The Zeitoun Foundation’s Finances: An Investigation

Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun was one of the rare books that managed to turn an Entertainment Weekly review and a lengthy Times-Picayune profile into advertisements for a charitable foundation. The Zeitoun Foundation is an organization ostensibly intended as grantor for post-Katrina rebuilding initiatives. “All author proceeds from this book go to the Zeitoun Foundation,” reads the beginning of a clearly stated note at the end of Zeitoun, which is followed by a list of nonprofit organizations that will receive the proceeds.

“From the beginning, I told them I wouldn’t be paid and I would not benefit from their story in any material way,” said Eggers in a 2009 interview. “The Zeitoun Foundation will be a lean organization, one that simply acts as a conduit to donate proceeds from the book to specific charities, including the Muslim American Society, Islamic Relief and Rebuilding Together, which helps return evacuees to their homes in New Orleans. Tangible and beneficial results can be achieved, which allows the Zeitouns to feel that something good came from their suffering.”

But according to the Louisiana Secretary of State, The Zeitoun Foundation is not in good standing (as seen in the above screenshot). The foundation has failed to file a single Annual Report since its registration date on August 3, 2009. This represents over $250,000 in grants, distributed over the course of three years, that has no clear or fully accountable trail.

The only information that the foundation’s website provides is a list of “nonprofits supported by the Foundation,” but nothing on the website designates how this grant money has been disseminated. The foundation’s website has announced five separate rounds of grant allocations since its inception, but it’s troubling that these cheery dispatches offer neither a date nor a list of specific grants for each round (one such example can be seen below).

According to public records, the three officers that the Foundation lists as directors are Kathy Zeitoun, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, and Michelle Quint. Yet Kathy told The Times-Picayune‘s Laura Maggi that the Zeitouns were not involved in the foundation. This leaves Michelle Quint, who was Dave Eggers’s assistant in 2008, as the accountable director.

Quint did not return our emails or telephone calls for comment. We did manage to get through to McSweeney’s by telephone, where a young and somewhat nervous male voice informed us that “someone will get back to you very shortly.” We are still waiting.

If you give directly to The Zeitoun Foundation, you’re asked to make out your checks to a literary and visual arts collective called Press Street. But in studying financial documents, one begins to encounter a few accounting problems.

Reluctant Habits has obtained financial documents filed by Press Street with the IRS for 2009 and 2010. (To follow along, here’s the 2009 990 (PDF) and the 2010 990 (PDF).) During the year 2009, Press Street issued $62,500 in grant money to The Zeitoun Foundation, designated to “rebuilding and cultural awareness grants to New Orleans area non-profits and to other national organizations.” Obliged to reveal the grantees over $5,000, the 2009 990 contains a schedule listing the following organizations:

There’s one big problem with this. And it isn’t the $17,500 in grantees that the schedule doesn’t specify (which is likely grantees who each received less than $5,000 in money for that year).

Someone who donates money to The Zeitoun Foundation is probably going to expect that the funds will be directly allocated to post-Katrina efforts or ongoing rehabilitation in Louisiana. But a few of these groups have nothing to do with The Zeitoun Foundation’s stated goal, which is “to aid in the rebuilding and ongoing health of the city of New Orleans, and to help ensure the human rights of all Americans.” The Muslim American Society is based in Chandler, Arizona and its stated mission is “to move people to strive for God consciousness, liberty, and justice, and to convey Islam with utmost clarity.” (Additional financial documents obtained by Reluctant Habits revealed that this chapter of the Muslim American Society operates at Tulane University, based in New Orleans.) That’s a laudable goal, but this faith-based approach is somewhat different from the foundation’s stated reconstruction goals. (In contrast to this, Islamic Relief USA, another Zeitoun grantee which is based in California, has a clearly articulated relief-based mission fitting in with Zeitoun’s goals.)

And then there’s Voice of Witness, which Eggers himself is involved in.

Voice of Witness is a McSweeney’s publishing imprint founded in 2004 as a nonprofit which has released several well-received oral history collections relating to social injustices. In 2006, Voice of Witness published the book Voices from the Storm: The People of New Orleans on Hurricane Katrina and Its Aftermath. But since 2009, Voice of Witness’s activities have not involved Katrina or New Orleans at all. Here are a list of books that Voice of Witness has published from 2009 on:

  1. Out of Exile: Narratives from the Abducted and Displaced People of Sudan (September 1, 2009)
  2. A Spanish edition of Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives (April 6, 2010)
  3. Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives (March 1, 2011)
  4. Nowhere to Be Home: Narratives from Survivors of Burma’s Military Regime (April 12, 2011)
  5. Patriot Act: Narratives of Post-9/11 Justice (August 23, 2011)
  6. Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prison (November 8, 2011)
  7. Throwing Stones at the Moon: Narratives From Colombians Displaced by Violence (September 12, 2012)

Of the six new titles, only two (Patriot Act and Inside This Place, Not of It) fit into the Zeitoun Foundation’s secondary goal of ensuring “the human rights of all Americans.” The other titles, while tackling admirable issues, have nothing to do with Katrina or New Orleans.

So why would Press Street allocate funds through The Zeitoun Foundation to publish books that have little to do with its mission statement? Especially when Press Street itself has been publishing books that are more directly related to New Orleans and Katrina.

It is with the 2010 990 that the Press Street/Zeitoun Foundation finances become especially murky. The Press Street 990 shows $155,500 in grants distributed in 2010 through The Zeitoun Foundation for “rebuilding & cultural awareness grants to NOLA-area non-profits & national org + Benefits over $5,000.” Yet unlike the 2009 990, the 2010 990 doesn’t include an attached schedule which designates the organizations and individuals who received grants over $5,000, much less the class of activity, the grantee’s name and address, the amount given, and the relationship of the grantee, as required by law.

We reached out to Press Street Director Anne Gisleson — the woman who signed the 990s — by telephone, email, and Facebook to clarify the Press Street/Zeitoun connection. She informed us by email that she had become involved with Eggers’s philanthropy because Eggers had been “a longtime supporter of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts,” the high school arts conservatory where Gisleson teaches creative writing. The idea was to use Press Street as a fiscal sponsor for the foundation “because it was the most expedient way to distribute grants from the proceeds of the book.”

“The Zeitoun Foundation is a fiscally sponsored project of Press Street and focuses the rebuilding of New Orleans and the fostering of interfaith understanding,” said Gisleson. “After the book, Zeitoun, was released, the author and the Zeitoun family decided on a number of nonprofit organizations to which they would direct proceeds from the book. After compiling this list of organizations, the sole task of the Zeitoun Foundation was to direct funds to these organizations whenever funds from the book became available. Beyond helping to choose the organizations the Foundation supports, Kathy and Abdulrahman Zeitoun have had no day-to-day duties with the Foundation.”

This statement confirms Kathy Zeitoun’s remarks with the Times-Picayune‘s Laura Maggi.

We also asked Gisleson if she could provide us with a schedule accounting for the 2010 grantees that were not listed in Press Street’s 2010 990. Gisleson claimed that Press Street was “in between spaces, with all of our papers and equipment in storage, so we’re looking into finding the hard copy of the 2010 990 to see what happened with the Schedule O pages.” She did provide us with this list of 2010 grantees:

  1. Innocence Project NOLA
  2. Muslim American Society
  3. Rebuilding Together
  4. The Green Project
  5. Louisiana Capital Assistance Center
  6. Voice of Witness
  7. Meena Magazine
  8. New Orleans Lens
  9. Islamic Relief USA
  10. The New Orleans Institute
  11. The Neighborhood Story Project
  12. Catholic Charities
  13. Jeremiah Group
  14. New Orleans Center for Creative Arts
  15. Restore Wesley United
  16. Muslim Student Association/Tulane University
  17. The Porch

But without the dollar amounts, it’s difficult to understand how these funds were allocated, or if they were even fairly divided. We pressed Ms. Gisleson further on the finances and she was kind enough to divulge the Schedule O sums (that is, the amounts over $5,000) on the 2010 990, in which the grantees are listed (with dollar amounts) as follows:

We were relieved to learn that most of the finances were accounted for and that Press Street was on firmer ground (even if The Zeitoun Foundation remains “not in good standing”). Voice of Witness, however, was the top grantee, receiving $25,000 of the funds. And as we have established above, the books don’t quite fit in with the foundation’s stated goals.

It’s bad enough that Dave Eggers has refused to speak with journalists about Abdulrhaman Zeitoun’s recent arrest on three charges of solicited murder — a set of developments which flies in the face of Eggers’s depiction of Zeitoun as a robust and morally upstanding hero in his book. Eggers did issue this statement with Jonathan Demme, stating that he and Demme were “in daily contact with Kathy since the incident on July 25” and asking his audience to “join us in respecting the Zeitoun family’s privacy at this difficult time.” But while Demme is preparing an animated film adaptation of Zeitoun, what does Demme have to do with The Zeitoun Foundation? Shouldn’t this statement be released on the main McSweeney’s site?

But it would be refreshing to see Eggers, whose motives are clearly benevolent, open up about how he has used charitable funds. We shouldn’t have to do this much digging to find out how the foundation has been allocating its monies. All this should be outlined on the foundation’s website. (By contrast, The Valentino Achak Deng Foundation’s financial documents are more clearly accountable.)

Eggers has claimed The Zeitoun Foundation to be “a very simple grant-giving operation.” But if it was so simple, why did we have to do all this detective work? The McSweeney’s operation has been around for fourteen years. Shouldn’t it keep proper records by now? If The Zeitoun Foundation could file its documents in a timely manner or be transparent about the way it disseminates grants, we wouldn’t have to make sure that it was in the clear.

8/16/2012 UPDATE: Thanks to an anonymous source, Reluctant Habits has obtained the 990 for The Zeitoun Foundation for 2009 (PDF available here) and it appears that The Zeitoun Foundation is more complicated than previously reported.

The 990 lists another organization by the name of Jableh, LLC, which was incorporated on July 16, 2009 and lists Dave Eggers as the registered agent for the organization. The 2009 990 for The Zeitoun Foundation lists $161,331 due to Jableh, LLC, which exceeds the $145,476 in revenue taken in by The Zeitoun Foundation for that year ($84,044 in royalty income from the book, $50,000 in film rights, and $11,432 in “contributions, gifts, grants, and similar amounts received”). According to Eggers’s book, Jableh is where Abdulrahman Zeitoun was born and lived for a while.

Needless to say, our investigation has been reopened. We will offer additional findings in a separate report.

11/18/2012 UPDATE: We made efforts to talk with Mr. Eggers in person about these charges and more. As we reported at length on November 14, 2012, he ran away from us. He is also fleeing inquiries from other reporters. Mr. Zeitoun has also been indicted for attempted first-degree murder and solicitation.

Oscar Villalon Abruptly Leaves McSweeney’s

The SF Weekly‘s Joe Eskenazi reports that former San Francisco Chronicle books editor Oscar Villalon has abruptly left his position as publisher at McSweeney’s. Villalon has not returned calls to comment upon what happened. McSweeney’s has tersely responded, “Oscar doesn’t work here any more.”

Villalon’s abrupt exit occurs only a few weeks after Villalon and Eggers sat together on a Berkeley School of Journalism panel discussing the San Francisco Panorama project — specifically, responding to remunerative controversies brought forth by Choire Sicha and this correspondent. Villalon’s primary role at McSweeney’s, as he explained in this interview with The Rumpus, was “to make sure the business is healthy, financially, and that we’re growing.” But while Villalon’s modest elucidations (in which he reported that writers were paid between $200 and $1,000 for articles, with Stephen King working at particularly below-market rates) were more helpful than Eggers’s adamantine silence, the Panorama numbers still remain fuzzy. And until either Villalon or Eggers go public with this imbroglio, McSweeney’s inner operations remain, as usual, murkier than the Gowanus Canal — a somewhat paradoxical position for an operation predicated on alleged community and Eggers’s rosy but naive optimism.

If Eggers still insists that newspapers can thrive, then the time has come for him to be transparent about his strategies and to likewise explain why Vilalon is no longer with McSweeney’s. It’s worth noting that a March 9, 2010 panel, free to the public, that was supposed to include Eggers, Villalon, and San Francisco Chronicle editor-at-large Phil Bronstein, is still scheduled to occur at San Francisco State University. Someone in San Francisco needs to attend this panel, assuming that the two remaining participants have the professional decency to carry forward, and demand answers to these important questions.


Dave Eggers and the Journalism Sweatshop Model

In recent months, Dave Eggers has continued to insist that newspapers, contrary to recent developments, are not dying. In May 2009, Eggers spoke before a crowd and announced, “If you are ever feeling down, if you are ever despairing, if you ever think publishing is dying or print is dying or books are dying or newspapers are dying (the next issue of McSweeney’s will be a newspaper—we’re going to prove that it can make it. It comes out in September). If you ever have any doubt, e-mail me, and I will buck you up and prove to you that you’re wrong.” This prompted many, including the Washington Post‘s Ron Charles, to take Eggers up on his offer and inform him of grim realities. Eggers failed to live up to his end of the newspaper-boosting bargain, sending out a boilerplate email in response to inquires from interested parties. This email, rather predictably, offered nothing more substantive than the foolhardy optimism that one generally receives from a faith healer or a used car salesman.

If prosperity remained just around the corner, one could at least take comfort with the handsome issue, which came, as promised, with contributions from Stephen King, Nicholson Baker, and William T. Vollmann. But the more important question of whether the San Francisco Panorama was profitable was swept under the rug. Then last month, The Awl‘s Choire Sicha took a hard look at the numbers, pointing out that the Panorama required $111,000 to publish 23,000 issues. With advertising revenue of $61,000, the Panorama took a loss of 33 cents per issue. Additional problems came from the $80,000 editorial costs, which, as Sicha demonstrated, had to be split among 218 contributors. After subtracting an estimated 12 cents/word paid for contributions, noted Sicha, there was a mere $38,000 for the seven staff members, who all worked on the paper for four months. How many of the people who worked on the Panorama were unpaid? It was never officially disclosed, but Sicha’s calculations demonstrated that Eggers’s vision was nothing more than a puerile and unworkable fantasy.

None of this has prevented Eggers from flapping his mouth in interviews, continuing to claim phony expertise on how to save newspapers. And as Eggers has continued to blab, a more troubling vision, one that involves paying the writer nearly nothing, has emerged.

In an interview with The Onion A/V Club, Eggers points to the ostensible simplicity of readers “pay[ing] a dollar for all the content within, and that supports the enterprise.” But as Sicha demonstrated in December, the enterprise clearly wasn’t supported by reader dollars. Could it be that a web-based model, one that cuts out an expensive $111,000 print cost, might, in fact, permit some of that money to be given to the writers and editors who perform their labors? Not in Eggers’s view. Sayeth Eggers: “The web model is just so much more complicated, and involves this third party of advertisers, and all these other sources of revenue that are sort of provisional, but haven’t been proven yet.” But is it really all that complicated to create an Excel spreadsheet listing the money coming in from advertisers and the money that you pay out to contributors, and use a formula function to determine if the enterprise is profitable? Maybe if you’re six years old or you don’t know how to use computers. But even if you’re computer illiterate, there’s this nifty little innovation called double-entry bookkeeping that’s been around since the 13th century. And you can even perform it on paper — if, like Eggers, you “just have an affection for paper.”

But Eggers’s remarks in the Onion interview reveal that he isn’t really interested in paying writers. He notes J. Malcolm Garcia, a correspondent heading to Afghanistan who offered to write something for the Panorama. As Eggers boasted, “it doesn’t even cost that much, because he was going anyway.” In other words, Garcia’s work — the substance of his investigations, the time he took in reporting — can be undervalued because he just happened to be in the region. This is a bit like asking a doctor to cut his rates because “he happens to be in the hospital” or asking your next door neighbor to perform professional services because “he happens to live next door.”

And yet Eggers claims that he has a daily respect for the people who have toiled at sweatshop wages for his beloved Panorama. Professional respect doesn’t emerge when you’re paying your editors below minimum wage or you adopt an assumptive attitude that, because some journalist happens to be in the area, you can undercut his labor. It emerges by paying the writer what she is worth. And if Eggers insists that “we’re programmed to declare something dead once a week,” he may want to look at his own programming, which has continued to perform its financial miscalculations over the course of seven months. If Eggers values the experience of old-school journalists, as he indicates in the interview, then why not pay them the money that their experience is worth? Perhaps because, contrary to his “tidy” conclusions, Eggers doesn’t know how to balance numbers and doesn’t know how to run a profitable newspaper. He doesn’t comprehend that journalism isn’t some casual hobby to be picked up like stamp collecting, but an occupation that requires dutiful compensation.

Wholphin, Eggers and Why I Can’t Believe

I picked up the January 2005 issue of The Believer, partly with the intention of seeing if the magazine was showing any signs of shedding its feel-good trappings (short answer: not really but not entirely worthless either) and partly because it included the first issue of Wholphin, a new quarterly “DVD Magazine of Unseen Things.” I like the idea behind Wholphin, which involves collecting a good deal of film shorts and assorted narratives that don’t really have a place outside of their initial small venues. But unfortunately, like almost anything that comes from the McSweeney’s Empire, the DVD carries the uncomfortable stamp of films that are just too safe to be innovative. In watching the material, I got the sense of holding an interesting object, but with the edges and the unique texture sanded down for non-offensive mass consumption. And in transposing the McSweeney’s watered down Barthelme voice to the film world, Wholphin offers a number of revelations which recall what Curtis White has identified as the Middle Mind. It is my sad duty to report that Wholphin is wholly disingenuous about its intent. It is neither explicitly intellectual nor explicitly for the masses. Sure, it’s a beautiful looking dinghy sailing with a directionless rudder. But unless it shakes off the Eggers yoke, it will be just another indistinct echo in the wind. A good idea that didn’t have to die.

Perhaps the problem with Wholphin (as with many McSweeney’s products) is its distressing inability to trust its readership. Indeed, the separation between the art offered and the marketing copy which accompanies it is entirely incongruous. It takes a hell of a conceit to tell an audience precisely how it should feel about something. And yet within Wholphin‘s accompanying booklet, this is exactly what goes down. “The House in the Middle” is described, “Your horror, shock, and rage at the country’s inability to help tax-paying citizens prepare for natural or man-made disaster will not be calmed by this film. But it is funny.” Note that it automatically assumes that its audience is composed entirely of good liberal thinkers who will automatically recontextualize the film within the framework of the Katrina fuckup. Note also the sanction to laugh, but whether the humor is directed at the film’s horrible depiction of how people should maintain their homes or presumably the now patented tone of the 1950s government-sponsored film, who can say? (And more anon on this tone when I get to the Spike Jonze film.)

Indeed, the interviews in the accompanying booklet make the reasons for spawning the art suspect. Scott Prendergast reveals that he made “The Delicious” because he wanted to “dress up in crazy costumes and act like a weirdo.” And indeed his film is nothing more than that: a paper-thin premise unfolding at a snail’s pace in which Prendergast, whose bemused expressions and wiry physicality aren’t entirely unlaudable, quickly wears out his welcome.

When you put the DVD into your player, you get a menu of the choices. One of three different films (two apparently by Jeroen Offerman) plays. And if, like me, you’re the kind of person who likes getting the DVD set up for viewing (due in large part to those irritating trailers you can’t skip through anymore that are put on most DVDs) while you go into the other room and grab a glass of wine (or two), you’re probably going to be as irritated as I was that a film starts playing if you’re not exactly trigger-happy with the remote. Meaning that instead of getting to experience a short film in its entirety, you walk in to your surprise and find that you’re midway through a guy singing “Stairway to Heaven” backwards. This forces you to hit the stop button and try to access the aforementioned film (“Stairway at Saint Paul”), only to find that there’s no option to go directly to the film (whose bright idea was that?) and that if you’re interested in the film, you will be subject to one of the three random films, who knows which one, playing from the beginning. If the idea here is that Wholphin is meant to be experienced without interruption, I have news for editor Brent Hoff. Understand that some of us out here don’ t need to be barraged by data at every minute and, in fact, we want to experience the art in toto.

The first offering is Miguel Arteta’s “Are You the Favorite Person of Anybody?,” a collaboration with filmmaker/Believer contributor Miranda July. (This is one of many suspicious Eggers connections that accompany the disc. It’s not so much celebrating innovation, but also keeping promoting the efforts of those “in the family.”) A man who looks suspiciously like Friend of Eggers Stephen Elliott can be seen in three quarters profile, until he turns around and we realize that it’s actually John C. Reilly. Whether this was intentional (and it’s certainly a thesis for an Auctorial Doppelganger that will likely never happen) or not remains a mystery. But the material itself, despite the presence of the always good Reilly, comes across as a tossed off and entirely insubstantial home movie. The titular question could have been used as a way to expose how shallow the process of introspection can be (apposite rhetoric for the 826 Valencia crowd, I think), but it becomes instead the basis for a vanity project that isn’t particularly penetrating. Heads talking insubstantially about insubstantial topics. The gimmick of Reilly with a clipboard. Ha ha. Perhaps the question was intended to be presented to the viewer with unintentional irony. Why else would it have been placed first on the menu? We’re all friends here, right? You’ll enjoy us without question, yes? Because we here are your favorite people in the world!

Lisa Chang and Newton Thomas Sigel’s “The Big Empty” shows more promise, both as an interesting way of producing filmed versions of McSweeney’s stories (it comes from Alison Smith’s “The Specialist,” which originally appeared in McSweeney’s #11) and as a way of profiling unusual material. Sadly, this too comes across as a vanity project, despite the fact that Selma Blair is utterly right for the part of a woman who has an arctic wasteland inside her that can only be accessed through her vagina. And if that premise sounds edgy or dangerous, let me assure you that it’s not. Or at least it doesn’t come across that way when it should. The film in general is seriously undermined by its Wes Anderson-style obsession with ostentatious perfection (books lined up meticulously in square piles with the camera dollying across as if the atmosphere is more important than the human moment), along with the distracting presence of Haskell Wexler as a bookstore customer and the uncomfortably carnal quid-pro-quo credit of “Executive Producers: George Clooney Steven Soderbergh.” This is clearly a film that values style over substance, a catastrophic emphasis given its high-concept premise. It has all the tricks that money will buy, but it is soulless even in its one modest moment of earnestness (a dorky guy asking Blair how she feels).

Another case of style killing pith is Brian Dewan‘s “The Death of the Hen,” which contextualizes a tale in the form of a filmstrip (complete with the beeps preceding the switch of the slide). Again, the stylistic idea here, presumably intended for those who remain mired by elementary school nostalgia from the late ’70’s and early ’80’s, is an interesting one. But the tale’s details are so digressive that it once again becomes difficult to get attuned to the story. At one point, a fox asks to hop into a carriage pulled by six mice. Agreement is made. And then without warning or explanation, the carriage is filled up with all manner of animals. Are we supposed to laugh at the fact that such a digressive detail is thrown into the mix? Yes, it fits into some of the inexplicable narratives featured in filmstrips. But wouldn’t it have been more interesting, indeed more audacious, if Dewan actually accepted the medium of the filmstrip on its own terms? What of a filmstrip that used the cheery tone and the formality to tell a bleak tale inside a crackhouse, an ironic metaphor on the failed drug wars of the time? Now that would be innovative!

One of the most problematic inclusions here is an episode of Talti Hayat, billed here as “the Turkish Jeffersons,” which is a specious comparison at best. For one thing, the couple of this series is not radically different in ethnicity, but are essentially an upper-class couple living “the sweet life,” surrounded by amicable maids and the goofy guy in a red sweater next door. In other words, what we’re dealing with here is a very banal and pretty run-of-the-mill sitcom, not terribly interesting, unless of course you’re one of those base humans who believes that all Asian women are bad rivers and thinks that listening to a Turkish sentence that you don’t understand is the most hilarious thing you’ve heard since the dead parrot sketch (or, failing that, a Jerky Boys routine).

What makes this exercise tasteless is the fact that the McSweeney’s people have hired various writers to provide alternative subtitle tracks. This might have been a good idea, but none of the translations hold a candle to MST3K and they are all designed to mock material which is simply too insubstantial to skewer. And even though the liner notes say, “No offense whatsoever is intended by the writers towards the actors, the Turkish people, Germans, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, fans of Gilmore Girls, or any other group,” the statement is suspect when the alternative subtitle tracks contain such racist lines as “Menskshe! Where did you hide my water pipe? I left it there on the dresser” (as penned by A.G. Pasquella), essentially implying that all Turks are bonged out scatterbrains. I suspect that this represents the dark underbelly of the so-called McSweeney’s feel-good beat. On one hand, don’t offer anything with edge. But when immersed within the exercise of groping for free associative humor, you can hide behind that comfy mask of irony, claiming that a particularly uncreative and racist line isn’t really racist. and that it was all in good fun.

The two strongest segments on Wholphin are, interestingly enough, the ones by major filmmakers. David O. Russell (a Friend of Spike, who is a Friend of Eggers) offers excerpts from his documentary Soldier’s Pay. I’ve had the good fortune of seeing the film in its entirety and can recommend it. While the excerpts here to some degree reflects the “good thoughtful liberal” audience impression frequently assumed by the McSweeney’s editorship, it’s still a welcome inclusion.

But Spike Jonze’s documentary on Al Gore demonstrates not only Wholphin‘s potential but its failings. The story was this: In 2000, Spike Jonze, hot off the success of Being John Malkovich, was commissioned by the Gore for President campaign to make a documentary to be shown at the National Democratic Convention, presumably because this would help Gore’s “stiff” image problem and get him down with the kids. Jonze, relatively stunned by all this (one gets the sense that he was a bit clueless actually), decided to simply drive up to the Gore family house with his tiny video camera and shoot whatever struck his fancy.

The result is a fascinating little film. One sees Gore remaining guarded even during private family moments. The film can be viewed as a stunning revelation (in hindsight, at least) about how a politician, constantly concerned with his image even while letting his guard down bodysurfing and selecting a VHS tape for family movie night, could never really loosen up. But it’s clear from the tape that he wants to loosen up. But he can’t. It’s impossible in the age of soundbytes. And because there are invisible antennae protruding from just behind Gore’s head, always cognizant of a camera or journalist in the room or from sixty miles away, Jonez’s film, perhaps unintentionally, is the study of what life must be like to have absolutely no privacy, to kiss your wife when you know there is somebody watching. I suppose in this sense, Gore’s stiffness actually made him more real than the competition. For how can any of us really remain true and spontaneous if there will be constant cameras and stenographers recording our every move?

Wholphin, however, catastrophically ignores this salient revelation (and perhaps this revelation is what kept the film from speculation; nobody wants a candidate that appears even remotely nervous) in favor of the following text in its booklet:

This film might have wiped away, in twenty-two minutes*, Gore’s reputation as a robot. If nothing else, it might have at least calmed a few jumpy liberals into reconsidering their protest vote. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the film was shelved. (Dramatic pause.) Until now. It may seem like a sweet, simple study of a loving American family, but in our opinion, Jonze’s short film could have changed the world.

* — Nevermind that the film clocked in at sixteen minutes on my DVD player.

We’re now five years away from the damn Supreme Court decision and we’re still basking in this baffling, back-slapping “what the would could have been” liberal bullshit, in the same flag-wrapping manner that conservatives evoke September 11 to justify their latest fascist legislation. It is embarassing that such a jejune conclusion would accompany so fascinating a film. It is adolescent that such revolutionary claptrap would be uttered instead of sucking it up and facing the cold hard honesty: Al Gore wasn’t the one. So who might be the candidate for 2008? And what can we do to make the current situation better? (Not so subtle hint to those liberals clutching their blankets like Linus right now: Midterm elections are happening this year.)

Understand that for all of my criticisms of Eggers, McSweeney’s, The Believer and now Wholphin (and, for that matter, the n + 1 crowd), in my heart of hearts, I really want them to succeed. But if one wishes to remain truly independent, truly underground, and truly shake the foundations of intellectual thought, making assumptions about your audience, telling them exactly how they should think and exactly how they should feel and insisting that revolutionary zeal might have been in the air when the circumstances really can’t be proved is the kind of mentality I expect from a starry-eyed undergrad student clinging to his idealism, not the finest writers and editors of our time. It involves saying no to such bullshit as Snarkwatch, which places such restrictions on how one can think and how one should kvetch without considering that a little rant here and there isn’t entirely unhealthy. It involves actually listening to the “crazed maniacs” who denounce you and who disagree with you rather than keeping a Nixon-style Enemies List (various rumors have reported that Eggers keeps a list along these lines, but there is apparently nothing to corroborate this). And it involves considering dangerous topics, even pissing off a friend who disagrees with you on something. It involves considering all sides of the perspective, however difficult and painful. Nobody said thinking was easy.

Ask yourself this: wouldn’t the Believer, McSweeney’s and Wholphin be fantastic if they weren’t so afraid to walk on the wild side? If they took the 0bvious enthusiasm that’s there within its staffers and combined it with even the tinge of outrage?

So I publicly ask Heidi Julavits, Ed Park, Vendela Vida, Dave Eggers and Brent Hoff (and, for that matter, Ben Marcus) the following question: Why do you continue to commit hari-kari? Why can’t you be honest? Why must you steer the whims of your audience? Are you that insecure about the work in question? Why are you so terrified to express a few negative emotions from time to time? Were you all walked over as kids or something? Come on, you and I know that you’re better than these shaky presumptions and insular claptrap!

In short, why can’t I believe? Because I’d really like to.

Chuck Klosterman: A Manboy Who Must Be Stopped

Back when Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs came out, Mark Ames penned a remarkably vicious review for the New York Press. At the time, I was only familiar with Klosterman’s work for Spin and Esquire. He seemed, like many of the “ironic” and solipsistic hipsters banging out vapid articles for music magazines, relatively harmless and someone I could easily ignore. I just never understand why he was lionized by some as “an incredibly talented yarn-spinner.”

But now that I’ve had the misfortune of reading one of Klosterman’s books, I can identify greatly with Mark Ames’ sentiments. Klosterman’s new book is Killing Yourself to Live. (And, interestingly enough, Mark Ames has reviewed this one as well.) I assure you that any reasonable and thinking person reading this contretemps of lazy writing and outright stupidity may just harbor suicidal thoughts. This book is one of the dumbest and most vile things I’ve read in several years. One imagines a new noun, “Klosterfuck,” being used to describe the nightmarish and earth-shattering moment that occurs any time Klosterman bangs something into his laptop with all the grace and subtlety of a hulking John Tesh staggering over a keyboard.

The book purports to be a road trip across America, the result of a lengthy Spin assignment that had Klosterman shuttling from town-to-town to ferret out the legacies of dead rock stars, arming himself with a rental car (which he calls his “Tauntan”) and loads of CDs to play along the way. It’s an interesting premise, but the hell of it is that Klosterman is too dumb and too indolent a writer to actually do the legwork. He doesn’t bother to call up the Hotel Chelsea in advance to find out what happened to Room 100 (the room where Sid Vicious stabbed Nancy Spungen), let alone track down any of the surviving employees who might have had some insight into how the infamous couple lived. Instead, he berates Chelsea manager Stanley Bard for politely telling Klosterman that the Cheslea didn’t want to be involved with Klosterman’s story (perhaps because Klosterman is utterly dumb, ignorant and tactless in his approach, asking the desk clerk point blank if anyone has stayed in Room 100, a room that was long ago turned into an apartment). So what does Klosterman do? Like a small child denied his second scoop of rocky road, he badmouths both Bard and the Chelsea.

This ADD approach to journalism continues as Klosterman heads to West Warwick, Rhode Island to find out about the kind of people who attended the Station, the infamous nightclub that where the Great White tragedy went down. Klosterman talks with a few people, but instead of allowing their statements to tell the story, Klosterman, being the egomaniacal writer that he is, plants remarkably vapid conclusions such as, “To me, that’s what makes the Great White tragedy even sadder than it logically was: One can safely assume that none of the 100 people who died at the Station that night were trying to be cool by watching Great White play 20-year-old songs.” Right, Chuck. It’s not about pursuing the more nuanced notion of how the Station was a nexus point for the West Warwick community and how it will forever be associated with killing 100 people because of Jack Russell’s stage antics. It’s about how “cool” or “not cool” everyone was. Even more remarkable, Klosterman spends more time dwelling upon the cheap cocaine he snorts in a West Warick resident’s pickup.

I suppose by this remarkably myopic perspective, if Klosterman were covering the Iraq conflict, it would be about how genuine a mother looked just after the moment a bomb wiped out her extended family.

If being dumb and having no sense of context weren’t bad enough, Klosterman is also adamantly anti-intellectual, continuously solipsistic and downright irresponsible. Here’s a small sample of highlights:

I have never read The Merchant of Venice, and I’ll never read it, and I don’t even care what the fuck it’s about. (21)

Don’t ever cheat on someone. I’m serious. It’s not worth it. And I’m not saying this because cheating is morally wrong, because some people have a specific version of morality that doesn’t necessarily classify actions as right or wrong. The reason you should never cheat on someone is because you won’t enjoy it. No matter which person you’re with, you’ll always be thinking of the other one. (26)

When I read Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation in 1995, I remember being impressed that she intended to play “Strawberry Fields Forever” if she ultimately slit her wrists in the bathtub, opting for the Beatles instead of her own personal Jesus, Bruce Springsteen. (50)

Americans seem to know what’s funny, but they don’t know why. (59)

Physically, I almost never enjoy the process of exercise, but I feel naturally tougher when I finish. Most important, running lets me eat anything I want, and it allows me to drink every day (if I need to). (64)

I don’t want to die, but I certainly adore the idea of being dead. I know it’s pathetic to enjoy the notion of your friends calling each other to discuss your untimely demise, but I love it. Maybe Spin would dedicate an issue to me. (66)

The events of 9/11 are often compared to the events of a nightmare. This is a surprisingly avvy analogy, because hearing someone’s memories from the morning of 9/11 is not unlike having someone preface a conversation with the words, “I had the weirdest dream last night.” When someone wants to talk about a dream, you can never say, “I don’t care.” You have to care. (84)

You know what’s the best part about driving by yourself? Talk radio. Talk radio offers no genuine insight about anything, but I always feel like I am learning something; I always feel like I suddenly understand all the people I normally can’t relate to at all. (103)

So here is the big question: Is dying good for your career? Cynics always assume that it is, but I’m not so sure anymore. (121)

This last passage will really floor you. Interestingly enough, this skimpy book has an index, but I found it interesting that there was nothing listed for “Bryant, Kobe.”

The single hottest topic on today’s omnipresent AM chatter was the identity of Kobe’s accuser, and whether her name should be withheld by the media; the staple argument, of course, is that her identity must remain hiden because there’s so much social baggage associated with being a rape vitim. This strikes me as a peculiar line of reasoning. Certainly, there is a social stigma that comes with being raped; however, there’s obviously a far greater stigma with being perceived as a rapist. Bryant’s reputation is destroyed forever, regardless of his guilt or innocence in this case. I also can’t fathom why rape shield laws don’t allow the defense to question the alleged victim’s mental condtion. I mean, what if this women is insane? What if she regularly accuses people of rape? How can that not matter in a court of law?

Yes, you read those sentences right. In the Klosterman universe, it’s the bitch’s fault of course. A rape charge is some byproduct of hysteria and a court of law relies upon hearsay and speculation rather than facts to try a case.

If you’ve read any of these statements, and you were as baffled as I was by the half-formed observations (if they can even be styled observations) and the outright inane generalizations here, you’re probably thinking that they came from a high school student or some hapless LiveJournaler.

But the man who penned these puerile sentiments is 33. Not sixteen, not even in his early twenties. We’re talking about a man already well initiated into adulthood.

If this tone here is intended as a sort of detached irony, I don’t buy it. Because irony relies upon an underlying subtext (such as “Gentleman, you can’t fight in here. This is the war room.”). Here, we have extremely crude observations that are quite explicit about their crude meaning. Thus, Klosterman’s innate stupidity must be taken at face value.

Further, one must marvel over Klosterman’s astonishing superficiality, which seems dictated by crude reactions to the pop culture around him. This is not to suggest that pop culture can’t be written about. I’m only arguing that it be written about at some basic level of intelligence, putting an album, for example, into a broader cultural perspective. With Klosterman, we have none of this, save for cheap dichotomies such as “Pot/Creedence” and “Coke/Interpol.”

I’ve kvetched several other places about the McSweeney’s reliance upon pop culture (and specifically, Dave Eggers’) as a crutch. But at least Eggers’ writing is an earnest effort to ape Saul Bellow — for better or worse. And on ocassion (specifically, his story, “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly,” his homage to “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” in the first Chabon-edited McSweeney’s Thrilling Tales compilation), his work has been about something more than references to 1980s sitcoms and Donald Barthleme homages.

But Klosterman’s work is about nothing.

In fact, it’s safe to say that Klosterman’s anti-intellectual, uninformed and just plain unthinking approach to writing extends well beyond the page. Consider his response to Ames’ initial review:

That was just weird. I had never read the NY Press before, I had never met (or even heard of) the dude who wrote that piece, and the whole thing was just sort of befuddling. I’m sure most people who saw that piece undoubtedly had no idea who I even was! All in all, I guess I didn’t think about it very much. It wasn’t all that different than being criticized on some cokehead’s blog. I mean, if the guy who wrote that article was smart OR talented, he obviously wouldn’t be working for the NY Press.

In other words, although Klosterman has not read the New York Press, he is willing to cast an uninformed opinion that anyone who writes for them is neither smart nor talented. Further, there’s the strange inference that any vitriolic blogger is a cokehead.

Since we’re talking low culture here, if Klosterman can be likened to a cultural icon, I’d compare him with Joel Goodsen, the Tom Cruise character from Risky Business. We all associate that movie with the indelible image of Tom Cruise sliding across a hardwood floor in his underwear: the ultimate symbol of rebellion. But this is not pure rebellion along the lines of James Dean. Let’s face the facts: Joel was an irresponsible asshole. He thinks nothing of resorting to adolescent activity when his mother’s Steuben egg and his father’s Porsche are damaged and tries to cover this up by turning the home into a brothel. (This supports another theory of mine which will have to be discussed at length: Tom Cruise only works when he plays a dickhead. But that will have to wait for another cultural musing.)

But Joel Goodsen (and Tom Cruise) is cool. And so is Klosterman. But the hollow shell that is Joel Goodsen (and Klosterman) remains largely unexamined. In fact, it is embraced.

Of course, Joel Goodsen’s behavior was framed within a satirical context. And he was, after all, both a teenager and a fictional character.

But Klosterman is a grown man and, much to humanity’s great regret, all too real. In a just world, he would be pumping gas somewhere instead of being allowed to write. He is, in short, a moronic manboy who must be stopped.

[RELATED: Dana starts up a valuable service: Serial killer or rock critic?]

Momentary Sayonara

There’s nothing really to say. And the last thing I want to do is lecture like Neal Pollack. So I’m going the hell away for a week or so. I leave these pages to the annoying spammers, the killer barflies, and perhaps the Superfriends, if they even remember their passwords. No bullshit hiatus here. Just casual indifference and a return to these pages after a much needed lost weekend with Paul Giamatti. I might even teach a red state virgin a thing or two about reproductive rights.

Oh, and fuck you, Homeland Security.

[UPDATE BEFORE FLIGHT: Holy hell. Maud’s opened up a can of whoopass on Neal Pollack. On the Pollack question, I should point out that Lenny Bruce’s last days were spent reading from law books pointing out the absurdity of true writ. It was, by all reports, the dullest standup comic routine ever devised.

[Also, McSweeeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, Michael Chabon’s followup to the Treasury of Thrilling Tales, is (so far), a marked improvement over its predecessor and well worth your time. It certainly helps that RotR fave David Mitchell has a Number9Dream-like tale in there, propinquitous to cool contributions from Margaret Atwood, Poppy Z. Brite, Jonathan Lethem, Roddy Doyle, China Mieville, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King and Peter Straub. Charges of nepotism aside (Julavits and Waldman show up), I’d love to see Chabon edit one of these things every year or two. Of course, if he could include a few overlooked folks like Paolo Bacigalupi, Barry Malzberg, Kelly Link, and the prolfiic Paul Di Fillipo, his rants against genre ghettoization might have more credibility. Now, flight.]


Primer: Winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Alfred P. Sloan Prize. The film was made for $7,000, doesn’t appear to have a distribution deal yet, but somehow manages to involve time travel and ethics in its plot. The intricate story has also caused a lot of people to scratch their heads, which has resulted in several unclaimed ski caps left at theatres.

As if the Whitbread isn’t enough, Mark Haddon has walked away with another award — this time, from the South Bank Show. The British literary community is up in arms about this, trying to convince committees that “enough is enough.” An anonymous Important Literary Person has made calls, noting that, while The Curious Dog is a great book, Haddon has simply won too much praise and that there won’t be enough praise for the rest of the books.

Alexandra Ripley, author of Scarlett, has died. Several publishers, upon hearing the news, have been trying to determine which great Ripley book they can pilfer a sequel out of. Unfortunately, Ripley was no Margaret Mitchell. And no publisher wants to be reminded of how much they backed Ripley’s attempt to cash in, let alone the other stuff she wrote.

Prima facie that the New Yorker is overinfluenced by vapid McSweeney’s-like pop cultural riffs: “Boswell’s Life of Jackson”. (And Menudo is referenced in the first sentence. Oh no.)

James Fallows annotates the State of the Union address.

The Boston Globe interviews Tibor Fischer and Fischer comes across, no surprise, as a smug son of a bitch. Not only does he compare himself to Shakespeare, but he lauds cheapshots: “I’m with Amis, and so although in ‘Voyage’ I do have laughs at the expense of foreigners — so did Shakespeare — I also allow characters for whom English is not their first language to express dismay when someone British doesn’t know an arcane piece of English vocabulary: ‘It’s your language,’ they say.”

And to hell with the Golden Globes. How about a real award? Best Lead In A Rising Up and Rising Down Review: “For the past decade, it seemed Sacramento-based novelist William T. Vollmann was neck and neck in a war of prolificacy with Richard Powers, David Foster Wallace, and anyone else who would take him on. With ‘Rising Up and Rising Down,’ he has put the issue to rest.” And I truly feel sorry for John Freeman, who, like all reviewers, read all 3,500 pages from a CD-ROM.

Lizzie Grubman (not to be confused with this Lizzie) is returning to the social scene. This may be the first time in New York history that first-hand accounts of road rage are discussed over caviar.

At long last, a New York Times I want to see. (via Old Hag, courtesy of Pullquote)

Pynchon’s voice on The Simpsons. He sounds like an angrier Harvey Pekar. (via Chica)

Francis Ford Coppola quotes Wodehouse! (via At Large)

[1/24/06 UPDATE: Primer, as nearly all film geeks know by now, did manage to nab a DVD distribution deal, leading to enthusiasts working out the multiple timelines. As for the McSweeney’s influence upon the New Yorker (and other places), I should note that litblogs, as much as they claim to be anti-Eggers, are guilty practitioners (including this one).]

Did the Van Man Wear Ray Bans?

Ronald Jordan, known as the White Van Man, stole tens of thousands of Lonely Planet guides and hawked them on the street with help of a few shadowy vendors. But he’s now been caught. London police have described the case as “a flashback to Victorian London,” though when pressed on whether Jordan wore gaiters and a silk cravat, they were unable to offer clear answers. The internal affairs unit has unearthed several “large Thackeray and Dickens collections” behind police lockers. “The lads aren’t taking drugs,” said London Police spokesman Peter Thorin. “They were overworked and were getting bored with the tedious work. So they read a lot on their spare time and started seeing associations that didn’t exist.”

A Books-A-Million in Alabama has removed Playboy and Playgirl from its shelves. The decision came because Alabama has one of the toughest anti-obscenity laws on the books. Apparently, display of human genitalia, buttocks or female breasts “for entertainment purposes” is verboeten. I’m surprised that the bookstore didn’t counter this. It’s clear to me they were selling the magazines “for commercial purposes.”

If you’re wondering what happened to Freaky Friday author Mary Rodgers, she’s still around. (Yes, I read all those books when I was a lad too, including A Billion for Boris and Summer Switch.) She’s 73, and her 1959 musical Once Upon A Mattress is being staged for a comeback.

Big surprise of the day: McSweeney’s puts up something funny.

The Rise of the Creative Class author Richard Florida suggests that current economic trends may be discouraging vital creativity.

And The New York Times reports that Bonslav Pekic is staging a comeback from the grave. Purportedly one of the finest writers in the Serbian language, Northwestern University Press has announced that a translation How to Quiet a Vampire will be released in the spring.


And the Whitbread goes to Mark Haddon’s The Very, Very Curious Incident of the Dog Who Was Let Out by the Baja Men in the Morning, Afternoon and Night Shortly After He Was Fed His Meal, which I’ve been meaning to read. Except I can never remember the exact title.

David Mamet is insane.

I didn’t realize the Alexander McCall Smith/Irvine Welsh thing had legs, but even in Scotland, they need their “bag of bones”/”entertainment not literature” Vidal/Mailer in-fights.

Andy Hamilton won’t write for BBC1. Hamilton claims that Auntie Beeb has pressured a writer to remove lesbian characters from a script to “incorporate the conservative tastes of focus groups.”

Modern Humorist: “Where are all the R’s? Is it a typographical error? Does the writer simply not like R’s? Or are there mysterious deeds at play, and are the R’s somewhow involved?”

Birnbaum talks with Jonathan Lethem. Birnbaum even gets Lethem to fess that Laura Miller is “making a contribution to literary journalism.” Birnbaum also shoots the goofy gale with Neal Pollack. Among the revelations: “[Eggers] said he didn’t want me along because my stuff was much more confrontational and in your face and aggressive and loud and profane. He wanted to take McSweeney’s in a more respectable direction. And then one day I woke up and my link was off the site. And I wasn’t a McSweeney’s guy anymore. Overnight. My main conduit for communicating over the Internet had been removed, so I had to start my own site.”

And The Chronicle has apparently reached a settlement with Henry Norr.

[1/23/06 UPDATE: It is quite likely that the Henry Norr story will be slipped under the rug. But I think it stands as a remarkable testament as to how a journalist’s outside activities are controlled to a great extent by his employer. As the newspapers continue to cut the coverage and eventually begin to drop, I am wondering if they’ll become even more controlling. Henry Norr, happily, is still writing — largely for online outlets. He can be found contributing reports for Macintouch and is still actively filing no-bullshit Macworld reports from the front lines.]

An Open Letter to Sara Bauer

Dear Young Woman Who Writes Snotty and Unfunny Open Letters for McSweeney’s:

The first moment I read you, I knew you were the same. The same as all those other passive-aggressive tidbits they seem to publish over there. Here, in the midst of (not amidst?) these publishing conglomerates, was independent prose. Look at her relentless second-person stance! Look at the soft snark extant within the piece, hypocritically unchecked from Julavits and Vida, addressed to no one in particular! How convenient! My partially digested dinner went up my esophagus and out my mouth to you.

I know it’s hard for you. Most McSweeney’s writers are thirtysomething Donald Barthleme wannabes who wouldn’t know funny if it bit them on the ass. I know you deal with wanting to get published, sans compensation, in this environment, and having to proffer the wonted generalizations. Your cowriters like you, but they receive the same rejection notices, because they really don’t understand you. They’ve read the same books you’ve read, they continually revere people like Julie Orringer as sages (“It is extremely important to hang out with non-writers and be interested in things that have nothing to do with writing.” Duh.), and fail to ponder the intellectual value of hunky authors and authoresses salivating over, rather than questioning seasoned veterans like Joan Didion.

You’re lonely. Writing’s a lonely racket. And you want to find someone who will publish you. But you’ve picked the wrong target, missy. That Chain Bookstore Worker’s probably just doing her job, working close to minimum wage, and using any leverage she can get in the smiles department to get through the day, to deal with smug fucks like you, because she’s quasi-literate at best and she’d like to read more. But there’s that second job to get to.

The world, you see, isn’t all about you after all. And should you ever publish a book, I will photocopy your little satire and distribute it amongst workers at Barnes & Noble and Borders. I will watch as they move your book away from a prime spot in the new books section and into some poorly lit corner. Because chain bookstore clerks are people and they do read. And I will laugh my ass off.


Edward Champion

[1/21/06 UPDATE: Sara Bauer, incidentally, never contributed another piece to McSweeney’s again, nor contributed anywhere else. The only trace that I can find of her online is Ths online petition. Presumably, she has become a busy student at Butler University. Perhaps it had something to do with McSweeney’s online move from letters to bulleted lists. Bauer’s piece, however, isn’t the only time where the mean-spirited streak of McSweeney’s revealed itself. But I do hope that this post helped Bauer realize that snotty, mean-spirited humor, particularly of an elitist and insensitive stripe, is the mark of a one-trick pony.]