BEA 2009: A Few Positive Words

It has been suggested by more than a few parties that my BookExpo coverage betrays a sourpuss disposition. It has also been insinuated that I was predisposed to find negativity within this three-ring exposition. Not at all.

Here are some positive observations: The fine folks at Firebrand managed to set up a booth at BEA that proved to be a popular destination point for any number of quirky literary types. The many perspectives that will emerge from the fairly open press credentials policy will certainly assist Reed Exhibitions (and others) in determining BEA’s future. There are a number of passionate people who still believe in books — perhaps epitomized best by the emerging consultant/communal evangelist Richard Nash, who has hit upon the very sensible idea that writers are also readers — and who are making slow but steady progress in getting others to understand present developments. 7x20x21 suggested that there was no shortage of young energy willing to take on the troubling problems of the future. If the interest and presence from the big publishers were reduced, there remained many small presses and university presses who saw a consistent level of foot traffic comparable to previous years. (I didn’t quite find the crazy guy hawking his self-published book in a rented booth, much less the guy with the toilet seat around his head who had showed up at previous BEAs. But there did seem to be a larger makeup of aspiring authors cropping up at panels.) If Penguin wasn’t exactly promoting Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice at BEA (as Kirk Biglione wisely observed) and China Mieville remains one of those names that people get excited about on the floor but that Del Rey seemed strangely diffident in pushing, there remain numerous advocates under the radar. The book bloggers panel, which seemed to me a strange repeat of the 2004 litblog panels, attracted a fairly packed house. The wheel may be reinventing itself, but the one-two shuffles haven’t stopped and the enthusiasm hasn’t permanently quelled. And for all of my complaints about the Book Reviews 2010 panel, there was nevertheless a healthy swarm of spectators. People may not understand the present forms, but they certainly want to. It’s just a question of how much they are willing to adjust their thinking. And it’s also a question of whether the publishing industry wishes to latch onto the unhelpful panacea of Chris Anderson-style generalizations.

My suspicions about BEA have more to do with whether this massive conference is presently in the right form with which to bring together these many viewpoints. Perhaps the manner in which we unite publishers, booksellers, authors, and assorted parties needs to match the drastic manner in which the industry is changing. The digital enthusiasts need to understand the perspective of a 60-year-old publisher who will never use a Kindle. And the frightened publisher needs to comprehend why readers aren’t jumping up and down about DRM. It has become vitally important for us to listen to the opposite perspective. We can’t just keep to the comfortable corners of the room.

BEA 2009: Book Reviews 2010 Panel Report

Panel: Book Reviews 2010: What Will They Look Like?
Participants: John Reed, The Brooklyn Rail (Moderator); Ben Greenman, The New Yorker; Otis Chandler, Goodreads; Bethanne Patrick, The Book Studio; David Nudo, Shelfari; Peter Krause, Tactic Co.

I certainly went to this morning’s NBCC-sponsored panel with an open mind. Alas, with stiff moderator John Reed reading word-for-word off of his list of questions and the question of whether book reviews were even worth saving largely ignored, this was, as you might expect, business as usual, with Ben Greenman and Otis Chandler offering the only real substantive commentary. The rest was buzz words and bullshit dichotomies. Expert content vs. user-generated content, book reviews versus book recommendations, Coke vs. Pepsi. While Bethanne Patrick was very careful to ask everyone not to contain their silent fury, I kept my hand raised during the Q&A and was not called upon. I presume that they found out about the cherry bomb I planted in the boys room toilet.

You knew that something was off with this panel pretty early. But the question percolating in my mind had more to do with whether these people even loved books anymore, or even cared about lively writing. And I suppose it was answered when Reed asked the question, “Is there anything that you’re looking forward to leaving behind?” There was uncomfortable silence from the quintet, before Bethanne Patrick replied that she was very interested in leaving behind the idea that there were plenty of places for authority.

(It is worth noting that as I type these words in the BEA Press Room, I am listening to a robotic-sounding author talking in a very stilted tone about the “emotional charge” in his book. I have no idea who he is, but that’s part of the problem. Yes, this is the mechanical level of excitement here. Dare to express even the slightest feeling and you will be dragged away by Jacob Javits security.)

I think the fact that these five people don’t have any value or excitement for what they are offering — or are diffident about expressing such value or excitement — should say it all. Don’t sit there in silent fury or anything. Except that there’s really no place for you here.

“What is authority?” asked Peter Krause, who offered several dollops of generalized Gladwell/Anderson-style terminology for the crowd, including some of the silly dichotomies I have described above. How does Twitter give you authority? Does it come when somebody follows you? Or is it the way in which you link?

I wanted to get the panel discussing the all-important question of whether one should tweet in one’s underwear or not. Or perhaps they might consider the side effects of drunk tweeting. Or how you might lose a few followers if you tell an off-color joke that offends a few people. That seemed a far more intellectual discussion pertaining to “Book Reviews 2010” than anything presented at this joke of a discussion.

At least Ben Greenman was wise enough to suggest to the crowd, “You should probably listen to yourself.” He cited John Leonard as a critic whom he disagreed with 70% of the time, but who wryly pointed out the benefits of adversarial writing. Yes, I thought to myself, if only we could have some of that right now to counter all this groupthink bullshit.

“We do need a guide to navigate through the wilderness,” said Otis Chandler. “Who are the experts?” All well and good, but it all seemed comparable to some rich guy hiring a guide to hack his way through a jungle. It also seemed to me that Chandler’s position — despite the apparent egalitarian nature of Goodreads — was very much rooted in discounting the audience’s intelligence. Part of the success of Goodreads, as I ranted and raved to a few gracious listeners after the panel, is because there is no longer a place for enthusiasm or excitement in the newspapers. While I did agree with Chandler that people are more inclined to listen to their friends, what Chandler (and the other panelists with the possible exception of Greenman) missed was the possibility that critics never present themselves as trusted friends to the readers. They dictate rather than get people excited. And the hoary heads stuck up the sad ass of this industry seem to misunderstand and underestimate the ability for people to find an alternative when they’re talked down to as if they’re wearing dunce caps.

Forget about Book Reviews 2010. What about Book Reviews 2009? Or Book Reviews 2004? These are the real questions these people should be asking. But they won’t. Because I don’t think they really have any answers.

BEA 2009: James Ellroy

Back in April, it was revealed that the galley for James Ellroy’s Blood’s a Rover contained a note asking all of Ellroy’s readers to become his Facebook friends. Well, since Ellroy happened to be at BookExpo America, I decided to ask him about what the nature of this “Facebook friend” relationship entailed. Ellroy promptly placed his arm around my shoulder and gave me his explanation. I think it’s safe to say that Ellroy’s idea of “Facebook friend” is much different from Jonathan Franzen’s.

BookExpo: The Myth of “Big Ideas”

There’s a desperate atmosphere evident even in the panels. And I’m not just talking about the execution, but the conception. One such panel that I walked out on, featuring the likes of Chris Anderson and Lev Grossman, was devoted to whether or not publishers still hold the keys to the castle. It was a sad and lifeless discussion that felt as pathetic as the hired dancers attempting to drum up some attention in the vestibule for some book that most people will forget about by tomorrow morning. (Indeed, it might be argued that people will probably remember their free cocktails over prospective titles. It is worth noting that agents are already wary of being solicited, and it’s just the early afternoon.)

But back to the panel. Chances are that if you’ve attended an O’Reilly conference, you’ve seen this type of generalism before. A bunch of men sit before some microphones and begin to spout off a bunch of technological libertarian nonsense. The participants often believe that, because there is some rumbling in publishing’s plate tectonics, now is the time to espouse some new sentiment or to seize some desperate stretch of land. It’s the dawning of a revolution! But these new politicos — who seem more inspired by Thomas Friedman than Thomas Jefferson — don’t understand that serfs can’t adapt from an agrarian economy overnight. Meanwhile, the old dogs never seem to understand that they can’t hold onto their vassal system forever. But there’s no time like the present to make impetuous statements that can only advocate one side or the other, but can never find a middle ground for both.

I spent ten minutes watching this “Big Ideas at BEA” conference, in which the only big idea that anyone wished to consider was whether or not Chris Anderson would have to hold a microphone after the trusted lavalier attached to his shirt couldn’t communicate his predictable patterns of prediction. There was something fittingly symbolic in the microphone’s failure. The very system that had catapaulted Anderson to fame was beginning to fall apart.

And the very discussion that Anderson and his cronies here wished to promulgate was no less interchangeable with any number of talks given at any number of conferences in any number of locations.

When in doubt, go for the predictable. It’s the only “new” or “big” idea that people seem to have in this melancholy landscape.

People actually paid hundreds of dollars for this when they could have stayed home and curled up with a Malcolm Gladwell book.

BookExpo America: Initial Report

The two words that come to mind are “junior size.” With Macmillan off the floor altogether and even HarperCollins seeing reduced foot traffic, one wanders BookExpo’s floors in search of innovation, only to find one’s self subsumed in a heap of remainders. Perhaps BookExpo needs a reboot. The panel discussion is chintzy. The conversations are desperate. And everybody asks around for the remaining parties containing an open bar.

The most profound floor interview I have conducted so far was one with Clifford the Big Red Dog. He did not answer my questions about BookExpo’s future, despite my persistence. And regrettably he offered neither bark nor bite about the future of the publishing industry. I will be posting a YouTube clip later when it is possible to do so. But I keep thinking of BEA as a Big Red Dog. Perhaps shaggier and with less appeal than Clifford.

Some authors dress in desperate costumes. Others ask talk show producers how they can get on without a publicist. BookExpo feels very much like the live version of an issue of a monthly writing magazine. You’re just waiting to run into the human equivalent of some classified ad in the back hoping to scam you for some writing contest. I’m surprised there aren’t more people here with jars asking for tips.

I don’t even know why journalists are covering it. I don’t even know why I’m covering it really. I ran into Bella Stander this morning and, within our jocular exchange, she asked me why I was here. I told her that I was here to have fun. But it is difficult to get people excited when they are determined to remain so gloomy.

If BookExpo doesn’t do something fast, it will become some ossified corpse without even the consolation of a wake. But there is no Ronald D. Moore around to remind us why it is so important.

BEA Reports Coming

You will not see me anywhere near BookExpo America today, nor will there be any reports, writeups, transcripts, audio clips, damaging photographs, evidence for an elaborate blackmail scheme, or any other ancillary materials of anything that is occurring at Javits (or elsewhere) between now and tomorrow. I am presently juggling a considerable number of professional balls and I have slept very little and I have imbibed a hell of a lot of coffee. I have somehow managed to reply to email. It is my understanding that I will be permitted to collapse at some point between 7:00 PM and 2:00 AM EST, but this is contingent upon the current needs of my clients. I am one of those crazy bastards who will perform pirouettes on Red Bull if that’s what it takes to meet a deadline.

I announce all this not to draw attention to myself, although I suppose I should pimp my silly involvement in this otherwise fine this Simon Owens article on Sunday’s BEA blogger signing. Don’t know why the hell he bothered to talk to a guy who uses adverbs like that in everyday conversation, but he asked and I did. (Yes, I will be signing anything you want on Sunday, but I don’t know if I will draw the line — or my name — at breasts. But for those who need some extra incentive, I plan to block out some time to whip up some baked goods. I have been informed that there are authorities at Jacob Javits who may arrest me if I bring in baked goods to disseminate. But I will take my chances. It can’t be any worse than getting arrested for protesting at a Free Mumia rally.)

No, I announce all this to suggest that you go to all other literary and publishing sites for reports on Thursday’s BEA coverage. Because you won’t find anything here. No vacancy in my hotel, amigos. Sorry. But you’ll get some crazy multimedia from me in the next few days. And I am apparently attending something called a tweet-up and a nifty gathering in a bowling alley. For now, I toil!

(For those who are covering BEA for the first time, Bob Hoover has some invaluable tips for you.)

The Bat Segundo Show: Kathleen Collins

Kathleen Collins appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #290.

Kathleen Collins is most recently the author of Watching What We Eat.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contending with traumatic cooking show associations.

Author: Kathleen Collins

Subjects Discussed: TK


kathleencollinsCorrespondent: I should probably start this conversation off by confessing something to you. I think that Rachael Ray is a bit on the crazy side. She’s not someone who really makes me comfortable. I’m actually quite frightened by her. You know, I don’t find her down-to-earth at all. And I think maybe we can start off by describing how we went from this relatively benign cooking show setup, in which you had a quieter, less frenetic impulse, to this more exhibitionistic cooking show that involves a Jerry Springer-like audience shouting for the EVOO and all that. How did we get from one extreme to the other? Do you have any fundamental observation throughout the course of your meticulous observations?

Collins: I do. Although first I have to address your fear of Rachael Ray. Of which I don’t think you’re alone. I can’t remember where I read it. But I heard somebody liken her to Shrek. I don’t know if it was physicality. Or the monsterness. But you’re not alone. I mean, there are people who absolutely adore her. And they’re usually moms. Somebody’s mom who loves her. But otherwise I think, yeah, she can be pretty scary. How we got to that from, let’s say, the home economists of the 1940s and ’50s?

Correspondent: Yeah.

Collins: Long story. I mean, that’s basically what I tried to cover. And it was just a gradual process from the early days of cooking shows where it was all about selling the sponsor’s products. And let’s just use this kitchen space that we have in our studio. Let’s sell this refrigerator. How are we going to fill the time? Well, this is a cheap thing to do. Let’s have some home economists in here and whip something up. Very dry. And then gradually though, they would add some spiciness. There were some shows in the ’50s that had a little entertainment in them. There was Chef Milani out of Los Angeles. And his show was almost slapstick. There was a lot of comedy in it. So for the most part, it was the home ec ladies in the early days. Very, very gradual. Adding entertainment elements. But things didn’t really change until the entertainment aspect really came on with Graham Kerr. The Galloping Gourmet in 1969. At least 1969 in the U.S. Julia Child, everyone will tell you they were in love with her. They were completely entertained by her. But that was not her sole purpose. That was not her purpose at all. She just happened to be extremely charming and lovable. And there’s been no one like her since. So, you know, as soon as the Galloping Gourmet came on the scene and people saw what you could do with the cooking show, it was sort of a light bulb going off. And then other people tried to do it. But none of them for a while. You know, there was a dry spell.

Correspondent: Yeah. But there’s a fundamental difference between Graham Kerr leaping over the divide.

Collins: And leaping over the chair.

Correspondent: Yeah. Leaping over the chair. That is something I can kind of accept. Because I can imagine a friend of mine cooking penne alfredo doing just that.

Collins: (laughs)

Correspondent: I cannot imagine, for example, Rachael Ray, who is bulging her eyes at the camera, holding the utensils in a manner that is completely unnatural — just from the start — and having this thirty-minute, almost exhibitionistic quality to what we’re doing. We move from something that is plausible. Something that is — okay, we’ve got this fourth wall between the television and us. And it’s just plausible for us to have a realistic connection. We can imagine Graham Kerr possibly coming into the kitchen with us.

Collins; That’s true.

Correspondent: But we can’t quite imagine Rachael Ray demanding that we conform to this thirty-minute rigid time. I mean, she’s almost like an HR manager controlling the exact conditions of your employment.

Collins: Yeah, that’s true. I mean, I think a lot of it has to do with the highly produced nature of the show. They have these sets that are just glistening with stainless steel and granite and all the perfect elements that we don’t — many of us don’t have in our homes. Most of us probably don’t have such nice stuff in our kitchens. So we can’t relate to that. And, you know, she doesn’t really cook a meal in front of us. She puts ingredients together in front of us. So it doesn’t look like a real activity. And as for the exhibitionism, I mean, it’s all about personality. I mean, that’s when the Food Network came into being. That’s what they quickly realized was the focal point of every show.

BSS #290: Kathleen Collins (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Javier Calvo and Mara Faye Lethem

Javier Calvo and Mara Faye Lethem both appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #289.

Javier Calvo is the author of Wonderful World. Mara Faye Lethem is the translator.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Considering the unseen cantaloupe.

Guests: Javier Calvo and Mara Faye Lethem

Subjects Discussed: TK


javiercalvoCorrespondent: I must ask then, Mara Faye, if you had read any other books to get the idiom right in English for this. Because both your translation of this book [Wonderful World] and your translation of Pandora in the Congo strike me as far more specific. It’s almost as if the translation itself can be placed within a neat, genre-specific feel in the prose. And I’m curious if you do it more intuitively or if you actually do, in fact, try and read books surrounding a particular genre or a particular place it might end up. So that it might be more palatable to the English ear.

Lethem: No, I don’t do that. I don’t think that that would be fair to the author. I work with the text. And much more so than the author. Even if he’s in the room next door. Because there are two very separate things. The voice I try to pull from the text itself, not from any other text. Obviously, if the author is working with references — as in Pandora in the Congo, with adventure stories and things like that — it should come through in the original. And so I really try to be as faithful to that as I can. I think a mistake in translation can involve feeling that you know more than the author. It’s like a trap. You think, “Oh, I know what he’s trying to say here.” But you sometimes have to be able to say, “Okay, I can make this choice for him.” Because there’s choices to be made. Definitely. Sometimes, there’s the perfect word. And sometimes there isn’t. You know, there’s no one word that means that in English. But I try to avoid anticipating the author.

Correspondent: But in this case, what did you do to insulate yourself? Because the author here is in the next room. Did you essentially communicate as minimally or as little as possible with Javier? Or what happened here?

Lethem: Oh well, we communicate a lot.

(A noisy siren momentarily interrupts the conversation.)

Lethem: Often about what we’re going to have for lunch. Or who’s going to pick up our daughter from school.

Calvo: I think that the situation where your wife is your translator and you’re living under the same roof — or your husband is the author you’re translating — is a potential nightmare. So it was good that she didn’t really come to me that much or I wasn’t bothering her. And we had some space between us. It’s very easy too to create a professional distance in a question like that. But yeah, it was very good that we didn’t try and work together. And she only came to me when she had an important question or something like that. Because imagine. I think translating your husband’s work might be a pretty good cause for divorce. Potentially.

BSS #289: Javier Calvo and Mara Faye Lethem (Download MP3)

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Review: Drag Me to Hell (2009)


It cannot be an accident that one of Drag Me to Hell‘s central images involves loan officer Christine Brown eating a whole tub of ice cream without apology. And let’s be honest here. We’ve all been in that spot at some point. Christine, however, is lactose intolerant and she has a weight problem buried in her past. She does not care. She spoons down the ice cream anyway. It’s the ice cream that matters now. And while I don’t know how many uptight critics will declare this film some giant tub of ice cream, I’m here to tell you that Drag Me to Hell is one marvelous movie. It’s a grand and enjoyable gift from Sam Raimi — certainly more generous than his 2000 offering — and far more fun than I could have possibly anticipated. If you’re one of those types who’s forgotten the mad and anarchic joys of eating a whole tub of ice cream, then stick to the condescending remakes or reboots or revivals that are made solely to take away your dollars without granting you that cathartic liberation. (It’s worth noting that this movie does feature quite a lot of characters cavalierly asking for money. Perhaps it’s self-aware.) This movie, on the other hand, made me laugh and grin and holler and chortle like an undisciplined eight-year-old. Not many movies can do that. But this one did.

And it’s because Sam Raimi is clearly a man who loves movies. Not the junk shuttling out of the soulless factories supervised by Michael Bay and McG, but the silly stuff and the thrilling stuff. The loud sounds and spastic images that keep us returning to the movies. Raimi has a sense of humor that might be cruel if it weren’t so innocuously bizarre. The filmmaker who dared to insert a highly amusing and utterly gratuitous cabaret scene in Spider-Man 3 has gone even further here. And trust me: it’s all for the best. Here is a movie that introduces its protagonist stuck in traffic and listening to an elocution tape spouting forth such maxims as “There is no friction with the proper diction.” Here is a movie that features a nosebleed gone awry and gives David Paymer a line that is too goofy to be true. Raimi’s even slapped the old Universal logo from the 1980s at the head of his film. This is how movies used to be and could be again if only we wouldn’t settle for less.

Drag Me to Hell is not so much a return to Raimi’s roots, as some have suggested. It is a movie that successfully combines the eyeball-popping humor of the Evil Dead movies (don’t worry: eyeballs do pop here, despite the PG-13 rating), the fey dissolves of Darkman, the classy visuals of A Simple Plan (the deliberately framed crows are replaced momentarily by a cat’s coy positioning at bottom frame), Raimi’s more naturalistic experiments with actors in The Gift (here anchored by Alison Lohman’s earnest performance), and the empathy of the Spider-Man trilogy (thankfully not so sappy). Raimi, as it turns out, has been itching to give into his id all along. And we’re all the better for it.

If being a wild imp means having a vegetarian consulting a book titled Animal Sacrifices in the Services of Deities, then Raimi will go there. What I love so much about this movie is Raimi’s casual audacity. He’s balanced an earnest romance, some ridiculous and often side-splitting comedy, and some genuine jolts. A movie that dares to throw in so many disparate elements should not work this well. But it works because Raimi very much believes that it can work. And since he’s kept the budget fairly low, he doesn’t have to worry too much about studio interference. He’s given himself a safe place to experiment. But who knew the prototype would roll out like a top-of-the-line model?

“I know this is going to sound weird,” says Christine, “but I want to get my fortune read.” When was the last time you saw a movie in which characters were so straightforward about their oddball dealings with the supernatural? When was the last time in which you saw a filmmaker hold his camera on a staircase for suspense? When was the last time you saw a filmmaker commit himself to Val Lewton’s understanding of shadow over the crass CGI effects that are now de rigueur?

Raimi even subverts the usual gender roles, perhaps to atone for the infamous tree-raping scenes in The Evil Dead. The ledger is now corrected. The men in this movie are often hilariously inept — one whimpers at a diner; another boasts of his coin collection — and the women often kick ass. Raimi even explores cringe domestic comedy during one utterly disastrous dinner scene with the prospective in-laws. A psychic and a professor argue about Jung. The camera whooshes as feverishly as Evil Dead II. And the movie even evokes Tolstoy with its lively ending.

Let me be clear on this. If you do not enjoy this movie, then you simply do not have a soul. Drag Me to Hell is a wild masterpiece. And I don’t think I’ll see another movie this year that’s anywhere near as enjoyable. Sam Raimi has restored my faith in Hollywood movies.

The Bat Segundo Show: Arthur Phillips

Arthur Phillips appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #288.

Arthur Phillips is most recently the author of The Song is You.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Reconsidering the playlists and those who play him.

Author: Arthur Phillips

Subjects Discussed: Characters who are enslaved to culture, partisan positions in relation to hoarding facts, being in denial about larger arguments within novels, Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, aesthetic concerns, muses and playing against reader expectations, the myth of an author’s personal connection, listening to headphones, ghosts and Jeopardy experiences gone awry, personal experience and lies within fiction, speculating on the specific conditions in which a man can be a muse, being a male model and a musician, the myth of writing what you know, getting excited about emotion, the distance required to contend with a fictive location, the wall between the personal and the artistic, the magic souffle, predicting 2009 weather in New York, reading time, the danger of boredom, William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, outlines and improvisation, reinventing the wheel, the little changes within a manuscript vs. changing as a writer, the value of urgency, being a metaphorical roofer and upholsterer, Re-Flex’s “The Politics of Dancing,” and the crazy amounts of money one must pay to republish lyrics.


arthurphillipsCorrespondent: If we’re talking about time, there’s also the notion of reader’s time. And as a stylist, you have some control over how frequently or how long or how short the reader’s going to turn the page. When I read your book, I found numerous passages when I would slow down. And then when dialogue would bump up, particularly with the scenes with the cop, it then sped up.

Phillips: Right.

Correspondent: And so I’m curious. If time on a structural level was important, I’m curious if there was any importance you placed in terms of thinking of the reader and thinking of this notion of how fast the reader’s going to turn the page?

Phillips: That’s such a great question. And on one hand, I want to say, “Jeez, I wish I had more conscious — and I will vow in the future to have more conscious — understanding of those technical matters.” On the other hand, it seems a little impossible to control. Well, not just a little. It’s entirely impossible. I think any time you start getting into what does the reader or what does a reader expect, react to, experience, you’re doomed. I mean, you’re just — it can’t be. If you have one or ten or a hundred or ten thousand or a hundred million readers, they’re just different. And this is just so obvious that it’s just not saying anything. But it says everything. Because if everybody’s going to have a slightly different reaction, even taking a smaller subset of the people who “like” it, they’re going to all have a different reaction. You can’t plan for them. So the only reader that you can really have much planning for is yourself. At which point, I don’t really have to think very consciously about “I need to speed it up here, I need to slow it down here.” All I have is the feeling of “I’m bored.” And so when I’m writing and I go back and I read the draft, I say, “Oh this is just — I’m just bored.” Something has to happen here that is different from what’s happening. Because I don’t like it. And then at the end of it, when I’ve gone and I’ve done that twenty-five times, and I say, “I like the whole thing,” then it’s done.

Correspondent: Well, to deflate my own interlocutory souffle…

Phillips: (laughs)

Correspondent: I should point out that this may very well be the difference between having lots of dialogue and having lots of imagery. I guess the question here is how intuitive is it really. I mean, when you’re getting lost in a long sentence, whether as a writer or even as a reader, you’re going to be aware of the slowness. Or maybe you’re lost in such a fugue state that there really is no sense of time.

Phillips: Right. I’m reading The Recognitions right now and…

Correspondent: First time?

Phillips: First time.

Correspondent: Oh wow.

Phillips: And I’m having all kinds of temporal feelings about that book as I work with it. There are times when I am lost in a fugue state, although not often enough for my taste. And often I’m feeling, “I think Gaddis was lost in a fugue state. And I just can’t join him for some reason.” I don’t know that it’s just images and dialogue. I think that you can have some very impenetrable, hard-to-wrestle-with dialogue. And actually that’s what brings The Recognitions to mind. Because there are passages. Long passages.

Correspondent: The party scenes, I know.

Phillips: You know, there’s a forty page party scene with almost nothing but dialogue. And you have to go, “Oh wait a minute. Is this the same person who four pages earlier was talking? And where is that in relation to the little girl asking for sleeping pills?” And all the rest of it. So it goes on and on. So you can have some very slow-moving dialogue. And actually I was thinking about Gaddis writing that in ’55, and Nabokov in some period around the same time doing one of his customary unappealing little digs at novels that are all dialogue, and thinking, “I wonder if he read this, looked at it, had any feeling about this, would have included or excluded it from that grouping.” Generally speaking, light dialogue goes faster than description or internal thought. But not necessarily, I guess is the short answer. I could have said “Not necessarily” about fifteen minutes ago.

Correspondent: (laughs) That’s all right.

Phillips: There you go. Just cut it down to the dialogue.

BSS #288: Arthur Phillips (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Sarah Waters II

Sarah Waters appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #287. To listen to our previous interview with Sarah Waters, check out The Bat Segundo Show #37.

Sarah Waters is most recently the author of The Little Stranger.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Creeping into the dark shadows of fabricated identities.

Author: Sarah Waters

Subjects Discussed: Research involving poltergeists, country doctors, and other topics, lingering interests from The Night Watch, Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, similar story elements across multiple novels, the limited elements of a haunted house story, dashed out four letter words, male consciousness in the postwar age, M.R. James, class relations and entitlement, job security, giant manses as characters, noun-heavy descriptions, science vs. faith, the eleventh-hour patriarchy in The Little Stranger, the value of empathy in relation to uncomfortable character qualities, character names, unintentional symbolism, Gyp the dog as a potential symbol of an Old World attitude, when a friend’s dog becomes menacing, writing about characters who could potentially live in the present time, the burdens of living memory and authenticity, on not drawing from real life, the KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON poster, tackling new genres, the paucity of contemporary ghost stories, and sustaining a cringe-worthy romance.


sarahwatersWaters: He’s about to turn forty.

Correspondent: He’s about to turn forty. But he’s very coy about this particular age. He’s constantly saying, “Oh, I can’t go up in there. Because I’m too old.” It’s nonsense! You’re forty years old. You could still — today, you could go to the gym.

Waters: Today, you could go to the gym. But of course, in the 1940s, I think being forty was being middle-aged. People were older in their style and, even physically, kind of older. So I was very mindful that he’s of a different generation than Caroline — the daughter. He develops a bit of a romance with Caroline. But he’s definitely on the way into old age. I think that’s part of his problem. He feels that he’s been this boy. This young boy of enormous promise. The working-class boy who really clever people have picked him out, singled him out. He’s actually had all the advantages. But all they’ve done really is to alienate him from his own class. And he’s never really lived up to that promise. And here he is at forty about to enter into the second half of his life, not really having achieved very much. Which is why, I think, his exposure to the Hall is so crucial for him. Because it does open up something for him.

Correspondent: But Seely is older than him. And he doesn’t concern himself with his age.

Waters: Well, everybody’s different. It’s not like — for me, I was very interested in the doctor’s individual take on things. So he is a man who’s slightly apart from his colleagues. He has these quite pleasant colleagues. But they are family men. He’s not. He’s a bachelor. He’s quite a lonely figure really. Which again is why he fastens on to the Hall. Which actually was a problem for bachelor doctors. That people would often leave the family doctor alone. Because they knew that he had his own children, his own wife to take care of, and they’d go to the bachelor doctor. And I think the problem for doctors was that they were at risk for giving too much to their patients. That they had to guard against that. And I think that, to a certain extent, that’s what happens to Dr. Faraday. He gets sucked into this extraordinary Hall with these things going on in it.

BSS #287: Sarah Waters II (Download MP3)

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New Review: Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk is regularly dismissed by the snobs. Despite his sales, you will not see a New York Review of Books or a Bookforum essay on the man anytime soon. The atmosphere is too retrousse. Here is an author who seems to be uncritically admired by his fans and just as unilaterally (and unfairly) condemned by the literary elite. But people do read the man and the man is not without talent. It is a foolish person indeed who does not submerge himself with some frequency into the common lake of the average Joe. You really don’t need a nez relevé to appreciate the bas-reliefs of any structure.

Much as Jeff Vandermeer did earlier this week in the Washington Post, I approached Palahniuk’s latest novel, Pygymy, with this demarcated dichotomy in mind over at the Chicago Sun-Times. And yet the book’s voice proved so unusual for a popular book that I felt compelled to turn in an initial review mimicking its style. The editor wisely suggested that I rewrite it, permitting me to keep a paragraph. The review is much stronger as a result. One can indeed write a whole review or a whole book in a particular style, but the human heart must remain in conflict with itself. That makes this business worth the agony and the sweat.

Great Fiction Not Written by White People

As Darby Dixon III has suggested, with the exception of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Dick Meyer’s list of great books written after 1900 has all the literary sensibilities of a grand wizard. To counter Meyer’s vanilla extract sensibilities, here’s a very hastily assembled list of great American fiction written after 1900 not written by white people. This is by no means an authoritative list. It pretty much came together in one mad mnemonic rush. I have also limited the list to one book per author. But all of these books have moved me or wowed me or otherwise floated my boat in some manner and are certainly worth your time. Please feel free to add more to the list in the comments.

Chimamanda Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room
Octavia Butler, Kindred
Ana Castillo, The Mixquiahuala Letters
J. California Cooper, A Piece of Mine
Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren
Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine
Percival Everett, Glyph
Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying
Aleksandar Hemon, The Question of Bruno
Chester Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Ha Jin, Waiting
Edward P. Jones, The Known World
Nam Le, The Boat
Chang-Rae Lee, Aloft
Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress
John Okada, No-No Boy
Z.Z. Packer, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
Susan Power, The Grass Dancer
Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo
Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony
Zadie Smith, On Beauty
Colson Whitehead, John Henry Days
Richard Wright, Native Son

BEA Blogger Signing

Since today is apparently self-promotion day, I should point out that I have been signed up for a blogger signing at BEA. On Sunday, May 31, at 1:00 PM, at BookExpo America, I will be at Booth #4077 with bloggers Carey Anderson and Sarah Weinman to sign things. I am not sure what things will need to be signed, but I draw the line at credit card receipts to fund your child’s private education. If you don’t have anything for me to sign, I can sing to you. And if you want to avoid my terrible singing voice, I’ll be happy to just say hello. There may even be some baked goods, but I have been informed by the people organizing this that Jacob Javits Security is arresting anybody who dares to disseminate homemade cookies. You may want to stop on by anyway to see what this is all about.

In Which I Am Interviewed by Colin Marshall

Colin Marshall, who runs the excellent KCSB program, The Marketplace of Ideas, was very kind to interview me recently. And he’s apparently accused me of being a pioneer. I wish to assure everyone that the “pioneer” label has less to do with anything I’ve ever done and more to do with a few trips for chicken through a notable fast-food restaurant chain. Nevertheless, I’m learned that the program aired today and that it will be made available through the show’s website. I was fired up on a lot of coffee when I talked with Colin. So I hope that I said a few things that were intelligent over the course of the hour. I’ll add the link to the specific show when it becomes available.

[UPDATE: Here’s the link to the show.]

An Open Letter to Dave Eggers

Dear Dave:

Seriously, man, do not fuck with people’s emotions. I’m with you for lifting up people’s spirits. I’ve done quite a bit of that myself in ways you can possibly never know and which I prefer not to disclose. True intrinsic kindness involves not telling and not advertising. (This is not necessarily an imputation from me. This is how many people perceive you, as I’m sure you know. You want to be a force for good? Well, it sure as hell doesn’t help that you’ve never once opened yourself up to anything even remotely critical. That’s fundamentally dishonest. I mean, you’re almost forty years old, for crying out loud. And your treatment of Neal Pollack was utterly abysmal.)

Here’s the thing: You cannot lead people on. You cannot give them an unrealistic vision.

People have the right to feel sad. They have the right to feel despair. Has it occurred to you that great things sometimes come from a terrible pit? It must have. So why all this nonsense?

Nevertheless, in case, you haven’t noticed, newspapers are dying. People who have spent lifetimes at papers don’t know what to do. I can tell you stories of smart and talented people now working as supermarket clerks without health care. Broken marriages. Broken homes. This is serious shit. These are wrecked lives that may not recover for some time. And these are not people to be trifled with. You may live in privilege. But many of us don’t. Dude, I work 100 hours a week trying to keep my little operation alive. And even that may not be enough.

I beseech you. Don’t fucking sugarcoat the truth. Don’t make nice a four letter word. Be kind, yes, wherever possible. But you have to tell the truth. You have to get people impassioned, but you cannot give them false hope. You have to give them a scenario in which they can think for themselves and innovate. For some, it may involve positivism. For others, it may involve God. But there is no universal Band-Aid. And you know it.

Because you see, there’s no room in your little universe for the eccentrics. There’s no room in your little universe for the innovators. Sometimes innovation often requires living on the edge. The literary world views a truth-teller like Thomas Disch as an ugly scoundrel when he lives and only includes him after he’s blown his fucking brains out. (A sensitive point with me, I admit. But then I was the last guy to interview him in person — a week before he committed suicide. I understand that none of the major New York media outlets were interested in talking with this wonderful talent. And I treated the man with respect. And he was shocked to talk with someone who got what he was doing.)

But hey prove me wrong. If you can demonstrate that there is room in your little universe for a Thomas Disch-like figure — and, really, despite what I have enjoyed from your operation, the history of the McSweeney’s Empire indicates that there is not* — then I’m happy to change my mind.

Thanks and all best,


P.S. Why didn’t you take the Rake up on his $158 check offer? Dude, it was for the kids! It was for positivism!

P.P.S. Incidentally, the offer still remains open to appear on The Bat Segundo Show. Or do you really think you’re better than John Updike, Marilynne Robinson, Atom Egoyan, and David Lynch?

* — With the possible exception of publishing William T. Vollmann’s Rising Up and Rising Down.

[UPDATE: Since some people have emailed me about the Rake check offer, let me explain what happened. In November 2006, the litblog Rake’s Progress noted that Dave Eggers’s 1996 review of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was remarkably different from his subsequent fawning in the foreword for the 2006 tenth anniversary reissue of Infinite Jest. Why should this be important? Because his words in the foreword were fundamentally dishonest. All Eggers would have had to write in the foreword is this: “When I first read Infinite Jest, I had my doubts. But I grew to understand it on a second read.” But, of course, since Dave Eggers is so incapable of revealing a single flaw about himself and since Dave Eggers is incapable of subjecting himself to a single critical question, he may be a positive force for philanthropy, but he is ultimately a dishonest, self-serving man who too many people don’t have the guts to call on the carpet. (826 Valencia has been known to provide funds to literary magazines who desperately need the money. This ensures that critical voices will be silenced. And indeed, at least three people have informed me of pieces critical of Eggers or 826 Valencia being silenced for reasons along these lines. And, no, you won’t get their names from me. Not even if you waterboard me at Guantanamo.)

Various inquiries were put forth to people who worked for Dave Eggers for an explanation for this change in stance. This was something that could have been cleared up in two minutes, or at least laughed off. But Eggers did not reply. An offer was also made to Eggers to appear on The Bat Segundo Show. Eggers did not reply.

The Rake then offered a $49 check to 826 Valencia for an explanation. The amount was then raised to $158. It was the kind of humor that Eggers himself once practiced at Might Magazine — indeed, far more benign than faking Adam Rich’s death. But of course, Eggers did not reply. One of his cronies at McSweeney’s did, who was very nice and who the Rake and I explained our positions to.

Incidentally, this post was emailed to Dave Eggers at the precise moment it was posted. Eggers has not replied. Contrary to his assertions at the recent event, Eggers appears quite incapable of convincing this particular correspondent that he is wrong. And he seems quite incapable of lifting up my spirits. Oh well. I guess Dave Eggers isn’t the Messiah. But again, I’m happy to be proven wrong.]

New Review

In today’s Barnes and Noble Review, you can find my piece on Nancy Kress’s Steal Across the Sky. The first sentence — what some folks in the know call the lede — reads as follows:

The latest volume from the prolific, award-winning science fiction author Nancy Kress bombards the reader with big ideas aplenty — but only a genre-addled birdbrain would pigeonhole Kress as yet another concept-slinging roughneck kicking around speculative turf.

To find out just what that turf entails, read the rest of the review. Needless to say, I do think Nancy Kress deserves more credit for her work. At times, she’s almost the Carol Shields of the speculative fiction scene.

The Bat Segundo Show: Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #286.

Michelle Goldberg is most recently the author of The Means of Reproduction.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if there’s any fate in what we make.

Author: Michelle Goldberg

Subjects Discussed: [TK]


goldbergCorrespondent: You use the words — the modifier “seemingly liberated’ — to describe this educated Indian woman who goes and, of her own volition, says, “I want to have boys. I don’t want to have girls.” Let’s actually take this into consideration, along with the case of Fuambai Ahmadu, who would feel very much insulted by the notion that she is not empowered. Here is someone who has been circumcized and who finds the notion of being mutilated — that particular verb as applied to her — very gravely offensive. So now we’re dealing with a scenario in which, if we are trying to talk about broader problems like reproduction and reproduction rights, we are also talking about having to deal with people who have values that are 180 from us. And simultaneously we’re trying to get through to them. But now we’re in a situation in which we have to find some kind of Venn diagram of how we talk with them. And if you think that this is not reconcilable, as you suggested two answers ago, I must point out some problems with this overall thesis. Because if we cannot communicate to these people; if we cannot respect the rights in a cultural relativist way of these people to make decisions that are converse to pro-choice, that are converse to women’s right (at least as they are established in our country), how then do we find common ground here?

Goldberg: Well, I’m not saying that we can’t discuss them. I’m saying that I don’t think it’s always — or maybe it’s just beyond me — to create some kind of absolutist system in which we can kind of hallucinate and create a hierarchy of what falls under the category of universal human rights, what is multiculturalism, and how we value the right of people to perpetuate their own cultural practices vs. the rights of dissidents to be protected by universal human rights guarantees. I clearly, over and over again, tend to side with people who say — with minorities who do demand to be protected by the same kind of universal human rights guarantees that I cherish. I’m not particularly sympathetic to multiculturalist or relativistic arguments, as opposed to universal kind of enlightenment type arguments. But I guess what I’m saying is that this book is about — I’m often interested in the ambiguities and the hard questions and the human stories in which it’s not as easy to sort out this hierarchy of values. You know, I’m not a philosopher like Martha Nussbaum, who has created this very rigorous and well thought out taxonomy of these different issues.

Correspondent: I guess that the question here is: When someone like Eve Ensler goes to Kenya and gives a V Day jeep to Agnes Pareyio, is there not something imperialistic about that notion of taking our particular values and stamping them onto another country that doesn’t necessarily reflect it? I mean, this is really what the problem is in terms of your complaints about the Cairo conference — the UN convention — in which you complain about the Vatican and you point out, “Well, it’s a country of 1,000 people. Mostly celibate men.” Nevertheless, it is a country. Nevertheless, we do have to have some sort of communicative process. The question is what conditions would seem to be fair to present these messages in ways that don’t feel imperialist and that don’t encroach upon these terms that we may consider here in America to be terrible or perjorative or just really against our notion of human rights and what someone else considers to be, “Well, this is my form of empowerment. This is the way I go about the universe.”

Goldberg: Well, let’s back up and explain what we’re talking about here, right? We’re talking about the context of Agnes Pareyio.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Goldberg: And Fuambai Ahmadu. We’re talking about female genital cutting, or female circumcision. Fuamabi Ahmadu is a woman in this book who is from Sierra Leone, who undergoes circumcision as an adult, who is someone who talks about it being a valuable part of her cultural identity, who is probably the most eloquent defender of the practice on the global stage. In part because, although it’s clearly very valued in these societies — otherwise, people wouldn’t fight so hard to keep the practices alive — the people who genuinely practice it aren’t people who have a lot of access to NGOs and the media, etcetera. So I think she’s an important voice. At the same time, I think the question of whether Eve Ensler is being imperialistic by supporting these women in Kenya who are fighting female genital cutting, I don’t know. To me, it’s not that interesting. And I think if you brought that up with Agnes Pareyio, who is someone who’s from the community who practices this, who’s underwent it herself, who’s regretted it her whole life, who’s a grassroots activist against it. Girls were running away from home to escape this practice and she was finding them places to stay and enrolling them in school. And then she finally met Eve Ensler. And then Eve Ensler started to support her. I think that the question of “Well, is it imperialist to support Agnes Pareyio?” is kind of insulting to her. Because she has just as much right. She’s just as authentic a voice for her community. She has just as much right to try to change and create progress in her community as we have to create progress in ours.

BSS #286: Michelle Goldberg (Download MP3)

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Kindle Bloggers Become Amazon’s Bitches

This blog will not be distributed through Kindle. I cannot possibly give away so many of my rights for a mere 30% of the cut. To put this into perspective, even the Scribd General Terms of Use limits what you give up to “solely in order to publish and promote such User Content in connection with services offered or to be offered by Scribd.”

Not so with Amazon. Here’s the relevant section of the Digital Publication Distribution Agreement:

7. Rights Granted. You grant to us, throughout the term of this Agreement, a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide right and license to distribute Publications as described in this Agreement, such right to include, without limitation, the right to: (a) reproduce and store Publications on one or more computer facilities, and reformat, convert and encode Publications; (b) display, market, transmit, distribute, and otherwise digitally make available all or any portion of Publications through Amazon Properties (as defined below), for customers and prospective customers to download, access, copy and paste, print, annotate and/or view, including on any Portable Device (as defined below); (c) permit customers to “store” Publications that they have purchased from us on Amazon’s servers (“Virtual Storage”) and to re-download such Publications from Virtual Storage from time to time; (d) display and distribute (i) your trademarks and logos in the form you provide them to us, including within Publications (with such modifications as are necessary to optimize their viewing on Portable Devices), and (ii) other limited portions of Publications, in each case on and through any Amazon Properties and solely for the purposes of marketing, soliciting and selling Publications; (e) use, reproduce, adapt, modify, and create derivative works of any metadata that you submit to us for the purpose of improving categorization, recommendations, personalization features and other features of any Amazon Properties; and (f) transmit, reproduce and otherwise use (or cause the reformatting, transmission, reproduction, and/or other use of) Publications as mere technological incidents to and for the limited purpose of technically enabling the foregoing (e.g., caching to enable display). In addition, you agree that Amazon may permit its affiliates and independent contractors, and its affiliates’ independent contractors, to exercise the rights that you grant to us in this Agreement. “Amazon Properties” means the website with the primary home page identified by the URL, together with any successor or replacement thereto (the “Amazon Site”), any software application that is capable of supporting the electronic purchase, display and/or management of digital text, graphics, audio, video and/or other content, and any other web site or any web page widget or other web page real estate or online point of presence, on any platform, that is owned by us or operated under license by us (such as ), branded or co-branded Amazon or with any brand we license for use, own or control, and any web site or online point of presence through which any Amazon sites or products available for sale thereon are syndicated, offered, merchandised, advertised or described. “Portable Device” means any device that is capable of supporting the electronic purchase, display and/or management of digital text, graphics, audio, video and/or other content via wireless telecommunications service, Wi-Fi, USB, or otherwise.

Not only do you give Amazon “a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide right and license to distribute” your blogging, but you also give this up to affiliates and independent contractors. So let’s say a major publisher decides to “independently contract” with Amazon. And they see a blog that they like. Well, guess what? They can take your content, publish it as a book, and collect the revenue without paying you a dime. Because Section 4 (“Royalties”) specifies that the blogger only gets paid for “Subscription and Single Issue sales revenues,” meaning any of the 30% revenue that you’re going to get with the Kindle. And I particularly love how Section 5 gives the blogger a mere six months to file a legal claim, which is “limited to a determination of the amount of monies” and not operational practices. You know, trivial concerns such as Amazon distributing your content to affiliates and independent contractors without the blogger’s consent.

I am extremely saddened to see so many of my fellow bloggers betray their interests. They have happily become corporate slaves, granting “a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide right and license” to their thoughtful essays and carefully written posts.

I sincerely hope that any authors (and the agents who represent them) who appear on blogs distributed through Kindle are fully aware of what they are giving up here. The rights for any writing you publish on a blog go to Amazon. That goes for guest blog posts, excerpts of chapters*, interview excerpts, you name it. Thanks to Section 7 of Kindle’s Digital Publication Distribution Agreement, you effectively become Amazon’s bitch.

Well, I’m sorry. But I can’t do that for the authors who have been kind enough to take the time out of their schedules to express their thoughts and feelings in both text and radio form on these pages. In addition to the reasons eloquently provided by Kat Meyer and Megan Sullivan
I cannot in good conscience sell us out.

All this could have been prevented had the bloggers who signed up for this taken the time to read and study Amazon’s draconian language. Presumably, they thought Amazon would play nice.

But if you think that Amazon is benevolent, consider my investigations from November 2007, which demonstrated that Amazon was placing blogs onto its Kindle Store without obtaining permission. Consider also Techcrunch’s recent investigation, in which Amazon can steal any blog without the blogger’s consent. Yet many people continue to place their faith in Amazon. Even after Amazon’s poor response in last month’s Amazonfail scandal.

* — There’s some additional discussion about this aspect of the DPDA in the comments that you will probably want to check out.

Review: Terminator Salvation (2009)


As resistance leaders go, John Connor is about as imposing as an out-of-shape hipster easily thrown out of the back door by an indolent bouncer. Christian Bale seems to think that growling all of John Connor’s lines in his Batman voice will somehow persuade audiences that he’s the savior of humanity. Alas, it only reminds us how badly The Dark Knight has aged just in the past eleven months. “If you’re listening to this,” he barks into a radio, “you are the Resistance.” Well, maybe we will be if more people lose their jobs. Because aside from the two-day coyote that Kyle Reese plops onto the dinner plate, these Judgment Day survivors aren’t altogether different from the bums on Venice Beach. And call me crazy, but you’re probably going to be dirty and more than a tad dispirited if you survive a nuclear apocalypse. Chances are that if Skynet is sending around HKs and scouts, and even some little mechanical critters in the water (an homage to Star Wars‘s trash compactor scene?), this evil empire is probably going to have the technology to intercept radio signals. It is, after all, self-aware. So why on earth is Michael Ironside barking his orders to invade Skynet over the air?

Terminator Salvation lacks the grit and the grace of the original, much less the pace and the pitch of the second film or even the idiotic fun of the third. It’s easily the worst installment of the series, although I enjoyed it more than the crappy Star Trek reboot. Which is to say I enjoyed the giant robot blowing apart a disheveled 7-11 (I guess he didn’t get his Slurpee, but I’m sure the producers will collect from the product placement) and Anton Yelchin brilliantly mimicking Michael Biehn as Kyle Reese, but somehow making the role his own. (A few words on Yelchin: He’s great. The kid will go places. Between Reese and Chekhov, he’s demonstrated that he’s that rare eccentric character actor who somehow sparkles even in dumb Hollywood blockbusters. Let us hope that the system will not corrupt him into a far less interesting talent.)

But I couldn’t care less about John Connor. You figure that he’d get some voiceover tips from listening to all those tapes of his mother (played by Linda Hamilton’s voice). But John Connor is so bland that I think his hopes of getting into the iTunes Top 100 Podcasts are slim at best, even if Skynet manages to kill all the podcasters. Bale was more interesting earlier in the year when an audio clip surfaced of Bale freaking out on set. In fact, I was hoping for a whole film featuring a psychotic Christian Bale scaring the hell out of his lieutenants. Instead, I observed a paucity of masculinity. We’re seeing less swagger in our action movies, and I’m starting to get concerned. (As it so happens, Ah-nuld makes a cameo appearance. He’s a nude and voiceless CG version with that silly swept hair from the first film. I kind of missed that silly swept hair. It seemed just right on a coldblooded killing machine. But rather conspicuously, Arnold’s penis is either missing on this T-800 model or permanently darkened by the odd lighting. This cannot be an accident.)

What does it say that I actually longed for a preteen Edward Furlong? With Bale’s Connor, we don’t even get the silly emo nonsense we got from Nick Stahl in the last film. Even Bale’s pathetic attempt to bark the trademark line “I’ll be back” was responded to with ridicule from the audience. Besides, a Terminator movie without Ah-nuld at the helm feels like a trip to Cabo San Lucas without tequila. You want to string up the travel agents who wasted your time.

The agents in question — represented by a team of screenwriters, some of whom were rewriting on the set and rewriting very close to the start of production — have attempted to atone for the lack of time travel by giving us a guy named Marcus (played by Sam Worthington) who signs on to be Helena Bonham Carter’s robotic bitch. Cyberdyne — not blown up, despite the second film’s events — has apparently transformed into a genetics company. And if you’re thinking that Harold Arlen songs are in Worthington’s future, you’re right and McG will probably send you a kewpie doll. Worthington isn’t a bad actor, but his character and motivations are utterly ridiculous. (Let’s put it this way. Ah-nuld’s silly line, “I know now why you cry, but it is something I can never do,” has more heft than the entirety of Marcus’s actions.) You mean to tell me that some random guy wandering around a Los Angeles wasteland and not knowing about Skynet for ten years is going to be immediately accepted by the survivors of humanity? And not even Paul Haggis, the Oscar-winning screenwriter, objected in the rewrites? With Marcus, we got silly Christ imagery when he’s executed in prison and silly Christ imagery when he’s strung up above a pit. Christ imagery may have salvaged David Fincher’s murky Alien 3, but it’s clear that McG is not good enough to follow in the mighty James Cameron’s footsteps. (Indeed, the film ends with Christian Bale wandering around a set very similar to the steely outpost at the end of Aliens. Whether this was a conscious nod to Cameron or not, Bale is so utterly inept and uninteresting that one longs for Sigourney Weaver to beat the shit out of Bale and lead humanity out of the doldrums. You know that she’d do it too. And she wouldn’t even have to use a funny Batman voice.)

To add insult to injury, the filmmakers have pissed away James Cameron’s odd but effective feminist subtext. The women of Cameron’s Terminator movies have always been extremely interesting, caught within an odd melange of libertarian and Third Wave sentiments. They are gutsy, feminine, strong, vulnerable, but also quite capable of going nuts. And they’re far more interesting than any of the men. When Josh Friedman signed on to do The Sarah Connor Chronicles (a rare intelligent program that has been sadly given the axe), he knew damn well that gender roles were one of the franchise’s secret ingredients. (The second season premiere ends with Garbage singer Shirley Manson — playing a T-1000 model — morphing from a urinal to her female form in the men’s room to settle a bit of corporate patriarchy. This moment represented what was quite possibly the most intriguing symbol of gender relations we’re likely to see in a television series in quite some time.)

But in Terminator Salvation, McG and his boys have given us three archetypes for women to choose from (discounting Helena Bonham Carter and former NEA director Jane Alexander, who surely must have needed the money to show up for such a thankless role): (1) John Connor’s wife, Kate, who is barefoot and pregnant and supportive, (2) Blair Williams, a boring by-the-numbers rebel who asks to snuggle up to Marcus for some body heat, and (3) Star, a mute girl, reminiscent of the feral boy from The Road Warrior, who is resourceful but not permitted to speak. It’s safe to say that, even accounting for Judgment Day throwing everything into whack, this doesn’t exactly consider 21st century developments. I understand that women can do far more than breed and kick ass.

For all the screenwriters paid for this silly movie, you think they’d come up with better lines than “That’s why I don’t trust you. I’m the only hope you have.” James Cameron’s dialogue has sometimes been silly, but at least the man knew how to make a goddam movie. At one point, Christian Bale shouts, “We aren’t machines. If we behave like them, then what is the point of winning?”

Which led me to wonder what the point was in watching this damn movie. I loved the Terminator movies growing up. I’m proud to say that they still held up last week. (If anything, the first film was even better than I remember. And I had seen it perhaps thirty times during my adolescence. Too bad that Ah-nuld went all soft.) I’m also proud to say that Josh Friedman has created a decent and thoughtful television spinoff. (It’s also worth observing that Friedman pretty much ignored the third movie.) For the powers that be to preempt Friedman’s efforts while advancing McG’s callow hucksterism is a sign that the machines have indeed won. The storm at the end of the first film came and went. It’s time to move on and ignore the Terminator franchise. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves. And that includes avoiding bullshit blockbusters.

Is Katie Roiphe Necessary?

Sixteen years ago — just a year before Kurt Cobain blew his brains out — Katie Roiphe wrote a book called The Morning After, in which she failed to grasp the basic moral concept that women who are date raped are indeed victims. Two years ago, when I interviewed this decidedly surly specimen, Roiphe still believed this. She had not altered her position one smidgen, and she seemed quite proud of this. It was as if she had gone to Princeton not to earn a Ph.D., but to pick up the complimentary barbeque set that a broken man hands you after you sit through his interminable sales pitch.

But two decades is a long time to coast. And the first question that any reasonable person should ask when reading Rophie’s latest nonsense is whether there even remains any practical use for Katie Roiphe. Why indeed is she even associated with a Web magazine that purports to be written by women for women? (Let’s answer that. Because Double X comprehends Third Wave developments about as well as J.J. Abrams. If you’re under 30 and you’re selfish in an anti-Bitch sort of way, then Double X is for you. The rest of the sad pack — meaning anyone who wears a rumpled suit, has dated hair, or has the effrontery to age — can be run down by the callous locomotive. Who is John Galt?)

This troubling idea that bell hooks and Maxine Hong Kingston don’t exist is reflected in Roiphe’s lede, which raids the three-year-old corpse of Betty Friedan for an argument about three-year-olds that Friedan never really made. Apparently, Facebook has brainwashed young mothers. These mothers have dared to put up profile pictures of their children in lieu of their own. And all this is “a potent symbol for the new century.” Never mind that Facebook, like all social networks, could be gone in about five years. Never mind that the privacy concerns fizzle somewhat with a website’s impermanence. And even if we can accept the viable notion that images of women do affect the cultural landscape, the Facebook mothers probably didn’t have Susan J. Douglas’s Where the Girls Are in mind.

Besides, this is small potatoes. We’re not talking about images on billboards or photos that saturate the mass media. We’re talking about thumbnails seen by strangers who are merely surfing around for friends. Roiphe doesn’t seem to understand that Facebook users can control whether or not other “friends” can see photos. She also doesn’t seem to understand that a substitute image for one’s self does not automatically mean that a Facebook user intends to project a persona. When I had a Facebook account, I once put up an image of Buster Keaton because I figured that it would make others smile. It wasn’t that I wanted to be Buster Keaton, although I admire Keaton very much. It simply projected the comic mood I was in at the time. Just as a parent’s kid’s photo projects that parent’s essence. And this really isn’t all too different from sharing a photo of someone special that you have in your wallet.

Roiphe doesn’t seem to ken that the private has morphed into the public. She also doesn’t seem to be aware that digital cameras have replaced the analog forefathers. The days where mothers would huddle around the table flipping through a photo album have been replaced by afternoons in which they can pass around an iPod Touch, or text these images to each other on their cells. Rather amazingly, it also hasn’t occurred to Roiphe that these mothers might wish to boast about their kids not out of hubris, but because it’s second-nature to who they are. Avoiding the camera may not even be a consideration.

And if these Facebook photos represent child exploitation, then I think the time has come to go after all those picture frame manufacturers who use children in the mockup photos you remove before you insert your own. Let’s make the bastards pay. And I’m wondering if a mother who shares a picture of her child on her laptop should likewise be pilloried because some stranger happens to observe the photo over her shoulder. After all, don’t the bitches have it coming? Much as those date rape victims do?

We tolerate another child’s squeaky sneakers because that’s what being an adult entails. It’s the same impulse that involves losing sleep during a kid’s early years. It’s looking at the world beyond yourself. Permitting children to grow and discover. Not letting your own hangups get in the way. And unless you’re a sad narcissist pining for another fifteen minutes, living is nothing to mourn over.

I Was Simply Told the Lines

She may be smart, but she doesn’t seem to know much about men. But in real life, journalists are feeling the chill.

The stylish grandmother acted like a stammering child caught red-handed, refusing to admit any fault and pointing the finger at a convenient scapegoat. But now I want a full accounting. I want to know every awful act committed in the name of self-defense and patriotism.

Have you thought about using even fewer than 140 characters? In a droll nod to shifting technology, there’s a British red telephone booth in the loftlike office that you are welcome to use but you’ll have to bring in your cellphone.

Maybe it’s because I’m staying at the Sunset Tower on Sunset Boulevard, but I keep thinking of newspapers as Norma Desmond.

I dreamed that Spock saved our planet, The Daily Planet of journalism. Newspapers are an “endangered species,” as John Kerry called us in a Senate hearing last week, just as the Vulcans are in the new prequel. He gave me that wry Spock look.

Papers are still big. It’s the screens that got small.

Newspapers no longer know how to live long and prosper. It’s enough to make a Vulcan weep.

The really complicated question is what she hopes to gain from this.

This is quite touching, given that the start of the 21st century will be remembered as the harrowing era when an arrogant Republican administration did its best to undermine checks and balances.

How quaint.

I had dinner once with John and Elizabeth Edwards, when he first burst onto the national scene.

You could probably see your own name if you stayed long enough,

I heard about a woman who tweeted her father’s funeral. Whatever happened to private pain?

If you were out with a girl and she started twittering about it in the middle, would that be a deal-breaker or a turn-on?

To save journalism, Google has to know my most intimate secrets?

I feel better for a minute, until I realize that the only reason he knew that I wasn’t so easily replaceable is that Google had been looking into how to replace me.

Class dismissed.

(Tip via Jason Boog)

Review: The Brandon Book Crisis

Brandon Scott Gorrell and Tao Lin’s The Brandon Book Crisis contains a considerable amount of white space, thereby reflecting the aesthetic of an Outlook email printout. One suspects that the people in publishing deal with such printouts on a regular basis, even as they tell each other not to print out emails. There is, after all, an environment to save. Do people print out emails anymore?

One is tempted to quote Lacan here. Or perhaps another French Situationist. Some writer who might prevent depression. The real is too depressing. Even if it’s only a recession. White space leaves most writers depressed. The after image of this white expanse on various pages: also depressing. Brandon Scott Gorrell and Tao Lin should not be faulted for failing to predict the reviewer’s mood. Reviewer has not yet had coffee and, only yesterday, entered into a controversial exchange on Twitter over Starbuck’s and non-Starbuck’s coffee that amused about four people. It is quite possible that The Brandon Book Crisis will amuse more than four people. I now have the PDF open at Page 17. I don’t know whether I should laugh or cry. But these two guys put out a book and I haven’t. It’s that white space again. They somehow knew. They are watching me. They are watching me attempt to negotiate a morning without coffee and, like the rest of the literary community, they are laughing at me. They will beat me down until I am reduced to one of Tao’s unpaid interns.

The book claims to have arranged its emails from Monday through Friday. This, as it turns out, is a lie. For shortly after reading Page 4, outlining the weekdays and the page numbers, we then must endure the shock of Page 5, which doesn’t have any text on it (unless one counts the page number in the lower left-hand corner). We then turn to Page 6 and we are greeted by the words, “THURSDAY APRIL 23.” Tao informs us in a chat transcript: “brandon book cover crisis in ‘full on’ mode.” Yes, this is a crisis. A crisis in design. A crisis in narrative. A crisis that will probably be ignored by Granta and Bookforum — but a crisis nonetheless. I am having a crisis just thinking about the crisis.

On Page 12, there is reference to the white space problem. These authors may know what they are doing

On Page 18, there is an email containing the phrase, “chat me, i can’t chat you, internet closed.” Is this an allusion to Brokeback Mountain? Often when I hit Alt-F4 on Thunderbird, I wonder if my relation to my inbox is sexual. I am tempted to tell Thunderbird, “I just can’t reply to all of you, baby.” And since this is close to a famous line in Brokeback Mountain, I get uncomfortable. Perhaps Tao Lin experiences the same level of discomfort. Kudos to him for popping that conceptual cherry.

I have not had any personal dealings with Thomson-Shore, Inc. But there is a minatory quality to the email exchanges.

The book has a helpful index explaining references to various media figures and companies. This will be a valuable handbook when the world has forgotten about us.

Perhaps this book is a way for a number of disenfranchised literary figures to find credibility. To defeat the monster of white space.

“Think I’m just going to copy/paste in word doc,” says me at 2:10 PM on Friday, April 24. A fast way to defeat white space. Now that I’m looking at all the time stamps, I’m realizing that these kids are up earlier than I am. It is quite possible that they are putting together a book without coffee. Maybe they are not afraid of the monster of white space. But if they are, then why do they put so much of it in this book?

Other quotes:

“If you email him cc me in the email.”

“We can convert the photo to grayscale and make it the Pantone Black.”

I’m wondering if this book is quietly urging me to apply for a job at Kinko’s. The authors could not know that I was having a nervous breakdown. But if you want to be reminded of a particular Outlook aesthetic and the monster of white space, you can read this book. It is too short for anyone to have a nervous breakdown. But the authors might. And that seems more than a bit needless.

Plans For My Literary Ego

I’ve been getting a number of emails about BEA. And by “number,” let’s just say that it’s not a big number. In fact, the number is so small that I have been spending hours trying to rebuild my dwindling ego and pretend that the number is actually greater than it really is. Keith Gessen probably gets more emails on the subject of BEA than I do. And he’s in Russia right now. And goddammit, that makes me so mad. Why should Keith Gessen get more emails than I do? I mean, I’m spending a good deal of my time burning pictures of Keith Gessen that I download on the Internet. Particularly the ones of him in which the top button or two of his shirt has been unbuttoned. He has replaced Steve Almond as my primary subject of hate. So fuck you, Keith Gessen. And fuck you, New York Post. (It seems to me that I should likewise throw a random newspaper into my sad mix of enmity and self-loathing. And, well, why not The New York Post? I will cut it out of my life from now on. It’s the only way to be sure.)

Before I tell you what my decision is about BEA, let’s talk about the world. After all, the world revolves around me — and by “world,” I’m talking about an extremely small part of the literary world, and by “literary world,” well, let’s just say that half of half of half of half of one percent of anybody who has had the good fortune to shake my hand in the past six hours really cares about any of this. But it is a world nonetheless. And it is an ego that must be groomed, trimmed, and otherwise packed into a precious valise.

But in thinking about the emails that are coming in and in thinking about how this relates to the solipsistic world I live in, it’s permitted me to think about the possibility of whether or not I might be attending BEA.

Let us establish my credentials: I have taken in every BEA that has ever happened like blow snorted off the top of a Hollywood hooker’s sternum. When it comes to BEA, there can be no better expert than me on how to attend, report, and take meetings. I am the BEA Master. There will be an area of the exhibition floor named after me. That is how much I matter.

But I am not so sure I can be coaxed to make a decision until BEA actually happens. Let’s just say that I welcome speculation on whether I will or will not be at BEA from anyone who cares to send speculations.

P.S. Please buy my paperback.

P.P.S. For something far less egotistical and commercial-oriented, consider the Guys Lit Wire Book Fair for Boys.

[UPDATE: In case you haven’t figured it out by now, the narcissism being satirized in this post belongs to Mark Sarvas, not me. But to set the matter straight, I have added a 2009 introduction to the 2005 post I wrote about Steve Almond. Other than this preface, I have not altered that post or the comments in any way. Unlike Mark, I actually maintain history and I own up. I have also emailed an apology to Steve Almond.

To read all the boring sordid details, you can go to that post. I’ve learned, without even going out of my way to do so, that Mark has been meaner and snobbier to far more people in the publishing world than I could ever possibly desire to be spiteful to. (And I fully admit that I’m not always the easiest guy.) But, boy, was I wrong about Mark big time.]

The Bat Segundo Show: Nelson George

Nelson George appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #285.

Nelson George is most recently the author of City Kid.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Drowning in the inevitable tide of gentrification.

Author: Nelson George

Subjects Discussed: George’s thoughts on Fort Greene, gentrification, black artists and real estate, the inevitable nature of change, finding a balance between the personal and the artistic, artistic arrogance, on not being the person at the party who wanted to do something, living a fatherless life, mentoring Chris Rock and other artists, jealousy, helping other people, the concept of ass power, inspiration vs. perspiration, making art in little rooms, the relationship between creativity and place, Babyface and L.A. Reid, Hemingway, being around artistic peers, crime and guerrilla art, loft jazz, the rigid distinctions between black music genres, world music and cross-genre fusion, undermentioned hip-hop metaphors, WBLS and Frankie Crocker, whether or not Hot 97 lives up to cross-genre fusion, Auto-Tune and narrowcasting, trying to get work from Robert Christgau, Grandmaster Flash, going to Prince’s apartment to listen to Parade, junkets and ethical journalism, the crazy amounts of money that Island Records threw at Bob Marley, journalism and the sports industry, the corruption of the music industry, why sports figures weren’t interesting subjects to George, Oscar Micheaux and Warren Hudlington, getting tired of critical analysis, how book-writing changed George’s career, artistic evolution, and revenge.


nelsongeorgeCorrespondent: You write, “In my adult life, I’ve seen that while white institutions could be unthinking, even brutal, toward black aspirations, individual whites, either through genuine friendship or political philosophy, could be crucial allies. So while I never lost sight of racism, it became a huge part of my personal development to take whites as they came, not expecting racism or prejudice from them. And even if it was there, not to overreact, but remember it and exact revenge when I could.” But isn’t revenge along the lines of a kind of negative emotion? Or a negative idea like racism? I mean…

George: Revenge is…

Correspondent: Success itself is the best revenge, I would argue.

George: Depends on what they did to you. It depends on what they did to you.

Correspondent: Well, what did they do to you exactly?

George: People can get you fired from jobs. People can try and sully your name. People can try and hurt people you love. And so sometimes if you can get them, you will.

Correspondent: Yeah, but…

George: It’s just very basic.

Correspondent: But how much have…

George: It depends on what it is.

Correspondent: How much have you dwelt on this notion of vengeance? Is vengeance good?

George: Not very much.

Correspondent: Not really.

George: Not very much. I mean, vengeance is not a very useful emotion most of the time. But selective getting back at people is always very refreshing.

Correspondent: When was the last time you got back at someone?

George: About a year ago.

Correspondent: And what provoked that particular impulse? You just were feeling…

George: No, no, no. It’s not so much a thing. It’s just…revenge is actually very useful. It’s acts of commission. It’s acts of omission, not commission.

Correspondent: Yeah.

George: That is, there are things that happen. Opportunities that arise. That you know someone who it might be really good for. Or it could help them. And you don’t help them. You don’t tell them about it.

Correspondent: Yeah. So it’s really exclusion. That’s your form of revenge.

George: I would say that it’s the easiest one to apply. Because it involves no action.

Correspondent: Yeah. It involves very little in the true destroying of someone’s career.

George: Right, right.

Correspondent: It’s just a step back. It’s a therefore healthy vengeance.

George: Yeah, because it’s too — oh, I don’t have time to be conniving. That’s crazy.

Correspondent: (laughs)

George: I’ve got to actually — you know, because I’m not that. And it puts it. You know, to be that. I know people who really do think that way. And it takes a lot of their time. Like, well when are you going to do something for yourself?

Correspondent: Yeah.

George: But if you feel like you’ve been wronged by someone, and you’re in a position to help them and you don’t, then you’ve got that out of your system and you can move on.

BSS #285: Nelson George (Download MP3)

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