Review: Looper (2012)

We live in a time in which overreaching types chirp about illusory import in tentpole pictures, as if these massive movies with overcompensating budgets are akin to down-on-their-luck paraplegics seeking strangers in the streets to buy them hot meals. Slate‘s Dana Stevens tells us that Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy represents “war-on-terror allegories.” Mark Ruffalo explains to the Wall Street Journal that The Avengers, which is little more than a very pleasant popcorn movie, is a complex take on American life. While I’ve never shied away from expressing enthusiasm for genre or well-crafted mass entertainment, there is nevertheless a clear distinction between what Jon Favreau and what Alejandro Jodorowsky are trying to commit to film.

Yet Rian Johnson’s Looper won me over, despite a frustratingly paradoxical finale that contradicts two hours of story logic. Here is a film that isn’t just interested in entertaining, although I must confess that I was thrilled by one late scene in which Bruce Willis blew away a considerable number of baddies. (When it comes to satisfying on-screen violence, I’m just as redblooded as the next guy.) Much as the underrated Daybreakers took care in establishing a consequential world (complete with homeless vampires holding cardboard signs which read STARVING NEED BLOOD), Looper is smart enough to understand that a good time travel movie is all about the peripheral deets. The Back to the Future trilogy remains a repeat viewing draw because we wonder if Doc Brown ever really said, “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.” (He doesn’t, despite the characters crediting him as the source.) Then there are complicated films like Shane Carruth’s excellent Primer, which contains so many interpretive possibilities that one can easily get lost in its low-budget, high-concept Chinese box.

Looper contains a narrative we’ll eventually figure out. We learn that Joseph Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a “looper” who kills time travelers with a blunderbuss a mere instant after they appear out of nowhere upon a blue trap. These fidgety executions establish an inconsequential tone, which allows us to ponder why Joe’s in this line of work. Isn’t Arby’s still hiring? Surely, given the film’s barely touched steak and eggs specials, there’s a need for crappy roast beef sandwiches in the year 2044. But the career is lucrative, although paper currency is nowhere to be found. (Has the dollar collapsed?) Joe’s saving up his silver bars for a post-killing life. He’s learning French. He keeps time to an old watch. He cannot let these time travelers escape. We learn that in thirty years someone will kill him. All part of the job.

This is a somewhat silly setup. If you think about it, a looper has to accept on faith that the future is fixed (we understand that time travel is forbidden because of a dangerous criminal syndicate, but, if it’s so problematic, why doesn’t anyone track down the guy who developed it?). A looper has to accept that the people who run the operation (this includes a grizzly gray-bearded Jeff Daniels) can be trusted. This is probably why Johnson has made Joseph somewhat dissolute. He wastes his hours with the inventive aesthetic of drugs he can plop into his eye with an eye dropper. That’s certainly less messy than panics in Needle Park.

I’m giving Johnson a hard time, but he does manage to get performances from his cast. Bruce Willis, with a strangely satisfying fixed hairline this time around, juggles intensity and contrition as “Old Joe,” the guy that Joseph Gordon-Levitt grows up to be (despite the two actors sharing quite different ears). I’m not the greatest Emily Blunt fan, but I’ll take her firing bullets into the cornfields. There’s an incredible kid with fierce eyes named Pierce Gagnon who will probably go places, assuming that he doesn’t end up as some former child star shooting up in a seedy motel during his early adult years. Even Garrett Dillahunt, the quirky and misunderstood character actor who was the goofy T-888 in The Sarah Connor Chronicles, shows up endearingly befuddled. I don’t feel any particular need to describe the plot. Let others do that. It’s basically a showdown between Joe and Old Joe, with some twists coming late in the film. We get telekinesis and a number of impressive jet cycles. Geeky shorthand for the ADD crowd.

What impressed me about Looper was the way it depicts a future where today’s everyday conveniences are missing. Some unknown upheaval has gone down between 2012 and 2044. The world here is a barely civilized place waiting to be overrun by desperate crooks. Touchpad technology is hidden behind secret panels. Smartphones have transformed into barely functioning squares, largely used by the loopers, and nobody whips these out while walking the streets. We see tents and homeless encampments on the outskirts of cities, with the word “vagrant” taking on a sinister tone. The unemployed have clearly expanded to include a larger and more invisible class of humanity, and I liked how the film made the daring choice of following those who were well off, further suggesting that one had to become terribly amoral to have a nice house. There are makeshift solar panels haphazardly affixed to cars (and at least one farmhouse) without any clear standard. And when you consider the black tubing leading to where a truck’s gas tank used to be, you figure that there was some last-ditch effort to respond to a fossil fuel crisis. The loopers get the flashy sports cars. The jet cycles go to the authorities. The losers don’t even get a set of steak knives.

And yet somehow it’s possible to keep a diner operating in the middle of nowhere. It’s still possible to maintain a farm with helpful insecticide-sprinkling robots. There are still upscale nightclubs kept alive by the looper class. I liked that the film offered no reasons for any of this, even as it resolved the main plot like some half-baked episode of Time Trax. It doesn’t really matter what time we live in. Looper makes its own case for human connection and sacrifice, but it also suggests that the larger world is more fixed and unstoppable than we realize. Shouldn’t we get down to the business of living rather than seeing what fits the given mood?

Cole Stryker (The Bat Segundo Show)

Cole Stryker is most recently the author of Hacking the Future.

(PROGRAM NOTE: This episode’s introduction contains the first appearance of Jorge and Mr. Segundo in two years. As The Bat Segundo Show winds down, we will do our best to resolve numerous plot threads that were established years before in these introductions.)

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Revealing his new vocation and discovering unanticipated maturity.

Author: Cole Stryker

Subjects Discussed: Whether thinking people should pay attention to web culture, generational cycles and inevitable evolution, whether Pastebin and text files represent the future of the info leak economy, why people have no awareness of how vulnerable their personal data is, the increasing need for certain hackers to gloat or impress people, attempts to distinguish between different strands of Anonymous, 4chan and the Occupy label, hacking PBS, how one should understand Anonymous and the difficulties of investigating a group that doesn’t wish to be understood, political ethos, Fight Club, the inevitable trajectories of ideological groups, Steve Wozniak, hacktivists who started out as pranksters, the V for Vendetta aesthetic, attempting to pinpoint Anonymous’s ethos, the importance of preserving anonymous free speech, vicious Internet bullying, Jessi Slaughter, the question of seeking restitution against anonymous bullies, government and editorial control, government regulation vs. community management, when self-policing doesn’t work, Danah Boyd’s views on cyberbullying, Pew’s investigations into bullying, Megan Meier’s suicide, how the misnomer “backtracing” was appropriated, online harassment, online blackout protests of SOPA, Steam’s recent class action waiver, Firefox’s “do not track” feature, Facebook’s data collection, photo recognition tools like Orbeus which scan all details of a photo to determine user taste and patterns, not being able to encrypt our faces, the hacker Sabu’s transformation into an FBI informant, the difficulties of sorting out multiple online identities, the lifespan of the darknet, Bitcoin, and the next iterations of Anonymous and hacktivism.


Correspondent: I read both of your books. And in Epic Win for Anonymous, you describe web culture as “something so self-referential as to become virtually incomprehensible to those who do not live inside it.” You then point out in that same section how finding out about one cultural reference causes you to look up two additional ones that may have some meaning to that initial reference. And then, of course, you write that “it’s a skill that only today’s younger generation is equipped to grasp.” Larger issues, such as the Arab Spring and Wikileaks, that you mention in this book — this is sometimes aligned with Anonymous. But if the default icon is something like Nyan Cat or Pedobear, how can the present online generation be expected to understand, oh say, nuance of social issues? What’s the incentive for any thinking person over the age of 30 to get on board the online culture you so championed in the first book?

Stryker: Well, I think that the culture specifically to me is interesting because of the way that it enables everyone to be a producer, in addition to a consumer. And I think that the older generation can get a foothold by looking at sites like Know Your Meme, for instance. It’s a place where a lot of these memes are explained. And I don’t know. You kind of had a couple of different questions in there.

Correspondent: I tend to do that. Yeah.

Stryker: I guess one of them is how do older people understand what this is all about.

Correspondent: Or why should they?

Stryker: Or why should they? I think it’s important because this is the future of culture. I think that participatory mimetic culture is going to replace eventually mass produced entertainment within the next twenty years. I think that it’s becoming increasingly more difficult for companies to make money by producing big budget pieces of entertainment and it’s becoming increasingly cheap for fourteen-year-olds in basements to create compelling entertainment content. And not just entertainment, but informative content as well. So I think that we’re looking at the future. And if you don’t try to wrap your head around it now, you’re going to be left behind.

Correspondent: Well, on the other hand, one can also argue that there will be another generation that you will experience. A younger generation who will be faster, who will think smarter, who will have their own memes, who will have their own forms of communication, and you will be just as befuddled as, I suppose, the older web user who is perhaps only looking through Google News, maybe Reddit if we’re lucky. You’ll fall in the same situation. I mean, is this an inevitable cycle? Why does anybody have to get hooked onto memes? Why do you have to constantly check Know Your Meme when, in fact, there are greater issues like, say, Syria and so forth?

Stryker: Well, I think, to answer one question, it’s very likely that I will one day feel out of touch. It’s almost inevitable. However, I think that there’s a difference between my generation and my parent’s generation, for instance, in that I was born in the computer age when I grew up learning how to master systems. Whereas if my parents get a new DVD player, because the buttons are placed in differently, they don’t know how to approach that system. Whereas my mind is wired to instantly learn the inner workings and try and figure out, like, okay, what’s different? Where are the buttons located? How is this different from what I knew before? And my parents just look at it. And they’re like, “Well, this is just alien technology. I can’t get my head around it.” So I think that’s a crucial difference between my generation and my parents’. But yeah, who knows what technology will come into play in the future that will make me feel just as out of touch as they do?

Correspondent: But why should the generation be dictated by what your mind sees? Isn’t that a bit solipsistic? Maybe we can define territory here. Are you saying you’re the representation of your generation? Are we overstating things a little bit here?

Stryker: Perhaps. Although I look at young children who have been born in the last five years, and I think it was in a book by Clay Shirky. He was writing about his friend’s toddler, who was trying to figure out where the mouse for the TV was by fiddling with the wires. Just assuming that everything was interactive. And I think that that’s sort of an evolution of our ways of thinking. That everyone is going to be able to interact with everything in that way.

Correspondent: So you basically accept the inevitable. That infamous video which is probably a more damning depiction of what you’re describing, of the baby sliding the fingers along the magazine, where the self-righteous parent is saying, “See, there’s no need for paper.” That, you say, is an inevitable evolution? That we’re all going to have to deal with? Including bookish people like me?

Stryker: I mean, I don’t use a Kindle myself.

Correspondent: Ah! Traitor!

Stryker: But I think it’s silly to think that things aren’t moving inexorably in that direction towards digital.

Correspondent: So just the other day, AntiSec, they stole one million Apple unique IDs from an FBI laptop. They uploaded it onto Pastebin.

Stryker: Allegedly.

Correspondent: Allegedly. They uploaded it onto Pastebin, which, of course, you write about in this book [Hacking the Future]. You state in the book that “Pastebin might indeed be the future of the info leak economy.” How much of today’s hacking would you say is rooted, if you’ll pardon the pun, around text culture or text files? Scarlett Johansson also discovered that she was not immune to this. What extent does our commonplace reliance upon, say, mobile devices — does this create an even more insecure online identity? I mean, what’s the status here?

Stryker: Absolutely. Well, I think — and Steve Wozniak recently spoke about this — the biggest threat to security right now is the fact that we’re putting everything in the cloud. So your information is no longer secure on a hard drive in your bedroom. It is now on a server farm somewhere. And now, if a hacker can get into that system, they immediately have access to millions of people’s, for instance, credit card numbers or home addresses — depending upon how many layers they’re able to penetrate of the security. So I think that, yes, this is going to be something that we’re going to have to wrestle with over the next few years. This disparity between what they expect from our technology and what it’s able to offer in terms of security.

Correspondent: Or hacking the very networks that people play their games on and so forth. Why aren’t people really aware of the fact that so much of their information is so readily hackable or even readily disseminating through third parties that Facebook uses? And so forth. Is there just no awareness? Is the generation that we were describing before, as represented by you — do they just not care about this distinction?

Stryker: Well, I think there’s a couple reasons. One is that, up until recently, hackers weren’t necessarily prone to publicizing their victories the way they are now. Anonymous especially brought about this age of the gloating hacker on Twitter. Prior to that, they would gloat in their little IRC channels and stuff. But it wasn’t meant for public consumption: (a) because they didn’t want to get arrested and any sort of publicity would only make it easier for the feds to track them down and (b) because they weren’t interested in impressing anyone that wasn’t just as skilled as they are.

Correspondent: Why did they feel the need to start impressing other people? Or putting a public face? Or are we talking about factions and sectarianism?

Stryker: I think it’s both. I think, speaking about Anonymous specifically, a lot of it’s hubris. Younger hackers that manage to pull something off — they might not necessarily have the ability of one of these autistic geniuses somewhere who’s bringing down some huge corporation and no one ever hears about it. They bring down, which is just a public facing website with no actual information on it worth stealing, and suddenly they’re on Twitter and speaking to millions about how they just achieved this epic victory.

Correspondent: Why do they feel the need to gloat? Is this a byproduct of like culture? Is this a byproduct of having to ratchet up the great hacking achievements over the years? Is this the more wired world with mobile devices and everything else?

Stryker: I think you might be right about the like culture thing. Never before have so many people been able to receive a communique of that nature. If you had a hacking victory that you wanted to brag about, you could go on a message board and the thousand people who attend that message board might see it and then maybe it might get picked up by a blog. Now you have stuff like Facebook and Twitter that enables a massive audience to be galvanized around something like this. And for Anonymous, it’s not just about the gloating. It’s about getting people excited and hopefully wanting to participate.

Correspondent: Maybe you can delineate between how Anonymous operates through 4chan and how it operates through Twitter. It would seem to me that one, of course, dictated by internal rules is more likely to fit in with the prototypical hacker. The hacker culture that we perhaps celebrated in the ’80s and the ’90s, the autistic geniuses that you suggest vs. Twitter, which is based around following and so forth. How are the two different? Do the two get along? Maybe you can go into that a little bit.

Stryker: Well, there’s a lot of, I would say, condescension from these old time classical hackers, if you will, towards the pranksters and Anonymous because a lot of Anonymous’s attacks don’t require a hell of a lot of technical knowledge.

Correspondent: Script kiddies basically.

Stryker: Right. And also because they are often very principled people who don’t find the gloating and the lingo to be very cool. So I think that, even if they were to agree with their political aims of whether it’s somehow anti-capitalism or protesting tyranny in the Middle East, they feel that Anonymous probably does more harm to the cause than good.

Correspondent: But doesn’t Anonymous function more or less like the Occupy label? It’s an amorphous title that everyone can get behind and everyone can find some kind of inclusion, perhaps not specific inclusion but inclusion nonetheless. So that we’re all in this together. Or if someone happens to be on an IRC channel or so forth. Or Pastebin, the attack on PBS that you mention. What motivates this? Is it an amorphous identity that allows them to operate in the same collective function?

Stryker: I think the Anonymous ideology is just solidified enough or just unified enough to provide people with just a lowest common denominator sense of solidarity. But beyond that, it means all things to all people. And this is Anonymous’s greatest strength and greatest flaw in my opinion. Because anybody can take charge and say that they’re going to go off and kill Facebook, for instance. And obviously nobody’s ever going to accomplish that. And all the other members of Anonymous say, “Well this isn’t the authentic Anonymous. This is some rogue group or some jackass.” So, yeah, we talked about sectarianism. And even within Anonymous itself, there’s hundreds of different opposing views and goals.

Correspondent: Yet there are common rules in a forum such as 4chan. And mainstream media is often easily fooled, often to ridiculing effect from the 4chan community. The Oprah exposé on Anonymous and so forth. Is there more of an understanding by the mainstream media now that you would say? Than a couple of years? I mean, you yourself put yourself on the line with the first book and were, in fact, heckled and harassed by 4chan. Maybe you’re just as part of the problem as Oprah is. What do we do to understand this? How do we understand a group of people who really don’t want to be understood?

Stryker: I still, even a year later, after releasing that first book, I still get contacted randomly by trolls who hate my guts and write nasty reviews on Amazon. I think that part of is that they simply just don’t like people talking about their secret club, even though I felt like I was rather sympathetic to their cause in both books. I think that specifically the 4chan bred version of Anonymous is more trollish in nature and really doesn’t care about political ideology. And they exist simply to mess with people and generate tons of controversy. And I think that the latter group of politically minded Anonymous is more interested in what I’m doing, in discussing these issues, and they don’t really have a problem with me. It’s the complete nihilists.

Correspondent: The ones who are in it for the lulz.

Stryker: Yeah. Exactly.

Correspondent: But isn’t that also a part of the political ethos as well? I mean, you can’t just take one away from the other, can you?

Stryker: I think there’s a little bit of lulz in even the most politically minded Anons. Like even the ones who are trying to bring down these entrenched corporate powers. There’s certainly at least an aesthetic of lulz, where they’re using the lingo and they’re gloating and basically using the same terminology that they would use if they had just killed a guy in Halo or some other video game regarding a federal agent.

Correspondent: Getting pwned and all that.

Stryker: Yeah. So that’s definitely there as an aesthetic. But the specific — I compare it to Tyler Durden, the character of Tyler Durden in Fight Club, who is just this completely — you know, all he cares about is fucking shit up essentially. Those are the ones that — they intrigue me and kind of terrify me at the same time. Because you wonder if they’re living this double life and in real life they’re not like that. And I would assume that that’s the case for many of them. That this is just an outlet for them to express the id. But I’m sure there are also some genuine psychopaths that call themselves Anonymous.

Correspondent: Okay. So if we’re talking about a group that is guided by aesthetic, the most prominent aesthetic of course is the V for Vendetta mask, what then would you say is their ultimate ethos? Which is probably what people would want to know if we were to acknowledge them as a legitimate group. I mean, are they more driven by lexical keywords, mashing things up into memes, and constantly perpetuating meme after meme after meme? How do you get distinguish between that and whatever sort of political ethos they stand for? Or whatever good that they do?

Stryker: I mean, I distinguish it in the book by using capital A when I refer to the politically minded group and a lowercase a when referring to just random trolls. You can try to synthesize them. But I think it makes more sense to almost consider them as two completely different groups. When they began, they were one and the same. When it was all anti-Scientology. Over time, the more politically minded members of Anonymous have grown increasingly humorless and more passionate, and they use lingo from like the ’60s’s counterculture. Like “Don’t lose heart, my brothers” and things like that. The more trollish anons would look at that and say, “You’ve got to be kidding me. This is what we’ve turned into?” They’re for pure chaos and any political goal is, to them, ridiculous.

Correspondent: But isn’t that the iteration of any countercultural hacking movement that we’ve seen? Where people grow more sour as they grow up, as they have kids or turn more libertarian sometimes. We saw that in the ’80s, if you hung around in USENET and checked out some of that. Or looked through the archives. What was once a very fresh countercultural movement became quickly driven towards money, towards entrepreneurship, towards that sort of thing. And then of course the initial enthusiasm that motivated the movement in the first place — I mean, isn’t this the function of all ideological groups? How does Anonymous, whether capital A or small a, differ from activists that came from before?

Stryker: Well, I think that earlier hacktivists were not bred in this mimetic culture. I mean, 4chan is a pretty unique place. There were places like it that existed before, but not at the same magnitude of just constantly churning weirdness. And most hacktivists don’t come into hacktivism from a desire to have fun. Or at least previously to Anonymous. I would think that a lot of politically minded hackers came to that way of life through a desire to achieve political change or to disrupt powerful entities. Not to just goof off.

Correspondent: Not predicated on blue boxing? Or pulling pranks? Any of the number of things that Steve Wozniak outlines in his book.

Stryker: But I don’t think they would ever call themselves hacktivists. I mean, even Steve Jobs did it as well. But I think that’s separate. I think Anonymous is a convergence of both of those. I think that it’s a natural evolution.

Correspondent: So it’s a natural evolution to go from prank-driven hacker in it for the lulz to hacktivist if you stick around in it too much? What’s the trajectory you’re describing here?

Stryker: I think that — it’s hard to say whether Anonymous has grown less prankish over the last few years or if simply that the more political oriented actions of Anonymous are the ones that are getting all the press. There’s still that chaotic — I mean, I know people that — you still hear these stories about teenage girls that are getting harassed online and people getting doxed, which is when all their personal identifying information gets leaked to the Web. That still happens all the time. And I think it will continue to go on as long as people are able to do that. But I think that the more politically minded stuff is what gets the press attention. So it looks like Anonymous is morphing into more of a political beast when that might not necessarily be the case. They just have the loudest voices.

The Bat Segundo Show #487: Cole Stryker (Download MP3)

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Penguin Sues Elizabeth Wurtzel, Ana Marie Cox, and Other Authors Who Can’t Deliver Books

On Tuesday, The Smoking Gun reported that Penguin Group (USA), Inc. had filed a number of lawsuits against several authors for failing to write their books in a timely manner. In short, Penguin wants the authors to pony up the dough for manuscripts they didn’t deliver. In response to this, as Galleycat’s Jason Boog was quick to observe, Trident Media Group chairman Robert Gottlieb offered a tough, no nonsense statement at The Smoking Gun insinuating repercussions if any of his authors were crossed:

Authors beware. Books are rejected for reasons other than editorially and publishers then want their money back. Publishers want to reject manuscripts for any reason after an author has put time and effort into writing them all the while paying their bills. Another reason to have strong representation. If Penguin did this to one of Trident’s authors we could cut them out of all our submissions.

On Wednesday morning, Reluctant Habits learned that Penguin had filed a total of twelve lawsuits in the past week with the New York State Supreme Court. The full list of author defendants and damages sought is listed below:

1. Ana Marie Cox: An $81,250 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $50,000,” for “a humorous examination of the next generation of political activists.

2. Bob Morris: A $20,000 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $4,000,” for “a narrative about fishing lures and their history. The Work will examine early creators of fishing lures, the rise of Bass Pro Shops, cutting edge research behind the development of high-tech lures, and the science of why fish go for some lures and not others.”

3. Carol Guber: A $35,000 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $10,000,” for a two-book deal involving “a guide to managing Type II diabetes for women” and “a cookbook for diabetes with approximately 125 recipes.”

4. Reverend Conrad Tillard: Tillard received a $31,833 advance for a memoir “tracing his epic journey from the Ivy League to the Nation of Islam, his eventual fall-out with Louis Farrakhan, his crisis of faith, and the epiphany (at Harvard’s Divinity School) that brought him back to the religion of his youth.” Tillard paid back $5,000 of this advance after Penguin terminated his agreement. Now Penguin seeks the remaining $26,833, “plus interest of not less than $9,500.”

5. Deborah Branscum: A $10,000 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $2,000,” for Stuffola, which “traces our national journey from impoverished colony to Pack Rat Nation.”

6. Elizabeth Wurtzel: A $33,000 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $7,500,” for “a book for teenagers to help them cope with depression.”

7. Herman Rosenblat: A $30,000 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $10,000,” for “the amazing story of a Holocaust victim who survived a concentration camp because of a young girl who snuck him food. 17 years later the two met on a blind date and have been together ever since, married for 50 years.” (As Snopes observed on February 21, 2011, this story was revealed to be false. Thanks to Alex Heard for reminding us about this.)

8. Jamal Bryant: A $56,250 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $13,500,” for “a second book from the dynamic pastor of the Empowerment Temple, which inspires men and women to be empowered through faith in God.”

9. John Dizard: A $40,000 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $18,000,” for Gold Now, “an analytical forecast arguing the future success of gold investments and prophesying the decline of the American and European national currencies.”

10. Lucy Danielle Siegle: A $35,000 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $7,000,” for To Die For, “a reporter’s eye view [sic] of the environmental and human rights toll of the fashion business, and a look at the real story behind the clothes we wear, by Observer columnist Lucy Siegle.” (9/27 UPDATE: As Michael Orthofer observed on Twitter, To Die For was published in the UK.)

11. Marguerite Kelly: A $25,000 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $5,000,” for a “comprehensive guide” to “behavioral problems — their symptoms and cures.”

12. Rebecca Mead: A $20,000 advance, “as well as interest of not less than $2,000,” for “a collection of the author’s journalism.”

It remains unknown whether Penguin filed these lawsuits as an insurance measure against recent legal setbacks. A few weeks ago, after HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette agreed to settle in the Department of Justice’s collusion suit, Penguin vowed to fight with Apple and Macmillan. Penguin is also facing an age discrimination suit filed by former veteran employee Marilyn Ducksworth, who left, along with other employees, under mysterious circumstances. (It’s worth pointing out that Gottlieb has also been outspoken in his support for Ducksworth.)

Of course, when anyone fights a two-front war, it can’t be done without resources. Should Penguin prove victorious in its legal battles against these authors, the grand total to be earned is well over half a million dollars. Assuming that most of the authors opt to settle, this would still land Penguin a fairly comfortable sum.

The twelve lawsuits continue Penguin’s ongoing efforts to tap revenue through “outside the box” thinking. Penguin’s August purchase of Author Solutions, which Smashwords’s Mark Coker has identified as “one of the companies that put the ‘V’ in vanity,” suggests that Penguin’s new business strategy involves squeezing authors. The biggest surprise is that Penguin has extended this tactic to established authors.

It remains unknown whether Penguin will continue to file more lawsuits, but, in recent months, the company has proved more aggressive in its pursuit of lost monies. As Publishers Lunch’s Sarah Weinman reported on September 20, Penguin filed a lawsuit seeking $22,000 and interest from MacAdam/Cage over the ebook rights to Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue.

Representatives from Penguin did not wish to speak with us on the record.

A.M. Homes (The Bat Segundo Show)

A.M. Homes is most recently the author of May We Be Forgiven. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #58 and The Bat Segundo Show #115.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Seeing if there’s anyone left to forgive him.

Author: A.M. Homes

Subjects Discussed: May We Be Forgiven as an update to White Noise, Nixon as a replacement for the Holocaust, Don DeLillo’s influence, Ann Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon, David Greenberg’s Nixon’s Shadow, the evolution of televised presidential debates, growing up with Nixon as the first President on one’s consciousness, how personal commentary has replaced professional commentary, references to David Lynch in May We Be Forgiven, This Book Will Save Your Life, families as an inevitable narrative solution, how a series of calamities unexpectedly transformed into dimensional character, the picaresque qualities of The Adventures of Augie March, knowing when a protagonist has a path, turning uninteresting lumps into vivid people, Paul Slovak’s input as editor, being asked to add material to the manuscript, finding hope and battling literature, including vaguely surreal qualities that are real, the South African bar mitzvah as cultural triangulation, being taught by Grace Paley, taking Yaddo people of all ages to play Laser Tag, John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” Blake Bailey, Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That, the hunger for lost communication, media and narrative in relation to existence, fashioning a narrative based off quotidian minutiae, Instagram, how American fiction responds to the predicament of snapshot-based life, men who write big books, assumptions about women writing domestic novels, George’s homicidal impulses, unusual psychiatric institutions within May We Be Forgiven, when a novel adopts a hostile stance to therapy, Homes’s enrollment in a prison survival class, Erving Goffman’s Asylums, having a lifelong fear of ending up in jail, the burdens of being an outsider, how outsiders become insiders, Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, why even outsiders even needed to be rooted, balancing being an insider with being an outsider, the responsibilities of being a Girl Scout leader, when trying to be like other people doesn’t come naturally, operating within a system, growing up in an upper middle class suburb, having socialist parents, lunatics who believe in rational conversation, simple anti-Thanksgiving food contained within May We Be Forgiven, fish sticks, Nixon and China, the dangers of stereotypical Chinese characters, George Shima*, working the cultural and the psychological fiction angles rather than the socioeconomic ones, Chinese manufacturing, the women who are attracted to Harry Silver, whether empathy gives promiscuity a distinction, the inevitability of family history, Homes being judgmental to her characters, how viewpoints change with age, pretending that you don’t have a family, and when parents interfere within telephone calls at inopportune moments.


Correspondent: You’ve got this guy named Harry Silver. He’s a Nixon Studies scholar. And this, together with a homeless version of Don DeLillo who crops up in the book, suggests a deep connection to, of course, White Noise. And I wanted to ask you about this. To what extent would you say this novel serves almost as an update to White Noise? And has Nixon replaced the Holocaust as the go-to reflective tragedy in American life?

Homes: That’s a very enormous and large and interesting question. Did you say a homeless DeLillo?

Correspondent: Well, he’s like a homeless DeLillo. He’s a ragged DeLillo in the book.

Homes: Well, he’s not homeless.

Correspondent: Well…

Homes: He’s a wandering DeLillo.

Correspondent: A wandering DeLillo. All right. A vagabondish DeLillo.

Homes: In fact, in my mind, I’m stressing that. Because I thinking that the novel takes place quite near where DeLillo lives in reality. So I’m sure that he’s well housed.

Correspondent: Is DeLillo apprised of your narrative tinkering here?

Homes: I’m not sure.

Correspondent: Along with David Remnick and all the others. Lynne Tillman even shows up.

Homes: I think they’re dimly aware and soon will be more aware.

Correspondent: They certainly will be very soon. But anyway, White Noise.

Homes: The bigger question.

Correspondent: Nixon. Holocaust.

Homes: Right. You know it’s funny. I hadn’t thought about it directly in relation to White Noise, which I think conceptually or philosophically in terms of how I think of as a writer. Clearly, DeLillo is a huge influence. And it’s funny. You know how — I think it is in White Noise — there’s the big airborne incident? Which if you go back to Music for Torching, there’s that thing where they close off the house with the hazmat and all that stuff. It definitely comes out of that. But I think for me, the thing about DeLillo that’s so interesting — especially increasingly — is his ability to blend fact and fiction, and to combine the exploration of fact through the use of fictional characters. Like in Libra and in White Noise and in the last novel and in Underworld. So that definitely is a touchstone for me. I think the thing’s that interesting about Nixon as the defining American tragedy in some ways…

Correspondent: The only one people can remember.

Homes: Well, exactly. The only one that people can remember. But you know, what caught me off guard was that this year, Ann Beattie published the book Mrs. Nixon, which is very much a literary response not only to Mrs. Nixon, but to her own kind of evolution as a writer and a thinker. And I think that that book was in many ways was underreviewed or inappropriately reviewed or taken too much along the lines by Nixon scholars as being about Nixon and not enough as a literary exploration. But then also Tom Mallon wrote this book called Watergate: A Novel. So I think it’s odd that all of a sudden, without having spoken to each other, three people are launching Nixon-related fiction in a given year, which I think says that, yes, there is something about Nixon that is in some ways unresolved and that is representative of a classic American tragedy.

Correspondent: Well, I have to ask. How much research into Nixon did you do? Because I thought immediately of David Greenberg’s book, Nixon’s Shadow.

Homes: I don’t think I know that one.

Correspondent: Oh! It’s a really wonderful book that’s all about Nixon’s image. And I had developed this theory in my own head that you had actually read that book and said, “Well, I’ll make the brother a television executive.” Of course, if you look at Nixon from a purely straight standpoint, it was television that he learned to understand and therefore learned to master and become who he was.

Homes: It was also television that initially also undid him in the public eye.

Correspondent: Exactly. Unless, of course, you closed your eyes and listened to it on radio.

Homes: Well, right. So I wrote the other day this piece for one of the newspapers in England that talks about how after the Nixon/Kennedy debate, the people who heard it on radio thought that Nixon had won and the people who’d seen it on TV thought Kennedy had won. And that was the first ever, for TV, debate. But curiously after that, Nixon refused to debate again. So there was no debate. Then LBJ, also intimidated by it, refused to debate. It wasn’t until Gerald Ford in ’76 that the debates came back. And I think what’s so interesting is, we see right now in looking at the televised convention, we all know in a way how much the media plays a role in it. But the other piece we don’t even get to evaluate is how much the guy in the media truck plays a role in it. Because it’s also a lot about how that producer’s shots of the audience or what he cuts to or how they literally frame and deliver it to us. We’re not thinking about the choices that are made for us and that guide us in lots of ways that we don’t realize. So I find that all very interesting. For me, Nixon, weirdly, is a childhood thing. I grew up just at the edge of Washington DC and Nixon was the first President of my consciousness. And we took these class field trips to see Nixon greet the leader of France and things, and we’d be playing on the White House lawn while Nixon’s up there speaking. Because what did we know? Nothing. We were little, little kids. And we always used to see the Nixon girls in the shoe department at Saks, which funnily enough, Ann Beattie writes about the shoe department at Woodward & Lothrop was the opposite store from Saks in that neighborhood called Friendship Heights, just at the edge of Washington. It’s also things like I was at summer camp when Nixon resigned. In the South. And I remember this one counselor saying something like “I bet my mom was having a heart attack.” And I remember thinking, “That’s so odd. Because in Georgetown, I’m sure they’re having a party.” So just beginning to realize that the President wasn’t just the mayor of a town, but this much larger figure. So Nixon really for me evolved as part of my growing up, but also, curiously, there’s still more and more information about Nixon and Nixon’s presidency being unveiled. Which we don’t have usually to that degree of a President.

Correspondent: But there’s also this intriguing idea that you present in your book that I actually thought of last night in relation to the Democratic National Convention and watching Obama speak — last night would be when we are recording this. This is the first series of political conventions where now you’re required to participate in the commentary. On Twitter. I was tweeting up a storm. So was everybody else. And it’s a rather fascinating idea that, instead of actually studying or trusting other people to comment upon the actions, we are the ones who actually filter it. And people now seem to be watching CSPAN. They don’t necessarily trust the news. I mention this because, in light of what your book has to say about narrative — I want to get into this too. So little time. I’ll do my best. So you have at least three references to David Lynch in this book. You have the tied cherry stems. You have “blue velvet curtains.” You have a missing girl who shows up later, which is very reminiscent of Laura Palmer. And I said to myself, “Hmmm. Well, isn’t this interesting?” And isn’t it also interesting that you even have a firm show up. Herzog, Henderson & March. Which of course has us going back to Bellow. And, of course, you mentioned DeLillo earlier. What is the degree that narrative now plays in our life if we’re constantly commentating? Does fiction even have a place for reflection anymore? Or do we now have to, as you have with this book quite wonderfully, stuff our novels with commentary on all sorts of things so that people can commentate further? What of this?

Homes: You know, it’s a good question. And in many ways, I don’t actually know the answer. I mean, I think the idea of “Does fiction have a place?” is an important one. And I think people really don’t know anymore what the difference between fiction and nonfiction is. And often they’ll say, “So you wrote a fictional novel?” And I’m thinking, “That’s right.” Or they’ll say, “Is it all true?” And you think, “Well, it’s a novel.” So it’s very difficult. And I’m not sure that there is a sense of what the role of the novel is. It’s kind of in culture at this point. And it would be curious to actually try to think about what the evolution of that is. We’ve kind of lost that. Is it a result of the memoir? The idea that everything has to be a real thing. Reality TV. The impact of all these things. Have we moved away from an imagination? And my sense is that in many ways — I mean, I see this when I teach — people have forgotten what the imagination is and how to use it. It’s as though there’s not any trust in the idea of being able to make something that wasn’t there before, as though that’s too magical an idea, or how to use fiction and story to weave something together that is a heightened version of an unreal thing that is incredibly reflective of real experience in some way.

Correspondent: Well, I’m going to quote from This Book Will Save Your Life. You have the voiceover of the disaster film. “What you are about to see is a work of fiction. It has not yet happened and yet each of the elements represented are real. It was written using everything I know about the state of the world we live in, which means it’s coming soon.” So here we have in May We Be Forgiven, this notion of “coming soon.” Each of the elements are represented as real. I’m curious if this was in fact a problem in writing the book. Because the first half of the book has Harry engaged in one calamity after another. It’s this heap of abuse and he carries through. But then something rather interesting happens halfway through. Families are formed. Families are formed in the strangest of places. And every amount of narrative that you can actually heap upon Harry, going back to this idea of “coming soon,” well, it’s simply not enough for him to live as a character, as a human. So I’m wondering how this dilemma afflicted you during the writing of this and how this was your response. The idea of family, the idea of finding other people and creating this interesting snowball effect. So by the end, we have all these people in the house and so forth.

Homes: Right. That’s a good question. I’m not sure exactly what the question is. But I think the thing that was interesting for me is that this, in many ways, started as a short story. Not in many ways. It did start as a short story. So I feel like if you cause a tragic injury in the beginning, you have to raise the stakes. Because where do you go from there? On Page 20, there’s this gigantic upsetting incident. So part of it was that. And also the interesting thing for me as a writer was, early on, my difficulty with Harry was that I was writing about somebody who didn’t know himself. And it’s very hard to be led by a person who doesn’t know where they’re going. So I think as Harry began to unfold as a person, to himself actually, he became more of a character. A more open character to me as a writer. If that makes any sense. Because only by coming to some understanding of who he is and what’s happening to him is he then able to make the connections. And the connections are family and to build this family. And that’s both what slows him down and what begins to kind of ground it. And then you’re not rolling from calamity to calamity. And I think it’s very true of our lives as well. That we often live in reaction to things and things happen to us. And it’s very hard sometimes to get enough — I don’t know what you call it — traction to slow it down, to make choices or to take action or to not just be responding.

The Bat Segundo Show #486: A.M. Homes III (Download MP3)

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* — At the 36:29 mark, during an impromptu moment, Our Correspondent mistakenly referred to “Joe Shima” when he meant to refer to George Shima. George Shima was known as the Potato King of California and his story deserves more than the rushed reference offered by Our Correspondent. When the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — one of the most diabolically racist acts of legislation in our nation’s history — restricted Chinese laborers in the States, including those who had just come across the Pacific to work on the transcontinental railroad, several Japanese came across and took their place because of the domestic labor shortage. George Shima became a self-made millionaire. Our Correspondent suggested that Shima had fought the Chinese Exclusion Act, when he really fought against the California Alien Land Law years later (which restricted Asians from owning land), although he was quite vocal about many of the discriminatory laws during the line. Much of this is documented in Kevin Starr’s excellent volumes of California history. And if you would like to learn more about George Shima, there’s a good article here (PDF).

NYFF: Charlie is My Darling

[This is the second in a series of dispatches relating to the 50th New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

They wrote new songs while holed up in motel rooms and flirted with women behind glass as they tried to eat dinner. When young girls were asked why they were drawn to the thin devilish man with the big lips, they could only reply, “I just like him.”

The Altamont Free Concert, with its rough Hells Angels security detail and the grim fate of Meredith Hunter, was only four years away, but Charlie is My Darling, which follows the Rolling Stones on a three day rush through Ireland in crisp and freshly restored black and white, proves that the raw sexual power the band held before a crowd was already well established. In one of the film’s genuinely thrilling moments, we see young people jump on stage, instantly transforming guitar cables into umbilical cords through a simple act of adolescent mischief. Drummer Charlie Watts tries to keep a steady beat as a kid leans very close to his right, eluding capture.

Charlie is My Darling might almost serve as an instructional film on how to be a screaming teenage girl in 1965, but the dark underbelly is revealed when we see girls with fractured legs carried away on stretchers.

Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night poked fun at a blockbuster band’s nonstop sprint from the fans, but this doc has a grittier feel. Part of this is human attitude. The band is well aware that it is responding to a long tradition of pop songs where romantic lyrics describe idealistic moments that have no real bearing to what people are actually doing. The band shows no reticence in remarking on this. Yet the film establishes its own humor, such as the Stones offering commentary over a clip of Mick Jagger schmoozing with important people and band members sneaking up behind kids on light afternoons.

It also features the Stones becoming increasingly drunker, singing Fats Domino and Elvis Presley tunes during a long night around a piano with the alcoholic accoutrements slid across the top. In more sober off-stage moments, we see them play the Beatles’s “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” Always keep track of the competition.

“You have to be very egotistical,” says Jagger when he is asked by a reporter about what it’s like to hold a crowd in such awe. Charlie is My Darling is a vibrant ride inside the Stones’s touring world, but it’s not as brave as Robert Frank’s infamous Cocksucker Blues, with its heroin-injecting groupies and its coke-snorting tips from Keith Richards. The shaggy and vivacious and cocky Brian Jones offers an early glimpse of the more explicit dissolution to come with some revealing statements about marriage. Godard would depict him on the outs in Sympathy for the Devil. He would be dead in a swimming pool not long after that.

Steve Stern (The Bat Segundo Show)

Steve Stern is most recently the author of The Book of Mischief.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why they’re playing the bagpipes.

Author: Steve Stern

Subjects Discussed: Playing bagpipes for the dead, the relationship between Jewish identity and the phantasmagorical in Stern’s fiction, growing up without Jewish identity, being an oral historian in Memphis, Beale Street culture, becoming an ethnic heritage director by accident, hippies and Jewish magic, learning about culture almost exclusively from books, finding moral heft within the fantastical, the pedestrian vs. the imagination, the human possibilities that arise from distinguishing between two worlds, paradoxical success, balancing present-day comic calamities vs. past heritage within The Frozen Rabbi, how the brain is affected by coffee, authors who suffer from impostor syndrome, Bernard Malamud’s “Man in the Drawer,” living in books more than living in life, misfits and outsiders defined by heritage, entering the zone of the collective dreamife by climbing a tree, juxtaposing human faith against religious faith through observation, the ambivalence of wanting to make connections and not being able to fit within a community, recurring disembodied characters within Stern’s stories, not writing for the drawer, dealing with a very limited reading audience, varying notions of “being an entertainer,” saturating a story with Yiddish words and ethnic identity and why the American fiction landscape is hostile to this, Stern’s fictional descriptions of The Pinch in Memphis, Stern being bitten by Tova Mirvis’s mother, comparisons between Steve Stern and Saul Bozoff in “The Wedding Jester,” Bozoff as Stern’s Zuckerman, being sued for a quarter million dollars because of mischievous fictional representation, the dark side of Steve Stern, getting vengeance through the use of Elvis Presley, “The Man Who Would Be Kafka,” how stories are vulnerable to interpretation, changing the rules vs. respecting folklore, legendary Jewish jesters, Kafka’s “Above the Law,” “Legend of the Lost,” pondering an existence without a soul or empathy, why Stern’s new stories are darker than the old ones, connecting with a spiritual dimension, and paradoxical parables.


Correspondent: We are outside a place that is playing bagpipes for someone who we believe is dead. Steve, how are you doing? You’re quite alive, I see.

Stern: Well, I’ve got one and a half feet in the grave with me.

Correspondent: Oh really?

Stern: I don’t know. I’m a very lively undead author.

Correspondent: (laughs) Who deals with the dead quite a bit. The Frozen Rabbi. Well, at least it’s frozen there. It seems to be the ultimate metaphor for this.

Stern: My characters tend not to stay dead.

Correspondent: Despite your best efforts. Well, let’s talk about some of the qualities of your work. One intriguing quality about your fiction is the way in which you have this idea of being Jewish aligned with these fantastical elements. In The Frozen Rabbi, you have this kid named Bernie. He’s constantly having to remind himself of his faith. Because he has this thawed out rabbi that he has to deal with, even as the rabbi becomes more craven and commercial as we learn more about his existence and we go back to the past. And then a story like “Avigdor of the Apes” sees its title character transform as he reads the secular, decidedly secular Edgar Rice Burroughs. You have “Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven,” which takes much of its influence from the story of the golem, as well as this premise of the stubborn father-in-law, who, like we’re talking about here, refuses to die. So I’m wondering. When you come up with a fantastical element for a story, are you thinking in terms of Jewish identity? Or does the Jewish identity tend to come along the more you think about the story? Or the more you tend to write about it? How important is it for that fantastical element to work on some moral or thematic level?

Stern: You want the long answer or the short answer?

Correspondent: Feel free to be as long-winded as you like on this program.

Stern: Well, the truth is that I grew up with virtually no Jewish identity. I was raised in a Reform synagogue in Memphis in the ’50s and ’60s, during a time when the Jews in the South were trying their best to be invisible. So Reform Judaism was a lot like Lutheranism, I think, in those days. The rabbi wore ecclesiastical robes. He had choirs and robes, a pipe organ, very little Hebrew in the liturgy. So I pretty much was confirmed, not bar mitzvahed, and then walked away from it virtually untouched by heritage or tradition.

Correspondent: What kind of reading of Jewishness did you do during this time?

Stern: None.

Correspondent: None whatsoever?

Stern: Absolutely none.

Correspondent: Not even a scrap of the Torah here and there?

Stern: No. In fact, I wasn’t sure that the Torah and the Bible were the same thing. So, yeah, I was — if an orthodox anything, it was a hippie for years with the kind of counterculture life. Always was a reader. So I certainly read Bellow, Roth, and Malamud, and came, I think, to more traditional Jewish work — Yiddish books in translation — through a non-Yiddish writer, but Russian. Isaak Babel and his world of the Odessa ghetto was an easy segue into reading about the shtetl and Isaac Singer and becoming interested in Yiddish literature. But the truth is I was well into my thirties. And I’d come sort of full circle back to Memphis and kind of washed up there. Couldn’t find a job. Went to work for a folklore center, where I was transcribing oral history tapes of Beale Street and Beale Street characters. Black bluesmen and promoters. People who remember the heyday of Beale Street, which is fascinating to me. Because present day Memphis was a bit of a wasteland. And it turned out that there was this Jewish component on the street. The pawn shops, the dry goods dealers…

Correspondent: This would be Old Main Street then.

Stern: Well, Beale off of Main. And there was a kind of symbiosis between the black population and these Jewish merchants. And it was the first I’d heard of it really. Before my time. And I was fascinated.

Correspondent: Did you read a lot about the Jewish gangsters who crop up in a few stories here and in The Frozen Rabbi?

Stern: At this point, I’m pretty much tabula rasa. So they thought, “Well, he’s local. He works cheap. And he’s a Jew.” So they assigned me to do this. I became the Ethnic Heritage Director. I was suddenly elevated into researching the roots of the old Jewish community, which, again, I knew nothing about. It turned out that there had been an authentic East European ghetto community on North Main Street in Memphis, which was the other end of town. So I went about with a big Nagra tape recorder, knocking on doors and finding old folks who’d grown up in this neighborhood.

Correspondent: You were a one man Federal Writers Project.

Stern: Yeah. In a way. And working on a grant. And hurrying, trying to gather information before the grant ran out. And it turned out that the stories were fascinating. And I’d say, “Well, how did he get here?” So they generally begin in the old country and then bring their tradition with them and the tradition involved a lot of lore. Aside from the religion itself and the culture. There was a literature attached. There was a folklore attached. There were 1,000 years of just traditional stuff that I knew nothing about. So I fell into that world, kind of like down a rabbit hole, and thought, “Wow, here’s a place I can set my stories,” which had been kind of homeless before. And here’s a culture. You know, I grew up in the South. My friends were all in the tradition of Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty. I love those writers. But it was not a tradition that I could ever connect with. And I thought…

Correspondent: You needed a heritage then. And this came out of the blue. Were you trying to write fiction before this?

Stern: I’d been writing fiction for years. For a decade.

Correspondent: And it just didn’t hit until you had that folklore element.

Stern: Well, I had this wonderful day when I had a novel and a book of stories that were just kind of traveling around New York. And the agent called to say, “Well, you know, I’ve just had another rejection of your books. And the truth is I’m not very enthused either.”

Correspondent: (laughs) Jeez. Why did this agent take you on?

Stern: Three minutes later, I get a phone call from the schools that I’d been adjuncting at, saying, “Enrollment’s down and your presence will not be required.” So I was desperate.

Correspondent: So all doors shut on you at the same time.

Stern: Yeah. And to be honest, I think in redacting my life, you look for a way to find elements or events that spell destiny. So the folklore center and the discovery of the Pinch has that kind of feel for me. But on the other hand, I’m romanticizing and twisting the facts in a way to make it seem like a good story.

Correspondent: We’ve strayed quite a bit from my initial inquiry.

Stern: The initial question!

Correspondent: Which is totally fine. Because I like this answer.

Stern: Coming back to it!

Correspondent: Coming soon! So how do we get from folklore to fantastical elements? That’s the question.

Stern: Well, because in beginning to explore this heretofore unexplored heritage, I began to discover a thing that I had never known about Jewish tradition. And that’s that it has this incredibly rich, incredibly vast, diverse folklore that includes all kinds of magic.

Correspondent: Was the magic — that was a big element for why it hit for you? Why you could connect to it?

Stern: I’m an old hippie.

Correspondent: It was either that or getting stoned all day. (laughs)

Stern: Well, that too. But I’d been led to believe that the tradition that I grew up in was as completely dry as dust. Sterile, antiseptic. And it was as if I had stolen into the attic of this old Methodist synagogue and discovered, whoa! Here’s a dybbuk. (laughs) You know, a possessing demon. Here’s a golem. A Jewish Frankenstein. Here’s a wandering soul. A fallen angel. All this.

Correspondent: So did you know anything of shuls or Shabos or wedding canopies or breaking the glass? Anything along those lines? Because your fiction is obviously very Jewish. Was most of that informed by all this folklore that you were soaking up during this time of discovery here?

Stern: Well, sad to say, and don’t tell Cynthia Ozick this, it’s all book learned. And I’ve had very little first-hand experience of authentic Jewish communities.

Correspondent: Even recently?

Stern: No. Because of what I’ve written, I’ve been mistaken for a Jew these many years.

The Bat Segundo Show #485: Steve Stern (Download MP3)

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(Photo: Zachary Tomanelli)

End of the Bat

The last episode of The Bat Segundo Show will air shortly before Election Day. The schedule for the last few shows — and I’m not sure how many there will be — will be intermittent and irregular. The time has come for me to move on. This wasn’t an easy choice, but it was a necessary one.

History has demonstrated that a specialized dirigible of this type can float in the air for only so long. Tom Snyder’s The Tomorrow Show — which aired an especially gutsy interview with Charles Manson and opened its forum to in-depth talk with emerging musicians and cult figures — carried on for eight years, despite constant creative interventions from NBC. Dick Cavett’s ABC incarnation — the version frequently held up as primo — lasted six years. The Mike Wallace Interview, despite the indelible onyx background and the jasper smouldering in the tough interlocutor’s hand, lasted a little more than three years.

Stacked against these models of smart and engaging conversation, nearly 500 installments of The Bat Segundo Show aired over eight years isn’t bad. I’ve put out more episodes than This American Life, although it took Ira Glass and company seventeen years to hit half a grand. My rate of productivity was also slightly better than William Buckley, who pumped out 1,504 episodes of Firing Line over 33 years. These guys had a staff. I didn’t.

I also did not have Wallace’s Parliament Cigarettes to hawk. (I kicked smoking more than two years ago, which may explain why my slight rasp turned somewhat nasal and mildly mellifluous in the last 150 shows.) There was a long period where, despite hundreds of telephone calls and emails, I could not persuade a single advertiser to sponsor the show, although I did have some advertising on this website for a while and, near the end, sponsorship arrived through the good people at Litbreaker. Some income came from turning these programs into newspaper profiles or abridged bits that did not reflect the totality of these in-depth talks. But that’s to be expected. Because the dirty little secret about radio is that many of its finest practitioners can’t even turn a dime. This is a medium designed to be cut into manageable bits, arranged around selling things or hawking selves rather than the other way around.

I fought against these conditions for a long time, but the time has come to move on. If Bat Segundo’s end is how I get somewhere grand or more meaningful, then I would rather risk everything than mope about what I did not attempt or bray about what I did not have the guts to grow into.

* * *

I was told by one radio program director that I was “too intellectual” — even though I don’t consider myself much of one. I just read the books, thought about the ideas, staked out original angles, and did independent research. There were some email volleys with another station manager who inveigled me with the prospect of a weekly unpaid slot, but only if I didn’t talk books and only if I dumbed things down. I was never contacted by a single mainstream outlet during the eight years I ran the show, although a handful were kind enough to mention me.

I certainly never set out to dismiss Michael Silverblatt or Robert Birnbaum, who both still do first-rate erudite work. (I have been fortunate to have wonderful conversations with both gentlemen, on and off air.) I worked damn hard to keep Bat Segundo going, often when I had only a handful of dollars in my checking account. I always insisted on high standards, and maybe that was part of the problem. I read the books in full for every guest who appeared on the program, no matter if the volume was 200 pages or 1,000 pages: sometimes twice, sometimes taking notes, sometimes in tandem with other tomes. Sometimes I photocopied interesting articles and gave them to authors. I felt that anything less than this minimum industry was an insult to the author. But what use is a work ethic in an attention economy?

With rare exceptions, I met each author in person. Because that was the only way to do it. This often allowed for unusual encounters, such as the award-winning novelist who I once telephoned from a hotel lobby as his attentions were diverted by a prostitute (to his credit, he did the interview anyway) or the author who was so needlessly nervous that he showed up stinking of redolent weed (I said nothing, but was happy to see him clean up his act years later) or the guest who was so insecure that he asked me to feel his bicep (I did; why not?). Such human moments allowed me to care more about the authors, even as I maintained a febrile curiosity and did my best to ask honest questions, finessing some of the more challenging and critical queries with this ethos in mind.

Each installment took me a minimum of 20 hours to produce. This ranged from booking the interview (which could be anywhere from 5 minutes to three hours to negotiate; it was always the midlisters who gave me the most trouble, not the big names), reading and research, preparing about two single-spaced pages of questions and bullet points that I often disregarded, and mastering the rattly audio that I recorded in cafes, restaurants, hotel lobbies, mysterious rooms, parks, graveyards, laundromats, and any practical location I could discover in a pinch. There’s the maxim touted by reductionist thinkers that 10,000 hours (20 hours x 500 shows) make one a success at any given field. Well, if that’s the case, then Malcolm Gladwell should see how much I earned out.

* * *

I grew up doing this show. Perhaps the real commodity I’m considering is time and how to invest this precious and fast-flowing measure with greater sagacity.

I do know that a number of authors were greatly helped by these conversations. I do know that a number of listeners were inspired to pick up books. I do know that there are groups in Switzerland and Norway who are huge fans of the show. I have been genuinely surprised and humbled and moved by the numerous kindnesses expressed by many over the last eight years. The opportunity to connect with so many great books and great people behind the books has been truly incredible.

On the other hand, why should I expect anyone to engage with the history of credit or a conversation revealing what one man has spent forty decades to put together when they can have something more soothing and less challenging? Television, +1 culture, distracting smartphones, and the need to zone out are the present villains against American engagement. Only two of these were around when I started out. It wasn’t as if I didn’t try to make the pith I had seductive or entertaining. Loyal listeners reminded me that I cracked jokes throughout, even when the elaborate Bat Segundo intros became less frequent.

It’s possible that I’ve exhausted my thoughts on literature in this form. My passion for books hasn’t waned, but I may have become too polished, with each interview becoming something akin to slipping on a comfy pair of shoes. If you’re getting closer to forty and you’re going through the motions, there’s a good chance you’re erecting a massive obstacle preventing you from blossoming. I don’t want to stagnate. I want to up the ante and stop repeating myself. My general sense is that this nice round number of 500 is telling me to move on.

The final episode of The Bat Segundo Show will be recorded at McNally Jackson on October 3, 2012 with J. Robert Lennon, who is a deeply underappreciated writer who has taken more lumps than a man of his talent has any right to deserve. Lennon, who appeared previously on the 300th episode of The Bat Segundo Show, is one of the most underrated writers working today and I can’t think of a more fitting way to end the program. Please stop by and say hello if you can.

This was a very fun part of my life, but I’ve got to move on. Thanks to friends and loved ones who put up with me. Thanks to the writers and other folks who came on the show, and the publicists who took chances with my format. Thanks to everyone who listened.

Occupy Wall Street: One Year Later

They put up the steel grille barricades around the edge of Zuccotti Park on the first anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement, leaving a few hundred protesters looking for a workaround under the bright red cube sculpture across Broadway. But a few hours later on the other side of the park, a smiling group situated on the edge of Trinity Place was busy with brushes and thin placards. They were painting peace signs and placing these signs around the perimeter on a soft bed of newspaper to dry: bright green life and hopeful ovals just under the drab barrier prohibiting the perfect circle of year one.

The protesters were matched in number by cops, many in riot gear. And they swarmed with a hunger for arrest. Numerous whiteshirts had been unrustled from their beds at an early hour and many seemed indignant about the renewed duties. I observed one whiteshirt shove his way through a crowd at Nassau Street, his meaty hand giving a hard singular push at any shoulder that got in his way. The checkpoints around Wall Street felt thicker, more reminiscent of East Berlin. Like last year, there were police mounted on horses beyond these points. But as the morning rolled on, the New York Police Department opted for motorcycles, later parking them neatly and voluminously next to the Charging Bull, guarded so beyond measure that you almost wondered if the cops had received some weird lead about two hundred armed men planning the biggest theft in human history.

It was the absence of visible activism for so long that made the authority feel more formidable. The extra force inspired the cops, with their bright white ties swaying from their belts, to manacle more people and make more arrests. By 3:30 PM on Monday, the official tally was 146 people nabbed for disorderly conduct. This included the artist Molly Crabapple, at least one NYU professor, three handicapped activists, and a few journalists. There were rumors circulating that the figure was close to 200. Some people told me that the cops were dragging people off the sidewalk to arrest them for stepping onto the street, but I didn’t see anything like this. But during one highly charged moment near Nassau Street, I witnessed four people arrested in less than five minutes.

The protesters were peaceful and calm, but this was not the ragtag group that had formed one year ago. It was a seasoned crew familiar with the stakes of income inequality and what they were in for if they got arrested. They felt the rightful need to claim their anniversary, often doing so with messages scribbled into the sidewalk with colored chalk. Three people said happy birthday to me over the course of a few hours, and the tone was so sincere that I wondered for a mite if some authority had changed my birthday to September 17th without bothering to alert me before coming to my senses. There was music and glitter emitted into the air. There was impromptu dancing, often in the middle of intersections. I was especially fond of the “crow technique” that a group of students adopted at the corner of Cedar and Broadway, which involved fluttering their arms into the air and making pleasant squawking sounds.

But when protesters repeatedly shouted “Shame!” for the umpteenth time in response to an arrest, a few protesters next to me remarked on how shame had lost its meaning. The hysterical calls to “Arrest the bankers! They’re the real criminals!” felt more like a dull platitude than a careful considered irony. There was also a bleaker humor this time around, with some protesters dressed as doctors and leaving “blood money” around the area. Their hands were saturated in fake blood, and it was doubtful that Rick Santorum would shake them.

It’s pretty clear that Wall Street has no interest in beginning a meaningful dialogue with the Occupy movement, yet the neighborhood isn’t quite willing to accept the protesters as a regular fixture. I watched one angry white collar man stomp out bright red balloons outside a building with an amazing ire, as if they were newly discovered mice scurrying around the floor of a ritzy apartment. I listened to another man, putting in four orders and wrestling with an allotment of hastily collected twenty dollar bills, complain to a delicatessen worker about how nobody else in the office wanted to leave the office and get breakfast. I saw a scavenger pick up bottles and cans for extra cash. There were still blue-collar workers on the clock and they moved dollies through the thick streets with a great patience. There were more people in the streets, but it was business as usual.

Lynn Povich (The Bat Segundo Show)

Lynn Povich is most recently the author of The Good Girls Revolt.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why mysterious men are packing him off to Paris.

Author: Lynn Povich

Subjects Discussed: The Henry Luce “tradition” of men working as writers and women working as researchers, well-educated women being exploited in a two-tier system, Janet Flanner, the influence of the Civil Rights Act, the old boys’ network, the contrast between Oz Elliott’s civil rights conscience and Newsweek‘s treatment of women, Anna Quindlen, Otto Freidrich’s 1964 ridicule of the fact checker (and Friedrich’s condescending description of women), “office maidens,” the importance and accountability of fact checkers, how people viewed women reporters in the 1960s, Businessweek hiring women straight out of college, Reader’s Digest‘s paternalistic form of “respect” towards women, Flora Lewis in The New York Times, whether Kay Graham and The Washington Post‘s support of the lawsuit was sufficiently commensurate at the time, women reporters not being invited to lunch meetings, the second Newsweek lawsuit, Gloria Steinem vs. Graham, being a feminist vs. being a businesswoman, Eleanor Holmes Norton and the importance of having the right attorney, Harriet Rabb, Margo Jefferson, black reporters who didn’t organize at Newsweek, inquiry into efforts to unite black and women reporters, income disparity, why the journalism industry is a good medium to examine income inequity, women and education, journalism school, Povich’s editorship at Working Woman, women managers, tryout sessions for women and writer training programs, office affairs and rampant recreational sex within newsrooms, Hanna Rosin’s recent claims about hookup culture being empowering, how women didn’t get ahead even when promiscuous, sexist stereotypes in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, Sorkin’s “silent bearers of sexism,” the 2011 Global Report on the Status of Women in the News Media, the American inability to consider work vs. family balance, why it’s important to worry about men, and men as stay-at-home dads.


Correspondent: When Oz Elliott, the Newsweek editor-in-chief, initially responded to the lawsuit that you filed against Newsweek — and this is sort of my question to get you to talk about that lawsuit, but let’s go ahead and get the background first — he said in his statement that the reason that most of the researchers at Newsweek were women and virtually all of the writers were men was, in his words, “because of a newsmagazine tradition going back almost fifty years.” Now he said this, despite what you describe later in the book as “a WASPY social conscience.” So why was this tradition, which originated from Henry Luce and Brit Hadden, tolerated for so long? Especially when you had some women who had to settle for this second-tier treatment and often give the best years of their lives? Let’s talk about the origins of this problem.

Povich: Well, yes, in fact, when Henry Luce created this system of all of the researchers being women, and all of the writers and reporters being men, Oz, who worked at Time Magazine at the time, said this was great for women because it got them out of the steno category and they could actually do editorial work. So at that point, which was in ’29 I think, it was considered more liberating than being a secretary. And Newsweek copied Time. However, by 1960, it was pretty clear that well-educated women coming out of the same schools as men with perhaps no prior experience, as many men did not have, and some prior experience, as some men had, were hired into this entry level category and couldn’t be promoted out of it. And women who really wanted to be journalists that young and knew it, like Nora Ephron and Jane Bryant Quinn and Ellen Goodman and Susan Brownmiller, they saw the lay of the land pretty quickly and they left. And the rest of us “good girls,” as I call us, were probably, first, happy to get a job. Especially in a place that was so interesting, about the news, working on the matters that really were important and having this special pipeline to the truth. As one of the writers said, we were all blind in many ways. I mean, the women bought into it. The men certainly bought into it. Until one day we didn’t. And I think the fact that the women’s movement happened as many of us in the mid-’60s were coming into the workforce helped us realized, certainly helped me realize. I was reporting and writing at the time. I was a junior writer. And I started covering the women’s movement. And I suddenly realized this isn’t just about those women. Hey, there’s something wrong with this picture for us at Newsweek. And that’s when a bunch of us started organizing.

Correspondent: Were there any other efforts at organization before yours that fizzled out? That you were aware of when you were organizing with your fellow women reporters or women researchers at Newsweek, aspiring of course to be reporters? I mean, were you aware of any other cues or efforts to rebel against this? I mean, I’m really curious as to why such a “tradition” lasted for so long and why good old Oz actually upheld that for a while, who was eventually forced to turn back. What was the impulse to, number one, cause him to change? And, number two, the other question is is: Why weren’t women revolting against this?

Povich: It’s a good question. Well, first of all, during World War II, there were women writers, as there were in many professions, where women took over men’s jobs. But by the early ’60s, they had all left. And there was one women who managed to get out of research and into writing in the early ’60s and was promoted to being a correspondent in Paris. So she was already writing in Paris when we were back in New York.

Correspondent: This is at Newsweek.

Povich: At Newsweek. There were still no women writing.

Correspondent: It’s interesting. They sent the women from New York. Just like Janet Flanner at the New Yorker.

Povich: (laughs) Right. Exactly. Paris.

Correspondent: Somehow women could understand Paris, right?

Povich: And she was a brilliant write and reporter. She was fabulous. She just didn’t happen to be there when most of us were hired. She had left to go to Paris. So we were presented with this situation of all of us being researchers and the guys being our bosses. It’s interesting. Because even though the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, when the person who actually first started our revolt, Judy Gingold, who was a Marshall Scholar, who came back from England and could not find a job. Except as a fact checker at Newsweek. When she was talking to a lawyer, who told her that our situation was illegal, she couldn’t believe it. And she said, “Well, you know, I don’t think the guys know it’s illegal. I think we should just tell the guys.” And the lawyer said, “Call the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and you’ll find out.” And so she called them. They said, “Yes, this is illegal.” And she said, “Well, shouldn’t we just tell the men?” And the women at the other end of the line said, “Are you crazy? People in power don’t want to give up power. If you tell them, they will promote two women, co-opt your movement, and it will be finished. You have a clear-cut case and you have to sue.” So my feeling is that they didn’t know it was illegal or realized it was illegal. Because it had been accepted as a woman’s job for so long. It had been a tradition. And, of course, it benefited men. And their circles were men. I mean, they hired guys right off the Harvard Crimson and the Yale Daily. Because that’s where they were from. And their circle, as we know, in corporate America still — if it’s a boy’s club at the top, your sources are guys.

Correspondent: Do you think these men were conscious of the fact that they were playing into this sexism? Or that this was an automatic power structure that they fell into? I mean, we were talking about Oz Elliott changing his mind. How difficult was it to get other men who were in positions of power to change their mind? Even before you filed a lawsuit. Or was it fairly steeped in the culture?

Povich: I mean, I have to say that many of the men at Newsweek were supporters of ours. Certainly the writers we worked with and who knew how smart and talented many of the women were, they supported us from the very beginning. And Oz Elliott, as you said, got it right away. He told me that Monday he realized we were right. Now this is a man who put Newsweek on the map because of his civil rights coverage. And they were very proud of their progressive views on civil rights and Black Americans.

Correspondent: A great irony.

Povich: Yes. And at the same time, they hadn’t realized that in front of their noses, there was this horrible injustice happening to the women who worked for them. Oz Elliott also has three daughters. And my pet theory is that men with daughters are far more open and respectful of what women can do. But like all organizations, or many organizations, the actual discrimination came in middle management. For us, it was the senior editors and the top couple of editors under Oz. That happens a lot in corporate America. And many of those guys were against affirmative action. Anna Quindlen has a wonderful quote she told me. I always say I’m an affirmative action baby and I’m proud of it. I wouldn’t have gotten where I was without it. And she feels the same way. And she says when people look at her strangely about that, she says, “If you think affirmative action is promoting a second-rate talent just because they’re female or black, you’re looking at one.” And so I do think a lot of people were against affirmative action. They thought that this was not a good idea. And they also didn’t look at women, frankly, as capable professionally. Either because of their own backgrounds, because of power. Whatever it was. But I was told that promoting me was one of the worst decisions that the editor ever took at the time. We were told when we filed the suit — one of the top editor said, “Why don’t we just fire them all? We don’t need them.” It’s complicated. I call it our little Rosa Parks moment. Everybody went to the back of the bus until one day you didn’t. And one day, we didn’t.

The Bat Segundo Show #484: Lynn Povich (Download MP3)

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NYFF: The Savoy King: Chick Webb & The Music That Changed America

[This is the first in a series of dispatches relating to the 50th New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

His name came from a tough tumble down Baltimore stairs. They called him “Chicken” because that was the way he walked: wobbly and hunchbacked and sometimes a little alone around the schoolyard. They shortened the name to “Chick” because the single syllable rolled faster off the tongue. But Chick Webb had the grit to hawk newspapers and saved up enough dough for a drum kit. They figured he might build up his upper body strength if they kept him hammering young and long and hard on the drums.

They could not know he would become a big draw at a very big venue: the legendary Savoy Ballroom, immortalized in music with an indelible stomp, the rare place where blacks and whites hopped together on the same hard floor. They could not know how he would woo and shape Ella Fitzgerald’s talent shortly after her fateful appearance at the Apollo. They could not know how Chick would rehearse new arrangements from new composers, the band fueled by mescal and Mary Jane, into the sunrise. They could not know that if you hung around the Savoy long enough, you would have Chick’s respect. Because sticking around was how Chick had made it this far and this good. They could not know he would lead the first black band to host a national radio show. They could not know he would be dead only four months after his 34th birthday. Or maybe it was his 30th? Why not print the legend?

The biggest surprise about Jeff Kaufman’s documentary, The Savoy King: Chick Webb & The Music That Changed America, is how Chick Webb’s mesmerizing life is diminished by the clumsy collection of stray biographical tidbits (Chick liked motorcycles, Chick was a snappy dresser, Chick had a German Shepherd), which don’t quite coalesce into a true narrative trajectory until the film stretches itself across a more expansive canvas. The film serves up many prominent voices (Bill Cosby as Webb, Janet Jackson as Fitzgerald, Jeff Goldbum as Artie Shaw, Andy Garcia as Mario Bauzá, and so forth) as profound movers and shakers in the 1920s and 1930s swing scene. But when we know Chick argued with Jelly Roll Morton, why do we need the former Jello pitchman? This minor dissonance also hinders the film from fully portraying or explicating Chick’s innovative drumming (“He sounded very different from any of the other drummers,” says one subject, to which one must ask, “Care to elaborate?”).

Chick Webb was so legendary that the Harlem streets were congested with more than 10,000 people on the day he died. Gene Krupa said that Webb was the only other drummer who “cut” him. In light of these vital details, it’s surprising that Kaufman races too fast over such details as Chick’s loyalty to his longtime guitarist John Truehart, the only member of Chick’s band who kept with him all the way through, and is sometimes too willing to buy into the Webb myth. (For example, Charles Linton told biographer Stuart Nicholson that Webb only said that he adopted Ella Fitzgerald “for the press people,” yet Kaufman is quite willing to go on with the mythos of Webb as Fitzgerald’s legal guardian.)

When many of the charming survivors (especially the ebullient choreographer Frankie Manning, captured here in his final years and in remarkable shape) are happy to spill Kaufman the story, why have other people get in the way? The Savoy King has greater success with dodgy-looking visual aids (such as the Indiana Jones-like map depicting Chick’s relentless touring schedule across the States in 1937) than the high-profile vocal cast.

But when the film shows the Savoy’s impact on American culture, displaying its contours with a computer simulation of the Savoy’s interior, it becomes a more meaningful exploration of the swing scene. The film obviously worked on some level with me, because I am playing Ella Fitzgerald as I write these words and I have a great desire right now to time travel back to the fateful evening of May 11, 1937, when Chick Webb and Benny Goodman duked it out in a battle of the bands at the Savoy. When the film reminds us that there were clubs in which a racist rope separated the dance floor down the middle and when it tells us that, in other clubs, blacks had to pay the same admission as whites to watch an act from the balcony (and weren’t allowed to dance) and when we recall that even the much vaunted Cotton Club would not admit African Americans, the Savoy’s pioneering efforts, taken with what others remember of Chick’s great generosity and energy, feel like a forgotten historical chapter that can’t be reread often enough.

Katie Roiphe, Cultural Sociopath

In the same year Anita Hill testified before snaky senators about a soon-to-be-confirmed Supreme Court Justice who had sexually harassed her, a twenty-three-year-old from privileged stock desperately sought attention.

Katie Roiphe tapped the sticky tendrils of her inherited web and wrote a New York Times article arguing that date rape was little more than a hysterical fantasy. “More than just a polemic against rape,” wrote Roiphe of this form of sexual assault, “it reveals a desire for dates.” Claiming that date rape pamphlets share common qualities with mid-19th century etiquette guides, Roiphe declared, without citing any specific sources, that the feminist movement then in bloom “peddle[d] an image of gender relations that denies female desire and infantilizes women.”

There was no vacancy in Roiphe’s article for feelings of trauma, shame, physical violation, or any emotion approximating empathy. But there was plentiful room for regressive rhetoric about “subject[ing] our male friends to scrutiny,” as if acquaintance rape was some inconvenience comparable to a chiropractor calling in the middle of dinner to schedule a followup appointment.

The piece received enough controversy for Little, Brown to enlist Roiphe to build these half-considered murmurs into a bigger townhouse — an even more ill-considered tome called The Morning After — where the Gray Lady-sanctioned paralogia pushed harder against the drab confines of Roiphe’s dim and unfurnished mind. “The guerrilla feminists were effective in their purpose,” read one of Roiphe’s typically subtle magnifications, “they successfully planted the fear of rape in the minds of prospective students before they even reached the Wesleyan campus.”

In tracking down some of Roiphe’s sources, Katha Pollitt discovered that Roiphe had used data in a misleading manner. Roiphe misrepresented a court case. Roiphe claimed anti-rape activists had manipulated statistics, yet fudged and ignored the research with a zealot’s predictably mad and sadly delusional touch.

Yet somehow Roiphe’s inexorable knack for inaccuracy and her reliance upon risible self-delusion to articulate a provocative point had escaped the pitchforks that had rightly driven Jennifer Toth out of town. Roiphe continued with her dutiful op-ed claptrap, turning out an essay collection (Last Night in Paradise) dripping with manufactured horror. To cite just one offense, Roiphe was so cruel that she went out of her way to ridicule Alison Gertz, the young woman who contracted HIV during her first sexual encounter and spoke around the country about safe sex before she died. Roiphe called Gertz “sweeter and blander” with each new wave of media attention. Then there was Still She Haunts Me, in which Roiphe expelled violet-tinted doggerel passing as a novel (“She was the oyster, the sun, the walrus,” reads one of the tome’s turgid sentences).

* * *

Who was this cultural Ann Coulter? Was she really serious? In 2007, when the surprisingly more restrained Uncommon Arrangements was published, I made an attempt to answer these two questions. I met Roiphe in-person for an interview, theorizing — wrongly as it turned out — that her viewpoints were part of an act or that she might be misunderstood. But Roiphe proved so belligerent that even the friendly woman at the Cobble Hill cafe asked what the problem had been shortly after Roiphe stormed out like a toddler in want of a pacifier. Not only was Roiphe in denial about a passage that she had written, which I had asked her to clarify, but she proved unwilling to talk about any of her other books. She hung on hard to gender generalizations, such as her idea that all women in their thirties long to be married, which I challenged. Above all, she claimed a devotion to the obstinate and inflexible viewpoint that refused to adjust, even as new evidence and new experience presented itself:

Roiphe: I’m actually interested in talking about this book and not my previous work. But, yes, I stand by everything that I said at the time that I wrote that book.

Correspondent: Okay. I mean, you know, don’t you — doesn’t your ideology change in any manner?

Roiphe: As I say, I stand by everything I wrote in this book and I’m right now interested in talking about Uncommon Arrangements.

* * *

“I often hear people refer to other single mothers I know as ‘crazy,’ and I assume that when I am not standing right there they refer to me that way too.” — Katie Roiphe, “The Alchemy of Quiet Malice”

In 1930, the psychiatrist George Everett Partridge introduced the word “sociopath” to the lexicon. Attempting to address the quotidian dilemma of people who went out of their way to be callous or who were unable to understand the concerns of others, Partridge identified a sociopath as someone motivated by supreme egocentricity, an inability to feel or comprehend remorse or contrition, and an almost total lack of empathy. The term sought to distinguish this troubled breed from a “psychopath,” who is driven by mental illness.

From the very first essay of her latest collection, In Praise of Messy Lives, Roiphe is a veritable Partridge exemplar. When friends extend help and sympathy after Roiphe’s divorce, she sarcastically writes, “I am touched by their concern,” and a page later, “At no other point in my life have so many people tried so hard to convince me of how miserable I am.” She complains that her friends aren’t hearing her, but refuses to consider that what they observe may contain a kernel of truth. It’s a strange early tone to establish, especially when Roiphe proudly notes how she “once wrote an entire book about one shouldn’t reach for easy feminist interpretations of the world.” It also makes one wonder why anybody would ever want to be Roiphe’s friend. Bring a cup of homemade chicken soup to Katie when she’s sick and you may very well be charged with a malefactory motive.

Roiphe believes in “things that can’t be measured and quantified in studies.” But her purported observational acumen, on display in “Unquiet Americans,” doesn’t reveal anything terribly sophisticated while traveling with her husband in Hanoi:

I had begun to see that everywhere we went there were a million minor transactions taking place beneath the surface. At first I was oblivious to these transactions, but slowly I began to recognize them: if a driver takes you to his friend’s hotel, he is getting a cut; if a waiter sells you an expensive dish, he is getting a cut; if a guide takes you to a silk shop, he is getting a cut; and there are bound to be other people getting cuts of his cut.

Beyond the crass suggestion that all in Hanoi are primarily motivated by a financial opportunism indistinguishable from the American middle class, there’s an alarming failure here to comprehend that these so-called “cuts” may be essential to Vietnamese survival or that American wealth, even with recent inflation, permits one to live like a relative king. Two peddlers approach Roiphe and her husband and our hapless heroes eventually give in. But Roiphe’s takeaway has little to do with the peddlers’ souls or any especial concern for their inner lives, which may even be messier than hers. She seeks craven capitalist comforts:

The only thing that is familiar, the only thing that moors us to our regular lives, is the green face of our former president.

Roiphe retreats from the green of money to the Greene of literature and her journey through Southeast Asia becomes as soaked in cliché as a graham cracker softened by milk as she notes the “tiny and immaculate” guide in Cambodia, maintaining a superficial and impenetrable response to what she sees as the “alien.” Unfortunately, this upper-crust white cracker jive becomes more lucid back on home turf.

In the essay “Beautiful Boy, Warm Night,” Roiphe reveals that a concern for others that is clearly alien to her arguably soulless and judgmental nature. “I remember her being from a trailer park,” writes Roiphe about a former college friend named Stella just before revealing that she secretly slept with her confidant’s boyfriend. And if this is a harbinger of the “praise” for messiness, it’s a decidedly cold and self-absorbed defense:

…people didn’t belong as absolutely to other people then. There was a kind of fluidity to our world. The barriers that in adult life seem so solid and fixed, literal walls defining your apartment, your bedroom, did not exist at that age. You listened, for instance, to your roommate having sex; you slept easily and deeply on someone else’s couch; you ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner with everyone you knew. And somehow nothing was quite real unless it was shared, talked about, rehashed with friends, fretted about and analyzed, every single thing that happened, every minute gradation of emotion, more high-level gossip in the process of being told than events in and of themselves.

This passage is about the closest Roiphe gets to confessing about how she relates to other people. Aside from the creepy idea that listening with care to the ways in which your roommate fucks the young man she loves is comparable to talking over a meal (let alone the cowardly act of stealing a lover in secret), the clear distinction here is how Roiphe infers what other people say about life as opposed to learning valuable lessons through living, even living as a mess. It’s telling how Roiphe states that she remembers almost nothing at all about the actual incident. And when Roiphe concludes her essay by imagining Stella, who aborted her friendship with Roiphe, returning years later about how Roiphe has once again failed to consider anyone outside herself, Roiphe writes, “She would be right, of course: I am stealing the boy all over again.”

And with this last sentence in the section devoted to Roiphe’s life, the sociopath clambers up to the surface: the same empty and unchanging monster demanding your scrutiny as she did eighteen years earlier, but without really much to say.

There’s her infamous and ill-informed essay about how today’s male novelists are too timid to write about sex. But Roiphe, who clearly hasn’t read much outside the mainstream literary canon, cherry picks a few convenient examples to uphold her thesis (Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, and Benjamin Kunkel), while completely ignoring the considerable volumes of literature (written by men and women; indeed, why should gender matter in a generational argument?) that have tackled daring or even absurd sexual topics.

Roiphe’s failure to mention the Bad Sex Award in an essay that purports to probe into how fictional sex is now received by the public reveals how clearly she has not done her homework. An essay that purports to deal with how “the heirs apparent have repudiated the aggressive virility of their predecessors” should probably consider how readers and critics perceive literature. Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, which took home a recent Bad Sex Award, featured ridiculous sexual description, but I don’t think Littell’s “jolt that emptied my head like a spoon scraping the inside of a soft-boiled egg” could be called, in all seriousness, a repudiation — given how that little episode went on for pages near the book’s finale.

If your reading tastes don’t steer to the vanilla, as Roiphe’s clearly do (despite her self-satisfied caterwauling about Fifty Shades of Grey), one can find plentiful contemporary novelists who still take chances with sexuality. Three years ago, Brian Evenson’s Last Days included a scene in which a mutilated woman stripped before a self-mutilated clique. And the disturbing and absurd qualities of this tableau, the rare literary moment striking an array of disparate emotions, revealed much about the way we objectify sex, even while hitting a more surrealist Portnoyesque moment. Earlier this year, Samuel R. Delany’s Through the Valley of the Next of Spiders was saturated with sex, which was used as a way to represent aging and being an outsider. Have the unsettling moments in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho become so quickly forgotten? What of the comic sexual embarrassment frequently found within Jonathan Ames’s work? Or the uncomfortable sexuality explored in Rupert Thomson’s The Book of Revelations? Or the disturbing sex often found within Iain Banks’s work? (Or do we disqualify Thomson and Banks because they’re British? I don’t follow Roiphe’s logic. Do we conveniently elide certain nationalities to fit this essay’s sudoku-like approach so that the numbers line up in this predetermined puzzle?)

Roiphe’s hysterical ignorance bristles through this essay like an insensitive investment banker running away from a vagrant, especially when she lumps David Foster Wallace into the “often repelled and uncomfortable when faced with a sexual situation” category. Hardly. You don’t have to scratch Wallace’s oeuvre too hard to find fearless sexual representation. Unless, like Roiphe, the only fucking thing you’ve read of Wallace is Infinite Jest. Consider the title story of The Girl with Curious Hair, which features a young woman who allows a yuppie to set off matches on her skin (incidentally, teaching this story lost Jan Richman her job eight years ago). And what of the unsettling sexual feelings contained within Brief Interviews with Hideous Men?

That all of this uninformed folderol passed without a single editor looking into any of this, and was printed in the ostensible Paper of Record and a book published by The Dial Press, reaffirms the crepuscular state of American cultural journalism, which has not seen vibrant daylight for some time. Katie Roiphe easily fits into this onyx nexus because the medium is populated by vampires who cling to their jobs like passengers on the Titanic and who turn any remotely fresh or original talent into ground chuck. These thugs aren’t interested in thoughtful pieces. They’re interested in names and phony controversy. And the hilarious thing is that Katie Roiphe, a vitiated dunce more noxious and sociopathic and backwards than her fellow XX misogynist Caitlin Flanagan, is still considered a name by some of these people, who haven’t had a handle on things since about 1991.

It’s evident later in the book that this is more about Roiphe holding on to her op-ed perch rather than articulating anything of substance. Roiphe reveals herself as a fabulously scabrous hypocrite who views herself above the angry commenter (“Is it possible, though, that there is just more bitterness out there than we realized before the Internet brought us closer to people’s rawest, quickest, uncensored thoughts.”) and condemns Emily Gould for seeking a blurb after her hostile Gawker post:

If you are pumping out autopilot schadenfreude all day long, maybe there is nothing personal in it. The rage, the dissociated nastiness, floats through the ether and attaches itself fleetingly to a subject, but really, taking it personally is like being annoyed at the wind for messing up your hair.

This from a figure who pines for the days where sixteen-month-old children recognize the smell of Scotch on other people’s breaths and who kvetches about the political predictability of incest scenes in fiction.

To afford Roiphe some credit, she does include a somewhat intelligible essay on how Joan Didion’s style creates the illusion of personal revelation. But when Roiphe writes about Didion “[giving] writers a way to write about their favorite topic (themselves) while seeming to pursue a more noble subject (the culture),” one can’t help but think of Martin Amis’s more cogent critique about Didion’s “reflexive cross-hatching” in an essay contained in The Moronic Inferno — especially because Roiphe cribs the very same passage from The White Album (“does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968”) that Amis used.

It’s no wonder she would try to pinpoint the value of messy lives, even if the best she can do is remark upon how “the tameness of contemporary sins” is a little disheartening. Maybe what Roiphe longs for are the days when messy essayists could get away with poorly considered arguments in the newspapers.

Like many rotting fountains throughout America, Katie Roiphe rose up the ranks with a cold and ungainly stream of stinging reductionist views, but has since fallen into permanent ratiocinative disrepair. Like a third-rate polemicist tossing poorly mixed Molotovs with a limp-wristed aim, she does not await the ballistics expert to fix her locking mechanism. She would rather rust with pride. So long as the New York clime will tolerate her peculiarly accepted form of trolling, Roiphe will be quite happy to douse you with a sticky brownish taint. This is not something to celebrate. It is something to pity.

(Editor’s Note: This essay contains some reworked material originally published as a Metafilter comment.)