Caleb Crain: The Pompous Nitwit Novelist Who Did Not Understand Libel Law (But Who Threatened Me Anyway)

Caleb Crain’s ego was swelling. He had spent three weeks basking his head in a rare rave from acclaimed author Norman Rush in the New York Review of Books. The New Yorker‘s James Wood had also declared Necessary Errors “a very good novel, an enviably good one.” But this grand and substantive praise from high literary places was not enough for this privileged and priggish 46-year-old Columbia Ph.D., who was spending his Wednesday night acting like an upstart two decades younger, threatening me with a libel suit as I was on a long walk without my phone. The following email arrived in my inbox at 7:01 PM. The subject line was “libel”:

Dear Edward Champion,

It has been brought to my attention that a comment has been falsely posted in my name on your blog, at this address:

I would like you to remove it promptly, and I would like you as the manager of the blog to state clearly that the removed content was a forgery and that you have removed it accordingly.

all best,
Caleb Crain

It has long been the editorial policy of this website to allow comments, even belligerent ones, from pseudonyms. Strangers have left anonymous remarks under the names Billy Joel, Danny DeVito, Joyce Carol Oates, James Wood, and others. Not only do I support the right of commenters to use celebrity names as new forms of Publius, but so does the law. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act grants immunity to online service providers (including website proprietors) when others take action to “restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, exceedingly violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable.” This is one of the reasons why so many odious trolls are able to get away with what they do. But the positive side of this is that it allows free expression of unpopular or dangerous ideas: a tenet that I remain fully committed to, especially in an age in which journalists are being increasingly harassed by governments for telling the truth.

The comment in question, attributed to a false “Caleb Crain” and posted here yesterday at 4:01 PM, reads as follows:

Ed Champion, I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill way in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.

When this comment came in, I instantly recognized this as a riff on Alain de Botton’s infamous comment to Caleb Crain on June 29, 2009:


Alain de Botton had been exceedingly gracious when I asked him about his response to Caleb Crain in July 2009. Not only did he answer my questions, but he contributed an essay on responding to critics. This was the kind of caritas and above-and-beyond munificence that always replenishes my faith in the human race. I had figured that the mysterious comment, originating from an IP address somewhere in New York, had come from an especially devoted reader who was very familiar with my website. I chuckled at the joke and went for my aforementioned long walk.

It turned out that Crain had been busy on Twitter that afternoon, corresponding with a Boston Globe employee who had spent the last three weeks harassing my girlfriend and me. (I have blanked out his name because I do not want to give this very angry and embittered young eunuch any further attention. But let’s call him Lee Siegel — no relation to the cultural critic.)


Lee Siegel had sent me several rude, belligerent, and unprofessional emails over the past six months — some from his Boston Globe account, in direct contravention of Section A1 of the Globe‘s Journalism Ethics Policy. He had called my writing “psychotic” and declared on February 26, 2013 (after I offered to answer a question in his capacity as reporter), “Man. Literally every single thing you say is embarrassing.” Siegel emailed me on May 9th on another matter he wanted to know about. By then, I had tired of his flaccid pugnacity. I would not answer any further questions from him. I replied:


As far as I’m concerned, you’ve burned me as a source for life. Given our last exchange, you’ll never get answers from me on any subject ever again. And given what I have going, it’s your loss, not mine. Let this be a professional lesson.



Siegel replied:

Haha, OK — this wasn’t about sourcing. It’s just that I got an email about a piece from another total monster with the last name Champion, and wanted to know if you two were part of the same family. Would have been hilarious to me if you were.

Good luck with what you have going!

Given such churlish behavior, I wondered if Siegel had ever bothered to read the Globe‘s very sensible ethical code:

We treat audience members no less fairly in private than in public. Anyone who deals with our public is expected to honor that principle, knowing that ultimately our readers are our employers. Civility applies whether an exchange takes place in person, by telephone, by letter or by e-mail.

On August 3, 2013, I published a lengthy essay pointing to misogyny, unsubstantiated rumors presented as fact, and incompetent journalism in Boris Kachka’s Hothouse. I learned later that the piece was disseminated in certain circles populated by both Siegel and Caleb Crain. And because many of these pathetic creatures never seem to leave the house, do not appear to have lives beyond the digital, have capitulated all that remains of their curiosity and wonder for snark and solipsism, demonize people they have never met, never ruminate on vital subjects such as Syria or income inequality or surveillance or anything substantial, and spend most of their free time on Twitter “hate-favoriting” tweets, they have always been very easy to ignore. Because they have little more than passive-aggressive ire, a paucity of conviction, and limitless free time to offer a complicated and turmoiled world

However, someone from an IP address in Massachusetts, left the following comment under Lee Siegel’s name:

A woman kissed you? Is that, like, the first time that has ever happened to you? Did you jizz?

As we have established, as website owner, I am not the one fabricating the quote and I am also immune from liability thanks to the CDA. I am thus under no obligation to remove the quote, any more than The Onion (a far more powerful outlet than mine) should be prevented from publishing pieces “written” by Joyce Carol Oates or CNN’s Meredith Artley. Indeed, unlike Crain or Siegel, Artley responded to the parody with characteristic grace:

Lee sent me two emails in less than 24 hours. The second email read:

Ed — did you receive the below? The comment attributed to me still appears at the bottom of your psychotic rant about Boris Kachka, and you ought to remove it.


Here’s a modest diplomatic tip for young whipper-snappers: if you want to work with someone, it is probably not in your best interest to call the other person “psychotic,” especially after you have already sent several vituperative emails.

Lee then sent the following email to my girlfriend:

Hey there. I am hoping you can help me with a problem I’m having with Ed. A vulgar comment was posted underneath this post on his website by someone pretending to be me, and I need it to be taken down. Lord knows I would not hesitate to ridicule Ed in public, but in this particular case, it so happens that someone is impersonating me.

I have contacted Ed about this, but he has not responded, presumably because we despise each other. Can you please talk to him?

Here’s another modest diplomatic tip: if you want to reach someone through their loved one, it is probably not in your best interest to pledge public ridicule towards the mind you’re trying to change, much less adopt a haughty tone rarely seen outside of Frances Hodgson Burnett novels.

In the spirit of fairness, I decided to contact Lee’s girlfriend, who I’ll call Becky Sharp. We had a civil and polite email colloquy. As I had long suspected, she was clearly the more fair-minded and smarter of the pair. I suggested that Lee should leave a followup comment to clear up the matter. This is precisely what James Wood did in a thread at The Millions. This is indeed what adults do.

Lee did not take up this advice and continued to email me. Because Lee was too stupid to comprehend how content management systems worked, he contacted WordPress, who told him rightly that there was nothing they could do. And even as he angrily flailed with endless ignorance, Lee adamantly refused to leave another comment on the thread (“But I don’t think that would solve my problem — or yours, since right now you have what amounts to a fabricated quote from me on your site.”).

Like many attention-starved megalomaniacs, Lee took to Twitter, soliciting advice. Most of the people who responded to Lee on Twitter, including Capital New York co-editor Tom McGeveran and social media coordinator Celina De Leon, sensibly informed him that leaving another comment would settle the matter. But like a petulant and coddled child, Lee replied, “i *could* but i don’t wanna!”



Aside from the civilized exchange I had with Becky Sharp, the one guy who was a class act during this mess was London Review of Books editor Christian Lorentzen, a friend of Siegel who stepped in as a diplomat. I informed Lorentzen by direct message and in the thread about what was going on and why I could not remove the comment, but thanked him for his gesture.

It was at this point that Caleb Crain stepped into the Twitter conversation with Siegel. This was followed by the fake “Caleb Crain” comment that was left here on Thursday afternoon.

When I returned home from my saunter, I responded to Caleb as follows:

Dear Caleb:

I have just returned from a very long walk and have just received your email. I have also witnessed your behavior on Twitter. You are absolutely out of line, both here and on Twitter. You have NOT been libeled. And I am ccing your publicist on this so that she knows how you are spending your free time. So that Lindsay has some sense of how you are behaving, I have attached a screenshot of your Twitter antics this afternoon.

My girlfriend and I have been severely harassed by Lee Siegel. I had a perfectly civil exchange with Lee’s girlfriend, Becky Sharp, suggesting that Lee leave a followup comment, which I would happily approve. My commenting policy is to allow anyone to post under any pseudonym. Lee chose not to exercise that option. Christian Lorentzen also civilly stepped in. And I explained the situation to him.

You, of course, decided to spread misinformation about this. Without contacting me. You were grossly irresponsible. Then some individual, who I presume observed what was happening on Twitter, left a jokey comment under your name. It’s absolutely clear with the phrasing that he’s referencing Alain de Botton’s reaction to your hostile review, published on this page on June 29, 2009 at 1:52 PM.

It’s clear to me that this comment is a joke, a defensible parody. Your reputation is clearly not at stake here: an absolute blip at best, compared to Joyce Carol Oates or Meredith Artley, who were the targets of more mean-spirited parodies in a more powerful venue (the Onion). Over the years, people have left comments at my site as James Wood, Joyce Carol Oates, Billy Joel, Danny DeVito, and numerous others. I have never had anyone complain until now. If you would like to clarify that it’s not you in the thread, as James Wood once did at the Millions, feel free and I will approve it. That’s a perfectly reasonable response. (Indeed, this is what was suggested to Lee by several journalists.)

However, I will not remove the initial “Caleb Crain” comment. That you and Lee cannot leave a followup comment clearing this up, something that takes all of 15 seconds, says to me that you and he are more interested in perpetuating a phony conflict with me.

Understand that I am very committed to free speech. I am also very familiar with libel law and have beaten SEVERAL very high-profile legal challenges to my website over the years. You do not have a case. But if you want to try, be my guest. You would have to prove that the comment falls under the four elements of libel. Honestly, it would be much easier for you to be an adult and leave a followup comment or laugh the whole thing off. The latter option is often what people who have a sense of humor do. I am sorry to learn of your humorlessness.

You’ve got raves from James Wood and Norman Rush and THIS is how you’re spending your time? Seriously?

I demand a public apology for your misleading tweets. If you do not do so by 11:00 AM EST tomorrow, I will go public with your baseless threats. But obviously I would prefer not to.


Edward Champion

As I composed the above email, Crain sent me a more threatening one, ccing his literary agents Jacqueline Ko and Sarah Chalfant. I did not see this email until after I had sent my reply.

Dear Mr. Champion,

Two different people have contacted me in the past few hours in the belief that the comment falsely posted in my name on your blog was in fact by me. In other words, the comment is not being perceived as parody. There is no free speech defense for libel. Please understand that I take this with the utmost seriousness.

I must also ask you to retain a record of internet protocol addresses and any other metadata associated with the comment falsely posted in my name, as well as associated with the comment posted under your name above it, because information about these two comments may be required by me in a future lawsuit. This information is ordinarily visible to you, as the manager of the blog, in the management panes of your blog software. I am not asking you to disclose it publicly but merely to retain it for discovery.

Caleb Crain

First off, Crain is not a lawyer. He has not cited any cases or statutes, much less established a case for libel. His colossal hubris in demanding privileged information and claiming discovery, especially since he clearly does not understand legal procedure, is that of a pampered parvenu who has perhaps watched a few too many episodes of Law and Order. Crain has always had the option to leave a followup comment to resolve any confusion he claims from “two different people.” But much like his braying compadre Lee Siegel, Crain could but he don’t wanna.

I’d like to point out that, until all this, nobody had ever written to me — in a little under a decade of online existence — to complain about a fabricated comment.

But Caleb Crain and Lee Siegel both believe they are above the law, that they are above parody and free expression. And they are so wild-eyed and consumed with arrogance that they cannot deign to either laugh off the joke or leave a followup comment in the thread.

On Thursday morning, Crain’s agent, Sarah Chalfant, sent the following email to me just before my 11AM deadline:

Dear Mr. Champion,

I am writing on behalf of Caleb Crain, further to his and your emails of yesterday evening. We are hoping that we can all move beyond this discussion, and wanted to reach out to suggest the following: Caleb will delete his tweets about his interaction with Lee, if he could, in turn, publish a comment on your blog stating that “As will be obvious to anyone who knows me, I did not write the comment above, which has been falsely posted in my name,” for which we’d be grateful.

Caleb would certainly agree not to make any further public statements in blog posts, interviews, and elsewhere about this interaction, if you would be willing to agree to the same; I hope this sounds right to you.

I look forward to hearing from you.

My best,

Sarah Chalfant

This was a fair and professional response. I replied minutes later:


Thank you very much for your email. This is exactly what I requested and is eminently reasonable. As I have declared all along, Caleb has always been free to leave whatever comment he wishes, no matter the tenor. I would also appreciate if he could publicly apologize for his behavior on Twitter. I will, in turn, publicly commend Caleb for his good grace and we will never speak of the matter again.

I’m glad that we could resolve this in an amicable fashion. Please let me know if there’s anything else that you or Caleb would need of me.

All best,


I also informed all parties that I would extend the 11AM deadline to 2:00 PM to give Crain ample time to meet the terms of this resolution.

But Crain has done nothing. He has not left a comment in the thread. He has not apologized. He has not removed the tweets.

So Crain has forced my hand. It has become necessary to expose him as a pompous and privileged prick. I invite Caleb Crain to sue me for libel, but I’d much rather see him apologize. As Alain de Botton noted of Crain four years ago, Crain is clearly driven by an almost manic desire to badmouth and deprecate and accuse rather than resolve an issue. Maybe Crain’s ire should be directed at the gormless tot who I’ve named Lee Siegel, the sad young literary man and washed up reporter who was so consumed with bile that he was prepared to waste the time of friends, girlfriends, literary agents, literary publicists, and readers — all because he could not find one small scrap of humility. It’s also too bad that Crain has revealed himself to be a solitary man weeping on a bench, his mouth as helpless and ugly as an embryo chicken. Perhaps he should read Auden closer.


Maggie O’Farrell (The Bat Segundo Show #511)

Maggie O’Farrell is most recently the author of Instructions for a Heatwave.


Author: Maggie O’Farrell

Subjects Discussed: People who went crazy during the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, John Cleese’s determination to commandeer a cab, how strange weather transforms communities, unusual nostalgia for the 1976 UK drought, whether fiction can prepare us for the insanity of the human race, families on their worst behavior, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (and the bizarre critical controversy, how to present character without ascribing to historical touchstones, taking down narrative scaffolding, prejudice against the Irish in the 1970s, baking bread, keeping the domestic life compartmentalized from a writing life, how writing a book in present tense permits the reader to confront folkways and mores of the past, how novelists can convey and acknowledge behavioral changes over the past, Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, when historical novels transmute into accidental essays, too much detail, avoiding beanbags and other kitsch items in 1970s fiction, the raw material of a first draft, women who disguise their dyslexia by memorizing stories, the privilege of reading, literary couples who avoid homicidal impulses when reading each other’s work, having a harsh critic for a husband, surprise plot revelations, familial traits that are passed down, resisting and acknowledging qualities originating from your parents, the fine line between transforming real material into something imaginative and using personal experience, fiction that comes from what you don’t understand, paying attention to children’s disabilities, visual stimuli and curiosity, John Banville’s aversion to research, reading memoirs of British feminists and journalists for inspiration, the pub bombings of 1974, how first-person accounts can help a novelist to get inside characters, inspiration from bedsit living arrangements, family disappearances, Don DeLillo’s Underworld, Elena Seymenliyska’s perspicacious review in The Telegraph pointing to the spate of recent novels with disappearing men, Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, masculinity defined by disappearance, living in a world in which everyone is spied upon, the romance of walking away from life, seeking dominoes in narrative, and the problems with gender generalization.


Correspondent: My understanding is that this book was inspired from people going a little cuckoo roughly around the nigh unpronounceable Icelandic volcano. And I’m wondering how you got form Eyjafjallajökull — I think that’s what it is — to 1976. Just to start off here.

O’Farrell: Well, I had planned to write a completely different novel. It was going to be historic and sweeping and intercontinental. And I started doing a lot of research for that. And I did put a little bit of pen to paper. But then it was funny. It was a bit like radio interference. I started getting these snatches of conversation. Images of a family arguing in a kitchen. It was very, very hot in this kitchen. Very, very humid and very close. And it was annoying. Because I actually wanted to concentrate on my other book. But this family wouldn’t shut up.

Correspondent: They wouldn’t shut up? Families often don’t shut up.

O’Farrell: Exactly. I find that too. And then what happened — this was the tipping point. It was, as you say, the unpronounceable volcano in Iceland erupting. And the whole of Northern Europe just came to a standstill. It was extraordinary. There were no flights leaving. Nothing arriving. It was just lockdown.

Correspondent: You heard the story of John Cleese?

O’Farrell: Yes!

Correspondent: That was crazy!

O’Farrell: That’s one of my favorite stories.

Correspondent: He absolutely had to go home.

O’Farrell: Only he though. Only he would do that.

Correspondent: Which is insane.

O’Farrell: I was living in London at the time and my normally pretty sane neighbors were just ranting in the streets about flights they missed or holidays cancelled, visitors who never arrived. People were bulk buying bread and milk. It was this really weird panic which set into the whole of Europe.

Correspondent: Something to replace the Cold War scare. (laughs)

O’Farrell: (laughs) I guess so. And people were commandeering taxis to drive them from Paris to Madrid. It was really crazy town behavior. And I became slightly obsessed by it. I watched all the news reports. And every time I heard someone talking about it, I would listen in. And I kept thinking, “Well, this reminds me of something.” And I couldn’t think what it was. I couldn’t place it. And then, one day, it kind of came to me. It was the heat wave of 1976. And I don’t know if this was a big deal in the States. But it was certainly a huge deal in Britain and Ireland. You know, it was one of the big defining features of the decade, really. I was four at the time. And this made a huge impression on me. It kind of forms the basis of some of my earliest memories. I think it was one of those situations where the whole country pulled together. We were all in the middle of this huge drought, this huge heat wave. And that kind of unified spirit hasn’t really been called for since the Blitz. Where everybody got stuck here and we had standpipes in the street and nothing coming out the taps. We didn’t have any bars. No hose pipes. Nothing. And everybody had to fill up their own quota every day from the tap in the street. And it’s odd. People who’ve lived through it never forget it. And they all talk about it endlessly. Which for a novelist is a gift. Because I had to saddle up to people and say, “What do you remember about the 1976 heat wave?” And out this stuff would come. And it’s always amazingly personal. That was the other really interesting thing. People would talk about getting divorced and having babies or what happened to them or the kind of games they played as a child. For a novelist, it’s an amazing key to unlock all these incredible stories.

Correspondent: How did you start talking to people about what they experienced in 1976? Did you just ask around? Start from friends? Use the Internet? What happened?

O’Farrell: Yeah! There wasn’t a huge amount on the Internet, actually. Which was interesting. There were a couple of photographs and a couple of people talking about it and a few sort of newspaper articles about the time.

Correspondent: This was one of those particular moments that people hadn’t actually chronicled online, but if you went to the right places, you can get them to talk about it.

O’Farrell: Absolutely. It was one of those things where I’d just say to people, “I’m thinking of writing something about the ’76 heat wave,” and total strangers would start to tell me incredibly personal stuff. One woman I never met before started telling me about how she started having an affair with her next door neighbor. (laughs) Which is gold dust, of course. It was an amazing — I don’t know what you’d call it — catalyst to people telling you stuff.

Correspondent: Do you find that people tell you very personal things because you’re a novelist? I’ve talked with novelist-journalists before and, the minute they hang up their journalistic hat and once things get going on the novelist front, suddenly it’s like, “Well, I’m a novelist. Oh, I can’t possibly use the material in any way.” (laughs)

O’Farrell: (laughs) I think people are probably very wary. Rightly so actually. Because novelists are ruthless creatures. We will eat anything.

Correspondent: They’ll take anything.

O’Farrell: We’ll take something. We’ll just nick it. You have to realize that.

Correspondent: I know you ransacked me right before you sat down.

O’Farrell: (laughs) Oh yes, definitely. It’s all written down on a notebook. No, I think people are quite wary. But certainly, for some reason, and I’m not quite sure why, with this heat wave in Britain, people suddenly spill their guts out to you.

Correspondent: Well, there are a number of things that cropped up in relation to the heat wave. Number one: just how parallel it is to climate change right now. But simultaneously, this also leads me to wonder — and maybe we can talk about this — how fiction may actually be the best medium to discuss how humans are going to change their behavior as we have more floods and hurricanes and rising ocean levels. I mean, maybe the novel is the way to start preparing ourselves for the insanity of the human race. What are your thoughts on this?

O’Farrell: Well, possibly. I don’t know. I don’t see anyone really preparing themselves at all in any way, actually.

Correspondent: (laughs)

O’Farrell: I think we’re horribly unprepared and we’re just taking an ostrich approach to the whole issue. But I think that was one of the strangest things about researching the novel. That all this anxiety about the drought and the lack of rainfall and the dry reservoirs was in a time before anybody had heard the expression “climate change.” Nobody had even — I don’t think anyone had even heard of the ozone layer. It wasn’t discussed. It wasn’t an issue. That’s all I could think of was when I was researching it. And looking through, I found the government policy that they rushed through Parliament in 1976. And the government’s fear and panic is absolutely prevalent in that document. It’s amazing. You can feel it from the very pages, you know. They were really worried. They were worried about civil disobedience and riots over water. They had all these contingency plans in place conscribing help from the army in case there would be civil unrest. So you could tell they were really anxious. But the big question in my head, of course, the whole time was thinking, “Well what would it be like now if this happened?” Because people would be terrified if that happened.

Correspondent: Well, we’ve had a number of hurricanes here and so forth. So there’s a little bit of that. But it is interesting that here you are looking at other turmoil as represented from what people are telling you in terms of their own personal stories and as reflected in the news articles that you looked at and the government documents that you consulted. Yet this is ultimately about domestic conflict. And I’m wondering if keeping some of the extra turmoil to the distance was more of a concern for you in concentrating on these lives. Was it literally just the kickstarter to getting in these characters? To really open up their feelings? Or what?

O’Farrell: Well, I was quite interested in something that would bring together that was largely estranged growing up. Siblings, two of whom haven’t spoken to each other for three years. Putting them all and squeezing them all back in the house, the small house in which they grew up, and back into the roles they don’t fit in anymore. The family sequence that doesn’t fit anymore. I was interested in the idea of what would bring people back. Why would they have to come back? And I suppose, just to ratchet up the tension, to use this heat wave. Because it really is a melting pot with them all squashed in together. It’s like a crucible. They can’t leave the house because their dad disappears. In the first pages of the novel, the father, the patriarch, walks out and he doesn’t come back.

Correspondent: It’s been noted by several authors and several philosophers that, when you get a bunch of family members under one house, they are going to probably be on their worst behavior. I’m wondering if that might have also been one of the appeals. I mean, I know you do this continuous first draft going forward and plowing through — no plan — for all of your novels. And I’m wondering if crowding people together is going to create natural conflict or what?

O’Farrell: I think that’s inevitable. I think families are always going to be irresistible to a novelist. Because first of all, we all have one, whether we like it or not. We all come from someone. And I think also they are a kind of melting pot of different types of personality. I’m sure there’s a mathematical formula that, if there are five people in the family — you know, my math is appalling. Is it 25% different relationships? Well, you know, Freud said that every sibling has a different parent or a different mother. Every relationship — the mother has a different relationship with each child. The child has a different relationship with each other. And I think the interesting thing, for me anyway, about getting older is that you think those relationships are set in stone. But actually they’re not. There are pressures of adulthood — careers, marriages, children, mortgages, various disappointments — that exert pressure on you as a person. And those sibling relationships, and that ordering, can change and alter. And suddenly the kind of younger sibling may not want to be treated like a baby anymore. She might want to stand up for herself and say, “You know, actually, I’m an adult now.” But I think families are particularly bad about catching up with the way people change. They expect you to stay the same. But of course you don’t.

Correspondent: I have a corollary to my other question about a larger conflict of a heat wave in relation to — I believe it’s Aoife? Do I have that pretty close?

O’Farrell: Very good. Well done. Very few people get that right.

Correspondent: So Aoife — and now everyone who’s reading the book and who happens to listen to this can now know exactly how to pronounce her name! She’s drawn into this artsy New York world of 1976. Now typically, when you have a novel dealing with this world, the world itself almost becomes this separate character. Most recently we had a very notable novel here — Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowersin which critics here have been fighting on both sides of the coast. It’s kind of ridiculous. It’s gotten away from the novel. But the point is that there is this kind of political character or this sociological character that comes with the territory in writing about this period. So much happened. But what is fascinating about Aoife is that we really get to know her day-to-day dealings when she is working for Evelyn, when she is running errands. She’s trying to deal with dyslexia. And she’s trying to basically feel this broken landscape. So you’re focusing here on the nuts and bolts of the characters obviously. But I’m wondering: were you ever resisting the impulse to really have a wave of time and place, of New York, subsume Aoife and the other characters who she’s dealing with here in New York at any point during the writing? Or were you pretty much saying, “No, this is nuts and bolts. This is character. This is no nonsense. That’s what’s important. Why should this be defined exclusively by time and place?”

O’Farrell: Well, I think, as a novelist, you have to make a decision about what’s going to lead a novel and what your novel is about. I didn’t want to write a “state of the nation” book. I didn’t want to write a book so much about the politics of the 1970s, either in London or New York, which are the two locations in the book. And certainly they come into it, of course, inevitably. If you’re writing about a city, particularly about that — because I think the ’70s was a decade in both Britain and New York that was a very difficult decade for a lot of people. There was a lot of social problems, economic problems. A lot of political instability certainly in the UK. And I think you have to make a decision. And I wanted this novel to be a very, very small focus. I was almost challenging myself. I think with every book you’ve got to set yourself a new challenge. And the book I wrote previously was very, very wide-ranging. It covered fifty years in time. It went all over the world. I wanted a contrast to that. I wanted something — a very, very tight lens, a very, very tight focus. Almost the classical unities of one place.

(Loops for this program provided by Dj4Real, petitcrabe, danke, Kristijann, 40A, and mffinke.)

The Bat Segundo Show #511: Maggie O’Farrell (Download MP3)

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Travis Nichols (The Bat Segundo Show #510)

Travis Nichols is most recently the author of The More You Ignore Me.


Author: Travis Nichols

Subjects Discussed: Comparing smells in Washington DC and New York City, Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder and The More You Ignore Me as epistolary novels, digital narcissism, the difficulties of writing novels with a wide swath of perspective, the benefits of coming from a deeply singular place, lathering yourself into a George Hamilton-like frenzy, the medium vs. the solitary voice, finding a way into the head of an abhorrent character, @AvoidComments, the remarkable amount of text generated by commenters, contending with trolls while working as editor at The Poetry Foundation, the freedom (and lack thereof) that comes with specific forms of writing, ruminating on why some people type so much online, when extreme behavior is rewarded, averted vision and the Pleiades, Jack Spicer’s After Lorca, “oppressed” people swimming in white privilege, the self-declared outcast, teachers who guided Nichols into considering the wider world, privilege and exclusion, writing about something insane and not taking it with you into your regular life, family members who disown you by email, Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries, the adventurous nature of Coffee House Press, readings where you bomb, qualities shared with theater and literature, laughter within the head, why the worst poems go over very well in front of bar audiences, craven desperation for approval, intense listening, the importance of pursuing the idea, Anselm Berrigan blanking his mind out by writing zeroes and ones, how to quiet a mind, working at Bailey Coy Books, not leaving the house, listening to singers who don’t sing in English, Princess Nicotine, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, linguistic phrases and online formality, baroque language, Literature Subreddit, the sentiment held by certain online types that literature after World War I is worthless, War and Peace, Thomas Eakins, Clint Eastwood talking with a chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention, artsplaining diction, Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse,” seductive caesuras, balancing breaks and relentless formalism, willfully not giving the reader any space, online harassment of women, Anita Sarkeesian being harassed for speaking her mind, threats against Lindy West, early reaction to The More You Ignore Me, Alissa Nutting’s Tampa, women readers and literature, and whether it’s possible to tell the whole truth in fiction today.


Nichols: With The More You Ignore Me, there were some very particular people that I was dealing with on an everyday basis because of my job at the Poetry Foundation. But they were essentially harmless. They were basically having fun with reputation and inventing characters. But I found myself trying to interact with a person. Because there was a rule of thumb that everyone would say: “Well, you wouldn’t say anything online that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face.” And I was like, “Oh, right. So you’re going to take that tack and you’re going to lose.” Because there’s all these other people who are saying everything they would never say. And, one, they’re having so much fun. Sort of. It was a really dark kind of fun. It seemed like it was painful. But there were hints of real inventiveness. There would be actual interesting thought. But then, of course, they couldn’t let it go. There’d be something like — I’m sure you’ve had this. The amount of text that’s being generated is remarkable. So that’s one thing. “God, that’s amazing. Some people can type that much.” But then also there are a number of ideas and some of them are almost there. And so, in probably a really shitty way, I thought, “Oh, well maybe I can look at that and try and make them into something that I can take as good.” Totally insulting to those people that they’re not doing it well and I would do it better, but I can own that. Because I think that they weren’t doing it very well. And then I thought, No one would ever actually want to read a 220 page book, which this novel is, unless it was doing something more than just being your standard comment. So I thought, There is a form. To get to what you’re asking, there’s a form there that allows for a lot more than many of the other forms that we have. Like I actually think that with a lot of poetry and with a lot of fiction, there’s not a lot of freedom to do this, that, or the other. That you get a lot more freedom.

I mean, if you look at slash fiction or you look at a lot of other kinds of online writing, they don’t give a fuck about what the form is. They have this amazing freedom. One, because the audience is there or not there. But also there’s some part of the frontal lobe that might be missing which just allows them to not check themselves. And I thought, “Oh, well, that could be really remarkable to try and go with.”

Correspondent: Or the Internet encourages them to speak in this unfiltered, raw, feral, atavistic at times mode.

Nichols: Right. And you’re rewarded by how extreme you can be. But then also the ultimate trolling is that you say something provocative to get a conversation going.

Correspondent: Some would call it a rise, as opposed to a dialogue.

Nichols: Right. Definitely. And the tragedy of this narrator in The More You Ignore Me is that he is sort of trying to do that, but he doesn’t allow anyone else to speak. So there’s no discussion that happens. And one of the things that I found interacting with other people like this — and also not just online; offline; everyone has these people in their lives — is that you can get worried. Like I have felt that I’m coming across with this person, my relationship with this person, I’m not being a good person. Because I’m getting this reaction. And it took me a long time to realize that it has absolutely nothing to do with me. That it has everything to do with this other person. They, in some ways, don’t even see me. I’m being steamrolled and just assimilated into this person’s psychosis a lot of times. And so one of the things I was trying to do with this narration is just to show that it starts out very much really about someone else. Could there be something that’s more about someone else than a wedding? I mean, that seems like that’s supposed to be about these people truly. And then, as it goes, those people are totally obliterated and then they’re gone by the end. It has nothing to do with them. And so that’s what I found over and over again. And now I see it. And I think, Right. This. You think that if there’s a comment on a post that’s about Obama’s judicial nominations or whatever, you’re like, maybe I’ll learn about the nominations. And you’re like, Oh no. I’m going to learn about this person and his, almost always…

Correspondent: Or you’re going to learn about some really terrible part of the national fabric. As we learned recently with the whole Zimmerman verdict. I wanted to go into this a little further by looking at both books again. The central voices in both of your novels, they latch upon a random target. In the first book, Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder, it’s this woman named Luddie. She’s in this photograph, as you describe “black eyes, black hair, black dimples, black dress.” And in the second book, this most recent one, it’s a random wedding site and later the cooking website. They have little, if any, direct correlation to where these unnamed characters are in the present. And I’m wondering if this is your way of taking a look at the way we approach truth, either through letters or through a blog comment, that we’re likely to say the darkest and deepest things that are on our mind if we approach everything indirectly. Or was this just some sort of natural crazy salad? That any way you actually went into this, you would have this madness.

Nichols: Oh wow. That’s a great question. I definitely think that you or I get at a more accurate picture of the world indirectly. Maybe you know the answer to this. I remember reading this idea about the Pleiades. That you cannot look at them directly. You have to look at them sideways. Er, just glancing and that’s the only you’ll actually see them. Is that true?

Correspondent: Yeah. I believe so.

Nichols: Great! So that’s there. It’s like the Pleiades. Um, I’ve thought that often. And I was just about now to say that. And I thought, Maybe that’s not true. So great. At least between us, that’s the way it is. I mean, I think that there’s one thing that was really formative just in probably, I guess you could say, my adult writing life, when I got my shit together and really felt like I was finding a certain way in which the limited skills that I have are able to be used effectively in communicating what I want to audiences, is Jack Spicer’s, uh, poetry, but especially his book, After Lorca, in which he writes letters to Lorca, who’s dead, and talks about the idea of the programmatic letter of one poet writing to another in order to describe his poetics or her poetics, but also just as a way of — he calls it the wastage of the poem that’s the real thing. I think he probably knew that he was being funny because the letters; well, some are better than the poems. Sometimes.

Correspondent: He was also a wide outcast for a long while, which creates a connection with this particular narrator.

Nichols: Yeah. There’s a lot of Spicer in there. I mean, it’s almost like — it’s sort of camping up an idea of Spicer. Because he’s very sane. And I think there are moments of real clarity in The More You Ignore Me‘s narrator. But, you know, there’s a lot of stuff where you really start somewhere where you’re like, okay, I can really go along with that. And then by the end of even a sentence, you’re like, “No, that’s not where I would go with that.” And I think I was interested in the idea of this outcast, the writer as an outcast or the poet as an outcast. Or someone who wasn’t made for these times. And so then we seem to be a nation of outcasts in that way, where it seems that if you go on anything there is, there’s this sort of dominant narrative that shows up and then you have all these things under it, which is all these people disagreeing and fighting and saying, “This is just the mainstream media’s version of it.” There’s all these people who feel disaffected even and often most than these people who are often in power. There’s the backlash Republicans. People who are so swimming in white privilege that they’re not able to see that they are and they feel besieged by the fact that this isn’t the country that they feel like they grew up in or some idea that they have. That all these people that I’ve romanticized, being writers and poets and artists, who seem like they’re outside the mainstream, but then a lot of them when I look back on them, “Oh, well, they’re all straight white men. They’re all people who came from basically middle-class background.” A lot of them were really rich, it turns out. If you look at the history, especially of postwar American poetry, it’s arguably a history of Harvard undergrads. And so it becomes this very weird thing where people try to own their outsideness to an absurd degree. And so I wanted to sort of take that from A to Z with this narrator a little bit. Whereas I think in the first book, that narrator felt and was genuinely outside of things a little more. God, when I say that, it sounds ridiculous. That he would be more outside than this guy.

Correspondent: No. I think — let me see if we can steer the train on track here.

Nichols: Please do.

Correspondent: You’re saying that this narrator emerged in some sense from ruminating upon self-declared outcasts or people who were labeled outcasts. People like Jack Spicer, who came from the exact same place that every single other great mind came from. I’m wondering at what point this was a kind of — I don’t want to say ideological thrust, but in what way did this idea help to ground your narrator? The notion of outsider/insider. The notion that, for all of his claims of being banned or of wanting to go ahead and change the world, he was given the exact same privilege that everybody else did.

Nichols: Yeah. I mean I think that he’s also coming from this very — a little bit of this Southern Baptist idea or a certain kind of Christianity that really loves conflict. Because they see it as “Well, Jesus was persecuted. You must be doing something right.” Or Winston Churchill’s “You can judge me by my enemies.” And there’s a lot of that in literary culture. And a lot of that especially in the arts, who are like, “If you get people upset, then you must be doing something right.” And I agree to a point. There’s also like, “No, well, actually there are people who are genuinely disagreeing with you that maybe you should pay attention to that viewpoint and reconcile your behavior.” But instead it gets people to hunker down into the sense of self and entitlement. Like every genius was misunderstood at one time. Most likely. That doesn’t mean that every misunderstood person is a genius. So you have all these people who are taking all of the outside trappings of being an artist and claiming that that makes them an artist without any of the inside. And so this guy is not an artist. I mean, he’s a frustrated artist. But he can’t figure out where he went wrong. And he won’t admit really that it was him that went wrong. Like it’s something that he had all right. But it turns out that everybody else was wrong. And that is definitely not an unfamiliar place for me. Especially coming out of the poetry world, where you really feel like that the things that you value are not valued by the wider culture. And you can be in the little scene that celebrates itself and feel like, “Oh right. We all do really good…” Like Jack Spicer now. Everybody knows about him. So it’s not interesting anymore. But then as soon as you step out into any other kind of world, I mean, no one gives a shit at all. And not only that, but it’s not that they don’t care. It’s that they actively dislike what you like.

Correspondent: I think what you’re talking about here, especially with blog comments, is the fine line between being a genuine iconoclast who can in fact change her mind or adjust views and be engaged in a dialogue and someone who is a full-bore troll, who is incapable of that. Who has to erect some mythical status to justify why they continue to express themselves. And in this case, I’m curious if at any point during the writing of this, you saw this guy more in the first category. Where he was getting pushback from people who didn’t want to hear his perspective when it was legitimate. I mean, did you see him in that mould at any point? But it seems to me he clearly moves more into the second, the more custom troll. But I’m wondering if you considered the first.

The Bat Segundo Show #510: Travis Nichols (Download MP3)

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Mark Slouka (The Bat Segundo Show #509)

Mark Slouka is most recently the author of Brewster.


Author: Mark Slouka

Subjects Discussed: Gandhi’s pacifist maxims, Wilifred Owen, World War I poets, Vietnam, violence in fiction, Brewster in relation to Woodstock, people who still listened to Perry Como in 1968, memory and sex, listening as research, auctorial instinct, the poetry of real world vernacular, having a father as a storyteller, why Slouka’s characters are often defined by outside towns, viewing a life in relation to the next place you’ll settle, Slouka’s Czech background, Nazi memorabilia, Slouka’s reluctance in exploring the grounded, being a child of Czech refugees, lives lived on a borderline, geographically fraught characters, the bright bulb of heritage, broken lamps, crossing America 22 times, the wandering instinct, stories to tell at a bar, the Motel 6 as a gathering spot, developing a photograph of America through travel, Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobil with the Memphis Blues Again,” towns that people pass through on the way to somewhere nicer, the benefits of sharp elbows, why small towns get a bad rap in American literature, the influence of Sherwood Anderson, Richard Russo, metropolitan types who condescend to small towns, David Lynch, avoiding dark cartoonish material to write truthfully about bigotry, courting complexity, the terror of familiarity, when you know another person’s parents more than your own, finding approval in another family, mothers who mourn the sons that they lose, the revelations of characters who touch surfaces, being a “physical writer,” the physical as a door to memory, sudden transitions from violence to casual conversation, being a victim of belief culture, when the real enters the domain of fiction, knowing ourselves through the telling of stories, Slouka affixing misspellings of his name to the refrigerator, fridge magnet poetry, how Brewster deals with race, desegregation busing, racism and locked doors, Obama’s Trayvon Martin speech, the myth of other worlds, the 168th Street Armory, lingering racism in Brewster, “Quitting the Paint Factory,” how Slouka’s notion of leisure have adjusted in 2013, leisure vs. consumer capitalism, why humans are being colonized by machines, assaults on the inner life, Twitter and the Arab Spring, attention deficit, why the human population has turned into addicts, acceptable forms of leisure, the inevitability of multitasking, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, why four hour podcasts exist in a medium that eats away our time, being shaped in ways you don’t understand, Slouka’s declaration of war against the perpetually busy, the conditions that determine whether someone’s soul has been eaten, the church of work, why people work like dogs to consume more, being derided for sleeping eight hours a night, and Slouka’s elevator pitch for Brewster.


Correspondent: The book oscillates between one of Gandhi’s most famous maxims (“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”) and references to war, whether it be Vietnam or the World War I poet Wilfred Owen. And I’m wondering, just to get started here, how did this backdrop of war and peace help you to zero in on these characters and this landscape? Was this your way of tipping your hat to a socially charged time without hitting the obvious touchstones?

Slouka: Yeah, I think so. It’s a matter of “all politics are personal” and vice versa. I was interested in writing about war. Because war’s in the background, of course. It takes place in the late 1960s. And the drums of Vietnam were going through the whole thing. But what I’m really writing about is the lives of these two young guys — seventeen or eighteen years old — who are fighting a very different private war: each in their own way, each with their own family, each with their own life. So the interplay — the back-and-forth between War writ large and war, lowercase, is something that interested me.

Correspondent: This is a very violent book. There’s a lot of smacking, slapping, and, of course, the revelation near the end. I mean, it’s pretty brutal. It’s almost as violent as being in any kind of battlefield. And I’m wondering if the larger social canvas of Vietnam almost forced your hand, when thinking about these characters, to really consider this domestic abuse and all of this terrible pugilism that’s going on underneath the surface.

Slouka: I think so. I think it’s probably unavoidable. I mean, I also grew up with guys like — let’s say Ray Cappicciano, the Ray Cap character who’s fighting a very real war at home. His dad is an ex-cop, a prison guard. He’s not a good guy. But one of my favorite scenes is actually in the book. It’s a scene in the cafeteria where Jon, the narrator, is reading Wilfred Owen’s poem about the trenches in World War I and the experience of watching someone die in a gas attack. And Ray Cap, who’s sitting across the table, basically goads him into reading it out loud. “I’m not going to read the poem.” “Read the poem.” He eventually reads the poem and Ray responds to it in a way that’s completely unexpected, even for him. And he responds to it probably because he understands on some deep visceral level what it’s like to be in battle. What it’s like to be drawn to battle and not be able to get away from it. I mean, Owen was wounded. He recovered. And then he reenlisted and then eventually died in the war. And Ray Cap is haunted by that. Because it’s like, “He went back?” He went back to this thing and eventually killed him? That’s his biggest fear. Because he keeps going back to the house where he has a hard life.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, it’s something that foreshadows his particular existence. He needs to have almost a poetic guide to understand the predicament that he’s in.

Slouka: That’s right.

Correspondent: And he just can’t understand why Owen would go back to serve after he’s written this poem.

Slouka: Exactly.

Correspondent: I wanted to ask about how you depict this late 1960s in Brewster as a different place from Woodstock across the river. A place where people really don’t matter. I mean, they’re expected to fall into line. What kind of research did you do into Brewster of the late 1960s to develop this sense of what life is like? Where you can be an individual all you want, but if you don’t fall into line, you’re going to have trouble living here.

Slouka: Oh yeah. Well, research for a writer often entails just talking with people, listening to people. There’s this gorgeous New York area vernacular that I just fell in love with while writing this book. That Italian American/Irish thing that I never wrote about. I grew up listening to it and I never wrote about it. So this book was a homecoming for me. The research I did was just sort of sticking my nose out the door and listening to how people spoke. But I also had to remember a lot. And the truth is that the ’60s didn’t happen in the same way at the same time for all people. You know, one of the guys that plays a role in this book is an Irish Catholic kid named Frank who’s still listening to Perry Como in 1968 because he is. Because some people were. Brewster in 1968 was still in 1957 in a lot of ways. And it was happening. Watts was happening. Woodstock was across the river. But the day that Woodstock happens, my heroes end up going down to Yonkers. Because they don’t want to sit around listening to everything that they’re missing across the river and also because they’re poor. They’re working class kids. And a lot of working class kids didn’t make it to Brewster. Because they didn’t know that they opened the fences and it was twenty-three movie tickets to get into Woodstock. So they couldn’t go. So they’re fighting against a conservative, repressive, frightened culture that’s all around them. You know, some guy was hitching up his office pants saying, “Yeah, I got a dream. You know, I’ll pay the goddam mortgage.”

Correspondent: But it is interesting that Jon, in telling this tale, doesn’t really hit those touchstones. He says, well, “We were more aware of the Tet Offensive than a girl’s nipples.”

Slouka: (laughs)

Correspondent: But he doesn’t really announce what they talked about. In fact, there’s one point in the Tina episode where he has a perfect memory of what he talks about with the hippies. But then, when they leave, he can’t remember a single subject of what he’s talking about with Tina. And I find that really interesting. It’s almost like, despite the fact that he was well-steeped in the subject, he can’t remember that. It’s almost as if that doesn’t matter, you know?

Slouka: Well, that’s part of it. But he’s also having sex. (laughs)

Correspondent: Well, of course! That does have a way of…

Slouka: …erase the memory for a little while. But yeah, you remember certain things. You don’t for others. I mean, I personally think that the ’60s didn’t really become the ’60s until 1980. You know what I mean? Then when look back and we say, “Well, that was the ’60s.” But when you were in it, you didn’t think things were happening. Personally, I think the ’60s were in some ways, despite all the bullshit around the edges (and they’ve been reduced to a fashion statement), the fact is that they were probably the last time that we really considered altering on a mass scale what our priorities are in this country and how we would proceed. It didn’t work. It didn’t happen. But some things happened. It was an exciting time. So these guys knew that things were happening. They could hear it happening. But it wasn’t happening in Brewster. And that’s part of the tension in the book.

Correspondent: Going back to what you were saying earlier about how you made Brewster come alive. You say that you stuck your nose out the door. But you’re also competing with memory. And you’re dealing with who is still alive, who lived through that time, versus what you remember. I mean, at what point do you have to throw that aside and just rely on your own instinct and imagination for what you feel Brewster is or should be? I mean, how do you wrestle with all this?

Slouka: I think you have to throw it out very early. You just have to go by instinct. You just walk in. You know, you create a place that feels right on the page. That feels like a place that you can inhabit as a writer and believe in as a writer. And if you get that right, then eerily enough I think you get close to something that’s actually believable for other people. And it’s a kind of counterintuitive sort of thing. You’re following your own instinct. Because why would someone else understand that? And sometimes they don’t. But in my experience, if you trust yourself, you know, you make mistakes. You try to correct them and so on. But by the time you’re done, if you’ve trusted yourself and if you followed those instincts, then there’s a really good chance that other people will sense that there’s a sort of organic quality to that imaginative thing that you brought and they’ll buy into it hopefully.

Correspondent: I’m curious about this. I mean, how many people did you talk with? And if you’re hearing another perspective of that particular time, how does this mesh with you trusting yourself as a writer? You trusting that truth, that perspective, that world that you are planting and growing in the book?

Slouka: For me, when I talk about listening to people, it’s not about listening to their stories necessarily, though people will tell you their stories and I love to hear them. It’s about listening to how they talk. It’s about listening to — you know, I love the way people talk there. I was getting some beer at the A&P recently and I asked this kid. I said, “Where’s the beer at?” And he said, “Well, okay, you go to the back and you look right.” And I was walking away. I said thanks. I’m walking away. And he said, “It’s the only thing I know where it is in the store.” Well, if you write that down on paper — “It’s the only thing I know where it is in the store” — it’s a mess. The sentence is a disaster. But it’s beautiful too. There’s a kind of poetry to it. And that can be expanded infinitely. So for me, it was a matter of imagining this place. I had certain bones I needed to pick with my own past, with the memories of people that I knew back then. You’re trying to resolve certain things that aren’t completely clear to you even as you’re writing them, except that you know that you have to write them. But the research involves just opening your ears, which I did for the first time in this. I never wrote an American book before. This is my first truly American book. It was just a question of giving myself permission to set a particular — to say, “Look, you were born and raised in this country. You’ve listened to these people for fifty years. Just shut up and write.” And I’ve tried to do that and hopefully it worked out.

Correspondent: It seems to me — I’m just going to infer here. Maybe you can clear this up. If you had a bone to pick with yourself, maybe some of these interesting sentences that you hear at the A&P or that you hear from people telling you about the period, maybe it’s a way to get outside of yourself or to plant what might almost be called a more objective voice. Because you have something more concrete to work with. Is that safe to say?

Slouka: I think that makes perfect sense. I think that’s exactly what it was really. And this book is a homecoming. I lost my father the day after this book was finished. Literally. And he was the storyteller in my life. We had our hard times. You know, he drank when I was a kid. The last fifteen years were great. But I spent most of my writing life writing stories that were set elsewhere. They were from my parents’ time. They were the Resistance in Prague during the Second World War. It was ancient Siam. The Siamese Twins. Da da da. You know, it’s time to write my own story. Not that those weren’t, but this one’s my own in a different way. I think there’s something about listening, about coming home to Brewster, which is a difficult place to explain though I’m fond of it…

Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about this. Because in The Visible World, your narrator is a child of Czech refugees from World War II. Not unlike yourself. In Brewster, Jon’s family is Jewish. They have escaped from Germany. You have Frank, who we just talked about earlier. He comes from Poland. You have Karen even, from Hartford on a more limited scale. You have Ray talking with the women behind the cafeteria. So there is very much a quality to your fictitious characters in which they always come from somewhere else. Or they’re not defined by the place they live right now. And I was wondering why that’s your affinity.

Slouka: Where that comes from.

Correspondent: Not necessarily where that comes from, but do you feel that it’s truer to write about someone or that you’re going to get a more dimensional character if they have some kind of additional background? That no one is really from anywhere?

Slouka: Oh god, you’re good at this. The problem is that it’s me. I’m the one who’s not really from one place or another. You know what I mean? I grew up on the fault line between two cultures. Two languages. Two histories. I grew up in a Czech ghetto in Queens, New York, for Christ’s sake, right? My first language was Czech. I didn’t speak English until I was five and I went out on the playground and had to figure out what the hell was going on and why these kids weren’t speaking Czech. My problem — and that’s just my life — is that with the possible exception of a little cabin that we have in a place called Lost Lake, I’ve never really had a home. And whenever I was in one place, I was always looking for the next good place. The next place and the next place. That’s one of the problems for me in getting older. You’re running out of time to look for the next place and the next place and the next place. I think I’ve transferred a lot of that kind of restlessness, which I think is very American actually. Americans are always looking for the next great place. I’ve transferred that restlessness into my characters, who are usually from everywhere but here. I mean, it’s possible that actually Brewster is the most grounded of my books. Because these kids are from there. Though it’s also kind of ironic that they’re also the most trapped. I mean, they’re from Brewster and they want to get the hell out. Again, not unlike me. It’s like: I’m here. How soon can I leave?

Photo: Maya Slouka

(Loops for this program provided by Nightingale, KBRPROD, ferryterry, 40A, DeepKode, and ProducerH.)

The Bat Segundo Show #509: Mark Slouka (Download MP3)

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Lose Your Own Adventure: Who Killed John F. Kennedy?

A few weeks ago, I received a package in the mail from an outfit going by the name of Despair, Inc. I was certain that the flaps would be lacquered with ricin and that the envelope would include some VHS tape containing a fourth-rate Dom DeLuise movie. But the despair, as it turned out, was more commonplace, merely summoning a few stray kernels of childhood misery that I falsely believed recent therapy had expunged.

There was a book inside called Who Killed John F. Kennedy?, which expertly mimicked the Choose Your Own Adventure books I remembered reading as part of an incentive program at an elementary school library. I flipped through the book. The fonts were exact. The beloved Choose Your Own Adventure balloon, which had seemed designed to prepare children for some wine tasting trip to Napa, was deflated. Paul Stranger’s illustrations captured the long chins and bubbly noses of largely Caucasian figures who did not quite reflect the ethnic makeup of the public schools I attended in the 1980s, but which implied something safe for the many bigoted Archie Bunker clones thriving in the hick hood I grew up in. There were even many italicized messages to Go to the next page at the bottom of many pages when there was clearly no other option. (I recall discussing this mystery with my fellow second-graders. Did the Choose Your Own Adventure people think that we would just sit there and leave the page flattened and unturned? Or had this been some intelligence test contrived by a bitter and underpaid Bantam book designer?)

I was keen to lose my adventure, especially given the sour pressure exerted by an accompanying “book critic guide” which declared that failure to read the book would make me complicit in covering up one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century. I had already committed substantial damage to literature simply by venturing a few strong opinions over the years. This seemed too gargantuan a responsibility to ignore.

I was a little unsettled that “Despair Inc.” was listed as the author. “Inc.” does not quite have the ring of “Packard” or “Montgomery.” It didn’t take me long to learn that some guy named Justin Sewell was the author of this book and that Michael Schaub, a man who once fought alongside me with Dos Passos and Orwell during the Litblog Civil War, had contributed “additional material.”

There were several surprises in the book. The first was a series of referential numbers taking me to the back of the book, where I discovered information about John Abt, Dan Rather, and The Lake Pontchartrain Film. The original Choose Your Own Adventure books had never been especially concerned about conveying an educational experience. (To be fair, Your Code Name is Jonah, Prisoner of the Ant People, and The Third Planet of Altair weren’t exactly titles designed with pedagogy in mind.) I approved of this enhancement.

My second astonishment was how unexpectedly prolix some of the book’s sections were. While I was pleased to talk with Professor Coppens about Area 51 and hide behind a conveniently placed rock, I was a bit alarmed when I turned to page 110, after informing my mom that I wished to clean dog pee from my laundry, only to find a three page section, where I was humiliated by my rival detective Jenni Mudd. Surely humiliation involves more choice and less acquiescence. On the other hand, if I was fated to lose, this probably made sense. I’m sure there were fistfights in the undoubtedly spacious Despair, Inc. boardroom over these modest artistic decisions.

It was nice for the book to ask me if I wanted to put on a blindfold or not. And I enjoyed the way that Who Killed John F. Kennedy? forces the reader to question her position on J. Edgar Hoover when following a certain path. I have suspected, especially in considering Escape (the Choose Your Own Adventure title in which the United States is split into three violent territories), that R.A. Montgomery was some wild-eyed libertarian, perhaps a closet gun nut, who wanted to put the blame on kids for making wrong decisions, thereby imparting an austere civics lesson with his contributions to the Choose Your Own Adventure series. Edward Packard struck me as the more easygoing member of the team, very keen on the word “you” and maintaining a sense of wonder. Who Killed John F. Kennedy? reads like a fusion of the Packard and Montgomery sensibilities, resulting in a suitably schizophrenic reading experience that should satisfy most conspiracy theorists.


Boris Kachka: The Inspector Clouseau of Cultural Journalism

“He said that, as a literary biographer, he’d been asked to talk about Peter’s literary interests, which of course was absurd in a mere seven minutes: Peter deserved a literary biography of his own, and maybe he would write it — anyone with stories to tell should see him afterwards, in strictest confidence, of course. This got a surprisingly warm laugh, though Rob was unsure, after what Jennifer had said, whether he was sending himself up as a teller of other people’s secrets.” — Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child

In more than a decade at New York Magazine, Boris Kachka has displayed a limitless knack for bumbling inquiry, suggesting an easily played and incurious rube who hopes and believes with every desperate palpitation of his hypoplastic heart that constant proximity to disinterested players will reveal some grand Talmudic truth.

Kachka is a “reporter” who has seen faux import in an osteoporosic Sally Field climbing fourteen flights of stairs in a midtown hotel. Mere months before Romina Puga, Kachka bombarded Jesse Eisenberg with vapid invasive questions, attempting to read sage significance in Eisenberg’s monosyllabic discomfort and leading one to wonder if Kachka had written his superficial queries on his palm in some headlong campaign to read the future. In April, Kachka visited Claire Messud and James Wood and, unable to spark it up with these two charming and gracious minds, littered his simpering copy with eight desperate New Journalism “[BARK!]”s (one sans brackets) and dwelt more on Wood’s mien than his thoughts.

At New York, Kachka established himself as a diseased mongrel who could barely push his debilitated legs off the porch to work his beat. He has littered his work with portentous phrases like “anomie of Lipsyte’s generation” and “Park Slope’s popular freelance perch,” and it all smacks of a desperate burnout raiding the low-hanging lexical fruit that hadn’t already been plucked for some “Talk of the Town” piece at a more august publication.

Kachka’s new book, Hothouse, comes out on Tuesday and purports to chronicle Farrar, Straus & Giroux with all the lapel-grabbing furor of Jacob Riis investigating the New York slums. Despite “more than 200 interviews,” the result is a dry, listless, tendentious, sexist, blinkered, and preposterous book which regurgitates insignificant facts, latches onto third-hand rumors, and fails to comprehend the way the publishing industry really works.

Yet Kachka’s insufficient history has inexplicably captured the imagination of a few gullible and unquestioning boosters, including Heller McAlpin at the Los Angeles Times and Carolyn Kellogg at Bullseye. Perhaps Hothouse has received a fair pass because journalistic standards have collapsed well beneath the lowest notches on the limbo bar. Or maybe these literary cheerleaders cannot comprehend that hearsay, which is impermissible testimony in a courtroom, is not acceptable in any work purporting to reveal the trajectory of an uniquely influential business.

Much like Leonard Zelig or, perhaps more accurately, Being There‘s Chauncey Gardner, Kachka has been allowed to commit solecisms for years, yet there’s an inexplicable hubris attached to his bungling, the telltale traits of a more famous Peter Sellers character. Kachka’s approach to the truth involves relying on inference without respect for person or underlying fact. Helene Atwan, now the Director of Beacon Press, leads Kachka to believe that FSG intended to change Peter Høeg’s last name to “Hawk” for the release of Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and Kachka laps this confabulation up so that he can grill Roger Straus III on this incredulous matter. Kachka specializes in the bold uncorroborated inference, writing like a man who isn’t getting any action at home: “By the early 1960s, [Roger Straus] was probably sleeping with three of his female operators.” Probably? The scuzziest TMZ reporters are more committed to accuracy. (There are, of course, no endnotes upholding this claim.)

If Kachka feels as if his subjects aren’t giving him the answers or the access that he believes he is entitled to by rightful decree of the tottering authority in his feeble delusional mind, or the quotes don’t match the story he believes he already knows, then he will burn them with his cheap prossy pen. Here, for example, is Kachka’s first description of Jonathan Galassi in Hothouse:

Galassi, on the other hand, is a patrician only by training, a bon vivant only by necessity, but a nerd through and through. He invited his fourth-grade teacher to his ninth birthday party. He seems to have learned the bold body language of an alpha male, but never quite vanquished his low, slightly nasal voice or downcast expression.

Instead of being curious about Galassi’s intriguing background, Kachka sees Galassi as a cartoon to be mocked. Kachka cannot be arsed to get his source to trust him. He is clearly not Richard Ben Cramer talking baseball with George W. Bush to get a stubborn man to open up. And stacked next to fellow New York journalist Robert Kolker (author of the recently released and well-received Lost Girls), he’s a total embarrassment, especially when he pursues an Oliver Stone-like trail suggesting that Straus had a secret telephone line and was working for the CIA. Had Kachka more time to push his plodding connections, he most certainly would have spotted Straus on the grassy knoll.

Like the despicable gossip peddler Paul Bryant in Alan Hollinghurst’s excellent novel, The Stranger’s Child, Kachka seeks any vaguely salacious angle to throw into his preordained template, whereby FSG is a “sexual sewer,” male employees fuck anything that moves, and Mad Men parallels snap into place like a smooth sudoku puzzle. In Hothouse, Kachka claims that, because someone may have seen long black strands of hair in a borrowed apartment, Susan Sontag and Straus were having an affair. He then spends the majority of his book calling David Rieff “an illegitimate son” to shove this unsubstantiated carnal connection down the reader’s throat. When Kachka finds former FSG assistant Leslie Sharpe, who tells him, “Everybody was fucking everybody in that office,” the reader feels the extremely unsettling aura of Kachka’s cock hardening at the news. But of course, Kachka has nothing reliable in his notes on the many affairs he claims went down. Any man close to the age of forty who wags his dry tongue for scuttlebutt scraps is a pathetic figure indeed.

Hothouse evinces how little Kachka understands wealth by pointing to “starter dachas,” opens chapters with journalism cliches (“If Jonathan Galassi didn’t exist, FSG would have to invent him”), and squeezes out strained efforts at Tom Wolfe-style savaging against agent Andrew Wylie:

It doesn’t help that his face tapers from a broad bald pate to an unshaped brow, icy eyes, and a chiseled, lupine chin, or that his laugh sounds like that of the world’s most cultured hyena.

Can a face taper? Is Wylie a hyena, a wolf, or a jackal? Given all the mixed metaphors, I don’t think Kachka even knows.

Kachka lacks one of the competent reporter’s primary skills: pretend to like a source you loathe (or, more ideal, find something to like about someone you despise). He’s long past the point where any true observer can feel sorry for him, although the pity blurbs accompanying his cotillion ball reveal a few noteworthy mensches who should be commended for their kindness. Still, Kachka is not significant enough to be put out of his misery with a pink slip and a peremptory blast in the human resources office. He trudges on, a bearded penguin known to harass people with multiple phone calls at 6 AM (including yours truly many years ago on a matter pertaining to Zadie Smith) and getting people so thoroughly wrong that one wonders if he has even read Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.*

Roth, like John McPhee and Edmund Wilson, was wooed by FSG without an agent. An assiduous journalist would look into whether or not Roger Straus, a notorious cheapskate (a man who operated FSG from a ramshackle Union Square West headquarters for years and a man who did not contribute a sou to Susan Sontag’s breast cancer fund), actively pursued writers who did not have representatives to protect their interests. (Kachka points out that Straus sought to discredit agents wherever he could, but he isn’t robust enough to construct a timeline or a concrete set of governing principles.) Given the sour grapes that developed between Straus and Wylie in the 1980s, to say nothing of the resentment expressed by writers for being underpaid, it is palpably obvious to look into the very business philosophy that permitted a publisher, often sustained by family wealth when times were lean, to subsist as long as it did. It would also seem natural to focus on how New Directions, who worked in the same building as FSG for many years, operated as FSG’s competitor, snapping up the poetry of Thomas Merton and John Berryman before FSG editor Robert Giroux.

Hothouse reveals that Straus was a poor businessman (“No FSG catalog would be complete without its impending announcement,” mocked one wag about the publisher’s long delayed titles), even as it promulgates the false myth that this apparent patriarch had “just enough of a personal financial cushion to keep from falling over the brink.” Nearly 250 pages later, Kachka writes, “The fact is that 1988-vintage FSG could have eaten 1982 FSG for lunch. In the old days, the cash simply hadn’t been there. Roger’s cheapness may have been inborn, but it was refined by forty years of hard, break-even experience.” Or maybe it wasn’t. Kachka is such an otiose journalist that he doesn’t follow the money, except through mere conjecture. He claims that Wilson, Sontag, Carlos Fuentes, Tom Wolfe, and Joseph Brodsky “received financial support far beyond standard contracts,” but provides neither source nor sums for this claim. Why did Straus really sell his townhouse? Is it not possible that Straus sold FSG to billionaire Georg von Holtzbrinck in 1994 because his coffers were light? Kachka lacks the diligence to pursue these questions, in large part because it contradicts his cheap thesis that FSG is the Greatest Publisher of All Time. On the other hand, Kachka is to be commended for inadvertently reminding us that Melville House’s Dennis Loy Johnson, arguably the most hypocritical man working in publishing today, is desperately trying to be a Roger Straus for the 21st century and will surely fail if he continues along the same trajectory.

Kachka does account for Straus’s tendency to skim his titles, but is too much of a milquetoast to probe: “The most common theory, especially among those who saw him lug manuscripts up to Purchase for the weekend, is that he didn’t so much read books as ‘read in’ them, as he sometimes put it — enough to get a nose for them, like fine wines.”

Hothouse is plagued by other contradictory assertions which quickly out Kachka as a squirmy journalist who cannot be trusted. He claims FSG as an innovative publisher, but confesses that Robert Giroux was not an especially edgy editor:

But though he was still approaching the peak of his professional power, he was no longer, if he ever really had been, at the vanguard of taste. By the sixties, even the Beats — most of them too extreme for Giroux — were old hat.

In other words, FSG was hoary from the get go. And it took careful line editors like Lorin Stein, progressive-minded editors like Sean McDonald, and gutsy publicists like Jeff Seroy to turn it into the publisher it is today. But all that happened under a German congolomerate’s watch, not Straus’s.

But what ultimately makes Kachka such an unpardonable scumbag is the way in which he wallows in the very sexism he tries so hard to expose. Aside from perpetuating a fantasy that publishing was a “gentleman’s profession” with “Roger and his publicity girls,” Kachka undermines Margaret Farrar (along with her barely mentioned husband), claiming that the woman who created most of the rules governing crossword puzzle design merely “enriched one publishing house.” (Later, Margaret is dismissed as “the crossword-puzzle creator and sometime editor.”) He introduces FSG supplies manager Rose Wachtel as “a prematurely elderly-looking woman.”

Peggy Miller, Roger Straus’s secretary of several decades, tells Kachka that she refuses to answer questions about whether or not she was romantically involved with her employer. But that doesn’t stop Kachka from deracinating her dignity by suggesting that she’s “a living homage to Straus” and claiming that she and Straus were a “couple,” with rampant fucking during their annual trips to the Frankfurt Book Fair. (Compare this with Ian Parker’s 2002 description of Miller as “a tall, chic, ironic woman.” In fact, save yourself the $28 on Kachka’s junk and just subscribe to The New Yorker to access Parker’s piece.)

The most prominent example of Kachka’s sexism is his deplorable depiction of Jean Stafford, a distinguished (if troubled) FSG writer. Kachka pits her husband Robert Lowell’s accomplishments over hers and has no sympathy for her nervous breakdown even as he points out that Lowell and Gertrude Buckman “spent unsavory amounts of time together headed for an affair.” Kachka’s vulgar and misogynist suggestion is that Jean Stafford should have suffered in silence. But he doesn’t stop there. Boris Kachka, a man who will never be a poet or a novelist or a journalist of any renown, actually has the temerity to write that “Giroux patiently endured broken deadlines,” as if Stafford’s great difficulty with a mentally unstable and philandering husband was some commonplace household task. It was likely that the pressure to produce in these conditions led Stafford to bolt to Random House, but the doltish Kachka actually writes this sentence: “It’s difficult to tell exactly what drove Jean Stafford away.” One can easily hear Peter Sellers speaking this line in a French accent.

Does Kachka stop embarrassing himself? Not at all. In 1963, A.J. Lebiling, Stafford’s third husband and the man who she experienced the most happiness with, died at the early age of 59. This premature death crushed Stafford and made it difficult for her to write fiction. But don’t tell that to the clueless and insensitive Kachka, who neglects to mention any of this when writing about FSG’s 1967 author compilation:

Giroux used it as a chance to prod another of his flailing depressives, Jean Stafford, to finish her autobiographical novel “A Parliament of Women,” only to receive the reply: “There is no book and I don’t know if there ever will be.” There never was.

A flailing depressive? Is that all she was? Never mind that Stafford would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for her Collected Stories — an FSG book. Kachka does not mention this Pulitzer at all. Nor does this sexist pig point out that Stafford was good friends with Roger’s wife, Dorothea Straus. How many author-publisher relationships did Dorothea salvage? We may never know, because it doesn’t fit into Kachka’s “gentleman’s profession” template.

But Hothouse‘s greatest folie de grandeur is the notion that FSG willfully positioned itself as the most distinguished American publisher under Straus’s watch. Many of the Nobel winners that FSG published in the pre-Galassi days emerged by accident. Indeed, the publisher then and now has stayed alive publishing blockbuster authors like Scott Turow, Thomas Friedman, and Tom Wolfe. But the big tell that Kachka is writing for a lonely audience of one is when he shakily assesses FSG’s stature based on its spine:

The Farrar, Straus logo is so engrained in the consciousness of savvy readers that seeing it on sixty-year-old Noonday compilations provokes cognitive dissonance. To say that FSC simply appropriated the logo is not enough.

Who are these savvy readers? Can they be found in Washington next to the savvy insiders? FSG survived not through loyal readers adhering to the brand, but because it gobbled up profitable publishers. But Kachka is so blind to his invented mythology that he calls Walker Percy “a true Giroux-Robbins team effort,” even though his best-known book, The Moviegoer, was published at Knopf, where editor Henry Robbins merely “had some input into Stanley Kauffmann’s heavy editing of the manuscript.” (Robbins was to flee FSG only a few years later under extremely difficult conditions. Kachka is not especially interested in investigating the high turnover among top editors, but he cannot resist inserting any moment where Straus barks, “You’ll be back,” to an FSG employee fleeing to stabler pastures.)

Perhaps Kachka’s inherent squareness and his lack of adventure, seen with his hilarious suggestion that pot passed around a publishing party was dangerous or his equally pathetic fear of legitimate 1960s actvism (“acts of protest bordering on personal threats”), is to blame for this turgid book. The title is surely no accident, given how large chunks of this book are as dull and as boring as the smooth jazz Bruce Hornsby album of the same name. If Kachka is foolish enough to continue with his floundering career as a book writer, it is almost certain that, like Hornsby, he will celebrate every 4th of July just a little tamer than most of the rest of us do.

* — During the last BookExpo America, I attended a party in which a marvelous woman I hadn’t seen in a while kissed me. Kachka stood next to her and looked at me: his small mouth agog, a pathetic paralysis infesting his slapdash bearing, a hilariously pointless anger in his insignificant eyes. He didn’t even have the balls to introduce himself or call me an asshole to my face. Some years before this, Kachka proved incapable of recognizing a clear case of performance art by telephone voicemail. He really seems to believe that it’s still the 1990s. He’s clearly not going to blossom on the clock. But I’ll be the first to buy him a drink if he does.

8/7/13 UPDATE: On Wednesday morning, prompted by a Twitter discussion of Boris Kachka’s book involving Alexander Nazaryan and Kera Bolonik, Boris Kachka told me to “go fuck yourself,” as seen in the screenshot below.


Kachka’s tweet was quickly deleted. I responded to Kachka with this reasonable reply:


Kachka replied:


So Boris Kachka, unable to refute any of this essay’s charges, prefers to take the low road — a fitting path, given how his book is so obsessed with the vulgar.