franzenspeech

What Jonathan Franzen Didn’t Include in His New York Times Op-Ed

On May 28, 2011, The New York Times published a Jonathan Franzen op-ed “adapted from a commencement speech he delivered on May 21 at Kenyon College. The piece contained a link to an audio version of the piece. Here’s a breakdown of what Franzen didn’t include (I have not included throat clearing or minor linking words):

“Good morning, class of 2011. Good morning, relatives and faculty. It’s a great honor and pleasure to be here with you today. I’m going to go ahead and assume you all knew what you were getting into when you chose a literary writer to deliver this address. I’m going to do what literary writers do, which is talk about themselves in the hope that my experience has some resonance with your own experience. I’d like to work my way around to the subject of love and its relation to my life and to the strange techno-consumerist world that you guys are inheriting.” (Beginning to 00:38)

“…powerful Blackberry Bold with a five megapixel camera and 3G capability.” (Bolded product description dropped, 00:43-00:48)

“…tiny track pad…” (“tiny” dropped, 1:03)

“…impelling them to action by speaking incantations…” (dropped, but this may have been a reading flub, 2:02-2:04)

“Let me toss out the idea that according to the logic of techno-consumerism in which markets discover….” (dropped, 2:26-2:28)

“…the ongoing transformation…” (“ongoing” dropped, 3:48)

“…fallen for your schtick. Those people exist to make you feel good about yourself, but how good can your feeling be when it’s provided by the people you don’t respect? You may find yourself becoming depressed…” (dropped, 5:17-5:23)

“dissed” upgraded to “disrespected” (6:34)

“One of the heartening things about the plague of cell phones in my Manhattan neighborhood is that among all the texting zombies and the party-planning yakkers on the sidewalks, I sometimes get to walk along somebody who’s having an honest to God fight with the person they love. I’m sure they prefer not to be having the fight on a public sidewalk, but here it’s happening to them anyway and they’re behaving in a very, very uncool way. Shouting, accusing, and pleading, abusing. This is the kind of thing that gives me hope for the world.. Which is not to say that love is only about fighting or that radically self-involved people aren’t capable of accusing and abusing.” (dropped, 7:53-8:30)

“When I was a senior in college, I took the first seminar the college had ever offered in literary theory. And I fell in love with the most brilliant student in the seminar. Both of us liked how instantly powerful literary theory made us feel. It’s similar to modern consumer technology in this regard. And we flattered ourselves on how much more sophisticated we were than the kids who were still doing those tedious old close textual readings. For various theoretical reasons, we also thought it would be cool to get married. (uncomfortable laughter from students) A longer story than we have time for here, but my mother, who had spent twenty years making me into a person who craved full commitment love now turned around and advocated that I spend my twenties, as she put it, footloose and fancy free. Naturally, since I thought she was wrong about everything, I assumed she was wrong about this. I had to find out the hard way what a messy business commitment is. The first thing we jettisoned was theory. My soon-to-be wife once memorably remarked after an unhappy scene in bed, ‘You can’t deconstruct and undress at the same time.’ (more uncomfortable laughter) Try it. We spent a year on different continents and very quickly discovered that, although it was fun to fill the pages of our letters to each other with theoretical riffs, it wasn’t so much fun to read those pages. But what really killed theory for me, and began to cure me more generally of my obsession with how I appeared to other people, was my love of fiction. There may be a superficial similarity between revising a piece of fiction and revising your webpage or your Facebook profile. But a page of prose doesn’t have those slick graphics to help bolster your self-image. If you’re moved to try and return the gift that other people’s fiction represents for you, you eventually can’t ignore what’s fraudulent or second-hand in your own pages. These pages are a mirror too. And if you really love fiction, you’ll find that the only pages worth keeping are the ones that reflect you as you really are.” (9:00-11:00)

“unliked” instead of “disliked” (11:08)

“My wife and I, having married too young, eventually surrendered so much of ourselves and caused each other so much pain that we each had reason to regret ever having taken the plunge. And yet I can’t quite make myself regret it. For one thing, our struggle to honor our commitment actively came to constitute who we were as people. We weren’t helium molecules floating inertly through life. We bonded and we changed. For another thing, and this may be my main message to you…..[segues into “pain hurts”]” (11:27-11:55)

“What I said earlier about how engagement with something you love compels you to face up to who you really are may apply particularly to fiction writing. But it’s true of just about any work you undertake and love. I’d like to conclude here by talking about another love of mine.” (12:34-12:49)

“And since I’d been fired up by critical theory and I was looking for things to find wrong with the world and reasons to hate the people who ran it…” (bold parts dropped, 12:59-13:05)

“…the angrier and more people hating I became…” (bold part dropped, 13:20-13:25)

“Finally, around the time my marriage was breaking up, I made a conscious decision to stop worrying about the environment” changed to “Finally, in the mid-1990s, I made a conscious decision to stop worrying…” (13:26-13:29)

“I had no choice but to start worrying about the environment again. Yeah, what a drag.” (bold part dropped, 14:38-14:40)

“Like I said, the bird thing was very unexpected to me. For most of my life, I hadn’t given much thought to animals. And maybe I was unlucky to find my way to the birds so relatively late in life. Or maybe I was lucky to find my way to them at all. Once you’re hit with a love like that, however late or early, it changes your relation to the world. In my case, for example, I’d abandoned doing journalism after a few early experience [sic] because the world of facts didn’t excite me the way the world of fiction did. But after my avian conversion experience, which has taught me to run toward my pain and anger and despair rather than away from them, I started taking on a new kind of journalistic assignment. Whatever I most hated at a particular moment became the thing I wanted to write about. I went to Washington in the summer of 2003 when the Republicans were doing things to the country that enraged me. I went to China a few years later because I was being kept awake at night by my anger about the havoc the Chinese are wreaking on the environment. I went to the Mediterranean to interview the hunters and poachers who were slaughtering migratory songbirds. In each case, when meeting the enemy, I found people who I really liked. In some cases, outright loved. Hilarious, generous, brilliant gay Republican staffers. Fearless, miraculous, young Chinese nature lovers. A gun crazy Italian legislator who had very soft eyes and who quoted the animal rights advocate Peter Singer to me. In each case, the blanket hatred that had come so easily to me wasn’t so easy anymore. (15:59-17:26)

(Photo credit: Daniel Sillman)

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Review: Puzzle (2009)

Narratives featuring older women are in short supply these days. But writer-director Natalia Smirnoff’s marvelous debut, Puzzle, arrived this weekend to cure this needless deficit.

Puzzle introduces us to Maria, subtly underplayed by Maria Onetto, a suburban housewife. The film’s first shots are handheld, following Maria as she serves canapés and cooks and cleans up at a party. We learn that this is her own party, and that this is the manner in which she is celebrating her fiftieth birthday. I know that, if you are an Englishman, it is customary to buy everybody drinks. I have no idea if this practice has escalated further in Argentina, whereby not a single soul thinks to help the birthday girl out. But the failure of Maria’s husband and her children to chip in for such a once-in-a-lifetime occasion suggests very highly that there’s a problematic power balance in her marriage. Thanks in large part to Onetto’s incredible performance, which telegraphs Maria’s complexities even in the way she walks, it would be wrong to characterize Maria as completely meek. There is clearly an intelligence within her as she listens to one son attempt to embrace veganism. Yet it’s also clear that she’s chosen a life in response to her husband, an entrepreneur who runs a small business but who expects Maria to remember to replenish his favorite cheese (rather than going to the store and getting the groceries himself). The reason she’s stuck with her husband so long may be temperament. It may be that she simply hasn’t found the right angle in life.

Then Maria opens a present. It’s a jigsaw puzzle. With the family away, she starts putting the puzzle together. And the look in her eyes as she’s doing this (accompanied by musical thumps suggesting, quite deliberately, a quasi-Egyptian tone) suggests that this is one thing she’s very good at and that makes her very happy.

As someone who listens a good deal and observes much and remains frustrated by the failure of film (and books) to capture such quiet and magical moments occurring so very often in life, I can’t possibly tell you how rare and wonderful it was to see a filmmaker like Smirnoff surprise us like this. Like many of the game critics cracking vodka jokes (because, hey, nobody knew who Smirnoff was and the notes were nebulous), I had expected some goofy movie about jigsaw puzzles. But what I discovered was a deeply poignant movie about what it is to stick at some idiosyncratic interest that everybody tells you is wrong.

Maria wants more puzzles. “What’s the point of this?” asks her husband. “I like it,” responds Maria. Shouldn’t this be enough? When Maria’s husband denies her a new puzzle when they are out shopping, the moment is truly heartbreaking — especially because we know that her family doesn’t appreciate the nuances of her cooking. But when Maria finds a store that specializes in nothing but puzzles, the look of bliss on her face just killed me. Especially when she sees a 20,000 piece puzzle. One might argue that Maria is committing a form of adultery with her puzzles (and, as we see very subtly later, there is a sexual charge Maria gets from these puzzles). As she constructs more puzzles, she has to hide the puzzle-in-progress on a board underneath the couch. But surely Maria’s husband (who so upset me that, even in writing this quick essay, I cannot compel myself to name him) can spare a few minutes to encourage her hobby in late bloom.

But Maria is undaunted. She answers an ad reading “Seeking Companion for Puzzle.” But the way she answers it is complicated. For the man on the other end has an email address. And she has never touched a computer. Is it Smirnoff’s suggestion that giving into a quirky passion like puzzles is almost a pre-Internet idea that we can no longer talk about? Or is this a smart dramatic device that communicates just how much Maria has not been allowed to learn during her marriage? Whatever the case, the scene in which Maria is patiently trying to comprehend email as another woman tries to help her is expressed as a valiant struggle to move forward. Maria may be slow and quiet, but her passion will find fruition.

I’ve suggested that this film plays like a low-key version of Madame Bovary, with a sexual tension contained within Maria’s pursuit of the puzzle. What’s admirable about Smirnoff’s direction is the way she broaches this issue without pushing it too fast to the surface. The man that Maria meets, who does indeed want to take Maria to a puzzle championship in Germany, does make more than a few passes at her. But for Maria, it is the puzzle interest first and foremost that she’s lying to her family about. And when they do not entirely respect this singular pursuit, Maria’s decisions become more justifiable. In a late moment in the film, she orders the family to help her clean out a spare room. Again, it does seem the least that they can do. And in this act of cleaning, the family begins to dance in a rather spontaneous way after finding an item. So Smirnoff’s optimistic suggestion is that the fun moments in life often happen when you help those who are closest to you with their interests, however crazy or ordinary they may seem. The incurious counterpoint is a relationship founded on another person’s will.

Like any art investigating a subculture (and there’s certainly one here, complete with specific puzzle building techniques and some modest intensity), Puzzle reveals that there’s more to the ordinary if you know where to look and if you stick it out. As someone who has seen many of his friends and acquaintances sacrifice their voices and their spirits for crass materialistic gain, I’m grateful to this film for demonstrating that it’s never too late for anyone.

franzendfw

Solipsism is for Cowards. Go for Full-Fledged Hubris.

A couple of weeks ago, I replaced my 51-year-old Ego with a much more powerful Post-Dave Died of Boredom Hubris. Needless to say, I was impressed with how far my haughtiness had advanced in three years. But it wasn’t enough to have been on the cover of Time Magazine. Because I had been wrongfully denied every major award (Pulitzer, National Book Award, NBCC) for my latest novel, it became necessarily to diminish my friend’s vastly superior talent by writing a self-serving essay about him in The New Yorker and by delivering a commencement speech here at Kenyon — the very same locale that my friend had delivered a poignant and deeply humanist speech six years earlier.

I was infatuated with my new device. My Hubris was so big that I knew I wouldn’t die from boredom. I could undermine anyone I wanted — the women whose love for writing (and reading) I had destroyed; my troubled writer friend who had committed suicide; even the very audience I speak before now. After all, you’ll believe just about everything I have to say without question. Yet like Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men, you all make me want to be young and miserable again. I’d been similarly infatuated with the old device, of course. I’d authored a volume of essays called How to Be Alone, in which I wrote, without irony, “What I really want from a sidewalk is that people see me and let themselves be seen, but even this modest ideal is thwarted by cell-phone users and their unwelcome privacy. They say things like, ‘Should we have couscous with that?’ and ‘I’m on my way to Blockbuster.'” The nerve of these troglodytes! Why didn’t they look up from their cell phones and bask in my Franzenness? Toward the end of its run, I had some doubts about my Ego’s efficacy (and that’s Ego, not Egan; if I catch you with a copy of A Visit from the Goon Squad in your hands, I will write a 3,000 word essay about how much I despise you), until I’d finally had to admit that I’d outgrown the relationship. I now required levels of pomposity and navel gazing that rivaled the size of a massive continent on an undiscovered planet, but that general readers might interpret as meaningful.

Do I need to point out that my relationship with humanity was entirely one-sided? That I don’t really give a flying fuck about whether anything I say may be wrong or misguided or inconsiderate or socially clueless or needlessly reductionist (especially since I’m essentially cannibalizing the best bits from Dave’s 2005 speech)? Let me point it out anyway.

Let me further point out how the word “sexy” is almost never used to describe late-model Franzen androids; and how the extremely selfish things that we can do now with these gadgets — like impelling people to believe that superficial speeches such as this one possess profound insight into The Way We Live (the way I had once looked to Paula Fox’s fiction as how-to manuals) — would have looked to everyday people like the actions of a self-serving and inconsiderate asshole finding himself at the opposing end of a fist were he to say such words and pull such shit in a bar.

Let me toss out the idea that I would not be here, and I would not have sold as many books as I have, were it not for the very vagaries of the media system and the markets I detest. But I will condemn these anyway, even though an adorable video of a cat mother hugging her baby — “liked” by more than 100,000 people in a mere two days — willfully demonstrates that people are willing to feel something online outside the capitalist nexus.

It may seem a bit hypocritical and short-sighted for me to suggest, finally, that the world of techno-consumerism is therefore troubled by real love. But I saw this movie Catfish the other night and needed to cleanse myself the next morning with a hearty dose of birdwatching, a hobby I valued above all else because it attracted so many people with Asperger’s and everyone had the decency not to talk. Anwway, techno-consumerism represents everything I loathe about the Internet, and I feel far too comfortable cleaving to my inflexibly prejudicial perceptions to change my mind.

You can all supply your own favorite, most nauseating examples of the commodification of love. But I won’t listen to them. Because the only thing I care about are my examples.

I will also complain about Facebook, despite the fact that if you wanted to read my last New Yorker essay you were forced to become “a fan” of The New Yorker. Perhaps my limitless enmity for Facebook has something to do with this. But I shall not be transparent with you. It is clear that you did not love The New Yorker or me. You heard that this piece was making the rounds, became a fan because it was the only option outside of rightfully coughing up the subscription or newsstand money, and I learned later that some of you hated it. I now declare you all soulless consumer scum.

The big risk here, of course, is rejection. We can handle being disliked now and then, because there’s such an infinitely great number of people who will buy our books. Even some of the happy little people who watch Oprah and who I now can’t slander because I decided to appear on her show and because I enjoy taking the money. The prospect of pain is generally compensated by that of financial gain. It’s best to avoid a serious consideration of these morally conflicted issues (I am, after all, a passive aggressive) and seek out illusory targets. Besides, don’t false dichotomies go over well before a college crowd?

When I was in college, I was angry and I remained angry. But then a funny thing happened. Somebody told me that people wouldn’t listen to me if I was angry. So I pretended not to be angry and strive now to be thoughtful, even though thinking about my speech for about five minutes will reveal the sad deficiencies under the hood. And here’s where a curious paradox emerged. My anger and pain and fear only increased when I discovered wild birds. I learned to pretend that I didn’t feel this way about people. I fooled myself into thinking that people only relate to each other in terms of competition, even though I’m telling you from the dais that it’s all about love. And it became easier to live with my anger and pain and fear because I shifted the burden to lower life forms rather than live with feeble souls who talked on their cell phones on the sidewalk. I am Jonathan Franzen. I shouldn’t have to live with anybody other than an extremely limited set fulfilling my ridiculous and entirely unreasonable criteria for Being a Good Human. On this point, I am worse than Woody Allen.

When you stay in your room in the Upper East Side, as I did for many years, you eventually write speeches such as this one. And when you put yourself in front of real people, there’s a very real danger that you think you know what you’re talking about.

And who knows what might happen to you then?

P.S. Please buy my books. And whatever you do, don’t click the “Like” button below this adaptation from a commencement speech. It is important to understand that some actions are consumerist and cowardly, and some are not when they benefit me.

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BEA 2011: Seven Years of Google Books

Seven Years of Google Books: The Next Chapter
Presenter: James Crawford, Engineering Director, Google Books

On Thursday morning, a crowd of forty, sprouting into about seventy as the aspirin and hangover cures kicked in, listened to a engineer with a Spartan mien. Like many crunchers from Mountain View, James Crawford had the warmth and physique of an Eames lounge chair. He liked to explain things. He was confident he knew all the answers. He did, after all, work at Google.

“Google’s mission was and continues to be to organize information and make it accessible,” said Crawford early in his run. There were many sentences phrased like that. Had I known Crawford was going to speak like this, I would never have imbibed so much gratis scotch the night before.

The sense I got was that Crawford had delivered this speech many times. He ran down the stats. More than 15 million books had been scanned. That’s over 5 billion pages and 2 trillion words in 478 languages (including three books in Klingon, 82 titles in Kalaallisut, and none in Kutenal), with the earliest going back to 1473. Library partners include Stanford and the University of Michigan.

“For a lot of these books, we can simply chop off the spine and scan the pages.” For a moment, I feared that Crawford was some digital Robespierre who had recently discovered the guillotine. But I was reassured when Crawford pointed out that Google was “required to scan nondestructively.” Thank goodness for libraries and their preservation policies. To accomplish this scanning, Google holds the books down with cradles. The images are then put “through fairly sophisticated series of image algorithms,” with the curve of the pages flattened through software. Every word on the page is indexed. There is also a system of ranking algorithms to ensure, for example, that the right Hamlet rises to the top.

Crawford pointed out a “cluster problem” with the metadata. If you go to the Library of Congress, The Fellowship of the Ring (listed this way in Books in Print) will be listed as “Lord of the Rings, Vol. 1.” And J.R.R. Tolkien will be listed as “John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.”

But the biggest problem was, by far, digital rights. There are three million books in the public domain: those published before 1928. “So they’re not exactly the latest and greatest pageturners,” said Crawford, who revealed himself with such statements to be more interested in digitizing books rather than reading them. Less than a million books have clear ownership. Two and a half million books are available though partnership programs with publishers. “And then there’s all the rest in the middle: out of print but under copyright.”

The Google eBookstore, launched in December, aims to fix some of these problems. “We view the ebook as a thing you purchased,” said Crawford. “Once you’ve bought it, we feel you should read it on any device.” But what about the device known as the printed book? Crawford didn’t mention this. He was on a roll.

“We have the only really serious web reader in the business,” boasted Crawford. And it suddenly occurred to me that Crawford was referring to these Google tools as “an ebook ecosystem.” This seemed a bit Napoleonic to me, almost like insisting that one automobile plant was singlehandedly responsible for the car industry.

Crawford also brought up Google Cloud Sync, which collected a surprising amount of personal information. “We have in the cloud both the content of the book and we store the databases of what people have bought and what pages you are reading on.” In other words, if you shop at Google, they know all the books that you’ve bought. Crawford didn’t specify the degree to which this information is shared to other vendors. But he did point out that retailers had much of this intel at their disposal.

I was also troubled by Google’s tendency to dictate to the market what it wanted. “We want to help the independent bookstores do well in the digital age and not be hurt by digital.” Now I happen to share Google’s view that bringing in independent bookstores into its eBookstore is one method of preserving independent business. On the other hand, why should Google decide what’s right? Isn’t that the job of the FTC or an antitrust legislator? And what’s not to suggest that the Google eBookstore could prove harmful towards independent bookstores? On Tuesday, Tom Turvey — another Google Books representative — had said that he had “some of his best engineers working” on the experience of replicating a bookstore. Google may say that they are trying to help the indies now. But what’s to stop them from changing their policy if the books market shifts direction? This affiliate program for this is presently invitation only, but there are plans to open it up.

Crawford also revealed how libraries, faced with limited budgets, had relied on Google’s viewer for electronic versions of books. “They can take our viewer and put it on their website.” I don’t think it occurred to many in the crowd that commingling public and private resources may not necessarily be the most ethical solution. Wasn’t it vaguely predatory? Such questions had led the European Union to develop Europeana.

Crawford pointed out that many books published in the 16th and the 17th century were now available through Google in full color. But I was dubious when he said, “You can see them as if you’re the librarian.” Until we are able to touch these tomes, this statement will never be true. When Crawford brought up L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, observing “there are all these chapters that didn’t make it into the movie,” it was evident that he was on boilerplate and had not tailored his speech too much for the publishing crowd.

Google had recently signed an agreement with Hachette to work together on out-of-print titles in France. This would be the model for further uplift contracts. Google had also been experimenting with maps for books. Crawford brought up this interactive map for Around the World in Eighty Days. Google Books has also been used to chart how irregular verbs turn regular over time (e.g., “spoilt” transforming into “spoiled”) and, of course, the infamous Ngram Viewer, in which you can (for example) compare “The United States is” against “The United States are” over the course of time. But Crawford was disingenuous when he suggested that the dropoff of books referencing the start of a decade (as seen through the Ngram viewer) demonstrated “scientifically” that memories are getting shorter. Before making such a statement, one must account for the number of books published over the years, the speed of life in 1900 vs. the speed of life in subsequent decades, and any number of independent variables. Unfortunately, that kind of rigorous consideration isn’t always compatible with a slick Powerpoint presentation that must be delivered in nanoseconds.

Crawford also had a rather naive faith in international titles. One of his slides championed how “cross-boarder [sic] sales increased access to content,” but didn’t account for the territorial restrictions that Andrew Savikas and Evan Schnittman duked it out over on Tuesday. “As long as the publisher has worldwide rights,” said Crawford, “they should be able to move around the world.” Right. As long as I wake up tomorrow with wings on my back, I’ll be able to fly. In other words, that qualifier was a big if. If this was the type of vision that Google Books was promulgating, I wondered if Crawford’s work was clunkier and less state of the art than he realized.

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BEA 2011: Deadbeat Dorchester Coughs Up Funds for Booth, Won’t Provide Answers

Dorchester Publishing, a company whose track record is so scandalous (refusing to pay authors after years, refusing to abide by contracts, selling ebook titles it doesn’t have the rights to) that it has inspired a boycott, was spotted with a booth at BookExpo America. (See picture above. Booth #4549.)

Many publishing insiders I talked with were surprised that Dorchester had the guts to show up, but expressed a reluctance to confront them on the floor for their negligence — largely because the company, demonstrating its commitment to cowardice, was hiding behind young assistants who were hawking their products. It reminded me of the way very young and very inexperienced soldiers take bullets in the battlefield.

Fortunately, on Thursday morning, I spotted an older woman.

“Who’s in charge here?” I said.

Hannah Wolfson, Marketing and Promotions Coordinator for Dorchester, identified herself and demonstrated the extremely limited nature of her vocabulary.

Why hasn’t Dorchester paid its authors, some of whom have been waiting for years?

“No comment.”

How did you cough up the several thousands of dollars for this booth when that money could have gone to paying off an author? (According to BookExpo America, the bare minimum booth size (100 square feet) costs $3,960.)

“No comment.”

Do you have any comment beyond “no comment”?

Silence.

Okay, how about this? Do you believe Dorchester to be a deadbeat?

“No.”

No elaboration.

I was then told told that Dorchester is maintaining its commitment to paying its authors. I was given no specifics on how this commitment would be upheld.

What about your vendor LibreDigital? You can’t pay them. So they won’t remove ebook titles that Dorchester doesn’t own? (Because authors are struggling, it’s difficult for them to mobilize on the class action front and uphold their rights.)

“No comment.”

“You’re not going to get much beyond ‘no comment,'” said one of the young assistants.

Wolfson than claimed that Robert Anthony, the Dorchester CEO, would be there “this afternoon.”

What time?

“He’ll be here this afternoon.”

As of early Thursday afternoon (with only two more hours to go), Mr. Anthony has not been seen on the Jacob Javits floor. So it looks like Dorchester’s team are liars as well as deadbeats. When a CEO and his minions lack the guts to offer direct answers to vital questions, chances are that they aren’t part of a serious business.

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BEA 2011: Interview with Book Country’s Colleen Lindsay

Correspondent: Okay, so I am here with Colleen Lindsay, who has something called Book Country. Which may in fact be a realm or may be something else. Why don’t you tell us about it?

Colleen Lindsay: Let’s see. Book Country is an online writers workshop for writers of genre fiction. Specifically science fiction, fantasy, romance, and thriller.

Correspondent: Well, what can it possibly do for writers and editors and fanboys?

Lindsay: Oooo, fanboys. Fanboys probably will not find a date on Book Country. But they can post their writing on there. What Book Country is for – it’s a safe place for writers to upload portions of their manuscript. Any kind of fiction that they’re writing, as long as it falls into one of our genres. So they can upload flash fiction, short fiction, novellas, short stories, partial chapters, full chapters, full manuscripts. And they can get feedback from their peers. So they’re going to get peer reviewed by other writers. There are industry professionals on there. Agents and editors. Some of them who are there under their own names. Some of whom are incognito. Because they’re also there as writers. And we’re forming a cool little community up there where we’re getting really supportive and constructive feedback.

Correspondent: Well, let me ask you something. Why is the feedback for Book Country better than an MFA workshop or a serious editor who’s going to devote her time really looking over a manuscript? What are the advantages here? Why would someone do this?

Lindsay: It costs zero dollars. (laughs)

Correspondent: Aha! So because you’re willing to give it away, it’s somehow better? You’re going for the free/cheap/discount culture approach?

Lindsay: What we’re hoping to do here is – this is for people who maybe don’t live as close to a metropolitan community as some other writers. If you live in a major metropolitan area, it’s really easy to find a writers community or writers groups. Critique groups, classees, writers conferences. But sometimes if you live out in the middle of nowhere – in the middle of Ohio, in the middle of Dakota – you don’t have access to all of these things. And it would be nice to find a place online where you could get feedback, build community, get support, and hopefully learn to be a better writer. One of the things that we are offering on here – Danielle and I both have many, many years of publishing experience. And we’re on there. We’re hands on all the time. We’re reading things. We’re answering questions in the discussions board. We’re having some published writers in there who are also giving feedback. So they’ve been very helpful. And we see it as a way for some published writers to pay it forward. So that’s one thing that we’re hoping some writers will use. We’re hoping it will be useful for people out in the middle of nowhere.

Correspondent: What makes Book Country different from what Richard Nash is doing with Red Lemonade? Have you actually been in contact with him? Because he also has a community online where people can put their manscripts up and critique them as well. It seems to me that there’s a strange schism because you’re going more genre and Richard Nash is going more literary. Have you considered some sort of collaboration? Have you talked with each other? Have you considered working with each other?

Lindsay: We’ve actually been in contact with Richard and with other communities like figment.com and Wattpad. I think that there’s room for a lot of these different communities. I think that what Richard is doing is, as you said, very different. We are focused on genre fiction, which is not his forte. Although he does have a good track record with some speculative fiction. I think he’s really gearing towards the literary writer, which is something that we don’t have on our site. Also the feedback is a little bit different. With Richard’s site, you can actually go into a manuscript and annotate it by leaving comments. So it’s a different kind of commenting system. Not better, not worse. Just different. Actually, his annotation system on Red Lemonade is really cool. I love playing with it. On our site, it’s more people upload a chapter, you give critique on a particular chapter. You give critiques based on overall feedback. And then the writer who uploads gets to pick two different criteria that they feel they need the most help with. So we give them different criteria to choose from: POV, plot, dialogue, pacing, character development, continuity, setting. And the writer can say, “Well, my character development isn’t great. I can use some help with that.” So they can ask for specific areas of feedback. One thing I wanted to say. I think there’s room for writers to belong to more than one of these communities. Because I think that it’s always good to build more community. And it can’t hurt to get different feedback than the feedback that you’re getting.

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BEA 2011 — Michael Moore

A somewhat trashed Michael Moore arrived ten minutes late for his Wednesday morning “signature event” (“a unique new opportunity here,” according to the man who introduced him, who also declared that Moore “forces us to react”) at BookExpo America. Moore, dressed in a red baseball cap and green cargo shorts, began his presentation by offering tepid yet crowd-pleasing quips about the Republicans cutting the Veterans Administration, eliminating traffic lights, and getting rid of kittens.

“Enough picking on them,” said Moore. “They’ve got a rough road ahead of them.” He then continued with a lot of football metaphors for the audience, which didn’t really look like sports enthusiasts. “I was saying last night, you know, they caught this great pass back in November and they started running in the opposite direction back on the football field away from their goal!”

It appeared that Moore didn’t quite understand the type of audience that comes to BEA.

“I assume most of you work in bookstores?” uptalked Moore. “The librarians are here?” When a handful of teachers responded to his Catskills act, he replied, “Some teachers? Oh great. Of course teachers are to blame for everything. All the money that they’re taking from us.”

Then having secured a low-key audience, Moore announced his new book, Here Comes Trouble: Stories From My Life, due out in September. The book, a collection of two dozen short stories (“but they’re all nonfiction”), chronicles Moore’s life before Roger & Me.

“There’s a short story about getting lost inside the Capitol building at eleven years old,” said Moore. “I didn’t see the sign that said SENATORS ONLY.” A man reading a newspaper — who turned out to be Robert Kennedy — helped Moore find his parents that day.

Another story involves Moore asking his parents if he could leave home at fourteen. “I said I wanted to be a priest. So I went to the seminary at fourteen years old.” Moore explained that the story allowed him to investigate his Catholicism.

“There’s a whole bunch of things like that,” said Moore. “I found myself present at a terrorist incident in the 1980s.” That incident allowed Moore to “write about what it’s like to actually be present at one of those terrorist incidents and live.”

The book, continued Moore with his masterful aw-shucks put on, “explains how I got to be where I got.” Yet he never explained how any of his stories, which also concern how he hired many ex-Navy SEALS for his security detail, would be of value to someone who was unemployed or trying to pay off a subprime loan. Moore reported that the stories were “interesting and wild. Some are funny and not so funny.”

Moore than read an excerpt from his book (and most of his presentation time was devoted to this). The excerpt recreated his infamous night at the 2003 Academy Awards. “It’s weird,” said Moore in the middle of reading. “It’s the first time I’ve read those words out loud since that night.”

Moore’s excerpt revealed that Moore was convinced that he had let everybody down. “I ruined their night and I suddenly sunk into a pit of despair,” read Moore. But there was more than a hint of self-aggrandizement in his excerpt. “People stepped away from me for fear that their picture would be taken.” This correspondent had to wonder if other people considered Moore to be as important as he clearly thought himself to be. Moore noted that film studio executive Sherry Lansing came up to him and said, “It hurts now. Someday you’ll be right. I’m so proud of you.” Moore’s excerpt revealed that he “believed they were right. I got to listen to more boos over the next 24 hours. Going through the hotel. Walking through the airport.”

But Moore’s excerpt was disingenuous. Because he failed to observe that when you say something outrageous and/or contrarian before a large crowd, they’re not exactly going to welcome you in open arms. When he returned home from the Oscars ceremony, he saw signs tacked up on his property.

“It was time to call in the Navy SEALS,” Moore read with typical subtlety. Moore explained that he had hired a security group composed of former SEALS, that he had been assaulted and people had tried to assault him, and that one person had tried to blow up his house. “The SEALS basically saved me and kept me alive.”

Kept Moore alive? Moore has certainly said and filmed many brave and provocative moments in his career. But I wasn’t quite sold on his pity act. Perhaps there’s an additional moment in his forthcoming book in which he comes to terms with the fact that he’s a loudmouth. But that pivotal introspection and unapologetic acceptance of his nature seemed to be missing.

This discrepancy proved especially troubling when Moore painted two of his enemies as obsequious types seeking an apology. One guy who called him a “shithead” allegedly recanted. “I told him that we had more in common than not. Eventually I got a smile from him.” Another man working the boom mike on The Tonight Show approached Moore shortly after his guest appearance. He had apparently yelled “Asshole” at the Oscars. According to Moore, this man had tears in his eyes and said, “I never thought I’d see you again. I can’t believe I’d get the chance to apologize to you.” “You did nothing wrong,” replied Moore. “You believed your President. You’re supposed to believe your President. If we can’t expect that as the minimum in office, then we’re doomed.”

To turn Moore’s logic around, if we can’t expect the filmmaker to consider that there may be problems with his approach and that not all of humanity will bow in sycophantic deference, then perhaps his book project is a doomed prospect for anybody who disagrees with his politics or his methods.

When he finished reading, there was a loud applause.

“That was really cool,” said Moore. “I got to do this for the first time.” Moore didn’t thank the crowd.

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BEA 2011: The Future of Ebooks Publishing Executive Panel

The Future of eBooks Publishing Executive Panel

Participants: Tom Turvey (Google Books – moderator), Andrew Savikas (O’Reilly/Safari Books Online), Evan Schnittman (Bloomsbury), Amanda Close (Random House), and David Steinberger (Perseus)

If you were an industry type giving a half goddam about the future of publishing on a late Tuesday afternoon in New York, you had two venues at BEA to deposit your worries. If you were a squeaky kidult wishing to rah rah rah rather than stare into hard reality, there was the 7x20x21 series of self-congrulatory dispatches competing with the floor’s mad transactional noise. But if you were an adult and if you understood why the maxim “follow the money” is not one to blithely ignore, then you headed downstairs into a spacious room, where corporate executives discussed the future of ebooks.

It was a packed house attracting no specific type. Italians chatted behind me. There were guys in the back finding ideal standing positions to make a quick escape if the panel went bust. But nearly every seat was filled through the end. I suppose that when you promise an audience some glimpse of the future, it’s a guaranteed draw. Except for the young people too busy with the collective adulation upstairs.

“The book business is a very long tail business,” began moderator Tom Turvey. I knew he was with Google even before he even said “long tail.” For not more than a minute before heading to the lectern, he checked his phone: one final hit from the electronic communications crack pipe.

As one of the Google People, Turvey had the nerdy nihilism you’d expect from a director of strategic partnerships. He was careful not to express too much enthusiasm, but he did seem to relish the idea of print being as dead as the gramophone, especially midway through the discussion when he asked three of the panelists (excluding Amanda Close) if the agency model was a feature or a bug. “Personally I think it’s a bug, not a feature,” replied O’Reilly’s Andrew Savikas. “It was a moment in time,” replied Bloomsbury’s Evan Schnittman. Perseus’s David Steinberger was the most practical of the four: “I would just say it’s too early. I think we’re overexcited about this issue.”

But Steinberger’s wise response didn’t stop Turvey from pushing further on the topic. Indeed, there is little doubt in my mind that the man spends many evenings in hotel rooms wiping the gushing drool from his chin after marinating his mind in some Bradbury-like vision of a world without books. (When asked by an audience member if Google was working on replicating the experience of a bookstore, Turvey replied, “We have some of our best engineers working on this very topic.” Never mind that the panel demonstrated that ebooks have created problems for consumers that these five corporate titans didn’t really wish to address.)

“Publishing does not know how to market ebooks yet,” said Schnittman. “You’re looking at bestsellers tracking with bestsellers. Everything that we’re marketing in the stores is selling just as well.” I became skeptical of Schnittman when he started clenching his left hand, a gesture reminding me of some dodgy villain from a melodrama. Schnittman liked to talk quite a bit.

“Let’s be honest with ourselves,” continued Schnittman. “We’ve never marketed backlist before.”

These rather assumptive generalizations had me wondering if Schnittman had ever settled his precious hands onto the raw joys of genre or contemplated the way in which an author winning an award often results in backlist titles being repackaged. And what about presses like the University of Chicago Press, finding new life for Anthony Powell and Richard Stark?

“The big challenge that we’re all facing is the digital world,” said David Steinberger. Steinberger was more interested in the way in which consumers discovered books. “Digital is very good for hunters and not so for gatherers.” These were metaphors that a male computer geek could understand, but when he presented specific data about the bottom 50% of Perseus’s titles earning 2% of the print revenue and 12% of the ebook revenue, these statistics helped steer the conversation away from Turvey’s regrettable Gladwellian terminology.

“Those books are not easily found in the physical world,” continued Steinberger. He brought up Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, which had very poor distribution, but managed to nab 62% in ebook revenue. The same went for Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. Not a sexy title for the Grisham crowd, but the book managed to secure 60% in ebook revenue. “I think you are seeing a lift in the tail,” said Steinberger. “If you’re publishing John Grisham or Tom Clancy, you have another set of rules.”

Random House’s Amanda Close didn’t close the deal upon her turn at the mike. Overly general in her answers and needlessly self-congratulatory in tone (though not haughty like Schnittman, of which more anon), Close wallowed in general corporatese. “I would argue that it’s early days in retail and that we are working with our partners every day to collaboratively work on that browsing experience. That discoverability is really coming through online to replace certain things.” But if Close admitted her desire to argue, it was all for naught. For she brought no argument to the table. “Things in the physical world can reiterate things in the digital world.” You can probably say this about getting lucky after a long dry spell downloading porn. “Our challenge is to deeply understand the dynamics of the marketplace.” Close’s challenge was to deeply understand that a panel of this ilk requires something a bit more than reductionist statements. From the perspective of this observer, she failed. It didn’t help that she smiled brightly and nodded her head after spouting off some of this malarkey.

“Digital distribution is extremely efficient at meeting demand,” offered Andrew Savikas. Yet he also conceded that much of the demand is due to consumers discovering the books. He was right to note the “popularity within the store which generates the feedback loop,” but he wasn’t willing to distinguish the differences between discoverability in a physical bookstore (accompanied by a skilled bookseller) and an e-bookstore. Perhaps it was because he preferred to hawk Safari Books, which has “both lengthened and fattened the tail.”

“While I do expect there to continue to be perhaps a need for the biggest players to focus on those hot titles,” continued Savikas, “I think this ecosystem offers an opportunity for smaller players to find a niche.”

But who are these smaller players? Safari Books? Authors who self-publish at the Kindle Store? Much as yesterday’s panel failed to establish terms, I kept wondering why a thoughtful if somewhat long-winded guy like Savikas couldn’t espouse the pragmatism offered by Steinberger. Savikas was holistic enough to consider Netflix’s current domination of bandwidth, but does this even apply to books, which are an entirely different medium requiring an entirely different commitment?

“I think everybody starts seeing the phenomenon where something hits the list and it becomes self-perpetuating, you know?” responded Close on a question relating to bestseller lists. “I actually look forward to the retail experience evolving so that we can see some segmentation.”

But how can you have an evolving retail experience when there’s a reluctance to experiment? Turvey questioned Close minutes later when he asked her, quite fairly, if Random House’s organizational attitude had changed in light of the fact that more self-published authors had entered the ebook arena.

“Um, you know the way I would actually answer that is we are always testing things with our new authors.” But how? “It’s not a phenomenon that has been driven by the self-publishing platform.” I’m guessing that Amanda Hocking would disagree with this.

Steinberger brought up Go the Fuck to Sleep as an example of online conversation translating into sales. He then quoted The Cluetrain Manifesto: “A market is not me telling you something. A market is a conversation.” But while it’s undeniable that some conversation has started with Go the Fuck to Sleep, nobody on the panel wanted to admit that this was a bit of a fluke. But it did cause Schnittman to reveal more than a bit of resentment towards the consumer.

“Consumers need help,” he said. “We throw at them how many thousands of books?” He then hunched forward. “What matters is there’s an authority. It’s the free market, baby.”

When Turvey asked why all the book recommendation engines sucked, he allowed Schnittman to fall into his Socratic trap. (The unvoiced assumption: what is a bookseller but the ultimate book recommendation engine?)

“I think people do use it,” huffed Schnittman, when Turvey brought up the failed Genius feature in iTunes. “You use it with a caveat that it sucks.”

Then he got a little defensive. “You in the world of algorithms, you’ll figure out something theoretically better and better.” He then suggested that “the tail was wagging the dog,” before attempting to retract this because he had “used it yesterday. Nobody quote me on that one.”

I kept wondering why this apparent professional was more concerned with l’esprit de l’escalier rather than legitimate ideas. But at least he wasn’t as bad as Close, who again declared her willingness to argue in lieu of a legitimate argument: “I would argue we have always cared deeply about our consumers.” But for Close, that care has more to do with “buzz meters” and point-of-sale data.

Schnitmann got very riled up about territorial sales, which has presented many ebook customers from accessing certain titles. “Where we see the Internet as a world that doesn’t respect any borders, we’ve actually set up the system to present consumes to buy.”

This caused Savikas to question the wisdom of such an approach: “The notion that we can or should enforce geographic restrictions on web-generated content is a lost cause. And I feel sorry for your customers.”

“I don’t have the rights to them though!” whimpered Schnittman.

“I don’t believe territorial restrictions make sense in relation to content.”

Savikas elaborated on this, believing that electronic sales would eventually become the primary way of doing business and that territorial restrictions don’t reflect the fabric of the Web. Schnittman countered, with more Palpatine-like hand cluthing gestures, by suggesting that “different economies have different needs.” Savikas replied, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong in adjusting the pricing geographically.”

Territorial copyright is certainly an issue. But when a woman approached the mike and declared herself a “frustrated customer,” explaining quite pasionately to Schnittman, “I don’t think that you’re respecting the consumer at all,” it became clear that the panel didn’t want to discuss the real issue: the customer is always right. “Do you have a question?” sneered Turvey from the podium. “Why don’t you think more about the consumer?” said the woman, not missing a beat.

Schnittman did not offer an answer. Nor did any of the other four. And their silence spoke volumes about their collective comprehension of business-customer relations.

tayarijones

The Bat Segundo Show: Tayari Jones II

Tayari Jones appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #395. She is most recently the author of Silver Sparrow. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #99.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Resisting the creative death knell kickstarted by marketing forces.

Author: Tayari Jones

Subjects Discussed: The limitless stories contained within any one city, writing about Atlanta, not living in a place you’re writing about, unanticipated shifts in character perspective midway through a massive project, numerous tips from Ron Carlson, tapping out a voice, writing a last chapter from every character, the origins of Raleigh, Hemingway’s iceberg theory, inventing an extended family and ambiguity, the two types of writers, working things out on the page, finding the story from a large bundle of pages, James’s stammering, being attracted to characters who are autonomous entrepreneurs, American fiction’s failings in depicting work, bigamists, how fathers are evaluated, whether bigamy is a pack of lies, taking lines from ridiculous ex-boyfriends, perspectives guided by time and situation, [12]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I also wanted to ask you about James’s stuttering. This was a very interesting character quality. Because here’s a man who has two wives and it seems almost as if he’s stuttering wives. And so I’m curious about when the stuttering entered into the equation of his character. Was it there all along? Or did it come as you were writing the dialogue?

Jones: James always had a stammer. I knew that I didn’t want him to be like a smooth operator. Two wives, two kids. I wanted him to be kind of an awkward person and, in a way, with his two wives an embarrassment of riches. He can’t believe he had one wife. Now he has two wives. So his stammer just came as this kind of awkwardness for him. I don’t remember coming up with it. It’s always been a part of him. I mean, one of the things that came later for him was his profession as a driver. And that came later. He needed something to do. And he needed something to do that would allow him to have these two wives. And I was thinking, “Oh, he’s a driver.” And I liked the idea of him being an entrepreneur. I think I’m attracted in stories — because I have one in Leaving Atlanta — of these men who are their own bosses. They’re not rich. But they’re their own bosses. This kind of autonomous man.

Correspondent: The self-made man. Exactly.

Jones: And they get written up in their local paper in small articles. Like they have lives to be proud of. But they’re not rich. And I like my characters to work. I like my characters to have jobs. I hate the way that in so much of American fiction you have no idea how these people are supporting themselves. Every person in this story has a job.

Correspondent: Or worse yet, you have the protagonist as a writer or an artist or some sort of stand-in for the actual writer who’s writing.

Jones: Or you give them some crazy inheritance.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Jones: So that the story can happen. You need your character to take a nine year trip. But you have to give them an inheritance to take the trip. Which makes them in a different class. I think that real stories happen as people work. I know my life is happening. And I work every day. So I like to write characters as well.

Correspondent: This also leads me to ask. Did you contact any bigamists? Whether past or present practitioners?

Jones: No, no. I don’t know any bigamists. But you know, the thing about people having these half-siblings who share a father, I know a lot of people who have called them silver sparrows. I know a lot of silver sparrows. And I have talked to a number of them. Everywhere I go, I meet one. Since this book has not even been out, since it’s been in the world and people know it exists, I get emails from people that say, “I’m a silver sparrow. My father had another family.” And I’m interested in this idea of how do you evaluate a father. Because there are a lot of men with more than one set of children. And the different children have a different relationship. Just the other day at the Florida festival, a woman said to me that she had written on Facebook her status on Father’s Day. You know, “Happy Father’s Day to my amazing dad. La la la la.” And she saw her sister, who has the same father and a different mother. And for her status, she wrote, “I never had a father because the coward wasn’t there.” And it’s the same man. Is he a good man or not? How do you judge him? Do you judge him the way that he treats his best child? The way he behaves best? The way he behaves worst? Do you come up with an arithmetic mean? What do you do? So many people have this issue.

Correspondent: You approach bigamy from the vantage point of “This is a pack of lies.” On the other hand, what is a novelist but someone who also promulgates a pack of lies? Who is worse? A novelist or a bigamist?

Jones: I did not say that this bigamy is a pack of lies! I think I approach this bigamy as practical. He’s not lying to everybody. He’s not lying to his second wife. So it’s not a pack of lies. It’s a pack that involves lies.

The Bat Segundo Show #395: Tayari Jones II (Download MP3)

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BEA 2011: “The E-Book Era is Now”

The E-Book Era is Now: What Does It Look Like From the Consumer Perspective? And What Do We Do About It?

Participants: Kelly Gallagher, RR Bowker; Angela Bole, Book Industry Study Group

On Monday morning, approximately one hundred besuited souls assembled in a large conference room without a single distinguishing architectural feature. Like much of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, it was an ideal place to commit suicide if you were having second thoughts.

But the occasion on Monday morning was slightly cheerier. After Angela Bole, an executive director at the Book Industry Study Group announced, “Shrinkage is not an option,” leaving me to wonder whether there was some detumescent publishing commodity comparable to cold water, a man with a speaking style somewhere between a regular guy and one of those obnoxious autistic types who fly in from Mountain View and walk into a room as if they own the place prepared to discuss a “most unique” [sic] situation.

Kelly Gallagher, a vice president at R.R. Bowker, delivered a presentation called “The E-Book Era is Now.” I didn’t realize you could call a two year period an “era,” but I was curious to learn how this “looked like from the consumer perspective.” I also wondered if Harry Selfridge’s maxim was applicable in the Internet age. Was the customer right? Or were much of the players full of hot air? As it turned out, it was a little of both.

Five minutes before the panel began, I was handed a flyer announcing a study conducted by the Book Industry Study Group. Some of the cited results: print customers who have download ebooks have jumped from 5% of the total in October 2010 to almost 13% in January 2011. Fiction has dominated downloads as a whole. Free samples and low prices win customers. There are “power buyers.”

What the hell was a power buyer? Well, as our somewhat suspicious friend from RR Bowker informed us, it was a catch-all term not unlike “artificial sweetener.” You could call a power buyer (as Gallagher did) a 44-year-old woman who made $77,000 a year who sits on a beach buying predominantly fiction (mostly romance). Or you could settle for a more general idea: the power buyer as someone who purchases an e-book every week. As a Powerpoint slide later revealed, that definition wasn’t entirely right either. I was told that, in March 2011, about 18% of power buyers acquired ebooks weekly, that about 52% purchased ebooks once or twice a month, and that about 28% “rarely/sporadically buy.” I suppose that if you fall into that latter category, everybody with a portable reading device can be called a “power buyer.” So if you happen to own an e-reader, feel free to shout “I’m a power buyer!” just after the Romans nail you to the cross. Either that or someone in the Bowker office had that catchy Snap! song on repeat.

When Gallagher opened his presentation with an awkward metaphor about the blue people from Avatar, it was clear that he hadn’t quite studied the film’s imperialistic message – even if he did close with a slide suggesting a sunny if somewhat backhanded multiculturalism. But he did offer some information about the state of ebooks that was helpful for today’s digital movers and shakers.

“That’s what we call the hockey stick,” said Gallagher as he presented a line plotted by rising percentage points with a noticeable dive last month. In April 2011, ebooks had fallen to about 11% of the market. This was the first dip that ebooks had seen and the closest thing this Gallagher had to a Sledge-O-Matic. But Gallagher was careful to suggest that this had more to do with “fluctuations” of a nebulous nature.

“The e-buyer today is really moving the market,” said Gallagher. But he didn’t quite say how. He did note that “power buyers” were very dedicated to their personal devices and had largely abandoned their PCs. And the power buyer, whether a 44-year-old woman or a guy wearing nothing but his underwear in a dark room compulsively hitting a one click button, was different from the core e-textbook buyer, who is a 23-year-old male grad student (or distance learner) who was more likely to pirate than underclassmen and who purchased 17% of his textbooks in “e.” (Wild stab in the dark, but I’m guessing that Gallagher didn’t attend a lot of raves back in the day.) This textbook buyer, whoever she may be, does not have a clear sense of download. Unlike ebooks, there are certain barriers with e-textbooks — namely the fact that e-textbooks cannot compete with physical textbooks — that prevent the e-textbook from growing. It wasn’t a surprise to learn that the laptop (51%) and the desktop (20%) reflect the top shares of the e-textbook market, with dedicated devices not really fitting the bill. Students want highlighting, note taking, and searchability. But the e-textbook market isn’t giving it to them. 75% of students still want the physical textbook.

But on the trade front, Kindle is the dominant source, still growing in market share. It is estimated that Kindle reflects about 65% of the ebook market. Dedicated e-readers have replaced the PC, which was once the #1 device for the ebook market in 2009.

Gallagher presented some interesting stats on price. For both ebooks and e-textbooks, price comes in as the sixth most compelling reason (behind portability and convenience) for why people purchase them. Topping the wishlist of wants on ebooks? “Give or lend ebook after you’re one with it.” This suggests very highly that present DRM factors are not the way to win your customers. What was especially interesting about Gallagher’s presentation is that the Kindle has only just recently reached a 50% customer satisfaction rate. And the Nook hasn’t made that much of a customer satisfaction dent at all. Gallagher didn’t elaborate on whether this was the tendency for customers to complain or a closet loathing for portable readers. But as he put it, “We still haven’t delivered the ultimate experience for the consumer if they’re not operating over 50%.” (One also wonders how e-readers would stack up against smartphones. This seems like a pivotal customer satisfaction comparison to run if one is to talk about being in “the e-book era.”)

Gallagher brought up “digital fatigue” as one explanation for the poor performance of e-textbooks. “They are continually wired in their lives,” he said. “Many are indicating they just don’t want to go there with books.” On the other hand, another slide informed the audience that it was “too early to tell” about the effect that digital fatigue is having.

While some “power buyers” were still buying print books, the numbers suggested that 45% of “power buyers” were buying a decreased number of hardcovers and 50% were buying a decreased number of paperbacks. If this sounds gloomy for print acolytes, the other side of the coin is that ebooks have greatly helped to expand the total market. Gallagher didn’t have specific numbers or dollar figures on this front to offer. I presume that one will have to cough up the dough to buy his report. But near his conclusion, he did say, “We need to understand which part of the market we’re really talking about. Are we focusing on the right power buyer?” That’s a good question. But if a “power buyer” is such a plastic idea, shouldn’t the ebook industry focus on solidifying that before talking about “focus?” Especially when it comes from a guy who claimed that authors can “manage their own destiny” online. While Gallagher’s data was mostly useful, I felt at times that the audience was collectively reading a Choose Your Own Adventure novel rather than seriously considering the future of publishing.

ishtar

92nd Street Y: Elaine May and Ishtar

On Tuesday night, the 79-year-old Elaine May made a rare 92nd Street Y appearance, spending forty minutes poking at a severely undermatched bird who made the mistake of confessing that he didn’t have a whit of creative writing talent.

“Are you, like, an interviewer?” asked May.

The man may as well have told May that he was an alcoholic sitting at a bar doing his best not to order a drink. He confessed that he was a curator for the Museum of the Moving Image and that he wrote reviews and programmed films. “New films for a museum?” asked May, doing the best she could with this third-rate Nichols stand-in.

May, a trim presence in a dark two-piece pantsuit, was on stage to discuss Ishtar — the last feature film that she directed. The movie was an homage to the Hope-Crosby Road movies, with Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty playing two washed-up songwriters who head to Morocco for a gig and get involved with a woman on the run, a CIA agent played by Charles Grodin, a blind camel, and gunrunners. The film had been a critical and commercial disaster upon its 1987 release (Roger Ebert called it “a lifeless, massive, lumbering exercise in failed comedy”. It has since garnered its share of defenders over the years — including The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody, who has declared Ishtar “among the most original, audacious, and inventive movies—and funniest comedies—of modern times.”

As the director’s cut of Ishtar played, the crowd was split evenly between rabid fans who felt obliged to titter at every moment (even the moments that weren’t intended to be funny) and those who watched with a quiet yet somewhat disappointed curiosity.

David Schwartz — the dopey interlocutor who wanted May to discuss how certain aspects of her work were “part of the discovery” and who offered such profound insights as “you really feel that these two are meant to get together” — didn’t have the guts to follow up on some of the more pivotal topics, such as the kind of material that might have lured May back to the director’s chair. “You have to be offered a movie that’s worth your time,” said May. “And I haven’t been.” Schwartz was too timorous to pursue further.

Judging by the precise manner in which May outlined her science of comedy (“If you’re going to do a a funny scene when someone gets killed, the gun jams. The finger gets stuck in the trigger…”), it appeared that the reticent May was eager to talk about comedy rather than be subjected to vapid adulations. “It’s hard to know how to respond to a complaint, isn’t it?” said May halfway through the colloquy. If there was a slight hauteur to her answers, there was also a carefully concealed humility. She seemed genuinely touched that so many people came, even underreporting the audience tally.

“Either you like the movie or I’m very sick,” she said minutes after the curtain went up.

When asked what she thought of the film now, May replied, “I thought the mix was off. That’s really all you think. I thought it was funny. I think of those people who try out for American Idol.”

Of Ishtar‘s songs, most of them written by Paul Williams, she was proud to point out that she had written the worst of the bad lyrics.

May also alluded to a run-in with Ronald Reagan. “I met him,” she said. “He’s an amazingly naive person. A charming guy who really cared about show business.” Reagan apparently knew the Nichols-May albums so well that he could recite all the lines. “He did the telephone routine. And he was the President!”

May offered some thoughts on Ishtar‘s use of animals. In one scene, Dustin Hoffman’s supine form in the sand attracts vultures. Hoffman agreed to be slathered in raw meat to ensure that enough birds would come. As for the camels, May said, “We tried camels out. A lot of camels came.” She did not elaborate on whether any of these camels made their way to the dinner table, but had mock prognostication at her disposal. “Do they eat camels?” she asked. “Yes, I guess they do.”

May insisted that Ishtar‘s harsh reception had much to do with David Puttnam replacing Guy McElwaine as Columbia’s head of production. Puttnam had produced Chariots of Fire, a film that competed in the Oscar race against Warren Beatty’s Reds. This led Puttnam to harbor resentment towards Beatty during the making of Ishtar. May claimed that Puttnam had called Beatty “self-indulgent” and said that he “should be spanked.” May claimed that Puttnam targeted Isthar in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. (I’ve been unable to locate the op-ed in the Los Angeles Times archive, but May may have been referring to a lengthy Tina Brown profile that appeared in Vanity Fair. This helpful David Blum article from New York Magazine contains additional details.) Mike Nichols had said of Puttnam’s actions that this had represented “an entire studio committing suicide.”

May suggested that much of the hostile press notices had to do with Puttnam planting items, especially in relation to how much Ishtar cost. The continued fixation on Ishtar‘s budget apparently was enough to unsettle Charles Grodin, who once shouted to an audience, “What do you care? It’s not your money. It’s Coca-Cola’s money.”

Puttnam didn’t stay with Columbia much longer after Ishtar. May said that he tried to do the same thing to Bill Murray and Bill Cosby. “So they threw him out.”

“If half the people who had made cracks about Ishtar had seen it,” said May, “I would be a rich woman today.”

The original title for the film was to be Road to Ishtar, but Beatty rejected it. May was careful to point out that there was no improv in the film, except when Hoffman and Beatty were making up lyrics at the beginning and during a scene in which Hoffman plays an auctioneer. “You can’t really improv a joke,” said May, “because it has to do with the way it’s worded. Most comic movies aren’t improv. You hope stuff happens.”

May came into film directing entirely by accident. When she wrote A New Leaf, she had merely sought directorial approval. When her manager Hilly Elkins told her that Carol Channing was up for the part that she would play, pointing out that the studio wouldn’t give her approval but would let her direct, she decided to do it.

On A New Leaf, May claimed to confuse one of the big lights for the camera. But because she relied on a meticulously planned shot list, she was surprised to find herself four weeks ahead of shooting schedule. When the editor informed May that some scenes were too long and that she didn’t have any coverage, she adjusted her directorial style and was four weeks behind schedule. Of the “big corporate guy” who gave her the okay, May responded, “How he let me do this, I have no idea.”

May said that she was more frightened during her third time behind the camera than her first time. “If you screw up enough,” she said, “you really learn a lot.” Is there a difference between directing comedic scenes and dramatic scenes (such as the ones contained in Mikey and Nicky)? Not really, but details matter more in comedy. “If you do what would happen in life, it will still be a mess and it becomes funny.”

There were a number of quick questions from the audience.

Warren Beatty: “He’s a Southern boy”

The Heartbreak Kid: “I didn’t see the remake.”

Tina Fey: “I think she’s terrific.”

Does she see movies today? She sees many and especially liked The Hurt Locker.

She mentioned that some actors had recently asked her what she was doing. She replied, “Nothing.” But this was akin to announcing that you havecancer. “No one had ever said, ‘Nothing.'” May is compelled to work these days when hired for scripts (“a good way to work”) or when she happens to write a play.

Of course, an event like this isn’t organized unless there’s a very good marketing reason. There have been past rumblings about Ishtar getting a Blu-ray release, but May revealed that Sony told her that they didn’t have a Blu-ray film to show. The audience last night was shown a so-so print (although I can report that the red headbands worn by Hoffman and Beatty made a serious impression). This suggests very highly that a transfer has not yet been made and that much of the online conjecture — most of it promulgated by aging lunatics harassing Warren Beatty, Sony, and various people who work for Mike Nichols — is unsubstantiated.

“I read on the Net that the impending release of Ishtar had been delayed by my people,” said May. “I was so thrilled to learn that I had people.”

May was carefully to clarify that she was not a profound Hollywood player. “So to some degree,” she said, “they don’t tell me anything.”

Will Ishtar be released on Blu-ray or DVD?

“They say they want to,” said May. Maybe it will “if you all clap your hands and believe in them.”

erskinecaldwell

Tobacco Road (Modern Library #91)

(This is the tenth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Ironweed)

Like many great writers of the 20th century, Erskine Caldwell experienced difficulties keeping his dick in his pants. While such bulging foibles aren’t normally the stuff of pertinent consideration, Erskine Caldwell Reconsidered (edited by Edwin T. Arnold and published by the University Press of Mississippi) is the rare academic volume offering a partially persuasive case that Caldwell’s philandering was one throbbing element of the creative package.

In an essay titled “Caldwell’s Women,” Harvey L. Klevar writes, “During the first decade of his career — during the period he was married to Helen — he published quality novels and stories enough to satisfy a lifetime’s quota for an average writer.” Helen Caldwell Cushman, Erskine’s first wife, didn’t just correct Erskine’s mistakes and critique and type his fiction. She apparently allowed Erskine to carry on extramarital affairs, with the family living in near destitution as Erskine plugged away. How does Klevar know all this? Well, in the same volume, Klevar scored an interview with Helen, digging up considerable dirt. On their first date, Erskine told Helen, “I’d like to knock you in the head with a rock and go to bed with you.” As pickup lines go, that’s somewhat audacious for the early 1920s. Yet Helen managed to stick around. Erskine’s effrontery carried on into their wedding night, when Erskine took Helen to five burlesque shows. Years into the marriage, Erskine’s reliance on Helen had reached remarkable heights:

I used to cut his work. I used to cut through with a big blue pencil. And I corrected his errors. When he was in the throes of creation, shall we call it, he was completely inapproachable, and nobody was allowed to make any noise in this house. And don’t think that was easy, with two young children. I had to keep them out of the way. He wrote very painfully and was possessed to write. He had this internal compulsion. And I was truly interested in his work or I would have left him long, long before.

Many floundering marriages squeeze in a few additional years because of money or children or tax advantages or a capitulation to religious hypocrisy. But I was amazed that Helen suffered Erskine’s cavalier caprices simply because she was curious about his writing. It’s a testament to either Erskine’s wild originality or Helen’s supreme patience.

Klevar also reports in his book-length biography that Caldwell started work on his first novel, Tobacco Road, not long after Helen’s father died, just after Christmas 1930. It’s also worth noting that Caldwell informed legendary Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins that he was “trying to get a new book started,” only to finish the novel in rough draft less than three months later. On May 4, 1931, Perkins received the manuscript, a little more than two weeks after Caldwell finished the rough draft. Was Helen instrumental in getting the book up to speed in such a short time? Perkins would later reply, “I’ll tell you plainly that I think myself [Tobacco Road] is well nigh perfect within its limits.” Another biography by Dan B. Miller suggests that Caldwell began writing Tobacco Road “six months before in California, and completed the actual writing in only three months.” On the other hand, Miller also writes that, despite Helen trimming “a bit here and there,” “the bulk of the novel remained as Caldwell had originally written it.”

I bring up the salacious details not to impugn or slander Erskine Caldwell, although there are many reasons for austere moralists to disapprove of his life choices (in Erskine’s defense, he would stay with his fourth and final wife Virginia — initially his editorial assistant and secretary — for close to thirty years). One must take great care to separate the art from the artist. Yet Caldwell’s fiction, with its truths about human perversity rooted in the libidinal and the louche, often resonates so strongly that one cannot help but consider these personal circumstances.

* * *

I will say that I’ve enjoyed Erskine Caldwell’s writing a great deal ever since I first read his salacious short stories (along with Cheever, de Maupssant, Maugham, and many others) as an aimless yet endlessly curious undergrad reading books while working evening and graveyard shifts as a desk clerk at a halfway house in the Tenderloin. When you’re a shy kid scrutinizing and buzzing in recovering heroin addicts and former alcoholics and ex-prostitutes and sundry streetwise fulminators, you become more willing to give people a second chance. Caldwell’s outlandish tales, especially when read at 3AM, were helpful vessels for this raucous world.

Yet for some reason (likely laziness or obliviousness), I never got around to reading Tobacco Road until a few weeks ago. I hadn’t read Caldwell in recent years, mainly because I have resisted revisiting authors who meant much to me as a young man. The profound insights one purports to detect at twenty are silly and superficial when one edges closer to forty.

Still, I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy Tobacco Road as much as I did. This is a rare novel that not only gets the vernacular exact, but that forces an audience outside this world to confront its own inherent prejudices about the impoverished. (When Tobacco Road was turned into a play by Jack Kirkland — the 15th longest running Broadway show in history — did its success have more to do with New York audiences laughing at their own biases about the seemingly backward or the overt sexuality? Caldwell’s most lucid answer on the subject came from a 1941 interview in The Washington Star: “When people laugh at the antics of Jeeter Lester, they’re only trying to cover up their feelings. They see what they might sink to.”)

Five pages into the book, Lov Bensey, just after walking seven and a half miles with a sack of turnips on his back (no convenience stores in Depression era Georgia, of course) and just after complaining about his twelve-year-old wife not sleeping with him, is already “thinking about taking some plow-lines and tying Pearl in the bed at night. He had tried everything he could think of so far, except force, and he was still determined to make her act as he thought a wife should.” I love how Caldwell orphans the phrase “except force” in commas, suggesting that there’s another level to Lov’s ruminations. What makes this situation perversely funny is how Lov seeks advice from his father-in-law Jeeter Lester before going ahead with this plan. He requires confirmation from another that this terrible idea is terrible.

While it’s certainly true that we all possess terrible ideas, if you subscribe to any religious or philosophical ideas of universal enlightenment, you’re probably inclined to believe that there is a common goodness within every soul which repairs these base instincts. This essential goodness generates remorse, reconsideration, penitence, and numerous other feelings in response to previous actions.

The Lester family contains seventeen kids (at least one of them not sired by Jeeter) who have all occupied the ramshackle environs of Tobacco Road and have largely stuck it out waiting to be married off. When the aptly named Lov shows up at the beginning of Tobacco Road to complain about Pearl, there are only two kids left: the harelipped Ellie May and the baseball thumping and car horn blasting Dude. (Physical infirmities abound in this novel. When Bessie Rice shows up later, tricking Dude into a shotgun wedding without the premarital fumbling, her underdeveloped and boneless nose is compared to “looking down the end of a double-barrel shotgun.”)

Escape would seem to be the only option for the Lester kids. Yet in fleeing this poverty, do they not become as sneering in their own way as the judgmental northern audiences reading this book? We learn that the oldest child, Tom, has become a successful cross-tie contractor “at a place about twenty miles away.” Later, when members of the family attempt to pay Tom a visit in Burke County, Tom wants nothing to do with them. Upon hearing this news, Jeeter repeats the phrase, “That sure don’t sound like Tom talking,” almost as if it’s a curative mantra to help one cope with an unforgiving reality. Another child, Lizzie Belle, has fled to a cotton mill, but “had not said which one she was going to work in.”

Are these characters good in some way? Have the Lesters developed any standards approximating some form of enlightenment? These questions of civilization — the brutal northern metric Caldwell passes along uncomfortably to the reader — hardly matter when these people are so impoverished. Especially when the impoverishment hinges upon how they believe the world operates (rather than how it really operates) and how capitalism has exploited them. Unable to raise a profitable cotton crop and denied the credit to purchase guano and seed-cotton, we learn that Jeeter has been forced to take a high-interest loan where it’s impossible for him to get back into the black. The financial situation sounds eerily similar to predatory lending during the recent subprime crisis:

The interest on the loan amounted to three per cent a month to start with, and at the end of ten months he had been charged thirty per cent, and on top of that another thirty per cent on the unpaid interest. Then to make sure that the loan was fully protected, Jeeter had to pay the sum of fifty dollars. He could never understand why he had to pay that, and the company did not undertake to explain it to him. when he had asked what the fifty dollars was meant to cover, he was told that it was merely the fee for making the loan….Seven dollars for a year’s labor did not seem to him a fair portion of the proceeds from the cotton, especially as he had done all the work, and had furnished the land and mule, too.

Jeeter still believes that he can get the farm back, even though he has sold off nearly every possession. And it is this tragicomic belief which sustains the Lester legacy, even after death and tragedy, in the book’s final paragraph. Should the Lesters, however repugnant they are perceived, be condemned because they have aspirations? This is a difficult question for elitists to swallow. Even the seemingly progressive-minded Kenneth White, writing in the July 16, 1932 issue of The Nation, complained, “There is nothing sentimental, for example, about Jeeter’s lyrical speeches of complaint, for everything is complained about. The error of the last words of the book is the error of dropping the comic method to point a moral.” What White failed to understand was that the comic, the sentimental, and the moral exist simultaneously in Caldwell’s novel. Judging by some of the surprisingly harsh reactions to Tobacco Road on Goodreads (“it seems like we were meant to laugh at the horrible people doing stupid things and making disastrous decisions, but what’s the fun in that?” or “I was horrified at what I perceived Caldwell was trying to do: get us to laugh at abject poverty, ignorance, and low down misery.”), it would appear that people remain just as uncomfortable contending with these blended emotions nearly eight decades after the book’s publication.

Caldwell is careful to demonstrate that surviving based on how one thinks isn’t confined to the low-class Lesters. When Bessie Rice cajoles Dude Lester into marrying her, bribing the young Dude with the purchase of a car with nearly the total savings of her recently departed husband, the Clerk asks the couple how they intend to support each other. “Is that in the law, too?” asks Bessie. “Well, no,” replies the Clerk. “The law doesn’t require that question, but I thought I’d like to know about it myself.”

Does the answer to one simple question offer the smoking gun? People, even the ones we frown upon, are more complicated than this. Should we judge Erskine Caldwell on his adultery or the Lesters on their apparent atavism? If all of us remain judgmental to some degree, believing we know or assuming we are entitled to know, perhaps all of us occupy some form of Tobacco Road.

Next: Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children!

leeheyboo

Review: Hey, Boo (2010)

Hey, Boo, a largely hagiographical overview of the great Harper Lee, has the finest cinematic aesthetic that 1986 has to offer. Or maybe with all of the talking heads, it’s the finest television aesthetic. I wasn’t surprised to learn that the film’s director, Mary McDonagh Murphy, worked at CBS News for twenty years. Unfortunately, this experience has translated into a indolent, superficial, and largely unhelpful film in which we get to see Oprah Winfrey tell us how she “devooooooooooooooured” To Kill a Mockingbird when she first read it. We must endure the unctuous Scott Turow, who has resembled an empty oil barrel both in look and intelligence since his divorce, commending Lee’s “bravery” in writing about race in 1964. But given the novel’s quiet and diligent origins (Lee given a check by her friends Joy & Michael Brown to write anything she wanted for a year, nervous first editorial meeting at Lippincott, two years of vigorous editing), wasn’t Lee’s purpose less about shaking up the social landscape and more about writing the best novel she could? Hasn’t Turow been around the block enough times to comprehend that writers, even those who pen masterpieces like Mockingbird, often become blockbuster successes by fluke?

You’d think that Murphy would question her subjects. After all, there’s no point in including big names unless they have something to say. (Even Wally Lamb, while offering quasi-generalizations about Scout being “an extension of a Huck Finn character,” comes across as fairly thoughtful.) But Murphy isn’t especially interested in nuance. Her narrative is damaged by her editor’s tendency to kill the mood, lopping off crackling moments just as they’re catching fire. When Murphy’s camera briefly escapes the studio and enters the field, I was genuinely stunned that the filmmakers had managed to get off their sedentary asses. Talking with kids about what Mockingbird means to them is a foolproof method of investigating Harper Lee’s durability. But just as these future readers are getting jazzed up, the editor then cuts back to the literary luminaries (which include Tom Brokaw, for some inexplicable reason) sitting in chairs, doing their best to sustain excitement as their collective wisdom is reduced to audience-friendly platitudes. Richard Russo begins telling an interesting story about his father, only for the tale to be killed at press of a button. (You don’t give Richard Russo the cane. You let the man talk. Especially when your “feature” documentary is only 82 minutes. If this is Murphy’s idea of inclusiveness, why did she bother to include it?)

Murphy is also fond of simplifying her story, perhaps because she is terrified by the prospect of challenging an audience. When Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote is brought up, he is, of course, portrayed as an inveterate wastrel. But even accounting for Capote’s jealousy (which involved spinning prevarications that he had secretly written Mockingbird and that Lee’s mother was mentally unbalanced, even attempting to kill the young Lee twice), one cannot easily ignore that Capote was Lee’s best friend during a significant period of her life and that, contrary to the film’s insinuations, Capote and Lee reportedly stayed in contact up to the former’s death in 1984.

Lee, by contrast, is an angel who can do no wrong. It never occurs to Murphy (or her subjects, at least as they appear on camera) that Lee had her faults: her failure to complete books (including an In Cold Blood-like project she abandoned in the 1990s, never mentioned in the film), a refusal to suffer fools, and a sensitivity to anybody bringing up To Kill a Mockingbird in person. Efforts to reveal some of these complexities, an admittedly difficult proposition, can be found in Charles Shields’s Mockingbird. There are faults with Shields and his book, but the man has pounded the pavement. You’d think that Murphy would enlist him to be part of this project, but, rather tellingly, Murphy hasn’t interviewed him.

While we aren’t privy to Murphy’s questions, one senses that she has fired little more than softballs at her subjects. For fascinating figures such as Lee’s lively 99-year-old sister, Alice Finch Lee, this isn’t a problem. Alice speaks her mind, irrespective of the interlocutor’s deficiencies. But it does become a thorny issue when Murphy elicits answers from one especially sheltered Caucasian writer (“to be crying for a black man was so taboo!”) and when James Patterson, with typical hubris, compares his own hackwork to Lee’s (“Lee kept building and building and building. Obviously, I try to do this with my work.”). Such crass remarks demand that an interviewer call bullshit. But Murphy is a head nodder rather than a listener. When the distinguished Andrew Young says “not a lot of black people read” Mockingbird back in 1960, one wishes that Murphy had the capacity to pursue the bigger picture instead of waiting around for the power quotes.

mrwonderful

The Bat Segundo Show: Daniel Clowes

Daniel Clowes recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #394. He is most recently the author of Mr. Wonderful.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Uniting with the bald community.

Author: Daniel Clowes

Subjects Discussed: Moments of simultaneous consciousness, creative methods of beating imposed deadlines, being intrigued by thought balloons, Superman and narrative urgency, formal lettering, what motivates words in Daniel Clowes’s life, the type of lettering that causes one to read narration in a robotic voice, sound effects and newspapers, CHOFF CHOFF vs. SMOOTH SMOOTH, mass readership and not receiving significant mail, Eightball reader responses vs. New York Times reader responses, angry Southerners who object to the word “Jesus,” following Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron versus following Mr. Wonderful on a sequential basis, pre-Internet audiences, “Check out my blog!” as a recurrent audience response, the advantages of insulation, the general sense of distant feedback, Chris Ware homages in Ice Haven, the amount of detail compressed in any individual frame, not wanting to cheat the reader, the complex issue of bald spots in comics, the many permutation of Wilson’s look, depicting eating in visual mediums, Terry Zwigoff’s enthusiasm for eating, the difficulties of illustrating table settings, reference shots, drawing pay phones, drawing without reference shots, the consequences of fussing over an illustration too much,

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: As a fellow gentleman who also has the male pattern baldness, I feel compelled to ask you about bald spots. In Wilson, his physical form changes from set to set to set. He’s often chunkier. He’s often muscular. He’s receding in different places each time. And I noticed in Mr. Wonderful, when you expand to one of these large panels, we do in fact see this silver of a bald spot.

Clowes: He has a bald spot throughout, I think.

Correspondent: Yeah. But we don’t really see it so much in some of the smaller panels.

Clowes: No. It looks weird if you have this little dot of flesh in a small panel.

Correspondent: To wrestle with the idea of bald spots in comics, is it really just a matter of liking to draw these?

Clowes: I’m trying to support our community.

Correspondent: Oh yes. Exactly. You meet in the secret halls as well as I do.

Clowes: Yes. Yes.

Correspondent: They don’t know how much we are…

Clowes: Again, I’m trying to normalize our ilk for the rest of the world.

Correspondent: What about the six panel approach of Wilson? I mean, sometimes we see….

Clowes: There’s seven or eight.

Correspondent: Sometimes we see at the very bottom of the row, we see three there. But I’m curious if that formalism caused you to shift Wilson’s appearance. I was always curious about why. Was it just a matter of trying to have almost every type of reader reading this finding her version of Wilson in the actual…?

Clowes: That was — that was part of the intent. We all see ourselves very differently from day to day. And I was trying to capture all the various ways that Wilson sees himself and feels about himself. And each one of those looks gives something specific to each of the strips. And I wanted each of them to have their own identity. They exist in this, as you say, very severe structure where it’s six, seven, and eight panel gag strips. And so I wanted them to have that, but also to have this way where they’re drastically differentiated from each other.

Correspondent: Sure. I mentioned Marshall eating a French fry earlier. And I did tell you that I had a followup question. I had a rather elaborate one.

Clowes: Bring it on.

Correspondent: I have — and this might just be an expression of my obsessions — but I have been very interested in the notion of depicting eating in visual mediums. You see a film sometimes. And often they’ll go to a restaurant or a diner or a bar or a cafe and nobody will eat. Similarly, I have noticed in your work that there is a reticence — especially in the early work, although we’re increasingly seeing more of a development in terms of depicting characters eating. Although I should point out that in the film of Ghost World, there’s a great moment where Bob Balaban is eating that toast.

Clowes: There’s lots of eating in that film.

Correspondent: Yeah, there’s lots of eating.

Clowes: Zwigoff enjoys eating.

Correspondent: Yes.

Clowes: Often, if he can’t think of anything else, he would just tell an actor, “Just put a bagel in your mouth and do the line that way.”

Correspondent: But in Ghost World the comic, we don’t actually see Enid and Rebecca eating. We see Josh eating.

Clowes: They’re too busy talking, I think.

Correspondent: They aren’t too busy talking. People talk and eat. They talk and eat in Ghost World the movie.

Clowes: It looks weird though. It makes someone look sort of vulgar if they’re talking and eating. And so you have to be careful with things like that. There are very subtle little things in comics. You have just this one panel to express something. And it confuses the audience if you’re not…you know.

Correspondent: Well, have you tried to get more eating? For example, the hospital in Mr. Wonderful, where incidentally Marshall feels more comfortable there than in the diner. Suddenly, Clowes feels more comfortable depicting picking at food and actual eating. I was reading this, championing the characters eating.

Clowes: Well, I think he’s relaxed. Before, he’s sort of taking a little bite and he’s not even thinking about eating. If you show someone eating, they seem at ease. And so I wanted to show that he’s given up. He’s totally relaxed. And he’s free to just eat his French fries.

Correspondent: Well, have you agonized over depicting eating moments over the years at all?

Clowes: It’s all intuitive. You don’t think about the details of it. You’re thinking about how to get across the performance of the character and how best to do that. Drawing table settings is really difficult. It’s one of the more difficult things you can do. Because you have to draw plates and perspectives and you have to kind of keep everything in the right place. You know, people don’t consciously notice if a glass moves from one side of the table to the other. But they unconsciously know that something’s off. And so it’s not at all easy. So I try not to write around that. I try to do my work and get it in there.

Correspondent: So being a script supervisor for your own work, it would seem, is part of the perfectionist in you.

Clowes: Table settings are famously the script supervisor’s nightmare.

Correspondent: Is there anything more difficult for you for the comics than table settings? In terms of getting things consistent?

Clowes: Oh yeah. I mean, there are many things that I have written around. I can’t imagine drawing a detailed battle scene. I mean, if I had to do it, I would. But it’s not my idea of fun, you know? It would be a chore. Or to draw people riding horses is the one I’ve tried a few times. And my horses look very weird. I’d have to spend three weeks just working on the horses and get some way to do that down before I could do a Western I think.

Correspondent: In the Ghost World special edition, there is a reference photo that you provide indicating that this is the model for the Ghost World hardcover photo. This leads me to ask, since we were talking about panel size before, how much reference you actually need. In the case of horses, I’m wondering if part of the difficulty has been getting enough horses to model for you or to be photographed.

Clowes: There’s certainly plenty of reference nowadays on the Internet. And as it’s gotten more and more available, I’ve tried to use less and less of it. Because I find that I can look back at my work and say, “Oh, I just looked at a photograph of a pay phone.” There’s something much stronger about trying to remember what a pay phone looks like. And that way you capture both the essence of a pay phone and you also capture what your vision of a pay phone is. And so I try and only use reference if it’s something where I just can’t get a clear picture in my head. I mean, that reference of my wife for the back cover of Ghost World, that was for doing a very specific kind of detailed painting. I wanted it to look like an old pinup painting. And so I wanted it to have that kind of phony posed look. And so I would use a photo for something like that. But I would almost never, for a person, use a photo.

Correspondent: At what point, do you just simply draw a gesture without reference? Some people say that you can tell when a cartoonist is coming into a room. You immediately know who he is. Because that’s exactly like the drawings. Is there a similar predicament in just wanting to be off the reference altogether and just using your imagination to get something a little unreal? What do you do in a situation like that?

Clowes: I try to always go in that direction. I’m much more interested in making things up. It doesn’t always work out. And then you have to go back and fix it. But very often it’s much truer than if you’re fussing over it too much and trying to get things perfect.

Correspondent: But when you’re talking about capturing the essence of a pay phone, if you fuss over it too much, is it going to have an impact on capturing the essence?

Clowes: No. I mean, if you fuss over it too much, it pulls it out of the rest of the world, which is not fussed over. I try to draw as naturally as I can. Which took me forever. You know, my early work, I look at it and it makes my hand ache from thinking how agitated I was trying to get everything a certain way and not getting there. It was just constantly frustrating. And I was always throwing pages out the window and starting over and whiting out entire faces and pasting things on. And it was never pleasurable. And in the last five or six years, I’ve gotten to the point where I can feel good about without absolute agony. Or at least I know how to fix it at this point. I know that everything is fixable.

The Bat Segundo Show #394: Daniel Clowes (Download MP3)

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BAMcinématek: Hal Ashby

I don’t know if Hal Ashby is in serious danger of being forgotten. But judging by the scant attendance at two recent press screenings for an ongoing retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (now playing through May 24th), I suspect that the cineastes are tired of talking him up. And that’s really a goddam shame. I certainly don’t know anybody under 40 who speaks of Hal Ashby with the same gusto devoted to such active 1970s directors as Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, or even William Friedkin and Walter Hill. (They’re certainly not going to bring up Joan Micklin Silver or Gillian Armstrong. But I’ll save comments on this regrettable gender disparity for another essay.) But like Alan J. Pakula, the recently departed Sidney Lumet, and Bob Rafelson, Hal Ashby often gets taken for granted.

Ashby began his career as an editor, winning an Oscar for his work on In the Heat of the Night in 1967. Three years later, Norman Jewison told Hal Ashby that he was a director. Jewison produced Ashby’s first feature, The Landlord — an iconoclastic, hard-to-find, zany, and one-of-a-kind satire written by Bill Gunn in which a Southern gentleman (Beau Bridges) becomes the landlord of a tenement building (in the now gentrified Park Slope) and has an affair with one of his tenants. (Her boyfriend is involved with the black power movement.)

The Landlord is filled with scenes (starting at around the 0:50 mark in the above clip) where the wild premise, which deals with race, white guilt, and false notions of entitlement, is topped by something out of left field. In this case, the kid not only blackmails Bridges’s milquetoast landlord for two dollars, but, after securing the two bucks, he offers the landlord a cigarette and lights up one for himself. Yet Ashby stages the scene so innocuously — complete with the kid ordering, “Home, landlord!” — that it deflates any potential discomfort and allows the audience to confront and enjoy the behavior.

Ashby’s third film, The Last Detail, continues in this vein. The film follows two US Navy sailors played by Jack Nicholson and Otis Young, escorting the young sailor Randy Meadows (Randy Quaid) to a naval prison. Meadows has received a harsh eight-year sentence for the minor crime of stealing $40. So the two sailors decide to show Meadows a good time. Ashby decided to direct Robert Towne’s razor-sharp and beautifully profane script in chronological order, traveling the same route as the sailors. This not only allowed the inexperienced Quaid and Young to get their sea legs over the course of the production, but it encouraged the magnetic naturalism that we see in the moment above. Watch the way Ashby neatly aligns the sailors by height or the way Nicholson slaps himself on the side of the head, foreshadowing the great explosive moment.

To some degree, you could call Hal Ashby a faithful chronicler of very recent history. Bound for Glory, his faithful biopic of Woody Guthrie, is his only real period piece, but it’s also the first movie to use the Steadicam. But Ashby was very concerned with recent events. Consider the way in which 1975’s Shampoo reckons with 1968’s sexual politics or the manner in which 1978’s Coming Home approaches the same year from the vantage point of the Vietnam War, taking the interesting step of casting Jane Fonda (who protested the war) as a very believable military wife who sees her world change when she meets a disabled Vet played by Jon Voight. It’s possible that The Social Network‘s recent success had much to do with similar revisitations of recent history. But is there any director working today capturing the last ten years the way that Ashby did?

Ashby worked so close with his actors that he often had them work on the scripts. Warren Beatty co-wrote Shampoo. No doubt his womanizing added some authenticity to the hairdresser juggling numerous paramours. 1982’s Lookin’ to Get Out, in which Ashby fought the studios for final cut, was co-written by Jon Voight. The original version of this film, as cut by Hal Ashby and as discovered in 2009, is playing as part of the retrospective. While there’s a gripping showdown in a casino club room, and some thespic chemistry between Voight and Burt Young (including one great early moment where Voight plays the scene spooning soup from a can as his character confesses losing a great deal of money), the film suffers from an implausible storyline and too many incoherent moments.

Did Hal Ashby lose his artistic chops in the Reagan era? I don’t think so. The above confrontation between Jeff Bridges and Andy Garcia in 1986’s 8 Millions Way to Die (this underrated film has become so maligned over the years that I was truly shocked to see it in the BAM lineup) demonstrated that Ashby could take something as innocuous as snow cones and turn it into a quirky tension builder. It’s the little tics that build this scene: Garcia moving to straighten his tie, Garcia’s lieutenant hovering in the back, and Bridges curling his fingers just after taking a bite. But when Garcia explodes at Bridges, the moment is especially startling because of how tightly framed the three men are, along with the overlapping chatter. I also love the way Garcia dispenses with his snow cone (similar to the way he kills the cigarette at the beginning of the scene; this is a character who always needs to have something in his hands to destroy). Oliver Stone’s dialogue in this scene is a bit silly (“My fault. I’m sorry. I didn’t get laid today.”), but can one imagine such blocking and gestures in movies today? Every time I see this juicy scene, I want to tear every goddam kid away from making CGI movies on his computer and force them to work with the nuts and bolts of human nuance.

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Ironweed (Modern Library #92)

(This is the ninth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Magus)

[Only months after writing this essay, we were extremely honored to interview William Kennedy for The Bat Segundo Show. That conversation runs 64 minutes and gets into Kennedy’s entire career.]

“Anybody who doesn’t have an idea about what it is to be homeless, or on the road or lost and without a family, really hasn’t thought very much at all.” — William Kennedy, Interview with The Paris Review

William Kennedy was in his mid-fifties when all of his novels went out of print. While he remained a working journalist, his latest manuscript about a scuffed up drifter named Francis Phelan — a minor character from his 1978 novel, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game — had been rejected by thirteen publishers. Ironweed had come comparatively quicker than his previous novels. Kennedy wrote eight versions of Legs over six years. He devoted two years to Billy Phelan. But he wrote Ironweed in seven months. Still, this unanticipated celerity was of null solace to publishers studying Kennedy’s then sketchy sales record.

Kennedy was hardly a stranger to such uncertainty on the fiction front. In his initial fiction efforts, he wrote 30 stories These were all rejected. As he told Penny Maldonado in a 1969 interview, it was a rejection slip from The Atlantic reading “You write with a facility that has held our attention” that kept him going for ten more years. Saul Bellow, whom Kennedy met while in Puerto Rico, had urged the young Kennedy to carry on with his fiction writing. But Kennedy, banging away late into the night after a long day, would fall asleep at 2AM in the middle of a sentence. He felt he did not know his hometown of Albany, New York. So he moved back. Bellow continued to encourage him, even helping him secure an agent. Indeed, without Bellow, Ironweed would not have been published at all. It was Bellow’s direct intervention with Viking Press which ensured that Kennedy’s best known novel was published. The book would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Kennedy would be awarded a $264,000 tax-free MacArthur fellowship and he would use this money to establish what is now known as the New York State Writers Institute. Ironweed would be included on the Modern Library list, where, years later, some wild-eyed bastard in Brooklyn with a ridiculously ambitious reading project would finally get around to it.

* * *

I had not read Kennedy before, but I am glad that I did. Like Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net, I read the book twice, thought about it for a while, and found myself very tempted to read additional volumes. Fortunately, I was halted from such ambition after taking a look at Benedict Giamo’s The Homeless of Ironweed, a dry and overanalytical tome written by one of those insufferable academics who can never see beyond their blinkered and not especially interesting perspectives. I realized that I’d be on firmer ground confining my modest insights to just one book in Kennedy’s multi-volume Albany Cycle.

Ironweed opens on October 31, 1938. Francis Phelan, a former major league ballplayer bouncing around for twenty-two years, sees dead people. Thankfully, by every artistic standard, William Kennedy is a superior writer to M. Night Shyamalan. The dead, which include Francis’s expired relatives and a few men he’s killed mostly in self-defense, observe him as he labors at Saint Agnes Cemetery. They haunt him in buses and boxcars. Is Francis hallucinating? Do these visions emerge from his drinking problem? Over the years, there has been a temptation among some critics to cite this facet of Ironweed as “magical realism.” But because Ironweed is such a human novel, I think that the ghosts can more sufficiently identified as part of Francis’s perspective. After all, if we wish to accept and understand troubled souls, then we must often acknowledge what seems real to them. (It’s worth observing that in a 1983 interview with Larry McCaffery, Kennedy pointed out that the ghosts “probably came more from Our Town and Dickens than from Marquez.”)

We learn in the book’s masterful first chapter that Francis has suffered great grief. Years before, Francis accidentally dropped his infant son Gerald onto the hard tile floor of a saloon, killing him only thirteen days after his birth.* “Francis left his family, drowned his sorrows in drink, and took up with another woman named Helen. Yet learn, in 1930, that Francis lost his job at a fixit shop through no fault of his own and he could not land another job. Back then, he left Helen too. He stays with her still, but the relationship has attenuated.

What causes Francis to run? Does Francis’s transiency transform him into an impatient and violent figure? Well, it’s complicated. Here is a man who, upon returning to his family home on All Saints’ Day with a turkey, says “I don’t want no fights, rile up the family.” And it would seem that he’s the type to avoid conflict. Yet only moments before, after an aggressive effort to collect payment from a ragman, Francis says, “And I ain’t really a bad sort once you get to know me.” But when a shady figure name Little Red tells him to shut up in a flophouse, Francis instantly resorts to violence.

Undoubtedly, being identified as a bum hasn’t exactly put Francis’s grief on the fast track. Late in the book, Rudy (a kind of quasi-Lenny to Francis’s George Milton) tells Francis that people call downtrodden figures bums because they feel better when they say it. But is being a bum such a cut and dry term of disparagement? Not exactly. When Francis works for a ragman named Rosskam, Rosskam regularly amends his assessment of the former Washington Senators ballplayer turned sandwich-eating “bum” with modifiers (“tidy,” “impatient,” “sensitive”), whenever Francis requests something or ventures a philosophical thought. Yet during one moment, the act of physical labor triggers a revelatory self-assessment:

He rubbed his hands together. Where they the enemies? How could a man’s hands betray him? They were full of scars, calluses, split fingernails, ill-healed bones broken on other man’s jaws, veins so bloated and blue they seemed on the verge of explosion. The hands were long-fingered, except where there was no finger, and now, with accreting age, the fingers had thickened, like the low-growing branches of a tree.

If Francis’s hands are an accumulative road map of nasty nicks and sad crannies, then why isn’t there any indication here of Francis’s past as a ballplayer or a family man? Even accounting for the fact that this period in Francis’s life came before Rowdy Dick took off “two thirds of a right index finger” with a cleaver (a curiously exact phrase), surely the complete portrait would value this period as much as the epoch that involved “ill-healed bones broken on other man’s jaws.” On the other hand, Francis doesn’t entirely accept his physical form, for he views his hands as independent entities. “They don’t need me,” he tells Rosskam, “They do what they goddam please.” (This is another inverted nod to Steinbeck’s Depression novel. Lennie may not know his own strength, but the hard truth is that Francis does. It’s also worth noting that, in a 1989 New York Times Book Review essay, Kennedy would confirm his great admiration for Steinbeck, with a sly nod to Francis’s digits: “I look around and try to find other American writers whose work has meant as much to me, and I count them on one hand. Maybe one and a half.”) On the other hand, Francis uses his hands for labor and is willing to obtain compensation by any means necessary. When Rosskam makes a move to cheat Francis, Francis says, “Dead men took their last ride on their hand. You get me?”

Are Francis’s hands just as dead as the phantoms who haunt him? Is Francis’s life “long-lived, except when there was no life?” Labor as a form of salvation crops up throughout the book during unusual moments. For example, when Francis and Rudy meet a tubercular man named Moose in a flophouse, Moose says, “Probably ain’t nothin’ wrong with you work won’t cure.” Yet Ironweed‘s vagrants can work as hard as they want or even discover ten dollar bills that “grow on trees,” but they are still at the behest of raiders who bust up shantytowns, a reverend who won’t provide shelter to anyone who drinks (this policy causes a woman to die), and cruel “goblins” who rip off hard-earned money.

Yet Kennedy is careful to suggest that within societal dichotomies lie additional distinctions. (There’s something especially plaintive in Francis “seeing” the dead when he is perceived as “dead” by others.) “Some people,” says Rosskam, “they don’t know junk. It ain’t garbage. And garbage, it aint’ junk.” And as an early conversation between Francis and Rudy about an alcoholic named Sandra reveals, labels are all about aesthetic perception:

“She’s a bum or just on a heavy drunk?”
“She’s a bum.”
“She looks like a bum.”
“She’s been a bum all her life.”
“No,” said Francis. “Nobody’s a bum all their life. She hada been somethin’ one.”

The last line from Francis, with its sandwiched As and its dropped Gs, shows off one of the novel’s subtle strengths. From the vantage point of 2011, it’s difficult to corroborate the way in which the homeless talked in 1938. Yet within the context of the book, the vernacular here feels authentic — even when a kind librarian offers an overly formalistic command to Helen: “But you may stay as long as you like, my dear, if you choose to read.” (Can we truly imagine a librarian saying a sentence constructed like that today?)

But Francis and his ilk may as well be Martians to most of the world. This xenophobia is backed up by several oblique references to Orson Welles’s radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds. When Francis returns home, he says, “It ain’t one of them fellas from Mars.” An early colloquy between Francis and Rudy discussing the recently transmitted hysteria has Francis proposing a solution to the claims that Martians landing in Grovers Mill, New Jersey: “Anybody sees a Martian oughta jump out two windows.” But at least one learned man in Albany — specifically, Dr. Benjamin Ross of Dudley Observatory — points out, “Earth is a very small target and in all probability a Martian space ship would miss it altogether.”

If seeing someone as lesser and/or foreign is the only way for these characters to survive, then this may explain Francis’s protest during a trolley strike in 1901. Francis’s involvement starts off fairly innocuously, lighting kerosene-soaked sheets on an electrical wire. But upon sighting a scab conductor named Harold Allen, he uses his pitching prowess to lob a stone at his skull. Harold becomes “the first man Francis Phelan ever killed.” When the dead Harold starts questioning Francis’s logic, all Francis can say is “I got arguments. I got arguments.”

Twenty-eight years later, Francis beats a charge of political corruption (voting for Democrats twenty-one times at five dollars a pop) on a technicality. The man who persuaded Francis’s lawyer to go easy with the bill is Martin Daugherty, a former neighbor and a newspaper columnist, who has written articles about Francis’s family. Indeed, we learn near the end of the book that one of Daugherty’s relatives, Edward, has written a left-wing play called The Car Burns lionizing Francis’s actions. This suggests that Francis’s actions matter more than he realizes, especially because they are memorialized by writers. The famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”) certainly applies. On the other hand, two graveside names that Francis sees toiling at Saint Agnes are DAUGHERTY and KENNEDY. Even those who print the legends eventually die. If death unites all of us, why do we spend so much of our times erecting boundaries? Even in a gloomy novel like Ironweed, there’s a moment in which everybody comes together in a bar to experience “unnatural sociality.” The name of the bar? The Gilded Cage. “Where the old Gayety Theater used to be.”

* — Kennedy describes Gerald’s corpse in the cemetery as one with “a protective web which deflected all moisture, all moles, rabbits, and other burrowing creatures.” Additionally, Gerald’s “ability to communicate and to understand was at the genius level among the dead.” Is there some genius contained within Francis’s scions? Billy Phelan, Francis’s quite living son, says late in the book, “How could I know anything? I’m a goddam genius.” “Genius” may be just as useless a label as “bum.”

Next Up: Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road!

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Review: The Beaver (2011)

When it comes to neglected narrative subjects, there’s no better figure than the middle-aged white male with disposable income and psychological problems. At least that’s the attitude a regressive moviegoer might have had in 1976, the year Jodie Foster appeared on screen as two altogether different characters using their bodies for altogether different purposes: Taxi Driver’s Iris, a teenage prostitute, and Freaky Friday‘s Annabel Andrews, whose body was occupied by her mother. Thirty-five years later, Jodie Foster has now directed a film called The Beaver that takes this dysmorphic approach to drama much further.

One morning, Walter Black (Mel Gibson), a depressed man who has run his toy company into the ground, begins speaking to his workers through a hand puppet. The voice is that of an apparent beaver, somewhere between Cockney and Australian. We are told that this is experimental puppet therapy, although nobody in the film considers Googling it. (Even assuming that these people are technologically illiterate, you’d think that the human resources manager or the insurance people would at least make a few phone calls when the CEO starts disseminating a dubious card. Given the film’s lack of logic, it’s almost as if this was set in….well, 1976. Which makes the appearances of Matt Lauer and Terry Gross in this film that much weirder and that much funnier.) We hear the beaver’s voice for the first time just after Black tries to kill himself in a hotel room.

Madness appears to run in the family. Walter’s son Porter (played by the excellent Anton Yelchin) is also something of an impostor, although he doesn’t require a hand puppet to uphold his craziness. He ghost-writes high school papers so that he can save up for a cross-country road trip to find himself before attending Brown University. But Porter also has this tendency to bang his head repeatedly against the wall. In one of the film’s many heavy-handed metaphors, Porter hides the hole with a map. In another heavy-handed metaphor, we see that the Black home contains numerous leaks. Walter’s wife Meredith (played by Foster) seems to accept all this without so much as a bat of the eyelash. I presume that her neglect has something to do with the fact that she is some kind of a structural engineer for rollercoasters. But this is rather spurious logic. I have known seemingly hippie mothers irresponsible in matters beyond the family who have stopped everything to repair a decaying home or take care of their children. And they have done this with meager income. Yet The Beaver isn’t quite brave enough to pursue this blatant hypocrisy. And that’s because, when it comes to women, this odd and creepy movie is also stuck in the 1970s, adopting the Diana Trilling position in Town Bloody Hall.

Women have two choices in this film.

(1) They remain quiet nurturers waiting for the men to relinquish their positions (such as Walter Black’s Vice President, played by Cherry Jones, who agrees to Black’s crazy plans without question, much like a glorified administrative assistant). They say absolutely nothing when men do stupid and crazy and reckless things. They are even willing to give up their bodies to men as they do stupid and crazy and reckless things, as we see during a sex scene in which Walter bangs Meredith in bed and in the shower while wearing the puppet.

(2) They must wait for the right moment to express some minor and only slightly fulfilling moment of rebellion. Meredith may think that she’s a “rebel” by designing rollercoasters, but it’s worth pointing out that we only see her doing this on her own time, when Walter is away. Likewise, Norah (Jennifer Lawrence) is a student who hires Porter to write her paper. Porter discovers that she was once a graffiti artist. But Norah has seen her younger brother OD. Crippled by grief, she is denied the ability to commit a rebellious act of artistic expression. She is understandably upset when Porter pushes her into tagging a building. But it is ultimately Porter’s grief that causes Norah to become the “rebel.” But if Meredith and Norah’s acts of “rebellion” are related to patriarchal encouragement, are they really acts of rebellion? In committing “rebellion,” aren’t they in fact doing so to nurture the men?

As a man who considers himself to be modestly enlightened, I believe this false dichotomy to be an unacceptable position in the 21st century. That this narrative worldview comes with psychiatrists and psychotherapists out of the picture is also strangely suspicious, more reminiscent of a Scientologist training video or a batshit circular disseminated by Jenny McCarthy. It’s certainly something you don’t anticipate from the seemingly wise mind who directed the not bad Little Man Tate and the astutely observed Home for the Holidays.

On the other hand, The Beaver is fairly entertaining as failed art. The movie is a curious blend between Lawrence Kasdan’s greatly underrated Mumford, in which an alleged psychologist moves to a small town and becomes popular just by listening to people, and Hal Ashby’s* Being There, in which a man becomes a media sensation by simply making the rounds. When Walter becomes a hit on the talk show circuit, and a toy product involving using one’s hands to construct wood becomes momentarily popular, the film shows a brief flash of sinewy satirical muscle. Unfortunately, because the film’s philosophy is so muddled, it never quite flattens the flab.

Part of this may have something to do with the privileged feel of the movie. I realize that I’ve spent a good deal of time railing against the film’s strange anti-women slant, but I should point out that I only developed such indignation after thinking about the film for a good week and a half. Still, when I saw the movie, it didn’t feel especially dangerous to me.

Even so, The Beaver does make you feel embarrassed for Mel Gibson, who, never mind the psychotic telephone conversations, doesn’t seem to understand that his day is now over. Earlier this year, Julie Klausner and Natasha Vargas-Cooper served up one of the best explanations for why this kind of man should no longer be depicted in present cinema. Klausner noted quite rightly that, viewed within the context of 2011, Warren Beatty is “a semi-soft erection of a towering skyscraper.” It’s too bad that Klausner hasn’t seen The Beaver. To jump off from Klausner’s metaphor, Mel Gibson can’t even get it up after downing five bottles of Viagra. He’s lucky that he still has friends like Jodie Foster, who seem to have no idea that they are closet enablers.

* — I feel compelled to point out that there is a Hal Ashby retrospective playing at BAMcinématek between now and May 24th. An essay on why Hal Ashby is important and why you should see him on the big screen is forthcoming, but I’m slightly behind on film coverage, largely because I am preparing for a 32 mile walk around Manhattan’s perimeter. Because the good folks at BAM were kind enough to let me sample some of the goods, I hope that this notice will suffice in the meantime. For the moment, I hope you will take my word that this is indeed a cool thing.

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The Bat Segundo Show: Ross Perlin

Ross Perlin appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #393. He is most recently the author of Intern Nation.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he somebody signed him up for an unpaid internship.

Author: Ross Perlin

Subjects Discussed: Economic origins of the intern, Gary Becker and human capital theory, how economics contribute to intern culture, humane paid internships and varying definitions of “investment,” spending money to work for free, theological comparisons between internships and indentured servitude, free will and the virtual requirement of internship, Max Weber, the Fair Labor Standards Act, legal exemptions for trainees that permit unpaid internships to run rampant, Walling v. Portland Terminal, “employee” vs. “trainee,” the Department of Labor’s failure to enforce the FLSA, the loss of union and labor power in the last several decades, the six criteria for unpaid interns, why the internship phenomenon is largely white-collar, the many permutations of “perma,” college students who sacrifice considerable money but don’t get the college credit, education institutions who outsource oversight to corporations, the myth of academic credit in college interns, the assumption that college students know what they’re getting into, Lippold v. Duggal Color Projects (link to PDF), Lowery v. Klemm, sexual harassment of interns, discrimination and civil rights, interns forced to prove to the courts that they are legitimate employees before they can pursue grievances, power dynamics between interns and employers, the false sentiment that you can’t be a student and a worker, Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works, addressing correlation between increased wages and economic cycles, unpaid interns as the new temps, how short-term economic logic galvanizes present employment practice, middle-class hypocrisy as epitomized by Benjamin Kunkel, living wage movements, apprenticeships as both a legitimate alternative to internships and “the best kept secret,” the Fitzgerald Act, interns as the subject of cultural ridicule, the complicated class dynamics of internship, being privileged and exploited at the same time, interns and the working poor, the “winner take all” nature of the white-collar world, US vs. UK attitudes about interns, the difficulties of corroborating a secret world, and journalism as the first draft of history.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Perlin: It’s really clear that interns are used to plug holes. They’re used to plug operational holes. They’re used when there’s a hiring freeze. Whenever the wall has been hit in terms of labor costs supposedly for the employer. So that much is clear. In terms of the businessman who says, “Well, economically I can’t pay these people. I can’t do this. I’ve got a business to run,” I would say that is short-term economic logic at best. And at worst, it’s kind of a dangerous move.

Correspondent: Well, elaborate on that. Short-term, dangerous — what do you mean by that?

Perlin: Short-term in the sense that, by every measure, paid internship programs are better than unpaid. And so cycling back to something we had mentioned earlier, taking the long-term view — investing in people, investing in interns, investing in your newest employees in general — is something that has been shown to pay great dividends. To make it more concrete, I mention one example in the book of an employer that saves substantial money through a paid internship program. Because they save on recruiting costs. It’s used as a talent pipeline. Their success metric — something like over 50% of their interns can be hired in full-time roles. They basically calculated that their costs, as opposed to just having to go out and recruit new full-time employees — would be lesser if they could bring people in as interns. Interns are always going to be lower paid than regular employees. The costs are not that great. I mean, if you’re just talking about minimum wage for interns, this is not something which is really going to affect the bottom line that much. I mean, in a huge number of companies, you can have 1,000 interns for the price of one executive. I mean, that is the kind of spread we’re looking at these days in terms of salaries. So a company like this sees the economic sense. They do hire people. So, of course, if you don’t hire people at all, then maybe this sense would break down. But there’s a huge difference between the company which just uses interns on a short-term basis — unpaid. They have access to a narrower applicant pool for their internships. They don’t have access to the widest array of talent. A number of people I talked to reported that when they were going from paid to unpaid, or unpaid to paid, the quality of the people you get changes a great deal. Because if you have a paid internship program, just about anybody can apply, relatively speaking. Also, if you advertise it transparently, if you put it out there kind of like a job more or less, you’re going to have access to a broad talented pool of people.

Correspondent: Well, I was going to say that just having a short-term viewpoint isn’t enough. I want to give you a very good example. It’s right on the cover of your book. You have Benjamin Kunkel. He is one of the editors of n+1. He’s blurbed this book and he’s called it “a fascinating and overdue exposé.” But n+1, they, by the way, have interns who are not paid, who are involved according to the n+1 website with “printing, distribution, publicity, subscriptions, web administration, transcription, carrying boxes, and bartending.” So, in other words, it doesn’t sound all that different from say the Disney College Program or even a government internship, which we haven’t even talked about. There’s even an alleged Twitter feed of the n+1 interns. And I’m not sure if it’s a joke or if it’s actually them. But if Kunkel can commend your book and call it a muckraking exposé, while simultaneously turning a blind eye to the fact that, well, he’s not going to be able to keep n+1 going without his interns, isn’t there a certain hypocrisy in this? I mean, if middle-class society uses and exploits interns, then what hope is there for changing people’s minds? Will they ever even see beyond the short-term? I mean, I agree with you that they probably should. But Kunkel, liberal-minded gent, look at what he’s doing.

Perlin: The publishing industry is one of the worst. It’s one of the worst offenders. The publisher of this book, Verso, has announced, making me very happy, that they have a well-paid, well-structured program. And I know they’re trying to spread that model in the world of independent, even left-wing publishing. But truly this has been an unpoliticized issue that it doesn’t rise to the level of consciousness. All kinds of people who see themselves as championing workers’ rights or who see themselves as liberal completely ignore this issue. Or they figure that all these interns are rich kids. So they can afford it. “It’s not a big deal if we don’t pay them.” Well, that’s an interesting statement. But, first of all, I would uphold the right of everybody to be paid for labor no matter what their background. And so I think to introduce a double standard is actually a dangerous idea. Even though people informally air that kind of opinion all the time. But, second of all, if indeed they are kids born with a silver spoon in their mouth, the question is: Why are those your interns? Well, because they’re the only ones who can afford to work for the non-pay that you’re offering. There probably are some smaller organizations getting off the ground that would have trouble surviving if they didn’t have interns. But in most cases, whether it’s a small liberal magazine in Brooklyn or a startup in the Midwest, whatever it is, they use interns to extend what they can do. To build up their capacity. To try and do more. They do it because they can. Because it’s there. And they haven’t questioned it. And one thing I’m hoping to do with the book is to politicize it such that anybody who wants to get up on soapboxes and say, “This or that is liberal. We should fight for workers. Protect workers and social mobility and social justice and talk about these kind of things,” will also look at their own workplace practices. But this is a much larger issue of people practicing what they preach, right?

Correspondent: Yes.

Perlin: In terms of work. In terms of labor. There’s so often a disconnect. Look at college campuses. Supposed hotbeds of liberalism. You walk into the lecture halls and you have Marxist professors elaborating on this or that. Until a few years ago, and this has only been in a limited kind of area, the people you had actually picking up the trash and keeping a campus running, cooking the food, etc., there was often very little connection between those big picture ideologies which are going on in the classroom and the treatment of those workers. The living wage movement on some campuses tried to rectify that and made a connection, but often you had people on those campuses theorizing about things that were happening in China or around the world, but not noticing the realities of work on their own campuses.

Correspondent: Well, interns — not only are they invisible to even the liberal-minded, but they also are something that people don’t want to see. I mean, you have people who are the working poor who are invisible. What is the solution to making them more visible? They are people too. They have debts they must pay. On the other hand, you also bring up apprenticeships in this book. But even electrician Don Davis tells you that apprenticeships remain the best kept secret. The interesting thing about apprenticeships is that they do pay an hourly wage. Some of them even provide healthcare, pension plans, day care, and the like. Is it really a matter of trying to make people more aware of something that’s secret? And if people in a business become more aware of something like apprenticeships, well, they may very well declare war upon them in the same way that they keep the concept of an intern invisible within their own folds. So do we start replacing internships with apprenticeships? Not necessarily just with books, but with people raising pitchforks in the streets?

Perlin: It’s amazing the extent to which apprenticeships — these are trade apprenticeships; blue-collar apprenticeships — are invisible to people who are not in that world, who are not in the trades. Especially in construction, which accounts for generally about 60%. 60% of all apprenticeships are engaged in construction overall. So unfortunately, yeah, if you raised more awareness about apprenticeships, it’s possible that there could be more of an attack on them. That there is legislation relating to it — the Fitzgerald Act, which established a registered apprenticeship program and standards that I see as a kind of model. Again, not incidentally, in the 1930s, as part of the golden age of labor legislation. I think that the reason apprenticeships have remained as they are is because these are generally heavily unionized fields where there are certain standards about what work should look like, what the humane experience is like, and because they work in a longer-term mentality. It’s something that’s been going on for seventy years. And from the employer’s point of view, a lot of employers welcome apprenticeships. And, in fact, the battle often is between the union and the employer over overuse of the apprentices by the employer. Because, even though apprentices are being well-paid and have a lot of benefits, as you say, relatively they’re still cheaper than using a post-apprentice union member worker. Which to me is indicative of the fact that internships would survive quite well, even if there was more regulation. Because again, interns will still represent quite a cheap reasonable solution for businesses to bring on new workers and to accomplish certain work. Even if they have to pay minimum wage, there will be quite a lot of scope for internships.

In terms of raising pitchforks in the street, I think apprenticeships are a real model for internships to look to. But it’s a huge hurdle to bring a blue-collar practice into the white-collar workforce in an era when the white-collar workforce is seen as the norm and the vanguard and setting the standard. It was shocking to me. And I think it’s shocking to a lot of people that here’s something that the blue-collar world is doing so much better. Training and bringing in young people and having a humane program. Invisibility? Yeah. I think there’s an invisibility about labor more generally. Interns are not invisible in the same way that apprentices or the working poor are. They’re featured in pop culture. Everybody sees them around. It’s known who’s the intern. They might wear a certain badge. Like in Washington DC, there’s a particular intern badge everybody knows on Capitol Hill. And people like to talk about interns. And it’s funny.

Correspondent: But they’re also the subject of ridicule.

Perlin: But often that visibility is that they’re kind of a laughing stock and that they’re figures of fun. But I think people do look at interns and they see middle-class kids. They see people who might become them, who they might work with later on. So there’s an atmosphere of civility. And there’s not the class distance often that there is with the working poor or with blue-collar workers, where there’s this feeling like, “Oh, that’s almost the other.” That’s a different somebody else. So that, in itself, represents an interesting problem. The class dynamics of internship are complicated for that reason.

Correspondent: But you’re dealing also with a certain dichotomy of perception. Wisconsin. People are really supporting the unions there. Interns? Not so much. Because of this idea: “Well, they knew what they were getting into.” It’s fascinating to me that there would actually be a strange inverted disparity with the unpaid white-collar worker versus the paid blue-collar worker. Or the paid social services worker. Do you think that’s part of the problem too? I mean, is there any way you can change that cultural perception? Especially since you have it supported not just by media reinforcement, but also by the fact that the U.S. government alone uses a lot of interns in various capacities. And it’s highly competitive. For the reasons we talked about earlier.

Perlin: Well, I think it’s hard to know what the degree of public support for interns is. In the UK, the public has been polled on the issue. And there’s a very strong feeling that interns should be paid. And a very strong majority feels that what goes on now is wrong. In the U.S., it’s hard to know. But I suspect you would still see most people thinking interns should be paid. But there are complex feelings. And I think that part of it is because there is, as you say, a strange dichotomy. Interns are both privileged and exploited at the same time. They’re privileged in the sense that they do have access to this experience that might put them over the top. That they can get into the white-collar workforce. They’re not in as bad a situation, arguably, as people who simply cannot pay to play and will never break into the white-collar workforce.

(Image: “The New Interns” by Nik Wilets)

The Bat Segundo Show #393: Ross Perlin (Download MP3)

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