amazingspiderman

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

The Amazing Spider-Man, a completely unnecessary reboot of a perfectly wonderful Sam Raimi movie that was released only ten years before, expects us to believe in remarkably unpersuasive and tepid lies.

It is a movie that expects us to believe that one can walk into a 100-story skyscraper situated in Columbus Circle run by an apparent multinational corporation, catch a look at one of the badges behind the desk, and assume one of the names. (Only an hour before the screening, my photo had been taken for a temporary badge so that I could participate in a twenty minute meeting in a building that had fewer stories than Oscorp, which I much preferred as a sprawling industrial complex in the Raimi movies.) It is a movie that expects us to believe that an impostor can enter a top secret facility standing thirty feet away from the door leading in and observe a scientist, who just happens to be there, tracing a pattern-sensitive code into the panel with his hand (no thumbprint or retinal scan or surveillance cameras?).

It is a movie that expects us to believe that a hero, unable to use his considerable strength just after being bitten by a spider, will be curiously inconsistent in how he destroys things. Peter Parker clicks on a mouse without incident, but the keys rip off the keyboard as he types. He destroys the bathroom sink, but his skateboard is remarkably preserved. It is a movie that expects us to believe that a kid possessing reflexes beyond the pale would not be recruited by a sports coach (Studio Executive to Producers: “We can’t do that because of the wrestling element in Raimi’s first movie. That bastard! Why did he bolt on us?” Producers: “Because he wanted more time to develop the script!?”) and would not be examined by scientists or specialists for his off-the-charts ability. The movie simply assumes that a preternatural ability to warp a goal post with a football (is that even physically possible with cowhide?) is par for the course among high school teens. (“We’re very excited about the creative possibilities that come from returning to Peter’s roots,” said Amy Pascal in a statement when Sony put the kibosh on Spider-Man 4. Apparently, “creative possibilities” involve a remarkably unprofessional failure to work out story logic.)

It is a movie that expects us to believe that an especially carnivorous rat (mutated, of course) running around a scientific facility would not be noticed by the many attentive professional minds employed by Oscorp. It is a movie that expects us to believe that the television cameras closely following an injured Spider-Man crawling up a building with some difficulty would not also roll as Spider-Man rips his mask off (in fact, Parker reveals his identity more times than one would think during this film; presumably, superheroes have become so commonplace in the Marvel universe that one need not bother with sub rosa). It is a movie that expects us to believe that a teenager can spend long hours fighting crime and collecting bruises and not be grounded or sternly disciplined by his guardian, who also does not follow Parker when he takes up a large and vertiginous stack of food up to his room (including frozen macaroni and cheese, which is not especially edible unless you nuke it). It is a movie that expects us to believe that a seasoned cop would not notice the numerous bruises upon his daughter’s date and would neither remark upon said contusions, much less the fact that this date has seemingly materialized out of nowhere into his daughter’s room and not shown up in a suit (as agreed upon in advance by the Stacy family).

I put forth the modest proposition that a movie containing this much paralogia should be rejected by a mass audience. It is one thing to accept a webslinger sailing through the Manhattan skyline on threads that couldn’t possibly be tensile enough to hold a 160 pound man. One must, after all, suspend some disbelief for a film of this type. But we are not dummies. And it is the job of the Hollywood professional to make us believe in the impossible for a few hours.

It is also the responsibility of the professional to give the protagonist an interesting antagonist: ideally, someone who shares similar qualities and who is just as dimensional as the hero. What have screenwriters James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargeant, and Steve Kloves given us? The Lizard (aka Dr. Curt Connors), who was capable of telepathic communication with other reptiles and was nuanced enough to help Spidey a few times in the comics, is a dull and plodding villain barking ho-hum soliloquies into his video camera and booming loud and not especially inventive three-word threats to Peter Parker. In this cinematic manifestation, he is such an underwritten and bland character that director Marc Webb, who seems to have carved out the inventive eye he brought to the marvelous (500) Days of Summer for the money men, constantly has his camera fixated upon Connors’s missing arm even after we have a pretty good idea that the experiments at Oscorp will cause it to grow back. I became so distracted by this that I was able to figure out where Rhys Ifans’s pre-CGI arm was with little effort. But as we have already established, Webb and his army of hacks aren’t especially interested in believable magic tricks.

* * *

“Don’t break promises you can’t keep,” says an English teacher at Midtown Science High School to Peter Parker, as he stumbles late into a classroom near the end of a broken cinematic promise. “Yeah,” Parker replies, “but those are the best ones.”

Actually, the best promises were fulfilled by Sam Raimi. Even Spider-Man 3, which had its share of problems, was free enough for Raimi to stage that gloriously cheesy scene in the jazz club. There isn’t a single scene in Webb’s hacktacular reimagining that comes close. Raimi understood that Spider-Man was the most endearing of Marvel’s superheroes: the bullied geek finding integrity through his superpowers. While Andrew Garfield is a handsome enough lead man, he doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would be beaten by schoolkids in a previous life. He’s too jittery and bewildered and spastic in his delivery to tend to a friendly neighborhood. It doesn’t help that he has a vague Jersey dialect which flits in and out, out of character for a guy ostensibly from Queens. But then the New York in this movie is some bizarre hodgepodge of the seedy Abraham Beame days (people apparently drink beer on the Q line and it’s too dangerous for a fit older woman to walk twelve blocks to a subway station at night) and something vaguely approximating a period that could be now or could be the 1980s (how else to account for the Rubik’s Cube that Uncle Ben picks up in Peter Parker’s room or the curious lack of texting among teens even as they are using smartphones?). While I accept that a comic book movie is going to stylize a city however it wants (Raimi was audacious enough to include an elevated line running through Manhattan), should it not be rooted in true imagination rather than careless what-the-hell incoherence? (On this point, the movie seems curiously self-aware of its fallacies. Not only does The Amazing Spider-Man lack the guts to utter the famous line “With great power comes great responsibility,” but an Einstein poster appears in Parker’s bedroom with the immortal quote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” If ever there was a filmmaker who misunderstood Einstein, it’s director Marc Webb.)

That slipshod quality extends to Peter Parker, who inexplicably clings to an analog camera in an age when nearly every aspiring photographer his age is likely to be using digital. Hilariously, Parker’s camera has PROPERTY OF PETER PARKER in embossed tape on the back, which conveniently allows a villain to find him not long after he tries snapping a few secret photos. (By comparison, notice how our first introduction of Raimi’s Peter Parker as photographer involves Parker asking permission at a museum just before he snaps a spider for the “school paper,” only for a bully to push Parker and mess up his shot. In a matter of five seconds, Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp established that (1) Parker is polite and destined to work for a paper to expand his scientific and journalistic interests and (2) he is also doomed to face bullies who will mess his vocation up, whether as crime fighter or photographer.)

And how can you have a Spider-Man movie without J. Jonah Jameson? Then again, after J.K. Simmons, why would you dare to cast another actor in the part? Jameson’s disapproval of Spidey is passed off to Captain George Stacey (played by Denis Leary, who seems to have turned into a poor man’s David Caruso, just as he was once a poor man’s Bill Hicks). But here’s why Jameson is so important. Peter Parker was able to work at the Daily Bugle trying to impress Jameson with his photos, while simultaneously facing Jameson’s smear campaign against Spidey. In light of the fact that he has no father figure, Jameson almost serves as an intriguing surrogate. Webb’s film has Captain Stacey insisting that Spidey is a menace, ordering the cops on his side. But we don’t believe it — in large part because Captain Stacey also views Parker as a kid with “psychiatric problems.” Yet it’s clear that Spidey is working on the side of good. However, we can believe that a media mogul would want to manipulate public opinion for his own selfish ends. Sure enough, Webb and his writers lack the deft hand to see Captain Stacey’s resentment through to the end.

I haven’t even brought up the Gwen Stacy story — in large part because Stacy, who was such a central figure in the comic books (memo to Mr. Webb: not especially wise of you to feature a prominent NYC bridge in your Spider-Man movie because it spells out how risk-averse and how out of your league you really are), is little more than a head-bobbing, limb-shuffling, one-dimensional, big-eyed love interest for Parker. In Raimi’s version, Mary Jane lived a few houses down from Parker. There were hints that a troubled family lived inside. Raimi even had the courage to have Parker mutter his feelings for Mary Jane while walking behind her: an uncommonly sincere moment that made us relate to Parker’s wistfulness in human terms. What does Webb offer us? Gwen Stacy’s photo on Parker’s computer.

I suppose I’m dwelling upon the many human elements that went awry because the comic book story here is boring and unsatisfying. While this movie is not as bad as any comic book movie with “green” in the title, I did not feel a single second of awe or excitement during The Amazing Spider Man‘s 136 interminable minutes. Once again, there was no real justification for the 3D: not even the ridiculous Spidey POV shots that Webb desperately introduces as a personal stylistic flourish. There also needs to be a moratorium on Stan Lee cameos.

We have seen origin story after origin story, and, after two Hulks (2003 and 2008), Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, it’s all becoming wearisome. At least with The Avengers, the spandex ass kicking began fairly early and there was decent acting and a few good lines and a rousing Alan Silvestri score and an endearing Hulk. But the comic book movie has become a drag. Nobody says “fuck” or fucks or drinks or does drugs or gets into serious trouble. Nobody really lives. Imagine how truly amazing these movies would be if somebody took a human chance.

sarahpolleydirect

Sarah Polley (The Bat Segundo Show)

Sarah Polley appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #464. She is most recently the writer and director of Take This Waltz. The film opens in select theaters on June 29, 2012.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if the chicken cookbook or the adulterous egg came first.

Guest: Sarah Polley

Subjects Discussed: Similarities between Away from Her and Take This Waltz, the need for daily sweeping romance, whether film can offer corrective responses to romantic fallacies, a culture becoming increasingly uncomfortable with emptiness, holding onto transgressive moments in cinematic narrative until the last possible minute, designing a house that correctly reflects the socioeconomic status of characters, gentrification and other developments in Toronto, Kubrick’s complaints about Woody Allen, the line between the real and the fantastical in Take This Waltz, 360 degree shots, circular motifs, writing scenes out of order, why Polley’s male characters react to very emotional developments with total calmness, Polley’s father, subconscious artistic choices rooted in childhood, anger and maturity, cinematic histrionics, Polley’s views on marriage, relationships depicted by young filmmakers, living with flawed human beings, why Polley isn’t doing so much acting these days, becoming braver, avoiding the same tricks, numerous visual metaphors in Take This Waltz, “Video Killed the Radio Star” as adulterous metaphor, words as betrayal, using heavyweight dramatic and comic actors, and Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: There is a line that Fiona says in the car in Away from Her. “I think people are too demanding. People want to be in love every single day. What a liability.” So Take This Waltz almost carries on with the extension of this idea, of the need for daily sweeping romance. But this film, it’s almost the complete opposite of a movie like Brief Encounter, where you suggest in this case that Margot’s adulterous desires are selfish and childish. The “I wuv you” at the very end of the movie. So I’m wondering. Do you see your two films as writer and director as corrective responses to this notion of romance? And how do you feel independent cinema is doing in depicting this more pernicious side of adulterous desires? Just to start out here.

Polley: Wow. That was amazing! I do feel like Away from Her and Take This Waltz are companion pieces to a certain extent. Even though they’re completely different films. I do think they are talking about the same thing in very different ways. I think that the line that Fiona says — “People want to be in love every single day. What a liability. People are too demanding.” — I do actually feel that. I feel like we have unrealistic expectations of our relationships. That they’re going to fulfill us at every moment and, if they don’t, there must be something wrong with them and we better go out and solve that. But I think that that’s a cultural thing and that we have that notion in almost every aspect of our lives. I think that we’re a culture that’s incredibly uncomfortable with emptiness, with feeling like life has a gap, with feeling like things aren’t perfect. And so we feel that if there’s something missing, that automatically means that there’s something wrong and we need to go out and fix it and we just need to make the right move in our lives and everything will somehow feel complete. And I think we constantly get shocked and blindsided by the fact that — I think that feeling of something new and missing and that emptiness does kind of follow us around a little bit. Or at least for periods of time. So, yeah, it’s funny that you brought up that line. Because I never really thought of the connection between that line and Take This Waltz. But I do actually think that Take This Waltz is an extension of that a little bit. And at the same time, I think I probably started writing the script a lot more judgmentally of the main character Margot than I ended up. I ended up feeling at the end of making the film that I empathized with all three characters. And that there were no heroes or villains.

Correspondent: Interesting.

Polley: While some of her choices seem immature or childish or self-involved, I think that enough people are connecting to her as a character and feeling quite defensive of her that it’s making me see her a lot more sympathetically as well.

Correspondent: It’s interesting that in both movies you keep that transgressive moment — and I don’t want to spoil either film — to the last possible minute. I think it’s in the last ten minutes of the first film and, in this, it’s perhaps the last twenty, twenty-five. And I’m wondering about sustaining that need to transgress from this seemingly stable relationship. Of some years too, by the way. It’s interesting that both marriages — the first is 44 years, the second is four or five years. So I’m wondering. Are you more interested in that period before one transgresses? Within this way of looking at these long-term relationships?

Polley: I think it’s the most cinematic part of a relationship like that. It’s before something actually happens. I think, in a way, all the deliciousness of that kind of relationship happens before anything happens. Also, it was important to me in this film that Margot not be someone who takes this lightly. Like she is somebody who deeply loves her husband. She is extremely tempted and brought to life by this other person. But she’s not someone who’s easily going to betray her husband or leave her husband. It’s really difficult for her. And, in fact, that makes that other situation even more tempting and even more alive.

Correspondent: I also wanted to ask you about the house, which intrigued me in a number of ways. First of all, we see the kitchen obsession that was in the first one repeats in this one, which I thought was actually quite interesting. But there is this interesting notion of Margot almost seeking the real space while also seeking the fantastical space. Because you see this moment where they’re both watching TV in this cramped office, which as a freelancer I can totally relate to. In fact, the way we watch TV at our house is actually quite similar to that. But you also then see the scale of where she goes open up over the course of the film. It starts with the pool. And then later on, we have the loft. And I’m wondering. Because their space is not exactly — I buy certain rooms. Yes, that’s exactly how a struggling freelance writer, or even a successful freelance writer, would probably have that kind of space. But on the other hand, well, that kitchen is rather large even if you are a moderately successful cookbook author. So I’m curious about how you designed this space with this tension between the real and the phantasmagorical, or the fantastical in mind.

Polley: So this is an interesting question. So Downtown Toronto, up until about ten or fifteen years ago in the area where these characters live.

Correspondent: Kensington Market, right? It’s sort of there.

Polley: Sort of Little Portugal, Italy. Ten years ago, when Margot and Lou would have bought that house, when it was still primarily a community of families. Generations of families would have actually been affordable with a considerable amount of debt to two fairly bohemian people. I have friends who bought houses then with absolutely no money, with a loan, and didn’t do renovations for years and years and years. And it fell apart for a little bit. But that would realistically be a house they could have bought. There’s no way those two characters could buy that house now. If the film was taking place ten years from now, there’s no way you would believe it.

Correspondent: Comparable to Brooklyn actually.

Polley: And the truth is they probably, realistically at this point in two years’ time, would have figured out the value of their house and sold it and made a lot of money. (laughs) But I think culturally it’s a weird thing in Toronto. Where there have been traditionally these downtown neighborhoods right in the urban core with pretty lovely, maybe rundown Victorian/Edwardian houses that were fairly affordable. That’s changed and it’s changing and that’s really sad. Because it means the demographics of who lives downtown is really changing as well.

Correspondent: So you have given this some thought. (laughs)

Polley: I have given it some thought. Because it is something that I noticed doesn’t quite translate. Like in every other country, people are like, “Those people could never afford that house.” And I want to go, “Yeah. Right now. But what was amazing ten years ago in Toronto was people like them could.”

Correspondent: It’s like Kubrick sneering at Woody Allen, saying, “There’s no way these people could live in these spacious apartments in New York.” Or a similar thing.

Polley: Exactly. Then it does get fantastical. To be fair, I feel that when we go to where they live in the end in this, in this giant loft space, then I think we do take it into the realm of fantasy a little bit. Although I feel like the way we designed that was as though it was like an abandoned loft on top of a building. Which again, I think those spaces were much more readily available ten years ago than they are now.

Correspondent: Well, this leads me to ask. The ending — and it’s hard to discuss without giving it away, so I’m going to do my best. But that notion of the fantastical that enters into it. When I watched this, I thought to myself, because I was so — God, you tested my morals. I was like, “Don’t do it!” I’m not going to say what happens. But when she is in that loft. And thanks for the equal opportunity, in terms of what happened.

Polley: (laughs)

Correspondent: I appreciated that little touch. But I thought that the movie had immediately transformed into a fantasy. And then it goes back into the real. And I’m wondering if at any point during the devising of this story if you actually did think that it was going to more of this whimsy into the fantasy. Or were you forced to combat certain feelings, the impulse to turn it into a fantasy at any point?

Polley: No. But I did want that sequence you’re talking about, where it’s…

Correspondent: Yes, the circular…

Polley: It’s a 360 degree shot that shows the progression of a sexual relationship in one shot. And there is something fantastical about that. And I didn’t shy away from that. There’s something contrived about it. There’s something strange and fantastical about it. And it is to show the passing of time in one long shot. And that was one of the first images I ever had for the film. So in a way, it’s out of place in the film. It all of a sudden breaks with the tone and the reality of the film. But I felt somehow that I could get away with it. And people disagree on that. Some people think I did get away with it. And some people didn’t.

Correspondent: I appreciated being tested.

saulbellow

The Adventures of Augie March (Modern Library #81)

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

In 1995, Martin Amis insisted that Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March was America’s very reflection: a literary lodestone attracting all known bits of iron and reducing all subsequent ambition to blast furnace rejects. Six years later, Christopher Hitchens was more liberal about the dilemma: “I do not set myself up as a member of the jury in the Great American Novel contest, if only because I’d prefer to see the white whale evade capture for a while longer.”*

Augie March is indeed a fearsome masterpiece, but I’m inclined to side with Hitchens on the legacy question, for I would like to believe that some as yet unwritten book will change the game in ways now unknown. For now, we have Augie, which definitely stands as one of the 20th century’s heavyweights. I can state with certitude that this book will humble you, perhaps even wreck you for a time. Because nothing you read or write will feel this perfect.

I was so in awe of this novel that I was forced to read the two apprentice novels that came before (Dangling Man and The Victim), as well as Bellow’s recently published volume of letters. I needed to know that Bellow could fail like the rest of us. I needed this great human chronicler to be made more human. Dangling Man, in particular, proved to be an unexpectedly funny chronicle of a shut-in, with such declarations as “Hemmed in all day, inactive, I lie down at night in enervation and, as a result, I sleep badly.” And I was somewhat surprised to see Bellow take this book quite seriously. “I’m speaking of wretchedness and saying that no man by his own effort finds his way out of it,” Bellow wrote to David Bazelon in 1944.

* * *

But most literary people are self-important in their twenties. I swallowed Bellow’s middle period novels (Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, Humboldt’s Gift) during those years, but I never got around to reading the 600-page redwood that made Bellow a giant. I recall a few older strangers giving me approving nods on buses and subways. At the time, Bellow was still alive, but he was one of those writers you weren’t supposed to talk about. I had no idea why. It may have had something to do with Bellow siring his fourth child at the age of 84. I read his books anyway.

When I discovered that Dave Eggers was a huge Bellow fan (Eggers called Bellow “the person who I idolized more than anybody else” in an interview) and when I saw how The Adventures of Augie March had made Eggers’s fiction writing even more insufferable (You Shall Know Our Velocity anyone?), I became gravely horrified that Augie would have the same disastrous effect on me. (Again, I was in my twenties.) I did not want to become some smug asshole swimming in a twee cesspool. So I avoided reading Augie March in the same way that I avoided born again Christians, mass murderers, and rude moviegoers who bring loud plastic bags to crinkle.

This was a severe mistake.

* * *

No book can tell you how to live, but a great novel can kick your ass in the right direction. And I memorialize my youthful follies as minor regrets and as a plea to anyone under thirty to not make the same mistake. Read this novel at once!

The American temperament once prided itself upon initiative, innovation, and a sense of duty to anyone needing help. Augie March epitomizes all three ideals, but it is thankfully not without corruption or philandering or the need to hustle. After all, this book is set partly during the Great Depression. The gripping chapter where Augie takes his neighbor Mimi Villars in for an abortion is not only exceptionally daring for a book published in 1953, but, when Augie faces reprisals for his help, it reveals the peculiarly punitive American attitude steeped in moral judgment combined with partial knowledge of the facts.

Augie’s picaresque existence of finding odd jobs and falling in with odd characters and fretting over friends and losing lovers represents the kind of well-filled life serving in sharp contrast to today’s hipsters and go nowhere types. I am no longer in my twenties, but reading Augie did find me wondering how much time I was wasting and whether my energies needed to be focused more on the joy and love which drips in droves throughout this bawdy book.

* * *

Augie March is extremely well-observed, whether capturing a salon’s “oriental rugs that swallow sounds in their nap” or describing the way that Augie returns to Chicago to see a “gray snarled city with the hard black straps of rails” after his adventures in Mexico. It is wise, adventurous, heartbreaking, rueful, exciting, inspiring, but never mawkish. It is populated by indelible side characters such as the patriarch Einhorn, an ever-resourceful operator with a “fatty, beaky, noble Bourbon face” who serves as Augie’s father figure, the querulous Grandma Lausch who tends to the March home when Augie’s mother cannot, and Mintouchian, the avuncular Armenian who doles out some rules for living. Even Trotsky makes a cameo.

And then there’s Bellow’s nimble linguistic dexterity, in which his gift for description merges seamlessly with Augie’s expansive wisdom:

But maybe that spicy, sumptuous fish-gravy odor that belonged to the past made me too much of a critic of the present moment, exaggerating Mama’s difficulties and imagining that the Gulistan and the drapes were the softenings of a cage.

This passage comes late in the book, when Augie is wondering if he has been altogether decent to his debilitated Mama and to his developmentally disabled brother Georgie, locked away and betrayed by Augie’s older brother Simon, who spends most of the book with a missing tooth. It’s especially wistful that this is the ultimate cost of Augie’s raucous adventures: that the broken family should be so physically broken and that dear relatives should be schlepped away to institutions.

Since Augie may be fated to start a family of his own, his Adventures could be read as a Rosseau-like confessional. Rosseau hoped to make his way into heaven by telling all. For Augie, perhaps family and love may be the empyrean reward. When Augie says in the final paragraph that he’s “a sort of Columbus of those near-in-hand,” we realize his terra incognita may not necessarily be of the “American, Chicago-born” category, but more concerned with stretching the soul. And if his soul has already stretched across decades, why wouldn’t it stretch further?

* — It may be worth noting that Amis, who befriended Bellow, took Hitchens to meet the great genius. But the two distinctive writers got a bit contentious. From Bellow’s August 29, 1989 letter to Cynthia Ozick:

During dinner he mentioned that he was a great friend of Edward Said. Leon Wieseltier and Noam Chomsky were also great buddies of his. At the mention of Said’s name, Janis grumbled. I doubt that this was unexpected, for Hitchens almost certainly thinks of me as a terrible reactionary — the Jewish Right. Brought up to respect and to reject politeness at the same time, the guest wrestled briefly and silently with the louche journalist and finally [the latter] spoke up. He said that Said was a great friend and that he must apologize for differing with Janis but loyalty to a friend demanded that he set the record straight. Everybody remained polite. For Amis’ sake I didn’t want a scene. Fortunately (or not) I had within reach several excerpts from Said’s Critical Inquiry piece, which I offered in evidence. Jews were (more or less) Nazis. But of course, said Hitchens, it was well known that [Yitzhak] Shamir had approached Hitler during the war to make deals. I objected that Shamir was Shamir, he wasn’t the Jews. Besides I didn’t trust the evidence. The argument seesawed. Amis took the Said selections to read for himself. He could find nothing to say at the moment but next morning he tried to bring the matter up, and to avoid further embarrassment I said it had all been much ado about nothing.

Hitchens appeals to Amis. This is a temptation I understand. But the sort of people you like to write about aren’t always fit company, especially at the dinner table.

Next Up: Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited!

jesmynward

Jesmyn Ward (The Bat Segundo Show)

Jesmyn Ward appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #463. She is most recently the author of Salvage the Bones.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Testing the limits of his fury towards the Bush family.

Author: Jesmyn Ward

Subjects Discussed: Smoothies, fruit, bad franchises, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, what it means to be a mother and a woman, Medea, America’s lack of mythology vs. Greek mythology, life within a poor community, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, an author’s responsibility to community, the regional limitations of contemporary American fiction, being made angry by comments relating to Katrina, Pat Robertson, Barbara Bush’s insensitive comments about Katrina, FEMA and Michael Brown, novels of ideas, the physicality of characters, sinewy muscles, stomachs in fiction, close third person vs. first-person perspective, bad models of womanhood in the natural world, language, China as an anagram of chain, words as tokens of physical identity, present stigmas against figurative language, collisional rhythm, Outkast and Deuteronomy, finding an incidental rhythm, when to resist feedback that gets in the way of a natural voice, violence in fiction, creating a ferocious and multidimensional dog in Salvage the Bones, being surprised by the middle, pit bulls, Manny as a conflict generator, the mysterious ghostly mother, Hemingway’s iceberg theory, sexuality and promiscuity, unstoppable emotional forces, not glossing over the truth, describing trees with limbs, paradisaical cesspools, keeping a natural environment alive, and finding the right details to depict impoverishment.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You have Esch reading this Edith Hamilton book, especially Medea. And you also point out near the end that mythology won’t entirely help you out in a fix. Esch says that she is stuck in the middle of the book. And aside from Hamilton, I have to ask, did you draw on any other inspirational mythology when you were creating this book? Was there a point when you abandoned mythology at all like Esch? I wanted to start off here from the origin.

Ward: That’s an interesting question. I didn’t draw from any other mythology. I don’t think. Greek mythology, that was the thing in this book. I think in my first book I did — well, if you consider some of the older tales in the Bible mythology. I drew from some of those in my first book.

Correspondent: Do you consider them mythology?

Ward: Well, they are tales that explain how the world became what it is. So in ways, I think it is. But did I use any other sorts of mythologies in this, in Salvage the Bones? I don’t know. I don’t think that I abandoned it. I think that mythology’s important to her because it’s helping her understand what it means to be a mother and what it means to be a woman. So therefore, like even though she turns away from it, she still can’t help but go before the storm. To come back to that story and read more of Medea. Because see, she’s searching. And in there, she’s found something. She can’t figure out what it is. But she’s found something.

Correspondent: But it’s interesting that you would have her cleave to mythology in America, which is a nation that is constantly in search of its own great mythology. The Great American Novel. We’re Number One. You name it. I’m wondering if this mythological concern was in some sense related to, well, whatever American identity that Esch and her family had.

Ward: Well, I think she feels very much like an outsider. I think that the culture that she is from, that she lives in a small world — you know, a poor black community. I mean, I feel like they think they’re outside of that. They exist outside of that American dream. And so, in ways, they have to look elsewhere. And Esch, particularly, she finds that she is even more isolated than that community that her family is. Because she’s this only girl who grows up in a world full of men. So she really has to look outside what is easily available to her or in front of her in order to find some sort of kinship.

Correspondent: This leads me to wonder. Have you read Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Ward: No.

Correspondent: Because your book, on a fiction level, reminded me of this great journalism book. Which I think you would love and I’m just in total admiration of. It basically deals with this inner life of the people who are poor, who are collecting trash on the edge of Mumbai. And your book reminded me very much of this response to typical First World guilt or what not. That instead of actually pitying or looking down upon these people, your book is very much about giving all of these characters a great inner life. They do live. And it’s important to remember that they live. And I’m wondering where this impulse came from. Whether this idea of allowing Esch and her family to live was in some sense a way for you to counter any accusations of “Well, I’m responding to politics” and so forth.

Ward: Well, I think that I write about the kind of people that I grew up with, and the kind of people that are in my family and about the place that I’m from. I mean, I’m from a poor rural Southern community that — at least in my part of the community, which is mostly black. And you know, our family’s been there for generations. And I have a very large extended family. I’m related to almost everyone in my town. And so, for me, it’s like writing about the people that I’m writing about — you know, I feel that it’s a responsibility. Because I’m writing about my people. Even though my path is very different from most of the people I grew up with, I still consider myself — you know, that’s still my place. And those are still my people. So for me, that’s what this is. I don’t feel like an outsider. I feel like an insider who’s speaking out for the rest of the people inside my group.

Correspondent: Sure. I totally understand that. Do you think that this is going to be how it’s going to be for your fiction career? That you have to respond to this responsibility of speaking for this group of people? Because nobody else will. Or, in fact, one might argue that maybe American fiction, or regional American fiction, isn’t actually hitting that particular territory. What do you think of this?

Ward: I mean, I think that for the foreseeable future, as far as my writing life is concerned, I intend to write about the place and the people that I come from. Because part of the reason that I do so — I mean, part of the reason that I wanted to write about Katrina is because I was uncomfortable and made angry by the way that I heard others speak about people who didn’t evacuate from the storm. About people who stayed. About poor people who were caught in the maw of that storm. And I wanted to write against that. And so in a way, I do think that the voices of the people that I write about, or even just the people that I write about, that they’ve been absent in the conversation, in the national conversation. And that’s part of what I’m trying to do by writing about them. Introduce their voices into the conversation so that people pay attention and people aren’t so quick to write them off as worthless or stupid or all the other crazy things that I heard after Hurricane Katrina.

Correspondent: Are there specific things that really pissed you off?

Ward: Well, I heard this one woman. She’s from Atlanta too, which is close enough. It’s six hours away from where I live. And she said that the reason that Hurricane Katrina had hit us and done so much damage is because we were sinful. That we were in a sinful place. Like, for her, it was very much about — you know, she was approaching it from a religious standpoint.

Correspondent: The Pat Robertson-like charge.

Ward: Yeah.

Correspondent: “Well, they brought it onto themselves.”

Ward: Yeah. So we deserved it because of our proclivity for gambling and drinking and all the rest. And then other people that I encountered said that, one, they couldn’t understand why people stayed. Why people would stay and try to survive a hurricane like that. And, two, that they didn’t understand why people would return and try to rebuild. Because what’s the point if global warming just means that there are going to be more storms, there are going to be just as powerful as Katrina and more of them are going to hit that part of the United States. And that comment really made me angry. Because that person was from L.A.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Ward: That person was from California, which has its own.

Correspondent: These bicoastal buffoons.

Ward: So I just heard commentary like that. And it just made me really angry. And I wanted to counter those. I really felt that our voices were absent from that. Especially that conversation. You had what’s her name. It’s Bush’s mother. Remember when she said that crazy stuff?

Correspondent: Barbara Bush.

Ward: Yeah. About the people from New Orleans. Like this was like a vacation for them. Because they got to go ahead and stay in the Astrodome. Like really? Are you serious? Just so far removed from the reality of these people’s lives and their struggles. Just so far removed. Comments like that just made me realize how, when people said them, it’s like they didn’t recognize our humanity at all. And that really made me angry, and made me want to address Hurricane Katrina in the book.

Correspondent: Well, this seems as good a time as any to confess to you, Jesmyn, that at the point where they are scrambling for their boiled eggs and their packages of ramen, and there is of course the depiction of the carton of bones in the fridge — and then they say, “Oh, well, FEMA and Red Cross will help us out.” At that point, I thought I had a maximum level of anger towards Bush and Brown. And then I read that. And I became even more furious towards them.

Ward: (laughs)

Correspondent: And you’re talking here about anger. And you’re talking about it in a very calm manner. And this book is extremely focused, I would say. So what did you do to not get so caught up in this understandably furious impulse and actually focus in on the book? Was it really the inner life of these characters that was enough for you to counter any socioeconomic, political responsive bullshit?

Ward: I think so. Because I feel that my book will fail if my characters are not alive on the page. There have been great novels of ideas, right? But, for me, the kind of writer that I am, I can’t write those novels. And I don’t think that they would be successful novels.

Correspondent: Why do you think you can’t write a novel of ideas? Or that the ideas are best represented in the environment that you set down?

Ward: I don’t know. It’s just not my style. What comes naturally to me is telling a story that’s invested in people and in the characters, and making them live on the page.

The Bat Segundo Show #463: Jesmyn Ward (Download MP3)

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Elizabeth Cline Author Portrait

Elizabeth L. Cline (The Bat Segundo Show)

Elizabeth L. Cline appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #462. She is most recently the author of Overdressed.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Rubbing his hands over a personal project: a tequila haul video now in development.

Author: Elizabeth L. Cline

Subjects Discussed: The disposability of clothes, why so many clothes at the Quincy Street Salvation Army gets thrown away, fast fashion industries eyeballing China, comparisons between the fashion industry and the food industry, selling high volume product for low prices, Forever 21’s markup, Vebelenian consumption and free choice, the psychology of cheap, the haul video phenomenon, Dan Ariely’s behavioral economics, discomfort with the clothes that you’re wearing, being an “expert consumer,” Sex and the City, wanting quantity over quality, overconsumption, buying cheap items that fall apart, H&M’s addictive qualities, a 2011 Well-Spent comment thread with consumers and fashion designer Eunice Lee, what remains of domestic manufacturing, consumer price expectations, unemployment and the collapse of the garment and textile industries, how the increased price of labor in China has affected the U.S. manufacturing base, Dalma Dress Manufacturing Company, Michael DiPalma’s “labor is labor,” the Dynotex factory in Greenpoint, domestic gown markets being pushed into the luxury gowns, finding the compromise between a luxury gown and mass-production, Levi closing its last U.S. factory in 2003, the new definition of “high-end,” premium denim produced in Los Angeles, very small Los Angeles factories vs. very large Chinese factories, playing the blame game, frustrated fashion designers, the bottom line of budget fashion chains, why H&M pins the blame on consumers, the Hubbert’s Peak of fashion, new efforts to hook Chinese consumers on disposable fashion, the impact of NAFTA and the expiration of the Multi Fibre Agreement, massive imports of Chinese cotton trousers, garment protectionist measures, the unskilled labor market, spinning heads, New York’s crackdown on soft drink sizes, the cultural impact of Michelle Obama wearing a Target dress, the Slow Clothing Movement, Kate Middleton being chided for wearing the same dress twice, the rampant copying within the fashion industry, the Design Piracy Protection Act, low wages paid to Chinese workers, the impact of labor exploitation on fashion, encouraging people to sew, traveling seamstresses, and raising an army of fashion alterers.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Cline: I would say we’ve got a First Lady who is running around bragging about the fact that she wears Target and people applaud her for that. And our garment industry declined. We made 50% of our clothes here in 1990. And now we make between 2 and 3%. So the fact that we have someone in office and we’re clapping whenever they wear imported clothing. And then you’ve got this flip side reality of giving away an entire industry. That to me is what is perhaps most shocking in this situation. I mean, there are other kinds of consequences of cheap fashion. But, for me, a lot of it comes down to what’s happened to the economy. And I talk about in the book how the clothing industry is a good economic indicator. It’s like, if there’s not a middle market in the fashion industry, that usually means that there’s not a middle-class in society. And we saw this in the 1920s as well. The ready-to-wear market was split between high-end and super cheap. And that’s because there were really rich people. So when you see the fashion industry without a middle market, that’s usually a good sign that there’s not a middle-class. And the two are so tied together, it’s kind of scary.

Correspondent: You were chiding me earlier about seeking someone to point the finger at. But it seems to me that you’re doing the same thing by saying, “Wow, we now celebrate the fact that Michelle Obama wears Target.” Only fifteen years before, we would point the finger at Kathie Lee Gifford and say, “You complete hypocrite. You’re producing this clothing line and these kids are doing backbreaking labor to provide you with your clothes.” Obviously, we’ve advanced far along the lines in a matter of fifteen to twenty years. Do we have to punish someone to actually solve the problem? Do we have to find a scapegoat? Or is there a more constructive, less vigilante mob way with which to encourage consumers to use whatever rights they still have to not opt for disposable clothing? Perhaps something along the lines of The Slow Clothing Movement that you outline at the end of this book. Or perhaps encouraging people — even people who are bad with sewing machines like myself — to go ahead and replace their particular clothes.

Cline: I mean, I think that people are in the spotlight, whether it’s someone like Kate Middleton, who’s always in the news because she wore the same thing twice in ten days. I think that that does as much for the issues that I’m talking about as a book like mine does. Just because she’s such a high-profile person. And Michelle Obama, the reason why I single her out is because her fashion has probably been the most talked about aspect of her reign, if you will, as First Lady. And people take their cues from her. She is reinforcing this high/low dichotomy that we’ve got in the fashion industry now. What you’re supposed to do, according to the fashion magazines, is you splurge on your Louis Vuitton bag, but then you wear a Target dress. And that’s American fashion. That’s considered American fashion now. Where is any of that made? And why did you overpay for a pocketbook? And why did you underpay for a dress? That’s not helping anything.

Correspondent: There’s also one interesting thing that I didn’t really know about until I read your book. And that is this fascinating copyright problem in the fashion industry. I mean, it makes total sense once you lay it on the line. Of course, there have been spies at fashion shows. But we’re dealing with an industry in which everybody copies everybody and there is no absolute control over this. You point out Ralph Lauren’s quote, that he owes his career to forty-five years of copying. There isn’t copyright protection. Tom Ford, Guy Trebay even had to confess that there would be no fashion if you adopted legal rules. Now you have the Internet today. You have high-def cameras that are instantly taking in any fashion show, any exposition. You have tailors on the ready, ready to reproduce whatever it is that is being made somewhere else in the world. And that to me is absolutely fascinating. It’s a magnificent counterfeit industry. There were efforts to pass varying versions of the Design Piracy Prohibition Act. They didn’t take, however. And what was interesting about that is that with the bill’s supporters, a few of them were actually caught copying clothes made by independent designers. I thought that was hilarious. I’m wondering. Are there any signs right now in 2012 — it’s been a while since you wrote the book, maybe about a year or so — are there any signs now that this additional copying has had a drastic effect on the fashion industry? That it’s actually becoming more a problem? Or are things relatively stable? And how does this compare to some of the globalization concerns we were just talking about?

Cline: I think copying is a problem. Because it feeds this surplus of clothing. I mean, copying is what creates trends, right? Trends sell fashion today. So it just enables this speeding up of the fashion industry. So it’s like, even if you’re not copying exactly, if you’re copying something almost exactly — and every store does that. So this copyright protection bill that’s moving through Congress is really only going to eliminate exact copies. Exact replicas. And that should happen. But that’s not really going to stop the fact that you can change a button or a stripe or something and then that’s totally fine. So my whole point in bringing that up was that all these retailers are looking at each other and copying each other, and the system is just moving forward faster and faster and faster because of that.

Correspondent: But, Elizabeth, the fashion information wants to be free.

Cline: (laughs) It does. It does. You know, when I was in China, a lot of the factories there, they would — I would go into a sample room, which is where they have all the designs that they’ve made hanging up on a rack. And they would take something off the rack and be like, “Do you want us to copy this?” That’s how easy it is. And one time that happened, it was actually a Forever 21 garment. Which I thought was hilarious. I was like, okay, I’m being given the opportunity to rip off the ultimate ripoff artist. Because I went undercover as a garment buyer. I guess I should have said that at the beginning. So they were trying to sell me designs. And it can happen on that level. But it can also be as easy as someone in the U.S. in a design office emailing a photo to the factory and the factory just copies it there. It’s so easy to do now. And Forever 21 copying these other companies’ stores that copy designers, I think it’s really mostly a threat right now to independent desginers, as you were saying. I really try and support independent designers. And they’re having a hard time. Because consumers think that their price points is too high. Because they don’t understand the ways and the mechanisms of the fashion industry. But they’re also like, “Why wouldn’t I just go to Forever 21 and get it for $20 instead?”

Correspondent: We should really talk about some of what you observed in China. Especially the labor exploitation and so forth. You say in the book that they have these facilities that they offered, and your impression was that this was part of the whole drill whenever any American comes to visit. Do you feel that you got a sufficiently accurate idea of what was going on there? What do you feel is the takeaway, laborwise, from what you saw?

Cline: I actually decided when I knew I was going to write the book that I wasn’t going to write a sweatshop book. Because so many of them have been written. And I feel that people know more or less what’s going on. That I didn’t really have a whole lot to contribute to that story. I was really there to see how the business side operates. And absolutely, I think I got an accurate reflection. Because there was no reason for them to hide those things from me. What I would say about the labor conditions is that the fashion industry has been in the spotlight now for almost twenty years for labor abuses overseas. Domestically, going back to 1911. So the factories in China that I saw — and again they knew I was an American; I’m sure I was shown the better factories — were clearly products of a lot of, I guess I would say, cleanup. Because people are really afraid of getting busted for sweatshops now. Compared to American factories, the Chinese factories are very clean. Very organized. They have the latest machinery. All the fire exits are properly marked. There are fire extinguishers on the walls. So that kind of stuff, they’ve got their ducks in a row. And you can really tell that they’ve had to do that in order to do business with the West. I think instead of people looking for really extreme examples of human rights violations, they should concentrate on the wages being paid to these people. And in the garment industry, that’s poverty wages everywhere, except for in the West. So to me, that’s what’s not acceptable. I mean, you can pay someone the minimum wage in China and that’s a poverty wage. And that’s perfectly legal. That would not be considered a sweatshop story. But that’s the reality.

Correspondent: So how do we get some of these young women who make these haul videos to understand that there is tremendous poverty attached to what they get to enjoy at an H&M or any one of these particular stores?

Cline: I would like to think that people, especially people of the generation behind me — I’m 31 — a lot of them are already conscientious consumers that care about the environment and they care about human rights. But it’s like they need to be given a way to vote with their dollars. For example, if H&M had a fair trade section or a living wage tag on some of their clothes, I think that they would support that. So I think that hopefully, with a book like mine, more stories will come out. And they’ll start to say, “Go to these retailers” and “Hey! I like the designs. I want to keep shopping here. But you guys have really got to do more to earn my loyalty.”

Correspondent: I am fascinated by the idea that everything has become more disposable. That it’s a matter of buying something. It’s not going to last. And it’s going to be thrown away. And we were alluding earlier that one of the solutions to this is encouraging people to sew, to fix up their footwear, to fix up their clothes. On the other hand, I look to something like that and I say to myself, “Well, aside from the fact that sewing a button for me is something equivalent to Euclidean geometry…”

Cline: (laughs)

Correspondent: I can do it! But it takes a long time. There’s also the time factor. If I want to go ahead and fix up clothes, let’s say that’s ten hours of my time. If I value my time at $15 an hour, that’s $150. I could easily go to a store and instantly pay less for my time. What fundamentally needs to change in order to get us into this durability mode? Is there any kind of natural place for us to stop short of all of us wearing cardboard clothes or something? Or stuff made out of paper that’s going to fall apart? I guess, the no iron shirts would be close to that, right?

Cline: I know. It’s amazing how everything’s wrinkle free. You don’t have to do anything. It’s just bionic at this point. But sewing is definitely not about saving yourself time or even really about durability. People are getting back into sewing because it’s satisfying. And it’s not for everyone. But the people who do it love it because it’s just a way to connect with your clothes. We live our lives in clothes. So I don’t think it’s that surprising that people are looking for ways to interact with it in a more satisfying or meaningful way. And sewing is one way to do that. And I certainly do not have the skill. I will never be able to make most of what I wear. But I do enjoy being able to alter and tailor the things that I wear, and customize the things that I wear. And I think that that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to expect more people to get into. Just because it feels good. And it makes you like your clothes better. It honestly does.

Correspondent: So what we really need is an army of fashion alterers to go around and knock on people’s doors and say, “Are you happy with your clothes? We can alter these clothes to fit you for a small, modest fee.” And then people realize, “Oh! Well, I like these clothes better!” Maybe this is part of the solution? Maybe this is the way to durability?

Cline: Yes.

Correspondent: I think we have an idea here!

Cline: I just found out about a traveling seamstress in Williamsburg.

Correspondent: Really?

Cline: I was like, “Thank you!” Because I’m really lazy. Come to my house and fix everything of my own.

Correspondent: (laughs) So we have to bring the seamstresses and the tailors — it will be like how the old doctors used to show up to your home for in-house appointments. I guess this is the way to do it?

Cline: Maybe that will be my next career move.

The Bat Segundo Show #462: Elizabeth L. Cline (Download MP3)

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lehrerfeatured

How Jonah Lehrer Recycled His Own Material for Imagine

[6/20/12 12:00 PM UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect newly discovered examples of Jonah Lehrer lifting his own material. We have also discovered that Lehrer has plagiarized Malcolm Gladwell (see the example from Page 144). Also of interest to those following the story: Jacob Silverman's piece for The Daily Beast, two new items from Jim Romenesko (Item 1 and Item 2), and Poynter's Craig Silverman on how this is part of a Google Game. Additional updates to this story can be found at the end of this report.]

[6/22/12 4:15 PM UPDATE: Reluctant Habits has uncovered two more instances of Jonah Lehrer pilfering from Malcolm Gladwell's work. Scroll to the bottom for the latest updates.]

It began with a Tuesday morning item from Jim Romenesko, in which the veteran journalist observed that material that Jonah Lehrer used in a Wall Street Journal piece published last October was repurposed by him for a June 12, 2012 New Yorker post.

Hours later, numerous other journalists were on the case, operating under the theory that a man who steals from himself once is likely to do so again. Daily Intel‘s Joe Coscarelli located additional examples, as did Jacob Silverman. By the end of the day, many of Lehrer’s pieces on The New Yorker contained editorial notes and regrets over the reused material. Laura Hazard Owen noted that “Lehrer shouldn’t be excused for cribbing from himself. But it’s not that surprising that it happened.”

What is surprising is that the material recycled in the New Yorker pieces is only the beginning.

On Tuesday night, Reluctant Habits learned that Lehrer’s had reused his own content on a vaster scale. It was all there, hiding in plain sight within his latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.

By Wednesday morning, more examples were discovered — including Lehrer plagiarizing a 2006 essay written by Malcolm Gladwell.

It’s worth pointing out that the book doesn’t include a notice informing the reader that the material had appeared elsewhere in similar form. (Lehrer did seek permission to reprint W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” but it apparently had not occurred to him that the various outlets he wrote for might require similar permissions. As of early Wednesday morning, it remains unknown if the various outlets who Lehrer reused material from will uphold copyright.)

Lehrer cut and pasted passages from his journalism throughout the first 150 pages of Imagine. In some cases, Lehrer used the same passage three times. In other cases, he would sometimes sandwich a sentence or a paragraph to fit it into the piece, almost assembling these stories like a Frankenstein monster composed of numerous parts.

Our initial search through Imagine‘s first 100 pages revealed about twelve pages of lifted passages. And these are just the examples that we happened to spot. Continued investigations revealed many more in the next 50 pages. What follows is a breakdown of material from previous Lehrer articles that resurfaced in Imagine.

* * *

“The Psychology of Architecture.” Wired: Frontal Cortex (April 14, 2011): “Or consider this 2009 experiment, published in Science. The psychologists, at the University of British Columbia, were interested in looking at how the color of interior walls influence the imagination. They recruited six hundred subjects, most of them undergraduates, and had them perform a variety of basic cognitive tests displayed against red, blue or neutral colored backgrounds.

“The differences were striking. When people took tests in the red condition – they were surrounded by walls the color of a stop sign – they were much better at skills that required accuracy and attention to detail, such as catching spelling mistakes or keeping random numbers in short-term memory. According to the scientists, this is because people automatically associate red with danger, which makes them more alert and aware.

“The color blue, however, carried a completely different set of psychological benefits. While people in the blue group performed worse on short-term memory tasks, they did far better on those requiring some imagination, such as coming up with creative uses for a brick or designing a children’s toy out of simple geometric shapes. In fact, subjects in the blue condition generated twice as many “creative outputs” as subjects in the red condition. That’s right: the color of a wall doubled our imaginative power.”

Imagine, p. 51: “Look at this recent experiment, published in Science. These psychologists, at the University of British Columbia, were interested in looking at how various colors influence the imagination. They recruited six hundred subjects, most of them undergraduates, and had them perform a variety of basic cognitive tests displayed against red, blue, or neutral backgrounds.

“The differences were striking. When people took tests in the red condition, they were much better at skills that required accuracy and attention to detail, such as catching spelling mistakes or keeping random numbers in short-term memory. According to the scientists, this is because people automatically associate red with danger, which makes them more alert and aware.

“The color blue, however, carried a completely different set of psychological benefits. While people in the blue group performed worse on short-term memory tasks, they did far better on those requiring some imagination, such as coming up with creative uses for a brick or designing a children’s toy out of simple geometric shapes. In fact, subjects in the blue condition generated twice as many creative outputs as did subjects in the red condition.”

* * *

“The Rewards of Revenge.” Wired: Frontal Cortex (May 2, 2011): “The answer returns us to the brain, and to the fascinating ways in which those three pounds of meat mirror the ideals of game theory.”

Imagine, p. 57: “The answer returns us to the brain and to the specific ways in which amphetamines alter the activity of neurons.”

* * *

“The Attention-Allocation Defecit.” Wired: Frontal Cortex (September 13, 2011): “While dopamine neurons are relatively rare, they are clustered in very specific areas in the center of the brain, such as the nucleus accumbens and ventral striatum. These cortical parts make up the dopamine reward pathway, the neural system that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions triggered by pleasurable things. It doesn’t matter if we’re having sex or eating sugar or snorting amphetamine: These things fill us with bliss because they tickle these cells.”

Imagine, p. 59-60: “While dopamine neurons are relatively rare, they are clustered in specific areas in the center of the brain, such as the nucleus accumbens and the ventral striatum. These cortical parts make up the dopamine reward pathway, the neural highway that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions triggered by pleasurable things. It doesn’t matter if it’s having sex or eating ice cream or snorting cocaine: these things fill us with bliss because they tickle these cells. Happiness begins here.”

* * *

“The Eureka Hunt.” The New Yorker (July 28, 2008): “Earl Miller is a neuroscientist at M.I.T. who has devoted his career to understanding the prefontal cortex. He has a shiny shaved head and a silver goatee. His corner office in the gleaming Picower Institute is cantilevered over a railroad track, and every afternoon the quiet hum of the lab is interrupted by the rattle of a freight train. Miller’s favorite word is ‘exactly’ — it’s the adverb that modifies everything, so that a hypothesis is ‘exactly right,’ or an experiment was ‘exactly done’ — and that emphasis on precision has defined his career. His first major scientific advance was a by-product of necessity. It was 1995, and Miller had just started his lab at M.I.T. His research involved recording directly from neurons in the monkey brain, monitoring the flux of voltage within an individual cell as the animals performed various tasks. ‘There were machines that allowed you to record eight or nine at the same time, but they were expensive,’ Miller said. ‘I still had no grants, and there was no way I could afford one.’ So Miller began inventing his own apparatus in his spare time. After a few months of patient tinkering, he constructed a messy tangle of wires, steel screws, and electrodes that could simultaneously record from numerous cells, distributed across the brain. ‘It worked even better than the expensive machine,’ Miller said.

“This methodological advance — it’s known as multiple electrode recording — allowed Miller to ask a completely new kind of scientific question. For the first time, it was possible to see how cells in different brain areas interacted. Miller was most interested in the interactions of the prefrontal cortex. ‘You name the brain area, and the prefrontal cortex is almost certainly linked to it,’ he said. It took more than five years of painstaking probing, as Miller recorded from cells in the monkey brain, but he was eventually able to show that the prefrontal cortex wasn’t simply an aggregator of information. Instead, it was like the conductor of an orchestra, waving its baton and directing the players.”

Imagine, p. 65-66: “Earl Miller has devoted his career to understanding the prefrontal cortex, that warehouse of working memory. He has a shiny shaved head and a silver goatee. His corner office in the gleaming Picower Institute at MIT is cantilevered over an old freight-train track, so every afternoon the quiet hum of the lab is interrupted by the rattle of a locomotive. Miller’s favorite word is exactly — it’s the adverb that modifies everything, so a hypothesis was ‘exactly right’ or an experiment was ‘exactly done’ — and that emphasis on precision has defined his career. His first major scientific advance was a byproduct of necessity. It was 1995 and Miller had just started his lab, which meant that he had no money. His research involved recording the activity of neurons in the monkey brain, monitoring the flux of voltage within an individual cell as the animal performed various tasks. ‘There were machines that allowed you to record from eight or nine [neurons] at the same time, but they were very expansive,’ Miller says. ‘I still had no grants, and there was no way I could afford one.’ So Miller began inventing his own apparatus in his spare time. After a few months of tinkering, he constructed a messy tangle of wires, glass pipettes, and electrodes that could record simultaneously from numerous cells distributed across the monkey cortex. ‘It worked even better than the expansive machine,’ Miller says. ‘And then we just made the units smaller and smaller, which meant we could record more and more neurons.

“This methodological advance — it’s known as multiple-electrode recording — allowed Miller to watch information zip around the brain as the electrical cells interacted with one another. Miller was most interested in studying the prefrontal cortex, though, since this brain area is such an aggregator of information. ‘It’s where everything projects to,’ Miller says. ‘It’s literally where the world comes together.'”

* * *

Jacob Silverman uncovered this example:

“Depression’s Upside.” The New York Times Magaziner (February 26, 2010): “Last year Forgas ventured beyond the lab and began conducting studies in a small stationery store in suburban Sydney, Australia. The experiment itself was simple: Forgas placed a variety of trinkets, like toy soldiers, plastic animals and miniature cars, near the checkout counter. As shoppers exited, Forgas tested their memory, asking them to list as many of the items as possible. To control for the effect of mood, Forgas conducted the survey on gray, rainy days — he accentuated the weather by playing Verdi’s ‘Requiem’ — and on sunny days, using a soundtrack of Gilbert and Sullivan. The results were clear: shoppers in the ‘low mood’ condition remembered nearly four times as many of the trinkets. The wet weather made them sad, and their sadness made them more aware and attentive.”

“Does Depression Help Us Think Better?” Wired: Frontal Cortex (May 9, 2011): “In 2009, Forgas ventured beyond the lab and began conducting studies in a small stationery store in suburban Sydney, Australia. The experiment itself was simple: Forgas placed a variety of trinkets, like toy soldiers, plastic animals and miniature cars, near the checkout counter. As shoppers exited, Forgas tested their memory, asking them to list as many of the items as possible. To control for the effect of mood, Forgas conducted the survey on gray, rainy days — he accentuated the weather by playing Verdi’s ‘Requiem’ — and on sunny days, using a soundtrack of Gilbert and Sullivan. The results were clear: shoppers in the ‘low mood’ condition remembered nearly four times as many of the trinkets. The wet weather made them sad, and their sadness made them more aware and attentive.”

But Reluctant Habits discovered the passage again in Imagine, p. 76-77: “The experiment itself was simple: Forgas placed a variety of trinkets such as toy soldiers, plastic animals, and miniature cars near the checkout counter. As shoppers exited, Forgas tested their memory, asking them to list as many of the items as possible. To control the mood of the subgjects, when Forgas conducted the survey on gray, rainy dAays, he accentuated the weather by playing Verdi’s Requiem; on sunny days, he used a chipper soundtrack of Gilbert and Sullivan. The results were clear: shoppers in the ‘low mood’ condition remembered nearly four times as many of the trinkets. The wet weather made them sad, and their sadness made them more attentive.”

* * *

And here’s another three-peat.

“The Creativity of Anger.” Wired: Frontal Cortex (August 29, 2011): “The students were randomly assigned to either a positive or negative feedback condition, in which their speech was greeted with smiles and vertical nods (positive) or frowns and horizontal shakes (negative). After the speech was over, the subjects were given glue, paper and colored felt and told to make a collage using the materials. Professional artists then evaluated each collage according to various metrics of creativity.

“Not surprisingly, the feedback impacted the mood of the subjects: Those who received smiles during their speeches reported feeling better than before, while frowns had the opposite effect. What’s interesting is what happened next: Subjects in the negative feedback condition created much prettier collages. Their angst led to better art. As Akinola notes, this is largely because the sadness improved their focus, and made them more likely to persist with the creative challenge:”

“Feeling Sad Makes Us More Creative.” Wired: Frontal Cortex (October 19, 2010): “The students were randomly assigned to either a positive or negative feedback condition, in which their speech was greeted with smiles and vertical nods (positive) or frowns and horizontal shakes (negative). After the speech was over, the subjects were given glue, paper and colored felt and told to create a collage using the materials. Professional artists then evaluated each collage for creativity.”

Imagine, p. 77-78: “The students were randomly assigned to either a positive- or a negative-feedback condition; in the positive-feedback condition, speeches were greeted with smiles and vertical nods, and in the negative, speeches met frowns and horizontal shakes. After the speech was over, the subject was given glue, paper, and colored felt and told to make a collage using the materials. Professional artists then evaluated each collage according to various metrics of creativity.

“Not surprisingly, the feedback affected the mood of the subjects: those who received smiles during their speeches reported feeling better than before, while frowns had the opposite effect. What’s interesting is what happened next. Subjects in the negative-feedback condition created much prettier collages. Their angst led to better art. As Akinoda notes, this is largely because the sadness improved their focus and made them more likely to persist with the creative challenge. As a result, they kept on rearranging the felt, playing with the colorful designs.”

* * *

“Depression’s Upside.” The New York Times Magaziner (February 26, 2010): “The enhancement of these mental skills might also explain the striking correlation between creative production and depressive disorders. In a survey led by the neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen, 30 writers from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop were interviewed about their mental history. Eighty percent of the writers met the formal diagnostic criteria for some form of depression. A similar theme emerged from biographical studies of British writers and artists by Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, who found that successful individuals were eight times as likely as people in the general population to suffer from major depressive illness.

“Why is mental illness so closely associated with creativity? Andreasen argues that depression is intertwined with a ‘cognitive style’ that makes people more likely to produce successful works of art. In the creative process, Andreasen says, ‘one of the most important qualities is persistence.’ Based on the Iowa sample, Andreasen found that “successful writers are like prizefighters who keep on getting hit but won’t go down. They’ll stick with it until it’s right.” While Andreasen acknowledges the burden of mental illness — she quotes Robert Lowell on depression not being a ‘gift of the Muse’ and describes his reliance on lithium to escape the pain — she argues that many forms of creativity benefit from the relentless focus it makes possible. ‘Unfortunately, this type of thinking is often inseparable from the suffering,’ she says. ‘If you’re at the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed.'”

Imagine, p. 78-79: “The enhancement of these mental skills during states of sadness might also explain the striking correlation between creativity and depressive disorders. In the early 1980s, Nancy Andreasen, a neuroscientist at the University of Iowa, interviewed several dozen writers from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop about their mental history. While Andreasen expected the artists to suffer from schizophrenia at a higher rate than normal — ‘There is that lingering cliche about madness and genius going together,’ she says — that hypothesis turned out to be completely wrong. Instead, Andreasen found that 80 percent of the writers met the formal diagnostic criteria for some type of depression. These successful artists weren’t crazy — they were exceedingly sad. A similar theme emerged from biographical studies of British novelists and poets done by Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins. According to her data, famous writers were eight times as likely as people in the general population to suffer from major depressive illnesses.

“Why is severe sadness so closely associated with creativity? Andreasen argues that depression is intertwined with a ‘cognitive style’ that makes people more likely to produce successful works of art. Her explanation is straightforward: It’s not easy to write a good novel or compose a piece of music. The process often requires years of careful attention as the artist fixes mistakes and corrects errors. As a result, the ability to stick with the process — to endure the unconcealing — is extremely important. ‘Successful writers are like prizefighters who keep on getting hit but won’t go down,’ Andreasen says. ‘They’ll stick with it until it’s right. And that seems to be what the mood disorders help with.’ While Andreasen acknowledges the terrible burden of mental illness — she quotes Robert Lowell on depression not being a ‘gift of the Muse’ and describes his reliance on lithium to escape the pain — she argues that, at least in its milder forms, the disorder benefits many artists due to the perseverance it makes possible. ‘Unfortunately, this type of thinking is often inseparable from the suffering,’ Andreasen says. ‘If you’re at the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed.'”

* * *

“Basketball and Jazz.” Wired: Frontal Cortex (June 6, 2011): “As expected, the act of improv led to a surge of activity in a variety of neural areas, including the premotor cortex and the inferior frontal gyrus. The premotor activity is simply an echo of execution, as the new musical patterns are translated into bodily movements. The inferior frontal gyrus, however, has primarily been investigated for its role in language and the production of speech. Why, then, is it so active when people improvise music? Berkowitz argues that expert musicians invent new melodies by relying on the same mental muscles used to create a sentence; every note is like another word.

“Of course, the development of these patterns requires years of practice, which is why Berkowitz compares improvisation to the learning of a second language. At first, it’s all about the vocabulary, as students must memorize a dizzying number of nouns, adjectives and verb conjugations. Likewise, musicians need to immerse themselves in the art, internalizing the intricacies of Miles and Coltrane. After years of study, the process of articulation starts to become automatic – the language student doesn’t need to contemplate her verb charts before speaking, just as the musician can play without worrying about the movement of his fingers. It’s only at this point, after expertise has been achieved, that improvisation can take place. When the new music is needed, the notes are simply there, waiting to be expressed.”

Imagine, p. 92-93: “As expected, the various improv conditions — regardless of the musical genre — led to a surge of activity in a variety of neural areas, including the premotor cortex and the inferior frontal gyrus. The premotor activity is simply an echo of execution, as the new musical patterns are translated into bodily movements. The inferior frontal gyrus, however, is most closely associated with language and the production of speech. Why, then, is it so active when people compose on the spot? The scientists argue that expert musicians invent new melodies by relying on the same mental muscles used to create a sentence; every note is like a word. ‘Those bebop players play what sounds like seventy notes within a few seconds,’ says Aaron Berkowitz, the lead author on the Harvard study. ‘There’s no time to think of each individual note. They have to have some patterns in their toolbox.’

“Of course, the development of these patterns requires years of practice, which is why Berkowitz compares improvisation to the learning of a second language. At first, he says, it’s all about the vocabulary words; students must memorize a dizzying number of nouns, adjectives, and verb conjugations. Likewise, musicians need to immerse themselves in the art, internalizing the intricacies of Shostakovich or Coltrane or Hendrix. After musicians have studied for years, however, the process of articulation starts to become automatic — the language student doesn’t need to contemplate her verb charts before speaking, just as the musician can play without worrying about the movement of his fingers. It’s only at this point, after expertise has been achieved, that improvisation can take place. When the new music is needed, the notes are simply there, waiting to be expressed. It looks easy because they have already worked so hard.”

* * *

The first several paragraphs of “Clay Marzo: Liquid Cure.” Outside (August 26, 2009) are nearly identical (with cut sentences) to Imagine, p. 93-98.

* * *

This example shows Lehrer repurposing in reverse: material from Imagine shifts into material for his new gig at The New Yorker:

Imagine, P. 107: “Take a 2004 paper published in Nature by the neuroscientists Ullrich Wagner and Jan Born. The researchers gave a group of students a tedious task that involved transforming a long list of number strings into a new set of number strings. Wagner and Born designed the task so that there was an elegant shortcut, but it could only be uncovered if the subject had an insight about the problem. When people were left to their own devices, less than 20 percent of them found the shortcut, even when given several hours to mull over the task. The act of dreaming, however, changed everything: after people were allowed to lapse into REM sleep, nearly 60 percent of them were able to discover the secret pattern. Kierkegaard was right. Sleeping is the height of genius.”

“The Virtues of Daydreaming.” The New Yorker: Frontal Cortex (June 5, 2012): “Take a 2004 paper published in Nature by the neuroscientists Ullrich Wagner and Jan Born. The researchers gave a group of students a tedious task that involved transforming a long list of number strings into a new set of number strings. Wagner and Born designed the task so that there was an elegant shortcut, but it could only be uncovered if the subject had an insight about the problem. When people were left to their own devices, less than twenty per cent of them found the shortcut, even when given several hours to mull over the task. The act of dreaming, however, changed everything: after people were allowed to lapse into R.E.M. sleep, nearly sixty per cent of them discovered the secret pattern. Kierkegaard was right: sleeping is the height of genius.”

* * *

“Why We Need to Dream.” The New York Times: Opinionator (March 19, 2010): “Or look at a recent paper published by Sara Mednick, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego. She gave subjects a variety of remote-associate puzzles, which require subjects to find a word that’s associated with three other seemingly unrelated words. ”

Imagine, p. 107: “Or consider a recent paper published by Sara Mednick, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego. She gave subjects a variety of remote-association puzzles.”

* * *

“Fleeting Youth, Fading Creativity.” The Wall Street Journal (February 19, 2010): “The inverted U curve was first documented by Adolphe Quetelet, a 19th-century French mathematician and sociologist. Mr. Quetelet’s study was simple: He plotted the number of plays produced by French and English playwrights over the course of their life spans. He soon discovered that creativity had a sweet spot, which seemed to always occur between the ages of 25 and 50. (The data neatly confirmed Mr. Quetelet’s own life story, as he was 39 when his magnum opus was published.)

“Dean Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, has spent the last several decades expanding on Mr. Quetelet’s approach, sifting through vast amounts of historical data in search of underlying patterns. For instance, Mr. Simonton has shown that physicists tend to make their first important discovery in their late 20s, which is why it’s a common joke within the field that if a physicist hasn’t done Nobel-worthy work before getting married, then he or she might as well quit. According to Mr. Simonton, the only field that peaks before physics is poetry.

“Why are young physicists and poets more creative? Mr. Simonton argues that they benefit, at least in part, from their willingness to embrace novelty and surprise. Because they haven’t become ‘encultured,’ or weighted down with too much conventional wisdom, they’re more willing to rebel against the status quo. After a few years in the academy, however, ‘creators start to repeat themselves, so that it becomes more of the same-old, same-old,’ Mr. Simonton says.”

Imagine, p. 123-4: “The practical advantages of youth were first identified by Adolphe Quetelet, a nineteenth-century French mathematician. Quetelet’s project was simple: he plotted the number of successful plays produced by playwrights over the course of their careers. That’s when he discovered something unexpected: creativity doesn’t increase with experience. The playwrights weren’t getting better at writing plays. Instead, the curve exhibited a steep rise followed by a long, slow decline, a phenomenon of creative output now known as the inverted U curve. According to Quetelet, his curve demonstrated tends to peak after a few years of work — when we know enough, but not too much — before it starts to fall, in middle age.

“Dean Simonton, a psychologist at UC Davis, has spent the last several decades expanding on Quetelet’s approach, sifting through vast amounts of historical data in search of the subtle patterns that influence creative production over time. For instance, Simonton has shown that physicists tend to make their most important discoveries early in their careers, typically before the age of thirty. The only field that peaks before physics is poetry.

“Why are young physicists and poets more creative? One possibility is that time steals ingenuity, that the imagination starts to wither in middle age. But that’s not the case — we are not biologically destined to get less creative. Simonton argues that youth benefit from their outsider status — they’re innocent and ignorant, which makes them more willing to embrace radical new ideas. Because they haven’t become encultured, or weighted down with too much conventional wisdom, they’re more likely to rebel against the status quo. After a few years in the academy, Simonton says, the ‘creators start to repeat themselves, so that it becomes more of the same-old, same-old.’ They have become insiders.”

* * *

Lehrer used the paragraphs below either three or four times, although the initial 2010 Observer article may have been republished in whole by McSweeney’s (the article is not available online).

“Why We Travel.” The Observer (March 13, 2010): “The reason such travels are mentally useful involves a quirk of cognition, in which problems that feel ‘close’ – and the closeness can be physical, temporal or even emotional – get contemplated in a more concrete manner. As a result, when we think about things that are nearby, our thoughts are constricted, bound by a more limited set of associations. While this habit can be helpful – it allows us to focus on the facts at hand – it also inhibits our imagination. Consider a field of corn. When you’re standing in the middle of the field, surrounded by the tall cellulose stalks and fraying husks, the air smelling faintly of fertiliser and popcorn, your mind is automatically drawn to thoughts that revolve around the primary meaning of corn, which is that it’s a plant, a cereal, a staple of farming.

“But now imagine that same field of corn from a different perspective. Instead of standing on a farm, you’re now in the midst of a crowded city street, dense with taxis and pedestrians. (And yet, for some peculiar reason, you’re still thinking about corn.) The plant will no longer just be a plant: instead, your vast neural network will pump out all sorts of associations. You’ll think about glucose-fructose syrup, obesity and Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food; ethanol made from corn stalks, popcorn at the cinema and creamy polenta simmering on a wood stove in Emilia Romagna. The noun is now a web of tangents, a loom of remote connections.

“What does this have to do with travel? When we escape from the place we spend most of our time, the mind is suddenly made aware of all those errant ideas we’d suppressed. We start thinking about obscure possibilities – corn can fuel cars – that never would have occurred to us if we’d stayed back on the farm. Furthermore, this more relaxed sort of cognition comes with practical advantages, especially when we’re trying to solve difficult problems.

“Look, for instance, at a recent experiment led by the psychologist Lile Jia at Indiana University. He randomly divided a few dozen undergrads into two groups, both of which were asked to list as many different modes of transportation as possible. (This is known as a creative generation task.) One group of students was told that the task was developed by Indiana University students studying abroad in Greece (the distant condition), while the other group was told that the task was developed by Indiana students studying in Indiana (the near condition). At first glance, it’s hard to believe that such a slight and seemingly irrelevant difference would alter the performance of the subjects. Why would it matter where the task was conceived?

“Nevertheless, Jia found a striking difference between the two groups: when students were told that the task was imported from Greece, they came up with significantly more transportation possibilities. They didn’t just list buses, trains and planes; they cited horses, triremes, spaceships, bicycles and even Segway scooters. Because the source of the problem was far away, the subjects felt less constrained by their local transport options; they didn’t just think about getting around in Indiana – they thought about getting around all over the world and even in deep space.

“In a second study, Jia found that people were much better at solving a series of insight puzzles when told that the puzzles came all the way from California and not from down the hall.”

“The Importance of Vacation.” Wired: Frontal Cortex (January 3, 2011): Lehrer excerpts two paragraphs of the “Consider a feel of corn” part of the above passage, pointing out that he “wrote about this last year in McSweeney’s (not online).” He then follows up his blockquote with the “original” section below (which can be found on Imagine, p. 126:

“And this is why vacation is so helpful: When we escape from the places where we spend most of our time, the mind is suddenly made aware of all those errant ideas we’d previously suppressed. We start thinking about obscure possibilities — corn can fuel cars! — that never would have occurred to us if we’d checked in with the office everyday.”

Did the San Francisco Panorama edition of McSweeney’s republish Lehrer’s article in print? I don’t have a copy of it here. But this Susan Perry post suggests that either the entire article was republished or Lehrer recycled much of the text for a piece on “Why do we travel?”

This particular example allows us to observe Lehrer’s tendency to modify a few words in a sentence and pass it off as “original” material. Because by the time the Observer paragraphs have been recycled in Imagine, they haven’t changed much at all, save for what Lehrer added in his Wired post. Note how travel turns from something “mentally useful” to “useful for creativity.” It is as if this is a Mad Libs session.

Imagine, p. 125-127: “The reason travel is so useful for creativity involves a quirk of cognition in which problems that feel close get contemplated in a more literal manner. This means that when we are physically near the source of the problem, our thoughts are automatically constricted, bound by a more limited set of associations. While this habit can be helpful — it allows us to focus on the facts at hand — it also inhabits the imagination.

“Consider a field of corn. When you’re standing in the middle of a farm surrounded by the tall cellulose stalks and fraying husks, the air smelling faintly of fertilizer and popcorn, your mind is automatically drawn to thoughts related to he primary definition of corn, which is that it’s a plant, a cereal, a staple of midwestern farming. But imagine that same field of corn from a different perspective. Instead of standing on a farm, you’re now in a crowded city street dense with taxis and pedestrians. The plant will no longer be just a plant; instead, your vast neural network will pump out all sorts of associations. You’ll think about high-fructose corn syrup, obesity, and the Farm Bill: you’ll contemplate ethanol and the Iowa caucuses, those corn mazes for kids at state fairs, and the deliciousness of succotash made with bacon and lima beans. The noun is now a web of tangents: a vast loom of connections.

“And this is why travel is so helpful: When you escape from the place you spend most of your time, the mind is suddenly made aware of all those errant ideas previously suppressed. You start thinking about obscure possibilities — corn can fuel cars! — that never would have occurred to you if you’d stayed back on the farm. Furthermore, this expansive kind of cognition comes with practical advantages, since you can suddenly draw on a whole new set of possible solutions.

“Look, for instance, at a recent experiment led by the psychologist Lile Jia at Indiana University. He randomly divided a few dozen undergraduates into two groups, each of which were asked to list as many different modes of transportation as possible. (This is known as a creative generation task.) One group of students was told that the task was conceived by Indiana University students studying abroad in Greece, while the other group was told that it was conceived by Indiana students studying in Indiana. At first, it’s hard to believe that such a slight and seemingly irrelevant distinction would alter the performance of the subjects. Why would it matter where the task originated?

“Nevertheless, Jia found a striking distance between the two groups: when students were told that the task has imported from Greece, they came up with significantly more transportation possibilities. They didn’t limit their list to cars, buses, trains, and planes; they cited horses, triremes, spaceships, bicycles, and Segway scooters. Because the source of the problem was far away, the subject felt less constrained by their local transport options; they didn’t think about getting around just in Indiana, they thought about getting around all over the world.

“In a second study, Jia found that Indiana University students were much better at solving a series of insight puzzles when told that the puzzles came from California and not from Indiana. Here’s a sample problem:”

* * *

“Sunset of the Solo Scientist.” The Wall Street Journal (February 5, 2011): “By analyzing 19.9 million peer-reviewed papers and 2.1 million patents, Mr. Jones and his colleagues at Northwestern were able to show that teamwork is a defining trend of modern research. Over the last 50 years, more than 99% of scientific subfields, from computer science to biochemistry, have experienced increased levels of teamwork, with the size of the average team increasing by about 20% per decade.

“This shift is even more pronounced among influential papers. While the most cited studies in a field used to be the product of lone geniuses, Mr. Jones has shown that the best research now emerges from groups. It doesn’t matter if the scientists are studying particle physics or human genetics. Papers by multiple authors receive more than twice as many citations as those with one author. This trend is even more apparent when it comes to ‘home run papers’—those publications with at least 1,000 citations—which are more than six times as likely to come from a team.”

Imagine, p. 140: “By analyzing 19.9 million peer-reviewed papers and 2.1 million patents from the last fifty years, Jones was able to show that more than 99 percent of scientific subfields have experienced increased levels of teamwork, with the size of the average team increasing by about 20 percent per decade. While the most cited studies in a field used to be the product of lone geniuses — think Einstein or Darwin — Jones has demonstrated that the best research now emerges from groups. It doesn’t matter if the researchers are studying particle physics or human genetics: science papers produced by multiple authors are cited more than twice as often as those authored by individuals. This trend was even more apparent when it came to ‘home-run papers’ — those publications with at last a thousand citations — which were more than six times as likely to come from a team of scientists.”

* * *

There is also quite a good deal of overlap in “Groupthink.” The New Yorker (January 30, 2012) and the “Power of Q” chapter in Imagine. Lehrer didn’t just use the sample chapter from his book. He rearranged his material and tried to pass off his piece as a brand new article about brainstorming. The first part of the article (starting with the Alex Osborn material) seems to be pilfered from Imagine, p. 158-161. Then, Lehrer incorporates the Brian Uzzi material from Imagine, p. 140-144.

* * *

The biggest surprise was that Jonah Lehrer didn’t confine his theft to his own material. He also plagiarized material from Malcolm Gladwell.

Malcolm Gladwell, “The Formula.” The New Yorker (October 16, 2006): “One of the highest-grossing movies in history, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ was offered to every studio in Hollywood, Goldman writes, and every one of them turned it down except Paramount: ‘Why did Paramount say yes? Because nobody knows anything. And why did all the other studios say no? Because nobody knows anything. And why did Universal, the mightiest studio of all, pass on Star Wars? . . . Because nobody, nobody—not now, not ever—knows the least goddamn thing about what is or isn’t going to work at the box office.'”

Jonah Lehrer, Imagine, p. 144: “For instance, one of the highest-grossing movies in history, Raiders of the Lost Ark, was offered to every studio in Hollywood, and every one of them turned it down except Paramount: ‘Why did Paramount say yes?’ Goldman asks. ‘Because nobody knows anything. And why did all the other studios say no? Because nobody knows anything. And why did Universal, the mightiest studio of all, pass on Star Wars…? Because nobody, nobody — not now, not ever — knows the least goddam thing about what is or isn’t going to work at the box office.'”

* * *

“Steve Jobs: ‘Technology Alone is Not Enough.'” The New Yorker (October 7, 2011): Since 1995, when the first ‘Toy Story’ was released, Pixar has created twelve feature films. Every one of those films has been a commercial success, with an average international gross of more than $550 million per film. Not even Apple has enjoyed that kind of streak.”

Imagine, p. 144: “Since 1995, when the first Toy Story was released, Pixar has created eleven feature films. Every one of those films has been a commercial success, with an average international gross of more than $550 million per film.”

* * *

Here’s another three-peat. Observe in this next Lerher recycling how Lehrer adopts Darla Anderson’s as his own editorial voice.

“The Steve Jobs MBA Unit 103: Connect your people.” Wired UK (June 22, 2011): “The Pixar studios are set in an old canning factory, just north of Oakland, California. The original design called for three buildings, with separate offices for the computer scientists, animators and management. The smaller buildings were cheaper to build, but Jobs scrapped the plan. (‘We used to joke that the building was Steve’s movie,’ says Ed Catmull, the current president of Pixar. ‘He really oversaw everything.’) Jobs completely re-imagined the studio. Instead of three buildings, there was a single vast space, with an airy atrium at its centre. ‘The philosophy behind this design is that it’s good to put the most important function at the heart of the building,’ Catmull says. ‘Our most important function is the interaction of our employees. He wanted to create an open area for people to always be talking to each other.’

“But he needed to force people to go there. He began with the mailboxes, which he shifted to the lobby, then moved the meeting rooms to the centre of the building, followed by the cafeteria, coffee bar and gift shop. Jobs eventually decided to locate the bathrooms in the atrium. He believed that the best meetings happened by accident. And he was right. Pixar employees say that many of their best ideas arrive not while sat at their desk, but when they’re having a bowl of cereal with a colleague or having a chat in the bathroom.”

Imagine, p. 149-150: “Pixar Animation Studios is set in an old Del Monte canning factory just north of Oakland. The studio originally planned to build something else, an architectural design that called for three buildings, with separate offices for the computer scientists, animators, and management. While the layout was cost-effective — the smaller, specialized buildings were cheaper to build — Steve Jobs scrapped the plan. (‘We used to joke that the building was Steve’s movie,’ Catmull says. ‘He really oversaw everything.’) Before long, Jobs had completely reimagined the studio. Instead of three buildings, there was going to be a single vast space with an airy atrium at its center. ‘The philosophy behind this design is that it’s good to put the most important function at the heart of the building,’ Catmull says. ‘Well, what’s our most important function? It’s the interaction of our employees. That’s why Steve put a big empty space there. He wanted to create an open area for people to always be talking to each other.

“But Jobs realized that it wasn’t enough simply to create an airy atrium; he needed to force people to go there. Jobs began with the mailboxes, which he shifted to the lobby. Then he moved the meeting rooms to the center of the building, followed by the cafeteria and coffee bar and gift shop. But that still wasn’t enough, which is why Jobs eventually decided to locate the only set of bathrooms in the atrium. ‘At first, I thought this was the most ridiculous idea,’ says Darla Anderson, an executive producer on several Pixar films. ‘I have gone to the bathroom every thirty minutes. I didn’t want to have to walk all the way to the atrium every time I needed to go. That’s just a waste of time. But Steve said, ‘Everybody has to run into each other.’ He really believed that the best meetings happened by accident, in the hallway or parking lot. And you know what? He was right. I get more done having a bowl of cereal and striking up a conversation or walking to the bathroom and running into unexpected people than I do sitting at my desk.'”

And Lehrer also recycled this again for a completely different story:

“Groupthink.” The New Yorker (January 30, 2012): “Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Jobs records that when Jobs was planning Pixar’s headquarters, in 1999, he had the building arranged around a central atrium, so that Pixar’s diverse staff of artists, writers, and computer scientists would run into each other more often. ‘We used to joke that the building was Steve’s movie,” Ed Catmull, the president of both Disney Animation and Pixar Animation, says. “He really oversaw everything.’

“Jobs soon realized that it wasn’t enough simply to create an airy atrium; he needed to force people to go there. He began with the mailboxes, which he shifted to the lobby. Then he moved the meeting rooms to the center of the building, followed by the cafeteria, the coffee bar, and the gift shop. Finally, he decided that the atrium should contain the only set of bathrooms in the entire building. (He was later forced to compromise and install a second pair of bathrooms.) ‘At first, I thought this was the most ridiculous idea,’ Darla Anderson, a producer on several Pixar films, told me. ‘I didn’t want to have to walk all the way to the atrium every time I needed to do something. That’s just a waste of time. But Steve said, ‘Everybody has to run into each other.’ He really believed that the best meetings happened by accident, in the hallway or parking lot. And you know what? He was right. I get more done having a cup of coffee and striking up a conversation or walking to the bathroom and running into unexpected people than I do sitting at my desk.'”

(This anecdote appears in different form in Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, p. 430-431. But while Lehrer recycled his own material, it appears in this instance that he did indeed conduct independent interviews, as Imagine‘s endnotes specify.)

[EDITORIAL NOTE: An earlier version of this story misreported Tuesday as "Monday." Reluctant Habits regrets the error and pledges to look at the calendar more regularly.]

6/20/12 3:00 PM UPDATE: Publishers Marketplace News Editor Sarah Weinman has received an official statement from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the publisher of Imagine.

6/20/12 4:00 PM UPDATE: Concerning the Gladwell and Lehrer plagiarism charge, NPR’s David Folkenflik has pointed out that both Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer compressed William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade at the same spot. As Folkenfik rightly notes, the devil is in the ellipses.

6/20/12 4:20 PM UPDATE: Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon has just noted that Lehrer offered quotes from Noam Chomsky as if they’d been told directly to him, dropping key details. (This is actually quite similar to what Lehrer did with Darla Anderson’s quote in the example I cited above, taking her words as his own.) Beaujon has also discovered lifting from 2007 Seed article, repurposed in 2010 New York Times Magazine article. You can check out Beaujon’s findings here.

6/20/12 5:30 PM UPDATE: The New York Times‘s Jennifer Schuessler reports that she reached Jonah Lehrer by telephone. “It was a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong,” said Lehrer.

6/22/12 4:15 PM UPDATE: There have been a number of developments in the last 48 hours. First off, New Yorker editor David Remnick has told Marketwatch that Lehrer will not be fired. “There are all kinds of crimes and misdemeanors in this business,” said Remnick to MarketWatch‘s Jon Friedman on Wednesday afternoon, “and if he were making things up or appropriating other people’s work that’s one level of crime.” Malcolm Gladwell has left a comment on this post and on Jack Shafer’s report: “If Lehrer is plagiarizing me, by quoting the same quote I quoted, then I am plagiarizing the person who used that quote before me, and that person is plagiarizing the person who quoted it before them, and so on and so forth, and we have a daisy chain of “plagiarizing” going back forty years and plagiarism, as a ethical concept, has ceased to mean anything at all.” But as has already been pointed out, Lehrer didn’t just quote the same Goldman quote. He used the exact same introductory phrasing and elided the exact same words as Gladwell did.

Furthermore, Reluctant Habits has discovered that Jonah Lehrer pilfered from Malcolm Gladwell at least two more times. And these examples, featuring closely similar language, don’t involve quotes at all.

* * *

Malcolm Gladwell, “Designs for Working.” The New Yorker (December 11, 2000): “Allen found that the likelihood that any two people will communicate drops off dramatically as the distance between their desks increases: we are four times as likely to communicate with someone who sits six feet away from us as we are with someone who sits sixty feet away. And people seated more than seventy-five feet apart hardly talk at all.”

Jonah Lehrer, Imagine, p. 153: “…he came up with the likelihood that any two people in the same office will communicate. The curve is steep: according to Allen, a person is ten times more likely to communicate with a colleague who sits at a neighboring desk than with someone who sits more than fifty meters away.”

* * *

Malcolm Gladwell, “Designs for Working.” The New Yorker (December 11, 2000): “It had short blocks, and short blocks create the greatest variety in foot traffic. It had lots of old buildings, and old buildings have the low rents that permit individualized and creative uses. And, most of all, it had people, cheek by jowl, from every conceivable walk of life..”

Jonah Lehrer, Imagine, p. 182: “The Village had short city blocks, which were easier for pedestrians to navigate. It had lots of old buildings — Jacob’s street was mostly nineteenth-century tenements and townhouses — with relatively cheap rents, and cheap rents encouraged a diversity of residents.”

* * *

There was also another strange recycling that was uncovered by San Francisco Chronicle Books Editor John McMurtrie (and helpfully passed along to me by the ever vigilant Jack Shafer), where Lehrer took a sentence from his first book and reproduced it as the lede to a book review:

Proust Was a Neuroscientist, p. 185: “The most mysterious thing about the human brain is that the more we know about it, the deeper our own mystery becomes.”

Review of Out of Our Heads, by Alva Noë. The San Francisco Chronicle (March 1, 2009): “The most mysterious thing about the human brain is that the more we know about it, the deeper our own mystery becomes.”

So now we know that Lehrer’s recycling isn’t a recent phenomenon.

Last but not least, I was contacted by Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon for a story on how I put together what Beaujon has called “the Starr Report of the Lehrer affair.” My thanks to Mr. Beaujon for taking the time out to talk with me, to include me in Poynter, and for his many amusing literary references to this piece. Additionally, I got so caught up with this story that I neglected to mention that I interviewed Lehrer back in April for my radio program, The Bat Segundo Show, where I put forth many questions to Lehrer about what critics had then singled out as reductionism.

7/31/12 UPDATE: Tablet‘s Michael Moynihan investigated Lehrer further and learned that Lehrer had fabricated quotes for Imagine. Lehrer has resigned from The New Yorker. The New York Times‘s Julie Bosman has statements from Lehrer and editor David Remnick. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced that it would recall print copies of Imagine.

9/1/12 UPDATE: In perhaps the most comprehensive Jonah Lehrer investigation yet, Charles Seife discovers numerous instances of plagiarism, dodgy quotes, and factual inaccuracies. The kicker is that Seife was asked to do this for Wired, but the magazine refused to publish Seife’s findings. Wired has issued a statement.

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Emily St. John Mandel (The Bat Segundo Show)

Emily St. John Mandel appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #461. She is most recently the author of The Lola Quartet.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Considering a new career as a sake mangler.

Author: Emily St. John Mandel

Subjects Discussed: Starting a novel from a comic place, Kafka, cornball jokes, never knowing how a book is going to end, Jayson Blair, trusting emotional instincts and finding a fun arena, starting off with a hook, money strapped to a baby carriage, numerous characters who shift their identity, the “mushy middle” problem, switching points of view to hold interest, E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, writing what you know, the risks of exquisite expertise, uncovering systems (real estate and trafficking), how a novel emerges from what Mandel happens to be reading, The Wire, straying from the path of curiosity, the inevitability of errors in fiction, car culture, A Clockwork Orange, how driving affects urban perception, Guy Debord, walking, finding a concrete narrative schedule out of chaos, disastrous offices, hard-core revision, the freedom of not knowing where you’re going, working out messy sentences, the difficulties of writing about sixteen-year-old girls, learning about people by reading their blogs, being an observer, trying to determine how to make a fake passport for research, not writing about people you know, compulsive behavior, seeking revenge and understanding in fiction, failed newspapermen, the diminished men throughout Mandel’s fiction, getting inside heads, Gina Frangello’s influence on The Lola Quartet, attempts to write characters with a singular identity, introspective writing, avoiding autobiography, memoir in the digital age, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Daniele Mastrogiacomo, being abducted by the Taliban vs. First World problems, confessing details to friends, how people forget that their digital details are shared with an audience, safe places to express emotions, Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, maintaining privacy and authenticity, Cory Arcangel’s “working on my novel” project, Foursquare, the burdens of party culture, time management, Freedom, characters whose hands shake, depicting behavior in fiction through shorthand description, metaphorical vampirism, heat strokes, intemperate climate, Dark Shadows, inventing a fashion style for an investigator, longing for an older age with more elegance, mutual efforts to introduce “dequirkify” into the English language, the Sasaki name and cultural names, beverage cues in intense social situations, physicality in fiction, trying not to repeat tropes, characters on the run, statute of limitations on mining from personal experience, dance, and what the Internet is for.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Mandel: You know, I make a lot of stuff up. I don’t really feel like I’m an expert in any of these subjects. I’ll read the initial article. It will fascinate me. I’ll read some more online. I’ll follow some links. But I assume I’ve made enormous errors in all three books. Some of them I know about. I found out that there was a real Sebastian, Florida that was in a different part of the state. That was kind of embarrassing, but on the other hand…

Correspondent: It’s fiction!

Mandel: It’s fiction.

Correspondent: It’s fiction. Exactly.

Mandel: Yeah. And there’s a car that doesn’t exist in Last Night in Montreal.

Correspondent: Which car?

Mandel: You know, it’s funny. It shows why you should always Google everything. I had these vivid childhood memories of our family’s first car being in a blue Ford Valiant. And that memory was so strong that I didn’t bother to look it up. It turns out the Valiant is made by Chrysler.

Correspondent: I see.

Mandel: So, you know, eight or ten people have helpfully pointed that out.

Correspondent: On the other hand…

Mandel: It’s fiction. (laughs)

Correspondent: Look, I will always remember the Durango 95 from Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Or rather the cinematic version of it. It just, for whatever reason, leaves a huge thumb out. And it’s possibly more real than any car I’ve driven in my life.

Mandel: Right.

Correspondent: Well, that’s quite interesting. I mean, speaking of cars, I wanted to ask you about the one common metaphor I’ve seen in the last two books. The trail of red taillights. And it pops up in this one again!

Mandel: Oh, does it?

Correspondent: It does.

Mandel: Oh, you’re right. I had taillights disappearing down Park Avenue at the same exact time. I completely forgot about that.

Correspondent: I’m wondering. You know, I was going to ask you about this. Should any writer repeat an image that is fond to her over the course of several books? What do you think about this?

Mandel: I think they probably should. And I think I did that by accident.

Correspondent: Okay. Well, what is it about the taillights that draws you?

Mandel: You know, there’s something beautiful about them. It’s a little wistful. We’re all going away.

Correspondent: Do you own a car?

Mandel: I do not. No, I’ve never learned how to drive.

Correspondent: But cars clearly are an interest of yours, I would think.

Mandel: To some extent. Cars are more — it’s more that they’re a little bit inevitable when you’re writing books that are set outside major cities. You have to move your characters around somehow.

Correspondent: I totally skimmed over the most interesting part. You never learned how to drive.

Mandel: I never did.

Correspondent: Really?

Mandel: No. So in Canada. I’m not sure if it’s the same here. You get your driver’s license at 16.

Correspondent: Yeah. Same here.

Mandel: So when I was sixteen, I didn’t really have access to a car. Because my parents used their cars all the time for their work. And then when I was eighteen, I moved to Toronto. So at that point, I was 3,000 miles away in a major city with a transit system. And I’ve just lived in big cities ever since. So it’s never really been a desire or an opportunity.

Correspondent: It hasn’t been a desire?

Mandel: It hasn’t been a desire.

Correspondent: I mean, I only drive if I have to go from city to city. But going on that road trip and cranking up music and going 90 miles per hour down a highway is a wonderful sensation.

Mandel: Right.

Correspondent: You’re missing out, Emily!

Mandel: But I love being a passenger in those situations. My husband…

Correspondent: Yeah. But driving, you have control. (laughs)

Mandel: That’s an excellent point. Maybe for the next book tour, I should. (laughs)

Correspondent: Okay. Well, that’s interesting. So you have no desire to get behind the wheel. I mean, this must affect your view of cities and your view of places. Do you think?

Mandel: To some extent.

Correspondent: We can go all Guy Debord if you like.

Mandel: Right.

Correspondent: I know you’re a big walker and so forth.

Mandel: I am.

Correspondent: Do you feel that not driving or not having a desire to drive gives you a connection with a place that hard-core driving does not? Have you thought about this?

Mandel: That’s interesting. I haven’t thought about that. You know, I’m not crazy about car culture. I grew up in a very rural place. You needed a car to get anywhere. And I visited a few cities where you needed a car to get anywhere. And it makes your life so inactive in a way. You know, I know a lot of people whose only real activity is going from home to the car and then from the car into the office. And vice versa at the end of the day. And I just prefer to be more — I don’t want to imply that they’re not engaged people in the world. But my preferred form of engagement with the world is doing a lot of walking and being out among people.

Correspondent: And the reading time on the subway too.

Mandel: Yeah. Exactly.

The Bat Segundo Show #461: Emily St. John Mandel (Download MP3)

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Arrested Development

[A version of this essay appeared in slightly modified form at The New Inquiry.]

When I was 7, Wes Anderson became my number one enemy. Although Wes Anderson had not yet made any films and I had no sense at all that he would turn out to be such a well-known filmmaker, there was something deeply suspicious and rage-inducing about his name. Those eleven letters, those four syllables, were sinister: more emotionally scarring to me than my humiliation at junior prom, more devastating and Kleenex-sapping than my vulgar and traumatic deflowering by a boy who was more interested in playing Sonic the Hedgehog than paying attention to me. When the words “Wes Anderson” flashed upon my red hot mind, I vowed to hate him to the day I die. I had dreams of influential online magazines publishing my lengthy personal screeds and passing them off as serious criticism. I spent a good deal of my spare time carving Wes Anderson’s name into my arm, and watched the wounds heal into awkward scars. I cursed my poor penmanship. So I would try again. And again. Until I ran out of fresh spots on my body. To this day, there have been awkward conversations with my lovers when they discover my adolescent handiwork. Of course, I blame Wes Anderson for all of this. He is my number one enemy. My hatred for him, rather than the rising sun or the birds pleasantly chirping, is what gets me up every morning.

In junior high school I experienced a great deal of ageism. The kids who were thirteen picked on the kids who were twelve. I was not spared, even when I provided a fake birth certificate which suggested that I had been born one year later. The thirteen year old tyrants would lock you inside a locker if they suspected you of being only a few days shy of the coveted baker’s dozen. To some children that’s a green light for ageist motherfuckerness.

For this, I blame Wes Anderson.

In high school I followed the predictable route from alternative (no longer exists: Wes Anderson’s fault) to vegan nihilist and began to alter my weight to reflect my shifting mood. At one point, I weighed 9,000 pounds. A year later, I had slimmed down to 90 pounds. I continued to starve myself and got down to an unprecedented 15 pounds. Because I wanted them all to know just how fucking serious and how punk rock I really was.

But I didn’t stop there. I had my best friend, my only friend, the friend who eventually got a restraining order against me, wrap me up in cellophane and put me among other steaks at the supermarket. And I talked back to all the evil carnivore sellout tools who dared to pick up a steak for the weekend. And somebody called the store manager. And they escorted me out of the store and forced me to gain 200 pounds.

They all turned out to be Wes Anderson fans.

For this, I blame Wes Anderson.

I started cutting off my fingers to prove how edgy I was, figuring that they would grow back. They didn’t. And I am now dictating this very serious essay into a smartphone manufactured by a multinational corporation that makes me feel special, entitled, unique, independent, the absolute voice of my generation. The loss of my fingers changed the course of my life and, through it, I found the narcissism I desperately needed at the time, that indeed I still need to this very day. There isn’t a second that goes by when I don’t think about what the world owes me and what I am entitled to.

For all this, I blame Wes Anderson.

The punk scene of Chula Vista, California was one of the most important things to happen to me — in large part because the punk scene in question was composed of one person, and one person only: me. This is what happens when you grow up in a place that isn’t San Diego and isn’t Tijuana, a place where the biggest draw is Knott’s Soak City USA and you can’t ride the Coronado Express because you don’t have the fingers to grab onto the handles of the raft. (Those sheep who use the waterslides are all sellouts and tools and are enemies of me because they are friends of Wes Anderson and you should hate them all too.)

Let me put it another way. You spend a lot of time alone with a guitar that you can’t play and a look that you can’t find and a rage that you can’t quit. Something has to give.

I began burning my hair sometime around this time. The constant conflagration flickering above my forehead was a protective and deflecting shield. Of course you don’t like me lady, but it’s because I have the courage to light my hair on fire and you don’t. Try getting outside of your comfort zone with lighter fluid and a match. Try relocating your otherness by burning off your exterior to get to the interior.

While I attracted attention, I still felt alienated. And it wasn’t just because some men in white suits took me away from the fire and locked me inside a quiet room. I’d reluctantly realized I’d been denying a part of myself that hadn’t been devoted to this unmitigated rage towards Wes Anderson. It was still their world. Though the loss of my fingers and the sacrifice of my hair had liberated me, it was still necessary for the whole of me to hate Wes Anderson, to see patterns in his films that were not there. Around this time, The Royal Tenenbaums came out and, with the help of prosthetic fingers, I began destroying every sign printed in Futura lettering. This was not easy. There were many graphic designers at the time who liked using Futura.

For many people (and by “many people,” I mean “me”), feelings of inherent incorrectness in the world will never change without large thinking and an enormous shift in consciousness. I hope that this brave personal essay, which took me almost a decade to live and an hour to write, will encourage you to hate Wes Anderson as much as I do. Wes Anderson has the right idea, but it’s just not right enough for me to stop blaming him for every hard knock I’ve had. It’s just not enough for me to stop despising him.

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Alison Bechdel III (The Bat Segundo Show)

Alison Bechdel appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #460. She is most recently the author of Are You My Mother? She has previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #63 and The Bat Segundo Show #250.

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[PROGRAM NOTE: Because this show is so unusual, we feel compelled to offer some helpful cues. At the 7:42 mark, Our Correspondent stops tape. He then offers an explanation for why he did this. At 8:09, the conversation with Ms. Bechdel continues. And then at the 40:34 mark, shortly after hearing some unexpected news from Ms. Bechel, Our Correspondent loosens an outraged "What?" that is surely within the highest pitch points in this program's history.]

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if his false self is good enough.

Author: Alison Bechdel

Subjects Discussed: Attempting to ratiocinate on four hours of sleep, Virginia Woolf’s diary entries, Virginia Woolf’s photography, To the Lighthouse as surrogate psychotherapy, Woolf’s “glamour shoot” for Vogue, not doing enough research, attempts by Bechdel to “get her mother out of her head,” the memoir and finding the true self, Donald Winnicott, not being “well-read,” reading Finnegans Wake in a closet, not reading John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates, guilt for not reading everything, encroaching mortality, working a double shift of writing and drawing, only reading the stuff you want to use, “Alison in Between,” tinting skin with retouching ink, tinting much of Are You My Mother? in pink, the futility of writing in a word processing document, comics as a language, ambiguity in comics, Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book, Bechdel’s mother disappearing into a plexiglass dome, depicting origin points of what Bechdel writes and what Bechdel illustrates, living and writing from a place of shame, aggression and psychotherapy, writing about another person as a violation of their subjectivity, Bechdel’s mother’s tendency to read everything as a personal yardstick, how Donald Winnicott to organize one’s life into a book, Bechdel’s desires to cure herself, Bechdel transcribing her mother’s conversations, difficulties in recreating conversations, Bechel’s “apprentice fiction,” vigorous nonfictional expanse, how Love Life turned into Are You My Mother?, Bechdel going to great lengths to avoid the story about her mother, the difficulties of constantly writing about your life, the connections between writing and living, protection from outside voices, Bechdel’s shifting views on herself as an artist, becoming a secret writer, “literary situations,” the strange transformation of cartooning in recent years, how cartooning and other genres have been co-opted as “literature” after being ignored, artistic liberation and oppression, the risks of mainstreaming culture, Samuel R. Delany, being hypocritical progressives on Occupy May Day, the new obligations of artists to a corporate infrastructure, Susan Cain’s Quiet, introverts, obnoxious journalists pushing for personal details, flogging and pimping, the risks of putting yourself up front, being confessional without revealing much, Chester Brown’s Paying for It, Marc Maron’s interview with Matt Graham, telling all on Facebook, Bechdel’s teaching, Roland Barthes’s autobiography, how memoir subsists in a tell-all age, Foursquare, contemplation and narrative nuances, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, “the great Internet crackhouse,” Google searches and happenstance, the rabbit holes that emerge when you’re looking for something simple, Hope and Glory, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, why World War II is an emotional trigger point for Bechdel, therapy and First World problems, Bechdel’s mother’s artistic life, palling around with Dom Deluise, ripping off Keats, the mother’s face as the precursor of the mirror, and whether any author can see herself in a memoir.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Bechdel: I need to have pictures to make the kind of associative leaps that get me through my ideas, that get me through to some kind of conclusion. When I was writing Fun Home, I felt like I had to explain why it was a comic book. Like, oh, there was lots of powerful visual images from my childhood. I grew up in this ornate house. It was important to show that. But I don’t think that’s true. I think I was just trying to accommodate, just trying to make an excuse for why I decided it to be a comic book. But I don’t feel like I need to make that excuse anymore. Comics is a language that I’m learning to be more fluent in. And it helps me to make arguments and arrive at revelations.

Correspondent: As you become more fluent in the language of comics, has it become more ambiguous in some way? Has the ambiguity of the grammar and the language that you have staked your claim on been of help in exploring the ambiguities of life and the ambiguities of some life that is presented on the page?

Bechdel: I feel like I’m always trying to push the distance between the text and the image, the stories that are being described and the scenes and the narration that’s running over it. I’m trying to stretch that as far as I can without losing the reader’s attention. But I love that distance. And I think something powerful can happen in that distance.

Correspondent: Such as what do you think?

Bechdel: Well…

Correspondent: Is there a moment in this book where you felt that you hit that particular power?

Bechdel: Oh, I think of that Dr. Seuss spread, which was a purely visually driven sequence. I’m talking about one of my favorite childhood books, which was Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book.

Correspondent: The Plexiglass Dome and all that.

Bechdel: The Plexiglass Dome. With my first therapist, I would always describe my mother as having this plexiglass dome. Like at 9:00 at night, she would disappear in plain sight under this invisible dome, where she would smoke and read and no one could talk to her. She was off duty for the night. And I didn’t realize this. But looking through Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book, the phrase “plexiglass dome” is right there. And it describes this little creature who lives inside a big dome watching everyone else in the world and touting them on a big chart. It’s hard for me even to talk about this stuff. Because I kind of need the visuals. And I think visually.

Correspondent: I’ve got it right here. (hands over the book)

Bechdel: Okay. (flipping through book) But when I was looking at this illustration as an adult, it just was immediately obvious to me that this dome was in the shape of a pregnant…

Correspondent: Pregnant uterus.

Bechdel: It even has a little door that says KEEP OUT. And this is just a sequence of ideas I never would have gotten at without pictures. I’m able to trace its origins in my own childhood drawings. And I’m able to project this metaphorical connection with the womb and my own desire for that kind of primal oneness with my mother that has been forever sundered. But that was visually driven. I couldn’t have come up with that without pictures and visual metaphors.

Correspondent: It’s interesting to me that the origin point very often of what you read is depicted more than the origin point of what you illustrate, or even what you write. I think of the infamous drawing that you do on the bathroom floor in this.

Bechdel: (laughs) Oh god.

Correspondent: A doctor examining a girl. We don’t actually see this. But what’s fascinating is that we actually do see a page of a memoir, a fragment that you wrote, with your mother’s red inkings all over it. Except that is occluded by all these textual boxes of Alison in the present day.

Bechdel: Yeah. My narration overlaying it.

Correspondent: So my question is: why didn’t you portray that drawing in an explicit way? Did you feel that you were more driven by words as a way to find the track here?

Bechdel: Well, sometimes, it’s more powerful not to show an image. In that case, maybe it was a cop out. But I really didn’t have the original image.

Correspondent: Yes, there’s that.

Bechdel: My mother had thrown it out. And I couldn’t replicate my child’s drawing without seeing the original. But that was just a cop out. I was very relieved I didn’t have it. Because I wouldn’t want to show that. It was just — that chapter was so difficult to write. Just revealing that childhood sexual fantasy was excruciating. I was living in just a horrible pit of shame for months as I was working on that chapter. For all of these chapters, whatever old dark emotion I was writing about — shame or depression or grief. All of that would take over my life during the period I was writing about it in a very uncomfortable and disconcerting way.

Correspondent: Is shame a source of comfort for you? I mean, I’m sure not everything here was written in shame. I mean, to my mind, I really like the therapy sessions. Because you draw yourself as just being super-excited to confess. More so, I think. We see the Alison in the therapy sessions. She’s like, “Yes! I’m going ahead and getting my aggression out!” And all this. Aggression, I suppose, or delight must have fueled this in some way. You can’t exclusively draw from a sense of shame to really confront something.

Bechdel: No. There was a whole range of different emotions. And the realization of my aggression was a great breakthrough. Something that I think enabled me to push through and finish writing Fun Home, my first memoir, and that I had to tap into again for this memoir. But my mother — it was a terribly aggressive act. Writing about any real person is such a violation of their subjectivity.

Correspondent: Well, how do you go ahead and honor your mother either during or after this book? I mean, she did review a good deal of it — at least if I’m going by the book here.

Bechdel: Yeah, she did. Well, you know, I feel lucky to have such an interesting and smart mother who cares about writing. Maybe my whole putting myself down about how little I’ve read is like a mother issue. Because my mother reads voraciously. She’s read much more than I do. She keeps up with all the criticism. She reads the London Review of Books. She reads a lot. And I could never stack up to that. So I guess I have to just keep whining about that in public.

Correspondent: But why should that even matter at this point? I mean, that’s the thing that fascinates me. I mean, if this book was your own To the Lighthouse, to free yourself of your mother, I mean, here we are talking about books and I’m like, “Well, Alison, at this point, you have nothing to worry about.” I would think. From a reading standpoint.

Bechdel: All right.

Correspondent: Even considering the mortality thing, which I totally understand. But I think you’re perfectly erudite as it is. You’re certainly more erudite than most Americans, I would say.

Bechdel: I’ll just have to settle for that, I guess.

Correspondent: Settle for that? Why? I mean, why not just be? We were talking about the true self in this, right? What about the true self of the Alison right here?

Bechdel: Maybe it’s just that I used to read so much as a child and I don’t read at that same pace. So I feel that I’m not living up to my image of myself.

Correspondent: Is this the same for drawing? And for art? And for illustration and all that? Do you feel that you’re holding yourself up to any yardstick? Or is it really just…

Bechdel: No, I feel pretty good about my drawing output.

Correspondent: I actually wanted to as you about a number of situations in this book where words are often operating on a different track than the life that is unfolding that you were depicting. I’m thinking, of course, of the “ersatz” argument with your mother while you’re going through Winnicott. Lying in bed with a book, as you have Eloise trying to tell you something that is very vital. And you’re just there with your book. Your mother patching your jeans while you discover the Jungian mother archetype.

Bechdel: Yeah. Those are some scenes where I feel like I really am pushing on that distance and asking a lot of the reader to follow my story, but also listen to my little essayistic digression. And I never quite know if that’s going to work. I hope that it does. Often, it’s sort of a plane to the thing. I’ll try to have a really interesting, compelling scene unfolding in the foreground so that the reader has some patience for these less related thoughts.

Correspondent: Is it a way of compartmentalizing yourself? To come to grips with certain truths? To decide what you’re going to put down and what you’re not going to put down?

Bechdel: No. I’m not sure what it is though. I can’t think of a counterargument to that.

Correspondent: Well, how does someone like [Donald] Winnicott help you in organizing your life?

Bechel: Oh man. Well, Winnicott helped me in organizing the book. But I knew from the beginning that I was fascinated with him, that I wanted to learn more about his ideas. But I didn’t know for quite some time that I would actually use him as some kind of structuring device. Each chapter in the book is organized on a different one of his pivotal theories. So he organized the book. But also I feel like I was trying to vicariously be analyzed by Winnicott. I wanted to be his patient. And so I did that through reading his work. And I haven’t actually thought about this explicitly. And this is the first time I’m trying this out. But I’m creating this attenuated analysis with Winnicott. Comparing myself to other case studies that he talks about. The famous Piggle case of the little girl he worked with. Who was just about my age. And I sort of identify myself with this child. With other people in case studies. Like in his mind and the psyche-soma paper, he talks about a middle-aged woman who just never felt like she was really alive or really present in his life. And I identify myself with her. And through his patients, I’m trying to cure myself.

Correspondent: Cure yourself? Or find points of comparison? Just to have a guide here?

Bechdel: I want to cure myself.

Correspondent: Cure yourself?

Bechel: I’m always trying to cure myself.

Correspondent: Is anybody completely curable? Are you completely curable?

Bechdel: No. But I would like to be more cured.

The Bat Segundo Show #460: Alison Bechdel III (Download MP3)

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BEA 2012: The African American Literary Marketplace

There were only six people who weren’t panelists sitting at the start of a Thursday morning discussion devoted to the African-American literary marketplace. But the spectator shortage didn’t faze the participants. “Less is always more in my world,” said moderator Vanessa J. Lloyd-Sgambati, a publishing consultant called “the literary diva” by peers. She said that there were twelve African American bookstores operating in Philadelphia when she started her business and that, today, there was one solitary merchant serving the City of Brotherly Love. As I was to learn from Troy Johnson, president of the African American Literature Book Club, magazines and websites devoted to African American books have also closed up shop in recent years. What you needed to get by was hope and grit and stamina and hard work and whatever flash you could pluck from the bottomless barrel of ingenuity.

“There may be a different way that is not book-centric to reach the African American marketplace,” said Marva Allen, CEO of Hue-Man, a bookstore in Harlem. She expressed frustrations that people don’t always know how to promote African American books. Did people really not know how to sell books to this audience?

Enter radio personality and author Michael Baisden, a bowtied Robert McKee acolyte who had a few admirers planted in the crowd as it mushroomed from two handfuls into several dozen.

“I always know there’s a purpose in what I do,” said Baisden. “You’re looking at the old school in the business.” He compared the book industry to a team sport and insisted that it needed stars to bring people on. Baisden had sold two million books because African American bookstores had supported him when other booksellers would not. “Target doesn’t value African American literature. It can’t be guaranteed that it will be in stock.” He was understandably skeptical about BEA, which he didn’t even know was going on until his manager informed him about it. “The expense of this is too much,” he said. Baisden said that African American booksellers needed their own convention and was a bit rueful over losing so many African Americans to other industries.

Baisden certainly has a point. But Nakea S. Murray of the As the Page Turns Book Club (and the Literary Consulting Group) said, “What others have to remember is that a book club is a selling opportunity.” But it’s also a place for quality discussion. As she was to elucidate later in the conversation, her book clubs “have zero drama” and Murray has adopted a “no frolic with the talent rule” to maintain the caliber of talk. This regulation came about because of unexpected entanglements between smitten women readers and the authors who arrived at their homes. “I know male authors use this to their advantage,” said Murray, who did not expand upon the nature of these mysterious hookups.

But while such peccadilloes are inevitable in any industry, some of the larger concerns offered by Troy Johnson were also quite serious. Troy Johnson noted that two thirds of independently operated African American bookstores have bitten the dust in the past five to ten years. “In 2012,” said Johnson, “there should be more competition in this space.” The books that got attention in the African American market were devoted to celebrity and scandal, with even established authors finding it difficult to nab a deal.

“The profit-driven market discourages talented writers from entering the marketplace,” said Johnson, who initially clutched some paper like a life preserver but whose offerings became looser and more vital when he stopped reading so closely from his sheet. “Readers need more than ever to critically assess and identify quality product.” But without the critical mechanisms in place (those dying review venues for African American books), this was increasingly difficult to do. “If we’re going to move forward and improve and regain what we’ve lost,” said Johnson, “we’re not going to do it in isolation.”

“You have to create an experience for that consumer,” said Allen, who cited a Tokyo bookstore that had appealed beyond its physical space. “Beyond the Americas, there is a huge audience. The geographical boundaries must be removed to reach all of our audiences.”

Baisden believed that expos had allowed African Americans to reach audiences. “You have to go where the people are,” he said. “You have to find out where the organizations are and go to where the people are. You’re looking at the ultimate hustler.”

Baisden wasn’t interested in hundreds showing up to an event. He identified himself as “a thousands guy.” He felt that taking an event on the road with only authors wasn’t going to be successful. You needed music and social activism as well. “One thing I’m going to say,” said Basiden, “and it’s going to sting. We’re not writing enough good books.”

But Baisden’s notion of “good books,” as befitting a man more keen on Robert McKee than Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing, was more about “the entertainment business.” He insisted that audiences were “not coming for your blackness or your soul or your issues. Go to a college campus and speak power to the people.”

“My bestselling books,” said Allen, “are The New Jim Crow, things like Sister Citizen and The Warmth of Other Suns.”

This led Baisden to get somewhat defensive.

“But I can’t stay on the radio if I’m not entertaining you and playing music,” he said.

“But that’s a different medium,” countered Allen. Lloyd-Sgambati pointed out that literacy was down everywhere. Getting people to read wasn’t just an African American problem.

But as one audience member observed, “If we don’t have a naked lady on the front of the book, or somebody with muscles or something, they think we know nothing but that.” But Baisden had to catch a plane for another gig. And as this entrepreneur retreated, it was not only clear that the African American literary marketplace needed to be considered by those still in bed nursing last night’s hangovers, but that it needed far more than a hour of BookExpo programming.

[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to panelist Nakea Murray of As the Page Turns as “Lynda Johnson of the >Go on Girl! Book Club.” Murray replaced Johnson at the last minute. We apologize to Ms. Murray and Ms. Johnson for the error.]

Ray Bradbury

RIP Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury was America. He knew our hopes and our aspirations, and he was able to convey all this in beautiful economic language.

Bradbury spoke to us because there was something entrepreneurial in the way he unleashed his high concepts. He had so many great ideas that it is astonishing to recall that he was able to turn out a short story every week.

Many of these stories became classics. There was “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl,” in which a man’s efforts to clean up a murder transform into a new obsession, leading one to wonder what went wrong in the first place. There was the heartbreaking tale “All Summer in a Day,” in which the sun shines on rainy Venus every seven years and an incredible act of cruelty prevents one young girl from seeing it. There was “A Sound of Thunder,” in which a time traveler strays off the path and crushes a butterfly and returns home to find his present irreparably changed. The “butterfly effect,” coined by Edward Lorenz from this story, became part of chaos theory.

Ray Bradbury didn’t waste words. He knew we needed wonder and, with such indelible parables as “The Pedestrian” (a man taking a walk in a world where everyone was expected to watch television at night) and Fahrenheit 451 (a future in which books are destroyed), he wasn’t afraid to expose humanity’s dark underbelly. “The Flying Machine” sees a Chinese emperor burning a flying machine because he is concerned it will be used by those who “have evil in their eyes.”

But Bradbury’s tales weren’t just about the ideas. Comb through nearly any Ray Bradbury story to see how it was done. The impeccable balance of nouns, the clear emotional resonance demanding that we read further.

I want to be clear on this. I wouldn’t be reading today if I hadn’t found Ray Bradbury as a small boy in a library. And I know that I’m not alone. Ray Bradbury gave us the okay to believe in stories and the hunger to find more of them.

It is unspeakably awful that there will be no more fiction from Ray Bradbury. The world has lost a literary giant.

Here are some samples of what Bradbury is leaving behind:

“William Acton, whose fingers had stroked typewriter keys and made love and fried ham and eggs for early breakfasts, had now accomplished a murder with these same ten whorled fingers.”

* * *

“The dark porch air in the late afternoon was full of needle flashes, like a movement of gathered silver insects in the light.”

* * *

“It was a day to be out of bed, to pull curtains and fling open windows. It was a day to make your heart bigger with warm mountain air.”

* * *

“It was a dim undersea place, smooth and clean and published, as if something or other was always coming through and coming through and nothing ever stayed, but always there was motion and motion, invisible and stirring and never setting.”

* * *

“Silence lived in every room like a light turned off. Silence flowed like a cool wine in the tunnel halls. Silence came through the open casements like a cool breath from the cellar. They all stood breathing the coolness of it.”

* * *

“Birds lingered upon gigantic trees that took a hundred, two hundred, five thousand days to grow.”

* * *

“A wall collapses, followed by another and another; with dull thunder, a city falls into ruin.”

* * *

“He stopped the lawn mower in the middle of the yard, because he felt that the sun at that moment had gone down and the stars came out.”

* * *

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BEA 2012: Science Fiction & Mainstream — Crossing Over

They congregated just before lunch at the Upstairs Stage, hoping to get some thoughts on a future weirder than ham on rye. Some of their faces were young and fleshy, and I heard a few talk about authors who sent work contained within a pizza box. Some were older bespectacled men who might have still believed in a dream cut out of the cloth of hard independent labor. Whatever their reasons for being there, this did not prohibit author John Scalzi from waving an impish toodle-oo just before this business of “crossing over,” or perhaps “passing” as genre in the mainstream, was initiated just after the stroke of noon.

The moderator was a man named Ryan Britt, his gray vest insinuating some classy authority. But his promising role waned a mite when he stated, “Everything that relates to genre fiction is extremely weird.” Plenty of us have experienced “weird” moments in our lives without having to cleave to genre. That’s the problem. How do the glories of “weird” in any form get any self-respect?

The other big question was whether Walter Mosley would attempt to rile up the crowd with an outlandish and unsubtle statement.

But before Mosley opened his mouth, Jeff VanderMeer, co-editor of a massive new anthology devoted to weird fiction called (what else?) The Weird (the other editor is his wife, Ann VanderMeer, who was also present at the panel), wisely suggested that weird fiction contributed to the 20th century in much the same way that fairy tales had bolstered the years before that.

These stories “take a look at possible futures based on what we were in the past,” added Ann VanderMeer. “It’s an exploration of the unknown.” Did looking at a “weird” future offer an explanation for the present? For that matter, why did “weird” have to be so time-sensitive?

John Scalzi, author of Redshirts and the sharpest and most vibrant contributor to the discussion, pointed out that the flip phone had emerged because some engineer at Motorola had wanted to talk like Kirk on Star Trek. And while Scalzi was wearing a red shirt undoubtedly for the sole purpose of pimping his novel, it was evident that he was making a larger point about how fiction offers cues for how we live in the real.

“My daughter was freaked up beyond measure about the dude who chewed off his face in Florida,” continued Scalzi. “And it wasn’t just her.” The government had actually issued a statement clarifying to the public that what was happening was not the zombie apocalypse. “Well, that’s what the government would say,” responded his daughter. But it was, Scalzi added, a metaphor we could all relate to.

Stories may “take place in the future or they may be written in the alternative world. But they’re being written for today.” Such a distinction was not limited to fantasy fiction, but was eminently pragmatic applied across the whole. “The idea that you take what people know and give it a twist makes absolute sense as a writer.”

Jeff VanderMeer suggested that good weird fiction was comparable to “a frog in a hot pot” or “the idea of being acclimated by something.” Mosley took this idea of tangibility with narrative further, noting that Gogol’s Dead Souls carries the notion of a man buying and selling dead people for a profit.

But Mosley wished to stir people up. So he brought up the pre-Lando installment of Star Wars. “As far as I can tell, everyone had blonde hair and blue eyes. That may be unconscious wish fulfillment.” I had hoped that the moderator would be brave enough to tell Mosley that Carrie Fisher not only had brown hair and brown eyes, but even had the temerity to put up her hair in a bun. But nobody wanted to mess with Mosley. He was doing just fine carrying on his impersonation of Hooper X from Chasing Amy, except that he didn’t have the benefit of Kevin Smith writing sharp dialogue.

“One of the things walking around this place is how many white people are. And it’s another weird moment. Maybe it’s a weird moment for me, not for other people in here.”

There wasn’t really much that people could say to this, and I didn’t see any fist pumping in response to Mosley’s remark. I did observe Jeff VanderMeer, dressed in a white suit and seated next to Mosley, sink further into his seat. Ann VanderMeer attempted to return the conversation to the human factor that Scalzi had set up so well. Jeff VanderMeer attempted to respond to Mosley by pointing out that the duo had selected stories “from Japan, from Nigeria, from all over the place.” Mosley spent much of the time after this puffing up his cheeks. (But to his credit, he was the only one up there who brought up Samuel R. Delany. Nobody mentioned the New Yorker‘s recent science fiction issue.)

Then Mosley tried to pass off Scalzi’s anecdote about the Star Trek communicator as his own. “It was the kid who was watching Star Trek and said, ‘Wow, I would want to make that!'” Hadn’t we heard a more concise version of this story only minutes earlier?

Scalzi attempted to steer the conversation back on track, pointing out that Ayn Rand and Steve Jobs were likely to be just as significant to culture ten years from now. “Technology has always been about keeping the threads of the past continuing to be in the fabric of the future,” said Scalzi, “regardless of whether the technology is a codex or the technology is a hologram of Tupac.”

To this, Jeff VanderMeer added cynical relish, “I think technology comes off as too bloodless for me.” He pointed to a story he had written about half-dead bears that devour you alive if you expect to engage in transdimensional travel. “If you want to travel, you really have to want to travel.” He praised the later iterations of steampunk for exploring these issues. “It’s great to aspire to perfection. But actually achieving it is a kind of insanity.”

Did the panel turn into a dead shark?

“I’ve been on these panels before for the last twenty years,” added VanderMeer. “I’m less optimistic that they really mean anything aside from cross-pollination.” He then added that one future pastime might be “sorting through the rubble for the remains of books that were published before the ebook revolution.”

“Jeff VanderMeer,” asked Scalzi. “Do you need a hug?”

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BEA 2012: What Librarians Wish Publishers Knew

The librarians didn’t come for the muffins. But the publishers came for the librarians. And even if, during the Q&A, the publishers bolted out the door like hunters rushing to the other side of the isle with spears and a renewed lust for prancing porcine, moderator Nora Rawlinson handled the panel with a deft hand, squeezing three librarians and a Harper Collins library marketing rep into the fifty fresh minutes. It almost demanded another twenty.

Libraries are often forgotten when considering the brick and mortar part of publishing. But it became very clear during the talk that, with 9,000 library systems across America, libraries are robust places to discover and share books. Of those 9,000 systems, a good thousand have four or more branches. And according to Rawlinson, when libraries survey their public, libraries translate into books.

They are places to promote books, but they are different from bookstores. “Libraries can’t do the stack ‘em high, watch ‘em fly,” said Rawlinson at the panel’s start. But the big difference is that when a library accumulates tomes, they’re guaranteed to go out to the public. Libraries continue to promote specific titles on their websites. And as Michael Colford, Director of Library Services for the Boston Public Library, pointed out, the Boston Public Library website received eight million hits on its website last year.

“A library’s mission is to connect readers with books,” pointed out Colford. But the BPL puts much of its resources into midlist titles and nonfiction, rather than the sturdy bestsellers. And it is this multifaceted focus that drives readers to Boston libraries. “We’re telling them about books they’re not going to get. What we really should be saying is ‘Here are ten books you really should be reading if you like these books.'”

A library, Colford was keen to remind the audience, is also a great physical space. But the BPL has developed a fairly intricate system — including establishing an online catalog shared with the New York Public Library — to ensure that patrons can find the books in an instant. If the book isn’t there, there is the option to input a ZIP and find the nearest independent bookseller. And while the BPL wants to support independent bookstores, Colford noted, “Once you shell them off to another retailer, it’s not a library experience.”

Sari Feldman, Executive Director of the 28 branch Cuyahoga County Public Library, started off her part of the panel by pointing out that 40% of her library’s $4.5 million budget was devoted to overall materials. (There was a running pop quiz before every panelist, in which audiences were asked to shout out a figure in response to a question. And although Bob Barker is not yet dead, he apparently could not be coaxed out of retirement to aid these proceedings.) Her philosophy on purchasing bestsellers differed from Colford. She was more inclined to stock her libraries with them. “We want our customers to have the shopping experience.”

One way that Cuyahoga County has rehabilitated its library system in recent years is through an initiative called Reconnect with Reading. Noted independent booster Nancy Pearl came in and “infused her positive energy” into Cuyahoga. Over the course of a year, Pearl spent one week out of every month getting people to think about what they love to read and rethinking systems on how to connect customers to the reading experience. This included digital billboard ads, Google ads, bus ads, and considerable awareness.

But this awareness has translated into library patrons “knowing us for the authors we bring.” Feldman revealed that there were often hundreds in attendance for a debut author. And, equally interesting, Cuyahoga has used Facebook to woo readers, with librarians leading an online book discussion and suggesting three new books to read if the patron fesses three recent volumes.

Lynn Wheeler, director of the smaller Carroll County Public Library, revealed more impressive results. Carroll County is a six branch system. Yet despite serving a population of 170,000, it was able to bankroll 6,330 programs during the 2011 fiscal year. The library once purchased 73 copies of Kate Alcott’s The Dressmaker for its branches and, because the library displayed the book in all of its branches, it ended up stocking 433 copies. And because there was so much excitement for the book, local historical reenactors were tapped.

And through the simple act of pitting one book against another — an idea borrowed from neighboring Howard County — and encouraging schoolkids to vote on the book, Carroll County was able to get numerous children excited about books. In this “Battle of the Books,” the books in question were given to competing schools. There were 72,000 votes involved. Kids became experts on the books in knowledge bowl-style quizzes. (The accompanying photos during Wheeler’s presentation revealed a Little League-like excitement on the kids’ faces.) An all-boy team won.

By the time that Virginia Stanley, director of Library Marketing for Harper Collins, spoke, there was little time left in the panel. So Stanley didn’t get much to say, despite wearing a tiara telegraphing a Queen Victoria-like fickleness. She did say that she was trying to accommodate libraries by getting authors to “appear” via Skype. But given the hearty discussion about how physical space and community produced serious results for libraries big and small, why should publishers and libraries settle for anything less than face-to-face?

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BEA 2012: Richard Russo at ABA

Just hours before Amazon announced that it was gobbling up independent publisher Avalon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author addressed booksellers on how they could help save the industry, reminding them why they mattered while he and his interlocutor Lynn Sheer referenced many New Yorker cartoons. Neither Richard Russo nor his audience had become a mundanely ironic punchline quite yet. But Russo knew that he wouldn’t be standing in front of the audience if independent booksellers hadn’t given his first novel, Mohawk, that essential admixture of faith and attention. Most in the room agreed that Amazon’s threat to independent bookstores was comparable to a bully, perhaps even more insidious than the paperback revolution that had made books affordable for the mass population.

The kernel for Russo’s ABA talk had come from an op-ed for The New York Times published last December. While Amazon had been good to him over the years, what pushed Russo over the edge was when Amazon encouraged its customers to go into a brick-and-mortar store and scan items with a price-check app. All Amazon shoppers had to do was scan a bar code and they would earn a 5% credit on Amazon purchases. “Is it just me,” wrote Russo, “or does it feel as if the Amazon brass decided to spend the holidays in the Caribbean and left in charge of the company a computer that’s fallen head over heels in love with its own algorithms?”

Now Russo, dressed in a black shirt, khaki pants, and a dark jacket, was before a crowd of booksellers who were loyal to him as an author and, perhaps more importantly, as a man who had their backs.

Russo’s talk went further than his op-ed piece, suggesting that Amazon was killing off what remained of humane business practice. “What really frosted me about all this,” said Russo, “was how cruel it was. They wanted to fill brick and mortar stores with people. So if you looked out, you’d see all those people out there. And you’d get the sense that commerce was taking place. The cruelty of it was so shocking, so stunning, so cold.”

It was an independent bookseller that had helped Russo garner his early reputation. “At Barbara’s Books, I remember they optimistically set up six or seven chairs,” said Russo of a vital appearance at a now defunct bookstore for Mohawk, which had then been released in a then daring paperback original format. “I got the sense that the employees at Barbara’s Books had read the book and they seemed to like it. Those people who filled those five to seven chairs, they were going to be hand selling that book. They were going to be hand selling that book and my next book and the next book after that. And as disappointed as I was, they weren’t disappointed at all strangely enough.”

This early crowd of adopters had more faith in Russo than he did. Russo pointed out that his daughter, Emily Russo Murtagh, had carried on in this proud tradition by writing a review of a Ron Rash book. Rash viewed this as one of the central tipping points of his career and has only just received his first New York Times Book Review. Russo insisted that there was a whole crop of young fiction writers worthy of recognition and wasn’t sure if a world with only Amazon would permit similar waves of face-to-face enthusiasm to help future generations of authors.

“There have been significant changes as a result of Amazon,” said Russo. “B&N is hanging by a thread. There’s nothing like Walden Bookstores. The Amazon threat is real.” Russo pointed out that Amazon has 75% roughly of the online market for both print and electronic books. “And if the Justice Department wins,” continued Russo, alluding to the recent ebook collusion suit, “Amazon will be able to go back to the practice they had before all this. And they will again be able to sell certain frontlist books for less than it costs them to buy. Because they know that they already have the backlist basically cornered.”

So how could the indie bookstore fight back against this threat? For the independent bookstores that have survived, Russo suggested that “what didn’t kill them made them stronger.” He compared indie bookstores to “curated shows” and suggested that the superstore days of yesteryear were done. “We’ve passed the point now where you’ll find everything.”

But while Russo remained opposed to the word “boutiquey” and wanted bookstores to thrive rather than merely survive, Russo had little more than instinct and accepted wisdom to uphold these views. While he copped to owning an iPad, he confessed that he didn’t really comprehend social networks (“You’re speaking to a dinosaur”) and that his love of physical books was perhaps generational (“The generations do react very differently”), noting that kids today are being trained to sit before a screen for twelve hours.

He didn’t understand why publishers simply accepted the manner in which online booksellers dictated the $9.99 price point when they offered the hardcover for $27. “Why would they have agreed to do that? It was like allowing Netflix to stream The Avengers on the weekend it comes out. Why would they have conceded the most important point?”

He received the greatest applause when he said, “What publishers need to do more than anything else is just find a spine.”

But how can independent booksellers stand up against a force when realtors (Russo’s wife is a realtor) are now encouraged to tell their clients to get rid of their books when they’re selling their homes? Or when Amazon can send an email telling people who have previously bought Richard Russo books and dramatically alter the ranking of the latest Russo volume?

Russo argued that bookstores had physicality and people as hard advantages. “You’re hoping to discover what you never knew existed,” said Russo, expressing a distaste for search engines. “When you go to the customer service desk, you’re not going to the engine.”

Russo remained cautiously optimistic about the future of publishing. But while hope made the crowd feel good, the unity he had inspired in being more explicit about Amazon suggested that these troops needed a hell of a lot more than a pep talk.

(Image: Steve Piacente)

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BEA 2012: IDPF Publishers Roundtable

They were gathered young and old around round tables at the International Digital Publishing Forum. They sipped hot coffee and cold Frappucinos and didn’t really touch their breakfast remains. But they hoped to snatch a foolproof map outlining the proposed routes on a misty Monday morning.

There were a few long-haired lads in suits, mimicking Steve Jobs in look if not in attitude, and some veterans who had fled from other industries. One man had witnessed the rise of digital photography and the closing of 4,500 Fotomats and he wanted to know if something like that was happening on the books front. He didn’t really get an answer, but these things happen in cycles.

How much could anybody spill while the Department of Justice ebook collusion suit played on? It was tough for the top dogs to talk. These settled professionals and aspiring entrepreneurs were informed at the head that there would be no questions on agency model or pricing. But there was steady banter about “consumers.”

“Most consumers won’t know who is publishing the book,” said Open Road’s Jane Friedman with the calculated swagger of a recent digital convert. She would be corrected later with some subtlety by Richard Charkin, who pointed to the prominent Bloomsbury found on his front covers (that ten word name, associated with the Harry Potter books, had been one of the fine ingredients that had moved the fish and chips across the pond). Random House’s Madeline McIntosh said that her work was “less about establishing a brand name and much more about serving the author’s relationship with the consumer.”

Why didn’t these capable titans refer to readers by their rightful name? Perhaps talking about readers in human terms interfered with business operations. Freidman said, “We want to get to them quicker, more efficiently.” This would be done by “marketing extensively.” I didn’t know whether to be more alarmed by Friedman’s crude reliance on adverbs or her suggestion that passionate readers are malleable cyborgs.

Perhaps because booksellers still factored into her business plan, McIntosh expressed a more inclusive perspective. “I don’t think we add value to the author or the reader by competing with the booksellers,” she said. “They have a hard enough job making a fantastic customer service environment. Trying to compete with them is not productive.” She mentioned how booksellers were asking publishers to help them retain customer data and how passing this onto the retailers represented a “lost asset.”

Hours after McIntosh uttered these words, I got into a near violent altercation with a pushy clerk blocks away from Javits at B&H Photo Video, because he insisted on my name, my phone number, and my address if I wanted to purchase a $20 lithium ion battery charger. This was after I had stood in line for ten minutes. I thought collecting my personal information on such a trifling item was both unreasonable and time-consuming. But the bastard was uncompromising. I snapped, “Hey, buddy, do you want a sale?” He didn’t and repeated his request for customer data. So I left, and B&H lost a customer for life.

* * *

There was the suggestion that McIntosh had her authors poll her customers, getting a sense of what they liked on the cover. But was this really the case? Is every conversation between an author and a reader transactional? Or is that merely the viewpoint you see when you’re sitting top of the world, ma?

Charkin was an old school gentleman dressed in white. He was British. All he needed was a sword and John Boorman’s direction. Perhaps some of this explained why he brought up a Cricketers’ Almanack to make a point.

“I don’t think we should draw conclusions,” said Charkin. “We publish something called Wisden, which is the annual thing. It’s been going for 149 years. It comes out with statistics.” It was this annual cricket “almanack” which sells 40,000 copies in hardback and costs about $80 a pop every year. 35,000 of these books are sold to the same loyal souls. But the book trade doesn’t keep tabs.

“They don’t keep a record of who’s buying them,” said Charkin. “Essentially it’s the same people.”

It was this community of cricket enthusiasts which permitted Bloomsbury an influx of loyal regulars. Charkin made the point so eloquently that he didn’t even need to use the word “consumers.”

“But that is very promotional,” rejoined Friedman, who identified passionate communities as “people who very specifically want to look for a specific topic.” The important issue was to have passionate communities “see what they want” even if “they don’t even know they want it.”

* * *

It is an irrefutable fact that one cannot attend a publishing conference in 2012 without someone mentioning the success of Fifty Shades of Grey on a panel. It took only ten minutes for the erotic trilogy, which has sold ten million copies, to pop out of the pants.

“For those who rise up to a certain level,” said McIntosh in relation to self-published wunderkinds bumped up by the undoubtedly selfless motivations of publishers, “that’s where a scale publisher such as ourselves jumps in and makes it available in print and digital.” Five million copies of Grey had been sold through print. The other half had been purchased through digital. Print copies flooded into the market and had a positive effect on digital sales.

But there was talk about an elusive cash register effect that wasn’t available online. Again, I had to wonder why these savvy business leaders avoided mentioning the very human booksellers that, in fact, make such a “cash register effect” possible.

Unsurprisingly, Friedman disagreed with this assessment. “Discoverability comes from marketability,” said Friedman. I looked up from my note taking to see if there was an accompanying Powerpoint slide that Friedman was reading from. There wasn’t. She pointed to the success of Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember and seemed to take credit for helping Henry Holt sell its paperback version and pushing a 55-year-old book to the New York Time‘s bestseller list. There was no mention of the obvious possibility that the recent 3D reworking of James Cameron’s 194 minute tribute to spectacle and cheesy dialogue, to say nothing of the Titanic’s 100th anniversary, may have factored into the increased sales.

Charkin had a more reliable example. He pointed to a book called The Twitter Diaries. Some literary agent had persuaded Bloomsbury to publish it. It was published in ebook format. He decided to publish a print version. Piers Morgan and others spread the word on Twitter. And the book climbed up on Amazon – conveniently enough, on the very day Bloomsbury was announcing its financial returns. By 11:00 AM, it had hit #1,000. By lunchtime, it was #100. By the end of the day, it was #4. Word of mouth through the right people had made it a hit.

* * *

“Anyone who isn’t acting like a startup has a serious problem,” said Charkin in response to another question. “Actually, our industry is about nickeling and diming. We have to pay what we have to pay.”

Unfortunately, this means that Charkin, despite being a fairly charming guy on stage, is all about the bottom line. He pointed to a time in the early 1990s when the scientific publishing community was challenged by the Internet. At the time, print copies were sold to university libraries at high prices. But the industry, after investing hundreds of millions dollars into digital platforms, found ways to make scientific publishing work online. It worked. The industry’s profitability has held. “It is absolutely possible to be a publisher in the digital world and hold gross sales and digital profits.” Alas, the price of the scientific article has fallen tenfold, perhaps a hundredfold, since the halcyon days. And while a publisher can remain confident about finding new ways to keep the coffers full, it wasn’t immediately apparent how this translated into steady labor for the very scientific writers who had produced the work in the first place.

Despite the panel’s prohibition on certain strains of shop talk, this didn’t stop McIntosh from calling digital rights management a “red herring.” In her experience, DRM did not lead to an increase in piracy, but was neither pro nor con on the issue. “I don’t think our people are buying onto the Kindle because handcuffs are on them,” she said.

Friedman said that “there was more piracy on the p side than the e side in my experience.” But she didn’t cite any specific figures. Perhaps she had been recently burglarized. Expanding further, she said, “You know what? You can always put it back if you make a mistake. And if it doesn’t work, you can always put it back on.” It is my understanding that some especially pious hymns to hymenorrhaphy have a similar line of reasoning.

I figured the talk had cleared up all thoughts on DRM, but a libertarian-minded fellow paraphrased Howard Zinn during the Q&A, mentioning something about how hard it was to be indifferent on a moving train. McIntosh, to her great credit, tried to explained to the young man that most regular people (i.e., 99% of readers) were too busy mastering one device to care about how well a format transfers onto another device. If the young man didn’t have his question answered, then I’m sure the young man will probably express his concerns with similar nuance on a Slashdot comment thread sometime soon.

“I’m willing to grab any format of media that will work to expand an author’s audience, but I do need to stay pragmatic,” said McIntosh.

Friedman begged to differ. She pointed to an enhanced book of James Gleick’s Chaos. “When you talk about pendulum theory, you want to see something going like this.” From my angle, Friedman’s accompanying gesture looked very much like the beast riding the two backs. And for reasons I could not discern, any lingering desire I had to learn about pendulum theory, much less purchase a book written by James Gleick, instantly evaporated. Who needed a book, either straight or enhanced, when you could see something going like this?

richarddawsonfeud

Vital Facts About Richard Dawson

Richard Dawson, host of Family Feud and arguably the osculating Caligula of the late 20th century game show scene, passed away on Saturday in Los Angeles. Here are a number of facts about Richard Dawson, presented to aid others in etching Dawson’s legacy into the grand volume of American history.

1. It is estimated that Richard Dawson kissed about 20,000 women during his run on Family Feud. He regretted nothing. In response to the kissing criticisms, Richard Dawson replied, “I kissed them all for luck and love, that’s all.” (Source: The Associated Press, May 17, 1985)

2. Erma Bombeck offered a more reliable metric for Richard Dawson’s kissing quota. She watched a 30-minute episode of Family Feud, noting that Richard Dawson dispensed 23 kisses. (Source: The Milwaukee Journal, January 18, 1981)

3. Richard Dawson was fearless about contracting disease from kissing all those women. Dawson did not fear mono. He did not fear herpes. He did not fear any disease that stood in his path. “That has never crossed my mind,” said Dawson in 1984. His associate added, “He makes two million a year, and two million buys a lot of salve.” It is unknown if Dawson vigorously washed himself after a hot day of taping. (Source: The Durant Daily Democrat, May 27, 1984)

4. Fran Lebowitz had a lifelong dream to appear on Family Feud. Lebowitz called the show “relaxing…the minute I hear the theme, I perk up.” In 1985, Lebowitz’s agent Mort Janklow received a call from Cathy, Richard Dawson’s husband. The plan was to dedicate the March 4, 1985 episode entirely to Lebowitz, because Lebowitz had said many nice things about the program. Unfortunately, Lebowitz’s mother refused to do it. (Source: The Deseret News, March 8, 1985)

5. Richard Dawson did not shy away from politics. He marched for civil rights in Selma, Alabama and campaigned on behalf of George McGovern. When co-hosting a local television show, he was branded “a far-out liberal.” Yet Dawson remained against Communism, maintaining an unabated faith in Western democracy. As he told an interviewer in 1973: “You tell the midwestern housewife that for the good of the state she’ll have to give up her washing machine and dryer and dishwasher and her electric conveniences and take to scrubbing clothes against a rock in a stream and she will have none of it. No one is going to take away her washing machine, least of all for the good of the state.” When asked about becoming a U.S. citizen, Richard Dawson said that he was felt incapable of assuming the responsibilities of casting a ballot. (He would eventually become an American citizen in 1984.) (Source: The Phoenix, July 20, 1973)

6. ABC once offered Richard Dawson a situation comedy involving two priests in a ghetto. Dawson replied, “There’s a lot of humor there, counseling young girls about abortions and heroin.” The conversation ended quickly and the offer was rescinded. (Source: The Pittsburgh Press, June 4, 1978)

7. Richard Dawson was a night person and felt the happiest when the sun was setting. He would stay up writing or reading, and read about five books a week. It remains unknown whether he practiced vampiric tendencies. (Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal, August 18, 1979)

8. As a young man in the merchant marine, Richard Dawson started out as a laundry boy and worked his way up to waiter. But this was not enough income for the young strapping Englishman. So he started boxing his mates on ship to bring in some extra cash. But Richard Dawson’s hustling didn’t stop there. When he transferred to the Cunard line, he slipped the maitre’d some cash to make sure he was waiting on the high-tipping tables. (Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal, August 18, 1979)

9. Dawson nabbed his first role by making up Shakespeare quotes on the spot. (Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal, August 18, 1979)

10. Dawson also secured employment in London by claiming to be a famous Canadian comic on vacation, looking for a few weeks work. A year later, Dawson was playing the Palladium. (Source: Daytona Beach Morning Journal, August 18, 1979)

11. Richard Dawson had perforated eardrums. (Source: The Phoenix, July 20, 1973)

12. When it came to exercise, Richard Dawson was a real man. In 1966, he went for a brisk 15-minute daily walk. He also managed to get in a swim six days a week in weather foul and fair. (Source: Universal Press Syndicate, July 17, 1966)

13. Richard Dawson spent much of his time shooting pool. In the 1960s, he converted one of his five bedrooms into an antique poolroom, with the table acquired from Tommy Noonan. (Source: Universal Press Syndicate, July 17, 1966)

14. In the early 1980s, TV Guide wished to profile the top six game show hosts in the country. Richard Dawson was not profiled. The reason? He would only agree to an interview if he, and he alone, appeared on the cover. It is unclear whether Richard Dawson continued to make such bold editorial demands for the remainder of his life. (Source: The Leader-Post, February 1, 1985)