An Early Finalist for the 2010 Bad Sex Award?

The following passage is from a forthcoming novel:

A navigational beacon in ___’s black Levi’s, a long-dormant transmitter buried by a more advanced civilization, was sparking back to life. Where he ought to have felt guilt, he instead was getting hard. Oh, the clairvoyance of the dick: it could see the future in a heartbeat, leaving the brain to play catch-up and find the necessary route from occluded present to preordained outcome.

Can you name the author?

The Saddest Hard Drive YouTube Video I’ve Ever Seen

The video’s title is “Hard Disc – NEED HELP – Can this be fixed?” Um, no buddy, I’m pretty sure it can’t.

[6/24/12 UPDATE: Here is a classic case of a ghost entry. The original video has been pulled from the Internet. It cannot be located. There is a little to do in this redesign but to note that this entry caused at least one person on Facebook some amusement, regret that all known context has disappeared, and move on — assuming, of course, that anyone even finds this entry.]

Delay in Affairs

Due to a tremendous setback — namely, a 500 GB Barracuda hard drive, which looks to be stuck in the BSY state, containing all the raw Bat Segundo data and only intermittently detected by my BIOS and that I can’t seem to access for more than ten seconds (thus being unable to copy) — a drive that contains irreplaceable data, along with a number of interviews I haven’t posted — this site is going dark for a while while I attend to finishing up professional duties (yes, the show must go on), make desperate attempts to retrieve the data, and expend a good deal of needless venom to the vile cretins at Seagate, who will pay very dearly for their failure to manufacture an acceptable product.

What this means is that the Bat Segundo episode I had planned to put up this Friday, along with a few other video interviews I conducted at BEA, won’t see the light of the day. You can thank Seagate for this. Seagate — the hard drive manufacturer that can’t even produce firmware that solves the problem. The bumbling interloper that, with casual incompetence, now threatens to permanently destroy the origins of five good years of work and that does not appear to take responsibility for its great sins.

To say that I am pissed off about all this is a severe understatement. But I remain determined to fix this — even if I have to get all geeky. Hope to see you on the other side with data intact.

[5/29 UPDATE: The main Seagate drive has been sent away. But because I mirrored some of the drive, I have managed to recover all the production data from Shows 101 onward, along with about half of the Bat Segundo raw data. Will have news sometime next week on the three interviews and the remaining info.]

BEA 2010: The CEO Panel (“The Value of a Book”)

Moderator: Jonathan Galassi (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Participants: Bob Miller (Workman), Esther Newberg (ICM), Skip Prichard (Ingram), David Shanks (Penguin), Oren Telcher (ABA), Scott Turow (Authors Guild)

It didn’t take long for Tuesday morning’s CEO panel to dredge up the same tired tropes about eBooks, which is just as nauseating whether you hear it from the tech-oriented libertarians or the old codgers who continue to pretend that the Kindle never came out. Moderator Jonathan Galassi, failing to provide a sufficient balance between these two extremes, opted to pretend that eBooks didn’t exist. “The title was supposed to be ‘The Value of a Book,” said Galassi, referring to the print variety twenty minutes into the panel, and hoping to steer the conversation into variables more applicable to the Carter Administration. Alas, with the exception of Scott Turow (nearly as as ill-informed as Galassi), the other panelists very much wanted to discuss reality.

It didn’t make much sense for the panel to escape these hard questions. After all, as ABA President Michael Tucker announced during the panel’s introduction, speaking in a lifeless and sleep-inducing tone, “In a fast-changing digital world, there is extraordinary value in an event like BookExpo.” I’m not sure if Tucker believed it. Certainly I didn’t. I had worn my Night of the Living Dead T-shirt to Javits for a reason. But if I were an FSG author, I would be very concerned indeed about Galassi’s present understanding of the industry.

Galassi, growing visibly flustered as the other panelists politely informed him about present market conditions (with limited comprehension on Galassi’s end), not only maintained the old warhorse position that hardcovers would still be desired by 100% of book purchasers, but clung to such feeble driftwood as “We’re always going to need warehouses” and, on the position of enhanced books, “Who has time for the enhancement?” He also claimed that no author is going to want to publish his work online for free. Obviously, Galassi hasn’t heard of the Huffington Post.

More preposterous than these pronouncements was the chestnut Galassi lodged midway through the panel. Shortly after Galassi declared, “I feel that there’s something radically wrong about the way a market has been determined.” Well, that’s fine. But it’s the customers who determine the market, not Galassi. Galassi then seriously suggested that Scott Turow had the right to a career. “People should be willing to pay $4 million,” Galassi said of Turow, shortly after offering a declaration that Turow had paid his dues.

Turow may very well have paid his dues. But if the customers don’t want to buy his books, then perhaps he shouldn’t be entitled to the staggering advances that most authors can only dream about. Ingram’s Skip Prichard then politely explained to Galassi the realities of the free market: “We’re in a competitive market. Scott’s not in a vacuum. You have to look at the options.” And after this high school economics supply and demand lesson, Galassi stayed quiet for a good share of the panel. This allowed Prichard to point to how libraries had reinvented themselves over the past ten years, digitizing their archives and adding coffee bars and seats. Bookstores, indicated Prichard, were also going to change.

Brian O’Leary and Authors Guild members will be interested to learn that Turow claimed that piracy was the biggest risk to the books industry. Never mind that present indicators suggest that piracy isn’t particularly ubiquitous and that the stakes remain relatively small.

At least Penguin’s David Shanks understood that the eBooks market remained quite small, understanding that less than 10% of the total books market could hardly be called a mass market. After all, purchasing a reading device was a sizable investment for the average Joe. “The mass audience is not right now buying those reading devices,” said Shanks. The time would come later for serious adoption “as the publishers start to get better information,” said Shanks, “and realize the efficiencies of not printing.”

Prichard also pointed out that tomorrow’s readers “will not want to have their next book on a single device.” While he didn’t offer any immediate remedies on how to make this happen, he was forward-thinking enough to observe that tomorrow’s books are “not going to be about the device.”

At one point, Turow asked, “Why did publishers ever agree for the eBook to be available at the same time as the hardcover?” To which one can sufficiently reply, why hasn’t Scott Turow ever paid attention to what the customers want? If he hasn’t tracked the omnipresent fury over this issue, then is he really qualified to serve as Authors Guild President?

The ABA’s Brad Telcher thankfully made a case for the inclusive middle ground. Observing that physical and digital space need not be separated into a binary value, he stated that booksellers needed to be focused on the content and that the books industry needed to meet any and all customer needs. “We should be format neutral,” said Telcher.

Bob Miller, having recently departed from the imprint HarperStudio for Workman, was perhaps the most austere eBook evangelist on the panel. He noted quite rightly that customers wouldn’t want to wait for the eBook edition, but seemed to exude an off-putting Dunning-Kruger vibe when he boasted of attending eBook conferences from ten years before. “I was at those conferences,” he said. “We were really excited.”

I much preferred the quieter and more easygoing Telcher (along with the zinger-spouting Esther Newberg), the panel’s best advocate for unity. “What we do,” said Telcher, “is put the right book in the hand of the appropriate customer. We believe that there are a significant number of consumers who want to come to a place.” He pointed to the importance of preserving the showrooms, noting that declining record stores had taken away much of the community within the music business. Telcher wasn’t naive enough to dismiss the idea of selling eBooks within physical spaces.

Indeed, Turow proved both uninformed and somewhat condescending towards those who enjoy eBooks — presumably because it cuts into his million dollar advances. “A lot of those people are buying more books,” said Turow, “and they enjoy playing with their toy.” He insisted that most users of “reading machines” were part of “the flying class.”

As these men began huffing about various format limitations, the heel-wagging Newberg, who served almost as a second-string moderator after Galassi’s eyes seemed to glaze over permanently, asked how a physical book can compete when book tours have been cut back and when newspapers have cut back. She pointed to online word of mouth, and also noted that physical books needed to be beautiful in order to matter. She pointed to a forthcoming Steve Martin book constructed of vellum paper.

Prichard would have none of this. “There’s going to be a niche that cares about that.” He pointed to the enormous pressure from the digital market, but concluded that “the vast majority of readers don’t care.”

“We are a niche,” replied Newberg. “We’re not a giant business.”

Miller, to his credit, did observe that a book’s look and feel was important. But I looked to Prichard and wondered if he was going to blow a gasket.

“You’re making it sound like choices,” interceded Telcher. “Consumers are different too.”

My notes indicate that Prichard used the word “choices” five times in less than a minute. I thought immediately of Rod Steiger’s over-the-top general in Mars Attacks and I wasn’t alone. I noticed that the gentleman sitting to my left, the veins in his neck popping out with apparent outrage, was talking back to the panel. “You’re not a creator!” he seethed in response to Prichard. I wondered if he needed a hug. Perhaps more than Galassi.

At this point, the panel then more or less rehashed the same arguments and my notes became less frequent. Perhaps the panel’s truest sentiment came from Newberg, who remarked that one of the nice things about getting old was not having to worry about the resolution of all these arguments. I can’t say that I blame her. If many of these executives won’t pay attention to contemporary realities, then we may have to wait for some of these pigheaded types to die off before a cooperative fusion between authors, publishers, agents, and customers will keep this industry alive. Maybe then we’ll get some of that “extraordinary value” that Tucker was sleep-talking about.

Conned by Lost

On Sunday night, Lost concluded its six-year run with a nausea-inducing smorgasbord of meet-cutes and hackneyed dialogue, securing its place on the mantle occupied by The Sopranos and the Battlestar Galactica remake. Here was a once great program — a formerly fine creative offering that had once juggled philosophy, intricate human relationships, and quantum theory — reducing itself to poorly contrived romance. You almost expected a dying Barbara Hershey to show up, with Bette Midler singing to a packed Hollywood Bowl crowd. But the bar was perched much lower with Drive Shaft playing the Widmore concert. In one of many preposterous lines delivered over the course of the night, a man told a woman giving birth, “I’m with the band.” Which surely counts as one of the most preposterous explanations related to pregnancy in television history.

Granted, the sixth season’s sideways universe, reliant as it was upon improbable coincidences and even less convincing human behavior, represented a vile wish fulfillment. But wouldn’t it have been more interesting to be conned more respectfully? It was difficult for any reasonable person to believe that Hugo would conveniently show up after Locke had been fired and offered a job. We saw last week that Desmond, Kate, and Sayid were criminals on the lam, but, this week, they magically eluded any and all APBs. And in an even worse surrender, the knowledge of their lives on the island was translated by touch. The finale’s closing moment, more interminable than a soporific Oscars ceremony and containing the discomfiting whiff of some Fred Phelps-like figure steering the story, suggested less gracefully than Ambrose Bierce (or even Jacob’s Ladder writer Bruce Joel Rubin) that the last six years had more or less been inside Jack’s Judeo-Christian head. (No accident that dear papa was named Christian.) And we were blessed with the producers insulting the audience’s intelligence with that dreadful church congregation. With its sixth season, Lost had capitulated its artistic credibility for the doldrums of dumbed down entertainment. What if the program had ended with the nuclear bomb and the sacrifices at the end of the fifth season? Would this not have created more enigmas for the febrile Losties to argue about at conventions over the next few decades? Would this not have been greater art? The mysteries resolved in the last year were done so with such distressing literalism that one sensed the telltale smell of otiose ABC executives pressuring writers into a more pedestrian direction.

But beyond any speculations (and there will no doubt be many), it was clear this year that the writers didn’t have a plan and they didn’t know when to quit. They concluded the show with a half-hearted amalgam of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower and Charles Beaumont’s short story, “The Howling Man.” The characters had moved on. Evil had to be stopped from leaving the island. The Man in Black fled across the isle, and the surgeon followed.

The two people to blame for Sunday’s catastrophe are writers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, who were also responsible for the gratuitous spoon-feeder “Across the Sea” from two weeks earlier. Indeed, you can trace the abysmal dip in Lost‘s writing quality to Brian K. Vaughan’s exit just before the final season. He was hired as an executive story editor during the third season hiatus, when the series was in tremendous trouble with too many forced imprisonments and not enough momentum. And a program that looked as if it was a lost cause suddenly became interesting again. Then Vaughan left. We may never know the real reasons why. But PR spin will shine its rosy light in the years to come.

As a result, Lost, which had become so wonderfully convoluted during the fifth season with two head-spinning and steadily shifting timelines, became a viewing experience in which you could fold laundry and still follow the plot. It took a great celestial concept and turned it into The Celestine Prophecy. It rejected the built-in audience that had theorized so fervently over the years and pissed into its face. And that’s too bad. Because for a long time, Lost was above such debasement.

The Bat Segundo Show: Daniel Okrent

Daniel Okrent appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #337. Mr. Okrent is most recently the author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Bombarded by too much bathtub gin and too many over-the-top movie trailers.

Author: Daniel Okrent

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about Walgreen’s. You point out that it went from twenty locations in 1920 to 525 during the 1920s, pointing out that it wasn’t just milkshakes that were responsible for this expansion. Yet all you present in the book to support this possibility is an interview with Charles Walgreen, Jr., who said in an interview with John Bacon that his father didn’t want the fire department in his stores because he was losing cases of liquor. I’m wondering if you made any efforts to corroborate this claim from another source. Has Walgreen’s managed to hush this up?

Okrent: Well, I think — be careful. I don’t make a claim. I say —

Correspondent: Suggestion.

Okrent: I make a suggestion. And that’s all I can do — is make a suggestion. But we do know this to be true. We know from Charles Walgreen, Sr.’s testimony to his son that they had liquor in the stores and he was afraid of losing it to the thieves. Right? Number two. We know that he had twenty stores at the beginning of Prohibition and 525 at the end. And if you want to believe it’s milkshakes, believe that it’s milkshakes. But the fact — the medicinal liquor business was an enormous business. Not just for the Walgreen’s drugstores, but for pharmacists across the country. You know, I have a bottle at home on my shelf. It’s kind of an inspiration. It’s an empty bottle. It says JIM BEAN. BOTTLED AND BOND. FOR MEDICINAL PURPOSES ONLY. This was a pure racket. And druggists, unless they had some kind of scruple that few apparently had, made a fortune because of it.

Correspondent: But beyond the Bacon interview, did you make any efforts to….?

Okrent: Yeah. I made efforts. There’s nobody alive in the Walgreen family today that I tried to make contact with, that had any thoughts about it either way. Or not. I don’t think that there’s been a conscious effort to cover it up. I think that it’s just forgotten.

Correspondent: Al Capone cultivated an image of benevolence. And you also point to Seattle bootlegger Roy Olmstead, who was quite ethical by comparison. He didn’t dilute his liquor. He didn’t resort to mob tactics. I’m wondering what factors made Olmstead a more ethical bootlegger. Was it Olmstead the man? Or was it the makeup of Seattle in comparison to the competitive violent world of Chicago?

Okrent: Yeah, I think that the latter has a lot to do with it. By all evidence, Olmstead was a decent man. You know, he was the youngest police lieutenant in the history of the Seattle Department. He was looked on as a golden boy of sorts. But because of his honesty, because he didn’t dilute, because he didn’t raise prices, he had very happy customers in Seattle. And he also worked very well with anybody else who was in the business. He built a big coalition. Really kind of a market control coalition. He controlled all of the booze that was coming into the Pacific Northwest. Capone was in a very different circumstance. I think that he was a different kind of man to begin with. And secondarily, he was in an extremely competitive cutthroat murderous environment, in which other people were trying to get a piece of the action. Olmstead didn’t try to accrue power to himself. He liked to run a good business. Capone wanted to be in charge.

The thing to me about Capone that is most surprising, relative to the popular image that we have of Capone, is that when he took over Chicago, he was twenty-five years old. He was a kid. And he was gone before he was thirty.

Correspondent: And he was played by all these older actors too.

Okrent: Yeah. I ask people, “How old do you think Al Capone was when he ran Chicago?” They say, forty-eight, thirty-seven, fifty. But he was a baby.

Correspondent: But in Seattle, was there violence involved?

Okrent: There wasn’t much violence in Seattle. There was a nicely cooperative operation between those who enforced the law and those who were breaking the law. Including the fact that the justice of the peace who presided over hearings and trials, they got a piece of the fine. So they liked the idea of people being arrested, paying a fine, and then went about it again — so that they could be arrested again. So they could pay the fine again.

Correspondent: So Olmstead set the precedent of a peaceful, money-oriented coalition here.

Okrent: Yeah. I think that there were others like that were others like that also in the country. But Seattle was remarkably free of the violent crime that hit the Eastern and Midwestern cities.

Correspondent: What other cities were nonviolent in terms of bootlegging?

Okrent: Nonviolent. San Francisco. I think that San Francisco and, to some degree, New Orleans are the ones that come immediately to mind. San Francisco never really acknowledged that Prohibition existed. Even the judges in San Francisco. They threw cases out. The DA of San Francisco, which is both a city and a county — he was an official in the organization against the Prohibition Amendment. He campaigned against it. So violence wasn’t necessary. Because there was nobody trying to corner a market. It was an open market for everybody.

The Bat Segundo Show #337: Daniel Okrent (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Joseph Wallace

Joseph Wallace appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #336. Mr. Wallace is most recently the author of Diamond Ruby.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Replacing his failed Atkins diet with three square squirrel meals each day.

Author: Joseph Wallace

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: Radar guns were introduced in 1935 to measure a baseball’s speed. Before that, you had speed machines, which were increasingly rare. And as I understand it, there’s extremely little recorded information on pre-radar speed machines. In this book, Ruby looks at the machine in question, and you write, “To be honest, she couldn’t make head or tail of it.” This leads me to believe that there was some guesswork or confabulation upon your part.

Wallace: No. The only thing I didn’t know was exactly what — that’s a great question. In 1913, Baseball Magazine decided that they wanted to figure out how fast Walter Johnson and — I can’t remember, Matt. I can’t remember. Another pitcher. Walter Johnson pitched. But of course, that wasn’t so easy to do in 1913. So they went — in fact, as the book says, they went to the Remington Arms Company. And they said, “Help us out. We want to be able to do this.” The Remington Arms Company, in fact, has a device for measuring the speeds that bullets flew that was exactly the way I describe the speed machine here. Baseball Magazine — in fact, this is all completely accurate; it was one of those things that I found for a nonfiction book and loved and said, “Oh, I have to be able to use this somehow” — they ended up doing a fifteen page article that described and photographed the wire mesh that you had to throw the ball through. It was the simplest thing. You’d throw a baseball. It would brush through the mesh, which would register on the device. It would then hit a steel plate that was also wired to the device. They had the ability then to calculate the amount of time in between. And they knew the distance. And they could figure out how fast the ball was going. So they did this article. It was really, really hard for Walter Johnson, who was incredibly fast and incredibly accurate, to throw the ball through the wire mesh. So the only thing I changed from the original was that I made the mesh — the screen that Ruby and the people who are throwing the ball against her — bigger. Because if Walter Johnson had trouble getting it through, it would be really unfair to anybody other than Ruby.

It was a wonderful article. And my favorite thing about it was that, when I was researching the book, I went to the Remington Company and I said, “Tell me more.” And the Remington Company said, “We had never heard of this. We believe it exists. Here’s a historical forum where people talk about Remington’s history. Go to it.” And I went to it. And I posted. And I asked a bunch of questions about it. And people were so fascinated. And they’d seen the article. But none of them still exist. In other words, it’s a lost part of the Remington Arms Company’s history that they used to measure the speed of bullets.

Correspondent: They don’t keep very good records.

Wallace: They must not. I was very disappointed! So the answer is that it’s completely accurate. The only thing that wasn’t accurate, other than the size of the mesh, was the fact that the photographs of the machine itself don’t take you into the inner workings. So everything is accurate. Except I couldn’t describe how it worked inside. Because that wasn’t there. But I probably would not have been able to write the entire Coney Island part. This book — if there’s one article that’s the most important thing to this entire book, it’s the fact that in 1913, Baseball Magazine was smart enough. And, in fact, the same year, they decided to look into whether lengths of arms actually increased how fast you were. And there was a long article with all these shots — again, Walter Johnson, who had very long arms — standing there shirtless as they measured his wingspan versus other pitchers’ wingspans. So Baseball Magazine was this remarkably forward-thinking and clever magazine back in the 1910s.

Correspondent: Very conceptual, it sounds like.

Wallace: And extremely helpful to a writer like me! Who needed both long arms and the speed machine to make the book work.

(Image: Mary Reagan)

The Bat Segundo Show #336: Joseph Wallace (Download MP3)

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Galleygate: Open Questions to Stephen Elliott

Since my critical comment in response to the Rumpus Book Club is “awaiting moderation,” I thought I would reproduce it here:

Since nobody here has the balls to ask important questions (and I fully expect this comment to be deleted), and Elliott has been far from transparent, here goes:

1. A galley typically costs at least $5 to make. Are you paying the publishers for these galleys with these funds? Or are you pocketing the cash and plundering these galleys, redistributing them among the people who pay you money for financial gain? If the latter, then how can this be considered even remotely ethical (particularly in light of the recent FTC blogger policy)?

2. How is it ethical to take money from subscribers when they can express their professional interest and have the galley sent to them for free when they write to the publisher?

3. Why are you disrespecting the authors with this plan? The galley is not the version that the author wishes to put out. It is riddled with typos, gaffes, and other errors. So not only are you besmirching an author’s vision. You are also taking away much needed sales to that author that will assist her in getting another book deal.

4. Why cut into the galley supply like this? Galleys are typically distributed to booksellers, critics, et al. so that a publisher stands a chance of getting some advance buzz or generating sales. When you take fifty galleys, then this destroys fifty potential shots at a book getting publicity. It is nothing less than monopolizing a supply that you have no right to horde.

RELATED: Liz Burns’s thoughts on a library that categorizes an ARC as the finished copy in its stacks.

UPDATE: Stephen Elliott has responded at the Rumpus:

I think you’re wrong about this. I don’t think we’ll be sending galleys out the majority of the time. I don’t want to commit to that, because I’m not sure, but I’m reasonably certain that the majority of time it will be hardcover books, not galleys. Or it might be a mix.

If the publishers don’t think participating in the book club will be good for sales they probably won’t agree to do it. The author has to agree to it as well. An awful lot of authors have already asked us to consider using their book.

While I appreciate Mr. Elliott’s civil tone, he has not yet directly addressed the four questions. Hopefully this open exchange will encourage him to do so.

BEA 2010

Since there have been some inquiries, here’s the deal. Due to a number of ongoing projects that require my vital attention (along with this tricky little thing called life), my BookExpo America participation will be severely reduced this year. But I will be offering some modest coverage of an amusing and vaguely informative nature. I won’t be attending the Book Blogger Convention. But feel free to email me if you’re in town and interested in meeting up.

Long Live Nothing, Built From Nothing: A Manifesto

Both of my parents did not exist. My mini-rebellion was to exist. There was no sperm, no egg. To this day, I survive by visiting Loaves & Fishes, where they throw me scraps. And yet here I am. I won’t go away. Even after you secured the temporary restraining order.

I defied all human biology, but remain strident and humorless. I am neither dead nor alive. The fact that I exist, that I occupy such a prodigious portion of the collective human mind and that the entire world revolves around me, permits me the authority to spout forth ridiculous bullshit. And by the time you reach the end of this very important essay’s third paragraph, which I will repeat for emphasis, you will believe everything that I say. If you do not, you are inferior. You are dead. You are a scrap to be thrown into my mighty maw.

The novel is dead.

I have eaten you. If I have not eaten you, you will wake up tomorrow and find my teeth burrowed into your leg. If you do not throw your scraps to me, I will spend the evening sobbing. And I will spout forth a fount that is even more ridiculous than before. When I begin biting into your limbs, I will not like the taste, but I will eat you because you are dead. You cannot exist because I do not exist. I am delusional. I love literature, but I hate you. I love you, but I hate literature. This is not a contradiction. I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. I have not had a blowjob in sixteen years. Blowjobs are for dead people. And yet, being dead, I have not received one.

My lofty intentions were misunderstood by Stephen Colbert. When I attempted to partake of a certain biological practice that occurs in bedrooms and motel rooms, I could not find a willing partner. There was only a series of shrill essays. For every essay, I slapped on the subtitle “A Manifesto” so that you would detect its importance. To this day, I have my defenders. But they are all dead. Just as the people I see on the plane are dead. We get to pretend that people are alive. But I know that they are not.

The novel is dead.

Twenty years ago I applied for a job at the University of Washington creative writing program and I was escorted out of the office by security. However, by the mid-1990s, I made several additional attempts at gainful employment. I would not leave the office. I felt after a while that they should pay me money to write a book that was not a book, to promulgate literature that was not literature. Some of the faculty members at the University of Washington believed I was employed. But most of them felt sorry for me. I responded that I was dead and I asked them to pay me money. They told me to write a book. And I did so to justify my existence. Now everybody laughs at me. Even after I gave them what they wanted.

The novel is dead.

Every year, my book became less unwieldy. I became convinced that it was the greatest book that had ever been published in the history of humankind. I was not wrong. Because the novel was dead. I saw how I could take statements from others and make them my own. None of the material was mine. It was dead. Deader than a dead Eskimo. Deader even than Michael Jackson, a recording artist who is dead and whom I am not fond of. I am not fond of many things. Please be miserable with me. But in being dead, the book became alive. And my book incited controversy.

The novel is dead.

And here was the big break: I realized how perfectly the words embodied my argument. It was the best argument that humankind had to offer. I wanted the reader to understand that they should burn all of their books, because the novel was dead, and read my book over and over and over. I wanted them to buy my book again after they had burned their original copy. I took it upon myself to appear on every talk show. Because I liked talking about myself, even though the novel was dead. Even though I remained dead.

The novel is dead.

Numerous bloggers have failed to perform fellatio upon me. This is unfair. I have paid my dues. Because I don’t genuflect the twin altars of the novel (dead) and life (dead). I’ve become the poster boy for the Ridiculed Polemicist. I can’t even get Charlie Rose to book me on his show. The New Yorker doesn’t accept my contributions. Fine by me. They misunderstand my genius, which is dead. Like the novel. Like you. Like your mother.

I will hate the book you’re reading. If you smile at literature, you will find me sitting behind you, staring at you like a stalker and taking all the joy out of your reading experience. If only you had invited me to more parties. If only you had invited me for even one dinner. If only you had serviced me. The way that you had shown affection to all the happy people who were dead and who did not deserve your affection.

Forms evolve.

Forms are there to serve a hairdresser, and when your hair falls out, the hair falls out for a good reason.

The novel is dead.

Long live nothing, built from nothing.

The Bat Segundo Show: Barry Gifford

Barry Gifford appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #335. Mr. Gifford is most recently the author of Sailor & Lula: The Complete Novels.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wilder than his heartburn.

Author: Barry Gifford

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Gifford: Well, the point is “Don’t be a victim.” I mean, I think I have another chapter somewhere that’s called “Victims.” But that’s always been another kind of thing that I could never abide. People who see themselves as victims. You know, with a capital V. And I just don’t like to be around people like this. People who complain all the time or are a victim or who feel that they’re a victim of their environment, their parents, their husband, their wife, their boyfriend, their girlfriend, God. Whatever it is that they want to call it. It’s convenient, isn’t it? It’s an easy way out. And in the case of the kids in Perdita Durango, they’re just kids. They were like dumb college kids. And here they were kidnapped for the purpose of human sacrifice. I mean, what a terrible thing? And Romeo and Perdita are certainly colorful characters, but malevolent ones. So they’re the natural contrast to Sailor and Lula.

Correspondent: But these two college kids. Did you really feel a good deal of fury or hatred towards them?

Gifford: No! No, I don’t feel any fury or hatred towards any of these characters. I mean, in one sense, yes, we’re all subject to all of the things that have come before, to our upbringing, and to all these things that I mentioned. The key is: How do you deal with them? How do you assert yourself? How do you retain some semblance of control over your own life? Control has always been a big issue with me. I’m not an easily controlled person. In a way, I’m very faithful and loyal and all those things. But it has to be on my own terms. In the sense that if somebody is there purposefully and clearly and obviously attempting to manipulate me, that’s over. There’s no chance of my having any sort of friendship or relationship with that person. And that’s what Perdita Durango is mainly about. Now nobody had a worse childhood than Perdita Durango. She’s definitely — if anybody could be called a victimized person. It laid out her life for her. And what does she try to do? She’s trying to control her own existence. She’s fighting for her life. And that’s the theme that I always felt with Perdita. I love Perdita. I mean, she’s crazy and she’s dangerous. But I love her.

Correspondent: These issues of control are interesting. Because here you have worked in Hollywood, in which the writer is always considered last. For the most part. I know that you appeared on a panel recently in which you had no problem with your books being adapted and being transformed into something different. But there is, in dealing with Hollywood, a sense of capitulating control. And I’m curious as to how you find control in a situation in which you know the writer’s always going to get screwed.

Gifford: Well, as my friend Richard Price has mentioned before, and said the other night, he says, “I’m in it only for the money. I have my books.” And one thing that I said was, after the film Wild at Heart came out, people said to me, “Well, what do you think about what David Lynch did to your book?” I said, “I wasn’t aware that he did anything to my book.” I knew what they were asking. But the book is still there. Read the book. He didn’t change a sentence. He didn’t change a period or a comma. The book is there. The movie may endure the book. It may or may not endure whatever it happens to be. But it’s still there. It’s inviolable. The movie’s another animal. It’s a different form. It’s a different art form. You have other opportunities with movies. And I love the movies. And I learned a lot about how to write from the movies when I was a child. Just watching all-night movies all the time. That sort of thing. And I learned how to tell a story, and how to build character development, and all that kind of thing. That doesn’t mean that I sat down to write movies. I did not. And when I have the opportunity, or choose the opportunity, to write a screenplay, really the writer only has one shot at it. It’s that first draft. So when you write that first draft, you have to see that movie the way you want it to be seen. And so there are no excuses. Of course, there’s more or less manipulation. I mean, sometimes I work better in Europe. Because they change fewer things. But it isn’t the case with Lost Highway, which David Lynch and I wrote together. Everything that’s in that movie is written. It’s all there Nothing was changed. So what could be better than that?

(Image: Robert Birnbaum)

The Bat Segundo Show #335: Barry Gifford (Download MP3)

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Why Does Michiko Kakutani Hate Fiction So Much?

The New York Times‘s Michiko Kakutani has rightly earned the wrath of fiction authors for her scathing reviews. But until now, nobody has thought to collect some loosely quantifiable data with which to demonstrate just how much Kakutani hates fiction.

So here’s a breakdown of Kakutani’s last twenty-seven fiction reviews, written between the period of May 2009 and May 2010.

May 11, 2010: Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow called “a remarkably tedious new novel.” Verdict? HATED IT (0).

Aprl 28, 2010: “Suffice it to say that the fans of Presumed Innocent who can suspend their disbelief for the first couple of chapters of this follow-up will not be disappointed. ” She also spoils several plot twists contained within Scott Turow’s Innocent. Verdict? HATED IT (0).

April 22, 2010: Sue Miller’s The Lake Shore Limited is declared “her most nuanced and unsentimental novel to date.” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

April 13, 2010: Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil “is every bit as misconceived and offensive as his earlier book was fetching.” Verdict? HATED IT (0).

March 30, 2010: Of Solar, Kakutani declares the book “ultimately one of the immensely talented Mr. McEwan’s decidedly lesser efforts.” Verdict? HATED IT (with scant positive remarks) (0).

March 9, 2010: On Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered, Kakutani writes, “Mr. Lee writes with such intimate knowledge of his characters’ inner lives and such an understanding of the echoing fallout of war that most readers won’t pause to consider such lapses ” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

March 2, 2010: In So Much for That, Lionel Shriver “turns this schematic outline into a visceral and deeply affecting story.” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

February 12, 2010: T.C. Boyle’s Wild Child serves up “dashed-off portraits of pathetic weirdos; curiously, some of the most powerful entries in this volume also deal with frustrated, unhappy people, but people depicted with a mixture of sympathy and skepticism, emotional insight and dagger-sharp wit.” Verdict? MIXED (0.5).

February 7, 2010: Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic “is a lumpy, disappointing book.” Verdict? HATED IT (0).

February 1, 2010: Of Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, Kakutani writes “there is something suffocating and airless about this entire production.” Verdict? HATED IT (0).

January 28, 2010: Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey is “an ingeniously Borgesian novel that’s witty, playful, moving and tirelessly inventive.” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

January 26, 2010: Robert Stone’s Fun with Problems is “a grab-bag collection that’s full of Mr. Stone’s liabilities as a writer, with only a glimpse here and there of his strengths.” Verdict? HATED IT (0).

January 4, 2010: Anne Tyler’s Noah’s Compass “devolves into a predictable and highly contrived tale of one man’s late midlife crisis.” Verdict? HATED IT (0).

December 14, 2009: Norberto Fuentes’s The Autobiography of Fidel Castro is “a fascinating new novel.” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

November 29, 2009: The stories contained within Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness “are more nuanced and intriguing than such bald summaries might suggest. And yet the willful melodramatics of these tales make them far cruder than Ms. Munro’s best work.” Verdict? MIXED (0.5).

November 9, 2009: Vladmir Nabokov’s The Original of Laura “will beckon and beguile Nabokov fans” despite being a “fetal rendering of whatever it was that Nabokov held within his imagination.” Verdict? MIXED (0.5).

October 26, 2009: John Irving’s Last Night in Twisted River “evolves into a deeply felt and often moving story,” despite its flaws. Verdict? LIKED IT (but with caution) (1).

October 22, 2009: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes “read like heavy-handed O. Henry-esque exercises; they are psychologically obtuse, clumsily plotted and implausibly contrived.” Verdict? HATED IT (0).

October 12, 2009: Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City is a “tedious, overstuffed novel.” Verdict? HATED IT (0).

September 21, 2009: Audrey Niffenegger’s Symmetry is “an entertaining but not terribly resonant ghost story.” Verdict? LIKED IT (but with caution) (1).

September 14, 2009: With The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood “has succeeded in writing a gripping and visceral book that showcases the pure storytelling talents she displayed with such verve in her 2000 novel, The Blind Assassin.” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

August 31, 2009: E.L. Doctorow’s Homer & Langley “has no Poe-like moral resonance. It’s simply a depressing tale of two shut-ins who withdrew from life to preside over their own ‘kingdom of rubble.'” Verdict? HATED IT (0).

August 27, 2009: With A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore has “written her most powerful book yet.” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

August 3, 2009: Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice “feels more like a Classic Comics version of a Pynchon novel than like the thing itself.” Verdict? MIXED (0.5).

July 16, 2009: Stieg Laarson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire “boasts an intricate, puzzlelike story line that attests to Mr. Larsson’s improved plotting abilities.” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

July 2, 2009: Chimamanda Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck is an “affecting collection of stories.” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

June 29, 2009: Shahriar Mandanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story “leaves the reader with a harrowing sense of what it is like to live in Tehran under the mullahs’ rule.” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

Based on our point system, over the course of 27 reviews, Michiko Kakutani has awarded 14 positive points to fiction. And when we do the math, we see that Kakutani enjoys fiction about 51.9% of the time.

Is such a high percentage of negative reviews unreasonable? Judging by the Top Reviewers index on Publishers Marketplace, which has tracked reviewers since October 2002, it would appear so. Kakutani is more negative than what is reasonably expected from a professional critic. And if we rank all professional reviewers in order of negativity, we find only five reviewers who have a negativity percentage over 25%.

Out of 46 reviews, 48% of Edward Champion’s reviews are negative.*
Out of 63 reviews, 44% of Charles Taylor’s reviews are negative.
Out of 29 reviews, 38% of Christopher Kelly’s reviews are negative.
Out of 29 reviews, 38% of Ilan Stavans’s reviews are negative.
Out of 38 reviews, 37% of Mike Fischer’s reviews are negative.
Out of 232 reviews, 32% of Bob Hoover’s reviews are negative.
Out of 27 reviews, 30% of Robert Cremins’s reviews are negative.
Out of 28 reviews, 29% of Louisa Thomas’s reviews are negative.
Out of 31 reviews, 29% of Donna Freydkin’s reviews are negative.
Out of 48 reviews, 29% of Clay Reynolds’s reviews are negative.
Out of 26 reviews, 27% of Francine Prose’s reviews are negative.
Out of 27 reviews, 26% of Lorraine Adams’s reviews are negative.
Out of 45 reviews, 27% of Saul Austerlitz’s reviews are negative.
Out of 63 reviews, 27% of Donna Rifkind’s reviews are negative.
Out of 42 reviews, 26% of Robert Braile’s reviews are negative.
Out of 62 reviews, 26% of Kristin Latina’s reviews are negative.

So that’s sixteen reviewers (out of a total of 361) who are miserable enough to award at least a quarter of the books that they review a negative rating. In other words, a mere 4.4% of reviewers have hated more than 25% of the fiction that they write about.

And if we account solely for Kakutani’s fiction reviews in the past twelve months, Kakutani is more negative than any professional reviewer in the past eight years. Kakutani hates 48.1% of the fiction she reads. She barely edges out this odious Ed Champion fellow, who I will certainly be having a talk with later this afternoon.

Or to frame this revelation another way, in the past twelve months, the only reviewer more obnoxious than Edward Champion is Michiko Kakutani.

And when a reviewer is this negative, one must ask one a vital question. Should she continue to be paid to write reviews?

* — Nobody was more alarmed by this percentage than me. While Michael Cader is permitted his estimate, I should point out that there are numerous positive reviews I’ve written he hasn’t counted.

Literary Podcasts

Back in 2005, I prepared a list of literary podcasts. Five years later, the original list has become outdated, with many of the previously listed programs biting the dust. (There were many more that appeared and disappeared, including the Washington Post Book World podcast, which folded with scant notice not long ago. This was too bad. Because Ron Charles hammed it up in a manner all too rare in a mainstream books podcast.) Literary podcasts, while nowhere nearly as abundant as they should be, are still around. And this updated list represents an effort to track any and all podcasts of a literary or books-related bent that are presently being produced.

This list includes podcasts of a books or literary nature that are still putting out new episodes on a regular basis. If a podcast has not put out a fresh installment in the last six months, or if the podcast limits itself (such as an author reading from his book during a set period of time), then I have not included it. I have also excluded comics-oriented podcasts: not because I’m against comics (far from it), but because there are just too many to list. On this subject, I direct all interested listeners to The Comics Podcast Network, which has done a fine job of uniting numerous shows under the same umbrella. I also felt that radio programs that didn’t feature books as a central topic (such as Fresh Air, an all-purpose program that often features authors) shouldn’t be included in this list. The hope is for all books-related podcasts to be collected at one helpful central point.

I should also warn the reader in advance that this list, while inclusive, does contain a few subjective descriptions, particularly in relation to bland mainstream media — a sentiment emerging from my considerable frustrations with the dryness and scarcity of present literary radio. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of good ones to listen to.

If I’ve left anybody out (my apologies), please feel free to note any missing podcasts in the comments, and I’ll be sure to add them to this list. Hopefully, this post will generate a useful nexus.

Author Interviews

The Agony Column: Rick Kleffel doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his considerable archive. He’s been doing this since 2002. More genre-oriented, but there’s some literary folks too.

Arts and Ideas: BBC’s flagship arts program. Includes in-depth interviews and vigorous philosophical debates.

Barnes and Noble Studio: Not quite as dry as most NPR programs, but not really that exciting.

The Bat Segundo Show: My own humble and eccentric podcast based out of New York, which features more than 300 in-depth interviews with the likes of John Updike, David Lynch, Guy Maddin, Marilynne Robinson, and more. New episodes every Friday.

Between the Covers: The National Review‘s John J. Miller talks with authors.

The Biblio File: Often odd but enjoyable interviews from Nigel Beale. Updated intermittently.

The Book Studio: Based in Washington DC, WETA’s Bethanne Patrick features numerous interviews (both audio and video) with contemporary authors.

Book Tour: Not the most compelling interview program. But if you like your interviews without spontaneity, this NPR program’s your best bet.

Bookworm: Michael Silverblatt has been around for a long time, but his interviews are quite thoughtful and a must for any literary enthusiast. New episodes every Thursday. Aired at KCRW.

Lewis Burke Frumkes: Weekly interviews with authors from a guy in New York who’s been around a while.

The Marketplace of Ideas: Colin Marshall’s program (airing in Santa Barbara) features several author interviews pertaining to “books, culture, commerce, and fascinating concepts.”

Morning Media Menu: Galleycat’s Jason Boog interviews authors about the publishing industry.

World Book Club: Produced by the BBC, there’s a new author interview each month. Presented by Harriett Gilbert.

Writers & Company: This CBC podcast (hosted by Eleanor Watchel) features a new author interview every Monday. (Regrettably, podcasts are only archived for four weeks.)


Antithesis Predestination: A five volume novel read by J. Daniel Sawyer. “A character-driven espionage thriller that follows the adventures of ten people from different worlds, and their personal obsessions that send them hurtling headlong into history.”

Apostophre Cast: Dry but straightforward biweekly program devoted to contemporary authors reading their work.

Awakenings: “A podcast discussion show that is dedicated to deciphering all things about The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel book series by Michael Scott.”

Bound Off: A monthly literary audio magazine featuring new stories from writers.

The Classic Tales with B.J. Harrison: Every week, Harrison (a fan of old time radio dramatizations) reads a classic short story to his audience.

Crimewav: A podcast series hosted by Seth Harwood devoted to reading published crime stories.

The Dark Verse: A prolific podcast devoted to “sharing the strange works of M. Amanuensis Sharkchild with the sole purpose of introducing a unique world of horror and fantasy that will follow you to the visions of your sleep.”

Dunesteef: A nonprofit story forum, focusing mainly on genre.

Escape Pod: A science fiction podcast magazine that features a new short story every week.

Forgotten Classics: This podcast is devoted to authors who have been unfairly neglected by the sands of time. Featuring sample readings and some information on the writers.

Librivox: Hosting a number of podcasts devoted to reading stories.

The Metamor City Podcast: An audio fiction series involving stories and novels all centered around the Metamor City universe. The only podcast I know of that has generated a map for its chronicled world.

Miette’s Bedtime Short Story Podcast: Twice each month, Miette reads a bedtime story for her listeners.

New Yorker Fiction: It may have a bland name, but this podcast comes highly recommended for the concept alone. The show features big-name writers discussing stories from other authors each month.

Podcastle: If Pseudopod has the horror niche and Escape Pod has the science fiction niche, Podcastle certainly has the fantasy reading niche.

Psuedopod: Much like Escape Pod, Psuedopod offers a weekly genre offering. But Pseudopod specializes in horror fiction dramatizations.

The Secret World Chronicle: Created by Mercedes Lackey and Steve Libbey, this podcast depicts the Secret World. There’s a helpful master list to keep track.

Selected Shorts: PRI’s award-winning series of short fiction read by the stars of stage and screen. New episodes every Monday.

Writer’s Block: Every Wednesday, the Writer’s Block (based out of San Francisco) features a contemporary author reading a selection from one of her latest books.


Authors@Google: Regrettably, Google doesn’t have a central website for its author talks. And I’m not sure if this technically counts as a podcast. But you can sift through the general purpose Talks@Google YouTube page.

The Book Babble Show: A news-oriented podcast that features shows devoted to such topics as online author fanaticism and whether critics have any influence upon reading.

The Book Show: Hosted by Ramona Koval, this startlingly prolific Australian program features new installments on weekdays.

Books on the Nightstand: Unlike some mainstream podcasts confining themselves to soulless corporate boardrooms, Ann Kingman’s wonderful and far-ranging podcast features festival reports, review roundups, and other segments, providing a disparate mix for literary lovers.

Free Library Podcast: The Free Library of Philadelphia permits listeners who can’t make it to author events to listen to the talks.

The Guardian Books Podcast: A very solid offering of lively books banter that demonstrates the great disparity between mainstream literary coverage in the UK and the States.

New York Review of Books: Extremely intermittent podcast featuring some conversations.

The New York Times Book Review Podcast: Every Friday, for fifteen minutes, the corporate yesman Sam Tanenhaus manages to take all the life out of books.

NPR Books Podcast: This isn’t so much a podcast proper, as it is a depository for recent NPR books-related segments.

Slate’s Audio Book Club: This mainstream podcast has made many of my literary friends angry due to the low quality of discourse. But it is included here because Stephen Metcalf, who cannot be faulted for trying, certainly does the best he can to contend with egotistical nincompoops.

The Writer’s Almanac: Garrison Keillor tends to put most people under the age of fifty to sleep, but his daily five minute collection of biographical notes and other miscellany can contain a few interesting morsels.


Library of the Living Dead: A podcast devoted to all things zombie-related, which includes fiction.

Starship Sofa: A magazine program devoted to science fiction.

Tor Tor includes two podcasts for science fiction fans: Fiction with Mur Lafferty and The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy.


Classic Poetry Aloud: This independently produced podcast (Author unknown: “Who I am is not important. The point is the poetry.”) gives the Poetry Foundation a run for its money with nearly 550 poems available for your listening pleasure.

The Joe Milford Poetry Show: Features readings and interviews with acclaimed and established poets.

Poetry Off the Shelf: Produced by the Poetry Foundation’s Curtis Fox, this podcast features readings, interviews, and numerous other angles pertaining to poetry.

Poem of the Day: Also from the Poetry Foundation. A new poem each day. Thankfully not as soporific as Garrison Keillor.


Craftlit: A fiction reading podcast with a slightly different hook: reading directed towards those who like to craft (or knit).

H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast: Hosted by Chad Fifer & Chris Lackey, this ambitious podcast tackles a new Lovecraft story each week.

Imprint: A Twilight-specific podcast that discusses “the latest developments in the Twilight fandom, along with exceptional literary analysis.”

Mister Ron’s Basement II: The only books-related podcast I know of which is in the four digits. This podcast specializes in public domain writers, with an emphasis on humor.

Mugglecast: J.K. Rowling may have stopped writing Harry Potter novels, but this biweekly podcast lives on. Nearly 200 episodes have been posted since 2005.

Read It and Weep: Not entirely books-related, but it does have a fun angle. This podcast is devoted to discussing terrible books, movies, and television.

Twilighters Anonymous: If you like Stephenie Meyer, this is the podcast for you. Some 92 episodes to date have aired, many discussing extremely specific aspects of the Twilight universe.

Vox Tablet: Hosted by Sara Ivry, this podcast — often featuring Jewish writers — is a weekly audio report.


The Dead Robots’ Society Podcast: By aspiring writers, for aspiring writers.

Odyssey SF/F Writing Workshop Podcasts: Intermittent but valuable lectures from numerous SF/F writers. Including Jeff VanderMeer, Nancy Kress, Jack Ketchum, and more.

Writing Excuses: A fifteen minute weekly podcast that discuss numerous issues pertaining to writing.

The Writing Show: One of the older podcasts (it’s been around since 2005) devoted to exchanging “information and inspiration for writers of all kinds.”

The Bat Segundo Show: Julie Orringer

Julie Orringer appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #334. Ms. Orringer is most recently the author of The Invisible Bridge.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Bridging the gap between Paris and Budapest.

Author: Julie Orringer

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: You’re balancing a 200,000 word manuscript, I’m guessing.

Orringer: Yeah, that’s pretty accurate.

Correspondent: The thing I actually wanted to talk to you about in terms of revision. I noticed that you were very careful to use words like “panchromium” and “circlet” and “lemniscate.”

Orringer: That one’s stolen directly from Nabokov.

Correspondent: Oh really? Yeah.

Orringer: Yeah. From Lake Lemniscate in Lolita.*

Correspondent: That’s right. And then “laxard,” which I think is a neologism on your part.

Orringer: It is, I’m afraid.

Correspondent: Yeah. But the thing that interested me about the vocabulary in this book is that you were very careful to ensure that you didn’t use the same word multiple times, but also use a word that wasn’t the ultimate ten-center that sticks out like a sore thumb. I want to know how you agonized to get that balance. The lexical balance here.

Orringer: That’s a great question. I’m so glad you’re asking me about the language of this book. Because that’s not something I’ve had to think about aloud yet. When Andy Greer and I were at MacDowell [writing colony] together a couple of years ago — as he was working on his novel, The Story of a Marriage, and I was revising this book. We would sometimes go swimming in the afternoons and trade a list of neologisms. Coinages that we had created over the course of the day. It became a kind of game. I felt like, if there was a principle behind the language choices that went into this book — I felt like the guide that I followed had something to do with what was actually happening in the narrative. That there were times when a character was in a more reflective moment or when the action was a bit quieter or when we really needed to be able to see something slowly and clearly — those were the moments when I felt like I had a little bit more freedom to allow the language to open up, and to become more interesting and maybe even to call more attention to itself in places. And then there are moments in the book where the action is so painful or the series of events is complicated, or where the events themselves are so emotionally fraught that the language really has to back away and allow the events to speak for themselves. And sometimes it’s tough to do that. Because sometimes those are the moments where you really want to draw out some word that you feel is particularly expressive or particularly unusual. But those are also the times, I think, when it’s really not about the language. It’s really about what’s happening to the characters. And when the language wants to be a little bit quieter.

Correspondent: I observed that too. And I’m glad that you brought this up. Because to me, this almost seems like two books. The “invisible bridge” is between the first half and the second half in my mind. This first half with an elegant, romantic view of Paris, where many of these words that we’re talking about manage to flourish. Versus the darker, bleaker, straightforward part in Hungary. This leads me to wonder if you were bouncing around between these two halves. Whether you were, as you point out, very language happy. Or very happy to portray something romantic. And here you have to portray something that’s particularly bleak and Holocaust-related. Did you bounce around? Or was it pretty much beginning to end?

Orringer: Kind of beginning to end. And in fact, it was really important to me. This wasn’t something that I knew about — the structure of the book beforehand. But I did know that the life that I was creating for Andras Levy in Paris was going to fall apart in the second half of the book. And what surprised me was the fact that, in terms of the number of pages, the book is evenly balanced between the setup, the creation, the future-looking part of Andras’ life and the breakdown and the uncertainty and the horror and the tragedy of the second part. And I feel that this was so important to my understanding of the people who were going through these times. That, in fact, I wanted for the reader to feel with Andras all of his expectation and all of his hopes about the future of his architecture career. And the development of the friendships he made at school with other future architects, and the relationship with Klara, and its complications and all of these currents that really are drawing him forward. But throughout the whole first section, another movement has to do with the increase of his awareness of the political threat that’s building throughout Europe. And there’s also the intimation of the approach of a war. So right around the midpoint of the book, there’s this fulcrum where he loses his scholarship and he has to return to Budapest and is conscripted into the Labor Service. And in a way, I feel like this is the most important thing about the book. To feel all the expectation of the first part. And then to have that juxtaposed with all the disaster of the second part.

* — This little footnote is going to get geeky. But then geekiness is permitted when it comes to Nabokov. The word “lemniscate” first appeared in The Gift, Nabokov’s final Russian novel, and can also be found in Pale Fire: “the miracle of a lemniscate.” It doesn’t appear in Lolita. But I still think this was a nifty appropriation. In fact, if you’re truly a Nabokov junkie, there are discussions of “lemniscate” in Leona Toker’s Nabokov: The Mystery of Literary Structures and Robert Alter’s “Nabokov’s Game of Worlds” in Partial Magic.

(Image: HERS Photo)

The Bat Segundo Show #334: Julie Orringer (Download MP3)

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Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project #9

A few days ago, a writer emailed me, hoping to be on The Bat Segundo Show. I responded quite politely, as I do with all those who pitch me directly — pointing out that the show was heavily booked. But if he wanted to send me his book for consideration, he was more than happy to. However, due to the fact that I receive more books than I can possibly read, I couldn’t promise anything. He responded.

Therefore, my audio series — Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project — must continue.

The following clip represents my dramatic reading of the hate mail in question, read in the style of a Tennessee Williams protagonist.

While I realize the project has stagnated of late, I assure you that it is ongoing. I plan to continue reading more hate mail. Again, I will be happy to read any specific hate mail that you’ve received. (If you do send me hate mail for potential dramatic readings, I only ask that you redact the names of the individuals.)

Click any of the below links to listen.

Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project #9 (Download MP3)

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Previous Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Installments:

#8 A hate mail read in the style of Jimmy Stewart
#7 A hate mail read in the style of Glenn Beck
#6 A hate mail read in the style of a Miss Manners schoolmarmish tone
#5 A hate mail read in the style of Richard Milhous Nixon
#4: A hate mail read in the style of a drunken Irishman.
#3: A hate mail read in the style of a quiet sociopath
#2: A hate mail read in a muted Peter Lorre impression
#1: A hate mail read in a melodramatic, quasi-Shakespearean style

The Dead Writer’s Almanac: Clifton Hillegass

The Almanac’s staff has long wondered why Cinco de Mayo doesn’t get the proper respect it deserves. You see, a little more than a century and a half ago, 545 people died during the Battle of Puebla. The Mexican Army secured an unexpected victory against Napoleon’s forces, in large part because General Charles de Lorencez was arrogant enough to believe that the villagers would be sympathetic to the French military. Which is a bit like believing that a rape victim and her attacker will become BFF mere minutes after the brutal penetration.

545 dead bodies! Now that’s a death day to celebrate! But ask any fratboy guzzling down multitudinous margaritas about any of this, and he will intimate to you that Cinco de Mayo is the Mexican answer to St. Patrick’s Day. Then he will attempt to persuade you of his Hispanic roots (much as he attempted to persuade you of his Irish heritage only two months before), before swiftly abandoning the conversation (too intellectual, he may claim) so that he may scan the bar for a fetching mamacita before going home to an onanist’s bed.

Thus, Cinco de Mayo’s original celebratory purpose — founded upon war and death — has been transformed into a needlessly derivative holiday.

So it seems only fitting to celebrate the man who created and published Cliffs Notes — arguably the most derivative series of study guides ever printed. Yes, it’s the death day of Clifton Hillegass, who passed away nine years ago today on May 5, 2001. He died at his home in Lincoln, Nebraska. The cause: complications after a stroke.

Hillegass published study guides which ensured that high school and college literature students were entitled to fake it, even if he didn’t quite believe that these were the reasons why young kids scarfed up his striped handbooks. Or did he? This seems a suspicious stance from a man who started off as an Army Air Corps meteorologist, a man who was accustomed in his early career to predicting things. But he profited quite well on American procrastination. In 1958, while managing a wholesale department, he founded his company in a basement with a $4,000 loan, starting by reprinting summaries of sixteen Shakespeare plays from a Toronto publisher. The publisher was a guy named Jack Cole. Why did the apostrophe in “Cliff’s Notes” disappear? Well, Hillegass broke off ties with Cole, striking it out on his own. Hence, the name “Cliffs Notes” — a suitably ungrammatical concession to the enterprise. In 1999, Hillegass sold his company to IDG for a cool $14 million.

Hillegass was described by one employee as “a very intellectual individual,” and enjoyed mysteries and and the classics. In a New York Times obituary, Hillegass’s daughter claimed that her father “just basically wanted to help them get as much out of their education as they could.”

The inside covers of these bright yellow guides include the sentence: “A thorough appreciation of literature allows no short cuts.” But when a bookstore customer asks for Angry Raisins instead of The Grapes of Wrath, as this overview reveals, one must consider the full extent of Hillegass’s complicity. In a 2007 interview, CliffsNotes shipping employee John Shank revealed that Hillegass (and consulting editor James L. Roberts) “were pretty comfortable that they were being used for what they were intended for, back in the 1950’s and early 1960’s.”

Or were they more comfortable with the company’s success? It’s difficult to say. Hillegass’s recent death has produced a great hagiographical response from the people who knew and worked with Cliff. But to be fair to Hillegass, perhaps he can’t be entirely blamed for those who preferred to avoid reading literature, any more than the fratboy can be blamed for forgetting the Mexican Army. An uncommitted student will remain without dedication to the task at hand, even when his sweaty palms rely on a yellow veneer that the teacher has already obtained. If it hadn’t been Hillegass, it would have been somebody else. And if the dipsomaniac wasn’t drawn to Cinco de Mayo, it would be some other occasion. (It’s just too bad that nobody thinks to get inebriated on Arbor Day.)

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

The Dead Writer’s Almanac: Jane Bowles

It has been suggested by at least one prominent mortician that the Almanac’s staff has been dead for the past week. Well, the moribund undertaker in question was partially correct. Hans Campbell, our lead researcher, passed away on April 30, 2010, the victim of an unanticipated embolism experienced while putting together that day’s entry. He died at his desk — the way that any good researcher should. And it isn’t every day that you can claim to shake hands with a man who has the bad luck to die on the same day that Hitler blew his brains out (sixty-five years ago, if you’re as interested in the math as we are!). We here at the Almanac promise to not fuck around with a Walther PPK on a shooting range. We have given our small supply of cyanide tablets to a frenemy’s great aunt. So let the similarities between Hitler and Hans (or “HC,” as we nicknamed him in the office) end here. However, should anyone wish to make a Downfall video in HC’s honor, we suspect that his family will be greatly touched.

Now that we’ve got that little bit of housekeeping out of the way, we’re pleased to announce that it’s the death day of Jane Bowles, who passed away thirty-seven years ago on May 4, 1973. You may know Jane as the wife of Paul Bowles (who remains dead, at least as far as we know). What you may not know is that Jane herself was also a writer; indeed, a very good one. A novel, a play, half a dozen short stories, and a partridge in a pear tree. As Stacy D’Erasmo noted in the May 1999 issue of Out, she was one of the great, underrated writers of the 20th century. D’Erasmo compared Bowles to Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes, writing of the “disjunctive, inchoate, sometimes emotionally violent connections between her characters, particularly her quasi-maniacal ‘spinster’ women.” John Ashbery called Bowles “a writer’s writer. Few literary reputations are as glamorous as the underground one she enjoyed she has enjoyed since her novel, Two Serious Ladies, was published in 1943.” But when Ashbery wrote these words (writing about her Collected Stories on January 29, 1967, in the New York Times Book Review, in the days when it was less shallow than it is now, when it still permitted poets to write thoughtful essays), he remarked that Two Serious Ladies had long gone out-of-print. This was something of a surprise, considering that Alice B. Toklas and Tennessee Williams had talked it up. Aside from featuring an original prose style, the novel did, after all, feature violence.

Bowles was born with the name “Jane Auer” in 1917. To the best of our knowledge, she did not contend with any crazy women in an attic. But she did prefer women. At the age of 20, she met her husband Paul — a man who was interested in both men and women. At the time, Paul was a composer. And when Jane began experiencing some success, in true competitive style, Paul himself was inspired to take up the pen. But when Paul found greater success as a writer, producing work much faster than Jane could, Jane grew extremely frustrated. For she worked much slower and with considerable care. According to numerous sources, she often claimed to be dying of writer’s block.

But despite these problems (which weren’t helped by the Bowles’s frequent run-ins with notable literary people), she maintained a graceful wit. Allen Ginsberg once asked Jane if she believed in God. “Well,” replied Jane, “if I do I’m certainly not discussing it on the telephone.”

Jane hasn’t received nearly as much attention as her husband. Even the New York Times, demonstrating its commitment to overlooking literary innovators, waited nearly a month before printing her obituary on May 31, 1973. And according to Virginia Spencer Carr’s Paul Bowles: A Life, even her gravestone was unmarked. As John Hopkins was to note in Tangier Diaries, Jane’s gravestone had transformed into “a refuse dump of broken flower pots and bottles and dead stalks cast aside by the assiduous ladies in black.” This was twenty-three months after her demise.

Perhaps in death, Jane Bowles might find a new life.

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

Pico Iyer: A Critic Calling for the Pissboy

Pico Iyer’s anti-intellectual review in today’s New York Times Book Review begins with the sentence: “I confess, dear reader: I’ve always had a problem with William T. Vollmann.” This raises the question of why Iyer was even assigned the review in the first place. Certainly, Iyer is a widely revered travel writer, a man who has called himself “a global village on two legs.” His peripatetic escapades might be viewed, by those who rarely step outside Manhattan’s boundaries, as an able match to Vollmann’s. But in pairing Iyer up with Vollmann, the NYTBR‘s has once again demonstrated its crass commitment to useless criticism, stacking the deck against writers who do anything even a little idiosyncratic or anyone who sees the “global village” as one with broader possibilities.

The New York Times is supposed to be the Paper of Record. But in assigning a critic who is already dead set against the author he is writing about, a critic who, in this review, deploys his loutish prejudices in a manner comparable with a fulminating Tea Party protester, the Times reduces itself to a crazed right-wing pamphlet put together in a gun nut’s garage.

But here’s the thing. Pico Iyer isn’t a crackpot. He’s a distinguished critic who has cogently wrestled with William Buckley’s oeuvre and written about Tibetan movies for The New York Review of Books. But in accepting the assignment and alerting the assigning editor of his tastes and conflicts of interest, he has sufficiently announced that he’s no longer interested in being taken seriously. He has reduced himself to some dime-a-dozen snark practitioner: that old guy sitting in a lawn chair with a six-pack and a shotgun, spitting out a homebrewed fount of crass and uncomprehending commentary. Iyer has become just as culpable in debasing the New York Times Books Review as the usual gang of sophists. He claims in his review that Vollmann’s “paragraphs…seem to last as long as other writers’ chapters [and] can suggest a kind of deafness and self-enclosure.” But anybody who has read Iyer’s Sun After Dark (as the NYTBR‘s editors surely must have) knows how much Iyer objects to “long sunless paragraphs.” So why assign him a book with prose that he will never enjoy? If he hoped to challenge his inflexible assumptions about Vollmann, surely there was a more dignified way to go about it.

Before I demonstrate why Iyer’s review is so wrong, and why he cannot even cite Vollmann’s passages correctly, I should probably offer a disclaimer here that I’m a great admirer of William T. Vollmann’s work. I’ve interviewed him twice. I believe Imperial was a needlessly condemned masterpiece. But I’m not a blind zealot who believes that every sentence that Vollmann is gold. (I have problems with The Butterfly Stories, and I offered a respectful pan to Poor People in the Los Angeles Times). Still, Vollmann is not a writer to dismiss lightly. In The Ice-Shirt, Vollmann nearly froze to death in Alaska to know what it was like to shiver. In Imperial, he chronicled a California territory that is not likely to see such dutiful attention again in our lifetime. He has been in war zones. He has seen friends and family die, and written movingly about it. He has charmed his way into circumstances that puffups like Pico couldn’t begin to fathom from a gutless perch. And he’s remained a committed talent who has skillfully weaved these experiences into several unforgettable books. He’s won a National Book Award for Europe Central. Love him or hate him, there is simply no other American writer who has, over the course of more than twenty books, written with such unusual style and verve on so many variegated topics.

So when Iyer calls Vollmann’s obsessiveness “almost demented,” what makes this any different from calling Vollmann himself “almost demented?” “Obsessiveness” is indeed one of Vollmann’s qualities as a writer. And Iyer’s statement is nothing less than an ad hominem attack. (Sam Tanenhaus, of course, would tell you otherwise.)

But Iyer is also a stupendous misreader, a man who misquotes from the opening sentences of chapters, often conflating one sentence with another. He claims that Vollmann declares himself an “ape in a cage” because “he cannot understand a word.” But let’s study the context context of what Vollmann actually wrote, in the sentences that opens the second chapter (not the book’s opening sentence, as Iyer deliberately misleads):

This book cannot pretend to give anyone a working knowledge of Noh. Only a Japanese speaker who has studied Zeami and the Heian source literatures, learned how to listen to Noh music and wehat to look for in Noh costumes, masks and dances could hope to gain that, and then only after attending the plays for many years. Zeami insisted that “in making a Noh,” the playwright “must use elegant and easily understood phrases from song and poetry.”…But century buries century, and the performances refine themselves into an ever noble inaccessibility, slowing down (some now require at least double the time on stage that they did when Zeami was alive), evolving spoken parts into songs, clinging to conventions and morals now gone past bygone; as for me, I look on like an ape in a cage.

In other words, Vollmann is clearly delineating Noh’s great complexities, aspects that are difficult even for a native Japanese speaker to entirely ken (and that Iyer clearly has no curiosity to understand; he proudly proudly boasts about “the very dramas that have often sent me toward the exit before the intermission”). But if Vollmann is “an ape in a cage,” he is pointing out, with sincere humility, that neither he nor any audience member can ever hope to reach the civilized heights of a noble art form.

Iyer suggests that Vollmann’s “comparison” of Kate Bosworth with Kannon zany, but fails to comprehend that Vollmann has a larger goal. Here he is discussing Bosworth:

Her skin is a flawless blend of pinks; I suppose it has been powdered and airbrushed. Her mascara’d gaze beseeches me with the appearance of melancholy or erotic intimacy. Her mouth pretends to say: “Kiss me.” This professional signifier appears on many women in pornographic magazines and in the long slow sequences of romantic films. For some reason, I rarely see it on the faces of strangers in the street. (127)

It’s clear from this passage that Vollmann is attempting to place Hollywood magazine representations within the context of Noh. And, true to form, Iyer continues to take Vollmann out of context, implying that Vollmann’s confession about loving woman is (a) related to the above exchange and (b) related to the manner in which he asks Hilary Nichols, “Who is a woman?” (Actually, the “loving woman” sentence occurs on page 110, in a chapter on Noh faces, having little to do with either of the subjects from which Iyer draws his false associations. That Iyer ascribes Vollmann’s private sentiment to what he says to some woman in the bar indicates that not only is he unskilled to write this review, but that he has no real clue about the conversations that actually occur in bars.)

He attempts to accuse Vollmann of hypocrisy by pointing to his “extravagant” spending in Kissing the Mask, after writing Poor People. But lacking the ability to understand that a book on Noh theater is entirely different from one on poverty, Iyer fails to note that Vollmann confessed in Poor People that (a) he was “sometimes afraid of poor people,” (b) he is “a petty-bourgeois property owner,” and that (c) he has been mostly transparent about noting when he has paid an interview subject or how much one of his chapters have cost.

So if the Oxford English Dictionary had a listing for “incurious elitist with a hatchet and an agenda,” Pico Iyer would take up the entire entry. It says something about Iyer, I think, that his review can’t even make a civilized case against the book he so clearly loathes, that the manner in which he strings together so many unrelated items has no singular critical thrust. Reading his review is like watching an autistic fire a submachine gun in an upscale shopping mall. When Iyer claims, bizarrely, “that reading for more than 30 minutes at a time can induce headaches, seasickness, and worse,” and fails to qualify this observation with specific experiential examples, you get the sense of a desperate man without streetcred struggling to take a piss in an alley when his experience is limited to Larry David-style sitdown techniques confined to palatial restrooms.

No, it’s Iyer here who’s the one who fails to grapple with the big questions. Perhaps what truly motivates Iyer’s review is that, despite all of Iyer’s travels, he’s never quite found the courage or an interest in people outside his comfort zone. Here’s Iyer writing about Dharmamsala in The Open Road:

The people who were gathered in the room, maybe thirty or so, were strikingly ragged, their poor clothes rendered even poorer and more threadbare by their long trip across the snowcaps. They assembled in three lines in a small space, and all I could see were filthy coats, blackened faces, sores on hands and feet, straggly, unwashed hair.

Now here’s Vollmann writing a man named Lupe Vasquez in Imperial:

For an eight-hour job, it’s forty-five bucks. When I first started, in the early seventies, I used to make about seventeen bucks a day. Two-fifty an hour times eight hours is what? [Footnote: It would have been twenty dollars.] With taxes you take home about seventeen, eighteen bucks. I’d say the work’s the same now; it’s the same. [Footnote: I wish you could have heard the weariness in his voice as he said this.] Maybe the foremen don’t hurry you up and treat you as bad as they used to. We were scared, you know. We had to hurry up. For the foremen, money is more important to them than their own people. They gotta kiss ass, and the way they do that is by making us work harder.

Unlike Iyer, Vollmann actually provides tangible testimony on what it is to be poor, and what it is to live poor. Iyer, by contrast, is a vapid and unconcerned tourist who will never comprehend much beyond an impoverished man’s look. Still, I’m confident that none of my quibbles with Iyer’s incompetence will deter this bourgeois monster from writing. And that’s just fine. Because when future readers want to know about the world that we live in, when they wish to feel thrill, passion, and horror about the late 20th and early 21st centuries, my guess is that they’ll go to Vollmann before even flipping through Iyer. Unless, of course, they’re the types who, as Mel Brooks once satirized, call for the pissboy instead of understanding that even the pissboy has a soul.

[UPDATE: Over at The Constant Conversation, John Lingan also addresses Iyer’s review, pointing out that the piece fails to address the basic questions of arts criticism: “How about engaging the man’s ideas head-on, and not simply expressing your mild distaste with the presentation?”]