On Cruelty and Journalism

A kid eagerly opens his Xmas present. His eyes light up with happiness and great shock. How did his parents manage to pull it off? It’s an Xbox! Something that the kids down the street have and that mock him for not having. But his parents somehow pulled all their pennies together and came through.

“Open it!” screech his parents, knowing that the kid’s about to get a surprise.

press.jpgAnd the kid rips open the cardboard, only to find that within the box are a handful of shirts.

But that’s not all. The parents then begin laughing at the poor kid, who is heartbroken at being duped and heartbroken at being poor. The parents continue to chant how they can’t afford an Xbox. And they’re recording this moment for posterity. Just so they can see how their son is hurt, horrified, and dejected in the course of three minutes.

You can find the video here. And I find it appalling that these parents would not only commit such a despicable act of cruelty, but that they would record this on camera for posterity. (If they couldn’t afford the Xbox, how then could they afford the camera?) There is simply no morally justifiable reason for this behavior. Class doesn’t excuse it. And with the parents constantly referencing their social station, we truly see just how trapped this kid is. Not by class, but by neglect, an inability to emphasize with one’s fellow humans, and a wholesale justification of psychological torture. The disturbing question I’m dwelling upon after watching this video is just what the kid will learn from being photographed like this. Will he emerge psychologically troubled? Will he then in turn capture his misdeeds with a video camera?

I can’t help consider this cruel act of domestic terror in relation to additional cruel photos that were unleashed the other day ago at Wired. The photos — new ones from Abu Ghraib — were presented because psychologist Philip Zimbardo planned a talk around them. Zimbardo was the man who administered over a famous Stanford experiment in 1971, in which students acted as prisoners and guards and the “guards” began abusing the prisoners, demanding that they strip and perform sex acts. He’s come out with a new book on the subject, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. But aside from pondering why a person would turn to outright cruelty, I want to know why these people also feel the need to record these acts for posterity.

In one of her last essays before her death, Susan Sontag had a few ideas on this subject. She suggested that the Abu Ghraib photos reflected something particularly troubling in American culture — that “the horror of what is shown in the photographs cannot be separated from the horror that the photographs were taken — with the perpetrators posing, gloating, over their helpless captives.”

But I don’t think this impulse is limited to war. I think the impulse to photograph or videotape a cruel misdeed is now indelibly interwoven into the American psyche. The camera is now a device that offers anyone total justification for being entirely removed from human emotion. We’re not allowed to get involved. We’re supposed to be objective reporters, even if it involves removing ourselves from our own abject acts. And if you express anything remotely subjective or if you actually give a damn in any way, you’re considered to be a stain upon the great American journalistic quilt.

I conducted an interview not too long ago in which I had to stop tape. The things we were talking about made the interview subject cry. And I couldn’t in good conscience continue the interview and remain “objective” about it. The man was in pain. And I cared too much. Off tape, I asked the man if he was okay. He insisted that he was. But we had clearly gone down a dark road. When the interview was over, I spent a good hour considering the ways in which I had brought out this man’s emotions, damning my apparent gift for gab. My girlfriend listened as I condemned myself for getting these answers. As I blamed myself for his pain. Is this what it means to be a journalist?

I’ve yet to master the podcast. I know that when I listen to this audio, I’ll have to experience his pain again. But I also know that I have a journalistic obligation to portray this pain for my listeners. Because it’s a story that everybody needs to hear. But I also wonder if I’ll reveal myself — even in a small way — to be just as terribly removed as these parents and these soldiers are.

Recovering

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I’m a bit wiped from last night’s interview with Marshall Klimasewiski, but thank you to all who came! I hope to offer content later. But in the meantime, recuperation is currently required.

I’m also pleased to announce that we’ve arranged for a number of people to discuss Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke and that, during the week of March 10, 2008, we’ll be offering a five-day discussion of this book, with a few unexpected cameo appearances. But in the meantime, don’t miss Baker’s “The Charms of Wikipedia,” in the latest New York Review of Books. This is a gloriously giddy essay that offers Baker’s first protracted perspective on the Internet and that, in light of Double Fold, you may be quite surprised by! (via Matt Cheney)

Interview with Marshall Klimasewiski — Tonight!

marshallklim.jpgTonight, I’ll be talking with Marshall Klimasewiski, author of The Cottagers and now Tyrants, at 7:00 PM.

The event will take place at McNally Robinson, located at 52 Prince Street, New York, NY. The event is free, the conversation will also be available later as a podcast, but we will also be taking questions from the audience.

For more details on this event, go here.

To listen to my previous conversation with Mr. Klimasewiski, go here.

The Myth of Karma

One is tempted to look upon an array of serendipitous factors, particularly those that are strange and unfavorable, and find some cosmic justification for karmic retribution. Some are tempted to attribute this casual anarchy to a deity, but I prefer to embrace the innate timbre of chaos and exist within these wild whorls as naturally as possible, while likewise respecting the rights of those who require an explanation to be taken up among similarly bewildered but ultimately good-natured people on a weekly basis. Just don’t proselytize. That’s all I ask.

karma.gifMy morning started with a knock on the door. While I usually sleep like a log, I am particularly sensitive to unusual sounds. I was wispy-eyed, wearing a Jack Daniels shirt and boxers. The JD tee had been slipped on last night because it was clean, loose-fitting, and therefore comfortable. Had I known that the person knocking at the door was the property manager of the apartment building, I might have put on something different. But there was barely any time to think and the voice didn’t sound like a salesman. I was disoriented. The apartment was a mess, because I had been extremely busy trying to meet deadlines, which further embarrassed me. The purpose of the property manager’s visit involved investigating a leak from my radiator that was plaguing the neighbor downstairs. To add insult to injury, I pointed out to the property manager, with a surprising vocal lucidity, that a leak was coming from the apartment above me that I had neglected to report. It’s quite possible that this property manager had encountered other tenants who were dressed worse (or perhaps not at all), had their apartments in worse shape, and had permitted some plaster cavity to linger much longer than I had. But as far as I was concerned, this property manager was taking mental notes about my diseased character and the slipshod condition of my apartment, which he would then factor into some elaborate ledger about the curious and possibly mildly negligent people who dwelt in the units he managed. By my own exacting standards, I was a terrible tenant. Never mind that I have always paid my rent on time. But I’ve always had a minor sense of terror about the relationship between tenant and landlord, and this wasn’t helped when I moved out to New York and learned that, unlike California, one must renegotiate the lease every year, as opposed to permitting it to continue on month-to-month once the one year term has been satisfied.

The visit encouraged me to clean the apartment. At least partially.

I then attempted to find out why a good deal of checks owed to me had not been cut and had learned in nearly every instance that someone had been sick and that this surprisingly recurrent factor had caused many wrenches to clog up various hillocks of machinery. That not one of these checks would come through was, of course, quite unfortunate. It meant that the next few weeks of my life were likely to involve a considerably more penurious existence than I had anticipated. I then began scrounging around the apartment for pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters, which I laid out in several stacks on my desk and later used to buy a bagel.

I then learned that I had been screwed over by the MTA. They had charged me twice for my monthly Metrocard. Forty minutes of my time was lost attempting to rectify this. My bank was exceedingly unhelpful. The MTA was slightly less unhelpful. But it was resolved after I was forced to adopt a bulldog temperament — not something I’m altogether proud of — to make things happen. One small victory after a few existential calamities.

Despite all this, I remain calm and hopeful. There is someone on this planet who had a worse day than I did. It isn’t schaudenfraude that makes me think this way; just a relative sense of where I stand and how fortunate I am. It’s much better to maintain some hard but by no means humorless fortitude in order to empathize. Even though I maintain an existence without religion, there is a small part of me that wishes to draw a correlation here that I know is quite false. I want to think that the same factors which spawned this morning’s motley madness likewise resulted in the unwonted earthquake in the United Kingdom or William Buckley’s death (the latter, in turn, made me think of Sam Tanenhaus, who must surely be regretting his decision not to finish his Buckley bio). This is entirely unreasonable, I know. But there remains a considerably visceral part of me that causes me to contemplate such associations of existence and to occasionally endorse them — particularly if I’ve had a few drinks.

But I don’t think I really believe in karma. I observe good people who are screwed over. I observe incorrigible people who are rewarded for being assholes. The correct thing to do in life is to try and be as good as possible. But it’s also important to be as true to who you are as possible. And often this truth gets in the way of being good. There is, I must confess, a great delight I frequently experience in being bad. Of course, my sense of bad is rooted in a baroque set of ethics that would take too much time to explain. But I try not to go out of my way to hurt people. And if I do hurt people, which is often unintentionally, I try to atone with positive actions to others.

The standard understanding of karma is this: what goes around comes around. I find this to be less true in practice than it is in principle. I suppose I believe that if you are ultimately true to who you are, you will encourage other people to be true to who they are. And if karma is rooted upon this sense of personal truth, then I approve of this. (And this seems to be more philosophical than religious.) But this karmic idea is more rooted in action, as opposed to some cosmic overseer who lays down the law for the universe.

If karma is rooted on coincidence, however, I cannot subscribe to it. And I don’t see how any reasonable person can fully put their faith in this. In fact, the sooner that other people understand this, the sooner we can put the self-help industry out of business. Really, they’ve made too much money exploiting human suffering.

The universe is based on one simple Newtonian precept: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. While this rule applies to gravity, I think it likewise applies to life. But since human beings decide how or when or if they wish to respond, one simply can’t anticipate when that “equal and opposite reaction” will occur. (And sometimes, it occurs from the unlikeliest of sources.) Hence, the giddy vales of chaos. Which is a lot more fun than sitting around worrying about when something will happen.

So I look at this morning’s unpleasant events and I figure that it’s something I can write off as a reaction to something bad I’ve done somewhere along the line. And I look at the good things that happened today, such as taking notes on some really good stories in Marshall Klimasewiski’s Tyrants (who I’ll be interviewing in person tomorrow at 7PM at McNally Robinson; details here), listening to the pleasant rustle of the plastic sheet beneath my bagel as the door to my neighborhood cafe was opened and a great gust came in through the aperture, and making a glum-looking boy, who was throwing paper detritus at me in the cafe, laugh.

There’s certainly an ignoble self-justification of my own character flaws here, but nobody’s perfect. (I’m certainly not a saint.) Certainly the universe isn’t. But if it were, then life wouldn’t be nearly so interesting.

A Can of Grape Soda

It’s safe to say that most of us fail to observe where our food comes from. I am currently examining an empty aluminum can of Welch’s Grape Soda, which was imbibed about four hours ago and was abandoned on my desk. In tall and semi-gothic lettering, the words NEW YORK appear — as if to suggest some homestate affinity, perhaps a reason for another beverage enthusiast to slap me on the back with an avuncular gusto as we down a few cans of Welch’s. Less comforting than these words is the NATURAL & ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, which was somehow invisible to me when I procured the soda in questions. These words are more troublesomely legible than NEW YORK. And I ponder whether this is really a strong selling point. Turning the can on my side, I learn that I have put into my system the following ingredients:

carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, grape juice concentrate, citric acid, natural and artificial grape flavors, sodium benzoate (preservative), red 40, blue 1

The drink was “produced under the authority of Welch Foods, Inc.,” which I am assured is “a cooperative” based out of Concord, Maine. And yet the drink was “canned by Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of New York, Inc.” So I’m wondering where Welch Foods’s authority left off and Pepsi-Cola’s bottling began, and I’m pondering what happened between Concord and Queens. (College Point is fairly close to LaGuardia.) There isn’t an answer on this can. We accept that some complicated process has occurred and we don’t ask questions about whether any of this is good for us.

I don’t know if I completely trust “the authority of Welch Foods, Inc.” And yet I placed my trust in this authority when I decided to enjoy a can of grape soda, little realizing that I was experiencing a form of “high fructose corn syrup” that Michael Pollan has probably fulminated about somewhere. I am especially disturbed that grapes are not a part of this beverage, at least not in any direct manner. It’s all concentrate and natural and artificial grape flavors here. But what of the grapes? Did anybody inspect these? In the rush to mass produce cans of Welch’s, did someone decide to skimp out on the grapes? “The authority of Welch Foods, Inc.” may very well be an austere and ruthlessly efficient force that keeps the cans running down their tracks on time and into the ebullient hands of consumers like me, but I really want to know where the grapes come from. And this website isn’t exactly forthcoming about which grapes are used.

When I obtained the can of grape soda, I naively believed that some jolly group of vintners had smashed the grapes with their feet, that there was some natural process that permitted the grapes to ferment, and that everybody had congratulated each other on a job well done. But the truth is I know nothing about the complex machinery that put this drink together. Perhaps there was scant human intervention. I’m pretty sure that what I happily ingested was probably quite bad for me. 51 grams of sugar in one can! I mean, that’s phenomenal and it’s certainly a sign of high fructose. At least Welch’s is being clear on that point. (Of course, they have to, what with federal law and all.) But Welch’s hasn’t exactly been forthcoming about how much sugar this is. They have informed us, quite predictably, that the can contains 12 fluid ounces (or FL OZ for short, which suggests that one should probably floss shortly after knocking back a cold can of grape soda). In parentheses, we are informed that this amount is also 355 milliliters. But why not be forthright about what this amounts to in grams? It’s probably because 12 ounces is roughly about 340 grams. Which means that one sixth of this beverage is composed entirely of sugar! That’s more sugar than someone is likely to spoon into a cup of coffee!

I must conclude that Red 40 and Blue 1 are both forms of food coloring that are hiding some terrible truth about what these grapes have been through or how they have been sullied by the fructose and the concentrate.

There is a 1-800 number on the side of the can urging me to leave a “consumer comment.” But it’s now too late for me to call and I fear that this number exists for me and other consumes to explain to Welch’s how I feel about their beverage, perhaps in polite and enthusiastic terms. But the truth of the matter is that I have questions, not comments. And the person who would answer at this 1-800 number might panic because they didn’t have these answers at their fingertips. Or I might have to climb my way up the bureaucratic ladder to find out who does know. “Uh…grape juice concentrate. I’ll have to get approval from Bob before I can tell you what this is.”

The Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of New York, Inc. is based in College Point, New York. It is a place that employs 1,100 people and made $166.60 million in 2007. There are two bottling plants and six warehouses. Yahoo! Finance assures me that this is “one of the largest private bottlers in the U.S.” But it doesn’t tell me where the grapes come from.

The Welch’s website assures me that their beverages are made from dark grapes. And there is this:

These dark grapes contain flavonoids, which are a likely source of heart heath benefits. Both red wine research and purple grape juice research have shown antioxidant, anti-clotting, and arterial flexibility benefits. Many scientists believe that these properties are linked to heart health.

I am somewhat suspicious of flavonoids. They sound too much like the “electrolytes” that the futuristic population of Mike Judge’s film, Idiocracy, so passionately believed in. And while flavonoids are indeed good for you, a UC Berkeley study in 2000 revealed that high concentrations of flavonoids, particularly in supplements sold at health food stores, may assist in cancer formation. A 2007 article from Science Daily is somewhat more encouraging, pointing out that high-sugar drinks with flavonoids are still beneficial because of the flavonoids.

So many questions! But then trying to find answers is what the Internet is for. Thankfully, there are a few enthusiasts out there who care about these seemingly pedantic but alarming issues. A new blog, Food Mapping, appears determined to use topographical technology to answer these questions. It promises “a visual representation of the how, where, and why of our food.” And it has (so far) explained the effects of humans eating too much fish and has provided helpful maps for local dairies. It also led me in turn to this map of New Orleans, in which one can view an overlay of stores, restaurants, and sundry markets across the city — important questions for anyone curious (and indeed hopeful) about how this ravaged city can restore itself after Katrina.

It’s self-evident that independent experts and enthusiasts need to investigate these culinary mysteries. And perhaps with serious inquiry, we might loosen a few answers into the great mysteries we blindly accept. Perhaps there is a can of grape soda somewhere that is completely transparent about the manner it is manufactured and canned and that doesn’t use nearly as much sugar. Or perhaps drinking grape soda is an unhealthy fait accompli. One obvious solution would be to avoid grape soda. But wouldn’t it be better to know precisely what one is avoiding?

The Devil and Miss Cody

Diablo Cody’s win over Tamara Jenkins for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar is perhaps the most egregious Oscar victory since Oliver! beat out 2001 for Best Picture in 1968. If this were a just universe, the appropriate executives would have taken Cody out behind the shed shortly after reading Juno and shot her down like an old dog. Instead, the Academy awarded Cody the Oscar for relying upon cultural references over emotional conviction, for using characters who are ironically detached rather than prepared to face the visceral realities of responsibility, and for encouraging Jason Reitman to employ the most insipid use of angst-ridden indie rock in cinema I’ve seen in some time.

diablocody.jpgLet us be clear on this. I saw all five Best Picture nominees. And while I liked the other four, it is an outrage that so many thinking people have been duped by Juno. Ellen Page’s snarky one-note performance, originating from the same creative morass that spawned such execrable “wonders” as Napoleon Dynamite, Little Miss Sunshine, and Wes Anderson’s films after The Royal Tenenbaums, is considered multilayered and superlative. Nobody has had the balls to call out Reitman for relying so heavily upon great character actors like Rainn Wilson and Allison Janney to disguise his creative deficiencies. Juno was nothing more than an extended episode of Arrested Development — a dreadful film in which such filmmaking tactics as six consecutive cuts of a van driving in front of a suburban house are considered “clever” and in which Michael Cera has been encouraged to abdicate his talent in favor of being typecast as the nice guy (and he will most certainly be typecast, if he takes another one of these damnable roles).

Juno is a film that would rather have its titular protagonist cry out “Thundercats, ho!” while she is going into labor than express anything tantamount to fright or second thoughts. It is a film content to have Jason Bateman name-check Herschell Gordon Lewis and Sonic Youth instead of having him emote over the difficulties of getting older. It is a film content with such cheapshots as Jennifer Garner presented as a yuppie mom caricature and another mom (played by Darla Vandenbossche) mocked for being older and overweight. (In fact, Vandenbossche’s sole purpose for being in this film is to be ridiculed by Cody. What does that say about emerging talent?) This is a film designed for people who do not feel or embrace the world in any genuine way. With the exception of Juno’s parents (played by Allison Janney and J.K. Simmons), I felt nothing for any of the characters in this film. They were uninteresting, solipsistic, and as hackneyed as the flattest of paper dolls. I was appalled at the film’s reliance upon artifice over conviction. Handing over the Oscar to that inarticulate waif Sofia Coppola was one thing. But giving it to Cody for Juno last night was a true injustice.

The best original screenplay of 2007 — Tamara Jenkins’s The Savages, which bristled with emotion and intelligence — was entirely ignored by both the Academy and the purported streetcred of the Independent Spirit Award for a film phonier than a second-hand Hallmark card. If awards ceremonies are anything to go by, Hollywood is in trouble. Homegrown talent can’t measure up. Not only is Hollywood awarding its acting laurels to the Europeans, but it now feel content to dismiss any screenwriter who dares to pursue the human heart in conflict with itself. It’s the hip adding machines like Cody who now matter. But despite Cody’s penchant for taking off her clothes, the naked truth of true emotion eludes her.

Insert Interview Excerpt Here

Folks, I am a bit knackered. So I hope you’ll pardon the silence on this end. It’s been a six interviews in seven days and trying to meet deadlines kind of week — and one interview even involved a crazed three hour drinking session. But there are some really interesting pieces in the works from some other writers and some exciting folks in store for Segundo. And four new podcasts were released a few days ago. I’ll have capsules later. And I’ll also have an excerpt from a rather amazing figure up here tomorrow. Bear with me.

In the meantime, Nick Antosca has given me one very good reason to despise Jay McInerney.

Steroid Nation and American Gladiators

amglads1.jpg

They are the new Davids.

Granted they are not singularly recognizable –- they are remarkably generic –- but the bodybuilders slash athletes on American Gladiators represent the ideal male appearance. At least I think so, having had my ideal male physique built on a foundation of images of professional wrestlers and action movie stars.

My sole reason for watching NBC’s new incarnation of American Gladiators was the Gladiators. All twelve of them, including the women, have boring if not humorous names: Titan, Wolf, Justice, Militia, Toa, Mayhem, Venom, Fury, Stealth, Crush, Siren, and of course, Helga. The majority have a cartoonish quality to their appearance: the people in the gym you think you saw last fighting super villains in a comic book, or the people in the gym you think you saw pulling needles out of each other’s asses.

My appreciation of the male Gladiators’ physiques isn’t some gay fetish. Young and old males, straight or not, watch wrestling and mixed-martial arts partly because of the look most fighters foster. The man who is the strong, dangerous type, is the man most admired; it creates envy and the desire to be him. The Gladiators and people like them are the reason some weekend warriors exist; they pump away, mostly foolishly, trying to grow mirror muscles.

But as much I am mesmerized by Gladiator muscle, I think that there must be a steroid buffet set beside the crafts table backstage. The side-effects of toxic livers, bitch tits, tiny testicles, maybe cancer, and some rage issues are all just minor hazards of the job. Not to worry, you look good. No, you look fucking great.

Thank goodness NBC allayed my fears that this crop of Gladiators was juicing. The network says they were tested for steroids. How rigorous the testing was — did NBC follow WADA’s International Standard for Testing? — isn’t known. But tested they were, so Titan’s “nearly godlike strength” is all clean, no needles required.

If I worry that the muscle I see on American Gladiators is the unnatural type, it’s because of the world depicted in last fall’s Steroid Nation, written by Shaun Assael, an investigative reporter for ESPN The Magazine. While Assael provides a distilled history of steroid and performance enhancing drug use — a good start for someone with a casual interest in the subject — he fails to provide the sociological examination promised on the inside jacket.

Assael is at his strongest when he profiles Dan Duchaine, a convicted drug dealer and co-author of the Underground Steroid Handbook. Duchaine’s appetite for experimentation included the use of the industrial chemical Dinitrophenol:

DNP, as it is known, was employed in the early 1900s to ignite explosives. But German researchers found that it led to drastic weight loss when swallowed because it caused the body to burn calories as heat instead of storing them as fat. By turning the internal thermostat way up, DNP, which is similar in structure to TNT, can increase one’s metabolism by as much as 50 percent. It is literally like playing with fire and users can incinerate their insides if they take too much. (155)

But when Assael moves away from reporting Duchaine’s life we realize that the author’s information has been reported elsewhere. Assael’s BALCO reporting, which makes up a large portion of the backend of the book, borrows heavily from several books, most notably Game of Shadows by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams.

steroids.jpgAssael should have devoted more time to original reporting and answering the question of why he sees steroids as America’s True Drug Addiction. In the presence of only anecdotes about users and the absence of a definitive answer to this question, Steroid Nation atrophies into a 300-page summary of doping scandals in sports dating to the 1980s.

A point Assael makes clear is that if an athlete appears more than human, then it’s likely he or she does not suffer from belonephobia. The answer of why is obvious: the desire for perfection in performance and physique suffers no boundaries; experimentation with drugs is okay if it helps an athlete achieve an impossible feat when it had been attempted minus the manipulation of chemicals.

That doesn’t lead to a “Steroid Nation,” but it does ramp up steroid use. Perhaps Assael is saying that by not madly protesting the latest athlete exposed as a cheater that we become complicit in the Circle of ‘Roids. We ask for the most from our athletes, and if it means they have to cheat, we don’t care as long as we’re entertained. But when the Mitchell Report was released last December, people did care to know who was juicing. Sure, there was no widespread outrage, but I didn’t read about rallies in support of drug use either.

When I watch American Gladiators, I know what’s on the screen is hardly natural. The men wear mikinis, which no self-respecting guy would wear unless he was manipulated, chemically or financially. Are the Gladiators juiced up freaks? Freaks, yes. Juiced up? You know what NBC says. Do I care? Not really. Does this mean I am willfully blind and part of a “Steroid Nation?” Shaun Assael would say, well, he never really does say one way or another. My answer is no.

The Irresponsible Self

“A genre is hardening. It is becoming possible to describe today’s ‘big, ambitious novel.’ Familial resemblances are asserting themselves, and a parent can be named: Dickens.” — James Wood, “Hysterical Realism.”

“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.” Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

Both of these opening sallies conjure the ominous, sharing a rhythmic persuasiveness that holds the reader’s attention hostage. Both too vibrate with the sincerity of deeply held belief. They exemplify what Northrop Frye has defined as High Style: sentences that seem to come from inside ourselves, as though the soul itself were remembering what it had been told so long ago, unmistakably heard in the voice of an individual facing a mob, or some incarnation of the mob spirit.

Both men argue against dehumanization: Marx in commerce; Wood in literature. Here again is Wood, attacking the mob; outing the enemy:

The big contemporary novel is a perpetual motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, and these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion. Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs. Such recent novels as Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, DeLillo’s Underworld, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth overlap rather as the pages of an atlas expire into each other at their edges.

The conventions of realism are not being abolished, he continues, but are exhausted and overworked. “Such diversity! So many stories! So many weird and funky characters! Bright lights are taken as evidence of habitation… props of the imagination, meaning’s toys… The existence of vitality is mistaken for the drama of vitality…Connections are merely conceptual, rather than human. It is all shiny externality, a caricature.”

So smells the skunk Wood loosens upon contemporary (and primarily American) novelists. There’s no mistaking its odor. In his essay, “Anna Karenina and Characterization,” we learn, with equal clarity, what he prefers: Tolstoy’s characters, and the comfort with which they move and live in their own skins. As with Shakespeare, “they feel real to us in part because they feel so real to themselves, take their own universes for granted.” Tolstoy starts with a description of the body which fixes a character’s essence, says Wood, essences that are referred to repeatedly in the novel. Wood uses Tolstoyean characters as yardsticks throughout the rest of his essays to repeatedly beat the Dickens out of novels that lack human detail and dynamism.

Writing about German author Wilhelm Von Polenz, Tolstoy himself suggests that the greatest novelists love their characters and add little details which force readers to pity and love them as well, notwithstanding all their coarseness and cruelty. Chekhov, whose name is also invoked throughout Wood’s oeuvre, is repeatedly praised as an exemplar of such an author, one who resists conclusion, and loves his characters from afar.

Wood tells us with precise, bold, and often unbelievably beautiful artistry exactly what is good, and how and why it’s good. Isaac Babel’s “atomic” prose is unique because of its discontinuities and exaggeration. “If his stories progress sideways, sliding from unconnected sentence to sentence, then the very sentences vault forward within themselves at the same moment.” J.M. Coetzee’s distinguished novels “feed on exclusion; they are intelligently starved. One always feels with this writer a zeal of omission.” “Bellow’s writing reaches for life, for the human gust.” “…it is Bellow’s genius to see the lobsters ‘crowded to the glass’ and their feelers bent by that glass –to see the riot of life in the dead peace of things.” Henry Green’s “fine determination not to prosecute a purpose…creates an exquisitely unpressing art, unlike any other. “

Wood’s essays typically start with pungent, seemingly incontrovertible axioms. “Fury, a novel that exhausts negative superlatives, that is likely to make even its most charitable readers furious, is a flailing apologia.” “Tom Wolfe’s novels are placards of simplicity. His characters are capable of experiencing only one feeling at a time; they are advertisements for the self: Greed! Fear! Hate! Love! Misery!”

Brief plot summaries follow, then close textual reading, reference to a startling breadth of comparable works, insight into specific titles and literature’s larger landscape, and biographical, contextual background detail. The “man” is not separated from the work. Deftly chosen illustrative quotations frequent the page inspiring the reader to run to where they came from.

But it’s not organization that makes these essays so bracing. It’s a wicked combination of unassailable style and blunt, clear judgment; bold aesthetic valuation and invitation to the unknown. Rosso Malpelo represents Giovanni Verga’s greatest tragicomic achievement. The Radetzky March is Joseph Roth’s greatest novel. Too Loud a Solitude is Bohumil Hrabal’s finest book. The best of J.F. Powers’s stories are “surely among the finest written by an American.” There is no academic conditional here, but there is the occasional whiff of pedantry. “Jonathan Franzen’s aesthetic solution to the social novel – the refuge of sentences – is, I think, the right one, or at least one of them, but his reasons for arriving at it are the wrong ones…” If I were Franzen, I wouldn’t be too happy with this treatment.

In his confidence, Wood recalls Edmund Wilson. Both tend to pontificate with an authoritative tone bordering on arrogant. Here’s the latter on G.K. Chesterton, whose writing on Dickens and elsewhere “is always melting away into that pseudo-poetic booziness which verbalizes with large conceptions and ignores the most obtrusive actualities.” In his first collection of essays, The Broken Estate, Wood points out that Thomas Pynchon’s novels have the “agitated density of a prison.” Instead of “agitated density,” Wilson uses “nervous concentration” to describe the vivid colours of Edwin Drood.

which make upon us an impression more disturbing than the dustiness, the weariness, the dreariness, which set the tone for Our Mutual Friend. In this new novel, which is to be his last, Dickens has found a new intensity. The descriptions of Cloisterham are among the best written in all his fiction: they have a nervous concentration and economy – nervous in the old fashioned sense – that produces a rather different effect from anything one remembers in the work of his previous phases.

One could say there is no middle ground with Wood. But that would be wrong. While he lionizes the best — Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and a handful of little read foreign writers — and crucifies the worst — Salman Rushdie and Tom Wolfe — he shows both sides of his hand to the rest. Bellow is his only contemporary hero. He praises and punishes Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, and J.M Coetzee, and writes endearingly about V.S. Pritchett, and Henry Green, of whom Elizabeth Bowen once said, “his novels reproduce, as few English novels do, the actual sensations of living.” Green himself, quoted in a John Updike introduction to his works, said that his intention was to use noun, verb and adjective “to create ‘life’ which does not eat, procreate or drink, but which can live in people who are alive.” Little wonder Wood is a fan.

What The Irresponsible Self gives us in essay after essay is guidance and sharp opinion. We also get — and this is what ensures that these essays will stay news — a virtually unmatched capacity to employ cage rattling, sentence-stopping metaphor, and antithesis. These dazzling juxtapositions frequently demand a pause to utter the word ‘Wow!’

“Pride, one might say, is the sin of humble people and humility is the punishment for proud people, and each reversal represents a kind of self-punishment.” “The novel [The Radetzky March]’s formal beauty flows from its dynastic current, which irrigates the very structure of the book.” “Atlanta in the 1990s is a forest of typologies, all of them swaying in Wolfe’s gale-force prose.” “The language is oddly thick fingered – from a writer capable of such delicacy – and stubs itself into the vernacular….”

Two words that Wood uses magnificently have stayed with me since reading. I doubt they’ll ever leave. Of a typical Isaac Babel paragraph, “each sentence seems to disavow its role in the ordinary convoy of meaning and narrative, and appears to want to begin the story anew. And “…Svevo essentially garaged his writing for twenty years.”

Occasionally, however, fancy phrase work trips into the too clever. “Mistress Quickly’s irrelevances, like those of her fictional heirs in Chekhov and Joyce, are sad and funny because they have the aspect of remembered detail but the status of forgotten detail.”

Overall, the quantum of considered thought and the unjargoned artistry with which it is expressed, constitute the strength of this essay collection. Its weakness, if there is one, resides in its introduction entitled “Comedy and the Irresponsible Self.” As Elizabeth Bowen once said, too many prefaces to collections make rather transparent attempts to bind. Wood’s thesis is that modern readers no longer laugh cruelly or correctively at fictional characters, but rather empathize with them ‘gloriously,’ exist with them in the same mixed dimension, share their emotions, and laugh with them through tears. Modern fiction creates uncertainty through incomplete knowledge, which prompts the reader to merge with the characters in order to find out why they do the things they do, or how to “read” certain passages.

This is not a new insight. Socrates saw the connection between tragedy and comedy, as did Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard and others. Charles Lamb in the early 19th century, saw laughter as an overflow of sympathy, an amiable feeling of identity with what is disreputably human. In the 20th century, critics have pointed to the inherent absurdity of human existence, namely the irrational, inexplicable, nonsensical , chaotic –the comic. Related to Wood’s incomplete knowledge, critic Wylie Sypher, in an essay written in the 1950s put it this way: “The deepest ‘meanings’ of art therefore arise wherever there is an interplay between patterns of surface-perception and the pressures of depth-perception. Then the stated meanings will fringe off into unstated and unstatable meanings of great power, felt dimly but compellingly. “

Although Wood rides his idea on irresponsibility into many of these essays, it comes up lame. It’s unoriginal, and too weak to bind these essays together retroactively. And if this isn’t bad enough, the examples he uses to illustrate humor just aren’t funny.

Another theme wends its way through the essays quite naturally however, the one labeled Hysterical Realism. Wood hammers the same nail through the whole book, railing against cartoonish, stereotypical characters, and the primacy of information over human emotion. This argument, while better suited to the collection, is itself an old one. E.M. Forster makes it in Aspects of the Novel, “We may hate humanity, but if it is exorcised or even purified the novel wilts, little is left but a bunch of words. And here’s Peter Ackroyd, in The Listener in 1981: “Some of the more recent American novels…seem to me to be hollow, written at a forced pace, preoccupied with literary special effects, and unable to deal with human beings in other than generalized and stereotypical terms…It is too dazzled by such things [contemporary technology] to allow much space in its language for the workings of human agency. It is a language of power, one in which reality is seen as a phenomenon which can be easily manipulated and controlled…American novelists who live within this language, and whose perceptions are determined by it, are uniquely ill-equipped to deal with human motives and responses, and as a result they are also unable to present any convincing account of their own human society.” What does seem fresher, more original, is Wood’s interest in characters who behave consistently, who remain true to themselves, who live and act according to their own rules.

If Wood’s confident tone recalls Edmund Wilson, the cadence of his prose, and to some extent its content, sounds most like Virginia Woolf. Here she is on modernism, and breaking away from the constrictions of providing plot, comedy, tragedy, love interest, an air of probability:

“Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?”

The essays in Wood’s book appeared in slightly different form in several well known literary magazines. Unfortunately, minor changes were made to his famous Hysterical Realism piece. Instead of “When [Zadie] Smith is writing well, she seems capable of a great deal,” Wood changes “a great deal” to the more sycophantic “almost anything.” The same passage illustrating “brilliant free indirect style” is quoted, but a new paragraph is added after it, starting with the phrase “That is a fabulous bit of writing…” Nothing detrimental to his argument. His direct, unfudged criticisms remain. But it’s just a little disappointing to think that adjustments may have been made for personal, rather than hermeneutic reasons.

Edmund Wilson understood why great reviewer critics are so rare: the pay is lousy, the work Sisyphean. It’s difficult to attract talent under these circumstances, which is why Wilson maintained that it might be a profitable idea for some editor to get a really able writer on literature and make it worth his while to do a weekly column. “He should not be expected to cover what is published, but to write each week of a man or a book. This would prove valuable for the magazine and for the literary world in general.” New Yorker editor David Remnick has chosen to take Wilson’s 73-year-old advice by hiring a really able writer, whose work will now be read by more than a million readers per issue. For lovers of the literary this is to be celebrated.

Wood not only writes ebullient, meticulous exegesis, he’s also an accomplished polemicist. One who has dropped a dirty great big conventional human fart atop the heads of some of America’s best loved contemporary novelists. DeLillo, Pynchon, Wolfe, Franzen, Moody, Foster Wallace — they all just sit there, refusing to accept convention, either incapable of doing anything, or too damned lazy to refute what he’s saying. To date, Wood’s criticisms have gone unanswered save for the odd reactionary calls. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone had balls and brains enough to take him on systematically or intelligently?

In The Irresponsible Self, James Wood stakes a position and argues it with serious zeal. He writes with greater humanity, passion and insight than most of the contemporary novelists he is tasked with reviewing. One can’t ask more of a critic. We’ve seen him in action, and we are humbled. His next book, How Fiction Works, will tell us how he does it.

The Other Bald Man

Whenever I go to a party, particularly one with lithe lads and lasses who are a good five or seven years younger than me, I feel a great sense of delight when another bald man arrives. “Aha!” I cry. “One of my kind!” Any lingering nervousness lifts. And I often single out my bald compatriot with a cheery hello, sometimes offering a telling wink or a gentle, avuncular nudge. It is my hope to imbue any bald man with a sense that they could be as badass as Samuel L. Jackson or Patrick Stewart or Sean Connery if they really wanted to be.

I should point out that my thatchy crescent has not yet completely receded. It has remained, much to my shock, recalcitrant in some places and skin-abdicating in others. For example, there remains a small but stubborn patch two inches above the outer edge of my left eyebrow that does not wish to yield to the fleshy inevitability just over the hill. I have taken to shaving my hair off every few months just to see how much of the hair will grow back. And to keep things quite fun, I have also grown more beards in the past year than I have in all the years previously. (The beard growing/hair shaving gambit is also my way of adjusting to the pronounced shift in seasons, which I am truly unused to — this being my first year living outside of California.)

But the balding is slower than I imagine. A friend who hasn’t seen me in two or three years will often refrain from telling me how much hair I’ve lost. And while I’ve long accepted the fact that I’m balding and would not take offense, I’m honored by this politeness and hold my tongue.

But back to this business of the other bald man: sometimes, when the other bald man is younger than me and has balded more substantially than I have, there is something of a social impasse. Particularly when the other bald man is experiencing some crisis of confidence common to a young man in his mid-to-late twenties. And instead of returning my good-hearted cheer, the other bald man’s eyes dart upwards to the hairy isthmus at the top of my head and widen with a sense of fear and panic. And whatever words I have to say on the subject (“Don’t worry. I’m sure it will be gone in a few years.”) are nulled by the sense that I somehow got a better deal. When in fact, the degree of one’s hair loss has no real bearing.

A few evenings ago, I encountered another bald man of this type and began to conduct some social experiments. I would move to a corner of the room he was occupying and beads of sweat would appear on his forehead. He would then move away. I would shift again. He would move away again. I had never met this guy before. And he certainly didn’t know me. I was a bit boisterous, as I usually am at such occasions. But I was polite and did nothing out of the ordinary.

Since the other bald men wished to ignore me, it became necessary to take things to the next level. I began talking to several young ladies, determining which ones were single, and, for those who did not appear to have a date or a steady man, I started suggesting that they talk to this other bald men. I made oblique references to a great act of courage that I had heard about. I pointed to the other bald man’s wit, écalt, and other factors, and even managed to cajole a few of them to walk across the room and start talking with him. And I would watch the other bald man blow these opportunities in minutes.

I suppose I sympathized because I was that bald man once, before I snapped out of it. Regrettably, balding is one of those things that we’re expected to sneer down on. The same way shallow and myopic types concern themselves over those who are fatter, older, or some needless aesthetic qualifier that ends with -er, and feel the compulsive need to expend a good deal of time, money, and energy over this when it’s far simpler to accept others as much as one can.

Because of this, you’ll always find me saluting and encouraging the other bald man at a party. He may very well have his act together, but it never hurts to remind him that there’s a hell of a lot more going on than “Who loves ya, baby?”

Weekend Diversions: Lyrebirds

The lyrebird, most commonly found in Australia, is capable of mimicking an extraordinary range of sounds while singing to attract a mate. But as the below clip with David Attenborough demonstrates, humans aren’t always aware of the considerable impact they have upon nature. As reported in 2001 by the Register and in 2005 by the Hindustan Times, birds have also picked up an uncanny ability to impersonate ringtones. But perhaps the saddest part of this story is the possibility put forth by the National Audubon Society last year: noise pollution may be causing birds to lose their capacity to sing.

NYTBR: Bill Keller Can Do No Wrong

Just when you think the New York Times Book Review couldn’t get any sleazier, editor Sam Tanenhaus has proven yet again that there isn’t an unctuous pool he won’t dive into. The latest disgrace is Ruth Conniff’s review of Bill Keller’s Tree Shaker. Bill Keller, of course, is the executive editor of the New York Times and Conniff’s review is perhaps the most egregious conflict of interest in the NYTBR‘s entire history. Conniff isn’t critical one whit about Tree Shaker. The review may as well have recycled the book’s press release. But Conniff (or perhaps the editors) have no problem invoking these boilerplate plaudits:

With its striking layout, bright graphics and photographs on almost every page, Keller’s biography of Mandela vibrates with the feeling of history come alive.

This book does not condescend to its young audience, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions.

We learn that Keller, despite writing a children’s book, is “more a historian here than a biographer.” (Never mind that the book is a mere 128 pages.) We learn that he wrote “a thoughtful afterword.” The only thing missing in this review is a phone number for New York Times readers to confess their conversion from Christianity to the Church of Keller.

I’m still puzzled why Conniff didn’t declare Bill Keller “the greatest writer in the history of children’s literature” or “the most profound humanitarian since Gandhi.” Why didn’t Conniff demand that all literary people supplicate before Keller’s dais, declare Lord Bill the True Leader, and be prepared to sacrifice their babies to the volcano?

Tanenhaus doesn’t stop there. In addition to featuring a ten minute podcast interview with Keller on the Times website, he also offers the first chapter.

Of course, it’s just possible that Conniff really did love the book. But when one examines the first chapter, Keller’s writing deficiencies become self-evident. Grammarians will wince at the folksy use of “gotten” and the sloppy “past half a century.” A double “was now” has managed to escape the copy editor’s eye. We learn that Ahmed Kathrada is “a thoughtful man” because he “earned multiple college degrees while in prison.” We get awkward redundancies such as “Then we rode to their old cellblock, where Mandela posed for pictures in his cell…” (In his cell? No kidding?)

Beyond these flubs, there is nothing more here than dry generalized description that could have been easily cadged from the back of a travel brochure.

That such a book would be uncritically accepted and that such a review would be published in a section that purports to be a critical beacon are salient indicators that, when it comes to dealing with top brass, Sam Tanenhaus is nothing more than a literary lapdancer.

The Politics of Boasting

We don’t often look to electoral politics for sublime life lessons, yet sometimes the lessons are there. Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, two popular Republican politicians, have dropped out of the 2008 presidential race. Both candidates exemplified an attitude that has been with us forever but seems to have a peculiar hold on our own time: the attitude of arrogance, or vain overconfidence. Perhaps voters wished to punish this attitude by refusing to vote for either man.

rudyfirsts.jpgRudy Giuliani’s smug self-assurance had been legendary during his long career as District Attorney and Mayor in New York City. But he revealed a more off-putting overconfidence to voters with his strange decision to not compete in the earliest GOP Primaries. He calmly assured his followers that he would sweep up victory in Florida, incorrectly guessing that no other candidate would excite voters in the prior contests. This was a bad strategy in several ways, but it may have backfired for one particular reason above all: it reminded voters of George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld’s flippant assurances that they would easily sweep up victory in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2008, overconfident leadership is the polar opposite of what Americans want.

Mitt Romney’s arrogance — a relaxed square-jawed perfection excavated from an earlier age — has always been different from Giuliani’s. Unlike John McCain and Mike Huckabee, Romney rarely revealed any personal frailty or flaw, betrayed few complex emotions, and was never caught agonizing over a decision. In other eras of American politics, this politician might have been highly valued for his Teflon sheen, but again in 2008 we’ve had enough of slick impenetrability. After eight years of “stuff happens” (from Katrina to Pakistan, and stuff is still happening), American voters may need a long recovery period before we’ll vote for a politician with a self-assured, unflappable personality again.

Maybe this is why Hillary Clinton’s biggest rebound moment occurred after she teared up before a TV audience, or why the naturally intense and earnest Barack Obama is catching on with voters. But arrogance hasn’t always been a detriment for a politician. When George W. Bush first emerged as a Presidential candidate a decade ago, his cool arrogance was considered his best feature. It made him “Reaganesque.” Ronald Reagan’s easygoing charm was always rooted in a stern and unshakable confidence that people yearned to find again, and this was no small factor in the emergence of another ex-President’s wayward Texan son as a conservative politician. When the younger George W. Bush’s advisors, pollsters, and image makers assembled him in the laboratory, they marveled at the creature’s unflappable self-certainty.

bushpraise.jpgGeorge W. Bush was constantly referred to as “Reaganesque” in his earlier years, though this image seems so far away now that we easily forget it. It turned out that President George W. Bush did not have the leadership skills of President Ronald Reagan. Just the arrogance.

Of course, U.S. Presidents have been arrogant since the imperious George Washington, who demanded that his subjects kneel. There were perhaps none more blustery than the remarkable Theodore Roosevelt, whose effusive self-confidence is still fondly remembered today. Richard Nixon always presented a face of somber self-righteousness to the public, and a much deeper and insidious arrogance was revealed on the White House Tapes released during the Watergate affair. Jimmy Carter’s inability to rally his government behind his leadership appears to have been rooted in a principled rigidity. It’s probably the case that more US Presidents have been deeply arrogant than not.

It’s a more troubling fact that the United States of America is constantly described as an arrogant nation by many who criticize it, from Noam Chomsky books to Al Qaeda videos to countless casual conversations among concerned citizens. This, again, is nothing new. It was our arrogant Pacific Rim policy that frustrated Japan into attacking Pearl Harbor in 1941, for instance. So, is the United States of America actually arrogant? And what exactly does it mean to say this?

ar &#8226 ro • gance: (noun) offensive display of superiority or self-importance; overbearing pride.

Whether this shoe fits or not cannot be easily decided, but it does seem easy to understand how various American policies in Asia, the Middle East, Central America, South America, Africa and Europe can be seen as arrogant. Other world powers like Russia, England, China, France and Germany carry on similar legacies, and more generally it’s clear that a natural belief in the superiority of one’s nation, one’s religion, one’s ethnic group, one’s class, or one’s gender is universal in every society on Earth. It’s hard to imagine any influential nation of any size that has not acted arrogantly towards its neighbors.

Arrogance is as common as the air we breathe. You can’t walk down the street without slamming into it, usually coming at you from several directions at once.

It’s a strange fact that arrogance is not one of the seven deadly sins, while pride is. Dictionary.com defines pride as something much more positive than arrogance:

pride (noun): A sense of one’s own proper dignity or value; self-respect.

So how can pride be a sin if arrogance is not? The seven deadly sins were developed by a number of early Christian writers. One version was endorsed (and thus codified) by Pope Gregory I in the sixth century. I wonder if this pope might have chosen pride over arrogance as one of the seven deadly sins because pride denotes a certain secretive self-regard, while arrogance does not. Pride is a private feeling, whereas arrogance is essentially public and relational. You can only be arrogant in relation to others, and by being arrogant you are being honest about your true feelings. Several of the deadly sins revolve around secrecy, but arrogance is an honest expression of what you believe.

In 2008, the United States of America seems to be reeling from a trauma of arrogant and incompetent leadership, and there’s no telling what ripple effects this trauma may eventually cause. But even if American voters are turning towards more down-to-earth candidates in 2008, it’s hard to imagine that human nature is being fundamentally changed. We were designed to be arrogant, and to admire arrogance in others. We can’t defeat arrogance and we can’t erase it; perhaps all we need to do is avoid being blinded by it in the future and we’ll be okay.

Diary of the Dead

Diary of the Dead is going to split critics. The film snobs who can’t handle a populist movie with a brain will groan (as many did quite audibly at the screening I attended). The hard-core Romero fans looking for Savini-style gore will be disheartened by the film’s focus on the internal (although there is one glorious zombie moment involving a defibrillator).

diary3.jpgThis is a pity, because Diary of the Dead is a gutsy and energetic film that believes in its audience more than Land of the Dead ever did. Romero made something of a mistake going to the big studios. He’s always been a more instinctive and playful filmmaker when working the indie turf. Land‘s blunt gas nozzle through the windshield has been replaced by more intriguing symbolism, such as a deaf Amish farmer now giddily grenading the dead and an overturned American flag hanging from a dormitory wall.

One of the film’s opening shots, taken from a television camera just as the dead are coming alive, is masterful satire. The camera zooms in on a driver chewing on a sandwich and crew voices mutter snarky comments over this private moment. A crew member asks an ambulance to move out of frame because it’s blocking the shot. Never mind that the camera is set up in front of a hospital.

diary2.jpgTold from the perspective of college filmmakers who see the (again unexplained) rising of the dead as an opportunity to record “a part of history,” Diary is a claustrophobic assault on media culture. “I just want to record it,” chants Jason Creed like a creed. He’s the director of the film-within-the-film, The Death of Death. And while his fellow students are initially uncomfortable, they become distressingly accustomed to having cameras in their faces. Some may decry the “amateur” acting, but when Romero has his actors mug for the camera, it’s symptomatic of a disease more pervasive than the zombies. At one point, just before entering an abandoned house, Creed tells his cadre to stop so that he can get a good wide angle shot. The voice of reason (so dissolute that he clings to a first edition of Dickens and seems, like Abigail’s Party‘s Laurence, more taken with the cover) is an alcoholic professor named Maxwell, named perhaps after the mathematician who proved that light was an electromagnetic wave and who thus made cinema and DV possible. Maxwell’s weapon of choice is not a gun, but a bow and arrow, which suggests that Romero’s affinity for chivalry — seen most prominently in his underrated film Knightriders — still holds.

Sharing a confined miasma similar to Day of the Dead, Diary champions cramped interiors over dystopic vistas. The only way of relating to fellow humans is through text messages and YouTube videos. The only real safety is a sealed panic room in a gated manor, a more socially isolating milieu than Dawn of the Dead‘s shopping mall. Its characters access the Internet not to check in on loved ones, but to upload footage. And why the need to promulgate information? As one of the filmmakers explains, “News is always horseshit. That’s how they sell soap.”

One gets the sense that Romero has been building up his fury for quite some time. His fiery stance suggests that an act of rebellion has less to do with improving human conditions and everything to do with seizing an alt-media fief. His characters prefer fully loaded cameras over the assurance of escape. “I can’t leave without the camera,” says Creed, who willfully keeps himself plugged into the wall to charge his battery while pals battle zombies. But Romero hasn’t quite abandoned his hippie idealism. The filmmakers find a number of National Guardsman — “all the folks without suntans” — who have holed up in one town with a stockpile. There’s a righteous and palliative solution to gentrification when the head points out, “We got the power,” and is even munificent with supplies when one of the students stands up to him. But in the face of chaos, honor, like all civilized tenets, goes south. Another faction shows up later, but its commander is wild-eyed and predatory, but still honorable enough to leave weapons.

diary1.jpgAdam Swica’s cinematography favors crisp and steely digital blues. The visuals remain cold and rampant even when a camera is shoved in the face of a young woman trying to remain calm after driving over a number of zombies. “How do you feel?” asks Creed, unable to discern the tangible trauma.

At times, Romero overplays his hand. While I could accept the double entendre of “shooting” that comes near the film’s finale, montages of catastrophe with Full Metal Jacket-style narration were unnecessary, particularly when nestled with such hokey lines as “It’s interesting what we find out what we’re capable of becoming.” One character even escapes with the line “Don’t mess with Texas” and needless musical accompaniment, an overly cornball tone at odds with the film’s more serious questions.

Nevertheless, Romero’s reboot (along with the forthcoming movie, The Signal) suggests that independent horror may very well be the only place where filmmakers are likely to kick against the hypocrisies of media. If Diary is not quite a masterpiece to rank up with Night or Dawn, it does signal a fantastic return to form.

I Need a Husband!

About six months after I continued to remain happy and childless, I saw a woman sitting with her son on a blanket. Her name, I later discovered, was Lori and she was there with her friend Caitlin. It was a sunny summer weekend, and there were parents and kids picnicking nearby.

The day had been going fine, until Lori started checking out my ass in a really intense way. Which was odd, because I have an okay ass. Nothing to write home about. I guess it was an ass you could settle for. Of course, when pressed, I can shake my booty as well as anybody else. Still, it was somewhat disheartening to have someone checking out my ass without even having the courtesy to introduce herself.

“Excuse me,” said Lori. “Are you married?”

“What? Why, no,” I said.

“Do you shout ‘Bravo!’ in movie theaters?”

“Sometimes. When it’s an action movie.”

She introduced herself. She then asked if she could smell my breath. I told her that I needed one minute to suck on a breath mint. She told me that breath mints weren’t necessary. I informed her that her request was quite unusual. And she then grabbed the roll of BreathSavers out of my hand and stomped my mints into chalky powder. She insisted that I had halitosis. This was not true.

“Hey, you owe me a buck for those BreathSavers!”

“I want a husband,” she said.

“What for? What do you really long for?”

“An angle for this Atlantic article I’m writing. Well, actually, a husband. I’m very worried about that. Every single woman I know feels panic about this. I need to marry and reproduce.”

I then noticed that she was taking notes.

“You know, you don’t need a husband to be happy,” I said. “Mr. Right often comes along when you least expect it.”

“I need a husband now.”

Lori didn’t blink as she said this. I was starting to get an Ira Levin vibe.

“Yeah, and I’d love to write for The New Yorker. It’ll probably never happen. But that doesn’t stop me from writing or living.”

“You don’t understand. I need a husband now.”

“Well, if that’s the case, go get one.”

I started to walk away. I considered calling 911. Lori was starting to give me the creeps. There was a wild look in her eyes.

“Will you be my husband?”

I was unnerved by Lori. I knew many well-adjusted single women in their thirties and forties who were living fantastic lives. And they were doing this entirely without partners.

“Are you The One?”

“No!” I shouted.

She then consulted a complicated Powerpoint presentation on her laptop. There was a red text box with the words MUST MARRY MAN NOW! flashing in bright white text.

“Are you my soul mate?”

“Look, Lori, I don’t know you, but I think you need help.”

“I need to marry somebody. Someone who can help me pop out 1.2 children from my uterus. Will you marry me and help me pop out 1.2 children? I have one son. I need 1.2 more so that I can live the perfect dream. Are you Mr. Good Enough?”

“I’m Mr. Champion.”

Lori then complained to her friend Caitlin that I wasn’t cooperating. Caitlin suggested that they should go home and watch the final episode of Friends to get some additional ideas for Lori’s article. And that was the last I saw of them.

I didn’t understand Lori’s problem. If only she would stop with the whole “I need a husband” nonsense and accept that life happens when you make other plans, maybe she might get her wish.

But it was good to meet someone who wrote for The Atlantic. I was pretty sure that Lori would read a few books on the subject, talk to some noted experts on relationships and human behavior, cite a few studies, and write a very thoughtful article without a single generalization about gender. After all, The Atlantic was a respected magazine that attracted only the best writers.

Chapter One

On Sunday night, I stepped into the chilly cold and ventured off to see two fabulous pals — Matt Cheney and Tayari Jones — read at the Sunday Salon series with the ebullient Frances Madeson and the somewhat intense Tony D’Souza. All four readers were compelling, but the biggest surprise came when Tayari, who had assured me early on that she would be reading a “rerun,” inveigled the crowd with a chapter from her forthcoming novel, citing, to my surprise, me specifically as the guy who had seen the act before. As Tayari came down to retrieve her manuscript pages, there was only one thing to do. Express my gratitude and hug her profusely. I am known to do this from time to time. Writers sometimes need to be encouraged.

In any event, since this was an uncommon reading of material that was still being worked out, it seemed only fair to return the favor. So I’ve prepared an audio file of the first chapter of my novel-in-progress, Humanity Unlimited, which can be sampled below. It involves balding, neuroses, a stern receptionist, false accusation, and an overly exuberant photographer. This is slightly different from another version I performed once at Writers With Drinks, and will likely be different still in six months.

(Of course, if this doesn’t tickle your fancy, I should note that four new installments of The Bat Segundo Show have just been released.)

Conscience and Integrity

He was a passionate devotee of David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, and many others who he sensed were writing the Great American Novel. He made acquaintances with a few of his heroes, attending workshops and the like. And he spent eleven years working on his novel. Because he needed his novel to be perfect. To his mind, this was the only way he could live up.

He didn’t realize that great novels — and indeed great art — often happen by accident. By routine. By turning around work and getting better at what you do. Even the best ball players can’t hit a homerun every time. He caused himself and a number of other people close to him some grief. It’s all there in Chip McGrath’s article. And it will all be there in a forthcoming installment of The Bat Segundo Show.

I bring Charles Bock up in light of Carrie Frye and David Ulin’s responses to the Zadie Smith controversy. Both suggest that Zadie Smith’s decision was exacted with, respectively, conscience and integrity. Anyone who writes knows that writing can be a tough and unrelenting business. That you’re going to get “no” (or, more often, no reply at all) more often than you get “yes.” Which is why it’s important to keep on writing and not let anyone stand in your way.

Now it’s certainly important to demand the best out of people, no matter how small the stakes. When friends and acquaintances offer me their manuscripts, they know damn well that I’m going to be hard and ruthless with their words. Writing is too important to be taken for granted.

But I believe that it’s also important to be encouraging with people who have the basic nuts and bolts. To leave some wiggle room for another writer to work out a problem and to find her voice in her own way. To encourage a writer, particularly a good one, to carry on writing, however difficult the process, however much the writer’s writing may not speak to you, and whatever the extant fallacies you perceive. The only way that a writer can get better at writing is to look that white whale right in the eye. To produce without fear of judgment and without fear of failure, but with an upturned ear. Judgment and failure come with the territory.

A wholesale dismissal of a manuscript without reason is less helpful than an honest and reasonable excoriation, which might provide the writer some clues on how to get better or where the writer went wrong with one person. Writing, like many things in life, benefits from failure as well as success. So I can find little conscience and integrity to Zadie Smith’s actions. Had she bothered to highlight the deficiencies of these manuscripts using very specific examples — and, for that matter, had the print people damning blogs used very specific examples — we might be having a pugnacious but ultimately well-intentioned discussion. But Zadie Smith, lest we forget, is just one voice. She is not the final arbiter of taste. The very idea that art must be perfect fails to take Michelangelo’s maxim into account: “The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.”

Casablanca, you may recall, was just another studio picture. Picasso was frighteningly prolific. On the Road was written in three weeks. Dostoevsky quite famously wrote his novella, “The Gambler,” because he had to meet a crazed deadline in order to meet his debts.

The Charles Bocks of our world are left to sweat when they might benefit from writing with a sense of urgency. They continue in this way because instead of being true to their voices, they feel the need to adhere to some ridiculously high standard proscribed by others. When the high standards should come primarily from the artist, guided in large part by an intuitive subconscious.

So what role then is the critic or the judge? I think Mencken was pretty close:

A catalyzer, in chemistry, is a substance that helps two other substances to react. For example, consider the case of ordinary cane sugar and water. Dissolve the sugar in water and nothing happens. But add a few drops of acid and the sugar changes to glucose and fructose. Meanwhile, the acid itself is absolutely unchanged. All it does is to stir up the reaction between the water and the sugar. The process is called catalysis. The acid is a catalyzer.

Well, this is almost exactly the function of a genuine critic of the arts. It is his business to provoke the reaction between the work of art and the spectator. The spectator, untutored, stands unmoved; he sees the work of art, but it fails to make any intelligible impression on him; if he were spontaneously sensitive to it, there would be no need for criticism. But now comes the critic with his catalysis. He makes the work of art live for the spectator; he makes the spectator live for the work of art. Out of the process comes understanding, appreciation, intelligent enjoyment — and that is precisely what the artist tried to produce.

Law of Averages

I hope to find more time to write at length about Charles Baxter’s extraordinary novel, The Soul Thief. Beyond Baxter nailing the relationship of “God Only Knows” to Brian Wilson’s personal development as an artist, one is tempted to read Nathaniel’s relationship with his parents in the context of this interesting essay (in which Baxter’s son offers annotated responses in relation to remembered anecdotes) contained in this month’s issue of The Believer.

There is also this striking passage, to be considered in the same context as Philip Roth’s American Pastoral moment and Richard Russo’s “wrong end of the telescope” speech from Bridge of Sighs:

But sometimes it happens that we enter a public place and find that, for once, the law of averages has broken down. We step gingerly into the darkened movie theater, the film starts, and we are the only ones in attendance, the only spectators to laugh or scream or yawn in the otherwise empty and silent rows of seats. We drive for miles and see no one coming in the other direction, the road for once being ours alone. Our high beams stay on. Where is everybody? The earth has been emptied except for us as we make our stuttering progress through the dark. We take each turn expecting that someone will appear out of nowhere to keep us company for a moment. In the doctor’s anteroom, no one else is waiting and fidgeting with nerves, and the receptionist has vanished; or we find ourselves alone in the fun-house at the seedy carnival, where, because of our solitude, there will be no fun no matter what we do; or we enter the restaurant where no one else is dining, though the candles have all been lit and the place settings have been nicely arranged. The waitstaff has collectively decamped to some other bistro even though they have left the lights on in this one. The water boiling in the kitchen sends up a cloud of steam. The maitre d’ has abandoned his station; we sit anywhere we please. The outward-bound commuter train starts, but no one sits in the car, and no conductor ambles down the aisle to punch a hole in our ticket. In the drugstore no one is behind the cash register, and the druggist has left the prescription medications unmonitored on their assorted shelves. We enter the church for the funeral, and we are the first to arrive, and we must sit without the help of the ushers. Where are they? No sound, not a single note or a chord or a melody line from the organ loft, consoles and sustains us.

Such occasions are so rare that when they occur, we often think I don’t belong here, something is wrong or Why didn’t they inform me? or Let there be someone, anyone, else. But for the duration, when the law of averages no longer applies, we are the sole survivors, the only audience for what reality wishes to show us. This may be what the prophets once felt, this ultimate final aloneness.

Breaking News: Snobbery Ain’t Cute

Dear Zadie Smith:

Well, this isn’t a difficult thing to write. Because the kind of sanctimonious attitude you espouse with your open letter really doesn’t tell us the whole story.* Really, what happened here? Did you actually read all of the entries? Or did you shoot them down on sight because the first sentence wasn’t some florid specimen of “originality?” You know, “One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father” wasn’t exactly the kind of sentence I’d write home about. (And neither, for that matter, was Forster’s original line.) But I gave On Beauty a chance and stuck it out, despite its cheap reliance upon coincidence and a few implausible relationships, and I enjoyed it. But I gotta say that it took some hubris there to rewrite Howard’s End. Almost as cocky as Gus Van Sant remaking Psycho shot-for-shot. But then you’re Zadie Smith. And, hey, it won you the Orange Prize and got you on the Booker shortlist. And I’m just some crazed blogger who writes on a medium that you won’t deign to capitalize.

Anyway, this isn’t about your novels, which I think are fantastic. This is about something else. I don’t have a prize to hand out. I’m just a guy who likes literature. And I too look for quality and am known to masticate upon wretched manuscripts when the cupboards aren’t stocked with trusty tins and I feel a pressing need to be tortured by a dentist. But if you honestly believe that not one manuscript out of hundreds was worth something, then just what the sam hill were you doing judging a contest anyway? I mean, I thought that I was Mr. Crankypants. But you take the cake! And apparently you want others to eat it too.

So let’s conduct ourselves a little basic math here. There were 800 stories in this contest. And let’s say that the average length of each story was roughly ten pages a piece. So we’ve got ourselves 8,000 pages total. That’s a lot of reading material, I know. But let’s be utterly brutal and cut it down to 1%. That’s eighty pages left. Or eight stories out of 600. If you want to say .05%, that’s four stories. Surely, even you, Ms. Smith, in your hard-pressed quest for “quality” could cop to .05% of all the material coming in being worth something. Surely, even you, Ms. Smith, could count one sentence in that crop as amazing.

So you and the judges don’t want to read all the other crap that comes in. Okay, that’s cool. But surely you understand that when you sign on to judge a reading contest, inevitably, you’re going to have to wade through a morass to get to the really good stuff. This is, incidentally, what an editor of a literary journal has to do. And, by editor, we’re not talking about asking top talent, who could write amazing things in their sleep if they had to, to submit stories for The Book of Other People. We’re not talking about having Dave Eggers email you some article that you simply say yes to for The Best American Nonrequired Reading. We’re talking about real editing by aspiring writers, good and bad, who want to be published. The kind of pull-up-your-dungarees-and-wade-into-the-septic-tank hard labor that involves vertiginous slush piles. Oh, they’re nightmarish. But if you’re a glass-is-half-full kind of person and you have even a remote love of literature, you’ll know that every now and then, something good comes through. And it makes the job worthwhile. Do you think you’re exempt from this basic vocational reality because you’re Zadie Smith?

And incidentally, who are you to complain about “pseudo-literary fictio-tainment” when your dear husband offered just that with Utterly Monkey? Not that I have any problem with “pseudo-literary” offerings. But I’m just saying.

Really, Zadie honey, you’re in your thirties now. You really should know better than this. Particularly after all the trouble you got into by declaring England “a disgusting place.” (Aha! A common theme here!) But if this is really one of those cases where you vant to be alone, then please, just stay away from journalists and judging reading contests and concentrate your attentions on what you’re really good at: writing novels.

Yours sincerely,

Edward Champion

* — The “whole story” was, incidentally, relayed by Bilal Ghafoor — if indeed this is the “whole story” and not just another case of CYA.

A Tribute to Frank Wilson

frankwilson.jpg

Frank Wilson will be hanging up his hat as books editor of the Philly Inquirer on Friday and I feel that the battle to save book reviewing sections has been lost. I figured that if Frank could keep his books section running, the newspaper situation would be okay. I know that there were many struggles to keep the section afloat and that Frank worked damn hard at his job, often performing double duty on other arts sections. But he won’t tell you about what he went through. Because he’s always been a class act.

He cared a good deal about arts coverage and he had many ideas on how to make a books section both lively and profitable. He was a man who fought hard to get a Steve Erickson review running off the front of the Arts & Entertainment section. But I suspect many of his innovative ideas fell on deaf ears. I don’t know if Frank will ever reveal the true sacrifice of his labors. But trust me. The man did everything he could and kept at this game far longer than any reasonable person should.

So the news depresses me. Because Philadelphia was lucky to have Frank Wilson. Hell, the whole nation was lucky to have Frank Wilson. He was possibly too smart for this business. He may have cared too much.

Frank ran reviews on all types of books from all types of writers. One turned to the Inquirer‘s books section for passionate and thoughtful books coverage, not a section composed of “names” coasting by on credentials. Unlike many other editors, he was open-minded enough to understand that the current convergence between print and online was not a development where you had to pick a side, but where you had to work both sides of the fence and bring people together. He corralled top talent in the blogosphere and forced them to up their game. He knew intuitively where cultural coverage was going and did everything he could to bridge the gap.

He was also the first newspaper editor to take a chance on me with a book reviewing assignment. And so I owe much of my current full-time freelancing career to Frank. And I will never forget him for this. I was extremely privileged and honored to write for him. And I always busted my hump to get him something extra special. He let me get away with reviews written in the first person plural and let me throw in a lot of embedded wordplay that I sneaked into my reviews to amuse the copy desk. In return, I’d try to scout out books for him that nobody else was covering.

But now that Frank’s almost gone, with his Books, Inq. blog sadly following, this is a huge loss for Philadelphia and a huge loss for newspapers. The news came hot on the heels of other losses in the Philadelphia newspaper community. So it stings that much more.

I’m not sure if this means the end of the Inquirer‘s books section. But the paper needed Frank Wilson. And I don’t think they were really aware of the talent they had.

[UPDATE: It appears that despite being devoted to "commentary on literary criticism, publishing, writing, and all things NBCC related," the NBCC blog Critical Mass hasn't bothered to point to developments at the Philly Inquirer. This is especially astonishing, considering that NBCC President John Freeman was a regular contributor to the Inquirer's pages. But I guess when you're busy pretending that an established social networking site doesn't exist and you're attempting to replace it with the most predictable lists of books imaginable, I suppose that more tangible developments in the universe such as a newspaper books section that may very well be dead aren't so important. In other news, I hear that next year's NBCC reading campaign is "Shelfari."]

[UPDATE 2: Hmm. Funny that. Freeman's post at Critical Mass went up not long after the previous update.]

Dave Itzkoff: The Genre Dunce Who Won’t Stop Dancing

Dave Itzkoff has been an embarrassment to the New York Times Book Review for some time, imbuing his “Across the Universe” columns with a know-nothing hubris that one expects from an investment banker who considers himself an art expert simply because he’s had his secretary send in a tax-deductible donation to the opera. Never mind that he hasn’t once listened to Verdi. But Itzkoff’s latest piece truly demonstrates that the wretched and rackety well has no bottom limit. Reading Itzkoff is like being paired up with some otiose oaf on a field assignment who will cluelessly drill into a septic tank and spew all manner of malodorous shit without recognizing how incompetent and disgusting this is. Unlike someone like quarterback Eli Manning, Itzkoff’s instincts can’t help him win the game. Not even accidentally.

Itzkoff first tries to be cutesy with this column, comparing his subway rides to “Bruce Campbell dodging zombies,” when in fact the Evil Dead films concerned themselves with the backwoods, not an urban setting, and it was the supernatural (as opposed to zombies) that Bruce Campbell dodged in the Evil Dead films. He might have had a decent comparison on his hands had he evoked something along the lines of Lamberto Bava’s Demons. But a tired and clumsy reference to Bruce Campbell? Clearly, this was one of those “hip” comparisons that Itzkoff sneaked into his column not with the intent of relating to his audience, but to desperately pine for a geek chic he clearly does not and can never possess.

And then we have the telltale phrase of a dolt signifying everything: “I sometimes wonder how any self-respecting author of speculative fiction can find fulfillment in writing novels for young readers.” I wonder how any “critic” could write such a clueless sentence. Bad enough that Itzkoff invokes two books that have been out for many months (one more than a year) and is about as current on science fiction as a high school jock trying to crib tips from reluctant geeks who recognize a flagrant pettifogger. But this ignoramus also has the temerity to suggest that speculative fiction authors can only write speculative fiction and that there is nothing of value in YA books. Further, Itzkoff can’t seem to understand that selling millions of books may not be why an author turns to the form. As it so happens, China Miéville was once good enough to tell me that he didn’t write Un Lun Dun with money in mind. But he didn’t need to inform me about the artistic satisfaction he found in creating worlds for kids. It was, despite my quibbles with the book, nascent on the page. You’d have to be a tone-deaf dilettante out of your element not to see it.

Then there is Itzkoff’s ignorance in quoting Miéville’s previous works. He doesn’t cite the New Crobuzon books (were they just too long and too filled with big words for Itzkoff to ken?). He seems to think that a fantasy audience is more likely to know Miéville for King Rat and his short stories. When in fact, the reverse is true. And what should Miéville’s polemic on Tolkien have to do with the imaginative strengths of Un Lun Dun? Is Itzkoff taking the piss out of Miéville’s socialist views by comparing this essay to “one of the most imaginative young adult novels of the post-Potter era?” When, in fact, Miéville argued:

As socialists, we don’t judge art by the politics of its creator – Trotsky loved Celine, Marx loved Balzac, and neither author was exactly a lefty. However, when the intersection of politics and aesthetics actually stunts the art, it’s no red herring to play the politics card.

Un Lun Dun is not a case where the environmental politics stunt the art. And if this is Itzkoff’s crass attempt to be clever, to equate Miéville’s politics with his art, then why doesn’t he just fess up to what a pinko author Miéville is?

And then there is this bafflingly obvious observation:

When Miéville hangs a crucial story element on an alternate definition of the word “phlegm,” he does so not only to educate his audience about its forgotten second meaning, but also to acknowledge that kids love the word “phlegm.”

You think, Itzkoff? That’s a bit like writing, “When Miéville titled his book Un Lun Dun, he does so not only to suggest phonetic transcription, but also to acknowledge that kids love to misspell words.” It’s the kind of dull conclusion I’d expect from a burned out undergraduate taking on some hack assignment of dumbing down literature for a Cliffs Notes volume. Not something from the New York Times.

When Itzkoff brings up Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves’s InterWorld, the book is “still something of a departure,” presumably because Itzkoff remains incapable of fathoming why a fantasy author would be found in the children’s section. Bafflingly, Itzkoff writes that the book “falls into the same broad category as ‘Un Lun Dun.'” While you’re at it, Itzkoff, why don’t you tell us that the book is “published by the good people at McGraw Hill?” These are utterly useless sentences. Itzkoff can’t seem to accept a book as a book. He feels the need to pigeonhole it, even to suggest that Gaiman and Reaves had a specific type of reader in mind, when, in fact, the book’s origins have a completely different story. But Itzkoff is too lazy to conduct even the most basic of research. Again, he would rather assume and drop in a reference to Heavy Metal.

Itzkoff writes that InterWorld “isn’t sugarcoated for its readership” and describes how it “wastes no time in putting its young heroes in mortal peril.” Which leads one to wonder whether Itzkoff is even familiar with this little story called “Jack and the Beanstalk,” which featured this giant chanting for the blood of an Englishman. As nearly every bedtime reader knows, children’s stories have a long history of putting young heroes in mortal peril. See, for instance, the tales of Grimm.

Why someone like Itzkoff has remained continually employed at the NYTBR for nearly two years is no mystery. Nobody at the NYTBR gives a good goddam about science fiction, nor do they care about incisive coverage of genre books. I doubt very highly that Sam Tanenhaus or Dwight Garner have read one science fiction book in their entire NYTBR tenure. There’s certainly no evidence to suggest that either of these two have open minds on the subject. Garner once described Philip K. Dick as a “trippy science-fiction writer.” Which is a bit like calling Dylan “a trippy singer.” A New York Times search unearths not a single article by Sam Tanenhaus with the words “science fiction” in it.

So if Itzkoff, Tanenhaus, and Garner are failing on the science fiction front, why then should one give credence to them? Because Tanenhaus actually had the hubris to tell me (and a large audience) that the NYTBR is “the best book review section in the nation.” But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. To my mind, if you are an editor striving to be “the best book review section in the nation,” you should take genre as seriously as you do mainstream literature. You should not pollute your columns with clumsy cultural references that have no relation to the material.

And, above all, you should not hire a dunce like Dave Itzkoff.

[UPDATE: Andrew Wheeler writes: "Perhaps the problem is that Itzkoff has a whole page to fill, and, given that he's only read two fairly short books in six months, he doesn't have much actual content to fill that space with. So once again I will suggest a tightening of Itzkoff's assigned space. One word every decade would about do it."]