On the Cannibal Film Genre

There’s some more content coming (indeed, there will be a good deal of content published tomorrow). But in the meantime, I feel compelled to direct your attention to this morning’s Barnes & Noble Review, where my essay on the cannibal film genre has just run. What happened here is that my editor had me review a film. Then, knowing very well of my tendency (indeed, one could more accurately style it a full-blown obsessive commitment) of performing serious background research, I began watching a good deal of cannibal films. And so this rather unusual cannibal film essay emerged in its place. You can read the results here. Here are the first few sentences:

The cannibal film, much like its topical larder, may be the genre of last resort. But open-minded cineastes wishing to move beyond Hannibal Lecter’s fey gravitas may be surprised to find an edgy contextual reframing that mainstream cinema lacks the guts to approach.

The Bat Segundo Show: Marisa Meltzer

Marisa Meltzer appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #328. Ms. Meltzer is most recently the author of Girl Power.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why Liz Phair is running away.

Author: Marisa Meltzer

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: You quote Susan Douglas’s Where the Girls Are, in which Douglas notes that the women performing in the 1960s gave voice to all these inner warring selves. But she also notes later in her book — not quoted by you — that this period of music also captured the way that young women were caught between this entrapment and this freedom. Now some of the examples you use in the book, such as Phair, Bikini Kill, riot grrl culture in general, they tend to suggest more of the latter than the former. What do you think is the ultimate distinction between, say, the music of the last twenty years versus almost this second wave reaction to the 1960s?

Meltzer: That’s a hard question. You know, I’m reading her new book right now. And it’s all about the ’90’s and the past few decades. So I’ve been thinking about her a lot, but not so much the ’60’s. I think the distinction is that there’s so much more feminist rhetoric in culture now that, after the ’70’s, you had this postfeminist era — which is not a word that I’m a fan of. But in everything from advertising to music to television, there’s all this lip service and references to feminism and empowerment. But I don’t know how many actual empowerment there is. To me, that’s the difference. I think it’s really easy to think that we’ve come a long way musically or politically because there’s so much feminism around us. But I don’t know if it’s so substantive.

Correspondent: On the other hand, empowerment has been rather easily co-opted by marketing forces.

Meltzer: Yeah.

Correspondent: And so the question of what empowerment actually provides within this music, I suppose, is subject to the fluctuating market forces that may actually abscond with the inherent self-righteous truth of this message.

Meltzer: Yeah. I mean, the word “empower” is also just one of those words that, at this point, I don’t even know if it has much meaning. I feel like it’s been drained away by marketers. So it’s something that I have a lot of suspicion towards.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, it begs the question of whether a phrase or a word — whether it be “riot grrl,” “girl power,” “lady” as you point out later in the book — if the terms are constantly shifting, then are the terms essentially meaningless? Or must one gravitate towards whatever terms are presently fashionable among young girls, or among culture at large, and just attempt to play this game of leapfrog?

Meltzer: Yeah. I do think that there is a certain amount of leapfrog. I think that there is a lot of fashion. I think of my mother’s generation — the baby boomers. And none of them describe themselves as girls. Whereas all of my friends — many of them in our thirties or even in our forties now — constantly use the word “girl” to describe ourselves, to describe other people, to describe people who are older than us, younger than us. And you see some real generational divides. And then you also see in divisions in terms of culture, where there was “grrl” and “girl power,” and suddenly that was taken over, and you had to start calling everyone “lady.” I hope that those terms don’t seem compulsory. But I do think that there can be a certain amount of feeling — it’s kind of like a password or a code. I think that — especially the term “lady” for the past few years — it was “Oh, you’re going to love this great lady.” Or “Have you seen this lady that’s making cupcakes at the flea market or the pop-up shop?” Or whatever. I think there’s a certain shorthand to it. But is it necessary? No. But I think that if it makes you feel good, if it makes you feel as if you’re in on something.

(Image: Shayla Hason)

The Bat Segundo Show #328: Marisa Meltzer (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Chang-Rae Lee

Chang-Rae Lee appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #327. Mr. Lee is most recently the author of The Surrendered

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Searching for the middle-ground between “beat” and “sweet.”

Author: Chang-Rae Lee

Subjects Discussed: The similarities and differences between writing in first-person vs. third-person, the advantages of sitting in the god’s seat, infinite choices within sentences, the difficulties in pursuing the “inner life” on the page, becoming imbued by character consciousness, feeling obliterated when writing about the ravages of war, Brian Evenson, Lee’s ongoing fascination with violence, pursuing time and space within sentences, contending with false starts, agonizing over sentences, Lee’s perfectionism in relation to revision and line editing, the reasons behind the two year publishing delay for The Surrendered, the problems with possessing a hard work ethic and producing slow, writing the first chapter in a swift period of time, distrusting prose results, the difficulty of final chapters, writing as a medium for thinking and character development, character names and historical references, the Battle of Solferino, Hector as a Jean-Henri Dunant type, Hector’s creative origins as a guy from Southwest Texas, the town of Iliad, New York, Hector’s design as an immortal, the double-edged sword of persistence, the influence of Cheever and Updike, and the need to mature (as a writer and as a person) before tackling a serious story.


Lee: I’ve always been very conscious of language. It might seem silly of me to say, given all of the things that have happened in my books. I’m not terribly interested in plot. (laughs) I mean, I enjoy it. But I find, for me, the real action in drama is in the play of the sentences and in the play of the words. That’s what draws me through the story too. I mean, in some ways, unless I hear the sentence, I don’t understand what it really means. And even back in school, when I was writing a lot more essays, I would always try to craft it so that it felt like something and it sounded like something to me, rather than just said something. And particularly vis-à-vis the scenes of violence, I wanted — I think in this book and in A Gesture Life — I tried to think to myself, “What was the most, in some ways, unlikely way to describe this?” With perhaps spare and beautiful language that would add a layer of a different kind of horror to the moment. Just the contrast between how not lovely, but how handsome everything seemed and normal, given what was happening.

Correspondent: Well, that’s interesting. It also makes me ask whether you could ever possibly stop work in the middle of a sentence or whether this would actually drive you insane over the course of a day.

Lee: No, no. I can never do that. That’s my problem as a writer. I work the sentences so long. And even the very plain ones that probably don’t seem to anyone to be worth it. (laughs)

Correspondent: A five-word sentence? (laughs)

Lee: (laughs) I work them and work them until each one satisfies certain requirements and follows up the last sentence, and fulfills and promises something about the next one. You know, it’s not a great way to write in some ways. Because at the end of a paragraph, I often feel, “Okay, this is a pretty good paragraph.” But sometimes that paragraph is completely useless. Because it’s irrelevant or it’s not quite looking at the right thing.

Correspondent: Well, let’s expand this to chapter units. These are rather lengthy chapters. And so this also makes me wonder when you knew the chapter was done, if you’re constantly working and crafting these sentences.

Lee: Well, let me tell you. I threw away chapters. I threw away many chapters. They do get done. But often they’re just irrelevant. And this has been my mode in all my novels. (laughs) And it’s a maddening, frustrating mode. Because I do tend to write chapters that are a little bit longer. It just appeals to me somehow. The rhythm that I get in having a little full narrative in each chapter. A fully detailed scene. And again, for me, they’re all like little tiny books.

Correspondent: Well, this also leads me to ask quite naturally, there has to be an advantage in tossing away a chapter. Because you didn’t get it this time. But you may have had a rough idea of what worked. And you know that you can possibly recapture those particular elements and try again and get it right. Or does the process work like that for you?

Lee: No, no. It definitely helps. I mean, the second time around, you’re much more aware. You have to get over the excruciating pain of having thrown away that chapter and feeling as if there were good parts of it, but that I probably can’t use anymore. Because the whole thing for me is — again, the whole chapter has to feel that it has a certain kind of rhetorical orchestration. And even a musical orchestration, for me at least, that I hear. And maybe it’s because I grew up writing poetry first. And, in some ways, I was raised by poets as I was learning the craft. And I’m still learning. But I’ve always been attuned to meter and a certain kind of stressing and a certain kind of musicality.

Correspondent: So you cannibalize essentially with the subconscious. With these second attempts. Is that how you might put it? You throw it away. You don’t look at it again. The false starts.

Lee: I’ll sometimes look at them. But again, it’s painful to look at them. Because in and of themselves, they seem okay. And that’s what I tell my writing students. It’s not a matter of writing well ultimately. I mean, that’s not the only matter, right? It has to fulfill all the things that you’ve been writing to up to that moment and connect up in a mysterious way, in an ineffable way, with what you’ve laid down and what you might lay down. So I don’t know. Sometimes I feel as if maybe that’s the way I have to do it. I have to write every novel four times. Not four different novels. But in the process of it. Just kind of work it and work it and work it. And I’m a slow writer too. I’m pretty methodical. I’m not the sort of writer who can jam out 2,000 words and then go back and fix them and be happy with it. So it’s coalmining. (laughs)

(Image: Daniel Hulshizer)

The Bat Segundo Show #327: Chang-Raee Lee (Download MP3)

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James Wood on DFW

It seemed strangely fitting to get punched by a hideous man in the solar plexus as I was on my way to see James Wood discuss David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men at the 92nd Street Y on Monday night. The man was bald, with a sebaceous sheen having long replaced any wet shaved droplets from that morning, in his late thirties, walking fast, iPod buds piping what I detected as bland corporate tunes (perhaps David Gray) into his ears, looking to be fighting down, as Bret Easton Ellis once described of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, “the urge to start slapping [himself] in the face.” For all I know, he had just murdered someone or maybe he hadn’t bothered to ask a loved one for a hug. But whatever his emotional paucity, he took it out on me in a New York minute. I was passing to his left in the 42nd Street corridor connecting several subways, and he went out of his way to jab me without reason. No provocation on my part at all. Didn’t know the guy. I imagined that he had just confessed his sins to an interviewer. Like the reader flipping through DFW’s “brief interviews,” I’d never be privy to the questions. And even if he confessed what seemed like a barrage of details to me, it would not be the entire story.

I bring this incident up not to arouse sympathy (none is required), but to point out that DFW’s “hideous men” remain alive and well. Decades from now, you will still find them manipulating women, roasting within their own violent realities and fantasies, and boasting to unseen interlocutors of their sins. On the other hand, if, as some hardcore DFW acolytes believe, the titular Brief Interviews are more reflective of a metaphorical author-reader relationship, something that is strongly suggested by DFW’s inclusion of “Octet” (whereby he presents a series of pop quizzes, only to have the author interrupt halfway through to go on and on about how the piece has failed, resorting to “tired old S.O.P. metafiction”), then perhaps my efforts to fuse reality with fiction begin to dissolve. Of this secondary type of reading (or is it the primary?), James Wood would have little to say, even when asked by an audience member, “How much meta can one tolerate?” (Wood’s reply to this question was that the reader could indeed lose his mind. “Of course,” qualified Wood, “it should drive us a bit mad.”) He would identify DFW as “a very moral writer,” pointing out that, in Brief Interviews, “There are real critiques of unpleasant and self-obsessed people.” But he would neither bring up the book’s elided questions (much less the Final Fantasy-style ellipses, the occasional italicization of the “Q.,” or the even more infrequent double questions represented only by the seventeenth letter of the alphabet, followed by trusted period), nor would he address “Octet.” But he would express a surprising enthusiasm for DFW’s work, often getting a bit giddy over specific sentences and phrases*, and prove to have a greater grasp on the moral weight of this material than Zadie Smith.

jameswood2The occasion for this revisitation, as explained by a competently groomed gentleman (it was his somewhat eccentrically cut beard that caused me to wonder, and even worry a bit, about his grooming) named Bernard Schwartz (who thankfully did not resemble the man who punched me, although he did ramble on about “Mr. McEwan’s only New York appearance,” which, given my regrettable experience last week with Solar, the latest unreadable turkey squawking from the master’s great hand, seemed akin to boasting of Pauly Shore or Carrot Top headlining a standup comedy night of some long-lasting cultural import), was a 92nd Street Y series styled First Reads. Wood then emerged from behind the stage. (It is probably worth observing that all this was preceded by a prerecorded announcement indicating that cameras and recording devices were “strictly prohibited during the concert.” Given the musical connotations of this noun, I was a bit disappointed that Wood did not sing, play the drums, or play an instrument. He did, however, read DFW’s passages in a somewhat Shakespearean tone, of which he later expressed some doubts. And he was careful to qualify — this, no doubt addressed to the pro-audio book bloc within the audience, who was represented through one question on this subject, to which Wood expressed some polite contrarianism, pointing out, “I do like going at my own speed,” and observing quite rightly the fascistic speed (to be clear, the “fascistic” modifier is mine, not Wood’s; there may be additional modest embellishments throughout this report, which I shall do my best to delineate) prevented one from having a say in the manner — that if one insisted upon a precise aural intonation of the material, one could easily find any number of recorded files read by DFW to hear the appropriate pacing. He would also later note that reading DFW’s sentences aloud was akin to “playing a wind instrument.” And indeed, in light of the many layers of footnotes and commentary and protracted clause-laden sentences, there seems a clear justification to confine DFW’s sentences to one’s own head, and Wood is to be lauded for attempting to dissect the text in a way it was probably not explicitly designed for.)

As I indicated before the last digression (and there will be more of them, I assure you), Wood emerged from behind the stage, dressed in unpretentious jeans and quickly divesting himself of his coat, and rolling up his shirtsleeves as if he was about to deliver a stump speech (I should probably note, at the risk of making this sentence needlessly long, that Wood’s position w/r/t DFW reminded me very much of the hard compromises reached by the Democrats to pass the health care bill, in the sense that he did not bring up irony at all — an ineluctable quality when considering DFW at any stage in his career — but was careful to note that here was a major author; and as I implied earlier, the gentlemanly Wood was very good on Monday night to move beyond the “moral fiction”/”realism” concerns that he has been saddled with, wishing to judge the text for what it was, and he even brought up Beckett (handouts of Company could be found on chairs, along with an excerpt from DFW’s “The Depressed Person,” giving this correspondent the minor sense that he had accidentally stumbled into a classroom and was going to be ejected, perhaps punched without reason as he had been earlier that evening, by unknown administrative heads who would declare him a fraud, an impostor, a charlatan, a quack, an uncredentialed blogger (although he was credentialed for this event), an unthinker, and countless other nouns I could bombard at you but won’t, but this minor sense, which some readers may identify as either neurosis or paranoia, was swiftly obviated by Wood’s polite and invitational quality to engage with the text as he had) and David Markson, and the citation of these more experimental writers suggests very highly that Wood is not straitjacketed by the “hysterical realism” charge with which his critics have pegged him; so that watching Wood was a bit like smiling at the Democratic achievement the night before; it was not the ideal bill, but it was a good faith step forward, and, if one is to imply a binary value, a bipartisan effort between us (assuming the reader falls into my camp, the pro-stylists) and Wood (the realists), and the reason that this report must be so long is not in homage to DFW (although some will assume this report to be a desperate parody: if so, fuck ’em), but because there is, to my knowledge, no essay in the works in which Wood will memorialize his statements; ergo, your digressing and wisecracking correspondent’s ramblings on the subject). Having removed his carapace, and having placed his arms upon the cherry cedar lectern (where he would sometimes shuffle from one arm to another over the course of the next eighty minutes), Wood then proceeded to clarify Mr. Schwartz’s suggestion that he had “kindly agreed” to take questions from the audience. He said, “Indeed, I have graciously agreed to take questions.”

Wood noted that the series had been some time in the making, taking two years to get off the ground, and that the delay had been caused by “the David Lodgian reason of not having to admit” that one had not read a certain book (the reference here is to the game Humiliation, found within Lodge’s very funny novel, Changing Places, in which a professor ends up confessing that he hasn’t read Hamlet). But Wood, having established that he had read Infinite Jest, Oblivion, and “not read much else, except of the journalism,” indicated that DFW was “a writer I wanted to revisit anyway.” He was careful to clarify that “I don’t in any way present myself as a Foster Wallace expert.” He then noted, right off the bat, “what an extraordinary ear Wallace has,” and began to read numerous passages, most of them from the titular Brief Interviews. Perhaps Wood may wish to confirm this in the comments (if he’s even read this far or even cares what I have to say), but the sense that this correspondent had was that Wood was not only fond of Wallace’s numerical categorization (he seemed to enjoy saying “B.I. #30”), but of specific phrases. I have noted in the footnote below that he liked “chicken pesto.” But he also praised the repeated use of “blow out” in B.I. #31. After reading a passage, he said, “And when you read something like that, you think he’s got something.” He observed “the particular unpleasantness of that phrase,” noting its use as a builder’s term. He then spoke highly of “reciplicate” being used in “reciprocate.” And during these readings (again qualified with the footnote below), he would often say, “I’ll repeat that,” and read a specific sentence again.

He also admired the way that DFW had twisted Victor Frankl’s Search for Meaning in B.I. #46, pointing out that the perspective started off as “fairly normal,” until a rather peculiar moral interpretation of Frankl began to emerge throughout the text. He liked DFW’s distortion of the Nietzschean axiom (involving the carrying of a whip when you are around a woman) with the character noting “you have got to be careful of taking a knee-jerk attitude about violence and degradation in the case of women also.” B.I. #20 (near book’s end) contained one of Wood’s favorite phrases: “Nevertheless nolo to the charge that I spotted her on the blanket at the concert and sauntered carnivorously over with an overtly one-night objective.” To Wood’s mind, this conjured up a feeling of local pleasures and he offered an interesting comparative phrase from Norman Rush’s Mating: “This jeu maintained its facetious character, but there came a time when I began to resent it as a concealed way of short-circuiting my episode of depression, because he preferred to be merry, naturally.”

These were signs, Wood continued, of the “good American tradition” of capturing speech and consciousness. And DFW’s work was very skillful in capturing the “helplessness of the self.” To this end, going back to B.I. #31, Wood noted the way that “little lady” revealed a telltale condemnation, pointing out that the interview subjects’s inability to forget specific details was entirely the problem. To this end, he cited the blind character within “Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders (XI),” noting that “even a little story like that” was enough to “think about the entrapment of solipsism.”

As I indicated above, Wood clearly relished reading these passages. “It’s a wonderful bit of writing, isn’t it?” he said, following one read. He noted that DFW’s stories were “funny and intolerable” and that these dual emotions likewise “entrapped you into two languages.” He compared this approach to Lydia Davis’s “intolerable spillage of the self,” as well as Thomas Bernhard, who was “also brilliant” with this approach. He then brought up Beckett’s Company (the aforementioned handout), which he used to compare against DFW, pointing out that DFW was carrying on in the tradition of “withholding and repressing what we would actually want to know” and that Beckett and DFW both depicted “a painful defense to not allow something to get into the text.” And he cited the language in “The Depressed Person” and “Signifying Nothing” as examples “very like Beckett” in the way that “artificial stiff language was holding back on the traumatic.”

But while Wood had many positive things to say about DFW, he criticized DFW for “sometimes playing his hand too obviously.” “Instead of being enigmatic like Beckett,” continued Wood, “Wallace spoils them by giving you the key.” To this end, he complained about the end of B.I. #46, where the subject says, “…and what if I said it happened to me? Would that make a difference?” And while Wood’s criticism on this small point is valid if one reads the “brief interviews” strictly with a literal realist narrative in mind (a perfectly valid approach, but one, I think, that underplays DFW’s achievement here), this perspective fails to consider that these interviews may represent the author-reader relationship, perhaps with the hideous man standing in as a fictional construct for DFW. Let us not forget that what the subjects in these “brief interviews” are saying is fictional, that what they declare may be boasting or may not, in fact, be true.

During the Q&A period, I attempted to signal Wood to address him on this particular angle. And when the session was over, I ran into the delightful Martin Schneider (of Emdashes; he has offered his own report), who had offered his own question concerning DFW’s tricks (I would highly advise reading Schneider’s report if you are interested not only in Wood’s response, but the exceedingly polite way in which Wood answered questions from the audience, including one bald gentleman, unrelated to the guy in the subway who punched me and not as well-groomed as Mr. Schwartz, who went on and on and on about Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” before the patient Wood found a pocket of time with which to quell this bald guy’s relentless Fidel Castro-like expatiation), I then approached Wood in the adjacent room, after carrying on an excitable and jocular conversation with Schneider and Sarah Weinman, hoping to get Wood to answer on this point. Wood, ever the deft and polite time allocator, diverted his attentions towards Schneider. The question was not answered. Despite waiting until the last possible minute to approach Wood, there were still people behind us who wished to shake his hand. But perhaps the issue might be taken up at a later point, due to the surprising detail and unanticipated length of this report.

Despite this minor caveat, Wood’s willingness to find passage into DFW, a writer he has previously expressed some reticence about, demonstrated to me that the First Reads program was a success. Certainly the audience of approximately seventy souls — ranging from those overfamiliar with the text to those who simply desired an answer about what “Datum Centurio” was about — all seemed to appreciate the talk. And I hope that the good folks at the 92nd Street Y (whether they be bald or well-groomed) will set up aesthetic oppositions of this ilk (setting up further surprise revelations) for future installments of the series.

(RELATED: Martin Schneider’s report. There is also another account at The Daily Snowman.)

* — He particularly liked the “chicken presto” dish found in “Signifying Nothing.” He also very much enjoyed reading sentences twice. Indeed, of the thirty-five minutes or so that he allocated to “discussing” DFW, it is safe to say that Wood spent much of the time reading, even repeating numerous sentences so that the audience could take in DFW’s magic.

The Dark Side of Healthcare

The present wisdom being circulated — that the healthcare reform passed on Sunday night is “a step in the right direction” — blindly assumes that a public option bill rectifying HMO avarice (among other consolidations of power working against the commonweal) is forthcoming. It assumes that healthcare costs will remain the same between now and 2014 — the year in which all individuals who can’t get healthcare from their employers (including the unemployed, the self-employed, and those working for a business with less than 50 employees) will be required by law to purchase healthcare. (By 2016, those who fail to purchase healthcare will take either an annual tax hit of $695 or 2.5% of household income, whichever sum is greater.)

But the new legislation doesn’t require businesses with less than 50 employees to offer healthcare for its workers. Which means that, for these small businesses, the onus will fall upon the worker to bankroll her own healthcare. And while it is true that federal subsidies (i.e., affordability credits, which will run out in 2019, a little-observed issue among some progressives) will exist, through a graduated scale, to help any individual making less than $44,000 a year ($88,000 for a family of four) pay for her own insurance (at least over the course of a six year period), there remains an army of elephants in the room that nobody wants to talk about.

Beyond the misplaced definition of “neutralizing” industries identified by Glenn Greenwald, there’s the uncertain future of whether premiums can even be stabilized to fit a healthcare organization’s for-profit disposition. The Los Angeles Times‘s Duke Hefland couldn’t seem to get any prognostication from the experts. But if there’s anything just as certain as death and taxes, a for-profit corporation will find a way to make more money, stopping at nothing to squeeze out the vulnerable. While the bill does put a stop to the deadly practice of denying healthcare applicants coverage because of pre-existing conditions (this is arguably Sunday night’s greatest victory and the linchpin for greater progress), it doesn’t hold insurance companies accountable for escalating prices. There hasn’t been a National Insurance Rate Authority established (although Sen. Feinstein attempted to sneak one in), but there has been traction in getting the antitrust exemption removed. Still, the failure to establish an authority is especially problematic, considering that a health insurance company’s business model involves collecting from the healthy to pay for the unhealthy. And what is to stop an insurance company from jacking up premiums across the board (as Anthem notably did back in February)? What is to halt CEOs from collecting compensation? Will we see a legion of Nick Riverias offering cheap and possibly ineffectual insurance to help people purchase the mandated care? Time will tell. But many of these possibilities could have been avoided with a public option.

The Democrats were forced to make some serious concessions on these points. And their long-term strategy may involve a clever alliance. Since the responsibility for paying for healthcare now falls upon a large cluster of businesses, perhaps these businesses may align themselves with government against any premium spikes from the insurance industry. On the other hand, any potential alliance will inherently favor the corporation or the business with more than 50 employees.

Let’s say that you’re someone looking for a new job in 2014. You don’t have any savings. And you need to get a job. Because you don’t have any healthcare. And if you don’t get the healthcare, essential and vital as it may be, you’re going to be hit with hard financial penalties. Corporation A offers you a job for $40,000, which includes healthcare benefits. Meanwhile, Small Business B has made you a counteroffer of $42,000. But because Small Business B employs only ten workers, under these arrangements, you’d be forced to pay your own healthcare costs if you decided to take this job. So in order for you work for Small Business B, you’d need B to pay you about $5,000 more, so that you can purchase the federally required healthcare. But Small Business B can’t afford this. For Corporation A, which must pay for healthcare, and Small Business B, which doesn’t have to, there’s certainly a financial advantage to the small business. But the worker is going to opt for Corporation A. Because the employee is going to get less income after healthcare costs working with Small Business B than with Corporation A. Therefore, potential innovation that might emerge with the small business job is lost to the corporation. And I haven’t even begun to examine the impact on the self-employed — MJ Rose tweeted back to me last night her nightmarish escalation of costs — along with the abortion restrictions (followed by cries of “baby killer”).

A public option and a central insurance rate authority (along with a 21st century recognition of gender realities) would help to create affordable healthcare rates, work to rectify these imbalances, and begin the journey to a greater goal: universal health care that regular people can afford and, if they can’t, care that they can receive for free, without an IRS or an HMO invoice attached, and without the spoils going to private industry. That is the mark of a civilized nation. That is the true mark of progress. But maybe, just maybe, we’re on our way.

The Bat Segundo Show: David Shields

David Shields recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #326. Mr. Shields is most recently the author of Reality Hunger.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Settling for a quesadilla or some reality for lunch.

Author: David Shields

Subjects Discussed: The origins of the novel and the pretense of actuality, Shields’s dismissal of Myla Goldberg’s forthcoming novel based solely on a catalog description, the creative possibilities that emerge from mishearing, Sherman’s March, the mutability of text, Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, whether a truer creative impulse comes from misappropriation, common reality and the individual reception of a novel, Spenser’s “Mutability Cantos,” espousing work that is true to human consciousness, Shields’s view as the lyrical essay as the best opportunity for investigation, dreamworlds, Shields’s hatred of the exit door within the novel, Shields’s dismissal of Lolita as a “masturbatory book” that is “smug, so sure of itself,” laden with “purple prose” and “full of condescension,” Shields’s boredom with the “monuments,” Shields’s opinion on “formulaic” plot, the Ca’pn Crunch moment in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, the Huey Lewis and Genesis chapters in American Psycho, Saul Bellow’s Herzog, Shields’s view of novel reading as a “childish” and “frivolous” activity, Vollmann’s The Royal Family, challenging Shields on the “fun” of reading, Sarah Waters, David Markson, Shields’s boredom with The Great Gatsby, a lengthy attempt to find a Lou Reed-related quote in the book, the value of the “hyperfake,” the Gormenghast books, China Mieville’s City and the City, Shields’s failure to maintain a “story gene,” Wittgenstein’s Mistress, Sebald, Rothko, quibbling with Shields’s definition of “a great artist,” David Foster Wallace and Tom Clancy, the meshing of high and low culture, Shields’s distaste for DFW’s fiction, Ulysses, “in no way is Infinite Jest a great novel,” Laura Miller’s review, the contradiction of Shields dissing a book without finishing it, and Shields liking Franzen’s The Corrections when sick and then getting over the flu and retrieving his brain to loathe it.


Correspondent: Let’s start with the beginning of the novel. I think that’s pretty appropriate. You write, “The origin point of the novel lies in its pretense of actuality.” You point to Defoe and Fielding’s efforts to suggest “real” accounts. But I’m wondering if any effort to offer a pretense of actuality in our present age, whether it’s through a remix or a collage, really represents an inevitable return to this antediluvian form. This pretense of actuality.

Shields: Exactly. I’m going to see if I can find this wonderful quote by Adam Gopnik in the book. And maybe you can help me find it. But he basically says that the only kind of — I’ve been trying to find it of late. Let me see if I can find it.

Correspondent: You didn’t memorize all 600? (laughs)

Shields: I’ve memorized most if them. But see if you can find the Gopnik. But anyway, there’s this incredible passage by Gopnik, who says that the only kind of work that can move us is work that is full of a kind of gallows humor and, above all, has an authentic disorder.* I think he’s talking about Francis Bacon. I’m not sure what. But I don’t know. Perhaps later, we’ll find it. But I think that’s right. That in a way, you’ve cut to the core of it. And Gopnik has. And I hope I have. Which is: any such gesture like, for instance, I must admit I was looking at the Knopf catalog. You know, I visited the Knopf office and they send you home with a catalog. That’s their big gift to you. And I’m looking at some of the books described. Various mainstream novels. And I’m just thinking, “You cannot be serious.” That in 2010, you’re publishing this book by this person. It seemed like such an unbelievably antebellum thing. I mean, it’s like, what does this possibly have to do with life lived at the ground right now? It just seemed absolutely preposterous. I just started bursting out in laughter.

Correspondent: Such as what exactly?

Shields: Well, the book that was being described — and no offense to her; I haven’t read her work — but it was a book by somebody named Myla Goldberg. Do I have her name right?

Correspondent: Yeah.

Shields: And, my god, talk about a formulaic text with these little plot points. (to waiter) Thanks a lot.

Waiter: You’re welcome.

Shields: You know, with these little plot points everywhere. (to waiter) Some more water when you have a moment?

Waiter: Sure, I’ll be back.

Shields: And it was just like, I don’t know what. You know, probably an intelligent, well-meaning, well-read writer. It’s like, “Wow!” This is so — you may as well be writing the most formulaic sitcom. And she’s a respected — and I think somewhat respected, somewhat commercially successful writer.

Correspondent: But you’re also…

Shields: And I was like — anyway, this is a longwinded answer of saying.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Shields: You’ve cut to it. Any such gesture now strikes me as antediluvian indeed. Absolutely.

Correspondent: But you’re also judging this not on the book, but on the description of the book. So therefore, we get into meta territory. So how can you make a judgment based off of a catalog description. If I did that, then I would probably avoid most books.

Shields: True.

Correspondent: Because they’re often written in this corporate copy.

Shields: Of course. But I’ve read enough of her other book. I’ve flipped pages to realize that catalog copy was all too relevant to the book. And also I love the line of Borges in the book, where he says something like, “Why write the book? Let’s just write the commentary of the book. The book can be summarized in ten sentences. Let’s write the meta commentary and cut to the point.” So the meta commentary interests me at least as much as the text itself. So in this case, it did not seem to be doing a disservice to the book.

Correspondent: Even though you haven’t actually flipped through the book.

Shields: Well, I’ve read her earlier — I’ve read in and around her earlier books. And it seemed the way — frankly, the way in which the book can be entirely summarized as a narrative machine — seemed to me a very, that very fact meant it was, by definition, for me, a dead text. I mean, there wasn’t a single thing discussed, but “this happened” and “that happened” and “this happened” and “that happened.” I mean, you might as well have had — it was just really embarrassing. It was embarrassing to read.

Correspondent: Embarrassing? You felt embarrassed?

Shields: I felt embarrassed that I was part — I mean, I think it was a Doubleday book. I was embarrassed that I was a publisher that had a relationship to that. I was like, “What does this have to do with the advancement of culture?” You know, nothing.

* — The specific passage Shields is trying to locate can be found in Paragraph 365, and reads: “It may be that nowadays in order to move us, abstract pictures need, if not humor, then at least some admission of their own absurdity — expressed in general awkwardness, or in an authentic disorder.” It’s taken from Gopnik’s “What Comes Naturally,” The New Yorker, July 20, 1992, pp. 66-69.

The Bat Segundo Show #326: David Shields (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Sam Lipsyte

Sam Lipsyte recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #325. Mr. Lipsyte is most recently the author of The Ask.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Looking to ask someone for something.

Author: Sam Lipsyte

Subjects Discussed: Milo Burke as the obverse to Home Land‘s Lewis Miner (and common personality qualities), Lipsyte’s early draft of The Ask getting trashed by his wife, the importance of knowing a character’s job, Stanley Elkin, descriptive dichotomies within The Ask, oscillation between extremes and forward motion in the narrative, digressive impulses, movement by painting yourself into a corner, using linguistic attributes to create distinct dialogue, the plausibility behind student housing and cages, characters who share food, the innate sadness of wraps, breast milk bars, Lipsyte’s methods of collecting information and forgetting to write details down, writing without an outline, Lipsyte’s syllabic form of internal rhyme within sentences, Lipsyte’s previous career as a lyricist, the alternative verb phrases succeeded some sentences, characters who believe that writing a book will solve everything, the purpose of writing a comic novel in a serious age, the elevator pitch motif throughout Lipsyte’s work, Lipstye’s frequent references to Old Overholt and his efforts to get a free case, “home invasion” and Lipsyte’s use of stock phrases, “closed indefinitely due to pedagogical conflicts,” the origin of “toosh dev,” on not keeping notes, the question of whether or not there are any limits to literary movements of the penis, how sequences of events assist narrative, Gordon Lish’s principle of “all the book being the good part,” Lipsyte’s present status in relation to social networks, and Lipsyte’s present relationship with weapons.


Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about your sentences. You do something extremely interesting, and this syllabic form of internal rhyme. I’ll just give you a number of examples: “a tawny teen in a cocktail dress of skimpy hemp.” “I started to rub myself and, remembering I would have to retrieve Bernie soon, recalled that I’d once done what I was doing with Bernie in the room.” So there’s the oo, oo. The book’s opening line, of course: “Horace, the office temp, was a run-down and demented pimp.” So I’m curious whether these particular sounds serve as, I suppose, reference points in your mind to get a sentence right, whether this came from your previous career as a lyricist or possibly the Gordon Lish school rubbing off now after so many books and the like.

Lipsyte: Well, certainly, if there’s a direct rhyme there, I’d be sorry to see it. But I am interested in words that are close to each other, bouncing off of each other, colliding, creating various assonances, and such. I’m very aware of the acoustic properties of the sentences. And I listen to them. And I like to see those different elements playing off of each other. The different sounds. Just on the level of the morpheme or whatever. But, yeah, I think that I was always conscious of it. I think that studying with Gordon Lish made me understand that you could extract some power and attention to the sounds in your sentences. And I don’t know what I was doing a a lyricist, to be quite honest.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Lipsyte: I was screaming cryptic lines that couldn’t be heard because the guitars were too loud. (laughs)

Correspondent: (laughs) Maybe this was part of the syllabic quality.

Lipsyte: Yeah, exactly.

Correspondent: But I’m curious. Why syllables more so than words? I mean, there’s also, I recall reading, “Touche, douche!” There’s that as well. But more often, it’s this syllabic ride as opposed to a full word, full tilt boogie.

Lipsyte: Well, I guess that’s how I work. I mean, it’s not a conscious choice. And I think I do it in larger units as well. Or try to. And I’m very much aware. I mean, people talk about sentences. But there’s no such thing even as a great sentence. It’s about which sentences are around it. So I think that I’m trying to work on several levels.

Correspondent: I also wanted to ask about another aspect of your sentences, which is this tendency — just when you think the sentence is over, then you add a comma and a verb phrase that’s appended at the end. It’s not quite a comma splice. It’s almost a kind of alternative verb phrase. I’ll offer again some examples for folks who are listening to this. Here’s one: “Now an old man with a ducktail haircut and rolled T-shirt sleeves sauntered by” — you think the sentence is over, but no — comma, “climbed into his wine-dark bearer.” Another one: “Maura did not speak, cut her lemon chicken into rectilinear bites.” And it’s more in this book than the other two novels. And I’m curious as to how this came about.

Lipsyte: I do it as well in my book of stories probably. I just like the way it speeds up rhythm. It changes rhythm. I like the jumpiness of it. And some people say, “Why can’t you just use a fucking ‘and?'” (laughs) And sometimes I do. But sometimes I don’t.

Correspondent: Does it present an almost alternative fate in that action? Is that the idea?

Lipsyte: Yeah. Or kind of compresses time a little bit. It does a few things. And I’ve been fond of it.

Correspondent: Two characters seem to believe that writing a book will cause them to find truth, or find a lucrative career. There’s Charles Goldfarb’s book, in which he tries “to advance a new approach to transcendentalism in the face of technology and interconnectivity.” And then, of course, when Carl at the Happy Salamander tells Milo and Denise to fuck off, he announces that, “I’ll write books!” So you said in a recent interview that you don’t know what the purpose is of writing a comic novel or whether it’s going to fulfill some greater need. But it’s interesting that this reticence is shared by your characters to some degree. And I’m curious if we’re overstating the importance of books or these characters are overstating the importance of books. Or whether this is, again, just a part of the great American compromise. Being a First World bitch or what not.

Lipsyte: I’m curious about my quote. Where I said something.

Correspondent: I read the interview and, regrettably, I failed to note it down before meeting you. I read this days ago. Where you were saying that you’re not sure if the comic novel can be important in any sense. But maybe I should just ask you. (laughs)

Lipsyte; (laughs) Right.

Correspondent: Maybe I hallucinated it. I don’t think I did.

Lipsyte: Well, I’m sure what I meant to say is: I don’t know how many people can see it as important. I do. I mean, I’m not talking about my book, but, in general, I think books that have a comedic element have been the books that have fired up my imagination. No, books are incredibly important to some segment of the population. I’m not trying to say otherwise.

Correspondent: Well, these characters. Going back to them. Their insistence that books will be a vocational savior. Is this a general spitball towards Americana? Or some larger….

Lipsyte: No, I think that there’s a certain delusion about what a book can do for you, as the author. As opposed to what it might do for readers.

Correspondent: I also wanted to ask you. Because Home Land and The Ask both feature variants on the elevator pitch. You have, of course, Miner’s adventure with that white rapper in the black mink suit.

Lipsyte: Right.

Correspondent: And in this, you have Purdy’s insistence that he can deliver the most perfect elevator pitch. I’m curious how the concern for elevator pitches came about. I mean, it’s a West Coast phenomenon more than an East Coast phenomenon. So that is rather interesting.

Lipsyte: Well, I heard the phrase — maybe first in 1991 from an East Coast person. Who was kind of a businessman. So I think it’s used in all sorts of commercial pursuits. But it’s always been kind of a delightful convention to me. Because here you are in this box with a clock running, and you have to say something that’s going to make somebody else feel something. (laughs)

Correspondent: I have a very important question to ask, and that is in relation to Old Overholt. Now in Home Land, there’s that moment in which there’s the effort by Teabag to get some product placement in there, so that he can get a case of Old Overholt. Now I’m reading this. And I see Old Overholt come up twice in the book. So I’m wondering if you have reached an arrangement with the folks at Old Overholt.

Lipsyte: I’m trying to get a free case. And if it’s going to take me three books, it will be three books. (laughs)

Correspondent: Have you tried contacting them directly?

Lipsyte: No.

Correspondent: No?

Lipsyte: There are always little threads I like to pull from book to book. Just to keep me a bit amused as I work. And I like the sound of Old Overholt. It sort of opens the oral cavity in a nice way.

Correspondent: In two ways, actually.

Lipsyte: So I’m certainly happy to keep naming it until somebody at that company notices.

(Image: Mephistofales)

The Bat Segundo Show #325: Sam Lipsyte (Download MP3)

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New Directors/New Films: Beautiful Darling (2010)

[This is the second in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 24, 2010 and April 4, 2010 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

“You must always be yourself, no matter what the price.” — Candy Darling’s diary

Candy Darling — born James L. Slattery — was arguably the most intriguing of Andy Warhol’s fearless thespians. She was not only talented enough to dupe The New York Times‘s critical acumen (“this is the first impersonation of a female impersonator I have ever seen,” read one of the Gray Lady’s reviews), but she inspired Lou Reed to write one of his most famous songs and Tennessee William wrote Small Craft Warnings for her. But was Darling, who died of lymphoma at the needlessly young age of 29, truly herself even while charming the thriving New York art scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s?

A fascinating new documentary, Beautiful Darling, produced by Darling’s friend Jeremiah Newton, doesn’t entirely answer this question. But it does offer an invaluable perspective on what it was like to struggle as a transsexual during that time. If the film errs on the side of cautious hagiography, it atones for this understandable partisanship by highlighting some too easily forgotten truths, pointing to certain liberties and folkways now taken for granted. Female impersonation was a dangerous criminal charge during the time, considered an indecent aberration that was doggedly upheld by the police. Drag queens were forced to carry their sartorial bundles during the day and change clandestinely within buildings. The empowering compromise one could get away with, as identified in the film by Agosto Machado, was “a little mascara and a mohair coat.” Triumphant bon vivants would happily shout the name of Gay Street at the intersection of Christopher. New York, now a less tolerant playground for the rich, was then considered, as Fran Lebowitz suggests in the film, “a place for people who couldn’t fit in. People who actually did something that nobody was interested in.” Speed was heavily ingested. Bohos and misfits were often forced to find their meals at parties thrown by the affluently curious, taking home the remains for tomorrow’s lunch.

Darling thrived within this harsh yet permissive climate, attracting a league of potential dates and hanging out in the permissive backroom of Max’s Kansas City, where the squares couldn’t make it past the velvet rope. But the seeds for this twentysomething transformation were sown in Massapequa Park, Long Island, where a young Darling waded through movie magazines, spent an entire day staring at a Kim Novak photo, and endured a nearly soul-crushing wave of isolation. In Beautiful Darling, the diary entries — the words solipsistic but uncompromising — are read by Chloe Sevigny. One harrowing photo that accompanies these narrations, showing a pre-Darling Slattery with a painful look on his face, his arm gripped by his mother, is more than enough to convey a sad backstory. Thankfully, additional details are filled in beyond these primary sources. Aside from the film’s many interviews, which include numerous Factory acolytes and Warhol’s decidedly unnerved former secretary, by Newton’s many interviews in the mid-1970s, conducted after Darling’s death. We learn that Darling’s mother married another man who was anti-gay. An anonymous Long Island acquaintance declares her hatred for Darling, once she saw her adopting her truer identity.

But was Darling’s identity genuine? Or some compromise? The film delicately tiptoes over these questions, but it does point to Warhol’s eventual abandonment of Darling so that he can cash in on the forthcoming yuppie-fueled lucre. He later proved, as one former associate puts it, more interested in selling ads for Interview. Darling declares in her diary, “I’m not a genuine woman. But I’m not interested in genuineness.” Yet Darling was driven to Warhol as a genuine benefactor. The Factory’s obsessiveness with pop culture served as a vital surrogate for Hollywood, even if the remunerative pickings were slim (merely $25 to appear in a Warhol scene). There seemed no other place for Darling to thrive. But she was dogged enough to make this difficult situation work, even after being shunned by Warhol. She proudly boasted that she collected no money and would crash on friends’ couches, sleeping until six or seven at night.

“I must conquer New York or be conquered,” wrote Darling in her diaries. It was a daring ultimatum that seems unthinkable for most artists of her type today. After seeing this film, I wondered what Darling would have made of herself had she lived longer. Would she have been co-opted by marketing forces during the Reagan years? Would she have been shunned further? Darling claimed that she wanted to be loved, but one wonders whether the pop cultural construct and the tolerance would have expired. Beautiful Darling works so well because of the way it quietly reveals the unforgiving characters within alternative culture. If you write off or forget the misunderstood, or you’re too busy designing soup cans or collecting corporate revenue, are you really all that different from a narrow-minded stockbroker?

New Directors/New Films: Amer (2009)

[This is the first in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 24, 2010 and April 4, 2010 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

Young filmmakers must start from somewhere. But if an excitable yeoman merely copies his masters (or “lesser” artists openly admired), can the new film be called original? It’s a question I’ve been pondering after seeing Amer, a feature-length homage to giallo with an aggressive sound mix, a commitment to crazed closeups and Ginsu-style cutting, and a panache for primitive semiotics that serve as crass conceptual catnip for wild-eyed film nerds. Yes, filmmakers Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani have demonstrated that they can mimic Dario Argento’s gel-centric lighting. They have paid attention to the way that Mario Bava has cut with cars and motorcycles. Like every film student on the planet, they have seen Un Chien Andeliou. But do they really have anything new or fresh to say? Not really. Amer essentially amounts to a one-note exercise predicated on an extremely silly worldview in which women must battle against relentless male leers and a neverending storehouse of internal sexual desire. This is certainly a cartoonish viewpoint reflected by giallo, but giallo, for all of its faults, at least permits us a few human moments within its pulpish framework. Amer, by contrast, contains such a preposterously intense energy that I’m not entirely certain that the filmmakers intended this as a parody.

Amer is so determined to bombard us with its ADD cutting style that we’re left to admire the style, but scoff at the crepe-thin substance. My bullshit detector pinged off the charts. Cattet and Forzani’s failure to stretch beyond mere homage, to back up their hungry energy with an offering that makes us feel something, is what ultimately makes this flick more of a calling card for Madison Avenue. This young duo would be more at home directing vacuous Calvin Klein commercials.

The film is centered around Ana, who is depicted here as a girl, a teenager, and a woman. Amer‘s early images, with Ana as the girl, are the most promising. There are numerous eyes in extreme closeup — spastic pupils peering through keyholes, eyes contained in jewelry, and a dead man’s eyes that won’t stay shut. Mysterious glass shards are found beneath a bed. There’s a trunk bundled with limitless dolls. Viscous fluid, which we later learn from a ridiculous bathtub masturbation scene is of a magical realist and sexual nature, rains down on Ana as she attempts to navigate through a decaying palazzo laden with endless horrors, including some creepy figure in a black veil. Given all this imagination, we expect some motivation, something that extends beyond facile formalism. At this early point in the flick, Cattet and Forzani had me spellbound. I was eager to escape into this imaginative world. Until I became very aware that this was little more than a Suspiria knockoff. Then the images began to stretch horizontally, eventually moving into the next sequence of Ana as a teenager, walking along a road and holding her mother’s hand. The camera continued to objectify the young woman’s body with extreme closeups. Diaphanous outlines of her body contained in a purple skirt. The mother undoing her top button. Little dialogue. Yeah, I get it. Here we have a one-dimensional woman to be ogled by the camera. A knowing tribute to exploitation in which sequences are needlessly padded out. (Indeed, one scene involving a walk through the woods, in which various branches grope at Ana’s clothes as a battered shutter is banged about by the wind, proved so interminable that I wondered if I should slip into the restroom and relieve myself.)

Did this really need to be feature length? With all the frenetic cutting, I began to feel very sorry for the actors, who surely could not have had much to contribute to a film featuring few shots longer than a second. Indeed, the film’s editing proved so rapid-fire that it made Tony Scott look like David Lean.

And all this for an homage to giallo, complete with Stelvio Cipriani music cues. But why bother with the copy when there was the great life within the original? And why go to the trouble of making a movie that merely served to repeat, but that wasn’t willing to give us even a minimal human moment?

Homage is a tricky tightrope. As Peter Bondanella has observed in his book-length overview of Italian cinema, Pasolini’s early films paid homage to an early neorealist heritage. Classical art and music accompanied Pasolini’s gritty depictions of downtrodden criminals, and this juxtaposition, predicated upon the triumphant proletariat, permitted Pasolini to later get in touch with the personal and more daring style that he is known for today. But what Pasolini was doing with such films as Accattone and The Gospel was hardly muddled mimesis. Accattone‘s titular hero, for example, emerged as an inverted Christ figure, with the class trappings replaced by oppressive religious forces. These larger concerns allowed Pasolini to escape the mimetic yoke and emerge as an unforgettable filmmaker.

But I felt no such promise with Cattet and Forzani. These are hollow technicians who have seen too many films. Artistic vessels who don’t seem even remotely interested in what it is to be human. I longed for the likes of György Pálfi. But they’ve managed to con the festival circuit with their empty spectacle. Film geeks will rejoice. The rest of us hang our heads in disappointment.

RIP Mark Linkous

Rolling Stone: “Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Mark Linkous has committed suicide…Linkous’ dramatic, lush music often came from a place of pain. In 1996, Linkous actually died for two minutes after ingesting a dangerous mix of Valium and antidepressants while on tour in the U.K. behind Sparklehorse’s 1995 debut Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot. He recovered, but the incident left him crippled — he laid unconscious for 14 hours, cutting off circulation to his legs. He suffered a heart attack when medics attempted to straighten his legs, and underwent seven surgeries to save his damaged limbs. But after the incident, he recorded 1999’s Good Morning Spider, 2001’s It’s A Wonderful Life and 2006’s Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain.”

The above video was directed by Guy Maddin.

Interview with Lorin Stein

On Friday, the Paris Review announced that Lorin Stein, a noted editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, would become its new editor, succeeding Philip Gourevitch. But the impact of Stein’s departure from FSG remained curiously unexamined. For one thing, was Stein definitely leaving FSG? Or was he staying on in a part-time capacity? And who were some of the other candidates? (Moby Lives has put forth Meghan O’Rourke as one of the contenders.)

This correspondent contacted Mr. Stein in an effort to determine answers to some of these questions, putting forth a number of inquiries concerning the Paris Review hiring process, whether or not Mr. Stein felt that he clinched the job during that vital first interview (thus following the advice often found on career-oriented websites), the degree to which Mr. Stein planned to break from or carry on Philip Gourevitch’s legacy, whether or not there was any hazing ritual involved in getting the new job, and what will happen to the authors whom Mr. Stein has edited at FSG. On these vital points, Mr. Stein insisted that he had “no good answers.” But he was generous enough to provide a few answers to other questions. The results can be found below.

Editing a major literary quarterly involves a different set of responsibilities than editing a book. The deadlines are often tighter. The need to be current is a more pressing concern. Factor in ebooks, all these book blogs, and wisecracking interviewers, and the media landscape becomes nearly Gormenghastian. Small wonder that so many in the book biz are fond of drink. How do you plan to change your present practices to fit within these new needs? Or do you feel that your equipoisal endeavors with the red pen across numerous titles at FSG offers enough of a transitional overlap?

It’s true that magazines come out much faster than books. The amount of time it takes to publish a book–almost a year in most cases–is immensely taxing to the author and to anyone who cares about the author, the editor included. It’s like waiting for your birthday when you’re a kid. I’m looking forward to the change of pace.

N.B. I use a number two pencil. (See, I’m transitioning already.)

You described The Paris Review as “a gateway drug” to the New York Times. But I don’t see the addictive possibilities fully explored at the Paris Review site. Are there any plans to expand the Paris Review‘s online offerings? Perhaps offering full-blown access to the backlist for subscribers like Harper’s or the New Yorker?

We do intend to expand the site–that’s something I am very excited about. Stay tuned.

The Paris Review publishes some of the best author interviews known to humankind. Are there any plans to shake up the interview formula? Perhaps offering more audio and video to capture these conversations?

Aren’t the interviews wonderful? Think of the ones with P.G. Wodehouse, Philip Larkin, Henry Green, Hemingway — I wouldn’t wish for video, even if it could be had. And I feel the same way about Nat Rich’s recent interview with James Ellroy. It’s a work of art in itself. (And it’s very funny.)

That said, it will be fun to explore all sorts of things in connection with the site. Again, I say stay tuned!

How will FSG be defined by your absence?

For the last sixty years FSG has been one of the best houses in the country — in the world. It has been the biggest privilege of my life to work there. The authors I’ve worked with are, in many cases, writers signed up, nurtured, and edited for years by my boss, Jonathan Galassi. Whatever I know about editing and publishing I’ve learned from him–and from my friends in the editorial, publicity, sales, and art departments. I am very much a junior member of that team. I hope my friends miss me, authors and colleagues both, because I’m going to miss them badly. But there’s no question of the place being defined one way or another by me. The influence is entirely the other way round.

George Plimpton was a boxer. Gourevitch reported on Rwanda. What macho qualities do you bring to the role of Paris Review editor?

My sister likes to say I’m “comfortable in [my] masculinity” — meaning I act like a girl.

The Bat Segundo Show: Marilyn Johnson

Marilyn Johnson recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #324. Ms. Johnson is most recently the author of This Book is Overdue!

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Hoping to avoid being arrested by Rusty the Bailiff.

Author: Marlyn Johnson

Subjects Discussed: Why libraries are little regarded by the American public, the preservation of blogs and websites, Josh Greenberg’s efforts at digital preservation, the Firefox extension Zotero, the rickroll video’s removal from YouTube, the Barnard Zine Collection, the reliance upon private entities to preserve information, the lone guy archiving Hunter S. Thompson’s early articles, the French government’s commitment to preserving culture vs. Google, Jessamyn West’s Ubuntu video and copyright problems, the inability for Joseph V. Hamburger’s archives to find a library, a writer’s responsibility to preserve their writing, Salman Rushdie’s digital manuscripts, commenters and obituaries, dead people writing obituaries, the mutability of text, future generations of computer users and libraries, inflatable humans vs. librarians, the New York Public Library consolidation and permanent closing of the Shiochi Noma Reading Room, specialist libraries vs. public libraries, the American Kennel Club Library, librarians within Second Life, vital specialists vs. unpaid volunteer librarians, shaky wifi connections and libraries, the need for out-of-work and underemployed librarians to have online identities, Twitter as a questionable source for librarians, strange construction workers who attempt to hijack the conversation between the Correspondent and Ms. Johnson, street librarians, Radical Reference and whether it provides services those who don’t question authority, and whether the efforts made by the librarians opposing the Patriot Act have fallen short due to harsher prison terms for those hanging helpful signs.


Johnson: The Internet is in the library. Google is in the library. The librarians know how to use that. So you go to those public computers in the library. You have a librarian who can not only do Google, but who can also tell you, point you to any number of other resources that are not included in Google, or that are very difficult to get to through Google. It seems like Google is so simple. “It’s so simple even your grandmother can use it,” is the way it was described to me. Yeah, it’s brilliant for getting the quick hit on the restaurant in the Village that you want to have dinner at. There’s the address. There’s the phone number. There’s the little Google map that will get you there. But when you are actually trying to track back. When I have a clipping of a newspaper, and I’m trying to find the digital version of that, I get lost sometimes. It can’t find it. The bread crumbs don’t take you to where you know it has to be. And I’ve had librarians who have actually shown me how to wend my way through Google, which is, after all, full of redundancies, not weighted in terms of date. You need to put your heavy boots on to wade through it sometimes.

Correspondent: But then again, we are seeing various developments along the lines of what we were mentioning earlier about the mutability of text.

Johnson: Yes.

Correspondent: The Semantic Web, which I can probably go into.

Johnson: Blah blah blah. Yeah, we could go on all night.

Correspondent: Yeah. But to shift it to libraries, are the advantages essentially these informed people, the aspect of physical space, and the aspect of real-life interaction? As opposed to online interaction? Do you think that these elements are strong enough to endure whatever technological developments are emerging in the next four decades?

Johnson: Okay, I’m zipping around the Internet like crazy. I’m not unsavvy. I’ve bent a few corners. I’ve been to the few corners of the Web. I make a telephone call and if there are seven options — the automated answering service that tries to funnel me down one little hall, as opposed to another — I never fit in the categories. I’m never Option 1 through 7. Would you like to hear these options again? I freak out. I go crazy. I need the human. I need the human to help explain it to me. I need the human to help me know what I missed. I need the human to help me phrase the question. And I don’t think humans are ever going to go out of style. Call me crazy.

Correspondent: Yeah. Until, of course, the inflatable human arrives.

Johnson: No, no. You need the librarian. You need the librarian!

Correspondent: The recent New York Public Library consolidation caused the Shiochi Noma Reading Room to be permanently closed on September 8, 2008. You talked with John Lindquist, the former director of this Asian and Middle Eastern Reading Rooms, now curator, who pointed out that his staff had been halved, When the Arabic-language cataloger retires, the library will be without an Arabic-language librarian. So this closing is particularly ironic, given that, in 1997, more than a million dollars were poured into this room to refurbish it and to make it spruced up and the like. So if specialized knowledge like this is so fleeting, if something recently renovated only ten years before is going to be thrown out the window, is it safe to say that the generalists are winning this internecine war within the libraries?

Johnson: They have a really interesting challenge. The New York Public Library. And they’re galloping forward. They’re really trying to take a research institution and preserve as much of the research in it as possible, and also make it a much more tourist-friendly place. People don’t understand that when they come to the library, it is a research institution. That you don’t check things out. So the New York Public Library — the Board — has decided, and the librarians — the chief librarians — that they’ll have a children’s center in the basement there. And they will circulate the books there. And they want more regular users to come to this beautiful building. They want to open it up more. So all of those treasures from the Middle East are there. They’re there. The librarians who administer them and who work with the scholars are not. They seem to be going away. And now John Lundquist has gone away. And this room went away, not because they didn’t like the room or they didn’t like what it stood for, but because it happens to be on a central hall that’s going to provide access for what will now be circulating parts of the library. They took this research library and are melding it with the circulating library. So in the course of making it friendly to people who want to just come and check out a DVD, they’ve had to squeeze some of the other stuff into different places. And those librarian positions that are very scholarly and very specialized, when they come up for retirement, they are not replacing those librarians. They’re putting it into people who can work with the ordinary office/street library user.

Correspondent: Those librarians are part of this big squeeze. So, therefore, will we have to turn to more specialist libraries, such as the American Kennel Club library, which you investigated, or will the onus fall upon universities to pick up the specialized slack?

Johnson: Well, you want to hear a tragic story? I went to the American Kennel Club library. And that librarian is no longer there.

Correspondent: Really?

Johnson: And you know why? Because they’re running out of money. And where are they going to cut it? Where are they going to cut funds? So the librarian is no longer working there. You can go there. There’s an archivist. There are people who work for the American Kennel Club magazine. All the information is still there. All the material. The beautiful skeleton of the old dog looking over the reading tables is still there. But if you want to find something, you’re going to be taking out a flashlight and looking around. It’s just heartbreaking to me. These are really tough times. To lose the human being who is the guide to all this information, and often the architect. Who put it all together. It’s craziness. And we are losing something so valuable right now. This book is overdue, and I wish it had come out last year. Before ever so many of these cuts had been instituted.

Correspondent: So it seems to me that the generalists are winning the war against the specialists. But you do bring up things such as the Second Life librarian. And the scenario there is that it’s largely based up of volunteers. But if you’re relying on volunteers and you’re not relying on compensation, then how can you have enough of a buffer to replace these vital specialists? And not only that, but if a librarian is essentially a persona — a metaphor, if you will — then does that necessarily replace the real thing? Is it something of a ruse? More of a sort of fantasy than a duty to the public?

Johnson: Wow, we’re going to go down some labyrinths here. You know, what’s interesting about Second Life is that there are bona-fide librarians who are out there, in their spare time, doing research and development in the field. Like saying, here’s a really interesting wonky kind of thing that we can do. Let’s see if we can adapt library science to it. And, in fact, when you think about it, any population that you can think of can use a librarian to help it. This brilliant Radical Reference librarians, who said “Street protesters in great numbers coming to New York, a place that does not have public toilets. Let’s go serve up some information. Let’s go make ourselves available. And if they need us, they can ask us hard questions and we’ll do our best to find true answers for them.” You know, combat rumors. Help them navigate the streets, some of which will be closed. In Second Life, they’re saying, “Oh my goodness. Here’s this exciting, cool, weird place. Virtual reality on the Internet.” And anybody can access it by downloading the free software. And you create a little avatar and you go into this world. “I bet they need librarians.” And in fact, they do. Why? Because ever so many little corners of this world are created by the people who go on Second Life as recreations of a time in history. For instance, there’s a Renaissance island that has a replica of Shakespeare’s — what do you call it, the theater.

Correspondent: The Globe, yeah.

Johnson: Yeah. There is a Harlem Renaissance world that recreates the 1920s. And so librarians are there doing all this research to help make that world accurate. They’re saying, “This is what fashion looked like. These are what cars looked like. Yes, this existed during that time. This didn’t. This was how a joust went. This is what a lady would wear in her hair.” And these kinds of factual historic questions, librarians are ideally suited to answer them.

Correspondent: On the other hand, when you tried to contact J.J. Drinkwater and these other folks, you had your wifi connection cut out on you. So this leads me to wonder…

Johnson: What?

Correspondent: You mention this in the book.

Johnson: Okay.

Correspondent: That you were trying to interview the Second Life librarians and that you were doing this in a library in your laptop.

Johnson: Oh my goodness.

Correspondent: And the wifi cut out. So this leads me to wonder…

Johnson: Yes.

Correspondent: The real thing, which is not going to cut out. At least I would hope that someone would not dissolve before my eyes. Second Life is not exactly the best substitute for that.

The Bat Segundo Show #324: Marilyn Johnson (Download MP3)

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Jonathan Jones: The Entitled Hack

I can’t say that I sympathize much with Jonathan Jones’s suggestion that the world needs more critics — in part because of the self-importance oozing from his smug pores, the cocky wink and triumphant knuckle-to-chin inviting even the most pacific souls to lacerate the man’s halitotic face with an X-Acto rather than raise a hearty toast in commiseration. Granted, it’s possible Jones didn’t plan it this way. I’m almost certain that someone at The Guardian played a sick joke with that photo. Perhaps Jones rudely berated some unpaid intern and the photographer got a comeuppance when she asked Jones to wear a blue shirt that made him look as if he was some corporate huckster smashing in a kid’s piggy bank with a smile.

The only reason I’m even writing about Jones at all is because the Guardian, rightly assailed by public outcry, has decided to not only switch comments off, but to erase the public record. There is no trace at all of the disastrous reception. So let’s spell out a few home truths.

I’ve experienced more joy talking with tedious taxmen and colorless bean counters than enduring those peculiar critics who can’t get beyond their cultural entrapment and who can’t marvel at the great human world before them. The world that, you know, most of us live in.

And I object to Jones’s wankage because the person who complains of having too much cultural information to process often doesn’t understand that this seemingly saturated existence isn’t nearly as bad as having to endure a wretched job in which the worker may be fired tomorrow, the worker must maintain a plastic smile, and the worker contends with the abuse of insensitive men with money. We’ve moved past a time in which one critical mind even matters. Or has not Jones noticed this little thing called the Internet, in which people stumble onto blog posts and articles and frequently fail to look at the byline?

So the question of what’s on Jonathan Jones’s mind is largely moot. I could get more profound insight about Michael Haneke from the fresh grad down the street now forced, by financial necessity, to toil as a barista. Haneke has plenty of admirers. He needs little help from Jonathan Jones. He needs real help from people who are willing to make sense of his films and offer original viewpoints, and I can’t see how a hack merely stating that Haneke’s films “are perfect and they are profound” or going on about how The White Ribbon is “the best of such films I have ever seen” is anything less than giving the okay to a form of writing nearly indistinguishable from a press release.

No, Mr. Jones, the curse of our time, in the arts, is having to endure your gushing folderol and then experience you express why you are entitled to have someone pay you to bang out such meaningless modifiers. Tickle our fancy like Jonathan Rosenbaum or Anthony Lane or Roger Ebert, and then you may have a case. But in the Internet age, everyone can be a critic. And the ones who write for free and who still feel cinematic passion are often much better than you.

Oscar Villalon Abruptly Leaves McSweeney’s

The SF Weekly‘s Joe Eskenazi reports that former San Francisco Chronicle books editor Oscar Villalon has abruptly left his position as publisher at McSweeney’s. Villalon has not returned calls to comment upon what happened. McSweeney’s has tersely responded, “Oscar doesn’t work here any more.”

Villalon’s abrupt exit occurs only a few weeks after Villalon and Eggers sat together on a Berkeley School of Journalism panel discussing the San Francisco Panorama project — specifically, responding to remunerative controversies brought forth by Choire Sicha and this correspondent. Villalon’s primary role at McSweeney’s, as he explained in this interview with The Rumpus, was “to make sure the business is healthy, financially, and that we’re growing.” But while Villalon’s modest elucidations (in which he reported that writers were paid between $200 and $1,000 for articles, with Stephen King working at particularly below-market rates) were more helpful than Eggers’s adamantine silence, the Panorama numbers still remain fuzzy. And until either Villalon or Eggers go public with this imbroglio, McSweeney’s inner operations remain, as usual, murkier than the Gowanus Canal — a somewhat paradoxical position for an operation predicated on alleged community and Eggers’s rosy but naive optimism.

If Eggers still insists that newspapers can thrive, then the time has come for him to be transparent about his strategies and to likewise explain why Vilalon is no longer with McSweeney’s. It’s worth noting that a March 9, 2010 panel, free to the public, that was supposed to include Eggers, Villalon, and San Francisco Chronicle editor-at-large Phil Bronstein, is still scheduled to occur at San Francisco State University. Someone in San Francisco needs to attend this panel, assuming that the two remaining participants have the professional decency to carry forward, and demand answers to these important questions.

Bizarro Fiction: An Interview with Patrick Wensink

Bizarro fiction, an exciting genre devoted to “high weirdness” and a sense of fun, has eluded the frightened editors humorlessly holding the keys to their fragile literary castles. But it remains very much a prolific force, written and read by people who still possess a sense of glee about books and taken up by the good folks at Eraserhead Press, which has published such titles as Ass Goblins of Auschwitz, Shatnerquake, and Rampaging Fuckers of Everything on the Crazy Shitting Planet of the Vomit Atmosphere.

I had intended to investigate this phenomenon in depth. But Patrick Wensink, author of Sex Dungeon for Sale!, beat me to the punch, sending me his book of short stories, making me laugh, and graciously consenting to a suitably bizarro interview by email.

There seems to be this false belief that the world can be united by Coca-Cola (think Haskell Wexler selling out with that dreadful 1971 commercial) or other consumerist impulses. Practitioners of bizarro fiction, such as yourself, are more committed to the idea of literature as fun. How then can bizarro fiction change the world or resist these marketing forces? How might your own fiction change the world? Is the re-appropriation of culture part of the answer? Aren’t you essentially giving into these crass marketing forces by subverting them?

Haskell Wexler directed a Coke commercial? Medium Cool is one of my favorite movies. That doesn’t make me want a can of Coke, but now I’m curious as all hell to see this.

I think that’s a great point, that Bizarro Fiction like Sex Dungeon for Sale! attempts to bring fun into literature. I personally take a lot of care and effort into making sure I’m not just cracking jokes all the time, but wrapping the humor in stories that can also be appreciated as good writing. Eraserhead has a great history of providing surprises and fun with its books, whether its a story told from the perspective of a man being eaten by a bear, a book where all of William Shatner’s television and movie roles come to life or, with my book, where you get an optimistic real estate agent trying to sell a home with a sex dungeon. Hopefully readers are finding something they can’t get anywhere else and hopefully they come back for a second helping.

The editorial note at the beginning of the book suggests that if you don’t sell enough books through Eraserhead Press, you will never be published by them again. This seems an extraordinarily harsh proviso. Has Kevin L. Donihe, to the best of your knowledge, raped a close friend or killed an animal? Please provide suitable evidence for your answer.

Kevin Donihe is from Tennessee, so the chances that he’s killed an animal are ridiculously high. I think everyone from that state has a little Davy Crockett magic in their blood.

I don’t think Eraserhead’s approach to new authors is harsh. I think it’s a great idea, since the book industry is so harsh toward unpublished writers anyway. Eraserhead’s thinking isn’t unlike a father telling his son he needs to get good grades or he can’t borrow the car. Eraserhead has a big, fast, strangely-colored car with a roomy back seat, and I’d like to use it for a date next Friday, if possible.

“My Son Thinks He’s French” ends on a moment of transformation and incest. When did you first notice pubic hair? And do you find early puberty to be a greater threat against our national welfare than poverty and the disparity between the rich and the poor? Additionally, why didn’t this story include the word “freedom” within its prose?

Tough question. In addition to ending on a note of transformation and, possibly, incest, I think that “My Son Thinks He’s French” also ends on a laugh. But I suppose that depends on your opinions of transformation and incest.

I was actually just having a conversation about when I first noticed the short and curlies. By my estimate, it was sometime between my 10th and 30th birthdays.

You hit the nail on the head. “My Son Thinks He’s French” features no use of the word “freedom”. This is my little way of locking arms with the French people. I was recently in France, they make the best pastries in the world, how can anyone not approve? Does the congressional cafeteria still call its ‘taters “Freedom Fries”? I can’t get behind that, though I would support changing the name of Larry Bird’s hometown to “Freedom Lick, Indiana”, because, let’s face it, Indiana can use all the razz-ma-tazz it can get.

In “Wash, Rinse, Repeat,” Carl Dumford has “his words smear[ing] into long strings of vowels.” Yet his dialogue includes numerous consonants. How do you account for this discrepancy? And how does one apply two-ply to everyday vernacular?

Damn it! Somebody is getting fired. As you know, Ed, writing short stories for an independent publishing house is one of the most lucrative professions in America. It’s right up there with being a Fortune 500 CEO or one of those kids in High School Musical. So, this lifestyle allows me to employ an army of researchers, fact-checkers, copy editors, personal assistants and manicurists. Checking out discrepancies like this one is somebody’s job around here at Wentastic Enterprises and it sure as hell isn’t mine. Heads will roll, I promise.

I was alarmed by your use of boldface in “Chicken Soup for the Kidnapper’s Soul” and “Donor 322.” How do you soothe readers who might be alarmed by your energetic text formatting?

Bold type is a natural part of life, folks. Just like pubic hair, it’s not something we can hide our children from forever. People should not be ashamed of their use of boldface. By employing this popular writing technique I am coming out and encouraging others to follow my lead. I’m the Neil Armstrong of boldface type! Change your Facebook status, ladies and gentlemen, let everybody know you use boldface type and are not ashamed.

In “Donor 322,” you write, “Vomit surges across my body in waves.” This might be interpreted one of two ways: either unseen specialists are regurgitating upon the protagonist, possibly suffusing his body with the fresh chunks of last night’s dinner, or the vomit in question has adopted a sound wave pattern. Did you consult any oceanographers for this sentence? Are you a musical man? Are there nefarious individuals in Louisville, KY committed to the first proposition?

I don’t know about other people, but I went to college. And while I was there, I drank a lot of beer. And many times, after drinking this beer, I saw vomit do things I never imagined possible. I like to think that line is up for interpretation, depending on how much beer the reader drank in college.

In “Jesus Toast,” I sense a great deal of hostility towards post-structuralist types who wish to see patterns that do not exist. Have you been recently victimized by savage deconstructionists? Is this story your way of expressing a desire to organize a vigilante mob to tar and feather overzealous academics?

Before Sex Dungeon for Sale! was published I was rejected by over ten MFA programs. This made me very bitter for a long time. So, yes, there is a subliminal message buried in “Jesus Toast” that is encouraging people to tar and feather academia. If you hold it up to a mirror, you’ll also find an application form to have me tar and feather the academic of your choice for the low, low price of $19.95+tax.

When I read “Pandemic Jones,” Paul Reiser’s voice entered my head. I looked around, wondering if Resier was standing next to me, pounding away at Helen Hunt and Staci Keanan and screaming at Larry David to provide the anal plug. But he was not there. And I didn’t know how my pants had been unbuttoned. Have you had any direct communications with Mr. Resier? Have you had any sexual fantasies involving Mr. Reiser? By naming a pharmaceutical company after Mr. Reiser, do you feel that Mr. Reiser’s failure to engage with the American public in a dangerous way has been corrected?

Once, a few Christmases ago, I was feeling benevolent and gave my army of researchers, fact-checkers, copy editors, assistants and manicurists the day off. This forced me to actually do my own research for once. And you know what I found out? People love Paul Reiser. He’s the American equivalent of David Hasselhoff in Germany. According to the numbers I crunched that evening, if I added 132% more Reiser into my writing, Sex Dungeon for Sale! would spread like Swine Flu. America loves its Reiser, I’m just providing a public service.

“Me and Gerardo Down by the Schoolyard” offers a reasonable explanation for the disappearance of EMF and Jesus Jones. But how did you arrive at the economic value for doo-rags?

Wentastic Enterprises holds the patent for a machine that calculates the economic worth of doo-rags. It takes a snapshot of fluctuating factors, such as the price of cotton used for doo-rag production, the popularity of motorcycle gangs, astrological location of doo-rag friendly planets and how many bald dudes are trying to hide their scalp from the sun. Additionally, the recent Olympic medal victories of doo-rag enthusiast Apollo Anton Ohno has caused this machine to start working overtime. Expect a full report in the final quarter of 2010.

Has your wife taken a shine to Javier?

She has. I have the black eye to prove it.