Tim Burton: Remaking the Movies You Grew Up With, One Movie At a Time

I am convinced that Tim Burton is on a mission to destroy all the movies I enjoyed growing up. First, there was his abominable remake of Planet of the Apes, which was an unpardonable dumbing down of Pierre Boulle and Rod Serling, even with the Charlton Heston cameo. Then there was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in which Roald Dahl’s acid-barbed warmth was glossed over with ostentatious production design and thespic detritus (from Depp, no less!). I haven’t yet seen Sweeney Todd, but, despite Mr. Teachout’s thumbs up, I fear the worst. Now comes word, courtesy of Bookshelves of Doom, that Burton plans to direct another adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.

Let us be clear on this. Burton’s decline began when he began remaking old films, presumably because his ideas or his stock of fresh screenwriters dried up. Aside from the ho-hum offerings Big Fish and The Corpse Bride, Burton’s been a lousy director. His films have been crammed with showy commercial impulses in which the stylized early Burton — with its enjoyable Aubrey Beardsley hand-me-downs — has all but disappeared. (Years ago, I sensed that something was amiss when Burton opted for an over-the-top black palette with Sleepy Hollow.) He hasn’t taken a chance or made an unapologetically fun film since Mars Attacks! There’s simply no trace of the guy who gave us Beetlejuice or Ed Wood left.

And if the good Terry Teachout says that Sweeney Todd is “the best film ever to have been made from a Broadway musical,” I hope you’ll still pardon my skepticism.

Don Morrison: Time Magazine’s Cultural Answer to FOX News

A few weeks ago, Don Morrison of Time Magazine suggested that French culture was on the decline. Morrison bemoaned the fact that the French take their culture seriously. He tsk-tsked fashion magazines for carrying serious book reviews (he says this like it’s a bad thing!) and small towns from putting on opera and theater festivals. Morrison’s main gripe was that “[a]ll of these mighty oaks being felled in France’s cultural forest make barely a sound in the wider world.” And that because of this, France was “a wilting power in the global cultural marketplace.”

The chief problem with Morrison’s essay, aside from its considerable hubris, is the term “cultural marketplace.” Why must culture be dependent on the marketplace? In addition, Morrison’s stupendous ignorance of contemporary French cinema — I’m nowhere nearly as steeped in French cinema as I once was, but has this dilettante not even heard of François Ozon or Gaspar Noé? — leads him to report that “France’s movie industry, the world’s largest a century ago, has yet to recapture its New Wave eminence of the 1960s, when directors like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were rewriting cinematic rules.” Is Morrison complaining about the French film industry in 1907 or the 1960s? Or is he just a hopelessly confused man? And if box office gross is the paramount distinction, what of 2001’s Amélie ($33 million U.S. gross), 2003’s The Triplets of Belleville ($7 million), 2003’s Swimming Pool ($10 million), or 2006’s Arthur and the Invisibles ($15 million)? And why doesn’t he cite any contemporary examples? Wild stab in the dark, but could it be that Morrison doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about?

I’d plunge into this essay further, but thankfully Bernard Henri-Levy has done my work for me, dispensing with this yokel’s argument quite adeptly and including a helpful taxonomy of axioms.

(Thanks, Gonzalo, for the tip.)

Bonfire Two Decades Later

The New York Times talks with various people about Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities on the twentieth anniversary of its publication. What does Wolfe think about New York today? “One day this is just going to be a Disneyland. This’ll just be a place where people come for entertainment, that’ll be it. There’ll be no industry other than the entertainment of just being here. If the financial industry should leave — and it could, any time it wants, it could leave. Only that excitement … keeps them here. They want to be able to call themselves ‘Wall Street.'”

Less is Lessing

I am now lying on a bed looking through blankets of billowing wool to where I am told there is a world beyond the bed. Yesterday I tried to venture off the bed and internal forces — some of them responding to the name Phil — held me down. You could call this laziness, but I call it reality. It was easier to leave the bed in 1996. There was a most beautiful world beyond that bed, but that was when we didn’t have the Internet. No wi-fi. No laptops. No inanities.

This is a Brooklyn apartment in 2007. I email. I blog. I pick up my cell phone. Sometimes, I do all three at once. And my life is pointless and inane just for even doing one of these things. Even if I turned the computer off for a week and just thought about doing it. Doris Lessing told me all this. It seems that I am incapable of reading a book, no matter how many notes I take. And it’s all because I haven’t visited Zimbabwe and met some starving young black boy telling me he wants to write. Even if I were to go onto IRC and find a boy in Zimbabwe typing “i shall be a writer too :),” this would not be enough. For the boy in Zimbabwe could very well be a forty-two year old psychopath in Dayton, Ohio who would want to fly me out somewhere and meet me in a sleazy motel and offer me a special treat if I pretend to be a fifteen year old girl named “sucker69” who likes to try new things. This is assuming I have the time or the inclination to pretend to be a fifteen year old girl. Again, the inanities. The whole day wasted on blogging. Worthless.

I do not think many of the people on IRC will really chat with a boy in Zimbabwe who wants to write.

The next day I won’t be giving a talk anywhere, unless you count climbing up the fire escape to the roof and braying at the moon in an effort to beat my insomnia. Because I am one of those insignificant Internet people and there isn’t so much as a sliver of hope that I’ll be able to formulate any meaningful thoughts on a screen. The best thing I write is bound to be insignificant because it isn’t bound in buckram. So there is no prize.

Maybe I will talk with myself, underneath the blankets with the billowing wool. Zimbabwe will be on my mind as I look at my mildly expectant fingers reaching onto the laptop and try to tell them to stop because Doris Lessing said that it wasn’t good enough.

I do my best. My fingers are not polite.

I’m sure that there are other people out there with fingers like mine and that some of these mysterious strangers with laptops will win prizes.

Then the talk with myself will be over. Maybe my super will call the police. Maybe I’ll be evicted for all the loud noise. Maybe nobody will care. After beating myself up for not knowing anybody in Zimbabwe, and being too lazy to try and contact anybody in Zimbabwe, I shall go down to my local bodega and try to talk with some of the people in my neighborhood. I will ask them if they know anybody in Zimbabwe and they will tell me to either buy something or fuck off. And I shall return to the bed and the blankets with billowing wool and the laptop, and it will all remain inane and insignificant.

We are in a fragmenting culture, where meeting somebody from Zimbabwe was once a sure thing if you had a lot of expendable income and you were 88 years old and you felt like bitching at someone because you weren’t quite dead yet. This is no longer possible. In this culture, we can celebrate writers like Doris Lessing, who make silly generalizations about people who work with computers being incapable of reading and sound like utter loons. And it all sounds important because it’s delivered in front of the Nobel Foundation and because it’s Doris Lessing saying these words.

I remember a day in 1980 when Carter was still President and there was a nest of singing birds. Should I tell you the rest of this story? No. Because writers are made in Zimbabwe. And I grew up in California. I was not a black boy. I’m so sorry.

Despite this difficulty, I became some third-rate writer. And we should also remember that I became a third-rate writer not in Zimbabwe, but in Brooklyn, a place where there are too many writers. In one or two generations, there may even be more people from Zimbabwe in Brooklyn than there are writers. I do not shed any tears over this fact. This is the way of things.

If I do not leave the bed soon, I will be a poor girl trudging through the dirt, dreaming of an education for my children, should I lack the foresight not to spawn. I think I shall stay in bed and not eat for three days. I’ll think of the children. I’ll think of Zimbabwe. Then I’ll think of Doris Lessing and ask myself whether she banged out her speech in a few hours or whether this was just an easy way to get the Nobel ceremonies over with.

NBCC Ethics Survey

At long last, Carlin Romano has posted the results of the National Book Critics Circle ethics survey. If there’s one thing that most NBCC members can agree upon, it’s that 98.1% of them are indeed members of the organization. Where the six stragglers and the one “other” came from is difficult to say. But I suppose a few rotten apples or contrarians are likely to find their way into the fix.

The other major consensuses are these:

84.2% of the NBCC members who took this survey believe that a book editor should not assign a book to a friend of the author.

83% believe that opinion journals should adhere to the same ethical standards as newspaper book sections.

76.7% say it’s okay for a reviewer to repeatedly review books by the same author over the course of many years.

76.5% believe that it is unethical to review a book without reading it entirely.

76.3% believe that book review sections that are paid by companies for reviews should be identified in the same way that bloggers are.

73.4% aren’t sure if the ethical standards of the United States and England are significantly different.

72.1% see no problem with an editor assigning a book known to hold aesthetic, political, or literary views close to the author.

68.5% believe that anyone mentioned in a book’s acknowledgments page should be barred from reviewing the book.

68.5% believe it isn’t okay for an author to review another book if the author has served as a major source in another book that the book’s author has published.

66.5% believe it’s okay for a newspaper or magazine to review books by current or former staff members.

66% say that it’s okay for a book section to have a podcast with the author, while the book section carries a review.

64.9% believe that someone who has written a blurb should be prohibited from writing a lengthier review of the book.

Many of Romano’s questions seem to address, rather amusingly, some of the current practices of The New York Times Book Review. And judging from the results, it would appear that Sam Tanenhaus is upholding only half of the ethical bargain. I’ll have more to say about this in depth later. But for now, I direct you to Michael Orthofer’s commentary.

BSS #159: Garth Risk Hallberg


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Considering alternatives to artsy-fartsy books.

Author: Garth Risk Hallberg

Subjects Discussed: Authoring a conceptual book with veto power over the designer, family detachment, cross-references, Bay Area literary magazines, the McSweeney’s influence, Em Magazine, book art practitioners, being on a first name basis with Dave Eggers without really meeting him, teaching a class on design with scant knowledge, frightened photographers, how to organize artists without having them succumb to advertising influence, inviting readers to cut up the book, John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, nepotism and William Gass, character who share surnames with authors, speculating on character deaths, Garth Risk Hallberg’s streetcred, drugs, the problems of a representative North American family living in New York, lying and imagination, the “healthy glow” on cheerleaders, penis envy, lengthy sentences and commas, Raymond Queneau’s “sonnet machine,” being hostile towards Geos, plastic bags and trees, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Ian Frazier’s “Bags in Trees,” on the reader being unfairly tricked by the book’s trompe-l’œil, whether all books should be published in hardcover, e-books, and reading Bob Woodward in PDF.


Correspondent: In “Security,” you suggest that cheerleading practice actually results in a healthy glow. Do you have any personal evidence for this? Why did the healthy glow of cheerleading practice sort of stick out in this section? It certainly stuck out for me. Because I’ve seen cheerleaders coming back from practice and they don’t always have that healthy glow. So why did you, Garth, have this healthy glow described in this book?

Hallberg: Something about the character of Lacy, who is the cheerleader. She seems to always be ensconced in a healthy glow to me. And that sounds kind of trite. But in a way, she’s the least afflicted of these characters. Again, I think I have an image in my head of someone I went to high school with, who was just kind of — again, this sounds trite, but she was kind of the all-American girl and she was happy and functional and emotionally available and friendly and just a generally cool person.

Correspondent: But no healthy glow! You haven’t described that!

Hallberg: Well, and she had an extremely healthy glow.

Correspondent: Okay, really. I mean, how — can you elaborate on the healthy glow? What kind of healthy glow did she have? How did this actually get from ten years later into this book?

Hallberg: Do I use the phrase “healthy glow?”

Correspondent: You use the phrase “healthy glow.” That’s why I’m so excited about it.

Hallberg: (laughs) I guess it is sort of an exciting concept.

BSS #158: Yannick Murphy II


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Abdicating any and all Mata Hari dreams for a far more noble ideal.

Author: Yannick Murphy

Subjects Discussed: The juxtaposition of first person, second person, and third person within Signed, Mata Hari, the loss of Mata Hari’s voice within the novel, on not pushing a point of view upon the reader, balancing source texts vs. imagination, books that accessed some of Mata Hari’s closed files, how to work within the lack of non-specific biographical details, being a young mother in a foreign country, writing hyper-exuberant sex scenes, S-shaped and elliptical symbols, gibbons and the male gaze, the expressive possibilities of symbols, narrative transitions, extremes vs. gradients, the “third eye,” balding gentlemen, the importance of environment, the relationship between personal experience and objective data, dreams, on making Mata Hari’s husband evil, the oppression of women in pre-World War I, and novels telling unknown history.


Murphy: Well, I started off thinking that it would be just in the first person. But there was so much about her in later life that I thought her mature-sounding voice would need a second person. And that’s how the person began with “If you want to be a spy….” That’s how that voice came about. Because it showed her being more mature about the entire situation, about all of the conflicts that she had had in her life, and the first person worked for her as a young girl — for me, when she was a young girl. But then there was so much that happened in her life that I knew that that first person as a young girl, that particular sounding voice, wouldn’t work for the whole book. Because I wasn’t going to write a book that actually detailed every point of her life.

Segundo Overhaul

Okay, folks, the Segundo site has been tweaked a bit and I’ve caught up with all but one of the outstanding capsules. Still needs some work and I may add another column, but if you have any problems or specific requests, let me know and I’ll employ them in the next few days. Also, more podcasts are coming this week.

The New “Greedo Shoots First?”

Among the changes in the Blade Runner final cut:

In the scene where Batty confronts Tyrell, the line, “I want more life, fucker” has been replaced with “I want more life, father”. In the same scene, after Batty has killed Tyrell, he now says to Sebastian, “I’m sorry Sebastian. Come. Come.”

I’m sorry, but as far as I’m concerned, Batty’s line, as growled in the telltale feral manner of Rutger Hauer, was a quintessential component to the movie. Will the fanboys be up in arms over this?

Oh, That Sam Tanenhaus!

It appears that Sam Tanenhaus will be expanding his editing duties to the Week in Review section, which he will also be editing. Apparently, one section isn’t enough for good old Sammy Boy. Bill Keller hopes to work Tanenhaus to death until he leaves the paper. Keller writes, “I can’t wait to see what creative energy he will bring to the continual reinventing of the Week in Review.” Now that’s quite cruel — the kind of thing I expect from someone dousing salt on the participants in a snail race and then shouting, “Go go go!” as the competitors dissolve just before the finish line. I actually felt sorry for Tanenhaus, until I was reminded by Jim Sleeper that Tanenhaus can’t stop prioritizing demagoguery before debate. Really, just about the best thing that Tanenhaus can do under these circumstances is throw in the towel and go back to working on the Buckley bio. It’s clear that’s where his true passion lies.

Coming Soon to The Bat Segundo Show

You may know Peter Fernandez and Corinne Orr from their voiceover acting for Speed Racer. In addition to writing and directing the American scripts, Fernandez was the voice of Speed Racer and Racer X. Orr was the voice of Trixie and Spritle. But what you may not realize is that both of these actors began their careers just as old time radio was on the decline. (Indeed, Orr even appeared on an episode of CBS Radio Mystery Theater, Himan Brown’s effort in the 1970s to bring back old time radio.) Since one of my side projects has involved attempting to revive old time radio for the podcasting age, I am greatly interested in this generation of great voiceover actors. I’m also a fan of Speed Racer. Fernandez and Orr — both of whom are especially friendly people — kindly took some time out to talk with me while I was bumping around The New York Anime Festival. There were many topics discussed during our conversation. (After many curious years, I finally learned the story behind the third season Star Blazers casting switchover, which will be revealed once the podcast goes up.) But as it turned out, we got to the subject of old time radio pretty quickly.

Correspondent: Was there a stigma in terms of female actors doing boys at the time?

Orr: No. Everybody did it. (laughs) Not everybody, but it was common because we were coming out of the radio era.

Correspondent: Yeah.

orrweb2.jpgOrr: And people had doubled and tripled in shows. So…

Fernandez: Well, on radio though — and I grew up partly doing the radio shows from the East Coast, which was where most of the dramatic shows came from. And they used real kids. There was one boy named Ronald Liss, who started doing radio when he was a year and a half. He could read.

Orr: Really?

Correspondent: Wow.

Fernandez: Yeah. Quite a bit. He went to the same school I did and they skipped him three grades.

Orr: I knew him. I loved him.

Correspondent: I’ve listened to a lot of old time radio and I actually have heard children. So that’s definitely true.

Fernandez: Yes.

Correspondent: Actually, this brings up a question I wanted to ask both of you, in terms of animation and anime reflecting this old time radio feel. Rather, there’s a whole generation that grew up who didn’t listen to old time radio. I only discovered it just by complete curiosity. And I’m wondering if you feel, both as actors, that there has been something lost in the last forty years.

Fernandez: I want to address that. My favorite medium of all time is radio, and it always will be. You’ve heard the cliche “theater of the mind.” And it’s absolutely true. Every listener had a different picture of what he was listening to in his head. And it was a marvelous medium. And great for actors. It was live!

Orr: We do a convention each year called Friends of Old Time Radio in New Jersey. And it’s glorious. They recreate all the old shows with some of the original actors who are still alive, and they use other people to do the shows. And it’s great fun! We do it each year. And I just won an award last year.

Correspondent: Oh! Congratulations.

Orr: Thank you.

Correspondent: Well, we’re talking about radio as “It was a fabulous medium.” Do you think there’s absolutely no hope — particularly in this podcasting era; I mean, here we are talking on a podcast — of old time radio returning?

Fernandez: I don’t think it can ever return. Because now it’s a commercial every three minutes on whatever you’re watching or listening to. Three or four minutes. However, I was thinking of maybe devising three minute segments of soap operas — you know, original ones. Not going back to the old ones. And having a little brief drama or comedy. Whatever. Lasting only for the three minutes. What stations would run it, I don’t know. Because you need X amount of stations to pay for it.

fernandezweb2.jpgCorrespondent: But what I’m suggesting is, is that here we have this podcasting medium in which this isn’t a factor. In which you can have a sponsor sponsor an entire podcast. So I’m wondering if there’s any hope of old time radio that’s lengthy thirty-minute drama.

Fernandez: I don’t think there’s an audience for it.

Correspondent: Really.

Fernandez: Yeah, if they want to spend a half hour, they want to see it on television or whatever.

Correspondent: Even if they’re walking in the streets with their iPods? Have you considered that? I mean, people do need to listen to something on the subway.

Fernandez: Well, “listen,” there’s the key. To listen. Is it enough to just listen? Do you want to listen to a book being read or — I don’t know. I just don’t think that people are used to it mentally now.

Half Day Off

Okay, I’ve just done the math. And I’ve written, to my great shock, 22,500 words for various professional endeavors in the past two and a half weeks, which includes toiling through Thanksgiving weekend. That doesn’t include the fiction or the blog posts here or half a radio script that I’ve been toiling at. Now I have a modest clue as to why I’m a bit exhausted. So if you’ll pardon me, folks, I’m taking the rest of the day off. And by “day off,” that means resuscitating the second computer and running a few modest errands, which even includes a quick research run.

“Jesus Came First!”

Sherri Shepherd of The View has uttered, in all seriousness, that “Jesus came first.” Shepherd seems to believe that, in the great collective whole of human existence, there was no religion before Christianity. One must ask how such an ignorant fuckwit was picked from the available pool of candidates and hired as co-host. Granted, one does not expect penetrating insight from The View, but surely there are minimum intelligence standards. Surely, there is some producer on the show who is doing more than tearing out hair and begrudgingly accepting this dunce as a talking head for our time. Because this baffling statement truly represents the nadir of talk shows. I’d expect such a conclusion from a four-year-old who still believes in Santa Claus and doesn’t know any better, not a forty year old adult who has had decades to form her conclusions. But there it is. “Jesus came first!” A statement as foolhardy as shouting “The world is flat!” at a geography convention.

If this were a just world, Shepherd would be employed at a full service gas station somewhere, assuming of course that her diseased mind was capable of understanding that inserting the nozzle does not come first (although Jesus DOES come first and he shall save you from rising gas prices!) and that you actually unscrew the cap before putting in the nozzle. Of course, since this is a task repeated multiple times throughout the day, perhaps after the thirty-seventh time, she might catch on. Then again, maybe not. Because as seen in the clip, when presented with the facts by her peers, Shepherd is incapable of even confessing that her co-hosts may be right.

Why the hostility? Because this isn’t just about the glorification of ignorance, but the glorification of people who refuse to accept anything but their ignorance. A remotely thinking person would stop in his tracks and realize that they’ve made a mistake or consider that facts and evidence may have some bearing on maintaining a mind set. And here’s the thing. It’s not as if Shepherd is being asked to weigh in on the Jungian influence on advertising or distinguish between an AK-47 and an M16, but she’s being asked to respond to a basic fact that anyone with a basic elementary school education knows! In continually employing a numbskull as dumb and dense as Shepherd’s on the show, The View‘s producers are complicit in celebrating one of the most abhorrent qualities that has pervaded this country. Maybe Mike Judge was right. If we continue to accept such rampant stupidity without protest, at this rate, we’ll be queuing up for Ass: The Movie in a lot less than 500 years.

The Latte of the Real

“Are you still stressed out?” I asked.

I was worried. I liked her. We’d had many amicable conversations in the mornings. But today, there was the telltale flush of frustration on her face. I had ensured her days ago, as she was studying for a test, that beating stress was a matter of staying as calm and focused as possible and getting to the other side. That she could survive this if she didn’t let anything get in her way and she gave it her best shot and stuck at it. But I was worried.

“Someone didn’t close very well last night,” whispered her co-worker. This was the hushed susurration of a man who knew how to play office politics. The morning manager, after all, was twenty feet away.

When the manager had disappeared into the back, she listed the offenses. The coffee maker hadn’t been cleaned. Milk hadn’t been put away, causing the morning shift to scramble for Friday morning’s latte demands. The customers, of course, hadn’t noticed any of this. Many of them, as shamefully reliant upon the coffee as I was, stared into space. Perhaps they did not want to see because they were going on to thankless jobs and they’d experience their own versions of this vocational hell upon settling into their cubicles. A little girl waiting for a sesame bagel kept shouting, “Ba-gwal! Ba-gwal!”

“I mean, if she can’t do the basics for this job, imagine if she had a job in the real world.”

I was stunned by this. Was this job so thankless that it was somehow categorized you beneath the real world? Did working in a cafe, remaining largely invisible to the many people who enjoyed these services (and who often did not even bother to tip), somehow prohibit you from having a life? From being real? Yes, I know that New York is a more class-conscious city than San Francisco, but this seemed a tremendous statement to make.

“You know,” I said, “before William Faulkner was a writer, he was one of the world’s worst postal workers. He misdelivered mail. He couldn’t do his job. Maybe some people are only meant for certain jobs.”

“But she worked as a waitress before this! She should have known how to close properly.”

That may be the case. But maybe these indiscretions had been committed by this woman because all of us, in our own conscious and subconscious ways, can’t seem to view the tasks others perform or the people who work for us as “real.”


  • Because of other deadlines and ancillary technological healing, I won’t be covering the New York Anime Festival today. But I will be there on Saturday and Sunday. In the meantime, Heidi McDonald has assembled a crazed journalistic army. So you can no doubt find coverage over at The Beat. Making sense of the daunting schedule does indeed require a strategy. So I have decided to simply throw myself on the floor with full gusto and see what happens. This always seems to be the best policy under such circumstances. Podcasts and reports are forthcoming.
  • It’s that time of the year again when Congress devotes its energies issuing ridiculously draconian Internet policies instead of showing a little backbone in relation to larger matters of war and corruption. CNETs Declan McCullagh reports on a bill known as the SAFE Act — not to be confused with the efforts a few years ago to curtail the PATRIOT Act — that seeks to punish anyone running a Wi-Fi network with a $300,000 fine if they do not report on someone downloading an “obscene” image. And The Nation‘s Larisa Mann reports on a House Resolution that threatens to do away with a school’s federal funding in toto if the school allows even one illegally downloaded song. Democrats in large part supported both of these bills. In fact, for the first bill, the only two people who voted against it were Republicans — including Ron Paul. These two pieces of legislation suggest that the Democrats have special interests in mind more than the First Amendment. And if you want to do something about both of these bills, Public Knowledge has an action page for the school bill. Meanwhile, the SAFE Act has now been received by the Senate and is being referred to the Committee on the Judiciary. Contact the Senate Judiciary Committee and let them know that asking a wi-fi network operator to consistently be on the lookout for an image that is “obscene” or “lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” (the bill as passed by the House specifies U.S.C. Section 1466A as well as child pornography) places an undue hardship on coffee shop owners trying to attract customers and runs contrary to the First Amendment.
  • Three Percent lists the Best Translations of 2007.
  • On a related note, Scott observes that the book he voted for — Enrique Vila-Mata’s Montano’s Malady — didn’t make the longlist. I likewise think this is disheartening. And as NBCC Board Member, I hope to draw greater attention to translated titles. It’s bad enough that newspapers frequently ignore non-English titles for review, but the time has come to draw greater attention to the fact that not all books are written in English and that there are translators regularly doing hard and often thankless work, sometimes denied even a mention in book reviews! (For instance, in all the celebration of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, how many of you are aware that Natasha Wimmer translated the book? Wimmer’s name isn’t even on the cover. Thankfully, Scott interviewed Wimmer a few months ago.) For more insights into translation, see the Segundo interviews with translators Betsy Wing and Jordan Stump. And I hope to feature more translators in future Segundo shows.
  • Is Joshua Henkin a manly writer or not?
  • Why isn’t there more hypertext fiction? (via Maud)
  • Sign of the times? The Sacramento Bee has outsourced some of its advertising production work to India.
  • $3 million for Karl Rove’s memoirs? (via Quill and Quire)

Scott McLemee Enters the Ring; More NBCC Boad Member Thoughts

Thankfully, I’m not the only person using his blog for an NBCC Board Member campaign. Scott McLemee has also announced his candidacy. Mr. McLemee has some solid thoughts on the digital divide and, as a fellow candidate, I wish him well in his campaign and likewise offer my endorsement, however crabwise the gesture may be.

In light of Mr. McLemee’s evocation of Wilfred Sheed, however, I’d like to continue my campaign by quoting from Elizabeth Hardwick’s “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” written for Harper’s in 1959:

Invariably right opinion is not the only judge of a critic’s powers, although a taste that goes wrong frequently is only allowed to the greatest minds! In any case, it all depends upon who is right and who is wrong. The communication of the delight and importance of books, ideas, cultures itself, is the very least one would expect from a journal devoted to reviewing of new and old works. Beyond that beginning, the interest of the mind of the individual reader is everything. Book reviewing is a form of writing….It does matter what an unusual mind, capable of presenting fresh ideas in a vivid and original and interesting manner, thinks of books as they appear. For sheer information, a somewhat expanded publisher’s list would do just as well as a good many of the reviews that appear weekly.

Hardwick’s complaints from nearly half a century ago are just as applicable today. And as NBCC Board Member, I will do everything in my power to ensure that the delight and importance of books is celebrated and encouraged among the constituency.


I haven’t said much about the Gawker developments, because even thinking about Gawker for more than three seconds a week makes me want to take a cold shower. Gawker has taken potshots at people who truly don’t deserve it: some of them very good people who have done a lot for literature (often very quietly) and some of them friends of mine. But I think Maud’s run-in with Nick Denton pretty much says it all. And I suspect that n+1 is right to announce that it’s truly the end.

RIP Elizabeth Hardwick

I am awake at an ungodly hour — no coffee, just a crazy work ethic — to beat a deadline, which is roughly around dawn. Actually last night, but I told the editor I wasn’t going to sleep until this was done. Two computers decided to expire on me today (the third computer, on which I’m typing these words, remains robust, which I am thankful for, because this is somebody else’s). This has never happened to me before. In fact, I haven’t seen it happen to anybody. And I once worked at a computer magazine. Do you know anybody who saw all of their computers putz out on them in one day? I don’t. I mean, these are, for the most part, durable little machines.

I’ve told people not to give me their computers, because I am apparently the Grim Reaper of Technology. Touch me and machine will die. (As to the machines’s collective resuscitation, the problems were troubleshooted after pleas and profanity, both directed to the machines. It was bad DDR2 and a bad drive, respectively. Alas, deadlines being what they are, I can do nothing but write. I remain convinced that I’ll still be writing twelve hours from now.)

But seeing as how I’m working on a literary essay right now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t observe the passing of Ms. Elizabeth Hardwick, who I sadly never got the chance to meet.

A Dilettante’s Manifesto?

B.R. Myers reviews Tree of Smoke and cuts straight to the point in his second paragraph: “Having read nothing by Denis Johnson except Tree of Smoke, his latest novel, I see no reason to consider him a great or even a good writer, but he is apparently very well thought of by everyone else.”

Whether you see any reason to consider B.R. Myers a great critic or even a good critic for willfully copping to such ignorance and for blasting a writer’s work over one misfire is, of course, subject to your discretion.

[UPDATE: The Rake offers this hilarious Myers takedown.]

Literary “Journalists” and the Iceland Air Junket

I would never accept a publisher’s offer to fly to Iceland on their dime to ostensibly “report” upon the author Yrsa Sigurdardottir. Indeed, if I were on staff at a newspaper, crossing this line would lead either to disciplinary action or to being fired.

And yet this was precisely the seedy offer on the table a few months ago. A William Morrow publicist sent around an email, citing Ron Hogan and Shelf Awareness’s John Mutter as a few of the “journalists” on board this celebrity junket. I obtained a copy of the email from several sources. Here’s the boilerplate that was sent around to newspaper reporters, freelance writers, and bloggers:

William Morrow is working with Iceland Air to do an overseas trip with Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurdardottir, who wrote the chilly, atmospheric mystery “Last Rituals,” set in her native country. 3-4 days, looks amazing.

We’ll start with a book signing/giveaway at the check-in gate at Iceland Air at BWI and then the media and the passengers on the “Literary Express” will board the plane and visit locations in Iceland that are featured in the book.

The dates are 28Nov – 02Dec and the package will be offered up to the general public as well.

We’re looking for placements in the following markets: Washington D.C., Baltimore, Boston and New York (in that order). We already have Ron Hogan and John Mutter as well as contacts from Library Journal and PW going, so we’re looking for some more mainstream media. Do you think this is something you could be assigned to write about in a daily newspaper or media outlet in one of the aforementioned markets?

hogan3.jpgPerhaps the publicist was looking for “more mainstream media” because most journalists have the integrity and the decency to recognize a thorny and clearly unethical scenario. But not Ron Hogan. Really, the only question concerning Ron Hogan isn’t whether or not he can be bought, but just what sum he can be purchased for. (In the case of Hogan, it was at least $1,223 — according to a recent Kayak search for the cheapest Iceland Air round trip flight to Reykjavik — and who knows how much for the “Literary Express” and hotel accommodations.)

Hogan, the “journalist” behind GalleyCat who seems to think that a lolcat photo is today’s idea of a Wildean riposte, has shifted his comparatively innocuous relationship with publishers of guzzling gratis drinks at parties to accepting free flights to Iceland. He appears to have no problem violating the basic trust between journalist and reader and, as he so enthusiastically reported in the past several days, he was indeed in Iceland. Like the other journalists, he was flown out on the dime of Iceland Air.

Did we get anything from Hogan that questioned or probed? No. This was the kind of unsavory “reporting” one sees from Harry Knowles or the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

There were posts like this, in which we learn about William Morrow’s great philanthropy in disseminating free copies of Last Rituals to all passengers on the daily flight to Reykjavik. Hogan boasts about driving a Prius at Hertz and swimming at an expensive spa. Even if one considers this territory to be fair game, why wasn’t Hogan transparent about these costs in his reports?

To be fair, Hogan isn’t the only guilty one. As PW‘s Karen Holt — not exactly an ethical rose garden herselfso happily reported, “the idea morphed into a four-day trip for six journalists, arranged and paid for by Iceland Air, in which the writers spent time time [sic] with Sigurdardottir visiting locations relevant to her book.” Passengers on the flight received “free books, cake and champagne.”

I sent several emails to William Morrow publicist Danielle Bartlett. She informed me that William Morrow did not pay for the trip and that I should contact Iceland Air, but she wouldn’t answer questions about whether she considered this gesture to cross the line of publicist-journalist relationships. Emails to Iceland Air were not returned. I have also emailed Iceland Air spokesperson Debbie Scott and asked a few questions. If I hear anything back, I will report my findings.

But one thing is clear. Whether you’re someone who writes for print or online, if you accept someone’s money and then proceed to write about something without questioning or examining it, preferring to report on how you were wined and dined, you have no business calling yourself a journalist. And yet “journalist” seems to be a noun that Karen Holt is quite attached to.