The Bat Segundo Show: Robin Black

Robin Black appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #333. Ms. Black is most recently the author of If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: If he could tell you, he’d have to love you.

Author: Robin Black

Subjects Discussed: Writing ten stories over eight years, rumination time and writing, Black discarding 75% of what she writes, the importance of being surprised while writing, writing while doing the dishes, avoiding explicit metaphor, the scarf in “Tableau Vivant,” how a real-life neighbor’s fence became a fictional neighbor’s fence, feeling exposed through stories vs. the control of memoir, Veterans Day transformed into Resolution Day, perceived strangeness in reality, negotiating the gray area between two extremes, the tension between how people perceive their lives are vs. what their lives really are, the clinical approach to birth and death, being careful about deploying sentiment, observing limitless forms of human behavior and trying to corral it into the neatness of narrative, seeing more gestures and facts about people being more relevant, a character’s relationship with another person’s face, early problems with human gesture, being conscious of the symbolic scheme within a story, sex that isn’t explicitly stated within the stories, the words “sexual encounter,” cybersex, carnal reticence, the defamiliarization of the familiar, a disproportionate focus on the physical act, car crashes and accidents used to galvanize the characters, stories anchored by older women, older women as an increasingly invisible presence in society, the fictional potential in leading an undercover life, explicit communicative disconnect in “Immortalizing John Parker,” characters who resist what the author is trying to get them to do, crutch words from characters, the phrase “So what,” revealing the surname of a character slightly later than expected after the initial introduction, learning from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, first person vs. third person, twos and threes within the stories, avoiding the usual lists of threes, and playing with fairy tale images.


Black: I also wrote a lot of bad stories. I went into writing ten that I thought were decent enough.

Correspondent: How many bad stories?

Black: I think that if you count just the ones I completed, there are probably twenty-five others. And if you count the others that I started, and got anywhere from two to twenty pages into, there are probably another two dozen of those. So a lot. I produce a lot of pages. I like a very low percentage of them.

Correspondent: This is interesting that you do all of your thinking at the keyboard. Because the character relationships in many of these stories are quite intricate and quite connected. Do you figure out these relationships over the course of writing? How does this work exactly? Expand upon the rumination.

Black: Where does it all come from? None of it’s autobiographical. I always have to start there. So I’m not one of these people who thinks, “Wow! This thing that just happened to me would make a great story.” And to the extent that I ever think that, I put that into memoir. So if I write about myself, then I’m really writing about myself. These things are all made up. I said that a lot of it happens at the keyboard. But I should more accurately say that I also do a lot of my writing while I’m doing the dishes. Though my husband may laugh at the idea that I ever do the dishes. While I’m walking. I’m not somebody who thinks that everyone needs a regiment of sitting down and writing. A certain amount of time. Because a lot of my writing happens away. I’ll just be thinking about the people in the stories. Really as though they were friends of mine, and I was trying to figure out just what the heck they would do with their lives. And so it’s a lot of just thinking through human psychology that goes into it.

Correspondent: You mention not wanting to lift from reality. And this is interesting to me. Because I noted that in these stories, you really go out of your way to avoid extremely explicit metaphors, save in two stories. In “Tableau Vivant,” you of course have the scarf. And “If I Loved You” has the fence. I’m wondering if the scarf and the fence came about as a way of knowing the characters. Or a way of moving the characters on the chessboard while you were doing the dishes. What happened here?

Black: The scarf in “Tableau Vivant” is complete invention. The fence is not. We actually have a neighbor who built a fence in our driveway. And in pondering how to write about it — because it was one of those events that struck me as so peculiar. That somebody would just move into a neighborhood and start tromping on their neighbors. It seemed like such an odd character defect, I guess, in a human being. I thought, “Well, I’ll write an essay about it.” What’s it like to have a horrible human being move in next to you. And then I thought, “Well, I don’t really want to write an essay about it. I’ll write a story about it.” But, again, I don’t write about myself. So the only thing in there that’s true is that there was a fence. And the other piece of truth was my impulse in the story to say to this man, “How can you just be this mean to people when you have no idea what the meaning of this is to them?” And there’s actually a funny story about that. When that story was published in the Southern Review — and in the story, the woman whose fence it is, is dying a very sad, terrible death; and when Bret Lott, who was then editing the Review called me up to say they had taken it — I was all excited. And I said — the first words out of my mouth were “Oh, I can’t wait to throw a copy of it over that damn fence.” And there was this terrible pause. And I realized that he was trying to figure out how much of it was true. And I said, “Oh! I’m not dying. There just is a fence.” So often my stories will have tiny real elements among them, and I’ll kind of build a universe around that.

The Bat Segundo Show #333: Robin Black (Download MP3)

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The Dead Writer’s Almanac (April 29, 2010)

It’s the last week of April, and we are still hunting around for writers who have died, particularly those who have died in an unusual manner. But we are finding ourselves unenthused by the offerings. We could tell you about John Cleveland, who died 352 years ago today, but this noted poet and satirist merely died of a fever. Had Mr. Cleveland lived 270 years longer, he might have been able to try out a nifty little thing called penicillin. Alas, the human life span, even in the 21st century, remains quite fickle. It seems absurd to suggest that Mr. Cleveland, who was fighting a bad bout, could not only conquer his debilitation, but somehow live like Methuselah. Mr. Cleveland was doomed to die when he did. May he rest in peace. And there isn’t much we can do to correct his demise except hang our heads in shame at contemplating what might have been, had he had lived for centuries. That would have been one hell of a story.

We could tell you about Charles-Irénée Castel de Saint-Pierre, who died 267 years ago today. Or Wittgenstein (59 years ago). Or we could point out that Hitchcock died today (30 years ago), even though he was more of a filmmaker than a writer. But when you begin to examine how many of these dead writers have penises, well, you have begin to see the limp progress of our humble little operation. So The Dead Writer’s Almanac is now caught within an ethical quandary on April 29, 2010. How does one respond to the vast history of letters (specifically, those authored by dead people), when one is fully cognizant that most of the writers who have died have been white men? That hardly represents a liberal spirit, does it? This hardly represents progress. While those readers now residing in Arizona will scratch their heads in confusion over our dilemma, rest assured that the question of balance is a grave problem for us.

We have flipped through many books in the stacks. We have telephoned librarians. They have reported our names to the appropriate authorities, and we await the knock at the door from the men in white coats. We are repeatedly scanning the headlines, wondering if some rocking writer of the XX variety will kick the bucket before we go to bed. Perhaps a corpse will soon be discovered. It is not that we pine for any specific writer to die. We remain firmly opposed to the death penalty. We do want people to live and not die too early, and have considered trademarking our motto in order to demonstrate the serious nature of our commitment. On the other hand, if a woman writer were to die today, it would really make things much easier for us, and it would alleviate our guilt.

One desperate option that has been suggested to us: the murder of a writer to fit the quota. But the Dead Writer’s Almanac staff has no homicidal experience or a desire to commit murder. This would be ethically and legally wrong, the friends and family of the murdered writer would feel great grief, and, most importantly, all the resultant fuss would create a needless inconvenience for us.

But we may have stumbled on a choice for tomorrow. So we leave you now with our patented signoff to aid you in your struggle with the blank page.

Stay writing, don’t die too early, and keep in touch!

The Dead Writer’s Almanac: Iceberg Slim

It’s the death day of Iceberg Slim, who passed away eighteen years ago on April 27, 1992. Iceberg Slim is not to be confused with iceberg lettuce (alive, but only for short periods and not exactly the best lettuce) or Vanilla Ice (alive, but often dead on stage). But it is safe to say, that Iceberg Slim was not born with this name. Few parents indeed would name their new children “Iceberg.” He was born in Chicago under the name “Robert Lee Maupin.” But please don’t confuse him with Armistead Maupin (also alive). Iceberg’s tales from the city, as portrayed in Pimp and Trick Baby, were decidedly less comfortable, often involving drugs in less salubrious situations. He spent his early years working as a pimp. He needed a name that would frighten people, that would sufficiently confirm his rep as a badass. So Iceberg arrived at his nom de plume for being “ice cold” — that is, sitting at a bar with cool equanimity after a bullet had pierced through his hat. He was later to impart this vocational advice: “to be a good pimp, you gotta be icy, cold like the inside of a dead-whore’s pussy.”

So Iceberg’s pre-writing career was built upon dodging death, which makes the (now dead) Iceberg especially suitable for The Dead Writer’s Almanac. He remained a pimp until the age of 42, serving several prison sentences during this period of gainful employment. During the last stretch, Iceberg was asked to “square up.” Upon seeing no obnoxious cowboy with a bullhorn and a phonograph asking him to stir the bucket, much less a pencil and a straight edge with which to sketch a quadrangle, Iceberg interpreted “square up” to mean (the previous two options not being common among his circles) taking up the pen.

He then moved to California and found some success writing books in the 1960s. (Pimp was often stacked next to Soul on Ice.) But when Iceberg met the Black Panthers, the Panthers expressed disdain for his former life. As he wrote in The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim:

As I stood there chattering about the raid and my writings, I had the sobering realization that unlike the hundreds of non-Panther black youngsters who had recognized me on the street and admired me as a kind of folk hero, because of my lurid and sensational pimp background, the Panther youngsters were blind to my negative glamour and, in fact, expressed a polite disdain for my former profession and its phony flash of big cars, jewelry and clothes. Their only obsession seemed to be the freedom of black people.

I noticed a thin, light-complexioned, secretary-type Panther, with a sheaf of paper under his arm, silently scrutinizing me.

He stepped forward abruptly and with curly-lipped contempt said, “Nigger, you kicked black women in the ass for bread. How many you got now?”

But Iceberg had the last laugh. As the Black Panther Party faded in the subsequent decades, Iceberg maintained prominence, selling six million books before his death in 1992. Artists such as Ice Cube and Ice-T would find inspiration in his words and build hip-hop careers. But certain radio personalities in Minnesota, promoting a “literary” culture to unadventurous middlebrow listeners, would never mention his name, terrified of alienating an aging white bread audience.

Stay writing, don’t die too early, and keep in touch!

The Dead Writer’s Almanac (April 27, 2010)

It’s the death day of Hart Crane, who passed away seventy-eight years ago on April 27, 1932. Hart Crane committed suicide. But it was a cheery suicide, as suicides go. Even if the consequences leading up to the suicide were bizarre and far from happy. You have to credit Crane for his courtesy in shouting “Goodbye, everybody!” to a crowd before throwing himself off a steamship into the Gulf of Mexico. I mean, how many of the hundreds of people who have thrown themselves off the Golden Gate Bridge have managed to even do that? The Dead Writer’s Almanac staff has conducted an informal poll, and it seems that people who shout “Goodbye, everybody!” just before leaping to their needless deaths are now considered exhibitionists who rely upon some crude cry for attention, the equivalent to that annoying guy at the party who complains about the lackluster canapes and the diminishing liquor supply. Suicide victims are now expected to leap to their deaths with a stoic resolve. No commentary. Just the self-immolation itself. But that seems needlessly limited when you’re a talented American poet.

In any event, this suicide arose after poor Crane was beaten just after attempting to proposition several officers. An even more bizarre element concerns his fiancee, Peggy Baird, who had just experienced a freak accident involving an exploding cigarette lighter. With his fiancee bandaged and sedated aboard the cruise ship. it was small wonder that the sexually confused Crane plied himself up with liquor and made bold barebacking suggestions to the ship’s crew.

Crane’s death, as strange as it is, tends to greatly overshadow his ambitions, which can be best enjoyed with his epic poem, The Bridge, which kicked things off with the following stanza (from the opening section “To Brooklyn Bridge”):

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty—

It’s probably worth mentioning that Crane had befriended the poet Samuel Greenberg in 1913. Greenberg died even younger than Crane did in 1917 — merely twenty-four, impoverished, overworked, contending with the premature deaths of his parents. Upon receiving a package of Greenberg’s manuscripts, Crane remarked that Greenberg was “a Rimbaud in embryo,” finding his poems “fugitive and incomplete.” But the interesting question of whether Crane saw Greenberg as a model for poetic martyrdom remains mostly a mystery. Certainly, Crane was content to call The Waste Land both great and “so damned dead.”

But we can proud report that Jasper Johns, who was greatly inspired by Crane for a great number of his works, is not yet dead. (Hi, Jasper! Keep painting that canvas!) It is also quite possible to celebrate Crane without being compelled to mimic his exuberant demise. It’s always a good day for poetry. Just be sure that your loved one doesn’t screw around with a lighter on the fritz.

Stay writing, don’t die too early, and keep in touch!

The Dead Writer’s Almanac (April 26, 2010)

It’s the death day of Hubert Selby, Jr., who passed away six years ago on April 26, 2004. Selby died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which was the sixth leading cause of death in 1990 and is well on its way to earning a solid position as the fourth leading cause of death in 2030. (Go lung disease! And don’t forget, fellow writers. Smoke ’em if you got ’em!) Selby’s wife, Suzanne, claimed that Hubert screamed and broke things when he wasn’t writing. This may explain, in part, the enhanced intensity and the staggered paragraph indentation of his best-known works: 1964’s Last Exit to Brooklyn (which features such street talk as “A couplea creeps wouldnt giveus the packages they got from home so we dumpedem. Im tellinya, we was real tight man”), 1971’s The Room, which deals with a criminally insane man recounting his past in a locked room, and 1978’s Requiem for a Dream, a fun-filled romp that involves broken families, drugs, and ECT. Selby later adapted Requiem with Darren Aronofsky (good man, one of the rare filmmakers who actually enlisted the writer) into an unsettling motion picture that has depressed several people and, for all we know, has inspired several suicides. Which is what great art should do sometimes.

It was thought by many (or at least by the Dead Writer’s Almanac staff) that death would at long last secure the literary respect that had eluded Selby for so damn long. I mean, even a humorless stuffed shirt like Albert Mobilio thought to name-check Selby in (of all things) a 2000 review of a Simona Vinci book. But Selby isn’t quite on the level of Charles Bukowski. Epicene hipsters, often mumbling around in their early twenties, don’t seem to place his slim and gritty volumes upon their coffee tables to atone for a shortfall in streetcred and masculinity.

On the other hand, Selby was often thought “dead” even as he was alive. As he told an interviewer in 2002, “Yes, I’ve been given up for dead many times. In 1988, two doctors said that, according to all accepted medical evidence, I’m dead [enormous laugh].” (Somehow, the “enormous laugh” ensnared within brackets doesn’t truly convey the irony that Selby intended. But if you close your eyes for a smidgen, I’m sure you can imagine being marginalized and misunderstood.)

Selby was very clear to point out to liberal arts grads who skimmed his novels that the great American dream will “kill you dead. Striving for it is a disaster. Attaining it is a killer.” That he offered no alternative to the con is to his great credit. And it seems only fitting to end this installment with a clip of a very nervous Terry Gross attempting to soothe a man (“Because you were very sick….”) who merely needed his typewriter to negotiate the savage American wasteland:

Stay writing, don’t die too early, and keep in touch!

The Dead Writer’s Almanac (April 25, 2010)

It’s the death day of Wright Morris, who passed away twelve years ago on April 25, 1998. Back in 1910, this famed Nebraskan writer (the second dead Nebraskan writer we’ve celebrated in two days!) had not yet uttered his first word. He then experienced the first death of a loved one. This created a moment for the young Morris to gnaw upon repeatedly in later years. Morris’s mother had died just six days (not even a week!) after young Wright popped out of her womb. In his autobiography, Writing My Life, Wright Morris claimed that, had his mother lived, “my compass would have been set on a different course, and my sails full of more than the winds of fiction.” Well, fellow writers, we must ask ourselves whether Morris’s needle would have been zeroed to an alternative lodestone, had the fates granted him opportunity to mutter “Mama” to the genuine article.

Had Grace Osborn observed her son’s seventh day of life (and many more days beyond), would Morris have become a writer? Grace Osborn was not a deity, but might her mortal sacrifice be perceived as an altogether different form of rest on the seventh day? Would Morris have drifted into another occupation had his mother been hale and hearty? These what-if questions are difficult to address, because all of the involved parties are now dead.

But The Dead Writer’s Almanac’s staff doesn’t view mortality as a liability. Books helped Morris to come to terms with the role that the dead play among the living. In an interview with David Madden, which can be found within the book Conversations with Wright Morris, Morris remarked:

When I began to reread Joyce’s “The Dead,” to see how he achieved — and more successfully than I did — this concept that the dead are always with us, frequently overshadowing the living, I realized that the dead on one level or another constitute our present, whether we will it or not. In certain cultural sensibilities, the dominance of the dead is what constitutes the culture, even to the point of stagnation. Joyce was convinced that the awareness of the presence of the dead with the living is really what makes up civilized behavior and civilized responses. The “presence” of those who are missing, who are physically absent, is the one immortality we can attest to.

And yet a New York Times book reviews search reveals that Wright Morris has not been mentioned once since August 13, 1999. Does the New York Times maintain a policy of not citing a dead writer in its pages after eighteen months of steadfast maggot chewing? If so, this is a great pity. And not just for the maggots. Perhaps the New York Times does not share Morris’s Joycean viewpoint. Perhaps the ostensible paper of record is prejudiced against writers who dare to experiment with photo-text collages. Whatever the Gray Lady’s reasons, we remain quite giddy in celebrating the Cornhusker State’s forgotten literary history two days in a row!

In looking for specific ways in which Morris used the word “dead,” one discovers a concern for capturing “dead” in plainspoken vernacular. “Most of us are dead and gone, think it would be fadin’!” says a character in The Home Place, “Same as me an’ you are fadin’.” And in One Day, Morris writes, “The dead were believed not to matter. Only this immaterial ghost.” On the contrary, Mr. Morris, you matter very much to us! And we hope that our enthusiasm has exhumed you from your needlessly obscure coffin!

Stay writing, don’t die too early, and keep in touch!

The Dead Writer’s Almanac (April 24, 2010)

It’s the death day of Willa Cather, who passed away sixty-three years ago on April 24, 1947. The word “dead” can be found seven times in Cather’s O Pioneers!, which was written when Cather resided in Cherry Valley, New York. According to the 2000 Census, Cherry Valley has a population of 1,266 — a number that might be considered “dead” by self-important urbanites, but that is perfectly respectable in this writer’s humble opinion. Cather also wrote a novel called Death Comes for the Archbishop (more “deads” here than O Pioneers!), which is listed on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list.

Cather died from a cerebral hemorrhage in a Park Avenue apartment she shared with journalist Edith Lewis (also Nebraskan and also dead, but not on April 24). According to Lewis, Cather was “never more herself than on the last morning of her life; her spirit was high, her grasp of reality as firm as always.” Lewis remains mum on whether Cather was “never more herself” after the cerebral hemorrhage. But I suspect that, discounting any religious beliefs some of you fellow writers may have, Cather’s spirit did not quite rise to the previous morning’s apotheosis.

The two women lived together for four decades. Some scholars have speculated that there was more going on than a super-intense friendship. But since the two women are both dead, I don’t believe it’s germane for us to contemplate if they were Sapphic exemplars or friends with really nice benefits. What Cather and Lewis did was their business. And if they wished to take it to the grave, this was their choice.

Lewis wrote a book called Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record, revealing that, as a teenager, Cather read Latin with Billy Ducker. Lewis writes that, shortly after Ducker and Cather had gone for a walk, Ducker was found dead on the couch in his living room, with a copy of the Iliad lying open on the floor. Cather had an innate distrust of modern science, in large part because it had created numerous weapons that permitted human beings to kill each other more efficiently. Let us therefore dispense with reasonable conclusions and narrow the cause of this death to two possibilities: either Homer killed Ducker or Cather killed Ducker. Lewis reported that one of the last things Ducker said to Cather was “It is just as though the lights were going out, Willie.” For those writers wishing to draw further conclusions about this anecdote, I recommend listening to this Journey song, replacing “city” with “Nebraska.”

Stay writing, don’t die too early, and keep in touch!

“Building a Writer’s Life” Panel

If you plan on attending the 6th Annual Round Table Writer’s Conference, please be advised that I will be part of the “Building a Writer’s Life” panel. I’ll be appearing with Diana Spchler and Joseph Mackin. The panel is set to go down on May 1, 2010, at 4:00 PM. I’ll be offering a few unusual angles on what it takes to maintain a writing life and an independent voice in a digital age. There may be jokes. There may be fireworks. There may be an impromptu Plates session, should demand and atmospheric conditions prove feasible. But, above all, there will be practical advice from a capable group for anyone who needs it. Please do stop by and say hello, if you can make it.

The Bat Segundo Show: Adam Thirlwell

Adam Thirlwell appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #332. Mr. Thirlwell is most recently the author of The Escape.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if a piña colada might serve as literary escape.

Author: Adam Thirlwell

Subjects Discussed: The narrator device in Politics and The Escape, not understanding an early attempt to write a Henry James novel, the S&M of a writer being both eager to please and eager to annoy, Lautréamont and the bifurcation of voice, self-indulgence, the ethical concerns of Politics and The Escape, total selfishness and hurting others in the pursuit of pleasure, Western society and the hedonistic ideal, Goldwagen and Yiddish opera, character names lifted from cultural references, Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be, defending immaturity from the prism of not being able to tell the difference between the past and the future, Velimir Khlebnikov’s imagery transformed into narrative structure, “plucking” and collage, defining magic in The Delighted States, anticipating what people on television are going to say, the uncommon joys of predictability in pop culture, trying to write a novel that felt like a coda, Gertrude Stein’s idea of methods of the 20th century being used to advance the 19th, attempting to pinpoint the artistic methods of the 21st century, Geoff Dyer, Reality Hunger and appropriation, singularity, Barbara Wright and translation, the difficulties of finding “Beckettian style” in untranslated Beckett, the problems with the chronology of a style, being obsessed with the present moment, the Tea Party, great artists and plagiarism, creative theft, reading a phrase containing “blowjob” before an audience of 500 people, the unanticipated boundaries between private amusement and the public dissemination of literature, degrees of literary intimacy, the 1925 crash as “the Universal Crash,” elegant style and originality, style and unseen neurotic drama, short sentences and rhythm, the evils of passive construction, originality as fluke, unplanned sex scenes, Edmund White, Bohemian as a way of being the “absolute insider,” pithy maxims, blasphemy and belief, the classical equaling the decadent, Lives of the Caesars, Caligula, salacious gossip, and reader motivation.


Thirlwell: I think there are similarities between Politics and The Escape in their ethical concerns. In both cases, weirdly, but through different routes. They’re about saying, “Well, what if you were to be totally selfish? Why is it so wrong to not follow your appetites or hurt people? Is it genuinely bad to hurt someone in the pursuit of your own pleasure?” And whereas in Politics, it’s because there are these cute kids who are incapable of hurting someone else, and thus create a nightmare scenario for themselves, which they think iis a kind of utopia, here you get the kind of old guy who is an entirely selfish person. Or seems so. And so I suppose it’s true that I definitely thought that one of the problems for the reader was going to be that what I wanted to do was present this character who would at first seem mildly repellent. This voyeur in a wardrobe staring at two strangers having sex. But by the end of the novel, if it worked, you were going to actually feel both that he did have a coherent moral structure and also is rather likable. And I suppose, yeah, the game of Politics was that they were like words. So all of the exhibitionists who are going to like these people was because there was a sense that this was . Politics was set in a likable world. It was set in a Coetzee, hipsterish world. Whereas this is much more slightly. There are things about Haffner that, I suppose, I myself don’t like. And I wanted to create a character where I wasn’t as sold on the character myself. Though I wanted to create a little machine where you would have to actually change your moral values, or examine your own moral values as a reader.

Correspondent: So this is your worldview. With decades of experience comes decades of a capacity to hurt other people? (laughs)

Thirlwell: (laughs) I’m only thirty-one!

Correspondent: Okay. (laughs) All right.

Thirlwell: No, I have no conclusion. I am interested in hedonism, I think, and why there seems to be two levels of it. On the one hand, it seems that our society — that English/American society, in particular; Western society — is deeply devoted to some ideals of pleasure. But I think there’s a real Puritanical core actually to a lot of the ways in which we still value the couple, the family. There is something that is very much about: that you should be altruistic and you shouldn’t hurt. And in one way, I suppose, I think that’s slightly immature as a moral system. There are going to be conflicts. And where Politics, I think I was interested in showing some kind of self-destruction in that, here you have someone who seems to be outside those moral values. So, no, it’s not like I’m saying, “Everybody should now go out and be horribly unfaithful to everybody.”

Correspondent: It was a bit of a joke, you know.

Thirlwell: But on the other hand. (laughs) It’s maybe not such a terrible thing.

Correspondent: I wanted to ask about the names. Goldfaden, of course, is the guy who came up with the first Yiddish opera.

Thirlwell: Yeah.

Correspondent: You have, of course, Haffner. Which is close to Hugh Hefner. And which is in fact mentioned in this book — that particular association. And I don’t think it’s an accident that Benji might, in fact, be construed with Walter Benjamin. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” of which this book does considerable reproduction. I’m curious why you were interested in using character names that were essentially lifted from popular and cultural references. And also this note at the end of the book, in which you say that you quote all these various people. Digging through it, it seemed to me as if you didn’t so much quote them, as take stories and shift them around. At least, it didn’t feel like this. Either you pulled one on me. I don’t think it was absolutely paraphrased or even remotely paraphrased. So I was curious about why recycling of this nature occurred, both with the names and also with the so-called quotes.

Thirlwell: Wow, that’s huge. On the names, I think names are really odd. Because there’s something, I think, almost Freudian about it. You’re not always aware about why a name feels right to you, I think. And Haffner, I actually chose — I’d always wanted to write an ambivalent character called Haffner. After a boy who bullied me at school, who’s called Haffner.

Correspondent: Named close to Haffner?

Thirlwell: No, he was actually called Haffner. It was his second name. So that was when I was nine. But I also actually rather liked it as a name. And then, it was actually only halfway through writing the book that I thought, “Oh fuck. Everyone is going to think that this is a joke on Hefner.” So that’s why I put the joke in. To defuse it.

Correspondent: Nullify it.

Thirlwell: To nullify that one. Goldfaden was deliberately the Yiddish dramatist. And Benji, it wasn’t so much from Walter Benjamin. Although I’m sure that was at the back of my mind. That wasn’t deliberate. But I’m sure it was there unconsciously. But certainly the idea of the Biblical younger son. And I think that with the names — with the very Jewish names like “Goldfaden” — that was because I was very interested in almost doing a caricature of Jewishness. Or a particular type of East European Jewishness. Of immigrant Jewishness. Because one of the things that this novel is in dialogue with, and what Haffner the character is in dialogue with, is a particular version of Jewishness. So I think the Jewish names, they were there as deliberately East European. There was an air of competition. I mean, the other source of the names that I’d completely forgotten about, but only remembered recently when I saw this film again. To Be or Not to Be. Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be. And for some reason, I’d seen it early on when I was writing this book. I mean, just before I started the book. And I had a kind of cast list. Some handout that I’d got. And so a lot of the names were actually from that. Like Tummel — Frau Tummel — is taken from someone who’s like the production manager on To Be or Not to Be. But then the names come from this locus of Central Europe. And it’s true. And I suppose that leads to the quotations. Because there was a way in which I was definitely interested in doing a miniature recapitulation in this book of my entire literary past. I think, slightly to then move away from it. To finish with it. So that hopefully, what I’d then write would be freer or something completely different.

The Bat Segundo Show #332: Adam Thirlwell (Download MP3)

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The Life of Pie Throwing

Yesterday, Mark Medley, an amicable gentleman from the National Post, contacted me by telephone to talk about Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil and my review, in which I had called Mr. Martel’s novel “the worst book of the decade.” I thought he was merely getting some minor quote from me. But it appears that he’s devoted the opening paragraphs to my piece.

You can read Mr. Medley’s article here.

When Publisher’s Notes Were More Honest

Bennett Cerf’s At Random conveys an amusing anecdote concerning Gertrude Stein. Stein told Cerf that she loved seeing her writing in print and asked Cerf how he felt about it. Cerf replied that if there was anything that Stein wanted to see in print, Random House would do it. So when Stein published The Geographical History of America or the Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind, he was exceptionally bewildered. This bafflement was also conveyed when Cerf wrote the jacket copy:


This space is usually reserved for a brief description of a book’s contents. In this case, however, I must admit frankly that I do not know what Miss Stein is talking about. I do not even understand the title.

I admire Miss Stein tremendously, and I like to publish her books, although most of the time I do not know what she is driving at. That, Miss Stein, tells me, is because I am dumb.

I note that one of my partners and I are characters in this latest work of Miss Stein’s. Both of us wish that we knew what she was saying about us. Both of us hope, too, that her faithful followers will make more of this book than we are able to!

Bennett A. Cerf

RIP George Scithers (With 2006 Interview)

Locus Magazine reports the sad news that George Scithers, who was a founding editor of Asimov’s, an editor of Amazing Stories, and who revived Weird Tales in 1987, serving as its editor through 2007, passed away on April 19, 2010 of a heart attack.

I ran into George at BEA in 2006, and conducted an impromptu interview for The Bat Segundo Show. Our conversation is transcribed below. This was still in the “wet behind the ears” stage of the program. In the transcript, I have spared people the dreaded you knows and likes that were then quite frequent. But I hope that the interview sufficiently captures George’s spirit. In my admittedly brief conversation, I found George to be a very friendly and encouraging man. (You can also listen to the conversation in the audio file attached to the end of this post. Or, if you prefer, you can listen to the entire show here.)

Correspondent: So I’m here with George Scithers of Wildside Press. He is also the man who revived Weird Tales Magazine. Maybe you can tell us about that and what’s coming up from Wildside.

Scithers: Oh, almost fifteen years ago, John Betancourt and Darrell Schweitzer and I decided that we’d like to revive Weird Tales. I had been editor of Amazing Stories. And they no longer wanted me. And I was getting bored. Anyway, we revived the magazine. And it’s been plunking along ever since. We’re up to Issue #20 — no, sorry, #340, with the issue that I have in my hot little hand right now. Which has stories by Jay Lake and Tanith Lee, Sarah Hoyt and Holly Phillips. We got interviewed by the Washington Post a little while ago. And the Los Angeles Times was good enough to pick up the article and run it also.

Correspondent: Now the new Weird Tales and the old Weird Tales. What are some of the overlapping kind of qualities? And what are the things that you’ve sort of changed to update Weird Tales? What have you been conscious of? What steps have you taken to do this?

Scithers: We’ve tried to put out what the magazine would be if it had continued, rather than digging it up and exhuming it. In other words, things have changed. When Weird Tales was first published, there was no such thing as science fiction. In the sense that the word had not even been invented. We carried science fiction — speculative fiction, if you will — as well as vampires and ghoulies and ghosts. We published the material of HP Lovecraft, who is unfortunately dead. So we can’t do any new stories by him. We published the original stories by Robert E. Howard. Conan the Conqueror and the like. And unfortunately, he’s dead. And we can’t do any more by him. And we also published Robert Bloch. And, alas, he’s dead too. And a few years ago, we published some poems by Ray Bradbury, who’s still alive actually.

Correspondent: Yes! Yes!

Scithers: But the modern science fiction stories are pretty well handled by specialized science fiction magazines. So that nowadays, Weird Tales has closed its scope a little bit. Basically supernatural horror. And every so often — because we must occasionally surprise the reader who expects everything to be supernatural — occasionally, the vampire may turn out to be a fake. Not every time. But, you know, every ten or fifteen years, we’ll run a story in which the ghost has a real explanation. Generally it’s a fantasy-based horror magazine. Or fantasy, which isn’t always horror. Sword and sorcery.

Correspondent: Now who would you say would be — which of your contributing writers would be the current sort of Lovecraft, Bloch, etcera. Or someone who has talent outside of that, but who is distinctive enough and yet also Weird Tales enough.

Scithers: That’s impossible to say. There isn’t any contemporary Lovecraft. Because Lovecraft was his own thing.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Scithers: And Lovecraft exhausted — well, didn’t exhaust, but worked over his particular mythos so well that it’s quite difficult to do another story in that now. And then someone does. But, again, in the current issue, Holly Phillips is a creature of her own. And that’s an entirely new thing. Tanith Lee has her own particular kind of fantasy. Which is not the same thing every time. She’s all over the place. I can’t really say that we’ve got one particular author. We’d love to have Stephen King all the time. But Stephen King does books these days. And we’re essentially a short story market.

Correspondent: Do you have problems? Because there’s always all these kinds of claims that the short story is dead. There are literary magazines that are just struggling to get by. Has any of this affected Weird Tales in terms of putting out issues or attracting talent? Maybe you can comment upon these issues.

Scithers: As far as the supply of short stories, no problem. If anything, there’s — I hate to say this, but we almost have too many writers in the field now. Our problem is that people do not go to cigar stores and magazine stores to the extent that they used to. Magazine circulation used to be in the hundreds of thousands. And then the tens and tens of thousands. And now in the low tens. And this is a problem throughout the fiction field. There aren’t an awful lot of fiction magazines. The Digest Group. Asimov’s, Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. And on the other side, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. All of these have decreasing circulation over the years. As far as the availability of material, the thing is that there are annual courses on how to teach science fiction. I’ve been publishing books on how to write science fiction. I’ve been publishing guidelines on science fiction. As far as the supply of good, good material, there’s plenty. I see a higher percentage of buyable material nowadays. Back in the Asimov’s days, when I first started in this line of work — which is about 1978 — I figured about 1% of what I got in would be fit to put on the page. I’m seeing a higher percentage of stuff that’s fit to put on the page. But I can’t buy all the stuff that’s fit to put on the page. Because there’s so much of it.

Correspondent: How much of a higher percentage are you seeing now?

Scithers: I can’t say a percentage. Because I’d have to sit down and count how many manuscripts, and how many got the “good but not irresistible” reply, and how many got the “please don’t keep making the same mistakes over and over again” reply, and how many got the “get a hold of Strunk & White and you better believe it.” Strunk & White is the essential book on composition, on how to write. It’s a thin volume. It’s extremely good. You learn the standard way to write. You change away from that for deliberate effect. You find that you’re disagreeing with it. And then, as you get better, you find that they were right all along. They are talking about the general case. And what you are writing is the special case. Typically, standard English is what you frame around dialogue. But what’s between the quote marks is how people actually speak. Which isn’t precisely literary. It isn’t precisely grammatical. And you vary from being precisely literary and grammatical in order to call attention to how people are speaking. In your exposition part of the story, if you want to call attention to what you’re doing, then you start breaking some of the rules. But if you drop into standard grammar, then all that comes across is “What words are you choosing? And in what order to you put them down?” Which are the basics of writing. It’s the basic poetry too, as Coleridge put it.

Correspondent: Well, going back to this issue of more manuscripts being suitable. It’s just a matter of finding the ones that are right for Weird Tales. Do you think that the rise of MFA workshops might have something to do with this?

Scithers: I don’t know MFA Workshop. Because I know that there are a great many workshops over the years, over the decades. So I’m not aware of what MFA Workshop is doing. Tell me about it.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: I think it’s great that Scithers thought that “MFA Workshop” was a specific outfit. He was very much an old school, nuts-and-bolts kind of guy.]

Correspondent: Well, you know, workshops for people who get MFA degrees in creative writing.

Scithers: Right.

Correspondent: And so there are all these workshops around short stories. And so therefore you have this cottage industry almost for aspiring writers, who are then perhaps flooding Weird Tales, along with the remaining literary magazines and journals that we have in order to get some credits. I’m sort of speculating out loud, but maybe….

Scithers: Of course you are. Of course you are. The thing about workshops is, if somebody’s off in a garret writing all by himself, he’ll start writing for himself. And this is not good. So working with other people is helpful. But you have to remember that the opinion of somebody who is close enough to you that you can hit them, is not as good as somebody on the far end of an email line. Or of a mail line. In the end, however, the only opinion that really matters is that of someone who might pay you money for it. [interjection by another guy at the booth] Somebody’s trying to interrupt us?

Correspondent: Well, George, thanks so much.

[Confused stare from George.]

Correspondent: Do you want to continue your answer?

Scithers: Uh no. Do you want to expand with the question?

Correspondent: Oh, well, I mean, I guess I was getting a sense of like: Do you think that the MFA mentality of an approval by committee is perhaps damaging. Particularly when we’re talking about genre fiction, like Weird Tales, where these MFA workshops….

Scithers: Ah yes! Yes, yes, yes! Your problem is that in the group, if someone is using the group for other than learning how to write, and helping other people to write, then you’re in trouble. And you have to keep your antenna out for just exactly this phenomenon. That if somebody is trying to dominate the group. Somebody’s trying to show how much better he is or how much less good — that’s not the point of a group. The group is: what does a group, in general, think is good and bad about what somebody is writing. If the group is turning over people who are becoming so busy selling, that they no longer have time for the group, that is a successful group. If the group is a static group who simply get together to argue with each other, you see, this is a kind of a trap. The bouncing things off of other people is a faster way of getting a feel for it than sending it off by mail. But the opinion you get back by somebody who might buy it, and thinks it was good enough to say what’s wrong with it, that’s important. The kind of things that I see over and over again is somebody starts with a resume. Well, I’m not buying a resume! I’m buying a story.

Correspondent: Unless the story is actually a horror resume.

Scithers: No. No! There is a general remark about this. That if you don’t get the reader’s attention in the first paragraph, the rest of the message is lost. This was written by a rear admiral, who presumably was not writing about fiction at the time. But it’s still very appropriate. The thing that a writer’s group should do is take a look at a story and say, “You know, if you start it in the second paragraph, it will be just as good.” Well, in fact, it would be a great deal better. Because the first paragraph is simply getting in your way. And starting the story too late, or not starting at all, are the most irritating things that come across. Other than things that are in such awful format that you have to just throw them back.

Correspondent: Well, George, thanks so much. These were all very interesting things to hear.

(Image: Darrell Schweitzer)

The Bat Segundo Show: George Scithers (2006) (Download MP3)

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In Response to Sven Birkerts

Well, Good Ol’ Sven is at it again, dissing the digital age as an abject obverse to the novel. Some questions:

1. If Sven’s students are “not reading newspapers or print magazines,” but are reading the same articles through “online news sources,” then is this really a binary opposition? Sven proudly announces that he “was watching the opening scenes of Wim Wenders’s 1987 film Wings of Desire,” but if one is to adopt his catholic approach, I would contend that, by seeing Wenders’s film on television (as opposed to projected in a theater), then he has not actually experienced the film as it was originally designed. We must therefore slap Sven on the wrists for “not watching” Wings of Desire. He commits the same “hypocrisy” that his students do in reading articles online.

2. On the subject of Wings, Sven commends the “flash I felt myself looking back in time from a distant and disengaged vantage.” But how is this unique to a 23-year-old film? One fascinating development (indeed, an exciting one) is that a movie or a blog post from only a few months ago seems ever more like ancient history. Everything we now create transforms into forgotten driftwood subject to a promising rediscovery. Liberation from the self through instant insignificance! I love it! So does the relative obscurity of sifting through our past efforts therefoe combat the problems of information saturation? If everything is available to us at the push of a button, does not the thrill arrive in finding some morsel (or some association) that nobody else has discovered (or, more accurately, vocalized)? Is there not also a thrill in revisiting something from 23 years ago and finding yet another angle? This is hardly “bemused pity,” unless you are truly disengaged and incurious about the world you live in, as Sven seems to be. Which is too bad for him. He’s missing out!

3. Sven suggests that his students are pretending “they are taking course-related notes, but would not be surprised to find out they are writing to friends, working on papers for other courses, or just trolling their favorite sites while they listen.” He does not find out if they are really doing this. In short, he shows no interest about how his students — the generation he wishes to get through to — accesses information. He complains that his students are quick on the draw with their speeding bullets of data, but he doesn’t convey how well they are able to wrap their heads around a conversational subject that requires some heavy cerebral lifting (instead of reliance upon Google) — perhaps a ruminative speculation on a novel or a piece of writing or something that is important to them. It’s not a matter of presenting “book information to them with a slight defensiveness.” It’s a matter of engaging these students with insights that will cause glorious bombs to go off in their heads! Sven, are you really that much of a solipsistic bore? Come on, sir, there’s a whole generation of readers that you can tap into, if you just got beyond your grumpy, half-hearted nihilism!

4. “Human narratives are events and descriptions selected and arranged for meaning.” Unless, of course, no meaning is ever intended or meaning is not the narrative maker’s primary concern. Meaning, as we all know, falls to the reader to make sense of what the narrative maker has whipped up in the kitchen. The best chefs understand this. What the narrative chef may call fillet mignon may be identified as chocolate chip ice cream by the reader. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this. It can actually lead to some humorous and interesting conversations. But it suggests very highly that the reader isn’t altogether different from a dog, and the author isn’t altogether that much different from a god.

5. Sven, I sent you an invite to the “party of the imagination” several times. You declined, insisting that there was no party. And you continued to flail your limbs about when all we really wanted to do was put a slice of cake in your hand and a horn in your mouth. This essay confirms that you are a party pooper. If, as you insist, imagination is “the one feature that connects us with the deeper sources and possibility of being,” I submit to you that there are these lovely folks running around you, often referred to as people. Those students with their laptops that you merely speculate upon? People. Talk to any one of them and you will soon ferret out several stories, numerous narratives, thoughts and feelings you may not have heard before. Now that capacity to communicate is indeed a “party of the imagination.” Small wonder that these spiffy souls have flocked to the Internet in droves to create a more ginormous party! No, there is no additional “layer of sheathing.” Unless, of course, you’re referring to the casual encounters section of Craig’s List and the need to protect one’s self from syphilitic strangers.

6. “My real worry has less to do with the overthrow of human intelligence by Google-powered artificial intelligence and more with the rapid erosion of certain ways of thinking — their demotion, as it were. I mean reflection, a contextual understanding of information, imaginative projection. ” First off, when you step outside of the house, Sven, I assure you that the robot armies are not marching in the streets. There is no artificial intelligence. Although I do share your concern with reliance upon smartphones (why consult a device when you can simply ask someone for directions?), the upshot is that there are neither robots nor illusory rabbits running about the streets. Also, humans willfully misunderstand information. And there are often many creative possibilities that arise from mishearing something. Why, just the other day, I thought somebody had said to me, “I’d like to come,” when they really told me, “I’d like my comb.” This may very well be a confession of perversity on my part. But I found this to be quite funny. I mean, what if everyone around us just started confessing their precise desires for an orgasm? Now when I confessed my mishearing, this led to a very interesting conversation about what humans tend to confess to strangers. Would that conversation have happened had I not misheard? Perhaps. But it certainly broke the ice. There is not a singular way to process the universe, Sven. What do I have to do? Send dirty lingerie and hand buzzers to you for needless exegesis?

7. This will be my last point. I would certainly hope that you found O’Neill’s “vantage” “intensely moving.” This is merely one manner of expressing what it means to be alive in the present. But one can indeed concentrate and move at the same time. It’s easier than walking and chewing bubble gum. Every human model, if we are to use your coarse tech comparisons, comes with a different user manual. My advice, not that I expect you to heed it, would be to put forth your energies into other models. You may end up writing a 4,000 word essay that people (aside from me) will actually be interested in reading.

Should Hannah Tinti Fly First Class? Find Out for Only $500!

HTML Giant has published an email that is now making the rounds, whereby One Story is attempting to fleece students for a one-week workshop (priced at $1,100) over the pressing question of whether or not they should pursue an MFA.

The ethics, as many have argued in the thread, are dubious.

On the other hand, one has to admire the effrontery. But if One Story is going to ask for a ridiculous sum of money, then I think the time has come for others to ask for equally staggering fees while addressing some of the literary world’s most useless questions. Accordingly, I am proud to announce my newly prepared seminar.

Should Hannah Tinti Fly First Class?

You may have blown your $500 on a needlessly expensive dinner or a high-class whore. But why stop there? For the same price, Edward Champion will happily take your money, bombarding you with speculations, conspiracy theories, and other pieces of information that you are too lazy to research or look up on your own.

The one hour talk will include a Powerpoint presentation that rivals Al Gore’s. It will analyze Ms. Tinti’s travel patterns over the last five years, the pros and cons of coach and business class, the problems that Ms. Tinti has experienced when sleeping on red eye flights, her continued efforts to secure a comfortable middle-class lifestyle, and her unwavering commitment to taking money from naive students. It will demonstrate how you too can begin a career in which you exploit the impoverished.

We are crafting a unique experience, both practical and creative, for anyone who hopes to ensure that Ms. Tinti continues to travel around the world in wanton luxury. We will also be discussing the recent Icelandic volcano, pointing to alternative methods for affluent travel and exciting new methods to pamper Ms. Tinti in five-star hotels if she is ever trapped in Oslo. Students will leave with:

  • A stock portfolio they can use to funnel all future funds into Ms. Tinti’s expenses account
  • Advice from travel agents about what they look for in Ms. Tinti’s first-class experience
  • A full understanding of the range of first-class options (and why traveling in coach is worse than being stuck in a Third World nation)
  • Insight about how first-class travel grants Ms. Tinti an excuse with which to delay any meaningful fiction writing or legitimate encouragement directed towards creative aspirants
  • A breakdown of the potential moods and psychological problems that Ms. Tinti will experience, should she not fly in first-class
  • A community of editors who have had the good fortune to travel first-class at some point over the past five years
  • Access to Edward Champion’s pants
  • A look at the wider publishing world, illustrating how to bankrupt anyone who aspires to be a writer or who dares to write about the world in a non-bourgeoisie manner

All this can be yours for only five Ben Franklins! So don’t delay! Sign up for this most important seminar NOW! Spots are limited!

Abandoned Books and Marginalia

On the evening of April 18, 2010, my girlfriend and I were alarmed to discover perfectly good books — which included four volumes of Saul Bellow and a near mint edition of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange — that had been tossed with some ferocity into numerous plastic bags and thrown into the street. We plundered through these books, selecting those classics or pivotal tomes that we might pass on to friends, acquaintances, or those who may not be able to afford books.

But when we sifted through the books, the young and confused woman who had once owned these books came to life. We learned, by the placement of bookmarks (often lodged just about a third into the book), that many of these books were often partially read. I was particularly saddened to see a volume of collected Kafka abandoned before “The Metamorphosis.”

Within the pages, we found:

  • A takeout menu, dated May 14, 2001, for a now extinct sushi restaurant on West 72nd Street.
  • Two pink ribbons, used as bookmarks, labeled “April 9, 2006 — Sevin’s Bridal Shower”
  • A drinks menu for Under the Volcano, apparently located at 12 East 36th Street. To offer a sample, the drinks menu announces a Papa Daquiri, which is described as “Tart, sweet, intoxicating a classic union of lime, sugar & choice of rum [sic].”
  • The most ironic bookmark came from Project Cicero, a non-profit book drive operation that helps to supplement New York school libraries
  • A subscription card for Vitalis Woman
  • A quite pedestrian recipe for Oven-Fried Chicken with Parmesan Cheese. (This tells us that the woman who owned these books wasn’t much of a cook.)
  • A full-page Rimmel advertisement ripped out from a magazine. (We learned that the woman who owned these books was a model.)
  • A handwritten note, placed in a mass market paperback of Faust, reading: “J — There is something about watching your mouth when you speak that excites me — and it is more than the knowledge of their touch.”
  • An MTA Metro North receipt
  • A flyer for pilates classes

And when we began to flip through the books, additional messages began to emerge.

Saul Bellow, Ravelstein

On the inside front cover, there is a boyfriend’s phone number.

Passages singled out:

  • “Nothing is more bourgeois than the fear of death.”
  • “Stendahl,” “Thomas Hardy,” and “Sidney Hook” underlined. Smiley face in margin.
  • “without music you couldn’t swallow what life offered”
  • “Thucydides” and “Alcibiades” and “Gorgias” underlined
  • “think-tankers” circled, with a note reading “Sienfeld [sic] — 10-14-02”
  • “Severus” and “Caracalla” underlined
  • “And I am active, on the whole. But there are gaps, and these gaps tend to fill up with your dead.”
    “think about his demand for esteem” (heavily underlined)
  • “I was capable of accepting correction”
  • “solitary longings” and “intolerable isolation” (double underlined)
  • “Rousseau” circled
  • “There are significant facts that have to be lived with but you don’t have to let them engross you.”
  • “nature” and “solitude” underlined and checkmarked in margin
  • “I’ve often thought that suicide fantasies and murder fantasies balance each other in the mental economy of civilized people.” (Seeing this so strenuously singled out, after so many references to “esteem” and “solitude” was just heartbreaking to me. I really wanted to give this woman, or whoever she might have been in October 2002, a hug.)
  • “The pictures will stop.”
  • “overgrowth of delusion”
  • “The older you grow the worse the discoveries you make about yourself.” (with an exclamation mark in the margins)
  • “to lose your head”

Michel Faber, The Courage Consort

Note on first page: “The only reality = self” (It is worth noting that there was some Ayn Rand amidst the books we abandoned.)

Passages singled out:

  • “he’d learned to hide his fault-finding under a consultative guise” (with marginal note: “Beautifully said”)
  • “who could be trusted to do nothing to her except keep her warm and safe”
  • “marginally bigger now than a couple of decades ago”
  • “not understanding that a declaration of unfitness was really a plea for encouragement” (with marginal note: “Hate it! But true”)
  • “taken responsibility” (with marginal note: “under ‘his’ breathe [sic]”)
  • “mountain of poise”
  • “to fall into it with him was like joining him in his own world”
  • “challenged a voice from inside her”

Saul Bellow, More Die of Heartbreak

Two specific quotes copied from other pages: “You never had to apply your high intelligence to the lowdown specifics” and (this made me very sad, wondering if the woman had been hurt) “You can love a man without loving what he did to you”

Passages singled out:

  • “philistinism”
  • “Time was escaping through hundreds of gaps. Why wouldn’t he stay put?”
  • “When somebody gives them the business, they can’t interpret how they’ve been shafted.” (marginal note: exclamation mark)
  • “That people dear to us should disappear into eternity is intolerable, and we can’t accept it without cowardice.”
  • “Two psychopaths under one quilt.”
  • “The master is master because he is prepared to face death to maintain the privileges of a master. The slave is unwilling to stake his life.” (marginal note: “Beautiful”)
  • “as you see, so you are”
  • “Bears you a child, and then bears you a grudge.”
  • “One session of lovemaking is converted into a proclamation.”
  • “inventing pranks and gas as so much of the country does”
  • “effrontery”
  • “The sex embrace was death-flavored.”
  • “truth is such a wonderful tonic”
  • “her air of belonging to the past was caused primarily by her remoteness from the present”
  • “They act light but they feel heavy.”
  • “In outer darkness, where their poor hearts are breaking.”
  • “neither would let the other walk into a whirling propeller”
  • “out of proportion to the event”
  • “liberty from low-grade human meanness”
  • Matilda’s “You like to picture yourself as an outsider” monologue bracketed, with a marginal note reading “Love it!”
  • “But you didn’t exactly feel at home with their hoopla, so you were clinging to the Christmas tree.” (smiley face in margin)
  • “Only I’m good and tired of watching high-quality people fuck up in practical life, to the gratification of the vulgar.”
  • “The way grains of sand follow the wind into ululations.”
  • “while they were being woven into eternity”
  • “Friedman answers that no matter how crazy people are, they still remain sane about money.”
  • “referring to her daughter as a ‘piece.'”
  • “It ought to be possible to gratify a woman’s wishes. We’ll do what she wants. I can find out only by going along with her will. Then I may be getting somewhere.”
  • “The secret motive of the absentminded is to be innocent while guilty.”
  • “Absentmindedness is a spurious innocence.”
  • “most of the people we meet are mentally on skid row. One stumblebum after another.”
  • “What it comes down to is that men and women are determined to get out of one another (or tear out) what is simply not to be gotten by any means.”
  • “only somewhat irregular in the way I talk”
  • “I didn’t have the all-too-common tearing-at-the-gut feeling that I must escape as soon as possible from somebody.”
  • Auden quote: “Trouble is attractive when one is not tied.”
  • “I realize now that I had aggravated her lifelong dissatisfaction.”
  • “sack traffic” (vigorously circled)
  • “Perhaps it wasn’t my type of cruelty.”
  • “There are forces around us which nullify reason.”
  • “She doesn’t want you to please her.”
  • “erotomania”
  • “Just as great heights suggest suicide.”
  • Another indication of tracking the original with Blake’s “As a man sees, so he is” circled with great emphasis.
  • “coming into my comfortless sanctuary, I wanted to throw out all the books and papers — the same books on which I depended for clarification” (She certainly heeded this advice.)
  • “After so much mental fussing, nothing was clear anyway.”
  • “I don’t understand why these quality minds have to justify the contempt in which they are held by the general public.”
  • “half-bestial sex demon”
  • “In his slackness there were highly organized tensions.”
  • “his face corpulent”
  • “Well, it’s all those high-placed persons, the guys on the top of the ladder putting in for their share of the erotic recreations of the country.” (marginal exclamation mark)
  • “Dostoevsky” underlined
  • “they say no good deed goes unpunished”
  • “The sacrifice of egoism for the sake of the salvation of individuality.”
  • But it is unjust and evil to refuse this significance to others.”
  • “Poe poem” circled
  • “Whichever way you turn there are costs, costs, and more costs.”
  • “When you’ve fallen from grace, what do you take hold of?”
  • “Obviously there’s an advantage in looking as bad as possible.”
  • “If you have peculiar talents you must be prepared to defend them.”
  • “you never had to apply your high intelligence to the lowdown specifics”
  • “You’ve got loads of warmth which seems to go begging in the wrong places.” (This is likewise copied on the other page.)
  • “the human being, preserving himself humanly, may find a channel which brings him to liberty” (marginal note: “hope”)
  • “For two” (circled), followed by underlined remainder of sentence (“the ideal is to become one”)

There are additional notes on the last page:

“Crazy — one sandwich short of a picnic”
“have sense — just beating her guns”
“bishery — bashery”
“Possibly I could transmit the perfected insight — when I perfected it.”

Elliot Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity

By far, the most interesting marginalia was to be found in a Perlman paperback. (I have omitted the names to protect privacy.)

Because this book is quite long, I won’t list all the underlined passages and I’ll stick with the specific notes. You’ll soon see the story in a minute. It appears that this book was taken on a vacation and was further used to chronicle the dissolution of a relationship.

On page 55, there is this note: “That’s just the way I am — lock me in a cage + I’ll break right thru it!”

On page 64, there is this note: “Love is what I need 2 help me know my name.” (The terrible isolation that this woman is feeling is further suggested by the underlined phrase “preparing for another night of sleeping alone beside you.”)

Marginal note “brilliant” for underlined “the sullen realization of a missed opportunity that’s disguised as a smile, which leaves her face as soon as it arrives.”

Quote underlined and written out: “It’s not my business, only my concern.” (marginal note: “Love it”)

“you content yourself with the uncertainty” underlined (with marginal note “1 of 6 messages”)

“And, he contends, if two people have different views, not simply about the state of their relationship, but about its very nature, then that can affect the entire course of their lives.” (marginal note: “I know it”)

Marginal note on p. 215: “4-12-06. Thanks then 2 [name] + [name]. I was very lucky 2 have been with him so that I could E [name]’s character rt away.” (Throughout the book, the name of this woman’s ex-boyfriend appears along certain passages, as if in recognition.)

Big explanation mark next to “refrain from giving people the benefit of the doubt”

Marginal note on p. 328: “Fear sabotages replies & reality 2 absorb”

Marginal note on p. 331: “Good luck. You have a good selection you should do well — try the 2 sunglasses dude on the beach of Cortez in Cabo.” (smiley face with exclamation points for eyes) (I’m flipping through this book hoping that the woman is about to get lucky after this bad breakup, while she’s recuperating in Cabo.)

Marginal note on p. 339: “Cards — always hit 17 when dealer shows 7 — ace.” (So she’s learning how to play blackjack from the book. This is next to an underlined sentence: “There’s an almost irresistible tendency to think that the smallest thing is the only reason you’re winning.”)

Marginal note on p. 340: “The way everyone treats everyone wherever they can” (also underlined sentence). Arrow pointing to this, with note saying “gross, horrible, not that”

Marginal note on p. 350: “Don’t let’s be friends — let me upset the rhythm of her breathing just once. The way she disrupts make everything I @ U!”

Marginal note on p. 354: “It is experience & u that I go away; @ if I go away. The computer will not come into you, but if I depart I will send him UR 4.”

Marginal note on p. 360: “Momentary thought of how they had photos on computer of my friends. But not me! Hurt my heart.” (She may be commenting on the narrative, but it seems to me that she experienced something very close to the narrative. Hence, these notes.)

Marginal note on p. 369: “Of course u an quit — quit anything you want if you change your mind about doing it….if I sound a little defensive, it’s maybe because I am still a little defensive — on giving up bring the message”

Marginal note on p. 387: “Surely…writing these damn notes clarification of thoughts”

Marginal note on p. 397: “They didn’t come 2 my defense — and I am still defending him.” (This is on the same page where “She didn’t come to my defense, and you’re still defending her.” A name is written. It is clear that this woman is seeing parallels within the narrative.)

Marginal note on p. 518: “People r nasty crazy!”

Marginal note on p. 522: “Separate. Nothing seen thru the same eyes”

Marginal note on p. 569: “Procreate so that other innocent people…”

Marginal note on p. 590: “July 1st 2006. Just girl(s). High Fidelity.”

Marginal note on p. 600: “We seem 2 get our own stories wrong — I don’t realize it.”

Marginal note on p. 601: “His dad was attempting 2 fuck his way out of this years under accommodations 2 a brighter future.” (Back to commenting upon narrative, it would appear. But based on the names, it’s clear she sees parallels between the book and her life.)

Marginal note on p. 610: “[name] thinks = If I leave [name] 4 [name] — then perhaps my eye might not b permanently fixed on [name] either.” (So apparently, she’s reading this book as she’s considering leaving her man for another.)

Marginal note on p. 610: “07-03-06. And so abusive behavior based on forced flow of images of me leaving him.”

Marginal note on p. 612: “Fleeting thought: Had I love [name] — and glad I know we would not be happy together becuz of our power struggles. Just knowing he loves me does not happiness make.”

There were the following entries on the last page.

“Understand [name omitted] sickness now.”
“I used 2 look up 2 u + now I can’t look at u @ all.”
“Move your ass”
“6-11-06. Water up my nose. While tiny time spots w/in tan skin + freckles where the sand was resting”
“Waves crashing. Sens”
“Step class. Facial patience of no yoga.”
“Rt under knee strain/stairs”
“Friday — Flipped at V 3X’s!! Glad 2 B alive. Had my first Pacifco beer after perfect commercial. (smiley face)”

This is Also Good Advice for Authors

Always be nice to everybody you meet. As soon as you leave town, word will begin spreading on the lecture circuit as to how difficult or cooperative you were. There’s no better gossip than “What an asshole!” a certain celebrity was and word will catch up with you fast. I always ask in each city, “Who was the worst celebrity you ever booked?” and the stories are told with obvious relish. Always do talk shows. They treat you nicely (limo, nice hotel) and, in certain sections of the country, virtually define what is “hip” to your target audience. Avoid lecturing in discos; the audience is usually not in the mood but if you can stand it, the managements are all semi-legal and you always get paid in cash. Finally, never act like you’re bored, even if you’ve heard the questions a million times. These people haven’t asked it before. Put yourself on automatic pilot, think about your laundry, a book you’re reading, anything. Always act like it’s the first time you’ve told a particular audience. Being on the lecture tour is a little like running for office. You must act popular even if you’re secretly contemplating suicide. Living the life of a third-rate Mondale pounding the campaign trail is better than working, isn’t it? Pull lever 6-C.

— John Waters, “Singing for Your Supper” (from Crackpot)

The Bat Segundo Show: Juan José Campanella & Allison Amend II

Juan José Campanella and Allison Amend both appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #331.

Mr. Campanella is most recently the co-writer and director of The Secret in Their Eyes, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and opens in theaters on April 16, 2010.

Ms. Amend is most recently the author of Stations West and previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #256.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Searching for Old West secrets in various eyes.

Guests: Juan José Campanella and Allison Amend

Subjects Discussed: Devising a stadium shot that’s a hybrid between Touch of Evil and Black Sunday, stitching shots together through CGI, using Massive Software, contending with how details change between 1974 and 2010, expressive focal lengths, lava lamps that isn’t replaced over decades, hippie actors who are ideal to play authoritarian judges, piles and piles of paper, the myth of the paperless office, creating a train station through CGI, the steps you need to take to ensure that fake walls aren’t seen by daytime courthouse workers, sports statistics, working with novelist Eduardo Sacheri, why novelists are especially suited to screenplay collaboration, philosophical questions about one man having a singular passion, the best way to look for someone who has disappeared, Campanella’s non-cinematic passions, the tormented eight year creative process of turning a story into a novel, how one does the “find an agent dance,” true sex vs. sexy sex, the role of women in early patriarchal America, questions of “commercial appeal,” prejudice against women in the publishing industry, the Stephen Crane principle of writing about what you don’t experience, anonymous peer reviews of novels at university presses, believability and research, Pullman cars, getting accustomed to thinking about a world without present technology, requirements it takes to be a train enthusiast, Stations West‘s early version as a “Forrest Gump novel,” Harvey House restaurants, internal rhyme, Zima, overwriting, pesky adjectives and adverbs, comparative measurements, eugenics and multiculturalism, Lamarckian descriptions and the American melting pot, Pinckney Benedict, historical precedent with character names, mythical bureaucratic forms, delving too much into census records, getting accurate historical dialogue, talking a ton, the strategy of removed narrators, The Jews of Oklahoma, violence and death, unexpected deaths in history and narrative, train accidents, the glee of killing animals in fiction, and the role of the misunderstood in history.


Correspondent: The wonderful marvelous stadium shot that’s in the middle of this movie — it’s a hybrid of Black Sunday and Touch of Evil.

Campanella: Yes, exactly.

Correspondent: The question. I mean, obviously, I would love to ask you how you did this. But I’m also really curious how you got all these people in the stadium. I mean, I don’t know what your budgetary scenario was.

Campanella: Well, the budget was very low. As you know, it’s a national Argentine movie. So we don’t have millions of dollars to do it. And we did it with the help of a few buttons and chips and stuff.

Correspondent: Aha! The wonderful CGI.

Campanella: Some of it is CGI. Some of it is real. You never know what is what. Because we interspersed it. So it wouldn’t look like a PlayStation game. But also, you know, most of the work was done not in populating the stadium, but in stitching the shots together. To make it look like one continuous take and to make you feel like we were throwing you from a helicopter into the bleachers, and then chasing the guy together with our heroes.

Correspondent: So the actual crowd. How many extras was that?

Campanella: About 300.

Correspondent: And you just basically composited over and over again.

Campanella: Well, no, it’s more involved with that. Because for the regular composition shot — we call it compleción in Spanish — you need to have the camera locked. And the camera’s moving here all the time. It’s a handheld shot with a lot of crazy movement. We’re actually in an avalanche of people at one point. Trying to keep ourselves standing. So no, no, you cannot do the compleción trick. No, it involves the Massive software. It’s called Massive. It was developed for Lord of the Rings. It’s a very involved work. It’s a very crafty work. That’s another thing. People think that if you get the software, you can do it. And it’s not like that. This is the same thing as if I give you a brush and oil paint, and you paint the Mona Lisa. It’s not like that. You need real artists to pull it off.

Correspondent: Got it. It’s not just a bunch of monkey typing Shakespeare. A million monkeys.

Campanella: (laughs) Exactly.

* * *

Correspondent: You clearly did not settle into the Old West or can foods or run a store.

Amend: No.

Correspondent: At least not to my knowledge.

Amend: I did work at a hot dog stand once.

Correspondent: I’m curious how much invention went into this and how much you were concerned about getting verisimilitude with this. The 80 year epoch that you explore.

Amend: I was originally not particularly concerned with either of those things. I had to do a lot of research just to know even what I was dealing with. And then I went randomly to hear E.L. Doctorow speak. The king of setting books in historical settings. And he said, “Oh, you don’t do research. Just make it up. You’ve seen enough TV and watched enough movies. You’ll probably get it right. And if not, someone will tell you.” Which is easy for him to say. Because he has seven paid research assistants. But that was really liberating. And I thought, “You know, I have seen enough old Westerns. And I’ve been to Oklahoma. I’ll just write the book.” And the truth is that there’s no plot twist that hinges on an invention that hadn’t been invented yet. Everything is changeable.

And for a while there in the middle, I was working with the University of Oklahoma Press. And they had it read by a historian of Oklahoma, who tore the book to shreds. He’s like, “Well, I couldn’t get past Page 5. Because the author says the landscape is very arid. And that part of Oklahoma is actually very lush.” Therefore this book can’t be considered as a legitimate work. And I said, “Okay, cross out ‘arid.’ Insert the word ‘lush.'” It doesn’t change the character development.

Correspondent: Who is this guy?

Amend: He was anonymous. Because he was a peer reviewer. Which is part of the problem with university presses.

Correspondent: I noticed that there was a reference to him in the acknowledgments.

Amend: Yes. That’s actually not him. That was a very wonderful editor who subsequently died of stomach cancer. Which is very sad. But the reviewer in question was known as “Mr. Grouchy Pants.” And I do not know who he is. And if he’s hearing this interview, I changed “arid” to “lush.” Most easy.

Correspondent: Did he set up an anonymous email account? Did he telephone you?

Amend: Oh no. It was like a five page report that he sent to the editor, who then forwarded it to me.

Correspondent: With mysterious initials at the end?

Amend: Yeah, I know.

Correspondent: Wow. That’s how they do things over there.

Amend: Yeah. Well, you know, it was a university press. So the procedure there is that everything goes through a peer review. Which makes a lot of sense if you’re publishing a textbook or a piece of scholarship. Less sense…

Correspondent: (laughs) …if you’re publishing a novel.

Amend: If you’re publishing fiction.

Correspondent: Wow.

Amend: Yeah. But they could not seem to get beyond that step.

Correspondent: This is probably the craziest editing process that you’ve gone through, I would guess.

Amend: Oh. For sure. Although my path through the publishing world has been non-traditional. Let’s put it that way.

Correspondent: I mean, I can’t even imagine working with an editor who’s speaking behind — like Charlie’s Angels or something.

Amend: Yeah, it really was. Like a box on the wall.

Correspondent: Behind the red door.

The Bat Segundo Show #331: Juan Jose Campanella & Allison Amend II(Download MP3)

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The Evils of HTML Giant

Ladies and gentlemen, I have written a 10,000 word essay outlining, in intricate and long-winded form, every single evil that the blog HTML Giant has committed. The proprietors have molested several of my closest friends and have had sexual relationships with Lego dinosaurs. They have burned several editions of Joshua Cohen’s Witz and have had the hypocritical temerity to praise him as a genius. They have illegally downloaded Hollywood blockbusters from the Internet and have ripped off mattress tags. They have mugged Gordon Lish on three separate occasions. They have claimed that mouthwash is actually absinthe. They have floated checks, maxed out their credit cards, and cheated on taxes.

These charges against literature and humanity are outlined in detail within my 10,000 word essay, which I have also submitted to the Pulitzer Committee so that they may award me the appropriate cash sum for my unacknowledged genius. However, in order to read my 10,000 word essay, you will have to go to my premium blog:

The post is entitled “Bengal Tiger” and is sure to shock the literary community. And if you somehow get through to my super secret premium page and do not find a 10,000 word essay, then the problem is yours, not mine. The essay is very real. And the crimes of the HTML Giant gang are not to be considered lightly. Should you doubt my claims, then you are a sellout. A puppet. A fink. A maggot suckling upon the corporate publishing empire who I will stomp within the illusory comforts of my mind.

This has been a public service announcement. I really, really care about literature. And you must too.

Why Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil is the Worst Book of the Decade

There comes a rare time — perhaps once every ten or fifteen years — when you read a book with such dreadful syntax, without even a fiber of merit, so libertine in the manner it insults the audience, and so producing the literary equivalent to being completely submerged into a vat of shit, that the reader, having embarked on the fetid journey, begins to pine for a brutal throng of vigilantes to chop off the author’s hands and prevent the hopeless hack from ever holding a pen or setting foot near a laptop again.

Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil is such a tome. And Martel himself is such an author. Yes, last year, I spoke considerable ill of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. But while Mr. Littell is a dreadful writer, I did not harbor retributive fantasies. I merely screamed out in pain and spent most of the day on the floor. Mr. Martel, however, is an altogether different specimen. Here we have a man who has written a book that is more crudely formed than a schoolboy’s primer, that contains a moral vision less sophisticated than the dribbling one might encounter from a human vegetable. And Beatrice and Virgil deserves to be severely reviled because this book, which should not have even been permitted even the fourth-class method of self-publication, earned its bumpkin author a six figure sum through indolence and incompetence. When I finished reading this book, I threw it with such force against the wall that a hairline crack formed in the plaster. And even if you have the basest literary taste (no judgment from me, I assure you), that is the kind of thing that this book will do to you. This book will fill you with such vileness that you will find yourself instantly ruminating about what an AK-47 might be able to do when fired in the right direction. And I contend that when an author conjures up such violent fantasies, he should hang up his hat and call it quits for good. Even when he has won, as Mr. Martel has, the Booker Prize.

I realize that this post contains strong sentiments. Some of my professional peers have egged me on to write this post. At first, I vacillated. But when I saw nearly every other critic cowering away from the necessary truth, I realized that their comparatively gentle arguments could not convey how terrible this book is. With some reluctance on my part, force become necessary. And I started reading the book again (yes, I read this disgraceful offal to the end: as compact as this fucking book is, reading it is akin to walking the Bataan Death March). I made it to about Page 40 before I howled out for a distant relative to hold me.

But all that is mere invective. Let’s be reasonable. This book should never have been written for the following reasons:

1. A Terrible Protagonist. The book asks us to sympathize with a douchebag named Henry, whose only real character traits are that he has written a successful book and that he is revered by his readers. Tough life, this Henry. He has money to travel around the world and, presumably, we’re supposed to relate to him because of his writer’s block. But Henry, far from being a man of action (or even inaction), is prone to interior thoughts that convey contradictions. Late in the book, “Henry had the sense the waiter was about to talk to the taxidermist, but changed his mind and walked away instead.” (128) Well, that’s just fucking great. Having “a sense” of something tells you absolutely nothing about Henry or the the waiter. But it does tell you everything you need to know about what a shitty writer Martel is. I mean, here’s Martel’s opportunity to convey some aspect of humanity and we get third-hand speculation. Not speculation on what’s going on within Henry’s head, but on something that might be going on in somebody else’s head. Now if Martel were making a grand statement on artifice — like Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan’s Stew, in which characters await directions from a writer, or William Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own, in which suffering through a very long legal brief is part of the reading experience — then I’d applaud him. But as the book reveals, with its conclusive Games for Gustav, Martel has nothing here but the contractual obligation to hit 200 pages.

2. Overwriting to Expand Word Count: The book is barely 200 pages with its text stretched nearly to large print. And to push his novel into “novel-length” size, Martel has overwritten passages:

The book Henry wrote was in two parts, and he intended them to be published in what the publishing trade calls a flip book: that is, a book with two sets of distinct pages that are attached to a common spine upside-down and back-to-back to each other. If you flick your thumb through a flip book, the pages, halfway along, will appear upside down, will appear upside down. A head-to-tails flip of the conjoined book will bring you to its fraternal twin. Hence the name flip book.

First of all, just about any reader knows what a flip book is. And even if the reader doesn’t know, he can always look it up. But the agonizing description for a commonplace object, written as if the reader is a total idiot, doesn’t contribute anything vital to the narrative (or Henry’s consciousness). But let’s say that we don’t know what a flip book is. Martel has described precisely what a flip book is, yet two pages later, he writes, “Last, there was the detail that a flip book has two front covers.” Uh, what part of “upside-down and back-to-back to each other” did we not understand before?

The whole fucking book carries on like this. The book’s first line tells us that Henry has written a second novel and then, four pages later, reminds us that Henry had “in fact written two books.” Martel, with typical arrogance, believes that the reader suffers from a severe amnesia. The book then conveys, shortly after the above quoted passage, an equally childish description of why bookstores and libraries are bifurcated into fiction and nonfiction sections, merely stating that “[t]radition holds that the two must be kept apart,” before launching into a worthless conceptual thrust about how to fuse fiction and nonfiction.

This “forgetfulness” continues throughout the book.

(a) “It involved five years of thinking, researching, writing, and rewriting.” (6)
“Henry had written his novel and essay. Five years of hard work it had taken him.” (11)

(b) The telegraphing of one single action six times (!) within the same paragraph (18-19): Henry “stamped the ground with all his might.” Then: “the impact of his foot-stamping was thunderous.” Then: “a couple lying nearby turned his way because of it.” Then: “The ground had trembled.” Then: “He felt the reverberations.” Then: “The earth itself had heard him, he thought.”

(c) “The archetypal document on the event was the survivor’s memoir, Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man, for instance.” (9)
“Primo Levi, Anne Frank and all the others have done it well and for all time.” (19)

(d) “In Canada, where Henry was from” (18)
“his being the son of roving Canadian foreign service officers” (24)

(e) “Soon he would reel off standard responses…” (29)
“Henry often used the same light-hearted example in his replies.” (30)

3. Nonsensical Riffing: The book relies on boneheaded free association that doesn’t make any fucking sense. Some examples:

(a) Henry, despite being a successful writer, confuses a wedding party with a firing squad. There is utterly no way that even the biggest schmuck in the world can confuse a rifle with a wedding cake. And Martel, of course, doesn’t offer any specific detail that might support his crazy idea.

(b) Henry is asked whether his book should be stocked in the fiction or nonfiction section. He responds, “Ideally both.”

(c) Later, in another city, Henry works at The Chocolate Road and becomes a small shareholder, even though he cannot work in the country legally. Being remunerated in shares is still compensation. And the immigration forces would likely look into this.

4. Dissonant Repetition. Martel has this extremely annoying tendency to repeat nouns for a belabored “poetic” effect.

“It was the bookseller, an American bookseller in London…” (12)

“They settled in one of those great cities of the world that is a world unto itself…” (21)

“Many letters contained questions. A reader had a question, or two, or three.” (28)

“it was fresh to every reader who read it and that freshness came through in their letters” (29)

“…they were wild animals, which he attempted to portray with exact behavioural accuracy, and wild animals kill and are killed in a routine way.” (35)

5. Redundant Description: Editorial absenteeism is quite evident with the needless and often redundant details.

(a) “Henry tore a piece of bread and furiously swiped at a tapenade made of olives that came from an exclusive grove of six trees in a remote corner of Sicily.” (14) I might be able to pardon this sentence somewhat if it had stopped at “grove.” But the little detail about Sicily serves no purpose and steers us away from the initial action.

(b) “When at last lunch ended and he was released…” (17) If the lunch has ended, then he’ll have been released. There is no need to be redundant.

(c) “A moment came when the tense muscles twitching inside Henry’s body and the emotions seething inside him came together and spoke in unison…” (18) We already know muscles and emotions “came together.” There is no need for the “in unison” redundancy.

(d) “The Chocolate Road was primarily a fair-trade cocoa cooperative that produced and retailed chocolate in all its forms, from white to milk to dark, in various degrees of purity and in a wide range of flavours, in bars, boxes, and hot-chocolate powders, in addition to cocoa powder and chips for baking.” (25) If we’ve already described the degrees of purity, is it necessary to mention the colors? If we’ve already described “chocolate in all its forms,” is it necessary to bring up the “cocoa powder and chips for baking” later?

(e) “Some of those who wrote to him must have felt they were writing a message in a bottle and tossing it into the ocean.” (27) Rewrite: “Some wrote, feeling as if they were tossing a bottled message into the ocean.”

(f) “Henry pulled off the paper clip that held the story together…” (32) Well, let’s see, what other purpose would the paper clip serve? A nose picker?

6. Imprecise Description.

(a) “He stared at the white tablecloth, red-faced and at a loss of words.” (17) So the tablecloth is the one blushing here?

(b) “They settled in one of those great cities of the world that is a world unto itself, a storied metropolis where all kinds of people find themselves and lose themselves. Perhaps it was New York. Perhaps it was Paris. Perhaps it was Berlin. To that city Henry and Sarah moved because they wanted to live to its pulse for a time.” (21) This passage has the rare distinction of being both imprecise and overwritten. Martel can’t just write that Henry and Sarah moved to an unnamed city, which would have been precise. He feels this damning need to offer the triplet of “Perhaps” sentences, when we already know that the couple has moved to an unnamed great city.

7. Lazy Exposition.

(a) On p. 18, we learn that Sarah, Henry’s wife, is at work when Henry leaves a voicemail for her Later, we get this:

Henry returned to Canada and convinced Sarah they needed a break and a change of scenery. The lure of adventure won her over. In short order, she quit her job, they filled out papers, packed up their things and moved abroad. (21)

In other words, Sarah is merely a cardboard cutout who serves Henry’s rudimentary narrative actions. What’s her job? We don’t know until later, when Martel mentions that she’s a nurse. (Well, better that sexist stereotype than the whore, I suppose.) Is a “lure of adventure” really enough? Well, because the character is so narrowly defined, it is. Sarah doesn’t exist for any other purpose than to serve as Henry’s agreeable wife. We don’t get any sense of what occurred during the conversation. Did Sarah express any doubts, thus giving us a reason to be interested in the Henry-Sarah marriage and generating some conflict that might have us understand Henry’s writing problems? No. Can Yann Martel write persuasively about marriages? Oh fuck no.

(b) What is Sarah’s role in the book? To nurture in stereotypical fashion and get knocked up. To wit: “Sarah suggested gently that he was perhaps depressed. She encouraged him to keep busy. And though this is jumping ahead — and telling an entirely different story — Sarah in time became pregnant….” (24)

8. Recycling Text to Fill Up Space: The book uses up a good seven pages to reproduce the text of Flaubert’s “The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitaller” for no reason at all. Well, actually, there was one central reason. Martel needed to pad out the book so that the reader might think that it’s a novel. And indeed, the play within the book also permits Martel to perform the same trick, killing off some white space with dialogue like this:

BEATRICE: How’s your back?
VIRGIL: It’s fine. How’s your neck?
BEATRICE: Without knots.
VIRGIL: How’s your foot?
BEATRICE: Ready for another day. (122)

And so on. You would get more human insight from a drunken man transcribing a nursery school conversation.

* * *

Keep in mind that I’ve merely selected examples from the first forty pages. The whole goddam book is like this. And the only real reason I felt compelled to write this is because Spiegel & Grau kept sending me copies — as if possessing four infernal editions of the same ineptly written novel would somehow entice me to like it. I hope that the above examples have demonstrated that reading Beatrice and Virgil is a bit like being forced to participate in a gangbang with lepers. You may admire the novelty of the experience, but, in the end, you contract something difficult to shake off.

So Much for Shriver

My review of Lionel Shriver’s novel, So Much for That, runs in today’s Chicago Sun-Times. Here’s the first paragraph:

In We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver axed at the angst of self-absorbed parenting while spinning the unspoken psychological grindstone that sharpens school violence. In her severely underrated novel The Post-Birthday World, Shriver expertly established two parallel universes that exposed the delicate fissures buried within a seemingly grounded relationship. One would logically assume Shriver to be the ideal social novelist to fire up the Flammenwerfer for a blistering assault on the ongoing health care crisis.

You can also listen to my 2007 interview with Shriver on The Bat Segundo Show. While I was extremely disappointed by the latest novel, I still believe that Shriver has enough talent to recapture the momentum contained within her last three novels, which are all worth reading.

The Bat Segundo Show: Julie Klausner

Julie Klausner most recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #330. Ms. Klausner is most recently the author of I Don’t Care About Your Band

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Dodging dubious-minded vegans.

Author: Julie Klausner

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: I actually wanted to ask you of your keen interest in the Muppets.

Klausner: Yes.

Correspondent: You know, I was very interested in this. You have a great affinity for Miss Piggy.

Klausner: Yes.

Correspondent: But you have a problem with the Miss Piggy-Kermit wedding — particularly the line, “What better way could anything end. Hand in hand with a friend.” You insist that this represents Kermit’s preference for guys, or going out with the guys, instead of having a commitment.

Klausner: Sort of. Or that he, in other words, how he feels about her deep in his heart is almost like how he feels about Fozzy.

Correspondent: Yeah, but…

Klausner: That she’s a friend of his more than anything else. And that she’s not special, I guess.

Correspondent: But you’ve developed an entire theory about your life based off of this. And this caused me some confusion.

Klausner: It’s normal, right?

Correspondent: Well, well, I mean, I want to just poke holes in this.

Klausner: Sure. Poke away.

Correspondent: First of all, you have Miss Piggy voiced in a high-pitched tenor by Frank Oz.

Klausner: Frank Oz. The great, the great Frank Oz.

Correspondent: Yes. And Kermit the Frog by Jim Henson.

Klausner: M’hmm. Rest in peace.

Correspondent: Depending upon how obsessive a Muppets fan you talk to, it’s kind of a bromance thing more than a romance thing.

Klausner: Interesting. Interesting.

Correspondent: So therefore your whole childhood theory may very well be….

Klausner: About a man in drag.

Correspondent: …despoiled by what was going on underneath the Muppets.

Klausner: That’s interesting. So let me ask you this. Do you think of Miss Piggy as a man in drag? Or do you think of her as a lady?

Correspondent: I think of her as a wonderfully poly-gender, polysexual queen.

Klausner: That’s a beautiful answer!

Correspondent: But I’m just wondering if this had occurred to you. Because you’ve seen The Muppet Movie so many times.

Klausner: Oh my god. I love the Muppets. And I’m a huge fan of the Muppets. And my interpretation of the relationship between Kermit and Miss Piggy is — I mean, it’s obviously cheeky. I’m not going to go around and be like, “Children shouldn’t watch this filth! It’s going to give them bad ideas!” But I remember identifying with their relationship as being very — it resembled a lot of the dating experiences that I had. Which is that I was always chasing this sort of skinny guy that was more interested in his friends and his projects and his band or his show than me. And it’s interesting this way to think of Miss Piggy as a drag queen. As Frank Oz. Because drag queens are sort of hyperfeminine in that glamorous jewelry and perfume. And fabulous performers. And all of it.

Correspondent: I’ve seen that karate chop deployed in the Castro.

Klausner: I’m sure you have. And you know what? I don’t even know where the target was. But it was probably well deserved.

The Bat Segundo Show #330: Julie Klausner (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Nell Irvin Painter

Nell Irvin Painter appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #329. Painter is most recently the author of The History of White People.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Drowning in David Coverdale’s noxious imperialism.

Author: Nell Irvin Painter

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

Correspondent: You are careful to write, “Harvard’s importance in eugenics does not imply some nefarious scheme or even a mean-spirited ambiance. Rather, Harvard’s import in this story attests to the scholarly respectability of eugenic ideas at the time.”

Painter: And that could be said about Princeton or Yale or any of the other lofty institutions.

Correspondent: But it is curious to me. I mean, if we recognize today [Robert] Yerkes and [William] Ripley’s stuff as “junk science” essentially, why at the time were these ideas so respected? Why did some of these people get tenured at Harvard?

Painter: Indeed.

Correspondent: I mean, it couldn’t have just been Harvard’s prestige. It had to be something else, I suppose.

Painter: Well, we’re talking about what was considered good science at the time. That was the knowledge that our culture needed at the time. And, after all, Ripley consulted all sorts of authorities. European authorities, American authorities, and so forth. So he had a really big bibliography and he followed the rules.

Correspondent: If someone attempted something along those lines today, I guess the Internet would kill it, I suppose.

Painter: Not necessarily. If it were something that we all agreed upon. Like, for instance, we’re seeing in the medical field right now. Recently, I read a report in the New York Times by a doctor saying there’s just too many prostrate cancer screenings. But a year or so ago, that was considered good science to have everybody screened. So things change.

Correspondent: I wanted to talk about Emerson, who you really take to task in this book. You devote a whole chapter to English Traits.

Painter: Yes. There are three Emerson chapters.

Correspondent: Yes. There are three Emerson chapters. But English Traits seems to be the one key text with which the…

Painter: It is the key text for this reason.

Correspondent: Yeah. But I just wanted to ask you about this. You note later in the book that Henry Ford was an admirer of English Traits.

Painter: Yes.

Correspondent: But in the book that you cited from — because I was really curious about this – Neil Baldwin’s Henry Ford and the Jews. Baldwin notes that it was Emerson’s essay, “Compensation,” that Ford favored above all else. And he even handed that out as as gifts. And that essay doesn’t contain any reference to race. You also state that Theodore Roosevelt echoes the phrase “hideous brutality” in English Traits. But in English Traits, Emerson uses the word “hideous” only once, in reference to the injustice of pauperism. And granted, there are issues with pauperism related to the Saxon seed, which we had mentioned earlier. But I just want to ask. Because I don’t disagree with you that Emerson’s views on the Irish, his drawing upon Robert Knox — these are problematic.

Painter: Yeah. I’m not saying that Emerson is a bad man. But I’m saying that Emerson, because of his importance in American culture, by focusing on these themes and presenting them, orchestrating them in his impeccable prose, made it acceptable. So it’s not that I’m castigating Emerson. I’m trying to place him in an intellectual theme.

Correspondent: But in the case of Henry Ford drawing more upon “Compensation,” say, than English Traits, that’s where I was — my question mark went up.

Painter: But we’re doing Henry Ford — what? Sixty, seventy years after Emerson.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, the other thing too is picking and choosing one’s values from Emerson. Like Ralph Ellison, for example. He was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Painter: Right.

Correspondent: And actually took a lot from the transcendentalists.

Painter: Oh, there’s a lot of Emerson. Emerson’s an extraordinary figure. And one who his contemporaries said embodies the whole of American learning. And to a certain extent, he did.

Correspondent: But going back to the question or relativism. Can he be let off the hook somewhat simply because he was, in part, an abolitionist? Maybe he didn’t go all the way, but…

Painter: No. We’re talking about different things.

Correspondent: Hmmm.

Painter: We’re talking about different things. Because he had one set of views, this doesn’t change what we think about another set of views. You can still respect Emerson for his central role in the American Renaissance and still know about his Saxonism.

The Bat Segundo Show #329: Nell Irvin Painter (Download MP3)

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An Important Essay


I am thinking about thinking, and I wonder if I am truly thinking. If my brain is attaching itself around a concept and that concept is little more than the exploration of a concept, then the brain has failed. The will is vitiated. The body is more expired than a Kleenex used to wipe off precious fluids expunged after stroking the salami.

This essay is about masturbation.

This essay is not about masturbation.

I cannot make up my mind. It is very possible that I am thinking, and yet I remain skeptical of the thinking process, and I wish to blow the kazoo.

I do not have a kazoo.

I cry because I do not have a kazoo. I am looking around for Kleenex. Seeing none, I settle for three sheets of toilet paper. It is enough to wipe away my nose. I suspect that I will weep even if some kind soul gives me a kazoo. The kazoo, which I covet, will not be used.

This is an important essay.

I still do not have a kazoo.


I am now thinking about thinking about thinking. I move outside of my mind further, using my mind, deploying the kazoo that I do not have. If I had the kazoo, I would play an elegy in G minor.

I am in a masochistic frame of mind.

This is an important essay.

Perhaps I will ride the subway with the kazoo I do not have. Rather than think about thinking about thinking, I will perform a very single action, tapping some illusory instrument with which to announce my presence. I will identify myself with the buskers who ride the subway and ask for money. I will be denied money because I do not actually have a kazoo. I will be denied money because I am merely pretending that I have a kazoo, because I am angling my metacarpals and emitting a high-pitched tone curling my lower lip and it is not actually me playing a kazoo, but me pretending that I am playing a kazoo.


This is an important essay. You must read it and link to it and retweet it because it is very long and because it is split up into sections. Because it is profound. The world needs content.


I have shifted away from Roman numerals to the more informal Arabic numerals in order to prove a point, even though I have failed to cite the terms of my argument, much less a thesis. What’s important here is that this essay is important, that it is categorized, and that there are personal stakes involved (see the kazoo thought experiment in Section II). I am not so much thinking about thinking, as I am writing. Some thought is going into it because I am expressing myself in a protracted manner. It is vital that you believe this.

This is an important essay.

Repetition works to prove a point. Nabokov called Tolstoy’s use of language “creative repetition.” And I’d like to think that this is what I am doing with this essay. Again, I’d like to think that “creative repetition” is what I am doing with this essay. It cannot be overstated enough. Here, in Section 3 (which would have been referred to as Section III, if I had decided to be formal), you are being informed of my intentions. It cannot be overstated enough.

This is an important essay.


Wikipedia defines the kazoo as follows: “a wind instrument which adds a ‘buzzing’ timbral quality to a player’s voice when one vocalizes into it. The kazoo is a type of mirliton – a device which modifies the sound of a person’s voice by way of a vibrating membrane.” What I am doing in this important essay is playing a wind instrument that does not exist, except within the confines of my own mind, which I deem neither superior nor inferior to yours. I am not being paid for this important essay. This important essay is not running in a newspaper. I regret these two conditions, because surely if I had satisfied them, then my essay might be viewed as more important than it is. It may be construed as “self-important,” because I am writing about my seemingly lonely condition — which may be real or illusory. But even if the kazoo is not real, I’d like to think that I’m buzzing. And if I am not buzzing, I will work something out this evening to ensure that a few tallboys give me the desired effect.

The essay is a type of mirliton – a device which modifies the sound of a person’s voice by way of a vibrating membrane. “Mirliton” sounds suspiciously similar to “Merlin.” Therefore, I can accept the delusional possibility, even if I don’t entirely believe it, that I am buzzing a bit of magic. But what I believe is not the important factor to take away here. An essay is only important based on how much the reader is willing to impute importance to it. All I have to offer is a vibrating membrane.

The next section will shift back to Roman numerals and will be accompanied by a picture of two metal kazoos.



This is an important essay.

This section is not as important as the last one. If I took this section seriously, I would be applying Roman numerals instead of Arabic numerals. This is my own interpretation, at least. There may very well be readers out there who will ascribe more intellectual value to a section headed by Arabic numerals rather than Roman numerals.


The kazoo picture pleases me. It keeps me off Twitter and Facebook. It causes me to expend more needless words. It inspires me to look for kazoos that are not made of metal. It inspires me to stop playing the imaginary kazoo with my hands. But then I have not left the house yet. This was only a fancy. I can only imagine my debasement as a prospective busker, but I have not acted upon that possibility.


I’ve now typed the word “Beckett” three times, and, by now, you should be thoroughly aware that name-checking Beckett, even though I have not quoted from him, should add some additional intellectual heft to this essay. I’m now very serious, because Beckett is on the mind. I won’t go into why Beckett is on the mind. I won’t even deign to quote Beckett. You’re probably thinking that I’m thinking about the Beckett that is tossed around in grad school courses. But I’m not. Or am I? How many sad bastards who come out of the womb with the surname of Beckett are forced to live up? If there is a reader named “Beckett” here who is facing this sad predicament, who has been reminded of Molloy or Waiting for Godot and who has been forced to endure these associations over the course of a lifetime, I will hug him or her. And if they are not in New York, I will email them some equivalent of a hug. Or play them some melody on my imaginary kazoo. Because it is important that you view my gesture, my solicitude, my daring effrontery here as sincere.


This is an important essay.

There will be no footnotes in this essay. There will be only sections. There will be more references to kazoos. I am thinking about kazoos.


[To be filled in later]


There are pivotal questions to be answered here. Should I stay off social networks? Should I have chicken or eggplant parm for dinner? Should I sit in my chair naked or should I put on some clothes? Each of these binary values is subject to some infelicitous indecency. This decency is measured against the metrics of a man in Texas whom I cannot name. He is reading this important essay right now and he will be sending me notes. He will offer a summary of my argument, along with additional questions. He will post this on his blog. There will then be comments, arguments, and someone will cry. Hitler will be invoked at some point during the discussion. Godwin. You have to hand it to him.

This important essay will be quoted and mashed up and ridiculed and rejoined. Or it will be ignored. Does it contain an intellectual argument? It does. It doesn’t. There are certainly some gems deliberately buried in here, but you will have to look for them. And while you are looking for them, I will creep up behind you, steal your wallet, and play my imaginary kazoo. I will obtain my remuneration by illicit means, but I will be remunerated. In fact, you may want to check your purse or your wallet right now. You’ve already devoted a good five minutes of your time reading this essay, looking around for a point. The point has been belabored.

As Tolstoy once said, “Historians are like deaf people who go on answering questions that no one has asked them.” I am a historian and I am going deaf. I have played my imaginary kazoo and the notes no longer make their way into my ear canal.


Not to be confused with the first section.

This is an important essay.




Donald E. Westlake’s Lost Novel

In today’s Philly Inquirer, you’ll find my review of Donald E. Westlake’s Memory, published by Hard Case Crime. Here’s the first few paragraphs:

The celebrated literary critic Edmund Wilson famously derided the detective story as a form that existed only “to see the problem worked out.” The French critic Roland Barthes was slightly less derisive, seeing a mystery as a facile narrative paradox with “a truth to be deciphered.”

These reductionist takes presumptuously assumed that mysteries served only as plot-oriented puzzles, and that thematic truths and behavioral insight were taking a busman’s holiday within an allegedly inferior form.

But a magnificent novel from mystery writer Donald E. Westlake, collecting dust in a drawer for four decades until an unexpected excavation just after his death on Dec. 31, 2008, demonstrates that his talent clearly extended into the literary.

You can read the rest here.