Bat Segundo DVDs Now On Sale!

We’ve received a few requests from listeners asking us how they can get DVD-ROMs of the show. And since Christmas shopping has started, and some of you out there may be on the lookout for a literary stocking stuffer, we’ve decided to begin offering DVD-ROMs of the first 250 shows of The Bat Segundo Show at the very affordable price of $50. (Shows #249 and #250 will be coming online very soon.) For just 20 cents per episode, you’ll be able to experience more than 200 hours of the oddest cultural conversations that can be found on the Internet.

This three DVD set features all programs produced from October 2004 to the present day.

Disc One: Includes interviews with Jonathan Ames, Bret Easton Ellis, T.C. Boyle, Octavia Butler, Jennifer Weiner, Chris Elliott, William T. Vollmann, Erica Jong, Tom Tomorrow, Sarah Waters, Colson Whitehead, John Updike, David Mitchell, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jeff VanderMeer, Robert Birnbaum, Daniel Handler, Alison Bechdel, Tommy Chong, Nora Ephron, Scott Smith, Richard Dawkins, Mark Z. Danielewski, Edward P. Jones, Mary Gaitskill, Kelly Link, Francine Prose, Kate Atkinson, Claire Messud, Simon Winchester, Amy Sedaris, Nina Hartley, Richard Ford, Christopher Moore, Heidi Julavits, Neal Pollack, Tayari Jones, and David Lynch.

Disc Two: Includes interviews with Martin Amis, Ron Jeremy, China Mieville, Tao Lin, Lionel Shriver, A.M. Homes, Scarlett Thomas, Berkeley Breathed, Gary Shteyngart, Richard Flanagan, Katie Roiphe, William Gibson, Marianne Wiggins, Gabe Kaplan, Rupert Thomson, George Saunders, Naomi Klein, Chimamanda Adichie, Steven Pinker, Naomi Wolf, James Lipton, Oliver Sacks, Richard Russo, Tom McCarthy, Andrea Barrett, Will Self, Stewart O’Nan, David Rakoff, Sue Miller, Charles Burns, Steve Erickson, Chip Kidd, Bill Plympton, Michio Kaku, Jennifer Weiner, Richard Price, and Nicholson Baker.

Disc Three: Includes interviews with Mark Sarvas, Errol Morris, Sarah Hall, David Hajdu, Tobias Wolff, Sloane Crosley, Cynthia Ozick, Ed Park, Fiona Maazel, Steven Greenhouse, Ralph Bakshi, Mort Walker, Rachel Shukert, Andre Dubus III, Thomas Disch, Grandmaster Flash, Nam Le, Sen. Mike Gravel, Ethan Canin, Jenny Davidson, Paul Auster, Brent Spiner, Bonnie Tyler, Mike Leigh, Marilynne Robinson, Charlie Kaufman, Neal Stephenson, and David Rees.

Episodes will still be available for free download. But with the purchase of this three DVD set, you’ll be helping us tremendously to continue producing the show, and you’ll save yourself a considerable amount of time downloading them all at home. Particularly if you have dial-up.

The price includes shipping. Please note that all shipments are being sent by FedEx Express Saver to ensure a reasonable delivery time that we can track, and, due to costs, we are currently limiting delivery to the United States. If, however, you’re based outside the States, email me and we’ll work something out.

If there’s enough interest, then we’ll be unloading some additional merchandise, including iPods that have the shows already loaded. But for now, we wanted to offer an affordable way for you to get the shows all in one burst. And if you act swiftly, and you foresee a good deal of commuting time for your Thanksgiving holiday, then we can get the DVDs to you before the turkey is carved.

Insomnia and Suspense!

I had hoped that listening to episodes of the great old time radio program, Suspense, would divest me of my insomnia. But the unexpected glimpse into how people talked (or were presented as talking) during the 1940s has set my four curious lobes into a furious tizzy. I am now taken with “ankling” as a verb (who uses that these days?), one of many vernacular gems uttered by the private eye in “Beware the Quiet Man” (airdate: August 12, 1948). Why did three of the four episodes that aired in August 1948 feature a bank teller as a prominent character? “Crisis,” hitting the airwaves on August 19, 1948, should not work as well as it does. Yes, the silly flashback ending completely obliterates the enjoyably melodramatic 25 minutes that preceded it. But Kurt — a more genteel version of William March’s “bad seed” (to follow in fiction only six years later!) — is the kind of tremendously enjoyable creep that contemporary drama needs more of. Then there’s “Song of the Heart”, an utterly strange depiction of manipulation and muted masculinity (airdate: August 26, 1948). Van Heflin falls in love at first sight after a woman in accounting throws herself at him at a company picnic! Yes, dear, Taunta Alice must be experienced in a dark room. I’ve been steering a number of pals towards Suspense, and the damn program (combined with a few unusual personal adventures) has caused my brain to spill out pages of radio script. And I remain convinced that others out there might likewise have similar creative palpitations. Therefore, it would be a considerable injustice if I didn’t point you to the wondrous Web Archive and put you in (jarring clang) Suspense!

Ballad of the Mad Café

They dim the lights on a Sat night, unseating aspiring regulars who wish to sip their cups of Joe. Vile votives extinguish the invisible feeling flames. They serve no juice: plugging up AC outlets, limiting laptops, decrying inlets for seeing. If you wish to whisper to your peer or you hope to nestle with a deranged stranger, steel yourself up for conversational theft. Pumpkins smash a decade past their prime, with a glum thirtysomething killing current, shifting the volume clockwise in time to the remaining open hours. Get your drink, get out, go somewhere else. No din after dinner. No crosstalk, even if your spirit remains secular.

It’s a two dollar con from a hustler who lacks confidence. We serve drinks, son, not words. If you want full service, why don’t you find a gas station? The flattest flatulence. Can a mad café afford so many autos-da-fé in this tanking economy? It looks as if other spirits will be driven to chase whiskey sours in a few hours. But if the sad keep in charge keeps this up, his credit will seep. And his stock in trade will bail out. The café’s name translates out to “without death” in Sanskrit. The term has specific connections with nectar. But the antisocial nectar this numbskull serves up is swill. I’m not asking for pulp-free, but nectar both literal and impalpable is best imbibed elsewhere.

Review: Special (2006)

There are severe problems with Hal Haberman & Jeremy Passmore’s Special — scheduled to play on November 21st in Los Angeles and New York as the second film in Magnet Releasing’s very intriguing Six Shooter Film Series. (I have also seen Timecrimes, a very fun time travel movie from Spain that I can recommend to you. Timecrimes manages to do everything right that Special does so wrong, and I will write about it later.)

Here is a film that strives to be a partial satirical sendup of the pharmaceutical industry, but that gives us a protagonist who has little going for him other than a crush on a stuttering supermarket clerk and a loose friendship with two brothers who work at a comic book store. Here is a film ridiculing an average Joe (or, in this case, an average Les) who clings to kind acts and antidepressants to find some personal meaning, but that likewise asks us to empathize with him after he has been beaten to a pulp. Here is a film attempting to celebrate the geeky fantasy of having superpowers, but that lacks the bravery to suggest that some of our seemingly insignificant acts are less solipsistic and more meaningful than the ability to walk through walls.

Here is a case in which Les isn’t more, and he really needs to be in order for the premise to work. He’s a gushing parking enforcement officer played with too much earnestness by Michael Rapaport. We first see Les as a thrashed up man wandering in the night, with a handheld camera drifting in and out of focus. “I used to dream about flying,” says Les in the first of many voiceovers. We learn that this narration represents what he styles his medication journal. Les has signed up for a clinical trial program. (The doctor is named Dobson, which may be a nod to the evangelical Christian.) Rather suspiciously, Les is not asked to take any physical tests. The pills are handed over, and he’s asked to ingest a new phramaceutical called Specioprin Hydrochloride. Nothing happens at first. But shortly after eating a sad microwaved meal in his apartment, a mostly barren place populated by a few comic book posters hanging behind the couch, he finds himself levitating in his living room. He rushes back to the doctor to demonstrate his abilities, and it soon becomes apparent that all this is in his mind. He soon quits his job, determined to pursue a new life as a crimefighter (and to avoid the dreaded mantra, “I’m important and I keep this city running,” that his boss frequently has him utter). Aside from the power to fly and the ability to run through walls, Les also believes that he can read minds and make objects disappear.

This all sounds like a fantastic premise. And you’d think that a movie featuring a Takeshi Kitano-like scene in which Les punctures a man’s ear with chopsticks would have the spirit to pull this premise off. But the filmmakers have foolishly placed their collective faith in a high concept idea, when they really needed to pay attention to human behavior. I got the sense that Haberman and Passmore weren’t particularly interested in the way that ordinary people feel and think. And I desperately desired for someone to send them a crate of Stewart O’Nan and Richard Yates novels.

This contempt was evident when Les’s frequent tackling of potential suspects is broadcast on the evening news. The video is played over and over, as if it were a crude YouTube video or a Jackass outtake, with the Channel 3 anchor declaring, “Let’s take one more look at it.” It’s there in the hard rock music that plays as Les runs around the city in his makeshift costume. We’re expected to laugh at Les’s cluelessness. But this film takes itself seriously. And when a film wants us to care like this, it should not treat its main character like something to be pummeled in a Punch and Judy show.

The contempt is also there in the PG-rated thoughts that Les “hears” in his mind. (One man says, “Sweet juicy peach.” His girlfriend calls for peach cobbler.) Now this is an interesting choice from the filmmakers. You would think that a man who has been repeatedly tricked out of issuing parking tickets, who has indeed been called an “asshole” by a woman offering a maudlin sob story, would have a less chaste view of other people’s “thoughts.” But the filmmakers don’t want to transport us into this very interesting place. We’re expected to accept Les as nothing more than a pathetic and bumbling thirtysomething hick who got hoodwinked into the drug program because he was “happy” and he didn’t quite know his place. And with such a one-dimensional portrait, we can neither hate him nor like him, much less be interested in him. And this is simply not good enough for a narrative that wants to matter. It is also a terrible cheat to present an undeveloped character, have him periodically abuse himself by running into walls or getting mugged by thugs, and then try to ramrod the audience into sympathizing with him.

Les doesn’t get a chance to breathe, even though Rapaport does manage to sell a fight sequence in which his assailants are “invisible,” but beat him up anyway. I was reminded of the moment in Fight Club in which Edward Norton punches himself. But that moment worked, because we were damn curious about how far Norton’s character would go. What does Rapaport have react to? “You have no idea what kind of man I am, motherfucker,” followed by a flip courtesy of digitally erased wires.

There is also one glaring plot hole. If the “suits” from the drug company are after Les, and they want him to stop taking the experimental drug, why don’t they just wait for Les’s bottle of pills to run out? It is suggested multiple times in this movie that Les’s condition will continue so long as he pops the pills. But so far as we know, he only has one bottle. Certainly if the drug company wanted to leave Les out in the cold, they could simply wait it out. But instead they resort to violence. And they drive a fancy limo around town, with the men wearing bloody suits and drawing attention to themselves.

A narrative involving the tragedy of interior self-delusion is certainly a good idea for our uncertain times. But the more I think about this movie, the more I realize just how little time the filmmakers devoted to working out their story.

Gerald Celente, Futurist Fraud

The crazed doom-and-gloom prophets of our world have this troubling ability to occupy the airwaves, becoming strangely confused with qualified experts. Gerald Celente is the latest soothsayer operating on his hunches — now being celebrated on Digg, Reddit, and just about every damn aggregator imaginable.

His predictions sound suspiciously similar to the storyline for Brian Francis Slattery’s excellent new novel, Liberation, but Gerald Celente, the CEO of Trends Research Institute, is determined to deliver. By 2012, Celente forecasts revolution in America, food riots, and tax rebellions. In four years, America will become an undeveloped nation. Holidays will be about food rather than gifts. Mass hysteria, dogs and cats living together. Doom and gloom.

The media — or, rather, FOX News and conservative websites — is listening to Celente because he “predicted” the 1997 currency crisis in Asia, the subprime mortgage disaster, and the dollar dipping south. But Infowars, a website run by paleoconservative radio show host Alex Jones, is basking in this dystopic news like an AIG executive riding high on Uncle Sam’s dime. What’s particularly strange is that Infowars hasn’t bothered to quibble with Celente’s statements, much less point to any of his inaccurate predictions.

How does Celente do it? From Invest in Yourself by Mark Eisenson, Gerri Detweiler, and Nancy Castleman:

According to Gerald Celente, Director of the Trends Research Institute and author of Trends 2000, the key to tracking trends is to read two newspapers every day with a purpose — either The Wall Street Journal or The Financial Times, plus The New York Times or USA Today. Look for stories with social, economic, and political significance, be it about the difficulties older suburbs face or the current currency crisis. (You’ll know by the headline or the first paragraph.) Skip the stories that are purely human interest or that are about something that hasn’t happened yet (for example, a jury resuming deliberation on a sensational trial).

When a crisis does occur, tune in to the extra in-depth analyses that you’ll find in accompanying background pieces probably in more than one of the newspapers. Read them as though you’re a “political atheist,” Celente recommends — not for what you want or hope, but for what is really going on, not only in your own profession or industry, but for trends that may directly or indirectly shape the future.

Aside from the Dale Carnegie-style language here, much of Celente’s “suggestions” seem more like a series of guidelines on how to become a successful “futurist” predicting a good deal of generalist nonsense that scares the shit out of people, using language lifted from a newspaper story’s barebones and riding on a few hunches. Of course, it also helps to have an aesthetic touch — something along the lines of a desktop covered with 12 globes, just so you can impress a New York Times reporter who comes by to write a small profile.

Since Infowars could not be bothered to perform even the most rudimentary act of journalism, the time has come to see if Celente’s record truly cuts the mustard.

  • In May 1993, in a story about fiftysomethings losing their jobs written for the Orange County Register, Celente was quoted. He was advising IBM at the time during a period of downsizing. What was Celente’s golden advice? He informed displaced executives to “go for some kind of counseling.” Asked to comment on this situation, Celente offered the same doom and gloom boilerplate that he’s telling us today: “The Industrial Age is ending. All the systems are breaking down and that means disappointment and disillusionment for the people who grew up in the ’50’s.” He elaborated, “These people believed in the Ozzie and Harriet way of life. That concept is dead. So is the concept of retiring at 65.” These were hardly prescient or specific thoughts, but they were certainly dramatic enough to make it into an Orange County newspaper.
  • Why not get topical? Let’s take Celente on a more specialized subject like restaurants. In 1993, Celente predicted “growing demands for take-out food, high- and low-end restaurants, and restaurants that offer live entertainment. Middle-range restaurants with mainstream fare will suffer.” Aside from the fact that Celente’s prediction accounts for about 90% of restaurants, doesn’t the fact that human beings need to eat remain a comfy ledge to launch a prediction?
  • In 1998, Celente told Money Magazine that, as the population grows older, “Americans will be spending more time at home than ever before both for pleasure and business.” Imagine that. You grow old, retire, and then you suddenly have more time. How the hell did Celente know?
  • In the September 21, 2000 edition of Newsweek, the great futurist weighed in on mindless chores. Why are they called mindless? “Your mind can’t be going all the time.” And when any problem becomes bigger, it becomes bigger than burnout. “It’s road rage, it’s air rage, it’s Columbine, it’s stress — and people don’t get it.” I’m wondering if it’s also the kind of impulse that will cause you to make impetuous predictions about the United States’s future.
  • Asked by CBS News in May 2005 to comment upon where Dillard’s planned to go, Celente had this to say: “There is nothing Dillard’s has that you can’t find in 1,000 other places. America is vastly overstored.” Take out “Dillard’s” and sub it in with another department store chain name, and you begin to see what little Celente’s remarks say.
  • But if we’re in for a future of doom and gloom, Celente has been sending us some mixed messages. He told the Associated Press in May 2005, “The bottom of the luxury market is not going to fall out.”
  • Talking with the Associated Press in September 2005, Celente suggested that Wal-Mart could deflect its negative image with its philanthropy. That’s hardly a stunning insight. Any positive action has the probability of causing a company to look good. This is rudimentary probability. But what profound thoughts did our great seer tell the AP? “We try to refrain from making value judgments — what the motive is. But the fact is that [Wal-Mart was] there with trailer trucks being turned away. Amazing, isn’t it?” Amazing indeed. Presumably, the AP reporter who talked with Celente did so because the reporter needed somebody to describe the situation as “amazing” or “magnificent.” Some casual modifier that might be confused for profound thought.
  • Celente was asked to weigh in on Internet trends by the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Patricia Yollin in December 2006. “People are more electronically connected and less humanly connected,” opined our great psychic. And if that general piece of advice wasn’t enough, Celente also took the time to badmouth public displays of affection, pointing out how unacceptable it was to put PDA in “techno jargon.” Perhaps Celente confused PDA with another type of PDA, but what he didn’t seem to tell the reporter was that acronyms have existed long before the Internet.

Here you have a history of a man who not only makes his living spouting this generalist nonsense at corporations, but who is listened to by the media. If we weren’t all scared shitless, this wingnut would be chased out of boardrooms and newsrooms with pitchforks.

But who needs rational thinking when you have the comforts of defeatism? If you really want to get your dose of passive-aggressive dystopia, just call up Gerald Celente. He’s on Line 2 and he’ll take your money when you have no faith in humanity or when you don’t have a clue about how to do your job. Have him rant in your newspaper. Give him money to advise your corporation. Above all, don’t look at history, science, or specific statistics. Because Celente will boil them all down for you with one of his seemingly pithy and mysterious predictions. And he’ll be right. Because like a trusted astrology columnist or a two-bit faith healer, Celente leaves just enough room in his answer to wiggle out. And you swallow it every time. Because you’re too scared to think for yourself, or do a background check on the guy in the lobby waving his arms.

Give It Up, Maslin

Janet Maslin has continued to infect the Gray Lady’s pages with cloying and annoying book reviews. But the New York Times sunk to a new low today in assigning her Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 to review. This is a bit like asking Sarah Palin (a name strangely consonant with “Janet Maslin,” come to think of it) to write a 1,000-word review of a Thomas Mann novel. Let us count the ways in which Maslin offends:

1. The first paragraph. Here’s a hint, Janet. When remarking upon an author’s great command with a long sentence, it might be a good idea to keep your own sentences clean. Where were the copy editors on this? “A lot of commas adorn this story of a Swabian who promoted cultural events for a Frisian town that was visited by an elusive literary genius who might or might not have been named Benno von Archimboldi and who spoke with a woman who went to Buenos Aires and met a little gaucho who presented her with a riddle that Archimboldi solved on the spot.” You couldn’t write one-tenth as skillfully as Bolaño if you tried. You could have told us in the previous sentence that the Bolaño sentence was stacked with multiple commas. This longass sentence could have been easily split up into three. You’re supposed to articulate the goddam book for the reader, not confuse the reader further.

2. Bolaño’s Foresight: Who gives a shit if Bolaño knew his work would be well received? What is this? People Fucking Magazine? Your job is to understand the book, not play armchair doc with an author who isn’t even alive to respond to your amateurish psychobabble.

3. Literary Superstar Status: Maslin writes that Bolaño “would now be enjoying literary superstar status if fate had been kinder.” Obviously, Maslin hasn’t been paying attention. Nearly every literary person I know is getting her panties wet about 2666. Dude currently is a literary superstar. A dead literary superstar, but a literary superstar nonetheless.

4. Maslin’s a Qualified Polyglot? We are informed by Maslin that 2666 “has been translated with wonderful agility by Natasha Wimmer.” Does Maslin read Spanish? Is she in possession of the original text? What “wonderful agility” does Wimmer have exactly? Does Maslin wish to imply that Wimmer is a long distance runner? What? The? Fuck? Maslin?

5. “Worshipful Adulation”: Adulation, by its very definition, is already worshipful, because it is predicated on flattery or admiration. So what was the point of this modifier exactly?

6. Relying on the Afterword: Yes, by all means, quote gratuitously from the afterword to imply that you read the book in whole, as opposed to a later section in the text. If you were a real critic, you’d quote from a source outside the book.

7. Thomas Wolfe: So because Thomas Wolfe wrote a long narrative over multiple books, he’s worth bringing up in this review. But length is the only common variable you can bring up? Sweet Jesus. Have you even read another Chilean writer?

8. Random References: “Far better to think of David Lynch, Marcel Duchamp (both explicitly invoked here) and the Bob Dylan of “Highway 61 Revisited,” all at the peak of their lucid yet hallucinatory powers.” Yes, “far better” when you can just toss around random names that Bolaño brought up in the book without specifying specific artistic corollaries. You bring up the Duchamp and Lynch specifics later, but if you can’t connect Dylan, why bring him up?

9. Gratuitous Gore: Always of concern to a gratuitous critic.

10. 300 Slow Pages: Oh dear! You couldn’t wolf down the book!

Vanishing: the exact opposite of what Janet Maslin will do.

Orthofer is also horrified.

Ridley Scott’s “Monopoly”

Hollywood Reporter: “And Ridley Scott, who has been attached as a producer on ‘Monopoly’ and has been mentioned as a possible director, is now officially attached to helm the project, with an eye toward giving it a futuristic sheen along the lines of his iconic ‘Blade Runner.'”


Plumes of gratuitous atmospheric smoke drift across the boardwalk. Lots of blue light. The steely blue that Ridley always likes. Needlessly quick cutting from Pietro.

Two gigantic white dice TUMBLE to us from the distance, VIOLENTLY DEMOLISHING all bright red houses in its path! ATLANTIC CITY RESIDENTS run furiously towards us. Many are destroyed by the enormous dice. Much blood.

A LOUD ENGINE! CAR roars into the Boardwalk.

Yo bitches! My ass pulled in from Pennsylvania Avenue. I rolled a seven, motherfucker. How you like me now?

Rampant BARKING. A LARGE HAND materializes from above, placing DAWG next to the Car.

Don’t you dare, Dawg. Just bought this place for four hundred George Washingtons. I do believe you owe me $50. Best you pay me now before I improve this property or the hand flips the board.
I own Park Place.

Car whips out his Jericho 941 pistol and points it at Dawg.

Where’s your deed card, motherfucker? I own Park Place. Now I got no problem with you showin’ up in court tomorrow with your head blown in half.
Get in line. I own four railroads, two utilities, and you best believe I be owning Park Place.

Car shoots Dawg four times with his Jericho 941.

Take that, motherfucker. You won’t be collecting $200 anytime soon.


  • Michael Dolan offers some helpful hints on how to manage the deranged beast commonly referred to as the email inbox. My own email habits involve going through a mad tear once every two or three days, often sorting by name and subject line, and getting it down to under 10 messages. You’re more inclined to get an answer from me through the edrants address than the Yahoo address; the latter is largely a backup email account. But I also enjoy watching the email accrue over a number of days, marveling at the way in which a triple digit inbox transmogrifies into a single digit through preternatural prolificity. Much of this is quite random and playfully anarchic. And you will sometimes hear back from me in minutes; other times, it may be a few weeks. Email only represents a tyranny to anyone terrified by the bountiful possibilities of communicative life or the deranged verbal manner in which one can connect with other people. If someone has a request, and it isn’t a boilerplate email addressed “Dear Reviewer” or “Dear Ms. Champion,” I will offer a yes or a no within a day or two. I certainly don’t like saying no, or even remaining uncommitted, but if another person has gone to the trouble to ask me about something, I feel that the professional thing to do is to be as honest as I can. If someone has taken the time to write to me personally, I feel that it is my duty to write them back, even if I can only answer with a few sentences. The inbox will indeed mushroom again, but I suppose that the only reason I’m able to keep up is because I type 110 wpm. (via The Book Publicity Blog)
  • I am now on page 18 of 2666.
  • Page numbers for other books I am currently in the middle of reading: 11, 133, 131, and 221. I have attempted to cut back on the number of books I read concurrently. Five books is actually a considerably small number. Only two months ago, I was reading twenty-two books simultaneously. How many books are you in the middle of reading? And what are the page numbers?
  • Hart Williams chronicles how his causal coinage (“Linda syndrome”) made its way into numerous articles.
  • Moby Lives points to what Chip McGrath has misidentified as “a small flare-up in the blogosphere.” The controversy involves whether or not Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country, by way of being a mammoth reworking of three previously published novels, is a legitimate National Book Awards nomination. Considering that The Collected Stories of William Faulkner won a Fiction Award in 1951 and Janet Flanner’s Paris Journal, 1944-1965 picked up an Arts and Letters prize in 1966, there was certainly no hue and cry from this blogger. These two previous wins established a clear precedent for recognizing books that contained previous material. But to ensure that Mr. McGrath regrets his error, it must be noted that the controversy was also promulgated by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (October 19: “Does that reworking really constitute an ‘original novel?'”). If anything, it appears that the hemorrhoidal “flare-up” has been instigated by Mr. McGrath himself.
  • A public congratulations to Nam Le for winning the well-deserved Dylan Thomas Prize.
  • It’s more than ten good goddams longer than your shopping list, but the IMPAC longlist is now up.
  • I love how Rush is desperately reframing the current economic crisis as an “Obama recession” when Obama has yet to occupy the Oval Office. The time has come to blame Obama for everything. There is no flying car. Obama’s fault! Bars that use narrow glasses suggesting the appearance of a pint, or that employ bartenders who fill up a glass two-thirds of the way. Obama’s responsible for that too! Every personal inadequacy can be firmly directed towards Obama. You can’t finish 2666 in the next two weeks? Those aren’t your inadequacies, brother. It’s Obama all the way. You feel a tingly sensation in your leg? Obama. You couldn’t get laid last night? Obama Obama Obama. (via Erin O’Brien)

Novel 2.0

Reports of the Web’s harmful effects upon reading habits have been greatly overstated. Two recent online projects sufficiently demonstrate that we’re only just beginning to understand what the Web can do. The first is Power Moby Dick, an online depiction of Melville’s classic novel with often very helpful annotations on the side. (The annotations resemble the colored box version of David Foster Wallace’s “Host.”) The second is The Golden Notebook Project (via), in which Doris Lessing’s novel is online and searchable. Over five to six weeks, seven critics are providing side comments for the respective pages: a form somewhere between Power Moby Dick and the many roundtable literary discussions that can be found around the Web. There is also a forum, although it appears that nobody aside from the Magnificent Seven has left comments.

I’m wondering, however, if we can’t see these dynamic experiments go further. I would be very interested in seeing the Golden project provide a place for every published thought on every particular line in that novel. Perhaps there might be a way to track words and references used by earlier writers and carried on by later writers. There could be a better implementation of the forum through a wiki, in which various readers could offer additional questions in a separate accessible area. With RSS feeds, perhaps someone with a Kindle or a Sony Reader might download the latest central version with annotations.

As I observed a few days ago, it’s fantastic that nearly all the books of yesteryear are available in some form online. But I don’t think we’re being ambitious enough. If text is scannable and searchable, then the door needs to be opened for how the reader, both common and academic, can access and annotate the text. Perhaps government funding might be put into place to hire literary experts around the nation to preserve specific literary works, perform research, and annotate them for the public. (I observe that the MacArthur Foundation has provided pivotal funding for The Golden Notebook.) What amazes me in particular about these two online projects is how neither detracts from the author-reader relationship. They respect that exclusive relationship, while accounting for the additional relationships which spring up between other readers. What we have here is an opportunity to reinvigorate the novel, to expand the audience, and to live up to the helpful hypertextual ideas advocated by Robert Coover.


It is certainly true that I have tendered a certain suspicion to those who soften themselves before Roberto Bolaño’s sunshine without seeking a critical shade. I have dutifully set aside 2666 as a tome to be entombed with me during Thanksgiving. Some have been overly content to deify Bolaño or suggest that he is the Messiah. (The phrase “more popular than Jesus” comes to mind, although Lorin Stein, quite surprisingly, did not plan for the hype last week.) Some, naturally suspicious of this literary worth, have given voice to softly muttered suspicions.

As for me, I do not have an opinion either way. Not until I’ve read all 900 pages. So you may hear from me on the subject in early December (or before!). Extraordinary proof, however, requires extraordinary evidence.

Freelance Follies at Manhattan Media

One of Black Friday’s casualties was the Harvard magazine, 02138 — a magazine owned and operated by Manhattan Media. Upon hearing the news, I immediately emailed editor-in-chief David Blum — to see if he and the staff were okay and to determine how Manhattan Media intended to honor its contracts. I was informed by Blum that Manhattan Media would indeed be paying its freelancers, and given the name of Chief Operations Officer Joanne Harras as the contact. I then followed up with her.

The 02138 freelancing contract specified payment “upon acceptance of the article.” And not only had my article been accepted, but it had been prematurely published. Ms. Harras informed me that the check would be mailed by the end of last week. But it did not arrive. I contacted other 02138 freelancers and those who answered my emails had likewise not been paid.

I informed Ms. Harras by email that I would be stopping by the Manhattan Media office this morning to pick up the check. Instead of responding with diplomacy, Ms. Harras emailed me, “If you come by the office, there will be no check here.” She then unleashed her attorney, Michael J. Simon, on me, claiming that I was threatening her, when I was simply upholding a contract and a promise.

I left this morning, entered the building, handed my ID over to the security guard, and told him I was going up to the Manhattan Media office. My name had been placed on the building’s “Watch List #1.” I told this friendly guard, who laughed over the cautionary subwindow on his screen, that I had not been placed on any watch list before, but that he could watch me as long as he liked, particularly if he remained suspicious of my intentions. Perhaps in watching, he might see something that I hadn’t observed in the mirror. Or perhaps, I also argued, I could watch him and put him on my own private “Watch List #2.” Perhaps we could generate thousands of Watch Lists and share the results of all this watching with interested parties. I stood around for a while, and he then let me go up.

I informed the receptionist that I was there to collect a check, and that Ms. Harras was responsible for its issuance. The receptionist told me that Ms. Harras was in a meeting. “How about Tom?” I asked. (Tom Allon is the President and CEO of Manhattan Media.) He was also in a meeting. “How about someone from accounting?” I asked. “We need to resolve this matter today.”

The receptionist told me that “someone” would speak to me. Who? Someone from accounting.

A friendly woman by the name of Shawn Scott — the Accounts Manager — came out. She told me that that “everybody’s getting paid.” I begged to differ. I had discovered that a number of 02138 contributors hadn’t, including me. She then told me to write my name and the amount on a slip of paper, which I promptly did, and she proceeded to investigate.

Ms. Scott gave me the specific details that Ms. Harras was incapable of conveying to me: the check number, the date it was issued, the date it was sent. Ms. Scott was kind and professional, and determined to resolve the dispute in a civil and equitable manner. Manhattan Media is lucky to have Ms. Scott in its employ. I asked if the other freelancers had been paid out in the same manner. Ms. Scott told me that she needed specific names, but she alluded to all the 02138 checks being sent out around the same time. If you are an 02138 freelancer who is not paid this week, please contact me and I will be happy to provide you with contact details for all parties identified in this post. You deserve to be paid according to the contract terms.

I told her that I would need a replacement check, because the check had not arrived. She told me that she would need to issue a stop payment on the old one. But since today was a holiday, she couldn’t issue a stop payment. This seemed a fair and reasonable concession to make. I agreed to hold off for another day. The terms were as follows: If the check does not arrive in tomorrow’s mail, then I will collect a replacement check in person at Manhattan Media’s office.

At this point, Mr. Allon arrived out to meet me. I informed him that we had arrived at a solution. He told me, “We empathize with your situation.” He also told me that he hoped the matter could be resolved civilly. This was what I had asked for all along.

When I returned home, I received an email from attorney Simon:

Please direct all further communications with regard to this matter to my attention as no one at Manhattan Media is authorized to speak with you further regarding this matter.

Alas, it was too late. I had already stopped by the office and communicated with several people at Manhattan Media. But I memorialized this morning’s meeting for Mr. Allon, Ms. Harras, and Mr. Simon, noting that we had resolved the dispute.

Let us ponder the way that Manhattan Media handled this. The people in charge after Blum — again, a good man — did not contact me and inform me of the specifics in the wake of 02138‘s closing. I had to contact them. Ms. Harras not only did not give me the specific information that Ms. Scott did, but she then tried to threaten me with her attorney, as well as place me on a silly Watch List. She had her attorney declare that I could not speak with anybody at Manhattan Media about the issue. In other words, this is a company that, under Ms. Harras’s invisible hand, could not be bothered to own up to its own inadequacies.

I am posting this episode publicly, in the event that any former 02138 contributor or any Manhattan Media freelancer experiences similar problems. Freelancers are often ridiculed, implored to “get a real job” by those who have never had to struggle to collect checks like this. But freelancing is a real job, and it frequently involves working 80-90 hours a week to get by. For those who work nine-to-five, I assure you that I get to work earlier and stop work later than you. Contracts exist for a reason. And they must be upheld. Any company who commissions freelancers must have the maturity and the professionalism to understand that freelancers are as vital as the full-time staff. We also have rent and bills to pay.

I remain fairly confident that Mr. Allon and Manhattan Media will honor its promise, and that this dispute will be resolved. And I publicly thank Mr. Allon for taking the time out of his busy schedule to meet with me. I just wish that the professionalism exhibited by Manhattan Media this morning extended across the whole of its company.

[11/12 UPDATE: I received the check in yesterday’s mail. Rather interestingly, the envelope from Manhattan Media was postmarked on November 11th — affixed with a stamp, rather than a postage machine. I don’t know if this was sent at the eleventh hour, so to speak. But a check is a check, and Manhattan Media has lived up to its promise. I have received a few emails from 02138 contributors and have directed them to the appropriate people. The word is that Manhattan Media is now honoring payment. If you are an 02138 contributor who has not received a check, please email me and I will provide you with the contact details.]

Words of the Year

I am very disappointed in Oxford’s Word of the Year. “Hypermiling,” a present participle arriving now like a file cruelly lodged between two front teeth, lacks the tang of last year’s “locavore.” It’s only slightly better than 2006’s “carbon neutral” — a term that rustles from the lips with the same gushing disgust as “enema.” 2005’s “podcast” was not bad. But I now fear that Oxford has become prejudicial towards words lazily coined from stray suffixes and prefixes. If you ask me, Susie Dent, who also works at the Oxford University Press, does a much better job of finding words that encapsulate specific years than the “official” Oxford word. And for those seeking more linguistic alternatives, start from the Wikipedia links and get lost.

[UPDATE: Well, it appears that Susie Dent has a better flair for words of the year than the Americans. Ms. Dent has selected “credit crunch” — far more applicable to our everyday world than “hypermiling.” Indeed, such is the power of “credit crunch” that it could very well be misconstrued for a breakfast cereal. Clearly, Ms. Dent needs to advise the Americans in some capacity.]

Tokyo Sonata Q&A: Screenwriter Max Mannix

Shortly after I posted my review of Tokyo Sonata, I was contacted by screenwriter Max Mannix out of the blue. While Mannix was putting the finishing touches on his forthcoming film adaptation of Barry Eisler’s Rain Fall (which he also directed), he graciously agreed to take some time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions via email. For full effect, if you missed the Bat Segundo podcast with director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, you can listen to it here. Tokyo Sonata is set for U.S. release on March 11, 2009.

Of the three films you are credited with, you’ve co-directed one (Dance of the Dragon) and fully directed the forthcoming Rain Fall. The old Hollywood cliche is that everyone wants to direct. But Tokyo Sonata suggested to me that you really wanted to write.

Correct. I love writing. I have quite a few scripts that are yet to go out. With Tokyo Sonata, I had a story to tell, and I wanted to express it, but it was also a film that I wanted to direct.

Did you enter the film world by accident?

Not at all. I entered the film world after I’d written a Chinese script, which lead to representation by Creative Artists.

Were there any specific real-life individuals who served as inspiration for the Sasaki family?

Nobody. I spent 11 years in Japan. During that time I saw a lot of things, mostly how people react to one another. It is distinctive to anything else I’ve experienced, and it taught me a lot about Japan. I am now back in Japan doing the film grade on Rain Fall. Yesterday I sat at a cafe for an hour and watched people walk by at a busy intersection — I couldn’t help but take notes.

Did you intend from the get-go to set Tokyo Sonata up as an allegory?

Definitely. I believe that the original screenplay I wrote is befitting of the Japanese.

How much did you draw upon your own observations in Japan?

The script was based on my own observations in Japan, but nothing in the story was about anybody in particular.

How many of the personality details here were invented?

I believe the characters in the original screenplay accurately depict people that you would find in any city throughout Japan.

Topography plays a very important role in Tokyo Sonata. Kiyoshi Kurosawa told me that the rail line behind the Sasaki house came about by accident, after he found the house during location scouting.

Perhaps a happy accident, and also ironic, because the screenplay I wrote was subtly influenced by Ozu. I say that unashamedly. Ozu’s work was beautifully observational, and I am strikingly familiar with his films, therefore my storyboards for Tokyo Sonata also had subtle Ozu influences. So, like I said, perhaps a happy accident, because Ozu enjoyed repeating certain elements in his films, and one of those repeated elements was the inclusion of a rail line.

To what degree was your screenplay concerned with location?

Location, in the general sense, was not a major concern when writing the screenplay, but I wanted things to feel real rather than contrived.

Did you defer much of these visual decisions to Kiyoshi?

Kiyoshi Kurosawa was the director, so all decisions were deferred to him.

Did you insert specific ambiguities within the script that would encourage Kiyoshi to think along specific locational lines?

When I wrote the script, it was my intention to direct the film, so I certainly didn’t insert ambiguities to encourage Kiyoshi Kurosawa. I inserted scenes and built characters that I felt portrayed Japan, and Japanese life, but I did it with the knowledge that the story was going to be on screen, so there had to be a cinematic undertone.

To what extent does your screenwriting involve writing directly for a director — to get his creative juices flowing?

My first objective when writing is to write for myself, because unless I’m inspired, how can an audience be moved or inspired or drawn into the world before them? For me, it has nothing to do with pleasing a director, and everything to do with pleasing myself and the audience.

Were you responsible in any way for the various dei ex machinis near the end of the film?

Not at all. The original screenplay that I wrote didn’t ask the audience to trust me here and there, then suspend belief when it was convenient for me. The script I wrote was a consistent piece about what appeared to be an average family. An average family that could not communicate, love, or trust one another.

How much of the film’s final thirty minutes were yours and how much were Kiyoshi’s?

There were, in my opinion, some pretty bizarre story threads in the film. You mentioned that you interviewed Kiyoshi Kurosawa, so I’m sure you already have the answer to this question.

The infamous job interview scene in the boardroom suggests that the pen may not be mightier than the sword. And yet there is likewise a great concern for appearance — such as the cleaning man who emerges from the restroom wearing a suit to return home to his family. To what degree do you concern yourself with symbols?

I don’t, but Japanese society does in a very significant way. The story itself needed to convey that these men were prepared to carry the burden (of job loss) without distressing their families. I mean, when a man loses his job, does it help, or hinder, if he goes home and tells his pregnant wife? Would he be a liar to withhold the information? Or, would he be seen as caring for his wife (and unborn child) to withhold the truth? How would he — with such knowledge in his head — lay in bed at night? How would he look in the mirror when shaving the next morning? How would he dress after he shaved? And, what might he say when his wife asked a normal question, like, “What time will you be home from work?” I find life in Japan incredibly intriguing because things like this are very real, and whilst people might see such actions as cowardly or deceitful, I can clearly understand why they do it.

How much of the script was written from emotional intuition and how much was of it was crafted with semiotics in mind?

One weekday morning when I was living in Tokyo, I went to a library. What I found surprising was that there were so many suited men around. These men looked like they could have been the presidents of multi-national companies. At first I thought there must have been a corporate event on, but I soon noticed that they weren’t communicating with each other. The place was crowded, but everybody seemed lonely. Some ate lunch on the steps, on benches in the park, but none went home. It was later revealed to me that these men were unemployed, and were killing time until the return to home was consistent to when they had held down a job. So, you could say that some of the script was written from my own observations, while other parts were written from emotional intuition and semiotics.

If the latter, do you find that overplanning a screenplay is detrimental?

I think that over-planning anything is detrimental because story ideas need to have time to evolve and mature. Great ideas today can look pretty lame tomorrow, and I have never seen anything good come from a forced, or over-planned, idea.

Kiyoshi told me that he felt your original version or the script was somewhat stereotypical.

If we watched Carlito’s Way tomorrow, much of what is a fantastic film could also be considered stereotypical of that genre, as could the characters that are portrayed in the film, but the key to the film is that the characters are so incredibly believable, as is the path and development of the story. The audience is respected and kept in the story, and not jolted out of it with onscreen actions that temporarily have the viewer disbelieve what he or she is watching. Kiyoshi is certainly is entitled to every opinion he has, but it was the “appearance” of a stereotypical family that provided the set-up for the disaster in Tokyo Sonata. I have heard quite a few Japanese people say — to me directly — that Tokyo Sonata, in part, is quite bizarre. I doubt that Japanese people would say such to Kiyoshi, in fact, I am sure that they wouldn’t. Furthermore, Japanese people have actually accused me of the military angle in the film, when in reality I had nothing to do with it, because it is so far removed from reality in Japan that is verges on fantasy, and it is therefore a story line that I would not consider. I understand that there was obviously a desire to show a flow-on effect from international circumstances, but for this type of film, for what it is, I would personally prefer to lean towards “stereotypical” rather than encroach on bizarre.

Kiyoshi’s contributions were certainly more on the wild side of things.

Tokyo Sonata was designed to portray “an average Japanese family.” From what was set up, I didn’t see the opportunity to move towards the “wild side” of things. I think the intention to move towards such is something that has to have evolved from the story that is there, as well as the belief patterns that you have requested from the audience, rather than to personally desire an end result, or the inclusion of wild scenes, that perhaps don’t fit with the platform that you have crafted.

Did Kiyoshi convey any of these creative differences to you? Were there efforts to hash things out for Kiyoshi’s more looser vision?

Kiyoshi Kurosawa is Kiyoshi Kurosawa. He is very highly respected, and his involvement is what greenlit the film, so everybody was/is grateful of his inclusion and always will be. As his previous films attest, he has unique ideas about doing things, so it was good that the film could be made by a person of his repute.

Do you regret that certain elements were thrown out?

I don’t regret it because I was not the person that dismissed those elements. Am I disappointed that some things were changed? That’s a different question.

Is this a scenario in which you — as screenwriter and a director — knew that you have to abdicate in some sense to the director’s vision?

When I wrote the original screenplay, I was hopeful of it being made as I wrote it. That’s pretty obvious. But, the reality is that once another director picks up a piece, there is a very solid chance that different interpretations will be employed. I did the same thing with Rain Fall. The film is very different to the novel, so I am aware of such, and I respect these things as being part of the film making process.

Word Count and Ancient Novels

From a letter to the New York Times editor, January 7, 1899:

Have you taken note of the fact that the majority of successful novels are long? I mention this fact because a few years ago — about the time The Prisoner of Zenda made such a hit — it was predicted that all the widely read novels of the future would be very short. Not long ago your own London correspondent W.L. Alden predicted that the novel of the future would be only 40,000 or 50,000 words long.

I have calculated very closely the length of the prominent novels of the last two or three years, and I find that Mrs. Steel’s On the Face of the Waters is 150,000 words, Ford’s Honorable Peter Stirling is 145,000, Hugh Wynne, 170,000; Corleone, 165,000; Quo Vadis, 210,000; The Landlord at Lion’s Head, 120,000; The Seats of the Mighty, 115,000; The Manxman, 220,000; The Christian, 210,000; The Gadfly, 105,000; A Soldier of Manhattan, 100,000. Against this list of long novels appears Soldiers of Fortune and The Choir Invisible, which are of medium length, about 75,000 words each, while in the 40,000 novel list we have only Hopkinson Smith’s Tom Grogan and John Fox’s Kenutuckians.

I have purposefully omitted the 1898 novels from the above, but when we come to the year just closing we find the tendency to length still more accentuated. Take the two best and most successful American historical novels of the present season — Mr. Altsheler’s A Herald of the West and Miss Johnston’s Prisoners of Hope — and we find that one is about 120,000 words and the other 130,000. Mr. Parker’s very successful Battle of the Strong is about 135,000 words; Mr. Page’s Red Rock, which is a study rather than a historical novel, is 140,000 words; David Harum is about 110,000 words; Helbeck of Bannisdale is 110,000 words; Ms. Crowninshield’s lively story of adventure, Latitude 19, is 145,000 words; Evelyn Innes, which many think the finest novel of 1898, is 175,000 words; Roden’s Corner is at least not a short novel, nor is The Red Axe. All these have passed the test of commercial success, which is the final arbiter in such matters. In view of these facts, does the reign of the very short novel seem to be at hand?


* * *

I know very few of the titles that the good C.T. Adams has kindly listed for us to investigate. But for those who find a 900-page book imposing, the above statistics are worth remembering. I have added links to the complete text of the books that Adams mentions. It is a great credit to our information age that only Manxman could not be located.* Adams is right to observe that George Moore’s Evelyn Innes is somewhat promising — that is, for those who like slightly florid, monosyllabic noun-heavy sentence constructions. (“Iron-grey hair hung in thick locks over his forehead, and, shining through their shadows, his eyes drew attention from the rest of his face, so that none noticed at first the small and firmly cut nose, nor the scanty growth of beard twisted to a point by a movement habitual to the weak, white hand,” reads one such sentence.) My current beard, such as it is, is not habitual to any movement by my hand. But I am very much taken with this image, and I’m wondering if men have, over the past century, resisted the impulse to tug and twist at their facial hair in such a matter. The time is ripe for a comeback.

There’s more from Moore: “The vague pathos of his grey face was met by the bright effusion of hers, and throwing her arms about him, she kissed him on the cheek.” Who knew pathos could be vague? But “vague pathos” is a wonderful idea. And I particularly like the antediluvian sentence construction.

I’m serious! The forgotten novels that people raved about a century ago are worth revisiting — if only for the odd and enjoyable syntax. (I’m afraid that Moore’s dialogue didn’t impress me as much as the sentences.) Can you imagine a novelist today getting away with a woman “regretting her tongue’s indiscretion?” A man named Sir Owen is “seemingly a tall man, certainly above the medium height,” which suggests that Moore isn’t certain. But then how often are any of us certain about how tall some people are? “Wall paper” has not yet been crammed into one word. An upper-class man in his thirties is described as “three-and-thirty,” and I’m considering adopting this manner of speech if anybody ever asks my age.

“The nakedness of the unfinished and undecorated church was hidden in the twilight of the approaching storm….” This is very old school, but I’m again strangely fond of this phrasing, even if I’m not inclined to use such a prepositional phrase in my own writing. If an MFA tried to write a sentence like this today, she’d be asked to revise the sentence read something like: “The undecorated church hid in the storm.” This isn’t nearly as interesting. And you can’t really make this sentence work without the past tense.

Don’t discount the old novels. There are quirky ideas here to be discovered, tinkered around with, and employed in your own writing.

* — UPDATE: The good Rory Ewins has pointed out that Manxman is available online. I had mistyped it “Maxman.” Thank you, Rory. And thank you, Internet!


  • Some long-form posts are in the works. But for now, we revert back to the rushed blogger’s trusted steed: the wacky roan known as the roundup!
  • Thanks to a helpful commenter, I have spent a portion of the morning at Married to the Sea, an online comic that relies on clip art. Clip art-based comics represent a great place to observe the associative mind at work.
  • I have seen neither Black Watch nor Romantic Poetry. While I’m likewise inclined to quibble with needlessly dogmatic art, I should point out to Messr. Teachout that Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage without experiencing a single battle. Art does not necessarily require first-hand experience to be emotionally true.
  • O-oh, here they come / Watch out pub, they’ll chew you up / O-oh, here they come / They’re some cash eaters
  • The 2008 World Fantasy Award winners have been announced. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Ysabel took home the novel award. (via Booklist)
  • At the Telegraph, Stephen Adams is reporting that a team from Manchester University and the London School of Economics is claiming that novels should be taken just as seriously as fact-based research. While I have always admired Tom Clancy’s ability to explain a complicated subject in layman’s terms, I don’t believe that a novelist is just as qualified as an international policy expert. Yes, a novelist can record visceral sensation, describe details, and steer us into his particular point of view. But this does not mean she is the right person to advise a world leader on matters of great import. There are very good reasons why Obama will likely not be filling up his Cabinet with novelists, although this didn’t stop him from asking Toni Morrison for an endorsement.
  • George! Goodnight, very yellow moon?
  • Is literary theory too abstruse?
  • I am equally suspicious of the claim that Hitchcock only got laid once.
  • Bit of a URL mouthful there, but it’s good to see graphic novels taken more seriously. (via Ready Steady)
  • GOP implosion has never been more fun to watch. (via Erin O’Brien)
  • Transforming novels into video games. Related: Tom Bissell’s New Yorker piece. (First link via Athitakis)
  • Roundup turning into sentence frags. Retreat! Retreat!

Is the African-American/Prop 8 Exit Poll Connection Viable?

There are lies, damned lies, and exit polls. A purported connection between race and homophobia has recently made the rounds, prompting big think pieces from the likes of the Washington Post. We’ve been told that 7 out of 10 African-Americans who went to the California polls voted yes on Proposition 8 — a measure that passed on Tuesday overruling the California Supreme Court judgment that legalized same-sex marriage.

Even more amazing than this is the way this correlation is getting a free pass. The only way you can bring a demographic into election statistics is through the exit poll. But exit polls have problems. Back in 2006, Mark Blumenthal initiated a helpful series of posts summarizing some of the flaws: where the interviewer is standing in relation to the polling place, how well-trained the interviewer is, the tendency for voters who volunteer to participate upon seeing the interviewer with the clipboard, the inclination for the polls to favor Democrats in presidential election since 1988, and so forth. In 2005, the Washington Post reported that interviewing for the 2004 exit polls was “the most inaccurate of any in the past five presidential elections.” Large numbers of Republicans refused to talk with interviewers, and this, in turn, led to an inflated estimate for John Kerry. But despite these problems, exit poll faith is a bit like stubborn fabric softener sticking to a hard wonk’s argyle sweater. In a longass Rolling Stone article, even Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. believed in the gospel, suggesting that exit polling was the first indicator that the 2004 election had been stolen. Political slickster Dick Morris went further, stating that “exit polls are almost never wrong.”

Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International were the team behind the 2004 polling botch, and this dynamic duo also spearheaded this week’s California exit polling. The hard data is not yet available at the Edison/Mitofsky site. But the Associated Press has reported that 2,240 California voters (of these, 765 were absentees interviewed by landline telephone), interviewed in 30 precincts, represented the total number of people that Edison/Mitofsky interviewed. Which means that some percentage of these voters were African-American. Let’s give Edison/Mitofsky 50%. That leaves us with a mere 1,120 voters.

A quick jaunt to the California Secretary of State’s website reveals that there are 25,423 precincts in California and that 10.5 million people turned out on Tuesday. In other words, Edison/Mitofsky is making a major claim based on 0.11% (a little more than one-tenth of 1%) of the total precincts, and a sample of voters smaller than a crab louse dancing in a thorny thatch of hair. Is this really large enough? Exit polls have proved somewhat accurate in relation to simple binary choices, but I’m wondering if it all turns to bunk when it comes to correlation. Perhaps a legion of statistics experts can help explain why Edison/Mitofsky can get away with this. Because I’m tempted to view this as a strange offshoot of the Bradley effect.

IPG and Borders in Trouble?

An anonymous source has alerted me to an email indicating that Borders will not be paying book distributor Independent Publishers Group for two months “due to anticipated excessive returns.” IPG has stated that its return rate has been historically low. But this default will cause IPG to lose approximately $2 million in revenue. IPG has issued an email to publishers, asking them if the publishers wish to continue distributing books through Borders or accept a new provision that IPG can only guarantee payment (for Borders) “only for the publishers’ historical printing cost of books that are not paid for, rather than for the whole amount of any unpaid invoices.” Whether this will present a partial repeat of last year’s AMS bankruptcy, with many IPG publishers left in the lurch because of Borders’s decision, remains to be seen.

UPDATE: IPG President Mark Suchomel has left a comment claiming that IPG is “having a record sales year.” I have also been asked by IPG to “retract” this post. I do not intend to do so. I have merely presented information that was also reported by Galleycat this morning, asking the perfectly reasonable question of whether the $2 million shortfall will harm IPG and the publishers. If Mr. Suchomel wishes to be transparent, offering specific figures and data about how IPG is in “great shape financially,” rather than having his publicist email me and deeming me “irresponsible,” then the forum here is open to him. I have also informed the publicist that I would be happy to talk with Suchomel over the phone, and I have sent an email to Suchomel asking for specific evidence to prove his claims. It is also worth noting that IPG has kept its mouth shut when talking to The Bookseller‘s Catherine Neilan.

UPDATE 2: To understand why Suchomel should probably respond with additional details about IPG’s financial security, here is the memo that was sent to publishers from IPG.

Special Alert: Borders Policy

The financial health of Borders does not appear to be improving. They now tell us that they will not be paying us for two months due to anticipated excessive returns. IPG’s returns rate is historically low, so this is a somewhat questionable course of action. They were in a weak condition even before the current financial crisis, and of course no one knows how long or how severe that crisis will prove to be. The immediate reason for our concern is that the companies that insure receivables, who make a living knowing the risks of granting credit, have now refused to cover Borders.

IPG typically carries receivables of approximately two million dollars with Borders. A default of that amount would by no means put IPG out of business, but it would be painful, weaken the short-term health of the company, and would mean we would have to defer some of our plans for future growth.

Distributors need to be especially vigilant about the viability of their customers because, in case of a default, a distributor is out the full value of any unpaid invoice; a publisher, on the other hand, is really only out the printing cost of the lost inventory.

To put some numbers on this concept: a $14.95 paperback should cost about $1.50 a copy to print. But IPG bills Borders $7.48 for that copy (a 50 percent discount). That is a difference of $5.98 or almost four times the printing cost.

Given these considerations, IPG must now ask its client publishers to choose one of two options in regard to future Borders orders for their books. Publishers must either:

  • Instruct IPG not to ship their titles to Borders
  • Accept the provision that IPG, for Borders business only, will guarantee payment only for the publishers’ historical printing cost of books that are not paid for, rather than for the whole amount of any unpaid invoices

IPG’s competitors in the book distribution business either have always had a provision in their standard agreement that allows them to deduct customers’ defaults from the amounts owed their client publishers; or else they have recently adopted the policy that they will not take any of the credit risk for Borders payments. IPG, at no small cost, has covered the amounts lost when accounts stop paying and our client publishers have received the full amount owed for their titles. Over the years this has been a significant though somewhat low-profile benefit of working with IPG.

We think that the best course for IPG’s client publishers is to accept the option of still shipping to Borders. Borders has been paying IPG, they are reported to have cash on hand and access to credit in the future, and the last thing anyone wants is to have only one giant chain in the retail book market. Borders may prosper, and even in the worst case, given IPG’s uniquely flexible policy, the value of your inventory would be preserved.

On the other hand, booksellers and wholesalers in trouble sometimes resort to tactics that can damage publishers. Sometimes they return books that are selling well and then reorder the same titles. This allows them to start the payment meter over again, but of course it means more damaged copies. Sometimes they order far more copies than they need for the purpose of having more stock in their warehouse to comfort their secured creditors. Sometimes they have no reasonable expectation that they can stay in business, but order books just in case some miracle arrives to save them. We will not allow your titles to become pawns in any such games.

We do not see evidence of this sort of behavior to date at Borders, but we have, for some weeks now, scrutinized every one of their purchase orders, in some cases reducing them to reasonable amounts. Their performance has been erratic. We will continue this vigilance in regard to the titles of publishers who wish IPG to continue to ship them.

Please inform IPG in writing or by e-mailing Vice President of Operations Mark Noble, of your choice by Monday, November 10. Until we are informed of your decision, we will assume that you do not want us to ship your books to Borders. This policy will stay in affect only while there are serious concerns about Borders viability, and we will keep you apprised of any new developments.

If you would like to discuss these issues further, please contact Curt Matthews, x210.

UPDATE 3: Mark Suchomel has responded to my queries via email. He hasn’t provided me with any specific information about IPG’s financials and has asked me to take IPG’s current fiscal health based on a statement of good faith, but his answer does provide some insight into the Borders situation.

Thanks for giving me a chance to clarify. Our record sales year is a fact. We have shipped more and billed more than we ever have. I’m not sure how I can give you tangible evidence and I would hope that you would consider a statement by the president of the company as a reliable source. We are a private company and don’t release financials like a public company is required to do, but since we have very little debt, which should be eliminated by the end of the year, and strong sales in several markets, and compared to what we read and hear about other businesses in the industry, we consider this to be great shape. Estimated book sales may be dropping, but as our sales are increasing we are obviously gaining market share.

We are not out $2 million dollars as you seem to imply. That is the amount Borders typically owes us. IF something happens to Borders and IF we were to keep shipping them at that level, we could possibly be out that much if something were to suddenly happen. You can bet that every major supplier to Borders is looking at their exposure and trying to reduce it, or at least they are making sure it is something they can work through if the account fails. We don’t think they’re going to close their doors in the next few weeks but we are certainly going to make sure they don’t owe us such a large amount until we see signs that they have turned things around.

Everyone who relies on retail sales is anticipating a tough holiday season. In the shape we are in now and with a careful eye on Borders and other struggling accounts we will be one of the companies in the industry to come out of it in reasonable shape. You implied a comparison to the AMS debacle
at the end of 2006 which endangered the business of many of their PGW clients. This is not a responsible comparison. There is no issue as to the health of our company. The issue is the health of Borders. Among other things publishers rely on us to keep them safe from potential disaster. In
this way they are in better command of their risk and can decide if one course of action is better than another. Your speculation that we could be in trouble has no basis in fact. We’re not even close to being in trouble but we are also going to make sure we don’t get there.

Did you know that another large distributor also made this change a couple of weeks ago but won’t even cover the printing and binding costs of their publishers if something were to happen? I’m not sure why that wasn’t covered. Distributors have a unique role and responsibility in the industry
in that we collect revenue on behalf of our clients. Our clients need to know that we’re being very responsible. Rather than cut off an account or at the least reduce the amount of credit we are willing to extend them, we feel it is a reasonable move to let our publishers decide if they want to shoulder some of that risk in order to keep the sales moving through at the current rate. Most of them are willing to and are very appreciative of the way we have handled this.

RIP John Leonard

If the reviews are read, it is by those who seek a confirmation, either of their own gut reaction to a new sit-com or of a suspicion that you are a jerk. You can no more review TV according to agreed-upon criteria than you can review politics or sports or old girl friends — or compile a mobile history of the infinite. The lout on the next barstool also considers himself an expert; “Seen in this matter,” says Borges, “all our acts are just, bt they are also indifferent. There are no moral or intellectual merits.” Less attention was paid in March of 1972 to Senator John Pastore’s hearings on the impact of televised violence than was paid to spring-training baseball.

However, the consolations made up for the desperations. (A) You are being paid to watch television, which means that you don’t have to apologize what all your friends do secretly and feel guilty about. (B) It is something you can actually do with your children, instead of reading Babar aloud for the 157th time or running a staple through your thumb. And (C) being powerless is liberating. You can say what you want about the play and the actors; it won’t close, and they won’t be fired, on your account. Since television is about everything, you can review everything. Attention may not be paid, but hostilities will be projected, and you’ll be the healthier for the projecting of them, even if your society is not. As Borges put it, “We took out our heavy revolvers (all of a sudden there were revolvers in the dream) and joyfully killed the Gods.”

— John Leonard, This Pen for Hire (1973)

John Leonard is dead. He was 69. Aside from serving as editor of the New York Times Book Review (back when it actually meant something) during its glory years between 1971 and 1975, Leonard contributed a monthly books column for Harper’s and served as television critic for New York Magazine.

Leonard was one of the last old-school greats, and one of the people I looked to in developing my own critical voice. (When I was commissioned to write a books column for the decommissioned 02138, John Leonard was one of my key models.) He wrote honestly and passionately about literature, was not afraid to take prisoners, was inclusive of genre and translated titles. When I plunged into his pre-NYTBR work for the first time some years ago (namely through the above-referenced quote), I was stunned to see how wonderfully feral and sensible he was. I’m convinced that if Leonard had started writing a decade ago, he probably would have been a litblogger. In the last two decades, Leonard had calmed down a bit, refraining from some of his take-no-prisoners pieces. As he explained at a BEA panel a few years ago, if he didn’t like a book, he wouldn’t write about it. He wanted to continue the conversation.

I had the good fortune of meeting Leonard just before this panel. Only an hour before, my bald pate had collided with a STOP sign, prompting considerable blood and a trip to Duane Reade. With a gargantuan bandage on my head, I looked something like an escaped mental patient. Leonard didn’t bat an eye. I thanked him for his years at the NYTBR, which I had read on microfilm as an undergrad. Leonard then told me that he read my site daily, and liked the work I was doing. When I asked him if he saw any comparisons between the ongoing print-digital debate and his early career as a journalist, he beamed up, “Oh yeah! This is nothing new. They said the same thing about the alt-weeklies, and look where they are today.” In an interview with Meghan O’Rourke, Leonard said, “Reviewing has all become performance art; it’s all become posturing. It’s going to have to be the lit blogs that save us. At least they have passion.”

It’s difficult to imagine a literary world without John Leonard. He was the rarest of critics: a sharp, populist-minded essayist with an open mind writing beautifully without fear.

More Tributes: Scott McLemee, Sarah Weinman, Emily Gordon, Hillary Frey, Jason Boog, and Mark Lotto.

See Also: Studs Terkel on John Leonard, Leonard archive at New York, Leonard archive at New York Review of Books, Leonard archive at The Nation, Leonard’s introduction to Paradise Lost, Leonard’s early championing of Toni Morrison, Leonard on Lethem, and Bill Moyers interview.

Also: A must-read autobiographical account of Leonard fighting for journalistic ethics as editor of the New York Times Book Review.

Michael Crichton Dead

Entertainment Tonight is the only news source I can find on this. But I’ve heard word from several sources that Michael Crichton has died after a long bout with cancer.

UPDATE: Confirmed by AP and HarperCollins Canada.

UPDATE 2: I am conducting independent investigation on this and will report anything I can ascertain in a future post.

UPDATE 3: Steven Spielberg has issued a statement: “Michael’s talent out-scaled even his own dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. He was the greatest at blending science with big theatrical concepts, which is what gave credibility to dinosaurs again walking the earth. In the early days, Michael had just sold The Andromeda Strain to Robert Wise at Universal and I had recently signed on as a contract TV director there. My first assignment was to show Michael Crichton around the Universal lot. We became friends and professionally Jurassic Park, ER, and Twister followed. Michael was a gentle soul who reserved his flamboyant side for his novels. There is no one in the wings that will ever take his place.”

02138 — What Might Have Been

The aborted inaugural issue of 02138‘s relaunch is now available online. If you’re curious about what might have been, there are contributions from Armond White, Stacy Sullivan, and Kimberly Thorpe. You can likewise read the lengthy books column I wrote, which includes reviews of Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency, Benjamin Parzybok’s Couch, Michael Davis’s Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, and Robert G. Kaiser’s So Damn Much Money.