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RIP Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel is dead. And the radio world as we now know it has been permanently altered.

When I heard the news, I felt a horrible lump within me bunch up and plummet to the floor. I had been talking up Terkel only yesterday, openly contemplating to friends whether today’s podcasters and staid NPR types — who seemed narrowly concerned only with those caught within their fifteen minutes of fame — would even come close to Terkel’s deep and wide-ranging interest in people of all types. The only guy among my generation who has come close to Terkel is possibly Benjamen Walker, whose excellent Theory of Everything program is now sadly defunct. And over the past few months, I’d likewise been pondering whether I had an obligation to expand the range of my own program to include more people outside the cultural world.

Terkel demonstrated with his great journalistic genius that everybody had a hell of a story, that everyone was part of history, and that with enough curiosity, you could find the insight in damn near anyone.

He documented working people in a way that nobody on radio has been able to come close to in the past several decades. He provided an invaluable history of the Great Depression. One could listen to any of Terkel’s interviews and feel immediately humbled, almost insignificant by comparison. He brought so much life to the interviewing form, unfurling so many unexpected details in his subjects. The train hopper who described the way in which he packed hot dogs into his clothes to avoid starvation. The behavioral specifics devised and brought about by existing within an epoch.

Anybody interested in people would do well to revisit Terkel at length. This was a man who changed the rules of oral history. This was a man whose prolific professionalism simply asked us to look deep inside ourselves, and see the people around us. And I don’t know if we’ll see the likes of him again for some time. But his passing signifies that we all have to do much better.

(Image: Robert Birnbaum)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #245. Stephenson is most recently the author of Anathem. It is not known whether or not he “likes cake a lot.”

Condition of Mr. Segundo: He likes cake a lot.

Author: Neal Stephenson

Subjects Discussed: Seven as the ideal number of guests for dinner, William Gibson, the shift from the near future to the past, Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle, science fiction about the alternative present, the various manners in which one interprets information as forms of discipline, Kurt Godel’s life at the Institute for Advanced Study, Platonism, Edmund Husserl, the Kantian influence in Anathem, units of measurement, Gene Wolfe, the use of “runcible,” using very old words to avoid the high tech feel, “aut” and auto-da-fe, devising quasi-Latin lingo, Riddley Walker, learning new words as an essential part of the experience of literature, considering the general reader, devising a script that went through the entire text to determine how many words were invented, concocting an intuitive vernacular, cognitive philosophy concerning the fly, the bat, and the worm inspired by Husserl, reader accessibility, My Dinner with Andre, the danger of getting caught up in an invented world, the snowscape journey as a side quest, finding humor in unexpected places, Ras as the anti-Enoch Root, Robert Heinlein’s YA novels, Ras’s perception of music, music and mathematics, literal and figurative meanings, Max Tegmark’s The Mathematical Universe, creating a metaverse and happy accidents, being “family-based” and types of relationships within the Avout, Laura Miller’s suggestion that Anathem is “a campus novel,” use of the first-person, narrative constraints, criticism about women as nurturers, female characters, and the risk of writing books about ideas.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Going back to the idea of the general reader, or the common reader — whatever we want to call the audience here — the philosophical proposition involving the fly, the bat, and the worm expressing basic cognitive abilities, and how cognitive abilities come together so that humans are a higher form of animal than other animals, this was a very clear way of expressing this particular concept of individual senses. And I’m wondering if this was something that you concocted. Or that you took from Kant. Because I actually tried to find a philosophical precedent for this as well.

Stephenson: It’s more from [Edmund] Husserl. So Husserl was an amazing guy who could just sit in his office and look at a copper ashtray, and then write at great length about all of the processes that went on in his mind when he was perceiving that ashtray, and recognizing it from one moment to the next as being the same object. And so he’s got a number of lengthy books about this, which, as you can imagine, are pretty hard to read. So the content of the dialogue, or the parable you mention — the fly, the bat, and the worm — really comes from him. But it’s me trying to write a somewhat more accessible version of similar ideas.

Correspondent: So you really wanted to be accessible in some sense, it seems to me.

Stephenson: In some sense, yeah.

Correspondent: Well, what sense exactly?

Stephenson: (laughs) Well…

Correspondent: If the reader doesn’t matter and, at the same time, there’s this accessibility here, it seems…what’s the real story? (laughs)

Stephenson: Oh no. The reader matters. The criterion is very simple. It’s got to be a good yarn. If it’s not a good yarn, then the whole enterprise fails. So I think that to have a good yarn, you’ve got to have characters that people are interested in. And they’ve got to get into situations that make for a good story. It’s okay to stop the action and have them sit down and have an interesting conversation. You know, for some reason, I always go back to the movie, My Dinner with Andre, which is a long movie consisting of two guys just sitting there talking with each other. But it’s a completely engaging and fascinating movie. That’s kind of an existence proof that you can build a good yarn that consists largely of people just having conversations. And so that was kind of my guiding — that was my guideline, I guess you could say, for trying to work that material in.

BSS #245: Neal Stephenson (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #244. Kurosawa is most recently the co-writer and director of Tokyo Sonata, a film that played the New York Film Festival and that will be released by Regent Releasing in the United States on March 17, 2009. For more information on this extraordinary film, please see our review.

We also wish to express our many thanks to translator Linda Hoaglund, who assisted us during the course of this interview.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Voiceless, per the requirements of a sonata.

Guest: Kiyoshi Kurosawa (director of Tokyo Sonata)

Subjects Discussed: Delving into the issue of whether or not contemporary Tokyo is now a city without a voice, collaborating with screenwriter Max Mannix, Ozu’s trains, crossing the axis, the noisy train behind the family house, characters pretending to be employed, the artistic blood within the family line, pretending as a coping mechanism, pretending to pretend to pretend, whether or not the idea of being adult involves accepting a false allegation, weapons of mass destruction, the relationship between authority and active behavior from subordinates, framing characters so that the audience doesn’t see a phone call, blocking actors so that they walk in very precise lines, the Tokyo organization men, showing more ancillary characters, the human infrastructure of Tokyo, using a pen as a microphone, symbolism, cleaning fluid and specialization, and the dramatic presentation of conformity.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You have this train running behind the Sasaki home. And this suggested to me, along with the fact that you cut this film frequently crossing the axis in the editing — crossing the 180 line — it almost suggests an Ozu parody. Or the kind of movie that Ozu would have made if he were to live in our particular times. And I wanted to ask you how this visual style originated, as well as the subway line.

Kurosawa: (through translator) Yes, Ozu was the name I was most dreading hearing, if only because I’m such a huge maniacal fan of him. I really tried to shut him out of my brain. But I guess subconsciously a little bit of his influence remained.

Correspondent: Back to this notion. Ozu was not a part of developing this script? The subway line, I didn’t get an answer for the train behind the house. And I’m very curious about that. Because it very much reminded me of Ozu’s trains.

Kurosawa: (through translator) Actually, that train and the proximity to the house of the Sasakis was not in the script at all. It wasn’t intentional. As I wandered around Tokyo looking for the right home for the Sasaki family, there happened to be a train track next to that particular house.

BSS #244: Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Download MP3)

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Responding to Orwell: October 30

George: I must again commend you on your succinctness. “Fine, not very hot. One egg” likewise describes many sad Sunday mornings in my twenties. There was a period in which I would wake up alone in my San Francisco hovel after a night of unsuccessful carousing, realizing that it was “not very hot” in both the literal and figurative senses. I would then walk to the refrigerator, ponder breakfast, and observe that there was one lone egg in a cardboard carton. (Which in turn reminds me of my crazed attempt to soundproof a basement at the age of nineteen. But that’s another story, George, for another one of your dutiful diary entries!) I had developed a strange habit of cooking many eggs on Saturday morning, but had not yet developed the dexterity to cook a decent omelette. But I was more ashamed by my failure to count the eggs. Looking at the sad shelled elliptic leftover, it seemed somewhat futile to whip up some scrambled eggs from one yolk. “Scrambled egg” was the more accurate breakfast appellation, but it sounded like a 75 cent side item on a dive menu. You could have the “scrambled egg” if you had were a bum with change jangling in your pocket. But real men ordered “scrambled eggs, sausage and toast” for $4.99. Regrettably, I was often too lazy to walk to the convenience store down the street. It was an altogether different walk of shame from me — a bachelor who couldn’t keep track of his eggs, much less perform shopping with any reasonable frequency. And so I would cook the one egg, sometimes singing a Ray Davies song to tap into some irony that really wasn’t applicable, consume the scrambled concoction and realize that it wasn’t what you might call a reasonable breakfast. Fine, not very hot. One egg.

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Passive-Aggressive Newspaper Drones in Training at Montclair

I learned through The Beat (via Eric) that an installment of Keith Knight’s The K Chronicle has caused an uproar at the Montclair State University newspaper. Despite Knight basing his strip on a real-life incident and not even printing the full word in question, the editors of the student newspaper issued a campus-wide apology, with Montclarion editor-in-chief Bobby Melok stating, “It is never The Montclarion’s intention to offend its readership, and we sincerely apologize to all who were upset with this comic.”

I don’t know what’s more disheartening here: a newspaper of any sort lacking the courage to “offend” by depicting the truth or Melok’s current spinelessness-in-training, a passive-aggressive quality that will serve Melok well should he somehow nab one of the few jobs left at a Sam Zell-owned newspaper. To apologize for an artistic depiction of the word “nigger” (which, incidentally, never appeared in Knight’s strip in its entirety) is to draw greater attention to racial division, to give that word more significance than it deserves, and to suggest that anything probing into the cancer of racism is somehow racist. If anything, Melok should apologize for lacking the guts or the brains to determine what he deems appropriate. Melok went on to write, “We assumed because it was part of the syndicate, it was appropriate.” And I assume that because Melok assumes, Melok is incapable of the most elementary editorial judgment.

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Obama, the Medicare “Doughnut Hole,” and the Working Poor

Last night, on Twitter, I got into a lively exchange relating to last night’s Obama infomercial. I had initially watched ten minutes of this broadcast, and I grew increasingly upset by the manner in which basic realities about health care and the working poor have been severely overlooked in this presidential race. Upon being pressed, I watched the whole thing from the beginning. “Those weren’t the working poor in that video? The 72 year old guy working at WalMart not poor enough?” argued Seth Harwood. While retired railroad man Larry Stewart putting on his Wal-Mart badge and taking out a loan on his house to help his ailing wife is indeed a crushing story (beginning at 7:30 in the Obama video), at least the Stuarts have a house to take a loan on. What of the doughnut hole created by a Republican-led Congress through the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003? What of those trapped in Medicare with chronic conditions who skip out on vital medications because they don’t have the money? The situation is this: Under the Medicare Part D prescription drug program, if a senior has more than $2,250, but less than $5,100 in annual drug costs, the senior is required to pay these costs out of pocket.

Now consider the case of 65-year-old Frances Acanfora. Thanks to the MMA, this retired school lunchroom aide saw her drug costs jump up from $58 to $1,294 courtesy of the doughnut hole. She even had to temporarily stop taking her drugs after talking with her doctor. Did Acanfora have a partner or a home to fall back on? We know that she had a credit card. But is she still alive? One wishes that the Washington Post would conduct a followup story. Meanwhile, other seniors have stopped taking their drugs altogether. They couldn’t afford it.

While it is true that Obama advocates the federal government negotiating with the drug companies to reduce prices under the Medicare Part D drug program (similar to what the Department of Veteran Affairs now gets), permitting citizens to purchase prescription drugs from outside of the United States, and closing the doughnut hole, let’s consider why this policy was effected in the first place. The MMA came into being because of rising costs in prescription drugs and the inability of the federal government to allocate enough funds to pay for it. What we have here is a scenario in which the pharmaceutical companies hold all the cards. The companies set the prices. The generic drugs that were supposed to save people money have proven to be more costly thanks to the MMA. The companies claim that the drug prices are high because the companies need to spend this money on R&D. And, of course, the drug companies have lobbyists.

And if the drug companies hold such power, how can there possibly be negotiation? I can see the conversation going something like this:

Government: We need you to lower the costs of drugs. Now we’ll be happy to take them all off your hands, guaranteeing X number of drugs over the next five years, if you’ll lower the prices.

Drug Companies: You’re already going to be getting X number of drugs over the next five years from us. With all due respect, what’s changing here? We’re your supplier. And wait a minute. I thought we agreed back in 2003 that we wouldn’t be negotiating.

Or as Robert Laszewski put it, “If you go to a car dealer and tell him you’re going to buy his car no matter what, and then try to negotiate, you’re not going to get a very good deal.”

Which puts the government in the awkward position of going overseas to import its drugs for Medicare. But if Medicare’s chief drug source comes from another country, how then can the FDA provide the essential oversight for the drugs? This leaves the government coming back to the pharmaceutical companies with its tail between its legs. I’ve looked around numerous places, but Obama has not specified how he can “negotiate” with these draconian realities in place. But to his credit, he did issue a press release last year condemning the Senate’s failure to consider legislation permitting Medicare negotiation.

Let’s return to the issue of Larry Stewart and Frances Acanfora. The rhetoric in this presidential race has involved speaking to Main Street and the middle-class, who we are told increasingly are having to “tighten their belts” to make ends meet. But what is not really being talked about by either camp are the 29.4 million Americans — up 4.7 million from 2002 to 2006 — living below the national poverty line. Tayari helpfully directed me to this Democracy Now! segment from a few days ago, which goes into this issue at some length. And indeed why should either candidate talk about low-wage workers when Obama leads 2 to 1 over McCain? (Incidentally, a majority of low-wage workers polled in this article indicated that their personal finances were unlikely to change — even with an Obama presidency.)

When you consider Medicare’s reliance upon pharmaceutical companies and this regrettable framing emphasis away from the working poor, what Obama essentially presented to us last night was comfort food for the middle-class. (So flexible is the term “middle-class” that one can make a six figure salary and still remain lodged within an income bracket that likewise includes someone making $20,000 a year.) But none of this takes away from the fact that nearly 30 million Americans are impoverished, and that 47 million Americans are without health care. What this nation needs more than “hope” is a concrete and realistic plan. We need something more than promises to “negotiate” in nonnegotiable situations. Something that returns us to the dialogue kickstarted by John Edwards last year. Something that ensures that the dread P word spelling out our poverty will return to our national dialogue with neither shame nor flash, but with the maturity and grace that Obama has built his campaign image upon.

Roundup (With Many References to Violent Elocution Instrutors)

  • The British Library is releasing some snazzy and rare recordings of authors. And the Guardian article includes an audio clip with Virginia Woolf sounding like an elocution instructor who will beat the shit out of you with a sharp riding crop until you crawl across her parquet, bleeding and pleading until the “uhs” and “you knows” are most definitely out of your vernacular.
  • For Patrick Kurp, one of the reasons he’ll never contemplate suicide is the proliferation of color in the world. I wonder if Mr. Kurp has read A.S. Byatt’s Still Life: “We know that we live in a flow of light and lights, as we live in a flow of air and sounds, of which we apprehend a part, and make sense of it as best we can. The pigments on van Gogh’s palette, with their chemistry and their changing tones, are as much a part of this flow as the trees and variable sky. We relate them to each other, and to ourselves, from where we are. It seems to me that at the height of his passion of work van Gogh was able to hold all these things in a kind of creative or poetic balance which is always threatened by forces from inside and outside itself.”
  • Richard Dawkins’s next book will involve an investigation of Harry Potter. Do these books cause children to believe in witchcraft? And are these imaginative books harmful? Should these books be stopped because the Godzilla Prediction Network requires Total Ubiquitous Rationality? Well, all fine and dandy. But here’s another question: Does capitulating imagination in the pursuit of hard reason turn you into a shrill, humorless, and not particularly fun histrionic type past your prime?
  • Andrew Wheeler brings up a pronoun misuse that has likewise troubled me. I’d sooner stomach the strange-looking “s/he” over the utterly erroneous “they” any day. Indeed, I would happily have a gang of elocution instructors beat the shit out of me if it would get five people to stop using “they.”
  • Finally, someone has concocted an inexpensive and more sensible e-reader. The best part of it is that you can probably persuade some elementary school teacher to hand over the necessary materials. If the teacher doesn’t believe you’re in second grade, you can always point out that this is a retroactive request. You always wanted to learn arts and crafts. But the elocution instructors beat the shit out of you and made you shy. Decades later, the confidence has come back. You can even speak to elocution instructors again, and sometimes speak articulately in an elocution instructor’s presence. You don’t even have to bleed on the parquet as much. But you do need to secure your mojo with the butcher paper, et al. And you are a taxpayer. So why the heck not? Butcher paper please. (via Bibliophile Bulletin)
  • A painting purchased for $5 in a thrift store turned out to be a Jackson Pollock offering that now has an asking price of $50 million. Yes, it’s another one of those patented Antiques Roadshow stories. There’s no way that I can involve an elocution instructor here. But with the economic downturn, perhaps the lesson to be learned here is that reappraisal may be way to boost one’s finances. (via Bookninja)
  • Reappraisal, however, shouldn’t involve getting nasty. The Observer‘s John Koblin is now reporting that all Condé Nast publishers and editors are being asked to cut their staffs by five percent and their budgets by five percent within weeks. What’s particularly bleak about this news is that Koblin has confirmed this with “five sources,” thus achieving a morbid symmetry. Maybe the real solution is to have Vanity Fair editors write considerably more than 3,000 words a year, cutting the editor’s salary by 5% if s/he (not they!) can’t generate more material. The more callous solution — one more likely to be employed — is to hire a ball-busting elocution instructor as an efficiency expert.
  • For what it’s worth, I have experienced no problems with elocution instructors. Nor have I had bad experiences that would suggest that they are violent. But I do advocate more fierceness and fearlessness within pedagogues of all types. It’s certainly a lot more pro-active than sitting around believing in blind hope.

Stephen King and “Literary” Aspirations

Salon’s John Marks recently talked with Stephen King on the occasion of The Stand‘s 30th anniversary, where King has revealed that he has written “a very long book” called Under the Dome that deals with themes similar to his 1978 opus.

The Q&A has led Splice Today‘s John Lingan to likewise reconsider King’s place. Lingan points out that King has a distinctly American “avoidance of bullshit at all costs” and that he writes “purely for the visceral thrill of storytelling.” But this assessment fails to take into account King’s undeniable literary aspirations, seen in Lisey’s Story and some of his New Yorker stories, which have detracted from his knack for writing can’t-put-down novels for the average Joe. (This tendency was, in part, why I recently stopped reading Just After Sunrise, a muddled collection of tedious short stories that had me pining for the visceral energy within Night Shift and Skeleton Crew.)

It is indeed King’s high concepts and straightforward storytelling quality — Richard Matheson’s unshakable influence — that has made him a compelling writer. But when he strays from his “country don’t mean dumb” philosophy, he’s nowhere near as enthralling. I suppose the last three volumes of The Dark Tower didn’t sit as well with me because these books were written more with the rabid fan base in mind. I’ve remained long convinced that King has a satirical novel in him — and argued this in my review of Blaze. And it’s worth noting that King’s aborted Web serial, The Plant, revealed the roots of this juicy promise. When King stops listening to what the fans want and stops striving for a “literary” territory that, by his own confession, he can’t hack, he’ll evolve naturally and organically as a novelist. Perhaps in ways that none can portend.

Fart

I am pleased to report that I farted at 3:46 PM this afternoon. The fart’s intensity was somewhere between one of those silent stinkers that people are often in denial about and one of those noisy rattlers, reminiscent of a distant motorboat, that can be heard in an adjacent room. In volume, it was perhaps a few decibels; in odor, it lingered around long enough to require a slight crack of the window. (From one crack comes another.) I presume that this afternoon’s lunch — with its plentiful egg and rice — was one of the reasons for this fart. But one does not always look for direct cause when flatulating. The ideal way to undergo this quite normal biological process is when there is nobody around. As I’ve insinuated here, this was neither the worst fart I’ve ever emitted, nor the best fart. I’m pleased to report that the fart harmed no one. It was a fart somewhere on the left of middle C, although I wasn’t paying too much attention to the precise frequency. If the fart were political, and the middle C represented a centrist way of thinking, then I’d probably style this fart as soft left. Probably the kind of fart you’d see attending a few rallies, but not hard-core enough to become a full-blown Marxist.

Good Greif

In a predictable piece of contrarianism, n+1 manboy Mark Greif completely misses the point of Mad Men. Calling the famed television show “an unpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better,” Greif dismisses the idea that television should depict unpleasant human realities such as sexism, racism, and other assorted human weaknesses. Greif has neither the balls nor the acumen to understand that Don Draper likewise possesses a throwback masculinity that is the key to his apparent success and his command at the ad agency. Jon Hamm plays his character with a certain insecurity because the show is about, among other things, the loss of confidence and individualism in American society, and the overlooked qualities which sustained this. While it is true that one can appreciate Mad Men from the more civilized comforts of the present age — parsing it as a depiction of uncivilized human behavior run amuck — the show’s more intriguing thematic involves how Draper’s masculinity is the key to how he, and American society, operates.

Greif appears more enamored with Mad Men‘s handsome production design and is more interested in quibbling over needless details than he is with the show’s more interesting depiction of human behavior, and this says more about Greif’s inability to comprehend a television show that goes out of its way to depict uncomfortable truths. Decades ago, women were stifled (and still remain so to a lesser degree today). Men were expected to keep the household together with steely fortitude. But despite these atavistic realities, this is, nevertheless, what made America such an innovative nation. Mad Men works, because it does not present us with a dichotomy. It gives us the troublingly cohesive whole. If you were a smart and successful woman during that time, you had few options and were inclined to give into this patriarchal bullshit. But the patriarchal bullshit, as abject as it was, did galvanize people to make active decisions. This is a daring and much needed representation in our age of schlumpy protagonists in Judd Apatow films and Worst Week. Mad Men doesn’t just ask us to revisit this human quality. It asks us to consider the good things that we may have lost with the ugliness.

Mad Men is indeed a “smart” show. But then you have to have an interest in people in order to fully appreciate it.

Crave

The economic downturn is shaking up the rabble just south of Times Square. I was walking along Eighth Avenue, and a man leaped at me some fifteen feet from the edge of the sidewalk, grabbing my forearm. There had been a guy who almost tore the lapel off my wool coat last winter. But somehow the man today was more desperate. More determined to seize another’s attention. More compelled to invade personal space. Wanting to survive, needing to matter, bowling alone.

I chatted with a thin woman bundled in a dark pockmarked coat just outside Penn Station who said she needed $12 to get home. She was situated under one of those ramshackle walkways intended to steer pedestrian traffic away from the main sidewalk while some construction rattles on, but that almost always serves as an impromptu shelter in the winter. She told me that I was the only one who talked with her in two hours. Whether her story was true or not, she was pretty hard to miss. Her large cardboard sign had the word STRANDED! in big blocky letters, a kind of Bic-imbued pointillism. The details in her story didn’t add up, but I gave her a dollar that I didn’t really have. There was the man I saw begging for a cigarette just outside a diner. A woman stood with a smile on her face, smoking three cigarettes in a row. The man wouldn’t go away. He was persistent. She didn’t budge. He dived for one of the butts she had dropped on the sidewalk and then asked her for a light. She refused. I had no cigarettes or matches on me. It would have made some difference.

Someone told me yesterday that she had been given $40 and a box to collect her possessions upon submitting her resignation notice. No pay for the last two weeks. The White Castle on Eighth Avenue announces that it’s hiring. Benefits are the big selling point. And it can’t be an accident that a bundle of comfort burgers over there is called a Crave.

Everyone craves a little security these days. More than a White Castle burger, which you have twenty minutes to sit around and eat until they kick you out. If you’re not let go just because, then you’re certainly craven, hoping to keep whatever job you have. Whether it has become necessary to sacrifice a little liberty and empathy to pay the rent is a question I can’t possibly answer. But you can feel the bristling fear in the streets.

Roundup

  • As widely reported, Tony Hillerman has died.
  • Newspaper circulation is down, down, down! And the cuts at the Star-Ledger, the Los Angeles Times, and numerous other places will ensure that newspapers will woo back these subscribers, yes? The failure of editors to take on fresh talent or freelancers who haven’t yet abdicated their passion or journalistic commitment will almost certainly ensure that subscribers will remain on board, yes? The continued employment of senile geezers like Rex Reed, who cannot be bothered to note details correctly or unmix his metaphors, will almost certainly keep people buying newspapers, yes? Who reads newspapers anymore? Who even cares about the news?
  • It’s easy for Dave Eggers to say that the community needs you when, in fact, he has never really had to scramble to pay the rent since the Might days. It’s easy for Eggers to say this, because he’s an opportunistic coward who has never answered one critical question in his career. Charging $300 (!) to tell other people how to set up a tutoring center doesn’t strike me as philanthropic, particularly when the information is available for free. I presume this $300 buys you into the 826 franchise, where you can then legally begin serving 826 Happy Meals to the kids you’re tutoring. Of course, if Eggers were to initiate the 826 Fisting Festival, with volunteers raising their asses into goatse positions for only $300 a pop, I’d be happy to change my tune. (via Galleycat)
  • Okay, some good news. It is quite legal to make claims about Donald Trump without revealing your sources. I hereby announce that Mr. Trump’s hairpiece is worth somewhere between $23 and $78, and not in the purported thousands. (via Moby Lives)
  • Joanne asks, “Where Are the Renaissance Women?”
  • Levi on John Stuart Mill and taxation.
  • Assigning Hitch to write about Sarah Palin is a bit like asking a man with a chainsaw to fight a cripple. Sure, it’s a dutiful takedown, but I miss the Hitch who pissed everybody off, instead of going after the predictable targets.
  • It has become fashionable once again for liberals and conservatives alike to clap like seals. I have been telling Obama supporters to prepare themselves for a letdown. Look at politics like this: You might stumble across a letter that your spouse wrote to a secret lover, but at least you can talk this out with your spouse and have some input into resolving the situation. But politics is worse than this. Because you’ll stumble across the letter, but you’ll still be locked into a faithless marriage in which you can’t petition your spouse, who’s not going to listen anyway and who’s still going to commit adultery. So what’s the point of being in the marriage in the first place? That’s the trouble. On paper, it all looks so seductive. And your spouse still looks good, even pious from certain angles.
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Mark Millar: The Pursuit of Popularity

Michael Czobit is a writer based in Mississauga, Ontario. He’s not fond of lengthy writer biographies. So the editor has provided two additional sentences to this introduction to provide Mr. Czobit with some necessary heft.

When the credits rolled, many people watching last summer’s film adaptation of Wanted didn’t really know Mark Millar. The audience may have known that he created, with artist J.G. Jones, the comic book series that the film was based upon. And “based upon” is important. Despite Wanted‘s (potentially offensive) violence, the movie was scrubbed of some of the comic’s more controversial details. But unlike Alan Moore, Millar didn’t demand that his name be removed from the film. No, Millar was content to leave his name in Wanted’s credits. If he hadn’t, the 38-year-old Scot might risk missing out on mainstream attention.

Film audiences shouldn’t be disappointed by the comic’s missing details. Published in 2003, Wanted is unapologetically crass. Wesley Gibson narrates his life story, from office boredom to joining a fraternity of supervillains in a post-superhero world. (The comic’s supervillains and superheroes were replaced with superassassins. The comic’s opening homosexual sex scene was also dropped from the film, along with a lot of needless killing. And Gibson no longer resembled Eminem.) According to Millar, the director of the movie, Timur Bekmambetov, kept “70% of the book” and saved the film from becoming a straight crime story. Millar said producers had legal concerns about the story’s supervillains because of their similarities to Marvel and DC characters; a strange concern, considering the comic book had no legal trouble.

In the comic, Gibson is an unlikable narrator, who lacks the subtlety of another unlikeable narrator Millar wrote — Nazi Major Bauman in “Prisoner Number Zero,” which is one Millar’s best Wolverine stories. In Wanted, Gibson says, “I didn’t realize how much I hated the human race until I had the fuckers swanning around between my crosshairs.” This narration isn’t particularly antagonizing to the reader, but Gibson’s jokes about Down syndrome and babies born with spina bifida may be. Perhaps lazily, Millar titled the second issue, “Fuck You,” a charming name when considering some of the stale comic book in-jokes: in one scene, Mr Rictus, the super-supervillain (what do you call the villain in a story about supervillains?), kills the parents but spares their child, saying, “Leave him. With any luck, he’ll spend the next eighteen years training himself to avenge these idiots and give me someone interesting to fight when I’m an old man.”

For Millar, Wanted was a break from the mainstream comic work he had written for Marvel and DC Comics. So perhaps it’s especially ironic that Wanted ended up as the title that brought Millar to the mainstream. Gone were the normal editorial guidelines of superhero comics, though Millar had pushed against those for several years before this comic series. With the freedom, Millar created a story that lacked the moral complexity contained within his best mainstream work. Wanted is constructed in the summer blockbuster mold, but it’s more violent and profane, and it sold very well. Like in any entertainment industry, these strong sales meant that the comic was a success.

Less successful was Millar’s single issue of Youngblood: Bloodsport. Until June, the series seemed destined never to be concluded — if Millar’s fans could be so lucky. The artist of the series, the notorious Rob Liefeld, announced a fall continuation for Bloodsport. The first issue featured superheroes discussing blowjobs they’d received; Seahawk: “I’m just sick of all the decadence, Battlestone. Sick of the drugs, sick of the champagne, sick of Scott and Logan here dressing up as their girlfriends and giving us head.” Millar pushed his superheroes-in-the-real-world theme to its extreme and it failed in that first issue. Whether Millar is able to make the remaining issues compelling enough for his fans to forgive the novelty of Liefeld’s poorly illustrated art is the series’s remaining question.

If you were to only read Wanted and (somehow come across) Bloodsport, you’d think Millar’s work was a complete waste of time. But those two series display why Millar deserves attention: he risks the scorn of fans and commentators in attempting to entertain the majority of his readership. It is this reason that Millar attracts the best superhero artists in comics (aside from Liefeld). This year, Millar has comics being published with major artists including Bryan Hitch, Tony Harris, John Romita Jr. and Steve McNiven.

Millar broke into mainstream comics by embracing a populist philosophy. In comics, that means writing almost exclusively about superheroes. Other than his stay on Swamp Thing in the early 1990s, Millar stuck to this formula. What made Millar so different from other superhero comic writers was his courting of controversy. He unapologetically wrote stories with violent and political themes. His run on the series The Authority in 2000 ended when the publisher, DC Comics, censored the final issues. Millar jumped to Marvel and started Ultimate X-Men and later, The Ultimates. Writing the latter, Millar came closest to writing a superhero book on the level of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s The Watchmen. The Ultimates was Millar’s first collaboration with artist Bryan Hitch as they re-imagined Marvel’s Avengers team in a modern setting, free from decades of continuity. Millar and Hitch created two critically-acclaimed 13-issue volumes of the series, published from 2002 to 2007.

The Ultimates embraced a decompressed narrative – what Millar called novelistic – where characters didn’t appear in every issue, and the plot developed at a pace that strengthened suspension of disbelief; Millar and Hitch created a superhero story that reads as how it would really happen. The decompressed narrative was hardly the revolution Millar claimed it was in commentary of the first volume of the series, but a style characteristic that made The Ultimates distinct from the typical mainstream superhero book. Millar set the series in today’s pop culture world, dropping references to Shannon Elizabeth, Jennifer Tilly, President Bush, Samuel L. Jackson, Johnny Depp, and Robert Downey Jr. (Downey was used in a joke about drug use.) Millar also addressed U.S. politics as the country fought its “War on Terror” and its war in Iraq. Thor resists working for the U.S.-backed Ultimates team because of the country’s military operations and oil obsession. When Thor complains to Nick Fury about the U.S. negotiating with the terrorists, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, Fury says, “Ain’t the first time the security services done deals with terrorists, big man.” Millar risked alienating readers who did not agree with his politics, though it’s unlikely he cared. The aforementioned Frank Miller and Alan Moore commented on politics in their most famous superhero stories.

In his commentary to the second volume, which began running in December 2004, Millar wrote, “Hollywood is just touching on this stuff now, three years later, and that makes me very proud of comics—how immediate we can be. It’s like being newspaper cartoonists. We don’t have a legal department watching over us.”

One problem with Millar’s political commentary is its bluntness and how it may be perceived as unnecessary preaching. In Superman: Red Son (2003), Millar writes about Superman landing and growing up in Kiev during the Cold War. By the end of the series, Superman, who has become the dictator of the world, realizes the underlying effect of his actions. He says, “We weren’t born here and we’ve no right to interfere.” Millar’s political analysis can be simplistic, but he shouldn’t need to defend writing about politics. But one does wonder what Red Son‘s dumbed down material says about Millar’s readership. The reason Millar sometimes may offer blunt political commentary is the worry that people will miss the point. Regarding his new comic War Heroes, Millar said in an interview last month, “It’s amazing how many people seem to think this is a neo-con comic. Same thing happened on [Marvel’s] Ultimates, when it was clearly anti-war through and through. I feel like [director Paul] Verhoeven must have felt after Starship Troopers, in the sense that many people are missing the political satire.”

So why is Millar one of the most popular writers in comics? In an interview in the summer, Millar said, “It’s the worst kind of snobbery to want to be into stuff that most people aren’t. It’s a defect in character. Whereas being into something that everybody’s into, what could be nicer?” Millar — despite or because of his politics — has succeeded in creating comics that will appeal to the largest readership. His 2006 Marvel mini-series with artist Steve McNiven, Civil War, sold as if it was the speculator boom of the 1990s. Millar is not an experimental writer with theme or storytelling; the ones he uses, he twists only slightly. And he is not yet the legend Marvel claims he is in its monthly solicitations. Millar infuriates some with his writing and disappoints others when he deviates from established characterizations. Millar is not comics’ best writer, but he is one of the comic world’s best personalities; his ambition may lead to another Dark Knight Returns.

Millar has conquered one mainstream, and could conquer the larger one. His new series with John Romita Jr., Kick-Ass, is already being filmed and there are plans for a Wanted sequel. But it should be observed that both of those creator-owned series lack the politics of Millar’s best company-owned work. Both are violent superhero stories, and because they remain apolitical, the mainstream may still not know who Mark Millar really is. If the upcoming War Heroes film adaptation retains the writer’s political satire, what we may finally learn is whether Millar’s mix of superheroes, violence and politics was the right formula to break into the mainstream.

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The Bat Segundo Show: Charlie Kaufman

Charlie Kaufman recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #243. Kaufman is most recently the writer-director of Synecdoche, New York, now playing in limited theaters.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Lost in the endless ebb and flow of emotional and cerebral ideas.

Guest: Charlie Kaufman

Subjects Discussed: Mr. Kaufman confronting more energy than he is accustomed to, whether or not Mr. Kaufman is an idea man, Mr. Kaufman’s slow conceptual process, exploring the possibilities of an idea peer review process for Mr. Kaufman, whether an idea can be emotional, what Mr. Kaufman has to do to impress our interviewer and the audience, how Mr. Kaufman changes, the issues that arise from Mr. Kaufman’s experiences, coming closer to a complete resolution of the world, shots of clocks in Synecdoche, New York, misunderstandings from Hollywood journalists, initial assemblies, how time seems to speed up as Mr. Kaufman gets older, walking by a clock that was a piece of graffiti on the wall, Caden and his colors, how Mr. Kaufman talks with the costume designer, whether or not clothes are comfortable on Philip Seymour Hoffman, Beckett’s Act Without Words, Mr. Kaufman trying to get closer to who he is, trying to avoid copying presentations of relationships from movies, Death of a Salesman, The Trial, literary influences, Equus, Proust, near literalisms, writing the Harold Pinter scene when revising the screenplay, and verifying real world headlines through the act of writing.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: It’s safe to say that you are an idea man. So I must ask you: to what degree do you worry about an idea? Does your mind brim with more ideas — even correct ideas — than you can possibly use? Are you thinking of ideas right now? Is there a slight sense of panic with any idea? What is your idea of ideas?

Kaufman: Well, this whole question is based on the premise that I am an idea man, which I’m not sure that I agree with.

Correspondent: Oh.

Kaufman: So I’m trying to break down what you asked me. And I don’t know. How am I an idea man? To turn this around. On you, Ed.

Correspondent: Well, I would argue that this film is laced with endless ideas meshing against each other.

Kaufman: Yes, it has a lot of ideas. But the ideas came over a two-year period, as I wrote the script. It’s not that I was furiously — like you or your girlfriend — furiously writing 700 pages in two days so that you could read it two days later. I mean, it’s slow. And sometimes it doesn’t happen at all for long periods of time.

Correspondent: So it’s the impression, I suppose, of being an idea man based on the final output here.

Kaufman: It’s not like it happens in real time. It’s not like there’s a two-hour movie and I wrote it in two hours.

Correspondent: Okay, well then let’s turn that…

Kaufman: I mean, I think you thought that before.

Correspondent: Oh certainly!

Kaufman: But it’s not true.

Correspondent: Let’s talk about it.

Kaufman: Let’s turn it around.

Correspondent: Okay. What is the actual ratio of you coming up with an idea? Is it one idea every 2.2 days? What’s the deal?

Kaufman: I would say that…(to himself) you figure two years….maybe it’s an idea a week.

Correspondent: And you have to determine whether…

Kaufman: And this is terribly disappointing for you.

Correspondent: Oh no! It’s actually quite interesting! I’m wondering. Do you have a certain….? Over the course of a week, do you determine whether that idea is correct in association with another idea? Is there kind of an idea peer review process that you run across in your mind? I mean, what’s the situation here?

Kaufman: There is no correct for ideas. Ideas are ideas. And if they’re interesting to me, they’re interesting to me. You know, I don’t know what an idea is actually. I think I think more in terms of emotions than ideas, although there are conceptual things that I utilize. Conceptual things that are devices or that are interesting to me. But the meat of the work for me is the emotional aspect of it. And I don’t know if you would consider those ideas or…

Correspondent: I think an emotional idea is nevertheless an idea.

Kaufman: Okay, then I…

Correspondent: You’re assuming that an idea is based entirely on cerebral terms. And I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.

Kaufman: Well, it may just be more the way that you’re presenting it. It feels….when you talk about ideas, and how many ideas you come up with, blah blah blah.

Correspondent: We’re presenting it in statistical data, yeah. (laughs)

Kaufman: It feels very cerebral.

Correspondent: Okay.

Kaufman: And scientific. And so yes, I have emotional ideas.

BSS #243: Charlie Kaufman (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Pale Young Gentlemen

Pale Young Gentlemen appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #242. The band is currently touring across the United States, and has just released its second album, Black Forest (tra la la).

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contending with unexpected discrimination during the economic crisis.

Guest: Michael Reisenauer (of Pale Young Gentlemen)

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Reisenauer: We’ll actually write through entire songs and entire arrangements, and then cast them away and then start over.

Correspondent: Really?

Reisenauer: That happened a lot with this album. As the songs started fitting together, certain things didn’t work at all anymore, didn’t work for the mood of the entire album anymore. So we had to change the arrangement so it fit better. Drums are one of the things that I have absolutely no knowledge about.

Correspondent: So you defer to Matt.

Reisenauer: I can’t play them. So he’ll play things. And he’ll do things. “Don’t do that anymore.” “That’s bad.” “That’s great.” Or “do that again.” You know, that kind of stuff.

Correspondent: I’m curious. Do you have any input on specific sounds? Or is that all Matthew? I note, for example, there’s that sound during “The Crook of My Good Arm,” where you have something that sounds between a cowbell and a gas station bell.

Reisenauer: Yeah, I can tell you what that is. I was having trouble with that song, and so I decided I’d just demo it in my apartment on an eight-track. So I just had the guitar line. And I was just messing around. And I was headed at a table. And at the table was a Pottery Barn-like fruit bowl. And so I just took the end of a handle on some scissors and banged on the inside of it.

Correspondent: Really?

Reisenauer: We used that on the record too. We brought that bowl into the studio.

Correspondent: It was that bowl.

Reisenauer: With the back of the scissors.

Correspondent: Did you try any other bowls out?

Reisenauer: No! It was the perfect sound right away.

Correspondent: It was one bowl and it worked out.

Reisenauer: Yeah, we didn’t mess with it at all.

Correspondent: Are there any other percussive scenarios like that? Where you banged on something and it turned out to be just that particular one? A divine act of serendipity?

Reisenauer: (laughs) Nothing like that on the album. We tried other various things. Matt had an idea for a song using a wrench. A ratchet wrench going KWHLEKT. Like that. That kind of stuff. But it didn’t end up fitting well for the album.

BSS #242: Pale Young Gentlemen (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Megan Hustad

Megan Hustad recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #241. Hustad is most recently the author of How to Be Useful

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contemplating the usefulness of political candidates.

Author: Megan Hustad

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Hustad: The book is, in part, a survey of the genre of success literature. And I spent a year of my life holed up in the New York Public Library reading all these books. How to Win Friends and Influence People, Think and Grow Rich!, the list goes on. And what they all say, at heart, is that you’re not going to be successful — in life, in your relationships, in your career, what have you — if you’re not fulfilling someone else’s needs. If you’re not being of use to someone else. And that usefulness is at the heart of success. And whatever needs you have will be fulfilled through being of service.

Correspondent: But isn’t that a bit of a Machiavellian scenario? I mean, I’m not looking at this conversation as, “Oh, Megan’s being very useful to me!” I’m actually just curious about your book.

Hustad: Well, they would say that that’s an artificial distinction. You can be sincere and yet know that you will benefit from this sort of interaction. You can be sincerely interested with the knowledge that some good will come out of it.

Correspondent: So you can be subconsciously useful perhaps? I mean, how do you factor something like the prisoner’s dilemma into this situation?

Hustad: (laughs)

Correspondent: Certainly that’s the ultimate in useful diabolic results here.

Hustad: You’re going to have to tell me exactly, and perhaps remind your audience, what is the prisoner’s dilemma.

Correspondent: Well, the prisoner’s dilemma. You have two prisoners in a cell. If you rat on your partner, you will be let go for seven years or whatever the terms of the argument are. And so what ends up happening is that — if you have a little box here, a little four square box — if one rats on the other, it depends on how the circumstances play out. It’s like a big thing in game theory. It just comes to mind when thinking about usefulness.

Hustad: How? How so? (laughs)

Correspondent: Well, how so? Because the results are so terrible no matter how they end up!

Hustad: But we’re talking about good things here. We’re talking about people doing good for one another. Not evil!

Correspondent: Okay, but in the framing of this very influential theorem, which game theory is modeled upon, this is the ultimate way to perceive usefulness. Okay, I’ll get off of that.

BSS #241: Megan Hustad (Download MP3)

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David Perel: Fuckhead of the Month

Among the many media casualties on this Black Friday was Radar going down. I’ve been told that Radar staffers were asked to clear their desks by 3:00 PM and likewise asked to sign off on a voluntary layoff form. And as if these developments weren’t disgusting enough, editor David Perel announced on the same day just how happy he was to be on board. Perel, moving to Radar from the National Enquirer, had this to say to Mark Paretsky’s Cover Awards this afternoon: “I have already been contacted today by some top entertainment and news journalists who want to be part of this new venture. I am looking forward to putting together a new team that is the best of the best. We are hiring now!”

It’s possible that Perel is just too much of a fucktard to understand that writers and editors were being unmoored while he spoke these words. But surely even the biggest dunderhead in the media world could understand that any makeover into a TMZ competitor would likely involve laying a few people off. Perel’s total insensitivity to the Radar staffers who were let go earns him the rare honor of Fuckhead of the Month — never awarded to anyone in this site’s history!

(via Gawker)

02138 Shut Down

This afternoon, the New York Observer reported that 02138 was suspended by Manhattan Media. Editor David Blum assigned me to write a Books column, which I turned in a week ago.

This was a shame for many reasons, and they extend beyond my own involvement with the magazine. There seems to have been a lot of snark from the Gawker crowd that this version of 02138 was going to be a trivial magazine, a vanity project, a bauble. I can assure you that this wasn’t the case at all. Blum and his staff were going out of their way to reinvent this magazine and make it something that mattered. When I asked them specific questions about their audience, and when I queried them on very specific ideas, they had specific answers. They were hiring contributors who could spice things up with intelligent commentary, and one of their sticking points — and this cannot be overstated as we see long-form cultural journalism vanish from magazines — was lengthy and meaningful cultural coverage. Had my column continued, it most certainly would have continued along this trajectory.

I modeled my column partly on John Leonard’s monthly offering in Harper’s, but took it upon myself to emphasize small presses and overlooked books. I also attempted to look at books from an entirely different vantage point. (Of the four books I reviewed, one was devoted to a major item of pop culture. But I examined the larger educational and societal impact that arose from this seemingly frivolous subject — indeed, pointing to a very specific Harvard connection that happened to crop up.) I devoted 1,300 words to a mammoth and ambitious novel that I knew would require that kind of space, and that would probably not be granted it by The New York Times Book Review and other outlets. (I will be very surprised if The New York Review of Books covers this novel, for it certainly warrants 2,000 words.) I had very little time to assemble the first essay, but I’m always a workhorse under pressure and we managed to get a piece that was taut, meaningful, and variegated under the circumstances. I had great ambitions for future books coming up the pipeline. (Had it continued, I most certainly would have made a case for Vollmann’s Imperial and its relationship to other historical books making the same inquiries.) And I should also note that, although I ended up turning in a 2,700 word piece (I was contracted to write 2,000 words), Blum ensured me that I would get the space I needed.

I want to thank Mr. Blum for trusting me with the assignment, which I was greatly honored to have, and for giving me a chance to improve my critical writing. I certainly hope that the good people at 02138 land on their feet in some capacity. I’m very sorry that Blum’s great plans didn’t quite materialize, and that this relaunch never saw the light of day. But hopefully, we’ll get some sense of it, should it emerge online. I will most certainly link to the column if it becomes available.

Harriet Klausner: From Amazon Top Reviewer to Unhelpful Hack

Harriet Klausner, known for many years as Amazon’s “top reviewer,” has banged out uncritical reviews for damn near any book that came her way, “writing” as many as seven reviews a day. But it appears that Klausner’s glory days are now over. Amazon recently modified the criteria that determines the rank for Amazon’s top reviewers. Here’s the first priority to becoming a top reviewer under the new system:

Review helpfulness plays a larger part in determining rank. Writing thousands of reviews that customers don’t find helpful won’t move a reviewer up in the standings.

It appears that not enough of Amazon’s customers have found Ms. Klausner’s reviews helpful. Because of this, Ms. Klausner has plummeted from #1 to #442. It is not known if there were any tears shed in the Klausner household. But everything falls eventually. The Roman Empire. Rod McKuen’s popularity. The hair on Ron Howard’s head. And now Harriet Klausner. But Amazon has been kind enough to give Ms. Klausner a consolation prize, noting her Classic Reviewer Rank of 1.

Amazon’s new top reviewer is Beth Cholette, who jumped from the Classic Reviewer Rank of 85 to the current Reviewer Rank of 1.

I’m unsure if “Classic Reviewer Rank” is a bit like playing the first edition of AD&D when everybody’s just getting used to the fourth edition. But perhaps Steve Jackson will develop a GURPs-like solution that will appease Amazon reviewers of both types.

(Thanks, Gwen Dawson, for the tip!)

Roundup

  • It is laughable that Sarah Palin considers herself an intellectual. That she “always wanted a son named Zamboni” is a sure sign that this nation is well on its way to a dystopia in which Gatorade has replaced water. (One thing that can be confirmed: Sarah Palin’s got electrolytes!)
  • This John Updike profile would have played better with me, had Emily Nussbaum written in a manner suggesting that she had thoroughly read the book. But Nussbaum spends most of her time dwelling on Updike’s personal life, playing amateur psychiatrist like some chirpy undergrad hoping to coast through an elementary English lit class on hunches. (“It occurs to me that divorce is a central subject of The Witches as female psychology,” Nussbaum writes, but doesn’t cite anything from the text.) How different is Nussbaum’s article from a People Magazine puff piece? (via Mark Athitakis)
  • Okay, something smarter: Richard Powers sequences his genome.
  • Moby Lives appears to have returned in written form.
  • Just because John Freeman declares the National Book Awards finalists to be “in dialogue with world literature,” this does not make it so. This is what’s known in logic as the bare assertion fallacy. The books themselves represent an output of consciousness, but this output is subject to interpretation by other people. Freeman’s sanction (“I say it because it’s true!”) does not mean that it is true, or that there is any foolproof answer. This is not what any “dialogue with world literature” I know is about. And on a more literal level, so far as I know, Aleksandar Hemon is not chatting with Elfriede Jelinek on the phone.
  • Brian Lehrer is discussing Arts & Culture Funding on Friday’s show, and has set up a wiki to receive feedback from listeners. I’ve left my remarks, spurned on by Jacket Copy.
  • Brian Francis Slattery’s Spaceman Blues — one of the best books of 2007 — is now available as a free download. (Caveat: You have to register with Tor to download it.)
  • Chad Post observes that Wylie, quite late to the party, is getting his grubby and avaricious hands into Bolano.
  • Philip Hensher confesses (more than he knows) that it’s difficult to have humility when you’re on the Booker shortlist. Is it just me or is Mr. Hensher quickly become the UK’s answer to Jonathan Franzen? Will we see a creepy Discomfort Zone-style essay in which Hensher sobs over Andy Capp’s hat? (via Mark)
  • And finally, James Wood on Saramago’s new one.

RIP Rudy Ray Moore

You could categorize Dolemite, which was “based on a short story by Rudy Ray Moore” and starred him, as a righteous blaxploitation assault on hayseed white culture, but, on a baser level, it’s a fun flick about a badass who didn’t let a damn thing stand in his way. I have no idea if it was Moore’s idea for Dolemite to wear the crazy white suit in the above scene, but the metaphor is clear. Moore could outdo Boorman and Dickey in his sleep.

One can’t imagine a film like Dolemite, which Moore sank his hard-earned comedy and concert earnings into, being made today. The so-called independent film scene now plays it too safe, fearing anything even remotely different being thrown to the audience, and remaining diffident about any film possessing even a modicum of sardonic fun. One of the great things about Moore’s films was the ferocious and iconoclastic energy, frequently evident in Moore himself. The brio was also there in the man’s raucous standup routines, which unapologetically unfurled “fuck” onto comedy records and inspired other performers to tell the truth without restraint. This was a man who, as the producer of The Human Tornado, had the good sense to let screenwriter Jerry Jones and director Cliff Roquemore run amuck: we see an antagonist’s testicles munched on by rats in a torture chamber, an utterly ridiculous sendup of martial arts movies, and shots of Dolemite eating ribs that are intercut during a sex scene.

The world is a lesser place without Rudy Ray Moore. His passing reminds us that we have a duty to push harder and crazier in these stagnant times, and to realize that the craziest artists may be unexpectedly entertaining people just as hard as they are provoking them.

Don’t Give Up

It is a late hour, or, rather, an early one. But then it’s possible that the hour I am writing this post matters very little to you. Nevertheless, I announce my temporal bearings not to recuse myself, but to put this post into some kind of perspective. I am now pondering a future without the delightful band, Blah Blah Blah, who recently announced on their MySpace page that they had given up. I’m saddened by this news. I am now very worried about all the other artists out there who are now considering giving it all up. I am concerned about a world in which anyone who beats their drum just a tad too fast or plucks their guitar just a tad too originally for the marketing people to understand throws in the towel.

Well, I am urging you not to give it up. Yes, times are tough for all of us. But it is very important for you to go on. To work in some form. Even without compensation, if that’s all there is for a time. Even if you only half understand what it is you’re all about. Even if you’re not quite sure what your work amounts to. Even if nobody gives a good goddam about how hard you’ve toiled over your sentences, or how difficult it was for you to insert that subtle chord change in that song you uploaded somewhere that only five of your friends listened to. All this is work. It’s supposed to be difficult. But it becomes even more difficult once you realize you’re living in a society hostile to nearly anybody who decides to live this kind of life.

Being an “overnight success” is a myth. The ones who made it did so because they were stubborn, hopelessly devoted to what they could offer the world. They carried on and became better at their craft. Some of them didn’t even know it. Most of them were misunderstood.

Understand that I am not advocating mediocrity. I am merely telling the truth. The market is not interested in taking chances on anyone who deviates from the formula. The market is hedging bets with the veterans, no matter if they are washed up. There are a few coins to be loosened from the sofa, but it takes some skill to survive on those coins. The true artists will find a way to carry on, because that is what they are and that is what they’ve been reduced to. This is the unwavering itching at the bottom of the artistic soul. Scratch it at your own peril. You’ll know if you can’t stop scratching. And if you have even a scant success, you’ll certainly appreciate it more than the dilettantes.