from. A writer never knows if an editor who shoots her steady work will decide if her work just doesn’t fit the publication’s needs anymore, with even the most steeled writers often contemplating whether this might in some way be personal.

Given these circumstances, why would any writer turn to professional writing as a catholicon, essentially prostituting his personal experience in lieu of therapy? Why would a writer turn to a medium he knows damn well is devoid of the stability and nurture one should experience when dealing with an alarming undulation in this crazy little thing called life?

I am not against unfettered expression and I’m certainly not suggesting that today’s personal writers shy away from explicit personal writing. I am only asking for today’s confessional writers, who often lack the measured hands of O’Brien, Didion, and Lethem, to consider that spilling it all onto the page simply isn’t enough. This seems, in my mind, to be the motivation behind all the recent daddy memoir writing and it seems to be the m.o. behind Freeman’s recent essays. These writers should know better. A good writer simply doesn’t write an essay about a subject he knows very little about. A good writer knows how to organize his thoughts. Should not these same principles apply to confessional writing?

Generation Divide

Jonathan Lethem: “Novelists may glance at the stuff of the world too, but we sometimes get called to task for it. For those whose ganglia were formed pre-TV, the mimetic deployment of pop-culture icons seems at best an annoying tic and at worst a dangerous vapidity that compromises fiction’s seriousness by dating it out of the Platonic Always, where it ought to reside. In a graduate workshop I briefly passed through, a certain gray eminence tried to convince us that a literary story should always eschew ‘any feature which serves to date it’ because ‘serious fiction must be Timeless.’ When we protested that, in his own well-known work, characters moved about electrically lit rooms, drove cars, and spoke not Anglo-Saxon but postwar English—and further, that fiction he’d himself ratified as great, such as Dickens, was liberally strewn with innately topical, commercial, and timebound references—he impatiently amended his proscription to those explicit references that would date a story in the ‘frivolous Now.’ When pressed, he said of course he meant the ‘trendy mass-popular-media’ reference. Here, transgenerational discourse broke down.”

Vollmann Gets Sampled

Pitchfork: “Sometimes O.Lamm follows his whims too far, as on “Electric Emily”, an allusion to a William Vollmann story with yipping samples and murky percussion that irritate more than they exhilarate.”

I’m very curious what O.Lamm would do with “Under the Grass” or “The Grave of Lost Stories” (both contained within Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs) assuming, of course, that the latter doesn’t count as “fan fiction.” (Thanks for the tip, Tito!)

The Only Couch Potato Who Wears a Trenchcoat

“The Radio Times speaks of ‘swearing and nudity… in skiploads right from the opening scenes’, but I’m not getting my hopes up too high.”

“My instinct is that this one-off final episode will be a skin-free zone (apart from maybe some of those ultra-realistic prosthetics that allow the series to show all those grizzly scenes of childbirth going wrong!), but I will tune in on the off-chance that Tamzin Malleson will finally show some flesh.”

“ITV4 has Carlito’s Way at 11.00pm. Another movie that makes an appearance regularly, this was only on a few months ago, but features Penelope Ann Miller’s best nudity, which makes it worth seeing in my opinion.”

These and other film and television musings can be found at the blog, In the Best Possible Taste.

Support Your Local Indie Bookstores

Los Angeles Times: “This is the paradox of modern bookselling. Even in an entertainment-saturated age, people still buy books. But the casual reader has many other places to get bestsellers and topical books, from warehouse stores to the mall. Meanwhile, book nuts — the ones who simply must buy several volumes a week — are lured online. Few businesses can survive that lose customers from both ends of the spectrum.”

Never Underestimate the Humorlessness of the Internet Public

John Sutherland: “The piece was, I believed, mildly sarcastic. YouTubers were not amused. For a day or two, I was YouTube-famous. The contents of their video responses – which at the time, could all be summoned instantaneously from the Wikipedia entry – are bruisingly abusive. ‘Die! You asshole!’ rants one paunchy YouTuber, jowls quivering with homicidal rage. ‘Your head is so far up your arse you can see your tonsils,’ offers another, with a show of that less-than-Wildean wit for which YouTube is justly famous. (They seem for some reason to be obsessed with the rectal tube.)”

More Butler Interview Excerpts

Again, when I tell you that you must read Jack Butler’s Jujitsu for Christ, and when I point out that the Rake ain’t lying when he says “everyone should go out and buy a copy of Jack Butler’s Jujitsu for Christ,” this is a bona-fide hot reading tip for you — nay, an entreaty!* That is, if you give at least ten good goddams about literature! Butler’s work is criminally neglected by the cool kids. (I’m looking at you too, Good Man Park!) But what I’m thinking is that some of us Butler boosters might be able to restore the good man’s graces into the echelons that they belong.

With this in mind, you can read a few more excerpts from the aforementioned Butler interview, courtesy of Jeff Bryant and Prof Fury!

* And really I have Tangerine Muumuu to thank for all this, since she was the one who got the book in my hands. Inexplicably, Jack Butler’s work is about as impossible to find as a Saturday Night parking spot in San Francisco. As soon as I track down another copy, she’s getting one.