New Review: Gail Godwin’s Unfinished Desires

My review of Gail Godwin’s Unfinished Desires appears in today’s Chicago Sun-Times. Here’s the first paragraph:

Over the past half-century, the extreme religious right, as documented in Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming, has transformed certain fidelities about faith into snaky traducements that resemble a spastic Tex Avery cartoon. This surrender of common sense has sullied the more sober connections between spirituality and American life, creating an exploratory reticence among novelists that has softly settled into the cultural berm. But Gail Godwin, one of American literature’s best-kept secrets, has quietly eked out a thoughtful bypass in which orthodoxy and human folly are often entangled.

You can also listen to my recent interview with Godwin on The Bat Segundo Show.

Macmillan: The New Amazonfail

As widely reported, Amazon has removed all Macmillan titles from its site. This means that you won’t be able to buy new print or digital books from Paul Auster, John Scalzi, Richard Powers, or countless other authors bundled inside Macmillan’s many imprints through the Amazon website. The dispute, according to Macmillan CEO John Sargent, arose from a Thursday meeting Sargent had with Amazon, in which Sargent proposed new terms of sale for eBooks. Sargent desired to set the price for eBooks on an individual basis and under an agency model, sidestepping the austere $9.99 price point that Amazon has long insisted on for its Kindle titles. It is safe to say that Amazon, feeling particularly smug after reporting a profitable fourth quarter, felt compelled to not only have its cake and eat it too, but to throw numerous books beneath its oily guillotine. By the time Sargent returned to New York on Friday afternoon, the buy option for Macmillan’s books — both print and digital — had disappeared from Amazon’s website.

Bookstores have often refused to stock individual titles. (In 2004, refused to carry Craig Unger’s House of Bush, House of Saud.) But it’s important to understand that not a single bookstore chain has ever discriminated against a publisher like this before. It’s also important to understand that the laws of vertical integration — most famously ruled on through United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., in which motion picture studios, who produced the movies and owned the theaters that they played in, were ordered to break up their monopolies — don’t necessarily apply. Amazon may not be owned by the publishers, but there are some indicators that the company controls 90% of the eBook market, effectively securing a monopoly.

While Sargent’s statement is the only real word that has emerged from this conflict (Amazon has remained mum), Amazon’s lack of transparency about the sudden removal of Macmillan books, as Michael Orthofer severely understates, is unacceptable, possibly violating federal price discrimination statutes that were guaranteed under the 1936 Robinson-Patnam Act. And it remains to be seen whether the Federal Trade Commission, which has recently devoted its resources to badgering bloggers, will investigate these troubling developments to determine if its creaky howitzers might be rolled out to combat this greater greed.

But these developments have caused some authors, viewing Amazon’s aggressive pricing as a grave threat to their livelihood, to take umbrage. John Scalzi writes, “If Amazon is willing to play chicken with my economic well-being — and the economic well-being of many of my friends — to lock up its little corner of the eBook field, well, that’s its call to make. But, you know what, I remember people who are happy to trample my ass into the dirt as they’re rushing to grab at cash.” Charles Stross writes, “Amazon, in declaring war on Macmillan in this underhand way, have screwed me, and I tend to take that personally, because they didn’t need to do that.”

UPDATE: I’ve just received word that the Amazon Kindle Team has addressed the situation in a forum, stating that “we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan’s terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books.”

The Bat Segundo Show: Sue Grafton

Sue Grafton recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #320. Grafton is most recently the author of U is for Undertow.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Looking for a man named Snake to help him escape from Santa Teresa.

Author: Sue Grafton

Subjects Discussed: Kinsey Millhone’s early announcement to the readers regarding the bad guys, foreshadowing murder, not writing the same book twice, the ethics of investigation, the emotions associated with kidnapped children, Jaycee Dugard, Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan, gray areas of moral conduct, the difficulties reconciling real crime and fictional crime, the horror of people killing each other over a pair of tennis shoes, Grafton’s comfort level, working from an arsenal of journals, juggling voices and large character canvases, the writer’s fantasy of having the luxury of time, the solace of observing creative struggle in past books, being influenced by the complaints of a single reader, the motivation behind creating a mystery writer character, Howard Unruh and Grafton’s “Unruh,” why Grafton wishes to take the alphabet series to Z, Grafton’s reluctance to embrace Hollywood and Grafton’s early career as a screenwriter, Nabokov’s The Original of Laura, and Grafton’s relationship with readers and the mystery community.


Grafton: I don’t like to repel readers. I mean, we’re always dealing with homicide and violence of this sort, which is difficult enough. I don’t want to rub that in my reader’s face.

Correspondent: So it’s like, on the one hand, with this crime, you wanted to keep it off stage so that the gory details didn’t come front and center.

Grafton: Right.

Correspondent: But in other instances, like what we just talked about, you like to foreshadow and give the reader a taste of what’s going on. Do you feel these are contradictory impulses?

Grafton: I don’t know. If they are contradictory, I hope it’s an interesting contradiction. In some ways, in the reports you get about the crime itself from another child who is involved, by hook or by crook, nothing evil happens. And I hope I’ve gained a little sense. This is a story about people who make mistakes, people who use poor judgment. It is not the act of wicked evil men. These are kids who do something stupid and it backfires.

Correspondent: But in a way, at least when I was reading you, it almost struck me as being more horrible — not to get into Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil, but that’s essentially what you set up here. These people are sucked into the situation by virtue of their own stupidity. Their drug use, who they hang out with. And it almost feels — have you read A Simple Plan by Scott Smith?

Grafton: No.

Correspondent: It was made into a movie with Billy Bob Thornton and the like. But it’s a similar thing, where you start off with one guy and he does one act, and then another action. And you suddenly realize you’re drawn into a world as he’s doing really horrible things. And there’s a justification for everything. And I really did find that you did establish that there’s a weird little justification for how things developed. And even though these are horrible crimes, there’s some underlying motivation. This goes back to structure and the like. What did you know about you prior to setting it all down? And I do want to get into the writing process a bit. But what did you know first off?

Grafton: Well, part of what I feel I’m doing here is — and some of this I discover after the fact. I think of this as the anatomy of a crime. This is that strange subterranean accumulation of events that results in a crime. And I thought it was interesting to look at it from that perspective. One thing I’m fascinated by, at this pace in my career, is gray areas. Black and white and evil, while repellent, are not as representative of the public at large. Many people, I think, cross the line. That’s always a question to me. What makes people cross the line? Most people are law-abiding, good-natured, and yet circumstances. You know, I think many criminals are not evil people. They’re not pathologically twisted. Many ordinary folk somehow wander from the straight and narrow. And those kinds of deviations, and those kinds of crimes, are interesting to me. Because they’re a little closer to the norm. They are still outside what I consider acceptable behavior. But it’s not as cut and dried as many types of crime might be.

The Bat Segundo Show #320 (Download MP3)

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JD Salinger Dead

The Associated Press is reporting that JD Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye, has died of natural causes at his home in New Hampshire. He was 91.

In honor of J.D. Salinger, I have recorded a dramatic reading of his famous short story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” which can be listened to below.

“A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” as read by Edward Champion (Download MP3)

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UPDATE: The Barnes & Noble Review has enlisted some folks for a Salinger tribute. My remarks can be found at the bottom.

The Mountain

If your ambitions are confined to nothing more than ambling up a twenty-foot hill and declaring this easily accomplished task as something special, that’s perfectly fine. I do not wish to judge. Ambition means different things to different people. But when you tread up and down a small hillock so many times, it becomes more like a flat prairie. It’s nice to saunter about a hardpan patch. There’s the comfort of the familiar, the warm faces smiling in the wind. But if you have any grandiose sense of adventure, you’re probably going to start searching about for a bigger mountain — something that requires intrepid stamina, a good deal of training and practice, one that is highly rewarding and highly challenging.

I am certainly not a mountain climber in the literal sense, and I may never take up the physical challenge (although I am known to try just about anything once). I don’t intend to forsake the metaphorical flatland, which would be this place, and I certainly don’t harbor any prejudices against one terrain or the other. I’m only trying to explain for readers who may have come to rely on this place in some small way, to which I apologize for any half-abandonment. All this is an oblique way of declaring that I’m now climbing quite an imposing mountain, and that this task, buttressed by my obstinate discipline, has forced me to cut down on numerous cultural activities. I’ve unsubscribed from enticing lists. I’ve reduced my interviewing schedule. I’ve attended very few literary events. I’ve taken on freelance work to get by, but have tried to keep this both fun and minimal. For the mountain must be climbed, the considerable crags must be explored. The mountain enters my dreams. It badgers me when I go for a walk. It sometimes keeps me up late. It haunts me. I really have no choice in the matter. It’s come to that. And I have a very kind and talented man (along with others) to thank for directing me up the ledge. The results may come to nothing, even when my journey is complete. But then I have at least two more mountains after that, another which I am now climbing as a goofy diversion from the main summit. All I can tell you is that I’m having a great deal of fun and that I have felt an unexpected calmness settle over me, save for the distressing seismic and political developments in the news that get me upset, which are strangely related to this mountain. I’ve asked friends not to forward me certain links that will spawn or instigate crazed essays, and they have kindly respected this.

Because I’m putting just about all of my emotional and mental energies into this, I’m left with little room to fill up this place with lengthy pieces. And since the present online climate demands for one to bang out multiple posts a day (or one daily post containing substance), I’m here to confess that I just don’t have that time right now. I will probably offer piecemeal posts in the interim. I did promise a slowdown not long ago. But I’ve always been committed to making everything I do fun. I certainly don’t want to slum it here or turn this place into a tedious series of roundups. Twitter has pretty much destroyed the need for any blog to maintain a series of literary links. By the time you’ve presented it on a blog, it’s already made the rounds. Unless you write something substantial about it or you have new information that nobody else has. Probably for the best. But, hey, this hasn’t really been a litblog for a while. I do have other interests.

Sure, I’m on Twitter. You can find me if you’re so inclined. But even that account will likely slow to a crawl. It’s just isn’t the same as the mountain. The energies are there. That’s what I’m doing right now.

This isn’t a hiatus. I’ll pop in here from time to time. But if weeks go by without a peep, well, you now know why. Should the mountain come to anything, I do hope you’ll take the climb with me. I’m doing my best to make it true and worth the while.

The Bat Segundo Show: Gail Godwin

Gail Godwin recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #319. Godwin is most recently the author of Unfinished Desires.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Combating an uncertain relationship with the faith.

Author: Gail Godwin

Subjects Discussed: A Mother and Two Daughters, allegorical personality change tied into a historical framework, characters who dictate into a tape recorder, sense of time and character motivation, saving up character place, three (maybe four) versions of The Red Nun, nuns who hit boys with rulers, unfinished statues, representations of representations, David Copperfield, Henry James, The Beast in the Jungle, researching the inner workings of a toilet as punishment, the downgrading of dreams, contriving a reasonable punishment, the visceral response of accepting people without judgment, third person paragraphs containing first person introspection, preferring to be inside, telling gestures, death by traffic accidents, bizarre deaths, repeating certain themes, Mount St. Gabriel, confronting stepfathers, disappearing maiden names, knowing the sources of all counties, revisionist memory, not giving details to the reader, original drafts of 900 pages, drawing pictures while writing a novel, keeping track of 15 students, Evensong, and unintentional sequels.


Correspondent: I’m curious where the punishment that Ravenel ekes out in relation to a sanitary pad came from. The idea of having to research the inner workings of a modern toilet. Was this based off of any of the interviews you did?

Godwin: No, this was made up. I was in Ravenel’s head and her character. I was being the headmistress. And as headmistress with a lot of boarders, especially these boarders from Cuba. The fathers really want them to be young queens. This is back before Castro. And when this girl keeps flushing things down the toilet and stopping it up, Mother Ravenel first thinks, “Well, I’ll have her, as a punishment, clean the toilet stalls.” And then she realizes, as a canny headmistress, that would not do. Because these fathers just would not go for that, for their daughters to clean the toilets. So she had to think of something that would take a lot of work and be instructive. And so she thought, “Well, I’ll have her diagram the workings of a toilet.” And I looked in books to see what this poor girl would have to do. And it’s complex.

Correspondent: So just to be fair to the characters, you had to actually consider taking on the punishment yourself.

Godwin: Yes, and this girl would not have had these books that I have. You can get books now that give you pictures of anything. So you just look up “toilet” and there it is. In color, with all the parts and full-page labels.

Correspondent: But to take this conversation further down the toilet, I should point out that here we have a situation in which a biological budding occurs. And the answer, Ravenel’s answer, is to essentially deconstruct something that doesn’t even relate to it.

Godwin: Oh!

Correspondent: The suggestion here — apparently subconscious, based on your surprise — would seem to me to indicate, “Well, maybe you should just accept the fact that girls go through this and maybe should come to terms with this instead of having to deconstruct.” Going back to “The Downgrading of Dreams,” this relates to that. Because of Maud’s visceral reaction. She’s asked to emotionally explain her essay.

Godwin: Yes.

Correspondent: And then she’s asked to consistently dissect that emotional reaction. So we have a juxtaposition here. And I’m curious as to how that factored into the toilet incident and over the course of the book. Maybe you could talk about that.

Godwin: Well, tell me how. If you had been Mother Ravenel, what would you have thought of for the punishment — that would not have been deconstruction? What would it have been? Would it have been to talk about blossoming some more?

Correspondent: Yeah. Probably, I would have. Be honest about these kinds of things.

Godwin: Uh huh.

Correspondent: Get true to the heart, which would be my solution. But then I’m not really a religious man.

Godwin: And you’re not….

Correspondent: I’m a man too. So…

Godwin: Yeah, you’re not a headmistress or a nun.

Correspondent: Yes.

Godwin: In the 1950s.

BSS #319: Gail Godwin (Download MP3)

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New Review: Charlie Huston

I’ve interviewed the extremely entertaining writer Charlie Huston twice now for The Bat Segundo Show: once in 2007, where Huston rather devilishly attempted (and failed) to employ a minor Yojimbo between the good Rick Kleffel (also a Huston fan) and me, and again in last February (accompanied by a short video excerpt). But as funny and as enthralling as his last standalone novel was (The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, nominated days ago for an Edgar), Huston’s most recent novel, Sleepless, as I argue in today’s Barnes and Noble Review, represents a major step forward as a writer. Sleepless is an unusual fusion of dystopian cyberpunk, multiple perspectives, and fatherhood, and it really deserves more press. But, as John Fox has thoughtfully observed, today’s book reviewers have permitted idiosyncratic gripes and personal prejudices to intrude upon the sheer pleasure of reading. Small wonder that genre gets ignored or writers who attempt something different are castigated, and that today’s critics, with rare exception, remain about as adventurous as a company man too terrified of venturing more than six blocks away from his workplace during lunch hour.

Whether Huston will ever breach past these retroussé-nosed sentinels, now working themselves into a needlessly vigilant lather over Joshua Ferris’s sophomore slump, is anyone’s guess. The newspaper book review sections, for the most part, remain dull and uninviting in this volatile economic climate, too afraid to take chances or to offer space to thoughtful contrarians, and too diffident to hand over their column inches to anyone possessing even a modest strain of passion. But for those of us who still love fiction, and who can still remember the first time they were excited by a novel, I’m here to tell you that Huston is the real deal. In just five years, the writer who has savagely tortured animals and ushered his two series protagonists (bartender turned vigilante Hank Thompson and New York vampire Joe Pitt) through gritty and gleeful perdition is beginning to blossom before our eyes. As such, Sleepless is the first great novel I’ve read in 2010. And you can read why in today’s Barnes & Noble Review.

Too Much Kirsch in the Fondue

At some unspecified point in the future, words will be transmitted along these pages at the older frequency. But my services, such as they are, have been increasingly required elsewhere. For now, this space serves as a depository for podcasts, odd video clips (many of my own making), quick quips, short announcements, and the odd review or essay every now and then.

The Bat Segundo Show: Peniel Joseph

Peniel Joseph appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #318. Mr. Joseph is most recently the author of Dark Days, Bright Nights.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he lands on Plymouth Rock, or Plymouth Rock lands on him.

Author: Peniel Joseph

Subjects Discussed: Whether or not the bold declarations within Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech has been entirely heeded, the progress of African-American politics, revolutionaries vs. political pragmatists, Harold Washington, Jesse Jackson, Michael Eric Dyson’s critiques of Obama, Jeremiah Wright’s perception, Obama’s failure to confront race, the February 19, 2009 New York Post cartoon, race as portrayed in Obama’s speeches, the Henry Louis Gates arrest, whether the beer summit was more of a symbolic gesture rather than a practical confrontation, black revolutionaries being denied publication in prominent mainstream outlets vs. Stokely Carmichael getting published in The New Republic and The New York Review of Books, color-blind racism, the Nation of Islam’s bootrap and racial uplift strategies, Nixon seeing “black capitalism” as a promising prospect of Black Power, Fubu’s co-opting of Black Power slogans, black women and activism, misinterpretation of the Black Panther Party, the plasticity of ideology, Stokely Carmichael’s November 7, 1966 speech in Lowndes County, the fluidity of Black Power, Claiborne Carson’s In Struggle, Carmichael being wrongly accused of being the main influence on the SNCC Black Power position paper, misconceptions about Carmichael, Obama’s dismissal of Kwame Toure as a madman, the failure to celebrate Martin Luther King as a critic of American democracy, what Carmichael’s FBI file says about limited perspectives of black power figures, Carmichael’s antiwar stance, false government conclusions about Black Power, Tavis Smiley being taken to task for criticizing Obama, and prospects for new forms of Black Power radicalism.


Correspondent: When Malcolm X delivered his famous “Ballot or the Bullet” speech, you point out that newspapers ignored his more tangible call for one million new black voters for a black nationalist political party. Now black voters, as we all know, were instrumental in getting Obama elected in November. I’m wondering though — because they were not necessarily black nationalists — whether Malcolm X’s call was entirely heeded.

Joseph: Well, I think his call is going to be heeded into the next generation at least. When we think about when Malcolm said that in 1964, there was no congressional black caucus. There were no black senators since Reconstruction. There were no black governors. There wasn’t the wave of black mayors that we started having — starting in 1967, with Richard Hatcher in Gary, Indiana; Carl Stokes in Cleveland; by 1970, Kenneth Gibson in Newark, New Jersey. In the early ’70s — ’73, ’74 — you’re going to have Coleman Young in Detroit, Maynard Jackson in Atlanta. By 1983, you have Harold Washington in Chicago. And that’s the Chicago that Barack Obama comes of political age in at least — even though he grows up in Hawaii, he’s born in Hawaii on August 4, 1961. So I think African-American voters in the 1970s, in the 1980s, take heed to these politics of racial solidarity, for the most part. There’s going to be exceptions. People like Edward Brooke, the first black Senator elected in a general election in 1966 from the state of Massachusetts. Tom Bradley becomes Mayor of Los Angeles after the 1973 election in a city that only has 10% African-Americans. But for the most part, there’s really a racial script, where you’re going to get black elected officials in places like New Orleans. Mississippi becomes the state that has the most black state representatives and officials. It doesn’t have a senator. It doesn’t have a governor. But it has the most elected officials out of any of the states decades after the segregation of Freedom Summer and the assassinations of those three civil rights workers — Schwerner, Cheney, and Goodman; two white and one black.

So when we think about Malcolm’s call, it is heeded during the ’70s and ’80s. But as we get into the ’90s and the 21st century, there’s going to be some real notable exceptions. People like L. Douglas Wilder, who becomes governor of Virginia in 1989. People like Deval Patrick, who becomes governor of Massachusetts in 2006. People like Barack Obama, who becomes a Senator out of Illinois in 2004. People like Carol Moseley Braun, who becomes a Senator in 1992. So when we think about racial politics, the politics of racial solidarity for elections is still there. When you think about Bobby Rush, who Obama ran against in 2000 for the South Side of Chicago Congressional District, that’s a black district. Most likely, you’re always going to have an African-American representative there. So the politics of racial solidarity are there. But at the same time, there’s a new class of African-American elected officials. People like Cory Booker in Newark, New Jersey, who are really doing a pan-racial appeal. There’s saying, “Look, I’m an elected official. I am also black, but I happen to be black.” They’re not coming out in a very robust way talking about black solidarity and that the reason why I should be Mayor of Newark is because I’m black. Michael Nutter in Philadelphia’s the same way. Deval Patrick, the same way. Where they’re saying, “I happen to be black, but I’m going to be an elected official for all people.”

Correspondent: I’m curious if it takes someone like a Harold Washington or an Obama to create that one particular figure who both revolutionaries and those who believe in the pragmatism — revolution can be pragmatism too in its own ways — but those who believe in elected politics. Because there’s always been a fractiousness going on between the two within the black power movement of the last four decades, in particular. So does it take some brand new figure to unite? Or is it possible to have someone who can leave a legacy beyond the elected moment?

Joseph: Well, I’d say that it depends upon the time period. Because when we look at the late ’60s and early ’70s, black militants and black elected officials had real coalitions and ties. I think the best example of that is Amiri Baraka and Kenneth Gibson in Newark, New Jersey — and also the Gary Convention in March of 1972. The Gary Convention was a national black political convention attended by 12,000 people. And the co-conveners were Congressman Charles Diggs from Michigan, Mayor Richard Hatcher from Gary, Indiana, and Amiri Baraka, who held no elected position and who was just a black nationalist poet and an organizer. So there was this coalition. But by the middle ’70s, that coalition is going to fracture — really amid mutual recriminations. Politicians are going to accuse militants of being wild-eyed dreamers who don’t understand the politics of governance and the pragmatism that governance really precipitates. I mean, to be an elected official is to be somebody who is pragmatic and to compromise. Militants are going to accuse black elected officials of being the worst kind of sellouts. People who really utilize the politics of racial solidarity to get into office. And as soon as they get into office, they use the power of municipal politics and City Hall to enrich themselves and their cronies. And I think you’re going to see that tension over the next forty years. But there’s going to be notable exceptions. One is Harold Washington, who has a coalition of pragmatists and militants and somehow, in four and a half years as mayor, manages to please them all. Because Washington is re-elected and dies of a heart attack right around Thanksgiving of 1987, but is very much well-regarded in Chicago. Another mayor is going to be, surprisingly, Marion Barry of the 1970s. At least the initial Barry. So Barry, before the huge controversies over crack cocaine and adultery and all this different stuff, had militants and moderates in his camp. And he managed to please both of them.

Correspondent: A very [Adam Clayton] Powell-like resurgence as well.

Joseph: Absolutely. Absolutely. And when we think about militants and moderates in the 2008 presidential election, you saw the social movement that surrounded Obama draw in pragmatists. And it also drew in revolutionaries. So sometimes you do see these transcendent figures. And, finally, the best example in the 1980s of that is Jesse Jackson. Jesse Jackson runs for President in ’84 and ’88 — really inspired by what Harold Washington was able to do. And Jesse gets three and a half million votes in the Democratic primaries in 1984. Seven million in 1988. And he really inspires both pragmatists and militants in that campaign.

Correspondent: But inevitably there still remains a fractiousness — possibly tied in, in Obama’s case, with the failure to discuss race, which you bring up in the book and which Michael Eric Dyson recently appeared on MSNBC in response to the Harry Read fiasco, pointing out that Obama was “a president who runs from race like a black man runs from a cop.” You point out, in your book, that Obama’s reluctance to embrace race is especially ironic in light of the fact that he has a public admiration for Lincoln. You note that “his appreciation remains a simplification in as much as it largely fails to deal with the sixteenth President’s extraordinarily complicated racial views.” So the question is whether that observation and Dyson’s remarks come from the same particular place. Does Obama’s many political compromises — which we were talking about earlier, the necessity of being a politician — essentially make his failure to confront race untenable?

Joseph: Well, it’s very interesting. I think that we’re living in a time period in which politicians can talk about race in a less open way than forty years ago. And I think that’s interesting. Because we usually think of progress as something that’s linear — it’s a linear narrative. So if it’s 2010, we should be able to talk about race better than we could in 1968. That’s not true in this case. We can talk about race in the late ’60’s in a much more candid way because of the civil rights act, because of the voting rights act, because of the race riots that we’re going on, because of the Kerner Comission. The New York Times used to be an organ in the late ’60s and early ’70s, where you had black militants who had a podium in the New York Times, were writing op-eds about black thinktanks and about the Gary Convention. The Washington Post was the same way. In a way that we would find — our generation — extraordinary. Because those august institutions won’t give black militants that kind of platform anymore. So the President of the United States, in terms of Barack Obama, one of the reasons why he won, race was a positive and a negative. It was a positive in the sense that, for a whole new generation of voters, especially those under 30, they found it quite refreshing that this man was running for President and took him very seriously. It was a negative, as we saw in the case of Jeremiah Wright, when critics of Obama, especially the right wing, could connect him to what was perceived as black extremism and anti-American sentiment. Including things like the Black Power movement. Because Jeremiah Wright is certainly coming out of a tradition of black liberation theology, which is rooted in that black power movement. People like James Cone. People like Reverend Albert Cleage out of Detroit. So I understand Dyson’s critique and, on some points, I actually agree with Dyson’s critique and others.

BSS #318: Peniel Joseph (Download MP3)

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The Most Important Absence

The above film, “The Most Important Absence,” is the first one I’ve made in 2010. And I intend to put together several more of them. All clips were taken from public domain sources — mostly stag and burlesque films from the first half of the 20th century. The title is taken from a very influential essay about image, which I leave viewers to seek out. But the content contained within the film will probably reveal its source. Different viewers will come away with different interpretations, but the onus falls upon the viewer to determine what the juxtaposition means and where the absence really lies. The film has been expressly designed to offer several possibilities. There is no uniform interpretation.

The Racist Senate of the United States

Here is a listing of racist incidents involving United States Senators presently in office:


On March 13, 1998, during investigations pertaining to the 1996 Presidential Campaign, Sen. Bennett remarked, “I stepped in and said, `No. I have owned a business in Asia. I have done business in Asia. Charlie Trie’s actions are the typical actions of an Asian businessman.'” (CSPAN — video and transcript)


On July 16, 2009, at an Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, Sen. Boxer was speaking to Harry Alford, president and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce (an organization that Boxer confused with the NAACP), when the following exchange occured:

Boxer: Then we’re going to put the NAACP resolution that passed saying this: The NAACP approved a historic resolution addressing climate change legislation for the first time in the organization’s history.

Alford: What does that mean?

Boxer: Sir, we’re gonna put that in the record, and you can read it cuz I don’t have the time, but I’ll read the rest-

Alford: What does that mean though? I mean, the NAACP has a resolution. What does that mean?

Boxer: Sir, they could say the same thing about what do you mean? I’m just telling you they passed it-

Alford: I’ve got documentation!

Boxer: Sir, they passed it. Now, also, if that isn’t interesting to you, we’ll quote John Grant who is the CEO of A Hundred Black Men of Atlanta. Quote: Clean energy is the key that will unlock millions of jobs, and the NAACP’s support is vital to ensuring that those jobs help to rebuild urban areas. So clearly there is a diversity of opinion.

Alford: Madame Chair-

Boxer: If I can-

Alford: -that is condescending to me.

Boxer: Well-

Alford: I’m the National Black Chamber of Commerce-

Boxer: If this- if this-

Alford: -and you’re trying to put up some other black group up to pit against me.

Boxer: If this gentleman- if this gentleman were here, he would be proud that he was being quoted. Just as-

Alford: He should have been invited.

Boxer: Just as- He would be proud-

Alford: It is condescending to me.

Boxer: Just as so- Just so you know, he would be proud that you were here. He is proud I am sure-

Alford: Proud, proud (bitterly and contemptuously).

Boxer: -that I am quoting him.

Alford: All that’s condescending-

Boxer: Well, Sir.

Alford: -and I don’t like it. It’s racial.

Boxer: What’s racial?

Alford: I don’t like it.

Boxer: Excuse me, Sir.

Alford: I take offense to it.

Boxer: Ok.

Alford: As an African-American and a veteran of this country, I take offense to that.

Boxer: Offense at the fact that I would quote-

Alford: You’re quoting some other black man. Why don’t you quote some other-

Boxer: No.

Alford: Asian? Or some other-

Boxer: Well, lemme-

Alford: I mean- what- You are being racial here.

(Transcript and YouTube clip)


On July 10, 1997, when questioning a witness about a reward from Asian-Americans that Democratic fundraiser John Huang was to receive, Sen. Brownback remarked, “No raise money, no get bonus.” (USA Today, Seattle Times)


At a March 20, 2004 Republican event, Jim Bunning stated that his opponent, Sen. Daniel Mongiardo, looked like one of Saddam Hussein’s sons. (USA Today, Associated Press)


“Senator Byrd quit the Klan in the 1940s and has renounced it since. On the other hand, his history is worth revisiting, since it’s something Democrats have been willing to tolerate, despite Lott-like remarks that would have ended a Republican’s career. Only last year Mr. Byrd told Fox News that ‘there are white niggers. I’ve seen a lot of white niggers in my time, if you want to use that word. But we all–we all–we just need to work together to make our country a better country and I–I’d just as soon quit talking about it so much.'” (Wall Street Journal)


During the July hearings for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Sen. Coburn impersonated Ricky Ricardo from I Love Lucy, saying, “You have lots of ‘splaining to do!” (YouTube clip and The New York Times)


During his 2006 campaign, Sen. Corker used fears of interracial relationships and stereotypes against his opponent, Harold Ford, who was African-American. “Harold Ford looks nice,” says one African-American woman, “isn’t that enough?” “I met Harold at the Playboy party,” says a scantily clad white woman. (Truthdig with video clip)


During the health care debates, Sen. Graham argued the following: “I have 12 percent unemployment in South Carolina. My state’s on its knees. I have 31 percent African-American population in South Carolina.” Later in the speech, Sen. Graham said, “My state, with 30 percent African-American citizens, a lot of low income people in South Carolina is going to cost my state a billion dollars, that’s the same old stuff that I object to. That’s not change we can believe in. That’s sleazy.” Rachel Maddow concluded, “The argument here appears to be that Sen. Graham believes it is sleazy to expect a state with lots of black people in it, to have health reform.” (Rachel Maddow video and Raw Story)


During the 2000 campaign, Sen. McCain told reporters, “I hated the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live.” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 2, 2000)

In 1983, as a young congressman, Sen. McCain voted against the recognition of Martin Luther King Day. (ABC News)

In an August 1, 2008 post, Capitol Hill Blue’s Doug Thompson noted additional anecdotal examples of racism. (Capitol Hill Blue)


In John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s new book, Game Change Harry Reid stated that Barack Obama could become the first African-American President because he was “light-skinned” and because he did not speak with a “Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” (New York Times)


In 1986, Sen. Sessions was rejected from an Alabama judiciary seat by the Senate Judiciary Committee seat. In previous remarks, Sessions had claimed that the NAACP was “un-American,” calling an African-American aide “boy,” and describing a white civil rights attorney as “a disgrace to his race.” Sessions also claimed that Klansmen were “O.K.” until he learned that a few of them smoked pot. (Numerous articles through Meet Jeff Sessions. See also The New Republic.)


Before he switched parties from Republican to Democrat, Sen. Arlen Specter spoke at a November 1, 2008 pro-McCain rally, where he noted “a couple of hidden factors” in the 2008 presidential election: “The first is that people answer pollsters one way, but in the secrecy of the ballot booth, vote the other way.” (Salon)


In October 2009, an interracial couple was denied marriage by justice of the peace Keith Bardwell. Sen. Mary Landrieu and Gov. Bobby Jindall both called for Bardwell’s firing. But Sen. Vitter was the only senior official who refused to comment, running away when asked by a guy with a video camera. He also refused to comment when asked three times by MSNBC. (YouTube video, Talking Points Memo)

Review: Daybreakers (2010)

The vampire film has needed a kick in the ass for quite some time. Popular audiences have endured the emo complacency of the Twilight films, suffered through the soporific bastardization of Bram Stoker with 2004’s Van Helsing, and settled for the mediocre Underworld trilogy — all relying on tired and tedious tropes that have made recent vampire movies about as desperate as a burned out bookkeeper flipping through a community college catalog for a new hobby.

But Daybreakers is a vampire flick with a brain: a fresh and much-needed corrective to the past decade’s measly offerings. It may be the best American vampire film (courtesy of Australia) since the original Blade. The film manages to deliver on its premise, set ten years from now, largely because it has taken the time to consider the social implications of a world populated mostly by vampires. Cars are equipped with a Daytime Driving Mode, with tinted windows permitting vampires to drive during the day. City buildings are denuded of windows, modified to include corridors high in the sky. A Subwalk has emerged as an adjunct to the subway, which permits vampires to amble beneath an urban world, protected from daylight. Homeless vampires hold cardboard signs reading STARVING NEED BLOOD and bare their fangs at the rich. Cafes now offer coffee tinged with blood, and self-important yuppie vampires still berate baristas. There are even gated suburban communities, whereby those who provide the blood are rewarded with secure enclaves.

But when 95% of the population relies on human blood to survive, and humans are being increasingly munched on, there’s bound to be problems. As one vampire puts it, “Life’s a bitch and you don’t die.” Daybreakers presents blood as a commodity that is just as exhaustible as oil, offering a subtly creepy Hubbert’s Peak analogy that aligns nicely with the distressing prospect of human genocide. But when any commodity declines, the poor will be the first to suffer. And it isn’t too long before those vampires who cannot afford blood are transformed into wretched winged monsters and chained “traitors” are led in daylight before an assembled shaded audience to demonstrate the consequences of questioning big business.

This premise is buttressed considerably by Sam Neill camping it up as a sleazy industrialist and by Ethan Hawke (playing a vampire researching a surrogate for the diminishing blood supply) approaching this material as if he has been cast in an Ibsen play. Michael and Peter Spierig — the writer-directors behind this fun little flick — wisely understand that any good vampire movie requires these varying levels of performance. They’ve even managed to recruit Willem Dafoe as a former vampire turned human vigilante, who brandishes a crossbow and proudly announces, “My friends call my Elvis.” I can’t really complain much about the process that turns Elvis human. It’s about as plausible as the semi-cheesy procedure offered near the end of Kathryn Bigelow’s great flick, Near Dark.

The Spierig brothers give this film a suitable fluorescent look, where each individual vampire carries the combined pallor of twenty Peter Murphy acolytes. They don’t hesitate to depict starving vampires hungrily licking walls, and that desperate hunger reinforces the narrative stakes. The filmmakers flounder somewhat near the end, largely because their characters can’t always match the conceptual complexity. One can level the same minor complaint against District 9, which replaced its interesting take on race with fights and explosions. But then one expects this sort of thing from a movie of this type.

But Daybreakers must be lauded. It is a rare vampire movie that comes layered with so many intriguing ideas. The 2012-boosting Roger Ebert has dismissed it, because of “fierce fights and bloodshed.” But if you cannot accept a vampire movie with “fierce fights and bloodshed,” particularly with so many socioeconomic factors at stake, that’s too bad. For Daybreakers has thought out its setting with more alacrity than much of its duller non-genre counterparts.

Review: Youth in Revolt (2009)

Michael Cera, a reedy actor known for grilling his thin mix of thespic tricks into crepe-like pipsqueaks quietly braying the predictable coups de foudre, is not necessarily a man to be disliked. But there doesn’t seem to be a filmmaker with the guts to discourage his predictable instincts.

Miguel Arteta would seem to be that man. The director has served up a commendable body of work (the underrated Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl, and episodes of Six Feet Under and The Office) reflecting his knack for getting quirky and engaging performances from his cast. But it does not follow that, just because you affix a beret and a moustache onto Cera’s boyish poise, you will be guaranteed a performance that treads beyond established terrain. These sartorial embellishments, which emerge with Cera’s unconvincing puffs at jaspers, are intended to create an imaginary alter ego to Cera’s established protagonist. But the results demonstrate that Cera lacks the possibilities of an Elijah Wood, coaxed into enjoyable cartoonish viciousness by Sin City‘s Robert Rodriguez.

The Cera predicament is especially troubling for Arteta’s latest film, Youth in Revolt, which, my Cera criticisms aside, is a fairly engaging diversion — one that caused me to laugh, even when the needlessly condescending interstitials (various animations, disastrously calculated to appeal to some misunderstood Williamsburg demographic) threatened to uproot the delicious anarchy buried beneath. These concessional interludes caused me to wonder whether a few nonconformist kinks were ironed out during the reported reshoots early last year, and whether a more dangerous film, truer to C.D. Payne’s subversive source material, was lurking under the restitched seams. The film business, being as secretive and as protective as it is, will no doubt stay mum on this point.

Cera plays Nick Twisp, a teenager who is “a voracious reader of classic prose” and who likes Frank Sinatra. He complains that he lives “in a city filled with women who have zero interest in me” (honestly, in Berkeley?) and is mercilessly ridiculed when he rents La Strada from a video store. His mother has a taste for dumbbell fuck buddies (the first played by Zach Galifianakis, a noisy neo-Belushi whose supporting comedic turns I am becoming rather fond of). The promised Summer of ’42 moment emerges with a girl named Sheeni Saunders (played winningly by relative newcomer Portia Doubleday), who takes to Twisp’s naive disposition and expands her lips further after he unleashes an alter ego: a lumpen lothario named Francois Dillinger, the alter ego I quibbled with above.

Dillinger persuades Twisp to do bad things. Arson with $8 million in damages. A ruse involving sleeping pills. All in the service of winning Sheeni’s heart with dangerous behavior. Much of this is fun, but Cera’s plodding one-note performance prevents this gleeful mayhem from living up to the disastrous possibilities of a Frank Oz-directed comedy.

It is troubling that Arteta casts so many of his supporting actors right, while failing to elicit much out of Cera. Adhir Kaylan nearly steals the movie as Twisp’s pal, Vijay, imbuing his character with romantic neuroses that are far more plausible than anything Cera has to offer. Fred Willard is cast as a naive and burned out activist, and demonstrates once again that he’s brilliant at getting inside the surprisingly dimensional mentality of a clueless buffoon. I failed to mention that Jean Smart, who can do little wrong, plays Twisp’s mom. Even Steve Buscemi manages to show up as Twisp’s dad.

There are also some amusing oddball moments, such as Sheeni’s father revealed to be a lawyer, who proceeds to cite conditional legalese when Twisp arrives to hang out with Sheeni. Sheeni’s family lives in a preposterously baroque trailer with multiple floors. And in a surreal flourish, a car, for reasons that I won’t divulge, is trapped within the Twisp living room.

Many of these eccentricities existed in Payne’s novels, and they have been adapted well by screenwriter Gustin Nash (and uncredited polisher Mike White) into the requirements of cinema. It’s just too bad that Cera isn’t up to the material’s feral exigencies, and that Arteta (or some other unknown production force) has neutered the promise of a teen comedy as reinterpreted by Preston Sturges. This film is very good in spots, but why diminish the insanity?

The Major

Observe the Major on a red carpet, and at any given moment three or four paws are on him. His heroism has been well received by the dogs, particularly those in dire need of lubrication and those that possess tongues the size of throw towels. The more feral members wanted to touch him, carve him up, put him on a platter with an apple in his mouth and masticate upon his roasted innards over a Sunday dinner.

He obliged, again and again, even after an exhausted publicist denied him the promised boudoir bounty of lanky debutantes after a long wintry afternoon of vapid interviews in which the same questions were asked and the same answers were proffered. There was always time for one more photo, one more backrub, one more comparative anecdote from some stranger involving an obscure relative that had little to do with the smoky chatter that regular people sequestered from all the madness still had the liberty to enjoy. He is known only for The Incident. He will spend the rest of his days answering questions about his role in The Incident. It will never occur to his interlocutors that he possesses interests or instincts outside this role, or that his heroism was, in fact, perfunctory. The biggest surprise for him is not that this attention has lasted this long, but that he has been continually subjected to this funny photosynthesis and that he is beginning to transform into a trailing plant. There are no other heroes for people to latch onto, although many souls who wandered too close have become trapped against his sticky anthocyanin housing. Relatives have become too occupied by his heroism to inquire about the shattered condition of loved ones. Those spectators who have not become throbbing canine-shaped insects continue to ignore the daily marvels before their eyes. Their notion of heroism remains static, even though heroism itself now requires extraordinary circumstances in order to draw attention. But they cannot see that his arms are metamorphosing into scaly vines and that he is beginning to cough up a curious green bile. Nobody thinks to water the Major or to expose him to proper sunlight. The handlers insist that the Major can find enough hale regard through constant camera flashes.

There were press releases instead of camaraderie. A few remaining sensible souls winced when developments in the Major’s personal life were reported by seemingly responsible news organizations, and when the very nature of heroism mutated with his increasingly convex form. When his tongue fell out at a SoHo House press conference, the journalists laughed at the apparent joke. He was soon reduced to lashing his remarks in crude semaphor. He deteriorated further. And when his spindly spavin withered and his dead form was contained in a pot and his remainders were trundled about across the country, the Major’s heroism extended to his sacrifice, which took several months to become fully detected by those with the keys.

This was the price of fame.

Kid Chocolate

On January 6, 1910 — precisely a century ago — the Cuban boxer Kid Chocolate proceeded to undergo a ten-round bout with his mother’s uterus. He was declared the winner by a doctor (no referees were available in the hospital) and was awarded an umbilical snip for his preborn pugilism. It is safe to say that Kid Chocolate is no longer alive. Indeed, he has not been alive for a good twenty years. But there was a time in which Eligio Sardiñas Montalvo — once referred to, in all seriousness, as The Cuban Bon Bon, a sobriquet that could not easily fly today — was undefeated. But his opponents were better and he began to lose.

Kid Chocolate would be co-opted by Clifford Odets for his play, Golden Boy, where Kid Chocolate would be synthesized into the Baltimore Chocolate Drop. Odets introduces this composite by having the boy say, “The Baltimore Chocolate Drop is not as good as you think he is.” I would have asked Odets, “Is this entirely fair?” A December 24, 1959 issue of Jet reports that Kid Chocolate owned four homes at the time. I do not know whether or not he lost them. But one of the factors that motivated Sugar Ray Robinson to become a boxer, according to Herb Boyd and Ray Robinson’s Pound for Pound, was Robinson learning that Kid Chocolate made $75,000 for a half hour of fighting in the ring.

That’s $2,500 a minute to have someone beat you to a pulp before a crowd. Is it worth it? I think most people would say so. Without accounting for inflation, Kid Chocolate made more from one fight than I have ever made in a year. If I had to fight only one fight (30 minutes a year), at the risk of brain damage, a beaten corpus, and a warped skull, but I was able to earn that kind of money, then I might seriously consider Kid Chocolate’s rates. Then again, if I were to suffer brain damage, then I wouldn’t be able to write. So perhaps it’s not worth that kind of blood money. Even if I were to spend a good deal of time getting in the appropriate shape. Which I imagine would run into my reading and writing time. I would be a rather silly boxer.

By 1965, Robinson was broke. He had made $4 million boxing and it was all gone. Robinson may have been inspired by the wrong detail. Money (or the fantasy of earning a lot of it) isn’t really a good reason to make a major life decision. But Robinson, to his credit, lived longer than Clifford Odets did. Kid Chocolate lived longer than both of them. I have a feeling that Kid Chocolate simply liked to box. He had numerous flashy moves. You can look all this up if you’re curious.

Given the choice between Kid Chocolate (or even Sugar Ray Robinson) and Clifford Odets, which one will be more remembered a century from now? Or will any of them be remembered? All three individuals interest me. But I am not sure if anybody will be interested in them one hundred years from now. There may be some boxing scholar sifting through boxes (that is, if they are preserved), attempting to put together some comprehensive history. But will boxing have changed? If the theatricality of “professional” wrestling can shift dramatically to extreme elements involving nails, glass, and boards in a few mere decades, then it’s safe to say that boxing could just as easily become more gloves-off in the future. So will anybody be interested in past versions?

It is also worth observing that these fights tend to interest spectators as they unfold in the present. If you already know the fate of the match, then the boxing bout loses its appeal. On the other hand, Odets, being a playwright who planted figures in the crowd for some of his work, was also interested in the present moment. So is it entirely fair to place Odets above the boxers?

I had originally set out to merely observe that it was Kid Chocolate’s 100th birthday. Should I live another fifty years (a possibility, but one never knows!), I will remember Kid Chocolate on his 150th birthday and perform greater justice than this silly post assembled in the early morning hours.

Dave Eggers and the Journalism Sweatshop Model

In recent months, Dave Eggers has continued to insist that newspapers, contrary to recent developments, are not dying. In May 2009, Eggers spoke before a crowd and announced, “If you are ever feeling down, if you are ever despairing, if you ever think publishing is dying or print is dying or books are dying or newspapers are dying (the next issue of McSweeney’s will be a newspaper—we’re going to prove that it can make it. It comes out in September). If you ever have any doubt, e-mail me, and I will buck you up and prove to you that you’re wrong.” This prompted many, including the Washington Post‘s Ron Charles, to take Eggers up on his offer and inform him of grim realities. Eggers failed to live up to his end of the newspaper-boosting bargain, sending out a boilerplate email in response to inquires from interested parties. This email, rather predictably, offered nothing more substantive than the foolhardy optimism that one generally receives from a faith healer or a used car salesman.

If prosperity remained just around the corner, one could at least take comfort with the handsome issue, which came, as promised, with contributions from Stephen King, Nicholson Baker, and William T. Vollmann. But the more important question of whether the San Francisco Panorama was profitable was swept under the rug. Then last month, The Awl‘s Choire Sicha took a hard look at the numbers, pointing out that the Panorama required $111,000 to publish 23,000 issues. With advertising revenue of $61,000, the Panorama took a loss of 33 cents per issue. Additional problems came from the $80,000 editorial costs, which, as Sicha demonstrated, had to be split among 218 contributors. After subtracting an estimated 12 cents/word paid for contributions, noted Sicha, there was a mere $38,000 for the seven staff members, who all worked on the paper for four months. How many of the people who worked on the Panorama were unpaid? It was never officially disclosed, but Sicha’s calculations demonstrated that Eggers’s vision was nothing more than a puerile and unworkable fantasy.

None of this has prevented Eggers from flapping his mouth in interviews, continuing to claim phony expertise on how to save newspapers. And as Eggers has continued to blab, a more troubling vision, one that involves paying the writer nearly nothing, has emerged.

In an interview with The Onion A/V Club, Eggers points to the ostensible simplicity of readers “pay[ing] a dollar for all the content within, and that supports the enterprise.” But as Sicha demonstrated in December, the enterprise clearly wasn’t supported by reader dollars. Could it be that a web-based model, one that cuts out an expensive $111,000 print cost, might, in fact, permit some of that money to be given to the writers and editors who perform their labors? Not in Eggers’s view. Sayeth Eggers: “The web model is just so much more complicated, and involves this third party of advertisers, and all these other sources of revenue that are sort of provisional, but haven’t been proven yet.” But is it really all that complicated to create an Excel spreadsheet listing the money coming in from advertisers and the money that you pay out to contributors, and use a formula function to determine if the enterprise is profitable? Maybe if you’re six years old or you don’t know how to use computers. But even if you’re computer illiterate, there’s this nifty little innovation called double-entry bookkeeping that’s been around since the 13th century. And you can even perform it on paper — if, like Eggers, you “just have an affection for paper.”

But Eggers’s remarks in the Onion interview reveal that he isn’t really interested in paying writers. He notes J. Malcolm Garcia, a correspondent heading to Afghanistan who offered to write something for the Panorama. As Eggers boasted, “it doesn’t even cost that much, because he was going anyway.” In other words, Garcia’s work — the substance of his investigations, the time he took in reporting — can be undervalued because he just happened to be in the region. This is a bit like asking a doctor to cut his rates because “he happens to be in the hospital” or asking your next door neighbor to perform professional services because “he happens to live next door.”

And yet Eggers claims that he has a daily respect for the people who have toiled at sweatshop wages for his beloved Panorama. Professional respect doesn’t emerge when you’re paying your editors below minimum wage or you adopt an assumptive attitude that, because some journalist happens to be in the area, you can undercut his labor. It emerges by paying the writer what she is worth. And if Eggers insists that “we’re programmed to declare something dead once a week,” he may want to look at his own programming, which has continued to perform its financial miscalculations over the course of seven months. If Eggers values the experience of old-school journalists, as he indicates in the interview, then why not pay them the money that their experience is worth? Perhaps because, contrary to his “tidy” conclusions, Eggers doesn’t know how to balance numbers and doesn’t know how to run a profitable newspaper. He doesn’t comprehend that journalism isn’t some casual hobby to be picked up like stamp collecting, but an occupation that requires dutiful compensation.

David Pogue and the Gray Lady’s Double Standard

In a post on Saturday, the NYTPicker, a website devoted to “the goings-on inside the New York Times,” pointed to the recent firing of Mary Tripsas, who was let go after writing a positive column just after taking an all-expenses paid trip from 3M. The NYTPicker also highlighted Clark Hoyt’s recent column, in which Hoyt reported that the Times had “parted company” with Joshua Robinson after Robinson had “represented himself as as a Times reporter while asking airline magazines for free tickets to cities around the world for an independent project he was proposing with a photographer.”

But David Pogue’s ongoing ethical infractions were not addressed by Hoyt and, as the NYTPicker put it, “Pogue continues to keep his gig while traveling the country — courtesy of corporations who pay him to speak at retreats and confabs, identifying himself as a NYT columnist. It’s a double standard that NYT has yet to address.”

This prompted David Pogue to leave the following comment at the NYTPicker’s site:

I spoke 30 times in 2009.

One of them was for a corporation–ONE. It was Raytheon. And that was an engagement that had been individually approved by my editors.

(As part of the Times crackdown on this issue, ALL of my speaking engagements must be individually approved. It’s been this way since June.)

The remaining 29 were for educational and non-profit outfits. Examples:Florida Virtual Schools; eCollege; Cleveland Town Hall speaker series; FOSE (government training); Society for Technical Communication; CT Librarians’ Association; CUNY; Educomm; MBL (Woods Hole); Memorial Sloan Kettering; Syracuse University.

Ooooh, look at Pogue jetting around the country for big corporations!!

You just have no idea what you’re talking about.

Actually, the NYTPicker does have some idea about what it’s talking about.

Here’s the pertinent clause from the New York Times‘s ethical guidelines: “Staff members should be sensitive to the appearance of partiality when they address groups that might figure in their coverage, especially if the setting might suggest a close relationship to the sponsoring group.”

Alas, in the examples that Mr. Pogue kindly offered to the NYTPicker, the ostensible “journalist” proved quite careless in disclosing his partiality. Had Mr. Pogue bothered to investigate or research the entities he was speaking to before accepting the invitations and the honorariums, he might have discovered that there was decidedly more than one corporation here.

As its website proudly announces, eCollege is a division of Pearson PLC, a London education and media conglomerate that specializes in making educational software.

Ergo, a corporation.

FOSE is run by the 1105 Government Information Group, part of 1105 Media, Inc., whose California corporate record can be found here.

Ergo, a corporation.

The Society for Technical Communication is a for-profit New York corporation. Here’s a link to the bylaws.

Ergo, a corporation.

The Educomm conference is run by the Professional Media Group. You can search here for the limited liability company record from the Connecticut Commercial Recording Division:

While an LLC is slightly different from a corporation under Connecticut law, it’s safe to say that the Professional Media Group’s structure is far from nonprofit.

So that makes three for-profit corporations and an LLC in a pear tree. That squarely puts the corporations in the plural and confirms the NYTPicker’s allegations.

In a further gaffe, Mr. Pogue claimed that the NYTPicker’s author was “David.” But in an embarrassing series of developments last September, the New York Times issued a retraction for misidentifying David Blum as the man behind NYTPicker.

According to the NYTPicker, New York Times editors and spokesmen have refused to answer important questions about this double standard in journalistic ethics, whereby Mr. Pogue continues to breach the Gray Lady’s ethical standards without apparent penalty.

[UPDATE: David Pogue has left a few followup comments at the NYTPicker, which has prompted this followup post.]

The Bat Segundo Show: Katharine Weber II

Katharine Weber appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #317. Ms. Weber is most recently the author of True Confections. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #130 with Levi Asher. Ms. Weber and Mr. Asher will be appearing at the Greenlight Bookstore on January 11, 2009 at 7:30 PM.

(Please note: The Bat Segundo Show has discovered a rare and rather alarming remix of the infamous Little Sammies television commercial by a rather untalented 27-year-old DJ, who goes by the name “DJ Danger Titmouse,” presently living in San Ramon, California with numerous unemployed members of his extended family. We have appended this remix to the beginning of this show for educational purposes and to aid wiser heads in taking any appropriate precautionary measures.)

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Hungover from dangerous activities.

Author: Katharine Weber II

Subjects Discussed: The relationship between authenticity and telling a divagating family tale, Alice’s concerns with childhood culture vs. being the guardian of childhood culture, lexical blending, Weber’s anticipation of Twitter, the origins of concepts based on words, Howdy’s relationship with George W. Bush, firstborn sons and leaders, fixed societal positions and family business, combining facts and invention to depict candy-making procedures, the problem with concentrating upon factories, the Madagascar Plan, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, chocolate, how predetermined facts can be twisted and made credible, perceptions buttressed by media presence, the science of white chocolate, the many strange real names of candy bars, the Chicken Dinner bar as a surrogate meal during the Great Depression, Staircase Writing, the many ways in which Weber never tired of candy, attending a candy convention, adjacent reading, “Sweet Old World,” terrified candy magnates who hide behind handlers, tight-lipped people at Hershey, Tootsie Roll’s Ellen Gordon vs. Lauren Bacall, Joyva Halvah, easily offended readers, the myth of writer’s block, and cheating on therapists.


Correspondent: I wanted to ask about the many interesting aspects of candymaking that are throughout this book. Alice herself says that most candy factories have very tight security. You, I know, did some research. And I’m wondering how you managed to get many of these morsels into the actual book, and whether a lot of this is fabricated and a lot of this is speculation.

Weber: A lot of it is made up. A lot of it is YouTube. Candy companies have websites. There are incredible numbers of candy blogs, and I have certainly spent time reading them all. I’ve never set foot in a candy factory.

Correspondent: Aha!

Weber: But two of my favorite television shows are Unwrapped and How It’s Made. And you can sit me down in front of a TV where there’s a documentary on how they make Venetian blinds and I would probably watch it avidly. I love factories. I love manufacturing. And there’s something just utterly fantastic to me about how that truly American ingenuity, that kind of mid-century ingenuity, of making machines that made things — that made this country great. Seriously, it’s sort of an autistic side of myself. I remember my kids being born, but I was avidly glued to an episode of Mister Rogers, which was an episode to the Crayola factory. I just couldn’t get enough of it.

Correspondent: I remember those too.

Weber: Just loved it.

Correspondent: I’m wondering if you were reluctant to visit a factory. Whether this actually was a prohibition. Because if you stepped foot into the factory, some imaginative possibility would be sullied.

Weber: Absolutely. I also, on a very practical level, didn’t want to be writing about a factory. I wanted to be writing about Zip’s Candies. And if I were to visit any candy factory, then I would be writing about that candy factory. And I don’t want people thinking I’m writing about a known company, a known family. But also I indeed wanted to be able to just make it up in my head. The one factory that I have been in that did inspire this story was actually my husband’s family’s printing company, which is no longer in the family. Because my husband is the third generation who didn’t want to run the business. And so it was sold. But it was the classic case. His father was an employee who married the boss’s daughter and then grew the business. But Fox Press in Hartford was about the same scale as Zip’s Candies. About the same size number of employees. The same kind of factory setting in a certain way. And so, although it was a printing company and they’re not making candy in there, I think physically, in my head, the kinetic memories and the experience, the sounds, the machines, were a model in some ways.

Correspondent: There’s also an instance involving the Madagascar Plan, the famous Nazi effort to get the Jews…

Weber: Is it famous? Because most people I know that are perfectly educated, thoughtful people have never heard of the Madagascar Plan.

Correspondent: Wow. It’s there.

Weber: It’s fascinatingly unknown.

Correspondent: It’s there in…

Weber: It happened. It’s real. I did not make up the Madagascar Plan.

Correspondent: Well, the question I have is this notion of a Jewish bakery owner, who pretends to be German or who has managed to have his Jewishness ignored by the authorities,

Weber: He pretends to be a non-Jew. A safe Hungarian.

Correspondent: Yeah. The question is: Was this based off of the so-called Jewish specialists who Eichmann had round up in the efforts to determine how they would actually engage this plan, which they never actually did. They decided to go ahead with the Final Solution.

Weber: It wasn’t that organized in my thoughts. It was really kind of confabulated. Of course, it’s not my telling how Julius Kaplinsky got himself to Madagascar, thinking he was getting ahead early, ahead of the crowd, to get established before the other four million Jews of Europe showed up. It’s Alice’s telling of Julius Kaplinsky going to Madagascar.

Correspondent: With speculations too.

Weber: And she admits that she basically had no idea how he got there. But this is what she thinks. And then she goes back into telling the story very authoritatively. But it’s an utterly fascinating interlude. It’s very much what might have been. I mean, if I were writing a nonfiction book about the Madagascar Plan — and somebody should, by the way; there is no such book — I know what the title would be, which would be The First Solution. Because when the Madagascar Plan was a happening thing, the Third Reich stopped work on the Warsaw ghetto. They stopped transports into Poland. They were going to ship the Jews of Europe to Madagascar. But they needed to win the Battle of Britain to have the British naval fleet. Because that was the piece of this plan. They needed those boats to ship the Jews. And when it didn’t go their way, when the Battle of Britain just didn’t really work out so well with the Third Reich, they turned away from the Madagascar Plan, resumed transports, finished the Warsaw ghetto, and began working on the Final Solution.

So it’s an incredible alternate history. Michael Chabon’s The Frozen Chosen in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Or we could all be sitting under palm trees in Madagascar. Under baobab trees. And, of course, for me, Madagascar signifies hugely. Because chocolate — and this is a novel about chocolate, chocolate, chocolate — chocolate grows within twenty degrees of the equator all the way around the globe. And some of the finest chocolate on this planet comes from Madagascar. So it knits back into the story.

BSS #317: Katharine Weber II (Download MP3)

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