O Lucky DVD!

While poking around Alan Price’s site, I have learned that one of my twenty-five favorite films of all time, Lindsay Anderson’s frequently misunderstood masterpiece, O Lucky Man!, will at long last be released on DVD on October 23, 2007. I understand that Malcolm McDowell recorded a commentary track.

If you have not seen this great picaresque film, which, in three hours, savages more institutions and ideologies than almost any other film I know of, you must check this out. Then again, despite talking with many film geeks over the years, I seem to be the only American to dig this flick.

In the meantime, whet your appetite with Lindsay Anderson’s satirical documentary, Is That All There Is?, which can be found, rather miraculously, on YouTube: [Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four] [Part Five] [Part Six]

This was his final film. And for those who have clocked in numerous hours viewing documentaries, the film is an unexpectedly touching and often hilarious portrait of Anderson in his autumn years. As if responding to every known documentary cliche available, Anderson intercuts footage of starving children while shopping in a supermarket, inserts television clips of current events that have absolutely nothing to do with Anderson’s life, stages needlessly contentious conflicts, and even includes a closing musical number with Alan Price.

Lindsay Anderson is arguably one of the most misunderstood British filmmakers of the past fifty years (indeed, he spent the last of his days searching for money to make more of his surrealistic and anarchistic films) and I’m glad that Warner has seen fit to take a gamble with the release of O Lucky Man! on DVD.

Fading Mencken

The Smart Set: “Mencken’s sad, empty house, feels like a physical manifestation of the thing he’s become — a writer still around, and likely to always be around, but set off as a novelty, as a thing that stands awkwardly alone. The idea was reinforced when I left the house and walked across the street to Union Square. The small park was once the verdant center of a neighborhood of families, but it’s been long neglected. The water fountain was filled with cigarette butts. The grass was weedy. The trashcans were overflowing. In the center was a fountain honoring Mencken. Around its edge were bronze covers of his books, each bearing the name of a different donor. Some of the covers were missing, screw holes left behind. And the fountain was dry, trash blowing around its base.”

Silverblatt’s Stats

Here is the point in each installment of KCRW’s Bookworm, in which Michael Silverblatt finally permits the author to speak. (It is also worth noting that Bookworm is a twenty-eight minute show.)

Marianne Wiggins: 2:11
Miranda July: 1:59
Nathan Englander: 1:45 (only because Englander interrupted him)
Naeem Murr: 2:34
Michael Ondaatje: 1:30 (!)
Helena Maria Viramontes: 1:50
Kurt Vonnegut: 1:38
Richard Flanagan: 1:30
Jim Crace: 2:19
Jonathan Lethem: 2:07

And They Wonder Why We Raise a Stink About Habeas Corpus

Washington Post: “The U.S. government is collecting electronic records on the travel habits of millions of Americans who fly, drive or take cruises abroad, retaining data on the persons with whom they travel or plan to stay, the personal items they carry during their journeys, and even the books that travelers have carried, according to documents obtained by a group of civil liberties advocates and statements by government officials.”

Oh, and, by the way, as of February 2008, if you leave to and from the United States by air or by sea, you will need special clearance from the same Automated Targeting System listed in this article. Your name will be fed into a computer and, before you can get your boarding pass, your name will be checked against a “risk factor” saved for forty years in the computers. The DHS, of course, has been sketchy about what details it has been collecting.

Brooklyn Declared Source of Liteary Pestilence by The American Scholar

American Scholar: “To achieve this miracle, certain writers produce Brooklyn Books of Wonder. Take mawkish self-indulgence, add a heavy dollop of creamy nostalgia, season with magic realism, stir in a complacency of faith, and you’ve got wondrousness. The only thing that’s more wondrous than the BBoW narratives themselves is the vanity of the authors who deliver their epistles from Fort Greene with mock-naïve astonishment, as if saying: ‘I can’t really believe I’m writing this. And it’s such an honor that you’re reading it.’ Actually, they’re as vain and mercenary as anyone else, but they mask these less endearing traits under the smiley façade of an illusory Eden they’ve recreated in the low-rise borough across the water from corrupt Manhattan.”

I don’t entirely disagree with Melvin Jules Bukiet, but there are several hysterical statements in this article that I will leave others to respond to.

I’ll just point out that Dave Eggers and the McSweeney’s operation are based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Alice Sebold is also in California, and that Benjamin Kunkel is, as I understand it, based in Manhattan. So while I appreciate some of the sentiments in this article against superficial books, I think that Bukiet is foolish to wag his vitriolic finger to Brooklyn as the source of this apparent “Books of Wonder” epidemic. This is the kind of scummy and atavistic mentality that eventually gets people forcibly removing Japanese people from their neighborhood and placing them in internment camps.

And Bukiet doesn’t know Brooklyn very well if he thinks the hipsters ride the F train. If we’re going to reduce speculation upon the five boroughs to base generalizations, as anyone who actually gets off the island of Manhattan from time to time knows, it’s the L train to Williamsburg where you’ll find the ponytails and goatees.

(Thanks, Sarah)

A Candid View of the Publishing Industry

I had intended to link to this earlier, but for anyone wanting an inside glimpse of the publishing industry, the Virginia Quarterly Review has put up a podcast and a transcript of four publishing heads discussing the state of the industry. Among some of the more interesting highlights:

  • Grove/Atlantic head Morgan Entrekin doesn’t believe that literary fiction is under siege and believe that now is the best time for literary fiction in his thirty-year career.
  • FSG president Jonathan Galassi believes that the success of The Emperor’s Children was the exception to the literary fiction rule, saying that it’s “harder and harder to get people to care about something new, to get things to turn over.”
  • This probably ties into Levi’s ongoing discussion about hardcovers vs. paperbacks, but Entrekin relaunched the Black Cat imprint as a paperback original imprint, because he found that the Black Cat hardcovers were getting a 70-80% return rate.
  • HarperCollins president Jonathan Burnham noted that in positioning books for newspaper coverage, it helped to have “just a story behind the creation of the book.” (Knopf president Sonny Mehta agreed, citing Irène Némirovsky as an example.)
  • There seems to be a consensus that a book landing on the National Book Award shortlist has little effect on sales.
  • Entrekin and Mehta both admit that fifty percent of their business is in the backlist.
  • Galassi believes that writers shouldn’t write for the market. “They should try to develop confidence with their voice and then find professionals to help them with the other, but if you try and sort of play the market, I think you’re putting the cart before the horse, myself.”
  • An audience member brought up Soft Skull’s book bundles, causing Burnham to remark that Knopf or Harper couldn’t effect something like this. So perhaps there are certain advantages in being a small press with a personality and focus.

Sam Tanenhaus: Let the Cheap Sensationalism Continue

Have you heard the latest from Sam Tanenhaus’s dismal literary tabloid? Writers should be pilloried for writing the sentence “Men are rats.” It’s an absolute scandal. Toni Bentley, presumably recruited because this offered the boys another opportunity to pump her for more thoughts on posterior probings, proceeds to characterize Katha Pollitt’s latest book as another volume in “[g]roaning and moaning from clever, sassy women.” After spending three paragraphs attacking the right of intelligent women to write about being burned by men (in a remarkably sexist term of art, Bentley characterizes these women as “vagina dentata intellectualis”), while failing to point out precisely where Pollitt went wrong in her work. Four paragraphs into the review, we still have no explicit quote from the book that will support Bentley’s thesis, but we do have this extraordinary sentence:

It’s hard to tell if she’s coming into her own, trying to sell more books or has lost it entirely.

I don’t see how speculating upon the mental health or financial motivations of a writer offers any thoughtful insight into a book. It’s clear enough that Bentley hated the book. I get that. Pollitt is a polarizing figure. But as a reviewer, does not Bentley have the obligation to tell us why specific passages reflect what she perceives as inadequacies? Instead, Bentley merely summarizes some of the essays and spends most of her review offering limp wisecracks. (“Not being in drowning mode, I, for one, am bringing a cliché-proof life jacket to the party.”)

It is stupendously irresponsible to take a sentence like “Men are rats” and not provide any additional journalistic context to offer us a few clues about what Pollitt was writing about. In publishing such a piece, it seems evidently clear that Sam Tanenhaus has no interest in examining social issues with any degree of maturity. It is bad enough that he would resort to cheap sensationalism. But it is the act of a thug to permit a piece that would attack Pollitt’s character rather than her words.

Missing Audio Recording of John P. Marquand?

New York Times (December 13, 1981): “J.P. Marquand contributes one of his studies of Brahmin snobbery in a two-record tale about the exclusivist, mean-minded members of a Bahamian country club in ”Sun, Sea and Sand’ (CMS 575-76).”

This is rather interesting, considering that Marquand had been dead for twenty-one years when this was reported. Or perhaps reporter Paul Kresh simply didn’t know who Marquand was.

Tough Questions, Journalistic Truth, and Danica McKellar

“You are representing a media and you’re a reporter. The American nation is made up of 300 million people. There are different points of view over there.” — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

“You know, you need to talk to economists. I think I got a B in Econ 101. I got an A, however, in keeping taxes low and being fiscally responsible with the people’s money.” — President Bush

From a September 20, 2007 post-interview discussion with Danica McKellar:

McKellar: That should have been my first warning. When you first said, I’ll give you a softball question, like, there’s going to be a hardball? But what?

Me: You’re saying that you don’t answer hardball questions?

There is something very disturbing going on in American journalism right now. Perhaps this has always been the case to some extent, but it appears that one may only ask certain questions. An interview subject, in turn, is not responsible for talking about certain topics, even those in which she has a decided hand in. Never mind that these topics may contain important details about our ever-changing world. It doesn’t matter if the topic is politics, sports, entertainment, or social issues. This self-imposed censorship, understood by savvy marketing forces and no different from pre-glasnost Pravda house style, has pervaded the American consciousness with a fervor that is truly disheartening for anyone cares about one of America’s greatest precepts — the freedom of the press.

mck.jpgThe unspoken rules of celebrity junket interviews, which are designed to cover all flaws and prevent any and all character deficiencies from being made public, dictate that the celebrity is perfect and can do no wrong. Ask questions that are soft. Ask questions that wouldn’t harm a gnat. Constantly flatter the celebrity. This is the way things work. And if you don’t play by these rules, if you actually attempt anything approaching journalism, you are a scoundrel of the first order.

I do not subscribe to these rules. I believe in a press in which important questions can and should be asked of anyone. Because people and the books that they create should be taken seriously. Particularly when they are misunderstood.

* * *

It was a Thursday afternoon. I was walking along Canal Street and observed a truck towing an enormous bus, causing the traffic to spiral into a slipknot incompatible with two-way flow. A couple looked on at this and were laughing incessantly. And even I had to crack a grimace. Was it a harbinger of some sort?

I arrived in a cafe to interview Danica McKellar about her book, Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail. It was my second interview of the day. My first interview had gone very well, extending unexpectedly into 75 minutes. McKellar’s book was a guide for girls, containing helpful hints on how to compute the Greatest Common Factor, transform percentages into decimal values, and the like. I am very much interested in gender roles and, in particular, the great gender gap in math and science. I also feel that any book which offers girls positive role models for entering into mathematics is worth investigating. Nevertheless, as the book’s subtitle indicates, there was something within the book’s pages which suggested that girls, even those who are pursuing math, should fall within a feminine stereotype.

“I’m here to tell you from personal experience that you can be a glamour girl and a smart young woman — who can certainly do math,” wrote McKellar.

Why the glamour girl/smart young woman dichotomy? Isn’t this perpetuating a stereotype?

There was McKellar’s bold claim on page 279 in which she made a comparison between getting a bikini wax and preparing for a math test:

But after a few more sessions and a lot more pain, I found that I could calm myself down. The mind’s power over the body is incredible. All I had to do was think about roses or rainbows or fluffy clouds, and it didn’t hurt as much! Sounds wacky, I know, but I’m telling you — it actually works!”

The mind’s power over the body is indeed incredible, and I couldn’t help but wonder about some poor girl with a body image issue reading this passage. Junior high school is hard enough for girls. Why perpetuate the pain further?

I mention all this, because this is the thinking I apply for every interview. My girlfriend has joked that I would have made a particularly pernicious litigator. But I choose to use my powers for good, if you can call “good” asking serious and off-kilter questions of various authors, intellectuals, and celebrities. I may be a tough interviewer, even with authors I dearly admire, but I have tried to offset this by being as kind and polite as possible. There is a very specific science to what I do, but I do not profess that it is perfect.

Nevertheless, it is my impression that when one writes a book, one should be able to stand by its principles. One should be sufficiently confident to respond to any points in a civil manner.

It was with these tenets in mind that I asked Ms. McKellar a series of serious questions:

McKellar: Playing with make-up, fashion, jewelry. These are pretty universal.

Me: No. But you’ve just admitted that they’re not universal. Because it’s not the…

McKellar: Oh no, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said universal. I should have meant, um….I should have said that they’re consistent throughout time. Women throughout the ages have loved these kind of things and they’re fun. And it’s part of. So I think that the girls have a much deeper interest in self-presentation than guys do. In general. And I’m making a total generality here. Um, girls are more interested in: Who am I and how I come off to the rest of the world? These are things. This is the way that girls seem to answer the question, “Who am I?,” at that age. And that’s when they answer that question. In middle school. Who am I? And how do I compare? That’s what all those teen magazines and quizzes are about, right? That’s why I have quizzes in my book.

Me: Yeah, yeah.

McKellar: Take this quiz and find out. All those quizzes in magazines, they all answer the question, “Who are you? Take this quiz and find out.” And it’s irresistible. I used to love that stuff. And most girls do.

Me: But maybe that’s actually perpetuating this idea of either trying to ask themselves who they are. See, instead of seeing the monkeys or the prime numbers, they see instead these kinds of horoscopes and these quizzes and the like, and then they say, “Oh, I fall within a particular taxonomy.” Is it not better to just take the really helpful suggestions that you give to girls and let those sort of stand alone? And let those actually be that thing that says, “Who am I? Well, you know what? I am a girl and I can do math. And therefore, there is nothing that can stop me.” It’s like the ultimate empowerment.

McKellar: That’s what I think I’m doing. I’m a girl and I can do math. And I can love lip gloss too and do math, and there’s no contradiction whatsoever.

Me: I’m curious, would you call yourself a feminist?

McKellar: Different people have different interpretations of that word. In terms of the interpretation that says, I believe in equality of men and women, of course, absolutely.

Me: What definitions would you quibble with?

McKellar: Well, there’s so-called Nazi feminists out there that give them that name. That try to say that, you know, women are better than men. And there’s just some of that out there. It’s the good old pendulum they’re trying to swing the other direction.

Me: Well…

McKellar: I really think that men and women are completely fabulous creatures in their own right and very different from each other.

Me: Who are these Nazi feminists? I mean, Rush Limbaugh, of course, coined the term “feminazi.” I’m curious as to who would fall into that particular camp.

McKellar: That’s not what we’re going to talk about.

Me: Well, I think it would be very important to talk about, given that you were saying this book actually empowers girls. Therefore, in a certain sense, it is calling for this equality of…

McKellar: I mean, you’re asking me to warn girls against listening to certain people?

And so on. I was not trying to pass judgment. I was only trying to understand. I mentioned that “Nazi” was a loaded word. Whether I was being too insistent on this topic is subject to your perception, but I have a feeling McKellar wasn’t asked about feminism before. McKellar, at any rate, clearly didn’t care for my line of questioning. Indeed, as she would later tell me, she had not experienced any interview like this. Whether this was a case of me somehow skating through red tape or a failure of the publicists to examine the interviews I do, I don’t know.

As I was preparing to shift the topic to something having nothing to do with Nazis or feminists, McKellar called for a break.

I did promise McKellar that I wouldn’t make a short segment that was accidentally recorded during this “break,” which did indeed live up to the word’s Middle English etymology, available in podcast form. Being a man of my word, I’ll honor that promise. But I’m not going to let this stop me from reporting on this story.

While McKellar took her break, I tried to explain to her that I was a journalist and that I was asking tough questions of her because I took her book seriously. I pointed out to McKellar that I had not asked her any questions about The Wonder Years and had no intention to, as I was a literary journalist.

She then grabbed my list of questions and held them away from me. After studying these questions, she then began setting conditions. I couldn’t talk about the Stuff Magazine shoot, in which she had posed in a bikini. I told her that I didn’t understand. She then turned to the publicist and asked her what her perspective was.

She then noticed that my recording unit was recording, the increasing digits likewise surprising me, and then hit the STOP button.

She and the publicist then demanded that I play back the most recent audio. I refused. It was bad enough that my questions had been taken from me and that I suddenly had to clear what I could ask — something I have never done with anyone, even when I was conducting interviews in the late ’90’s with film people of considerably greater stature than McKellar.

The publicist said, “Well, our audience isn’t compatible with your audience.”

I told the publicist that I disagreed. She then asked me how I had found out about the book. Perhaps this was naive of me, but I was stunned that I would be treated like some disposable component in the marketing machine and I simply said that a book about gender roles and math interested me.

McKellar again expressed her discomfort. She didn’t like my attitude.

The publicist said, “Well, I was a bit uncomfortable too.”

Maybe so. But shouldn’t the publicists have done their homework? I’m not hiding what I do here. Any person can listen to any of the podcasts and listen to how I conduct interviews.

I didn’t see any point to continue the interview. McKellar and the publicist left. And I packed up my gear.

It would also appear that McKellar has a history of being rather touchy about the idea that her book might be reinforcing gender roles. McKellar and her publicist kept insisting that I was attacking her character. I was not. I was asking her questions about her book and trying to understand how her own views about gender roles were reflected in a book instructing girls to excel in math. A book is, after all, a vessel of information transmitted from author to reader. And if the vessel involves an author telling girls what to do, then it seems entirely reasonable to ask questions about what steps are taken in transmitting this message.

* * *

I don’t believe my questions were unreasonable. But I am a rather persistent person who often ventures into unusual territory.

But I return to the original question. What is the role of the reporter?

Maybe a reporter is, as Amborse Bierce once described him, “a writer who guesses his way to the truth and dispels it with a tempest of words.”

I don’t deny that I’m often guessing at the truth with these conversations. I don’t pretend to speak on behalf of anybody but myself. So I inure myself from President Ahmadinejad’s charge. I’ve never claimed to know everything, and I am often quite wrong in my thinking. But I’d like to think that in pressing so vigorously upon a particular topic that there remains some possibility of getting at the truth from a subject. The idea of even President Bush, whose economic policies are responsible for current events, evading any question that doesn’t have anything to do with economics, represents a completely unreasonable limitation. And if reporters are still permitted in our culture, why then should anyone set limits upon what they ask of their subjects?

Do we now Taser anyone who asks a dissenting question? Do we throw journalists in jail when they won’t give up work product? These examples, representing Andrew Meyer and Josh Wolf, respectively, may be more extraordinary exemplars of a growing antipathy against those who ask who questions. But these questions must be asked.

We haven’t learned anything from the regrettable night of June 22, 1812, when Alexander Contee Hanson, the owner and publisher of the Baltimore newspaper, the Federal Republican, was attacked by a faceless mob and beaten, along with many of Hanson’s followers, by anti-Federalists. The mob also destroyed the Federal Republican‘s offices.

There was a time not long ago in which the terms “media training” and “media clearance” were not part of media vernacular. One wonders how a reporter writing for a 19th century newspaper would negotiate today’s intricate waters. If you think my questions are tough, consider this exchange with a Concord New Statesman reporter (available courtesy of the recent opening of the New York Times archive) from June 1, 1852 between a reporter and a mother on trial of murder:

Said I, “Do you think you had for your child the ordinary feelings and natural love of a mother?” She looked at me full in the face, with eyes gushing with tears at the question. “Sir, I would gladly have laid down my life for it! I could have given it away while in the full consciousness of my condition, but I resolved to work myself into the grave before my child should have separated from me. Do you think, Sir, I would part with that which life would have been an intolerable burden?”

Here is a regional reporter asking a tough question, more insensitive than any query I posed to Ms. McKellar, and getting an answer that is quite emotional but considerably revealing.

The restrictions of the celebrity interview and the immediate assumption that some questions should not be asked represent threats to the ability of reporters to chronicle the issues of our time. I’m wondering if some future scholar, looking at our time a century and a half from now, will get the kind of insight that we can get about this 19th century mother. If journalists pull their punches and willfully subscribe to conditional reporting, how can they be expected to offer something for posterity? How can they be expected to record history?

Ahoy, Maties! The German Street Economy is a Tad Too Vigilant!

Variety: “Germany’s upper house of parliament on Friday approved a controversial copyright law, which makes it all but illegal for individuals to make copies of films and music, even for their own use. The Bundesrat pushed aside criticism from consumer protection groups and passed the law, which makes it illegal for anyone to store DVDs and CDs without permission. The law also covers digital copies from IPTV and TV broadcasts. “

Twenty Minute Roundup

It’s the Books, Stupid

An anonymous comment at the National Book Critics Circle blog:

Has book coverage started on Truthdig? If it has, it’s very invisible on the home page. Second, those of us who are interested in literature and literary culture wish all you folks would stop talking about yourselves for a few minutes and start reviewing some more books. Most of you work from assignment, so you can’t necessarily be blamed, but since we can read any book review we want these days, why do we have to read so many reviews of the same twenty books every week. That this “campaign” to save book reviewing takes up so much of your attention is only further evidence of how important you all think you are. It’s actually the books that are important and so many of them–books that are often far more interesting than the few that you sheep are all getting your two cents in about every week–just disappear without a bit of attention. If literature is to survive, it has to do something that movies don’t do, it has to move forward, it has to grow. This hammering away at Delillo, Chabon, Díaz by all of you at once is downright boring. Folks who read are looking for a disovery, not the same old same old. Your homogeneity spells the death of culture in this country. If, indeed, we ever had one.

The Final Shreds of PGW: How Low Can You Go?

Publishers Weekly: “In what is likely one of the last sales of note in the AMS bankruptcy proceedings, the distributor and the Perseus Books Group have filed a motion with the bankruptcy court seeking its approval to sell the PGW name and office leases in Berkeley, Calif., and New York City to Perseus for $80,000. According to the motion, the sale involves ‘all intellectual property associated with the PGW and Publishers Group West marks and names, including but not limited to brand, logo and naming rights.’ The purchase also includes the signs above the front doors and reception desks at the New York and Berkeley locations. In addition, Perseus will pick up office equipment, furniture and data.”